Monday, January 28, 2013

[Cupcake Portraits] Discworld Personalities: Rincewind

Rincewind had eaten in many countries on the Disc, and sometimes he’d been able to complete an entire meal before having to run away. And they’d always lacked something. Oh, people did great things with spices and olives and yams and rice and whatnot, but what he’d come to crave was the humble potato.
Time was when a plate of mash or chips would have been his for the asking. All he’d needed to do was wander down to the kitchens and ask. Food was always available for the asking at Unseen University, you could say that for the place, even if you said it with your mouth full. And, ridiculous though it sounded now, he’d hardly ever done that. The dish of potatoes’d come past at mealtimes and he’d probably have a spoonful but, sometimes, he wouldn’t! He’d… let… the… dish… go… by. He’d have rice instead. Rice! All very nutritious in its way, but basically only grown where potatoes would’ve floated to the surface.
He’d remember those times, sometimes, usually in his sleep, and wake up shouting, "Will you pass the potatoes, please!"
Sometimes he remembered the melted butter. Those were the bad days.

The Last Continent

If you've been wondering why it took me so long to post a second installment in my Discworld Personalities series, well... look no further than the quote above.
Rincewind and potatoes, this much was a no-brainer; but finding a recipe I could actually use was a nightmare. The easy way out would have been to pick any old cake with a pinch of potato starch in it and tweak the measurements to cupcake-ify it, but that would have felt like cheating - I was going for the real thing here. Because Rincewind deserves no less!

Now, Heather from Sprinkle Bakes has a recipe for Chocolate/Mashed Potatoes Cupcakes, and I was kinda hoping I could simply swipe it and call it a day.
So I boiled some potatoes, made a wonderful mash (it had salt and pepper in it, plus sour cream and yes, melted butter), ate more of it than I care to admit, and forced myself to spare a small quantity for baking...

Into the batter it goes!

...and, sure enough, I got some cutesy cupcakes. 

Only, you know... as soon as I tried one, I realized I couldn't use them. 
It's not that they weren't good - Heather is one of those bakers who couldn't bake a bad cupcake if they tried - but they'd hardly risen at all, and once cool they even appeared to have shrunk a little. They were heavy and dense and filling, just as Heather had said they would be, but while I was quite excited about the batter itself (as it would make a wonderful base for a decorated cake IMHO), they just didn't feel right for what I wanted to do here. 
I crumbled the remaining cupcakes, mixed pineapple marmalade into them, and got myself some gorgeous pops - that cheered me up quite a lot. Still, I had to keep repeating to myself in a slightly dazed way: These AREN'T the cupcakes I am looking for. 

I had to come up with a recipe of my own, and in order to do that I asked myself: Who is this Rincewind character anyway?

Image belongs to GilJimbo @
(In my head, Rincewind looks a bit like Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoon actually...)

...He is the protagonist of the first two Discworld novels, so that if you read the books in chronological order, you can't help having a soft spot for him - well, I can't, if nothing else.  Hadn't I liked him so much, I doubt I'd have wanted to delve further in the series. 
-> I must bake something that would ideally convert a cupcake novice to these wonderful treats, and have him/her asking for more!

...He is (usually described as) a coward, and an all-around boring individual. Now, unless we are talking Faust Eric (you don't want me to get started on that one), I have to disagree - while it is true that he has little or no curiosity and despises adventure for adventure's sake, he is the sort of reliable fellow who will always help a friend out of trouble, no matter what. As one who enjoys her daily routine, to the point that I even dislike travelling, his is an attitude I can totally get behind - still, I'll admit that Rincewind is more fun when he teams up with bubblier, more active characters.
-> His cupcakes must be yummy in a homely, reassuring way. Potatoes are thrown in because Rincewind loves them so much, but they're not supposed to be detectable by taste; they're only meant to create a crumbly texture. Surprising new flavours are really not called for here; what I'm aiming for is something (delicious on its own but, so to speak, nothing to write home about) to be paired up with a nice classical frosting and to actually exalt it. 

...He is a bit of a cynic (although not nearly as much as other characters), his snarky retorts providing hilarious balance to the more idealistic individuals he always ends up stuck with. He'd never head into danger on some matter of principle like heroes do on a day-to-day basis, but there are things he'll stand up for - I won't spoil Sourcery for those who haven't read it, but if you don't feel like giving him a hug by the end of that book, you must be dead. 
-> I want his cupcakes to be slightly crusty on the outside, but with a tender, crumbly heart. 

...He is an utter failure as a wizard, unable as he is to cast even the simplest spell, yet a wizard he is - he sticks to this belief, and to his battered pointy hat, with a dogged determination that actually resonates with me on a very personal level. Sourcery may be one of my least favourite novels plot-wise, but I'll be damned if Rincewind doesn't leave me all misty-eyed every time I read that particular scene - and, dammit, I'm a linguist too, even though I earn my living by slaving away in a call center!
-> Rincewind's hat will be my preeeminent inspiration for decorating. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I set out to bake. Here's what I came up with! 

Potato Cupcakes

* 1 cup potatoes, boiled the day before
* 2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 + 1/3 cup granulated sugar
* 3 Tbsp butter (cold from the fridge)
* 2 eggs
* 1/2 tsp salt
* 3 tsp baking powder

1.  Pre-heat oven to 400° F.

2.  Sift the flour in a large bowl. 

3.  Peel the potatoes you boiled the day before (you did, didn't you?) Mash them with a fork, then measure by packing into a cup. 
Transfer the mush into a sieve, and sift them on top of the flour. (The easiest way would be pressing the potatoes with a spoon to force them through the sieve.)

4.  Add the other ingredients on top of them, in no particular order. The only important thing is, the butter must be cold

5.  Work the ingredients with your fingers, as quickly as possible so the butter doesn't melt. The dough will be slushy at first, but as you work it, it will turn thicker and stickier.

6.  Line a cupcake mold with (red) paper wrappersThe dough will want to form clumps as you fill them. This is great! And if it's thick enough for you to actually crumble it, even better!

My doses yeld 12 cupcakes, by the way!

7.  Remember to place a water-filled silicon cup on the oven's bottom before baking. It is the secret to get soft, moist cuppies!

8.  Bake for 12-15 minutes. The cupcakes will have gone all golden and puffy!

9.  If you don't want to bother with decorations, this is the best moment to enjoy them! While they're hot from the oven, put a little piece of butter on top of each and let it melt - Rincewind would so approve of this, you know... - then dust them slightly with powdered sugar and...

10. ...RUN!

I deliberately skipped vanilla extract or any other flavouring, but you can use them if you really want to. I wanted texture to be the real star!
These babies are meant to unobtrusively enhance the flavour of any frosting you may choose to couple them with; me, I thought a classical, comforting frosting would be better suited to both the cupcakes themselves and the concept, so I picked Stef's Chocolate/Cream Cheese Frosting recipe from Cupcake Project
I really loved the combo, although I am very tempted to use a clear frosting next time (white chocolate maybe?), just so I can tint it a nice red!

Now for the decorating part, using a cutter like I did for Granny Weatherwax would work great, as would modelling the hat itself out of red fondant. 
I chose a different, more symbolic approach, as Rincewind's wizzard hat is not only the character's strongest visual pointer - what with the misspelling, the "symbols of occult significance", and the glittery star on top that is really cardboard and shedding sequins all over the place - but also a vital part of what he is

If you like my solution, just melt some chocolate (in the microwave, in a double boiler or in a small saucepan directly - just take care not to burn it!) Tempering it is not necessary, unless you really want to; untempered chocolate is prone to melting and not nearly as shiny and crunchy, but we'll be painting it anyway, so it won't matter. 
Now you need to make yourself a paper cone. If you don't know how it's done, here's a handy tutorial!

Write WIZZARD on a piece of paper; it will be your guide while piping. Mind that the letters all touch, so that the word will be a single piece - it will save you lots of hassle!
Take a scrap of baking paper, rub a little butter or shortening on it and wipe off the excess with a paper towel (you want it to be just a little slippery, not super-greasy!)
Place the written paper under it, so you can see the guidelines through the baking paper; trace the letters with chocolate, then move the baking paper slightly and repeat. Make more WIZZARDs than you think you'll need, because a few are bound to break/smear/get ruined somehow. It's just how it goes!

You could pipe the stars and symbols too, or cut them out of fondant. Remember to make some larger stars for the tip of the hat; if they turn out a little wonky, it's actually good because it will look old and battered, as it should!
Once the chocolate has dried, paint the decorations with edible golden powder. A single coating will do; you don't want them to look like solid gold, as they are supposed to be paltry anyway...

If you can find some star- and moon-shaped sprinkles, by any means use them! (I think my "moons" were supposed to be bananas but what the heck...) 
You can scatter a few on the serving plate as well, to suggest the loose sequins. 

You're done! 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Another sad post

(This is going to be a rambly post. I apologize in advance for this. 
I can promise you, if nothing else, that unless something unforeseeable happens that I don't really want to talk about, this will be the last "personal tragedy" entry you will get from me for quite a while.)

I have been very lucky in that I've reached age 37 before experiencing the loss of a close relative. Sure, I've seen quite a few acquaintances passing away, and a beloved pet; it hurt, of course, but the loss of my Granny less than 3 weeks ago - as prepared as I might have been to it on a rational level - was a blow of a totally different magnitude, and one I didn't care to experience again any time soon. 

Yet, once again, here I am, venting my feelings about a new bereavement in my family. 
My last surviving grandparent died today; she, too, had been ill for a while, and although her physical and mental decline was not as steep as my other Granny's, we knew it was bound to happen any time soon. Still, losing them both in less than a month feels weird - I've been so used to them, for lack of a better word, that it comes as something of a shock to be suddenly left with neither around the place (as for my Grandpas, the one on my mother's side passed away two years ago; my Dad's father died long before my birth.)

My two Grannies were as different as they could be. Whereas the other one had faced hardship in life, turning into a stubborn, practical, slightly cynical woman, this one had it relatively easy. Born into a bourgeois family, and married to a chemist later on, she never lacked the moolah, and was allowed instruction and a comfortable lifestyle. Despite this (maybe because of this) she had a tendency to see the world through rose-coloured glasses - if some fact of life was ugly, sad, icky, or simply inconsistent with her rather bigoted ideas, she simply refused to acknowledge its existence, and that was it. She had no opinions of her own, happily deferring them all to her husband; she never got a job, never tried earning her own living, never felt a need to assert herself in any way - to me, such a thing is unthinkable, but I realize she thought the same about me yearning for this sort of challenges precisely.

I was never as close to her as I was to my other Granny. It seems a mean thing to say now, and I'm feeling slightly guilty because of it, but it's still true and I won't lie about my feelings.
Still, she was part of my family and an important presence thoughout my life until now. From her I learned that people are different, and there are times when no amount of affection will coax them into seeing things the same way - but it's all right, because this is what makes the world an intersting place.
When all is said and done, I know she loved me (and my brother and my cousins), and I'm sorry she's gone. For real.

(OK, rant's over. Thanks for sticking with me, you unknown friend - because if you did, then you are. From now on it's "back to the yummy geeky fun" - pinkie swear!)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Peppermint Kiss Sugar Cookies, or: Is Xmas over yet?

There is one little thing you need to know about me: I do not care about "seasonal".

I am known to fancy persimmons in April, rhubarb in December, pumpkin in June or what have you. At any given time my freezer drawers will be bursting with ingredients I squirreled away months before, so when one of my ill-timed cravings hits, I am ready.
This arrangement works especially well for me since I'm broke most of the time (wanna try being a foodie on a CSR's budget, hmm?) and it's cheaper for me to grab the leftover seasonal goodies after the holiday's over and the prices plummet.

I won't deny, of course, that my main reason for despising seasonality in food may be that I got the "Mary Mary, quite contrary" bug pretty bad.
Take peppermint, for instance. It's one of my favourite things in the world (and hands down my favourite when paired with chocolate), and I would gladly eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day of my life - except in the week-or-so that goes from mid-December to Xmas. You know, when everybody and his dog is baking candy cane-flavoured anything, as if there's a global-level flash mob going on or something.

This is why I baked my test batch of these cookies in mid-October, with candies I had bought back in January, and kept sitting in my fridge during the summer months.
They were delicious (why, of course - we're talking peppermint sugar cookies here, gents!) but not perfect. In retrospect I think I overbaked them, because they ended up far crispier than your average crinkle cookie.
And I'm baking them again now, with Kisses I ordered online and had shipped all the way from the other side of the big pond. Talk about a time-consuming mise en place!

Once you can get you dirty paws on some of these elusive Peppermint Kisses (and, possibly, the baking chips Hershey makes in the same flavour around Xmas, so you don't have to unwrap another bunch of them just to chop them up), the recipe's actually very easy. 
You can get it HERE, by the way! 

It's weird how I still am unable to automatically associate the colour red with anything peppermint-flavoured. 
I mean, the rational part of me knows it's because of candy canes, only... every time I see the iconic red-and-white stripes, the first thing that occurs to me is strawberries and cream, because these are the flavours I grew up associating the colours with. To me, mint candies must be green or white, or both.  
Oh well...

Sugar crinkles are yummy and cute enough as-is, but pressing an unwrapped Kiss into each warm, soft cookie is what makes the magic happen. The candy will melt slightly and go all creamy inside and shiny on the outside... 

...See? It's magic, I tell you!

As with all good sugar cookies, these have a slightly crunchy surface and a soft, crumbly heart. They're wonderful with coffee, or hot cocoa, or with your balsamic infusion of choice - and even more so on their own, so you can concentrate on the different textures and colours of the cookie and candy.

On a side note: sugar cookies freeze exceptionally well as a rule, and these are no exception. Only once they're thawed, the Kisses will have lost the creamy quality and gone back to their pristine condition of hard chocolates. Sad, really...

Now, about my manicure. Isn't it adorable?
If you want to treat youself to candy cane nails too, here's a video tutorial for you...

The idea of painting my nails to match the cookies I'm serving would never cross my mind normally, but this tutorial was so easy and fun, I just couldn't resist!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

So long, Granny...

I have long debated about the opportunity of writing this, because - let's face it - mine is supposed to be a lighthearted blog for people to browse in search of yummy recipes, decorating tips, and assorted nerdy silliness. No one wants to read depressing stuff in his/her free time; I myself will unashamedly skip the occasional "personal tragedy" post every time one such thing pops up in some blog I'm following. 
Why? Because they bore me; pain is pretty uninteresting after all, as long as it happens to other people. It's like when you meet someone you know, but don't really relate to: you'll still ask "How are you?" out of politeness, hoping like hell that he'll go "Fine, thanks" and leave it at that. I can, and will, certainly feel compassion for a friend or relative, but I perceive it as rude for a stranger to force his suffering upon me - especially when it's someone who is supposed to actually entertain me. Like, for instance, a blogger. 

This long ramble was just to say: feel free roll your eyes at this post and skip it altogether; I won't judge you any worse, because I'd totally do the same. 
But, I'm still going to write it.  

On Wednesday, January 2nd, my grandmother Francesca passed away. She was 92.
The funeral was this morning, and after it was over, walking into her empty house nearly broke my heart. 

She was close to a second mother for my brother and me, and was a brave, generous, indomitable woman. She's the one I was speaking about in this post - just so you understand. 

I am not really the kind of person that goes for the old "we'll meet again beyond the veil" solace, still - I will always cherish my memories of our time together, so that the best part of her won't die for a (hopefully) long time. 

So long, Granny. And thanks for, well... everything

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

FHTAGN! Cthulhoo is born!

I think today's Doodle says it all:


Did you list your resolutions for the new year? I certainly didn't; I'm not that kind of person. 
It's not that I am weak-willed - I can be very focused, as long as it's something I truly feel like doing. If, on the other hand, I don't really care, then no amount of public flaunting of  good intentions will shame me into action. 
Right now, the one thing I honestly feel like promising is: I will strive to become a better baker and designer, and post more frequently on this blog. So there!

Anyway, now that I am more or less sober again - although I'm still sleepy as hell, and so filled with food that the mere thought of it makes me want to barf - I'll keep my promise and post more images of my Unspeakable Vault of Doom cake. 
Those among you with an eye for photography (awww, let's make it, those among you with barely decent eyesight) will probably notice that the following pics are exceptionally good for my standards. That's because I didn't take them, you smart***es!
My sweetie did. With a swipe of his smarthphone. Dammit. 

...Well, anyway. Here's the cake, freshly unwrapped by its intended recipient... 

...and here it is again, waiting to be cut and savoured!

Finally, a close-up of the dramatis personae

*   Cthulhoo as baby Jesus

*   Nyarly as St. Joseph
*   Shubby as Mary
*   Yogzotot as the angel
*   Zatoth as the comet
*   (a) Shoggie as (both) the ox & ass

If you're still wondering, you probably don't know The Unspeakable Vault... of DOOM!
Take my hint: forget all about cakes for a moment (gosh, did I really write that?) and click the link. Unlike my other links, it will open in this very same page - yes, it's deliberate. I want you to take your time and browse through the archive... because, man, you've been missing out on a lot of fun! 

PS - I sent a pic of this cake to the Vault's author - right, to Mr Fracois Launet himself!  (hey, I was a bit tipsy at the moment, 'kay?) - alongside with my heartfelt thanks and New Year's wishes. He did me the HUGE honour of featuring it in his own Guest Art gallery!