Friday, February 15, 2013

Shit happens!

Did you know that this by-now proverbial piece of wisdom originated from the Forrest Gump movie?

I certainly didn't - and I've watched it a few times, too!

...Well, anyway.

My friends and roleplaying buddies have started a new campaign, set in the Marvel universe. 
Now much as I love everything comics, superheroes have never been my cuppa - there's just something about the genre's whole concept that irks me beyond measure. 

There has been a time when I was so desperate for my weekly RPG fix that I'd have ended up playing nevertheless, and hating every single minute spent at the gaming table. It happened before, that's how I know. 
Yet luckily, we're having another game going on at the same time, and I love that one so much, I don't mind skipping the superz game.  

So, since I'm getting free Friday evenings for a while, I thought I could put them to good use and test a few interesting-looking recipes I found on Pinterest
Why, I told myself, I'll bake some outrageously good cupcakes and see if I can come up with a superheroes theme for them, because sooner or later I will be requested to decorate a cake for some nerdery I don't really care for, and I can use the challenge. And, should it turn up I can't, I'll still have my perfect cupcakes!

I knew right from the start I'd have to make chocolate cupcakes because Flavio, my uber-picky BFF, won't eat baked anything unless it's truly chocolate-heavy. 
No problem there, as I was itching to try Kevin & Amanda's Brownie Batter Chocolate Fudge Cupcakes anyway!

It is actually a doctored-up cake mix recipe, which should have rung a bell in the first place as one of my hugest baking débâcles, dating back to a time before this blog, featured cake mix as one of the ingredients. 
I don't know, I just find mixes to be unpleasantly unpredictable... plus, it makes little sense for me to use them, because the American products most recipes call for aren't readily available in Italy and when I can find them at all, they cost me an arm and a leg - so making my batter from scratch is both easier and less expensive as far as I'm concerned. 
But, this recipe sounded SO GOOD! I mean... Brownie Batter Chocolate Fudge Cupcakes, right? So I hunted down Betty Crocker's Devil's Food mix and set out to baking, only halving my measures as I managed to get hold of just one box. 

The brownie balls had to be prepared in advance and frozen, which was a bummer - still, the dough tasted incredible. Things were definitely going as planned.
But when I baked the cupcakes proper... well, THIS is what happened. 

Fail! Fail! OMG EPIC FAIL!

My cupcakes imploded; there's no nicer way to put it - unless I claim they were hit by meteor fragments, which would be bordering on bad taste seeing what happened in Russia earlier today.

Of course I could camouflage the wreckage by slathering them with frosting - whopsie, make that Outrageously Rich Chocolate Indulgence Frosting, s'il vous plaît - but this is just not The Way I Do Things. 
I guess I'll simply take it like a brave soldier and keep them all to myself! 

Now these cupcakes, they may not display a cute, gentle dome and soft brownie heart, but they're good as hell!
Even the "outer shells" I'm left with are definitely more brownie than cupcake, and I suspect they'll get even more brownie-like as they age (meaning: they're going to crust, not dry out.) 
I think I'll crumble one into my granola and try it with milk, or yogurt maybe - also, I want to see what happens if I pour hot coffee into the crater. Oooh, and I could play around with ice cream, too!

So, here's the moral of the story for you: shit happens, and that's a given. Then again: when life throws a cupcake fiasco at you, YOU GET TO EAT THE REMAINS! MWAHAHAHAHA!

PS - Yes, I did have my superz decorations all done, but I'm not going to show them now - I'm saving them for another occasion, when I'll bake a new batch sticking to a tested, well-trusted recipe. I still have no idea what went wrong with this one - I made no weird substitutions for once! - but there are times when safe's better than sorry!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Year of the Snake!

Best wishes to all of you Snakes out there... and to my Asian readers, have a joyful New Year celebration!

...See? I remembered! 
(Seeing how I, like, totally forgot about Setsubun one week ago... Sigh! And it's one of my favourite international holidays too...)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Susan Sto Helit gingerbread cookies, or: Death by Royal Icing!

Learn to walk before you run.
Wise words indeed. Yet I'm afraid I am a bit like Alice - who "generally gave herself very good advice, though she very seldom followed it."

Case in point: for my very first attempt at Royal Icing EVAH, I couldn't pick a regular cookie cutter shape, to be decorated easily with, I dunno, polka dots or something.
It had to be a complex shape - a character cookie, no less! - requiring icing in 6 different colours and/or consistencies. Six.
There are times when I wonder if I am a closet masochist.

Then again, these cookies are supposed to be the favors for my sweetie's Discworld-themed party, so I really wanted them to be nice!

Now there are many baking blogs out there specializing in cut-out cookies, and all of them are choke-filled with useful tips for the budding decorator. I browsed a dozen or so while trying to work up the courage to try dabbling in Royal Icing myself, and from each and every one I learned something useful - but in all honesty, I couldn't have done it witout Bridget and her wonderful blog, Bake at 350
I've been reading her feeds through Google Reader for ages and even tried a few recipes in the past, but as far as cookie art goes, I had always admired her mad skillz from a safe distance.
Well, I told myself, No more. Time to take the plunge!

Since we're planning to watch Hogfather, my subject of choice had to be either Death or Susan. Now, much as I love the Discworld's Reaper, giving around Death cookies for our guests to take home seemed a tad dodgy... so I decided I'd go for his luvverly niece instead!
Luckily I own a full set of Paul Kidby's cutesy coasters, so I simply had to do an enlarged copy of the Susan design to use as my template!

Mixing up the dough was the easy part. I made gingerbread instead of regular sugar cookies, because I love winter spices so much! (I make no excuses here...)
I took care to chill the dough as recommended, but even so I had trouble getting more than a couple shapes from each batch I rolled. 
I obediently kneaded the scraps back into my dough reserve, every single time - then chilled, rolled out to the correct thickness, carefully traced my template with an X-Acto knife... and by that time the dough had gone soft already, so back into the freezer it went. 
It took forever, but in the end I can say I'm super happy with my cookies - such a jummy, crunchy, spicey blank canvas they are!

Onwards to the decorating part!

Bridget has a favourite Royal Icing recipe involving meringue powder, but since this ingredient is a bit hard to come by where I live, I resorted for advice to my other decorating guru: Joshua John Russell. He teaches a Modern Piping course on Craftsy, a platform I'm hopelessly addicted to - you need to pay for it unfortunately, but they often do discounts, and if you're the type of person who learns best by watching (like I am), it's well worth splurging a few bucks on it. 
In short: JJ does Royal Icing the old-fashioned way, with real egg whites (I used pasteurized ones to be on the safe side). I whipped up a batch and was ready to go!

Much as I had learned from my wonderful online teachers, I was not going to splash Royal Icing on my cookies directly, period
So I grabbed my trusty baking paper and set out making transfers. 

As you can see, they didn't turn out too shabby, considering my lack of experience. 
This is where Bridget's blog proved immensely precious - not so much technique-wise (although I got invaluable information on that regard as well, and I still have tons of stuff to learn from her), but in demystifying the process as a whole, so that I could build enough confidence to try it for real. 

I won't lie here: making and tinting Royal Icing is tedious, time-consuming and, above all, messy business, but you can get it right, or right enough anyway, at your first go. If you're like me in that the mere idea of wasting perfectly fine ingredients makes you cringe, you don't need to worry - IT... COULD... WORK!

My transfers are far from perfect - there are bubbles in the royal icing, and I didn't have a damp brush at hand to flatten out those unsightly peaks I got while piping the outlines - but I'm happy with them. 
They were surprisingly sturdy, too, so that I managed to get them off the baking paper and onto the actual cookies without breaking a single one. Hooray! 

I "painted" a little corn syrup on the cookies, then simply placed my Susans on them. Turns out that, despite all the chilling and such, the cookies did spread a little while baking - drat!
The thickness, too, was not as even as I was hoping; this actually gave me some trouble, because the Royal Icing shatters just by blinking at it wherever it isn't resting squarely on the cookie (in the pic below you can see the cracks in the scythe's blade and in her cloak)... but hey, it wasn't a particularly forgiving shape to begin with, with all the sharp edges and protruding bits. I suppose I should have expected cracks to happen. Which is not to say they don't irk me like you wouldn't imagine. 

The final touches included painting on the edible metallic dust, and attaching a tiny silver dragee in the middle of the splotches that were supposed to be her necklace... 

...and finally, here's how my party favors look like, all packaged and ready to go! 

They are biding their time in my freezer now - my sweetie's birthday was on January 19th, dammit! - waiting for a day when the stars will be right and neither the two of us nor our guests will be otherwise busy. 

Of course you can count on me to tell you how his unbirthday party turns out in the end! 
...Gee, what's up with all the Alice in Wonderland references anyway?