Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Cake decorating at Stiletto Studio

I had a weekend of almost non-stop baking last weekend – just how I love it! Fifteen spicy vanilla cupcakes for a Halloween party, two small madeira cakes to decorate and 1.5 kg of buttercream frosting to cover everything in sight. Icing sugar was everywhere!

A while ago, a friend and I came across a Grab One deal for cake decorating sessions at Stiletto Studio in Johnsonville. Naturally, the classes sold out really quickly so we felt lucky to be able to buy vouchers for a beginner's cake decorating course as well as a session on flower making. Check out some of the display samples made by Becs Lake, the owner of Stiletto Studio.
Stiletto Studio display cakes
We began by learning how to make a bow out of gum paste. Each half is formed separately by folding a rectangle of gum paste like a concertina then folded over so the ends meet before being left to dry separately. Now, I don't know why but I all I could think of as I was shaping my bow (and watching it dry) was "ears" – the resemblance was uncanny. The middle of the bow was formed later once the sides had firmed up enough to place on our cakes. This simple technique would look great in any colour and will now become part of my limited (but growing) decoration repertoire.

Now it was time to throw some buttercream around. It’s not as easy as it sounds! We learned the correct technique to layer our levelled cakes (mental note: must buy a leveller) with buttercream before covering them with fondant. I got to play with a cake turntable, which has now been added to my *want* list. I’ve already had experience with colouring fondant and gum paste (and sporting multi-coloured dyed hands afterwards to prove it) so decided to stick with a white base and ribbon, adding colour and texture with the decorations I was creating. This time, the fondant didn’t fall off my rolling pin in the dramatic way it did during the last decorating class I attempted and I was pleased to have a (relatively) smooth finish.

Having long been sold on the miracles of silicone moulds to create decorations, I wanted to experiment with techniques that I hadn't tried before. The bow was a good start and it got me thinking about creating a kind of 'present' look for my cake. I had a go at using a cute rolling tool to create ribbons out of some Regalice ready rolled fondant I'd bought. I loved the result and so had to buy the tool – yes, more stuff for my baking collection.

Then came assembling the decorations on top of the cake and setting them in place with water. Tylose paste could also be used (depending on what you are sticking down). I discovered it wasn't as easy at it looks to paste down a straight ribbon of fondant!

Becs is great teacher, allowing just the right balance of demonstration and hands-on practice time. She's patient and happy to respond to cries of "help!" during class. It was great to be able to play with all her decorating tools and experiment with new techniques. We are very much looking forward to the flower decorating class in a few weeks’ time and would highly recommend her decorating classes for everyone from absolute beginners to those who have already had some cake decorating experience.

The finished product!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Chocolate class at Bohemein

Imagine being locked in a chocolate shop for two hours on a long weekend surrounded by irresistible chocolate treats. That's exactly what nine of us did on Saturday with a hands-on chocolate class at Bohemein.
Bohemein make amazing fresh chocolates with mouth watering truffles and great gift ideas. Owner and chocolatier Jiri Havlik (better known as George) also runs weekend hands-on chocolate classes in their Featherston Street store. Apart from being an experienced end-user of the product, my chocolate making skills have only ever extended as far as remelting chocolate melts to set in various moulds. I had a lot to learn!

We started out by learning how to make dark chocolate ganache correctly. Although I have made ganache a few times for cake and cupcake decorating, my success has largely been hit and miss. George showed us some good techniques for combining the chocolate in cream that had been brought to the boil. I learned what it means to 'split' the ganache (you don't want that to happen) and think that is what might have been the problem during some of my ganache disasters. This ganache was to become the filling for the 70% truffles we made later.

George helped us unravel the science of chocolate making and make sense of the process. I knew that tempering involved raising, lowering and then raising the temperature of chocolate again to make it workable but never really understood why this was necessary. If I'm honest, I actually thought you could probably skip this step - but now know why it's essential and how to do it! (This article is a good guide to chocolate tempering.) It is all about creating type V (5) crystals which allow you to work with the chocolate at its best, leaving a glossy finish and a delightful snap.

Temperature is all important when pre-crystalising (tempering) chocolate and some tools of the trade are necessary. Firstly, a digital infra-red thermometer was recommended for its accuracy. I knew my sweetie (gadget man) had one of those and we laughed about what else he might have that I could commandeer for chocolate making at home. Melting the chocolate is done on a bain-marie (double boiler) and cooling is easy with a cheap fan. Reheating, however, is different. A heat gun with a variable thermostat is best, but most people don't have these on hand. Although a hair dryer could suffice, George laughed that he didn't own one. (Check out his picture to see why.) Concerned that I also don't own a hair dryer, I wasn't sure what I could use at home but suspected that, once again, my sweetie would have the required equipment in his garage. Yep, he does, and so my friend and I will now make chocolate at our place. :-) 

Truffle assembly line
We created a kind of truffle assembly line, dropping the ganache pieces into the tempered chocolate then draining off the excess with a special chocolate fork. Then, it was into the pile of chocolate shavings before rolling the completed truffle forwards to set on baking paper. We got to make six of these 70% dark truffles each and they were bagged up for us to take home. They looked very professional!

Truffles to take home
Although there is a lot more science involved in chocolate making than one would initially imagine, it is obvious from George that the essential ingredient is passion. You can see by just looking at his amazing chocolate creations that this is far more than just a commercial interest. I was blown away by the creativity of this kiwi sculpture. The marble slab, egg and flowers are all made from chocolate. Impressive!

I highly recommend this chocolate making class at Bohemein for chocolate lovers and bakers alike. I now have some great ideas for making Christmas presents and will top them up with goodies from the shop. In the meantime, practice makes perfect so that gives me a great excuse to eat make a lot of chocolate.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher

I am quite a newcomer to the world of Jack Reacher. Having recently acquiring a dozen or so ebook versions of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I am currently reading Killing Floor and my Kindle tells me I am 30% of the way through it, the first installment in this series of suspense thrillers.

I am gradually building up a mental picture of Reacher, what he looks like, how he behaves, how he reacts to different situations and so on. For me, forming impressions of characters is one of the great pleasures of reading. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true - ha ha), Jack Reacher's physical appearance is described as follows:
Reacher is 6' 5" tall (1.96 m) with a 50-inch chest, and weighing between 210 and 250 pounds (100-115 kg). He has ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. He has very little body fat, and his muscular physique is completely natural (he reveals in Persuader, he has never been an exercise enthusiast.) He is exceptionally strong but is not a good runner. Reacher's strength is combined with his savant intellect and military training, analyzing his environment and opponents at extremely high processing speeds.
I learned via Mashable this morning that Tom Cruise is to play Jack Reacher in a cinematic adaptation of the ninth novel in the series, One Shot. The movie will simply be called Jack Reacher and is due for release later this year.

I'm sorry to say that no part of Reacher's physical description or psychological picture reminds in any way of Tom Cruise - absolutely none at all. For one thing, Cruise is almost a foot shorter than Reacher. But it goes further than his size (which is an integral part of this character). Reacher is  imposing in almost every way and hardened by life; there is nothing suave about him. According to the official Twitter feed for the movie, Lee Child himself is thrilled with the choice and goes to great lengths to assure readers that he was never worried about it. At all. Never ever. Not one bit.

I'm not convinced and it seems I'm not the only one. The trailer hasn't done much to change my mind, either.

What do you think about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher? Does your imagination stretch far enough to make it believable, or will you be struggling, like me, to make the character work on the big screen?

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Bartered Bride

The New Zealand Opera season of The Bartered Bride opens in Wellington tomorrow night. Last night, we were lucky enough to get a sneak peak at the final dress rehearsal. I have enjoyed hearing how the last few months of rehearsals were progressing and it was great to see everything coming together on stage.

The Bartered Bride is a comic look at Bohemian life by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Originally set in the 1860s, it's all about scheming, social climbing and marrying favourably to settle family debts, thereby ensuring financial security but all the time threatening the happiness of the star-crossed lovers. The circus performers stole the show with their short segment and Conal Coad gave a standout performance as the scheming matchmaker, Kecal. Predictably, true love prevails and things all work out amiably. Of course.

At 2 hours 40 minutes, this opera is a long time sitting. Thankfully it is sung in English, although subtitles were projected above the theatre boxes on both sides of the stage.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Continental apple slice

While clearing out some stuff this weekend, I came across a recipe book called Easy Slices that I'd almost forgotten I owned. A few recipes were marked and I remembered having success making fast bars, sultana slice and peppermint brownie slice. Last night, I baked continental apple slice using some leftover apples. The self-raising flour combined with sour cream and baking soda meant the base was more like a cake (sponge) than slice and it rose really high.

Continental apple slice

  • 25 g butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 300 g sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups self-raising flour, sifted
  • 2 (green) apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 1/2 chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar (extra)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a 25 cm x 30 cm baking tin.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  3. Blend in sour cream and baking soda. Beat well.
  4. Gradually fold in flour. Pour into baking tin.
  5. Arrange apple slices on top. Combine walnuts, extra sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over apples.
  6. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Allow to cool in tin. Cut into squares. Store in an airtight container. Makes approximately 36.
Continental apple slice

Monday, 8 October 2012

Dear blog

Dear poor, neglected blog

Where shall I start? You’ll be thinking that I don't love you anymore. That's not true at all! You’ll be wondering if I still read (lots), listen to music (all the time) or go places (often!). You'll be doubting whether I bake any more. Rest assured, I bake at every opportunity but don't always get the chance to share my recipes with you as often as I used to. Heck, you're probably questioning whether I can still form sentences longer than 140 characters! No, you have most definitely not been replaced by Twitter.

Please don't feel like this.
Life has been very busy lately and there are heaps of great things happening for me right now. There has been lots of time with friends and family and we've been doing some really exciting stuff, with plenty more coming up. I know I usually tell you all about some of the places I've been and things I get up to so you can share it with the blogosphere. It's a job you do so well and I don’t mean to stop you from doing this. After all, it's almost 5 years since you first said hi and soon it will be time for another blog birthday. I might bake you some birthday cupcakes, just to prove to you that I still know how!

I know you can see all the draft posts I have hidden just beneath the surface. You'll notice that some need a bit of tidying up and finishing while others are just a random collection of notes and links that I plan to develop further ... at some stage. There are also lots of notes in my phone, which you can't see, but be assured that the ideas are there even if I don’t always manage to show them to you.

So, my dear faithful blog friend, I have no plans to abandon you or take a break. I think about you often and thank you for standing by while I seem to be on hiatus, but let me assure you that there are plenty more tales to come.

Please continue welcoming coffee buddies to our little piece of the blogosphere. I'll pop by as much as I can!

Yours always

Café Chick