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Causal Confections Kids (CCK) – Chocolate Chip Cookie Halloween Cake

Baking with kids can be a lot of fun and very educational. It can also be a test in patience for the head baker. Finding the right terms and ways to explain measuring ingredients, why things need to be mixed a certain way, and what happens in the oven can be a challenge, but it is a great mental exercise and kids are typically fascinated to learn how things work. The absolute best part of baking with kids is seeing the look of pride, surprise, and satisfaction on their faces when they get to eat what they created.

This past week, a 3.5-year-old designed a cake with me. It started with a simple question: “Do you want to bake cookies this weekend?” After excitedly answering “yes,” I asked which type of cookie he wanted to bake. It was no surprise it was chocolate chip. They are his favorite to make. It escalated quickly from there. When all was said and done, the final design ended up being a devil’s food cake with orange-colored icing that has pieces of chocolate chip cookies in it. It typically takes me no time to whip each of these parts together, so I figured it would take a few hours, tops.

We compiled our grocery list and went to the store to get what we needed. We talked about why we were getting the smaller bag of sugar instead of the larger bag of sugar (storage), why we didn’t need marshmallows for this bake (any excuse to eat marshmallows is a good one), and the ways we need to be careful when handling a carton of eggs. After getting back to the kitchen, we prepped our ingredients, set out our tools, and selected our aprons (having at least two kid-size aprons around is great as it gives them a choice and they get to dress like you do in the kitchen). After selecting his apron, the young baker got a quick introduction on how to tie it around his waist. It will take some practice, but he loved seeing how easy it could be to tie something.

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We did this bake in three parts.

Part 1 – Chocolate Chip Cookies (soft batch recipe)

Chocolate chip cookies are a great first-bake for kids. The ingredients are easy and safe to work with, it’s more than four steps, and, for most kids, it’s a treat they love to eat. Flour and sugar are easy for kids to use to measure out ingredients and are easy to clean up if it results in a mess. While putting the dry ingredients together, it’s easy to talk to the young baker about ingredients that are safe to taste and ones that are not. For example, cookie dough that is just butter and sugars mixed together is safe to taste. Once the flour and/or eggs are added, however, the dough is not safe to taste. The flour and eggs can be unsafe to eat before they are baked or cooked. Speaking of safe to taste, a tradition I have when baking chocolate chip cookies with anyone is to pour out a few chips to eat before we dump the bag into the dough. It’s a special treat since the baker has not had a chance to sample anything in a bit while the dough was coming together and it’s a few small bites of chocolate. Yum!

This junior baker did everything for the cookies except for cracking the eggs (he decided it was too messy for him to do that day) and dealing with the oven (he’s not quite tall enough or his arms long enough to do that, yet).

For most cookies, and especially the soft batch, it’s a good idea to roll the dough into balls or mounds for them to bake properly. Some kids, however, struggle to roll a ball between their hands when they’re younger. This young baker decided that he was going to roll logs instead of balls. We did one full tray of logs and one full tray of balls so that we could gauge the baking time for the logs and have everything cook evenly. When we took the tray of logs out of the oven, we were excited to find that the logs had baked down to perfect dipping bars!

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Chocolate chip cookie logs or dipping bars

While the cookies cooled on our cooling racks, we did a quick clean up of the area and of the tools we’d need to use for our cake. At this point, the junior baker needed a break.

After a break watching some videos on his iPad and having lunch, we got back to work on part 2.

Part 2 – Devil’s food cake

For this bake, we kept it simple. We grabbed a box of Duncan Hines mix and doctored it. Doctoring a box cake mix can range from very simple to more complex. I like to keep it simple. Use the same measurements that are on the box but use milk in place of water and use butter in place of oil. Typically, I melt the butter to add to the mix, but this time, I tried creaming the butter first and then adding the other ingredients to the butter. Making a cake using a box mix is another great first-bake for kids, though it can be disappointing as there aren’t too many steps and it’s over quickly.

We poured our batter into two 9″ rounds greased with Baker’s Joy (this is my favorite non-stick baking tool outside of parchment paper). Once baked, we let the cakes cool in the pans before flipping them out onto the cooling racks.

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Two 9-inch rounds of devil’s food cake.

After another round of clean up and preparing tools and ingredients, it was time for the junior baker to take a good long break and for me to make the buttercream. This junior baker does not enjoy American buttercream as it is too sweet, so for him to really enjoy his creation, we decided to go with Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC). It’s less sweet, very creamy, and is easy to work with. Since the IMBC is basically boiling a syrup and whipping egg whites, there wasn’t much for this junior chef to help out with at this stage.

Part 3 – Italian Meringue Buttercream

For this cake, I halved the recipe I used in the pull apart cupcake cake (link above). It ended up being a nearly perfect portion! After adding the butter to the mixture, my buttercream wasn’t coming together. Having made this several times now, I was a big confused and just kept whipping. It took about 10 minutes for me to realize that I had only prepared and added half the amount of butter I needed! I quickly grab a stick from the fridge, throw it on a plate, and send it spinning in the microwave for a couple of 10-second rounds to soften it. After adding the second stick of butter, the buttercream came together quickly and beautifully! Phew!

A few years ago, a dear family member had given me a set of measuring spoons that included a pinch, a smidgen, a dash, etc. They’re an amusing gift for most but are extremely useful in my kitchen! For IMBC, I use these to measure out and add gel food coloring.

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Measuring spoons for smaller measures.

The junior baker wanted the buttercream to be orange. I did not have orange color (on purpose) and asked him which two colors we could combine to make orange. This is an easy way to work color lessons into baking. As he excitedly stated “yellow and red,” we grabbed the correct bottles of gel coloring and decided which order to add them to the buttercream. Once the colors were added, we set the mixer to run and watched as the yellow and red streaks started to combine into a light orange. Bouncing up and down with excitement, the junior baker proclaimed the color to be perfect so we stopped the mixer and grabbed our cookies. This was the moment the junior baker was waiting for. We crumbled the cookies into the buttercream. As we crumbled, we talked about the differences in adding big pieces vs. smaller pieces vs. crumbs. He decided for chunks instead of pieces. We added 3-4 cookie logs to the batter and folded the chunks into the buttercream.

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Orange-colored IMBC with chocolate chip cookie chunks.

Now for the new challenge, spreading the buttercream with large cookie chunks across the cake without ripping up the cake. Junior baker did a great job of spreading and our cake handled it very well.

Once the cake was iced, it was time to enjoy!

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Sliced chocolate chip cookie Halloween cake

We asked the junior baker what he was going to call his cake. He proudly proclaimed “Chocolate chip cookie Halloween cake because it’s orange and black!” and so the dessert earned its name.

The cookie chunks ended up working really well with the icing and the cake for flavor and crunch. The bake ended up taking us all day instead of the few hours I itiniall thought but it was well worth it. This cake design was definitely a success and the junior baker has told everybody who would listen, including a very nice lady at the deli counter in the grocery store, about the cake he designed and baked.

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Cannoli Filling and Pastry Cream

Pastry cream is not something I’ve had on my to-bake list, but finding the right recipe for cannoli filling has been. I grew up having cannoli from Long Island, so the bar has always been set pretty high. Last year, I took a stab at making a cannoli filling using a recipe for cannoli dip. As you may recall, it was more of a learning experience than a dining experience.

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Failed cannoli dip filling and failed ganache

For my second attempt at a cannoli filling, I tried a recipe by Ginger Barragan of Moonlight Bakes Bakery. Since her recipe utilizes pastry cream, I ended up adding it to my to-bake list. King Arthur Flour is a great source for recipes, so I decided to give their pastry cream a spin.

Having watched shows like Chopped and the Great British Bake Off, making pastry cream had become a bit intimidating. It seemed too easy to ruin the cream and end up with inedible scrambled eggs. The one piece I kept forgetting about was that they were working against a clock. It is easy to see how one slip up can ruin the whole batch, but overall the process was simpler than expected.

Since these experiments were for the filling and the cream, I decided to bake and torte a single devil’s food cake as a vehicle for eating the results instead of going whole hog with fresh pastry. Those challenges are for a later time.

While the cannoli filling isn’t where I want it to be, it is very tasty and a great place to start while honing in on the right ingredients and proportions. I highly recommend giving both of these recipes a go.

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3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 Tbsp all purpose flour
4 large egg yolks*
4 Tbsp (1/4 cup) butter
1 cup heavy cream (optional)**

*if you’re looking for something to use the egg whites for, try Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC).

Before starting, set up a bowl with a strainer in an ice bath (place the bowl into a larger bowl, add water and several ice cubes between the two bowls, keeping the inner one dry).

In a medium saucepan, stir together 2 1/2 cups of milk and all of the sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Meanwhile, whisk the cornstarch, flour, and egg yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of milk.

Whisk some of the hot milk mixture with the yolks to temper them. This keeps the yolks from turning into scrambled eggs when you add the simmering milk.

Pour the egg/milk mixture back into the remaining simmering milk. Doing this through a strainer will prevent lumps later. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, with a whisk, until mixture thickens. Once the cream comes to a full boil, stop cooking immediately or it can curdle and separate.

Remove from the heat and strain through a fine strainer into the bowl set in an ice bath. Stir in the butter and vanilla extract (I sliced the butter so it melted faster and mixed more easily). ***If you would like to flavor the pastry cream, do so here*** (See King Arthur link for flavoring suggestions)

Cover the cream with a piece of plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cool.

Will keep covered in the fridge for up to five days before it begins to weep.

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Cannoli Filling via Ginger Barragan

3/4 cup pastry cream
3/4 cup ricotta cheese (depending on brand, your cheese may need to be strained through cheesecloth overnight. A dry ricotta like Kraft Polly-O (my favorite!) can be used immediately.)
2 Tbsp powdered sugar
1 Tbsp mini chocolate chips (I used more than 1 Tbsp. add to desired density of chips)

Stir pastry cream, ricotta, and powdered sugar until well-combined. Mix in chocolate chips. Chill for 1 hour before filling shells or using in cake.

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Cannoli filling in a torted 9″ round of devil’s food cake.
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Surprise Inside Cake – Pinky the Ghost

A surprise inside cake looks simple enough. It’s a cake of any flavor with a design or different color cake inside of it. One complaint I’ve seen pop up in a lot of conversation about surprise inside cakes is that the design typically ends up dry since it’s baked twice. Having baked one now, I can see how easily that can happy but I also see room for tweaks to prevent that from happening.

For this experiment, I kept the cake simple so that I could focus on trying my hand at the technique. To figure out my approach, I checked out cakes by i am baker and My Cupcake Addiction. I love the colors in My Cupcake Addiction’s love heart cake and may try that as a rainbow surprise in a future surprise inside cake. For my first try, I opted to use a ghost cookie cutter to make Pinky, one of the Pac-Man ghosts.
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Surprise Inside Cake

1 box of white cake mix
1 box of devil’s food cake mix
coloring gel

Prepare one box of white cake mix either by using the instructions on the box or by the modified box method substituting melted butter for oil and milk for water. Add desired color (in this case, I added red with a dab of black to get a muted pink color). Line a cookie sheet or sheet pan with parchment paper and pour batter onto pan. Bake at 350F for 23 mins (or as described on the box).

Place a piece of parchment paper on a cutting board large enough to place the cake on. When the cake comes out of the oven, place the paper and cutting board on top of the cake and flip it so that the cake sits on the board. Lift the pan and peel off the parchment paper that is now on top. Pop the cake on the board into the freezer for 10-30 mins to firm up. This will help prevent the cake from crumbling as much when you use the cutter. Select a cookie cutter for your design and make sure it’s small enough to sit in the cake pan you’re using for the final cake. My ghost cutter ended up being slightly taller than what I needed it to be. Remove the sheet cake from the freezer. Flip the cake over again and remove the parchment paper. Trim the top of the cake with a knife to remove the browned part of the cake and reveal the brighter colors underneath. Use the cutter to cutout shapes from the sheet cake. Cut the shapes close to each other to maximize the number of cutouts. Any extra make tasty snacks.

Arrange the cutouts on the same cutting board and pop the board back in the freezer for at least 30 mins (I did 30 but will let them freeze longer next time to better prevent the moist batter of the second cake from soaking into the cutouts).

Prepare the second box mix as above (either via the box or modified). Using a rubber spatula, place some of the batter on the bottom of a greased and floured bundt cake pan and spread it out to cover the bottom of the pan. My Cupcake Addiction suggests a half inch of batter. Bake this layer of batter at 350F for 7 mins.

Take the pan out of the oven and immediately spread a layer of raw batter on top of the baked layer in the pan. The new batter will thin out quickly since it’s going on top of hot cake. These layers of cake and batter will help to hold the cutouts in place. Take the cutouts out of the freezer and start placing them in the pan. The top of the cutout should be in the bottom of the pan (remember, the cake is upside-down in the pan). The cutouts can be arranged close to each other or with lots of space in between depending on how your want your slices to look. A more spaced out arrangement will result in not knowing whether you’ll get an all devil’s food slice or a slice with a surprise design when the cake is served. If you do a more crowded arrangement, leave some space for batter in between. Don’t press them together too tightly.

Place the rest of the batter into a large piping bag. Cut a wide tip at the bottom. Using the bag helps to get the batter between the cutouts and between the cutouts and the edges of the pan. Pipe the batter into all the sections around the cutouts. After filling the sides and in between, pipe the batter on the top of the cutouts to cover them. Since my ghost cutouts were a bit too tall, my batter did not completely cover them. I used a rubber spatula to try to coat exposed areas of cutouts with batter to encourage the cake to cover them all. When done, tap the pan on the counter a few times to get the batter to fill any gaps. Bake at 350F for 33-35 mins (or as long as directed on the box). Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 mins before flipping it over. The cake should release easily. When ready to serve, cut slices and enjoy the surprise image inside.