Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

It's finally here! Happy Halloween!

Earlier in the month a friend commented that this must be the most wonderful time of the year for me. She was absolutely right as I've felt elated and full of glee the entire Halloween season. While I'm sorry to see it go, I'm going to make the most of the spooky, gory, haunted goodness of today!

Lio's a great little comic strip that I just discovered this week thanks to Haunt Style. Be sure to check out the Lio comic strip site for more twisted Halloween fun from Mark Tatulli.

For my photo a day I went to a nearby park and photographed some slightly sinister-looking steep stairs. I had to wait for the elderly folk who take their morning walks in the park to clear out as I had no intention of telling them what I intended to do with the photo. I then used Photoshop to add in a picture I found in this fun pool of pictures of people falling down stairs. The one I blatantly stole is thanks to Helga Weber, whoever she is. Thanks, Helga!

A Photo A Day [Day 63]

Not the best Photoshop job out there but as it's one of my first I'm pretty pleased.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Glass Shard Cupcakes

A Photo A Day [Day 62]

Although I'm trying to get over my miserable failure at today's local Iron Cupcake: Moorestown competition where I didn't even place, I figured I'd post pictures of my entry here for your enjoyment. I honestly don't get what the judges are looking for in these things because my cupcakes tasted amazing and, at least in my eyes, looked great. It's really disheartening to lose to a cupcake that tastes like the frosting came from a supermarket shelf while I slaved away last night and this morning to make homemade dulce de leche for my filling and frosting. Not to sound too catty and bitter about the whole thing, but the disappointment's definitely there.

The themes were "pumpkin" and "Halloween" so I made another batch of the astoundingly delicious dulce de leche pumpkin cupcakes I made last week (see that post for the recipe). They're moist pumpkin cake filled with homemade dulce de leche topped with dulce de leche buttercream.

For those of you concerned for the welfare of my kitchen after my last disastrous attempt at making dulce de leche, I can say that third time's the charm for me when it comes to making the stuff. Scared off of the oven method, I made a double batch last night on the stovetop using a double boiler, stirring occasionally. It worked like a charm even though it took over three hours of cooking, but at least I was able to leave it unsupervised for the most part. Unfortunately I managed to mess it up by cooking it too long so this morning I woke up to a giant blob of hardened caramel stuck in the bowl. The bowl was only $1 so I'm tempted to just throw it out rather than clean the darn thing. This morning I went back to the oven method of pouring the condensed milk into a pan, covering it with foil, placing it in a water bath, and heated it at 425 F for a little over an hour. No accidents this time because I omitted the baking soda and watched it like a hawk.

For the cupcakes' Halloween decorations I went against my husband's advice to stick with cutesy since the family-oriented crowd might not go for gory. While I love what I came up with maybe I would have had a chance of placing if I'd listened to him. Anyway, I took the idea from A Zombie Ate My Cupcake by Lily Vanilli. The recipe I used made far too much "glass" so next time I'd halve the recipe below. For the "blood" I boiled down some cranberries in water with lots of sugar and pulsed it into a blender until the cranberries were all broken up. You could go the easy way out and use pureed cherry pie filling or raspberry jam.

Even though I didn't even place, the crowd seemed to love mine. Everyone kept stopping to check them out, take photos, and they were the first ones to run out once we were allowed to sample the goodies. Still, I'm dismayed that I spent all that time making the silly decorations and made some damn fine cupcakes and still didn't come close.

Glass Shards
Recipe from A Zombie Ate My Cupcake by Lily Vanilli

(You may want to halve this recipe)

Nonstick spray
2 cups water
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1) Line a large cookie sheet with foil or a Silpat and spray with nonstick spray. Spray the pan at least 30 minutes prior to using it.

2) Mix together the water, sugar, corn syrup and cream of tartar in heavy saucepan and bring to a boil with a candy thermometer inserted. Let the mixture boil, stirring continuously, until it reaches 300 F (this step took me nearly 40 minutes, grrr). Pour the mixture very quickly and carefully onto the lined and oiled pan. Spread evenly and let cool.

3) When the mixture has cooled completely, carefully pop it out of the pan and peel off the foil or Silpat. Tap it in the center with a hammer or meat mallet to crack it into shards.

Since I love Halloween so much I did enjoy seeing what everyone else came up with. Although most of the entries were cutesy there were some that caught my eye.

Edited to add:
Someone else got a good picture of the winning rat cupcakes. They're definitely impressive, both in concept and in execution, so I can see how they won. I guess my style of focusing more on the taste of the cupcakes and not wanting to complicate that with fussy decorations doesn't really work in these competitions. Which is a shame because it seems like my tastes runs toward simple and understated, not just in cupcakes but in clothes, design, etc. I doubt I'll ever be on board with taking all that time to decorate something that will be demolished in minutes.

A Photo A Day [Day 61]

Didn't get a chance to post yesterday's photo. For the Halloween season I figure it's acceptable for our neighbors to see a small display of our weirdness. Donna usually stands in the corner of our guest room, creepily staring at our guests as they slumber. But for Halloween she gets moved to a prime position in front of the window where she can cast her undead gaze upon the world. At night I set an eerie red strobe light under her so she looks even more frightening. We've had lots of people compliment us and several mention that they make it a point to drive past our house to see her. And then there are the trick-or-treaters too scared to come to the door because they see her waiting. I love it!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Britain's Scariest Building?

3 days 'til Halloween! Today we'll tie together my love of Halloween with my love for all things British.

No, Britain's scariest building is not wherever Tony Blair happens to be, which I'm sure would be my husband's suggestion. One of my favorite sources for British news, the Guardian, featured a story yesterday about the spooky-looking Royal Masonic School for Boys and touted it as being one of the scariest buildings in Britain. Now that the school is closed developers are turning it into luxury flats, which I'd love to buy if any of you want to give me that spare one million dollars you have lying around. Although the above photo has been heavily edited the place features some beautiful gothic architecture, evocative of specters and haunts and things going bump in the night.

For my photo of the day I bring you one of New Jersey's scariest buildings. Seems more or less normal from here:

Until you look more closely. That's when the creepiness sets in. (Click on the pics for larger versions.)

A Photo A Day [Day 60]

Why is the one in the middle staring right at me with such hatred? Why is she the only one looking in my direction? Why does this even exist? Why why why?!

Pleats Are Overrated, Right?

Earlier this month I signed up for Sew, Mama, Sew's bag swap. I've never done a craft swap before but I was feeling confident enough in my sewing skills to give this one a try. Perhaps I was a bit hasty in making that grand assessment of my skills because I had a devil of a time with the pleated clutch tutorial I tried to follow from A Lemon Squeezy Home.

My partner's description of her preferences was very vague: "I like reusing materials in new and interesting ways. My style is a little punk rock..." Hmm, not much to go on especially since my definition of punk rock style might differ from hers and the rest of the world's. Even after contacting her directly she seemed content with being mysterious and wanted me to come up with something that reflects me. Such pressure! My detail-oriented brain initially recoiled in terror and I worried I'd wind up making something she'll hate until I realized that she's probably easy to please if she's willing to leave it up to me. It was sort of freeing to be able to come up with whatever inspired me based on that tiny bit of information.

If you know me, you'll know that I agonized over the fabric choice for ages. First to choose the main fabric for the outside and then to find just the right fabric to pair with it. I picked up the fun skull fabric at Jo Ann Fabrics and found the purple and gray striped fabric in my stash. For some reason it makes me think of an old-timey circus although I have no idea why. Perhaps it resembles the stripes on a colorful circus tent? The combination of fabrics is strange but appealing, at least to me. Hopefully to my swap partner as well!

Because I personally prefer something small and subtle if I'm going with a bold or strange fabric I opted to make her a clutch, which is something I've never made before but have been meaning to make for myself. What better excuse to push myself and try something new? The pattern I chose would put my zipper- and piping-sewing skills to the test but, again, I was willing to give that a go. Well, turns out I needn't have worried about those as both turned out perfectly. The problem was the pleats, which I think I messed up by not keeping the fabric even enough while folding down. As a result the pleats were loose and wouldn't hold once the bag was all done. After several failed attempts at undoing stitches and re-doing the pleats I was forced to give up and start from scratch. Good thing I like the fabric so much since it looks like I'm stuck with a deformed clutch of my very own. Because the back piece was un-pleated I was able to flip the clutch over and see how lovely it would be even without those pleats, so on my second try I omitted the pleats and made the clutch a little longer. One of these days I might go back and try to get those pesky pleats right but for now I'm very happy with the clutch. The piping's a nice detail and I like that I was able to feature two fabrics on the outside for a little contrast.

My lucky find was a package of metal Halloween studs in the scrapbook section of Michaels. I saw no reason why they wouldn't work on fabric too so I adorned the clutch with a tiny silver skull. Love the little guy!

So we'll see how my first swap turns out. While I'm sure I'll like what she's made me, I'm hoping that she didn't put weeks of work into it while I whipped hers up in a weekend. But then that's how I tend to sew so it's not as if I didn't put hours of effort into it on top of all the time spent planning and shopping for the right fabric. Bottom line is I'm happy with the bag I've made and hope she is too.

Demonstrating that I have no idea how to properly hold a clutch

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Wine

4 days 'til Halloween. Too bad it took me this long to get a really good idea for how to decorate our porch this year. Not sure I'll have time to implement it but it's high time I got some decorations out there. I feel guilty keeping all the good stuff to myself inside the house and gypping the kids.

When I was back home in the land where they trust you to be able to purchase wine and groceries in the same store, I picked up a few bottles of Halloween-y wine from World Market. Now, you should know that I'm not a big drinker and have never tried a wine that I actually like. Clearly I was caught up in the novelty and swayed by the nifty design of the labels. I'm sad to report that the one bottle I've opened so far does indeed taste like wine, which is a bad thing in my book. Still, I like that there's exists a Vampire Vineyard and that they seem to have fun with the theme. I guess if you're a wine drinker these might actually taste good. Me? I'll use them for cooking and save the bottles for decorations. If you're less of a cheapskate than I you might also want to splurge on the "7 Deadly Zins" wine that, at just over $10, was out of my price range. Quite the catchy name.

Photo a day:

[Day 59] - Want to come over for dinner tonight?

Theme: "Spooky"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Zombies Have Invaded Harrods!

5 days 'til Halloween. Eek!

Check out the creepy cupcake feast coming up on October 29 at Harrods to promote the book, A Zombie Ate My Cupcake. Zombies will be on hand to pass out cupcakes and provide witty banter as dinner party companions.

As if I need more reasons to want to go back to London and stay there forever and ever. Seriously. Does anyone know of a British guy looking for a mail order bride? I promise I'll behave.

I have to say, when I visited Harrods last year it was the bakery section that most impressed me so I'm sure this will be a hoot. You may have noticed that I have a bit of a sweet tooth but even so I couldn't justify spending £4,999 on this cake. And no, I didn't forget to add the decimal point. You read that right. A cake that costs almost $8,000. That'd better be one darn good cake for that price. John Cusack had better pop out of the center covered in gold or something.

Oh, London, I do so love you.

Also throwing in today's photo a day. The theme is "spooky."

[Day 58] - Hungry for breakfast?

Monday, October 25, 2010

French Madeleine Cupcakes

I've been brainstorming for over a month trying to come up with French-themed cupcakes ever since my mom commissioned me to make some for her book club meeting. While France is known for its impressive pastries and elegant desserts my specialty is cupcakes so I wasn't sure my limited skill set could handle something so advanced. Instead why not translate the delicious flavors of traditional French desserts into cupcakes?

For the first flavor I decided on another batch of the Opera Cake Cupcakes I made back in September. Sponge cake made with almond meal, soaked with coffee syrup, bittersweet chocolate ganache filling, and coffee buttercream on top. Somehow these turned out even better than I remembered the first batch being with the bottom layer nicely saturated with the coffee syrup. Although the origins of opera cake are a bit unclear I stuck with the musical theme from both the name and from the book being discussed and piped out some treble clefs using melted chocolate. I simply printed out an image of one from the internet, stuck it beneath a sheet of wax paper, and piped on top. They look more impressive and difficult to make than they actually are.

I struggled to come up with a second flavor and it wasn't until I re-read the book to be discussed that I got the idea to make madeleine cupcakes. Madeleines are light little cakes made in a specific type of pan, usually with almond and citrus flavors. My trusty 125 Best Cupcake Recipes book happened to have a recipe for madeleine cupcakes made with orange zest and powdered sugar in place of granulated. My real moment of genius came when choosing the frosting to pair with the cake. I happened to have gotten two gourmet teas as a prize when I won Sweetest Kitchen's tea-themed cupcake competition and one of those teas was an Earl Grey lavender tea. What could be more French than lavender? Even better that it has hints of bergamot to bring out the citrus flavor of the cake. Following Cupcake Project's tips for infusing butter with tea I was able to make a pure-looking frosting nicely infused with the tastes of Earl Grey tea, lavender, and bergamot. It worked perfectly with the cake, which, in its traditional form, is something I imagine is often eaten with a nice cup of tea on the side.

The cupcakes were a hit and everyone couldn't stop raving about them. Wish they'd enjoyed the book half as much.

Madeleine Cupcakes
Recipe from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson

2 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 eggs
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 12 cupcake wells with paper liners.
2. In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together sugar and butter until well combined (this might take a few minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add orange zest, vanilla, and almond extract. Add flour and salt, beating until smooth.
3. Scoop batter into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Let cool in pan on rack 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on rack.

Lavender Earl Grey Buttercream

9 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 teaspoons loose lavender Earl Grey tea
1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons heavy cream

1. Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add loose tea and continue to cook for five minutes.
2. Remove pan from heat and let sit five minutes. Pour through a fine strainer, pressing on tea leaves with the back of a spoon to squeeze as much butter out as possible.
3. Let butter sit until it comes to room temperature and solidifies. If you're in a hurry you can place in the refrigerator but make sure butter is at room temperature before the next step.
4. Using a mixer, beat the butter and powdered sugar until combined. Mixture will be dry.
5. In half tablespoon increments, add heavy cream until frosting comes together and loses the dry, crumbly texture. Beat until smooth.


A Photo A Day [57]

Here I am taking the baby for a walk in the pram. Isn't she adorable? She has her father's eyes.

Theme: "Spooky"

6 Days 'Til Halloween

We're almost there. Sorry I couldn't keep up with posting something Halloween-related every day this month but as I was out of town with no internet access I don't feel too guilty about it. Plus today's installment is a fun one!

Thanks to Haunt Style for alerting me to this one. Sears has set up a zombie-themed site for the season. Either that or the zombie plague has reached the web programming department at Sears. Note that you can switch the language to Zombian if you find doing the translation yourself from English to your native tongue to be too cumbersome.

Due to a bad customer service experience I happen to hate Kmart, which is owned by the same company as Sears, but Sears has managed to escape my wrath. Especially now that I've seen this inspired silliness!