Sunday, September 9, 2012

Blue Baby Boy Shower Cake

I had the pleasure this spring of making the baby shower cake for one of my colleagues, who is having her first baby this year. She found out a couple weeks ago that she is having a little boy, so I just had to do blue. I saw an adorable cake on Pinterest that had pretzels around the outside that were dipped in chocolate and decorated with stripes and sprinkles. I immediately thought of the old cliche about pregnant women and their cravings for sweet-salty combos. Pretzels dipped in chocolate? Yes, please! Pretzels dipped in chocolate AND cake? Double yes, please!

This cake is a great one for a crowd, because the fun pretzel decorations double as snacks.

The guest of honor enjoys vanilla cake with fruit fillings, so to stick with the blue theme (can a color be considered a theme?) I made a blueberry filling to compliment a simple white vanilla cake. The cake itself was frosted in white buttercream, with a simple design on top, and surrounded with those aforementioned pretzels (more on those in a minute) on the sides. I also made some little white chocolate decorations (in blue, obvi.) as a topper for some visual interest.

Any simple white cake will do. Honestly, any cake at all will do, depending on what flavors you like, but if you are going for the baby shower look, you might want to consider using a white cake to contrast with a colored filling. Alternatively, you could dye the batter and really adhere to the color theme.
Anyway, I was talking about vanilla cake. I tried a new one. It actually turned out dryer than I like (so I will not be sharing it here...sorry. I will share a good one when I have found the perfect recipe that works well up here in the mountains), but it was too late to start over. I could have made a simple syrup or added a layer of fruit to moisten it up, but I ran out of sugar that morning (devastating, and kind of embarrassing for a baker, to be honest) and I did not have any strawberries or other juicy fruits on hand. And didn't have time to go to the store, what with having a day job and all...Holy Cannoli, it seems like I'm disorganized or don't know how to plan ahead or something. I can't believe that I'm admitting to these things on the internet.

OK, so here's how this works.

I refrigerate my cakes before I try to mess with them. This is them, all dressed up in their fridge outfits (cling wrap), next to the cardboard cake base that I was going to build the cake on.

Next, cut the cake layers horizontally to make four layers. If you prefer to use only two layers, skip this step. Here they are cut. Aren't you proud of me? Process photos! Told you I was working on it.

Start stacking the layers with a generous (or not so generous if you don't love frosting in a sort of unhealthy, obsessive way like I do) layer of filling. This one is super simple. I added pureed blueberries and a couple tablespoons of blueberry jam (more for color) to some buttercream. I just made extra of the  buttercream I intended to frost the cake with, and used that. Done deal. So good, by the way. I am not even a little ashamed to admit that I was standing in the kitchen making bizarre this-is-so-yummy noises and eating it by the spoonful. Repeat until all layers are stacked.

Holy crooked layers, Batman! 

Crumb coat the stacked cake. This isn't a very neat layer yet, but you get the idea. Stick this in the fridge. This is a good time to work on your pretzels. That's if you haven't already finished them, which would mean you're more organized than I.

When the cake is chilled, take it out and give it a final coat of frosting. If you are using the pretzels, don't worry about making the sides perfect, since they will be covered up anyway. On the top, I opted for a simple but cute design in the frosting. It's as easy as pie. Or cake. Whatever. Just frost the top of the cake generously. You have to this time. It's an order. Now take a small offset spatula and dip it in some very hot water. Wipe it dry on a clean towel, and then gently drag it from the outer edge of the cake to the center. Repeat the process, slightly overlapping the last track each time.

Oh, and you want to do that before you add the pretzels.

To apply pretzels to the side, you simply need to gently press each pretzel onto the side of the cake. You might want to kind of wiggle each pretzel a little bit to nestle it in the frosting if they are falling off as you go. If you lay your pretzels on wax paper to dry, like I did, you will have a convenient flat side to press against the cake. Simply keep adding pretzels right up against each other all the way around the cake, and you end up with this adorable little sweet, salty, fence-thing. I tied a bit of ribbon around the pretzels to assist them in staying put (some of them were quite insistent on falling off. It was actually quite comical. I would put one back up, and one on the exact opposite side of the cake would fall as if on cue).

The chocolate topper was a cinch. I just melted some blue candy melts (white chocolate would work too, dyed blue), poured them into a candy mold (this one, with darling baby-themed shapes), and waited. And did other stuff while I waited. Like eat frosting. Pop them out, and you have little blue candies. If I had more time (there I go again with the time thing. Goodness gracious, I'm quite the complainer today. My apologies), you can easily make these very colorful by painting the insides of the mold with different colors of melted chocolate. I think I prefer the way that these plain blue ones looked on the cake though. It really carried the 'blue' theme. I'm sticking to it.
Arrange them on the cake as the mood strikes you, and there you have it. A very blue baby boy shower cake.

To make the pretzels:
Depending on how tall your cake will be (or how much you want the pretzels to stick up above the top of the cake), you might need to break the pretzels. This is a whole barrel full of laughs in itself. I needed to break my pretzel rods roughly in half. Easy, right? Wowza. Not so much. Pretzels will pretty much break wherever they darn well feel like it, which 99.9% of the time is nowhere near where you actually want. I tried gently cutting them with a serrated knife. Nope. Worse, actually. Regular knife? Nuh-uh. Karate chop? Also ineffective, but fun. Teeth? Most effective of all the methods, but least hygienic. So I went with the breaking. Which is why you might notice that my pretzels have a rustic we-don't-need-to-be-all-the-same-size look, which is charming.
Once you have a stack of roughly/not-even-close-to same sized pretzels, you need to melt your chocolate. I used white and blue, but you could use anything you want. You also want to get any sprinkles or other decorations ready, as these will need to be applied before the chocolate dries. A word to the wise - if you will be sprinkling anything directly onto the pretzels, you probably want to do this on a tray or some other surface with a lip (a jelly roll pan works great). Why, you ask? Well, round sprinkles (such as those that I used), roll (and apparently jump, climb, and fly) like no-one's business, and will end up eve-ry-where. You can sweep, you can mop, and these little thingies will pop up when you least expect it for at least a week or two.
I poured my melted chocolate into a drinking glass, because I figured that a tall, narrow vessel would be effective for dipping the rod-shaped pretzels. It was. You could dip from a bowl, or even pour the chocolate over the pretzels with a spoon. Knock yourself out. The glass thing does work though. Just fill it up with chocolate and dip away. Leave a little section un-chocolatized at the bottom to hold the pretzel with for ease of consumption. Oh, and melt chocolate slowly and carefully. Nobody wants a clumpy chocolate-covered pretzel. Lay the dipped pretzel onto some waxed paper and let dry. If you are adding sprinkles or some other such accoutrements, add them while the chocolate is still wet. If you are adding a drizzle of another color, wait until it's dry.
These pretzels can be done in any color, with any number of different decorations. They are quick and easy to make, travel well, and are so yummy. Oh, the ideas.

Well there you have it. Congrats to a beautiful new family, and we look forward to welcoming a new little boy to the world very soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Your Geek is Showing - The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogwarts, Instagrammed. Cell phones are great, ya?

Remember a while back when I told you that I kind of like that one book series, the one with the boy wizard? You might have heard of it. Well, those of you that actually know me (as in, real life, face-to-face, not on the interwebs), are friends with me on facebook, or follow me on Instagram know by now that I recently made a pilgrimage to that most wonderful of wonderful places. That's right. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was magical. Pun intended. But really. That is the word of choice and I'm sticking to it.

I went with another HP Enthusiast, my future sister-in-law (yay!) Natalie. Nothing says fun like a couple of grown women acting like children for a week. It was fantastic. Here's how it went. 
We flew into Florida on a Sunday and went straight to our hotel, where we promptly discovered that our room had a view of Hogwarts. No, I'm not joking, you could see the castle from our hotel room. Cue "Hedwig's Theme," and picture us squealing a little bit like a middle-schooler at a Justin Bieber concert. 
See? Not exaggerating. Taken from the hotel room window.
After dinner, we hit the sack in preparation for an early morning at the park (we had early admission. Duh. I told you this would be nerdy). We hadn't been in bed for more than two minutes before we both started giggling, and heartily agreed that we both felt like five year olds on Christmas Eve. We felt like we were never going to get to sleep.
In the morning, we walked to the park. Yeah. Walked. It wasn't all that far, and we weren't going to wait for the shuttle like some schmuck who doesn't mind sharing Hogsmeade with all the muggles. Keep in mind that we left the hotel at about 6am. As in, actually walking out the door. Those who know me well know that there are few things that can get me out of bed at that hour. Let it forever be known that early admission to WWoHP (as it shall be know from now on) is one of those things.
Anyway, where were we? Right. Sun is coming up, we are walking to the park. Siri tried to make us go the wrong way, but luckily we are smarter than the robots, and we figured it out on our own. Muggle technology can be rather unreliable at times.

I don't think I actually can describe for you the moment when we walked under the Hogsmeade sign, so here is where the pictures start in earnest.
Welcome to Hogsmeade, and please respect the spell limits.
The moment. THE moment. We thought we were all early and stuff, but check out all these other peeps!

Love the train. Love. Also, this is another instagrammed pic. Honestly, sometimes I wonder why I even carry a real camera. Never mind, I immediately take that back. I'll be right back, I need to go apologize to my camera and promise to buy her nice things.
First full view of Hogwarts. Soak it in.
Another view. If you are at all interested in seeing pictures of Hogwarts Castle from every single angle physically possible by a human without possession of a commercial-grade cherry-picker and professional photography equipment, let me know. You're welcome to come over and see them. Just make sure you set aside a couple hours.
The first of many "honeymoon" pictures...first you take one of me, then I'll take one of you... 
Platform 9 3/4
Told you. Another view of the castle. Here it is in the near darkness.

Hogsmeade by night


My first piece of advice...if you just want Butterbeer (and not something to eat), grab it from a cart. You won't have to wait as long. Plus the carts are so freaking cute! Like seriously, look at that, will ya?

Let's look at it closer up. Goodness gracious. I'm having flashbacks. The good kind.

Try and get it early or late in the day though, as the lines can get really long in the middle of the day. There are also these guys that hover around near the entrance of the Three Broomsticks who will take your Butterbeer order and bring it out to you. If you don't need anything to eat, try and find those chaps.

About the Butterbeer itself. I have to say, this was a moment of great anticipation. We went straight for a Butterbeer cart the first morning we were there. Nothing quite like a flagon of liquid sugar to kick-start your day. You can choose between regular Butterbeer and frozen (but no warm option, which, even though the park is in Florida, would have been a nice in-universe touch I think...), and both kinds come with this imitation foam on top (being that it's not real beer and thus does not actually have foam). The Butterbeer was nice. Very sweet, but a pleasant taste if you ask me. I had three flagons over our two days at the park. Nat didn't like it that much on account of the sweetness. That and the fact that she gets motion sickness and we immediately went on a rollercoaster. Go figure. Anyway, I was saying that the Butterbeer is yummy. I personally liked the frozen better than the regular cold liquid variety. However, the real star of the show is the "foam." It is this butterscotchy, keep-your-dentist-in-business sweet, creamy, divine experience that I would have eaten by the bucketful. Maybe that's a little over the top. Let's just say it was pretty good. And honestly, this cupcake frosting that I made once was pretty close on the taste. I think this foam is one of those things where the recipe is probably guarded very closely (most likely by a couple armed security trolls or something), and no-one can ever get it exactly right, but the frosting'll do when I'm having a craving and getting the shakes.

Butterbeer!! And another "honeymoon" picture, in case you didn't notice.

The only major disappointment in the food/drink department? No pumpkin pasties. You can't get them anywhere. We asked about them at Honeydukes (and The Three Broomsticks), but no dice. The girl was quite apologetic, and told us we were not the first people to have asked. Oh, and also, they don't sell an alcoholic version of Butterbeer at the park. I don't mean like Spring Break get-you-faced kind of alcoholic, but just mildly, the way that they drink it in the books. I wanted to see what it was like. Other than those little quibbles (haha, get it?), the food was great. The WWoHP is not on the same food system as the rest of the park. Meal Deals don't apply there, and they don't sell soda. Instead, to drink you can get pumpkin juice, Butterbeer, regular muggle beer (Hog's Head Brew!), hot chocolate, milk, a couple different ciders, orange juice, or apple juice. Which I think is awesome. 

Like so. Pumpkin juice on tap.
They also don't sell any typical theme park food (hot dogs, turkey legs, churros, pizza, etc.). Their food is mostly traditional British food (or at least an Americanized idea of traditional British food).
Here is what we had for breakfast at the Three Broomsticks...
Oh, but first, the Three Broomsticks. Totally great.

But the food. Right. Here's breakfast:
Breakfast of British-American champions/theme park goers/people who like to eat a lot.
The English Breakfast came complete with Black Pudding. See that thing in the middle? It's black.
It's how it went down:
Looking optimistic, yet apprehensive. Looking kinda silly and excited. Tasting...and...not so much. Washing it down with some Butterbeer. What else?
Sorry Brits, black pudding is totes not my cup of tea. The rest of the breakfast was pretty great though. Beans, croissant, eggs, potatoes, a yummy little roasted tomato, some sausage (of the non-blood sort), some English bacon, and some mushrooms. So much food!

And here is what we had for dinner at the Three Broomsticks (the only sit-down eatery in the WWoHP)...

Cornish pasties and a large salad. Complete with Hog's Head Brew and a chocolate cake/strawberry/whipped cream dessert. 
Having a brewski at the Hog's Head!
Chocolate strawberry cream dessert thingie...

Here's the Pumpkin Juice. I thought these bottles were just so cute! I kept one for my classroom.

Next up, the sweets (for those who aren't bilingual, that's British for candy). Ah, the sweets are great! Honeydukes was spot on, super colorful, and smelled positively divine. It was also always crowded, no matter when you are at the park, but it kind of added to the charm. You can imagine it's a Hogsmeade Weekend, and that's what it would be like with all the students there.

We didn't actually eat any of our sweets until we got back to Colorado, partly because we were doing quite a fine job of stuffing ourselves on park food and didn't have room for candy, and partly because eating chocolate when it's 8000ºF outside is neither appealing nor neat. However, we did have ourselves a nice little feast when we got back. First off, the chocolate frogs are fantastic! They are packaged just like the ones in the movies, and we got a nice assortment of cards (Only one repeat in five boxes. Not too bad. We also got all the Hogwarts founders amongst us). The frogs themselves are massive. As in, you might make yourself sick if you try to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I'm holding it here for a comparison. Now to be fair, I don't have the biggest hands, but really. That is one enormous chocolate frog. The picture is from above, but I should say that it stands about 3 inches tall too (from the flat surface underneath to its back).

Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans are also a really fun treat. 

We spent time trying all the colors and having a good laugh at the less pleasant flavors. Some of them are gross. But that's the idea, so have some fun with it. Chase those ones with blueberry (of which we seemed to have plenty). The only flavor we couldn't find in our assortment was vomit. Not too torn up about that though.

So many beans!

I also bought some Peppermint Toads for my Mom. They were great! Really yummy, and so cute. They were about the size of the top of your thumb, perfectly minty, and super creamy.
I don't know what was going on in my mind when I failed to take a picture of their adorable-ness. Well actually, I do. I was in pepperminty bliss. Anywho, here is the Honeydukes display at least...

They have a large range of other sweets from the books and movies in could really do some damage in there (to your wallet and your teeth). I wish I could have sampled everything, but went with the basics (and the ones that would travel well in a suitcase). Had we the space, tooth enamel, and sweet-teeth for it, we could have also purchased:

Lemon drops (Dumbledore's favorite),

Pepper Imps,

Chocolate Cauldrons, 

Cauldron Cakes, 

 Exploding Bonbons and Fizzing Whizbees,

Blood Pops, Acid Pops, Sugar Quills, and Edible Dark Marks,

Fudge Flies, 

or Fred and George's Ton-Tongue Toffee.

And that's not even all of it.

Another must-see is Zonko's. 

Zonkos! I do wish they had Weasley's Wizard Wheezes too...
It's attached to Honeydukes, and is chock-a-block with jokes, toys, games, and Weasley's Wizard Wheezes products (including U-No-Poo). 

Look up, look down, and check out each shelf. It is chaotic. As it should be.

Snippets of Zonkos.

You guys ready for me to stand on a soapbox, or what?
Personally (and forgive my nerdiness here...or don't. Honestly, I would understand if you don't), I think people should have to take a simple quiz or at least answer a couple questions correctly before gaining admittance to this section of the park. I mean, I didn't ask people any inane questions in the Marvel part of the park, did I? A lady actually asked me what Ollivander's was, and why people wanted to go in there. The nerve. I was just like "One moment please, I'm having a mildly euphoric out-of-body experience over here, I'll answer you in a second." I mean come on, it's crowded enough in there ...

Seriously? Holy moly, y'all! This is why we spent the majority of our time here in the mornings and evenings.
...without people wandering around wondering what everything is, or body-checking you out of the way when you are trying to get a picture of each and every window, just to try and figure out what the big deal is. Whew! Rant finished. Moral of the story? Don't go there if you don't give two hoots about The Boy Who Lived and The World he Lived in. I can't imagine you would enjoy it anyway. If you're a casual fan, or you've read one or more of the books, or even half a book, or watched the movies, come on down! Happy to have ya! But if you can't name a single character, or you stare at the little boy in full costume with a scar drawn on his forehead (of which there were several) like he's some kind of alien, spend your day somewhere else. Come in to enjoy the rides, like this one...

HP Dragon Challenge...dueling rollercoasters.
but leave the "streets" and the stores to the HP fans and enthusiasts. OK, now the rant is finished. Scout's honor.

My parting thoughts are these. If you are a Harry Potter fan of any kind, and you have the opportunity to get to the WWoHP, do it. It's so fun. And it's not even the only thing to do down there. There's always the rest of the park, and Universal Studios next door. Plus the Citywalk, and Orlando itself. And Miami's only a few hours away.
For serious HP fans: take your time. Look at everything. LOOK UP! Like, above your eye level. Then go back and look at everything again. Then get up the next day and do it again. There are little details everywhere that you don't want to miss. 
Like this:
Gringotts Bank ATM. Totally cute. Nice touch, WWoHP people, nice touch.
And this:
Owl clock tower
And this:
Wands stacked to the ceiling in Ollivander's

Don't think twice about spending hours and hours just looking at stuff. It's totally acceptable. The rides are fun and all, but while you're waiting in line, check out everything around you. Like all these Triwizard banners in the line for the Dragon Challenge...

And the flying Ford Anglia and Hagrid's hut.

And in the Forbidden Journey line, where you wind through the castle, you can see...
The house point hourglasses, Dumbledore's office, the Sorting Hat, and people sticking their faces into the pensieve (who invited that girl, anyway?)...

The fun signage for the Dueling Dragons...

Just go ahead and let people in front of you so you can stop and take pictures when the line is winding through the castle. You won't regret it. Just keep your eyes and ears peeled. You can even hear Moaning Myrtle in the girls' bathroom next to the Three Broomsticks.

This is what it looks like when you are the last people out the gates at night. They firmly but kindly had to ask us to leave. So we walked out backwards, and I snapped this one last image. 

Until next time, Hogsmeade, until next time.