Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nothing Worse Than An Overdone Dry Cake

Y'all are going to have to trust me on this one - most cakes are overbaked, i.e. dry.  All of  their delicious moistness and flavor has evaporated, dissipated, aerified, gasified... In short, it's disappeared because the cake has baked toooooo long.  I'm only going to tell you twice and show you once (I hope you'll be able to see in the photos what I'm talking about) how to bake a moist cake and keep it moist.

See that cake?  It was actually so moist that it collapsed in transport.  ohyeaH (<- think Joe Dirt) it did!  That and it was an outdoor reception and 100 degrees - but this post isn't how to improvise-engineer cake retaining walls out of display board and skewers.  The cake was so flavorful and moist it was completely consumed with many smiles, giggles and second helpings and that's the end goal, isn't it?

It starts with the batter, of course.  Whackerslap/bang/shake and generally disturb a plain cake batter to make most of the air bubbles rise to the surface and pop.  If you've bunches and bunches of trapped bubbles in the batter it will bake that way, leaving a vesicular texture to fill with air and make the cake dry.  Please oh please don't treat any cake with chocolate chips, fruits, nuts, or all three in this manner.  Not a good idea, as banging the batter makes all that settle on the bottom of the pan.  Yikes.  The lone angel food cake I've ever made didn't stand up to it either.  In hindsight, I realize it defeated the purpose of beating the egg whites to fold into the cake batter if I was just going to slam it back out again.  Annnnyways.  The batter should be smooth and relatively free of bubbles before baking.

Do you know where the hot spots are in your oven?  Mine are in the back on the top rack and the front on the bottom rack.  I try to space the pans on top so they've equal clearance all the way around and only put them slightly to the back.  The small things on the bottom rack are right ON the hot spot.  I want them to bake quickly (since they're extra batter) so they can be gotten on out of the heat flow and the top layers can bake more evenly.  I suppose you could get a thermometer and check where the hot spots are that way.  These were discovered cooking baked potatoes for the loaded potatoes fund raisers that allowed the Youngest Fellow to go to California with the Mississippi FBLA group his senior year in high school.  Yep.  Those taters in the top back corner were a PAIN to get out first.  Learning the hot spots was one of those lived lessons learned sticking.

In the several years of baking cakes I've noticed they begin to take on a roasted flour-y smell towards the end of the baking cycle.  That's when I start checking every five to seven minutes; five being an easy number to remember for some reason and seven the number of perfection, right?  I like the number 7.

My big oven bakes slow by about 25 degrees.  I could adjust the knob but since I'm the only person baking in it it's easier to NOT adjust the knob and know I need to bake the cakes slightly longer than a perfectly regulated oven would.  

Can you see that the cake has pulled away from the edge of the pan?
Perhaps this is the part that makes you shake your head:  it's done.  The top of the cake is NOT dry and springlike.  The middle of the top of this cake is a little sticky.  It will take a fingerprint the FBI can use if you touch it.  How do I know it's done?  The SIDES of the cake have pulled away from the pan.  I'm serious.  You're welcome to go ahead and bake it until the top is dry and springlike but that will do nothing more than bake more moisture out of the cake and make the top dry and springlike!  I almost always take the crown off the cake with a cake leveler so it will lay flat and the stickiness never comes into play.  Pound cakes need to go about ten minutes beyond this point but even so, it's a good reference point for them to set the timer to.

I really do this by the timer.  See my Dollar General timer?  Every time I spend more than $2.00 on a timer it gets dropped, skiefed, or melted.  Beeping puts me on edge anyways.  When the cakes come out of the oven set the timer and let them cool in the pans for five minutes.

Did I forget to tell you to have the cooling racks and wax paper ready?  Yep.  You'll want those on hand to keep the cake moist until it's filled and iced.  Just follow the pics while I flip out, flip over, and upright the cake again.

 Uhmmm... I forgot to photograph the black cooling rack on top of the wax paper for the last flip to put the cake top side up again.  You'll notice there is wax paper on the bottom of the cake?
 Wax paper is also on top of the cake.  The cake is still very warm.  Waiting  until the cake is cool to cover with wax paper will result in the evaporation of precious moisture from even a sticky-top cake. 

Tadadaaaaaaaa!!!!!  Magically, fifteen minutes later you come back to cover the cakes with the old towels and the two 10 inch butter cakes are now THREE 8 inch chocolate cakes.  Naw.  Not really.  I accidentally deleted the photo showing that the cakes are covered with something heavy enough to sit down ON the cake without squashing it.  The butter layers are under the hideous pink towel.
This is what it looks like the next morning, completely cooled, ready to have the crown sliced off an made into the middle tier of a wedding cake that collapsed on the way to the reception that the bride never knew about until it was time to cut the cake!!!!  All the moisture that made the wax paper pucker would have evaporated and be gone but it's still in the cake.

That's how I do it.  Watch the cakes to start pulling away from the sides of the pans;cover with wax paper, top and bottom; and then cover with something heavier to keep the paper against the layers. 

Thank you all so very much for your thoughts and prayers during the last week as our family has dealt with the sudden death of the oldest brother.  For all of his lack of playing the Favorite Child game and constantly spoiling my fun (he did take his roll as oldest child very seriously) a constant element from every single day of my life is missing. Your support is felt...  Thank you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Nothing's Ever Easy at Mama's

Small tasks are never small at Mama's house nor are they ever simple tasks, leaning more towards jobs. I went out to her house to get the soaker hoses put around the tomatoes and "help" tie them up. Mama's never been one to use those tomato cages, an easy solution to flopped over tomato plants laden with the precious red fruit. Ohhh no. Mama has to stake the tomatoes and then tie them up as they grow taller and taller.

It's been hot and dry here in the Deep South of Mississippi.  This morning, though,  the humidity was still down. Might as well give the old gurl a hand, having given myself the day off from child care. Nothing is ever easy with Mama. I got to her house to find her in the den, watching the weather channel. She likes the background music she says. I think she's hoping that if she watches the scattered thunderstorms come in from the Coast that she can hope one right over her garden. I don't know...but that's where she was, watching the weather. She'd get the hoses and meet me in the garden.

Ohhh my, what a sight that garden was! Mama's two dozen heritage tomatoes had outgrown their stakes. Couldn't tie them up any higher than the top, right? OOoooo...and it's very grassy and weedy at the other end. The bitterweed, were it in a flower bed, verdant and blooming, is a beautiful sight to see. But the bitterweed wasn't in a bed. It was around the few old collard plants. By the tomatoes. Mama said she'd get it hoed up when it rains. I couldn't stand it, a tendency to a bit of OCD not allowing for the weeds to remain this morning. Where to start? I located the hoe, probably as old as I am. The blade of it has become thin from years of being sharpened. It's my favorite garden implement Mama owns. I hope she leaves it to me in her will.

It made a scritch scratch scratch sound as the dry soil was scraped more than hoed. A workable path is cleared to adequately allow the manipulation of the tomato plants. But yikes.  Mama wanted the grass and weeds thrown over the fence to the chickens. Did I forget to mention the chickens?

They love Mama. She talks to them every time she goes through the shop door to the garden. "Caaaack cack cack caaaaack," they always answer back. They recognized the sound of the hoe clearing away the unwanted forbs and knew it was theirs; Mama and her chickens treat each other well. With much cack cack caaaaacking the fowl called for their gleanings. Mama had the fence height raised between the garden and the chicken yard to keep the chickens out. Or maybe to keep them in? I'm never sure.

Trying not to get dirt and dust blown back on me the garden debris is catapulted over the fence by the hoe. The chickens, at least, were content as they busily scratched and pecked and made that funny buuwaaaaaaaauk wauk wauk wauk sound.

The tomatoes needed to be restaked. I have NO clue who put piddly little three foot stakes at each
plant but additional height was required. An excursion around the shop yielded the metal fence posts in adequate sufficiency for the task. The ground was very dry and hard, mandating the use of my SECOND favorite garden implement: the axle from an old buggy. Mama told me it was a great grandfather's buggy the axle came from and that it's always been in her family. The thing is solid cast iron, weighing probably forty pounds.  The pointed ends of it make a perfect tool to punch holes into the hardened soil to a depth deep enough the tomatoes won't blow over when a good breeze (think hurricane) comes along.

 Mama began cutting the tomato strings as I get all the tomatoes REstaked. When I was little there were always rags to be cut into long strips for tying the tomatoes to the stakes. In this day and age of plastic, however, the ruined pair of pantyhose is Mama's choice for stripping. And there's plenty of those available, Mama having anticipated needing them for the garden from her very first pair of nylons. The taller tomato stakes were set, the task of tying the plants to them yet to be done. Finally.  It had taken an entire morning of work to get to one of two tasks I went to her house to accomplish.

I love tomatoes. I like to eat them raw off the plant, in salads, sandwiches and cooked any dozen of ways, most especially tomato gravy.

I like the smell of working in the tomato plants. The soft hairy stems and leaves yield their odor and color to anything that brushes up against them.

My hands, arms, and shirt are all shaded with the green smell of tomato. I don't think there's anything more Southern in the heat of summer, well past the blooming of magnolias, than a beautiful tall tomato plant, it's freshly tied stems showing the turning triads and quartets of fruit underneath, the delicate yellow flowers promising the good of the earth to come.

The soaker hose was stretched the length of the row of tomatoes. A lone horned tomato worm was dealt with quickly and firmly underfoot. The entire garden received a spraying of sevin. All the tools but the axle are put away, it being firmly stood upright, waiting for the rain and the softening of the earth to happen so I can go back out and stake the cayenne peppers.  My octogenarian mother is pleased with the morning's work.

I get to be favorite child for a few hours.  But that's another story for another day...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Marshmallow Fondant and Late Night Silliness

Starting to WORK work has definitely cut a chunk out of StumbleUpon and Facebook time!  Yikes.  I may actually go into withdrawl (<- that's a Southern withdrawal) in another few days if I don't have some decent set-down-in-front-of-the-computer time.  Perhaps I can sweet talk my employers into letting me use the restaurant computer in their office to feed the addiction?  Nnnnaw.  Best just to get on over it, right?  Right!  It's silly to be dependent upon something that can't reciprocate dependency, isn't it?   No good - no matter which way the situation is looked at.

I have to share with you a funny thing said at church when we were cleaning up after the Family Dinner this past Sunday.  The pastor was whistling "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."  It was the Hymn of Response i.e. closing hymn to the service and kind of has a way of getting stuck in your head if you're a church going hymn singing sort of person (if you're not, that's strictly between you and the Almighty).  I had been humming it and he was whistling it.  Mama and Mrs. Sally were covering the food on the table to be transported home.  Mrs. Sally starts trying to remember some phrase her mama used to say about a whistling girl.  Well!  Don't you know?   Mama knew exactly what it was.  She said she hadn't thought of it in years, but her grandmother used to say it too:  A whistling girl and a crowing hen are both two things with no good end.  I lol'd a lot!  The preacher was amused, too.  Mama said her grandmother used to kill the odd hens that tried to crow;  they were unnatural and evil.  She also said they always ate them.  Hmmmmm... I think somebody's grandmother was henophobic!

The fondant.  Marshmallow fondant.  I'm so distracted right now.  You can add any sort of flavoring you'd like in whatever quantities and concentrations after the marshmallows are melted.  Or that seems like the logical place to add it.  This marshmallow fondant tastes much better than the store bought packages and I don't use a flavoring in it.  I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how much to use, although I think 1/2 teaspoon or 1 teaspoon might be sufficient.

You'll need a bag of marshmallows.  Miniature marshmallows work just fine, too.  I had these on the rack.  I didn't count how many were in here to start.  It's roughly 3/4 of a bag of marshmallows.  It's not rocket science.  Confectioner's sugar, you'll need that too.  The only difficult thing in the making of this stuff is kneading the confectioner's sugar in when it won't stir in any more.
There's my big Pampered Chef measuring/mixing bowl.  Oh.  And two tablespoons of water!

Put the marshmallows in the microwave safe bowl and pour the water over them, stirring to coat the marshmallows.
Oh yeahhhh... I also have TWO plastic bags there.  The one thing you'll want to pay extra attention to is the storing of your fondant.  Air, moisture, and heat are its worst enemies.  I always double bag the fondant to take care of the first two items on the fondant hit list after it's made.

Microwave on high setting, set for 2 and a half minutes.

Stir halfway through.  The marshmallows will still be a little lumpy.

OOoooooo... I love cobalt glass.  I found this lemon juicer with measuring cup at First Monday Trade Day and Flea Market in Ripley, Mississippi years and years ago.  That's where my watch stays, Monday thru Saturday.  I only wear it on Sundays.  Go figure!

DING!  It should look like this.
That glass cutting board/heat pad has been there ever since day one of living here.  I don't know what I'd do without it to set the hot things on coming out of the microwave RIGHT there. They're not pricey at all and work a charm saving the counter top.

Add a good half a bag of confectioner's sugar to the melted marshmallows.  I might mention that was a TWO pound bag of confectioner's sugar.  At first it's easy to stir in, becoming more and more resistant until it gets downright belligerent to deal with.  This is while it's still stir-able.
Quicker than you're willing to admit you're not prepared to, this goes to the counter to have more sugar kneaded in until it's the fondant consistency.
It's late in the evening at this point in the process.  If you go back up to the watch photo, you'll see it was 11:20 then, and this is another ten minutes or so later.  I amused myself trying to take that photo with melted marshmallow goop all over both hands.

GGGgggrrrrrrrrr!!!!  Did I scare you with that hand?  No?  I scared myself for sure! 

There was no way to photograph the process of continually adding and turning and kneading the constantly-firming-up fondant without wasting a bunch of it by sloughing it off and washing my hands. 

I didn't measure anything to start with but if you needed measurements on the sugar I would say I used five cups total in the making of the fondant, based on what was left (which I didn't measure either {like I said, it's not rocket science - trust your judgment on it and if that's no good, readjust and do over}).

This is what the fondant will look like. 

I double bag mine and leave it out.  If it's going to be a while (like weeks) before use, pop it in the refrigerator.   Tadadaaaaaaaa! 

Those ingredients again were:
Confectioner's sugar
2 Tablespoons water

Y'all have fun with this.  And thanks for not paying me any mind when the hour is late (or is that early), silliness sets in and bed time is yet to come.  I appreciate it!

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I carried Mama to Mobile to one of her increasingly frequent doctor's appointments.  I'm glad I started taking Fridays off from child care back last summer to have a little breathing room with the second and third job and for getting Mama where she needs to be to continue a relatively decent quality of life. This day it was to see Dr. Scott in Mobile.  He's a sweetie, escorting her down the long hallway and giving her a hug when he left her at the receptionist's counter.  He didn't have to do that but he did.  Random acts of kindness never go unnoticed.

We stopped by Hart's chicken on Springhill for a couple of three piece baskets of their tasty fried chicken and fried okra on the side.  Ohhh my...I think they must change the oil every day;  there never is any old or burnt flavor in their deep fried food.  I had asked Mama shouldn't we pick up a piece or two for Aunt Bobbie. She didn't think her little sister needed the grease to add cholesterol to her problems.  Aunt Bobbie has cancer.  She's a trooper, much like Mama, enduring much to have more time for her church, family, and friends.  I love her, for sure, and it's these times when it's just me and Mama visiting her that are among the greatest jewels in the treasure chest of memories.

They're so funny when it's just the two of them and me.  The last time we stopped in Aunt Bobbie told me of the worst whipping Mama got in her entire life.  They were youngsters and the two of them had been assigned the job of cutting the slabs of hog fat into strips and then chunks to render into lard.   Mama got up from the table for something, neither of them could remember what, and when she came back, Aunt Bobbie had the knife she had been using - and wouldn't relinquish it.  Mama forcibly took it from her and in the process, sliced open Aunt Bobbie's palm.  Aunt Bobbie laughed about Mama's punishment with the strop - apparently reserved for very bad behavior.  Mama looked at her little sister with a glare, now 70 years later, and said "You should've given me back my knife..."

It's hard to keep a straight face when those two get to going at each other.  I love their story of Grandma's hen that went missing.  Grandma went to town for something - an all day event in the 1930's - and the children were hungry.  Big sister Alma and brother Herman wrung a chicken's neck, plucked it, cleaned it, and cut it up.  Aunt Alma fried it and when they had eaten it all, they buried everything so Grandma wouldn't find them out.  They all lied about the whereabouts of the chicken when Grandma asked about it, too! 

And then there's the story of Uncle Herman and Aunt Alma flogging around in the creek, pretending to be drowning (in knee deep water) so often that the traumatized two youngest sisters never learned to swim and indeed, are terrified of water.  Mama says you can drown in a thimble full of it;  Aunt Bobbie says a tablespoon.

Aunt Bobbie's talk was sombre for a few moments.  Mama had left the table and out of the blue, Aunt Bobbie says "I still miss Daddy."  Their daddy was  Robert Prine P., often called Uncle Rob.  I told her I had heard he was the kindest, gentlest man most folks knew.  She agreed, telling me about how much he loved all of his children individually and as a family.  His closest utterance to cussing was "Connnsarnit!" and that would get the little AND big children to skittering, because he didn't raise his voice much either. 

Aunt Bobbie was remembering being in bed for two months as a young adult (she said from arthritis, but Mama remembers cellulitis) and their parents had been driven by a brother-in-law to see her.  Granddaddy wanted to bring her home to see after her.  He told her "I couldn't stand to carry another daughter home in a box, may as well put me in one too..." and there were tears in his eyes as he said it.  You can tell Aunt Bobbie has been thinking of her own mortality lately.  I've been seriously ill before myself, it comes with the territory.  Mama came back to the table and the talk was again about someone they've BOTH become confused about being married to the person that was the brother of that woman that was interested in one of the cousins across Big Creek.  I don't know.

Aunt Bobbie says quietly, "Your mother is a little more bent over every time I see her.  She's barely getting around."

Mama says quietly, "Bobbie is so feeble.  I think she's moving a lot slower than I am.  She needs some chickens to take care of."

They are glad to see each other and quickly use a pre-determined amount of time visiting.  I would have taken a nap on the couch and let them visit longer because not only did Mama and I have Hart's chicken, but Aunt Bobbie had fixed us lunch as well and Mama said we were going to eat her lunch too and not say ONE word about the chicken.  But Mama needed to get back home.  These little road trips do wear her down, shake her up, and work her over.   The chickens need to be seen about.  Cakes were waiting to be put together. 

I'm so thankful that the Almighty has blessed me with four older brothers and sons.  Most of the time I believe I might have decapitated a sister and/or flogged a daughter to within an inch of her life.  I can't help it, I've been surrounded by men my entire life!   I've a sister-in-law that's as close to a sister as I believe them to be - sisters, that is. Every now and again, though, I wish I had just one sister that I grew up with to be able to tell awesome tales on each other in another thirty years or so.  Pulling out of Aunt Bobbie's driveway, witnessing those sweet octogenarian together, I found myself wishing it more than ever...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cake Release Facilitator: Pan Coat 101

It's a big cake weekend.  Wwwwell... One big cake, one two-tier cake, and six others.  On top of starting the new job tomorrow and hosting the Class of 1947 Reunion here Saturday, it's a very busy week.  The cakes were started and will be finished early to free up refrigerator space.  I've one refrigerator and right now it's full of cakes (these are just crumb coated, I'll decorate in the morning)!!!

Anyways.  My trusty oven was full of cakes baking this morning.  I knew (I KNEW) I should have made a batch of pan coat before starting.  If there's one thing I hate intensely dislike, it's having to stop a project because of not having everything to complete it, a concept the ADHD soul might not grasp.  I like to start something and finish it without ever stopping.  No one likes to go on a road trip with me for the same reason;  when I'm going I'm going and when I'm coming home I don't/won't stop (that'll teach them to drink two glasses of tea before leaving the house).  I had one more oven full of cakes to mix and bake: four more pans.  I was out of pan coat.  Grrrrrrrrr...

What is pan coat?  Well.  It's that stuff that coats the pan to keep cakes from sticking.  Before I worked for Mary Sue, a talented caterer and cake-maker (ooooooooo!  now SHE does roses!!!) I didn't even know the stuff existed.  I had always greased and floured the cake pans the old way.  About the time the oldest son was born Baker's Joy was discovered on the grocery store shelf.  Ohhhh JOY!  I fairly loved the ease of use despite its pricy-ness.  Mary Sue had a Tupperware canister full of pasty flour-y greasy stuff she used in the cake pans, applied with a paper towel.  One afternoon I watched Ollene pull the recipe and make it.  Hmmmmmmm....

A couple of years ago I started making cakes and remembered the pan coat.  A quick Google search revealed the recipe.  They're all basically the same;  I've tweaked mine just a bit.  I don't care for the oiliness found in using the 1 to 1 ratio of oil to shortening to flour.

I almost thought of the camera too late this morning.  It's not a properly documented tutorial but, ehhh, you're reading this...  Hey hey Booboo!  Smmmmmarter than the average bear!

I've always used the Cuisinart but Mama uses her mixer and it's almost the same consistency.  You'll need oil, shortening, and flour.  I was out of plain flour and used self-rising.  I don't know if one or the other makes any difference here;  I've never known it to.  That doesn't mean it won't -- just that I haven't experienced it yet (yet??).

Martha White:  MmmMMM GOOD!  I like Martha White Flour and a lesser known brand called Sunflower.

Put all the ingredients in the processor and let it run until very smooth.  I like to use a paintbrush to coat the pans with.  Don't spend a lot of money on a fancy pastry brush, this one from the Dollar General store works as well and lasts as long.  They'll eventually start losing bristles from all the constant use and washing, but that's alright, too.  Throw it away and get another.  There's not a whole lot of investment in it.

Put the pan coat in a container with a tight fitting lid.  I store mine down in the cabinet;  it gets used fairly quickly around here.  If you make a batch and don't bake often, put it in the refrigerator to keep for several months.  Even in the refrigerator, the oil and shortening will eventually go rancid.  Ewwwww...nasty.

That's a big pickle jar in the photo with approximately four and a half cups of pan coat in it, the yield from this morning.  Adjust the amounts up or down to suit your need.  Again, most recipes online have equal amounts of all three ingredients.  OOOOooooo... and if it's close to the holidays and coconut cake season? by all means, use coconut oil in it!  Drop the baking temperature by 25 degrees if you do;  I've had coconut oil scorch because of its lower flash point.  That was nasty too...

Here's the recipe used today:

Pan Coat
1 1/2 cup vegetable oil
2       cups vegetable shortening
2       cups flour

Mix all together until smooth with your favorite implement of combining ingredients. 

You'll never buy another can of Baker's Joy now;  this is so easy and cost effective.  Y'all break out your favorite cake recipe and pans and try it out!