Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Death (by Chocolate) Cake

Last weekend, my mom gave me some time off from the farm so that I could go to Rochester in order to bring me out of my funk.  I saw all my old friends, spent time with my sister, made new friends, went for a hike, and brought my bike home for the first time since I brought it out there last summer.  I felt like a new person.  My Rochester friends put the life back into my veins. 
With my baking buddy, Meg.  Check out her cake blog here!
Unfortunately, one day here at the farm will drain you of any positivity or energy you've managed to accumulate.  The minute I stepped out of my car, my uncle barked at me, "Ok, vacation's over.  Get to work!" and points to the garden waiting to be weeded.  In addition to the army of weeds threatening our fragile baby plants, there was a mountain of laundry to tackle, a sink full of dishes to do, a refrigerator to be cleaned out, meds to be given, Hospice people's questions to answer, and Gram's friends to play hostess to.  Then of course, there was my grandmother herself to be dealt with.  She was a physical and psychological mess, as usual.

I have felt like I am being punished for having a good weekend.  Nothing I do seems to be good enough for anyone around here.  They've also become really spoiled, and are starting to take advantage of me, sending me off to the store every day for some new craving or something that just popped into their heads.  The house isn't clean enough, and I'm also not helping out on the farm enough.  I am once again exhausted, upset, and at a breaking point, and I've only been back for two and a half days.

Death by Chocolate Cake
Lately, Gram has been craving all forms of chocolate.   Chocolate milk, chocolate Ding-Dongs, and chocolate ice cream.  Yesterday she woke up and decided she wanted Stewarts's Death By Chocolate ice cream (oh the irony...), and it's all she's eaten for two days.  Despite her lack of normal food intake, her need for control is still very high.  My great uncle is coming for a visit tomorrow, and she's been very upset about preparing for him.  She told me I had to bake a white cake to serve with peaches and whipped cream.  Well, we had none of those three things, so I went against my grandma's wishes and made a chocolate cake instead.  She wasn't happy with my decision, but I wasn't going to be pushed over this time.

Being far too exhausted and frustrated to bake one from scratch, I pulled out a Duncan Hines Devil's Food cake mix from the cupboard.  I did the same jazzing-up technique that I did in these cupcakes, and used coffee instead of water.  Because Gram insisted on also using a chocolate frosting, I wanted to use another flavor for the center.  I was planning on a raspberry filling, but just as I pulled the jar out of the refrigerator, my grandfather hobbled into the kitchen with his walker, and asked what I was filling the cake with.  (I swear he listens to my every move in that kitchen).  I asked if he'd rather have raspberry or fudge, and he said it had to be fudge.  Well, I am slave to whatever they want around here anyway, so even though I thought it could possibly be a lethal amount of chocolate, I complied, and spread a smooth layer of hot chocolate fudge in the center.

I adapted Betty Crocker's chocolate buttercream recipe for the top of the cake.  I know, it's not my trusty and much loved buttercream, but the milkman was out of butter this week!  Here's what I did instead:
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 cup vegetable shortening (we were out of butter!)
3 Tbs heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 oz unsweetened chocolate

Melt chocolate and cream together.  Beat together confectioners' sugar and shortening.  Add chocolate and vanilla and beat again until fluffy.  To frost, plop 3/4 of the frosting on the top of the cake, and work out from the center and then down the sides.  Use the remaining frosting in the bowl for touch-ups and extra fill-ins on the sides.

Despite my exhaustion, my cake baking days are not close to over.  My mom's birthday is this Friday, and my friend Eric has one the following week.  But I don't mind doing birthday cakes.  These are the therapeutic kind that I started this blog about.  Making something from scratch to make someone else have a brighter day.  That is what I love about baking.  Someone telling me to bake a cake for a less important reason, and then telling me how I should do it, however, is not the same.  Oh well.  Day by day, cake by cake.  We'll get through this.

Love and cookies,

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blackberry Bliss

Once again, things are not going too well out here at the farm, and once again, I turn to baking as an outlet for my stress.  My grandma's health has been getting worse everyday, and lately my grandfather hasn't been feeling too well either.  It's really difficult to watch someone you love experience that much pain.  I sit on the bed holding my grandmother's hand as she moans in pain, watching her chest fight to keep moving up at down.  She breaks into tears at least 5 times a day, still struggling to cope with her diagnosis, and the psychologist within me tries its best to comfort her.  The last few days have been especially hard, watching her experience more pain and become less coherent.

Yesterday was another rainy, gross day, which kept me from going for my run.  Most of you are probably thinking, "Wait!  Run?  Hannah doesn't run!"  I know, I know, I really hate running, but lately, I have taken up running (well, it is me after all, so it's really more like jogging), to relieve some of my stress.  Being here 14 hrs a day, I really just need to get away, clear my head, and think about nothing but the repeated rhythm of my feet hitting the ground for 40 minutes.

It's been raining for three days now, and I really just needed to do something to relax, so I turned to my old therapy: baking.  Since it's the start of berry season, it's time to clean out the freezers of any remaining berries from last summer.  In my freezer, that was 4 gallon-size bags of blackberries.  They don't really freeze too well, because they lose a lot of their flavor, so the best thing to do with them is cook them in order to concentrate their flavor.  I've had my heart set on making a pie for a while now, but when I mentioned a blackberry pie to my grandmother, she scoffed and told me that it was too much work, and that a cobbler would be much easier and better tasting.  Yes, even when bed-ridden she holds all the control on this farm.

The two of us sat on her bed, digging through her old recipe boxes and cookbooks to find her favorite blackberry cobbler recipe.  I absolutely LOVE old cookbooks, so I was really grateful to be able to find out what all her favorite recipes were in each of them.  We eventually decided on Betty Crocker's recipe.  She told me not to bother with the biscuits, just to use Bisquick instead, but when I looked at the box, it expired 3 years ago (like most other things in their pantry and fridge), so I decided to just make the whole recipe.

Blackberry Cobbler (with my changes to Betty's recipe)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (sifted)
1 1/2 Tbs baking powder
1 Tbs sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbs shortening (I used softened butter for a more golden biscuit)
1/2 cup whole milk

Add all ingredients except milk to bowl.  If you don't have a pastry cutter, cut in butter or shortening with two forks
Cut in butter until the size of small peas
Add milk and stir together (DO NOT OVER-STIR! - They will be rocks!)

Fruit Filling
3 cups blackberries (fresh or frozen)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs cornstarch
1 cup boiling water
1/2 Tbs butter
*the recipe calls for 1/2 tsp cinnamon- but I don't believe that cinnamon belongs with any fruit except apples and raisins, so I omitted it*

You can add berries still frozen
Slowly add boiling water to sugar and corn starch in sauce pan
Bring to boil for one minute, until mixture turns mostly clear
Add berries and stir until they are coated evenly.  Remove from heat.
I got creative and added some leftover pound cake from this post to the bottom of a well-buttered baking dish.
Pour fruit mixture on top of pound cake (you may need to re-submerge the pound cake) and dot with butter.
Spoon mounds of biscuit dough as evenly as possible on top. 
Bake at 400°F for 30 minutes until biscuits are golden and berries are bubbling.
I thought that the cobbler was a little sweet.  It could have been because the berries lost their tartness in the freezer for a year, or it could be due to my spontaneous pound cake addition, or because I just like fruit without a ton of sugar.  You could decrease the amount of sugar, or add an additional cup of berries.  Either way, the rest of my family loved it, and there's already only one piece left.  Looks like I might be making my pie after all.

Not so pretty when portioned out, but still delicious with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
 Love and cookies,

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Strawberry Stability

Life Update
If any of you have been lucky/persistent enough to talk to me in the past week or so, you'd know that my life is nothing but chaos.  Things have been really difficult out at the farm.  All hell broke loose when we switched my grandma's nausea medication to Haldol.  This is a rather strong medication, and has been known to produce some mental/behavioral side effects.  I knew this when we made the switch, but nothing could have prepared me for what I walked into on Tuesday morning.  She stared me down and told me she thought that I was trying to do her in, I wanted her dead, I was purposefully giving her the wrong medications, I didn't care about her pain, and that I told all of her friends to stay away.  I panicked and called Hospice and the nurse and the social worker helped to get her under control.  Needless to say, she's no longer taking Haldol.

Thursday we had another awful day when we tried to take her out for a hot fudge sundae that she'd been craving, and had a bowl movement emergency.  I will spare you all the details, but let's just say that there was a lot of moaning, screaming, and plastic gloves.

To top off all the craziness, my 4-yr-old cousin, Isaac, had his nursery school graduation last night.  That went well, but it was kind of bittersweet as it followed the news that two very dear family friends passed away yesterday, one from a brain aneurism and the other from pneumonia.
Isn't he cute?
For some people, summer means extravagant vacations to the beach or time to relax.  For the Conard women, however, summer means berry picking, jam making, and pie baking.  The first berry of the season is the strawberry.  And good news: our berry patch opens TOMORROW!  In all this craziness, we can finally find stability in tradition.  My grandmother has always been the first person in the patch, and even though she won't be able to get there herself, my mom and I plan on carrying on the Conard family name (even though neither of us legally share that name) and being there at 8am.

Strawberry Shortcake with Homemade Pound Cake
We do a lot with our strawberries: we freeze them, make jam, pies, smoothies, eat them, and give them away.  One of our family's favorites is strawberry shortcake.  Due to the wet weather, berries have been a little late this year, so we haven't been in the patch yet, but everyone has been craving them.  Yesterday, my aunt gave in and bought a few quarts (which is usually unheard of in my family).  When I asked my grandpa what he wanted for dinner last night, he said strawberry shortcake.  I tried to make biscuits, but the box mix was expired, so I decided I'd make a pound cake instead.  I used the "Perfect Pound Cake" recipe from the May 2011 issue of Everyday Food by Martha Stewart.

Pound cake recipe reproduced here:
1 cup unsalted butter (softened)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (sifted)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
5 large eggs (room temp)
1/2 tsp salt
Grease and flour a bread pan.  Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Beat eggs lightly.
Beat butter and sugar together for a full 8 minutes.  That's right, it's a workout.
I never do this, but I actually sifted the flour this time!
Add eggs to the butter and sugar, beat until smooth.  Gradually add in the flour and salt.
Pour batter into greased and floured pan, smoothing out to the sides.  Bake for 60-65 minutes.

Homemade Whipped Cream
My grandma is famous for her whipped cream.  She makes it like this:
8 oz heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
3 Tbs confectioners' sugar
Beat all ingredients together in a metal bowl on high until soft peaks form.  Do not over-beat; it will turn to butter!

Short Cake Assembly:
Place a 1" thick piece of pound cake on a plate.  Wash strawberries, remove tops, and slice them in half.  Toss them in a bowl with 1 Tbs granulated sugar and let sit for 5 minutes.  This will break down the berries slightly, bring out their sweetness, and give you a small amount of strawberry juice.  Top the pound cake with sliced strawberries, two teaspoons of strawberry juice, and a generous dollop of whipped cream.  Garnish with a sliced fresh strawberry.

Happy berry season everyone!  Stay tuned for more strawberry recipes this month, and then blueberry ones in July!

Love and cookies,

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jazzed-Up Chocolate Java Cupcakes with Chocolate Mousse Frosting

 Last week, my mom and I just got home from my grandparents' house, and I plopped onto the couch, exhausted.  Just as I was shutting my eyes, my mom walks over to me and says, "You know, Grampie's out of desserts," and looks at me expectantly.  I had left a few of Chris's Guinness cupcakes for my grandpa to try, and he loved them, along with everyone else in the family, because they were gone in two days. 

When I got to their house the next day, I asked my grandfather what he would like me to make him.  He told me, "Well, some more of those cupcakes would be nice."  I love my grandpa, I really do, but I wasn't about to run out to the supermarket and spend another $30 on alcohol for cupcakes.  I decided I'd just whip him up a batch of another kind.  It was really hot out, and I really didn't have a lot of energy to be baking, so I did the unthinkable- I reached for the box mix in the cupboard. 

Now, I really hate prepackaged mixes of any kind, but I was just in no mood to drag out all the ingredients for a batch of cupcakes from scratch, so I thought I'd just try to add a little something to make the box mix a little more exciting.  Here's a few tips on how to jazz up a boring box mix:

Change up the add-ins:
Because my grandparents are so sick, there are really limited options in the cupboards.  The one ingredient they did have, however, that goes really well with chocolate, was instant coffee.  I took a regular chocolate boxed cake mix, and followed the directions on the package.  Except instead of adding cold water, I substituted it for the same amount of cold coffee.  I dissolved 2 Tbs instant coffee crystals in a cup and a half of hot water, and then threw it in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes.  The result?  A super intense, chocolatey cupcake with that little extra something to make it taste homemade.  You could also try adding a few drops of a flavored extract or a liquor, like almond, orange, or coconut.

Under-bake them:
Whenever I use a box mix, I always end up with a dry, crumbly cake.  I found that it's often a good idea to not follow their baking directions, and bake them for about 2 minutes less than recommended.  The directions (on a Price Chopper brand mix) called for 20-25 minutes for 2 dozen cupcakes.  I baked them for 18 minutes, and they ended up being really moist and soft, (perfect for my grandpa with no teeth!).  Of course, if you are going to under-bake them, you should still stick a toothpick in the center to make sure it comes out clean.  There is a definitive difference between slightly under-baked and raw.
Photo's a little blurry, but look how moist that cake is!
Use an unconventional frosting:
Anyone that has seen a few of my cakes before would know that I have a strange obsession with buttercream frosting.  It is my go-to cake-covering of choice for almost every occasion.  I started to top these cupcakes the same way, but a few hiccups along the way resulted in a crazy new frosting that everyone really seemed to like.  I started off with the leftover Bailey's buttercream from Chris's cupcakes, hoping that it would create enough of a flavor base to resemble the cupcakes that everyone liked so much.  Unfortunately, and as usual these days, things didn't exactly go as planned. 

It was really too hot to be making frosting, and I just couldn't get it to stand up.  I kept adding more and more confectioners' sugar to it, and it was still soupy.  When I got it to a texture I approved of, I tasted it, and it was so sweet I cringed.  There was no Bailey's taste at all; it just tasted like sugar.  Normally when that happens, I add a little lemon juice to balance out the sweetness, and it normally works.  This time, however, I wound up with this intensely lemony frosting.  I refused to put lemon frosting on chocolate-coffee cupcakes, so I added some vanilla.  That didn't help.  I decided I'd try to mask the lemon with a stronger flavor, and turn it into chocolate frosting.  I added a little cocoa powder, but this really didn't do the trick.  I didn't feel like melting down baking chocolate, so I searched the refrigerator for chocolate syrup.  I couldn't find that either, but I did find some chocolate pudding.  I added about 1/4 cup chocolate pudding to my frosting, whipped it up, and decided that it was good enough.  Even though it was much softer than I would have hoped, it had a smooth, slightly mousse-like texture.  At this point, I wanted to just scrap it all together, but I hate wasting food (even if it's inedible), and decided to use it anyway.  I was embarrassed of what I was putting together, but my uncle and cousin tend to eat anything when it comes to sweets, so I figured someone would eat them. 

The finished product
As it turns out, everyone LOVED them.  The cupcakes themselves were probably the best thing I've ever had come out of a box, and everyone enjoyed the change of pace from my usual buttercream.  But most importantly, Grampie was happy when he ate them with his morning coffee.  Who knows, I might have to experiment with new frostings more often.

Isaac approved too!
Here's hoping your box-mix experiments go equally well.
Love and cookies,