Birthday Baking

I very specifically remember my grandmother teaching me to alternate the flour and milk when mixing cake batter, always starting and ending with flour. Together, and usually with my sister, we baked too many confections to count as I grew up. I remember forgetting to put the pecans in the Christmas pecan sandies, spilling a newly opened bottle of vegetable oil on myself and on everything around me, and eating as much batter as I could get away with. Those happy memories of making a huge mess in her green and white kitchen before getting to eat our delicious desserts will always stick with me. In many ways, the fun we had during our baking adventures is why I still bake so avidly. 

Our confectionery endeavors included traditional cakes, cookies of every variety, candies, and everything else that we ever wanted to try. However, the older I got the busier life seemed to get as well. In my late teens and my college years we didn’t bake nearly as much. I continued baking as I knew how to, and challenged myself with new things, like learning to use icing bags and tips for cupcakes, messily attempting royal icing on sugar cookies, and daring to make macarons. But those are stories for future posts. 

I have a solid foundation in cake sciences as far as baking them is concerned. And while icings alone are simple enough, I have always had issues making these two components look good together. I also have no experience with tiered cakes. So why not try to make a two-tiered cake for my little brother’s first birthday party? The plan seemed simple enough: make a double batch of the yellow cake recipe from the Brown Eyed Baker, make tons of icing, and put it all together to make one two-tiered cake and one small smash cake. 

My first major mistake was forgetting to put the eggs into the cake batter until I had already started adding the dry and wet ingredients. My general protocol for cake batter is: 1) cream butter and sugar together 2) add vanilla and eggs, then alternate the dry ingredients and the milk. I’ve done this dozens of times. Despite this, I only realized that I hadn’t added the six eggs needed because it suddenly occurred to me that a yellow cake batter should be yellow, rather than the off white color that it was. That’s what I get for trying to catch up with my best friend while trying to bake at the same time. Oh well, we fixed it. The batter then went into two 8-inch round cake pans and two 6-inch spring form pans to make the main cake. After those finished baking, the rest of the batter was split between the spring form pans again to make the small smash cake. 

The cakes baked beautifully, and since I broke our kitchen thermometer, we only tested their bake by touching the tops and hoping they were springy. Next: icing, the scary part. Make icing too soft and it won’t hold its piped shape; make icing too think and it won’t pipe. I hardly ever use a recipe for icing, and fortunately for me and my brother, it turned out fine. My biggest worry, though, was making the icing look decent once on the cake. 

Using Wilton’s gel food coloring, I colored fractions of the icing and got started assembling the cake. The bottom tier was easy enough to ice, 20170624_105724but that wasn’t the tier I was concerned about. I added dowels, i.e. cake pop sticks, to prevent the top tier from putting too much pressure on the bottom. I then added a 6-in cardboard round to the center of the cake so that we could cut through the top alone. Once the structural necessities were in place, I added and iced the top tier. This became my biggest problem in decorating the cake. 

I am a perfectionist, especially when it comes to baked goods, and particularly when those baked goods are for others to see and eat. I wanted the cake to look nice and smooth like those you see on the Great British Baking Show and on all of the annoyingly pretty cooking videos now popping up all over Facebook.While I iced the top tier, I continually messed up the bottom tier. Using a long and flat spatula from Wilton, I kept smudging the bottom tier’s icing around the base of the top tier.

20170624_111145I kept nicking the bottom layer as I iced the top

It was frustrating.  And I swiped the spatula so many times around both of the tiers to try and fix it. It didn’t work. But I still stayed a bit obsessive. Eventually my step mom asked me if I would ever stop and reiterated that it really was okay. Finally giving up, I moved on. 

Once I gave up on my dreams of perfectly smooth buttercream, I added the decorations. Beatrix Potter themed, this cake would include green piping around the edges, yellow and pink icing decorations, and paper cut outs of characters. 20170624_121044Cutting out the Peter Rabbit disks seemed to be the worst part of the decorating. As cute as they were, they were a pain in the butt to cut around. 

The cutouts added, I began piping green around the tiers, slightly mimicking grass, hoping to give the sense that Peter and his friends were standing in grass, not just pasted onto a cake. 20170624_121437.jpgThe additional icing also helped hold the paper to the cake, since cutting them took long enough for the icing to start to harden. The borders around the bottoms of each tier proved easy, but maintaining a smooth circle around the top proved challenging. I probably should have given it more time than I did. Adding random orange and pink “flowers” and a medley of each accent icing color at the top, I placed my little brother’s first birthday candle on top. Then I just had to clean what was left of the kitchen. 

I also made the now popular smash cake.

IMG_5637The smash cake

It ended up being the easiest of the cakes, simply iced with chocolate buttercream and lightly decorated with my brother’s name and a leftover Peter Rabbit medallion. It was cute, but no one considered what it would look like when a one year old smeared brown and green icings across his face. 

Overall, the experience taught me a lot, like to look for different icing spatulas, level the cakes before stacking them (if you look closely, you can see that it is a little tilted), and to actually plan it ahead of time. And that I’ll be okay if it isn’t perfect. I’m happiest that got to make my little brother’s cake and that, although he won’t remember it, I always will. Happy Birthday, Aidan!

IMG_5643The finished cake!

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The cutest set up

Unfinished Updates

After an unintentional two month absence from my blog, I honestly do not have tons of crafting to show for it. Since I last posted, I have completed a couple of projects but overall have really been neglecting my crafting. Some of my projects have included birthday pajamas for my best friend, cross stitching, and knitting! The first two are completely normal things for me but my craft nag and sister has finally gotten me to start knitting again. I’m pretty sure she’s more excited for me than I am, and I’m pretty sure she was jumping for joy after I agreed to it.

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Birthday pajamas

She conned me into it with the lure of the Outfit-A-Long, where each June and July participants knit and sew an outfit, at least one complete piece per craft. It didn’t take quite so much convincing once I thought about all of the clothes that I could one day knit for myself (and others, I suppose). 

For the Outfit-A-Long, I will knit the Kit Camisole (found on Ravelry) and sew Tilly’s Delphine skirt. So far, I have cut the pretty green fabric that I will use for the skirt and have just received the beautiful mustard yellow yarn for the cami. I’m a little concerned about finishing the knit camisole in time but if I don’t meet the deadline I will survive and still have a new outfit!

In cross stitch news, I am still obsessed with everything from The Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery, which just celebrated 7 years of business! However, I already have three of their projects started and many more that I want. While I don’t usually have specific deadlines in mind for my cross stitching (unless its for a specific holiday), I decided to stitch a Christmas stocking for my little brother.

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The gold is lovely to look at but a pain to stitch

Except I “started” it a year ago. So now I am going to finally finish A Very Merry Christmas Town (also from the FPS) before devoting most of my crafting time to the stocking.

I’ve also had some baking adventures, including some French crullers and a two-tiered cake for my brother’s birthday (more to come in the next post though). While I know that crafting and baking are good for my mental health, I have been neglecting my projects and myself. Here’s to crafting more and worrying less!

Finally Finished

The last sixteen months seem to have been some of the most stressful (and most incredible) of my life. Last Spring, I finished my last semester of undergrad (which, by my amazing procrastination skills, required classes taught at the same time). Needless to say, I did not plan my classes terribly well. But I graduated, time turner in hand. I immediately packed my bags for my summer sailing adventure in the Great Lakes and was sailing a tall ship less than a week after I graduated. Another month and a half later, after quickly moving, my family welcomed my baby brother into the world! Two months later, I had to leave again for graduate school. And then came the first year of my PhD. 

My family has been my first and foremost support, even from a day’s car ride away. For them I am the most thankful every single day. But my sister is my primary craft motivator (or “craft nag” as she puts it) because, despite knowing how calming cross stitching is, I simply don’t. The relaxingly intricate stitching should be a daily ritual to unwind by, but I’ve been neglecting myself and my projects. I currently have four more projects started, each in various phases. So finishing this tea-inspired design felt like a significant accomplishment. 

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A Skype and stitch date with my sister!

I started this Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery design two Christmases ago- the kit was a gift from my dad. I immediately started stitching, and was so excited for the beautiful pattern to take shape. The first night I finished the main tea cup and estimated that I would finish the entire thing within a matter of weeks. 

By February of 2016 I had the center image stitched. All that was left to stitch were the delicious looking pastries that bordered it. Somehow, though, it took me more than a year to accomplish.

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The main image, completed after a month

I soon got swept up in the trials of graduate school and forgot about my project. I had full time lab work, a “fun” part time job, and classes. Sleep was my only extracurricular activity. At home, my sister had started learning to sew her own clothes, in addition to her prolific knitting. She has always enjoyed creating things (as have I) and continually tried to share those activities with me. I wasn’t necessarily opposed, and I did like the idea of crafting more, but I continued to put her off. She kept reminding me, however, of my stitching. We decided on weekly Skype dates to share our stitching over tea (she never finishes cross stitch projects either).

Finally, I remembered how much I love to stitch and how calming it is for me. Once I began again, I quickly worked my way through the outer images and this past week I finally finished a project! I was so proud of myself and immediately went to show it off to the rest of my family. 

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The finished cross stitch!

 

Once finished showing it off (for then, anyways), my sister and I ran out to Joann’s and Michael’s. While I had no intention of buying anything but a frame for my newly completed project, I ended up with everything I need for a new skirt and blouse. We moved on to Michael’s to price custom framing and learned that it is incredibly expensive! My finished piece is only about 5″x7″ but the “sale” price of a custom frame for it was around $100. Even if I had more money, I don’t think I could justify that price for a frame. Now I’m considering framing it normally or in a hoop. But soon it will be completely finished! Until then, I still have two Christmas patterns, a stocking, and a science themed pattern to stitch. Here I go! 

Pajama Project

After what seemed like an immeasurable amount of nagging from my sister to start sewing (which I’m actually thankful for now), I stitched my very own pajama pants! They’re super comfortable, fit me perfectly, and are just what I wanted. They are truly custom pajamas, which I only have because I made them myself. And since flannel was on sale, I paid less than $7 for the fabric! What is not to love?

However, making clothes is a process. As my sister warned me, I wanted to get straight to stitching rather than spending time tracing and cutting patterns. And repeating. I already had my cute hot air balloon flannel and could easily imagine wearing it as capri-length pjs, so the in between steps seemed like a major stitch in my side. But just as preparing a ship for the sea is a necessary part of sailing, preparing your patterns and fabric for cutting and stitching is a necessary part of sewing. If you’re wondering, I am learning how to make clothes from Tilly Walnes’ Love at First Stitch: Demystifying Dressmaking. This book has step by step instructions and all of the patterns you’ll need. Prior to these pants, I had basically no sewing knowledge apart from how to stitch by hand or how to make my grandmother’s sewing machine start. Love_At_First_Stitch_cover_1024x1024

When I finally had everything I needed to sew pajamas (including an iron and its board, Love at First Stitch, and three pairs of scissors/snips), I finally motivated myself enough to trace the Margot pajama pattern. And by “motivated myself” I really mean that I was lazily sitting on the couch watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch when I suddenly wanted to feel productive- anything but homework, anyways (just kidding, Dad!). Once my patterns were traced onto my fabric, I became nervous. What if I messed up the fabric by cutting wrong? What if my pattern wasn’t actually correct? When I finally cut into the nicely pressed fabric, I was mostly excited that soon I would have made something myself. (Sewing the first stitches was scary too, but seams can be ripped).

Once I started sewing, I couldn’t stop. To be fair, listening to scores from Errol Flynn movies on my Victrola was probably another motivational force. I finished the pants that same day and was sad to take them off the next morning as I got ready for work. They’re far from a picture of perfect sewing, but they’re just right for me. Now I just need a pajama party to wear them to! I have lots and lots to learn, and I can’t wait for my next project! Overall, I’m a little sad that I didn’t start sewing sooner in life, but I’m excited for all of the things I get to make!

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The finished product! I never want to take them off!

Tea Is For More Than Tasting

There seem to be an infinite number of teas in the world. Praise be to the leaves! Growing up in an Alabama version of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I mostly knew of iced tea, which was almost always sweetened. I never much cared for it, sweet or unsweet, despite its availability at every restaurant, family gathering, or nearest refrigerator. I knew I didn’t like the black iced tea that the rest of the South did, and I thought that the few hot teas I tried tasted like slightly odd hot water. At first, tea itself wasn’t appealing. Sailing, however, taught me many more of its wonderful qualities.

Tea is meant to be an experience, not just a drink. Growing up in the South, I never knew how cold a summer could be until I was on the Great Lakes. Snow in May? 40 degrees F at night? The relieving warmth of tea in my hands (tea that I didn’t ask for) as I sat cold, sick, wet, and shivering on deck turned my mind forever onto its magic. If this sounds like a religious experience, that’s probably because it felt like one. While I sat there during watch, I felt like I may never be happy (or warm) again. An ordinary seaman very kindly brought me a warm mug of tea and an able bodied seaman ordered me to drink it, citing the Chain of Command. I sat and sipped, slightly miffed that the Chain of Command resulted in making me drink something gross, especially when I didn’t want to eat or drink anything at all (I have since learned that the Chain of Command does not actually include food or drinks). Nevertheless, I continued to sip, surprised at my odd liking for it. The mug graciously warmed my hands and the tea warmed my mouth, throat, and stomach. And it tasted okay! I was delighted! I had warmth again so I had a belief that I may be happy one day. (Please don’t take this as sailing being unhappy- sailing is a great joy of life. Here I was sick and cold and grumpy). I noticed again the lovely and comforting soft creaking of the lines against their pins and cleats, the enthusiastic waves hitting the hull, the sounds of sailing. From then on, reader, I have been in love with tea. (While tea is always a comfort, I have preferences in drinks for different times while sailing- coffee for daytime, hot chocolate for evening/nighttime, and tea for the morning sunrises). 

Tea is for more than tasting. Tea creates an environment and an atmosphere that, to me, is instantly calming. With tea, I relax, appreciate my surroundings, and see once more the joys of life. It can be the perfect and final addition to a blanket cocoon on a rainy day or the first step to feeling better about the world, even if only for a few minutes.  Tea involves tastes and smells and warmth (or cold if that’s your thing) and happiness. Whatever your pleasure be, let it be tea!

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A shipmate and friend, Amanda, enjoying tea on deck.