Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Weekend with M.C. Skat Kat

Remember when Paula Abdul was cute and didn’t slur her words? You know, post-Laker Girl, pre-Emilio Estevez? Remember her music video with the animated cat? “I take two steps forward. I take two steps back.” Yeah, that was my weekend—only without the big hair and stirrup pants (Okay fine, I wore stirrup pants--in fact, I still wear them all the time. With matching scrunchies.).

Speaking of cats and wearing unattractive clothing, Balou the cat wants you to know that he thinks Crocs, even when only worn in the kitchen, are spawn of the devil ugly. So incensed was he that I wore them for Saturday’s festivities that he insisted on supervising the endeavor from the top of the fridge—where he could keep an eye on them from high. In my defense, the UCLA-themed rubber clogs were free and they really are helpful when standing on tile floor for 10 hours straight.

Maybe I've read too many food blogs--but it seems like the authors always post ingredients of their recipe before blogging the making of it. Who am I to break the mold?

All in all, I think I made forward progress on Saturday, just not as much as I had hoped. Saturday morning began auspiciously as I busted out four-half batches in the first hour (yes, I am aware that four-halves makes two wholes). As I made each batch, I piled it into a single bowl. It turns out that this would be mistake number one of the day. Instead, I should have sealed each half batch separately in zippie bags. Even covered in plastic wrap, the stuff dried out fast and the last ¼ (ie, the last half batch) wasn’t even usable by the time I got to it. Still, the bowl of dough was impressive.

Along the way, it seemed like no matter how neat and professional the looked going in, they kept coming out looking like a kindergartener had done them. The windows were hit and miss and the egg wash tempered unevenly. I had to keep reminding myself that I am not a professional pastry chef—or even an amateur one and that a certain level of homemadeness can be charming. Yeah. If you’re five.

I’ve just come to accept that I will have to redo some of the pieces and I’m hoping the decorations will cover up most of the flaws on the others.

I didn’t get through all of the pieces. Still to make: front façade, 4 short tower pieces and a redo of the three-windowed front tower piece you see above. This is kind of a set-back because I was hoping to begin decorating the individual pieces this week. I wonder if Frank Gehry has these issues?

Do you ever feel like you have to explain your purchases to the checker? Saturday morning I was at the drug store buying butterscotch hard candy (why is it that you can only find butterscotch hard candy at the drugstore), spearmint leaves (you know, the gumdrop kind) and Jolly Ranchers. All of this stuff was for the Royce project. Now, normally I wouldn’t have thought twice about my weird selection BUT it was a week before Halloween and there was all kinds of way better candy everywhere. When I put my selections on the counter, the checker eyed me like—“seriously lady, this is what you are giving out for Halloween—you are why we have terrorists.” Apparently it is psychologically important to my, well, psyche, that drug store checkers think highly of me so I blurted, “this isn’t for Halloween, it’s for a gingerbread house.” To this she said, “Oh, a little early aren’t we?” I should have just kept my mouth shut.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

And now you’ve got soggy walls

…totally arcane reference to a Chris Rock joke. But, really, I do. Have soggy walls. And I’m not real sure what to do about it.

When I put the prototype together Sunday before last, the gingerbread was super tough (like hey, you could actually build a house out of this stuff tough). The structure then sat on the dining room table for a week. Last weekend I tested the structure and it was definitely NOT as solid as it had been. While there wasn’t any danger of the whole thing collapsing, the walls gave a little when I pushed. This was true across the entire structure—which leads me to believe it isn’t about thickness or treatment and is probably about either environment or the recipe. On the environment end of things—come on, it’s October in Southern California and that means one thing—Santa Anas. You can’t get any dryer than Santa Ana conditions. On the other hand, only live about a mile from the beach, so maybe it’s more humid than I thought. On the other other hand, maybe I need a new recipe.

I don’t know.

Since I’m not planning on living in the thing, I’m not even sure if I care. After it’s completed, it’ll sit in my husband’s office suite—which is super air conditioned 24/7…so…really…do I care?

Okay fine, I care. This weekend I’m planning on baking all of the pieces—so my idea is to cook the dough at the normal temp until it’s done and then reduce the temp for additional time. I’m hoping this will help to further dry out the dough.

In less potentially catastrophic news, I think I’ve come up with a solution to the white brick detail work: jimmies and sequins. No, I’m not recruiting helpers from Girls Girls Girls.

When I was a kid, it seemed like there was only one kind of cake decoration in my mom-only-makes-stuff-from-scratch-because-the-grocery-store-cake-is-evil-household: candy confetti (I’ve since learned that they are officially called sequins). Remember the stuff—it’s basically dried fondant sliced super thin and comes bevy of pastel colors. Well, four grocery stores and NO candy confetti later I’d begun to think I’d made the whole thing up. Of course, this is entirely possible considering that not only did I have an imaginary friend as a small child but my parents also tried very hard to convince us that cougars and big foot lived behind our house.

There is a fantastic restaurant supply store in Culver City called Surfas: This establishment is like Misanthropic Hostess Shangri-La. Just thinking about it makes me happy. I can spend hours lost in its overflowing aisles of exotically flavored salts and oddly shaped sauce pans. I figured if Surfa’s doesn’t have candy confetti, no one will.

I was not disappointed. They had confetti (sequins) AND white jimmies. Considering that I only need the white ones, betcha' can guess what I did Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Royce Resurrected

Before we get to the (baked) goods, I’d like to pause a moment and send out cosmic best wishes to John Wooden. The man, the institution, turns 98 today. Indeed, any of us could call ourselves successful if in our own lifetimes we were to accomplish and contribute just a fraction of what he has. I’m wearing Boilermaker colors today in his honor (wearing Bruin colors is difficult considering my current employer—black and old gold are considerably less incendiary in my office). Happy Birthday Mr. Wooden (if you don't know what he looks like, John Woodern is the one in the picture above who isn't Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

With the crumbs finally cleared from the baby shower, I was able to turn my full attention to Royce this weekend. My goals were to test out the gingerbread recipe, test the integrity of the pattern and come up with an appropriate color and thickness for the pieces. While I didn’t have enough time to make the entire building, I did get through the front façade and wings.

Now remember, this is a prototype. I realize it looks like a fifth grader put it together (not to offend any fifth graders out there), but I am a learns-by-doing kind of girl.

I’d never actually made gingerbread until last weekend. Luckily, I’m a pretty thorough (read, compulsive) researcher and did quite a bit of legwork up front on finding a recipe. The one I settled on was posted in an article in a Midwestern newspaper. The author has been making gingerbread structures for years and this was her tried and true recipe. It was immediately attractive to me because the recipe itself has some interesting quirks that come about only after someone has utilized a recipe for a long, long time.

I was immediately pleased with the dough. It was strong and sturdy and incredibly easy to work with. I did have to halve the recipe in order to use the standing mixer (the full recipe calls for a whopping 12 cups of flour). In all, I made three half batches utilizing different pigments and washes to experiment with the brick effects. I felt quite a bit like Half-Head-Highlight Goldilocks looking for her cookie nirvana.

Here we have the front facade with the brick roller with the natural color of the gingerbread. Hmm...too bland.

Much to the disappointment of my inner super sparkle princess, sanding sugar will probably not be appropriate in this instance. Too sparkly...definitely too sparkly.

Then I tinted the dough and added an egg wash. Just right.

I also (obviously) experimented with dough thickness and windows. I found that the thinner pieces immediately warped. So, thicker it is. I'll also store the pieces flat with weights. In terms of windows, I forgot to buy hard candy to try out the stained glass effect, but was very pleased at how sturdy the pieces were even with cut-outs.
I let the pieces set over night and then it was time to fit the pieces together. I kind of cheated and bought a commercial royal icing mix. Now I've made more royal icing than I've played super sparkle princess in my lifetime but I wanted to see if there was a difference between my own powdered sugar, egg white and cream of tartar recipe and the stuff the big guys use. The answer--heck if I know. They both work. When I put the real thing together, I'm definitely going to have to tint the stuff red.

Yeah, I know, we're in trouble if there is a major catastrophe and we have to survive off our canned goods.

And then, there was structure.

Side wing:

End wing:

I realize I have a long way to go--but man, I was just super excited that the thing went up.

Other stuff I learned:

**The t-square is my friend. This baby helped a lot with cutting and creating right angles in both the pre-and-post baking stages. I found that right out of the oven, it was easy to correct baking effects by re-cutting some of the edges using the t-square and pizza roller.

**We covered thickness. I think 1/4 is about right.

Next steps:

I need to figure out how to create the effect of the white brickwork. I definitely think it needs to be done post-baking and I have a couple of ideas. I also need to start thinking about the dreaded roofs--which may just blow the ceiling off of the whole project.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Shower

No, I've not given up or forgotten about the Royce Project. It's just that for the last few weekends, I've been working on planning and executing a baby shower for a work colleague. Two of us got together and pulled off a shindig worthy of showering with soap. At least according to me.

Of course, I have pictures. The mom to be is having a boy, so we went masculine and modern with the decor. We used green, light blue and accents of chocolate brown as a color scheme.

For the favors I baked those damned sugar cookies. Each little package of cookies spelled out B-A-B-Y with a chocolate dipped star for good measure.

Instead of flowers, we used apples and herbs.

Remember the whole skit with the clowns and the VW bug? Well, that was a little like my house on Sunday. Is it possible to fit 20 people in my dining room?

Yes, it is as long as long as the fire marshal doesn't make a surprise visit (not that that would have been bad. I like firemen):

Yes, yes 20 is a lot of people to try and fit into my house.

There was a ton a food, a ton of people and the mom-to-be got lots of nice stuff. All in all, I can't think of a better excuse for a little celebrating on a Sunday morning.

And now I can get back to Royce...