Murder Mystery Escape Room Party Cake

That was a mouthful of a title but the cake was for a murder mystery party with an escape room.  It was for my daughter’s 13th birthday party and, as you can imagine, we were quite busy with the planning. This was the invitation and, by the way, if you’re interested I highly recommend the kit we got from mymurdermystery.com.  I’m not going to lie — it was a lot of planning.  The night before the party my husband and I were up studying the script like we were preparing to defend our PhD thesis but it was a lot of fun.

The most important tool I used for this cake is this silicone impression mat for the wood grain effect that I got from Amazon:

Elisa Strauss has a great tutorial on Online Cake Decorating Classes“>Craftsy on how to do a wood grain effect on fondant in her class, “Designer Handbag Cakes.”  It looks like I made a lid for the box but that is actually just one panel on the top and one panel on each side.  I have been experimenting with different fondant brands lately as I have stopped making my own (too time consuming, messy and difficult to get dark colors).  Satin Ice was, of course, the fondant I started making cakes with five years ago.  Its hard to avoid the elephant skin with that fondant so I wanted to explore other options.  I recently tried Renshaw but found it way too soft.  This time I tried Dream which so far has been quite successful but I only used it for paneling this cake.  I will let you know when I use it for draping a cake.  It is firmer than Renshaw or Satin Ice making it very easy to move onto a cake but harder to cut out decorations.  I had to use Satin Ice to cut out the ornate gold deco on the sides of the box.  I used an acrylic swag cutter from Fat Daddio’s like this one:

I was actually super excited about the stencil . I got it from www.stencilexpressions.com.
They had a 4″x4″ binary code stencil but they custom-made a 6″x6″ stencil for me and got it to me super quick!  The first time I airbrushed it onto the black fondant I tried to do it in blue like the invite but it was barely visible.  But then I had a stroke of genius and went over it one more time with white and, lo and behold, it showed up blue!

For the “CODE” wheel I happened to have a macaron tray that I used to mold some modeling chocolate and then airbrushed it gold. I shaped the lock by hand with modeling chocolate and attached it with toothpicks and wrapped floral wire.

The cake was four 1-inch layers of chocolate cake with chocolate ganache.  No matter how much experimenting I do with cake and filling flavors everyone tends to favor the chocolate cake with dark chocolate ganache. The girls loved the cake and thought it was an actual box when they first saw it.

Since DH always feel slighted when he is not given some credit for MY cakes I will note that the poor guy was stuck in the escape room with 11 teenage girls for close to an hour while I finished prepping dinner.

Action shots AKA pics of me in funny positions whilst caking:




Upside-down Vegan Chocolate Birthday Cake with Vegan Coconut Cream Ganache

After much stress and tears I think I have finally settled upon a vegan cake and vegan ganache that is both structurally sound and tasty. I tried coconut milk beverage, canned coconut milk, soy milk, and finally, coconut cream in two different varieties. I have also tried different ratios of nondairy milk to chocolate. I was sure that coconut cream would be the answer since it comes closest to the fat content of heavy cream. However the first can of coconut cream I bought was a Goya product which was labeled cream of coconut but honestly I’m not sure what relationship it has to coconut cream. It did not perform well at all with the chocolate. It acted more like an oil than anything else. So after some research I settled upon Thai Kitchen coconut cream which performed the way I expected a cream would.

I used a ratio of 2.5:1 chocolate to coconut cream. I used the coconut cream straight out of the can and I did not get rid of the coconut water. The ganache set up beautifully although it took a little bit longer than usual to get it to the right consistency for frosting.

The cake recipe for this vegan cake was out of the book, “Modern Vegan Baking” which I have used before. I like the flavors in this cookbook however the measurements seem to be off. Specifically for this recipe I had to double the batch in order to get enough for two 8″ x 2″ cake pans. I also modified the recipe a little bit by using coffee instead of just plain hot water.


For the filling I mixed in some raspberry preserves with the ganache. I did not torte these cakes because I wasn’t sure how stable they would be. I left them as 2-inch layers. I think that was ultimately a good decision.

Now let’s get to the fun part which is the construction of this wacky cake. I got the idea for this cake design from this great Online Cake Decorating Classes“>Craftsy class, “Industry Secrets for the Savvy Decorator.” However DH  constructed the stand for me and the idea to use a threaded rod instead of a wooden dowel was all him. Now I will say that it was a lot more wobbly than I expected (not the cake or the stand but the rod) because the threaded rod he used would bend a little bit but it was definitely not going to break. So the wobbliness just made a little bit more fun. I would advise however to do things a little bit differently than I did. I used an MDF board on the top part of the stand with half-inch foamcore hot glued to the MDF board and then my acrylic cake board hot glued to the foam core. The only thing that started to come apart a little bit was the acrylic cake board from the foam core because the hot glue started to crack apart but only after a 20 minute car ride. I should’ve thought better and used an MDF cake board or even a cardboard cake board on which to stack my cakes. Other than that the cake stand turned out beautifully.

So we started with a wooden base with a hole drilled in it and a nut buried in the bottom then a washer and another nut on the top.

The threaded rod went through the bottom 1/4-inch MDF board with another nut and washer on the bottom and on the top.

Cardboard or MDF cake board hot glued to a 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch foam core (to bury the washer) which is hot glued to the bottom 1/4-inch MDF board would be the best way to construct the top part of this stand.

Three 2-inch vegan chocolate mud cake layers with raspberry vegan ganache for filling.

The cake was covered with Satin Ice fondant tinted with Wilton golden yellow.

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Vegan Tiered Cake

Our bishop was coming for a special visit to our church and I knew I had to plan a special cake.  I baked all the cakes off for my 3 tiered cake and then found out he changed plans and was coming …during period of fasting.  I was so frustrated –God forgive me– and then I thought about chucking the whole project, and then I replanned the whole project to be vegan.  A lot of components turned out beautifully.  Some, not so much.  Vegan baking nearly kicked me to the curb this time.  But, I wanted to share what I learned and also document it for myself to learn from my mistakes.  I also wanted to share some love I felt from DH, my mom and my friends at church which  was more important.  This post is dedicated to them. Here is the post-game analysis:

I. The Cakes

I used different cakes in each tier so we will take them one by one.

1st tier (did not survive): I used the recipe for the “Double Vanilla-Bean Birthday Cake”  from this book which uses flax-eggs.  It was a sturdy cake and I enjoyed the taste of the flax seeds but its not for everyone.

3rd tier: The cake was also from this book, “Super-Easy Vanilla Cake.”  Overall I liked this vanilla cake the best.  It was sturdy.  The vanilla was not overwhelmed by the flavor of the flax seeds.

2nd tier: I used Joshua John Russell’s vegan chocolate cake which is available on Craftsy.  It uses vegetable oil.  I like the taste. It is hard to mess up the taste of a chocolate cake especially when paired with ganache.  The texture, due to the vegetable oil, is very moist which makes it difficult for stacking but not impossible.

II. The Fillings

This is how things went south.  You are already dealing with less than ideal structure with vegan cakes so you don’t want to introduce soft fillings on top of that.  Unfortunately, I did.

1st tier (RIP): I used an aquafaba (for those of you who are not familiar with this very cool product — it is the water drained from chickpeas) based SMBC also from “Modern Vegan Baking.” What is not mentioned in the book but is mentioned in the author’s blog (which, of course, I just read now) this vegan SMBC is too soft at room temp so the cake needs to be refrigerated until serving.  Not ideal for a ganache covered cake which you want at room temp. Basically the first tier cracked then collapsed.  You might be wondering why there are only 2 tiers in the picture –more about this in the stacking section.  Also, you would typically have your butter reach room temp before throwing it into SMBC but Earth Balance buttery sticks have a lower melting temp so keep them in the fridge until just before you add it to your vegan meringue.

Do use vegan SMBC when the cake is both filled and frosted with it so that you can keep it refrigerated.

Do not use it as a filling if you plan on keeping the cake at room temp.

2nd tier: I used vegan ganache mixed with raspberry preserves for the filling.  I used soy milk instead of heavy cream for the ganache at a 2:1 ratio of chocolate to soy milk.  This was possibly too stiff because the soy milk does not have enough fat.  Good for stacking the cake but not ideal for spreading.  Next time I will try 1.5:1 ratio of chocolate to soy milk or possibly try coconut cream instead.

3rd tier: I used the vegan SMBC for a dam and then filled with strawberry preserves.  The cake held up but it was just too moist.  I would use a vegan American buttercream instead.

III.  The Frosting

Ganache is my go-to for sturdy cake frostings.  I tried using coconut milk at my usual 2:1 chocolate to cream ratio but it was just too stiff.  I kept having to reheat the ganache to get it on the cake which was just miserable.  It made the cake so difficult to get smooth which led to an inferior finish on the cake.  I will try a different ratio next time or coconut cream instead.

IV.  Decorations

I was actually pretty happy with the decorations

2nd tier: The silicone onlay actually turned out pretty well.  I used this damask mold from Marvelous Molds.  Although the directions say to use cornstarch to prep the mold that did not work at all.  I used shortening brushed into the mold instead and it came out beautifully.

3rd tier: I loved how this turned out.  I used this Wilton mold with yellow fondant and painted the pieces with Spanish gold luster dust.  I hand-cut the Orthodox cross.

The Egg: Rice Krispies treats covered with fondant and more pieces from the Wilton damask mold. I was very proud of this piece in particular.

1st tier (RIP): Its a shame.  I airbrushed it with gold and it was very pretty.  Most people will tell you not to use water-based airbrush colors on ganache.  But I tried making my own airbrush color with luster dust and vodka and it clogged the tip of my airbrush.  So I had to use the water-based and it turned out just fine.

V. The Cake stand: This guy made me very angry.  It could not handle the weight of the cake.  The top tilted.

VI. The Finale: The Stacking aka The Melting Point:

I did not stack the cake until I got to church this morning.  The 1st tier which did not make it was already developing a crack due to the soft filling.  I thought if I did a lot of doweling I could still stack it.  I was wrong.  The cake stand tilted, the bottom tier was being crushed by the weight of the second tier.  I started hyperventilating.  DH was trying to help but my brain was not getting enough oxygen so I could not communicate.  When I realized there was no hope I announced we were sacrificing the bottom tier.  We had to try to get the two top tiers off.  We ended up lifting the top tiers and — while DH was holding them up — scraping the bottom tier off the cake plate and then lowering the 2nd tier (which was now the 1st tier) back down on the cake plate.  Then I had to repair the new bottom tier, clean up the cake plate and try to rebalance the whole thing.  There was chocolate all over the floor, the table and my nose.  DH actually mopped the floor for me while I repaired the cake.  My hands were shaking.  Friends came to reassure me and I had to keep from crying.  OVER A CAKE. I missed mass.  My mother had to take care of my kids.  My husband feared for my mental well-being.  OVER A CAKE.

VII.  The Lesson

It’s just a cake. But, unfortunately, my brain is not wired to accept anything less than my own ridiculous expectations in any venture.  In the end it turned out just fine.  And I felt the love of my friends and family.  I don’t know if this vegan cake saga is concluded but it is taking a nap for now.




Pie Crust

We went blueberry picking recently and got a ton of blueberries.  So we made blueberry muffins and blueberry pie — a family favorite.  We like blueberries so much that I once tried to plant several bushes in my yard but it was a constant struggle with the wildlife.  I would watch out my window looking for the sneaky birds that would try to grab my two blueberries that were ripening (that’s in the whole yard not per bush).  As soon as I would see a bird swooping in I would run out like a crazy woman screaming at the birds.  Imagine the Alfred Hitchcock movie but in reverse.  I put netting over my blueberry bushes and would dole out one blueberry per child (I only had two children at the time).  But then I trapped a snake in my netting and I really didn’t want to see those blueberry bushes ever again.  So now, instead, we drive an hour to pick blueberries.

I recently posted my rules for a successful pie crust but I am posting them again today along with a video tutorial for making the dough.  I will post another tutorial soon about rolling out the dough and assembling the pie so stay tuned. The pie dough recipe itself is not the key to success.  So you can use any straightforward recipe you like that has flour, salt, butter, water and sometimes sugar.  There is no need for vinegar or vodka or the like that is added to shorten the gluten strands and make it easier to roll out.

The whole process of making the dough took less than 15 minutes.  I’ve obviously trimmed the video so that you actually still want to make pie by the end as opposed to falling asleep.  You can make the dough ahead of time and leave it in the fridge for 2 days or make it and use it after 30 minutes of chilling.  Either way, I have found the most success when the dough is at 60F before rolling it out.  Sometimes that means using it right out of the fridge but if it has been there for 2 days you might need 30 minutes or longer to get it to the right temp.

  1. When making pie dough a “minimal touching” approach is best.  Most pie dough recipes usually have a butter content of around 60% (butter to flour, that is) which means temperature control is key.  The butter needs to stay cool  during the entire process of making the dough.  Also, achieving a flaky crust means maintaining pockets of butter between layers of dough.  When that dough then goes in the oven the steam from the butter “inflates” the layers of dough thereby creating the flakiness.  If you knead that dough or overwork it you are eliminating those precious pockets of butter and essentially creating a mealy cookie dough.  Which is ok if you are making pate sucree but not a flaky pie crust.  So, keep your hands off the dough.  You are just going to gather the dough into a ball then smear it briefly.  That’s it.  Don’t worry if it looks rough.
  2. The other important factor in making pie dough is moving the dough while rolling it. On a well floured surface, start rolling it out into a circle, then pick it up and move it a quarter turn.  Make sure it’s not sticking to the surface by flinging more flour underneath if necessary.  Keep rolling and turning it until you get it to size. If its too warm the fat will start to soften and it will be difficult to roll out.  Put it back in the fridge for a few minutes.  If you have a digital thermometer you are looking for a dough temp of about 55-60F.  If it is too cold it will start to crack.  Give it another five minutes on the bench. 
  3. Let’s talk fat.  The butter should be diced into 1/4″ cubes (I’m serious about this, use a ruler).  Also ,the fat has to be well chilled before using it because you will be working it into the flour and that will create heat.  You can do this in the food processor which will be faster. But doing it by hand will give you a better feel for it.  Imagine that every bit of flour needs to be coated with fat but you don’t want the fat pieces to be so small that it just turns into a cookie.  So in this tutorial you will see that I rub in 3/4 of the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal but the rest of the butter is left pea-sized. 




Whole Wheat English Muffins in Your Bread Machine

English muffins practically make themselves.  And if you have a bread machine, its even easier because you can do other things while the dough gets kneaded and goes through its first proof.  We got this bread machine about a year ago and I have not bought supermarket bread since then.  It is so easy to make bread in this machine you can’t come up with an excuse not to — even when you’re tired after work.  So I make the sandwich bread for the kids’ lunches, I use it to make brioche dough when I’m in a hurry and even naan dough.  I do love to make bread by hand but this is great when you’re trying to bring a lot of components together quickly.

I also love this this bread machine cookbook and use it exclusively : I adapted the recipe for my whole wheat English muffins from the one in this book.  I really needed one that would turn out good English muffins consistently.  As you may know I like to buy kitchen gadgets and the last one I convinced my husband to buy was this lovely item:
Now it really is awesome but the first thing he said when we got it was “I hope you can keep up with the English muffins or I’m going to have to buy them from the store” or something to that effect.  He knows that no 5-word phrase gets my blood boiling like “buy them {it} from the store.”  It is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  Needless, to say I can’t keep up with the English muffins every week but when there are no homemade English muffins then I make sure that the breakfast sandwich maker somehow magically disappears.

These are the English muffin rings I use:
Here are the step by step pictures but the video is much more entertaining in my opinion:

Once dough cycle is complete, turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface.

Divide into 12 equal pieces and roll into balls.

Flatten slightly and let rise in the English muffins rings on a griddle. After the final proof, set the griddle on a cold stove, then bring to medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes on each side.

 

[amd-yrecipe-recipe:35]




Mozart Torte

Another beautiful offering from The European Cake Cookbook and probably one of my favorites, the Mozart Torte.  Take a look at the book if you haven’t seen it yet:

We have a new rotating schedule at church which means I cannot sign up for dessert every week but have to wait for my turn to come up in the schedule. Which means…I am going bananas.  I can’t make dessert for my family that often because a) they can’t keep up and b) I’m a pediatrician and it would reflect poorly on me if I were to spread chocolate buttercream on their pancakes (although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind). If you can’t relate to my obsession, think of yourself as an exercise enthusiast who has been barred from the gym across the street.  It is an itch that I have to scratch.  So I’m asking people if I can bake something for them like a new mom looking for a caffeine fix.

I have stopped trying to defend the time I devote to my hobby.  I learned long ago from watching my father in medicine and others that you need something that you can lose yourself in outside of work.  When my mind is flashing the “No Vacancy” sign it goes to baking land.  Unfortunately, my husband cannot detect the flashing “No Vacancy” sign on my forehead to let him know that my mind is in baking land so this is usually what happens… just replace “driving” with “baking”:

I am telling you, “grape pie” diatribes are my life. Now, enjoy this short baking video.  Thank you for watching.