Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Make a Volcano Cake

My friend Laurie was having a Hawaiian-themed birthday and needed an appropriately themed cake. I wracked my brain trying to come up with something that would be easy but would still be impressive (I love the "wow" factor when it comes to cakes). A hula girl in the shape of a cake? No. Desert island? Maybe. Desert island with a volcano that has smoke coming out of it? Heck yeah!

Here's what you'll need to make a volcano cake (inspiration taken from this post by The Bake-Off Flunkie):

1. A cake (obviously). I went with two 9" round cakes on top of each other but a 9"x13" cake would give you more room to play.
2. Rice Krispies (I just followed the instructions on the box regarding how to make the treats with marshmallows, butter, etc.)
3. Frosting (I used both buttercream and chocolate buttercream - recipe below)
4. Brown sugar (for sand)
5. Food coloring (green for grass, blue for water, brown and orange for under the sand)
6. Candy (I used chocolate rocks, gummy sharks, and sour starfish)
7. Tongs/gloves and dry ice (make sure you bring an ice chest with you if the store won't supply it for you!)

Step #1 - Make the volcano
I recommend making the Rice Krispies first so you can build your volcano. Once they've cooled and hardened (usually after an hour), use a water bottle, a soup can, or something similar (I used an old Republic of Tea tea bag canister) as the center of the volcano. Start to mold the Rice Krispies around the can to form your volcano. I recommend going with something smaller than what's pictured here because:

Mistake #1 - The taller the bottle/can/etc., the more likely the Rice Krispies and gravity will have it melt off. And don't try to wrap your canister in plastic wrap - that'll only make things worse!

Once your volcano has been formed, stick it in the fridge to harden. I left it in the fridge overnight, just to be safe!

Step #2 - Make the cake
As I said, I made two 9" round cakes but you're free to make the cake however you want!

Step #3 - Make the buttercreams
To make the chocolate buttercream from scratch, you'll need:

* A bar of Ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate (4 oz.)
* 1/2 cup of softened butter
* 1/3 cup of vegetable shortening
* 1 teaspoon of vanilla
* 4 cups of powdered sugar
* A couple tablespoons of milk, depending on the consistency you prefer

(To make the buttercream for the grass, water, etc., it's the same ingredients and process, minus the chocolate.)

To make the chocolate buttercream, melt the chocolate in the microwave for 30 seconds and then 10 seconds spurts after that, as you don't want to burn the chocolate. Let the chocolate cool completely before adding to the creamed butter and shortening. Add the vanilla, then slowly add the powdered sugar until combined. I only used 1 Tablespoon of milk before I got the consistency I preferred but you can use up to 4-5 Tablespoons.

Step #4 - Frost the cake
The chocolate buttercream will cover the volcano but will also go in between your layers of cake and also around the sides (you can see that if you don't melt the chocolate completely, you'll have little pieces of chocolate showing but eh, it kinda looked like dirt!)

I sculpted one side of the cake to slope down so the water would have a place to crash on the beach. Just cut off a piece off the top cake on a diagonal.

As for the non-chocolate buttercream, divide it into three bowls - a little bit for the green grass, and then half-and-half blue water and tan sand. In order to get this sand color, I mixed brown and orange Wilton gel food coloring. Frost the top of the cake and the slope you carved out.

To give it a 3-D effect, cover the top with brown sugar or Sugar In The Raw to have it look like sand.

To make the water, I used sky blue Wilton gel food coloring and Wilton piping tip #108. Using a toothpick, I flicked the blue frosting in different directions so it would look more like waves.

Mistake #2: The blue frosting was too warm so it started sliding off the sides of the cake! Make sure the frosting is a bit on the cold side so it doesn't melt off.

Stick the cake in the fridge so the frosting can harden. However, if you wait too long...

Mistake #3:'ll end up staining your cake board because of all the butter and shortening in your frosting. So don't put the cake on your cake board until you're absolutely ready to assemble the rest of the cake!

Step #4 - Assemble the cake
Once you're ready to present the cake, carefully place your volcano on top and using Wilton tip #233, pipe the green grass around the volcano, on the volcano, wherever you like! I found it was very helpful in covering up mistakes!

Gummy sharks, chocolate rocks, you could even add palm trees to help this desert island cake feel a little more realistic!

Now in order to make the smoke come out of the volcano, fill up half of the canister with hot water. Very carefully drop in your dry ice (either with gloves or tongs) and note that if you have birthday candles below where the smoke is pouring out from, the candles will be extinguished!

And that, my friends, is how you make a volcano cake. Anybody want a slice??

TOTAL COSTS: About $36
$10 for 10lbs. of dry ice from Tym's
$8 for gummy sharks, starfish, and chocolate rocks from Sweet! Hollywood
$3 for two boxes of cake mix (that's right, I didn't make the cake from scratch!)
$1.99 for Rice Krispies
$1.50 for marshmallows (for the Rice Krispies)
$3.99 for Ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate
$.99 for butter
$4.39 vegetable shortening
$2.49 powdered sugar (I used an entire 2lb. bag!)
Vanilla and brown sugar made from scratch, milk and food coloring already on hand

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: 2 1/2 hours + overnight
15 minutes to mold the volcano + overnight to harden
1 hour to make the vanilla and chocolate buttercreams
1 hour to decorate the volcano, dirt, sand, and water
15 minutes to assemble the volcano, candy, and grass

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 4 out of 5
Warm weather will not be your friend when making this cake, as the frosting will want to melt off the cake. As long as you keep the cake cold until it's ready to be eaten, you'll be fine. It's easiest to break it into sections so it doesn't seem as daunting: make the volcano, make the cake, make the frosting, assemble. And be careful with the dry ice - do NOT touch it with your bare hands or you'll burn your skin!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Strawberry "Cheesecakes"

I don't like cheesecake. Is that weird? I love most desserts but cheesecake I just can't wrap my head around. However, these cheesecakes I devoured almost the second I was done making them. They're easy to make and, dare I say, they're healthy! Ok, they're healthier than an actual slice of cheesecake. These would be a great dessert option for the person who doesn't want a heavy cake or pie on their plate but something light and sweet instead!

To make these you'll want to grab:

* At least a dozen strawberries
* 4 oz. of cream cheese
* 1/4 cup of powdered sugar
* A splash of vanilla extract
* (optional) Chocolate chips for melting
* (optional) Graham crackers for sprinkling on top

Start by cutting off the stems of the strawberries (so they'll be able to stand on their own) and slice an "X" halfway through the strawberry. Do not cut all the way through or you'll have one heck of a mess!

In a mixer, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Once combined, pour it into a plastic bag, cut off a corner of the bag, and fill the strawberries in the "X" you just made.

Melt some chocolate chips in the microwave at 10 second intervals (as you don't want them to burn) and lightly drizzle over the strawberries. I recommend crumbling up some graham crackers too, to act as the "crust" of your cheesecakes.

And that's it folks! Fast, easy, and if you stick them in the fridge until they harden, they're addicting as well!

TOTAL COSTS: About $12.50 to make as many strawberries as you can! (prices from Vons)
$2.99/lb. for strawberries
$1.99 for cream cheese
$2.49 for powdered sugar
$2.50 for chocolate chips
$2.50 for graham crackers
Made my own vanilla extract

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: 20 minutes to make 12

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 2 out of 5
It's really quite simple - the only thing you have to watch out for is not burning the chocolate in the microwave. Piping the cream cheese filling into the strawberries would be easier if there was someone holding the strawberries open but I did these by myself without any problems!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Apple Pie Baked Inside an Apple!

We're coming up on the 4th of July and nothing is more 'Murican than apple pie, right? Well, when I saw this post by DomesticDilettante, I thought these apple pies baked in apples were too good to be true. Look how perfect they are! Ahhh but there's a catch... wanna know what they forgot to mention? I'm not saying these aren't good but you might want to know the whole story before venturing to the apple orchards...

To make these mini apple pies, you'll need:

* 5 Granny Apples (4 whole apples and 1 to chop up for the filling)
* 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
* 1/4 cup of sugar
* 1 Tablespoon of brown sugar
* Pie Crust (mine was store-bought and you only need 1)

To start off, preheat your oven to 375 degrees and cut off the top of an apple.

Using a knife and/or a spoon, core out the inside of the apple. If you're able to save any of the insides, keep them in a bowl for later. Chances are, though, you'll mainly be pulling out the core and a bunch of seeds, which aren't worth saving.

Do this for all four apples. Do not puncture a hole in the side or the bottom or you will have juices running everywhere. Trust me on this one.

Once your apples are hollowed out, it's time to make the filling. Peel and chop up your extra apple (which will fill almost 4 apples perfectly). Place the pieces in a bowl.

Next, add your cinnamon, brown sugar, and sugar and stir together until your apple pieces are coated in yummy deliciousness.... mmmm... yummy deliciousness...

Spoon your filling into each of your apples without overflowing.

Next, the "crust". Take your pie crust and cut it into slices. Now mine were pretty thin - about 1/4" thick - so you might want to make yours thicker but it's totally up to you. Fold each row and column under and over so as to make your woven lattice pie crust.

If you have an 8"x8" pan, place the apples in there, pour enough water to cover the bottom, wrap foil on top and stick in the oven for 20 minutes. If you don't have an 8"x8" pan and you just skipped the last sentence entirely, two 5"x8" bread pans work and just put two apples in each pan, pour in water to fill the bottom, cover with foil, and stick in the oven.

After the 20 minutes are up, take off the foil and stick the pans back in the oven. Be very careful, as hot steam will come up from under the foil and bad words you didn't know existed will flow from your mouth. So... be careful.

Now you can either let them bake another 20 minutes and they'll look like the ones on the right or 25 minutes and you get the ones on the left. As long as the apple filling is soft, you're good to go.

And now, ladies and gentleman, the part you've all been waiting for... what did the original post forget to mention or show? How the apples look from the side.

Warning: might not be appropriate for people who like their applies to be perky, green, and perfect.

Aiiiiiiiee!!! What IS that?! Well folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but any photo you see of these will always from the top and never from the sides because of this exact reason. It ain't pretty. The apples kind of collapse on themselves. However, the filling inside is delicious, the crust tastes good, and the lining of the apples taste like applesauce so what's a little wrinkle here and there, right?

TOTAL COSTS: About $15 to make 4 apple "pies" (prices from Vons)
$1.99/lb for Granny Smith apples
$4.79 for cinnamon
$2.69 for sugar
$2.70 for pie crust
Made my own homemade brown sugar

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: About 1 hour, 35-40 minutes
20 minutes to cut and hollow out apples
20 minutes to make the filling
15 minutes to make the lattice crust on all 4 apples
20 minutes to bake with foil
20-25 minutes to bake without foil

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 3 out of 5
Trying to make sure the filling is done while not burning the top is easier than it sounds. Just keep an eye on the oven and you'll do just fine!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

DIY No-Bake Candy Buttons!

If you were a child of the 90's (heck, if you were a child of the 1930s!) you're familiar with candy buttons, or candy dots. They're drops of colored sugar on a piece of paper. While they're a classic of everyone's childhood (ok, most people), they did have a couple of disadvantages:

1. You always had paper stuck to the bottom of them and you subjected yourself to eating paper.
2. You were stuck with the three flavors made - cherry, lime (the blue ones), and lemon.

But did you know you can make your own? With the help of some Jello and wax paper, you can pick any flavors you want (grape, orange, berry blue - you name it) and not have to deal with eating paper anymore!

Here's what you'll need to make your own candy buttons:

1. White card stock paper
2. Wax paper
3. Jello (I chose cherry, orange, and lemon)
4. Powdered sugar
5. An egg white
6. Scissors
7. Double-sided tape
8. Plastic bags (for however many flavors you're making. 3 flavors = 3 bags)

Start by cutting your paper into 2"x11" strips (1 sheet of paper should get you 4 strips).

Do the same for the wax paper - cut four strips of 2"x11" wax paper.

Use double sided tape to attach the wax paper to the card stock.

Mix together 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar with 1 egg white in a mixer for 3-4 minutes.

Divide the mixture into as many bowls as you have flavors. Add 1/4 tsp. of Jello powder to each bowl.

Put each mixture into it's own plastic bag, cut off a bit of the corner, and squeeze the filling through the bag onto the wax paper. I did four rows of each color but however you want to divide it up is totally up to you.

Let them harden overnight and that's it! Your homemade candy buttons are ready to be eaten! The great thing about choosing the flavors you want is that you can color-coordinate with whatever holiday is nearby (red/white/blue for 4th of July, green/red for Christmas, and the ones I made look ideal for Valentine's Day).

Be warned: you'll have enough to make quite a lot! I made 8 paper strips and probably could have made 9!

TOTAL COSTS: About $12 to make 288 buttons, or 8 strips of 36 buttons
$.99/box of Jello
$2.49 for powdered sugar
$2.49 for a dozen eggs (but you only need 1 egg white)
$4.09 for double-sided tape
$2.09 for box of sandwich bags
Wax paper, card stock, and scissors already on hand

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: About 40 minutes + overnight to harden
15 minutes to cut out the paper and wax paper strips (though I used a ruler and was very exact, which took time)
15 minutes to whip up the powdered sugar and egg white and to add the Jello powder
10 minutes to pipe on four sheets
Overnight to harden

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 2 out of 5
The only "difficult" part might be getting even-sized dots, if you're not used to piping. However, the more you do it, the easier it'll be and this project certainly gives you enough to practice with!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

No-Bake Gluten-Free Energy Balls

Today's post is a fast and easy one because you don't have to bake anything, it requires very few ingredients, and what you're about to devour isn't full of crazy preservatives so they're, dare I say, healthy! But be warned: they're very addicting. I won't tell you how many I ate in one day...

So here's what you'll need to make 8 energy balls:

* 1 cup of dry oats (which helps lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease)
* 1/2 cup of peanut butter (which has potassium, Vitamin E, and magnesium)
* 1/3 cup of honey (which is a natural source of carbohydrates which provide energy!)
* 1/2 cup of dark chocolate chips (which improves your vascular functions and improves insulin sensitivity, though I suppose you could use raisins instead if you don't want chocolate)
* 1 teaspoon of vanilla (which, according to WebMD, can help stop tooth decay!)

So first, get a big bowl and add all the ingredients together. I recommend wearing gloves because this is going to get messy.

Once the dough is formed, then you're ready to make your energy balls! I decided to put them on a piece of parchment paper and put them in the fridge to harden. If you don't put them in the fridge, they'll stay very chewy but also greasy and a bit messy.

Mine didn't last very long in the fridge... not because they went bad, but because I ate them too quickly! Seriously, they're addicting. I recommend leaving them in the fridge, though, as the peanut butter tends to melt a bit once it reaches room temperature (or as soon as it's in your hand). Still, they're easy to make, they're good for you, and you don't have to turn on the oven on a hot summer's day - doesn't get much better than that!

TOTAL COSTS: About $12
$1.99 for oats
$2.79 for peanut butter
$4.29 for honey
$2.50 for chocolate chips
I used my own recipe for the homemade vanilla

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: Less than 10 minutes

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 1 out of 5
These would be a great treat to make with your kids - they're as easy as baking cookies, minus the baking part! Now if you're excuse me, I have to go make some more... omm nom nom...

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Dry Your Nails - PAM or Ice Water?

Have you ever stood in line at the grocery store and perused the gossip magazines?  

5 Quick De-Stress Tips!           Turn Him On Without Saying a Word!           Shrink Your Belly!
                                     How to Burn Off Those Last 5 Pounds!
Panic Attacks? You're Not Alone!                   9 Life Shortcuts You Should Learn in your 20s!

I usually laugh and walk away but a friend tipped me off to Real Simple Magazine which had a couple of tips on how to dry your nails quickly, so I decided to put them to the test to see if they really work.

                        PAM vs. ice water - which will be the ultimate nail drying technique??

Magazine Tip #1 - If you spray PAM on your nails while they're wet and wipe them off, they'll be completely dry.

I got to work. To be as scientific as possible, I gave this four tries. I figured that was enough, right?

Take 1 - I applied a medium layer of nail polish

I immediately sprayed on the PAM...

I wiped off the residue with a tissue aaaaaand... not bad, but not great. I did mange to wipe away some of the nail polish.

Take 2 - I applied a thin layer of nail polish, sprayed, wiped, and it ended up looking worse.

Take 3 - I applied a thick, gloppy layer of nail polish - there was hardly any polish left on the nails after I wiped off the PAM!

Take 4 - I applied a medium layer, waited 1 minute to let them dry, and then sprayed with PAM. The result? Not bad, only 2 out of the 5 nails were affected, the rest looked great.

In the end, I wouldn't recommend this technique. Your hands, your table, your doorknobs - everything will be covered in PAM. Not only that, but it doesn't work 100% of the time. So, what about tip #2?

My greasy digits

Magazine Tip #2 - "Allow nails to air-dry for two minutes, then submerge in ice-cold water for three minutes, which is enough time for the polish to harden completely."

Seemed easy enough! After waiting exactly two minutes, I put my fingers in the bowl of ice water.

Note: after two minutes, the polish is practically dry anyway.

Ok, three minutes in ice water... three... whole... gosh this hurts... minutes... ok, there is NO way you can comfortably let your fingertips rest in ice water for over one minute, let alone three!

So while this technically works, don't hurt yourself in the process. And honestly, if you're lazy like me, you're better of just letting your nails air dry instead of pouring water in a bowl, getting some ice out, putting some ice cubes in the bowl, blah blah blah. Just let your nails air dry, screw the magazines!

TOTAL COSTS: $3.49 for PAM

TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME: Less than 5 minutes

EASY-PEASY SCALE (1 super easy - 5 very difficult): 1 out of 5
Neither one of these "tips" are difficult, however they are messy, painful, greasy, slimy... a lot of adjectives you don't want when it comes to painting and drying your nails!