The Woodland Wedding Cake

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I do not bake as a professional. I simply like food, and enjoy playing with my food despite my mother’s early strictures, much more than perhaps I ought. When my daughter’s friend Amanda became engaged, she and her fiancé came and requested me to make their wedding cake. I have done a few other wedding cakes over the years, so I asked what they had in mind. Well, they said, the theme is a Woodland Wedding.

Ah, I said, a bit like a Buche de Noel? And what are your flavors? So we worked it out.

The product stands above, a Golden Wedding Cake soaked with a simple syrup to maintain moistness, with a Blackberry Cheesecake filling between the layers, a Burgundy Chocolate Ganache bark, white chocolate and marzipan mushrooms, and fondant roses, violets and leaves. The wedding cake basics came from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s classic  The Cake Bible. However, let me admit up front that not one of her recipes escaped my hands unchanged. For one, I do not like a super fine texture of cake– I find it too powdery to use cake flour. Yet a cake made with all-purpose flour is too coarse. So I made a compromise, and adjusted the ‘cake flour substitution’ formula Berenbaum provides, to my tastes. Less cornstarch, more flour.

What I find most interesting about a cake like the one here — which I sub-sected into twelve layers as I built it with the blackberry filling, is how much of the structural supports do not show at all. Every four layers I inserted four plastic straws to act as “rebar” for that section so the pieces would not slide off when the cake was moved. Atop these straws, who were well-hidden in the cake, went a cardboard round (available from cake decorating sources.) If I didn’t do this, the bottom layers would liquefy into soft pudding under the accumulated weight of the upper layers. So the weight is thus held section on section by the straws which support each major section of four cake layers and fillings on the cardboard round below.

Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband made a dowel support because we worried that even with straws and cardboard rounds we might have a mishap when driving the cake through Los Angeles traffic to the wedding site. Below is his construct.

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You see that we pre-drilled the cardboard rounds for the two primary “stumps”. The boat-like object is a nice wooden tray made of plywood (for strength) that I had found months before in a thrift store and claimed with glee for this project in mind. My husband rounded another section of plywood, polished and finished it, then drilled the holes for two food-quality dowels (also from the decorating equipment folk.)

In the twelve days before the wedding I colored batches of fondant and marzipan then cut and shaped leaves, flowers, and made white chocolate mushrooms. For you botanists, yes, I made the woodland eclectic, with everything from beech and Eastern oak, violets, sugar maples and sassafras, to gingko!

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I ended up using the tablespoon and teaspoon measuring spoons for molds to make the white chocolate mushroom caps.

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I also cast my two milk chocolate hedgehogs using a silicone mold I purchased on ebay. Their faces got painted with white chocolate and I placed black glitter sugar in for the eyes and noses. (Black glitter sugar, you say? Think Halloween.) I made their hats of fondant.

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These wedding cakes can be stored if you follow Rose Berenbaum’s directions, so I baked my cakes on Wednesday, cooled and wrapped them and let them chill overnight for easier handling. The next day, Thursday, I took them out, crumbed them, sliced each layer in half so it made two layers, drizzled each layer with the prepared syrup,filled with the blackberry cheesecake filling, then set four layers together on cardboard rounds with straws for rebar. After that, I used a simple frosting to cover the basic cake to prevent crumbs from running loose and to make my next day’s work easier. I wrapped all these in plastic and stored them overnight. The next thing I did was sprain my knee. But that’s another story that includes an x-ray and some fuss, a walker and a cane.

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Friday morning I made the ganache because it needs to be formulated with nearly boiling cream and then must softly cool — at room temperature is best, until you can beat in the butter and it becomes spreadable. That cooling took about six hours, even though I put the bowl of hot ganache in a larger one of cool water to urge it along a bit. Sure, I could have put it in the fridge but I have never had luck with these things when I’ve been impatient– I end up with half the ganache solid and the other half liquid and then the whole thing becomes too stiff to spread!

The wooden base got covered with a food-safe golden foil, then I used strips of wax paper to protect that from the mess I knew placing the cake layers and spreading the ganache would produce. Yes, I was very very nervous getting the wooden dowels through my cakes, but it all worked. On the big cake I centered the monster well, then came down from the top with the dowel, finding the hole in the base by holding my breath. The slanted smaller second stump, I dared to thread on to the dowel because the smaller cakes had greater structural integrity. The ganache went on like a dream, thick rich and super chocolatey.

By the way, the ‘cut’ tops of the stumps were made with a cheesecake white frosting.

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Here I am, after putting on the bark, having some fun with the fondant leaves. I also placed some but not all of the flowers and a few of the mushrooms, using ganache as a glue.

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Then I wrestled the considerable weight of this assemblage into my cleared fridge. There it chilled for about two hours to set the frosting before I wound it all up in plastic wrap for the night.

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It was important that the entire cake be totally chilled for food safety reasons of course– indeed I worked fast enough that after that initial chilling of the new-baked cakes, the cakes never warmed to room temperature until the time of the serving on Saturday. But it is also important to have the construct cold for transport and we indeed had to drive with the cake for about two and a half hours to get it to its destination.

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So there you have it…and yes, it was a wonderful wedding!

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Peace on Earth

So the kid arrived home with her little new dog and this is what happened in the first forty minutes.

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And no, this dog came from the shelter and so far as anyone knows has never socialized with a cat before. And yes, this is our most difficult cat of four, who chummed with no one but his old, and most sadly now deceased friend Porthos, a feral black cat.  This golden tabby cat is Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce and we’ve had him thorough terrible health problems, mainly genetic. We’ve had WWW since he was seven weeks, so we know no dogs were in his past. He was a bullying sort of little friend to Porthos who was older and doted upon him and excused his vagaries. Porthos was a wonderful fellow, he would gaze with melting affection in his big green eyes upon this little kitten in his care and wash the little rascal with tenderness. When Porthos died, WWW became very depressed, so we acquired a five year old male cat, then some months later two bonded kittens.

Willie had difficulties accommodating our new three cats and so when he walked right into the lap that held this little new dog, we held our breaths and wondered if we ought to interfere! Guess not. It’s been about ten days and for all we can fantasize, WWW imagines that the little black dog is some oddly mis-made reincarnation of his dear old friend Porthos. After all, we excuse our dear friends a lot of oddities. Coming back as a dog is okay– the point is you came back….

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Cookie Press Instructions and Recipe

Like so many of the rest of us, I don’t remember year to year exactly how the Williams – Sonoma cookie press works. Thus, when I haul it out, I try twisting different parts to get it clean and ready to press cookies. My Williams and Sonoma model came without instructions (as apparently is the norm) and I have found none on line. I am also aware of the cries of frustration from other owners. So let me share some illustrations and pointers about how mine works, now that I have embarked upon the rediscovery of its aspects, and let me share with you also my version of a good Spritz cookie dough for the machine, one that is more tender and flavorful than the old recipe I found in a cookbook. Perhaps most importantly – it extrudes well!

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So as you will see I make boxes of cookies and then assemble many plates for giving to family and friends. Someone asked me last week if I participated in a cookie exchange. No, I’m sorry, I can imagine nothing that would better take the fun out of getting the chance to guiltlessly make every sort of cookie I feel like making! And I have a suite of favorite recipes. I think it’s a rare year that I make fewer than twelve types.

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So here is a photo of my press with all the parts that are supposed to disassemble, separated for cleaning. Next, a series showing how to put the item together.

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The ring at the application end has a series of notches that you must align with the protrusions on the metal barrel before you pull off the plastic base ring. Lefty-loosey, righty tighty.

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You will want to depress the ‘key’ at the top of the barrel in order to release the plunger to withdraw it to the top of its settings. Now– pack the dough into the cylindrical barrel with your fingers. Use gloves — nitrile gloves are great for this purpose. When the cylinder is well-packed, select your metal pattern and set it on the dough.

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Push the ring on to the barrel trapping the metal pattern in place against the dough and screw the ring a half turn on to secure it to the barrel..

When pressing the cookies onto the pan make sure the pan is cool, and not greasy. Either of these issues will make the cookie adhere more to the press than to the cookie sheet! Also, relax, pump the trigger once and wait for a count of three. The first cookie is likely not to be perfect, and you may find that more dough comes out at each pump as you go on, probably due to a slight warming of the cylinder in your hands. Remember that you can give a pump and a half, if you want a bit more dough but you don’t want as much as two pumps would give. It’s an art form!

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I like dusting these cookies with colored sparkling sugars before baking. Sometimes as many as three hues per cookie– this seems to give a very cheerful effect.

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Here’s the recipe itself– modified substantially from the old one I used to follow, to give a shorter dough and a more tender and fragrant crumb. Makes about six dozen.

SPRITZ                                                                                                                                                              (all ingredients room temperature and oven at 375 Farenheit)

2 cups unsalted butter creamed with 1 1/3 cups sugar. Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. First sift together, then add by the quarter cup, 4 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a 1/4 teaspoon salt.

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Two versions

Whenever I paint a scene for the second time I try very hard not to let the second version be influenced too much by the first. I do not let myself look at the first until I have decided the new painting is done. So here for your amusement (and mine) are two paintings separated by over a year, painted plein air of the same scene with the similar theme of coming home at evening in spring. The site is Sedgwick Ranch, one of the University of California Reserve System locations. I would have imagined them identical, but look– this is what really happens with the eye and heart translating.

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Health tips that may be not be that beneficial

Common sense for many seasons to come.

Town & Country Gardening

’12 healthy habits’ you’re better off giving up
Using a standing desk A recent long term study looking at data on nearly 4,000 US adults found no benefit in terms of overall risk of dying from standing as opposed to sitting.
In the short term, however, standing does burn more calories per minute, so if losing weight is all you’re worried about, keep standing!

Avoiding gluten Unless you’re one of the 1% of Americans who suffer from celiac disease, gluten probably won’t have a negative effect on you. In fact, studies show that most people suffer from slight bloating and gas when they eat, whether they consume wheat or not. So go ahead and eat that bagel and baguette.

Drinking almond milk. Alternatives to dairy milk have been surging in popularity in the last few years, chief among them almond milk. Yet almond milk is practically devoid of nutrients.
By…

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A few from Ramsey Canyon

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Gray Hairstreak

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The Huachuca Giant Skipper

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An expressive Twin-Spotted Spiny Lizard.

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A Bordered Patch butterfly.

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On to Ramsey Canyon

We drove to Phoenix, about an eight hour journey in our rental, and after a few days there, collected the kid (she’s twenty four so that is a little bad of me, but she is forgiving,) and headed to our Ramsey Canyon weekend, theoretically four hours away. It was an easier trip than expected and we drove in earlier than anticipated.

A rushing stream between high sided rock walls was the first and most important note. We had been too long in drought struck Southern California, and the sight and sound of clear water generously racing along its way was riveting. One had to cross the bridge over the stream to reach our rooms, a main room with a couch bed and kitchen and a bedroom with bath.

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We settled in and took a quick hike up the canyon, which required our passage through the friendly hands and hallway of the Nature Conservancy’s building. The Conservancy monitors  the upper part of the canyon and all visitors must be out by five o’clock to give the true residents, the animals, a break. After our brief walk and a delighted plunder of the Nature Conservancy bookstore, we went back to the Inn and had pie– warm cherry pie, before sitting and reading our books.

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As dusk fell, Bruce put our chicken sausages on the outside grill already set up for our convenience. While he cooked, I looked up at a movement and squeaked with glee. There walked a hog-nosed skunk across our bridge! I am one of those children who grew up on the little nature guides edited by Herbert Zim and I knew I had seen this creature in the pages of his book on Mammals. A new mammal for my life list. This is not an every day occurrence. My family had to endure many squeaks and chortles of glee from me for the rest of the evening.

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