Flantastico!

October 6, 2009

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Flan…it may mean nothing to you or it may mean everything to you. To my Cuban family, it’s definitely the latter. If you aren’t familiar with flan, it’s a Latin American dessert that is similar to a vanilla custard. Many Latin American countries claim it as “theirs”, but in my completely biased opinion I say there is nothing better than Cuban flan. I’ve had flan in many Latin American restaurants and homes over the years. They all seem too light…too watery…and definitely not sweet enough. Cubans have a sweet tooth. Blame it on a country full of sugar cane.

My flan recipe is my mother’s. It is a very sweet and dense mouthful of heaven. She passed away a few years ago and in losing her, we lost most of our precious family recipes. She was the type of cook whose recipes were in her head, not in a cookbook. A few years before she became ill, I was wise enough to follow her around the kitchen to jot down a few of her recipes. Her flan lives on because of it and my siblings and I are able to happily replicate it. This tangible piece of our mother is what makes this recipe so incredibly special and why flan is so important to us.

Here is Mima’s Flan

Ingredients:

  • 2 – 12 oz cans of evaporated milk
  • 1 – 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 6 egg yolks and 2 whole eggs (beaten together)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 or 1/2 cup sugar (your preference)
  • First step is to caramelize the sugar
  • Pour sugar into a large bread pan
  • Heat pan over stove burner on medium to medium high heat. Shake the pan occasionally to keep the sugar from burning. Tilt pan while sugar is caramelizing being sure to coat the entire pan and about an inch or so up the sides.
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Sugar in the pan

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Tilting the sugar to coat the pan

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Sugar completely caramelized and pan coated

  • Let the pan cool
  • While pan is cooling, mix remaining ingredients in  large bowl.
  • Strain mixture through a fine metal strainer into the cooled pan. This catches all the larger egg white clumps and makes the flan silky smooth.
  • Cover pan tightly with foil
  • Place pan into a Baño de Maria which is the Spanish name for a water bath. To make, take a deep baking dish (I use a lasagna pan) and place the bread pan inside. Fill with water so that water reaches about halfway up the sides of the bread pan.
  • Bake in a oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Check at about an hour and half for doneness.
  • Flan is completely cooked when knife inserted is clean and when it is “set” when shaken, but not completely solid
  • Let pan cool on counter and then refrigerate for at least an hour
  • Run knife around edge of pan to loosen and invert onto plate
  • Keep refrigerated until ready to serve
  • Flan is best when refrigerated overnight, but can be served after a minimum of 6 hours.

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Mima’s flan always puts a smile on my face!

I hope you get a chance to try my mother’s flan and I hope you enjoy it. If you have a member of your family who’s cooking you love, take the time to get the recipes. You never know when life will change and the opportunity will be lost. Keep those memories alive through the love of good food!

Go Bananas!

September 7, 2009

This is the story of two banana cupakes…with two very different endings.

So there I was one day with a couple of bananas who were ready for their last rites. I also happened to have some very yummy cream cheese frosting left over from my Italian Cream Cake adventure. These were of course the perfect makings for dessert, but what to bake? I happened to log onto Bakerella’s site and lo and behold there at the top of her blog was a posting for banana cupcakes with cream cheese frosting! It was fate!

I baked some up that very morning and was met with complete and utter dissapointment. I’m not sure what went wrong. I don’t know if I missed an ingredient, if the recipe was just lousy, or if my 3 year old helper somehow distracted me. Either way, these were one of the most horrible things I’ve baked in awhile. The cupcakes never browned, even after leaving them in five minutes longer than the recipe called for. They were dense…like off-white little bricks. Seriously, I could have done some damage if I’d have thrown these at someone. I tried to liven them up by filling them with a little buttercream. I somehow managed to make an ugly cupcake even uglier. How unappetizing are these?

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What? Not disgusting enough? Want a closer look???

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After that fiasco, I was determined to make some good banana cupcakes. I was leery to try the same recipe again so soon, but I will attempt it again just to figure out what went wrong. In the meantime, I found what seemed like a good recipe here at allrecipes.com. This one was a winner! The main difference I could find between the two recipes was that the allrecipes one includes baking soda. I know baking soda can certaintly make a difference and I’m wondering if that is the key here.

But in any case, this second attempt at banana cupcakes was awesome! These cupcakes tasted like banana bread and were super moist, but they had the texture of a light and fluffy cupcake. I was in no mood to whip up any more cream cheese frosting, so I used a can of milk chocolate frosting I had in the pantry. I love home made frosting, but there’s something about a can of chocolate ready-made frosting that is just so tasty. The combination of banana and chocolate was definitely a winner.

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I couldn’t resist…had to take a bite!

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Today’s lesson…if at first you don’t succeed…try, try again or at least try another recipe!

You put the lime in the coconut!

August 28, 2009

I’m a chocolate loving girl. I tend to think a dessert doesn’t qualify as dessert if there isn’t chocolate in there somewhere. This is why I am so reluctant to try any recipe that doesn’t include some kind of chocolate. But I’m trying to be more adventurous and open-minded as of late, so I am determined to seek out other treats.

So I was excited this week when a little gem showed up in my email in-box. It was a recipe for Martha Stewart’s Key Lime Coconut Bars. I recently signed up for Martha’s “Cookie of the Day” emails and have been receiving all kinds of yummy recipes that I can’t wait to try. I went shopping for the ingredients for the the bars the very next day!

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Even though I live in Florida, I did not find key limes or key lime juice. I know our grocery store carries it, but apparently not on the day I was shopping. I substituted regular limes and juice, which the recipe states is an alternative. I honestly don’t know what a difference in flavor the key limes would make, but I will try that in the future.

The crust for the bars is a pastry crust and the dough can be made using either a pastry cutter or two knives. Well I tossed out my pastry cutter a few years ago after a very frustrating and extremely unsuccessful attempt at making apple pie. I swore to never make another pie crust again and the cutter went straight into the garbage…such is the temper I have! I tried using two knives to cut the dough as suggested by Martha. It was a mess and I was starting to get really aggravated when I had one of those clever “light bulb” moments. I dug out my potato masher and used it instead. It did the job, but man it was a workout on my forearms and biceps! I made a mental note to purchase another pastry cutter.

I sprayed the pan with non-stick spray, but in retrospect I should have lined it with foil to make it easier to remove the bars for cutting. I was still able to cut them fairly easily using a pizza cutter. I have found that the pizza cutter works really well on bar desserts and is faster and less messy than using a knife.

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The end result is that I was really happy with these Key Lime Coconut Bars. The toasted coconut added just the right crunch to these creamy little bites. I realized after tasting them, that these are basically mini key lime pies with coconut added. In fact, when I looked up a recipe for Key Lime Pie, it was almost identical. While the powdered sugar sprinkled on top was tasty, I think they would be even better with a spoonful of whipped cream.

As usual, the majority of these goodies were sent to work with my husband to share with his coworkers. He is not a fan of key lime pie and wasn’t sure if these would go over well. He was surprised (and I was quite pleased) that his coworkers went crazy for these and they did not last long! So if you are in the mood for a taste of tropical Florida in a yummy little treat, definitely give these a try!

The perfect classic cupcake

August 22, 2009

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I found it! The perfect vanilla cupcake recipe!

Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few yellow or vanilla cake recipes with varying success. When I made cupcakes for my daughter’s birthday earlier this summer(see Cupcakes), I was not completely happy with the yellow ones. I really wanted to find the recipe for THE ONE and I did… all thanks to Magnolia Bakery in NYC.

While I’ve never actually been to the bakery, I’ve read many great things about their incredible cupcakes. Perhaps one day I will be lucky enough to make the trip from Florida and try one of their delicious cupcakes, but for now I’m happy just to have found the recipe. It turns out that they also have several cookbooks, so that is something to add to my wish list!

This vanilla cupcake recipe (courtesy of the Food Network) is super simple and super delicious. I ended up making one change out of necessity. The recipe calls for all butter, but I didn’t have enough so I had to substitute 1/2 shortening and 1/2 butter. I’m not sure how much better it would have been with all butter, but I will have to try that another day. As it was, these cupcakes baked up perfectly…golden, light and fluffy. They were yummy the day I baked them, the day after I baked them and even the day after that! I did end up eating quite a few of them, but I also sent some home with a friend in order to pass on the cupcake love.

Magnolia’s says that their most popular cupcake is the vanilla with vanilla buttercream. While I’m sure their vanilla buttercream is wonderful, I wanted chocolate. Vanilla with chocolate is such a classic cake combination that conjures up sweet memories of the cakes my mother used to bake me. I found the recipe for their chocolate buttercream on the Recipe Zaar’s website. This is another easy recipe that turns out a silky, creamy and wonderfully chocolaty frosting. I used it earlier this year on a baptism cake for my daughters and was so happy with it that I couldn’t wait to make it again. I will caution you that this frosting is best served at room temperature as it gets too firm when cold. If you chill your cakes with the frosting, remove them at least 30 minutes to an hour prior to serving so it will soften up.

I’m curious to see how this vanilla cupcake recipe would bake up as a regular cake. I’m hoping it will maintain the same light and fluffy texture on a sweet layer cake overflowing with chocolate buttercream. But I will have to save that adventure for another day!

Cake pop trials & tribulations

August 13, 2009

If you know what a cake pop is then you undoubtedly know who Bakerella is. I don’t think she invented the cake pop, but since she started making the cutest ones on the planet, they have become synonymous with her name. My friend Sheila directed me to her blog earlier this year and I fell in love with the adorable cake pops she had made for Easter. I immediately wanted to try my hand at them…so I did.

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For my first time making these, it actually went fairly well. While these don’t even remotely compare with Bakerella’s, I was pretty proud of them. It was this positive experience that gave me a false sense of confidence that would soon be my undoing.

I immediately decided I was going to start making cake pops for everything…birthdays, holidays…every occasion was going to have a cake pop to go along with it! I am walking in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memory Walk this year and thought that selling cake pops would be a great fundraising idea. So before I’d even had a chance to try making a few more cake pops, I contacted the director of our local chapter and promised to make 200 cake pops to sell the morning of the walk. Yes, that’s right…200 cake pops! She was thrilled of course!

With my cake pop making confidence in full gear, I offered to make them for Sheila’s daughter’s 2nd birthday party. She had turned me onto the things after all, how could I not? I’m not sure what went wrong with that second attempt, other than everything! It was a complete disaster. Suffice to say, there were no cake pops at that party. Thankfully, I had also made the birthday cake so the missing pops weren’t too much of a let down.

But I have really started worrying about those 200 cake pops that I am supposed to make in November. I have nightmares of what it’s going to be like in the days leading up to the walk. Do you remember the candy making episode of I Love Lucy? That’s basically what I’m envisioning…but without the laugh track.  I knew I needed to try to make them again.

This time, there is no pressure…no holiday, no event…just me and some cake. Things start off well…cute little chocolate cake balls, armed with their paper sticks…

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Then when I begin to dip into the candy coating, things start to get ugly. One by one the brave little chocolate balls begin to lose their footing and slip off the sticks. I try gently tap-a tap-a tapping the way Bakerella has explained in her cake pop tutorial. Nope…the little suckers continue to fall off. Right around pop #7, remembering my last failed attempt, I begin to wonder if Bakerella is some sort of sorceress with magical baking powers. I cannot fathom how her pops look so absolutely perfect and mine look like they have been chewed and then spit back out!

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Then just when I’m ready to swear off cake pops forever, a few things begin to click. First, the size of the cake ball is extremely important. I notice that the smaller ones are easier to dip into the candy as they don’t get as heavy. A diameter of about an inch is just right…no bigger.

Second, you have to be FAST. You can’t dip the cake ball and then linger around, rolling it back and forth to get a good coating. No, no, no…you have to MOVE! Cake ball in, swirl once, tap gently and get out! If you don’t get it right…don’t look back…move on, there’s no saving that pop now.

Finally, the melted candy coating has to be in a container deep enough to completely submerge the cake ball in one plunge…no double dipping. If you don’t heed the above advice, this is what you have to look forward to…

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In the end, I get about three that I’m not embarrassed of…

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I think I have learned enough from this attempt to give it another try. I’m still not convinced that Bakerella doesn’t possess some sort of magical powers. And I’m still not sure how I’m going to get good enough to whip up 200 of these babies without said powers…but we will see. Stay tuned!

For the love of cheesecake!

August 4, 2009

My husband absolutely adores blueberries and is always asking me to bake something with them. I’m not a huge fan of them as I prefer chocolate in almost every dessert, so I never grant his requests (sorry honey). But for his special days, I try to make him happy, although I do admit I have selfishly made him a chocolate dessert that I loved instead. Granted, I’ve never heard a complaint out of him, but this year for Father’s day I decided to make the ultimate dessert for him…blueberry cheesecake!

I hunted for the perfect recipe and finally found it at epicurious.com. I read the many reviews and I couldn’t wait to try it. I love websites that offer reviews for recipes. Many times I get tips on what works or doesn’t work with a recipe and find it’s a great way to learn from others’ mistakes or avoid flaws in a poorly written recipe.

I was thrilled with the results on my first attempt. This recipe turns out a fantastic cheesecake…creamy and rich!

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But blueberry cheesecake wouldn’t be complete without blueberries of course!

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After reading the ingredients for the blueberry topping in the recipe, I decided I didn’t want to try the blueberry all-fruit preserves mixed with fresh blueberries. I wanted this cheesecake topped with nothing but fresh blueberries. Instead, I made the following topping:

  • 3 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch

Mix 2 cups of the blueberries, sugar & cornstarch in a pot on high until boiling. Boil for 3 minutes or until thick, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1 cup of blueberries. Let cool completely. Pour onto cake and let set in the fridge for at least 2 hours (this does not include the cooling/refrigeration time for the cheesecake itself).

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Is that a gorgeous cheesecake or what?

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A little whipped topping is a nice finishing touch! Needless to say, my honey was quite happy with his Father’s day dessert. I think this one will keep his blueberry requests at bay for awhile!

Cupcakes make a splash!

August 3, 2009

My beautiful daughter turned three this July. She is a summer baby, so we celebrated with a backyard splash party. Since the party was going to be outside and the children ranged in age from 15 months to 4 years old,  I opted to keep dessert simple and serve cupcakes.  Kids love cupcakes and who can blame them? Cute little individual cakes wrapped in pretty paper are fun and festive!

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Since I know kids can be picky and I like to please as many palates as possible, I decided to make both chocolate and yellow cupcakes. For the chocolate cake, I went with Martha Stewart’s super easy recipe One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes. This was my first time trying this recipe and I was not dissapointed. These cupcakes baked up perfectly and were moist and yummy with a rich chocolaty flavor. I will definitely make this recipe  again in the future.

For the yellow cupcakes, I used a yellow cake recipe I found on Bakerella’s blog. Her blog is always full of creative and inspiring ideas and I love her beautiful photographs as well. I had used this recipe previously for a birthday cake and my daughters’ baptism cake. Both times, the recipe turned out such a flavorful and moist cake that I knew they would be perfect for cupcakes.

I did not have as much success using the recipe for cupcakes. I made half the recipe and it produced about 18 cupcakes, but I ended up making the recipe twice because I wasn’t happy with the first batch. The problem was that the batter’s volume practically doubles in the oven. In the first attempt, I filled the paper liners too much and ended up with only a dozen cupcakes. The batter expanded so much that the cupcakes were huge, but the tops were completely flat…little cakes with Frisbees on top. On the second attempt, I filled the liners just to the halfway point and the results were a little better and produced 18 cupcakes. But the tops were still kind of flat, not round and pretty like the chocolate ones. They did taste great, but in the future I will find a yellow cake recipe that holds up better for cupcakes.

For the frosting, I used my trusty Wilton’s Buttercream Icing recipe. I doubled the recipe and then divided it into 3 parts, tinting one hot pink, one yellow, and one aqua. My intention was to fill the cupcakes with cream filing. I have done this in the past and they are so tasty with a little sweet surprise in the middle. But I used a new recipe (something you should never do for the first time when baking for a special occasion) and I absolutely hated the results. Normally, the cream filling is very similar to the buttercream frosting and is easy to insert into the cupcakes using a pastry bag and decorating tip. But this recipe called for corn syrup and the cream was so gooey that it was next to impossible to fill the cupcakes with. It just squished out of the top of the pastry bag and made a giant mess so I didn’t bother with it.

But the cupcakes’ finishing touch, the “pièce de résistance”, was definitely the fondant decorations I made for the them. I wanted these to be extra special since they were for my little girl’s birthday, so I had to do something fun to decorate them. I purchased Wilton’s Ready to use Rolled Fondant. I personally don’t care for the taste of fondant, but using it for small decorations is great because you can just pick them off before you eat it. Because the party invitations featured them, I made adorable little flip flops and bathing suits out of  the fondant. I got the idea after seeing various photos of the flip flops on flickr.com which led me to this You Tube video demonstrating how to make them. Whoever first thought of turning a butterfly into a pair of flip flops was just super creative! For the bathing suits, I simply cut out rectangles from the fondant and trimmed them to resemble a child’s bathing suit.

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My daughter took one look at these cupcakes and loved them! At three years old, this was the first birthday that she was truly excited about. She looked forward to her party for weeks and had so much fun helping me plan it. I don’t know who was more excited to celebrate her birthday…her or me!

Gone Fishing!

July 30, 2009

I was recently thrilled and honored by my friend Sheila’s request to bake her daughter’s birthday cake. I love a good reason to bake something fun and what better reason than for the birthday of one incredibly sweet two-year old? Her party was being held at a local splash park and so she chose a fish theme for the decor.

Sheila is very crafty and her party decor is always perfectly matched to her theme. She found a recipe for an adorable fish cake at the Disney’s Family Fun website. I was excited to make this cute cake and hoped it would put a smile on the birthday girl’s face! I also hoped it would live up to her expectations as I didn’t want the cake to be the dud in her party decor!

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After reading the recipe, I knew immediately that the Necco wafers had to go! Have you ever eaten a Necco wafer?

If you haven’t had the umm…pleasure…count yourself lucky. I think of Necco wafers as “old people candy” and with that said, I apologize to any seniors reading this. But Necco wafers taste like lightly sweetened chalk and the thought of covering an entire cake in them was frightening. Sheila suggested using candy melts and they turned out to be the perfect solution. What could be better than covering a cake in candy?

The inside of the cake was a yellow cake. I’ve been testing recipes to the find the perfect yellow cake one and finally discovered one I love…all thanks to the wonderfully resourceful Bakerella. Here is the link for her yellow cake recipe. Now I did make a few changes to get the cake I wanted. Instead of all butter, I used half butter and half butter-flavored shortening. This really adds some extra moisture to the cake. I also used 2 teaspoons of vanilla instead of vanilla and butter flavoring. I tried her sugar water trick, although I brushed it on with a pastry brush, and think it did help to keep it moist.

The original fish cake directions state to bake a 13 x 9 cake to cut out. I did bake it that size, but before cutting out the shape, I ran a cake leveler through the middle to create two layers. I then frosted the middle before I cut the shape out. This did make it more difficult to cut, but more frosting means a moister and more flavorful cake. One of my pet peeves is a sheet cake with no center frosting. The cake tends to be dry and you end up with a mouthful of dry cake. Don’t get me wrong, I will still eat such a cake as I haven’t met a cake I’ve turned away yet, but a little more frosting is the difference between a good cake and a great one!

I used Wilton’s buttercream icing recipe. There are more flavorful icings (or frosting if you prefer that term as I do), but this one really holds up well in the heat. This was an outdoor party at the end of May so that was definitely a concern.I tinted the frosting as directed. After frosting the cake, I added the candy melts by alternating the colors to create the scales. I wasn’t happy with the unfinished edge of the bottom of the cake. I could have piped frosting around it, but instead cut candy melts in half to create a border. I have to say, while this cake took some time from start to finish, I was pretty happy and proud of it!

In retrospect, I would make a few changes if I were to make this cake again. I realized somewhere around midnight as I was decorating, that I had no where to write “Happy Birthday” or the birthday girl’s name.  I should have used fondant to cut out the letters and attach to the side of the cake. I improvised on the way to the party, stopped at the grocery store and purchased those candy letters sold in the bakery aisle. They did the trick, but the fondant letters would have been bigger and I think prettier. In the future, I also would save some of the batter to make one cupcake. The candle could then be placed into the cupcake and the birthday person would have their own mini-cake. As it was, we placed the candle on the top fin.

photo courtesy of Sheila Sierra photography
photo courtesy of Sheila Sierra photography

All the  party guests seemed to get a kick out of the cake and really enjoyed it! Most importantly, the birthday girl had a smile on her face as she blew out her candle! Making this cake just reminded how much I love baking for children and I can’t wait to do it again!

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