Archive for July, 2008

A Brush With Curdled Milk Disaster

My Lavender Lemon Honey Birthday Cake is well on its way to being completed, and I couldn’t be more satisfied.

In an uncharacteristic move for me, I decided to plan ahead and make the cake layers in advance. So I am quite pleased to say that they are currently sitting in my freezer on a makeshift system of wobbly cooling racks that have been stacked on top of each other.

I decided to make the cake layers the weekend before my birthday because making The Beehive Cake, which I started two days before it was served, was way too stressful. I was so consumed by making sure that each of the cake’s elements came together, I almost fell into that hostess trap where you’re too worried about how the food will turn out to be any fun to talk to.

However, while I’ve been good about starting this cake in advance, I’ve still manged to have several bone-headed moments during its creation. In a much more characteristic move for the space-cadet that I am, the cake had a brush with disaster in its very infancy — all because I never paid attention in chemistry class and completely forgot that lemon juice curdles milk.

You see, I decided to modify a Cake Bible recipe and add some lemon flavoring to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s White Velvet Butter Cake recipe (which I doubled). The White Velvet Butter Cake is a slightly different recipe than the Downy Yellow Butter Cake, which I used to create The Beehive Cake. Instead of using whole eggs, the recipe uses only egg whites. The resulting cake has an exceptionally tender crumb and is a pale, creamy color. It perfectly fulfills my desire to make the Blanche DuBois of cakes — the ultra feminine, ultra girly type of cake best served at a bridal shower, baby shower, or other feminine event.

As I explained in the Banana Bread entry, The Cake Bible uses a two-stage method for mixing cake batter, by first mixing together the dry ingredients, butter, and a little liquid (stage one), and then beating in more liquid in small additions (stage two). The White Velvet Butter Cake uses a combination of egg whites, milk and vanilla in stage two, that is added to the stage one mixture.

And it’s here that I got a little tripped up and almost ruined the cake.

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Fuzzy Green

Whenever I’m in need of a new cleaning solution, I’m inevitably drawn to the green products I see on store shelves. I’m intrigued by their slick packaging, pretty colors, and minimalist design. Even so, part of me always wonders: just how green is this product? Do the clean lines and pastel colors of the Method cleaners really mean that they’re going to be better for the environment? I always mean to research the product in question so I can make the right choice the next time I’m at the store, but I almost never do, and always end up buying the same old thing.

So I wasn’t surprised at the findings in this Brandweek article, which I came across while researching the July Test Product of the Month, and which confirmed a lot things I already suspected about the current frenzy for “green” products.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think that any big movement that gets the country thinking about how they can help the environment – no matter how shallowly it’s treated in the press – is a good thing. After all, people will never act unless they’re informed about a problem, and will never change their habits until they feel pressure (peer, financial, political or otherwise) to do so. So if the media creates a trend that makes people feel guilty about driving big cars and wasting gas, and it results in increased funding for public transportation, smart community planning, and less air pollution, then I’m all for it.

However, I wasn’t surprised that the consumers in the Brandweek piece were, at best, befuddled about green products – what they are, what makes them “green,” and even which products are environmentally friendly.

The article reported on a study called Eco Pulse, which was conducted by the Shelton Group, and which surveyed consumers about their green buying habits. Not surprisingly, while consumers indicated that the environment was an important consideration in their purchasing choices (49 percent), only a small portion said that environmental concerns actually drove them to buy different products (21 percent). And only seven percent could actually name the green and/or environmentally friendly product they supposedly changed their habits to buy.

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The Secret Life of Bee(hive Cake)s

My birthday is coming up next week. For most people birthdays bring up lots of questions: what do you want to receive? Should you do a night out on the town, or a dinner at home? Did you really think this is what your life would be like by this age? My god, I’m how many years old now?

But for me, the great question is: how do I top The Beehive Cake?

Beehive Cakes

Yes, The Beehive Cake: my last great cake creation, as captured by the cellphone camera of CupcakeMonsterLee.

This cake, which I made a month ago for my boyfriend Dave’s birthday (shout out: he blogs about investing and business-y type things at wonktheplank), was my grandest creation yet. It was conceived in a fit of madness and daring, and was inspired by a Martha Stewart cover that Dave and I glimpsed in the grocery store, and that probably drove up sales of Williams Sonoma’s beehive-shaped cake pan by, oh, three hundred percent or so (really, who’s going to actually go out and purchase a specialty cake pan that she will use once every five years, if not to emulate The Martha?).

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What’s next? Radioactive Door Pulls?

Wow. So those granite countertops that have become so popular and ubiquitous on decorating shows that we now stand on the brink of a massive wave of granite countertop fatigue? According to the New York Times, some of them emit radioactive radon gas.

Yes. You heard me. Radioactive radon gas.

When I read this, I wondered if there could be more random connection between two seemingly unrelated things—after all, who really associates HGTV countertop choices with the process of radioactive decay you learned about in high school chemistry? It’s like finding a link between goat cheese and brain cancer. Water bottles and executive pay. Britney Spears and class.

Granted, for most granite we’re not talking about a lot of radon exposure (I mean, if this is what we get from granite I wonder what kind of random toxins we’re exposed to from substances that, on the surface at least, seem much more toxic. Like asphalt. Or smog). And I always think it’s important to take articles like these with a grain of salt and really evaluate what the health risks are, since the media seems to thrive on freaking people out about the possible hazards of common household substances.

But it’s still interesting to me that such a common item that is so thoroughly lauded in the Television Decorating Universe, may have unexamined health consequences . . .

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The Great Hybrid Banana Bread Experiment

I always think it’s funny on Top Chef when, during the inevitable challenge that involves making some kind of dessert, the chefs discuss the difference between a chef and a baker. The conversation always seems to follow the same formula: the chef is an artistic improviser who works in the moment, adding a dash of this and a dash of that before perfecting a dish. Whereas a baker is a scientist, one who loves exact measurements, who desires precision above all else because, unlike in cooking, when you miss a vital ingredient in baking (say, baking powder in a cake batter) then your cake is kaput. The chefs always make bakers sound like boring, fussy squares, who just aren’t as fun as the spontaneous, artistic and impulsive chefs.

I guess this makes me an odd duck then, because I am incredibly imprecise, love to experiment with recipes and throw in bits of this and that that weren’t called for, and yet I really, really love baking. Ever since my mother showed me how to make Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (probably in utero) one of my favorite childhood activities was playing Princesses with my sister, baking up a batch of cookies, and pretending to distribute them among the poor in our kingdom (the poor being my sister and I. And maybe our little brother, if he wasn’t being irritating and chasing us with one of his many swords).

Granted, many of my baking “experiments” haven’t always turned out so well. There was the time I tried to make cookies by using proportions of ingredients that seemed similar to other cookie recipes, and came up with dry and brittle hockey pucks. There was the time I made an apple cake with margarine instead of butter (we were out), and ended up with a greasy and dense mass that even my perpetually hungry boyfriend wouldn’t eat. And don’t even get me started on the loaves of rock-hard bread I’ve produced – loaves that, in a pinch and with the right amount of brute force, could have served as deadly weapons.

However, I had a completely successful baking experiment with banana bread the other day, and I thought I needed to share it, since they are incredibly rare.

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Test Product of the Month: Good Ol’ Fashioned Baking Soda and Vinegar

Since many of us are overwhelmed and, perhaps, in awe of the huge number of cleaning products that are regularly introduced on the market, I’d like to take away some of the pain by testing the products that intrigue you, yet you’re not quite ready to shell out for. So, each month, I’ll be testing a new (or, in this case, old) household cleaning product, and give a verdict about its potential to revolutionize your cleaning routine. Read on for this month’s product: Good Ol’ Fashioned Baking Soda and Vinegar.

By now, I’m sure that you’ve read so many terrifying reports on the toxic effects of common household cleaners that you wake up with nightmares about being chased around by giant Windex bottles, getting cancer because you smelled some oven cleaner, or crippling your children with asthma because you febrezed their cribs too often.

In response to the Great Household Cleaner Fear that has gripped the nation, there has been a slate of articles appearing in the press extolling the virtues of homemade cleaning products. According to these reports, creating your own cleaning products is a safer, less toxic, cheaper, and just as effective alternative to using toxic and harsh cleaning products that may or may not hurt the environment and your health. And while I’m definitely down with using cleaning products that are cheaper and won’t give me a rash if my skin happens to come into contact with them, I’ve always wondered if they actually work.

So this month’s test product is an old standard that often crops up in these little “make your own fabulous cleaning products” articles: baking soda and vinegar.

Yes, that’s right, that crummy little box of baking soda that you keep in the fridge to keep your roommate’s leftovers from growing eyeballs is the solution to all your cleaning woes. I decided to use the baking soda on our kitchen sink and the bathroom sink/countertops, since they both haven’t been cleaned in a bit (really, the kitchen sink really doesn’t get cleaned nearly as much as it should and the garbage disposal really smells a lot of the time). I found the recipe for my baking soda cleaning solution on an online baking soda book by way of The Simple Dollar, which often has little features on frugal homemaking tips.

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The Dirty Secret of Homemaker Guilt

I love homemaking. I just love it. I love cooking, I love decorating, I love making my home more functional, I even love cleaning (well, sometimes. And even if I don’t love cleaning, I sure do love having cleaned).

And yet, even though I am an absolutely enthusiastic homemaker, I more and more find myself succumbing to an ugly side of modern homemaking: guilt.

Let’s face it: even the best of us have homemaker guilt these days. I admit that I am a huge, unwavering Martha-Stewart fan, but — in all honesty — she also stresses me out. When I flip through her magazine and look at those perfect cupcakes, perfectly wrapped presents, gorgeous table arrangements, I am torn between excitement (hey! I want to do that too!) and stress (how the hell can I find time to do that?).

And I think a big part of our guilt comes from the fact that we live in a world where homemaking has been professionalized. We’re bombarded with images of perfect houses on HGTV, perfect dinners on the Food Network, perfect parties in magazines. And while many of these publications and shows profess that what they’re doing is “easy” and geared towards the average homemaker, the sheer amount of “easy fixes” or “easy dinners” or “easy table arrangements” that they suggest we try out some weekend is completely overwhelming.

“Hey, I can do that,” I think, when I see some neat feature in a homemaking magazine, like a suggested center piece arrangement, or feature on how to organize your closets in five easy steps. But then I really think about the time and effort it would take to purchase the items for some table arrangement, or craft project, or easy four-course French dinner, and I get completely overwhelmed. I could do it. Theoretically. But in reality, I really I don’t have the time, or the money, or even, on some days, the energy.

It helps when I get in these slumps to realize that these “easy home meals” have been created by people whose job it is to come up with dinners you can supposedly make in less than 30 minutes. Those “easy fixes for the home” that my beloved Martha features in her magazine, are actually projects that they spent days photographing to make them appear utterly perfect.

Part of me loves these publications; I love the ideas that they give me, I love the way they spark my imagination and inspire me to do more things around the home. And part of me hates them, because I never actually have the time to make the 30-minute meal that will actually take me an hour to make, and for which I have to purchase $20 in extra ingredients that I wouldn’t normally buy.

Let’s face it: in this day and age, you have to work to make a living. Even if homemaking is our calling, we have to fit it in between our jobs, activities, and social lives. We can prioritize it, we can love it, we can even be one of those professional people who do formerly domestic tasks for a living, but for most of us the home is something we have to work on in our spare time.

This blog is meant to be about modern homemaking—for those of us who have a passion for cooking and baking and decorating and making our house a home, but who also have to face the realities that it’s something that we do in our spare time. And, in the interest of truly full disclosure, I want this blog to be a way for me to motivate myself to find the time to spend on my home projects, which so easily get pushed out of the way because of work, social activities, travel, and even the allure of watching crappy TV with my boyfriend after a long day at work.

So here’s to homemaking—but homemaking without the guilt, pressure, and stress.After all, those things really shouldn’t be a part of something you love, and I don’t think they have to be.

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