Archive for December, 2020

Whew! We made it! To the end of 2020! Oh, and also the last two bakes of the Holiday Baking Championship. This is the 3rd time I’ve baked along at home, and 2nd time I’ve finished. So without further ado . . .

The preheat was to make a holiday macaron tree with graduated tiers in 3 hours. Now this challenge I can get on board with. I make macarons fairly often and 3 hours is generous.

I decided to go with a peanut butter buttercream and chocolate ganache filling. Simple enough and should allow a good amount of time to decorate. I tripled my recipe for macaron shells and got to work.

The largest macarons I’ve made were probably about 4″ in diameter. The base of my tree is going to be 8″. I piped out a bunch of sizes on 3 cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. My method for macarons is putting an extra cookie sheet underneath the sheet I’m baking the shells on. Ever since I started doing this, my macarons always have “feet.” When you’re doing macarons in a timed challenge though, you change things up slightly. I did not let the piped batter sit as long as I should have before they went in the oven. Because of that, some of the shells cracked. I also usually only bake one tray at a time. In my double oven, I did all three at once and rotated in the middle of the bake. The shells on the bottom rack didn’t bake as well. Those were the ones cracking.

I did a push test on them to check if they were done. When they didn’t jiggle, I brought them out to cool before carefully prying them off the parchment. For the largest ones, I took a long angled cake spatula to lift off. That’s when I realized the large ones were underbaked. I put that cookie sheet back in the oven. The cookie I tried to pry off could not be saved but I used it to measure doneness. It worked. The other large shell baked fine and could be used for the base of the tree.

During assembly, I tried to balance the peanut butter frosting with the chocolate ganache so it wouldn’t overpower the latter. My tree was tall. I didn’t measure it, but it was probably 14″ or so. I had a decent amount of time left to decorate it so I made royal icing to pipe around like Christmas lights.

The star on the tree was meant to be a royal icing star standing up but the icing didn’t set in time. So I put the smallest macaron on top and piped a star on each side. Time was up but I didn’t feel super rushed. Overall, it was good. But I was bummed about some of the cracks. I could have made more batter but honestly, I didn’t want to go through more ingredients.

Initial taste was “oh my, peanut butter!” But next bites were good and just tasted like a Reeses peanut butter cup. I liked the little bit of crunch from the royal icing and macaron shells.

For the main heat (and final challenge!), 5 hours were given to make a Christmas past, present, or future cake using marzipan, buttercream, or mirror glaze respectively. Like all the other challenges with options, I randomly drew. I gave each time period a number and had my boyfriend pick a number between 1 and 3. He picked 3 which was present – buttercream! Phew! I don’t know what I would have done if I got mirror glaze!

With the timer set, the first thing I started on was the cake batter. For this challenge, I really wanted time to decorate. So I kept the flavors simple. Yellow cake (doubled the recipe), with vanilla and chocolate swiss meringue buttercreams. My Kitchenaid mixer was huffing and puffing trying to mix all the batter together. At one point, I thought it might be on it’s last breath but it’s a tough mixer. I’m going to guess that I’ve had it for 14 years. Santa (boyfriend) gave me a new one for Christmas. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to my old friend.

The batter was split into a couple of 7″ cake rounds and a large cookie sheet. My idea was to have a square-ish tier decorated like a wrapped gift with a smaller round tier on top decorated with a Christmas tree and ornaments. I don’t have two square cake pans so I had to go with the cookie sheet that I would then cut into fours. I also wanted to tie this cake into my boyfriend’s birthday (December 30) with the same theme I used for his Christmas present. He hates the dual Christmas/birthday presents, but this year I spent a bit more than I normally would and told him it had to function for both events. I wrapped his gift in Christmas and birthday paper. So I was going to do the same with the bottom cake. It was serving a dual purpose: birthday cake and Holiday Baking Championship final bake.

With the cakes in the oven, I got started on the swiss meringue buttercream. I have to say, I prefer American buttercream. There’s something about 6 sticks of butter in your buttercream that kind of grosses me out. But swiss meringue buttercream spreads so smoothly and holds its shape so well, it was the best choice.

Once the cakes were done and cooled, I started to assemble. Both tiers were 4 layers each. The bottom tier had a layer of chocolate buttercream in the middle and the rest was vanilla. The top tier had a red and white vanilla buttercream in the middle and chocolate between the other layers.

I was left with about an hour and 15 minutes to frost the outsides and decorate. Sounded like enough time but I ran out of buttercream and had to whip up a fast American buttercream just to finish the outsides. I also had to chill the cakes as much as possible since some of the decorations would be painted on. You can’t really paint on room temperature swiss meringue buttercream.

For the gold “wrapping paper,” I mixed some gold luster dust into vodka and painted it on with a brush. The other side, I piped “Happy Birthday” several times. Then I went back to the top tier with a knife and spread the Christmas tree on with buttercream. I added some white to the branches for a snow effect.

Time was running out (as usual) so I mixed some food colors with vodka and painted the ornaments around the top tier. With gray colored buttercream, I piped on the ornament brackets.

I had two minutes left and the cakes weren’t even stacked. This is when I realized that my top tier extended out from the bottom tier on two of the sides. I didn’t have a 7″ cardboard round either so the 8″ round I used made it even more noticeable. My earlier idea was to pipe a red ribbon out of buttercream around the cardboard to hide it. But I was out of time. In the last minute, I snapped some chopsticks to size to support the upper tier, stacked the cake, and piped on the ugliest snowmen on the bottom tier.

It wasn’t as I had envisioned. The bottom cake was super sloppy. The top cake wasn’t too bad on its own. I snapped some pictures to put on this blog, then disassembled. The top tier is going with me tonight to a small New Year’s Eve gathering at a neighbors house, and the bottom tier was tidied up a little and customized to serve as my boyfriend’s birthday cake.

When we tasted the cake, I had forgot to set it out of the fridge before we went to dinner. Buttercream is best at room temperature. And the cake was a bit dense when still cold as well. I microwaved my piece for 15 seconds and it was better. Not the most creative in flavor, but acceptable.

There you have it. Holiday Baking Championship at Home finished! 34.5 hours of baking. Who knows how many hours of cleaning. It was rough and there is a lot I need to work on. Thanks for sticking with me and I’ll be back soon with more creative projects.



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I have one word for my bakes this week: abysmal. Several other, equally horrible, words were said while the baking was going on. Let me explain.

The preheat was to make a holiday trifle with three distinct layers (jam or jelly, cream or custard, cookies or cake) in 90 minutes. Sounds easy enough. But the flavor options were pistachio, peppermint, cinnamon, coffee, and gingerbread. Guess which one I drew? The dreaded peppermint. Yuck!

I came up with a game plan. White rum cake with peppermint cream and blackberry jam. Like a holiday mojito. It all started well. I made a basic cake on a cookie sheet so I could cut it for the trifle. I added a good bit of rum and a dash of peppermint extract, because though I may hate it, it still needed to taste like peppermint.

I made the blackberry jam on the stove with some sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch (I should invest in pectin), and a few drops of peppermint extract. Stuck that in the freezer and then made a sweetened whipped cream with a couple more drops of the extract. I hoped that a small amount of peppermint in everything would give it the taste without being overpowering.

Here’s when everything went to shit. I bought 2 pounds of isomalt to make some red and white sugar ribbons. Festive and looks like a peppermint candy cane! Well, what I ended up with were slightly burnt fingers, a cleaning nightmare, and a few very short red sugar curls. The isomalt hardened so fast and I tried to reheat it in the microwave several times. I’ve done pulled sugar once or twice but never with isomalt. I always make my own because isomalt is so expensive. I wore doubled up latex gloves and they weren’t enough to protect from heat. It was a disaster. I had 30 minutes to assemble and do the decorations but instead, I spent 28 minute fumbling with sugar and 2 minutes to throw it all together. AND I was listening to the Script.

I had hoped the main heat would go better. Two hours to make a charlotte royale fit for Santa. I drew my flavor from the choices: raspberry, ginger, praline, chocolate, and pumpkin. Oh boy . . . raspberry. And another trip to the grocery.

The first thing I did was whip up a jelly roll cake. I was going simple. Vanilla flavored but colored green.

Then I started the bavarois on the stove. It’s basically a custard thickened with gelatin and lightened with whipped cream. I added pureed and strained raspberries to it. I didn’t trust the recipe I used so I doubled the amount of gelatin. Have I mentioned before how I’m grossed out by gelatin? It wasn’t thickening at all so I really hoped it would work. I put it on an ice bath and whipped some cream. When I went back to the custard, it was pretty firm. Maybe too firm. It was cold now so I folded in the whipped cream and stuck it in the freezer.

I was running short on time. The cake wasn’t even assembled yet. I made an American buttercream with more pureed and strained raspberries. It wasn’t very thick but I didn’t want to add more powdered sugar. Plus, I ran out of powdered sugar anyways. It wasn’t until after I assembled the 4-layer cake that I realized it was way too tall. Ugh! I should have listened to my gut and made the cake in a bigger sheet tray. Or at least split it into 2 layers. This was not going to work. I had seen some pictures of geometric charlotte royales that I was aiming for. Instead, cake got thrown this way and that into a bowl and I scooped out the bavarois from the freezer into the middle. I didn’t even have enough cake left to cover the top which would become the bottom when inverted.

I had 9 minutes left to make the twist: a baked element resembling a holly leaf. I wasted one of those minutes cursing my nonexistent baking skills, then made what was supposed to be a shortbread dough. Great. 4 minutes to bake. Yeah, it wasn’t going to happen. I tried, obviously. But the holly didn’t make it on the trainwreck of a charlotte royale.

I washed dishes, scrubbed the counters, and decided I was a shitty baker and can’t do anything right. But alas, I am not a quitter so I will be back for the final week. Pray for me.

P.S. I still haven’t tasted either dessert. I’m not sure I want to.

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Another turbulent week in the bag. The last couple weeks wore me down and I felt it on these bakes. Note to self: play the Script while baking. Can’t help but get pumped up when listening to Hall of Fame, Superheroes, and many of their other anthemic songs.

This week’s preheat brought back the team challenge, which brought back my teammate; Mom. The challenge was to bake a dessert inspired by sufganiyot (jelly doughnut) in 90 minutes. It must consist of a fried dough component and a jelly component. After some consideration, we decided to make blueberry jelly and cream cheese filled cannolis.

I got to work on the dough while Mom stationed herself at the stove making jelly. We didn’t have too many blueberries, so there was no room for error. She got the berries heating with some sugar and lemon juice, then used the immersion blender to smooth it out. Once thickened with a little cornstarch, in the freezer that went and she started making the cream cheese frosting.

The cannoli dough didn’t take much time to make. I added some lemon zest figuring that would complement the blueberry filling. Rolling it out was a breeze with my heavy marble rolling pin. The frying, on the otherhand, was a pain. I have the metal tubes to wrap the dough around, but even after greasing with oil, the shells kept sticking after frying in my mini fryer. And I burned my fingers trying to pry them off. Mom got to hear a lot of expletives coming out of my mouth.

Meanwhile, Mom was finishing the frosting. She added more powdered sugar to sweeten it up and it became very runny. So she added some meringue powder to help it out and stuck it in the freezer. Then she was able to help me with the cannoli shells. I think she must have put more oil on the tubes because the shells became easier to remove.

Time was looking pretty good. About 18 minutes to dip the ends in white chocolate and cover with blue sprinkles, then fill. I think Mom forgot about some of the urgency in this challenge because she dipped the shells and left them on the counter. When I finally noticed, there was only 5 minutes left and the chocolate was still wet and messy. I threw those in the fridge and then tried to resolve the filling issues. The jelly set pretty nicely though still slightly warm. The cream cheese frosting was too runny. I tried to put the two in a piping bag so I could have a stripe of jelly and a stripe of frosting in each cannoli, but it didn’t work. So I folded the two into eachother and that just made it runnier. What a disaster!

There was no saving it at this point. I grabbed the shells out of the fridge, filled them with the oozing concoction, and put them on the plate for pictures. They were a mess and we didn’t even eat one. The cream cheese overpowered the jelly. It was a failure. Mom and I sat down and had a glass of white wine I had opened for the cannoli shells.

I tried to mentally prepare myself for the main heat the next day. Two hours to make an upside down cake decorated for the holidays. Out of the options: fig and holiday lights, plum and tree ornaments, pear and Christmas star, blood orange and poinsettia, cranberry and holiday presents, and apple and fall leaves, I drew the apple. Well good, no need to run to the store.

The bake started by peeling and coring a couple of gala apples, slicing them into rings, and putting them in a skillet to warm with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

I used a cake recipe I had torn out of a magazine. It was for a pear and maple upside down cake. I thought the maple might be nice with the apples, and I substituted the white sugar for brown. I also added the twist ingredient, rosemary, finely chopped, into the batter. The batter seemed super thick, but I didn’t want to mess with the recipe too much.

I stuck a piece of parchment in a 9″ cake pan, added some melted butter and brown sugar, then arranged the apple slices neatly on the bottom, which would become the top. Then I spread the cake batter over it all and got it baking.

My fall leaves for decoration were going to be colored tuiles. That batter is very easy. Lots of melted butter, sugar, flour. and egg whites. I also added some rosemary and lemon zest to tie it all together. Tuile cookies have to be watched like a hawk. They only take a few minutes to bake and 30 extra seconds will take it from baked to burnt. I had a couple darker ones, but most of them were perfect. Out of the oven, they must be molded immediately. I just pushed them into a cupcake tin for dimension.

Things seemed to be going well. Then I looked at my cake. It domed quite a bit in the center. A toothpick inserted told me it was done much earlier than my timer was set for. Great! It seemed dry. Quick! Make a simple syrup infused with rosemary and pour it on the cake before inverting on a plate.

After allowing the simple syrup to soak in, I inverted it and shoved it in the freezer. My idea was to take some white modeling chocolate and make a rake and apple filled basket for decoration. The modeling chocolate was becoming increasingly oily and I didn’t grab powdered sugar to help. So the decorations were not very refined. With 2 minutes left, I grabbed the cake, piled the tuile leaves on top, and found places to put the basket and rake. The rake was clunky and didn’t hold shape. If I had used something like a thick pretzel stick to mold the chocolate around, that would have been better.

I just felt defeated. It looked okay. I liked the leaves. But I really wasn’t sure about the taste. After dinner, we cut into it. It was a little dry, but not terrible. It needed more caramel and apple goodness on top. The cake almost had a pumpkin bread texture and taste to it. So strange. Does maple and rosemary make pumpkin??

Next week will be better . . . next week will be better . . . I think I can, I think I can . . . “Standing in the hall of fame. And the world’s gonna know your name.”

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Well, I did it again. I had to bake the preheat and main heat in the same day. Brutal! But I spent a few days up north this week and time got away from me. I said it last week, but never again. So many dishes.

This weeks preheat was to bake a dessert of my choice using the chocolate I randomly drew. Out of blond, white, milk, and dark, I got milk chocolate. The dessert also had to contain a hidden surprise or unexpected flavor. 90 minutes were allotted.

After some thought, I decided to try ice cream sandwiches in 90 minutes. Milk chocolate cookies with a milk chocolate and Guinness ice cream. The ice cream recipe is courtesy of David Leibovitz.

I knew time could be an issue. I don’t have a commercial ice cream maker. What I used is a soft serve maker as the bowl is smaller than my other one and can freeze quicker. Still, I would need to make the ice cream as fast as possible and get it churning so hopefully it’d have some time to set in the freezer.

David’s recipe is simple, but effective. Most times when I make a custard base, I refrigerate it overnight before churning. But the ice bath did cool it down pretty well so I got it in the maker after about 20 minutes.

While it was churning, I made the chocolate sandwich cookie off King Arthur Flour, substituting some of the cocoa powder for melted milk chocolate. It baked beautifully and I could tell it would hold the ice cream together and not freeze to become rock hard. I cut out a couple different sizes of rounds to see what worked best. And I got some muffin tins ready and lined with plastic wrap to fill with the ice cream and freeze as long as it could.

The ice cream was taking too long. I know I should have used my other maker which freezes it in usually 23 minutes, but I didn’t have time to freeze that bowl. I had to start getting some of the ice cream in tins and in the freezer while the rest kept churning. But it got to a point where I knew I would have no more time and just had to get all of it in the muffin tins.

After a trial with the first tin of ice cream I put in the freezer, I realized it was not set up enough. It was going to come down to the wire. I put some sprinkles in a bowl and made sure everything was ready so I could assemble in the last couple minutes.

Go time! The ice cream was a little more set but still soft. I put the discs between two sandwich cookies and rolled them in the sprinkles. When time ran out, the four I plated for pictures had the consistency of soft serve. They met the challenge but I was really wishing I had a blast chiller. I left the rest of the ice cream in the freezer and assembled later when they were a little more set.

The overall outcome was good. I like the ice cream. The cookies aren’t as chocolaty as I would have liked but paired fine with the chocolate ice cream.

Counters scrubbed and dishes washed, it was time for round two, otherwise known as the main heat. This I had been dreading all week. Two hours to make a 3-in-1 cheesecake with 3 different decorations to show the flavors, 2 of which had to be baked from scratch. The dessert could not contain chocolate, as declared by the winner of the preheat.

How the hell was I going to make this happen in 2 hours?

Thinking it through, I knew the cheesecake would have to get baking ASAP. The three flavors I decided to do was pumpkin, strawberry, and maple bourbon pecan. But while getting ingredients out, I realized I was out of pumpkin. The last minute substitution would be apple cider raisin.

Once the clock started, I got to work on the apples. One thing I learned a few weeks ago in the apple raisin pie challenge was that I wanted to cook the apples first to soften them. I peeled and chopped 2 apples and got them cooking in a saucepan with apple cider, brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. The cheesecake base was blending slowly in the mixer while I composed the maple bourbon pecan portion. I made it similar to a pecan pie filling that I would just fold into the cheesecake. I purposefully left out a little sugar in the cheesecake base since this filling and the apple filling had additional sugar. When I portioned out the cheesecake in threes, I added a little more sugar to the one I was mixing frozen strawberries in.

My apple filling had cooked down a good bit and most of the liquid reduced. So I folded that into one of the cheesecake portions. I did the same for the maple bourbon and pecan. The strawberry portion was easiest because I just cut up the strawberries and mixed them in.

I put a square piece of parchment on the bottom of a 9″ square brownie pan. Then I mixed graham cracker crumbs and butter together, pressing it in the pan. Holding some graham crackers in place as dividers, I slowly poured each cheesecake mixture in the sections. Only a little bit of batter seeped into the other sections so I was pleased by that. I put the pan in a large roasting pan to get a water bath going, and in to the oven it went. Only an hour and 15 minutes were left.

For the decorations, I figured I could whip up a small batch of macarons in the shape of strawberries and fill with strawberry jam. Making a small recipe gave me some trouble and I think I had too much egg white. Alas, I went with it and got those baking.

I did not want to peel and chop more apples so that decoration would just be modeling chocolate apples.

Next up was maple bourbon pecan butter cookies. Again, portions were tough. I made enough dough for 5 cookies. It’s hard doing these challenges as home because I don’t want to go through a ton of ingredients. And I certainly don’t want to eat 2 dozen cookies and a whole cheesecake myself. I’ve given some of these bakes away to family and neighbors, but some have just gone in the trash. And my boyfriend can’t eat cheese so any dessert with cream cheese is a no for him.

Back to the challenge, despite my feeling that the cheesecake was too wobbly, the temperature probe was above 150F so I took it out and got it in an ice bath. I felt like this would cool it down better than the freezer. I only had 30 minutes left in the challenge.

As time was ticking by, it became obvious that it was under baked and not going to set enough to remove from the pan. I tried nonetheless. but quickly had to turn it back into the pan. There was nothing I could do. I would not finish in time. Rather than throw the cookies and modeling chocolate apples on top before time ran out, I bagged the decorations and put the underbaked cheesecake in the fridge. I would decorate it the next day after it set so it wasn’t completely destroyed. Strangely enough, the wetter, outside cheesecakes were seemingly set. It was the strawberry cheesecake that was the problem.

So the main heat was a total failure. Even my macarons weren’t right. But again, that’s just because I tried to make a tiny portion. I also realized after the challenge that the cheesecakes the bakers made on the show were pretty short. Duh! Less batter would cook and cool faster. I loaded up my baking pan with batter and there was just no way it would be done and set in 2 hours. My dread for this challenge was justified. I think that means I’m due for a successful week. Bring it on week 6.

After resting in the fridge overnight, I unmolded and decorated the cheesecake as I originally wanted to do. Though still a bit soft, the flavors were fantastic.

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