Please take the time to click on the link above (or whatever link gets you to the voting on http://movitabeaucoup.com ) to vote for your favourite gingerbread construction. For your refreshed memory, this is what mine looked like:
As you may remember, I recently entered Movita Beaucoup’s pumpkin carve-off 2012. I didn’t win. It was very upsetting to me. But all is not lost. Movita also holds an annual gingerbread house contest. And I’ve had this idea that’s been percolating in my wee brain meats for some time. And I think I just might pull it off. When I mentioned the idea to Cait over Google Talk, this was how our conversation went:
me: so the lady who does the pumpkin carving contest also does a gingerbread house contest
but I was thinking, what about an igloo, made of meringue? with a yeti attacking a camp full of ninjabread men?
Cait: you’d have to experiment. it may not take much to cause that to happen… i don’t know.
i am not a glowing igloo scientist
also they can’t taste it on an internet contest.
me: find me a recipe for glowing meringue
I just don’t see how the tonic water fits into it
Cait: oh well google says tonic water has quinine which glows brilliant blue under black light
and so whenever they make glowing whatever on baking shows they use tonic water
and it glows
so make some test meringue, brush that s**t with tonic water, or sprinkle, or whatever
and then stick it under a black light for science
me: you know, I could use it in the slurry i’m making with cornstarch, which will stabilize the meringue
Cait: i mean people’s minds will be blown by the googley eyed ninja bread men
but BAM the damn thing glows
i don’t even know why anyone else would bother entering
me: don’t forget the yeti
So you can see how this woman completes me in every way. Long story short, this is what we’re doing. And by We I mean me and a slightly-less-than-willing Pie, who, as Cait says, does not understand our vision. And Cait will be offering moral support over Google Talk as she concocts a contraption for Ruby. I wish my computer could always be in the kitchen …
Before we got started I wanted to lay out my supplies. I needed a piping bag (I used a plastic one with a piping tip stuffed in one corner), and my baking sheets lined with parchment paper. I also needed some form of structure for my igloo, so I grabbed a metal bowl that looked like it was the right size to fit the ninjas I had in mind.
It was kind of an origami fest getting the parchment to cover the bowl in an appropriate way. I used freezer tape to stick stuff down — on the non-meringue side, of course.
Then I made a little door as well. I hope this works.
As we know, the first trick to making meringue is to bring the whites to room temperature, so I did that with 8 egg whites (wash out the shells and keep them for later). And rather than use my usual method, which produces a beautiful, flaky and delicate meringue, I modified this recipe, which involves stabilizing the meringue with corn starch.
In a small saucepan, combine 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1/3 cup cornstarch. Whisk it up until you are sure it’s well mixed.
Whisk in 1 1/3 cups tonic water (I let mine get flat so the bubbles wouldn’t interfere — if you don’t want yours to glow you can use regular water) and heat over medium, stirring constantly, until the mixture is clear and thick, kind of like petroleum jelly. Remove that from the heat and allow it to cool. If you do it for too long you end up making plastic. I’ve definitely done that before. The science of it is pretty neat but it’s a pain to clean.
I also made some royal icing to use as glue for later on.
In a large metal or glass bowl (copper apparently works the best), plop down your egg whites, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (another stabilizing acid), 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (who knows, these could end up being tasty). Whisk that up until it gets all nice and foamy and soft peaks form.
Then, a tablespoon at a time, add in 1 cup granulated sugar. The sugar, if you add it slowly enough, is another stabilizing agent.
Add in slowly as well that gross vaseline-like stuff you just made.
Whip that silly, until you get a nice opaque, shiny mass with stiff peaks. The best thing about meringue is that unlike whipping cream, which relies on fat to stabilize, you can’t overwhip this stuff. So if you’re not sure, just keep going.
I think we’re ready to go here. Preheat your oven to 225°F. The cooler your oven is and the longer you bake your meringue, the drier and crisper it will be. And we want to do this right.
I had a lot of meringue to work with, so I did some experimenting, shoving the meringue in a freezer bag with a piping tip jammed in the corner, I tried out different shapes, scrapping what I didn’t want.
I ended up making three yetis, and a tree. And some blobs.
And signing my name. If I’d dyed this with vitamin B12 it would have come out yellow, and I could have done the ol’ yellow snow joke, eh?
And the igloo itself. I originally piped on the meringue, but I didn’t like it.
So I used a spatula to smooth it out.
Then I baked them for about 3 1/2 hours (because there was so much stuff in the oven), and when they were done I turned off the oven and let them sit in there until the oven was completely cool. Only then did I attempt to remove the parchment paper. This is why I made more than one of everything. Well, except for the igloo. That was enough of a pain in the ass.
I know you’re saying, what’s a gingerbread house without gingerbread? Well, this is a meringue igloo, so it’s not complete without ninjabread men. Am I right? Cait gave me these cookie cutters (by Fred & Friends) when she and Jul were here this summer and so I relished the opportunity to use them.
I won’t extend this post still further by walking you through the ninjabread process (because really, the point of this exercise is in the meringue igloo, people), but I’ll show you a few that we decorated, and I got the recipe from here.
Yes, I really do suck at piping icing. I just don’t care enough to get better at it. So deal.
I also just happened to have some empty gelatin capsules on hand, so took the opportunity to make edible googly eyes for all my participants. If you’re interested in doing this, you can get the capsules from drug stores or health food stores, but you might have to call around.
So you take your capsule and you carefully puncture a hole in the end of one of the halves with fine pointy scissors (or a sharp craft knife or razor blade), then cut around until all you’re left with is a wee dome. Do that to the other half of the capsule as well.
Now you need eyes that google. I found these sprinkles at the grocery store, and they will make handy eyes — in pretty colours, too!
Use an empty capsule to make indentations in the meringue to hold your eyes, then jam the eyes in the indentations you made. Make it go in far enough that it stays, but not too far that the eyes aren’t all wiggly. I don’t know why it’s important that my eyes are googly here in a still photo, but it just is, darnit.
For the ninjabread, I glued them in with piping gel. It meant they weren’t very googly, but this is a still shot anyway.
And now the setup. Fortunately everything I have here is very lightweight, so I just set everything up on a piece of cardboard. For the “ground” I used jumbo marshmallows that I cut in half. The stickiness of the marshmallow made excellent glue for keeping it attached to the cardboard. I also snuck a few of those empty egg shells in there, glued down with royal icing. Egg shells glow pale pink under black light. I thought they might look a little like very subtle snow monsters. Then I set everything else up, using toothpicks and royal icing to keep everything in place.
And here we have our scene of mayhem and terror: poor ninja researchers travel to the Canadian north, only to be set upon by the very creature they came to study: the elusive yeti.
Yeah, I know. It’s not the handsomest design in the cold light of day. It looks like a hungover drunken science experiment.
And in the dark? Well, I’ll let you reflect on that by yourself. I never really thought this would ACTUALLY work. BUT IT DOES! It glows in the mother-freakin’ DARK!
The eggs don’t glow as pinkly as I wanted them to, but it was, indeed, very subtle.
The Pie and I were married on 22 August 2009. We wanted to do our wedding on the cheap, because we are stone broke, and we also wanted to give our guests a little taste of our personality. With that in mind, we turned down my parents’ repeated offers to make fruitcakes (‘but it’s a traditional Scottish wedding cake’) and decided to make cupcakes instead of buying a tiered and costly confection.
Which flavours were we to pick? The choices were almost endless and we didn’t know where to begin. My mother gave me Cupcake Heaven by Susannah Blake as a Christmas present, and we decided to start there. With one exception, all the recipes we tried are from there.
I chose a panel of a dozen people at work to help us to test our cupcakes, and every one of them looked forward to Cupcake Friday. By the time I was finished the experiment (which ran from the beginning of March to the end of June 2009), my panel had doubled in size and I was a very popular lady at work.
A crucial piece of machinery without which I would have gone MAD is the Kitchenaid stand mixer. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who does a lot of baking. Also my camera, of course. I took a lot of pictures during this period. You can see the rest of them on my Flickr site here.
#1 Apple Cinnamon Sour Cream
These were extremely tasty but not particularly attractive, texture-wise. Aesthetically they weren’t much to go on either. The icing was also quite runny and very sticky, but also very good. The sour cream mixed with the lemon and the icing sugar made a tangy topping. The Committee thought it would make a good brunch baked good.
One thing to note about these is that I had to re-cup the cupcakes after they were baked, because the bottoms had burned a bit in my antiquated oven and I wanted to hide that. Fun fact: if you re-cup a cupcake, the cupcake will not stick to the paper cup anymore, as you can see in the photograph.
#2 Carrot Cardamom
I really like the word ‘cardamom.’ These ones turned out exactly like the picture in the book, which was gratifying, and they had a much smoother texture than the Apple Cinnamon, which was reassuring.
I’m not a huge fan of walnuts, however; they have a bitter after taste that I am not fond of – I much prefer pecans. The mascarpone icing, however, was incredible and there was an enormous amount of it. If these cupcake experiments taught me anything (and to quote one of the Committee members), ‘there is no such thing as too much icing.’
#3 Cherry and Marzipan Cupcakes
These little boogers were a spectacular failure on my part. The recipe involved putting half the batter into the cup, then sprinkling it with grated marzipan, then putting the other half of the dough on top. Silly me, I did all the bottom halves first, then all the marzipan, and by the time I got around to the tops, I had run out of batter.
In addition, I had to deal with runny icing and artificial cherries, and that’s never a good combination. Let us not forget as well that I had to face the inevitable comments at work that these strongly resembled boobs. So much for professionalism.
Overall, they were too sweet, and too much of a pain to make. Vetoed.
… then something magic happened …
… my oven exploded!
I’m totally serious. The Pie was making dinner one night and I heard this loud thrumming noise coming from the kitchen, accompanied by a yell that I should probably get in there. I ran in and saw bright white light coming from the oven window – element was arcing and sending off sparks. It was making the thrumming noise. We turned off the oven and got the hell out of there. Two days later my landlord bought us a new oven. It’s so low tech that it has no interior light and you have to shine a flashlight in to see if your stuff is done, but it works really well, I will give it that.
#4 Creamy Coconut Lime
It was from this new oven that a new generation of cupcake was born. I could now actually follow the recipe when it came to temperature and cooking time. Nothing burned, or exploded. It was inspiring, actually. The first experiment to come out of the new oven, or ‘tailgate special’ as I like to refer to it, was this perfect confection. It was unanimously voted by the Committee as the perfect cupcake for a wedding. Nothing I made after this counted for much in their opinions. I was, however, undaunted, and continued on with my experiments. I couldn’t stop now – things were just getting good.
#5 Orange Poppyseed with Mascarpone Icing
In these, I substituted canned mandarin slices for regular orange segments. Other than the fact that I am truly lazy and did not want to segment several oranges, the canned pieces meant that my cupcakes would be uniform and also that the quality of the fruit would be good. Living in Newfoundland, especially during the winter, means that produce quality is always a guessing game.
These cakes were popular with those who liked poppyseeds. I liked them, but the Pie was not a huge fan.
As you can see, I was really getting into my groove here. My photographic cupcake record had turned more artistic now that my appliances were cooperating.
#6 Blueberry and Lemon with Cornmeal
These little beauties contained fresh Newfoundland blueberries stuck right into the batter, and were made with cornmeal, which made the batter a sunshiny yellow but which created a texture many were not expecting.
I thought they were great but most people were unconvinced. In any case, I had a lot of fun with my new zester, creating and photographing my confections.
Martha Stewart eat your heart out:
#7 Maple and Pecan
I had a lot of fun making these – and burned myself severely in the process. They were one of my favourite cupcakes, taste-wise, but many people found the hard caramelized sugar too sharp or tough to bite into, the Pie included, so they were eventually scrapped.
Playing with melted sugar is a lot of fun. If I ever made these again, however, I would let the sugar cool a bit more before pouring it, to keep the fluid from spreading too much – I think that was my major failing here.
#8 Bittersweet Chocolate Wedding Cupcakes
I ended up renaming these bad beauties Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse, because that’s pretty much what they tasted like, and that’s pretty much all the ‘icing’ really was: hot whipping cream poured over dark and bittersweet chocolate and then whipped into a light foam. They are truly divine. The batter itself was a little bland, however, so I thought I could improve somewhat.
You can see at this time that spring was coming, and my seedlings were on the sprout. But spring comes late to Newfoundland, and we had a while yet to wait.
#9 Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemon Icing
I can pretty much guarantee that I will never make these again. I have never been so disappointed with myself. I didn’t want to serve them to the Committee, and some Committee members refused to even finish them. They were dry and tasteless and the crystallized ginger on top was too strong. It was supposed to be stem ginger in syrup but this being Newfoundland I couldn’t find any.
I had to redeem myself.
#10 Marble Cupcakes
When these were finished they looked nothing like the photograph but boy were they tasty. Inside was a chocolate-vanilla swirl cake that really wasn’t visible unless there was no icing but which was nice and moist and light.
The icing was cream cheese mixed with cream and icing sugar. You can’t really top that, but of course that would mean leaving out the caramel.
I used Smucker’s caramel ice cream topping, but had I been thinking I would have used real dulce de leche, because it would have held its shape better and not oozed everywhere. These cupcakes certainly entailed sticky fingers.
#11 Coffee and Walnut Cupcakes with Ricotta Icing
The Pie and I wanted to experiment with a few lower-fat options, and this was one of them, containing no butter at all, and of course using ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese for icing.
They turned out really well but weren’t quite what we were looking for.
#12 Chocolate Fireworks
These were meant to be served with lit sparklers in them, but I wasn’t sure how I would get them into the office.
I settled for the little silver balls instead. Did you know they are called ‘dragees’?
The icing was rather unimaginative and runny, but the batter had some orange in it that kept in moist and gave it a nice tart tang.
#13 Raspberry Trifle
Unlucky number 13. We were drawing to the close of our experiment here, with only three more recipes to try, and I was pretty tired of making cupcakes at this time. It seemed every week I was adding someone new to the Cupcake Committee email distribution list.
I made these while watching Detroit lose to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I was cheering for the Red Wings (my beloved Senators didn’t even make the post-season) because I hate Crosby, but alas, I was out of luck.
This cake was really good, though, because it was chock-full of raspberries. I thought the custardy topping could have had more flavour, but that might have had something to do with me failing at making custard.
#14 Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake
I left the picture of this one small because it’s blurry. It was late, I was tired, and these were such a hassle that I forgot to take a picture until super late at night.
The recipe called for slicing off the top of the cupcake so the cream cheese topping would set, smooth and flat, like a real cheesecake. I cut off the tops, which was a pain, considering I then had to re-cup the cakes, and then topped them. And discovered that the topping wasn’t going to lie smooth and flat anyway.
There was some swearing.
In the end, these were one of my favourites: a fine vanilla cake with vanilla cream-cheesy ‘icing’ and sliced strawberries on top. The fanning of the berry was my idea, as the berries I got weren’t of the quality that they would stand up on their own, like they were in the book.
#15 Gluten-Free Chocolate Cheesecake
Another cheesecake-y recipe that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. The Pie’s grandmother is a celiac, as is one of my former coworkers, and both of them were coming to the wedding. I didn’t want them to feel excluded from the cake part of the festivities, so I experimented with a gluten-free recipe.
It was an all right cupcake, but it wasn’t light or fluffy, the potato flour I used made the texture a little grainy, and, all in all, it was rather bland.
#16 Coconut Cream
This was my final cupcake, and it wasn’t really an experiment.
One of the people in the Cupcake Committee had been talking about the Barefoot Contessa’s Coconut and Cream cupcakes for a while so as a final treat I decided to make them. You can get the recipe from the Food Network here.
The cupcakes were huge, and I knew I wasn’t going to make them for the wedding – they were pretty time-consuming. But everyone on the Committee had been talking about that other coconut recipe for ages, so I thought I would end it with an echo of the earlier recipe.
They were fabulous and if you ate more than one you felt ill. We had wayyy too many leftovers and I think we ate them for three weeks straight. Or at least it felt like that. They were good though. I recommend giving them a shot.
And that’s it. Sixteen cupcakes in seventeen weeks.
Which ones did we eventually choose: Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake, Fireworks (but with the icing from the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse), and the Raspberry Trifle (but with a lemon cream cheese icing instead of the custard. They were a hit.