Monday, July 27, 2009

what's in that can? round 5

Mitsuya Cider is a popular Japanese soda - you could find that much out by googling it. But what does it taste like?


Sent from my iPhone

Friday, July 24, 2009

we interrupt this crafty blog for an introspective moment

I've been blogging mostly about crafty stuff lately for a couple of reasons. Mostly it's because I don't have much else to write about. I used to post a lot of one- and two-sentence entries, but those short thoughts get tweeted now. I've always had a tendency to be succinct, so Twitter is a good match for me. Plus it's a lot easier to tweet than to blog from my phone, and I'm often just too busy - or lazy - to sit down and type.

The other thing is that staying connected to my crafty side is keeping me sane. And I don't write much when I'm not particularly happy; this has always been true. What I'm implying here is that, to put it nicely, I'm not quite adjusted to living in Japan yet.

Now, everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY who's lived here says something to the effect of, "We hated it at first, but that was just because we were closed-minded, but once we got over the culture shock and opened our minds we LOVED it." But I can say with all honesty that that's not it. Not at all. It isn't a closed-minded thing. And this really isn't a "methinks the lady doth protest too much" moment, either. Really. There's actually very little about the culture that's completely foreign, there's so much Japanese influence in Hawaii. I like leaving the base and seeing things. I like taking the train. I love Japanese food. It would be nice to be able to read signs, but really that doesn't bother me all that much. Not being able to talk to the locals doesn't bother me at all; let's face it, I'm not exactly the type to strike up a conversation with a stranger, anyway. The only thing that really bothers me is little things like not being able to find my favorite cereal, or get a decaf iced caramel macchiato. (Starbucks in Japan doesn't have decaf espresso.)

No, it isn't closed-mindedness, and it isn't culture shock - not really. It's just the simple fact that this isn't home. Spending time back in the States made it worse, because I had forgotten how completely at home I've always felt in Philadelphia. Even after seven years away, even with all of the things that have changed there, it still felt exactly the same. That is to say, it felt like home. This is not home. A month ago, I missed Hawaii, because it's beautiful and the weather is gorgeous and that's where I had my children - I have amazing memories there. Now, I miss Philadelphia, because I've remembered that it's where I belong.

When we were waiting in line at immigration in Chicago, I felt this incredible lightness; a kind of giddiness, almost, and I started singing "America, F*ck Yeah" under my breath. I thought I was just overtired from the flight and happy to be on the ground again. It wasn't until we stepped off the plane in Tokyo, two weeks later, that I recognized that lightness for what it was - the absence of the heavy, sinking feeling that I feel in my chest, always, while we're so, so far away from home.

Brandon is ecstatic to be back. He was beside himself with excitement as soon as we got back on base. To him, wherever we live is "home". Maybe what we've been trying to teach him has sunk in - wherever we all are, together, that's home. Maybe I should listen to my own advice.

Or maybe "home", to him, is where the Monster Trucks are.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

the earrings I'm wearing today

Today is my brother-in-law's wedding. Congratulations Keith and Kim!

The bridesmaids are wearing purple, so I decided to wear green with bluish purple accessories. I want to coordinate in family pictures, but I don't want to match - I don't want to look like I'm trying to be a bridesmaid, you know? (This also meant that my 1st choice for a dress to wear was out - it was eerily similar to the style of the bridesmaid dresses.)

These are the earrings I made to wear:

I was originally going to use one of those pre-made wire teardrops, until I realized that they're sealed and you can't thread beads onto them. So I made my own. The one on the left is slightly misshapen near the top left, but I think they're fine.

They look particularly nice when my hair is down, the color of my hair sets off the color of the earrings really well. I'll try to remember to post pictures of me wearing them once I have some.


Friday, July 17, 2009

blossiming branches tunic top

Today is my BIL's rehearsal dinner. I bought this top to wear a long time ago. I ordered it from The $15 Store, an Amazon Marketplace vendor.

(I wanted it in this indigo color, but they didn't have it in my size, so I got it in dark gray.) I loved it the moment I pulled it out of the envelope, except for one thing: the rhinestones. Those hideous rhinestones. Like an inch long and PLASTIC. I mean, obviously plastic. You could see from across the room how cheap they were. I was really glad I'd only paid $15 for it.

The rhinestones had to go.

But without them, it just didn't look dressy enough. It was casual. And casual just wouldn't do for an event of this magnitude. (No sarcasm, I mean that quite sincerely.)

I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it, but I couldn't find all of the beads I needed at the Ben Franklin near my house - and the Mapunapuna location is the one with the big bead section! Crystals, semi-precious stones...but no bugle beads? WTF? I decided to check out Bead It when we went to the Kailua Town Festival. But then, it turned out, the festival was two days after our other words, we were still cleaning the house. I am still really, really upset that I didn't get to go to the festival. Among other things, I was going to buy lots of "I Heart Kailua" merchandise. But the pertinent information right now is that I never got to make my "one last trip" to Bead It.

I ended up ordering from my old standby, Harlequin Beads. I ordered 4 different colors of bugle beads because I didn't know which one would best match the top, and I wanted the beads to be the same color as the top. (The "black diamond" Swarovskis that I had managed to find at Ben Franklin were an eerily accurate match.)

I did eventually find a bead shop (called "Parts Club") here in Yokosuka, on the...7th floor?...of More's City (behind the Yokosuka-Chuo train station). They have a truly fantastic selection of crystals. I mean, holy crap. But anyway.

This is what I eventually came up with:

It sparkles quite nicely. :) Maybe a little more spring-y than summer-y, but I think it's a nice nod to the fact that I live in Japan now. (Even though we missed the cherry blossoms this year!)

And the earrings I made to match:

Also on display tonight: the tie I made for Brandon out of the pocket square that came with Brian's tie.

I think it's hilarious that I am the only one out of the four of us that isn't wearing teal. Seeing as how it's my favorite color (it's the color of the water in Hawaii) and I wear it 98% of the time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

the amazing coral reef cake

The coral reef cake was by far my most complex cake to date, and possibly my best, but since I made it a mere 2 weeks before we moved to Japan, I never wrote a proper entry about it. So I'm saving this to be posted while I'm on vacation - on the 10th, 3 months after Jackson's birthday.

I spent weeks working on this cake. Months, really, if you count the planning. This is the original sketch:

I did a couple of revised sketches, but not much changed. Mostly the final sketch was just more detailed. I decided to do fondant instead of buttercream because I was worried about a buttercream cake getting damaged during the drive to the party, not to mention that I wasn't sure how well it would hold up outdoors. I wasn't able to find any birthday candles shaped like surfboards so I changed gears for the top - I decided to stick with the overall concept a little better and do lettering that looked like skywriting instead.

The candle (just a regular old "1" candle - plus a candle shaped like an exclamation point) ended up on the smash cake. (The candles, incidentally, did not get lit. We tried, but it was just too darn windy.)

I originally planned to do a 10" cake for the guests and a 6" tier for Jackson's smash cake - hence the 2-tiered design. But when we booked a pavillion at Bellows AFB for the party we realized that in order for it to be worth it, we'd have to invite a lot of people. Then I realized that one 10" tier wouldn't be enough for all of those people. So I added a 4" smash cake to the plans.

The plan was to do the tiers in two different flavors. The bottom was going to be chocolate with chocolate ganache filling. The top was going to be banana-flavored cake, with coconut buttercream (as in, made with half shortening and half coconut oil) and macadamia nut filling. Jack's smash cake was a combination of the two - banana cake with ganache. (The kid is crazy for bananas, but he's too young for nuts.)

I was going to use essentially the same recipes that I used for the Cassie/Jim cakes. (Well, the same chocolate cake, and the butter cake recipe that I used for the layers in the tiramisu, but with banana flavor instead of almond.) Both had stood up really well to being decorated - I had even covered the chocolate cake with fondant and it held up fine. But that was an 8-inch cake. This cake, a 10-incher, didn't turn out quite so well. I think I took it out of the oven too soon, because it just kind of collapsed.

I did my damndest to fix it, I propped up one side with half a cake circle, and it seemed to do the trick.

I actually got to the point that I covered it with fondant. Ah, the fondant. From-scratch, delicious, white chocolate, perfectly colored fondant.

And then this happened.

Well. That just would not do.

My mother (my parents were in town) thought I was crazy to make such a big deal out of it. I mean after all, it's just a cake, right? No, no, no. I've been planning this cake forever. Everybody knows that I'm passionate about cakes - everyone is waiting to see what I've been working on. I can't show up with a cake that looks like this. I can't make the cake I've been planning with a bottom tier like this. It'll never support a top tier.

But I don't have enough fondant to cover another 10-inch tier. I was distraught.

Then Brian made the most obvious suggestion ever: go to Ben Franklin and buy a box of Wilton fondant, and make another cake.


So I went to Ben Franklin and got a box of fondant. And I stopped at Safeway on the way home to get ingredients for another cake - eggs, sugar, butter. I got home and we ate dinner - have I mentioned that all of this was happening on Jack's actual birthday? We ordered a pizza for dinner, because he loves pizza.

I ended up running back out to the store again to get flour, or something, I don't remember, and I baked another banana-flavored butter cake, since it was a proven recipe that hadn't failed me yet. (The 6-inch top tier had come out great.) I filled it with ganache, because I really wanted chocolate to be represented. (Also I thought it was a good idea to have a nut-free option.) I mixed the Wilton fondant half-and-half with the homemade stuff and it didn't taste bad - not as delicious as the from-scratch stuff, but it was definitely edible.

And then when the boys had gone to sleep, I got started on the decorating. The tedious work of making the coral - pipe out a few inches, go back and poke little holes in the slightly-crusted royal icing with a toothpick. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Finding spots for all of the little fish. (Actually I think I ended up placing the fish first and then piping the coral around them.) It was so tedious, and so wonderful. This is the part I really love, this is the fun part. It's a shame so much BS has to go into getting to this point.

I haven't talked about the fish yet, have I? I didn't want just a bunch of random, colorful fish, I wanted Hawaiian reef fish. During my ridiculously long planning stage, I whiled away the endless hours of Jackson-bouncing by surfing the "Hawaii Underwater" group on Flickr. I downloaded countless pictures of colorful, interesting-looking fish, and narrowed it down to, I don't know, 8 or 10. I made sure to include the freaky eel that I encountered in Hanauma Bay, and the blue fish that I remember so vividly from Ke'e Beach on Kaua'i - I didn't have a snorkel mask, and I didn't need one, all I had to do was look down and see a school of these bright blue fish swimming around my legs. This is a very special memory for me so I had to be sure to include it on the cake.

The fish were all hand-crafted out of marshmallow fondant. I bought all kinds of candy molds to use as push-molds, and they just didn't work out - not detailed enough. The only mold that ended up working for me was a play-doh mold of what I can only assume is supposed to be an anchovy - it's part of the pizza-making set. I used it for two of the kinds of fish - the humuhumunukunukuapua'a and the dark brown/black one with white spots. I used the molded fish as a starting point, and did LOTS of further shaping to get them to look the way I wanted.

All of the rest of the fish were done completely by hand, starting with a little ball, and making liberal use of my fondant-and-gumpaste-sculpting-tool set.

When they had dried, I painted them with icing color (most colors were the gel kind, the purple on the jellyfish was luster dust dissolved in clear vanilla).

Also re: the jellyfish: I did the bodies in fondant - lots of people thought they were gumballs - and the tentacles were royal icing that I piped right onto the cake. The anemones were piped onto wax paper and moved to the cake when they had dried. A couple of them broke a little, and I brought some royal icing with me to the party to fix them when I set up the cake, but I just never got around to it. There was too much to get done.

The dolphin on the top tier was an attempt to cover up the seam in the waves. I didn't do a very good job with the wave overlay, it's decent but I should have smoothed it onto the cake better before I started cutting, and the seam is awful. Even with the dolphin there, you can see it. As I often say about my own work: Kerry Vincent would be appalled.

The top tier didn't quite sit right on the bottom tier, but that's not my fault; I'm not the one who cut the dowels. I knew it was going to be a problem that they weren't exactly the same length, but by that point I just didn't care. This was a pretty darn stressful cake to make (all things considered). If I'd done a bottom border on the top tier, you wouldn't even have noticed the little gap - but that wouldn't have worked with the concept. So I dealt with there being a little gap there. No biggie.

The smash cake didn't come out so great. I mixed up a bowl of aquamarine buttercream, but didn't smooth it onto the cake right away - Jack probably woke up or something, I don't know, something distracted me - and I didn't think to cover the bowl of icing. So it was partially crusted and dried out when I went to smooth it onto the cake. Whoops. *Sigh*, well they can't all be winners, right? I so did not have the time, patience, or ingredients to whip up yet another batch of buttercream (and I didn't think to add some glycerin), so I just used the sub-par stuff. Good enough for a smash cake, I guess.

So that's the coral reef cake. Not too many people ended up showing up to the party, so it was way too much cake. The 6-inch tier wasn't even touched, it ended up getting brought to playgroup the following week - there was no way we could eat it at home, considering that we had 10 inches of super-rich (collapsed) chocolate cake to eat. But the cake was a hit, and I'm proud of it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Apple Pie Cake

I will tell you about this cake. I will show you pictures of the process. But I will not post a recipe. I'm saving it for the cookbook I may someday write, decades in the future. It's that good. I don't want somebody out there in internet land stealing my recipe and winning their county fair with it. Really, it's that good.

Brian's command had a Hail & Farewell today, and as usual, I wanted to bake something. Being that it's July, I thought that an apple pie would be appropriate. The problem is, I suck at making pies. I particularly stink at crusts. But I'm good at cake. So I thought...why not a pie cake? Like, a layer cake, with a crustless pie for the filling? It was worth a shot, right?

Here's the apple pie layer, ready to go in the oven.

I put the layer of parchment paper into the springform to make sure it wouldn't stick. Probably not the best idea I've ever had, because the liquid leaked out the bottom of the pan. Maybe that would have happened regardless, but now I have a lovely mess at the bottom of my oven to clean up. Anyway.

Here's one of the cake layers, spread with cinnamon buttercream and ready for assembly.

And here's the pie layer, out of the oven and out of the pan. It didn't immediately fall apart, which was encouraging. I have the hardest time getting my apple pies to set properly...actually I don't think I've ever made a properly set apple pie! So I aimed for making this one extra gelatinous, mostly to avoid it squishing out the sides of the cake or causing the layers to slide apart. So like I said, it's out of the pan and not falling apart.

But is it a semi-solid, gelatinous mass?

Yep, yes it certainly is. In the future I'll try to cover the apples with more of the liquid so that the layer is smooth on both sides. Kind of like an apple pie jello mold, I guess.

Here's the pie layer, turned upside down onto the bottom cake layer.

There was cinnamon buttercream between each cake layer and the pie layer. Doesn't this look just yummy???

And here's the finished product, iced with whipped cream and decorated with blue whipped cream and more cinnamon buttercream.

I haven't been doing any decorating since the move, so what little skill I had has slipped somewhat. I was never much good at figure piping anyway, so the apples are...questionable. Whipped cream is hard to decorate with, hence the funky borders.

The taste profile was a little off, given that there are only two kinds of apples available at the Commissary, and they're both sweet. (Orin and Fuji.) Apple pies really need tart apples. I compensated somewhat with lime juice but it really would have been better with Granny Smiths and/or Galas.

At any rate, the cake was a hit. I got a lot of compliments and a lead on a birthday cake "job" next month. ("Job" in quotes because it's for a friend, I don't count that as "work", I consider it just being a good friend.)

I'm just happy that another one of my wacky ideas worked out exactly as planned. Wow, maybe this really is my calling. ???