New Class – Dynamic Figure Modeling (No More Dead-Eye Static Figures!)

At this year’s Austin cake show I will be teaching a hands-on version of my popular beginner Fondant Figure Modelling 101 tutorial (register here) as well as an intermediate class on how to make your figures look like they were frozen in the middle of actually doing something. I see too many wonderfully done cakes with figures sitting there, staring into space vacantly. No more, I say! Let’s get those sweet little people up and moving!

In my new Dynamic Figure Modeling (No More Dead-Eye Static Figures!) class, I’ll show you how to make wire armatures, tips for getting the fondant on the armature, and many more tips and tricks for adding poses and facial expressions. Each student can pick between a walker, a runner, and a jumper to work on in class but will receive a booklet on how to do all three.

fondant figures moving

The walker and jumper in front with the runner in back.

fondant figures

The runner in front and the others in back.

All students for this class should be comfortable with basic figure modelling and may wish to take the 101 class first. It’s pretty much the same figure, but we’re making it get up and move around.

walking fondant figure

The walker will be the easiest because it has two feet attached to the base. Choose this if you’re still pretty new to figure making.

running fondant figure

The runner only has one foot on the ground so takes more skill. Choose this one if you are confident in your figure modelling and want to start pushing your skills. Also note that the runner is an excellent discussion point for how the face tells the story: here, this runner is scared and fleeing, but we’ll talk about how a different expression makes the same figure a happy jogger, a menacing chaser, etc.

jumper fondant figure

The jumper is the most advanced of the three. It only has one foot on the ground and the posing, facial expression, and movement details are what sell the motion as jumping versus dancing. We’ll also talk about how you can use other elements of the cake to enhance the figure’s story: this would look even more “jumpy” posed on a trampoline that is indented from the force of the jump.

This class will focus on the construction and how to alter details to create different poses and moods, but also how to save time to spend on the details that matter versus those that don’t. For instance, these samples don’t have the smoothest, cleanest clothes, but their clothing is modelled to suggest movement. Hand details are more important for some poses than others. We’ll talk about how to focus your time to get the maximum effect on your figures, when it’s important to go crazy with detail, and when it’s okay to simply suggest elements in a less refined way.

fondant hands

Mounting hands on a wire armature is tricky and the method varies by how much detail you need. Here, a mitten-hand is stuck on and then fingers suggested with simple lines because the hands on this figure aren’t as important as they may be on a figure with hands as a focal point.

All supplies will be provided, including wire so you can learn to make armatures and cover them. This class isn’t about a specific figure, it’s about learning techniques so you can go out and make any figure you need.

wire armature

The runner’s wire armature. This is very sturdy for construction.

runner partly covered

The runner partly covered. We won’t fuss with perfect pants and shirts in this class, but we’ll talk about how to do that for when it counts, and how to position the clothing to enhance the appearance of movement.

But I hear many of you crying out, “KIM! I don’t live close enough to Austin to come to your fabulous cake show! I want this class so badly but I can’t get there! What about me?”

There are two answers: 1) if you’re involved with another cake show/club and want me to come to you, I may be able to do that. Get your show/club to invite me out to teach there. I do require that travel costs be covered and keep in mind I have a small infant so I need lots of advance warning. 2) I will make the handout for this class available for sale on this blog starting a day or two before the show. It will be $10 for a PDF of the same thing I’ll be giving out in the class, showing how to make all three figures with lots of tips and tricks to empower you to go forth and bring life into your figures.

But to incentivize you all to help urge your friends who are coming to the Austin show to take the actual class, here’s a deal: for every person signed up for this class by the close of online registration, I will lower the price of the PDF by a dollar during the show to a minimum of $2. So while the PDF will be $10 most of the time, during the show weekend it could be as little as $2 if eight people sign up for the class. If you want that to happen, post a link to this blog and/or the class registration link on your social media platforms and tell your friends to take the class. Then you can get the PDF cheap and get your friend to tell you all about what they learned hands-on with an expert. Win-win.

Plus if enough people don’t sign up the class will get cancelled, and then who knows when I’ll get around to making the PDF. So really really, help me promote this if you want the instructions for yourself!

UPDATE: The class happened, here’s the ebook discounted to $4 for the first week of sale:

Posted in Cake Decorating, Classes, Figures | Leave a comment

Double Dark Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Does that mean that they are doubly dark, or that there are two dark components? YES.

dark chocolate buttercream filled sandwich cookies

Because chocolate, that’s why.

Step 1: Bake some dark chocolate rolled cookies in a shape that can be mirrored so you can put two cookie bottoms together evenly. Rounds are easiest.

Step 2: Make some dark chocolate buttercream.

Step 3: Pipe or spread some of the buttercream between cookies, using the flat bottoms on the inside.

Step 4: Love your life because you have double dark chocolate sandwich cookies.

In lieu of converting to a religion that worships me as a goddess for bringing this goodness into your life, buy one of my books listed in the sidebar. I recommend sitting down to read “Finding Gaia” with your favourite beverage and a plate of these cookies. You’re welcome.

coffee plus cookies plus Finding Gaia equals happiness

Should you be a generous sort who wishes to share these cookies, leave them out for a few hours for the buttercream to crust over on the edges. If you need the buttercream to firm up fast, you can put them in the fridge.

If you feel like living dangerously, you could also add dark chocolate chips to the dark chocolate rolled cookies and then they’d be TRIPLE DARK CHOCOLATE SANDWICH COOKIES. Note that this blog, its author, and her dependents are not responsible for any severe drool damage caused by such tomfoolery.

Posted in Cookies, Experimental Techniques, General Freakishness, My Recipes | Leave a comment

Cookie Cutters: Making Your Own, Some of My Favourites

These days with a baby in the house, my baking time is really limited. I find the best way to be able to quickly make delicious, lovely cookies is to always have a batch of my favourite dark chocolate rolled cookie dough in the freezer so I can take a chunk out and whip something up fast. The fastest method for frosting is to use the same cutter on thin fondant and stick it to the cookies (even if they’re still warm, as long as they’re not hot) with a bit of corn syrup thinned with water. Then you can draw on the fondant with edible ink markers for any needed detail. And if there’s time, thinned royal icing decorations are beautiful and tasty.

I have lots of cookie cutters, and further down this post will highlight some of my recent favourites. But what do you do if you need a shape for which you don’t have a cutter and can’t get one in time, or maybe that cutter doesn’t even exist?

If you just need to do a few, the easiest method is to do a Google image search for the item, find an image that suits you, save it, resize it in your program of choice to suit your needs, and print it out. If you’re just doing one or two, you can cut it out and place the paper right on your dough, then trim around with a knife. If you are doing several or your dough is very greasy, you can faux-laminate the paper first (do this BEFORE cutting the paper) by covering it with clear packing tape. I did this for the Doctor Who sonic screwdriver cookies and the Alien facehugger cookies earlier this year.

The main downsides to cutting around a template are that it is slow, tedious, and leaves a ragged edge on the dough.

So what do you do if you want to make a cookie cutter that you want to be able to keep for future use, but you don’t have access to many workshop tools? If you Google around, you’ll find lots of advice on using disposable foil pans or aluminum cans. Those may work on some dough, but I’m quite certain they won’t work on the stiff chocolate dough I linked above. Thus, when I needed to make some Wonderland themed cookies for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin’s event this fall and didn’t have time to go buy teapot or mushroom-shaped cutters, I found this video and decided to give its methodology a try:

I went onto Lowe’s website and ordered some of their copper-covered tab tape (sometimes called hanger’s tape) and some lead-free, potable-use solder for pickup at the store up the street so I could get it on the way to getting my kid home from school without having to actually search the aisles for anything (this is super-convenient). I already had a plumber’s torch that I use for sugar work.

That evening, I printed off a mushroom shape and a teapot shape, and then used needle-nosed pliers to bend the tab tape to match. Next, I attempted to solder the ends together but usually this requires a highly toxic chemical called “flux” to etch the copper so the solder will stick, and obviously you shouldn’t use that on a cutter that will be touching food. So I was dubious as to whether or not the solder method would work, and indeed I used Many Rude Words as it continually failed to stick. Over the course of half an hour with Many More Rude Words I managed to plug the overlapping holes of the cutters with the solder to form a sort of holding peg, but honestly, it was a right royal pain in the cookie:

Tab tape cutters in the shape of a teapot and mushroom

You can see the lumpy plugs of solder holding the ends together. I’d strongly advise the suggested alternate strategy in the video of using some kind of at least nominally food-safe tape on the ends instead.

That being said, here are some of the mushrooms and teapots I made:

teapot and mushroom cookies

You can see that some of them are reversed, a perk of the cutter not having a folded-over safety edge.

Let me make it clear that although the cutters came out okay, worked well, and are even reversible since they don’t have a crimped safety edge (which also makes them harder on hands), this method isn’t exactly easy. I’d definitely advocate for buying cutters you need in advance when you can, but keeping some tab tape around for sudden cookie emergencies. And if you’re a known baker parent with a kid in school and clubs, you will have a cookie emergency eventually.

I also made some standard rounds to go with the mushrooms and teapots for the Wonderland theme:

eat me and drink me cookies

Quick and easy royal icing decorations, flooded first and then piped for the lettering.

On the opposite side of making your own cutter is an all-in-one cutter so easy that you hardly have to think at all to end up with an awesome result. Take this 3D Gingerbread House cutter, for instance. Well, don’t take mine…I have a spatula and a temper, so don’t even try! This wonderful device cuts all of the walls and roof segments for an adorable little cookie house all at once. Again, I used my chocolate dough but rolled it to 1/8 inch instead of the usual 1/4 inch, since the cutter’s instructions called for that thickness in gingerbread. It worked really well and I was able to make a village of them for my older daughter’s school holiday party as well as the baby’s playgroup holiday cookie exchange:

chocolate cookie houses on disply

To save time, I put the roof segments on their own tray and pre-covered them with sprinkles. That way all I needed to do for decorations was a window on the back, a line and circle on the front, and the royal needed to assemble the houses. Much easier than they look, and these were the hit of my daughter’s school event.

Because these are so small, they’re a cinch to put together with no supports needed. Basic royal icing piped to the joints and all of the pieces pushed gently but firmly together and set to dry. This cutter rocks!

backs of chocolate cookie houses

The houses from the back with simple piped windows.

Another favourite cutter set I use frequently is this fall/Halloween set of minis from Wilton. I bought it on post-holiday sale a few years ago mostly because it had a maple leaf in it, and while I rarely have cause to make maple leaf cookies, my inner homesick Canadian can’t help wishing for a reason. Since then, I’ve used this set for multiple Halloween parties over years, especially because it’s so easy to knock out dozens and dozens of little-kid bite-size cookies with quickie fondant coverings:

Halloween cookies

One tray of last year’s cookies with fondant cut with the same cutter as the cookie and attached with watered-down corn syrup. Edible ink markers were used for details. The cookies were the Ann Clark lemon recipe, and the bats and cats have Satin Ice Dark Chocolate fondant on which is an insanely delicious combination.

Halloween cookies

Recipe and methodology as the photo above, and this time I put punny jokes on the gravestones. That made them very popular with the kids.

Halloween cookies

These ones were for 2013 and have royal icing with edible ink marker designs added on. The cats’ eyes are just yellow dots of icing with black lines drawn on, and the bats are left icing-free.

Halloween cookies in a tub

Because I was taking this set to a playdate party where I wasn’t sure if they’d be served on a plate or not, I took the time to prop them upright in a clear tub so folks could still see a sort of display of what was inside.

I’ve only used parts of this Karate Cookie Cutter Set and only once, but given that my older daughter is really into her karate lessons and her dojo is a non-profit run by women specializing in karate and self-defense for girls and women, I anticipate making a lot more karate cookies! These ones were for their fall Kickathon fundraiser, so I just used the two kick styles in the set. A simple royal icing decoration made these a hit of the event.

karate cookies

Eat enough of these and you won’t look anything like them.

I have two sizes of music note cutters that I’ve used for cookies and fondant effects for Biscuit Brothers events in the past, and most recently for another Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin event. This time they were in Italian flag colours to go with the Italian theme of that musicale.

music note cookies

Once again, fondant cut from the same cutter as the cookie and attached with watered down corn syrup. Easy and effective.

Graduated sets of the same shape are really useful. I have Ateco sets of squares, circles, ovals, daisies, and triangles.

A friend was having a birthday and likes purple, penguins, and purple penguins. So I borrowed the methodology from Worth Pinning’s penguin cookies with some minor adjustments (I piped the black directly onto the whites for the eyes, added wings, and used royal for the beaks), using the oval set, and voila:

purple penguin cookies

Because purple penguins, that’s why.

In fact, I used leftover icing from these and the Halloween cookies above to make extra eyes for future use:

icing eyes

I cannot overstate how happy the phrase “extra eyes” makes me. GOOGLY EYE ALL THE THINGS!

Lastly for now are these lovely Autumn Carpenter snowflake cutters that come with matching texture mats. Again, I got these in an after-holiday sale one year because that’s often the best way to get pricey cutter sets. I wish I had more cause to use the texture mats because they’re lovely, but I often end up just using royal icing and dragees, as I did this year. This year I also added a bit of Disco dust for sparkle, and the combo hid what a terrible job I did with uneven royal application in the first place. Hah, I love cheating strategies in decorating!

snowflake cookies

Dragees and Disco Dust disguise decrepit decorating. Mmm, alliteration.

I probably have other old photos of cookies that I haven’t gotten around to posting, but that gives you a general idea of cutters I recommend for busy bakers along with some techniques that hopefully help you achieve awesome results with minimal effort.

All evidence consumed, om nom nom.

Posted in Cookies, Experimental Techniques, Products | 4 Comments

Quick Tip: Getting Parchment into a Square Pan

My go-to recipe for fast/emergency potluck baking is Brown Eyed Baker’s Snickerdoodle Blondies because I always have the ingredients on hand, it cooks up fast, and it’s really yummy. But I use parchment instead of greasing the pan because then I can lift the whole thing out about five minutes after it comes out of the oven, put it on a cutting board, and about five minutes later cut bars and load ‘em into whatever carrying case I’m using for the event.

It occurred to me on Sunday as I made some that many of you might be fussing around with getting parchment paper into square pans when there’s a super-easy, super-fast trick to help.

Step 1: Turn your pan over on the counter or table.

Step 2: Place the parchment paper on the underside of the pan and fold the edges in to match the bottom.

parchment on back of pan

Make sure your folds are just inside the actual edges of the bottom of your pan.

Step 3: Lift the paper off, flip the pan over, and put the folded sheet into the bottom of the pan.

parchment in pan, still folded

It should drop right in and fit perfectly.

Step 4: Push out the folds, creasing the corners on the diagonal (the angle will depend on how sloped the sides of your pan are). If there’s too much floppage in the middle on any side, just tighten up one of those corner folds with a little bend or crinkle.

parchment lining pan

Fold out the corners and squish-crease them into place. Voila!

Step 5: Bake deliciousness and eat the evidence, nom nom nom.

Posted in Links, Other People's Recipes, Quick Tip | Leave a comment

Itty Bitty Widdle Waddles!

First, in the early days of my cake decorating, there was the Large Turkey. Then came the Mini Turkeys. Lots of them, in costume and in rainbow colours.


mini cake ball turkey

So cute, he just might gobble gobble you!

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Isn’t that the same size as the other mini turkeys?” Nope. This one is barely two inches tall, made around a cake ball (well actually a foil ball so I could keep it as a display piece but it was while I was making cake balls for a purse demo so close enough).

mini turkey cake ball with ruler

Iiiiiiiiitty bitty! That’s a lid of a portion cup he’s sitting on!

Mini Turkey cake and Cake Ball Turkey Cake

See, there it is beside the display model of the Mini Turkey made for the ebook. I guess someday I should make a fake-cake model of the Large Turkey. Also: presumably this means next year I have to make Nano Turkey.

The cake ball version pretty much follows the same directions in the Cute and Easy Turkey Cakes ebook with the small exception of being covered with fondant first (or chocolate, if you prefer) to keep the cake ball intact and to give the feathers something to stick to since you don’t cover a cake ball in buttercream. This version has the benefit of not needing any specialized pans; just make round cake balls and chill them to be firm.

cake ball covered in fondant

Cake ball covered roughly in fondant. Don’t worry about getting it perfect: you just want something to wrap it all together and give something for the feathers to stick to.

After that, it’s the same as the ebook except in teeny tiny scale. If you want more details, grab a copy of the ebook…it’s only $4.99 and I promise if you show up to your school, church, or other community bake sale this holiday season with these, you’ll make that back easily. I’ve raised several hundred dollars for my older daughter’s school with Large and Mini turkeys in past years.

cutting feathers from fondant

I happen to have a tiny oval cutter, but a tiny leaf or petal cutter would also work, or just an x-acto knife.

applying fondant feathers

See, wrapping the feathers is just like the Mini and Large versions. This goes super-fast at this scale.

applying the neck and head

The neck and head are made the same way, simply pinched between fingertips instead of with your whole hand. And the small scale means no toothpicks are needed: it just stays up on its own.

There you have it! And if you already have the ebook, consider this a freebie bonus project. Enjoy, and don’t forget to let your kids have a go at designing their own turkeys this year! In fact if you do and you want me to post some photos, let me know.

Cute and Easy Turkey Cakes - Cover

Posted in Cake Balls, Cake Decorating, Cupcakes and Mini Cakes, Fancy cakes, Working With Kids | Leave a comment

Hosting Problems

If it’s not obvious, this site has been crawling for weeks and down a lot. That’s because of my horrible host. I need to find another one but I have an infant and no time. So please bear with me while the site is slow and occasionally down. I promise, it’s not leaving.

And if anyone happens to have a suggestion for a better host for multiple domains that would let me shift over multiple WordPress sites super-easily, feel free to tell me in comments.

Sorry guys. Dreamhost stinks.

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If You Prick Our Brains, Do They Not Bleed?

You know you’re getting your Halloween baking right when you’re constantly asked if you watch Dexter.

I wanted to make a bleeding brain skull cake for the Halloween party thrown my by husband’s employer last year, especially since I spent the money on the big Wilton 3D skull pan the year before and really should cost-justify it more often. That’s right: buy the skull stuff at Halloween, find reasons to use them forever. That’s sound craftnerd investment, that is.

I wondered if I could do the brain as a long blood-filled tube all curled up on itself so it would bleed at any point when cut. I know just enough about fluid dynamics to realize that if you’ve got a tube filled with liquid and bend it, that increases the pressure, so that I’d need a way for excess to escape during bending. But my more immediate concern was to wonder if the caning nature of modelling chocolate would lend itself to making a long, stretched tube filled with goo in the first place.

So I experimented.

Short answer: no.

Long answer:

I put some of my tasty fake blood in a modelling chocolate capsule like I did with the Bleeding Zombie Rat Cake.

fake blood in modelling chocolate tube

Mmm, chocolate flavoured gore.

I then started gently rolling it to stretch it, and at first it was working.

modelling chocolate tube at five inches

This is just getting started, not much longer than the original tube.

But in short order, it all went badly. The modelling chocolate started to crack under the changing pressure of the internal fluid (so fondant wouldn’t have done much better) and let the blood seep out.

tube cracking just under six inches

Bloody cracks. Feh.

So clearly the pressure was a problem. I made a new tube and this time let cracks appear as I rolled, but kept them under control. I let the pressure readjust, then capped the leaks with more modelling chocolate. This got the roll a lot longer, so there was faint – if sticky – hope.

another tube, three inches long

The second tube.

nearly ten inch tube with fake blood leaks all over

You can see the various plugs and patches, plus smears from the leaks as I rolled. This is certainly not pretty on the outside.

I then cut the tube to see if it’d bleed…

a cut tube with fake blood seeping out a little bit

Meh. One drop after waiting too long. Not very bleedy at all.

Well that was disappointing, especially since the actual application would have to be even longer with probably even less reaction.

I mashed it all up together and tried one more time, going even more carefully.

nine inch tube of modelling chocolate containing fake blood that can't be seen

By this point the modelling chocolate had taken in a lot of extra corn syrup via the fake blood, so not only has its colour changed, but it was also getting really soft and sticky. This is as pliable as modelling chocolate gets.

That time I managed to keep the blood mostly inside, so I figured I should try bending it and see if – as expected – the internal fluid pressure would wreck the whole thing.

bent tube cracked and leaking fake blood

Yep. As mentioned above, this modelling chocolate was soft and pliable at this point, yet it still cracked under the increased pressure of bending the fluid. That bit to the right actually spurted out of the middle as I bent it. Wait: does this make me a blood bender like in those Avatar cartoons? Sweet! Literally!

For good measure I cut the folded tube, hoping it’d at least bleed…

bent tube cut with minor amounts of fake blood smeared out

More meh. There just isn’t enough blood in there to make this worthwhile.

fake blood smears on a bent, cut tube

The best possible piece and even here there’s insufficient blood in the tube to make for a good bleeding when cut. Meh meh meh.

I gave up and instead went for one of my brain molds, picking the size that was closest to the skull pan, or at least where the texture would allow me to fake it best. Yes, of course I have multiple brain molds in multiple sizes. Haven’t you been reading this blog long enough to guess that?

Anyway, I dusted the mold with corn starch and put in a sheet of modelling chocolate at about a quarter inch thick.

white modelling chocolate molded as a brain

This is actually a jelly mold kit and although the brain was not the right size, it was a good start since it gave me the right sort of texture that I could then gently stretch out a bit.

I made the skull cake, cut a bit off the top for where I wanted the exposed brain to be, and covered it with white modelling chocolate. I made a flattened area for the molded brain to sit upon, including a bony ridge around the edge, and mounted the brain so it made a hollow cave against the flattened area. I sealed it down thoroughly on all sides but the very front.

Then I filled a medicine syringe (the kind for giving babies medicine, but this one was fresh and never used with actual medicine) with more of my fake blood mix.

syringe filled with fake blood

These medicine syringes work well with corn-syrup based recipes like the fake blood on account of being made to dispense corn-syrup stuffed kiddie medicines. Ew.

Next I simply squirted the blood into the brain area until it was almost full, then sealed it up.

skull cake with brain on top and blood under brain

Peek a boo, I bleed you!

brain on top of skull cake

Sealed up brain cake. No hint yet that there’s a giant puddle of fake choco-blood in there. Muahahahaha.

Then I went about airbrushing black into the recessed areas of the skull until I noticed the blood started to leak out the back.

leaking blood on brain

Whoops. Guess that wasn’t sealed as well as I thought…

I tried to ignore the leak and started working on the teeth, which I first sculpted with a rounded tool pressed into the modelling chocolate. I then airbrushed with the black, followed by a light wipe over with a paper towel to make the fronts whiter against the recessed areas:

modelling chocolate skull teeth

I was pretty happy with how these looked. The airbrushing makes a huge difference compared to just having the white modelling chocolate.

I airbrushed the brain a mix of black and red to make it nice and gory, and had the whole cake on a cool red glass platter the kind folks at the Forth Worth ICES gave me for doing a gummy demo at their Day of Sharing a couple of years ago. I think it’s supposed to be a nice, fancy platter and not be used as decorative gore, but hey, that’s how I roll.

completed skull cake with a brain sticking out of the top

The completed skull brain cake. He’s smiling at you. Muahahahaha.

skull cake outside

I took him to the backyard for a nice holiday and some sunny pictures. He seems pretty happy about that. Then again, with teeth like that, what does unhappy look like? Right: Skeletor. Got it. Note: did you know Skeletor can’t use a straw? Muahahahahaha.

Unfortunately, the leak didn’t stop. In fact, it got worse. Bad enough that I decided it was now a “feature”. Yes. I meant to have it leaky all along. Yes.

leaky brain cake

Do you really want to quibble with someone serving a cake like this? I didn’t think so.

Thankfully even though it slowly seeped on the dessert table at the party all evening, there was still enough blood in the brain that when I cut it, it flowed all over in a nice disgusting manner, as you can tell from the squeals of delight all around as I cut into the thing. Muahahahaha.

So even with the errors and failed experiments, this was definitely a success. I’d say if anyone else is going to give it a go, just be sure to super-duper seal that brain at the back end before filling it with blood.

Happy Halloween!

Posted in Cake Decorating, Experimental Techniques, Fancy cakes, General Freakishness, My Recipes, Sick and Twisted | 3 Comments

This Is The Very Model Of a Modern Melty Chocolate Cake

My daughter Peo is slightly obsessed with “The Pirates of Penzance.” But when she asked for her eighth birthday party to have a Penzance theme, I pointed out that most other kids her age – even at her very nerdy school – do not know who Gilbert and Sullivan were, let alone have multiple librettos committed to memory. I suggested that we have a general pirate themed birthday but that the cake could be Penzance themed.

baby with a pirate patch

Peo’s little sister Robin wearing one of the pirate patches for the generalized pirate birthday party on her corrective plagiocephaly helmet. D’awwwwrrrrr.

baby with a pirate sticker

At the party itself, Daddy put one of the pirate stickers from the craft supplies on Robin’s helmet. I had the kids decorating their own mini pirate chests and colouring their own pirate bandanas while they waited for the big treasure hunt to start.

Since I happened to have a Mike McCarey treasure chest cake stand that he graciously gave me at the end of last year’s Austin cake show (see this post for what I did with a stand he gave me the year before), I suggested to Peo that instead of using the stand to make a cake-a-pult as she originally wanted, we make it General Stanley’s chest full of stuff he knows about from his Modern Major General song.

Later it occurred to me that the Pirate King could have stolen General Stanley’s chest, so we decided to have a shiny plate indicating that it was General Stanley’s but then have that crossed out with the Pirate King’s moniker scrawled over the top.

Thus, I spent almost every weeknight for a couple of weeks working on bits and pieces of the cake – including making the entire trunk lid with General Stanley sitting on it – while my husband dealt with the four-month-old. I also made two sides of a coin in polymer clay, one of which had a skull and crossbones, and the other that said, “Peo’s of 8″ – a joke combining Peo’s 8th birthday and “pieces of eight”. I used my food-safe Composi-Mold to make a mold of each side, deciding that’d be easier than dealing with a two-sided mold, and made 19 coins out of semi-sweet chocolate chips. I then airbrushed them gold and put the two halves together.

chocolate coins airbrushed gold

The coins before the halves were choco-glued together. I turned one over so you can see the chocolate colour. It’s always best to airbrush or dust metallic colours onto a dark background like this to make the colour really pop.

I mounted Mike’s stand to one of my raised plastic stands for easier portability, and wrapped the whole thing in foil. Then two days before Peo’s party I baked four 9×13 chocolate cakes (the Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate mix with a big squirt of Hershey’s Special Dark Syrup added), filled and coated them with three batches of my Dark Chocolate Buttercream, and arranged them on the stand:

chocolate box cake

The cake squared off as much as possible, firmed up in the fridge and ready for decorating.

Then the night before the party I made four modelling chocolate panels measured to fit the cake and go up enough to create a lip around the top, mounted them, and added all of the pieces I’d made. I had originally planned to do a King Arthur as I’d made previously for my husband’s Monty Python cake – because combining nerd fandoms is awesome and Peo loves “The Holy Grail” almost as much as she loves “The Pirates of Penzance” – but I ran out of time and it was pouring rain so I couldn’t get the figure to dry fast enough. I’d already made the shield, though, so I stuck that on as well.

pirate trunk cake with no lid

The cake without the lid on yet, showing the chocolate coins filling the interior.

I ensured the lid fit properly and took some photos in the kitchen, but then removed it for safer portability the next day, especially with rain in the forecast and the party being in a park. Here’s the cake fully assembled at the park:

full Pirates of Penzance chest cake - front

There isn’t cake in the lid: it’s cardboard and foam board. I followed Mike’s instructions for adding rounded sides but also added a strip of cardboard along the middle of the arch to ensure the cardstock wouldn’t collapse under the weight of General Stanley. I didn’t notice that King Arthur’s shield had fallen over until after the photos had been taken, but I did stand it back up.

General Stanley detail - side

Side shot of the top figure from the kitchen the night before. General Stanley is made out of fondant, mostly my own recipe, with the parasol done in Satin Ice on a skewer. Peo requested that his outfit be the variation from the 1983 movie she loves so much.

General Stanley detail - front

Detail of General Stanley from the front. There’s foil in his chest, toothpicks throughout, and his parasol arm is 18 gauge wire. If this had been a competition piece I wouldn’t have allowed the parasol to rest on the helmet, but in this case when it naturally slumped there I decided a) I have a four-month-old, b) the 8-year-olds won’t notice, c) this is not a competition cake, and d) I’d rather the parasol be extra-supported and not fall off, because the 8-year-olds would notice that.

Peo on the table

Peo standing on the table singing the Modern Major General song to explain the elements of the cake to her friends. She is wearing her Pirate King shirt. Sometimes we use an eyeliner pencil to draw curly chest hairs on her when she dresses up this way, again because of the 1983 movie where Kevin Kline as the Pirate King is constantly showing off his hairy chest much to the chagrin of Angela Lansbury as Ruth. You may notice there’s something wrong with the cake…see below for more on that.

front of cake - detail

Detail of several elements from the song. There’s the sign for “Commissariat” pointing to the cake because of the line, “And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat'” – as in, that’s where the food is. King Arthur’s shield (“I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s”) has fallen over but can be seen in photos above. The frogs are because “I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!” The cut cone is for the line, “In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.” The weapons represent the line, “When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin.” The figure at the side is addressed further below.

detail of frogs and weapons

An above-shot of the frogs, javelin, and rifle. The rifle was surprisingly easy to make: just roll a snake fatter on one end, squish that end flat, pinch it to make the shoulder butt edge, indent the front end with a small ball tool, and let dry ensuring that the barrel is straight. Add the little black bits to suggest a barrel, firing mechanism, and whatever the thing on top with the sight and the powder pan is called, lightly stain the back end with some brown food colouring and voila, an old-school rifle. And of course the javelin is just a rolled snake with a tapered end and a white band added.

detail - nun's book on tactics

This is a young nun reading a book on Tactics because of the line “When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery”.

detail - Pinafore poster

On the left side of the cake is a poster for “H.M.S. Pinafore” because of the line, “And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.” I actually kind of messed up the hand-painting on this classic poster (see here for what it should have looked like). After getting the lady done so well, I should’ve gone to bed but didn’t and then accidentally got the sailor out of proportion. I also ran out of room at the top, and ran out of time for more detail, so I fudged it.


I printed off some cuneiform samples I found online for Peo and she scratched similar shapes into this fondant block. It was even her idea to scratch them in versus painting them on afterwards. After it dried completely I gave it a black food gel wash. This is all for the line, “Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform.”

full cake - right front

The full cake from the right front side, showing the hypotenuse and acrostic on the side. Peo wrote the acrostic. These represent the lines, “With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse” and “I answer hard acrostics.” You can also see a scroll with calculus perched on the corner for the line, “I’m very good at integral and differential calculus.”

Caractacus figure

This is Caractacus, which should be Caratacus but as it says in the song, “And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform.” Caratacus was a British chieftain who resisted the Roman invasion and is generally depicted as wearing a loincloth or partial robe and loincloth, thus making knowing all the details of his uniform quite the cheeky Gilbert and Sullivan joke. I made him with his axe here. Alas, his fate was not much better on this cake, as will become apparent below…

My original plan with this cake was to cover it in Satin Ice’s Dark Chocolate fondant, but when I realized my supply was going to be iffy for covering the cake, I decided to go with McCarey’s intended design for this stand and make modeling chocolate panels. Panels would also create the illusion of depth at the top, and the forecast for the day of the party was supposed to be warmish but raining, so I figured it’d stay up long enough.


The weather that actually hit was instead very hot and humid – low 30sC (mid 80sF) and over 90% humidity – so within the first hour of the party, we noticed the back of the cake was starting to bulge:

bulging cake


But we figured the modeling chocolate was thick enough to withstand a bit of buttercream pressure, so we just left it.

Meanwhile, I took the kids around the park on an evil scavenger hunt. Why evil? Well, as several of them noted two thirds through it, we were going in a circle. At first I denied it but then when they insisted that it really did seem like we were just walking a big circle and going back to the site of the party I said, “Oh come on. Pirates would never play tricks on you. Pirates are the most honest, chivalric, decent human beings there ever were.”

The children screamed that no, pirates aren’t like that at all!

I grinned.

They laughed.


(Although let’s make it clear that I was out in the park the previous weekend mapping this all out while pushing a stroller the whole time, and then again in the wee hours that morning to put the clues in little rain-proof baggies tied on branches and fences and whatnot so they could find them.)

Sure enough, the last clue on the scavenger hunt said that the meanie guts parents had turned into pirates and had their treasure. The kids had to present the solution to the puzzle for which they found clues on the hunt in order to get that treasure. I set this whole thing up so that when Corran could see us heading down the path into the the bushes for that last clue, he could pull out spare eyepatches and pirate costume gear and get himself and the other parents suited up.


Anyway, in that 45 minutes that I had the kids going around the park, the cake pretty much melted:

melted chocolate cake

The back of the cake with the chocolate panels drooping down.

melted cake, left side

The left side of the melted cake, showing how the decorations popped off as it melted.

melted cake, right side

The right side. It is saying something about how well I fused the panels together, though, in that the modeling chocolate slid down like a slowly stretching sock as opposed to just falling off. Yay me. Sigh.

The upside is that the gooey dark chocolate buttercream and the warm cake tasted awesome. The entire park area around the cake already smelled like a chocolate factory before the melting, and after…well let’s just say we’re probably lucky we didn’t get get stormed by all of the children in the park.

Plus, the melting added some unexpected fun: the bulging panels eventually popped Caractacus off, which made the children shriek with glee as they watched him fall. Then they grabbed him and clustered around him shouting things like, “I’m going to eat his axe! It tastes like blood!” and “Peo, eat his head!” and “Stab him in the face!” and “No, stab him in the loincloth!” It went pretty Lord of the Flies in the end…

Death of Caractacus.

A gaggle of little girl pirates horrifically dismembering Caractacus, thus showing him far less mercy than Emperor Claudius. And they say video games cause violence…apparently, so does opera, chocolate, and everything else.

So despite the melting, the cake was a hit and the party a success. And just in case there was any lingering doubt about my complete impropriety as a parent, later that afternoon I gave Robin, Peo, and I matching temporary pirate tattoos left over from the goodie bags:

pirate tattoos

Every four month old should have a matching family tattoo, right?

Posted in Cake Decorating, Fancy cakes, Figures, General Freakishness, My Recipes, Severe Nerdery, Working With Kids | 3 Comments

OMG Bacon Cheeseburger Hash Brown Pie!

piece of the pie

And it has veggies in it so you can totally pretend it’s healthy!

I always say nobody should come to this blog for pretty photos, but if you have Scratch’n’Sniff installed on your device, activate it now because OMG this dinner is unbelievably good!

It’s also highly customizable. Adjust the ingredients to what you like and/or have on hand. Substitute the canned tomatoes for fresh or for a variety that has hot peppers in it, if that’s your thing. Swap out veggies. Try a different cheese. There’s even a different pan style shown at the bottom of this post for those who skew to the nerdy or don’t have a cast-iron pan. A printable recipe is down there too.

But assuming you are using a cast iron pan – which I strongly recommend – let’s begin!

First, you’re going to need some bacon fat. The easy version of this recipe (and the version I always make) is to use bacon fat I already have on hand as described in this post, and Kirkland Signature Crumbled Bacon later in the recipe, which is a big bag of real bacon bits I always have in the fridge for salads, soups, etc. But if you don’t have either of those, you can fry up four or five strips of bacon in your cast iron pan. Set the bacon to the side and drain off excess fat if you do this, but leave a good coating of fat on the pan.

Either way, once you’ve got bacon fat in the pan, chop up a medium onion and brown it in the fat over medium heat.

browning an onion in a cast iron pan

I said “brown”, not “lightly sauté” or “sweat” or any of those other wimpy half-cooked notions. Brown those suckers. Get some flavour going! BOOYEAH. Just don’t burn them. Brown, not black, got it? Right.

While you’re browning the onion, get a non-stick pan about the same size as your cast iron pan and coat it with some bacon fat as well. Warm it up on medium-low heat and add four cups of frozen hash browns. By “hash browns” I mean the little stick-like shredded ones, not the cubed ones. Regional dialects make food blogging hard! You probably could also use the freeze-dried kind if you hydrated them but I’m not sure how much one of those containers makes and the cooking time will obviously vary. You could also probably make them fresh by grating your own potatoes and rinsing the excess starch off and then squeezing them over a bowl in a lint-free dish towel and I’m sorry, now it’s already next week so don’t do that unless you are hard-core on whole ingredients.

Put the frozen potatoes in the pan. As they thaw and cook, press them down with a spatula to stick together a bit. Dot a few more small bits of bacon fat around upper surface to lube it up. When the underside is browned (check frequently: different brands and types of potatoes brown at different speeds, mine take about 5-10 minutes), use the spatula to cut sections and flip them. This whole process will be going on while you work on the other pan, so let them sit and brown but don’t forget about them! If they get very toasty fast, it’s okay to turn the pan off and stop the cooking.

hash browns in a frying pan

Here are the hash browns already flipped over.

When the onions have browned to your satisfaction in the first pan, it’s time to add a pound of lean ground beef (about 96% is good) and lower the temperature of the cast iron pan down to medium-low (I use 3 on my gas stove). Brown that up with the onion still in the pan, all mixed together.

beef in the pan

Beef and onions in a cast iron pan. Smells like homey yum.

While that’s cooking up (and in between checking on your hash browns in the second pan), grate up three medium-sized carrots. Don’t grate your knuckles; nobody wants to taste the cook in this dish. I always grate my carrots to the point where it’s dangerous and then give the end to my kid – who happens to love raw carrots but isn’t keen on big mushy cooked ones – or I nom them myself. See? HEALTHY. Yes.

Then mince two cloves of garlic and if you made fresh bacon, chop it up into fine bits.

Once the beef has no pink left, throw the carrots and garlic in the pan along with a half cup of the Kirkland crumbled bacon (or your fresh stuff). Mix and cook until you see the carrot bits start to soften and break up, probably in just a few minutes.

adding carrot, bacon, and garlic to pan

Carrots make bacon healthy. That’s a scientific fact*.
*WARNING: totally not a scientific fact.

Next, add a can of diced tomatoes. We really like Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes because they’re tasty and don’t contain a lot of freaky ingredients. Just open the can and pour the whole thing in, easy peasy. Well not peasy: the peas come later.

Also add a teaspoon of beef bouillon paste. I strongly prefer Better Than Bouillon Beef Base because unlike those nasty little cubes, it tastes like beef with salt added, not salt that once got sneezed on by a cow. Plus it’s a paste so it’s easier to add it in and smear-mix it around without having to add boiling water first. If you can’t find it you can probably use the cubes but note that I haven’t tried the recipe that way and I’m not sure how much water you’d have to add. Seriously, get yourself some of this beef base stuff. It keeps for years in the fridge and is worth it.

Anyway, mix all that into the cast iron pan (and check your hash browns again if you haven’t already!) and let it warm up for a couple of minutes.

tomatoes and bouillon added to pan

Tomatoes help the carrots make the bacon healthy, another scientific fact like the one above. Yes. *shifty eyes*

Toss in a half cup of frozen peas and a half cup of frozen corn, or about the same volume of any veggie you like (just make sure the pieces are small if frozen, or pre-cooked if a larger veggie). Mix, then heat until the veggies are warmed up, about five minutes.

By now your hash browns should be nice and toasty on both sides. Lift the non-stick pan so it’s over the cast iron pan, and then tip the hash browns out like a big pancake right on top of the meat mix in the cast iron pan, sliding the non-stick pan out from underneath them and away as you go. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but shift it around if necessary to get it in a nice layer over the top. Add a half cup of shredded sharp cheddar sprinkled over the top.

Move your oven rack to just under the broiler, and then put the cast iron pan in there and broil for three to five minutes, keeping a close eye on it the whole time, until the cheese gets bubbly and starts to lightly toast. Remove immediately.

finished pie

Toasty cheese potatoes over bacon and beef with veggies. You’re welcome.

Then serve pie style in wedges as shown in the photo at the top of this post. Yum!

But wait, there’s MORE!

Let’s just say you happen to have a Pi shaped pie pan because you contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for Pi Pans (or if you’re reading this post from the future (insert scifi music here) hopefully they’ll be on sale here). Let’s also say you don’t have a cast iron pan. You could make the meat mix portion in a regular dutch oven or deep frying pan, then transfer as much as will fit to your Pi pan (or other oven-safe pie pan), break up the hash browns into chunks and arrange on top, add the cheese and then broil. Then you’d have PI SHAPED OMG BACON CHEESEBURGER HASH BROWN PIE!

Pi-shaped pie

When Peo saw this she gasped, “Is it PI DAY?!” I said, “No, that’s March 14. But I made dinner Pi-shaped because it’s a pie and I got a Pi Pan.” Then she said, “HAHAHA I get it! Can we eat it NOW?” Yes we can, baby. Yes we can.

As you can see, you’ve got lots of delicious options for this recipe. Just make it however suits you best, and eat that evidence. Because seriously, OMG.

Here’s the printable recipe:

OMG Bacon Cheeseburger Hash Brown Pie!
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Bacon and beef fried up with veggies and topped with hash brown potatoes and cheese.
Recipe type: Dinner
Serves: 4-6
  • Bacon fat - either a few tablespoons of previously reserved fat or rendered fat from frying fresh bacon from this recipe left in the pan, see notes on blog post
  • ½ cup crumbled real bacon bits OR 4-5 strips fresh bacon, fried and cut up into bits
  • 1 medium onion
  • 4 cups frozen hash browns (grated kind, not cubed kind)
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 14.5 oz can organic fire roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp Better Than Bouillon Beef Base
  • ½ cup frozen peas
  • ½ cup frozen corn
  • ½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Coat a cast iron pan in a thin layer of bacon fat.
  2. Finely chop the onion and brown in the cast iron pan on medium heat (gas 5).
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate non-stick pan, add a thin layer of bacon fat and set to medium-low heat (gas 3). Add frozen hash brown potatoes. When they begin to cook and thaw, press down flat with a spatula. Dot with a small amount more bacon fat. Fry until the underside is brown, 5-10 minutes. Cut into pieces and flip to brown the other side. If both sides are brown before other steps are completed, turn off heat and let sit.
  4. Add ground beef to the browned onion in the cast iron pan and reduce heat to medium-low (gas 3).
  5. Grate the carrots and mince the garlic.
  6. Add carrots, garlic, and bacon to the cast iron pan once beef is no longer pink. Mix and cook until carrots soften, about 3 minutes.
  7. Add entire can of tomatoes and teaspoon of beef base, mix and heat.
  8. Add peas and corn, cook until they're heated through, about 5 minutes.
  9. Tip the hash browns out of the non-stick pan onto the meat mixture, adjusting as necessary to make a layer on top. Sprinkle shredded cheese over the top.
  10. Set oven rack to below the broiler. Place cast iron pan under the broiler and broil (on high if you have multiple settings) for 3-5 minutes, keeping a close eye on the pan, until cheese bubbles and starts to brown. Remove immediately.
  11. Serve by cutting wedges.



Posted in Dinner, Main Dishes, My Recipes, Other Food | 3 Comments

Save That Fat!

Bacon fat is awesome.

No, really. It’s pretty much free when you think about it – it comes with the bacon you buy whether you want it there or not – and it does a faboo job of cooking all sorts of things. Depending on the relative saltiness/smokiness of the bacon, it can even impart hints of that flavour to food cooked in it.

Obviously it’s not healthy, but then few cooking fats worth using are. So if you’re going to sauté an onion or fry some potatoes, would you rather have an unhealthy dish that tastes okay or an unhealthy dish that has nuances of bacon? And for free?


If you Google around about how to save and store bacon fat, you’ll see a lot of variety. I know this because I was recently checking to see if there’s an official length of time that it’s safe to store the stuff in the fridge; doesn’t seem to include it and random people’s estimates fall between “a few weeks” and “six months”. Personally I store it for about six to eight weeks and then feel iffy about it, at which point I dispose of it properly by putting it in the trash, not down the sink!

Anyway, when it comes to the actual collection and storage some people filter and others don’t, and containers and methods of collection vary. I have no idea what’s right or wrong, but I do know my method is easy and works for me, so that’s what I’m going to tell you about.

Sometimes when I cook bacon I’m making a sandwich with it, but more often than not I’m also cooking eggs. I like to cook up the bacon, transfer it to paper towels to drain (I always fold the paper towel over the bacon to get the fat off the top and to keep it warm), pour off the fat, and then cook my eggs in the slight amount of fat and lots of brown bits left in the pan. This makes my eggs yummy.

Because this means I’m pouring the fat hot, I do have to be careful. Not only can it burn, but I don’t want to put it on certain kinds of glass that might shatter from the thermal shock. For that reason I use a Corelle cereal bowl, because I know from a lifetime of experience that Corelle is really good at handling sudden temperature changes.

Further, I keep a damp dishcloth handy so I can wipe the dribble down the side of the pan as I stop pouring. That way I can safely return the pan to the stove for cooking eggs without having to worry about fat dripping into the flame and spurting off all over the place.

If it’s the start of a batch, I simply pour the fat into the bowl, let it solidify on the counter, then cover it with cling wrap and write the date on the cling wrap with a Sharpie. This way I know the age of the oldest fat in the bowl, and I go by that when judging the age of the entire thing. I typically start a new bowl every month even if the old bowl is still usable, just to make sure I’m not throwing out fresh fat along with old stuff.

bacon fat bowl

A few layers of bacon fat in a bowl that I started on July 27. I can tell at a glance when the oldest fat was put in there so I know when to chuck it.

If there’s already fat in the bowl, I take the bowl out of the fridge as I start cooking the bacon so the bowl itself is a little warmed up by the time it’s time to pour more, and then I am careful to pour the fat onto the other fat, not onto the sides of the bowl. The fat in there quickly cools the new fat coming in and they melt together.

(And yes you can absolutely play Bacon Fat Geologist later when you dig through the sedimentary laters because science is fun!)

I leave the bowl out long enough for the fresh hot fat to cool to a safe handling point, put the plastic wrap back on, and put it back in the fridge. No filtering necessary! In fact, those bits of fond are pretty much bonus good bits for your cooking later.

Then whenever I need some cooking fat, I can scoop out a tiny bit or a lot as needed. For sautéing an onion, I just smear a little bit on a nonstick pan. For making schnitzel, I’ll use a whole lot to cover the bottom of the cast iron pan in about a quarter inch of fat. Whatever the needed amount, it’s a really useful thing to have on hand and I highly recommend saving it!

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Posted in Breakfast, Dinner, General Cooking Tips, Other Food | 2 Comments