Saturday, April 28, 2012

Birthday Cake!

This weekend I had the opportunity to make a birthday cake for a little boy turning one years old!  It was a dinosaur cake!  For this cake I used a Wilton cake mold.  The cake and frosting were made completely from scratch.  The cake recipe was your standard 1-2-3-4 cake recipe and the frosting was butter-cream.  I've posted before about the butter-cream icing recipe I use here.
Cakes like this can be time consuming but careful preparation can drastically reduce the amount of work.  First,  carefully read through the instructions ENTIRELY before you begin.  This will help you plan ahead and decide how much cake and frosting you need as well as which colors and tips you need for decorating.  If you are using a specific cake mold and have the instruction booklet, it usually details this information for you.  I suggest making the frosting ahead of time.  The above butter-cream icing recipe can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator in a sealed container.  If you are doing a cake that uses a lot of colors, be sure to make sure you have all the right colors before hand.  I also suggest purchasing disposable piping bags (you don't want to have to stop and wash out a piping bag when changing colors).  It's also helpful to tint your frosting ahead of time.  Divide out your frosting into the amounts you will need for the different colors (again the instruction booklet should spell this out) and tint them to the desired colors.  I suggest not tinting the frosting until about one day ahead of time.
Its a good idea to make the cake the day before, and allow it to set out over night so it can cool completely.  That way, the morning of "cake day," everything is done except to ice the cake.  This makes the whole process a lot easier.

A few more tips:
  • Always a good idea to have some extra frosting on hand in case you mess up
  • Be sure you thoroughly grease and flour the cake pan, or use a cake release spray
  • Allow the cake to cool completely before attempting to ice
  • If the icing becomes too runny and difficult to work with, stiffen it up by placing it in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes
  • Do the outline of the cake before filling it in.  Also, try to work from the inside out.  Get the parts in the center of the cake before you move to the outside.  The sides should be the very last thing you do.
So these types of cakes be intimidating and seem like tons of work but if you break it out into steps and are methodical in your approach, it makes things a lot easier (especially for us domestically inept people).  If you can't bring yourself to tackle the challenge, pay a friend to do it for you =).

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Hearty Sage

The other day I was throwing some kitchen scraps on the compost pile when I caught a glimpse of something truly shocking!  I looked over and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a fairly large and budding sage plant!  The reason this is so shocking is because of where it was growing.  Our compost pile is in the very back corner of our yard, behind several tall bushes.  It is completely shaded.  And there, in the middle of all that shade and undeveloped terrain...grew a hearty sage.  What is even more amazing is the fact that this sage was a cast off from last year.  I had bought it on clearance (I think I mentioned before I never by plants unless they are on clearance) and did an excellent job killing it in the ensuing months.  By October, I had given up all hopes on my impulse purchase and relegated it to the compost pile.  I now know that my husband (being the sneaky little miser he is) came along a few days later and plopped it into the ground right at the edge of the compost pile.  I never noticed until the other day....what a pleasant surprise!
Sage, like most herbs, typically likes full sun.  Although it has come back rather nicely in its current spot, I don't believe it can truly flourish there.  So I made the decision to move it to one of my vegetable garden beds.  I chose the "cool crop" bed where I grow my parsley, lettuce and cauliflower. I have been reading a lot about companion planting lately and found that sage helps repel cabbage moths, beetles and carrot flies (which can attack parsley).
I also decided to try and grow a few more plants from "cuttings."  Most herbs (with the exception of parsley and thyme) are notoriously hard to grow from seed.  One of the best ways to propagate herbs is to do so via "cuttings."  Last year I posted about growing basil from cuttings.  The process is virtually the same for sage.  You want to take a 4 to 6 inch cutting of the plant.  For sage, be sure not to cut a "woody" part.  Remove the bottom several leaves by snipping them with pruning shears.  These will eventually form the new roots.
You can then root the plant by placing it in a glass of water in a sunny location (takes about a week for roots to form) or placing it in some rooting medium (such as sand, vermiculite or even potting mix).  If you do use potting mix, I recommend a kind that contains high levels of phosphorus for better root development.  Its usually best to keep the cuttings indoors until they are firmly established, then you can try and move them outside.
Sage makes a great addition to your vegetable or herb garden.  It also looks fabulous in your regular flower beds.  It produces a nice, bushy, elegant plant.  Make a bunch of sage cuttings and then give the plants away to friends and family!

Monday, April 16, 2012

....And We're Back!

I cannot believe its been three months since I last updated this blog.  I am so sorry!  My reasons part laziness, two parts business and one part I lost my camera!  Thankfully my father-in-law came to the rescue and gave me one of his old cameras so we are back in business!
I thought I would take this opportunity to show you whats going on around the homestead.  Due the mild winter and unusually warm March, the garden beds are already in full swing!  I've been spending the last few weeks preparing my vegetable beds and even have some early crops in one of them.  I have two 8' x 4' cedar raised beds (courtesy of my hubby and his mad carpentry skills).  The back bed has cool weather crops such has cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, radishes and parsley.  I started all of those from seed in late February/ early March.  We have already enjoyed some tasty lettuce!
The front bed I'm reserving for my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil.  I started all of those from seed too and they are growing happily indoors!  I'm hoping to get them out by the end of April or beginning of May.
As I said earlier, I've been preparing my vegetable beds.  By that I mean I've been performing soil tests and adding a layer of blended compost and manure to the top of the beds.  Burpee makes a really cheap, easy soil test kit.  It allows you to test soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to see if there are any deficiencies.  (And no I'm not receiving any kickbacks from Burpee for promoting their product, which would be nice).  The tests are very easy to perform and can be done in 10-15 minutes.  First you gather soil samples from around the garden bed you are testing.  The samples need to be below the surface several inches (where the plants roots would be).  You mix the samples together and then take a small amount and put it in the mini test tube.
Then you add the capsules with the test reagents, add a little water (straws make nice pipettes), shake and wait.  
The pH of my soil came out to be neutral to slightly alkaline.
Depending on what you want to plant, you may want to adjust the pH.  Most vegetables and plants do well in neutral soil.  Some plants prefer more acidic soils, such as azaleas and hydrangeas (if you want them blue).  I have an "acidic" bed in the front of my house where I keep an azalea and  hydrangea.
Every spring and fall I treat the soil to very slowly bring down the pH.  You don't want to do it too fast or it will shock the plants.  The azalea pictured is a crimson azalea, that produces beautiful crimson blooms every spring.  It usually doesn't bloom until May but just yesterday I saw a few blooms open up...
The rest of the garden beds are doing just as well.  Here is a picture of the "dead nettle" we have planted under a tree with shallow roots.
As you can see it is going to town!  It makes excellent ground cover in shady areas.  Don't give it too much sun or it will poop out on you!  I think its called "dead nettle" because just when you think its dead and its not coming back, it really surprises you!  Here is another picture of a shade garden out by our shed.  The coral bells and astilbe are growing vigorously, as are the hostas.

So far, the garden is coming along!  So what are YOU planting this year?