Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bœuf Bourguignon

My favorite fellow foodie from work was gracious enough to invite me to her annual holiday party again this year. The last time, I was in the throws of Last Minute Holiday Panic and ended up bringing a store-bought cake (ugh). This year, I wanted to make up for that by providing something extra special that she and her guests might not ever make for themselves. I solicited the support of my very chefy counterpart, and after some discussion, we agreed on that classic French holiday party favorite: Beef Bourguignon.

Beef, wine, lardon, olive oil, and a bit of brandy - the basis for our dish

Like its chicken sibling, Coq au Vin, Beef Burgundy originated in French Wine country and was popularized in the States by the singular Julia Child. This traditional country stew is designed to give new life to middling cuts of beef. Basically, we are dressing up economical cuts of beef into something really quite special. And, chuck is an economical cut to be sure. Here are some of the things we considered when selecting our chuck:

Choosing Beef:
The Beef should come from the Chuck section of the cow. Meaning the top muscle section that supports the neck and connects to the back of the ribs.


In the actual Chuck Eye Roll, there are a combination of different meats, varying in toughness. The Tender top portion is the Chuck eye, and underneath that is a tougher bottom section.  This roast is not usually used for Dry Cooking, but is used for BBQ and stews.

Nicely marbled, corn-fed beef means you could skip larding the beef

We also researched several approaches, including the classic recipe from Julia Child, as well as the very brief entry in Larousse Gastronomique. My counterpart crafted a recipe that seemed to capture the essence of the dish. Here is his recipe with my photos.

All you need for beef burgundy

8 oz. (generous) Pork Belly
5 lbs Beef Chuck Roast or very thick chuck steak from the Chuck Eye. (“Beef Chuck eye Roll”)
Olive Oil.
White Flour for dusting
6 Cups of Burgundy Wine (1.5 liters)
3 Large (restaurant size) Carrots
2 Leeks
1 Large (restaurant size) Onion
Celeriac Root.
1 ½ Small Pearl Onions
2 lbs. Small  White New Potatoes
Bouquet Garnie, of Bay Leaf, Thyme, Sage, and a little oregano
Salt for seasoning the meat
1 Cup (8oz) Tomato Paste (Goya Latino, Salsa de tomato)
3 sprigs Thyme

Cook Pork belly in Olive Oil. To prepare the pork belly, freeze it until it is firm, and then slice it with a sharp knife. Cut it down into small strips and fry it in a heavy pot with a generous pour of olive oil.

Sliced pork belly fat is a good source of lardon

Fry it up until it is crisp

Cube beef and dry. Trim off any fat or gristle using a sharp knife or kitchen shears.

Season with Salt, Pepper, with a little ground Oregano and a little ground sage, then dust with white flour. 

Just dust it, do not bread it

Then, place it in a warm oven at 175 for a few minutes to dry.

A warm oven is a good way to dry meat

Fry in Pan, high heat, until Gratin (Brown Crust) is formed on the outside of the meat. Remove the meat and separate out the pork belly and discard.

Dried beef browned with lardon

Add 1 large onion, and Thyme. Continue to cook in the fat. Deglaze the pan with ½ of a bottle of Burgundy Wine.

Add Carrots, Leek, Celeriac to a Large Stewing pot, with the Bouquet Garni, 

Pour Beef mixture over vegetables in the stewing pot. Add a generous pour of brandy and flame it to burn off the alcohol.

Transfer to a large roasting pan and add the rest of the bottle of burgundy.

Add the entire bottle of wine

Bake for about an hour at 350, then add small potatoes. If you do not see the sauce bubbling, turn up the heat. Bake for 1 more hour, and then add pearl onions. Portion out some of the sauce and thicken it with sugar, a can of tomato paste, and some potato starch. Add the sauce to the pan and bake for 1 further hour. Total bake time is about 3 hours.

Remove from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Holiday Baking: Return of the Fruitcake

A few years back, I decided to learn how to make fruitcake. It is a holiday classic, and I strongly felt that it should be in my repertoire. I found a clever little recipe on Epicurious that called for only a couple of varieties of dried fruit, and I worked with it until i got it just right. At the request of my counterpart, I chose to give it a rest last year and pulled it from the cookie basket. And I heard about it. So, at the request of those regulars on the cookie lit, I brought it back this year.

My variation of this recipe cuts back significantly on the fruit and leaves out the booze entirely. What you have left is a light, most, golden cake with sweet maple flavor and a handful of compatible fruits - dried fruits instead of the usual candied concoctions.

Here's my take:

1/2 pounds pitted dried cherries, chopped
1/2 pounds dried apricots, chopped
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon run flavor
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour 10-inch-diameter angel food cake pan, a standard loaf pan, or six mini loaf pans. Toss the chopped dried fruit with 1/2 cup flour in large bowl to coat.

Combine the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Beat butter and
both sugars in another large bowl until fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, blending well after each addition. Add the rum flavoring, maple syrup, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and beat until just combined. Stir in dried fruit mixture. Using a small soup ladle, spoon the batter into prepared pan, flattening to eliminate air pockets. This technique is particularly useful if you are baking min loaves. Bake until tester inserted near center of cake comes out clean and cake is deep golden brown, about 90 minutes for a full-sized cake, or about 60 minutes for mini loaves.

The original recipe also includes a hard sauce that I omit because it doesn't package well, and I tend to give to families and co-workers. Here is a link to the recipe in Epicurious for you to work with as you like.

Holiday Baking: Butterscotch Brownies

The one no-fail, sure-fire, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark cookie recipe I include in my cookie basket every year is my mother's butterscotch brownie recipe. I grew up eating these - not just during the holidays, but all year round. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers alike snarf these down with child-like abandon, and I know I would hear about it if I stopped including them.

My mother's recipe comes from The Boston School of Cooking cookbook by Fannie Farmer. A single batch makes a small 8x8 square pan of brownies - hardly enough to get through the season. This year, I made two triple-batches. Here's the triple-batch recipe.

1 cup butter - this is two full sticks
3 cups brown sugar, packed
3 eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1  1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Melt the butter the butter on the stovetop over low heat, making sure it doesn't get too hot. Mix the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl. When the butter has just about melted, remove it from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. Then add it to the remaining ingredients, folding everything together with a large spatula or wooden spoon. Even though I have the Kitchen Aid Pro, I still prefer to mix these by hand. I've tried getting modern and fancy with this recipe and it hasn't worked for me, although my mom adds chocolate chips and walnuts to this recipe these days.

One the batter is well,mixed, spread it into a buttered 9x13 pan. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 and use a toothpick to check the doneness. Cool on a wire rack.

And that's it.

Holiday Baking: Spiced Apple Cookies

I like a little spice cookie and am always looking for new recipes to incorporate spice into my holiday cookie basket. I found this interesting recipe on Food52 from user Kelsey the Naptime Chef, who credits a neighbor for this recipe. It's a straight-forward recipe that results in a moist, cake-like cookie with a nice apple pie-like flavor as promised by the baker.

Serves 3 dozen

1 cup raisins I omitted these out of personal bias
1/2 cup shortening I used butter instead - this does change the flavor and character of the cookie, but I was not disappointed with this choice
1 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/4 cup whole milk
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts I also omitted these as with the raisins
1 cup chopped unpeeled apple (seeds and core removed)

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. In a small saucepan add the raisins and fill with water until raisins are just covered. Bring to a boil and then
remove pan from heat. Allow to stand for 5 minutes. Drain raisins and reserve.

3. In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment beat together shortening and brown sugar. Then, beat in the egg
and the milk.

4. In a separate bowl stir together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves and nutmeg. With the mixer
on low, slowly add this to the shortening mixture. Beat until everything is well blended.

5. With a wooden spoon stir in the nuts, apple and drained raisins. Drop by heaping teaspoonful onto cookie
sheet. Press the tops of the cookies down slightly with two fingers. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes. In my oven, these took about 15 minutes.

I had no troubled with this recipe, and I really liked these cookies, but my counterpart felt they could use a bit of icing. The next time I try this recipe, I'll take his advice.

Holiday Baking: Figgy Pudding Butter Cookies

Last year, I decided to try to incorporate fig into my holiday baking. It's one of those traditional holiday flavors, and many classic recipes can be found that feature dried fig. But, when it comes to incorporating figs into my annual holiday cookie basket, I've had little success. Last year I tried Anise Fig and Date pinwheels, a challenging recipe that I am not entirely sure ended up tasting the way it should. This year, I opted for what I hoped would result in a sweeter cookie with a more pronounced fig flavor - Figgy Pudding Butter Cookies from Food52.

First, a note on the level of difficulty, because the recipe appears to be simple enough. This recipe calls for powdered sugar, which means you will end up with a very different dough that what you get with granulated sugar. It will be stiff and tacky and unforgiving. If you are a seasonal baker like me, this is probably outside our weight class and should be either left to the uber bakers out there or tackled outside of the holiday baking marathon when there is quite frankly too much else going on to pull this off.

Still, I thought I could do this and tried to time it so that the dough had the requisite 2+ hours to chill and I wouldn't have to deal with it until immediately after lunch. This did not help. The recipe calls for rolling and cutting the dough into think circles that most likely bake into golden crisps. I couldn't get my dough to roll and ended up making drop cookies that I tried to flatten. This was a mistake. The dough does not want to flatten in this manner, and it didn't. I ended up with mis-shapen cookie blobs that also did not have the strong fig flavor I was seeking.

This recipe also calls for icing the cookies. You must do this. The flavor of the cookie was enhanced by a mild royal icing, although the recipe calls for an adult brandy-laced icing that I felt would be too strong. This might also have been a misstep, but I wasn't sure how the brandy icing would set.

So, here it is as it appeared on Food52 by member HelenTheNanny with some additional notes from my own experience. She notes that this her own creation and provides a photo with the recipe of what these should look like:

Serves 3 dozen small cookies

For the Cookies:

1 tablespoon orange zest (from one orange)
8-10 large dried Turkish or Caliymirna Figs (the light brown ones)
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cup All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cups (or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cups Confectioners sugar
1 large egg

For the Brandy-Sugar Glaze:

1 1/2 cup Confectioners sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons Brandy
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract

1. Sift together flour, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in a bowl and set it aside.

2. Dice figs into small chunks and put them in a saucepan with the milk. Heat on low, stirring occasionally for
about 15 minutes. When I did this, I didn't pay attention and I let my milk boil. The figs and the milk kind of homogeonized into a thick sauce. I don't think this is what HelenTheNanny intended. This might also explain the trouble I had working with this dough.

3. Put 1 1/2 sicks of softened butter in the bowl of the electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix
on med-high until the butter is fluffy, about two minutes.

4. Sift 3/4 cup of confectioners sugar into the fluffy butter and mix until smooth.

5. Add in one egg and reduce speed to low.

6. Add in flour mixture and mix until just combined.

7. Strain the figs from the milk. When I did this, I only got about a tablespoon of liquid. I feel I must note again that I don't think this is right. Add them, along with the orange zest, to the dough. Fold in until the
ingredients are evenly distributed. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours.

8. After the dough has cooled, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a well-floured surface, roll out the
dough until it is 1/8 inch thick. Using a 2 inch round cookie cutter, cut out the cookies and place them on a
parchment lined cookie sheet, spaced one inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are
golden brown.

9. While the cookies are baking, combine all the ingredients for the Brandy-Sugar Glaze in a saucepan on
med-low heat, and stir often, until the sauce comes together. After the cookies have cooled, use a fork to
drizzle the warm glaze on them. I used the traditional royal icing but probably should have just made Helen's glaze.

So, if any readers try this out at home, try not to deviate the way I did. I may try this one again as written when I can focus on it. If it works out for me, I'll let you know.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Weekday Coq au Vin

What I love most about winter is my counterpart invariably pulls out Le Gastronomique for a little old school comfort food. This week, he tried his had at that old classic Coq au Vin. As the name implies, this is basically chicken in a wine sauce. And it is a very old recipe with some accounts tracing it back to Julius Caesar in Gaul. A variant of the dish first appeared in print in 1864. Then, about 100 years later, Julia Child brought it to the U.S. in her seminal cookbook and featured it often on her cooking show.

The basis of Coq au Vin - chicken and wine
The recipe was most likely developed as a means of preparing old rooster, so there is a certain amount of time devoted to simmering the chicken in the wine to help season it. Even if you used a conventional bird from the grocery store, you still want to allow sufficient simmering time for that authentic flavor to develop. You need to create a sauce that is flavorful enough to both compensate for the mildness of the slow-cooked meat, but also complements it without overpowring it. And, while many have tried, there is no real getting around the long, slow cook required to get this right. But there is a way to mitigate it so that you can even have authentic coq au vin on a school night. The trick is the slow cooker.

So, the night before, you will have left overs because you will be prepping your authentic coq au vin. One of the truly nice things about this dish is that it does not require any esoteric ingredients. We had everything we needed on hand for this without needing to stop by the grocery store. And in the 30-45 minutes it takes for your leftovers to reheat in the oven, you will be able to brown your meat and prep your veg.

You will need:
  • About 4 pounds of chicken, cut up (We used a pack of chicken thighs with the skin on that we deboned)
  • About 3 oz of bacon, also cut up
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Leek
  • Carrot
  • Potato
  • A heavy hand of Mediterranean seasoning on our chicken
  • Brandy
  • About half a bottle of a nice wine
  • A bit of habanero sauce or some other hot sauce to help cut the richness of the dish
  • A bit of sugar to help cut the bitter
  • A bit of flour
First, brown the bacon in a heavy pot. While it is browning, season the meat. We recommend sage, thyme, oregano, savory, white pepper, salt, and a bit of that habanero sauce. Place the chicken skin-side down directly on top of the bacon.

Start with a nice base of bacon

Continue to cook the chicken in the bacon fat while you prep your veg, remembering to turn the chicken a couple of times with your tongs.

Heavily seasoned chicken cooking in the bacon

You'll also want to sprinkle a handful of flour over the chicken. This will mix with the fats and will help things thicken in this first cooking.

A little flour never hurts

And, prepping the veg is not so bad for this dish as you will want large chunks of veg. Make sure to peel the potatoes and carrots, and to thoroughly clean your leek.

Large chunks of veg

Once the chicken has cooked through and the outside has browned, add a generous pour of brandy to the pot. If you have the time and you want to be truly authentic, light it up and flame it off. We passed on this step and just let the heat of the pot cook off the booze.

When it looks like this, it's ready for the booze

You'll also want to add that nice wine, and also a bit of sugar. While the French may say you'll get the sugar from the wine, we used a domestic and were not hedging our bets.

A splash of brandy

A lot of wine

Give the wine some time to cook as well. Then, gently transfer the contents of your pot to your 2-quart measuring cup. Once it has cooled a bit, place a lid on it and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight for the flavors to mingle.

When it looks like this, it's done for the night

A large measuring cup is ideal for overnight storage

Bag up your veg for the night also.

The next morning, get out that slow cooker. Place the potatoes in first at the bottom of the pot. Then add the rest of the veg. Then place the meat on top, pouring the liquid from the meat over the whole thing and add a couple of cups of water as well.

Set your slow cooker for 4-6 hours and go on your merry way to work. When you get home, your coq au vin will be cooked, and you'll just have to make the sauce. This is a necessary and quick step, so don't get over-excited and skip it, no matter how good the kitchen smells.

This is what I came home to on Thursday
Empty the contents of the slow cooker into a colander to strain the sauce from the meat and veg. Then strain the liquid again through a mesh colander or something similar. This is also a necessary step to remove the sediment from the sauce. Here's a photo depicting why you should do this.

Why you need to strain that sauce

Place the strained sauce in a pan on the stove over medium heat. Dissolve some potato starch in a bit of water and add it to the sauce and simmer until slightly thickened.

Thickening the sauce on the stovetop

Arrange your chicken pieces and veg in a wide, shallow bowl and top with the sauce. And go easy on that sauce. That golden color and delicious flavor comes from animal fat. Plus, the surprise best-tasting element of this dish - the onions. They come out sweet and fatty and melt in your mouth. And that's how you get coq au vin on a Thursday night.

Weekday Coq au Vin

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Baking: Old School Pumpkin Pie

I've never made a pumpkin pie. This is primarily because I've never had a pumpkin pie that I like as much as a good fruit pie. So, for the holidays, my counterpart gets what was traditional for my family growing up in close proximity to Wisconsin's cherry orchards - a nice tart cherry pie. Even on Thanksgiving.

This year I decided to give the man a break and muster up a home made, fresh pumpkin pumpkin pie. I always kind of liked my mom's approach. She uses a standard recipe but doubles the spice except for the clove, which she halves. This creates a nice spicy pie. But, there's still something weird about the texture of most pumpkin pies. Maybe it's the prevalence of canned pumpkin?

I did a bit if research and found an old-school recipe for pumpkin pie on the Food52 blog. And, by old school, I mean it predates the era in which I was raised, where condensed milk was as ubiquitous in the kitchen as flour, sugar, and eggs. I feel as if the women who raised me put that stuff in everything. My first fudge recipe called for a fair amount of the stuff.

And, maybe this is also part of my issue with pumpkin pie. I can't get beyond that tinned milk flavor of so many fillings. So when I found a recipe that used good old fashioned cream, I knew I had a winner.

Food52 attributes this recipe to Meta Given, who published the two-volume Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking sometime in the 1940's. It calls for caramelizing the pumpkin, as well as limiting the spice to cinnamon and ginger. It also bakes in about 25 minutes.

For Meta Given's Caramelized Pumpkin Pie you will need:

A 9-inch pie pan lined with pastry (I like the Deluxe Butter Pastry from Joy of Cooking)
1 3/4 cups cooked pureed pumpkin
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 eggs
1 cup cream
1/2 cup milk

To prepare the pureed pumpkin, you'll want a sharp knife, a kitchen shears, and a vegetable peeler. First, cut the pumpkin into quarters and use the kitchen shears to cut out the seeds an all those little threads. Then, use the vegetable peeler to peel the skin. Roast them in the oven at about 350 until the internal temperature of the pumpkin is 140 or so. While your pumpkin is roasting, you can prepare your crust.

When your pumpkin is out of the oven and has cooled a bit, use a parking knife to cut it down into smaller pieces. Then mash it with your potato masher before pureeing it with an immersion blender.

Make sure to roll out your pie crust and get it in your pie pan before you start the filling. This comes together quickly, and the recipe calls to pour the fresh-from-the-stove-top filling into a chilled pie shell. So, get your crust in your pie pan and place it in the freezer to chill while you make the filling. Also, I made enough pie crust for two pies. This is a good thing to do if you are making a recipe for the first time, or if you are a holiday baker only and haven't really baked since new year's brunch. This way, if the pie doesn't turn out, you've got another crust on hand to quickly try again.

Here's something else that will help, especially with this recipe. Basically, you've got three main components: the pumpkin, your dry ingredients, and your wet ingredients. Premix the sugar, salt, and spices and set aside. Then, beat your eggs and pre-mix the egg, cream, and milk.

Now you are ready to caramelize your pureed pumpkin. Place it in a heavy saucepan over direct heat. I started mine out on high heat and watched while it looked (and smelled) like it was scorching. It stuck to the pan and really made me more than a little anxious. So, I turned the heat down a bit and kept going. The recipe says it should take about 10 minutes to caramelize. And, after about 5 minutes, the scent changed, and it did indeed begin to smell a bit like caramelized sugar. After about 8 minutes, the pumpkin was starting to brown and had achieved a slightly dry texture.

Caramelized Pumpkin

Remove the pumpkin from the heat and fold the sugar mixture into the still-hot pumpkin. Use a good spatula, too, as the sugar is going to react with the hot pumpkin. As I mixed the sugar, I noticed that all the pumpkin residue that I saw sticking to my pan came right off and mixed in with the rest.

With sugar and spice

Once everything is well combined, mix in the cream mixture. I used my immersion blender, but a hand mixer would probably be more appropriate.

With cream and egg mixed in

Now, here's the second area of concern for me. The filling is liquid. Like really liquid. I got a little concerned that I had skipped a step or something. But, no, it is supposed to be this way. There are eggs in there, and they will cook. So, I removed my pie shell from the freezer and used a small soup ladle to gently transfer my steaming hot pie filling into the very chilled pastry, ladling some off into a small glass dish to serve as a taste test. This is another good thing to do if you are trying a new recipe as it gives you a chance to sample the filling before the pie is out on the table in front of guests.

Ready for the oven

Bake the pie in a pre-heated 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the filling has set. The recipe says this is when it is slightly jiggly and the area in the center is still liquid. It also says that a pumpkin pie that has been cooked properly has a smooth surface that has not cracked. My pie cooked in about 30 minutes and was somewhere in between these two guide posts.

Plus, it looked burnt. So, after allowing my taste test some time to cool, I gave it a try. This is a unique pie filling that does indeed taste strongly of pumpkin. The light spicing of ginger and cinnamon allow the actual flavor of the pumpkin to dominate, as the recipe promised. Plus, there is an undertone of caramel that is subtle but noticeable. The texture is clearly an egg-based filling, although not quite a custard. Overall, I am pleased. I hope my counterpart is also.

The finished product

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Importance of Mad Cake Skills

I don't think you can actually consider yourself well-versed in the kitchen and the culinary arts unless you can pull off a Special Occasion Cake. My counterpart and I have had a couple of opportunities to test his skill in this area. The first was last spring when our favorite couple got married in an intimate and touching celebration with their families. We provided the cake and were privileged to be the only non-blood relations at the ceremony. The second opportunity came earlier this month when their daughter (actually, his daughter and her step daughter) turned 16. We've known her since infancy,and when she asked us to make her birthday cake, we gladly rose to the occasion.Which is kind of why this is important. You never know when you may need this skill.

So, our Sweet 16 birthday girl chose the Candyland game for her theme and requested a red velvet cake decorated with this theme in mind.

Our first task was to find a suitable recipe. There is a vast plethora of recipes for red velvet cake out there on the world wide web, ranging from the mayonnaise-based cake I remember from my 1970's childhood to those that rely on buttermilk and acidulation to achieve the characteristic velvety texture. After a little bit of research, we learned that the original red velvet cake got both its texture and color from the alkaline levels from the cocoa that is its primary flavor. Most cocoas today are processed differently than 40 years ago, so we rely on food coloring for the red color and other form of acidulation for the moist, velvety texture.

Here is the recipe we finally used. This will make enough for a three-layer, 6-inch smash cake that's about 9 inches high.

You will need:

2 1/2 sticks butter
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups sugar
1-2 tablespoons red gel food color mixed with 2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

First, preheat your oven to 350 and grease and flour your cake pans. We highly recommend spring-form pans because they are the easiest to remove the cake from. Also, we like to line the bottoms of our spring-form pans with parchment paper. This will help you remove the bottoms with minimal damage to your cake.

Cream together butter and sugar like you would for cookies. Add your eggs and beat for about a minute or so. Then beat in the vanilla until it is blended in.

Mix together the cocoa and your food coloring and water mixture. If you don't like the color, add some more food coloring, a little at a time, until it is your preferred intensity. We used 1 tablespoon of food coloring and got a cake that was more on the pink side. When you feel you have the right amount of coloring mixed in, beat this into the butter mixture until blended.

This was the strength of our food coloring

Sift together the flour and salt. Slowly combine into the butter mixture, alternating with your buttermilk. If you are using an electric mixer, you'll want to keep things at low to medium speed.

Combine the baking soda with the vinegar. Then gradually blend this into your batter.

Spoon the batter into your cake pans, keeping in mind that the batter will expand somewhat while it bakes. The recipe said this should bake in 22-28 minutes. Our cakes baked through in about 35-40 minutes. So, you'll want to make sure the batter has set and is no longer jiggly, and that a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean before you consider your cakes to be done.

Cool them on a wire rack and pop then out of those spring-form pans to cool completely before you decorate them. You'll want to do a dirty frost and let the cakes rest several hours before you decorate them in earnest. We let our cakes sit in the freezer overnight.

If you've never made a Special Occasion Cake before, the dirty frost is like a layer of primer. It helps lay down a smooth and even base for additional icing, ganache, fondant, or any number of other things. Plus it picks up any loose cake crumbs and prevents them from showing through your carefully planned out decorations.

Dirty Frost

After the dirty frost had set, we assembled the cake and frosted it again. If you are working with a large cake or multiple layers, wooden dowels are very handy. We used these for our multi-layered tiered wedding cake last year but did not need them for our much smaller smash cake. Also remember that a cold cake is easier to work with. If you are decorating your cake in summer, turn on that AC. If it's winter, turn down the heat and put on a sweater. 

In keeping with the Candyland theme, my counterpart stacked up three layers to create his own rendition of Gumdrop Mountain. He made the middle layer an inch smaller in diameter, allowing him to create some topography.

Two layers high

Fully assembled

To get the look and feel of the mountain, he wrapped the whole thing in fondant. Which is one of the great things about fondant. You can use it to transform your cake into just about anything, giving it a smooth, clean, uniform finish. You can make your own (which we tried once. Once.), or you can buy it ready-made in a variety of colors. And, because Baltimore has its very own celebrity cake-baker, our local Micheal's carries his full line of cake-decorating supplies, providing us with a full rainbow of brightly-colored fondant to work with.

Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes

Your fondant will most likely need to be rolled out. If you have a pasta roller, that works nicely here. Remember to use powdered sugar here the same way you would use flour for pasta or pie dough.

First roll the fondant flat

Then run it through the pasta roller

Pretty strips of fondant

Remember also to avoid direct contact with the fondant if you can help it. This will ensure a smoother finish to your decorations and will also lengthen the shelf life of your leftover fondant. We used paper towels to maneuver the larger pieces of fondant into position as well as to brush off excess powdered sugar.

Paper towels help

We ended up with a green mountain with a white snowcap on a pink field. We also created part of the game board out of fondant squares that we ran up the side of the mountain. We finished it off with candy boulders.

Building the game board

Anchoring it at the top

A little icing to secure it

Now, this did take some time. We took several breaks, placing the cake back in the freezer to rest several times. As mentioned previously, a cold cake is easier to work with.

Our Sweet 16 cake topper

Right in place atop the cake

Our finished product was the centerpiece of a candy buffet at the Sweet 16 party, and looked as if it deserved to be there. Which is why this skill is important. You never know when yo will have the opportunity to contribute to a big day in the life of a young person. While it was honor enough to create a wedding cake for this couple, being approached by their daughter/stepdaughter for the Sweet 16 birthday party was truly a blessing. I am proud that my counterpart had the skills to pull it off.

The finished product - we made this sh*t!