Hello Chicago… and a fond farewell dear Oprah

Earlier this year I had an opportunity to visit Chicago for the first time in my life.  I was very excited to visit a new city, spend some time with a good friend, meet a couple of new friends, and enjoy a few days kid-free!  (Yes, I LOVE my children… and yes I also enjoy a break every now and then!)  I was also VERY excited to go here…
The Oprah Show!!!  (Now before you get too excited… I just got to SEE the show, not be on it!)
A little background…
My dear friend Sharnel, of Sharnel Dollar Design had the wonderful opportunity to create a dessert table, and plan and set up a gorgeous baby shower for the Oprah show last November when the show visited Australia (see photos of Sharnel’s beautiful work for Oprah HERE).  The producers of the show were so blown away by Sharnel’s work, they offered her tickets to see a taping of the Oprah show in Chicago this spring.  Sharnel was given 4 tickets and I was the lucky recipient of one of them!  Oh how lovely it is to have friends in high places!  =)  (Read more about how I met Sharnel and our first face-to-face meeting HERE)
Sharnel, myself and two more of Sharnel’s friends (Michelle and Marlene) spent 5 days in Chicago shopping, dining and chatting, with the highlight of the trip being our visit to the Oprah Show.  The show topic (which is unknown the audience until you arrive at the show) was a Saturday Night Live Reunion.  Past cast members of Saturday Night Live including Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Dana Carvey and Chevy Chase reminisced about the show, and shared lots of funny clips from Saturday Night Live over the years.  
So… no giveaway  =)  But it was so special to simply see Oprah in person (across the room) and witness one of her very last shows. 
(Above) Here is our group of international friends (L to R) Sharnel (from Australia), Marlene (from New York), Me- Glory (from California), and Michelle (from Australia).  And yes… I’m sort-of a giant. 
Here, you can’t tell so much when I’m by myself… (and next to a huge sign!)

The day of the show we enjoyed a special dinner at Table Fifty-Two, a restaurant owned by Oprah’s former chef, Art Smith.  The restaurant was beautiful and charming, and the food was delicious!  We all enjoyed one of the restaurant’s signature drinks, the Peach Palmer.
(L to R) Michelle, Sharnel, Me (Glory) and Marlene
Our visit to Chicago also included two fun meet ups with “internet friends”… the lovely Jessie of Shop Sweet Lulu and adorable Kelly of The Party Dress
The trip will always be a very special memory for me and I feel very lucky to have seen even one tiny piece of The Oprah Show.  And I feel even more blessed to have such a special friend in Sharnel, and two new friends, Michelle and Marlene. 

Watermelon (shaped) Cookies

With Memorial Day just around the corner, I though some watermelon shaped cookies could be a perfect kick-off for summer!  This simple design would be the perfect addition to any BBQ or summer picnic.

~ How to decorate Watermelon Cookies ~

Prepare cookie dough, the recipe I use is HERE.

Roll out the dough and cut out circle shapes using a large circle cutter.  Cut circles in half, using a knife.

1.- 2.  For watermelon slices with the “bitten” look, once you have your half circle, use a cutter with a scalloped edge of some kind (I used a scalloped heart) to cut out a “bite”

*Now bake your cookies, and prepare royal icing  The royal icing recipe I use is HERE.

For these cookies I prepared 1 bag of medium consistency green- with a #3 sized tip, one bag of medium consistency white- with a number #2 tip, one bag of stiff/outline consistency red icing- with a #1.5 or #2 tip, and one bag of flood consistency in red- with a #2 tip.

3.  Once your cookies are baked and cooled (this can be done a day, or a couple days before you decorate), follow the curved edge of the cookie with green icing.
4.  In this photo I added some darker coloring to the green ‘rind’, by mixing some green gel food coloring and clear alcohol (clear vanilla extract, or vodka), and applying some color using a paint brush.  If you plan to do this step, the green icing needs to be dry (this may take 2-4 hours).  If you don’t care to add the extra coloring to the rind, continue on as shown below.

5.  When the green ‘rind’ icing has set a bit (30 minutes), add a line of white icing.
6.  When the white line has set (again, about 30 minutes), outline the ‘fruit’ edge with red (stiff consistency) icing.

7.  Fill in each watermelon slice with red (flood consistency) icing.
8.  While the red icing is still wet, I added some (dark brown) chocolate covered sunflower seeds.  If you can’t find these, you could wait until the red dries a bit, and add the look of ”seeds” using black icing.  You could also wait until the red icing if fully dry (about 12 hours), and use a black food marker to add the “seeds”.

Then sit back and enjoy a slice of summer!

I’m adding this post to Tidy Mom’s-  I’m Lovin It Friday post.

Strawberry Shortcake… Cake

Strawberry season is upon us, and since I live in California I’m extra blessed with an abundance of fresh strawberries easily available all summer long.  California produces 83% of the strawberries grown in the US (source) and my family enjoys more than our fair share!

Last week I felt the urge to make a cake, and I had some fresh strawberries that needed a home, so a cake version of Strawberry Shortcake seemed the perfect choice.  I’ve long been on a search for a perfect vanilla cake recipe, so I dug through my (gigantic!) pile of “recipes to try” and pulled out a recipe for White Butter Cake from The Joy of Baking.  I divided the batter into two 6″ cake pans, and reserved enough to make 3 cupcakes as well.  Some recipes can easily be made as both a large cake and cupcakes, but I wanted to test it as both in the name of research.

Once the cakes were baked, I sliced each cake layer into two, filled the cake with a fresh strawberry filling and then frosted the cake with real whipped cream.  The end result was a delicious summer treat!  I was quite happy with this cake recipe in the cake form, and although the flavor was just a good in cupcake form, I would rate the cupcakes as just “good” (by the second day the cupcakes were extremely dry).  In other words, I will keep this recipe for cakes, but continue my search for the perfect vanilla cupcake recipe.

This cake is a bit labor intensive, but is a labor of love that will produce delicious results sure to be appreciated by everyone lucky enough to get a piece.

~ Strawberry Shortcake… Cake ~

White Butter Cake
(recipe from Joy of Baking)

2 large eggs, separated
1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup white sugar, divided (1/4 cup plus 3/4 cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

In a medium bowl, sift or whisk the flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.

Separate the eggs, placing yolks in a small bowl, and put the whites in the bowl of your electric mixer.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat egg whites until foamy.  Add cream of tartar, and continue beating until soft peaks form.  Gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form.  Scoop beaten egg whites into a medium bowl and set aside.

Now, using the bowl of your electric mixer, beat the butter until soft.  Add 3/4 cup of sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time.  Scrape down sides of bowl.  Add vanilla and beat until combined.  With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour (flour, milk, flour, milk, flour).

Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.  Do not over mix, or the egg whites will deflate.

Divide the batter evenly between two 8″ pans (or two 6″ pans with 3″ tall sides, if desired).

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350*F for 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Strawberry Filling
(recipe by Glorious Treats)

1 basket/pint strawberries
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons corn starch
3 Tablespoons water

Chop/blend about half of the strawberries (5-7 strawberries) and the water in a food processor or blender. Pour the blended strawberries (and their juice) into a mesh strainer, sitting over a bowl. Use a large spoon or spatula to press the mixture through the strainer.

In a small saucepan, mix the sugar and cornstarch. Slowly add the strained strawberry juice, whisking to combine. Heat mixture to a boil and boil about 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool.

Chop remaining strawberries into pea sized pieces and add to the cooled strawberry/sugar mixture. Chill until ready to use.

Fresh Whipped Cream

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Place the bowl and beater of your electric mixer in the freezer for 5 minutes (this will help the cream beat up faster).  Remove bowl and beater from freezer and pour in heavy cream.  Beat cream until it begins to thicken.  Slowly add the powdered sugar and vanilla.  Continue to beat until stiff peaks form when beaters are raised from the bowl (this only takes a few minutes, but carefully not to over-beat).

*Note- if the finished cake will not be served for several hours, or in extra warm weather, use the Stabilized Whipped Cream recipe HERE - the addition of gelatin will help the whipped cream keep it’s shape for much longer than traditional whipped cream.

Cake Assembly~

Bake the cakes as directed.  Prepare the strawberry filling as cakes are baking, and put in the fridge.  When cakes are baked, and fully cooled, cut cakes in half, so you have four layers.  Add 1/3 of the strawberry filling between each layer.  Frost with freshly whipped cream.  Place cake in the refrigerator until ready to serve.  This cake should be served the day it is made.  If you will be short on time the day you plan to serve the cake, you can prepare the cake layers and the strawberry filling a day ahead.  Keep cakes tightly wrapped in plastic wrap (on the counter), and store the strawberry filling in a bowl in the fridge.

Happy Strawberry Season!

Aloha Smoothies

Here is a delicious treat that will help you feel like you’re on a tropical vacation… and might also help you fit into your vacation clothes!  =)

This smoothie would be perfect as a light breakfast, or as an afternoon or evening treat.

Aloha Smoothie ~

(serves 2)

1 fresh mango, peeled and chopped (or 1 cup frozen chunks)

1 cup fresh or frozen pineapple

1/2 of a banana, fresh or frozen (nice and ripe)

1/2 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt

1 cup milk

A handful of ice

Blend all of the ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Pour into glasses and enjoy!

Feel free to take this up a notch by adding a generous splash of coconut rum.

Recipe Source ~ Glorious Treats

Happy Blending!

Graduation Cupcakes {and How To Make Fondant Graduation Caps}

I have two exciting thing for you today… Graduation Cupcakes and a fun announcement!

Many of you, my lovely readers, have been requesting more cupcake decorating ideas, and I’ve been listening!  So if you know someone graduating pre-school, middle school, Jr. High, High School, or college, these are a great way to help them celebrate!

And… the fun announcement is that I have joined The TomKat Studio team as a regular contributor!  I’m sure most of you know The TomKat Studio as a great source for beautiful party inspiration and custom party printables.  I will be adding to that sweet combo with ideas for fun and beautiful cakes, cupcakes and desserts.  My fridge is stocked with butter and cream, and I can’t wait to get started!  =)

For this set of Graduation cupcakes, I made a few special fondant Graduation Hat Toppers (full instructions below), topped some cupcakes with printable toppers from The TomKat Studio, and dressed up a few cupcakes with simple paper “diplomas”.  The diplomas were made by simple rolling a piece of white paper, and tying with a gold ribbon.

The cupcakes themselves are my favorite Chocolate Cupcakes with delicious Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting.

~ How to make a fondant Graduation Cap ~

If you’re not familiar with working with fondant, start with my Fondant 101 post.

1.  Color your fondant as desired (more detailed instructions HERE).

2.  Roll out the color of fondant you plan to use for the hat.

3. and 4.  Cut fondant into strips about 3/4 inches wide and 3 3/4 inches long.

5.  Roll up a strip of fondant to create a ring (overlapping slightly).  Use a teeny, tiny bit of water or corn syrup to help the ends stay together.  Set aside to dry.

6.  Cut a square (for the top of the hat) about 1 3/4 inches x 1 3/4 inches.

7.  Allow hat bases (the rings) and tops (squares) to dry for several hours or overnight.  They should be totally firm before moving to the next step.

8.  When the pieces have dried, use a tiny bit of “edible glue”- made with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar and a tiny bit of water (it should be the thickness of toothpaste) and apply with a (clean) paintbrush along the top edge of one ring.  Set the top of the hat (a fondant square) on top, and set aside to dry.

9.  Once the top of the hat has been secured to the base of the hat, make a tassel.  For the tassels, simply roll a tiny piece of fondant into a little “snake”.  I used my finger to press down one end just a bit, then used a knife to create just a bit of texture to represent the individual strings at the end of a tassel.

10.  Add just a drop of your ”edible glue” to the center of the hat, and attach the tassel.  Bend tassel over the side of the cap just a bit.  Set aside to dry (at least 1 hour).  Add toppers to cupcakes right before serving (up to a few hours before).   Fondant decorations added more than a few hours before serving will begin to get soft and lose their shape.

Congratulations graduates!