Monday, August 23, 2010

The Napa Town & Country Fair Part 2

Well folks, it's a tad belated but today I bring you Part 2 of our epic Napa Fair experience.  But first, a programming note.  You've probably noticed that it's been a while since we've posted a new recipe.  I wish I had something new to share with you every day, or at least every week, but I also think it's important to keep it real.  And the reality is that all of our cooking and baking that we post here takes place in our day to day lives, and my life right now is taking a lot out of me.  I think even the most passionate cooks can relate to those days (or weeks or months) when the best thing you can do for yourself is heat up a frozen pizza and pour yourself a big glass of two-buck Chuck.  So I hope you forgive and bear with us, and I promise that we will have lots of great recipes in the future.

For now, please enjoy these baked goods that someone else created!  Today's photos come to you from the Home Arts Exhibition at the Napa Fair.  These were all made by amateurs like us and judged by some really sweet looking old ladies in matching yellow shirts. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Napa Town & Country Fair Part 1

When I was a kid, the Napa fair was the highlight of my summer.  My sister and I would get a week-long pass and wristbands for unlimited rides.  We'd wait outside the gates before they opened, and then spend hours running from the giant slide to the tilt-a-whirl, taking breaks for curly fries and sno cones.  Today I have a weak inner ear and an aversion to crowds, but I was dead set on making a night at the fair happen.

Before this weekend, I hadn't been in years.  While I was certain that it would still have that summer magic I grew up loving, John and Allison were slightly more dubious.  Think about the first time you went to Disneyland as an adult.  When I went in college, everything was a little smaller, a little more crowded, and a little more wooden than I remembered.  When we drove down one of Napa's main streets on Friday and saw a few lonely ferris wheel cars sticking out above a two-story building, I started to get a little nervous.

I had been hyping up the fair to John for weeks, and I badgered Allison and her boyfriend Nick into joining us.  Luckily, the night exceeded our lowered expectations, and we had a blast.  Let's start with the really good stuff, the fried food.

Corn dogs...  You had me at hello.  I never eat corn dogs because they render me powerless.  Had I not been in public and under the expectation that I would behave like a normal human, I may have inhaled 5 to 6 corn dogs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

BFF Jill Threw Us a Party!

 It's a good day today. It's Thursday, which is almost the weekend.  My amazing and talented fiance has restored the wifi in our house, so you will be hearing a lot more from me.  Tonight I'm putting on my pleather and eyelashes and going to see Lady Gaga in concert, and tomorrow, we're driving up to Napa for what promises to be an excellent weekend. Mary + Allison + the Napa Town and Country Fair... I don't know if you know what happens when  the two of us are surrounded by fried food, livestock and plastic cups of wine, but I guarantee it will be a good time.

But before we get to this weekend's festivities, I want to recap a backyard party that was one of the highlights of the summer.  And to recap this party, I need to talk about BFF Jill.

If we're being technical, BFF Jill is John's niece's mom. If we're being real, she's his sister, and soon to be mine.  Jill and I have known each other since John and I started dating, but our friendship has really come into its own over the last two or three years. We started volunteering at Planned Parenthood events together, rallied around some of the same political causes in the 2008 election, and discovered that we both have jobs that allow for frequent email communication, so that we can keep eachother apprised of important things in our lives like what blogs are good today, and what we had for lunch.

Jill has exceptional strength, honesty, and depth. She's even-keeled, which I guess you have to be when you have a 14-year old daughter. My life plan is that when I have my own pre-teen someday, I will put drop her off on Jill's porch. Four years later, Jill will return her to me and she will have a college acceptance letter and a good head on her shoulders. Sounds pretty win-win to me.

Jill is getting married next June. In fact, she and her fiance will tie the knot exactly 6 weeks before John and I do. I think plenty of women would have a teensy bit of resentment toward a close friend crowding their wedding date, but Jill never batted an eye. Instead, she and her fiance offered to throw us a party. Go open your dictionary and look up "gracious"... Yep, there she is. And I know what you're thinking...  "Mary, you already had an engagement party."  And that's true, but with our two huge families living on opposite ends of the state, two parties was just the most practical way to make sure that everyone got to celebrate.

I know you can't really plan these things, but I think every engaged girl needs a bride friend.  Maybe we could make a girl-buddy pairing website... When I'm excited and I want to talk about the merits of chiavari vs. folding chairs, Jill will listen, not because she's been there, but because she's there right now.  In 10 short months, Jill will walk down the aisle in a dress that I just saw for the first time this weekend (!), I will cry buckets and melt into a heap of happy goo. In the meantime, check out what she did for us...  All photo credits go to my lovely neighbor Dorien.  Go say hello to her at her blog, the Women's Debauchery Auxiliary!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Marble Birthday Cake


Last  night, we celebrated the birthday of Pam, one of my very best friends.   Before I tell you about her cake, I want to tell you about why I adore her.  Pam and I met when we lived in the same dorm in our freshman year at UCLA.  She was a bad ass New Yorker with a tattoo and an attitude.  I was gawky and insecure, blushing when a stranger talked to me.  But we had the same razor-shag blonde haircut, she was always nice to me, and we became unlikely pals.  After freshman year, Pam moved into the best apartment in Westwood.  All of our friends took turns living in the second bedroom, and I spent a summer there.  Pam had every episode of Friends on her computer, and she always let me borrow her fancy ceramic flat iron.  It didn't hurt that she had a hunky neighbor who was literally an Abercrombie and Fitch model.  Yum...  I digress.


Eight years later, we have the kind of friendship that only exists with someone who's seen you through the ridiculousness of your early 20's.  The party nights, spray tans, random boys and vacations, along with the hard stuff, fighting, breakups, and messes.  She's the first one to take you to a four-star dinner on your birthday, or let you borrow her coziest sweats during a marathon session of So You Think You Can Dance.  She has a sick shoe collection, and she'll tell you if have something in your teeth, and she'll tell you when you look beautiful.  And her kitchen is always stocked with cheese, crackers, and a chilled bottle of chard.  Friends like that don't come along every day. 

Pam wears a lot of black and white, so I thought a marble cake would be a clever choice.  Marble cake has an amazing "easy to fancy ratio".  I just made that term up, maybe I'll put it in my Food Network tape.  Anyway, instead of making two different batters, you make a vanilla batter, then take out a small amount and mix in some cocoa powder.  Then spoon the batters into the pan in a checkerboard pattern, and swirl away with a butter knife.  Look how fancy you are!

When I want a cake to look really pretty, I cover it in fondant.  Fondant is a lot like pie dough in that many of us are afraid of it (as an aside, are we just afraid of using rolling pins?  Someone research this.).  I'm no pro at this.  My fondant cakes are usually lumpy, with some cracks, fingerprints, and weirdness.  But it's the effort that counts, and people are always impressed when they see a gorgeous fondant-covered cake.  It really helps to cover the surface with powdered sugar or cornstarch, and use a bench scraper to make sure that it doesn't stick.

I am artistically challenged, so rather than try to pipe a decoration, I used a damask stencil to cut out pieces of black fondant.  With just a bit of water, the decorative pieces easily stick to the cake.  I did this during The Bachelorette finale.  I liked Roberto from day 1, I hope that he and Ali make it and live happily ever after.

A "happy birthday" in buttercream, and you're done!  Happy birthday Pammy!

A few notes on the cake and the subsequent birthday party:

My favorite fondant- Pettinice rolled fondant in ivory
Black food coloring- Americolor soft gel paste in Super Black
Birthday dinner- Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica Canyon (a splurge that's worth every penny)
Cocktails- Copa d'Oro in Santa Monica.  Choose a fruit/herb/booze combo, and their mixologists will make you something amazing!
Pam's favorite wine- Rombauer Chardonnay
Accessory of the night- Silly Bandz

Marble Cake
From Martha Stewart Weddings
Makes 3 8" rounds

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans
3 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), plus more for dusting
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk, room temperature
2/3 cup heavy cream, room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 cup instant espresso powder, for mocha layers

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter pans and line with parchment paper. Butter lining; dust with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside. Sift together cake flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

Combine milk and cream in a small bowl; set aside. Cream butter and sugar on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time; mix well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk mixture and beginning and ending with flour.

Combine cocoa and the boiling water in a medium bowl; for mocha cake, add espresso powder. Stir in 2 cups cake batter.

Fill prepared pans with spoonfuls of vanilla and chocolate batter to form a checkerboard pattern. Run the tip of a paring knife or a wooden skewer through batter in a figure-eight motion to make swirls. Bake until tops are golden, and a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cakes cool completely in pans on wire racks.  Flip the layers out of the pans, and chill them in the freezer for 30 minutes (until the outside is hard).

Quick Vanilla Buttercream
by Gale Gand
Note:  I owe Gale Gand my first born for this recipe.  This is the only buttercream recipe you will ever need.  It is aaaahhhmazing.

6 cups confectioners' sugar
2 cups butter
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons whipping cream

In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes.

Add vanilla and cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency. 

To assemble:
Remove cake layers from the freezer.  If they are rounded in the center, use a serrated bread knife to cut the round top off the layer (you want the flattest surface possible)  Place parchment strips around the base of the cake to keep your cake plate clean.  Frost the flat surface of the first layer, then place the second layer on top.  Slice the top off the next layer, ice, and repeat.  Cover the whole cake in buttercream using an offset spatula, and decorate as you wish.

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