Who Said April Is The Cruellest Month?

When everything starts ripening and the harvest is in full swing, I’d have to argue from sheer exhaustion that it’s September.  This morning’s haul from the garden: Steel bowl top left, from top left: tarragon, rosemary, golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, silver thyme in the center.

Plastic bowl top right: Purple Ruffles basil, Pasta Perpetuo basil (a real champion performer), a Passionflower, and sweet basil.
Center little bowl: the last of the chamomile flowers, with yarrow aerials tucked underneath.
Bottom white bowl, from top right: rose blossom, Thai Dragon hot peppers, Ace sweet peppers, Barker’s New Mexico Red hot peppers, a single Concho de Toro sweet (most harvested already), and a bunch of poblanos. Hanging over the side is lemon verbena with another rose blossom.
And I haven’t even gotten to the lemongrass, sage, oregano and peppermint yet.

Most of the herbs will be going into the dehydrator, along with the rose blossoms (so nice for teas),  and the peppers prepped and either frozen or canned whole or as puree.  Now that the tomato flats are coming into the farmers’ markets, I don’t think the canner is going to be leaving the stove anytime soon.

Phoenix From The Rain

Fire to heat you,

Earth to hold you,

Water to heal you,

With the wind in your arms, now rise

 

I don’t remember where I read that, or even if it’s an accurate memory that I read it at all; it came back to me this morning when I was suffering through yet another coughing fit from my usual bout of late-summer bronchitis.  I tend to get it when the weather turns cold and damp in the mornings, right before the rains come.  It’s the kind that lags on for weeks, bothersome not so much for the coughing (though that’s annoying) but for the aches and fatigue that come along for the ride.

As I think I’ve mentioned in another post, houses, kids, pets and gardens need care even when you’re sick, and the advice to “take it easy” is pretty laughable (something you can’t do because you’ll trigger another coughing fit) when cars break down, ants are making exploratory forays into various parts of the house, kids need rides, the dog gets sick and has to go to the vet, the new herbs you’re counting on are shriveling visibly, and everyone is suddenly out of clean underpants.

It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed at times like this.  When it happens, I usually retreat back to the Middle Ages. (I highly recommend this approach — it doesn’t have to be medieval Europe, it can be any ancient epoch, anywhere. Pick one that appeals to you.)  The legend of the Phoenix was the first thing I ran across in my books. Cultures from ancient China and India to Arabia and Europe share the story of a beautiful and wise bird that consumes itself on an incensed fire yet returns, reborn and new.  It is an image of a terrible trial, a vision of horrifying suffering and yet, somehow, great hope.

Medieval European alchemists used the figure of the phoenix in their writings as the clue to the element of sulfur, the color red, and the representation of a fire that at first seems to destroy, but instead purifies and transforms what it touches.

I had a request for more soap today, and I had a very small new batch that was cured and ready.  It’s a classic coconut, olive and castor oil formula with a very rich element of shea butter and the addition of organic crushed chamomile flowers from my garden.  With the idea of the phoenix in my mind, I stamped it and brushed it with copper and white micas. The fragrance is, I think, a very appropriate milk and honey.

Phoenix

 

How I Became My Own Cake Boss

I’m very happy today to introduce a new Accidental Alchemist — Navi, our Cakemaster.  Here’s her foray into fondant, a territory most terrifying to the baking-impaired like me.  — Cat

 

I always knew that I had a wicked streak — a restless, indulgent urge to bake.  But I couldn’t satisfy it until last summer, when I had some free time to experiment. And when I did, I eventually discovered fondant.

Everyone’s seen fondant cakes by now, like the one I made below,

I might have thought through the inscription a little more carefully — I don’t actually have 61 dads, just one having his 61st birthday. There’s always somethin’.

but most people don’t know what goes into them, and I’m excited to share its craziness with you. If you’re wondering why in the world I love fondant, well, I’ll spill the secret:  it’s the best play dough a baker could ever imagine.

 

 

I started out my baking experiment like most folks — partial to traditionally “prettier” (simple butter cream frosting) cakes.  So I started with those, and gradually perfected the technique.

Rose Bouquet Buttercream Cake.

Now don’t think that rose bouquet cake came easily.  I had a few disasters along the way.

I’m not sure what I was thinking at this point.

Once you get the hang of buttercream frosting (as you can see from the above, the technique is not as easy as it looks) then new challenges start to taunt you.  Fondant is one of them, and I immediately fell in love with its beauty and surprising creativity.

What is fondant?

BEES!

Fondant is a confection largely made of sugar and shortening.  It produces a flexible, colorable, easily shapable candy that quite frankly is the bomb when it comes to decorating cakes.  That’s why you see it used all the time on shows like “Cake Boss” — you simply can’t beat it for its sheer “wow” factor.  You can be your own Michelangelo with this stuff.

From a swarm of bees . . .

 

Colony? Everyone but the scientists knows it’s a “waddle.”

 

 

. . . to a colony of penguins . . .

 

 

 

 

 

. . .  you can do almost anything with it.  And the best part of all is that you can buy it prepared if you like.  But if you’re a Do-It-Yourselfer, I’ll share one of my favorite recipes for a marshmallow fondant.  It’s simple, delightfully sweet, and uses ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry or can easily purchase at your supermarket.

Ingredients (makes about 2 lb. fondant):

  • 1 package (16 oz.) white mini marshmallows
  • 5 tablespoons water (2 for immediate use, the rest in reserve)
  • 2 lb. (about 8 cups) sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening (for example, Crisco)

Instructions:

Step One:  Place marshmallows and 2 tablespoons of the water into a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave 30 seconds on HIGH; stir until mixed well. Microwave 30 seconds and stir again. Continue until the marshmallows are completely melted — it should take 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, but timing depends on your microwave.  Keep an eye on it.  Burned marshmallows smell BAD and you’ll never hear the end of it from your family.

Step Two: Place about 3/4 of the confectioners’ sugar (about 6 cups) on top of the melted marshmallow mixture. Fold sugar into marshmallow mixture. (Flavoring can be added at this point if desired.)

Place the solid vegetable shortening into an easily accessed bowl so you can reach into it with your fingers as you are working. Grease your hands and the counter GENEROUSLY; turn the marshmallow mixture onto the counter. Start kneading the fondant like you would dough. Continue kneading, adding the remaining confectioners’ sugar and re-greasing your hands and the counter so the fondant doesn’t stick. If the marshmallow fondant is tearing easily, it is too dry; add the reserved water (about 1/2 tablespoon at a time) and knead until the fondant forms a firm, smooth elastic ball that will stretch without tearing, about 8 minutes. You can skip the gym today.

Step Three:  Once the fondant is smooth and elastic, it’s best to allow it to sit overnight. Prepare the fondant for storing by coating it with a thin layer of Crisco, wrapping it carefully in plastic wrap, and then place in a Ziploc or other plastic storage bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible.

Marshmallow Fondant keeps well for several weeks in a cool and dry cabinet at room temperature. When you’re ready to use it, take it out and knead it again until it’s smooth.  Then roll it out until it is 1/8″ thick and go nuts with it.

Okay, that sounds like too much work, except the going nuts part.

Well, I’m with you on that one; I like to save my energy for decorating with fondant.  (I am presupposing that you already have a cake.) The good news is that you can buy prepared fondant from stores like Michaels. The prepared fondant comes in different sizes and weights and colors, so you can choose what you need.  But whether you make or buy your fondant, you need to know how to work with it, and perhaps even color it.

Working Fondant

As you knead or work with fondant, your hands can expel body heat and it will soften the fondant, and in some cases it will feel sticky. That said, be aware that fondant dries quickly and you must work fast. Always keep plastic wrap ready to save material you’re not using at the moment.  If fondant gets hard, there’s no saving it; adding water won’t work. Dispose of hardened fondant; rumor has it that it makes great hockey pucks or skipping stones on lakes.

Most decorators that work with fondant use a corn starch “puff” when things get sticky.  It is very easy to make. Buy a disposable cleaning towel (make sure you buy the one with the thin pores or a muslin cloth). Place some corn starch in the middle and tighten with a ribbon to make a pouch. Use it as a “puff”. The one I use is bought at Michaels and sold by Wilton. Muslin cloth can also be purchased at Joann Fabric and Craft stores.

“Puffing” the fondant with the cornstarch when necessary will make it less sticky and easier to handle.

Coloring Fondant

Coloring fondant can be a bit trickier. Since moisture is not good for fondant, avoid using liquid food coloring. I use the Wilton gel colors and this works great.
Pat the fondant into a little ball until it looks like a pancake. Place the desired amount of gel food coloring in the middle. Fold halfway to make a half circle. Press until flat again, incorporating the gel into the fondant. Fold again and press. Repeat the process until you feel the gel color has incorporated into the fondant. Knead the fondant “dough” to color evenly. I like this process because it avoids getting food color on my hands. You can use disposable gloves (no latex) to tint fondant as well.

Decorating with Fondant

It’s made, it’s colored, it’s rolled and ready.  But sometimes you’ll have to combine different shapes of fondant to achieve your decorating goals.  To “glue” pieces of fondant to other fondant, it is advisable to use food flavorings. Any flavor will work, but I prefer clear vanilla extract as it doesn’t have any color. Food flavoring contains alcohol, which evaporates (dries) faster than water. (Remember, moisture is not good for fondant as it makes it sticky. Sticky bad.)  Another way is to buy gum paste and mix tiny bits of it with a tablespoon of water. The milky solution will work as wonderful glue for your fondant.

Finally, when gluing fondant to cake frosting or cardboard, you can use piping gel. Piping gel is thick and it can help ‘glue’ fondant tightly.

And In The End . . .  Experiment! Have some fun with this!  As it’s time to start prepping for Halloween, I’ll leave you with a picture of my last fondant cake:  “All Wrapped Up.”

 

 

It’s a Blue Moon, Time To Make Soap

As if I didn’t have enough soaps already curing, yesterday’s Blue Moon required another batch.  You see, soapmaking — like herbal medicine, farming, and beer-brewing — has legends dating back to the Middle Ages about how the cycle of the stars and the phases of the moon can affect what you are trying to make, brew or grow, and it’s best to assess the status of the universe before trying anything. A Blue Moon — an “extra” full moon in a season — is an auspicious time for new endeavors.

Yesterday was also the funeral of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon,  and one of my heroes as I was growing up (damn my lack of math skills! If I had them I’d be in NASA with a mohawk!)  The convergence of all these events obviously required action, even though I’d managed to land one of the worst summer colds of all time.

A few days ago I’d rebatched a cold-process soap that I wasn’t happy with, and had experimented with using a paper-towel cardboard tube lined with freezer paper as a mold.  It came out quite nicely and had been curing for a few days, so I had some faith it was hard enough to withstand use as an embed in new soap.  I also had developed a new formula involving sustainable Palm Kernel Oil that needed testing.  All this, the Blue Moon, my alchemical responsibilities, and Neil Armstrong’s passing got me into the kitchen last night despite the utter misery of a summer cold.

I couldn’t resist unmolding and cutting a little early today , simply due to the anticipation of a new formula and a new technique.  But I can present Blue Moon right now:

Blue Moon, in honor of Neil Armstrong

The embed (the moon) is a goatmilk soap with dried, crushed organic chamomile flowers from my backyard. The surrounding soap is a classic olive oil, palm kernel oil, palm oil and castor oil formula, designed for decent hardness while offering excellent conditioning properties. It’s colored with ultramarine blue and activated charcoal.  I could go on and on about the nature of the fragrance, but it smells like the best warm summer night you ever had as a teenager, when the world was peaceful and safe yet bursting with possibility — like a man walking on the moon.