Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Treat of the Week: Sweet Dreams Cakes

Over the holiday break, my brother and I were waiting for Jason while he went to a hardware store.  We saw the sign for Sweet Dreams Fine Pastries and Coffee House and we decided to pop in and look around while we were killing time.  We had no idea what was waiting inside!

We saw a counter with a few refrigerated cases that had some lovely looking cakes and treats inside. But it seemed like a very large store for what seemed to be a fairly small amount of inventory.  The very nice lady behind the counter started making friendly small talk and asked if we had been in before.  When we said it was our first time, she told us that we needed to go back to the cake room to look at what they do.  Sounded like a good adventure, so we went back to the front of the store and down the hall to a large room around the corner.  Holy Cannoli!
The giant room was filled with giant cakes!  Many of them were 5, 6, 7 feet tall!  They were covered in gumpaste and fondant flowers and folds and decorations!  I felt like a little fairy in a magical sugarland!  It was quite a spectacle.
We returned to the friendly counter lady and she told us a little about the business, how they rent out these cakes for events and then serve sheet cakes for the guests to eat.  The bakery does a lot of custom work for all sizes of events. And the little cakes in the display cases were examples of the different flavors that can be ordered for anything from birthday cakes to wedding cakes.
Of course, after such a delightful experience, we wanted some cake!  So we bought a sampling of mini desserts to take home with us.  I had the strawberry and lemon cakes above.  I enjoyed them both very much.  The strawberry one had a soft, creamy layer of strawberry cream inside with vanilla cake.  It was very smooth and not overly sweet.  It reminded me of strawberry ice cream the way it just melted in my mouth.  The lemon cake was not too tart, very creamy with a mild lemon flavor, and a little gummy lemon candy on the top, which I thought was a nice touch, and a nice contrasting texture.

Since the visit, I have described it to other people, and apparently I have had cakes from Sweet Dreams before, at family events.  It's kind of a local legend and I don't know how I missed it for so long! I am very happy to know about this custom cake resource now. Check out the Sweet Dreams website, which is an impressive collection of cake options and designs.

Starting from Scratch

I grew up being a selective eater. I didn't really start trying a lot of new things until college, where I got to experience new cuisines and started living on my own and preparing my own meals. But I still didn't really experience a wide variety of food, and I was not very adventurous in the kitchen, usually making simple dishes, often vegetarian, and not doing a lot of baking. 
 (I am pretty sure this was the first time I made whipped cream from scratch, and certainly the first time I whipped it by hand with a whisk. I overbeat it, for the record)

In the last few years, I have met more people who are passionate about food and I have become much more adventurous in my tastes.  In the last few months I have been more active in the kitchen, helping Jason make amazing meals, and I have started to bake a little more. I have started eating more meat and trying new vegetables and fruits.  We are developing a very rich culinary life together.
(This was my first attempt at making bread with yeast. It was meh. Edible, but not great. Good enough to make the house smell amazing and make me want to try, try again! Also I learned a little about the proper use of flours and tools I plan to invest a pizza stone!  Woohoo!)

Starting from scratch with baking at the age of 40 is a little strange. I have a LOT to learn about the culinary arts.  It's funny how some of us live our lives, interact with food, day after day, but not really KNOW food.  I mean, I have learned some kitchen basics, how to prepare the simple things I like to eat, and know a tiny bit of food chemistry, but I am finding I really understand what I am eating when I get my hands into the ingredients and transform it into something yummy and beautiful.

 (My first time casting sugar into a mold and one of the first times I used royal icing)

As an artist, it is the "beautiful" part that inspires me most.  There is so much I want to learn! Icing, fondant, chocolate, buttercream, meringue, sugar, dough, batter... these are all beautiful sculptural materials to me. I am eager to start learning the techniques to make them into beautiful things that are also delicious.  Since my formal studies are starting fairly slowly with textbook studying and savory food preparation techniques, I plan to use this blog to motivate me into getting a head start with my pastry studies. My goal is to try something new once a week or so, photograph it, and document it here.  Surely, there will be some successes and some failures, and I will write about them both and what I learned in the process. I hope you will enjoy reading along, and feel free to leave me some comments of encouragement or advice as I learn!

Have a yummy evening!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Skull and crossbones cake!  This was my first finished project in the Wilton class that I took last year.  I had a lot of fun in the classes I took, but I found that they were a little too basic and Wilton product based, so I started to think about immersing myself in a more intense learning experience. I discovered that Oakland Community College has a pastry certificate in its Culinary Arts program. After a little research and an orientation, I decided I would jump in and give it a try.

After a delayed start to the school semester due to a big snowstorm, I had my first culinary class last week. The class is Food Standards, Sanitation, and Hygiene and it is the first prerequisite before entering the kitchen skills classes. The instructor seemed genuinely apologetic that we would have to double up and cover so much information to make up for the snow day.  So we went over four chapters, including what is likely the most difficult one in the whole class, which is all about food-borne illnesses.  While we don't have to know all the science and medical details behind the illnesses, it is a lot of challenging, complex names for the various pathogens and illnesses.  It has been a LONG time since I have had to learn such things in a structured manner, but with the help of a flash card app for my Ipad, I think I have been doing well.  I guess we will see tomorrow, when we take two quizzes and a test.  Pretty intense for a week of reading and studying and the second day of class!

Sometimes I wonder about jumping into college again.  Especially right now, studying parasites and viruses and kitchen sanitation methods.  It seems so different from what I have been doing for the past several years.  But I guess that's the point... to shake myself up and do something very different to give myself some perspective and get a plan for my career for the future. Friends and loved ones keep asking me a lot of questions about those plans, and it's really just too soon to say.  I find myself making a lot of justifications for going back to school, but honestly, what I end up doing with the college credit or certificate (if I continue to completion) doesn't really matter. I think the process of learning new things and seeing the career potential in my new studies is inspiring and is just what I need right now. I think it is also helping me to focus on my ceramics and jewelry career as well, because I have been re-dedicated to it this year and have been really thinking hard about what I want to continue and what I need to move away from so I can have time for new studies and work.

Off to bed for another round of flash cards and a good night's sleep before tomorrow's tests!

Sweet Dreams!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

From Pendants to Pottery to Pastry

Since I started art school in 1991 I have been working in jewelry and ceramics.  I started out with metal jewelry before college and then made pottery while an undergrad and when I graduated I started making ceramic jewelry. I have always loved working on small, detailed objects, drawing and painting and carving into clay to make little jewels. I have dabbled in a few other things over the years, but it has been mostly the production of ceramic beads and pendants that has formed my career for the last twelve years or so. In the last few years, though, I have become restless with making beads and jewelry.  I guess I feel like I have become stagnant creatively and have run out of motivation to continue with more of the same work.  In the last year, I have edited down my jewelry component line and have been refining my finished jewelry line into wholesale only, in the hopes that I can move onto other creative endeavors.

I started to break through my creative block with a desire to draw. My newest work is focused on working in ceramics in a very different way.  I have fallen in love with hand painting overglazes onto functional china ware (often upcycling thrift store pottery). This new work is satisfying my desire to draw and doodle, allowing me to be really creative and expressive with one-of-a-kind work in a way I have been lacking, and bringing me back to my original love of pottery.  I have had some success with this new work at shows and have an etsy shop that I have started to stock with the painted wares.  I plan to continue more with this direction in the upcoming year.

I think my love of pottery has always gone hand in hand with a love of food and the presentation of food, which brings me to another new direction that my work is taking.  I have become more and more interested in cake and cookie decorating and artistic desserts and foods lately, especially since I started with ceramic painting.  I thought the overglaze painting I was doing might be similar to working with icing, so I took a few Wilton classes and discovered I love decorating with royal icing. Clay work and baking have a lot of similarities and I love working on small, detailed objects in production mode with ceramics so I can see the appeal that pastry and bakery work has for me.  Food is another layer of materials and techniques that I have little experience with and am eager to start learning about.  I met my boyfriend Jason earlier this year and he is a former professional chef and a foodie, and he has inspired us both to cook and bake.  My love of food and interest in cooking in general has really blossomed since we have been together, and we make really great meals very frequently, exploring new ingredients and techniques all the time.

 I am not exactly sure where these new skills will take me in my career and art yet, but I am excited to find out!  I decided to start this blog to share my journey, to record what I am learning, seeing, and tasting, and to help me figure out this new direction in my life and work.

Thanks for reading my first post and I hope you have a delicious day!