Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Number Three Caterpillar Birthday Cake

It was a busy weekend, as so many are. Gumdrop's family party was fast approaching, and I showed my other half various birthday cake options on Pinterest, hoping for his help narrowing down the choices. So when he lovingly suggested that we do something simple... I realized it was up to me alone.

Not that I blame him. He grew up on box cake baked into a rectangular pan--"regular cake," so they call it. His mom made a tasty buttercream frosting, and voila! Birthday cake. For my mom, however, cake was her artistic medium, and for your birthday, you ate a boat or a bunny or something of that sort. Further, box-cake isn't my jam; it tastes kinda ho-hum. I'm sure Gumdrop could care less, as he usually eats little frosting before asking for a handful of chocolate chips instead. Still, if I'm going to make it, I'd like to enjoy it, too. Besides, last year SourPatch got a delicious and fun Octonauts cake; Gumdrop deserved one, too. So I said to myself. Because I wanted to make one.

So, busy weekend or not, I settled on the classic number 3 cake, caterpillar-style. There are rough instructions for it in this delightful, jazzy video tutorial...doo, doo, doo-doo-doo, doo-doot-doo. It shows where to cut the bundt cakes AND has you use a cookie scoop to distribute the frosting. Have I mentioned how much I love my cookie scoop? I use it whenever I can: to fill muffin tins, to fill chicken puffs, and to, well, scoop cookie dough. Now, I shall use it to distribute frosting on a cake, and I love it.

Eh-hem. Anyways, here's the final result:

This does make a lot of cake. I love my Cake Mix Doctor cookbook and went into a panic when I could not find it in the new house (I later found it in the linen closet, naturally...)! This turned out to be a boon, as I discovered the popular Too Much Chocolate Cake recipe on allrecipes.com. It is as delicious as the 5 stars and 5000 reviews suggest. Armed with my fluted bundt pan and ramekins, I doubled the recipe and cooked up the 4 cakes in two batches. Obviously, the small "head" cakes cook for a much shorter time than the bundt cakes, so be sure to check on them and pull them out early once they spring back to the touch.

While letting the cakes cool completely on wire racks, I whipped up some buttercream (again, from an online recipe, as my cookbook also contained my usual one). After skipping all the ones that are Crisco based (really? For buttercream frosting?), I found a classic butter-powdered sugar-milk variety that tasted as delicious as anything made from those ingredients should. 

It was only then that I realized I grabbed a box of neon food coloring by mistake... ah well. For added texture and interest, I tossed giant round sprinkles onto the frosting immediately after spreading (before the frosting hardens up). I thought the effect was great... until we ate it a few hours later. Sheesh, those sprinkles are like rocks! I felt like a was going to break a tooth; I'm getting something smaller next time. Good thing it looked cute.

To finish it off, I added the facial features. Though the obvious choice of decoration was fondant, I shuttered to resort to it. Not only do I dislike the taste, but don't you also have to either make or buy a lot of it for a tiny amount of decoration? Luckily for me, I'd learned the Starburst hack from the dragon cake I made SourPatch ages ago. A small pack of Starburst will give you a variety of colors, and a few seconds in the microwave will yield them malleable for a few minutes before they harden again. So a few yellow, orange, and red squares plus two toothpicks yielded eyes, mouth, and antennae for our caterpillar friend.

Happy Birthday, Gumdrop. May your next year be as bright as this (neon) cake!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Fairy Gardens

It's almost spring, so it's a perfect time to think about fairy gardens. Two of our granddaughters have spring birthdays, and their creative mom decided to help them (and their brother) create fairy gardens as part of their birthday joy. For us, it was a four-part process, and the children were involved in all of it:

Choose a container: 
This can be easy or hard, depending on what you're looking for. There are a bazillion pots out there within a huge cost range. Our goal was to make fun gardens at a moderate price, so we used pots that I already had. And I think I purchased them initially at thrift stores. You want to be sure that the pot or container is large enough to handle the plants you choose plus the fairy decorations. However, soil alone is heavy, so it is also important to consider the weight of the container once it is filled. There are great inexpensive plastic or resin pots that look like stone or terra cotta. That is what we chose to work with:

Choose plants:
Fairy garden plants need to stay relatively small, so check on growth height and spread when you choose your plants. We went to a nearby nursery to find ours, but I have noticed since then that both Lowes and Home Depot have fairy garden sections, and they may be less expensive. (Also, Kroger, our grocery store, recently had small succulents for $1 a plant. Super price!) We tried to choose plants that gave us variety--color, texture and height. You want enough greenery to fill but not crowd your container. (Leave enough space for the plants to grow, and if things start to look too crowded, it's fine to prune a bit. These pictures were taken right after the gardens were created, and by the end of the summer they filled in even more.) Be sure to leave plenty of room for your accessories. Also consider light and water requirements. Two of our gardens had similar plantings, but we chose succulents for the third. Mixing them might have been a mistake because succulents require much less water.

Notice that this garden has ferns, plants that droop over the edge, flowering plants, and taller plants at the back to add dimension. Check for variation in color and texture as well.

Choose accessories:
This is the fun part, and you can be so creative. We found many of our fairies, structures and other accessories online, but we also found them at the dollar store, the hardware store, and thrift stores. (I spotted a darling mushroom at Hobby Lobby this week--a Christmas tree ornament that was 90% off.) The hunt is half the fun. In the gardens above, look for charming houses, bridges, a metal trellis, benches, woodland animals, stepping stones, and a pebble brook, The male of the group chose gnomes instead of fairies and succulents instead of leafy greens. The result was delightful, and of the three gardens, this was the only one that survived the winter cold. The others will need to be replanted:

Again, notice the variation in plant color, size, and texture (and the adorable hedgehogs.)

One of the cottages has little solar panels and lights up at night. SO FUN!:

Put it all together:
We bought a large bag of container potting soil and went to work. We had the children set out their design by arranging the pots and the accessories on top of the soil before we did any digging. That helped us create a pleasing composition without having to dig up and rearrange. Once everything is in place, it might be helpful to snap a reference picture so you can check back as you plant.

The children loved both the process and the finished products. And they are excited to re-imagine their plantings this year. It is fairy garden magic.