One of the most surprising discoveries I've made in my culinary school adventure, and the resulting baking I get to do for my clients, is that I LOVE cake decorating (I really didn't think I would)(no really, I'm being honest here). I'm a lucky girl to know Sarah over at Lil Hoot, because she's as creative as she is fun, and often when we work together I get emails with pictures of GORGEOUS cakes- I'm talking real stunners.

"I like this- thoughts?"

Sarah, my thoughts are always "drooooooooool." followed quickly by "I'LL DO IT!" followed quickly by, "I have to figure out how to do this." I kid. I really love it when a client comes to me with some specific ideas, be it flavor, or color....the more I know about what a client really likes, the more fun I have because I know what I'm working on will be something they'll love (uh, hopefully).

I'm equally lucky that one of Sarah's go-to girls is Meredith, (of Meredith Nelson Photography), someone with a real talent for photography. Meredith is singlehandedly responsible for capturing some of my very favorite cake pictures. Behold:

(for Lil Hoot's Lil C)

(For Sugar on Top)

Yes, really. Thank you, THANK you, Meredith, for making my cakes look so pretty (and my macs...and my brioche cinnamon buns....).

I'm hard at work on the ultimate cake- this one is a long term project for school. We've been given free reign to create our own wedding cakes, and I've happened across an inspiration cake that I can't get off my mind. So? I'm going for it. I'll save THAT picture for when I've completed the cake, but I will share my progress so far.

Traditional wedding cake design includes a pastillage structure system (pastillage is a very strong sugar based paste that rolls out like dough and dries into a heavy, rigid product....sort of like porcelain), and our cakes are no exception.  Our cakes will be small wedding cakes, with the first tier consisting entirely of a pastillage support structure. On Friday I designed my support tier, measured and cut my templates, mixed my pastillage, and got to work.  

Here are my templates (and my sketch)(and my tea):

and HERE is my cut pastillage, drying on forms, or in molds (or flat, on the sheet pan):

The tubes you can see there will be support for the cake, the flat discs will be the base and the top of the support (that's what the rest of the cake will sit on directly). Oh, and those are trees. And the top of a house. There's MORE pastillage to complete, and then it will all be painted. And that's simply the bottom support layer of the cake.

You might be wondering how a house and some trees and a couple of tubes made of sugar come together to make a wedding cake, and what on EARTH it will look like. I'll give you a hint: the cake is an homage to a famous work of art that pays tribute to the stoic American pioneer spirit. And there's a pitchfork. 

Just trust me, it makes sense. I'll show more pictures along the way.


.....and then I survived midterms.

Well, HELLO. It's been a while, I know. There was Thanksgiving, and then right into Christmas, and you know how busy all that business is, we celebrated the new year and then I flung myself into midterm prep.

Culinary School exams: quite an experience. If you've seen Julie and Julia, you know maybe what culinary school exams involve. In the final exam scene, Julia pulls a card (for the life of me I cannot remember what was on the card, but suffice to say it was an impossible French recipe), and she's meant to write the ingredients, quantity and method for the dish, then presumably she'll execute the dish in the kitchen. Julia (JULIA CHILD) comes up blank. She cannot remember the dish. Horrified, she fails her exam. Cue recurring nightmare. Weep.

The midterm exam at my particular culinary school is very similar- but because it's the midterm it's an introduction to the process. On the pastry side, we were given 10 desserts to know, including all of the components (for instance: to make macaroons you'd need to know how to make a french meringue, how to incorporate that into the almond flour and confectioners' sugar, how to color the batter, cook the cookies, how to make three ganaches, how to assemble). The morning of our practicum exam, we came into the kitchen, pulled a folded paper at random, opened the paper to find the title and ingredients (on our final, we won't be given the ingredients)(yes, I'm already worrying about it)(I've been told to stop worrying, since the exam isn't until June, but obviously that person doesn't know me very well), and were asked to write the procedure for each component.

I pulled French Cookies and Ice Cream, so I sat down to furiously write out the procedure for four french cookies and the ice cream. I handed the completed procedures to my proctor, he checked the details (at this point, if there are any corrections to be made, the proctor gives you a chance to make the correction, if you can't, he takes a point off per error and makes the correction himself), I got the procedures approved and headed into the kitchen for a LONG day of making cookies, ice cream and considering plating.

We're evaluated in two parts: our recipe writing and kitchen work, and our presentation and execution. Once my cookies were completed, and my ice cream was chilled, I had to bring the whole thing together. Because cookies and ice cream are rather independent items, my biggest challenge was presenting something to the evaluation team that made sense relative to the components, was visually appealing, and that might have an element of technical difficulty (I didn't want to risk giving up points by throwing cookies on a plate, next to a bowl of ice cream). Our plating options are limited.....so what's a pastry girl to do? Duh, make a bowl for the ice cream out of chocolate.

(I'm joking and being cavalier here- those chocolate bowls almost undid me. I made TWELVE and three worked. Any guesses how many plates I needed to pull together? THREE. Talk about coming down to the wire, holy smokes)


When our plates were set, the proctor brought them in to the tasting and evaluation room. The tasting is purposely done blind, meaning the tasters do not know who prepared the dish- this prevents a bias. The proctor returns to the kitchen and reviews your performance throughout the day including feedback on kitchen work, and the impressions from the tasters.

It was nerve wracking, and exciting, and fun and terrifying all at the same time. I loved every minute. I'm still scared for my final in June.


Sage and Butternut Squash Crêpes with Spiced Mascarpone and Honeyed Brown Butter

We were given an assignment this week at school to write an original recipe using a (lesser known) fruit, an herb and a spice. Because it's Fall and I'm in harvest mode, I chose butternut squash (it's a fruit!), and sage pairs well with butternut, so.....fresh sage it is. Then to compliment the earthy-sweet flavors, I made a cardamom mascarpone filling for the crêpes, and a honeyed brown butter sauce.

Originally, my plan was to top this off with a maple brown butter, but when it was time to pull out my sauce ingredients, I realized I didn't have maple syrup (oops). What to do.......? I had honey, which gave me the syrup consistency I needed, and I had vanilla to mellow the honey flavor a little, so.....sure, why not. And truth be told? I liked the honeyed brown butter better than the maple. Happy accident: check.

Here is the recipe- oh, before I give you the goods, here's a note about crêpes: don't be intimidated by crêpes. The end.

If you have a shallow pan (frying pan), then you have the equipment you need. The batter is very runny, much more so than a pancake batter. Ladle a little bit onto the lightly buttered pan, and swirl your pan so that the batter runs to cover the entire bottom in a thin thin layer- crêpes are nearly paper thin and very delicate. But don't be fooled, that's a hardy little sucker and when it's cooked you can flip it in the pan and get fancy and WOW whomever is in your kitchen with you. Own it. OWN YOUR CRÊPES. Also, the general rule with crêpes is that the first one never turns out, so there. There you have it.

Ok, now here's the recipe. Go forth and make crêpes:

Sage and Butternut Squash Crêpes with Spiced Mascarpone and Honeyed Brown Butter


(for the crêpes)
1 1/2 ounces flour
1 ounce sugar
8 1/2 ounces milk
4 eggs
4 1/2 ounces butternut squash puree
1 ounce butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage

(for the mascarpone)
6 ounces mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

(for the honeyed brown butter)
8 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

cooked, chopped bacon, for garnish

Place the butter for the honeyed brown butter in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until browned, and set aside to cool. Allow the burned fat solids to go to the bottom of the pan. Strain into a bowl and add the honey, vanilla and salt. Whisk to combine. Set aside.

Combine all ingredients for the crêpes in a bowl and mix well until combined.

Heat a small, flat pan over medium heat. Brush the pan lightly with melted butter, and allow the butter and the pan to become hot. Pour about 1/4 cup of the batter into the pan and quickly swirl until the entire surface of the pan is evenly coated. Cook until top begins to set and edges appear golden, then flip and cook lightly on the other side. Transfer the crêpe to a platter to cool. Continue process with the remaining batter.

While crêpes are resting, combine all ingredients for the mascarpone in a bowl. Mix by hand until all of the ingredients are just combined.

To assemble, lay a crêpe on a plate and spoon some of the mascarpone down the center. Fold the sides of the crêpe one over the other to close and drizzle with the honeyed brown butter sauce. Garnish with the chopped bacon.

Alternately, you can layer the crêpes and the mascarpone. Lay a crêpe on a plate or platter, spoon a thin layer of mascarpone onto the crêpe, then layer another crêpe on top of the mascarpone. Continue this process ending with a crêpe. Slice into individual servings, and drizzle the honeyed brown butter sauce over the top.


Crêpe: © Delphin Gomes Week 5B Fillings, Meringues and Sauces- Dessert Sauces pg. 9: Pumpkin Crêpe

Brown butter: © Delphin Gomes Week 4A Fillings, Meringues and Sauces- Fillings & Mousses pg. 8: Brown Butter Filling

Mascarpone: Honey Poached Pears with Mascarpone, Bon Appétit, February 1999- found on www.epicurious.com

Lawson, Jane (2008) The Spice Bible. New York: Stewart, Taboori & Chang



Each week, at school, we attend a lecture seminar. Some of them are very practical (knife skills, ServSafe), others are practical and fascinating (chocolate).

Chocolate is a very VERY interesting beast. My friend Erin recently asked me to tell her my favorite kind of chocolate to use in baking (specifically in something like the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies). The obvious answer is that it depends on the recipe, at least as far as the strength of the cocoa. Some recipes really just call for a milk chocolate or a semi-sweet, others need a bittersweet or unsweetened cocoa. Sometimes my chocolate preference is flavor driven.

The other answer is that I'm picky about my chocolate, in both quality and processing. Depending on the way the cocoa is processed, some companies take the cocoa butter out entirely, and add oil back in to make their finished chocolate product. There are a few reasons a company might do this, and I'll get into this in more detail in a sec, but given the choice between a chocolate with cocoa butter and a chocolate with some kind of non-cocoa related oil, I'm going to pick the cocoa butter every time. With that said, the cocoa butter chocolate is probably going to taste better anyway, but QUALITY of taste is a huge factor for me when I'm picking a chocolate.

Ok, let me stop here and give you a run through of how chocolate is processed, from bean to bar.

Chocolate is grown along the equator where the climate is wet (70 inches of rainfall a year) and humid (90% humidity). We're talking rain forest here, where it's wet, humid and the average temperature is 80°F. Hawaii is the only place in the US with a climate supportive enough to grow the cacao trees, but most of the growth occurs in Africa and South America (Central America, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are among some of the other climates conducive to cacao tree growth). Cocoa beans grow in pods on trees (Theobroma Cacao). There are two subspecies of cacao trees: the criollo (creee-oh-yo), and the forestero (forrest-err-oh). The criollo produces a pod with a higher cocoa butter content, and its beans are less bitter than those of the forestero. The criollo tree takes longer to cultivate and bears less fruit than the forestero. The forestero produces beans that are more bitter in pods that have less cocoa butter, BUT it yields more fruit than the criollo, and it yields that fruit two years earlier than the criollo. So. You can see why each tree is attractive for its various reasons to cocoa growers.

INTERESTINGLY, there has been a cross between these two types of cacao trees which resulted in what's called a trinitario. I'm assuming it's resulted in bringing together the best qualities of each?

Now. Cocoa beans grow inside a pod that buds off of the tree. The pods are harvested by hand, cut open and the pulp is removed to get to the seeds. These seeds are fermented for about a week to enhance their flavor, then dried on large racks (in the sun). At this point they're ready to be sold and shipped off to chocolate processors.

The cocoa beans are roasted to bring out their flavor, this sounds like coffee, right? From the roasting chamber, they're funneled through a hopper and stirred before heading off to be winnowed. The winnowing takes any foreign objects off the seeds (fine skins, rocks, sticks- don't forget, these beans came straight from being dried in the fields). Winnowing is the initial refining process, and it produces a cocoa nib. After the winnowing, the nibs are ground either by stone or steel, resulting in what's called chocolate liquor (though it's not liquor liquor- it's simply what the paste is called), and it's at this point that the cocoa butter might be removed from the bean. From there, the ground seeds are put through the concher for further refining- this is where additional cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla- anything that's going to flavor the chocolate, or determine the chocolate "percentage"- is going to be added, and this process is what's going to give the final chocolate product a smooth quality. This part of the chocolate adventure can take anywhere from 90 minutes to FOUR DAYS.

Finally, the chocolate liquor is is tempered to create what's called the "snap" and sheen, and then the chocolate is molded into the finished shape.

TA DA: chocolate. It's quite a process, isn't it?

During the grinding process, the nibs might be ground down to a powder form, known as cocoa powder. We use this in baking all the time, and it's a great way to add chocolate flavor without excess liquid or sugar. Some companies, I'm not going to name any here (but you could probably guess who they might be, or a quick google search is going to point them out), will use this process to grind all of the cocoa butter out of the bean, and replace that cocoa butter with oil, and sell the extremely valuable cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry. There's nothing unethical about this, since they're being honest and it's safe and completely legal. It just.....doesn't taste good.

I SHOULD add that a pretty famous example of a company that deliberately takes the cocoa butter out of the bean and substitutes a fat back in is English Cadbury. They're not being underhanded, they're adding palm oil to develop a very specific, signature flavor. And if you've ever had English Cadbury (not American Cadbury which is owned by Kraft, and which tastes entirely different from English Cadbury), you'll know that their chocolate is absolutely DELICIOUS. English Cadbury also set off quite a hilarious only-in-Europe scandal when the UK joined the EU. In Europe there are VERY strict guidelines governing chocolate production and chocolate percentages (what can be labeled a bittersweet, versus what is a semi-sweet, etc), and all of the traditional European chocolatiers were horrified to think that Cadbury milk chocolate with its palm oil was going to be allowed to sit next to their traditional milk chocolate, and the Two Chocolates Policy was developed in order to settle the unrest.

Oh, Europe. I love you and your standards.

Chocolate percentages are really the measure of the percent of cocoa in a particular chocolate. 65% chocolate contains 65% cocoa. See? You'll notice the % of cocoa on a chocolate package, and 85% cocoa doesn't make the chocolate BETTER than 65% cocoa, it just makes it more bitter and less flavored. You probably don't want to EAT 85% chocolate. Unless, you like super bitter chocolate. And then you might want to. I don't know your life.

Through tasting, I've discovered that my favorite kind of chocolate to EAT is a 65% bittersweet. I like the complex flavors that can come out in a bittersweet- I've tasted everything from tart cherries to blue cheese in the layer of flavors of a good 65% bittersweet chocolate.

Finally, when I'm choosing a chocolate, ethics play a role. Chocolate is grown along the same geographical line as coffee. You may have heard of the fair trade movement in coffee, right?  Chocolate growth and production isn't as regulated as coffee, but many of the same issues that exist in coffee growth and control ALSO exist in cacao growth and control. It's up to the individual chocolate processor to do their research and buy their beans from growers who operate in an ethical manner, and there is a movement in the chocolate world towards direct trade or fair trade. It can be difficult for larger companies to ensure their beans are coming from fair trade growers, because of the volume of beans involved, but many medium and small bean to bar producers DO have the luxury of working with fair trade growers. I've also seen larger companies putting out a fair trade specific chocolate, which is an EXCELLENT first step. Whenever possible, I try to support companies that employ ethical business practices. And it's funny, but I've been finding that companies who act with ethical growing guidelines in mind, tend to produce a better quality chocolate. So: win/win.

Some of the best chocolate I've had is made by small bean to bar manufacturers. Taza is one of my favorites. They're a small company based here in Summerville, and they practice direct trade with their bean growers, which is really progressive, in my opinion. Their chocolate is delicious, and their flavors are adventurous, and if you're local, they offer tours of their factory. Go! See them! Give them your support!

Rogue is another chocolatier that I love- he's a guy. Making incredible small batch chocolate. I've tried his Hispaniola 70% and it's AMAZING. I believe he makes a batch, and that's it. So essentially all of his chocolates are limited edition in a way. If you come across a bit of Rogue chocolate, I'd say it's a must try.

Mast Brothers are located in Brooklyn. They consider their chocolate making to be a craft and are incredibly devoted to bringing out the best flavor in their beans and developing uniquely delicious chocolate. Their ingredients are simple, and what they DO with those ingredients is exceptional. If you're in New York, and you want an experience, pop in and see if you can get a tour. Support them too.

Theo, for you Seattle-ers, is a company I can really get behind. They are another purist chocolatier who use premium ingredients in their chocolate, and back up their quality chocolate with a fair trade promise. I have some Theo drinking chocolate in the pantry, but I hear their bread & chocolate bar is to die for. Bring it back, Theo! If you're in Seattle, stop in and see them.

It can be a little difficult to find fair trade companies that produce enough chocolate to make baking with it cost effective, however, as I mentioned above, there ARE larger companies that might produce a special batch of fair trade chocolate. Guittard has a 55% semisweet that they're calling Akoma. This is pulled from the package, "Akoma represents 'heart' in traditional Adinkra symbols of West Africa where cocoa beans for this chocolate are grown." This particular batch is marked fair trade certified, but based on their statement about ethical labor, I believe Guittard tries to approach all of their chocolate production in the most responsible manner possible. When I bake at home, I use Guittard almost exclusively. I think they make a great product, and I appreciate their ethical approach to manufacturing. I find Guittard at Whole Foods (which is an excellent place to cruise around if you want to try some specialty small bean to bar chocolatiers).

all of these chocolates are fair or direct trade...and DELICIOUS.
So. There you have it. When I'm choosing a chocolate for baking, I look for three things: the kind of chocolate flavor I want in my finished product (do I want a semi-sweet? a milk chocolate?), the taste and quality of the chocolate (production practices matter, in my opinion), and whenever possible I try to buy from ethically driven companies, fair trade, thoughtful bean selection, community minded- all of these qualities are important.

Have you come across some of the small bean to bar chocolate producers? Or tried any of the specialty chocolatiers mentioned above? If you do try or have tried them, I'd be interested to hear what you think!

(and, I want you to know I've edited myself- this is just choosing my chocolate. I can write a whole ENTIRE SEPARATE post about tasting chocolate)(which, actually, I think I will! oh gee, I'm so sad about the research that will have to go into that one)



Buttercream frosting is maybe my favorite thing in the world. I commented on Facebook the other day that buttercream is my kryptonite, and I meant that I'm powerless against it. I always will be. Our wedding cake was entirely buttercream (and cake)(chocolate), no fondant, and I loved that people actually ATE it. Willingly.

Fact: Buttercream was a working name for my bakery before I landed on Pickwick Baking Co. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to make some treats last minute for a party (and I cannot wait to tell you more about THAT when the time comes), and I made my vanilla swiss meringue buttercream for both rich chocolate cupcakes and a yellow butter layer cake.

What I love about this buttercream (and NO, I'm not giving up my recipe! DON'T EVEN) is that it's so light. I'm not a "frosting" fan, but buttercream is in a league of it's own. Swiss meringue buttercream is simply out of this world. It's airy, has almost a whipped cream quality, but richer, and it simply melts on your tongue and then disappears. The flavor, the texture is so delicate but so right on....then it flits away.

I recreated the layer cake today with a twist of flavor. You guys were split nearly evenly between wanting a raspberry vanilla and an apricot vanilla, so: I give you both

yellow butter cake with apricot and bourbon vanilla swiss meringue buttercream

yellow butter cake with raspberry and bourbon vanilla swiss meringue buttercream

Wee little cakes with big flavor. Heaven on a dessert plate.