Christmas Baking and Gingerbread Bloodshed with Stephanie A. Cain

giftmas

Around the holidays, we’re surrounded by food. Family dinners, workplace potlucks, aisles and aisles of festive candy at grocery stores, not to mention all those friends who give you tasty treats as gifts to celebrate. When we’re so inundated with food (or anything, for that matter), we forget that others have different situations that lend to different holiday experiences for them. While I’ve never experienced a Christmas where I’ve had to go without, there are many in need, all over the world, and that’s why I wanted to participate in the Giftmas Blog Tour this year. December 6 – 12, we’re sharing holiday food anecdotes and family recipes to instill a little good cheer and support the Edmonton Food Bank.

‘Tis the season! I challenge you to provide a meal for someone in need, which is way easier than you think. $1 provides three meals for someone in need. Donate $5 to positively affect 15 lives. (This is the only time I enjoy math!)

And then…read today’s blog post by Stephanie A. Cain, fantasy writer extraordinaire whose creativity and storytelling follows her into the kitchen. Merry Giftmas!

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Stephanie…

Happy Giftmas! I’m joining this blog tour in support of the Edmonton Food Bank, so I’m here to talk to you about baking and Christmas bloodshed. Or something like that.

Let me start with a confession: I hate being in the kitchen.

I know, it’s weird for someone to write for a Christmas food blog tour when she hates cooking and baking. But here’s the thing–Christmas is the one time I don’t hate being in the kitchen.

My mom is an amazing cook and baker, and I seriously think her love language is feeding people. She taught me how to bake, and at Christmas, I love baking holiday cookies while listening to the Carpenters Christmas and Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums.

ninjabread-menMaking gingerbread boys has been a family tradition over the past decades–I have pictures of this going all the way back to when I was in middle school. Every year we try to get Mom a new cookie cutter. She mixes up the dough ahead of time (usually at least a quadruple recipe) and puts it in the fridge for a day or two.

Then my parents and I get together and bake. Dad rolls out the dough, I cut the cookies out, Mom handles the oven, and when they’re cool, I decorate.

You remember that Foxtrot cartoon where Jason does terrible things to the gingerbread men? That’s totally me. A couple of years ago, I got a set of “Ninja-bread Men” cookie cutters, which gave me plenty of excuses for head wounds and amputated limbs.

What? The Christmas story has its gruesome bits. Don’t forget about the Slaughter of the Innocents!

gingerwolves-and-victimsOne year I cast Lord of the Rings in gingerbread. One year my gingerbread men were the survivors of a zombie attack. We’ve also had gingerbread wolves, complete with red icing around their muzzles.  Then there was the year we thought it would be fun to make a gingerbread house. We quickly discovered how not fun that actually is, but the good news is, even an ugly gingerbread house tastes pretty good.

The recipe we use is from Mom’s battered, stained, well-used Betty Crocker Cookbook from 1972, the year she and Dad got married. (Picture the Book of Mazarbul from Fellowship of the Ring, but exchange recipes for dwarf records and vanilla-stains for bloodstains, and you’ll have an idea of how beat-up this cookbook is.)

Gingerbread Boys

1/2 cup shortening

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark molasses

1/4 cup water

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soda

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon allspice

Cream shortening and sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Cover; chill 2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 375. Roll dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured cloth-covered board. Cut with gingerbread boy cutter [or ninjabread boy, or gingerwolf, or…]; place on ungreased baking sheet.

[Betty recommends using raisins for the face and bits of candied cherries for other decorations. We use cinnamon red-hots for eyes and do the rest with icing after they’re baked.]

Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet. Makes about fifteen 4-inch cookies.

Like I said, we usually make at least a quadruple recipe, because a lot of dough is consumed while rolling and baking (shh, I am convinced salmonella is a conspiracy cooked up–get it, cooked up–by the oven industry). We also give gingerbread boys as a present to my uncle, because they’re his favorite cookies. There is laughter and shrieking and occasionally flour fights during the making of gingerbread boys, and it’s honestly one of my favorite traditions of Christmas.

If you decide to have fun with our recipe, make sure to take lots of pictures, and email me the results at stephanie@stephaniecainonline.com! And remember, as part of our 2016 Giftmas Blog Tour, we’re soliciting donations to the Edmonton Food Bank to help someone else have a happy holiday!

stephanie-a-cain

Stephanie A. Cain writes epic & urban fantasy. She grew up in Indiana, where much of her urban fantasy is set. She works at a museum and dreams of living somewhere without winter. A proud crazy cat lady, she is happily owned by Strider, Eowyn, and Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

I Made Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cupcakes and No One Died!

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Wedding cupcakes are special. They are. Maybe it’s because weddings in and of themselves are pretty magical events – slow dancing, great wine, sweet nothings proclaimed into microphones instead of whispered. And good cakes are the cherry on top. They give weddings that little extra umph. So when I’m asked to bake cupcakes for weddings, I always get a little giddy.

Such was the case when friends of mine asked for cakes for their wedding at Granite Creek Vineyards in Chino Valley this past weekend.

However, there was a catch. I would need to make a batch of gluten-free, dairy-free cupcakes so that the bride could enjoy some cake on her big day without the impending doom of her food allergies flaring up. (No one wants to be sick on their honeymoon!)

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You’d think that with the influx of food allergies these days, I would have been asked before now to dabble in gluten-free/dairy-free/vegan/sugar-free/whatever kinds of cakes – but I haven’t. And I have to admit, I was a little terrified. I needed to make these cakes spectacular for my spectacular friends.

And so the experimenting began. Champagne. Strawberries. Rice flour. Guar gum. Garbanzo bean flour. Earth Balance. Extra vanilla. Daiya cream cheese. Rice paper butterflies. Sprinkles. Mixing equal parts chemistry, pride (see: Tiffany is stubborn), help from my favorite sous-chef (you know who you are), and love, the cupcakes came together.

And I have to say, I was pretty proud of them. They were elegant and (somehow) tasty, too.

This weekend, I had the best present to give to a couple about to embark on a life together: sugar to keep them sweet, guar gum to keep them together, champagne for celebration, and rice flour because..they still throw rice at weddings, right?

Good luck, my friends, and thank you for letting me be a part of your special day!!!

Resolving to Have FUN!

Photo by flickr user "Clay Carson."

Photo by flickr user “Clay Carson.”

Yes, it’s that time of year – the time where we all make resolutions to lose weight, stop smoking, quit swearing, or stop watching marathons of Smash on Hulu at 2am.

BOR-ING!

You wanna know why most people can’t stick to their New Year’s resolutions? It’s because resolutions are generally negative. Think about it – “I’ll quit,” “I’ll stop,” “I won’t,” “I promise not to.” Instead of promising ourselves we’ll embrace life and new adventures in 2013, we get so caught up in saying “no” to that weekly bear claw from Rainbow Donuts.

Photo by flickr user "smiteme."

Photo by flickr user “smiteme.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the complete dismissal of healthy changes in 2013. But what I am doing is challenging you to challenge the status quo. Yes, set some resolutions that will make you a better person in 2013, but also indulge in some silly goals and resolve to have some fun so that you have something to look forward to. Otherwise, you know you’re just going to crave that bear claw like mad, right?

Gosh, I’m hungry now…

Anyway…drum roll, please. Here are my resolutions for 2013. I’m really looking forward to this year.

1. Slow your roll. I am all too often asked by my friends when I sleep. That’s because my planner is booked with dance classes, rehearsals, photo shoots, hot dates, concerts, and social events months in advance. I only know one speed – TURBO! I learned a couple of years ago how to say “yes” to opportunities and I have a hard time saying “no” (although I’m getting better at that). This year, I resolve to scale back substantially. I don’t need to be elbows deep in four projects at once. I’m going to focus on one thing at a time and really being present instead of worrying that I need to be somewhere in 30 minutes. This is going to be my year to relax. I plan to reintroduce yoga to my world, focus on my writing, and drink copious amounts of wine in my bathtub.

2. Host twelve 50 Shades of Chicken dinner parties. While Christmas shopping, I came across this gem, 50 Shades of Chicken. Part cookbook, part hilarious parody, it’s absolutely genius. So, I feel like it’s my duty to share this revelation to the world this year. Once a month, I’ll be hosting a 50 Shades of Chicken dinner party, during which I’ll do a reading from the book, I’ll serve one of the recipes, I’ll mix up some lasciviously-named cocktails, and maybe there will be a round of Cards Against Humanity.

50 Shades

3. Health and wealth. With my recent back injury, it’s time to focus on my health, which means a nice, clean diet, lots of stretching and yoga, and lots of core strengthening exercises. My goal is not to lose weight; I don’t need to do that. But I do need to get my body into better shape so that my back is properly supported. Fiscal health will be important this year, too. I’m resolving to cut back on social outings that are pricy and to start putting away a decent amount of money into savings.

4. Cupcake challenge. My boss got me this awesome cupcake calendar for Christmas since she knows I bake. These cupcakes are fun and spicy…and there are directions for how to make them all right on the calendar! So, there will be a cupcake of the month in my house. I’ll be chronicling these baking adventures here on this blog. God help me, because flavor is more of my forte, not decorating. This should be fun!

5. The write stuff. I’ve started a novel – a novel that I actually think I’m going to finish, which is a new and exciting concept for me. In the past, I’ve grown hyper-critical of myself and basically squashed writing projects before they’ve begun. In 2013, I’m following through. I’m going to finish this novel. I’m going to edit it. I’m going to love it. I’m going to shop it around. I’m going to start calling myself a “writer.” And I’m going to work on believing it. I’m going to be published.

What are your resolutions for 2013? Tell me the fun ones about strippers and rum cakes and travels around the world!

Licensing info for Clay Carson image.
Licensing info for smiteme image.

Operation: Holy Cannoli!

I was terrified–for a number of reasons.

1. The last time I tried to fry anything at home stovetop, Dan and I may or may not have experienced a small grease fire on one of my burners.

2. On the back of the Crisco packets, the warning labels were very clear to point out that the Crisco could catch fire if it got too hot. And let me be clear, this is not if the Crisco bubbles over the side of the pot and makes contact with the burner – this is IN THE POT ITSELF. You best believe I put the puppy in the backyard and the fire extinguisher a couple feet away.

3. The last time I tried to make dough was for a pie for my mom’s birthday a number of years ago. I wound up in the ER that day–albeit, it was due to the knee surgery I’d had about a week prior, not the dough-making. But, you know, association with past experiences…

4. I really wanted to surprise my boyfriend with homemade cannoli for his birthday–and I hadn’t devised a Plan B in case Operation Holy Cannoli went terribly wrong.

Now, those of you who know me personally are probably thinking, But you’re the cupcake queen, and you cook, too. I’ve always assumed you’re a whiz in the kitchen.

Okay, maybe it’s a little egotistical of me to think you think that…

The fact of the matter is batter doesn’t bite back. It may not turn out as planned, but you can toss it without incurring third degree burns or double-checking your homeowners insurance policy for coverage.

Also, I’m a cannoli-making virgin. I will never claim to be a pastry goddess (although I guess I should never say never, right?) and I have mad respect for pastry chefs. Some of the toughest stuff to make in my book.

But when all is said and done, my German pride was up for the challenge. And being twitterpated makes people do crazy things. I turned on my James Morrison Pandora station, got out a pumpkin ale, and readied myself to romance my kitchen.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that cannoli recipes call for white wine. This is why I love Italians. Flickr photo by “theuptownlife.”

The first recipe I tried for the dough was a terrible flop. I couldn’t work the dough to the right consistency. It was flaky and crumbly, despite the copious amounts of wine I added to the mixture, a little at a time per the instructions. Food.com, I was not amused.

When a quarter of the bottle wound up in my bowl and it still wasn’t working, I took a swig of chardonnay and decided to try the recipe printed on the back of my cannoli tube packages instead.

Eureka! The differences in the recipes were subtle, but the second recipe was so much easier to execute and made more sense to me in terms of the food science involved. I wound up with a nice ball of dough. So far, so good.

As I let the dough chill, I prepared for frying. I probably need to invest in a proper pot for this sort of thing, because my selection was limited. I had a deep pot, but the surface area was rather large and I was afraid I would use an entire family-sized tub of Crisco to get the melted shortening deep enough for frying. The thought of that made me gain about 10 pounds.

Option B was the kind of pot I prepare boxed mac and cheese in. I went with that one even though it wasn’t especially deep…but not before consulting a YouTube video of Mario Batali giving cannoli shell frying instructions. Mario helped to calm my nerves.

I did some more online research and determined that as long as I had two inches free above my frying liquid and I only heated the Crisco over medium heat, I should be good.

I melted the Crisco, rolled out the dough, cut it with margarita glasses, and egg-washed the spot where the dough came together around the tubes.

When I dropped the first two cannoli in, I held my breath…and then let it out as I watched the dough expand and turn a beautiful golden brown. The shortening only bubbled around the shells and didn’t threaten to bubble over the side of my pot.

Removing the guinea pig shells, I started to get excited. They looked good, nothing was smoking, and I wasn’t having any heart palpitations.

I fried 12 shells that night, each one even better looking than the one before. My fear turned into confidence as Mr. Morrison sang about love and my kitchen took on the aroma of fried dough.

The next night, I made the filling, complete with maraschino cherries and mini chocolate chips. To maintain the crispy/creamy contrast that really makes cannoli special, I didn’t fill the shells until just before I served them up to my boyfriend and some of his friends who celebrated with us.

And the looks on their faces as they dug in made all of the fear and anticipation worth it. Because that’s what matters–creating a food experience for others, creating a memory or a moment. It’s why “foodies” love food. It’s the senses going crazy, the association with who, what, why, where, how, and when, a flavor coming alive.

So, in terms of Operation Holy Cannoli–veni, vidi, vici.