Birthday Jungle

WP_20150118_18_56_47_ProMy mom loves making fun cakes for my birthday (last year she did Jane Austen novels).  This year, she went with an animal theme—always a hit with me, the zoologist.  These cupcakes are from the cute book What’s New Cupcake? and this bunch of flamingos, hippos, and crocodiles look straight out of the African jungle.

Or do they?

Because I love to over-analyze things, let’s take a look at how the cupcakes are made and also what species they might represent.

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The flamingos are made from mini-cupcakes.  The wings are candy melts shaped free-hand on wax paper.  The neck is a pretzel stick dipped in candy melts, which helps attach the head, made of a jelly bean, and the beak, made of half a banana Runt.  Black decorator gel makes the eyes and beak tip.

There are six species of flamingos, with habitats ranging all over the world, including Africa.  However, only 2 species have yellow beaks, the closely-related Andean Flamingo and James’s Flamingo, both only found high in the Andes of South America.

Personally, I think these guys look like James’s Flamingos, which have a brighter yellow beak with less black on the tip; if they had legs we could more clearly determine their species based on the color.

These guys are both made on regular cupcakes with Nutter Butters and Froot Loops, plus frosting for decoration.  The hippopotamus (H. amphibius) is a semi-aquatic animal found only in Africa.  This guy looks about as accurate as a cupcake can be, although perhaps a little too brown/orange.  The crocodile on the other hand…

…might not be a crocodile at all.

Take a look at its snout; that’s one of best ways to distinguish crocodilian species.  Crocodile snouts tend to be longer and thinner, and teeth from both upper and lower jaws are visible when the mouth is closed.  Here’s a lovely comparison from Encyclopædia Britannica:


Looking at these images, I think our tasty green friend is actually an alligator, a genus with only two species, neither of which are native to Africa (one U.S., one China).

So in fact, none of these cupcakes live on the same continent.  They did live on my dining room table, but not for long.  They were as delicious as they were pretty.

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It came, a flow’ret bright, Amid the cold of winter

My husband wrapped my gifts as an X-wing this year.
“Red leader here. We’re under attack from a giant cat!”

To my Christian readers, a very Happy Christmas.  As we celebrate Christ’s birth, I hope you find the warmth of His peace in your homes and hearts.  And to all those celebrating this season, whatever the holiday, I wish you bright joy in the midst of the cold and dark.

I will be spending the day with family, and eating these delicious goodies I made (including anise and orange springerles–the orange ones have chocolate on the back!)

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!  Two years after hosting our first family Thanksgiving, B and I were back to it again.  Yesterday I was kinda freaking out about it and never ever wanted to host again.  But it was a great day, of course, because we were with family, and really put our hearts into preparing food for their enjoyment.  And the smoke detector only went off once.

Only minor issue of the day was that I had bought Fleischmann’s Original, which has dairy, instead of Unsalted, which is Kosher pareve.  A quick internet search informed us that butter-flavored Crisco is also pareve, so that went in the stuffing.  I don’t eat stuffing, but no one else complained.

As for my desserts, I tried out Bananabelle’s Apple Crisp (great for vegan, gluten-free, or Kosher guests).  My attempt had too much crumble for the amount of apples, but it was still pretty tasty.  I also reprised the Pumpkin Cheesecake, because I prefer that to pie.  It didn’t sink in the middle this time, but still cracked.

Today I am thankful for my cat who is keeping my legs warm, my two hands that can make food, my mom who helped me cook the turkey at 8am, my husband who learned how to use the KitchenAid mixer to make mashed potatoes and then dried all the dishes, snow that looks beautiful and doesn’t stick to the road, holidays off from work, and leftovers.  I am truly blessed.

Learning to Make Springerle Cookies

Isn’t it amazing how cultural identity and family history can be tied into something as simple as cookies?

Anise flavored springerle My mom remembers her Swiss German grandmother making springerle, a traditional cookie in the Bavaria-Austria-Switzerland region known for its puffy shape (“little pillows” my mom called them), intricate raised designs, and anise flavor.  My mom learned several Swiss recipes from her grandmother, but springerle was not one of them.  The “family recipe” died with my mom’s cousin.  The whereabouts of the molded rolling pin used to shape them is unknown.

We have been meaning for years to add springerle to our repertoire of Christmas cookies.  Last year for Christmas, I did some Googling and bought my mom a springerle kit from a lovely little website called Springerle Joy.   We planned to try it well in advance of next Christmas so we could totally screw up the first time.

Imagine our excitement when I got an email from Springerle Joy saying that this fall they would be offering hands-on classes!  My mom signed us up almost immediately.

So last weekend we traveled to Pittsburgh, just a two-hour drive for us in NE Ohio, and met Patrice Romzick, owner of Springerle Joy, who taught us how to make springerle cookies.  It was the best thing we could have done, because with springerles there is no substitute for experience.

The class was only 4 people, so there was plenty of room, and plenty of individual attention.  We started with making dough, which has a very simple recipe: eggs, sugar, flour, and a flavoring.  However, to get the right consistency you sometimes need to tweak the amount of flour you add.  It was raining that day, so we all had to add several extra cups of flour to the dough.

The cookies still rise with out any kind of leavening agent; the trick is to first beat the eggs very very well, until they are frothy and bubbly, then add the dry ingredients quickly to keep all the air trapped in.  The air bubbles expand when heated, making the cookies puff up and lift off the sheet on a “foot.”

Next is the fun part.  We rolled out the dough, pressed the molds in, and cut out the cookies with either cookie cutters or a ravioli cutter.

We were allowed to use any molds that Patrice had in stock…I got a little carried away with the number I picked out.  All her molds are made by a Swiss company called Änis-Paradies; some have been carved in recent years, but others are reproductions of old traditional molds.  I love these because they have been replicated with the cracks and warp of the original still included.  It really makes me feel connected to the old traditions.

The molded cookies have to dry for a day or so before baking, so we practiced baking some that Patrice had cut out the previous day.  She then showed us options for decorating including painting and added some melted chocolate to the back.  They really looked quite professional!

Painting was fun...it involves Triple Sec...
Painting was fun…it involves Triple Sec…

We brought our cookies back home with us and baked them the next day.  Our first batch we had the temperature too high, and instead of rising nicely, they puffed up into domes.  We turned the temp down to around 275 for the later ones and they came out beautifully, although some stuck to the cookie sheet a little.  The really big cookies I let dry another day before baking.

I took a plate into work (lemon, hazelnut, and raspberry flavors) and they were gone in a day.  But any food left in the breakroom is gone in a day, so…

My mom and I were really pleased with the class and how much we learned.  We are ready to try springerle at Christmas this year!

If you want to sign up for springerle-making classes, you can find more info at the Springerle Joy website (the Oct 11 class still has openings!)  You can also browse all of the hundreds of molds and other supplies available for purchase.

Farewell cupcakes

I worked in the university Admissions office during my undergrad, and my boss always complained about what she called “awkward cake parties.”  When an employee left, there was a get-together for the office where they served a sheet cake and everyone stood around and pretended like they liked each other and cared about what the person leaving was going on to do.  Turnover in Admissions is quite high; there were a lot of awkward cake parties.

Friday was the last day at work for a coworker of mine, a dear friend I have worked closely with for almost 5 years.  It was pretty bittersweet, because while I’m happy she’s moving on with her career, I will miss working with her.  Also, I don’t deal well with change.

Luckily, we did NOT have an awkward cake party.  But I did bring in cupcakes, made using a fun trick this coworker taught me.

Not everyone has as big a  sweet tooth as I do; sometimes it’s nice to add a little savory to balance out the sweet.  These are just a basic box mix French vanilla flavor, but I added a couple of tablespoons of powdered vanilla chai mix to give it a little kick.  Adding chai, or other spices, to chocolate mixes also works really well.

The cut strawberries on top are a quick way to give a little color and make it look more “finished.”