Birthday Girl…or 40 is the new 30.

It took weeks of stealth planning…endless Facebook messaging…multiple revisions…crafty, deliberate misdirections…all in an effort to throw Rina the surprise 40th birthday party she richly deserved.  She did not make it easy.  We all knew she wanted something special to mark this milestone, but being the suspicious woman that she is, Rina kept her husband, Ken, and Laura on their toes–tossing one monkey wrench after another in their planning.  At one point, she was so worried they hadn’t come up with anything she started organizing her own birthday party!

I had it pretty easy…once Ken decided to forgo booking an event space and opted to go with a restaurant, which meant I wouldn’t be catering the party.   I knew from the beginning that I’d make her birthday cake–and that it’d have to be something that would knock her socks off.    Now, I’m not one for carving cakes into Mount Rushmore-like heads of people.  In fact, I’m generally against fashioning any body parts out of cake.  Sorry, but that’s just weird!  It’s suppose to be dessert, not an episode of Dexter.  Nevertheless, Rina and I had a running joke on Facebook about her wanting me to bake her a cake in the form of Lionel Ritchie’s head (circa 1980’s), so I deployed a bit of subterfuge by hinting to her sister Rachelle that I was thinking of doing just that…in case Rina decided to pick her sister’s brain about what we were doing for her birthday.

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Chocolate Ritchie anyone?

What I really wanted to do was create a cake that showcased both Rina’s talent as an artist and her love of classic Hollywood movies.  The perfect place to start was to pull from her extensive and prolific drawings on the subject.  Ken helped by secretly emailing me some of her movie-themed “post-it” drawings.  I gathered more from her website, Facebook, and even her postings on this blog, which I then assembled and printed out on edible ink.


I did run into one minor glitch–the yellow ink wouldn’t flow out of the cartridge so all the images came out in shades of pink, blue and black!  Not exactly true to her original artwork, but since I was unable to unclog the cartridge, I decided to just go with it.  At least the color scheme was consistent, which created a kind of flow from her more vibrant drawings to the monochromatic ones.   Originally, I envisioned something along the lines of frames from movie strip circling the cake, but then I realized that I had far too many images (after all I was only making a relatively small two-tiered cake), so I went with the art gallery design.  Each image would be “glued” to a fondant plaque and displayed at artful intervals around the  10″ and 6″ cakes.

Thanks to Laura’s investigative skills, I found out that our birthday girl had a fondness for tiramisu.  Normally tiramisu is too delicate to be turned into a decorated cake.  However, I’ve created a version that is not only delicious but firm enough to be used in a tiered cake.  For Rina’s birthday cake, I settled on a light and fluffy vanilla chiffon cake, soaked with a rum-spiked espresso syrup and layered with a rum and marsala flavored tiramisu filling dotted with bittersweet chocolate curls, frosted in coffee Italian buttercream.

My vision for Rina’s cake didn’t end with the art gallery of her drawings.  Oh no.  I needed an extra element to send it over the top.  And that extra something came in the form of Mr. Darcy…or rather Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (who Rina would argue was the ultimate incarnation of our beloved Jane Austen hero)…gloriously wet, rising out of a pool of chocolate on the top tier!  It seemed simple enough.  All I had to do was screen shot a stock photo Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy standing in the lake.   How hard could that be?  Well…really hard as it turns out…because the scene never actually took place.  To be exact, that particular sequence in the mini series begins with Colin diving into the lake and cuts to him drenched, walking his horse across the greens towards Pemberly!  The only image I could find of Firth’s Darcy in that scenario was of that bizarre “fan art” sculpture made in his likeness which stands in the middle of a lake in Lyme Park, England.

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Needless to say, it’s just a little too creepy.  So, I had to be creative and photoshop (with the help of my friend, Clara) the head of Colin Firth onto the body of the sculpture…then print him up on an edible frosting sheet.

Mr. Darcy and Back-up
Mr. Darcy and Back-up

I then made a hard sugar paste called pastillage, rolled it out like fondant and cut it in the outline shape of his body.  The pastillage was allowed to dry out for three days, then I attached the cut-out image of Colin onto it.  For the cake top, I piped a nice thick border of buttercream dots along the edge to hold in the “lake” of melted chocolate ganache.


…and voilà!

After an interminably long drive through ridiculously bad downtown San Francisco traffic to Berkeley, with the cake strapped to the backseat of Laura’s Toyota, we thankfully arrived at Spenger’s with everything still intact.  Rina was indeed very surprised.


And this is what was left…before everyone went in for seconds…and thirds.


Mission accomplished!

Tiramisu Filling

Yield:  enough to fill one 10″ and one 6″ cake

  • 10 yolks
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup light rum
  • 1/4 cup dry marsala
  • 12 oz. mascarpone cheese
  • 5 cups heavy cream
  • 2 1/2 tsp. gelatin powder dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water

In a heat proof bowl, whisk together the yolks, salt, 1 cup sugar, and liquor until smooth.  Set the bowl over simmering bowl, whisking continuously until the mixture is very pale and thick and registers 160°F.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin.  Place the bowl over a larger bowl of ice and water to chill, whisking occasionally to distribute the cold.  Meanwhile, in a mixer fitted with a whip attachment whip on medium speed the mascarpone, remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 2 cups of cream until the lumps of mascarpone have been smoothed out, then lower the speed and gradually add the remaining cream.  Increase the speed to medium and whip until the mixture forms medium soft peaks.  Carefully fold chilled egg mixture into the cream.

Happy 40th Birthday Rina!

Comic: You DO That Little Thing!

Meet Me in St. Louis is unexpectedly one of my favorite movie musicals ever. I recommend you watch it, not just because you’ll understand the following comic better as it references a lot of scenes and quotes from the movie, but it’s just so GODDAMN good and it’s the holidays!! Make Mimi’s Irish Coffee, tuck yourself under a warm blanket and start watching! It will seriously change your life. I guess I am exaggerating. Anyway, enjoy!

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Meet Me in St. Louis…or Tootie never gets in trouble even though she’s a liar and almost kills people

Most people watch It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story…or Miracle on 34th Street to get into the holiday spirit.  As followers of this blog should know by now, we like to approach things from a different angle…even with old Hollywood classics.  Though technically not a Christmas movie per se–it takes place over the course of four seasons in the life of the Smith family– we all agree Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is one of those movies we must watch during the holidays…though if it’s on any other time of the year, we still couldn’t pass it up.  To be fair, Rina wanted us to feature it on Halloween because of the great “Tootie the Most Horrible” sequence, but I wanted to save it for December because I love that song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the whole climatic scene where Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) has her epic meltdown and whacks away at the snowmen–jeez that kid had a homicidal streak…remember all those dead dolls buried in the backyard and her diabolical plan to derail that streetcar on Halloween?  Fortunately for the Smiths, Tootie’s breakdown convinces Mr. Smith to change his mind about moving his family to New York City (God knows they can’t turn that little psycho loose on unsuspecting New Yorkers!).

The whole dramatic sequence ends with the family celebrating on “Christmas Day” with joyous relief that they will be staying in St. Louis after all–Esther won’t have to elope with John, John can go to college, everyone is going to the World’s Fair…crisis averted!

This whole sequence of events had me thinking, what would Katie (Marjorie Main) make for their celebratory “yay, we’re not moving to New York!” breakfast?   Since the Smiths were clearly in the process of packing up and moving, she probably didn’t have as an extensive a larder as she normally would have…not to mention the fact that it really was the middle of the night and where the heck would she go to get supplies anyways?!  The resourceful Katie would most likely whip up something tasty with whatever she happened to have on hand.   This line of thinking invariably led me to look into my own frig for ideas.  What I came up with was some leftover homemade tangerine-scented cranberry relish, cinnamon apples (surplus from the crostata I made for Thanksgiving), half of a small butternut squash, and one leek.

So what did I come up with, you may ask?  Well, for starters, I knew I had to bake something…something warm and inviting…something worthy to be called (Yay, we’re not moving) Celebration Rolls–a rich brioche slathered with cinnamon browned butter, rolled with cranberry relish and cooked sliced cinnamon apples, and drizzled with a glaze spiked with homemade bourbon vanilla extract.  The brioche dough recipe is very simple and basic…lots of butter worked into an egg-enriched dough.  Once the dough has proofed, you simply roll it out into a rectangle and proceed to layer on the “filling,” then roll it into a log and cut it into 12 pinwheels, which are then placed into greased muffin pan molds, allowed to rise again until doubled, then baked and glazed.  These rolls will guarantee you’ll have a “Merry Little Christmas.”


Celebration Rolls

Yield:  12 rolls

Brioche Dough:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups bread flour

1 package Rapid Rise Yeast (instant yeast)

1 Tbsp. Sugar

1 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt

1/3 cup Whole Milk, lukewarm

3 Eggs

12 Tbsp. Unsalted Butter, softened to room temperature

In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the dry ingredients on low speed.  Whisk together the eggs and milk, then add them to the dry mix.  Mix everything on low for about 4-5 mins. until the dough comes together, scraping down the sides of the bowl about halfway through.  Increased the speed to medium low and begin adding the butter a little at a time until it is all incorporated into the dough.  Kick up the speed to medium and continue mixing for another 10-12 mins.  The dough should be somewhat sticky and shiny.  Transfer the dough into a greased bowl large enough for double its size, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough proof in a warm space.  Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface.  Roll dough out to a rectangle about 1/4″ thick.


1/2 cup Browned Butter (or just softened butter)

1/2 cup Brown Sugar

pinch of Sea or Kosher

2/3 cup Cranberry Relish

1 cup Sauteed Cinnamon Apple Slices, cooled to room temperature

Mix together the butter and sugar to form a spread, then slather it evenly onto the rolled out dough.  Next, spread the cranberry relish on top of the butter, then arrange the apple slices end to end to form 3 rows lengthwise.  Carefully roll the dough, tucking in the apples as you go along to form one uniform log.  Cut the log into 12 pieces and place them into greased muffin tins.  Cover the pan lightly with plastic and allow the rolls to double in size before baking in a pre-heated 350°F oven for about 20-24 mins. or until the rolls are a golden brown.  Let the rolls cool in the pan for about 5 mins. before unmolding.


2 cup Powdered Sugar

1/4 cup Whole Milk

1 tsp. Vanilla Extract

pinch of Salt

Whisk together the ingredients until smooth.  Drizzle glaze over the warm rolls.


The other dish I came up with plays upon an earlier scene in the movie where the family is sitting down to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage.  Mr. Smith thinks it’s going to be a nice, relaxing meal, only to discover much to his aggravation that the entire family, including Katie the cook, are conspiring to speed up dinner in order to facilitate a private phone call between Rose and her erstwhile suitor Walter Sheffield.  My Christmas Morning Corned Beef Hash makes great use of the butternut squash, leek, and herbs I had leftover from Thanksgiving.  The only things I had to buy were a few little Yukon gold potatoes and some corned beef.  I chopped up the squash and leek, along with half of a small yellow onion, sauteed them in my trusty cast iron skillet with some olive oil and a couple sprigs of sage and thyme until they began to soften, then added in the potatoes, which I had cooked until just tender the night before and quartered.  When the potatoes developed some nice color, I tossed in the chopped corned beef and cooked it until was warmed through.  To serve, I topped the corned beef hash with a sunny side up egg.


Now while I imagine the Smith children would partake in hot chocolate,  I think the grown-ups might want something with a little more kick (especially if you had to listen the Tootie and Agnes blathering on about their Christmas gifts or Rose and Esther dithering about their romances all morning).  For them, I concocted a coffee drink spiked with homemade Irish Creme and Creme de Menthe–a few of these Merry Irish Coffees work better than earplugs!



Homemade Irish Creme:

(courtesy of Saveur)

Yield:  2 quarts

2 cups Heavy Cream

2 tsp. Dutch Processed Cocoa

1 Tbsp. Espresso Powder

1-1/2 cups Irish Whiskey (e.g. Jameson)

2 cans (14oz.) Sweetened Condensed Milk

1 Vanilla Bean, split & scraped

Combine the cream, cocoa, espresso powder, whiskey, sweetened condensed milk and scraped vanilla beans (reserve the pod) in a blender and blend on low for about 30 seconds.  Transfer the liquid into a 2-quart mason jar, add the vanilla pod and refrigerate.   The liqueur should last up to two weeks in the refrigerator…if you’re not tempted to drink all of it by then.

Merry Irish Coffee

3 oz. Strong Brewed Coffee or 1 Double-Shot Espresso

3 oz. Steamed Whole Milk*

1 oz. Irish Creme

1/2 oz. Creme de Menthe

mint sprig and chocolate shavings for garnish

Pour the liquors into coffee cup, then top with the hot coffee and foamy steamed milk.  Garnish with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings and a fresh sprig of mint.  *If you don’t have an fancy espresso machine to steam your milk, just vigorously whisk the milk in a small pot as it is heating to create the foam.


And finally, no celebration can be complete without a dessert (no, the rolls don’t count as dessert!).  I present my interpretation of the infamous “Hickory Nut Cake” Katie makes for Halloween…which Rina insisted we had to have…otherwise known as Maple Pecan Cake (because hickory nuts aren’t available at Trader Joe’s and I hate walnuts).   I essentially took a basic white cake recipe, subbed out some of the butter with browned butter (which I also used in the rolls), then added some finely chopped toasted pecans and a little maple extract.  Instead of the very sweet and heavy traditional boiled frosting, I added maple extract and a little bourbon to some vanilla Italian buttercream I had in the freezer and layered in some more chopped toasted pecans for the filling and frosting.  And voila….


Not completely satisfied with my pink ombre flourish…Rina added this.

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