Now that my guild has finished the tier and is down to 1- or 2-night clears of the raid, and since everyone ever has abandoned me for Diablo 3, I’ve had a lot more free, non-WoW time on my hands, and I’ve been recently spending it baking. This is off-topic so I’ll keep it short (though there’s a lot of pictures, so you’ll do a lot of scrolling), but I wanted to share with you a few of my recent baking exploits, because they were a lot of fun for me to work on, and they were rather challenging. Feel free to skip this post if you don’t want to see pictures of nerdy but delicious food ;)
Baking is Science for Hungry People!
(Yes, I just outed myself as a lover of Questionable Content :P)
I’m not sure where exactly I got the idea to do this. I think it was just a combination of rewatching How I Met Your Mother (Marshall’s pie chart of bars and bar chart of pies bit) and my desire to practice making pies that coalesced into a grand idea:
I will make a pie, that is itself a pie chart, of the most popular pie types!
First, the research. I found a poll from NPR back in 2012 that gave me some data on pie type popularity. I had to adjust the data somewhat – I didn’t want to make a chocolate cream pie mixed in with all the fruit pies, and obviously “Other” was right out – so I tallied up the votes for each fruit pie and restandardised the percents based on just fruit pie samples:
Then, I had to make the pie!
For the pie crust, I used Martha Stewart’s pate brisee recipe. It is foolproof and perfect. I made a double batch because I knew I’d need more than the standard amount of pie crust in order to build the walls inside the pie that would divide each of the different flavours.
While the pie crust dough rested in the fridge for an hour, I prepared as much of the fruit fillings as I could:
I mostly just winged these, although I did follow the strawberry rhubarb filling instructions from this amazing recipe at Smitten Kitchen. I’d never had strawberry rhubarb before (or rhubarb at all for that matter) so I wanted to play it safe. The apple pie filling is just Granny Smith apples, some cinnamon, some sugar, and cornstarch; the blueberry pie filling is blueberries, vanilla sugar (which I make myself with leftover vanilla bean pods and sugar – just combine them in an airtight container and let the sugar get amazing), and cornstarch; the cherry pie filling is drained, jarred sour cherries, vanilla sugar, and cornstarch; and the pumpkin pie is just the exact recipe off the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree.
Once the fillings were ready, I rolled out the pie crust and set to constructing the pie dividers. This was quite difficult as pie crust dough is not a great construction material. I flubbed a bit here, making the strawberry rhubarb section too large, and the blueberry and lemon meringue sections too large also, which cramped the cherry section’s style, but I had to sacrifice some scientific accuracy for structural integrity.
I then carefully filled the pie sections, gently spooning the fruit in and nudging fruit pieces into the nooks and crannies without overfilling. I usually would add a lot more apple to an apple pie, for example, but I didn’t want the apple to spill over into the lemon meringue section.
Speaking of the lemon meringue section – this was conceptually the hardest part of the pie making process. I settled on lining the lemon meringue ‘slice’ with foil and filling it with baking beads, so that the crust itself would bake but not burn or over-brown. The beads retained heat just like a pie filling would, and after baking the pie most of the way, I was able to cleanly lift the foil insert out with all the beads contained and had a perfectly baked pie crust waiting to be filled!
I put a pie crust top on the apple and cherry just to make sure all the slices were visually distinguishable from their neighbours. The strawberry rhubarb pie has a crumble topping that I adapted from this recipe – replacing the hazelnuts with steel-cut oats.
I baked the pie for 35 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius. While this was going on, I made the lemon custard filling and meringue toppings. I followed the instructions at Not So Humble Pie, here, to the letter – using the “piping hot filling” method. This involved making a cornstarch gel to stabilise my French meringue, and then cooking a lemon custard on the stovetop. Because I hate the texture of lemon zest (I know, I have weird texture issues okay?) I left my lemon zest in large chunks and strained the lemon custard to remove them, resulting in a silky smooth lemon goop.
After the 35 minutes of baking, I pulled the pie out, cleanly removed the foil and baking bead insert, poured in the hot lemon custard, and topped it with the French meringue. I then stuck this back in the oven for another 15 minutes to toast the meringue and finish off the rest of the pie baking process.
The results were, well, better than I ever could have expected! And while I haven’t tried every slice yet, I did have a piece of the apple/strawberry rhubarb confluence, and man, it was delicious <3
A little over two months ago, I decided to do something nice for some WoW community friends of mine – Hamlet and Perculia and Serrinne. I wanted to make them cookies, but I wanted to make cookies that they’d really appreciate, cookies that in some way appealed to some part of their personality and interests. So this took a fair bit of thought and planning, and I didn’t actually gather all the required materials so I could start the project until about a month ago. I actually did up a massive flow chart that is too smothered in icing now to show you, so that I could accomplish the cookie-icing step of the project in the most efficient way possible. Because science! :)
First up, the basics: I used Alton Brown’s sugar cookies recipe (because let’s face it. He mixes nerdiness and food in a way that I find irresistibly awesome) and a standard Royal Icing recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible cookbook. I made three batches of cookie dough – two vanilla (by adding the seeds of vanilla bean), and one lemon. The lemon batch was my own invention; I zested three lemons and pureed the zest with a little lemon juice and about a half a cup of sugar, to make “lemon sugar”, then replaced 1/4 cup of sugar in the recipe with the lemon sugar. It worked brilliantly – the cookies were intensely lemony without the unpleasant texture of lemon zest (I have a thing about textures).
I had to invent chocolate Royal Icing, which was much easier than it sounds – I just added about 1/3 cup of cocoa powder (Lindt cocoa powder, in fact) to the sugar and meringue powder before adding water & beating, and had to beat the icing for a little less time than usual because cocoa powder is coated in oils and oils will promote the breakdown of meringue if you aren’t careful.
All up I made just over 300 cookies, rejected quite a few for being less-than-perfect, and ended up decorating about 200-ish over the course of 3 days. Thanks to the flow chart and meticulous planning this went really well and was a lot of fun, and given that these cookies represent the second time I’ve ever tried decorating anything with Royal Icing, I am really happy with how they turned out! It was an amazing learning experience <3
So Many Numbers, Everywhere
The idea for Hamlet came first, because there was an obvious basic scheme in place: we started talking because of game maths, so something mathy and gamey would be perfect. Furthermore, we have a running joke about the Lucid buff in the Paragons encounter, so I wanted to in some way combine these things into one awesome cookie plan.
I found an adorable set of number-shaped cookie cutters while I was off in Melbourne watching the Australian Open, and then just had to decide how to decorate each of them. I wanted each number to represent something he enjoyed, either a game or a math puzzle. I also wanted to hide a little riddle in the cookies, so I made the prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7) lemon-flavoured while the non-primes were vanilla. I don’t think he got that one, though – most of the lemon flavour is in the aroma, and the cookies mingled so much that the vanilla and lemon aromas muddled together.
I’ll note that of the three sets of cookies I made, these were the hardest to decorate (mostly because the number cookies are bite-size, tiny little things) and I went for some rather difficult/abstract concepts, so my artistic skills (or lack thereof) let me down a bit here. But I think he enjoyed them nonetheless :)
- Efflorescence, as best as I could do with my #2 piping tip on a teeny, non-circular cookie
- I totally flubbed this one – I wanted to do something with Euler’s Identity perhaps, or a unit circle, but I just failed to visualise a design for either of these ideas, and just went with a black and white checkerboard. Because, uh, chess is logic-y? Sure. Why not. :P
- Fibonacci sequence in blues; each segment has the rough proportional area of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8
- A stable oscillating pattern, period of 3, in Conway’s Game of Life (a thought experiment-ish kind of game where you establish rules for ‘colony growth’, create a starting condition, and iterate the rules through a large number of ‘generations’ to see if you have created a stable or growing colony)
- The XCOM logo
- Fibonacci sequence in warm tones
- Hexagons! A vague allusion to the Magic Hexagon, a concept I first learned through some recreational math books Hamlet gave me (specifically, Martin Gardner’s The Sixth Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions)
- The 7 Bridges of Konigsberg problem
- Solaire, from Dark Souls
- An allusion to the Blue Eyes logic puzzle (a pair of blue eyes in a sea of brown) but not a very clear one, because I misremembered it. Plus, the eyes fell off in the mail anyway, so all he got were chocolate 9s. :P
Artistry and Aesthetics
For Perculia, I wanted to (try to, anyway) honour her unique aesthetic style – elaborate, quirky, sometimes vintage, colourful, and beautiful. This was really tough because I had millions of ideas that were all far, far too advanced for my second time ever decorating sugar cookies! I finally settled on three pretty solid options:
Dragonflies with stained-glass wings, inspired by the abstract patterns on Turkish stained-glass windows that I photographed tons on my trip to Turkey years ago. This was the most intricate work I did, and I actually did a trial run of these a week or so before making the real ones, so I could determine just how detailed the designs could be before the cookies just turned into chocolate with multicoloured polka dots.
Lemon and raspberry paisley ducks, because Perc loves her family’s ducks, and paisley is cute.
And the final idea was to do some dresses. I originally wanted to recreate the fashions that Perc’s Monster High dolls wear, but I had to rule that out because there was no way I was going to make black icing. It tastes terrible and it coats your teeth in foul blackness and I didn’t think either of those properties was desirable ;) So instead, I went with designs from Alice: Madness Returns – inspired by this image (and again avoiding the predominantly black dress designs).
Adorbs For My Favourite Provider-of-Absorbs
For Serrinne, I was aiming mostly for adorable. She got the Alice: Madness Returns dresses too, since she was the person who actually brought their existence to my attention by tweeting that image, and she has played the game, and loves Alice in Wonderland. But I wanted to send more than just dresses (and a good thing I did, because they fragmented in the mail like you wouldn’t believe!), so my secondary focus was on her love of rabbits.
Those of you who follow Theck on Twitter probably already know about his bun-cam, and one of the big stars of it, Notch. I decorated half of Serrinne’s rabbit cookies in chocolate to resemble Notch. The other half were standard white rabbits:
Because it just isn’t right to pack up a bunch of animals in a box for a week without any food, I also made some lemon carrots with apricot icing so the bunnies wouldn’t starve ;)
Hope those of you still reading to this point have enjoyed the photos! And for the rest of you, well, I’ll be back to healy talk soon, I promise :)