I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

Vegetable garden filled with healthy young plants.

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

sepia-toned photo of garden bed filled with brown weeds and one large green parsley plant

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Uncooked ravioli squares lined up on parchment paperRecently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and FamilyThe Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.
8 ounces ricotta
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley
Pinch nutmeg
Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

When Life Hands You Peppers, Make Salsa

I only have one little jalapeno plant, but it has kept me busy making salsa.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I am a sort of a hapless gardener. I’ve been at it for about a year and a half, and in the beginning I even killed squash. I thought anybody could grow squash. Now I’m kind of hit or miss, but I have found that peppers seem to be pretty much Laurie-proof. I have a randomly planted collection of bells, hot bananas and jalapenos that just keep growing and going. Now I’m starting to wonder about the bell peppers. Maybe I should ask somebody about whether the plants are supposed to get as big as trees. I was sort of envisioning large-houseplant-sized units that would give me a few peppers over the summer and then die so I could plant pumpkins. Now I have a small pepper orchard. Not that I’m complaining.

I only have one jalapeno plant, but it is very energetic. Lately we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa, which is a healthy snack, except that it goes on chips, which aren’t so much. We like Archer Farms Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Flaxseed. Organic, whole grain, a little flax, not bad on sodium. We do what we can.

The great thing about salsa, besides being healthy, is that even if you start with a recipe, it’s almost impossible not to make it your own. And even if you end up with something different every time, it’s probably going to be good.

Speaking of variations, here’s a link to a recipe for Mango Salsa that I make whenever there is an occasion for mango salsa, such as fish tacos, grilled fish or grilled chicken. It’s good on chips, and I’ve learned that if you give me access to mango salsa and whole wheat Ritz crackers, someone will need to plan an intervention. My secret weapon for making this chunky salsa is my Genius Nicer Dicer, which quickly makes perfect diced mango and bell peppers, and has a smaller size that’s great for the  jalapenos. In fact, it’s worth the price of this tool just to avoid dealing with onions and peppers.

Fresh Tomato Salsafresh salsa by Laurie Sterbens

4 large tomatoes
1/2 bunch cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 bunch green onions or 1/4 sweet yellow onion (or combination of both)
2 cloves garlic
2 large jalapeno peppers with seeds, stems removed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon stevia sweetener
Salt and pepper to taste

Quarter tomatoes and roughly chop cilantro, onions and peppers. Combine with remaining ingredients in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. (I don’t recommend a blender; the salsa will emulsify and turn beige. Tastes the same, just not pretty.)

Strawberry Pie Recipe Filled With Memories

Slice of strawberry pie on a white plate.

A buttery crust lined with cream cheese holds a filling made with fresh strawberries. Top with whipped cream and “be happy,” as my mother said.

I made my great-grandmother’s strawberry pie for Father’s Day, so I thought I’d share this, which appeared in my “Across the Table” column in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 8, 2009.

During my last couple of trips to the farmers market, I’ve been confronted with an undeniable fact: It is time to make strawberry pie.

My foodie tendencies have long been tempered by health-nut tendencies, so I don’t make a lot of desserts. But if you ever have an occasion where you need to make eight people happy real fast, pie is the way to go. And since it’s usually made with seasonal fruit, the health nut is happy, the pie eaters are happy; it’s win-win.

I have a short rotation of go-to pies that change with the seasons – apple for fall into winter and any occasion involving my father-in-law; strawberry for spring; key lime whenever key limes happen and/or somebody visits from the north.

My strawberry pie recipe was passed down from my great-grandmother, “Mush,” to my mother, so it is called “Mush’s Strawberry Pie.” Mush was a master baker of all sorts of things, but I remember her as a sweet, spunky little lady who usually wore red, with a big red bow in her hair at Christmas, so of all of her recipes, strawberry pie seems to represent her best. My version of the pie has changed over the years. Mush didn’t have to go to an office all day; if she had and there had been the option at the time, I like to think she would have said, “Bring on the Cool Whip!”

If there’s an original copy of her recipe, I don’t have it. My copy came in a series of e-mails from my mother.

There are two problems with this. First of all, there are two kinds of cooks in the world, and my mother was mostly the other kind. You know who you are: “Oh, I never measure anything. I just throw in a little of this, a little of that.”

I own a set of measuring spoons for “dash,” “smidgen” and “pinch” – and I use them.

I have a confusing collection of handwritten recipes from my mom with directions like “Put in oven and bake.” Um, at what temperature? For how long?

The second problem is my mom and e-mail. She was not yet on friendly terms with the computer when the strawberry pie conversation took place. She sent the recipe in a series of brief dispatches because, she said, the computer kept “good-bye-ing for no good reason.”

So now, in a photo album I use for collecting recipes, there is a page with four strips of white paper, lined up one beneath the other, that together form my strawberry pie recipe.

“Spread cream cheese, softened with some cream (the ingredient list was unclear … I forgot, it’s real whipping cream) over cooled pie shell…”

It was during the year we were planning my wedding, so between the filling and the crust there is talk of our plan for a honeymoon cruise.

“Sounds great, the cruise. I don’t think you can mess up a cruise too much, unless it sinks! Just takes two happy people!”

I suspect Mom learned to make the pie from Mush without using a written recipe. If has had a recipe for the crust – Mush probably would have used shortening – she had found one she liked better.

“I did a butter-mostly crust. It was heavenly.” This was followed by instructions for “Easy Pie Crust.”

We lost my mom to cancer in February of 2008, so there was no strawberry pie last spring. But this year, it seemed that there were strawberries everywhere and it was time to make pie. So I bought some berries and pulled out the recipe, rolling out the dough with a lot of memories, and made the pie, just as the e-mails directed.

“Serve with whipped cream. And be happy!”

Mush’s Strawberry Pie

1 cooled 9-inch pie shell
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened with a little cream or half and half
1 quart fresh strawberries
Splash of lemon juice
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Spread the cream cheese in a thin layer on the bottom and sides of the cooled pie shell.

Hull berries. Place some, point side up, around cheese-coated pie shell.  Mash remaining berries with potato masher in medium saucepan. Mix together sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Bring strawberries to a boil and slowly add the sugar and cornstarch. Cook 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture is translucent and thickened. Cool and spread over uncooked berries in the pie shell. Chill in refrigerator until cold. Top with whipped cream and serve.

Easy Pie Crust

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cake flour
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chilled shortening
3 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Blend first four ingredients in a food processor. Add butter and shortening and pulse until mixture resembles course meal. And ice water and process until moist clumps form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if needed. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disk and refrigerate for 1 hour. Soften dough slightly at room temperature before rolling out. Roll out dough on floured surface to a 12-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch glass pie dish. Fold edges under and crimp.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick the bottom of the pie shell all over with a fork. Line the shell with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes, and then remove foil and beans. Prick shell again with fork. Continue baking until golden brown, 5-10 minutes more. Cool completely before filling.

Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious and Healthy

glass bowl filled with cranberry compote

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It’s also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line—the checkout lane—with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be that person who holds up the grocery line.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to confess I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Nutritional Superfood

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

… And Pancake Topping!

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe adapted from the Cranberry Orange Compote in “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I have in the past split the difference and used half sugar, half Splenda. These days I’d probably go with half sugar, half stevia.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup water
1/2 cup granular sugar substitute OR 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

Cooking Up a Major Mess of Collard Greens

Over the weekend I took advantage of a sunny and unscheduled Saturday afternoon and did what I should do every week, which is go to a nearby farmers market to stock up on fresh vegetables. I went without a list, hoping I would find something there to inspire meals for the next few days. This is the ideal, cheffy way to do it, but recent weeks have been so busy that I’ve been making grocery lists based on a few favorite quick-and-easy meals, grabbing the ingredients from the grocery store and bypassing the farmers market altogether.

Strolling through the familiar, busy aisles in the farmers market section of the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market, I was reminded why it’s worth going a bit out of my way to shop there for produce. While vendors at this market do ship in some foreign items, in case you just have to have asparagus in November, there is also a nice variety of ever-changing local, seasonal produce. Though I’ll often check the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “What’s in Season Now” shopping list before I go, there are usually some surprises. This week, it was a handwritten sign touting locally grown collard greens.

The collard greens were piled high, still on their stalks, tied together in bundles the size of shrubs. I pointed out to the vendor that I live with a Northerner and a 6-year-old, so it was likely that only one out of three family members would eat collards, but she was apparently not going to take pity on me and break up a bunch. They cook way down, she pointed out. I knew that, but cooking down three truckloads of greens into one truckload is still a truckload of greens. I have storage issues.

But I really wanted those collard greens. I’d just read in a story by Elizabeth Brown, M.S., R.D., in the November issue of Oxygen magazine that they are the top leafy green when it comes to lowering cholesterol, a particular concern in our family. They’re also known cancer fighters and are rich in the B vitamin folate, which supports heart health. It has also been a while since I’d challenged my husband to try a new vegetable. It would be a challenge for me, too, since I’d never tried to cook collards before. The vendor put them in a large plastic bag (they were too big to fit in my reusable bag) and I was on my way to cookin’ up a mess of greens.

cooked collard greens with bacon on a red plate with apples in the background

Collard greens are a nutritional powerhouse. Find them at farmers markets to enjoy now, and freeze some for later.

Oxygen had offered a recipe for Collard Greens with Root Veggies and Salmon, a “clean eating” way to include some of the greens in a healthy diet by steaming them in parchment with the fish and vegetables. But their recipe called for only 6 leaves and I had at least 10 times that. Besides, having grown up eating greens in Arkansas, my natural instincts were telling me there should be pork involved, and my preference was bacon.

A quick search online led me to a recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon at SimplyRecipes.com. Scanning the ingredient list, I knew I had a winner: bacon, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar and, for my husband, a little hot sauce. Another plus was that the recipe called for simmering the greens in a skillet with the other ingredients just until wilted rather than stewing them for hours. We’re used to eating a lot of steamed and sauteed vegetables and appreciate a little more crunch. In the case of collards, this turned out to be more of a nice chewiness.

If you’d like a vegetarian option, this recipe for Collards Braised in Red Wine, adapted from chef Michael Lomonako, appeared in the Mark Bittman‘s Diner’s Journal in the New York Times. Using a similar technique, it contains olive oil rather than bacon fat, and red wine instead of apple cider vinegar. I plan to try this one next.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be dealing with, so I decided to tackle the collards as soon as I got home rather than wait until dinnertime. This turned out to be a good plan. After removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, I had enough leaves piled on my kitchen counter to fill a large trash bag. This was an interesting situation. I decided to go ahead and cook the recipe, which would probably cook down a third of the greens. I didn’t, however, have enough ingredients on hand to cook three batches.

I noticed when I sliced the greens into strips for the recipe they took up much less space, so I decided to slice them all into strips. Could I freeze them? Yes, it turns out, you can freeze fresh collards after blanching them first. Here’s how:

The recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon turned out to be delicious. One bite and I was suddenly transported back to my mother’s kitchen, watching her stir a big pot of greens on the stove. To go with them, I decided to make whole-wheat-panko-crusted catfish and sweet potato fries. Now, I am a Southern girl, so I know the catfish should have been coated in seasoned cornmeal and fried, and there should have been cornbread or at least  hush puppies with those greens, but I’m a health-conscious Southern girl and am married to a guy who really loves sweet potato fries. Life is full of compromises. However, though we may have compromised on tradition, we didn’t miss a thing when it came to taste.

Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

wedcake10001

Judging by this image from “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating,” less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your overly competitive mommy!”

Wilton doll cake circa 1954

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and up to armpits of scary doll with obscene amounts of buttercream.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds—they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

clowncake20001

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections—a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

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