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Birthday Baking with Jessica

Today I am proud to present my guest blogger Jessica Hirashima. As a hobbyist baker for years she has enticed many a family member, coworker and/or friend to cheat on their diet with her amazingly delicious food. I asked her to document in her own words and photos the birthday dinner and dessert she made for friends last weekend.           Enjoy and try not to drool on the keyboard.

Baking has been a favorite pastime of mine ever since my mom let me be the “Official Taster” when she’d bake cookies and cakes when I was little. I would stand by ready to take any used mixing spoon or beater off her hands and lick it clean. One year when I was maybe about 10 my cousin Rachel who is herself a skilled baker, bought me a book of “quick and easy” recipes for kids for Christmas (She also bought me the silicone bakeware pictured below, though years later). The recipes were neither quick nor easy, but that book (which I still have, on the shelf next to all the rest of my cookbooks) might be what got my cooking and baking to really take off. Following recipes came very naturally to me perhaps because I have always been that little goody-two-shoes who would follow the recipes the same way she’d follow the instructions to her math homework which was always finished to gold star quality.

As I struggled through the engineering program at UC Berkeley I would often have Food Network on in the background while I spent hours upon hours trying to figure out my ‘Computer Programming for Engineers’ homework on my laptop. Watching Food Network was where I learned that you can elaborate on recipes and substitute ingredients for a different result if you know what you’re doing. The rigid, “always follow directions” me learned to loosen up a little bit, but still no one was allowed in the kitchen while I cooked.

Fast-forward to the present day. I live alone and I don’t cook often. I still love to cook and bake, but I don’t really feel the need to go out of the way for myself all too often as it’s hard to cook just enough for one person for one night, and I usually get bored of leftovers after the second or third night of them. Plus I live in NYC, where the culinary options are infinite. Every once in a while I’ll bake something to bring into the office, or out onto the job site for my boys, and I have kind of installed myself as the official goody-bringer for the bimonthly Kids’ Guitar Showcases at my guitar school. But, I guess I reserve going all out for special occasions, and my birthday last weekend seemed like special enough occasion to break out the pots and pans and jack up the temperature of my one-bedroom apartment to one too hot for an actually pleasant mid-spring day.

I would make pizza and cupcakes. I use the pizza crust recipe from Artisan Baking Across America (by Maggie Glezer, Artisan, 2000), which calls for:

- 3.5 cups of unbleached bread flour (though I used all-purpose flour)

-1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast (though I always double this to ½ teaspoon for a fluffier crust)

-2 teaspoons of salt

-1.5 cups of lukewarm water

I add the yeast to the warm water and let it sit and fizzle for about 10 minutes. Sometimes, I add a tablespoon of honey, to give the yeast something to feed on, thereby causing it to become even fizzier, but I forgot this time. I combined the salt and flour.

Once the yeast has fizzled, I add it to the flour and salt and stir to combine. Then, I place the shaggy dough under the bowl on my work surface to rest for 15 minutes.

While the dough rests, I simmer a few garlic cloves in olive oil, being careful not to burn the garlic.

After the dough has finished resting, I uncover it and knead it for 10 minutes without adding any flour.

The recipe says to cut the dough into four pieces, but I divide it into 3 because I have plans for only three pizzas (they’ll just be a little larger). I spread about a handful of flour on my work surface, and one dough ball at a time, cover the ball in flour and roll it up like a carpet. I do this three times, seam side up each time. After all of this rolling, I pat the ball into a tight round, seam down, as pictured.

I pour a little bit of the cooled garlic oil (sans garlic cloves) into each of 3 ziplock freezer bags and then transfer one dough ball into each. I make sure the balls are coated in oil (so they won’t stick to the bag), and I try to remove as much air as possible out of the bags before placing all three bags in my oven. The oven isn’t turned on, but it’s a gas unit with a pilot, so it’s always warm. The heat will help the bread to rise more rapidly. The dough balls will “proof” for 5 to 6 hours.

Okay, now the pizza is taken care of for the moment, so I go for a jog, vacuum, and do laundry (yes, exactly what I want to do on my birthday, thank you very much).

Now onto the cupcakes. I would be making chocolate cupcakes filled with chocolate mousse with a vanilla bean buttercream frosting. I used this recipe for chocolate chiffon cupcakes.

I used buttermilk as the recipe suggests, and instead of the 1 cup of granulated sugar mixed in with the dry ingredients I used brown sugar. I almost always substitute brown sugar for granulated sugar because it has more flavor and it adds moisture to the recipe. I cooked a dozen cupcakes at a time on the middle rack, at 400 degrees for about 24 minutes. I might have been able to cook them for a few minutes less (I have issues with overcooking cake), but because the chiffon cake is made with oil instead of butter, and I used the brown sugar instead of the granulated sugar, the cupcakes were still pretty moist. And anyway, I would be coring them and filling them with chocolate mousse which would also increase the moisture content.

Now, onto the chocolate mousse. I used this recipe from Tyler Florence of Food Network.

I highly recommend Tyler Florence’s recipes; they are pretty much always very easy to make, even though they look like they were hard to make, and they are, in my experience, always very delicious. (And for baking, King Arthur Flour recipes are pretty dependable). Here, I used Trader Joe’s 72% bittersweet chocolate, though I would also recommend Scharffenberger’s bittersweet chocolate. They both have great flavor, in my opinion, whereas some bittersweet chocolate seems to have no flavor at all.

I found this great cupcake corer, made by Cuisinart, at Sur La Table, but a small pastry circle would probably work just as well. After the cupcakes were cored, I piped in the mousse.

For the frosting I used this recipe

For the pure vanilla extract, I substituted the seeds from one vanilla bean, which really added a lightness to the flavor. After dividing the frosting into three bowls and adding food coloring, I piped on the frosting, and then transferred the little cakes into the refrigerator. (If you’re wondering, I got this great double-decker Snapware cupcake carrier at the Container Store. You can take the cupcake trays out and flip them over for a flat surface as well.) 

By this time, my kitchen was boiling and I was sure to remove the pizza dough from the oven before preheating it and using it to bake my cupcakes. I took a swig of my Brooklyn Summer Ale and wiped sweat from my forehead with my forearm. I wanted to take a break, but really the pizzas would not take long.

Once I had taken the dough out of the oven, I spread it out into a pizza shape atop a piece of parchment paper. And, once the cupcakes were finished baking, I turned the oven up to 500 degrees as high as it would go, and heated up my pizza stone so I could slide the parchment and pizza right off of the baking sheets and cook them directly on the stone for a crispier crust.

I used this recipe for tomato sauce which would top two of the pizzas, but I didn’t have marjoram so I used about a half teaspoon of oregano. Also, I like to add a tablespoon of sugar whenever I’m making tomato sauce, so as to lessen that bitter, acid-y flavor that sometimes accompanies canned tomatoes. Diced tomatoes will also do as well as crushed tomatoes, for a chunkier sauce.

I also made a pesto, with unsalted pistachio nuts, basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I didn’t really use exact quantities here, maybe a half cup of pistachios, a bunch or basil leaves, a half a cup of parmesan, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and enough oil to make the mix spreadable. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and adjust quantities to taste and consistency desired.

I had made the sauces while batches of cupcakes baked (ever the multi-tasker, haha). One of the pizzas would be classic Margherita: tomato sauce, slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves. The next would have tomato sauce, grated mozzarella, yellow and zucchini squash, prosciutto, and a sprinkling of pecorino romano cheese. The final pizza would have the pesto with pecorino romano cheese, sliced portabellini mushrooms, and sliced kalamata olives.


I baked the pizzas for about 12 minutes each, until the crust looked cooked. You’re supposed to bake them at 700 for only 4 minutes, but my oven doesn’t get nearly that hot (thank goodness- my apartment was hot enough as it was).

And after the cooking, I was finally able to join my guests. I cranked up the AC in the living room, and we enjoyed the pizza, records, board games, and each other’s company. A couple hours later, more guests arrived for cupcakes, ice cream (Breyer’s Natural Vanilla- love Breyers, yum!), and continued festivities.

It was really a wonderful day; I was very happy with how all the food came out, and even happier to have such a great party of people to have prepared it for and to share it with. But maybe next year, we can bring the board games to a bar, and I’ll take a birthday night off ;)

Mother’s Day gifty ideas

It’s less than a week away and if anyone needs an idea of what to get mom this year keep reading…..

Kokedama string gardens which you can easily make yourself.

Stained glass beveled geodesic plant topper by Halona Glass

An Edwardian-style locket made from lead and nickel-free brass with solid perfume derived from organic botanical essences and homegrown beeswax. From Illuminated Perfume

Felted Art organic soap by Tangled Organic

Tea Collection by Purpose Design

For the mom-to-be…a lovely bath gift set from S.S. Soap and Body Co

For the tech-savvy mom a kindle book cover by Service Partner

And not to forget the all important greeting card…..I love these designs by Red Letter Paper Co

Artist Feature: Lea Beck

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Lea Beck and I am a certified balloon artist. I was born into a family business in the party industry which my great grandfather and my grandfather started in the 1960’s. My grandparents and all three of my uncles and mother worked for C&M Partybut in 1988, my mother took over the balloon portion and acquired "The Balloon Man" name. My mother and father ran The Balloon Man as a separate company, but we remained in the same family store front at C&M Party where we are currently located in Walnut Creek, California.

I see balloons as just another medium for creating art. Balloons elicit emotion and can be used to accent or enhance an event. They can be used as expressionism, and to create environments or recreate existing objects of all sorts. The more balloons are viewed as a medium for creating an experience, the more the possibilities expand. Being a certified balloon artist has given me a foundation in the principals and elements of design, basic techniques for building classic decor like arches, columns and garlands. Even more importantly how to profit and succeed as a creative business.

Where do your ideas come from? What is your creative process?

I like to think that some of the best ideas I pull out of the noosphere and they aren’t really my ideas. I take what I think is relative from my environment, or from the environment of the client and try to recreate some element into the balloon design. I pull ideas from nature, pop culture, other artist, music and the internet.

I am constantly inspired by beauty in the world and I strive to surround myself with other creative individuals. I think creativity can be very contagious but it doesn’t always come on demand. When it finally emerges it doesn’t always pay off. There is risk involved in presenting new ideas. Knowing when to play it safe and when to give creative input can sometimes make or break a sale. Its such a mix of detachment and openness.

When there is something that inspires me I don’t hold back. More importantly, I don’t listen to that voice in my head that says “I cant”. Uninhibited creativity is rare and there’s nothing quite like it. I’ve found it to be important to allow time for an idea to formulate. I try to not be attached to the outcome, giving space for synchronicity to happen.

Once I have a concept my process usually involves sketching it onto paper along with verbally bouncing ideas off other people. At this stage my practical mind is activated and I can begin to chisel out a realistic step by step plan. The hands on experimenting and playing around with balloons allows all the details and missing pieces to come forth. It’s a great feeling when an idea becomes reality.

What have been your favorite projects to date?

My favorite projects have been parties I have decorated for and collaborated on with my friends. There is something unique about having the freedom to do whatever I want with none of the expectations of a payed gig. This is when I am most grateful to have been born into the party industry. I will make use of all the great party props so I just have fun.

We threw a surprise wedding party for a couple who eloped. After the balloon drop and toast we incorporated a newlywed game show which was quite a hit. Another event I made a 12’ tall Rasta Balloon Man that overlooked a reunion/ fundraiser for a group of medical volunteers for Rock Medicine a group which provides medical aid at various concerts.

Also, I was inspired to bring a family of balloon zombies to a New Years Eve party. They offered quite the surprise to the guests because the only way to kill the zombie was to pop the head; which had many little helium filled balloons inside the head that flew off into the night like spores. As well, there have been various Pisces themed parties which allowed many fun oceanic decorations, including 15’ tall  Seaweed, glowing jellyfish, octopuses and blow fish.

A larger paid gig took place at Stanford University for a Gala event which involved inflating over (45) 3’, 5’ and 6’ balloons and (20-30) of the large 8’ balloons. We had to hang each balloon individually in a huge auditorium where the ceilings were 30’ tall. This job took 5 people, 12 hours. It looked awesome!

What challenges have you found?

There can be a common misconception that balloons are a “cheap” way to decorate. Over the years, I have found that how I present myself and my work can help avoid some of the misconceptions of balloon decorating and what I have to offer. Developing strong communication skills and a personality that appeals to the average consumer is a constant work in progress. I have always been soft spoken and I look much younger than I am, so learning to be a confident, outgoing salesperson, by far, has been the most challenging for me.

Another challenge is I have a tendency to give 110% on a balloon job but don’t necessarily charge more for the extra work. I often care more about the balloons looking the best they can be than getting paid for each effort. I’ve had to learn to either scale back and give a client exactly what they paid for or offer them extra and sell a higher priced job.

What are you working on at present?

I am in the middle of designing a look using balloons to decorate a series of chandeliers. This “Tiffany theme” event is for a formal father/daughter dance at a upscale country club. Decorating a chandelier is something I’ve never done before, nor would I think to do. The client wants this to be very elegant.  I came up with a balloon design that will reflect Audrey Hepburn’s pearls. These garlands will connect from a center chandelier out to corners and wrap around 4 pillars completing the look. There are 5 chandeliers total. This bid involved coming up with a lot of designs, experimenting, as well as having to do site inspections and accurate job costs. I just submitted my quote for approval and I am hopeful that the job will now come through!

Anything else you’d like to mention?

I am also currently focusing on incorporating all the great things I learned from the World Balloon Convention that I attended this past March 2012.

You can see more photos and details here on my Facebook Page

As a dedicated balloon artist who is gaining more ownership within my family business I am seeking to cultivate new inspiration into the company. Even though I have been doing balloons for most my life there is a new beginning on the horizon. I’d like to think its going up!

Alison Knowles “Make a Salad” art performance

As a follow up to my last post on tips to make an interesting salad I am tickled to write about Alison Knowles a founding member of Fluxus who brings back her art performance “Make a Salad” circa 1962 in Baltimore to present day New York. On Earth Day April 22nd she will stage her tasty art on the city High Line starting with a Mozart concerto that blends into the sound of her chopping fresh veggies to make a salad big enough to feed the crowd. 

From 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Chelsea Market Passage above 16th Street, with live music by Joshua Selman. The salad will be served until 1 p.m.

Wish I could be there!

Spring time = fresh new baby…..veggies!

Today’s trip to the Oakland Grand Lake Farmer’s Market has me thinking of Spring and what it means…..fresh lettuces, baby carrots, and other succulent edibles that make up the components for wonderful salads. Here are my tips for putting together a delicious side dish with ingredients you find in stores now and/or at your local Farmer’s Markets.

#1. Get creative with your leafy greens! We are spoiled in CA with a large selection to choose from and there is no excuse for using iceberg (yuck). Instead try out kale, Swiss chard, cabbage or endive for a more bitter and heartier leaf. Want something lighter? try watercress, baby spinach, arugula, butter lettuce, mesclun or little gems. One of my favorite standbys is romaine which the hearts can also be grilled to make tender and smoky good. I often mix more than one type of lettuce in my salads and all the different textures and flavors make it so interesting. 

#2. Don’t underestimate the importance of adding in a combo of veggies. It takes prep work, but don’t let that stop you from being adventurous. Adding green or red onions, thin sliced radish, different varieties of mushrooms (not just the ol’ button!) dehydrated or roasted beets, heirloom tomatoes or ripe cherry ones, jicama, and fresh peas are some of the veggies I have used in different combinations. I will always add carrots to my salads either with fine peels/shavings of a large one, or small chops of baby carrots. Nothing is more satisfying than crunching down on an earthy root vegetable or smelling the sweetness of a carrot. The size you chop, slice or dice a veggie is just as important as what you choose since smaller pieces are easier to eat.

#3. Fresh herbs in my salad?! An ingredient I feel is often overlooked is the herb. Either people are not sure how they taste in a salad, or they are too expensive, or they don’t know how to use them….I am not sure the reasons but using fresh chives is a great way to get flavor into an otherwise boring salad. Ditto for basil, cilantro, dill, marjoram, mints (excellent with fruits!) parsley and thyme. Use sparingly for these are similar to a spice and not a vegetable portion. You may want to make a dressing of them instead (crushed up with olive oil), but however you use them they will make your salad delicious.

#4. Want to mix it up even more? Add fruits such as grapefruit slices, grilled peaches, watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, or grapes. Dried fruits such as cranberries and apricots can add some sweetness and tang without making a salad too wet. Nuts are another overlooked item perhaps because they bring a higher fat content but they contain good cholesterol like walnuts, pecans, and almonds. I personally love roasted walnuts, but sunflowers seeds will often do for adding another layer of flavor.

#5. Say yes to cheese! It is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, although it can be high in fat. My favorite is a soft goat cheese which just seems to really bring out the zest in the veggies while still having its own unique flavor. Another standby is of course an aged Parmesan thinly shaved. Some people might prefer a cheese with more bite such as a blue, feta or gorgonzola, or perhaps a mild ricotta or cottage for a softer palate. 

#6. Speaking of proteins…if you want to make your salad a main course instead of a side then fire up the grill! By adding chicken, fish, tofu, etc to your plate it will become a hearty and healthy meal. Think of meat as just another piece in the salad, don’t go overboard with the portion and keep the balance. Using a hard boiled, or poached egg is also a good source of protein and nothing is tastier than a warm yolk over fresh greens…yum

#7. Dress it up, or go naked! There is no rule saying you MUST have a dressing for your salad. If you have grilled any of the veggies or proteins that is often flavorful enough without pouring anything else on top. Sometimes with fresh fruit or herbs,  and/or a poached egg there is enough moisture there to blend all the components together. To keep it light use an olive oil based dressing with vinaigrette, or a citrusy blend. A good creamier dressing I often use is a Caesar which can be made fresh with this recipe by  Alton Brown

#8. Last but not least….don’t forget the salt & pepper! Seasonings are often overlooked unless your dressing is pre-made in the bottle which usually has too much salt. I love fresh cracked pepper for spice, and a little salt goes a long way.

Above all you should have fun with trying out different combinations and keeping it seasonal will be more flavorful. By mixing up your “mixed salad” you will hopefully not be bored, and instead look forward to the first course (or main!) as much as you do the last. 

flickr photo Friday: Spring

It’s Spring and time for rain, flowers, and all things new!

"Glory of Spring" by believer 9

"Casper the friendly goat" by Goat Pixel

"Tulip Rain" by Adettara Photography

"Easter Dress" by ittybittybirdy

"How to make a rabbit smile" by Piccolina Photography

"Who’ll stop the rain?" by hvhe1’s

"Rainbow over daffodil field" by jhiker5