Feb 12, 2009

Valentine Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

I always try to do a little somethin' special for the fam on Valentine's Day. I came up with these, similar to Linzer cookies, only with sugar cookie dough and strawberry jam. I used my butter cream recipe (scaled down) to sandwich the cookies because the last time I did "jam filled" cookies, it was a bit too much jam, so I thought these might be better. Considering hubby was sneaking them off the tray WHILE I was decorating them, it's a safe bet he liked them. :)

Printable Version

For the Cookie Dough:
2 sticks Butter (not margarine)
1 ½ C Powdered Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla extract
½ tsp Almond extract
1 large Egg
2 ½ C All purpose flour
1/2 tsp Baking powder
1 tsp Cream of tartar
¼ tsp Salt

Butter Cream Icing:
½ stick butter (not margarine)
¼ C shortening
¼ tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp almond extract
1 tsp meringue powder (optional, but it will make the icing smoother)
1/8 tsp salt
2 C powdered sugar
Few tablespoons of water if necessary to thin

Heart Filling:¼ C Strawberry preserves or jam, gently warmed

Directions for mixing dough:
Sift flour, baking powder and cream of tartar, set aside. Cream together butter and sugar. Add in egg and extracts. Mix on high until well incorporated. Quickly mix dry ingredients into creamed mixture. (don’t over mix or cookies will be tough) Divide dough in half.

Roll out each half in between 2 sheets of plastic wrap to about ¼ -1/8 inch thick. (tip: use measuring bands on your rolling pin to get an even thickness) Place dough (in plastic) on a cookie sheet and place in the fridge to chill for about 2 hours. (you can chill overnight, just make sure the edges of the wrap are folded inward to keep out air)

While dough is chilling, make the butter cream icing; Cream together the butter, shortening, salt and the extracts. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar, then beat until smooth. Add in a few tablespoons of water if necessary to make icing a nice spreadable consistency. Color icing if desired.

After dough has been chilled and rolled out, remove top piece of plastic wrap, cut out sugar cookies into heart shapes. Place cutouts on a lightly greased cookie sheet or silpat mat leaving about an inch between each cookie. (they will spread just a bit, but not a lot) TIP: Alternatively, if dough is getting too soft to work with, you can remove the plastic and place the rolled out chilled cookie dough directly onto your cookie sheet. Cut out all of your shapes, being sure to leave an inch in between, and just remove the extra dough from around the cookies. This will insure that the cookies keep their shapes and they don't get distorted.

Use a smaller heart cutter to cut holes into half of the heart shapes. Remove the middle small hearts and place them onto another cookie sheet, cover with a towel or plastic wrap so they don't dry out and set aside. (they're just too cute not to bake!) While the first batch bakes, gently press all of the scraps into a ball, roll it out between plastic wrap, and place into fridge. By the time the other cookies are baked, you’ll be ready for the next round. I cut my scraps into the smaller hearts and added them to the previous ones.

Bake @ 350F for about 7-8 minutes or just until cookies are set and barely turning brown on the bottom edges. (do not brown on top or sides) Allow to cool completely before assembling and decorating.

After the pieces are all baked, spread vanilla butter cream on the bottom pieces (the solid hearts). Try not to use too much butter cream or your tops might slip slide around. Also, spread out butter cream quickly and get the tops on before it crusts over, else they might not stick together well. (hence the reason I used a pastry bag and applied in dots, then smoothed out)

Apply the other half of the cut-out hearts on top of each of the bottoms. Try to match the sizes of the tops and bottoms and clean up the edges as you go....oh wait, that's just me, sorry, I'm a bit OCD! LOL

Gently warm up ¼ C strawberry preserves in the microwave just for about 30 sec. Smash any large pieces with a fork. Place into a pastry bag fitted with a large hole (writing) tip. Fill the middle of each heart “well” with strawberry preserves. Carefully spread out to the sides with a toothpick or fondant tool.

Using a pastry bag filled with the rest of the butter cream, decorate the top pieces of each cut out heart with a star or flower tip (I used Wilton's #224, cute little flowers huh?) Uh oh, I see a few uneven ones, I better eat those!

This recipe makes about 30 heart (stacked) cookies and 40 smaller heart pieces. Store in an airtight container and the cookies will soften up a bit due to the butter cream.


Special message for Jamie (my daughter in college who is probably reading this)- I'd send ya some but your sisters and DAD ate them all. (yeah, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

Feb 10, 2009

Making Vanilla Extract

If you've read my "Scary Vanilla" post you'll know why I wanted to make my own vanilla extract. Like I said, while making the extract was easy, finding the right vanilla beans, the right ratio, and which alcohol to use was a bit more tricky. So I pestered my foodie pals (Lissah and Culinary Alchemist) over on bakespace and have to thank them for their helpful suggestions and getting me started. I also have to thank the dude (respectfully) who has done some pretty extensive research over on vanillareview.com.(wow, no seriously, WOW!)

Ok, so first I had to buy some beans for the extract. After checking out several places, I found "The Organic Vanilla Bean Co". I ordered 2- 20 paks @ $10 each; one each of the two varieties that they carry, Bourbon and Tahitian. Although they offer several grades and lengths, they were out of the Grade B beans so I purchased the Grade A super length (7"-8" or more). (Each pak actually had an extra 3 or 4 beans, so yuppers, that makes them less than .50 per bean!). The shipping was minimal, I think like a whole 4 bucks for both, and after your first order, if you're in the states, shipping is free. (can't beat that!)

They claim that their beans are "fresher" because they actually own the plantation in Papua New Guinea where the beans are grown and harvested.....and I believe them....the beans came vacuumed packed and upon opening, I was about knocked over with the "fresh" smell. Not just "vanilla" smell, but that earthy, fresh from the garden, smell. I let them air out a bit and the "bouquet" started developing. Each had their own scent, the Bourbon being a strong, lingering, traditional scent, and the Tahitian having a fruity, spicey, earthy, and shorter vanilla scent. (just as the site had described) Both types were fat juicy beans, each loaded with caviar, with the Tahitian bean being slightly wider (which apparently, is typical). They were also the perfect height for my wine bottles. Waaahooo! Score! I was so excited! (yeah, it doesn't take much)

Now I was finally ready to begin. Because I do home canning and my husband produces/bottles his own wine and brews beer, I'm somewhat of a stickler for sterilizing vessels, utensils, caps, etc. No biggie really, just throw them (gently sink the bottles, hehe) into a pot of water (I used a canning rack so the bottles wouldn't touch the bottom), and boil for about 15 min. Drain the water, let items cool, and remove them without touching anything that the ingredients will touch, and let air dry. But go ahead, do what you want, hey, the alcohol might kill the germs, but me, I'm somewhat of a germ-o-phobe and not taking any chances.

Vanilla Extract Recipe:
I used a ratio of 8:1, meaning, 8 long beans(7”-8”) per each cup (8oz) of good quality alcohol (40% alcohol/80 proof). Although you may use vodka, brandy, or rum, I wanted more of a “pure” taste so I used vodka. Of course, recipes vary and some suggest using a lower ratio, like 6:1, but why would you want to do that? After all, the whole point is to make a really good extract, right?

Next I prepared my beans. With the tip of a sharp pairing knife, I split each bean beginning from about an inch from the top all the way down, leaving the top intact. I then placed the split beans in my bottle, with the intact top of the bean towards the top of the bottle. This will make for an easy removal later. Now alternatively, some suggest that you scrape each bean, chop up the pod and get all of that into your bottle or jar. However, this method seemed unnecessarily messy to me. Besides, I was using wine bottles with narrow necks (uhm, ya). Then too, I just thought it would be way cooler to see the long beans in there.

Now using a funnel, pour the alcohol over the beans until they are covered. In my case, I used standard sized wine bottles that hold about 3 cups of alcohol and 24 beans per bottle. Cap the bottle (I used locking wine caps, used for preserving opened bottles of wine) and give it a good shake. Store in a cool, dry, dark place and shake occasionally. By shaking, you'll continue to dislodge the vanilla caviar and hopefully, speed up the process. Incidentally, you'll want to choose dark colored bottles or jars, this will also help protect your extract from light. I used one green bottle and one clear bottle, I couldn't help myself, I wanted to be able to see the progress through at least one of the bottles. Besides, mine will be stored in a dark pantry ;)

Because I'm a total geek, and I thought it would be cool, I made labels for my new vanilla extracts. But they do serve another purpose. I have listed the type of bean I used (ok, the botanical names are to impress my non-culinary friends hehe), the amount of vanillin percentage present in the beans, the type/proof of alcohol used and the ratio. This way, I'll have the recipe right on the bottle. (what? overkill? ya think? LOL)

It takes about 4-6 weeks for the extract to obtain a rich flavor, develop a dark mahogany color, and be ready for use. Although, check out the pic on the right, it only took mine a week to develop a nice strong scent and deep color. (happy happy joy joy) After you use a bit of your extract, you may “top” it off with more vodka, getting the most out of your “extract” supply. The "flavor" of your extract may be a bit harsh at first, but it will continue to mellow out as time goes by. Once the extract is fully developed, about 6 months, and as the liquid moves below the beans, you may wish to remove the beans and sediment (see now why I left them whole?). Strain the extract through several layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter and return it to the bottle. (sure, I'll post a pic when I get to that point, promise)

So here I sit, strumming my fingers.... waiting patiently. While we're waiting, here are some more thoughts and suggestions. If you're buying beans in bulk for extract, buy more than you think you'll need. (I totally regret that I didn't keep a couple of each of these varieties to cook with) The larger the bulk, the cheaper the bean. If you have a handy dandy food saver, just divide them up and vacuum seal them, and store them in a cool dark place, they'll stay fresher, much longer.

We have some of those handy dandy wine filter caps, that we use for our homemade wine. I think I'm going to buy a few more to use in the extract bottles. That way, while I'm using the stuff waiting on my 6 months to be up, it will filter out the tiny seeds and sediment leaving all of that in the bottle so it doesn't go to waste. (I'll let ya know how that works out for me)

As soon as it is ready, I'll be sure to do a follow up and give you a full report on whether or not this has all been worth it. Meanwhile, perhaps I should look for some cute little bottles and prepare labels for some nifty Xmas gifts.......

Feb 9, 2009

More about Vanilla Beans

While searching for vanilla beans to purchase for making extract, I stumbled across several very detailed and informative sites. Although I did learn quite a bit about vanilla, I'm going to leave the all inclusive book reports to the experts. Here, I just hope to share what little I know about vanilla beans in general, in hopes that it will save someone else some time. It seems like a lot, but trust me, this barely scratches the surface.

First things first, the vanilla bean isn't actually a bean at all, but rather a pod. It comes from the vanilla orchid which grows on a vine where one flower produces one fruit. The vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. Although this orchid originated in Mexico, the major producers are now in Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea. The flowers are now artificially (hand) pollinated at a precise and specific time of the day (fascinating stuff, but I'll spare you). The fruit pods are harvested by hand, then "killed" to stop the growing process either by drying in the sun or steeping in hot water, then dried and cured. It stands to reason then, why, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron. Needless to say, I have a new found respect for the somewhat highly priced vanilla bean.

Supposedly, there are somewhere between 150-200 varieties of vanilla orchids (debatable, and I'm not counting). The two most distinctive orchids are the Vanilla Planifolia (aka Madagascar or Bourbon) and the Vanilla Tahitensis (aka Tahitian). While searching for beans to purchase however, I did find that there are quite a few (sub)varieties of each that are being used amongst culinary enthusiasts. Like fine wine, each type of bean possesses it's own characteristics, aromas (notes), and flavor. Also as in wine, vanilla beans are named for the region in which they are grown and/or originated. For an extensive list of each variety as well as where to purchase, you might want to check out vanillareview.com The site was very helpful in my determination of which type(s) to look for and where to buy quality beans (at the best prices).

In addition to flavor/aroma, beans vary in size, shape, and quality. They are often rated as Grade A or Grade B, each serving a specific purpose, but can be used interchangeably. Let me explain. Grade A beans are softer, longer, plumper, and contain more seeds within the pod. They are more often used for cooking, or for making vanilla paste. Grade B beans are shorter, dryer, and although contain less seeds, are still just as flavorful. (btw, the flavor is in both the pod and the seeds) Grade B beans are generally cheaper (when bought in bulk) due to the fact they contain less water weight, and therefore, are used more for making extracts. But that's not to say that you can't use a Grade B bean for cooking also. (or a Grade A for making extracts for that matter)

But don't let the outside appearance fool you, it's what's on the inside that counts. Whether your cooking with the bean or making extract, in order to get to and release the good stuff, you'll have to split open the pod. Inside are tons of tiny black seeds all clumped together, sometimes referred to as the "caviar", that carries vanillin along with other compounds that are responsible for the overall aroma(s) and flavor of vanilla. You'll then have to scrape the caviar with the back of a knife to dislodge it. Oftentimes in cooking, a recipe will also call for not only scraping the caviar, but throwing in the rest of the pod into a warming liquid as well. A good example would be in making vanilla ice cream. Once the flavor is extracted in the heated cream, the pod is then removed. This way, you get the most flavor possible.

Remember, there is a lot of flavor in that pod, so, if your recipe doesn't call for using the entire pod, don't let all that vanilla yumminess go to waste. Why not make your own vanilla sugar? Just throw the pod into a couple of cups of sugar in an airtight container and shake. In just a short period of time, you'll have a wonderful addition for your coffee, tea, or baked goodies. Here's mine...mmmmm...can't wait!

Ok, I got sidetracked there for a second (sorry). Back to the business at hand, buying the beans. After opening up the seemingly endless heavenly scented world of vanilla, I decided that not only did I want to make extract, but I just had to check out and compare some of the varieties for cooking and experimenting as well. Upon the recommendations of web sites and friends, I headed on over to beanilla.com Although their prices aren't the best if you're buying in bulk, they do have a some hard-to-find varieties in smaller packages allowing you to sample and experiment without too much damage to your pocketbook. I had a hard time choosing, so I emailed the site explaining what I was looking for and got a pretty fast and detailed response (impressive) recommending which beans I might want to try out with a brief flavor description of each. The guy suggested that I try about 3 different ones to see what extract I like the best.

Still indecisive, I opted for the 4 origin sampler pack, partly because I wanted to compare the differences in flavor, and partly because of the cool looking stand they came in. Granted the clear acrylic tubes are NOT the best way to store vanilla and keep it fresh, but what can I say? I'm a sucker for shiny kitchen "stuff". For around $26 bucks, the pack included 3 beans of each:

~Iguana Vanilla - Mexico
~Lemur Vanilla - Madagascar
~Coconut Crab Vanilla - Tahiti
~Flying Fox Vanilla - Papua New Guinea

Upon receiving them, I quickly opened up the tubes to take a whiff. At first, to my dismay, they all smelled the same. So I left the caps off and soon the aromas bloomed, each giving off it's own subtle but distinct scent. (perhaps it's a bit like decanting and aerating wine??? just a guess) Upon closer inspection, the beans were all different, varying in both shape and size. (should have saved that photo, sorry)

In addition to the sample pack, and because of the recommendation, I also ordered a three pack of the Tonga Beans for $6.50 from beanilla.com. Unlike the sample pack, these came vacuumed packed and were noticeably different. A bigger bean, fresher, much more fragrant. I detected creamy, cocoa, and tobacco (in a good culinary way) just as was described. (I'm thinking they'd be awesome in a creamy chocolaty dessert!) Now that I have since ordered and compared other beans, I can assume that the Tonga beans were a Grade A, whereas the sample pack beans where probably Grade B. (beanilla doesn't specify, although they do list the lengths)

If you're looking for a variety or hard to find beans like Tonga, or perhaps an array of convenient type vanilla products like powder, paste, salt or sugar, then I would suggest checking them out. However, with the beans being priced at anywhere from $1.00 - $3.95 per bean (depends on type and size of order) PLUS their (high)shipping costs, it would get a little pricey to buy enough to use them for extract.

Although it's nice to have a variety of beans to make pastries and to cook with, vanilla seeds aren't recommended for baking. If the heat source is above say 300 degrees F, it dissipates the flavoring. So because I do a lot of baking, I continued my search for vanilla beans specifically to use in making extract for my cakes and cookies. (oh, and for use in the occasional cocktail of course) Well, my efforts and research paid off. You can read all about it in my "Making Vanilla Extract" post. To see how this whole mess started, check out "Scary Vanilla" ;)

Scary Vanilla

It actually all started a couple of years ago when I (finally) had the time and started getting more into baking cakes, cookies, and other yummy desserts for my friends and family. I soon found myself using copious amounts of various extracts; almond, lemon, cherry, peppermint, and of course, more than anything, vanilla. It wasn't long that I discovered from foodie groups that the imitation stuff was "bad", while "pure" vanilla was "good". I began buying the "pure" vanilla in stores and shelling out about $8-9 bucks for a measly 4 oz bottle....that come to find out, wasn't as "pure" as promised after all. This (and watching the "food network") got me to thinking about using the real whole vanilla beans to flavor my sweet creations. So I began pricing whole vanilla beans in my local stores. At prices of about $4-5 per bean (gasp, sticker shock), I quickly decided that maybe this wasn't such a good idea (for my budget that is). After all, I am giving this stuff away, it's not like I'm baking goods for profit. So I shelved the entire notion. (yeah, sad pun intended)

That is until, I received a gift of "Pure Mexican Vanilla". It did have a wonderful aroma, and like they say, nothing even close to what I had been buying in the store. I have to admit, it was bothersome that it came in a flimsy plastic bottle (like a large water bottle) and had a tried-to-be-professional-type computer printed label. Now, this probably would have been OK, if, I were sure where the extract had actually came from, like, say an aunt or a loving grandmother of someone I knew. (I LOVE homemade gifts) However, the label was in Spanish, and after a quick interpretation, via my daughter (yeah, 4yrs of Spanish finally paying off), I find that the ingredients only listed, "special ingredients". I have to admit, that scared me. What are they trying to hide? I mean, if it were a "pure extract" made from real Mexican vanilla beans, why not brag about it? right? I didn't know much about vanilla at this point and time, but I did know that a truly pure vanilla extract consisted of two things; vanilla beans and alcohol.

So I started doing a bit of research and almost immediately discovered that some (not all I'm sure) of the extracts coming out of Mexico aren't made from real vanilla beans after all, but rather a cheap substitute called "tonka beans". Upon further research, I discover that the use of tonka beans in food products has been banned by the FDA because they contain coumarin and in large doses can be fatal. (gulp) OK, granted I don't think a teaspoon here and there in my chocolate chip cookies is going to kill my fam, nor leaving them lying on the kitchen floor bleeding out, but my main concern was, if that particular toxin could be present, what else was in there? Seriously, I'd rather read a long list of chemicals that I can't pronounce (but can look up) than the mysterious "special ingredients".

Now, according to Wikipedia, the tonka bean;

..."is known mostly for its fragrance, which is reminiscent of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves: it has sometimes been used commercially as a substitute for vanilla."

Could it be just a coincidence that my vanilla gift smells and tastes exactly as described above? Or that the producer on the label has a somewhat sketchy history plastered all over the net? (and yes, I'm withholding the name/brand on purpose) Mmmmmmmm. Well that got me to thinking even more. I did another search specifically for "pure" vanilla extract. I quickly learned that even the (high priced) commercially sold products that claim to be "pure" (and safe) often may contain: sugar, corn syrup, caramel colors, and/or preservatives. HUH? That didn't sound very "pure" to me. Perhaps if I really wanted a truly "pure" vanilla, and wanted to be absolutely sure of what was in there, and even more importantly, be certain of what was NOT in there, then the safest bet would be for me to make my own.

In addition, because I use vanilla for baking, cooking, as well as flavoring for teas, coffee and cocktails, it stands to reason that it would, in the long run, be more cost effective for me to make my own extract. Even if you only use it occasionally, it is well worth the effort to make at least a small batch for yourself, or, make a large batch and share the love with friends and family. It does (according to what I've read) have an infinite shelf life, so you'll use it up eventually, right?

So I set out to make my very own mahogany colored liquid gold, which led me to even more research, this time, my quest was to find recipes, methods and of course, affordable vanilla beans that I could purchase on the net. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. While the actual making of extract is pretty simple and straight forward, there's a whole vast vanilla bean world out there and I kept asking myself, "who knew?". Well my research, time and efforts have paid off and as it turns out, I was able to make two big batches (wine sized bottles) at a fraction of the cost of what I could purchase anywhere. If you want to know how I made it, which beans I used, where I got them, and how it turned out, just read my next blog entries; "More about Vanilla Beans" and "Making Vanilla Extract".

You're probably wondering, what ever happened to my "scary vanilla"? Well, I did indeed kept it and I'm currently using it here and there for baking. (only until my new vanilla extract is cured and prime for use) Since I hate for things to go to waste....I'm thinking maybe I'll eventually use it in making hand soaps, candles, or essential oils? Afterall, it does have a strong, sweet, heavenly scent. Aphrodisiac perhaps? I can't help but think of the movie "Michael"....where John Travolta is an angel that "smells like cookies"....maybe I should dab a bit behind my ears for my hubby. (oooh-la-la)

Feb 2, 2009

Fire Chief's Helmet Cake

This is part 1 of a 4 part series explaining in detail how I made the fire chief's helmet cake that I had made as a surprise for my hubby to help celebrate his promotion to ops chief. Here I will explain how I constructed and assembled the main (2) cake parts. In the other parts of this series, I explain how I did the brim, eagle, and shield. The cake covering, as well as each component, was made with MMF. If you are new to working with fondant, this is well worth the read. (you may also want to read my other articles on MMF ) So hang on....here we go!

The top:
Because the celebration took place one week after Thanksgiving, I baked the cakes about 2 weeks ahead of time and stored them in the freezer. The top was made using 2- 10" cake rounds and 1 Pyrex glass bowl for the round (bowl) top. There is a cake board underneath (shaped slightly oval by trimming each side) for support. After filling, layering, and shaping the cakes, I crumb coated the top with thinned out butter cream and let that dry until a crust formed. Just before the next step, I covered the cake with about 1/4" layer of butter cream.

Next, for the strips that created the molded top, I used a bit (softball size?) of fondant with a small amount (maybe 1/2 tsp?) of Wilton's Gum-tex powder (alternately you could use Tylose powder) sprinkled on and kneaded in, this made it more of a gum paste, which enabled the strips to dry quickly and harden, so they would stay shaped after applying the fondant over the top. I rolled the gum paste out to about 1/4" thick and cut out the 4 strips going from the front of the helmet to the back, and then across from side to side. The other 4 "lines" were rolled pieces and placed in between each "strip".

Next, I rolled out a large piece of fondant, about 1/4" thick, to cover the whole cap portion. After rolling out the fondant it was time to transfer it to the cake. Using the rolling pin with the fondant loosely rolled onto itself, I started on one side and unrolled the fondant as I crossed over to the other side. I smoothed the fondant with my hands, starting at the top and working my way down, and then I used a fondant smoothing tool to define the lines and make sure any strips that had shifted were straightened. Once it was all smooth, I trimmed the bottom and I also checked the top front strip to make sure my eagle was going to fit. I had to pinch it just a bit, as it was a better idea to pinch the fresh fondant on the cake rather than trying to "spread" the eagle for it would have cracked. However, I waited until the assembly of the whole cake before attaching the eagle so I could make adjustments ensuring that the shield and eagle were going to fit together. I then moved the cake to "a safe zone" while I worked on the bottom portion.

The bottom (hood and base):
For the bottom, I had baked a 9x13 cake. I sculpted the bottom base to match the shape of the helmet brim that I had done the week before. It was only slightly smaller than the brim on the sides and in the back. I carved it slightly lower in front and higher in the back so that it would give enough room for the (gold) hood and also so it would tilt forward like the real helmets do while sitting. Then I rounded off the top of the back so that the back brim would slope downward. After sculpting the cake I applied about 1/4" coat of butter cream (I didn't need a crumb coat). I positioned the base cake on the (sliver) cake board and covered the sides with parchment paper so as not to mess up the cake board wrapping.

base of cake ready for brim
I rolled and cut out the hood straight across on top with rounded corners on the bottom, folded the edges under for a smoother look and while it was laying flat, I used a serrated tracing wheel, and made the faux "stitching". I then applied the hood by placing it on the bottom of the cake board first, moving from back towards the front, I kept it loose and let it scrunch and fold as I moved upwards. Notice I didn't bother covering the top of the base completely because the brim was going to hide it. After that, I applied the black fondant in the front, smoothing and trimming it.

Before applying the brim, I placed 4 plastic (drinking) straws in the base for support to hold the (heavy) top round cake. I cut the straws level with the cake. I was now ready to put the brim onto the base. Sorry, I missed getting some pics, I was kind of in serious construction mode ;)

brim still on styrofoam form
Still on it's form, I lined up the brim with the base of the cake, and keeping it as close as possible to the base cake, slid the brim off the long side onto the cake base. (yeah, you got one shot at it, scary stuff!) I placed the round top cake onto the brim. Then I measured the circumference of the base of the round cake and rolled out a long piece of white fondant for a band. I cut the strip with a fondant ribbon cutter, rolled up the strip and unrolled it as I applied it to the base of the round layers to clean up the edges where the top cake and brim met.

Next I applied the black chin straps and buckle. I rolled out the fondant, then placed a strap (I used a clean, ridged-nylon, crockpot carrier strap) on top of the fondant and gently rolled over it again to create the imprint and texture of the strap. I cut the strap with a fondant ribbon cutter after it was imprinted with the texture. I looped one end of the strap into the buckle before it had a chance to dry so it wouldn't crack and carefully laid it on the board, tucking in the ends of the strap up under the brim. (The yellow buckle was made about 3 days beforehand, to allow time to dry and harden) At this time I also applied the black goggle holders, one on each side, that I had shaped when I made the buckle. You can see the edge of it sitting on the brim (top right corner of pic).

I had shaped and painted the little silver ring (in back) the same time I made the buckle, again, enabling it to dry and harden. So at this time, all I had to do was make the little "clip" strip on the back of the brim that holds the ring. I slid it through the ring, molded it to the brim and put on the screw. I waited a bit for it to dry somewhat then painted it silver. (yes, it really wiggled when touched after it was dry) While I waited, I cut out and applied the yellow reflectors, and painted them with pearl luster dust.

There is a thick, black, blocked V in the bottom front that sits behind the shield for support. To the left is a picture of the real helmet showing the support piece. (this is what the real shield is screwed to) It's necessary on the cake because otherwise there would be a big gap between the shield and the helmet, possibly rendering it unstable, and worse yet, cracking the eagles beak. I had made this "V" ahead of time and let dry on a slightly curved cardboard form and harden. (I made mine solid) However, when I made the second (black) fire helmet, I waited until the day of assembly and made the V support piece out of fresh fondant. This was even better as I was easily able to make adjustments to the positioning of the shield.

The only thing left to do was position the shield and the eagle. I applied a bit of water with a damp brush to the inside of the eagle's sides, where the eagle would make contact. I put the eagle in place and held it just for a few moments. I lined the shield up with the eagle, gently placing the tip of the shield under the eagle's beak. (it should tip forward just a bit) Using a paintbrush, I applied dots of water on the back of the shield and V piece so they would stick together. Surprisingly, the cake was very stable during transporting.

This cake was REALLY heavy, so I transported it to the firehouse on the wooden cutting board. We made it ok (yeah, the cake AND I) in spite of my nerves being a total WRECK! LOL The looks on the faces at the firehouse was priceless. Some of the guys and gals were in on the surprise, but they had no idea how detailed the cake was going to be. After the photo session (heh, I felt like my cake was on the red carpet or something) and watching the firefighters ooh and ah over every little detail, it was time to cut the cake and watch grown men cry......just kidding, here's a pic of the shift crew smiling, not crying LOL

Part 1- Fire Chief's Helmet Cake
Part 2- Fire Helmet Cake Brim
Part 3- Fire Helmet Cake Eagle
Part 4- Fire Helmet Cake Shield & Bugles

Fire Helmet Cake Brim

This is part 2 of a 4 part series on how I made the chief's fire helmet cake. Before I begin, it's only fair to point out that I had the luxury of having a real helmet (an old helmet of hubby's in our garage) to take measurements and use for drawing (scrolls)references. The one on the left is a pretty good picture of the back of the brim and the scroll work (just so you know what the heck I'm talking about). It took me awhile to figure out how to do the embossing. All of the fire helmet cake pics I found on the Internet either didn't have it at all, or they just piped royal icing using a writer tip on top of the brim after the assembly of the cake. I'm glad that I took the time to really think it through because the end results were very realistic. (at least I think so) So here's how I did it:

The first thing I did was trace around the brim on a piece of poster board and cut out the shape. Then I cut a piece of 2" thick Styrofoam to match the size and shape of the brim oval. (I used the poster board again later) Using my handy dandy electric carving knife (a trick I learned on DIY lol), I carved a slight dip in the front and a little bit steeper slope in the back of the form so that they would resemble a real helmet brim (uhm, best to do this step in the garage or outside, it gets a little messy). I double wrapped the entire Styrofoam base completely with press and seal wrap, taping it underneath for further assurance that it wouldn't slip. I gave it a good generous dusting of cornstarch and set it to the side.

For the embossing on the brim, I made a pattern for the brim out of cake board (using the poster board pattern) and with a pencil (free handed) drew the scrolling onto the cake board. Notice the vertical and horizontal lines, those were used as reference points for the drawing and placement of the scrolls. (I also used it later during the cake assembly for reference points for the top bowl of the helmet) I then covered it with a double layer of plastic wrap and taped it down to the work surface. I used rolled pieces of fondant, shaping a small section at a time, working my way around the brim. (remember making play dough worms when you were a kid?) I let that dry for a couple of hours (a much needed break) so that they hardened and wouldn't loose their shape after I applied the somewhat (heavy) fondant brim. (that ended up being an excellent plan btw) Meanwhile, I rolled out the large piece of fondant for the brim to about 1/4" thick and a little larger than the cake board. I covered the brim-fondant with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out and to keep it soft while I prepared the scrolls for the transfer. I slightly dampened each scroll with a small brush dipped in water, dabbed on a paper towel (too much water would melt them) before applying the top piece of fondant to ensure that the scrolls would "stick" to the underneath side of the brim.

Ready? Take a deep breath (I did). Using a large fondant rolling pin, I lightly rolled the large fondant piece onto itself (similar to how you transfer a pie crust to a pie pan) I then transferred the fondant onto the scrolls. (I'm going from left to right because, well, I'm left handed ;) )
Working quickly, and with dry fingertips (I always dust my hands with cornstarch so the fondant doesn't stick to ME), I smoothed around the scrolls then I went back over them and used a fondant smoothing tool to define them. I trimmed the excess fondant using a pizza wheel, using the cake board as my guide. I then trimmed around the entire brim with about a 1" strip of fondant (half inch on top and half folded under the bottom, all the way around) However, I learned by doing a second fire helmet cake that it is easier to cut the brim about a half inch wider than the cake board all the way around and then just "roll" the edges inward creating the ridge. (see, this is why you should read my blog, to avoid the mistakes I've made LOL)

Using the corners of the saran wrap, I slid the brim onto the Styrofoam form. You don't want to take too long else the fondant will start to dry out and it will crack during the transfer. (any guesses as to how I know this? LOL) Once it was safely into place, I used a flour sack towel to give the "ridge" some texture. However, styles of helmets vary and on the black helmet cake that I did, I used a clean fine nutmeg grater for the texture. Next, I used curled up 4x6 index cards for the slightly raised sides of the brim. (I just slid them underneath the saran wrap. Placed in a cool dry area to allow to dry and harden for about 1 week. (the hardest part was hiding this from my hubby until the surprise party LOL)

Although I made the brim about 1 week prior to the cake assembly, in hindsight, I would have made it first, giving it plenty of time to dry. (a full two weeks) It did crack a bit around the trim but I was able to repair it ok once I assembled the cake. In fact, the second (black) helmet that I made I did just that. I made it a full 2 1/2 weeks ahead of cake assembly day and I stored it in one of those big plastic under the bed containers (a clean empty one of course) I left it on my desk with the lid propped open to allow for good air flow. On cake assembly day, I grabbed the top two corners of the saran wrap and wiggled it under itself and gently pulled (peeled?) it from underneath the brim to remove it. Because I had dusted the press and seal wrapped foam with cornstarch, when it was time to transfer it to the cake the brim slid right off.

Part 1- Fire Chief's Helmet Cake
Part 2- Fire Helmet Cake Brim
Part 3- Fire Helmet Cake Eagle
Part 4- Fire Helmet Cake Shield & Bugles

Fire Helmet Cake Eagle

This is part 3 of a 4 part series on how I made the chief's fire helmet. This piece is probably the one that impressed the guys and gals at the firehouse the most due to the attention to detail. The eagle is made completely out of MMF (and yes, it's edible, not palatable, but edible). I had ordered the "real" brass eagle for my hubby's new helmet, but due to time constraints I couldn't wait for it to be delivered and I had to get going on it. So I relied on memory and pics from the net, and hoped for the best. (brave, I know LOL)

I found a picture of the eagle on a site that sells fire equipment. I photoshopped the image, flipping it so I now had two sides. I printed the image on paper, then placed a piece of computer transparency film (acetate) over it and cut it out with an exacto knife. Lay the piece of paper and transparency film over the fondant and cut out a whole piece. Notice I have a little gap going down the middle, that's so it will create a "back" to the eagle and will fit over the ridge on the helmet later on. (make this about a 1/2" in width)

Ok, so I said the eagle was edible, and it is...except...I had to insert a wire for support. I cut a strip of fondant the same length and width as the middle (top) gap. Laid that down across the top of the cardboard form that I had lined with aluminum foil, then I placed a floral wire (wrapped in floral tape) on top of that shaping the beak into a curve, then carefully lay the entire eagle base on top. Then immediately formed the two fondant pieces of beak around the bent portion of the wire. Why go through the trouble of a wire anyway? Well, I knew that once it was in place on the cake, it was going to actually "hold" the shield up (just as the real thing does) so the last thing I wanted to happen is the eagle's beak cracking off and the shield flying off during transport. (yeah, sometimes it pays to think things through)

Then I took another printed paper copy of the eagle and cut out the individual sections of the eagle in fondant pieces to lay across the form. I did some of the detail work with them laying flat. I also applied the "screws" at this stage. Then I applied each layer to the solid form, layering as I went. This gave the feathers the three dimensional look. Notice I kept the pieces under plastic until ready to apply as to keep them from drying out and cracking. You'll need to ever so slightly moisten the underside of each layer before applying so that it will stick to the fondant piece underneath. I use a paintbrush (clean and one I only use for fondant work), dip it in vodka and wipe on a paper towel, then swipe the area. When the pieces dry, they will be fused together.

After applying each layer, I used a fondant tool and in some cases an exacto knife, to imprint the detail work and "carve" the feathers. I let it dry for several days before painting (leave it on the form until completely done). A brass color is very difficult to achieve with fondant. The trick is to, first of all, use a light yellow colored fondant. Secondly, do layers of color to achieve depth, allowing to dry between coats.

So for the first coat, I used a gold luster dust mixed with vodka and a tiny bit of green food coloring. Why do I use vodka? Vodka evaporates faster than water, therefore you are able to get the object painted without it turning into a gooey mess. (water would literally melt the fondant) The second coat, I used a brown food coloring (with a tiny liner brush) only in the crevices for depth. I used a darker brown where needed, like under each row and between the feathers and such. Then I applied another layer of the "brass" color only on what areas were raised to highlight them. When the "real" eagle arrived that I had ordered, I was thrilled that I got the "faux" eagle so close. I only had to do a little more painting to adjust the depth of color. (I totally regret that I don't have pics of each painting stage, next time I will, I promise)

Note that most "standard" issued helmets come with a flat brass piece that has a screen printed design (a painted on eagle). I mention this because I have seen a lot of cake helmets with this style of eagle. If that were the case, I would have cut out the base of the eagle, laid it on the form, painted the brass color and then simply draw on the eagle with a black or brown food color marker or better yet, hand paint the lines with a thin brush.

The longer you can let the eagle dry and harden the better. I'd give it a full 2 weeks just to be on the safe side. If you'll notice, my form had little "feet" bent outwards. I placed it in a shoe box and taped the "feet" to the bottom. This kept it safe from falling over. I put the lid on so that it would remain clean and dust free until I was ready to assemble the cake.

You're probably wondering how much time was spent in total. It took me only a couple of hours to cut out patterns, construct the eagle, and do the first layers of painting. Another two days for the initial drying, then a few days between coats of paint. The looks on the faces at the firehouse, made it all worthwhile ;)

Part 1- Fire Chief's Helmet Cake
Part 2- Fire Helmet Cake Brim
Part 3- Fire Helmet Cake Eagle
Part 4- Fire Helmet Cake Shield & Bugles

Fire Helmet Cake Shield & Bugles

This is part 4 of a 4 part series on how I did the white ops-chief's fire helmet cake for my hubby's promotion. As mentioned, it was a surprise and I had asked him repeatedly (without being to conspicuous) what his "new chief's badge number" would be. Technically, it should have been "102" since he was promoted to ops chief, or second in command. However, he kept telling me he would "always" keep his original badge number. So that's what I did (just in case you're a firefighter and you even noticed LOL)

For the MMF shield, I also found a picture on a fire equipment site to use as a pattern, however, it helped that I knew what a real leather shield looks and how one is made. I copied the picture in photoshop and made sure it was the exact height from the base of the brim to just under the eagles beak. This time, I printed the shield picture onto paper. Then, I taped a piece of acetate (computer transparency film) and cut out the shield with an exacto knife. I also cut out where the red blocks are showing and also the numbers. This served as a guide later on when I did the placement of everything. I cut one shield and left it solid for the base of the shield.

For the top black piece, I laid the acetate shield onto rolled out fondant, (about 1/4" thick) then gently rolled again to get an "imprint" of the cutouts, which served as a guide for placement of the badge numbers later.

I placed thin red strips in between the two black pieces, sandwiching them. Using the imprints as a guide, I cut out only as deep as the first shield layer, revealing the red underneath.

I really wanted the "stitching" to look like it was done with white thread as the traditional shields do, so I made an imprint with a serrated pattern transfer wheel, then rolled out small pieces of white fondant, placed it in the fresh "track" and went back over with the wheel, being careful to hit the same holes. (too OCD?) It was a lot of work, but well worth it. When the shield dried, it looked as though it was sewn leather.

I cut out the lettering and numbers with an exacto knife, using the picture pattern paper. (easy, but time consuming) Once all the pieces were cut, I then slightly dampened the back of each letter with water and placed on the shield. (this is where the number imprint came in handy!) I made a curved shaped cardboard form and dusted it with cornstarch to lay the shield on while it dried. (hindsight, I should have laid it on plastic wrap then placed it on the form, it did stick a bit to the cardboard) It took about 1 1/2 weeks for the shield to completely dry and be solid (because of the thickness) You really wouldn't want to skip on the time here, it was heavy and would have surely cracked otherwise.

For the bugle medallions, I shaped each bugle out of yellow MMF, detailed them with an exacto knife and arranged them in the criss cross pattern and let dry for a day or so on an index card. Then I painted them with gold luster dust mixed with vodka and when dry, applied them to the red fondant discs with a dot of water. I used these as little accents on the cake board. My hubby was pleased with the fact that I had done my homework and got the number of bugles right. (yes, he noticed EVERY detail LOL)

So you're probably wondering how long this took? (everyone asks) I made the shield and bugles in a couple of hours, however, in all fairness, I did already have the fondant made and colored and that also doesn't include finding and cutting out the templates. The second shield that I did (for the banquet) took me even less time as the prep work was (patterns) already done.

This has been one of my favorite cake projects, and, probably will be for all time. In spite of all of the work that went into it, the time spent was well worth it. I truly hope you've enjoyed the journey with me and mostly, I hope that you found this tutorial helpful!

Part 1- Fire Chief's Helmet Cake
Part 2- Fire Helmet Cake Brim
Part 3- Fire Helmet Cake Eagle
Part 4- Fire Helmet Cake Shield & Bugles