January 28, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

I need help.

Serious help.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a mini cake decorating class where I got to try my hand at creating buttercream roses. I've watched countless videos on cake decorating since I started writing this new mystery series, and I've tried some other decorating techniques, but last night was my first hands-on attempt at roses.

Folks, it's not as easy as it looks -- not by a long shot! Making sure the icing is the right temperature and consistency, getting the center post just right, learning how to hold the nail between forefinger and thumb and then how to perfect the rolling motion with the nail hand and the up-and-down motion with the pastry bag hand . . .

I wish now I'd taken pictures of my efforts because they did not look like the rose in this picture. My first effort, in fact, came out looking more like a cabbage than a rose. My instructor called it a "classic cabbage." I'm not convinced she intended it as a compliment, but I'm choosing to take it as one!

My second attempt looked a little more rose-like but I tried to move it from the nail to my cookie (sadly, no actual cakes to practice on) without the flower lifter. Big mistake. I'd moved the first one without disaster, but the second one turned over and landed face down and the bottom was . . .

Well, let's just say that it wasn't decorative.

Obviously, it's going to take a whole lot more practice on my part to turn out a decent buttercream rose.

So if you have any tips you can share with me, I will welcome them all!

January 26, 2011

In Search of a Word

It's taken me more than 12 hours of work to find one word for my current work-in-progress, "Cake on a Hot Tin Roof." Granted, it's an important word. It will be used numerous times in the book, which is why the search for it required such a lot of effort. The story takes place during Carnival Season and several characters in the book are members of a specific Krewe. The name of that Krewe is the word I've been searching for.

For those who aren't familiar with Mardi Gras and Krewes, it's important to understand that Mardi Gras is a celebration for the public, which means there are no official sponsors. The parties, the banquets, the parades, and the throws (trinkets, coins, and beads tossed from parade floats) are all provided by various Krewes--organizations that might be called "clubs" elsewhere. There are lots of Krewes all over the country, with a heavy concentration along the Gulf Coast.

I don't want to tar any existing Krewe with the antics of my characters, so I decided to create a Krewe of my own, with its own customs and rules and purpose. But that's not as easy as you might think. I've spent hours reading about Mardi Gras and Krewes. I've studied how various Krewes govern their organizations and how they choose their kings each year. I've read up about how the queens are chosen, and how and when the royalty are revealed each year.

I've Googled Krewes and made copious notes. I've Googled Egyptian, gods, Roman gods, and mythical gods. I've read descriptions of gods and goddesses and even minor diety until my eyes burned. When it appeared that I'd run into a brick wall in that direction, I Googled French royalty and words associated with Carnival and Mardi Gras.

Early in the process, I ruled out naming my imaginary Krewe after a goddess because I don't think my victim, currently known as Willie Fiske, would join a Krewe named after a woman. It's not that Willie doesn't like women. He does. Maybe even a little too much. But Willie's a bit of a jerk, frankly. Kind of a macho jerk. So I needed a good, strong, masculine name.

I also ruled out names that were too dark because other members of the Krewe are perfectly nice people who probably wouldn't join a Krewe associated with Hades or the dark side. So I needed a good, strong, masculine name that was positive and upbeat, but not too positive -- because, after all, Willie's not going to belong to a Krewe named after some minor Egyptian deity who tended flowers.

Of course, every potential name had to be subjected to the Google test to make sure there wasn't another real Krewe out there already using the name. 99% of the good names were already taken, which sent me back to the drawing board over and over and over again. The name also had to be easy to pronounce so readers don't get stuck on it. That ruled out another huge chunk of possibilities. 

After hours and hours, split up over several days, I think I finally found the name of my Krewe. I've Googled and, so far, I can't find any other Krewe using that name. I'll do some more research later to make sure. I've inserted the name into the manuscript, and so far it feels good. I'm not stumbling over it as I read, and that's always a good sign.

Twelve hours or more for one word. Just one of the reasons you have to love the process of writing before you become a writer. Because the truth is, if you're focused on the results, you may end up disappointed and frustrated with this profession.

This is a hard truth, but it's one I needed to remember today. File it under Lessons Remembered :)

January 25, 2011

I've been doing a lot of research about cakes lately. I've read up on how to make them and studied how to decorate them. I've tried my hand at both, and I'll keep experimenting and sharing my successes and failures here in the coming months.

In the process of my research, I noticed that many recipes specify a particular type of flour, and that, naturally, raised the question:

Is there a difference between the different types of flour?

The short answer is yes, there's a difference.

For those who don't know a lot about flour, the main difference in flour types arises (pun intended) from the gluten content. Gluten is the protein that helps yeast stretch and rise. It's also dangerous to those with Celiac Disease, but that's a subject for another day. The gluten content varies in different types of flour depending on whether the flour is made from hard wheat or soft wheat.

If you want to achieve the best results in your recipe, it's smart to use the type of flour the recipe specifically calls for.

All-purpose flour is designed for a number of uses--hence the name "all-purpose." It's best used for cookies, quick breads and biscuits and can also be used for cakes. It's a mixture of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat, and it comes in both bleached and unbleached varieties. From what I can tell, it really doesn't matter whether you use bleached or unbleached flour in a recipe, unless the recipe specifies one or the other.

Bread flour is an unbleached, high-gluten blend, mostly hard wheat, and best used in yeast breads because the protein in the gluten is necessary for the bread to rise properly.

Cake flour is made primarily of low-gluten soft wheat. It has a fine texture and a high starch content which make it ideal for cakes, cookies, biscuits and pastries that don't need to rise much.

Pastry flour is similar to cake flour, but it has a slightly higher gluten content. This higher gluten content aids with the elasticity that's needed to hold together layers necessary to make pie crusts, puff pastry and the like.

Self-rising flour is just all-purpose flour to which someone has added baking powder and salt. You can use it in yeast bread recipes instead of all-purpose flour if you omit the salt and in quick bread recipes by omitting salt and baking powder.

Is it okay to use all-purpose flour for everything?

Not exactly. Like I said earlier, you're going to get the best results if you use the appropriate flour for the recipe. However, if all you have is all-purpose flour, here's a substitution chart created by TLC to help. 

When the recipe calls for:Substitute:
1 cup sifted cake flour 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup pastry flour 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup self-rising flour 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour plus 11/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon pastry flour

And now you know!

What cake-baking tips do you have in your arsenal to help those of us who are just starting out?

January 21, 2011

Jazz Festival Line-up

I'm following the New Orleans Jazz Festival on Twitter so I got the tweet about this year's line-up for the festival scheduled for dates in April and May of this year. Some of the names surprised me. I had no idea that anyone would consider Bon Jovi's music jazz. Or Jimmy Buffet's. Although Buffet really isn't a surprise since he embraces everything that is sun and surf and sea and sand, and you have to embrace those things if you're living along the Gulf Coast.

Some of the names in this year's line-up are familiar to me. Some aren't. Kid Rock is in Column A. Mighty Clouds of Joy in Column B. By the time the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is over, I'd like to move a whole lot of names from column B to Column A.

Cyndy Lauper is a surprise to me. Maybe not to anyone else, but I'm as new to the world of jazz music as I am to life near water. I spent the first few decades of my life landlocked. In Montana, we at least had respectable rivers. In Utah, the things we called rivers barely qualify as a forgotten trickle of water in these parts. I'm learning about life on the coast along with Rita Lucero, the main character in my mystery series. Rita comes to New Orleans from New Mexico. Her reasons for staying are a little different from mine, but she's as fascinated by this area of the world as I am.

For those of you who know the world of jazz, who are your favorite jazz musicians? Who would you suggest Rita include on her playlist?

January 14, 2011

Sliders, Anyone?

I came across an article this morning about how sliders are becoming the new big (or small) taste sensation in New Orleans. I'll confess, I've never had a slider of any variety. I just don't get it. What's the point of eating multiple tiny burgers when you can get one adult-sized burger instead?

Maybe it's an issue of cleanliness. The slider fits into your mouth in one bite, so you don't have the grease slipping down your hand, the mayo dripping onto the front of your shirt, the pickle sliding around and threatening to drop. Then again, if you get a really good burger, the grease and the dripping could be considered a valuable part of the experience.

Maybe it's a "perfect bite" thing, shades of The Mirror has Two Faces. Everything you like in a burger condensed into a perfectly constructed bite. Pickle, mayo, lettuce, tomato, ground beef, and just the right amount of bun. Mmmm.

Is it just a fad? The next "new" thing. Something different. Admittedly, burgers have been around for a while. There's no doubt about it, some are better than others. But even with a really great burger, the format is somewhat predictable.

Or is it a question of variety? I'll confess that I'm frequently torn between two or more items on the menu when I eat out. Sometimes it's possible to negotiate a split with someone else, but the opportunity to get all the appealing taste sensations on one plate does have some appeal.

Maybe you can solve the mystery of the slider and explain its appeal to me. 

As sliders gain in popularity, they're also branching out. Cure offers a brioche slider featuring lump crabmeat and citrus aioli that sounds absolutely heavenly. Mondo doesn't call theirs "sliders," but their version is a Mexican pocket sandwich. Phil's Grill (three locations) offers three varieties, one made with Angus, one with alligator, and one with hot sausage. Since I love trying new and different things, I may have to try the gator slider one of these days. Stanley serves up a po'boy slider with cole slaw and remoulade.

The mouth-watering list goes on, and reading it is making my mouth water. Next time I'm in New Orleans, I may have to join the crowd and give sliders a chance.

January 12, 2011

Cake or Cupcake?

Image courtesy of DailyClipArt.net
Lately, there's been a lot of talk about cakes vs. cupcakes. Is one better than the other? Is one more appropriate for certain events than the other? When I was growing up, cupcakes were definitely for children. Grown-ups had cake. Kids had cupcakes. It was a "truth" I accepted without even thinking about it. Never in a million years would I have expected to see my mom or dad having birthday cupcakes on their special days, and the idea of serving cupcakes at a wedding? Outrageous!

But in the past few years, cupcakes have been gaining in popularity, it seems. Once the thing your mom made for you to take to school, cupcakes are going gourmet. A simple Google search for gourmet cupcake shops will bring up over a million hits. I'm pretty sure there aren't a million gourmet cupcake shops in the world -- or maybe there are. No matter how many there are, there's no denying that cupcakes are now for grown-ups, with flavors like Chai Latte, Café Mocha, Mango Passion, and Fat Elvis showing up on the menu. Cupcakes even have their own TV Reality show in Food Network's Cupcake Wars.

It's not just the cupcake that's gaining in popularity, though. Cakes and cake decorating have become immensely popular thanks to shows like Food Network's Ace of Cakes, TLC's The Cake Boss, and WETV's Amazing Wedding Cakes. More people than ever are tossing around terms like ganache and pastiage, and we love watching our favorite pastry chefs create cakes brimming with WOW!

But the question remains, is one better than the other? Does it matter? Frankly, I'll happily eat both if someone is kind enough to put them in front of me. But would I have cupcakes at my wedding? I'm really not sure.

What do you think? Cake or Cupcakes? Or Both?

January 10, 2011

Get the Party Started!

Welcome everyone to my brand new blog! 

I have a brand new mystery series coming out from Berkley Prime Crime featuring pastry chef and cake artist, Rita Lucero. The first book, A SHEETCAKE NAMED DESIRE, is scheduled for release on August 2. It's available for pre-order here and also here, and if you're kind enough to "like" it on your Facebook page, you'll be my new BFF. I've seen an early copy of the cover, and as soon as I can, I'll share that with you! 

I'm currently working on the second book in the series, CAKE ON A HOT TIN ROOF, which should be out sometime in the spring of 2012. The series is set in New Orleans, and I'm having a great time writing the stories, meeting the characters, and researching all things New Orleans. 

CAKE ON A HOT TIN ROOF takes place during Carnival Season, which begins on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (the end of the twelve days of Christmas), also known as January 6. Carnival Season runs from the 6th of January until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Which means that there will be lots of craziness and partying in Rita's world, as well as a little mayhem and murder! 

When my editor and I first began talking about this series, I lived in Utah at the base of the Wasatch Mountains (part of the Rockies, for those who aren't familiar with that area of the world.) Since then, I've moved to the Gulf Coast area, so I'm just a few hours outside of New Orleans. How great is that? In fact, my local area has already begun to celebrate Carnival Season--something we never did back in Utah! 
I hope you'll join me here to talk cake, books, murder ... and anything else that crosses our minds!