Friday, August 5, 2011

Baby Shower, Staff Appreciation, and Cake Balls

A couple of months ago I helped host a baby shower for a friend and offered to make some of the desserts.  Considering my lack of baking skills and experience, I was sure that I was getting in over my head.  I offered to make cake balls (something my sister, Dani, has made many times, so I knew I would have someone to walk me through the process step by scary step).  Dani claimed that cake balls would be easy...I was skeptical.

First, Dani sent me an email explaining the process and also adding little words of wisdom.  For instance, when working with almond bark (which goes around the cake balls and forms this cute little outer shell), DO NOT add food coloring.  Also, only heat the almond bark in the microwave for 20 second increments to avoid overheating it.  Then, she sent me to Bakerella where I could find step-by-step instructions on how to make basic cake balls.  If you haven't visited the Bakerella site and you are at least a little interesting in baking (or eating), you should definitely check it out.

Given the fact that I am somewhat overzealous at times (which occasionally leads me to bite off more than I can chew) I perused the website for a while and ultimately decided that rather than make plain old boring cake in the shape of balls, I was going to make mini cupcake cake balls! 

Having decided EXACTLY what I wanted to do, I went to the store and purchased the necessary items:  boxes of cake, canned frosting, eggs, oil, sprinkles, and almond bark (chocolate and vanilla).  I then went home and immediately set to the process of making my cake balls...sort of.  You see, making cake balls is a multi-day process.  I'm not really going to explain the process can visit the Bakerella site for that.  I will tell you that the most frustrating part of the whole process is the almond bark.

First lesson I learned in the kitchen - listen to Dani.  She knows what she is talking about.  DO NOT HEAT THE ALMOND BARK FOR MORE THAN 20 SECOND INCREMENTS.  Seriously.

I started with a 30 second increment.  I opened the microwave door, the almond bark still had its block shape so I figured not melted, right?  Another 30 seconds we go.  This time, I removed the almond bark and stirred it.  It wasn't smooth like melted chocolate should be, so 30 more seconds.  This time when it came out of the microwave it was even more of a lumpy mess.  So I tried again...the final time in the microwave turned the almond bark into some semi-liquid, semi-solid congealed burnt chocolaty mess that wouldn't come out of the bowl.  It was at that point that I thought, "You know, I may have burnt this!"

On the second try I went with 20 seconds.  I stirred after the first time in the microwave.  It was sufficiently melted.  Lesson learned!

Once I learned how to use the almond bark, the mini cupcake cake ball experience became a much less frustrating experience (minus a few minor mishaps with cake balls crushed in my surprisingly strong fingers mid almond bark dip).
In the end, I think they turned out fairly cute -

After they were finished, I loaded them up into this cute little hatbox and we were on our way to the baby shower. 

All night long, people raved about how good they which I always responded, "It's boxed cake!"  This may not have been the most appropriate response, but I didn't really think I should take credit for being capable of mixing the powder with the appropriate amount of egg, oil, and water. 

Because these cake balls were such a hit at the baby shower, when a new baking opportunity arose I decided to go with what was now my "old faithful" (meaning, I didn't screw it up the first time or food poison anyone).  This time, it was the annual lawyer bake-off for staff appreciation day at work.  Lawyers in the office submit entries, and an esteemed panel of judges chooses a winner.  This being my first year at the firm, I really wanted to impress.  Judging was based on taste and creativity.  Because I knew I was going to be using boxed cake, I opted to up my game in creativity.  This time, I was making cake balls in the shape of flowers and would display them in these flower pots (which I bought specifically for this occasion and haven't used since) -

Having decided on a theme, I needed to figure out how I was actually going to make it happen and make it look good.  First, I purchased some cookie cutters in the shape of flowers.  After crumbling my baked cakes and mixing them with their frosting, I flattened the cake like you would sugar cookie dough (only much, much thicker), and cut out my shapes. 

Next came the difficult to decorate them so they retained their flowery look.  First I tried white almond bark with a decorating gel...but I think it is clear that my decorating skills are sub par.

Next, I tried using the vanilla almond bark with this food coloring.  Remember that thing my sister told me about not using food coloring with the almond bark?  Well, baking lesson number two is the same as the first, listen to Dani.  My almond bark melted fine, I added the color, it started to turn a beautiful red...then things started going wrong.  The almond bark and food coloring mixed together and formed this ball that had a dough-like consistency (which is obviously not what you want when you intend to dip things into it).  Ultimately, the dough ball of chocolate went into the garbage and I was back to square one.

I decided to head to Hobby Lobby and purchase different colors of candy melts I saw used on Bakerella.  I got red, pink, and blue and the candy melts worked exactly like the almond bark I had been using!  I was in business!

So, after stabbing all of my flowers with their sticks, I set to the task of covering them in their candy coating.  This time proved more challenging.  Some of the flowers slid off of their sticks and straight into the bowl of melted chocolate.  Some of the flowers just snapped in half.  I had to stick the covered flowers on a piece of Styrofoam while the candy coating hardened, and this lead to some of the sticks going all the way through the flower tops.  Ultimately I had a big stack of broken, partially covered flowers sitting on my counter (which, by the way, was a bad place to put them as their candy coating solidified and became one with my counter top!). 

Then there was the issue of making sure the flowers still looked like flowers, which meant making sure the melted candy coating didn't get stuck in the flower crevaces.  My solution to the problem was to lightly tap the sticks on the side of the bowl while I twirled the stick in my hand, evening out the candy coating and removing the excess.  However, sometimes my "taps" were actually hits that sent my flowers flying across the counter.  

In the end, more flowers made it out of my kitchen the way I wanted than ended up stuck to the kitchen counter, and I call that a win! 

Again, I received multiple compliments on my boxed cake and creativity.  One of the judges told me that I came in second! 

In both of my cake ball experiments, I followed the directions from the Bakerella website.  Per Dani's suggestions, I used devil's food cake mixed with chocolate frosting and spice cake mixed with cream cheese frosting.  Both are AMAZING combinations! 

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