Sunday, September 21, 2008

Um. I stand corrected...already.

I should know better than to publicly disparage something, because as soon as it leaves your mouth you just know it will come back to bite you on the bum. I was just saying how I don't like those wonky cakes...what I probably should have said was, "I'm not a fan of tacky, crazily decorated cakes in weird colour combos"...

Now THIS!!

This is how to really do justice to the crazy, whimsical shape of the Mad Hatter cake...this has got to be the cutest cake ever. I love how simple it is, what a great sense of design. And those sprinkles on top - adorable. This one is made by a very talented lady over at Cake Journal, go visit her site to see more of her super cutie cakes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Undying Mad Hatter Cake Trend

It's been a gorgeous weekend, hopefully you've been enjoying the sunshine like we have! Just a brief post - we're off to Sage Bistro for dinner very soon (and having heard many good things about it, I'm quite excited).

This morning I had a freelance cake to do - a fortieth birthday cake. I'm thinking something kind of classy, delicious-looking...personally, when I turn forty, I'd prefer a more sophisticated kind of cake. You know, something a little more age appropriate. I sighed when I saw the photo of the cake we would be making:

When the customer says, "Can you make it look like this?" then I suppose it is our responsibility to do our best. The Mad Hatter cake is something that has appeared in wedding cake magazines, bake shops and cake decorating books for some time now, and it has all these weird asymmetrical layers stacked together in very bright, crazy colours. The first time I saw it, I thought it was kind of cute, but now that I've seen thousands and thousands of these things, they're just not that special anymore. But they seem to be an undying trend. I have decided that if I ever run my own bake shop, I will refuse to make this particular cake (probably losing some customers, but at least I will preserve my cake integrity).

So here's my copy cat version - I think it actually looks a little nicer and more polished than the one in the picture. What do you think? I hope the birthday person likes it, and is humoured by the 'I can't decide what pattern I like best, so I'll include them all' theme.

Aside from cake decorating, we ate pizza in the park from BonoTogo - I had the Hulk, and D had #2 and both were excellent. Fresh mozzarella and asiago...mmmm.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happiness is a Cream Puff

Recently I started furthering my baking education by taking some informal classes with a certain talented pastry friend (whom I have been bugging to start her own baking studio - I am guessing I could easily round up a handful of Columbus foodies eager to learn!)

Happiness is a cream puff

At my first lesson, I learned how to make pate a choux (cabbage paste), pastry cream (delicious) and how to turn all that into cream puffs and eclairs! Pate a choux and pastry cream are quite versatile in the sense that you can make a huge assortment of desserts with them (in combination or separate). The yummy custard in a fruit tart? Pastry cream. Tasty custard in a trifle? Pastry cream too!

An assortment of cream puffs

Eclairs piped with a star-tip

Demo of how to fill puffs and eclairs with pastry cream through the bottom

I learned a lot of new things about eggs, flour, chocolate, milk, whisking, piping, weighing things and more, despite my recent reading of many, many cookbooks. Yes, professionals really do know more. Really cool stuff! I won't go into all the details because that would be giving all the fun away, but suffice it to say, it was an awesome, completely hands-on afternoon where I got to make the dough, the pastry cream, pipe the eclairs and puffs, fill them, and glaze them. I actually feel like I could attempt this at home now.

D was very happy to help me eat these little guys after class. Lucky man.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brain Cookies!!

Check out the nerdy handiwork:

They're anatomically correct, too.

In honour of our friend Jay's recent graduation, I decided to make him some really dorky cookies to celebrate his new status as a full-fledged Social Neuroscientist (they really do exist). And get this - I may be the first person ever to post pictures of brain cookies on the Internet! After searching high and low for 'brain cookie' on Google, I failed to find any decorated cookie as remotely brilliant as the ones you see below. Truth be told, I did see some photos of chocolate chip cookie dough piped in a brain-like blob, as well as many a brain-cake, and even a jello brain (wait. I think I saw that on Facebook), but none of them were quite what I was looking for.

The alternate goal for this cookie exercise was to practice my piping and flooding skills, which I have been excited to re-try since oggling the many pretty cookies in various baking books I have hoarded from the library. First, you bake your cookies. I used a sugar cookie recipe from Confetti cakes which turned out to be a pain because the dough was so crumbly you had to keep refridgerating it for it to hold together. Anyhow, after the cookies are cooled, make royal icing (meringue powder or egg white, icing sugar, water) in a medium consistency, and pipe borders along all the cookies. Then, you add some water to your royal icing so that it's a very thick pouring consistency. You can watch Martha flood royal icing on cookies!

To make the brains, find a brain image online to use as a stencil and print it out in your cookie size. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the stencil and pipe a black outline of the brain. Leave to dry a few hours. Then, fill a piping bag (with a #2 round tip) with a thick but flowable pink royal icing and carefully pipe between your black outline. Use a toothpick to lead the icing into nooks and crannies. Leave to dry overnight. The next day, gently and carefully lift each brain (dont' mess up your hard work!) and glue it to the cookie with some icing. Enjoy!

Aside from brains, there were some hearts, ducks, swans, buses, planes and race cars... some of them are making their way to Minnesota as I type!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Red, red and more red!

Lots of red today, from the weekend and from cake baking. On Tuesday I made a red-striped birthday cake, similar to my other yellow fondant cake. I was in a big rush because I baked, iced, covered and decorated the cake in one morning. Phew. It was cutting it a little close. I really wish I hadn't felt lazy the night before, but watching No Reservations just seemed more important. I free-handed it a bit more in this cake, so I've only photographed the nicest sides and hidden the cracks and messy bits from you.

I want to get a little more creative with my decorating. I'm starting to exhaust the flower and dot cut-outs, and need something with a little more wow! to it. I've got some fun baking to do this coming week, which I'm looking forward to. If it turns out, I'll show you in an upcoming post.

Last Saturday Z.Knits took me to my very first OSU football game (thank you Z!!). That morning I had run out to buy a Buckeyes shirt, and I felt pretty cool parading around campus pretending to be a real fan. You have not truly experienced Columbus, Ohio until you attend a Buckeyes game.

Dedicated fans filing into the stadium

Now, I am totally not a sports person, but I have to say that it was tons of fun and just amazing to see live. The sea of red filling the stadium was incredible and the energy pulls you right in. At several points I caught myself actually cheering and whooping! Me! Imagine that.

Check out the funny headwear:

Probably the highlight of the game: eating steamed hotdogs in OSU baggies, and nachoes with fake cheese (D hates this stuff; I love it in the right context)

All the running back and forth had me a little confused, but Z was able to explain what the heck was going on. The marching band was awesome too. All in all, a really fun cultural experience :)

Best News of the Month!!

Or, "More options than you'd think for the Canadian H4 visa-holder"!

We had a really helpful meeting with an immigration lawyer today, yay! This isn't going to be a craft post, so come back in another day or two if you like. I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures in this post. In fact, this is really a lonnnnng rambling post about our immigration experience thus far.

As some of you may or may not know, D and I are moving to Pennsylvania later this year, where D will begin working as an assistant professor. Although we would have liked to return to Canada, the academic world just doesn't really work that way, and you go where the jobs are. D happened to get a great job offer, so back in January we decided that we'd move to Bethlehem and see how we liked it there. For whatever reason, it didn't even cross my mind that I wouldn't be able to work next year.

I'm on a J-2 spousal visa this year, which legally permits me to work in the U.S, so I'm thinking that it's just normal to be able to work anywhere in North America. Oooh, I was so wrong. Apparently the J-2 is the only spousal visa under which you can work. I had just ignorantly assumed there would be the equivalent visa once we switched over to an H1-B visa. Nope! It turns out that the H4 spousal visa holder cannot work at all, unless they get their own visa sponsorship. H4s can study, volunteer, travel, have babies and be stay at home parents (if you can add to this list, that would really wow me). They can't even get a driver's license until 12 months have passed, and are not eligible to receive their own SSN. The H4 is basically invisible.

It's pretty much a recipe for disaster, resulting in an insane number of highly educated spouses (mainly women) who leave their home countries seeking for an improved quality of life, but instead face losing their sense of purpose and identity, are confined to their suburban homes (no driving, remember?), cannot necessarily afford to further their education, and become socially isolated and depressed as they join the 'H4 housewives club', a term I have seen popping up everywhere on the Internet. Interestingly, the blogging phenomenon has created something of a support and advice network for H4 visa holders, including blogs like this one. I might be sounding a bit dramatic, but it's a big problem. Having the choice to work matters, even if you choose not to. When you don't have this choice, it feels oppressive. Certainly, there are women who overcome these barriers and actually learn to enjoy and make the most of their H4 status (taking classes, pursuing hobbies, non-profit volunteer work) , but the truth is that not everyone has the means or the kind of resiliency it takes. And not everyone has a wonderfully supportive spouse. Wow. I'm really on a rant today. I haven't even started on working illegally under the table...

Anyhow, the discovery of the "H4s can't work" fact was mind-boggling and just weird, given we know so many academic couples, yet have never heard explicitly about anyone's spousal immigration visa woes. Getting your own visa sponsorship is not impossible, but is not an easy task. First, you must find work that requires the minimum of a specific undergraduate education. Then, you have to compete with all the other applicants for that job. Then, you have to convince the employer not to freak out at the mention of 'visa sponsorship'. Then, you have to hope that the yearly immigration quota, which caps at something like 65,000 H-visas per year, isn't met.

This past year has been an eye-opening experience for me, and I'm grateful that I've had a chance to explore some interests that have always appealed to me but never pursued. I'm beginning to rethink my career options. I really liked my old job, my first real job, but I don't necessarily want to go back, at least not full time. I have really loved working in bakeries and want to continue doing it, somehow. After a couple weeks of stewing in frustration, I decided I might go back to school for a 1-2 year pastry and baking program if I couldn't work anywhere I wanted. But, what would I do after I finished school? Still can't work in a bakery. Work for free? For how long? How long would it take to get permanent residency? What's the quota on that? Does it really take 7 years? When will someone actually pay me to bake? Maybe I should be a baking therapist and hang a shingle outside my house? Feed you sweets to cheer you up?

Fast forward to today. What we really should have done, and my advice to anyone out there in the same situation, is GO TALK TO AN IMMIGRATION LAWYER! It is worth it. Not that our decision would have changed, but we wished we had done this when D got the job offer. Luckily, we haven't missed any opportunities, but it would have been nice to have this information sooner to reduce the worry and sense of uncertainty we had.

What I learned today:
  • If D's employer can demonstrate that he was selected on a nationwide search, they can initiate our greencard application process within 18 months (what's still unclear is if this is from the date of job offer, or date of H1-B visa approval), which is good news because the wait is shorter than I imagined.
  • There is currently a shorter waiting period for Canada greencard applications, dependent on how fast the Department of Labour can process it. It sounded like it could be as little as 6 months to a year. And, the H4 can submit their employment authorization documents at the same time the greencard forms are submitted.
  • Universities are not limited by the 65,000 quota for their hiring, so there may be more opportunities for employment with any organization that is affiliated with a University
  • Canadians can apply for a TN visa (under NAFTA, which expires every year) for certain job categories that include social workers and research assistants among many, many others, and are supposedly much easier to approve. We were told that you essentially show up at the border crossing with a letter from your employer saying they want you, your resume, your degrees, and they approve your TN visa at the border. Oh, and there's no quota.
  • You can work under the TN visa and switch over once you are granted permanent residency. The only thing you have to plan carefully is the timing between the expiration of the TN and the start of the Greencard
If you've read up to this point, thank you so much for listening. It's been on my mind a lot and it's such a relief to have some answers from a professional that actually knows the rules. You can spend countless hours searching for information on the Internet, but you have no way of knowing if what you read applies to you, or if you've interpreted it correctly.

Where does that leave me? Well, kind of with the same plans. I've pretty much committed to enrolling in a pastry and baking program, but the details aren't quite clear yet. It's weird to think about going back to school, especially after declaring upon finishing my Masters that I would never go back to school again! Never say never, I guess.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Little Gift ...

We're back to cakes! Here's my first hospice birthday cake for this month...I borrowed this cute idea from Confetti Cakes as well as tons of other pictures on Cake Central. It's a chocolate cake inside with buttercream icing, which was baked as an 8x8" square and cut into quarters. I stacked 3 quarters for the gift, and fed D the rest (helpful hubby that he is).

Covering square cakes in rolled fondant is a little more tricky, and you can see here that my corners are rounded instead of nice and sharp, probably due to too much icing underneath that tended to smush as I smoothed out the fondant. Well, whatever, I think it kind of adds to the cuteness of the whole thing. I made the bow and the gift tag the day before so it would harden and be easy to attach (tag not shown close up because my writing job was ultra hideous this time). All in all, I finished this one in record time.

Then, I spent a good 30 minutes driving around the Columbus suburbs trying to find the hospice center's new address, which was supposedly 'just across the street' from their old digs. Across the street my ass! It was WAY further! Grumble. At that point, the air conditioning in the car decided to shut itself off suddenly and I had a sweaty cake to worry about in addition to being somewhat lost. And it was getting really, really hot. I did make it there eventually, after a phone call to D that involved some Google mapping and email checking. D saves the day!

The volunteer director called this cake 'just darling' when I delivered it, which was a nice compliment for my efforts. I hope the birthday lady enjoyed it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

PIF: Clutch Purse Wristets

Pay It Forward is finally done! I really did procrastinate until the last minute on this one. Since speedy knitting is not my forte, I decided to copy Zarafa and make sewn projects for everyone.

Recognize the bird trinket?

I went online hunting for free patterns and tutorials on making wristlets and clutches, and managed to collect quite a bunch of them! There's a great thread on Craftster with huge list of free tutorials, just type in "tutorial". For mine, I ended up combining features I liked out of each pattern and sort of made it up as I went along.

The green one went to Zarafa, the red one to Lorah, and the black one was intended for another recipient but unfortunately I never heard anything when I tried to contact her. So, I ended up gifting it to someone else (Nuttnbunny, if you're reading this, please get in touch with me if you want to receive something.

These were a lot of fun to make - it'd been a long time since I'd done any sewing, and I'm glad I got back into it. There were lots of little mistakes as I went along, and I learned something about working with different decorating fabrics. See the green fabric? I thought it would be easy to sew because it was nice and thick, but it ended up being incredibly slippery and frayed like mad. What I should have done was either cut the pattern pieces extra big, or iron on some interfacing to hold the whole thing in place. The red and black fabrics (both from Ikea) were easier to work with, more of a canvas with a fine grain.

The flower and the bird were cut from other fabrics and appliqued. There are many ways to do applique, and I tried two different ways for the bird and the flower. For the flower, I ironed lightweight interfacing on the back and cut it out just like that (it stops the fraying), and pinned it to the black material and sewed it on with a close zigzag stitch. The bird, on the otherhand, used a double-sided fusible webbing which I will explain below.

How to Make Your Own Appliqued (or not) Wristlet Clutch Purse

1. First, choose a pattern from the list below as well as Craftster threads for your inspiration:

Gathered Clutch with Zip
Amy Butler's Clutch with Antique Pin Closure
Foldover Clutch Purse
U-handblog Wristlet Clutch
Butterick Wristlet

2. Cut out all your pattern pieces, including interfacing and lining, and a wrist strap if you're using one. Make sure you've got all the snaps and buttons and things you need.

3. Pick your image to applique. You can cut out something from an existing piece of fabric, or find a picture online (google images is great). I typed in 'bird' and found this little guy. You'll probably need to enlarge the image, which you can do in something as basic as Paint, and then print it out (econo mode is just fine - why waste the ink). If you're picky about which was the image goes, remember to do a mirror image of it. I just forgot so my bird was flipped in the final product. Now, trace the shape with a pen.

4. Next, trace the image onto one side of the double-sided fusible web (It comes with two pieces of translucent paper stuck to either side). Cut around the bird roughly so you're working with a small shape and not the whole sheet. Remove one paper side of the webbing and stick it to your fabric. You may or may not need to iron at this point, just make sure to read the instructions carefully. Mine was just a straight paste-on while you're positioning it. Now you can cut the bird out with some sharp fabric scissors.

Cut out bird with fusible webbing on the other side

5. You're ready to iron your applique on! Position your bird just so, and iron according to the package instructions. Next, thread your machine with your applique thread colour, and set it so that it's stitching very close together on a zig-zag mode (you can practice this on some scrap first if you're worried about messing up). Working slowly, stitch all the way around all the edges.

6. Now you're ready to go back to the pattern directions and attach things like the magnetic snap, the wrist strap, and turn the whole thing out!

Ta da! You're all done. Now run around town, parading your handiwork with pride. Ok, so that wasn't much of a tutorial, but at least I tried to explain how to do the applique part. Have fun!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Riveted Flower Keychain

I'm not ready for the long weekend to be over yet! I can't believe it's September. D and I took advantage of all the labour day festivities in Columbus...stopped by the Greek Festival for dinner on Sunday, saw the final performance of Cyrano de Bergerac in Schiller Park, and ate pulled pork sandwiches at a mid-day hog roast in Worthington. Yum.

This will just a quick post - more crafts to blog about shortly, but here's something to show you in the meantime! More practice with rivets, I think this one worked out the best of the bunch.

So, after I took this picture, I promptly lost it. It is somewhere in my living room. Maybe Gatsby will find it for me.