Hospitality @ Home: The Frost-pocalyse

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When a little boy I know turned three yesterday, I volunteered to make the cake. Or cupcakes, as it turned out. This was the same child who shot through the door for our New Year’s Day brunch with a Thomas the tank engine under one arm, a car under the other, and promptly asked the Gent “where’s your track?”
So,  obviously, both had to be incorporated into the theme somehow. But the thought of fondant, gumpaste, royal icing, and ‘modeling chocolate’ made me a little dizzy. Besides, shouldn’t the edible decorations be more than edible,  and actually taste good?

Laffy Taffy Cars

As I pondered, The Gent and I attended a backyard BBQ where someone brought leftover Laffy Taffy from an improv show.

In my adult epicurean wanderings, I’d completely forgotten about Laffy Taffy. It tastes good (in that good-god-what-is-in-this sort of way), warms in your hands, and … could possibly be mold-able…? Add on some Reese’s Pieces (or M&M’s) wheels, and ta-da…. edible cars and trains that don’t taste like cardboard.

I ended up going for the Reese’s Pieces because the colors are more tire-like, and the peanut butter seemed like a more natural companion for the pre-determined Laffy Taffy Flavors of banana, apple, grape, and strawberry.

the train track is paved with crushed graham cracker; ties are Twizzlers

Two days, 3 batches of cupcake batter, 4 batches of Swiss meringue buttercream (more about that below), and 1 bag of Laffy Taffy later, I finished with 60 cupcakes. I set up one side with a train track, and the other with a car track.

I originally planned to make a third train, but Saturday morning I awoke to a buttercream emergency– the frosting I had made the night before (just before I headed in  to close the restaurant) had gotten too cold in the refrigerator; when I tried to whip it back into shape, it separated into a gloppy, butter ball floating in green puddle.

Both batches.

In a panic I googled “separated buttercream disaster!!!!” and sent the Gent to the store to grab more eggs and butter.

I’ve made the buttercream frosting at least 7 time before, but have always used it the day I made it. What this disaster illustrated to me was that I have probably been using butter that is slightly too cold. Martha’s recipe calls for a generic “room temperature” that is “cool to the touch but not cold.” What does it all mean? When does butter cross the line from cold to cool? Why are so many recipes filled with existential conundrums???

The answer, I discovered thanks to this recipe, is 68 degrees.  I will never again make buttercream without an instant read thermometer in hand. Everything turned out fine by Party Time and, in the end, I was glad for the educational moment before I attempt my sister’s wedding cake in a month.

Kids’ bday cakes must have crazy frosting colors, if only for photo ops like this one

Recipes and Laffy Taffy construction tips after the jump….

The Only Swiss Meringue Buttercream Recipe You Will Ever Need:
(adapted via trial and error from Dessert First and Martha Stewart)

5 Large Egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar

oven mitts are very useful for this part. steam = hot.

1/4 tsp cream of tartar
2 cups (4 sticks) butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp coarse salt

1. Whisk egg whites and sugar together in the heatproof bowl of a stand mixer. Set bowl over a pan of simmering water, being careful not to let the bowl touch either the pan, or the water below. Whisk constantly until the sugar dissolves into the egg whites, and the mixture reaches 120-130 degrees on an instant read thermometer. This should take 5-7 minutes.

2. Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add the cream of tartar. Start on low speed (this helps cool the mixture down a bit), then move up to medium high speed. Whisk until stiff, glossy peaks form; about 10 minutes. It’s really hard to over mix this meringue, so if you aren’t sure it’s quite glossy or stiff enough, an extra 30 seconds won’t kill it.

3. While your stand mixer is doing the dirty work, turn your attention to that “room temperature” butter. Stab it with your instant read thermometer and make sure it is at about 68 degrees. Too warm, and it will liquefy in the butter cream, too cold and it won’t incorporate properly. If it is too cold, hold the bowl over a pot of simmering water for a few seconds, mixing constantly with a spatula, until it reaches the optimal temperature. If it is too warm, pop it in the fridge for a second. 68 degrees, kids. It’s spectacularly important.

4. Keeping mixer at medium high speed, add butter in 2 tbs chunks, beating well after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixer from time to time.

5. Beat until smooth. Add salt and vanilla, and continue mixing until incorporated.

Makes about 4 cups.
This frosting can be refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to a month. Before using, bring to room temperature (68 degrees, I’d wager…), then mix on low with the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until it regains it’s buttercream-y texture.

*Bonus of this recipe, you can get a nice steam facial while whisking the egg whites, followed with an exfoliating-conditioning hand treatment from the butter, egg white, and sugar when you clean out the bowls and beaters.

Laffy Taffy Cars (and other Laffy Taffy Stuff)

Bag of Laffy Taffy
Reese’s pieces
M&M’s
Pull-n-peel twizzlers
Etc….

Tools:

Butter knives
Scissors
Toothpicks

Un-wrap Laffy Taffy. Warm it by cradling lovingly between your palms. I like to roll it into a ball, then use butter knives to flatten the sides into squares before proceeding with the body work.

Use a (clean) pencil, chopstick, or your fingers to indent the windshield in the front end, and pinch together the nose slightly to create the front of the car.

Snip strips of different colored taffy to create bumpers, racing stripes, and head lights. the more details you add, the better these babies look. Squish the wheel candies right on the sides. You won’t need any other adhesive, the sugar coatings on both will create a nice bond.

Get creative. You can make tons of goofy things with these. Especially if you don’t have a 6′ 3″ Gent lurking around your work table, surreptitiously noshing on your building materials….

is that a flower made out of laffy taffy? why yes, it is….
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