Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thursday Mini-Post

Two things in this post. First of all, I noticed that I forgot to list the milk in the buttercream recipe below. I have fixed it now, but I wanted to point it out separately so no one misses the change. Sorry for the slip!

Secondly, I am very excited to have learned this week I am a finalist in the Spring Into Romance Contest that I entered a few months ago. They announce the winners June 19. Of course I would be thrilled to win, but I have already accomplished my initial goal, and that was to get the manuscript in front of the final judge. Tessa Woodward is an editor at Avon, a publishing group under Harper Collins who is legendary in the romance genre. Nearly all of my favorite authors are published by Avon. I'll be sure to post the results of the contest when they are announced.

Have a wonderful rest of your week, and I hope to see you back on Tuesday for Part 2 of the Have Cake, Will Travel saga. The cupcake winner will be announced in that post. You have until Monday to comment on Tuesday's post to be eligible to win!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Have Cake, Will Travel

They’re three of the happiest words you will ever hear from a friend or loved one:
“I’m getting married!”
It wasn’t long ago that I was blessed to hear these joyful words from my dear sister, Kara. She spent many years searching for her prince, and when he finally came along, it was truly a match made in heaven.
So in December of 2008 when I received that fateful call, we laughed, and squealed, and exchanged virtual hugs (as my sister would say, “Darn you 2,000 miles!” Living on opposite coasts can be downright inconvenient sometimes). Truly, it was a beautiful moment.
Actual ring…a gorgeous antique sapphire center stone
But let me back up. Before those magical words were uttered, my sister started the conversation with a question:
“How do you feel about making a wedding cake?”
Beloved reader, I am sure you know the delight this question instilled in me. What better way to show my love and support for my sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law than with baked goods?
The wedding was set for June 2009. I plotted, and planned, and eagerly envisioned the three-tiered, multi-flavored tribute to Kara and Ryan’s love. It was not long after that initial call, however, that the happy couple decided on a destination wedding set in the picturesque hills of Tuscany. What could be more romantic? *Sigh*
Actual view from the villa
Ryan and Kara were flying out both families, in our entirety, for a week at a glorious villa and we were all giddy with excitement. So I abandoned the cake making idea, and threw myself into purchasing the perfect wardrobe to complement the glorious Italian countryside. I bought shoes, and packing cubes, and tiny tubes of toothpaste (don’t you just love travel size toiletries? No? Just me?).
And then one day, my sister brought up the cake. “You do still think you can do it, don’t you?”
*Blinking on the other end of the line* Eh? “Well…heck yeah!” Making a wedding cake in Italy? It was on!
So, along with my sister, I decided to scale back my original plans and make a nice little two tier gem for the family to share. We came up with a sweet, simple design which only required one icing tip, and Kara found a darling little topper on the internet. I was set. I mean, how hard could it be? We each had our own full apartment at the villa, and really, cakes are made in Italy everyday, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward to late May, 2009
Dear God, what was I thinking?!?”
It was mere days before we were set to leave, and reality had landed on my head like a ten-pound sack of flour. I was sitting bleary-eyed in front of the computer, hair sticking out in fourteen distinct directions, a half-eaten bowl of Cherry Garcia congealing on the desk beside me while I Googled the Celsius equivalent of 350 degrees F. “I am single-handedly going to RUIN my sister’s wedding!”
Dog #1 lifted her head with mild curiosity, while dog #2 ignored me completely. My husband, who looked like he wanted to follow dog #2’s example, sighed and said, “You’re not going to ruin your sister's wedding. It will be great, and the cake will be fine.”
Fine? FINE?? I was right—the wedding was doomed.
The problem was, I had innocently pulled at a single thread, and somehow managed to unravel the entire cake plan. “What if the flour is different there? A different weight, texture, or type of wheat can drastically change the properties of a cake. If I couldn’t find self-rising flour, then I would need to find baking powder and fine-grained salt. Wait a second, was the butter unsalted or salted? Did they even have powdered sugar or shortening?? What if all they had was IMITATION vanilla???
I couldn’t risk it. I had to bring everything.
By the end of the day, I surveyed my haul from a frantic trip to the grocery store. Before me lay everything I could need… including *cringing* two boxes of Duncan Hines French Vanilla cake mix. I had come to grips with the fact that making a cake from scratch may be akin to attempting to find love on a ex-con dating website. The possibility of disaster far outweighed the hope of a happy ending… unless your name was Martha Stewart, in which case you would probably do fine in both scenarios.
The challenge that lay before me was this: fitting a week's worth of clothes, shoes, toiletries, primping paraphernalia, reading material, snacks for the plane, my computer, two cameras, power cords and converters, four cake pans, two cake mixes, one bottle of vanilla, one stick of shortening, two pounds of powdered sugar, a ten-inch long frosting knife, my hand mixer with two beaters, yellow food coloring, and a handful of toothpicks into my luggage.
Oh, and did I mention that I NEVER check luggage? That is correct, beloved reader, all of this needed to fit into two carry-ons. Piece of cake.
Four hours, three hissy fits, two Tylenol, and a whole boatload of curses later, I had actually succeeded. Before me sat two quivering, groaning, bulging green carry-ons, ready and waiting for the 6,000 mile journey to Italy.
My hubby and I managed to arrive at the airport with nary a hiccup, and, once we had printed our boarding passes, headed for security. Expert traveler that I am, I had my shoes off, computer out, and tidy plastic bag full of adorable toiletries ready and waiting when it was finally my turn.
Hefting the bags on the conveyor belt, I strutted through the metal detector and waited for my bags to emerge on the other side of the x-ray machine. Alas, they were nowhere to me seen. I looked to the TSA worker, whose head was tilted like a cocker spaniel who had just been asked to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. I watched as the conveyor belt ground to a halt, reversed, paused again, then came forward. The process was repeated several times before the woman’s face cleared and she let out a whoop of laughter. She turned to me, shaking her head. “Lord, child, you’s bakin’ a cake!”
I couldn’t help but grin at her amusement. “Indeed I am! And in Italy, no less.”
Unfortunately, I was distracted by her big smile and my own preening pride, so I didn’t notice the other agent grab my bags until he gave me a curt “Follow me, ma’am.”
He and a second agent led me to a cordoned off area and carelessly dropped my two exquisitely packed bags on the steel table. I took a discreet step back, fearing the tentative cease-fire between my bags and the basic laws of osmotic principles was about to be breached.
“Ma’am, we need to take a look inside of your bag. If you would just stand here.”
Biting my lip, I did as I was directed, watching as TSA #1 reached for the zipper of the rolling bag. The zipper groaned in relief like a pair of skinny jeans let loose after Thanksgiving dinner. The top flap popped open and the two agents just stared for a moment. One of them gave a low whistle, and I decided to take it as a compliment to my packing prowess.
TSA #2 got to work peeling back the layers. First came the perfectly flat, vacuum sealed Ziplocs full of fruit snacks, Teddy Grahams, and Rice Crispy Treats. Then out came the packing cubes, followed by the shoes (packed with socks, of course), and the layer for makeup, brushes, and my curling iron. At last, TSA #1 lifted out my precision packed, vacuum sealed wedding cake assembly kit.
After a moment of silence, they looked at each other, then down at the vast array of stuff scattered on the table, in the seat of the chair, and down on the floor. Finally, they looked back at me.
“My God,” TSA #1 said. “Is this Mary Poppins’ bag?”
I couldn’t help the satisfied grin that came to my lips. I nodded to the second bag, which was now leaning against the table behind them. “Are you going to have to check that one, too?”
“No, no, I think you’re good.”
I swear to you reader, this is absolutely a true story :) I’ll end here, and pick up Part 2 of the Italian Wedding Cake Saga next Tuesday. I hope you’ll join me then!
Italy, here we come!
ANNNDDDDD…as a reward for those of you who stayed with this loonnngg story to the end, as well as a thank you for joining me here each week, this week I am going to send one lucky commenter a four pack of cupcakes made by yours truly! All you need to do to be eligible is tell me where your wedding was, where you want it to be, or where you would have had it if you could choose anyplace on earth. On Monday I will put the commenters’ names in a hat and draw one for the prize. Winner’s choice for both cupcake and icing flavor!
Perfectly Perfect Buttercream Icing
1 pound powdered sugar (1 box or 4 cups)
½ cup butter (1 stick)
1/3 cup shortening
1 tsp vanilla extract (use clear for wedding cakes)
¼ tsp salt
1 - 3 Tbsp whole milk (as needed for consistency)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Thursday Mini-Post

Thursday Update:
First of all, I am happy to say that I got Jimmy's Alabama Crimson (Velvet) Tide cupcakes off in the mail, along with a printout of the post. I hope it makes him smile :)Didn't the little chocolate Alabama "A" turn out nice? Too bad it will probably be a melted mess by the time it makes it there ;) Oh, and I tweaked the recipe again, and I think it turned out rather scrumptious. I'll make sure I can replicate the result before posting the recipe (I'm thinking early June, after the icing series).

And secondly... (Drum roll, please)... I am thrilled to announce that a short story I recently submitted will be published in True Love Magazine! I'll keep you posted as to when it will hit newsstands :)

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Shot of Southern Comfort

From time to time in our lives, we run into a person who, for some reason or another, just seems bigger than life. These characters usually have something exaggerated in their personalities, something that makes them really stick out in a crowd. In my life, I have known a few of these people, but none stick out in my mind so much as my old driller, Jimmy.

I’ll pause here and answer the question that I am sure has popped into your mind. Beloved reader, I must confess: I have not always been a romance writer.

Shocking, I know.

It’s true. In my past, I have participated in a variety of vocations, but most notably, I was an environmental specialist for over four years.

Now, I know that you may be picturing me as the lady sipping tea at The Pump Room at the Roman Baths in England:

And you would be correct. That is indeed me, at my serene best. However, for those four years as a specialist, I pulled off a somewhat … less refined persona:

And yes, that is indeed a 3/8 inch ratcheting wrench in my hand. When the occasion called for it, I could dig a trench, rebuild a motor, and plumb a drain line with the best of them. I may have been my normal, prim self typing away at the computer and analyzing data in the office, but the moment I headed into the field, I had to roll up my sleeves and, well, get a little dirty.

So back to my driller. Jimmy is a good ol’ boy in every sense of the word. He drives an American made truck, he chews tobacco, and I have only seen him once in my life without his Alabama Red Tide ball cap on. He was in his early fifties when we met, and he was every bit as strong as an ox, and certainly could be as ornery as one. If he was fed up with his workers, he would turn to me and say, “Betchya didn’t know this was Jimmy’s Drillin’ and Daycare.”

The man could make a three syllable pronunciation out of any two letter word in the dictionary, and couldn’t give a short description to save his life (“Boy, I tell you wh-hat, it’s hotter than a $2 pistol on the Fourth of Ju-ly out here. I betchya could cook you some bar-b-que right there on the asphalt.”). Without fail, he ended every conversation, be it in person or on the phone, with a confident and succinct, "Roll Tide!"

He was everything a gruff, mule-headed, southern driller should be. But, wouldn’t you know, he had that fabled heart of gold. He once spent over four hours working by my side for not one red cent, just because he was worried about my safety working in this particular location alone. Over the years we forged a great relationship, one that I truly treasured.

Last summer, I quit my job so that I could focus on writing and baking. It was a huge decision, one that came with plenty of doubt and worry. Shortly after my last day, I came home to this message on my answering machine:
“Ah, yeah, hello, I’d like to order me a couple a cupcakes, one of them ro-mance novels, and a Miller light. Hey, Erin, I’m just kidding. I heard you was followin’ your dreams, and I wanna wish you luck, girl, in whatever you do. I hope it makes you happy.”

No name left, but then again, no name needed. It was one of the sweetest messages I have ever received. I am not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two over the sentiment.

So, why do I bring this up now?

We got a new phone this week, and my husband unplugged the old, broken one and set it aside for the garbage. When I saw it sitting there, panic seized me and I grabbed up the old unit and sprinted to the nearest outlet. Holding my breath and with shaky hands, I plugged it in and pressed the play button on the digital recording.
“Ah, yeah, hello…”

My relief was so complete, I sank to the floor in a limp heap. Silly, I know. But when you take a leap of faith as I did, quitting a perfectly lucrative job to chase my dreams, getting such sincere encouragement, especially when you can play it on demand, can mean the world to a person.

The phone may no longer work, but that answering machine sits next to me on my desk, plugged in and ready to go for the next time I need a shot of Jimmy’s kindness. I don’t think he will ever know how much that meant to me, but I believe I will go whip me up a batch of Alabama Red (Velvet) Tide cupcakes, and ship a few off to my dear friend this week. Who knows, maybe it will be a shot of encouragement to him, too. Oh, and Jimmy?

Roll Tide!

Perfect Cream Cheese Icing (Stay tuned for the Red Velvet recipe):
8 oz. Neufchatel cream cheese (1 package), softened
½ cup butter (1 stick), softened
1 pound powdered sugar (about 4 cups)
1 tsp. vanilla

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Howling Good Time

I’m sure that you noticed that it is not Tuesday, but I wanted to post a quick bonus blog about the book club meeting (my very first!) that I attended yesterday.

The book was a fantastic paranormal set in Regency England titled A CERTAIN WOLFISH CHARM by Lydia Dare. The duo behind the Lydia Dare name, the fabulously talented and wonderfully entertaining Jodie and Tammy, came by for a lovely chat and, more importantly (just kidding... sort of) cupcakes!!

Jodie, Tammy, Yours Truly
(Just ignore the fact I look like a jump-in-the-frame-at-the-last-second photo stalker.)

I would like to say a quick thank you to the all the ladies in the club for making me feel so welcome. I hope to join you again soon!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The KEY to Life

It is Saturday night, and as I sit down to write this post, I am being forcibly serenaded by the live band across the lake from me. I had originally come out onto our screened back porch to enjoy the cool, early summer twilight while I got a little writing done. My local RWA chapter, the fantastic Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, had our monthly meeting today and I was feeling inspired to take what I learned and write the best damn series the romance world had ever seen.
(That’s right – prepare yourselves. I will be massively famous and fabulous and you will all say you knew me when. Didn’t you know?)
I had no sooner parked myself on the couch and poised my eager fingers over the keyboard when the discordant sounds of tuning instruments began wafting towards me. My first thought?
Here I was, looking for a little peace and quiet to hash out my next great scene by, and suddenly, my concentration had gone the way of the dodo bird.
Erinus Concentrationus
What was I saying? Oh yeah. Sorry, I got distracted by the jaunty remake of Stand By Me that the band just dove in to. Anyway, suffice it to say, I was a little peeved. So much for the heavy stillness of a southern night, the sweet sound of crickets and frogs, the gentle lap of water on the shore.
Instead, the unofficial Amateur Night on The Lake had commenced. Wonderful. I could clearly hear the joyous shouts of encouragement from the smattering of people dotting the opposite shoreline. Didn’t they know how well water carries sound?
I stared at my blank screen, willing my characters to break through the hoopla and start, well, doing something. Anything. Alas, they were mute.
So I flopped back in my seat, thwapped my laptop closed with more force than necessary, and crossed my arms like a petulant 12 year old.
And then something funny happened.
I heard another noise, this one much closer than the racket from across the way. I could see both dogs, and they were still curled into little hibernating balls of fur, so I knew the sound wasn’t coming from them. Looking around for a few seconds, I finally located the source: My foot was tapping. In time with the music.
My own body was betraying me? The nerve!
As I scowled at my treacherous foot, I suddenly realized that my point of view kept moving. Dag nab it! My head was bobbing. In time with the music.
Wait a second… what was that sound? Aw, crap, I was humming along.
Well, goodness. With a big sigh, I was surprised to realize my irritation was beginning to melt away. They were actually kind of good. With the ever present glow of the computer screen snuffed, and the lights low, I relaxed against the cushions and began to enjoy to smooth sounds of the band as they segued into jazz. The melodious run of the saxophone, the low beat of the bass, the steady thrum of the drum, it was actually kind of… wonderful.
Imagine that.
Sometimes, interruptions pull us away from the task that we have set before us. It can be anything, even things like the *ping* of a new e-mail that throws us off. We can get our knickers in a bunch, or we can just go with it. Every now and then, I actually do the latter… and I usually end up being better for it. So next time you feel your irritation mount at some interruption or another, take a deep breath and see what happens if you just go with the flow. You may be surprised… it could turn out to be a something as lovely as a free night of entertainment from the comfort of your own back yard :)
Darlin, darlin, Stand. By me. O-oh, stand. By me….
And here is a little treat just for you, my beloved readers. I wasn’t planning to begin my icing series post until next Tuesday, but… what the hay. I am, after all, one mellow cat right about now (if not massively famous and fabulous). My gift to you: Keylime Frosting. Without a doubt, my absolute personal favorite. (okay, now do you get the title? The KEY to Life? eh? eh?)
What recipes would you like to see in the frosting series? Let me know, and I'll see what I can provide in the next few weeks. In the meantime... happy baking!

Key Lime Frosting:
1 pound of powdered sugar (about 4 cups)
1 stick softened butter
1/3 cup shortening
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp Key lime juice
1 to 2 tsp finely chopped lemon zest (to taste)
1-2 Tbsp of milk only if needed.
Feel free to add more or less of the key lime juice and lemon zest based on your own preference!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Confessions of a Panster

When people ask me for recipes, things tend to get a little dicey. You see, I have a deep, dark, secret.

I can’t follow directions.

I know, shocking, right? No? Oh, well, I didn’t realize you knew me way back when, in which case it is not only not shocking, but laughably predictable. Ahem.

Anyhoo, I take a perfectly lovely recipe, get started tossing in the ingredients, and then… well, I’m not really sure what happens. “That couldn’t possibly be enough butter,” I think, tossing in an extra tablespoon. “That amount of milk will never make it moist enough!” In goes a dollop of Daisy. “Why is there no lemon zest? Everything is better with lemon zest!”

In short, I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants baker, otherwise known as a panster.

Interestingly enough, I am also a panster writer. When I first started writing, I tried to plot ahead, but my characters kept taking a right turn at Albuquerque and it was all I can do to keep up. Once I let my story develop organically, I think my writing became smoother and the stories more interesting. My lack of planning seems to work wonders in my writing and baking, but it may also explain why I have such dreadful organizational skills…

Back to baking. Most of the time, my little concoctions turn out, well, pretty awesome. I know, I know. Erin, you say, how could you brag like that? My only defense: because it’s true. I may suck at art, I may have taken two years of piano lessons to be able to peck out Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star off key, and I may quite possibly be the worst housekeeper in the universe, but I can bake a cake that will make you cry with happiness.

So, that should be a good thing, right? Well, it is. All the way up until someone asks me for the recipe.

Now, some of you may not realize that there is a seedy, dark underbelly to the otherwise sweet world of culinary creations. There are certain people out there who take part of a rather dubious practice, and these people bring a bad name to recipe sharers everywhere. I speak of … the recipe saboteur. DA da duuuhhh…

These people bring their famous 7 and ¾ layer dip to a party, where everyone around raves of the delicious juxtaposition of jalapeƱo to cheese, salsa to sour cream. They bask in the glory, and are inevitably asked for the recipe. With a bright smile on their face, the recipe saboteur readily recites the ingredients and wishes the aspiring dip maker good luck. Said recipe recipient eagerly heads home, anxious to try out the Mexican goodness for the very next party they go to. They buy all the ingredients, follow the instructions to the letter, and proudly set off to the potluck with the dip snuggled in a festive stoneware container that was saved for just such an occasion.

The tortilla chips are produced, masses converge, and everyone dives in. And then… nothing. No praise. No accolades. No rapturous expressions of dip divinity. Instead, Brows wrinkle and looks are exchanged. Horrified, the dip maker plunges her own chip into the dip and freezes. Wait a second! This doesn’t taste like the glorious 7 and ¾ layer dip at the last party—it’s but a pale facsimile.

The recipe saboteur strikes again. These pitiless people are afraid someone else might get steal a bit of their glory and therefore sabotage the next person’s recipe.

*shaking head* A very cruel and underhanded tactic indeed.

I am NOT one of those people.

Well, at least not intentionally. If someone asks me for a recipe, I try to provide them with what they want. I always tell people up front that I’m a panster, but they inevitably give me that you’re just saying that so I can’t make your delicious cupcakes look that makes me feel like an evil recipe-saboteur anyway. Sigh. Recipe intuition is a blessing and a curse.

So for you, beloved reader, I have valiantly curbed my panster tendencies, and have done my best to provide you with my absolute best vanilla cupcake recipe. I promise I did my best to get the measurements right – I used teaspoons and everything (giving my best ‘look ma, no hands!’ expression). Give it a whirl, and let me know how it turns out for you.

Tune in NEXT TUESDAY … as everyone knows, the magic is in the frosting. Every Tuesday for the rest of the month I will provide a different frosting recipe. Keylime, cream cheese, decadant chocolate… oh yeah, it’s gonna be a great month!

Vanilla Cupcakes:

*This recipe makes 3 dozen cupcakes, and can be halved or quartered easily*

2 sticks butter

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

3 cups self rising flour

1 cup milk plus ~1 T sour cream (a dollop about yay sized…)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ tsp. butter flavor

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream butter and sugar for 7 minutes on medium speed. Add eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition.

Add 1 cup flour, then ½ of the milk/sour cream mix, then 1 cup flour, the rest of the milk/sour cream, then the final cup of flour.

Add the vanilla and butter flavor, mix.

Fill cupcake liners NO MORE than half full. For easy control and optimal neatness, place the batter in a gallon-sized Ziplock bag and snip one corner with a small hole.

For 3 dozen regular size cupcakes, cook 16 minutes or until toothpick comes out cleanly. For mini cupcakes, cook ~11 minutes. Cool on rack for 5 minutes before removing from pan.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tying It All Together

Welcome to my blog! I am looking forward to exploring my three favorite things in life: reading, writing, and cake! Okay, all baking in general, but cakes—and cupcakes in particular—are what I really excel at.

So as I was pondering what I should write for my first blog (while baking cupcakes, of course), I started thinking about what these three things had in common. There was the obvious: they will all make you fat if you don't counteract them with some good old fashioned exercise—but I didn’t want to tackle that particular topic just yet (I swear, I will do today’s workout tomorrow!). Well, then I thought about baking while reading (a bit dodgy – it is hard to get icing off of paper. It tends to leave a rather tell-tale splotch), writing while baking (even dodgier. Keyboards and flour plumes will never mix), and then the rather impossible writing while reading (unless, of course, you are the type that likes plagiarism. If that is the case, then by all means, proceed).

So I was back to the dreaded square one. And then it hit me: square one! Everything is built by a recipe, blueprints, confounded multi-lingual instructions spanning a piece of paper folded like a reject Rand McNally map… you get the picture. So there it was:

Writing a romance, or any good story, is a lot like baking.

There are certain ingredients that are absolutely essential, and simply cannot be tampered with. I once made an apple pie without the sugar, and I can promise you that will never happen again. I’m lucky my family is still speaking to me. We don’t always recognize the ingredients when they are right, but we definitely can tell when they are missing.

So let’s break it down:

There’s the flour – the building block of a story. For the Regency romances that I write, that would be the hero and heroine. These two essential elements are what the entire story is built upon. They have to be interesting and strong enough to carry the weight of the whole story.

There is the sugar – that addicting element that keeps us coming back for more. It is that certain elusive quality to a good story that sucks us in and makes us turn the page and say to ourselves at midnight, “Just one more chapter.”

Eggs are the binders – the thing that holds the story together. In a really delicious romance, it is the hero and heroine’s chemistry that keeps everything together. Without it, all of the others elements would fall apart into a big, gooey mess.

The leaveners give lift – just as humor, even the occasional witty remark, can do for a story. If the story is dealing with particularly heavy subjects, such as a family crisis or the ever-present dual, adding moments of levity within a story can prevent the reader from becoming overwhelmed.

Lastly, there is the flavoring — that extra bit of spice that makes each story unique. Be it sweet or spicy, rich or delicate, adding the flavor to a story is what keeps it interesting.

There are all genres of books out there, and there are endless varieties of baked goods. So long as the essentials are in place, the rest is just… icing on the cake :)

Since I have never been able to improve on this awesome apple pie recipe, I'll simply supply the link below. My one change is to use honeycrisp apples - c'est magnifique!
the perfect apple pie recipe at