Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When Geeks Celebrate: Food

KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid.... 

Sound advice for most things, but especially when it comes to party food.  Oh sure, making decorative foods is fun and it looks really cool, but there are two problems; food doesn't keep for long and in most cases needs to be done when everything else is also happening (ie the at last minute), and kids get a little unsure what to do when they can't readily identify what you just presented them with (I learned this the hard way - although my daughter said that with the action of the party she wasn't that hungry either).  Still, the lunch foods weren't a disaster, and the cake was a huge hit with the kids and adults (but when isn't cake welcomed by kids?)

As with any menu, keeping it basic, but offering variety is key.  I don't know the food preferences of all the kids, but I also had to balance the allergies of my kids.  After getting pizza tossed down by my daughter (who can have pizza from the local place as long as there is no cheese), and the game master informed me that lunch would be served in the middle of the game instead of at the beginning or the end, but as a scene in the story - and at the palace no less - although a picnic was debated, tea and finger foods became the way to do it.  Now I've never been to a proper tea, I've been to a few American equivalents although none of them very formal, so when this idea became our starting point, I tried to think of reasonably healthy foods (after all we had a big cake to bring out at the end) that would be appealing to kids, easy to make, and look like something a Queen would serve company.... Yeah, no problem!

Finger sandwiches
It's easy to dress up sandwiches.  We made two different sandwiches for the party.  We made cream cheese (not allergy friendly) and cucumber on homemade wheat bread, we did these one layer and we used thin cucumber slices.  The bread was de-crustes and the sandwiches cut into triangles (cut each diagonal), quick and easy.  We also made fancy PB&J.  Cutting the homemade wheat bread as thin as I dared I peanut buttered a slice and layed it down, then I put a thin layer of freezer jam (raspberry - and also homemade) on the next slice and lay it jam side up on the peanut butter.  Finally I topped it off with a third slice of bread.  Then the sandwich was de-crusted and sliced into squares.  Since I'm not a fan of wasting food and the bread wasn't perfectly rectangular, some of the squares were more rhombuses and some even were in the pentagon family, but it still looked good enough.  

Ahh, the classic finger food standby.  Quick, easy, and they added some color (and greens) to the options.  Taking different color tortillas we spread cream cheese (although on some of them this time we got out the vegan substitute) added sliced deli meat, salad greens, and on the dairy-free rolls, cheese.  Roll into a log and slice, then lay on their sides.  Simple and fast.  These were relatively popular.

Mini Cold Fruit Pies
Now, I don't bake pies... the truth is, that pie day is one of the few days of the year I go looking for pie.  I'm not really a pie person.  Part of it stems from the fact that I never really developed a love of warm fruit.  Most fruit pies are either too sweet, or just generally unappealing to me.  Now that both of my daughters can't have eggs or milk and pudding pies were my last hold out in the pie camp.... yeah I just don't really do pie.  As a result I also didn't have a good pie crust recipe.  Some food blogs I read came to the rescue and I made a pie crust in silicon cupcake holders.   I eventually found my heart shaped silicon and those were amazing and looked great!  

To get them to fit in the silicon and look nice you need a cutter that's just a bit bigger than whatever you are going to bake the crust in.  Sure you could make a cardboard template tracing the opening of the silicon cupcake thing (since they are bigger at the top than the bottom) and hand cut them.  I found a child's drinking glass that was the right size for the circles and just used a heart shaped cookie cutter for the hearts, it was slightly the wrong dimensions, but still looked fine.

With a basic pie crust roll it thin (a bit thinner than I ended up doing - as mine were a bit too thick to really work) and bake according to directions.   Pop each batch out chill and repeat.  Then on the night before the party, place jelly, jam, preserves, or you could use cream cheese, but with that being a milk product - it was out for us, anyway you can just follow fruit pizza directions from this point as with the exception of using a pie crust instead of a cookie that's what we were going for.  After you have a binding layer decoratively put two or three pieces of fruit and chill.  Fresh fruit looks nicest, but if it's December and the fresh fruit looks nasty, canned works as well.  Frozen is a bit tricky since that tends to fall apart.

Yeah, ok, I'm not a health nut, but all of the above was really lacking in the green realm and seemed extremely sweet and rich; if the fresh veggies had looked any better than than the fresh fruit a veggie tray decoratively arranged may have been in order, but they didn't.  The salad greens did, however; and I loved the idea of presenting each kid with a small personal salad.

I really wanted to make them look like flowers, but we come back to that KISS philosophy.  Hand-tying lettuce bunches with an piece of spinach was just not on the itinerary especially since salad greens are one of the most finicky when it comes to the not able to make it ahead group.... nope minutes before the party started, (okay after it started, thanks friends!), salad was decoratively splashed onto clear plates.  Orcrist had precut (that morning) some cherry tomatoes into flowers (cut in half with a zig-zag edge, makes two flowers) and those were lovingly added to the fresh greens and placed before each kid as they arrived for tea.  Most of them went in the trash, but hey it's the thought, and at least one kid polished hers off!

Finally, we get to everyone's favorite.  The must have for all birthday parties:  The Cake.

Vegan Rainbow Cake
I think I've mentioned at least a dozen times that my kids have a cow's milk (protien) and egg white allergy.  This has made cake a very fun challenge.  Box cakes are right out.  Thankfully, some friends have pointed me in the right direction and Google is amazing.  Modern living is also a boon as there are more and more shopping options all the time.

So it was with a friend's introduction to the idea of a rainbow cake (and it being doable with everything you have on hand already - assuming you can find enough bowls -  you need one for every color) and Google that helped me locate some vegan-ization of popular white/yellow cake recipes (which readily take coloring).  I did cop out and use Wilton coloring for the cake, unlike last spring when I used natural juices to make colors.  For the true dark shades pre-made colors are the fast way to get the job done.

Here's the recipe I used for the basic cake, but to get the rainbow you can use any white/yellow cake that you like.

2.5 Cups Flour
2 Cups Sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
*mix thoroughly
2 Cups Soy/Rice/Almond Milk (I used Vanilla Soy)
2/3 Cup Vegetable Oil 
2 Tablespoons Vanilla
1/2 - 2 Tablespoons almond extract (use less if you want more vanilla flavor)
2 Tablespoons Vinegar **
** add immediately before baking to maximize fluffiness
Bake at 350* for 30-40 mins or until done 

Even with the last note, the cake is dense and stacked fine for me.

Now to make it rainbow:
Before adding the vinegar (if you follow this recipe) divide the batter as evenly as possible into separate bowls, you need one bowl for every color you want, so if you are making a proper rainbow that's 7 bowls, if you are just getting close, you need 6, anyway you get the idea.  Once you have them in the bowls, make one red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo (if you are making 7), and purple/violet.  Once you have all the colors as dark as you like them (darker the truer they will be after they are baked), it's time to add the vinegar (if you follow the recipe).  I divided the total by the number of bowls and measured that out each time.

Starting with red I added the vinegar, gave it a quick stir and because I was doing a one pan rainbow I drizzled it in a circle around the outside edge of a 9" baking pan. I followed this by adding the vinegar to the orange and drizzling it in a circle just inside of the red.  I grabbed the yellow and repeated to the inside of the orange.  At this point the bottom of the pan was covered.   I grabbed the green added it's vinegar, and poured it directly into the middle of the 9" pan.  Follow that with the blue, then the indigo, then the violet all into the middle of the pan one at a time.  They push the colors before them out and you are left with rainbow when it's baked.
It should look like this before going into the oven (although if you do indigo you'll have one more color between blue and violet)

For the base, since we weren't making a layered rainbow - which I think would be possible if you carefully laid each layer into the pan or baked very small layers and stacked them with a small layer of icing between each.  Anyway, we didn't do that, we make a tie-dye layer with all the colors mixed.  Since the batter doesn't rise a lot and I wanted to get a good representation of all the colors throughout I did each color in two passes.

Take half of each color and let your inner Jackson Pollack out!  After the first half is in give it a very slight swirl to finish the look.  Then grab bowl by bowl and get the rest in there!  Splatter away!!
Swirl it one more time, being careful not to over-swirl the bottom part.  I just put a fork in top half made some swirls and zigs.  It looks pretty and is lots of fun, right up until you have to wash all those bowls and drips....

The end results were worth the extra 15 minutes of work though.  Below you can see the rainbow cake (half eaten) and the bottom tie-dye almost gone.  The candles are back in this picture because my youngest insisted his sister get to blow out her candles again.

Since rainbow wasn't just intended to be a surprise decorating the rainbow meant I got out all of my icing bags, replicated the colors (adding indigo this time) and got to work.  I used a start tip for the rainbow and a writing tip for most other things.  I'm very proud of the end result!  Even though it took quite a while to get the base smooth (I think fondant tastes horrible so I use decorators icing, since it tastes good and doesn't have any milk or eggs), and spent half the night finishing the design.  Ver1 wanted a rainbow and unicorn, I think I met that requirement.

It looks the same on the other sides 
To hold the rainbow on the cake, I used bamboo skewers which I removed just before putting the candles on (the four outside most candles are in the holes left by the skewers.)  It balanced just fine and the skewers may not have been necessary, but I liked the security they provided and I didn't have to worry about cutting into anything since they removed right before serving.  Also, since we served the cake at the end of the party, I kept the cake safely in the oven until it was time to get it prepped (add candles).  This insured it's safety when the kids were running around playing the game (which was mostly outside, but if the weather hadn't cooperated would have been snuggly situated in our living room.)  If you are having a home party I recommend keeping the cake safely out of the way until it's needed.  It prevents a lot of accidents.    Kids can cope with lots of party failures, but losing the cake is not one of them.

If you want to see what else happened at the party and get the links to our other tutorials, head back to the introductory post here.


  1. Wow! I'm exhausted just reading about that!

  2. Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful ideas. I am having a little lunch/play date and was looking for ideas to KISS.
    How far ahead did you make the sandwiches and wraps? My friend told me to just put a damp paper towel on it in the fridge but didn't think that would keep overnight. Suggestions?

  3. The sandwiches were made the night before, but they could also be made and then frozen for a couple weeks. The wraps we made right before, but mostly because that was when we had time. I've made them the night before for other parties without any problems. Some people don't like cream cheese if it's been frozen, others don't mind. So if you freeze them keep the dairy factor in mind. Best of luck with your lunch/play date!


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