Monday, October 29, 2012

Wombat Cake (Easy)

October 22 is Wombat Day.
So, of course, we celebrated with cake!

I made the wombats, Matilda and Norman, in advance out of fondant.  To texture the fur, I pulled a fork across the fondant while it was still soft. (Note - the wombats were dark grey, but they look darker in the pics than they were.  Wombats can be grey, black, brown or tawny.) 

This is a large 11x15 sheet cake (made with 2 box mixes), frosted with buttercream icing tinted green.  I topped the sheet cake with an 8" round cake (make with 1/2 a box mix - use the other half for cupcakes) and frosted the top and sides.  I trimmed an 8" cake round to be about 7", then placed this on top of the round cake, with 3 wooden dowels for support.  (Matilda was pretty heavy!)

I covered the round with a bit of green icing, then placed the wombats on top.  To finish, I added "grass" to the top using the Wilton 233 tip and stars on the base using the Wilton 16 tip.  The text was written using a Wilton 3 round tip.

Happy Wombat Day, Y'all!   

South America Trip Notes

This is bit of a deviation from Star Wars and cakes, but Greg and I did have the privilege of getting to visit South America, and I wanted to share my notes, as thanks for the great advice we got from friends!  Our destination was Punta de Este, Uruguay, for a conference.  We were able to tack on a little sightseeing in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago Chile on the ends.  Very exciting and fun!


We flew Delta from Atlanta into Buenos Aires, arriving at 8:15 AM.  Our flight to Uruguay wasn’t until 6:40 PM, so we had several hours to sightsee.  Here’s what we learned.

·        First – US citizens entering Argentina (and Chile) must pay a “reciprocity fee.”  (The same fee is charged to visitors from these countries entering into the US, hence the term reciprocity.)  Today that fee is $160.  You can pay with a credit card.   When you queue up for immigration, US citizens go in a special line where this is collected, so it’s part of the immigration process.  The agent puts a sticker in your passport, good for 10 years.  (If your passport expires, you can bring the old passport along to prove that you have paid the tax.)

·        Argentina is 1 hour ahead of the US East Coast. so 10 AM in Atlanta is 11 AM in Buenos Aires.

·        Buenos Aires has two big airports, Ezeiza (EZE) and Aeroparque (AEP).  We flew into EZE, but our flight out was from AEP.   We arranged a car service to transfer to the other airport.   This is definitely the way to go.  Visit Manuel Tienda Leon online and register.  You can then arrange a bus or car transfer between airports.  The car was approx. $60 US (270 A pesos) for 2 people plus bags, so we did this.  We booked it online.  When we exited customs, there is a MTL counter right in the main terminal, we checked-in there and were immediately taken to a car.  Excellent service. 

Note – MTL provides bus and car service to many different locations in Buenos Aires.  Visit the website for details.   Also, although there is an English version of the site, not everything is well translated.  (E.g., when you register, you need to pick Estados Unidos (or EEUU) as your country.)  But just take your time and you can figure it out.   

·        The MTL car took us to AEP.  The trip took approx. 1.5 hours, with lots of traffic.   It was much too early to check-in for our flight out, but AEP offers bag storage.  To use this, visit the information desk between the arrivals and departures areas.  At the desk, they will complete a form, then call security.  You will go with security to have your bags x-rayed and tagged, then security takes you to the storage room, outside (at the end of the parking payment booths).  It costs approx. $5 (18 A pesos) to store a large bag from 12 hours.   You pay when you pick the bags up.

·        We also obtained some pesos from the ATM, but we probably didn’t need to do this.  In the places we visited across all three countries, US dollars were readily accepted.  For anything expensive, we used a credit card. 

·        From AEP, we took a taxi to Recoleta.  (Tell the cab driver to take you to the cemetario.)  This is a beautiful area to explore and eat.,_Buenos_Aires
  • We explored the Church of Nuestra SeƱora del Pilar, from 1700s.   It’s free to walk around the church, and for a small donation (5 pesos) you can visit the original cloisters, which today house a small art collection.  Very interesting and worthwhile.  Most of the signs are in both Spanish and English. 
  • The Cemetery (from 1822) is the main attraction.  Free tours are available – guides will also give you a little map with directions to the famous crypts.  They will ask for a small donation to charity.   Be sure to find Eva Peron’s crypt.  
  • Walk across the plaza toward the shopping area, and have coffee or lunch at La Biela.  As you walk across the plaza, you’ll see a massive tree.  This tree is reported to be the oldest and largest in Argentina.

  • Our friend also told us that there's a great place to eat at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, which has tables over the balcony.   (It was raining when we were there, so we did not do this.)  There are lots of street-side cafes.

  • On the other side of the church (away from the Cemetery) is a shopping mall, with many restaurants, a Starbucks, and high-end design stores.   Past La Biela are many stores, etc.  We did walk around the neighborhood for a bit, it’s very nice.  

  • You can find many taxis near the main plaza (in front of La Biela) to get back to AEP.

·        Tipping is less common in South America.  For good service in restaurants, add 10%.  Cab drivers, etc. do not expect tips.  (We always up-tipped a bit for exceptional service.)   This is true across the countries we visited.


We flew Buquebus (BQB Airlines) from AEP to Punta del Este airport (PDP) in Uruguay - .  We booked the tickets online.  The website has an “English” option, but it is limited.  Still, it was pretty intuitive and we had no trouble.  

BQB has flights to Montevideo and many other destinations.  (The main airline is Aerolineas Argentinas, which also has flights to Uruguay etc.)   Also, it is common to take a ferry across the bay to Montevideo – BQB runs the ferries, so you can book this on the website listed above as well.

·        The BQB plane is maybe a 40 passenger modern propeller plane – at this time of year not crowded.   Be sure to watch the safety video – the words are what you expect, but the video portion is designed to be oddly humorous.   It is a short (50 min) flight to Uruguay.   Note that Uruguay is 2 hours ahead of US ET, so 10 AM in Atlanta is 12 noon in Uruguay.

Our flight was supposed to leave at 6:40 PM, but there were technical issues with the plane as well as weather related delays.   We departed around 10, landed just before midnight.   Because we landed so late, the airport was mostly closed.  We had planned to change our leftover Argentine pesos into Uruguayan pesos, but we were not able to do that.  It didn’t matter.  We never got U pesos and never needed them.  The taxi from PDP to the Conrad in Punta was $35 US.   (Although tipping isn’t customary, we gave $40, due to the late time and stormy weather.)

·        We stayed at the Conrad, as that was the main hotel for our conference.  It’s a nice hotel, but very expensive.  (Punta is expensive for Uruguay, but cheap compared with big US or EU cities.  The Conrad has EU prices!)   A large, full breakfast buffet was included with our hotel room price.  Note – as of fall 2012, the hotel is under renovation, so be sure to get a room away from the construction.  Hotel has great views, is well located and has a casino (which we did not visit). 

·        We were in Punta “off-season” – so many of the restaurants were closed.  Still, there are tons of restaurants – many along the coast with great views.  Our favorite was El Secreto, an easy walk from the hotel.  They have traditional “barbeque” as well as local seafood.  Local beer and wine are excellent.  (Wines from Argentina are inexpensive and amazing.)   Restaurants are not expensive.  A huge 3-course dinner for 2 people at a water-side table with fabulous wine at El Secreto was approx. $100 US.  

·        The main local dining specialty is a barbeque or parrillero – which is a wood fire grill.  You will see “Parrillero” everywhere.  You can order a single grilled meat or the mixed grill, which is different cuts of beef, with chicken and beef sausage.   Beef is the main industry in Uruguay, so you will get wonderful steaks everywhere.  Cows are generally grass-fed, free-range, so the meat is a bit tougher than we have in the US but much more flavorful.  (Food was yummy everywhere!)

·        You can rent bikes in Punta across from the Conrad.  The beach is the main attraction, but there are a number of other sites to visit – see  .  Don’t miss a visit to the piers at the end of the island (near the Yacht Club) – visit around 11 AM or so, when the fisherman are cleaning the day’s catch to see sea lions!  

·        There is a boat tour that goes by Los Lobos, the island off the coast that is the home to the largest colony of sea lions in South America.  We were not able to do this, but it sounded very interesting.  (We did see both the South American Sea Lions and South American fur seals in the harbor.)   There are also whale watching tours, if you there are the right time of year. 

·        We did a one-day bus tour of Montevideo.  It’s a small city, and a one-day tour is enough.  The views of the Rio de la Plata, (or River Plate) are spectacular.   We had lunch in the Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo’s grand 19th-century port market area.  The place is a former agricultural exposition hall that has been converted to contain restaurants and shops.  We ate at El Peregrino restaurant, which was lovely, then walked around to see shops/stands with local crafts, mainly leather and textiles. 

·        We found the shopping for local products to be pretty limited in Uruguay.  There are many stores, but all with US brands.  We did find a “Todos Por Uruguay” store in a mall with beautiful Uruguayan pottery and crafts.  You have to look for local stuff, but it’s worth it!

·        A car from the Punta Conrad to the Montevideo airport is $260 US.  Buses are less expensive but we wanted the flexibility to leave as late as possible.  (If you are at another hotel, I think the car may be less too.) 

·        Uruguay has a departure tax that was included in our plane ticket. 


We flew from Montevideo (MVD) to Santiago, Chile on LAN.  There are 2 flights per day.  LAN one of the big carriers regionally, known for being more expensive than other carriers but with better service.  We had “premium economy” seats, which is the equivalent of 1st class in the US.  This gave us access to the LAN lounge at the airport and priority boarding.  We also got a full meal during the flight.  The flight was very comfortable.  Try to get a window seat – the views as you cross the Andes are spectacular.

NOTE - when you land in Chile, US citizens must go to a kiosk and pay the $160 reciprocity fee.  It is not collected as part of the immigration process the way it is in Argentina.  If you get in the immigration line and have not paid the tax, they boot you out of line and you have to start over!   In Chile, you have to pay the fee again when your passport expires.

Also, Chile has very strict customs rules.  We were not traveling with any food or wine from Uruguay.  If you are trying to bring gifts of that sort home, be sure to read the rules carefully. 

Santiago is one hour ahead of the US, on the same time as Buenos Aires.
·        We spent one night at a very small hotel in Providencia – the hotel had just become an Apart Hotel.   The room was very small, but it had a private bath and was located very near our friend’s home.   Price was around $100 US per night for a double.   (Includes breakfast.)

As with Buenos Aires, we only had a day for sightseeing, so we had to make the most of it!  Santiago is a very cosmopolitan city, with lots of restaurants, museums, sites, shops…  There are also many transportation options, taxis, fixed-route taxis, buses.   We drove to the top of San Cristobal hill (which can also be climbed by foot or bike).  There are great views of the city below, as well as cafes at the top.  There is a small local zoo as well. 

·        We also visited the Central Market (Mercado Central), which is a mix of fresh food stands and, inside, restaurants.  The interior space is all wrought ironwork, designed by Eiffel.    Definitely worth seeing.  We had lunch in the market.

·        Local cuisine is heavily seafood influenced, with fish prepared many ways as well as shellfish/crab.  Dishes with crab, shrimp, scallops and cheese are common, and very tasty! 

·        We did not have time to see any of the numerous museums or public spaces, but there is a good guide at Trip Advisor.   Other friends did a winery tour and said it was delightful! 

We flew Delta from Santiago back to Atlanta.  One final note, Delta did a secondary screening of all carry-on bags as we boarded the plane, confiscating all liquids purchased in the concourse.   Items purchased a Duty Free were okay – they were delivered to people on the plane – but if you purchased a coffee or soda, you could not take it on board. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jawa Cupcakes - Easy

Blogger JustJenn has some amazing Star Wars baking and party ideas!  (  All her stuff is very cool, but best of are all the Jawa cupcakes!  (I don't know how many people sent me the link to these! We do love Jawas!)   I decided to recreate the cupcakes for Dragon*Con 2012, and wanted to share my photos and recipes.

First, cute as her cookies were, Jenn's vegan chocolate cookie recipe didn't work for me.  The dough was way too crumbly; I could not get it to roll properly and it didn't taste right.  If you need a vegan recipe, do some searching online.  But  if you can use a recipe with real butter, that's definitely the way to go.  My rolled sugar recipe is posted in the Cookie and Frosting Recipe page linked to the side bar. I used this, but you can use your favorite rolled cookie recipe, any flavor.

I started by making my standard rolled snickerdoodle cookies, adding a fair bit of brown food coloring to the batter.  I put the dough in the fridge to chill overnight.  (Note - Jenn's cookies are much darker brown, which I like. Using a dark chocolate cookie dough is ideal for color. My kids love snickerdoodles best of all, however, so I didn't do a chocolate cookie.  The price: my Jawas' robes are a bit too light.)

In the morning, I used a box mix chocolate cake (Devil's Food) to make 2 dozen cupcakes.  Make the cupcakes kind of small - you want to minimize the crown as much as possible.  Jawa's like flat-topped cupcakes!  For fun, I used Star Wars cupcake papers from Party City.

While the cupcakes cooled, I rolled and baked the cookies.  As Jenn's blog shows, use the Star Wars jawa  cookie cutter from Williams-Sonoma, place the cookie on the baking sheet, then cut out the jawa's face.  I also dusted the cookies with a bit of cinnamon-sugar to give the robes some texture.

You'll need 24 cookies for the cupcakes.  My recipe makes several dozen, so I made the rest wookies and droids and we just ate those! (The dough was a good color for the wookies!) 

While the cookies were cooling, I made chocolate icing for the cupcake.  Jenn used a dark chocolate peanut better icing, but I wanted plain chocolate.   I used a pre-made dark chocolate icing for D*C, which looked great, but tasted lousy.  For these, I used my favorite homemade chocolate icing recipe, one from Alton Brown (Good Eats) - recipe is in the side linked page.   This icing is spectacularly yummy, but very light colored.  I was okay with that for these.  If you wanted darker icing, either use a dark chocolate recipe or else add brown coloring.

Accent the Jawa with 2 orange nonpareil or sugar eyes. Tip: use tweezers to place the eyes close together.  UUTINI!!!! 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

To Summer & Beyond (Easy)

This is a set of seven small (mini) cakes that I did for all the kids that had summer birthdays in my son's class.

Each child got his/her own personalized cake, which they loved! My "theme" was space, with a rocket traveling past all the birthday planets towards the "Jr. High Galaxy" at the other end of the board. Most of the cakes were a made in a 6" pan - Wilton round or small paisley, with the square chessboard cake, Spain, rocket and top of the acropolis cut from sections of a rectangular sheet cake. (For Spain, I printed a picture of Spain, then traced it with a knife to get the shape.) I decorated the cake with tinted buttercream and fondant decorations. See the notes by each picture for more detail. Overall, the cakes took about six hours to finish, but the kids were so excited! Priceless!

This was just for fun.  I cut the shape from a larger rectangle of cake, then tapered the sides.  Frosted with large white buttercream stars.  The wings, window and flames are fondant.

Summer in Spain
I cut the shape of Spain out of a rectangular cake and then iced with yellow and red buttercream to mimic the Spanish flag.  I printed a copy of Picasso's Guernica and laminated it using laminating sheets from Office Max.  The little girl is made from fondant. (Note - I fixed the sign to say "feliz cumpleanos" before I served it!)

Camping Trip
The tent is made from graham crackers covered in fondant.  The tree is a sugar cone covered with kelly green stars (using the Wilton #16 tip).  The boy are bear are fondant.  This cake uses the small paisley pan.

A Summer of Baseball
This cake was made with 1/2 of the Wilton sports ball pan.

Chess Camp
Square cake frosted with white buttercream then I overlaid white and black fondant squares (rolled very thin and cut with a ruler) to form the chess board.  I used real chess pieces on top.

Beach Vacation
Round cake frosted with ivory-tinted buttercream.  The sand castle elements are made of fondant - there is a bucket on the other side that you can't see.  I dusted the whole cake with a mix of brown and light sugar to make the sand-effect.  There is a pressed fondant crab on the side.

Summer in Athens (the Acropolis)
This cake was a bit more complex - it's a 6" round cake topped with a rectangle of cake cut from a large cake (that also gave me Spain, the rocket and chessboard).  Covered with white buttercream.  The columns on the Parthenon are white chocolate dipped pretzels.   The top is fondant, with little fondant figures. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Star Wars Fabrics

Joann Fabrics has a great assortment of different Star Wars fabrics! When I wanted Star Wars fabric for a project last fall, I could not find anything - ended up have to use an odd twin bed sheet - so I was happy to be able to stock up now.

I'm not much for sewing, but I did take a few hours to make my boys PJ pants with one of the fabrics.

This is a very easy project - I have a Singer Stylist portable sewing machine. I used Simplicity "Learn to Sew" pattern 2290. You get patterns for child and adult pants in the package. The instructions were easy-to-follow. I needed to add a fair bit of length for my tall, skinny kids, and the instructions covered that. Be sure to wash, dry and iron your fabric before you start.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Shocking & Incredible Truth about Saint Patrick


But he is the Apostle of Ireland and an exceptionally cool dude! This is his story.

Patrick's name was probably Maewyn. He was born to Christian parents in Briton (near Scotland) around 400 A.D. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates at age 16, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. He was forced to tend sheep for his captors. While tending the sheep, he spent a lot of time praying and discovered his love of God. He also learned the local language and customs.

After six years tending sheep, Patrick claimed that an angel told him it was time to leave Ireland. He escape from his captors and walked almost 200 miles to the Irish coast. He returned to his home, then entered a monastery in France to study religion. He studied for 15 years and became a priest. He was given the name Patrick by the Catholic Church. Patrick heard another voice too, telling him to return to Ireland. Around 437 A.D., he returned to Ireland to minister to the small number of Irish Christians and to covert the pagan Irish Druids to Christianity.

Patrick led one of the most successful, non-violent religious conversions in history. He used Druid and Celtic symbols to explain Christian concepts. For example, he incorporated fire into Christian celebrations because the Druids used fire to honor their gods. He even imposed a circle on the Christian cross – creating the Celtic cross – because the worship of disks honoring the sun and moon goddesses was very common. Patrick said that the circle represented the eternal and endless nature of God’s love.

The shamrock (or “seamroy” in Celtic) grows all across Ireland – helping to give the land the name “Emerald Isle.” The shamrock was considered a sacred plant because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock’s leaves to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity - one God composed of three divine beings, the God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Legend says that Patrick performed a miracle by driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. In reality, there were no snakes in Ireland! But serpent symbols were used by the Druids, and Patrick’s missionary work did help end that practice.

Patrick spent the rest of his life working as a missionary in Ireland. He died on March 17, probably in 493 A.D. During his lifetime, he founded more 365 churches – almost all with a school – and devoted his whole life to promoting Christianity, doing good works and taking care of the Irish people. He spent a great deal of time in prayer. He also wrote several important religious texts, including his Confessions.

Patrick is one Ireland’s three patron saints, along with Bridget and Columba. These three saints are buried together in Downpatrick Ireland. Saint Patrick has been honored with religious services on March 17 since his death. The first Saint Patrick’s Day church service in the U.S. was held in Boston in 1737.

Today we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with parties and parades. The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City on March 17, 1762. On that day, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched to celebrate their Irish roots. People around the world still “wear the green” and celebrate all things Irish on March 17 in honor of this great man.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dalek Cake With Light, Sound and Motion - Insane

This was an extreme cake for a group of elementary and jr. high robotics team members - it's 1/2 cake and 1/2 actual mutant Dalek.

For the cake:
The cake is seven 11x15 layers of cake, with cake boards and dowels between layers 4 and 5. (I made a serious error and used non-stick cake boards, which caused the layers to separate during transport - don't do that!) Buttercream between the layers. Carve the front and back to make the classic Dalek body shape. Crumb coat with buttercream, then frost with buttercream tinted golden yellow (or whatever color you like).

To get a sense of size - this cake required 16 box mixes (8 each chocolate and yellow cake), 4 dozen eggs, 8 cups of oil... plus approximately 8 lbs of powdered sugar for the buttercream along with 16 sticks of butter, 8 sticks of Crisco, 1 full bottle of vanilla... you get the idea! But it had to be big to scale with Greg's top.

For the knobs, I melted white chocolate and molded it using the Wilton "Dessert Domes" candy mold, the middle size dome. Apply these to the cake before the buttercream sets, and use some additional icing to help secure the candy. You need approximately 56 of the domes - 14 rows of 4, for an authentic Dalek. [Note - the mold instructions tell you to freeze the candy, but don't do that - it gets too brittle and the domes crack. Just let them set in the refrigerator.]

To finish, I airbrushed the cake with gold paint - I have a new "Duff's" airbrush machine and used the Duff's gold color paint. Very pleased with this.

Note that this "finished cake" is actually a shadow of what the cake could have been. As mentioned above, I used non-stick cake boards between the layers. I wanted to able to easily separate the layers for serving. I made a critical error, however, in that I doubled the cake boards so it would be non-stick on both sides. When we were moving the cake in the car, the layers slid apart, doing major damage. I had 40 minutes before the party, so I got my Mom (God Bless Mom!) to drive over so Greg could run to the store for canned icing - I reassembled the layers as best I could in the back of his car. I pulled off all the knobs, reiced with vanilla icing (mixed as best I could with the yellow/gold) and replaced the knobs. It was a good save, and the cake was still a hit thanks to Greg's magic top. (But UGH!)

The real magic of this cake is the Dalek top, which Greg built. As one friend noted: "authentic BBC special effects!" (That was meant as a compliment.)

Here is Greg's write-up:

The "brain" of the Dalek is an Arduino Uno microcontroller with an Adafruit Wave Shield added to give it audio capability. The head movement is done with a standard high-torque servo and an added pushbutton triggers activity. The arduino is powered with 8 AA batteries. The arduino can't produce much volume by itself, so the audio goes through a Bump 3.5mm Portable Mini Speaker (which has an internal battery charged over USB.)
The non-cake portion of the Dalek has three components. The top dome is half of an 8" styrofoam ball (covered with masking tape so it can be painted with standard paint). The "ears" are empty glass Testors paint jars with internal LEDs. The eye stalk is a 1/2" cardboard tube with a styrofoam ball (again taped and painted). The blue LED in the center of the eye is hard-wired to a CR2032 battery so that it is always on. The bottom side of the dome has a lego gear with 8 pins that sync with the servo when the dome is set upon the layer below.
The middle part of the Dalek assembly is made of circular pieces of MDF, cut with a Dremel circle cutter. The bottom is solid, middle two boards are only 1" wide rings and the top is a ring with a center bar where the servo is mounted. The layers are spaced with 1" lengths of PVC pipe. All the electronics, batteries and speaker fit inside this assembly. To hide these components, the inside of the ring is lined with thin, dark gray foam that was packing material.
The top and middle component are also linked with wires for the "ear" lights. These lights are synchronized with the audio through a simple circuit that can be found here. The wires just run through the access holes cut in the top ring of the middle element, and the motion of the top is limited so that the wires don't restrict the motion.
The bottom part of the Dalek assembly is a made of a 4" high, 8" diameter styrofoam cylinder glued to a 9" diameter bottom "plate". Onto this assembly are glued trapezoids cut from foam board to create the octagonal sides. Joints are taped and the assembly painted. The Dalek "gun" is a wire whisk with a roll of paper tucked inside, set in a black PVC pipe. The "sucker" is a funnel covered in black tape and mounted in a PVC pipe. Both the gun and sucker fit in holes cut in the foam board and are then shoved into the styrofoam inside.
The controlling software for the Dalek is about 250 lines of C code, mostly derived from an example program provided with the Wave Shield. The approach is pretty simple. At setup time, the program creates a list of all the .WAV files at the top level of the SD card filesystem. Then it enters a loop, waiting for a button press. Upon button press, the code selects an audio file at random and commands the wave shield to start playing it. While the audio file is playing, the code generates a random position value and commands the servo to move to it, delaying for a period of time based upon the distance to be moved so that the servo has time to move. This is done repeatedly until the wave shield indicates that the WAV file is done playing. Then the servo is moved back to the neutral central location and we go back to waiting for the next button press. (Actual code can be provided upon request.)

Also - thanks to my British friend Mark who provided the voice talent for the Dalek's "gracious professionalism" speech! That's the robotics program credo, so a nice finishing touch!