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Monthly Archives: July 2013

It’s been so hot lately that all I can really say about triathlon training is “Uhhhhhhhhhhggnnnn,” so let’s get back to taking about food. I’ve been wanting to make cake pops for a while, and finally had a good excuse when a co-worker’s birthday was coming up. We’ve been having a lot of baked goods at the office lately, so bringing in inch-wide balls of pastry on a stick seemed like a nice change of pace both in terms of size and style.

I used this cake recipe, this frosting recipe, and these basic instructions for assembling the pops. The co-worker who was celebrating a birthday is a big fan of white chocolate, so I bought white chocolate candy melts, with brightly colored sprinkles mixed in, to create the coating on the outside.

There was no need for the whole two-layer cake linked above, so I halved the recipe, baked a heck of a yellow cake, and then fighting against all my instincts to preserve the beauty and integrity of well-made pastry, I smashed it. I smashed it real good.

The key is... wait for it... ripping the cake apart.

The key is… wait for it… ripping the cake apart.

After smashing the cake, I started adding in frosting to the cake crumbs. The instructions I followed cautioned me to not use too much frosting, but I had made a whole batch of it before I read that part, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with a pile of leftover frosting (other than eat a spoonful every time I walked past the fridge) so I put in more than I should have. The result? Kind of oily balls of cake.

cake balls

Next step: melting chocolate and getting those sticks in. I bought the melting chocolate, the sticks, and a neat little cardboard cake pop carrier at Jo-Ann Fabrics, which has a surprisingly awesome baking section. To be fair, it’s much more focused on decorating than baking, but this was the first time in a long while that I’ve been somewhere I had to make a conscious effort to drag myself away from. (As an aside, when I was going to Jo-Ann’s website to link those supplies, I saw a note indicating that “Cupcakes are still on trend!” Phew!)

In the future, I would probably not using the melting chocolate again, but the glue-like quality of it did serve me well for getting the stick stuck in there. It was as easy as dipping the tip of the stick into the melted chocolate and then jamming it into the cake ball.

Badda bing...

Badda bing…

Badda boom!

Badda boom!

Once the sticks were in the cake balls, they went into the freezer for 20 minutes to completely solidify, leaving me to think about baking chocolate, and whether Baker’s brand white chocolate, or even Ghirardelli if I was into spending big bucks would have been a better option. I don’t know how well it would keep the ball on the stick in an anti-gravity position, but it would have tasted a lot better. It does take a lot of melted chocolate to cover the balls, though, so budget is not an insignificant thing to consider. Another possible solution would be to use the melting chocolate for the stick-in-ball part (wow) and then use a higher quality chocolate for the coating on the outside. Of course milk or dark chocolate would be fantastic, too; for this particular batch I was targeting a specific person’s taste buds, so white chocolate was the winning choice.

After the 20 minutes were up, the balls were ready to be dipped in the melted chocolate. This is to make them beautiful and also to hide the flat sides the balls acquired while in the freezer.

Ready or not...

Ready or not…

Go! Go! Go!

Go! Go! Go!

And there you go. I ran out of melting chocolate, so used the leftover buttercream to coat the remaining balls. The best technique I found for this was to put a pile of frosting on a spoon, and then twirl the ball in the cup of the spoon until it was evenly coated. For cakes and cupcakes, I prefer the flavor of a Swiss buttercream, but I think this American buttercream recipe works better for coating a sphere. The powdered sugar in the American buttercream helps the frosting adhere to the underside of the ball (it is nearly impossible to write about cake balls without creating ridiculous phrases like this.) American buttercream is also a lot easier and faster to make. It took me probably four tries before I finally made a Swiss buttercream correctly (without cooking the egg whites, which makes the buttercream gross with sort of scrambled egg bits in it), but when I did for the first time, it was a true revelation.

Once the balls were coated, I put them in the cardboard display case and stored the whole shebang in the freezer overnight until I took them to work the next day.

My beauties!

My beauties!

You can see at least three on the right side of the picture that got the buttercream instead of the melting chocolate (it keeps the ball perched on the stick or it gets the buttercream again).

The cake pops went over really well at work. There’s just something fun about eating food off a stick, and I like having a two- or three-bite sized dessert now and then.

It wasn’t until I was writing this post that I realized how many compromises I made in terms of sacrificing flavor for functionality. Maybe this is a sign that cake pops can tend to be a curiosity rather than a good investment of flavor and ingredients. Or maybe just a sign that this was my first go at it. With more tries and experimentation, I would suspect that I can find a happy solution.

Also, almost every set of instructions for making cake pops that you can find will advise that you can use a boxed cake mix. “You’ll never be able to tell the difference!” they say. And sure, you could use a boxed cake mix. But you’ll be able to tell. I’ll be able to tell. And baking one layer of a simple cake recipe is pretty easy and fast. Just say no to boxed cake mixes. Not because I think people shouldn’t use time-saving devices and not because of some vendetta against pre-made food or just-add-water food (we all use it from time to time, seriously), but because cake is my own personal slice of the universe that I am taking a stand on, and I do not like boxed cake mix. There. I said it. I don’t like it one bit.

As a final note, I had to go straight to the gym after work, and it has been approximately 5,000 degrees with 100% humidity here for the past few weeks. This is what happens to cake pops when they sit inside a cake pop display, which in turn is inside a cake carrier for an hour and a half in a hot car:

Gravity always wins out in the end.

Gravity always wins out in the end.

It’s amazing how, even just a few weeks after a race, the post-race high can diminish and suddenly signing up for another one doesn’t seem like such a good idea. I had originally been looking at doing another sprint triathlon in July, but now that it IS July, suddenly and hotly, it feels too soon. I was lucky in my first race that the weather was cool and cloudy, and in the middle of summer in the steamy, swampy Midwest, heat stroke feels like a very real option.

So I signed up for one in August, instead. I’m sure that will be better.

Seriously, though, having a little extra time to prepare and to hopefully buy and get used to a new used bike will be helpful. I went back to swimming this morning after two weeks off, and it wasn’t nearly as painful as I had feared (but also not as blindingly fast as I’d irrationally hoped).

My next tri is in Portage, Wisconsin, where my grandmother used to live. My memories of Portage are walking down to the river to skip rocks, eating ice cream out of cones that Gramma would buy from the grocery store (something I didn’t even know you could do — cones in your own home? How cool is that?) and cutting giant puffball mushrooms the size of basketballs out of her lawn.

This time, my memories will hopefully be of not vomiting (always the goal) and improving on my previous time. The distances in this race are slightly different. My first one, Capitol View, was a 400m swim, 10.0 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run. In this next race, Silver Lake, consists of a 1/4 mile swim (about 400 meters), a 16 mile bike, and a 3.1 mile run. Considering that I was passed more on the bike portion of the first race than any other, this would appear to be a disadvantage, but like I said, I’m hoping to upgrade my bike before then. The 17 year old purple Giant mountain bike has served me well, but I am told that it’s much too heavy to go fast enough to be competitive.

This will also be my first race without a wetsuit. I’m confident the water will be warm enough to go without. The real question will be how much I either freak or don’t freak out on the swim. This time, at least, I know that I can switch to the backstroke immediately if I feel panicky.

A friend sent me this article on freaking out during triathlon swims: 6 Ways to Train for a Triathlon Swim Start. (As an aside, does anyone know how to make links on this blog more obvious? There’s a link to the article there, but it’s so subtle that I’m not sure anyone can tell, unless you happen to have your cursor hovering over it. I want it to be bold and blue or something.)The author’s description of how his races start sounds exactly like my first experience: “I was so panic-stricken and so desperate for escape by the time I started swimming that I had no concept of race pace. I just started swimming as hard as I could regardless of the race distance and kept swimming as hard as I could until the nightmare was over.” He gives advice for how to train for the reality that the swim is not a time trial, but is a badly paced weird panic sprint. This includes suggestions such as doing a series of push-ups on the deck of the pool before jumping in and sprinting for 50 meters, followed by a more well-paced 400 meter swim (or whatever your race distance is). This helps your body become used to an elevated heartrate at the beginning, followed by a more tempered swim.

Another suggestion in the article is to begin a swimming set with a hypoxic start, which means by not breathing for the first 6 to 10 strokes. This forces you to find a way to catch your breath while moving (with your face in the water). The main thing that panicked me about learning to swim in the first place was that I couldn’t breathe whenever I wanted to, so practicing being out of breath while swimming is as much a mental challenge as a physical one for me.

I don’t know if I’ll actually follow these suggestions (because I’m a knucklehead), but I do know that having practiced active recovery in my master swimming classes was immensely helpful in my panicky first race. Although I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, being able to swim while tired and also (sort of) catch my breath while swimming was the difference between grabbing on to a support kayak and finishing the swim without help.

And in the end, there is so much focus on and training for the swim, but it’s only 8 to 10 minutes of the overall time. It’s just such an uncomfortable 8 to 10 minutes that for me, knowing how many hours I’ve put into training for it is absolutely essential to not freaking out.

All that to say: 8/17/13, Portage, Wisconsin. My next tri. Faster, less wetsuity, bikier. And, as always, hopefully vomit-free.