Willow Bird Baking Challenge: Challenge #1!

I’ve been hinting on Willow Bird Baking’s Facebook page for a week now that a big challenge was coming your way, and now the wait is over! Here’s the first installment of my new Google Hangout series, Willow Bird Baking Challenge. In the 5-week series, I’ll introduce a new challenge each week that will require you to get creative and innovative in the kitchen. You can create your dish, bake it, and send me a photo before the following weekend. I’ll show off your masterpieces each weekend on Willow Bird Baking!

Are you ready to hear Challenge #1? Your completed challenge is due next Friday, October 5. Here you go!

And here’s the link to the “base” recipe for the cinnamon roll dough!

Happy brainstorming and baking!

The Cooking Hard Stuff Showcase

One month ago, I posted a challenging but incredibly worthwhile Tres Leches Coconut Cake Trifle on Willow Bird Baking. It frustrated me to think of all the folks who would love the flavors and textures but might never attempt the recipe — not because they couldn’t, or even because they wouldn’t enjoy the process if they did, but because they were intimidated by Cooking Hard Stuff.

No one wants to Cook Hard Stuff just for the sake of difficulty, but I know there’s so much to be gained in the process (and result). For this reason, I issued the Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge. During the month of March, I asked you to pick one “hard” recipe to try. Maybe it had a list of ingredients that would normally send you running for the ramen noodles. Maybe it had a technique you’d never tried before. Maybe it required days of work to complete. Whatever the reason, the recipe had to present some sort of challenge to you.

The brave souls below stepped out of their comfort zone to take on the challenge. There were some hiccups in their respective journeys, some altered plans, lots of lessons learned, and even a fire alarm for good measure. But just look at their marvelous results and the fun they had!

Kelly the Courageous

Kelly Made: Sweet Potato Braided Challah and Whiskey Chocolate Mousse Pie (with a homemade crust!)

Comments:“I make a loaf of bread almost every weekend and I pretty much do the same thing. It was time to venture outside my comfort zone. I settled on a braided loaf – a challah. I did some research and decided it would be a Sweet Potato Sourdough Challah – I LOVE potato bread. It was surprising that I hadn’t made one yet. So here’s my Sweet Potato Sourdough Challah. The braid wasn’t perfect but I loved this so much that I can’t wait to make it again. […] And apparently, that wasn’t enough. I decided to tackle something else which I usually avoid – pie crust.”

Crystal the Conqueror

Crystal Made: Mole Skillet Pie with Greens (see more at her blog, TriFoodieMD

Comments: “I came across this recipe for a mole sauce that sounded intriguing. The ingredient list, however, was quite lengthy and included many spices that I didn’t have in my cabinet. I kept flipping the pages and soon found myself tempted by a Mole Skillet Pie with Greens that featured this sauce. […] I just finished enjoying a plate of this ‘Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge’ recipe, and I declare it a success!”

Rhyann the Radiant

Rhyann Made: Braided Challah

Comments: “Turns out, baking challah is wayyyy easier than I thought. I even did the ‘hard’ 6 stranded braid! I think I was most intimidated about the whole yeasty aspect of the recipe, but really it was no different than any other quick bread recipe that I’ve tried, I just had to wait a few hours in between steps. I would have to say the most challenging part was the braid, but I did find some super helpful tutorials on youtube which made it so much easier. Thanks for this idea, it really encouraged me to move outside of my comfort zone.”

Abby the Able

Abby Made: Chinese BBQ Pork Steamed Buns (Char Siu Bao) (see more at her blog, Seaweed & Sassafras)

Comments: “I just loved this post! It’s one of the top reasons I got into food blogging, to try new things, which is usually borderline terrifying. I find the more I do – the more I challenge myself in the kitchen and other areas of my life as well.

“I took on Chinese BBQ Pork Steamed Buns {Char Siu Bao} which my husband and I fell in love with while stationed on Guam (although it’s originally a Chinese dish). I wanted to learn how to recreate these so that we could have them no matter where we lived. They are that good 🙂 It was hard for me well because I’ve never steamed dough before. And anything involving yeast results in me holding my breath until the very end. I could go on about how it was new flavors, etc. But I really, really enjoyed cooking these. I found myself lost in the moment making these, just love that feeling. The dough was a little dry but they still came out fluffy and the filling was spicy and rich. Now I’m coming up with all kinds of filling ideas for these!! So excited!”

Jeremy the Jumpstarter

Jeremy Made: An entire feast! Cocktail potato samosas with spicy mango chutney, tandoori chicken with sweet peppers and onions, raita, and onion relish, Basmati rice pilaf, garlic naan, and for the grand finale, brown butter pumpkin cake with white chocolate chai mousse!

Comments: “Every year for Christmas my gift to my parents is a menu of six meals that I’ll cook for them over the course of the year. […] I had planned on the full croquemcake, but that was before I discovered how involved making the samosa skins would be. The recipe came from a guest post at Indian Food Rocks written by Jen Yu, author of my other favorite food blog, Use Real Butter.

“I’ve made many kinds of dumplings and pastries, but rolling out circles of dough, stacking them, then rolling out the stack, par-cooking, and peeling it apart was a process that took me a long time to grasp. The finished product was worth the effort, though!

“I was unsure about creating a tunnel in the cake for the mousse, so I made use of two Pampered Chef torte pans that bake up with wells in the center for a layer of filling. I piled the first cake layer high with mousse and then carefully flipped the second layer upside down on top. It worked like a charm.

“Other than setting off the smoke alarm baking the naan in a hot cast-iron pan, it came off without a hitch. My father raved about the white chocolate chai mousse!”

Nina the Nimble

Nina Made: A towering fondant birthday cake!

Comments: “My son turned 6 this month and I went all out for this birthday cake! This was my first fondant covered cake and my first stacked cake. I will admit, the top cake is from a mix, the birthday boy asked for Strawberry and it was just easier to use a box mix. The bottom cake is Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake Recipe. In the week before making this cake I made lists, thought out a schedule for assembly and went shopping.

“I broke down making the cake over two days. On Thursday I baked the cakes, made the frosting and crumb coated the cakes leaving them to sit in the fridge overnight. I also cut out most of the fondant details and wrapped them well in plastic on cake boards to keep them soft so I could shape them to the cake. On Friday I gave both cakes a final coat of frosting and covered them in fondant. Friday night I stacked the cakes and put on the finishing details and added the figurines which I found on Amazon.

“Being able to do the work over two days really made it manageable, as did making a list and knowing exactly what colors of fondant I would need and going through my cake decorating supplies beforehand to decide what to use and put aside what I would need. I hit a small snag when the fondant on the the top cake started to tear, but I took a deep breath and decided I could find a way to cover it instead of starting over! The top cake had a large group of clouds over the back! I didn’t feel as overwhelmed by this process as I thought I would, it was really fun to do and the cake was a huge hit at the party!”

LeAndra the Lovely

LeAndra Made: Lemon Gratins (see more at her blog, Love & Flour)

Comments: “Not only did I make a gratin, but I also gained grace. Since the gratins did not turn out looking exactly as I had imagined, I might have ordinarily gotten frustrated. Fortunately, the cooking hard stuff post helped put in the mindset to give the gratins my best go and to be open to the experience and the outcome, no matter what each might be. I’m definitely glad I tried this recipe sooner rather than later!”

Amanda the Artful

Amanda Made: Rick Bayless’s Red Mole

Comments: “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but seeing your posts […] motivated me to try it this weekend. It was an ordeal, but it made a lot, which makes cooking something this effort-intensive worth it.

“Tips: The recipe calls for a medium mesh strainer. Don’t use a fine mesh strainer for straining or you will be straining for hours and possibly crying in frustration. Medium mesh is perfectly capable for this task. Also, if your mole is still looking a little thin after two hours of simmering, throw in 1-2 very darkly toasted slices of bread (half a slice at a time) and take a stick blender to it. It doesn’t seem to effect the taste much and will go a long way towards thickening up the sauce. Thanks for the challenge and thanks for all the innovative recipes you post.”

Abigail the Ambitious

Abigail Made: Clementine Mousse Cheesecake (see more at her blog, Lab Notes from Abby’s Kitchen)

Comments: “Again, this is an incredible recipe. The clementine mousse was out-of-this-world! […] I started making this around 5:30 pm and finally finished up at 1:30 am. The great part is, I went to the gym while the cheesecake was cooling and stayed on the treadmill long enough to watch an entire movie (great way to make up for some of the calories I was about to eat)! I suggest whoever makes it starts early in the day or has better planning skills than I do! For people who aren’t up for the whole recipe, I suggest just trying the clementine mousse. That eliminates the crust, cheesecake and candied clementines. Plus, it’s the most incredible citrus dessert I’ve ever had!”

Congratulations to all of the participants on their fantastic work! What hard stuff will you cook up?

See all the Cooking Hard Stuff Tips:
The Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge
Tip #1: Read and visualize the recipe.
Tip #2: Mise en place.
Tip #3: Make a schedule.
Tip #4: Try, try, try again — or share your success

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Your Flippin’ Awesome Cheesecakes!

OH MY GOODNESS, am I one proud blogger! One month ago, I issued a Cheesecake Challenge in which I encouraged you to choose a WBB cheesecake recipe and tackle it in the kitchen. Was I ever impressed at the splendid results! Y’all are courageous, inspiring, and sweeter than fresh-picked strawberries. I kinda like ya.

Know what else I like? Even though you were all making some of the same recipes, your kitchen experiences were diverse: Some of you baked at the last minute. Some of you baked your cheesecake before the challenge even officially began. Some of you are experienced bakers. Some of you baked your first cheesecake ever for this challenge.

My students even jumped in to participate. Alexander in the 7th grade made two different cheesecakes, and Ava in 6th grade chose to make a red velvet cheesecake. Speaking of young’uns, there may have even been a toddler involved in the production of one of these cheesecakes.

Despite your very different circumstances and skill levels, you all succeeded. There were obstacles and “creative” presentations (Nathan’s brownies didn’t set up in the circular pan, so they ate them as pudding). There were hours of work. But you made it — and accomplished something lovely for your family and friends. Congratulations on gorgeous work, and thank you for making this such a rewarding experience for me.

Priscilla the Powerful

Priscilla Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake
Comments:“This is only the second homemade cheesecake that I have ever done! It was fun and exciting to be doing something like this with so many different layers of yummy goodness!”

Mollie the Magnificent

Mollie Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake (go see her blog post)
Comments: “Oh man. Seriously. Best thing ever. There are a lot of components, but it really doesn’t seem like too much when you’re eating it. The cheesecake itself is the best cheesecake I’ve made (I think thanks to the water-bath cooking process). And the ganache and cookie dough. I mean, yes.”

Janet the Jumpstarter

Janet Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake (without cookie dough layer)
Comments: “This cake was the most delicious dessert I ever made! It was so yummy, and pretty too. I made it for a dinner and everyone thought I had bought the cake somewhere.”

Gio the Genius

Gio Made: A cross between Chocolate Cheesecake-Stuffed Cupcakes and Red Velvet Cheesecake! (go see his blog post)
Comments: “The cake was soft, moist and the hint of chocolate was there. The slightly tart cream cheese topping really set well and complemented the cake. The streusel was just as I imagined it to be – sweet, slightly crunchy and not overpowering at all. It was, all in all, the perfect topping. I was glad I joined the Cheesecake Challenge since I think I really kicked —“ (I’ll leave that to your imagination – ha!)

Allyson the Awesome

Allyson Made: Chocolate Cheesecake-Stuffed Cupcakes (go see her blog post)
Comments: Allyson added coconut oil to her batch of Chocolate Cheesecake Stuffed Cupcakes, and a layer of strawberry jam for good measure!

Lauren the Laudable

Lauren Made: Lemon Blackberry Cheesecake Squares (go see her blog post)
Comments: “I made your lemon blueberry cheesecake bars and they turned out delicious! […] My husband is a happy man:-)”

Ava the Adventurous

Ava Made: Red Velvet Cheesecake
Comments: “Dear Miss Ruble, The cheesecake was amazing! I’m really glad I tried your recipe.”

Alexander the Able

Alexander Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake and Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss Cheesecake
Comments: “Imagine! A 7th grade boy, with little to no help, executing a gorgeous cheesecake. No one ever informed him that this was a daunting task, and after watching your video, he was confident that he could pull it off–and wanted to!” — Alexander’s Mom

Muppy the Magical

Muppy Made: Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding (go see her blog post)
Comments: “It was amazing, I cannot believe how good it tasted, I thought the spices and the pumpkin went so well with the cream cheese. The brioche perfectly matched the cheesecake custard. I thought it tasted its best straight out of the fridge the day after making it.” Muppy made her own homemade brioche for this recipe!

Dee the Delightful

Dee Made: Red Velvet Cheesecake (go see her website)
Comments: “It was so much fun being part of your cheesecake challenge. The red velvet tasted divine and my husband and all our friends just loved it. The fresh smell out of the oven was so incredible. Our puppy, Monty, kept whiffing the air; it was hilarious. I used plain graham cracker crust instead of oreo just so that the chocolate ganache layer could be seen underneath. […] Thank you from the heart for a wonderful time and opportunity.” Dee chose to have a “Cheesecake Sunday” party and made several more cheesecakes to serve alongside this one!

Cassie the Conqueror

Cassie Made: Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss Cheesecake (go see her blog)
Comments: “First off, let me just say what a delicious recipe this was. I’m a cheesecake freak, and I’m always in search of great cheesecake recipes with rich thickness. This was exactly it. It took me a couple of days to prepare because of my hectic schedule, but i’m glad I did it. My friends and family are too!”

Jade the Joyful

Jade Made: Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss Cheesecake (go see her blog post)
Comments: “In my daughter’s words: ‘Mmm, tasty!'” Jade made this dessert vegetarian and provides a list of tasks her toddler was able to perform!

Nathan the Nimble

Nathan Made: Marbled Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies
Comments: “We celebrated a friend’s birthday yesterday, and he really liked them. Since they did not set up properly, and given my online nickname (GooeyChewie – actually a double reference to Star Wars and Star Trek), we called them ‘gooey chewie brownies.’ Later we played a few rounds of that Tribbles game in the background, and I think part of the reason I won was because two of my opponents had eaten gobs of the brownies and could probably have fallen to a sugar-induced coma at any moment.”

Pam the Perfect

Pam Made: Red Velvet Cheesecake
Comments: Pam overcame lots of obstacles to make her cheesecake — I love her story: “I decided to make this for my dad’s birthday this year, because it looked delicious and challenging. It wasn’t until I put all the ingredients out in front of me and realized: Crap. I’ve never made a cake from scratch. I’ve never made a cheesecake. I’ve never made ganache. I ended up grabbing the wrong measuring cup for the flour for the cake, and had to use my amateur baking instincts to add the right amount of buttermilk to make it work. Oh, and I didn’t have nearly enough red food dye to make it red, so I guess it was more of a mauve velvet cake! I also realized I misread the ingredient list when I picked up cream cheese, because I was short an entire 8 oz. Once again, I fixed some things with the cheesecake, and it came out a little dark, but still wonderful. The ganache was easy, and I had a hard time not eating spoonfuls of it as I was decorating. My final hurdle was the frosting, which came out terribly, so I ended up throwing it out and covering the cake in ganache and white chocolate. I did not hear anyone complaining about that little detail 😉

I got a call from my Dad and his girlfriend after they had taken it home to tell me it was one of the best cakes they’d had in their life! They said it was rich and sweet, and could only handle a little bit at a time, but found themselves coming back for more even when they didn’t think they could handle it.

I’m sure you hear these stories all the time, but this challenge has inspired me to take more risks in the kitchen, which is something I’ve never done. I’ve never made cheesecake before because I was always overwhelmed by the idea of it, and now I can’t wait to start experimenting with all kinds of cheesecake. Thank you so much for your blog and your creations, I look forward to taking on more of your challenges, testing more of your recipes, and being inspired to make my own. I already have a plan for a cake like this one…but cookies and cream.”

Becca the Bold

Becca Made: Red Velvet Cheesecake (go see her blog post)
Comments: “Even though I was slightly overwhelmed and maybe a little frustrated with the process (since I had NO IDEA), I am really glad I did this! I actually got a little surge of triumph thinking about it reminiscent to my days in AP classes when I aced a test. Thanks Julie for the challenge! I may actually try to challenge myself a little more in the kitchen. (Just a little)”

Maranda the Masterful

Maranda Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake (go see her blog post)
Comments: “I chose to make her most famous cheesecake of all. Coffee Cookie Dough Cheesecake. Doesn’t that sound utterly delicious?? Well I’m here to tell you…it is! […] Now, I’m not a cheesecake person. The only other cheesecake I’ve ever loved and continued to fantasize about is this goat cheese cheesecake with pineapple vanilla compote. Believe me when I tell you that this cheesecake is well worth the effort and time to make!” Maranda also weighed this cheesecake and found it weighed a whopping 7 pounds!

Katie the Courageous

Katie Made: Chocolate Cheesecake-Stuffed Cupcakes
Comments: “I […] wanted to tell you how much you’ve inspired me in the kitchen. I really enjoy baking, but until reading your blog I was pretty nervous about making things ‘from scratch’ out of fear of ruining someone’s birthday/wedding shower/happy occasion (…or my midnight craving for chocolate), especially without my Mom on hand to help me fix my mistakes. Your writing and encouragement makes me think ‘YES! I CAN make cupcakes myself that are from scratch, taste delicious, and don’t look like they were made by a three year old with poor motor skills!’ Ok I’m still working on the ‘not-embarrassing-looking’ part, but…there’s progress :)” I don’t think they’re embarrassing looking at all, Katie!

Andrea the Amazing

Andrea Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake (go see her blog post)
Comments:“It was an awesome challenge to make this cake today, as I have never made a cheesecake using the water bath to keep the cake from cracking. Never had to create a ganache to for a cake and decorate with it before. (Just used ganache for truffles.) And never have made an egg-less cookie dough crust before! YUM! So, if you have an event that calls for a high end cake or you just want to indulge, like me, I encourage you to try it!”

Erin the Energetic

Erin Made: Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake (go see her blog)
Comments: “It’s amazing! A VERY big hit! Thanks so much for the recipe!”

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