A Birthday Cake Worthy of Mom

My mom likes gooey frosting. If you are going to make a cake for her, that’s the first thing to know. If you are going to make her birthday cake, that’s perhaps the main thing to know. She will eat all around the frosting, saving the best for last, and savor every melt-in-your-mouth bite until it hardly looks like there was any cake at all on the plate.

I take that back. If you are going to make her birthday cake, the main thing to know is that the cake should be worthy of her. What is a birthday after all? To me it’s a time to celebrate that a person was born, that they came into the world, that they are part of your world. Clearly moms are in the enviable category of people essential to the fact of our own existence. But that doesn’t make them necessarily good, or in my case, great. I know I am blessed. My mom is amazing and I love her to no end. For as long as I can, I will celebrate her.

Last year, Mom moved to Charlottesville. For the first time in my adult life, I was close by – ten minutes from her place to be exact, as compared to six or seven hours as in the past. This year, on this birthday, she is happy and settled and nearby. Let the baking begin!

Fortunately for me, Mom not only loves gooey frosting, she also loves coconut. I’ve seen her eyeing those coconut-smothered cakes in the glass cases in bakeries. I’ve long known of her love of coconut macaroons, with or without a chocolate base. I’m safe putting as much coconut as I want on a cake. Does this look like enough? For a person who doesn’t eat nuts, oh, how I love coconut!

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This is the finished cake. It is two layers of sponge cake (also called genoise) with a filling of homemade lemon curd that has fresh raspberries and blueberries imbedded in it. The white fluffy frosting is a mix of buttercream and cream cheese appropriately smothered with coconut and decorated with more fresh raspberries. It is possible that I never made a cake for anyone that I was so anxious to eat myself!

The sponge cake part was new to me. What I mean is: I do not have a tried-and-true recipe for sponge cake nor do I remember ever having made one. To make this one, I did what any self-respecting wannabe baker would do, I consulted with an expert baker, or at least a credible one, which nowadays you do online. When you get a recipe online, you get not only the recipe, but often the many comments that others have made after trying said recipe. That’s a good bit of credibility, though not foolproof. I went with Natasha’s Kitchen and followed the instructions for her easy sponge cake.

One of the comments had to do with the consistency of the batter after it has undergone eight minutes of whipping in your stand mixer. The instructions said to whip the batter for 8-10 minutes and a reader said she had a trick to know if you had whipped it long enough: Detach the whisk attachment, lift it above the batter, make a figure 8 and see how quickly the 8 sinks into the batter. She said if you can count to ten and the figure 8 is still visible, you had whipped it long enough. At eight minutes (I used my phone timer) I stopped and did this trick. My figure 8 sank before I had counted to 2. I gave the batter another two minutes of whipping. It sank again. Uh-oh. Natasha said 8-10 minutes of whipping. I gave it one more minute on high and my 8 still sank. That’s where I said Bother this, it has to be good now, and poured it into the pans. It was very good.

The best part of this recipe is the suggestion to cut out circles of parchment paper for the bottoms of the cake pans. After the designated baking time, I let the two layers cool in their pans for ten minutes or so on a rack, then took them out of the pans, and let them cool the rest of the way, they wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap and froze them. This paper peeled easily off the frozen cake layer when I was ready to assemble and frost the cake. Another hint if you try this recipe. Use three pans instead of two. The amount of batter the recipe makes divided into my two standard cake pans spilled onto the sides of the pan. In the end this meant trimming off the edges when I took the cakes out of the pans, which left me having to eat them! Oh, yummy preview! Hmmm, maybe this extra, spilled-over part is not such a bad thing?!

Sandy brought marvelous raspberries the day before, and they are so pretty and so delicious, I wanted to use them in and on the cake. But they need something to sit in. On top they will sit in the frosting but in between the layers they needed something. Lemon curd seemed just right. Again I went online, this time to Taste of Home, having never made homemade lemon curd.

Again I followed instructions, and again the mixture didn’t seem thick enough after the amount of time it said to stir in a pot over a flame. I got impatient at that point and put a teaspoon of cornstarch in a cup and added just enough water to stir it into a thick paste, then added that paste to the hot lemon mixture. This worked. I can’t say whether the curd would have been fine with more patience and without my remedy. Probably it would have.

My last bit of improv concerned the frosting. You make a buttercream frosting with butter, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and a little milk (and vanilla if you want but I ran out last time I used it, and know I have another bottle around here but couldn’t find it, so no vanilla this time). Again I used the stand mixer because I wanted the frosting really fluffy, so I let the whisk beat it like mad for ten minutes or so. But I got concerned that I didn’t have enough frosting for the sides and top of the cake, and I used up all the powdered sugar I had, so I decided that I could add some leftover cream cheese frosting (from another cake sometime recently) just to make sure there was enough. I let this all whip together in the mixer. When I relayed this story at the table while we were eating the cake, my daughter Marie said this example of make-do illustrated my lifelong culinary style. So be it. The frosting worked 😊

The last essential birthday cake element in my house is the plate that is used for the Birthday Girl’s piece (or Boy’s, as the case may be). Long long ago I got this plate and have always brought it out along with the other plain dessert plates. I am not good with balloons for calling attention to the person we are celebrating. But a plate I can do!

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I can’t say I like this plate’s design all that much, and have never been crazy about the orange, but it’s what I have and what we’ve used and it serves! Mom’s piece went on this plate.

Whether or not my children follow this birthday-plate tradition, I don’t know. But I hoped they would. At one point a few years ago I searched on ebay and got them each a birthday plate. My favorite is the one I found for Marie. I have always been enamored with the original Winnie the Pooh stories and illustrations. Could there be a better Happy Birthday plate than this? I hope she uses it on everyone’s birthdays!

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Our tradition, like many people’s, is that we bring the cake with lighted candles in from another room while singing Happy Birthday.

We sang,  Mom blew out her candles and we celebrated this wonderful lady I get to call Mom!

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Where our tradition differs from most people’s perhaps is that after the Birthday Girl or Boy blows out the candles, she or he gets to make the first slice into it. They do not cut their whole piece, just the first slice into the cake, which Marie said was my way of retaining control over portion size, but this is not actually true – that’s just the way my mom did it, so I did! Mom never explained why she did it, but the way I always saw it was that the Birthday Girl or Boy gets to be involved, gets to start the process, but is not burdened with the work of cutting up the cake (which, c’mon, can be messy and tricky and require more concentration than a person celebrating a birthday can rightly be expected to have at that moment) – a perfectly plausible alternative reason to do it this way, wouldn’t you say!?

Mom cut the first slice and I so enjoyed watching her enjoy her piece – down to the last bit of gooey frosting! And I enjoyed mine too!

Mom’s Delicious Bracciole

My daughter and her family are coming to visit and it’s Mom’s birthday on Sunday, so I am making a special dish – manicotti (prepared with homemade crepes) – a meal Mom doesn’t make for herself very often. I planned on having a good baguette, warmed up, and a big green salad on the side, as well as some pan-fried Italian sausage, always a delicious extra protein. But yesterday I happened to see “Beef Top Round Thin Cut” in the meat case and thought Why not make bracciole?  That’s what any person would think if they saw meat like this, right?

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When I was a kid, Mom would make bracciole (pronounced brah-zho-lie) every now and then. I’m not sure why it didn’t appear on the table more often, maybe Mom will tell us. Bracciole is thinly sliced beef, rolled up with yummy parmesan or romano cheese and bread crumbs inside (that cheese was affectionately known in my family simply as “grating cheese”), seared in olive oil, then covered with your best red spaghetti sauce (affectionately known in my family simply as “sauce”) and cooked until tender. Oh yum!

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I asked my sister Lynn for her recipe because it’s not in my cookbook and I wanted to be sure I made them just like Mom used to. Perhaps I don’t have the recipe in my book because it’s so simple I thought I didn’t need the recipe? Lay out the meat, put bread crumbs, grating cheese and salt, pepper and seasonings on top, roll, secure, sear, smother in sauce, cook till done.

One step at a time, and with measurements, that process looks like this. My package contained eight slices. Start by carefully separating the slices from each other and laying them on a flat surface.

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One half cup of bread crumbs was just the right amount to sprinkle on these pieces. Lynn’s recipe called for seasoned bread crumbs but I didn’t have those, so I sprinkled Italian seasoning on the crumbs. If you don’t have Italian seasoning as a mix, use basil, oregano and garlic powder. I bet the Italian seasoning had parsley in it too, but I cannot be sure. Go with parsley too. One tablespoon of the mix was enough for these eight. Some people would use chopped fresh parsley, basil and oregano and minced garlic instead of the dried seasoning. I’m sure this is also wonderful. But in my family we kept it simple.

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I sprinkled salt and pepper on them too, then ¾ cup of grated parmesan cheese.

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Let the rolling begin!

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Nice and tight.

Normally I would roll with the fingers of both hands, but it’s mighty challenging to roll with two hands and take a photo with your phone at the same time! I can roll with one hand, but using two goes faster.

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My rolls looked like this.

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Do you see the toothpicks? I used two in each roll, stuck in at angles so they crossed each other in the middle. This holds the roll together during the searing process. You could also use string, the kind that holds pastry boxes together. I couldn’t find any string so I managed with toothpicks. It’s a little harder to get the sides all seared in the pan when you use toothpicks, but somehow I got through that.

Into the pan I put about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom well, and let it heat up for a minute or so on a medium flame. Then into the hot pan went the meat rolls.

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Give them a few minutes to brown on that bottom side, then turn them to brown them on another side. Turn again when the second side is brown and let a third side brown. Now depending on two things (1. your level of patience and 2. whether you’ve browned them in thirds or fourths), you might need to turn them one more time.

By this point your kitchen smells really good, by the way.

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Once they are seared to your satisfaction, douse with red sauce (meat or marinara, whichever you like best) and turn the heat down to low. Cover and let this cook about an hour.

I let mine cool, removed the toothpicks, put them in a serving dish and covered them tight. I will heat them up again on Sunday (will probably just put my serving dish in the oven for half an hour on 325F) to serve with the manicotti. I have no doubt they will be scrumptious!

Soon I will show you how to use the same thinly sliced meat to make rouladen, the German variation of this dish, also totally delicious, but rouladen would not go with manicotti!

A Tattered Quilt

A most fabulous event occurred yesterday in my family – a new granddaughter was born! She is perfect and healthy and blessed to have such wonderful parents, though she is as yet unnamed. Piper is her two-year-old sister, so Brad and Beth have been calling the baby P2 up till now. They said they have to look at her a while before they decide on the name. Fair enough.

My own name, to all my grandbabies, is “Oma” (not Grandma or Grammie or any other sweet name for grandmother). I love being Oma.

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I got it in my head some time ago to make a quilt for this little baby. I finished it and mailed it off yesterday, pleased with how it came out but at the same time kind of nervous. I chose the fabrics. I chose the colors. I know Beth is partial to purple and liked a simple green receiving blanket I had made for Piper. I found a friendly, happy daisy print that’s got purple, green and yellow and decided to build the rest of the quilt around that one.

But colors are funny. Think of the variety you see when you go to buy paint – how many different reds, greens, blues, etc. Colors can be warm and inviting or cold and off-putting. They can make you feel comfortable or give you the creeps. They can calm you down or make you want to want to run in the other direction. So how do you choose? Will they like what I have chosen?

Comfort came unexpectedly from my neighbor Tracy. “I have a quilt my grandmother made for me and I used it until it started falling apart,” she said. “I hope they love yours just as much.”

That’s when I flashed back to two quilts I made many years ago and gave to friends who had had babies. The images that came in my head were of meeting up randomly with both of these moms and their babies after some time had gone by, maybe a year, maybe two. Both quilts that I had so carefully sewn together were right there with each child and both were in tatters – I mean ragged edges and stuffing coming out. Can’t get rid of it, both moms told me in different ways. “She loves this quilt! This is the one she wants.”

A little bit like The Velveteen Rabbit learns from the Skin Horse, right?* I know I’ve referred to this story before, but it’s pertinent again.

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“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes.” For he was always truthful. “When you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I don’t know if any of them – Brad or Beth or Piper (who has a dolly-size quilt to match) or especially the new baby – will like the colors and the pattern I’ve chosen. Hopefully they will not want to put it in a drawer under a bunch of other stuff! But Tracy’s words about the quilt her grandmother made gave me an image of the quilt I just made, only with its colors faded and its edges worn and its fibers super soft from use and time. By then the colors and the pattern are no longer important. What will matter, what I hope will override any other impression this quilt gives, is the love that went into it, the deep, inexpressible love in my heart. Nothing will make me happier than if it serves as the vehicle of that love, if it speaks to it and of it, and is someday worn, thin, tattered, Real.

Think what you will of the colors. These are the fabrics I chose.

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This is the pattern I chose.**

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First you make a plan to evenly distribute the three yellows, three purples and three greens, using the daisy print to tie them together. This was my plan. I messed it up by the third block, but was able to recover.

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Then you cut out all the squares with a rolling blade.

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You have to pay close attention during the first block or two. Before trimming, it looks like this, which throws you a bit.

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Same block after trimming (ah, that’s better):

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Then you make the other eight blocks and move them all around until you are happy with the balance and distribution of color. It’s never perfect. Lots of the corners are not perfectly joined. I did the best I could with the balance of colors.

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Then you add cross-pieces to hold it all together. I used the same purple (flannel) as the four triangular corners of each block. I hope Beth still likes purple!

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Then you add a middle layer of batting and a backing and you bind it all together. I found a soft green flannel for the backing. From the back it looks like this. Nothing fancy. I am no expert. But it will serve.

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I had enough leftover pieces to make a small dolly-size quilt and I thought Piper might like it.

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Can you imagine it years from now, faded and tattered? Stained maybe? Much used? Much enjoyed? I hope so!

 

*The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and illustrated by David Jorgensen, Alfred A Knopf Publishers, New York, 1985

** from 501 Quilt Blocks, Better Homes and Gardens, Meredith Corporation, Des Moines, Iowa, 1994

Corn for Fun and Corn for Pudding

These days, getting thread to go through the eye of the needle involves remembering where I put my glasses, which sounds easier than it is, especially when a deadline looms. My granddaughter Ellie, this darling girl, has a birthday very soon, and I needed to get her present in the mail.

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She has been playing picnic lately, and if you were three and playing picnic, you would want some food. So Oma (that’s me) is making some food to add to her picnic, and I hope she likes it. Even under a deadline though, I got maybe a little carried away.

I started with a book, a sweet classic that some of you might remember: Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present*. In it, a little girl is trying to come up with a present for her mother. Mr. Rabbit, an unlikely helper, guides her through with fun suggestions, based on color, of what the little girl can and cannot give her mother. For example:

“What else does she like?” said Mr. Rabbit.

“Well, she likes yellow,” said the little girl.

“Yellow,” said Mr. Rabbit. “You can’t give her yellow.”

“Something yellow, maybe,” said the little girl.

“Oh, something yellow,” said Mr. Rabbit.

“What is yellow?” said the little girl.

“Well,” said Mr. Rabbit. “There are yellow taxicabs.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t want a taxicab,” said the little girl.

“The sun is yellow,” said Mr. Rabbit.

“But I can’t give her the sun,” said the little girl, “though I would if I could.”

“A canary bird is yellow,” said Mr. Rabbit.

“She likes birds in trees,” the little girl said.

“That’s right, you told me,” said Mr. Rabbit. “Well, butter is yellow. Does she like butter?”

“We have butter,” said the little girl.

“Bananas are yellow,” said Mr. Rabbit.

“Oh, good. That’s good,” said the little girl. “She likes bananas. I need something else though.”

And voila, they find bananas on a picnic blanket.

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Now you see why there had to be bananas for Ellie’s birthday present. Felt bananas can be part of any fun picnic. Mr. Rabbit and the little girl also put red apples, green pears and blue grapes in her mother’s birthday basket, so there had to be those too. But let me tell you what happens when you get on the internet and look for a pattern for fake food. You see a lot of cute stuff! And the next thing you know, you are also making carrots and corn.

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I did buy the grapes, but the rest happened yesterday. The apples came out smaller than I wanted, and the bananas not as bendy/curved as they should be, but Ellie will figure it out. There are not that many steps to making felt food and it went pretty fast.

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Except for the corn. The corn is way more time-consuming that anything else but it is super cool so I had to do it. I know some of you are going to wonder how those kernels came to be.

One kernel, one stitch, at a time — that’s how. **

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Ellie won’t have any idea that the corn took more time than the pears, but you might be able to imagine how much more time! It didn’t matter to me. The corn was too cool not to make. And one more ear is in the works and will be in the package before I mail it today.

Coincidentally, there was corn on my fridge that I had cut off the cobs the last time we had corn on the cob. We had had it on the grill, and you can see that some of the kernels got a little dark. I love it that way.

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Corn Pudding is what you do with leftover corn! Simple and quick, totally yummy. I was in rather a hurry with making the fake food and all, so this was perfect. Start with the recipe.

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Naturally I am all about eggs right now. This is what I gathered yesterday from my hens, nine total.

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Some of them are still small, starter eggs, one came from a silkie and some are normal. Look at the difference in sizes. The big one here I collected a few days ago, thinking surely there must be a double yolk inside. The littlest one is from a silkie.

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I used all these but the silkie egg for my corn pudding, three instead of the four that the recipe calls for because I was right about the double yolk.

 

I keep my butter in a cabinet, not in the fridge, so at this time of year it’s plenty soft. Whisking the butter into the eggs will not work as well if your butter is hard. If yours is not soft from having been in the cabinet, soften it in the microwave.

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Use a whisk to beat this up. I mean beat. You have to break up the butter, and you can’t do that by stirring. You have to beat. I suppose you could use an electric beater. I prefer to do it by hand because 1. I feel more connected to the process if there is only a hand tool between me and the food. And 2. I think it’s better to use your body if you can (burn the calories, maintain some semblance of arm strength, etc). I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by letting machines do for us what we can do for ourselves – to a reasonable point, of course – but that is another conversation.

At first when you start beating in the butter, you will see some egg white un-mixed-in and some butter still in small pieces. It will look like this.

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Now use your wrist and beat it with a little umph until it looks like this.

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Now add the flour, salt and baking powder.

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And beat again.

(Perhaps you see the evidence that I had other things to do yesterday and was not paying too much attention – I never saw or felt that there was butter on the handle of my whisk!)

After you have beat in the flour etc., you will have a smooth, almost velvety batter. It’s quite lovely.

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Now add the milk.

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(I still didn’t see the butter on the handle!)

Mix that milk in. Notice I did not say beat it in. Mix the milk in carefully or you will have splashed milk all over your counter. After it is nicely mixed in, add the corn. The recipe calls for 2 cans or the frozen equivalent, neither of which I was using (fresh being far superior), so I judged that 2 cans would be about 3 cups. It worked out fine. Go with three cups.

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Then pour this into a buttered dish, using a rubber spatula to get every bit out of the bowl. Before it went in the oven, mine looked like this.

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After 40 minutes or so (so sorry! I did not time it exactly because I was distracted by stitching fake corn kernels onto a fake cob while waiting), it looked like this.

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That part around the edge where the batter met the butter and they made the darker, crispy part is oh so good! I took a corner piece. Along with the wonderful salad Samuel made, it was a fine meal.

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He, of course, took a larger portion, Oh, to be able to eat like that!

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If you want to, you could add other things to this pudding: chopped spinach, onions, pepperoni, ham, tomatoes (well drained) – your call. Play around, have fun. But maybe start with the original. And enjoy!

 

* Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow with pictures by Maurice Sendak

** http://whilewearingheels.blogspot.com/2011/11/i-heart-fake-food-felt-corn-tutorial.html