Sunday, January 1, 2012

Adventures in Cake Pop Land

Cake Pops, The Prologue

Recently I have become obsessed with cake pops. The funny thing is, my obsession was full-blown before I'd even eaten a single one. There is something just so completely appealing about them -- a little bite of cake and frosting on a stick -- in a way that cupcakes are not. (For the record, I think cupcakes are everything I don't like about cake magnified; I can't wait for the cupcake fad to fade away.)

My first obsession with cake pops became how to make them without using icing. I am not a big fan of icing to start with and the idea of a cake smooshed up with icing and then covered with chocolate just seemed way too sweet to me. So I got interested in the cake pop makers that I was seeing on tv. But I worried they wouldn't really work and then I would have wasted my money.

Fast forward to Black Friday...
Macys had a Belle Cake Pop Maker on sale for $9! All I had to do was stand in line (for over an hour it turned out, ugh) and I had a cake pop maker for a price I was willing to pay and would feel like I got my money's worth even if I only used it a few times.

After I bought it, I decided to search the web for reviews. Unfortunately, the first one I found said that the cake pops didn't come out round. Which was precisely my worry. However, a bunch of indignant people posted comments about how theirs were coming out perfectly round and how the author was clearly doing something wrong! While their indignation amused me, it didn't exactly convince me. But it did give me hope that I'd luck out and get one that made round balls.

Alas this was not to be.

Cake Pops, Take One: Cake Pop Maker

I tried everything too. Actually Mr. Mac made the first set. It was for Mini-Mac's performance in a Christmas play. We sell baked goods in the lobby to make money for the foundation and I had to deliver four dozen baked "somethings" the very next day, but I also ended up staying at work until 9:30 pm due to unforeseen circumstances (including a 3 hour lunch break).

Anyway, he and Mini-Mac got to it. They went out and bought some cake mixes (I had planned to do mine from scratch) and they heated up the cake pop maker and had a dozen balls ready by the time I got home. Mr. Mac continued to make them while I trimmed off any excess cake and put sticks into them and then eventually dipped them in various types of melted chocolate and sprinkled Christmas and Winter-themed sprinkles on them.

We ended up with exactly 4 dozen of the things, of which I'd say maybe four were actually round. The rest looked sort of like acorns when they came out of the maker. However, the melted chocolate tends to pool around the stick at the bottom so as long as you stick the stick into the flatter part of the "ball", their lack of roundness wasn't that noticeable.

Plus making them was a lot of fun. I made some blue ones with snowflake sprinkles, some white ones with red, white and green sprinkles, and some red and green ones with matching sprinkles.

I used Wilton's Candy Melts for the dipping chocolate for the first batch and was underwhelmed with it. The chocolate is a bit thick so you need to thin it out. In my Cake Pop Kit booklet (By Bakerella) she said to add paramount crystals or oil to the dipping candy. I didn't have paramount crystals and couldn't find any quickly so I added some oil. They coated better than without it, but I didn't like what the oil did to the taste.

In fact, I was disappointed overall in the eating experience. It was just okay. In addition to the candy coating being off, I found the cake to be a bit bland. I was starting to see the merits of making them the traditional way with some icing inside.

Later on, I made some brownies with a sugar free brownie mix that I bought. The recipe in the book that my cake pop maker had called for adding a cup of sour cream to a brownie mix. I found that helped with the "bland cake" problem. However, it did nothing for the shape of the pops. They were even less round and it was more noticeable. However, I made them into Santa's Reindeer pops so the weird shape worked well and they were a big hit at the party I brought them to.

Another issue with these pops was that I used sugar-free Dove candy to make the candy coating. Between the sugar-free candy and the sugar-free brownies, that's a lot of sugar alcohols and they did make me gassy.

Cake Pops, Take Two: Traditional Method

At this point I decided to compare using the cake pop maker to the traditional method and I made the other cake mix that Mr. Mac had bought (yellow cake with pudding in the mix). I found this method to be a lot of work and very messy. I put whipped cream in the crumbled cake instead of icing based on a recipe I found online. I tried to make shapes like Christmas Trees but when I dipped them into the green candy melts, they started to break apart!

It seemed like the main reason was that they were too heavy so I pulled some of the cake off them and shaped the remaining "pop" into the more traditional ball shape. That helped somewhat but I still ended up losing one pop for every two I successfully coated. It seemed like the balls would just break apart sometimes and, once that happened, there was nothing you could do about it. They wouldn't go back into a ball and hold the stick.

For these balls, I used Baker's White Chocolate and I liked that a lot better as a dipping candy. I also had some Ghiradelli White Baking Chocolate but that was bad, bad, bad. They dipped just fine, but they would NOT set up. I had one sit out overnight to get it to set. That's a long time.

Cake Pops, Take Three: I'm Addicted!

Okay so even though using the traditional method didn't work well at all for me, I was hooked on making these pops. I ended up making several more batches of cake pops using a combination of the cake pop maker and the traditional cake pop method of crumbling up cake with something moist and rolling it in a ball. I used a bunch of different candy dips too.

These are my conclusions:

The cake pop maker can never make truly round cake pops. I don't care what those people who claimed it can said. The reason is that even if you open the lid and the pop is round -- as did happen to me with one brownie recipe, when you let them sit the required one minute before removing, the top of the pops fall down a bit. They continue to flatten out as they sit on the cooling rack. That's just what cake does when it cools - it puffs up in the oven and falls a bit when you take it out.

The keys to making good cake pops the traditional way are to really crumble up the cake until it's as close to crumbs as you can get it and to put enough of whatever you are putting into the mix to help it hold together. I tried whipped cream, icing, sour cream and peanut butter. The pops that held together the best where the ones I put the most "stuff" into.

This turned out to be the sour cream which I added to a homemade mixture that I call "protein pops." (More on that in a later post.) The brownies were very moist and dense and I put lots of sour cream in one batch and lots of PB2 (a low-sugar, low-fat peanut butter powder you mix with water to make peanut butter) in the other. I lost none of these pops though a few did start to come off the sticks (this happens sometimes with the cake pop maker balls too). The ones I made with icing worked better than the ones I made with whipped cream because I crumbled them more and put more icing in than I had whipped cream. I still lost balls though. About 2 per dozen balls. If I make the peanut butter protein pops again, I will put more peanut butter into them.

Pros and cons of the various methods and materials:

Cake pop maker:
Pros: balls are a consistent shape and size, balls don't fall apart, much less time-consuming and messy to make
Cons: sometimes the balls fall off the stick during dipping (you can recover from this but it's a pain), balls aren't truly round
Conclusions: best for making round shapes out of cake (not brownies)

Traditional methods:
Pros: balls are round and you can make other shapes for speciality pops (like penguins, ducks, etc.), you can add some cool flavors by varying what you put into the balls as "glue"
Cons: balls sometimes fall apart and have to be thrown away, there are more variables so it's easier to screw up (cake not crumbled enough, not enough moist "stuff" added to get the balls to retain their shape, etc.), crumbs of cake sometimes end up in the coating, which looks funny,
Conclusion: more work, but more versatile and tastier. A must for any recipe that is based on a brownie mix or where you need a shape other than a ball.

Dipping mixtures:
Wilton Candy Melts: there was a lot of variety between different colors and batches. Some needed to be thinned, some were acceptable as is, some set up right away, and some set up too early (if you weren't careful, you couldn't decorate them as they were already hard).
Baker's White Chocolate: gave the best results. Candy wasn't bland but it didn't compete with the insides either. Set up well with enough time to decorate the ball. My dipping candy of choice for a white dip.
Dove Sugar-Free Chocolate: performed adequately. Took a bit longer to set up than I liked but it wasnt' outrageous.
Baker's Dipping Chocolate: seemed okay to start. Worked well for dipping, set up okay. But two days later the chocolate was starting to turn white in spots. So you have to eat the cake pops within 24 hours with this dipping candy.
Ghiradelli White Baking Chocolate: the worst. It's not great chocolate and it took forever to set up.

Cake Pops, The future

I plan to keep making these. My "protein" pops don't actually have that much protein in them but they are also only around 50 calories a piece and mucho tasty. I'll keep experimenting with what to combine them with and also trying to find a milk and dark chocolate dipping candy I like as much as the Baker's one for white chocolate.

I'm also going to try making some cool shapes. I got the reindeer pop idea from Bakerella and they worked great. I tried making Santa pops and they were less successful. I might make the penguin pops from Bakerella's Cake Pop Kit book and I am thinking about what I can make for Valentine's Day as that's the next holiday.
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