Category: Baking

Cake decor 101

I’ve been taking a cake decorating class for the past 5 weeks every Tuesday night for 2 hours with my girlfriend. Up until last night I felt fairly confident in my abilities to construct a cake and make it look half decent with buttercream, but then came royal icing. Ugh! Being the ambitious A-type that I am, I made my icing from scratch using egg whites and icing sugar instead of store-bought meringue powder. It looked great and tasted great but it was useless when it came to making apple blossoms, drop flowers and especially roses. So I think I’ll be heading to the store in the next couple of days to pick me up some meringue powder, or even better, store-bought royal icing. In the meantime I thought I’d share pictures of the rosettes we practiced making about 3 classes ago and the cake I successfully decorated last week and then proceeded to share with my colleagues at work. You can tell from the picture I’m so over winter and ready to get into my garden. But that’s another story.

Green buttercream rosettes
Green buttercream rosettes
Spring Vanilla Buttercream Cake

A Hulk of a birthday cake

More often than not my older son complains about how life isn’t fair, he never gets to do anything, he fundamentally disagrees with the concept of sharing, life isn’t fair and did I mention life isn’t fair? But once a year my son gets exactly what he wants: his choice of birthday cake. He usually puts his “order” in the day after his last birthday, so that gives me roughly 364 days to think about how I’m going to do it. Believe me, it’s a lot of pressure and expectation to live up to when the order is coming from your 5 year-old child. And with each passing year, the cake requests are becoming more involved and elaborate. Years 1 to 3 were baked and designed for my whims, but Quinn quickly caught on and for his fourth birthday he requested a Buzz Lightyear cake. Rather than kill myself trying to pipe a Disney character in buttercream, I got a fabulous cake topper (which Quinn got to keep afterwards and add to his astounding toy collection) and iced the cake in coordinating colours. The character cake theme continued for his fifth birthday upon which he requested a Batman cake, only this time he also requested the cake be a lemon cake, so I dutifully complied, making Martha Stewart’s knock-out 1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake with homemade lemon curd in the middle. I did a simple yellow buttercream icing with the Batman symbol in black piping. And once again, this year Quinn wanted the same flavoured cake, but this time he wanted the Incredible Hulk. In rather out of character fashion, I left the planning of the cake decorating to the last minute. In fact I had no idea how or what I was going to do because I’m definitely no visual artist and was not even going to attempt to pipe the Hulk in icing. So I panicked. After scouring online and failing to find a Hulk cake topper that I could buy in the next 24 hours, I headed over to the bakery at the grocery store. Sure enough the kind baker behind the counter told me he would go in the back and look for the Hulk cake topper. God must have been smiling down upon me that day because sure enough the baker returned with the cake topper (which, again will be added to my children’s ever expanding collection of toys). With cake topper in hand I headed home to embark on the icing. I should backtrack a bit and let you know I baked the slab cakes on a Thursday night and decorated them on Saturday afternoon for a Sunday morning party. Saturday rolled around and my girlfriend, Karen, who is taking the cake decorating class with me, came over after offering to help me with the cake. Unlike Karen, who always has a vision and a plan for her children’s birthday cakes and who incidentally, is a bonafide artiste, I am a bit of a MacGyver when it comes to decorating a cake–no plan, just some icing, a piping bag and toothpicks. We settled on a pale grey for the base colour and a fabulous green for the “trim.” Karen came up with this great idea to melt sugar, add food colouring and then pour it on to a sheet of parchment to dry, which we could then use as a plaque for writing on. We added other details like the blue and green sugar and shards of the candy to make it look like the Hulk was about to smash the words on the plaque. I’m pretty pleased with how the cake turned out (as you’ll see in the pictures). I must be a glutton for punishment because I’ve already asked my son what kind of cake he wants for his next birthday. His answer: “a lemon cake again!”

Aaaarrrgh! I'm the Incredible Hulk!
Eat Me!?*@!?!


Comfort Food: Rice Pudding

If you’ve ever been stuck with leftovers and are feeling stymmied about what to do with the dribs and drabs of last night’s dinner, fear not. Seize the opportunity to get creative in the kitchen with that sorry looking piece of chicken or that less-than-full-bowl of spaghetti. For me it was a not-quite-full serving of cooked basmati rice. It sat in the fridge fora day or so while I mulled over whether or not to add it to the next night’s dinner or save it for a special project. Since it didn’t make the cut for dinner, I decided to turn it into dessert, although I could eat this dessert morning, noon or night since it is the ultimate in comfort foods. Rice pudding, if made the right way, can be the perfect compliment to any meal or mood. For me that usually comes at night when I’m parked in front of the television in my sweats. I consider rice pudding guilt-free indulgence. Maybe it’s because it’s made with rice and eggs and milk. I just omit the sugar from that mental list and voila: a healthy snack.

So I got out my oven proof Corningware dish and put my concoction together unaided by a recipe. You must think I’m nuts but the ingredients required to make a sweet custard pudding never deviate. The basic requirements involve eggs, milk and sugar. Add to this a dash of vanilla extract, cinnamon and some golden raisins and you’ve got yourself heaven in a bowl. Oh yes, and don’t forget the heaping cup of cooked rice! I have yet to experiment with the flavour profile because really, who wants to mess with a good thing? But I might go out on a limb next time and try some orange or chocolate. Once I combined all the ingredients I popped it into the oven and baked it until creamy (sorry, I didn’t watch the clock), every now and again stirring it so the custard on top wouldn’t burn. I would say it came out a little on the sweet side, but I’ve got a sweet tooth so it didn’t bother me. Adjust the sugar depending on how tolerant your own personal sweet tooth is and sit down with a big bowl of warm rice pudding on a chilly night, under a cozy blanket with a good book (or movie) and you’ll never want to leave your house again.

Home-Made Rice Pudding

1 to 1/2 cups of cooked white rice

2 eggs

2 cups 2%milk (the higher the milk fat content, the creamier the custard)

3/4 of a cup of sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 cup of golden raisins

Mix all ingredients together and bake at 350 degrees until the custard is creamy. Stir every ten minutes to avoid burning.

Oh So Thankful For Good Food

My appetite has excellent timing. It’s been “on leave” for a while. Ironically, my stomach isn’t fond of the food that I like to eat. In fact, my entire digestive tract doesn’t like anything I put down my gullet. Humor me here for a minute: imagine eating a simple meal; it could be toast with peanut butter and a banana with a glass of O.J. in the morning. Or maybe a bowl of soup and tuna sandwich for lunch. Now imagine not feeling the slightest bit hungry when you’re supposed to be eating those meals and a full three hours later you feel as though you’re going to upchuck the sandwich, salad and the full breakfast. These have been the joys (or misfortunes) of my dining experiences as of late. I brought this to my doctor’s attention several months ago. This was followed by some tests, which included drinking the most awful chalky concoction after which I was expertly tipped flat on a cold metal table while having my innards X-ray’d. I’ve even been injecting with radioactive nuclear medicine, which I’ve been assured will not shorten my lifespan nor make me glow in the dark. Neither of these tests has revealed the great mystery of my incredible indigestion. However the doctor decided to put me on a prescription strength anti-acid, which I think has helped my case. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling of someone’s fist forcing its way up my esophagus. But the most miraculous improvement has been my appetite and it couldn’t have returned at a better time. Thanksgiving weekend is a glutton’s wet dream come true. It’s the harvest. There is no shortage of good, fresh food. So I decided to embrace the spirit of the holiday and cook and bake for my family while up in prime harvest territory: at the cottage. Saturday’s dinner consisted of chicken stew with chickpeas, sweet and yellow potatoes and sweet onion. We had a fabulous salad of fresh lettuces on the side and not one but TWO pumpkin pies! We only polished off one of the pies, but that meant I could use the dish to bake the most scrumptious apple pie for the Thanksgiving dinner. I decided to pay homage to the slow food movement by making beer-braised beef short ribs, steamed savoy cabbage with roasted chestnuts and garlic mashed potatoes. Yes, I roasted the chestnuts and the garlic. And let’s not forget the pies that came at the end of the meal. It was one of those meals that makes you want to hibernate for the winter or put on a cable-knit sweater and cozy up by a fire. And guess what? Not a single bout of indigestion the entire weekend (you know I’m going to live to regret writing that down). Boy was I thankful this weekend, if for no other reason than I was able to enjoy a good meal with my family for the first time in months. To tell you the truth I would have been just as happy eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if it meant  I could eat without fear of my food revisiting me in the middle of the night. But having a good meal go down certainly doesn’t hurt.

Beer braised beef short ribs
Beer braised beef short ribs
Garlic mashed potatoes
Garlic mashed potatoes
Savoy cabbage and chestnuts
Savoy cabbage and chestnuts
Not one, but TWO kinds of pie!
Not one, but TWO kinds of pie!

Just Peachy

You know it’s harvest season in Ontario when the peaches are out at the Farmers’ Markets. I like a good juicy peach to sink my teeth into at this time of year, but what I love even better is the peach crisp I make with them. In years past I would buy a basket or two, wait to for the fruit to get nice an ripe and that have at ’em but always with some apprehension? Was the fruit ripe enough? Would I be able to get the peel off easily when I blanched them? Would the fruit come away from the pit easily? Well, any misgivings I had about the success rate of my peeling and pitting process are now a thing of the past. I learned from a very helpful lady selling peaches at the market that I needed to wait for the “Freestone” variety, and not use the “Clingstone” variety. So I waited a week and picked up a couple baskets at the Metro Square Farmers’ Market this past week. As the name would suggest, the flesh “clings” to the pit, whereas the freestone variety comes away from the pit with ease. And rather than blanch the fruit in hot water for 30 seconds followed by a quick dip in ice water, I pulled out my handy dandy Zyliss serrated peeler, which made the entire peeling and pitting process an absolute dream. I think I cut down the entire prep time by at least half. I peeled and sliced about a dozen peaches into a corning ware dish. To that I added a 3/4 cup mixture of granulated and light brown sugar along with a couple tablespoons of flour to absorb the liquid. For the crisp I combined half a pound (yes, that’s half a brick) of butter with a couple cups of flour, a cup of quick oats (not instant), another half cup of the light brown sugar and just a smidge of salt (I use sea salt). I baked it until the fruit essentially starts to bubble up through the crisp, but I usually know it’s ready before I’ve even laid eyes on it because my entire house smells like the aroma of butter, sugar and baked peaches….mmmmm! My first crisp of the harvest season must have been a hit at my nephew’s birthday party, because most of it was gone. I even got complimented on the crisp by Alannah, a professional baker, which made me feel pretty darn good. I wish you could smell and taste this crisp through the screen it really is that good and I really don’t take credit for it; the peaches do all the work. I just put the ingredients all together. You’ll have to try it while Freestone peaches are still in season, or you could be mishugina like me and make a whole wack of them assembly line-style and stick them in the freezer (unbaked) until you need them for a special occasion. Nothing beats a fresh Ontario peach. Nothing.

Freestone Peaches
Freestone Peaches
Peach Crisp
Peach Crisp

Pie in the sky

I like pies. I especially like making pies. Savoury, sweet, I like ’em all. However, I don’t always have the time to dedicate to pie making. I usually go on a pie making bender when the various fruits are in season, most notably in the Fall when apples are in season. I make them assembly line-style, coring, peeling and seasoning the apples. Setting them aside while I cut the pastry (old school style with two knives) and press it into the pie dish (no rolling pin here, since I make a crumbly version). Then comes the apple filling, followed by the crumble top. At this stage, I usually wrap up the pies and pop them into the freezer until I need to bake one. Right now my freezer is EMPTY of all pies, so it’s a good thing the strawberry season is just around the corner. My most recent pie was a pecan pie. I actually don’t eat this pie because it’s like a giant butter tart, which is good if you love butter tarts–and I do–but for some reason I prefer the small single serving to the slice of pie. Anyhow, my sister-in-law put in a special order for my brother-in-law. He just turned 40 and we had a party to celebrate. Pecan pie is highly coveted by my husband’s family, particularly my father-in-law. So on special occasions like birthdays, I oblige and make a pecan pie. The recipe isn’t too complicated, again it’s just about having the time to make the pastry, cooking the sugar and corn syrup, add the eggs and vanilla and then place the pecans just so before baking it. I do love the way the pie looks so regal, but I can’t attest to the flavour. You’ll just have to make it yourself and let me know!

Homemade Pecan Pie

Homemade Pecan Pie

Summer daze

I failed to inform you all that I was going on hiatus, but have since returned. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t planning on going on hiatus. It just sort of happened. But now I’m back. Without pictures for now, but not for long.

It was strawberry season around the time my hiatus began (it almost sounds like a disease or a terrible medical condition, doesn’t it?). I took the kids strawberry picking at Whittamore’s Berry Farm where we filled a very large bucket full of sweet, ripe red berries. Many were eaten but most were turned into yummy jam, which I love to eat on fresh bread, as do the kids. This activity always brings back memories of summers spent with my grandparents at their cottage in Wasaga beach. I even have a picture of my grandmother and me standing with a big basket full of berries glued to the inside of a cookbook my mother made for me that’s full of my grandmother’s tried and true recipes. We made the jam around the same time that my kids were finishing up their school year (well, more like daycare, but school no less) and I needed good gift ideas for the teachers so I gave each of them a jar of my homemade jam (pictures to come).

strawberry-jam-montage

More recently we’ve been picking and eating raspberries, which I admit aren’t as exciting as strawberries, but they also hold a special place in my heart because my grandparents used to have a veritable forest of them growing in their yard, which has since moved to my parents’ yard. When my parents moved, they took cuttings from my grandparents’ garden and we attempted to grow raspberries at their previous house. When they moved to their current house, they took the raspberries with them and some five years later, the berries are bountiful.  I plan on making a bumbleberry pie with them, but I’m still trying to find a good recipe….let me know if you have any suggestions. I’d prefer only using fruit that’s local and in season now.

raspberry-montage

Bread Pudding

Whether it’s a scrap of paper, a worn-out tee shirt or bananas beyond their ripeness I am not one to simply toss something that appears to have seen better days or lost its apparent usefulness. The old adage,”Waste not, want not” is alive and well in my household. I often know what new form these items will take; that scrap of paper often becomes a grocery shopping list and that worn-out tee shirt gets cut into dusting rags and those bananas are frozen until it’s time to make my amazing banana cake. Just like the bananas, food in my fridge and pantry often find new life only to be devoured by the family. This past weekend I had the challenge of finding a recipe that would help use up some leftovers in my fridge and pantry; buttermilk and challah bread. A bit of a conundrum to be honest. And then I thought of the perfect marriage: bread pudding. I had recently sampled a delicious version of it at Pusateri’s down in Yorkville. I knew I couldn’t duplicate the recipe exactly since I didn’t pay much attention to the ingredients as I was scarfing it down. So I did a search and came across a fairly simple recipe on Epicurious.com. It’s a low-fat buttermilk bread pudding recipe with strawberry sauce. I omitted the sauce since I didn’t have the time or the inclination to make it. The recipe also called for nutmeg sprinkled on top. I substituted this with cinnamon. So I sliced up the half loaf of challah bread (for those who don’t know what this is, it’s a sweet-ish egg bread that Jews tend to eat on the Sabbath–think of it as the sacramental loaf–perfect for french toast too!), laid it in the bottom of my dish and poured the egg, sugar, vanilla & buttermilk mixture over top. Once set in a pan with water, I baked it for roughly an hour until the custard set. Just to make it a little more interesting, I squirted some chocolate syrup on top. It ended up being a huge hit with the family and friends we had over for a barbeque on Sunday evening, and again for leftovers at my parents’ on Monday night. So I think I’ll keep that recipe handy the next time I am faced with half a loaf of bread and a partially used carton of buttermilk. If you have any good “leftovers” recipes, please share them with me!

Buttermilk Bread Pudding
Buttermilk Bread Pudding

 

Lunching With The Ladies

Meet Arlene. A lady of many talents. DIY’er, graphic artist, designer, mother, gourmand and baker. In this particular category we are kindred spirits. For the last nine months or so, I had the pleasure of working with Arlene on a television show–she as a stylist, me as a producer. Over the course of the nine months we exchanged recipes, discussed cooking and baking methods and even had the odd “bake off.” For this, the rest of the staff was grateful. Since production of the show has wrapped, we have all been scattered like seeds to the wind, keeping in touch primarily through Facebook.  But today Arlene and I, along with Lindsay, an equally talented and fellow show stylist, joined us for a bite of lunch at my place. I provided most of the nibbles, but the topper were the perfectly tangy, sweet and just gooey enough lemon squares Arlene baked. I could have inhaled the entire pan, but that would have been unladylike of me. So I restricted myself to just one, but kept a plateful to eat after my guests had departed. Lemon squares can be finnicky. The shortbread base needs to be baked for a brief period of time before the lemon filling is poured over top. And the filling needs to be baked long enough to set, but not too long. If you overbake the squares, you’ll end up with a burnt base and hard, chewy lemon filling. And if underbaked, the filling just oozes everywhere, making an awful mess. Not the least bit enjoyable to sink your teeth into. Thankfully this was not the case as I gingerly removed the squares from the pan, which came out perfectly, well, square.

 

The lovely & talented Arlene
The lovely & talented Arlene

 

Arlene's lemon square
Arlene's lemon square
 

 

Lindsay, stylist extraordinnaire
Lindsay, stylist extraordinnaire

On The Menu: Stir Fry

Stir fry is a crowd pleaser on any given weeknight in our home and tonight was no exception. It’s an especially rewarding meal when the parts of the sum are  ingredients left over from other recipes; not enough to make something great on their own, but united, they make an outstanding entreé. No stir fry can exist without its vegetable component so with half a head of green cabbage I added some celery, carrots, beans and mushrooms. To this I added my protein in the form of a few pieces of chicken and a few pre-cooked shrimp that were both kicking around in the freezer. In my pantry I found a package of green bean thread, otherwise described as vermicelli glass noodles. These are fantastic because they give you that substantial carb kick without the starchiness. According to the Gourmet Traveller they are made from the mung bean and tapioca and virtually flavourless, making them ideal for taking on the flavour of the dish you are cooking. I simply soaked them in warm water and once soft enough, cut them with scissors (they are quite long, like hair). I fried up some garlic and onion, added the protein, followed by the veggies. Pour in some soya sauce for that salty flavour, then add some chicken soup stock, cook until the veggies soften up a bit and toss in the noodles. The kids devoured dinner and there was so much we have enough for lunches tomorrow.

Normally I don’t serve dessert. Rather, I don’t call dessert  “dessert.” I don’t believe meals should always be followed by something sweet, so there are no expectations in my house that after dinner comes something sugary and sinful. Why? Those of you who have children already know the answer, but for the uninitiated it goes something like this: if a young child is aware that something “better” is on the menu, they will eat as little as possible, if anything at all, in anticipation of the sugary treat that awaits. So I set the expectation pretty low–no dessert. Tonight was an exception. As part of my Spring cleaning, I delved into the freezer drawer and discovered a few precious bananas. I immediately knew those pathetic looking brown fruit would soon turn into the most moist and scrumptious cake ever. So I baked a banana bundt cake. Normally I throw in a cup of chocolate chips, but in my haste I forgot. To make up for this oversight I iced the cake in a lovely mocha chocolate glaze. I wish you could taste it through the screen, but alas, the developers at Apple have yet to incorporate all five senses into the online world. For now you will simply have to enjoy the view from your side of the monitor….and if you’re lucky, I’ll post the recipe and you can try baking it yourself. I consider this cake one of my tried and true stand-bys. My mom gave me the recipe years ago and it came to her from a good friend. It never fails to please, and I’m pleased it never fails.

Banana Bundt Cake with mocha icing
Banana Bundt Cake with mocha icing
Banana Cake slice
Banana Cake slice