I have been trying to come up with a practical solution to my front hall entrance since the day we moved into our newly renovated home just over six years ago. I’ve tried a number of seemingly practical solutions to storage, seating and organization, but in our 4-foot wide entrance, it all ended up looking cluttered and, well, not pretty. So I had to find something practical and pretty that would satisfy our need to store keys, hats, shoes, gloves and other miscellany. I didn’t want to spend a fortune but I didn’t want to cheap out either and end up with yet another unsatisfactory solution.
So I started with the Norden occasional table from Ikea and had it sprayed in Cloud White. I found the brown woven strap baskets that hold all of our hats, gloves, sunscreen and other necessary but unsightly objets at HomeSense. The mirror hanging over the table is also from Ikea and works perfectly, given that sense of light and sparkle that the hallway really needed. My absolute favourite piece is the stool. I had it custom made by my upholsterer. Not only is it practical for putting on and taking off boots and shoes, but the fabric is so much fun! I found it on Etsy, but if you’re looking for it, it’s an Alexander Henry print and it’s called “What a Hoot!” and it certainly is a hoot. The other touches include oil rubbed bronze and porcelain hooks that I found at Restoration Hardware and the chocolate ticking runner is from Dash & Albert.
I know I spent a little more than I probably should have for an area of the house that takes a lot of abuse since it is essentially our Grand Central Station, but I love looking at it every time I walk by and I think first impressions are important. When a person walks through our front door that front hall sets the tone for the rest of the house. It’s fun, it’s relaxed and it’s our family’s way of saying “welcome to our home.”
I miss my dog. My husband and I took him to the vetâ€™s and put him down last night. They put us in a softly lit room with two leather chairs and a black and white fleece blanket on the floor. There was a jar of liver treats on the table so I helped myself to a handful, which I fed to Duke. That was his name, Duke.
Just writing down his name brings tears to my eyes and a tightness to my throat.
If you had asked me six months ago if I would be so overcome with emotion at the demise of my dog, I would quickly have dismissed the idea. He was just a dog. But he was so much more than that.
I remember picking him out from the litter of ten puppies when he was just three weeks old.
The breeder single-handedly picked the puppies up by their backs, flipped them over to determine if they were male or female and then handed them to us to choose one.
I remember Duke nuzzling his black nose into my husbandâ€™s arms, a warm ball of fur, so calm. He was the one. He smelled like the fresh wood shavings used as a bed in his kennel. A mix of standard poodle and golden retriever, his breed would come to be known as the â€œgolden doodle.â€
With black marker in hand, the breeder â€œbrandedâ€ our puppy with the letter â€˜Gâ€™ on his pink belly. We would return in five weeks to take him home.
I didnâ€™t grow up with dogs or any pets for that matter. My father had a thing about dogs that dated back to his childhood in Soviet-ruled Hungary. Dogs were used to intimidate, or guard. Not for companionship or play. But Duke would make a convert out of my dad.
Several years ago we lived with my parents while our house was being renovated.Â When my father came home from work each day Duke was the first one to greet him at the door and my father would make him sit and then he would ask for a kiss, which Duke would obligingly give him with a big wet lick on his cheek.
That was the story for all of usâ€”a friendly greeting at the door after a challenging day and all your troubles would vanish in a moment.
But it wasnâ€™t all wags, licks and fetching.
There was the time Duke injured his Achilles tendon in a futile effort to catch a squirrel, which ended up costing us a pretty penny and a lot of consternation.
Or the time he devoured eight raw lamb chops right off the kitchen counter and we feared he would develop bloat.
Or the time he ran away and hid in the ravine after being scared off by a hot air balloon in the shape of a giant peanut.
I called Duke my perpetual two year-old. Just like a toddler, he demanded our attention; feeding, watering, walking, stooping and scooping, endless throwing of Frisbee or ball. And in return he gave us unconditional loyalty and love.
Early humans must have instinctively known about the fringe benefits of keeping a dog as a pet. In addition to their pack mentality, ability to catch small prey, and fend off intruders, dogs provide a companionship unmatched by any other animal.
Like a true domesticated canine, Duke knew his place in our pack, protecting and playing with us and our children in equal measure.
To non-dog people, the notion of a dog being a member of a family may seem ludicrous, even saccharine. Years ago even I may have been that person.
But I admit Duke had a profound effect on me and my family that I could not have predicted when we first brought him home eight and a half years ago.
Just like humans, dogs grow old or develop illnesses. In Dukeâ€™s case he got cancer. We could have exercised lifesaving measures, like chemotherapy, that just a few decades ago were only intended for humans. Instead we chose palliative care and spoiled him with table food, like my boeuf bourguignon and chicken pot pie.
On his last day I fed Duke three hot dogs. It was a sunny Spring afternoon. The kids were home from school and we were sitting in the backyard. Duke still insisted on fetching the ball even though he couldnâ€™t see it only able to find it by smell and hobbled around the grass on three of four legs.
We decided to tell the kids it was time to say good-bye to Duke. Our three-year-old was more interested in digging in the sand, but our six-year-old had plenty of questions and plenty to say.
After much discussion he wrapped up the conversation with the matter-of-fact pronouncement that all life must come to an end.
Only a day after his death and friends are asking if we will get another dog. Itâ€™s too premature to say, but I feel with some certainty we will get another dog. Iâ€™m just not sure Iâ€™m ready to journey through the peaks and valleys of dog ownership again just yet.
In the meantime our son has planned a memorial service for Duke. We are burying his collar and tags under the dogwood tree in our backyard (how Ã propos) and singing a prayer.
That backyard feels a whole lot emptier without Duke in it, but it is full of great memories that we will carry with us.
It’s rather ironic that tonight of all nights I choose to sit down and write a post about my son’s birthday cake, since I am forbidden from eating such things at the moment. Forbidden might be a strong word to use given that my ban from indulging in such sweet pastries is self imposed. I am on a Spring cleanse. That means many delectables are off limits for a week and a half. And so I must satisfy my cravings through the only means I know how: eye candy. Literally.
My younger son turned three last week and I got it into my head several weeks back that I had to make him a spectacular cake. Put my new found cake decorating skills to work and turn out something fabulous. Being the over ambitious person that I am and with only borrowed time to do it, I thought I was picking a rather easy design in the form of a Lego cake. Lego has become a favourite past time for my boys so I thought it fitting to make a cake in the shape of bricks. The bonus came in the form of a Lego man cake mold from a neighbour. So I started by baking Ina Garten’s flag cake as well as her chocolate butter cream cake. I baked slab cakes AND mini cupcakes. Once baked, cooled and refrigerated, I sliced the slab cakes in thirds and constructed two rectangular cakes, four layers high alternating the flag cake with the chocolate cake. I topped them off with the mini cupcakes, all with a mocha butter cream that I kind of made up a recipe for. Once crumb coated and cooled, I applied home-made marshmallow fondant. I know, I know, I’m crazy. I just could have bought the fondant from the store, but no, I had to make this damn cake FROM SCRATCH! I didn’t love the way the fondant turned out but it was definitely more malleable than the store-bought kind. To make myself super crazy I decided the two bricks needed to sit atop one slab cake, which I covered in green fondant (that one was store-bought). And with a star tip I decorated the Lego man in coloured vanilla butter cream. I think I must have made enough cake to feed a small army. While there were plenty of leftovers there was no man left in sight. He was devoured by the kids and the adults had to satisfy their sweet tooths with the giant bricks of cake (too bad!).
I think it was well worth the effort, and while I’m nowhere near as talented as some of the crazy cake decorators who do this for a living, I did give myself a pat on the back for my attempt. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge. Unfortunately I can’t give you a taste, but I can leave you with the recipe for the mocha butter cream.
MOCHA BUTTER CREAM RECIPE
1 cup unsalted butter (room temperature)
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
4 cups of icing sugar (sifted)
1/4 cocoa powder (sifted)
2 Tbsp. (give or take) strong brewed coffee
Cream the butter and shortening together
Add the icing sugar and cocoa powder and whip until fluffy, adding the coffee to thin consistency of icing as necessary.
So I have evidence that I’ve actually learned something in the last 2 months at my cake decorating class. Probably the most important lesson learned was to give up trying to make royal icing with egg whites and go with meringue powder. It resulted in the most fluffy, sweet yet pliable icing for creating delicate roses, branches and leaves that now decorate my cake. While this past week’s class was supposed to be a trial run at putting fondant over a cake dummy, I decided to stay up into the wee hours baking a heavenly white cake and whipping up a batch of butter cream frosting so that I could do the real thing. I added blue food colouring gel to the fondant and it came out a lovely Tiffany blue. I piped the bottom edge of the cake with royal icing beads and then added brown food colouring gel to make the branches. The roses were so-so, but I can live with imperfection on a cake like this–heck, it was my first attempt! And the finishing touch was definitely the green leaves. That was Margaret’s suggestion (she’s our instructor) and the piping tip #352 is an absolute dream. The leaves were the most fun to do. I took lots of pictures but we aren’t tucking into the cake until Friday. Hopefully it will be well worth the wait because the cake is staring back at me from underneath the glass cake plate saying “eat me” and I’m doing everything in my power to resist temptation.
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.
In the next 12 hours I will find out whether I have a new niece or nephew who I fondly refer to as Jellybean. My brother and his wife are having their first child tomorrow. We know this because she is scheduled for a C-section, although not by choice. This wee babe has been breech for weeks now and although my dear sister-in-law did everything in her power to coax Jellybean to head south, this baby wouldn’t budge. This to me suggests my sweet niece or nephew will have an unwavering constitution, which I think is a good thing! In honour of Jellybean’s arrival I’ve made a little bundle blanket in, what I think are fairly gender neutral colours. Browns, yellows and blues. I love making these blankets because they aren’t particularly baby-ish and they are perfect for putting down on the carpet and letting the baby wriggle around or practice their tummy time. I’ve made them for many of my nephews and nieces and they make a very special gift. I’d love to make them and sell them, but at my hourly rate, they’d cost a mere $200! (if you put in an order, I won’t refuse!) So, Jellybean, this is my way of saying welcome to the world and welcome to our growing family.
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!”
I just celebrated a birthday. A significant one to me. But this post is not about birthday cake. Well, not my birthday cake. I did get one (actually two), but I wasn’t responsible for the baking of either one of them. What I did get for my birthday, among other things, was a cake decorating class from my husband. In other words I signed myself up for a course called “Wedding Cakes and Pastries” offered by the Toronto District School Board. It’s once a week for 9 weeks and it started last night. The bonus is I’m taking it with my good friend, Karen, making it that much more fun. There were about a dozen of us sitting around the staff room table at the local high school. All I brought was myself and my apron (which says “Just Call Me Martha” on it) and we spent the next 2 hours learning about different kinds of cakes, icings and tools required from our lovely instructor, Margaret. She even demonstrated how to make her version of tiramisu–what I call a “no bake cake”–that would impress the pants off of any guest you have over for dinner. Her secret is making it look just like a cake instead of layering it in a dish using sweetened whipped cream like icing, which she made herself. Not unlike Martha Stewart’s recipe for sweetened whipped cream, it only requires three ingredients: whipping cream, icing sugar and vanilla.Â She begins by dipping lady fingers into coffee and then dousing them in a liquer of your choice (she uses Kahlua).Â Margaret then arranged the lady fingers side by each in a small rectangle. She put the sweetened whipped cream between two layers of cookies and then slathered the whole thing with another layer of the whipped cream. To make it pretty, she made rosettes out of the whipped cream using a piping bag, and then puts a coffee bean on each rosette. The finishing touch is a light dusting cocoa and cinnamon. We each got to sample it and it was light and delicious and not overly sweet. Now I’ve got a laundry list of cake decorating implements to acquire and a doozy of an assignment: my son’s 6th birthday cake in 2 weeks. I’ll keep you posted on how that one is coming along.
Sweetened Whipped Cream
1 cup of whipping cream (35%)
2 tablespoons icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Directions: with a hand mixer or standing mixer, beat the cream and sugar on high until it begins to stiffen. Then add the vanilla extract and keep beating until cream is stiff and forms peaks.
Margaret’s Tip: chill the bowl and beaters before whipping the cream. This will encourage the cream to stiffen.
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 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.
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 meantÂ 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.