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 blanket for my new nephew–or niece

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.

Jellybean's bundle blanket


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!?*@!?!


Let Them Eat Cake!

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.  She begins by dipping lady fingers into coffee and then dousing them in a liquer of your choice (she uses Kahlua).  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.

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!

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

I just finished reading Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. Not surprisingly I devoured the book and the recipes in it. I have yet to make the chocolate cake that appears at the end of the book, or any other recipe for that matter, although I’d like to, but I did manage to make one. It’s the recipe (if you can even call it that) for slow roasted tomatoes. My mother, my sister and I bought a half bushel of roma tomatoes a few weeks back thinking we’d all take our thirds away and turn them into tomato sauce or something like that. Mine sat in the fridge pining for attention, but I just didn’t have the time or the energy to put into them. Finally one Saturday rolled around and I decided it was now or never for those tomatoes and based on my interpretation of Molly’s recipe, slow roasting them would be the simplest thing to do to them. So, I set the oven to 200 degrees, bisected the tomatoes, threw them on a cookie sheet, drizzled the appropriate amount of olive oil, sprinkled kosher salt and popped them in the oven for a full 5 hours. Out they came, slightly shriveled and sweet as can be. I brought them to my parents’ house for dinner that night and my dad oohed and awed as he ate them, along with everyone else. I single out my father because I consider him a tough customer to please when it comes to culinary achievements. He likes things simple and full of flavour and this fit the bill. Take a look at the pre-operative and post-operative tomatoes!

Roma tomatoes
Roma tomatoes
Ready for the oven
Ready for the oven
Slow roasted tomatoes
Slow roasted tomatoes

I Fall For Fall

Ah Fall! The most  brilliant time of the year in my opinion. Talk about sensory perception: there’s a crispness in the air that hits your cheeks and nostrils every morning. The smell of earth and leaves is pungent and foliage on the trees is visually stunning. And don’t get me started on the food. The FOOD! Squash, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, beets (gasp for air), lettuce, turnip, apples, pears, peaches, plums (tell me when my birthday comes!)….All I want to do at this time of the year is plant bulbs in my garden, cook stews and soups, bake pies and crisps, climb into a cable-knit sweater and cozy down for hibernation. No, I’m not a huge fan of winter, but I do love Fall. I have now grown pumpkins in our garden for the last three years, although only successfully two out of those three. This year was the banner year, by far. The pumpkin plant overtook the entire garden patch sending it’s prickly tendrils into every other plant growing–my poor sunflowers barely stood a chance. The plant reminded me of the one in the Little Shop of Horrors (remember “feed me seymour”?). It grew and grew and grew, and for all it’s effort it produced one brilliant pumpkin. The kids are thrilled and the pumpkin now sits proudly on our front stoop awaiting carving for Hallowe’en. And it sits in close proximity to my planter, which now houses some lovely mums, false cabbage and tall grasses. I really must say I can get into the spirit of the season, however fleeting it is.

Our perfect plump pumpkin
Our perfect plump pumpkin
Fall Foliage
Fall Foliage

Bagels and Cupcakes and Tracy Morgan, Oh My!

My day began by tucking into one of those dense and delicious H & H bagels we picked up yesterday. This was followed by a quick jaunt over to D’Agostino’s where I picked up a chicken and some sweet and mini Yukon Gold potatoes for Shabbas dinner. They also happened to have Valrhona baking chocolate on sale, so I picked up a couple of bars to take back home. This brand of chocolate is often sited by cooks/food personalities and the chocolate they swear by when baking. We’ll have to see just how true that sentiment is in future baking encounters. Meanwhile Dave got going and we immediately headed downtown to Ground Zero. It is, without question, a well-funded project. There really wasn’t much to see except many cranes in the air and lots of fencing around the area. So we headed across the street to Century 21 to do some damage. That department store is, as my sister warned me, overwhelming. We killed a good hour just wandering the maze of rooms in that building before hopping back on the subway to meet my cousin Jared for lunch. He took us to a very trendy-looking Vietnamese resto called Republic. My meal, essentialyl Pho with chicken and glass noodles, left a lot to be desired. But both Jared’s and Dave’s meals were great. But the best part of the meals were the drinks: Dave’s sweet iced coffee, Jared’s shockingly bright orange Thai Basil lemonade and my Coconut Pineapple concoction which was sweet beyond belief and so good. From there we hit Crumbs Bake Shop where Jared and I shared a couple of crazy cupcakes and we bought a half dozen more for dinner’s dessert. We parted ways with Jared and wandered through NYU campus to arrive in SoHo. Lots of shops and lots of people–I was astonished at the number of people just hanging out, on the streets, in the shops, in the parks….what do all these people do for a living and where do they all live??? By the way, Jared had mentioned celebrity spotting since his arrival here and ironically after lunch we had the good fortune of walking right past Tracy Morgan of 30 Rock. We both snickered like kids, giddy from our siting. Despite this brush with the stars, both of us were feeling a little bagged so I got Dave a pick-me-up at Dean & DeLuca and wandered a bit more before hopping back on the subway to get home to make dinner. We had a lovely Shabbas dinner with Dave’s aunt and uncle before heading back down to the theatre district to see a fabulous play with all-star cast called “God of Carnage.” It’s a must-see if you’re in Manhattan and planning on seeing a Broadway performance. We were laughing out loud. From the play we walked through Times Square which is the spectacle of spectacles in this town. The wattage alone used by the screens and billboards is enough to keep the Niagara Falls power generating station in business or at the very least cause an epileptic fit. We stopped by Rockefeller Plaza and walked all the way back to the apartment, where I am right now sitting in my pyjamas about to fall fast asleep. It was a fabulous day and I’m looking forward to another one tomorrow. G’night.

Destination: Manhattan

We’re in Manhattan for a mini vacation, just me and Dave. These opportunities to have what I call a “couples-only” or adult vacation are few and far between–scratch that–they NEVER happen. Or at least they haven’t happened since we decided to go forth and multiply. So here we are, staying with Dave’s aunt and uncle on the Upper East Side. We arrived after a rather turbulent and jolting commute in the air and on ground that left both of us feeling rather green. But after regaining our appetites we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then marched across Central Park to my number one destination: Zabar’s. Yes, I know, I’m in New York City and where do I want to go? A grocery store??? Yes, and I was in absolute heaven when I saw that Orange sign….off to Rectangle’s (Middle Eastern) for dinner. Stay tuned. More to come!