Saturday, 30 November 2013

Out and About: Day at the OOAK (One of a Kind Christmas Craft Show and Sale)

Whew!!! What a lot of people at the OOAK today! Granted, my friend and I usually go the second week it's open, when the hubbub has died down some, and so there aren't lines literally out the door, snaking down the length of the football field-sized hall, and around the corner to the very end of the building, but whatchagonnado? We decided to get there right on time, and so we were committed to our course of action.

Happily, once the clock hit 10AM, the lines moved pretty quickly into the building, and off we went!  It was nice to have a bit of money to spend this year at the show, as opposed to other lean years when scraping together enough to buy the tickets to get on was an effort.  I wanted to make sure to spend it at the booths, too, as these artists and artisans work really hard at their craft and deserve support.

I only bought four things today, as I didn't have much money, but I'm pretty darn pleased with my choices regardless. I bought a rock maple set of toaster tongs from the booth Imagine Wood for our toaster oven. The Hubster likes his toast and doesn't like to burn his fings...what can I say?

We used to have a great bamboo set from The Pampered Chef that was over a decade old, but then *someone* (cough cough Erinyth) stuck our venerable tongs on the handle of the toaster oven a few months ago, which promptly cracked the poor tongs in two the next time the toaster was opened. Hot glue and swearing just wasn't keeping them together anymore, so it was time to retire them for a new, stronger set!

The second purchase was my beautiful recycled silk scarf from a new artisan booth called Sinate Creations. I *knew* as soon as I saw it that it had to be mine...this scarf is so light and soft on my skin, and it's in my favourite colours (known as "everycolour"!).

I kind of imagine it's what a 1970's LSD flashback might look like.



My third purchase will remain a secret for the time being, as it's a gift for my newest baby nephew, and I know his mummy sometimes reads this blog (Hi sis! Captain Shriekypants will have a coolio Christmas gift from Aunty Loonybin and Uncle Grumpasaur this year!), but my fourth and final purchase, if you know me at all, just *had* to be a food item!

I know, "colour me shocked".

There are several food vendors at the OOAK I tend to go back to every year; I'm a big fan of the various sauces and marinades, Christmas puddings with the best warm vanilla hard sauce I've ever had, crazy hummus from the Greek place, and a whole host of chocolate places (mmm, Tickleberries!). But, if I only have enough money for one food item, the one I invariably will purchase something from is The Milsean Shoppe.  They make simply the best chocolate covered toffee ever ever EVER! Their Demerara Butter Crunch bar will have you weep with joy. There are five different butter crunch bar flavours available: Original, White Chocolate/Almond, Dark Chocolate/Almond, Milk Chocolate/Hazelnut, and Maple Syrup/White Chocolate/Hazelnut. They have a bunch of other items too, but those bars are the ones that melt my heart (and increase my sugar consumption by a factor of a lot). There are few candy bars for which I will happily pay a premium price; this is one of them.

I still have two bars left....no, must resist urge to nom....save...for...later.....nomnomnom....

Ah, Shuzbut.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Collection: Black Friday!

...so another Black Friday has come and gone.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last several years, you will know that the term "Black Friday" does not mean this,
...but instead identifies the day after American Thanksgiving; a concentrated day of store (and now online) deep discounts on a myriad of products and services. Literally thousands of hopeful bargain hunters will line up for hours in the cold outside a store, waiting for it to open super-early in the hopes that they may score a $99 flat screen television, or $25 vacuum, or the like.


The levels of violence, selfishness, and just plain uncivilized behaviour at these events has to be seen to be believed; fights, beatings, shootings, stampedes, stabbings, and even murder are par for the course just so one or a few shoppers can grab the last whatever-the-hell item that they probably wouldn't have given a second look at when it was regular price.

It boggles my mind.

Until recently, any country that was Not America could stand back and gloat virtuously over the venality that the Ugly American shows every time this "holiday from retail hell" rolls around. Canada, for one, celebrates Thanksgiving in October, and so the connection to Thanksgiving and Black Friday is not as clear; therefore, Canadian retail does not display nearly the insanity that U.S. shoppers have gloried in over the last few decades (for which I am eternally grateful).

Having said that, we're starting to see a few "Black Friday" sales and promotions pop up in our major city centres, as has the UK and the rest of Europe.

*shudder*
Gawd help us...

The whole mishegoss has me thinking that the only "Black Friday" I want to celebrate is of the cakey variety.

I would be perfectly happy celebrating Black Friday if it were more like this:





And less like this:








If the poor retail workers forced to work Black Friday's Retail Hell had to take fewer of these:





But instead munch on more of these:







For frantic shoppers to fight over fewer of these:





And instead share a slice of this:









...now, don't you think this world would be a better (and tastier) place? :o)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Recipe and Tutorial x2: Super-Chewy Triple Chocolate Cookies and Jacques Torres Chocolate Chunk Cookies!

I was up visiting my sister's family a couple of weekends ago, when I heard that she and her hubby were hosting a UFC Pay Per View Fight Night at their house on Saturday night.  Not lots of friends/family coming over, but enough that they would want snackages along with the pizza and alcohol they were consuming.  So, my sis and I came up with a BREE-LEEANT plan to make some treats for the ravenous hordes, as we often do.

Her husband is a huge fan of the Jacques Torres Secret Chocolate Chunk Cookie recipe that I made for them earlier this year, and asked me to repeat the awesome joy again. However, I had not brought the recipe with me, and my Google-Fu was failing me, so I had to cobble together another recipe from a few different food websites that I felt would be (almost) as good. And it was. Oh my goodness it was.  Regardless of the fact that most of the crowd was hammered by the last fight, they swarmed the cookie tray and rhapsodized over how delicious and soft and chewy these cookies were! 

Pro Tip: slightly underbake your cookies for a great chewy texture. 
Pro Tip #2: Drunk spectators will love pretty much anything sweet you feed them. Easy crowd.


A second sadness is that I wasn't able to take any pictures of these cookies before they were gobbled up in record time!  But to make up for it, I will post TWO recipes today! (And when I get around to making these again, I will update this post with pics!)...and maybe even reduce my dependence on so many exclamation points!!!!

The first one below is a fantastic cookie recipe I developed; these are the most delicious Chewy Triple Chocolate Cookies you have ever eaten, full stop. The only difference between this first recipe and the cookies I made for the UFC Fight Night is the addition of two ingredients: good quality cocoa powder and a small amount of instant espresso powder.  But oh what a difference it makes....


So strap on your tastebuds and let's get this show on the road!

Alicia's Chewy Triple Chocolate Cookies

Yield: 24-32 cookies

Note: All ingredients are presumed to be at room temperature
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp hot water
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (use the best quality you can find; I use Callebaut)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips (ditto to above)
  1. Prepare two heavy-duty baking pans by lining with parchment paper.
  2. Cream together the butter and both sugars with electric mixer until fluffy and lightened in colour (approximately 3-4 minutes). Scrape down the bowl.
  3. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Scrape down the bowl again. 
  4. Dissolve baking soda in hot water and add to batter. Stir in flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder, salt, and both types of chocolate chips; mix until well-combined. 
  5. Measure out tablespoons of dough, gently roll them into balls, place onto a single pan and chill for at least 20 minutes (at this stage you can bag chilled dough balls and freeze for up to 3 months).
  6. Preheat oven to 350˚ F (175˚ C). Take chilled dough balls and space them evenly onto two pans, no more than 12 to a pan (3x4). Bake for 8-10 minutes, rotating and switching pans halfway through baking, until cookies are lightly golden and edges are slightly browned; try to go for slightly underbaked instead of overbaked. 
  7. When cookies are fresh out of the oven they should be a little puffy; if desired, you can take a clean, dry, flat-bottom glass and gently press down on the puffed cookies to achieve a perfectly flat, professional-looking top. Let cool completely (or eat them when they're still warm, if that's yer fancy!)
Next is the best straight-up Chocolate Chip cookie recipe I have  EVER made and eaten. No kidding. There are a lot of recipes out there, but this one makes my heart sing. And, apparently my brother-in-law's too.

"Secret Recipe" Jacques Torres Chocolate Chunk Cookies


Makes 26 5-inch cookies or 8 1/2 dozen 1 ¼-inch cookies

  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups packed light-brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry flour
  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

  1. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats and set aside.
  2. Whisk together dry ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. Cream together butter and sugars with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  4. Reduce speed to low and add dry ingredients, vanilla, and chocolate; mix until well combined.
  5. Spoon or scoop cookie dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Chill dough balls in fridge or freezer for a minimum of 30 minutes, or ideally overnight. *Make ahead: once cookie dough balls are frozen, transfer to a freezer-thickness baggie or suitable container and keep frozen until needed.*
  6. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Reset spacing between dough balls on pans if necessary. Bake until lightly browned, but still soft, about 20 minutes for larger cookies and about 15 minutes for smaller cookies.
  7. Cool for 5 minutes on baking sheets to allow cookies to firm up, before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. 

Notes for the best tasting cookies: 
(1) Do not substitute the bread and pastry flours for a regular all-purpose flour; in this case, the subtle difference is apparent in how good these are!
(2) Chilling for at least 30 minutes is vital here, and would be best over 24 hours instead. Chilling allows this cookie dough, which has such a high chocolate ratio that the balls are barely held together by dough, to maintain the classic cookie shape during baking.
(3) Don't substitute standard chocolate chips for the chocolate in this recipe; a high-quality chocolate is vital for this recipe to be magical!  Either buy the Lindt medallions or a block of good chocolate (some great examples: Callebault, Valhrona, Scharffen Berger, Green & Black Or Camino Organic) and rough chop your way to chocolate chunk cookie heaven!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Banana Pumpkin Bread of AWESOMESAUCE!

Wow, two banana posts in a row. I must be on some kind of banana kick. Don't worry, I have plenty of other yummy fewdz to talk about; it was just the roll of the dice this week.


In any case, earlier this month, my friend, Erynith, decided to stay at our place for a few days and "take care of our cat" while I was away visiting family....uh huh...

I think the visit had more to do with a combination of her house being renovated and our 52" flat screen HDTV with unlimited US Netflix, but no matter...heh heh...

In any case, as she's a good house guest, Erynith brought her own groceries to prepare and consume. When she left, there were two bananas left behind. As I'm not much of a fruit person, nor is the Hubster, they sat there for a few days, getting older and browner and less appetizing, as bananas do.

I finally got sick of looking at them last week, and decided to make something out of them before they needed to be binned, so I went on my Epic Search through my cookbook library, digital recipe compendium, and online for interesting ideas. I knew I wanted to bring the resulting product with me to our Scout Camp this past weekend, so the recipe I used had to a) be pleasing to a crowd consisting of teenage boys, young men, and "oldies" (i.e. Leaders), b) be sturdy enough to survive a car ride, and c) be sufficient enough to feed all of us (including three growing teenage boys with apparently hollow legs).

I finally decided on this recipe because I had a sugar pumpkin I had brought back from my visit; however, when I finally got to making the recipe, the sugar pumpkin ended up being rotten in the middle, so I had to use my emergency go-to tin of pureed pumpkin. Ah, well.

Regardless, this recipe baked up beautifully, and was really substantial!  It also was moist enough that I can confidently state it will last for several days, wrapped and kept cool (not that it had the chance to last around our Scouts!)

Banana Pumpkin Bread

Prep Time: 20 Minutes
Baking Time: 45 Minutes
Yield: 1 loaf (12 servings)
Original Source: Allrecipes.com
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup light vegetable oil
  • 1 1/3 cups pumpkin purée
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ cup golden brown sugar
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour           
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp cloves
  • ¼ tsp ginger
  • 3/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries or diced dried apricots
  • 1/4 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds) (optional)
  • 1/2 cup nuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350˚F (175˚C). Butter a 9”x5” loaf pan.
 In a large bowl, stir together the mashed banana, eggs, oil, pumpkin, honey and sugar. 

Whisk together the remaining dry ingredients 

 and stir into the banana mixture until just combined. 

Fold in the raisins and/or cranberries and the chopped nuts, 
 reserving 1 tbsp of nuts to sprinkle on the top (optional). 
 

Pour batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. 
Cool loaf in the pan for 10 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Professional Cakes: The Most Adorable Dr. Who Cake EVER!

I think the title says it all.

Amazing design by Nerdache Cakes




Tigger as Dr. Who, and Piglet wearing a homemade Dalek costume? Sign me up!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Tropical Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

This recipe is my absolute go-to recipe for all things carrot cake; its origin comes from a trusted recipe in my little More Food That Really Schmecks baking book by my Canadian home-baking heroine, Edna Staebler. I've fiddled around with it over the years, adding this and removing/altering that, until I developed what I consider to be the best carrot cake recipe out there!  It's not oily, moist and tender, incredibly flavourful, and it's never failed me once (the four pillars on which I base all of my "tweaked until perfect" recipes).

This cake recipe is just the thing for those times when a vanilla or chocolate cake just won't do; it's a great recipe for cupcakes, layer cakes, sheet cakes, and even wedding cakes. You can add, substitute, or even omit several ingredients (as long as they're replaced with something else), you can change the sugars and the spices around to suit your tastes, and you can even delay putting the cake batter in the oven for a couple of hours with no effect (though I don't recommend it, as that means a couple extra hours you will be without NOMS IN YOUR FACE!)

So don't delay! Get out that grater, turn it to the small holed side, and start grating up carrots for the yummiest method ever created to eat your fruits and vegetables!

Alicia’s Tropical Carrot Cake

Original Source courtesy of More Food That Really Schmecks, Edna Staebler
Yield: Two 8" layers
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg OR mace
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1¼ cups vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 cups finely shredded carrots
  • 1 cup crushed pineapple, juice reserved
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup raisins, soaked in hot water and drained/patted dry

Decorating:

  • 1 cup toasted coconut (optional)
  • 18-24 walnut halves (optional)
  • 1 cup crushed walnuts (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Line two 8" round cake pans with a circle of parchment in the bottom of the pan.
  2. With blender or stand mixer, combine all dry ingredients (including spices).   
  3. Blend in oil; add eggs, carrots and pineapple, then vanilla.  Blend well, then stir in raisins by hand.
  4. Bake for 35 minutes, rotating and moving pans once during baking. Check for doneness in center of pans.
  5. Cool on rack for 15 minutes, then de-pan layers, remove parchment, and allow to cool completely before icing. 

Pineapple Cream Cheese Icing

  • 8 ounces cream cheese (1 pkg), softened
  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 1 lb icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp reserved pineapple juice
Blend cream cheese and butter; slowly add icing sugar, vanilla and orange juice.  Ice only after cake is completely cold, or it will melt. Decorate as desired.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins


Some time ago, for whatever reason that is lost to the mists of time, I made some banana chocolate chip muffins.  I probably had some bananas that were over-ripe or something. 

I had never had much success with muffins, which is weird and annoying on two fronts, considering that a) they're one of the easiest baking recipes to make, and b) I went to Pastry School for two years. WTH. I finally figured out that my inability to make a tender muffin is probably because of my twitchy need to ensure that everything is well-mixed and combined properly...which letmetellyou is the OPPOSITE of what you want to do with muffins. Over-mixing muffins can lead to the gluten in the flour becoming activated too soon, and leaving your muffins tough, heavy, flat and with little vertical tunnels running through from bottom to top.

As has been said before, while cooking is an art, baking is a science. 

And yes, I need this on a shirt or apron STAT.

As said above, the less your muffin (or quickbread) batter is mixed, the better your product will turn out. This has to do with the entirely scientific method in how acids (in this case the bananas), liquids, (eggs and milk), gluten (flour), and leavening agent (baking powder) chemically interact with one another.
I discovered an excellent explanation of why muffins behave as they do in a scientific cookbook penned in 1937, Experimental Cookery from the Chemical and Physical Standpoint by Bell Lowe. No longer in print, this cookbook/scientific manual has been lovingly preserved on the Internet for all to enjoy, or an out of print copy may be found on Amazon if one looks hard enough.

In any case, in the section on muffins, Lowe relates the results of her experiments using several different alterations to a basic muffin recipe, then recording the data and photographing the evidence.

In a nutshell, Lowe states that a maximum of 25-30 strokes/beats should give you an optimal muffin batter. This number of strokes is barely enough to combine the flour with the liquid ingredients, but don't worry; the batter at this stage should be lumpy, and break away/separate easily from the mixing spoon when filling the muffin pan cavities.  When this state is achieved, you will have perfectly baked muffins that are craggy and rough on the top but have a shiny glaze to them, have good volume, no tunnels, and are tender (tender in pastry terms means that a baked product is soft and has a good crumb).

When we mix the batter beyond this optimum amount, its appearance starts to change; the batter becomes smoother and less lumpy, it flows more readily, and as it falls from the spoon it forms long, ribbon-like strands and tends to cling to the spoon. When baked off, over-mixed muffins change in appearance, texture, and volume; the muffin top is less rounded and may come to a sharp point or peak. The crust is smoother, browns less readily, and becomes duller in appearance with less glaze. 

This is also when tunnels start to form through the muffin's centre. Not to be confused with the medium to large holes often found in muffins and cakes, caused by addition of air in mixing, these tunnels are long and narrow. The baked off muffins are less tender, the muffin's grain is finer, the cell walls thinner, and the finished muffin is more compact. 

With extremely overlong mixing, and particularly when using baking powder, the muffin's texture may become very dense with low volume; your muffins will have fewer tunnels at this stage due to their density, and the tops will be virtually flat and very smooth in appearance.
 
Wow, a science lesson, whodathunkit!!

Looking back at photos of these muffins of which I was so proud (first ones that ever worked out for me, srly!), I can tell that I had over-mixed them just the tiniest bit, probably to stage 2 according to Lowe (~60 strokes). They are a little too smooth on the tops, and some of them are just starting to peak.  But hey, I forgive me. I've learned a LOT about muffin structure since I made these, and it's my expectation hope that my next batch of muffins, be they this recipe or another, will be PERFECTION.

The best of luck to you in your Quest for the Perfect Muffin! 

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Yield: 1 dozen standard muffins
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line twelve 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper or foil cupcake liners. 
  2. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. 
  3. Combine mashed bananas, egg, melted butter and milk in medium bowl until well combined. 
  4. Stir banana mixture into dry ingredients just until barely mixed together (DO NOT OVER-MIX). Stir in chocolate chips.
  5. Divide batter among prepared muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake muffins until tops are pale golden and tester inserted into center comes out with some melted chocolate attached but no crumbs, about 32 minutes. 
  6. Transfer muffins to rack; cool.