Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve refreshed this blog, and if I look backwards, there have been lots of reasons, and no reasons at all why I’ve been away from the blog this long. I’ve moved provinces. I’ve ended one career and started another. Some other pressing needs seemingly took priority – I needed to organize my house. I needed to organize my home office. I needed to get a better camera for pictures of food for the blog. I bought a nice camera, but then I needed some lessons to be able to actually work the camera. The list goes on and on. But here we are – a year since my last blog entry. That time has flown by – but what do I really have to show for it? But now, in the wake of COVID 19, time seems to be going more slowly, at least it does in my house.
If we are listening to the news around us (and unless we work in one of the essential services areas), we are all in our homes, and we’ve been here for about 2 weeks. Life is pretty scary outside right now, but at the same time, the world is filled with an odd sense of tranquility. It’s almost like a holiday season where we all “downed tools” and purposefully slowed down our forward-focused, very busy lives, but this time there’s no real date on the calendar when we expect to spin things up again. Most of us are not used to having this much time on our hands.
I spent the first week or so catching up on long overdue things on my list – some family administration, some organizing around the house, trying to settle into a “work from home” routine. However, in this second week, I will be honest – I’ve felt anxiety, unable to tie up loose ends, and experienced some inability to settle into a routine that I know is so important from the perspective of mental health and resiliency. So as we go into our third week, I’m working hard to fix that. I will establish a routine that looks after my physical, spiritual, creative and professional self. I will also cultivate a practice of reflection and gratitude. And part of this will be to dust off Victoria Sweet, which a mere year ago was a very important part of my creative self, a part that I have let slide off my list of priorities. By establishing this routine, I will be better able to insulate myself and my family from the uncertainty of our present time, and better help myself and my family to be able to weather our current situation for both the short and the long haul. I hope you will join me. It’s been too long since we’ve talked together.
My family has finally made our transition to our forever (we think) home, and our forever (we think) town in beautiful Pictou County, Nova Scotia and I recently had occasion to visit a local bakery. This bakery was Cakes and Things, on Provost Street in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Anyone who knows me knows that I will drive 100 km out of my way to visit a bakery, and this one was right beside me as I was walking on the street so how could I not go in? It was later in the day (3 pm, late by a baker’s standards as they normally get up at the crack of dawn to start their bake, what a glorious job that would be..but I digress). So it was later in the day and luckily for me there were still a few of the most amazing cinnamon rolls available for sale. I picked up an especially yummy looking one and took it to the cash. I then struck up a conversation with the baker. He told me that he started the bakery because he really loved to bake. He and his business partner (his mom; how blessed is she that her son is willing to go into business with her!) had been baking for the local markets but that wasn’t enough baking for him so they decided to open a storefront. As our conversation went on, I realized that there was no debit machine on the cash and I said, “are you a cash only business?” I never have any cash in my wallet, it’s a long term effect from raising teenagers. “Yes,” he answered, “but please take the cinnamon roll. I know after one taste you’ll be back.” I offered to run to the bank (there were like 3 in the immediate area) but he insisted, and although I was feeling just a tad uncomfortable, I felt even more uncomfortable abandoning the cinnamon roll and refusing his hospitality. It just felt, well, rude to do so, and I’ll be honest, the cinnamon roll looked delicious! So I took him up on his offer, and guess what? He was right, I will be back. I’m going to order my sister’s birthday cake from him, because that cinnamon roll was great.
My husband and I decided to move back to the Pictou County area of Nova Scotia after our retirement from the Canadian Armed Forces in order to slow our lives down a bit. We had moved our family all over Canada, had done some really exciting jobs, but we were always in a rush. We wanted, we needed, a slower pace, and we hoped that coming back to Nova Scotia would provide that for us. I think we are still finding our way a bit in terms of slowing down, but that one visit to Cakes and Things Bakery and accepting the offer of a cinnamon roll reminded me why we made this choice. The offer of a cinnamon roll from a person who makes his business from selling cinnamon rolls but who didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned that he wasn’t getting immediate return from the exchange is an important life lesson. Life is a journey, success in life takes many forms, and return on investment isn’t always immediate. Sometimes true wealth comes from another source.
So now my next big decision is whether to order the chocolate or the vanilla cake.
Today is my dh’s birthday so last night I whipped up his favourite carrot cake recipe and set my finished cake out to cool for the evening so I could get it all frosted before his birthday began. The recipe is one that I have made a thousand times before and it turns out great when you use gluten free flour. As I prepared the batter I started to think about all the birthday traditions that I had grown up with and smiled when I remembered how I tried to bring some of these traditions over to my new family (my husband and me) when we first started out together.
In my childhood family, birthdays weren’t celebrated with a lot of money, but there were certain things that you knew were going to happen when your big day came. I was the middle child in a family of five children, and we were spread out somewhat far in age, so there always seemed to be a bigger sister or brother ready to carry things out if Mom or Dad somehow forgot. I remember well trying to sneak downstairs and get out the door and on the bus before the house remembered that it was my birthday. The first thing one could expect was the inevitable “butter on the nose” trick. Birthday celebrators needed to have a generous glob of butter ceremoniously put on the end of their nose (or worse yet, that hard brick margarine that was popular in the 70s and 80s – it hurt when being smushed into the nose). Because the birthday victim was usually running away from the assailant, sometimes that butter got in your eye (now there’s a good saying, “here’s butter in yer eye – have a happy birthday!”) or sometimes down the side of your neck, or worse, in your hair (and you still had to get on the bus and go to school, just add that grease to an already puberty-inspired oily ‘do).
And let’s not forget the “birthday bumps” or birthday spankings. One swat on the derriere for each year of your life. That’s likely illegal now, and maybe with good cause, as there is nothing that makes a child not want to grow into the double digit years like the fear of double digit birthday bumps.
The final tradition that my family enjoyed that made my hubby’s eyebrows raise a bit is the tradition of putting money in the birthday cake. Our mom would always put change in the cake and you had to chew very slow to avoid choking. Again, through a 2019 lens, likely not the smartest practice, but hey, I’m still here, and it gave the family a chance to practice their first aid choking drills. Unfortunately, I hadn’t introduced this particular tradition to my hubby in our dating years, and the first cake I made for him happened to be for a birthday celebrated while we were in different provinces while he was on a military course. I couriered a cake to him, which he excitedly opened and shared with his friends. Imagine his surprise (and alarm) when he took a big bite and almost swallowed a quarter.
Sadly, as I think back, these traditions didn’t last in my new family, and that’s just a bit sad. I think on the occasional birthday I would sneak into my kids’ rooms and slather their noses with butter and enjoy the yells of “hey mom, come on!” but unless the tradition is embraced with gusto, it dies a natural death. Maybe I’ll make it my ambition to start it up all again with my grandchildren. And as far as my hubby’s birthday goes, the day isn’t over yet.
I posted a picture of my hubby’s birthday cake. I wanted to do a naked cake but it is his preference to have his carrot cake drowning in cream cheese icing. So I offer a compromise – a bit naked on the sides, and party on the top. A reverse mullet if you will, to celebrate the birthday of a 50 something guy who grew up in the 80’s. Happy birthday Tom, and have a great day everyone!
We had 7 people over for dinner tonight. Well, they were members of my husband’s family so were somewhat forgiving in terms of my culinary endeavours but I still wanted dinner to be special. So early this morning I started to prepare a beautiful white chocolate cheesecake using a recipe I had used many times before. Unfortunately it did not go as I had expected.
Cheesecake, under normal circumstances, is not difficult to make if you remember a few simple rules. Do not over cook or it will taste dry. To combat this I have found a water bath to be the best way forward. Chatelaine magazine has a great article on how to do this. Use a simple recipe. Don’t let your cheesecake endeavours get too complicated. My go to white chocolate cheesecake recipe is here. Finally, do not overfill the springform pan with batter. If you do this, it could overflow the pan while baking and that would be a cheesecake disaster.
So you ask, what went wrong? Well first of all, I am baking in my beautiful retirement home kitchen, and for the life of me I cannot remember what I have in terms of equipment in my retirement home kitchen and in my temporary tiny Kingston Ontario kitchen. Today, my Kingston kitchen came out on top for equipment readiness. If I hadn’t bought an additional springform pan yesterday while grocery shopping (just in case) I would have been without a springform pan today. I would have had to serve my guests cheesecake cupcakes. My cupboards only held parts of springform pans of various sizes. The complementing parts of the pans are likely in one of the 50 odd boxes in my basement yet to be unpacked.
Secondly, I could not find a suitable shallow pan to use as a water bath, so I decided to bake the cheesecake in the oven and put a small pan of water beside the springform pan to act as a water bath. It wan’t a good substitute. Again, the shallow pan I needed is somewhere in the myriad of unpacked boxes in the basement.
The fatal flaw was that I inadvertently pressed the “bake convection” button when I put the cheesecake in the oven. So when I came to check on the cheesecake in the middle of the baking time, it was already a horrifying shade of brown from the convection setting. I was near tears as I looked at it. To finish the tragedy, I didn’t put all of the batter in the springform pan because I thought it might overflow. In my caution I took out too much batter and my finished cheesecake was too short. It was not a good cheesecake day in the Victoria Sweet household. Amateur mistakes all.
Today was also a holiday in Nova Scotia and all stores were closed, so I had no other choice but to serve my substandard cheesecake. I topped it with a slightly sweetened strawberry sauce and hoped for the best, knowing that I was serving family and that they would forgive my culinary transgressions. I was overwhelmed with the positive comments – regardless of its issues, the white chocolate cheesecake was a hit. So this, my friends, leads me to the lesson of today – do not sweat the small stuff. Do your best, play your hand and keep moving forward. Don’t focus on what you feel are your failings, because you may find that no one else but you has noticed them. Here’s a picture of what was left over after dinner. Although it was definitely prettier with the strawberries on top, I’m glad that I decided to serve it and not put it out in the compost. Next time, though, I’ll do an inventory of materials on hand before I start to bake.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner but I won’t see my hubby (and my fur babies) until a day or so later. For those familiar with my blog, my hubby has been busy painting our retirement house over the last couple of weeks while I continue to work in a city about 1500 kms away. I will see him on the weekend, at which time I will bake a white chocolate cheesecake (and yes, I will blog about it), but I’m pretty sure the rest of you will have focused your attention on the next holiday by that time, and you won’t be interested in a Valentine’s Day post written on the 16th of February.
Valentine’s Day, in my humble opinion, is a great occasion to show your beloved just how much they are loved by the effort you put into your baked goods….or at least how much effort you appear to put into your baked goods. Before you all brand me an imposter, let me explain.
This pretty little cupcake above could not be any more simple to bake. First, you buy some pretty paper cups for baking. I can’t remember the brand name of the cups I used for today’s cupcakes, but they stand up on their own. Any craft store that carries cake decorating supplies will have them. Then you pick a nice moist cake recipe that you have faith in. There is nothing worse than biting into a pretty cupcake and having it taste like cardboard. The recipe I used for this cupcake was found on another baker’s blog (thank you http://www.simplerevisions.com) – who by the way is an amazing food photographer, an area that I plan to improve on in the next few months. Here’s the link to the recipe.
For my friends who use gluten-free flour, I have not tested this recipe with gluten-free flour, so I’m not sure of how well it will do.
Now it’s time to bake the cupcakes. Cupcake wrappers go into a muffin tin, and batter goes into the wrappers. When you put the batter in the cupcake wrappers, do not overfill! This part is very important! Depending on the cupcake wrapper size, you should only put in between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of batter. The cupcake when cooked should not rise above the wrapper. If it does, it will ruin the look of the finished cupcake. Bake the cupcakes as per the recipe and let them cool completely. This is also very important because if you try to decorate a hot cake, it will be a hot mess, trust me.
Whip up your favourite buttercream icing recipe (I used the recipe at the link, but any recipe that you trust will do). The trick to getting your buttercream icing to hold its shape is to add a tsp of meringue powder to the icing sugar. It will still taste the same and look the same but it will not wilt at normal room temperatures. I use Wilton meringue powder exclusively so I cannot talk knowingly about other brands. Flavour the buttercream with some flavouring if you so desire (I used LorAnn’s strawberry flavoured oil, specifically because I don’t like strawberry flavour unless it is attached to a strawberry. It’s my built in safety valve to make sure I don’t eat any, especially since I am emailing a picture of this cupcake to my hubby and the cupcakes would otherwise be sitting on my counter taunting me. That being said, the rest of LorAnn’s flavour oils are amazing. I just don’t like strawberry). For Valentine’s Day it is my opinion that the icing needs to be pink or red. I used Wilton’s icing colour paste (in pink) as it doesn’t water down the icing.
Put a large fluted tip on your piping bag. See the picture below to see the size of the tip I used. (I don’t have a brand name because it was taken from my son’s apprentice cook’s tool box and was initially meant for fluted potatoes). Fill up a reusable piping bag with your icing, and decorate the cupcakes as desired. For the cupcake above, I used a swirling motion of my hand, starting in the middle and covering most of top of the cupcake before adding a second layer of icing. Make circles smaller as you add layers, stopping when you can add a peak. Garnish with a pink candy. Voila! It took longer to write this blog post than it did to decorate the cupcake and your beloved will be impressed with your efforts. It’s just a personal preference, but I like a little bit of the cake peeking through the icing. If you don’t, just swirl nice and wide so that you cover all of the cake.
Have fun with this and try new techniques. For example, for the cupcake below I simply held the bag straight up and used an on and off type pressure on the piping bag, lifting up a bit each time to get the effect. The point is not to get too serious about it and experiment to see which effect you like best. The joy in this is you get to eat your mistakes, something you don’t get to do in other creative endeavours such as oil paints or pottery. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! I have to sign off and send my email!
I’ve been living alone for the last three weeks while my spouse has gone to our retirement house to do some painting. Well, I’m not truly alone – my 21 year old is still here but he works lots of nights so we pass each other on his way to work and my return from work. I think of myself as a resilient person, happy to be with myself and enjoying my own company, and it certainly isn’t the only time I’ve been alone. I have deployed in my military job (well, arguably there were other soldiers with me), I have been on course in my military job (well, again, I had course mates), but this might be one of the few times in my life where I didn’t have a regular “posse” to take my meals with, and I have been a little alarmed of how lazy I have become with regard to meal preparation. Yesterday as I was coming back from a wonderful power walk, feeling fit and strong, I passed a local coffee shop, I felt an overwhelming urge to stop and pick up a sandwich for supper, just so I could avoid the task of cooking for myself. I was just about to stop when I realized this was about the 4th time this week that I had a similar urge. Thinking of the newly released Canada’s Food Guide mantras “cook more” and “be more mindful” of the influences around food choice, I thought to myself, “This is crazy!” and kept walking. I arrived home, defrosted some chicken breast, made myself a homemade chicken Caesar salad and settled in for a night of Netflix, happy to have avoided the temptation of an easy meal and happy to be in complete control of the remote control.
In the recently released Canada’s Food Guide, Health Canada has included the concepts of mindfulness, focusing on home food preparation and eating as a group for very good reason. Food is a social activity. Many of our cultural traditions, regardless of the origin of that culture, involve food and food preparation rituals. As humans, we are meant to eat together. I have always found the work surrounding the preparation of a family meal (festive or not) quite relaxing and certainly worth any effort I needed to put forth. So why is it so hard to muster that effort when I am cooking just for me? Not sure, but I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. In fact I was speaking with my elder son about this issue as I was typing this blog. My son’s partner until very recently has travelled a lot for work. My son’s reaction to the trials of cooking for himself? “Mom, it’s brutal!”
So why bother? Why not just grab something from the deli and be done with it? Cost is a limiting factor for most folks, but even without that factor, when we are not in control of the food preparation process, we are also not in control of the nutrient content. Portion sizes are generally larger (at least for me as I’m an aging short woman) and that means body weight becomes more difficult to control. Ready made items are generally higher in fat and sodium (check out the nutrient information on that frozen entree the next time you’re in the grocery store – you’ll be shocked!) And if you’re a foodie, the taste is normally substandard. Home made items for the win on all accounts – cost, nutrition, and taste – but how to muster the energy to cook for yourself?
One of the best habits I’ve seen among my friends who are in the “live alone, eat alone” phase of their lives is preparation. Many of them devote a day or so to prepare larger portions of food and then portion it down to single servings. I’ve done this a lot as my husband and I entered the empty nester stage of our lives. I would cook a large lasagna (sometimes out of habit), serve it for dinner and then single portion the rest, freeze it and send it with him for work lunches. This would work well in my situation as I could cook one or two main entrees and single portion them and freeze them for later meals. However if you’re not careful, you’re going to be very tired of lasagna very fast. Another idea is to buy raw product such as fish, meat or poultry and single portion the items out before you freeze them. In this manner, you simply have to defrost one portion of meat and then pair it with a salad, veg or other healthy side to make your meal complete. My personal commitment over the next week is to treat myself as if I was a member of my family. Sounds silly, but why am I so hesitant to put the same effort into my single meal that I would very willingly put into the meals of my family? I need to walk the talk of this blog – I’m worth it – and I will set the table, garnish my plate, and turn off the tv and enjoy the meal. That is my promise to me for this coming week.
Finally there are a ton of blogs and websites dedicated to the single diner or the couple. I searched the web over the weekend looking for baking blogs dedicated to small batches as I really thought that if cooking for one is tough, baking for one would be tougher (and I was dying for a good cinnamon roll!) I was very happy to find an amazing website called http://www.dessertfortwo.com which caters to small batch cooking and baking. I made myself the cinnamon rolls this morning and they were amazing! So, that’s my thoughts for today. Cooking for myself falls under the category of necessary self-care and I will make a stronger effort to do it. I’m heading to Nova Scotia to the “big house” next week so I’ll have my hubby, pups and hopefully extended family to cook and bake for. Stay tuned for an amazing white cheesecake recipe just in time for Valentine’s Day!
I would be interested in hearing how everyone meets the challenge of cooking for themselves or for themselves and a partner. Please place your ideas in the comments below.
I have had a momma chair for years. The momma chair in our family is that comfy chair with room for two people (or three if the occasion calls for it) to put their feet up, snuggle in, watch an episode or two of a favourite show, and forget about the world. These are comforting traditions that warm the soul. In the early years, the momma chair was a tan fabric lounger, put in the family room for kids to sit on and do homework while I made dinner in the adjoining kitchen. After the night’s activities were done and there was a bit of time for real relaxation before the next hectic day, one of my growing boys would yell out that a favourite show was on, and did I want to come and watch it with him? I’d say, “where do you want to sit?” The answer would invariably be “with you in the momma chair.”
Well over the years, boys grow up, leave home, and chairs need to be retired. The current momma chair is a grey two piece lounger with separate ottoman, with room enough for me and my hubby, or me and the pups. This momma chair was broken in by our beloved bulldog Helena, whose favourite activity on a Friday night would be to shuffle into the family room, wait for a crust of pizza (or a whole piece as she aged), and then jump up on the momma chair for a night of cuddling and movie watching. Helena has since passed, but this momma chair has become a favourite spot for our two young labs, one of whom sits on the ottoman, and the other curls up along my side. This momma chair is becoming a bit worn too, and it will be soon gifted to my son and his family, likely to take up a similar position of comfort in front of a wood stove. And life goes on, just on a slightly different path.
Family traditions, favourite recipes and comfort often go hand in hand. It’s sometimes too much of a shock to our system for things to change too much at once, so gradual changes seem to be easier to take and allow us to gather strength to face life’s next chapter. Food too can form part of the of our family comfort rituals, but sometimes as life goes on the changes that we face are ones in our diets.
The recipe featured today is my family’s absolute favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe, and one that I thought we’d have to abandon forever due to my husband’s wheat allergy that started to impact him in his late 40s. His symptoms include esophagitis, which often presents with chest pain, so it is a situation that we take seriously. Making good quality cookies that are wheat free is a challenge, as wheat free baking can be unforgiving if you do not take care in the mixing and baking process. (Wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity are two entirely different medical issues, but if you use non-wheat gluten free flour in your recipes, you are eliminating wheat, so making baked goods with gluten free flour is appropriate in my hubby’s case.) Use Robin Hood gluten free flour in a 1:1 substitution, and you can usually finish up with a good product. Unfortunately gluten provides the structure that our baked goods need, so the trick is blend gently, and make sure you don’t over bake. If you do, your products will taste like paper…very dry paper. These cookies should only be beaten for the minimum amount to blend the ingredients, and cooked just long enough for them to be chewy in the centre.
Here’s the recipe – thank you Chipits – I’ve been making this recipe since my boys were toddlers. Remember that if you want this recipe to be wheat free, check the ingredient listing on the other ingredients such as baking powder. I use Robin Hood gluten free flour as it allows a 1:1 substitution and you don’t need to add xanthan gum (xanthan gum is often added to gluten free flour to keep products from falling apart after baking). Also, in this recipe, if you want truly chewy cookies, use margarine, not butter. Butter will cause the ends of the cookies to thin and crisp. Margarine will allow the cookies to retain a nice rounded edge. For my hubby, milk is another allergen, so he enjoys these with a nice tall glass of rice milk. Sigh…so many changes as we go down life’s path. Maybe I won’t gift the momma chair just yet.
Yours in love and all things baked! XOX Victoria Sweet