baking, family, food celebrations

New traditions and new fondant skills

So today was my nephew’s 9th birthday party and a big event was planned in celebration. Of course, given the world’s current circumstances with COVID 19, there was no other choice but to postpone the celebration which resulted in a very sad 9 year old boy. When originally planning the party, his mother (my sister) asked if any of her family members felt confident enough to decorate a cake. Of course I immediately stuck up my hand and said “me!” She then says “he wants the bus from Fortnite.” Should be simple enough, I thought. I guess I’d better find out what a fortnite is….

So, it turns out that the characters from Fortnite are a little tougher than one would imagine. Thanks be to Pinterest, particularly one post from Alyssa Cuellar that gave me some insight into what Fortnite cakes and cupcakes were all about. (Thank you for saving it Alyssa, and I’m not sure how to find out where the original post came from but it was creative!) So based on that post, I recognized that I’d need cupcakes, fondant, food colouring, a piping bag, a number 223 Wilton tip (for grass), and a bit of time, and maybe I could make some cupcakes and leave them on my nephew’s door step and somehow salvage a little bit of a young boy’s birthday.

Here is how they turned out –

The cake recipe was simply that chocolate cake recipe that most of us know about. It uses boiling water and is really moist. Here’s a link to the recipe as it appears at the very bottom of this link from the Add a Pinch website – https://addapinch.com/the-best-chocolate-cake-recipe-ever/

If I had been able to get to a grocery store I definitely would have opted for camouflage muffin liners, but these shiny red ones are as good as it gets today unfortunately. My other choice were liners with pink hearts and they really did not go with the overall theme. Use 1/3 cup of batter per muffin liner (in a large muffin pan) and bake as per the recipe until the centres are done. Cool thoroughly before icing.

The base icing used for these cupcakes is a simple buttercream frosting made with high ratio shortening with a tbsp of meringue powder added to keep the piped icing from wilting. As I am a Wilton cake decorating alumnus, I use the Wilton icing recipe. You will not need a full batch for 12 cupcakes so I would cut the recipe in half. Here is the recipe – https://www.wilton.com/whipped-buttercream/WLRECIP-8763.html

Note that I said high ratio shortening (available at Bulk Barns in Canada) so that the icing will hold its shape when piped. This shortening plus the meringue powder are the magic ingredients that allow this to happen. Colour the icing with Wilton’s moss green colouring. Put a #233 Wilton (small grass) piping tip on your piping bag. That tip looks like this – https://www.amazon.com/Wilton-No-233-Decorating-Tip-Multi-Opening/dp/B003W0I6ZQ

I found that piping the grass takes a bit of a technique to get it looking like…grass. The bag needs to be held at right angles to the cooled cupcake, put pressure on the bag when the tip is close to the cupcake and then release your hand pressure as you lift the bag away from the cupcake for best results. You’ll find you will get into a groove of sorts. Good thing about icing is that you can scrape it away and try again. Just go with it, don’t sweat it if it’s not perfect and soon all your cupcakes will be covered with grassy frosting.

The figurines or cupcake toppers are made from fondant. I use Wilton ready use fondant. In Canada, you can find it in the bakery section of most major grocery stores. You don’t need a lot. When you are ready to create, open the bag of fondant, pinch off a small piece about the size of a quarter and start to work it in your clean hands until it is pliable. Colour with food colouring by indenting a hole in the middle of the fondant and placing a bit of food colouring gel in the hole. Work the fondant around in your fingers until the colour is mixed well and is uniform. Use disposable gloves if you desire. Again, I’m not receiving any compensation from Wilton but I find they have lots of colours and the colour mixes nicely through the fondant. Once the fondant is coloured, treat it like plasticine or PlayDoh and have fun with your creations! The fondant pieces can be done before or after the cupcakes are baked and frosted. I felt I needed lots of time for this project (remember a day ago I didn’t know what Fortnite was) so I did the cupcake toppers the day before I baked and frosted the cupcakes. Fondant will dry somewhat if left in the air, but only enough to become less fragile. Any unused fondant should be placed in a zip locked bag for future use.

Have fun with this! I left the finished cupcakes in a cupcake carrier on my nephew’s front door, went back to the car, called his dad on my cell to tell him the cupcakes were there, and stayed back the necessary 1+metre and enjoyed my nephew’s reaction. Later that day, the whole family (younger and older cousins, aunts, uncles) used a group video chat function to sing happy birthday to him and by the look on his face, it appeared that his birthday wasn’t so bad after all. Our family has now decided that, given how far we all live from each other, this will not be our last group video chat. A new tradition is borne – today it is a necessity but tomorrow or next time it could be just to keep us closer together! Our glasses are half full! Enjoy your day everyone!

~Victoria Sweet

baking, life transitions, Uncategorized

Cinnamon rolls, small towns and life lessons

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.

Until next time,

Victoria

baking, life balance

Don’t sweat the small stuff – a tale of a white chocolate cheesecake

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.

Yours in all things baked,

Victoria Sweet

baking, food celebrations

Nothing says “I love you” like a virtual cupcake

Happy Valentine’s Day to my sweetie!

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!

Experiment with different techniques – become one with your piping bag!

Here is the piping tip I used – 10 mm fluted tip (professional baker friends, correct me if I’m calling it the wrong name) – it’s been my go to tip for a lot of my baking projects.
baking, Canada's Food Guide, food choice, life transitions

You’re worth it (laments of a baker whose batch size has been limited)

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.

This week – cook yourself dinner – I’m going to!

Victoria

Cinnamon rolls for one! (I’ve saved the others for tomorrow) For my baker friends, the edges are a little ragged because I bake with gluten-free flour. As gluten provides the structure that holds the dough together, gluten-free products are a bit more delicate and don’t always hold their shape. For my friends with celiac, substitute the regular flour for gluten-free flour in the cinnamon roll recipe in a 1:1 ratio – you will not be disappointed!