Valentine’s Day Baking

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and while we’re not terribly into big romantic gestures in our household, the kids really do love celebrating this holiday at school. Everyone ends up with a little mailbox full of Valentines, and some sweets to bring home, and often parents send in some nice snacks for the kids to munch on throughout the day. So of course I had to get the girls to help me with some baking to bring along to class.

At Thing 1’s insistence, I made a chocolate sheet cake with chocolate icing for her class. Since she loved her Triforce Cake so much, I used the same recipe: Amelia Bedelia’s Sheet Cake, found at the back of the story book Amelia Bedelia Bakes Off (Herman Parish, 2010), or online via Desktop Cookbook. This time, though, I actually made buttercream icing from scratch — my very first time trying it! I used the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition) recipe for Chocolate Buttercream found on page 793. Honestly, the icing was more difficult to make than the cake, but it turned out so well! I used really dark chocolate and my munchkin appreciated it. She isn’t actually a big fan of the thick layers of super-sweet icing that are commonly found on commercial cakes, and to be honest, neither am I. I decorated the icing with a dusting of icing sugar over some heart-shaped cookie cutters, and then I removed the cutters to lay down a heart made of Smarties. I know it wasn’t symmetrical, but the kiddos didn’t seem to care.

Thing 2, however, really wanted to make mini banana muffins for her class. I went back to the trusty recipe in the Joy of Cooking and we together we made the Banana Bread Cockaigne on page 628. There’s a lot of teaching that goes along with baking with a child of that age, especially since they haven’t started learning fractions yet! Even so, this recipe is very forgiving (if you read my blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that it’s a favourite), and it turned out really well. There were only three left over after she shared them with her friends, and those were promptly snatched up by her grandparents. Not that I begrudge them, because if they didn’t eat them, I would.

I hope you all had a lovely Valentine’s Day and were spoiled with some of your own favourite treats!

Valentine’s Day Sweets

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, which for me meant that the day before was spent in the kitchen baking. Okay, well, not the whole day; some of my time was spent in the kitchen dealing with a leaking dishwasher. That slowed things down immensely. Luckily, the issue was a slightly-clogged drain pipe and dirt in the door seal that kept it from being watertight, and a good cleaning of the machine fixed the leak. If your dishwasher is going to leak, a fix without having to purchase expensive parts is best, really. Also, there wasn’t enough water that came out to cause much damage. The basement ceiling is a drop ceiling and the walls and floor are only half-finished, so there’s not much there for the water to damage anyway.

When I did get to bake, the first thing I tried was a double-batch of White Layer Cake found on page 110 of Essential Cooking Basics: The New Cook by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler (1997). I used crab apple jelly that I’d made back in the fall as filling. This recipe was very nicely illustrated and easy to follow. It yielded lovely cupcakes that had a crumbly, buttery texture, which were similar to a good cornmeal muffin on top but with a softer middle. The recipe does call for self-rising flour, which I’ve come to realize is a really common ingredient in British recipes, but isn’t something the average cook would have in the pantry around here. Heck, not all grocery stores carry it. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to make with all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt: directions here.

As I discovered, a single batch only yields about a dozen cupcakes, and I wanted to make 48 (half for Thing 1’s Guide troupe, and half for Thing 2’s Sparks troupe). By the time I’d figured this out, I’d run out of a few ingredients; this recipe takes a lot of eggs. I was getting a bit pressed for time, so I dug out a package each of IKEA Muffinsmix Choklad and Muffinsmix Citron (just-add-water chocolate and lemon cake mix, respectively). Thing 1 got the IKEA cupcakes and Thing 2 got the Mary Berry ones, and I honestly think that Thing 2 got the better end of the deal by a long shot.

Next came the treats for the treats for the girls’ homeroom classes at school. I’d planned on making orange sugar cookies for which I’d found a vintage Bake King recipe sheet tucked into an old cookbook, but those required the dough to be chilled and I had simply run out of time. I fell back on a recipe that I’d used successfully in the past for Fudgy Pumpkin Coffee Brownies (minus the coffee, since the intended audience was children). This recipe can be found on page 222 of Purely Pumpkin by Allison Day (2016). Once again, I substituted whole wheat flour for einkorn or light spelt flour, and even with this change, the brownies turned out great. This recipe invariably yields moist, rich brownies with just the right level of sweetness. As a bonus, I got to use up some of the Halloween pumpkin puree that’s still in my freezer. And none of the brownies came back home, so I figure that at least some of the kids (and/or the teachers) liked them.

Holiday Sweets

It seems like I have spent most of the last few days either cooking or driving around town to deliver Christmas presents, with a bit of housecleaning and last-minute decorating mixed in. On one of those gift deliveries, I received my very first gift of the season!

That’s three types of homemade fudge, all cooked up by my friend and her daughter, and then wrapped prettily. Thing 1 and Thing 2 keep asking me to share, but I have selfishly been hoarding it all for myself. (They’ve been on the receiving end of many other treats, so I don’t feel too bad.) I have a weakness for fudge.

One of Thing 2’s Sparks leaders has organized gifts to bring to one of the local retirement homes. Parent volunteers baked cookies and squares, which the leader will package into gift bags. One of the baked goods that I contributed was mini lemon cupcakes, which is actually just IKEA Muffinsmix Citron baked into tiny IKEA Snodriva paper liners (now discontinued). Is it a bad thing that I don’t always make things from scratch?

I did bake these Fudgy Pumpkin Coffee Brownies (page 222, Purely Pumpkin by Allison Day (2016)) completely from scratch, though. These also went to the retirement home gift bags. I used some of the Halloween pumpkin that I’d roasted, too! I really liked how moist these brownies ended up, courtesy of the pumpkin puree inside. I successfully substituted equal amounts of whole wheat flour for einkorn wheat, which I couldn’t find around here (and honestly had never heard of until I read this recipe). I did use a dairy-free chocolate chip, but I think I may go for a standard kind next time — I hear that they’re even making a dark chocolate chip now that’s available in most grocery stores.

Halloween Party Food

I hosted our family’s annual Halloween party this past Saturday, and of course that meant lots of food. I put out bowls of chips, Cheetos (the “Bag of Bones” kind that are shaped like dismembered skeletons), pretzels, cheese & crackers, a shrimp ring, a meat tray, a veggie tray, and fruit. And then I added the food that I’d actually cooked.

Salsa and guacamole served with black corn chips are a perennial favourite, but I had fun with the presentation this year. I got the idea to use the “puking” pumpkin from a BuzzFeed 7 Terrifying Halloween Food Ideas video. The guacamole was store-bought, but the salsa was the Blender Salsa (page 92, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)) that I’d canned earlier this season. I did want to try the “Rotten Deviled Eggs” from the same BuzzFeed video, but I ran out of time and just ended up making normal deviled eggs instead. They went over well anyway, and disappeared quickly.

I did a huge amount (at least for me) of baking in the days leading up to the party so that I could serve a wide variety of sweets. I made Applesauce Cake (page 720, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer et al, 2006 edition) into cupcakes, which I iced with Quick Brown Butter Icing (page 794, Joy of Cooking). When I was preparing the batter for the cupcakes, I put the margarine (which I had substituted for butter) in the microwave to soften it… And then I forgot about it. I didn’t realize I’d left it out of the batter until the cupcakes were already baking in the oven. They turned out okay anyway, but they were a little drier than I’d have liked.

I made pumpkin pie tarts using the Purity Pastry crust (page 73, The All New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001)) and Pumpkin or Squash Pie filling (page 686, Joy of Cooking). To make the pie dairy-free, I used canned coconut milk instead of heavy cream or evaporated milk. I wasn’t the only person who was going to be at the party who has issues with dairy, so I tried to avoid it whenever possible when cooking this time.

I forgot to include this find when I wrote about thrifting a while back, but I did find a cookie press for about $4.00. I’ve always loved spritz cookies; they were a favourite when I went to bake sales and bazaars, but I couldn’t make them at home since I didn’t have the appropriate tools.

I guess most people would associate this kind of cookie with Christmas rather than Halloween, but there’s nothing saying they can’t be eaten any time, really. I used the Spritz Cookies recipe from page 248 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987), which calls for butter, but I substituted margarine. Not surprisingly, the cookies weren’t as buttery as they could have been, but they were still pretty darned good.

Some time ago I asked one of my friends for her all-time favourite cookie recipe, and she said it was Elevator Lady Spice Cookies on page 99 of The I hate to Cook Book (1966 edition). I’d been looking for an excuse to try them out. Given the powdered cloves and ginger in the recipe, these cookies remind me a bit of a ginger snap in flavour, but with a less brittle texture. As a bonus, this recipe doesn’t contain any dairy in the first place, so I didn’t have to make any substitutions (like many older recipes it uses lard instead of butter as the fat, since it is cheaper).

I made these soft, moist cookies using the Pumpkin Cookies recipe from the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. To make them dairy-free, I substituted margarine for butter and almond milk for cow’s milk. These were a big hit and a number of my friends asked if they could take a few home with them!

I splurged at the dollar store and bought some mini muffin tins so that I could make some miniature Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins. Since there is milk in the chocolate chips and these wouldn’t be the same without them, I didn’t even try to make this recipe dairy-free. They’re still a fan favourite; out of three dozen mini muffins, I only had three left over after the party, which all mysteriously disappeared first thing the next morning.

At my friends’ request, I made up another loaf of Voodoo Bread. I learned from my mistakes and used gloves when I kneaded the bread this time. I still didn’t get the well-defined swirl that I was looking for, but it was still a really cool-looking bread.

Not pictured because I forgot, I also had three bread machines going at the same time and made three different kinds of bread, all from Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002):

– Egg-Enriched White Loaf (page 67), where I substituted equal amounts of olive oil for the butter in the original recipe.
– Light Rye and Caraway Bread (page 75), where I substituted canola oil for sunflower oil (I have a friend who is violently allergic to sunflowers), and I omitted skimmed milk powder, simply adding 1 Tbsp water.
– Golden Pumpkin Bread (page 167), where I made a lot of changes because I was missing a bunch of the ingredients called for in the recipe. I substituted whole wheat flour for cornmeal, maple syrup for golden syrup, almond milk for buttermilk, and I omitted the pumpkin seeds. Despite all of the changes, it still turned out great!

Last but not least, I made up a batch of Cookie Monster’s Famous Cookie Dough, which is a favourite recipe of mine since my childhood. I used margarine instead of butter, but the recipe calls for either, so it still tastes nigh on identical to what I remember. With my parents’ help, my kids rolled out the dough, cut it out, and then painted it with a glaze made of egg whites/yolks (depending on the colour) mixed with food colouring. Even with all of the different dishes that I put out for this party, the Cookie Monster Cookies were my favourite. All of the other food was good, but you can’t beat nostalgia.

Another dish I would like to try, but I ran out of time, was Tasty’s Peek-A-Boo Pound Cake. Perhaps I could make something similar for Christmas with a different shape inside?

Poutine & Cupcakes

Continuing this week’s pre-Canada-150 lead-up, I’d like to start with some iconic Canadian music: The Log Driver’s Waltz. The song became an integral part of art culture in Canada in 1979, when an became the soundtrack of arguably the most popular animated short in the Canada Vignettes series released by the National Film Board. The short, along with the other Vignettes, was aired on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) between programs as filler, so it was very possible to catch this song multiple times a day throughout the 1980’s. There is also a French-language version entitled La valse du maître draveur. The chorus of the English version is as follows:

For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly
Yes, birling down and down white water
The log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely

Birling, by the way, isn’t a word in common parlance even in Canada (at least not anymore), but it according to the the Free Dictionary, it is “a game of skill, especially among lumberjacks, in which two competitors try to balance on a floating log while spinning it with their feet. Also called logrolling.”

The timber trade in general is a huge part of the history of Canada as a whole, and the Ottawa area in particular. The trade blossomed in the early 1800’s, with log rafts and booms being a common sight on the Ottawa River for over a hundred years. Related trades played a large part in the development of the city, with a large number of local trades becoming part of the cultural landscape in the sawmills and their later cousins the pulp and paper mills.


Homemade poutine

The timber industry was dominated by backbreaking labour, what would now be called blue-collar work, and in a similar vein, the famous French-Canadian dish of poutine is considered a very blue-collar dish (although honestly everyone eats it, no matter their level of wealth). Poutine would probably have been appreciated by log drivers, but it didn’t come into being until the 1950’s, when the local trade was on its last legs. Poutine is a mouth-wateringly delicious pub grub combination of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. The one that I made yesterday, pictured above, also had chunks of the ground beef that I used to make the gravy from scratch. I made the fries using the Baked French Fries I recipe on Allrecipies — although I set the oven to 400°F (205°C) instead of the higher temperature in the directions, as per suggestions in the comments. Poutine may look like a hot mess, but it tastes fantastic, and it’s particularly good while/after a few drinks.


Strawberry cupcake with buttercream icing & a maple-leaf-shaped strawberry gummy

Of course, you have to follow a meal of meat and carbs with dessert, right? My family ate these strawberry cupcakes with buttercream frosting following the poutine (I don’t know how they had any room left). The cupcakes were Sprinkles’ Strawberry Cupcakes from Martha Stewart. They came out looking great, but I was a little disappointed in the flavour; I’d hoped they would taste more like the strawberry puree that was in the batter, but mostly what I could taste was vanilla. Originally I had planned to make a maple buttercream frosting, but I don’t know what I did wrong and the frosting separated as soon as I stopped mixing. I was so disappointed! I ended up using store-bought Duncan Hines buttercream frosting (which contains neither butter nor cream), which was a blow to my pride, but at least my friends with milk allergies could eat it. And hey, the cupcakes looked red and white for Canada Day!

Confetti Cupcakes

Yesterday was Thing 2’s birthday party — not her birthday itself, which is unluckily squished in between Christmas and New Year’s, but her party. With all of the other affairs going on that time of year, her celebration with friends gets pushed back to the late winter or early spring. As a family we make a big fuss of her on her actual birthday, but this way she gets to pick the date of her party for a time when she can feel special in her own right, and not just “squeezed in”.

So the plan this year, as per her request, was to make confetti cupcakes, the ones with multicoloured sprinkles mixed directly into the batter.

I found the Homemade Funfetti Cake recipe on Sally’s Baking Addiction, which called for a lot of sprinkles. 2/3 of a cup of sprinkles — and I doubled the recipe. I basically emptied out all the multicoloured sprinkles in my stash into one measuring cup.

So many sprinkles! Perfect, I thought, for what Thing 2 wanted. Sadly, it didn’t work out.

It’s hard to tell from this picture since by this point the cupcakes were all piled on top of each other after they were cooled, but almost all of the cupcakes stuck to the muffin pans and left huge chunks of themselves behind. And yes, I used non-stick muffin pans and sprayed them with cooking spray.

Those few cupcakes that didn’t joined their broken brethren in falling apart ended up slowly deflating and collapsing, as Eddie Izzard would put it, “like a flan in a cupboard”. They all just… Fell. They were too soft and refused to hold their shape. When the first pan came out like this, I thought perhaps they weren’t cooked the whole way through, but upon testing they were definitely done. They even tasted good! I baked the second pan for a few minutes longer than the first, thinking perhaps it was a problem with my oven. But I checked the internal temperature with a secondary thermometer, and it was spot-on. Either I messed up somewhere (did I forget an ingredient or something?), or there’s something up with the recipe. Perhaps there are just too many sprinkles? They’re structurally sound when cold, but when they melt, they’re sugary mush.

At this point it was 11:00pm the night before the party, and I was something on par with the Great Cake Disaster of my 16th birthday (pictured above). In retrospect, that one was caused by not levelling my cakes. The weather was also too hot (30°C or so) and humid (and us with no air conditioning) for the chocolate buttercream frosting to keep the cake from sliding over. My friends referred to it as the “Leaning Tower of Poo”. At least the flavour was okay.

I ran out to the only 24-hour grocery store around here and grabbed myself a box of Duncan Hines Confetti White Cupcake Mix, along with a package of Reynolds StayBrite Easy Release Baking Cups. No way was my second batch of cupcakes going to fail! And I needed to get some sleep before party day.

As promised by the packaging, the Confetti Cups went off without a hitch. They released easily from the baking cups, they didn’t fall, and they were done in record time. I also made them with the “lower fat recipe” on the back of the box, which didn’t seem to affect the cupcakes at all, except nutritionally. Taste-wise, the Homemade Funfetti Cupcakes were definitely better (quite yummy, actually), since the Confetti Cups had that boxed-cake-mix tang. But I needed and end product that would hold up structurally.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up some little kits from the grocery store to add to our stash assortment of cake decorations. The cupcake above was decorated mostly with the Twinkle Baker Décor Deco Bonbon Little Kittens set.

For the kids who aren’t interested in cutesy stuff, I also picked up the Twinkle Baker Decor Deco Bonbons Friends kit. Given the age of the kids at the party, I have no idea why I assumed that they would decorate their cupcakes more-or-less the same way as on the packaging. I should know better by now.

The creature above was one of my favourite of the guests’ creations. She showed it off to me, and then promptly ate its face off.

And this last one was Thing 2’s cupcake. You can usually tell which one is hers by the incorporation of Halloween-y elements. Like mother, like daughter, I guess.

So happy birthday (party) to my beloved Thing 2! I hope you take away fond memories of this day, and that the rest of your year is fabulous.

Sunday Dinner

Yesterday was Sunday, and that meant Sunday Dinner over at my parents’ house, in quasi-British style. It’s not something we do every weekend, but it is a regular enough event. My parents made a lovely roast beef, potatoes and carrots — and of course the always-delicious Yorkshire pudding. Now, I can’t make a tasty roast to save my life (mine are always dry, tasteless, or both), but I wanted to contribute to the meal. I woke up this morning figuring that some baking was in order.

I picked up a copy of Bread for All Seasons (1995) by Beth Hensperger a few days ago at a thrift shop, and I was dying to try out some of the recipes. My choice for dinner was Sweet Potato Cloverleafs (page 114).

The dough isn’t nearly as orange as one might think it should be, and that’s because I didn’t use an orange-fleshed sweet potato, which is usually the most common kind around here. I used a Japanese Murasaki sweet potato, which has purple skin and white flesh. These were mislabeled at the grocery store as purple sweet potatoes — when you label a sweet potato by colour, it’s supposed to be by the colour of the flesh, not by the colour of the skin. I was looking for a sweet potato with purple flesh, like the Okinawa sweet potato (which has tan skin), or the purple-skinned, purple-fleshed variety that I finally found at the local Asian market, which was also labeled “purple sweet potato”.

While I have read complaints that the Murasaki sweet potato is stringy and not at all flavourful, it did its job just fine in the context of these buns, which was to provide moisture. The cloverleafs were light and fluffy, with a hint of orange that cut through the heaviness and grease of a meal of roast and gravy. I’ll definitely be making these again — perhaps with truly purple sweet potatoes, just for the colour.

I thought I should also contribute to dessert. My youngest daughter had taken Amelia Bedelia Bakes Off (2010, Chapters.ca, Amazon.com), and at the back of the book there is a recipe for Amelia Bedelia’s Sheet Cake. (You can find the recipe via Desktop Cookbook.) Well, I didn’t want a sheet cake, but cake batter works just as well for cupcakes. The directions say to mix all the ingredients together with a fork in the baking pan, but I didn’t want to spend all day mixing. I used a plastic bowl and an electric hand mixer instead, and then I doled out the batter into muffin tins.

I found it interesting that this recipe had no animal ingredients, and could even be vegan if you sourced your supplies carefully. Not that I am a vegan, but I do occasionally cook for them. I also thought that the leavening agent was interesting: baking soda and vinegar. I’d never baked a cake with vinegar in it before, but it makes sense that baking soda and vinegar would create the gas necessary to cause the batter to rise.

I ended up with 24 cupcakes, and I had to bake them for 20 minutes for them to be cooked through. The cupcakes were a very dark brown, almost black; they are so dark that my hubby thought I might have burned them, even though they are totally soft. I’m not sure if the deep colour is caused by the kind of cocoa I used, or if it’s just because there’s 2/3 cups cocoa in there. It may be a combination of both factors. I don’t think my kids would complain if I tested the theory and made them again with a different kind of cocoa. They were a pretty solid hit.