Monday, February 25, 2013

Statues for the Big Night

I like to read about cooking as much as I like actually cooking. I find it inspiring, and often learn new tricks, techniques or food combinations through my research. As you are most likely aware, this weekend was the 85th Academy Awards. I use any excuse to cook up a glamorous multi-course meal and what better excuse than the Oscars. In the end, my beloved and I turned the meal into a "the Taste"-style contest, pitting our skills against each other, serving up only one tantalizing bite of each dish...but more on that later. During my research into Oscar-themed menus, I came across the lovely Bakerella's Oscar statue cookies, and felt they would be the perfect addition to our evening of celebrating good food and great movies.

It required a little more thinking and substitution, since I was working with a limited pantry. Tomorrow is grocery day, so the pantry is a little empty, and we challenged ourselves to create our menus using only what was in the house. It's a great way to use up leftover bits in the fridge, and discover foodstuffs long forgotten in the dark recesses of the cupboard. However, it meant I was missing key ingredients for Oscar sugar cookies, like eggs.  Nevertheless, I was determined to make the fancy little statues.
I used the template Bakerella provided, shrinking it to half its size, and transferred the image to a laminated bookmark I had on hand. After rolling out my sugar cookie dough, I used the bookmark shape and a sharp knife to cut out the cookie men. Who needs cookie cutters!?
Then I chose a round cutter larger than the statue's foot to cut out a base, and marked the opening using the template.
I cut a rectangle-shaped opening in each base. I figured this would help the statue sit in the base more solidly.
Before baking, I sprinkled the men with yellow decorating sugar. When it comes to frosting, I am horrible. My skills are nonexistent, probably from a lack of trying. Therefore, I cheat. I decided not to color the dough, so sugar was the next best thing. Plus, nothing makes sugar cookies better than more sugar!
Then I forgot to take the cookies out of the oven when the timer went, so my Oscars are a little sunburned. That's what I get for being distracted by pretty dresses. Toasty!
See those round bases? That's the color you cookies should be after baking. Not brown. Got it? Good.

I cooled the cookies, then got to work assembling. Again, too lazy for icing, but I decided the next best thing would be to glue the two pieces of the statue together with a generous layer of melted chocolate. Better than icing? I think so. Also, it makes a much better compliment to a cup of coffee at the end of the evening.
I made sure to fill the hole in the cookie with chocolate. Chances were that the cookies would not fit together perfectly, but the cooled chocolate would not only fill in the void, it would stick the statue onto base. I gently fit the two pieces together on a pan line with waxed paper and left them to set.
The result? A success, if you ask me. Sure, they aren't  perfect, but I have an idea how to fix that next time, and they were very tasty. Too bad we were so stuffed at the end of the night that we couldn't enjoy more!

(On a side note, I was very happy with the entire Academy Awards this year. All my favorite movies won in the categories they merited. Argo received top honors, which was well-deserved. And, Seth McFarlane wasn't half-bed, either, and that's saying a lot when you realize that I can't stand anything he's done.)

Eggless Sugar Cookies
(makes 10 complete Oscar statues)

1 2/3 c. flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter, softened
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla and milk. Slowly add in the flour, baking powder and salt. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, one piece twice as large as the other.

Place the larger piece of dough between 2 sheets of waxed paper. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough to 1/4-inch thick. Remove the top sheet of waxed paper. Using the awards show statue template, cut out 10 statue tops and transfer them to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with yellow decorator's sugar, gently pressing the sugar into the surface of the dough with your fingers. Bake for 9-10 minutes, or until very lightly golden around the edges.

Roll out the smaller section of dough between the sheets of waxed paper and cut out 10 2-inch circles. Using the template, mark the center and width of the statue onto the base. Use a sharp knife to cut a 1/4-inch thick rectangle of dough out of each base. Place on a baking sheet and bake as above. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More trifle?!

Again?! Well, I have leftover cake, AND a dinner to go to - why not?  This time, I made a delicious strawberry compote to layer in my trifle, rather than using a jam. I had strawberries sitting in my fridge that were a little unripe and not getting any better. I figured they could benefit from a little cooking!
 I spiced them up with the zest and juice of one orange and a scoop of sugar to bring out their sweetness. There's not much else you can do with under-ripe strawberries. After about 5 minutes over medium heat, I mashed the berries with my trusty potato masher.
 I did have some nice berries, which I diced and added to the compote after cooking, just to heat them. I also added a shot of orange-flavored liqueur to deepen the flavor.
 I cooked up a batch of custard, which, once cooled on the front porch, got folded into a bowl of whipped cream.
 I cut my leftover pound cake(trimmed from the giant cupcake) into cubes for better distribution.
 I collected all my layers, including some orange-flavord liqueur for moistening the cake, and washed out my trifle bowl. (It sits on top of my cabinets for months at a time. It gets dusty.)
 Then I began layering cake drizzled with liqueur, strawberry compote and custard cream, over and over and over again. That is the way of the trifle.
 One beautiful strawberry flower on top, and I'm ready to go to dinner. Yum, yum, yum. (Want more detailed directions on the art of trifle-building? Check here.)

Orange-strawberry compote

2 pints fresh strawberries
1 orange
1/4 c. sugar
1 oz. orange-flavored liqueur, such as Triple Sec or Grand Marnier

Slice 1/2 pint of strawberries and combine them in a saucepan with the zest and juice of one orange Cook over medium heat until strawberries are soft. Mash them up using a potato masher. Dice the remaining fresh strawberries,  and add them and the orange-flavored liqueur to the compote. Bring to a boil to cook off the alcohol, leaving only the flavor. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside to cool. Use this chunky compote as the fruit layer in your trifles, as a delicious topping for ice cream, or stir it into your yogurt for breakfast. Yum!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Cake-building and the giant cupcake

I made a cake this past weekend for a cousin's 6th birthday, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to reiterate the idea of working with what you have on hand. Rather than going out and purchasing a cake mold, I thought I would get creative with the vessels I had already and build a cake. It can be challenging, but if you're up for a challenge, it can be a lot of fun, and extremely rewarding when you behold your final creation.
I decided on a giant cupcake, after much research and inspiration-finding on the interwebs. I thought it would be a great conversation piece, as well as a little bit out there, much like the personality of the spunky, fun-loving little girl we would be celebrating. Yes, a giant cupcake would be perfect. Now to the construction.

The trick to cake-building is simple: any form can be broken down into simple shapes, which can then be combined using fillings and frosting. You can even get a better visualization of the shapes by playing around with the empty cake tins and baking vessels. Anything oven-proof can be used, such as glass pans, metal tins, ceramic ramekins, stainless steel mixing long as it is OVENPROOF. Once you've checked that, you can begin creating.
A cupcake is simple enough, I created mine with two 8"-round cake pans and a large stainless steel mixing bowl which I would flip upside down for the top. Make sure to generously grease and flour all the molds before filling them with batter, to ensure proper release of the cake. You don't want to have to patch together cake pieces later on. Then fill them with a solid cake batter. I say solid because this way, several layers of cake can be piled up without the entire form collapsing under its own weight. Otherwise, you start getting into a territory involving plastic plates and dowel rods and such, a territory best navigated by true patissiers. and not the home cake-builder like myself. I made a pound cake batter found in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the Loaf O' Gold. One recipe filled both round cake pans, and a second recipe filled the bowl. Once baked, I got to work building.
 The 8" round cakes were the same diameter as the finished dome cake, and I wanted the base smaller to create the "muffin top", so using a plate as a guide, I trimmed away the extra. (Keep the extra cake! You can turn it into a trifle!
 I trimmed the tops flat with a large, serrated knife to create a flat surface, better for piling layers.
 Dental floss can be your best friend when it comes to cake layers. I wanted to slice each cake in half, and fill them with strawberry jam, creating more depth of flavor in each slice, rather than just icing. Dental floss can slice even the thinnest cake layer in half. How? Holding one end of the floss, wrap it around the centre of the cake, crossing the ends. Now pull both ends in opposite directions, keeping them crossed. The floss should pull right through the centre of the cake, slicing it cleanly in half. Tah dah!
 I frosted the top of the first layer with a basic buttercream frosting, topped it with the second cake, and frosted the outside generously.
 I dipped a thin spatula in hot water and used it to smooth and detail the sides to look like a cupcake wrapper. I coated the top with a good layer of frosting "glue" on which to lay the cupcake's cap.
 Using a serrated knife, I sliced the "bowl" cake in half, and thinly iced it to prevent crumbing.
I gently laid the cap on the cupcake, then prepared a recipe of lavender frosting to finish the cupcake.

 A dash of size-appropriate sprinkles and there you go! One giant cupcake! But I wasn't happy with it - not yet, anyway. I found that the base wasn't tapered enough to signify a cupcake. It seemed more like a mushroom. I needed to solidify that this was indeed a cupcake. That meant more cupcakes.
Chocolate cupcakes, in different sizes and full of chocolate chips. I topped the mini ones with more purple frosting and colored sugars, and I frosted the regular cupcakes with white buttercream. 
Then I piled all the cupcakes together on a platter, rather haphazardly, towering here and there on top of each other. It all looked very fantastical and cheery. I was happy. And as I understand it, the birthday girl was happy with her cake, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love is in the air

Valentine's is upon us - and beside offering up a box of chocolatey delights for my Valentine, I always like to highlight the evening with a romantic dinner for us to share. Now we've been through the usual suspects: fondues, fillet mignon, fondant chocolate cakes, seafood, oysters, escargots...You name it, we've already tried it. This year I happened upon a random web search thread(you know the kind - click, link, click, link - until you're light years away from your starting point), and found myself at a picnic in Sydney, Australia. More specifically, the Sydney Picnic Co., which is exactly that - provider of baskets brimming with locally sourced treats for picnic-goers. I am a little disappointed that I did not know of its existence when I was visiting Sydney. 
 Anyway, I was browsing through their delicious-sounding menus, and happened upon the special Valentine's Day picnic for two - ideal for Australians celebrating in the peak of summer, but not so much for us Canadians, frozen in our igloos right now. Regardless, I thought the idea was awesome for a blanket-on-the-living-room-floor, curled up in front of the fireplace with a good bottle of wine, cozying up to my beloved kind of picnic, so I set to work. 
(Look! He even brought me roses!)
I researched the menus items, scouring the interwebs for inspirational images and same-ingredients recipes. I then added my own spin, changing key ingredients to suit our preferences, incorporating food I already had on hand. I ended up with a menu I was so happy with, I prepared a second picnic which I sent over to my parents!
To emphasize the picnic aspect of the meal, I packages each course in its own cardboard box(cupcake boxes from the dollar store), which I lined with waxed paper or aluminum foil.
Course 1:
Slow-roasted tomatoes and goat cheese, with black olives, basil and balsamic vinegar. I served this with a freshly-baked baguette.

Course 2:
Peaches, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and mint. The mozzarella got a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before serving.

Course 3:
Grilled filet mignon, spicy prawns and asparagus, served with a salsa verde. This course was served hot off the grill, but I could easily see it served room temperature at a summer picnic outdoors, too.

Course 4:
Mild Brie with balsamic fig jam and walnut crostini.

Course 5:
Chocolate pots de creme with strawberries and amaretti cookies.

The entire menu was a great success, with each dish turning out extremely flavorful and delicious, despite my never having attempted any of the recipes before. All the food parings were quite successful, too. All in all, I think it was a very enjoyable evening, spent eating good food in the company of my wonderful guy, love of my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Happy Valentine's Day, and I hope this finds you spending quality time doing the things you love with the people you love, and not just today, but everyday.

PS: Find the recipes here!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Resurgence (and chocolate!)

 I guess I've been a little lazy in keeping up with my blogging tasks - like blogging at all. I really have no excuse for not doing it. Summer came, with its warmth, and endless possibilities to get outside and do STUFF. Stuff I should've been sharing all this time. I was just so wrapped up in all of that stuff that I neglected to share with you.  So here we are, back in the doldrums of another cold and dead winter, and I deem it a good time to try restarting my blog, when everything is frozen and uninspiring. Huh - I guess I like a challenge.
Don't get me wrong, I've been up to my usual lifestyle - cooking up a storm with my supply of summer fruits and veggies, still taking up most of the space in my freezer, crafting with leftover bits and bobs found here and there, scavenging and salvaging whatever I can. It's been a challenging season, with more snow and cold days than I'd like to remember - often, the days are just an exercise in finding the best ways to keep warm. Never the less, I thought I would take Valentine's Day as a chance to get back on track, and share an easy and fun treat you can make for all your loved ones. It's also a great activities to get the kids involved in! ...Shall we?

I was pondering a simple and customizable way to offer chocolates to my beloved. Rather than the old heart-shaped store-bought treats, I thought I could come up with a way to make him bite-sized pieces of all the flavors he loves. Also, I am in no way a trained nor practiced chocolatier, so I wanted something easy, something without moulds, something with a 100% success rate. No bain-marie, no thermometres, no difficult steps. I decided to make chocolate pastilles.
Pastilles in french means wafers. I wanted to make wafer-thin bites of dark chocolate, my beloved's favorite, and top the pastilles with all the flavors he enjoys. I also deemed this to be an excellent way to use up lots of small amounts of dried fruits and nuts taking up room in my pantry - you know, what's left in the bag when you make one recipe, and is in no way enough to make any other recipe, so you get stuck with it forever? A handful of hazelnuts here, a few almonds there, three or 4 dried strawberries... I would either sprinkle the pastilles with chopped items, like fruits and nuts, or mix them in, for spices and such.
(almonds, match green tea powder, shelled pistachios, sea salt, dried strawberries, candied fennel seeds, coffee beans, roasted hazelnuts, dried mint leaves, cinnamon and cayenne pepper - all flavors that catered to my beloved's tastebuds)

I compiled a list of add-ins, scoured my shelves for ideas, and collected my findings.
To create the pastilles, I wanted a good-quality dark chocolate as my base. Since I was not going to be doing anything else but melting it, I wanted to start with a quality chocolate, which would guarantee a quality end product. I bought a few large bars, which I then went about chopping up. This would encourage a quicker and more even melting.
I decided which ingredients would get sprinkled on top of plain pastilles, and which would be mixed in, chopping up anything that might be too big for the pastilles. I prepared pans lined with wax paper for easy removal. 
I melted about half of my chocolate in a glass bowl in the microwave. The best way to do this without scorching the mix is to heat for 30 seconds, then give the chocolate a stir. Heat the chocolate for another 30 seconds, then give it another stir. Keep up this method of heat - stir - heat - stir until the chocolate has completely melted.
 Using a very small espresso spoon, to make bite-sized pastilles, I portioned out my melted chocolate onto the wax paper-lined pans. I made 8 wafers at a time and, while the mixture was still liquid, sprinkled the tops with one of my chosen ingredients. If the pieces were a little big, I gently pressed them into the chocolate to assure proper adhesion.

Once all the sprinkled tops were complete, I moved on to the mixed-in ingredients. I only melted a small portion of the chocolate at a time, following the same heat-stir method as above, and then mixed in my ingredients a little at a time, tasting after each addition. I did this to achieve the best flavor as possible, trying not to be too generous and overdoing it. No one wants a cayenne pepper-flavored chocolate pastille that sets your mouth on fire!
Once all the wafers were portioned out, I let the chocolate sit overnight to set. Realistically, they are ready to handle and package after an hour, but I was making my valentines WAY ahead of time, so I figured I could afford to be patient! To box the final product, I dropped a few wafers of each flavor into mini muffin paper liners, similar to professional chocolate packaging, and place an assortment into a salvaged cardboard box. I like to keep chocolate boxes I receive as gifts, since they always come in handy for re-gifting foodstuffs. I also packaged up a few smaller boxes(from the dollar store) to offer to co-workers, family and friends.
There you go - homemade Valentine's Day chocolates, made with your loved ones in mind, and definitely made with love. You've still got time before Thursday, go make some yourself!