Thursday 18 December 2014

Chewy Double Chocolate Peppermint Bark Bell Cookies

Say that title 10 times fast!

During a wander through the mall a few weeks ago, we came across some delicious looking Hershey's Peppermint Bark bells in the holiday aisle at Target.  I knew I would find some way to incorporate them into a delicious Christmas treat.  With the help of Pinterest, I found a recipe for some double chocolate cookies that were finished with candy cane kisses.  They looked and sounded delicious.  I substituted the treats I bought, and with the addition of sprinkles, came up with a very festive looking holiday cookie!  Check out the recipe here.

Some hints for success.  

-Do NOT flatten these slightly after rolling the balls.  I was tempted to because that's what I always do with peanut butter cookies.  I experimented with a few and they are better when left as balls.

-Leave the cookies only a scant couple minutes on the baking sheets to firm up and then gently add the kisses or bells.  If you get distracted they will firm up too much and it will be difficult to get them to stick.

-Don't worry about freezing the kisses or bells overnight.  An hour is plenty.  You just want cold.  Frozen isn't really important. 

These are awesome!  I ran out of chocolate for the top and they are fantastic without the addition of kisses or bells.  Basically a chewy brownie like cookie.  Yum!

Monday 15 December 2014

French Bread - and toast!

We had some neighbours over for brunch a few weekends ago.  When I make brunch I like to have some of the main items ready to throw in the oven so that I can visit.  Uually French toast is a hit with everyone, including kids, so it's often a go-to oven dish for me.

On the weekend of the brunch, it was about -25 without the windchill, and of course, I forgot to buy French bread at the store.  Rather than brave the cold I decided to make a no fail French bread recipe that I love.   The best part about this is that it's bread-maker friendly, so it truly is almost zero work.  Here's the recipe:

Easy French Bread

1 cup warm water
1 tbsp sugar
2.5 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp bread machine or quick rise yeast

Put the ingredients in your bread maker* and select the dough setting.  When complete, roll out the dough into a 15 x 7 inch rectangle, and then tightly roll it jelly roll style, tapering the ends.   Cut slashes about 1/2 an inch deep in the top, and let rise for 30 mins.  Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for  approx 20 mins.  Note: some people brush the top with egg yolk before baking to enhance the golden colour, but I don't bother with this.

*if you don't have a bread maker, you can also make without.  Just proof the yeast in the sugar and warm water, add the flour and salt, and knead dough for approximately 8 mins. (until smooth and elastic, adding additional flour as necessary.). Let rise in the oven with the light on for approximately 1 hr.  Punch dough down, roll out, and bake as directed above.

I don't know where to give credit for this recipe.  It's written on a very well used index card in my recipe box and I have no idea where I originally got it.

For the French toast, I use a recipe from Kraft that is so simple.  The key to the recipe is to make sure the cream cheese is SUPER SOFT before using, and to beat the milk and eggs in very very gradually, or else you will have a chunky egg wash.  It will also seem like you have way too much egg mixture. Dump it all on the soaking bread afterwards.  It will soak it all up and make your toast even more delicious!  Here is a link to the recipe.  This recipe works equally well if you let it sit in your refrigerator for an hour or so as if you let it soak all night.

The french toast turned out great alongside some quiche, fresh fruit and banana bread.

Brunch is quickly becoming my new favorite activity on the weekends.  Gives a chance for my husband and I  to catch up with friends while the kids play.  Can't wait for the next one!
This loaf yielded about 15 slices of bread.....and the french toast recipe more than accomodates that much.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Almond Biscotti

At this time of year it's fun to bake things that I don't normally do all year long.  One of the things my husband sometimes requests at this time of year is biscotti.  When I first tried it a few years ago it intimidated me a little bit because of the various steps involved in baking it, but it's really one of the easiest cookies out there to make.  Plus, for some reason I feel less guilty eating it because I'm satisfied after one with a cup of coffee.  I've made a few different varieties, but this one is a simple favorite that I've made a few times now....

Shockingly, I didn't have a "helper" for this one.  My daughter was making her own playdoh biscotti, instead.  My son sat inside a cupboard and opened and closed the door.  Sure, it was the cupboard with the garbage can and he may have been digging through it a bit.  A lot.  Ok, he ate some leftover lunch he found sitting on top.  But hey, a rare moment of peace while baking :)  And yes, I did remove him from the garbage.  

Here's the recipe:

1/2 cup softened butter or margarine
1 cup + 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp pure almond extract
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/3 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup white or dark baking chocolate

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, and beat after each addition until nicely combined.  Beat in extracts.  Combine the baking powder and salt with the flour and gradually stir into butter mixture.  Lastly, stir in the almonds.  The dough will be fairly sticky.  

Shape into two rectangular "logs", measuring about 3 inches by 12 inches.  (Use lightly greased parchment paper).  Sprinkle with the 2 tbsp of sugar.

Bake in a preheated 375 degree for about 20 minutes, until slightly firm to the touch.  Remove from the oven and let cool on the parchment paper on a wire rack for about 15 minutes.  Don't let cool completely, or else they will be very crumbly to cut. 

Cut into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices, at a slight angle.

Place the slices cut side down on a baking sheet, and cook in a 300 degree oven for about 8 - 10 minutes more.  Flip, and then bake for another 8 to 10 minutes.  Allow to cool on the pan, where they will firm up even more.  

Melt chocolate over simmering water, or in the microwave at short time intervals.  Drizzle with a spoon onto the biscotti, or pipe onto cookies using a piping bag or ziploc bag with a hole cut in the corner.  Allow chocolate to firm up and enjoy!

These freeze well too!

Monday 1 December 2014

Paint and Sip!

A moms group that I am a member of recently organized an outing to Vin Gogh paint and sip studio.  The basic idea is that you get together with a group of friends, drink wine, eat yummy dessert (or appies), and paint.  I have nearly zero artistic talent, but I was assured that even I could succeed at this.

So, a couple weeks ago, myself and some fellow Momstown members gathered for an evening of painting.  And sipping.  It was a Tuesday night so there was minimal sipping, but trust me, this would be such an awesome Friday or Saturday night event!

Everyone was supplied with materials, and you basically just show up, listen, and paint.  There was a stage at the front where the instructor takes you step by step through the process of creating the painting of the evening.  Our painting was really just a series of shapes that you build on to get the end result.  It really was a step by step tutorial, and another instructor walks around and answers any questions that you may have as you go.  They were super helpful, gave lighthearted advice, but never made you feel like your painting technique actually resembles that of a preschooler.  All in all, super fun night.  I will for sure be back!!

Christmas Tree Mini Cake

Pinterest is full of "mini cake" ideas.  Since I've recently started decorating again, I have a big list of projects I want to try.  The good thing about a mini cake is that when you have absolutely zero reason to bake a cake, you feel less guilty about whipping one up.  This was the case this past Friday afternoon when I made a quick 6 inch chocolate layer cake.  Earlier in the week I bought some green candy melts while perusing Target's Christmas aisles, and I found a Pinterest idea that could use both of these items.  Click here to see my inspiration!

The basic idea is to frost a round cake with a basic white frosting, and press some chocolate trees into the side.  I used my favorite swiss meringue buttercream recipe from Martha Stewart, my favorite scratch chocolate cake recipe (below), and simply piped some melted Wilton Candy Melts onto some parchment paper.

Here was the end result:

The finished product!


My favorite chocolate cake recipe is generally made in either an 8x8 or 9x9 square pan.  It also works well for cupcakes (makes about 15), and in this case, a two layer 6 inch cake!  This recipe is awesome because its quick, requires only a whisk and a wooden spoon, and bakes up in less than 1/2 an hour!  It's moist, and the perfect density.  This is adapted from a Taste of Home Recipe, found here.

Chocolate Cake

1.5 cups flour
1 cup sugar
4 Tbsp cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup water

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  In a measuring cup, measure water, oil, vinegar and vanilla.  Add to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.  Switch to a wire whisk and beat out the majority of the lumps.  Poor the batter into a parchment lined or greased pan (in this case I poured half into each 6 inch round pan).  Bake for approximately 22 minutes (for the 6 inch pans or cupcakes), and between 25 mins to 30 minutes for the square 8 or 9 inch pans.

And NO, this recipe does not require any eggs.   Weird, hey?  First I thought I missed adding them, but no eggs here.....


I filled the cooled chocolate cake, and used a layer of icing to crumb coat this cake (a chocolate cake crumb is pretty unforgiving, especially with this moist cake).  

Crumb coated cake ready to frost and decorate

A great tutorial on properly crumb coating and icing a cake can be found here.

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of my tree piping, as there was a bit of mayhem happening in the background with my kids at the time.  It's super easy though!  Just melt some candy melts, put into a disposable piping bag (or a ziploc baggy with a hole cut in the corner), and draw little trees of varying sizes on parchment.  They harden up in under 10 minutes.  Carefully peel off of the parchment and stick to your cake with a little bit more melted chocolate, or additional buttercream.  In my case my buttercream was a thick enough layer that I could just press them in.

We went for brunch to a friend's house the next day and I brought my cake as a hostess gift.  So this one didn't hit my garbage can or waist line.  Win win!  I love eating cake but can't stop at just one piece.........

All set to go to as a hostess gift

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Rustic Ruffle Ombre Cake

My friends asked me if I could supply the cake for their joint birthday celebration last weekend.  I heart cake making and would love love love to make cakes for everyone in the world if the world would just let me, so I was thrilled at the chance.

They supplied me a picture of a fondant ruffle cake which was way out of my realm of expertise.  Since I hate the taste of fondant, I decided that I would try and create a buttercream version of the same idea.  I got a very, very different result, but I was happy with it.  I also was able to figure out why it turned out so differently, so I'll chalk it up to learning and do better next time :)   I had too much air in my icing and piping bag, which created a "jagged" ruffle, but I actually really liked the effect!

For the cake, I have to admit I cheated.  I usually make chocolate cake from scratch, but that perfect scratch white cake is still eluding me (I'll post my attempts as I continue to make them).  So I used good old Betty Crocker white mix.  I figured since I as upping my game by doing an ombre effect, and using swiss meringue buttercream over regular old powdered sugar buttercream, that I could skimp on this step.  I'll try harder next time!
I made four layers of cake, coloring the batter progressively more pink for each layer.  Check it out:

After they cooled, I stacked them, lightest to darkest, to create a 4 layer cake:

I really, really need one of those cake levellers.  Maybe Santa will bring one.  A serrated knife and my eyeballs just won't cut it in the long run.

I filled and crumb coated the cake with a regular old buttercream (1/2 cup vegetable shortening, 1/2 cup butter, 4 cups icing sugar, 2 tbsp milk, 1 tsp vanilla).  

The decorating process started with finally trying out Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMB).  I've read so much about how it is less sickeningly sweet than regular North American style buttercream.   Apparently it's silkier, easy to pipe, and just the perfect level of sweetness.  Good 'ol Martha helped out here.  I used the SMB recipe from her website.  I followed it exactly without any modifications and got an absolutely delicious, silky result.  My daughter loved watching the heated egg whites and sugar whip up.  One note on SMB:  always, always, always, always, always flavor it!  Whether it's just plain old vanilla extract or the addition of fruit puree, I have read so much about flavoring SMB.  If you don't, you're essentially eating slightly sweetened butter.  It's not that awesome plain. Once you flavor it, WOW!  This recipe basically tasted like sweetened whipped cream.  But it was stable, and held shape.  I can't wait to try flavoring with fruit puree.  Pinterest is abound with flavoring ideas for it.

Anyways, I made the SMB, and then colored it with food coloring paste similar to the cakes.  

I filled a piping bag with white on the bottom, followed by progressively darker shades of pink.  I used the Wilton 125 tip.  Starting at the top of the cake, holding the fat end of the tip downwards, I quickly piped ruffles along the outside.  I have a cake turntable, so basically turned that while leaving my hand in one position and piping.  

As I mentioned above, I got a very cracked edge on my ruffles, which was not my intention, but in the end I liked the jagged effect.  This was due to having too much air in my piping bag while filling the layers of colored SMB.  I have to be more careful filling next time, or use a smaller tip (a smaller version is the Wilton 104), which is far more forgiving to the air bubbles and much smoother (I found this out after troubleshooting what went wrong later).  I'm such a baking nerd.

Anyways, after the very simplified description of what I did, the end result of the cake was this:

I asked my friends to take a picture of it when they cut it later that evening (I had a Christmas party and couldn't attend the celebration).  Here was what they sent!

Although the cake didn't look as I intended, I was pleased at my first attempt at SMB, ruffles, ombre, and 4 layers!  I can't wait to play around and make some Christmas themed cakes!

Monday 24 November 2014

Grinch Quilts

Another amazing find from were 44" Grinch panels.   I ordered them in September with plans to make quilts for my nephews and niece.  Three quilts are a hefty task, especially for a beginner like me.  So, when I found these panels I thought they were perfect because it basically took away over half the work.  Efficient!!

These quilts were very randomly put together.....All I really did was border the panel, piece Grinch fabric around the borders, and then quilted them with red flannel backing that was on clearance.  I even bound them with fabric I had laying around!  Each quilt only took a few hours.   Here are the end results:

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Bakery-Style Chocolate Muffins

When my daughter wakes up from her nap, the first question she often asks is "mommmy, can we bake?"  Do I want flour all over my counter?  Do I want that gritty feeling of sugar under my feet until the next vacuum session?  Do I want to stain treat a shirt with chocolaty batter on it?  Why yes, yes, and yes!  Ever since my daughter was old enough to know what cooking and baking was, she has helped me.  She's getting pretty good, so the clean up is getting easier.  The biggest battle right now is to keep her from eating large quantities of raw cookie dough, batter, or other delightful ingredient.   However, beater licking is an important job, and I would never deprive her childhood of that.

A few days ago she woke up and said she wanted to make muffins.  "Lotsa lotsa lotsa chocolate muffins", was her exact request.  So, one of the first Pinterest hits was this recipe for "Double Chocolate Muffins".

The big draw for me was that they looked like a hefty, delicious, bakery-style muffin.  So we gave them a whirl.  I followed the recipe exactly, so I won't re-post it here.  Note, however, that the blog containing this recipe mentioned that the writer altered the recipe.  I made the original recipe that she found.  Here is what we ended up with:

The batter was very, very thick and the end result was a heavy, but delicious, super chocolaty muffin.  However, like a bakery, day olds in this case are not that desirable.  I recommend gobbling on the first day.  They are still great after the fact, but they are definitely like a heavy, day old muffin.

I'm thinking maybe the blogger's recommended changes would  have been a good choice in this case.  I think she increased the liquids component, and the method of mixing, which increased the moisture and fluffiness of the muffin.  I'll try that another day.....

Monday 17 November 2014

Cold weather comfort - Cabbage Rolls

Last week we had a bit of a cold snap.  Given that it was the first one of the winter, I wasn't even close to being bored enough to brave the temperatures.  So what better way to feel warm and cozy than to throw something in the slow cooker to simmer away the whole day?

Several years ago, I got a subscription to Taste of Home from my mother in law.  To this day, it remains one of my favorite cooking magazines.  I find at least one "keeper" in every magazine that makes it into my old school recipe box.   There would probably be several if I tried more of them!  This cabbage roll recipe was one of the first ones I tried from the magazine.  Here is the link to the original recipe, "Sweet & Tender Cabbage Rolls", which I've adapted with very slight changes below to suit my tastes.  (I ditched the mushrooms because the thought of canned mushrooms in this sicked me out.  Then I tweeked some quantities).

Cabbage rolls:
1 large head green cabbage
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 cups cooled, cooked long grain rice (you can use brown, it doesn't affect the flavor)
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
3/4 tsp pepper
2 lbs lean ground beef

-approximately 2 cups tomato sauce (not paste, not soup, not pasta sauce, but tomato sauce)
-1/2 cup packed brown sugar - (don't cut back on this.  This makes them sweet and delicious!)
-2 tbsp lemon juice
-1 tbsp worcestershire sauce (do NOT skip this, I think it matters)

First, cook the cabbage in boiling water just until leaves start to fall off the head.  (I recommend having a really good set of silicone oven mitts for digging it out of the water, or use some sort of meat forks).  This step is a great place to scald your fingers and lash out with obscene language.

Let it cool until it's easy to handle, and then slice the bottom off to make it easy to peel the leaves.  It wasn't until I'd made these about 3 times that I really mastered this step.  Be patient while peeling the layers.  A couple rips in a slice are ok, but try to keep it to a minimum so you can easily roll them later.   Peel about 12-15 leaves off, and cut out the thick vein, making a v-shaped cut.

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix very well with a wooden spoon.  Place about 1/2 cup on each leave, and overlap cut ends to fold in sides.  This isn't something you can really'll realize what I mean when you try.  Just try to roll up tight and cleanly to completely enclose filling.  It takes a little work.  My first couple batches weren't even close to beautiful.

Lightly coat a 4 or 5 quart slow cooker with cooking spray.  Layer the bottom with a layer of rolls (mine holds about 4-5 on the bottom).  Cover with a layer of sauce (which I just whisk together in a large measuring cup).  Repeat layers and sauce until you've used up all your rolls.

Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, or until very tender.  The original recipe says to make sure a meat thermometer reads at least 160.  That's ridiculous because if your cabbage rolls aren't AT LEAST that hot after 7 to 8 hours, then you should toss your throw cooker in the garbage.  It's broken.

DO NOT SKIMP on the cooking time, or your cabbage will be tough and not the melt in your mouth, sweet-tomatoey-smothered way that it should be.  Don't think you can wing it on high in the afternoon for a 6 pm supper.  I've tried it.  Fail.

Low and slow.  Low and slow.

Finished product.  This picture doesn't really do it justice as I forgot to take a pic and this is a cold leftover.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Even I can make an apron!

Last year I discovered  I wish it was a Canadian site so I didn't have to pay astronomical shipping costs. The huge selection on the site far outweighs the downside of the high shipping costs, so I still sneak the odd package into our house now and then.  I also try to bundle more into an order to make the most of the shipping, but it seems to be a completely unpredictable amount each time....some combination of weight, volume, plus a random dollar value tacked on for dummy tax for someone like me that is willing to pay it.

Anyone knows that bringing children to a fabric store, unless they are sedated, is not a good idea.  (For the record, I don't sedate my children.  I just assume it would make it very convenient to do things such as peruse a fabric store at my leisure.)  There are thousands of bolts of fabric to look through, and the aisles are always tight.  I've tried it with my kids, and I usually have about 5 minutes from the time I enter the store before there is the potential for an unruly meltdown.  That is simply not enough time to squeeze my stroller (which feels like it's the size of a Greyhound Bus or motorhome) into the tight aisles, while frantically finding about 1% of the list I came there for.  I would need at least another ten minutes to allocate to waiting in line at the cutting table for the blue-haired woman with a walker in front of me to debate how many metres of quilt batting she needs for her Christmas potholders.

So, online fabric buying is the way to go.  You look for what you need during naptime.  Or at 5am from the comfort of your bed, while in your jammies, wondering if your baby went back to sleep after a brief 4:45 wailing session.  Trust me, if you don't go back to sleep, they do.  It's weird how that works.  Anyway..... fabric.  Online.  Best option.

This year, during one of my early morning Iphone shopping trips, I found something that a beginner seamstress could tackle.  A toddler apron.  Since I don't even really know how to read a pattern (I'm kind of a wing-it type of crafter), what I found was perfect.  It was a pattern, printed on fabric, with really simple directions.  You just cut it out and sew away.  So yesterday I made two of these!  They might look slightly like a kindergartner made them if you look closely, but I'm proud of them!

Two Christmas gifts checked off my list now :)  All for the low price of $4.49 each.  Plus shipping.   Which I won't elaborate on.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The BEST Peanut Butter Cookie

Anyone with kids in this day and age knows that bringing a nut product to a public gathering is pretty much as socially awkward as showing up naked would be.

So..... when we're looking for a delightful treat that isn't going anywhere past our kitchen, this is a go-to peanut butter cookie recipe.  It's not crunchy.  Sort of chewy, but still soft.

1/2 cup margarine or butter 
1/2 cup peanut butter*
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1 egg
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 and  1/3 cups all purpose flour
extra sugar for rolling

*When choosing your peanut butter, I recommend a natural, unsweetened type.  Anyone who knows me will know that I do NOT jump on the all natural bandwagon very often.  I LOVE my junk.   Since having kids I've decided that I'd rather save the sugary sweet bribery to actual candy, so try to feed them "good stuff" where it's easy and totally interchangeable!  Plus, in a cookie recipe, you don't need to use a peanut butter full of added sugar.   They're sweet enough, trust me.  My personal fave: Costco's Kirkland Natural peanut butter.

Ok.  You've got the right peanut butter now.  Let's begin.

Cream the butter and peanut butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until evenly combined.  Add the sugars and cream until light and fluffy.  Add the baking soda and powder and beat on low until combined.   Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until evenly mixed.

Switch it up to a wooden spoon and stir in the flour gradually.  Once you hit one cup of flour, keep adding up to 1/3 of a cup until the dough is nice and stiff and would easily be able to roll into balls.  If it's too sticky after adding all of the flour, stick it in the fridge for a few minutes.  This has only happened on very hot days or if I've gotten distracted and my dough has warmed up while gabbing on the phone or swearing at a telemarketer.

Shape dough into 1.5 inch balls, and then roll in sugar to coat.  Place on parchment lined cookie sheets approximately 2 inches apart.  Lightly press down with the tines of a fork.

Bake in a 375 oven for about 9 minutes.  Do not overbake!  When you remove them from the oven, let them firm up on the cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

This recipe usually yields about 30 cookies.


What do you do all day?

I chose to take a hiatus from the working world and stay home with my kids.  This shocked a lot of people!  After working so hard to obtain an accounting designation, why would I ever want to do this?  What on earth would I do all day?  Shockingly, A LOT!

I am NOT going to stand on the stay at home mom soapbox and go on and on about how my life is actually harder at home being the COO of my household.  Because in my case that is a lie.  I love staying home.  It is so much less stressful than dealing with the mundane day to day work issues that I really didn't care about.  No one tells me how to do my job.  I skip lunch and work late doing fun things....not because I have to meet a deadline.  There's always tomorrow.   I actually look forward to thinking of cool dinner ideas.  I don't have to dread making dinner on the drive home in rush hour.

Besides being fortunate enough to be there for the day to day milestones my kidlets achieve, I get to squeak in my own hobbies.  I love to bake and cook.  I pretend to be able to sew simple quilts and other crafty things.  So, when time allows it, I'm going to compile some of my faves here on this blog.

One day when I have to return to the "real" will be nice to look back at the cool things I got to do when I stayed home with my kids.

So here we go.....