Apologies for the Absence…here’s some Smoked Caramel Slice. Forgive Me?

Yes, you read that right. I said smoked caramel. Not salted, which is somewhat ubiquitous when it comes to caramel these days. You can’t swing a spatula without hitting a few dozen salted caramel recipes. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I enjoy all manner of caramel, salted or otherwise. It just got me to thinking that there must be something else that can be done with it, some other subtle flavour enhancer that could be added. But how does one improve upon perfection?

It was while enjoying a backyard BBQ with the fam that it came to me. Someone made the innocent comment ‘I wish everything was smoked’. I had already been ogling this recipe from I wish I was Martha (oh honey, don’t we all!) for Millionaire Squares and was trying to decide how to put my own twist on them. Caramel Slice is what they’re called in the UK and Australia, as I’d discovered when I’d found another recipe in one of my cookbooks, The Primrose Bakery Book. And in Caramel – I do love to do my research – I found another recipe for this delicious concoction. They all shared the same basic formula: a shortcrust-style bottom pressed into the bottom of the pan and baked which, once cooled, was layered with caramel and finally topped with a layer of chocolate. Regardless of what you called it, Millionaire Squares or Caramel Slice, they are seriously habit-forming.

And once I’d added in a dash or two of liquid smoke, they became heart-stoppingly good. As in, your mouth begins to water and tastebuds start to tingle even before the caramel hits your lips. If you happen to be a fan of barbecue, of course. If not, then obviously these would not do anything for you. But that’s fine, to each their own. If you do love the smoked stuff then do yourself a favour: give it a shot in your next caramel recipe. Just start with a teaspoon, then go from there. The danger with liquid smoke is that it can overwhelm the food it’s meant to enhance rather quickly, so you have to go easy with it. The only way I can think of to make this better would be if I could figure out how to cold-smoke the actual caramel so to get an authentic smokey taste as opposed to relying on a smoke flavouring.

In regard to my absence, it’s not that I’ve not been baking and therefore had nothing to write about. I baked up some black bean brownies and a cornmeal peach cobbler last week that I fully intended to post on but when the results were just meh I decided not to. And then there’s the exciting macaron post which will likely be the subject of my next post. But in the time in between, I’ve been trying to decide what direction to take in my future.

Do I try the apprentice route, attempt to get into a local bakery to learn from the ground up? I love baking, but would I still feel the same if it were my actual job? My husband has a friend who used to be a pastry chef – his whole world revolved around baking and he loved it. Until a couple years later when he couldn’t stand the thought of it anymore. It took him five years to pick up a whisk again. That’s kind of how I feel about makeup, and I already know how much it sucks to despise something you formally loved with such passion. I would hate for that to happen to me again with the baking, especially since it’s such a source of comfort to me. So I’ve been thinking of other things that I may be able to do, things that relate to baking but not to the point where I could burn out on it myself.

I can’t go into too much detail at the moment, but believe me – you’ll be among the first to know when I can!

The Power of Flowers: Violet-Chocolate Cupcakes

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For someone who claims to be such a chocoholic, I haven’t really been using that much of it in my baking of late. But when I do, oh mama…I don’t hold back. But rather than get completely carried away with the chocolate usage – trust me, there’s plenty of time for that – I decided to hold true to my word in my last cupcake post and pair chocolate with the sweet flavour of violet.

Was it a success? Well, I’m not sure. I’m not convinced either way. Perhaps I used too strong of a cocoa powder – I used up the very last bits of my prized Valrhona to make up about a third of the cocoa in this recipe, the remainder was good old reliable Fry’s. But maybe, as I learned the hard way with my first Red Velvet experience, you have to use a slightly more neutral cocoa powder or else it won’t work? In both cases the chocolate flavour turned out beautifully but just as the red wasn’t quite red enough in the Velvet, the violet wasn’t as prevalent as I would have liked it to be. But then, it could be as simple as I just used too much cocoa powder and not enough violet? Hmmm

I used the same recipe as I did for the Bleeding Heart Rose cupcakes with a few amendments, mainly swapping in cocoa for the 1/4 cup in the 1-1/4 cup sugar called for in the original recipe, and then 1 tsp violet syrup in place of the vanilla extract. The overall taste in the end was nice, especially with the addition of the violet buttercream – although I will have to use less violet in the icing next time because it refused to hold its shape, hence the slightly psychedelic appearance of the adorning ‘violets’.

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Also for next time, I may do away with the chocolate portion altogether in order to let the violet really shine – although it has a sweet sharpness to it on its own, the chocolate just tames the violet right down. And to add more of the violet flavouring, you run the risk of making the cake too perfumey in a sickly sweet sort of way. Perhaps I should keep it simple, as a white cake. Or maybe tint it with just a hint of purple to give it some edge, to really let it become The Violet Femme. Otherwise, I can already tell that this particular cake recipe is quickly becoming my ‘go-to’ when it comes to experimenting with new flavours and ideas. It’s incredibly adaptable.

Has anyone else tried baking with violet syrup? Any tricks or tips you wish to pass on would be great ūüôā

From Failure to (Almost) Fondant: Tea Time with Tiffany Mini-Cakes

A couple of days ago I thought I’d try my hand at marshmallow-making. Those soft white puffy clouds of sugary goodness sometimes haunt me, and I wanted to make them mine. Without gelatin.

This would be where the failure comes in. I discovered – the hard way, as I’m wont to do – that it is extremely difficult to make fondant without some sort of setting agent. Be it gelatin or actual marshmallow root, you need something to make it rise and retain its height as well as shape. One cannot rely on the magic of boiled corn syrup and sugar to do it for one, especially if one is not an experienced candymaker. Like myself. So there I was, stuck with a sticky white dough that wouldn’t quite harden but did maintain form when¬†moulded. Like Playdoh. And it appeared to be awfully similar to that white dough-like substance used to cover most professionally decorated cakes you might see on such shows as Cake Walk on Slice TV¬†or Planet Cake, a BBC series based on the Australian designer cake studio who creates stunningly beautiful cakes. It may have been watching that which made me decide that my marshmallow concoction was indeed fondant (it wasn’t) and that I was going to use it to cover some miniature cakes in honour of my other favourite colour and what I consider my own version of the Happiest Place on Earth, Tiffany & Co. Screw Disneyland – give me a little blue box with something shiny inside any day of the week.

I think that now may be a good time to mention that I have never, ever covered a cake with fondant before. I’ve worked with it, created little cupcake decorations and in the making of chocolate covered cherries, but not to any great extent. But I figured, how hard could it be? Ohhhh so naive. And arrogant. I blame the macaron success wave that I must have still been riding on. Yes, still. I am that sad. And while we’re on that subject, another thing that should be brought up is how completely obsessed with Tiffany’s I am. I have a small shrine in my living room bookshelf where I have lovingly created a vignette featuring¬†bags and boxes from various Tiffany gifts I’ve received over the years. I also insisted on one of our bathrooms being painted Tiffany blue, and dragged the long-suffering husband and son through several different Lowes and Home Depots in search of the shade of blue-green that most closely matched the coveted,¬†proprietary¬†shade. Incidentally, I found it at RONA’s – Canadian readers will know what I’m talking about. I think it was shade #1246 if I remember correctly – it’s a miracle I don’t still have the shade card. Oh right… in case you haven’t picked up on this yet: mentally speaking, I’m a couple cupcakes short of a dozen. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make; my point is simply that matching the shade was the least of my worries since I have more than enough source material to work from. And match it I did, not just once but six times since working with the ‘fondant’ in one large mass was proving to be too difficult so I had to separate and tint it for each cake individually.

That should have been my first clue that something was amiss.

But no, since I’d managed to get so far as too have a near perfect match to that lovely shade I was determined to persevere. Even if it killed me. But it didn’t, it just took me the better part of two days to do all six. With bows. Did I not mention the bows? Oh…whoops! ¬† ¬†I decided I wanted to make the cakes into little gift boxes, complete with white fondant bows.¬†Not unlike these ones pictured here.¬†¬†

From My Little Cake Shop – Cake Central.com

So…not too ambitious for a first project, right?

Enough of my babbling – that’s not what you came here for. What you want to see is what I poured my heart and soul into for a couple of days. There were tears, there were tantrums, there was even a fit or two of rage. But in the end, for better or worse, here is the end result.

Now that I’m looking at them again, they really aren’t so bad for a first timer’s shot at it. I mean, I probably would have fared far better, and maybe saved myself some time and mental anguish, had I used real fondant instead of my homemade concoction. In the closeup top view shot you can clearly distinguish the first day from the second – I prefer to pay most of my attention to the bottom three cakes. They came out much prettier, much more uniform. But I am extremely pleased with the soft fluffiness and pristine whiteness of the cake itself and especially with how well the icing matches. Then again, I am trained as a makeup artist so colour-blending should be second nature to me. So it’s good to know that those fourteen or so years weren’t completely in vain, that there are a few transferable skills I can take with me should I decide to pursue this cake thing further than just a means of therapy.

But that would be another post for another time. And a lengthy one at that. I’m not sure I have it in me today. And besides, I’m still trying to play catch up with these baking posts; yesterday will account for three of them on its own! Yeah…not a good day mentally, but a great day gastronomically! Maybe I can get to that tomorrow.¬†But for now, it’s time to rest and get re-energized so to contemplate my next moves – personally, professionally, and culinarily.

Pretty in Pink Very Cherry Cupcakes & Whoopie Pies

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Pink is my very favourite colour. It’s something I’m rather well known for since I will always try to incorporate it in some way into everything I wear or do regardless of whether I should. I’m also partial to Tiffany blue but then, really, what girl isn’t?! There is magic inside that little blue box…

Anyway, another favourite is more of a childhood memory: cherry chip cake from a box. If pink had a flavour, it would be that cake. So many birthday cakes involved this stuff. And although no one is having a birthday anytime soon, I tasked myself with figuring out a way to recreate this iconic childhood flavour from scratch as my weekend baking challenge. You know, just so I’m totally prepared when a birthday does come round.

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A quick Web search revealed that I wasn’t the only one with fond memories of this cake. I went with this recipe from Sprinkle Bakes – and may end up purchasing her book because her baking all looks so good – and just made a couple of minor modifications. First I limited the sugar to one cup since I didn’t want it to overpower the cherriness of the cake, and I think next time I could stand to take it down even further to 3/4 of a cup. It was still pretty sweet, especially when you factor in the maraschino cherry syrup I used to make the icing. The decision not to include the chopped cherry ‘chips’ in the batter and use them as accents instead was last minute, and one I’m glad I went with. The egg whites made the texture so lovely and light I was happy to let it be the star of the show, with the chips on top or inside in the case of the Whoopie Pie.

Now I just need to figure out what flavour Tiffany blue might be. I’m leaning toward a classic white cake flavoured with Tahitian vanilla and almond extract and keeping the frosting in that particular shade of blue but with the same flavour. That will be another post – and another baking challenge – for another time. But until then, I’m open to suggestions.

What do you think Tiffany blue might taste like?

I Know What Victory Tastes Like…

And it tastes like a French Chocolate Macaron. Or twenty, perhaps.

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Finally, after several months of careful research, planning and even a macaron-making class which only resulted in more failed attempts and frustration, I am immensely proud to announce that I have made my first successful batch of macarons. And with the way I’m acting about it, you’d think I’d won an Oscar or something. I plastered pics all over Facebook and Twitter, probably driving everyone I know nuts. I even felt as though I should make a speech to honour such a momentous occasion. And if I were to do that, it would go a little something like this.

Wow, this is so unexpected…I hardly know what to say. First off, I’d like to thank celebrated pastry chef David Leibovitz for providing a perfect, easy to follow recipe after moving to Paris and conducting several experiments of his own then passing the final tested formula on so that the rest of us may benefit from his wisdom. Thanks also to my friend Lisa at Le Dolci for giving me my first crack of proper macaron method through classes taught at her Toronto studio, taught by the fabulous Mardi. And finally, I’d like to thank my family for their tolerance and patience with my near-constant profanity and poor humour as I wasted egg after egg in my quest for that perfect little shell.

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But it wasn’t without some challenges. The first batch I put straight into the oven as the recipe had suggested, but a quarter of them were cracked and looked more popover than macaron. That could have been due to some temperature fluctuation or a hot spot in the oven itself. The second batch however, after having waited for about a half hour before baking, came out with the signature feet and smooth-domed shell that are the hallmarks of the Parisian confection. Just like the ones that have hitherto eluded me, and that food blog writers everywhere seemed to make look so easy. It’s not easy. Not by a long shot.

But if anything can be gleaned from this experience, it’s that hard work and perseverance really do pay off. It may not have escaped your attention that I have not put up anymore Sunday night goals. Is it because I’m abandoning the practice so soon? No, not at all. Instead of just writing about it – since we know how well that worked for me – I decided to take a more active approach. Just do it, then write about it afterward. This macaron post as well as the previous one about coconut cream pie are both prime examples of goals I had very high on my list.

So what’s next on my to-do list? I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out.

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A Tale of Two Pies

I love pie.

More than any other treat, even chocolates, there’s nothing like a good piece of pie to make a bad day suddenly better. And put a good day completely over the top. Basically, there’s never a bad time for pie. But what often holds me back is the labour-intensiveness of the pie-making process. It was always so much easier to head into Kensington Market and grab a slice at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. However, now that’s not really an option. Wanda’s is a bit too much of a trek.

Hot on the heels of my galette-baking success, and at the urging of my husband’s cravings, I decided to try my hand at hand at two favourites yesterday afternoon. First, my husband’s pie of choice: Pecan

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I used my grandmother’s recipe from the beloved Women’s Institute cookbook, but with a couple of tweaks to try to make my own mark on it.

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I replaced the white sugar with dark brown sugar, which I tend to do with most recipes because I’m not a huge fan of white sugar. Too gritty, and nowhere near the same depth of flavour you get with the darker varieties. Also, I used a regular corn syrup instead of the light syrup the recipe called for. I wanted that super-gooey, dark dense filling that – to me, anyways – is the mark of a proper pecan pie. It worked well, if I do say so myself.

The next pie was a bit of a challenge for myself. And therefore, much more terrifying. In every diner I eat at, I well order a piece of it if I see it on the menu. To me, it’s perfection on a plate. I give you my favourite pie: Coconut Cream

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It was nerve-racking, to be sure. But I got through it in the end, thanks mainly to this excellent recipe here. The pie crust recipe, which happily yields two disks of lovely dough, is remarkably easy to make. And for the most part I kept to the recipe. But it wouldn’t be me to not put my own spin on it. For the custard filling, I swapped out two cups of whole milk for coconut milk, which gave me the distinctive coconut flavour I was hoping for. Next time, I might even substitute coconut milk for all three cups of milk. As for the whipped cream topping, I opted for 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract because the custard was quite rich on its own and I didn’t want anything to compete with that coconut flavour. That’s the basis on which I judge a good coconut cream – by how much actual coconut flavour is involved. Some pies that I’ve had in the past are too eggy or may as well be vanilla pie, save for the sprinkling of toasted coconut on top. Which brings me to my last substitution: I went for untoasted, unsweetened coconut overtop the whipped topping in place of the more traditional toasted. Aesthetically, I find it more pleasing. Like fluffy white clouds against a clear blue sky, or freshly fallen snow.

And now that I’m waxing all poetic about pie, I think that it’s time to wrap this up. Besides, I’m feeling so good about yesterday’s victory in the kitchen that I just might use the leftover egg whites to take another crack at my arch sweet-making nemesis: the Macaron.

Meringue Swirls Taunt Me No More!

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Finally, I give you my version of the accursed meringues! Now that I’ve finished them, I’m not sure what I was so intimidated by. But of course it’s so much easier to say that in hindsight. So let’s not go down that all-to-familiar road. Instead, let’s just focus on the fact that at last I was able to conquer this particular Martha-induced demon.

Here is a side-by-side comparison shot.

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Keeping in mind that I am by no means a professional, I’d say I did a pretty damn good job. One thing I would do differently is make sure I used more food coloring – and the gel kind instead of the liquid which was all I had on hand. But in any case the first few came out nice and swirly, while the remaining ones were more uniformly yellow. That’s fine with me – in the jar they have this sort of ombr√© effect which is quite lovely.

I piped as many as would fit in the oven but was still left with a fair amount of meringue. Not wanting to waste either that or the lemon I’d grated half the peel from, I set about making lemon curd for some sort of tart. I didn’t feel like making another shortcrust, though, and that’s when it hit me.

Why not make upside down lemon meringue tarts instead?

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I even crushed up some cookies to sprinkle on top to mimic pie crust. Judging by the reaction they garnered from the resident taste testers, I’d say the experiment was a success.

I must say, spending half the day in the kitchen was actually the most enjoyment I’ve gotten from life in quite a long time. I just need to figure out more ways to keep that feeling going all day long.

Recipes I used are here and here – both from Martha. Of course.

Something Old, Something New: Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble Pie

In my admittedly limited baking experience, I have found that despite the vast amount of recipes available by various cookbooks, recipe blogs, and the Internet in general I will inevitably have the most success making something from the timeworn Women’s Institute cookbook given to me by my mother when I was about sixteen. I think it was an attempt on her part to interest me in cooking, as well as impart a bit of a lesson in family history. Both grandmothers, two aunts and at least one great aunt had their recipes included there, as well as a host of others from names I’d heard many times throughout my life. It’s like a culinary version of a time capsule.

Although that first attempt failed miserably – I was far more interested in boys and bands at that age to want anything to do with country kitchen life – I did keep the book with me. It even moved across an ocean and back. I would bust it out whenever I had a hankering for my grandma’s oatmeal cookies or banana muffins, then back to the bookshelf it would go. But it wasn’t until my mother passed away last November that it has been getting any regular use at all.

There are a number of contributing factors, of course, but mostly it’s because baking has become a form of therapy. And using that cookbook in particular serves as a link between me and my mother, as well as those women who have gone before her. Every now and then it hits me, that connection, and then the tears will start to flow. Like today, for example.

I had picked up a bunch of rhubarb and a quart of strawberries from the farmer’s market because they looked so inviting. I’ve never attempted to make anything with rhubarb before – the last time I think I baked a pie it was pumpkin, using the canned variety. I’ve never really been down with anything too labour-intensive, and hulling berries and cutting rhubarb stalks into one inch pieces would definitely fall into that category. But for some reason, today I was really looking forward to it. There is a certain zen-like quality to the repetitive action of cutting the fruit and tipping it into a bowl to be blended with some sugar and spread onto an oatmeal crust. Until it hit me – the last time I would have had strawberries and rhubarb together in a room would have been when I was a teenager, living at home with my parents. I would have been watching my mother slice up the berries, slapping my hand as I stole some to eat. She would often send me out back for more of the rhubarb that grew wild at the edge of the field our house was surrounded by, since she would underestimate how much she needed. When I would return, there would usually be a small bowl of cut-up berries set aside for me; no sugar, just the way I liked them.

Cue the tears. God, I wish she was still here.

I’d like her to see that I did learn something after all, that even after all those years of resisting anything to do with the kitchen that everything she’d tried to teach me had somehow sunk in anyway. That I was finally somewhat proud of my rural roots, proud enough to pass on one of my grandmother’s recipes to a co-worker looking to make the perfect pecan pie. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my newfound hobby, it’s that you can’t go wrong with a Women’s Institute or church group recipe. And I come from a long line of both.

I made this strawberry rhubarb crumble pie by using this recipe. It’s a name that I know I’ve heard but cannot place. If Mom were here, she would no doubt tell me not only who Marilyn Ismond was but where she lived, who she went to school with, and who else she is related to in the book.

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