Monday, August 25, 2014

Swiss Buttercream Frosting: what you need to know

From the time I tasted my first French pastry (not yet in France, sadly, but at Notte's Bon Ton Pastry shop in Vancouver), I have been a buttercream snob. All those cupcake shops that claim to have buttercream icing, and then pile on that pancreatic crisis of icing sugar and shortening, drive me crazy.

So when I make cupcakes, I make REAL buttercream. But I sometimes only make cupcakes once a year, at my kids' birthday party, so in between I forget some of the finer points.

While I was grateful to Martha Stewart for her cupcake ideas, and for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe that I use most often, after successive years of absolute panic while making this buttercream, I take issue with her recipe instructions.

I have friends who fear buttercream, because it seems hard. With the right equipment, namely a stand mixer with a lot of horsepower, it is practically fool-proof. But I manage to forget that from year to year.

On my first foray into Swiss Meringue Buttercream, I was nine months pregnant, it was D's second birthday, and I was determined to make these cute little lion cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes. He's a Leo, you see. My sister was helping me prepare the cupcakes, and her job was to cut mini-marshmallows in half with scissors, to make the lions' muzzles. Absurdly, she had so much fun with it, she constantly asks if I want her to cut up marshmallows whenever she visits.

I had made the buttercream a couple of days earlier, so decided to freeze it, which Martha Stewart says is just fine. You just 'bring to room temperature and beat with paddle attachment on low speed until smooth again, about 5 minutes.' 

Here's the trick with Swiss Meringue Buttercream. It may take WAY longer than five minutes to become smooth again, and before it becomes smooth, it breaks down into a horrifically curdled mess, and if you don't remember the trick with Swiss Meringue Buttercream, you will become convinced that it is ruined and you have to start again. 

I sent my sister to the store to buy another pound of butter, wondering how I would ever pull off making another batch of frosting AND decorating the cupcakes before guests arrived. As she left, she said, "Just leave it running and walk away. I'll get your butter, but it's going to be okay!" And you know what? It was. It just starts to magically come together and what used to look like watery cottage cheese now looks like beautiful, silky, perfect frosting. But that experience took a year or two off my life.

And guess what? It happened again this year. Except this time, it was the first round of mixing the frosting that took forever to come together. It looked remarkably like cottage cheese, and it mixed for at least 20 minutes without changing. I actually texted my sister, who lives 1800 km away: "Swiss meringue buttercream stresses me out every time. Can you run to Extra Foods and get me another pound of butter?" She replied, "Just keep mixing! It will be fine. BREATHE! ;)" And then a few minutes later, "Do you need me to cut marshmallows?"

I did walk away, and it did come together. But seriously, Martha. Five minutes? I think it's important to let anyone who is trying Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the first time know that it can take 10 times that. Don't give up. I have never had to throw away a batch. It has always turned out perfect. Eventually. Thanks again, sis!

Birthday Theme: Balls!

For quite a while now, I have been planning a post on balls as a theme for Finger Food Fridays. Before I got to that, however, I was inspired to take it to another level. Balls as a theme for my boys' double birthday party (their birthdays are six days apart).

It is super fun to blurt, "Balls!" when someone asks what is for supper. Turns out it is also fun to blurt, "Balls!" when people ask me what I'm making for my kids' birthday party. Birthdays at my house are family affairs. No 'drop off your kids and I'll feed them hot dogs and cake and candy and send them home jacked on sugar' here. I try to keep the sugar levels low, and I try to make the food something the adults will want to stay for.

This does, however, tend to drive up the numbers of people at the party. This year I tried valiantly to keep it under 30, about 16 kids and 14 adults. Still over the top, I know, but also a reduction from the numbers of the last two years.

I try to make birthday party food that accepts the reality of kids at birthday parties. There are so many more exciting things to do at a party than eat, so unless you make the food small and portable, they likely will not eat anything until the cake comes out. 

Balls seemed like a good solution. I already knew it was a hit with my kids, and I have made meals of balls on many a Finger Food Friday. What kinds of balls? Well, meatballs, rice balls, cheese balls, falafel, quinoa pilaf rolled into balls, Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes, bocconcini…and the list goes on.

G with a cheek full of some kind of ball on a Finger Food Friday.

I was also dealing with a few allergies among my guests—wheat, eggs and dairy to be exact. I couldn't make everything allergy-friendly, but I did what I could.

So the birthday party menu went like this:
Quinoa porcupines (these were a huge hit with the party, and I'm glad to report I made extra and froze them. They will come in handy when school starts. For the tomato sauce, I made a basic marinara sauce from canned tomatoes) (about four dozen)
Herb-coated mini cheese balls (about four dozen)
Sesame rice balls (four dozen)
Falafel, purchased at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market (40) and cucumber yogurt sauce
Caprese salad of mini bocconcini cheese, grape tomatoes and fresh basil, tossed in a splash of Rozendal vinegar and Spanish olive oil
Grapes, cherries, and watermelon and cantaloupe balls
Whole wheat slider buns (the thought was that you could just skip the buns, or you could have a mini meatball sandwich, throw a cheese ball on top of that meatball, or you could go for a falafel on a bun for a veggie option)

And what does one make for a cake at a ball themed party? Cake pops did come to mind, but I was already chafing at the thought of having to roll all the balls listed above. And my week was packed too full to consider learn the entirely new skill of making cake pops.

What I am really good at is making cake and buttercream icing (with one small caveat which I will mention in my next post). And my sons had already fixed on the precedent that if they had to share a birthday party, at least that meant there would be chocolate cupcakes AND a vanilla slab cake. So how to decorate?

Well, God bless Martha Stewart (I don't often say that, but this time I do). In her Cupcakes cookbook, she had some sporty cupcake ideas, including these Slam Dunk Cupcakes. I realized I could make the slab cake into a basketball court, and voila! I had my ball-themed cake.

I even remembered to take a picture. Until next year.

So yeah, not exactly like Martha's version, but also not exactly a Pinterest Fail.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Belated Summer Meal Plan

Here in Saskatchewan, summer has been painfully slow to arrive. Now that we have hit July, it seems to have committed to being here, at least in between rainstorms. This week was the first time I started feeling the need to cook summery things, but considering this summer may be particularly fleeting, there is also a sense urgency about it.

It feels more like summer now that I have stocked my fridge with rosé wine, Stiegl Radler, and ginger beer. And now for the food...

My summer favourites have been popping into my head at intervals. I've already made a few. Last night was Crispy-skinned trout and salsa verde rice, posted in an earlier blog. I also made a trip to the Farmers' Market today, and paid an ungodly price for new potatoes, among other things. And this urge, combined with my list of Farmers' Market produce has inspired my menu plan this week.


Burnt eggplant with tahini (from Ottolenghi's Plenty, but reprinted here thanks to Veggies and Gin)
Marinated lamb chunks (I have these weird cuts of bone-in stewing lamb from the last time I got a whole lamb, but I've discovered they make great finger food if you marinate them in herbs and lemon juice and roast or grill them)
New potatoes with dill


Marinated buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes
Grilled Italian sausage
Cucumber salad (recipe to be determined, although Ottolenghi's Cucumber salad with garlic and ginger, but another of my favourites is Sweet and Sour Cucumbers with Fresh Dill)

Wednesday (one of my must-have summer combos)

Grilled pork chops with garlic lime sauce
Black bean and tomato quinoa
Watermelon with feta

Thursday and Friday I am off on our annual Wild/Wise Womyn's Trail Ride. I have offered to make Spatchcock chicken, partly for the chance to experience everyone cracking off-colour jokes about the name. It will be a challenge, as we cook over an open fire, and it will take some balancing of heat to cook the chicken without burning it. I'll report back later, hopefully with pictures. I also need to provide a marinated vegetable salad and another salad to go with the chicken. I haven't quite decided on that one, but am leaning toward cider-glazed carrot and quinoa salad. Have I mentioned I love Bon Appetit??

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Weed Salad

Sometimes working with who you are rather than who other people expect you to be or say you 'should' be makes life easier. Actually, I think it will always make life easier to go that route.

Today, my practice in working with who I am has to do with my garden. I only grow things that I can eat, for starters, but I also am really only interested in planting and harvesting. The in between growing part is not my thing. Not so keen on weeding or hilling potatoes, or thinning the rows—unless I can eat the fruits of my labour.

Which brings me to weed salad. It turns out most of the weeds in my garden are edible, and not only edible, but delicious and nutritious. Dandelion, chickweed, lamb's quarters, pigweed, are all edible. So I have been making a practice of having weed salads for supper. And in the process, my garden gets weeded, since once I'm there, picking my salad greens, I am likely to pull up any weeds that are close to going to seed, or any that are choking out the plants I purposely planted.

So I could feel guilty about not weeding (which I am never going to make room in my busy schedule to do, since there are a 1,000 things I'd rather be doing), or I could eat the weeds. A delicious solution!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Favourite BlendTec Recipes

In the past month or so, I have learned more reasons to love the BlendTec blender I received for Christmas. I've been appreciating the silky smoothies, and my kids (and I) were delighted to discover a vegan chocolate frosty recipe that can double as fudgesicles, and which is the only way that I can get G to eat avocado.

I was also recently saddened to discover I was at the bottom of my favourite Green & Black's hot chocolate mix until I realized that in the list of ingredients they tell you the percentages of dark chocolate and cocoa powder, and there is only one other ingredient: raw cane sugar. Using my powers of deduction, I worked out a recipe, and ground up 4 oz Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate, 7/8 cups Dutch process cocoa powder and 1 1/2 cups of raw coconut sugar in my trusty blender, et voila! I had made my very own rich and delicious hot chocolate mix! I'll never spend $10 on a jar of Green & Black's again, unless of course I am tragically separated from my BlendTec.

Then there was the 10-day cleanse that I managed to squeeze in between Easter and a trip to the Okanagan Food & Wine Writers' workshop in Kelowna (more on that later, but for now, I will say, a) I don't recommend coming off a cleanse by attending a Food & Wine Writers' workshop, and b) I've found my people!). My BlendTec made it much easier to cope with the prospect of eating only liquids for three of the 10 days. My liquids included butternut squash soup (with the onion 'sautéed' in water instead of oil) and avocado soup, some of which I froze, and brought along post-cleanse to a dinner party, topped a roasted corn pico de gallo made with some of my frozen salsa from last tomato season, with roasted corn, lime juice, fresh cilantro and finely chopped cucumber added. This is much more than a health food.

But probably my most favourite discovery was homemade vegetable broth powder. Sorry OXO, sorry Knorr, I am forever lost to you (well, I was already lost to them, but I do appreciate the convenience of a soup stock powder now that I've discovered a homemade version). Late at night when I was feeling sorry for myself for not being able to eat 'real' food, and also feeling extra cold because this particular spring cleanse took place during one of the coldest spring in living memory, I relished drinking a cup of this salty, steaming, nourishing soup. But that's not all…I have also discovered it works amazingly well as a seasoning salt. I have many more experiments to conduct with it, but so far I have added it to breading for fish, as well as a topping for popcorn (along with duck fat. Yes. You read that right).

This stuff is amazing! So delicious, so easy to make, and so many potential uses. You may not need a BlendTec in order to make some of these recipes, but if you're looking for a new blender, you may want to consider it. And no, they're not paying me for my endorsement.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Foodie and Her Principles: or, how long can you keep your kids away from McDonalds?

A couple of days ago, I called my son's babysitter to tell her I'd be a bit late dropping him off because I had some errands to run and he had asked to come with me. She said, "Oh, okay, we'll hold lunch until you get here, as my husband is bringing us lunch today."

As G and I walked through the grocery store, buying fresh fruit, vegetables, yogurt, and a re-usable container so that I could start mixing homemade 'yogurt drinks' for D in his school lunches, I reflected on what 'bringing lunch' might mean. 

I was pretty sure it would mean McDonalds. I opted not to ask, because I didn't want to know. While I briefly considered taking G for lunch before I delivered him to the sitter, I decided against it.

You see, my husband and I tend to think we're pretty flexible about parenting and don't subscribe to many hard-and-fast rules about food, TV, etc. While we do have our boundaries, if they get crossed accidentally when our kids are with other people, it's not the end of the world. 

McDonalds and other fast food restaurants are so far outside the realm of possibility in our world, that I don't even think about them. We manage to go on road trips without having to use them; instead, we'll stop at a grocery store, pick up some snacks or makings for sandwiches, and have a picnic at a park. It has worked for us so far. I don't really consider those places to serve 'real food', and since I only eat real food, they are just not an option. Occasionally, if we need restaurant food, we will opt for pizza or Chinese food, but never a fast food burger.

It isn't a point of pride that we don't go to McDonalds (at least, I didn't think so until now), it just isn't part of our reality. Since our sitter had told me that she only cooks homemade food, that she might occasionally bring in McDonalds for lunch hadn't even crossed my mind.

At the end of the day, G came bounding up to me, saying, "I got a toy! I got a toy!" and I knew then without a doubt where his lunch had come from. I was unprepared for the heavy, sick feeling I got in my stomach, thinking about it. I looked at D, and thought, wow, he's almost six, and he still doesn't even know what McDonalds is (he said to me, "I've been to McDonalds. Isn't it a farm?"), and poor little three year old G has already been exposed. The sitter was shocked to hear that it was his first experience with McDonalds.

I guess we're really not normal, are we? But to be honest, I don't want to be normal.

I had always said that while I wouldn't take my kids to McDonalds, because I'm not interested in eating it or participating in the fast food culture in general, I also wasn't about to forbid them going there. Extremism doesn't breed moderation, and moderation is the overall lesson I'm hoping to instill in my children.

I'm also pretty sure that they'll be able to tell the difference between fast food and 'real' food, because as  a kid, I certainly could. I always looked forward to going to McDonalds because I was supposed to like it, but the food always disappointed. As an adult, it was never a place I wanted to go. I did eat other kinds of fast food until I slowly realized they just didn't taste good or feel good in my body when I ate them.

I tell my husband regularly that it's not so much what we say as what we do that will get through to the kids. If we told them fast food was bad for them but they saw us eating it, they'd want to eat it. If we told them too much TV is bad for them, but watched it a lot anyway, and talked about it all the time, they'd get a different sense. In reality, TV is not part of our lives, and neither is fast food, and that is what will register with our kids.

I never under-estimate the power of emotional ties to food, and the importance of childhood memories and comfort food. In my case, and that of my kids', I'm hoping that those emotions are tied to feelings of togetherness around the table, of home-cooked meals, family gatherings, and fresh cookies out of the oven.

It was gratifying to watch D and G eat Trout Provencale, roasted sweet potatoes, steamed beans and carrots and coleslaw that night for dinner. They each asked for seconds. I'll rest assured that in spite of my urges to be extremist and impose my will about fast food, it's a better tack to offer healthy, flavourful, real food and let them make their own decisions.

Deconstructed Beef Barley Soup

Sometimes life throws you curveballs, and when those curveballs happen in the kitchen—just like in any other area of life—you can either throw up your hands and give up, or adjust your swing and hit a home run.

This happened to me earlier in the week. I was sure that last year's garden potatoes would see me through one more meal, so I put a beef blade roast in the slow cooker with some homemade beef stock, salt and pepper, and decided I'd throw together mashed potatoes and some veggies later in the day.

The day was packed, and it turned out there was a 5pm appointment I had forgotten about, so my meal prep was limited to one hour, between 3:30 and 4:30pm. When I pulled out those potatoes, I realized I had been over-optimistic about their state. They were unusable. So then the question was: do I run to the store and buy some, or do I change my plan?

I decided to go with barley instead, and then a plan formed involving a composed dish that would contain everything in a beef barley soup, but dished up like a meal. I threw together a pilaf with ingredients I had on hand, prepped some broccolette for a vegetable, brought the pilaf to a boil, and set it to simmer while I was at my appointment.

The results were exactly as I had imagined. I got home at 6:15 to a silent household of kids and husband hunched over their plates. They hadn't dished it the way I had imagined it (pilaf in a bowl, topped with sliced beef with broth dished around it), but they were still enjoying it. I dished mine that way, and it was exactly as I'd hoped. So here's the recipe!

Deconstructed Beef Barley Soup

1 3 lb. beef blade roast
4 c. beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and pepper to taste

The morning before you plan to serve the meal: Salt and pepper roast generously. Place in slow cooker, pour stock around it. Cook 7 or 8 hours on low.

1 c. pot barley
1/4 c. butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
1/2 c. sliced sun-dried tomatoes
1 Parmesan rind
3 c. water
1 T. salted herbs (or salt, pepper, and your favourite fresh herbs, or 1 t. dried herbs)

Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat. When it is melted, add the vegetables and sauté for five minutes. Stir in the barley and continue to sauté for a few more minutes. Toss in the Parmesan rind and salted herbs and add the water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour. Add more water if barley is still tough when the water evaporates. Remove Parmesan rind before serving.

To serve, taste stock for seasoning, slice meat. Dish barley pilaf into a bowl, top with slices of meat, spoon broth around the pilaf. 

I also spread Dijon mustard on the beef. SO good!

As an added bonus, I used some leftover pizza dough and supper fixings to make steak and cheese turnovers for lunch yesterday:

2 T. butter
One sliced onion
Leftover beef, cut in small cubes
Chopped, cooked broccolette
1/2 c. beef stock
1 c. grated old Cheddar cheese

Cook onion in butter until it is caramelized. Add in beef and broccolette, and heat. Pour 1/2 c. stock over, and simmer until stock is almost completely reduced. Let cool.

Spoon onto your favourite pastry dough (pizza crust, turnover dough, puff pastry), top with grated cheese, seal, and bake at 375F.