Pirate Treasure Chest Cake

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June is birthday month!  Did you know?  Practically everyone I know has a birthday in June.  And so I found myself knee deep in icing sugar, and the month sort of blurred by.

Lily decided on a pirate-themed beach birthday party.  We picked a park and planned a pretty sweet party, if I do say so myself.  Her treasure hunt was so elaborate that we had to do a beta test with our friends.

And, of course, I was making her cake.  I’d seen a similar idea around on the interwebs, so I decided to go with it – a treasure chest cake, overflowing with gold (chocolate loonies) and jewels (candy necklaces and ring pops).

I ended up making a gigantic cake, as I tend to overdo it when it comes to servings.  Even after 4 people eating the leftovers each night for a week straight, we still had to throw some out in the end!

I baked two 13″x9″x2″ double chocolate cakes for the base of the chest.  I was going to just go all out with the chocolate buttercream (this kid loves chocolate!), but decided to mix it up and try out a toasted marshmallow filling instead – it went over rather well, actually… although it didn’t taste much different from a regular vanilla buttercream.  The bits of toasted marshmallow added a nice effect.

I stressed a lot about the construction of this cake.  What to make the lid out of?  More cake?  Foam?  Rice krispie treats?  In the end, I went with the rice krispies.  It’s less heavy and slippery than cake, and I just can’t bring myself to put that much inedible stuff on top of a cake.

I cooked up a double batch of rice krispie treats and moulded it with a bit of a rounded top onto a cake board.  In the end, the kids seemed just as excited about the rice krispie treat lid as the cake itself!

I used bubble tea straws as supports, cut at two different heights and with an angle.  I also used some extra trimmings from the cake cut into wedges to help with support and stability of the lid.

With the lid placed, it sat just open enough to fill it with goodies.

 

I hit up Bulk Barn for all the treasure-like candy I could find.  Lots of chocolate coins, ring pops, candy necklaces, rock candy…  And a bit of brown sugar for the sand.  I transported the cake as two separate parts.  I wish I had a photo of my transport mechanism – it was almost as complicated as the cake!  I used two large tupperware bins nested inside each other so I could carry both cakes without them touching.

While the party guests were doing their long and complicated treasure hunt, I assembled the cake on the picnic table.  Lots of people came over to check out what I was doing!  Luckily we found a table in the shade.  I was quite worried as I had made 100% butter buttercream, which is known for its meltiness.  Luckily while it was a warm day, I kept it covered as much as possible and the shade helped a lot.

Of course, once the cake was cut and the sun had moved to the other side of the tree, it was game over… luckily the cake had been cut, enjoyed, and abandoned for swordfighting by then!

 


Game of Thrones “Red Wedding” Cake

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I have a friend (or several, actually) who is a huge Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire fan.  When her birthday was approaching and I started planning out her birthday cake, I was pretty sure I’d do something GoT related.  Maybe something simple, like a house crest of one of her favourite houses.

Oh, I suppose I should add: Spoiler alert!

But then someone said, “the Red Wedding would make an interesting theme for a cake!”  I was intrigued.  How could you encapsulate such a gruesome, horrible situation into a cake?  And then it came to me – well, it was a wedding.  So I started with that.  I made a little wedding cake (3 tiers are 8″/6″/4″, chocolate cake with super rich chocolate fudge icing, at birthday girl’s request).  I threw on some beaded borders and some roses and rosebuds.  Pretty!

Just an innocent wedding cake…

And then I went all House Frey on that wedding cake.  Greywind got the same treatment as in the book/movie, except this time he was to be mounted on a cake instead of his dear Robb.

Assembly of “Greywind” cake topper

Then the blood.  I did some experimenting with different fake, edible “blood” recipes for something that was pretty realistic.  I ended up combining agave nectar (like corn syrup), red gel food colouring, a little bit of chocolate syrup (to make it darker), and some piping gel to thicken it up slightly.

I waited until we were at the party and just about to bring it out to do the drizzling and add the topper.  I finished it off with some flaming red candles, and boom!  Red Wedding Cake.

Finished Red Wedding Cake

It was well received with lots of “Eww”s and “Ahhh!”s. :)  I think my favourite, unexpected moment, was when the birthday girl removed the topper: 

The stakes were there just for support, I swear!

So we dug in and enjoyed the delicious taste of betrayal, which I personally think is a dish best served with vanilla ice cream.

The Aftermath

 


Cake Decorating

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When I started planning our wedding last fall, I was overwhelmed by how darn expensive everything is.  $600 for a wedding cake?  It’s just a cake!  I can make a cake!

And so, half-jokingly, I decided I would make the wedding cake myself.  Partly because of sticker-shock, partly because then I could wait until the last minute to decide on flavours and design, and partly because I have trust issues on things like this.  For Christmas, I asked for enrollment in a cake decorating class so I could learn what this stuff is all about – I’d made a few cakes in my time, but I’d never worked with things like fondant and gumpaste.

Now it’s May, and I’ve made it through all 4 Wilton Method Decorating courses in 4 straight months.  Some of the courses were better than others, but I learned a lot and, more importantly, gained a lot of experience.  I’ve come to discover that I really enjoy decorating cakes – which surprised me, since I generally do not consider myself a very artistic person.

But it’s not the art that I enjoy the most – it’s the style of the projects.  Each project has a definite start and end, and a pretty short production cycle.  Every cake is different, and so it presents new problems to solve and challenges to overcome.  It’s just as much engineering as it is art and baking!

Now I’ve found myself committed to making birthday and event cakes for most of my friends and family.  And although I’m still planning on doing our wedding cake this summer – I now truly appreciate why they are so expensive. :)

I’ve posted up a dedicated page which features cakes I’ve been working on, which I’ll be keeping up-to-date.  You can check it out here!


My Whole30 Experience

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The Whole30 Program, created by Whole9

Many months ago, I became part of an online fitness community which has been a great place for me to learn and build my knowledge as a fitness enthusiast.  It’s where I learned the great feeling of picking up heavy things and then putting them back down.  It’s where I got advice and encouragement as I ran my first 5K last year.  But another thing they are always willing to give advice on is nutrition.

Many members of the community there are proponents of “The Paleo Diet”.  I won’t go into all the details, but the premise is that we should be eating like cavemen did for so many years.  Like hunter-gatherers, not like agriculturalists.   In general, this means no grains, no refined sugars, no dairy.  the historical origin behind it seems a bit dodgy to me, but I like the way Whole9 put it:

We eat real food – meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, healthy oils, nuts and seeds. We choose foods that were raised, fed and grown naturally, and foods that are nutrient-dense, with lots of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.

This is not a “diet” – we eat as much as we need to maintain strength, energy, activity levels and a healthy body weight. We aim for well-balanced nutrition, so we eat animals and a significant amount of plants.

Eating like this has helped us to look, feel, live and perform our best, and reduces our risk for a variety of lifestyle-related diseases and conditions.

I’ve never been a big fan of any sort of diet that completely disallows any food.  And, seeing as one of my other hobbies is baking, having no grains and no sugars is like… blasphemy.  But there is a lot that makes sense to me about a Paleo-style diet.  Meat and veggies really are dense in nutrition, so it makes more sense to base most meals around this than basing it around rice or pasta or cereals.

But when it comes to nutrition, there’s so much information and misinformation on both sides of the fence that it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s really the truth and what’s hype.  However, enough people I respect live by these rules that I decided to give it a try, through the Whole30 program.  Thirty days of ‘paleo’ – meat, veggies, fruit.  No dairy, no legumes, no grain, no sugars.  It’s just 30 days, and then I can form my own opinion.

And so I did it.

And you know what?  It wasn’t that hard.

I replaced my weekday breakfast cereal and weekend pancakes with hard-boiled eggs and omelettes with fresh veggies.  My lunch was usually leftovers, a meat dish and two servings of vegetables.  At dinner time, I replaced our usual “starch” side (pasta, rice, bread, etc.) with a second veggie dish.  I ate lots of tasty avocados.  I gave my Friday office treat to someone else.

And while I didn’t notice any sort of amazing energy boost or health improvements that I had been promised - I did learn a lot:

  1. I don’t need grains and dairy to survive, despite what the government says (as I put on my conspiracy hat.)  I made it 30 days without either, and I feel at least as healthy as I was before.
  2. Holy crap, there’s sugar in everything! I mostly cooked for myself during this adventure, but going through my cupboards and the grocery store isles it was amazing to see how much stuff I never thought had sugar in it that really does.  Same goes with soy products.  Packaged chicken stock?  Sugar!  Ugh!
  3. There are lots of vegetables, and a dozen ways to cook them all! I worried that I would get bored with vegetables.  While I did eat a lot of raw baby carrots and broccoli, I cooked with some new vegetables and some new methods which are sure to stick in my standard recipe book.
  4. It’s ok to say no. I planned my Whole30 to take place during a time I knew there would be no holidays or major social events for me to worry about, but still, there were times I had to pass on free lunches and baked goods.  Take it as an opportunity to share what you’re doing, or just lie if you don’t want to get into details.  Either way, no one is going to shove that cheese croissant down your throat for you – it’s a choice.
  5. It’s important to make healthy eating an open discussion with kids. Over dinner during this experiment, we talked lots about why sugar isn’t good for you.  Why you don’t really need to eat grains.  We made a game of “Guess if this food has added sugar!”  We asked the kids to think about how they would eat if they gave up sugar for a week.  And while they’re still eating dessert most nights and asking for junk food at the grocery store – it’s clear that they are starting to really think about their eating decisions, which I think is really awesome.

This experiment gave me a lot to think about, and really did change my perspective on food.  Although it was not really my intention, I did lose weight during this experiment, but I think what I gained in insight was much more important!

Now that it’s over, I plan to continue eating mostly this way.  I’m going to have treats, I’m going to have sugar and grains and dairy, but not all the time – I will eat them because they are tasty treat, not because I think I need to.

And I’m totally having pizza for dinner tonight.


A Weekend of Beer

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I don’t consider myself a beer connoisseur, but I sure am a fan.

A few weeks ago, I took Will on a birthday trip – a “tour of beer tours”.  The idea was centered around visiting The Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery in Barrie, which is where Will’s craft draft of choice, Hoptical Illusion, is made.

But I figured, why stop there?  It’s a 6 hour drive to Barrie, we can’t just come right back home!

So, taking advantage of my skills as an Internet Searching Person, I happened upon the Old Toronto Beer Tour, which seemed like a unique experience, and the perfect compliment to the motivation behind the trip.

And so, on Friday, we traveled the treacherous back-highways all the way to Barrie.  Kaitlyn, at Flying Monkeys, was nice enough to arrange an off-hours tour for us, since I knew we wouldn’t be able to make it there for their normal touring schedule.

It was a great tour!  It’s amazing how small the brewery actually is.  Kaitlyn gave us a tour of the entire facility, starting in their fully-stocked and reasonably-priced gift shop, through the entire brewing and bottling process, and then a peak at the offices behind the scenes.  Getting a personal tour was a real advantage, because we were free to take our time and ask any questions that came up.

Photo credit: William J. Gibson

Not to mention all the free beer samples, of course!

After sobering up at the nearby Local Gastropub, with our car loaded with shirts, glasses and beer from Flying Monkeys, we made our way down to Toronto for the rest of our beer-filled weekend.

On a rainy (yes, rainy in January!) Saturday morning, we took a quick subway ride right downtown to Steamwhistle to get our Old Toronto Beer Tour started.  We went inside and were led to the Steamwhistle event room, where there were breads, cheeses, meats and vegetables set up for our lunch – and of course, beer!  As we enjoyed our meal, our guide for the day, Oliver Dawson, introduced himself and gave the back story of how the tour came to be.  Quite a story!

Next up, we were introduced to our “bartender” – Lindsay, who then lead us on a tour of the Steamwhistle brewery.  He explained the entire process clearly, which was great for those of us who drink beer without any real idea behind the making of it.

After the tour, we boarded the bus and made our way to our second stop – Fort York.  Fort York?  On a beer tour?  I know, it seems strange.  But it worked pretty well.  The history of Fort York is closely tied with the history of brewing in Toronto, and it was interesting to learn a bit about what it was like when it started.  This part of the tour is newly added, and it still could use some polishing (a little more guidance and a little less freeform exploring) but it was an interesting break and really brought the history of it all into perspective.

The next stop was the second brewery: Amsterdam.  At this point, Oliver and his new secondary guide traded back and forth on introducing the many beers we were to sample at Amsterdam.  I lost count in the mix, but I think we tried about a dozen different beers while we were there.  I really enjoyed learning about the many varieties and methods of preparing different kinds of brews, and had my LCBO iPhone app ready to go to bookmark a few particularly interesting brews.

However, there were a few improvements that we thought could have been made during this visit.  We didn’t actually get to tour the brewery, which was a bit disappointing as it looked like an interesting set up.  It also would have been good if they had the samples prepared and ready to go before we got there, if possible – by the time the beer was poured and passed around, it wasn’t clear if you were tasting the last one that was introduced or the one before that.

After we were all sufficiently tipsy and had taken our bathroom breaks, we made our way back to the bus and onto our next destination: Corktown.  This is a historic part of Toronto, an Irish area of town, which is steeped in brewing history.  As we explored the area on foot and on the bus, we learned that much of the area was built by local brewers, for their employees.  We heard stories about architecture, business conflicts and family lineages along the way.  Unfortunately, I missed out on a good portion of the talking because my brain (and I was not alone in this) was overloaded with the thought of how important it was for me to find a bathroom NOW.  Many of the males in the group found their own creative solutions to this problem, but us girls were not so lucky. If I were to make one suggestion to improve this whole tour, it would be to find a bathroom break during the Corktown visit!

Our last stop was Mill St. Brewery in Toronto’s Distillery district.  I was really looking forward to this part, as Mill St. makes a few of my favourite beers.  Unfortuantely, I have to say that the tour fell a bit flat here.  We were shoved into their small tasting room/overly-priced gift shop and that’s where things ended.  Unfortunately, the main tour guide had to leave and the rest was left up to his assistant – who didn’t guide so much as chat with people.  We didn’t get to see the brewery, and we didn’t get introduced to any of the beers that were available for tasting.  Mill St. itself lost a few points in my book here too, I was looking forward to bringing home some merchandise, but not only were the shirts way above my price range ($35-60 or so) but I was informed that they didn’t carry anything in a Ladies Small.

Despite a few hiccups here and there, I would still really recommend both visiting Flying Monkeys and the Old Toronto Beer Tour.  Oliver seems to be always looking for ways to improve the tour, and his passion for it was obvious throughout.  It’s given me an appreciation and understanding of the brewing industry and the beers I so love to enjoy that I didn’t know I could have!