Friday, August 15, 2014

Lemon, Blueberry and Almond Cookies

Etsy Road Trip Canada

It is so cool when things on the internet merge into real life. I have been a fan of Etsy for so long and heard that this summer they were doing a cross-Canada road trip to bring their products to life. Yes, there is life outside of the internet and Etsy did a great job of making Etsy into a real-life experience with real people (part of what makes their brand so effective) rather than aimless internet shopping. It's like when you meet a celebrity in real life.

It was NOT in fact like the time my Mom took me to see Sailor Moon at my dentist's office. I wondered what Sailor Moon would actually look like in real life--and the logistics of meeting someone who is actually animated--and waited in line to see a lady dressed up in a homemade costume who was clearly not Sailor Moon. I don't know what I was actually expecting, but somehow I was disappointed. For a second there was some childhood hope that a promise would turn into something magical even though I knew it was impossible. All hope wasn't lost, as my Mom took me to the Baskin Robbins ice cream store located right next door to my dentist. And I thought, maybe Sailor Moon is cool to me when I can draw her and watch her on T.V; she doesn't need to be a real person. 

Etsy Road Trip Canada, Ottawa

The Etsy Road Trip was not disappointing in any way, even if the Ottawa stop was somewhat lacking in vendors. The experience itself was neat to see. They did it in the coolest way possible with a gorgeous airstream trailer, rad photo booth and extremely stylish people browsing for crafts. They also had local food trucks and a lot of swag. Seriously, though. I got a swag bag that had about 100 Etsy buttons in it. I don't know what to do with that many Etsy buttons. Maybe I could sell them on Etsy? The trip stopped in four cities over 10 days (Montreal, Kingston, Ottawa, Toronto) and I liked how it was an opportunity for other less Toronto-centric craft lovers to see what Etsy has to offer. I especially liked these knitted cactuses (pictured above) from Yeff Knits. If you haven't already, check out my page on Etsy for all of my favourite online finds. 

Etsy Road Trip Canada

That little outing inspired me to start some of my own crafty projects. My first was giving my cat's food station a bit of a makeover solely inspired by Pinterest and this tutorial from Beauty Lab. There are so many other priorities in our new place that "remodelling" something for the cat seems somewhat trivial; however, sometimes doing something small can make the bigger things seem less daunting. Like Pinterest so often does, it tends to lead you down into crazy, D.I.Y rabbit holes. Obviously my cat deserves to eat her meals in style even though all of her food comes out of cans.

Cat feeding station with IKEA tray

Her previous food mat was hard to clean and kind of gross, so I bought a new white tray from IKEA and treated her to a new water dish from PetSmart and the transformation was complete all for less than $20. But not before writing her name on the tray and drawing a paw mark with a Sharpie. Now all of the cat food mess is hopefully contained on the easy-to-wash tray that looks a little nicer than a crusty mat. I'm pretty sure she likes it and is thinking "Oh wow, thank you so much for making the place I eat so nice now." Or not...

D.I.Y cat feeding station makeover
That's alright. She's worth it. If owning a cat is like having kids, then I am set! All you have to do is put out some food for them twice a day, cuddle with them a bit and throw a ball around, right? Don't worry. I'm kidding. And in no way do I consider myself a pet "Mom" or "parent." She is my pet and I am her owner. I do nice things for her and she does nice things back...or pukes on the carpet and then hides under the bed.

You know what IS tricky for me? Making cookies. Most of the time the cookies either turn out like melted pancakes or like rock hard discs. I have experienced the dreaded "cakie" aftermath of a bad batch of cookies before and it is not a good feeling for your baking ego. So just like obsessively wanting to try every Pinterest project I see, raising kids or owning "fur babies," I found a little trick to make my life a little saner. The trick to these cookies is Jello instant lemon pudding mix. The mix adds a sweet and creamy lemon flavour to the cookies and ensures the cookie texture is chewy, soft and slightly crunchy like a good cookie.

Lemon, blueberry and almond cookies
These cookies were inspired by this recipe from Amy's Healthy BakingI to make something light, summery and colourful for dessert. You don't even need to have fresh lemons in your house to make lemon cookies with this recipe. I don't usually agree with recipes that solely use cake mixes as their base. I can agree with the way the pudding mix is used in this recipe to add more flavour and texture. There's nothing wrong with adding a little something, something to your recipes. I also swapped out the white chocolate chips from the original recipe and added fresh blueberries and sliced almonds instead. 

Lemon pudding cookies with almonds and blueberries
Lemon, Blueberry and Almond Cookies

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp butter, slightly melted
2 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups plus 2 tbsp sugar
1 box instant Jello lemon pudding mix
1 cup blueberries
1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with greased parchment paper. 
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. If you're using salted butter, then omit the salt in this step. In a separate bowl, whisk the butter, eggs and vanilla together. Add in the sugar and pudding mix (do not add the ingredients listed on the pudding mix) and the lemon juice. Fold in the blueberries and almonds. Mix together, but not too much to avoid a grey colour from the blueberries. 
3. Chill the dough in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
4. Drop the dough into the baking sheets and press down slightly to flatten. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool for about 10 minutes.

Lemon pudding cookies
Cookies are so hit and miss for me, that it's glorious when they turn out as perfect as this. I loved the combination of the lemon flavour, fresh berries and crunch from the almonds. As long as you don't over mix the dough, they will turn out the wonderful, bright yellow colour like little orbs of summer sun. These are something you will see on the internet that will definitely live up to your expectations in real life, trust me on this one.

Have you done any neat craft projects lately? Or baked some delicious cookies? I would love some tips for baking the perfect cookie!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fall Harvest Dessert Table

Fall harvest wedding dessert table
Either the weather has been a little off lately--maybe I have the air conditioning turned up too high--but something in the air has been making it feel a little more like fall. Back to school advertisements still get to me too, even though I haven't been "back to school" in years. And like my Dad says every year, "The start of the CNE officially means that summer is over!" I wanted to take a look back at a dessert table I made for a friend's wedding last November. During the blistery, cold weeks of November, the sky opened up one Saturday with beaming, warm sunshine for their beautiful wedding day. The theme of the wedding was "fall harvest" and incorporated many elements we will start to see in a month or two as the seasons change.

Fall colours dessert table
My friend called me up before her wedding and asked if I could make the desserts. Of course I said yes, and asked about the things she wanted and pretended like I was a professional dessert table maker: "What is your inspiration?" "What are your favourite desserts?" "What are your wedding colours?" I was beyond excited and didn't really know at the time how much work was actually involved in making THAT many desserts. Like most things, I got overly excited and started shopping (and pretend shopping in my mind) for accessories, candies, platters and decorations. This was my wedding gift to the couple; however, I still didn't want to go overboard. Any dessert table designers out there? How do you manage to not go crazy with wish-list props and accessories? I purchased the mini buckets, baskets and mini burlap pumpkins from Target and the scented branches and napkins from Loblaws. 

Candy buffet for fall wedding
After shopping, it was time to start baking. The requirement was 100 cupcakes and then anything else I wanted to make. The couple said they liked Nanaimo bars, lemon desserts and chocolate. The colours were reds, golds, oranges, browns and anything fall-related. They also used fall vegetables, leaves and books wrapped in vintage paper for their decorations. 

I decided on a final selection of chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, a small pumpkin cake, Nanaimo bars, lemon tarts, strawberry tarts and assorted candy. There was already a candy bar at the wedding, so the candy I brought was just a little something extra. I also bought sprinkles in the shapes of fall leaves from Bulk Barn to decorate the cupcakes. Don't shame me, but the cupcake batter was from a mix. I did make the buttercream icing from scratch like I normally do. A few days before, I made the icing and tart dough and then the cupcakes, cake and bars the day before. It was a lot of baking; I'm not going to lie. Once I had a rhythm going on the cupcakes and tarts, I got all of the batches done in no time. It is like an assembly line process: in the oven, out of the oven and into the box. 

Harvest themed wedding dessert table

The couple used a salt and pepper shaker as an adorable cake topper. There was a Little Red Riding Hood motif throughout the wedding because when they were first dating, they went to a Halloween party dressed as Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad wolf--in an extremely impressive hand sewn wolf costume. It's like a fairytale come true, albeit a somewhat dark fairytale...if you find the premise of a creepy wolf stalking a girl in the forest romantic. I'm just kidding. I thought the idea was a cute way to incorporate their own story and it's always nice to see personal touches in weddings. 

Nanaimo bars

During the preparations, she asked me how on earth I would transport 100 cupcakes to the venue. "Don't worry about it," I said. "It will be fine." Here's where the process did in fact get a little stressful. When I finally sat down to think about how to transport all of these desserts to a city an hour away, I was a little stumped. Certainly all of the cupcakes would crush and smush if they were iced beforehand, not to mention the cake. I came to the conclusion that it would be best to ice the cupcakes and cake at the venue except we ended up leaving a little late to get there. And my wonderful husband informed me while driving there that the car may or may not overheat. I might have been freaking out a little bit. "What if I don't get everything set up in time and I ruin their desserts and they hate me and I completely failed?!" With an hour to go before the wedding, we rushed into the venue and started to set up. I put a garbage bag on over my dress and began franticly--but skillfully, I think--icing all 100 cupcakes. (The pictures below are how I transported everything. I found out that roasting pans with lids made amazing cupcake carriers).

With icing dripping off of my hands, and me shouting orders to my husband like "More sprinkles!" "Put those on the plate!" and "More icing!" we finished the table right as guests started to arrive. Thank you to him for almost causing and then helping to fix, my crazy dessert situation. After all of that I was extremely proud of my creation and a lot of the guests gave me wonderful compliments. I think the Bride and Groom liked it too. Their smiles as they cut the cake showed me it was all worth it. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tasty Travels: Vietnam Part Two

Japanese Covered Bridge Pagoda Hoi An

Walking the streets of the historic town of Hoi An in central Vietnam is like stepping back in time. Vietnam can be a difficult place to visit at times; it is busy, crowded, noisy, confusing and has a tumultuous history. That being said, there is also a lot of beauty in the winding streets, old shop houses and distinguishable Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese features that have been preserved exactly for centuries. The world famous Old Town still looks and feels like it did ages ago--although many buildings have now turned into art galleries, boutique hotels and chic restaurants--and some people even liken it to a "Disneyland" type place to visit.

I wrote about the first half of my trip to Vietnam in this post that covered Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi; however, I thought Hoi An should be its own post. Hoi An is a relaxing, charming stop that shouldn't be missed on any trip to Vietnam. We didn't stop in Hue, so I can't make a comparison between the two destinations although I have heard both have their merits. 

Hoi An river

The whole town of Hoi An is considered a Unesco World Heritage site. It was previously a bustling trading post town in the 16 and 17th centuries although much of the business has now moved to Da Nang which is the only place you can fly into to get to Hoi An. The town--with a population of about 80,000--is perfect for taking some cooking classes, lying on the beach and strolling through the shops and has an almost beach or resort town feel, which is very fitting as the name translates to "peaceful meeting place." 

You can rent bikes or motorbikes from any hotel for cheap and ride around the Old Town and to the beaches. We stayed about halfway between the main beaches and the Old Town at the Sunflower Hotel. Accommodation prices are extremely reasonable everywhere in Vietnam, so even the most budget travellers can stay in three or four star hotels. This was a nice, basic hotel that also provided a shuttle into the Old Town although we walked the 10-15 minutes ourselves most of the time. 

Hoi An river street

When we got to our hotel, the desk clerk asked us how long we would be staying and said three days was the perfect amount of time to get some clothes made. The city is a mecca of tailors, sewers and clothing shops. Every step you take, a shop person is eying you up with their measuring tape for some custom-made clothes. It is a fine balance between being constantly harassed and letting people do their jobs and make money. This is the place to go if you need tailored suits, dresses or pretty much anything at reasonable prices; however, it is best to do your research beforehand when picking a place.

Hoi An boats

Hoi An

I would say I am more of a gritty traveller who likes to feel the sand in my toes, the salt in my hair and bashed and blistered feet from walking for hours on end. I generally don't go on trips to shop or buy clothes--except for the odd souvenir or the time I was freezing cold in Scotland and had to buy a sweater. Maybe one day I will be a traveler who enjoys staying at resorts, shopping for expensive things and flying first class. Or maybe I won't and continue how I am, really trying to see and experience different and sometimes not so pretty places. 

In Hoi An, you can feel alright for being a typical tourist and not a gritty "experience traveler." This particular spot in Vietnam is a little quieter to leisurely walk around, sip a coffee and do some souvenir shopping--keyword is quiet--and feel alright for being a resort town tourist. Popular attractions include the Japanese covered bridge pagoda (first photo), various museums, old houses and more clothing shops than you can shake a stick at. I wouldn't say there is a lot to do. The point is to take a breather from the rest of Vietnam for a few days and spend your days walking around, sitting in cafes, lounging by the hotel pool or beach and shopping at night. 

Of course, the food is one of the main attractions of Hoi An. There are many modern and French-inspired cafes on the riverfront and scattered throughout the Old Town, as well as many street stalls and the central market for a quick snack. When it comes to a sit down meal, the options range from fine dining to the usual cheap tourist fare. If you're scoping out a restaurant in town, the name Ms. Vy will most likely be on your radar. Restauranteur Trinh Diem Vy, also known as "Ms. Vy," owns an impressive selection of well known restaurants in Hoi An, including Morning Glory, Cargo Club, Market Kitchen and Mermaid. From other posts I have read about Hoi Ann, you could eat at only Ms. Vy's restaurants during your trip and still be satisfied with your food options.

Morning Glory Restaurant Hoi An

We went for dinner at Morning Glory on our first night and returned the next day for lunch. They serve Vietnamese dishes and street food in a beautiful two-story colonial building right in town and it is always busy. Both times we didn't have any trouble getting a table and didn't have to wait long. Ms. Vy's cuisine also focuses on the specific health properties of certain foods and during our lunch I ordered a drink to "firm up one's insides" (the photo of the bill, seen below, gave me a chuckle), which I believe contained orange juice, ginger, soda water and was a sweet thirst quencher. I can't tell you if it worked or not. The restaurant itself is named after the "morning glory" vegetable that is grown throughout Vietnam. It is apparently good to eat for stomach or bladder issues. 

Bahn Mi at Morning Glory Restaurant Hoi An

I had to try the Banh Mi sandwich consisting of a beautiful baguette (the "banh mi"), pork, herbs, pickles and pate. The sandwiches came about after French colonialism in Indochina, hence the French bread combined with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. No matter what influence the food has, it is always incredibly fresh with many flavourful herbs and condiments to accompany the dishes. The sides are all mostly simple stir fried vegetables done exceptionally well, such as this sauteed pumpkin.

At nighttime, HoiAnn is even more beautiful with lanterns lighting up the sky and streets, people milling about at bars and having long dinners. From what I saw, everything appeared quite safe. I wouldn't say it is a huge party town, but remember the emphasis on quiet? It's alright to have an evening stroll and a nightcap and then go to bed; at least, it is for me. The street vendors are out at night too and will try and coax you into buying a lantern or paper boat to "let go" on the river. They are a beautiful and peaceful sight to watch. 

Hoi An nighttime

The next night we ate at another Ms. Vy restaurant, Mermaid which is slightly more modest in decor, smaller and boasts a "family atmosphere." This was the first restaurant she opened back in 1992 and the first to serve explicitly to tourists. It is also closer to the market where the chefs source most of the ingredients. This meal was just as good if better than Morning Glory and a bit cheaper. We started with the spring rolls and a few other appetizers. 

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

For the main course I ordered what I did at Morning Glory and absolutely loved: eggplant and ground pork in a clay pot. Normally eggplant is slightly bitter and tough. This was vegetable candy with sweet pieces of pork cooked in lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies. This recipe as well as many of her restaurant favourites are in her cookbook Taste Vietnam. As well as the restaurants, she runs a successful cooking school. I would love to one day know how she makes these wonderful, simple dishes bursting with traditional Vietnamese flavour. 

Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook

Instead of taking a cooking class or a food tour, our main activity during our stay was a day trip to the My Son ruins. The My son ruins is a temple complex that was built by the Champa Kingdom to worship the Hindu God Shiva. During the Cham Dynasty, Hoi An was considered the commercial capital while My Son was the spiritual capital. The beautiful ruins, although mostly crumbling, are set in a jungle valley with picturesque mountains in the background about 45km from Hoi An. You pretty much have to go with a tour group because the buildings have no labels or information, but tours leave daily for a good price from most Hoi An hotels. 

My Son ruins Vietnam

The site used to encompass more than 70 temples and dates back to the 14th and 17th centuries. Most of the ruins were heavily damaged during the Vietnam War. There are impressive carvings, remnants of temples, sculptures and gives you a bit of insight into spiritual and political life at the time in Southeast Asia. All of the buildings were built without mortar or any agent; they are simply brick on brick. 

My Son ruins

Preservation efforts are being made, but not with any extreme haste. It is not an extreme temple trekking tour like Angkor Wat. All you need is a few hours to walk around with a guide and you'll be back in Hoi An by afternoon. What is left is a serene and quiet space of a few striking pieces of architecture. 

My Son ruins

My idol Anthony Bourdain had this to say about Vietnam in the Financial Times a few years ago: "A few years from now, I plan to live here. I will move to a small fishing village in the coastal area of Vietnam near Hoi An. I have no idea what I'm going to do there other than write about the experience. I plan only on being a visual curiosity, the lone Westerner in a Vietnamese community; to rent a house, move in with few, if any expectations and let the experience wash over me. Whatever happens, happens."   

I didn't know what to expect when I went to Vietnam. And it was near the beginning our 6-week trip to Asia before I had experienced Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Lonely Planet calls it a "nation going places." It is a vast and varied country that is fun treasure box of cultures, visual landscapes and the important part of every trip--food. 

Check out my travel adventures on Trover, a new social sharing site for travel photos. 

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