Monday, January 19, 2015

Item of the Week: Valentine's Day picks

When I was in University, I lived in a house with three other girls and on Valentine's Day, like clockwork, flowers started arriving at the house one by one. Since some of the girl's boyfriends lived in another city it was still nice for them to get a gift on Valentine's Day. Each time the door rang, we would all race to see who would get the next set of flowers. I was wondering what my boyfriend--now husband--would get me and when he came over, he presented me with this incredible shortbread cookie creation. He had handmade all of these petals with shortbread and made the whole thing into an amazing flower. As nice as it is to get flowers sometimes, I thought the time and effort he put into a gift was wonderful. Valentine's Day is a little different when you're married and not dating, but it's still special--and I always appreciate a well-thought gift.

Here are a few of my picks for this Valentine's Day:

polymer clay pears "love lives here" engraving, Etsy

Like I said, something handmade is always a nice gift and you know the person has usually put a lot of thought and time into it. In the case that you don't want to make something yourself and still need a special gift, then try something from Etsy (where someone who is super talented makes it for you), like these engraved polymer clay pears, $39.29.

Steam Whistle Pilsner gift pack with chocolates

This is something that would be a great gift for girls or the special man in your life. Steam Whistle Brewing and Toronto chocolatier Dufflet have teamed up to bring a limited-time beer and chocolate gift pack to LCBO stores for $24.95. The pack includes 6 bottles of Steam Whistle and a collectible tin of chocolates infused with Steam Whistle pilsner: Pretzel Beer Bites and Beer Ganache Truffles. Sounds like an interesting combination.

Flora 2000 flowers

There is nothing wrong with sending flowers either. According to Flora 2000, the estimate number of roses sent for Valentine's Day last year was 257 million. They are a perfect go-to gift for someone special and it's even easier if you can order them online. Flora 2000 serves and ships to more than 190 countries and also has a few good deals on their site right now, including $15 off a dozen roses and a complimentary box of chocolates.

Beauty Box 5 subscription

I only buy beauty products for myself once in awhile and usually when I have saved up quite a few Shoppers Optimum points. And if I'm trying a new product I usually research it quite a bit first. I love this idea of having a beauty product subscription where you can try different products and see what you like before committing to something. I am frugal like that, however, I like indulging myself once in awhile.

Beauty Box Five is a monthly beauty box subscription of beauty accessories, skincare products and fragrances that are high quality, luxury and even eco-conscious. You receive samples and sometimes full products for a fraction of the cost of buying them new and get to try a bunch of things you might not have tried before. Guys, if you're reading, this would be something you could order if you're clueless about what products your lady likes. You can also get a free box of the previous month when you sign up for the first time. Subscribe to Beauty Box 5.

Minted Valentine's Day cards

I still love sending and receiving cards in the mail and Valentine's Day is another occasion to send beautiful photos and messages. lets you easily design a custom design and send it to your Valentine or anyone you choose, really. I used Minted for my wedding invitations and they were speedy, reliable and well-designed. Right now you can save 15% on all Valentine's Day cards until Jan. 29th, 2015.

What are you giving this year for Valentine's Day? Do you usually make a big deal about it every year? Check out more of my gift ideas on Pinterest.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2014

Snowball cookies for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2014

It's that time of year again. That time when I make way too many cookies and I start eating cookies with every meal. They say you gain an average of 15 pounds during your first year of marriage and about 5-10 pounds during the holiday season. Judging by my calculations, you may have to roll me into the New Year. It's also the time when my fridge contains stacks upon stacks of butter and I keep having to go to the grocery store for "one more thing...I just need some more sugar...I need to get this one obscure baking ingredient." All of these things are acceptable practices during December.

This is my third year participating in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap and the fourth year running. Every year, food bloggers from around the world come together to bake cookies, "meet" each other and show off their recipes. I participated in 2011 with sugar spiral cookies and then in 2012 with fruitcake, candy cane and ginger shortbread cookies. Check out some of the recipe roundups from 2013 and 2012.

I wanted to keep it somewhat simple this year, so I made these cookies based on snowdrops, Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cookies or whatever you want to call them; they are a basic shortbread recipe rolled into round balls and dusted with sugar. I did coloured design cookies one year and decorated cookies last year and it makes things more complicated when you're doing a bunch of equally difficult cookies. This year I decided one simple recipe with two different flavourings: one with chocolate chips and the other with almonds and a hint of cinnamon.

Chocolate Chip snowball cookies

Chocolate Chip Snowballs (adapted from this recipe)
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips
Additional icing sugar for rolling

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the chocolate chips and vanilla. Mix in the flour gradually and make sure to mix thoroughly. Shape into rounds and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 350F. When the cookies are sightly cooled, roll them in icing sugar and then let them cool. 

Almond and cinnamon snowball cookies

Almond and Cinnamon Snowballs (adapted from this recipe)
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chopped almonds
Additional icing sugar and 1 tbsp cinnamon for dusting

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the nuts and vanilla. Mix in the flour gradually and make sure to mix thoroughly. Shape into rounds and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 350F. Add the icing sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl. When the cookies are sightly cooled, roll them in the sugar mixture and then let them cool. 

Kitchen Aid standmixer

I made about 5 or 6 different batches, alternating with the chocolate chip and almond batches and ended up losing count after awhile. When you're asked to make 3 dozen cookies, it's more like "I'll just double the recipes and make a few extra here and there." Stand mixers are a god send in the process. Sooner or later you have cookies coming out of every corner of the kitchen. And that "sprinkling" of icing sugar makes your floor looked like a mini snow storm. I made all of the batches in an afternoon a few days before we went on a week-long trip. 

The idea behind the swap is that when you sign up, you're sent three food blogger's addresses--usually from the same country, although there are participants from around the world--and asked to mail them a dozen cookies each before a deadline. Then three different bloggers mail cookies back to you. I believe the number of participants has grown to more than 1,000 since the cookie swap began. It's also neat because then you find out about other blogs and the wonderful people behind them who you might not have known before. I also love getting mail. We had a friend housesitting for a week while we were away and I was like "keep an eye on the mail in case my cookies get here!"

The packaging and decorations are an important element. This year, I packaged them in red holiday Ziploc containers with red and white tissue paper. There isn't a Bulk Barn or Michael's craft store close to me anymore, so I picked these containers up at the Superstore. They weren't bad as a gift box. The ladies who sent me cookies definitely showed me up in the packaging department--and the cookies were fabulous too.

Cranberry bliss cookies

Am I allowed to have a favourite? My favourite might have been these cranberry bliss cookies from Claude at A la Claude. They are based on the Starbucks version and are a ginger cookie base with white chocolate icing and cranberries. These were heavenly. 

Hazelnut and chocolate biscotti

The second batch were hazelnut chocolate biscotti from Robyn at Planet Byn. These were lovely with coffee. You don't often think of biscotti being along the lines of "cookies." I like that they were something different. 

Ancho chilli chocolate cookies

These ancho chilli chocolate cookies from Bernice at Dish N' the Kitchen were also a surprise for me. When I figured out they were spicy I wasn't sure I was going to like them, however, the spice was subtle and added a bit of a kick after a few seconds of eating it. I enjoyed them a lot. Thank you everyone for the cookies. I look forward to seeing everyone else's recipes posted today.

Great Food Cookie Swap 2014

This year, each participant donated $4 for Cookies for Kids' Cancer--an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer through baking--in order to participate in the swap. See all of the other creations, check out #fbcookieswap on Twitter and Instagram and visit the Facebook page for more information. To sign up next year, fill out this form to be notified of the next swap deadlines. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tasty Travels: Quebec City

Petit Champlain, Quebec City

Of all the places to go in Canada in the winter, there are certain places I would rather not go. Going away somewhere else in Canada in the winter is like someone massaging your back and pressing on that spot that really hurts. It feels good sometimes, but it can also be unnecessary pain. I don't need to go somewhere that is colder, darker and busier than my current city. Shouldn't I "getaway" to somewhere much warmer and tropical? As far as "winter getaways" go, Quebec City is not a bad place to choose. The photo above looks like a painting or something out of a Christmas movie. I swear it is a photo I took walking down the street--with a slight touch of Instagram filter. 

Quebec City Old Town

Quebec City Old Town

To me, it's almost like one of Canada's forgotten cities. You know it exists, but it doesn't automatically spring to mind, which is a shame; it is the capital of Quebec after all. When you think Quebec, you usually think Montreal. Montreal has the trendy and hip French vibe while Quebec City has more of a lovely, classic charm. Quebec City also has incredible historical significance, so you better brush up on your Canadian history before you visit. Many parts of the city still represent battles grounds between the French and British and it is one of the only walled cities in North America. There are also many 17th and 18th century buildings in tact that make up the the Old Town. So much so that is has officially been declared a Unesco heritage site since 1985. 

In this case, it wasn't really a destination I chose. My husband was attending a conference for four days there and I decided to go along with him partly to take advantage of the chance to travel, stay in a nice hotel and wander around the city "Lost in Translation" style minus the rendezvous with Bill Murray in a hotel bar. We stayed at Hotel Le Concorde downtown about a 15 minute walk into Old Town. I get so excited to stay in hotels, watch cable television, sleep in a comfy bed and lounge around. This was a nice, modern hotel that unfortunately didn't have room service or an indoor pool, as I was hoping to relax in a hot tub or take a quick dip while I was there. The views of the city from the room, however, were great. 

Hotel Concorde, Quebec City

View from Hotel Concorde Quebec City

The hotel has a revolving restaurant on the top floor where you can have dinner while looking out over a 360 degree view of the city. It is so neat knowing and seeing the amazing history of battles, exploration and military accomplishment that happened here. For me, the city is familiar because I visited with my Grandparents on one of my summer trips with them. I was trying to remember when I had gone with them and looked through some old photos to find out. It was a fascinating trip through Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. I found many similar photos that I took--it was back in 2000--and had a memory of the revolving restaurant in Quebec City for some reason. Then I realized after looking through my old album that we had stayed at the exact hotel 14 years before! The photo below of the large tower with a spaceship-like orb on the top is the hotel. 

Plains of Abraham Quebec City

While Mike attended conference lectures in the morning, I slept in and had breakfast in the hotel. Then we spent the days strolling through the streets, warming up in cafes and planning where to go for dinner. Quebec City is 95 per cent French, so I was glad Mike and his bilingualism could help me out with that aspect of getting around. My French is pretty basic and rusty from the few French classes I took through elementary and high school. Most of the service staff and people we encountered were very pleasant about speaking English and didn't scoff at all when someone didn't know any French. I suspect that the less tourist-based parts of Quebec wouldn't be as accommodating. 

Chez Temporel Quebec City

Brunch on the first day was at Chez Temporel in Old Town. It is the kind of place where you would picture young bohemians, writers and artists sipping on coffee and listening to music. The cafe is a little bit off the beaten path of the main shopping strip. On the day we went, this was nice because it was quiet and tucked away from the crowds of tourists. I had to have the French classic, Croque Monsieur: a grilled ham and cheese sandwich topped with bechamel sauce. My cafe mocha to drink was the perfect balance of sweet hot chocolate and dark coffee. I saved half of the sandwich and ate it cold for breakfast the next day. I regret nothing. The French know how to make those classic dishes with butter, cream and cheese sing, including a plain ham and cheese sandwich. 

Down the street, and arguably the main landmark of the city, is the Chateau Frontenac. The historic hotel is in almost every picture of Quebec City. Unfortunately, it was all booked up for the conference we were affiliated with so we couldn't stay there (yes, that was the reason, not the price at all...). It is a magnificent landmark and it is neat to walk around it and explore the path along the river and La Citadelle that goes for miles. A lot of people say you HAVE to go to the city in the winter for the Winter Carnival and the winter activities, such as cross country skiing, sledding and ice sculpture making. We went in November so it wasn't quite in the snowy, carnival spirit yet. I have always wanted to go and explore the Winter Carnival, as it sounds magical--and very Canadian.  

Chateau Frontenac Quebec City

Then there's the food. Like most of our trips, food is an important amenity while traveling and you might as well have good food. Mike asked me to look online for a few restaurants before we left. Within 10 minutes I had a list of breakfast, lunch and dinner options planned out for four days. Apparently I have a knack for finding restaurants everywhere we go--or I'm also good at "googling" and asking Twitter friends for recommendations. Quebec City is full of classic French restaurants, bistros and cafes; however, the food is not all boring and stuffy Escargot and frogs legs. There are many trendy and hip restaurants serving up neat twists on French Canadian classics, such as meat pies, crepes, foie gras and maple sugar pie.  

Cafe Du Monde Quebec City

I chose Cafe Du Monde for dinner on the first night. We had a little trouble finding it, as it's located down by the water behind a few large buildings. Once you get inside, the atmosphere is Parisian bistro-like without being too stuffy and formal. I had the Mahi-Mahi with lobster risotto and Mike had the Venison Stew with root vegetables and mashed potatoes. The food was beautifully presented with nice, well-cooked portions of everything and I enjoyed the meal. We also shared a Creme Brulee for dessert. The waitress claimed it was "the best Creme Brulee in town," but I'm sure every French restaurant says that. Either way, you can't pass on dessert when they sell it like that. 

Cafe Du Monde Quebec City

Even at night, Quebec City is beautiful to walk around. Some of the buildings and shops had their Christmas lights set up and you walk by many windows of bustling activity in restaurants and cafes even late into the night. The street that our hotel was on, Cours du General de Montcalm, had many booming bars and pubs and seemed to be party central, while the further you get into Old Town, the quieter it seems to get at night. The photo below is of the grand Quebec Parliament building:

Parliament Building Quebec City

The next day we met some friends for brunch at Casse-Crepe Breton. With the Croque Monsieur and a rich French meal the previous day, I was already overloaded with cheese. I couldn't bring myself to order crepes with more ham and cheese even though we were at one of the city's best crepe places. I had a bagel and fruit salad while the others had savoury crepes and then dessert crepes afterwards. Apparently when you go for brunch in Quebec, you also get beer with your meal. The deal of the day on the menu was breakfast with coffee AND beer included. Kudos to them. We had a leisurely meal and then we started on our afternoon walk again although I could sit in cafes, people watch and drink coffee for hours on end. 

Casse-Crepe Breton Quebec City

Old Port Market Quebec City

Walking off the calories of the rich food probably helps to maintain those slim, French figures. The only downside to Quebec City is that there are a lot of hills, windy alleyways and cobblestone streets. When you walk somewhere, you are committing yourself to trekking up and down hills. There are a few old style elevators you can take up the hills for a few dollars. Mike looked at his map and thought he found a route that avoided large hills. Then he realized at the end that there was a huge flight of stairs to go back up to the hotel. He checked the pedometer on his phone and noted that we had climbed the equivalent of 30 flights of stairs. We definitely got more than 10,000 steps in that day.

I definitely got into the Christmas spirit when we were there and after we came back. In winter, the city is the equivalent to one of those Christmas year round stores full of warmth, spirit and a slight hint of potpourii. One of the days we checked out the Old Port Market or Marche du Vieux-Port de Quebec. During the week it was a little quiet. There were a few vendors selling bushels of winter vegetables and artisan foods. A cute place to go if you were looking for foodie gifts or anything made with maple syrup. 

Petit Champlain is the centre of Christmas town and like the Chateau Frontenac is prominent in most Quebec City postcards, this neighbourhood is a close second when it comes to representing Old Town; it is the oldest commercial district in North America and includes some of the oldest houses in the area dating back to the 1600s. 

Petit Champlain Quebec City

For dinner on the second night, I made a reservation at Le Lapin de Saute on Rue du Petit Champlain. I thought the name of restaurant was just something cute then I realized that the menu actually included many rabbit dishes. Poor bunnies. This restaurant is a charming and popular little place and was my favourite restaurant of the trip. This trip also coincided with around the time of our 6 month wedding anniversary, so this was the absolute perfect spot to have a romantic dinner. 

Le Lapin de Saute Quebec City

I can't say I eat rabbit that often, but when in Rome...have rabbit with each course! We started with the rabbit pate served with cranberry compote, spinach and warm bread. They also had these refreshing homemade sodas in flavours like cherry, lime, apple and passionfruit. Leave it to me to choose homemade soda over wine for our fancy dinner. 

Le Lapin de Saute Quebec City

I like to think I know most French food-related phrases. This was one of the only times I have repeatedly googled menu items to find out what they were--and figure out all of the different ways they cook the rabbit. Mike had the "lapin confit" with potatoes and vegetables and I had a "lapin" and mushroom pie with puff pastry. For dessert we had 2 chocolate truffles. Sometimes I just want a bite of chocolate for dessert and not a huge slab of cake. This was such a lovely touch. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a nice meal in Quebec. 

Le Lapin de Saute Quebec City

Le Lapin de Saute, Quebec City

On the last day, we ventured a bit outside of the city to explore Montmercy Falls at the Parc de la Cute-Montmorency. As much as I liked strolling through the city streets for a few days, sometimes you want a little change of scenery. The falls are 83 metres high and flow into the St. Lawrence River. In the park, there are trails, a large suspension bridge, a cable car and a restaurant. 

Montmorency Falls Quebec

Montmorency Falls Quebec

Montmorency Falls Quebec

I captured a few magnificent views of the St. Lawrence River, the cityscape and Ile D'Orleans, which is a quaint island outside of the city full of farms and villages. The temperatures were dipping to about -3, so I was eager to go back inside to coffee and croissants again. I did like seeing a bit of a contrast from old city streets to relaxing nature and in this instance it helped to have a car to take a little drive out. After all of the food, walking and exploring, we drove the four hours back to Ottawa. I was glad I could re-visit the city after not seeing it for many years and have a little winter getaway.

View of Quebec City

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Item of the Week: Magnolia Silver Jewellery

I read this article the other day that was about "10 things you must have in your home by age 30." Some of the things mentioned that you "must have" by 30 are more practical like a bookshelf, a nice mattress and headboard (important!) and others were a bit more luxurious, like art, a plant and candles. One thing I think needs to be added to the list is a jewellery stand. Gone are the days that I stuff my jewellery into drawers, lay it across the bathroom sink or sometimes find it in knots in the back of my closet. Since I bought a $20 jewellery stand at Target, my jewellery is out in the open and displayed nicely on my cabinet. It feels so good sometimes to get yourself organized like an adult.

Target metal Jewelery stand

Nice jewellery is another important thing to have as an adult. You at least need one good necklace, bracelet and some nice rings--and don't give me that "I'm not a jewellery person." I don't have a lot of expensive pieces, but I always have something to wear that looks classy for a night out, day at work or even a job interview. Simple, classy statement pieces don't have to be expensive. There are many jewellers and retailers that make affordable jewellery for everyday wear. 

Magnolia Silver Jewellery makes simple and "dainty" jewellery--I love their use of the word "dainty" in their ring collection--that is available at many Canadian retailers. When I was looking for something to pinpoint exactly what I meant by "classic jewellery," they came to mind. Their pieces use high quality sterling silver, Swarovski crystals and goldfill--a mix of 9 and 14 karat gold. It's almost the holiday season, so even if you don't want to buy anything for yourself, add a few little things to your wish list. We all know the nice feeling you get when you're gifted some jewellery. 

Magnolia Jewellery silver teardrop pendant

Sterling silver teardrop pendant with a clear cubic Zirconia, $68
Jewellery doesn't have to be crazy expensive. Magnolia Jewellery has options for under $50, $100 and $200. Most of the ones I really liked were under $100. I think this one would be a great professional piece to wear with a blouse or blazer.

Magnolia Jewellery silver pendant with purple cubic Zirconia

Sterling silver pendant with purple cubic Zirconia, $50
I love coloured stones. I have a few pieces of my own jewellery that have amethyst and I am also a sucker for birthstones. This beautiful purple pendant is romantic, soft and stunning.

Magnolia Jewellery silver dainty ring with turquoise

Sterling silver dainty ring with turquoise, $65
Vintage rings always make me swoon. I am always looking at them on Etsy, but they can be so expensive. Something like this vintage style ring would make a great classic statement.

Magnolia Jewellery gold plated beaded necklace

Gold filled and 14K gold plated beaded necklace, $119
This necklace has a Grecian Goddess feel to it. It's also one of their holiday picks and would go well with a sparkly dress or holiday party outfit.

Magnolia Jewellery 14K gold plated dainty bracelet

14K gold plated dainty bracelet, $65 
A have a plain gold bracelet that I wear all the time to add some flair to my outfits. It blends in with my look from day to night and whatever I'm doing. This is a classic bit of jewellery for a great price.

Magnolia Jewellery has more than 180 stores across North America, Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia. Their jewellery is glitzy, classic and well-made without being tacky or over the top. They have more than 3,000 designs at their stores in any given month, so I'm sure you will find something in their collection that fits your style and taste. These are my first picks for holiday gifts. Stay tuned for more holiday gift ideas!

Sponsored post

Share It