February 25, 2013

There are so many food-themed days that go by with a flash and I usually miss them, such as International Pancake Day, Macaron Day and National Pizza Day. This list of food days every year is insane. I don't usually need an excuse to enjoy or cook something. In this case though I thought I would take one for the team and bake cupcakes because today, Monday February 25, is National Cupcake Day.

Although I didn't officially register for official Cupcake Day festivities I thought I would make some cupcakes to show my support for a good cause. For National Cupcake Day you can bake cupcakes for friends or host a cupcake party in exchange for donations to animals in need. The fundraising goes towards Humane Societies and SPCAs across the country.

According to the website, "Your cupcakes will help give a surrendered cat a new forever home, rescue a neglected or abused animal and give them a second chance at a new life and provide emergency surgery to thousands of animals."

This is Cally. We adopted her from the Humane Society a few years ago when she was about six-months-old. As much as I am extremely grateful for what Humane Societies do--and I used to volunteer there as well--I am glad she only lived at the shelter for a short time. Many of the animals live there a lot longer than she did and the volunteers and staff treat them wonderfully, but it's not a home or where they should live for long.

They should be in loving homes with lots of space, attention and a lot of this...see picture below, i.e, napping after a long day. Before we adopted her we used to go see the animals at the shelter all the time in the hopes of one day finding the perfect pet. One day we said, "We should really get a cat. Let's go and look at them and see if there's one we like," and came home with one the same day. Her original name was "Finesse" and she charmed us with her playfulness, beauty and slight quirkiness.

Now I can't imagine life without her. After a few years, she has grown up a little bit--but not too much--and will soon will be moving to our new place with us with stairs to conquer and bigger windows to see outside. I won't get into how much of a crazy cat lady I really am. I did bake some cupcakes though, or shall I say, "cup cats."

I found the perfect printables online. They are technically for a kid's Birthday party, but who cares? There are four different types of cats you can print and wrap around cupcakes.

She is not so keen on baking though and would much rather curl up and relax than help me.

Don't be put off by the fact that these cupcakes have vegetables in them. And I guess they are a little more muffin-like than cupcakes and also a bit like banana bread. I was going to use all whole wheat flour, but sometimes find the taste can be a little too grainy. They have a mix of white and whole wheat flour, banana, zucchini and are fairly low-fat. A cupcake is a cupcake though. You could also add chocolate chips.

Zucchini Banana Cupcakes

Zucchini Banana Cupcakes (adapted from this recipe)

1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 egg
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup grated zucchini
1/3 cup mashed banana (approx. 1 banana)
1 tbsp canola oil


1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Whisk together flours, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.
3. In a large bowl, whisk egg and brown sugar until smooth. Add vanilla, butter and milk, then stir in the zucchini and banana.
4. Add in the dry ingredients until combined. Add a tbsp of oil if mixture is a little too dry.
5. Fill muffin tin liners with batter and bake for 15-17 minutes.

I was going to make my usual icing recipe from Wilton; however, I discovered I had no shortening. My Wilton cake decorating instructor told us you can use half butter and half shortening, which is what I normally do. She recommended either using all shortening or half butter, but not all butter. The icing does taste somewhat different and is a different consistency than with shortening.

After much deliberation I googled some recipes for using butter and to be honest, it all depends on how you like your icing to taste. I still prefer the shortening version although I know many people have an aversion to shortening. This version is still pretty good if you're stuck for ingredients and need some icing made quickly.

Magnolia Bakery's Vanilla Buttercream Frosting (Recipe)

1/2 cup butter, softened
4 cups icing sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract


Combine butter, 3 cups icing sugar, milk and vanilla into a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until smooth and then add the remaining one cup of icing sugar.

Zucchini Banana Cupcakes

Homemade Banana Chips

Banana, sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice


Slice one banana (or however many slices you need) and put them on a greased baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle lemon juice over the slices and make sure to coat each piece. Bake for 2 hours at 200F. These are made similar to kale chips as an alternative to dehydrating the fruit.

Depending on how long you bake them, the banana chips won't be quite the same or as crispy as store bought. I think they make a neat decoration for cupcakes though. Next time I might try incorporating the banana into the icing.

Zucchini Banana Cupcakes

Find National Cupcake Day on Twitter and use the hashtag #NationalCupcakeDay to see how people everywhere are celebrating with cupcakes and supporting animals in need.
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February 18, 2013

Another Valentine's Day has come and gone and today is Family Day in Ontario. It's a somewhat new holiday for the purpose of having an extra day--and a long weekend--to spend with family. And who can complain about another holiday in February? I know some people think "consumer" holidays are cheesy and overdone. I like any chance to celebrate though and I had a great Valentine's Day this year:

I had dinner cooked for me: Mustard Sage Porkchops with Israeli Couscous, Edamame and Pancetta. The pork chop even looks like a heart. Nothing says love like heart-shaped meat. Then there was a special delivery at the door on Thursday evening of fresh macarons from Petit Le Bon Bon. They are a local online macaron shop that delivers and they also have a macaron-of-the-month club. This month's flavours were Red Velvet and Chocolate Cherry. 

Although Mike joked that the whole concept reminded him of "2 Broke Girls," with two girls starting their own dessert business out of their house, these macarons are high class and some of the best I've had. They weren't too crunchy or chewy and were just the right size. Plus the flavourings, especially the cherry chocolate ganache filling, were light and beautiful. A huge thanks to them for delivering a dozen macarons on Valentine's Day as I'm sure they were extra busy that day. 

I suppose the macarons weren't a complete surprise as I did say, "Please order a dozen of these macarons for Valentine's Day." I have thoroughly enjoyed them though and will definitely be ordering from them again. They would be great to bring as a hostess or shower gift.

I had already baked some treats for the week as well, including the Jello Cookies and these Fresh Strawberry Squares. The squares tasted almost like mini Strawberry cheesecakes.

They were made with fresh strawberries, condensed milk and custard filling on top of a shortbread-type crust. I then decorated them a bit with some extra slices of Strawberries and icing sugar.

Instead of going out for dinner on Valentine's Day evening, we decided on going for weekend brunch. We went to The Early Bird Diner in London, Ontario. I have always been a fan of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" and have always wanted to go to a place that serves that special kind of epic food. The Early Bird definitely lived up to the hype I had heard about it. The diner is decorated with vintage and rock memorabilia and has a really neat vibe. I would love to go there in the evening as well for their famous appetizers including bacon-wrapped pickles and mammoth Grilled Cheese sandwiches. I think going here will only be a once in awhile occasion though:

Mike ordered the "Turducken Sandwich," a monstorous rendition of a club sandwich with panko-fried chicken, turkey and duck bacon along with a side of fries. After a few bites he said, "I don't want to alarm you, but I think I could finish this whole thing." We ended up sharing a bit of both entrees and had a lot of leftovers to take home.

I got the Pancake Stacker that was four large pancakes layered with potato hash, peameal bacon, smoked bacon, fried egg and maple syrup. I did not even make a dent in the stack and I felt somewhat silly for ordering fruit salad as my side. That's like asking for a Diet Coke with pizza.

And of course, I had to "instagram" my brunch as well. Turns out the diner has been featured on The Food Network on the Canadian version of "Diner's," called "You Gotta Eat Here." Even though the rich food and epic portions are not something I can really handle, I applaud the owners for their creativity and bringing such a neat local hangout to London.

I got another special delivery in the mail from Kashi. They sent me their newest flavour to try: Blueberry Oat Clusters and Flakes. One cup of the cereal has 45 per cent of the daily fibres needed to help lower cholesterol and six grams of protein per cup. Their new flavour contains whole grain oat clusters and sun-ripened blueberries. I have tried other "blueberry" flavoured cereals in the past, including Special K, and found them a little too sweet. The Kashi flavouring is just right and not overpowering. I find artificial blueberry flavours a little off-putting and resembling those generic blueberry muffins, but I liked that Kashi cereals don't taste artificial and contain all of that good stuff. 

Speaking of good stuff, let me tell you about the perfect pairing when it comes to breakfast. My dietician told me about the wonders of All Bran Buds and I have not looked back since. If you don't like the flavour of bran, you don't need to eat them on their own. Just sprinkle them onto cereal, yoghurt or in baked goods or bran recipes. They have 44 per cent of your recommended daily fibre and it's the good kind--soluble fire that keeps things going through you well, a little bulkier...which is great for digestion. What a perfect couple :)

Also, on the subject of loving yourself, I signed up for this 21-day meditation challenge by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. I'm not normally a "Hail Oprah" type of person although I can admit to watching her show at times. This challenge sounded right up my alley though and you receive daily mediations, inspiration and resources by email. Could be neat.

In terms of Canadian online health resources, CBC is launching their Live Right Now campaign again this year. I was so inspired by their "Village on a Diet" TV show a few years ago and the campaign has a lot of the same ideas for healthy living, eating and exercise. It's always great when you have online buddies rooting for you too.

Disclosure: I received a sample from Kashi for review purposes. The opinions expressed are completely my own.
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February 10, 2013

Someone on my Twitter feed posted this quote a few minutes ago: "Get out there and improvise and take chances and don't be a perfectionist--leave that to the classical musicians"--Dave Brubeck. That will be my topic sentence for today.

I remember a story my piano teacher used to tell me. To put it in context, I grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, which also used to be the home of Jazz Pianist Oscar Peterson. My piano teacher used to tell me that someone he knew lived in the same building as Oscar Peterson. He was so excited to live there and be able to hear beautiful jazz music through the walls from a master pianist. When he was asked how it was living near him, he said, "It's driving me crazy. All I hear for hours on end is scales!" I don't know if the story was true or told to me so I would practice my scales. I still remember it though because I learned growing up that being good at anything takes time, practice and hard work.

The thing about food blogs is you sometimes don't get the whole story behind the picture. You don't actually know how much the recipe was tested, made and styled. When I make something for the first time I know that it sometimes might not turn out perfectly. Practice makes perfect. These Valentine heart-shaped Jello cookies turned out though.

I suppose Jello is not the most romantic of foods. It's usually what you eat when you're sick or can't eat anything else. Jello is a little bit goofy too, like the texture, the jiggling nature of it and those chunky bits you have to scrape at the bottom that I secretly like. For some reason, the video posted above makes me laugh every time. I think it's a testament to why people love Jello so much. You can use it to make something sweet for Valentine's Day, such as cookies, squares and heart-shaped treats and it makes a tasty dessert (sugar-free or regular) or snack and it's fun for any age.

Strawberry Jello Heart Cookies

These are easy cookies to make and the colour comes naturally from the Jello powder mix with no food colouring necessary. The cookies turned out beautifully; however, the squares I saw on Pinterest did not at all. This was the recipe and original photo for Jello Heart Squares:

This was how my mine turned out. They were so bad that they warranted their own "nailed it" meme.

The condensed milk did not set and cutting heart shapes out of the red jello was quite difficult. Most of the jello fell apart and I attempted some sort of vintage marbled looking creation with the leftovers. I'm sure there is nothing wrong with the actual recipe. Something went wrong along the way, that's all.

Just like the Muppets video, I had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it and I will probably be submitting my photo to the Craft Fail or Epic Pinterest Fail blogs soon.

Speaking of Valentine's Day, it really is like relationships though. There are ups and downs, good and bad moments, but sometimes you just have to laugh. Like baking, you want everything to turn out perfectly. The reality is, it takes hard work and sometimes a little bit of luck. You can even have the perfect plans (and tools, such as this shiny, new  candy thermometer), a beautiful vision and a bright picture of the future (ahem, Pinterest)....

Then the universe will tell you, nope, not today and at that moment you just have to relax a little, laugh it out, have fun and keep at it. Everything will turn out in the end. Ok, too many baking/relationship metaphors? I'm not an expert by any means--on relationships or even baking--so I'll go back to this now:

Maybe it's the winter cold funk, the fact that it's February or the "100 day flu" I've had that's made me a bit of a Debby Downer lately. Usually baking lifts me out a bad mood and other times the precise and intricate nature of baking frustrates me to no end. Last week I tried to make cake pops and they also came out quite 'Fail-Blog" worthy.

A few weeks ago I tried to make Lemon fudge and Maple fudge squares and they also didn't turn out quite right. Thank goodness for friends who care more about the taste than how much you slaved away to make it look like the food blog you saw it on. Because sometimes, things aren't going to turn out how you want them to. Sometimes I wish my life looked like one of those beautiful food and design blogs with perfectly photographed (and Instagram-ed) moments. Maybe someday it will.

Back to the cookies:

Jello Cookies Recipe from Justhelen.net

3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Jello powder (Strawberry, Cherry or Raspberry works for the red colour)
2 large eggs
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp lemon baking emulsion (or vanilla works)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Additional food colouring if needed to enhance the colour


1. Cream butter, sugar and Jello powder together.
2. Add eggs and extract, then add flour, baking powder and salt and mix well.
3. Refrigerate the dough for a few hours or overnight.
4. Roll out the dough and cut it into shapes with a cookie cutter.

Heart Cookies

5. Sprinkle with coloured sugar or stick some conversation hearts in the middle of each cookie.
6. Bake for 400F for six minutes and let cool on a cookie rack. 

Strawberry Jello Heart Cookies

I am happy these turned out and had the tanginess and fruitiness of the Jello flavouring in them. In conclusion, I'm alright that I'm at the point in my life where I can still experiment, have meltdowns and dream about crazy things. And I'm glad I have people around me who will say, "Relax, you're doing a good job. You're doing the best you can and that's all that matters."
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February 02, 2013

A few Superbowls ago I made this legendary greek dip that was devoured in about two minutes by hungry football watchers. I love layered dips piled high with vegetables, cheese and toppings. This one had a layer of hummus, tzatziki, feta cheese, chopped tomatoes, green onions, olives and some parsley. Legend-ary.

I remember one Superbowl Sunday I was working at the campus pub serving wings and beer to football watchers and I ended up taking home quite a few take-out containers of leftover deep-fried goodies, as well as a large Budweiser hoodie (it has become the perfect boyfriend sweater). Not that I am remotely interested in football. I have tried to understand the game, I really have. But when it comes to the food side of celebrations, even if they are sports related, I can always get excited about that.

Greek Layered Dip

Just like football, I like spinach dip, deep-fried bites and wings just as much as the next person, but that much cheese, batter and salt is hard to handle even on the best of days. Eating a whole dish of greek layered dip probably isn't a great idea either. If you're looking for some alternatives for Superbowl snacks or really aren't that into celebrating football and need traditional fare, I have a few ideas:

If your friends are of the sophisticated set--or would rather cheer for Martha Stewart than the 49ers--try some smoked salmon dip made with cream cheese, smoked salmon and herbs. I used greek yoghurt instead of mayonnaise for this recipe. Sausage rolls are also super easy to make if you have some frozen puff pastry lying around.

Sausage Rolls

Or perhaps a fine charcuterie plate with cured meats, cheeses, olives, dips and crostinis?

As a wise woman once said, "Ain't nobody got time for that." I'm barely making it through the winter here. I would much rather "work on my night cheese" Liz Lemon-style and have a simple meal and a few easy homemade dips, such as tzatziki, hummus and guacamole.

The National Pecan Shellers Association (c/o The Kellen Company) sent me a few "Heart Healthy Recipes for Superbowl." Try any of these pecan-inspired recipes, including Crab Tacos with Corn, Pecan and Avocado, Pecan Pesto Pizza and Lemon-Pecan Linguine. They have all sorts of ideas for incorporating pecans into snacks that are a little nicer on the waist--and heart apparently. These Turkey Pecan Enchiladas and Pecan Orange Slaw were also on the list.

The recipe for Oven Baked Pecan-Crusted Chicken fingers caught my eye. I decided to use fish instead and use the same recipe instead of chicken then realized they had recipes for Pecan-Crusted fish on their website afterwards. Oh well, you can't go wrong with breading made with nuts, herbs, spices that is baked in the oven.

Oven Baked Pecan-Crustd Chicken/Fish Fingers (for one)

1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 egg
2 tbsp olive oil
1 fish/chicken filet
*Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning1 1/2 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp garlic powder
1/2 tbsp black pepper
1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tbsp dried oregano
1/2 tbsp dried thyme


1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. In a food processor, combine pecans, bread crumbs and spice seasoning mix. Pulse for 1 minute to combine.
3. In a small bowl, beat together the eggs, olive oil and remaining spice mix.
4. Dip the fish and/or chicken into the egg mixture, then the pecan mixture.
5. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake, turning once, about 15-20 minutes.

I served the fish with some Tabouleh couscous salad and homemade tzatziki. All I did for the tzatziki was add lemon juice, dill, chopped cucumber and garlic to plain Greek yoghurt. I would say these recipes are quite "heart healthy" as well.

And in case I'll be wanting to snack later on, a baguette, crackers or chips with homemade dips can usually be devoured to distract myself from actually understanding the rules of football.

Guacamole and bread

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