February 22, 2016

Valentine's Day cupcakes

Valentine's Day is one of those occasions like New Years Eve that makes you stress out unnecessarily. You stress out if you end up not doing anything and you stress out about what you are doing: Is it perfect? Will I have fun? Did I buy the right gift/drink/food items? "Oh my god, this is a lot of pressure for a holiday that is not a real holiday!" In the end, it doesn't really matter or have to be perfect. For instance, I had grand ideas to make cupcakes and decorate them nicely with candy and chocolates. As I was making the cupcake batter and scooping the batter into the muffin pan, I put the pan into the oven and realized the oven was not warm and the light was not even on; it stopped working all together.

Valentine's Day cupcakes with buttercream icing

There is a reason sometimes that people think millennials cannot do anything practical. I tried switching it on and off again, unplugging it and plugging it back in and generally trying to see if it would magically turn back on again, thinking to myself "is there an Uber-type service for this?" and "What YouTube videos can I watch to figure this out?" I had a dozen cupcakes ready to go and no way to bake them. Knowing it probably wouldn't get fixed before the weekend and I didn't have time to take them over to someone else's oven, I googled how to freeze the batter. Yes, you can freeze cupcake batter. All you do is either freeze the batter in a ziploc bag or already in the cupcake liners. Then when you want to bake the cupcakes, allow the batter to thaw slightly and bake for a few extra minutes. 

Sainte Adele Quebec

After a phone call to the landlord, it ended up that some switch must have been wiggled and after that it started working again. No trip to the hardware store or visit from the handy person was needed. The cupcakes were baked and I also managed to roast the two whole chickens we bought on sale that week, so the crisis was averted. 

The only reason I thought we should do something special for this particular Valentine's Day weekend is because we needed a weekend getaway. Seriously, the winter gets to you and with no destination to warmer far off places tentatively booked until later this year, I was alright with just a little change of scenery. As is our tendency to book things last minute, many of the hotels in the area we were looking (near Mont Tremblant and close enough to Montreal and Ottawa) were all booked. The one that had vacancy for a long weekend that also happens to be Valentine's Day weekend, and a long weekend in Canada with Family Day weekend, was Hotel Le Chantecler in Quebec. 

Hotel Le Chantecler Quebec

It was also the coldest weekend of the year. The low was minus 35 to 40 degrees celsius on Saturday. Look at the happiness of enjoying the weekend (i.e bitter pain from the cold) in our faces. I didn't realize the sheer amount of skiing around that area of Quebec. It is the Laurentians after all, which has some of the best skiing in the world and all of the amenities of world-class ski resorts and towns. To be honest, if I were at home I would have probably stayed inside all weekend. We decided to skip the skiing all together because of the cold and thought we should at least attempt one outdoor activity. 


The Hotel Le Chantecler, built in 1938, sits on top of a hill overlooking a lake view, which is probably lovely in the summer. We ventured down the hill to the lake to check out the skating. The lake was a nice, smooth skating surface with a figure eight-like track around the lake and a warming cabin at one end. Plus we were able to get a nice view of the entire hotel from the lake. Even with about four layers of clothes on, as well as a hat, hood and scarf, it was still so cold that you couldn't actually comprehend how cold it was. It's like when you don't realize you're getting dehydrated when it's hot outside and you know it is going you're going to hurt later. After walking and skating for about an hour, that was enough outdoors time for the day.


The room itself was quite nice, if a little basic, keeping in mind the hotel is an older, cabin-style building. That also means creaky floors and paper thin walls, so there was quite a lot of noise from the hallway and all that. I suppose that's the charm of an older hotel. Sometimes I find these kinds of hotels cozier and more comfortable than something that is so new and modern that I feel like I'm sleeping in a conference room. For the price, I was happy with the room and the hotel itself, as well as the amenities. On the first night, we had dinner at the hotel restaurant Namos with standard hotel restaurant food and drinks and live piano music.  

Hotel Le Chantecler

After working up an appetite with skating it was time to continue the full Quebec experience with an authentic Quebecois lunch at Restaurant Au Petit Poucet in Val-David--the next town over from Sainte Adele. There are a serious number of restaurants nearby for "apres-ski" meals, including all of the standard Canadian chain restaurants and even St. Hubert chicken. As we waited for a table, we enjoyed complimentary hot chocolate and coffee and browsed their gift shop with homemade jellies, maple syrup treats and take away tourtieres. This was the place for a hearty, homemade meal in a rustic chalet with roaring fireplaces and was so perfectly what I wanted at that moment. 

Restaurant Au Petit Poucet

In case you're not familiar, "tourtiere" is Quebec's version of the meat pie that is a staple in many cultures usually made with veal, beef, pork, game or all of the above. Mike had the "Authentic Quebec Meal" with smoked ham, meat pie, baked beans and home fried potatoes. You can't get anymore authentic than this meal. With bitter cold weather, it was all we needed to warm up and fill our bellies. 

Restaurant Au Petit Poucet Quebec

I had the "Le Savoie" sandwich with smoked ham, liver pate, swiss cheese and dijon mustard. I don't know if the photo captures the sheer size and layers of meat and pate. This time of year is still early for maple syrup sugar shacks, which is another Quebec experience I would like to try at some point. If I was skiing all morning, I would love to warm up at this restaurant for lunch. I don't know how much skiing I would do afterwards though. 

Restaurant Au Petit Poucet Quebec

Back to the cupcakes and the special treat that was my "Valentine's Day gift." The cupcakes were inspired by a few different images I found on Pinterest. They were supposed to be "pink velvet." As you can see, the colour baked right out of them. I added red food colouring to the buttercream icing, added some "conversation heart" candies and got creative with chocolate. 

"Love" cupcakes with chocolate

Pink Velvet Cupcakes (from Taste of Home)

Ingredients:
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice added)
A few drops of red food colouring

cupcakes with strawberry jam filling

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar and food colouring until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then beat in the vanilla.
2. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to the creamed mixture alternating with adding the buttermilk.
3. Fill a paper-lined muffin tin with the batter about 2/3 full. Bake at 350F for 25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes before filling. 

cupcakes with pink buttercream icing

For the filling, I scooped a little hole out of the top of the cupcake with a melon baller. Then I added a blob of strawberry jam and put the little piece that I scooped out back on top. Since I iced the cupcakes, you don't see the top that I took off anyway. Alternatively, there are "cupcake filling" tools or you can bake the filling into the cupcakes. I like adding filling because it adds a little extra texture besides cake. The icing is the standard Wilton buttercream icing recipe. 

cupcake filling

cupcakes

The chocolate work was inspired by these cupcakes and these ones. All I did was melt chocolate and fill it in a piping bag. I piped out hearts, words (and blobs to practice) onto parchment paper and put them in the freezer overnight. Then I carefully peeled them off the paper and used the shapes to decorate the cupcakes. It's something I've never done before and the chocolate, as well as the cupcakes, seemed to work out without (hardly) any meltdowns. 


Valentine's Day pink cupcakes

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February 05, 2016

Marbled sugar cookies

There are two types of people when it comes to weekends. The first is the type that refuses to do anything and chooses to soak up that precious free time from a long work week. This type thinks of weekends as optimal nothingness. Then there are the weekend "go-getters." The ones who take full use of those two days and packs in as much as possible with activities, trips and errands. Depending on the week, I usually fall into one of these two categories. Sometimes I want a weekend of nothing and other times I want to go out and do things. This past weekend I felt like I hadn't had pure weekend time in awhile, so I took advantage of it to do some fun things.


One stop was the National Gallery of Canada. If you live in Ottawa, you have to at least claim you have been to most of the museums in the city. I normally save the museum trips for when people come to visit. This time it was nice to go on a leisurely stroll around the gallery and see the collection, as well as the special exhibit of Monet paintings on view until February 15. As well as the Monets, the gallery has their own collection of paintings by the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Van Gough and Edgar Degas. 

National Gallery Ottawa

The building itself is a work of art with grand windows overlooking the Parliament buildings, as well as amazing courtyards and arches inside to sit and admire while you take a rest from looking at art. The galleries themselves contain Canadian, contemporary, American, Inuit and European art and I was thoroughly impressed with the scope of the collection. I have now visited the Museum of Nature, Museum of History, National Gallery and the Museum of Science and Technology (three of them since living in Ottawa). 

National Gallery of Canada Ottawa

Because we're crazy enough to do these things during one of the busiest times of the winter in Ottawa--Winterlude--we also went skating on the Rideau Canal. This was our second time going this year. We went for a quick evening skate on the second day it opened and last Saturday was the first chance to enjoy (or battle) the crowds in the afternoon. Now that I'm used to skating on the canal--I'm getting to be a pro at it, seriously--I forgot how neat it is for people trying it for the first time. My endurance has gotten better too and I can skate for 4 or 5 kms no problem. 

Skating on the Rideau Canal

This year they added some art underneath one of the bridges from Library and Archives Canada. The collection represents 100 years of women's suffrage and highlights famous women through Canada's history. You might as well get some culture in between skating, sipping apple cider eating Beavertails. I will miss all of this stuff when we move from Ottawa. Yes, that's a hint that we sadly may not be here for much longer. 

Winterlude Ottawa

After all of that, we treated ourselves to dinner out at Town restaurant on Elgin Street. Town is a cozy little place that serves locally sourced casual food with love. They serve a mix of small and large plates, cheese sharing plates and rustic, Italian food. We started with a refreshing beetroot tartare with creme fraiche followed by a pork ragu and their famous ricotta stuffed meatballs with polenta and cheese. I am still drooling over those meatballs. They were still quite light, but hearty, with the perfect amount of seasoning and cheese. For dessert, we shared the Meyer lemon tart with marshmallows and cream. It was such a nice, satisfying dinner with the right amount of food for two people and a cozy and not too pretentious atmosphere. 


I have to follow a nice dinner and afternoon out with something else romantic. Just like Christmas, I start my holiday baking in advance. I sometimes test a few recipes out or embrace the season and make a few different things celebrating the time of year. My first Valentine's Day dessert this year was these marbled heart sugar cookies definitely inspired by Baked by Rachel. This is one of the only times of the year I can go crazy with red food colouring for a purpose: all the red things! 

pink marbled sugar cookies

Marbled Pink Valentine's Day Cookies
Recipe by Baked by Rachel

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 cups all purpose flour
Red food colouring


Directions:

1. In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat together the sugar and butter.
2. Mix in the egg and vanilla followed by the salt and baking powder.
3. Gradually mix in the flour and mix until fully combined.
4. Divide the dough in half and add red food colouring to one half. Mix until the colour does not streak.
5. Chill the dough in plastic wrap in the fridge for 30-60 minutes.
6. Take the dough out of the fridge and take off small pinches of the red dough and add it into the white dough until both are combined. Do not over mix or the colour will blend together. 

pink heart cookies

7. Roll out the dough and cut out the desired shapes. Space out the shapes onto a baking sheet.
8. Freeze the shapes on the baking sheet for about 15 minutes.
9. Preheat the oven to 350F. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes.
10. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. 

Valentine's Day marbled cookies

This is a fun recipe that lets you get creative with mixing coloured doughs. My Mom used to make similar cookies at Christmas by twisting pink and white cookie dough to make swirled candy cane cookies. Keep in mind the colour will lighten slightly after cooking.
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