not quite blackout cake

Dear Jackson,

Happy belated birthday!

Your dearest mom asked me to make you a birthday cake, since I did the same for your sister when she turned two. Between you and me, I think your cake turned out way better. That’s a win for being the second child, trust me. And it’s all due to the face that I didn’t have to work with fondant – yay! Your godmother is a bit rusty working with fondant now since the cake trend moved away from that sugary dough.

When your mom showed me the image of Blaze and the Monster Machines, I was like hmmm why couldn’t you be into something simple like Pac-Man? That I can easily make. Luckily your mom came to the rescue and bought two Blaze toys and candied rocks for me. All I had to do was repay her kindness by making her favourite cake combination – chocolate and peanut butter. I then pitched the idea of making the outer later a blackout with crumbs to continue with our outdoor soil and rocks theme. She was all for it.

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So that is how I ended up baking the night before your birthday party. Three delicious chocolate cake layers cooling on the rack. The next morning, I whipped up some peanut butter buttercream (and perhaps did lots of taste tests with a spoon) and assembled your cake.

Sour Cream-Chocolate Cake
Recipe from Sky High: Irresistable Triple-Layer Cakes
(Makes three 9-inch layers)

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup neutral vegetable oil (I used grapeseed)
1 cup sour cream
1 ½ cups water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Have your three cake pans ready, line the bottoms with parchment paper.
  2. This creates a lot of batter, so make sure your bowl is big enough or use an electric stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk to combine.
  3. Pour in the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. Gradually add in the water. Then mix in the vinegar and vanilla extract. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended.
  4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 10 minutes. Take them out and let them cool completely on a rack. These cakes are very soft, so use extra care!

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Peanut Butter Frosting
Recipe from Sky High: Irresistable Triple-Layer Cakes
(Makes enough to frost a two 9-inch layered cake)

10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups icing sugar
⅔ cup smooth peanut butter

  1. Make sure your cream cheese and unsalted butter are at room temperature. Leaving it out for 1-2 hours will work too.
  2. Using a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until combined.
  3. Add in 2 cups of icing sugar, mix well. Add the remaining 2 cups of icing sugar and mix until combined. Add in the last cup of icing sugar and mix. Doing this in portions helps prevent the icing sugar from flying everywhere.
  4. Finally, add in the peanut butter and mix until the frosting is smooth.

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Jackson, when you’re older, you should make this for you mom. Just take the first layer of the cake and place it on a plate. Add a layer of peanut butter frosting on top, about 1-2 centimetres thick. Carefully place the second layer of cake on top to sandwich it. Again, top it off with frosting. Then add frosting on the sides of the cake and frost until the entire cake has been covered. The best part is that it doesn’t have to look perfectly smooth because it’ll be crusted with crumbs after.

To make the blackout crumb, take that third cake layer and put it in a bowl and use an electric whisk to break it apart. Stop when it looks like soil and gently pat it onto the sides and top of the cake.

Totally worth it. You were so thrilled with the toys on top of the cake. And you seemed to enjoy the cake, but I know your first love is JELL-O. Just like your godfather!

Sincerely,
Syl

puffy heart pancakes

Dear Laura,

You’re my first posted letter of the year! I’m so behind on writing you because January and February just flew by. I was sick the first and third week of the year and then so busy on all those weekends we hoped to go snow tubing. And of course you had your epic trip to Japan, which inspired these pancakes in the first place.

Remember when we attempted to make turnip cakes (lo bak go) for Chinese New Year and Richard was “working” and “planning” the trip? We watched so many YouTube videos that day and one of them was those fluffy Japanese pancakes. To my surprise, my mother-in-law found some cookie cutters that she didn’t use that week and one of them was the heart-shaped one.

My original plan was to do a Valentine’s Day post with these, but that so didn’t happen. I made them the week after and then you jetted off to have a fabulous adventure. I think I told you that not going with you will probably be one of my biggest regrets this year. But now that I know the outcome of that trip, it was probably best we weren’t there to spoil any of Richard’s plans! 😉

I really appreciated the call (sorry for screaming if you had the phone right up to your ear) and I am so happy and excited for you and Richard. My mom’s already asking me when the wedding will be. A little too soon to tell I think!

I hope we have brunch soon or maybe get together to make Vietnamese savory rolled cakes (Bánh cuốn) that my dad recently taught me. I think you and Richard will like them a lot. But for now, here’s how I made pancakes to pretend I was in Japan with you.

Japanese-Style Pancakes
Makes about 15 to 20 small pancakes
From POPSUGAR Food

2 large eggs
¾ cup milk
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons neutral oil

  1. Take out a blender and add in the milk (the original recipe called for buttermilk, but I didn’t have any), eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, and salt. Blend on low until combined.
  2. Add in the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Blend on low until combined, but don’t over mix.
  3. Preheat your pan on medium heat. I used my crêpe pan because I wanted the flattest surface for the cookie cutter to sit on. I didn’t want batter to leak out from the bottom.
  4. Use a silicone brush and coat the inside of the metal cookie cutter with a neutral oil like grapeseed (the original recipe called for vegetable oil). Also brush the surface of the pan with oil. Place the cookie cutter on the pan and carefully spoon in batter to fill in half of the cookie cutter. Any more and it’ll overfill when it expands.
  5. Cook for 3 minutes and then use a large spatula or pair of tongs to flip. Cook the other side for another 3 minutes.
  6. Remove it from the heat and gently nudge the pancake out, it should slide right out if you oiled the sides. Then repeat by brushing oil on the sides and placing it on the pan and filling it with batter.

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These little hearts go out for you!

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As you can imagine, because I only had one metal heart-shaped cookie cutter, this took me forever. Six minutes for each little pancake, but they do look so cute!

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They’re so small that you can fit a bunch of them in a handful, yet when I showed this to my mom, she sent me an exercise emoji. Mom!

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Ahh, I missed you so much! I can’t wait to see more photos from your trip. Tell Rich to post them now.

Sincerely,
Syl

gingerbread cookies

Dear Readers,

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all get to spend time with loved ones, family, and friends. Howard and I have been really fortunate this holiday weekend to share a meal with those we care about. We went over to a family friend’s house on Friday for a delicious pot luck. There were so many good laughs and sneaky behaviours during our board game session. Christmas Eve was spent with Howard’s family where we cooed and ahhed over our little nephew in between hot pot. At 21 weeks old, he’s already mastered rolling! Christmas Day, we’ll be going over to my parent’s house tonight. We’re also looking forward to New Year’s Eve where it’s been tradition for us to get together with our best friends.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

I won’t be seeing my colleagues for a week, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss them! This year, I made some Totoro gingerbread cookies to hand out as a token of my appreciation. The reactions were pretty priceless. I love how Totoro brings a smile to everyone’s face.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

Did I mention that I have never made gingerbread before? I remember decorating it in grade one or two, our classroom smelled so good. But we never got to eat them because they were used as decoration in our class and were rock hard by the time I could take it home. I don’t think I’ve even eaten gingerbread in the last decade, but we had a fun work event this year where I was in charge of the gingerbread station – I got to teach people how to pipe and watch them ice their own gingerbread man. This really inspired me to make some at home.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

The ones at work were from Bobbette & Belle which everyone was raving how delicious they were, so I cracked open their cookbook and got baking!

Gingerbread Cookies
Makes about a dozen cookies
Recipe adapted from Bobbette & Belle: Classic Recipes from the Celebrated Pastry Shop

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
½ cup fancy molasses
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

  1. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, (they also add ¾ teaspoon of baking soda, which I omitted), salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves – whisk!
  2. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until it’s light and fluffy.
  3. Pour in the molasses and vanilla, beat until well blended. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.
  4. Add in the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until the dough forms. Take the dough out, flatten it into a disc shape, and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (I left it overnight).
  5. Preheat your oven to 350°F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to about ¼-inch thickness. Cut out your shapes (freehand or by tracing templates) or use a cookie cutter. Place on the parchment paper, leaving about an inch between each cookie.
  7. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm to the touch. Allow the cookies to cool before transferring them to a wire rack. The cookies can be stores in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

I actually made the recipe twice so that I would have lots of dough to work with. I made Totoros, trees, penguins, and polar bears. Howard took the bulk of it to work to hand out to his colleagues.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

You guys, I haven’t made royal icing in so long (probably 7 years)! I went out to get some meringue powder since I just don’t feel right about using uncooked egg whites. You basically mix meringue powder, confectioner’s sugar, and water until you get the consistency you want. Less water if you want the icing stiffer for creating borders, more water if you want it runnier to flood the area. It’s a lot of guesswork and experience, because it’s based on the feel when you’re working with royal icing. I started with the drier icing to pipe designs and outlines. It also acts as a good glue at this point, so I used it to attach sprinkles. Flooding was a bit trickier, but I think I got the hang of it! If only my outlines were cleaner!

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

Totoro is moderately easy to make. You pipe two eyes and insert a black/brown sprinkle in. Then pipe a nose and a small dot on the top of his head. Most people add a leaf on his head, but since it’s Christmas, Totoro got a holly. If you have red sprinkles and green Christmas-tree-shaped sprinkles, you’ll be able to make a holly. I outlined an oval for his belly and then flooded it with icing. When everything was dried, I drew on his belly marks with an edible colour marker. You could pipe them on with black icing, but I trusted myself with the marker more!

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

I experimented with a lot of designs on the Christmas trees. Some just got zig-zag’s, others were outlines, played around with the sprinkle ornaments, and even tried some snowy ones.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

What do you think? I eventually got bored of doing the same thing over and over again, hence the variety. I don’t know which one I like best.

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

Thank you again for following along this year! I’m hoping to do a bit more crafting and baking in 2017. Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

Totoro Gingerbread Cookies

Sincerely,
Syl

festive lime cake

Dearest Diana,

Happy birthday!

I know that I didn’t make this cake specifically for your birthday – but you did get to eat it because it was for a party you threw! Thanks again for inviting us to your annual holiday party. DIRT came early this year, I remember we used to celebrate your birthday at midnight when the party was winding down (or still going).

02_festivelimecake

I decided to go with a lime cake and frosting because I figured most people would bring chocolate desserts to your potluck. And also because I had a lot of limes to use up (just like how you do now from the amount Kurt bought). As much as I love chocolate cake, the lime flavour would help cut any heaviness from the carbs, cheese, fried food, and other delicious treats we were consuming that night. The frosting was so smooth this time, I was quite pleased with it, but the clear crystal sprinkles coated on the outside of the cake gave it a crunchy texture.

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I saw this simple decorating trick from a blogger I follow, Style Sweet CA, and knew that I had to replicate it. I mean, how easy is that?!

Okay, giving the cake a smooth finish wasn’t easy (still need Santa to bring me that bench scraper) and I think my cake is a little slanted, but it’s totally going for that rustic look on purpose (shhh). Making the sprinkles stick to the sides wasn’t easy either, I really need to read up on that because I had sprinkles all over the floor after. But you know what was easy? Sticking five rosemary sprigs on top. That I can do without any problems. I gave the rosemary a wash, dried them thoroughly, and then plucked off a few leaves so that I would have a stalk. Gave the “trees” varying heights and tried to look for ones with a thicker stalks.

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I love how the rosemary look like Christmas trees – even though they go against what I was taught. In grade four, our teacher made us all draw pine trees, he then gathered them and at the front of the class look at each page and made a really large “no” pile. Because as fourth graders, we all drew the pine trees as Christmas trees, with the branches angled down. Interesting teaching method, no? It’s something I never forgot!

I mean, I guess I could have inserted the rosemary twigs the other way, but this was just too darling to be corrected.

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Lime White Cake
Makes three 6-inch cakes or 18 cupcakes (as intended from the cookbook)
Recipe from Butter Baked Goods: Nostalgic Recipes from a Little Neighborhood Bakery

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
¾ cup whole milk
¼ cup lime juice, freshly squeezed from 2 limes
Zest of 4 limes, save the 2 other limes for the frosting
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of your cake pans with parchment paper. Or line your muffin pan with cupcake wrappers.
  2. Using your stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until it’s light and fluffy.
  3. Add in the eggs one at a time, scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together the milk, lime juice, two-thirds of the lime zest and vanilla.
  5. In another bowl, lightly mix the pastry flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.
  6. Back to the stand mixer, add a third of the dry ingredients in and mix on low. Pour in a third of the liquid ingredients. Do this two more times, scraping the side of the bowl as needed.
  7. Fill the cake pans about three-quarters full (same with cupcakes). Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a wooden skewers inserted into the center comes out clean. If you’re making cupcakes, you only need to bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
  8. Remove the cake from the oven, transfer to wire racks and let it cool completely.

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Lime Buttercream

4 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
¼ cup lime juice
⅓ lime zest

  1. Using the stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until combined. Add in the lime juice and zest.
  2. It’s tricky to write an accurate recipe for buttercream, I often tweak it depending on the consistency I want. If I want it softer and smoother, I add more lime juice or water, if the buttercream becomes too runny, then I add in a little more confectioner’s sugar.

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I remember making you birthday lime cupcakes with little fondant EVEs from WALL-E. How times have changed since then! I’ve watched you grow from student to graduate to employee to wife and now mother of two. It’s been a lot of birthdays and I’m so glad we’ve had the chance to celebrate many of them together.

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Have a great birthday and festive holiday. Hope to see you in our traditional new year’s eve get together!

Sincerely,
Syl

beef noodle soup

Dear In-Laws,

You make the best beef noodle soup. Hands down. And I can confidently say this now that we went on a trip to Taiwan together – where beef noodle soup originated from – and I tried many bowls that did not live up to my expectations. It was the first meal I bought in Taiwan in one of the many tasty and busy food courts. We even lined up for over an hour for another at a restaurant (let’s not talk about how that was so not worth it). Heck, I even gave it another attempt in the airport before we left. But nope, none had the flavours that I wanted, yours is truly the high standard.

I keep telling myself that Howard and I need to learn how you make that broth. So I don’t have to wait for the birthdays or special occasions when you do grace us with that piping hot bowl of comfort. I don’t know what I love more, pho or beef noodle soup? It might be a tie.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a fairly simple recipe that took less than 4 hours to make! Could it be? Let’s find out.

Beef Noodle Soup

Beef Noodle Soup
Makes about 4 servings
Recipe from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes

2 tablespoon grape seed oil
2 pounds boneless beef shank meat, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoon minced ginger
1 ½ tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon gochujang (fermented chile paste)
2 tablespoon soy sauce
2 whole star anise
1 3-inch long cinnamon stick
2 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (cooking wine)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
10 cups water
1 tablespoon hondashi (bonito)
2 handfuls baby bak choy
8 ounces Yet-Ca-Mein (noodles)
⅛ sesame oil

  1. I was actually quite surprised at how little ingredients I had to purchase. I had to pick up the meat, ginger, hondashi, and bak choy, but I had everything else in my pantry. If you’re looking for gochujang, your best bet is a Korean supermarket. I also found the Shaoxing wine and hondashi in a Chinese/Taiwanese grocery store. Everything else should be pretty common in large chains across the country.
  2. I got to use my Dutch oven for this (yay) and heated it over medium-high heat with the grape seed oil (you can also use another neutral oil here). Add in the ginger and garlic, give it a quick stir for thirty seconds. You can still see my minced ginger and garlic in the photos – Howard gave me some flak for that. It’s my least favourite prep to do, so when they look “small” enough to me, I stop! Season the meat with 3 teaspoon of salt.
  3. This is what the cookbook calls the flavour party: add in the beef, gochujang, soy sauce, star anise, cinnamon, wine, sugar, and vinegar.
  4. Stir for a minute, add in the water and hondashi and stir until it’s dissolved. I stored my leftover hondashi in an airtight jar, as I could only find them in packets that were way more than the tablespoon needed.
  5. Once the broth starts simmering, turn the heat down to low to keep it on simmer state. Skim any froth, fat, or scum on the surface out with a ladle – but then remember to replace a ladle-ful of water for each ladle you discard.
  6. Partially cover the pot with a lid and let it simmer for 2 hours. I kept checking back at the hour to discard any froth on the surface and replacing each scoop with water. But you’re pretty much done here. You can cool it and chill it in the fridge for up to three days. Or eat it that same day.
  7. Boil some water and blanch the baby bak choy. Take them out with a slotted spoon and set aside. Then boil the noodles in the same pot of water that is now saturated with all that vegetable goodness in it. Drain and divide into servings. Place the bak choy on top, along with some slices of beef, and ladle in the hot broth over until just about covered.
  8. This is optional, season the broth with sesame oil. I preferred it without, while Howard thought it was way better with it.

Beef Noodle Soup

Pair those piping hot bowls with some freshly fried scallion pancakes and it’s pretty close to the greatest meal ever. You’ve got your crispy and salty side dish to go with that hearty and filling noodle.

Beef Noodle Soup

So what was the verdict?

This recipe was good, but just still not as good as the one you make. Howard refused to drink my broth here, but we all know that he gulps down the bowls you serve us at home.

Oh and because we’re in a condo, our place smelled like beef soup for a couple of days. That simmering time acted as an aroma diffuser for every corner of our place. I think I went through four mini candles before our home started to smell neutral again!

Sincerely,
Syl