San Antonio, TX

Dear San Antonio,

What a treat it was to visit you in April! The weather was perfect and things were budding and blooming along the river for spring. I’m trying to recall if this was my first time in Texas and I think it was.

Places to stay: I had the chance to stay at the Grand Hyatt for work. If you’re primarily there for the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, it is the best hotel to at as it’s a very short walk over. And it connects to the Riverwalk so you’re not far from other restaurants and attractions. I felt like it was a great location for downtown. Hotel Emma on the other hand was farther away in the Pearl district. However, it is also surrounded by great restaurants and scenic river walks! This hotel was absolutely stunning and beautiful, even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth a visit to look around.

Places to eat: Breakfast at Supper in Hotel Emma was delightful, we ordered cinnamon waffles, ricotta pancakes, and French toast and they were all delicious. Everyone wanted to return for lunch and dinner. If you want barbecue in Texas, we’d recommend The Granary. For the atmosphere alone, visit Mi Tierra, it’s open 24 hours! Plus, you’re going to visit Market Square, so you might as well stop by for something from their bakery or dining room. There’s so many more places, but we didn’t get to try them all. Sometimes it’s nice to save them for the next visit.

Places to see: I’m pretty sure the number one attraction is the Riverwalk and I must say that I’m charmed by it. Take a quick river cruise and do the stroll along the winding pathways during the afternoon or evenings. The Alamo is free, so you can go see and read about the history. Walk to Market Square and the Main Plaza. As I mentioned above, the Pearl district is a must see – it reminded me of the Distillery District here in Toronto.

I’ve been recommending San Antonio as a long weekend trip for everyone. If you go in April, you’ll get to see and participate in Fiesta!

Sincerely,
Syl

cheddar and chive pretzel knots

Dear PRHC Cooks,

I love that there’s a cookbook club at work! If you don’t know, I work in a publishing company, mainly on children’s books but we have imprints that produce these amazing cookbooks. A few colleagues at work decided it was time that we cook from these cookbooks and bring them in for Monday lunch potlucks. There, we get to sample multiple dishes from the cookbook and then chat about what worked and what didn’t. Mainly, I love that I learn about new dishes and any troubleshooting for future recipes.

The cookbook that was voted in for this time was Bake the Seasons: Sweet and Savoury Dishes to Enjoy Throughout the Year by Marcella DiLonardo.

When it was time to sign up for a recipe, I knew I wanted to try the pretzel knots. I’ve been searching for a pretzel recipe to use with my Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning blend. So I thought this would be a good test, plus I love the combination of cheddar and chives!

Cheddar and Chives Pretzel Knots
Recipe from Bake the Seasons

1 ½ cups warm water
1 package active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar (original recipe calls for turbinado sugar)
1 teaspoon fine salt
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese
½ cup minced chives
½ cup baking soda
1 egg, whisked for egg wash

  1. Using the bowl of your stand mixer, whisk the water and yeast together. Let is stand for 5 minutes so that the yeast activates. The yeast didn’t start to bubble in my mixture, but I had just purchased it, so I knew it was fresh. If you’re not sure, you might want to start over with fresh yeast.
  2. Next, add the sugar and salt and whisk it in.
  3. Use the dough hook for your mixer and on low speed, add 1 cup of the flour, followed by the melted butter. Mix until it’s incorporated.
  4. Add the remaining flour 1 cup at a time until the dough comes together. Let the stand mixer knead the dough on medium speed for about 5 minutes. The dough should look smooth and feel elastic, that’s your cue to stop kneading.
  5. Fold in 1 cup of the cheddar and all the chives.
  6. Shape the dough into a ball and cover the bowl. Keep the bowl away from any cold drafts. Let the dough rest and double in size for 2 hours.
  7. Dust your working surface with flour and take the dough out. Give it a quick knead and then divide all the pieces evenly. Make all the even lumps into rope shapes and tie them into simple knots.
  8. Pour about 8 cups of water into a large pot. Bring it to a boil on the stove over high heat. Add in the baking soda. This part was new to me and looks like all pretzel recipes have this boiling process.
  9. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  10. Working in small batches, put the knots in the boiling water for about 20-30 seconds. Quickly remove them with a slotted spoon or spider. Place them on parchment paper over a baking sheet.
  11. Brush the pretzels with the whisked egg. Then sprinkle grated cheese on it. The original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of coarse salt to also be sprinkled on top of the knots. That’s up to you!
  12. Bake for 15-20 minutes, the pretzel knots should look golden brown and have puffed up to double the size. Let it cool for another 15 minutes and eat! Or you can store them in an airtight container for 2 days.

One of my favourite tools to use when working with dough is a bench scraper. It helps you cut, shape, and move the dough from surface to surface easily.

I was able to make at least three baking sheets full of these baby knots. They puff up quite a bit after baking, so make sure you space them out well.

I used a hot pot spider (strainer scoop) to boil the pretzels in.

If you like your pretzels salty, definitely add them on at the sprinkling stage. I figured the cheese would be salty enough!

Gahh, I love the smell of baked cheese in the oven! These came out delightfully bite sized and addictive. They were also easy to bag, light to carry, and it was a breeze bringing them into the office. All important criteria when you’re commuting in!

Sincerely,
Syl

New Orleans, LA

Dear NOLA,

I freaking love New Orleans. This is my second time there and it feels as magical as the first. There’s just something about the spirits there. Am I veering too much into the supernatural? Well, can I talk about how great the people of New Orleans are? The locals are so friendly and give the best advice and tips. The hospitality in this city is unparalleled. And then there are the houses. Just swoon worthy architecture along St Charles Avenue.

Places to stay: I have been lucky enough to stay at the Hotel Monteleone and The Roosevelt for work. I don’t remember much of Hotel Monteleone, but I do recall my room being very tiny. And I hear there’s haunted rooms in this hotel too! The Roosevelt had great amenities, service, and the room was spacious. I was very grateful for the complimentary bottles of water they provided (you get thirsty in the NOLA heat fast). But personally, Cambria Hotel New Orleans in the Downtown Warehouse District is more my style and I really enjoyed our time there. I lucked out with a large corner room filled with celebrity portraits, cross-bone wallpapers, a lounge, table nook, and a bright bathroom. Other hotels I would look into staying at next time: Old No 77 Hotel & Chandlery, Q&C HotelBar, and Catahoula Hotel.

Places to eat: Geez, where does one start? Okay, a great place for breakfast is Stanley. You can’t go wrong with the eggs and poor boy sandwiches. I love going to Cochon Butcher for lunch. The goal is still to try every single sandwich on their menu. So far I’ve done the pork belly, le pig mac, moroccan spiced lamb, duck pastrami, and pulled pork. Other amazing spots for lunch or dinner: Compère Lapin (those biscuits and their desserts are worthy of repeating), Luke (still the best bread pudding I’ve ever had), Magasin Kitchen (for a unique take on pho), Herbsaint (for like everything), and Pêche Seafood Grill (everything and oysters). If you’re wondering about Commander’s Palace, I would go to sit in that beautiful garden room, the service, the experience, and their famous bread pudding souffle with whisky sauce. What about Brennan’s? I would actually not recommend the famous banana foster, but everything else I had for dinner was great. You’ve got to have seafood in New Orleans! I recommend getting a platter at Seaworthy and the wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter at Cochon. You know what I do avoid in this city? The beignets. I just don’t get the hype! I keep trying in hopes of being proven wrong but I have yet to ever finish an entire order.

Places to see: Definitely ride the streetcars. I love the St Charles Avenue route and it circles back into the city. Go check out Magazine Street. Do a cemetery tour – during the day if you’re a scaredy cat like me. Go explore the French Quarters and see Jackson Square! At night, head over to Frenchmen Street for live music.

I hope you get the chance to visit the magic of New Orleans one day. It makes for a great long weekend trip.

Sincerely,
Syl

chocolate totoro cookies

Dear Steph,

So it’s WAY past #totoroweek now, but I found this in my draft folder and thought what a shame I didn’t publish this! It’s actually closer to the date for this year, but I kept the scheduled date and hopefully everything below still makes sense!

Totoro Week 2018

I went with my favourite go-to brownie roll-out cookie recipe from smittenkitchen.com. They’re so easy to make and I love the thickness of them that gives you that nice soft chew when you bite into Totoro.

Howard ordered the Totoro cookie cutter for me from Amazon – surprisingly we haven’t been able to find one in Japan and neither have our relatives when they go travel. You have to be extra careful around the ears, but this dough holds together very well.

Totoro Week 2018

For the belly, I used the recipe from seriouseat.com‘s rolled sugar cookie. These could go as thin as you like since they puff up a bit after baking.

Totoro Week 2018

I don’t own cookie cutters for every size and shape, sometimes you have to improvise. Here I’m using the opening of a large piping tip to punch out the dough.

Totoro Week 2018

That’s right, I’m holding a Totoro belly there.

Totoro Week 2018

Stick them onto the chocolate dough and then bake as instructed at 350°F for about 10 minutes. Allow them to cool before you decorate.

Totoro Week 2018

I whipped up a tiny batch of vanilla royal icing. Got out my milk chocolate crispearls and got to work on the eyes, nose, and whiskers. After that, I dyed the royal icing black to create the belly marks (^^^).

Totoro Week 2018

I remember packing these Totoro cookies up in individual clear bags with twist-ties. Some very lucky colleagues at work go to eat (some said they would simply keep it as is) during their tea breaks.

Sincerely,
Syl

ghost cookies

Dear Becca and Cale,

Thank you for bringing cute adorable ghosts to the world. I am such a scaredy-cat when it comes to spooky and paranormal things, but both of your picture books have made me look at ghosts in a different way.

To celebrate the Halloween season, I made some ghost cookies based on your illustrations from How to Make Friends with a Ghost and Sir Simon: Super Scarer. My first task was finding the perfect cookie cutter, which turned out to be a tulip shape that I could use upside-down!

Ghost Cookies

Rolled Sugar Cookies
Recipe adapted from Serious Eats

115 grams unsalted butter
100 grams coconut oil
225 grams sugar
5 grams table salt
7 grams vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
355 grams all-purpose flour

  1. There are a few things I omitted from the original recipes, so make sure you check out the original link in case you want to follow it through and through. I also used a scale to weight everything out in grams for this recipe.
  2. In a stand mixer, combine the butter, coconut oil, sugar, salt, vanilla extra, and baking powder together. It should come together on medium speed until it’s fluffy and light. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.
  3. Add in the egg and continue to mix until combined.
  4. Add the flour and mix on low until well combined. Take the dough out divide it in half. Flatten in into discs and wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for at least two hours.
  5. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°F and move the oven racks to the lower middle positions. Place parchment paper on your baking trays.
  6. Take the dough out so that it warms up to room temperature. Gently knead it so that it’s easier to roll.
  7. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. Cut with your tulip cookie cutter and slide a spatula underneath to help loosen it and transfer to the baking tray. Repeat until all of the dough has been used. You can knead together the scraps to be rolled out again.
  8. Place the baking trays in the oven and bake for about 12 minutes. The cookies should be slightly puffed, but firm and pale.
  9. Let the cookies cool for another half hour on the baking tray.

Ghost Cookies

I whipped up a batch of royal icing to pipe out the faces. I don’t have a precise recipe for it as I usually do this in a small bowl and adjust until the icing consistency is how I like it. So since it’s based on how it feels, I have never measured out the icing sugar and water ratio.

I filled out a piping bag with the smallest round tip to create their sweet faces. Then I dabbed my finger into the pink food dye to create the ghosts’ blush.

Ghost Cookies

It was my first time making this recipe. I loved that the cookies stayed pale after baking, we don’t want any golden-edged ghosts here. But I found the dough so hard to work with, it would crumble every time I tried to roll it out. Yet, the small batch I did came together. I did like the coconut aroma and it did help keep the cookies soft and chewy.

Regardless of my baking notes, I’m glad they were a hit and everyone seemed to enjoy gobbling these ghosts down.

Your boo,
Syl

*Disclaimer: I work in marketing and publicity for Tundra Books, which publishes both How to Make Friends with a Ghost by Rebecca Green and Sir Simon: Super Scarer by Cale Atkinson.