Hello Kitty birthday

So this is how I know I’m never going to make it as a food blogger: I totally forgot to take a picture of the finished cake that I made for the the little one’s third birthday.

Circumstances meant that the cake actually turned out quite nice – she was sick on the day that we’d scheduled her party, so the cakes, baked but not yet decorated, went into the freezer until the following weekend. That’s how I learned that it’s much easier to frost a frozen cake than a fresh one. The cake is sturdier and crumbles less, so the surface for the fondant layer turned out much smoother than it had been for my previous efforts. I made a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting, with a Hello Kitty on it, because that was what the little one requested.

Well, to be honest, that’s not quite how it went. I was going to make her a Hello Kitty cake anyway, because she’s really into Hello Kitty right now, and plus I already had Hello Kitty cookie cutters that I’d bought for her birthday last year, so I figured I’d get as many uses out of them as I could. She was happy with Hello Kitty, she specified the flavors, and that was that. But then, a week prior, we were going past the cake display at Costco and she pointed at one and said, “I want that cake for my birthday!”

I may not have entirely disguised my dismay. “But I was going to make you a cake with Hello Kitty on it.”

“I want that one!” Determined pointing. Kids have no respect for your desires. This is something you learn very quickly as a parent.

Then I wised up and said, “You know, last year you wanted a Hello Kitty cake and I was worried that you would be upset when I cut into it. So I asked you if you would be okay if we cut it and you said, ‘I want to poke her in the face with a fork!’ Wasn’t that silly?”

She took the bait. “Yeah! That was silly! I want to poke her in the face again!”

“So you want me to make Hello Kitty cake again?”

“Yeah!”

Oh, two years going on three, so malleable. At five years old, the older kid is already wise to these tricks and requires more straightforward negotiation.

Anyway, my objective restored, I made marshmallow fondant (I use this recipe, recommended to me by a friend whose intensity re: baking is at levels I can only admire), kneaded up some of it with a drop or two of red dye (if you want an arm workout, may I recommend kneading fondant?) to make pink, and executed Hello Kitty cake toppers and chocolate cake. (Three batches of smitten kitchen’s “I want chocolate” cake, for two layers of 9″ round and one dozen cupcakes.) Also strawberry cream cheese frosting, because the kid wanted strawberries, and I like cream cheese.

The little one helped with the cake toppers. I used the cookie cutter twice – once for the head on the white fondant, and once for the bow with the pink fondant. (Now it’s a multitasker! j/k) Then I picked out the features with a bit of melted chocolate on the end of a toothpick. I even let her decorate a couple of the faces. Because (and I do have to keep reminding myself of this) this is for her, not for me.

in-progress Hello Kitty cupcake toppers

For the big cake, I drew Hello Kitty on the top with melted chocolate and a coffee stirrer. Pretty proud of executing a 3D ribbon with the pink fondant. And the kid was happy with it, which was, honestly, the whole point.

Then I didn’t take any pictures. Oops! Fortunately K took pictures during the actual event, so I was able to crop this one out.

sideways view of cake and cupcakes

I did finally remember to take a picture, while we were cleaning up after the party.

partly eaten cake, with cupcakes in background

Happy birthday, little one. May I always be able to fulfill your desires… in a way that pleases both of us.

Halloween in Canada: a crash course in cross-border candy differences

When you send a barely-three-year-old and an almost-six-year-old out trick-or-treating, they come back with far more candy than they can or should consume. So there’s plenty of extra. As a bonus, they unquestioningly accept your arbitrary rules re: amount of candy they’re allowed to eat in any given time period. And their memories honestly aren’t that great. (Though the older one is pretty territorial about his peanut M&Ms.)

It’s a really great time to be a parent, is all I’m saying.

Candy we don’t have this year: Snickers, Milky Ways, Butterfingers, 3 Musketeers. Apparently they don’t exist on this side of the border? Candy we do have: Kit Kats, M&Ms, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces. So there are plenty of familiar items.

(Edit: I am told that Snickers etc do exist up north, but clearly they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they were back home.)

We also have Smarties, but they’re not the Smarties that I was used to back in the States. Smarties here are kind of like M&Ms, in that they are made of chocolate and covered with a hard candy shell. But the candy shell is thicker and crunchier.

Smarties in Canada, which are hard M&Ms

The Smarties that I’m used to, the powdery pastel-colored disc-shaped candies arranged in a tube, go by the name Rockets here.

Smarties in Canada, alongside Rockets in Canada, which are Smarties in the US

Yeah, it’s confusing to me too.

There are also a bunch of chocolate bars here that aren’t carried back home – mostly the Cadbury line (more on that later), but also some Nestle products. There were quite a lot of Aero bars, which is basically chocolate lightened with air bubbles. My favorite Nestle Canada bar, though, is the Coffee Crisp, a wafer filled with coffee flavoring and covered in chocolate. I love it so much that I bought up extra bags of it to take home every time I visited family in Canada. I have long been boggled that there is no mass market coffee flavored chocolate in the States. It’s okay though, I’m in Canada now. I have all the Coffee Crisp I want.

(Hilariously, I have my kid so well trained in the concept of “coffee is only for adults” that he immediately handed over his Coffee Crisp bars to me, and told me, in scandalized tones, that people were just giving them out to kids! No one tell him that he’s allowed Coffee Crisp. I’m totally fine with him giving all of his to me.)

Coffee Crisp and Kinder Egg at Loblaws

The above picture also displays another chocolate treat not allowed back in the States: the Kinder Egg. I’ll probably do a whole separate entry on the Kinder Egg later. The kid did actually score a single Kinder Egg this Halloween, but generally people stuck to handing out fun size bars and candies.

We got plenty of Cadbury chocolates too. Here’s the giant Cadbury box I saw in the grocery store.

a picture of the Cadbury line

I love the Wunderbar, which has a peanut center and a caramel coating underneath the chocolate. The Mr. Big is also pretty good; it’s got a wafer center and a nice crunch from the crispy rice. (I’m also fond of it because one year we came to Canada and saw Alex Ovechkin on the candy wrapper, with the text “Mr. Big Deal.” Of course we had to buy a couple of bars, to hand out to fellow Caps fans back home.) The kids didn’t get any Caramilk so I can’t speak to it – I assume it involves caramel. And the Crispy Crunch was basically a version of the Butterfinger, but flatter (so the butterscotch-to-chocolate ratio was tilted more in favor of chocolate) and a little sweeter.

our giant bowl of candy

Good job, kids – great haul. Now I just need to figure out how to get rid of all this candy, because no one needs this much refined sugar.

I’ll have to harvest all of the Coffee Crisps first, though.

adventures in bagged milk

When you move from the US to Canada, it’s a fairly minor adjustment, aside from the normal stress of moving house at all. A lot of the chain stores you’re used to are still available – no Kohls or Target (shed a tear for Target, whose Canadian enterprise went spectacularly belly-up), but there’s still Whole Foods and Marshall’s, and Costco even seamlessly accepts your membership card. (Though they do take a different credit card.)

So it’s the little differences that give you a moment’s pause. Why do the kids’ chicken fingers always come with “plum sauce?” Why are ketchup flavored potato chips so popular? Why do Wheat Thins look and taste different from the Wheat Thins back home, even though the box design is identical down to the font? What is the deal with all these tiny cucumbers? How do I deal with milk that comes in bags?

bagged milk at the supermarket

To be clear, you don’t have to buy milk in bags. You can get cartons. But the bags are super convenient! You can buy 4 liters at a go, conveniently split into 3 bags (why 1.33 L is the working unit for milk, I have no idea) so you only need open one at a time, which keeps the others fresher for longer. Also you get to reuse your cute little plastic pitcher.

a bag of milk ready to go into the pitcher

Although I was totally prepared to embrace the bagged milk phenomenon, I encountered a few snags in execution. For one thing, a new bag of milk doesn’t fit completely into the pitcher – it protrudes, the liquid level sitting ominously atop the rim, looking like a spill waiting to happen.

look how high the milk level is!

Through talking to other bagged-milk consumers, I have learned that a crucial part of initial bag installation is the thumping – I thump the pitcher, with the milk bag still sealed (don’t do this after opening!), repeatedly on the countertop until the milk bag settles fully into the pitcher. Otherwise you can get a pocket of air at the bottom.

The milk level will still be above the pitcher’s rim when you start, though. It’s disquieting but you will just learn to have to deal with the dread.

We bought a pitcher with a bag cutter included, because I thought it would be handy. It was not. It chews up the bag, rather than cutting cleanly, and in the process, you get milk splatter everywhere. Now I use scissors to snip the corner. I have talked to other users of bagged milk and everyone has a different recommended angle – some adhere to a rigid 45 degree snip, some do a shallower angle, some deeper. The only way to find out what works for you is through experimentation. I personally find that a shallower angle provides better control.

milk bag in the pitcher, snipped and ready to go

When I pour, I hold the handle of the pitcher with one hand and pull back on the opposite corner of the bag with the other hand, to keep the plastic nice and taut near the spout area. Otherwise you risk unpredictable folding and drooping of the milk bag during the pour, resulting in a stream of milk that is anything but constant and steady, possibly even missing the target entirely.

I still love it though. Like any new tool, it required an adjustment period at first. But for me the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks. And the single bag, in the thin milk pitcher, fits neatly in the refrigerator door.

milk pitcher in the fridge door

It should be noted that this bagged milk phenomenon is not universal to Canada. I think I used to see bagged milk when I visited my family in Vancouver as a kid, but it’s been phasing out, and the last few times I was in town everything was cartons and bottles. It might just be an Ontario thing? or even an Ottawa thing? Regardless, I’m definitely embracing it as part of my Canadian experience.

when life gives you black raspberries

We’re moving in just a couple of weeks. I sit here, Wednesday night, amongst a pile of papers and things, in a house full of even more things, and packers are coming on Monday.

Any sane person would fall to organizing things: household goods shipment items over here, long-term storage stuff over there, stuff going to Goodwill in the basement, stuff going to the landfill in the garage.

So of course, I spent the evening making black raspberry jam.

You see, moving out of a house is actually when you get everything done that you’ve been putting off for years. New roof? Check. Install ceiling fan/light fixtures in every bedroom? Check. Clean out basement detritus? Check. Clean out the freezer, including those five quart-sized bags of black raspberries that you picked from Larriland Farm two summers ago?

frozen bags of black raspberries

Last time I made raspberry jam it had seeds in it, and they were crunchy and got stuck in one’s teeth and ruined everything with their mere presence, so I went to great lengths to de-seed the raspberries this time around. I cooked them a bit so that they were soft (did I mention they’d been in the freezer for two years?), then jammed (ha) them through a strainer with the back of a spoon, occasionally scraping the pulp off the bottom side.

the spoon and strainer setup

Then, not wanting to waste any of the black raspberry goodness, I wrapped all of the spooned-out pulp in a wad of cheesecloth, wrapped it up, and started squeezing.

cheesecloth and black raspberry pulp

Man was that a weird feeling. The raspberries were still warm, practically body heat, and the juice that flowed out was dark red and viscous, running stickily over my fingers. I really felt like I was squeezing out someone’s heart, extracting the blood.

I bet Hannibal canned his leftovers.

I’m sure this is the kind of thought that occurs to anyone making jam late at night.

Anyway. After that, the jam went back in the pot with some sugar, pectin, and lemon juice for the final boil. It was awfully pretty, watching the red swirl in the pot.

raspberry swirrrrrl

After a lot of boiling, and stirring, and near-misses (this stuff boils up really high and you don’t want spillover, it’s like napalm on your countertops), it was time to funnel it into the sanitized jars (thank goodness for the sanitize cycle on the dishwasher).

sticky funnel and jars

And, into the water bath they went. More boiling followed.

jam jars in the bath

I love these jar tongs. I’m so over the no-unitasker-allowed-in-the-kitchen thing. Look, you can even see that the lid’s sucked down. Successful seal accomplished!

jar of jam emerges

At the end of the night I hadn’t gotten any more packing or organizing or decluttering done. But I had turned stuff the movers wouldn’t take (hand-picked frozen black raspberries) into stuff that they would (sealed, shelf-stable jars of jam), so hey, it’s progress. I’m counting it as a win.

end of jamming night: 9 full jam jars

Though, there’s always more work to do.

actually, jamming night ends with washing dishes.

goodbye kolaches; hello bubble tea

Rt 40 giveth and Rt 40 taketh away. We drove up to Kolache Kreations this weekend and it was quiet and still, with a CLOSED sign on the door and FOR SALE / FOR RENT signs in the windows, and a note on the door saying a gracious goodbye. I’m very sad to see them go; their delicious kolaches were my go-to dinner plan if I got stuck at work late and needed something quick to feed the family. Hopefully something just as lovely and intimate will take their place.

goodbye, Kolache Kreations :(

But on the bright side: BUBBLE TEA. Oh sure, you think you already know the glory of bubble tea. But as I’ve complained before, there really hasn’t been good bubble tea in Ellicott City… until now. Kung Fu Tea, which just so happens to be one of my favorite bbtea spots in Rockville and in Chicago, has opened up a branch in the same shopping center as Honey Pig. And I’m happy to report that their bubble tea is just as good it is in their other locations – nice, consistent texture to the bubbles, and good flavor on the drinks.

hello, Kung Fu Tea!

They’re still training the staff, but my orders (I love the KF Milk Tea and the winter melon jasmine green tea, both with bubbles of course) came out smoothly and with no apparent fuss. They certainly look like they’re offering the full menu of drinks; the menu is up on two brightly-lit TV screens and it’s definitely a wall of text – lots to process, lots of options.

Plus it’s just a great place to hang out. Like their Rockville location, there are chairs and tables where you can sit and socialize, and games you can borrow (I’ve seen people playing Jenga and Connect Four). Unfortunately, it’s a pretty small place, so – like the Rockville location – I can see it getting crowded pretty quickly.

I’ll still go, though. Often. Yay for real bubble tea!

summer/fall CSA, week 23

This was the last week of this year’s Breezy Willow CSA. It’s like a picture of what’s awesome about fall.

Huge heads of cauliflower and broccoli, brussels sprouts, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples, sweet potatoes, onions, spinach, Cacoctin Kettle Korn, eggs, and bread (Breadery ciabatta).

And that’s it until the spring. [sniff]

Week 23 was actually two weeks ago, and we’ve now eaten all of the stuff in the pickup except the sweet potatoes, which are currently still waiting patiently on the dining table. They’ll get roasted up sometime this weekend, I’m sure.

Today is the final day of a three-day workweek, which meant that I got to pack only three days’ worth of lunches this past Sunday night. I was pretty excited about having the week mostly taken care of on Sunday. Check it out: three days, twelve lunches.

K and I have chili over rice with spinach; the Little Prince gets rice with green beans, chicken, and a smidge of bacon (bribery), the Little Princess gets pancakes, spinach scrambled eggs, and bacon (breakfast foods are good finger foods), and you can also see the Little Prince’s fruit sides (mandarin orange segments with dried cranberries); I only made two but it was easy enough to make the third last night.

It takes a lot of prep for everyone in the family to get homemade meals every day, but if you do things in bulk, it pays dividends in time on busy weeknights.

I’m really looking forward to our multiple Thanksgiving meals this weekend (two local families = two Thanksgivings and no arduous travel! We’re really lucky). The best thing about Thanksgiving is the potluck nature of it all; if you do things right, you only need to make one or two dishes out of several, and then you get to stuff your face with family and friends.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

summer/fall CSA, week 22

Every fall is always filled with mixed emotions for me. I love fall — the slight chill in the air, the crunchy leaves, pumpkins and gingerbread and apple cider — but on the other hand, the farms are shutting down. Next week will be the last week of the CSA, and the last week of the HoCo farmers’ markets. I’ll have to actually buy my produce from a grocery store again, from cashiers who may not be able to identify the items on sight.

You take a lot for granted when shopping at a farmer’s market. When you pick up an item, you can ask: is this eaten cooked or raw? Do you have any tricks for preserving it? How do you prepare it? And not only is the farmer happy to talk with you (assuming the stall isn’t slammed with customers), but you’ll soon have a dialogue going with the other shoppers, who are also happy to share their experiences, recipes, and recommendations. The community feeling is just incredible, and not something you generally get at your local grocery store.

(Not to slam Giant, Safeway, or Harris Teeter. I patronize them too, and I do appreciate their all-hours convenience and their endless rows of clean, brightly-lit produce. But it’s not the same as the love I have for the farmer’s market, where I may not quite find what I was looking for, but I come away with stuff that I’m excited about.)

ANYWAY. The penultimate week of the CSA brought us a pound of spinach, 3 pounds of white potatoes, a pound of brussels sprouts, a spaghetti squash, five large rainbow carrots, another enormous head of cauliflower, eight apples (the all-red ones are Staymans, and the yellow-reds are Jonagolds), and the usual eggs and bread (Great Harvest challah).

summer/fall CSA pickup week 22

I love brussels sprouts; cut in half and tossed with olive oil and spices, and roasted until the edges caramelize, they turn into crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside little nuggets of awesome, and I consider them the perfect food to nosh on while watching a football game. As a bonus, the Little Prince likes them too. Pick the little ones; they’re the sweetest.

summer/fall CSA week 21; dark chocolate buttercream

Guys, guys! The trees outside are all beautiful colors, the weather is incredibly mild, the fruits of the harvest are rolling in. Let’s just ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in, um, apparently ten weeks? Instead, let’s just admire last week’s beautiful pickup from Breezy Willow:

summer/fall CSA, week 21

That’s an absolutely enormous cauliflower, a pound of kale, brussels sprouts, a spaghetti squash, white mushrooms, red-skinned potatoes, two kinds of apples (Golden Delicious and Stayman, I think), and the usual eggs and bread (Breadery ciabatta).

I’m eating one of the Golden Delicious apples as I type and although it’s a tad mealy, the flavor is so sweet and refreshing, I still love it.

Let’s also check out this gigantic sweet potato that Casey brought in from the field (and apparently decorated).

this huge potato is such a sweetie

Yes, it’s as big as a loaf of bread. Crazy, huh?

The Little Princess turned one this past weekend, which means that K and I have been able to keep two kids alive simultaneously for an entire year. We threw a party to celebrate, with plentiful food. We stuffed three pumpkins (bacon & cheese, chard & cheese, wild rice & mushroom) and I made a cake, horse-shaped for my little Year of the Horse girl.

horse cake for a Little Princess

Eyes and ears are made of white chocolate, with dark chocolate scribbled on top to provide details. I’m pretty proud of the cake, even though structural instabilities meant that the head fell off halfway through the party. It’s okay; it was all edible, so we just gave the head to the Little Princess to eat. And that dark chocolate buttercream was darn tasty, if I do say so myself.

And now, of course, post-Halloween, the house is full of candy, which I’m using to bribe my son to finish his dinner. Whatever works, right?

Happy fall, everybody! It’s my favorite time of year.

Easiest Dark Chocolate Buttercream

Food processor buttercream is my new favorite thing. Forget separating egg whites; forget running the stand mixer over and over again to beat in sugar in batches. Just dump everything into the food processor and let it whiz until buttercream miraculously appears. For an adult note to the flavor, add a pinch of sea salt.

To get the contrasting color, you can make a non-chocolate batch by omitting the cocoa powder and 1/2 stick of butter.

This makes enough frosting to cover a horse-shaped cake 7″ long and 2-4 layers tall from back to front, as well as two dozen cupcakes, so it’s a LOT of frosting. Adapted from smitten kitchen.

12 Tbsp Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder (I’m sure you can use regular, but then you won’t end up with Dark Chocolate buttercream)
1 cup + 4 Tbsp (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 3/4 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
4 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk
2 tsp vanilla
pinch of sea salt (optional)

Dump everything in the food processor, cover it up, and start spinning it. I like to pulse it a few times to get everything mixed up before letting the processor really rip. You’ll have a beautiful thick buttercream in no time at all.

Lunch scribbles / CSA week, uh, 11 I think?

For lunch today, I ate a frittata of diced kielbasa, tomato, green pepper, and onion, served over white rice with a side of sauteed celery, and a little bit of beef gravy to give it some flavor and moisture. Frittata: a great way to stretch a single kielbasa sausage into six meals.

Last night I made six “adult” meals as described above, plus two “little prince” meals consisting of leftover toad-in-the-hole and cut up green beans, as well as two “little princess” meals of pureed vegetable and cut up fruit (her bottles of pumped milk can’t be prepared too far in advance, or I’d do those too). I love The Unmanly Chef‘s series of 5 Days 5 Lunches but right now, with two adults, a three-year-old, and a ten-month-old, and limited fridge storage to boot, I’m happy to just get two or three days ahead of the game.

Honestly, parenting is like treading water; you’re busy just keeping your head in the air. I’ve been neglecting the blog, but rest assured that we are still eating the fruits of summer and loving it here at the K household. Our patio garden has been going crazy and drowning us in hot peppers and cherry tomatoes. Every week, I get the CSA pickup and then drop by the Miller Library farmer’s market to fill in the gaps (usually with peaches from Lewis Orchard, onions and bacon from TLV Tree Farm, and sweet cherry tomatoes from Love Dove).

I may or may not do a CSA catch-up post… the previous pickup photos are scattered across various devices (old phone, new phone, tablet) and my record keeping is not all that it could be. Let’s just talk about the most recent week for now:

summer CSA, week 11

So many beautiful colors! We’ve had corn every week and here it is again, 6 ears of it. There’s also cantaloupe, yellow squash, rainbow carrots, nectarines, green peppers, eggplant, beautiful ripe tomatoes, eggs, and bread (Great Harvest challah).

The corn got simply boiled (Little Prince’s favorite preparation) – I brought a pot of water to a boil, and then, so as not to waste the hot water (and the time it took to get hot), I used it three times: I blanched green beans, added salt and cooked a box of penne pasta, and finally sprinkled in some sugar and boiled the corn.

The yellow squash got sauteed with some shrimp to go over the penne; eggs, green peppers and (some) tomatoes went into the frittata; later we’ll turn the eggplant into baba ghannouj or baingan bharta, and I’ll make glazed rainbow carrots (as well as steam some for the baby). Cantaloupe and nectarine are perfectly good as is, and fortunately both kids love fruit. Keep the fruit coming, Breezy Willow!

summer CSA weeks 3 and 4, + cinnamon pickle

Week 3 of the CSA brought us another beautiful rainbow of produce (fitting because the SCOTUS decision was announced that week):

summer CSA, week 3

We have kale, green leaf lettuce, yellow zucchini, mushrooms, green beans, white potatoes, sweet cherries, blueberries, eggs, and bread (Great Harvest challah).

I like yellow zucchini much better than yellow squash, because squash that doesn’t change diameter as you go is just a lot easier to deal with on the cutting board. That way you don’t have to work too hard to cut everything the same size for even cooking. It’s the little things.

The little container off to the side is a cinnamon stick pickle from Farm Boy Pickles (available at Breezy Willow Farm):

cinnamon stick pickles!

It’s a sweet pickle with a bit of cinnamon kick – basically a bread and butter pickle with a little touch of spice. I was dubious at first about the concept, but when I tried a sample, I was hooked. I’ve been eating a couple of bites after dinner in place of dessert. I love it.

Every fourth week of the CSA brings a special bonus item, and for this week 4, we got to choose between Breezy Willow’s barbecue sauce and their horseradish mustard. I went for the mustard. The rest of the pickup consisted of corn, broccoli, green beans, red potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, cucumbers, eggs, and bread (Great Harvest challah again; I know what I like).

summer CSA, week 4

It’s the beginning of what will likely be a giant corn avalanche this summer. We always get a ton of corn in this CSA. My family loves corn in all forms – boiled, grilled, cut off the cob and creamed – so it’s no hardship at all. Before the Little Prince was born, I used to blanch and freeze the corn for use in winter. Now, though, he eats it up as fast as I can prepare it.