Saturday, December 17, 2011

Graham Cracker Houses

This isn't entirely from scratch, but it beats buying expensive gingerbread houses.  I may still try to make a gingerbread houses from scratch, but I haven't had time to figure it out yet.  In the meantime, here's our family's attempt at making our own graham cracker houses.  I used leftover buttercream icing made from this recipe:

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup softened butter
4 cups icing sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla*
*I used the scrapings of one vanilla bean.

Mix well.  Add milk if needed until desired consistency.

(As you browse through the pictures, try to guess where the engineer is.  It shouldn't be too hard.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Green Grandma's Vinegar Fridays

(While this post is not about a specific recipe, it is about doing so much from scratch, with vinegar.  And you just might learn something!)

I've tried to write this review a few times and either decided against it until I'd tried a few more vinegary ideas or got distracted while following through on these tips. So here I am, finally sitting down with my computer, to share with you something that has kept me busy for the last few days.

I was sent the book “Green Grandma'sVinegar Fridays” by Hana Haatainen Caye to review for my blog. I am a fan of Green Grandma's green living/family care blog and was looking forward to reading all her vinegar tips in one compact book. The book itself is a very quick read. Hana condenses a lifetime's worth of tips into 72 pages. Each of the 19 chapters is just a few pages long, so it's quite easy to breeze through them. Hana's personality comes through as well, making me giggle at times. I've never met her in real life, but I feel like I know her from reading her blog, and her book feels just the same. She introduces us to her family in this book and tells how these tips have helped her whole family, right on down to her grand-kids. (Just an FYI: I just can't follow protocol and refer to the author by her last name in this review. It seems too impersonal for such a book.)

Now for the meat of the book... I started reading a little too late on a Thursday night, so I only made it to Chapter 8 before turning out my light. The next morning I had a house to clean with my company, The Cleaner Sweep. (For those that are not familiar with The Cleaner Sweep, we clean houses using natural, toxin-free cleaning products.) I found myself thinking about all the tips I had read the night before, chastising myself for not bringing a gallon of vinegar along with me. At one point, I couldn't control myself any longer and mentioned to the client (who obviously enjoys toxin-free cleaning) that she could clean her jacuzzi with vinegar. She smiled and said she was already doing that.

After finishing the book later that day, I found myself very satisfied with the wealth of information and personal experience available to me through this book. And it's not just the book, but the accessibility of the author. Hana really cares about her readers and can be found on Facebook each day, interacting with other green folks. She's created a very nice community that goes beyond her book.

But back to the book... I found tips in here for everything! I was so excited to go to my local grocery store and buy some Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV), raw and organic of course since all those good enzymes are still in there. It's supposed to be great for your body (weight/fat loss, colds, digestion, cramps, heartburn, hot flashes, insomnia, and the list goes on) when taken daily. I've already had an ACV tea party with my daughter and we're planning many more.

(Recipe alert:   Mix 1 tbsp honey with 2 tbsp ACV and 1 cup hot water.  Repeat in a separate mug if you are planning to share with a friend.  Enjoy your ACV tea party!)

There are so many tips in this book for cleaning your house.  You can clean virtually anything with Distilled White Vinegar (DWV)! The first tip I tried was to clean my shower-head with a rag soaked in vinegar. I left it on for a couple hours while I was busy in another part of the house and when I came back and gave a quick swipe all the gunk was gone. I'm guessing that was about 35 years of gunk since I've never been able to get it that clean before and that's how long this house has been accumulating gunk.

I've cleaned my coffee maker and dishwasher with vinegar, with great results. I deodorized and fabric-softened a load of sheets (that got anointed by my young son through the night) with vinegar. I've cleaned my drains with it and removed longstanding cat odours from carpet with it. I have yet to try the other cleaning tips but she suggests vinegar for windows, walls, fridges, stoves, microwaves, carpet stains and so on.

There was one thing that I tried that I'm just not sure about. There are quite a few “no'poo”ers out there who are shampoo-free and only using baking soda and vinegar to clean their hair. I tried it for one day and then gave up, so I'm not a very good person to give a review on this part of vinegar. But I'm planning to try again. I'll ease my way into it and research it a little more to find out what will work best for my hair type and water type before I try again.

There were a few things that I would have enjoyed seeing in the book. I would love to have a little more of the scientific, nitty-gritty details of why these suggestions work, perhaps studies and research to show that vinegar really does improve your health or to understand why it eliminates odours. In lieu of that though, I am glad to have someone else's trust-worthy testimony telling me that these ideas really do work. (And Green Grandma is quite trustworthy. Anyone who has spent time reading her blog and following her on Facebook knows that she'll tell you if something just isn't cutting it.)

I would also have loved to see an index in the book. This kind of book is great to have around since it has helpful hints for so many different things and an index would have made these tips all the more accessible. Perhaps Hana can include an index in a revised edition five years from now. (Inside joke. You had to read the book.) In the meantime, pick up a copy if you can. The price tag may seem a little steep for such a small (but mighty) book, but it's so worth it since you will save that much money in one month if you make just a few changes around your house using these vinegar tips.

You can purchase Green Grandma's Vinegar Fridays here.
You can visit Green Grandma at her blog or on her Facebook page (or both!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lemon Squares

This is one of my mom's more recent recipes.  I love tart, lemony flavours, so this one got added to my Christmas list pretty quickly.

The Cast
1 cup flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1 /2 unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

2 eggs. beaten
1 pkg Shirriff lemon pie filling
1/2 cup ground almonds

1/4 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix softened butter and sugar, then add flour until it all holds together.
 Plop blobs of dough into a parchment lined 8x8 pan until even dispersed. (My pics are of 9x13 pans, but rest assured that the recipe I have here works best for 8x8 pans.  When you have to make 210 Lemon Bars, you figure out how to make it in the biggest pan possible.)
With your finger tips, press the dough down until it is evenly covering the pan.
 Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes until just browning on the edges.  Allow it to cool for a few minutes, then spread jam evenly over the shortbread crust.

 Set pan aside.  Beat eggs (you'll need two...  You're working with an 8x8 pan, remember?) until they have some air incorporated into them.

 Mix in ground almonds and Shirriff lemon pie filling until combined.
 Pour over the shortbread and jam.
 Sprinkle with sliced almonds.  Bake again at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until set and firm to the touch.
Allow these to completely cool before cutting them.  Cut into 25 squares (or 16 if you're feeling indulgent) and enjoy!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chocolate Mint Brownies

I have something to confess:  The other night as I was making these...
... I had a little hissy fit and declared that I would never make them again.  (My hissy fit may have been fueled by my intolerance of whiny kids paired with my overabundance of whiney kids.)  And then I had a spoonful of chocolate mint goo.  And everything was better.  Rest assured, Dear Husband That Likes To Eat The Leftover Goo When I Cut These, I will make these again.

The players:

Brownie Layer
3/4 cup butter
6 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
3/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt

Mint Layer
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 powdered sugar
2 tbsp heavy cream
3/4 tsp mint extract
green food colouring

Chocolate Glaze
4.5 oz high quality semi-sweet chocolate
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 325 F.  Line a 9x13 pan with parchment paper.

Brownies:  Melt butter and unsweetened chocolate in a double boiler. (If you don't know what that is, just wait, you'll see a picture of it a little further down.)

 Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla.

 Add the eggs, one at a time.  Beat well with a wooden spoon after each addition.

 Stir in the flour and salt and beat until smooth, about one minute.  Pour into the parchment-lined 9x13 pan.  Bake for 25 minutes.
 Once the brownies come out, let them cool.  Take a bath, read a book, have a coffee.  Make some lasagna for dinner.  Once the brownies are room temperature, make the mint frosting as follows:
Beat all ingredients (butter, sugar, cream, mint, green colouring) until smooth. 
 If you think the frosting is too thick to spread, add a few drops of cream.  It should be spreadable, not pourable.
 Spread the mint frosting evenly over the brownie layer.  Allow to set.
 It may take half an hour or so for your mint layer to set.  You want it to have a little crust over it so the next layer doesn't mix with it.  You've got half an hour or so, so pick up the phone and call your best friend/mom/sister.  She'd love to hear from you.

Once it's got a nice crust over it, it's time to make the chocolate topping.  In a double boiler (here's the picture, just for you!) melt the semi-sweet chocolate* with the butter.  Spread over the mint layer.  Allow to cool fully before cutting.  The chocolate layer should start to dull somewhat.

 *I used Chipits chocolate chips, but have determined that they are too finicky.  I'll now only use Belgian semi-sweet chocolate for this stage.

 I cut my 9x13 pans into 40 pieces (8x5 pieces.)  I have to cut these like I cut cheesecake.  Cut once, scrape knife, cut again, scrape knife.  This is where the ooey-gooey bits come in.  My husband loves when I make these because he gets to eat all the castoff icing bits.

And voila!  Chocolate Mint Brownies! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Almond Toffee Bars

Several years ago I went to a local food festival and got a front row seat to see our local celebrity chef, Anna Olson.  She was showing us how to make sweets that are sold at her local shop.  The one that I tasted and (fell in love with) was an almond toffee bar.  I don't even know what she calls them.  I call them Divine, as this combination of flavours could only have come from God himself.  The recipe itself is so simple.  I cannot find the recipe anywhere online, so I've had to kind of make up my own based on what I remembered seeing her do.

Anna Olson's Almond Toffee Bar

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup graham crumbs
3 tbsp butter, melted

1 cup Skor or Heath bits
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup sliced almonds
1 tin  sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Line a 9x9 pan with parchment paper.  Mix oats, graham crumbs and butter and pat into bottom of the pan.  Layer the rest of the ingredients in the order they are given.  Bake for 25 minutes or until almonds have started turning light brown.  Allow to cool completely and then cut and serve.

Makes 25 squares (unless you like to indulge, in which case you can cut into 16 squares).

 (You may need to make a few recipes of this...  They are a crowd favourite, so they don't stick around too long.  Even folks that don't enjoy nuts like these.)

Monday, December 5, 2011


It's that time of year again!  Time to get out the mixer and warm it up for some heavy duty Christmas baking.  My friend and I put together trays of Christmas goodies each year and we make about 2000 goodies between the two of us.  That means I need to make about 200 treats a day from now until the 15th.  Eek!  It's a good thing I have a new KitchenAid Pro stand mixer (575 watts, 6 qt bowl!)  I took it for a spin tonight.

Even with all the giggling when I realized that the whirring sounded like the song from 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was able to get a batch of shortbread made.  I used my great-great aunt's recipe, which is so simple but so good!  My mom has made these for as long as I can remember.  I was always too intimidated to actually try making them in the presence of my mother as she was the master at making them.  The thing she drilled into me is that shortbread is all about the process.  The ingredients are simple:

1 lb butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 cups white flour

Set the butter out to soften in the morning.  Go to work or whatever it is you do all day.  Come home and make supper.  Clean the table and dishes.  Tuck your kids into bed.  Once your house is filled with the sound of snoring children you can make this recipe.  It has nothing to do with the snoring and everything to do with softening your butter naturally, at room temperature.  If you soften your butter in the microwave, you might as well leave it on the counter and go out for the evening.  Try again tomorrow.


When you're really ready, preheat the oven to 285 F.  
Put your naturally softened butter in your mixing bowl.  Add sugar ...

... and cream together. 

Measure out 4 cups of flour.  
 Add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time until combined.
  If you are doing this without the aid of a KitchenAid stand mixer, you'll need to mix the last cup or so by hand with a wooden spoon.  Flour the counter where you'll be working.  If the dough sticks to your fingers as you put it out onto the counter you're going to need to mix in more flour.

Pat the dough down by hand to about 1/2 inch thick...
Then, with a rolling pin, roll it a couple millimeters lower to smooth it out. 
 Cut out with whichever cookie cutter you'd like, about 1 1/2 inches wide.  Place cookies on a cookie sheet.  With a toothpick, poke some holes in the cookies to allow air to flow through. 
 Bake at 285 F for 20-30 minutes, depending on thickness and width.
These can be frozen, but do not store them with other goodies.  They will absorb moisture and flavours from the goodies, at which point they cease to be shortbread and are just plain old sugar cookies.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Vanilla is NOT plain

I've fallen in love again.

For my birthday a few months ago I hinted that my husband could get some vanilla beans if he was stuck for a gift idea.  He remembered and I unwrapped 10 beautiful vanilla beans on my birthday.  I've experimented and have decided that my favourite thing to make with vanilla beans is Very Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Buttercream.  The flavour in these cupcakes has caused me to staunchly proclaim that vanilla is its own very wonderful flavour.  It is not "plain" by any means!

I use a slightly altered version of Billy's Vanilla, Vanilla Cupcake recipe (I use regular flour with 3 Tbsp of cornstarch in place of 3Tbsp of flour) and the Wilton Buttercream Icing recipe.  Instead of one teaspoon of vanilla extract I use a nice, fat vanilla bean, scraped clean.  I think I actually made my husband do a double take the other day as I squealed with delight at the plump bean that I was scraping.  It was so full of vanilla-goodness!

And the way the cupcakes look with those little flecks of vanilla bean...  Simply stunning.

But the best part of it all is when I make them for my son's class (it was his birthday after all) and the kids come up and hug me to say thank you for the delicious cupcakes.  I do love when my baking can make people happy.  

And vanilla beans will always make people happy!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Homemade pasta, lasagna

My original culinary inspiration, my mother, lives eight hours away.  The next best thing is her sister, my aunt, who lives about 15 minutes away.  We each have busy lives and don't get together too often, but we manage once in a blue moon.  One of our visits resulted in some beautiful, homemade spaghetti.  That was several years ago.  I have since made pasta with a fellow blogging friend and received a second -hand pasta maker from my aunt.  I've tried a few different things while making pasta, from pierogies to roasted red pepper linguini to lasagna.  I have to admit that making lasagna is my favourite, simply because lasagna noodles are so expensive.  I do love saving money.

Fast forward to the other day, when I was making a special meal for a special family member.  The request was made for lasagna.  The plan was to make fresh pasta, fresh sauce and freshly ground beef.  I set to work making the dough ahead of time, giving it plenty of time to rest. 

I went to pick up a fresh, lean roast from the store.  The accident on the nearby highway had locked up the traffic on the city streets, wasting about an hour from my lasagna prep time.  I got back in time to roll out the noodles and grind the meat, but the sauce would have to come from a can.

I made the white sauce that I like to substitute for ricotta cheese and quickly assembled my lasagna.  35 glorious minutes later it came out looking mouth-wateringly divine.
I had some leftover noodles so I cut them into bite-sized pieces and made a lasagna casserole.  (It's in the oven as I type.  I can hardly wait to taste it!)

Our special guest deemed it the best lasagna he has ever eaten (he's eaten quite a bit of lasagna in his years.)   My husband, when prodded, said it wasn't as good as the lasagna we had in Italy two years ago, but it was pretty good.  I can't compete with a whole country!

Wanda's Homemade Lasagna

3 1/3 cups flour
5 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
Combine in food processor (or by hand)  Add flour if needed.  Help it come together with your hand if necessary.  Allow dough to rest, greased in olive oil and wrapped in plastic wrap, for at least 30 minutes.  Cut into about 10-12 pieces to roll through pasta machine.  Drop a few pieces at a time into boiling water.  Hang until ready to use if not using immediately.  (They will stick together if you don't.  Try tossing with oil as they come out to decrease their chance of sticking if you can't hang to dry.)

Tomato Sauce
Saute 1/2 an onion in olive oil
Add 28 oz diced tomatoes
Season as desired.  I put in about 1 tsp oregano and basil, and salt and pepper to taste.  Add 2 cloves of garlic after sauce has cooked down somewhat.

Lasagna Alfredo Sauce
1/4 cup butter
3 tbsp flour
Make a roux with butter and flour.  Add enough milk to have a thick, spreadable sauce, maybe 1 cup.  Add 1/3 cup parmesan cheese and stir over low heat until cheese is incorporated.

Fry some ground beef with a generous sprinkle of oregano and basil.  Grate about 1 1/2 cups of mozzarella cheese.  Put some tomato sauce on bottom of 9x13 pan.  Put a layer of noodles until bottom is covered.  Spread 1/3 of remaining sauce.  Top with 1/2 of the beef and 1/2 cup cheese.  Put a layer of noodles and spread all of the alfredo sauce over it.  Top with noodles again.  Spread 1/2 of remaining tomato sauce and sprinkle the remaining beef over it.  Top with 1/2 cup of cheese and the final layer of noodles.  Spread the remaining sauce and then cheese over the noodles.  Bake uncovered at 350 F for 30-40 minutes.  Allow to rest at least 10 minutes before cutting so the layers can settle into each other.

Lasagna Casserole

Toss the remaining noodles (cut to bite-sized) with 1 recipe of tomato sauce, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, 1 lb ground beef (seasoned).  Pour into a large baking dish.  Top with lasagna alfredo sauce and 1/2 cup cheese.  Bake at 350 F for 30-40 minutes.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Born to Hand Chive

In light of an impending frost, we decided to get the last of the produce out of the garden.  It's a rather small garden so all we really had left was a handful of green onions.  Our garden is relatively new and malnourished, so our onions were rather sad and skinny.  They tasted great though (much more flavourful than the chives by our door step), so I was happy to have them volunteering for service in my kitchen.  After making a couple stir-fries with the green onions, I looked at the bowl of the remaining onions and tried to figure out how to make them useful.  I decided that they needed a longer tenure in my home, so I decided to try drying them.

I turned my oven to 200 F, put the onions on a baking sheet and placed them in the oven.  About 20 minutes later my house smelled amazing.  I thought someone down the street was making French Onion soup (until I remembered that it was my own oven giving off that glorious smell.)  After 30 minutes, the onions were dried and ready for whatever duty I placed on them. 

I haven't made anything with them yet, but I can hardly wait.  I'm thinking a nice soup or some baked potatoes would be the perfect dish for these onions.

Did you dry any herbs or veggies this fall?  How did it go?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Gluten-Free, we stand on guard for thee

My husband's parents recently became Canadian citizens.  To celebrate, I made a cake!  But this couldn't be just any cake.  My mother-in-law 's diet is wheat-free and dairy-free.  So this cake needed to be safe for her but enjoyable for all.  (Wheat free can be quite grainy or just fall apart easily.)

I decided on this carrot cake.  I find that the carrots hold the cake together quite well.  My original recipe called for oil, but I decided to do a combination of oil and apple butter.  (I've got it, why not use it?)  The result?  A pleasingly moist cake that didn't fall apart.  Everyone enjoyed it.

Gluten-Free Carrot Cake


• 2 cups sugar
• 4 eggs
• 3/4 cup light olive oil 
• 3/4 cup apple butter
• 2 tsp vanilla extract
• 1 cup rice flour
• 1/3 cup tapioca flour
• 2/3 cup potato starch 
• 2 tsp xanthan gum
• 2 tsp baking soda
• 2 tsp baking powder
• 2 tsp cinnamon
• 3/4 tsp salt
• 3 cups freshly grated carrots

Preheat oven to 350° F / 176° C

Use two round 9-inch cake pans, one 9x13 pan. If using round cake pans, lightly grease and place a circle of parchment in the bottom of the pan for easy removal.

1. Cream sugar and eggs in a large mixing bowl with an electric beater or stand mixer. Add oil, apple butter and vanilla and beat just until smooth.

2. In a separate bowl combine gluten-free flour mix, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and beat until blended.

3. Stir in grated carrots. Pour the batter into prepared pans.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 40-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. 

5. When cake is cooled, frost with desired frosting.  (I used the basic Wilton Buttercream recipe with water.)