Gingerbread Snowflakes

I have been so busy enjoying the holiday season that I haven’t even had time to post about it, so I’ll try to catch up now. My family’s annual sister baking day was another success (with the exception that we were one sister short). A week before Christmas, my oldest sister and I got together to whip up some festive treats. We’ve attempted some challenging (and time consuming) baking projects in the past, so this year we decided to keep it simple and traditional. Gingerbread was the obvious choice, and since we had to brave a snowstorm in order to make this happen, it was only appropriate that we make gingerbread snowflake cookies!

The dough came together really quickly and then had to be chilled for about an hour, so it was the perfect amount of downtime to throw on a little holiday music and grab a warm drink. Before long we had a heavenly, sweet aroma floating through the kitchen and there was still lots of time for the best part – decorating!

Gingerbread snowflakes - delicious and so much fun to make!

Gingerbread snowflakes – delicious and so much fun to make!

Gingerbread Cookies (adapted from Canadian Living)

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ⅓ cup fancy molasses
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • Pinch salt

In large bowl, beat butter with sugar until fluffy; beat in egg and molasses. In separate bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt; stir into butter mixture until combined to form a thick dough.

Divide the dough into two flattened discs, cover with plastic wrap, and chill about 1 hour.

On a well-floured work surface, roll out dough to ¼ inch thick and cut with cookie cutter. Bake at 350° for 8-10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are just beginning to firm. Be careful not to overbake as these cookies harden as they cool. Once cookies are cool, decorate as desired.

Royal Icing (adapted from Martha Stewart)

Ingredients

  • 2 large egg whites
  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Food colouring (optional)

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add sugar and lemon juice; beat for 1 minute more until thick icing is formed. Tint with food colouring if using and decorate cookies as desired. We piped the icing onto the cookie and then immediately dipped the cookie in coarse sugar. Allow icing to dry completely before transferring cookies to airtight container.

These cookies are chewy and delicately spiced - so perfect for the Christmas season

These cookies are chewy and delicately spiced – so perfect for the Christmas season

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Warm Up to Winter: 10 essentials to keep the chill out

Daylight breaking on the first snowfall of the season

Daylight breaking on the first snowfall of the season

Yesterday morning I woke up to our first snowfall of the season  – just a dusting, but it’s undeniable that winter is on its way. I have a strong love-hate relationship with winter. There are so many things I look forward to at the start of each winter season – cozy knits, skating, log fires, the way the snow sparkles under the streetlights…the list goes on. By the middle of February, though, those warm fuzzy feelings have usually been replaced by sheer desperation for the sub-zero temperatures to come to an end. Luckily, as a Canadian, I’ve had my fair share of practice with snow and ice and I’m learning to make the most of the season. The right gear is all it takes to make the cold months not only bearable, but enjoyable. This is in no way an earth-shattering list – just eight basic essentials for embracing the winter season and bringing a little cheer to those blustery days and long, cold nights.

Cozy slippers

Sometimes it really is the simple things in life that make us happy. Like warm feet. Slippers for me are an absolute must, and there are so many styles out there to choose from that keeping your tootsies warm has never been easier. No grandpa slippers for me! These cable knit ones are especially cute.

Cozy Knit slippers. UGG. $155

Cozy Knit slippers. UGG. $155

A Dutch oven

Falling temperatures call for warm, hearty meals. I think a Dutch oven is a great addition to any kitchen arsenal and winter is the perfect time to invest in one. I don’t actually have one, but this Cuisinart enameled cast iron dish is on my wish list. Just think of all the delicious braises and stews I’d be able to whip up! I’ve even seen recipes for baking bread in them.

Cuisinart Round Covered Casserole Dish. Available at Canadian Tire. $59.99

Cuisinart Round Covered Casserole Dish. Available at Canadian Tire. $59.99

A huge knit cowl neck scarf

Everyone who knows me knows I love scarves. I can usually find a way to incorporate them into my wardrobe from about September to May. Come winter though, I ditch my lightweight printed scarves for an oversized infinity scarf. The bigger the better, I say. They’re super warm, chic, and you never have to worry about the ends dragging in the slush.

Wilfred Brume scarf. Aritzia. $85

Wilfred Brume scarf. Aritzia. $85

 Hot cocoa

Who doesn’t have memories of spending hours playing outside in the snow and coming in, with numb cheeks and a runny nose, to a steaming cup of hot cocoa? Hot chocolate just isn’t the same during any other season, so drink it up while you can! I’m sure there are plenty of high-quality, gourmet options out there but I’ll stick with the tried and true Carnation brand. Tastes like home.

Nestle Carnation Hot Chocolate.

Nestle Carnation Hot Chocolate.

Even better, spiked hot cocoa.

A huge mug to warm your hands

If you’re going to be having all of that hot cocoa (or coffee, tea, cider, hot toddies, whatever), you better have a big festive mug to drink it from. It just tastes better that way. I love the nordic look of this one. Don’t forget to leave room for marshmallows.

Red Sweater Latte Mug. David's Tea. $14.50

Red Sweater Latte Mug. David’s Tea. $14.50

 An entire library at your fingertips

Winter is a great opportunity to catch up on some reading, especially during the downtime after the holidays. I’ll admit it took me awhile to jump on the e-reader bandwagon. I really love the feel of a book in hand and turning actual pages. Plus, between work, smartphones, and watching TV,  I feel like I spend more than enough time each day staring at a screen. But I’ve had an e-reader for a couple years now and I really love it. There are so many benefits: (1) it’s small enough to throw in my purse and carry everywhere I go; (2) it can store hundreds of books without taking up any shelf space – this is key since I live in a small house with limited storage space; and (3) it connects to the internet so I can buy/borrow books instantly, 24/7, without even stepping outside. Bonus: I never lose my page anymore.

Kobo Glo. Available at Indigo. $129.99

Kobo Glo. Available at Indigo. $129.99

A wool blanket

Happiness is a warm blanket, Charlie Brown. Nothing beats snuggling up on the couch under a lovely wool throw. I just love this 100% alpaca throw from Crate & Barrel. It’s a bit pricey, but it looks like it would last for years and the colour is beautiful.  

Alpaca Plaid Throw. Crate and Barrel $224

Alpaca Plaid Throw. Crate and Barrel $224

Winter getaways

I’m not talking about hopping on a plane and heading for a tropical beach. If you live in the Great White North you can’t avoid winter, so get out there and enjoy it while it’s here! Snow and ice can actually be a lot of fun – skating, sledding, skiing, snowshoeing (okay, I’ve never tried snowshoeing but it sounds like a charming way to spend an afternoon). You’d be amazed at how much you can enjoy winter when you’re actually out there living it rather than dashing between buildings trying to escape it. So why not book a long weekend away from the city to take in some winter wonderland? Even if you don’t ski (which I don’t), I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy the apres-ski socializing. There are tons of great winter festivals in Canada, like Carnaval in Quebec City, Winterlude in Ottawa, and the Niagara Icewine Festival. Why not give one a try this year? 

See? Doesn't that look magical?  Quartier Petit Champlain, Quebec City. Photo from the official Quebec City Tourism website.

See? Doesn’t that look magical?
Quartier Petit Champlain, Quebec City. Photo from the official Quebec City Tourism website.

Pretty please with a cherry on top? Black Forest Cake (or Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte)

Nothing says Happy Birthday like a cake made with love

Nothing says Happy Birthday like a cake made with love

I don’t even have to ask what kind of cake my husband wants for his birthday. The answer is always Black Forest cake. And who can blame him? Layers of chocolate cake, black cherries, and swirls of pillowy whipped cream? Yes, please! In the past I’ve opted for the store-bought variety but this year, with a little extra time on my hands and more baking experience under my belt, I decided to make my own. There are literally hundreds of recipes out there, but most seem to fall under two main camps: the traditional German style or a sweeter North American variation. Since my husband grew up in Central Europe, I knew he would appreciate the traditional variety so I set out to find a recipe that would result in a rich, but not overly sweet, dessert. Unfortunately, a lot of the traditional Black Forest cake recipes seem to require the same amount of time and energy as a multi-day Olympic event. I wasn’t ready for that kind of effort, but I still wanted to come as close as possible to the real deal. I used a basic chocolate cake recipe but followed two main rules that were common among all the recipes claiming to be for ‘authentic’ German Black Forest cake (or Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte): (1) Do NOT use cherry pie filling; and (2) It MUST contain Kirsch.

I sampled the Kirsch before I started baking and I have to be honest – it was awful. I gagged. I was actually scared I would ruin the cherries by soaking them in it. But since it’s not a Black Forest cake without it, I took a leap of faith and just went for it. Miraculously, some kind of liquor-cherry magic happened! The result was amazing. It gave the cherries a great flavour that was able to stand up well to the chocolate cake and the whipped cream made a perfect, light frosting. I decorated the cake with a sprinkle of dark chocolate shavings and a few more cherries on top.

Is this a true Black Forest cake that will please even the most discerning German grandmothers? Probably not. But it’s an easy and delicious take on the classic chocolate-cherry dessert. I’ll definitely be making this one again.

Ingredients

Chocolate Cake

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup cocoa powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs (at room temperature)
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup boiling water

Cherry Filling

  • 1½ cups canned sour cherries, drained (reserve ¼ cup cherry juice)
  • ¼ cup Kirsch

*If you can’t find Kirsch, or would rather not use alcohol, you can substitute additional cherry juice in its place.

Whipped Cream

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ cup icing sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Here's everything you'll need

Here’s everything you’ll need

Preheat the oven to 350°F and position the oven racks in the lower and upper thirds. Lightly grease two 9-inch round baking pans and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper.

Whisk together the sugars, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla. Beat on medium speed of a mixer for 2 minutes. Add the boiling water and stir until the mixture is smooth. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and smooth the tops. Lightly tap the sides of each pan to remove any air bubbles.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Cool for at least 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, combine the cherries with the Kirsch and the reserved cherry juice. Save a few cherries for decorating.

To make the whipped cream, place the cream, icing sugar, and vanilla in a chilled bowl. Whip on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Refrigerate the whipped cream until needed.

To assemble the Black Forest cake, level the cakes and turn one over onto a serving plate. Remove the parchment paper. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cherries from the Kirsch mixture and place on the cake layer. Top with about ¾ cup whipped cream and spread over the cherries. Turn the second cake over onto the cream and cherries, cut side down. Peel off the parchment paper. Use the remaining whipped cream to frost the top and sides of the cake, reserving ½ cup for decorating. Garnish with chocolate shavings, piped whipped cream, and the remaining cherries. Serve immediately or refrigerate until needed.

Cherries soaking in Kirsch and cherry juice

Cherries soaking in Kirsch and cherry juice

Spread the cherries (and cream) between the cake layers

Spread the cherries (and cream) between the cake layers

Frost the entire cake with whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings

Frost the entire cake with whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings. Garnish with a few swirls of whipped cream and top each with a cherry.

Stress-Free Holiday Hosting

Hosting a holiday meal can be stressful, especially if it’s your first time. A couple weeks ago, my husband and I hosted our first ever holiday together – a Thanksgiving dinner for my family  – and I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the way it all turned out.  We stuck to a simple roast turkey and a few basic sides – stuffing, roast vegetables, and a red cabbage salad. This number of dishes was easily manageable even for a couple of rookies. I’m pleased to report that everything turned out great! I don’t have a lot of experience cooking for a crowd  and apparently I’m not a very good judge of portions so there was more than enough food to go around and lots of leftovers (not that I’m complaining – the leftovers made an amazing turkey pot pie later in the week). The decor was simple but really made an impact – a tumble of mini pumpkins and gourds along the table with a few ivory pillar candles. This wasn’t the original plan for all these gourds but I’ll save that for a later post.

A runner of candles, mini pumpkins and gourds along the table

A runner of candles, mini pumpkins and gourds along the table

Row of three sweet little vases

Row of three sweet little vases

So despite a little initial trepidation, it turns out that hosting a holiday meal is no sweat! All it takes is a little planning and organization. Here are a few tips I learned in the process for hosting a memorable, stress-free holiday party:

1.  Don’t be a hero

I think that a simple dish that is well executed and beautifully presented is a much better bet than a challenging, impressive recipe with a high chance of failure. Now is not the time to be experimenting – choose trusted recipes that you’re confident with. This can be difficult if it’s your first time hosting a holiday meal, since there may be family favourites on the menu that you’ve never made before. If you decide to try something new, do a test run before the big day so you can make adjustments to the recipe if need be. This will also help you save time on the day of your party – I always find a recipe is faster to make the second time around. And if someone offers to bring something, let them! It’s one less thing that you’ll have to worry about, and guests love to contribute.

 2.  Get organized

I love any excuse to make a list, so this step is quite possibly my favourite. A few weeks ahead of your event, write out the entire planned menu. And I mean ENTIRE menu, from the main course down to the pickles. Don’t forget to include drinks, appetizers, desserts, and side dishes. Working from your menu, make a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need. Also jot down any special kitchen equipment or serving ware you’ll need, so you can be sure to purchase or borrow anything you don’t already have. You don’t want to have to make a last-minute trip to the store on the day of your party when you realize you don’t have a turkey baster (trust me).

3.  Stick to schedule

Choose recipes that can be prepped well in advance and that don’t require a lot of last minute fussing in the kitchen. Study the timing of each recipe – think about what oven and fridge space you’re going to need and plan accordingly. If your fridge looks anything like mine, I recommend cleaning it out a few days before your party to make room for all your groceries and prepped ingredients. Prepare as much as possible ahead of time. A lot of desserts like cakes and pies can be made 1-2 days in advance. Veggies can be washed and chopped the night before and stored in resealable plastic bags in the fridge. On the day of the party, start cooking an hour earlier than you think you need to – this will help you stick to schedule even with unexpected delays or emergencies.

 4.  Set the mood

I think the atmosphere of a party is just as important as the food that’s served. I tend to go the natural route in terms of party décor – flowers, pinecones, seashells, whatever – but this is really a matter of personal taste. Get creative and use things that you already have around your home. It doesn’t have to be expensive! I also love candles – they make even pizza night feel like a special occasion. Just make sure to use unscented candles anywhere near the food.

 5.  Relax and enjoy yourself!

The holidays are about enjoying time with friends and family and creating memories. By the time your guests arrive, most of the hard work should be behind you so pour yourself a drink and join in the festivities. Not everything has to be perfect. Chances are your guests won’t notice if something doesn’t turn out as planned, and even if they do, friends and family are pretty forgiving in my experience.

A charming hostess gift. Love this little guy.

A charming hostess gift. Love this little guy.

 

Life’s Better at the Cottage

We all need time away from the hectic pace of our busy lives to feel refreshed and recharged. While I love to travel, big vacations require a lot of planning and usually come with a hefty price tag. And if you’re anything like me, you try to cram so much sightseeing into such a short amount of time that your whirlwind trip can leave you feeling in need of another vacation. Sometimes a quick, local getaway is the best and easiest way to unwind.

Last week, I spent four days at a rented cottage in the beautiful Muskoka region of Ontario. I’ve visited this region countless times, but generally during the summer. Visiting in late September was a completely different experience. It was so quiet and peaceful, without the throngs of tourists typical of July and August. Every morning, we woke to the sight of mist rising off the lake. We spent our days canoeing and hiking. Evenings were passed curled up around the fire (and playing Trivial Pursuit, which we found in some old dusty cabinet. Turns out I’m terrible at Trivial Pursuit).

Looking out over the end of the dock on a misty morning

Looking out over the end of the dock on a misty morning

We arrived in Muskoka just a few days shy of the peak autumn colour change in the trees. The leaves were absolutely spectacular; blazing shades of yellow, red, and orange. With easy access to two provincial parks, there were tons of opportunities for reconnecting with the outdoors and taking in all the glorious beauty that fall has to offer.

Beautiful fall colours!

Beautiful fall colours!

Algonquin Provincial Park

Fall colour change along Highway 60, Algonquin Provincial Park. Complete with iconic  image of a truck carrying a canoe and pulling a camper

Fall colour change along Highway 60, Algonquin Provincial Park. Complete with iconic image of a truck carrying a canoe and pulling a camper

I spent many childhood summers camping at Algonquin, and it’s a place I will never tire of. There are several excellent hiking trails ranging from easy (as in, a boardwalk) to difficult (steep climbs, rugged, lots of wheezing) and a vast network of lakes and rivers to be explored by canoe. Just driving through the park along Highway 60 provides beautiful vistas of shining lakes and forested hills, and lots of chances to spot wildlife. If you’re lucky. We weren’t. The biggest thing we saw was a squirrel. For a short hike that offers a great autumn view, I recommend the Hardwood Lookout trail. Minimum effort, maximum payoff.

View from the Hardwood Lookout hiking trail, Algonquin Provincial Park

View from the Hardwood Lookout hiking trail, Algonquin Provincial Park

Oxtongue River – Ragged Falls Provincial Park

Ragged Falls

Ragged Falls

Until last week, I’d never been to the Oxtongue River – Ragged Falls park, which is located just outside of the west end of Algonquin. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is – the falls have actually been named one of the top 10 waterfalls in Ontario. I got to see the falls twice last week. The first time was by canoe, when we paddled up the Oxtongue River from the cottage to the base of the waterfall. We spent about half an hour clambering on the rocks at the bottom before deciding it was impossible to reach the top that way. Later that afternoon, we returned to the park by car. A short, easy trail leads to amazing views of the thundering waterfall below. It’s no Niagara Falls, but it’s still pretty awesome when you stop and think about the sheer amount of water gushing over that cliff. In the words of my dad, “24/7. 365.”

For me, the best part of the entire trip was just the limitless amount of time. When you’re living the cottage life, the days seem to pass more slowly. There’s time to read. Time to think. Time to gaze at the stars. Time to just be.

For more information about the parks we visited, check out the Ontario Parks website at www.ontarioparks.com.

Late afternoon sunlight through the trees Ragged Falls Provincial Park

Late afternoon sunlight through the trees
Ragged Falls Provincial Park