Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chocolate Raspberry Petits Fours

A few weeks ago, I became completely enamoured with the idea of making my own petits fours after I came across this post by the creative Vegan YumYum. I love these miniature, bite-sized sweets...can we say tea party time?

This photo, and the next, courtesy of Zarafa

I didn't want to mess around with these dainty little things, until I felt up for the challenge. The delicate layering, cutting and dipping looked truly intimidating. Plus, I wasn't sure what I'd do with thirty odd petits fours besides eat them myself, or pack them for D's lunch, so I thought it best to wait for an occasion.

It appears these were eaten al fresco

I needed some practice with dipping too, and since there weren't any petits fours to dip at work, I practiced on buckeyes - dozens upon dozens of them because that's all people seemed to want to buy this week. Suffice it to say, I make really, really excellent buckeyes now (I would go so far as stating that I could be the next buckeye dipping champion). I considered myself ready for the challenge, and this week there happened to be an occasion, and I decided that Ken (and Z) could benefit from a box of sweets.

They turned out well in the end, although they were the source of an afternoon's frustration dotted with lots of profanity and several text messages to D ("I suck at this!" "I hate this glaze!" "Why didn't I just bake a cake??"). This was definitely a humbling exercise which made me appreciate the fine art of dipping. I'm just glad I had enough pieces to choose from to make up a presentable box (and no, I'm not showing you the fugly evidence) for Mr. Ken, who is moving to Texas this week.

OK, I know you're all dying to run off and make your own now. Here's a quick How-to, and please also check out the links I refer to.

How to Make Your Own Petits Fours:

1. First, do a little reading: I highly recommend VeganYumYum's blog post as well as this Baking911 page. Decide what flavour you'd like to make, and choose an appropriate pound, sponge or genoise cake recipe. These cakes all have a fine, dense crumb that will make for easier cutting. Bake either in a jelly roll pan that won't warp, or split the batter up among some square pans to bake thinnish layers. I used the chocolate cake recipe from the Confetti Cakes book and divided the batter in two 8" square pans lined with parchment.

2. Choose (and make, if necessary) your filling. It can be buttercream, ganache, jam, whatever. I decided on chocolate buttercream so it would be more visible between the layers.

3. Cool the cakes (I find it easier to cut when it's been refridgerated a couple hours) and then carefully slice into 1/4" thick layers. I'm not kidding you, this part is kind of hard. If you have a cake leveler, now's a good time to use it. Alternatively, you can just use a large serrated knife and run it along the outside of the cake to mark the cutting line, and then continue sawing around until you reach the middle. Carefully lift the layers with a spatula and your hands, or a piece of cardboard, and rest it on a cutting board. I got four layers out of mine.

4. Fill the cake carefully, layering cake, filling, cake, filling, until your overall cake is just under 1.5" high. You can brush it with a glaze, or syrup, or add a thin layer of rolled marzipan at this point (I used some raspberry syrup with marsala since I like a boozy cake). Now, chill the cake for an hour so it will be easier to cut. You're more than half way there!

5. While your cake is chilling, prepare the icing. This can either be a glace icing, poured fondant (I think those two are different), a very liquid chocolate ganache, or just plain melted chocolate, which I wish I'd decided to use, since I am very proficient with that from the buckeyes. Anyhow, I decided to use the chocolate glaze recipe from Baking911, with added corn syrup for shine.

6. Cut the cakes into little 1.5" cubes like so. Eat the scraps. I told you this was an enjoyable process. Time to get out a grill rack, a dipping fork, and a spoon or little spatula.

7. This is when the cursing potentially begins, if you have high expectations like me and don't like messing up. I don't have any photos of the dipping process, because I was too covered in chocolate to get the camera, but here is a helpful step-by-step tutorial from the Callebaut Chocolate people that shows how to dip things in chocolate (you may need to register, but it's free so don't worry). The Callebaut people tell you to plunge it straight down and lift. Now, my ganache with the corn syrup was super viscose, and I soon found out the plunge method wasn't going to work, so I ended up just using a spatula to scoop up the ganache and let it dribble it over top, then shake off the extra. I kind of wish I'd made my glaze more liquid, but whatever. As Vegan YumYum suggests, dip the ugly ones first, because you're going to get better by the end and you'll have saved the prettiest cubes for last. Carefully transfer your dipped cubes to the drip rack and leave it alone to set. Try not to touch them to test if they're set. It's kind of like waiting for nail polish to dry...don't get marks on them!

8. Now it's time for a little more decorating! In other words, covering up the ugly bits. My ganache was beautifully shiny, but not without airbubbles. If anyone has any suggestions for removing air bubbles, I would be very grateful for your advice. To cover up some of the uneven surfaces, I melted some white chocolate in a ziploc back, cut a tiny hole and drizzled the petits fours and topped them with a raspberry for cuteness. You can dress yours up any way you want! The more pro you get at this, the less deco-concealing you'll have to do.

And ta-da! You're all done. Now sit back and enjoy your handiwork.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Cake with Blue Dots, and more!

In today's second blog installment, I've got more cakes to show you, starting with the one I made for my volunteer job this week. This one was number 4 in a series of fondant exercises, and the practice is going well. The cake is actually baked from scratch this time (I usually use cake mix, which is the norm for these volunteer cakes), which took longer than I expected, and as a result I was a little short on decorating time. That's what I get for not baking the cake ahead of schedule! So, I didn't mix any new colours and just used what I already had - like this bright blue I made for the fish cake. I cut out all the dots using different sized piping tips and pasted them on with a dab of water, arranging them from the bottom up. It's not my favourite decorating job, but it's not that bad either. I think it's the colour I dont' like. Anyhow, I used chocolate chips for the writing, which I melted in a ziploc bag and stuck a plain tip in. This seems to be my prettiest writing job yet, if I say so myself.

This week I received a few pictures of the cakes I've been helping with! Remember how I made two cake layers way taller than normal? Well, here they are, the top and middle tier. I don't think people would have really gave it much thought. See how smooth the icing is?? That's what a month of practice will do! Imagine if this was my full time job!

Here's the bridal shower cake from last weekend. It was meant to match the invitations, which were aqua and chocolate brown. I never saw the finished cake, so it was fun to get the picture in my email this week. Like the dress? Like the daisies? Guess who made those? ME!! (and in my opinion, they're the best part of this cake)

Alright, enough gloating. Must stay modest. Stay tuned for more!


After many weeks of procrastinating, I finally practiced making rivets (there they are, on the bottom two corners). Now I can join things together!

A cute, fat red bird to brighten your day

The birdie is a nice shade of bright red formica, which is really easy to cut and can be sanded easily. I have yet to decide what to do with this little guy. Lots of little keychains and tags are piling up in my bin, with various cut-outs and things in them. Soon, though, I think I will start a ring project - another student in my class is making the prettiest ring and I want to make one too! She also had a beautifully shiny copper bracelet, which is baffling because I could never get my copper so shiny. I'll have to ask her about it...

This weekend is Rib and Jazz fest down on the waterfront, featuring something like two dozen award-winning rib teams. One of them from our home town of Toronto! I think I know what dinner's gonna be for the next couple of days :)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Raiding of the Remnants Bin

Uh oh. I rediscovered the remnants bin at the craft store! I justified buying a bagful of ends with the fact that they will be turned into something fun and useful, so I'm in the middle of trying to figure out what to make with my newly acquired materials. I promise not to stash it into my ever-growing pile of fabric. :)

Other than cakes, there hasn't been too much happening on the craft front that I can blog about yet. I've been making stuff in jewelry class, and knitting a thing or two. Oh! I forgot to mention that I received my lovely Pay It Forward gift from Z.Knits, which you should have a look is ultra fun and cute, and I love using it. Hmm. I'd better get on with my PIF gifts too. I think I've already missed the 6 month deadline.

But it's hard to do stuff when it's so darn hot out. Is it just me or does it feel like the temperature has been 95F plus forever?? It makes me want to do nothing except hide in the air conditioning. Or a cold pool. This past weekend was a hot and sluggish, and my main goal was to stay as cool as possible. We had some friends over for supper on Friday night, and Saturday morning I went to decorate wedding cakes again, although none were fully completed while I was there, so I don't have the end results to show you. Too bad, because I made the cutest little fondant cut-out dress for a bridal shower cake! I've been promised I will receive some pics of once they were all done, so I'll post that whenever it happens. Saturday afternoon we went for a nice swim followed by a late showing of Batman: the Dark Knight (really good), and on Sunday I worked all day at the bakery. In the evening, D made the most spectacular exploding mess when he accidentally dropped a large bowl full of saag paneer, which sprayed 3 metres in all directions, including on the ceiling. Needless to say, our home will be smelling like delicious curry for the next week, or two.

And there you have it, my weekend update. Hope you had a nice weekend too! Happy crafting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yellow Stripes!

My best effort so far, what do you think?

Hooray, I had absolutely no problems with the fondant today! It totally behaved itself, and I think I owe it to those pointers I got from Baking911. I made sure the cake was completely even and didn't put too much buttercream on the outside (actually, it was more of just a crumb coat). Perhaps it was the fondant smoothing tool I dug out of my cake decorating box? It seemed to ease the fondant into place quite well. The whole thing was over in less than 2 minutes, no cracks, no pleats, no tears, just a shiny... smooth... flawless... marshmallow-looking surface! Happy sigh of relief. Notice how I avoided garish colours today? Yes, I tried. It's more of a garden party kind of cake, I think. Maybe for a tea party of some sort. Speaking of tea parties, I've been curious about making petit fours after seeing them here. Don't they look super cute and delicious?

Getting back to the topic at hand, here's how I did it, if you want to try this at home: once the cake is covered in fondant, place a smaller circle on top and using a toothpick, lightly mark its edge to create a guide for your stripes:

Then, mix your colour choice in fondant for stripes (about a baseball-sized lump for this 8" cake). Measure from the guide edge to the base of the cake (mine was 4.5"). Cut out your 1" wide strips with a ruler (I used this quilting ruler thing - don't forget to wash it first) and pizza cutter:

Now, at one edge of each strip, cut a round concave edge using the circle you traced and a sharp knife.

Wet the back of the fondant strip with a little bit of water. Don't get it too drippy, or it'll go sliding everywhere and the colours will bleed. With curved edge facing up, paste the strip from bottom working up. Use a right angled object to make sure the stripe is completely straight (I suppose you can skip this, but don't blame me if your stripes don't line up when you get around the whole cake):

Work your way around, leaving 1" spaces between stripes, until the cake is 3/4 covered. Measure again and make sure you have enough space and enough strips to cover this last quarter properly - I had to cheat and cut the last strip about 1.2" and spaced it 1.3". You could probably measure more precisely, but I just eyeballed it (I'm a lazy perfectionist).

That's pretty much it! I piped the bottom edge and inner circle edge with buttercream, and glued on the fondant daisies I made in my last post. Really I should have used gumpaste, but I was too lazy (there's that word again) to make new flowers. According to several book and internet sources, a fondant cake can be stored in a covered box in the coolest spot in your house, and it should keep about 2 days with non-perishable fillings (please correct me if I'm wrong, because I don't want to get blamed for anyone eating mouldy cake). If you're traveling with it, well, good luck.

I drove this thing to the hospice center in the late afternoon, in the 95 degree heat, with the air conditioning on full blast. Hopefully the birthday girl enjoys it! Incidentally, I ran into the volunteer coordinator, who asked me if I wanted to help teach the next volunteer cake decorating class, so of course I said yes, I would love to!

There's another birthday cake I'm scheduled for next week, so expect to see more fondant. Hopefully I'll also have some knitting to blog about soon too!


It finally happened! Grr.

Today I received my first bit of blog spam, left in the comments section of my Travel Tips post. It was a perfectly nice comment, but still, it linked to travel discount website, and I really don't want stuff like that happening on my little craft blog.

So, I turned on the comment moderation functions and I'm also no longer allowing anonymous posts. Sorry! I love receiving your comments, so please, don't let this stop you from writing to me! Or if you haven't ever left me a note, this is encouragement to start :)

I've got a pretty cake waiting to be blogged about next, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More Fondant Practice: Blue Fish Cake

Delicious little cupcake for my afternoon snack

Before I show you my tacky fish cake, here's the fondant chrysanthemum in action on top of this vanilla chocolate cupcake. I put this under a cake dome and sure enough, the humidity caused the fondant to soften. I've seen it with my own eyes! Fondant doesn't harden permanently! Hence bad for decorations that need to hold their shape well.

Ooh. This is probably the tackiest looking cake I have decorated to date, and I didn't even do it on purpose to embarrass D at his lab party... it just didn't come out quite right...looked much better in my head. Actually, I was going to make stripes...did I mention it was a delicious cake inside?

Once it was deemed officially tacky, I practice my piping skills on it

Aside from colour choice being a little revolting, I once again had some major problems with fondant. Even though it was from a fresh package, the fondant seemed a little stiff after I added all the colouring, but I carried on, since it was still soft-ish. Some tiny cracks at the edges when I rolled it out to 1/4" thick. But, I draped it on, and...cracking!! At the top edges!! Ugh. Plus, the buttercream was squishing around like mad and I regretted having removed the cake from the fridge for so long before covering it with fondant. The result you see is my effort to patch the big holes with vibrant green fish and polka dots.

So, I then did what I usually do these days: whenever I have any question about something, I immediately go online to see what Google comes up with about the subject. And not surprisingly, I found lots of good info on the search term "my fondant is cracking". In hindsight, I should have done a little research before making the second cake. One particularly good website (though a little visually scattered) was Baking911, which I used before when reading up on cookie-making, which offered lots of suggestions for how to work with fondant. Cracking, I learned, results from several possibilities:

  • Fondant is rolled too thickly, so when you drape it on the weight of the excess is too heavy and begins to crack at the cake edge.
  • Fondant is too dry (in which case knead some shortening)
  • Fondant isn't kneaded well enough (it needs to be very malleable - when you pinch a ball of it between your fingers, it should squish easily without cracks)
There are probably a lot more reasons too, but this was a good starting point for someone like me. And I don't know why I didn't think of it, but the site suggested practicing on the backs of cake pans instead of baking endless cakes to cover with fondant:

Even a measuring cup can have a smooth, elegant fondant covering

Yes, yes, we all know: practice makes perfect - I did it another three times and got the cracking under control! Yippee!

The news of this week: I'm going back to work. No longer a woman of complete leisure. After an extended post-vacation holiday, the bakery finally called and so I'll be going in three days this week. I'll be working closer to home too, at one of their other locations, which will be nice since I can ride my bike. Otherwise, nothing too exciting. We take the car in tomorrow morning to have a rattle looked at, then I decorate my cake, and Thursday I'm working and going to jewelry class.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mini Pink Cake

On Friday and Saturday, we did three more cakes - a 2-tier green and brown (odd) fondant-covered birthday cake, a 3-tier vanilla buttercream wedding cake, and an OSU groom's cake. Unfortunately I forgot my camera both days, so no pictures to show you. The OSU groom's cake was pretty awesome - it was a red velvet cake with oreo buttercream, which made it look quite authentically scarlet and grey on the inside, and the outside was just white buttercream piped with a giant red octagonal 'O', and decorated with the official buckeye and leaves. Cute!

Not so awesome was the fact that I made two cake boo-boos this weekend. My boss was ultra nice about it, but I felt bad about messing up her creations. First, I somehow managed to put too much filling in two tiers of the wedding cake layers, so that mine stood over 5" tall whereas her bottom tier was only 4 inches tall. Oops! I forgot all the tiers are supposed to be the same height. But it wasn't explained to me that the point of digging a little trench was so the top cake layer would sit flush against the second, and that the total height would not exceed 4". Oh well, I hope it didn't look too weird.

Then, the green fondant cake was giving me pain. Beginner's luck seems to happen to me a lot. Remember the first time I worked with fondant? I somehow managed to get it nice and smooth, and no pleats! What's so hard about fondant? Same for my first pottery wheel bowl. Well, the green fondant didn't go very well. I couldn't stop the pleating, and then it tore! We had to rip the whole thing off and start again, and I was too chicken to try it a second time so I asked A to do it while I mixed other fondant colours.

Clearly, I need to practice my fondant skills, and there's nothing like a little embarassing display of incompetence for motivation. So, here's a mini cake to start, one that looks like it belongs at a My Little Pony party.... I cut out a 3" circle from a lemon cake I broke a little while ago, and covered it with buttercream - note to self, buttercream has to be firm. Doing this small-scale cake was much easier, and I knew what went wrong on the weekend. I had rolled it too thin, and the fondant was a little dry, so it didn't want to ease into place. I had a bit of trouble with pleating on this little cake too, but I think it's also because of the fondant being too dry, and the cake underneath being too soft.

Uh oh...pleating and the start of some cracks!

The star is just some strips of fondant pressed together and cut with a cookie cutter. Another thing I learned about fondant this week is that you aren't supposed to get water on it, otherwise it'll start to do weird things like dissolve, and also that you can't put fondant-covered cakes in the fridge or else the humidity will cause the cake to crack or dissolve or something. Who knew? Anyhow, I'll be practicing with fondant some more this week, since I am making a cake for D's lab party tonight and another one for the hospice centre on Thursday. And since it'd been a while since I had any fondant, I wanted to taste my handiwork:

Verdict: Bleh, fondant tastes kind of gross, like eating a chewy dough of sugar. The buttercream definitely helped it taste better.

Wait, there's more! I also pulled out the gumpaste kit I got from D's parents last Christmas. Although I didn't mix any gumpaste - I just used some fondant scraps to practice. I had read that fondant cracks when it dries, so it isn't as good for making decorations, but so far it's been about 18 hours and I still don't see any cracks. The flowers were fun to make, although the rose was the most tedious - you have to roll out 15 petals of varying sizes for it. I think the daisies are my favourite.

Last but not least, here's Gatsby at his finest, hogging the couch all afternoon, sunning his back and his belly in a sliver of sun coming through the window.

But I'm comfortable here...

A good Sunday afternoon yawn

Stop taking pictures of me!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Latest Project: Keychains!

A line from a Simpson's episode that amused D to no end.

I've finally got something to show you from jewelry class!! Yes, I'm still enrolled in it, though you wouldn't know it from reading my posts from this past month. I missed about 40% of classes last session, so I really am continuing on with the basics. After the tab-slot bracelet project, the next one is to learn how to use rivets. Rivets are a method of cold joining two pieces of metal (or other material) by drilling a hole through the two pieces and hammering a little piece of wire through both so that both ends get pressed flat, like a nail head, thus creating the connection. If you're clever and good at it, you can use rivets decoratively so that it contributes to the overall look of your piece. Let's just say I'm not there yet.

So. Where are the rivets, you ask? Well...there aren't any. Yet. I decided that my little keychains they looked better without being sandwiched against something else, so I'm still saving the riveting for the next one (although I said that 3 keychains ago). I did, however, continue practicing my sawing skills, this time with an even finer saw blade, without causing any bleeding injuries. The initials were a bit of a pain to cut out, and I couldn't get them filed and sanded down as much as I'd like. The bird, on the other hand, was much easier to cut. I'm mailing it to my graphic design friend Margot in Toronto, who will hopefully be amused by it. There is a third one that is blanked out with primitive Paint techniques, but it's a surprise for a friend later this summer. I think he'll get a kick out of it. The words were printed using little letter stamp/chasing tools - the possibilities are endless, especially if you are good with coming up with one-liners! Unfortunately I am not so good in that department. I've commissioned D to help me think of more clever things to stamp. They're all made with nickel, by the way.

I can't even remember how the bird joke got started, or what it meant

I've been riding my bike all around town this week, which has been great. I borrowed a few cake and sugar flower books from the library and I'm getting ready to break out the gumpaste kit (after all this time!) Now, I'm off to buy some tomatoes at the Pearl Alley market, and then going to decorate cakes all afternoon, and then again tomorrow. Should be fun, and hopefully I'll learn some neat new tricks. Although, there's so much going on in Columbus this weekend, it's too bad I'll be missing out on all the fun things.

Have a good weekend!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pink Polka Dotted Wedding Cake

I'm so excited that I can blog about this! Remember, back in May, when I mentioned that I found a gig as a freelance cake decorator? Well, I just started this past weekend - it was so much fun! Isn't it adorable? It's a lemon cake with vanilla buttercream and raspberry filling, and the outside is completely buttercream with fondant dots. The bride's colours were, as you can guess, pink pink and more pink. It was kind of cute.

Now, I'm going to be honest - it was my first day, so there was a lot to observe. I didn't exactly contribute a heck of a lot to this cake, since my boss, I'll call her A, had already baked before I arrived, but I did help with cutting out cake boards for each layer, filling the bottom cake, and covering the second and third layer with buttercream, and cutting out and pasting on the dots. Who knew you could get buttercream so smooth on the outside? I guess this is why you should hire a pro to make your cake. After painstakingly careful applications of more buttercream, each layer went in the fridge to firm up.

Did I mention how heavy the cakes were? To prevent the cake from smushing itself upon stacking, some dowels were cut and inserted into the bottom two layers to give it structural support. To prevent the whole thing from toppling over if someone picked it up and wobbled it, she also cut a huge long dowel and sharpened the end, which would be hammered through all 3 layers after assembly at the site. We also assembled 75 wedding favours of buckeyes (they're peanut butter and chocolate candies, for you non-Ohio folks).

The morning of the wedding, I tagged along on the delivery. We brought along extra buttercream to finish piping the borders, as well as some back-up supplies in case anything fell off or dented in transit. Fortunately, the cake layers behaved themselves in the car and arrived in one piece (really though, if your cake slides and goes smush, you're really screwed - I don't think people make a practice of bringing a whole extra backup wedding cake).

Here's the mega-rod going through the cake:

So there you have it, my first wedding cake experience. Next weekend, I've been told we're doing a realllllly cool cake. And an OSU groom's cake. I've been given permission to blog about them here (thanks A), so I'll be sharing how it all goes next week! Stay tuned!

Monday, July 7, 2008

One of those Progress Posts

Since returning from our vacation, I have more or less been a woman of leisure, meaning I'm not scheduled to go into any workplace, although I don't knock being a homemaker - it's lot of work - like making D's lunch every day (he's so spoiled). The bakery didn't need me the last couple of weeks, and there was only one weekend where I helped decorate my first wedding cake! I'll have to ask first before I post any photos. Aside from that, I've gotten back into crafting full swing. One Pomatomus sock nearly finished:

Some secret blue knitting with a little intarsia going on:

My best glaze job yet: glazed coil jar with lid (unfortunately it was fused together while firing). I painted white slip dots before bisque firing, and dipped the whole thing in blue after that.

D's ultra-blue pitcher that weighs about 8 lbs. To get it nice and bright, he painted it during leather hard stage with blue slip, and then post-bisquing, he glazed it with aquamarine. He is proud of the glaze job, though somewhat displeased with the child-like quality of the craftsmenship (heehee):

D's tulip vase he made by joining two pinch pots into a ball, then paddling the sides, finishing with a few incisions on top to get the little petal edges. The pot was first dipped in black satin, then overlapped with opalescent glaze. Very nice indeed.

We're still attending pottery classes, although it's been quite a while since I posted anything about our wheel-throwing progress. That is because we are still throwing pieces of poo. Neither of us have thrown a 10-inch cylinder (although we've come close a few times). I was ready to throw the clay across the room last week I was so frustrated. Instead, I exercised self-control and decided to practice throwing smaller lumps of clay, which actually helped a lot - when there is too much clay, I end up crumpling it before I've even had a chance to pull up a decent wall. Last class I was able to get an evenly-thick wall, which was pretty damn exciting. D is a little better than I am, so I think he'll be on his cylinders sooner than I. Maybe I'll try to convince the teacher to let me make tiny little bowls...

In other exciting news, D and I have finally rejoined the world of bicycle commuting! Check out my shiny new blue bike!

After being sans bike for over a year (mine fell victim to tire theft, D's was an old clunker with no gears) and with the summer weather, we'd been wanting to replace our bikes for a while. After shopping around a little, we bought them from Handy Bikes USA, a fantastic little shop with lots of comfort bikes on 5th Ave in Grandview. I'd highly recommend them. Apparently they've sold over 2000 bikes this summer, up from the 1500 they usually sell - probably because of the soaring gas prices.

This morning we took them out on their first ride. Don't worry, we were wearing helmets. Even though it made us look silly. We're responsible like that. Good for the muffin tops, good for the environment, and good for the wallet. I feel so environmentally urban chic. I'm thinking of getting some accessories for it, like a basket. Happy riding!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Blueberry Muffins

Mmmuffins. Freshly baked muffins, with the crispy top and fluffy warm middle...ooh!

Pretty muffin, basking in the sunlight.

Last Monday I suddenly had a muffin craving. I had read that muffin batters can keep up to a week in the fridge, and you can bake a few each day so they're always freshly-made. So, I gave it a try this past week, and it worked out well enough. Although I'm now a little muffin-ed out, I'm a little bored with muffins now, but I would still do this again next time I have a muffin craving. And, you can do variations on them so you don't get bored eating the same thing each time (although I did blueberry ones the whole way, since I had fat box of them to get through). The batter did turn kind of glue-like, which worried me, but it baked just fine, so don't worry how it looks.

Blueberry Muffins
(from a combo of online recipes)

3 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 stick butter (4 oz)
1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you like your muffins
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup yogurt or sourcream (I used milk, since it was all I had in the fridge)
Blueberries, or other fruit, nuts, chocolate, etc.

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar with a mixer until it's fluffy and light. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then add the dairy and the vanilla. Now mix in the dry ingredients just until it's smooth. Fill however many (up to 12) muffin papers halfway as you like, and then put in your blueberries. I took a handful and pressed them with my fingers, so that each cup was about 3/4 full. I also sprinkled some granulated sugar on top because I like the tops nice and crunchy. Bake at 400 F for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. After removing them from the oven, remember to let them cool on a rack, otherwise the steam will apparently keep cooking the muffins until they're tough and not-so-nice tasting. Store the rest of the batter in the fridge for up to a week.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Jenny's Travel Tips

Not that you asked, but I have taken it upon myself to end my little travel series by giving you a summary of things that I (and you) should try to remember when doing multiple-city traveling.

Hangin' out by the train station...again


  • Waiting around is boring. But pretty much inevitable. Try not to make more than 2 connections a day, because you end up sitting around a LOT and it's ultra boring after the first two hours (yes, even if you're hanging out with your friend/partner, the one who you have endless chatter with, plus an iPod, plus me, it's hard to fight the boredom)
  • On European overnight trains, if you have no other option but the 6-person couchette, always reserve the top bunk, because these cabins are TINY! There is much more space (height) up there, and you can enjoy watching the havoc happening below you as others shuffle and grumble about their luggage and so on. More importantly, you will actually be able to sleep relatively well since you won't be constantly woken up by people going to the bathroom. If you're hopping from city to city frequently, you'll be grateful that you are semi-rested. And don't be afraid to ask for a correction if your ticket is printed wrong (which happened to us...and we had to go back to ask for a change in seats, which they didn't like)
  • Leave yourself lots of time (more than two hours) between connecting modes of transportation in case of lateness, screw-ups, surprise schedule changes, etc.
  • Don't be one of those people that don't like asking for help because you think you've got it all figured out. Ask the ticket people for help and tell them exactly which cities you want to travel between, because there might just be a direct train that you don't know about. We booked a round trip from Paris to Milan, because the schedule didn't say there was a train from Venice directly to Paris, and we ended up having to make two trips back to the station to exchange our tickets (which really pissed the agents off). Oh well, better that we didn't have to change trains twice in a day.
  • If you haven't figured it out already, staying near the train station is a good idea if you have lots of morning trains to catch, or if you keep screwing up your reservations and need to go exchange them a lot.
  • PACK LESS! Seriously, I should have taken out half of what I threw in the suitcase. The packing guides you read about in travel books are right. You never wear all the things you bring, because you will always choose the clothes that are most comfortable. Plus, you end up buying at least one or two items of clothing on holiday.
  • Bring some sensible (running) shoes. Preferably some attractive ones that don't make you stick out like a sore thumb or feel embarassed about wearing. I know this seems like a stupid point, but I am forever caught in the situation of having the wrong footwear on vacation. (I admit, I never learn - I have at least 4 pairs of shoes I bought holiday for the same reasons) It's because I have this obsession with wearing stylish shoes on holiday, but inevitably I end up buying a pair of sensible shoes in the new locale because my toes and heels feel like they're gonna die. This time, it was a pair of black Puma sneakers (they are nice, but I didn't really need them). I am also never bringing high heels on vacation again, unless I know exactly where I'll wear them.

  • Pack less books. This is probably our biggest weakness when traveling. D loves to buy books, and acquires a few on each trip. Between the new books, the travel guides, the magazines, and other reading, we're like a mini library. And I don't have the heart to just throw away books. And I don't like the idea of ripping apart guide books, either, which is suggested by some travel experts. It would certainly reduce the weight, but then you end up with a bunch of pages that look like garbage that you have to throw away. What a waste! I still haven't figured this one out, so let me know what ideas you have.
  • Leave the hair dryers and ceramic straightening irons at home. They're bulky, kind of heavy, and pretty useless if you stay somewhere that doesn't have the right sockets. I couldn't use it in Paris because the sockets had a ground. In Milan, when I actually had the right converter for the right socket, the whole thing started smoking and smelling very, very bad and I had to leave it behind (wah).
  • Try to stay at least 3 days in a city, because you never know what the weather will do, or when your body will decide to get sick. If rainy and sick are both in the picture, you will be seriously grumpy. It probably won't rain three in a row (unless you live in Columbus, Ohio), and you will probably have at least several 'good' hours each day even when you're sick. Milan wasn't as fun because we were wet and chilly the whole time, plus we were coughing up a disgusting storm. The weather was just getting better as we were leaving, which was maddening. We were lucky in Venice, but it would have really sucked if our one day was a rainy, dreary one.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Opatija, Croatia

Toward the last half of our trip, we spent four lovely, relaxing days in Opatija, a seaside town along the Adriatic coast in the northwest of Croatia. Getting there was a bit of a challenge, as there are no direct flights or short bus rides within the country, but it wasn't nearly as bad as we'd expected. From Venice, we journeyed to Trieste, which is just about the furthest east you can go in northern Italy. Off the train, and straight onto a bus that crossed through Slovenia and into Croatia (Opatija is only a short 76 miles from Trieste, but the border-crossing lengthens the trip). The bus wound its way through mountains and lush forests, ascending so high up that the temperature dropped several degrees. It was really quite an amazing sight.

As we pulled into Opatija, we oohed and ahhed at the charming hotels and boutiques, and the gorgeous view. Speaking absolutely no Croatian (despite our efforts to listen and practice with our language tape at the bus station), we looked around hopefully and found that English was spoken widely. Lucky us. Exhausted, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel. "I hope we're staying at one of those cute ones we saw!" I said. As we pulled up to Hotel Ambasador, we groaned. It didn't look as nice as the photos - kind of older, ugly, and straight out of the 70s. Just about the ugliest hotel on the entire strip. Oh well, hopefully it's nice inside, we thought.

Sunrise on the balcony, writing in our trip diary.

Oh my, it was so much nicer than we imagined. Very lucky us. Our room was located in the adjacent Villa Ambasador, a much more attractive building with wonderful rooms (if you ever stay here, I'd highly recommend this place).

From our balcony: lazy, relaxed-looking sunbathers

Hotel pool: image borrowed from

Just off the boardwalk, you could climb right into the sea for a swim. Or, if you wanted to do it more resort-style, you could hang out by the pool. We swam, lounged, and people-watched, and I did this some more while D was at his conference. The first time I took a dip, it was shockingly salty (I suppose it makes sense to flush it with seawater, being next to the Adriatic and all). It was so salty that little crystals of salt were forming on my skin and brows.

I don't know what D is waiting for, but I'd better get ready to eat

When we weren't being absolutely lazy, we walked around the downtown strip and sampled the local dishes - fish soups, fresh seafood risotto, grilled fish, and more. The local currency is Kuna, and we truly had no sense of its value because nowhere in our guide book did it say what it was equivalent to. We finally spotted a sign on a fishing expedition signboard that said 75 Kuna or 10 Euro, so we worked off that number the rest of the trip. The weather was hot and sunny, probably the nicest we'd had all trip, and also seemed to be a perfect growing climate for a strange combination of trees we'd never seen together: palms, pines, and deciduous ones. Another Opatija (and maybe Croatian) obsession seemed to be chocolate. There was chocolate EVERYWHERE, on every menu you could order from 37 flavours of hot chocolate. Crazy.

We went swimming at a public 'beach', which was pretty much a concrete lying-about area with steps leading directly into the sea. There were even some cute little fishies in the little swimming hole:

D's lily white toes seeing sunlight for the first time in months

On another day, we walked by the local yacht club to see what all the sailing folks were up to. When we got bored, we ate more delicious seafood at the club, this time an unknown white fish in wine sauce, calamari fritto, and more fish soup. Mmm, fish soup.

D looks longingly at the boats...

While we were there, the Euro games were on and Croatia had won against Austria on this particular night - sports fans are the same everywhere. The whooping, honking and other festivities carried on a while, and was a lot of fun. Oh! I almost forgot to tell you that we were interviewed poolside by the local TV station (I guess we were pretty obviously tourists) who asked us which team we were rooting for. Croatia, of course, we said. I wonder if we ever made the news?

It was hard to leave the relaxing pace in Opatija, but we had to make our way back to Paris, so it was time to say byebye to our little resort getaway.