Mish Mash Trail Mix

Trail mix was invented, according to legend, in 1968 by Hadley Food Orchards to be eaten while hiking or doing another strenuous activity. It’s lightweight, portable, and full of energy-dense ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate — perfect for trailside noshing.  For those of us not taking a hike, trail mix is also good when you’re feeling snackish in the middle of the afternoon.

It’s super easy to make your own trail mix.  It’s all about what you like to snack on.  Choose some nuts, some seeds, some dried fruit.  Add something chocolatey sweet or maybe some cereal and that’s trail mix.

I will admit, I think I went a little overboard making this mix, but I like snacking.  I also like crunchy food with some sweetness.  Everything I grabbed for this I enjoy immensely.

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In my container I threw in:

dried apricots

dried apples

banana chips

dried blueberries

sweet potato chips

raisins

pumpkin seeds

shreddies

chocolate chips

cranberry oatmeal

plantain chips

peanut butter chips

almonds & cashews

Give it mix in the container. IMG_7561

A giant batch of personalized trail mix is born.IMG_7562

Now, this concoction can pack a huge caloric punch and sometimes you don’t realize how much of it you’re eating because it is so quick and easy to snack on it.  Try to limit a portion to about a 1/4 cup to avoid overindulging.

What would be in your personalized mish mash trail mix?  =)

Spring Awakenings and I’m Cookie Rich

I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I’m out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.

Marilyn Monroe

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Spring has sprung.  Thank goodness.  I’ve had a smile on my face for a few days now, I’m so happy to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

 I was looking forward to my class this week.  It’s a very eclectic group of people this time.  Thankfully I’ve found good baking partners in my new peeps Stef and Leanne.  We gather at the table in between demos and laugh it up about the weirdest things.  It is so refreshing to be around outgoing and light-hearted people who share the same kind of sense of humour as me.

This sunny Sunday afternoon found me baking up a whole lot of gluten-free cookies.  Each traditional in their own rights, we were provided a means to make these into gluten-free options.

On the menu:

Chocolate chip pecan cookies

Peanut butter cookies

Almond Biscotti

One thing I’ve learned about gluten-free baking is that there are sometimes a ton of ingredients involved.  The flour mixes alone can be at minimum three ingredients alone.  There are 5 flour blends we are using for the duration of classes.  On this particular day we used:

 Blend I : White rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch

Blend III – White rice flour, potato starch, guar gum & albumen powder

Blend IV – White rice flour, tapioca starch, soy flour

Then add to these eggs, butter, sugar, honey, almonds, vanilla extract, baking power & side, chocolate chips, pecans & peanut butter – cookies are born.

Our table full of stuff:IMG_7527

Our large baking trays prepped and waiting for batter.  We went through six trays today.

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Baking cookies is pretty standard.  You begin with creaming eggs and butter until light and fluffy, then add in the dry ingredients and then any extras like nuts or chocolate come after.

First up is biscotti.  If you recall, I made a non gluten-free biscotti a few weeks back.

http://sweetspellbaking.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/a-try-at-biscotti/

I had issues with the batter being really crumbly and hard to shape.  Well, I’ve since learned that an egg or two makes all the difference.  This gluten-free recipe also included honey to help bind and sweeten it up.  Check out how different the batter looks compared to my original try.  It was sticky but easy to manage and it rolled up like a dream.

Pre-oven.

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Post-oven.

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Sliced, but not double baked yet.  At first I decided not to double bake them.  But when I got home I found them really soft and too crumbly.  I like a crispy, crunchy biscotti.  So into the oven they went for a second round.

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Much better.

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Round 2 of cookie baking – Chocolate chip pecan cookies.

Pre-oven.  The batter is super soft and spreads out quickly once in the oven. So many chocolate chips!

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Post-oven.  The key to beautiful, even and round cookies –  a cookie scoop.  I’m not a big user of the scoop generally, but after seeing a nice set of uniform cookies, I think I’m a convert.

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Last round – peanut butter cookies.IMG_7533

Perfect!

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Straight from the oven, I have to say I was highly impressed with these cookies.  If someone handed me one of these and said nothing about them being gluten-free, I would never have guessed.  The biscotti had this awesome almond cinnamon flavour.  The texture on the chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies was amazing.  Crisp outside, chewy middles.  Packed with sweet flavour.  Honestly, I could not tell the difference.  And this is point of this class.  To demonstrate that most baked goods can be made gluten-free with little or no sacrifice in texture or taste.  So far I’m really digging this class!

I’m on a break for a couple of weeks due to Easter holidays, but I am taking a chocolate class in two weeks learning to mix chocolate with savoury treats. Should be a fun time.  Please stay tuned. =)

Gluten Free Baking Class 1 – Apple Streusel Muffins & Banana Nut Bread

Back to class last Sunday, three more topics to take and I will have completed my Baking Arts Certificate. I am getting antsy to be done!

This time around, I am enrolled in Gluten Free Baking. I am learning to take baked goods we eat all the time and modify the recipes to be gluten free.

Many people have an intolerance to gluten. What is gluten you ask? It is a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. A mixture of two proteins, it causes illness in people with celiac disease.

Standard – chef’s pants and steel toes

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This class begins by scrubbing down our work spaces. Now, for serious gluten free baking it is essential that the baking be done in a space where no wheat flour has been used. To fully say a product is gluten free means that not only were gluten free ingredients used, but also that it was baked in an environment where there is no contamination with wheat products, an area where wheat products were not also used. So, although I am baking something with gluten free ingredients, it is not baked in a gluten free environment. For those with a gluten allergy, this matters a great deal.

On the menu for class was banana nut bread and apple streusel muffins. The difference here is that instead of typical all purpose or whole wheat flour we used gluten free flours such as potato starch, rice flour, soy flour, bean flour, arrowroot starch, tapioca starch and sorghum flour.

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What are these ingredients? Here’s a quick low- down on each:
Potato Starch Flour – a gluten free thickening agent that can be used for cream based soups and sauces.

Tapioca Flour – a light, white and smooth flour that comes from the cassava root. Good for bread recipes.

Soy Flour – Nutty flavour, high protein and fat content. Used in combination with other flours such as tapioca flour and good for brownies or goods baked with nuts or fruit.

Cornstarch – A refined starch that comes from corn. Used as a thickening agent for puddings, fruit sauces and Asian cooking. Can also be used along with other flours in baking.

Corn Flour – A flour milled from corn and can be blended with cornmeal to make cornbread or muffins. Good for pancakes or waffles.

Cornmeal – Ground corn that comes from yellow or white corn. Often combined with flours for baking but it has a strong corn flavour. Also good for waffles, pancakes or white cakes.

White Rice Flour – An excellent basic flour for gluten free baking. Milled and polished white rice. Typically bland, it works well in baking because it doesn’t give extra flavour.

Brown Rice Flour – Comes from unpolished brown rice. It contains bran and is good for breads, muffins and cookies.

Xanthan Gum – This is from the dried cell coat of a micro organism called Xanthomonas campestris. It works as a gluten substitution in yeast breads and other baked goods. It is a gelling agent or thickener.

Guar gum – Also a gelling agent or thickener. It is the powder from the seed of a plant called Cyamopsis testragonolious.

Gluten free baking involves creating flour blends using the ingredients above. When paired with each other in various weights, they all play a role in making delicious and satisfying gluten free baked goods.

So, here’s what I made in class…

The giant rotating ovens that I think were too hot and browned my banana nut bread a little too much….

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Apple Streusal Muffins

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In terms of texture, neither was dry or “cardboardy”, most likely due to the moistness of the fruit in each recipe. The banana nut bread needed some vanilla flavouring, it lacked some ooompf. I did enjoy the apple Streusal muffins, especially the Streusal topping. Both work well for breakfast.

Until next class, we’re making some cookies! =)

Tomato Cream Sauce with Chicken and Ravioli

“in the abstract art of cooking,
ingredients trump appliances,
passion supersedes expertise,
creativity triumphs over technique,
spontaneity inspires invention,
and wine makes even the worst culinary disaster taste delicious.”
― Bob Blumer

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I was feeling motivated today.  I wanted to cook up something good.  I was up early and made my way to the grocery store and LCBO to pick up some ingredients for me  to make a pasta sauce.  I went with my gut and came up with this recipe.  By far the tastiest sauce I have ever made.

Ingredients

Olive Oil

1/2 cup onion chopped

4 garlic cloves minced

1 cube of vegetable bouillon

4 chicken breasts

1 can of crushed tomatoes or 2 cups of fresh Roma tomatoes  crushed

1 can of tomato paste

1 cup cream

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup  parmesan cheese (more or less if you want)

1 cup of mushrooms

1 bunch of loose leaf spinach (asparagus, kale or rapini would work too)

Salt & Pepper (to taste)

Italian herbs and spices (to taste)

Brown Sugar (optional to taste)

In a large sauce pot, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, when hot, add the chicken breasts (don’t crowd) and brown each side for about 10 minutes each.  Season with salt and pepper.  This seals in the juices and allows for a more tender and moist chicken in the end.  Once the chicken is browned, remove from the pot and set aside.  Drain any fat from the pot but keep any brown bits from the bottom of pot. IMG_7456

Saute the onion and garlic. Add about 1/2 cup of water and begin loosening up the brown bits of chicken from the bottom of the pot.  Tons of flavour here.   At the same time, dissolve the cube of vegetable bouillon.  Keep on medium heat. 
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Add back the chicken now, meaty side down so it begins to absorb the flavourful liquid on the bottom of the pot.  Leave for about 5 minutes.

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Add the crushed tomatoes

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Add the tomato paste and give it a stir.  Add your Italian herbs/seasonings/salt/pepper to taste.  If you like your sauce a little sweeter like I do, add some brown sugar.  Leave for about 5 minutes.

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Add 1 cup of cream, stir.

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Add 1/2 cup of red wine and stir again.  I used a Primitivo aka Zinfandel but you can use a Sangiovese, Chianti or Pinot Noir as well. Leave for 5 minutes.IMG_7454

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Add the mushrooms.  Leave for 5 minutes.

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Add the spinach. Turn heat to simmer and let spinach wilt.  Don’t forget to add the Parmesan cheese.

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At this point prepare your pasta.  You can also use rice or just serve with some fresh, crusty bread.  For my meal I went with fresh spinach and cheese ravioli. 

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I could not stop taste testing this sauce.  I’ve made pasta sauce in the past but for some reason this one was just packed with flavour.  The sweet from the onions and brown sugar.  The tang from the wine and the tomatoes.  The cream adds a smoothness.  The chicken was moist and felt like it was melting in my mouth.  This sauce smelled divine. Paired with a glass of wine from the bottle I cooked with and a slice of bread to sop up the sauce, this made for an impressive dinner.  =)

Birthday Cake Bonanza

Birthday celebrations have made a reappearance at work after a bit of a hiatus.  This also lends to boosting office morale and is a nice thing to do.  I accepted the chance to bake up the birthday treats with a decision that maybe this time cakes were more desirable versus the usual mini cupcakes.  Of course, I never turn down a chance to flex my baking and creative skills.

If you saw my previous post:

http://sweetspellbaking.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/wilton-bake-even-strips/

you know that I tried out a new baking tool that is made to help prevent domed cake and promote even baking.  Let’s see the results.

The Wilton Bake-Even Strips have to be soaked first.  Don’t want them to burn and catch fire in the oven! I just left them to soak in the water overnight.  From my experience now with them, they can never be wet enough.  When the cake is done baking, I guarantee that the strips will be bone dry and even browned a little.

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Straight from the soak, I wrapped the strips around the pan, filled the pan with the cake batter and into the oven. IMG_7406

I baked six cakes and they all came out fairly level.  No major doming or cracking in the middle.  The strips helped to keep the edges from over baking and drying out. I like this simple tool.  If you don’t want to go out to buy these, you can achieve the same effect by cutting up an old towel or dish rag long enough to tie around your pan, soak it and bake.

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In the end I ended up with two chocolate layer cakes and two vanilla layer cakes.  I had a filling of strawberries and strawberry puree in between the layers and then proceeded to pipe them with buttercream.

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Peeps went to town on the cakes.

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It was a long week of cake work.  So tiring doing this on top of a full-time job.  But when I see looks of amazement and I hear people tell me my cakes are beautiful AND taste great, when I see them going home with slices in their Tupperware and when I have people tell me “I don’t like eating sweets, but I’m taking home the cake in this box cause I can’t believe how good it is.”  I can’t help but smile and know all my hard work was worth it.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
― Confucius

Wilton Bake Even Strips

So, trying out something new. I was perusing the web the other day looking for tips on how to bake dome free cake layers. I came across numerous testimonials about Wilton’s bake even strips.

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The idea is to soak them in water, wrap them around the cake pan and it leads to even baking thus reducing cake dome and over baking around the edges.

I’m going to be using these as I bake up some birthday cakes for my office birthday shindig. Let’s see what happens.

Anyone have any experience with these?

A Try At Biscotti

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post.  Sometimes I find it so hard to get in the mood to sit and write.

How do you stay motivated to get your posts done?

A few weekends ago I set my sights on making biscotti.  I wanted to specifically make almond biscotti.  I was craving the flavour of almonds.  The ingredient list is simple: Flour, baking powder, salt, ground almonds, whole almonds, sugar, an egg and almond extract.

The process is simple too: sift the flour, salt and baking powder, add the ground and whole almonds and sugar, mix it then add the egg.

Then you have to get your hands in there and begin to form the dough log.  I found the dough to be very crumbly and in hindsight, I probably should have added another egg, but I made do.  Parchment paper is wonderful and it was put to good use in trying to roll a log with this crumbly dough. IMG_7347

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Time for the first bake – 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

After 30 minutes, the dough is crisp outside, but soft in the middle.  Leave to cool.  I was impatient and waited just until I could handle it with my hands.  It needs to now be sliced into diagonal slices.

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Place the diagonal slices back on the cookie tray.  Time for a second bake to harden them.

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After another 30 minutes, the biscotti are ready.  Delicious almond flavour with that great expected biscotti cookie crunch.  IMG_7353

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Always terrific with a steaming mug of java or tea! =)