Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back To School!

Today was orientation! I took the day off work and headed down to the Guvernment Koolhaus to meet my new peers. Although it felt ridiculously early to have to be somewhere by 9:30 (normally I work at noon), I had to remind myself that this was two hours later than when class starts next week.

When I walked up to the building, there was already a line of people slowly working their way past people from various organizations throughout the college giving away pamphlets, flyers and swag. Inside the building, despite the early hour, the lights were dim and the music was pumping. I believe there were close to a thousand people inside! And we were all wearing ridiculous matching mustard-coloured t-shirts. It was the whole chef school and hospitality school, probably 15 or 20 different programs. We worked our way through the first two rooms, visiting kiosks along the way filled with people looking to recruit for sports teams, telling us where to get our lockers or offering support to international students.

In the third room, we were seated with people from our specific program. I was relieved to find that I didn't feel or look that much older than the people at my table. I think I'm going to fit in okay! And my program is almost entirely girls! I think there are at most 10 guys in a program with 150 students.

So we sat through some speeches. I got to put some faces to the names of people I dealt with last year in my battle to get into the program. After the speeches, they gave us an activity to get to know the people at our tables. We were given an apple, an orange, two bananas, a plate, a bowl, a pipe cleaner, some toothpicks, a napkin and two paring knives and were told to make a presentation of the fruit. I contributed to my group's display by making checkerboards on the on the apple wedges.

There was some judging, and then we all left the club to head back to the school for our program orientations. As we walked back, I watched the sea of hundreds of yellow t-shirts as they crossed the Gardiner Expressway and just laughed. It was pretty ridiculous.

At school, we were herded into classrooms specific to our program where we found brown bag lunches. I had an egg sandwich, it was exactly what I needed.

The next hour was spent listening to a power point presentation of the school rules. My worst nightmares were confirmed: No jewelry, no nail polish, no ponytails.

Somehow, I will survive.

I think most of the programs did a tour after their sessions, but ours didn't, so we were free after that.

First I tracked down my locker. My suspicions when reserving my locker online were correct. The odd numbers meant it was a top locker. Excellent.

Then I tracked down a women who is helping me with my math exemption (there was a bit of mix-up where I was told it was confirmed, but it was not confirmed at all, so I've been trying to get everything fixed up this week). I gave her the form and she was optimistic that I will be exempted from the class, and told me not to register for it.

Then I went to the bookstore to pick up my last few things. As expected, it was an absolute zoo. The bookstore wasn't big enough for all the action so they had set up a stations in the hall for trying on uniforms, buying knives and buying linens. Each station had a huge lineup. I was happy I took care of all that last week. My favorite part was that Mark's Work Warehouse had set up a big truck outside the bookstore where you could walk into the back and there were chairs inside so you could try on safety shoes. Inside the bookstore, the line wrapped all the way around the perimeter of the store and out into the hall. I had lots of time though, so I picked up my shoes, the notes for the math class (Even if I'm not taking it, for $12 I figured it wouldn't hurt to flip through the course notes), and the info I need to do my sanitation course online.

By this time it was only 1pm, so I decided to go sit in another long line and get my student loan stuff sorted. I was really surprised at how easy the process was, no wonder college kids get so far into debt! I won't actually get my loan for about a month though because I opted out of the direct deposit option. I don't trust the government with my bank account number! The loan people thought I was crazy though. They kept trying to convince me that it's perfectly safe. I mean, they really tried. Regardless of whether I agree with them though, I just think it's such a minor inconvenience to wait a few weeks that it's totally worth saving that little bit of my privacy.

After that, I decided to head home because I had a headache. I learned something about myself today. I'm officially addicted to caffeine. I didn't have my regular noon cup of green tea, and from twelve o'clock onwards, I started feeling worse and worse. So I came home, made a cup of tea and started blogging!

Okay, so I'm sure you're wondering....What kind of stuff do you need for pastry school?

Well, I just happen to have finish collecting all of my supplies, so I would be happy to show you!

Of course I need textbooks, course notes, notebooks, pens and an adorable netbook.
The textbook looks amazing, plus it came with little flashcard/cheat sheet dealies that contain all the mixing instructions for the main things I will be baking. The idea is that if you give me a list of ingredients to make say, bread, I can find the corresponding flashcard and it will tell me exactly how to combine those ingredients to get the result that I want. Nifty!

But what am I going to wear???

I got three fresh uniforms, complete with pants, jacket, neckerchief, bar towel, hat and apron. Yes, I'm really going to wear those hats. And I got a cute pink laundry bag to haul my dirty uniforms home at the end of the week. It wasn't until after I got it home that I realized it matches my netbook. John just laughs when that happens.

I got another bag to hold my school books. It's a Targus bag, so it's really nice and it was on sale which is also really nice. My safety shoes are not particularly cute, but apparently they have steel toes and are slip resistant, specially suited for those in the hospitality industry.

I know what you're thinking. "But Jacki, what's in that black case tucked back there in the corner?"

My baking tools! The case opens up like a book. On page one we have wooden spoons, spatulas and yes, that is a paint brush. The only use I can think of for it is maybe to brush crumbs off a cake?
On page two, we have oven mitts, a sil-pat sheet (used instead of parchment paper to line cookie sheets), a strainer, two piping bags (how will I ever survive with only two?!?!), a peeler and two sets of ten piping tips - just round tips and star tips in varying sizes.
And on page three we find the fun/sharp stuff. Two ice cream scoops (have been jonesing for these for ages), a microplane grater (been jonesing for that one too), some heavy duty scissors and some knives. One of them is bigger than anything I have at home!And lastly, in the outside pockets, we find a scraper, a decorative edger, a smooth edger and some kind of probe that sits outside of the oven, but the stick part goes in the oven, into the food and continuously monitors the temperature.
Apparently this is all I will need to bake all manners of wonderful desserts!

So in conclusion, I am going to have three really heavy bags to lug in everyday. If I come out of this program with nothing else, it will be strong arms!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gettin' it all Figured Out

The very last piece fell in place yesterday.

Work approved my part time schedule!

That was the last thing I needed to organize my school year perfectly. I'm starting out with a small schedule of 16 hours a week. Then in November when I can work Saturdays, I'll ramp up to 19.5 hours per week. And I'm just going to play it by ear - if I feel like my course load is light enough that I can take on more hours, I will. I figured it was better to start small and ramp up, then start big and stress myself out because I took on too much.

So I have a commuter situation that is nearly impossible to achieve in Toronto (and I still give John all the credit for this since he is the one who found the apartment and found me my job). I wake up, hop on a subway for 6 stops (20 minutes) and it lets me off two blocks from school. After school I come home the same way, then pop next door to work and pop back home. So basically I can go to work school in the same day, come home in between and still only commute less than an hour a day. Considering a typical commute in Toronto is 45 mins - 1 hour each way, I think that is amazing! My streak continues!

Now I'm just getting all my back-to-school stuff going. I've signed up for orientation on Sept 2nd. I found my book, uniform and supply list, so I'll probably start picking that stuff up next weekend (I have to buy a $350 baking tool kit, how fun is that!) I'm starting to get excited! It's starting to feel real!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We had an Earthquake!

Crazy, eh?

I was at work and it was interesting to watch everyone realize what was happening at the same time. I couldn't feel the earth tremble, I just felt the building sway from side to side. It's two hours later and I still have a funny feeling in my stomach.

Some people went home from work citing being too shaken up to continue, but I think it's just because it was so unnerving. It wasn't bad enough for anything to fall off my desk, for example.

So I don't think we were in any real danger, but it was definitely spooky!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Garden: Day 8

It's only been a few days, but there have been some changes in my garden!

My sprouts are growing a bit better, but still not enough for a sandwich.
And that's not the only thing sprouting!

My green onions have started to sprout. They're so tiny, I think it's impossible that they'll every become vegetables.

The green onions were actually the last ones to sprout out of everything I planted. The mesclun greens have tonnes of sprouts. I still have no idea what any of them are, but I can see subtle differences between them so I know I've got a few varieties growing.
And check out the zucchinis! They got this big in just a week!
After they were already planted, I decided to do some research on them (backwards, I know) and it turns out that a single plant should be enough to keep us in zucchinis for the summer. So maybe planting 16 was a bit overkill. Apparently each plant produces a zucchini every two days. Yikes!

But to be honest, given my track record with seedlings, I'll be impressed if more than say, five make it to maturity. And worst case, I'll dig 'em up and give them away. Apparently you can eat the flowers too! You can chop them up and put them in frittata or use them to wrap soft cheese in and fry. This should be interesting!

Some of the plants have improved over the past week. My cactus is starting to get its colour back. It had turned a deep purple over the winter, but now it seems to be returning to its original pink colour.

The banana tree has a couple of fresh new leaves. Those ratty old ones will be gone in no time. It's also weeping at night (drops of water drip from the tips of the leaves) so that tells me it's happy too.
and one of the strawberries has started turning red! I can't wait until these are ready to eat.
And we have new additions! Introducing.....



These plants were on sale at Canadian tire last weekend, so I bought two. I'm not sure how well they'll grow in a container, but I figure it's worth a shot!

They've already got the start of a few berries:

At the same sale I picked up two blueberry plants!

The little tag with them promises 1cm blueberries in late July.

And the plant I'm most excited about? Rhubarb!
I found this at a fruit stand near our building when I was on my way to my bridesmaid's dress fitting. I was too excited to find it, rhubarb reminds me of home. I know they get bigger and stronger every year, so I gave it a pot big enough that it should have lots of room to grow its roots. I'm not expecting too much out of it this year, but hopefully I'll get at least enough for some strawberry-rhubarb sauce for vanilla ice cream.

And lastly, because I had some leftover dirt, I decided to try a little experiment. I took a couple of cloves of garlic from my fridge and buried them. I wonder if anything will grow?
I'm really happy with my garden! With the exception of dill, I think I have all of the plants I want. Which is a good thing, because I'm running out of space!
The next step is to make it a little cozier. I want to put down some bamboo mats and John wants to put out a chaise. Oh yeah, and here is his contribution this week to our improved summer lifestyle:
Definitely an improvement over last summer!

And since we're talking about gardens, I thought I'd share a picture of some other flowers I'm working on:
Fondant calla lilies for Jess's wedding. 41 down, 69 to go!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Garden: Day 1

I've caught the gardening bug big time this summer!

As usual, it started with a basil plant I picked up at the supermarket. As I'm sure many of you know, I have a long history of killing basil plants. I think last summer alone, I killed four. So when I saw one at the supermarket about a month ago, I figured it's never too soon to start trying again. So I brought it home and through some miracle, managed to keep it alive!

John asked me if I wanted to go putter around Chapters with him last weekend and I remembered seeing little grow-your-own sprout kits there, so I tagged along. Next to the kits I found a book called You Grow Girl that had cute pictures and looked beginner-friendly so I picked up both since I had a gift card.

Much like the quilt I made a few months ago, once I start reading about a new hobby, I get a bit obsessive. By the end of the week I had finished the book, mapped out how my shiny new container garden was going to look and researched several plants and the best way to grow them online (youtube has some great container gardening videos). It makes John giggle when I get like this because I'm so predictable when I get a new hobby. I'm unstoppable.

So this morning we rented a car for a couple of hours and hit the garden center. We started with Wal-mart for cheap pots, soil and fertilizer and then went to two nurseries for the plants. We got home and made lunch and then I went straight to work setting up the garden.

It was a lot of work and I made a huge mess of dirt everywhere, but I found it really enjoyable and I felt like I was making progress quickly. I sowed some seeds, transplanted some starter plants and repotted all of my house plants because I thought some of them could use new nutrient-rich soil (I used Miracle-Gro Premium potting soil).

I've decided to take pictures of everything every couple of weeks to keep a journal of the garden this summer in the hopes of being able to look back on it in the fall and figure out ways to improve it for next year. So, although I planted a few of the plants a couple of weeks ago, I'm considering today Day 1 since that's when I planted the majority of them.

Let's start with the herbs!

First up: The basil that started it all. It still lives indoors next to the window because I find it so sensitive to water levels, I'm afraid it will dry out too quickly in direct sun.

Then we have my favorite herb of all, Thai basil. It lives with some tiny pepper plants. I just moved them outside three days ago and the basil loves it but the peppers hate it. I'm not sure they're going to survive.
Next up is greek oregano. I got four tiny plants and spread them out in a pretty pink planter I rescued from the lobby downstairs where people abandon stuff they don't want. It has no drainage holes, so used a layer of acetate (left over from when I had to make that house shaped cookie cutter) with holes in it to create drainage inside the pot.
Next up: The Herbal Teas

I can't wait to make my own herbal teas!

I couldn't find a peppermint plant, so instead I got spearmint. I think it will still be delicious.
And this is a magical hybrid plant called chocolate mint. I'm very interested to find out if that's how it actually tastes.
I've heard lemon verbena makes a lovely tea, so I picked up two of those (since each one was just a couple of stalks). Apparently it can grow to 6 feet tall but I don't think that's going to happen in this little pot.
And this is too cool: Stevia!! I've heard it's really tricky to grow but if I can pull it off I'll have a natural sweetener that is supposedly sweeter than sugar but with very few calories.
That's it for the herbs! On to the Fruits!

Guess what I found? A new banana tree!! I'm super happy about this, my life has been noticeably void of banana trees since my last one died over the winter. It's in sad shape now, but I think I can nurse it back to health. Banana trees with ratty leaves remind me of stray cats with torn ears. They just need a little love.
In sadder news, the cherry tomato plant I bought about a month ago is on its last legs. I had to cut off almost all of its leaves as they were all dead.
Check out my strawberry patch! I have three plants and they are supposed to provide continuous fruit right up to September. The one on the left has a couple of sad leaves but hopefully it will be healthy in no time.
Is coffee a fruit? It grows berries so I guess so. I've had this plant since I was in Halifax. I think it's about two and a half now. I'm told that after three years I should start to see berries. Some day I hope to be able to brew a cup of home grown coffee for John. Pipe dream? Maybe.
And Erin, this one is for you. Here's how my lemon tree is looking. It has only grown one leaf since I left Halifax, but hopefully today's repotting will change that. I'm still 14 years away from fresh lemons.
And our last category: Veggies

These are the broccoli sprouts I planted last week. The instructions said to just sprinkle the seeds on the soil but it seems to me the only ones that sprouted are the ones that were actually buried so I may put a layer of soil on top of them if they don't sprout soon. Supposedly the go from seeds to snacks in ten days.

The next pictures are pretty boring because I just planted the seeds today. The saran wrap is to keep the moisture in until the seeds germinate.

Green onions. Yes that is a foil cake pan, I ran out of pots. 60 to 75 days until maturity.
Gold Rush Zuchinni. I planted two rows of them. According to the packet, they take exactly 49 days. I find it impossible to believe they can predict it that accurately.
And the veggies I am most excited about: a mesclun greens garden. I hope to have at least nine plants grow to maturity (40 to 65 days). I used McKenzie seed tape so I actually have no idea what kinds of plants are in there.

So that's it for Day 1! We'll see how the next few weeks go and if they go well I'll probably plant a few more. Actually if they all die I'd probably plant more too. So there will probably be more planting! I will post updates over the summer, wish me luck!!

Friday, April 23, 2010

600 Cookies

For a week, I disappeared off the Earth.

If you tried to reach me to wish me a happy birthday and I didn't return your call, it's not because I didn't want to! It's because I was a slave to the cookies.

So many cookies.

By some miracle I managed to pull off my biggest baking project yet! John's company ordered 200 gift bagged 'favours' for a large meeting they were holding. The instruction I was given was that they wanted something with their logo. So I put together some samples of ways I could make the logo on little fondant circles and said that I could put it on either cookies or cupcakes. They picked cookies.

Well, one cookie isn't much of a favour, so I offered to put together little bags with three cookies each: one with the logo, one shaped like a house, and one shaped like a car (there's not much cookie-friendly imagery to work with in the insurance industry as I'm sure you can imagine), all done in the company's colours.

Piece of cake, right?

I planned out everything in my head. Worked out costs and what supplies I would need. I figured I would start them a week ahead of time and freeze them as I go. John and I went out to the Michaels in Mississauga and picked up the bags and icing colours.

On my birthday last Friday, I had taken the day off work but John ended up having to work, so I thought it would be a great time to get a head start on the cookies. I woke up early and headed down to the St. Lawrence market because they're the biggest suppliers of cookie cutters I know of. I found a circle cutter for the logo. They didn't have any car shaped cutters! But they had one that was supposed to be a bus but actually looked like a PT Cruiser, so I figured that would do. I picked up a motorcycle cutter too, just in case.

But there was no house cutter! So, I left, feeling discouraged. I called the Bulk Barn, McCalls and Kitchen Stuff Plus, but it seemed no one makes a house shaped cookie cutter! How on Earth was I going to make 200 house shaped cookies with out a cookie cutter?

This was the first of many snags.

Eventually I realized I was going to have to make my own. I headed down the street to Loomis and Toles and bought a sheet of heavy acetate. I drew out a picture of the house I wanted and measured how long the sides would be. I cut a strip of the acetate and carefully scored and folded it into a house. How to attach it together? Well I wasn't sure how food safe crazy glue is, so I went with the classic duct tape, wrapping it around the back so it wouldn't touch the food.

Okay, I had a house cutter. It wasn't pretty, but it was the right shape and it would cut out cookies.

Time to start baking.

I threw together a batch of sugar cookie dough. Of course it had to chill for an hour before I could bake it (otherwise the cookies don't come out light and fluffy). Once it had chilled, I turned it out on the counter to roll it and made another batch of dough to chill while the first one was being baked.

I got a great groove going. At all times, one batch of dough in the fridge, one sheet of cookies in the oven, one ready to go in the oven next, and one that I'm working on. After three batches of dough, I had all the circles baked. Awesome.

Once that was done, I took a break from baking and made white some royal icing to dip them in. I dipped the 200 cookies and laid them all out to dry. They all fit on the table, so I was able to do them all at once. Not a bad day's work. I went to bed feeling really good about how productive the day had been.

On Saturday, John told me that for my birthday he wanted to take me out for brunch and then to the zoo. How fun is that! But it was raining out, so we decided to just go for brunch and put off the zoo until after he gets back from Honduras.

He took me to a little restaurant called Simple Bistro on Mount Pleasant Street, only a 10 minute walk from home. We had the best eggs benedict that I can ever remember having! It was a perfectly poached egg and hot peameal bacon on a home-made croissant with hand whisked hollandaise sauce. And it was served with crispy home-made shoestring fries and greens. Perfection. Even the tea was good. We will definitely be going back.

When we got home I decided it was time to make some cookies. I started baking houses.

My crudely constructed cookie cutter worked out okay, but it was about this time that I started to understand the magnitude of the project. I realized the houses were going to take six batches of cookie dough because they were somewhat bigger than the circles. Baking them would take more than a day. After three batches or so, I decided to work on icing them. That's when I realized they wouldn't all fit on my table. I could only fit about 80, so it would take three rounds of icing to get them all done and each round needed 4 hours for the icing to dry and then it would take a further 3 hours to pipe all of the finishing details on them. Frantically, I started working out how many hours I had before they were due, Thursday morning. I started to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew.

By the end of Saturday I had most of the houses baked and two rounds iced and decorated. And I realized that there was no chance of all the cookies fitting into my freezer. I filed that one away in my brain as another problem to solve.

On Sunday, I realized that I had to get as much done this weekend as possible so I woke up at the crack of dawn. I finished baking the houses and got started on the cars. It was at about this time I remembered that they had also ordered a cake for Tuesday, so I had better get that started today too.

And I realized that I had yet to even start working on the 200 fondant logos so I got to work on those too. After three and a half hours of punching out little letters with a cutter and cutting curves out (using another acetate cutter I made) and then carefully attaching them to the cookies with royal icing, I had 70 done. Yikes.

By the end of the 3-day weekend I had about 500 cookies baked, two chocolate cakes baked, stacked and crumb coated, 400 cookies iced and 270 cookies decorated.

From there on, I started running on very little sleep. I was up at 6am each morning and in bed by 1am if I was lucky. Each day before work I would ice another 80 and let them dry while I was at work. Even on my lunch hours I was either running around looking for ribbon or at home making buttercream. At night on Monday I finished up the cake (it actually turned out pretty cute) and did another 70 fondant decorations. On Tuesday night I piped the details on all 200 cars. My fridge and my freezer were absolutely packed with cookies.

Wednesday night was crunch time! John started bagging them while I finished the last 60 fondant decorations. I was terrified that he would get to the end of the bags and realize that we were a few cookies short because I hadn't had time to double count them. I had cookie dough in the fridge and extra royal icing standing by just in case but I really didn't want to be up until 3am doing more baking. I lucked out though, we actually had 6 extra cookies.

We were finished at about the same time. I joined him at the table and we tied little blue and green ribbon bows until 2am.

When we were done, the only containers we had big enough to hold them were the laundry baskets.

On Wednesday night I went to bed feeling so relieved that they were all done. I still can't believe I pulled this off. John said he couldn't wait to get them out of the apartment. It smelled so strongly of sugar in here that I actually had that feeling you get from eating too much sugar when I hadn't even eaten any.

When I got home from work yesterday I just flopped out. I laid in bed playing video games on my DS with peanut butter and banana toast. I had missed relaxing so much!

Tonight I need to clean this place up though, there's wax paper, ziplock bags and ribbon everywhere!

Overall, I'm not sure whether or not I would do this again, but I think I probably would if they asked me. It took so much more supplies than I thought though, so next time I would price it differently I think. I kept running out of stuff I never expected to run out of, like wax paper, salt and baking powder. And I went through a whole 10kg bag of flour, about 15 lbs of icing sugar and I lost count of the butter at 10lbs.

I definitely learned that I need to work on my time management skills. I get into a zone when I'm baking and I don't realize that 4 hours have passed, so I'll think I have more time than I actually do. I also see a lot of ways this process could have been better streamlined, but I was limited by the size of my tiny kitchen and oven.

And the fact that I didn't hate these cookies by the end of it, I was actually still having fun, makes me a little more sure that this is what I'm cut out for. This is what I'm meant to be doing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy Birthday John!!

John turned 32 this weekend! And it was the first time since January that he had a whole weekend off! He's back to working Monday to Friday again, so life is good.

On Saturday, our keys from AutoShare arrived so we decided to go for a drive. I needed some baking stuff, so John offered to take me out to Michaels in Mississauga. We Googled mapped it: 26 minute drive. Ok. So we booked a car for three hours thinking that would give us plenty of time.

This was my first time leaving the city by car since we moved here and I didn't expect to be so nervous. My stomach was knots though on the highways. I'm not sure if it's because I'm not used to being in cars anymore or if it's just that Toronto highways are so intimidating (or probably a combination of both) but I got pretty squirrelly.

It took half an hour just to get out of downtown, and when we got on the highway, there was an accident, so we had to find an alternate route. The end result is that we got totally lost and by the time we got to Michaels, about two hours had passed so we only had about ten minutes before it was time to go home.

I quickly ran through and picked up some new icing colours, some large cakeboards for the cakes I'm making for his work and a really cool kit that I can use to make fancy fondant letters.

On the way home we got lost again. I think we went too far East. After 20 minutes of wandering through midtown trying to find our little corner, we finally got our bearings back and pulled into the parking lot at 4:01, one minute late.

The next person to use the car was waiting there. She said she had just called AutoShare and was on hold waiting to report that the car wasn't there, so we got there just in the nick of time (the fees for returning a car late are pretty substantial)

So that was our first drive out of the big city!

We stopped for Chinese food on the way home (Manchu Wok, blech!) and had a lazy rest of the afternoon. At night we watched the fights (Silva, your fight against Maia completely destroyed any fleeting hope I might have had that you would someday return to your former glory of being the top pound for pound fighter in the UFC.) and had snacks. It was a good day.

On Sunday it was John's birthday so I made him a special breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes shaped to say "32" (and there may have been a heart shaped one too. Maybe.) In the afternoon we went to see Clash of the Titans. I really liked it! I wish it had been longer though.

After the movie we went out for dinner. John had requested fajitas for his birthday supper so we headed over to the Pickle Barrel. We split a pound of half chicken, half steak fajitas, they were so good! 2 oz cocktails were $6.99 so I ordered a peach bellini that ended up being as big as my head. It was yummy though.

And when we got home it was time for birthday cake! Check it out:
John had requested fruit flavoured cake so I made him a triple layer blueberry cake with strawberry filling. It's covered with a thin layer of vanilla-almond buttercream and a layer of marshmallow fondant. I used my 6" pan but somehow the cake still turned out huge and really heavy!

On top I put some happy cats that I had made in advance. They're fondant too. And you can't tell from this photo, but their tails are linked in the back. When I brought it out, John burst out laughing, so I think it was a success. And it was absolutely delicious. For flavour, it was one of my best cakes yet! There's still a tonne of it left though, I don't know how we're ever going to eat it all.

All in all, we had a fun weekend. And I took this Friday off for my birthday, so it's just a four day week!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


As most of you know, my birthday is coming up, and like every year, it has me looking back on what I've done with my life so far and sadly realizing just how fast time flies.

I can't believe I'm going to turn 29 in two weeks.

I can't believe I've already been living in Toronto for almost a year.

I can't believe John and I have been together for three whole years.

Yikes! What happened to the time???

It's John's birthday too next week. He handles it with much more composure than me, he's totally unfazed.

A couple of weeks ago we decided it was time to commit to the fact that we're going to be living here for quite a while so we headed to the MTO and traded in our licenses. We both have Ontario licenses now, it makes me feel like a real Ontario citizen.

John signed us up for a shared car pool thing so we would have something to drive. I think it's called AutoShare and it will give us access to a car for like $6/hour including gas and insurance. There's a parking lot on our street corner where they keep them and we can just pick one up any time which is pretty cool. So this summer we'll be able to do more exploring than last year! And John can get to dive sites!

I know it's early, but it really feels like Spring is here. The days are bright, the weather is so warm it's a bit unsettling, and my lemon tree has sprouted a new leaf for the first time since we moved! In the next week or too, I'm going to pick up some plants for my window boxes. Fresh herbs as usual and I think I'd like to get some berry plants as well. More for decoration than anything, berries are so cheap here to buy.

I tried on some of my Spring clothes and I think I still need to lose 5 or 10 lbs to have them fit well, so I'm back to working out and dieting, not that I ever really stopped, I just slacked a bit.

But that doesn't stop me from baking!

I've been doing some experimenting in the past couple of weeks. I made some awesome biscotti (this is my new favorite way to use up bread crumbs). This weekend I broke out the ice cream maker Aunt Debbie got me for Christmas and made some french style (meaning you make a custard on the stove first) chocolate ice cream. It was my first attempt at ice cream in many years and it needs improvement for sure. It came out so rich I could barely eat one scoop (although John could) and it ended up freezing solid so it's difficult to scoop. I have all summer to figure it out though!

The ice cream recipe called for 8 egg yolks, so I had a bunch of whites leftover. I decided to make an angel food cake, also a first for me. It came out with great taste, but it fell sort of flat, I think because I didn't have a sifter to sift the flour. Next time I have egg whites I need to use, I'll try again. It kind of amused me though, watching John eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream and angel food cake, because really he was mostly just eating a bowl of eggs.

And I've been making cakes! John's work ordered a cake from me for their training class that was graduating. It was the biggest cake I've ever made, a double layer 12" chocolate cake. It was the first cake I've made for a business, so I kept it kind of low key and professional. I filled it with dulce de leche between the layers and iced it with vanilla buttercream. I carefully recreated the company logo out of marshmallow fondant which I put in the center of the cake, and wrote "Congratulations Graduates" in fondant around the edge. I finished it off with some basic shell borders.

John said they were thrilled with it! Although I didn't take any photos of it, he said that they took a photo of the cake with the training class all gathered around it and that it will be appearing in their next company newsletter. Cool! So they want another one for the next training class, and they said this time, I can have a little more fun with it. I guess they actually offered to be my 'guinea pigs'!

And also as a result, some one else in the office has ordered a cake from me! So this is becoming quite the hobby. I'm surprised I'm enjoying it so much since I'm usually more of a tiny dessert person. But I am actually looking forward to making these cakes. And maybe one more little cake for John's birthday,

Monday, March 22, 2010

PacMan Cookies

I don't think anyone would argue that I'm a bit of a nerd.

I think that's why when I stumbled upon a site called Sprite Stitch, a site devoted to making crafts involving 8-bit Nintendo characters, I was instantly hooked. I think I flipped through the first 50 pages of the site without taking any breaks.

Well, one of the things I learned from that site is that when flipped upside down, a tulip cookie cutter looks just like a PacMan ghost.

And once I had this information, I couldn't get it out of my head. I had no good reason to bake cookies, but for some reason I couldn't resist. So here they are:

The background was John's idea. I thought it was a little over the top but now I'm glad he convinced me.

They're just basic sugar cookies with royal icing. I used a Wilton tulip cutter for the ghosts (about 1.5") and a circle cutter for PacMan. I had a tiny little triangle cutter that I used to cut out his mouth. And the dots were made with a tiny circle cutter.

It took two batches of royal icing. I divided it into half cup portions and coloured one red, one orange, one yellow, one blue and one the lightest purple I could do (because the ghost is almost white in the game) and I left one bowl white. Each of these I diluted with water slightly to make them runny enough that I could just dip the cookies in. Then I took another 1/4 cup of white and coloured another 1/4 cup black in a stiffer consistency to pipe the eyes. I piped the whites of the eyes with a #5 tip and the blacks with a #3 tip.

I'm thrilled with how cute they turned out. And of course a batch of cookies makes more than eight little one inch cookies. So I made some more!

264 cookies. Or as John says, 256 bits plus a byte.

I'm not sure why I felt the need to individually pack them neatly into bags, I think it's because I want to make sure that anyone who eats them gets a complete set so they can play with them first! John is going to bring some to work and so am I, but I haven't figured out what to do with the rest of them yet so most of them will be going in the freezer.

It was a fairly time consuming project as far as cookies go, so it gave me a lot of time to think about what I was doing. And I've come to the conclusion that I am completely mental when it comes to this stuff. That's the only explanation. I have no idea why I do it, I just get these ideas in my head and I get almost obsessive and I have to see it through. I feel like once the idea was there, there was no possibility of these cookies not getting made.

John tells me it's all good though. He agrees that it's a bit ridiculous, but he loves me just the same. And he always manages to find homes for all of the wacky stuff that comes out of our kitchen.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Made A Quilt!

Quilting is something I've always wanted to try, but I've always been intimidated by it. It seems like there is so much to know before you can even attempt such a big project. And it's so important to get it right the first time because of all of the work that's involved. You don't want to spend months sewing tiny stitches only to have it not turn out at the end! And come on, we're talking about a family heirloom here if it's done right. That's a lot of pressure!

But how do you connect the pieces? How does it all stay together? Where do you get the pattern? But most daunting for me was the question: How do you select the fabric? And from there, a million other questions: What kind of fabric is best? What is the filler? How much do I need? How do I pick the colours?

So for the longest time, I didn't even know where to start.

When John and I got home after Christmas, we went out to do some Boxing Day shopping. We had some gift cards from Chapters so we went to the bookstore next door which is where I found a book called Leslie Linsley's New Weekend Quilts in the bargain bin for $6. I figured it couldn't hurt.

Reading the book, I learned all kinds of shortcuts to make quilting about as much work as knitting a pair of socks. I learned how to cut out squares ten at a time and triangles 20 at a time. I learned that by sewing two strips of fabric together lengthwise and then cutting them into strips crosswise, I could cut down the number of seams I needed to sew to built my quilt squares by half. And I learned how to assemble the whole thing when I was done.

Not only that, the book had all kinds of patterns, each with a list of exactly what fabrics you would need to complete them. A few searches on the internet to answer a couple of questions I had and I was feeling confident that I could actually pull this off.

Which makes me wonder of course: How did anyone ever do this without mega bookstores and the internet? Nannie, where did you learn to quilt?

So with my new found confidence, I headed to the fabric store. I decided to do a really simple pattern for my first try. Four colours, three solid and one patterned. Black and three shades of purple: light, medium and dark. Should be easy, right?

It was. Black broadcloth was $4/meter and the medium purple jumped out at me immediately. I found a dark purple to complement it right away. Finding a light patterned fabric to match it was a little trickier, but I eventually saw a white printed cotton batik (looks sort of like tye dye but without being tacky) with light purple swirls through it. It was gorgeous and matched perfectly. Two meters of filler, a few spools of thread and I was good to go! Everything came to $70 after tax, the most expensive craft I've done in a long, long time. I had better not screw this up!

John had bought me a huge cutting mat for Christmas. It was such a thoughtful gift and it made cutting out the pieces with my rotary cutter a breeze. I think I was done cutting in under two hours. Sewing the pieces together took maybe another day or two and that's only because I'm neurotic about pressing every seam open after I sew it. I don't think my iron ever saw so much use or felt so needed before. It was really fun to watch it come together: first squares, then strips of squares, then connect the strips and add a border to the outside.

The tricky part was putting it together, and this was the part that made me question why quilting is a hobby mainly associated with old women. It was hard work! And if I can still do this when I am an old woman, I will be very happy.

First I had to move all my furniture around until I had enough floor space to lay it out flat. I laid out the black backing fabric and taped it to the floor so it wouldn't move. On top of that, I laid the filler (also called batting). Then on top of that went the quilt. So it was like a quilt sandwich. Then I crawled around on the floor, hand sewing basting stitches starting in the center of the quilt and working outwards in a star pattern so that I could move the thing but still have it stay together. That took the better part of an evening.

The next day I started the actual quilting! (You mean all the work up to this point wasn't quilting? Nope.) I had a bit of an internal debate as to whether I should quilt it by hand the traditional way, or by machine which I wasn't even sure my ancient sewing machine could handle.

Well, my laziness and my desire to see this thing finished won out and I decided to do it by machine. I quilted around the borders and then a basic checkerboard pattern through the middle. I had originally intended to do more than that but when it was done the quilt felt very stable and I didn't think additional stitching would really add to the aesthetic.

The last step was to sew the edges together and I was done!!

All in all it took just over a week. I really just couldn't put it down once I started. I'm thrilled with how it turned out and because I preshrunk all of the fabric and used polyester batting, it should be completely washer and dryer safe. Yay!

Here are some pictures. I don't think they show the true vibrancy of the colours and you can't really see the pattern on the lighter fabric, but it should at least give you an idea of what it looks like.

This is the quilt draped over the closet doors. It's really big! I think it might be big enough to cover a double bed.
And here is a close-up of the individual squares. I was really impressed by how flat the seams lay. Even up close it looks so flat that the different colours could be printed on rather than pieced together.
And here is a picture of the back so that you can see the actually quilting.

Overall, I thing I did a great job with it but I think one is enough for one winter. Maybe next winter I'll make another one that is more intricate. Only time will tell! Right now it lives on the back of my couch. It's super warm and cozy!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Knitted Wristwarmers

Finished up one of my crafty projects this week. Check out the wristwarmers I knitted:
I'm really happy with how they turned out. I took a couple of tries to get the fit right, but it worked out in the end. I think they'll look cute with my black peacoat. I used this pattern and a ball of yarn I think I paid $2 for on boxing day. Knitting is such a cheap hobby!

So let's talk about school.

When I got my letter this week, I was actually really surprised. The honest truth is that I had given up hope on going after the mess that was last year's application. I guess I just thought that I didn't get any more qualified in the past year so I didn't have any reason to expect anything to change with this application. But, I guess that when the admissions officer told me last year that they fill it first come, first serve, she was telling the truth. Apparently the secret was just to apply in the first week of October.

So when I first realized that I could actually be going back to school this year, I got a bit overwhelmed. I couldn't bring myself to click the 'accept offer' button on the website. I needed John to convince me all over again that this is a good idea and that we can manage it and that committing to being a pastry chef doesn't mean that I will be poor for the rest of my life. Luckily for me, he is not only an extremely supportive boyfriend, he's also a very persuasive speaker, so after talking to him about it, I decided it's definitely the right thing to do.

It surprises me that this was such an easy decision last year back when going back to school meant moving across the country, leaving my family, finding a new home, a new job, etc, etc. But now that I'm settled here it was a little harder because I'm on a good path now and I when I look at where I would be if I stayed on this path for five years, I like what that looks like. It would be easy, and I would be successful.

But in the end, I think life is about chasing your dreams, and this mine. So I think that even though I'm choosing a more difficult and less conventional path, I believe that it will be more rewarding in the long run.

So now I have a little game that I play every morning when I wake up. Before I even open my eyes, I think of how I'm going to spend my day at work. Then I block that out and instead I pretend that I'm going to spend the whole day making flowers out of sugar and piping intricate cornelli laces. And the feeling that I get knowing that could be a career for me helps me reaffirm every day that this is the right choice.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Welcome to George Brown College!

Dear Jacki

Congratulations! You have been accepted to the baking and pastry arts mgmt. program at George Brown College. This is the first step towards your future career. By choosing to attend George Brown College, you will be studying in a friendly, supportive and diverse environment that promotes academic and career success.

To confirmed that you plan to attend the baking and pastry arts mgmt. program at George Brown College, you must confirm online with Ontario College Application service by May 3. 2010.

Once you have confirmed your acceptance, we will mail registration and fee information around mid-June. George Brown College offers a wide range of payment options to suit each student's financial situation.

Once again, welcome to George Brown College. We look forward to seeing you this fall on campus!

Lesia Gryschuk
Manager, Admissions

Monday, February 1, 2010

Time for a Weigh-In I Think

Not a lot of excitement. After December, a month that is practically defined by excess - eat too much, party too much, spend too much - I've kind of enjoyed just putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard this January. It's been nice to have some discipline back.

So every day I worked on making my situation a little better and a little better and to show for it I have lost 7 lbs and I've saved a whole lot of cash. It feels really good! So I may not have had the most exciting January, but I'm really pleased with the results. Hopefully February goes just as well, my goal is to lose another 5 lbs this month.

John is still working six day weeks, but we managed to have a little fun this weekend. We finally got to see Avatar. What an amazing film! I want to see it again. On Saturday night I cooked a big dinner of beef stroganoff, salads and orange creme for dessert. On Sunday afternoon we went to the gym together. I just played around on the exercise bikes and ellipticals. John is thinking of joining a Ju Jitsu club that meets up there. That night we met up with Marc and Alisha for drinks. We don't see them often enough I think for how close they live.

I'm sure most of you have heard, but I'll post it here anyway: John won a scuba diving trip for two to Honduras through an online contest! He's really stoked about it. I think he's going sometime in May to Roatan and Utila and he's taking Alan with him. People seem to think it's strange that he's not taking me, but I didn't feel right about going. There's no way I would be ready to dive 100 ft deep by then and it would be no fun for him to have to go alone so I think that taking his dive buddy is a much better fit!

Other than that we haven't been up to much. It's been really cold the past week so I've been keeping indoors for the most part. It would be nice if we had some snow!

Offer letters for George Brown are supposed to start coming out this week. I'll keep you posted!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Quiet Week, Quiet Weekend

Last week I got back on track health wise. I worked out every day, I didn't cheat on my diet once.

John and I are on kind of opposite schedules right now. He leaves the house by 7:30am, I get home at 8:30pm and he's in bed by 10:00pm. So we only see each other for about two hours a day during the week and he's working Saturdays so our weekends together have been cut short as well. And I've been trying to save money so that I can go back home in March. So as a result, I haven't been getting out much.

For the most part I stayed inside all week. On Saturday I decided it was time to get out of the house so I took a walk around the neighbourhood. I've set up my diet so that from Monday until Saturday at 1pm, I eat healthily. From Saturday afternoon to Sunday night, it's my free time to eat whatever I feel like and Sunday is my day to rest from exercising. This keeps me at a 80%/20% ratio of planned living vs. unplanned. So on Saturday afternoon I was very excited to finally be able to eat some junk food after a week of whole grains, lean proteins and veggies, and I was starving!

I walked up Yonge and surveyed my options. Pad Thai? Cheeseburger and fries? Tacos? Chinese? Cupcakes? Soda! So many choices! So I stopped for a moment and paid attention to what my body was asking for.

A bagel sandwich and a blueberry smoothie. That was what I truly wanted. I couldn't believe it. For junk food I used butter, processed ham and some cheddar cheese, but it was still a whole wheat bagel, and I still put veggies on it.

It was sort of a revelation. I know that when you eat healthily, your body adapts to it, but I didn't expect it to do a total 180 so fast! Two weeks ago, my body was in a carb and sugar addiction cycle, begging for a sugar high, crashing half an hour later and then looking for more carbs. Repeat ad infinitum. Seriously, I was pretty much living off cake and cookies. Now, after only a week, already it was just looking for fresh produce, protein and whole grains. Real food.

Awesome. This isn't going to be as hard as I thought. And John is totally pumped about getting back in shape, so I know he'll keep me motivated.

Don't get me wrong, I did eat some junk this weekend. I baked some brownies, ate some popcorn at the theatre on Sunday (we went to see Daybreakers. Great movie, terrible ending), and went out for tacos on Sunday night. But by the time this morning rolled around I was happy to get back on the healthy eating wagon. Oh, and I've lost three pounds so far. Not a bad start at all!

Hey! Remember the handbag I posted last week? It's been featured on the craft blog of the girl who designed the pattern! You can check it out here. Cool!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New Year, New Me!

As I think most of you know, my best friend Jess is getting married this summer and she has asked me to stand at her wedding. What better motivator to get back in shape then wedding photos!

So Monday was the day.

I spent the weekend planning out my menu and my workout routines. If there's one thing I know about healthy living, it's that planning is the most important step. It's not enough to say "I want to lose weight and build muscle". You have to have specific targets and time lines. You have to know the actions it will take to get there and be dedicated to them. And you have to give yourself the tools to succeed. I plan for success and I plan for failure. I reward myself for doing well and sticking to the plan, but if I slip up, I make sure I have some relatively healthy junk food around in pre-portioned amounts so if I cheat on my diet it's maybe a piece of whole wheat banana bread instead of half a box of chocolates.

I set reasonable goals. Diet and exercise five days a week, two free days. In my experience, I can't stick to anything more strict than that for more than a few weeks, so even though I would like to tell myself that I'm going to stick it out for six days a week, I know it isn't reasonable for me and I would be setting myself up to fail.

So with all my plans and my healthy groceries and feeling fully committed, yesterday I started my new health regimen. The first step was to get on the scale. Or in this case, my shiny new Wii Fit. 156lbs. Yikes!

But that gave me a place to start. My goal is to get to 130lbs by June as I think this is the weight where I am the healthiest.

And John is on board too, which surprised me! Usually he shies away from this stuff because with his high metabolism he can usually get to his target weight by making only minor changes. He's actually signed up for a membership at a gym though because he wanted access to their squash courts, but he's been working out and taking classes there as well.

I'm two days in and so far so good. I was worried that making such drastic changes would be hard on my system and willpower, specifically my sugar addiction. But it hasn't been as hard as I thought it would! I've been eating six small meals a day and working out for 45 minutes each morning and so far I haven't felt at all deprived. And I know that in a few more days, I will start to see improvements on the scale (the Wii Fit puts it all into graphs! lol), and that will make it even easier to stay motivated. I'm also not putting a lot of pressure on myself for the first few weeks, as I think that at this point I will probably lose weight just by not eating Christmas cookies anymore. I'll step it up more in a few weeks if I start to plateau.

It's a great feeling to know that no matter what else happens in your day, you're making positive changes for yourself. Life is all about finding ways to be better!

Aunt Debbie, I know you're on board! Anyone else want to lose weight with me?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Handbag #4

I have this cold that I haven't been able to shake. Part of it is that my voice has been scratchy at best and at times has disappeared completely. So I've been pretty wimpy lately, staying indoors, wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of tea, a bag of Halls Centres and box of Kleenex whenever I'm not at work. John tells me that all the stress over the flights we took in December (I'm quite frightened of flying) probably shot my immune system and that's why it's taking so long for me to get better. I think he might be right.

But I'm not complaining. I'm kind of enjoying staying home, watching TV and being crafty. This week I made a crochet handbag using some of the yarn I bought on boxing day. This is actually my fourth handbag. First there was the grey tote bag I made in the summer, then the pink and grey knit bag I made in September. In November I made a black and purple handbag for Erin for Christmas and this week I crocheted number four.

This is by far the most complex bag I've made yet. It's the biggest thing I've ever crocheted by a long shot and I incorporated more detail into the liner then I ever have before. I made a matching change purse and most impressively, (in my opinion) I figured out how to install a zipper in the top of both of them. I've always been very intimidated by zippers so I'm really proud of this!

Here is the bag:
I made it using the Starling Handbag pattern (large size) from Futuregirl's blog. My friend Jennifer over at The Craftinista has been making bags from this pattern for ages and I've always thought I'd like to make one myself. I really like its simple shape and clean lines. The pattern was pretty simple to follow and I think it turned out pretty nice! Here is the side so you can see the width.
I didn't have any suitable fabric for the liner, so I headed over to Fabricland where they were having a sale on holiday fabrics. I found this wonderful, heavy pants fabric with shiny silver and black diamond print that was buy 1, get 2 free so I ended up getting half a meter for under $2. Actually, all in all, I think this bag cost about $10 to make, it was really cheap because I got almost everything on sale. I backed the lining with stiff interfacing (pellon 70 I believe) to give more structure to the bag.

Check out my awesome zipper installation! Rathere than attach the zipper directly to the outer shell, I put about a centimeter and a half of fabric on either side. The zipper I used is pretty heavy duty and meant for outerwear.
I decided that it was time to start signing my work, so I borrowed the idea for my name tags from Futuregirl as well. The text is hand embroidered with DMC floss on felt using a whipped backstitch. I love how smooth this style of stitching makes the letters. I sewed them into the liner using contrasting thread because I thought it looked better.

On one side of the liner I put a zipped pocket, the name tag and a credit card holder. I already knew how to do the zipped pocket from the first tote bag I ever made but the credit card holder was quite a bit more challenging.

I couldn't find any tutorials online so I ended up reverse engineering it from an old purse I found in my closet. I basically took at 9" wide strip of fabric and accordianed it a few times until I had two pockets. I sewed satin ribbon across the top of each fold for contrast. Then I sewed the back flap to the liner across the middle so that the back pocket wouldn't be so deep that you lost credit cards in it. I tucked in the two sides and the bottom, sewed around the three sides to attach it to the liner and sewed a seam up the middle to divide it in half. Voila! A six credit card holder!

I think this side looks pretty sharp! I love a lot of pockets.
I put two more pockets on the other side, again with a satin ribbon lining the top. One of the pockets lays flat against the bag and the other folds out to hold something thicker like a cell phone. I did this by accordianing the sides of the pocket and then sewing the folds down a the bottom so that only the top folds out.

Lastly, I took a metal ring, threaded a piece of ribbon through it and attached the ribbon to the bag (you can't see it, but the end of the ribbon is tucked into the seam attaching the zipper to keep everything neat), to clip on the matching change purse that I made. Here is the change purse. I had originally intended to make it striped like the bag but I ran out of black yarn after about four rows. So I switched to pink and I'm quite happy with how it turned out.

I cut some flowers out of a piece of felt (left over from making the name tag) and embroidered cherry blossom details onto them (yes Mom, those are french knots!) I sewed them onto the change purse with black thread so that you can't see it. I had originally planned to make pink flowers as well and attach them to the actual handbag, but I couldn't find a pink felt that was a close enough match to the colour of the yarn.

I attached a lobster claw clasp to the outside using a jump ring so that the change purse can be hooked into the bag.
As you can see, I lined the inside of this one as well, installed another zipper (!!!) and put in a credit card pocket and a name tag.

Here it is full of stuff so you can see how much it holds.
So that's it! All in all, I'm pretty impressed with myself. After I finished it, I took stock of all of the different techniques I used putting this bag together and realized I'm actually getting pretty good at this! It's just funny because I never set it as a goal for myself to learn how to make handbags, it just kind of happened. I made the first ones to learn the rudimentaries of sewing and knitting and I just kind of kept stepping up the liners each time. This time I was just enjoying the process of putting it together so with every detail I took my time and looked for ways to improve every aspect of the bag that I could.

And now I find that when I look at the purses I've bought over the years (right now I'm looking at my pink Soprano purse), I have a much better understanding of how they're put together and I feel like I'm not far from being able to recreate them. I just need the right materials and maybe a sewing machine that actually has a reverse stitch!

It's kind of neat to wake up and realize you've picked up a skill without meaning to. I think it just goes to show that you learn by doing and if you do anything often enough, you'll definitely see improvement.

So just to summarize, here are the skills I learned from this project:
  • how to crochet a foundation single stitch
  • how to crochet a handbag
  • how to embroider onto felt
  • how to hand sew a whip stitch
  • how to applique felt to crocheted fabric
  • how to install a zipper at the top of a bag
  • how to make a credit card holder
  • how to make a fold out pocket
My next project is going to be much simpler! I'm knitting some wrist warmers.