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,