Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Valentine heart sugar cookies

I saw a commercial on TV this week for Pillsbury valentine cookies. They're really cute, but I can't imagine ever eating a cookie that started out in a can.

It seemed like it would be a really simple and fun project to do with Cal, so we whipped up a batch of Rolled Sugar Cookies using the recipe from the Joy of Cooking. It has only seven ingredients and takes less than 5 minutes to mix up - a lot less time than it would take to walk over to the store to pick up the Pillsbury can. Plus I'm sure that they taste a gazillion times better.

Rolled Sugar Cookies
1 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 ½  tsp vanilla
2 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
Beat butter and sugar on medium speed until very fluffy and well blended. Add egg, baking powder, salt and vanilla and beat until well combined. Stir in flour until well blended and smooth.

At this point I divided the dough into two portions; I kneaded red food colouring into the smaller portion, and the rest I left uncoloured.

I put each portion of dough between two large sheets of wax paper, and rolled it out to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. While you're rolling you should keep checking the underside to make sure that there aren't any big wrinkles forming. If there are, just pull off the wax paper and reposition it before rolling some more.

At this point the rolled dough needs to be cooled in the fridge for 20-30 minutes, or until it's firm. Don't skimp on this step - the chilled dough is so much easier to cut and transfer without mangling it. When you take the dough out to cut out the cookies, peel off the top sheet of wax paper, then lay it back down, flip the whole thing over, and pull the paper off the other side and discard. This makes it easy to pick the cookies up and transfer them to the cookie sheet for baking.

We cut out a large cookie from the plain dough, and then cut out a smaller heart from the inside, and replaced it with a small heart cut from the red dough.

We tossed them in the oven at 350° for about 6 minutes with the convection on. If you're not using convection, it'll take about 8-9 minutes, and the sheet needs to be turned midway through baking. The cookies should be taken out of the oven when they're barely browned around the edges, and cooled on the pan.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Pinterest challenge - Matchbox car art

When I was cleaning out the basement in preparation for the reno, I came across a bag of old matchbox cars.

I think most of them were passed along from my eldest nephew (he's 22 now), who was obsessed with them when he was young. He would spend hours lining them up in neat little rows. And his devilish little brother took great joy in waiting until he had them all perfectly arranged, only to swoop in and smash them across the room.

While my kids never really played with them, remembering how much Ryan loved them I didn't have the heart to just get rid of them. But I also didn't want them kicking around in my house in a little cloth bag forever. At some point in the past I had seen a picture of a shadow box filled with cars, so I was happy when I came across the perfect frame to use.

I enlisted Matthew's help in pulling the frame apart, and he was more than happy to comply.

He pulled the back off, opened the frame up, and did some test-fitting to make sure that the frame was deep enough for the cars to fit.

The depth of the box was perfect, so I taped up the glass on the front and sprayed the frame with a few coats of black paint. That was a little tricky since it was so cold outside last weekend and I was worried that the paint would never dry. I ended up putting the frame on an old tile that we had hanging around, taking it out on the porch to spray, and bringing it right back inside between coats.

We waited a couple of days to give the paint some time to cure and then arranged the cars inside. I used a piece of white card stock on top of the ugly bathroom print so that it wouldn't show through between the cars. Arranging the cars took some time - fitting them in the frame without leaving gaping spaces was like piecing together a puzzle.

In the end we were only able to fit about 3/4 of the cars into the frame, so it wasn't a total success in ridding my basement of the clutter, but is Matthew ever proud of how it looks. When we were making it we planned to give it to Ryan, but now I'm not sure if Matthew will be willing to give it up easily!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Quick chair makeover

I love to refinish chairs - it's so quick and satisfying. Although I'm soon going to need to start ridding my house of chairs as we're starting to get a little overrun.

When I was at Habitat for Humanity picking up the chandelier that we used in the laundry room, I found this adorable little guy.

I bought it planning to use it in Cal's room as a desk chair, as the old kitchen chair he has in there now is a little large for the size of the opening in the desk. After I got it home, though, I decided that I wanted to keep it in the living room. It's sturdy, but very petite, so it's easy to tuck away in a corner until needed for company. Plus I love the faux bamboo, and it seemed a shame to hide it away in Cal's room.

While the style of the chair was great, it was screaming out for a makeover. Between the fake antique red/black finish and the ugly granny fabric on the seat, it was looking a little sad.

It didn't take long to pull out the upholstery tacks and remove the fabric from the seat. I gave it a quick sanding and then spray painted it black lacquer. I think it looks a lot better in black.

I used the old seat cover as a pattern for the new fabric. 

I decided to cover it in the same material that I used on the bench. I centered the pattern on the seat,  added a new layer of batting on top of the old cotton padding,

and reused the upholstery nails that I pulled when I removed the seat cover to attach the new one.

There were a couple of places that gaped a little bit on the corners, but the next step was to glue down some black gimp to hide the edges. I just used the glue gun for this.

I tried to find some fancy upholstery tacks in black, but wasn't able to. I think that the glue should hold it well enough, though. If this was a dining chair that I planned to use on a regular basis, then I would have searched harder for the tacks, but since it's an occasional chair that's mostly for looks, I think it'll be fine. And if the trim starts to detach, I'll go hunting for black tacks then.

It nestles perfectly in the space between the fireplace mantle and the sideboard and it ties in with the black frame on the box of curiosities.

 Next step for the living room - new curtains. I picked up fabric for them this week, so now I need to bamboozle my sister into helping!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Adventures in birthday cakes - the Minecraft cake

This evening I wasted spent about four hours crafting small animals and people to top Cal's birthday cake. Thank goodness I baked the actual cake yesterday. Cal hates chocolate (weird, I know!), sometimes going so far as to actually spit it out after he takes a bite. So he always requests a vanilla cake. Somehow that seems a little too boring, so I made him a funfetti cake.

You can use any old white cake recipe, or even (*gasp*) a box mix, if you choose. The secret is to add in coloured sprinkles before you bake it. I make mine from scratch using this recipe.

Funfetti Cake Recipe
3 large eggs
1 cup of milk, divided
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups of white sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter
8 tbsp shortening
1/3 cup coloured sprinkles

Heat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease cake pans. I sometimes use two 9" pans, but this time used a single 10" square pan. 

Mix the eggs, 1/4 cup of milk, vanilla and almond extract in a bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix until well combined. Add the butter and shortening and mix until incorporated into flour mixture. Add the remaining 3/4 cup milk and mix on medium speed for about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the egg mixture in two additions, mixing for 30 seconds each time. Mix for one more minute, and then gently fold in the sprinkles using a spatula.

Divide the mixture into two 9" pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly pressed. Remove the pans from oven and let cool slightly before taking cakes out of pan. Cool completely before icing.

Since the Minecraft cake required a square pan and I only have one, I baked the recipe in a single pan. It took a long time for the center to cook, and probably dried it out too much around the edges. Lesson learned - next time I'll bake half and then clean the pan and bake the other half. 

While the cake bakes the sprinkles melt into the batter, and make it look so festive inside! Since I planned to use fondant to decorate, I whipped up a batch of buttercream icing to go between the layers and under the fondant. I use the standard Wilton recipe.

Then came the fun part - moulding small animals and Steve, the Minecraft guy, and decorating the cake with hundreds of tiny squares!

I used melted chocolate chips and kneaded them into the icing for the brown fondant, and painted on Steve's hair using melted chocolate and a small paintbrush. I also added a moustache, as it looked to me like he had one in pictures I looked at for reference. Apparently he doesn't, so that was a little bit of a fail. Oh well.

It was a lot of work, but I think it's just what Cal had in mind. It was too hard to get all of the little blocks the same size and thickness, so they're a little willy-nilly. If I were to ever make another one, I would cover the top in a single piece of green rolled fondant and score it to make it look like blocks. Then maybe put additional thin pieces of darker and lighter green fondant on top (just brush on a little water to melt the sugar a bit to glue them down) or use edible markers to colour some of the blocks.

It's hard to believe that tomorrow my "baby" will be seven!

Monday, 21 January 2013

Adventures in birthday cakes - making marshmallow rolled fondant

Cal's birthday is Thursday, and he's requested a Minecraft cake this year. I haven't quite figured out exactly what I'm going to do, but I know that it'll involve marshmallow rolled fondant. I discovered the recipe for this a couple of years ago, and will never decorate a cake without using it again. I can never get regular icing to look very good, but with the fondant, it's a piece of cake. 

For Cal's birthday in kindergarten, I sent in cupcakes for the class. He was really into Super Mario at the time, so I made these Mario-themed cupcakes. 

It seemed to be a really great idea - until I realized that I had spent about an hour sculpting the Mario figure, and still had 19 cupcakes to go! I had a rather late night, but got them all done in the end. And they were adorable, if I must say so myself.

For my niece's 18th birthday I made this cake, complete with curly fondant ribbons on top.

I made a pirate-themed cake and cupcakes for the birthday of a friend of the boys.  I love the jaunty little pirate men. For both the Mario cupcakes and these ones I used the Wilton edible markers to draw on the details.

And for my lover-of-all-that-is-aquatic, I made a three-dimensional shark one year. 

The marshmallow fondant is really simple to make using a Kitchenaid stand mixer. You can also make it by hand, but there's a lot of kneading, so be prepared for sore arms. The recipe for a large batch is:
     16 oz bag of marshmallows (~65 large marshmallows)
     2 Tbsp water
     7 cups of powdered sugar (approximately 1kg)

That's it - three ingredients! Plus a lot of shortening to keep your hands and bowls greased so you don't get totally gummed up in molten marshmallow.

I spread a fairly thick layer of grease on the inside of my mixer bowl before I dump the 7 cups of icing sugar in. Then put the marshmallows in a microwave safe bowl with the 2 tbsp of water, and heat them 1 minute at a time until they get all puffed up and soft. The amount of time it takes will vary from microwave to microwave. In mine, it takes about 2 minutes to fully soften them.

After they're all puffed up and wet looking, give them a stir to make sure that there aren't any big unmelted chunks left.

Then dump the melted marshmallow on top of the icing sugar in the mixer bowl, and mix it on low speed using the dough hook.

And don't forget to clean up the leftover marshmallow from the microwave bowl. 

 As the icing sugar is incorporated, the fondant will start to pull away from the sides of the mixer bowl. You want a fairly dry fondant, so it doesn't stick too much when you're rolling it out to put on the cake. I like to dump it out of the mixer at the end and knead in the last of the icing sugar by hand until I get the consistency that I like. The exact amount of sugar that you'll use will vary with the amount of humidity in the air, how much shortening you used to grease the bowl, and how fresh that marshmallows are.

In the end, you want the fondant to be firm, yet elastic, but not sticky. After you make the recipe a couple of times you get a good feel for how dry it should be at this point. The fondant is best if allowed to rest overnight at this point. I wrap it tightly in Saran wrap, and then seal it in a ziploc bag and store it at room temperature.

I'm happy to have this done tonight. I need to get the cake together on Wednesday night after work, so I'll probably bake the cake tomorrow night so I have a full evening to decorate. I better get cracking on hunting down some Minecraft cake designs!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A thing of beauty

Well, after a couple hours of elbow grease yesterday, I have a beautiful new finish on my dining room buffet.

And sore arms to boot. Since it was only the top that needed sanding and I didn't want to (and couldn't, alone) move it out to the porch, I sanded it by hand. I have belt and random orbital sanders, but I find that they kick up way more dust than sanding by hand does. The sanding is faster, but the cleanup takes so.much.longer. When I sand by hand I just keep the vacuum nearby and suck up the little piles of dust as I go.

So I spent a little more than an hour sanding it down, and about three quarters of an hour applying two coats of lemon oil to go from this

to this.

The difference is almost impossible to believe - I should have tackled this project several years ago!

Unfortunately, now my china cabinet looks extra bad by comparison.....
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