Monday, August 30, 2010

[Home] cake improvements

Since I posted about my cake-wreck experience a few weeks ago I have taken 2 cake decorating courses with one of the owners of Whimsical Cupcakes here in Edmonton. Last week's covered buttercream icing (covering a cake, piping, making flowers) and yesterday's was on using rolled fondant (colouring, rolling, shaping, etc). Both classes were informal, set up in the work space of Whimsical Cucpakes (which is quite lovely and I have serious baker-jealousy...maybe one day, when I go professional...right) and no requirements that everyone produces the exact same cake. Ailynn used to be a teacher so she's good leading the class through the techniques, giving people extra help when they need it, and she does the whole thing in a pleasant, cheerful manner.

I didn't learn a huge amount of new techniques in the first session as I've been playing around with piping bags and icing for awhile. But I did finally get a handle on rose-making, which I'd been unable to master on my own, and learned how to make a few other piped flower as well. And even though I didn't walk away with a boat-load of new skills I still enjoyed the class, plus I had a cake to take home afterward. The fondant class was good in that I learned what fondant is supposed to feel like. When I worked with it for my birthday, I had no idea and wound up with fondant that was too stiff (and I probably rolled it out a little too thick). I also learned that neither flour nor icing sugar should be used when rolling it out and working with it, which I hadn't known previously.

I've still got about 2 pounds of fondant, so I'm going to make another cake during my next free weekend to gain some experience. Plus, I need to see how long it takes to make buttercream icing, which is what Whimsical Cupcakes recommends when icing and decorating cakes. I'll put together a mock-up of the reception cake I'm making for my brother-in-law and his wife in October...except with electric pink and turquoise colours (my fondant has already been dyed, there's nothing to do about it). I also found out from taking the course that there are 2 Bulk Barns in town (well known to the residents of Ontario, but no so much to the folks in Edmonton), so I'll have to check out their baking supplies for more cake pans, leaf-shape cookie cutters and food colouring (the gel kind, not the liquid food dye you can by in regular grocery stores).

That's about all for now. There'll be at least one more cake-related post before all this is over, maybe two, then I'll stop...but no promises.



Thursday, August 26, 2010

Checks and balances

Like many women (although I think it's just about anyone these days), I worry about my weight. As a child and teen I was overweight--not hugely, but enough to get teased when I was younger. High school wasn't so bad, I went to small school in a small town and thankfully, we didn't have any strong social cliches that made life difficult for those of us who were the geeky, music-type with a less than conventional fashion sense. When I entered university I lost 10-15 pounds, mostly by being stressed (my first year did not go well), and not eating well. As I continued in my post-secondary education I became more conscious about what I ate,  started exercising more regularly and lost another 15-20 pounds (I'm not quite sure what I weigh at present as Andrew and I don't have a scale at home).

Now I am somewhat fanatical about nutrition, and I think have a greater understanding of it than when I started losing weight almost 10 years ago. Really, that initial loss was a fluke, as many students go the opposite way (Freshman 15, anyone?) and I didn't know the first thing about weight loss. Had I been living in residence where access to fast (and likely not very healthy) meals was easy instead of off campus I might have been doomed to a life of being overweight and possibly obese. What I did (and not in a well controlled, healthy manner I might add) that let me drop the pounds was I reduced my caloric intake (I can remember nights when all I had for dinner was a baked potato). This is the single most important factor in weight control: calories. You can exercise all you like, but if you don't take in fewer calories than you use in a day, you're overall body mass is not going to change.

However, the purpose of this blog post isn't preach weight loss tactics (as I am not an expert, merely an educated enthusiast). Instead, I want to report the results of an experiment I conducted with myself. For an entire week, I meticulously recorded everything I consumed. I weighted everything I put into my dinners, measured out the amounts of oil I used in cooking, etc, then added everything up so I could compared my caloric consumption with my caloric output. See, despite my belief that weight lost/gain/control is all about caloric balance, I didn't actually have any idea of how my behaviour measured up to my preaching. I also tracked all the physical activity I did during the week (a bit skewed by the fact that I'm training for a marathon and Saturday was a big run day), although I've been doing that for a while.

I had hoped to report my full nutrition intake for the week, but pulling the information together is taking more time than I had anticipated, so I'm going to report my best approximations for the time being. Time permitting (yeah, right) I will post my full food inventory later. I used the calorie calculator here: to determine my base energy requirement by entering my height (5'6" or 168 cm) and my best guess at my weight (140lbs, or 63.6 kg) and by setting my activity level at sedentary. For now here's what I found:

A number of things can be observed about my dietary habits from this basic analysis. One, my calorie intake varies greatly from day-to-day (SD = 568 calories). On my lowest day, August 2nd, I consumed 134 fewer calories than my minimum requirement compared to my highest day, August 7th, where I consumed 1,529 calories more than my requirement, but still had a deficit 140 calories. Ideally, I would prefer to balance my calorie consumption more evenly across my week, the exception being days when I participate in large amount of physical activity. As noted above, my current physical activity level is skewed since I'm training for a marathon. Once that race is over, I'll be running more like 15km on Saturdays and will therefore have to make sure my diet reflects that decrease. Additionally, in practice I find as the week goes on (say around Thursday) I usually start craving deserts, chocolate mostly, and I start to struggle to keep my eating in check. This to me suggests I might want to consider adding a small desert (we currently partake in an After Eight chocolate after dinner) into my diet, to help keep the later cravings in check.

Now, you may also notice that my calorie intake appears to be less than my total energy expenditure, which would suggest that I should be loosing weight. Since I do not own a scale, I cannot absolutely confirm or deny this, but I think this may be incorrect. My clothing still fit in more-or-less then same way it always has, and I'm still buying the same size of pants and skirts I have for years. I suspect the discrepancy here arises from the inaccuracy of estimating my calorie intake and expenditures. I cook most of my own food, from scratch, so there are no handy nutrition labels (not to mention those nutrition labels aren't always 100% accurate) on what I consume. For most of my calculations I used Wolfram Alpha ( to determine the nutritional value of the raw/fresh/whole foods I ate, and I used the recipe calculator from the Daily Plate ( to calculate certain recipes such as baked goods, and the 2 different pestos I used that week. Additionally, the calculator ( I used to determine my calorie expenditure did not factor in information about my gender, age, or height, and so I'm not sure of the accuracy of its calculations.

What's the overall take home message of this experiment? I think, as long as I continue to maintain my activity levels, my daily caloric intake is okay. As mentioned above, I cook, from scratch, so my consumption of sodium, high-fructose corn syrup (or any other type of sweetener that tends to get added to store bought meals), food colourings and other chemicals manufacturers like to throw into food is low. In the spring, summer and early fall, Andrew and I purchase as much as our produce from the local farmers market as possible, so it's fresh. We also eat limited amounts of meat (usually only a couple of times a week) so our intake of cholesterol, and protein is relatively low as well. As noted, I would like to even out my diet, so the calorie intake is more consistent across the week, which I hope will keep cravings for deserts in check. Also, any diet I cannot stick to happily, is not worth sticking to at all. Food plays an integral part in our lives, and affects how we feel about ourselves and everyone needs to find their balance. I love food. I love cooking it and eating it. Keeping myself in balance is always a challenge, but as it has to do with my health and happiness, it's a challenge worth facing.



Suggested Reading:

I follow a number of food and nutrition related blogs. If you're interested, consider checking out:

Weighty Matters (written by an MD who specializes in treating obesity):
Fooducate (maintained by an educated, and concerned citizen, but often features guest bloggers who are nutritionists, etc):
Food Politics (written by a nutrition professor, this blog pertains mostly to food safety):

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lighting it up in Vegreville

People are usually interested/excited when Andrew and I spin our poi. It's fire. People are drawn to fire, (a little like moths, really) especially when another person is crazy enough to fling that fire around their body. We don't advertise our fire spinning skills for hire, but if you invite us over to a causal house party there's a good chance we'll bring food and/or fire. We're kind of a great party addition that way. We'll feed you, and entertain your guests.

At any rate...

Back in the beginning of July we attended a board game party, and seeing that it was the Canada Day long weekend we thought it would be appropriate to bring our own fireworks (I made some good ole' classic chocolate chip cookies too). Our hosts agreed it would be a fun show and allowed us to use their backyard as a stage. As expected, the other attendees were amused and as it turned out, a couple of members of the Vegreville Fair organizing committee were amongst the guests. They wanted to know, did we do shows? How about at Vegreville? Since Andrew and I generally only spin a couple of times a year, and it's always fun to perform in front of people who are likely not to have seen such a show before, we agreed.

Now, fast-forward to the weekend before last. Since poi is best viewed in a certain level of darkness we weren't scheduled to appear at the Fair until 10:30-ish. We stayed at home for most of the afternoon and early evening (we completed a giant run that morning and our feet were TIRED) and didn't head out to Vegreville until around 8:00 pm. We'd never been to Vegreville before, but we understand it's the home of "The World's Largest Ukrainian Egg" (I only say "understand" as we didn't actually see it while we were there). We arrived in Vegreville at around 9:30, called our Fair contact to let them know we were there, and met up with them a few minutes later.

We walked over to the fairgrounds (only a minute or two away from where we parked), were shown where we would be preforming, then since we had time to spare before our show, we wandered around the midway. I love roller coasters. It's been a while since I've been on one (for several years I made an annual trip to Canada's Wonderland to ride the rides, but there aren't any substantial amusement parks in Alberta) so I thought it would be fun to go on a couple of the midway rides to pass the time. Sadly, I can no longer tolerate little fair rides that more-or-less just go around in a circle. I got dizzy and nauseous on both of the ones we went on, and I really hope this doesn't mean I can't do big rides anymore too. Thankfully, I wasn't the only one feeling this way. Our whole party agreed that little circular rides don't agree with adult stomachs.

By 10:30 we were back at the bandstand where we were to preform. Unfortunately a band was setting up behind us who required the stage light on, but we seemed well received anyway. We spun to music by the "Afro Celt Sound System" (we don't usually use music, and we picked it maybe 20 minutes before we left home, then decided which songs to use probably less than 20 minutes from Vegreville), which seemed to work well. I sort of danced around to it as I spun, and the afro-celt beat complimented our show. We did 2 rounds of spinning each, plus a finale where we spun at the same time. The folks in Vegreville seemed to enjoy our spinning and our hosts told us that people were pulling out their cell phones and telling people to come over and see us. That's pretty awesome, I think. Plus the entertainment organizer wants us back next year.

After we finished our show we hung around for another hour or so, heading over to the beer gardens with our hosts. We drove back to Edmonton that night (despite the 1.5 hour drive) since I knew I would sleep better at home. Overall we had fun, and I think both Andrew and are interested in doing it again next year.



PS if photos taken during the show are made available online, I'll post a link. For now here are some old photos of us.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

First-time Folk Fest-ers

The Fest and the Tarps

This past weekend was Edmonton's annual Folk Music Festival, or more commonly known as: "Folk Fest." I had heard of Folk Fest before, but I'd never been. It is as one might expect, a festival featuring folk music, lasting from Thursday evening until Sunday evening--there's also a Wednesday night show, but it's a fundraiser and not considered (at least by some) a part of the "true" Folk Fest. There's a whole culture around the festival, which I still don't fully understand. From what I've been told, there's a magnificent "tarp run," which takes place at the beginning of each festival day where attendees run for a spot on the main hill. I understand that it's a whole complex affair where you have to line up (at the crack of dawn) for draw/lotto tickets, which gives you a place in the tarp run line. Then you're put into a corral in the order in which your ticket was drawn where you have to wait for the official release to the hill. Apparently if you're at the front of the line you get to escorted by a piper. On the whole there's a lot of waiting in between everything before the music finally starts. Andrew and I only attended the Friday night concerts and didn't arrive until after work, so we missed out on this experience.

The Folk Fest site is much larger than I had initially expected, with something like 7 performance stages in total. It takes place on a small ski/large toboggan hill in Edmonton, just off the river valley. We entered at the bottom of the hill and I must say, the first site of the main hill is impressive. Tarps are pegged down within centimetres of each other all the way from the bottom of the hill (where the stage is) to the top. From what I'm told these tarps can only be a certain size (8 by 10 feet, I think) and there are "tarp police" who will measure your tarp if they think it's too big. People leave their extra clothing, food, bags etc., at their tarp while they go around to the smaller stages to listen to music, but it's important to have a good spot for the main stage performances, which happens at the end of the day.
A view of the main hill from our spot only a few rows up from the stage.
The Chairs

Before I can get to the music I still have to talk about the chairs--yes, the chairs. You can't just bring any old lawn chair with you to sit on at Folk Fest, you have to have special, low-lying chairs (the legs are maybe only 6 inches tall) so that people behind you can see. Again, there are "chair police" who will measure the height of your chair if someone complains. We had several discussions ahead of time as to what kind of chair we should bring--there are lots of different ones: little folding beach chair-types and less luxurious camp chair-types. There seemed to be quite the mix as to what people used. We opted for a Therm-a-Rest contraption that converts your sleeping pad into a chair since we figured we would use them on future camping trips. Andrew recently purchased a large air inflated therm-a-rest and made quite a comfortable chair, whereas I used a smaller foam-like mattress, which sufficed for one night. I'd definitely need to upgrade if I attended for an entire weekend.

The Music

I like music (if you hadn't all ready figured that out from reading this blog). I usually say I like just about anything for the exception of really hardcore rap and really loud "crash and boom" heavy metal (I'm okay with stuff like Metallica, though). So, I figured that Folk Fest would be right up my alley and was quite happy to purchase a ticket--although there was some question at first as to whether or not we should get a pass for the entire festival, or just one night. Since Andrew and I were first timers, we thought getting a single ticket would be a safer bet, just in case (in case of what, I have no idea). A friend of mine, who was instrumental in coaxing us into go this year, suggested Friday night might be best. (A considerable amount of ribbing between my friend and Andrew about how she was trying to indoctrinate us into the Folk Fest cult took place.) That way we would be able to see a mix of both session performances and main stage acts.

We arrived at the Folk Fest site around 5:30 pm, which gave us enough time to eat dinner (brought from home; however, there were plenty of places to buy food) and chat a little before heading off to the sessions, which started at 6:00 pm. I didn't have any particular musicians I wanted to see, but Basia Bulat (frequently played on the CBC) was on Stage 3, so we decided to start there. We picked a spot about half of the way up the hill and settled in for the performances. At the sessions, there are 4 different artists lined up along the stage and one after the other they play a song, with maybe a little witty banter in between. This session happened to be all female vocalists. Aside from the aforementioned Basia, there was Cindy Church, Kate Rusby (Scottish, by her accent), and Dala (2 young women who played and sang together). I enjoyed the music from all the groups, especially Kate who made me want to get up and ceili dance...except we were sitting on a pretty good incline, which would have made things rather difficult.

Shortly before 7:00 pm, a Folk Fest worker interrupted the performances to announce that a potential storm was on it's way, bringing with it expected high winds and strong rain. With this alert I pulled out my rain pants (and put them on) and my jacket, determine not to miss out on the music if it did rain. The sky definitely clouded over, and the winds were quite blustery, but no precipitation fell. After a while I took my rain pants off and put my jacket away, rather relieved no storm took place.

The second session we listened to was also at Stage 3 (we decided we were happy where we were and felt no inclination to move) and was the reverse of the first session in that it was all men. Ray Bonneville (I would guess Irish, by his accent), Calum Graham (a wee youngin' of 18 years) and Tony McManus played guitars, while a pair of brothers from India (the lead/main brother was Debashish Bhattacharya) played a couple of traditional instruments from their country. Again, all of the musicians were quite good. I think Andrew and I were especially impressed by Calum who was quite accomplished for his young age and produced some interesting accompaniment to his playing by taping on his guitar.
A view of Stage 3 from our position on the hill.
Me, on the hill, watching/listening to the first session on Stage 3.
Main Stage

A little before 9:00 pm Andrew and I made our way back to the main stage for the first show, which featured the Levon Helm Band. I'm fairly certain I recognized the name of this band, but I don't think I knew any of their songs. It also took me sometime to figure out who Levon Helm was, as there were a number of different leads throughout the performance. As it turned out, Levon Helm was the little guy at the drums (from our vantage point he seemed quite hunched, although he's also 70 years old, so it might just be an age effect). Despite not really knowing any of their songs (and it being very loud--I could feel the base reverberating in my chest), I still enjoyed their big band/country/blue grass sound, or however you might describe it.
The first main stage act, the Levon Helm Band.
As the sun went down attendees lit candles (those little tapper candles with plastic cups to catch the wax drippings were being sold for $2). The sight was quite spectacular and as we drove home a later we could still see candle flames from the other side of the river. Once the Levon Helm Band finished, Basia Bulat entertained while the stage was re-set for the next band, Calexico. Calexico is from Arizona, and definitely had Spanish/Mexican/Western feel to them. We only stayed for a couple of their songs as it was almost 10:30 pm by the time they started, and we had to get up early the next day to run.
The hill in the evening, after the sun had gone down.
All-in-all, Andrew and I had a good time. I'm definitely interested in going back next year, although for how many days is still up in the air. We may have another commitment at roughly the same same time next year in Vegreville (to be discussed in the next blog post) which may prevent us from going to the entire event.



Sunday, August 1, 2010

My own cake wreck

After a very successful experimentation with rolled fondant for my own birthday cake, I figured that putting together Andrew's birthday cake would be a sinch. I wasn't even going to do fondant, but try making chocolate leaves (something I saw in a Find Cooking magazine). Alas, this is the third birthday cake for Andrew in a row I've ruined. Our first year out here (when I say out here, I mean in Alberta) I made a butterscotch chiffon cake, which is a Milne family recipe. That was before I got into making cakes, so there's no picture. The second year I made a maple walnut cake out of a Canadian Living magazine (pictured below). The year after was the year the Canadian Space Agency was looking for astronauts (Andrew just missed making the cut for interviews) so I made a space shuttle cake (i.e. a cake in the shape of a shuttle). It tasted okay, but I didn't have black food colouring, so I had to trim the cake with blue--it didn't quite look the way I had wanted it too (no picture). Last year I made a red velvet cake. Again, the cake was excessively delicious...all that red food dye...but the decorating...oh boy. I wanted to go with another space theme, so I tried to use marshmellows to make stars (initially thinking I could use toothpicks to make them look like they were shooting out from the cake), but the icing colour went out of wack. It ended up neon. I was sorely disappointed (definitely no picture).

The last good cake I made for Andrew, a maple walnut cake (including candied walnuts on the top).

To Andrew, my lovely husband, I sorely apologize. For the third year in a row I botched your birthday cake. I swear, upon pain up death, I will get it right next year.

What happened this year? Well, the first problem was that I felt rushed. Between training for the marathon, completing house cleaning chores, trying to get some writing in, and playing a double header of soccer on Tuesday night, I had to squeeze icing and decorating the cake into the leftover time. Second, the chocolate leaves didn't work. I'm not sure if it was due to low quality of chocolate (cheep melting chocolate from Michaels) or that fake leaves aren't suited as a mold. Either way, I had difficulty spreading the chocolate evenly, then when it set it cracked as I tried to remove the leaves. Third, the raspberry filling I used to separate the cake layers wouldn't thicken sufficiently so that it squirted out when I added the top half. Finally, and most disastrously, the icing wouldn't thicken. I used an icing recipe from Fine Cooking, where you melt chocolate with butter, and cream, then let it thicken and cool before applying it to the cake. As I prepared the icing on Wednesday I read the recipe and noted that it used plain sugar for sweetening rather than icing sugar. This is the conversation I had with myself: White sugar, granulated sugar, is that right? Better check it again. Yup, okay, granulated sugar. I should probably use icing sugar to help it thicken better. Hm, but I've made this type of icing before, I should just follow the recipe it will be fine. Trust the recipe, the people at Fine Cooking know what they're doing. This is what happened:

Doesn't that look delightful? It's like the cake has been slimed.

Despite an entire day in the fridge it never thickened sufficiently.

Sure, it looked terrible, but at least it tasted good.

To John and Cindy, if either if you are reading this blog post: THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN TO YOUR CAKE. I promise. I'm scheduled to take a couple of cake decorating courses at the end of this month. One on regular cake decorating, how to make icing, basic piping techniques, etc. The second is on rolled fondant. Also, I will make sure to start on your cake as soon as I get home in October. I'll bake the cake right away and put it into the freezer until needed. Then I will set aside lots of time for making decorations, etc. It will be beautiful. In the meantime, here are some pictures of cakes that did work out.

I had no piping bags at this point and had to used a plastic bag for the writing. It's pink, 'cause it was for Mandy's birthday.

Honestly, this cake was a bit of a mess, but I spent hours making icing flowers. The roses turned out well.

A chocolate, pepermint cheesecake. Yum.

Birthday cake for my mom a couple of years ago, clearly more successful than the one I made for Andrew...

Finally, my birthday cake.