Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dina's Second Birthday - Barnyard Theme

Choosing a theme for Dina's second birthday was exciting to me, because for the first time she could tell me what she wanted. Unfortunately, she didn't have much to say about it. "Chocolate!" was about all I could get out of her with respect to a theme. Since her favorite toy at the time was her Fisher Price farm we got at Queen's Day (giant garage sale) the previous year, I decided to go with a Barn-Yard bash.
My first challenge was finding a plate big enough to hold the design- Inge saved the day in that regard. The white platter I used is HUGE- 20 inches across (51cm).  My sweet husband used sketch-up to create a barn coming out of a 9" round cake, complete with silo, so I'd have measurements. My biggest concern was getting the proportions correct, so I modeled the animals to be similarly sized to the little plastic ones Dina loved. I only had the horse and chicken to work from, so for the rest of the animals I had to wing it.

About two months before hand I made a test cake to check my estimates of the sizing with respect to her plastic horse:
The size of the little plastic horse looked decent, and this gave me an opportunity to measure an actual cake, frosted. Using sketch-up for the sizes, I cut out graham cracker pieces for the barn and glued them together using Royal Icing. I had to use a small box to prop it up to dry.
My friend Marieke holding the printout of the sketch-up design:
Creating the animals out of gum-paste took me several hours, over the course of several nights. Once I had a couple made, though, the rest of them went much quicker than the first few.
My favorites were the sheep and the pig. They just looked so friendly! I didn't end up using the chicken eggs that I made. The bright colors(like the chicken's feet) I got by applying Wilton gel-coloring directly to the finished animal. Made for a bit of a mess, and tough to handle without getting the color everywhere, but it looked bright.

The stone path was also made using gum-paste, and I didn't blend the gray/black colors completely, so I could get a mottled texture for some of the stones. Using a piece of plastic wrap inside a small bowl, I made a blue jello pond (only half the recommended water in the recipe) which I let set for a day in the fridge and placed it at the last minute on the platter for the duck to swim in. Interestingly, within a few hours the gum-paste duck began to literally melt into the jello-pond.

The silo was made with a cupcake placed on top of the cake, and graham cracker pieces to form the edges. I coated it with royal icing (the barn too), and got the bright color by using Wilton's no-taste red gel coloring.
The inside of the cake was chocolate (of course) with a chocolate ganache filling. My friend Sam (above) really enjoyed the royal-icing coated graham crackers and was excited to try a chicken wing.
The only thing I did not get a chance to do was my plan to have the writing on the cake be made by a sky-writing plane. My idea was to have the exclamation point trail off a bit with a plane below it, as if it just completed writing in the sky. But I ran out of time.
 The cake and the grass are buttercream icing, and the pig's mud is crushed Oreo cookies. The chicken is hanging out in crushed cookies, too and the horse has a bit of Haribo candy coil in the barn. I made the small hill the sheep is standing on using the shavings from the cake (to make the cake flat on top).
What was most important was my Dina's reaction. And it was priceless:
She gave it her all blowing out the candle:
The benefit to using gum paste is that when your creations dry, they are stiff, unlike fondant, which sags if you leave it at room temperature. The animals were made a few days in advance, so by the time we ate the cake, they were quite hard. The stone path I made the night before, so the stones were still a bit soft but did hold their shape okay. Everything on the cake was edible, and we ate (almost) every last bit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Red Lentils and Sweet Potato Main Dish

How do you feel about Indian food? For me, it is a reminder of comfort, of Rochester, of India House Restaurant on S. Clinton Ave. When I meet a new friend who is Indian, I think to myself: I bet she eats good at home. Granted, not everyone is a fan of the spices used in Indian cooking, but if you've ever had curry and ginger and garlic together, you know it can make your mouth happy. Additionally, this has the benefit of being a main dish containing quite a bit of protein (all I hear about from my Dad- how much protein are you getting? Are you eating enough protein?) that is also vegetarian.
Try this recipe I modified from treehugger.com: I love the simplicity, the taste, and the gorgeous orange presentation.

Red Lentils and Sweet Potato Main Dish (serves 2 to 3 people as a main dish, 4 to 6 as a side dish)
4 cups boiling water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
a pinch of salt
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and diced
3 small garlic cloves (or more, to your taste), chopped
1 Tbsp curry powder
1 bay leaf
270 grams of red lentils (1 & 1/2 cups)

1. Prepare 4 cups of boiling water.
2. Heat oil in a medium, high-sides sauce pan(you'll need to fit the 4 cups of water and other ingredients in it, so make sure it is big enough). Add onion and salt and saute for 5 minutes or until onion is translucent.
3. Add sweet potato, ginger, garlic, curry powder, and bay leaf and saute for 1 minute, or until fragrant.
4. Pour in the boiling water and lentils. Stir to combine. Cover, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes.

Serve this with Naan (Indian bread) if you have it. I love this with a side of green peas, and a salad. Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite vegetables of all time. I can eat one straight out of the microwave (10 minutes, and prick it with a fork beforehand!) and my daughter loves it, too. In fact, whenever I try to serve her regular mashed potatoes, she says, "No! I want the orange ones!"

Orange is a popular color here in the Netherlands, as it is the Queen's family color, so whenever Dutch people are feeling patriotic, they wear orange.
Red Lentils and Sweet Potato is a simple recipe that tastes great and fills me up with protein. Red lentils are available at Rohit, Turkish stores, and Reformwinkels(health food stores) here in the Netherlands. One of my favorite reformwinkels is EkoPlaza on Geldropseweg in Eindhoven.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hot Chocolate - no sugar - no artificial sweetners

The snow is finally here in the Netherlands! The day we returned from Austria it snowed about 6 inches, causing the last 3 km (of our 900 km trip) to take 1 hour instead of 10 minutes. The roads and trains were all a mess, but the beauty and fun that is snow made it all worth it the next day when we woke up to this:
We even got to skate on our local pond! The Dutch are crazy about skating, and so am I. Unfortunately, my 32 year old skates finally bit the dust. They had belonged to my mom when I was a child, and she used them to skate on Keuka Lake. I used them in college when I took skating as a gym credit, and on Rochester's Manhattan square park ice rink. The skates have been in storage (out of the sun) for the past few years we've lived here and when I tried to put them on, they just fell apart.
I was lucky my friend Inge was also skating with her boys and our timing was perfect- she was finishing up when we arrived, so she loaned me her skates.
On the first Sunday since the super cold temperatures have hit us here, I think the entire village showed up to skate on the pond. Some people were playing hockey, some people were pulling their kids on sleds on the ice, some were having hot beverages at a table set up on the ice. Gezellig!
The hockey game even had uniforms of sorts!
Even the dogs had fun on the ice:
When we got home, I was craving hot chocolate. While I can't say I'm actively trying to eliminate sugar from my diet, I am trying to reduce my sugar intake. A sugarless hot cocoa search on the web gives you lots of artificial sweeteners and pre-made packets, but why not use a natural sweetener like honey?
Confession: I forgot to take a photo until there was just a half cup of cocoa left. It reminded us of melted chocolate ice cream. Rich, thick, hot and pure chocolate.
Next time, if I'm shooting for a vegan version, I think I will try this with oat milk, as that seems to be the closest thing to milk without that tell-tale soy flavor.

Hot Chocolate (sugarless, no artificial sweeteners)
Makes three 5 oz (155 ml) servings
2 cups low-fat milk (475 ml)
1/4 cup packed (30 g) Dutch processed cocoa (regular cocoa is probably okay to use, just use a quality brand)
2 1/2 Tbsp honey (75 g)

1. Bring milk to a simmer over low heat on the stove. Add cocoa, whisking to combine for several minutes. Add honey, and stir until completely combined.

Personally, I found that slightly less honey (about 1 tsp per 1/2 cup of the cocoa/milk mixture) was enough for my tastes, but my daughter liked about double that level of sweetness, which is what this recipe calls for. I even enjoyed the cocoa/milk mixture unsweetened and also liked it added to my coffee.

Doesn't this photo remind you of one of the old Dutch masters' paintings?
I sometimes feel like I'm living in the past, but in a good way.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Austrian Cheerios

We just got back from what the Dutch call 'winter sport' or what Americans call a 'ski trip' to Austria. We rented an apartment that was described as having a kitchenette, so I had low expectations for cooking/baking. Surprisingly, it had a real oven and a decent stove! But what I'd like to talk about is the cereal. It is fun to see different options in the grocery stores. The first store we stopped at was called Spar. Aside from the odd practice of it closing during the lunch hour, we found a version of Cheerios that I had not seen before here in Europe.
I'm sure you folks in the USA have access to these at any local grocery store, and perhaps they are not new to this area either, but I had not seen them before now. To translate these are "Corn, Oat, Rice, Wheat" Multi-grain Cheerios and they are not so sweet, which is fabulous. One of my biggest complaints here is that the available Cheerios are all drenched in sugar.
Furthermore, these were more like regular USA Cheerios, soft, with a tender crunch that would never break your teeth. Yay! Too bad the drive to the nearest Spar is 10.5 hours from us.

Even though this is a food blog, I feel inclined to share a few photos of the fabulous skiing in Austria.  Here was our gondola ride on Thursday:
Here I am posing with the local mountain-top chef- "Happy Rahmbo."
 And the crazy solar phenomenon we were lucky to see on one of our favorite runs:
We think this is a "Sun Dog" but we aren't sure.  Any budding astronomers out there?
Mike and the sun dog. It was really amazing to see... and to ski! Special thanks to my mom for babysitting so I could ski for the first time since 2007. And Dina (2 years, 10 months) even tried skiing!
Her first time she was more interested in the magic carpet than actually skiing.
The second try she said everything was fine but after we finished we noticed this item in the ski boot:
One of her wooden toys- a bon-bon, was inside her left boot. She never mentioned it, and we even asked her if they felt okay! Here she is, skiing just fine, even with the bon-bon boot.
The next day we tried it again, sans bon-bon, and her performance was amazing. I guess the bon-bon in the boot was really holding her back. We were so happy she loved it!
Go Dina!