Clay Leaf Bowls

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My mother is an artist and as such has a lot of artist friends. When I was a kid, a couple of them ran various art schools and camps and to show support, my mother sent me. I have very little artistic skill, but I loved the camps, because I got to learn new techniques and work with my hands. I especially loved working with clay. I once made a beautiful pistol replica (I was a weird kid) but it blew up in the kiln so I never saw the fruits of my effort. My lack of skill hasn’t stopped me in the years since, and when I saw these beautiful dishes from Urban Comfort, I thought, “I can do that!” So I did.

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First, you need to gather yourself some leaves. Go for the fresh ones, as they’ll be the most flexible. In these sorts of projects everyone seems to go for the beautiful fig leaves and things like that. Well, figs don’t grow in this Arctic wasteland. So I went with what was available: various forms of maple (it is Canada, after all), some ornamental grapes, random roadside vegetation … What ended up working the best, however, in terms of creating easy dishes, was from my own backyard: hostas, nasturtiums, and the gorgeous morning glory that has been tumbling over my fence all summer.

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Then grab yourself some air-dry clay (this means you don’t have to shove it in a kiln, though if you have access to a kiln, you should probably use it for these as it will make them much more durable). I picked up a 5kg block of it for $17.49 at DeSerres (actually, I had a gift card, so it was FREE).

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Grab a hunk of it and roll it out to your desired thickness. I used a fondant roller to get a smooth surface. The leaves look better in clay about 2mm (~1/8″) thick, but that makes it much more fragile to handle, so you probably want to aim for around 5-7mm (~1/4″). I use this Kitchenaid silicone mat as a work surface for anything non-toxic, including pies. It’s amazing and portable and easy to clean.

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Now, I did find that if I went straight to leaf pressing and cutting from this stage, my clay was too firmly stuck to the surface to get a good result.

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Accordingly, I carefully peeled the clay sheet off the mat and flipped it onto a piece of parchment paper and went from there. It was just easier and made sure both sides of the sheet of clay were smooth.

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Then you grab your leaves and flatten them into your clay. I used the fondant roller again to get them in there nice and good.

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These ones I am not turning into dishes – I just wanted to see what effect they would create.

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It’s neat.

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Use tweezers to get tricky ones out of the clay and pick out any stray bits of debris.

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You will have some folds and wrinkles in your leaf, just because it’s hard to press something flat that isn’t naturally flat. But don’t freak out – it just adds to the texture.

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Once you’ve gotten your leaf carefully removed you end up with this lovely impression, veins and blemishes and all.

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Use the tip of a small sharp knife (Xacto, paring, whatever) to cut along the edge of the leaf and carefully peel away the excess clay.

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This was way easier to do with round leaves than with the pointy ones, as you can see, and the round ones made better dishes anyway.

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Make a little ring out of aluminum foil and pick up your clay leaf. Bend the leaf into a more natural shape (which it will want to do anyway) and set it inside the ring to dry. Feel free to play with curling the edges up and down, in the way that the leaf would do in nature. I left mine to dry overnight, then I flipped them over (with support) to dry on the bottom for another night.

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Now you’re done! It’s up to you what you do with them next. They’re pretty fragile still, so nothing hardcore. My biggest morning glory ones broke along their vein fault lines just from picking them up wrong.

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But they make pretty neat little dishes for small items, such as jewelry.

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This leaf with a stem makes a nice holder for rings.

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The larger nasturtiums make neat bowls for pocket change. In Canada we recently got rid of our penny, but with both our $1 and $2 denominations in coin, we still have plenty of change kicking around!

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And these grape leaves make a good place to keep your spectacles, if you’re the type of person who forgets where you put them.

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Because the clay is uncured, it tends to scrape off and leave a residue, so I wanted to finish them off a bit. I used an ultra-fine sandpaper to smooth off the edges of each dish. Make sure you do this outside in a well-ventilated area. Not only does the clay dust get everywhere, but you’re also likely to inhale a bunch of it if you’re not careful. Dust off each piece completely before you do anything else. Compressed air is handy for this, but make sure to do it outside.

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I then painted each piece with an outdoor satin sealer that adhered pretty well to the clay surface. I like the soft shininess of it and the fact that it didn’t sink into the porous clay and discolour it.

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Some of the finished dishes. The one on the left is my favourite, because it’s so thin and delicate. I’m betting good money that whomever I give it to will break it within a week, and it won’t even be that person’s fault.

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And some of the bigger ones. I made so many that pretty much everyone on my gift list is getting at least one. And because of that handy gift certificate, this cost me nothing but time!

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Art with Glue and Shoe Polish

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I have been wanting to try this for YEARS, ever since I saw it on Make It … a Wonderful Life.  I don’t exactly know why it is that I haven’t made any yet — but now is my chance.  With the new place we have an excess of blank wall space and the Pie and I were both raised to believe that a) if you can see the colour of your walls you don’t have enough art on them; and b) there is no such thing as “enough” art.

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In our lower bathroom we have kind of an avian theme going on, so I thought I’d continue it while trying out this nifty craft.  Make It … designed it to be a craft for school kids to learn different techniques, but I’ve taken out a few steps for us silly adults who have trouble following instructions.

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Start with a piece of cardboard the size and shape you want your finished piece to be.  Draw a simple design onto the cardboard with a pencil or marker, and by simple I mean really simple.  Big lines and grand shapes only.  You can get fancy and detailed later.  Now trace those lines with Tacky Glue.

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I actually prefer the brand name glue for this, as it’s the only white glue I can find that dries in the same thick lines in which  you lay it down.

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Anyway, once you’ve got all the lines traced, and filled in everything you want to, set that somewhere to dry completely, probably overnight.

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When it’s all ready to go, grab a piece of aluminum foil just slightly larger than the piece of cardboard and cover one side (shiny or dull, it’s your choice) with a glue stick (you have to use a glue stick or it will show through the foil).

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Be generous with the glue stick, and go over the foil a couple times with it.  On my first one I didn’t use enough and had trouble sticking it down.

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Press the foil, glue side down, over your design.  It’s best to start from the centre and work your way out.  Press the foil against the glue lines.  You can rub them in gently with a paper towel wrapped over your finger and use a cotton swab to gently press the foil close against the glue lines so everything is tight.

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You may get rips, just because the foil is too tight.  But don’t fret — they’ll be camouflaged later.

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Now, if you like, you can take a dull pencil and start drawing in patterns in the blank spaces between the glue lines.

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When you’ve decorated to your liking, take some black shoe polish and give the whole thing a once-over, getting the polish into all those little lines you made.

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Make It … recommends the sponge-applicator shoe polish for ease of use, so that’s what I did.

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Leave it for a moment and then gently buff it off with paper towel.

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It leaves a lovely silvery patina and makes the whole thing look really cool.

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I stuck these to the boring bathroom cabinet to jazz things up a bit.

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Beeswax Food Wrap

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Christmas may be over for you, but I’m still going strong with my backlog of gift ideas, so stick with me.  And this one might come in handy for you as you are dealing with festive leftovers.

Start with some scraps of fabric, cut into various shapes, that you can wrap around bowls or sandwiches or whatever.  I finished the edges with pinking shears, so that they wouldn’t fray so fast (once they’re waxy, they won’t fray at all).

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Then grate a whole bunch of beeswax.  I did 3oz beeswax, which gave me just enough to finish 11 pieces of fabric.

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Turn your oven on to about 180°F, or as low as it will go, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Lay a piece of fabric on the baking sheet and sprinkle it evenly with beeswax.  You want enough that when it’s melted it will saturate the cloth.

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Shove the fabric in the oven for a few minutes.  Keep an eye on it and watch for how long it will take the beeswax to melt — between five and ten minutes.

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When the beeswax is entirely melted, haul out your baking sheet and immediately remove the cloth from the foil — if you don’t it will stick and get gross.  I waved mine in the air a few times before the wax set and I could set them down.

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Keep going until all your sheets are finished and thoroughly saturated with beeswax.  If you miss a spot, you can always top it up and shove it back in the oven for a few minutes.

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Use these wraps like you would plastic wrap.  They will mould into shapes with the heat of your hands and stick to themselves, so you can even cover bowls with them.

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I was going to show you the wrap on a sandwich but I was out of bread so you get deli meat instead in a wrap.  Beeswax is naturally antibacterial, and the wax itself blocks out air, so it makes a really good seal for keeping your food fresh.

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Wash gently in warm (not hot!) water to remove food goo and to ease the wax back into shape.  TADA!

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Classic Sticky Buns

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This is a recipe that the very pregnant Atlas found in a magazine my mother picked up called Donna Hay (it’s Australian.  Hello, Australians!).  I figured I would master the basic sticky buns so that later she and I could do the more complicated, fancy variations (so stay tuned for that).  We’ve already made one version of lovely cinnamon buns on Ali Does It, but I’m not above trying new recipes to see which ones I like the best.  So here goes!

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Let’s start with the dough.

Take a small bowl and 2/3 cup milk and heat up the milk until it’s lukewarm.  Add to that 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast and give it a wee stir.

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Set that someplace warm for 5 minutes, until the yeast starts to bubble and foam up.

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Lightly beat up 2 eggs.  Just bruise them a little.  Rough ’em up but no broken bones.

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And melt 125g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter (I used salted butter and left out the 1/4 teaspoon sea salt I was supposed to add).

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Plop 3 cups flour and 1/4 cup sugar into the bowl of your electric mixer.

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Add in the yeast mixture, the butter, and the eggs and mix on low for 1 minute until everything is combined.  You are supposed to use the dough hook attachment but I couldn’t find it so I went with ol’ reliable the paddle here.

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After a minute, turn the mixer to high and beat for another 5-8 minutes, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

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Scoop the dough out into a clean, lightly greased bowl, cover it with a damp tea towel, and set it somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Now the tops of these puppies are going to be covered in a sticky gooey maple glaze, which is actually going to go in the bottom of the pan and then when it’s all ready you’re going to flip it upside down.

For the glaze, take a small saucepan and dump in 1/3 cup maple syrup, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and 75g unsalted butter (or salted, if you’re daring like me — it’s roughly 1/3 cup for you imperials).

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Cook, stirring, over low heat until everything is melted and dissolved.  Raise the heat to medium and bring your sugar mix to a boil. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until smooth.

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Pour the glaze into the bottom of a lightly greased 20cm x 30cm baking pan (~9″ x 13″) and set aside.  Isn’t this pan nice?  It’s like the one in the magazine, and I said to my dad, “hey, if you were thinking of a Christmas present for me, this would be nice,” and he said, “we did.  It’s upstairs.”  TADA.  Early Christmas present.

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Once the spatula cooled off enough not to burn my face, I ate the toffee off it. It was lovely.

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Now we’re going to make a cinnamon butter to spread inside the rolls.  In the bowl of your electric mixer, dump 100g softened unsalted butter (I used salted, and eyeballed it to be somewhere between 1/4 cup and 1/3 cup — this isn’t an exact science), 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon.

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Whip those silly for about 5 minutes, until all pale and fluffy and heavenly.  Set that aside.

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Now take your dough, which should have doubled in size, and slap it between two sheets of parchment or waxed paper.  Roll it out into a rectangle that is about 60cm x 25cm (2 feet by a little less than 1 foot).

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Spread your cinnamon butter all over the rectangle, leaving a 1cm border all around.

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Sprinkle that with 1 cup toasted pecans (I had no pecans, so used raisins instead. I like raisins).

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Take your dough by the long side and roll it up tightly into a happy tube.

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Trim the edges of the bun so everything is even and cut it into 12 equal disks.

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Place the pieces cut side up in the maple glazed baking tin, cover with another damp tea towel, and leave somewhere warm to rise for another 45-60 minutes or until they’re doubled again.

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I took advantage of a cold day to sit them in front of the fire. This is the proofing stage.

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Here they are all puffed up.

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Preheat your oven to 350°F and place your baking tin on a baking sheet (to prevent burning sugar spillovers).  Bake for 20 minutes, cover with aluminum foil, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, until all golden and lovely and fully cooked.

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I erred on the side of caution and resisted the urge to continue to bake mine after 35 minutes. The dough around the sides was soft and pale and I wasn’t sure it was cooked but it totally was and made a nice moist bun.

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Let those stand in the pan for 2-3 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool (you might want to line your rack with some parchment to catch drips).  I think I may have cooked  my maple glaze a bit long because it hardened quite a bit.  It was still super good, but not as sticky as I thought it should have been.

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Final step: EAT THEM.

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Life-Changing Burritos

Life-Changing Burritos

I know.  We just had a burrito post recently.  But when we were in Portland, and I was busy doing wedding related things with Doodle and the other bridesmaids, the Pie was often left to his own devices.  Luckily, Portland is a very walkable city, and there was a good Street Fighter tournament on the web for him to watch when he got bored with walking about.  One afternoon, he happened upon a place called the Burrito Bar.  The burrito he had there, according to him, changed his life forever.  So last week, he recreated what he had eaten there and I got to enjoy it as well. Plus, we had to do something about our raging onion population.

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First, he started by making up a batch of his famous Mexican rice.

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While he was doing that he gently poached 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

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Then he put me to work as his sous-chef.  I had to make the “salad” component.  First, I opened up an avocado.

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Then I cubed it.

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Then I found a tomato.

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And cubed that as well.

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Chopped up a handful of cilantro and added that in, as well as some salt and pepper and lime juice.

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Toss that and set it aside.

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Open up a can of black beans and drain and rinse them well.

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Then he had me finely chop a jalapeno pepper, to go in his cheese sauce.

Life-Changing Burritos

Life-Changing Burritos

The cheese sauce is made by melting a tablespoon butter with a tablespoon flour to form a paste, then adding a half cup of milk.  When that is well-mixed you can add your grated cheese, about 1 1/2 cups.  The Pie used a mixture of old cheddar and spicy Monterey jack.

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Once the cheese was melted he dropped in the jalapenos and let that sit for a bit.

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At this point the chicken was ready to be shredded. Just pull it apart with some forks. It’s pretty fun.

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We added a few tablespoons salsa to the chicken.

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So now we are ready to make these burritos, baby.  We have Mexican rice, salad, salsa-y chicken, black beans, cheese sauce, and some sour cream as well.

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You’re going to need the biggest flour tortillas you can find.  These ones are ten inches, though the Pie says the one he had in Portland was THIRTEEN inches.  Set your tortillas on a sheet of aluminum foil.

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Start piling on your ingredients in the centre of your tortilla.  Be generous.

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To properly fold a burrito, we looked to the internet.  If you’re not sure, try YouTube.

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Take the opposite side of your tortilla and bring it towards you, so the ingredients get all jumbled together and pushed to one side. This also leaves a bit of food sauce on the empty side of the tortilla, which provides a bit of friction to keep things stuck together.

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Unfold the tortilla and lift up the sides, to sort of hold everything in. Take the side of the tortilla closest to you, with all the ingredients, and flip it up and over on itself.

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Then, tucking in the top of the tortilla, start rolling towards the end.  Try to get it as tight as possible.

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Make sure your ends are tucked in and slide the rolled tortilla to one side of your aluminum foil.

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Tightly roll the burrito up in the foil, and twist off the ends when you are finished, to hold everything together.  That is your burrito, all wrapped up.  We had enough ingredients to make seven of these puppies, and we tossed a few in the fridge for a later meal, and a few in the oven for about ten minutes to heat up a bit.

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To eat, just peel off some of the foil and you are all set. Take a bite.

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This is one of the burritos the next day, cut in half.  Look at that lovely combination of ingredients!

Life-Changing Burritos

Ivy Vanilla Wedding Cake – Day Two

First thing to do this morning is take the white chocolate frosting and the fondant out of the fridge to come to room temperature.  Don’t forget!

Right.  So when we left off, we had just set the gum paste ivy leaves out to dry overnight. Fortunately for me, they didn’t completely dry, so I was able to cut tiny sticks of floral wire and stick them into each leaf as a stem.  Had I known how rigid and brittle dried gum paste got, I would have done this the day before, when the leaves were still flexible.  Also, the thicker the leaf, the better it worked.My plan was to wrap these new “stems” around my green licorice whip “vine” and then drape the whole thing over the cake.Of course the leaves were pretty heavy and the licorice was pretty delicate so of course the vine broke.In any case, I got all the stems in and flipped the leaves over to dry completely.My next idea was to simply drape the licorice vine over the cake, pin it in place with a few concealed floral wire “staples”, and then stick the leaves directly into the cake in strategic places.  Of course I wouldn’t get to see if my plan worked until the following day.  The tension starts to build.The worst part of decorating the cake today was that I had a medical procedure scheduled for late in the afternoon, and I wasn’t allowed to EAT ANYTHING until after it was over.  You try icing a cake and not licking your fingers.

Now, when you make a tiered cake you need to give it support so it doesn’t sag.  Not to mention the fact that a three-tiered cake is tremendously heavy, so everything has to be strong and secure.

The entire cake rests on a cake board, which you can buy at any cake or craft store.  My lovely father decided he’d make one for me out of plywood, as a cake board is essentially just a board wrapped in foil.  In addition, you need cake circles, essentially made of cardboard (though my dad used matting board here) that are exactly the size of each of your upper tiers.  They will go on the bottom of each upper tier so that you can move them around and so cutting one tier won’t result in cutting all three tiers.  It’s really amazing the amount of hidden structural material goes into a wedding cake.Now, you want to keep your cake as cold as possible, so I worked in shifts, putting each tier back into the fridge when I was finished each step.  A cold cake is stiffer and less likely to come apart on you.  Of course, the fridge I was using was downstairs in the basement and I had to negotiate several hallways in between.  As the cakes became more and more complete, my mantra became “Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …”

First you need to level the tops of your tiers.  Use a long serrated knife to remove the round bit at the top.  To ensure a perfectly smooth top, I flipped my tiers over so the natural “pan line” was the one that showed.  I had to work super hard to get the 16″ tier to come out level.

Use some royal icing or other stiff-drying frosting (which I also purchased) and plaster some on the surface of each cake circle.  This will be your glue, and will prevent the tier from sliding off when you move the cake.I did the same with the cake board, and placed the tiers on their respective surfaces, cut-side down.Then I wrapped up the ones I wasn’t using and put them back in the fridge. Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …I’m sure I’ve spoken to you before on the importance of a crumb coat.  It is what it sounds like: a coating of icing designed to freeze all your crumbs into place so they don’t show up on the surface of the finished cake.  So, smooth a thin layer of white chocolate frosting all over the cake and try to keep it as even as possible.  Then chuck the tiers back in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes so the frosting can firm up.

I found the smaller tiers easier to decorate if I placed them on an upside-down plate on top of an inverted bowl.  Of course, if you have a rotating cake stand then you’re ahead of the game.And a handy tool like a fondant smoother is useful when you are trying to make your sides uniform.  And on your second coat of icing, be generous.  This stuff can hide many mistakes.  Chuck the tiers in the fridge again after the second coat.  Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …As I mentioned earlier, this cake is no lightweight.  In order to avoid a Leaning Tower of Pisa thing, we have to provide adequate structural support for each tier on top of the bottom one.  We are going to create hidden support columns for our tiers, putting them inside the cake itself.  This next part is a little weird, but you gotta trust me on this one.

Enter the Slurpee straw.Let’s ignore the fact that I had to purchase a Slurpee in order to make off with all these straws.  The key to Slurpee straws is that they’re incredibly wide, which makes your support column all the more strong.  Another plus is that they come in lurid colours, so you are unlikely to mistake them for the substance of the cake and consume them by accident.

So, you take your bottom tier.  Rest the edges of the pan of the next tier on top for a second, just to leave a wee mark in the frosting where you want the next tier to go. 

Insert the straw into the centre of your guideline, pointing straight down, press it all the way to the bottom, and remove it.  You will remove a tiny plug of cake while you do this, but don’t worry, you’re going to put it back. 

When you pull it out you can see the line that the frosting has left on the straw.  Cut the straw at this point, then cut four more sections of straw to match this length.

Return the centre column to its original position in the cake and insert the other four columns around the centre one to evenly distribute the weight.  Repeat this straw process for every tier except the top one and put the cakes carefully back in the fridge.Now we are going to start on our fondant embellishments.  Slice off some fondant with a sharp knife and knead it with your hands to make it more malleable.I used a small amount of the icing colour we used to make the ivy leaves to create this pale green.I rolled it flat and used a pizza cutter and a metal ruler to cut long strips of the stuff.These are going to form bands at the bottom of each tier.Working carefully, so as not to stretch the fondant strip, place them along the bottom of each tier.  Because my fondant was a little on the dry side, I found it easier in the end to cut the fondant strips into sections and handle them with a fondant smoother.  You can see that I’m wearing gloves in this shot to avoid putting fingerprints on the fondant.

I used the smoother to provide support as I pressed the strip portions onto the cake.

Then, with a soft paintbrush, I gently brushed on some green lustre dust for texture.Not bad, not bad.  You won’t notice all the imperfections from a distance, once the ivy is in place.Next I rolled out some white fondant and got out the French curvesI traced the edges with a sharp pointed knife and pulled away the excess fondant.

Then ever so carefully transferred the shapes to the cake.  I used the biggest curves on the bottom tier.On the top two tiers I used used the smaller curve.Now put those all in the fridge and leave them there.  More on Monday, when we put this baby together!

Sweet Texas Pork Ribs

Obviously it’s been a sweet week with Rusty and Mags in town.  We’ve even had some awesome weather, and what better way to celebrate summer than ribs on the back porch?  It’s become kind of a yearly tradition with us and The People Downstairs, so we took advantage of a sunny day last Friday and had ourselves some ribs.  The sauce here makes enough for four racks of ribs and comes from an old LCBO magazine.

We got these ribs from Costco, and it’s a hit and miss process.  These ones were a very strange cut, and probably tougher than we would normally prefer.  But ribs is ribs. Preheat your oven to 350°F.

First you need to remove the membrane across the bone.  This will help to tenderize your meat and will ease the absorption of juices.  It also facilitates the removal of excess fat, and boy, did these ribs ever need some trimming!  Use a paper towel to help you grip the membrane on the bone side.  Then, with steady pressure, slowly pull it off.  It’s simple.After you’ve removed the membrane, place the ribs bone-side-up in a baking dish.Now you concoct the sauce.  In a bowl, mix together the following:

1/2 cup soy sauce

3 garlic cloves (or 4 teaspoons minced garlic)

2 bay leaves

3 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon chili sauce

2/3 cup beer (the darker the better)

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon green Tabasco sauce

2/3 cup barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Pour that stuff all over your ribs.

Use a pastry brush to coat the ribs evenly.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for an hour.  Remove the aluminum foil and bake for a further 30 minutes to thicken the sauce.

Remove the ribs from the oven. 

Place the ribs on your serving plate and cut to serving size (you might want to keep it in a low oven to keep the ribs warm). You can also toss them on the barbecue for a few minutes to caramelize the juices on them.   Drain the  sauce from the pan into a gravy separator to get rid of the fat.  Discard the bay leaves.  Then cook the sauce in a saucepan for a further ten minutes until it is reduced and thickened.  You can add corn starch to push this along if you need to.

Drizzle the hot thick sauce over your ribs and serve. 

We had ours with creamy garlic mashed potatoes and a fresh green salad.