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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Sweet Heart Place Markers

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On Friday we’re having a few people over for dinner.  It’s not that we really celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it’s a good excuse to have a super fancy dinner party — where all the attendees are wearing sweat pants.  And really I think that Valentine’s Day is overhyped as a generically heterosexual romantic thing when really, why can’t we use it as a time to celebrate our love for friends and family?

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Anyway, this is the idea I came up with for place markers for each diner’s plate: SALT DOUGH!  You remember salt dough, right?  I guarantee you made it at least once as a child, or made it for a child as an adult.  If not, then NOW IS YOUR CHANCE!

It’s easy peasy.  Preheat your oven to 250°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or not, your choice).  Start with a bowl, 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup fine salt, and 1/2 cup water.  I like to add in a pair of gloves because this stuff is majorly drying to the skin, and you’re gonna have to knead it.  Plus I intend to colour it with gel paste colouring, which has a tendency to stain.

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Mix the flour and salt together, then add the water in bit by bit.  Sometimes you won’t need it all.  Today, given that Ottawa is SO FREAKING dry right now (neither Gren nor the Pie will come near me because I’m a walking static shock machine), I used it all.

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Use your hands to get everything properly mixed together.

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The dough will be very dry.  If it sticks to your hands then you need more flour.

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Here’s where I added the gel paste.  You can leave that out and paint the ornaments later, or leave them as is for a nice soft white finish.

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I got bored kneading in the gel paste and ended up liking this marbled texture so I rolled with it.

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And rolled it out with a rolling pin.  Not too thick, or the dough will puff up in the oven and take too long to dry, and not too thin, or it will just break.  But it’s not rocket science, so don’t worry too much about it. You can always re-roll scraps, too. It’s not like you’re worried about it being tough — you don’t eat this stuff.

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Then I used a cookie cutter to slice out the shapes I wanted.  Decorate them however you want with other dough or whatever. I was originally going to imprint my guests names into the soft dough, but I forgot about the whole gluten-equals-springy-dough thing and it didn’t work out.  Oh well.

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I used a skewer to poke a hole so they could be hung them up if the guests wanted to.

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In the end I had fifteen 3″ hearts, with only a little scrap of dough left.

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Lay the ornaments flat on the parchment and bake for an hour, flipping them halfway through.  If your oven burns hot, put the rack on the upper portion of the oven and/or turn down the heat if possible.

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Remove the “cooked” ornaments to a rack to cool completely.

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I used a silver Sharpie to write my guest names on each ornament and strung them with coloured thread.

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The blank hearts I hung from the light fixture in the middle of the dining room, to give a bit of height to the table decoration.

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Raspberry Trifle Cake

Ten days ago (that would be 8 March 2011) was a very auspicious day.  It was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (go us!), and it was also Pancake Tuesday/Mardi Gras.  AND.  And.  It was my birthday.  I turned TWENTY-NINE.  Holy smokes.  That’s a prime number.

In honour of the occasion (and because I need to perfect my fondant for Chel‘s wedding cake in June), I made my own birthday cake.

This is very loosely based on a cupcake the Pie and I made for our own wedding back in August 2009.  The cupcake itself came from Susannah Blake’s Cupcake Heaven, but I think I’ve sufficiently changed this so I can call this recipe all my own.

Some of this stuff you can do ahead of time, like the fondant and the buttercream icing, and just put them in the fridge until you need them.

For the Cake:

Preheat your oven to 350°F and butter two 8″ round baking pans.  Line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper and butter those too.
Beat together 1 cup butter, softened, and 1 cup granulated sugar, until pale and fluffy.
Add in 4 eggs, one at a time, and 2 teaspoons vanilla.
Sift in 2 cups self-rising flour (or 2 cups all-purpose flour and 3 teaspoons baking powder) and fold it in.
Fold in 2 cups frozen raspberries, thawed and drained.  Save about half a cup of the juice you’ve drained off for your icing.  You could use fresh raspberries if you’ve got them but it seems kind of a waste if you’re just squishing them into batter. 
Spoon the batter into your prepared pans and bake for 15 minutes, until risen and golden and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Remove the pans to racks to cool completely.

For the Fondant:

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, whip together 3 teaspoons vanilla, 1 cup butter, softened but not melted, and 1 cup corn syrup.  If you want your fondant to be white, use the light corn syrup, as the dark stuff I used gave the fondant a creamy complexion.

When the mixture is creamy and fluffy, reduce the speed to low and add 1kg icing sugar, a bit at a time.  If you do it all at once, or if you do it on high, you will get a mushroom cloud of icing sugar everywhere.

And it might even get on your dog.

When it is all incorporated, you will have a large doughy mass. 

Tip it out onto some waxed paper and knead it into a ball. If your dough is too tacky you might find that you want to add more icing sugar.  To do this simply dust a work surface with icing sugar and knead it in.

When the dough has reached the consistency that you are happy with (i.e., not sticky, but not so dry that it cracks), then you can colour it.   It helps to wear gloves for this part.

Spread a few drops of food colouring over your dough and knead them in until the colour is uniform. 

It will take a while to get it the colour you want it.

I was aiming for a pale pink but because of the yellowish tinge due to the dark corn syrup it came out more flesh coloured.  Or at least, MY flesh colour.

I pulled off an extra bit of the newly coloured dough here and added extra food colouring so it was a darker pink than the rest. 

I will use this for the decoration part.

When you have kneaded to your satisfaction, wrap the dough tightly in waxed paper and seal it in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you need it.

For the Buttercream Icing:

In a stand mixer, whip 2 cups softened butter until pale and fluffy.  

Beat in 2 cups icing sugar until you get soft peaks.

Add in 4 tablespoons raspberry jam.

And that 1/2 cup reserved raspberry juice

Mix well.  It may be slightly grainy, but that’s okay for our purposes.

Plop the icing in the fridge until you are ready to use it.

To Decorate:

Remove the icing and the fondant from the refrigerator and bring them to room temperature.

Tip out the cakes and peel off the parchment paper.

Slice off the round top of each cake, if you care about such things.  I didn’t, because I wanted the top to be rounded slightly, and so I flipped one cake upside down and put the two flat sides together.  Cut each cake in half horizontally.

I am spreading raspberry jam here in the centre, with custard on the bottom and top-most layers.  I did not make the jam or the custard myself.  I suppose you could create some form of preserve with fresh raspberries, but at this point I think I’ve done enough. I tried to make custard by hand, but I messed it up twice and that’s my limit on egg-wasting.  I suppose you could use pudding if you like, but I didn’t have any on hand.
So here’s the custard.
And here’s the jam.
Then there’s another custard layer.
Don’t go all the way to the edges, because the cake’s weight will force the filling out and down the sides.

Spread a crumb coat of buttercream on your cake (just a thin layer to trap the crumbs) and place the cake in the refrigerator for 15 minutes until the icing has set.  Remove the cake from the refrigerator and use the remaining buttercream to smooth out the surface.  Chuck it in the refrigerator again until the second layer of icing is set.

While the cake is chilling, roll out your fondant on a surface dusted with icing sugar or corn starch.  You will want to roll it to about 1/4″ thick.  Any thinner and you will be able to see the flaws in the cake through it.  Any thicker and you will have trouble stretching it properly.  Make sure to take off your rings and watches while you do this so you don’t mar the fondant surface.

To determine the surface area you will be covering, measure the height and width of your cake.  You will need to create a round surface of fondant that is a diameter of twice the height plus the width of your cake.

Gently lift the flattened fondant over your rolling pin and use it as a lever to help you lay the fondant over your chilled cake.  I found that approach didn’t work for me, and I had to try several different methods before I found one that worked.  I rolled it out over waxed paper and used the waxed paper to do the transfer.  The only problem is that my waxed paper was too narrow and I had to double it, which resulted in it leaving a line on the fondant.  I will have to find some industrial-width waxed paper for next time.

Using your hands, gently lift and press the fondant into the sides of your cake after smoothing the top.  Don’t pull on the fondant or it will crack — lift instead and flatten out the wrinkles with the palm of your hand.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but you’ll see what I mean when you do it.  Notice the strong colour resemblance between my hand hand the fondant?  Yes, I am pale and pasty and spring can’t come soon enough.

Trim off excess fondant at the base of the cake.  Otherwise you will have a cake that resembles a demented jellyfish.  Or some bizarre prehistoric alien life form that may slowly yet inexorably expand, engulfing your family, your house, and then the entire planet.  THE THING THAT TIME FORGOT.

So yeah, you want to trim that sucker.

There are such things as fondant smoothers that you can use to even out the fondant surface.  I didn’t have one, so I used a flat-sided plastic cup.  And that excess icing sugar or corn starch on the surface?  Don’t worry about it.  It will either come off by itself in the course of you smoothing and shaping, or you can wipe it off with a wet finger.It’s far from perfect, but quite impressive for a first attempt, if I do say so myself.

Here I have rolled out the darker fondant onto a sheet of waxed paper and traced on it a design.

Cut out the design with a sharp knife and pull off the excess, leaving the design on the waxed paper.

Lightly brush the top of the fondant pieces with water.

Carefully roll the design on the paper face down on top of the cake and press down lightly.

I took a deep breath after I’d done this.

Even more carefully, peel off the waxed paper, leaving your design on the cake.  Smooth the sharp edges with your fingers.

You can also freehand other elements out of the leftover fondant, as you see I did here.  You can also store the scraps in the fridge in an airtight container, just in case you want them for something else later.

Chill the cake to harden the fondant before serving.  Then eat as much of it as you can handle.

I would definitely recommend storing this cake in the refrigerator and eating it within a few days of making it.

Steamed Asparagus with Lemon, Tarragon, and Toasted Almonds

I usually make this recipe with green beans, but I couldn’t find any good ones so I used asparagus instead.

Take about 1/4 cup slivered or sliced almonds and toast them briefly in the oven.  Put a shallow layer of them  on the bottom of a pan or baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 425°F for 5-10 minutes, or until the almonds are the desired colour of brown.  Be careful not to burn them (because I totally did the first time).  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Strip the leaves from 4-5 stalks of fresh tarragon (or frozen) and set aside.

Cut the tough bottoms of a bunch or two of fresh asparagus off and bash the lower ends of what’s left with a rolling pin.

Chuck the stalks into a wide frying pan or wide shallow sauce pan and cover halfway with water.  Add a splash or two of lemon juice.  Steam gently for a few minutes until the stalks are bright green.  I was doing other things and accidentally overcooked mine a bit, as the photo shows.  You want them nice and firm.

Drain the asparagus and put it in a serving dish. Top with a generous dollop of butter, another splash of lemon juice, and sprinkle with the tarragon and almonds.  Toss until the butter is melted and serve.  Two bunches of asparagus makes enough for 7-8 people.