Spidermageddon

Apple Clafoutis

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the entire spider population of the world. I’m happy to live and let live with my “spiderbro” friends. But ever since we moved into the new house, we’ve been completely overrun with spiders. They’re just the common North American house spider, and they mean no harm, but each room contains at least a dozen. There are no other bugs in the house, so we assume that they’re just eating each other to survive.

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Mostly they just build little nests, fight, and mate with each other. Sometimes there’s serious drama that occurs in the corner of the shower or the living room ceiling.

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Recently, I was reading in bed and found one crawling up my arm – I squished it accidentally because I thought it was the dog touching me with his wet nose. And then I thought about whether I wanted these creatures crawling around the new baby and I got all skeeved out …

So Spidermageddon happened. I took my vacuum and sucked up all the cobwebs, tiny nests — spiders too — that I could find. Some spiders hid behind objects but I managed to winkle all of them out eventually.

Then, before they could come back, I whipped up a quick and natural spider repellent. Spiders not only walk with their front feet but they eat with them too, so anything strong-smelling that they’re walking through gets in their mouths and they really don’t like that. So any pungent essential oil will do – I picked some that are particularly strong.

Grab a reusable spray bottle and tip in about 5 drops each of your essential oils: here I used lavender, peppermint, and citronella (I figured the citronella would repel the OTHER bugs should they come out to play this summer). Add in as well a dash of dish detergent – the soap will help to disperse the oils better than if you didn’t use it.

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You can also add a splash of white vinegar. The acetic acid is an irritant to spiders and other bugs, but it may also discolour the surface of what you spray it on so be warned. I was using it on the walls and windowsills so I wasn’t worried.

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Fill the rest of the spray bottle with warm water, give it a little shake, and spray away!

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Make sure to cover all the spaces where you found spiders in the past, like ceiling corners (they like pale or white surfaces to attract mates), and places they might enter the house, like windowsills and sashes.  I went through two bottles of the stuff in order to get all the rooms in the house.

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A week later I find the occasional spider, who gets deported and then the spot re-sprayed, but we no longer feel outnumbered in the house. I consider it a success!

Pretending it’s Spring with a Feather Bouquet

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So.  If you’re anywhere in the world that has been experiencing winter this year, you know that it pretty much has universally sucked.  In Ottawa, and Canada in general, we just got wind that winter isn’t ending anytime soon.  In fact, the forecast is so depressing that our country’s senior government meteorologist has gone into hiding.  I kid you not.

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So I’m doing what I do every year and going into denial.  I’m going to pretend it’s spring with a pretty fake bouquet in my front hall.

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I picked up a bag of feathers from Value Village for $1.99 about two weeks ago.  Inside the bag were four packages of craft feathers from White Rose, which was a craft supply store similar to Michael’s that went out of business when I was a teenager.

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Three packs of white chicken feathers and one pack of dyed chicken/other bird feathers.

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Also, holy smokes feathers are staticky.

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I didn’t want an all white bouquet with accents of brown, so I decided to dye the feathers to suit my mood.  I’ll leave the ones that are already coloured for something else.

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Find a dye-proof container (usually a glass bowl), and drop in 4 cups hot water, 2 teaspoons white vinegar, and lots of food colouring in the colour of your choice.  I went with red, purple, and orange.

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Jam those feathers in and squish them down.  You want to bedraggle them as much as possible.  You can un-bedraggle (undraggle?) them later once they’re dried.

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Leave them in the dye baths for 5 to 15 minutes.  The longer you leave them in, the darker they will get.

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I picked plastic bins for my dye batches because I could cover them when I left them unsupervised.  I suspect if you have small grabby children this might come in handy.

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Pull the feathers out of the dye baths and set them to dry for several hours on a paper towel.  Just a warning that until the feathers are completely dry, they will still stain things with food colouring, so be careful where you set them.

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I thought that the orange batch was doing better than the other two, and I later found out why.  In the orange batch, you can see that I only have two of these long feathers with the rounded tips.  All the other ones have the flat tips.

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In the red/pink, the proportion of long round ones is higher.  For some reason these round ones are more waterproof (I’m sure someone who knows more about feathers knows why but I don’t really care).

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The purple batch had the most round feathers of them all, and so came out the palest overall.

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But I wanted variety, so variety I got. And I also dyed my fingers quite well.

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Once they’re dry you can fluff them out again.

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Then I took a spool of thread and got to winding the feathers together at the stems, one by one, starting with the smaller ones in the centre.

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I added larger and larger ones as I kept going, eventually tying off the “bloom” with lots of thread left over.

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One down, several more to go …

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This is definitely a job you will want to do while watching or listening to something else.

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When I finished, I took a branch I found in the park and used the loose thread to wind the feather bundle to the thread.

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All finished.

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The Pie thinks the pink ones turned out the best, with the colour gradient, but I’m partial to the orange ones.

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The Ultimate DIY Glass Cleaner

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Don’t get me wrong.  I love my Method glass cleaner.  The mild minty scent, the streak-free shine … It’s all good.  But I was almost out, and I’m kind of on a make-your-own-cleaner kick at the moment, because I have no money (what else is new?).  So I decided to make my own.

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Fortunately the internet already did all the research for me, and Crunchy Betty in particular did all the heavy lifting in determining what the best homemade glass cleaner should be made of.

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Her “Alvin Corn” cleaner combines the best of everything: alcohol, vinegar, and cornstarch.  Cornstarch.  Though if you read the ingredients for the Method stuff you’ll also see that it has corn based ingredients.  Seems legit.

Basically, all you gotta do is chuck it all together in a spray bottle and away you go.  Grab a funnel if you find that easier and dump 1 tablespoon cornstarch into it.  Wash it down into the bottle with 2 cups warm water, 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol, and 1/4 cup white vinegar.

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Make sure you shake it extremely well before using, as the cornstarch may settle, and you don’t want that clumping up your spray nozzle.  I decorated the old Method bottle a bit to pretty it up.

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I think the best test of a new glass cleaner is on my ultimate cleaning nightmare: DOG NOSE GOO.

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dun-dun-DUUUHHHHHN!

If you have a dog, you know what I mean.  It’s that crap they leave behind when they’re looking out the window, because for some reason they can’t do that without actually applying their noses directly to the window itself.

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One of the few things that cleans dog nose goo really well, I find, is straight rubbing alcohol, but using it straight tends to take the paint off the window, as well.

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So having rubbing alcohol IN the cleaner itself is a plus for me.

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And once I pried the dog away from the window, it easy peasy.  All that dirt you see that is left is on the OUTSIDE.  And it’s too cold for me to attempt that today.  The spray does smell strongly of alcohol (I contemplated adding a few drops of lavender essential oil but wasn’t sure if it would leave streaks), but that quickly dissipates as the alcohol evaporates, and overall I’m really pleased with this stuff.

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Cleaning Your Washing Machine

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This is something you should do as often as you clean your dishwasher.  But of course I know that you’re probably not going to do it any time soon.  The last time I cleaned my dishwasher was when I made that post about it.  I’ll probably do it again before we move, but that’s it.  My washing machine?  Well, I can state for the record that I have never cleaned it.  Our old one was installed during the previous tenants’ reign in our apartment and I don’t think they cleaned it either.  And then it died, so we inherited the one from the downstairs apartment, which is of equal age and has also been equally abused.  Plus, the machine is literally right next to my front door, which means it gets all sorts of outside gunk stuck to it/in it, let alone the crap that comes out of my clothes (mostly dog hair, if we’re being honest).

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Anyway, because we’re moving I figured I’d give it a bit of a scrub so the next set of tenants won’t have to deal with my leftover dirt.  Prepare to be shocked at the sheer grossness of my machine.  Just remember that I have a short hairy dog and the machine is next to a door to the outside on a busy, sooty street, so it’s not entirely my fault.  I’m not that bad of a person, really.

Apartment Therapy, of course, has great instructions on how to clean a top-loading washing machine, so I’m going to follow their lead on this one.  All you need is four simple items: baking soda, white vinegar (or bleach, if you prefer), a soft flannel cloth or microfibre cloth, and an old toothbrush.

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Set the washer to fill at the largest volume, the longest setting, and the hottest water, and turn it on with the lid open. Pour in 1L (~1 quart, 4 cups) white vinegar.

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While it’s filling, pop off any of the attachments that can easily be removed. On this machine, that’s the bleach cup.  Wipe off all the surfaces you can reach.

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Chuck the attachments into the washer to soak.

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The machine will continue to fill, and things will get pretty steamy. While that’s on the go, take your soft cloth, dip it in the vinegary water, and start wiping down everything you can still reach with the washer lid still open. For me that meant wiping down the interior of my dryer too, which is directly above. Rinse your cloth often in the washer water to prevent transferring lint to other surfaces.

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Use the toothbrush to scrub harder-to-reach areas, like these dryer door holes.

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And between the washer and dryer.

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And don’t forget the crannies under the lid itself. Sorry for the steamy picture.

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When the machine has filled completely it will stop. Haul out whatever you chucked in there and scrub it down.

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Add 1 cup baking soda to the water.

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Close the lid and let that fizzy water agitate itself for about a minute (wipe down the lid while you wait). Then open the lid again and leave that water to sit there for an hour. I know, a whole hour. But I’m sure you have other things to clean in the meantime.

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When the hour is up, close the lid and let the machine complete its cycle. Use your soft cloth to wipe down the interior of the drum to remove any residue left behind, and run the cycle again with just water this time to flush out anything else.

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And now it’s clean. Way to go!  Final tip: If you leave the lid open to allow the washer to dry between uses you can avoid mould and mildew build up too!

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Red Velvet Comeback Cupcakes

A couple of years ago, I started an official committee at work to help me test out cupcake recipes in advance of our wedding.  The experiment was so popular that peer pressure led me to bring it back again, though in a more cooperative fashion, early last year.  Now that I am back at work in St. John’s after my research stint in Ottawa, it is my turn to bake for the Cupcake Committee.  What better comeback cupcake than red velvet?

Now, the reason the red velvet cake is red is very interesting.  Crucial ingredients in this batter include white vinegar and buttermilk.  The acid in these ingredients reacts with the anthocyanin that is naturally found in cocoa, creating a lovely red tint (anthocyanin, by the way, is the same stuff that makes leaves turn red in the autumn). 

Modern cocoa, usually Dutch processed, is much more alkaline than its predecessors, and reacts less with the acid, so contemporary bakers generally adjust the tint of their red velvet cakes with beets or food colouring.  While beets would help to retain moisture in the cake, I have opted to use food colouring instead, because I believe beets taste like dirt, and I don’t want a cake that tastes like dirt.  If you want dirt, go eat dirt.  Or a beet.

This recipe is cobbled together from a bunch of different sources.  I hope you enjoy it.  It makes about 2 dozen large cupcakes.  Because the batter can stain, I recommend you make the kiddies wait to help until the frosting stage.

Preheat your oven to 350°F and line two muffin tins with cupcake cups.  I apologize in advance for the lighting in these photos.  It’s been raining for a month.

In a bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups sifted flour and 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder.

In a larger bowl, cream together 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and 1 1/2 cups softened butter until fluffy. 

Crack in 2 room-temperature eggs, one at a time, and mix well.  Make sure to scrape down the bowl when needed.

To that add in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 oz red food colouring.  If you are using gel-paste, use half a teaspoon, as that stuff is concentrated.

Wow.  That is RED.

Reduce the speed of your mixture to low.  Grab 1 cup buttermilk.  Add in your flour mix in three separate additions, alternating with two additions of buttermilk.  Whisk well after each and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda and 2 teaspoons white vinegar.  Stir that foamy goo into the batter for ten seconds.

Divide the batter among the lined cups, filling them about 3/4 full.  Bake, rotating halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cupcake comes out clean, which for me was around 25 minutes

Cool the cupcakes completely before removing them from the tins, because if you drop a hot cupcake, it will explode.  This happened to me.

While they are cooling, chop up 6 oz chocolate and melt that stuff in a double boiler.  We are going to fill these cupcakes with a ganache.

Whisk in 2 cups cold heavy cream (whipping cream) until smooth and glossy and chill that for a spell.

I’m sure you’re still waiting around for the cupcakes at this point, so why not cream together 1 cup softened butter with 2 cups room temperature cream cheese?  Slowly mix in 4-5 cups icing sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and there you have your cream cheese icing.

Now that your cupcakes are cool, insert a toothpick into the centre of each one, going about halfway down, and wiggle it around.  Try not to make the hole at the top too large, but wiggle the toothpick enough so you get a wee cavity in the centre of the cupcake.

Using a piping bag, fill each cavity with cooled ganache.

Now you can spread on your icing with an offset spatula, or you can pipe it on.  I chose the piping method, as you can see.

Sprinkle each cupcake with red sugar.  You can dye sugar yourself by adding a few drops of food colouring to a sealed bag of granulated sugar and shaking it around, or you can just buy it.  In this case I had some on-hand already.  Clever me.Then make sure to share them with all your friends!

 

Sloppy Joes

My husband has permanently etched this song in my head.  Once you listen to it, all you’ll hear from now on is “SLOPPY JOES, SLOP-SLOPPY JOES …”  every time you see the words “sloppy joes”.  FOREVER.

We had a lazy night last week and neither of us wanted to put much effort into either cooking or going to the grocery store.  The result was these modified sloppy joes, and they were pretty good.  This recipe makes two large sloppy joe sandwiches, but you can easily multiply the recipe to suit your appetite.

In a wide-bottomed saucepan, brown up 1/2lb lean ground beef with about 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 1/4 of an onion, chopped (we didn’t have any onions, but you can do what you want).

In a small bowl, mix together the following:

1/2 cup ketchup or barbecue sauce

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire (wooster) sauce

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon paprika (we used Hungarian paprika, but I don’t really know what the difference is)

1 tablespoon brown sugar.

Add the sauce to the browned meat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened.

Serve on hamburger buns or toasted bread.  We topped ours with sautéed mushrooms and had carrots on the side. Total cooking time: about ten minutes.

Fix This Recipe! (Gooey Caramel Pecan Squares)

When I’m arriving at an interview for my research, I like to bring the participant a little something that I made as a thanks for their time.  It’s kind of a rule for me.  I made the following recipe for a family I interviewed a couple of weekends ago and I was disappointed at how it turned out — I’d appreciate your views on what you think went wrong and how we could make this a super awesome dessert.  In light of this being Groundhog Day, I would say this recipe saw its shadow and needs a do-over.

I pulled this out of Esther Brody’s The 250 Best Brownies Bars & Squares, which has also yielded the no-bake peanut butter crunchy squares and the extreme comfort brownies.  So I figured this would be another excellent concoction.  I followed the recipe exactly, with the exception of adding salt, which I never do anyway.  And I doubled the recipe, of course.  Something, however, went horribly, horribly wrong …

Preheat your oven to 425°F and line an 8″ square cake pan with foil, then spray the foil with cooking spray or grease with butter.  I used spray.

For the Base:

In a bowl, mix together 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup granulated sugar.

Using your handy-dandy pastry blender (or two knives), cut 6 tablespoons cold butter into the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.

One tablespoon at a time, sprinkle 3 tablespoons ice water over the mixture, mixing lightly after each addition.  The dough should be just moist enough to hold together at this point.

I found I had to add more water in order to get the dough to stick together, probably about double the amount.

Press the dough evenly into your prepared pan.

Bake it in your oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown, then place on a rack to cool completely.  When I pulled mine out of the oven it was bubbling with butter and not golden at all.  I think I would perhaps use less butter.  Suggestions?

For the Filling:

In a saucepan over high heat, melt together 3 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup light corn syrup, 1 1/3 cups packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup whipping cream, and 1 teaspoon white vinegar.  Bring the goo to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla until the bubbling stops (bet you didn’t know it would bubble when you added vanilla, did you?)

Pour the filling over the cooled base (I let the filling cool a bit first, as it was rather molten).

Sprinkle the top with 3/4 cup toasted pecans and set aside to cool.

For the Topping:

In a double boiler or bowl set over a pot of simmering water, melt 3 oz semi-sweet chocolate and stir until smooth.  Let cool very slightly and then drizzle over the pecans.  Chill until the chocolate is set.

Using the foil as a handle, transfer your chilled squares to a cutting board and cut into squares.  My problem here?  The darned caramel didn’t set.  It got thicker, sure, but still remained steadfastly liquid.  What did I do wrong?

The bottom was pretty rubbery, too, which made eating this sweet confection impossible without a jackhammer, but it is definitely worth trying again, because while it didn’t work out the way I had anticipated, at least it wasn’t floor pizza.

Barbecue in a Bottle

This recipe has been adapted with thanks from PickYourOwn.org, who set out all the steps for this delicious tangy tomato goo, including the entire canning process.  For other tips on canning, check out some previous posts here.  I doubled the batch laid out below (of course) and ended up with about 8L of sauce.

In a very large pot, start simmering 5 14oz (796mL) cans diced tomatoes.  This is roughly equivalent to 16 cups or 4 quarts (I did the math).  In one of my batches I substituted one can of crushed tomatoes for diced.  It didn’t seem to make much difference, save I had less seeds in that one.

Once those are going strong, chop and chuck in 4 stalks celery, 2 onions, 3 red peppers, 2 jalapeno peppers, and 2 cloves crushed garlic (or garlic-in-a-jar).

In addition to that, add in 2 teaspoons ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon dry mustard, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon sea salt, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper.

THEN add in 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco, 1 cup brown sugar and 1 1/2 cups 5% (white) vinegar.

Remember you can adjust any of these flavourings to suit your own tastes.  I added extra cayenne and brown sugar, as well as a few dobbles of sweet chilli sauce and a can of tomato paste.

Simmer everything for about 30 minutes or until it’s all softened.

Now here you have two options.  If you have tremendous patience, you can run the cooked sauce through a food mill, which will remove the seeds and give you a lovely velvety smooth sauce.

If you’re me, you can use an immersion blender

Tomato sauce will end up everywhere, and you will still have seeds in your slightly chunkier sauce, but you will end up with more sauce for preserving.

All you have to do at this point is cook down your processed sauce until it’s the consistency that you like.  Just keep an eye on it and stir frequently to avoid burning.  Remember that the sauce at this point is thick enough to interfere with proper convection so stirring is essential.

Pour into sterilized jars and can according to your canner’s instructions.  And that’s it!

Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake

I made this cake for my grandmother’s 86th birthday.  She has a severe allergy to whey, which you find in most milk products, so this dense little chocolate cake has no milk, no butter, and does not even contain an egg.  It’s also super-quick and very easy to prepare.  I got the recipe from The Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, page 723), but I left out the salt, as always.

Preheat your oven to 375°F.  Grease and flour an 8-inch cake pan, or line the bottom with parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used cake and pastry flour because I have tons lying around), 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon baking soda.

Add to this 1 cup cold water, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar, and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

Whisk until the batter is glossy and smooth.

Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly.

Bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.  Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for ten minutes, before sliding a knife around the edges and turning the cake out onto the rack itself. 

Let it cool completely before removing to a plate and icing. Frost with your favourite icing, or simply sprinkle confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar) over top using a sieve.  I used a lemon slice squeezer (one of the many weird and wonderful gadgets in my parents’ kitchen) to create a fish shape on top of the cake.

Dust the icing sugar over the area you wish to cover.

Carefully remove the shape.

Aaaand you’re done.  Fancy.

Bread and Butter Pickles

One summer when I was young, our kitchen was filled with cucumbers.  We made them into dill pickles and bread and butter pickles and there wasn’t a single counter that wasn’t packed with shiny, hot jars of the stuff.  The whole house smelled of vinegar.  It was great.

We made two batches of bread and butter pickles on this particular day and it took a long time, what with the sterilization and the soaking and the canning, so make sure you have a free day and plenty of space when you’re going to do this.

One batch of bread and butter pickles yields about six 1-pint jars and uses 3L (about 4lb) of pickling cucumbers.

Wash your cucumbers.  Scrub them and all their knobby bits well.

Cut the tops and bottoms of the cucumbers off (the bloom and stem ends).Using a mandolin or a food processor, slice the cucumbers into 1/4″ thick rounds.

Please do not cut off any of your fingers.  Mandolins are vicious.

This will take a while, especially if you are doing two batches.

Now you have a helluva lotta cucumber slices.  Put some on your eyes and take a rest for a while.

Just kidding.  There’s work to be done.

Now you have to slice some onions.  Use about three medium onions per batch of pickles.  Peel the onion and slice it in half lengthwise, then use a mandolin or food processor to slice them the same thickness as your cucumbers.

I like to use the Onion Goggles here to avoid bloodshed.  Or tearshed.  Or both.  If I’m weeping uncontrollably I may slice off an appendage on the mandolin.

Put all your cucumber and onion slices in an enormous bowl and sprinkle them with kosher or coarse pickling salt.  Cover with ice water (or water with ice cubes in it) and leave to soak for three hours.

Now you can take a break.  Or make something else while you wait.

You know what, why don’t you cut up two sweet red peppers, sliced thin on the mandolin again, and add them to the pile?  They make for a nice colour contrast in the jar.

Drain the vegetables after their three-hour soak, rinse them thoroughly in cold water, and then drain them again really well.

At this point you should probably start preparing your jars and lids.

Put your lids and rings in a pot of water and set that to boil. 

Plop your jars in your canner and set that to boil as well.  This will take a while.Now you can prepare your pickling brine.

The key spices here are celery seed, turmeric, and yellow mustard seeds.

In a small bowl, put 2 tablespoons mustard seed, 2 1/2 teaspoons celery seed, and 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric (the turmeric is what turns everything yellow).  Set it aside for now.

In an enormous pot (we used the large maslin pan from Lee Valley), put 5 cups granulated sugar (I know, it seems like an awful lot).

Add to this 4 cups pickling vinegar.  My grandmother insists that all pickling (unless otherwise stated) must use pickling vinegar.  It’s about twice as strong as regular distilled white vinegar.

Add in your pickling spices and give it a stir.

Bring it to a boil and dissolve the sugar.

Now plop in your vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until they are tender and yellow and the liquid is once more boiling, about fifteen minutes. 

Once your jars have been boiling for ten minutes, you can haul them out of the canner.  Turn off the heat for now to allow the water to cool slightly.

Drain the jars carefully using a jar gripper and put them near your pickle pot.

Using a canning funnel, carefully ladle pickle mixture into your six jars to within a half or quarter inch of the top of the jar. It’s pretty much a guarantee that you, your counter tops, and everything around you will become extremely sticky at this point.Make sure there is plenty of liquid in the jar as well, but be careful to leave some space at the top.

Use a wooden skewer (don’t use metal) to poke around and remove the air bubbles from amongst the pickles.

Remove your lids and rings from the heat and carefully place the lids on the jars. 

Twist the rings on to fingertip tightness and return the jars to your canner. 

Dunk them under and bring the water to a boil for fifteen minutes.

Remove the jars from the canner and allow to cool.  As they cool they will seal with a lovely POP sound.

You can eat these pickles right away, but store opened jars in the refrigerator.  Serve as a side to your dishes, put in sandwiches, or just eat straight from the jar.  Your choice.Our two batches left us with some extra pickles, which we put in a jar in the fridge. 

The rest we saved for you!You know you want one …