Homemade birthday cake! (aka Japanese strawberry shortcake)

When I was last in Toronto, I visited a Chinese bakery. We actually do so every time we’re in Toronto, usually to pick up some buns for the road trip back home. This past visit, I saw the typical Chinese birthday cake in the display case: the chiffon cake with whipped cream filling and topping and a variety of fruit. It was around $20 for an 8″ cake and I swear, I was *this* close to buying it and driving it back to Ottawa because I love these cakes and there is no proper Chinese bakery in this city that sells a good cake. So ever since I saw that cake in the display case and didn’t get to eat it, I’ve been craving it. And that is how I came to search the internet for a recipe to make it myself.

I used this recipe as it was the only one that I could find that had normal measurements of ingredients. I figured that the key to this cake would be to make the meringue properly, beating the egg whites until truly stiff peaks formed, so I took 20 minutes to get stiff peaks and tried not to deflate the meringue by over mixing when it is added to the rest of the cake mixture.

The cake actually turned out pretty well. Because I only had a 10″ springform pan (instead of the 8″ the recipe calls for), I was worried that the cake would turn out too shallow…but it actually turned out just perfect. The wider diameter did make it more challenging to do the lateral slice to fill the cake with whipped cream and strawberries but once the whole thing is assembled and the outside is smothered in whipped cream, you can hardly tell that my lateral slice was lopsided. I’ll definitely have to work on getting a nice smooth spread of whipped cream on the outside of the cake; as my friend pointed out, the reasons why the bakeries have a smooth outside spread is because they use a lazy susan and an inch of whipped cream!

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Sliced cake

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So I’m still happy to pay $15-$20 to buy this cake pre-made at a good Chinese bakery, but I can actually make it myself now too! It probably took about 3 hours total (including baking time and assembly time), with 20 minutes going to whipping the meringue and another 15 minutes going to whipping the cream. A stand mixer would make things more efficient…as would buying whipped topping instead of 35%MF heavy whipping cream!

Some interesting links related to early parenting

Without too many close people around me who have recently had babes, I find myself looking to the internet for discussions around various issues, such as breastfeeding and sleep. On second thought, I bet that even if I were surrounded with many babe-toting friends, I would still be looking to the internet for more information; thus is our lifestyle. Anyways, I’ve quickly learned that for each piece of advice I read, there is a contradictory piece of advice on the next website. Some interesting pieces that I’ve come across during the past few weeks:

The Truth about Maternity Leave

As I look down at the peaceful face of my babe, napping in my arms, I feel blessed to be able to spend so much time watching him grow and interact more and more with the big world around him. But there are definitely days when I wish I could just wake up, press snooze a few times, get dressed, head to work, and do desk work for the day and chat with coworkers…oh and do things like eat lunch while it’s hot but in no big hurry or go to the bathroom alone. It just sounds so easy! (Not diminishing the fact that the corporate workplace has its own challenges….) Some days, I have dinner on the table by the time my partner gets home from work, the sink is clear of dishes, the house is relatively together, and I feel great. I’ve found we do really well on days where we get outside to go and see a movie or to a baby play group. Other days, I wonder where my baby’s snooze button is hidden, where I can find energy to even get some lunch ready for myself, and dinner? Yeah right.

Actually, I should mention how thankful I am that I get maternity leave at work and that this leave is one year long. I was speaking to an American colleague days before my maternity leave was to commence and learned that her leave was a mere EIGHT weeks! Of course, we are both blessed to even have ANY leave at all.

The truth about maternity leave is that it challenges you in ways you may not have been challenged previously. The day can seem to last an eternity yet the time on a larger scale seems to pass much too quickly. You’ll be at your best and you’ll be at your worst. Contradictions. Thus is maternity leave.

The Wait-It-Out Method of Sleep Training

I’ve learned that sleep is a hugely popular topic associated with a baby. Moms ask each other about sleep, moms get asked about sleep from friends and strangers, moms question themselves about sleep…. Where should baby sleep at night or during naps, how long should baby sleep at night or during naps, should baby be on a routine, how do you get behavioural changes out of baby (for example, let them cry until they resign themselves to a new routine), etc.

I really enjoyed reading this post dubbed the wait-it-out method (a twist on the popular cry-it-out method), mostly because it resonated with me. I don’t know why society seems to expect babies to live on the same type of schedule and within the same constraints as adults, right from birth.

Toddler and Baby Sleep Timeline

As I read or hear about triumphs from moms about their babies sleeping through the night, I wonder what my expectations should be around baby sleep needs. I found this post to be the most helpful in understanding what is happening with babe as he grows.

The Good Baby

“Is he being a good baby?” I’ve been asked this numerous times by friends or in line at the store. This is a great post on the ridiculousness of this question as it stands literally. Yes, of course my baby is good. I don’t think he can be malicious or manipulative…yet. He’s so pure.

Did you mean to ask if he sleeps through the night or doesn’t cry at all? Because those are ridiculous measures for my baby as well. My baby sleeps like a baby and uses crying as a communication means. I don’t think it’s normal to not cry as an adult so I’m not sure why babies are any exception. Of course, truly colicky babies cry in excess but some crying by everyone, including babies, should be fine.

So when you ask me, “is he being a good baby”, what exactly do you mean?

It’s easy to make pizza!

I often wonder why people buy frozen pizzas at the supermarket. I’ve tried many a brand – we either ate Pizza Hut pizza or frozen pizzas growing up – and have yet to find one that I really enjoy. I love going out for a good wood-fired thin crust pizza with simple toppings but what to do at home?

Years ago, my friends invited me over to their place and told me that we were going to make pizza. From scratch! I thought, how crazy!? I imagined it would be an arduous process making the dough…where I would arrive at 6pm and we wouldn’t be able to eat until 10pm. I was imagining a very cranky self. However, much to my surprise, the dough was delicious and it was super easy to make. The recipe uses yeast so the rise time can be quite short. In fact, the time that it takes to prepare your toppings is just enough for the dough to rise. I like to use a standard cookie sheet to spread the dough out on, so that I get somewhat of a thinner crust. It freezes great, so often we’ll make a pizza and have a few slices to freeze for a quick lunch another day.

Pizza with German and hot Genoa salami, spinach, snow peas, beans, and St-Albert cheese
Pizza with German and hot Genoa salami, spinach, snow peas, beans, and St-Albert cheese

Pizza dough recipe:

  • 1 cup warm water (about 45 degrees Celsius)
  • 1T sugar
  • 2.25t yeast
  • 3T olive oil
  • 1t salt
  • 2.5 cups flour (can use all-purpose or multigrain)
  • 1T italian seasoning
  1. Preheat oven to 400F.
  2. Stir water, sugar, and yeast together until dissolved. Add italian seasoning. Tip: Mix everything together in a 2 cup measuring cup (measure and mix in one vessel).
  3. Add in oil and salt. Place in a mixing bowl.
  4. Stir in the flour and blend well.
  5. Cover with a warm wrung tea towel and let rest for at least 10 minutes. Tip: Perfect time to prep all of your pizza toppings while the dough rests.
  6. Stretch dough out to desired shape. Fold the crust back over itself at the edges if you have excess dough.
  7. Dress the dough with toppings.
  8. Bake pizza until crust browns and pulls away from the edge of the pan (about 10-20 minutes).
  9. Enjoy! Tip: Cut the pizza with scissors. It’s so much easier than using a pizza cutter.

Washroom faux pas

It’s interesting what can become gossip at work. Recently, it was about a washroom faux pas. Someone had come out of the washroom and not washed their hands before exiting. Naturally, I asked if perhaps they had been changing or *ahem* fixing themselves somehow in the stall. Nope. Even if they had been doing either of those, they had flushed and therefore, touched the flusher thingy. That, to me, automatically creates the need to wash my hands. After all, some people flush using their feet (and therefore their shoes)! It wasn’t just one person who had noticed this. Several people remarked on having noticed this one particular person not washing their hands after coming out of a stall. So I wonder…is there another explanation for this seeming washroom faux pas?

Speaking of washing hands, I’m reminded of this fabulous video on a very practical way of reducing the number of paper towels you think you need to dry your hands. And trust me, it works.

A film fest, a food market and some permaculture

A few interesting things happening around town over the next 2 weeks:

The biannual Reel Food Film Fest is happening on Thursday March 14 starting at 6:30pm at the Main Ottawa Public Library. This time, they will be screening a short on Tim Baker’s Visit to Honduras and a feature-length film called Tapped. I’ve been to the Reel Food Film Fest for the past 3 offerings (see here, for example) and have really enjoyed seeing different films on various aspects of food.

Trailer: http://youtu.be/_vyu07JM78M

After a bit of a dead time in markets, there will be a Westboro Easter Food Market (@taste_of_ottawa) on Saturday March 23 from 10am to 3:30pm in Westboro. Admission is free and there will be a number of local vendors, including some of my faves Hummingbird Chocolate and Koko Chocolates. Relish, the food truck, will also be on-site…a great warm-up for what will prove to be an exciting summer of food truck fare in Ottawa. We’re also about two months away from the farmers’ markets opening around town!

Lastly, if you’ve been curious about permaculture or an urban food forest, there is a two-day event happening on March 23 to 24 from 9:15am to 4:30pm in central Ottawa. It’s called the Eastern Ontario Permaculture Convergence and they have multiple workshops on what permaculture is and how it can be applied to food production. Admission is a suggested donation of $10 per day.

Bring on the Ramen: Toronto

Going to Toronto meant one thing: access to delicious food. Ottawa’s culinary scene is certainly not weak but good quality, decent-priced Japanese food is hard to come by (says the ex-Vancouverite). One dish that is particularly missing from the Ottawa food scene is good ramen, and so this became the focus for my trip to Toronto. To have a fair comparison between the ramen shops, I decided to order my favourite miso ramen – with its standard toppings of green onions, cha-shu (pork), corn, and bean sprouts – each time. Whenever I had an option to sit at the counter, I took it.

Stop #1: Ramen Raijin
(Gerrard St E at Yonge)

For dinner, I had the miso ramen for $10. This was my first taste of non-instant ramen in many many months. It was good but I’d say it was more like a warmup for my stomach for what was to come later in the weekend. We arrived at around 5pm on a Saturday and were quite happy to be seated right away. The front seating area is actually just half of the seating capacity for the restaurant but only the front was being used while we were there. As we were leaving, there was a small group of customers waiting.

Ramen

My ramen came with one slice of pork…could’ve used another one. The broth was decent but not quite what I was expecting with a miso ramen.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

Two things that I realized I enjoy at a ramen shop – the traditional wood-based counters and a good view of the kitchen – were both missing from this place. However, the service was decent and the staff provided a warm Irashaimase (welcome) and Arigato gozaimashita (thank you) to every group of customers.

Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

Stop #2: Kinton
(Beverly at Baldwin)

We were the first in line for the 11:30am opening time (arriving just past 11am) at this fairly small restaurant. Once the doors opened promptly on-time, it didn’t take long for all of the seats to fill up.

Kinton

I had the miso ramen for $9.50 with regular broth and pork belly. You have a few options here: pork shoulder or pork belly, and light, regular, or rich broth. Despite choosing the regular broth, I still found it was super rich and heavy, making it hard to drink more than half the bowl. The noodles were delicious and the chewiest of all 4 places I visited. The 1.5 slices of pork belly was good but after trying a bite of the melt-in-your-mouth super tender pork shoulder, I know next time, I’ll just go with the pork shoulder. They also offer calpico (hot and cold) for $3, which gets an extra point with me, as it is one of my favourite Japanese drinks.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

The energy was, by far, the most festive here with animated staff yelling and confirming orders. The service was excellent and everyone was super friendly. A hearty Irashaimase and an equally hearty Arigato gozaimashita from all of the staff in unison bookended your meal. We also had a prime spot at the wood counter with an awesome view of the kitchen. We watched them steam-fry the gyoza, cook the noodles, and prep the ramen for service. Very exciting stuff. Almost feels like you’re right in the thick of things.

Best seats in the house!
Best seats in the house!
Charring the pork
Charring the pork

One neat thing that you may not pick up on if you don’t understand any Japanese (or Japanese geography, for that matter) is that the staff refer to the different seating areas as the different Japanese islands (e.g., Hokkaido, Honshu). All of the tables that I saw were bar height.

Shio ramen also from Kinton
Shio ramen also from Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton

Kinton Ramen on Urbanspoon

Stop #3: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
(Dundas at Church)

Arriving for an early dinner at around 5pm, we had a choice between a few tables or the counter, but the place was comfortably full (no line yet). Opting for the counter, I was disappointed to find that because of a higher ledge, I couldn’t see as much of what was happening in the kitchen as at Kinton, but at least I could see a bit.

Santouka

I had the miso ramen, in a smaller portion for $9.50. At this place, with their standard ramen, you have an option of up-sizing for an extra $1 or getting a smaller portion for less $1. Unlike the other 3 places, Santouka also offers their version of tsukemen, although instead of getting the noodles on the side to be dipped into the broth, you get the toppings on the side with the noodle already in the broth.

Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi
Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi

This was the only ramen that came with some bamboo shoots, some black fungus, and a slice of chikuwa. The pork tasted more strongly marinated than the other places and melted in your mouth. Delicious stuff.

The staff was friendly and the service was good. This place was a lot quieter than Kinton but more cozy than Ramen Raijin. Because most of the seats are at tables, there isn’t much communal seating.

Santouka's version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.
Santouka’s version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Stop #4: Sansotei
(Dundas at Chestnut)

I arrived at 10:50am on a weekday, being the first in line for their 11am opening. One thing to note for this place is that they are closed on Sundays. Although they offer table seating only (read: no counter to watch the kitchen from), it can turn into communal seating as there are a handful of large 6-seat tables. Half an hour past opening, the place was just over half full. Not bad for an early lunch on a weekday.

I had the miso ramen with original noodles for $9.50. You have the option of Sansotei original noodles, thick, or thin noodles. I was also very pleased to see cold calpico on the menu for $3. This was the only ramen shop to include a soft-boiled egg with their miso ramen in addition to two pieces of the most tender cha-shu! The pork was also the wrapped variety (to me, I feel like this is what should be offered with every bowl of ramen), scoring an extra point in my mind.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

The service was decent and the Japanese pop music was playing at the perfect volume in the background. However, I was quite disappointed that there was no counter seating and the kitchen was hidden behind a wall.

Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??
Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

In summary:
Favourite noodles: tie between Kinton and Santouka (different styles but both very delicious)
Favourite pork: Sansotei
Favourite ambiance: Kinton (far surpasses the other 3)
Favourite broth: Santouka, only because it was rich but easy to drink.

My go-to meal: spinach and egg

I think I’m not alone when I say that for a quick meal, the same few dishes always pop into mind. One of my go-to meals – quick, easy, and fairly healthy – is a spinach and egg dish. My mom would make it every so often and I really enjoy it…but I don’t know what it’s called. Go figure. Anyways. It’s kinda like having spinach with scrambled eggs, all mixed together, and with a Japanese flavouring.

Saute the spinach
Saute the spinach
Once the spinach has mostly cooked, crack eggs and mix with spinach.
Once the spinach has mostly cooked, crack eggs and mix with spinach.

Once you crack the eggs in, you can add the seasonings: some dashi and soy sauce, to taste. You have to be careful about the amount of dashi you add; too much will make the dish taste too fishy. Same thing with the soy sauce; adding too much will make it way too salty.

Serve with rice
Serve with rice

And voila, 10-15 minutes later, you’re done!

What’s your no-fuss foolproof go-to meal?

To show love or to lust after ‘things’

Ah Valentine’s Day. We either love it or hate it or simply pass it by as just another day. I am a firm believer in 365 days of love, not 1 day. Especially when that 1 day revolves around consumption.

Anyways, today, I’m linking to a post on a blog that I really enjoy reading, The Simple Dollar; titled The Day of Love, the post talks about remembering the true meaning of February 14 and finding ways to express and celebrate love without feeling the need to buy buy buy.

I’ve saved…now what?

I’m posting a few links to posts that I really enjoyed on The Simple Dollar. I think I’m pretty on top of my finances but I also love to read about what other people are doing or recommending. Hey, I never know when I can pick up a great tip to incorporate into my own life!

As I mentioned very briefly here, moving to a cash diet has made it THAT MUCH MORE obvious to me how easy it was to treat myself to something when I made most purchases on credit cards. It was really timely to read Living Below Your Means is a Challenge for Everyone; I think we’re at a point in our lives where we’re really trying to shift more towards living below our means so that we can both save up more (emergency funds, retirement savings, vacation funds, paying down the mortgage) and reprioritize aspects of our lives. You know, stop buying stuff, enjoy the stuff that we already have, maybe get rid of stuff (donate, recycle) that we don’t really need, and create more memories and enjoy more experiences together.

I’m not sure if this is actually plausible but I think I was born with a saving instinct; my mom tells me that she would give me a snack when I was a wee toddler and she would find me munching on something a few days later…yes…I had hid part of the snack away so that I could eat more of it later. It’s a bit gross when I think about it now but I swear, that was the beginning of the story of where I am today. I came out of university with no debt (yay good paying university jobs that also taught me solid life skills), have a solid emergency fund, don’t live out of my means, and feel pretty comfortable with my financial situation. I do, however, feel internally conflicted about where I should be channeling my financial attention. Should I focus on saving for retirement, which – if the conventional age for retirement is between 55 and 65 – is many years away but with inflation and longer expected lifespans, could cost a substantial amount? Should I spend more on travel, which I love to do? Should we pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible? Should we use more of it now or save more of it for later, hoping that we will live to see a ‘later’? Reading Investing with Indirect (or No) Financial Returns makes me think more about what our financial priorities should be for the moment. I want to be prepared for what may happen tomorrow or ten years from now but I also want to make the most of my life today since I have no idea what may or may not happen tomorrow. How do we reconcile those two thoughts?

Ottawa will be vending more food on the street

This is absolutely exciting. The City of Ottawa is accepting applications for 20 more street food vendors. There is an info session this Wednesday November 28 for applicants and applications are due January 4, 2013. They encourage ethnically diverse food options that utilize fresh, local ingredients.

After spending the summer eating tons of street food in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, I have a few ideas for what the Ottawa street food scene could use…but I don’t think I’ll be putting an application in this year. Granted, this could be a life-changing opportunity for me!

I am SO looking forward to what 20 more licenses could mean for Ottawa!!