Focus Schmocus

Where has the year gone? I ask myself every year at about this time.

I was just reading my most recent blog post (apart from the Angelina Jolie garage sale reblog the other week) from SIX months ago…where I said, “…I’m clearer now about what I want this blog to be. So here’s to my renewed focus!” Blah blah blah.

Winter and almost all of Spring have passed since I wrote that sentence, and the new blog focus has clearly not manifested.

So what have I been doing? Plotting and planning for The Alexcellent Life, figuring out the best way to structure my actual life,which – I’ll let you in on a little secret – is sometimes the mediocre life rather than The Alexcellent life – but we have to have something to aspire to! There’s parenting, my school-hours job, any freelance work, other business ideas, family time, extended family time, social time, life-admin, house maintenance, and just the business of living.

I will sum up the past few months with a visual retrospective of what I didn’t blog about…

I also didn’t blog about:

  • My 30-year high-school reunion which I was nervous about going to but turned out not to be so bad. In fact I’m really glad I went. It was great to reconnect and realise that those girls are just real people and we’ve all had our share of knocks
  • Lots of joy in the ordinary, but also a decent amount of worry, tiredness, and frustration
  • Flu for Spider Boy and me
  • The passing of Spider Boy’s grandfather, my-ex’s dad
  • Lots of work. Work work, housework, personal work
  • Bill juggling, haggling and staggering
  • 9am Sunday morning soccer in Winter
  • Several Sydney visits as well as visitors from Sydney
  • Plotting, planning, thinking, consolidating.
  • NO Tinder-swiping which has been a big fat relief

I have loads more photos on my phone but my old MacBook already has so many photos on it that it really struggles to cope with more.  Otherwise I’d show you more pics here.  I really need to buy a hard-drive or something.

So that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. So I’m not going to talk about things like “my renewed focus”. I often think about something my year 3 teacher from 1978 said.  I can’t remember her name, but I remember her well. Our class motto was “Don’t say it, do it!”

And that is exactly what I will do.

 

Edited highlights: bare trees and summer memories

On Monday I worked from home as Spider Boy had a cold. It was also time for his plaster to come off. Once we got home from the medical centre, I noticed for the first time that the branches on the trees outside our window are bare. I don’t know how long they’ve been that way. But as I stood by the window I thought, “Didn’t those trees have red leaves on them last time I looked?”

How could they have lost all their leaves so quickly? I thought back to Summer. I had to think hard. I found an image in the old brain files of a red and blue parrot playing peek-a-boo amongst the masses of green leaves on the same tree. Then the leaves had turned red. Now, it was leafless, and I didn’t even notice it happening.

Time just slips away, and before you know it we are halfway through the year. We’ve even passed the Winter Solstice (8.43am Tuesday 21 June, by the way).

As I mentioned, Spider Boy had his plaster removed this week. He still needs to wear a splint for three weeks while doing anything active. His skin was dry and flaky where the plaster had been. But when I went to cleanse and moisturise his arm with Cetaphil, the flakes had already disappeared. Tonight the skin on his arm looks like new.

It’s a new season, we are well into Winter. So I’m going to present some pictures of the last weeks of Summer, when we said goodbye to Sydney and began settling in to our new home in Canberra.

Click on the images to read the captions…

7 Halloween cupcake recipes… an Alexcellent roundup.

Halloween is tonight but you’ve just got time to bake some last-minute cupcakes. Here are some spooky-but-cute Halloween treats from around the web if you’re needing some sweet inspiration.

1. “Broken glass” cupcakes from marthastewart.com

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The “glass” is sugar and water.

2. Reese’s Frankenstein cupcakes from yourcupofcake.com

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3. Ghost cupcakes from thecomfortofcooking.com

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7. Chilly ghosts from hellocupcakebook

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A second lot of ghosts but these were too cute to resist.

5.  Cupcake liner witch hat from thecakeblog.com

(This one involves a bit of paper craft)

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6. Skeleton cupcake from bhg.com

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7. Dotty Halloween cupcakes also from bhg.com

Simple but has quite a visual impact on a plate.

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Whether you bake or not, have a spooky and yummy Halloween!

Edited Highlights: Sugar, blossoms, cake and colouring-in

Time to catch up on the past month with a series of snapshots that seem to be mostly food and floral.

I snuck away from my desk last Friday (working from home means I’m just sneaking away from myself) and went to local whole foods store, About Life. I ate a raspberry and coconut muffin that was delicious even though it probably didn’t have refined white sugar in it. Oh well.

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But refined white sugar is kind of my thing… so when I saw this 50’s-style sugar canister (which disappointingly only contained air) at Spider Boy’s school art show, I had to steal a photo. Maybe sugar itself will be a relic from the past one day, just like this canister. Sigh.

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Spring jonquils at my dad’s place…

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I love the way my cousin’s wife styled her kid’s birthday party table… they turned 3 and 1, two weeks apart so a combined party was the order of the day.

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I made some apple pies…

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I needed the whipped cream to mask the heavy pastry texture. Not quite enough carbs, fat or sugar in these little morsels I’m afraid.

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On a lighter and brighter note, the blossoms have blessed our street!

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And obviously I’ve drunk lots of coffee (and muffins) this month… but Spider Boy just gets water. Oh alright, sometimes he gets a hot chocolate. And chips.

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Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret… colouring-in is really big right now. You know when you see a “Zen” colouring book as free gift with That’s Life magazine, that colouring-in is a thing. And the local Dymock’s has a wall of colouring books, as does the National Gallery gift shop in Canberra. But I’ve been colouring-in (as an adult) since 1997. But back then, Barbie colouring-in books were all I could find. Now there is so much choice! It is VERY relaxing.

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Speaking of the National Gallery gift shop, if I had the money I would buy all of the books…

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Since I know I’ll never really be Parisian, or Danish, and will never find the time for handmade projects for a cute Tokyo-inspired lifestyle, I could just go for the Mammoth Book of Losers to make me feel better about my epic failure and underachievement in NOT being Parisian or Danish, or achieving that cute Tokyo-inspired lifestyle. Sigh.

This post is coming to an end but there’s time for dessert before I go…

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This cake I made last Sunday was meant to be a lime syrup cake. I had all the ingredients, except limes. I had a bottle of lemon juice in the fridge, so I used a bit of that. But then after making the cake, I RAN OUT OF SUGAR. So had no sugar to make the lemon syrup.  So it wasn’t going to be a syrup cake at all, was it? So I defrosted some left-over cream-cheese icing from the Father’s Day carrot cake I’d made, and dolloped that on. Plus some hundreds and thousands just for fun and fancy.

It all worked out in the end.

What are you enjoying this week?

Baking with yoghurt: Mango and vanilla yoghurt cake with white chocolate ganache

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I love cake, but in my efforts to be healthier, I’ve been thinking about ways I could reduce the fat. No butter? Yes, it is possible to make a cake without butter. But let’s not get too crazy. This cake does have some butter in it. But less than normal because today I’m substituting some of the butter for low fat yoghurt.

I don’t think about calories anymore. I am trying to shift my thinking from units of measure (I was never good at maths anyway) to good nutrition and balance. In other words, I would never let a few (hundred) pesky calories get in the way of me and my cake. But I do acknowledge that when food is lower in fat, without sacrificing texture and flavour, it’s a winning combination. Baking a cake using yoghurt is a way to achieve that.

Using yoghurt as a substitution for butter or oil in cakes is a smart and yummy way to reduce the fat content, as well as lending a lush texture and slightly tangy flavour to the cake. Plus it’s a great way to add a little bit of protein and calcium! As I’m a maniac for mango, I used a low fat mango and vanilla yoghurt. 042

Ingredients The cake bit

150g butter (softened)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup caster sugar

2 eggs

1 and a 1/2 cups low fat mango and vanilla yoghurt

2 and a 1/4 cups self-raising flour

1/4 cup milk

The white chocolate ganache bit

1/2 cup cream

360g white eating chocolate, broken into small pieces (Will make about 1 and 1/2 cups)

The mango yoghurt frosting bit

125g butter (softened) 2 and 1/2 cups icing sugar

1 and 1/2 tablespoons Mango and Madagascan Vanilla Yoghurt

Method

Cake

1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius /160 degrees Celsius fan-forced. Grease deep 22cm-round cake pan and line with baking paper.

2. Beat butter, sugar and vanilla extract in a bowl with electric mixer on low, until fluffy.

3. Beat in eggs one at a time

4. Fold in yoghurt

5. Sift flour into bowl and add milk gradually, stirring as you go. Add the flour and milk in two batches.

6. Dollop mixture into cake tin. Bake for 1 hour. Let cake stand in tin for 5 minutes before turning upside down on wire rack to cool.

7. Slice cake in half horizontally and spread the top of one layer with the white chocolate ganache

8. Sandwich the two halves together. While cake is baking, make the ganache and frosting.

Ganache

1. Pour cream into a small saucepan and bring to the boil.

2. Remove from heat and when bubbles have disappeared add white chocolate.

3. Stir until smooth

4. When ganache has cooled down, pour into a bowl and beat with electric mixer on medium speed.

Mango yoghurt frosting

Beat butter, icing sugar and yoghurt with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.

Spread frosting on cake with a spatula.

Serve garnished with passion fruit pulp.

Serves 12

Keep cake in fridge. 074 064 076 112

School Cake-stall Baking

I saw some really cute panda-face cupcakes on Housegoeshome,  so I decided to have a go for the recent Federal Election day cake-stall at school, because they were just so cute, and importantly, looked easy enough.

Still, when I was at the supermarket buying my ingredients, I bought a pack of ready-made cupcakes with brightly coloured icing, just in case I got lazy. I could always scrape the icing off and decorate them like pandas, right? But then I remembered we had to list the ingredients. How could I give the P&C a list with preservative numbers on it? So… I baked.

Small, but perfectly formed

Base applied, ready for panda makeover!

Base applied, ready for panda makeover!

Spider Boy and I mixed the dry ingredients, sending flour and cocoa everywhere. We mixed in the eggs, milk and hot water, exactly to the amount specified. But somehow, the mixture seemed too runny. I commented on this to Spider Boy, who said forlornly, “Oh no, it’s going to be another disaster!” dramatic much? Totally my fault.

“It’s all right,” I told him, “we’ll just add some more flour”, realising the powder spillage before might have had something to do with the runny mixture.

It all worked out in the end though – miraculously, the little cakes rose into perfectly formed little chocolate hills.

A face only a mother could love.

Facing facts: a face only a mother could love.

Big mumma

Big mumma

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Mumma and Bubba

To decorate the cupcakes, the recipe called for “white confetti sprinkles” and a “black edible ink pen” for the eyes, but I couldn’t get those things in my little local supermarket so I used a bit of vanilla frosting with a dot of black writing icing that I had in the cupboard.

I also used dessicated coconut instead of “sanding sugar” (whatever that is) to create a furry panda effect. I thought dessicated coconut looked furrier than sugar, and anyway, did we really need the extra sugar on top?  (I know, I’m constantly surprising myself). The original recipe called for 1/3 cup of oil, but being a big fan of butter, I melted some of that instead.

In the end,  the cupcakes were probably the best I’ve ever made. Great chocolately taste, melt-in-the-mouth texture,  perfectly formed.  But because my vanilla frosting contained quite a bit of butter, it did have a slightly yellowish hue, giving my pandas a slightly jaundiced look, but still, they were cute and fluffy enough.

A long way from cupcake disaster indeed.

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Now that’s what I call a six-pack

Click through to the recipe here.  Or to check out other panda-inspired food go to http://theverybesttop10.com/2013/09/13/panda-inspired-foods/

Did you have any Election day baking success?

Nothing Like Nigella. Part 2

Finally: cheesecake success with a strawberry on top

Finally: cheesecake success with a strawberry on top

You might remember my cheesecake disaster from last week: the rubbery, salty garbage-tasting lump with flesh coloured gelatinous globules in it that actually made me dry-retch when I tasted it.

The big pictures and step-by-step instructions in a children’s cookbook borrowed from the library made it look so easyBut my cheesecake didn’t look like the pictures. And I didn’t look happy like the child in the step-by-step instructions. Oh how she mocked me, with her Cath Kidston-style apron and neat blonde plaits, holding her little tray of perfect, heart-shaped cheesecakes.
I tried but spectacularly failed my self-imposed “Cheesecake Challenge” last week. But this week, I’ve done it. I spent more money on ingredients and dedicated Saturday morning to it. After last week’s disaster, I couldn’t blame Spider Boy for showing no interest in helping me with this week’s attempt. Although he did deign to give the cream a bit of a whip with our 1970s egg beater later in the proceedings.
I bashed biscuits, melted butter, and simmered strawberries. And then it was time to face my nemesis: gelatin or gelatine or whatever it calls itself. This time, I decided to work with jelly crystals. Little diamonds of potential gelatinous glop. Since the recipe called for “strawberry gelatin”, I had looked for strawberry jelly crystals, but IGA only had “Strawberry Sundae” flavour.
The recipe hadn’t made it clear whether to dissolve the gelatin in water first, or to just put it straight into the strawberries. So I took a stab in the dark and dissolved the crystals in just over half the amount of water you would normally use to make 500g of jelly. The recipe said simply, 85g gelatin, and later, “add the gelatin” – see, nothing about dissolving it first, or “make up the jelly according to instructions on packet”. Anyway, it worked. Lots more stirring and whisking, and setting in the fridge for hours, but it worked!
I took two little cheesecakes over to Senorita Margarita’s house. “They taste good, but they’re a bit soft.” They’d only set for two hours, and unfortunately were in the car for nearly an hour of driving around before I got them to her.
The next day, after the remaining pink cheesecake hearts had been in the fridge overnight, I told Spider Boy to check them out.  When he saw the cakes were perfectly pink and heart-shaped, he asked if he could put the strawberries on top. Later, when he tried some, he said, “Mmm… delicious… it’s really nice.” But a short time later, he admitted, “Mum… it doesn’t actually taste very good… it tastes a bit sweet… and not very nice.”
Yes, the cheesecake was perfectly pink and heart-shaped. But the problem was, it tasted more like “pink” cheesecake than “strawberry” cheesecake. It tasted pinker than strawberry, pinker than pink. it was musk stick, creaming soda pink. The pink of fairy floss, ballerina tu-tus and sticky pink lip gloss. It was Barbie’s dream kitchen on steroids.
I asked Mum if she wanted to try some. “No thanks. I don’t really like pink food.”
I rang Senorita Margarita. Do you want anymore cheesecakes? “No!” she implored. “I’ve polished off the two you brought over already!” she said, muttering something else related to trying to lose weight, and eating too much, blah blah blah.
The cheesecake failure was probably due to me actually trying to follow the recipe, rather than feeling my way. Maybe it’s better to just know a recipe by heart, knowing by intuition developed from years of just doing it, or watching a loved one making a particular dish. Anything I make that is more complicated than boiling something in water, is the result of my studying a written recipe and dealing with each step as I go, a rather staccato way of cooking, there is no flow. I don’t “feel” my recipes, I think them. and sometimes the way the recipe writer is thinking, and my thinking, is not on the same page, literally. The only reason I persevere with baking (as opposed to just boiling things in water), is because I like to eat baked goods, ok? (or no-bake goods, like cheesecake, as the case may be) Yes, I could just go to a bakery, but I like to work for my treats. (Maybe I should just work for my treats in a gym? You know, actually burn some calories before consuming any more?)
But still, I feel I’ve succeeded in my Cheesecake Challenge. The flavour may have been over-pink, but the texture was good.  This recipe worked, with me NOT following the recipe step-by-step. So maybe I do have some cooking intuition after all.
Thank goodness I can now return that book to the library! And I’m never borrowing it again.
Have you had any memorable cooking disasters?
I should've just bought one of these and been done with it!

I should’ve just bought one of these and been done with it!

Nothing Like Nigella. Part 1

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Success: buttery biscuit base

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Seconds before cheesecake disaster

It should have been so easy. It was a no-bake cake. I had borrowed a cookbook from the children’s library. Five-year-old Spider Boy and I had chosen a strawberry cheesecake recipe to try. From a children’s cookbook.

We followed the instructions to the letter. The recipe called for “I package (85g) strawberry gelatin” (spelt gelatin without the ‘e’ – it was an English cook book). I went to the supermarket and asked for gelatin. “You cook with it” I helpfully informed the man. But they didn’t have strawberry gelatin, so I just bought a pack of “gelatine”  (spelt with the ‘e’) – “clear and unflavoured” it said on the pack. The fresh strawberries in the mix will be enough to flavour it, I reasoned.

Things began smoothly. Spider Boy and I smashed plain Nice biscuits in a zip-lock bag and rolled them with a rolling pin. We melted butter and poured it over the biscuits, then smooshed it together.

My packet of gelatine had five sachets each containing 10g gelatin. I had bought two boxes so poured eight sachets into my simmering strawberries, sugar and water mixture.

The fact that the spoon I used to mix this strawberry mixture stuck to the plate after the glop had cooled down, should have served as a warning of the no-bake disaster that was to follow.

As I poured the rapidly-becoming-rubbery mixture into the whisked cream cheese, and started folding rubbery-strawberry-sauce-with-gelatinous-lumps into the cream cheese, I knew things had gone horribly, horribly wrong. It was at this point I stopped photographing the steps of this recipe. It was like how I imagine half-set lumpy concrete to be. I tasted a bit on the tip of my finger. It felt like rubber, it tasted salty. The texture was a bizarre rubbery, lumpy mess, concrete-coloured peppered with flesh-coloured gelatinous strawberry blobs. It looked like offal, and tasted how garbage on garbage day would taste, but with salt. I had a sinking feeling it had something to do with all those sachets of gelatin – clear, flavourless, undissolved gelatin.

But, optimist that I am, I thought maybe the texture and taste of the mixture would somehow improve after it was spooned carefully into heart-shaped little tins that were already lined with buttery biscuit base. But no, it looked no better. Oh well, I thought, let’s see what happens after they’re “set” in the fridge for a couple of hours, as the recipe dictates.

An hour-and-a-half later, Spider Boy called out to me, “Mum, look at the cakes.”  I went to the open fridge where Spider Boy was crouched by the bottom shelf,  peering and poking at the cakes.

It was a cheesecake disaster.

“It’s a total disaster!” declared Spider Boy.

A vastly different story to the food on Lorraine Elliot’s Not Quite Nigella blog. I’ve marvelled at her recipes, I’ve been impressed by the photographs of the outcomes of said recipes. For example, one spectacular recipe post about Cronuts (a donut-croissant hybrid), stated the degree of difficulty was hard, with six to eight hours of work – I do admire the culinary commitment displayed on Not Quite Nigella, but I could never cook something that took six or eight hours. The results of Elliot’s cooking are impressive, if the photos are anything to go by, and I’m sure she is a lot more like Nigella than “Not quite”. It is the people like me, those who love food, and try to emulate those delectable cookbook photographs with our cooking, but somehow miss the mark, who are not only “Not quite Nigella”, we are “Nothing like Nigella”. In fact, some of us are “Nowhere near Nigella”, as far away from Nigella as it is possible to be. The only culinary thing I have in common with Nigella, is that I love food.

I had so been looking forward to cool creamy strawberry smoothness over a buttery biscuit crumb base. How bitterly, bitterly disappointed I was.

I showed my mum the recipe and she pointed out that when the recipe called for “gelatin”, maybe that actually meant jelly crystals

So now, a week later, armed with a fresh packet of strawberry Aeroplane jelly, I will try again. I will keep you posted.