What’s cooling on my kitchen counter

toffeesquares

They’re called “toffee squares,” they smell like pure sugary caramel goodness, and they contain a full cup of butter.

The base layer is a mixture of butter, flour, and brown sugar. The middle is sweetened condensed milk, corn syrup, butter, and vanilla. And because that isn’t sweet enough, they’re then drizzled with semi-sweet chocolate.

I can’t wait to try them!

Base:
Cream together half a cup of brown sugar and half a cup of butter. Beat until fluffy. Gradually beat in 1-1/2 cups of flour. Press the mixture into a pan lined in parchment paper and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes until golden.

Filling:
Melt half a cup of butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Mix in one 300 mL can of sweetened condensed milk and 2 tablespoons of corn syrup. Stir constantly for 5 minutes or until bubbly. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Assembly:
Pour filling over base and let cool completely. Drizzle melted semi-sweet chocolate on top.

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Triple Chocolate Extra Pepperminty Peppermint Bark

You know, I had every intention of taking a ton of great photos and close ups of every step of making our Triple Chocolate Extra Pepperminty Peppermint Bark, but it just didn’t happen. I have no excuse. The camera was right there. Yet somehow I took a grand total of 2 photos of the entire process.

It’s a good thing it isn’t a very complicated process.

The first step is to gather your ingredients. I’m not specifying quantities because this is a super flexible recipe. You can do this with a single chocolate bar of each type and have enough bark for one or two people to share, or you can buy an entire truckload of chocolate and send the entire neighbourhood into a sugar high that lasts for days.

Ingredients

Dark chocolate
Milk chocolateWhite chocolate
Peppermint flavoured candy canes
Peppermint extract for chocolate (not water based)

Grab a cutting board and a good chef’s knife and roughly chop each of the types of chocolate into chunks for easier melting. Make sure you keep each pile separate from the other – you will want to wipe down your knife and cutting board between chocolates.

You will also want to push the bowls of chopped chocolate to the far back of the counter to keep little fingers from eating it all before it can be turned into peppermint bark.

(You may also want to give yourself a stern talking to so that you don’t eat all the chocolate yourself before it can be turned into peppermint bark.)

Next, drop the unwrapped candy canes in a zipper baggie, then wrap that in a tea towel. Lay it on a sturdy cutting board and use something heavy like a meat tenderizer or a small hammer to smash it repeatedly until you have crushed candy canes. The kids like doing this part. If you are more sane and less inclined to like loud banging noises in the kitchen, you can chop the candy canes with your sturdy chef knife until they are in fine enough pieces, but be aware that whacking them with a meat tenderizer is waaaaaaaaay more fun.

Next, line a cookie sheet or three (depending on how much chocolate you are melting) with waxed paper.

Melt the dark chocolate in the microwave on half power for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until it is silky smooth. Add in several drops of peppermint extract and stir well to mix. Taste test – it should taste rich and pepperminty, but not overwhelmingly so. I have a photo of this part:

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Pour a glob of melted dark chocolate in the middle of the wax paper and quickly spread it out over the cookie sheet. It will start to cool rapidly and become harder to spread, but don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth, just mostly even in thickness.  You will be adding 2 more layers of chocolate, so really just a few millimeters thick is sufficient.

I have a photo of this step, too:

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Stick this pan in the freezer to harden it quickly and keep it cold.

Next, melt your milk chocolate, but do not add peppermint flavour. Working quickly so as not to melt the now-frozen dark chocolate, spread the milk chocolate over the dark chocolate in a thin layer and stick it back in the freezer.

Now it is time to melt the white chocolate. Again, we do not add peppermint flavour to this; however, we will be adding crushed candy cane bits to the top while the chocolate is still warm and soft, so you will want to have those handy as the chocolate starts to set up fairly rapidly.

Melt the white chocolate until it is smooth and spread it over the dark and milk chocolate layers. You will need to work quickly and not go too thin here as the heat from the melted white chocolate will melt the milk chocolate slightly and it will start to mix together and look muddled and murky. Once the white chocolate has been spread out, immediately sprinkle crushed candy cane bits over the top. Gently press any larger pieces into the chocolate so they do not fall out. Return the pan to the freezer until it sets up quite hard.

Take the now frozen tray out of the freezer. You have a choice here – you can calmly and rationally put the sheet of frozen chocolate on your cutting board and cut it into pieces, or you can pick up the waxed paper layer and start smashing it on the counter and hammering it with the flat side of your meat tenderizer until it shatters into random pieces. (And send bits flying across your floor. Not that I know that from personal experience. Ahem.)

And there you have it –  Triple Chocolate Extra Pepperminty Peppermint Bark.

Which I do not have a photo of, except for what you saw yesterday.

I guess I’m going to have to make some more.

Quick, Easy, and Frugal Teacher Gifts

Teachers are wonderful people. We have been blessed over the years with some truly fabulous teachers for our children. There has been the odd teacher here and there who is not a good fit for one of the kids, but mostly we have been lucky.

Every Christmas, I struggle with what to do to thank the men and women who work so hard on our children’s behalves. I don’t want to clutter up their lives with things, especially knowing that there are only so many things a teacher might like to get, and with anywhere from 18 to 30 students getting those same 10 things for them every single year, they probably don’t want yet another mug or calendar or keychain with your initials on it.

I’ve been told by teachers that gift certificates are always appreciated – to Tim Horton’s coffee shop, or better yet, to the teacher supply store. I understand. I do. But I also know that I want my kids to have a hand in the gifting, and when they were little, gift cards were not on their list of cool things to give their teachers.

One year, we made salt dough Christmas ornaments. (One can never have too many ornaments.) One year, we made homemade chocolates. One year we made super simple post-it note holders.  Last year, we made paper ornaments big enough to joyfully adorn a classroom (and easily recycled at the end of the season to reduce clutter).

This year, we went in a new direction.

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Once again, we chose a super simple, inexpensive, crafty-ish gift the kids could help make. We started with a pack of 100 popsicle sticks we bought at Bulk Barn for $1.50,  some semi-dark chocolate, and a few drops of peppermint flavouring oil. Honestly, the peppermint flavour is the most expensive item, but we had it left over from previous years of making homemade chocolates, and you could easily skip it for this project.

Start by melting the chocolate. We used the microwave on half power in 30-second bursts, stirring in between, until the chocolate was just about silky smooth with a few lumps left in it. We then stirred it until the lumps vanished and we had a smooth mixture that was starting to cool slightly.

We lined several cookie sheets with waxed paper, then dipped each popsicle stick into the chocolate and twirled it a little to make sure the chocolate was adhering all the way around and presto! Chocolate stir sticks that are perfect for stirring your hot chocolate with to make it even richer and creamier than it usually is.

The chocolate-covered sticks were then laid gently in rows on the cookie sheets and left to harden. You can put them in the fridge or freezer if you are in a hurry.

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While the chocolate hardened, we started filling little treat bags with marshmallows. Then we filled more treat bags with tiny peppermint-flavoured chocolate pieces that I found in a gorgeous antique-styled tin at Chapters, of all places. You could use miniature chocolate chips just as easily, or even skip this step altogether. Another bag was filled with hot chocolate mix, and then we filled the final bag with a half-dozen or so of the dark chocolate peppermint stir sticks.

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Add a mini candy cane for good measure, pack it all in a cute tin from the dollar store, and voila! A Hot Chocolate Kit for under $5 per tin. Don’t have a tin? Just buy some lunch bags, draw a snowman outline on them with a Sharpie marker, then have the kids paint them.

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We were having so much fun, we made some for the neighbours, too. Except if you look closely, you’ll see that the neighbours are also getting some Triple Chocolate Extra Pepperminty Peppermint Bark in theirs.

I’ll tell you how we made it in another post.

Adventures in canning!

As a child, the idea of making and canning your own preserves was an ordinary one. My grandmother canned her own jams and jellies frequently. My favourite was the wild strawberry jam made from the tiny little strawberries that grew on the hill at the back of her property. It was equally good on toast and on vanilla ice cream.

My mother canned things, too. Most memorable was the summer that gave us a bumper-crop of plums from the trees in the backyard and she filled jar after jar with plum jam, plum jelly, and plum chutney. She gave jars away to everyone she knew that Christmas, and still had more than we could ever use left over afterwards.

Yesterday morning, after the zucchini bread was in the oven, I was in the mood to make some preserves of my own. I started with a lovely raspberry-blueberry jam using raspberries from our garden coupled with wild blueberries for a more interesting flavour. But jams are easy, and old hat for me, and I wanted to do something new that I had never done before.

Salsa.

I wanted to make my own salsa.

I must admit, I cheated a bit. I bought a packet of salsa spices already mixed and followed the recipe that came with it. 4.5 cups of tomatoes, seeded and diced, plus some onion, green peppers, red peppers, and fresh cilantro, all from the garden. Simmered all together with 3/4 cup of cider vinegar then processed for 20 minutes in a water bath, it certainly smells delicious.

It looks lovely cooling on the counter, too.

I think we’re having tacos tonight. We have to try the salsa, after all!

A kitcheny kind of morning

This morning turned into a kitchen kind of morning. Breakfast was nothing fancy – the kids each helped themselves to something and munched away in silence for a bit before wandering off in pursuit of other things. I munched too, then fed the birds, unloaded the dishwasher, swept the floor, and eyeballed the 2 giant zucchini sitting on the counter just begging to be used.

Zucchini bread, I kept thinking. I’ve been wanting to make it for days. But I didn’t want to make it alone. I wanted company.

The best way to get the kids to do something for me is to imply that it requires the use of the computer. Computers are highly motivating tools, you see, especially when you are using them for real work and not just playing games.

“Can you find me a really good recipe for zucchini bread?” was the request, and they happily set off to do so.

Five minutes later, they were back. The recipe? Canadian Living’s Zucchini Loaf.

Of course, I still wanted company, so I announced I needed help fetching ingredients and running one of the zucchini through the mandolin to shred it, and before I could blink, I had two eager little helpers and a batter rapidly coming together.

An hour after we started, I had 4 little loaves of zucchini bread cooling on the counter.

Five seconds after that, I had three-and-a-half loaves, and let me tell you, that zucchini loaf still hot from the oven and spread with a generous dollop of butter just can’t be beat!

One of the intact loaves was sent over to the neighbour who pet-sat the birds for us for a few days last week, so now we are down to two full loaves and a half.

Luckily, I have another zucchini.

Kale chips

All last summer, I kept seeing blog posts about kale. The new superfood, the garden miracle, and delicious too. The terrible truth is that I find kale rather bitter and not terribly enticing. Maybe it is that I prefer my greens raw, or maybe it is that kale has such a strong and distinctive taste… who knows. But what I did know is that while I will eat it from time to time, I don’t love kale enough to eat it on a regular basis.

But then I read about kale chips, and everyone who made them kept raving about them over and over again, and talking about how their kids couldn’t get enough of them, and how they were even better than potato chips.

Wait… what??? There’s something better than potato chips? Right then, I just knew that I was going to have to grow kale in the garden this year.

We have a long, narrow raised bed along our west fence (lest you think we live on a ranch, you should know that on our little plot of suburbia, the west fence is all of 14 m long). Every year, I plant lettuce and carrots and broccoli and other goodies in that raised bed using a rather intensive planting method called Square Foot Gardening. And every year, the bunnies that visit us regularly thank me dearly for the lovely, overfull all-night-all-day buffet breakfast-lunch-and-dinner I provide them.

I hate the bunnies.

Clarification: I love bunnies, I love how cute they are, I love their ears, I love their little tails, I love the way their nose wiggles while they munch away, and I really, truly wish I could talk The Man We Call Dad into allowing us to have a bunny of our very own, allergies be damned. But I hate the wild bunnies who believe my garden is their very own personal buffet. Especially when they chew all the bark of the newly planted apple tree. And the crabapple. And the service berry.

But a little birdie told me that bunnies like kale. And another little birdie told me that kale chips are delicious.

I am sure you can see where this is going.

kale in the garden

This year, I planted kale in the garden. I placed it all along the front border of the raised bed, and boy oh boy is it happy there! What’s more, boy oh boy are the rabbits happy that it is there! It’s true – the rabbits have been happily munching on kale and leaving my lettuces and carrots alone! For the first time ever, I think my romaine lettuce my survive long enough to form actual heads!

With the rabbits happily munching away, it was time to see if kale chips are all they are reputed to be. First, I picked and washed a largish head of kale, and then I pulled its leaves off.

kale in the sink

one leaf of kale

Next, I cut the ribs off the leaves as I hear they get a little bitter and aren’t very chip-like. Given that I was also trying to entice the kids into trying kale chips, anything not chip-like had to go.

removing the rib

I then tossed the kale with about 1/4 tsp of garlic powder and a Tbsp of olive oil, then spread it out on my favourite stone baking sheet before putting it in the oven at 200 for a while.

ready for the oven

After baking at low temperature for a while (you could also do this step in a dehydrator, but sadly, I do not own a dehydrator), the chips changed colour and took on the texture and weight of… paper. It’s true! They were light and airy and nothing at all like potato chips except in that they are crunchy and flavourful.

finished kale chips

Naturally, my kids didn’t like them.

But my niece did. So much so, in fact, that after munching on them by the fistful at our picnic on the beach, she took the entire rest of the bag home and I was left with nothing.

It’s a good thing I have more kale in the garden. Maybe I’ll make them with some Tex-Mex flavouring this time.

Silly Breakfast

Today is a big day. Big. Huge, in fact.

Today, our children get their very own ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ cards. Yessirree, today is the day. The day. You know the one: The Very Last Day of School.

It is a day worth celebrating, we believe, for it marks the end of a year’s worth of studies. A year’s worth of papers and worksheets and quizzes. A year’s worth of projects and posters and plasticine dioramas. A year’s worth of homework and book reports and spelling words. In short, it marks the end of another busy year at school.

So we celebrated with breakfast.

“Pancakes, please!” was the request of the day, and so I mixed up some batter with the leftover buttermilk from our butter-making adventure and fired up my trusty old cast-iron skillet.

From upstairs, where children were busy primping and preening for the last school day of the year (well, okay, B was primping, K was yawning while brushing his teeth), there came a very strange question:

“Are you making Mickey Mouse pancakes?”

Hmm. I hadn’t thought about making Mickey Mouse pancakes. In fact, I can’t say that I have ever made Mickey Mouse pancakes. I’ve made hearts and happy faces and even a tank, but I have never made Mickey Mouse pancakes.

Until today.

They were delicious. And giggle-worthy. I made hearts, too, and happy faces, and I even made K another tank because every growing boy needs to get his daily dose of iron, after all.

They giggled at that, too.

Since we’ve started The Silliness Project and have started going out of our way to inject a little more joy in our lives on a regular basis, we sure have been having fun.

A Recipe for Buttermilk Mickey Mouse Pancakes

Start by making butter by hand so that you have about a cup of buttermilk on hand.

Mix together 1 cup of flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 egg, 1 pinch each of nutmeg and cinnamon and sea salt. Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk and 2 Tbsp melted butter. Add a little more buttermilk if the batter is too thick.

Let the batter sit for a few minutes while your cast iron skillet heats up. Brush the skillet with a dash of oil. When a drop of water jumps and sizzles, turn the skillet down slightly and drop two small spoonfuls of batter for the ears, then a larger spoonful of batter for the head. When the batter shows bubbles on the top, flip the pancakes and cook them until the bottom is golden.

Serve with homemade butter, maple syrup from the local sugar bush, and a generous helping of laughter and love.