Thursday, August 21, 2014

Adorable Swimming Cake

I saw this adorable swimming cake on Pinterest a few months ago and I just had to pin it for an excuse to make it one day. I don't plan to have a swimming birthday party for my son or anything like that. Besides, he's a Fall baby and swimming is probably one of the last things on people's mind when it's cold out. He does take swimming lessons and when he finally passed a difficult level, that day came for me to make the cake :)

My 5 year old started taking swimming lessons when he turned 5. Compared to a lot of the other kids I know, that is late to be starting swimming lessons! I take full blame for that since there was never a convenient pool in our neighborhood we could walk to. Now, things are different. We live by a pool we can easily drive to in 4 minutes. I take him to swim classes once a week for just 30 minutes. Unfortunately our pool doesn't offer and apparently doesn't believe every day classes are good for the kids. I think having to go to swim classes every day is a bit much for me personally so I'm not complaining :) Especially because my 5 year old is doing so well with just 30 minutes a week. It's a win and win for both of us! He went from Level 1 to Level 4 classes in just 10 months. He is pretty much at the same level now as many of the other kids I hear about who started when they were babies. I'm beyond pleased because I always thought he was behind by a lot.

The Level 3 swimming class was a bit tough for my 5 year old to pass. I think it had to do with his teacher more than anything. She was really tough on the kids. It was only when a substitute teacher wrote down that he should be seriously tested that she ended up passing him the very next class. Because of all this, I decided it was time to make that swimming cake when he passed a couple of weeks ago. The cake wasn't as nice as the original one I saw but I was still happy with how it turned out. These days I haven't been in any mood to bake so it was nice to see that I still could. Lol.

I'm so proud of my boy! For all those parents out there that are worried about getting their babies and kids in the pool as soon as possible, maybe my story can take a little pressure off of you. I felt a bit embarrassed for not starting lessons earlier but I wasn't ever really worried. I knew that my boy loved being in the water and he loved to swim with a lifesaver around him. We brought him to the pool for fun a few times and we played in the ocean in Hawaii a lot every time we visited. The important thing was that he loved being in water and he always had positive experiences when it came to swimming. I think that really helped him.

When he started swim classes, he was always one of the bigger, if not the biggest kid since he was 5 years old. The good thing was that he was old enough to actually listen well and follow instructions. His maturity allowed him to progress quicker than the younger kids. If you don't progress and get better, then what is the point of lessons? We have to pay for them after all. Now with an evening swim time, he is placed alongside bigger school kids, which is terrific for him. I think he will do even better as a result. He only had three classes so far in Level 4 but I can already see a big leap in confidence and improved skills. As a bonus, one of the kids in his class used to go to daycare with him! This whole experience taking him to swim classes has made me want to take lessons for myself. I never took lessons before and although I can swim a bit, I cannot swim very far and I have no technique at all. Haha.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ways to Get Cheaper Coffee for Your Nespresso Machine

Are you getting tired of paying a premium for your Nespresso coffee? It's delicious coffee but if you are a heavy drinker, it can get quite expensive. I was actually pretty surprised when I placed my first order of coffee. The machines themselves are fairly cheap these days. The coffee from Nespresso, is not. That's really where they make their money. It turns out there are ways you can save on coffee for your Nespresso machine.

Other Brands Offer Nespresso Compatible Capsules

Nespresso capsules start at $0.65 a capsule. Alternative brands can be as cheap as $0.40 a capsule. I had no idea there were other options until a few months ago. I started reading articles about other brands trying to get in but I didn't know some of them already existed. I'm surprised it took this long really. Nespresso probably had something to do with that though.

There are probably a handful of other options now but don't expect them to be the same as Nespresso. I'm more concerned about the capsules being compatible with my machine, more than anything else. From what I have read, a lot of the negative reviews from people who have used alternative capsules, seem to complain about the incompatibility of the capsules with their machines. Some capsules have even broken machines! Ouch.

Some of the different brands I have come across in my research include HiLine Coffee, Coffee Capsule Delight, Cafe Vergnano, Bicafe Capsules, and Spresso Luxe. They apparently sell Spresso Luxe at Walmart and Costco and they seem to be the most affordable at $0.40 a capsule. The reviews for Spresso Luxe are not great though. People complained the coffee was weak and they also complained about the material on the capsule and the compatibility with their machines. The most popular alternative brand is probably HiLine Coffee.

Thanks to my Nespresso post about latte art, I was contacted by a HiLine Coffee representative who offered me a few free samples. I checked out their website and I was intrigued. I was definitely interested in trying out some of their coffee. I would have paid for an assorted pack of what they had to offer just to check them out. It was so nice of them to send me a couple of packs :)

HiLine Coffee

Left: Nespresso, Right: HiLine

Left: Nespresso, Right: HiLine

I have been drinking HiLine coffee on and off for awhile now. I some times have Nespresso coffee and some times I have HiLine. My first impression was that it was tasty and very similar to Nespresso coffee! It was a bit harder to fit the capsule in the first few times and I had to apply a bit more pressure to close it but besides that, I would say it's compatible with my Pixie machine. The coffee was strong, just like Nespresso, and it tasted great too.

Side by side, there were obvious design and packaging differences. Nespresso definitely has done a remarkable job with their branding and presentation. I always loved how Nespresso capsules looked. They really are luxurious capsules and and judging by its cover, you would only expect high end coffee inside. The flavor of coffee is labeled on top of each capsule, which I find very useful. In comparison, HiLine Coffee looks rather dull. Every capsule pretty much looks the same and unless you keep the box out all the time, you will not be able to identify the coffee you are drinking. It's much more important for Nespresso to label their individual capsules since they have a gazillion options to choose from. HiLine Coffee only currently have a handful of flavors.

HiLine Coffee starts at $0.45 a capsule, but only one of the varieties cost that much. Most capsules are $0.50 and $0.55. Basically, you save $0.15 every time you drink a HiLine Coffee. If you don't care about the aesthetics of the packaging and labeling, HiLine Coffee is definitely worth trying. Just make sure your machine is compatible with their coffee before you order ;) Also, if you go to their site for the first time using your browser, you could enter your email to join their mailing list and receive 10% off your next order.

Refillable Capsules

Besides buying a different brand of coffee for your Nespresso machine, you could also try out those fill your own capsules they are selling everywhere. There are quite a few on Amazon. Just search for "Nespresso capsules refillable." You buy the empty capsules and you fill it yourself with your favorite espresso grind. I haven't tried this yet but I would be interested in doing so one day. The disposable ones seem to be pretty good but the refillable ones have mixed reviews. I'm waiting for a good refillable option to be available. I can see how creating one of those may be challenging though.

Nespresso Coffee In Europe

Last but not least, you could save on Nespresso capsules by buying them directly in France, when you are there. Or possibly in any Nespresso shop in Europe. We visited a couple of those beautiful Nespresso stores in France and ended up buying some from the shop on the Champs-Élysées. My husband told me I was nuts since it was more stuff to bring back and that they may get damaged on the travel back. I told him that they were like half the price compared to the US! Capsules were 0.35 Euros. And the US and Euro exchange rate was definitely not 50%. Okay, so maybe it was not half price but we did save quite a bit of money :)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dining Out in the South of France

The best part of being in France is the food. Whether you go grocery shopping for food or you dine out, pretty much everything is expensive compared to North America. A few things are cheaper, like wine, cheese, and yogurt. So at least the important things are cheaper! :) But the food is delicious. Expensive and small in size, but delicious.

Dining out is not just about getting fed. Dining out is an event. Visitors who really want to taste French food need to dine out for the full French culinary experience. Personally, I like to dress up a bit for the occasion and I like to spend the extra time to enjoy my food. I not only drink wine with my meal but I also usually order an aperitif to drink while I wait for my first course. Drinking at a restaurant in France is actually more affordable than in North America. And an alcoholic drink like a Kir is even cheaper than a soda like Coke. That's just another reason to drink up, right? :) I pretty much never order drinks at restaurants back home.

Expect to pay extra for your food in France. You may even leave a bit hungry too because they serve in French sizes, not North American sizes. What you pay for is not only great food, but also beautiful presentations, and exceptional service. Heck, even the chef comes out to mingle with you while you eat. At one of the small restaurants we visited, I noticed there were maybe five servers on duty. That's impressive for a restaurant with only six or seven tables. If it were in North America, there would have been one or two servers. Seriously.

A few years ago, I started to somewhat obsess about reviews and ratings. Before I would go anywhere or buy anything important, I would do research first. Now, we went to France a lot but I refused to believe that there were no good restaurants in the areas that we frequently visited. There were plenty of course but no one bothered to find them. This past trip, I did some quick research and we actually got to enjoy some really good food. One, my Parents-in-law took us to, which totally surprised me. It was Tables et Comptoir in Toulon. It was very expensive but it was good. We usually do go to expensive places but at least this time it was good.

Tables et Comptoir.

We went to Café du Midi in Verdon on one of our day trips and that was a pleasant surprise too. It was my Parents-in-law's choice again. What the heck was going on?! It wasn't as upscale as Tables et Comptoir but for casual dining, it was great. We had a view of the lake and the Chef was out mingling with everyone. That, I absolutely loved. He spoke English to me and my 5 year old and when we left, he gave my 5 year old extra nougat and cookies. Spoiled.

5 year old's meal.

I particularly liked our restaurant in Nice. This one I found online. We went to Café de Sejour and it was everything I expected it to be. The owner spoke to us a lot and the staff was great. The restaurant appeared very modern and clean but then the owner pointed out a framed picture of her little boy on the shelf, next to where we were sitting. Cute. Everything we ordered was delicious. When we declined on dessert for my 5 year old, the owner insisted on bringing him a small ice cream free of charge. When we left, we were given fresh macarons. My mother-in-law even asked for their business card. The Parents-in-law are happy. Yes!

Artichoke salad.

Pistachio crème brûlée. Top with raspberry sorbet. So good!

5 year old's free ice cream.

For causal dining in Toulon, we went to L’aparte with some friends. It was inexpensive and quite good for lunch. It was in a good location inside the town by a lot of other restaurants and shops. They served healthy meals, but their bread wasn't great. It's easy to get good bread so that was a bit disappointing.

Quiche on a biscuit.

I would recommend all the restaurants above. The food was great but what really stood out to me was the service. Good service is something we definitely lack in North America. The French take pride is serving great food. Asian restaurants in particularly are known for bad service. It's just something we tolerate here. With the right restaurant, dining out in France can be extremely satisfying and quite the memorable event. Bon appétit!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Easy Painted Eiffel Tower Cookies

A couple of weeks ago, we came back from France. We spent most of our time in the south but we were able to enjoy three days in Paris before coming home. A couple of months ago, I bought an Eiffel Tower cookie cutter from Sur La Table. At the time, I figured it was the perfect cookie to make for when I would blog about our return from France. So here I am to do just that.

My 5 year old ran up to the tower's 2nd floor in 10 minutes! Wow.

There are so many versions of Eiffel Tower cookies out there but I wanted something painted with a vintage appearance. Cookies like this totally scream retro and old Europe to me. Plus, I was feeling extremely lazy and I just couldn't be bothered with piping any kind of delicate detailed design. Right?! In the end, I think they turned out alright. Painting is so much faster than piping. And you always end up using less food coloring, which is nice.

To make the cookies more interesting, I decided to create different backgrounds for them. Instead of a single color, I created an ombre effect out of colors like blue for some and green for others. Then I painted Eiffel Towers over top in sketch fashion so they didn't look so clean. I think you get the idea :) If you're looking for a quick and easy way to decorate your Eiffel Tower cookies, this would be it. Now remember, a little paint goes a long way. Have some fun and good luck!

Close up of the night time Eiffel Tower with it's glittering lights.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Rich Green Tea Ice Cream

Green tea ice cream. (Taken with the iPad since my camera was out of battery.)

I finally did it. I got myself an ice cream maker. Now, let the weight gain begin. Seriously.

Ever since we got ourselves a bigger kitchen, we have slowly been filling it up with new toys. It's been great but now we are definitely running out of room. Our kitchen toys are now creeping into our pantry :( Luckily, I don't just hoard kitchen toys and leave them to collect dust. I actually make use of everything so I don't feel THAT bad.

Making ice cream is actually super easy. The machine itself is pretty simple. It's basically a frozen bowl that turns and stirs your prepared cream until it expands into a fluffy soft state. You can do this yourself without a machine by constantly stirring and freezing your prepared cream and repeating until it resembles ice cream. You add air to it every time you stir. But that would be so much work! For just $50 or so, you can just buy yourself an ice cream machine to do all that hard labor :) It's like magic in just 20 minutes.

I have already made several different kinds of ice cream. The first recipe I tried was a blood orange flavor. It was really really good. However, my favorite so far was the pistachio ice cream I made for when my family came over a month ago. It reminded me of the Bertillon ice cream I used to have in Paris. I also made a couple vegan flavors with much success such as peanut butter soy with jelly and coconut chai tea using cashews. So far I have only encountered one recipe that flopped. It was a butter pecan coconut vegan ice cream. The recipe was a nice soft serve but when I froze it, it froze like a popsicle. Lol. It's all good though because I got to learn a few things along the way, especially when it comes to making ice cream vegan.

Two of my favorite ice cream flavors happen to be greenish in color. Well, sort of. Pistachio and green tea. Neither of them are vegan. Ahem. Sorry. My husband and I used to drive up to Deep Cove in North Vancouver just to walk along the water and have green tea ice cream. This was before we knew there was a nice hike just steps away and other great food nearby. Oops. Deep Cove is such a beautiful place. Sigh. I miss going there. When I made my first batch of green tea ice cream at home, the taste of green tea ice cream in Deep Cove was the goal I had in mind. I like my green tea ice cream to have a strong green tea presence and only slightly sweetened. If you like that too, maybe the following recipe is for you.

Rich Green Tea Ice Cream
(Adapted from Japanese Cooking 101)

1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
2 tbsp green tea powder
2 cup heavy cream
4-5 large egg yolks

In a bowl, mix the green tea powder, heavy cream and egg yolks until most of the green tea powder is dissolved. Heat the milk, sugar, and salt over low heat in a pot until everything is dissolved. Slowly pour the hot milk over the green tea mixture and stir. Pour this back into the pot and heat on low. Stir and try to dissolve and break up the remaining clumps of green tea while the cream is heating. Stop when the cream thickens to the point that it would coat the back of your spoon.  If you go too far, the yolks in the cream may scramble. If this happens, you can save your cream by blending the heck out of it with a Vitamix or something similar until it becomes a smooth cream again ;)

Let the mixture cool and then refrigerate for a few hours. Pour mixture into your ice cream machine and follow the instructions on your machine. Scoop ice cream into a container and freeze it for a couple of hours before serving it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Explosive Chocolate Chip Cookies

Have you ever bought chocolate you didn't like? First of all, why on Earth would you buy chocolate for yourself that you didn't like? I'm sure you had your reasons but then changed your mind :) I can't be the only one that does this. Am I?

Recently, I bought a bag of individually wrapped chocolate squares for cupcake decorations. After hanging onto the bag for a month or so, I concluded I had no reason to make cupcakes any time soon so I decided to open the bag and start eating the chocolates. But I really didn't like them much. Sadly for me, I bought it at Costco so it was a really big bag of disappointment :( I'm sure other people like them but after being spoiled by quality Amedei chocolate and constantly snacking on Lindt chocolates, I just couldn't make myself eat the cheap Hershey's chocolates. The more I thought about them, the more I didn't want them. I even told my husband to take them all to his work and just give them out. Then, I had an idea.

What the heck can I do with chocolates I don't like to eat? Throw them in chocolate chip cookies, of course! Duh. I did this before when we had too much Halloween candy. Once, I even broke up pieces of Halloween candy to decorate the outside of a cake. Chocolates of any sort would work great inside a chocolate chip cookie. But seriously, pretty much anything will taste great inside of a chocolate chip cookie, right? :)

With regular chocolate squares.

Instead of breaking the cute chocolate squares and throwing the pieces into the cookie dough, I decided to just sandwich the thing. As lazy as it sounds, I actually thought it would turn out pretty cool. In fact, the cookie looked awesome! I used to think chocolate chip cookies were very boring looking but they really don't have to be.

Because each chocolate square added more chocolate to each cookie, I just reduced the amount of chocolate chips I used in the original recipe. You can use any chocolate chip recipe you want for this. The recipe I used was for my New York Times chocolate chip cookie. It's pretty simple really. Take some cookie dough and cover part of the chocolate square on top and on the bottom. Push down slightly. Place them on a cookie sheet with enough room to spread. Bake, then let them cool completely before removing them or they will fall apart.

Don't they look cool? I actually made them a couple of times now. The first time, I just used regular chocolate squares. The second time, I used flavored chocolate squares and they tasted great too. Since I didn't break them up, the flavors didn't mix so we had different flavored individual cookies.

With flavored chocolate squares.

Awesome, right? You know what else is awesome? Frozen chocolate chip cookies. I read that they can even taste better than room temperature ones. I used to freeze them anyway but instead of defrosting them now, I just eat them like that. Delicious!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Latte Art with Nespresso and Aeroccino Frother

We finally got our own Nespresso coffee machine! And with that, we now have a "latte factor." Yikes!

We discovered Nespresso maybe 4 or 5 years ago when we visited my parents-in-law in France. My father-in-law drinks a lot of espresso. An incredible amount actually. The Nespresso machine he had only produced espresso, supplied by Nespresso, and the coffee capsules were expensive. Even though the espresso looked, smelled, and tasted great, it just wasn't the machine for us at the time. In fact, we're not used to drinking espresso. We like to drink standard American coffees, lattes, and specialty coffees. Espressos are too small and too strong. Lol. But after a few Nespressos in France, my husband and I became big fans! But the Nespresso machines were still too expensive and too limited for us.

Shortly after we came back to Canada after trying Nespresso for the first time, we got a Tassimo machine. They were starting to get popular back then in Canada and with that machine, we got the price and versatility we were after. We were quite happy with our Tassimo machine until we moved to the USA. Here, you could find plenty of Keurig and Nespresso machines, but not Tassimo. At least not in Redmond, WA. That also meant that Tassimo brand coffee capsules were hard to find. Surprisingly, the capsules were more expensive than in Canada as well. I ended up giving our Tassimo machine to my sister to bring back to Canada and I took the plunge and got us a Nespresso machine. They're more affordable now and with the Aeroccino frother, we can have more than just espresso. As an added bonus, we can bring our used capsules to nearby recycling points so they don't end up in the local landfill.

With our Nespresso machine, we can now make one of the best tasting espressos in seconds with just a push of a button. The Aeroccino frother works amazingly fast to produce hot milk and froth. It can make cold froth too. That will come in handy for ice coffee drinks in the summer :) For months now, we have been enjoying espressos and lattes made with milk, soy milk, coconut milk, and rice milk. We even bought a few flavored syrups like pumpkin pie spice and gingerbread to give our lattes a holiday flavor. When we run out of capsules, we just go online at Nespresso and order more. You get delivery to your door within two days. Let's just say we no longer go out for coffee much anymore :)

Chocolatey sauce: 1 package of hot cocoa mix added to 1 decaf lungo espresso.

It's so easy, my 5 year old can even make me a great latte. But I wanted more. I wanted my latte to look pretty too. Is latte art possible with Nespresso? Well, it turns out it was actually hard to create latte art with Nespresso coffee and Aeroccino frothed milk. The milk gets way too frothy and bubbly, rather than creamy and thick. You really need the steam wand from a standard espresso machine to produce that hot velvety creamy smooth milk used for latte art. I tried it so many ways with so many different milks and it just wouldn't work. But I was determined to create something so I kept going.

The best design that would hold was the flower design. I needed to create more contrast so I used a chocolatey sauce, which I made by mixing a Lungo shot of decaffeinated espresso with a package of organic hot cocoa mix from Trader Joe's. It wasn't very thick like chocolate syrup but it worked alright :) I was really only after the design and I didn't want a sweet latte. I use 2% milk for my lattes now. Soy milk works well too but you get more froth with soy.

I got my 5 year old to help out in the video below. I started the recording and then handed it over to him to capture the rest while I prepared the latte. He was standing on a chair and he moved around a bit but the video turned out alright. Not a bad production for a 5 year old :) And he didn't even say a word the whole time!

Below are a few other fun attempts I tried at latte art using our Nespresso coffee. It's hard and some of them don't look great but they sure beat plain old boring looking lattes!

Do you own a Nespresso machine and Aeroccino frother? I'm still looking for more ways of decorating my lattes with art. If you have tried latte art using your machine, I would love to hear about it :)
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