Monday, June 25, 2012

Incredible Hulk Cake for a Birthday

This past weekend, we celebrated my nephew's 5th birthday. The big 5!!! He's starting kindergarten this September! Next year it will be my boy's turn. Omg. They grow up so fast.

My sister asked me to make a cake for his birthday and mentioned that he loves superheros, especially the Hulk. When I first heard the "Hulk," my first reaction was no way - that's going to be too hard! I then started searching for images online of Hulk cakes. I didn't like most of the ones I saw and the few that looked awesome were way too complex. After all, this was going to be my fourth cake involving fondant and only my third theme cake. The monkey cake I made was my first theme cake and the Santa hat cake was my second. I'm a newbie! I need an easy design to follow :) And of course this was the first time I was asked to make "someone" else a cake. Better not screw up, right?

I came across this really cool two layer cake of the Hulk. If you could ever do Hulk on two round layers, this would be it! If you don't look pass the cylindrical shapes of the cake, you will probably think it's Frankenstein. That's what I saw at times. I think the tallness of each of the layers makes it look more Frankenstein-ish too, no? So this was it! When I saw this cake, I was like "I can do this one!"

First two cakes seen here on Pinterest were my inspiration.

It took me several hours to bake and decorate my Hulk cake. I think it looks less Frankenstein-ish since it's a shorter cake. Could it pass as a Hulk cake though? A few people on Twitter thought so. I'm still not totally sure myself. Green monster, Frankenstein, Hulk or whatever you want to think of it is cool I guess. It isn't nearly as cool and professional as the original in my search but the people at the birthday party still liked it :) Theme cake #3 complete!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Spinach Pasta with Chicken and Porcini Mushroom Sauce

You know how you go off on vacation and then come back with a list of stories you just can't wait to share with everyone? By list of stories I mean mostly food porn and what it was like to dine in sophisticated countries like France and Italy :) I am a foodie and food blogger and just over a week ago I came back from the South of France and Tuscany. I had a culinary adventure that many foodies dream of and I am super excited to be able to share some of it with you! In fact, I have already written a few posts about my time there. I shared many photos of the farmer's market in downtown Toulon, France. I wrote about dining in Florence and Tuscany, wine tasting in Greve in Chianti, and my visit to the Amedei factory, home of the world's best chocolate. Now I want to share what it was like to cook in a farmhouse in Tuscany :) Don't worry, this time I have a recipe to share with you as well ;)

My husband is French so we go to France quite often to visit family. He is from the South of France and on this past trip, we took a road trip to Florence and Tuscany. As a new food blogger and fairly new baker, I was even more excited to go to Europe on this trip. It's strange how different your experience can be when you look at it from a different perspective. In the past when we visited the family, we would just eat whatever was given to us and stuff ourselves silly. Some times we wouldn't know what we were eating and we didn't take pictures of food unless it was one of the craziest things we have ever seen. Now, I order food with food blogging in mind and I take photos of pretty much everything at the table and at every angle! I even take pictures of other people's food at my table just for documentation. Many times, my mother-in-law would be asking what I was doing and why I was taking so many pictures of food. Lol. I noted down name of dishes, places where we bought our food, and how much we paid for it so that I could compare it to prices in Canada. I really went to Europe this time around to document food! :)


We rented a farmhouse close to Florence and stayed there for a week. It was a complete unit with a full kitchen, living room, and outside patio. I took advantage of the kitchen and cooked a couple of times. We also had coffee, breakfast, and light dinners at the farmhouse nearly every day. On the day we decided to take a break from touring and spend more time at the farmhouse, I cooked us a big pasta meal. Well it had to be pasta since we were in Italy! Without much thought, I made one of my favorite pasta dishes :) It's actually based off another recipe from an old book of my brother's that uses duck and normal white mushrooms. I have made it countless times and because I do it from memory, it always tastes a bit different. This time around I was able to use a lot of fresh ingredients, including giant fresh porcini mushrooms (at least I think that's what they were called). It was so exciting! The mushrooms looked so great and I was looking forward to cooking a big meal at the farmhouse since we arrived in Tuscany. I mean how many times in my life do I get to shop at the local grocery store in Tuscany and then go to my own farmhouse to cook pasta for my family? It was such a lovely farmhouse and countryside too. That day, my husband and 3 year old went off to swim and play in the pool at the back of the farmhouse while I cooked in the kitchen. They were working up an appetite :) I was so great to be able to cook in beautiful Tuscany and the family loved the food. We ate very very well that evening :)

Spinach Pasta with Chicken and Porcini Mushroom Sauce
Serves 8-10

900 g spinach pasta (fettuccine & penne works well)


1 free range whole chicken
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup white wine
4 cubes of organic chicken stock (I used 2 chicken cubes & 2 vegetable cubes)
2 cups water
4 cloves of garlic, pressed
2 medium onions, chopped
2 lbs of fresh mushrooms, chopped (use something exotic like porcini)
1 handful of dried mushrooms (I used porcini)

1 cup whipping cream
salt/pepper to taste


Parmesan, grated
Fresh Italian parsley, minced

Rinse dry mushrooms and then soak them in 1/2 cup of hot water. Fry chicken in olive oil until slightly brown. Add wine and boil until it's reduced by half. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and chicken stock cubes. Cover and simmer on low for about 45 minutes. Remove chicken and let cool. Save all the broth from the pot. When the chicken is cool enough, shred the meat from it. You can add the bones back to the broth and simmer a bit more for extra flavor or just discard the bones.

Fry the garlic, onions, and fresh mushrooms in some olive oil in a large casserole pot. Drain the dry mushrooms but save the mushroom broth. Finely chop the porcini mushrooms and then add them to the pot. Add the chicken meat, chicken broth, mushroom broth and salt and pepper. Add whipping cream. Cover and simmer on low.

Cook pasta until al dente. Drain. Wash and chop parsley. To serve, scoop some pasta onto a plate, followed by a generous serving of sauce. Top with parsley and Parmesan cheese.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Visiting the Amedei Chocolate Factory in Tuscany

I first heard about Amedei chocolates at the chocolate tasting at Xoxolat in Vancouver about a month ago. Our host showed the class a bar of Amedei chocolate called the "9" (or maybe it was the Chuao?) and told us that this $20 bar of chocolate is also known as the best chocolate in the world. $20 for just 50 grams! Depending on the year of competition, different Amedei bars won the Gold award. In 2011, it was the "9." Our host at Xoxolat also said not to buy it since the average chocolate lover would not appreciate the greatness in such a fine bar of chocolate. At that price, I wouldn't have dared anyway! When she mentioned Amedei was Italian and that its factory was in Tuscany, I was thrilled! I had plans to visit Tuscany soon :)

On the day we had plans to visit Pisa, we also visited the Amedei chocolate factory. It was located very close to La Rotta in Pontedera, about 30 minutes east of Pisa. We made it there in a much longer time since we got lost again and we were navigating based on just highway signs and general direction. We had no GPS:( What a nightmare. We even tried activating our very expensive 3G just for directions but it wouldn't pick up any signal where we were. I think we all deserve medals for making it there the way we did. Amedei is not very well known to the general public and we didn't see any signs on the street for it until we got down to the narrow countryside road. When we arrived, the gates were all closed and we thought they were not even opened. It was 4PM and I had no appointment. I heard it wasn't a tourist destination so I didn't think I needed an appointment. There were cars in the parking lot so I went up to the gate and buzzed the intercom. I asked if we could go inside and visit the factory and the lady that answered told me we normally needed an appointment. Oh dear:( Shortly after, she buzzed the gate open for us. Hooray!

After a bit of inquiring about and waiting, we got our chocolate tour :) We had the 1 1/2 hour tour for 50 Euros a person. It was too late for the 2 1/2 hour tour, which would have included a trip to the production area. If I was by myself, I would have loved to have done the production tour since it was 120 Euros a person. The rest of my family wouldn't have appreciated that tour. We were told the factory does not sell chocolate to the public but if we did a tour, we could buy chocolates afterwards. However if you live in Europe, you could order directly from Amedei and they will ship it out to you. I'm not sure if the prices will be the same though. When I asked about buying online, our host said that they may open up online shopping on their site in the future.

My 3 year old admiring the cocoa fruit

I for one was happy to tour Amedei with such short notice. They were so gracious to fit us in at the last minute! Our host led us to what looked like a fancy board room with displays of chocolate. We watched slides as she presented and explained how they made chocolate at Amedei. Then in between slides, she showed us cocoa fruit, cocoa seeds, and we got to try chocolate. We tried lots of chocolate! My 3 year son sure ate well :) Lol. We started out eating roasted cocoa seeds and my 3 year old liked them. Our host was impressed by him :) I thought they were excellent too! They were so fragrant and weren't bitter like what you would have expected. The seeds were from Venezuela and then later we tried some from Madagascar. These two locations grow some of the best cocoa trees in the world.

The tour was good and the chocolate tasting was delicious. After the tour was over, we received a nicely designed pamphlet describing the chocolate creation process at Amedei and a little gift from their factory. We were told that we are now ambassadors of Amedei :)


"Perfection. Nothing less, always more, beyond compare."
- Taken from the Amedei booklet
Amedei only uses the best cocoa in the world. They own their plantations and know everything there is to know about the cocoa they use. This sets them apart from most other chocolate producers in the world. Their plantation workers are very well compensated to ensure that only the best quality seeds are sent to Amedei. There is a lot of quality control by Cecilia herself. Cecilia is the Italian lady behind all the chocolate making. There are no shortcuts and individual chocolates are decorated by hand and wrapping is all done manually as well by the 25 factory workers at Amedei. They use German roasting machines that are over 100 years old. Other chocolate makers think Amedei is a bit too "manual" for the 21st century. Maybe but it looks like all their hard work has paid off since they are kicking butt at chocolate competitions :)

Amedei chocolates are not well known and are also hard to find. There is only one importer in Canada for it and they are located in Ontario. A small shop like Xoxolat must get their chocolates from these guys. The "9" won the best chocolate in the world in 2009 and 2011 but the Amedei chocolate "Toscano Black 63%" and "Toscano Black 70%" won awards too. In previous years, "Chuao" and "Porcelana" won Gold awards. "Porcelana" is known as the most expensive chocolate in the world. Only 20 000 are produced each year and each bar is numbered. I loved the "9" bar because it was sweet and delicious, not only because I knew it won the best bar award :) It is a 75% cocoa bar but it tastes a bit sweeter than their Toscano Black 70% bar. My husband and I also liked the Grenada and Madagascar bars. Amedei dark chocolates are rich in cocoa but they taste extremely creamy.

Porcelana bar #2866

If you are ever in Florence and are fortunate enough to come across Amedei chocolates, buy some! I believe they sell Amedei chocolates for around the same price as their factory in around Tuscany. We bought the "9" bar for 6.70 Euros at the factory. Compare this to $20 a bar in Vancouver Canada. Wow. I bought a few kilograms of Amedei chocolates and hauled that all back to Canada. I may be an amateur foodie but I still appreciate and want the best. Sorry Xoxolat - I didn't listen! I'm smiling ear to ear knowing that I have in my possession the best chocolates in the world :)

Me with my chocolate loot bag:)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Wine Tasting at Le Cantine in Greve in Chianti

If you are ever in Tuscany, you will hear a lot about Chianti wine. The wine is from a region north of Siena and it known around the world for their wine. You will find many wineries and shops offering wine tasting once you enter Greve. There are others throughout the region but Le Cantine is a shop in Greve where you can taste over 100 different kinds of wine from the region. Some shops let you try wine for free and some will charge you 5 Euros for the tasting but if you buy a bottle after the tasting, then they refund you the 5 Euros.

Greve in Chianti is a small town and once you get there, it is quite easy to find Le Cantine. There is a sign for it right on the main street when you drive through Greve. The place is filled with wine and they also sell olive oils, and other specialty items from Tuscany. I even saw a few different bars of Amedei chocolates!

Greve in Chianti

To taste wine, we had to purchase wine cards starting at $10. If you don't use up the wine card, the shop will refund you what you didn't use. Depending on the type of wine, you may be paying anything from 0.60 Euros to something like 3.00 Euros for a tasting. You insert your card, place your glass underneath the wine you want to try, and then you press the button for that wine. You can do the same with olive oil tasting as well. I believe they had one or two stands for that. You could also use your wine card to eat salami, olives, cheese, and crackers. It may be a good idea to eat some of this with your wine if you are coming in with an empty stomach. I was mainly after the wine. I thought the wine tasting size was quite generous. I tried maybe six different kinds of wine and then I felt a little tipsy. Oops. I'm not a regular wine drinker at all, can you tell? I didn't end up using all of my wine card so I got a refund. Then I went ahead and bought a pretty bottle of Chianti Classico that I didn't even try! The design totally sold me! I love beautiful designs :)

If Tuscany is your destination, one of the things you must do is visit a winery and go on a tour or if you don't have the time or can't afford it, just go for wine tasting and buy some wine like me :) A wine tour might cost you several hundred Euros and it usually takes a good part of a day. We couldn't bring anymore alcohol back home so I made sure I drank lots of Chianti wine before leaving Tuscany :)

I love this Tuscany design label!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dining in Florence and Tuscany

Antipasti, pasta (every type, color, and shape), wood oven pizza, gelato, olives, and Chianti wine. These are just some of the foods you will find in Tuscany. I got to experience the food there while on a family vacation for a week. We stayed in a farmhouse in the countryside close to Florence. We dined out wherever our road trips took us in around Tuscany and I got the chance to cook a couple of times at the farmhouse as well. It was great!

I noted down a few restaurants to visit from my vacation planning but we also went into random restaurants and coffee shops as well. We had to go to random places when the restaurants we visited on my list were closed for lunch or were too far to walk to. Every day we would make it home before dark for a light dinner. Our farmhouse had a nice outside patio to dine in and most days were hot and sunny during the day and warm in the evenings. Spring weather in Tuscany was much like summer weather in Vancouver. 23-29 Celsius every day with sun and clouds.

Antipasti at Zest Restaurant in Siena
Italian food is a bit like French food, except it's also common to have pasta as an appetizer and then another different pasta for the main dish. There are salads but the most interesting and probably best starter to the meal is antipasti consisting of ham, and things such as olives, marinated artichokes, roasted color peppers, and I've seen side salad in some as well. The region is known for their hams so a plate of assorted hams is a must try dish. I know just one kind of prosciutto but in Tuscany there are different varieties of prosciutto. In fact they are quite heavy on the meat and cheese dishes in general so vegans be warned!

When you order a meat dish in France you normally receive something else with it like rice or vegetables. The meat portion is usually quite small. In Tuscany, you just get the meat. It's very fresh and tasty meat though:) I found myself stuffing myself with bread just to eat the meat with something. Tuscan bread is good and big, but nothing too special. The breads in general are just not nearly as great as breads found in France. When we shopped at the grocery store, my Mother-in-law refused to buy the fresh bread. I guess you can say we are all somewhat bread snobs:)

Veal wrapped in prosciutto

Beef stew at Trattoria Mario in Florence

Pizzas in Tuscany are awesome. Every place cooks it in a wood fired oven. In Vancouver, you need to specifically look for advertised wood oven pizzas but in Tuscany, they just call it a pizzeria. Even the cheap frozen pizzas at the grocery stores are wood oven and taste good. Pizzas in France are similar too but some are cooked in conventional ovens.

Wood fire oven pizza

Pasta was both interesting and delicious. I think they use various specialty flours to make them and I wish I had the space in our suitcases to buy some cool pasta flour to bring home:( I was surprised to discover that traditional lasagna did not contain any meat. It was basically fresh lasagna noodles with a blended creamy tomato-like sauce in between. It was so good!

Traditional lasagna - so good!

We drank wine with every meal. We often requested for Chianti or other local wine. Chianti Classico is a popular one. You can buy some for as cheap as 3 Euros in grocery stores or some that are more than ten times more expensive.

19 Euro bottle of Chianti Classico at restaurant

Dessert was often just gelato. I read that Florence has some of the best gelato in Italy. My favorite flavor is pistachio. We were experiencing summery weather so some days we were having gelato more than once. Omg. My 3 year son was in ice cream paradise :)

A few months ago, I tried ricotta cannoli for the first time at an Italian bakery in Vancouver. It was so good! I had to try some in Italy. I also couldn't resist trying a couple of other nice sweets I saw in a bakery:) The cannoli I bought in Florence were delicious too.

We were in Tuscany for 7 nights and we pretty much ate the above Italian foods every day. As delicious as it was, I am so sick of eating the same thing! Well it wasn't the exact same thing but you know what I mean :)
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