November 02, 2008

Naomi's Birthday

[somehow I forgot to post this one]
Naomi had her third birthday party this weekend. There were a slew of kids there along with Jen's family and we had fun with pizza and cake. I brought the same chocolate cupcakes that I took to Riley's birthday party. Most of the kids just ate the icing on the cupcakes, but Naomi has a thing for chocolate and devoured hers. I forgot to post the recipe then, so it's posted below.

She got a bunch of neat toys and the kids all had fun playing with them. A painted wooden birthday set, an elaborate doll house were hits, as was one of the 2 games I brought called "Don't Break the Ice" - the other one, "Ants in the Pants" required a bit too much dexterity. (But Jen, Sean suggests using another ant instead of your finger to flip the other ant into the pants.)

Chocolate Cupcakes (yields 24)

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 oz hot water

Preheat oven to 350°.
Whisk together the hot water and the cocoa, set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs, canola oil, and vanilla together.
Stir in sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda and baking powder.
Whisk in the cocoa mixture
Alternate stirring in flour and milk.

Pour into cupcake papers and bake for 20 min or until a toothpick comes out with a few crumbs on it.

Icing (not really a recipe)
1 cup unsalted butter, very soft
8 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup cream
2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat it all together, add coloring as desired.
I need to work on this - I've been making it a bit too stiff and then it's hard to pipe. So this is just all general proportions... I tend to just add as more sugar till it stiffens.

Posted by JAY at 11:57 PM | Comments (0)

November 04, 2008

Chuao Truffles

Amadei Chuao is my favorite chocolate in the world. In fact, a 1kg block of it was on my wishlist and I finally found a source for it! It has a strong fruity taste that's very distinctive. However, a 1kg block is very hard to eat (though I was managing). So I wanted to melt it down into a thin wafer. While I was doing that, I thought I'd make some truffles.

Making truffles is dead easy, it's simply a thick ganache of cream and chocolate that lets the taste of the chocolate shine through. Coating them with chocolate, however, is NOT easy. Chocolate has to be tempered - otherwise, after melting, it'll harden into a grainy soft mass. Rolling them in cocoa is a simple alternative - but not as impressive, or as easy to eat. So here are my $100 truffles! Recipe below.

I also learned that I'll need a mold if I want to make really attractive, shiny, glossy bars, even with perfectly tempered chocolate. I'm still debating whether this would be worthwhile.

Chocolate Truffles

450g of chopped top quality dark chocolate
1cup of cream

Scald the cream - heat it till it's ALMOST boiling but not quite.
Pour it over the chopped chocolate.
Let stand for 5 minutes.
Stir until smooth and glossy.
Refrigerate, covered, until set - 1 hour.
Use a melon baller to roll into balls.

Roll in cocoa powder (easy) or coat with melted chocolate (hard, below).
Store in a cool place.

Coating With Chocolate
Ok, I can't do this justice without a LOT of effort.
Here's a link that explains the process. To test the tempered chocolate, dip a spoon into the chocolate and set it aside. Within 5 minutes, it should harden into a hard smooth shell.

To coat the truffles:
Ensure the uncoated truffles are at room temperature. If they're too cold, the coating will crack.
Spoon some tempered chocolate into your palm.
Roll a truffle in your palm to coat thinly.
Put the coated truffle on some parchment paper to cool and harden.

Posted by JAY at 06:37 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2008

Financial Software: Wesabe

I've been using an ancient copy of Microsoft Money for YEARS. However, because of financial file format changes, it's no longer importing my bank transactions properly. I've investigated new versions of MS Money and Intuit's Quicken and was peeved to find out that a) they require you to enter your bank credentials into the software and b) they only work for 2 or 3 years before 'planned obsolescence' - ie. they stop importing your transactions just because your 'subscription' is up, and they don't allow you to enter your own transactions/files! What crap! Also, their interfaces are surprisingly convoluted.

I also investigated, but that's only available for American banks. Enter Wesabe.

Wesabe is a very bare-bones web based financial tracker. It can handle your credit card, chequing and savings accounts, tag your transactions into categories and set monthly spending goals. That's exactly what I need. However, I have some other criteria from financial software that it isn't often addressed by online reviews.

ANONYMITY! I'm not about to trust any website or program with my bank credentials. While Wesabe can retrieve your banking transactions should you trust it with your bank credentials, it will also allow you to upload your own transaction files (downloaded from the bank's website). You don't have to give them your name, either. Theoretically, they could grab the account number from the transaction file if you don't clear it out, but without any identifying info, that's pretty low risk.

NO LOCK IN - Wesabe will cheerfully dump all data into a file format of your choice. So you can periodically back up your own data (in case Wesabe goes belly up) for your own records.

SIMPLICITY - While it's graphing and charting abilities are limited, the features that it does have are very simple to use and work well. Managing categories/tags is especially well done, with Gmail-like auto-complete and auto-tagging features.

Online documentation: Maybe it's because everything is so simple, but there's no searchable 'help file' equivalent. Using some features like spending goals and customizing charts are simple, but not necessarily apparent if you don't know where to look. That being said, I haven't tried their support options, preferring to Google the site for answers.

Charts and Reports: Unfortunately, the ability to create custom reports and charts is pretty limited. They do provide APIs to access Wesabe data through XML, but frankly, I'm not willing to do that much work. Monthly status reports etc. on the front page would be nice.

Sustainability: Wesabe is currently venture capital funded. As with all things, it's pretty much buyer-beware. The ability to export everything on a regular basis kind of minimizes this though. Confidential to GOOG: buy this company! ;-)

Posted by JAY at 05:14 PM | Comments (0)

Recipe: Simple Bread

Hm. I thought I had a recipe for simple bread here, but apparently not. There's focaccia. There's oil biscuits. There's artisan bread. Cinnamon buns (hm, have to edit that one). There's even roti. But no simple bread.

My dad asked me to show him how to make this the other day. So here it is. But also? Instead of making 2 loaves of bread, you can make 1 loaf of bread and 9 cinnamon buns in a 9x9" baking pan. I use a kitchenaid stand mixer with a dough hook attachment to make this bread. With a bit of practice and a can of Pam, you can just use one bowl. (But it involves holding the dough in one hand while spraying the mixing bowl.)

  • 1 cup all purpose unbleached flour
  • 1/2 tablespoon yeast
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (or more/less to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon non-kosher (normal) salt

  • 2 cups of water at 120-130F
  • 3-4 cups of flour
  • small amount of oil

Stir together the first 4 dry ingredients (1C flour, yeast, sugar, salt).
Then pour in the water and stir to combine.
Stir in more flour until the mixture is thick and gloopy.
Put the mixing bowl on the machine.

Add half a cup of flour at a time, while kneading in with the dough hook.
When using the machine, start slowly (to avoid flour explosion!) then speed the machine up.

Keep adding flour until , when the mixer is going fairly fast, the dough is gathering around the hook and slapping the sides of the bowl. It should be mopping up most of the dough on the hook and almost wiping the bottom of the bowl clean (when at high speed... at low speed, it'll fall off the hook).

Basically, you're trying to achieve the above, while adding the minimum of flour. Too much flour will give you a dry bread.

Let the dough knead for about 5 minutes at medium speed.
Generously oil a bowl about twice the size of the dough ball in the machine.
With lightly floured OR oiled hands, take the dough from the mixer, form it into a ball (as much as possible) and transfer it to the oiled bowl. Then flip the dough over so that the exposed top dough is oiled.

Cover with plastic wrap and put in a warm place to raise for 20-25 minutes. It will double in volume and be very soft. It won't bounce back if you poke it.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper (NOT waxed paper) and flour lightly.
Turn the dough out of the bowl onto the sheet pan and press the air out gently and form it into a ball. Cut the dough in half and make 2 balls.

Shape the balls into oval loaf shapes.
Place them as far away from each other on the pan as you can.
Brush with oil or melted butter.
Cover lightly with saran wrap.
Let rise in a warm place for 25 minutes.
Start preheating the oven after about 15 minutes, though, to 375F! (360F with true convection)

Uncover the bread and slash the tops decoratively with a sharp knife. The slashes give room for the bread to rise without exploding at the bottom unattractively. Don't worry if the bread looks a bit flat, it'll rise in the oven.

Bake on mid-lower rack for about 30 minutes (25 convection) or until the bread reads between 205-210F internally.
Remember, water boils at about 212F - and if it all boils off, you'll have dry bread!
Posted by JAY at 06:24 PM | Comments (0)