Category Archives: How to | Tips

Have You Tried Dragon Fruit?

Dragon Fruit
Dragon Fruit is a beautiful type of cactus also referred to as Pitaya. Its origin is unknown, but believed to be from Mexico and cultivated around the world.  It is more commonly found in Thailand and Vietnam.  The color can be a vibrant red or yellow with layers of leaves.

A dragon fruit is ready to eat when you press on the outside flesh and it gives slightly.  Any softer than this and it will be too ripe.  After washing the fruit, simply cut in half.  The flesh is easy to scoop out and contains black edible seeds, similar to kiwi (the skin is very bitter and inedible).

Dragon Fruit

The taste is very mild and refreshing, slightly crunchy but not as tart as kiwis.  While dragon fruits are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, they are also high in fructose and should be enjoyed in moderation.

The shell of the fruit is so pretty you can even use it to serve ice cream, yogurt or sherbet or sorbets. The fruit itself is best eaten cold.

Dragon Fruit

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix Makes a Great Last Minute Gift!

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Just a few more sleeps until Christmas …. are you still working on your holiday shopping list?

Here’s a very easy homemade gift that chocolate lovers will appreciate – homemade hot chocolate mix.

I started making my own mix last year and I’ve never gone back to store-bought mixes. I like to use mason jars, but any container will do. Just layer with cocoa powder (Dutch cocoa is really good), icing sugar (which dissolves faster), or even vanilla sugar would be great. Add a few sprinkles of cinnamon powder and top with small chocolate chunks or chocolate chips. How easy is that?

Cheers!

To make:

Calculate how many servings your container or mason jar will fit based on the ingredients below. Fill each container about ¾ full, to allow room to shake contents.

1 serving contains:

  • 1 heaping tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 heaping tablespoon icing sugar (or vanilla sugar)
  • 1 – 2 tiny shakes of cinnamon powder
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of small chocolate chunks or chocolate chips (any type: milk, semi-sweet or dark)

My mason jars fit 6 servings so I spooned in 6 of the above.

Heaping = generous serving!

Cut and paste the recipe below, and print out to include with each jar.

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

Ingredients

• Dutch Cocoa Powder
• Icing Sugar
• Cinnamon
• Dark Chocolate Chunks

Directions

1. Shake jar
2. Add 1 heaping tablespoon to a mug
3. Add very hot milk, a little bit at first and mix well, then add remaining hot milk to top up your mug, stir to combine
4. Add your topping of choice – marshmallows or whipped cream

Enjoy!

This is so much healthier than store-bought hot chocolate mixes!!

How to Make Homemade Brown Sugar

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There’s nothing worse than gathering your ingredients to bake something delicious and realizing your brown sugar is hard as a rock.  Sure, there are ways to soften it up, but I found it was only a temporary fix.

Brown sugar can be expensive, and there are recipes that call for light or dark.  I end up with one or the other clumping up before I have a chance to use it.

I discovered how simple it is to make brown sugar and wanted to share it with you.

Brown sugar is white granulated sugar and molasses; only two ingredients!  I have never purchased it again!  And, you’ll save money by making your own, especially when white sugar is on sale.

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I also found that homemade brown sugar stays softer for months!

I hope you’ll give it a try, and let me know what you think!

Homemade Brown Sugar

Adapted from Martha Stewart

To make 1 cup light brown sugar:
Combine 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 ½ tbsp molasses

To make 1 cup dark brown sugar:
Combine 1 cup granulated sugar and 2 ½ tbsp

Kitchen notes:

  • Place a strainer over your KitchenAid bowl.  Add white sugar to dissolve any lumps, and then add molasses.  Use the paddle attachment.  Stir for several minutes until combined
  • Homemade brown sugar may not look like store-bought sugar right away, but rest assured, after a few days, when the flavors have developed, it will look and taste even better!
  • Be sure to store brown sugar in an airtight container, away from heat and light
  • I also use a brown sugar saver disk.  Just soak it in water for a few minutes, dry off, and place it in the middle of your container
  • Light brown sugar has a more subtle flavor and dark brown sugar has an intense molasses flavor.  They are interchangeable

How to Make Homemade Tortilla Chips

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Let me start by saying that homemade tortilla chips taste fresher than store-bought chips, but they are also labour-intensive!

I had problems before I even attempted to make them.  I made the mistake of buying fresh flour tortillas, which are very easy to find.  Fresh “corn” tortillas, on the other hand, can be difficult to find, and not every grocery store carries them.  I eventually found them in the dairy aisle at a larger supermarket.

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Now that I finally found fresh corn tortillas, I had to dry them out.  I took a short cut by placing them in a single layer on a plate, and microwaving them for a few minutes, but it took so much time!

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When they cooled, I cut them into 4 pieces and fried them in small batches.  I also used a ton of paper towels.

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I decided to fry up the entire package of fresh corn tortillas because I was “not” going to make these again, unless I had deep fryer!

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Homemade Tortilla Chips

End result:  Yes, they tasted great, but so do higher-quality store-bought tortilla chips!  Don’t bother unless you’re very curious like me, or you happen to have a fresh batch of canola oil and a deep fryer.

The baked version is posted below, and I’ll give it a try next time.

Homemade Tortilla Chips

Adapted from simplyrecipes.com

Ingredients

  • Fill a skillet (with deep sides) with oil to approximately 1” (vegetable, canola, corn, peanut or grape seed oil).  Make sure the oil has a high-smoke point
  • Fresh corn tortillas
  • Kosher salt

Kitchen notes:

  • Tortilla chips fry better if they are dried out. Either leave the whole tortillas out overnight, exposed to air so they are stale the next day, or dry them out in the oven or microwave. To dry them in the oven, lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in a 350°F for 5 minutes.  Or lay them out in a single layer (working in batches) on a paper towel in a microwave oven and microwave them for 20 to 60 seconds; depending on how strong your microwave is and how many tortillas you are drying. You don’t want them crisp at this point, just as dry as they would be if you left them out overnight
  • Warning:  If your oil is not at the right temperature, you’ll end up with greasy tortilla chips.  I highly suggest using a candy thermometer.  Temperature should be 350°F.  Any higher and your chips will burn
  1. Cut each tortilla into 4 or 6 triangle-shaped wedges
  2. Heat the oil on medium high heat until a small piece of tortilla placed in the oil sizzles, about 350°F
  3. Place a paper towel onto a large plate and have several other paper towels ready
  4. Place a handful of tortilla triangles into the hot oil, in a single layer. Use metal tongs or a metal slotted spoon to distribute the tortilla triangles so that they aren’t overlapping, ensuring that all sides get coated with oil
  5. Fry for approximately 2 minutes until the chips just begin to color and they are firm and no longer pliable.  Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the chips from the oil to the paper-towel-lined plate
  6. Sprinkle with salt
  7. Place another paper towel over the top of the chips to be ready for the next batch.
    Note that as soon as you put the tortilla triangles into the hot oil, because you are working with such a small volume of oil, the temperature will lower. Usually I compensate for this by increasing the heat to high. And as soon as the chips begin to color, I reduce the heat to low, so the oil doesn’t overheat in between batches of chips
  8. Continue to cook the chips, working in batches, placing the freshly fried chips over a new layer of paper towel each time, and sprinkling with salt

Baked Tortilla Chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Cut the tortillas into wedges
  3. Spread the tortilla wedges out on a baking sheet in a single layer
  4. Bake the tortilla wedges for about 6 minutes, then use tongs to turn the wedges over
  5. Sprinkle with a little salt, and bake for another 6 to 9 minutes, until they are just beginning to color
  6. Remove from the oven and let cool
  7. Sprinkle with more salt to serve

Why Are Macarons So Expensive?

I have purchased macarons ranging from $1.95 to $3.50 each, and would say some were definitely worth the price, while others were quite underwhelming. The price alone inspired me to try my hand at making macarons.

After my first 3 attempts, I began to think the same two thoughts, “Never again, I’ll just buy them!” or, “These came out well, and were worth the mess my poor “sous chef” has to help me clean up!”

Here are the challenges I encountered and some excellent tips I learned along the way to making macarons:

What’s the weather like today?

I read many articles on how humidity can affect the baking process. Apparently, too much moisture in the air will cause chaos in your shells.  But, I’ve also read that bakers don’t really wait for a perfect day.  Just make sure the macaron shells have formed a hard skin before baking them.

Aged egg whites

The egg whites should be aged anywhere from 2-5 days in the refrigerator, then brought to room temperature before whipping to the correct texture. I find a pinch of cream of tartar is also helpful. Superfine sugar, also known as caster sugar, should be added slowly. If you overbeat the egg whites, it’s a disaster. If you underbeat the egg whites, it’s still going to be disastrous. I have tried testing the egg whites by placing the bowl upside down. If the mixture doesn’t slide, you’re good to go. If it does, you need to whip them a bit more. Another helpful tip that I just learned recently from experimenting is that I don’t use my KitchenAid mixer, I use a hand mixer. It’s easier to stop and check the texture of the egg whites, and I rarely overbeat them this way. You’re looking for stiff peaks and a glossy meringue.

Kitchen scale

I would not attempt to make macarons without a kitchen scale. The amounts have to be exact, in grams. This goes for the egg whites, almond flour, icing sugar and superfine sugar.

Superfine almond flour

Most almond flour is too coarse, even after passing through a sieve several times. I tried buying blanched almond slivers in bulk and making my own almond flour, but it was extremely time-consuming and messy. The finer the almond flour, the smoother your shells will be. Sift the almond flour and icing sugar at least 3 times, you want a super, super fine mixture.

Macaronage stage

This is where I get stressed out and start to hold my breath. Folding the tant pour tant into the whipped meringue is where most bakers go wrong. I have watched countless videos and read every article and trouble-shooting guide I could get my hands on.

You want to add the almond flour mixture and start to fold (not mix, but fold) with a bit of speed, but then slow down. I’ve read 50 strokes is good, but I’ve had horrible results. 60-70 strokes, forget about it. You’ll just end up with puddles. Then again, I have to say, when I’ve under-folded, the macarons looked hideous. Many times, I over-folded and despite the fact that I could not pipe the shells because the mixture was too loose, the shells came out beautifully. I read that the mixture should flow like lava. What the heck is that?

This is the stage where you can start to pull your hair out, or, leave the mess you just made in your kitchen, hop in your car and head to the nearest bakery that sells beautiful macarons.

Alternately, try watching this video to obtain the right consistency.

Perfect piping

Unless you have a steady hand or you’re experienced in making macarons, I would suggest using a template. You can find many on the Internet. I laminated mine and placed them under the parchment paper on my baking sheets.

Now, finally, the piping marathon begins! If the finished mixture is the “right” consistency, you should be able to pipe and see the circles start to spread slightly and flatten on their own. Too thick and you can see circle patterns where you’ve piped? You under-folded and now what can we do when the mixture is already in the piping bag!!!! This happened many times because I was so afraid of over-folding.

When completed, hold a baking sheet with both hands, and with a firm grip on the parchment paper as well, whack the sheets on your counter a few times. If you still have some peaks, the mixture wasn’t quite ready. You can try to dip your finger tip into a very small amount of water, then on a paper towel and gently, very gently press down on any shells that still have peaks. If you see air bubbles, break them with a toothpick.

Nap time!

The macarons need a nap and so will you by the time you get to this stage!

There is much debate over letting the piped macaron shells rest at room temperature to allow a skin to develop, or not. Apparently, this helps with achieving perfect feet – the beautiful ruffles around the bottom of the shells. I’ve read numerous reviews where bakers omitted this step. My tip, wait 30 minutes. Just don’t let them sit too long, such as 45 – 60 minutes. I did that once and the feet came out lopsided. I read that they napped too long and became attached to the parchment paper!

Also, if you used a template, remove it now before baking.

Naps over … what’s next?

Oven thermometer

I can’t say this enough; you must purchase an oven thermometer to ensure your oven is at the right temperature. The first few times, I didn’t bother and when I did buy one, my oven was off by 25 degrees! Even with my new oven, the temperature was off by 40 degrees and when it was replaced, that oven was off by 15 degrees!

Oven temperature and rack positioning

Here we go, finally, the moment of truth! 300°F is quite standard, but I’ve had tops that browned. 290°F and they didn’t rise. Center of the rack, bottom third of the rack, top of the rack. Hair pulling starts ….

After numerous tests, 295°F worked for me (oven temperatures will vary), and I placed them in the middle of my oven.

Close the door, turn on the oven light, crouch to watch them rise (please, please) and pray!!

What worked for me:

If your macarons are spreading too much and you’re not getting perfect feet, your oven temperature might be too hot. Here’s a trick I learned that has resulted in nice feet!

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Place one tray of macarons in the oven. Watch for them to rise (from the glass window). This could take anywhere from 4-6 minutes. The minute you see them forming perfect feet, open the door gently but quickly and slide a wooden spoon in the doorway and close. Turn the heat down to 295°F and let them bake until they’re done.

To test, nudge a macaron with your finger, if it moves, they need more baking time. If they don’t budge at all, they’re done. This can take up to 10 more minutes of bake time, depending on your oven.

If your macarons are getting brown, your oven temperature is too hot.

Cooling off

Now that the macarons are out of the oven, let them cool completely on cooling racks.

Gently peel them away from the parchment paper. If they stick, they were undercooked. Another lesson learned.

To avoid this, do the test above to make sure the macarons are baked enough.

Where’s my twin?

Pair up the macarons as best you can. Some will look oval, others not so pretty, but they will still taste great.

Filling your macarons

Pipe your desired filling onto one macaron and place the twin on top. Gently press down while holding the edges of the macaron. I find a gentle twist helps as well.

Do not, and I repeat, do not eat macarons just yet!

24 hour time out

Trust me on this one, you will be tempted after all that hard work to pop a macaron in your mouth, and you can, but they will not taste like a macaron should. You might even start to think you weren’t successful!

Macarons truly need some time out in the fridge for 24 hours. Place them carefully in a tight-fitting container and let the flavours meld together overnight. When ready to eat, take the macarons out and let them sit for 15 minutes. Cold macarons don’t taste good, especially if they’ve been filled with chocolate ganache or Swiss/Italian meringue buttercream.

Now, take that first bite. The result should be a crispy shell, followed by a chewy texture and delicious filling. Note that if you used a wet filling such as lemon curd or another type of fruit, the shells will be softer.

Storing those finicky macrons

Store macarons in a tight-fitting container in the fridge for up to 5 days. Macarons also freeze very well.


Despite all these challenges, I’m craving macarons right now, how about you?

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