Kitchen Exploits - Celebration Chocolate Cake

2012 is quickly drawing to a close. I thought it fitting to share my favourite chocolate cake recipe at this time. I call it my 'celebration' cake as it is one that can be easily dressed up for festive occasions and is always well-received. It is an easy recipe, perfect for beginner bakers, and looks impressive.

One advantage of this recipe is that it uses only cocoa powder for its chocolate flavour, instead of actual chocolate. This means that it is a relatively cheap chocolate cake to make - a plus if you like to host gatherings and feed many people, and need to watch your budget.

All the ingredients for the cake can be mixed by hand in a large bowl. The frosting glides on smoothly and leaves a nice sheen. My adaptation also means that the cake as a whole is not too sweet - something that many people seem to appreciate. The coffee inclusion enhances the chocolatey taste of the cake.

One important point to note is that this cake is rather sticky. The base of the baking tin needs to be well-greased, lined, and greased again. All the ingredients must be at room temperature before the mixing begins.

Celebration Chocolate Cake
  Adapted from Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake

For cake:
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups plain flour
1 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2t baking powder
1 1/2t baking soda
1t fine salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil 
2t vanilla essence
1 cup hot coffee (1t coffee powder + 1 cup boiling water)

For frosting:
125g unsalted butter
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1 cup icing sugar
1/3 cup milk
1t vanilla essence

For decoration (optional):
Shaved dark chocolate
Dark chocolate drops

For cake:
1. Preheat oven to 175C. Grease two 9-inch round baking tins. Line the bases with baking paper, and grease again.
2. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Make sure all the ingredients are well-distributed.
3. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Mix well.
4. Stir in hot coffee.
5. Pour batter equally into prepared baking tins. (I poke a toothpick into each tin and make sure that the height of the batter mark on each toothpick is equal.). 
6. Bake for 30 minutes. Leave to cool for 10-15 minutes before carefully removing cakes from baking tins and placing them on wire racks to cool.

For frosting and decoration:
1. Melt butter in a saucepan. (Turn off flame before butter totally melts so that butter does not burn.)
2. Stir in cocoa powder.
3. Alternatively add milk and icing sugar. Stir well.
4. Whisk mixture till it turns a lighter colour and is slightly fluffier. 
5. Leave frosting to cool in a fridge for about 15 minutes before use.
6. Frost one layer of cake (dome up) before placing next layer on top (dome down, so that the top of cake is flat). Frost top layer and sides. 
7. Decorate with shaved chocolate and chocolate drops as you wish.

He is the Reason for the Season

A very happy and blessed Christmas! I know this is coming a little late, but our Christmas tree is still up, and there are still lots of gregarious get-togethers around here, so do forgive me!

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. 
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” 
(which means, God with us). 
Matthew 1:21-23 

Feeding Solids

We started Bun on semi-solids when she hit the 6 months mark. Her first taste of rice cereal was fed to her by Bubbles, who was so excited about the affair that she informed people she met in church the next day about it. 

Bun was intrigued by this new experience at first, but for almost a month, she was rather uninterested in food in general! She would clam her mouth shut, give us looks of disgust and even blew food out of her mouth. I was unprepared for her reactions as Bubbles was completely different at this age.

First taste
The expression she gave us pretty often, regardless of the food.

Let me focus on the ceiling fan and ignore the orange mush.

She likes to snatch the spoon to (sort of) feed herself, 
so I let her make a mess!

Very pleased at thwarting Mummy's plan. 
Chewing the end of the spoon is more fun!

I spoke to her pediatrician about it and she assured me that it was alright as breast milk is still where she should get most of her nutrients from. She suggested letting Bun chew on whole, uncooked pieces of food like carrots or zucchinis just to get her used to different tastes. So I did give it a go, with a cold piece of carrot, cut to fit Bun's little fist. She enjoyed gnawing on it very much!

The very next day after this carrot experiment, Bun suddenly seemed more interested in eating! Pure coincidence it must be of course. I look forward to seeing how her eating habits pan out.

PS: Her fringe is seriously getting into her eyes! I can't bear to get her hair trimmed just yet, so we're making do with hair-clips.

A Mother-Daughter Outing at Parkway Parade

Since the arrival of Bun, I have tried to schedule one-on-one time with Bubbles on a regular basis. I actually miss spending uninterrupted stretches of time with her, and I think she does too. She enjoys these little outings, and feels grown-up when I call her my little companion, and tell her that I enjoy her company.

After my surgery, I was home-bound for quite a bit, and for the first week or so, was in too much pain to stand or sit for long. Thankfully, things got gradually better, and when I received an email inviting my daughters to Parkway Parade's Royal High Tea Party, I decided to say 'yes' and take Bubbles along.

If you know Bubbles in person, you would notice that she is not a pretty-in-pink princess sort of little girl. She has a certain gentleness about her, but with a mischievous streak and a strong will. She always chooses comfort before prettiness when it comes to clothes, although she would tell you she wants pretty clothes and shoes and be thrilled when she receives them!

I took her to the party with part apprehension and part curiosity. I wondered if I was doing the right thing to expose her to Disney Princess merchandise so early. However, I was also curious about how she would react, and what sort of impression such an event would have on her. I also felt like I was being a cool mom, for entering such a world together with her, one which many little girls I know enjoy. Most of all, I just wanted us to have a shared experience - something different from the humdrum we were in, an experience we could talk about after.

Here, the invited little girls, seated at a long, grand table. Many had tiaras and princess gowns on and behaved in an adorably proper way as only little girls would in a setting like this.

They were listening to a story told by a pretty Cinderella:

And served juices and cupcakes by people dressed like that:

Juices were served in disposable "wine glasses", and I must say Bubbles looked rather dainty as she sipped apple juice from her glass.

A big princess mobbed by little princesses:

Bubbles surprised me a little by being totally nonplussed by the event! She listened attentively to the story and the etiquette session (sit up straight, use napkins etc) and then simply wanted to get a key-chain with her name on it made (all the kids got one), finish up her juice and scoot off with me. She didn't want any photos taken, and didn't want any fuss. I was amused, glad, and perhaps a little proud of my little girl. Just like I was as a kid!

We went off to explore the mall with its newly opened wing. Parkway Parade is the first major mall in a Singapore heartland, and holds fond memories for me. We used to trek to the east of Singapore as kids on many a weekend. There was a huge rooftop playground then called Play Deck. We would play till the sky darkens, and then head back into mall for dinner at Hardee's. Those were the days!

Parkway Parade ends this year with a bang with the opening of their newly renovated retail wing housing old and new tenants like Din Tai Fung, PappaRich and Laline. Apart from being one of the major sponsors of the biggest Christmas light-up in Singapore, they also have several activities lined-up for their shoppers and the Marine Parade community to celebrate the festive holidays season.

Do check it out if you haven't been there in a while, or if you need a one-stop mall to shop, eat and run errands! I do think smaller malls make for more efficient shopping than big, sprawling ones. Bubbles and I did a spot of shopping after the event (she chose 3 dresses for me - You look fabulous, Mummy), and then had to rush back after dinner so that I could feed Bun. It was a nice girly outing for Bubbles and I!

Kitchen Exploits - Spinach Potato Mash

I tweeted once about having spinach potato mash for dinner and received a request to share the recipe.

Although tasty, this is hardly a fancy mash. It is something that I conjured up during one of Bubbles' I-don't-want-to-eat-vegetables phases. It surprised me when she first entered such a phase because we have always fed her greens. I used to pack broccoli florets as a snack for her, and she would happily munch on them. Today, she occasionally decides on a no-vegetable diet, and that is when I make sure she gets plenty of fruits, and serve up spinach-potato mash!

Spinach is a great vegetable to use in this recipe because it gets really soft when cooked. It also doesn't have much taste in itself, and is thus able to blend in with the other ingredients it is cooked in. Normally when I try to hide other vegetables, Bubbles will deftly pick them out. Not for this mash though. While she was first suspicious because of the colour, she didn't mind it once she ate some, as it tastes mainly of creamy mashed potato, something she absolutely enjoys.

I have used different types of spinach and they all gave pretty similar results. Round, sharp, bayam, baby etc. - whatever is in the fridge for the day gets used. In this recipe, the spinach is first boiled to remove excessive nitrates. It is also easier to cook it this way. Sometimes, I fry the spinach with finely chopped garlic instead. The garlic adds an aromatic flavour to the mash.  

This mash is great as a side to go with roasts or stews. We sometimes drizzle gravy over it, although it tastes great on its own. It is fast to cook, and good to eat. Exactly the type of thing I want my kitchen to do!

Spinach Potato Mash
Serves 4 as a side

1 bunch of spinach leaves, chopped fine
  5 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
115g salted butter (about half a regular block), cut into pieces
1 cup milk
Salt & pepper

1. Place spinach in boiling water quickly and remove when just wilted. Drain and set aside.
2. Boil potatoes. Cook till tender. Drain potatoes, leaving about a cup of water in.
3. Put cooked spinach in pot of boiled potatoes. Add butter and milk.
4. Mash everything together with a potato masher.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cardboard Clothes

Ever since I set up a recycling bin to house stuff like plastic bottles, toilet rolls and cardboard pieces for the purposes of craft work, I realise just now much junk we accumulate.

Anyway, there was this morning when my kids were whisked away from me for an hour or so so that I could rest during my recuperation period. Emptying the last breast pad in a box, I got a sudden burst of inspiration and could not help but to do this instead of sleep:

I had to feed Bun while Bubbles pegged the cardboard clothes to a line (after "hand washing" them in a basin). When I came back, she was pegging her own socks on the line too.

This made for a happy morning :)

Keeping the Focus

I have come to realise that my Eliminate and Concentrate post has become one of the most popular entries on this blog. This, not just based on page views and sharing of the post's link, but also the number of personal messages I received stemming from that post.

Re-reading the long-winded entry, I am glad those dark days have passed. I am very thankful for all those who reached out to me during those times - you all did make a difference.

The message of "Eliminate and Concentrate" is one that needs reminding, and requires a continuous awareness to keep at it. For me, keeping the focus on the important things has helped me chart the rocky waters of daily busyness. Often, it is not the focusing on the important things that is difficult, but the willingness and ability to let go and eliminate the non-important ones. Sometimes, it is accepting that it is not about setting out to change the world (although there is a time and place for that), but simply making a difference in the lives of those closest to us - those with whom we have the greatest influence over - even if that requires the most mundane of tasks.

Being someone who always wants to be doing the next thing, trying out another project, being involved - it has been tough for me to wrestle with desires that were all making demands on my limited time and energies. Recovering from the surgery, I have been forced once again to slow down and to focus. 

One thing that is of utmost importance to me is my relationship with Roboman. My marriage. It doesn't always seem that way, from the way I spend my time (and money!), or even from my conversations and writing. But these few months, we have made a very conscious choice to regularly connect with each other, to hold hands, to talk till the wee hours if an issue needs to be resolved, to sneak in cuddles and time alone. This, despite the constant lack of sleep, differing schedules, and various other disruptions.

Our "dates" are seldom romantic or grand by any measure, but the companionship and focus on each other has been precious. Recently, I made arrangements for a timeout with Roboman to visit the tailor. He was touched that I not only made time, but even bothered to dress up. Yes I dressed for my man. To go to the tailor, and eat at a run-down eatery, before rushing home to perform my breastfeeding duties. Because that was something I wanted to do for him. Together, we poured through fabric booklets to make a selection for shirts, pants and a suit, and decided on several that will last him through the next 2-3 years. He trusts my taste more than he does his own, and told the shop so :)

If you read my earlier Eliminate and Concentrate post, and you are now reading this too, I hope you are also keeping the focus in the rich tapestry of your life. Thank you for listening in on my journey.

Kitchen Exploits - Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew

So I'm keeping my promise!

I was hoping to cook (and photograph) my Oxtail stew again this past week, but remembered being told that I am not supposed to be eating beef so soon after my surgery. I know it is an old wives' tale, but decided to heed advice since it really costs me nothing to do so.

This is the only photo I have of the stew. People who follow my tweets would have seen this photo already:

Roboman lapped it up. He really enjoyed this. The meat had great flavour and was very tender. If there is a meat lover in your life, or if you are one yourself, you have to try making this!

Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew
  Adapted from Big Oven

1-1.2kg oxtail parts*
3-4 potatoes - peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots - peeled and cut into chunks 
8-10 fresh button mushrooms - wiped and cut into fours
1/2 cup ketchup 
2 T balsamic vinegar
1/2 T paprika powder
2 T mustard
2 T garlic powder
1 t Worchester sauce
Olive oil 
Salt & Pepper
1 T corn flour mixed in 3 T water (optional thickener)

1. Season oxtail parts with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
2. Mix ketchup, balsamic vinegar, mustard, garlic powder and Worchester sauce in a bowl.
3. Place carrots in the slow cooker and layer potatoes on top.
4. Heat some olive oil in a skillet or pan and quickly brown meat slightly on all sides.
5. Put meat on top of potatoes and place mushrooms on meat.
6. Pour the prepared sauce mixture in the bowl over all the ingredients.
7. Cover and turn on the slow cooker. Cook for 4-5 hours. After about 2.5-3 hours, occasionally push down any ingredients that are not covered in liquid. If preferred, add thickener.
8. Serve with bread and a salad, or hot pasta sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a handful of baby spinach. 

*I have also done this recipe with Beef Short Ribs, but prefer the Oxtail version.

LolliBox Review

I want to do an activity Mama.
A common refrain from Bubbles these days.
(Yes, I am now Mama - from Mimi to Mummy to Mum, and now Mama)

This school holidays, I've had some products sent to me to review, that help me create activities at home. It has been very timely, and enjoyable, for both Bubbles and myself.

From the thrill of receiving mail addressed to her, to tearing it open to discover what is inside, it is like having many birthdays this month.

First up, we've had a jolly LolliBox sent to us. Close friends would know that I was until recently toying with the idea of creating activity kits for children. Well, the folks behind LolliBox have done it, differently from how I envisioned it, but quite brilliantly.

Each box is comes with 2-3 activities of a certain theme, with new themes added each month. Boxes get delivered right to your door. You can choose to purchase individual boxes, or opt for a 3 or 6 months subscription, where discounts are given.

We received a Blow Wind Blow box to review, with Christmas wrapping and an additional Santa Wobbler kit thrown in. This box came with 2 activity sets, one of which is the making of a sailboat out of wood, paint, paper, and a wooden chopstick. I really like how each activity came packed neatly in a clear sealed plastic bag. Each bag had all the materials needed to do the activity, and an instruction manual. This activity in particular included a paintbrush and a cute set of paints.  

I was quite blown away (pun unintended) by the instruction sheet provided for the activity we did. It came with full coloured photographs of how to do the craft. I thought this was a useful feature for children who are not yet able to read, or even for children's caregivers who are unable to read English. It also shows me that there was actual experimentation when the LolliBox folks created the activities.

Also helpful were suggested questions for further discussion about the theme and subject with your children. I imagine this being particularly useful for working parents who choose to have a caregiver oversee the activity with their children in the day, and then personally engaging their children in conversation about it when back home from work.

We took the sailboat we made out for a spin at the pool. Unfortunately, it was a little top heavy with the chopstick sail, and kept toppling over. I would try this again perhaps by cutting the stick a little shorter. We had fun however, floating other toys on it. Like this - a really old jelly mould that I played with as a child:

LolliBox is said to be designed for children from 3-7. Given this wide age range, there is a need for some parental guidance to gauge if an activity is suitable for a child given his/her interests and abilities at the given time. I personally chose to let Bubbles only do the Santa wobbler and the sailboat activities, and have decided to keep the other activity of creating a wind sock till later. The wind sock activity includes an observation chart for recording wind effects - this is interesting, but I would prefer to keep it till she is better able to read, and perhaps even write.

Having an activity box with specially curated materials sent to your door is an attractive idea. It saves time and brain space of any busy parent (and I don't know any non-busy ones!). I also prefer kids to be meaningfully engaged with well thought-through activities like those in a Lollibox, than having them glued to electronic gadgets.

This is also a great gift for birthdays or Christmas. Check out their Christmas promotions here!

The Christmas Present

I just received my first Christmas present - With a heart full of thanksgiving, the biopsy results of the tumour I had removed read "no evidence of atypia or malignancy". After the news, I slept most of the next day - perhaps due to the sheer relief of it all.

To celebrate, I took my girls for dinner at Caffé Beviamo and to see Tanglin Mall's daily Avalanche and Snow.

Bubbles had her very first Gingerbread Man. I thought she would not like it because she generally does not like spices in baked goods, but she surprised me by gobbling it up.

The Avalanche and Snow turned out to be a really messy affair. I imagined the snow to be flaked ice - light and cold to the touch. However, the avalanche and snow were made out of foam - not unlike those of foam parties for a non-kid crowd. Many kids were stripped down to shorts or came dressed in swim gear or rain coats! The foam was chest-high for some of them and many clearly had a blast. Alas, I was totally unprepared and dressed Bubbles in white skinny jeans!

I ended up just letting her get herself totally "snowed in" - white jeans and all.

It was nice watching her immersed in play. At home, she often asks to do pretend play where we imagine ourselves in snowy places, like living in igloos, so this was really special for her. At one point, she ran away from the crowd to stand by herself for a moment, catching some falling snow. I wished I was in a better position for a photo. All I managed to capture was this, before she ran off again:

As for Bun, it was her bedtime when all the excitement began. She struggled to keep awake. Drooping eyelids occasionally made way for starry-eyed wonder.

Despite the (adults') disappointment about having foam for snow, I must say it was quite an enjoyable little outing and we hope to be back again in proper attire.


Kitchen Exploits - Bread Rolls

Are we back to Kitchen Exploits weekend again?!

The week has been a challenging and literally painful one for me. If you have been following my Tweets, you would know that I had to undergo two surgical procedures earlier in the week to remove lumps from around my hip/waist. The biopsy results are not out yet, but my doctor is confident that I have nothing to worry about. Very thankful.

Recuperation has been more painful than expected. I actually thought I could go home the day of the surgery. My doctor gave me *the look* of course, and when I was wheeled out of the operating theatre and regained consciousness, I knew he was absolutely right that I definitely needed to stay in!

Book cover from The Book Depository

Anyway, prior to my surgery, I was baking a lot of bread rolls - because I chanced upon this wonderful recipe from Page 24 of How to Make Bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou. I highly recommend this book!

Unfortunately I had no freezer space to freeze bread for post-surgery enjoyment. Breast milk storage had to take priority!

These rolls don't require machine kneading. A simple hand kneading technique with blocks of time in between each knead for yeast magic to work was all that was required. This was a real plus for me, given that my machine broke several weeks ago. The crust had the right amount of firmness and crisp, and the insides a good balance of fluffy and chewy. My family loved the rolls!

The book gives detailed step-by-step instructions with accompanying photos. I would not do justice to the author if I summarized a recipe here. So do check the book out! The only thing I would point out is to be careful if you are using cup measurements - given the different types of cup sizes. I weighed each ingredient and my breads turned out perfect.

We ate these with a delicious Oxtail Stew - a recipe that I will share next week :)

I would love to hear about your favourite bread recipe! Do drop me a line!