Another DIY project (again, completely unrelated to food)

I mentioned earlier that I haven’t felt like writing about food lately (though I promise to get back on track with that soon!)

Instead, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time doing some DIY projects around the house. I finished a string art project for my basement rec room, and I finally got around to refinishing the old secretary’s desk that we inherited from the former owners of our house.

This behemoth of a desk was living in our dank, dungeon-ey basement when we bought it three years ago. I figured the previous owners left it behind because it was in need of some serious love. Still, it was a cool piece: it’s designed to hide a typewriter under the surface of the desk! Heck, I’m a sucker for hidden compartments.

It turns out that the previous owners didn’t take the desk with them because it didn’t fit through the basement door. Ha!

So, I was faced with a decision: either refinish it (down in the basement), or demolish it and remove it from the house in pieces.

I simply couldn’t bring myself to destroy a perfectly good piece of furniture — especially one with a hidden compartment! So, I sealed off a room in the basement to try and contain the dust:

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Then, I started to sand that sucker down:

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Refinishing furniture in your house is less than ideal: sanding creates a huge amount of dust, and the fumes from the paint or finish can be pretty strong. I managed to contain the mess to one part of my house, and wore a respirator when I worked (which I always do: safety first!) Still, I really wish I’d been able to take this piece out to the garage to avoid the hassle.

I had originally planned to paint this piece yellow, but I was inspired by a dresser I saw on Pinterest (that cruel mistress). So, I took the drawers out to the garage for a thorough sanding before I stained them, and picked up some of my favourite furniture and cabinet paint from Kent in Dogwood Blossom (a creamy white). The beauty of this paint is that it is formulated for furniture and cabinets: “Its heavy-duty melamine finish provides excellent resistance against frequent bumps, water and moisture stains.” I’ve used this paint for a few furniture refinishing projects so far. I haven’t primed any of them, and the finish has worn fabulously on all of them:

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I don’t know about you, but I think white is the hardest paint colour to select. There are SO MANY shades, and the changes are very subtle. I used my Critter spray gun (which I picked up at Lee Valley for $50) to ensure the paint coverage was even and smooth, and found it *much* easier than working with a brush to get into all of the corners and tight spots.

Here is the finished product:

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It was also challenging to find hardware that I liked. I ended up going to Lee Valley Tools, where they have an incredible selection (though some are pretty pricey). These each ran me about $7.

I also lined the drawers with cork Mac-tac, which I picked up at Target.

The total cost of this project was around $90. I think the secret compartment was well-worth $90. :)

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Why I haven’t been writing about food…

The past few months have been busy and difficult ones for me — both professionally and personally. To be honest, I haven’t felt much like cooking, and though I’ve been eating out more than usual, it was out of necessity, not for enjoyment. Which may explain why I haven’t felt up to writing about any of my culinary experiences, recently.

So, sorry, if you look forward to my posts about delicious new recipes, or even new restaurants I’ve discovered. But my heart just hasn’t been in it.

I have, however, been keeping myself preoccupied with random Pinterest projects! First, there was the string art maps. Then, a desk refinishing project.

Hell, there’s something cathartic about smashing hundreds of nails into a board (note: I only hit my thumb once! Dad would be proud.)

The string art project was something I came across on Pinterest. I’m so fortunate to have a partner who not only tolerates my obsession with Pinterest projects, but is willing to chip in and help out with them!

We have been in desperate need of something to hang over our sofa in the basement. There’s just this big ol’ wall with nothing on it: it was kind of sad. When I saw the idea of string art maps, I decided to make three: one for B.C., where we first met; one for Quebec, where Kevin is from; and one for Nova Scotia.

We bought a sheet of wood from the hardware store, and Kevin cut me three 2-foot by 2-foot panels:

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Then, I sanded them down and sprayed them with this cool white-wash water-based stain and my handy Critter spray gun:

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Once the panels had dried, I laid outline maps I’d had printed at Staples on drafting paper (2-foot by 2-foot), and tacked them in place. Then, I poured myself a generous glass of wine and got to work, nailing all along the perimeter of the map:

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It was a bit of a tedious project, but I spread it out over a few nights, and honestly, it didn’t take that long. I’m really pleased with the end result:

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Have you tackled any Pinterest projects? Were you pleased with how it turned out?

The @HFXFoodBloggers create something sweet for #DoughBall 2014

If you were one of the lucky folks who snagged a ticket to The Coast’s inaugural Dough Ball (basically a giant bake sale, where you pay admission and get to try all the sweet samples!), you likely had quite the sugar high on Saturday afternoon.

While I wasn’t able to attend (I’m simultaneously sad and grateful that I missed out, because I’m fairly certain my pants would be feeling a bit snugger this morning), I was able to send along a treat for attendees to try out.

My peeps at Halifax Food Bloggers were invited to host a table at Dough Ball, and a few of us sent our sweet concoctions along to be sampled by the crowds (I saw photos of the event and our table on Twitter, and it looked AMAZING).

I decided to try my hand at making homemade caramels. A coworker of mine makes them every Christmas, and while I was slightly intimidated to try and make them (hers are delicious, and frankly, making caramel just seemed like a messy proposition), it was surprisingly simple.

I used a recipe/great step-by-step instructions I found on The Kitchn. You don’t really need any special equipment, aside from a candy thermometer, which I got at Bulk Barn for $4.

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The real trick to making lovely caramels is making sure you get the right texture. And that’s pretty subjective (I don’t like hard, uber-chewy caramels. Soft, smooth and creamy is how I prefer mine!) To control the softness of your caramels, you need to control the amount of dairy you add in (more dairy = softer, creamier caramels) AND bring your caramels to a lower temperature. If you’re going to try your hand at making caramels, I really do recommend you read The Kitchn post I mentioned earlier to get all the details!

I followed their recipe/directions, and was very pleased with how my two versions of caramels turned out. I made sea salt and peppermint caramels:

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Wrap in wax paper, twist on both ends, and package in mason jars, and behold:

IMG_20140913_100517Wouldn’t they make a nice hostess gift?

Anyhow, here’s what you’ll need if you’re going to try this at home:

 

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (or, if you’re making mint caramels, substitute with mint extract)

Equipment

  • Square baking dish
  • Parchment paper
  • 2-quart saucepan
  • 4-quart saucepan (make sure you use a big pot!)
  • Candy thermometer
  • Spatula
  • Whisk
  • Wax paper

Have fun, and try not to eat too many! (you’ll end up with a bellyache, and maybe even a cavity or two!)

My #BigDayDowntown: I visit @SpiritSpaHFX, Kee-Heong Cantonese Bakery, @RousseauChoco, & @InkwellBoutique,

So, I’m feeling very spoiled: I kicked off the Labour Day long weekend with my highly anticipated (well, to me, anyways) Big Day Downtown.

The Big Day Downtown event is organized by the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, and is designed to help promote businesses in the downtown Halifax core. For four weeks, starting September 15th, they will be giving out $100 Visa gift cards via Facebook and Twitter to the public (follow them on Twitter @DowntownHalifax and like them on Facebook to keep tabs on the event). But before that, some very fortunate local bloggers (like moi) are invited to participate, and were given $150 Visa gift cards to spend anywhere downtown!

This year, the theme was “People’s Choice,” which meant we had to consult with our readers and social media peeps when we were deciding how to spend the cash. I created three polls on my site, and asked people what I should do on my day downtown. The results were pretty overwhelmingly in support of visiting the spa (thanks, guys!), buying something ‘just for me,’ and eating somewhere I’ve never eaten. Sounded pretty damn good to me…

So, with my credit card practically burning a hole in my wallet, I headed downtown on Friday afternoon.

1st stop: Spirit Spa

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I managed to snag a last-minute appointment with the lovely Tiffany at Spirit Spa for a Sea Scrub body treatment. While I try to go for (semi) regular massage treatments, I’ve never been for a salt scrub, and it sounded kinda refreshing. According to their website:

“This body polish uses diatomaceous earth to exfoliate your skin and stimulate circulation. The treatment ends with a silky marine based body milk that will leave your skin supple for days.”

While “diatomaceous earth” sounded a bit fancy, it really just looked like this:

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It felt great, and was really quite relaxing. Plus, my skin felt SUPER smooth afterwards. It was my first trip to Spirit Spa, as well, which is a beautiful, tranquil space: plenty of natural materials, calming music and lots of pops of colour.

I rolled out feeling radiant, relaxed, and ready to eat!

TOTAL: $85.96 (including tax & tip)

2nd stop: Kee-Heong Cantonese Bakery

Just up around the corner is a tiny little Cantonese bakery I’ve been swearing to visit ever since I noticed it there:

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It was around 1 p.m. when I entered the dining room, ready for some dim sum. The lovely lady working behind the counter brought me a menu and informed me, when asked, that they had actually been open for 1 year and 10 months. Seriously?! I need to get out of Dartmouth more often.

I was the only person in the dining room, which made me a bit nervous at first, but I figured that it was likely because I was having a bit of a late lunch, so I settled in to review the menu. As it turns out, I was correct: plenty of others came in to place orders to take away, and eat in, after I placed my order.

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Typically, my eyes were bigger than my belly: I settled on a 3-piece order of pan-fried crispy shrimp dumplings ($3.50), a 6-piece order of pork with cilantro dumplings ($3.50) and a 2-piece order of steamed barbecue pork buns ($3.50).

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The cilantro pork dumplings were savory and packed with fresh cilantro flavour. I’m a big cilantro fan, but for anyone who doesn’t enjoy this distinct flavour, I’d definitely recommend ordering seconds (or thirds) of the pan-fried shrimp dumplings, which are phenomenal. These are like crispy little presents, loaded with shrimp, green onion, and garlic:

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I saved my steamed barbecue pork bun for last…  a slightly sweet, sticky, soft, doughy cloud enveloping a savory pork centre:

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This definitely isn’t a fancy place to go for lunch — the dining room is almost completely unadorned, and there isn’t much in the way of music to create much ambiance, but Kee-Heong offers authentic fare that is fresh and fairly priced.

The display of pastries was very tempting, but I managed to resist the urge to order one (or two) to go, because I was heading to another sweet spot….

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TOTAL: $13.89 (including tax & tip)

3rd stop: Rousseau Chocolatier

Rousseau Chocolatier tweeted at me when I was asking people for recommendations on where to go for my Big Day Downtown. And when I saw photos of their chocolates on their Facebook page, I was sold. They opened up shop on Hollis Street earlier this year, and have been getting lots of attention.

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And for good reason: they know their chocolate! Owned by a husband and wife team — Julien and Nathalie (who was working when I popped in on Friday) — they produce an impressive selection of handmade chocolates, using locally-sourced ingredients as much as possible. Incidentally, they ALSO make a KILLER coconut macaron. Fer reals:

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Plus, you can actually watch the chocolate being made in the adjoining space (which reminded me of when I visited a Swiss chocolatier many years ago). After staring at the chocolate display in awe for a couple of minutes, I finally settled on an assorted box to take home, along with a bag of chocolate dipped meringues.

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To my credit, I shared these with my boyfriend, which I think officially qualifies me as a the nicest girlfriend ever. My favourite chocolate was the feuilletine, which basically has thin crispy flakes in a creamy smooth milk chocolate:

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TOTAL: $29.90 (including tax)

4th stop: Inkwell Boutique

I meandered up to Market Street as a nibbled on the aforementioned coconut macaron, mentally totalling up my purchases en route. With just $20 left to spend, I knew selecting just one thing at Inkwell was going to be tough. I mean, come on:

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This is stationary geek heaven. I lapped the store probably five times before I caved and busted out my own debit card to use in conjunction with my prepaid Visa. I had to have the infamous “seven year pen” (which has an ink supply that’s supposed to last seven years). I’ve been in a need of a good “purse pen” (aka a pen that lives in my purse), and this totally fit the bill. Plus, there’s a strip of cartoon bacon on the clip. Sweet, right? I also snagged a birthday card that predominantly featured a unicorn, and a great print for my basement office area:

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TOTAL: $40.82 (including tax)

So, the grand total for my Big Day Downtown was *drum roll please*:$170.57. For that price, I was scrubbed, buffed and moisturized, well-fed, treated to sweets and even managed to pick up some local art. Plus, I discovered a few hidden gems and supported some great local businesses in the process!

All-in-all, a successful Big Day Downtown, if I do say so myself! :)

VOTE: How should I spend my #BigDayDowntown #Halifax ? (@DowntownHalifax)

Big Day Downtown package!

Guys, I’m kinda excited over here! The folks at the Downtown Halifax Business Commission (DHBC) have invited me to participate in their Big Day Downtown blogger event.

Wait, let’s start at the beginning:

A few years back, the DHBC launched the Big Day Downtown campaign, designed to help promote the pretty awesome array of businesses (restaurants, shops, services, etc…) in the downtown Halifax core. For four weeks, starting September 15th, they will be giving out $100 Visa gift cards via Facebook and Twitter to the public (follow them on Twitter @DowntownHalifax and like them on Facebook to keep tabs on the event).

But before that, some very fortunate local bloggers (myself included) are invited to participate, and are given $150 Visa gift cards to spend anywhere downtown!

Fer real.

The only “twist” is that I need to get your input on how I should spend the $150!

See, there’s a lot on offer downtown: 174 restaurants & cafes; 23 salons/spas; 33 tourist attractions/museums/galleries; 45 clothing stores; 16 hotels/inns; 27 furniture/gifts/houseware stores; and 17 sports/hobby stores. So I’m going to need your help!

Ideally, I’d like to do more than one thing (aka I don’t want to blow the entire budget on a new dress at Biscuit), and since this is technically my food blog, I’d like at least one of the activities to involve, well, eating.

I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices, and am hoping you’ll give me your two cents to help inform my itinerary:



If you’d like to make some more detailed suggestions, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment below, or just get at me on Twitter! (@hfraught)

Lime Margarita Cupcakes for Bachelorette Celebrations (complete with tequila buttercream icing; no joke)

In case you missed the memo, it’s WEDDING SEASON!!! Of course, before the wedding itself, there is the inevitable bachelorette/bachelor party.

A very good friend of mine is tying the knot next weekend, so we hosted a bachelorette party for her last night… Since I love to bake, I was charged with the cake. Now, I’m not a big fan of phallic baked goods, so we skipped the penis-shaped cake. Instead, I found this recipe for lime margarita cupcakes.

Still fun, but more importantly, yummy (especially the tequila lime buttercream icing).

You need kinda a lot of limes (like, a lot: six or seven). And butter. Lots of butter.

Marg Cupcake Ingredients

It also involves candying lime peels (that’s an optional step: just a garnish, really):

Blanching Limes

But the end result is worth it: a beautiful, zesty little cake topped with a not-too-sweet tequila lime buttercream icing:

Lime Margarita Cupcakes!

What a gorgeous group of ladies, right?! (Note: this was taken before we started drinking or consumed any of the tequila lime buttercream icing)… :)

Bridal Party!end

 

A sneak peek of @RightSomeGood, #Halifax edition

Something very special is happening in Halifax this weekend: the folks behind Cape Breton’s annual foodie festival, Right Some Good, are setting up shop smack-dab in the heart of downtown.

They’re shutting down Spring Garden Road this Sunday (June 29th), transforming the main drag into a pedestrian-only pop-up paradise of local products coupled with impressive culinary talent. An interesting side note: the last time Spring Garden Road was closed for an all-day event was 15 years ago, for the Word On The Street festival.

This gourmet street fair will feature 12 visiting “master chefs” competing alongside local chefs on the culinary stage. These teams will collaborate on street food creations, which will then be offered up to the visiting public (while supplies last, of course) between 9:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. (admission to Sunday’s street fair is free, but you can buy tickets to sample food and drink).

Today, I was treated to a sneak peek of the types of seasonal, local ingredients that may be included in this weekend’s events, and I have to say, it looked Right Some Good to me… :)

From HardyWares, which makes pickles, relishes, jams, jellies and preserves, I sampled an impressive Blueberry Grand Marnier Jam and a Whiskey Marmalade, which I was suspect of at first, but is actually really lovely. This small, home-based business based out of Necum Teuch, Nova Scotia (I had to GoogleMap it, I won’t lie), regularly sells their products at Alderney Landing Farmers Market, but you really should look for their booth this Sunday at Right Some Good.

And if you haven’t yet had the experience of trying the Haskap berry, you really should. Grown in Blockhouse, Nova Scotia, these berries are a member of the Honeysuckle family, and were first introduced to Canada around 1967. They are apparently pretty good for you, too: they’re high in anthocyanins, vitamin C, phenolic compounds and other antioxidants. They kind of look like elongated, bumpy blueberries, but most importantly, they’re absolutely delicious. The folks at Haskapa have created some very cool products from these berries: everything from juice and cereal bars to ice cream and jellies. I was really impressed with the jalapeno haskap jelly, and will do my best to visit the Haskapa table early on Sunday, before they run out of Haskap ice cream :)

Another berry will be making an appearance on Sunday: the tried and true blueberry. Bloo juice hit the shelves of grocery stores in November 2013, and was a finalist for the Retail Council of Canada’s Grand Prix Product Award. Each bottle contains juice from approximately 600 blueberries, grown right here in Nova Scotia. Not only is it good for drinking, but the company has collaborated with local chefs to develop some innovative recipes that use their juice as a key ingredient.

After sampling just a few of the ingredients and products that will be on offer at Sunday’s street fair, I definitely plan on making my way down to be a part of this pop-up experience…

And if fine dining/fancy is more your thing, two very impressive dinners are being held as part of the Right Some Good festival, as well! On Friday, Michelin-star chef Cristina Bowerman has created a five-course menu that will be served up to guests at the Stadacona Drill Shed (tickets are about $125 with taxes and fees), and on Saturday, guests will dig into New York chef Ed Cotton’s sumptuous-sounding four-course meal aboard the HMCS Preserver (tickets are about $164 with taxes and fees). While the price-point may seem a wee bit steep, it’s actually a very good value for what’s sure to be an incredible dining experience!

I’m really pleased to see an event that promotes local products and talent is coming to Halifax this year, and that it’s being showcased in the heart of downtown Halifax. I hope it’s successful, and becomes an annual affair. :)