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Cooking at Hacklab: Coconut barfi

It took me an hour to get from downtown to Hacklab on a stop-and-go Queen streetcar. Next time, I should probably take the King streetcar instead, or even go all the way north to Bloor and then south on the Dufferin bus. Anyway, I’d given myself enough of a buffer to not feel horribly guilty about being late meeting people who were expecting me there around 6-ish anyway, and that was when I made it. Max was already there when I arrived, and Gabriel joined us when we were at the supermarket picking up groceries.

Chris and Alaina were busy making two courses (korma and hot-and-sour soup), so I figured we’d go with an Indian vegan dessert to accompany the korma. Some rapid Googling turned up this Coconut Barfi recipe from Diwali Sweets (by way of Veg Recipes of India’s review). We made a triple batch of the following recipe:

  • 1/2 cup semolina flour (we used medium, but this might be better with fine)
  • 1/2 cup dry coconut flakes (we used shredded)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cashew pieces (got roasted cashews from the bulk bin so that we could snack on them while cooking)
  • pinch of salt

For the sugar syrup:

  • 1/2 cup ground raw sugar (we used turbinado sugar, couldn’t find anything raw)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder (we ended up grinding our own, since the nearby supermarket doesn’t stock powdered cardamom)

It took longer to make the sugar syrup than expected, but then again, I’m pretty new to syrup making, so I wasn’t quite sure what “one thread consistency” meant. Anyway, it still turned out as nicely cardamom-scented nibble, crunchy without being jaw-breaking.

Gabriel generously remarked that the amount of salt I added made it remind him of salted caramels. I think perhaps a smaller pinch would do next time.

It was lots of fun cooking with both old friends and new acquaintances, and the kitchen at Hacklab supports having multiple people quite nicely (aside from a bit of stove coordination when we had three things on the go). Yay cooking!

Coconut Barfi recipe

Hacklab Cooking: Thai curry from scratch, and coconut tapioca pudding too

It feels a little odd to post two cooking-related entries in a row, but I wanted to take notes on this (and share it with y’all!). =) Yesterday at Hacklab, Eric, Abtin, and I made Thai curry from scratch, and I made coconut tapioca pudding too. We (mostly) followed this recipe for the Thai curry, tripling the proportions:

Paste (we prepared this in a blender instead of a food processor, and we thinned it with a little coconut milk to make it blendable)

  • 3 Thai chilies
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 3 shallots
  • 1/2 red pepper, deseeded
  • zest of 1 lime
  • stalks from a third of a bunch of coriander
  • thumb-size piece of ginger – we didn’t grate this, we just blended it
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground coriander

Curry

  • Tofu, marinated in soy sauce, chopped chili, and the juice of 1 lime
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • eggplant
  • zucchini
  • green beans
  • mushrooms
  • half a red pepper, deseeded
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • basil

Coconut tapioca pudding

  • Tapioca
  • Coconut milk
  • Sugar
  • Maple syrup

The Fresh.co near Hacklab didn’t carry the kind of tapioca I wanted for the coconut tapioca pudding, so I made do with the minute tapioca that they sell in the instant snacks area (along with Jello and custard powder). I couldn’t figure out how to translate either the coconut tapioca recipe (which specifically tells you to avoid minute tapioca) or the instructions on the back of the tapioca package, so I made something up instead. I used the entire package of minute tapioca, added the remainder of the carton of coconut milk, whisked it to dissolve the tapioca, and cooked it over medium heat (constantly stirring) until the tapioca was no longer crunchy. I added sugar to taste, and I followed the original recipe’s suggestion to top it with maple syrup (… which happened to be the maple syrup that had boiled over during last week’s icing experiment). You’re supposed to let it cool down, but it was yummy while warm anyway. =)

So, more experience points earned and achievements unlocked!

  • First time to make Thai curry from scratch instead of using the canned curry paste
  • First time to cook something with lemongrass
  • First time to make tapioca pudding
  • First time to make up dessert as I went along
  • … First time I’d gone through that much coconut milk

Also, Monday, I made chicken pot pie with a biscuit crust. Technically, I made most of it on Sunday, and then I made a quick biscuit crust after we came back from the polling station (I voted in Canada for the first time, yay!). It was wonderfully chicken-y, not at all like the frozen pot pies you can get at the supermarket. Mmm.

I really like this cooking thing. It’s fun to be able to turn simple ingredients into good tastes, decent food, and shared experiences, even though there’s a lot of figuring things out and adjusting and occasionally making the wrong decisions. =) So far, things have been working out really well.

Cupcake challenge: accepted!

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For the Hacklab grand re-opening party, I made 58 vegan chocolate cupcakes using about four batches of this Basic Vegan Chocolate Cupcake. Each batch called for:

  • 1 cup soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

mixed and baked in a 350F oven for 18-20 minutes (20 minutes at Hacklab). Once cooled, we decorated them with this Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting, which called for:

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup vegan margarine
  • 3.5 cups icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup soy milk

Fortunately, Eric had donated an electric mixer (hand), so whipping up the frosting was easy. The cupcakes were not too sweet, so the frosting was a nice balance.

I also made 12 non-chocolate, non-vegan, gluten-free cupcakes from a boxed mix, since some Hacklab members have those dietary restrictions. Eric iced those with a different recipe.

It was actually pretty fun making dozens of cupcakes. Because they’re in liners, it’s easy to make large batches of them and set them cooling on whatever surfaces are handy. I started at 4ish and spent the whole afternoon cooking. I also had fun using the simple cake decoration kit to pipe letters and icing on it, although my hands were a smidge shaky. I actually forgot to add the soy milk and extract the first time around, but I caught it after icing the first ten cupcakes with something that was mostly sugar. After I beat in the soy milk, icing was a lot easier.

We don’t really make a lot of desserts at home because we’d like to eat more healthily, but since J-‘s friends are often over, maybe I should look into making more snacks to keep around the house. Probably not chocolate cupcakes – maybe something healthier? – but it’s definitely baking season, so some kind of baked good. Then again, W- reminds me that a box of cookies on sale is pretty cheap, so we might as well use the time for other things.

I don’t quite remember making cupcakes before the party. Maybe I’ve made cupcakes before, but just forgot about it? Anyway, they’re not intimidating after all. =) And with vegan recipes, I can taste the batter a little to see if I’m on the right track!

Leveling up in cooking

I made sweet potato and miso soup yesterday, with popped wild rice and Caesar salad on the side. W- made garlic bread with the baguette I bought. It was yummy. The other day, I helped make butternut squash and sweet potato soup at Hacklab, and that was well-received as well. Yay!

Five years ago, before we discovered bulk cooking and bought a chest freezer, W- used to cook every 1-2 days. I didn’t know a lot of dishes that I could confidently cook and he was so much better at cooking than I was, so I was the sous chef. I helped prepare ingredients, make rice, and cook simple recipes. He’d come home early to make dinner, and we packed leftovers for lunch the next day.

Now I cook most of our experimental meals, trying new recipes in the search for future favourites. I also enjoy refilling the chest freezer with time-tested meals like chicken curry and shake-and-bake chicken. Our next goal is to work out a good rotation of known favourites, sprinkling in new recipes here and there.

It feels great to be able to cook–and to take charge of the kitchen, which is an interesting experience. I’m usually trying recipes for the first time, or experimenting with a new variant of a recipe that we’ve had before. I’m never quite sure how it will work out, but since we have backups (hooray for leftovers and low expectations!), it’s okay to stretch and learn. Besides, with all these years ahead of me (probably), the more exploration I do now, the more it will pay off in terms of skills and knowledge.

So probably every Tuesday or so, I’ll be learning a new recipe (helping out at Hacklab). Two or three times a week, I’ll also try a new recipe at home – maybe Wednesday and Sunday, or something like that. I’m also working on rediscovering old favourites and writing them down in the shared Evernote notebook I’ve set up with W-, and maybe transitioning to a grocery/recipe system I’m building for the two of us.

Nice to have a kitchen and the time to cook! =)

Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)

Sharing cooking adventures

I told W- about the Ethiopian cabbage dish that Eric and I made at Tuesday’s open house at Hacklab, to go with the injera that we bought from a store a few doors down from Hacklab. We had decided to go with cooking Ethiopian food because it was a cool day (so, a warm meal), we hadn’t cooked anything Ethiopian before, and Eric had mentioned the injera previously; so we looked online for vegan Ethiopian recipes and picked a simple one to start with. A typical Ethiopian meal includes several kinds of stews served on top of the flatbread, but we figured it was fine to start with just one recipe and let people decide how they want to eat it. It worked out pretty well, although there were a few moments when we weren’t quite sure how to fit all that shredded cabbage in. (Eric picked the biggest head of cabbage, I think!) $16 of groceries fed lots of people, and there were still leftovers by the time I left.

W- asked, “How come you’re not as experimental when cooking at home?” Come to think of it, I tend to test recipes at Hacklab before trying them at home: gazpacho, Thai curry, Japanese curry… Cooking at Hacklab is fun because other people help (getting that second chef’s knife for Hacklab was totally worth it!) and the meals disappear pretty quickly.

But we’re even better set up to experiment at home. Proper chopping boards, all the pots and pans I need, no worries about extra ingredients or leftovers, and backup plans in case things go wrong… Slightly pickier eaters, but if I mess up, I can always pack it in the freezer for later, or even toss it out if I really have to. (I tend to have more tolerance for cooking than I should, although even I have had to give up on some attempts before. Ah well!)

W- is much more experienced at cooking than I am, so I’m catching up by exploring different recipes. Cooking has become a hobby for me – something I enjoy for its own sake, even if I’m still working on getting better at it. It’s even more fun when you’re cooking with someone, since you can laugh at stuff and swap stories. Sometimes W- and I cook together, although I guess lately I’ve been trying to do most of the household prep so that he can focus on work. Choosing the recipe is part of the fun, and making something often results in funny stories even if there are hiccups along the way (especially if there are!). Maybe we’ll just make a habit of trying one new recipe a week. Between that and Hacklab, I’ll be learning tons of recipes, yay!

Mmm… What do I want to try? Different kinds of pasta, for J-. Curries of the world! Salads for summer, both cold and warm! Mmm…