Category Archives: cooking

Cupcake challenge: accepted!


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…

Bulk cooking by the numbers: A ton of tonkatsu

From last month: We don’t eat pork or beef as much as we eat chicken, since chicken is so cheap and easy to prepare. When I found pre-sliced pork tenderloin halves at $3.04/kg (30% off the sale price because it was nearing the best-by date), I knew that tonkatsu was definitely in the cards. It’s one of my favourite freezer meals, and I always like to make it when pork’s on sale.


The previous week, when the pork first came on sale for $4.34/kg, I had bought one package and turned into a good stack of frozen tonkatsu lunches. I was reasonably confident that I could scale up to two packs, so I bought two for a total of $14.75, or nearly 5kg.  I had planned to work on that after making pad thai for supper, which I needed to do in order to use up some of the vegetables in the fridge. Sure, it was a weekday, but I didn’t have plans for the evening anyway.

Fortunately, W- saw the magnitude of the tonkatsu-making task I’d set for myself and helped out. J- got conscripted into tenderizing the pork. W- battered and breaded the cutlets while I prepared the pad thai. After dinner, I breaded the remaining cutlets while W- fried the previous ones.

A full rice cooker yielded 18 portions of 180g cooked rice, which we packed along with frozen vegetables and tonkatsu. We stored the remaining tonkatsu cutlets in whatever other containers we could find. In total, we made 50 portions of tonkatsu (including the two that we ate while cooking, cut into small bites and dipped in chili sauce).

Ingredient costs: (18 portions with rice and frozen vegetables, 32 portions without)

    Portion cost Ingredient Notes Total cost
    $0.33 Frozen vegetables ~3/4 of a large bag at $7.99 $6
    $0.30 Pork   $14.75
    $0.13 Rice 10 cups is 1.44kg, or ~16% of a $14.99 bag $2.39
    $0.06 Eggs 13 eggs out of an 18-egg carton for $4.27 $3.08
    $0.05 Panko half a $4.59 box $2.29
    $0.05 Oil half a $4.49 bottle $2.24

+ salt, pepper, flour

Each lunch portion was $0.92 (not including electricity), or roughly $1.

Time-wise, it was about 3 hours by 2 people. Assuming each lunch has a value of $11 including tax, that’s a labour value of $83/hour for something that’s tiring but enjoyable. Since W- and I were working together, it was good relationship bonding time too.

We usually save our cooking marathons for the weekends because they take up time (and besides, time-of-use charging means it’s more expensive to cook during the week). The pork was near its use-by date, though, so we had to make it right away. While we were cooking, I wondered out loud what I’d gotten myself into. W- smiled and said I probably wanted something to write about on my blog. He’s at least a little bit right – everything’s an adventure.

Now we have neat stacks of tonkatsu in the chest freezer. Life is good.

It’s difficult to argue with the economics of bulk cooking, if you’ve got the space and the stamina for it. I enjoy cooking, and I love knowing that lunches (and the occasional lazy dinners) are already taken care of. Bulk cooking reduces the risk of regular cooking, too. I can experiment with new recipes easily, because even if it turns out terrible and I have to throw it away, there’s food in the freezer.

I’m glad we do this! For more about bulk cooking, see my post on Making bulk cooking easier. Enjoy!

Ten years of learning how to cook

imageA few of my friends want to learn more about cooking, going beyond eating out or occasionally making a bowl of pasta at home. It’s a welcome change, and I’m looking forward to more and more people making that shift.

For some people, it seems a point of pride to not know how to cook: they’re too busy to sit down and do that, or there are so many good restaurants out there, or cooking is just plain not enjoyable. For us, cooking is part of our way of life. We can cook most meals for much cheaper than we can buy them, and our weekday meals are more convenient than eating out. I love being able to have my favourite foods at any time of day. Despite the occasional drudgery, I’ve grown to enjoy cooking – especially when W- and I spend a few hours putting together something delicious.

I thought I’d reflect on past 10 years of learning how to cook to see what I learned and how I learned it. When I started, I struggled with the basics: burning pancakes, trying to figure out how to use ground beef in different recipes. Now we can make lists based on the grocery fliers, adjust our plans based on what’s marked down for quick sale, and stock our freezer with meals to last us through the week.

B.C. – Before Cooking

Growing up, I hadn’t imagined being this comfortable with cooking. My sister was the cook in the family, the one with an intuitive sense of what went with what. She took whatever was in the fridge and made something delicious with it, no recipe required. We enjoyed the occasional meal she prepared for us, and she told us stories of how cooking helped her make friends while travelling. The rest of the time, we were spoiled by the fact that family business–advertising photography–retained a cook to feed clients, staff, and us.

I wasn’t totally hopeless. I helped in the kitchen, and I loved making lasagna together with my mom. I took cooking lessons one summer. I mainly learned that following recipes produced reasonable results. At home, I occasionally made myself instant noodles or reheated pork and beans, but I didn’t really have the motivation to cook.

Cook or Die

That changed a few months after I graduated from university. I had just turned twenty, and I was teaching computer science at my alma mater. To cut down on the commuting time, we found an apartment-style dormitory near the campus. Each unit was shared by two people, and there was an unfurnished kitchen. My parents outfitted it with a hot plate (a single electric burner, which was all the dormitory allowed), a toaster oven, a microwave, and a compact fridge. There were a number of fast food restaurants in walking distance that I’d frequented as a student, but I resolved that my grown-up life shouldn’t involve KFC every lunch and dinner. There was a supermarket a bit of the way up the street. To force myself to learn how to cook, I decided that I would eat out for at most one meal a day. If I didn’t cook, I’d go hungry. Cook or die. (Well, that was an exaggeration, but it was a good project name.)

Did I mention that my apartment didn’t have Internet access? I know. Boggle.

It was… interesting. I loaded up on kid- and singles- and microwave-oriented cookbooks, and occasionally made things up just as an experiment. You may find my blog posts from that time amusing. Here’s a summary of the first two weeks:

As you can see, I was a bit of a slow learner. ;)

Eventually I graduated to being confident enough in a few recipes that were ready for company. I was living in an exclusive girls’ domitory, so no guys were allowed inside the units. That meant my friends could help me with groceries and give me tips, but they couldn’t actually help me learn how to cook unless I was home for the weekend. The dormitory did have a garden with picnic tables and some shelter, though, and both male and female guests were welcome there. We worked out this weekly rotation, and I had dinner with someone practically every day. I particularly enjoyed being able to prepare individual-sized portions of lasagna rolls using the recipe in one of my microwave cookbooks. Even in pouring storms, friends would come and join me. It was wonderful.

I enjoyed teaching, but I left that to take advantage of a technical internship that the Japanese government was offering. In the in-between months, I stayed at home. In Japan, I stayed at a hotel-type dormitory with a cafeteria. There was hardly any cooking, although I did develop an appreciation for the sheer variety of ramen (instant or otherwise) available in Japan.

Graduate student life

When I moved to Canada for graduate school, I made sure I was in an apartment-style residence with a kitchen and a small shared living room. I shared my unit with three other people, and the mix changed each semester or so. There was a 24-hour supermarket within walking distance (somewhat expensive, but convenient) and other markets available a long walk or a short streetcar ride down the street.

I made friends: some students who lived in the building, and other people I met in my studies or research. I often invited a couple of friends over for dinner, usually something experimental – a stir-fry, or chicken breast and sauce, or whatever recipe intrigued me. From time to time, I took advantage of the large common outdoor party/barbeque area. At some point, I decided I was grown-up enough to want my own set of plates instead of the mismatched hand-me-downs, so I headed over to Walmart and splurged on a set of Corelle, a rice cooker, a teapot, and other essentials.

There were occasional group cooking lessons in the residence, open to whoever signed up. I liked them. We split up into small groups and prepared different recipes such as roasted red pepper soup, and then we got to enjoy the tastes of all the recipes together.

The administration decided on the mix of roommates based on the questionnaires we submitted. I didn’t always get along with my room-mates, one of whom tended to abscond with my dishes without returning them. (I lost a couple of cereal bowls this way.) When I had finished most of my research and lined up a job at IBM, I decided it was time to look for my own apartment. Of all the ones I looked at, my favourite was a one-bedroom apartment across the street. The rent was a little high and the kitchen was tiny, but I was looking forward to cooking without squabbling over fridge space or dishes in the sink.

Cooking with W-

I was a relative newcomer to Canada, so the building management didn’t want to prepare a lease without a co-signer. Of all my friends, W- was probably the stablest and most respectable. He knew I managed my finances well and had the year’s rent set aside, so he didn’t have to worry about being on the hook for it. In preparation for the move, I’d boxed up my kitchen tools and resolved to live on peanut butter sandwiches like my mom had done in university. W- took pity on me and invited me over for dinner. These scrumptious home-made meals became a regular occurrence.

We signed the paperwork and moved my stuff (easy across the street, especially with a skateboard), I feathered my nest and set up my tiny kitchen. As a housewarming present, W- gave me Happy Bunny socks with witty slogans, since I’d mentioned my sister’s trick of happy socks. As a kitchen-warming present, he gave me a basic set of Wusthof Classic knives. (Embarrassed by the generosity of the gift, I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted that good tools make all the difference.)

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Apparently, this is true for women too. Even though the paperwork was done, W- kept inviting me for delicious meals: crushing basil in a mortar and pestle for pesto, pinakbet (which he had learned how to make long before meeting me, so it was fun to encounter this familiar dish), a comparison of two lasagna recipes. I assisted, of course: chopping, stirring, learning more about cooking. Sometimes I invited W- or other people over to my place for whatever simple dishes I could prepare with my minimal kitchen setup; the knives made preparation a joy even in the cramped space.

Eventually we realized we were in love. I sublet my apartment and moved in. I brought my cherished knives and selected kitchen tools, leaving the rest for my tenant.

After my tiny kitchen, W-‘s kitchen was a real treat. Cast-iron skillets, a decent-sized wok, two rice cookers (large and small), a low-cost supermarket up the street, a garden to grow herbs in, a large kitchen table that we ended up spending most of our time at… I volunteered to be the sous chef as often as I could. Over time, I took the lead in making more meals. I learned family favourites and we discovered new ones together. Cooking with W- made learning fun – we could celebrate successes and gamely finish anything that wasn’t an absolute failure.

Cooking was part of W-‘s way of life, and I was delighted to make it part of mine too. We rarely ate out. It just wasn’t convenient during schooldays, and cooking was more frugal anyway. From March 2007 to August 2009 (30 months), I logged $145/month for groceries for 2.5 people (85%) and $25/month for dining out (15%). The actual numbers are different because W- picked up some groceries and usually treated me when dining out, although we set up this system where I contributed a fixed amount to household expenses so it worked out anyway.

We periodically tweaked the kitchen to improve the way we worked. We moved the canned goods from the basement into an industrial-style shelving unit. We moved the microwave to a custom shelf and freed up the rolling table it had been on, which turned out to have an excellent cutting surface on top of it – more counter space! Little tweaks like that made cooking more efficient and more fun.

I’d been reading about the benefits of a chest freezer on frugality blogs. We weren’t sure if we had the space or if we could make it part of our lifestyle, so we dithered. In 2009, W- and I finally decided to take the plunge. We bought a 5.3 cu-ft freezer and started stocking it with sale items, filling the extra space with water jugs to improve efficiency. Eventually we learned the basics of bulk cooking, discovered which of our favourites froze well, and standardized our food containers for easier organization.

We also experimented with community-supported agriculture. It was a good way to get through lots of vegetables, and Internet recipes were really helpful. (All that zucchini! All that cabbage!) We eventually decided to buy our own vegetables, but it was a good experience.

Now I’ve gotten to the point where a 30% markdown on pork tenderloin makes me think of tonkatsu, I can make a stir-fry with whatever vegetables look okay, and cooking is more like fun than a chore.

What I learned along the way

People make cooking much more fun

Cooking by myself was a drag. Cooking for other people was better, because we could enjoy the good stuff and laugh about the dishes that didn’t go as well. (You can tell who your friends are – if they eat your experimental cooking, they’re good friends!) Cooking with other people was the best, because then you can chat while chopping (carefully) and watch out for each other (looks like the eggs are done!). W- helped me learn so much more about cooking than I probably would have on my own.

Good tools really do matter

A sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one because a sharp knife won’t slip. W- periodically sharpens the knives, and I try to remember to use the steel before I use the chef’s knife. I’ve also come to really appreciate the convenience of a dough scraper, Microplane graters, and other little kitchen things. That said, we try to minimize the number of unitaskers we have: no egg poachers, no slot toasters, no corn cob holders… This means our drawers are easier to organize and keep uncluttered.

The Internet is awesome

The Internet has a gazillion recipes. I used to feel a little intimidated by the variety, but I realized that it meant that recipes are (mostly) just guidelines. Can I skip a spice that I don’t normally stock? Can I substitute an ingredient for something I don’t have? Do I want to adjust the temperature so that I can bake two different things at the same time? Chances are that someone has a recipe that calls for that, so it should be fine. It might not be amazing, but it will be okay.

Absolute failures are very rare

There was the time I put the yeast in water that was too hot. My lump of pizza dough didn’t rise, and I had to throw it out and start over. Sometimes I burn things and have to scrape off bits. One time I was learning about seasoning cast-iron pans and I heated one for so long that the season flaked off. I broke a rice cooker and repaired it by replacing the thermal fuse. Most of my cooking failures were salvageable, though. It turns out that it’s difficult to Completely Mess Things Up, so you should worry less and just go ahead and try it.

Chest freezers and bulk cooking make everything easier

Cooking in bulk lets us minimize the number of left-over ingredients, especially if we adjust the recipes. Having meals in the freezer is an amazing way to reduce the risk of cooking experimental recipes: if it’s an absolute failure, well, there’s a guaranteed meal all ready to go. Freezing is also great for dealing with leftovers. If I don’t feel like eating the same thing for the rest of the week, I can package it as individual lunches in the freezer for when I feel like having it again.

Next steps for me

There’s plenty more to learn, and I look forward to getting even better at this over the next ten years. Here are some of the skills that would be fun to improve:

Regular menu planning and a broader repertoire of recipes

You know how some households run on predictable patterns? We do a little of this: soups and baking on the weekends because of time-of-use electricity charges; stir-fries to take advantage of fresh vegetables from our grocery shopping; maybe a vegetarian meal sometime during the week… It would be good to get even better at planning what we’re going to have, perhaps based on a two-week cycle of themes that’s adjusted by what’s on sale, and to introduce new recipes within that framework.

Recycling leftovers into new dishes

I tend to be pretty happy eating the same thing again and again (or freezing the leftovers if they’ve been around a while), but recycling left-overs into new dishes would extend their fridge-life and encourage people to eat them. There are books that focus on cascading one recipe into another, and it seems like a good skill to learn. It’s also a quick way to get more variety out of the same cooking effort.

Working with different spices and sauces

We have a lot of spices in the cabinet. I should make an inventory of them and organize them for easy reach. Sauces are also good ways to give the same basic dish different tastes. If I learn more about flavour, I can stock the freezer and fridge with a wider range of tastes.

So that’s my cooking story

I’ve written a lot about bulk cooking and other things I’ve learned, so check out those blog posts for more tips. You can also read the posts in chronological order if you want to see all the steps along the way. If you’re learning how to cook, I hope my story helps – hang in there and keep practising, and you’ll probably come to enjoy cooking too. Good luck and have fun!