Smoothie Hack: Freezing Bananas

Frozen Bananas

We love smoothies around here, and make them almost daily and sometimes twice daily.  Our favorites almost always involve bananas, and frozen bananas in particular make for a creamy base. Recently, since the addition of a fancy, high-powered blender to our household (yay!), I have been freezing bananas in batches to keep up with our demand for them.  I freeze them in chunks, and had been doing so in bowls and freezer bags; however, the problem was that they usually became one sticky chunk of banana, and breaking them apart was difficult.

It then occurred to me to freeze the pieces individually.  I am not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier, since it was something I did frequently when freezing cubes of R’s pureed fruits and veggies five (!) years or so ago.

Bananas on a sheet pan

To freeze: Simply spread the banana chunks on a baking sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.  Place in the freezer for 2-3 hours, or until they are frozen solid.  Once they are frozen to your liking, place them in a sealed freezer bag, or your container of choice, and they will be ready for whenever you need them.

It’s a small hack, but I love having a big batch of frozen bananas at the ready.  Happy smoothie making!

A Tale of Two Fishes

If you are more interested in eating delicious cake than creating it, then feel free to move on. However, if like me you are more of an amateur baker and could use a few extra tips, proceed!

kissing-fishes

A few weeks back, a friend of mine asked for some help with her wedding cake. I was little hesitant to say yes, as I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. However, it was a low-key cake for a lovely, low-key wedding, and it seemed like something I could actually do, so I agreed to help.

Our friends had the super-fun and playful idea of having two kissing fishes for their cake.  I worked off a template of a fish cake made from cupcakes and a smaller, divided 6-inch cake. (I love the concept of cupcake cakes; they are adorable, and you can just pull them apart! Plus, it’s a little like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.)

I love baking, but icing cakes properly has always been tricky for me.  Making them tasty is no problem, but more often than not they do not turn out exactly as I hope (largely due to the dreaded crumb lifting).  Usually this is no big deal, but presentation was obviously important in this case.  I was happy with the results, but there were definitely a few bumps along the way.

Here are a few things I took away from the process (some of them not for the first time!):

Practice ahead of time. Although the cake was a super-simple concept, I decided to make a test fish well ahead of time to see how things went.  I am glad I did, because it took me twice as long as I anticipated, and it turns out that crumb coating and icing a small cake with funny angles and corners is not as straightforward as it looks. Plus, no one in my household would be upset by the presence of extra cake!

test-fish

Batter dispensers are awesome. I stumbled across this handy little tool on clearance and decided to try it out.  I am so glad I did! I had to make a number of cupcakes and mini cupcakes and this sped up the process a lot.  Releasing the pressure on the piping bag immediately stops the flow of batter.  There is the extra step of adding the cake batter to the bag, but the ease of being able to squeeze just the right amount of batter into the pans made it worth it. This was especially helpful with the mini cupcakes where only a tiny amount was needed to fill the cups half way. (Note: The dispensers are inexpensive to begin with, so they are definitely worth trying out.)

batter-dispenser

Resist the urge to overfill cakes pans.  I have always struggled with this, and it’s another good reason to try a test run.  For the 6-inch cakes and all the cupcakes, the half-way mark was perfect. Anything more and you will often end up with a rounded, uneven top layer.

baked-cupcakes

Do not skip the crumb coat, no matter how tempting it is.  The crumb coat is a super-thin layer of icing that is applied to the cake so that the crumbs will adhere to it, helping them stay in place when the final layer is applied. This step feels somewhat frustrating, because it is not supposed to be pretty and it always feels to me like I need to keep picking at it. It is also time consuming, and requires some chilling to set the icing in preparation for the next layer.  But when the final layer goes on so much more smoothly, it is worth it.  Speaking of which…

All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.
All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.

Use more icing than you need. Really! When the crumb coat has chilled (I pop the cake in the freezer for about 30 minutes), applying far more icing than you think you need to the top of the cake allows the icing to run down the sides on its own.  This makes for much easier spreading, especially into finicky corners.  Usually, I try to apply it more sparingly which ends up pulling more on the cake, and is more likely to result in crumb lifting.  More icing also means that if you are using a buttercream, it should be easier to smooth it out.  I applied the abundant layer of icing and spread it out with a spatula, and then used a baker’s blade to gently take off the excess.  The blade worked great for smoothing certain areas, too.

final-orange-fish

Prepare icing ahead of time. I made my own buttercream icing (using shortening – ick, but holds up well at room temperature) and had to tint it in several colours.  Buttercream can be made well ahead of time and even frozen for up to three months.  It made life much easier to have the icing prepared and tinted well before the baking began.  Plus, when using colouring gels, the colour of the icing sometimes deepens over time.  So making and tinting at least a day or two in advance allows you to see if you will need to adjust your colouring or not. The icing may separate a little when made ahead, but easily mixes back together.

In addition to making it ahead, I made a couple of extra batches of white icing just in case!

burnt-orange-icing

A hot spatula is a good tool for quick fixes.  With larger cakes, in the past I have used parchment or wax paper and a large spatula to smooth out the icing once it has had time to crust .  This time, though, it was more difficult to do with the small surface area of the cakes as well as the finicky corners.  One tip that worked really well was to take a metal spatula, run it under or dip it in very hot water, then dry it quickly.  Applying the hot spatula gently to the icing allowed me to smooth over some rough patches.

This cake was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone, but it was a fun project to work on!  If you have any additional tips for making the baking process go more smoothly, I would love to hear them.

Homemade Happiness: Iced Coffee

Half-finished iced coffee

While I generally love all things coffee, I have never been a big fan of cold coffee drinks, especially those that are just regular coffee over ice.  I think to me, it feels counterproductive, as I am usually trying to consume my coffee before it gets to that state. (Many moms of small children likely feel me on this one.)

However, on a particularly humid day recently, I found myself ordering an iced coffee instead of my usual hot brew.  To my further surprise, I loved it! It got me wondering how easy it would be to make at home.

In my past experiences trying to reproduce lattes and the like, the results have been disappointing.  (The one exception to this has been the Oh She Glows version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, which I would argue when made as instructed is even better than the original.) Recipes for iced coffee usually call for pre-made coffee concentrate, so I wasn’t sure how this would go.

I loved the way it turned out on the first try, and have made it several times since.

  1. Brew a cup of hot coffee as you normally would.  I use a vanilla-flavored decaf.
  2. Add any sweetener at this point so it can dissolve in the hot liquid.  I add about a teaspoon of honey.
  3. Refrigerate until the coffee has cooled to your liking.  I generally refrigerate overnight.  You could also use the freezer – just don’t forget to keep an eye on it!
  4. Pour the coffee over several ice cubes in a glass.  Add milk or cream to taste, and enjoy!

While pouring coffee over ice doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy, apparently a good iced coffee is more straightforward than I thought.  If you like them too, it is worth giving this super-simple method a try.  I have a feeling it will be adding some extra happiness to my summer!

Quick Tip: Extending the Life of Avocados

Extending the Life of Avocados

Recently, I read this tip over at The Kitchn , and it’s been a game changer (you know, in a culinary, first-world-problem sort of way). I love discovering food and cooking hacks that make life a little easier, so I thought I would share this one here.

In my neck of the woods, fresh avocados are about as far away as they can possibly be. They are available year-round at the supermarket, but it’s much cheaper to buy them in bulk (bags of five or six) at Costco. I am the primary consumer of avocados in my household, though the kiddo is learning to like them too. However, unless I am whipping up a large batch of guacamole (of which I am also the primary consumer), it is next to impossible to work through a bag before they are too ripe to eat. And the transition from firm, olive green flesh to gooey, muddy brown seems to happen in record time. Who knows how long they’ve actually traveled before reaching me, anyhow?

I love them dearly and they are a fantastic toddler snack, but I bought them sparingly until recently. Then I tried storing them in the refrigerator, waiting until they felt ripe and placing them in whole. The verdict? Sure enough, they remained in their firm, ready to scoop or mash state until I chose to cut them open.

So far, the longest I’ve stored them has been about two weeks and they were still perfect to eat at that time. It has been great to be able to randomly grab one for a quick snack of avocado toast, or to add a little to chilli or tacos without having to worry about wasting them.

Has anyone tried refrigerating whole avocados before? I’ve also read that avocados freeze well, though I have yet to try this.