Vanilla Birthday Cake with Meringue Buttercream

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Use the the recipe from the Triple Vanilla Birthday Cake as your cake base.

Follow instructions to make Swiss meringue buttercream

 

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Visiting Cape Breton, NS

The Arrival

Some places feel like a dream from the moment you arrive to the day you leave. Cape Breton still feels like it was a dream. My memory of its winding roads and curvaceous lands are enveloped by a warm haze reminiscent of perfect summers, and I desperately miss the deep scent of moss, roots, and miles and miles of trees and oceans every time I think back on this trip. 

36952221664_30e5461bf0_bWe arrived just as twilight descended in Baddeck, NS, a village along the famous Trans-Canada Highway (which eventually branches off into the Cabot Trail). After checking in at Inverary Resort, we walked next door to Baddeck Lobster Suppers and enjoyed a lobster meal with all you can eat chowder and mussels (!!). If you can believe it, you also get a free non-alcoholic drink and a dessert to finish – all for around $40. Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves silly as a treat after the long hours on the road. Then it was a cozy campfire on the resort with s’mores and good conversation, and off to get a good night’s rest so that we could start bright and early in the morning on the Cabot Trail.

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Indeed, we started our adventure in Cape Breton very early in the morning the next day so that we could catch a sunrise. We eventually (haphazardly) found an unimpeded lookout on a shore which was well off the beaten path; it was through a lot of guesswork and I even got stung by a bee while thwacking through the bushes to get to it, but I have since learned that there is something very special about finding your very own place to enjoy a sunrise. It has become an ambition of mine to relive the experience in other places I come to visit.

In the morning quiet, we watched a distant yet brilliant dome of light slowly then suddenly emerge out of the waters edge to officially mark the beginning of our day.

The Itinerary

It is suggested that you allow yourself at least eight hours to drive along the scenic and unbelievably gorgeous highway that is the Cabot Trail. I was quite skeptical of that recommendation as the whole trail – if you drive straight – should really only take you around four hours. But this place really is pure magic and it will make you want to stop at every single lookout point and spend a lifetime at each.

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Not to mention, you need to fit in a mandatory hike in at least one of the trails at Cape Breton Highlands National Park. We chose short trails like the above Lone Shieling loop which only took about 20 minutes to go around.

36655817640_f0e3e57a36_bThe most well known trail in the national park is the Skyline Trail, and despite being busier than other trails, it was my favourite as well. Visitors are asked to remain at all times along the boardwalk path and if you do so, you are treated to some fantastic cliff side views of the ocean and mountain summits.

We took the long way around to get there (there is a shortcut straight to the boardwalks which most visitors take) so that we could glimpse the grass plains and enjoy a quieter trip. It was a cloudier day so we managed to keep cool, but missed out on a sunset which is supposed to be very beautiful around these parts.

A note about accommodation: it is very difficult to find any accommodations for food (or even flushing toilets for that matter) once you hit the heart of the Cabot Trail. Pack a lunch to carry with you, and in the morning before you set off, stop for breakfast at the Dancing Moose Cafe to try their Dutch pancakes (called pannekoek) as we did after our sunrise.

The Departure

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It seems like an incredible thing to even imagine – all these miles of road that are laid on cliffsides and plummeting terrains, welcoming you to drive through an infinite beauty. It is breathtaking and all at once too fast and too grand to drive through. I’ll remember how my chest swelled with anticipation as we sped up the mountains, and filled with awe as the view suddenly became a panorama of boundless waters and lush forests stretching out before me. What a magical place.

Dream a Little Dream by Kerstin Gier ★★☆☆☆

21469090Young Adult / Fantasy
322 pages / Published 04.14.2015
Henry Holt and Co.
★★☆☆☆

Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv’s dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she’s in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.

The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They’re classmates from her new school in London, the school where she’s starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what’s really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn’t possibly know–unless they actually are in her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute…. (Official Synopsis)

Recommended for:

  • Ultimately a light romance with elements of fantasy: the book has a great premise. While the notion of sharing in others’ dreams isn’t new, it is always intriguing to see what an author does with it. However, Dream a Little Dream’s fantastical elements are ultimately subservient to realizing a romance between Liv and Henry, and that led to weak world building and an incoherent plot
  • A wry, clever, and likable narrative voice: narrated in the first person POV, the book boasts a funny and engaging narrative voice. Liv is a spunky heroine with a smart mouth and a stubborn curiosity for dangerous things, and her words, behaviours, thoughts are – though at times dubious – easy to go along with.
  • An enjoyable read, but at best, mediocrity: there are times when YA books truly blow me away with their level of depth, attention to detail, knowledge of human behaviour, etc. This was unfortunately not one of such books. While it was enjoyable enough, the book fell short on world and character building, plot, and prose which personally always seems to make everything better (example of when everything is forgiven because of beautiful prose)

Overall, Dream a Little Dream is a fun and interesting read. There isn’t enough absurdity to call it wonderful, but there is enough of the curious to make it dreamy. It is a very light dip into a world of strangeness, but it is still refreshing and colourful.

And if I can say just one more thing, it’s to complain AGAIN about a vapid synopsis. Why is it that publishers think they have to slap on something along the lines of “pretty cute boys” on every single cover of a book they sign? I am so sick of this trope (and marketing technique). Can we please (please) fast forward to the next decade?

Visiting Bay of Fundy, NB – Canada

The Arrival:

Eastern Canada is as beautiful as they say.

After a long ride on the endless trans-Canada highway, it was a cathartic arrival when we finally arrived at the shores of Bay of Fundy. The road dipped toward the village of Alma as we left behind boundless forested roads and drove into a coastal landscape. It was the scent of briny seawater and the pink glow of an early sunset that made my first impression. The blue of the shores emerged in ombre hues and sea cliffs swelled and fell over the grounds as far as the eyes could see – I loved it at first sight.

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With all of Alma’s tourism business being concentrated along one street, we found our lodging – and dinner – quickly. If you are a fan of seafood, the east coast during lobster season (varying April – June) can do you no harm.

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But even if lobster is the main attraction for many, my personal favourite was the locally caught scallops in Alma at Tipsy Tails. They still cost a pretty penny even in the east, but they are so well worth it: the scallops are almost sweet with freshness, soft and juicy (not to mention big), and best of all, prepped perfectly in a smoky glaze that doesn’t overpower the taste of seafood.

Despite being small, Alma offers several vantage points to see the comings and goings of the tides. Late in the evening, all I had to do was sit in the back lookout of our inn to see the waters receding, and in the morning at low tide, you can take a walk down to the rocky beaches or the wharf.

Even knowing that Bay of Fundy boasted the highest tides in the world, I didn’t expect to be so taken in with the phenomenon. But experiencing it first hand by spending quiet evenings and early mornings watching the waters slowly but surely uphold their promised cycle was a marvel. It gave me the impression of time slowing down. And when night veils over these parts that have so little light pollution – well, you can imagine; the stars are a dream too.

The Itinerary

On the first morning after we arrived, we planned our trip out to visit Hopewell Rocks after grabbing the famous sticky buns at Kelly’s Bakery. (If you are up early for whatever reason, grab some freshly baked goods and a cup of coffee and enjoy watching the tide. It was the most peaceful morning I’ve had in a while)

Hopewell is about a half hour drive east from Alma, and if you’ve done any research on Bay of Fundy, the pictures accompanying tide information is probably that of Hopewell. You get to walk on the seafloor when you go at low tide, and when you return at high tide, the ground you were walking on just hours before is completely swallowed up by the sea. Each admission ticket ($10) is good for two trips so that you can see the landscape at both high and low tide, but in total, the visits should take around 2-3 hours depending on how long you decide to stay on the ocean floor to explore.

We spent the rest of the day at Fundy National Park. It can be overwhelming to figure out how best to use your time or to even grasp the sheer scope of all that the park offers. Don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out yourself – just pop into a visitor center and talk to their employees. They have stellar recommendations for whatever your itinerary looks like – time constraints, interests, most popular sceneries – they know it all.

Based on their recommendation, we decided to go on an intermediate level hike to see their widest waterfall, Laverty. The whole trail took us about three hours; granted, with a lot of stops trying to see wildlife. Laverty Falls has a watering hole where you can take a dip.

With the sun setting and darkness falling fast, we headed back to have dinner (at Tipsy Tails – scallops & salad for me which were delicious) and spent the rest of the evening at Buddha Bear drinking late night lattes. If you’re ever in Alma, pay them a visit. They’re an absolute must. A cafe / pub that serves wicked good drinks and music, I find myself missing the place oddly more so than my favourite cafes here in Toronto.

The next morning, we decided that we would do a quick 30 minute hike to see Dickson Falls before we went on our way to Nova Scotia. The trail is along a ravine and over boardwalks, and the waterfall itself is very quaint. It was a fun and quiet (at early morning) trail. The best part though, I have to say, was seeing the inukshuk figures all along the stream. We built our own before picking up our pace again.

Once we were out of the woods, it was off to our next destination: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – and that, of course, warrants its own post (it was absolutely stunning).

The Departure

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My visit to Bay of Fundy is a memory of perfect and tranquil calm; a complete immersion into the slow life. Under the pretty brightness of the east coast, I voluntarily and happily woke up near sunrise each morning to enjoy the crisp air and to catch the dew still lingering on the grass.

In a lot of ways, traveling makes me feel wonderfully small. Whether it be the vibrant histories of humanity as experienced in Rome, or the hubbub of millions of lives dashing under the neon lights of New York City, or the expansive wilderness and natural beauty of places like Bay of Fundy, all these places let me forget myself. It’s the truest getaway when you can lose yourself in something so spectacular.

Bay of Fundy is no doubt one of the most beautiful places. It’s where the “mundane” morning coffee, the star strewn skies, the very waves that wash in and out of shore become something of a wonder even as they seem so marvelously everyday and familiar. A vacation in the truest sense, I’ll think back on Bay of Fundy every now and then when life in the city seems a little too chaotic.

Mulberry Pie

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After almost two months of a baking hiatus, I finally found the energy and desire to crank up the oven and get to work. Pies have been on my mind lately (especially after a day trip to go cherry picking this weekend) and I love how seasonal these base recipes can be. Berry pies are for mid-summer, peach pies are for end of summer, pumpkin and pecan pies for colder weathers, and so on.

This one is from scratch, and the mulberries are hand picked from our very own garden. I’m always so grateful for this lovely home I grew up in and all that it provides. Despite it being a small little bungalow in suburban Toronto, we have a full garden to grow our veggies, tomatoes, herbs, mulberries, and come autumn, our apples. I can only hope that when I move out and have my own house, it is a fraction of something like this.  But let’s stop before we get into a millennial’s financial woes and get on with the pie:

The pie crust recipe is from inspiredtaste (I’ve had good results when following their recipe exactly) and the mulberries are a basic toss and bake style mix.

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Nimona by Noelle Stevenson ★★★★☆

Graphic Novels / YA
266 pages / Published May 2015
HarperCollins
★★★★☆

The graphic novel debut from rising star Noelle Stevenson, based on her beloved and critically acclaimed web comic, which Slate awarded its Cartoonist Studio Prize, calling it “a deadpan epic.”

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones. 

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are. But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. (Goodreads)

Recommended for:

  • A not-so-perfect heroine that is at once absurd and relatable: Nimona’s characterization falls into the bad-but-good category that I am a true sucker for. If you are like me and can’t help but sympathize with and adore miscreants with a heart, Nimona will probably be a new favourite addition to the growing list.
  • A blend of haphazard humor and clever charm: humor as found in Nimona can be a fine line to walk. Cross the unseen boundary, and you can have stupid, dry humor on your hands that makes reading staggered and awkward. Instead, the humor found in Nimona is random and reckless, but it is on point and clever. It fits the characters, the situation, the ongoing activities of the story and calls for deep chuckles on more than one occasion as you witness the villainous duo’s antics.
  • An unexpected yet flawless dive into emotional scars: the ending in this story is just so smooth and perfect. Though the story and mood is overall light, Noelle Stevenson still manages to pack in a good punch when it comes to character depth and emotional histories.

Should I create a shelf called the read-in-one-sitting pile? Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is a 266 pager that had me hooked from beginning to end – no small feat considering it is a series of comic strips that could very well have felt disconnected from the overarching story line in its intended form. Yet Nimona was a a treat from the first to last page; a blend of haphazard humor, unique wit, and unexpected exploration into emotional scars that had me seriously questioning whether I’ve been missing out all these years by not reading more graphic novels (yeah, probably most definitely).

Nimona is a misbehaving, mischievous, and beloved little thing – she calls for scorn and discipline, yet something about her (and mysterious past) make her intriguing and entertaining at once. The irony of Ballister Blackheart the villain and the hero regrettably named Sir Goldenloin is part of the chaotic and often face palm worthy moments of the story, and the whole experience of reading this silly book is a golden one.

So what more to say? This here is a refreshing graphic novel that leaves only one thing wanting from the reader – a sequel!

An early spring outing in the GTA: Ontario Falconry Centre, Scarborough Bluffs, Brunch @ Lady Marm

The last few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind for me. I somehow managed to land a job where I wanted (location, position, sector), I finished up a few more courses counting towards my second degree / professional designation, and overall have been trying to relax and enjoy life; which ironically has meant a mix of keeping myself busy with fun and new things while returning to familiar pleasures (nothing will ever beat reading for the ultimate wind down).

One such unique experience came from – lo and behold – Groupon, where a special from the Ontario Falconry Centre offered a one hour workshop to meet with these birds of prey. So we drove out 40 minutes from Toronto and arrived in the middle of nowhere and I had one of the best experiences of any day trip. The birds were absolutely beautiful, and we had the opportunity to handle them and see them up close:

And on the way back, we stopped by Scarborough Bluffs for a quick ‘hike’ which turned out to be a long walk along the coast. Note for future visits: there are many points of entry for this park, and it’s best to research a little before you go to get the best of it 🙂

But of course, the day wouldn’t be complete without an obligatory food photo – and a visit to one of Toronto’s most beloved brunch spots, Lady Marmalade, was the spot for that:

I tried their cheesy waffles, and it wasn’t all that great; I think the place is a little bit overhyped, but it still felt like a good go-to spot for a pleasant brunch. Lady Marm is also in a nice little neighborhood (Leslieville) so there is definitely more to explore for the day if you decide to stick around (like that interesting cover photo I have up there).

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry ★★★★☆

25308876Historical Fiction / Mystery
308 pages / Published May 2015
HarperAvenue
★★★★☆

Plot ★★★☆☆
Characters ★★★☆☆
Setting ★★★★☆
Prose ★★★★☆

New York, 1899. It’s late on a warm city night when Sylvan, a night soiler who cleans out the privies behind the tenement houses, pulls a terrible secret out from the filthy hollows: an abandoned newborn baby. An orphan himself, Sylvan can’t bring himself to leave the baby in the slop. He tucks her into his chest, resolving to find out where she belongs.

Odile is the girl-on-the-wheel, target for the famed knife thrower, in a show that has long since lost its magic. Odile and her sister Belle were raised in the curtained halls of their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow, The Church of Marvels, but the sideshow has burnt to the ground, their mother lies dead in the ashes, and Belle has run away to Manhattan.

Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum. The last thing she remembers is a dark stain on the floor, her mother-in-law screaming. She had once walked the streets as an escort and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up men after their drunken brawls. Now she is married, a lady in a reputable home. She is sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile mother, and will do anything to prove her own innocence. But then a young, mute woman is committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors from the depths of her agile throat, a plan is hatched to save them both.

On a single night, these strangers’ lives will become irrevocably entwined as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, from a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid and magical in this luminous debut. In prose as magnetic and lucid as it is detailed, she offers a richly atmospheric vision of the past marked by astonishing feats of narrative that will leave you breathless. (Goodreads)

Recommended for:

  • A slow, multi-faceted mystery with gentle thrills and subtle kicks: it’s true that the plot of the novel is driven by mystery (or perhaps even mysteries, plural). However, Church of Marvels seems to lean more towards an introspective work, delving into the emotional complexities of characters rather than a rush to solve the problem at hand – even as the characters at any given point in the novel are remarkably placed in action to do exactly that. It’s a rather strange balance of the two that provides for a two-thirds drama, one-third mystery historical novel that works.
  • Captivating prose that is especially powerful in delivering markedly striking memories: I’ve been told that it isn’t easy for authors to do ‘flashbacks’ and retrospections well. Too much of characters reminiscing can break down the present-ness of a story, but Leslie Parry’s writing seems to me like a very good example of how to effectively draw from nostalgia to beef up your main story. The emerging past re-colors the ‘now’ story, as in Odile’s frequent reminiscing of her old home, old circus, old friends that could very well have gotten tedious. Leslie Parry balances indulging the reader with her beautiful prose with deliberate withholding of information, so that despite the shrouding memories, there is still a gentle pressure of the ‘mystery’ looming over the story.
  • Use of familiar tropes that are always unfamiliar and quite nearly fail-proof in eliciting interest: think circuses, tigers, underground illegal networks, opium dens, fighting rings; Church of Marvels has all of these, and more. While this provides for settings that are naturally engaging, they sometimes feel flat and cliche in Church of Marvels precisely because it’s the same old familiar unfamiliarity, without capitalizing on any of the opportunities available to be creative and descriptive. The beautiful prose seemed sparse in moments where it really could have helped; but these were minor catches that did not detract from its primary story.

Overall, Church of Marvels is an interesting, light read despite the heavier topics it touches on. The characters are well fleshed out, the prose is memorable and enjoyable, and the story is fluid and consistently absorbing. Especially considering that this is Leslie Parry’s debut novel, I find I can’t bring myself to find any more fault with it, and look forward to reading her next work (if/when it is announced) 🙂

Triple Decker Chocolate Cake

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Here’s a little something something. My first ever triple decker cake; and of course it is chocolate on chocolate on chocolate.

My chocolate cravings have been driving me absolutely nuts over the last week, so much so that I actually made a separate grocery trip (at like 9 pm on a weekday) to get a boxed chocolate cake mix. It was awful. Traumatizing, even. And worst of it all was that my chocolate craving only got worse because of it. So this here – my Triple Decker Chocolate Cake (has a nice ring to it, no?) was the fix.

It’s very nice to know that something – something good, in fact – can actually come of my rabid chocolate cravings instead of cranky moods and weight gain that shall never be realized on a scale (I’m avoidant. It’s okay).

So this was my Friday evening – a quest to make chocolate cake. Today (Saturday) was all about getting my hands dirty and using up old crayons from my childhood – they’re like 15 years old I think. It feels really, really good – I mean, a part of my new year’s resolution this year was to get back to a childlike way of looking at the world / living my life, and I think indulging in juvenile things like this are sometimes the most cathartic and therapeutic experience

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Wenjack by Joseph Boyden ★★★★★

30079906Fiction / Historical Fiction / Canadian
112 pages / Published October 2016
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
★★★★★

An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School, not realizing just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.
Written by Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author Joseph Boyden and beautifully illustrated by acclaimed artist Kent Monkman, Wenjack is a powerful and poignant look into the world of a residential school runaway trying to find his way home. (Goodreads)

I recently created a shelf on Goodreads called the ‘Little Big Books’ – for books that are very short in length, but very big of heart. It includes short collections of poetry (e.g Neruda’s love poems), essays (e.g we should all be feminists), of course novellas (Gatsby) – and now, Wenjack; a book I can’t quite categorize. On the one hand, it reads with brevity and metaphorically – much like poetry. On the other, the narrative is richly haunting and undoubtedly effective in building a powerful, stand alone story – the one of an Ojibwe boy, Channie, who ran away from his residential school to return home, and ultimately met his end during the journey.

The plot itself is grim and discomposing, the writing heavy and melancholy. The (true) story is heartbreaking and unsettling, and if you are like me, perhaps humbling as well. After all, how many times as individuals, and as a society, have we chosen active ignorance about these residential schools in Canada? About the ongoing neglect of the First Nations people? How many stories of thousands of other Channies did we pass by? Does it really take a beautifully written tragedy like Wenjack to finally make us face the dark, indelible blot in Canada’s history?

In addition to its cultural value for the collective Canadian heritage (I believe remembrance is a shared duty), Wenjack is also a reminder that something so utterly and profoundly tragic can become a thing of a beauty (in its own broken way). In the author’s note of his little book, Joseph Boyden writes,

Chanie, for me and for a number of others, has become a symbol not just of this tragedy but of the resilience of our First Nations, Inuit and Metis people […] Our cultures were forced unerground for a long time, but they have re-emerged despite the odds And they are thriving once more.

It was Chanie Wenjack’s case that brought publicity and formal inquiries to the national public and eventually – slowly but surely – led to the process of reconciliation that Canadians today undertake. With this careful telling, and the carefully chosen words of the author, Wenjack seems delicate; something like an old tale, something foreboding sad… and inifinitely meaningful. It is startlingly short – just as Chanie Wenjack’s life was, and it is beautiful and important – just as the survival and revival story of the Aboriginal people of Canada has been.

As a social, cultural, historical narrative, as well as a thing of literary beauty, Wenjack most definitely will always have a spot in my shelves and mind.