North American Neilson reunions.

While on our trip home, we had the chance to reunite with two of Brendon’s sisters.  Though their roots are all in Quispamsis, New Brunswick (on the East coast of Canada), the Neilson siblings have spread out somewhat in recent years, making reunions ever the more special when they happen.

Brendon’s youngest sister, Kendra, drove down to Muscatine from Benton Harbour, Michigan, where she is currently working as the worship and connecting pastor at Overflow Church.

We enjoyed a nice stroll along the Mississippi with Kendra, before retreating from the heat into The Button Factory, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch and views of the river.  We only had about 24 hours to spend together, but tried to make the most of it.  It was great to see this youngest sister of ours on the Neilson side.

Once back up in Edmonton, we made a short roadtrip down to Red Deer to visit Brendon’s older sister Nicole along with her husband Craig, and our niece and nephews.  Matt and Amy kindly lent us their wheels to make the trip down (thanks for the friendly reminder on the dash board, – this proved very helpful.)

It was so fun to see our niece and nephews again.  It’s crazy how much they have all changed from when they came to visit us in New Zealand a year and a half ago.

Shortly after our visit, Nicole and Craig welcomed their fourth child into their family!   Jasper Robert Schmitt is the newest member of the Schmitt clan, and our newest nephew!

We were hoping baby might have come early in hopes that we could meet him we were there… but at least Nicole and I got to snap a few maternity pics together.

I have had the honor of doing a maternity shoot with my beautiful sister-in-law before she gave birth to Naomi and Wyatt, and I’m so glad it worked out with Jasper too.

While we’re on a celebratory note, we’d also like to give a huge shout out and congrats to our amazing brother-in-law, Craig, for an OUTSTANDING finish at his first Ironman race  in Mont Tremblant, Quebec recently.  For those of you who are unfamiliar of the Ironman format, it entails a 3.9km swim, followed by a 180km bike, then topped off with a full (42km) marathon.  INSANE!!!  Craig placed 4th in his age category, and 39th overall out of over 2200 competitors, qualifying him to represent Canada and compete at the World Triathalon Championships in Kona, Hawaii this October.  We are SO proud of you, Craig!!!

 

Our time in Red Deer with the Schmitt fam was filled with some awesome times, including an ice cream sundae party, some nail painting (Naomi does a pretty great job of painting nails for being only 4 years old), and lots of cuddles and play time.  We also attempted to visit Dose, a new cafe in Red Deer, but unfortunately, our timing was off and we decided to visit on the one day it is closed: Monday.  Brendon was a little gutted.  We’ll have to catch you next time, Dose.

The only Neilson sister we unfortunately didn’t get to see was Brendon’s eldest sister, Karly, who lives in New Brunswick.  Karly, we love you, miss you, and look forward to reuniting with you again one day too!!

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When sweet meets salty: Salted Caramel Cupcakes.

I guess you could say I have definitely been inspired by my little sister, Morgan, and her passion for cupcakes.

Her cupcake fetish began after I had left Canada, so it was not until our recent trip home that I got to sample some of Morgan’s incredibly pretty and tasty creations.  And let me tell you- they did not disappoint.  Morgan is developing quite the reputation in St. Albert and amongst my circle of friends for being able to whip up some to-die-for cupcakes.  At age 13, she has dreams of opening her own cupcakery one day… I certainly hope that comes true for her.

Since returning back to NZ with a new icing bag and M1 tip, I have been having fun experimenting with some new cupcake recipes.  With some special guests coming over, the idea of a salted caramel cupcakes sounded perfect for this occasion.

Smooth.  Indulgent.  Tantilizing.

Not too many more words are needed to describe these Salted Caramel Cupcakes.  These cupcakes are the epitome of a union between sweet and salty.  Atop a soft, chocolately base sits a swirl of rich caramel icing, possessing that perfect hint of saltiness.  Over the ripples of piped icing, a delectable caramel sauce is drizzled.  For the finishing touch, each of these beauties is garnished with a pretzel.

Perfect Chocolate Cupcakes

For a chocolate cupcake recipe, this one is pretty great.  The cupcakes rose to have a solid structure, creating the perfect base for a swirl of heavier butter icing to perch. Because they are not overly sweet, they really let a sweet icing (such as the salted caramel) shine.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter

2 ounces chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup cocoa

3/4 cup flour (I used whole wheat)

1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp baking powder

2 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup yoghurt

Directions:

1.  Melt butter, chocolate, and cocoa using a double boiler.  Set aside to cool slightly.

2.  Combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder in a medium sized bowl.

3.  Combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a arge bowl.

4.  Add chocolate mixture to wet ingredients.  Mix.

5.  Sift 1/3 of flour over chocolate mixture, and whisk.

6.  Whisk in yoghurt.

7.  Whisk in rest of the flour.

8.  Bake at for 18-20 minutes at 350 degrees F until a toothpick comes out clean.

Salted Caramel Frosting (from Sally’s Baking Addiction)

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/3 cup heavy cream

1/4 tsp salt

2-3 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Directions:

Melt butter in a small saucepan.  Once melted, add brown sugar and heavy cream. Stir constantly over medium heat until sugar is dissolved.  Add salt.  Allow to bubble for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Beat in powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, until you reach desired consistency.  Pipe or frost cupcakes as desired.

(*Note: I saved a bit of salted caramel to drizzle over cupcakes)

Alternatively, if you are trying to mainain a low carb, sugar free, or gluten free diet, or are interested in experimenting with something new and different, I highly recommend trying out this tasty and delicious recipe for Avacado Brownies.  My cousin Rebecca was kind enough to share this recipe, and I am so glad she did!  I increased the recipe by 50%, and came out with a square tin of brownies, plus with 4 cupcakes.   Jam-packed with moisture and flavour, these brownies truly need no icing to feel indulgent.  They froze really well, and have an pleasant, chewy texture straight out of the freezer.  I think I liked them best this way!  As cupcakes, they held their shape nicely and were richer and more moist than any other cupcake I’ve tasted.  I really enjoyed this recipe in cupcake form, although next time I think I’ll go easier on the icing.  Talk about indulgent!

Avocado Brownies (from TGIPaleo)

Ingredients:

4 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted in 1 T coconut oil

3 small avocados (or 2 Large)

1/2 c honey (I added 2 Tbsp more)

3 eggs

1/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder

1 Tbsp vanilla

1 Tbsp coconut flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

Directions:

1.  Puree the avocado flesh in a food processor.  Be sure that there are NO lumps left.

2.  Using an electric mixer, beat all remaining ingredients together with the avocado until really smooth and fluffy.

3.  Spoon batter into a greased 8×8 baking dish (can grease with coconut oil).

4.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out smooth.

Things that change and things that don’t.

If anything was made clear to us on our trip home, it is that we have really good people in our lives.

As far as friends and family go, we are pretty sure we have struck gold, and were ever-so reminded of how blessed we such a stellar community of people back in Canada.

Our friends’ lives appear to have changed quite a bit since we left; pretty much all of them have purchased houses, and most of them have had a couple of kids.

While some would say we are “at different places in life,” we beg to differ that these changes should cause any sort of distance in our friendship.

It’s been neat watching our friends become parents, and so special meeting many new little people for the first time.

Anna, Naomi, Henry Richard, Joah, Makinley, and Henry Gillard were among the wee persons we finally met acqaintance with.

Even though we’ve lived on different continents for the past couple years and although some things have changed during that time, it was so wonderful to come home and be reaffirmed that some things have not changed.

It was amazing and SO GOOD to reconnect in real life again with people who are so dear to our hearts.

The value of a shared past, and a known history of each other’s lives, is irreplaceable.

Despite the physical distance that has existed between us over the past two and half years, our friendships have sustained themselves, and in some cases, even grown deeper.  We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have such edifying, uplifting people our lives who care about us and who have supported us through this journey.

Knowing how fast kids grow up these days, I was a bit unsure how much my little sister Morgan might have changed over the past couple years since I’d been home.  This is a tricky thing to gauge over Skype and emails.  Being just 10 years old when we moved to NZ, I knew she would definitely have grown in stature- in fact, I predicted she would likely be taller than me!  Well, she’s not quite there yet, but I am nearly certain that by the time we return for good, she will have passed me in height for sure!  My fears that she had grown up too much were greatly relieved when I realized Morgan is still the same awesome girl that we knew a few years ago, just slightly taller and with a blossoming maturity.  In fact, I couldn’t have imagined Morgan being any more awesome- seriously, she is such a cool girl!!

We had such a great time hanging out with her during the Great Iowa Roadtrip, exploring the Enjoy Centre, sharing some good times together in St. Albert/Edmonton.  Brendon and I are so proud of Morgan, and especially look forward to living in the same city as her again.

We are so thankful for the quality times shared with many of the people who are super dear to us (most often over a delicious meal)- these times were indeed cherished and are fondly looked back upon as we flick through photos.

Thanks, Mom, for your cherry cheesecake and homemade perogies- as amazing as I’d remembered them.

Friends and family of Edmonton (and Red Deer, Saskatoon, and Iowa), thanks for being amazing, and for your love across the Pacific over the past 2.5 years.

You welcomed us so warmly and hosted us so graciously.  We experienced such generosity and hospitality each day… and were truly touched by your kindness.  Edmonton is blessed by your existence, and we look forward to returning to you and being able to share in more of the everyday moments of life again one day.

Tiramisu treats.

Tiramisu Cupcakes

Tiramisu fans, this is your cup of cake.  I have made these Tiramisu cupcakes twice now, and both times, they’ve been a real hit.  To create these moist and delectible delights, you can use any vanilla cupcake recipe you want.  If you are looking for a good recipe, I definitely recommend the one below.  For a gluten free version, try using the recipe for Vanilla Coconut Cupcakes, but replacing the coconut essence with vanilla and leaving out the dessicated coconut.

A coffee syrup is drizzled slowly over the baked vanilla cupcakes, and time given for it to fully soak in.  They are topped off with a whipped cream cheese frosting, and dusted with a light sprinkling of cocoa powder.  The results are simply irresistable.

The Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake (adapted from Cupcake Project)
Yield: 16 cupcakes

1 cup (225 grams) granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean

1 3/4 cups (175 grams) cake flour, not self-rising  *(I made my own- see note below)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup (57 grams) butter, room temperature

2 large eggs, room temperature

1/3 cup plain yoghurt

1/4 cup canola oil or vegetable oil (60 ml)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup (160 ml) milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).
  2. In a small bowl, combine sugar and seeds from the vanilla bean. (For those of you who are new to using vanilla beans, check out this video to learn how to get the seeds out of the bean.)
  3. Using the back of a spoon, move around the bowl and apply pressure to break up any clumps of seeds and to better infuse the vanilla flavor into the sugar. Set aside.
  4. In a medium-sized mixing bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, mix together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  5. Add the vanilla bean sugar and mix until well combined.
  6. Add butter and mix on medium-low speed for three minutes.  Because there is so little butter, you’ll end up with a very fine crumb texture.
  7. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, sour cream, oil, and vanilla extract until smooth.
  8. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined.
  9. Slowly add milk and mix on low speed until just combined.  The batter will be liquid.  (Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong.  It’s supposed to be that way.)
  10. Fill cupcake liners just over 1/2 full.
  11. Bake for 14 minutes and then test to see if they are done. They are done when a toothpick comes out without wet batter stuck to it.  The cupcakes should appear white with specks of vanilla bean. They should not turn a golden brown.  If they are not done, test again in two minutes.  If they are still not done, test again in another two minutes.
  12. When the cupcakes are done, remove them immediately from the tins and leave them on a cooling rack (or just on your counter if you don’t own a cooling rack) to cool.

*To make your own cake flour, see Joy the Baker’s easy and simple to follow instructions here.

Coffee Soaking Syrup
2/3 cup strong coffee (espresso will work)
1/4 cup Bailey’s

1.  In a small bowl or cup, combine coffee and Bailey’s.

2.  Drizzle approximately 1 Tbsp of the coffee/Bailey’s mixture over each cupcake.  Add it a little at a time and wait for it to absorb  into the cupcake before adding more.

3.  Let cupcakes sit for several hours or even overnight to fully absorb the syrup.

*Should you wish to make a non-alchoholic version of the coffee drizzle, skip out on the Bailey’s and instead stir in  2 Tbsp of powdered sugar or honey to sweeten.

Whipped Cream Cheese Topping
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
300ml whipping cream
1.  To make the frosting, whip cream on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form.  In a separate bowl, combine the cream cheese, vanilla, and confectioners’ sugar and beat on medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Fold about a third of the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture with a spatula to lighten.  Gently fold in the remaining whipped cream until evenly incorporated.
2.  Transfer the frosting to a piping bag fitted with your favorite tip.  I am currently enjoying the M1 tip (Thanks, Mom and Morgan!)  Pipe a generous swirl of frosting on top of each cupcake.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Just before serving, sprinkle cupcakes with a light dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder.

A new Edmonton.

After a couple of years of living away from Edmonton, we honestly didn’t know what we would think of the city when we came back to it.

The Edmonton we returned to was not the Edmonton we left two and a half years ago.

It was full of surprises… pretty much all of them wonderful.  Honestly, I had not expected the city to have changed that much in the time that we were gone.

Have we changed?  Probably a little.  But has the city changed?  Most definitely.  And we find it truly exciting.

It seems as if the change began with some great people deciding to invest in Edmonton and make it awesome.  What has resulted is the steady emergence of inspiring shops, restaurants, and establishments waiting to be experienced by Edmontonians and visitors to this City of Champions.

In the short time we were there, we found great joy in scoping out and experiencing some of the newest and greatest of what Edmonton has to offer.   Here are some of the things we perceive to be among Edmonton’s best, although this list is by no means exhaustive or complete.

We enjoyed an exquisite dinner out at a new Italian restaurant, Corso 32, with Natasha and Sean.  If you go there, our friend, Chef Ben, will blow your mind with his Stracci Pesto Genovese and fried short rib.  The chocolate torta is also to die for.  *Be aware that you will probably need to make your booking (especially if it’s for a weekend) at least 6 weeks in advance.  For real.  But do not let this deter you from making a booking.  The wait, or shall we say the forward planning, will be totally worth it.

It felt SO good to return to our friends and beverages at Transcend Coffee.  Transcend has been through a gigantic period of growth and change while we have been away, so it has been neat to come back and visit their new locations, as well as meet some of the new additions to the Transcend team.

Transcend Chai, how I have missed you!

I had forgotten how much I enjoy the buzz of Edmonton’s vibrant Whyte Ave.  I have fond memories of strolling up and down this street, most often to and from hip hop dance practices at the Transalta Arts Barn.

While we were there, the Whyte Ave Art Walk was on, and we picked up these cool postcards from Jason Blower, a local Edmonton artist.  I found his quirky and geometrical portrayal of Edmonton very heartwarming.

Of all the new bouqitues and estabishments along Whyte Ave that had popped up since left, the one I was most excited about probably was a frozen yoghurt bar called Tutti Fruiti.  After a trip to California a few years ago, I really got into frozen yoghurt. It’s awesome to see the frozen yoghurt movement catching on in Edmonton.

A new and happening district in Edmonton is 104 Street. On Saturdays, they close off the street to traffic and run the 104 Street Farmers Market.  We had an awesome time strolling the length of the market in the sunshine with our good friends Matt and Amy, who visit the market every Saturday.

The number of stalls was quite impressive, as was the balance between fresh produce and local arts and crafts.  It was exciting to see so many local artists and designers present at this market.

Along 104 St, one will also find Dauphine, a super cute bakery formerly Queen of Tarts.  As you descend the staircase leading to Dauphine, you will immediately notice the presence of an attractive chandellier and a bare decidious tree branch, and sophisticated decor.  Their white chocolate raspberry tart is also pretty unforgettable.

Evoolution was another gem of a find along 104 St.  This unique establishment offers the opportunity to taste an extensive variety of olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and then fill your own bottle(s) with your favorite varieties.  We thought this was really awesome, and do plan on stocking our pantry here when we come back.

Edmonton’s River Valley is a great place to take a stroll, especially with a good friend.

It is extra beautiful when the soft light of the early morning peaks through the trees.

Edmonton is one of the sunniest northern cities in Canada.  For those who are into statistics, it comes fifth for the most sunlight hours, behind Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Regina.  I have come to LOVE the sun and perhaps could never live in a place where its appearance was rare.

Perhaps there is just something about the light of the Prairies that is quite enchanting.  Can you really beat a sunset on the massive prairie sky?

When the summer sun heats things up, you can always take a dip in the fountains at the Alberta Legislature Grounds.  This urban oasis tends to be the place where Edmontonians flock to cool off on the hottest of days, and pretend they’re actually somewhere else.

The grounds surrounding the Legislature Building, adorned with an abundance of decidious trees and plantlife, are really quite lovely, and can serve as the perfect place for an afternoon siesta, a game of frisbee, or a vintage picnic party.  (Pics of Morgan’s party to come in a future post.)

Our visit to Edmonton rekindled our love and appreciation for the city that is our home, making us increasingly excited to return to Edmonton again one day.