Lemon Layer Cake

My friend Arina celebrated her birthday last week. She asked that I use my new found interest in baking to bake her a birthday cake, giving me an opportunity to try out a more indulgent recipe than my usual low carb, gluten free adventures. When I asked Arina what kinds of flavours she likes in her desserts, she mentioned citrus and anything with a fruit topping. She had also highlighted her love for cheesecakes. I decided that instead of just doing a classic, New York style cheesecake, I wanted to attempt a dessert that would incorporate all of these ideas. I made a lemon layer cake with cream cheese frosting and a wild blueberry sauce. It was a bit of a process, but the combination of citrus, the tangy cream cheese flavour, and the subtle hint of sweetness from the sauce was worth the effort.

I used this recipe from Cinnamon Spice And Everything Nice to make the lemon cake layers. I found that the original recipe did not yield enough for all three layers, so I ended up halving it to make a third layer. The cakes were perfectly lemon-y and moist, with plenty of fresh lemon juice and zest

Cream cheese frosting is so addictive. I tried out this recipe for the cream cheese frosting, which just barely yielded enough to frost the entire cake and to create cream cheese layers between the lemon cake layers. I loved the result of the recipe as is (as did Arina and her family) and could not resist sneaking in a spoonful (possibly two) before I started frosting the cake. As you can see, I’m not necessarily the neatest froster out there, but I am hoping that more of my friends request cakes for presents so that I can develop the skill further. Is that weird?

If you want a thicker coating on the outside and a sweeter frosting, I would recommend making another cup and adding maybe one or two extra cups of powdered sugar.

I still haven’t completely gotten over my feeling for fruit-filled products, but luckily my aversion to those types of textures did not affect my attempt at this wild blueberry sauce. Fresh blueberries are quite expensive at this time of the year, so I used frozen blueberries and upped the sugar to one cup. I was surprised at how easy it was, and even more pleased when Arina and her family said it was actually good. I tried some myself and have to say that it really was the cherry (well, blueberry) on top of this cake. This experience has definitely encouraged me to attempt other sauces down the road.

I didn’t have my DSLR with me when I delivered the cake to Arina’s, but I snapped some photos with my iPhone so you could see the cake with the sauce (you can take a guess as to who drizzled it and who slathered it all over). Happy Birthday, Arina!

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Springspiration: Strawberry Goat Cheese Salad

I eat a lot of salads. Like, a lot. But I tend to use the same ingredients (peppers, cucumber, tomato, onion) in two ways: finely chopped, lettuce-less, like a pico de gallo, or julienned with romaine lettuce. With the weather finally starting to turn around, I decided it was time to change up some of the features of my daily salad. I was inspired by Milestone’s California Spring Salad that I had the last time I had eaten at one of their locations and thought I would recreate it at home, with a few touches.

In addition to the goat cheese, red onions, and strawberries, I used arugula and coriander, a lighter leaf and a strong herb, to support some of the heavier items like the goat cheese and strawberries. I also added orange pepper for a bit of colour and chickpeas for some added protein and a change in texture. My go-to dressing is always olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette with a little bit of black pepper.

The result: an incredibly fresh and fun change in my salad routine. I love the creaminess of the goat cheese and the natural sweet flavour of the strawberries. I look forward to trying out more combinations like this one in the coming months, especially with some seasonal fruits

What are your favourite salads to make at home? I’d love to hear some recommendations. Let me know in the comments below!

Film Review: Transcendence

Hollywood has used the “man meets machine” plot point many, many times over the years. We have seen several incarnations of cyborgs, we have explored the emotional implications of technological advancement, and occasionally, we do get an original concept that makes us really consider what our world will look like in an A.I.-centric era. Transcendence is another attempt to get our mental wheels turning, but its pacing, performances and plot barely grease the gears.

The film stars Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Dr. Will Castor, a researcher and scientist that heads efforts to further develop artificial intelligence. Will Castor is a popular and public figure who is quickly targeted and shot by a guerrilla anti-tech group called R.I.F.T.. In order to save Will, his wife Evelyn, portrayed by Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) and close friend Max played by Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code), use a program that they created called P.I.N.N. to upload Will’s consciousness. When Will goes live online, he expresses a limitless potential, as he suddenly advances intelligence efforts beyond the present day and has access to global networks. When he urges his wife that he needs more power, Evelyn is prompted to create a large facility in the middle of a desert, below an isolated town, so that he can continue to grow and share his outputs. Max on the other hand is very doubtful of this new, advanced Will, and soon joins forces with R.I.F.T. to bring Dr. Castor down.

A bulk of this story comes down to Evelyn’s desire to hold on tight to her husband, especially when his new form enhances his ability to help save the world. Physical disabilities, global poverty, and the water crisis slowly become easily solvable issues, all because of Will’s synthetic creations. As a fellow doctor/tech-advocate, it’s all Evelyn has ever dreamed of and then some because she gets to keep her husband. The problem is that she fails to differentiate between her husband and the computer program that she merged him with so that he could live on. It’s really the only emotional thread of the film and Rebecca Hall carries it well enough. Audience members will surely identify with her character’s difficulty in letting her husband go because Hall convinces you that her distorted hope is legitimate. Unfortunately, when it does waver, any belief in her character also gets thrown out the window because her changes don’t feel as natural as one would want them to feel.

But at least she’s not as flat as her co-stars. Johnny Depp’s talents are not really used in this film as his character has little personality, regardless of whether he is a human or a digital projection. You are never completely satisfied with his love for Evelyn as you are vice-versa. Sure, you may catch a glint of excitement and possibility in his eyes whenever he actually “transcends” human and technological capabilities, but there is nothing that defines him as a compelling antagonist.

There are a lot of supporting characters played by some pretty well known people in this film, including R.I.F.T. leader Bree (Kate Mara, House of Cards), Donald, an FBI agent played by Cilian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Morgan Freeman’s Joseph, who is Will’s mentor. Mara and Murphy both represent these two key elements to the entire technological evolution debate, which are the naysayers and the policing. But instead of building these ideas into a more intricate message, they are quickly reduced to being Will and to an extent, Evelyn’s adversaries. This happens to Freeman and Bettany as well, giving them, especially the former, little purpose to the film at all. All of their combined stories end up pointlessly slowing down the entire storyline. This is especially frustrating because at the beginning, we are given a glimpse into the future, post-events of the film, so you know throughout the course of the story how it is going to end. While there are a few moments where the movie gives you something to consider, those pondering thoughts get squashed pretty easily by the pacing which begs you to ask, “Are we there yet?” more often than you ever should have to ask during a film.

At least first-time director Wally Pfister, a cinematographer who  worked closely with The Batman Trilogy director Christopher Nolan , delivers some beautifully crafted visuals. Will and Evelyn’s sleek labs, the dilapidated school, and even the main couple’s backyard are all presented through the use of these intimate shots that capture some really lovely details, like water droplets. Pfister’s skill gives the film a really pleasant aesthetic that’s tidy and well pulled together. Sadly, the content does not nearly measure up to the image, making Transcendence more about the look and the intention rather than the actual execution.

Film Review: Disneynature’s Bears

I remember reading this short story in my Grade 7 English class where the narrator was talking about how she could not tear her eyes away from the television, which was showing a cheetah hunting. I do not remember the context of the story nor can I recall why it was relevant to our English class, but that was the exact moment when I realized why I actually watched programs on animals and wildlife: it is because primal instinct is completely fascinating.

Disneynature’s latest effort, Bears, showcases that fact extremely well. The film follows a new momma bear named Sky and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, as they awaken from hibernation in time for spring. From that point, the film essentially becomes a live-action version of any animal-based Disney flick out there. Instead of voice actors, we have John C. Reilly narrating the family’s travels, turning a hunt for food into a tale highlighting the cubs’ wonderment with a brand new world and a mother who tries to protect them and teach them about its tricks, nuances, and opportunities. But unlike most of its animated cousins, Bears regularly reminds viewers how powerless all of earth’s inhabitants are to the threat of nature’s due course with the most daunting and uncontrollable situations.

These types of moments are also some of the most beautifully filmed sequences that the film crew captured during their one year production in Alaska After all, such technical work is directors Alasator Fothergill and Keith Scholey’s forte: Forthergill co-produced the Planet Earth series and Scholey also co-directed Disneynature’s previous effort, African Cats. Whether it was the crashing waves of snow during an avalanche or a pack of salmon scurrying upstream, Bears provides fantastic visual insights, big and small, into the varying landscape of meadows, mountains and rivers that are tucked away in the Alaskan landscape.

It’s the kind of background that makes the audience that much more engaged with Sky, Scout and Amber’s story, especially when paired with Reilly’s slightly cheesy but oddly comforting narration. He kind of sounds like a parent reading to their child, especially as he characterizes the bear family and their obstacles. Take Scout, who is a little bit more curious and adventure-seeking than his sister Amber, who is kind of a mommy’s girl. He is always getting into trouble and frequently needs help from his mom. Or Magnus and Chinook, who lay claim over their meadow territories and prove to be as challenging and terrifying as the rising tides that Scout has to swim through in order to reach the mainland safely. This kind of personification gears the film towards younger audiences, but it also helps viewers of all ages care more for the creatures than they might have otherwise. I admittedly have not watched any of the Disneynature films other than Bears, so I am unsure as to whether or not this is a common trait of all of their products, but it works.

The how and what of the constructed narrative is of course dependent on the actual behaviour of the bears, which is indeed incredibly fascinating and really the main reason why you should watch this documentary/film. The production team captured some endearing moments that yes, tug on your heart strings, and yes, make you laugh, but they also demonstrate how their communication, body language, and skills have evolved and allowed them to adapt to the challenges that they face. I was just in awe of Sky as she flipped over rocks to find eels as a temporary protein replacement for her preferred diet of salmon, how she growled her opponents away and wrestled with Magnus while her children took refuge in logs. It is equally interesting to watch Scout and Amber, who with all of their curiosity learned a fair deal from their mother as they scrimmaged through mud, forests, fields and rivers for food, fun and at times, their community. These activities and reactions are completely identifiable, and by the end, you realize this is the whole point. Bears teaches us that the instinct to protect, the desire to discover, and the will to survive are indeed much more common than we may realize. That’s probably why a lot of kids walked out of the theatre saying things like “I want to be the Momma bear!” and “I am Scout!” – an adorable added bonus to seeing the film in theatres.

I attended an advance screening held by Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures Canada and received the tickets through a free giveaway courtesy of WDSMPC. Disneynature’s Bears will be released on April 18th, 2014 in North America.

Low Carb/Gluten Free Coconut Flour Cinnamon Muffins

I have discussed my love affair with cinnamon in the past, and I wanted to try to make another cinnamon-centric muffin. Generally speaking, I like working with almond flour more not only because it’s easier, but because it tends to absorb flavours better and is more moist than coconut flour. But since almond flour is expensive and I’ve got a giant bag of coconut flour that needs to be used, I figured I would give Comfy Belly’s recipe for Cinnamon Bun Muffins a go.

As per usual, I substituted erythritol for the honey in the muffin batter. Unfortunately I ran out of erythritol and had to use stevia in the cinnamon topping mixture. Since stevia does not measure out in equal parts to sugar or honey, I just winged it and used nearly three packets of stevia. If you are going to use stevia in place of honey for the topping and prefer a sweeter taste, I would recommend using a little bit more. I liked the balance of my mixture because it was a tad heavier on the cinnamon spice taste, but when it comes to baking, it’s all about personal preference.

Coconut flour absorbs moisture easily, so it needs a lot of liquid in order for the batter to be more similar to regular muffin/cake batter. Since I did not use honey, I added hot water to both the muffin mixture and cinnamon topping. I started off with 1/4 cup of hot water for the batter and kept adding it until I felt the consistency was right. Add a little bit at a time so that you can see how much the flour is absorbing the extra liquid. I also added about 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, just for a little added flavour. For the topping, I think that the more liquid-y it is, the easier it will be to swirl into the batter. Mine was initially a little thick so I had some difficulties swirling it into the bottom half of the muffin pan. I add a bit more water for the topping and it really helped to create a beautiful crust with the walnuts.

Although the original recipe yielded twelve muffins, I managed to get ten out of mine. But I loved how they came out.  I suspect that Comfy Belly called it a Cinnamon Bun muffin because of the honey. Mine came out more like a mini-coffee cakes, as it was less sweet and did not have the sticky component that honey may add to the muffin. These muffins are actually a lot more moist than some of the other coconut-flour based goods that I have tried out. I think that may be due to the use of yogurt instead of milk, but I am not entirely sure.

These muffins are great when partnered with some black coffee or even to serve at a tea party. They are small, but packed with great flavour and have a lovely texture. Try them out and let me know how they turned out for you!

Book Review: “The Here And Now” By Ann Brashares

 

Ann Brashares really loves the idea of journeys. Sadly, the idea is better in theory than in execution in her latest effort, The Here and Now, a quasi-sci-fi-romance novel which finds the author of the popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series exchanging a pair of thrift store jeans shared amongst friends for a community that has traveled from the 2090s back to our present-day time to escape a global pandemic carried by mosquitos.

Amongst these tomorrow people is Prenna James, a seventeen year old who is confined by the rules that are in place to ensure that she and the rest of her community do not do anything except live a routinized life and stay connected to the group in every way possible. She’s not allowed to pursue relationships outside of the group, reveal anything about herself to people of the 2014-variety, or in any way shape or form affect the course of history. She can be friendly, but she can’t make friends. She is monitored all the time. She has a counsellor who is deceivingly nice. Her mom isn’t always the most active parent. Somewhere in between all of this is Ethan, a boy at school who is more interested in her than he should be. You know, for safety reasons.

The rules and restrictions are in place so that the community does not further endanger the current and future societies with their knowledge of what is to come, but Prenna has her doubts. Soon enough, she receives intel that will set her on a mission with Ethan in tow that could actually save the world that she has lived in, decades down the road. It’s all just a matter of time.

I think the most successful part of this novel is how Ann Brashares set up the back story of the time-travelers. I found that her explanation of the gradual evolution and simultaneous deterioration of future generations that ultimately result in the bloody, deadly virus Prenna and her community escape from by heading back in time to 2014 is not only scary, but in many ways realistic. This foundation makes other characteristics more interesting, including the biological differences that Prenna and her people carry in comparison to those of today. I really wish Brashares decided to focus on this aspect of her story and develop it more than she did because it would have made for a more intriguing and troublesome context.

Instead, we are served up with a lot elements that are typical of a lot of YA novels these days, including a forbidden romance, a mystery-adventure-mission, and a heavy sense of surveillance. The problem with these aspects of the story is that they are not supported by proper character development. Antagonists are kind of tossed in and out of various parts of the story, there are not really any major barriers to success for the characters, and the romance subplot just appears without any sort of justification or explanation. Ann Brashares expects her audience to just accept Ethan and Prenna’s relationship, even though there is nothing that makes us understand why it really exists in the first place. It’s disappointing that Prenna herself, despite being established as a believable and interesting protagonist, does not end up having much of a character arc over the course of the novel, and maybe that’s because of how conveniently things are set out for her, including an extended middle portion where she finally gets to live like a 2014 teenager, fake i.d.’s and stacks of cash included.

This is the only part of the story where I appreciated some of the sentiments Brashares’ was trying to communicate. This part will certainly tug at the warm, fuzzy heart strings, but I enjoyed it for other reasons. I think there is something particularly sweet (and yes, cliché) about remembering how to appreciate experiencing life in a moment, maybe with someone, and carving out memories and a part of your identity while doing so. It’s the first real, genuine, unauthorized and independent experience that Prenna is able to have, and while that taste of freedom works as a sort of motivation later on in the novel, we never truly appreciate it more than when we read it, right then, right there. It’s odd because this section points out most of the flaws of the story, but it also gives The Here and Now the most heart that the reader will ever get out of the book.

6/10

Film Review: Neighbors

 

Neighbors is directed by Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the GreekForgetting Sarah Marshall) and stars Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, This Is The End) and Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, Insidious) as Mac and Kelly, a couple who move into a new home to to kick off their next chapter: parenthood. With a new born baby and a quiet neighbourhood, settling down could not be any easier…that is, until a fraternity moves in next door. What starts off as a polite, respectful relationship between the two homes quickly turns sour and escalates into an all-out war.

We’ve come to expect Seth Rogen succeed with this type of raunchy, no-holds bar comedy. Unsurprisingly, he’s just as good in this film as he is in some of his previous efforts, but he also has a great group of co-stars who handle the material just as well, and in many moments, even better than he does. Joining Rogen and Byrne are Zac Efron (17 Again, That Awkward Moment), Dave Franco (Scrubs, 21 Jump Street), Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), and Lisa Kudrow (FriendsEasy A).

Zac Efron has spent the better part of his career trying to escape the days of Disney past, filling up his time with roles in teen comedies and supporting features in drama flicks. Neighbors will certainly help his case, where he plays the ultimate bro, friend, mentor and yes, competitor, Teddy Sanders, the president of the fraternity. Teddy is not academically-inclined, but when it comes to the greek letters Delta Psi Beta, he will do anything to protect his frat family. Literally, anything, putting him on an equally defensive and destructive ground as Mac and Kelly. Zac Efron rises to the occasion in fine, skinny jean fashion, so much so that you don’t even care that there isn’t much to Teddy beyond his passion for brotherhood. He’s just really good at duking it out with Seth Rogen (or in one scene, bonding over Batman.)

But the real champion of this movie is Rose Byrne, who should focus on comedy gigs for the next few years. Where Bridesmaids was a prim and proper affair for Byrne, Neighbours is the rave that follows the tea party. Instead of being categorized as a sidekick or a timid wife, Byrne’s Kelly is even more scheming and outrageous than her husband and frat boy enemies. She orchestrates some of the greatest ploys in the film and is completely unapologetic for her actions, making her a fantastic partner for Mac. Byrne is incredibly convincing on her own, but she also has great comedic chemistry with Rogen. They both make the audience believe that neither Mac or Kelly are above getting down and dirty in an endless prank war, and really speaking, you never want them to back down. They are not only an ideal alliance, but they are also an ideal nemesis that audience members would either like to be, or like to face off against.

The pace of the joke delivery is successful because of the supporting cast. Franco is a strong second-in-command to Efron. If you’ve seen any of his work with FunnyOrDie.com, then you know that Franco is more than capable of delivering this kind of humor, and is given quite a few memorable moments where he shines. Going forward, it will be great to see Franco take on a leading role in a similar kind of film. It is disappointing that Stoller doesn’t use Christopher Mintz-Plasse all that much, but the few times he did made for great scenes with Ike Barinholtz. Even Kudrow managed to keep the momentum going in some of the filler scenes as the Dean at Pete and Teddy’s school.

One of the sore points of the film is that it lacks any sort of real character or plot development. Any time writers Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien try to throw some sort of emotional curveball into the story, the characters bounce back within minutes, forgive and forget, and move on to the next battle plan. There is never really much of an attempt to give any depth to these characters, save for Dave Franco’s Pete, the vice-president of Delta Psi Beta, and even his characterization as a kid with a future is barely used to advance the story. But with 90 minutes of non-stop crude jokes and ridiculously hilarious comebacks, it’s really easy to forget about those kinds of elements, even if it’s to the point where you don’t remember why these neighbours started fighting in the first place by the end of the movie.

Despite the lack of emotional center, Neighbors is a fantastic comedic offering and a great way to kick off the summer movie season. If you enjoyed the likes of Superbad and Old School, then you’re going to really have fun with this film. Neighbors will release in North America on May 9th, 2014.

I attended a promotional screening of Neighbors which was held by Universal Pictures Canada.