Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cake anyone?

I've resurfaced to share with you the various delights I've been working on.

Over the past few months I've made a lot of cakes, pastries and various sweets. Some of which I shared with friends and neighbours. I've been doing a lot of that lately. Sharing. You see, I have a sweet tooth and it's beginning to show.

Strawberry shortcake

 learning to mask a cake -
we used whipped topping (Nutriwhip) bleh!

 Black Forest cake

 learning to decorate a cake with Italian buttercream 
and using the various sugar flowers I've made

 inside view of above cake with mocha buttercream

 more cake decorating with buttercream -
I can say without hesitation that Italian buttercream is delicious!

 seriously delicious Swiss jelly roll - we made two of these
one with lemon curd and the other with raspberry jam

 Fruit Flan with pastry cream flavoured with Triple Sec -
we used Triple Sec often for flavouring our desserts

Napoleon Mille Feuille with strawberries

I've also made bread. I like making bread. It's so satisfying. Tastes much better than store bought supermarket bread. I wanted to register for the bread making course but it was full. Oh well, it'll have to wait until September.

 Irish Soda (yeast-free) bread
Cheesy herby monkey (aka pull apart) yeast bread

A while back, I also entered a culinary student competition. Unfortunately, I didn't make it as a finalist. Even so, it was a great learning experience and I found it challenging when it came to making up my own recipe using pears as a main ingredient.

For my submission to the competition, I made this Caramelized Bosc Pear and Butternut Squash soup. I also made Bosc Pear and Pecorino cheese biscotti. The savoury biscotti was delicious! Piquant and cheesy. The soup was scented with thyme and sweetened with roasted Cipollini onions.

I'm still taking courses and learning a lot. French pastry class is running up until May. I have learned to make puff pastry from scratch. What a bicep developer making puff pastry is. Especially when it's part frozen. Apple strudel, strawberry-rhubarb turnovers and other delicious buttery pastries like Palmiers (elephant ears) have been made and consumed.
Hello hips!

Next month on my agenda is a pie-making course.
Then I'm stopping with the baking courses until September because...

1) it's Summer and I need a break;


(insert drum roll)

2) I'm now working as a part-time production pastry chef at a local bakery making pies, cookies, and tarts and helping the head pastry chef with cake decoration. Yeah!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Keep on keeping on

As you can see, I've been busy.

Lately I've made English tea biscuits with currants and bran muffins with raisins and walnuts in my baking class. A standard recipe with standard ingredients. However, I did learn that before filling the muffin liners with the wet batter, we should allow the batter to sit for half an hour to thicken. I questioned that duration of time for the batter to sit, but the chef told us it's necessary for the ingredients to meld together and the bran to swell. It's also easier to scoop the batter with the ice cream scoop.  Yes, we used an ice cream scoop to fill the muffin tins. This allows for evenly baked muffins. One full scoop per tin. My muffins definitely were identical.

In my cake decorating class, I've also been making various decorations with royal icing such as shells, a variety of borders, and of course roses and rosettes. Making roses is quite the ambidextrous skill. Piping icing with one hand while turning the rose nail with the other hand can lead to hand cramps. But I think I'm getting the hang of it.

As much as I enjoy my tooth achingly sweet desserts, eating a sugar rose made with royal icing is actually sickeningly sweet. Too sweet for me even! It is made with plenty of icing sugar, meringue powder, cream of tartar and water. Food colouring and vanilla flavour can be added after.

There are 2 months left until these set of classes are over. I'm already thinking about what classes to take next....Healthy Desserts? The Art of Bread? Breakfast Cakes?

I've learned all kinds of great skills, tricks and techniques and I'm eager to learn more. I can't wait to sink my teeth into the chocolate eclairs we'll be making soon!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It's just pie but it's good.

Yesterday I made this pie in my pastry arts class. Today it's half gone. Was it good? You bet!

Although I won't post this pie recipe, as it's a pretty standard pie recipe, unless you REALLY want it posted, in which case I will.  Instead I will share some tips and tricks for creating a flawless pie.

The course instructor encouraged the use of Tenderflake (lard) instead of butter. It's supposed to be a good stand in for real butter while keeping the costs down. Of course you can also use half butter and half Tenderflake if you prefer a more pronounced buttery flavour.
It was also recommended not to use vegetable shortening because of the water content. Apparently, it makes pie crust shrink in the oven.

Also a must is to use pastry flour to make the pie dough, but to use all purpose flour for dusting and rolling surfaces.

We used Cortland apples as they are apparently one of the best apple choices for making apple pie. Also important is to use a good vegetable peeler to prevent bruising. The apple pie filling called for lemon zest and juice in it as well as cinnamon. The lemon added a lovely subtle tang to the apple pie filling. I think the filling could have used a tad more cinnamon. But I always like to increase the amount of cinnamon in recipes anyway. 

The final touch was to use any leftover dough for making cut-out leaves and apple shapes to "glue" (with egg wash) onto the top of the pie. These add-ons are not mandatory but can, in addition to adding some aesthetics, easily patch up a hole or tear in the crust.

In terms of the egg wash, we added some water (50ml) to a beaten egg to create a seal for the edges, as well as to glaze the top of the pie. Also a must is the hole cut into the top of the pie. This prevents the pie from splitting open and thereby allowing all the pie juice to ooze out.

I've made pie before but never with such great detail and with such scrutiny. This course is forcing me to move slower and take notice of things I otherwise would not be concerned with like neat edges.

I also have a tendency to cut away too much of the apple with the peel or core. It was brought to my attention in class that I should refrain from doing this. I definitely learned a lot during the pie-making process. I probably gained some weight too in the pie-eating process (lard sure makes a good crust) but that's another post altogether.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pastry 101

Happy New Year!

This year I'm embarking on an adventure in the culinary world.

Stay tuned as I highlight delicious things made with sugar, butter, and cream. My weaknesses.

Salted butterscotch pudding!

And here's a photo of some delicious butterscotch pudding that I made a few weeks ago.  I ate 4 bowls of it but not in one sitting. The taste was wonderful. The texture was a bit chalky though...perhaps it was the corn starch?

Did you know that there is a baker's product, a butter scented extract, which gives desserts a butter aroma? I just found that out this past week!  Who would have thought? Anyway, I just thought I'd share that bit of info with you.

If you have a sweet tooth like I do, then you are in for a surprise. Maybe I'll even show you a photo of me wearing my full chef's uniform, checkered pants and all. I said maybe.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Shoes with a conscience

You may know by now that...I'm obsessed with shoes!

Unlike pants, I seldom have an issue fitting into shoes.

I'm willing to pay more for shoes that have not only a nice style, but comfort and quality.

Enter into the picture Naya Shoes. Have no clue what I'm talking about? Stick around and be impressed.

Naya is a forward thinking, eco-friendly shoe company. You can follow them on Twitter too!

Naya uses natural and eco-friendly materials:
  • Vegetable-tanned leathers and linings
  • Natural or recycled content fabrics
  • Water-based cements
  • Footbeds containing natural cork
  • Boxes made with 80% recycled paper pulp, soy-based inks and water-based glue
The comfort is!

"We infuse each style with pure comfort using soft leathers, breathable leather linings and layers of premium cushioning."

As Naya says: Good for you and for the Earth!

I first stumbled on Naya at Sears (shock!). Yes, that's right, I saw their shoes on display and was instantly drawn to the craftsmanship and array of vivid shoe colours...yellow shoes (see below) and green shoes, among others. Nicely designed and with great attention to detail, all for a reasonable price point.

I tried on a pair and was reveling in the soft, cushiony insole and how butter soft the leather was. Very soft leather means no blister or sore spots. So I purchased a pair of their gladiator sandals back in June and I have been living in these sandals all Summer! Not a single blister I tell you.

A few weeks ago, Naya sent out a Tweet asking their followers if anybody would like to review their Fall shoes on their blog. Being a shoe fanatic and having previously owned (and loved!) a pair of Naya shoes, I offered to review a pair of Naya shoes from the Fall line. I am writing this review without payment and without an exchange of free merchandise. Just because I love shoes!

Naya has launched their Fall line and after I perused their on-line Fall catalogue, I instantly swooned over several pairs of their shoes. The one shoe design in particular, which caught my eye was the oxford-style shoe or as it is named in the Naya catalogue "Jasper." (Btw, these shoes are not mine, I'm borrowing them for this write up!)

What a stunning, vintage-inspired design. Satiny ribbon laces. The trademark Naya soft cushion sole is evident as soon as you slide your foot in the shoe. The exterior of the shoe reminded me of a modern, feminine version of the saddle shoe, but instead of the classic two-tone black and white, there are two contrasting materials: wool and leather. It's very feminine yet tailored. Perfect for this Fall's tweed or woolen pant suits. The heel is almost 3 inches high (way higher than I tend to wear) but it didn't feel very high (when I tried it on) probably due to the chunky heel. The heel also has a rustic look to it, further adding to it's vintage charm. Think 1900s Victorian boot meets 1940s glam.

If you're not feeling the rustic wood heel? That's okay because Naya has plenty of different shoes for you to choose from. Check out their Fall line. Try on a pair and you will be glad you did. Sleep peacefully knowing you are doing something good for your feet and for the environment.

"Renewing body, spirit, earth"

Friday, August 20, 2010

I ate my way through Montreal

It was hard to leave Montreal knowing I may have to wait a very long time before I sunk my teeth into another one of those buttery and flaky almond croissants. I developed an addiction to them and I did not feel one bit guilty!

The two days we spent in Montreal revolved around food.

For lunch there was a tasty, fresh vegan tofu sandwich with all kinds of veggies from Casa del Popolo.

For dinner there was diner food from Nickles, a Montreal chain restaurant. It was as good as to be expected given that it was diner food. We didn't go there for the food. It was the retro 1950s decor that lured us in, equipped with a jukebox, black and white tiled flooring, red vinyl stools and booths and chrome detailing. I kept it safe by ordering pan fried fish fillet and steamed veggies with a side Caesar salad. Yeah, I know, boring! No fries, no milkshake, no burger...

The second day in Montreal I struck gold! Breakfast was at a French-speaking restaurant. Luckily my husband is competent in French and did all the talking. I ordered Eggs Benedict with asparagus and mushrooms (a la forestiere) and the most ornate (and delicious) fruit salad I had ever seen!

Afterward we (husband and I) walked over to the Jean Talon farmer's market, which was nearby and we discovered the most amazing French bakery (Premiere Moisson) with mounds of pastries! I ordered a croissant aux almond (almond croissant), a decadent chocolate mousse bombe filled with molten caramel (chocolat piquant) and a bouchon (a less heady muffin oozing with caramel and pecans). So very delicious!

Just beyond the bakery was a vast expanse of fresh fruit and vegetables from the local farmer's market and I strolled the farmer's stalls ooh-ing and ahh-ing over all the beautiful produce. The mushroom stall with over 15 types of mushrooms really made me giddy with excitement. Lobster mushrooms and morel mushrooms along with your more familiar mushrooms oyster, shitake and cremini. I knew I had to come back again before we departed for Toronto the next morning.

For lunch I had...poutine! It was in the Old Montreal section at a touristy restaurant. It took over half an hour for the poutine to arrive but it was eaten in less than 10 minutes. It was good but I found the gravy a bit too salty for my taste. My favourite part was the cheese curds. If there were a "foods to eat before I die" list, I could now cross out poutine.

Just to digress briefly, although our trip was fantastic, there's also a lesson to be learned. Warning: Long convoluted story follows...

When we went to Old Montreal we parked the car in a metered parking lot nearby. We paid for a parking pass. Placed it on the dashboard and left. We arrived back to the lot after 3 hours and our car was gone! We soon discovered a sign above the parking meter machine, that we absent-mindedly did not see indicating that cars will be towed if they did not pay the correct amount for parking. We had paid our fare so why did we get towed? Seems the instructions for parking in this lot were very confusing - written with a pen on a piece of paper taped to the ticket machine and bleached out from the sun. Barely legible. Earlier that day we concluded that $10 should cover it as it was indicated on the scribbled paper that after 2pm it was $10 and we were coming up to 2pm...but it was in fact $13 maximum that we should have paid.

Our rental car had been towed!! A 20 minute cab ride and $12 later we were at a impounded car lot with a one-armed woman behind a shatterproof glass partition and a large barking German shepherd dog. No word of a lie. I know it sounds like a scene from a David Lynch (or Quentin Tarantino) movie. We had to pay the fine for being towed. This royally sucked big time. I insisted to my husband that we cancel our restaurant reservations at a fancy pants restaurant called Brasserie t! and instead we decided to go out for tapas. This was a smart decision!!!

Dinner was a phenomenal meal at a (recommended by friends) Spanish restaurant. Those feta cheese fried balls (in the photo below) drizzled with honey and caramelized onions were superb! The squid was soft and melted in your mouth. The stewed chickpeas had a hint of cumin and the rapini was al dente and garlicky. The Sangria was quite sweet (my kind of drink); I consumed 3 glasses of Sangria and quickly forgot about our towing drama of earlier.

The next morning prior to our departure from Montreal, we drove back up to the amazing bakery "Premiere Moisson" at Jean Talon's farmer's market. Another gorge-fest ensued with (again!) the fabulous almond croissant and a Chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) along with the freshest sandwiches ever. The bread was airy and light with a crispy crust on the outside. I had brie cheese with tomato and spinach sandwich on a mini olive baguette. The bread inside was slathered with fresh creamy butter. Oh man...fresh butter! So good!

Several stops at the fruit and veggie stands and my hands were hauling bags of sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh green beans, fresh fava beans, assorted coloured peppers (purple!), assorted coloured baby carrots (yes, purple too!), long white eggplant, a pound of juicy, tart apples, the sweetest and juiciest strawberries ever and a basket of ground cherries which are my new favourite fruit. Thank you Montreal for introducing them to me.

It was a bit sad to leave such an amazing food experience, we drove home with our farmer's market purchases and delicious pastries for the road trip. I savoured every crumb.

I can seriously see myself living in Montreal. The food alone is enough to lure me there. But I'm told the winters there are much harsher than in Toronto. Hmm, maybe I need to think about this a bit more.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Vacation time is here! I'm heading out to Montreal for a week.

First we're staying at a cottage north of Montreal with friends for a few days and then we're going into downtown Montreal for some sightseeing and of course, good eats.

One thing I plan to do is to finally try some poutine because I have never had it before and people are shocked when I mention this fact about myself. I know it's just fries with gravy and squeaky cheese curds but I very rarely eat french fries with gravy in Toronto so I guess, as the saying goes...'when in Rome'... or rather 'when in Montreal.'

I've been to Montreal once before. It was a short trip mainly focusing on meeting with some friends from abroad, so we did things as a group. I didn't get to visit the places I wanted to nor eat at the restaurants I wanted to because...we made decisions as a group. We went to pubs that served primarily beer and I don't drink beer. (Beer drinkers, I know I won't get any sympathy from you!) We ate at a restaurant that was over my budget at the time. I somehow managed to piss off the server when I didn't order a pre-dinner Port like everybody else at the table did. The server obviously had her own agenda.

This time I have an agenda. Bakeries to visit are at the top of my list. Bagels and smoked Montreal meat are not my thing, so I won't be hunting down any authentic bagel shops like St-Viateur Bagel, or deli meat shops, like Schwartz's.

I would like to go back to Old Montreal and explore it more. The quaint shops especially. There is also an art exhibit I would like to check out. The artist is a friend of a friend and I really like her paintings.

All in all, a time for me in Montreal.

If you have any (affordable!) suggestions about what to see, eat and do while in Montreal, please leave me a comment.