Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pear and Almond Tart

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If you're new at making tarts, this is definitely the perfect recipe to try out, because it's practically fool-proof. I used to have an aversion to making tarts and pies, mostly because I used to hate making the pastry dough. Most pastry doughs out there calls for cold butter, ice-cold water and minimal handling, and often than not, my doughs turned out crumbly and dry, making it impossible to roll them out and lay them out in my pan nicely. However, I've made this tart recipe numerous times now, all of which were successful. The recipe calls for room temperature butter, a mixer, the creaming method and no refrigerating prior to rolling out the dough. What you get is a soft but very easy to handle dough that rolls out beautifully, and more importantly, comes out of the oven rich, buttery and tender.

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The combination of almonds and pears is incredible; for some reason, the scent and flavour of pears just goes so well with almonds. But then again, almonds is such a versatile nut that can go with just about anything, and with that said, it makes this tart just as flexible with a number of fresh fruits that is available during a particular season. You can substitute the pears with fresh figs, plums, peaches, apricots, apples, or as I have done in the past, cherries. What's that you say? It's the dead of winter and impossible to find some fresh, beautiful fruit? This can just as easily be made with canned pears or peaches, as long as you make sure to drain the fruit well before topping it on the tart.

For this tart, I used forelle pears, since they are in season at the moment. They are a sweet pear, although not as fragrant and juicy as other varieties like bartlett. Bosc or Anjou pears are usually preferred for poaching or baking because they are of the firmer variety, and tend to keep their shape better even after being exposed to heat. However, you can just as easily use other varieties of pears as long as you make the proper adjustments in the cooking process to ensure that you pear doesn't end up as mush.

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I love how this tart looks after it comes out of the oven. It's such a simple dessert, but the fanned pears just makes for a beautiful presentation. Dust with a bit of confectioners' sugar just before serving and this is fit for company. Trust me, if you want to get over your fears of making tarts, definitely give this recipe a try. Not only is it super-easy, but it's absolutely delicious and it'll have you making this tart over and over again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Going Quackers Over Duck

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We used to have duck every once in a while, picking up a roast duck from a Chinese BBQ shop from time to time. I used to love the stuff; tender, flavourful meat and its coveted crispy, super-delicious skin. However, we've had it less and less frequently as I got older, mostly because I wanted to stay away from the fatty duck, as delicious as it is. Neither do we make duck at home, thus our only opportunity to eat duck is when we dine out. My dad requested duck for his birthday, and I was happy to oblige the birthday boy. I personally have never worked with duck before, so making duck breast rather than roasting a whole duck would be easier for me to handle.

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The meal started off with a Cream of Tomato Soup, a perfect way to highlight fresh, sweet summer tomatoes. The soup doesn't use a lot of cream, which keeps this pureed soup on the lighter side. The addition of garlic, onions, a bit of tomato paste and various herbs helps intensify the flavours of the soup. Served some homemade Herb & Garlic Focaccia, great to soak up the remnants in the soup bowl!

After a bit of digging around, I decided to settle on Duck Breast with Port-Cherry Sauce, since I had all the ingredients (besides the duck breasts) readily available in my pantry. I did divert from the original recipe a bit. I added a bit of morello cherry preserves that was sitting in the fridge to heighten the cherry flavour in the sauce; it added some sweetness to the sauce, as well as a hint of cinnamon which surprisingly tasted delicious on the duck. I also boiled down the sauce for over an hour, much longer than the suggested 15 minutes, which really helped to concentrate all the flavours. The recipe also asked that the duck be marinaded in a soy sauce-based marinade, which I thought would be too overpowering for the duck and the sauce. Instead, I did a dry rub of orange zest, parsley and thyme. As we all know, orange and duck are a classic pair, so the orange zest on the duck breast was a delicious addition to the gamey-ness of the duck meat.

I rendered off the duck fat for about 8 minutes, and then finished them in the oven for another 6 to 7 minutes for medium-rare. (The duck breasts I used were super thick. You should adjust the time accordingly depending on the size of your duck breasts.) Sliced the breasts and served them with a Wild & Brown Rice Pilaf and Green Beans with Caramelized Onions & Almonds, along with the port-cherry sauce. The flavours of the duck and the sauce were superb, and I was glad that we had some extra duck leftover for the next day; it's just as delicious cold and served on top of a mixed green salad.

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If you want, you can always store the rendered off duck fat in the freezer for use later on. Duck fat, as scary as it is, is packed with flavour, and makes any dish taste even better when it is substituted for butter. Granted, I'm not suggesting you use duck fat every day, unless you want to clog up your arteries, but for those rare special occasions, it doesn't hurt to amp up the flavour-metre.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Change is Good

Sheryl Crow tells us that "a change would do [us] good" ("A Change Would Do You Good", Sheryl Crow, 1996), and so I put this advice to practice by switching up our usual Sunday brunch routine of pancakes and bacon to a more fancy, upgraded brunch entree. It's no secret by now that I love pancakes, considering I'm constantly rambling on about pancakes--its variations, the different toppings and additions, etc.--but with my dad's birthday being tomorrow, I thought I would make him his favourite, that being waffles.

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Don't get me wrong, I like waffles too, and it's great how versatile waffles can be. Serve them with syrup or fresh fruit and it makes for a wonderful brunch; pop frozen leftovers in the toaster for an easy on-the-go breakfast; serve with a scoop of your favourite ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate fudge sauce for an instantaneous dessert; or make them with less sugar for a savoury version.

Regardless of how you like to enjoy your waffles, they are just as easy to make as pancakes, and comes with a nifty gadget to play with: the waffle iron. Since waffle batter is very similar to pancake batter, it is not the process of making it (or eating it for that matter!) that is a turn-off for me, it's the aftermath. The clean-up job required when all the waffles are done, and the iron has been unplugged, can leave me with such a headache that I often ask myself, "Why didn't I just make pancakes instead?"

Making waffles takes a little practice: too little batter and you won't get the "perfect" waffle, but too much batter and you'll get a lava-flow of batter oozing out of the iron and onto your counter. As delicious as waffles can be, those happy thoughts can quickly be forgotten when you find yourself standing in front of a waffle iron crusted with oozy batter, or its remnants in the form of dried, crusty leftovers stuff to the sides of the iron. Hence, waffles at my house have now become a rare occassion, and when I do find the heart (and time) to dig out the waffle iron, I make sure to make a larger batch so that I can stash a bunch of waffles in the freezer to last us a couple of weeks.

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I added pecans and some pumpkin pie spice to the waffle batter, but you can just as easily replace the pumpkin pie spice with cinnamon, or leave out the nuts and spice altogether. I served these babies with some sliced bananas, warm apple compote and maple syrup.

To balance off the sweetness of the waffles, I also made something savoury for the taste buds, a variation on the classic Eggs Benedict. I made some Herbed Potato Rosti the night before and simply reheated them in the toaster oven this morning. Topped the rosti with a few slices of smoked salmon, a poached egg and dill hollandaise sauce. This is definitely a dish that'll easily impress anyone without having you to go through a lot of trouble to make!

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Spiced Pecan Buttermilk Waffles
Adapted from Food & Drink, Early Summer 2002
Makes about 10 to 12 waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice, or ground cinnamon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk
2 tbsp melted butter, or vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 to 3/4 cup toasted pecans, chopped

Lightly grease and preheat waffle iron.

Place flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and pumpkin pie spice in a medium bowl. Stir with a whisk to combine.

Pour the lightly beaten eggs onto flour mixture, and pour buttermilk, vanilla extract and melted butter (or oil) on top of eggs. Gently stir ingredients together until they create a lumpy batter. Do not over mix.

Sprinkle about 2 tbsp of the chopped pecans onto the waffle iron. Spoon 1/3 to 1/2 cup batter into prepared waffle iron and bake for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Repeat using remaining batter. Keep waffles warm on a baking rack in a 200°F oven until ready to serve.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Maple Oatmeal Bread

One of my favourite comfort foods as a child was oatmeal. Yes, that thick, gooey sludge that is known as oatmeal. Hard to believe that I liked it as a kid since it is often a stigma that kids are repulsed by "healthy" food. But my mom made such great oatmeal, made with warm milk and sweetened with sugar. It was certainly a treat to have on a cold winter's morning.

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I don't have oatmeal much nowadays, since my comfort food of choice now are pancakes drenched with sweet maple syrup. Thus, when I came across this recipe for Maple Oatmeal Bread, I thought it was a happy medium between my favourite childhood comfort food, and my favourite comfort food of today. Maple syrup is often drizzled on top of hot, steaming oatmeal, so I thought that the combination of the two ingredients couldn't be bad either.

What I got when I pulled the loaves out of the oven were two extremely soft breads. I thought that with the use of rolled outs, the bread would have a sturdier texture, much like if you use whole wheat flour, but I was surprised (and delighted!) to find how incredibly soft the texture was. The maple syrup loses its distinct maple flavour, but it adds a nice sweetness to the bread. Next time, I'll probably replace some of the bread flour with whole wheat flour to make this bread even more healthy.

By letting the rolled oats stand in the boiling water for an hour, the water moistens the dried oats, making an "oatmeal" like paste, as well as starts the fermentation process. This step really helps add moisture to the bread. Because of the amount of moist ingredients used in this recipe, the dough will be considerably tackier than some other bread doughs you've handled in the past. Don't despair thought; just be patient during the kneading the process, and be sure to flour your work surface well before turning out onto your counter. And trust me, despite the slight sticky mess the bread will leave behind, it'll all be worth it when you turn those loaves out of their pans and bite into a cottony-soft slice, slathered with butter, jam, or just as is.

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Maple Oatmeal Bread
Adapted from The Fresh Loaf
Makes 2 to 3 loaves

2 ½ cups boiling water
1 cup rolled oats
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 cups bread flour

Put the oats into a bowl. Pour the boiling water, reserving about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the water, over the oats and set aside for an hour.

In a small bowl, mix 1 teaspoon of the syrup with the reserved water, warmed to 100° to 115°F. Sprinkle the yeast on top and set aside to let foam for about 10 minutes. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the soaked oats with the syrup, salt, oil, yeast mixture and 1/2 cup flour. Using the paddle attachment, mix the ingredients until a smooth batter forms. Gradually add in the flour 1/2 at a time, mixing well to incorporate after each addition, until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl.

Switch from the paddle to the dough hook, and machine-knead for about 15 minutes, adding the remaining flour. You may add an additional 1/2 cup flour as needed to reach the right consistency; you want your dough to be tacky, but not completely sticky. Place the dough in a large, well-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Punch down dough and divide the dough into two (or three) and shape the loaves. Place the loaves in greased 9 x 5 loaf pans, cover the pans loosely with plastic or tea towel, and set aside to rise again for 60 to 90 minutes.

Bake at 350°F for 40 - 50 minutes. If the tops are browning too quickly halfway through the baking time, cover the bread with aluminum foil. Take out of oven and let rest for 20 minutes. Turn the loaves out onto wire racks and let cool completely.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Summerlicious '08, Part II

My Summerlicious adventure continued the next day with lunch at Senses, located near Rogers Centre (aka Sky Dome) on Wellington St. W. at the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel. I used to frequent the Senses bakery over at Bayview Village to buy their delectable pastries, but that store has since closed down for a few years now. Luckily, they still had a shop open in the downtown district, but with the crazy traffic in Toronto, it just isn't worth driving all the way to downtown in heavy traffic just for a slice of cake, as delicious as it may be.

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Citrus-Cured Salmon Carpaccio with Petite Bok Choy Salad, Fennel & Mango Slaw, Ciabatta Toast

The bakery over at Bayview was a small establishment, a cafe that served only pastries and coffee. When I stopped by the downtown establishment last summer though, I realised that this establishment also boasted a restaurant. Thus, I was quite happy to find Senses listed as one of the participating restaurants of Summerlicious, allowing me to not only once more taste their luscious desserts, but also some of their savoury fares as well.

The menu again offered 3 starters, 3 entrees and 2 desserts to choose from. While the choices for the entrees were interesting and offered a variety of different protein, it would have been nice to see more of a range in their starters. They offered two fish selections, both prepared raw (spicy tuna tartare or citrus-cured salmon), while the 3rd choiced was a chilled cucumber & mint soup. For starters, I had the citrus-cured salmon carpaccio. The sweetness of the mango slaw balanced the saltiness of the salmon, while adding a nice crunch to the texture palate.

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Bouillabaise with Steal-Head Salmon Fillet, P.E.I. Mussels, Purple Potatoes & Saffron Aioli

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Moroccan Chicken Tangine with Preserved Kumquat, Couscous Salad, Harissa Broth & Orange Balsamic Glaze

For the main course, I had the Moroccan chicken tangine, which smelled divine from all the spices. The harissa broth came in a separate little bowl that you can pour over the chicken yourself. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and delicious drenched with the flavourful broth. The saltiness from the broth was balanced with the sweetness and slight bitterness of the kumquats. This was a really great, hearty dish; not too heavy in the summer, and would be fabulous throughout the winter as well.

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Top: Senses' Signature Banana Cream Pie
Bottom: Strawberry Shortcake

For dessert, I tried their signature banana cream pie. The crust of the pie was made from phyllo and filled with a banana-flavoured cream custard, topped off with slices of banana that were caramelized, leaving a golden-brown, crunchy finish.

All in all, it was a fun (and delicious!) dining experience at this year's Summerlicious. Both restaurants offered good-quality food, but if I really had to pick one to go back to, it would definitely have to be Canoe. I think the preparation of their food, the range of their menu, the friendly staff and the killer view all makes Canoe a winner. But if you ever find yourself close by the SoHo Metropolitan, I do suggest to stop by Senses for a cup of coffee and a plate of one of their delicious pastries, or better yet, take one home with you!

Name: Senses Restaurant & Bakery
Address: 328 Wellington St. W., ON (Ground floor of SoHo Metropolitan Hotel)
Cuisine: Continental, Fusion
Price Range: Entrees $30-45
Accessible: Yes

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Summerlicious '08, Part I

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With my impending move to Toronto fast approaching, I've been pretty busy of late trying to get everything organized. However, with my hectic schedule, it didn't stop me from taking some time to check out a few restaurants around the area during the annual Summerlicious event. One great thing about moving to Toronto is the fact that Toronto is a foodie's paradise, with its countless number of great restaurants. Summerlicious, now in its 6th season, is a popular event for foodies and tourists alike. Twice a year, over 100 restaurants in Toronto participate in this ever-popular event, creating a special 3-course prix fixe menu for lunch and/or dinner, all at a very good price. It's a great way for patrons to try out new restaurants around the city, especially some of the top-name restaurants, without having to burn a hole in their wallets.

One of the restaurants I was excited to try out this year was Canoe Restaurant & Bar. For a while, I didn't quite understand all the buzz created around Canoe. I checked out their menu a few times in the past and while it was impressive, it always seemed to miss the "wow" factor to truly draw me in. However, I thought that Summerlicious was a great opportunity to finally find out for myself why Canoe had the reputation that it does.

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Chilled Maritime Shrimp & Scallop Salad with Northumberland Whelks, Summer Wax Bean Vinaigrette & Grain Mustard

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Chilled Wild Leek & Potato Soup with Pingues Niagara Pancetta & Organic Canola Oil

Despite my initial impressions of Canoe as being an overrated restaurant, I came to realise why it is such a reputable restaurant that evening. Firstly, the setting of the restaurant is absolutely beautiful. Situated on the 54th floor of the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower, its height is certainly incomparable to the CN Tower a few blocks down; however, its unblocked view of Lake Ontario is absolutely stunning, and provides a scenic and romantic backdrop. With contemporary decor, the place was spacious, although much smaller than I thought it would be. The restaurant is split level, allow patrons seated near the back of the restaurant to still have an opportunity to see the beautiful view from the massive windows facing the lake.

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Broiled Fillet of Cherry Snapper with Stewed Ontario Heirloom Tomatoes, Sweet Basil & Chickpeas

The dinner menu looked pretty impressive, with 3 starters, 3 entrees and 2 desserts to choose from. I thought that Canoe's menu has a good variety on it. A soup, a salad and a goat cheese souffle for the starters, lamb, fish or ravioli (perfect for the vegetarians) for the entree, and a chocolate cake or lemon tart for dessert.

The food also lived up to all the hype I've heard about Canoe, even with it being off the Summerlicious menu. I had the soup for the starter, deliciously savoury and rich in flavour; the pancetta added an extra layer of flavour to the soup, as well as a nice texture contrast to the smooth silkiness of the soup. For the entree, I had the lamb rump, with its gorgeous presentation. The lamb was beautifully cooked and tender, although I wished there was a more pronounced flavour of black pepper and maple. Surprisingly, the show-stopper was the minted prairie grains; it was so full of flavour and made an perfect accompaniment to the richness of the lamb.

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Black Pepper & Maple Spiced Ontario Lamb Rump with Minted Prairie Grains, Sugar Snaps & Garlic Rosemary Jus

The meal ended with dessert of course, and I opted for the Soma Chocolate Truffle Cake. The cake was decadently rich and silky, although a bit on the sweet side. With such a rich chocolate cake, I often like it to be semi-sweet or bittersweet so that the chocolate takes centre stage, particularly when a high-quality chocolate is used. The accompanying toasted almond ice cream though was absolutely delicious, and the flavours of almond and chocolate complimented each other nicely.

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Soma Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ontario Strawberry & Toasted Almond Ice Cream

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Caramelized Meyer Lemon Tart with Basil Meringue & Blueberry Lemon Ripple Ice Cream

So was Canoe worth staying on the phone for over an hour and half just to book a reservation for the Summerlicious event? For $35 a head, I say it was definitely worth it. If anyone can show me where you can get a 3-course dinner at a upscale restaurant along with a killer view for such a steal, please let me know. But it's not just the fact that the Summerlicious event is such a great deal; the food was really amazing, and proved me wrong about how Canoe is merely an overrated restaurant. Despite the slightly hectic atmosphere due to the event, the serving staff remained attentive and friendly to all the tables, and such is dining experience is bound to draw patrons back to Canoe to dine from the full-price menu. Sometimes I hate being proven wrong, but in this case, I'm glad that I was; it only made my dining experience at Canoe that much better.

Name: Canoe Restaurant & Bar
Address: 54th floor, Toronto Dominion Bank Tower, 66 Wellington St. W., ON
Cuisine: Canadian
Price Range: Entrees $35-40
Accessible: Yes

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Strawberries and Cream

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A few weeks ago, I was complaining about the dreary, rainy weather we got throughout June, ruining my plans to go strawberry-picking. Thankfully, Mother Nature has been a bit more co-operative this month, with more sunny, hot weather. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to go strawberry-picking myself this month, but I was still able to pick up a basket of beautiful local strawberries the other day when I dropped by the Byward Market. Large and bright red, these strawberries certainly caught my eye!

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A classic accompaniment to fresh strawberries is cream, and I decided to combine both in Strawberry Cream Cake, a classic favourite. Who wouldn't love the combination of juicy, slightly tart strawberries with sweet cream sandwiched between layers of soft, moist sponge cake? Classic, American strawberry shortcake relies on a biscuit as its base, while classic French uses the génoise cake, a sponge cake that relies on the egg whites rather than chemical leavenings to give the cake lift and volume. However, génoise cakes can be tricky at times; over-folding the batter will deflate the egg whites, leaving your cake flat, dense and what is worse, completely dried out, when it is baked. I myself like to use a chiffon cake as my base. The addition of vegetable oil and leavening agent ensures that you'll have a super fluffy and super moist cake. Furthermore, it is very simple to make, and any beginner baker who has little experience with baking cakes will find this recipe easy to follow.

The chiffon cake recipe below is great on its own. You can certainly bake them in either two cake pans or one large, 10-inch chiffon cake pan and serve it plain for tea time. For special occasions though, this cake makes a great base for seasonal fresh fruits and sweetened whipped cream.

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Strawberry Cream Cake
Serves 10 to 12

For chiffon cake:
252 g cake flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
252 g superfine sugar
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup egg white (from about 6 large eggs)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

For the filling:
3 cups whipping cream
4 tbsp superfine sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
About 2 cups strawberries, sliced
Strawberries, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 250°F.

In a large mixing bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt; repeat twice more. Stir in all but 2 tablespoons sugar and mix thoroughly. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar aside.

Make a well in the centre of flour to add in oil, water, egg yolks and vanilla extract. Using the paddle attachment of a stand-mixer, or with a wooden spoon, gradually blend in flour and beat for about 1 minute.

In a separate, clean bowl, whisk egg white until foamy. Add in cream of tartar and beat once more. Gradually add in the 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.

Gently fold a bit of the egg-white into the batter to lighten up the batter, and then fold the batter into the the egg-white until evenly mixed (be careful to not deflate the egg whites!). Pour the batter into two lined and greased 8-inch springform pans and bake for 1/2 hour at 250°F. Increase heat to 300°F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cakes comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pans to cool completely on cooling racks.

When the cakes have completely cooled, beat the whipping cream, sugar and vanilla extract in a cold mixing bowl and beat until stiff peaks form.

Using a sharp, serrated knife, trim the top of each cake so that they are even. If desired, you can cut each cake in half horizontally to make a 4-layer cake, rather than a 2-layer cake.

Using an offset spatula, spread a layer of the whipped cream onto one layer of the cake. Place a a layer or two of the sliced strawberries and spread another of cream on top. Place the second cake layer on top, trimmed-side down, and cover the entire cake with a thin layer of cream. Spread more cream to so as to cover the cake in an even layer. Decorate the side of the cake with sliced strawberries, if desired, and top with halved strawberries. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wining and Dining, Part II

Our second day in Niagara was focused solely on wines. Niagara boasts some of the most famous Canadian vineyards, as well as dozens of smaller, private estates that are a treat to come across. We checked out some more popular, well-known estates, like Inniskillin, perhaps most well-known around the world for its icewine, as well as some smaller estates like Lailey Vineyard.

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But after a long day of testing wine, it is only reasonable to go refuel ourselves with some food to go along with all the delicious wine we sampled. With our wine-filled day, it was only fitting that we finished our day at a vineyard, Hillebrand Estates. For starters, I had the Trius Icewine Smoked Salmon and Crab Terrine with Phelan's Asparagus and Spot Prawns and St. David's Cucumber Sorbet (pictured above, top). It was a delicious starter to my meal, something cold and fresh that featured the best of the local, seasonal produce, and the cucumber sorbet was especially refreshing and a great palate cleanser.

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Hillebrand served up a palate cleanser as a second course, which is always a nice and refreshing treat. What's unique about their Green Apple Sorbet is that it was in the form of a mini popsicle, rather than traditionally scooped out into a little cup. A great idea on the chef's part to turn a classic childhood treat into something that any adult would want on a hot summer's day. I had another fish dish as my main course, a Line-Caught Pacific Halibut, although it was not what I had not originally ordered. I had originally ordered the rabbit, which surprised everyone at my table, including myself, considering I had always avoided eating rabbit in the past due to personal reasons. Perhaps it was fate telling me that it just wasn't my day to start eating meat. However, all was not lost by having the wrong main course served to me, as I was eyeing the halibut as my second choice if I hadn't ordered the rabbit. Beautifully presented with a simple arrangement, the fish was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious!

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No meal is complete without a little something sweet, and I just couldn't resist the Warm Vanilla and Icewine Caramelized Pears with Honey and Black Pepper Ice Cream and Almond Cake. The caramelized pears were extremely rich and nutty in flavour due to the caramelization, and the ice cream was interesting, although I would have perhaps liked to have tasted a bit more of the black pepper. An extra special treat to finish the evening was a glass of icewine served to each of us at the table from our server to make up for the mix-up of my order. I certainly couldn't complain with this little gift: I ended up not eating a cute little bunny and got to try their 2004 Vidal Icewine on the house. A truly golden nectar, if I must say so myself! Might I also add that Hillebrand also serves a mean cup of coffee; definitely one of the best cup of brew I've had in a very, very long time.

All in all, dining at Hillebrand was an incredible experience. I've always wanted to dine at a winery, and Hillebrand certainly didn't disappoint. The estate is beautiful itself, with its large fields of grapevines, the boutique, the manufacturing site and its own restaurant. The stone and wood work of the establishment gives off a warm and welcoming feeling. The dining room is large and spacious, with large floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the expansive vineyard fields. And despite the mix-up with my main course, the service was really great, and they did make up for it. Hillebrand is definitely another restaurant you should check out if you're in the Niagara neighbourhood. Great wine should definitely be enjoyed with great food, and what better place to enjoy both than at a vineyard restaurant?

Name: Hillebrand Estates
Address: 1249 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
Cuisine: Canadian
Price Range: Dinner $60-$80
Accessible: Yes

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wining and Dining, Part I

Last month, while I was back down in London for my convocation ceremony, the family and I decided to swing by the Niagara peninsula for a quick holiday. It has been a few years since we've been back in the Niagara region, and the last time I was there, I was still underage and thus, such trips visiting vineyards just wasn't very exciting for me. (Honestly, how exciting can it be for someone to be stuck in the car waiting for her parents while they get to taste wine?!?) For the past couple of years now, my mom and I have been mentioning how we'd love to visit Niagara again and pick up a few bottles of wine, especially since the 2004 crop was an especially good year. However, it wasn't until this year that we found some free time, as well as a good excuse (with my graduation, upcoming birthdays and having the whole family back together) to enjoy some good wine and good food.

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I've always been envious of people living in the Niagara peninsula; it seems like one of the most beautiful places to live in Ontario, and you're only steps away from an abundance of locally grown produce and wine. If you haven't had a chance to visit Niagara in your lifetime, it's definitely a place to check out at least once; it is an epicurean heaven for any foodie. One restaurant we checked out was the famous Inn On The Twenty, an upscale restaurant located east of St. Catharines, in a tiny, tiny (main street is literally a block long) but very quaint village of Jordan. Anyone familiar with Anna Olson will know that she, along with her husband, used to work at this restaurant.

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The restaurant had a bright, welcoming atmosphere with large windows facing the valleys behind the restaurant, an absolutely breath-taking view if you're lucky enough to get a table by the windows (which we were). Our meal started off with an amuse-bouche courtesy of the chef: freshly-shucked PEI oysters with a homemade dill. It was a perfect starter to the meal, both to whet the appetite as well as to cleanse the palate before the rest of our courses began. The salty/sourness of the homemade dill was a nice contrast to the freshness of the oysters.

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My starter was a Saffron-Scented Clam Chowder, a twist on a New England classic. Clam chowders, if done badly, can often be either too heavy or too thin, or the worst case scenario, clumpy. This soup was absolutely delicious, and the saffron not only adds a nice yellow touch to the soup, but a different layer of flavour to the palate without being too overpowering.

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My main course was off the special menu, a Grilled Erie White Bass with wild leeks, fiddleheads and purple potatoes. The presentation of the dish blew me away, with the vibrant green of the sauce and the vegetables, the purple potatoes and the unique way the fish was filletted. The fish was cooked perfectly, and this dish truly showcased the best of the local ingredients of Ontario during the early summer season.

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What's a meal without finishing off with a little something sweet, especially when I am have a huge sugartooth. I had a Walnut Financier with Pears and Maple Gelato. The highlight of this dessert was definitly the gelato; the smoothness and richness of the gelato was a perfect match with the sweet maple syrup. What I wouldn't do to have more of that gelato...

It was no surprise that my expectations for the IONT was very high after hearing and reading so many great things about this restaurant, and it certainly didn't disappoint. The food was absolutely delicious, and the view was breathtaking. This place is definitely worth checking out the next time you're in the Niagara region.

Name: Inn on the Twenty
Address: 3845 Main Street, Jordan, ON
Cuisine: Canadian, Regional, Seasonal
Price Range: Dinner $40-$70
Accessible: Yes

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Beat The Heat The Southeast Asian Way

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With hot, summer weather coming our way, it's hard to muster up the desire to slave away in front of a hot stove and a stuffy kitchen just to get dinner on the table, even if I usually don't mind being in front of a hot stove. But sometimes, when you really can't beat the heat, you just have to find an alternative.

I made a Southeast Asian dinner the other evening, which is perfect to enjoy on a hot summer's day. The refreshing Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls, made by rolling up fresh vegetables and protein of your choice (if desired) in rice paper is so simple to make, super healthy and easy to go down on a hot day in lieu of greasy hamburgers. Actually, if you're having a backyard summer party, it would be a great idea to set up your own make-your-own bar, laying out various vegetables (julienned cucumbers, carrots, lettuce leaves, etc.), protein (shrimp, cooked chicken, pork, or beef, etc.), rice vermicelli and plenty of fresh herbs (I love to use cilantro, Thai basil and mint) for your guests to choose from. Make a simple dipping sauce from Thai fish sauce, minced garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, and lime juice and you're all set!

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Refreshing and cooling sides like salads are also great. I made two different, easy to assemble salads, both of which are Thai: Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad) and Ahjaad, cucumbers pickled in vinegar and sugar with sliced shallots and chili peppers. Both salads are delicious and make a great accompaniment to satay, skewers of grilled meat (we did chicken and pork) marinated with fragrant spices and often than not, served alongside a peanut dipping sauce. This is a great alternative to your normal backyard barbequeing with a Southeast Asian twist. If using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them at least a few hours in cold water to ensure that they don't burn when on the grill. And if you don't want to have your hands smelling like garlic, shallots and spices for more than a day, it might be wise to wear gloves when you're skewering the meat onto the skewers.

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Malaysian Satay
Adapted from this recipe
Serves 4

1 lb meat (chicken, beef or pork)
2 cloves garlic
1 cup shallots
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ¼-inch piece turmeric root (or 1 tsp ground turmeric)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp palm sugar (or brown sugar)
¼ cup evaporated milk
1 tbsp cooking oil
Bamboo or wooden skewers, soaked in water

Cut meat into small thin pieces.

Grind together shallots, garlic, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and turmeric in a food processor until very fine. Combine ground spices with salt and sugar. Season meat with the ground spices and let marinate overnight.

Skewer the meat onto the soaked bamboo sticks; don’t overcrowd. Grill satay sticks over a charcoal fire, basting occasionally with evaporated milk combined with oil, until cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes per side. (For a brush, try using the head of a lemongrass, smashed and flattened to resemble a brush.) Serve with peanut dipping sauce.

Note: I skipped the step about brushing the meat with the evaporated milk, but it'll help to keep your meat from drying out on the grill.

Peanut Dipping Sauce
Adapted from Rasa Malaysia
Makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cup dry roasted peanuts (unsalted)
1 cup water
1 tbsp sweet soy sauce (Kecap Manis)
1 ½ tbsp palm sugar (use brown sugar or cane sugar if palm sugar is unavailable)
1/8 tsp salt
¼ cup oil
1 heaping tbsp tamarind pulp (soaked in ¼ cup water for 15 minutes, squeeze the tamarind pulp for juice and discard the pulp)

For the spice paste:
6-8 dried red chilies (seeded and soaked in warm water)
3 cloves garlic
3 shallots
2 lemongrass (white parts only)
1 1-inch piece galangal (substitute ginger if galangal is unavailable)
1 tbsp coriander powder (optional)

Crush the peanuts coarsely with mortar and pestle or in a food processor and set aside.

Chop the spice paste ingredients and blend until fine using a food processor. Heat oil and fry the spice paste until aromatic and smells spicy. Add the chopped peanuts, tamarind juice, water, sugar, sweet soy sauce and stir thoroughly. Simmer on low heat while continuing to stir for about 3 minutes until the peanut sauce turns smooth. Serve at room temperature with the satay.

**Note: I found the original recipe to be a bit chunky for my liking, since I prefer to a peanut sauce that's actually a bit more smooth and actually "dippable." To fix this problem, I simply placed about 1/2 cup of the peanut sauce into a blender along with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and a drizzle of honey for some extra sweetness. Add a bit of hot water and puree. Remember, don't add too much water initially; you don't want your sauce to be soupy. It's better to add the water a little at a time until you reach a consistency you're happy with. I like mine to be smoothed out but still with a few bits of peanuts left here and there for texture. The addition of the peanut butter really helps enhance the peanut flavour of the sauce without taking anything away from the other spices, while the honey helps to balance everything out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jam Session

June has been an odd month weather-wise. Actually, the same can be said for the year so far, but June, by far, has been one of the rainiest I've seen so far, or remember. I can probably count on my two hands the number of full days we've had that was rain-free. Needless to say, the incessant amount of rainfall this past month has put a damper on my plans to go strawberry picking. I eventually gave in, realising that no matter how long I wait, I probably wouldn't be able to beat Mother Nature before the strawberry crop was all gone.

So off to the store I went, but much to my dismay, the strawberries just weren't up to par. Apparently, my luck with strawberries just wasn't on my side. However, the other berries looked nice, so I piled a few pints into my cart, along with some lemons, sugar and 7.5 pounds of apricots and headed home to do some good old-fashioned preserving.

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There's something really comforting about jamming. The task does seem a bit taunting for newbies, but it's really not that hard. You merely wash the fruit, cut them up and remove the pits if need be, and throw them all together in a large pot with some sugar and water and let it do it's thing. However, it's all about the TLC you give to your pot of jam, patiently standing over the hot stove as the fruit mixture slowly turns mushy, and then thicken, skimming off the foam and gently stirring it from time to time, that determines how good a jar of jam you'll have in the end. Jamming does require a bit of time, so make sure you give yourself a whole day (or at least a whole afternoon if you're only making one kind of jam) so that you don't end up rushing through the process.

Along with the Mixed Berry Jam, I made another, much larger batch of Apricot Almond Jam. The apricot jam has to be one of my favourites, with its delicate, tart flavour. The apricot flavour really comes through and the orange undertones from the zest adds a nice touch. I absolutely love how this jam smells as its cooking over the stove, and the bright, jewel-like orange colour is absolutely gorgeous. The Mixed Berry Jam is the perfect jam for any berry-lover, with a mixture of different berries (use whatever's in season and whatever's freshest!). The flavours of the berries are deeply concentrated here, and I love to leave the mixture a bit chunky so that when you spoon it out of the jar, you can still see bits of the whole fruits. I found this jam with the amount of sugar it asks for to be a bit too sweet for my own palate, so I like to add a bit more lemon juice to mellow out the sweetness. Both jams are absolutely delicious though; a perfect way to start off your morning on toast with a hot cup of tea. And Mother Nature...bring on the rain. No amount of rain can damper my spirits now with these bottled jewels.

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Apricot Almond Jam
Adapted from Laura Calder's French Food At Home, Food Network Canada

2 1/2 lb apricots
1 cup water
3 1/2 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
6 apricot kernels or whole almonds (optional)
Orange zest (optional)

Quarter the apricots, leaving the skin on. Crack 6 of the pips with a hammer and extract the kernels inside. Taste them; if they are bitter, use only 3 and/or replace the rest with chopped almonds.

Pour one cup of water over the sugar in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve to syrup. Add the apricots and almonds, if using. Bring to a boil, and cook uncovered. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

Once the mixture stops producing foam (about 10 to 15 minutes later), continue cooking over medium heat until the mixture thickens to a syrupy texture, 30 minutes more. Alternatively, drop a spoonful onto a cold dish and place dish into the freezer for 1 to 2 minutes; if it jells, it's done.

Remove from heat and ladle into sterilized jars. Seal, process to seal lids, and store in a cool, dark place.

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Mixed Berry Jam
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2008
Makes about eight 1/2-pint jars

4.5 lb mixed berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries)
4 cups sugar
Juice of 1 large lemon (about 4 tablespoons), plus more to taste

Combine fruit, sugar, and lemon juice in a large, non-reactive bowl. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Transfer fruit mixture to a large, heavy saucepan or pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Mash to a thick puree with a potato masher. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer until mixture begins to thicken, stirring often, about 20 to 30 minutes. During this stage, if you find the jam to be too sweet for your taste, add some more lemon juice.

Drop 1 teaspoonsful jam on a chilled saucer and return to freezer for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove sauce and push edge of jam with fingertip. If jam has properly gelled, surface will gently wrinkle. Remove saucepan from heat and ladle jam into sterilized jars. Clean rim of each jar with a damp cloth. Place lid on top and seal with screw band, twisting to close but not too tightly.

Place filled jars into a pot of boiling water, ensuring that the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover pot and boil gently for at least 10 minutes. Turn off heat. Wait 5 minutes; use tongs to remove jars without tilting. Check lids for seal by pressing each lightly. Lids of sealed jars will be concave and show no movement when pressed. If lid is unsealed, place back into the pot of boiling water and process a few minutes longer, or use a new lid. Place upright on a towel; cool completely at room temperature.

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