Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Search of Perfection

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Everyone has their ideal chocolate chip cookie. For me, I love the rich, buttery kinds with not too many chocolate chips, heavy in vanilla and slightly undercooked to yield soft and utterly chewy cookies, perfect with a cold glass of milk. The chocolate chip cookie has probably been the one recipe I’ve fiddled with the most over the years, and I’m still not satisfied with it. No matter how I try, I can never get the perfect cookie. They are always great fresh out of the oven, but the satisfaction-factor is short-lived.

Enter my classmate Rowan. He makes the most fabulous cookies I’ve ever taste. They are so soft, unlike any of my cookies that have ever come out of the oven. He swears there is no secret, despite “beating the s--- out of them,” but I’m convinced he’s holding something back! Despite comparing notes, I couldn’t find anything different from my own base recipe (I work off the popular Nestle Tollhouse recipe). Oh well! This only means that I can bother Rowan every couple of weeks, along with the rest of the class, to bake us another batch of his delicious cookies!

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I did track down this recipe that gives me a cookie similar to Rowan’s. The ingredients are pretty much the same as any standard chocolate chip cookie recipe. The only big difference is that the recipe melts the butter, and uses 1 whole egg plus an egg yolk. Fresh out of the oven, these babies are super gooey and chewy—the closest I’ve come to producing my dream chocolate chip cookie.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Survive a Crazy Week

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This is it folks! My week from hell. Every semester, there always seems to be one week where every possible assignment you can imagine is due. It’s a conspiracy theory, I tell you. Granted, it’s nothing like the hell weeks I experienced back in my undergrad days. Nothing beats pulling all-nighters and playing recall wars in a desperate attempt to churn out 2500 words...times four. How I don’t miss those days! But with two midterms, two assignments and production nights for our magazine this week, it’ll be a week for little sleep and lots of caffeine!

My solution? Make some caffeine-packed biscotti! They’re incredible delicious, portable, and makes for a double dose when you dip them in your coffee. These biscotti have the added depth of cinnamon, which goes so well with the espresso flavour, making for the cookie version of a cappuccino sprinkled with cinnamon. Add chocolate and toasted pecans to the dough and you’re in bliss!

These biscotti have a different texture from your average, hard-as-rock ones you’d find in stores and coffee shops, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those who, like me, don’t want to break a tooth when eating them sans-coffee. They're lighter and crispier, but just as delicious. These are a great little booster during your mid-afternoon coffee, but will also surely impress your guests the next time you have them over for coffee. Be warned: these are highly addictive!

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Cinnamon Mocha Biscotti
Adapted from Recipezaar
Makes about 3 dozen

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbsp instant expresso or instant coffee granules
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 heaping tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup toasted pecans, chopped
3/4 to 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and ground cinnamon in a medium bowl; set aside.

Combine sugar and butter and mix until light and fluffy. Add the espresso or coffee granules; mix until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and mix briefly.

Add the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated. Fold in the pecans and chocolate chips.

Divide dough in half. Form two 12" x 2" logs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 35 minutes, or until firm.

Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes. Transfer the logs to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut the logs diagonally into 3/4-inch-wide slices. Place slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake for 12 minutes. Turn biscotti over, bake about 12 minutes more or until light golden and firm. Transfer biscotti to racks and cool.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Trouble With Being Dull

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I need a new kitchen knife. Scratch that. I need a new set of kitchen knives. The one knife that I use for chopping, mincing, scoring, and whatever else that needs to be done (yes, you read it right…one chef’s knife…sigh) is dull. Super dull. To the point that when my parents visited two weeks ago and my mom was cooking in the kitchen, she complained about how dull my knife was, and then proceeded to demonstrate its dullness by brushing her thumb across the blade (and please don’t ever try that at home!).

I’m sure you’ve all dealt with dull knives in your lifetime. I often get annoyed and frustrated when working with an unyielding blade that manages to bruise your fruits, leave your ripe tomatoes as a soggy mess rather than beautiful slices, or leave a once beautiful piece of meat hacked into unrecognizable “cubes.” Needless to say, I had half a chicken that I had to cut into small pieces, and with a dull knife, that was certainly a feat in itself. I certainly had my work cut out for me as I slowly and painstakingly hacked away at the chicken, trying to get through the bones with a knife that could hardly make a scratch on human skin.

I was cutting up chicken for good reason though: Three Cups Chicken (三杯鸡). Yeah, I know, weird name, but the story behind it explains for the “three cups” aspect of the dish. The name derives from the three main ingredients in the dish: soy sauce, Chinese rice wine and sesame oil. Apparently, traditional recipes require one cup of each (hence the “three cups”), in addition to sugar, ginger and garlic.

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This recipe I found at Noob Cook doesn’t exactly follow the whole 1:1:1 ratio. It’s a much simpler recipe that’s easy to follow, and uses common ingredients that should be readily available in an Asian pantry like mine. While such simmered dishes are often made in earthenware pots in traditional Chinese cooking, it works just as well in a wok (like I’ve done) or in a deep frying pan. This recipe is so easy and can assembled in less than 45 minutes (includes prep, cooking and cleaning!). It reminded me my mom’s own cooking, which is a nice change for once, since most of my Chinese dishes can hardly ever compare to hers. Be sure to serve this with lots of steamed white rice!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have Your Cake

And most certainly eat it too! If you’re strapped for time, and are still looking for something to impress your sweetheart tonight, this cake will certainly do the trick.

I actually got this recipe off a classmate after she had brought in the cake for a class presentation last term. I was completely astounded by the cake: incredibly light and moist, and the chocolate and cinnamon was rich in depth and flavour.

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And you know that stuff that comes out of a little cardboard box? I used to be jealous of how those cake mix ones always came out so light, airy and moist, before I came back to reality and remembered that it’s all thanks to chemicals and additives. This recipe gives you the texture without all that extra stuff. Best of all, it’s vegan, it keeps its moisture for days, and it’s just as easy as making it from the box! This cake is super delicious (and addictive) on its own, but will look even more impressive frosted. Be sure to serve a glass a cold milk with a slice of cake!

Vegan Chocolate Cinnamon Cake
Makes 9 large servings

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
1 ¼ cups water

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and line a 9x9-inch pan.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, beat the oil and sugar together. Add in the vanilla extract and mix until incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and beat slowly just until ingredients are blended and smooth; do not overmix. Quickly stir in the lemon juice.

Pour cake batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely on a rack. Serve as is, dusted with icing sugar, cocoa powder and/or cinnamon, or apply frosting of your choice.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winterlicious Round-Up, Part II - Bang For Your Buck

My Winterlicious adventures wrapped up this week with dinner and lunch at Canoe and Globe Bistro respectively. Four meals later, and a few dollars poorer, my stomach is still digesting the four lovely meals I’ve had over the past two weeks. In general, I’m quite satisfied with the four restaurants I went to. There were some high and not-so-high points, but thankfully there weren’t any huge disappointments.

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I’ve been to Canoe twice already, once for Summerlicious last summer and again last November. The biggest disappointment that evening (at least in my opinion) was the Lobster and Miso Minestrone. It’s a great idea in theory, but I found the amount of miso they used made the soup far too salty, and I ended up drinking a really salty, tomato-ey broth that I just didn’t find all that great. The white bass was the highlight of the evening though. It was beautifully cooked—just barely cooked through to really highlight the soft and delicate texture of the fish. It was beautifully seasoned, and the sweet shrimp stuffing added another layer of flavour to the dish, while the barley added some texture and bite. The quince apple crumble was good, but was missing a “wow” factor. I often love in-house made ice creams because I love seeing what wacky and creative flavours chefs would come up with. The crumble was topped with a subtly-scented rosemary ice cream, which was really nice (although I would have minded it there was a bit more rosemary flavour to it!). I had a bite f my friend’s warm sticky date pudding though, and it was incredibly amazing! So rich and decadent, and the caramel toffee sauce was to die for.

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The last restaurant I tried out was Globe Bistro, right by Danforth and Broadview. I’ve been wanting to try out Globe since last September. I often walked by the restaurant and was attracted by its modern and classy décor when I stared into the floor to ceiling windows. I was happy to find the restaurant listed as one of the restaurants participating in Winterlicious. What was even better was that the prices for the prix-fixe menu were incredibly reasonable (pretty much a steal!), charging $20 for a three-course lunch.

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The crab croquette I had for the appetizer was crispy on the outside with a light and slightly creamy interior, and was delicious with the fried caper aioli (so good!). I had the confit duck leg as my main, and the creamy navy beans complimented the tenderness of the duck. The meal ended with a pear frangipane, subtly sweet with a slightly tart cranberry sorbet.

So I return to the question I brought up last week: Are the price hikes worth it? While I’m not thrilled with the $10 hike in most places, you’re still getting a great deal considering it would normally cost up to $100 per head at such establishments as Canoe and North 44°. And while the increase in prices may have caused a little rumble and grumble amongst fans at the beginning, it certainly hasn't affected the popularity of the event, even sparking some restaurants to extend the event until the end of February. Cheers to another successful Winterlicious!

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Full Winterlicious menu for Canoe and Globe Bistro.

You can check out more of my Winterlicious photos here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Brownies

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They say blonds have more fun. I will never have the luxury of finding out if that statement is true or not, unless I somehow find it in my head one day to take a drastic change and dye my hair blonde, much to the chagrin of my parents. But I have no plans to go blond anytime soon, and so I have decided to take this test into the kitchen instead.

I've always thought that "chocolate-less" brownies were...well, bland and boring. Being a chocoholic, I’m just not turned on by the chocolate-less version when I’m given an option. But Martha (and good ‘ole Martha—I’ve really come to love her all over again since we’ve patched up our relationship) made me rethink my position, and opened my eyes to see the blondie in a new light.

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This blondie is actually called the Rocky Ledge Bar, but it’s a blondie in every sense of the word, flavoured with brown sugar and vanilla. What makes these ordinarily “boring” bars super sexy are the fun extras that are added into the batter: semisweet and white chocolate chips, mini marshmallows and chewy caramels. Oozing with sugary goodness when it comes out of the oven, these blondies have a lighter, more cake-like texture than conventional dense brownies. These were absolutely amazing, and will surely give you sugar-high that will last you a few hours.

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On the other end of the spectrum were Cream Cheese Brownies. Super rich and decadent with a creamy cheesecake topping, these brownies are everything a chocoholic could wish for in a chocolate brownie done right.

So what’s the verdict? Do blonds have more fun? Well, in this battle of the brownies/blondies, I’d say yes. While I love a good brownie (and these are a pretty good brownies!) and it’s hard for me to pass up chocolate in any form, these blondies are top-notch. They are a perfect balance between a cookie and a cake, and filled with fun treats that are really the highlight of these bars. So even if you’re not a natural blonde, make a pan of these delicious blondies and let your inner blondness (and inner-Martha) run wild!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Winterlicious Round-Up, Part I - Mark McEwan, Meet Mark McEwan

It’s that time of year again! The ever popular annual Winterlicious event in Toronto is now in its seventh year, and the first thing everyone noticed was the hike in prices. A three-course prix fixe menu has now risen to $45 at some of the top-notch establishments. Granted, the hike in price is a bit understandable: the economy is down, and food prices have hiked up considerably in the past year. I don’t mind paying an extra $10, as long as it’s worth the money.

This time around, I made reservations at four establishments. Two have already been tried and tested this week, while the other two are slated for next week. Coincidentally (and I didn’t realise I did it until afterwards), I made back-to-back reservations with both of Mark McEwan’s establishments: Bymark for lunch, and North 44° for dinner.

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Bymark, located in the concourse level of Toronto Dominion Centre, is the second brain-child of McEwan’s. He opened it in 2002, and I’ve heard many things about the place ever since, both good and bad. For one thing, it got a lot of buzz a few years back after introducing the most expensive burger in Toronto on the menu (the current one on the menu has truffles, although I think they also used to do one with foie gras, if I’m not mistaken). Having enjoyed my Summerlicious experience at North 44° three years ago, and curious about all the talk around Bymark, I knew that it was a place I had to try out this time around.

Despite being stuck in the basement of a large office tower, perhaps one of the most unsexiest places to be, Bymark’s atmosphere is quite nice, with dark panelling playing off with the neutral tables and chairs. The lighting and candles add warmth to what might otherwise be a cold and bland room.

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The citrus zest in the tuna tartar was an especially nice touch, helping to draw out the flavours, but there was definitely no zing to the “spicy” tomato and avocado salsa as promised, nor did the plantain chips do much for me. The chicken kebab was delicious though, beautifully seasoned with perfectly grilled naan (oh, how I’m a sucker for naan!). The minted yogurt was topped with a bit of chilli oil, which I loved. The couscous was a bit bland though. And my parents’ fish, while seasoned really nicely, was overcooked (noooo!). The carrot cake for dessert—now that was a nice ending to a meal. Although I would have liked it a bit warmer, the cake was moist and not too sweet. The slight tartness in the pineapple ice cream complimented the cake, and the pecan praline added some lovely texture.

I then had dinner at McEwan’s other establishment, North 44°, for dinner tonight. I’ve been to North 44° once before, almost three years ago for the Summerlicious event. I remembered it was great, but it had been some time since I had last been to North 44°, and I also thought it would be a great place to take my parents. And it certainly did not disappoint!

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While North 44° doesn’t have much natural light as well (what’s with that anyway?), it definitely had a more intimate atmosphere. But it’s really the food that deserves the most praise (and aren’t we here to enjoy the food?). Everything was perfectly cooked. My mom’s pork belly confit was melt-in-your-mouth, as well as the braised short ribs. My salmon was just cooked through. And I absolutely loved the black forest génoise cake. The chocolate génoise was so light and moist, and the kirsch cream on top was to die for; it tasted unbelievable with the chocolate cake.

So the winner between McEwan and McEwan? North 44°, hands down. It had a better atmosphere, and more importantly, better prepared food. I’m not saying Bymark was terrible; the food was decent, but I thought each dish was lacking a little something. Personally, I think Bymark is a bit overrated, at least from the impression I got. Let’s just hope it was an off day, but I know I’ll be returning to North 44° much sooner than I would Bymark. (And on a side note, my parents and I think North 44° is even better than Canoe!)

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Full Winterlicious menu for Bymark and North 44°.

You can check out more of my Winterlicious photos here.

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