Friday, December 31, 2010

Look what's around us

I get asked a lot of questions about food, I'm considered a radical and I get into trouble and upset some people because of my big mouth, however, if I wasn't honest then I would be lying to myself.  So I comment on where I will and won't eat out, what I think of corporate pizzas and cheap chocolate, without hesitation.  After being told I'm a snob, I usually get asked lots of questions about what I cook and how I do it.

I cook from what I have in the fridge without a recipe.  Cooking from raw materials in your fridge is all about knowledge of techniques and ingredients.  As I have said before, North Americans have lost the ability to even make a simple soup from scratch.  Cooking is a very easy skill to gain, easy to improve and easy to practice.  Think about it, we eat 2-5 meals a day, that's 14-35 meals a week, 58-140 meals a month.  That's a lot of practice.  I think if we have a core set of "tricks" then you can have a multitude of palate pleasing meals.  Keep in mind, that not all experiments work out (I always have oatmeal on hand...).  One of my favourite cookbooks is the Joy of Cooking.  It's a perfect reference book on all sorts of things.  

Let's take soup, it's not rocket science.  Take the method of making soup - your veg, your liquid, your meat, your seasoning and your flavours.  Easy - take a butternut squash, peel and cubed.  Roast it in the oven, mash it, add garlic, salt, pepper, chili powder and chicken stock to make the desired consistency - add a nice ciabatta from your local bakery and voila - dinner in 45 minutes with leftovers for lunch tomorrow. 

The squash puree before adding the chicken stock, you can add to risotto rice and voila - squash risotto, or just mash the roasted squash in your food processor with garlic and ginger, serve as a side with steak - easy!  Three dishes from a handful of stuff I bet we all have in our fridge.

I also get a lot of questions from people who have the opportunity to charter boats in the Caribbean in the wintertime.  They think they have to eat like here.  The way we eat in a cold climate is much different in a hot one!  First rule, I promise you don't need to eat half the amount of calories.  Second rule, I promise you don't have to have 3 square meals a day, grazing through the late morning, early afternoon will keep you satisfied.

Breakfast is easy, fresh local fruit - like a banana, toast with peanut butter or whatever the locals like on their toast (sea grape jam rocks!) and a coffee with some rum -  Voila.  Graze throughout the day on fresh coconut meat, a coconut water drink with some rum (I sense a theme here), fruit, nuts, maybe a brioche from the bakery in town.  Dinner - see what is at the local market - fish, collard greens and even a tray of Caribbean style mac n' cheese.  You can make a stew with coconut milk, okra, leafy greens, fresh fruit and once the stew is ready, just pop in fresh chunks of local fish.  Voila!  Dessert - rum of course.  Throw out your ideas of an appetizer, formal dessert, stuffing your face.  Enjoy the experience of new flavours, a new culture and new and old friends sitting in the cockpit, the food is secondary!

Just look around you, we have a lot to eat, and we're lucky.  Ask the locals what to cook, how to cook it.  Go to the markets with a pen and paper, take notes.  That's what Paul and I do when we are on vacation, we've even purchased fish from the fireman on Little Cayman and from the fisherman on the boat launch on Cayman Brac.  I've cooked a whole fish wrapped in foil slathered with local mangos, limes, butter, rum and coconut and just slapped it down on the table with 2 forks and just enjoyed every single bite - no fancy silverware or even plates!  A good coconut water and rum drink to wash it all down - perfect.

If we look what is on hand, what is available seasonally and ask; cooking is easy.  If you don't know any cooking techniques or tricks, take classes.  What you learn in cooking classes you will have forever, knowledge is power.  Invest in your health - take more cooking classes.

Here's my favourite way to serve fish:

Serves 1

1 large piece of foil
1 fennel bulb - julienne (you can also use okra, green beans etc.)
1 carrot - julienne
1 clove garlic - fine chop
1 shallot - julienne
glug of olive oil
glug of white wine (or rum)
salt and pepper
caraway or nutmeg

Place all veg in one half of the foil, glug the veg with the olive oil and white wine.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and caraway (or chili powder or curry powder).  Place fish fillet over the pile of goodness.  Fold the foil over the entire pile, seal the edges.  Put in 400 F oven for 20 minutes.  Remove, tear open foil and voila - dinner with no effort.  You can do this on the bbq or grill, just put a cookie sheet on the grill, do not put the fish packet directly on the grill as the veg will burn.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Joys of Baking

It's 6 days until Christmas Day.  I have made, to date, over 500 truffles and molded chocolates and over 5 pounds of English Toffee.  Almost all my deliveries are done and I can now do some Christmas baking for myself.  I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my kitchen activities so will only make one or two kinds of cookies, maybe a cake - but this year, I'm addicted to the cute little French Macaron.  It's not like the North American Macaroon at all.  It's a cute little sandwich cookie made with heaps of sugar, egg whites and ground almonds.  Then it's filled with all sorts of amazing flavours.  This weekend I'm making dulce de leche, pistacho, black sesame, rose water and I hope to have time for passion fruit.  The flavours are endless and I wish I could just make hundreds of different flavours and share them all!

Even though I sell stuff, chocolates, candies, cakes, deep down I wish I could just give it all away, share my passion with others, alas, the ingredients cost money so I share when I can.  Even though I charge for my product I don't make a lot of money, never a profit, my joy is seeing people's happiness when they taste something they have never heard of, taste something new and exotic.  There are very few new flavours I get to enjoy and when I do taste something new, I'm hooked.  Last year I got the opportunity to spend 7 months in Chocolate School and the 3 flavours I will never forget tasting for the first time are Green Tea Ganache, Cardamom and Saffron Ganache and Rose water buttercream!  My fellow classmates wondered why I went on and on about new flavours and my Chef Instructor explained that a lot of chefs don't often have an opportunity to taste new flavours and it's an event.

That's the beauty of pastry for me, new flavours.  I'm a newbie in the pastry world, just 3 years in and still finding new flavour profiles, new ingredients and mixing some flavours with others I never would have thought of. 

But I digress...back to home baking.  Most of us can remember baking alongside their moms or grandmas.  I remember doing both.  My mom liked to keep things clean and tidy, mostly I watched and stuck a little kid finger in the cookie batter when she turned her back (always afraid of the eyes watching me from the back of her head).  My grandma, she let us taste her icing by the spoonful, used to spray whipcream from the can right into our mouths, letting us get flour where ever we wanted, after all "that's what a vacuum cleaner was for!", she would say.

Ever since I was little I loved to bake: chocolate chip cookies mostly, the odd chocolate cake.  Now, although I love the fancy stuff, frangipan, tortes, Bavarians, mont blancs etc., what I love most are the shortbread cookies, the hand rolled truffles, gingerbread and cakes filled with gobs of french buttercream.  That's my comfort food.  And I like to get messy, that flour on my nose, the gob of cake batter down my shirt, the chocolate under my fingernails, the cookie dough stuck on the bottom of my sock.  We can always clean it up later, after sharing all that goodness with our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers.

So here's my French Macaron recipe, it may take a few tries to get it right and to figure out your oven temperatures but once you have the technique down, it's really a lot of fun!

Vanilla Macarons - Yield 80 Twoonie sized cookies or 40 sandwich cookies

300 g     Icing sugar
225 g     Ground Almonds
150 g     Fresh egg whites (4-5 egg whites)
150 g     Sugar
5 ml      Vanilla 
Choice of food colouring

Preheat oven 310 F.
Sift together icing sugar and almonds.
Using a mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites to a stiff peak.
Gradually add sugar.  Whites will become shiny.
Manually fold almond and icing sugar mixture into egg whites.
Add colour.
The most important part:  Work filling with a spatula until the mixture doesn't hold a peak any longer, it should spread very slowly.
Pipe twooney sized rounds onto lined tray and let air dry for 10-20 minutes.
Bake 10-14 minutes (will vary a lot depending on your oven).

Fillings are endless, here's my buttercream recipe that you can flavour with fruit, rose water etc.  You can also use flavoured ganaches like tea, sesame etc. and please colour your macarons to reflect your flavour - makes life more colourful!

Easy Buttercream

450 g    Icing Sugar
680 g    Butter
95 g     Pasturized Egg Whites
15 ml    Vanilla

Using a mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter and icing sugar until pale and fluffy.
Gradually add the egg whites, whip for another 5 minutes until light and fluffy.
Can add lemon zest, lemon juice or passion fruit compound etc. as required.

I will post more pictures of my macrons later today! 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's that heavenly smell?

Name something the majority of us consume everyday - some of us every 2 hours.  Here are some hints, it's used as a flavouring in sweets, cakes, meats, savoury sauces?  No idea yet.  Well we all know the smell whether we consume it or not and 99% of us smell it first thing in the morning.  No not yet?  We pay pennies for it, pay a lot for it.  Black, cream, sugar, vanilla flavour shot, lots of foam, no foam, double sweet medium temperature, a little extra water, strong, weak, decaf...Well you have got to be kidding me if you haven't figured out yet that I'm talking about coffee!

The history of coffee is long and sordid.  Thought to have originated in Ethopia but maybe not.  The name might have come from the Turkish "Kawha" - meaning "wine of the bean" (from Wikipedia).  However what we all know about coffee is how much we take it for granted in our every day life - until the unspeakable happens, it tastes terrible...

How many times have we woken up on a Sunday morning with that throbbing headache or that rumbling in our stomach and thought "let's go out for breakfast"?  You go to the local egg place, order whatever suits your fancy and order your cuppa joe.  The waitress takes your order, takes your menu and hops away to let the fry cook know your wishes.  She then flies over with a fistful of chipped white coffee mugs and a handful of plastic encased creamers tossed down with packets of white sugar and sweeteners stained with old strawberry jam.  You can tell from the pot the coffee will be weak, You can read the writing on the opposite of the carafe telling you not to place this pot on direct heat.  The brown coloured hot water smells like coffee - but you know - it's no Gold Coast blend from the mountains of Hawaii.  Depending on how you take your coffee you could be drinking warm cream or hot sugar syrup.  

Me, I am usually disappointed in the coffees at the majority of breakfast places.  Places where people go to cure their hangover, stuff their faces or just  for the love of breakfast (like me).

Oh no, is that peppy waitress coming my way again with more brown hot water, should I resist?  Oh what the hell, pour another, I need my caffeine, I'll go home and make a proper cup of coffee later.  Why, why don't we complain about this tragedy?  The restaurant makes the effort to offer 6 kinds of toast, 10 kinds of pre-packaged jam,  fresh fruit garnish on your plate.  They take the time to cook your eggs exactly how you order and make your bacon extra, extra, extra crispy without burning it.  So why is a flavourful, interesting cup of coffee so out of reach?  It's not just the cost, a cupper usually runs between $1.50 and $2 in those joints.  If I ever find a egg place that serves tasty, eye opening, interesting coffee (and possibly fresh made hollandaise sauce) then I will be a customer for life.

Let us now turn to our favourite breakfast foods.  Me - Eggs Benedict, aka Eggs Benny.  However, the Hollandaise sauce is a lost art.  I'm sure most chefs don't realize that you can make Hollandaise from scratch and adding water to a packet of yellow powder is not the only way to make Hollandaise.  Sure it takes a bit of practice, but it's well worth it.

According to Wikipedia: "Lemuel Benedict, a retired Wall Street stock broker, claimed that he had wandered into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 and, hoping to find a cure for his morning hangover, ordered "buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon and a hooker of hollandaise." Oscar Tschirky, the famed maitre d'hotel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham and a toasted English muffin for the bacon and toast."

I like that a "hooker of hollandaise".  The meaning is a "slug or glug of hollandaise".  Hollandaise takes practice but well worth the rich tartiness effort over those creamy poached eggs, salty bacon and crispy English muffin - Please do not let your muffins go soggy and keep the hookers coming!

Yeah Hollandaise - Boo bad coffee!  And with my hangover all gone and a pot of great coffee made in my Italian espresso maker here's an easy Hollandaise Sauce recipe to make for next Saturday's breakfast or Monday night's dinner.

Hollandaise Sauce


  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 pinch ground white pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Fill the bottom of a double boiler part-way with water. Make sure that water does not touch the top pan. Bring water to a gentle simmer. In the top of the double boiler, whisk together egg yolks, lemon juice, white pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and 1 tablespoon water.
  2. Add the melted butter to egg yolk mixture 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time while whisking yolks constantly. If hollandaise begins to get too thick, add a teaspoon or two of hot water. Continue whisking until all butter is incorporated. Whisk in salt, then remove from heat. Place a lid on pan to keep sauce warm.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Local eating and eating locally

I did my yearly catering job for The Store Mason's Chandlery last night.  I look forward to it every year, they love it and I always have a great time.  Lori pretty much gives me free reign of what the menu will be which makes is all the more enjoyable!  Last night's menu, goat cheese and leek tarts, leek and green peppercorn tarts for the app., dinner was gnocchi with beef ragu and lots of local, in season veg and garlic bread.  Finally the piece du resistance - dessert -my current fav. - Pavlona.  All that crunch, creaminess, sweetness, topped off with cranberries, sour cherries, pistachios and shavings of white chocolate.  MMMMM

The fun for me also in creating menus; choosing as much local, in season foods as possible.  Obviously, from the menu above, I cannot get local chocolate, pistachios, pepper or salt.  However, I can get local goat cheese, leeks, puff pastry, eggs, butter, canned tomatoes, cranberries, cherries, squash, celery root, juniper berries etc.  I like to think that I am helping local farmers by buying local from suppliers that are small, family run joints.  If we look around, most of the stores, restaurants, bakeries either are run by extremely large corporations, mostly American or they are supplied by large corporations and who knows where they get their produce or meat.  

I like the thought of family run businesses, they have character, personality and no one is the same.  They have an uphill climb to compete against the corporations who are endless money pits.  They don't have the 'buying power' of large corporations, so their profit margin is lower because they pay more for their produce and meat.  I don't mind paying more, it's worth it for me to fight against the monster we call capitalism.

Some of you know that I struggle to produce great food, great cakes and great chocolates that are affordable.  I can't compete against Costco, Laura Secord, Lindt or Pumpernickles, I also won't compete against them!  I spend time researching what my customers buy from me.  I am proud that I can say I support local as much as possible, I am also proud that I can say I only use seasonal ingredients.  I have actually told customers that I don't to chocolate dipped strawberries in February!  So if I lose that customer, c'est la vie, I unlike corporations, don't have shareholders to answer to - the beauty of the family run business.  I also try not to contribute to the demise our our earth.

I know we are all powerless in some way to avoid the few corporate run food suppliers in this world but when I drive up to Bobcaygeon, I know my step mom has purchased her butter and eggs from the local farmers.  I get my produce  and eggs from Lanzarotta, again mostly local and a family run business.  My meat comes from farmers as close as Woodbridge, my wine comes from Kawartha County.

The restaurants I go to, well I'm lucky that I know the chefs, but I run into them at my butcher!  They buy local too.

Let's raise a glass to family run businesses.  I'm a bargain hunter like most people, but lately I'm wondering at what cost to our world and our community.  I don't have a membership at Costco, I don't shop at Walmart.  I don't mind paying more for butter and eggs as long as it's from mom and pop!

Eat local - eat fresh!  Food is life and let's share our community with each other! Let's discover the talented farmers, butchers, bakers and chefs that live nearby.

Talking of local, and it's a cold, cold day outside and we all love comfort food, how about dark beer, cheddar soup for dinner!  I love this soup, it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside and every ingredient can be bought from local mom and pop shops.


½ cup butter
1 cup red or yellow onions, chopped
½ cup carrot, diced
½  cup celery, diced
½ cup flour
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt or to taste
 ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper or to taste
16 oz chicken broth
4 cups milk
12 oz can dark beer - Stout preferably!
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese grated - at least 5 year old cheddar

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the aromatic vegetables and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. If you don't have carrots and/or celery on hand, increase the amount of onion. Some variations of this soup only use onion.

2. (Have your liquid ingredients measured before starting this step.) Add the dry ingredients and cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes.

3. Gradually stir in the liquids. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the soup comes to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened. Do not let it boil.

4. Stir in the cheeses until they melt. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Let the soup barely simmer for another 10-15 minutes to mix the flavours.