Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas!

When you think Christmas cookie, macarons do not usually come into mind, unless you are me and have accumulated way too many egg whites. These pink and brown beauties are strawberry macarons with strawberry passionfruit ganache and chocolate macarons with dark chocolate mint ganache. Packaging macarons is always a challenge since they are quite delicate and do not possess any flat surfaces. I must admit that I had a stroke of genius when I realized that the three toilet paper tubes awaiting the recycling bin (cut in half and covered with clean parchment paper, of course) were the perfect holders for six rows of macarons.

In addition, Christmas must include chocolate. Dark chocolate truffles filled with my leftover strawberry passionfruit ganache are sparkling from edible copper dust. I also knocked out some molded bon bons which were filled with a gianduja ganache. So now, my home kitchen is quiet and closed for the season. Luckily, my busy work schedule will help me burn off the many calories which are headed my way in the very near future.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gift giving

There has been flurry of activity in my kitchen lately with the completion of another birthday cake and the start of my personal Christmas gift production. This whimsical polka-dot present cake was for a little girl's first birthday and created from layers of yellow cake, lemon curd, and lemon mousse. My design inspiration was from this baggage tag that I bought in Paris from Pylones, one of the few non-pastry related stores I actually visited.

As always, I threw the leftovers into a 6" cake ring and used some of the leftover egg whites to make meringue sticks for decor. Personally, lemon is a classic all-time favourite of my taste buds. My non-existent sweet tooth prefers tart flavours like lemon, lime, and passionfruit rather than rich chocolatey ones. The red ribbon added a touch of Christmas to an otherwise simple cake.

Speaking of leftovers, the excess egg whites will certainly be used frugally towards my Christmas gift production. I traditionally make gifts for my friends and family, edible or non-edible, and this year is no different even though I will be busily working throughout my first holiday season employed in the food industry. What will I make with egg whites? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has been reading my blog this year...

Monday, December 10, 2007

The little fire engine that could

When somebody asks me to make a cake, the first question I ask is always "how many people does it need to feed?". This critical number obviously decides the size of the potential cake and since my refrigerator and freezer space is limited, size definitely matters. Perhaps there will be a day when my cakes do not need to share space with my leftover chow mein or get cozy beside the frozen peas.

Meanwhile, this fire engine cake was for a very lucky little boy named Owen who just turned three. Originally, I had planned for it to feed 10 to 12 people but when I designed it on paper, the dimensions became approximately 12 x 5 x 5 inches. Apparently, I lack the gene that gives the ability to estimate volume because in the end, the fire engine cake could probably have fed 24 people easily.

Owen had requested a chocolate cake so I created the fire engine from layers of chocolate cake and chocolate German buttercream. Covering the cake with the red rolled fondant caused a small panic attack because after prolonged kneading in almost half the vial of Wilton Red Red colour paste, the fondant was so soft that it started to shred at the corners. Luckily, I rescued it in time and smoothed it out fairly well. Seven hours later, the cake was finished.

My favourite details on the fire engine cake are actually all found in the above photo. The pastillage fire hydrant (I really wanted to keep it) and the pastillage tires, complete with hubcap and tire treads, were adorable. Because I did not want to put lettering on the actual fire engine, I decided to connect a hose to my fire hydrant which would be squirting out watery blue royal icing to spell out Happy Birthday Owen. With the addition of some silvery details, the fire engine cake was certainly an accomplishment of which I am proud. Thankfully, I was not at the party to witness its eventual destruction!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Three trees

Yesterday, a seven feet tall Fraser fir was the newest addition to our home and dressed up with festive finery and glitter. Even though I voice my share of "bah-humbugs" during the holidays, at heart, I love Christmas and in particular, Christmas trees. Green and gold ornaments adorn our tree, with a lovely hand-made quilted tree skirt underneath.

This time last year, pastry school graduation was imminent and I had a mild obsession with pastillage snowmen. As a result, this snowman family was born and will continue to grace my mantle for years to come. I can honestly say that, next to my wedding day, graduation from pastry school was the happiest day of my life. It represented the start of a new chapter in my professional life which I had always believed was unachievable due to my own insecurities and fears.

Perhaps, I should have just succumbed to a life in pastry, full of sore backs, achy wrists, and scraped hands, over 10 years ago when my good friend Shelley created a personalized miniature Christmas tree as a Christmas gift. The central ornament, handcrafted by Shelley, is supposed to be me, in a chef's hat with the words, Baking Queen, now faded with time. Every year, I put my little tree on display and admired the tiny cookies and wooden spoons made of Fimo with a twinge of sadness. This year, I happily know that this tree does truly represent me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Project Buttermilk

Buttermilk is not an ingredient which I regularly use but when my sister offered me 750 millilitres of leftover buttermilk, the frugal baker in me could not decline. This gave me an opportunity to leaf through my old pastry school curriculum, a gold mine of trusted recipes, in search of the word buttermilk.

This fermented dairy product is essentially milk soured with lactic acid which is a by-product of cultured bacteria feasting on lactose. It gives richness and tanginess to many types of quickbreads and cakes, including muffins, which is the first thing I decided to bake. My favourite muffin recipe from school is a bran, pumpkin and ginger muffin, moist and light with an interesting crunch from toasted millet. Even though Eric has an irrational hatred of pumpkin due to a traumatic rotting pumpkin science experiment in elementary school, he admitted that this muffin was very good.

Next, the obvious destination for buttermilk is in buttermilk biscuits, a perfect accompaniment to a hearty beef stew which was on the menu for dinner. From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours, I found a simple recipe which made the perfect buttery oven-fresh sponge for the rich gravy.

Finally, the buttermilk found its way into a Devil's Food cake which I soaked with Bailey's irish cream syrup and layered with coffee buttercream. In case you think we eat like this every night, you are mistaken. Having a house guest and leftover buttermilk certainly motivates me to cook more than just on Sundays! The only problem is that I still have about 1 cup of buttermilk left but no longer any recipe ideas nor any space in my belly. Maybe pancakes on Saturday?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The road not taken: ink & chocolate

Perhaps I should have known in Grade 5 that medicine was not my destiny. That was the year my teacher, Mrs. Paul, taught us cursive handwriting and my devotion to perfect penmanship was born. My penmanship is, in general, neat and organized (excluding when I have to scribble quickly, of course), a reflection of my obsessive-compulsive personality traits. If only I had a dollar for every time somebody said, "You can't be a doctor...your handwriting is too neat.".

Several years after Grade 5, I received a calligraphy set as a gift and taught myself rudimentary Italic and Gothic scripts, which led to a mild obsession with graphic design and typography (does anyone remember Letraset transfer fonts?). Soon, something I will loosely term "academic pressure" distracted me from any artistic pursuits and I followed the road more traveled. Two and a half years after leaving ophthalmology, I am now just beginning to retrace my steps towards a life which was once filled with burgeoning creativity and expression, through pastry and calligraphy. In fact, I hoped that taking calligraphy classes would improve my chocolate writing skills.

This weekend, I participated in a pointed pen calligraphy workshop with the Westcoast Calligraphy Society, taught by Gwen Weaver. Pointed pen techniques require delicate control over the pressure which is put on the pointy nib in order to achieve contrast between thick and thin lines. I am addicted.

Unfortunately, what I learned about pointed pen calligraphy does not translate to chocolate writing! Achieving the thick and thins with ink is mostly a function of the nib used and pressure applied. Chocolate writing, on the other hand, can only vary in thick and thinness depending on how fast or slow you write and to a certain extent, how hard you squeeze your paper cone. Shaping the tip of your paper cone to resemble a broad edge versus a fine tip can also allow some stylistic variation. Regardless, I need hours of more practice before perfecting either ink or chocolate calligraphy but at least with chocolate, all the mistakes are edible!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Macarons (version 5.0)

Last week, I received a box of Sébastien Bouillet macarons from my fabulous dental hygienist, Martin, who returned from a trip to Japan. He and I share a love of food which causes my biannual dental cleanings to be somewhat lengthy due to conversations interrupted by polishing, flossing, and fluoride. The macarons were a complete surprise and an unexpected act of deliciousness.

The six flavours were chocolat orange, pistache, citron, fraise, framboise, and myrtille. All except for pistache and citron were jam-filled and most were very sweet and incredibly soft. I cannot wait to return to France, and Lyon in particular, where Sébastien Bouillet is based, in order to taste his other macarons, including flavours named Barbe à Papa rose and pop-corn. In fact, heading to Tokyo may be an equally exciting pastry destination!

Monday, November 5, 2007


My niece Caitlin turned three this weekend and her inexplicable obsession with turtles was the obvious inspiration for this year's cake. Last year, cats were the primary focus but these days, turtles are undeniably superior creatures. (Photo below taken by my sister Michelle)

The cake itself is the dome of the turtle which I simply constructed with chocolate cake and vanilla buttercream in a plastic-wrap lined mixing bowl. Giving the turtle life and character with rolled fondant details only took me two hours which means I must be improving compared to my previous fondant experience this spring. The birthday hat was my favorite detail, even though Eric commented that, before the polka dots were added, it looked like a hat that Dumbledore would wear.

Rolled fondant (in small 1 kilogram batches) is easy to make at home thanks to my KitchenAid; however, at work, preparing just 6 kilograms is like arm-wrestling with a sticky reluctant octopus. Unfortunately, I overestimated the quantity of green fondant required and so perhaps, green Christmas themed fondant items (holly leaves? trees?) will be this week's project.

What I did not expect was how attached I became to my Turtle Cake creation and how I actually dreaded carving it up for its execution... I mean, consumption. Being so new to the pastry industry, I wonder whether others share the same attachment to certain products of which they are particularly proud. Maybe it is just me, the sentimental fool, who will never be entirely able to let go without some small hint of sadness.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 29, 2007


Some people can not live without bread. I am not one of them. You will rarely see me eating bread except at a restaurant. During the bread section at pastry school, 80% of the products which I brought home were desperately given to my sister, my in-laws, my in-law's in-laws and whomever else because my rate of consumption was too slow and my freezer was too small. My appreciation for bread making and the baker has certainly grown exponentially since pastry school.

Making bread by hand (no bread machines, no KitchenAids) is very satisfying and I do not do it often enough; however, since obtaining a block of fresh yeast recently, my interest in baking bread has been rekindled. I prefer using fresh yeast but it is quite challenging to find so I resorted to asking a local bakery whether they had a block to spare and they kindly gave me one for free!

There is something inherently pleasing about mixing the simplest elements like bread flour, water, yeast, and salt, and with your hands alone, forming a shaggy mess into a supple smooth perfectly spherical ball of dough. Bread dough is a living thing, full of happy budding yeast, which bring flavour and texture to the final product. With just a few variations, additional ingredients, and different techniques, the possibilities are endless, from the simplest baguette to the most complex Viennoisserie.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A fine evening

The rain, a couch, a good old movie, and something home made to eat straight out of the container. What could be better?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Definitely not forbidden fruit

On Sunday, we went to the 17th Annual UBC Apple Festival for a surprisingly educational and enjoyable afternoon. Set at the UBC Botanical Garden, this popular two day event is a celebration of apples, featuring over 60 varieties of apples to taste and purchase (including trees). Being my first visit to this festival, I was so distracted by the apple tasting section, where eager visitors like me and Eric were given 30 minutes to receive small slices of each variety from helpful volunteers, that all 30,000 pounds of apples were sold out before I even had a chance to make it to the selling area.

Nonetheless, the highlight was discovering the diversity of apples available and learning about their characteristics. Just reading the names of some varieties, like Winter Banana, Glockenapfel, or Belle de Booskop, was entertaining. I managed to get my hands on a 68 page booklet filled with encyclopedic descriptions and classifications of all the apples featured at the festival, such as which apples to use in salads since they do not brown when cut, or which apples hold their shape best when cooked. My personal apple taste leans towards sweet-tart dessert apple varieties, crisp and juicy, like Honeycrisp, Jubilee or Rubinette.

Since I left the festival empty-handed, Braeburn apples from a local market were the next best option for the obligatory apple pie which I had to bake. Pies are fairly easy to make but deceivingly difficult to make well. Growing up, my pie experimentation with subsequent successes and failures led me to become curious about how to improve my technique and troubleshoot problems like excessive runniness to my filling or wet bottom crusts. This obsession with the perfect pie essentially fueled my natural desire to learn more about pastry and baking. Ironically, the very first item produced in my pastry school class was apple pie! It was as though the pastry gods were smiling down upon me in some small way.

Meanwhile, I am quite satisfied with my Braeburn apple pie, à la mode of course with home made French vanilla ice cream since I had leftover cream in the fridge. These apples kept their shape very well and the crust was light and flakey. Classic comfort food.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

For the love of leftovers

Everyday cooking has always been somewhat utilitarian to me. As a result, people who have worked and eaten lunch with me quickly realize that I typically eat the same thing over and over again during the week. I cook a large batch of food at the beginning of the week which is divided into meal-sized portions. This may seem strange to some; however, for me, the advantage of limiting the meal planning to once a week far outweighs any palatal boredom or snobbery against leftovers which may ensue. It certainly makes our weekend culinary hunts for new restaurants and flavours much more satisfying.

The use of leftovers in the pastry kitchen is universally accepted. It is a sign of good food costing and smart planning. Egg whites, cake trimmings, and old croissants can become macarons, rum balls, and croissants aux amandes, respectively. Unadulterated chocolate can be re-melted and re-used endlessly. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my circle of friends gathered for a long overdue visit and I threw together an entremet in which six of the seven components were either leftovers or partially created from leftovers. There were no complaints!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


I love living in Vancouver where there are four distinct seasons in the year. Autumn brings chillier mornings at the bus stop and rainy days spent cozily inside. Because my pastry school term in 2006 was during autumn, I am now reminded of the warm spices, robust fruit, and comforting flavour notes which were so inspiring to me this time last year. We had some barely ripe green Anjou pears in the fridge that were begging to be poached. A splash of rum, a cinnamon stick, orange juice and zest, and leftover vanilla bean livened up my poaching syrup.

My mom gave me a bunch of Physalis alkekengi or Chinese lantern flowers to dry. Its deep orange papery husk encases a small round fruit. A more familiar cousin of these lantern flowers is Physalis peruviana or Cape gooseberry which is commonly used as a garnish on desserts, but often left uneaten on the plate, unfortunately, even though the small yellow berry is absolutely delicious. Garnishes on plated desserts or cakes are after-thoughts in many instances; however, when the decor is taken into consideration during the inital design process, a more visually cohesive product can result. Ideally, a garnish should demonstrate skill, be edible, and relate to the ingredients used. So, in retrospect, please forgive the star anise which I hastily threw on my caramel-anise ice cream!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Those darned tarts

I have never been very fond of Chinese desserts. Growing up, I would always prefer the ubiquitous orange wedges instead of red bean soup or sweet tapioca pudding at the end of a large Chinese dinner. My mild sweet tooth explains why I avoid treats like lotus seed paste filled mooncake which is traditionally eaten during yesterday's Mid-Autumn festival.

Instead, a new cookbook by Pichet Ong, The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, was introduced to me recently and in lieu of mooncake, I decided to try the passionfruit dahn tart recipe. Dahn tarts (or "those darned tarts" according to Eric) are traditional egg custard tarts commonly found in any Chinese bakery or dim sum restaurant, typically made with a puff pastry shell. Using fresh passionfruit in a dahn tart is a modern twist which can add both flavour and texture due to the edible seeds.

Having never seen or used fresh passionfruit before, the grayish mucinous pulp and insect-like seeds were somewhat repulsive to me initally; however, the floral aroma and pleasing crunch soon softened my negative reaction. I did modify the recipe by using leftover half & half instead of milk and leftover pâte sucrée instead of puff pastry due to frugality and laziness.

The soft custard centres were delicately flavoured with passionfruit and contrasted well with the buttery light tart shell. Perhaps next time, I would use less seeds because to me, a dahn tart needs its characteristic smooth glistening golden yellow surface. All I am missing now is the dim sum experience that precedes every good dahn tart.

Monday, September 17, 2007

No pain no gain

There are many differences between my professional past and present but the most pronouced difference today is physical. Except for hitting my head on ceiling mounted operating scopes several times during residency, ophthalmology was never physically demanding and ironically, this factored into my choice to pursue ophthalmology in the first place. On the other hand, kitchen work is essentially manual labour requiring strength and stamina in addition to hand skills and coordination. Adjusting to this environment is challenging at times because my small frame and accompanying muscle mass are disproportionate to the task at hand not infrequently.

Several body parts have been most affected. Perhaps, I am the only person who will ever admit to chronic wrist tendonitis secondary to studying and knitting, which is now exacerbated by carrying heavy vessels and trays. My hands also have tell-tale signs of food industry work, decorated with scars from scrapes and burns on the right and the odd cut on the left (since I am right handed). As well, washing dirty equipment in the "dish pit" at work results in wicked back aches. Luckily, my feet have been largely unaffected because of my beloved clogs.

The above discussion may resemble complaining but it is not. Instead, it serves as a reality check to anyone who might believe that being in pastry is a glamorous or perhaps, romantic occupation, as sometimes seen on television. My new profession is within the blue-collar realm; however, my worst day in the pastry kitchen so far has still been better than any day at the clinic and ultimately, this is why I would happily not trade places with my former self no matter how fatigued my body feels at the end of a hard day's work.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Despite being a UBC student for eight years consecutively, the existence of the UBC Farm escaped me until yesterday at the 13th Annual Feast of Fields event. Located in the south campus region, this 24 hectare farm is the last working farm within the city of Vancouver. With a glorious blue sky above and warm grassy earth underfoot, this year's Feast of Fields was, once again, a perfect excuse to eat for a good cause.

Restaurants, wineries, local farm producers, and community groups were all represented and provided food for thought and consumption. Many chefs offered BC wild salmon and tomatoes were especially abundant on the menus. Interestingly, no plates were on sale this year and instead, food items were designed either as finger food or presented on creative natural platters like leaves or bark. My favourites were grilled Poplar Grove tiger blue cheese & turkish fig walnut wine paninis from Vista D'Oro Farms and barbequed organic chicken wings with Chef Ann's tequila-lime sauce. Refreshing vanilla rooibos iced tea from T Tearoom and Happy Planet organic pomegranate-blueberry juice provided much needed hydration for the afternoon. We nibbled and sipped for almost three hours before finding some shade to digest and relax under.

The food for thought was provided by numerous organizations which support local sustainable food systems like FarmFolk/CityFolk and Green Table Network. Eating local or choosing restaurants which use locally produced ingredients is not always feasible (no local mangosteens or rice yet) but everybody needs to start somewhere!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting over humps

Madeleines are hard to resist. These shell-shaped cakey cookies are best enjoyed with a cup of tea, as Marcel Proust did, and if possible, in Paris. The next best thing is baking them yourself and trying not to eat them all before your husband comes home. Although traditionalists may cringe, I used my silicone molds with no complaints. My only disappointment was that I could not achieve the distinctive hump which protrudes from the non-shell madeleine underside. In my post-baking research, I discovered that Alain Ducasse bakes his madeleines first at 410 degrees Fahrenheit until the edges have risen but the centre remains sunken, at which time the oven is shut off as the hump forms over 2-3 minutes. The oven is then reset to 375 degrees Fahrenheit until the madeleines are done. Let the experimentation begin.

Meanwhile, September is frighteningly close and will mark one year since I officially entered the pastry domain. Over the past year, I have learned the meaning of wanting to go to work in the morning and loving what I do. It was always this elusive feeling which I never understood but intensely craved. I have also slowly learned not to be defined by my work, which was a trap I fell into many years ago. Although I still have mild intermittent angst surrounding my decision to leave ophthalmology (especially when my medical and pastry worlds collide), there is no question that I am a more well-adjusted person today than I have ever been.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The meaning of field to plate: three experiences

Chefs to the Field, Terra Nova Rural Park, Richmond BC. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Richmond, is Terra Nova Rural Park, home to wildlife areas, trails, heritage buildings, and a very beautifully cared for community garden which was the site of this year's Chefs to the Field event. Although the food was my first motivation to attend, the most enjoyable aspect of my visit was wandering through the expansive vegetable patches and flower beds with fork and plate in hand. My favourite food item was a succulent pseudo-pulled pork sandwich (which was not pork but instead vegetarian) offered by the charismatic Chef Tony Minichiello from NWCAV.

This celebration of local organic cuisine also included a black-box competition involving the harvest of ingredients directly from the community garden. To see twenty chefs in their white jackets picking the freshest possible greens and vegetables was a tangible expression of the seed to table philosophy which fuels organizations like the Terra Nova Schoolyard Project, run by the equally charismatic Chef Ian Lai.

My dad's garden. Although my thumbs are only a pale shade of green, my dad has always been the most prolific and attentive amateur vegetable farmer I know. My earliest memories involve summer afternoons picking cherry tomatoes, digging up potatoes, giggling at odd shaped carrots, and wondering how compost was magically made. Because of age, he has slowed down in recent years but his crops still include asparagus, beans, beets, blueberries, carrots, chives, corn, cucumbers, gai-lan plus other chinese greens, green onion, numerous varieties of lettuce, peas, potatoes, radishes, several varieties of squash, many varieties of tomatoes, watercress, and zucchini. The most unusual item he attempted to grow one year was cantaloupe; needless to say, the climate here is not ideal for cantaloupe and only one golfball sized melon was harvested!

Westham Island Herb Farm, Ladner BC. Today, my friend Michelle and I shared a lovely afternoon exploring this quaint local farm located on Westham Island which sits at the mouth of the Fraser River. I bought a bag of potatoes, green beans, onion, garlic, and blueberries. Buying produce direct from the farmer is a unique experience and as an urban dweller, a somewhat rare opportunity. Undoubtedly, it is easier (but not necessarily cheaper) to stop by your neighbourhood supermarket to pick up produce which was grown on a different continent. Making the effort to seek out local producers is the challenge and luckily, it is becoming not only more available, but also more appealing to do so, especially when the local summer harvest is so abundant and irresistible!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Churn baby churn

Even though I recently discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, ice cream is and always will be one of my favourite foods. Having 300 ml of leftover cream and an unsightly mass of untempered dark chocolate remaining from last weekend's entremet project, chocolate ice cream was the obvious final destination for these ingredients.

Given a choice, however, my frozen churned dessert preference would definitely be a fruity sorbetto. I do tend to be a creature of habit and throughout our trip to Italy in 2006, my recitation of "fragola, limone, caffe" as my standard trio of gelato flavours did become a little tiresome for my more adventurous husband.

Also, for all the food lovers in and around Vancouver, I hope to see you at the Chefs to the Field event this Sunday, August 19th from 11 am to 4 pm. This charity event will benefit a very deserving organization, the Terra Nova Schoolyard Society, which is headed by Chef Ian Lai who I know from NWCAV.