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.