Monday, December 22, 2008

Spirit of giving

I used to get very anxious about Christmas gift giving. Finding the perfect gift for everyone on my list became an obsession and I was often guilty of being at the mall on December 24th at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. During my university years, however, I had an epiphany and began making identical gifts for each friend in order to make my life easier. One year, it was pillows. Another year, mosaic picture frames. My favourite was the year I made personal sized pavlovas for everyone.

The tradition fell dormant for about a decade because medical school and residency made me lazy in terms of creativity and friendships. Nowadays, I am appreciative of my opportunities to foster both and take much joy from my annual edible gift production.

On the menu this year were two items, mini-Florentine cookies and milk chocolate passionfruit caramel truffles. The Florentines are very cute, about the size of a Toonie, and textured with dark chocolate on the reverse. The truffles turned out slightly different than I had planned, but are nonetheless, exceedingly soft and delicious. The original ganache recipe used white chocolate and was meant to be piping consistency so next time I will need to make it even more firm to make my life easier during the rolling and dipping process. Note to self: buy truffle shells next year.

Since my frugality causes me to only make exactly what I need, when I do have leftovers, I make it a challenge to find a good use for them. For example, having a leftover blob of lime marshmallow (primary use to be revealed at a later date), the next logical step was to make a small marshmallow Christmas tree, decorated with leftover Halloween candy, leftover fondant daisy/star, and leftover silver dragées. Consider it a gift to you as a small token of thanks for your interest in my little blog in 2008. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning Hebrew

This week, in between Christmas parties, wrist exercises, and skating with Vancouver 2010 Olympic mascots, I managed to complete a colourful baby block themed cake for Bailey Rose, the newest addition to my friends Erik and Paige's family. You may recall that big sister Maya just recently celebrated a birthday too.

The cake was for the traditional Jewish naming ceremony which meant that in addition to her secular name Bailey, her Hebrew name was to be included on the baby blocks. Luckily, I was given a brief gentile Kindergarten level introduction to the Hebrew alphabet, learning that words in Hebrew are written from right to left. Because Bailey's Hebrew name actually only has five letters instead of six, a yellow heart was inserted and is not a Hebrew letter!

Each block was a 4 inch cube composed of chocolate cake and either vanilla mousseline or mocha mousseline. I was debating whether to cover each cube with rolled fondant or to make pastillage tiles and decided on the latter because I wanted to achieve a more solid appearance and the drying time needed for pastillage before assembly was actually advantageous for my work flow. Each tile was caulked together using royal icing and was so effective that during the cake cutting, most blocks remained intact after being lifted off the cake cube.

It was a big bustling party, centered around a beautiful Jewish tradition where the newborn is passed from the oldest generations through to the parents and the derivation of Bailey Rose's name was explained. For me, it was an opportunity to test my self-confidence amid a houseful of friendly strangers who perhaps knew of my previous life in ophthalmology. Confirmation of my unusual career switch was akin to revealing an urban legend to be actually true, "that doctor who became a pastry chef".

The cake was very well received (especially my excellent Hebrew letters) and one nice man even joked that he liked my cake so much he wanted to convert me to Judaism! Unfortunately, eight years of Sunday School and an unshakable love of Chinese BBQ pork would prevent this from happening. Although, I was most impressed by the massive 3 feet long challah which was so soft and delicious and perfectly braided. Mazel tov מזל טוב‎ !!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

On pause

Please forgive my absence lately as I am currently on pause for several reasons. Primarily, my poor left wrist is recovering from a workplace injury. It seems 10.5 kilograms (23 pounds) of mousse/cake do not belong all on one hand. Ironically, my left wrist was always my good wrist after years of chronic tendonitis predominantly in my right wrist from manic note-taking using a pen death grip unlike no other and knitting (nerd alert!). With the obligatory rest, ice, and ibuprofen, all should recover shortly.

This incident has given me more awareness of the occupational hazards and ergonomic conundrums which inhabit the professional pastry kitchen. Upon entering the industry, I was somewhat naive to the physical realities of working in pastry production, being more enthralled with the creative and technical challenges which I hoped to conquer. Depending on the size of the kitchen and volume of production, the ratio between your physical strength and potential weight of stuff you carry becomes a very important issue. Nowadays, I am equally concerned with protecting my musculoskeletal well-being and luckily, previous knowledge of human anatomy is a great advantage.

As a result, I have not been very active in my home kitchen, taking every possible opportunity to rest my wrist. Without this creative stimulus, there is little to blog about and nothing pretty to photograph. My blog has always served as a medium to document what inspires me in the kitchen rather than a reason to go and create in the kitchen. This is a fine distinction which explains why I can never post more than once a week. It reflects the sweet things I create in my regular daily life, either for personal consumption or for others, because I can never make something just to blog about it.

So meanwhile, you will find me relaxing with my flabby tabby, waiting for wrist recovery and for the creative juices to flow. With Christmas creeping up on me, edible gift production will soon start admist the busy working season. The tree will be up this weekend I hope and with luck, the cat will not eat the poinsettia. Have a wonderful week.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Between the ages of 8 and 13, I was obsessed with rainbows. Almost all my worldly possessions were in full rainbow colours, including pillow case, leg warmers, and hair accessories. My favourite sweater was a black cardigan with different rainbow coloured buttons. For Grade 4 art class, I made a mobile festooned with rainbows which hung in our family room for probably 6 years. I could go on listing my rainbow-mania childhood memories but I shan't.

Today, while my love of bright, some may say garish, colour is still alive but less visible in my everyday life, I have the opportunity to relive this rainbow fixation through my niece Caitlin who celebrated her 4th birthday on Sunday.

The rainbow cake was constructed from a 10" diameter round cake, which was divided into two halves, one for the rainbow arc, and the other further divided to make two clouds. Three layers of vanilla cake were filled with a vanilla-lemongrass mousseline and fresh strawberries, with Italian meringue creating the puffy cloud decor. (And yes, I purposely left out indigo.)

Having leftover rolled fondant, an impromptu turtle, reminiscent of last year's birthday cake, was added. I figured that it would be a nice keepsake for Caitlin to enjoy since she still loves turtles and rolled fondant seems to last forever. I was incorrect and thank God I was not at the party to witness such savage yet innocent consumption of my well-dressed turtle (party photos by Auntie Jennifer). Happy Birthday Caitlin!

Monday, October 27, 2008

True colours

This has been an introspective week for me. I have a tendency to live in the present which may be healthy for some; however, for me, it often means I am avoiding issues of the past and future. Being honest about situations which are deeply rooted in anger and resentment can be cathartic and healing.

Maybe it is the changing season which has prompted this awareness. More likely, the truth is simply overdue. This truth can be bitter or sour and hard to swallow. With time, attention, and hope, something beautiful may emerge.

I received a generous gift of local quinces from my friend Anya yesterday. Although I have never worked with quince before, I have always been curious about this aromatic golden fruit, hearing stories about its mellow transformation from acidic and astringent to pink and delicious when cooked. Following this recipe, five pounds of quince became a sweet fragrant purée, half of which will be saved for a rainy day and the other half cooked down to make quince paste (a.k.a. membrillo).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diversion: wings

After not eating a single morsel of turkey for Thanksgiving, I think that avian karma subconsciously led me to several bird habitats this week. The annual snow geese migration attracted Eric and I to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner and we were audience to numerous Sandhill cranes, American coots, Northern pintails and an army of Mallard ducks.

Then, my friend Fionna and I headed out on a chilly Sunday morning in search of fall colours to photograph but I found birds instead.

Speaking of birds, my sister is nesting once again after a stork delivered my newest niece into the world on my birthday last Wednesday! Happy Birthday Hayley (aka Bean)!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Seeing red

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Canadians! Autumn has definitely arrived in Vancouver with the return of rain and chilly mornings at the bus stop. We turned on the heater this weekend and dug out the wooly throw blanket that goes on the couch. The garden needs to be cleaned out and spring bulbs need planting but I am waiting for less soggy weather before venturing out.

Here on the west coast, there are no truly spectacular fall colours to brag about; we are lucky to enjoy the green coastal coniferous rainforest all year round. The one current exception is my fiery lipstick red Japanese maple which graces my patio. Its lacey crimson foliage is something I look forward to every year.

The local British Columbia apple harvest is also in high gear. Although my preferred method of apple consumption is raw, cold, and crisp, the baked, warm, and tender apple in tart or pie form is always a treat. This small and simple French apple tart helped use up the last Royal Gala in the fridge and will go nicely with my roast chicken at tonight's Thanksgiving dinner for two.

Stay tuned for more apple related activities as I will be heading to the UBC Apple Festival next weekend! See you at the tasting tent?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hello Bunny

Having accumulated an abundance of egg whites during the big wedding cake production, I was happy to receive a request for a small ballerina-themed birthday cake for a lucky little girl named Maya. Using up egg whites is always a goal in any pastry kitchen and for me, I can only eat so much Chinese egg-drop corn soup. So, this cake was a perfect opportunity to make passionfruit Italian buttercream, combined with some local raspberries I had frozen from the summer, and served between three layers of chocolatey Devil's Food cake.

Having a bunny be the ballerina was my idea, based on a favourite toy from my childhood. Plus, putting animals in clothes onto cakes seems to exponentially increase the cuteness factor every time. The bunny was shaped from white chocolate modelling paste and her pink outfit was tailored from pink rolled fondant. Eric noticed that the bunny ballerina's face does have an odd resemblance to Hello Kitty, which was quite unintentional.

My favourite details on this cake were the ballet pointe shoes and the back of the bunny's dress. In fact, even though I had made a perfectly round bunny's tail, I became so caught up in making the sash and bow that I forgot about it and ended up tucking her tail under the skirt instead. Happy Birthday Maya!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A reason to celebrate

Although I have received several inquiries in recent years for wedding cakes, this three-tiered classically elegant cake for my friend Patricia is the first request that I have accepted. The vanilla cake with lemon curd and lemon buttercream barely fit into my refrigerator and relegated my usual array of fruits, veggies, and meat (a.k.a. breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to a second-class position. Now I know with certainty that the largest cake I can currently make at home is for 100 servings.

Making the cake was the easy part even though the more simple the design, the more flawless it must be. What followed gave me chest pain. As some of you may know, I am a 100 pound weakling who has gained some muscle mass since entering professional pastry; however, cake for 100 people is heavy, its filling is heavy and the rolled fondant making it all pretty is heavy. The delivery and final assembly gave me and my normally imperturbable husband more stress than anticipated.

Moreover, to witness the cake's destruction as it laid slaughtered on the dessert buffet table caused a brief apneic spell, which eventually passed upon learning that people enjoyed the cake's lemony goodness. Nonetheless, I am proud of the final result and honoured to be even a small part of Patricia and Chris' wedding celebration.

The best part of the evening was seeing all my medical school friends together. Although I do not miss the clinical demands of medicine, I certainly miss the comradery of medical school, the result of shared stressors combined with shared successes. Despite my mixed feelings about the original path I took in life, the experience is irreplaceable simply because of the wonderful people which I met along the way. Congratulations Patricia and Chris!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Silly things: Part deux

I have a love of paper and calligraphy so when I find a special item which combines pastry with paper, it has to be mine. You may remember these.

This sweet pastel pop-up card is not for anyone in particular. It is much too pretty to write on, I think. Several tiny pre-printed notes with different messages can be slipped into the miniture mail slot.

Can you see the macarons hiding on the back shelf? My fridge is currently filled with too many egg whites so maybe macarons will make an appearance soon! You will see why I used up so many egg yolks in next week's post...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Natural selection

My friend Julie, whom I have known for 30 years, and I recently reflected on how friendships evolve and change over the years, even decades. Some grow closer, some farther, and a lucky few are circular. Various tangible or intangible circumstances in life push and pull friendships in different directions, usually in gentle imperceptible ways. If you are blessed, the foundation on which an original friendship was built is strong enough to withstand any internal or external assault; however, the mere history of a friendship is not enough to sustain one in the present or future.

Speaking of friends, I am lucky to have my good friend Erik (with a "k") return home to Vancouver after almost ten years in Edmonton. Did I just say ten years? After medical school, we both were matched to University of Alberta residency programs in 1999 but I only survived five long cold Edmonton winters. He must be much tougher than I am.

This simple dark chocolate hazelnut tart was a small house-warming gift for Erik and his family to enjoy. A pâte sucrée crust was baked with a thin layer of hazelnut cream before pouring a dark chocolate hazelnut ganache over top. I do love the initial smooth mirror-like appearance of a still warm and fluid dark chocolate ganache, which eventually dulls slightly as it sets. Welcome home!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sticking by

Candy and sweets were not a big part of my childhood. For reasons unbeknownst to me still to this day, we never went trick-or-treating on Halloween and instead, helped my mom give out candy to our friends and neighbours who would visit. We never felt deprived, however, because my sister and I were allowed to select a few items from the candy bowl and my habitual choice would be those Kraft caramel squares. Incidentally, my GUND Snuffles teddy bear was even named Caramel.

Decades later, I now can make my own soft caramels (en français, les caramels mous). They are dead easy to make and even easier to infuse with different flavours. Personally, I do not like the combination of salt and sweet and so have avoided the salted caramel trend. My tastebuds prefer caramel with fruity notes and so I frugally used some leftover blueberry purée to make blueberry caramels mous. After patiently letting them set overnight, cutting them was an exercise in restraint as I had to resist snacking on all the trimmings.

Having no dental cavities and not wishing to get any this late in life, the majority of caramels were destined for travel as gifts to a few friends, near and far. In fact, they ship well since they are not extremely temperature-sensitive, have a fairly long shelf-life, and are not delicate creatures like macarons, for example.

Meanwhile, I must find my dusty vintage GUND teddy bear...

Monday, September 1, 2008


September is here and for me, this ninth month always marks a time of potential and promise. Part of me always wants to go back to school in September, especially now because I crave some form of academic challenge. After two years of focus on professional pastry, I am feeling a bit brain dead without any opportunity to learn, analyze, and formulate new ideas in a setting where my peers have a common academic goal. Pastry kitchens are where your sweat and hands are valued more than your brain and although organization and efficiency are necessary to succeed, very often the unfortunate measure of a good pastry cook is how much overtime you will do or how many aches and pains you will endure.

Luckily, my creative pursuits at home allow a counter-balance to this academic void. For example, this baby shower cake in the form of a lion's face was a chance to translate a two-dimensional image into three-dimensional edible form. Given a wall paper sample to work from, the lion was chosen as the main subject. Inside, a traditional carrot cake with cream cheese filling was requested.

I used some creative license with the mane and snout and was worried that the lion was starting to look like a sunflower at one point; however, he turned out quite well. In retrospect, I would have built up the center of the cake so that the lion would have less of a LeFort 3 fracture flat mid-face appearance, but hindsight is 20/15, isn't it?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Where's Pablo?

Do you know this penguin? I did not until recently when I was introduced to Pablo and the Backyardigans. In fact, my knowledge of who's who in childhood pop culture is very limited these days and only exists because of several nieces who delight in Dora and Disney princesses. Personally, I am from the generation of Sanrio classics, when Hello Kitty, My Melody, and Little Twin Stars reigned supreme. Forget Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids, this Canadian-Chinese kid from the 1970's still has her pristine collection of Hello Kitty pencil cases and stickers and currently has unusual empathy for a character named Kogepan.

A lucky little girl named Blake (a big fan of Pablo) celebrated a birthday with swirly pink, purple, and yellow cupcakes decorated with royal icing alphabet letters and numbers. Six dozen cupcakes later, I have a new respect for these small tasty treats. The whole cupcake hype has been wasted on me, who admittedly, poo-pooed the notion that a cupcake could ever be delicious or desirable (I don't like a mouthful of buttercream). But their appeal makes more sense to me now, both from a consumer and creator point-of-view.

First, rather than getting a slice of cake, it is inherently more special to get an individual serving that is yours alone, not a fraction of a greater whole. Second, even though cupcakes are technically simple and often devoid of much flavour complexity, the possibilities in design are endless as each cupcake is its own blank canvas individually but also as a group where repetition and patterns can be visually stunning. Vive le cupcake!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Something blue

Blueberries were always a part of my childhood summers. A family friend owned a blueberry farm and picking blueberries was a regular event each August. My mom would wash, dry, and freeze bags and bags of blueberries to make blueberry milkshakes for us later in the year. I remember how she would vacuum seal each freezer bag by using a straw to suck out all the air before closing the seal, a technique that I now use. It's funny what little memories stay with me into adulthood as I find myself repeating the same seemingly mundane activities of every day life that I witnessed my mom perform decades ago.

With so many blueberries currently inhabiting my freezer, I decided to incorporate them as a mousse layer into an entremet which was for my friend Patricia's bridal shower. The shower also had a wine theme so a recent purchase from Gehringer Brothers estate winery, a 2007 Private Reserve Riesling, became a gelée layer studded with fresh blueberries. I was thinking of adding some citrus notes and opted for lemongrass mousse because I had a few stalks leftover after cooking up some Vietnamese lemongrass chicken earlier in the week. Finally, two layers of pistachio lime joconde were also assembled into the entremet.

White chocolate spray gave the entremet a velvety finish. The weather here in Vancouver has been very hot lately and so my poor white chocolate curls became extrememly soft but survived intact. No air-conditioning for me. Soon it will be cooler though since unbelievably, there are only two weeks left in August! Luckily, I will have many blueberries in my already crammed freezer to enjoy this winter.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Strudel lessons

As promised, a cherry strudel was my project this week, using up some remaining local Lapin cherries which were competing for attention with five pounds of blueberries in the fridge. My first exposure to authentic strudel was on Day 3 of pastry school, when we watched in dumb-struck awe as our expert German pastry instructor stretched a handful of strudel dough into a tissue paper thin sheet which covered the workbench (about 2.5 feet by 5 feet) without a single rip or tear.

Admittedly, my strudel skills are rudimentary and this cherry and peach strudel is not traditional Austrian apple strudel; however, I was determined to practice my strudel dough stretching abilities using local summer fruit. When working with strudel dough, the goal is to pull and stretch the dough as thin as humanly possible without tearing it. How thin? Thin enough to read a newspaper through it. Using gravity to gently thin the dough by its own weight is then followed by gentle pulling and stretching action with the palm of your hand. A flour dusted linen or tea towel works well to help roll up the fruit filled strudel without having to handle the fragile dough directly.

I did make a few mistakes. Although my strudel dough was hole-free, I think I was too cautious and could have stretched it even thinner. Too much fruit and not enough length of dough also produced fewer layers and thus, a less flaky strudel than I had hoped for. Finally, I underbaked it for fear of overcooking the fruit and so the strudel was not as crisp as it could be. But we ate it anyways!