Monday, July 28, 2008

Notes from the past

Piano lessons were a huge part of my childhood, like many Asian-Canadians of my generation. Beginning at around age four, weekly lessons became torture sessions due to our prototypical scary old piano teacher who shall be called Mrs. T. Mrs. T. seemed like she was 100 years old and since I had to wait by myself in her sitting room during my sister's lessons, her house too was a source of fear and mystery. Her ancient perfume and a wooden carved statue of what I now realize was St. Francis of Assisi still haunt my memories.

Music did not become fun until high school when, admittedly, I was a band geek who thrived in concert and jazz bands and choir ensembles. I played the flute, sang alto, and briefly learned the trombone for two months in order fill a vacant third trombone seat. Switching to a fabulous new piano teacher also allowed me to actually enjoy playing the piano. Technique and expressivity never came easy to me; I was not a musical savant and solo public performance was exceedingly anxiety provoking. Ultimately, completing my ARCT Performance Diploma at the dinosaur age of twenty will always be one of my proudest accomplishments, especially because I broke my left pinkie finger four days before my exam and had to defer it one year before finally passing with honours. So traumatizing.

I always credit my early exposure to piano as why I am very fond of fine motor tasks which require dexterity and coordination. The smaller the better, is my motto. Making this birthday cake was ridiculously entertaining and provided great satisfaction. The piano was built from an 8" x 8" x 2" square cake placed on its side with pastillage legs, keyboard, sheet music, and framed portrait of the birthday girl. Because she is a panda fanatic, I decided to have a well-dressed panda as the pianist, constructed from carved Rice Krispie treats and then covered with fondant.

The piano cake concept was adapted from one found in The Essential Guide to Cake Decoration, a good book on basics with cute design ideas. The panda was purely freehand and took almost the entire day to make. I am particularly fond of its carefully formed snout. When I heard that the birthday girl refused to let the panda be eaten, I was secretly relieved. Wouldn't you be?

Monday, July 21, 2008


Having only recently developed a mildly green thumb, my appreciation of gardening has grown exponentially over the past two years since starting my own patio container garden. With a very shady north-east patio, my choices are limited to impatiens, lobelia, and the odd coleus, not the more showy sun-loving blooms like roses or geraniums. This week, my gardening moved indoors and to the kitchen specifically, in order to create a rose garden themed birthday cake for a lucky one year-old named Rose.

All the pink roses, white impatiens, foliage, and garden creatures were made from fondant, with small royal icing details. I could (and did) sit happily for hours without interruption shaping a whole menagerie of creatures and bouquet of roses, work that some people would find tedious. There is a meditative quality to this type of repetitive fine detail work which suits me.

The entire cake experience was not all rosy, however. Because the fondant roses were meant to lie flat against the side of the cake, I had shaved off the back of each rose and assumed they would adhere easily with either Tylose glue or stiff royal icing. Neither worked because of the fondant rose's weight against gravity causing them to fall off one by one, injuring some garden creatures in the process. Ultimately, I had to skewer each rose with a toothpick and secure them directly into the cake with great reluctance.

Despite the rose drama, this rose garden cake might be my favourite cake yet. My favourite details include the snails and their tracks becoming the writing, the inconspicuous family of slugs, and the rainbow caterpillars. Such a high degree of cuteness all packed into one cake!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Works in progress

Over the past week, I have been asking myself why I blog. This musing was prompted by several requests for recipes that I used in my previous post. When I first began my blog and named it with the most uninspired name possible, it was purely for the selfish reason of self-expression. Having made the great leap to professional pastry from ophthalmology, I needed to document this unchartered journey to an anonymous audience who would hopefully have some interest in experiencing the transition with me, whether from the medicine or food industry point of view. These days, as I am farther removed from my old professional life, I choose to focus my blog on documenting my own creative pursuits, through pastry and photography.

I still view my pastry life through an atypical lens because, despite it being over three years since my departure from medicine, my observations are akin to those of a displaced clinician who has meandered into the midst of a pastry kitchen. More importantly, my comfort level in my new "skin" is stronger having shed some, but not all, of the insecurities which came from perceived judgement and negativity.

Consequently, my blog will probably never become a mainstream food blog, filled with recipes and group baking activities, due to a conscious decision to concentrate on what inspires me and not to follow a particular format nor be instructional. Most of the recipes which I use or adapt at home are from unpublished sources and so I do not feel at liberty to send them into cyberspace. The whole question of recipe ownership intrigues me and I have yet to find a good discussion on this topic. Does changing one gram of an ingredient make it yours?

Meanwhile, these unfinished pastel-coloured fondant garden creatures are crawling around my countertops, soon to be assembled onto a rose garden themed birthday cake for a little girl named Rose. It was an opportunity to emulate the work of the talented cake designer at CakeJournal whose style can only be described as sooooooo cute. As a detail freak and former micro-surgeon, I am certainly in my element when making tiny things look perfect!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Berries and bees

There is no purer nor more perfect food than beautiful fresh berries. Cherries are my ultimate fruit, so sweet, so explosive in flavour. I am one of those people who will, if permitted, stand for up to 20 minutes picking through a pile of cherries to choose only the most flawless firm specimens. When it comes to raspberries, these delicate jewels are so fragile yet sharp in flavour that they are my immediate choice to pair with other ingredients like chocolate. My friend and fellow pastry professional Fionna gave me these berries and I decided to use them two ways.

First, it would be tragic not to enjoy raspberries just as they are, so I paired them with some simple dark chocolate mousse which I had leftover in the freezer. Yes, you can freeze mousses and thaw them later for use but some loss of volume will occur inevitably. Second, I made a raspberry guimauve (a.k.a. marshmallow) by first making a purée and using a recipe adapted from a Derek Poirier recipe which I recently saw at a Valrhona demo. My previous guimauve experience has been using the Italian meringue guimauve method but I was pleasantly surprised at how well this cooked sugar/gelatin guimauve recipe worked.

This summer long homage to fruit that you will witness if you continue to read my blog posts is inspired by all the local fruit farmers in British Columbia who you can meet at your local farmer's market. In fact, I am looking forward to visiting the Okanagan in a few weeks to pick my own cherries!

More importantly, however, if you can not imagine life without fruit just like I can not, you need to become aware of a very serious issue concerning the plight of honeybees in North America. A recent episode of Nature on PBS called "Silence of the Bees" documents the potentially disasterous effect of a virus on honeybee colonies which could lead to an end to pollination of all flowering crops which include all the vegetables and fruits that we love. It seems inconceivable but unfortunately, this scenario is a distinct possibility without urgent intervention to help the honeybee population. Thank you to all the hardworking honeybees which make this fruit possible!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tart nouveau

Happy Canada Day! Celebrating Canada's 141st birthday during our first and likely only heat wave of the summer, I plan to water my flowers and dust off the patio furniture today. Keeping cool is difficult in our living space, especially yesterday when the oven seemed to be on 400F the entire day. I cook large batches of lunches and dinners each Monday for consumption during the week. Yesterday, a lovely chocolate hazelnut strawberry tart was also on the menu.

I have been wanting to try Michael Laiskonis' chocolate tart dough recipe for several months now and finally stumbled upon the right opportunity when I was wondering what to do with some leftover gianduja pastry cream which had done its duty last week as my soufflé base. This time last year I was just finishing my Pan Pacific practicum and had sworn I would never make another fresh fruit tart in my life unless forced at gunpoint. No firearms were necessary, just the presence of fresh sweet strawberries and excess gianduja pastry cream reminding me that not all fruit tarts are created equal.

The tart dough is very easy to work with, containing almond powder which gives it great texture. I substituted some ground hazelnut into my almond cream recipe and piped a layer into my tart shells. Once baked and cooled, a thin layer of gianduja pastry cream was spread on top and crowned with fresh strawberries. A sprinkle of hazelnut streusel adds a little buttery crunch. Make the streusel stick by glazing the strawberries first with some melted apricot jelly, which also serves to increase the fruit's longevity.

Because of the slow start to our summer here in British Columbia, the local fruit crop has been delayed but hopefully, those gorgeous local cherries, apricots, and blueberries will soon appear at the market. I might not be succeeding on any 100 Mile Diet yet, but odds will definitely improve in the next few weeks!