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!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Diversion: the Okanagan

Exploration and relaxation were on our agenda last weekend as we took a road trip into British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. The wine and seasonal fruit bountiful in this region, just a short four hours drive from Vancouver, attracted us and since it has been almost 18 years since I was in the Okanagan, a visit was due. Okanangan Wine Country is now internationally renowned for its extraordinary terroir, offering world class wines and equally delicious culinary experiences.

Our first stop was Mission Hill Estate Winery to enjoy an outdoor patio dinner at The Terrace, set atop a scenic overlook in Westlake. The five course tasting menu provided a masterful dining experience set against the dramatic architectural backdrop and landscape. My favourite was the Foie Gras au Torchon, accompanied by sweet quince purée, caramelized onion, and ice wine agar caviar on buttered toasted brioche. Dessert choices featured local orchard treasures, either ripe plump apricots or a trio of cherry concoctions, including a strudel which I plan to reproduce very shortly.

We stayed at a lovely bed & breakfast in Summerland under the shadow of Giant's Head Mountain, surrounded by the dry summer heat and early morning calls of quail (they say "Chicago! Chicago!"). At nearby Silkscarf Winery, along with wine, the most perfect Lapin cherries were for sale and after the first hour, I was already near maximum gastrointestinal capacity from unbridled cherry consumption. Later, I discovered that the Lapin variety of cherry was actually developed in Summerland in 1983 and to me, their crunchy dense texture and explosive flavour make them, by far, the best cherries I have enjoyed.

And of course, the wine. After visiting seven wineries with my wannabe sommelier husband, I think that at least, I know what I like. My grossly underdeveloped palate certainly lacks the finesse to appreciate the intricacies of fine wine and my Chinese liver lacks the enzymatic tools to deal with it. But we came home with a selection of reds and one white, some to be enjoyed now and some for later, when memories of the summer heat and succulent cherries have faded.