Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Project gingerbread

I finally got my Christmas act together over the past few days and decided to do gingerbread three ways. It seemed appropriate since there was an ancient carton of molasses hiding in my pantry that was begging to be used. Lacking an actual gingerbread man cookie cutter, I instead decided to use my alphabet cutters to spread some edible peace and joy.

Gingerbread trio - gingerbread macarons

Then, in reaction to my recent Costco macaron encounter, chocolate gingerbread macarons were created. I wanted them to taste identical to gingerbread but with the exact opposite texture, soft and rich. This was achieved by halving the amount of cocoa powder I usually use in my chocolate macaron recipe and adding powdered ginger, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg along with a sprinkle of gingerbread crumbs. For extra punch, the ganache included molasses and the same four spices.

Gingerbread trio - Caramel gingerbread spiced ice cream

Having leftover yolks and cream always makes me think of ice cream, even in winter, and so gingerbread-spiced caramel ice cream was born. Although the ice cream is just for us to enjoy, the rest will be given away to the usual suspects. You know who you are. Have a happy and healthy holiday season everyone!

Gingerbread trio - snowman

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Good or bad?

My absence is reflective of my recent bout of the blahs, an uninspired gray cloud which has hovered over me, resulting in stagnation. Usually at this time of year, I am already deep in my personal Christmas production and worrying about how to package bon bons and such. This year, however, I have been dragging my feet and making excuses, reluctant to even acknowledge that Christmas is just 9 days away.

J.P. Hevin macarons - a gift

But hopefully, the page has turned. Receiving a lovely gift of J. P. Hevin macarons, direct from Hong Kong, has rekindled some spirit. Admittedly, the time and distance travelled took some toll on their delicate dispositions. Yet, their mere presence was uplifting to my morale which has been weighed down by the mundanity and irritations of my current station in life.

Costco macarons (frozen)

The irony is that I went to Costco on the day after receiving these lovely macarons and discovered boxes of frozen Parisian macarons for sale. They were nestled beside the frozen petits-fours and hors d'oeuvres. I was so tempted to spend the $4.97 to purchase and try the 32 macarons (vanilla, coffee, and pistachio) out of sheer curiosity but refrained. Thus I have absolutely no opinion about their quality.

J. P. Hevin macarons, stacked
Honestly, my first reaction was born from shades of food snobbery that I try to avoid. But after more thought, I realized that Costco was smart to provide relatively inaccessible but desirable high-end items to the average consumer. This has prompted me to get my Christmas act together and erase any dreary thoughts dancing in my head. If Costco can provide macarons, then I am obligated to produce something 100x better. I am lucky to know how to make a decent macaron and it is a privilege to make delicious things that people enjoy, whether they know the difference between a baked good and a baked bad.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mixed media

Wine bottle Birthday Cake - top view

The endless rain has started in Vancouver, and while I do love cozy days listening to the pitter-patter, walking to and from the bus stop is somewhat soggier than usual with wet autumn leaves still lining the streets. I tend to hibernate during the cold months but when asked to create a wine bottle themed birthday cake this week, the artistic challenge was quite invigorating!

Wine bottle Birthday Cake - the label

I had a bit of déjà vu because this cake was for another 60 year old who lives far away, just like the Tree cake. In order to make life easier, the more elements which I can create ahead of time, the better and so, the fondant grapes, gumpaste wine label and bottle cap, white chocolate scrolls, and faux-wood chocolate box panels were all done in advance.

The most rewarding but time-consuming element was undoubtedly, the wine label. Having recently attended a Compressed Italics calligraphy workshop by Martin Jackson (who I secretly wish I could be), I was eager to practice this hand and experiment with my calligraphic tools on dried gumpaste. Using Wilton colour paste mixed with vodka for ink, my Speedball C2 nib flowed quite nicely whereas the pointed nib was more tricky since it tended to scrape into the gumpaste and get clogged.

Wine bottle Birthday Cake - the bottle

The cake itself was built from a 10 x 15 x 3 inch slab of chocolate cake layered with whipped dark chocolate raspberry ganache. This was divided into the 6 x 15 x 3 inch box and the remaining section was carved into the life-sized wine bottle which was covered with black rolled fondant and stacked on top of the box. I never think of myself as particularly skilled at doing highly realistic cakes but this was quite a lovely outcome!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The final frontier

Caitlin's Solar System birthday cake - planets

My niece Caitlin turned five recently and initially requested a Space Invaders themed birthday cake. After contemplating how time consuming the production of an army of alien invaders would be, I asked if there was anything else she might want. Luckily, she currently loves the Solar System and this planet-filled birthday cake was born.

Showcasing all eight planets meant that much surface area was needed. A 10" x 15" x 2" slab of chocolate cake, dark chocolate ganache, and raspberry mousseline was assembled and glazed with a shiny chocolate glaze in order to resemble the deepest darkest depths of the universe.

Caitlin's Solar System birthday cake - top view with spaceship

Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars were simply little balls of fondant, whereas Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were Rice Krispie domes covered in fondant and later airbrushed. I did try hard to maintain the relative scale of each planet in terms of size and distance from the sun but alas, some creative license was taken.

Caitlin's Solar System birthday cake - far away

Feeling sorry for poor Pluto's recent demotion, I decided to include Pluto by hiding it on the side of the cake near the bottom edge. Can you see that little grayish blob in the above photo? Happy Birthday Caitlin!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Autumnal Family Tree birthday cake

Usually, the design aspect of my cakes requires much more thought and planning than the actual cake itself. But this autumn inspired birthday cake was the opposite, mainly because there were three parameters which I had to follow. Any milk product used must be cooked; it must be eggless; it needed to travel a distance without refrigeration.

There were very few alternatives without the almighty egg and the exclusion of whipping cream ruled out any mousse, which would not travel well anyways. Luckily, this cake was for a family of chocoholics, which allowed me to combine an eggless chocolate cake (made with soft tofu) with a whipped dark chocolate ganache (cream is scalded first).

I was given one word as thematic inspiration, family, and this immediately led me to think about a family tree and then, autumn leaves. The scroll work and tree were crafted from milk chocolate modelling paste and the leaves were rolled fondant. Everything was brushed with gold dust. After finishing the cake, I had a brief panic attack when I realized I had used MILK chocolate modelling paste (for colour contrast against the dark chocolate ganache glaze) but concluded that milk chocolate contains milk powder and milk must be heated in order to pasteurize and evaporate into milk powder. Phew!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Happy days

Every October, our Thanksgiving dinner is hybridized with two birthday celebrations, my dad's and mine. Then last year, my niece Hayley had the foresight to enter the world on my birthday, making Thanksgiving a quadruple occasion, condensing one holiday and three birthdays into one single event. Turkey was rarely, if ever, on the menu; instead, good old fashioned Chinese food is typical fare.

Me as Ox, Dad as Monkey, Hayley as Rat
This year, I threw together some leftovers into a birthday cake and decided that the best way to differentiate between the three celebrants was not by name, but rather by Chinese Zodiac animal. Luckily, Hayley, my dad, and I are different animals; Hayley is the Rat, my dad is the Monkey, and I am the Ox. Yes, I took a little creative license with the Ox and made it resemble a Holstein dairy cow but isn't it much cuter than a plain old ox? Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Birthdays!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

True or false?

Depending on how traditional you are, the great debate on whether to have a real wedding cake versus a fake (a.k.a. display) wedding cake can sometimes be intense. These styrofoam-filled look-alikes are often misunderstood, treated as second class citizens of the cake world, labeled tacky or ostentatious. Personally, I love display cakes, having one for our wedding years ago before I was even in the pastry world. Perhaps I am biased now because of the advantages a display cake offers to me as a pastry professional.

Daniela & Marino Wedding cake - adorned

A display cake is so easy to work with because it is lightweight and easy to transport, and without the need for refrigeration, it allows flexibility with timing when decorating. This is a huge bonus for me, my small kitchen, and work schedule. None of the guests would know the cake is fake anyways because a small section of real cake is hidden and incorporated into the back of the cake into which the bride and groom can cut and eat during their cutting ceremony.

Daniela & Marino Wedding cake - flowers

The actual cake served to the guests can be made in slab form and does not need to be cakey and dense like a real tiered wedding cake must be for structural integrity. Flavours and textures can be diverse and customized. A slab cake can be pre-cut into neat and tidy pieces which are easily served in a timely fashion. For those brides and grooms who like the look of rolled fondant but can not imagine eating it, having a display cake with a real slab is the best of both worlds.

Luckily, Daniela and Marino are in favour of display cakes too and trusted me with the creation of their beautiful four-tiered square wedding cake this past weekend. Royal icing piping details gave the cake a simple elegance and the lovely double olive ribbon effect with sheer over satin was unintentional but highly successful. It was truly a joy to create. Congratulations Daniela and Marino!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Keep on truckin'

Luke's Mack Truck cake - front view

This Mack truck birthday cake was for a truck-obsessed little boy named Luke whose favourite colour is blue. Admittedly I did not know very much about big rigs prior to this cake, and not having any brothers, my exposure to 18-wheelers was only limited to passing them nervously on the highway or bad memories of long-distance moves gone awry.

So, now I know that tractor-trailers are indeed made of two parts, the front tractor which is also called the cab and the rear trailer which houses all the cargo. The eighteen wheels include two front steering wheels and eight more pairs of wheels at the front and rear of the trailer. I have now officially exhausted my knowledge of trucks.

Luke's Mack Truck cake - driver side

This truck was constructed from one 10" x 15" x 3" slab cake made of chocolate cake and dark chocolate mousseline. This slab was cut first into a 10" x 5" x 3" piece and a 10" x 10" x 3" piece. Both pieces were then bisected into 5" wide pieces and stacked with cake board and dowels in order to form the front cab and rear trailer. Everything was masked, covered in rolled fondant, and airbrushed. Ultimately, the truck dimensions were 5" wide x 16" long x 6" high.

Luke's Mack Truck cake - rear detail

My favourite details are the eighteen Rice Krispie treat tires covered in fondant and the side mirrors, even though I realize that they were positioned much too low to be optically correct. Regardless, Luke reportedly gave me the ultimate compliment, calling the cake "perfect". Happy Birthday Luke!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Diversion: San Francisco

My free decaf Vietnamese coffee from Slanted Door

Over Labour Day weekend, Eric and I escaped to San Francisco for some relaxation, culinary exploration, and time with good friends who reside in the Bay Area. It was an opportunity to revisit the city which, inadvertently, has become woven into the misguided journey I took towards pediatric ophthalmology.

Lemon cream tart from Tartine

I was lucky in the past to spend two summers in the San Francisco Bay Area, first in 1996, and then in 2001. After receiving a grant from the American Pediatric Society, I spent six weeks, during the summer between 1st and 2nd year medical school, doing childhood lymphoma research at San Francisco General Hospital with an inspiring clinician scientist. Honestly, I think it was the best summer of my life, being independent for the first time in a dynamic city while being mentored by the first of many physicians whose passion for medicine seemed so limitless and contagious.

Del Dotto wine caves by candlelight in Napa

By the summer of 2001, two years of ophthalmology residency had passed and despite encounters with three ophthalmologists who were very influential in my professional life, I was struggling to emulate the passion for ophthalmology which they possessed and shared freely. In my naivety, my desire to have their passion became confused with my desire to pursue ophthalmology, leaving me intensely conflicted as I progressed through residency, unable to find any path which felt right. After spending the summer at an ophthalmology course in Stanford, the slow realization that I may never find that passion in ophthalmology culminated in my final excruciating decision to leave my pediatric ophthalmology fellowship in 2005.

Art at Artesa Winery, Napa

And so, this visit to San Francisco was a strange intersection of my former medical aspirations and my new existence, especially because my ten year medical school reunion also happened to be scheduled for Labour Day weekend in Vancouver. Since I had neither an ophthalmology practice nor child to brag about, going to San Francisco was definitely the better choice.

neon EAT at Taylor's in Napa
In between window shopping and a day trip to Napa with friends, we had three favourite meals. The Slanted Door in the Ferry Building provided excellent service, a fabulous view, and a well-balanced modern Vietnamese lunch (try the grapefruit and jicama salad as well as the cellophane noodles with crab). Perbacco, an Italian ristorante recommended by a former San Franciscan (thanks Thahn!), was a highlight not only because of our dinner company, but also because of the divinely tender seared squid on arugula and the hearty handcut tagliatelle with pork sugo which I devoured.

water carafe at Chez Panisse

Most memorably, we made the pilgrimage to Chez Panisse and ate upstairs rather than downstairs (I like having choice). This historical birthplace of California cuisine and the organic locavore movement was cozy and straight from the 1970's but the food was refined and current. The duck breast with fig relish on rocket was so intense and delicious. Then, the wild nettle pudding soufflé with corn, zucchini, and chanterelle mushrooms was so uncomplicated and pure in flavour. I could eat there every day.

Wild nettle souffle with corn, zucchini & chanterelles

I will always love San Francisco for many reasons, the diversity, the hippie spirit, even the odd weather. But mainly, I will always love San Francisco because it was where I was filled with so much promise and desire to find passion and direction in my career despite not truly knowing what I was meant to be passionate about. Perhaps I am still on my way to finding out and this visit is merely another breath of inspiration.

view of Napa from Artesa Winery

Monday, August 31, 2009


Pirate's treasure cake - front

After the stress of last weekend, I was relieved to be back in familiar territory, within the realm of cute, colourful and creative. I know that I can do elegant and fancy but there is such comfort and joy in getting creative license to dream up something equally appealing to the eyes and stomachs of children and adults alike. For Isaac's birthday cake, I was given simply the theme "Pirates", shown the Evite and encouraged to just create. This is why I love what I do!

Pirate's treasure cake - treasure chest with coins

So, I carved the 9" round vanilla cake with chocolate mousseline to allow for appropriate topography in order to integrate a palm tree and buried treasure. This was masked and coated with toasted cake crumbs to resemble sand (an excellent and frugal way to use up leftover cake trimmings).

Pirate's treasure cake - map & flag

Rice Krispie treats were used to form the treasure chest and the head, torso, and legs of the pirate, and later covered with fondant. Adding some tylose powder to fondant, I used this pseudo-gum paste to craft the rest of the pirate paraphernalia and allowed everything to dry for several days before assembly.

Pirate's treasure cake - palm tree

The most delicate item was the palm tree which involved wiring each frond separately before inserting and securing them into a pre-made hole within the tree trunk. The most tedious item was the collection of tiny gold coins which were all cut out using my #802 piping tip, dried, and hand-painted with gold before individually glued onto the chest with royal icing.

Pirate's treasure cake - back

I must mention my favourite items, the antique map (I burnt the edges with my blow torch) and the circling sharks lurking in the ocean. Although these two details were the simplest to make, they certainly add some whimsy that gives the overall cake more character, in my opinion. Happy Birthday Isaac!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Surviving perfectionism

After several days of introspection, I am ready to reflect on the happenings of Saturday August 22nd. This wedding cake was for my dear friend Nadia and her husband, Peter, a lovely couple with a preference for buttercream and a dislike of pretense. Although honoured to be trusted to create their wedding cake, I knew that, as a self-confessed perfectionist, completing the task to my standards would be only the first challenge; surviving the evening as a guest while witnessing people's reaction to the cake would be the second.

Nadia & Peter's Wedding cake

Buttercream is not as forgiving as fondant and despite my obsessive myopic focus on the imperfections, the four-tiered white and butter yellow centrepiece was, overall, pretty darn good. Adding fresh orchids to anything will make it look ten times better! Nadia and Peter had chosen the bright citrus flavours of lemon curd and mousseline, and mandarin orange, combined with vanilla cake and almond dacquoise. The actual wedding cake would produce 70 servings and the remaining 100 pieces were from a slab version. Thankfully, my boss let me do everything at work on my own time, alleviating any space restriction concerns which I had with Patricia's wedding cake.

As the evening progressed, I grew increasingly agitated watching the top tier of the cake (the only one without dowels) slowly bulge. By the time the caterers finally took away the cake, it had sat unrefrigerated for almost six hours, and was virtually unrecognizable as cake when served. In contrast, the pre-cut slab pieces were ice cold, served straight from the refrigerator. I think that I suffered a minor cardiac event when someone asked me, "Is it supposed to be frozen?", and temporary aphasia when everyone kept repeating "But it tastes great!" after trying either the brick hard or soft mush version of wedding cake.

Nadia & Peter's Wedding cake - close up

It is easy to blame the caterers in this situation but should I have done something to prevent this? Should I have checked how cold their refrigerator was? Should I have taken the wedding cake back to the kitchen myself hours earlier? I had wanted to simply be a guest, not a pseudo-caterer, at my friend's wedding and had mindfully chosen to restrain the control-freak in me. But this decision to not micro-manage the wedding cake resulted in what I perceive to be my failure as much as the caterer's. And so, after several days of self-pity, I conclude that this has been a good learning experience, reinforcing my belief that being an unapologetic micro-manager is a good thing, and to try to never attend any event where my cakes are served!

PS. Congratulations Nadia & Peter...I'm happy if you're happy!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reaching new heights

Giraffe cake

It has been a challenge to do anything in my narrow kitchen lately because there is a large 4-drawer lateral filing cabinet smack in the middle of it. No, I typically do not file my documents in the kitchen but because of the ongoing saga that is our hardwood floor installation, cake making has been even more formidable than usual. Despite these circumstances, it was hard to refuse a request for a giraffe baby shower cake because of its cuteness potential and my determination to make a really tall cake.

Giraffe cake - head closeup

Luckily, the giraffe requested did not need to be standing (which would have been a big problem since carpentry is not my forte). Instead, a sitting giraffe munching on leaves was definitely doable in my hands since I prefer to use as few non-edible structural elements as possible in my cakes. Wood just isn't that tasty.

Giraffe cake - leaf closeup

The body of the giraffe was constructed as a three-tier chocolate cake with chocolate mousseline (top tier 4" round, bottom two tiers 6" rounds). After stacking, the shape was carved and masked with buttercream. Meanwhile, the head and skinny legs were made of Rice Krispie treats. Everything was eventually covered in rolled fondant and hand painted to resemble giraffe print.

Giraffe cake - right tilt

Ultimately, the giraffe was at least 18" tall, although I neglected to measure the actual final height and only remember that it barely cleared the top of my fridge. My favourite details are the giraffe's ears and the leafy branch. I did not envy Sam who was charged with transporting the cake a fair distance to a warm and sunny outdoor luncheon nowhere near a refrigerator. So far, I have not received any reports of a cake disaster so I assume that all went well. Congratulations Krystal and Yannick!

Addendum: After sitting in the hot sun for several hours, eventual demise ensued as heat-induced decapitation did occur.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In flight

Ezra's Helicopter Cake - sunny side

Having only recently taken my first helicopter ride in March, I was excited about this week's project, a birthday cake for Ezra, a two year old who has a love for aircraft. You may remember the cake I did for his sister, Simone.

Although Ezra's mom is a supreme chocoholic, we decided to feature more summery flavours and ended up with vanilla cake, passionfruit mousseline, and fresh strawberries in a tall 6" round size. The helicopter was constructed from Rice Krispie treats which I carved and covered with fondant. Since a helicopter can not be a helicopter without a spinning propeller, a manually functioning propeller was fashioned with the help of one toothpick.

Ezra's Helicopter Cake - rainbow side

Ezra just went on a big camping trip so I decided to set the flying helicopter against a fondant landscape of mountains, trees, and lake. Puffy Italian meringue clouds completed the scene. As anticipated, the children poked the clouds before the cake was even served and the propeller eventually broke from overspinning, but the cake was succesfully devoured, so I am told. Happy Birthday Ezra!

Ezra's Helicopter Cake - closer