Monday, April 30, 2007


Today I couldn't face my lunch of leftovers, so Tanya and I went around the corner to Bikkuri, which literally means something like 'surprise' in Japanese.

I'd been there a few times before and I wasn't very impressed with their sushi (messy presentation), but I was craving it today so I had the Sushi and Tempura lunch special that came with salad and miso soup for $17.99. A lot of food, I know, but I was hungry. Tanya was much more sensible and ordered the Sushi lunch special that came with some nigiri and maki plus salad and soup for $13.99.

The salad came with the usual miso-ginger type dressing and was decent. The leaves were passably fresh and they were definitely generous with the dressing. The miso soup was also fine with little, tiny bits of silken tofu.

My tempura came before the sushi like an appetizer and it was pretty good. Two large shrimps, sweet potato, green bean, and some other things that I can't remember. The batter was crisp and light and not too greasy and the dipping sauce was tasty, but not too salty.

Unlike previous visits, the sushi was beautifully fresh and artfully presented. I was so impressed. The thing about making judgments on a restaurant is that it's only as good as the cook who makes your food on that day. The tuna and salmon were buttery smooth. It would have been such a nutritious lunch if I hadn't had the tempura. Guilt. Guilt.

Bikkuri is a bit more expensive than other lunchtime sushi places downtown, but it is good quality. I've had the soba noodles there in the past and they were lovely. If you're in the neighbourhood, it's worth going.

The Last Brunch - Mildred Pierce

Well, maybe not the last, but one of the last. Yesterday morning, Darryl, Diane, Michael, Louis and I drank in the good life and enjoyed the most delicious brunch on the patio at Mildred Pierce.

My TTC connections were flawless, so I arrived well ahead of schedule (9:30AM) and took my place as first in line, leaning up against the window boxes next to the iron gate. The staff were setting up tables for outdoor dining since it was such a lovely day and they greeted me as I approached -- so nice. Makes you feel really good about the restaurant.

By the time they unlocked the gates, the line-up stretched well down the parking lot, but everyone who was waiting was seated immediately. We squeezed into a table originally set for four on the patio to enjoy the the sunlight.

As usual, we started with the butteriest scones and biscuits in the world that came with tiny dishes of fresh butter and blueberry jam. Alongside, we sipped on freshly-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and ginger lemon fizzes (yummy sodas with a layer of gingery syrup at the bottom).

For our mains, we all ordered the Veda's Choice (eggs benedict), which was flawless. It was a homemade croissant with two poached eggs and smoked salmon covered in velvety smooth bearnaise sauce. It's so rich, but in the very best way. If you want to taste perfection, you have to have it at least once. I don't know how they manage it, but the egg is soft, runny, and warm and oozes luxuriously into the surrounding sauce. Heaven. The deep-fried potatoes alongside were crisp with just the right amount of salt and were piping hot.

We lingered for as long as our consciences would let us because by this time the line-up had reappeared. They serve you mimosas while you wait, which I thought was a nice touch.

Later on in the day, I ran 9 miles in preparation for the half marathon on May 13, but even so I doubt that I broke even. It was that rich. And good.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Good Food Festival

Today, Jane and I played hooky from work (well, I had permission -- thanks, Marcelo!) and went to the Good Food Festival at International Centre. Jane happily got free tickets as a member of the Women's Culinary Network.

We had thought that it would be relatively uncrowded since most people should be at work, but there were hundreds of people waiting to get in. The line-up moved pretty quickly, but once in there it was packed. I thought that the One of a Kind show was congested, but that was nothing compared to this. In addition, a lot of people had brought rolling grocery carriers and wheely suitcases to carry their purchases so navigation was tricky. Darcy would have hated it.

The difference between this show and the One of a Kind show is that most of the vendors were well-known, large companies (whose products are available at major grocery stores), such as Egg Farmers of Ontario, Pita Break, Tchibo, Kikkoman, Patak's, POM, Redpath Sugar, Tupperware, etc. The One of a Kind show had only small-scale production, artisanal, gourmet-type vendors.

As soon as you walked in you were handed a huge Whole Foods brown shopping bags with lots of free things (Weetabix, Beano [hee hee], Lipton mint green tea, Thinsations shortbread cookies) and pamphlets. Pretty much every single booth had samples and we tried almost everything, including : cranberry orange pitas, whole wheat bread, acai juice, sparkling water, flavoured water, organic vanilla yogurt, chocolate, vegetable curry, chicken curry, pro-biotic cheddar cheese, regular cheddar cheese, chicken, chocolate cashew buttercrunch, soy milk, mexican corn chips, lime hot sauce, curry dips, chipotle grilling sauce, hot pepperoni, kielbasa sausage, Genoa salami, hemp seed butter, pomegranate lychee green tea, whipped soy mousse, sauteed portobello mushrooms, blueberry juice, maple red wine vinegar, samosas, plain parathas, onion parathas, chicken and mushroom dumplings, and veggie chips. Whew. I'm so glad I didn't each lunch before we came.

The greatest thing about this show was that, unlike the One of a Kind show, you could buy food at excellent prices. Check this out:

  1. Box of 8 Punjabi samosas: $2
  2. Package of 6 plain parathas: $2
  3. 1lb tray of Chinese dumplings: $2.50
  4. 100g bag of Japanese rice crackers: $1
  5. Bag of Mexican tortilla chips: $1
  6. 75g jar of curry masala: $2.50
  7. 250ml bottle of hot sauce: $3
  8. 6 pepperoni sticks: can't remember, but it was really cheap.
I probably spent no more $25 and I had so much stuff that I could barely carry it.

The woman at the Arvinda's booth where I bought the curry spices was very helpful and gave me lots of advice on which spice mixture to use with what dishes. The curry masala mixture, she said, was for things like aloo gobi, chicken curry, and chickpea curry. The garam masala is drier and is usually sprinkled on top of things while the tikka masala is supposed to be used in marinades for meats before grilling. Immediately after I came home I made a chickpea and potato curry using the curry masala and it was delicious and really spicy. Darcy loved it. I served it with the parathas (flaky, buttery, fattening, and to die for) and samosas that I bought from Shana Frozen Foods.

Darcy loves pepperoni, so I bought some mild and hot from 'European Meats...' (that's their actual name. With the ellipsis and everything). He really liked it, but we looked at their business card and they are all the way up in Cookstown. We'll have to rent a car sometime and load the trunk with the stuff.

A big thing in food these days seems to be the 'antioxidant' juices, like acai, blueberry, pomegranate, cranberry, mangosteen, etc. Also big are the soy products (milk, smoothies, puddings, beans, tofu) and vitamin supplements. Health is a huge driver in large scale production food today, it seems. The One of a Kind show artisanal food was decadent and expensive while the Good Food Festival stuff was more mainstream and affordable. I enjoyed both.

I took lots of pictures today and since the One of a Kind show, I've given up on asking people for their permission. No one batted an eye, with the notable exception of the mangosteen juice guy. He seemed pretty ticked about it, but he didn't confront me. He just gave us very strange looks while we were in the area. I wish one of these touchy people would just tell me straight out what the problem is. I still don't get it. Jane suggested that maybe he thought I was a very obvious spy from a competing mangosteen juice company. If you'd like to see my paparazzi pictures, click here.

We whipped through everything pretty quickly, so we had an hour and a half to kill before GO bussing it back to civilization. We sat at the Food Network cooking demonstration and watched some mother-daughter duos who won a contest for 'Why my mother is a kitchen goddess'. Well actually, we chatted rather than watched, but it was so loud in there that it didn't make a difference. Earlier, I could have sworn that Anna Olson was there giving a demo. See picture, what do you think?

I'm glad I got to see this show and thank you, Jane, for the free ticket. I would definitely go again to see what new products are coming out as well as take advantage of the great deals on samosas and dumplings.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Fresh by Juice for Life and a few of my favourite things

This evening before I went to the Ondaatje reading, Amanda sweetly came with me to Fresh by Juice for Life for a pre-reading dinner. She also lent me her camera for these photos as I unforgivably forgot mine at home. I've been here many times before, but not since I've been blogging. There are 3 locations in the city and they serve delicious and healthy vegetarian food.

We arrived very early (before 5:30PM) and the place was already packed. When it's full, it's a very loud and boisterous restaurant, but you can still have a conversation relatively easily. The service was prompt and swift so we were able to dine comfortably in less than an hour.

For an appetizer, we ordered the dosas, which are basically Indian crepes. The skin is made of lentils and rice, which makes it a little crispy, and inside is a kind of chickpea and potato curry. So good. At Fresh, they serve them on a plate of coconut curry sauce, which I don't think is traditionally Indian, but they're still absolutely delicious. My only complaint (sorry Amanda) was that the little pieces of cucumber garnishing the plate were not the freshest. The seed part had yellowed. Stale garnishes are my pet peeve.

For my main, I had the Beach bowl. It was a huge bowl of soba noodles topped with grilled eggplant, red pepper, sweet potato, avocado, tofu steaks, and sprouts. The amount was incredibly generous and the ingredients were impeccably fresh. The eggplant wasn't cooked through though, so it was tough and styrofoamy, and the red peppers were similarly a little too crisp. The sweet potato was nice however and the sprouts were sweet like blades of grass.

Amanda had the Warrior bowl, which was supposed to be chickpea and vegetable stew with coconut curry sauce and grilled spinach. She said it was more like a mush than a stew, but that it had enough substance to mix with and cover all the noodles. What was strange about my Beach bowl was that it didn't seem to have a sauce at all. The noodles were soaked in what looked like straight oil with tiny flecks of herbs in it -- pretty bland. Maybe if the soba noodle itself was better quality (darker, nuttier), it could have carried off the light oil dressing.

To wash everything down, we had some ultra healthy fruit drinks. Amanda had the Lady Bug (strawberry, blueberry, apple) and I had the 'Susur' (apple, beet, raspberry). I'm assuming that they named the drink after Susur Lee, but I forgot to ask the waitress if there was a story. Susur, the fruit cocktail, was very heavy on the beet. So much so that it kind of tasted like dirt. I felt very virtuous and healthy while drinking it though.

As I said in my earlier post, Amanda told me that I'm quite hard to please as far as restaurants go but, for the record, here are a few things in the city that I love without reservation (in no particular order):
  1. Chicken sandwiches at Churrasco in St. Lawrence Market
  2. Any flavour ice cream at Greg's ice cream
  3. Vegetable pitas and apple cake at Mystic Muffin
  4. Chicken shwarmas at Falafel World
  5. Lattice fries at Shoeless Joe's
  6. Eggs Benedict at Mildred Pierce
  7. Siam Noodle at Salad King
  8. Perogies from Max's Market or Dinah's Deli (St. Lawrence Market)
  9. Rare beef and tripe pho at Pho Pasteur
  10. Chicken salad sandwiches and fries at Zouply's Deli

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thai Dish for lunch

It was sweet Ming's last day today, so we went to Thai Dish on Colborne Street for lunch. We think it's been around for at least a year and we don't know how they can afford the rent on that street. There used to be a wonderful, charming, delicious, little casual French place that had to close because they couldn't afford it anymore and now it's been replaced by the ultra trendy Colborne Lane. Boo!

Thai Dish is a modest-sized restaurant (probably seats 40 at the very most) with great sound-absorbing surfaces, so you can actually have a quiet conversation. Other Thai places downtown like Spring Rolls and Salad King have all hard surfaces so sounds bounce and echo off all four walls, the floor, and ceiling at the same time making it more like eating in a nightclub. The small room was also bright, sunny, and subtly decorated -- very comfy.

As any other restaurant downtown, they have cheap 2-course lunch specials ranging from $7.95-$10.95. I'm a sucker for eggplant, so I had to veer away from the specials and order the Basil Eggplant with rice paper fresh rolls as a starter.

Before our meals came, they gave us complimentary bowls of shrimp chips with a sweet, peanutty sauce. They were crisp, shrimpy, and salty -- a nice snack to have while waiting.

The fresh rolls were decent. One order came with three rolls stuffed with julienned tofu, red peppers, carrots, lettuce, and maybe radish. All the ingredients were impeccably fresh and crisp, but the entire package seemed to lack something. I think I'm used to fresh rolls containing stronger-tasting pickled vegetables.

The Basil Eggplant was also okay. I love eggplant, so I always hope that eggplant entrees will be made up entirely of eggplant. Usually, as was the case here, there is lots of fillers like onions (way too much in this case), peppers, and carrots. The sauce was fine -- not too greasy; not too salty. But, like the fresh rolls, it lacked something. I don't remember any distinctive flavours.

For dessert, everyone had some of their homemade ice cream. Marcelo had coconut, which turned out to be to die for. It was incredibly creamy, rich, and smooth with chunks of real coconut in it. I got the mango, just to be different, and I regretted the decision. It was okay, but if you go here, make sure to get the coconut.

Overall, Thai Dish was definitely respectable. All ingredients, including garnishes, were very fresh which says a lot about them. So many places serve wilted lettuce and dehydrated fruit on the side. Everything was cooked well and there were basically no problems at all, but it didn't blow me away like Salad King does. Now if only Salad King could have an atmosphere as pleasant as Thai Dish.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Purple Pig (meh) and the Laugh Resort (excellent)

My friend, Todd Van Allen, is a very talented stand-up comedian who performs in his spare time (he has a very grown-up day job as a director of something or other at a software company). I've gone to many comedy clubs around the city to watch him and in doing so I've seen a lot of local comics. One really great one is Jay Malone, who is also from Nova Scotia (New Minas, I think) and is currently living, auditioning, and performing in Los Angeles. He's headlining at the Laugh Resort this weekend, so Darcy and I went tonight to take advantage of his pilgrimage back to Canada.

Before the show, we had to go for dinner so we went to check out The Purple Pig at Yonge and Richmond. Darcy loves barbecue so I thought it would be perfect. I was all ready for it because we went for a 5-mile run this morning and I had a 1-hour core training class (stomach, back workout) at my gym. By the time we got there, I was starving.

Darcy ordered the ribs since it was supposed to be their specialty. I'm not a rib girl, so I got the pulled pork sandwich. I tried to order a side of baked beans, but the waitress said, "oh, we don't have any baked beans. I don't know why that's still on the menu." No baked beans at a barbecue place? That was the first warning bell.

Darcy said that the rib meat itself wasn't very tender, but he liked the sauce. It came with fries (a lot of them), a little cup of coleslaw, and a little cup of steamed frozen corn. Strange.

My pulled pork sandwich looked very appealing, but it had way too much sauce that tasted like ketchup with vinegar mixed in. I also had some very underwhelming coleslaw and a whole bunch of fries. The fries were fresh cut, but cooked in old oil, so they were a bit on the skunky side. I was really hungry though, so I must confess I inhaled everything. So, it was by no means inedible (especially for me), but I wouldn't go back. I looked around when we were leaving and no one else seemed to be having ribs. The overwhelming favourite seemed to be the wings. Warning bells!

We rushed to make it to the Laugh Resort on time and we barely made it. Debra Digiovanni, who is probably my favourite comedian in the world (besides Todd, of course), was hosting the show, which was a great and happy surprise. She is hilarious. I could listen to her all day. She's headlining at the Laugh Resort on May 17, 18, and 19. You should go see her. You'll love her.

There were four opening acts that were all pretty good and not too long (Ron Fromstein, Makesi Arthur, Matt Williamson, and Ron Sparks). Then Jay Malone came on for about an hour and he did mostly new material (at least I had never heard it before). He has such a relaxed, easy presence on stage. Comedy really is the toughest performing art because not only do they have to perform live, but they write all their own material. I can't imagine doing that. I remember once I had a dream that I was supposed to do a little 5-minute spot on New Laughs (open mike) night at the Laugh Resort and I didn't have any material ready and I was trying to make it up while I was waiting to go on stage. Nightmare. In the dream I remember Todd was in line behind me and I was so jealous that he had so much prepared. I have such respect for comedians.

Anyways, the show was great. Jay was great. Darcy was so tired after running early this morning, hoofing it all the way to Markham for work, eating way to much at The Purple Pig, and then racing to get there that he really didn't want to go, but he had such a good time. And so did I. Jay is performing two shows on Friday and two on Saturday. You should go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mildred Pierce is closing. Eat like there's no tomorrow!

Well, maybe I'm being a little melodramatic. According an blurb in the Toronto Star, it is more like they are moving to another location in Toronto in order to reinvent themselves. They say that they will transport the cooking school (Cookworks), brunch, and other positive aspects of Mildred Pierce to the new place. So, it's not really goodbye. More like, see you in the fall.

In any case, we went to Mildred Pierce tonight to celebrate our dearest Louis' birthday and we justified the amount of food we ate and the choices we made by saying, "well, they're closing soon, so this is our only chance."

Darryl and I both arrived a bit early, so we had some pre-dinner cocktails. Darryl had a pomegranate margarita and I had something called a Pom Royale, which was pomegranate liquor and champagne garnished with pomegranate seeds. It was the most beautiful drink. The bubbles from the champagne made the ruby-coloured seeds rise to the surface and slowly fall again like a pretty pink lava lamp. The pomegranate didn't lend much flavour to the drink, but I'm sure its antioxidants did great things for me.

While we were poring over our menus, we were served the best bread. I had one small grainy, nutty piece and a larger white slice with the most perfect crust. It was so crispy that it almost felt carbonated, if you can imagine. It disintegrated into nothing as soon as you bit into it. Amazing.

When I was studying the menu online at work, I was msn'ing with Diane and asking her if it getting an appetizer in addition to a main would be too much food. It turned out that I ordered an appetizer, a main, two sides to share with the table, and dessert.

For my appetizer I had shrimp and crab cakes, which were divine. Each cake was a Timbit-sized, satisfyingly dense portion of minced crab and shrimp with a crunchy bread coating. They came with a slaw of carrots, red pepper, mango (maybe?), and onions in a sour Thai-like sauce. Flawless.

For my main I had the Cumbrae Farms striploin medallions with shiitake mushrooms and rapini. I had heard a lot of good things about Cumbrae Farms so I wanted to see what their meat was like. I ordered my steak rare so that I would get the best cut possible (cooking masks flaws, so if you order rare, you tend to get a better quality piece). I had thought that medallions would be small, round pieces, but it turned out to be one large (at least 8oz) slab. I have to admit that I wasn't impressed with the meat itself. There was quite a bit of tough gristle (that silvery kind that doesn't break down) and chewy fat. It was a nice rare though. Sadly, both the mushrooms and the rapini were unbearably salty, so I couldn't enjoy them. Maybe this isn't the best main to order.

On the side, we shared an order of grana padano and gremolata risotto and an order of shoestring frites with rosemary. The risotto was magical. I made some risotto at home a couple of days ago and I didn't know if I made it correctly. I wanted to try it at at place where they really knew what they were doing. This risotto was incredibly creamy and the rice was soft and delicate, yet it still maintained its texture. The gremolata lent a subtle, but distinctive lemon taste. Swoon. The frites were itty bitty like Hickory Sticks, which made them difficult to pick up with a fork, but they were tasty with a hint of rosemary.

After all that, you'd think I'd had enough. And I did, but there were profiteroles on the menu so what could I do? Michael and I shared an order and it came with three generously sized cream puffs stuffed with Lindt chocolate ice cream, smothered in chocolate and caramel sauces. We both thought that each profiterole had a different flavour of ice cream, so we were trying to figure out which was which when in reality they were all identical. It's funny how difficult it is to identify a flavour based on taste alone. All three were delicious.

By the time we left, the place was hopping. Every table was full. Mildred Pierce is a real success story. It's an out-of-the-way place that no one would find unless you knew where it was, but they are still packed on a Wednesday night because the food is reliably spectacular. If you want a guaranteed delicious dinner with excellent service, this is where to go. Get your fill before July 31.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Harry's Spring Run-off

At 10AM this morning, Darcy, Amanda, and I faced the blistering cold (-13 C, in April!) and ran the 8K Harry's Spring Run-off in High Park. Every year, it seems that the winter weather makes a comeback just for this race (two years ago it was raining slush). Amanda and I ran together the entire way, which really pushed me to go faster and I came in at over 2 minutes better than last year. Yay!

My favourite part is after the race when you feel so proud of yourself and free to indulge in food. After stuffing our bags with free Gatorade, juice, cookies, bagels, apples, and bananas, we made our way to Falafel World at Bloor and Jane and had the most delicious chicken shawarma pita sandwiches -- light, floury pita stuffed with marinated, roasted chicken, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, and topped with garlic and hot sauces. To die for. And they're only $5.

After the shawarmas, we went next door to Anna's Bakery and Deli and bought enormous turnovers. Darcy and I got cherry ones and Amanda choose the apple. They were the size of club sandwiches. Everything at this bakery was large and voluptuous. No delicate, tiny confections here. Sorry I don't have pictures. I didn't want to bring my camera to the race.

Darcy and I are now back in our warm apartment with a movie, beer (for Darcy), and two huge cherry turnovers. I love post-race laziness. After we ran the Toronto Half Marathon in October, we rented 4 movies and ordered a pizza and a bucket of chicken. Happy Easter everyone.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Live Organic Food Bar, js bonbons chocolate school -- one good, one bad...can you guess which?

Yesterday evening, my friend Jane and I had plans to go to a chocolate-making class at js bonbons so we needed to go for a super early dinner (5-ish) in the Spadina and Dupont area. I didn't know this neighbourhood very well, so I canvassed my friends, but it was hard to find a suitable place because Jane has recently become allergic to many things, including onions, shallots, garlic, chives, parsley, dill, and celery.

Jane didn't used to be allergic to these foods, but it just came on out of the blue in addition to becoming intolerant of wool, nylon, and latex. After seeing her allergist, he said that he didn't know why it happened, but that it usually clears up in about 5-7 years. It's so good to hear that it's not a permanent allergy, but I think it's tragic that Jane will be cut off from so much food (Chinese, Indian, Italian, French, etc.) until then.

So, Jane's eating out in restaurants these days is mostly restricted to Japanese, but I didn't know of any places in that neighbourhood so we ended up going to Live Organic Food Bar. Now, you may have seen the making of this restaurant on an episode of the Food Network show, Opening Soon. Like all the other episodes, it shows how difficult and taxing it is to open a restaurant and really makes you root for the owners' success. Live has been in business for a few years and raw food doesn't seem to have survived its fad stage from back when the girls in Sex and the City were turning up their noses at it, so I figured that this place must be appealing to people other than raw food enthusiasts. Um, it's not.

You know how in Footloose you weren't allowed to dance in that town? Say that in Toronto we were no longer allowed to cook and had to prepare food with only raw ingredients, I would eat at Live. Everything was definitely edible and I did eat everything I was served. But, if you are strictly judging the food on taste, it was not so good. I didn't eat anything that I would want to have again.

I had a combo plate that was a little bit of each of the four raw entrees served with salad. The portions were dollhouse-sized so not only was it bad, but there was so little of it (as David Sedaris says). The four entrees were: Bohemian ‘Wrap’sody, Rat-a-tat Primavera, Spaghetti & Neatballs, and Dhali Baba Pizza.

The salad was good -- fresh and lightly dressed with the house vinaigrette. The Bohemian 'Wrap'sody had in it what they called a flax and fresh herb 'pita', which was a dark brown/red colour and had a shoe leather mouthfeel. The avocado topping was creamy and tasty though, and the root veggie chips were crispy and nice. The Rat-a-tat Primavera had cauliflower 'rice' that reminded me of KFC coleslaw and the ratatouille part seemed to consist of dehydrated bits of eggplant, peppers, and onions. The 'Spaghetti and Neatballs' was a tiny bit of slivered zucchini 'noodles' topped with a Timbit-sized meatball facsimile made of 'I don't know what' and topped with marinara sauce that was stone cold. Now, I know that this is raw food, so it can't be hot, but could it at least be lukewarm? Looking at something that is supposed to approximate spaghetti and meatballs and then finding out that it is freezing cold is quite unappetizing. Lastly, the Dhali Baba pizza was a hard, grainy crust topped with nuts and a lot of green onions that were so strong I had to leave them on the plate.

Raw food, to me who isn't vegan, is like a party trick. See how I can make food without a stove. And all of the food mimics cooked items rather accentuating what is delicious about raw ingredients. It is not food; it's 'food'. I think that instead of faking cooked food, they should make amazing salads with fresh ingredients. I guess the problem with that is that raw food is supposed to be a lifestyle and Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore don't want to eat just salad all the time. I am happy for Jennifer Italiano, the creator/owner of the restaurant, that Live is a success and is getting good reviews, but I honestly don't know why. A good thing though was that the meal was incredibly virtuous, so we were free to indulge in the chocolate at js bonbons.

js bonbons is a chocolate shop owned and operated by Jenn Stone. As part of the business, she runs a chocolate school where you can attend classes in making and decorating chocolate. The class that we took was organized by the Globe and Mail as a special event for its subscribers (Jane is a subscriber). For the low price of 70$, we received 1-1/2 hours of chocolate instruction from Laura White, former pastry chef at Susur, as much Fruli strawberry beer that we could drink, a laminated card with chocolate recipes, and Belgian chocolate chips to take home to start making our own creations. The event was expertly organized and charmingly hosted by Susie Adelson who facilitated the evening and joined in on the class.

Some of the cool things I learned about chocolate are:

  1. Chocolate does not pair very well with wine because the acid fights against the cocoa solids. The best pairing is a drink that has sugar in it such as beer (Fruli is great!) or port. The bubbles in beer also help to cleanse your palate.
  2. When melting chocolate, you should use either a stainless steel or copper bowl because they are good conductors of heat. Do not use a glass bowl because glass is a very poor conductor.
  3. When stirring and handling melted chocolate, you should use a high heat spatula because regular ones could disintegrate and ruin your product.
  4. When double-boiling chocolate, keep the water on a very low boil because water could splash into the bowl. If water gets into your chocolate, it turns into fudge and it cannot be corrected. If this happens, you can still use the chocolate (for hot chocolate, etc.), but not for making bonbons.
  5. Ganache is a combination of chocolate and fat (35% cream and butter). Ganache can be used for the soft centres of truffles, hot chocolate mix, icing, mousse, and fillings of cookie sandwiches, among other things.
  6. When making truffles, the chocolate coating around the ganache must be airtight in order to keep bacteria out and prolong shelf life. If the seal is airtight, truffles can last for up to 10 days unrefrigerated.
  7. Chocolate should be kept at room temperature. Refrigeration subdues flavour.
  8. If you're serious about chocolate making, you might like to purchase a laser read thermometer that can take the temperature of a substance without touching it.
  9. The chocolate that professionals use, in its starting form, is called chocolate couverture, which you can buy in chips. The chip form makes it easy to melt the chocolate evenly.
  10. It's the cocoa butter in chocolate that gives it that melt-in-your-mouth feel. Cheap chocolate (like in chocolate bunnies) has a waxy mouthfeel because it has vegetable oil in it instead of cocoa butter.

The first thing we made was chocolate bowls using blown up balloons. All you do is blow up a small spherical balloon (with no writing on the outside), dip it in melted chocolate, and let it rest on a sheet of parchment paper. Once it dries, you can dip it again for a second coat. After that coat is completely dry, you snip the top of the balloon with a pair of scissors and it slowly deflates leaving a a lovely, round chocolate bowl.

Next we dipped strawberries in both milk chocolate and dark chocolate. When prepping strawberries for dipping, you need to wash and completely dry them. It's also important to keep the green tops on so that you have something to hold onto when dipping. I managed to only eat one during the class -- delicious.

The last thing we did was make our own truffles. Laura had pre-made different flavours of ganache for the centres, including lavendar, passionfruit, sea salt and caramel, Earl Grey tea, and coriander lime. To make ganache you need to boil 35% cream, add a flavouring, and let it sit for a while. Then, you boil it again to kill any bacteria, add it to melted chocolate, strain it, and then put it in containers to set in the refrigerator for a minimum of 12 hours. You need to take it out about 2 hours before using it to soften it up a little.

Making truffles is messy business. For the centres, you scoop out a bit of ganache from its container with your right hand, pinch it a bit to make it round-ish, and then roll it in your palms to create a perfect sphere. The ganache has a lot of fat in it and melts easily, so it helps if you have cold hands. I, unfortunately, have warm hands. I had to work fast. To coat the centres, you take a swipe of melted chocolate with your right hand, smear it on your left hand, put the truffle centre in the pool of chocolate in your left hand, take another swipe of chocolate with your right, roll the centre all around between your hands until it's covered, and drop it on the parchment to dry. If you're someone who is squeamish about eating food that is touched a lot, you may want to avoid truffles. I personally am a bit grossed out by melted chocolate, so this part was difficult for me. After our truffles dried, we decorated them with tiny piping bags of more melted chocolate. I admire the skill it takes to make pretty designs with icing. I am not too good at it, but I did my best.

We filled out chocolate bowls with our strawberries and truffles and Laura tied them up for us with cellophane and ribbon. All bundled up like that, everyone's bowls looked so pretty.

It was an excellent, hands-on class and I would recommend it to anyone. You can sign up for single or multiple classes as an individual, or you can gets some friends/colleagues together and have a private group class.

After the class was over, I met up with Darcy and a bunch of work friends at C'est What?, which was great because they ate some of the chocolate I just made so I didn't take it home and devour it all by myself. It wasn't completely gone by the time we left, so Darcy and I polished it off today. Yum.

Since Jane and I ate at like 5PM, I was starving by the time we got back to my neighbourhood at midnight. So, just like in that Sex and the City episode when they went to the raw food restaurant, we too had pizza afterwards. It was glorious. Long live cooked food.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

One of a Kind Show, the final episode

I really got my money's worth with my One of a Kind admission this year (and actually it was free, thanks to Diane). On our final visit today, I spent more than the other days combined, but we got some lovely things and supported local artisans.

First, we went to Yasmine Louis Textile Printing where I bought a t-shirt for Darcy that said, in very subtle printing, "there were too many people so I went home". It was so him. Koto bought a couple of shirts while I stood across the way. The t-shirts were separated into small, medium, large, and extra large sizes so I was able to see the groups of women who clustered around each size. If I had a guess, there were about 20 different sizes of women, but only four sizes of shirts. If you're any bigger than a 10, you're pretty much out of luck.

Then we wandered through the food section again, of course. Koto bought a cucumber blush vinegar from Mr. Vinegar (Mr. Vinegar himself was there and he was very sweet), chocolate-covered tortilla chips sprinkled with chili powder from Heavenly Sweets, hummus, Greek garlic spread, pita chips, and baklava from from Sun Sweet Catering, Wild Saskatoon mustard from Forbes Wild Foods, and lavendar shortbread from Coach House Shortbread.

As for me, I also bought some shortbread, in lemon flavour, from Coach House. I sampled about 4 different kinds before I decided, so I was absolutely stuffed. I don't even like shortbread and I thought it was to die for. It must have a million calories in it because it does literally melt in your mouth. I also got something called cloudberry jam from Forbes Wild Foods. I don't think I'd even eaten a cloudberry (a.k.a. bakeapple) before and I thought it was interesting -- tart with crunchy seeds. I like to mix it up. :) And I too got some hummus, garlic spread, and pita chips from Sun Sweet Catering. Couldn't resist.

My most expensive purchase of the day was, believe it or not, a silk diaper bag from Posh Mom. Now, I'm not pregnant or anything. I just needed a bag that had a place for my water bottle and lots of easy-to-access pockets. It's very well made and the exterior is 100% silk. The sticker price was $250, but since I waffled so long about whether or not to get it, the man sweetly knocked the price down to $200. I'm sure I'll get lots of use out of it, and if I do have a baby, I'll already have a diaper bag.

Koto also bought a necklace from Constantine Designs, which is based in Halifax. They had very beautiful jewlery of excellent quality for reasonable prices. If you're into jewelry, you should check them out. And because you can never have enough soap, Koto also got some almond scrub soap from Ella's Botanticals.

After spending so much time at the show, I saw that even though everything is artisanal and made in small quantities, a lot of people make the exact same things. Very few things are completely original with some exceptions like the tree branch pepper grinders. But, I admire every exhibitor for making these things by hand, dragging them all to the show, displaying them attractively, and being incessantly cheerful for 5 days straight while selling them. They must be exhausted. And so am I. I'm spent. In more ways than one.