Category Archives: Confessions

A bit of housekeeping

Confession (and not one that will be surprising to you): I have been incredibly delinquent with this here blog. And I have no valid excuses. Offline, things have been rather busy and yes, I’ve been travelling, but that’s not a real excuse for abandoning the loveliness that is blogging. It isn’t even that I don’t have anything to say. I just can’t get my proverbial ass into the proverbial chair to write something witty and chocolatey.

So, erm, sorry.

The thing is, I’ll be on the road for the next four weeks. I’m packing my insanely large suitcase and heading to a place where I hear that access to Google, Facebook and Twitter are suspect. A place that is home to 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (though I won’t be visiting all 40—just three of them) and an incredible diversity of food that makes my mouth water.

That’s right, I’m heading to China. On the itinerary: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and sites in between.

(Incidentally, China is one of the largest potential markets for chocolate, but problems with reliable storage, temperature variations and shelf life prevent it from being a lucrative market. So far, anyway. I’m curious to see what passes for chocolate in China. I wonder if certain so-called luxury brands will do well, simply because they’re western. I will report back.)

I’ve never been to the Mainland, and the last time I was in Hong Kong, I was five years old. I got off the plane, saw a sea of Chinese faces, extrapolated to the only place in Vancouver that also featured a sea of Chinese faces, and asked my mom if we were in Chinatown. I can see the look on her face, crystal clear, as she realized just how Canadian her daughter was.

Anyway, this Canadian girl is in for some culture shock and a crash course in Mandarin. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’ll be tromping around the Great Wall of China, standing in Tiananmen Square or eating Peking Duck where it was invented. Also on the itinerary: one line item that simply says “Dumpling Feast” (insert ecstastic dumpling dance here), a trip to a tea plantation and a visit to a silk factory.

And you’d better believe that I’m bringing my eating pants and a half-empty suitcase.

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Marriage, macarons and mountain time

Lean in close, and I’ll tell you a secret.

I don’t really like people.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no curmudgeon, and I’m social enough when I need to be, but let’s face it: I’m an introvert. And I’m a writer. And as much as I hate to stereotype, that really does mean that, given the option, I’d rather sit inside with a good book than go to a raging kegger.

(That said, had you asked me the same question five years ago, I probably would have picked the kegger. So maybe this is just a sign of getting old.)

Increasingly, getting old(er) has meant more moving around, and friends moving around. A few years ago, two of My Most Favouritest People Ever, G & M, moved to the mountain town of Rossland, B.C. And while I was sad to see them go, I recognize that this means that I have another place to visit and discover, and more opportunity to miss—and look forward to seeing—two of My Most Favouritest People Ever.

Bears are in Rossland

Things are different in the mountains.

G & M got married last weekend in their backyard, surrounded by a small group of friends and family. We sat on bales of hay and watched two people agree to continue having exquisite adventures with each other. And before I even had time to shed a tear, they were kissing. It was done. And it was lovely.

G & M are pretty simple people. In lieu of a gift, they asked me to bring something sweet for dessert. And though I know they benefited from it, I think they also understood that that was the gift I really wanted to give them. Food as love.

So I brought macarons. I know, they’re almost irritatingly trendy right now, but even I’ll admit that they’re awfully pretty. And when done right, they’re one of my favourite things. So, one of My Favourite Things for two of My Most Favouritest People Ever. And let’s be clear—I didn’t set out to bring macarons. But Rossland is a nine-hour drive from Vancouver. Between nine hours without refrigeration and my desire to not spend the morning of the wedding in a kitchen, macarons just made sense.

Wedding macarons, raspberry and nutella

Turning a hotel room into a macaron factory is easier than you might think.

I made the cookie portions in Vancouver and froze them in preparation for the drive there. The morning of the wedding, I transformed the hotel room desk into a staging ground for macaron assembly: pink ones full of raspberry jam, chocolate ones full of nutella. Of course, some of the macarons didn’t fare the car ride so well…good thing, too, as every good (pastry) chef tastes her wares before serving them to guests.

The reception, dinner and dancing passed by in a blur. I have vague memories of salmon with mango salsa, a caramelized nut bar on shortbread, kicking off my high heels and bouncing around the dance floor and generally revelling in the glow of being around Good People.

Whether it was the hangover (literal and figurative) of the wedding or the innate idyllic nature of Rossland, that feeling permeated the entire weekend. It wasn’t long before I was saying hi to everyone walking down the street. That simply doesn’t happen in the city. And watching kids run into their friends on the street and make impromptu plans to play with each other? It’s nice to know that still happens.

The more time I spent in Rossland, the longer time got. I stopped checking my watch to wonder what I was supposed to be doing. I hiked to the top of a mountain. I took a nap in a park. I stopped to chat with people. I poked around antique shops. I sat in the children’s section of a bookstore and looked at picture books.

And it was wonderful.

Now I’m back in the city and trying to hang onto that feeling of mountain time. Savouring the morning cup of coffee and staring out the window, thinking about what the day holds. Striking up a conversation with strangers. Because I can.

The weird and wacky world of chocolate sculptures

I’ve made a few chocolate sculptures. They make me uncomfortable. The entire time that I’m making them, I feel like a fraud. Like someone will come up behind me and whisper, “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you?” And the answer, usually, is no.

Sugar sculpture at 2007 James Beard Awards

What grows from a sugar tree? Candy apples, of course.

James Beard Awards chocolate sculpture and desserts

Those are Valrhona Manjari chocolate domes with raspberry gelee inside and gold leaf on top. And a snarling jungle cat, made of chocolate, to guard the table.

There are some pictures in this post about my time working as a chocolatier. And, in a bit of serendipity, when I googled for an image of “chocolate sculpture,” the first one took me to Rose Levy Berenbaum’s blog post about the 2007 James Beard Awards in New York City. I was at that awards show. I worked with the chefs of Le Cordon Bleu to prepare 1400 plated desserts. And I assisted as they created a candy apple sugar sculpture and the snarling jungle cat chocolate sculpture that is shown on Rose’s blog. It took three of us three days and 36 hours, but we did it.

So I have the utmost respect for people who make gorgeous chocolate sculptures. It’s a delicate balance of artistry and engineering. I think the artistry is pretty self-explanatory, but the engineering might be undervalued by most. Chocolate is heavy, and stacking chocolate on top of chocolate makes for a very heavy (and heavy-looking, as in clumsy) sculpture. At the same time, delicate pieces don’t provide much structural support, so you have to create something that’s still sturdy. Tricky.

Chocolate sculpture at EAT! Vancouver

Chocolate sculpture from Suzannah Yeung of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel.

I was fortunate to be a judge at the EAT! Vancouver chocolate competition a while back, and the winning sculpture just blew me away. Created by Suzannah Yeung of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, it was hands-down my favourite of the competition. The entire piece is made of chocolate, without any extra supports. You know that someone has done a good job when you’re so entertained by it you don’t even notice the construction. I loved the level of detail, the execution and the cleanliness of the piece. The playfulness—the lizard’s face and tongue—just made it that much better.

Chocolate sculpture at EAT! Vancouver - lizard closeup

Closeup of Mr. Lizard. Look at the detail on his face and hands.

Chocolate sculpture at EAT! Vancouver - flower closeup

These are chocolate flowers. Usually you need pastillage to get this level of detail.

Chocolate sculpture at EAT! Vancouver - back closeup

The back of the sculpture is as clean as the front.

From a technical standpoint, the sculpture was impressive. It was impeccably clean. Despite my eagle eyes looking for any signs of drippy chocolate, I didn’t find any. What I did find was shiny, tempered chocolate, smart use of colour, and a range of impressive techniques. That giant block of would-be granite that’s on the bottom of the piece? That’s not granite. That’s chocolate, all dolled up to look like rocks. The incredibly delicate flowers, so thin that I would have sworn they were made of pastillage? Nope. All chocolate. The air-brushed portrait, right down to the lines on the dragonfly—seriously impressive.

And, finally, I always look at the back of the sculpture. I was told when making a sculpture that it needs to be beautiful from all angles. That means that the back of it needs to be as clean, well-composed and aesthetically pleasing as the front of it.

This is the kind of work that comes from hours and hours of practice, years of experience and a natural knack for the stuff. I’m glad someone knows what they’re doing. I’m happy just to gawk.

Formative moments: pain au chocolat, in Paris

Photo credit: ropoppy on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/roboppy/425709661/)

When I was 15, I went on a school trip to France. Our first stop was in Paris, where we stayed at a cute old hotel near the opera house. There was no elevator, so we carried our overstuffed suitcases up and down five flights of narrow stairs with much complaining and giggling. I’m sure the other hotel guests were pleased with us.

Breakfast was served in the basement of the hotel. Dark wood, low ceilings, ancient carpet and creaky wooden chairs would probably be cute and kitsch to me now, but at the time it just seemed old. It was decidedly dark. We could barely see what we were eating, nor how much sugar we were putting in our coffee in the morning. How our chaperones managed two weeks with us, I have no idea.

Each table was served with a basket of vienoisseries: croissants, fruit danishes and what we thought were raisin rolls. Everyone fought over the croissants, slathering them with butter and jam. Fruit danishes were next to be devourced. No one ever touched the raisin rolls. Mind you, it was dark in the dining room. Had we had more light—or come from a culture where it’s acceptable to have chocolate for breakfast—we would have checked to see whether the raisins were, indeed, raisins.

On the last day’s breakfast, I arrived late. My fellow travelers had left me nothing but the so-called raisin rolls. In a snit, I took a bite.

In that bite, my world was suddenly transformed. Those weren’t raisins! That was chocolate poking out the end of the pain au chocolat. Chocolate in my croissant! I could have been eating chocolate for breakfast! CHOCOLATE FOR BREAKFAST!!!

Chocolate for breakfast. How far I’ve come since then, and how overdue I am for a return visit to Paris. I won’t be fooled by raisin decoys. I will be armed with a laundry list of things to eat. And I should probably bring my eating pants. Who wants to join me?

The Lemon Meringue Tart from Hell

We interrupt your regularly scheduled chocolate programming to bring you this story from my early days in culinary school. For the most part, I really enjoyed culinary school. However, there were a few points when I felt like throwing my hands up, chucking a copper bowl across the kitchen and leaving. This was, quite possibly, the worst of those times.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

The Lemon Meringue Tart From Hell

Lemon tart

This is not the Lemon Meringue Tart from Hell. This is what the lemon tart was supposed to look like. Mine (the one from Hell) did not look like this.

French lemon tart is, naturally, more complicated than your average lemon tart. It’s a four-component dessert: sweet dough, almond cream, lemon custard, Italian meringue. It happened to be the focus of the fourth lesson in culinary school, and my first opportunity to show that I could put the pieces together to make something lovely.

Well, as you might have guessed, it was anything but.

First. Sweet dough.

Oh, sweet dough. There’s something lovely and methodical about making pastry: the need for cold hands, the reverence for butter, the balance of structure and tenderness. I think it’s therapeutic; others think it’s terrifying. In any case, this part of the class went fine. I had visions of the beautiful pastry shop that I would open. People would come from miles to visit and lie prostrate at my feet when they tasted my creations.

Second. Almond cream.

Sometimes called frangipane cream, almond cream is a fluffy, butter-based almond filling. It’s sort of airy and melty and is really delicious with pears and apples. The lemon tart called for a delicate spiral of almond cream to be piped on top of the sweet dough, the two layers baked until they were golden brown.

Piping? Erm, okay. Despite my hours of practice at home (covering the kitchen table with tinfoil and piping rosettes out of cheap margarine does not make you popular with roommates), I was still pretty sketchy with a piping bag. The spiral, if it had a face, would have had a face that only its mother could love. No matter, I thought. There will be a layer of lemon custard to cover this up, and I’m sure that everything will taste great.

The sweet dough and almond cream went into the oven, and I turned my attention to the lemon custard.

Third. Lemon custard.

I love lemon custard. If it’s lemony with a pudding-like consistency, I’m all over it.

I made my lemon custard and it turned out well. I checked on the oven, only to find that my already sad-looking tart had turned into a volcanic pimple. Suddenly, Chef’s voice sounded in my head: “If you do not fill ze pan wit ze pastry prop-air-ly, you will ‘ave hair underzneeth it and it will expand.” Shoot. I took it out, pressed it down with a large spatula, and popped it back in. Whew.

When the now-deflated tart was done, I took it out and put it in the freezer to cool it down. I was running out of time, and I still had to make Italian meringue.

Fourth. Italian meringue.

Italian meringue is a mixture of egg whites and sugar syrup. To make Italian meringue, whisk egg whites to a soft peak. A little bit of cream of tartar will help keep the egg whites from separating. Meanwhile, prepare a mixture of sugar and water and heat it until it’s 120°C. Then, stream the sugar syrup into the egg whites and whisk until they’re shiny, glossy and hold their shape.

It all sounds so simple, except that we weren’t allowed to use any machines. Suddenly, this very simple procedure is the world’s best workout. And how to figure out that the sugar syrup was at the correct temperature? Oh, that’s simple. You put your fingers in a bowl of ice water, pop them into the bubbling sugar mixture to get a little bit, and then put your fingers back in the ice water. Uh huh.

Several burnt fingers later, red-faced and exhausted, I felt as lame as my Italian meringue looked. It was gloopy and gloppy and certainly did not hold its shape. However, I didn’t have the time or the strength to start again, so I went with it. Visions of the cute pastry shop were getting dim.

Putting it all together (or, where it goes horribly wrong)

I took the almond cream base out of the freezer, but it clearly hadn’t been in there long enough. It was still slightly warm, but I didn’t have time to wait. I filled it with lemon custard and felt a wave of horror sweep over me. “If ze cream is too ‘ot, you will melt ze lemon custard,” I heard in the back of my head. Yup. Ze lemon custard was turning to liquid at the edges where it met the still-warm tart shell and almond cream. I put it back in the freezer for a harrowing five minutes, and pulled it back out. It looked okay. I pushed ahead.

I was supposed to pipe the Italian meringue on top of the lemon custard, creating a pattern of delicate petals. One look at my gloopy, gloppy meringue and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I spread it onto the custard and tried to make it look pretty. It did not look pretty.

Finally, I put it back in the oven to caramelize the meringue. Suddenly, I heard another tidbit in my brain: “If you do not cover ze custard wiz ze meringue compl-ait-lay, ze ‘eat of ze oven will melt it. And you will FAIL.”

I watched in horror as the lemon custard began to bubble out from beneath the meringue, threatening to escape the tart and tarnish my academic record. I pulled it out of the oven in a panic. Just then, Chef walked by. “Chef, what do I do?” I wailed. He shrugged and said “Ah, you are done. Iz nussing you can do.”

Presentation

I unmolded my sad, lame, un-caramelized tart and presented it to Chef. He looked at me, confused. “Why you present zis? Zis is not fin-aished.” I sputtered something about him telling me that it was done, and he shook his head. “You cannot serve zis. Zis is not fin-aished. You use ze torch.”

He handed me a blowtorch and proceeded to grade someone else’s pristine, gorgeous, artfully presented tart. In the time it took him to do that, I lit my meringue on fire.

Adding insult to injury

I passed, but just barely. The last one out of the classroom, I packed up my things, put my sad, burnt tart into a Tupperware container and trudged down every single step from the second-floor classroom to the basement locker room.

On the last step, I tripped. And, just like in the movies, my life went into slow motion as the Tupperware container slipped from my hands and tumbled, ever-so-slowly, to the ground. There was a distinct ka-chunk as the container hit the floor, followed by a softer, squishier psshhhhhhh as the momentum of the fall propelled the tart into one corner of the container.

I stopped. I stared. And, just before I burst into tears, two raucous friends from the cuisine program came running down the stairs. I told them my story, presented them with the tart and then sat with them in the student lounge as we dug into the decrepit tart with plastic spoons.

It tasted just fine.

Guilty pleasure: fun chocolate for grownups

Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. Most people’s guilty pleasure is chocolate. So what’s a chocolate connoisseur to do? If your everyday pleasure is chocolate, how can it possibly get any guiltier?

I know some chocolate snobs who swear by milk chocolate with almonds. There’s something comforting about the crunchiness. Milk chocolate with hazelnuts, too. The fact that it’s milk chocolate is pretty telling; it’s a break from the analytical chocolate tasting that we usually do.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about a complete departure from good taste. I’m still not eating anything with waxy fillers or oils masquerading as cocoa butter. But take a decent foundation chocolate, one without too many distinct flavours, and throw some fun stuff in it? Yesssss. Here are three wacky bars that are high on my list for the fun factor.

Theo Chocolate Bread & Chocolate

I loved the Theo Chocolate Bread & Chocolate bar two years ago when I first tried it, and it’s still one of my favourites. You could call it a deconstructed pain au chocolat, or you could just eat the damn thing.

If I were to make this at home, I would buy a baguette and leave it on the counter for a week until every last bit of moisture was gone. Then, I would bash it to pieces, collect the bread crumbs and coat them with melted, unsalted butter. Then, I would take the buttered bread bits and add them to tempered dark chocolate.

Seeing as how I am not about to clean up the mess that the bread bashing would cause, I’m happy to let Theo Chocolate do the work and put it in a cute little wrapper with cats on it.

The crunchiness is like no other; it has a very distinct crispness to it that perfectly complements the melting chocolate. And the buttery finish is completely unexpected, lending a surprising savouriness to the experience. (And psst, the chocolate is certified organic and fair trade.)

Komforte Chockolate French Toast

I bought the Komforte Chockolates French Toast bar because of the label. I love it. As it turns out, the chocolate bar inside is pretty kick-ass, too.

As soon as I opened the foil wrapper, a cloud of syrupy vanilla wafted toward me. The bar itself is milk chocolate with chunks of crispy French toast inside. The French toast is the texture of very thin croutons, and the first taste provides a heady mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. A second later, there’s a decidedly confident saltiness at the back of the palate. The finish is all salt. The milk chocolate is the perfect sweetness and is, really, just a vehicle for crunchy, spiced, salty French toast. The entire experience is highly addictive.

Komforte also makes a Ramen Noodle bar and a Tortilla Lime Salt bar. The Ramen Noodle bar sounds cool but was rather disappointing. I didn’t buy the Tortilla Lime Chip bar, but you’d better believe I will the next opportunity that I get.

Chuao Chocolatier Firecracker Bar

This bar from Chuao Chocolatier boasts chipotle, salt and popping candy, which you might remember as Pop Rocks.

As a kid, I loved Pop Rocks, but they made me uncomfortable. The entire experience of buying and eating Pop Rocks gave me weird tummy rumblings. In retrospect, I think it was the anticipation of the popping: one part nervousness, one part excitement, and one part brain thinking that exploding candy is really quite bizarre.

Well, not much has changed. The first few pieces of this chocolate made me really uncomfortable. That familiar tummy rumbling was back. I put the bar down, only to be inexplicably drawn to it. I tried again. This time, less rumbly. And the third time, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough.

It’s not all about the popping candy, though. The salt draws out the cocoa notes in the chocolate, and the chipotle provides a sweet smokiness up front, followed by a slow burn on the finish. The slow burn is just distracting enough to fill the gap in time between finishing one piece and putting the next one in your mouth.

It’s really sad when you realize you’ve eaten the entire bar in one sitting, though. Not out of some guilty complex that you’ve eaten an entire chocolate bar, but the simple fact that there isn’t any more.

Unless you’re me, and you bought three of them. Mwahaha.

Working as a chocolatier

IP 5 Chocolate box 2-sizedThere are two kinds of people in this world: those who are cut out for food service, and those who aren’t. I tried to be in the first category, but I know that I really belong in the second. I started as a pastry chef, working in bakeries, pastry shops, restaurants, and hotels. Wherever I was, I always ended up working with chocolate.

It was only a matter of time before I worked for some of the country’s top chocolatiers. I started in a teeny, tiny, family-run business where everything was done by hand. At the other end of the spectrum, I worked in a high-volume, high-end setup where, at the height of Christmas craziness, we produced 80,000 chocolates per week.

The family-run chocolate shop

The shop was owned and operated by an eccentric German family. Everything in the shop was handmade from family recipes that dated back three generations, written in faded ink on yellowed paper that was spattered with ancient stains.

In the basement, there was a bakery where I learned to make 25 litre batches of dense German nut tortes, roll out 6 feet of puff pastry by hand, and make soup vats full of caramel.

Caramel is also known as liquid napalm, as the two-inch scar on my right thumb will attest. If you are unfortunate enough to have it contact your skin, this is what will happen: your neurons will register that a liquid at 165 degrees Celsius has just hit your skin. A half-second later, your brain will realize that in the time it took the first neurons to fire, said liquid has burned its way through the top five layers of your skin and is making its way through your flesh, on its way to the bone.

dark heart 2-sized

The basement bakery was hot, and dusty with flour. I preferred working upstairs in the 6-foot square space that I shared with two co-workers, where we stirred endless vats of chocolate. Gym? Who needed a gym? I had the world’s best biceps, trained from hours on end of stirring stirring stirring.

We whispered sweet nothings to the chocolate. We coaxed it until it formed precious Form V crystals, the required crystal formation for perfectly tempered chocolate. Then we would transform the chocolate into heart-shaped boxes, Easter bunnies clutching baskets of flowers, and happy face lollipops.

piano 4-sized

We dipped truffles by hand. I can still hear the tap tap tap of the dipping forks on the edge of the bowl. My favourite days were when we made molded chocolate confections: domes full of pistachio marzipan, square buttons full of coffee ganache, faceted jewels full of mint ganache…

In my last week there, I made a piano out of chocolate.

The high-volume chocolate shop

The high-volume shop glittered with machines. The enrobing machine, with its long conveyor belt, brought to mind the chocolate episode of I Love Lucy. My co-workers were, quite honestly, the most efficient people I have ever worked with. Ever.

Here, we didn’t have to coax the chocolate into beta crystals. Two tempering machines kept dark and milk chocolate circulating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We worked clean and we worked fast. We were a well-oiled machine. We made bonbons, we cut them, we enrobed them, we decorated them. And, the next time we did it, we worked cleaner and faster. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We spent most of our time on the enrober, which coated the bonbons in a thin shell of tempered chocolate. There was a small platform where we’d set the naked bonbons, and then they’d take a chocolate bath in the enrober. They emerged on the other end and we would finish them with custom decorations.

My favourite task was to set the bonbons. The machine beeped at set intervals, and I raced myself to see how many bonbons I could place on the belt before the beep sounded. I raced around to the other end of the enrober to pick up the finished bonbons, then back to the other end to set some more. Meanwhile, two co-workers stood calmly in the middle, decorating the enrobed bonbons with what can only be described as zen calm.

Chocolate domes-sized

It was a game I played, willing myself to beat my old record.

Each bonbon got its own delicate decoration, none of which were simple. Many of them needed a cocoa butter transfer, which had to be applied in the 20-second window after the chocolate emerged from the enrober, before the chocolate set. Some bonbons were christened with a nut, placed at a very precise angle. Others got a sprinkle of sea salt, a drizzle of white chocolate. My least favourite decoration required a single leaf of edible gold. Gold leaf likes to stick to itself and to the container that it’s in. It’s like ketchup: you get none, or you get the entire bottle.

We also made molded chocolate caramels. Lots of them.

My kitchen, today

In the end, I found out that I’m just not cut out for food service. I’m not knocking it, just saying that it doesn’t work for me. The 16-hour days, the (ahem) less-than-ideal pay…it just doesn’t make sense.

Working in someone else’s chocolate shop, you have to make whatever is in their product line. Customers expect those products every time that they visit the shop. Consequently, being a chocolatier is one of the most routine jobs that I could have chosen. It also happens to be one of the most technical, which is why I was drawn to it—but I’m easily bored, so routine doesn’t sit well with me.

I don’t make money playing around in my kitchen, but I can be creative with what I make, and make money elsewhere. If it’s delicious, then my friends and family get to benefit from my brilliance. And if it isn’t…well, I’ll probably eat it anyway.