Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

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When I moved to New York I was excited to make a fresh start – I could become anything I wanted. There were millions of possibilities. And yet, somehow “pumpkin crazy” made it into my new identity. I mean, I always appreciated the gradual slide into fall with turkey-centric meals, flaming red trees, steaming mugs of tea while wearing big cozy sweaters. But my first pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks became a gateway drug to a world of all things pumpkin.

There’s a huge movement against the pumpkin flavour, with killjoys pointing out that most pumpkin spice products have “no real pumpkin content”. Can we call them pumpkin hipsters? They probably can’t sleep at night knowing people are buying pumpkin doughnuts or pumpkin ice cream with artificial flavouring. Shaking their heads while harvesting and roasting the organic pumpkin they grew on their tiny fire escape gardens. You know what? I don’t care. What matters is that I love pumpkin pie and translating that flavour into multiple delicious ways of getting into my mouth is just fine with me.

So to erase any lingering doubt about my pumpkin enthusiasm I decided to throw a pumpkin party – everyone had to bring something pumpkin. We ended up with pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin beer. We even had an addictive pumpkin monkey bread with icing. Everyone wore orange and “Thriller” was playing all night. My contribution was pumpkin spice latte cupcakes, an ode to the drink that started it all. The cupcakes turned out perfectly – very moist, distinct pumpkin spice flavour with soft fluffy whipped topping. Everyone loved them (one friend exclaimed “It’s like eating clouds of DELICIOUS!”). Lesson learned: going all out with your ridiculous obsessions can be a whole lot of fun.

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Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes (adapted from Annie’s Eats)

Yield: about 2 dozen cupcakes

The original recipe asked for 1 cup of oil but I think you could reduce it to 3/4 cup, maybe even 2/3 cup since you’re adding pumpkin puree. I think this recipe would be even more fantastic with a cup of dark chocolate chips. Lots of room to play around!

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 tbsp. espresso powder

2 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. grated nutmeg

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. salt

1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin puree

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

4 large eggs

½ cup coffee or espresso, for brushing

 

For the frosting:

2¼ cups heavy cream, chilled

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

 

Topping

caramel sauce

cinnamon

Directions

For the cupcakes

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, espresso powder, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Stir together and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend together the pumpkin, granulated sugar, brown sugar and oil. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With the mixture on low speed, add the flour mixture in two additions, mixing just until incorporated.
  • Fill the cupcake liners about three-quarters full. Bake until the cupcakes are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes, then remove the cupcakes from the pans. While the cupcakes are still warm, brush them two or three times with the coffee or espresso, allowing the first coat to soak in before repeating. Let cool completely.

For the frosting

  • Place the heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip on medium-low speed at first, gradually increasing to high speed. Blend in the confectioners’ sugar gradually. Whip until stiff peaks form, being careful not to over-beat. Use a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip to frost the cooled cupcakes. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon and drizzle with caramel sauce. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate.

Vanilla Panna Cotta + Ripe Berries

raspberry vanilla panna cotta

This is a quick post, in line with how quick this recipe is. Panna cotta is the perfect summer dessert. It takes almost no effort to make, minimal preparation, and pairs with almost any fresh ripe summer fruit. You could do peaches, raspberries, cherries, apricots…pretty much anything. I like raspberries the best because they crush up easily and make their own sauce as you spoon up the creamy panna cotta.

I made this dessert in a panic during Stampede when I realized that in between Stampede breakfast hopping, free concerts, Bollywood dancing, and fireworks I had no time to make a fabulous pie or cake for the BBQ that night. Once again, panna cotta saved the day.

raspberry vanilla panna cotta

raspberry vanilla panna cotta

raspberry vanilla panna cotta

So heat up that milk, dissolve that gelatin, go out and enjoy the sun, come back a few hours later to delicious cold and creamy Italian milk pudding.

Perfect Panna Cotta (from David Lebovitz)

Eight servings

You can make them up to two days ahead and keep them well-covered and chilled.

For gelatin-related questions, read my Tips for Using Gelatin. You can find instructions for using sheet gelatin at the end of the recipe.

  • 4 cups (1l) heavy cream (or half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 2 packets powdered gelatin (about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water

1. Heat the heavy cream and sugar in a saucepan or microwave. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.

(If using a vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and add the bean pod. Cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean then rewarm the mixture before continuing.)

2. Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil.

3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Pour the very warm Panna Cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

5. Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take at least two hours but I let them stand at least four hours. (Judy told me American refrigerators are colder than European ones. )

If you’re pressed for time, pour the Panna Cotta mixture into wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses, without unmolding.

6. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, and garnish as desired.

To make Panna Cotta with sheet gelatin: Soften 25g (approximately six sheets) in a liter of cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. Wring the sheets out and stir them into the warm Panna Cotta mixture in step # 4, until dissolved.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Vanilla Cream Pie with Ginger-Oatmeal Crust

strawberry rhubarb

This is one of the first recipes that I can actually call my own and I’m darn proud of it! It’s so much easier to spontaneously throw together dinner or lunch without a recipe, not so much with baking. I was inspired by the rhubarb sundae at Earth to Table Bread Bar and it was the perfect dessert for a spring potluck. Sadly, the occasion was a going-away party for some of my parent’s closest friends that are retiring to island life in British Columbia. The entire night everyone reminisced and told crazy stories while passing salad bowls, mixing rhubarb cocktails, and feasting on dishes made with love.

cucumber + salmon + dill

I started with the essential spring vegetable/fruit rhubarb, correctly categorized as a “herbaceous perennial”, more usefully categorized as “confusing red celery plant that gets put into desserts instead of salads”. My mother loves rhubarb and we’ve been poaching harvesting from our neighbour’s garden since we moved into the neighbourhood. If you ever saw two Asian women in the rain waving large chef knives in the garden, it was definitely my Mom and I. Plenty of cars passed by and slowed down as we hacked away at the crimson stalks, safari style.

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Rhubarb is quite tart and most people add cups of sugar to balance that fresh pucker-inducing flavour. Sometimes people go too far and make it sickly sweet – what’s the point of even using rhubarb if you’re drowning it in sugar? Rhubarb is quintessential spring – it should taste fresh above all else. Adding strawberries to sweeten is much more appealing, in my opinion.

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Not everyone likes rhubarb though – it’s definitely an acquired taste. After years of rhubarb pies and compote I’m a fan for life, but just in case I decided to make a Strawberries + Cream version of the pie as well. It worked out deliciously with the rich vanilla pastry cream and the thick, nutty oatmeal crust. You could even use the oatmeal + fruit combo as an excuse to eat it for breakfast.

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Strawberry-Rhubarb Vanilla Cream Pie with Ginger-Oatmeal Crust
(adapted from Serious Eats, Dorie Greenspan, and Chocolate & Zucchini)

Bake the crust and make the pastry cream first because both components need to chill. While they’re in the fridge you can prepare the fruit. The pastry cream is finicky part of this recipe, everything else is easy! Feel free to add more crystallized ginger, you need quite a bit of it before the taste actually comes out.

INGREDIENTS
For the Crust
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 to 3 tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter (melted)

For the Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1 + 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 + 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits at room temp

For the Topping
1 large box (~1 lb) of ripe strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced
1 kg (2.5 pounds) fresh rhubarb stalks
2/3 cup unrefined cane sugar (1 cup for a sweeter tooth)
10-cm (4-inch) segment of a plump vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

INSTRUCTIONS
For the Crust

  • Mix oats, flour, cinnamon, crystallized ginger, sugar, and vanilla together in a large bowl. Pour melted butter over mixture and stir until completely combined. Press mixture into bottom and sides of pie plate (makes either one very thick crust or two normal crusts) and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Pastry Cream

  • Bring milk to boil in small saucepan.
  • Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, whisk the yolks together with the sugar and cornstarch until thick and well blended. Still whisking, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk – this will temper (or warm) the yolks so they won’t curdle. Continue whisking and slowly add the rest of the hot milk.

Put the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously, bringing the mixture to a boil. Boil for two minutes whisking continuously and remove the pan from the heat.
  • Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in bits of the butter, stirring until it is fully incorporated and the pastry cream is smooth and silky. Scrape the cream into a bowl and create an airtight seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. If you want it to cool quickly, put the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and cold water, and stir the cream occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.

For the Poached Rhubarb

  • Trim both ends of the rhubarb stalks. Cut the stalks in 1-cm (1/3-inch) slices, unless they are pencil-thin, in which case you should cut them in 2.5-cm (1-inch) segments.
  • Put the sugar and 500 ml (1/2 quart) fresh water in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the inside of the bean with the dull side of the blade, and add them and the bean to the pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring regularly as the sugar dissolves.
  • Add a quarter of the rhubarb to the simmering syrup — resist the temptation to add more, the rhubarb won’t cook evenly if the pan is crowded — cover, and allow the mixture to return to simmering point. Once the syrup simmers, cook for just 1 minute, until the rhubarb pieces are soft (test with the tip of the knife, it should meet minimal resistance) but still holding their shape.
  • Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon, leaving the syrup in the pan, and transfer to a serving dish or container.
  • Repeat with the rest of the rhubarb, one small batch at a time. Add the syrup and the vanilla bean to the dish.

Assemble the Pie

  • Remove pastry cream from refrigerator and mix until smooth
  • Take chilled pie crust(s) and fill with pastry cream
  • Top with sliced strawberries and poached rhubarb, chill or serve immediately.

Travelogues: Earth to Table Bread Bar @ Hamilton

After finishing my last year of undergrad in April I decided there was nothing stopping me from exploring this beautiful country. I don’t think many people appreciate what lies within the vast expanse between Vancouver and St. John’s, but I can testify after weeks of couch surfing, bus riding, and reunions that sometimes you can strike gold in your own backyard. There is so much more to discover in Canada but I think I covered a fair bit of ground over four weeks. The itinerary went something like this:Eastern Canada Route

Kingston –> Hamilton –> Niagara Falls –> Toronto –> Montreal –> Québec City –> Charlottetown –> Halifax –> St. John’s

So I’m going to try to do something completely new on this blog – restaurant reviews! Because let’s be honest – I ate my way through Eastern Canada.

My first stop surprised pretty much everyone, including myself: Hamilton, the city with the most waterfalls per capita! My friend M. goes to med school there and he convinced me, despite warnings of the “industrial wasteland” from others, that he would show me a good time in Hamilton.

In between shenanigans I got to explore Hamilton on my own and I discovered one of my favourite streets: Locke St. How could you not love it? It has a tea parlour where you can have high tea in a garden patio for only $15! An artisan cheese shop doubling as a design showcase with reclaimed wood cutting boards. I ended up at Earth to Table, the last restaurant on the street.

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what to eat in spring

The interior is bright and quirky with menus written on chalkboards and plenty of tables in front of the sunny windows. Everyone from families to couples were eating hearty lunches there and I instantly felt at home. Seasonal, local, and quirky options on the menu included quinoa burgers, porchetta sandwiches, a spicy tomato pizza with lemon ricotta, honey, and hot peppers. Apparently pizza is what they are known for so I went with the Apple and Bacon pizza. It was Neopolitan-style pizza dough with bechamel sauce, caramelized onions, smoked cheddar, sage, sliced apples and bacon.

Pizzapizzapizza + book

The pizza was hearty with lots of interesting textures, between melty cheese, crispy sage, salty bacon, and refreshing apple. It would have been nice to have more apple slices to cut the saltiness of the bacon and cheese. The crust was a little thicker than most Neopolitan pizzas but it worked with the generous toppings.

rhubarb sundae

For dessert I had the Rhubarb & Ginger Sundae which became the inspiration for a summer pie later. Scoops of creamy vanilla ice cream layered with oat crumble, crystallized ginger, fresh rhubarb compote, topped with a cloud of whipped cream. I have an aversion to ginger so I was slightly apprehensive, but I couldn’t distinguish it between the toasty nutty oats with the tart saucy rhubarb. Fantastic spring dessert! I would definitely eat here again.

bread bar

The promise was delivered; between singing our hearts out to Cher to re-living prom at the Med Formal and tasty pizza I had a fantastic time in Hamilton!

Earth to Table Bread Bar on Urbanspoon
 

Tiramisu Cupcakes for K.

tiramisu cupcakes

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These cupcakes have a special place in my recipe book for so many reasons.

My friend K and I met in our first year of university – LITTLE did we know what was in store for us! I dragged him to his first hip hop class, he turned to be an amazing dancer and we danced together for four years. We literally lived in the library for a week side by side in two booths when we didn’t know any better. We took a trip to Montreal that was filled with chocolate, tea-time, jive dancing, and drag queens. Working in the same student club, we went under trial by fire keeping things together. We’ve sang our hearts out to 90s music. Amongst all the shenanigans, we’ve kept each other sane during the crazy times.

tiramisu cupcakes

I make it a point to know my friends’ favourite desserts and tiramisu happens to be K’s. In second year I attempted my first tiramisu for his birthday…and it was a disaster. I scoffed at the instruction “after adding custard, wipe bowl very well before adding egg whites”. Wipe bowl between mixes? As if! You’re talking to a lazy student who revered the dishwasher above all other appliances.

That was when I learned that egg whites do not whip when contaminated with egg yolk. No matter how long you beat them.

I panicked. What was I going to do with these hopelessly liquid egg whites? There were FIVE eggs in that recipe! I improvised and added whipped cream, but I was extremely annoyed that my first tiramisu recipe hadn’t gone as planned. I vowed I would have my revenge next year.

tiramisu cupcakes

I hate repeating recipes unless they are exceptional, so when K’s birthday rolled around I wanted to do tiramisu with a twist. I had never made cupcakes before (!) and I was determined to make something amazing. There would be no substitutions this time. These cupcakes exceeded my expectations. The icing uses real mascarpone, making it a rich, tangy, creamy dream. The cupcake itself is light and fluffy; when you bite into it you get the pleasant surprise of the middle being soaked in espresso glaze.

Everyone swooned, my friends declared them the best cupcakes they had ever had, but most importantly K loved them. After all the crazy adventures and sleepless nights I’m not sure if I properly expressed how much I care about this guy, but tiramisu cupcakes are a pretty good place to start.

tiramisu cupcakes

Heavenly Tiramisu Cupcakes (adapted from Epicurious)

The next time I make this I would cut the amount of espresso glaze by half. I always end up with a full cup leftover and haven’t found a great way to re-purpose it. Perhaps glaze a coffee cake?

Makes 24 cupcakes

Cupcake Ingredients

2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened at room temperature
1 1/2 cups white sugar
8 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk

Icing
500 g mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbs pure vanilla extract (or 1 vanilla bean finely chopped in food processor)
pinch sea salt
2 cups confectioners sugar

Tiramisu Glaze (I usually half this amount)
1 cup espresso
1/4 cup chocolate syrup OR 1 tbs of cocoa (or more, to taste)
2 oz/60 mL Kahlua
1/3 cup sugar

Garnish : Cocoa Powder (optional: 24 chocolate covered espresso beans and/or chocolate shavings)

Preparation

Cake Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line  two 12 cup muffin pans with muffin paper.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the milk, mixing just until incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pans.

4. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 to 24 minutes, or until tops spring back. Let cool for thirty minutes. Then remove cupcakes from pan and let cool an additional 30 minutes.

5. While cupcakes are cooking, combine heavy cream, and mascarpone cheese in a large bowl and mix on low speed. Add vanilla and salt. Then slowly add confectioners sugar, allowing each sugar addition to throughly mix with the cheese mixture until all of the confectioner’s sugar is gone. Put icing into a piping bag.

Glaze:

1. Prepare the Glaze by melting the sugar into the hot espresso in a large mixing bowl with a whisk (by hand) Then add syrup, kahlua, and rum/brandy.

2. Take a straw or kabob stick and poke a small hole in the top of each cupcake. With a spoon, ladle some of the glaze into the hole. Then I like to dip the top of each cupcake into the glaze to ensure that it is evenly covered with the glaze. It shouldn’t be soggy – just covered enough that the cupcake looks light brown. Then pipe the icing onto each cupcake. Lightly dust cupcakes with cocoa powder and top with espresso beans/ chocolate shavings.

Tres Leches Coconut Cake + MHAC


MHAC

Hello hello, I’m sheepishly returning to the blogging world after a few weeks months of travelling mixed with a bit of school and future life crisis. I’m finishing the last month of my undergraduate degree and the mixture of feelings I have at this point is explosive. I’m so ready for finals to be over, I’m so dreading saying goodbye to friends, I’m excited for a new chapter in my life, I’m terrified that I’ll never be able to recreate what I have here. It took me four years to get this point – the point where I’m confident enough to strike up conversations with strangers, throw dinner parties, travel by myself, and maybe most importantly, realize that I can make a difference.

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One of the committees I worked with this year is the Mental Health Awareness Committee. I went into it excited for a new year, new projects, but what I didn’t realize was that I would be part of a family of some of the most passionate and dedicated individuals I’ve met. I’ve been inspired countless times by the hard work each person put into our initiatives and I really think we did our part to bring mental health issues to the forefront on campus.I had the amazing opportunity to start my own project called Queen’s U Secrets – this was an idea that used to keep me up late at night. It would always start with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and then the wheels would start spinning and an hour later I would wonder why I had so much energy even though it was 3am. And most importantly, after this happened a few times, I stopped asking “What if” and started thinking “How”. It was like someone had turned a switch that I never knew was there and I slowly realized that I could stop being a bystander. It was incredibly liberating to say “Why not?”. One year later, something that used to exist in the sketches beside my notes or in the blurry minutes before I fell asleep is now something I can share with hundreds of other people.

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This cake that I made for the MHAC year end social. I have always wanted to make a tres leches cake (in Spanish it translates to “three milks”), which is traditionally a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and whole milk. It is kind of ridiculous. I just happened to have a few cans of coconut milk leftover from making curry and I knew I wasn’t the only MHAC member who likes LOVES coconut. Before, I thought “No, this is way too decadent, two cans of condensed milk and coconut milk?”

To that I say, “Why not?”

Tres Leches de Coco (Coconut Tres Leches Cake) adapted from Serious Eats

You shouldn’t be surprised that this cake is very sweet. The cake itself is like a super-saturated sponge cake with a mellow coconut flavour. The original recipe has a toasted meringue topping but I felt that a simple whipped cream offset the sweetness of the cake nicely.

Ingredients

For the Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
4 teaspoons baking powder
6 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

For the Coconut Milk Bath:
2 (13.5-ounce) cans coconut milk
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream

For the Topping
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup toasted sweetened coconut flakes

Procedures

For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 325°F.
1. Whisk flour and baking powder together in small bowl; set aside.
2. In large bowl, beat egg whites and salt with whisk attachment on medium-low speed until whites begin to loosen and froth, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and beat whites until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating until stiff, glossy peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Add egg yolks and beat just until combined. Decrease speed to low and add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with milk. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula as necessary. Add vanilla and beat just until combined. Fold in coconut with rubber spatula.
4. Scrape batter into ungreased 13- by 9-inch baking dish and smooth out top. Bake until cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes, rotating cake halfway through baking. Transfer cake to cooling rack and cool in pan completely, 1 to 2 hours. Once cooled, poke cake all over with fork or skewer and run a paring knife along the edges just to separate the cake from the sides of the baking dish.

For the Coconut Milk Bath: Whisk coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and cream together in large bowl. Pour mixture evenly all over cake. It will look like too much liquid but the cake is meant to act like a sponge – if there is too much liquid, try lifting the cake from the pan and letting the liquid soak from underneath (my cake was actually floating in the milk bath – make sure it soaks evenly along the entire bottom of the cake). Transfer to refrigerator and chill at least 2 hours.

For the Topping:

To toast the coconut for the topping, arrange it in a single layer in a large baking sheet. Bake 5 to 10 minutes on the center rack of a preheated 350°F oven, stirring the coconut halfway through baking, until crisp and golden. Transfer baking sheet to cooling rack and cool coconut completely, about 15 minutes.

Whip heavy cream on high speed until stiff peaks form. Spread evenly over cake and sprinkle with toasted coconut flakes.

12 Days of Christmas Baking – Day Two: French Pear Tart

almond pear tart

I first traveled to France with my family for a month-long exploration of the beautiful country. We started in Paris, rented a car and wandered around almost every small town in Provence, walked by the seaside in Marseilles, dashed through the rain in Dijon, and toured many art galleries in Paris. Looking back, I realize this trip was where my appreciation for food began. France isn’t subtle about their food, for good reason – they know it’s the best. This was where I realized what real fresh bread was supposed to taste like, that there was more to cheese than brie and havarti, that it was perfectly acceptable to eat bread, cheese, and fresh fruit for all three meals because it was France. When we were in Provence my father and I would both wake up at the crack of dawn (still jetlagged) and drive our huge minivan through the tiny streets to find a boulangerie to buy fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Throughout the whole trip I was hopeless at learning French, but my proudest moment was when I was able to ask for “Une baguette s’il vous plaît. C’est tout, merci!”.

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spreading almond cream

The first time I walked into a pâtisserie I was blown away by the stunning variety of pastries – rows and rows of buttery croissants, pan au chocolat, meringues the size of a loaf of bread, marzipan in all shapes and sizes, and most importantly – the tarts. French tarts were a revelation for me. The crust wasn’t so much buttery and flaky but a sweet shortbread, filled with the most lovely things, from sweet pastry cream with summer fruit to bright lemon curd with a crisp brûlée. One of my favourite discoveries was the pear-almond tart. The almond filling ranged from custard-like to a nutty paste, but no matter what the texture it always complimented the sweet juicy pears.

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I was lucky enough to return to France on a school trip a few years later. We started our trip in a small northern town called Bayeux. Our first day in France we were able to walk around and explore the rainy streets for a few hours. I remember frantically searching for a patisserie right before we were due to meet back at the bus – I ran into the first one I could find, haphazardly pointed to a few tarts, and rushed out the door. In the back of the bus I surreptitiously unwrapped my sticky tarts while my friends chattered about how everything was so French!. 

The first bite was a pear-almond tart. It was perfect.

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Finally making this tart was definitely on my bucket list. It turned out spectacularly – the crust was the perfect cookie-like texture, the almond cream was toasted and chewy on the top, sweet and creamy on the inside. Using canned pears is apparently how the French usually make this tart, who am I to break from tradition? The recipe does give you the option of poaching fresh pears if you wish. Bottom line: make this tart. It is très délicieux.

FRENCH PEAR TART

Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS

Makes 6 servings

For the pears:

  • 6 canned pear halves OR 3 medium pears, firm but ripe
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 cups water, optional
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar, optional

For the almond cream:

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
  • 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 partially-baked 9-inch tart shell, made with Sweet Tart Dough (see below), at room temperature
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, or apple jelly for glazing

Getting ready:  If you are using canned pears, you have nothing to do now.  If you are using fresh pears but do not wish to poach them, you have nothing to do now.  If you are using fresh pears and want to poach them, peel them and leave them whole.  Bring the 4 cups water, the 1 1/4 cups sugar and the juice of the lemon to a boil in a saucepan just large enough to hold the pears.  Add the pears to the boiling syrup, lower the heat so the syrup simmers and gently poach the pears until they are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes.  Cool the pears to room temperature in the syrup.

To make the almond cream:  Put the butter and sugar in the workbowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny.  Add the ground almonds and continue to process until well blended.  Add the flour and cornstarch, process, and then add the egg.  Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogeneous.  Add the rum or vanilla and process just to blend.  If you prefer, you can make the cream in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a rubber spatula.  In either case, the ingredients are added in the same order.  Scrape the almond cream into a container and either use it immediately or refrigerate it until firm, about 2 hours.

Getting ready to bake:  Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Have a lined baking sheet at the ready.  If you are using fresh (unpoached) pears, peel them now.  If you are using poached or unpoached pears, cut them in half from blossom to stem and core them; rub the unpoached pears with lemon juice.  Whatever pears you have, make sure to pat them dry – really dry – so that their liquid won’t keep the almond cream from baking.

Fill the baked crust with the almond cream, spreading it even with an offset metal icing spatula.  Thinly cut each pear half horizontally into slices, lift each half on a spatula, press down on the pear to fan it slightly and place it, wide-end toward the edge of the crust, over the almond cream.  The halves will form spokes.

Put the crust on the lined baking sheet, slide the sheet into the oven and bake the tart 50 to 60 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up around the pears and browns.  Transfer the tart to a rack to cool to just warm or to room temperature before unmolding.

Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners’ sugar.  If you prefer, prepare a glaze by bringing about 1/4 cup apple jelly and1/2 teaspoon water to the boil.  Brush the glaze over the surface of the tart.

Serving:  This tart goes very well with aromatic tea.

Storing:  If it’s convenient for you, you can make the almond cream up to 2 days ahead and keep it closely covered in the refrigerator, or you can wrap it airtight and freeze it for up to 2 months; defrost before using.  You can also poach the pears up to 1 day ahead.  However, once you’ve baked the tart, you should be prepared to enjoy it that same day.

Playing around:  The almond cream is a great companion for a variety of fruits.  It’s as good with summer fruits, like apricots or peaches, as it is with autumn’s apples.

SWEET TART DOUGH (Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk

To make the dough:  Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine.  Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely – you’ll have pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and pea-size pieces and that’s just fine.  Stir the egg, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition.  When the egg is in, process in long pulses – about 10 seconds each – until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds.  Just before your reaches this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change – heads up.  Turn the dough out onto a work surface.

Very lightly and sparingly – make that very, very lightly and sparingly – knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.

If you want to press the dough into a tart pan, now is the time to do it.

If you want to chill the dough and roll it out later (doable, but fussier than pressing), gather the dough into a ball (you might have to use a little more pressure than you used to mix in dry bits, because you do want the ball to be just this side of cohesive), flatten it into a disk, wrap it well and chill it for at least 2 hours or for up to 1 day.

To make a press-in crust:  Butter the tart pan and press the dough evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the pan.  Don’t be stingy – you want a crust with a little heft because you want to be able to both taste and feel it.  Also, don’t be too heavy-handed – you want to press the crust in so that the pieces cling to one another and knit together when baked, but you don’t want to press so hard that the crust loses its crumbly shortbreadish texture.  Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

To make a rolled-out crust:  This dough is very soft – a combination of a substantial amount of butter and the use of confectioners’ sugar – so I find it is easier to roll it between wax paper or plastic wrap or, easiest of all, in a roll-out-your-dough slipcover.  If you use the slipcover, flour it lightly.  Roll the dough out evenly, turning the dough over frequently and lifting the wax paper or plastic wrap often, so that it doesn’t roll into the dough and form creases.  If you’ve got time, slide the rolled out dough into the fridge to rest and firm for about 20 minutes before fitting the dough into the buttered tart pan.  Trim the excess dough even with the edge of the pan.  Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

To partially bake the crust:  Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil tightly against the crust.  Bake the crust 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil.  If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon.  Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack; keep it in its pan.

12 Days of Christmas Baking – Day One: Earl Grey Madeleines

earl grey madeleines

The food blog lives! To celebrate the return of free time in my life I decided I’m going to bake something every other day that I’m home – because I can. When I announced this to my family by brother exclaimed “What is this, the 12 cakes of Christmas?!”. Not quite, since cakes are really not my forte yet and there are so many other things than cake to bake for holidays, but the idea stuck so I’m going to get back into blogging by posting 12 desserts for the holidays!

Earl grey is my sister’s secret weakness. Something about the citrus flavoured black tea makes her go crazy and if anything has a hint of earl grey in it, she will immediately buy/eat/drink it. Compared to her I have only a mild appreciation of earl grey…but really, if anything is tea-flavoured how can you say no? I can only share a small part of my tea obsession on this blog…my close friends know the embarrassing size of my tea collection and my inability to leave the house without a thermos of hot water. I can’t justify buying individual tea bags at local coffee shops with the amount of tea that I own, so I often grab tea bags to take with me just in case the craving for English Breakfast strikes me during class. As a result you’ll often find random tea bags in the pockets of all my coats.

piles of madeleines

My obsession with tea is somewhat genetic – my mother is the only one I know who has a bigger collection of tea than me. She has perfected the art of brewing a perfect pot of tea and no matter how many times I try, I can never strike quite the right balance of sugar and cream the way my mom can. So as much drinking tea is my own satisfying ritual, it has deep roots in memories of my family and home. That’s why these earl grey madeleines were the perfect thing to bake with my sister after four months of being away from home.

earl grey madeleines

Tea imparts very subtle flavours when you try to put it in anything other than hot water. My sister’s chief complaint is that baked goods advertised as “earl grey” are only being extremely optimistic. This recipe calls for steeping earl grey leaves in melted butter to infuse the flavour into the batter; my sister made sure to add an extra tablespoon of leaves. The madeleines were the perfect dainty accompaniment to mid-afternoon tea – fragrant with meyer lemon zest and earl grey, soft and cakey with a crisp edge.

Earl Grey Madeleines (adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

Ingredients
•    5 tablespoons unsalted butter plus additional for molds, room temperature
•    2 tablespoons loose tea or tea from 2 tea bags (preferably Earl Grey)

•    3/4 cup all purpose flour
•    1/2 teaspoon baking powder
•    Pinch of salt
•    2 large eggs
•    1/3 cup sugar
•    2 tablespoons honey
•    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
•    1/2 teaspoon (packed) lemon zest

Preparation
•    Melt 5 tablespoons butter in saucepan over low heat or in the microwave oven. Mix in tea. Let stand 15 minutes, then filter tea-infused butter with a sieve into bowl.
•    Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl until thick, about 4 minutes. Add honey, vanilla, and lemon peel; beat 1 minute longer. Gently fold in dry ingredients, then tea-flavored butter. Press plastic wrap onto surface of batter; chill batter at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
•    Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Brush twelve 3×2-inch madeleine molds with butter. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Place pan on baking sheet. Drop 1 scant tablespoon batter into each mold (batter will spread while baking, filling molds completely).
•    Bake madeleines until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 12-15 minutes. Sharply rap pan on work surface to loosen madeleines, then turn out onto rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Fig, Rosemary and Honey Cake

My first experience with figs was on the island of Oia, during the summer when the dry weather had given over to an epidemic of wildfires in Greece. Suffice to say, it was stinking hot. I remember ducking from one souvenir stand to the next trying to avoid being broiled by the sun, lest I evaporate on the spot. When the sun went down it became a tolerable 35 degrees celsius and you could stop applying sunscreen every half hour. One evening we walked past an old woman who was packing up her humble fruit stand for the day and she offered us a bag of fresh figs. Prior to this the only figs I’d had were in some wildly exotic Fig Newtons – how can you give a 14 year old the choice between those and Chips Ahoy? So I wasn’t expecting much at all. We watched the sun set from our hotel room and started cutting the figs – I only tried one out of politeness, but as soon as I had a slice my world changed forever. It was like eating a fruit that had been soaked in honey for hours, they were intensely sweet and flavourful with that addictive crackling that comes from the seeds. Shortly after we had a minor scuffle over how many figs each person got and decided the next day we would buy out that lady’s fruit stand so that the figs wouldn’t be wasted on anyone else.

Now I see figs as one of those gourmet foods with luxury status – if you’re eating figs in Canada you’ve definitely made it in the world. Figs in the fridge, wine in the cellar, Mercedes in the driveway. As a student I can only dream of casually eating a fig out of hand after a long day of classes. But Costco changed all that! They’ve leveled the playing field and started selling figs in bulk to prevent them from solely being the property of the bourgeoisie. Fear not, figs can now be the everyman’s fruit! And since they’re sold in bulk I had an excuse to use them to make this gorgeous cake instead of saving them for a rainy day.

I had a lot of fun making this cake with my family! We decided a cake this epic deserved to be plated, so we experimented with fancy “saucing” techniques with the yogurt to make it look like it came out of an overpriced restaurant. Hilarity ensued:

This is definitely a show-off cake. Make it for friends who appreciate surprising flavour combinations. The rosemary is subtle and it adds complexity to the cake which complements the honey and figs. It’s best the same day you pull it out of the oven because it has an amazingly crispy outer crust which disappears overnight. For the best results do NOT skip having the plain Greek yogurt on the side. The tangy thick yogurt offsets the sweetness and goes perfectly with the cake – it’s the next best thing to getting on a plane for Greece.

Fig, Rosemary, and Honey Cake (from Serious Eats)
NOTES: Pulsing the sugar with orange zest in the food processor releases its oils and makes for a more fragrant cake. If not using food processor, chop the grated zest, as well as the rosemary

Ingredients
For the Cake
•    Baking spray
•    2 1/2 cups (about 12 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
•    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
•    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
•    1 teaspoon salt
•    3/4 cup (about 5 1/4 ounces) granulated sugar
•    2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
•    2 tablespoons grated zest from 1 orange
•    6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
•    1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
•    2 large eggs, at room temperature
•    1/4 cup honey
•    1 cup milk, at room temperature
•    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Figs
•    2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
•    12 figs, stems trimmed and quartered lengthwise
•    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
•    1/2 cup honey

Serve with: Greek yogurt (natural, vanilla, or honey)

Procedures

  1. For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 9-inch round springform pan with cooking spray. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside. Pulse sugar, rosemary, and orange zest in food processor until no zest strands remain and rosemary is coarsely chopped (see note above).
  2. In large bowl, beat butter, oil, and rosemary-lemon sugar on medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add honey and beat just until incorporated.
  3. Decrease mixer speed to low and add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with milk. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Increase speed to medium and beat mixture just until combined, 20 to 30 seconds. Add vanilla and beat once more, just to combine, about 10 seconds.
  4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes (note: I had to bake mine for an extra hour – just make sure you constantly test the middle of the cake) rotating cake halfway through baking. Transfer cake to cooling rack set inside baking sheet and cool in pan 10 minutes.
  5.  Release springform and invert cake onto cooling rack; remove bottom of springform. Invert cake once again and cool completely, about 1 hour.
  6. For the Figs and Assembly: Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat and cook until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add figs and season with salt and pepper. Cook until figs soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in honey and remove from heat.
  7. With a serrated knife, slice about 1/8 inch off top of cake. Spoon figs and any released juices on top of cake. Serve with yogurt on the side.

Two kinds of Crepe Cake (Vanilla and Blueberry) and Epic Baking

This cake is one of my life achievements – you may think that’s sad, but it’s hard not to be proud once you spend three days on one dessert. During those three days there are many moments where you start questioning yourself (Am I crazy for doing this?), the recipe (Did I really just use a dozen eggs?), and cake itself (Will this be worth it??). The answer is yes! Especially to the last question. Yes this cake is definitely worth it! I found the recipe procrastinating for midterms and day dreamed about it all the way till after finals. The concept of crepe cake is genius. Fresh crepes = good. Rich vanilla pastry cream = always good. Multiple layers of each in one bite = heaven. Why three days? There’s a lot of overnight chilling that needs to happen. The first day you make the crepe batter and pastry cream, stick it in the fridge and dream about cake. The next day you enlist the help of your little sister and learn the art of crepe making. Unless you’re an expert the first few crepes will invariably look a bit disfigured, but you can hide them underneath lots of pastry cream (or use them to taste test your crepe batter). The batter is quite thin so I found instead of making “20 perfect crepes” I ended up with about 40! Which definitely isn’t a problem. The crepes were just the right thickness and were very easy to layer – you just have to make sure they are all uniform in size and shape otherwise you’ll end up with a mound of crepes instead of a cake. Since I had enough crepes to make two cakes I decided to replace the Kirsch in one cake with creme de cassis and put fresh blueberries in between the layers. You only need to chill the cake for at least two hours before serving, so technically it would only take two days to make this cake, but other plans forced me to chill the cake overnight. Talk about an exercise in patience. The next day was the fastest I’ve biked home from work. We took out the cakes, put some finishing touches (I got to use a mini blowtorch for the first time! Caramelizing sugar on top creates a nice crunchy contrast), and finally cut a slice.

Both cakes were amazing. With so much pastry cream you would think it would be quite rich, but the cake tasted almost light and airy. The addition of creme de cassis and blueberries really elevated the cake and gave an interesting twist. I think it would be interesting to experiment with different liqueurs for different flavours. Grand Marnier for an orange crepe cake? What about Frangelico for hazelnut-cream cake? So many possibilities…

The Real Crepe Cake
 (from Cream Puffs in Venice)

The day before serving the cake, make the crepe batter and the pastry cream.

Crepe Batter Recipe

6 tablespoons butter
3 cups milk
6 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Vegetable oil

Instructions
1. Cook the butter in a small pan on medium heat until brown like hazelnuts. Set aside.
2. In another small pan, heat the milk until steaming; allow to cool for 10 minutes.
3. In a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the eggs, flour, sugar and salt. Slowly add the hot milk and browned butter. Pour into a container with a spout, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Vanilla Pastry Cream Recipe
2 cups milk
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
3 1/2 tablespoons butter

Instructions
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla extract then set aside for 10 minutes. Fill a large bowl with ice and set aside a small bowl that can hold the finished pastry cream and be placed in this ice bath.
2. In a medium heavy-bottomed pan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, then place pan over high heat and bring to a boil, whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Press the pastry cream through a fine-meshed sieve into the small bowl. Set the bowl in the ice bath and stir until the temperature reaches 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Stir in the butter. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.

Cake Assembly

2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons Kirsch (or creme de cassis or any other liqueur)
icing sugar (optional)
fruit (optional)

Instructions
1. To make the crepes, bring the batter to room temperature. Place a nonstick or seasoned 9-inch crepe pan over medium heat.
2. Swab the surface with the oil, then add about 3 tablespoons batter and swirl to cover the surface. Cook until the bottom just begins to brown, about 1 minute, then carefully lift an edge and flip the crepe with your fingers. Cook on the other side for no longer than 5 seconds. Flip the crepe onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Repeat until you have 20 perfect crepes.
3. Whip the heavy cream with the tablespoon sugar and the Kirsch. It won’t hold stiff peaks but that’s okay. Fold it into the pastry cream.

4. Lay one crepe on a cake plate. Using an icing spatula, completely cover with a thin layer of pastry cream (about 1/4 cup). Cover with a crepe and repeat. If using fruit, sprinkle fruit between layers. The amount of fruit you add is to your preference (try to maintain the levelness of the cake). Make a stack of 20 crepes, with the best-looking crepe on top. Chill for at least 2 hours. Set out for 30 minutes before serving.
5. If you have a blowtorch for creme brulee, sprinkle the top crepe with 2 tablespoons sugar and caramelize with the torch; otherwise, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Slice like a cake.

Batter adapted from ”Joy of Cooking.” Pastry cream adapted from ”Desserts,” by Pierre Herme and Dorie Greenspan. Serves 10.