Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Paris

Ok, it’s now the day after Christmas and I haven’t blogged for 2 days – but hey, I’ve been enjoying Paris!

Off we went to the Opera House. We took a tour of the magnificent building and since there is no way to describe how fantastically incredible it is, I’ll just show you some pictures.

After our tour stopped into a café for a quick salad. Off in the corner of Fayette Gourmet (yes, the famous department store) was a large glass urn of hot chocolate. The thick dark liquid was being stirred by something below and of course I couldn’t resist. We sat at the bar along the window and people watched while we had our snack. The hot chocolate, while not quite as amazing as the one yesterday, was definitely a hundred times better than anything I’d had in Canada. I took a sip and the scum from the milk stuck to my top lip - I licked it off – yum. It was pretty dam good. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and another hot cup of chocolate chaud - my new love.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Paris, Day 2

This morning we got up and made it out to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris. The subway brought us 2 blocks away from the school and it was so quick we were there half an hour early. We walked the streets around the school and found a farmers market. Both sides of this street were lined with market vendors. There were florists, shoe salesmen, meat vendors, fresh produce and seafood mongers. At this market you could buy sweaters and scarves, pots and pans and carpets, there was even one guy with furniture for sale. The market was about 6 blocks in length and we had only gone a few blocks when we had to turn back so we could make it to Le Cordon Bleu on time.

Le Cordon Bleu is tucked a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Paris’ busy streets. We walked into what looked like a small building and asked for Catherine Baschet, development manager.

Catherine walked us through the school, each floor was a different kitchen, pastry on the 3rd floor, demonstration kitchens on another level. We stood and watched a class making madeleines, then up to a pastry class making croissant. We tasted and talked, I took notes and Jon took pictures.

The history of Le Cordon Bleu dates back quite far to Marthe Distel who was a food journalist who began giving a few culinary classes by some of Paris best chefs around the late 1800’s. After Marthe, Madam Brassard bought the school and took it to the next level. This is when Julia Child took a class and it is true that under Brassard’s rule, she was very tough on the students – Julia included. Brassard ran the school for 45 years and retired at the age of 87, selling the school to the present owner, André Cointreau, a descendant of both the Cointreau and Rémy Martin dynasties. It was André that expanded the school into what is today an international school that teaches the highest standard of French cuisine around the world.

There are a few schools in The USA but there is only one in Canada and that is Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. After that inspiring experience, we went right back to the market. I bought another 6 escargot for dinner and a beautiful bouquet of holly and evergreen boughs.

We met Jordan back at the apartment and went on a hunt for Christmas lights. We took the subway to the Eiffel Tower and walked down the streets we became familiar with last year when we rented an apartment on Rue Sufferen. We walked into my favourite boulangerie, sure enough, a few of my favourite cheese buns were left and I quickly bought one for my evening escargot. We went into a department store and found some Christmas tree decorations; gold balls and red stars.

We walked around the Eiffel Tower and over to Rue Clare, the street famous for the food shops that spill into the pedestrian cobblestone street. Our friends rented an apartment here last year and we used to walk this way when we would rendezvous with them. We walked through the street and up La Montte Picquet. It was a beautiful street with quaint little shops. One in particular caught my attention, it was a bread and chocolate shop or, Pain & Chocolat. Outside were chocolate brown bistro tables with whicker chairs. Over each chair was a blanket to keep outdoor customers warm. The blankets were in alternating colours of red and white – how beautifully festive and tasteful. We couldn’t resist, we went in; the tiny little place had rich brown wooden furniture against antiqued walls with small tables, glass and brass accents that gave it a feel of a parlor of the 1800’s. We ordered hot chocolate and drank it outside – holey cow! It was pure chocolate. It was a pure drink of thick chocolate topped with foamed milk. It luxuriated across our palate like decadent velvet with a rich flavour. I’m beginning to fall in love with Paris’ version of hot chocolate.

Christmas decorations are not nearly as obvious in Paris as anywhere in North America but what they do have is stunning. Rue Domonique had beautiful lights that resembled long icicles. The lights streamed from the top to the bottom of these 3-foot icicles that were draped across the street. There were hundreds of them and the white lights of each of them fell from top to bottom – in the dark they looked like snow falling – the Eiffel Tower was in the distance and the scene was one of pure Parisian magic.

We walked over to the Christmas Market on the Champs Elyse. It was dark and the Champs Elyse was it up like an elaborate Christmas wonderland. The modern lights circled the street lights in brilliant blue and others in bright white. The hundreds of little cabins that make up the Christmas market were all decorated in white lights. There were thousands of people at the market and as Jordan put it, we were walking through “a sea of people”. At times it was impossible to make your way through. Some people were eating churros from large paper cones. Churros are a sweet dough piped into oil, deep fried and rolled in sugar. I bought a few Boules, they are the size and shape of a short fat candle. They’re some kind of individual cake covered in chocolate with different flavours; I got the mint chocolate one and dark chocolate with nuts. We’ll have them for dessert tonight.

Jordan is getting tired and I have to admit, so am I. Jon is taking hundreds of pictures and we’ve just walked about 10 miles this afternoon. Jordan and I headed back to the apartment through the mile long promenade along Rue Rivoli.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in Paris

We arrived in Paris at 4 in the afternoon. The sun wasn’t shining but the weather was warm and dry. Paris was bustling and as we walked the streets around the Louvre, our new neighbourhood, we noticed the unusually large amounts of café’s still with outdoor seating that were bustling with people, drinking, smoking and some were even eating. As we walked by we could feel the warm air from the heaters escaping into the cool evening air.

We couldn’t resist and stopped at a cafe and had a hot bowl of onion soup – they don’t call it “French Onion Soup” here and I’ve learned that this is probably the one dish that Paris can call its own.

Day One

We all slept in this morning When we did get up we were fighting to use the one bathroom in the apartment. We’re so used to our own bathrooms back home that we almost didn’t know what to do, but before long, we had a routine worked out so we could all get ready efficiently with the few facilities we had. We made mushrooms omelets and spooned sweet cherries over yogurt.

We ventured out in the direction of the Champs Elyse Christmas Market. It was misting, not really raining but if you stayed outside for a long time like we did, you would get wet but the weather was warm enough so we were't cold. About one block from where we started, we entered a promenade that covered us the entire distance from where we were to the Champs Elyse – perfect! Through the promenade there were small shops with their goods spilling out onto the walkway. There were stores after stores of beautiful scarves, hats and gloves. In between there were patisserie’s that made the eyes in your head bulge right out and boulangerie’s that made your drool. There were jewellery stores with diamonds and glitter and antique stores with treasure and antiquities.

Finally we could see it. Off in the distance were hundreds of small white cabins, the size of a farmers’ market tents back home, but instead, they were white wooden cabins. They lined either side of the Champs Elyse. The grounds were decorated with transplanted evergreen trees and glittering lights. The each little cabin was a different shop overflowing with goods. Surprisingly there were few Christmas decorations but there was lots of hot wine, hot beer and of course hot chocolate. Here they have a machine that dispenses hot milk and then you buy a large square of chocolate that is stuck on the end of a wooden spoon. I played it safe with a milk chocolate square. It goes into the cup and you stir. By the time it’s cool enough to drink, the chocolate square has completely melted – it was sooo yummy!

The chocolate cabin was overflowing with giant slabs of different kinds of chocolate. Walk along and there were multi coloured macaroons by the hundreds, mountains of cheese and a small city of charcuterie. There was hand made wooden toys and candle shops; Christmas cards and Swiss army knives. Some of the cabins were full of foods from sausages on a bun to giant steel bowls filled with simmering foods over portable flames. Jordan got a bowl of luscious mushrooms in a creamy mustard sauce.

We finished at the market and took the subway to the Bastille district where we thought the market was open every day. Unfortunately it’s just on Saturday so we stopped for a hot bowl of onion soup at a cafe. Once refreshed, we headed towards our apartment on foot. We hadn’t gone too far when we found someone selling Christmas trees on the street corner. Fresh Christmas trees here are all stuck into a tree stump to stand them up. Not like back home where we fight with the waterproof metal tree stands that end up leaking all over your hardwood floor. We picked out a perfect tree and brought it back to our apartment.

We walked down Rue Rivoli with the small 3-foot tree, wrapped in its mesh sock. We passed a small outdoor market and I bought some garlic butter escargot for my dinner. The pedestrian traffic started to get thicker by the block – we were entering the district where most of the reasonable shopping is to be found in Paris and there we were marching with our little tree against the now thick flow of shoppers. The store windows were beautifully decorated, some with animated Christmas displays. There were a few men walking with TV screens on their shoulders – I guess it’s a new kind of advertising – wow! We’re certainly getting into the holiday spirit now.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Different Christmas

I’m having a different kind of Christmas this year. Not by choice but by circumstance. The plumbing in my newly renovated bathroom decided to give way and take with it my living room ceiling. So now I have a 15-foot exposed living room ceiling (aka Christmas room) showing off my newly fixed plumbing while all the furniture sits in one corner, covered with sheets.

I suppose I could get upset and have the worse December ever, but instead I decided to cancel Christmas. What happened next was totally unexpected. I felt lighter and began thinking about what I’d like to do with my December while everyone else was engaged in the holidays.

It wasn’t long before I found something to do. I’m going away but while I wait for my departure date, I find myself going about my days feeling very detached from the bustling activities around me, like I’m watching the holidays pass me by and I have nothing to do. I have to say, it feels pretty good.

The malls are busy but people are mostly stressed instead of happy, conversations of family gatherings take on a tone of frustration and anxious anticipation and people are talking practically about money and waste.

But I’m sort of walking through it, enjoying the nicest parts of Christmas. I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart when I hear Christmas carols, am amazed at how beautiful some of the houses are decorated, especially at night and there are so many candle light strolls and choir performances that I’m actually being swept away with the best bits of the holidays – how glorious!

As I sit on the sidelines to Christmas this year I’m incredibly thankful I’m not caught up in what I now see as holiday madness. Each and every Christmas I try to recreate the amazing Christmas of my youth for my own family. My family would always put on an incredibly memorable event. It was never about the presents because they would have them all “made” by the end of November. The first few weeks in December was spent making a special outfit to wear on Christmas Eve, then the week prior to Christmas was for preparing special dishes, a little at a time. For my family, Christmas was all about the Christmas table, the food and the gathering. I’m sure it wasn’t always manageable but the effort was always made because – well, it’s Christmas.

This year I didn’t really cancel Christmas but I cancelled the madness that Christmas has become. As you read this, I’ll be in Paris, France with my family strolling the Christmas Markets on the Champs Elyse with a hot cup of cocoa in my hands. I have an apartment just off the Louvre, I brought my Julia Child cookbooks and I’ll be making beef Bourgogne for Christmas dinner along with garlic butter escargot I'll buy at the farmers market and a stunning tourte aux pommes (apple tart) I'll pick up at one of Paris’ famous patisseries. We’ll light some candles, decorate a tiny tree with a few ornaments we found at the Christmas market and our presents will be ourselves. This year is a very simple Christmas, a return to the memorable ones – my gosh, how did things get so out of hand?

I’m not sure that you need a house disaster to remove the holiday madness from Christmas nor do I think you need to travel to the other side of the world for a simpler, more enjoyable Christmas but it’s amazing how beautiful Christmas can be when you let go and focus on what really matters.

Whether your Christmas table is elaborately festive or simple and delicious, may it be one for your family’s memory books and above all else, enjoy the holidays in which ever way you choose for Christmas is truly meant to be enjoyed. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ottawa's Christmas Market

Have you been to the new Christmas market at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa? It’s a romantic and festive market in one of Ontario’s most beautiful and historic buildings, the Aberdeen Pavilion. The Aberdeen Pavilion is a stunning 36,000 Victorian heritage building that held a variety of agricultural events in the late 1800’s and continues to do so today.

Christmas Markets are popular in Europe, they first began over 200 years ago. Cologne, Vienna, Nuremberg, Brussels, Munich, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, are the best (I’ve heard) and now they’ve spread to Rome and Paris. Christmas Markets are primarily outdoor markets that are different from farmers’ markets in that they have very few fresh fruits and vegetables and more items more appropriate for the season.

White tents decorated in colourful lights spill into village squares selling nutcrackers and Christmas ornaments, wooden toys and marionettes, candles and lambskin shoes. Foods offered include roasted chestnuts, baked apples, gingerbread biscuits, mulled cider and hot wine.

The beautiful new Christmas Market in Ottawa is indoors. Market stalls were decorated with twinkling lights, evergreen boughs and shiny presents. Carolers dressed in historic costume strolled the market singing Christmas carols. On the tables were prepared foods and one-of-a-kind gifts that added interest to the stalls of fresh produce.

It’s amazing how much fresh produce is still available in December. There were chestnuts, apples, pears, squash, kale, onions, garlic, leeks, beets, cranberries, green onions, spinach, potted herbs, fresh greenhouse tomatoes, carrots in rainbow colours and multi-coloured potatoes. There were long stocks of Brussel sprouts and pints of Jerusalem artichokes; pork and bison, sausages and pepperettes. I found green spiky cauliflower marketed as edible Christmas trees and a few honey stalls mixed in with maple syrup vendors; an artisan grain producer was busy grinding fresh flour.

In between the fresh produce was a wide range of wholesome and decadent foods made by culinary entrepreneurs. There was Ottawa’s popular Pascal’s Ice Cream (I had the egg nog flavour). There was sparkling apple cider, apple cider donuts and bags of dried apples, some dipped in yummy chocolate. Bakers with tables overflowing with artisan loaves of bread and bakers with pies; pies made of pumpkin, apple, turkey, steak and traditional tortierres. There were giant, soft cinnamon buns, vegetable stuffed breads and giant irresistible cookies.

There were cakes baked in mason jars, topped with icing and equipped with a silver spoon; bite size pieces of cake called Bombs, enrobed in chocolate and topped with yummy goodies of caramel, nuts, candy and fruit. There was a donut baker offering mini home made donuts in flavours of Pecan Turtle, Malted Milk, Coco Hazelnut and Maple Bacon.

Besides the fresh produce and decant foods there were pots of Christmas greens, holiday candles and wreaths of grape vines. There are hand crafted hats and beautiful scarves, jewellery, stunning cutting boards, artwork, hand made wooden toys and Christmas tree decorations.

Christmas markets are a step back to an old fashioned holiday where simple pleasures are paramount.

The worlds most decadent, beautiful and incredible Christmas market is in Paris, France where over 350 stalls spill out along the Champs Elyse with Christmas lights strung across the boulevard and around every tree, festive music plays while shoppers stroll casually with a cup of vin chaud (hot wine).

I can’t wait, I’m going to Paris for Christmas this year. I’ll be strolling the streets, shopping at the Christmas markets with a mug of hot chocolate. I have an apartment behind the Louve, I’ve packed my Julia Childs cookbooks and I’ll be making Beef Bourgogne on Christmas morning. I’ll write from Paris, but if I don’t, from my table to yours, have a very merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sizing Up Mushrooms

Full of mystery and intrigue, mushrooms are an edible fungi. But there’s no mystery for Zlatko Vidmar, an international mushroom specialist. Throughout Zlatko’s career he has been in demand by the worlds top mushroom companies throughout Europe (Italy, Hungary and Germany), then in China and Viet Nam.

In 1999 Zlatko and his family moved to Canada and in 2008 bought an ailing mushroom farm in Amhurstburg. Zlatko saw it as an opportunity to grow mushrooms the way he’s always wanted to - organically. Today Vidmar Oganic Mushrooms ( has over 21,000 square feet of production in 7 growing rooms.

Mushrooms grow so fast you can almost see them growing. Certainly you can see the size difference between a mushroom in the early morning and the same mushroom 8-hours later, they almost triple in size. As the mushrooms grow they have to be thinned. The very first, smallest mushroom to be plucked to make room for the others are called ‘button’. Denis claims they’re the most tender, juicy and flavourful of all mushrooms.

The same is true for brown mushrooms and when they’re picked, they’re graded starting with button, then cremini which are larger, portobelini which are between 2 to 3-inches in diameter and full Portobello mushrooms, or ‘the ports’ as they call them on the mushroom farm, is 3 to 6-inches in diameter.

Inside the growing room is 12 beds with rich black compost and littered on top are hundreds of mushrooms of different sizes, all fighting for room to spread out their caps. Every day the mushroom beds are harvested, or thinned to ensure the remaining mushrooms have room to grow larger. So on a mushroom farm they’re not necessarily picking for size (or ripeness as any size mushroom is ready to eat), but to create space for the remaining mushrooms to stretch and grow. On each wagon the pickers push in front of them they have boxes of varying size mushrooms so they can thin, pick and grade all at the same time.

Zlatko’s son, Denis runs the business while Zlatko works his magic in the mushroom dirt. “I eat mushrooms every day because it’s important to test my product every time it goes into the market,” says Denis who goes on to explain that mushrooms are better the simpler they’re prepared.

Denis prefers to simmer his cremini mushrooms in sweet butter for a short period of time like 3 to 7 minutes in a very hot pan. Just last night I reduced some red wine and beef broth and added some of Denis mushrooms. The mushroom juices mixed with the other flavours and when almost all of the liquid was evaporated, I popped the pan into the oven with a bit of butter to finish them off. Oh yum, meaty and delicious.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Christmas Baking the Italian Way!

Every year Phyllis Santone hosts a day of cookie baking at her home just before the holidays get busy. How lucky was I to get an invitation this year. Nothing says Christmas more than the elaborate foods we prepare and offer to friends and family over the holidays and in my family, cookies play a big part in the festivies.

We all descended at Phyllis’s house around mid morning and unloaded our cars. I came prepared to make two of my favourite holiday cookies and had ingredients for one recipe of each. I watched as Theresa and Anna brought in box after bag overflowing with ingredients like she was ready to cater cookies to an entire football team - hmmmmm.

With no time to spare, we immediately set to work in Phyllis’s enormous lower kitchen. In the centre is a large table and two bigger tables spill out into other rooms. Ingredients and equipment spill over every inch of the counters while bowls and rolling pins wait patiently on the tables.

Anna brings in two dozen large tubs big enough to bath in. They all have lids and it still doesn’t click that I’m in for some serious baking so I innocently continue on. I’m immediately put at the chopping station. I start with dates, they’re so sticky and laborious. I finish and I move on to chocolate. Wow, Belcolade chocolate wafers, whoa, no Bakers chocolate in this kitchen, yum! I’m working on a glass cutting board and the chocolate ricochets with each chop like an escaping convict, but I quickly get the better of it with a method to keep it confined. Over by the stove, the door is open and Phyllis and Anna have their heads into a pan of toasting hazelnuts whispering about their condition and level of doneness.

It’s Phyllis’ kitchen but Theresa is definitely the one in charge of the baking; measuring and sifting, whisking and mixing by hand. Yes, I glance over and she is almost elbow deep in a giant bowl of luscious cookie batter, squeezing it between her fingers, feeling it intensely until she’s happy with the texture.

I on the other hand have a hot cookie sheet full of toasted hazelnuts in front of me. My job is to skin them. I begin to rub them firmly between my hands. I rub furiously fast as the hot nuts are burning my palms. Some of the skins fall off easily but others are stubborn and the task takes forever – my hands are swelling with the pain – but I don’t say a word.

On the centre table Anna stacks parchment lined cookie sheets, half a dozen high. The first batch of dough is ready and the assembly line begins. The giant bowl (just larger than a kitchen sink) is set beside the cookie sheets, Theresa rolls the dough into a specific size giving Anna and Phyllis instructions that include rolling the dough ball into fluffy, whisked egg whites, then in blonde almonds. The assembly line work begins and the cookie sheets are slowly filled with round bundles of almonds.

Theresa’s recipes are traditional Italian recipes that have been in her family for generations and she’s been baking them herself for as long as she can remember. The room fills with seductive smells of butter, vanilla and almonds. Theresa begins working on another recipe creaming sweet butter – I counted 12 pounds of butter on the counter and 8 dozen eggs. I’m beginning to wonder what they hope to accomplish.

The bowl gets passed around and everyone smells in complete satisfaction, then she takes it over to the scales where she carefully weighs out mounds of dough, whispering the entire time about overages, then adjusting and finally successfully moving on to the next mound.

The first cookies roll out of the oven. Everyone stops to smell, poke, analyze and taste. The room gets serious with talk of production methods, adding more of this or baking longer than that. Should the size be bigger or smaller, they’re just a little too big for the intended one-bite size but the consensus is they’re perfect for someone with a big mouth! Great, nothing is changed and we continue.

Once the girls are satisfied with the cookie conference, we go back to baking in silence. It seems to be more of a meditative act, almost therapeutic and we love it. Balls of dough continue to be rolled out between loving hands, dipped skillfully in egg whites and tumbled in almonds.

There comes a time when we get ahead of the ovens. Phyllis has one oven in the basement with 3 racks that are full. Upstairs there is a double oven that is also full. There is talk of switching to the convection mode to hurry things up, but before the words have a chance to be fully spoken, shrieks ring out in the room. Never! Convection will dry out the cookies, so we keep the traditional ovens going.

We take a break and talk of the latest Toronto baker, Cake Opera. Apparently, an artist turned her talents to baking elaborate cakes. The minimum charge is $2,500 for one cake! But the ladies are convinced these cookies would out do anything the Cake Opera can produce because there’s nothing better than good home cooking.

Theresa takes her perfectly equal mounds of creamy cookie dough and begins to roll them into logs. The sticky dough picks up the icing sugar she’s rolling them in and when it’s just right, she transfers the logs onto a cookie sheet. Miraculously, there is another stack of parchment lined cookie sheets beside her and she has enough dough to fill them all.

It’s early afternoon and we decide we need to stop for lunch. Phyllis makes sure her bakers are well fed and we walk into a feast in the upstairs dining room. Large trays of just made pizzas, one with luscious tomato sauce, herbs and yummy cheese and the other a delicious salty foccacia. There are trays of charcuterie and large blocks of cheeses; parmesan and asiago that are decorated with fresh balls of bocconcinni. There is a scrumptious rapini stuffed bread, a platter of glistening black olives and a colourful salad with a blend of radicchio and greens. A large platter of fresh fruit sits at the edge of the table and we feast, talk, laugh and keep an eye on the cookies still in the oven.

We’re back downstairs and I’m back to chopping the Belcolade chocolate – perfect dessert after our baking feast. Soon the bowls of chocolate are melted and stirred into luscious cookie dough with mounds of toasted hazelnuts. There is still lots of eggs, cream and butter on the counter waiting to be turned into yummy cookies and my wonder begins to turn to worry about the amount of baking there is to do. The back table starts to fill with warm cookies from the oven, the sink fills with hot water while bowls and dishes, spoons and beaters all get their bath and are put to work again.

I start making my biscotti. While everyone else is baking hundreds of cookies, the best I can do is to double my recipe. I’m using a hand beater with a bowl with a ridge on the bottom so the ingredients don’t mix properly. I try to compensate with a spatula. The ingredients aren’t cooperating and I beat it extra long to try and pull the right consistency together. It ends up a little too wet but I have to move on. Magically 6 stacked cookie tins appear beside me and I begin to take dough and form it into logs. Oh no, I didn’t weigh my dough to make sure my biscotti logs were equal; I just eye-balled it. Oh well, the trays are quickly escorted into the oven and we wait – why am I so nervous!

I begin to work on my shortbread cookies. These are not traditional Italian cookies nor are they my Canadianized versions of biscotti, but they’re a personal cookie that means something special to me so I love to share, especially during the holidays. I start to cream an entire pound of soft butter. It succumbs to the beaters and becomes a luscious mass of yellow cream – how ultimately satisfying. In goes the fruit sugar and I beat until it’s fluffy and irresistible. I start to feel better about my cookies and I sift in the flours.

Theresa and Phyllis have their heads together as they work cinnamon and hazelnuts into the chocolate cookie dough. They taste it and Theresa decides to add orange zest and a bit of almond. Then with great satisfaction Theresa parades the kitchen for the rest of us to taste. With approvals all around she moves towards another stack of pristine cookie sheets.

There’s too much flour in my bowl and the shortbread is way too crumbly. I work in more butter with my fingers and it becomes barely acceptable. Nothing seems to be working for me but the ladies are gracious. It’s now 5:30 and the count on the table is 300 cookies of one recipe, 360 of another, 250 of the almond balls and who knows what else – amazing. I’m producing just under 100 biscotti and 40 shortbread cookies – how underwhelming, aughhh.

My biscotti are now out of the oven and I wait to cut them. Theresa’s cutting hers and they’re slicing perfectly. Mine are still warm when I attempt and the nuts and dried cranberries tear every second one – aughhhh. They get cut, turned on their sides and back into the oven for a second baking. I’m getting tired and frustrated, I’m usually a very good baker but in light of these women, I realize I’ve got a long way to go. Look out culinary schools, I don’t know of one that can hold a candle to this efficient production of Italian ladies baking their beloved holiday traditions.

Anna talks of leaving and I feel relieved – the first sign of the end of the day. We’ve worked feverously hard today and we have mountains of cookies to show for it. I’m thinking the day is coming to an end and we can relax, then there’s a knock on the door. In comes Marissa and Lucy, arms laden with bags of ingredients – the second shift of bakers!

Anna leaves while Marissa and Lucy unload their bags and dive right into the kitchen with the energy of a new day. All of the new recipes are calculated for a double and triple batch. The group hovers around a cutting board filled with whole biscotti logs waiting to be cut. They decide that biscotti perfection is a combination of the right cutting board, a sharp knife, type of nut used and the perfect temperature of the cookie. There is an endless ritual of whispers, poking, cutting and discussing – perfection is always being worked on. I don’t think there has ever been as much thought gone into solving world problems as there is in this kitchen with these cookies that will be shared and eaten in the name of love and hospitality.

It’s dusk, my legs are throbbing and I’m feeling tired. Obviously I’m no match for this group of bakers. But the holidays are coming and these cookies will create flavours and memories for their family and loved ones, it makes sense they must be perfect. Happy baking this holiday season!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The very first and most elaborate farm to table event in Canada!

It’s over, another Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and it was amazing! I opened the 2011 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair at the Journey To Your Good Health cooking stage and I closed it. In between there were dozens of cooking demos with some of Ontario’s most delicious local food organizations. I made a sinfully delicious Honeyed Apple Crisp with Honeyed Apple au Jus with Nancy of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, a savoury and luscious Sweet Onion Tart with Jamie from the Holland Marsh Growers Association and a succulent and decadent Ice Syrup Pork Tenderloin with the good folks at Willowgrove Hill Farm – the only pork rich in Omega-3 goodness.

We offered tips on how to cook the best scrambled eggs (add melted butter to the eggs before you cook them!) and which apple varieties were best for baking (Ambrosia won for both flavour and texture) and eating. We discovered the flavour richness and juiciness of Yorkshire Valley Farm organic chicken and how a medley of Ontario greenhouse vegetables comes alive with a C’estbon Chevre cream sauce over a steaming bowl of ravishing red fife wheat rigatoni.

Nutritionist, Judy Scott Weldon was the dazzling host of the Journey To Your Good Health cooking stage and she skillfully weaved the cooking demos in between culinary contests and energetic performances about food.

It was the good folks at the Ministry of Agriculture and Foodland Ontario that organized the 2-week long eat healthy, eat local cooking experiences. Around the stage were farmers selling their products, a nutritionist to answer questions and milkable cow.

If you’ve never been to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair or the ‘Royal’ as the locals call it, it’s a must attend event. There is a continuous parade of livestock that is judged, you can hear roosters crowing throughout the aisles and majestic horses prance in their rings. These beautiful animals are a site to behold while displayed nearby are the largest vegetables, the most perfect and the ugliest. There are butter sculptures and egg displays, ribbons for the best cheese and the Bernardin contest for the best preserves. The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was and remains the very first and most elaborate farm to table event in Canada!

Besides the cooking demos and generous samples, the fair offers traditional farm food from apple dumplings to peameal bacon on a bun and booths to buy unique items from garlic spreaders, cutting boards and hand crafted blankets and hats. There’s always the deals to be had from beautiful silk scarves, Egyptian cotton bed sheets and quality pots and pans.

The 2011 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair may be over for another year but the recipes gathered, the culinary tips remembered and the flavours savoured will continue to excite for an entire year. Make sure you get there next year

Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Julia Child all over again!

The Grand Theatre is in the heart of downtown London and tonight Jon and I are here to see TO MASTER THE ART (of French Cuisine). It’s the live theatre version of the Julia Child story. Even from the grave, Julia Child has risen to raise the profile of cooking and eating – she is my hero!

Actress Sara Machin Gale played Child and did an amazing job walking us through Child’s obsession for food and passion for Parisian life. It’s a tasty fairytale that foodies can’t get enough of. If you’re an obsessed foodie you must see this play. On the surface, it’s a celebration of French culinary culture and cuisine but its messages run deep. I was especially drawn to the similarities I see among modern day foodies and Julia; the endless days of pure bliss spent in the kitchen whether the recipes work or not; the husband with the never-ending patience for eating the same dish over and over again while we go through the journey to perfection; and the way friends and family commune around the table in celebration of good food and better conversation.

Some days I feel like it’s a mirror image of my life. While Julia cooked, the aromas of the food flooded the theatre and everyone’s palate was whet with the anticipated flavours husband Paul Child was about to eat - pure culinary theatrics!

TO MASTER THE ART highlighted the culinary cultural differences between the French and the American. So if you’ve read this far, I’m going to guess that you’re like me – living in between the French and American culture. We’re a different breed you and I, we have a undying passion for food like the French yet we live in North America - specifically Ontario. It’s the passion for food that inspires us to be particular about the quality of food and about its origins, we want to meet the people who grow our food and learn everything about it from how to judge the best to preparing and sharing it. It’s not enough to eat to fill our bellies, we want it to mean something to our lives and our world and we want it to be the best it can be.

These are the qualities that inspired The Ontario Table. It’s a do-it-yourself eat local cookbook, but that’s North American talk. What I really wanted to call it was Mastering the Art of Ontario Cuisine. If it were called Mastering the Art of Ontario Cuisine would you think of it differently? Nah, this is North America after all.

Back to the play, perhaps some may see TO MASTER THE ART as a chic flick but to me it represents so much more. It’s a lifestyle to aspire to, a palate to cultivate and through these lessons we begin to indulge in the finer things in life. Julia – you still have it girl!

The Grand Theatre, TO MASTER THE ART is a must-see play for everyone!