Saturday, February 23, 2013

weekends old and new

Because one excessively long-winded post is clearly not enough coverage for the importance of my existence and its humble anniversary on this expansive earth, I've been forced to  decided to grace this blog with yet another excessively long-winded post dedicated almost entirely to my birthday.
Let's just begin with the basics. My birthday fell on a Thursday - Valentine's Day, to be precise - and so Thursday morning saw mother bird, sister bird and myself sitting at the Over Easy Breakfast Company in Bridgeland, a quaint little breakfast & brunch joint in the northeast quarter of town. A quick little retrospective rundown will remind us all that I enjoyed two griddle cakes topped with blueberries and drenched in syrup, mother bird played it safe with some eggs with toast and fresh fruit, and sister bird indulged in a breakfast poutine called Soul in a Bowl which can only be honourably summarized by one word in the whole of the English vocabulary: otherworldly, in the best sense possible.
The evening after, Friday night, saw my two cousins and myself headed out for a luxurious dinner at the upscale-casual Cactus Club Cafe, a restaurant whose food I've previously tasted and loved (on a spontaneous, yet very worthwhile excursion with mother bird on one adventurous occasion last year). We began our three-course meal with an appetizer that was selected by my recommendation - potato skins! And these potato skins are lovely. Think Boston Pizza's Southwestern Potato Skins, minus the barbecue sauce, dressing, and chicken; Cactus Club's potato skins are also thinner, crisper, and significantly fewer in number.

these potato skins are actually captured from my first visit
to cactus club with mother bird, because the second time around,
my cousins devoured them before I could remember to take a picture!

I imagine the most useful and significant fact pertaining to my nature and quirks that anyone could ever hope to know would be my unfortunate obsession over food. I plan my daily meals like a machine and dinner reservations don't change a thing; I pore over a restaurant's online menu until I decide on first, second and third choices, for appetizers, entree and dessert. It's absolutely psychotic, and I'm fully aware, and although I've always wanted to be one of those spontaneous quacks who could enthusiastically order anything that happened to catch her eye, I've never been able to kick the anxiety that comes from not knowing what I'm going to be doing. It's almost like a mechanical error in my vital functions that makes me so anal about what I eat.

So after a quick perusal of the menu at the table, I chose Rob's Hunter Chicken, which is Chef Rob Feenie's special dish. Actually, I'd tried this dish prior to this evening, and that's because this is the dish that mother bird ordered on my first visit to Cactus Club Cafe. It was fantastic: tender chicken, an abundance of mushrooms, the best and most refreshing herb potatoes I believe I've ever had, and some cheeky vegetables chilling on the side.

rob's hunter chicken - bang for your buck,
an incredible and highly satisfying bang at that.

When mother bird and I came to Cactus for our first time, I ordered the four-mushroom steak with a side of fries and asparagus, which - don't get me wrong, tasted great and was well worth the money - but was absolutely nothing compared to the house special.

flashback: mushroom steak, my first time at cactus club.
see mother bird's hunter chicken in the back?

The fries from the Cactus Club are on a whole other level. Fast-food joints really don't hold a candle to gourmet fries. In fact, my cousins' orders both included fries, both yam fries and sea-salted regular fries, and I ended up picking at both of their piles throughout the course of the meal.
So, as teenage girls embarking on a birthday dinner and promising ourselves a night of fun, we couldn't skip dessert. We each ordered individual, different desserts, so that our table eventually contained a white chocolate cheesecake topped with raspberry compote, an apple galette served with Tahitian vanilla ice cream, and a key lime pie with a graham cracker crust (mine!).

key lime pie, something I still haven't quite
decided whether I loved or not ...

Strange - I didn't much like the key lime pie as I inhaled it, but perhaps I was simply too full from my chicken and cousins' fries to really enjoy it. However, as I examine this photograph more and more, I find myself actually craving the creamy pie and its brown-sugar-like crust. I do seem to remember how the sourness would occasionally cause my face to pinch up, though, and that's something I definitely don't crave. Ever. (Even sour candy, as a child, I would abhor.)

The day that followed, Saturday, saw myself holed up at home, baking macarons in a frenzy. The almond meal was not fine enough, the piping bag wasn't holding together, and everything seemed to be going wrong. But when I pulled the macaron shells out of the oven, they were beautiful and divine and they even had feet! I was thrilled, to say the least, and full-force returned to baking as many as I could, filling them afterward with chocolate cream, vanilla cream, and banana buttercream. They were a huge hit at the gathering over at my grandfather's house that evening, and one of my newlywed cousins asked for the recipe because her experience with baking macarons had not been quite so pretty. (Forgetful Me still hasn't sent her the recipe. Dear Lord.)

At the gathering, my uncle revealed a Dairy Queen authentic ice cream cake just for me. Despite my name being misspelled on the cake, I appreciated the gesture so very much; this uncle, if you knew him, is not the sort to go out of his way for birthdays.

Sunday night was perhaps the best of all of my birthday nights, because this was high birdhouse activity. We had made dinner reservations for six at San Remo Ristorante, an Italian-themed restaurant in McKenzie Towne with a relaxing atmosphere and a waitress who we recognized from a past visit to Charcut. Finding a familiar face in our server, though, was just one note among many that made this a great time.

linguine boscaiola, or "mushroom lovers'" pasta

I ordered pasta, as is expected of me to do, since I am hard-wired to consume a nearly all-carbohydrate diet; this particular pasta was excellent, and I wiped the plate clean in record time, though I couldn't quite beat brother bird and his performance with his chicken parmesan. (I tasted that, too - amazing! Perhaps I should have ordered that.)

The table was again loaded with desserts after we all stuffed our faces to the max, and because our waitress was possibly the kindest waitress I've ever had the pleasure of being served by, she included a tiramisu on the house.

The Sicilian lemon torte with a shortbread crust and raspberry sauce arrived with a sparkler to commemorate what the waitress believed to my birthday, although my birthday was, by then, almost four-days-old-news.

sicilian lemon torte with raspberry

When I walked through the door to the birdhouse later that night, sister and brother bird immediately vanished and I was instructed to stay put at the threshold. I was then surprised with a heart-shaped cake topped with mounds of whipped cream and macerated strawberries, a half-dozen Dairy Queen ice-cream cupcakes, and an enormous, rectangular-shaped gift-wrapped box.

The gift was a MacBook Pro, which was probably the most unexpected thing ever, and I implored the sibling birds to return it until I actually needed it, come September, and when that time arrived, I'd like to buy my own (though I hardly think mother bird will let me). I did feel somewhat bad for asking that of them, since my reaction was probably not the explosive joy they may have been anticipating, but I did appreciate their consideration and investment in me.

What I loved even more than the gift was the card attached to it. Signed by each bird of the nest, bird-in-law Andrew included:

possibly the most adorable card I have ever received.
I particularly like that mother bird drew her impression
with straight hair, when she really has curly hair, while
father bird drew himself with curls when his hair is pin-straight.

Mother and father bird even sketched caricatures of themselves in their signatures. Mother bird, to whom I am constantly whining about my insecurities and problems and all the things about myself that apall me, wrote: be happy always because you are beutiful [sic] everyday. Happy birthday to you
and nothing could have hit home more. I decided to save this message on my iPhone so I could open it and read it whenever I might feel down.

Another card that really touched me this year was the note from my best friend Shelby. I couldn't care less that it was written on a lined piece of looseleaf paper and folded into a tiny square when she gave it to me with my present; she wrote a very long, very elaborate and very heartfelt message about our friendship and our future. She then went on to add some esteem-boosting lines that actually brought tears to my eyes, because I never want to bother Shelby with what seem like petty insecurity troubles, but I suppose she noticed them anyway, and she took an extra minute to tell me that no one deserves to strut their stuff more than you.

The final card that I want to acknowledge in this post is sister bird's. It was an original poem written on a Martha Stewart colour card - one of my favourite colours, actually - and it referenced my blog, which made me inexplicably excited.

I must say I was blown away by this poem.
At first, I even believed it was taken from the
Internet, until I clarified with sister bird.

I started bawling as I approached the end of the poem. "Good luck, good luck," the nest exclaims/ you'll excel at everything/ but throughout your studies, do be sure/ to remember one little thing/ we will miss you dearly here/ so don't forget the nest/ pack your things, unfold your wings/ and visit the birds who love you best.

The simple act of typing out those words even stings my eyes.
I think the power of words are absolutely astounding. For someone like me, a notably not-very-maudlin person at all, the right words in the right combinations and with the right sentiments can really hit me hard. And that's the mildest way I could express how this card makes me feel.

While this weekend couldn't quite hope to compare with my overwhelming birthday weekend, I did enjoy a vegetarian buffet hosted by the local temple at the Marlborough Community Hall for lunch with father bird, which was a nice time because we hardly ever get to spend any quality time together. It was made even better when we arrived home and gathered our absolute forces in a daddy-daughter baking session, with the result being a very messy kitchen complete with flour-covered counters, a saucepan with a burnt bottom, and a passable classic apple pie.

it looks nice and crusty, doesn't it?

Don't expect a recipe for this pie - it was made entirely through some seriously daredevil risks and nothing-short-of-reckless improvisations!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

mini egg tarts (my fabulous birthday!)

It's my birthday! (And Valentine's Day, but who cares?)
Today has been absolutely magical through-and-through, not only because it's my birthday but because it's probably one of the first years I haven't had to spend it at school or work, and just get to lounge about the town with my family.
It began with a trip down to Over Easy Breakfast Co. down in Bridgeland, a cute little breakfast and brunch joint in the northeast, where the house special is a poutine in a take-out box otherwise known as "Soul in a Bowl" and the meals are served on enormous egg-shaped plates. If the fact that we were going out for breakfast wasn't enough to already lift my spirits to the stratosphere, father bird sent me a message as we were driving to OEB, wishing me a happy-birthday! (He's never ever done this before...)
Sister bird ordered the aforementioned Soul in a Bowl, complete with herbed potatoes, Quebec cheese curds, bacon lardons, two poached eggs topped with paprika and brown-butter hollandaise sauce - I had more than a couple tastes, and it was delicious! The peculiar marriage of these flavours from everywhere is surprisingly one that approaches perfection.
Mother bird enjoyed a ham-and-cheese omelette, served on a large platter with fresh fruit and plain toast, and as for myself, I decided to indulge myself on my birthday and ordered two "Perfect Buttermilk Griddle Cakes" topped with fresh blueberries, powdered sugar, and served with Quebec maple syrup.

What I absolutely loved about my pancakes was that the taste and texture somewhat resembled birthday cake. I thought, how fitting! as I ate, but I found that without syrup, the griddle cake was plain and a little harder to eat with gusto. The blueberries were a nice touch, but there really isn't much to do with them save for to pick at them one at a time once everyone is cooling down from attacking their dishes; I almost wish they'd been cooked right into the pancakes. But there were crispy sides to these pancakes, which are hard to find and always a plus.
Afterward, we drove down to McKenzie Towne in search of a small dessert shop called Uptowne Gelato, but the owner wasn't in this particular morning so we opted for The Little Cupcake Shop.
Mother bird chose a mocha cupcake, sister bird chose a strawberry cupcake, and I had myself a lemon cupcake. This is not my first experience with buttercream, but I believe it's managed to divert me from the stuff for a long time, if not for ever! The buttercream had an astronomical amount of butter, to the point the frosting was greasy and literally slid right off the top of my cupcake in a solid chunk of cream. It was a nuisance to try and eat, but the cake itself was light and well-flavoured. I'm beginning to find that I favour tart tastes, like lemons and apples, over the sweeter flavours like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, et cetera.
This is all enough to send me over the moon, really!
It's already fine, I swear. But then my aunt and pint-sized cousin, whom I adore, surprised me at my doorstep with a box of a dozen cream puffs from a downtown boutique I've only ever heard about -

Father bird, mother bird, sister bird and I shared these before we had dinner. The bottoms of the cupcake liners that the cream puffs are contained in are written on, and they tell you which flavour the filling is! There wasn't much variety in the fillings - only cream and hazelnut chocolate - but the toppings more than compensated for that.
My birthday this year is something that is lucky enough to be extended over the course of the entire long-weekend, because
- tomorrow evening, I'm spending a night out on the town with my beautiful cousins - they are treating me to a schmancy dinner date at the Cactus Club Cafe, which I previously hit up with mother bird before Christmas of last year.
- Saturday is a get-together at my grandfather's home, and I will be attempting macarons for the first time. Pray it goes well! Brother bird is driving down from Edmonton to spend his Reading Week back at the nest with us, so he might be able to lend a hand with piping, if we're even fortunate enough to have our shells turn out edible. 
- Sunday is set aside for dinner reservations at San Remo Ristorante, an Italian eatery in McKenzie Towne that looks moderately priced, well-rated, and ideal for pasta-lovers such as sister bird and I.
Needless to say, I am in no hurry to see the end of this long weekend. I am extremely excited for each event that is to come, but I just don't want to see it all be over yet! (:

Okay, let's talk food.
I've been baking a number of things from before Christmas til now and I still haven't posted any recipes beyond the blueberry muffins? I am truly lazy. And forgetful. And lazy. And easily distracted. And oh, did I mention lazy?
The recipe I'm going to post tonight is one that I've made twice now. These are Portguese Egg Tarts - (or are they Cantonese?) - and they're a real breeze to make. That being said, though, both trials took me over three hours each to complete, since I was making such big batches.

They really are the bomb, though, these egg tarts. They're not just egg tarts - they're miniaturized egg tarts! They're tiny, bite-sized little tarts that you can just pick up and pop cold into your mouth, and they're fantastic soft, flaky and piping-hot and a brilliant palate-refresher when they've cooled and stiffened.

My aunt raved about these egg tarts and asked me to make them the second time that I did. My cousin and her husband allegedly ate half a tray on their own; her husband even denied them the first time he was offered one to try, claiming that he didn't like sweets very much, but he was swayed and converted!

But that's the thing with egg tarts - they've got this custard filling, but they're not actually sweet. They've got a creamy texture and light, balanced taste that just melts on your tongue while your teeth work away at the soft, buttery crust, and before you know it you're reaching for another one.
These mini egg tarts are truly one of the recipes that I'm always going to keep in my personal cookbook, with a bolded title that is underlined, starred, and circled about three times over, just because it was such a success, a total crowd-pleaser, and now a family favourite.  

There aren't many ingredients for these egg tarts, and the ones that are needed are fairly easy to buy or usually exist in the back of bakers' pantries, so I find that this recipe is ideal in all respects. Convenience-wise, taste-wise, funds-wise, and effort-wise, it is a true winner.

You know what? I don't see why this recipe wouldn't also work for regular-sized cupcake/muffin pans, so disregard the specified pan size in the recipe and have your fun.


 crust ingredients -
  • 2 boxes of frozen puff pastry, thawed (I used 2 Tenderflake boxes. The amount of puff pastry you use is actually variable, depending on how many tarts you'd like to make. Only use as much pastry as you need to, because the custard can be refrigerated and reused at a later time.)
custard ingredients -
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp cornstarch
  • 800 mL whole milk (3.25% milk, homogenized milk, etc.)
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract

directions -
  1. Grease and flour a miniature cupcake/muffin pan. (The flour really helps the tarts to just fall out of the pans once they're out of they're out of the oven.) Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until evenly combined, then transfer to a large saucepan on the stove over medium heat.
  3. Slowly add the milk and mix well. There may be lumps, but just continue to stir.
  4. Cook the custard, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a light boil. Reduce the heat and let it simmer for 2-3 minutes, then remove from heat.
  5. Add the vanilla to the custard and combine well. Pour it into a bowl, cover, and let cool.
  6. On a floured surface, roll the thawed puff pastry into thin sheets. Using a cup with a rim that is an inch or so smaller than the rims of your cupcake/muffin pan, make discs of puff pastry cookie-cutter-style with the cup.
  7. Using your fingers, press each disc even thinner and wider. Some might even experience tears; just patch it up with your fingers. or a little spot of dough, and press the discs into the pans. They may not even come all the way up the sides, but that is okay! Since the pastry will puff as it bakes, the custard is at risk of being pushed up to the surface and overflowing, which will not be pretty. Thin, small tart shells are best.
  8. Using a spoon, fill each shell only halfway with custard. Any more and you might experience terrible overflow, as I discovered the hard way. Use the tip of a toothpick to swirl the custard inside the shell so it is evenly distributed and with the smoothest possible surface you can attain.
  9. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Some of their tops will be slightly burnt, but that is the norm for Portugese egg tarts. Gauge the baking time in accordance with how lightly or thoroughly scorched you prefer the tops of your egg tarts to be. Some egg tarts will certainly overflow, and educated as to why this is I am not. But don't panic and remove them from the oven! The first batch will most likely be an error batch, in which you inspect the results and note which pastries had the most success, so that for the batches that follow, you can try to replicate that success.