Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Losing sleep

I am not a morning person; however, due to the ungodly hour at which Eric's alarm clock rings every morning, my sleeping habits have slowly evolved over time. During my teens and twenties, fourteen hours of uninterrupted sleep on weekends was normal. In contrast, on my days off now, you will rarely find me in bed after 8 am. One of the benefits of waking up earlier is time to make and enjoy a civilized breakfast before rushing off to complete a page long To Do List. This Sunday, I used up some leftover buttermilk by making blueberry pancakes, served with an old family friend, Aunt Jemima.

I have been losing sleep for another reason. We have a house guest of the feline variety who likes to scratch on our bedroom door nightly. Simba is my sister's cat of nine years who, sadly, can no longer live with them because of allergies. Even though Aunt Charmaine is also allergic to cats, my attachment to Simba is so strong that we are considering feline adoption. During this short trial visit, I am weighing my itchiness and dislike of sticky fur against her gentle presence and undefinable bewitching qualities. I am so torn.

Soon, I will be jetlagged (or not, if melatonin can help it) because we are traveling to Europe again. In particular, we are returning briefly to Paris so I can attend Europain 2008, a large international trade show for baking, pastry, chocolate, and ice cream, before heading off to Italy. I love Parisian pastries but dare I say, I am looking forward to Italian cuisine even more!

Monday, March 17, 2008


This Sunday was the birthday of both my husband Eric and a little girl named Simone. Obviously, my cat with daisies cake was for the latter's birthday party, created especially for a girl who loves cats and her mother who loves cake. Two tiers, 6" and 8" rounds, were constructed with vanilla sponge, lemon curd, and lemon mousse, aiming to feed at least 30 hungry children and adults.

As always, the most enjoyable part of the process was decorating the cake and the most painful part was letting it go. I used a total of 2 kilograms of rolled fondant; the cat was made entirely of fondant (except for the fishing wire whiskers). In fact, because I was running out of white fondant, the bulk of the cat's body is actually shaped from pink fondant with white fondant covering only the outside, making it mildly anatomically correct.

Sculpting the face took the longest time, as I was determined to capture the look of a genuine feline rather than a cartoon version. The eyes were the most hilarious for me because, I suppose, the ophthalmologist in me still exists and I discovered that there is nothing scarier than a fondant cat with exophthalmos and exotropia (my sincere apologies to anyone suffering from either condition). Ultimately, I was very pleased with the final result, even though the cat does have an uncanny resemblance to Salvador Dali. The cat cake could only fit in my fridge after removing one shelf. I could not stop myself from constantly opening the fridge door compulsively to peek at it.

After the decorating marathon on Saturday, I managed to throw together a 4" Devil's Food cake for Eric. Although small in size, it was simple and delicious. And perhaps because it did not have a face, Eric's cake was much easier to cut and consume without any hint of melancholy. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Diversion: becoming green

Although I was born and raised in Vancouver, surrounded by glorious wilderness, mountains, and water, I have never been deeply affected by environmental issues except the occasional head shake when driving by ugly clear-cut forests somewhere far away. In many ways, I have been the antithesis of a tree-hugging British Columbian, known to drive two blocks to class because it was raining and not recycling regularly until 2005. My awareness has certainly changed over time and the inciting event which prompted this shift was, surprisingly, pastry school. The focus on sustainability and local ingredients at school made me re-evaluate my own views and attitude about the environment. Who knew social change and global issues would be topics of discussion whilst creaming butter and piping profiteroles?

Nowadays, Eric and I are keenly aware of what we buy, consume, and discard. We joke that our vermicompost bin is actually just a home for our hundreds of pet worms. Public transit is a regular part of my life (as long as the bus actually arrives at the bus stop). After watching a provokative documentary about the negative environmental impact of plastic bags (click here to watch), we no longer use any plastic shopping bags and even switched to cornstarch derived BioBag garbage bags for our household waste, as suggested by the greenest friend I have, Katie, who works for Green Table Network. Occasionally when I do forget to bring my reusable shopping bag, I ask for a paper bag or cardboard box for bulkier items which can be easily recycled.

Being a recovering convenience junkie myself, I recognize that sometimes it's not easy being green. Most of the time, however, these little changes that we have made are completely painless and have no negative effect on our lifestyle whatsoever. There are no plans to start hugging trees in the near future, but perhaps, I will tiptoe through my tulips tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cake therapy

One of the basic skills which all pastry cooks must learn is how to ice a cake properly with buttercream frosting. It is challenging to do perfectly and quickly but with a little practice it becomes routine. Ironically, in my hands, the faster I do it, the better the result because I have a tendency to obsess about every little imperfection, become irrationally addicted to the pursuit of absolute smoothness, and futz around compulsively with my offset spatula. When the buttercream layer is just to mask a cake which will subsequently be covered with rolled fondant, perfection is less critical; however, when the buttercream is the final layer, my obsessive-compulsive traits are unparalleled. Luckily, I have learned to put down my spatula.

This 10 inch round carrot cake for an engagement party in the Okanagan was a joy to create. My carrot cake recipe from school produces an unusually light carrot cake, which was gently soaked with Cointreau simple syrup. Cream cheese frosting is a mandatory accompaniment. Because cream cheese has a much higher water content than butter, my cream cheese frosting is lovely and soft, making it a delicious filling but not ideal for decorating. Instead, I used regular Italian buttercream for the outer decorative layer. Fresh buttercream is actually very light and airy, giving a smooth but almost porous appearance when spread.

Letting go of each cake I make is still oddly poignant for me. I worry about how it will look after transport, how it will taste, will people like it etc. This cake will be travelling quite a distance so I wish it bon voyage et bon appétit!