#ChefSchool Week 2: My Love-Hate Affair with Baking & Other Foibles

Well, two weeks down, six weeks to go. But more importantly, the two worst parts of technical training is over.

Are new nightmares on the horizon? I don’t know but without the dreaded twin burdens of math and baking (I can sense the bakers in my readership rolling their eyes in unison already…) on my mind, gnawing away at my deepest innermost fears and whatnot, i am actually excited to find out more! Anything, including the world of butchershop (which starts tomorrow) has to be a cakewalk compared to the super fussy world of baking. Right?

Whatever butchershop throws at me though, I feel I am at least going to be one more iota prepared than I was for bakeshop: I have had meat cutters at Co-op, butchers at Sunworks and even a fish cutter from Calgary’s best known fish shop, Billingsgate, give me some pointers. Heck, even the chefs at work have shown me a thing or two. These are all pros, and I have to say I am grateful for what they have shown me. Now if it will all come up in my mind when I really need it.

Oh yes…last week. Math went surprisingly better than I had originally expected; I think I aced the test, having been one of the first to finish the test even after checking, double checking and even triple checking my calculations,  but until Chef Volke gives us back our exams I am not going to start relaxing. As for baking, that’s a story unto itself.

Baking D-Day, as I like to call it, was two-fold. First up was the theory exam, which again I had no problems. I got the baking terms and how each pie crust and cookie method down pat by and large, but like a triathlon, the transition from theory to practical can make or break you.

Entering the bakery that now feels like home, I unpacked my tools, and immediately got to work. Earlier in the day, my mother (who is a master baker herself) gave me a few pointers to producing the impeccable product to present to Chef Warden. With almost four hours to produce two baguettes, a loaf of white bread, and two beautifully garnished chocolate cream tarts, there was no time left to lose. Luckily, Chef Warden had allowed us some time on the day before to complete some basic scaling and to complete a blind bake of our pies — of which I took full advantage.

My pie crusts ended up just a smidgen on the dark brown side, but since they were usable still (and judging from the dough scraps, and weighing it against both making two new tart crusts or keeping the very beautiful yet slightly too brown tarts), I decided to forge ahead.

Mixing the doughs was easy enough; as they began their first bulk fermentation I got to work on the pastry cream/chocolate cream/chocolate pudding filling. You’d be surprised as to how easy and versatile pastry cream is; but it’s the tempering of the egg yolks is the tricky part. If your scalded milk is too hot, you have scrambled eggs. Too cold, and the starch doesn’t activate. Nervously, I watched the milk warm as I vigourously whisked the egg yolks. I almost gave myself tennis elbow doing it, but finally, as thin wisps of steam began to rise, it was time for the milk and egg yolks to meet. Slowly, they met. So far so good.

Then, it was time for the heating to thicken the cream. Slowly I stirred under the medium low heat. A thick layer of bubbles covered the surface, a machination of my own doing as I had whisked too hard. Desperately trying to stir while trying to get a good view for the custard, I incurred the attention of Chef Warden.

“John, you’re stirring too fast,” She chided. “Slow down.”

Slow down? SLOW DOWN? I was on auto-pilot by then; any slow down could cause massive disasters. But I followed her advice, and slowled the stirring. And sure enough, as heat was allowed to disperse throughout the liquid, the magic of thickening happened. But I still had to be careful — too much, and my pot would be filled with scrambled eggs. I was out of the frying pan, but back into the fire.

Sweat rolled down my forehead; time was ticking away more incessantly than that annoying clock from Chopped. I wasn’t about to allow myself to screw this up, and I didn’t. The custard gained vanilla and chocolate at the correct consistency, and was immediately put into the tart shells and sent to the chiller. Round 1 was complete.

Once that was over, the breads once again took centre stage. By then I was a bit more relaxed. but still fretful. I punched and portioned the doughs, rounded and benched them. The shaping came together quickly, and it was then off to the proofer. For the white bread I proofed the loaf alone; for the baguettes I tied my fate to a classmates’, sharing their tray. Their fate and mine would be intertwined.

Meanwhile, I took up my battle with whipping cream; the tart required perrfectly whipped cream with rosettes piped on. Earlier in the week, the rosettes on my lemon meringue pie looked atrocious, mainly because my hands were shaking like a leaf. I got the whipping cream to the proper consistency (stiff-ish peaks), filled the piping bag, and did a practice rosette.

It was perfect.

I did another. Perfect again.

I pulled out the tarts, which by then had been cooling. I moved onto the first tart, filled the middle with a swirl of cream, and then began the piping.

I don’t know what happened, but for the next three minutes, I executed rosettes. Eight on one tart, then eight on the other. It was complete, and I had somehow done it. I piped rosettes. Properly.

I stood back for a moment. Shock, elation (no, not to the level of exuberance that led to THAT moment) and RELIEF.

The rest of the day passed by without much of a hitch; I followed my mother’s advice on the breads during the proofing phase (“The product is fully proofed when the surface is dry and it slightly spills over the sides.”), and as soon as the doughs’ surfaces were dry and puffy enough I sent them to the ovens. Once the white bread came out of the oven, I took it out of the pan to cool and breathed a massive sigh of relief. All that was left was the tasting and marking.

Wait. Marking? Shit, I had forgotten all about that.

I laid out the products on a metallic platter, sliced a few tranches of bread as per instruction, and took it all for marking. I took a huge gulp of air, and looked on with bated breath as Chef Warden looked over the products, and tasted them. I barely squeaked out my answers as she quizzed me on some of my procedures, and the whole thing felt like an eternity. Then. finally…marks.

The white bread…perfect.

The tarts were a bit overdone on the shells, but the pastry cream was perfect consistency.

And then…she declared the baguettes to be misshapen and barely passable. The inside was slightly moist, which was a sign of underproofing. There were some cracks from the folding, and the colour was under.

But it didn’t matter. I had somehow taken on the baking monster for a second time, and won in a split decision. The verdict on the theory exam? That’s still in the air, too.

All in all, I have to say I have survived baking. There will be more adventures in the future, and I pray that next time we meet I will score a knockout. Here’s hoping, of course.

Compared to that adventure, work has been rather uneventful. Eats of Asia is moving to Crossroads starting in February, so you’ll get to see me in action slinging bao and pulling noodles in Ramsay-Inglewood soon. Oh, and I ran into Nikita Scringer, a MasterChef Canada season 2 finalist. Pretty cool chick. I have a feeling we will meet again…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some studying of meat cuts to do…


MasterChef Canada Season 2: The Contenders Revealed!

The torch has been passed.

Just a year after me and 49 of my fellow home cooks were named Canada’s first ever MasterChef Top 50, CTV yesterday revealed a new group. These individuals will now take up the battle amongst themselves to become Canada’s next MasterChef. On first glance, it looks like a very diverse group (not unlike ourselves), with varied backgrounds and different flavours for the judges to sample.

Looking at the list, it looks like a record nine provinces of our great country will be represented, including two Saskatchewaners and two New Brunswickeians. Sadly, PEI looks to be once again the lone left-out province (Step your game up, Islanders! We want to see a Malpeque master!) while the Territories go unrepresented again (No seal hearts or whale blubber this season, I reckon…) One Calgarian will carry the YYC flag amongst six Albertans, but I will talk more about her a little later.

As always, the best of this group will gain a coveted white apron, while the crème de la crème will rise to the Top 16 and enter the kitchen of their dreams (or nightmares, depending on how you do on your first challenge!

So, based on first impressions, who am I looking out for?

Bear in mind these are first impressions, so I will update this list as premiere date (February 8th) gets closer. Please don’t be insulted, rest of the Top 49. There’ll be more love to share! 

Suzie Cui (Casino Cashier Manager from Windsor, Ontario): With her traditional Chinese dress (I wonder who she got that idea from? Hmmm…), she produced an amazing looking Chinese dish for the Toronto auditions in the video Road to MasterChef. I see a bit of both myself and Tammara in her; an Asian master coupled with a zesty “take-no-shit” attitude. Being a casino cashier boss, you gotta be mean with the unruly drunken asses. She looks like a Northern Chinese mama you don’t want to cross — in life or in the kitchen.

Christopher Siu (Pharmacy Student from Markham, Ontario): I have a strong feeling about this aspiring pastry chef. I have had a chance to check out his Instagram account (which of course is @baker_siu), and it is filled with pastries as far as the eye can see. How will the lone Cantonese candidate in the field fare when the clock is ticking? He should have no problems when baking is the name of the game — but how will he handle other dishes? Will he go European like Eric, or Asian like me?

Nikita Scringer (Healthcare Sales Consultant from Calgary, Alberta): She is the lone hope the season for a city of 1.1 million people, with a booming food scene and chefs coming out of the woodwork in every corner…

…oh wait, I forgot. I’m talking about Nikita. Anyway, she was someone who had applied for season 1, and came back again and qualified for this season. Her Caribbean (Jamaican?) flavours look amazing, and her fierce competitiveness will serve her well when the knives are out and the flames are licking throughout the kitchen. What Fabian, Sparkle, Narida and Marida failed to do — can Nikita do? I think she’s got a great chance…and besides, you don’t bet against a girl with awesome blue carbon Masakage knives.

Anh Nguyen (Business Student from Ottawa, Ontario): One cuisine that made the radar last season but didn’t resonate (mostly because of Sarah’s elimination) was Vietnamese, a cuisine that has exploded in North America, and helped along by the victory of Christine Ha in MasterChef USA season 3. I’ve looked at some of his work on his Twitter feed, and it is definitely not constrained to Vietnamese, with many cuisines fused in. Can he replicate in season 2 what Christine did in the USA, in popularizing modern, simple Asian cuisine? I think so!

Ted Pechey (Radio Sales from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan): My friend and fellow blogger Bernice (who hails from That Flat Province) must be over the moon; two of her fellow Saskies have made it — one of which is Ted, the other being Deanna. While I didn’t get to see what Deanna made, Ted’s dish at the auditions screams “SASKATCHEWAN” at 100 decibles. How will that translate to the sophisticated, urbane palate of the judges? Crack a Pil, and see!

Sebastien Champagne (Graphic Designer from Montréal, Quebec): Okay, this one is obvious. Bleached blonde, pink apron. He’s going to be a sassy one, that Sebastien — but based in Montreal, it’d be easy to put him in the pigeonhole of Quebecois French cuisine, but I think we could be in for a surprise. Could he pull out some Asian flair, or some North African, or modern American a la Dale? He will be a wild card, this one. Regardez, Canada! 

Meg Tucker (Radio Host from Red Deer, Alberta): She is an exciteable one, Meg. Just by her reaction to me congratulating her, I can tell she will be an exciting one to watch. Plus, given how well radio folks have done (think Mike Green and yours truly) last season, and judging from her blog (which has a lot of great comfort food recipes), she looks like she’ll know what to do when the challenge is thrown down!

Giorgio Theofilpoulos (Florist from Toronto, Ontario): Greek cooking was one major cuisine that very few of us had in our arsenals (sorry Pino, Mediterranean doesn’t count buddy!), and I have a feeling that Giorgio (who looks a bit like of a cross between the Italian papi and my Latin amigo José) will be filling this southern Mediterranean/Aegean niche. I definitely can’t wait to see some spanakopita or Avgolemono…anyone know of a place that serves late night gyros? I got a hankerin’ for Greek food all of a sudden.

Those are the eight I’ll be keeping my eyes on. Who are you most excited for? Who will you be rooting for starting Sunday, February 8th at 7pm ET/PT (8pm local here in Calgary)? Let me know in the comments below!

#ChefSchool Week 1: The Lightbulb Slowly Illuminates & Other Ironic Happenings

These last few days, frankly, has been hell.

It’s now 2:52am on Saturday morning as I begin to write this, on the first day in almost two weeks I’ve not had to work and/or class…or at least it feels like it. But last night was the first night that I finally got time (and enough lucidity) to do a little homework and go through the self-tests in our module books, and tonight I have time to write a blog post. I’d forgotten what the life of a working student was like; and this past week is a massive re-climatization to say the least.

But things in class are turning for the better — math, while still confusing as hell, is starting to make sense. Things like portion costing and other fun stuff that you wouldn’t normally associate with a chef’s work, is getting to the point where it’s starting to not scare the living daylights out of me. I’m still dreading the point where I will actually have to start remembering the formulas and the applying them in a written exam situation, but that is still a little bit of time away.

As for baking, the one thing that most cooks dread, is starting to come out of the darkness and into the light…and that leads me to today’s Greatest Moment in Irony.

Today was our baking “exam” per se — Chef Warden, for the first time, would be REALLY putting a critical eye to our finished products. In the time we had, we needed to produce an apple pie with a lattice top, a dozen cookies, and a self-created biscuit or scone recipe. Having done biscuits many times before at work, you’d think I’d be okay with biscuits, right?

Not really.

With a lot of caution and a fair bit of patience, what transpired turned out to be an excellent pie with a golden lattice weave top, a perfectly baked dozen of warm, moist chocolate chip cookies and an oversalty, baking soda-instead-of-powder biscuit that ended up falling short of the mark. I still have no clue as to what happened other than the fact that I put far too much salt in the “pinch” that I originally wanted, but still — the one thing I bake regularly, and somehow I mess it up. Now that, kids, is how you spell irony!

And for once, I didn’t overbake anything either. Another irony.

Oh yeah, and I finally started seeing our products from baking class start hitting the bakery case at the SAIT Marketplace. And I have a funny feeling that our pies will on those shelves soon, too — so come and grab one if you want, and see if you can pick out which pie is mine!

Chef School, Day 2: Those Haunting Words

“Is that raw?”

Those haunting words, spoken to me by Claudio Aprile, sneaks out of the fortress that is my subconscious and into my conscious being from time to time — none so more often when I’m cooking chicken. Or breads. Or hell, pretty much anything for that matter when I’m at work. Case in point, today at school.

Baking is NOT and has NEVER been my strongest suit. Anyone who has tasted my baking probably wouldn’t be all that impressed with the look. I’ll be the first to admit that the combination of flour and oven is kinda, sorta my kryptonite.

Of course my day had to begin with…of all things, math. Sure, conversions may LOOK easy. But try remembering formulas. I’ve not done that much math memory since grade school (thank you very much, Mr. Conlin’s Math 30 class…), and let’s be honest, I am a forgetful you-know-what. And that was just the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much more yet to come. So much of the stuff like costing that my sous chef Tino makes it sound so easy, ain’t all dat. That final exam is looming large, too; more things to worry about.

So you can see, my confidence wasn’t all that great already. At least the lunch at the Four Nines was nice, and kinda helped settle my nerves. Nothing cures the hunger quite like salmon with shrimp mousseline, served up by fellow students. But that is only short respite.

Our practical classes consist of a “lecture” portion followed by a “lab” time. While most of the stuff is relatively straightforward in the lecture portion, when the rubber soles of the kitchen clog finally hits the road in the lab, that is when things seem to go a little off the track.

Suddenly, it seemed that I was questioning every step, every move. Even on our opening item, a simple scone — something I had done a thousand times before at work — I kept questioning myself, doubting, worrying…was I going to make a mistake that would make me the Koons of the day? Especially after I had told my classmates that I had experience in not only biscuits, but yeast doughs from naan to steamed bao?

Somehow, though, I didn’t make a mistake — until it came time to bake. Using an unfamiliar commercial rotating oven, shared with 11 others, meant that even the best guesses could be wildly inaccurate. Three times, I looked at my products and thought, “maybe another rotation won’t hurt, just in case it’s still a little raw…”

And three times, that extra rotation meant overcooked baked goods. The biscuits were dry, and the bran muffin slightly too brown on the edge. Sure, there were no tunnels and the mixes were perfect, but that one last bit. That overcooking…it got me. Chef Warden isn’t Gordon Ramsay or Alvin Leung, but inside my mind, I was kicking myself as if she was both of them combined.

In the end, a few of my products were good enough to send to the Marketplace for sale. I gave myself an iota of credit, but deep down I knew I had to not try to screw up again especially come Friday, when our own modified and enhanced creations will be marked. Like the dreaded poli-sci essay in university all over again!

But tomorrow is another day. A clean slate, a fresh start, all that jazz. Fingers crossed I can do better tomorrow. For now, I’ve got some homework to do and modules to read…and perchance a good night’s sleep afterward.

Assuming I can sleep, of course.

Chef School: The Next Frontier

Well, here we are…it’s Monday night, and I’m writing this after my first day of technical training at SAIT. It wasn’t a long one and probably not the most memorable, but it feels like a new beginning nevertheless. It marks a shift from working in kitchens, to a educational kitchen setting.

But before I go on and tell you about my “exciting” first day, I want to clarify one thing about the difference between culinary school and the provincial- and federal government-funded apprenticeship program.

The apprenticeship program (the one that I’m doing now) combines working in your trade of choice (which for me is cooking) with classroom training; 10 months working with 2 months of school, each year for three years. This will culminate with two exams: one for a “journeyman” certificate, and a second for the big prize: the Red Seal, which is like the eighth badge in every Pokémon game, makes sure all bow down to your might ensures that you are recognized as a chef all across Canada, from sea to sea to sea. It’s a pretty cool prize, and plus apprentices get experience on their resume right away.

Plus for an old fart like me, it means actually WORKING and GAINING SKILLS and LEARNING HANDS-ON, not sitting in classrooms for weeks and months on end listening to lectures, labs and whatnot, and taking optional classes that for me seems like a rehash. After going through university AND broadcasting school, I can’t takes no more.

Anyway, enough of my old fart ramblings.

But my first day at SAIT certaininly brought back some memories, of waiting in line at the bookstore waiting to pay for a stack of modules (we didn’t have to get the textbook On Cooking, which was a relief since I picked up the CIA’s Professional Cooking over the holidays, a book that SAIT is going back to anyway), getting my ID card, and finding my way around the maze of buildings. It was like I was that fresh, wide-eyed UofC student, almost 15 years ago. Ah, the memories!

The moment I walked into the kitchen classroom, though, was awesome. The instructors for all three years were there (including the notorious Chef Michael Allemeier, who teaches second year), and surprise! They had cooked us breakfast! Of course, curse my luck that I decided to stop off for a latte at the Odyssey Coffeehouse after stepping off the train. But hey, when master chefs are making breakfast for you, it’s like ole Don Corleone says, “it’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

Walking around, I chatted with some of my soon-to-be classmates. It was a bit nervewracking at first (those of you who know me, know I tend to need a bit of time to find my voice in front of strangers), but what I found was am incredibly diverse group. There were folks working in chain steakhouses, chain pizza joints, and gourmet grocery stores (oh wait, that’s me!), some from the city proper and some from outside of town, with one who came all the way down from a Yellowknife bed and breakfast to do his technical training. Yes, YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES.

The chefs at work told me last week to be on the lookout for the one who doesn’t seem to know what s/he’s doing, and avoid them at all costs when it came to labs. While it’s hard to judge on Day 1, I found a passionate group of chefs who wanted to learn. Maybe they don’t have the experience as some of the second or the third years, or have worked in the calibre of restaurants one would expect (I think I caught a second/third year sporting a CHARCUT t-shirt), but still…we’re all going to be learning, and it will be a process. To borrow from Lady Gaga, “One day someone will be the Koons, but suddenly that Koons could be me.” and no, no one is living for THAT applause.

With breakfast out of the way, we were given a welcome speech from the department head, giving a general 411 on what is happening, and why one should be on time, and so on and so forth. More speeches, and it was finally time to break off into our respective classes. For the other years it meant hitting the ground running, but for us it meant a tour of the facilities with our instructors, Chef Volke and Chef Warden.

I won’t bore you with the minute details of each place just yet, but as we go along I’ll have more on those. Let’s just say the facilities are amazing; it’s any home cook’s dream come true, and a veritable playground for the culinary professional. The range of tools, ovens, stoves and the ingredients available almost brought a tear to my eye!

As for our instructors, all I’ll reveal for now is if you have been to Chop Steakhouse and had the steak bites, the person who created them is one of my chef instructors.

That’s all for now…I still kinda wish I had more photos from today, but I promise that as we go along I will have some so you can come along my journey with me.

A Busy Saturday (Part 2): Hawkers Market

It has been a busy past few weeks, amd last Saturday was one of those days where just one of those days where it was just packed.

In the last post, I talked about the apple tarts that I created for the Calgary Food Bloggers’ Bake Sale, which raised a whopping $1058 for local Calgary charity Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids. It was a shame I couldn’t have made it to the sale myself, but as they say, “duty calls.”

Because that same evening, after finishing up at my job at Co-op, I made my way downtown to Test Kitchen, the site of this month’s Hawkers’ Market.

For those of you who don’t know, Hawkers’ Market is a collaborative night market consisting of many up and coming chefs and food lovers, pulsating to loud house and electronic music, with beer provided by local craft breweries. First begun in Vancouver, the idea has spread across the Rockies to Alberta, with markets happening in both Edmonton and Calgary.

Working with Jay and Eats of Asia, we have found a nice home here. The crowd is friendly and receptive to our brand of Asian street food, and the atmosphere between each booth is not of stern competitors, but more of friendly, yet collaborative, rivalry. Each booth brings a different thing to the proverbial table, and you, the diner, gets to try each one — and all without the hassle of running around this city to do so! It’s kind of like speed dating, but with new cuisines. And the results are always delicious!

Photo courtesy @calhospcareers

Photo courtesy @calhospcareers

The evening’s atmosphere was enhanced by the phat beats coming from the DJs of Calgary’s own BassBus. I’m not a big electronic/house music kinda guy, but something about their spinning really makes me get in the mood!

Pull dat noodle!  (Image courtesy @calhospcareers)

Pull dat noodle!
(Image courtesy @calhospcareers)

Every Hawkers seems to bring in new vendors every time, and in a way Jay comes up with a new item to wow our audience. Of course there is my now seemingly legendary noodle pulling act, which always seems to draw a crowd. What will my next performance be like? You’ll have to go to the next Hawkers to find out!

Laksaaaaaa... (Photo courtesy Bernice Hill)

(Photo courtesy Bernice Hill)

As for the food, on top of the freshly hand pulled “dan dan” noodles, there is our laksa, a curry-based soup with rice noodles, tofu puffs, fish meatballs, prawns topped with cilantro. It’s proven to be quite popular!

image image image image

But it’s not just us dealing in the goodness — our friends over at the Spicy Jamakin (also at the Market on Macleod), Billingsgate Fish Market, Taiko Taco and Made by Marcus Macarons were also there. I have to say I was deeply impressed by the Earl Grey chocolate ice cream sandwiches from Marcus, and the jerk chicken from Lyle. One was perfectly sweet with floral notes, while the other was fiery as the Caribbean sun.

With all this food around, it certainly doesn’t feel like what one would consider work!

Dim sum caaaaaart!  (No tea dresses needed!)

Dim sum caaaaaart!
(Photo courtesy of @calhospcareers)

A new addition this time is the collaborative dim sum cart, in the style of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. Each vendor contributed an item onto the cart, which was rotated around the venue. To access the goodies that ranged from Electric Jelly’s donuts, to Eats of Asia’s chili wontons, to Brix and Morsel’s wonderful lamb barbacoa steamed bun — all of which I didn’t get to try, a sad indeed. But if you were in attendance and didn’t get to stop the cart — never fear, as the cart will return to YYC for the next event, which is slated for February.

Eating for a good cause!  (Photo courtesy @calhospcareers)

Eating for a good cause!
(Photo courtesy @calhospcareers)

Also new is Hawkers’ partnership with Mealshare, which “makes dining out into helping out”. Guests were encouraged to make a donation to the program, which brings meals to local shelters such as the Mustard Seed and the Calgary Drop-In Centre. It truly makes you feel good about what you’re eating!

There is so much more that I didn’t get to show you, like National’s oyster and whiskey bar, but below is a video put together by Jay’s sister Kristina. which showed off some of the highlights from the evening.

And with that, another night and another Hawkers Market is in the books. The market will return in 2015, bigger and better — and plus, I’ve heard a rumour that the next location will be super nice. So if you are curious, come on down and check it out!

Thank you to Bernice Hill, Adrian Hopkins and Calgary Hospitality Careers for the photos!

A Busy Saturday (Part 1): The Apple of My Eye

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post — life has been a bit hectic lately, and with my first eight-week apprenticeship technical training period starting just a month from now, the craziness is just beginning.

This past Saturday is an example of that. While I was working my day job at Co-op followed by noodle slinging for hungry patrons at Eats of Asia’s stall at that same evening’s Hawkers Market, my handmade pastries were on sale at the Calgary Farmers’ Market. I’ll have more on my night at Hawkers’ Market shortly, but first…the bake sale.

This was the first time I was invited to bake up goodies for the annual Calgary Food Bloggers’ Bake Sale. The sale was started four years ago by local nutritionist and food lover Vincci Tsui, and has grown ever since. While I am only able to see what goodies other bloggers, chefs and other food celebrities created via the power of social media (one of those darned downsides of working!), I can tell you about my own.

I’ll have to admit, I am not the greatest baker in the world — but I do know one thing, and that’s how to bring an Asian twist to classic dishes. Apple desserts, for one, are one of my favourites to bring such twists given the spices that are already being used for them.

Your standard apple pie usually uses cinnamon, but recently I’ve discovered that Chinese-style five spice powder works just as well (if not better) than just cinnamon. The combination of Chinese cinnamon (a.k.a cassia), cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan pepper, along with a touch of ginger, adds a new dimension of flavour. Add a little Canadian touch with a bit of maple to go with it all, and I think I’ve got myself a winner.

But of course, I know most of you don’t exactly have five spice powder kicking around in your kitchens — so I thought, maybe there was a way to mimic it. Without access to Szechwan peppercorns, fennel seeds and star anise, I created my own blend of Saigon cinnamon (which has an aroma that I’ve found both Ceylon or Chinese cinnamons don’t have — hence the priciness of it), grated orange zest, nutmeg, cloves. and black pepper. The mix may look a bit more like a citrus rub one would use on meats, but of course that’s a story for another day.

As for slicing the apples, a good knife usually does the trick. But one key to remember, especially if you are looking to create slices instead of cubes, is that slices must be as even as possible for an even cook. And for decorative purposes, a thinner slice (usually under 1/8″) will allow for more flexibility for shaping into, say roses, inside the pastry. This guide will give you a better idea, but if you are truly not confident, a mandoline set to a very thin slice will also do.

You may notice that I didn’t put a traditional egg wash in the recipe, nor did I use milk in the dough. Since I was making it for a crowd, I wanted to have as many people enjoy the pastry. While I did use butter for the crust, most other solid fats can be used if you are sensitive to dairy.

As for the end result, I’d have to say that they ended up looking pretty good. I certainly hope for those of you who picked one up, you enjoyed it because I certainly enjoyed making them for you! Plus you can feel good about that pastry (or any other goodies you picked up at the sale) — all proceeds goes to Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids.

So that was just one part of my busy Saturday last week. Stay tuned, as next we look at Hawkers’ Market!


Asian-Spiced Apple Mini Tarts with Maple-Ginger Glaze
Makes 10-15 tarts or 8-10 galettes

Filling Ingredients:
– 2 large firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith
– 1/2 lemon
– 1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon, ground
– 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
– 1/2 tsp ground cloves
– 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
– 1/2 tsp grated orange zest
– 2 tablespoons turbinado (golden) sugar

Pastry Ingredients:
– 8 ounces all-purpose flour
– 4 ounces butter, ice cold
– 3 ounces sugar
– Pinch salt
– Ice cold water as needed

Glaze Ingredients:
– 1 cup maple syrup
– 1/4 cup water
– 6 pieces candied ginger, chopped fine

1. Start by creating the filling. Slice off the “cheeks” off the apples and slice thinly, using a knife or a mandoline. Season apples with a squeeze of lemon juice, add in spices and sugar, and and let sit.
2. Create pastry. Mix sugar, salt and flour together in a bowl. Cut butter into small cubes, and crumble into the dry ingredients until small gravel consistency. Add ice water to pastry gradually until dough forms. Chill until ready to use.
3. Bring water and maple syrup to a boil, add in candied ginger. Reduce by 1/4 and then remove from heat to let cool.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry to approximately 1/8″ thick. For galettes, cut out 5″ circles, for tarts, cut out 2-3″ circles.
5. Lay out apple slices on centre of each galette or tart pastry placed into tins, drizzle any extra juices onto each tart.
6. Bake at 350°F for 25-30 minutes until apples are cooked and the pastry is golden.
7. Remove from oven, and glaze tarts. Serve warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, or let cool and wrap for sale.