More Birthday Cards

cardsA friend’s son once asked me: “If you were an animal, what would you be?”  Good question.  I find that I can identify with a variety of characteristics from various furry and feathered species: the appetite of a bird, the nocturnal habits of an owl, the ornery love/hate introverted temperament of a cat, the industrious tendencies of a beaver, and the timidity of a fox (emphasis on the cross-me-and-I’ll-snarl part).  Personally, if I had to choose one animal, I’d identify the more closely with the darling Red Panda (look them up, they’ll melt your heart, and inexplicably induce an “awww” reaction).  Ok, ok, this is not some elementary school writing assignment, so enough with the critter banter, and on with the subject at hand.

From my observations, most humans possess either characteristic or uncanny physical similarities to animal counterparts.  That being said, I decided to pursue my illustrated birthday card project (refer to my husband’s panda card here) to create designs for my mom and my dad’s birthdays (cheesy dad pun included).  I “otter” say, they turned out pretty well, oh deer!

Springtime = Strawberries

strawberry_cakesI realize that I should probably get out of the kitchen and look for sources of inspiration elsewhere, as this baking hobby of mine is turning my blog into a foodie diary and is quite literally expanding my thighs.  I’m finding the latter quite problematic, so all jokes aside, I will dedicate my future post to the gym; the fluorescent and sterile lair where machines stand impatiently at attention, their pixelated screens beckoning, waiting to prey on excess calories.

Until then, on with the subject at hand.  Let it be known that I only bake for events, well… occasionally for no reason at all but to quell a sweet tooth craving, but I try to resist those urges to avoid over-indulgence (see expanding thigh reasoning above).  Whether it be for potlucks, birthdays or holidays, I enjoy trying out new recipes.  It’s an adrenaline rush of sorts with the potential of failure and a limited deadline with no time to resort to a plan B.  Thankfully most of these culinary adventures turn out well, and worst case, a little extra sugar can thankfully solve most mishaps.

I honestly can’t post the recipe for this amazing strawberry coulis as it was the result of “little bit of this, little bit of that”.  Toss it all into the blender and taste after each new ingredient addition and adjust accordingly.  One tip is that while heating the concoction on the stove to thicken it a little, adding a few basil leaves (fresh, not dried flakes, and straining them later of course), adds a lovely flavour harmony to the sweet strawberry mixture.  There you have it, my secret ingredient: basil.

Etsy

etsybagI finally made my first Etsy purchase!  It was my husband Phil’s birthday this month, and he had been searching for a light tan vintage-looking leather bag for a few months now to carry all of his paraphernalia to business meetings.  You’d think that something basic like a leather briefcase/bag would be an easy find, but no.  Even after February’s trip to NYC, we came back empty-handed.  Mind you, we found some gorgeous potentials in Soho, but we just couldn’t justify spending the equivalent of more than half of a month’s mortgage payment on a simple bag!  So after scouring local stores and online shops as the countdown to his birthday drew nigh, I decided to consult Etsy.

With such vast selection, one can be choosy.  I believe I had a good dozen tabs open on my browser, pouring over specs, shipping prices and vendor ratings.  One bag was larger, another slightly cheaper, and another still had extra pockets… “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”?!  One, in particular stood out and I knew I had finally found “the one”.  In addition to fitting all of the appearance and budget criteria, it had a bonus feature where an inner, padded organizer could be inserted inside the bag to safely protected a camera body and lenses.  Ding ding, we have a winner!

Although it unfortunately arrived a few days after Phil’s actual birthday, he was thrilled to not only complete his stylish business man persona, but to also have the capability to transport his laptop, papers AND camera to video shoots and meetings and to not have to carry multiple bags.  Etsy, I now must hide my credit card to avoid your temptation!

Goat Cheese Cheesecake

Goat Cheese Cheesecake

Yes, goat cheese cheesecake.  Having a lactose intolerant in one’s household calls for a little extra creativity when it comes to baking.  Although this delicious dessert does contain some cream cheese, the addition of goat cheese greatly reduces to lactose level.  I’m sure goat cheese cream cheese exists, as I just discovered goat yoghurt (umm  “go-ghurt”) the other day, however our nearest grocery store has not yet stocked up on such exotic products.

It concerns me how food allergies are becoming more prevalent, and although I’m thankful for scientific advances which provide alternatives, I can’t help but wonder if by meeting quotas and tweaking genetics to create more robust vegetation, we’re harming our body’s delicate natural balance.  Food for thought.

Birthday Bear

Birthday Bear

I’ve come to the realization that my portfolio page is a little chaotic with a mixture of corporate jobs mixed with personal projects and that can cause a some confusion.  I’m still working out the logistics of potentially having two pages, one for graphic design work and another for artsy pieces.  Until then, my blog will be the dumping zone of all non-corporate endeavours.

As today is my husband’s birthday, I decided to make him a special card.  Is it just me, or are the majority of store-bought cards designed solely for females?!  I find it next to impossible to find anything meaningful for guys over the age of 8.  I once bought what I thought was a blank card with the picture of an old man on the front for a brother-in-law with some witty caption about getting old, but upon taking the card out of the cellophane to write him a birthday message, I was horrified to find the text “guess you’ll need to start using the Viagra now” (or something along those lines) inside.  Panic!  Thankfully we can laugh about it now, but honestly, I find that there are very few quality cards for males that don’t contain imagery referring to golf, hot babes, red cars or sports.

All that to say, I decided to make my own card for my husband.  Illustration is something that I don’t mind spending hours on to perfect, so I decided to draw out a panda in Adobe Illustrator.  Without getting too cutesy, I just want to note that I have been calling my husband Bear for many years now, and I think that if he was an animal, he would be a panda for sure.  Back to the card.  After illustrating the final design, I had to separate the layers that I wanted to print separately in order to have certain sections raised with foamy stickers (like the grass in front of the panda, his arm and the hat).  I don’t know why I decided to have the panda sitting in grass, because honestly, cutting out individual minuscule strands of grass at midnight was not the most enjoyable activity.  Frustrations aside, the card turned out beautifully and my husband actually asked me where I had purchased such a perfect card.  That made my day.

Caffeine

caffein

Today, I forgot to have my cup of coffee.  I am not a java fiend who needs to have caffeine coursing through my veins the second I open my eyes in the morning.  Rather, I will leisurely make myself an espresso mid-morning and savour every rich sip while scanning though my inbox and checking job postings.  Nothing major, just one cup per day.

This morning was different.  I had every intension of brewing a mug of roasted goodness, however with the rush of getting ready to run off to a shopping and cupcake baking date with my mom, it completely slipped my mind.  Somewhere around 4 in the afternoon, I started getting a dull headache, and thought nothing of it except maybe a sugar rush from sampling too much frosting.  However, as the hour came to a close, (a glass of water and an advil later), it dawned on me that maybe in fact I was a caffeine addict experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  Oh my!

One cuppa joe later, and I must say, I feel 100% better.  It is quite disconcerting to realize that something as harmless as roasted beans infused in hot water could indeed play with one’s state of well-being to the extent of causing pain if not consumed within 30 hours on a daily basis.  Yet, for something so habit-forming, it is so ingrained and normalized in our culture; from casual meetings at a café, to the beverage of choice with dessert, and the ubiquitous travel mugs in the majority of commuter’s hands in the morning.  Here’s hoping, for the sake of avoiding a societal withdrawal migraine or collective rehab, that the rumours of dwindling supply do not materialize.  Yours truly, The Caffeine Addict

Edible Hobby

Pistachio cupcake

One of my most rewarding hobbies (quite literally) is baking.  Who wouldn’t want to eat their success, to savour the fruits (or in this case, cakes) of their labour, or to smell the sweet aroma of a job well done?!

Back in elementary school, I used to strive to collect as many “gold stars” or stickers on outstanding assignments; they brought me a lot of joy and reinforced my aptitude and exceptional talent.  I guess that today, hearing the accolades of people enjoying my baking is my modern day theoretical gold star and affirmation of culinary success.

All this to say, that simply executing a delicious recipe is not enough, but one must share such exploits with others.  Although I cannot bake for all of you out there in cyberspace, I thought I would pass on the recipe for you all to enjoy.

I originally found the Pistachio Cardamom Cupcakes with Rosewater Meringue Buttercream Frosting recipe through the following link*, but after recreating it last night, I tweaked it ever so slightly.  The original only resulted in 8 cupcakes, and after all that effort, I prefer having more to indulge in and share.  Unless of course you’re living alone… in which case, make your cake and enjoy it too (in smaller quantities)!

Without further ado, here’s the Pistachio Cardamom Cupcakes with Rosewater Meringue Buttercream Frosting recipe:

**I used margarine instead of butter and lactose-free milk as I am surrounded by lactose intolerants, but feel free to use regular milk and butter (in lieu of margarine)**

Pistachio Cardamom Cupcakes

3/4 cup shelled raw pistachios
2 cups all purpose flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (use half of this if using freshly ground cardamom)
3/4 cup margarine or unsalted butter, room temperature
1  1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large egg, room temperature
1  1/2 cups milk
1  1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract

1. Heat your oven to 350 F and place a rack in the middle. Line muffin trays with papers and set aside.

2. Put the pistachios in a mini food processor (I used my coffee grinder) and pulse until very finely ground. Be careful not to turn it into a paste! Any extras can be used as garnish after the cupcakes are frosted, so set 2 tablespoons worth aside.

3. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom into a medium bowl and set aside.

4. Add the margarine and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream on medium speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes.

5. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 30 seconds.

6. Add half of the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until just combined.

7. Add the milk, vanilla extract, and almond extract and mix on medium-low speed until incorporated, about 15 seconds.

8. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the remaining flour mixture. Mix on low speed until barely combined.

9. Add the ground pistachios (except for the 2 tablespoons reserved for garnish) and mix on low speed to combine.

10. Divide the batter among the lined muffin cups, about 3/4 full. Bake until the tops spring back lightly when pressed and a toothpick comes out clean, about 16-20 minutes.

11. Cool the cupcakes in the pan set on a rack for a few minutes, then transfer to the rack to cool completely.

(Makes about 26 cupcakes)

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Rosewater Meringue Buttercream Frosting

6 large egg whites
1  1/3 cups granulated sugar
1  1/2 cups margarine (or unsalted butter) slightly cooler than room temperature
2 teaspoons rose water (NOT rose syrup!)
2 drops pink (or red) food coloring (optional)
4 tbsp icing sugar (if desired to stiffen icing, if using margarine instead of butter for the recipe)
pink rosebuds to garnish

1. Bring 2″ of water to a simmer in a saucepan that is wide enough for the bowl of your mixer to sit on top of it (but not so big that the bowl falls in).  I used a large stock pot and lowered my Kitchenaid bowl into it so that the bottom of the bowl came in contact with the simmering water.

2. Add the egg whites and sugar to the mixer bowl. Whisk well to combine, then place over the pot of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is opaque and thick, about 4-5 minutes.

3. Transfer the bowl to the mixer and attach the whisk attachment. Start on low speed and over the course of 30 seconds, bring the speed up to high. Whip on high speed until the whites are thick and glossy and the bowl is cool to the touch, about 7-10 minutes.

4. While the whites are whipping, scoop the margarine into smaller portions (1/4 cup segments is fine).  It’s important that it is not too warm. (If using butter, going with tablespoon increments is better. 1  1/2 cups of butter = 24 tbsp).

5. When the whites are cool, scrape down the sides of the bowl and lower the speed of the mixer. Add 1/4 cup of the margarine at a time and whip until combined, about 10 seconds. Continue with the remaining margarine, waiting 10 seconds between each addition.

6. When all the margarine has been added, turn the speed to high and whip until the mixture comes together to form a thick frosting. This may take some time.

7. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the rosewater and pink food coloring (if using) and whip on high speed for 10 seconds to combine.

8. Add about 4 tablespoons of icing sugar if the icing’s consistency isn’t stiff enough for piping (due to the use of margarine), but if using butter, this step is not necessary.  If the icing is still not stiff enough to pipe, refrigerate for 30 minutes.

9. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and transfer the frosting to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip.

10. Pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes once they are completely cooled and top each one with a sprinkling of ground pistachios and a rosebud (if desired).

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ENJOY!

*original recipe posted on Food52 by the talented Brooklyn blogger Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello of Raspberryeggplant

Cabane à Sucre chez Au Pied de Cochon

Cabane à Sucre

Like most Québeçois, when the days become longer and the snow starts to melt, we usher in Springtime with the celebratory tradition of paying a visit to a Cabane à Sucre.  Typically this excursion consists of driving far beyond the city limits, through winding roads and forests to a picturesque rural arboretum complete with a large wooden barn, (and sometimes a log cabin as well) and occasionally even a petting zoo for the children.  Tours are given to demonstrate the creation and production process of turning maple sap into syrup, and the whole afternoon is capped off by a massive meal of all-you-can-eat pancakes, bacon, ham, baked beans, sausages, eggs, pies and of course, maple syrup.  Maple taffy, or “tire sur la neige” (featured in one of my previous blog entries) is also served on fresh snow outside, and by the end of the day, your veins are pumping maple syrup and you’re on the verge of a food coma.

Now this of course is fine if experienced once annually, where excess typically trumps quality, but for someone who values a more refined and complex gustatory approach to a traditional experience, the Cabane à Sucre put on by Montreal’s famous Au Pied de Cochon restaurant was a welcome alternative.  You know they’re doing something right when the season sells out within a few days, months before anyone even knows the menu!

Hidden along a narrow road somewhere on the outskirts of Mirabel, Quebec, a massive log cabin stands, emitting mouth-watering aromas wafting from the industrial kitchen.  It’s best to experience this feast with a group of friends as the dishes are made to be shared, and portions are tailored to the group size.  Once seated, the waitress, wearing a red plaid lumberjack shirt and jorts (jeans cut off and turned into knee-length shorts), enthusiastically welcomed us and warned us to pace ourselves.  The meal in fact would consist of 10 courses, starting with a plethora of desserts, followed by four appetizers, two mains and ending with three final desserts.  Oh, and take-out containers would be provided so that nothing goes to waste and the leftovers can be savoured for days to come (trust me, you will have leftovers for days).

Starting the meal off with a bang, a veritable tower of desserts was placed on our table (pictured on the far left) with each layer separated by a section of wood and crowned with a cloud of maple cotton candy.  Each subsequent layer brimmed with an array of mini ice cream cones containing maple cream, almond croissants, maple glazed popcorn in paper cones, maple doughnuts, maple whippets, nougat, maple pudding and maple sponge toffee.  If that wasn’t enough maple already, the bottom layer of the tower was supported by shots of Jack Daniels with maple syrup.  Cheers to round one!

Thankfully we had a short reprieve before the appetizer round showed up, as the dessert tower could have easily been a standalone meal.  The appetizer round started with panko-encrusted duck drumsticks stuffed with a shrimp and salmon mousse accompanied with with a sweet maple barbecue sauce to be applied artistically with a brush (pictured on the bottom middle).  The lobe of foie gras perfection arrived next, topping a bed of baked beans over a pancake cooked in duck fat and garnished with cottage cheese, eggs and onions cooked in maple syrup (pictured on the top right).

The following dishes may turn up the noses of those who are not adventurous when it comes to sampling creations comprised of a variety of organs, but once experienced (prepared by the expert cooks at PDC), they offer an explosion of delicious flavours and textures, immediately dispelling any previous prejudice.  The head chef, Martin Picard, practices a “snout-to-tail” philosophy, where no part of the animal goes to waste, and heart or brain is just as pleasing as a perfectly prepared  filet mignon.  That being said, our next dish arrived: “oreilles de crisse”.  Basically an arugula salad topped with sauteed duck hearts, pigs ears, gizzards and fried pork rinds as light and crunchy “chips” on top.  The appetizer course was capped off with a dish of calf brain on a maple bacon omelet.  Not bad at all!  Then again, bacon has the ability to turn any dish stellar.  The only initial reservation I had towards sampling brain, was the mental image of high school biology, being creeped out by the rows of specimen preserved in formaldehyde-filled jars.  Ridiculous, I know, and a far cry from this culinary masterpiece.

With the appetizer round complete, and all leftovers portioned into takeaway containers, we eagerly awaited the mains (hoping that our stomachs would allow for a few more dishes).  A large smoked and maple glazed ham arrived, topped with pineapple and on a bed of green beans amandine.  The exquisit (whole) chicken followed (beak, feet and all), filled with foie gras and lobster meat, with lobster bisque pumped into the meat prior to cooking, making it deliciously juicy and flavourful.  It was quite honestly one of the best chicken dishes I’ve tasted.

The whole gastronomic experience was capped off with the final dessert round starting with a cabane à sucre staple: “tire sur la neige”, but with a clever twist of embedding the popsicle sticks of gooey maple goodness in a dish of rich and heavenly homemade maple ice cream (pictured bottom right).  A stained glass-like brick of jellied yoghurt dotted with squares of maple jello cleansed the palate for the final dish of the evening: a light and fluffy maple sponge cake iced in a delicate meringue.  This gastronomic experience was definitely on my top 5 list of one of the most lavish and delicious meals I’ve eaten.

With appetites satiated and take home containers in tow, we made the trek back home, eager to give in to a torpid slumber.

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Montreal and surrounding communities: mark off the end of november/beginning of december on your calendars for the 2014 Cabane à Sucre as reservations for fill up early, or better yet, try to score a reservation for this autumn’s apple-themed feast!  Bon appétit!

Concrete Jungle

Flatiron building in nyc

It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Manhattan; everything you could ever dream of seeing, experiencing or purchasing can be found somewhere on this vast island.  As a five-day tourist, it was oddly energizing to just explore different neighbourhoods, to take in all the sights, smells (winter is more pleasant than summer in this case), artistic inspiration and culinary offerings that my limited time would allow me.  From Soho to Chelsea, East / West, Upper, Mid and Lower, it was almost overwhelming to fathom the sheer magnitude of establishments and dreams crammed into a 23 square mile island, and this definitely wasn’t my first visit either.

To the city that never sleeps, your tireless innovation has left this (unemployed) artist dreaming bigger, mind spinning with ideas, hoping to soon be part of something meaningful.

Design

Radiator chair found in nyc boutique Anthropologie

I should have been an industrial designer.  It’s always easy in hindsight to map out how things should occurred, and I somehow regret not enrolling in the industrial design program, but for now, my inspiration and guilty pleasure will remain in the realm of chairs.  Yes, chairs.  There is something about the functionality, comfort, necessity and the aesthetic of a chair that sums up the quintessential item for design and innovation.  From Mies van der Rohe to Le Corbusier, to Gehry, Breuer and Eames, whenever I see an original (or even reproduction for that matter), my heart starts pumping like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

When I discovered the radiator chair, neatly tucked away in the corner of an Anthropologie store in Soho, NYC, I immediately fell in love.  True, the comfort level is definitely lacking, but the sheer amount of creativity required to conceive and produce this piece is commendable.  If money weren’t an issue, which thankfully it is, or else I probably would have turned my home into a small shrine with all of my favorite pieces.

Some girls go crazy over shoes, I drool over chairs.

 

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