almond pear cake

pear almond cake
pear almond cake

I realise that by now much of the Northern hemisphere is well into spring, but my sense of the seasons is arrested back in winter… probably because I’ve barely spent any time outside. The windows are open to get a bit of fresh air in, but I’m still craving heavy warm foods.

This almond pear cake is more definitely a winter-y/fall cake.

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mocha java loaf

mocha java cake

This is day 10 of 10 of a series celebrating local Toronto businesses!  Recent events have put many local businesses in a difficult position and unfortunately, it’s not clear when this situation will come to an end. For ten days I’ll be posting recipes inspired by some of my favourite local businesses as my own way of celebrating what they bring to our communities. While we may not be able to visit our local bakeries, cafes and restaurants right now, this is a way of keeping them in mind, and a reminder to support them again once there is a chance.

Harbord Bakery is an everything bakery – the main wall lined with shelves proffering rye breads, fluffy challah, dense poppy seed Danish rings, and the fabled Thursday-through-Sunday-only chocolate babka. In comparison, the mocha java cake is a bit more discreet. We’ve only ever seen it in the freezer section, innocuously tucked away against the lemon and blueberry loaves. My roommate bought it once out of curiosity – a deep brown loaf cake with a tight, silky crumb, and intense coffee flavour. We devoured it within days – a slice for breakfast, oh a slice for afternoon snack, maybe another with tea in the evening. It’s such an anticipated treat that when we do buy it, we usually crack open the plastic clamshell as soon as we get home and eat the first piece (or two) while still frozen, breaking the softly brittle slices into pieces in our hands. It is just as great frozen too.

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lemongrass & coconut tres leches cake

lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake

This is day 7 of a series celebrating local Toronto businesses!  Recent events have put many local businesses in a difficult position and unfortunately, it’s not clear when this situation will come to an end. For ten days I’ll be posting recipes inspired by some of my favourite local businesses as my own way of celebrating what they bring to our communities. While we may not be able to visit our local bakeries, cafes and restaurants right now, this is a way of keeping them in mind, and a reminder to support them again once there is a chance.

Ave Maria Latin Cafe is a café that dominates the back of a tiny Latin grocery store. Small tables and vinyl chairs in pastel green cozy up alongside grocery shelves lined with imported coffee, flour and guava paste. It’s cluttered in the best sort of way, which is to say, with food. To order at the counter you peer between the empanada warming case, a tray of snacks, and propped up menus.

They serve sandwiches, tamales, empanadas, and a slate of arepas. The first time I tried the Columbian arepas, I was surprised – made of white corn, they are a bit denser and drier than their bready Venezuelan counterparts, but just as delicious. The lady at the counter, who I suspect is the owner, is a lovely advocate for her foods, helping me pronounce arepa de chocolo, the sweeter yellow arepa encasing more melted cheese, correctly. Another time I was in, she spent fifteen minutes helping a customer pick out candy for his Columbian girlfriend.

If I am in for a meal, I love the simplicity of a salty arepa folded onto melty white cheese – and it comes alive when eaten with spoonfuls of the small dish of acidic spicy sauce that accompanies it. But it comes to dessert, I was floored when I tried the tres leches cake. It’s a towering square of sponge cake that somehow manages to be light and structured, while still fully saturated with milk. It’s the furthest thing from sodden or soggy. I don’t usually think of a milk as being a dominant flavour, but in this cake, which yields easily against a fork and leaves a small pool of milk behind, it makes perfect sense.

lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake

“Last time I tried making this, it was completely dry in the middle.” I confided in the lady at the counter. “It completely missed the point of being a tres leches cake!” With a laugh, she told me now I know what to aim for.

I’ve managed to get there – a couple key points being to use a very light sponge cake, and being very, very thorough with poking the cake. In this version I’ve infused the milks with lemongrass and included plenty of coconut milk.

Lemongrass is like someone took a lemon, gave it an herbal aroma, and smoothed out all its sharp points; it’s a flavour that just melts into anything milky. Lemongrass comes out wonderfully when infused into milk or cream for custards, pastry creams or ice creams but it does not lend itself well to coming out in baked goods such as cakes. However, given the sheer quantity of milk with which a tres leches cake is soaked with, this is absolutely a lemongrass cake.

A lemongrass-infused tres leches is something I’ve tried before, but without full cake saturation, the lemongrass flavour doesn’t saturate the cake either! To prevent yourself from ending up with a dry interior and a soggy exterior: poke the cake and take it seriously. None of this lightly pricking the surface. No, poke the cake all over and poke the cake right down to the bottom of the pan.

After wielding a skewer with decisiveness, this cake somehow absorbed 700mL of liquid – landing at that balance point of saturated but not soggy!

lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake
lemongrass coconut tres leches cake

There are many ways to make a sponge cake. In all of them, the eggs and flour do come together in the end, but can do so in different ways – the eggs can be separated or beaten together; flour can be mixed in all at once or alternated with egg whites. Regardless of the method, and at this point I have tried many of them, I tend to make the stodgiest sponge cakes. The last one I made, while alternating between folding flour and whipped whites into the yolks, I somehow folded away the egg whites away into oblivion. Or there have been times when, due to a thick paste-like batter, instead of aerating with egg whites, I deflate them. Or there have been times I keep folding and folding to try to smooth out lumps of sifted flour until the batter is a puddle. At this point stodgy spongecakes have happened so often I know that it’s not to do with any of the recipes – it’s really just me!

The recipe I’ve shared is one of few sponge cake recipes that I have never had problems with. The method is straightforwards and the ingredient list is just the essentials: eggs, sugar and flour, with no milk or melted butter. This is a bit of a departure, as most tres leches recipes I saw used at least milk if not also butter in their sponge cakes – thus if you’re not me and can actually make sponge cakes, feel free to use your own preferred recipe. But if you’re a bit more sponge cake adverse, I recommend this one – it is so light, and suitably lean such that 700mL of mixed milks is just what it needs to become moist and rich.

lemongrass coconut tres leches cake

lemongrass & coconut tres leches cake

Makes one 8×8″ square cake, which can be cut into 9 pieces. Sponge cake recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen.

milks

  • 80mL condensed milk (or more, depending on how sweet you want it)
  • 340mL coconut milk
  • 280mL evaporated milk
  • 1 stalk lemongrass

cake

  • 4 eggs
  • 50g sugar
  • 85g flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder

topping

  • 240mL whipping cream
  • toasted coconut flakes

Combine the condensed milk, coconut milk and evaporated milk in a small saucepan. Taste and add more condensed milk if desired – I’ve sweetened it to my own tastes. Cut the lemongrass in half lengthwise and into four or five segments which can comfortably fit in the pot. Take the pieces of lemongrass and and bend them in order in order to crack and release the aroma. Add to the milk, heat until it comes to a simmer. Then cover and set aside to cool, and then place in the fridge to steep for about 24 hours.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350F. Very lightly butter an 8″ square pan – I buttered it, then wiped over the pan with a tissue to leave only a trace of butter.  Line the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper.

Place the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat until frothy, sprinkle in the sugar, and then continue whipping until very light and fluffy. They are done when you can draw a figure-eight with a ribbon of batter flowing from the whisk, and it stays on the surface of the batter for at least 10 seconds.

Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift a third of the flour over the egg whites and fold in until no streaks or lumps of flour remain. Repeat twice more until all the flour is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out with a small offset spatula. Bake the cake for around 25 minutes or until browned and an inserted skewer is removed clean. Let cool (it’s okay if the cake is still a bit warm when you begin). Poke the cake all over with a skewer right down to the bottom of the pan (I did some serious all-over poking – like every 2cm poking).

Strain the milk and transfer to a measuring cup with a pouring spout. Slowly pour over the cake, being sure to get the sides and middle, adding more milk as it is absorbed. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour or overnight.

When ready to serve, whip the cream (sweeten if desired – I prefer it unsweetened!) and sprinkle with toasted coconut.

Update notes: photographs updated July 2021.

prune & rum sticky toffee pudding

prune & rum sticky toffee pudding

sticky toffee pudding is quintessential warming winter dessert. here i’ve gone a bit of a different direction with a pudding that is all dark bitter notes and sharp rum and nutty whole wheat.

My parents’ dessert of choice at the neighbourhood pub they frequent is always the sticky toffee pudding. It sits in a warm bowl filled halfway up the sides with toffee sauce and drizzled with creme anglaise. I love it too, but we all agree that it is remarkably sweet!

Desserts are desserts so I have nothing against sweet and sugary desserts – it is a treat after all. But I also have nothing against lower sugar and lower sweetness desserts. It’s all a matter of personal preference, and my personal preference tends to sway to the side of lower sweetness desserts. In the end I often end up enjoying them more and I figure it doesn’t hurt if they have less sugar in them as well.

Here is my version of a sticky toffee pudding – made with a dark rum caramel and a whole wheat and prune sponge – and in the style of many of the desserts that I make, it tastes barely sweet. It’s a different sort of sticky toffee pudding – the flavour profile is a dark and burnt and bitter version of the usual with intense biting notes of burnt caramel and rum, plus all the nuttiness of prunes and whole wheat flour. I loved it – it’s just my type of pudding!

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black sesame and chestnut layer cake

a light black sesame and chestnut layer cake –  as simple as possible with sponge cake and whipped cream

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Today we are keeping it simple with only two steps to what is best described as a very fulfilling experience. Step 1 is to find a low traffic hallway – most promising are uppers floors or the dead-ended hallway adnexa. Step 2 is to seat yourself down with your back against the wall and enjoy the wonders of having such an expanse of space to sit (you can cross your legs or even stretch them out if you’re really feeling ambitious) – as well as to pile up the requisite winter combo (i.e. the coat + the mitts + the hat + the scarf + …) that the weather requests you carry with you everywhere. Feel immensely comfortable – until your back begins to ache a bit – because while simple, it is one of life’s finest pleasures.

Somehow, until yesterday, I think it’s been years since I’ve sat on the floor in front of my locker. I keep the instructions general to facilitate sitting on the floor even in situations without lockers, but while secluded hallways are good, it is the locker that is essential for peace of mind. The proximity of the locker gives you a sense of belonging and ownership over the four vinyl floor tiles that you occupy. As inconvenient as it may be for locker neighbours and passer-bys in the case of narrower hallways, you can feel steadfast in your randomly assigned administrative-given right to root yourself in place. (I imagine that even if an adjacent locker is not yours, if you have enough self-confidence to project the possibility that it could be yours to those passing by, that would also suffice).

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apple sauce bundt with browned butter cream & tamarind caramelized apples

a super lazy applesauce (no peeling or coring!) and a simple spiced apple sauce bundt cake to use it in

applesauce bundt cakeapplesauce bundt cakeapplesauce bundt cake

There are particular blocks of the city that are never a bore to walk past. It’s been a bit hard to pinpoint what I find myself drawn to – I used to think it was age. Look at these pretty old buildings! I once texted to my friend, who, studying abroad in England sent me back a picture of some genuinely very old buildings… and I realized I wasn’t really into buildings solely for their vintage, nor for decay or collapse.

Rather, I think it’s a matter of accruement (a word I selected in part because of how satisfying and pretentious it is to say), or well, something along those lines. The cityscapes I find the most interesting are usually lively and cluttered. I tend not to notice the overhangs and alcoves and makeshift structures until I do. And I tend not to appreciate them for what they are until I do: the edges of the superimposed renditions collapsed into the building’s current form. In a literal sense, such as of new businesses, coexisting with old signs from past restaurants and shops that swing overhead, the front of the building itself engraved with its previous late-19th-to-mid-20th century purpose.

I love catching sight of those pieces of unintentional design – anachronistic architectural details, patchwork fences, sprawling greenery, unorthodox uses of furniture, intricate makeshift shelving, faded paints and old shadows. It’s the ways that some buildings are shaped by many small changes by many people all piled together. This sort of thing does often comes with some wear and tear, which can speak of neglect, or can speak of what wore it – and it’s the latter that is fun to focus on.

This all got me thinking about what makes me attached to recipes. Like those inherited hand-written copies with notes in the margins, ingredients added, quantities adjusted, in overlying scrawls in pencil and pen and blue and black ink – though I have very few of them. More often, it will be accruement that manifests as a series of more recent renditions, input from others and dramatic swings in concept. Things like this cake, which is pretty simple but also an accumulation of ideas and attempts bounced back and forth between my mum and I.

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persimmon, walnut and browned butter roll cake

apparently i am channelling all the autumn vibes: a toasted walnut roll cake filled with persimmons and browned butter cream  

persimmon & walnut roll cake with browned butter creampersimmon & walnut roll cake with browned butter cream

A little while ago I posted my first try at making browned butter cream by emulsifying together browned butter and milk using a Bel cream maker. The resultant cream tasted intensely of browned butter, and the combination of caramelization and creamy richness reminded me of a dark salted caramel. Of course I had so many other ideas of how else to try using it!

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white peach, strawberry & pistachio mousse cake

strawberry, white peach and pistachio mousse cakes
strawberry, white peach and pistachio mousse cakes
strawberry, white peach and pistachio mousse cakes

Arriving at a party three hours late (two-thirds of which was semi-intentional, one third of which was a surprise – though given the entire trip was relatively unplanned, why it was a surprise, or upon what the putative ETA was based, was unclear), the main hurdle had been locating the bus terminal. In a mixed transit hub, transformed into a maze by virtue of add-on’s and the white canvas-tented construction-impeded walkways, we tried following the path indicated by two dimensional and directionally ambiguous arrows (it always takes me a bit of a figurative leap to understand that an up arrow means forwards). Eventually we arrived at the apparent endpoint– a singular, lonely arrow pointing directly into a construction site.

Wandering back to look for help, we were informed that there must be a way and to try again. Surely people still took the buses after all. We located a second set of arrows – this time passing up a twisting ramp – convolutedly promising until we returned to the same, stark arrow.

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strawberry cake with browned butter cream

strawberry chiffon layer cake piled with browned butter whipped cream – the most intensely browned butter-flavoured cake that I’ve made by far

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The transformation of browned butter is a heady aromatic experience: first of melted butter, like popcorn, then as it cooks and the solids break down a bit more, of all the good things fried in butter like eggs and pancakes and toasted bread, finishing on an intense concentration of toast and caramelization.

I find it comes out immensely in butter-heavy financiers and is a fair contributor to other cakes and cookies. Though as intense as brown butter is in its unadulterated form, sometimes I struggle to coax it to step beyond team player (which it is terribly wonderful at) to be a primary flavour.

This cake is the most intensely browned butter cake that I’ve made. It doesn’t appear so at first – a soft elderflower chiffon layered with strawberries and piles of cream. However, it has no problem in demonstrating its browned butter allegiance through the piles of cream being piles of browned butter cream, made using an old Bel cream-maker.

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peach, lemongrass and cardamom mousse cake

lemongrass cardamom peach mousse cake

a multilayered lemongrass, cardamom & peach mousse cake

For the second go at a mousse cake, I wanted to try out something multilayered. Though to keep it a bit simpler, a multilayered single cake made all in one pan with all layers the same size and none being contained within the other. If that makes sense.

I based the structure of this cake off of Tartelette’s mango and chocolate mousse cake. As all the mousse layers are separated by a layer of cake, it can be assembled all at once without needing to wait for each layer to set.

Any time I have an infusible component, I always think lemongrass. And this time, combined with cardamom, both of which are (vaguely or not-vaguely) citrus flavours. It was actually a really lovely combination, the sort where it doesn’t taste like lemongrass + cardamom but something else, smooth and light and ambiguously citrusy. This was alternated with a middle layer of peach mousse, and to try to keep everything on theme, I used a lemongrass tea for brushing the cakes and for the top layer of jelly.

I think the proportion of peach mousse should have been increased as its flavour was more subtle than the lemongrass and cardamom. Otherwise, I found it an enjoyable and light cake – though if you feel the weight of the whole thing, it was literally very heavy.

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