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.
Basque style cheesecake, also known by the very accurate moniker of “burnt cheesecake” casually defies the usual conventions of cheesecake wisdom: i.e. the low temperatures and water bath and smooth, even cooking. Instead it’s all about the burnt and burnished surface and rustic puffed edges generated by a high temperature bake unhindered by any water bath whatsoever. It’s so glowingly described by Lili on her blog Lili’s Cakes that I had to give it a try.
Also – did I mention – no water bath!
Both visually and in taste the burnt crust lends the cheesecake so much character. And if you keep it wrapped in the layers of parchment paper that it’s baked in, the singed edges waft a bit of smokiness every time you unwrap the cake. I added in a bit of this and that for a flavour combination with interesting contrast – the orange blossom water is perfumed and floral; the rosemary gives it a startlingly savoury edge.
a light black sesame and chestnut layer cake – as simple as possible with sponge cake and whipped cream
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).
a super lazy applesauce (no peeling or coring!) and a simple spiced apple sauce bundt cake to use it in
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.
apparently i am channelling all the autumn vibes: a toasted walnut roll cake filled with persimmons and 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!
a light jasmine tea mousse cake with a lychee jelly insert – and a speedy trip in the taxi
Much delayed, my flight arrived around 4:30 am, and in a blearily bedraggled state I succumbed to the convenient but costly allure of a taxi – a rare occasion considering the state of my net worth. At that hour the wide-multilane roadways leading into the city were dimly lit and only sparsely populated.
Sitting in cars often induces a trance-like state for me, but I couldn’t help but notice that the road seemed to be going past exceptionally quickly. As the taxi driver turned up the volume of his choral music to be heard over the grind of the taxi and the air came to be perfused with a smell quite reminiscent of burning plastic, I got to experience living life very speedily – in a very literal sense. Glancing at the speedometer, we were persistently 10km/h over the speed limit, coasting entirely unhindered down a nearly empty road.
My sleepiness was replaced with a healthy rise in blood pressure.
It was only as we approached vehicles ahead that we gently slowed, though just as we did so, a white taxi soared by in the adjacent lane. The driver’s discordant humming halted. He began to switch from one to another, weaving between the modestly spaced vehicles as though they were pylons. My healthy rise in blood pressure was not feeling quite so healthy anymore.
The two taxis switched positions – the white car darting ahead of us until it was blocked by a more law-abiding driver in front of them and vice versa — until, while driving neck-to-neck, the other taxi began to slow, a gesture of submission perhaps, or condescension. I was half-certain that this whole “race” was actually a product of coincidences and my overactive imagination until the taxi driver scoffed and flapped his hand grumpily through his window. And thankfully, now lacking an opponent, the taxi driver seemed to lose his passion for racing.
This experience most certainly confirmed that a slow life is most certainly the type of life for me.
strawberry chiffon layer cake piled with browned butter whipped cream – the most intensely browned butter-flavoured cake that I’ve made by far
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.
a rare pistachio cheesecake (rare in the sense of no-bake that is; relatively commonplace pistachios) with a molded yuzu posset, and oh gee, kijiji
I had a terrible history with Kijiji. It began during the naivety of being a first year in university. Opening up my course outlines ahead of time (ahead of time!) I divined that “required textbooks” were required (when in fact it is very course-dependent), and also that I was actually meant to buy them. They were horrifically expensive, as textbooks are apt to be, but at least by sourcing them from the used bookstore and Kijiji, they were only terribly expensive – one step down from horrific.
I put the most effort into the recreation of a three book set for my chemistry course – a textbook, a workbook, and an addition book called Chemistry for Engineers, and all of which had to be the current updated editions. Why I would need Chemistry for Engineers when I was not in engineering escaped me, but I knew the booklist didn’t lie. It said “required” after all.
I bought Chemistry for Engineers off of Kijiji from an upper year student. As we stood in a quiet campus hallway near the foodcourt, she kindly asked whether I was taking engineering.
“No, it’s just required for my chemistry course,” I told her. She looked confused. I refused to doubt myself.
By the time I managed to track the three components down from different sources, the total sum amounted to marginally less than the cost of new books – with travel costs in public transit tickets included, I just about broke even.
I never opened Chemistry for Engineers and to this day still do not know what engineers should know about chemistry. The last time I checked, it lingers, melancholic and unsold, on the shelves of the university consignment store … though I’m being a bit hard on Chemistry for Engineers as I also never opened up the general chemistry textbook, nor the workbook.
handheld cakes filled with roasted apricots and spruce-tip infused cream plus bee stings, the contributions of gardening to bee conservation, and foraging for spruce tips.
I felt a bit of fluffiness against my cheek, the familiar motor-hum vibrato – and then, unexpectedly, a sharp, fine pain. I broke my rule of allowing all sting-equipped yellow-and-black striped insects to go about their business on my face without harassment and brushed the bee away, a bit late.
It felt rather unfair – all I was doing was crouching beside the voluminous horseradish plant – though after I slipped away from the garden meeting, I tempered my ire with the melancholy realization that the sting would be causing a (bad-tempered, but otherwise) innocent bee’s death. Whatever it was, something had put the bees on edge – another few people had also been stung the same night.
Utterly anticlimactically, the pain faded away on my walk home (and the residual cheek swelling resolved with an anti-histamine). It was not how I recalled bee stings – the last time I was six and nearly convinced it might be the end of the world or, at the very least, the end of my right wrist. This sting ended up a small blip in the day, but a visceral reminder of the presence of bees in the garden.