Wednesday, March 30, 2005

When in San Francisco

Of all the writers, chefs and cooks I admire (and believe me, the list is long), there is one I hold nearest to my heart, though I have never met her, nor read anything she’s ever written. In fact, I’ve never tasted any of her wares. Maybe it’s because her name sounds like she’s a British folk singer from the sixties… She’s June Taylor, San Francisco’s jam-making queen. Working with local and organic fruits, she concocts amazing-sounding jams in small batches, selling them in local shops, markets and online. The fact that her workspace is called the Still-Room only adds to the already charming operation.
She produces small-batch preserves, which means making only about 30 jars per batch. To have a look at her catalogue, click here.
The New York Times Magazine recently had a story on her by Amanda Hesser. You can find it on her website linked above and read the whole story. That’s where I found the recipe for the Meyer Lemon and Grapefruit Marmalade that I made a few days ago.
It took hardly any time, and the results were amazing. I can only imagine what the jams she makes taste like.
This one, with its fine grapefuit peel shred and chunks of Meyer lemon, had enough texture to withstand being spread on toast without losing its integrity. The colour, a pretty pink with variations of yellow and orange, was jewel-like. The taste was perfectly balanced between sweet and tart. I highly recommend this recipe, and wish she'd share more of them with us, in a book, perhaps? And if you are ever in the San Francisco area, she gives workshops from time to time on jam-making. I can't imagine a weekend better spent.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Philippe de Vienne's Ras el Hanout

Saturday, Michelle and I wound up back at Olives et Épices (see “Plus ça change…”) and who should be there presiding, but Philippe de Vienne himself. We got to talking and found M. de Vienne to both unbelievably friendly and unbelievably generous with his encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and spices. We learned about everything from Kemiri Nuts (a staple of Indonesian cuisine) to Colombo Spices (a blend developed by Indian emigrants who were brought to the Caribbean). But what was perhaps the most fascinating topic of discussion of the day, not to mention the most fascinating culinary discovery of the day, was Ras-el-Hanout. Actually, it was Ras-el-Hanout that got us talking in the first place. Michelle had come across this spice blend while at Les Chèvres and was eager to learn more about it. She brought it up with M. de Vienne and it immediately seemed as though he was warming up to a favorite subject—he’s clearly an amateur of Moroccan cuisine, not to mention a bit of a scholar on Moorish culture in general.

Ras-el-Hanout is a spice blend that was developed by the Moors some time ago. The name means something along the lines of “top of the shop” and it is used by each spice merchant and spice shop in Morocco to refer to the finest spice blend they offer. As M. de Vienne informed us, even the most mediocre versions of this blend bring together some 13 or 14 different spices and herbs, but the best blends can consist of upwards of 27 or 28 different ingredients. The standard ingredients include things like cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, but better varieties can also include things like dried rose blossoms and lavender, and there was a time when the blends might also include hallucinogens and aphrodisiacs such as hashish, belladonna, and Spanish fly. The best versions of Ras-el-Hanout bring together both quantity and quality, and M. de Viennes’ blend includes between 23 and 24 ingredients (depending on what’s available at the time that he puts his batch together) all of which are of the best quality and are blended at peak freshness, and all of which are left whole. Ras-el-Hanout isn’t meant to be used as a base for any dishes, the way garam masala is used in Indian cuisine, for instance, it’s meant to be thrown in during the last stages of the preparation of a dish like a couscous or at tajine, where it serves as a kind of magical ‘secret ingredient’ that enlivens a dish, perks it up, puts a finishing touch on it. For those with imagination it can be used to add something mysterious to everything from a cheese hors d’oeuvre to ice cream.

By the end of our conversation with M. de Vienne, we could barely contain ourselves. We picked up a can and rushed it home to experiment with. He recommended that we grind the whole batch immediately, then keep it in its air-tight can in the freezer, and that’s exactly what we did. It looked a lot prettier when the spices were still whole (as they are in the photo above), but the aroma after we ground the blend was hard to describe and worth every penny. Later that evening I added just the tiniest touch to a “Moroccan” carrot soup I’ve been making recently, and, together with the crème fraîche we swirled into the soup at the last moment, it turned a very good soup into something rather phenomenal. I also added about 1/2 a teaspoon into my most recent batch of oignons confits and—it’s official—they’re now à point.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

Happy Easter!

Czech Easter Egg
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.
Happy Easter from all (two) of us at " endless banquet."

We're not actually 100% positive that this egg is Czech, but we did get it at the Czech-Slovak Bazaar a few years back.

Here in Montreal, Spring is definitely in the air. Michelle's been lounging around in the sun like a big cat for at least 2 hours. Boris and Audrey often act like they think we're just two oversized versions of them. Now they're almost sure of it.


Saturday, March 26, 2005

Ugli Sherbert

Ugli Sherbert
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

I spent yesterday morning at the Jean-Talon market with my sister looking for Meyer lemons. I was lucky to find the last four at Chez Louis, as Nino's had just sold out. I bought them and mentally I quartered the recipe that I had been planning on making. "So much for a year's supply of Meyer marmalade," I thought. As I was leaving the store, however, I spotted a basket of ugli fruit. I grabbed a few and headed home with my modest bounty.

Uglis aren't nearly as homely as their name might lead you to believe--I consider them unique looking. They are part of the tangelo family (mandarins crossed with grapefuits), and are encased in a thick, rough flesh. The fruit inside is very fragrant: citrus with honey and flowers. I first tried it at Les Chèvres, where it's used in a granité as part of a pre-dessert with pineapple confit and fromage blanc. The flavor literally took my breath away the first time I tasted it. It's really a perfect fruit for me, both sweet and tart, light and perfumed.

At home, I confronted the uglis. I had no idea what I was going to do with them. With Spring Fever in the air, though, a frozen dessert seemed like a natural. Something light, but not icy. Something like... sherbert. I had just bought some crème fraiche (thankfully, Liberté has finally introduced a local crème fraiche to this starved market) and I was in the mood to experiment. This is how I combined them:

3 uglis, juiced
some zest from an ugli
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. water
1/4 c. crème fraiche
1 tsp. gelatin
2 Tbsp. water

-Make a syrup with the sugar and first count of water.
-Pour over juice and zest.
-Add mixture to crème fraiche slowly, making sure it mixes in well.
-Soak gelatin in second count of water, then dissolve over low heat. Add to mixture.
-Cover and chill, then process in your ice cream maker.

Trust me, you won't be disappointed. I'm not the only one raving about it, both Anthony and Hermine love it, too.

Oh, and by the way: this is the way I'd serve Ugli Sherbert in my restaurant: in a shot glass with a tiny dessert spoon.


Friday, March 25, 2005

An Early End to Lent

Well, any motions we’d made towards following Lent this year got utterly destroyed early this week. OK, let’s face it, anyone who’s been reading “ endless banquet” over the last several weeks knows full well that we haven’t really been making too many gastronomical sacrifices over the past month and a half, so there wasn’t much of a fall involved, but nevertheless, this week was about as far removed from Lenten abstinence as you can imagine. Between Sunday night’s surprise birthday party, a fantastic meal of Endives au Jambon and other delicacies at Hermine’s on Wednesday, and the meal I’m about to describe, this was definitely a week of feasting not fasting.

There’s a scene in Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares where an aging, defeated-looking priest ushers a woman working for a London-based auction house through a veritable graveyard of Roman Catholic antiquities in the basement of a Montreal cathedral. As he leads her through the assorted relics—a particularly Québecois cinematic nod to the closing moments of Citizen Kane—he explains to her that this pile of Catholic cast-offs was a product of that moment in the mid-1960s when, as the Quiet Revolution reached fruition, Quebeckers quite suddenly stopped going to church. As we found out on Tuesday, a trip to Au Pied de Cochon (536 Duluth East) during Lent provides just as telling an allegory of Quebec since the Quiet Revolution. Martin Picard’s restaurant is emphatically Québecois, reveling in the energy and the flavors of the terroir, but with its copious portions of rich, meaty fare and its irreverence, Au Pied de Cochon has very little to do with moderation, with propriety, or with rigid traditionalism, and just days before Good Friday and Easter, this place was packed to the gills, absolutely bustling.

Michelle had been to Au Pied de Cochon a couple of times before, but I had yet to experience its magic. We’d been discussing where we might go for a birthday dinner à deux for Michelle’s birthday (you see, Tuesday was her actually birthday), and Au Pied de Cochon had come up as a possibility, but after having listened to some of her colleagues at Les Chèvres wax poetic on its merits last weekend, Michelle made up her mind. She knew just how good it was, but that conversation made her mouth water afresh. Then we picked up the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine. Au Pied de Cochon has received a great deal of press since it opened a few years back, but in this month’s issue it receives the stamp of approval from none other than Anthony Bourdain, who ranks it at the very top of his list of new North American restaurants who’ve rejected the icy formality and the pedantry of the high-end dining room and embraced something a bit more down-to-earth, something that has less to do with attitude and more to do with food, something that’s actually fun.

We started off with two pints of the house blonde and two orders of the cromesquis. Au Pied de Cochon serves foie gras about a dozen different ways, but the simplest and least expensive way they serve it is deep-fried, as cromesquis. We were asked by the waitress if we knew how to eat these little gems when she brought them, and she explained that you’re meant to pop the whole thing in your mouth, shut your lips tight, then crack the cromesquis with your teeth, letting the whole thing explode in your mouth. And explode it does… Next up we had the beet and chèvre salad, which sandwiched a crumbled fresh Quebec chèvre between slices of marinated beets, then threw in a puree of roasted beets on the side to round things out and give the salad depth.

Things got somewhat more extravagant when we got to our mains. Michelle was having a hard time making a decision, so she asked our waitress a few questions about some of the menu’s items. Her first question had to do with their Potée du PDC, and she apparently hit the nail on the head. This was our waitress’ favorite dish on the menu, and though she made a point of emphasizing the fact that it was an “indelicate” dish, her description was more than either of us could handle. Michelle asked about a few other dishes on the menu, but we both knew her decision had been cinched. I mean, how can you go wrong with the house puree de pomme de terre—made with garlic, cheese, and lots of olive oil—layered with a link of sausage, a link of saucisson, a link of boudin noir, and a hunk of pork roast? If that wasn’t enough, when the waiter took Michelle’s order, he casually asked her if she’d like a piece of foie gras added to the mix, and without missing a beat Michelle took him up on his suggestion. I was the foil to Michelle’s full-on PDC “sugar-shack-style indulgence” experience (as Bourdain puts it), ordering the deer steak & frites in order to see how Picard & co. handle “the basics.” Michelle’s Potée was wild. This was comfort food pushed to the limits. The boudin noir was maybe just a bit more than she could handle, so she sent most of it my way, but otherwise she mastered her potée quite handily. The saucisson was expert but unexpectedly kielbasa-like; the sausage was like a high-grade knockwurst; the roast was flaky and full of flavor; the puree was sheer decadence, dripping in garlic, fromage en grains, and olive oil; and that extra slab of seared foie gras put an exclamation mark on it all. The steak was a healthy cut of rare deer meat, dripping in jus, and topped with a small mountain of sautéed mushrooms, which came with a lovely paper cone full of perfect frites, with just enough skin on them to give them real flavor.

We contemplated having dessert—Michelle swears that the pouding chaumeur is the best she’s ever come across, and the best dessert on the menu, and Au Pied de Cochon is also famous for its tarte au sucre, which is one of my all-time favorites—but by that time, a brisk walk was what we really needed. And, after all, it was Lent—we had to show some restraint, right?

I can’t wait to go back, but I think the next time we’ll be more strategic: we’ll take one, maybe two entrees, share a main course, and try to save room for dessert.


Monday, March 21, 2005


Last night was Michelle's surprise birthday party. It wasn't quite her birthday, which added to the element of surprise. She had no idea. She was sure she was going to Mahli Sweets for Indian with her parents, Nicole and Ivan, and myself. Then a strange set of clues appeared mysteriously and she found herself on some kind of hunt for a "birthday surprise." After she figured out the answer to the final clue, she wound up at La Sala Rosa (4848 St. Laurent Blvd.) for a surprise tapas dinner and birthday bash.

We quickly formed "affinity groups" and began ordering tapas of all sorts. Mine was like "affinity group gone wild." We ordered about 32 different items under DJ Slutsky's stewardship. By now, many of you know that La Sala Rosa serves the best, most generous tapas in town. If you haven't had the pleasure of dining there yet, RUN. You won't regret it.

Q: What kind of birthday cake do you get for a girl who can bake (nearly) everything?
A: Ice-cream cake.

Michelle had been wondering out loud for weeks if Le Bilboquet (1311 Bernard W.) was open again. She was dying to have some of their legendary tire d'erable ice cream, which is only available during sugaring off season. Yesterday, she decided the two of us HAD to go for a cone. Problem is, I had already reserved a tire d'erable ice-cream cake for her birthday. Somehow I managed to convince her that I didn't "have the time."

Thanks to Kazi, Nicole, Helen and Michal for making last night's party possible. Thanks to Hermine and Thea for their little white lies. And thanks also to everyone else who made it out last night.

Our official paparazzo for last night's festivities was Ivan. Only one of the photos above wasn't taken by Ivan. It's the one of Ivan, taken by me.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

Green Eggs and...

Duck Egg
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

We swear by our local boucherie. Chez Vito (5180 St. Urbain) not only offers the highest quality cuts of meat, including an impressive array of organic meats, they're also the friendliest butchers either of us have ever met. These guys are so nice I'd buy anything from them. A couple of weeks back we noticed they had a special on eggs at the front counter. Turns out they were duck eggs. We asked what we should know about duck eggs and within a few minutes we'd gotten the whole picture: they don't give off that smell that chicken eggs give off when you fry them, they're lower in cholesterol than chicken eggs, the yolks are bigger than chicken eggs, and people who are allergic to chicken eggs generally don't have any problems with duck eggs. The most interesting part had to do with the green eggs, though. Some of them had this beautiful pale green hue to them, and we were told they were the most flavorful ones. When we got back home we had a 1/2 a dozen fresh duck eggs with us, including two green ones.

It's true, their yolks are more flavorful than those of your standard chicken eggs. They reminded us of the kind of chicken egg yolks we experienced in Germany: bright orange and rich in taste. We were less crazy about the whites: we found them a bit too light, lacking in character, even a bit rubbery. That pale green color sure was beautiful, though. We had fun just admiring them.


Bagel Fantasy

A Fairmount Bagel bagel
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

I used to do a radio show from 12:00 A.M. till 2 A.M. on Thursday mornings. The show that came on after us was a hip-hop show and we had a good rapport with those guys. One night the hip-hop guys came in to do their show and one of them, O., was raving about Montreal bagels. He asked us, “Do you know what the secret ingredient is in a real Montreal bagel? You know, like, those real hot and chewy Montreal bagels? Do you know what the secret ingredient is?” I said, “I don’t know. Love?” O. responded, “No, it’s malt dextrose.” We said, “Oh, yeah. Malt dextrose, huh?” O. continued, “I’ve got this buddy who works at Fairmount Bagel. He gave me a whole bag out of the back of the store. 'Cause you can't buy that stuff in any store. I’ve got this massive bag of the stuff sitting in my kitchen. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna start baking 'em at home. That way, anytime I want ‘em, I can have fresh, hot Montreal bagels at home for next-to-nothing.”

Montreal may very well have the best bagels in the world. Torontonians swear by their Bagel World bagels as well as their Gryfe's. Bostonians, Connecticut Yankees, New Yorkers, and New Jerseyites all swear by their own styles of bagels, too. I’ve tasted all of these different varieties, and I’ve had outstanding bagels in each region, but Montreal bagels are still my favorites. I’ve been living in Montreal again for 5 years now, and every morning (and I do mean every morning) I still crave a Montreal bagel (make mine a Fairmount, mate). That’s how good they are.

We happen to live less than a 10-minute walk from three excellent, 24-hour bagel bakeries (two of them are under the same ownership) that’ll sell you a dozen “blacks” (poppy) or “whites” (sesame) for just over $5.00. Every time I buy bagels they’re not only fresh, they’re usually steaming hot (see the picture above). That’s what killed me about that conversation with O. In this town, anytime you want ‘em, you can get fresh, hot, world-class bagels for next-to-nothing.

[Fairmount Bagel is located at 74 Fairmount W. And, yes, O.’s bagel fantasy was probably drug-induced.]


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Gianduja-filled chocolates

Gianduja-filled chocolates
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

The chocolate exam is over. It was the first exam I actually broke a sweat over, although I had never had any problem tempering before. It took forever to get the chocolate tempered, and the room had a breeze, which didn't help. I over-heated it twice and ended up dipping my ganache in a little pool of chocolate in the crater of the hardened rest. Whatever. It's over. I got 100%. I am never going to temper chocolate in a bowl again.
These are gianduja-filled chocolates I made as part of my exam. Gianduja is a hazelnut-flavoured chocolate which is particularily smooth. These were good. I wish I could eat one right now...


Monday, March 14, 2005

Tonka bean ice cream, pt. 1

Tonka bean gelato
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

I made this ice cream flavoured with Tonka beans last night and strange memories from childhood have come up for both Anthony and I. The taste is reminiscent of a candy of some kind… I am not conscious of ever having had Tonka beans before, whose taste reminds me of tarragon and hay with vanilla. I don’t know what it is but I like it.

When making ice cream, there is always the question of style: French, American, Mid-western, Italian? I like my ice creams very rich and tend to favour the cream-meringue and crème Anglaise variations, while Anthony prefers the lighter milky type. This recipe is one of his favourites, and with the addition of the Tonka bean it is very fresh and light.

Tonka Bean Gelato

1 1/2 c. cream
2 1/2 c. milk
1 c. sugar
7 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. grated Tonka Bean

Simmer cream, 1 1/2 c. milk and grated Tonka bean.
Dissolve cornstarch and sugar in remaining milk.
Add to hot mixture and stir until it thickens slightly.
Pour through a sieve into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
Chill several hours and churn in an ice cream maker.
Makes one quart.


Tonka bean ice cream, pt. 2

Just what are Tonka beans, you ask?

Well, they're native to the New World, but they come primarily from Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, and Venezuela, with most of those in circulation coming from the forests of Venezuela. Their value comes from the fact that they contain coumarin, the compound that gives them they're distinctive fragrance. Michelle describes this aroma as being somewhere between tarragon, vanilla, and hay. Alan Davidson also describes the presence of vanilla and hay. I don't really smell the tarragon, and I'm not sure I've spent enough time in the country to really sense the hay. All I know is that both of us have been experiencing this really powerful Proustian/un-Proustian effect every time we taste this ice cream. We both have been overwhelmed by some kind of past childhood experience, but these experiences have remained vague at best, and neither of us has been able to identify exactly where we used to taste this flavor. We both have a sense that it was in some candy we liked as kids, but that's as far as we've gotten. Anyway, this aroma was in high demand up until World War II, and it was used in everything from liqueurs, to candies, to chocolates. Everything changed in 1954 when the U.S. government restricted its use to perfume (when you're looking for accents of tarragon, hay, and vanilla prior to a big night out, I guess). In other countries, the real thing has been replaced by an artificial version (sounds BLADE RUNNER-esque, doesn't it?), as well as by the use of vanilla.

As mentioned below, you can find real Tonka beans at Olives & Épices. If you can tell us where we've had that taste before, we'll be forever indebted.


[Thank you to Alan Davidson for his assistance.]

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Plus ça change...

When I got back from Germany early last fall, it didn’t take long before Michelle and I went up to Jean-Talon Market in order to take advantage of its typically abundant/overwhelming harvest offerings. Michelle had warned me that change was underfoot at the market, and when we arrived I noticed that there was indeed a large building being constructed on its eastern edge. There’s been a lot of discussion about the fate of Jean-Talon Market over the last few years, and much of it has revolved around building a multi-tiered parking garage, further “beautifying” the market (i.e., putting up more of those awful garish painted wood signs that are meant to convey “good taste” across so many of Quebec’s most affluent districts, from Magog to Mont Tremblant), and trying to attract even more customers. As much as I love Atwater Market, and especially the beautiful honey-colored market hall that houses it, I find the prices there to be a bit over-the-top, and in my mind it ceased to be a true farmer’s market and developed into something more precious a while ago. Talk of renovation has had me worried that a similar transformation would happen to Jean-Talon Market, and this new building, which I just assumed would be that dreaded parking garage, seemed to confirm my worst fears. Well, it turned out I was wrong: this building isn’t a garage, it’s a new pavilion, one that provides less makeshift quarters for some of the vendors that occupy their stalls all year round, and one that has also introduced a number of new businesses to the market. Now, among other additions, you’ll find an ice cream and sorbet specialist, a new fish market, and a couple of new butchers’ shops. You’ll also find a pretentiously named kitchen supplies shop (“Cuizin”), a cookbook retailer named Librairie Gourmande, which doesn’t quite live up to the breadth and character of its Parisian namesake (4, rue Dante, 5e;, and a cheese and dairy specialist that definitely has nice products on offer, but also features absurdly high prices and an absurdly bad name (“Qui Lait Cru?”—contributing another terrible pun to Montreal’s ever-expanding collection).

All of these additions indicate a desire to transform Jean-Talon Market into something along the lines of Vancouver’s s touristy Granville Island Market, or maybe even San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market—some kind of self-conscious “foodie haven,” with all the inflated attitude and prices that come with such territory. The difference here is that both the Granville Island and the Ferry Plaza were in states of relative disuse prior to their respective face-lifts, whereas Jean Talon Market has been a fully functioning farmers’ market for decades now, one that has served as an anchor for the neighboring Italian community since its beginnings, and one that has proven to be a magnet for subsequent ethnic groups, including North Africans, West Indians, and Southeast Asians. Now, I don’t want to make too much out of this new building, because I don’t think it’ll change things at the market all that radically from the way things already were before its appearance, but I still worry about the track the market is on.

Nonetheless, Wawel Patisserie Polonaise, with its phenomenal plum and apricot-filled doughnuts, and Patisserie Khaima, with its North African delicacies, have also moved into this new pavilion, and I’m happy that both of these businesses will receive more attention because they both deserve it. Perhaps the best news, though, has to do with a business called Olives & Épices. At first, the two of us wrote it off as part of that growing legion of olive oil specialists that have invaded the city in recent years, and we didn’t really give it a second glance. However, we later learned that O & É—as its name suggests—also carries a phenomenal range of spices including the entire line of chef-traiteur Philippe de Vienne’s “épices de cru.” Jean Talon Market has been the #1 place for hard-to-find fruits, vegetables, and herbs for quite some time—now, with the addition of O & É, you can also find two different types of Mexican oregano (including one harvested by an associate from a backyard garden in the Yucatan), Trinidadian cocoa, epazote, Tonka beans, and true cinnamon. The selection here is incredible, but what really sets O & É apart is the quality and the freshness of their herbs and spices. Stale spices can really deaden the taste of a dish, instead of enlivening it. With Olives & Épices' line of "épices de cru" your spice rack will never be the same again, and your tastebuds will thank you for it. Check it!


Life With a Pastry Chef

Pear Charlotte chez Benoit
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.
People often ask me, "What's it like living with a pastry chef?" Well, as Michelle is wont to point out, she's not a pastry chef (yet). Those who haven't seen me in a while ask me if it's been affecting my waistline. Things haven't changed that drastically over the last few months. In many ways, things aren't all that different from the way they'd been for a couple of years before Michelle entered pastry school. She was baking and canning like a fiend back then, too.

More than anything, it means we always have beautiful Michelle-made (sometimes at school, sometimes at home) desserts on offer when people come over for dinner, and when we get invited over for dinner, well...

Here's the Pear Charlotte that we brought over to Benoit's for his "I'm going away to Mexico" dinner. Michelle had made it earlier that day.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Will Work For Chocolate

des chocolats de Chloe
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

In only a few years, Les Chocolats de Chloé has established itself as one of the best chocolateries in town. The small shop on Roy has steadily built a devoted clientele, one wooed as much by its charm as by its excellent range of chocolates and other treats. It’s really no secret why Les Chocolats de Chloé has been such a hit. First off, no matter how many Easter eggs there are to make, or how many jars of caramel there are to fill, the proprietess, Chloé, and her staff will always take a minute to answer your questions. Then there’s the open kitchen concept which invites people to watch the chocolate-making process without feeling that they are secretly peering into some kind of forbidden world on their tip-toes (am I the only one who’s had this experience?). Finally, and most importantly, having spent the last two weekends working there as part of my stage, I can say with confidence that they take great pains to ensure their chocolates are top of the line: both in ingredients and method. The chocolate they use is Valrhona, which is easily my favourite. All of the flavours they use to infuse the chocolate come from natural sources—there are no extracts here. Even the rum used in the rum and raisin chocolate is St. James brand, not a gelled liquor or, God forbid, rum flavouring.

It was great to work with everyone there. Even though the kitchen is small, I never felt like I was in the way. They took the time to explain every step to me, and let me try it for myself, whatever the outcome (what can I say?: sometimes your hands are just too warm to work with chocolate). Always patient and gracious, I owe them for having taken me under their wings. And yes, I know how they get the caramel inside their caramel bar...


chez les chocolats de Chloe

chez les chocolats de Chloe
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

The picture on the left shows Josée decorating the lemon chocolats with dark chocolate zebra stripes, while I am on the right, packaging easter eggs in a myriad of colours. The cutest thing about their eggs? They each have a baby egg inside. You can find them for $4 each at Les Chocolats de Chloé located at 375 rue Roy est, Montreal.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Franklin Judd Miller Memorial Dinner, pt. 1

Thursday night, Michelle, Thea, Claudine, and I descended upon Schwartz's Charcuterie Hebraique de Montréal (3895 St.-Laurent Blvd.) in honor of Zoe's father, Franklin Judd Miller. Montreal smoked meat was one of Mr. Miller's favorite meals, and something that wasn't exactly easy to find in Brisbane, Australia. Zoe suggested a trip to one of Montreal's famous smoked meat houses, a round of smoked meat sandwiches, and some pickles might make a fitting tribute.

Thea had had a number of take-out sandwiches from Schwartz's before, but, strangely, she'd never actually sat down to eat on premises in all her years in Montreal. Claudine grew up on the island of Montreal, but, she, too, had never been there--but then she's been a vegetarian since the age of 16. Montreal is not without its dissenting voices, but most fans of smoked meat consider Schwartz's to be the best in town. Say what you will, but theirs is the real thing: huge slabs of beef brisket that are cured (not pickled), then liberally spiced with their legendary spice mix, and then smoked. True Montreal smoked meat is something akin to pastrami, and comes from similar Romanian/Balkan-Jewish origins. Both dishes appear to be related to ancient dry-cured and wind-dried beef dishes that were found across Asia Minor and the Holy Land. Most pastrami starts off with brined or pickled beef brisket these days--so does most second-rate smoked meat. At Schwartz's the end result of their cured-meat process is a smoked meat that is downright luscious--tender, juicy, and spicy. There's a reason it leaves such an impression.

Schwartz's is also renowned for its classic interior and its Old World, no-nonsense (and, frankly, sometimes brusque) service. Not so long ago, Montreal still had plenty of these kinds of operations--places that would fit neatly into the world of Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, places that time seemed to have forgotten.


Franklin Judd Miller Memorial Dinner, pt. 2

The spread:
3 smoked meat sandwiches, "medium" (Schwartz's offers their smoked meat three different ways: "lean," "medium," and "regular")
2 dill pickles
1 half-sour
2 orders cole slaw
2 orders french fries
2 Cott black cherry sodas
1 Coca-Cola
1 Schweppes ginger ale


P.S. Wish you were here, Zoe.
Love, from all of us

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Hot Cross Buns and other matters

One Hot Cross Bun To Go
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

Inspired by our friend Geoff, who posted an extremely tantalizing piece on Sweden’s Semlor pastries earlier this week, I started thinking about Lenten and Passover-season pastries. Semlor are quite clearly pre-Lenten delicacies (their combination of cardamom, whipped cream, and almond paste seems both too heady and too rich to meet Lent’s asceticism), but somehow over time they became seasonal specialties—ones that can now be found in some bakeries from January all the way to Easter. This shift must have something to do with the relative importance of Easter within Swedish culture, but that's another subject altogether. The bottom line, here, is that Semlor got me thinking about everything from Hot Cross Buns to Oma’s “Gremchiles.”

I’ve been an aficionado of the Hot Cross Bun since I was quite young, and they're actually one of the many ways I rate a city (along with bagels, dim sum, rotis and Jamaican patties, delicatessens, and a number of other culinary criteria)--Vancouver rated highly in this department, for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who's ever lived there. However, my knowledge of the Hot Cross Bun's history was foggy at best, so looking for a better understanding, I turned to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food. Hot Cross Buns have generally become sweeter and much less Lenten over the course of time, with their trademark cross now commonly made out of icing sugar and not out of pastry or a simple cross-cut in the dough, as they had been earlier. As it turns out, these icing sugar crosses really belie the pastry’s somewhat somber origins. This cross-bearing pastry dates back to ancient times, the mark being a symbol connected “with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilized offerings of blood,” as Davidson puts it so delicately. Previous to the Christian era, the Egyptians had made offerings of small, round cakes that bore a representation of ox horns to their goddess of the moon. Later, the Greeks and pre-Christian Romans carried on similar traditions, and the Roman Empire eventually brought this custom to the Saxon world. The Saxons ate buns bearing the image of a cross as a tribute to their goddess of light, Eostre, and it is this name that became the root of the word Easter, indicating just how central Hot Cross Buns are to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Easter.

Oma’s “Gremchiles” are another matter altogether. Not long after I met my friend Mark, we bonded over the subject of pastries. We both had a serious taste for pastries of the Eastern, Central, and Northern European variety—Mark has Dutch and Eastern European roots, while half my family is Slovak—and Montreal at the time was a haven for those with tastes such as ours. We had a number favorite bakeries and we visited them regularly—pastries were the subjects of countless discussions, and the inspirations behind countless of other non-food-related conversations. I remember that the Modern Lovers' masterpiece of the morose, “Hospital,” where Jonathan Richman sang-spoke so plaintively, “I go to bakeries / All day long / ‘Cause there’s a lack of sweetness in my life,” resonated particularly strongly with me at the time. Mark eventually became known as the “Pastry King” within our circle of friends, and one of the things that secured this reputation, in my mind at least, was his devotion to his Oma’s “Gremchiles.” Every year, at Passover, his Oma would make her version of this Dutch-Jewish matzoh-based pastry by the dozens, and every year Mark would wax poetic about them for weeks in advance of his annual Passover trip to Toronto. Eventually, some of us couldn't take it any longer and we started placing orders for them, and Mark would come back with a couple of “Gremchiles” each. I haven’t had them in some 15 years or so, but I still remember them vividly. Finding myself daydreaming about them a few days ago, I got in contact with Mark in an attempt to obtain the recipe. Within 24 hours I’d heard back from both Mark and his mother, Claire, and not only was I now the proud owner of a recipe for them, but I’d finally found out their real name: Gremselich.

Stay tuned, I’ll have more on Gremselich in a few weeks, closer to Passover.

You can find Geoff’s piece on Semlor at Bits and Bytes From Elsewhere under the title “Stockholm Syndrome II.” Don’t miss it.


Friday, March 04, 2005

Spring is coming

Spring cookies
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

Spring cookie cutters
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

Maybe I am jumping the gun here, as I always do this time of year, but there is something electric in the air. It must be spring. The birds outside our apartment seem to know it. They are singing louder and louder every day. The days are longer. The snow is retreating. I am cleaning. I made spring-themed cookies. You can't deny it. Don't fight it. And if winter returns with a vengeance, you can blame me for jinxing us. Sorry in advance.

I found this cookie cutter set at Les Touilleurs for $5.50. A steal, I thought. Go get one: 152 Laurier O., near St. Urbain.