Looking Back on Vegan Month

We ate strictly vegan for the entire month of April. K talked me into it; he thought (correctly) that if we didn’t go all out, we’d make do with half measures and wouldn’t try really new things. He was also partially inspired by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who goes vegan for a month every year at Serious Eats, and by the fact that we’ve recently seen some vegan chefs whip up deliciousness out of very little on cooking shows. We only slipped up a few times, and by accident; once I absentmindedly put honey in my tea, and he ate a couple of chips before realizing that they had dairy ingredients. We continued to cook meat for the kids, but washed out the pans and utensils before using them to cook our food. It’s been a couple of weeks since vegan month ended, and these are my takeaways:

– I thought I would miss steak and bacon. Instead, I missed eggs and tiny fish. I found mushrooms and tofu to be meaty and flavorful enough, and smoked paprika was a pretty decent flavor stand-in for bacon, but there’s no substitute for a perfectly runny egg or the briny punch of an anchovy. When the month ended, the first meat protein I ate was a single smoked sardine, right out of the jar.

– That said, I found that our vegan dishes tended to be incredibly flavorful. Maybe this was a function of how we cooked, but we’ve found that meat tends to provide a shortcut to deliciousness, whereas it needs to be coaxed out of vegetables a little more. When vegetables show up with flavor, though, it’s absolutely killer.

image: portobello cap with Brussels sprouts, sauteed greens, and mashed potatoes; two mixed green salads with roasted cauliflower, mushroom, and tomato; cauliflower and chickpea curry over rice.

– On weekends we cook for the week ahead; in the pre-vegan times this meant having cooked meat, cooked veg, and starch in the fridge ready to assemble and reheat. Obviously this had to change for vegan month; after some less-than-successful attempts to recreate the previous system, I found that I loved seasoning and cooking elements separately (mushrooms, cauliflower, sweet potato, tofu, etc) and then just having the little flavor bombs sitting in the fridge ready to go. All we had to do was put a few spoonfuls of each onto rice, salad greens, or beans, and the combination immediately became complex and savory, new flavors in every bite.

– Trying vegan dessert recipes was a disaster; generalizing from the two (well-reviewed!) “vegan dessert” recipes I tried, anyone writing dessert recipes from a vegan/health perspective doesn’t know what real dessert is supposed to taste like. Instead, I took my brother’s advice: start with normal recipes and substitute accordingly. I used sticks of plant-based “butter” in place of actual butter; almond or coconut milk instead of dairy; and flax meal and water for egg. Those substitutions managed to turn out delicious cookies, cakes, muffins, enriched breads, and filled bao (with char siu jackfruit filling) without having to make further compromises. Also, meringues made out of aquafaba (chickpea water) turned out amazingly well.

4 images: cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, char siu bao and scallion flower roll, aquafaba meringues

– DUMPLINGS. What a game changer. In the past I’ve only ever wrapped dumplings with a pork-based filling, and it was always a little nerve-wracking; I’m super germ-conscious, and very careful about washing my hands, sanitizing surfaces, and segregating items that touched raw meat away from items that haven’t. However, with a dumpling filling based on tofu/wheat gluten/mushrooms/cabbage, well-seasoned and even cooked beforehand, I felt all my worries melting away. I made dumplings with gleeful abandon. It was so freeing. I may never make raw meat dumplings again, I am completely serious. It’s not worth the stress, especially when there’s so much flavor in the vegan ones.

image: a hand holding an unwrapped dumpling; vegan filling in the background; a line of filled, folded dumplings waiting to cook

– Overnight oats! I am an overnight oat convert. K made Alton Brown’s overnight coconut oats and they were so good, we didn’t even try any other recipes even though I’d bookmarked a bunch. I found them kind of weird and cold and goopy at first, but the recipe we used was so fragrant with coconut and almond that it drew me in. My grab-and-go breakfast used to be a baked item (bun, croissant, muffin) and a boiled egg; I would usually be quite hungry by lunchtime. Now I actively crave overnight oats, which I serve myself with frozen berries and a sliced banana, and I’m only slightly hungry by noon. All hail overnight oats. We’ve continued eating them well past the end of April.

image: a bowl of overnight coconut oats topped with sliced banana, frozen blueberries, and oat-and-seed crunch

Now that we’re well into the post-vegan-month period, I think some changes have staying power; when cooking a quick weeknight meal, I used to reach for eggs as an easy protein, and now I reach for tofu or chickpeas instead (I’ll save the eggs for the good stuff). This past weekend, I made a typical weekend brunch (pancakes, eggs, bacon, fruit), and then felt that it was incomplete; after adding a hash with potato, onion, and diced colorful peppers, the meal looked and felt a lot more appealing.

When cooking ahead for this week, we made a big dal tadka (cooked lentils flavored with spicy onions and tomatoes, honestly it’s kind of like a beany Indian congee), sauteed some chickpeas with spinach and peppers, and grilled up a bunch of asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu. We (really, K) also grilled a single steak, which we’ve shared among the four of us, and we also made some soy sauce chicken drumsticks for the kids. The fridge is also well stocked with roasted sweet potatoes (halved and roasted with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, they are amazing), which go with anything. In the past we would have cooked up a big meat-centered dish and all the vegetables would have been dutiful afterthoughts. I’m definitely happy with how things have evolved (and so are my taste buds). Well done, K.

image: sauteed chickpeas with spinach and peppers; grilled asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu; a bowl of dal tadka

Vegan “milk” bao (and other stuff)

On Saturday night the little one asked wistfully when I was next going to make cinnamon rolls, which reminded me that I wanted to try King Arthur Flour’s new recipe for cinnamon rolls (it’s the Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls, their 2021 Recipe of the Year, and their instagram has been all over it). I had already been a fan of their previous cinnamon roll recipe that also used a tangzhong, so I was eager to try the new and improved version; her request was the excuse I had been looking for.

So Sunday I dragged myself away from my library book and mixed up the dough. Then, while it was rising, I thought hey, I could make more bao (it’s become a regular thing during the pandemic) so mixed up a basic bao dough and put it aside to rise. It’s a relatively new version; last month we decided to go entirely vegan for a month, and I found out that our preferred bao recipe actually veganizes (is that a word?) pretty easily, so easily that I’m just going to use it going forward. Dough is adapted from Woks of Life’s milk bread recipe:

Vegan “Milk” bread bao:

1 2/3 cups of coconut milk (or one standard 13.5 oz / 400mL can)
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1 Tbsp flax meal + 3 Tbsp water (this is a substitute for 1 egg; I like to use the water to rinse the dregs of coconut out of the can)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup (70g) cake flour
3 1/2 cups (500g) bread flour
heavy pinch of salt (supposed to be 1 1/2 tsp, I just grab some from the salt cellar)

Shake up the coconut milk in the can (sometimes the cream inside is separated). Combine coconut milk, sugar, flax meal, water, and yeast in a bowl; stir it up and then let it sit for a while until the yeast wakes up and it starts looking frothy. Then sift in the cake flour, bread flour, and salt. Knead until the dough is smooth and firm (I like to knead dough right in the mixing bowl, it’s less messy that way) and then cover the bowl with a towel, put it someplace warm, and let rise for 1 hour.

After the 1 hour rise, you can shape it. Flour or lightly oil your surface (I like to use a big cutting board) as well as your hands, so the dough doesn’t get too sticky. Knead it a little bit to get rid of air bubbles, then portion it out and shape it however you like. Sometimes I roll it into balls and space them out a little bit in a pan; they’ll rise and press against each other and make for great tear-apart rolls. I’ve also rolled the balls into disks and then wrapped them around filling, pinching firmly to seal; another idea is to roll them into twists with raisins or dried cranberries. You can also roll it flat like you’re going to make cinnamon rolls, smear the flattened rectangle with seasoning (mayo + pork floss and scallion worked well this time, shallot oil has also worked well, next time I want to try chili oil), roll up and slice like cinnamon rolls. It’s a super flexible dough and shapes well.

After shaping, cover with a towel and let rise for another hour. Halfway through, preheat the oven to 350F. After the dough has risen nicely, bake for 20-25 minutes, checking towards the end of baking time (the smaller your shapes, the quicker they’ll bake).

Let cool until they’re safe enough to handle, and enjoy!

May be an image of food and indoor
It was a busy Sunday morning.

This round’s bao are the two pictures on the top. The left ones are shaped like cinnamon rolls, but with mayo + pork floss and scallion filling; the right ones are dried cranberry twists (with varying degrees of success in shaping the twist) and bao painted with shallot oil, rolled tightly, and pinched shut.

Underneath those are the cinnamon rolls; unfrosted on the left, frosted on the right. I ended up rolling the dough more tightly, and cutting them smaller, than the size specified by the recipe; I wanted to keep the serving sizes small, since our smallish children do not need giant cinnamon rolls. I also iced them with the remnants of our vegan cashew buttercream instead of making more icing from scratch. I was pleased with the result, but the little one complained that they weren’t as stuck-together, or as generously-iced, as her preferred cinnamon roll: the cinnamon rolls from Ikea.

No matter how I try, I will never equal the Ikea cinnamon rolls. The Soft Cinnamon Rolls from King Arthur came closer though, and was about as much work. I’m glad I tried the new recipe, but we’ll be going back to the old one next time.

A quick note on the bottom two pictures: halfway through baking, I realized that I was getting hungry because it was close to lunch time; I cooked pasta and quickly wilted some spinach, mixed it with chickpeas and chopped bell pepper and olive oil and lemon juice – it’s basically Padma Lakshmi’s super-quick chickpeas and spinach tapas recipe. It went well on the adults’ pasta; the kids had buttered pasta with mushrooms, and plain pasta with baby tomatoes, respectively, which are their preferred pasta treatments. Life lesson: eat when you’re hungry, the bread won’t suffer it it rises for a little longer than needed.

Oh, and second life lesson: when you make cookies, scoop half the batch into rounds and freeze them. That way you’ll have a bag of unbaked cookies in the freezer, ready to pop into the oven whenever it’s warm. There’s nothing like a tray of freshly baked cookies to brighten one’s day. (These were also vegan! Cook’s Illustrated Thin, Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, with vegan butter, flax “eggs,” and dark chocolate chips.)

As a bonus, I had warm cookies to eat with my library book, when I finally got back to it.

If at first you don’t succeed, maybe try something else

I actually do have a lot of pictures of coffee and croissants stored on my phone, but it seems really sad to post them now, when those shops are empty and closed, and the thought of wandering into a coffee shop on my way to work seems weird and alien. Heck, after almost two months of holing up at home, the thought of walking to work at all seems like an action belonging to another lifetime.

Now I brew my own coffee every morning and make my own baked goods, and even though every now and then I’m tempted to try making croissants, it’s hard to think of sinking so much precious butter into a single recipe.

Most of our cooking now revolves around the fun intersection of “what do we have in the pantry/freezer” and “what will the kids eat?” We’ve been making a lot of comfort food, and knowing that K loves coconut (I’ve been learning to love it), I decided to use up some of our shredded coconut and coconut milk with a coconut cream pie.

Then all of our bananas from Costco overripened practically overnight, and I thought: how about banoffee pie? A friend of ours had made it a couple of months ago and the flavors had been delicious. How about a coconut cream banoffee pie? With coconut in the pie crust, dulce du leche and bananas on the bottom, topped with a fluffy coconut cream custard, piled high with whipped cream, and (because why not overdo it) toasted shredded coconut sprinkled on top?

Things actually went pretty swimmingly for the most part despite my mucking about with the concept – the crust slipped down into the pan during parbaking despite the pie weights, I’m blaming the coconut in the dough – until I got to the whipped cream. I had some coconut milk left over from the custard, and decided to fold the rest of it into the whipped cream.

The cream did not whip. I tried all my tricks. I hit it with an immersion blender, whisked it by hand, added more sugar, chilled it and tried again, added a bit of sour cream for stability, put it in the stand mixer, basically dirtied half the dishes in the kitchen, and after dinner only managed to get a sad slump of soft cream onto the pie. In my distraction I even forgot the toasted coconut (which I’d managed, miraculously, not to burn.)

K, being a gentleman, pointed out that the pie was still delicious, but I was determined to get this right. After consulting the internet (which I should have done in the first place), I found that canned coconut milk tended to have stabilizers to keep it from clumping up in the can, and I should have gotten some mythical “full-fat coconut milk without stabilizers” to whip up. Oh well. Instead of trying to whip it up again, I cut my losses and used the sad creamy mess in place of cream in my favorite cream scone recipe (they baked up quite nicely, and the hint of coconut was a really neat touch). The kids gave them such rave reviews that I barely managed to snag a few for a photo.

The nice thing about making a recipe that you’re quite familiar with is that you know what consistency of dough you’re going for; the mixture was a little wet but I added in enough flour to get it where it needed to be.

Then I whipped real cream with nothing else in it, and finally was able to top the coconut banoffee cream pie as it deserved.

Comfort foods are extra comforting when they turn out perfectly.

Neither of the kids liked it, by the way, so they’ve been eating Jell-O and Easter chocolates. Figures. More pie for us!

HK milk tea and bao at Gongfu Bao

I see my family in California way too infrequently, but there was one time we had an unscheduled layover in LAX one night so of course my uncle, dad, and cousin kidnapped us and took us out to siu yeh (general term for late night eats). When you see family, you feed them; that’s the rule. Uncle took us to multiple restaurants, a dizzying night of speeding around the LA highway system punctuated by brief intense bouts of eating. It’s all a bit of a blur but I definitely remember my uncle’s roaring laugh cutting through the bustling noise: you like nai cha, right? There’s nai cha on the menu here as well. Let’s get it.

I was so moved that he remembered. We don’t see each other much any more and if I’m remembered as the niece who loves milk tea, that’s totally fine with me. I think I had probably three cups of really strong milk tea that evening. We had an early flight the next morning after an unexpectedly long day of travel the day before and I needed sleep. Turns out I did not get much sleep. It was totally worth it.

Hong Kong milk tea is a really strong, really smooth black tea that’s served with sweetened condensed milk (thick and perfect and luxurious) or, at some restaurants, evaporated milk (add your own sugar to taste). Classically I think pantyhose is supposed to be involved, to get every last bit of tea dust filtered out. I’ve thought about making it at home but it’s one of those things that I associate so strongly with restaurants, with eating out and being cared for, that I’ve never gotten round to trying it.

I’ve never lived in a place where HK milk tea is easily available. You generally need a certain critical mass of an ethnic minority before you start getting the really good stuff, and I haven’t tended to live in such places, though I have family there. So for me, HK milk tea is a taste that shortcuts my memories straight to family dinners in Vancouver, Toronto, LA, and, yes, Hong Kong; it wraps me in secondhand warmth and love and welcome. Also it tastes AMAZING, tannic and creamy and piping hot.

Back to the point of why I sat down at the keyboard and started typing: My cousin C started working at Gongfu Bao here in the city, so I started moving it up on my list of places to try during lunch breaks. I love bao. But it’s a solid half hour walk from work, and it’s cold outside, and there are so many restaurants closer by, and work was busy, and…

…and then Gongfu Bao’s instagram served up a picture of someone holding up a loaded pantyhose, dripping and stained dark with tea, with text along the lines of “HK Milk Tea and Bao: the perfect pairing!” and the restaurant shot straight to the top of my list. Even though it’s January. In Ottawa.

(Quick sidebar: I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of wonderful people during my time in Ottawa, and one of those wonderful people is T, whose personality is the sort of crazy awesome that hears “do you want to walk half an hour to have bao for lunch even though it’s well below zero outside and the air feels like it’s biting your exposed skin?” and comes back with not just “yes” but “HELL YES.”)

Gongfu Bao is a small, comfortable little place; you walk right in and you’re faced with the menu, and you can see the giant steamers just behind the counter. It’s a small, simple menu, which is perfect for quick decision making; T and I ordered our food before we had time to overheat, then stripped out of our heavy coats and sat at one of the tiny tables.

milk tea and bao at Gongfu Bao

My HK milk tea came to the table in a brightly-coloured mug.

I tried it. It was perfect.

I told T that it was perfect. I told her again.

Then I just closed my eyes and just drank the tea.

Anyway.

I know it’s turning out that most of this blog post is about my relationship with milk tea, but this is important to note: the bao at Gongfu was totally worth walking half an hour in the freezing cold. The bao dough was perfectly puffy and light, just a little sweet, as it should be; the meat fillings made for generous mouthfuls, the sauces were intense and flavourful, and the balance of taste and texture (like the thin slices of radish on the brisket) kept it interesting. You can mix and match; I got fried chicken and brisket, and T got fried chicken and pork belly. I got the better deal; turns out the chicken and pork belly had the same seasoning on them.

Surprise of the meal: T ordered the HK French toast to round off our experience. I was kind of neutral about it; I’ll happily eat everything but I tend to opt for pancakes or thinner crepes over French toast.

It just goes to show that I shouldn’t be in charge of ordering. HK French toast, as presented by Gongfu Bao, is apparently a battered, fried rectangle of fluffy awesomeness. T ordered both the maple butter and the coconut dulce versions, and although the maple one was just fine, the coconut one had us literally scraping the plate trying to get to the last fragments of delicious sauce. It was spectacular. I did not even think of taking a picture. As if the bao weren’t good enough. C was cooking behind the counter. We only harassed him a little bit trying to figure out what made the French toast so awesome.

HK milk tea: my good memories just keep piling up around it.

Morning Coffee and Croissant: The French Baker

One of Ottawa’s loveliest features is its plethora of coffee shops. I can only drink so much coffee in a day but it makes me happy just knowing I have coffee options whenever I want them, especially in this season of snow and ice. They’re like a scattered collection of little golden sanctuaries, there when you need them, only steps away, warm and reliable and comforting.

You have your choice of major chains: Tim Hortons and Starbucks are easily found, as is the Canadian chain Second Cup (“like Starbucks but Canadian,” a local told me when I moved here, even though Starbucks was also in Canada), and the local-but-expanding coffee roaster Bridgehead. My morning walk also takes me past several independent coffee places, and it would be a waste of opportunity not to try as many of them as I could, right?

Thus the launching of a (hopefully) new series: Morning Coffee and Croissant. (Name of this series not set in stone; the more I look at it the more pedestrian it seems. Although I do visit these places as a pedestrian… hmm.)

My standard coffeeshop order is a mocha, or moccacino, or however the shop likes to refer to their local concoction of coffee-milk-chocolate. I’m not exactly the most discerning of coffee drinkers; once you’ve poured milk and chocolate into your espresso, you’ve masked a lot of the subtleties. But I, an unsubtle chocolate-lover, know what I like, and what I like is sweet creamy coffee with just enough chocolate bittersweet to make it taste like adult dessert. (I get them half-sweet from Starbucks though. I find the Starbucks mocha tooth-achingly sweet.)

As for the croissant, I have a soft spot for layered buttery pastry. (Which probably has something to do with the literal soft spot around my middle.) I’m delighted by croissants partially because there was a period in my life when good croissants were hard to find; I spent a lot of my early adulthood in American suburbia where the only convenient places to get croissants were Costco or chain grocery stores, and they tasted basically like layered machine-made bread. By comparison, Ottawa is a croissant paradise, and I figure every coffeeshop worth a stop should at least have a plain croissant to enjoy.

This provides a convenient segue; The French Baker is in the Byward Market area and they proudly boast that they were voted “Ottawa’s best croissants” by the New York Times.* It’s lovely to walk in there because you’re immediately surrounded by baked goods upon entering; dessert pastries greet you as you come inside, and then when you turn left to the cashier, you’re presented with a tempting display of loaves and croissant varieties. Just behind the dessert case, you can see the long counter where they work the dough. breads and pastries on display at The French Baker

The morning I got there, large bricks of butter were being portioned into quarters and took up the entire length of the counter prep space; the scent of butter sat heavily in the air. It was a fight to order only my planned croissant and not pick up, say, a delicious-looking almond chocolatine or chausson aux pommes instead, but having just come up with this plan, I didn’t want to deviate on the very first day.

Of course it turned out I had to deviate from the plan anyway! because The French Baker doesn’t have mochas! so I went to my standard backup order (cappuccino).

The cappuccino was smooth and strong, characteristic of the illy brand. The croissant tended towards soft and fluff rather than flake and crunch, and was elongated rather than crescent-shaped, but you could definitely taste the layers and the butter. It was a lovely and comforting stop on a cold and icy morning. cappuccino and croissant from The French Baker

* I tried to look up the New York Times article for this, but nothing came up except a 2007 “36 Hours in Ottawa” article in which the reader was encouraged to stop by the “home to the flakiest croissants (1.50 Canadian dollars) in town.” I can’t speak to how flaky the croissants were in 2007 but I can definitely say that in 2020 these are far from the flakiest croissants I’ve had in Ottawa. I love a good flaky croissant, but the pillowy soft creation I had at the French Baker has clearly evolved from that description. Another change from 2007: the croissant cost me $2.35.

The chaussons aux pommes looked nice and flaky though. May have to try those next time.

Thanksgiving leftover herb scones

Thanksgiving this year has been kind of odd for us. It’s one of my favorite food holidays, but by the time actual Thanksgiving (read: American Thanksgiving) hit, I was feeling a little bit of Thanksgiving fatigue.

We’d celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving back in early October with our family up here in Ottawa (turkey: smoked), then Thanksgiving II in early November with our wonderful friends back in Maryland who, bless them, hadn’t given us too much pushback on celebrating TG2 before TGprime (turkeys: smoked and fried). So by the time actual Thanksgiving rolled around (turkey: cut into pieces and roasted, with herbs), it was my third time within two months making mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole, and the whole thing was starting to feel a bit routine, just another turkey dinner.

On the other hand, thanks to practice, I had it down to a pretty solid process at this point. (Imagine this said in the Canadian manner, with a long “o”: Proe-cess.) Thanksgiving staples are quite forgiving; I actually cooked most of the sides ahead of time and reheated on the day of, so we only needed to worry about the turkey and gravy. (And the sticky rice made in the instant pot, which turned out fantastically moist and flavorful in under an hour. Warning: instant pot raving to come in another post.)

With only a couple of dishes to worry about, it was a delightfully relaxed Thanksgiving Day. And then we had a wonderful dinner with family (again) and one of K’s coworkers, and we have been eating pie for dessert for a week straight now; I can’t complain.

But on to the meat (so to speak) of this post: if you bought herbs to flavor your bird, or your sides, it’s likely that your post-Thanksgiving fridge contains partly-used packets of herbs. These herbs are generally destined for sadness — it really is hard to use up a whole bunch of herbs at a go, since recipes generally call for only a couple of sprigs at a time — and I have been guiltily throwing away dry, wilted brown herbs for years. But this year I was determined to change that.

I decided to modify my favorite jalapeno-cheddar scone recipe for the purpose. It’s a straightforward recipe: cut off part of a stick of butter and saute minced jalapeno in it, then toss that with a bit of flour and a couple of handfuls of shredded cheese; whisk 2 cups flour and 1 tablespoon baking powder, then cut in the remainder of the butter, mix in eggs (2) and cream (1/2 cup), then mix in the buttery pepper and cheese. It’ll make a dough, which you press out, cut up, and bake. Brush with egg wash if you want a glossy top.

So I washed and cut up the herbs, which was a very fragrant experience. This was actually the most time-consuming part; there were a lot of tiny leaves on those spindly stems.

image: mincing herbs

Then I got out a stick of butter. (Actually I cut off a quarter of a block of butter. Butter up here is mainly sold in solid 1-lb blocks.) I cut off a smallish chunk of it and let that brown slightly in a saucepan on the stove, then dropped in a good amount of mixed chopped herbs so that they would cook slightly and infuse the butter. (Maybe a half cup of herbs? I didn’t measure. This is a very forgiving recipe.) The rest of the butter got diced up and cut into a bowl with flour and baking powder.

image: incorporating butter

Then the liquids (eggs and cream, except I was running short on cream and had to cut it with milk, I told you this recipe was forgiving) and herbs got mixed in. When the ingredients formed a relatively cohesive dough, I dumped it out onto a floured surface and patted it into a flattish mound, then cut it up into triangles. Classic scone shape, triangles.

image: assembling dough; cutting triangles

Bake in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes; they’ll puff and turn golden, and the cut edges will be beautifully craggy. The egg wash is optional; all it does is make the scone look shiny. My tasters don’t seem to notice a difference. The image below has egg wash on the left, no egg wash on the right.

image: baked scones cooling on a tray

These scones were actually lighter than ones I’ve made in the past, since I finally realized that I’ve been misreading the recipe. It calls for three eggs in the ingredient list so I’d been putting three eggs in the batter, without realizing that the third egg was actually supposed to be reserved for the egg wash. This time I used two eggs as per the instructions, but next time I think I’ll go back to three per batch; I liked the more solid scone that resulted. (Forgiving recipe! I can’t say that enough.)

Ironically, it was this exercise of repurposing leftovers that made Thanksgiving feel real to me again, and not like I was churning out some repetitive performance. Because figuring out inventive ways to repurpose leftovers has always been a quintessential part of the Thanksgiving experience.

As a bonus, since I had enough herbs to make four batches of scones, now the freezer is stocked with flash-frozen unbaked scones, just waiting to be baked up for breakfast on some cold winter morning. Scones are always best right out of the oven.

image: frozen scones, bagged

Life is good.

simple steamed fish

K cooks a perfect steamed fish. It’s a simple process: start by going to the fish counter at the nearest Asian grocery store. Pick a white fish, of a size that fits comfortably in your steamer. Make sure the eyes are clear. (Cloudy eyes = old fish.) Ask the guy behind the counter to clean it for you. Take it home, scrape off more scales if you need to, snip off the fins if they’re still there. (I love eating fin, but only when deep-fried.) Season lightly, inside and out, with soy sauce, sliced garlic, matchsticks of ginger, cut scallions. Place in steamer, cover, and steam until the flesh is flaky and opaque. Serve whole, in the middle of the table, where everyone can reach it.

chopped scallions, ginger, and garlic

K’s mother goes one step further by drizzling hot oil over the fish when it comes out of the steamer, crisping the skin. It’s delicious either way. Eat it over rice. The fish will come out swimming in a thin savory sauce, and you’ll want to drip that sauce over each bite of fish and rice. 

Our older kid loves fish. He’s gotten to be a pretty good eater; he will eat (or at least try) most foods, though he does complain when he sees a vegetable reappear that he hadn’t liked the first time around. The little one tends to flat-out refuse foods that she doesn’t want, but hopefully she’ll come around. Anyway, we must not have had whole fish in a while – maybe a couple of months, which is a long time for a three-year-old – because she was dramatically shocked to see us disassemble it, splaying it apart to reach the meat, pulling away the spine with the ribs attached, digging into the head for the tender cheek. We’ll have to have whole fish more often, I think; it’s good to be reminded of where meat comes from.

One of the things I love most about eating whole fish is that you get to enjoy all of your favorite bits in the same meal: the melt-in-your-mouth cheek, the fatty collar, the soft belly, the generous meaty flesh around the ribs. There are also the bits that are harder to eat, where the meat is interwoven with thin translucent bones that sneak into your mouth and poke your tongue and cheeks like tiny needles. You have to eat small, cautious bites, find the bones with your tongue, and spit them out. It’s a slow and messy process, not graceful at all, and utterly worth it.

Looking back, there must have been quite a lot of steamed fish in both of our childhoods, because whenever we eat it, we can hardly stop telling stories to one another. K remembers walking in on his grandmother blending white fish meat into rice, hiding it so that some of the more fish-averse kids wouldn’t know what they were eating. (We tried this technique on our daughter. It didn’t work; she complained that her rice tasted of fish and refused it. Oh well. At least her palate is good?) 

For me, whenever I pick the fish meat oh-so-carefully out of the smaller bones, I find myself thinking of my mother and grandmother. My mother loves cooking salmon heads, then picking out all the lovely meat from the tiny crevices. “Can you believe it,” she would say, “fish heads for such a low price! People just don’t know how good they are!” (Her salmon heads really are delicious; I’ll have to get the recipe.) And when we ate fish with my grandmother, she would remain at the table, still eating, long after everyone else was done. We kids would have drifted off, having eaten our fill of the easy meat, but my grandmother would sit patiently and delicately nibbling at the smallest bones, extracting and savoring every last morsel. I can see her clearly in my mind’s eye, alone at the table, chopsticks hovering by her mouth as she worked the fish through her teeth, straining meat from bone.

During dinner, I felt a bone scrape briefly as it slid down my throat and I was suddenly reminded of being a little kid in a restaurant, a thin fish bone lodged in my airway, gulping water to wash it the rest of the way down. My grandfather had been very patient and encouraging, soothing me and talking me through my panic, until at last I was able to breathe and swallow comfortably – at which point I went back to eating, albeit more carefully. I related this story to K, laughing: “If you go through something like that as a kid and you still go back to eating fish, there’s no hope for you.”

I love to cook and eat a whole lot of different things (oh so many different things!), but for me, simple steamed fish and white rice is the dish that tastes like home.

steamed whole fish, ready to eat

(As a bonus, it’s below freezing outside, so hopefully the raccoons won’t smell the leftover fish bones in our compost bin.)

Hello Kitty birthday

So this is how I know I’m never going to make it as a food blogger: I totally forgot to take a picture of the finished cake that I made for the the little one’s third birthday.

Circumstances meant that the cake actually turned out quite nice – she was sick on the day that we’d scheduled her party, so the cakes, baked but not yet decorated, went into the freezer until the following weekend. That’s how I learned that it’s much easier to frost a frozen cake than a fresh one. The cake is sturdier and crumbles less, so the surface for the fondant layer turned out much smoother than it had been for my previous efforts. I made a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting, with a Hello Kitty on it, because that was what the little one requested.

Well, to be honest, that’s not quite how it went. I was going to make her a Hello Kitty cake anyway, because she’s really into Hello Kitty right now, and plus I already had Hello Kitty cookie cutters that I’d bought for her birthday last year, so I figured I’d get as many uses out of them as I could. She was happy with Hello Kitty, she specified the flavors, and that was that. But then, a week prior, we were going past the cake display at Costco and she pointed at one and said, “I want that cake for my birthday!”

I may not have entirely disguised my dismay. “But I was going to make you a cake with Hello Kitty on it.”

“I want that one!” Determined pointing. Kids have no respect for your desires. This is something you learn very quickly as a parent.

Then I wised up and said, “You know, last year you wanted a Hello Kitty cake and I was worried that you would be upset when I cut into it. So I asked you if you would be okay if we cut it and you said, ‘I want to poke her in the face with a fork!’ Wasn’t that silly?”

She took the bait. “Yeah! That was silly! I want to poke her in the face again!”

“So you want me to make Hello Kitty cake again?”

“Yeah!”

Oh, two years going on three, so malleable. At five years old, the older kid is already wise to these tricks and requires more straightforward negotiation.

Anyway, my objective restored, I made marshmallow fondant (I use this recipe, recommended to me by a friend whose intensity re: baking is at levels I can only admire), kneaded up some of it with a drop or two of red dye (if you want an arm workout, may I recommend kneading fondant?) to make pink, and executed Hello Kitty cake toppers and chocolate cake. (Three batches of smitten kitchen’s “I want chocolate” cake, for two layers of 9″ round and one dozen cupcakes.) Also strawberry cream cheese frosting, because the kid wanted strawberries, and I like cream cheese.

The little one helped with the cake toppers. I used the cookie cutter twice – once for the head on the white fondant, and once for the bow with the pink fondant. (Now it’s a multitasker! j/k) Then I picked out the features with a bit of melted chocolate on the end of a toothpick. I even let her decorate a couple of the faces. Because (and I do have to keep reminding myself of this) this is for her, not for me.

in-progress Hello Kitty cupcake toppers

For the big cake, I drew Hello Kitty on the top with melted chocolate and a coffee stirrer. Pretty proud of executing a 3D ribbon with the pink fondant. And the kid was happy with it, which was, honestly, the whole point.

Then I didn’t take any pictures. Oops! Fortunately K took pictures during the actual event, so I was able to crop this one out.

sideways view of cake and cupcakes

I did finally remember to take a picture, while we were cleaning up after the party.

partly eaten cake, with cupcakes in background

Happy birthday, little one. May I always be able to fulfill your desires… in a way that pleases both of us.

Halloween in Canada: a crash course in cross-border candy differences

When you send a barely-three-year-old and an almost-six-year-old out trick-or-treating, they come back with far more candy than they can or should consume. So there’s plenty of extra. As a bonus, they unquestioningly accept your arbitrary rules re: amount of candy they’re allowed to eat in any given time period. And their memories honestly aren’t that great. (Though the older one is pretty territorial about his peanut M&Ms.)

It’s a really great time to be a parent, is all I’m saying.

Candy we don’t have this year: Snickers, Milky Ways, Butterfingers, 3 Musketeers. Apparently they don’t exist on this side of the border? Candy we do have: Kit Kats, M&Ms, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces. So there are plenty of familiar items.

(Edit: I am told that Snickers etc do exist up north, but clearly they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they were back home.)

We also have Smarties, but they’re not the Smarties that I was used to back in the States. Smarties here are kind of like M&Ms, in that they are made of chocolate and covered with a hard candy shell. But the candy shell is thicker and crunchier.

Smarties in Canada, which are hard M&Ms

The Smarties that I’m used to, the powdery pastel-colored disc-shaped candies arranged in a tube, go by the name Rockets here.

Smarties in Canada, alongside Rockets in Canada, which are Smarties in the US

Yeah, it’s confusing to me too.

There are also a bunch of chocolate bars here that aren’t carried back home – mostly the Cadbury line (more on that later), but also some Nestle products. There were quite a lot of Aero bars, which is basically chocolate lightened with air bubbles. My favorite Nestle Canada bar, though, is the Coffee Crisp, a wafer filled with coffee flavoring and covered in chocolate. I love it so much that I bought up extra bags of it to take home every time I visited family in Canada. I have long been boggled that there is no mass market coffee flavored chocolate in the States. It’s okay though, I’m in Canada now. I have all the Coffee Crisp I want.

(Hilariously, I have my kid so well trained in the concept of “coffee is only for adults” that he immediately handed over his Coffee Crisp bars to me, and told me, in scandalized tones, that people were just giving them out to kids! No one tell him that he’s allowed Coffee Crisp. I’m totally fine with him giving all of his to me.)

Coffee Crisp and Kinder Egg at Loblaws

The above picture also displays another chocolate treat not allowed back in the States: the Kinder Egg. I’ll probably do a whole separate entry on the Kinder Egg later. The kid did actually score a single Kinder Egg this Halloween, but generally people stuck to handing out fun size bars and candies.

We got plenty of Cadbury chocolates too. Here’s the giant Cadbury box I saw in the grocery store.

a picture of the Cadbury line

I love the Wunderbar, which has a peanut center and a caramel coating underneath the chocolate. The Mr. Big is also pretty good; it’s got a wafer center and a nice crunch from the crispy rice. (I’m also fond of it because one year we came to Canada and saw Alex Ovechkin on the candy wrapper, with the text “Mr. Big Deal.” Of course we had to buy a couple of bars, to hand out to fellow Caps fans back home.) The kids didn’t get any Caramilk so I can’t speak to it – I assume it involves caramel. And the Crispy Crunch was basically a version of the Butterfinger, but flatter (so the butterscotch-to-chocolate ratio was tilted more in favor of chocolate) and a little sweeter.

our giant bowl of candy

Good job, kids – great haul. Now I just need to figure out how to get rid of all this candy, because no one needs this much refined sugar.

I’ll have to harvest all of the Coffee Crisps first, though.

adventures in bagged milk

When you move from the US to Canada, it’s a fairly minor adjustment, aside from the normal stress of moving house at all. A lot of the chain stores you’re used to are still available – no Kohls or Target (shed a tear for Target, whose Canadian enterprise went spectacularly belly-up), but there’s still Whole Foods and Marshall’s, and Costco even seamlessly accepts your membership card. (Though they do take a different credit card.)

So it’s the little differences that give you a moment’s pause. Why do the kids’ chicken fingers always come with “plum sauce?” Why are ketchup flavored potato chips so popular? Why do Wheat Thins look and taste different from the Wheat Thins back home, even though the box design is identical down to the font? What is the deal with all these tiny cucumbers? How do I deal with milk that comes in bags?

bagged milk at the supermarket

To be clear, you don’t have to buy milk in bags. You can get cartons. But the bags are super convenient! You can buy 4 liters at a go, conveniently split into 3 bags (why 1.33 L is the working unit for milk, I have no idea) so you only need open one at a time, which keeps the others fresher for longer. Also you get to reuse your cute little plastic pitcher.

a bag of milk ready to go into the pitcher

Although I was totally prepared to embrace the bagged milk phenomenon, I encountered a few snags in execution. For one thing, a new bag of milk doesn’t fit completely into the pitcher – it protrudes, the liquid level sitting ominously atop the rim, looking like a spill waiting to happen.

look how high the milk level is!

Through talking to other bagged-milk consumers, I have learned that a crucial part of initial bag installation is the thumping – I thump the pitcher, with the milk bag still sealed (don’t do this after opening!), repeatedly on the countertop until the milk bag settles fully into the pitcher. Otherwise you can get a pocket of air at the bottom.

The milk level will still be above the pitcher’s rim when you start, though. It’s disquieting but you will just learn to have to deal with the dread.

We bought a pitcher with a bag cutter included, because I thought it would be handy. It was not. It chews up the bag, rather than cutting cleanly, and in the process, you get milk splatter everywhere. Now I use scissors to snip the corner. I have talked to other users of bagged milk and everyone has a different recommended angle – some adhere to a rigid 45 degree snip, some do a shallower angle, some deeper. The only way to find out what works for you is through experimentation. I personally find that a shallower angle provides better control.

milk bag in the pitcher, snipped and ready to go

When I pour, I hold the handle of the pitcher with one hand and pull back on the opposite corner of the bag with the other hand, to keep the plastic nice and taut near the spout area. Otherwise you risk unpredictable folding and drooping of the milk bag during the pour, resulting in a stream of milk that is anything but constant and steady, possibly even missing the target entirely.

I still love it though. Like any new tool, it required an adjustment period at first. But for me the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks. And the single bag, in the thin milk pitcher, fits neatly in the refrigerator door.

milk pitcher in the fridge door

It should be noted that this bagged milk phenomenon is not universal to Canada. I think I used to see bagged milk when I visited my family in Vancouver as a kid, but it’s been phasing out, and the last few times I was in town everything was cartons and bottles. It might just be an Ontario thing? or even an Ottawa thing? Regardless, I’m definitely embracing it as part of my Canadian experience.