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.

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.