The Chocolate Cherry Bread Monster

Those of you who know me reasonably well know that I have bread issues. That is, for many years, bread just wouldn’t work for me. It would come out of the oven okay and would quickly turn into a hard lump. Every single time. In an effort to remove myself from the blame for this, I pointed to an erratic gas oven (I made great bread at cooking school, and I grew up making bread two or three times a week with my Grandmother – I knew how to do it), and headed off to the store to buy bread, having given up on the kneading and the punching and the proofing and the wasting of ingredients.

Something else that has given me trouble over the years is Vegetarian Times Magazine. Not the magazine itself, but the recipes, which always hurt my head a bit in their logic and which come with introductions like “Threw this together last night for the kids!” That’s fine for a blog, but in a nationally-published magazine, I expect some triple-testing going on to make sure the recipe makes sense. Since most of their recipes didn’t make sense, and seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, I stopped buying the thing.

Now, remember that I am a food writer and editor. It is part of my job to go over recipes that my writers want to post with a fine-toothed comb to look for anything that might not work. Early on, a young and enthusiastic writer came up with a piece on healthy snack alternatives and suggested that readers should add a tablespoon of cinnamon to a half cup of applesauce. My face turns inside out at the mere thought – a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon would be about the right proportion for this treat – a whole tablespoon would be overwhelmingly unappealing.

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Helpful Dining Tips for ‘Licious

A few days ago, someone over on a LiveJournal community posted about a server they knew who got stiffed on a tip during Summerlicious.

Summerlicious, for those of you not familiar with it, is a two-week long event where participating Toronto restaurants offer a three-course prix-fixe menu at a significantly reduced price. It’s typically a loss-leader, where the restaurant makes money off of beverages, and hopes that their food is so good it will encourage the cheap-ass Summerlicious diners to come back at full price.

Now because Summerlicious diners have a reputation for being cheap-asses, they tend to get poor to bad service, especially when the restaurant is still offering their regular full menu. And as many people pointed out to the poster on the Toronto community… a lot of Summerlicious diners leave crappy tips not because they’re cheap, but because the server anticipated they would be cheap and gave them crappy service.

Greg and I are not normally cheap-ass diners. Nor are we poor tippers. Today, however, we left an 81 cent tip on a $41 bill, because we suffered through one of the crappiest meals we have ever experienced.

I’m not going to give a play-by-play, but rather some basic commonsense tips for both restaurants and diners.

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Cheese Please!

There is a theory when it comes to treating allergies that if you give the patient tiny little bits of the item they are allergic to over a period of time, they will eventually be able to tolerate those allergens. This works mostly with treatable allergens such as dust and mold. The sad thing about food allergies is that no serum has yet been created (they’re close with peanuts). Your only option is one the allergist glibly refers to as “avoidance”.

I’m pretty good about avoidance, for the most part. I eat the plasticy soy cheese, drink soy milk, soy sour cream, etc. I can be satisfied with soy alternatives for some foods, and I’m more than happy to not be supporting the mainstream dairy industry. But there is no soy-based replacement for really beautiful artisanal cheese.

Thus, there are times when you just have to look Death in the face and say, “Fuck you, Death! I am eating this brie!”, and be willing to live (or not) with the consequences.

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Review – Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat

Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle

There’s an old phrase about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. For the first time ever, North Americans are applying that philosophy to eating and dieting. After all, we figure, how can those French ladies eat all that wine and cheese and still stay so svelte and stylish? It only stands to reason that eventually our gaze would focus on Japan. Long considered one of the healthiest societies on the planet (Japanese people, particularly women, have the longest life expectancy of any culture, and also have the longest quality of life – that is, they are far less likely to spend their final years in a nursing home or suffering from severe illness), it stands to reason that the Japanese would have some secrets to share that could help us doughy North Americans get slim and healthy, too.

However, like every diet plan out there, there’s a catch, and this one, like the “French Women” diet that is currently all the rage, involves an overall change of philosophy and lifestyle that many North Americans may not be willing to make.

It’s no surprise that many cultures equate good food with a mother’s love. Until the past couple of decades, a mother’s role in every culture has been to take care of the children and prepare the food for the family. In Japan, that role is taken one step further, and Moriyama relates a story about a letter sent home from school when she was a child, indicating that all mothers were expected to provide their children with a “love-packed lunchbox” every day. No pressure, ladies, no pressure.

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Le bouillabaisse de ma mère est meilleur que le bouillabaisse de votre mère.

Can’t you just hear the French schoolchildren taunting one another? Much as we play the “my Dad’s tougher than your Dad” game here in North America, one expects children in the south of France to try to one up each other over bouillabaisse.

Because every family has their own recipe. And every family’s recipe is a closely guarded secret. What I found in my Googling adventure in an attempt to track down a bouillabaisse recipe is that they can vary greatly. The only commonalities are fish, tomato, orange peel and saffron; everything else is up for grabs.

This is very much the same in Atlantic Canada where every family has a chowder recipe, and every kid is certain that their family’s chowder recipe trumps all others. Nobody makes fish chowder like my Dad (well, except for me), and it was an alternative to my Dad’s recipe that got me thinking about bouillabaisse.

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You Like Shop Chinatown?

It’s that invisible, emotional umbilical cord that ties us to our past. Chinatown, especially when it’s hot, reminds me of that day in August of 1987, when I stepped out of an airport limousine and into a different world.

The stench hit me even before the heat that day, and as long as I lived there, I wondered if I carried the smell with me; if I invaded nightclubs and restaurants perfumed with the smell of durian fruit and greasy bread and sesame oil and fish.

Today, my quick tour through Kensington Market and Chinatown is mission-based. Beads of sweat forming on the back of my neck, I want to get what I need and get out.

I don’t dally in the market, hitting the health food store and the fruit stands for what I need. It’s too hot, and I want to be home in front of a fan. On Spadina Avenue, in the crush of bodies and racks of knock-off Hello Kitty purses and cheap luggage, I move with purpose, sliding gracefully around the tourists and the delivery people pushing dollys full of boxes. Like riding a bike – this way of moving, thinking, looking up to assess the sidewalk – comes back easily. This is my ‘hood. Get out of my way.

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Sheryl & the Chocolate Factory

Every year, Toronto holds a city-wide festival during the last weekend in May called Doors Open where the public gets to go on free mini-tours of places they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Many of these buildings are ones that the public can get into if they have a reason to be there, either because they’re on a paid tour, or because they have business of some sort in the place. Few people have reason or opportunity to wander through a chocolate factory, though, so when the news came out that Cadbury was going to open the doors of its Toronto factory as part of Doors Open, people were excited. Unfortunately, while the concept of Doors Open is a good one, designed to encourage an appreciation for historical and architecturally unique buildings, what we got at the Cadbury’s factory doesn’t really even count as a “tour”.

Now I didn’t go expecting to see Oompa-Loompas. I didn’t expect to be greeted by Johnny Depp in a top hat. I didn’t figure there would be a river of chocolate. But on a “tour” of a chocolate factory, I do kind of expect to see some chocolate getting made.

At least put in a nice plate-glass window so we can watch the bars of chocolate whizzing by.

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We need more eye of newt

You know, you can take the girl outta the goth; you can destroy her Sisters of Mercy albums, you can slather her in cold cream and get all that black gunk off her face, you can take her bat-shaped purse away, you can take her black clothes and… well, nevermind that. But sometimes you just can’t take the goth outta the girl.

Such is my love for Charles Addams. So when Greg called me up to tell me he was spending foolish amounts of money on the Deadwood DVD box set, he softened the blow and assured my co-operation by informing me that he had also ordered me the Charles Addams cookbook.

It’s not really a cookbook. It’s actually a collection of his food-related cartoons (many of which feature the Addams family characters), interspersed with recipes for various wacky and unappealing delicacies such as blood pudding, stewed pigeon and potted squirrel.

About half of the cartoons are new to me, many mere sketches that have never been published. I’ve got four or five Charles Addams books, so to find new stuff is quite delightful.

I doubt I’ll be making stuffed beef hearts any time soon, but the “Mushrooms Fester” sounds quite good, and there’s even a recipe for fiddlehead ferns, although if you followed the directions, they’d be overcooked and underseasoned.

I still don’t get how Morticia was ever able to cook anything without setting those sleeves on fire, but then she probably enjoyed it.

How Sweet It Is

At first, we weren’t sure we had read it right. Scrolling across the screen on the 24-hour news channel was information about a Sweets Expo at the Toronto Convention Centre. It took some investigating to finally find the website: No, Beavis and Butthead, not “sweet sex po”, get your minds out of the gutter. Sweets Expo, aka, a room full of candy.

Bright and early, there we were, headed into the convention centre, the smell of sugar surrounding us. However, had it not been for two things, the Sweets Expo would have left a rather sour taste in my mouth.

First of all, it hadn’t been especially well-promoted, as far as we could tell. That fast-moving news scroll was the only mention we had seen of the thing, and judging by the turnout, not many other people knew about it either. And apparently, the same amount of effort that went into promotion went into attracting exhibitors. It was considerably smaller than we expected, and with a couple of exceptions the calibre of product wasn’t that great. None of the many Toronto area chocolatiers were present; Stubbs, Soma and JS BonBon were not to be found. There were also none of the chain, or indie, candy stores – no Sugar Mountain, Tutti Frutti, Nutty Chocolatier or Candy Island. Also, no big brand names – no Nestle, no Cadbury.

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