How lucky am I??? (part two… birthday dinner at Detta’s!)

So Detta is a reader, a cat lover, a foodie, and Italian… what a combination. She very generously hosted us at her place for the most memorable birthday in my 35 (!) years.

But you don’t want to READ about it… you want to see… right?

She looks so sweet! But take a closer look... yes, those are SKULLS on her apron LOL. Ricotta gnocchi at formation stage...

She looks so sweet! But take a closer look… yes, those are SKULLS and crossbones on her apron LOL. Ricotta gnocchi at formation stage…

Janet poses proudly with her boursin cheese... stage one of her appy assemblage...

Janet poses proudly with her boursin cheese… stage one of her appy assemblage…

Here's the finished product: boursin with sweet pepper topping, along with roasted garlic for spreading on crisps and crackers.

Here’s the finished product: boursin with sweet pepper topping, along with roasted garlic for spreading on crisps and crackers.

Meanwhile, the gnocchi poaches, and will be served with homemade pesto...

Meanwhile, the gnocchi poaches, and will be served with homemade pesto…

A pre-dinner party game gone awry... don't ask...

A pre-dinner party game gone awry… don’t ask…

A distinguished Nerida presents the gnocchi!

A distinguished Nerida presents the gnocchi!

... while Janet vogues with the orange and red onion salad!

… while Janet vogues with the orange and red onion salad!

Our talented host shows off her main of ricotta gnocchi, grilled asparagus, baked tomatoes, and orange salad. Only water in that wine glass???

Our talented host shows off her main of ricotta gnocchi, grilled asparagus, baked tomatoes, and orange salad. Only water in that wine glass???

And Detta's craaaazy cake creation: salted chocolate caramel ice cream cake! When I sent out pics of this cake to some friends, some of them responded with 'how was it?' ... are you KIDDING me?

And Detta’s craaaazy cake creation: salted chocolate caramel ice cream cake! When I sent out pics to friends, some of them responded with ‘how was it?’ … are you KIDDING me? To re-state, this is salted chocolate caramel ice cream cake, folks!



How lucky am I??? (part one…home chocolate classes)

Well, where to start? This week, a dear friend sent me a link to a Groupon for chocolate classes in Vancouver. I thought to myself: I can get that in my own kitchen… replete with good pals, booze, and laughs galore.

You see, over the course of two nights in November (I had to add a second night, there was such interest), I was lucky enough to host chocolate diva Monica Mueller in my home, for a glimpse into her sweet world.

After some shots of Advocaat (which Monica described as ‘fermented egg yolks’ in a bid to keep more for herself) along with dark chocolate as a chaser, then biscotti flavoured Baileys liqueur in chocolate shooter cups, then port wine, Monica showed us how to properly temper chocolate.

Tempering chocolate... kinda like grouting tile?

Tempering chocolate… kinda like grouting tile?

Then we were shown how to apply chocolate to a cocoa butter transfer sheet, for a striking and simple design effect.

When peeled away after drying, we had a salt and pepper chocolate bark with a cool orange and red striped design.

When the transfer sheet was peeled away after drying, we had a salt and pepper chocolate bark with a cool orange and red striped design. Here, Kayla applies the tempered chocolate to the sheet.

And! We learned the secret of how they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar 😉

Mesmerizing! Why didn't I stick my face under here?!?!

Mesmerizing! Why didn’t I stick my face under here?!?!

Fruit! See, it's good for ya! Janet slices apples for the caramel apple bites.

Fruit! See, it’s good for ya! Janet slices apples for the caramel apple bites.

My favourite item of the night was the crispy peanut butter toffee clusters made with milk chocolate. Chomping at the bit to add the Rice Krispies...

My favourite item of the night was the crispy peanut butter toffee clusters made with milk chocolate. Chomping at the bit to add the Rice Krispies…

Ramsey tries his hand at tempering.

Ramsey tries his hand at tempering.

Sweet climax... goodies to take home!

Sweet climax… goodies to take home!

All in all, the two evenings yielded eggnog truffles, salt and pepper chocolate bark, crispy toffee clusters, dipped marzipan, caramel apple bites, vanilla chai spice tea infused truffles, and crunchy hazelnut balls. We also got into trouble with Trader Joe’s cookie butter: try it rolled in cocoa as a truffle-y unit.

When can we do this again?!?

Maple Ridge food and thrift tour – oh my!

For some time, I’ve been in the habit of taking different clusters of my peeps out to Maple Ridge for Saturday chick adventures. The star attraction is my favourite boutique thrift store, the high-end offshoot of Cythera Transition House Society, called Cythera Unique Boutique. This store ‘high-grades’ the donations made to its more traditional store, and retails them in a very aesthetically pleasing and professional atmosphere. Each turn around the shop reveals more items that you didn’t even know you ‘needed’ until you spotted them.

Star with a shiny find at Cythera Unique Boutique!

The details of the thrift itinerary have evolved as we have all discovered new Maple Ridge attractions together. Generally, we meet at the original Cythera store to drop off our donations, then hop over to the boutique for a good spend, then over to Roots Natural Foods for a grocery shop. A few weeks ago, the Maple Ridge farmers’ market was added to the roster. As was a decent sushi joint.

But the heart of the day is now the bakery across from our donation stop, and just a few doors down from Roots. Formerly Crumbs Bakery, Delizie Italiane Bakery & Bistro was born in 2008, when ‘Amalfi coasters’ Daniele and Rosangela Atte took over the spot, which features deli items, baked goods, and warm foods, along with cafe-style beverages. The space offers a decent amount of seating, and has buzzed with energy on the last two Saturdays when I went to worship at the altar of sfogliatella.

How GORGEOUS are these bakery owners? Do they eat carbs?

What is sfogliatella you ask! I soooo want to tell you. On the first Saturday, I ordered this pastry, based solely on its interesting shape: kind of a multi-layered shell. Had no idea how to eat the thing. Biting into it didn’t seem like the way to go. I decided that the most pleasing way to fall upon the crispy unit was to tear off the pointy bit (which I have dubbed ‘the nose’), and then to keep tearing the pastry layers toward the wider end. Inside the shell is a subtly orange-scented ricotta filling. Heaven.

Sfogliatella… I will name my next kitten Sfogliatella.

A week later, I was STOKED, and ready for my dose of sfogliatella. No dice. Sigh. But then! Owner Daniele offered to bake some up while we waited! While one buddy enjoyed an incredible looking Italian spin on eggs benny (toasted ciabatta layered with Italian sausage, poached eggs, and tomato basil sauce, served alongside hash browns), I busied my cakehole with a fresh Italian doughnut and a chocolate-dipped shell cookie.

Here is Maggie’s hot Italian breakie. And Maggie!

Well! There is no describing the sensory experience of a warm sfogliatella, but I will try: buttery, multi-dimensional, exquisite… bordering on sexual. I am now ruined for the room temperature version. Sigh.

Here is Daniele, proudly showing off the warm sfogliatella!

Do the thrift store run. Start at Delizie. When you’ve finished shopping, return there to grab some take-home treats. Repeat weekly.

These special pastries are only available on weekends, but there are tons of other amazing choices all week long!

For more details on the miracle that is sfogliatella, click here and watch the video of the hardcore Italian nonna actually cranking out the things. Not for amateurs!

Delizie Italiane Bakery & Bistro

22266 Dewdney Trunk Road, Maple Ridge

(and they cater, folks)

Two words…

cookie butter!!!!!!!!

So far, I just eat it off of the spoon. When I am engaged in this act, I am too zombie-like to consider more creative uses.

Think peanut butter.

‘Cept cookie flavoured.

Specifically, those gingery molasses windmill cookies from back in the day.

Worth the drive to Bellingham, to grab a jar. Or a case.

Thanks to Detta for turning me on to the food mecca that is Trader Joe’s!

These are a few of my favourite things!!!

An alternate title for this post would be ‘best practices on how to overdeliver on an event’.

I’ve just returned from The Vancouver International Writers Festival at (or on?) Granville Island.

As if the opportunity to see over 100 writers were not enough, they slipped food into the mix.

So not only were participants able to deke over to the Public Market for mini perogies, Indian grub, and the best caramel macchiatos I have enjoyed in a while… food was featured at some of the actual sessions, included in the ticket price.

The first surprise came at 11am today, at the sold-out event called The Sunday Brunch. Among the writers reading from their works were Graeme Gibson, Linden Macintyre, and Susan Musgrave. The blurb mentioned only croissants and champage. We were instead presented with the delight below. Along with the croissants and sweet bread at the bottom tier, we were treated to pate, smoked salmon spread, mimosas, clotted cream and jam, fruit, and chocolates.


A few hours later, we were hit with the second feed, called The Afternoon Tea. This session featured six more authors, among them Lorna Crozier and Bill Gaston. The blurb suggested that we would only be drinking tea as we listened. Instead, we were presented with this:

Here we have currant scones, shortbread, mini cupcakes, etc.

Who would like to join me next year?

Get outta bed, sleepy head! Abbotsford farmers’ market now runs year-round!

Great news, folks!

The Abbotsford Farm and Country Market now essentially runs year-round, every Saturday from 9am to 1pm, at the regular downtown location at Montrose and George Ferguson Way.

They used to hold occasional markets outside of the main (April to October) season, but now we don’t have to wake up Saturday mornings wondering if ‘today’s the day’!

Market manager Bruce Fatkin explains that the market will take place predominantly outside, on Montrose Avenue, with a few vendors inside the United Church along with the regular church concession (fundraiser).

They do plan to take some time off in ‘the heart of winter’, with the last market of the calendar year happening on Dec 22nd, reconvening on January 26th.

I am looking forward to an uninterrupted supply of fresh rye bread, frosted walnut scones, and local honey. Oh yeah!

And don’t forget to check out a few choice retailers, just across George Ferguson Way, on Montrose: Formaggio Fine Foods, and Spruce Collective.

Image by Cathy C.

The Vancouver Tea Party

As some of you know – because you have had to put up with me droning on about tea for the past month and a half – I’ve registered for the excellent Tea Sommelier*** program at Vancouver Community College.

The place is located in the Heart of Darkness (West Pender at Cambie), and feels like the inner city school from Welcome Back Kotter… but it is also a stone’s throw from the most delightful chocolate quinoa cake with cardamom cream, and a do-able walk from my favourite hipster cafe. And if I get to The Big City by mid-afternoon, I even get to take in a movie at the Dead Mall formerly known as Tinseltown.

It’s easy to mock the idea of going to school for three years to learn about tea. That is, until you’re in the classroom with 14 fellow tea nerds (plus our instructor Brendan, whom I refer to as – using my inside voice – The Tea Sensei).

The girl to guy ratio is 2:1. There are three hobbyists; some who want to start tea shops and/or tea rooms; while some have formal culinary training. One woman’s mother invented bubble tea, and her family operates a large Taiwanese tea empire.

We learned that the real demand tea-wise in Canada is not so much for retail (225 David’s Tea locations will open this year in California alone!), but rather for importing and blending tea: the behind-the-scenes stuff. Hmmm… interesting!

After my first three-hour session at what I fondly think of as Tea School, buddy Detta declared me a tea snob.

For example… once you learn why tea bags are a joke, it’s pretty difficult to continue using them. Spoiler alert – you can’t unknow what you already know, so skip this paragraph if you want to keep using your (pedestrian!) teabags. Teabags are inferior because: 1. There is not enough tea in the teabag to make a proper cup; 2. There is not enough room for the tea to properly expand, meaning a weak, non-representative cup; 3. The tea in a teabag consists of the fine dust and fannings, in stark contrast to the broader flavour profiles to be found in the larger-leaf loose teas. Tea dust is used by soda companies (and Red Bull!) to boost caffeine levels.

And did you know that ALL teas (we don’t count herbals here, because that’s just herbs in a cup!), come from the SAME plant? The categories of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and Pu-ehr) are linked to the intensity of the oxidation / processing that they undergo, and also what parts of the plant are picked (or plucked). It’s also about the terroir of the place: altitude, soil, climate…

And when we taste (or ‘cup’) teas in class, the goal is to slurp it off of the spoon at 125 miles an hour, so that the air and tea spray all three sections of the tongue. And The Sensei knows when you’re only doing 40 in a 125 zone. And the spitting – I can’t get used to spitting the tea out – it’s supposed to taste completely different ‘on the way out’.

When we cup teas, we assess the dry leaf, wet leaf, and the tea (or liquor) itself. It’s pretty scientific, with the loose dry tea weighed to the tenth of a gram, and the water temperature and volume also closely monitored. More like a science lab than an outing at The Empress!

On the first night, The Tea Sensei showed us a white, yellow, green, and oolong tea.

Anyway, I could go on.

That was just the intro course. Next up are courses on sensory development, history, production, food pairings, geography…

But first, I need to pass this intro. It’s telling that the passing mark has been lowered from 75% to 60%.

Part of the final mark is based on a class presentation, with students in groups of twos and threes. The most transporting presentations of the night were delivered by two of the five groups. One group demonstrated two methods of preparing tea: the Gongfu tea ceremony and the method for yerba mate (with a gourd and a bombilla! Who knew?). The second stunner group offered a food pairing, matched against three Asian teas under the guise of a tea company making a bridal shower pitch. Absolutely humbling. Truly.

We sweated the most over the blind tasting after the presentations, when we were asked to identify five teas, without the benefit of seeing the wet / dry leaves.

After that, it was on to a 50-question multiple choice exam. Some questions were ‘gifts’ while others were absolutely perplexing.

Fingers crossed. Now we wait for our marks…

Oh! I made a serendipitous discovery while scouting out a place to get a few hours of tea studying in before The Big Night. In Gastown, just off of Blood Alley in Gaoler’s Mews is a fantastic retail tea shop and tea room called Apres Midi Premium Teahouse. They are in the process of rebranding to Gastown Tea Company. Turns out the owners took the same tea program, and The Tea Sensei was contracted as a consultant to build their tea menu. The space is late 1800’s, and gorgeous. I plan to devote an entire post to this place (with pictures), so stay tuned.

Apres Midi is the shop on the right.

And my dirty little secret: I still take half-and-half cream in my tea. Shhhh… don’t tell The Tea Sensei.

*** a note about the word ‘sommelier’ itself. I have been blown away by how many folks don’t know this word. Kinda makes the whole ‘tea sommelier’ thing a bit of a drag to explain when you have to back up and describe what a (wine) sommelier is. People! Come on!

Now here’s a diet I can stick to.

Just a few hours after gorging on Baileys-filled chocolate shooter cups, and the new salted caramel chocolates at Chocolatas, I found myself headed up the freeway to Chilliwack, with my foodie buddy Detta, to the home of Kim and Karen, owners of Aromatica Fine Teas. They were convening a ‘cooking with tea’ class for eleven people lucky enough to sign up for this $20 foodfest.

All attendees were women. What the HECK were the men doing that could have been as interesting as this?!?!

After serving crudite nibbles with a green tea dip, Karen prepared prawns sautéed in a Lapsang Souchong tea. Light soy sauce and orange zest set the smoke off nicely.

The atmosphere was relaxed as we all stood in the kitchen while the couple cooked, and taught us about the best ways to infuse teas and herbs in honey.

While Karen attended to finishing the main course, we joined Kim in the living room, where he delivered a more general background on tea, and a helpful decision tree on which treatments to use when cooking with tea.

The meat eaters noshed on tea-scented pork and chicken, plus chai-infused meatballs, while I enjoyed the sunrise rooibos basmati and nut crunch quinoa, pacing myself for the mammoth dessert course!

Detta and I were a bit like the Sprats, with her taking the meat while I fell upon the sweets. A veritable platter of tea-kissed desserts was placed in front of me: soft angel dreams (mint) shortbread cookies, hearty gluten-free banana walnut tea bread, green tea and pecan chiffon cake (made with Aromatica’s signature Treasures of Japan tea blend), and a no-bake lemon myrtle cheesecake.

As if this wasn’t a cool enough experience, Kim offered to open up the tea shop (9pm on a Friday!), just a few blocks away.

Sweet, excruciating choices: as people trundled over to Aromatica, chocolatier Monica began to roll chai-infused chocolate ganache in expensive flavoured sugars that Karen brought out.

Detta and I tore ourselves away, heading over to the shop to pick up some Kenyan and Chinese black teas, two of over 100 teas on offer.

And the calorie gawds smiled upon me this day: zero weight gain!

Woot! Woot! Bring on the dessert platters, chocolate, and Baileys! Now THAT’S a diet I can stick to.

And thanks to new friend Cora for taking these photos!

Lunch at the chocolate factory…

Yesterday afternoon, I had the rare pleasure of sitting at the communal lunch table with the owners of Abbotsford-based Chocolatas, and their friendly staff. I didn’t expect to be educated (by Veerle Tas) about the proper way to slice an avocado (while still in its skin), but that was just a bonus.

I was really there for the chocolate, having heard that Belgian chocolatier Wim Tas had recently perfected his new salted caramel chocolates. They have been flying off the shelves at the Granville Island location, in a limited test run.

As someone who adores salted chocolate (try Candice’s Hawaiian salted hot chocolate at Sumas Mountain Coffee, folks!), I was eager to try the latest Chocolatas experiment. After an amuse-bouche of a few rounds of the new biscotti flavoured Baileys liqueur in Chocolatas dark chocolate shooter cups, I was ready for my ‘entree’ of salted chocolate. How lucky am I?!?!

The filling of the square pillow of goodness is surprisingly soft without being sloppy. So, you won’t get caramel stuck in your teeth – an attribute especially valued when you are sneaking them! And the coarse salt sprinkle is a welcome first taste just before the tongue settles around the silkiness of the caramel itself. The outer robe of dark chocolate deepens the flavour without overshadowing the caramel centre.

As the Chocolatas crew readies for its main seasonal show – the Circle Craft Christmas Market – I am sure that the salted caramel offering will be a best seller. I suggest waiting a few weeks for the new caramels to hit the shelves.

In the meantime, the new Chocolatas e-commerce website offers a more immediate remedy to chocolate cravings. If you’d rather browse in person, check out their Abbotsford location (where the product is made) or their busy site at the Granville Island Public Market. And of course, there is Circle Craft: November 7-11 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Samosas that will ruin you for all others…

A few days ago, I found myself on the City of Abbotsford’s cultural diversity bus tour with my friend Wendy Mc. The first stop was Cedar Park Place in Clearbrook, a largely South Asian strip mall that has, for years, at once intrigued and intimidated me.

Offered pork spring rolls from the Vietnamese Pho place right at the end of one of the two ‘strips’ of mall, Wendy (a vegan) and myself (a pescetarian), gaily headed off to more veg-friendly pastures. The signage for a ‘vegetarian bakery’ caught our eye, and are we ever lucky that we ventured in!

To our delight, we found samosas that are baked instead of fried (imagine a flaky blueberry turnover, but filled with savoury Indian goodies). At $1 each, they are triple the going rate of samosas in the rest of the mall, but they should be charged out at three times as much again.

On that first visit, we enjoyed potato samosas. Today, I gobbled a paneer samosa, which is also filled with onions and peppers, and a yellow curry. It’s pictured below: check out the textures!

We are lucky to live among so many South Asian culinary gems. Abbotsford’s Manohar Vegetarian Bakery is surely among these!