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Latin Flavours at Bloom Restaurant

7 Jun

Bloom Restaurant Toronto

My family lived near Bloor West Village in Toronto during my late high school years. While I was too young at the time to fully appreciate the range of great restaurants and shops in the ‘hood, I do remember really liking the area and thinking that I could see myself living there as an adult.

Fast-forward a decade (okay, a bit more than that…), and I find myself a homeowner in the opposite end of the city. Between time constraints, traffic and the fact there are so many amazing food and shopping options between my house and Etobicoke, I rarely find myself in Bloor West Village anymore. So I jumped at the chance to attend a media preview dinner recently at Bloom Restaurant, to check out their new chef, spring menu, and of course my old stomping grounds.

Chef Pedro Quintanilla took over the kitchen at Bloom in April, after cooking at sister restaurant Focaccia downtown since 2004. Quintanilla grew up in Cuba, and began his cooking career in some of Havana’s best restaurants. He also spent time as chef at the French embassy in Cuba. Moving to Toronto in the early 1990s, he had the opportunity to be part of Toronto’s growing Latin cuisine boom, working in several notable kitchens.

While the dishes at Bloom under Quintanilla feature some definite Latin influences, he’s clearly drawing on his experience with Italian, French and other cuisines as well—spring dishes include charcuterie, beef carpaccio and duck confit.

Bloom Restaurant Spring Terrine

One of the benefits of Jenny and I sometimes attending these tasting events together is that when there are choices on the preview menu, we get to taste them all by alternating dishes between us. This was the case at Bloom. While I chose the spring terrine of chicken liver and foie gras paired with fresh asparagus and battered onion rings to start (pictured above), Jenny opted for the ceviche (below).

Bloom Restaurant Ceviche

We’re both huge ceviche fans, and Bloom’s didn’t disappoint, with a good balance of citrus, heat and herbs. And Bloom’s seafood is sustainable, a growing trend among Toronto restaurants that’s encouraging to see. If anything, I would have liked to see a bit more fish on the plate. But both of us really enjoyed the terrine, definitely French in its flavouring rather than Latin, with a great texture, smooth but not so much that it lost the rustic charm of the dish.

Bloom Restaurant Ahi Tuna

For mains, we shared a sesame-crusted ahi tuna fillet served with potatoes, tofu-wasabi dressing, roasted vegetables and a few wasabi peas scattered on the plate (above), as well as pan-seared flank steak with garlic-smashed potatoes, chimichurri sauce and ginger-glazed carrots (below). The tuna was cooked perfectly, and I thought the dressing drizzled over top had great flavour and went well with the crunch of the sesame seed crust. Of the two mains, though, the flank steak was the standout. While the steak itself was cooked just a touch too long (a common issue with flank steak), it was still fairly tender. And the chimichurri it was served with was outstanding.  Chimichurri is essentially Latin pesto, and as simple as that is, too often restaurants serve chimichurri that lacks an intense herb flavour or that has the wrong balance of oil to greens. Quintanilla’s chimichurri was amazingly fresh, paired well with the steak, and got an extra kick from the garlic potatoes.

Bloom Toronto Flank Steak Chimichurri

Dessert was Cuban flan, an egg custard topped with dulce de leche and thyme, as well as churros served with warm chocolate sauce and ice cream. Talking to other media reps dining at Bloom, it seemed like everyone was split on dessert. Some preferred the churros, which were light and crisp and went well with the cinnamon and chipotle-spiced sauce. Jenny and I were both in the other camp, preferring the flan. While similar to a crème caramel, Bloom’s version was denser, with more of an eggy texture that Quintanilla said was the way it was done in Cuba (almost like soft scrambled eggs packed into a mold). I can see that not being to everyone’s taste, but it made the dish memorable for us.

Bloom Toronto Cuban Flan
Bloom Restaurant’s Cuban Flan.

Overall, Bloom strikes me as more of a neighbourhood restaurant than a destination dining spot (at least until chef Quintanilla injects more of the menu with Cuban influence), but it’s great to know of adining spot I can count on for a good meal next time I find myself in Bloor West Village.

Bloom Toronto Churros
Churros at Bloom Restaurant.

Toronto Bakes for Japan This Weekend

7 Apr

Toronto Bakes for Japan

More than 12,000 deaths. Over 15,000 people missing. 160,000 displaced. Total damage costs estimated at as much as $300 billion. The impact of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan nearly a month ago is staggering. Fortunately, social media and some generous organizations and individuals have come together over the past several weeks to hold fundraising events to help in Japan’s rebuilding efforts.

Toronto Bakes for Japan is one of those fundraising events. This Saturday and Sunday, participating venues across the city will hold bake sales, with proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross Society, which is leading relief efforts on the ground in Japan. Baked goods are being created by a team of volunteer bakers – both professional and amateur – and a wide selection of cookies, cakes, pastries and other sweet treats will be available at each listed venue.

Those who aren’t into baked goods will still find plenty to enjoy at Toronto Bakes for Japan. Great prizes donated by bakeries, cooking schools  and other organizations will be available through auctions and raffles. A selection of art works created specifically for the event will be auctioned off Sunday at Liberty Noodle, and the band Graydon James and the Young Novelists will also play at that venue on Sunday.

Heena from the blog Tiffin Tales and Niya from Destiny, Domesticity & Dirty Secrets are the brains behind Toronto Bakes for Japan. They were inspired by the Great Kiwi Bake-Off, which raised more than $16,000 for relief efforts following the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a U.S.-based bake sale fundraising effort that raised $23,000 for relief in Haiti and is back to help the people of Japan.

I’m a sucker for baked goods, which is why I usually make an effort to stay away from them as much as possible. But this weekend, all bets are off. I’ll be at the Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday morning on the hunt for cookies, butter tarts and scones… It’s for a great cause, after all.

Perfect Tiramisu, Part 3: Communal Table’s Original Recipe

1 Mar

Those who have been following this blog may remember our tiramisu saga that began a few months ago. And for those of you who are new here, you can read the first two installments of mine and Neil’s crazy quest to find the perfect tiramisu recipe here and here.

This may just be the end though, because the recipe I’m posting below came pretty close to tiramisu nirvana.

After my last try at homemade tiramisu, I knew I wanted to make it again but didn’t think I’d take on the challenge for a while. It’s not that making this classic Italian dessert is hard, it’s just time consuming and I wanted to make sure the next attempt would get it right.

But after reading about our earlier trials and tribulations, my sister Jayme requested that I make it for her birthday this year. And that’s what started my little tiramisu science lab, if you will.

This time, I decided I was going to develop my own recipe. I wanted to use Madeira wine once again and I knew we were after a saturated consistency in the cookie layer and a smooth, creamy texture in the cheese layer.

After my last try, Toronto food expert Christine Picheca chimed in with some advice and told me to ditch the ladyfinger cookies and try savoiardi biscuits instead. Because they’re more porous, she said they would give me the consistency I was looking for. Last time the ladyfingers I used made for a very cakey and dryer tiramisu than I wanted.

I researched a lot of different recipes this time around, some using anywhere from 3-6 eggs, some using anywhere from 3 tbsp to a whole cup of sugar and some using more or less mascarpone.

Most recipes claiming to be ‘authentic’ (including the one on the savoiardi biscuits package) only called for egg yolks and no whites. None of them called for whipping cream, which I thought seemed wrong the last time I made it but I didn’t want to stray from the recipe I chose to follow at the time.

To make sure I was using the best possible ingredients, I made a special trip to Fiesta Farms, one of our favorite places to shop for quality food in Toronto. Their selection of ethnic food items, especially Italian products, is amazing and I even found mascarpone cheese imported from Italy.

I actually planned on only using the egg yolks, but I found the consistency of the mascarpone to be too dense. So I whipped up two of the whites, mixed them in and the consistency seemed just right for our taste.

People have lots of opinions about what kind of espresso to use and how to brew it (espresso machine, Italian stovetop espresso pot etc..) but I think that most good-quality strong espresso will do and you should brew it any way that makes sense for you at home. Once again I made mine in a French press using really good quality Italian espresso and I really think that’s fine. We do have a stovetop espresso maker but I just didn’t feel like using it. The result I got was perfect. I do of course agree that you should always use espresso and never regular coffee grinds, but how you make it is up to you.

And so, after lots of geeky research, discussions and testing, the recipe that follows is completely original to Communal Table and, if I do say so myself, pretty freaking awesome.

Everyone at my sister’s birthday celebration raved about it. My brother-in-law told me that he doesn’t normally like tiramisu or any dessert with alcohol in it (we’re clearly not blood-related) but even he really liked it! How’s that for a stamp of approval?

The savoiardi biscuits really made a huge difference. They made for a lighter, fluffier cookie layer and did take in the liquid much better than denser ladyfingers. The whole dessert was light while still being nice and rich, intense in flavor and totally satisfying. Everyone wanted more, and that’s how I know we’ve come as close as can be to perfection.

Communal Table’s Tiramisu

Serves approx 10-12, using a large rectangular pyrex dish

4 egg yolks

2 egg whites

3 Tbsp sugar

2 x 250 g containers of mascarpone cheese (you will use 1 whole container plus ¾ of the other. One container = approx 1 cup)

1 generous cup strong espresso

1 cup Madeira wine (or a strong alcohol of your choice like brandy or rum)

48 savoiardi biscuits

Cocoa powder

Brew your espresso and let it cool.

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar for a few minutes until you get a smooth consistency and all of the sugar granules are incorporated and disappear.

Add the mascarpone into the egg mixture and beat on a medium setting to get a smooth, creamy texture.

Clean the beaters and get a fresh bowl. Beat the egg whites for a couple of minutes until they’re nice and fluffy. Don’t over-mix. You don’t want them to form heavy peaks (like you do for meringue).

Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture. Once again, don’t over-mix.

Pour the cooled espresso into a shallow, flat-bottomed bowl or pan and add in the Madeira.

Place your pyrex dish (or tiramisu receptacle) right next to the espresso bowl and get your biscuits ready.

Lightly dip each biscuit in the espresso mixture, sugar-side up, then transfer to the pyrex dish and place sugar-side down. I cannot stress enough how light of a dip the savoiardi biscuits need. They are very porous and will get really soggy fast if you let them sit in the liquid.

We like our tiramisu to be very wet so I dunked the entire biscuit into the liquid and swished it around for a second. If you like a more cakey consistency, make sure you really dip lightly on one side only or use thicker ladyfinger cookies.

Line the entire pyrex with the dipped biscuits. Cover the layer of biscuits with a layer of mascarpone mixture. Don’t use too much, you just want enough to cover the entire layer, but don’t put it on too thick.

Continue with the rest of the savoiardi biscuits, placing them on top of the mascarpone mixture to create another layer. Top that layer with the rest of the mascarpone mixture and spread evenly.

Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate (make sure you’ve cleared a good space for it in your fridge beforehand!) for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Just before serving, sprinkle the tiramisu with a dusting of cocoa powder.

Special thanks to my tiramisu-convert bro-in-law Stewart for the photos

Surviving Winter: Indulge at Ambiance Chocolat

13 Feb

Valentines chocolates heart plate

Jenny and I aren’t big on Valentine’s Day. We don’t buy each other gifts, and we don’t usually go out for dinner (although we’re making an exception this year for a cool Valentine’s Day-themed event). That said, the days leading up to February 14 do tend to get us thinking about our relationship; we met on Feb. 10th, four years ago. And thinking about our relationship inevitably gets us thinking of all the things and places that we’ve discovered, experienced and loved over our time together. One of those is a little chocolate shop in Toronto called Ambiance Chocolat.

Chocolates in display case

My obsession with good chocolate is pretty extreme. I feel compelled to walk into just about every chocolate shop that we walk by, wherever we are. This compulsion hit me one day about two years ago when we were walking through the Leslieville neighbourhood and walked by Ambiance. We were smack in the middle of planning our wedding, and were trying to keep our eating in check so we didn’t end up feeling like beached whales on the big day. So when I suggested we check out the shop, Jenny resisted, reasoning that since we’d never heard of the place, the chocolate must not be anything special.

How wrong she was (a fact she’s since admitted)…

Ambiance Chocolat counter

We’ve found a lot of great chocolate shops in Toronto, but Ambiance stands out for us. The flavour combinations all sound intriguing, and more importantly, taste amazing. Belgian-born chocolatier Patrick Smets made chocolate at the Belgian Chocolate Shop in the Beaches for 15 years, but decided to open his own shop three years ago. Patrick says that the Belgian Chocolate Shop was focused on traditional truffles and chocolate, and his desire to experiment with flavours was a key reason in his decision to open Ambiance.

Caramel chocolate oozing

During our first visit, the jalapeno caramel and rose truffles caught our eye immediately. One bite and we knew these chocolates were something special. The flavours are so fresh and real tasting – the jalapeno strikes the right balance between sweet and heat, but what we love most about it is that you can actually also taste the pepper itself. And the rose (one of Jenny’s favorite flavours) has an interesting floral taste without any of the extreme sweetness that can make other rose-flavoured truffles taste artificial.

Chocolates on pink background

We fell in love with these two flavours so much that they actually ended up at our wedding. Each guest received one jalapeno caramel and one rose chocolate, along with a card that explained why we thought these were perfectly suited to represent our relationship: “Just like love, these unique rose and jalapeno chocolates are sweet and spicy, filled with surprise, strange yet enticing, and slightly unexpected, while still making so much sense,” we wrote.

Wedding place setting with chocolates

Patrick says that he makes all the caramels, ganaches and other fillings from scratch using only natural ingredients as flavouring. Ideas for flavour combinations come to him from the notes he tastes in the various chocolate varieties he uses: if a particular chocolate has citrus notes, he knows it would make an ideal partner for lemon; chocolate with smokey notes might be paired with scotch and smoked salt. He says that experimentation and being able to identify notes in different chocolate varieties are important to making great chocolate, as the wrong combination or ratio of chocolate to flavouring will result in one overpowering the other in the final product.

Chocolate cream centre

Ambiance has several truffle flavours available year-round, and also features special ones for holidays. For Valentines Day, there’s a red wine caramel-filled chocolate, as well as a “light rose” flavour, which combines white chocolate ganache with grand marnier and orange.

Valentine's Day chocolates

Aside from the jalapeno and rose, some of our favorite Ambiance chocolates are the lemon-mint (mint-infused white chocolate ganache with a tart lemon caramel), pistachio (filled with a white chocolate pistachio cream) and the mousse, made with 72% dark chocolate.

They also sell that classic winter warmer, hot chocolate. We haven’t tried it yet, but listening to Patrick talk about how Ambiance’s hot chocolate starts with a  house-made ganache and then gets mixed with hot milk (a technique that ensures a rich and intense chocolate taste) convinced us that we need to have a cup on our next visit… and to visit again soon.

Ambiance sign

How to Make Store-Bought Fruitcake Taste Delicious in 5 Easy Steps

9 Dec

Fruitcake alcohol cheesecloth

I love Christmas. I love the traditions, and the fact it involves hanging out with family. And, of course, I love the food – with one exception: fruitcake. I know I’m not the only person who shares a hatred of fruitcake. There are many of us fruitcake haters. And yet, there it is every year at Christmas, sitting there, taunting us. Dry, mealy doorstops, or moist, overly sweet doorstops, filled with little gross bits of candied who-knows-what.

I’m sure that, somewhere, there is a 12-step program for fruitcake haters. But I’ve looked, and I can’t find it. And until I do I know I’m going to be faced with Christmas after Christmas of bad fruitcake being offered to me by good people. I could continually refuse every offered piece of fruitcake and risk offending some of the people I love most. Or, I could take matters into my own hands. I’ve decided to try doing the latter this year.

My problem with fruitcake isn’t so much fruitcake itself. I have actually enjoyed a few homemade fruitcakes. But mostly, the omnipresent fruitcake at Christmas is the store-bought type. Most of these are terrible, but this year I thought ‘what if I could take a terrible product and actually make it taste reasonably delicious?’ This got me thinking of the fruitcakes I’ve enjoyed, and what made them taste so good. The answer, I’m convinced, is alcohol. And so, last weekend I decided to take two store-bought fruitcakes and, using alcohol and some tips and tricks picked up through various online sites, turn them into tasty, alcohol-soaked treats.

Here are my 5 easy steps for making store-bought fruitcake taste delicious:

Fruitcake brushed alcohol

    1. Brush: Unwrap your store-bought fruitcake. Place it on a work surface and, using a toothpick or another thin, sharp tool, poke small holes all over the surface of the cake – top, bottom and sides. The holes, apparently, will help the fruitcake absorb all the delicious alcohol you’re about to douse it with. After you’ve covered your cake in holes, pour a small amount of alcohol into a bowl; I used about 1/3 of a cup for a small cake. As for what alcohol, rum or brandy is pretty traditional for soaking fruitcake, but almost anything will work. I had two cakes, and used madeira on one and marsala on the other. Dip a pastry brush into the bowl of booze, and brush alcohol across all surfaces of the cake. You’re glazing it more than soaking it at this phase.

Cheesecloth soaked in alcohol

    1. Soak: Measure a length of cheesecloth long enough so it can be wrapped around your fruitcake two or three times, then immerse the cheesecloth into the bowl of alcohol. Soak the cheesecloth thoroughly in the alcohol.

Trying to tame the cheesecloth…

    1. Wrap: Pick up the soaked cheesecloth and gently squeeze out some of the alcohol so that the cloth is wet, but not dripping. Lay soaked cheesecloth out on a work surface, then wrap the fruitcake in the cheesecloth, folding the cloth around the cake as many times as you can (two or three times). Wrap the cheesecloth-covered cake tightly in aluminum foil. If you’re doing several fruitcakes in different kinds of alcohol, make sure to label them by alcohol type. Store the fruitcake in a cool, dry place.

Fruitcake wrapped in cheesecloth

    1. Reapply: Every week or so, unwrap the foil and sprinkle the cheesecloth-covered cake on all sides with more alcohol. Any of the websites and recipes I’ve looked at have said you can repeat this step weekly for up to several months – the longer you age the fruitcake, the deeper the flavour. I started my fruitcake experiment on December 4 and I want to eat them by Christmas, so I’ve decided to apply more alcohol every 5 days or so until then.

Fruitcake labelled Madeira

  1. Wait: From everything I’ve read, this seems to be the key step. As mentioned in step 4, the fruitcake apparently tastes better the longer you wait. Makes sense: more alcohol applied, more alcohol soaking-in time, more delicious alcohol infused cake.

I’ve just hit step 4 for the first time today. When I went to apply more alcohol to my fruitcakes they already felt fairly moist, which makes me think that the alcohol is soaking in nicely. It also makes me worry that after two or three more alcohol applications, I could end up with logs of alcoholic mush. Time will tell, I suppose.
I’ll follow up this post in a couple of weeks with the end results of my fruitcake experiment. Until then, if you have a good method for making store-bought fruitcake taste better, let me know in the comments section below. Or, if you have a good homemade fruitcake recipe, feel free to leave it here. I’m not much of a baker, but given the right recipe I might be persuaded to make my own fruitcake next winter.

Holiday Giveaway #2: High-Quality Spanish Olive Oils

7 Dec

Jenny and I planned this holiday giveaway ‘extravaganza’ with two goals in mind. The first was to give a little something back to some of the people who’ve read our blog, followed us on our Facebook page, and just generally made us feel like they’re interested in what we’ve been writing (since blogging can be a pretty lonely activity when you don’t feel like anyone is reading). And the second goal was to give our readers a chance to share in some of our favorite things. As I mentioned last week, we chose to give away some PC Insider’s Report products because I have fond memories of growing up with them in my house during the holidays. And for giveaway #2, we’re offering readers the chance to win something our kitchen is never without: great-tasting, high-quality olive oils.

Jenny and I both love good olive oils. A good bottle of olive oil is like a good wine, with a flavour profile that can be spicy, or citrusy, or fruity. And like a good wine, different olive oils are suited to different foods; some taste great on salads, some are great drizzled on top of grilled meat or fish as a finishing flavour. Some, as we’ve talked about in previous posts, are even ideal to use as a main ingredient in sweet things, such as cakes or ice cream.

Our first-ever post on Communal Table was focused on olive oils, after we were invited to a fun and informative olive oil tasting event hosted by Dolores Smith at Olivar Corp. We loved meeting Dolores and taking in some of her vast olive oil knowledge, and really loved tasting the different Spanish olive oils that Olivar Corp. imports into Canada. So we were thrilled when Dolores agreed to donate a couple of amazing olive oil prize packs for our holiday giveaway.

Thanks to Dolores’ generosity, we have two prizes to give away this week, each consisting of two bottles of high-quality Spanish olive oils from Olivar Corp.

The first prize consists of a bottle each of:

  • Rincon de la Subbetica – an organic Spanish olive oil that is the world’s most-awarded olive oil, with over 70 honours since 2006. This was one of the olive oils I sampled during the olive oil tasting Dolores led earlier this year, and it ended up being my favorite, with an interesting flavour mix of green apple and peppery spice.
  • Dauro – a blend of olives including arbequina and hojiblanca from Spain, and koroneiki from Greece. This one has a delicate taste that is praised in Japanese kitchens for its ability to pair well with wasabi, and has been featured in Nobel Prize Award banquet dinners.

The second prize pack consists of a bottle each of:

  • Full Moon – produced in limited quantities, using only the best Spanish arbequina olives harvested very early, during the full moon. This creates an olive oil that is balanced and smooth, with both fruit and a hint of pepper in the taste.
  • Parqueoliva – another highly-awarded oil, with more than 40 recognitions. This is considered a sister olive oil to the Rincon, with a slightly more intense flavour profile that includes herbs and floral notes, with a slight peppery kick.

To win one of these great olive oil prize packs:

  1. First, click this link and “Like” us to join Communal Table’s Facebook Fan Page.
  2. Second, leave a comment on our Facebook Fan Page wall stating that you want to be entered into our Holiday Giveaway #2 and also telling us what your favorite use is for a great olive oil. Please note that you must complete BOTH of these steps to be entered. If you already Like us on Facebook, leave a comment on our Facebook Fan Page wall stating that you want to enter and tell us about your favorite use for great olive oil.

**While we welcome anyone who wants to join our Facebook Fan Page, this contest is restricted to Canadian entries only.

    You have until next Monday evening, December 13, to enter. We will draw two names from all entries and those lucky winners will each be sent one of our two prize packs.

    These are great bottles of olive oil, and we’re happy to be able to share them with you, whether you’re as passionate about olive oils as we are or are looking for an introduction into the world of high-quality olive oil.

    Also, don’t forget about Communal Table’s donation drive on behalf of the Daily Bread Food Bank… all donations made are eligible to win a $200 gift certificate to North 44 Restaurant in Toronto and a signed copy of chef Mark McEwan’s new cookbook, Good Food at Home. Click here for details on how you can donate and win with Communal Table.

    Holiday Giveaway #1: New PC Insider’s Report Products from Loblaws

    30 Nov

    One of the things I love most about the holidays is the excitement that builds in my mind around traditions. Over the years as my family circle evolved, our holiday traditions did too. My parents’ divorce, relatives passing away, my moving away from home and other events led to new ways of celebrating the holidays. But no matter what’s happened, some things that I’ve grown to look forward to at Christmas haven’t changed. My mom and relatives always put out far-too-indulgent feasts of delicious food, I always make sure to get in at least one viewing of A Christmas Story, and as far as I’m concerned, Christmas isn’t officially over until I get to hear The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York at least a dozen times.

    Another holiday tradition I’ve looked forward to for as long as I remember is the President’s Choice Insider’s Report. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved reading through the pages of the Insider’s Report, with its descriptions of products reading more like stories than marketing copy. As a kid, I knew that the arrival of the Insider’s Report in the Saturday paper meant it was only a matter of time before delicious treats began making their way into our kitchen… PC Egg Nog, Chocolate Fudge Crackle Ice Cream, PC smoked salmon on Christmas morning.

    So it seems fitting that Communal Table’s first 2010 holiday giveaway is a selection of products from the latest edition of the PC Holiday Insider’s Report. We have a package of goodies that would go great with a morning of opening presents… or would make pretty good gifts themselves. Here’s what you can win:

    • A 1 lb. package of of new PC 100% single origin Hawaiian fine-grind coffee (Jenny and I are currently working our way through a package of this stuff; it’s medium bodied and flavourful – perfect for weekends!)
    • A 425 g jar of PC The World’s Best Jumbo Cashews
    • A box of the new PC Gourmet Belgian Chocolate Collection (30 chocolates in six flavours)
    • A box of the new PC Chocolate Fruit Fancies, which  are milk or dark chocolate ganache and fruit puree enrobed in Belgian chocolate

    This stuff all looks delicious, and to be honest I’d love to keep it and eat it all myself. But Jenny won’t let me, so we’re giving it all away to one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter this contest is this: Leave a comment below this post and let us know what your favorite holiday traditions are (Canadian entries only for this one). That’s it. We’ll pick a name at random from all comments left on this post by Monday, December 6, and announce the winner here next Tuesday, when we’ll also announce our next holiday giveaway prize (yep, we have more holiday surprises coming!)

    Also, don’t forget about Communal Table’s donation drive on behalf of the Daily Bread Food Bank… all donations made are eligible to win a $200 gift certificate to North 44 Restaurant in Toronto and a signed copy of chef Mark McEwan’s new cookbook, Good Food at Home.  Click here for details on how you can donate and win with Communal Table.

    Cookies, Champagne and a Cluster of Urbanites: Win tix to a fab networking event!

    24 Nov

    Last year I was invited by our friend Lisa to a very unique cocktail party that she held in her home.

    It was a women-only networking party that was also a cookie exchange. Everyone was asked to bake a few dozen cookies (or bring a bottle of bubbly if they weren’t into baking) and the idea was that we’d all get to take home an array of goodies for the holiday season. And, the party was to be filled with fabulous women entrepreneurs, freelancers and tons of creative types, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me to want to attend.

    I didn’t know a single person other than our host and though I tend to be outgoing, I was admittedly still a bit intimidated. But as soon as I had my glass of champagne in hand and the cookie exchange got started I was instantly at ease. Who knew that cookies could be an icebreaker?

    We moved around the main floor of the house where all of the cookie creations were set up in stations, and chatted each other up as we filled our containers and stocked up on the goods. Apparently cookies + booze = instant friendships.

    Everyone marveled at the creativity and variety of the cookies. I recall hand-painted macarons, dulche de leche sandwich cookies, good ‘ol fashioned gingerbread women (of course), cranberry shortbread, something involving clusters of chocolate-covered Chinese noodles (they were surprisingly delicious) and my very own chocolate-toffee-pecan biscotti, a legendary recipe my mom graciously passed on to me.

    It was a great night and I really did meet some amazing women who did become new friends and great contacts. What a creative way to bring people together for the holidays!

    Well, Lisa’s at it again this year. Only this time, it’s a full-blown extravaganza being thrown by The Hip and Urban Girl’s Guide; a lifestyle blog and Lisa’s own entrepreneurial venture.

    HUG, as it’s known, throws unique networking events all year long. This year’s Cookies and Champagne Party is being held in a beautiful art gallery space in Toronto’s Distillery District. The event will involve about 175 guests (that’s a whole lotta cookies!), swag bags, a holiday ‘market’ with local vendors and artisans selling holiday gifts, and knowing Lisa, lots of surprises.

    Communal Table is giving away a pair of tickets to this awesome event!

    All you have to do to enter is join our Facebook page (if you’re already a member then you’re one step ahead of the game!) and leave a comment on our Facebook wall saying you’d like the tickets and letting us know what you love about Communal Table and what you’d like to see more of from us in the new year. That’s it; easy as pie (or cookies, in this case).

    The winner of the tickets will be able to choose whether they would like to participate in the cookie exchange or simply attend the event for networking and mingling (no baking necessary). This giveaway is of course only for our female readers, but not to worry – we have lots of exciting things planned over the next month for all of our cyber friends.

    There are still tickets left to purchase for this event as well, so check out the website for more info and details. I’ll be there and I’d love to mingle with some of you!

    The contest is open only until midnight Thursday Nov 25th, so it’s a quickie. We’ll post the winner on our Facebook Page on Friday.

    Fro-Yo Throwdown at Menchie’s

    15 Nov

    Menchies Bloor

    As I stood in front of the toppings bar at Menchie’s, frozen yogurt cup in hand, one thought immediately crossed my mind: I don’t belong here.

    It wasn’t because I don’t share a kinship to some of the famous faces that grace Menchie’s wall of Hollywood fro-yo fanatics (Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton). It wasn’t the fact that the store’s lime green and pink motive made me feel like I’d entered some sort of Barbies-meets-Care-Bears universe. No… I felt I didn’t belong there because I’m a food lover with self control issues, and Menchie’s offers more than 80 flavours of frozen yogurt (which rotate on a regular basis) and more than 50 toppings, and charges customers not by cup size or number of toppings, but by weight. In other words, there was nothing stopping me from loading up on multiple flavours and topping them with cheesecake pieces, brownies, fresh fruit, gummis, etc… And I was at Menchie’s new Bloor St. location as an invited guest to its inaugural Blogurtfest event, so even the threat of prohibitively expensive yogurt was missing from the equation.

    Menchies frozen yogurt

    Of course, I had Jenny with me, and she usually does a good job of keeping me in check. And we were facing off against 15 other blogger teams to create the ultimate Menchie’s frozen yogurt creation, so ensuring the right mix of toppings, flavours and sauces was essential. With a judging panel that included Adell Shneer and Annabelle Waugh from Canadian Living magazine and iconic pastry chef Joanne Yolles of Scaramouche, we knew we’d have to put on our thinking caps to impress.

    Menchies Judges
    Judges at Menchie’s Blogurtfest deliberating.

    Team Communal Table decided to go with a creation inspired by Elvis’ love of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. We started with a layer of Menchie’s cake batter, which we topped with peanuts and peanut butter chips. Then, a layer of banana bread yogurt, topped with fresh banana slices and brownie pieces, caramel sauce, more peanut butter chips and a few chocolate chips. And finally, a banana chip on top for presentation. And what else could we name an Elvis-inspired, banana and brownie filled creation besides Chunky Hunka Monkey Love?

    Menchies sauces
    I’m into the sauce at Menchie’s.
    Communal Table Menchies
    Team Communal Table’s Menchie’s creation: Chunky Hunka Monkey Love

    In the end, we didn’t win. Jenn at The Fashionista Foodie took 3rd place with her Tartin-ista, 2nd place went to Banoffee Pie by Irene of Kitchen Mischief, and Beverly and Sean of Potato Chops and Boneless Chicken took top honours with their Tropical Thunder creation. But we did win an honourable mention, as the judges were impressed by our flavour combination. And since honourable mention got us a VIP card good for one Menchie’s fro-yo with any number of flavours and toppings, it looks like I’ll find myself back at Menchie’s toppings bar with price as no deterrent once again. Darn.

    Pineapple Lemon Basil Sorbet

    9 Nov

    Pineapple Lemon Basil Sorbet

    Most home cooks have a favorite kitchen appliance or tool. For me, it’s my ice cream maker. Friends of ours gave us their ice cream maker to ‘babysit’ while they lived overseas a couple years ago, and it was love at first sight. They’ve since moved back to Canada and reclaimed their machine, and we got one of our own as a wedding gift. As I’ve indicated in previous posts, our ice cream machine has gotten a pretty good workout over the past year or so.

    One thing I hadn’t tried making before this summer was sorbet. But when we spotted a bunch of intense, sweet lemon basil a couple months ago during a trip to the St. Lawrence Market, I knew a sorbet would be the best way for the flavour to shine through. I checked out a couple of sorbet recipes online to get an idea of ingredients and proportions, and went to work on creating my own recipe. I decided to add pineapple, primarily because we had half a leftover pineapple in the fridge, but also because I thought it would complement the flavour of the basil nicely. And, I decided to try using agave in place of sugar.

    Here’s my recipe for Pineapple Lemon Basil Sorbet:

    1 C lemon basil leaves, chopped
    1/2 pineapple, cored and cubed
    1/4 C agave
    1 C water
    2 tbsp tequila

    Blend basil, pineapple, agave and water in blender until well mixed. Stir in tequila (this is optional, but a little alcohol slows the freezing process a bit, improving the texture). Freeze in ice cream maker.

    That’s it. This was such an easy process – even easier than making ice cream, really (which is already a fairly simple process). And the results were more than worth the minimal effort. The lemon flavour of the basil and sweetness of the pineapple really went well together. And as much as I love making (and eating!) ice cream, sorbet is a lighter, refreshing alternative that I’ll definitely experiment with again.

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