My Own Personal Sweet Table

The food: Sweets Galore

The story:

I like to say that before I met my husband E, I was not a dessert person, and it was he who introduced me to the sweet table side of life, though so thorough was my conversion to the cause that I now eat something cake-ish, cookie-ish, or even, yes, candyish, twice daily, almost without fail.

The plothole in the blame-my-sweet-tooth-on-E story is that before I met him, back when I was a young office drone, I was seriously dedicated to my daily 3 p.m. chocolate bar. I even tried to give Rosemary, the main character in my first novel Looks Perfect – she’s my young, wise-cracking stand-in, only prettier, thinner, and with a cool fashion editor job – my daily chocolate bar habit. Until my editor suggested that there was no way Rosemary would fit into sample size dresses if she ate a chocolate bar every day. As well as regular food.

Nowadays, thanks to some careful calorie juggling, I’m able to eat my (usually smallish, and carefully rationed, but always delicious) desserts without gaining weight, and work some variety into the selection too.

One day, I might have with my afternoon tea some cute and crunchy pistachio/chocolate//almond “mosaic” biscotti (about 25 cents each) from Alimento, a charming Italian fine food shop and bakery near King and Spadina in Toronto. That same evening, after a light dinner, I might allow myself a piece or two of the aptly named Chocolate Caramel Crack. This salty-sweet chocolate on a matzo cracker is so addictive when made with premium dark chocolate (50% or more) and chopped pecans, that I whip up batches before and after Passover, as well as during.

This lemon curd cake – moist pink and yellow cake layered with lemon curd – at Alimento also called me the first time I saw it in the bakery case there. And at only $2 per slice, I usually buy two (but try to eat only one per sitting).

In fact, my devotion to lemon curd was such in the last year or so, that I was inspired to sample a variety of lemon meringue tarts in various locations. I cured myself of that obsession, however, after the one-two punch of the over-the-top versions shown below – the first from Pusateri’s in Toronto, the second from Sweet Lady Jane in Los Angeles – did me in. I mean, come on – is the height of the meringues on these two specimens not ridiculous? And the ratio of meringue to lemon is seriously out of whack.

Lemon meringue tart from Sweet Lady Jane

My trip to bakery-to-the-stars Sweet Lady Jane in search of a lemon meringue tart was not in vain, however, for it was at the West Hollywood location that I encountered my favorite cake of the year so far – a triple berry shortcake. And to think that I only bought a slice of it to begin with, during my second visit to the store, because the lemon meringue tarts were not ready at the specific time I had been promised during my first visit (ahem).

Sweet Lady Jane describes the triple berry shortcake as “a yellow butter cake filled with three layers of lightly sweetened whipped cream and layers of fresh berries … frosted with whipped cream and decorated with buttercream vines and fresh berries,” and indeed there is nothing shortcake-y or biscuity-y about it. The luscious, light combination of moist cake, fresh whipped cream and fresh berries tasted so good that I was driven to create a humbler but still delectable home version months later, in Toronto, pictured at the top of the post and again here.

Berry Cream Cake, Hungry Novelist Style

I used a Dr. Oetker mix for a European style lemon cake (don’t judge: it comes out light, moist, and tasting extremely unmixlike, partly because it calls for the addition of 3 fresh eggs) to which I added the zest of one lemon. I split the baked cake – the top of which puffs up during baking in the oven, then settles down into a thin, nicely caramelized top crust – with macerated berries and dollops of fresh whipped cream.

Try restricting yourself to one slice of that gorgeousness per day. I know you can.

Alimento Food Emporium on Urbanspoon

Sweet Lady Jane on Urbanspoon

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Beautiful Beignets

The food: beautiful Parisian-style beignets from Thobor

Thobor's mini beignet

The story:

I’m currently fiending – that is, loving, craving and rapidly becoming obsessed by – the incredibly delicious, incredibly cheap (only 80 cents each!) mini-beignets from Thobors Boulangerie Patisserie Cafe in Toronto, a small French bakery that is open 5 days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday.

At the Thobors shop, the beignets are sold in sizes mini and regular, unfilled or filled (for 20 cents more) with a choice of applesauce, raspberry jam, nutella and some kind of cream.

My favorite way to eat the beignets is filled with something lemony, as I discovered by accident this week, while questing for a lemon meringue tart to enter in round 3 of my lemon meringue tart wars (click here for round one results and here for round two).

On a hot day when I couldn’t muster the energy to drive out to bakeries in Leslieville or the Beach where I suspected a lemon meringue tart worthy of duking it out in round 3 might be found, I rode my bicycle instead to nearby Thobors and bought a luscious looking lemon tart, sans meringue, because I was feeling lazy, okay? And because it looked delicious. While I was in the small shop, comme d’habitude, I picked up a beautifully sugared mini-beignet, unfilled, for later.

The lemon tart, though packaged nicely at the bakery, got a bit roughed up in my bike basket, and looked like this when I got it home:

After I’d sworn – in English – I used my limited food styling skills to try to restore it, without great success:

Then I ate half of it. The lemon curd was exemplary – sweet, eggy, buttery, intensely lemony, and not adulterated by any milk or cream (is there not something scary about making a lemon tart with condensed milk? There is). But the pastry – a no doubt excellent rendition of a pâte sablée – did not amuse me. In fact, I hated its crumbly, cookie-ish texture. I was looking at the second half of the smushed tart and thinking about how I wanted to eat the lemon curd but that it would be a bit gross to spoon it directly into my mouth, when I remembered loving the Italian sfingi donuts served with lemon curd at Enoteca Sociale.

In a matter of moments, I had extracted my beignet from its bag, sliced it open, scooped out the remaining lemon curd from the tart shell and tucked it into the beignet’s cavities.

How did it taste? So fucking amazing that I’m working up the courage to make some homemade lemon curd soon. And until I can come up with the guilt-free fortitude to execute a recipe that calls for 6 eggs, a 1/2 pound of butter, and 1 cup sugar to yield 2 cups of curd, I’m filling my daily (3 days in a row, so far) mini-beignet with some almost as good lemon honey, and loving every bite.

Lemon Meringue Tart Wars Round 2

The food: more lemon meringue tarts

The story:

Now that we’re in round two of the Hungry Novelist lemon meringue tart round-up (see round one here), it’s time to institute a completely arbitrary and subjective scoring system. Because I can.

Each tart judged in this round will be scored out of 19 with up to 5 points given for each of:
1) visual appeal
2) filling and meringue taste/quality
3) crust taste/quality

and up to 2 points given for each of:
1) shop ambiance, and
2) value for money

Contestant #1 in this round is a tart from the new Yonge Street branch of Nadege, a jewel box of a patisserie that originated on Queen West and recently set up shop in the tonier Summerhill area.

The design of the Yonge Street shop is similar to the award-winning look of the Queen Street shop, with a looks-like-it’s-curated selection of pastries, croissants, cakes and macarons displayed as if they were precious objects. Even the box that the $5.50 lemon meringue tart comes in is design-y:

Here’s the Nadege tart:

I’ll give it 1.5 for shop ambiance (the shop is lovely but a little off-putting/intimidating, like I felt I ought to be dressed better and be wearing more makeup than I usually am, just to enter it), 3.5 for the nicely circular swirled design of the rather pallid-looking meringue, 4 for the taste of the filling and meringue and the generous quantity of the lemon filling, 3 out of 5 for its competent but not-my-favourite cookie-style crust, and 2 for value, especially compared to the other cakes on display which cost around $8+ for tiny little things, some smaller than this tart. Total points: 14.

Next up is a tart I bought in a moment of madness at a Loblaws bakery counter. The tart was labelled as being from La Rocca bakery, though I can’t find it on the La Rocca website, so maybe it’s from somewhere else.

Its conehead look was intriguing (I gave it 4/5 for appearance) but it tasted nasty, with a chemical-ish aftertaste to the filling and meringue and a yucky, possibly almond-pasteish flavour to the crust. It was so bad I threw it out after taking two bites. It gets 2 zeroes for taste, and 1 out of 2 for value, because at $2.99 it was cheap. Total score: 5/19

The round two winner, then, is the tart shown at the top of the post, and in cross-section below, from Frangipane, a charming patisserie on Dupont Street at Madison.

The shop gets a 2/2 score for being cosy, friendly and pretty; the look of the tart a 5 for the nicely browned, pleasingly shaped meringue, the taste of the filling a 4.5, and the crust a 4, because though it’s a shortbread crust, it’s a good shortbread crust. At $5.50 per, its value also garners a 2/2 score, making its total 17.5 out of 19, and coming in at a close second behind the round one winner from the Canadian Pie Company (score: 18) which, though pricey, is still the best, in my particular and perhaps peculiar opinion, in either round.

Lemon Meringue Tart Wars, Round One

The food: lemon meringue tarts

The story:

I like finely crafted desserts as much as the next food obsessive, but I balk at a price of more than five bucks for one serving. And I scoff when presented with a restaurant dessert menu that lists items costing $10-$15. Hah! And no thanks.

This professed frugal attitude does not explain why I purchased an individual Bouchon Bakery lemon meringue tart at the SoHo Dean & Deluca store during a recent trip to New York, and willingly handed over $8 for it. I guess I was swayed by how pretty the tart looked (above). And because it seemed big enough to split in half and eat on two separate occasions in one day – once after lunch, and once after dinner. Or so my rationalization went.

I actually did end up portioning this tart out over two occasions. Partly because upon tasting it, I was disappointed to find it did not constitute my idea of lemon meringue tart perfection. The lemon filling was generous, tart, and sweet, and the meringue was nicely textured (soft and airy inside, a whisper-thin browned crust on the outside), but I did not care for the crumbly cookie-type base on the tart, being more of a classic pastry fan.

Back home in Toronto, I was charmed by both the price (only $4!) and lovely look of the individual lemon meringue tarts sold at Bobbette & Belle, a beautiful Leslieville bakery cafe devoted to artisanal pastries and high-end, custom made special occasion cakes.

The tart was almost as pretty as the store, but when I cut it open, I had another disappointment:

the layer of lemon curd was too thin to make any flavour impact.*

The winner, then, in the first round of the international lemon meringue tart wars that I will heroically continue to wage – and make caloric sacrifices for – in the coming months, is the $7 lemon meringue tart from The Canadian Pie Company shop/cafe on Queen Street East in Toronto.

This tart has it all: a pleasingly flaky pastry shell, generous layers of exemplary lemon curd filling and meringue, and a pretty, hand-crafted appearance.

The $7 price is a bit out of my range, but the tart can sometimes be found for $6 at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, and either price can be justified according to the make-one-serving-into-two rule. Provided you’ve got the iron will to exercise that rule, that is.

*By the way, Bobbette & Belle’s blueberry scone, served with butter, was very nice:

Bobbette & Belle on Urbanspoon

Warm and Winning Market Fare

The food: winter market fare

The story:

The farmers’ market at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks site still runs on Saturday mornings in wintertime – and through the wintry spring we’re currently enduring – though the market’s fare these days is by necessity focused more on prepared foods than on fresh farm produce.

A recent delicious discovery I made there is a spinach and goat cheese quiche-type tart – only one of several sweet and savoury pies on offer at The Canadian Pie Company stand. Six dollars (slightly cheaper than at the company’s own Queen Street East shop!) buys an individual savoury tart made with eggs, organic spinach and goat cheese wrapped in flaky, puffy pastry. Reheated and served with a green salad, the tart makes a perfect weekend lunch, or with the addition of some roasted carrots or squash, a lovely light dinner.

While at the Brickworks, I also picked up some fresh sheep milk’s ricotta from the Monforte Dairy stand, so that I could once again make a home version of the fresh ricotta with toast that I so loved at Locanda Verde in New York.

This time around, I used walnut raisin bread from Toronto’s St. John’s Bakery – also available at the Brickworks Market – as a base. Here’s how a slice looks toasted:

I topped that with the Monforte ricotta, and drizzled it with warmed orange honey (from the Tasmanian Honey Company) that I had picked up from Honey World, a small booth in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market that specializes in honey from New Zealand, offers free samples to all comers, and was an indirect source of inspiration for the Honey Hut store I featured in my Toronto Noir story “A Taste of Honey.”

After being sprinkled with a few fresh thyme leaves and a few grains of red Hawaiian sea salt, this part local, part global, all market creation – and taste explosion – was ready to enjoy.

A Bakery in Every Port

The food: superlative baked goods at bakeries here, there and everywhere

The story:

Such is my love of artisanal quality baked goods that I seek out bakeries wherever I go. For instance, while in Old Montreal recently, E and I stopped by Olive & Gourmando, a bakery café often touted as Montreal’s best. Ours was a breakfast visit, where we were well-served by a banana ‘muffin’ with walnuts ($3.50) shown above, and a feathery light cheese croissant ($2.50):

Both were photographed perched on top of a Bixi bicycle seat, by the way.

A few recent speaking engagements at out of town literary festivals also gave me an excuse to sample tasty baked goods. After my appearance at the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, staged on the grounds of the lovely Stephen Leacock House/Museum, for example, I was introduced to the quaint yet awesome Mariposa Market Bakery Café, a large, homey enterprise located in a century-old store on Orillia’s main drag:

I failed to photograph the sweet, moist and delicious peach blueberry loaf cake I bought there, but it was only one of the many, many freshly baked goods on offer.

Last week, I read and spoke at the Kingston WritersFest, a lively literary festival in its second year and going strong. When in Kingston, I always try to visit Pan Chancho Bakery, a sophisticated, upscale bakery that makes gloriously savoury and addictive cornmeal dusted bread sticks that are the perfect accompaniment to a salad or a bowl of soup for lunch.

Pan Chancho also offers a full slate of artisanal breads, rolls, cookies, scones, and prepared foods. And the cooked breakfasts served at its café, though a little pricey, are excellent.

Closer to home, I helped Humber School for Writers host events at the Humber School for Writers Wordshop Marquee at Toronto’s Word on the Street festival this past Sunday. We had large crowds at the tent all day – thanks to all who came out! And I always like going down to the Queen’s Park site, knowing that Harbord Bakery, the source of my dearly beloved triple kimmel rye bread, my breakfast staple, is nearby.

Hmm. Hot buttered triple kimmel toast.