WFD? French Onion Soup Canadian Style

January should be dubbed the Month of Soups. I mean is there anything you are craving more after the blitz of holiday feasting? What else could be more ideal to beat the January blahs when the weather is snowy and blowy and the daylight sparse? Dig deep into a piping hot bowl of onion soup and it will be like your very own sunbeam, defying those gray wintery skies out the window. We’re enjoying the post-holiday peacefulness and the dismal weather outdoors makes it even easier to cozy up inside and read the baby names book. Since we don’t know if we are having a boy or a girl, there is even more discussion of names than usual. It’s so hard to pick! French onion soup should not be rushed. Well, the onion chopping part, yes. Blitz through that as fast as you can while still maintaining five digits on each hand, then once they are in the pot, pour yourself a little white wine and read a cookbook or food blog while they slowly caramelize and take on that dark brown color.
In this version, the sweetness of the onions is enhanced slightly by a tad of maple syrup and the soup is given an extra Canadian touch with the addition of our own aged cheddar cheese.
French Onion Soup Canadian Style 2 tbsp canola oil
2 lbs sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper
6 slices baguette, toasted
2 cups aged Canadian cheddar such as Perron, or Gruyere, shredded Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until caramelized. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in maple syrup. Add the broth, wine and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat broiler.
Divide soup between 6 ovenproof bowls. Top with toast slices and equal amounts of cheese. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes or until cheese melts and lightly browns. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and serve.

Montreal’s Best Cupcake and then some…

Montreal seems to be one of the last major North American cities to catch the cupcake fever. Perhaps it is because we have such a fine selection of standard French pastries available at every corner boulangerie, that cupcakes tend to fall into the category of kindergarten birthday-party sweets.Not anymore.

Gourmet cupcake shops are popping up all over Montreal as fast as potholes on Decarie Boulevard, already three in just the last six months! Surprising for a city where until recently, (unless you shopped in the bakery section at Loblaws) if you wanted a cupcake, you had to make it yourself. Now that there are four bake shops scattered over the city where you can pick up one of these trendy little cakes, there is bound to be one close to chez vous.
Google ‘cupcake New York’ and you will get about 1.3 million hits, where ‘cupcake Montréal’ will give you a little over one hundred thousand. Why is there such a cupcake craze south of the border, and how did we Montrealers end up with three new ‘boutique de cupcakes’ in a matter of a few months?
I decided to try and find out. A cupcake tasting was needed. Urgently. Have we been missing something? Have our noses been buried so far into our napoleons, pithiviers, and tarte au pommes that we have been overlooking such an elementary delicacy as the cupcake?
Somehow I doubted it.
But! An afternoon of nibbling sweets sounded pretty nice, so I rounded up three of my girlfriends, each a bona fide baker in their own way and none of them watching their weight, and we stoically set out to complete our task. I think it’s probably been at least a year since I’ve made cupcakes, and even then they were only to donate to a kid’s camp. I may not be a cupcake connoisseur, but I was confident I would know perfection when my tongue encountered it. I was looking for perfection and perfection only, here’s why:
The average cupcake in Montreal sells for $3. That’s three dollars and forty cents with tax, thank you very much. It is the equivalent of a sublime Vahlrona chocolate brioche at Olive et Gourmando, two flawless croissants from the Fromentier, or about five Polish prune paczki from Wawel.
These had better be really, really good cupcakes. With a bag of icing sugar retailing around $1.99 and a box of cake mix the same, I can whip up a couple dozen for the cost of one of these designer cupcakes.
New York City’s Magnolia Bakery, credited with starting the whole cupcake craze, (popular thanks to regularly screen time on Sex and the City) sells their celebrity cupcakes for $2. Other well known cupcakes shops in Manhattan, such as Sugar Sweet Sunshine, sell for even less, $1.50, so why the huge hike just six hours north? It’s not like we have to fly the frosting and sprinkles in by seaplane or anything. Come on!
Ok, so where are these shops, you ask, and more importantly, where are the photos??
At first glance at the business cards gathered from our tour, one might assume there are universal rules for owning a cupcake shop: you colors must be pink and brown. Either that, or there is cupcake mafia already and they have a hand in all these bakeries. In Montreal, it wouldn’t surprise me. Showcase at Cho’cola
5601 Monkland, 514.485.cola. Open since: June ’07
Price per cupcake: $2.95 Seating: indoor and outdoor
. Cho’cola is a nut-free environment. Cho’cola was our first stop. We passed by the attractive outdoor terrace (which is sure to be a big draw even if the cupcakes don’t work out) and into the ultra-modern, girly-girly pink interior. Under the counter, an army of cupcakes stood at attention, leaving me to wonder about freshness issues. It is 3 PM on a Wednesday, folks, are you really going to sell all these cupcakes? I found the colors of frosting rather dull and the decorations very ho-hum average. (above photo)
We chose four and it’s a good thing I jotted them down at the time of eating, because they were completely forgettable.
Key lime had a pretty swirl of meringue topping it, but the cupcake had about as much of a citrus taste as a Ritz cracker. There was a florescent green blob of something in the middle and I am assuming this was the namesake key lime. The cake part was probably just plain vanilla, but I guess it would have involved actually reaching for a real lemon to change that, and we all know how much work that is!
A carrot cupcake had mixed reviews. The girls used the word ‘muffin’ more than once, however, I was focusing more on the tasty cream cheese icing. It was OK.
A ‘Chocolate Fever’ cupcake was about as low-grade as they get. This was our first stop of the day and I was dying to sink my teeth into something really, really chocolaty. Unfortunately, this light brown, hint-of-cocoa cupcake did nothing for me and its heavy icing was way overkill. Doubling the height of the cupcake, it was a disturbing pile of pasty, overly-sweet frosting that hadn’t even come close to a stick of butter.
Finally a Chai Latte Cupcake helped smooth our ruffled feathers as we pronounced it the best, yet it was hardly more exciting than a plain vanilla cupcake with a few specks of spices. You have to wonder about a place that has row after row of bottled water with their label on it, but no website to speak of. Granted they have only been open a few weeks, but in this day and age where branding and marketing seem of paramount importance (hence the branded water), you would think that at least getting up a homepage with some contact info would be a priority.
I couldn’t help but get the feeling that if Betty Crocker came back in a time machine from the past, she would have opened Cho’cola, as the cupcakes have that straight-from-a-box taste. Petits Gateaux.
783 Avenue Mont-Royal Est. 514.510.5488.
Open since: May ’07
Price per cupcake:$2.95 Seating: yes
Truth be told, I was rooting for this Plateau bakery. We lived in this corner of Montreal during the first few years we were married and it will always hold sweet, sweet memories for me. Unfortunately, Petits Gateaux didn’t help me make any new sweet memories.
The decor is cute enough, minimalistic, modern and fun, but it was here we encountered the worst of our research. “You ladies choose which ones to get.” I offered, (usually the first to make my selection loud and clear.)
“Oh, I don’t know, you decide.”
“No, YOU!” Maybe my friends we just trying to be nice, but I kept scanning the case, desperately looking for temptation and finding none. If you looked closely, past the sprinkles and large rosettes of crusty icing, you could see the hard, cracked edges, signaling a dense, dry cupcake. Red alert! We managed to choose three: banana caramel, coconut and chocolate ganache. The bright blue coconut-quaffed cupcake looked cheery enough, but all the coconut fell off at the first bite and the baking soda taste was too overwhelming to continue eating. Too bad, because it was the fluffiest one. When cut in half, the banana cupcake looked about as appealing as a day-old Tim Horton’s bran muffin. And I hate Timmy’s. As I had predicted, it was very dry. On the flip side, the chocolate ganche cupcake was moist to the point of being messy. It fell apart the second I touched it, and more resembled a brownie than a cupcake. Tip: don’t eat this on a date where you are trying to impress. Itsi-bitsi,
2621 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 514.509.3926. Opened:December ’06
Price per Cupcake $2.50, Seating: limited
Itsi-bitsi was a slight encouragement to our sinking spirits. So far we were not finding the perfection we were looking for and our stomachs were starting to churn from the large doses of gummy icing.
With a bright, cheery interior, Itsi-bitsi was very welcoming and the cupcake displays were the best we had seen yet. Each cupcake sat in a round hole in a notched piece of wood that slid out like a drawer for the case. It was impeccably clean and very chic looking. There were enough cupcakes on display to chose from, but not so many that you start to wonder if they have sold any at all that day.
We chose just two to taste, as basic vanilla and chocolate ginger. If you can’t get these two flavors perfected, there’s no point in moving on!
I loved the icing on both of these cupcakes. It was generous, yet not overdone; fluffy and creamy with a buttery taste that absolutely has to be there for me! The vanilla cupcake was tasty, very nice, but still not worth the steep price. I would probably go back for their chocolate-ginger cupcakes. Light in texture and dark with chocolate, they had bits of candied ginger throughout that livened them up somewhat.Still, the chocoholic inside of me wasn’t completely satisfied. It was looking for something better, something worthy of the title of Montreal’s Best Cupcake. A cupcake that made the world stop turning for a few seconds when you bit into it. An experience.Something like this….

Montreal’s Best Cupcake: Chocolate-Chai from Cocoa Locale

Cocoa Locale.
4807 Park Avenue. 514.271.7162. Opened: Summer ’05
Price Per cupcake: $3 Seating: a bench
I knew our mission was accomplished the second I bit into one of Reema Singh’s cupcakes at Cocoa Locale. Owner of the teeny-tiny Mile-End shop, Reema does all the baking herself and alongside other assorted baked goods, offers three kinds of cupcakes: vanilla, lemon and chocolate-chai. Of course we took one of each.
We knew this was the end of the search for the best cupcakes; we didn’t even have to say anything. Seated on the grass at Parc Jean Mance, we collectively nodded our heads, sighed and licked our fingers. Perfection was found. What a relief!
The delicate lemon cupcake tasted exactly as it should: like lemon! With a fine crumb, produced only by a cake made from scratch, and a thinned-out lemon buttercream icing, this cupcake is the ultimate garden party confection.
The vanilla cupcake, usually the most basic of flavors, was actually the most complex. Whatever trick Reema has up her sleeve must be working, because this was the best vanilla cupcake I’ve ever had!
However, the ultimate part of my day was my first bite into the chocolate cupcake. It was the kind of deep, dark, rich chocolate flavor that makes a chocolate-lover’s knees go weak. I wanted to rub that cupcake all over my body. Mmm, let me just sit here for a minute and remember it. Cocoa Locale only uses the best chocolate: Valrhona, and I heartily approve! Also, the subtle chai compliments the chocolate beautifully, taking this cupcake up another level. That now puts it way, way above any other cupcake we tried that day.
Now I know I am not the first to sing the praises of Cocoa Locale. It’s been around for a few years, I am just sorry that I am only discovering it now. We were all charmed by this little shop-around-the-corner and agreed that it certainly made a trip up to Mile-End worthwhile. It’s interesting how all these new copy-cat designer cupcake shops can’t hold a candle to Montreal’s own original little bakery. It’s not that the other cupcakes were terrible, they were just not worth $2.95 each. The quality of ingredients and the care just wasn’t there. Sure there was plenty of pretty packaging, fancy lighting, style and more than one Joe/Jane who knows their way around a piping bag, but ultimately in the end there was always flaws that no amount of icing -or sprinkles- could disguise.
Montreal is already widely known for its gastronomic strengths, perhaps once our cupcake bakeshops (with the exception of Cocoa Locale) work out their kinks, our city will have yet another feather in it’s culinary cap.

Only for the Die-Hard Sugar Addicts: Pouding Chomeur

Pouding Chomeur or “Poor Man’s Pudding” with Maple Walnut Ice Cream

Pouding chomeur could quite possibly be the best dish I have discovered since moving to Quebec from BC eight years ago. It certainly is not a dessert that I would have been exposed to growing up, as it probably contains more sugar that I was ever allowed in a month; but that’s probably why I like it so much. Yep, I had to grow up and move away from home before I could subject my body to lethal amounts of pure sweetness–paired with ice cream too!

In case you have no idea what I am talking about, I will clarify that pouding chomeur is simply a spongy white cake baked in a lake of maple syrup and cream. The result is an ultra moist golden cake nestled in a lave-hot maple sauce; sticky, satisfying, and oh, did I mention sweet? One of the good things that came out of the Depression, Poor Man’s Pudding is made several different ways, the most common being with brown sugar and butter. I prefer to make it with maple syrup as it seems to better represent the province. Think: Quebec-in-a-bowl.

Of course, with the price of maple syrup these days they might want to think about changing the name.

I live to serve pouding chomeur warm from the oven with a bowl of ice cream to compliment it. And while you are at it, why not make it maple ice cream?

Pouding Chomeur or Poor Man’s Pudding 1/3 cup butter
½ cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cup pure maple syrup
1 ½ cup whole cream Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in egg. Fold in flour and baking powder and mix until just smooth. Refrigerate 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 400F and prepare 8 ovenproof ramekins. Combine syrup and cream in a small pot and bring to a boil.
Dribble a few tablespoons syrup into the bottom of the ramekins and top with a few tablespoons of cake batter. Pour remained of syrup over cake until ramekins are at least 2/3 full. It will seem like very little cake to syrup ratio, but if you put too much cake batter it will be too dry.
Place ramekins on a baking sheet or pizza pan as they may boil over and this prevents a mess in the bottom of your oven!
Bake until cake is lightly golden and syruphas thinkened, about 15 minutes. Serve warm. This recipe is adapted from Chef Martin Picard who credits Restaurant Soup Soup for the recipe.
Maple Walnut Ice Cream 1 cup shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 ¼ cups milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 ¼ cups whipping cream Spread walnuts out on a baking sheet and grill them under moderate heat for 2-3 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch into a bowl and whisk until think and foamy. Pour the milk into a heavy-based saucepan, bring to a boil, then gradually whisk it into the yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over gentle heat, stirring constantly until the custard thickens and is smooth. Pour the custard back into the bowl, and stir in the maple syrup. Leave to cool, then chill. Stir the whipping cream into the custard and churn in an ice cream machine until the mixture is thick. Scrape into an airtight container. Fold in nuts and freeze until firm.

WFD? Smoked Meat Sandwich with Celery Root Remoulade

Montreal’s famous smoked meat on rye with a remoulade of celery root and pecans
One cannot live in Montreal for very long without devouring a smoked meat sandwich, be it from the famous Schwartz’s, or at the corner casse croute. Thanks to contributions from the local Jewish community, we have the best smoked meat in North America. If you think you’ve never had smoked meat, it’s what Americans call corned beef or pastrami and the British call salt beef, so maybe you’re just had it under another guise.

We like to buy ours straight from the butchers rather than order it in a restaurant and we’re convinced that the best in Montreal can be found at …..ready?…a small, family run place in Point St-Charles called Quebec Smoked Meat (1889 Center St. (514) 935-5297) Don’t look for a website or anything like that, this place is so old school they don’t even have Interac and operate strictly on a cash basis. It seems like the two guys behind the counter have been there forever and nothing ever changes in the store.
Thank goodness for that, because their meat is something to write home about. It’s even something to pack in your carry-on and bring home with you for visits, which I have been known to do. Who cares if I smell like a traveling Ukrainian deli?

Quebec Smoked Meat has been around long enough that Danny remembers when he was a six-year-old living around the corner and going there with his mom. Ordering is simple: two pounds of sliced smoked meat, two loaves of Kimmel (caraway rye) bread and a jar of kosher pickles. (Incidentally, that was our purchase on the way home from the hospital with two-day-old Noah. A very wise one too, as we didn’t have to cook for a few days)

Most places heap up a pile of fries next to the smoked meat sandwich, but I prefer a salad and until we start getting some spring lettuce that actually tastes like a green, my choice is a creamy celery-root remoulade. Celery root (also called celeriac or ‘knob celery’ which I kinda like but would look silly on a menu) is a relative of the humble celery that is developed for its root rather than it’s stalks. It’s pretty popular here in Quebec and local chefs like to play around with it in soups and salads, passing it off as something gourmet, when really most cookbooks ignore it as if it’s some kind of cow fodder.

The truth? It’s delicious! A welcoming burst of flavor and a much-needed crunch to my palate which has grown tired of tasteless lettuce from California. I keep it simple: make a quick julienne, a dressing, toss a handful of nuts in, and voila, the perfect side to a Medium Fat Smoked Meat Sandwich.
All I need now is a cherry coke.

Celery Root Remoulade with Pecans: 1 small celery root, peeled and julienned fine, (about 2 cups)
¼ cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix cream and Dijon together. Season with salt and pepper; toss with celery root and pecans. Check seasoning again and adjust if needed.
Serve immediately.

WFD? Not Your Granny’s Tourtiere

I have a confession. I have never made tourtiere. I mean, I’ve never had to in all my 8 years in Quebec. I’ve always been around people who have the best tourtiere recipe that was handed down from their grand, grand, grand-mere and are more than happy to make it for me. Everyone’s recipe is different, yet each boast that theirs is the true way to make tourtiere (meat pie, to those of you who are lost.)

Being half British and half Ukrainian, I never inherited such a recipe, but give me a bag of potatoes and some flour and I can whip up a mean batch of perogies. In all my past Christmases, I have either relied on the skills of others, or nipped over to my local marché that carries amazing beef, pork, chicken, duck, or elk tourtiere, because it’s just not possible to have a Joyeux Noel without tourtiere.

However, after eight years it’s time to come up with my own recipe, my own blend of spices, my own mixture of meat, and create that perfect recipe so that I can hand it down to my great, great grandchildren. From what I have gathered, pretty much anything goes inside as long as it’s rich and flavorful: duck, foie gras, Balsamic vinegar, mushrooms, venison, potatoes, rabbit, cranberries…

I chose a traditional mix of meats-veal, pork and beef- and added a few of my own favorites that I thought would complement the meat: apples, bacon, Dijon and the freshest blend of spices I could get my hands on. The result was pretty fabulous, not bad for a first time! Although I’m not 100% sure that this is THE recipe and I’d like to keep playing around a bit more in upcoming years, this one will definitely tide us over for these holidays!

We enjoyed it with a robust Les Cranilles cotes-du-rhone, Les Vines de Vienne 2004

and that about put us over the moon..

I hope you enjoy it too, and please, hold the ketchup, ok?
Not Your Granny’s Tourtiere

Make 4- 9inch tourtieres

2 kgs. ground meat: pork, beef and veal 2 tablespoons duck or bacon fat 3 medium onions, diced 3 apples, peeled and diced 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard ¼ cup white flour 6 thick slices slab bacon, cubed 3 branches celery, diced 6 whole cloves 10 peppercorns 2 inch stick of fresh cinnamon 5 whole allspice 2 bay leaves 4 cups beef stock salt to taste Four double pie crusts
In a spice grinder, grind cloves, peppercorn, cinnamon and allspice until fine. Reserve. In a large, heavy duty pot, melt the duck fat and brown all the meat, separating it into pea-sized chunks with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Strain into a colander and let the fat drain out while you return the pot to the stove. Add bacon and sauté lightly; add onions and celery; sauté until wilted. Return the browned meat to this mixture and to this add the ground spice mixture, the bay leaves and the beef stock. Mix well and cook on medium low heat until liquid is reduced by half; stir often. In a mixing bowl combine apples and flour until apples are well coated. Add Dijon mustard and mix well. Remove meat mixture from heat and add apples; stir to combine. Liquid should be all absorbed. Season with salt and cool.

Roll out tourtiere dough and fill pie shells with tourtiere filling. Top with another pie dough and seal edges. Cut a few slits or a design in the top to allow hot air to escape and brush with beaten egg. Bake at 375F until crust is nicely browned.

These freeze well, either before or after baking.