Archive | September, 2012

A tale of confection

22 Sep

The Laura Secord chocolate

As I was reading up on my Toronto history the other day I discovered that Canada has a confectionery heroine.  It’s the bicentenary this year of the War of 1812 when America declared war on Britain assuming that victory in Canada would be certain …..

The heorine in questions is Laura Secord who in 1813 epically trekked 20 miles early one midsummer’s morning to warn the British forces of American plans for attack and thereby saving hundreds of lives.  Her tale has all the right elements for a heroine’s story; she was tended her wounded soldier husband when she heard of the attack plans, she was helped by native peoples to reach the British forces and pretty soon after her momentous journey became recognised for her bravery and determination.  However, it took some fifty or so years before she received more concrete tokens of gratitude for her efforts – in 1860 the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, on a visit to Canada rewarded the aged Secord with a £100 pension.

What I particularly like about the Secord story is the way it’s attracted additional elements added to build a truly romantic picture of the war heroine.  As Stephen Marche points out in the Walrus magazine ‘she did not do so while leading a cow. Nor was she barefoot. Although we can all agree that it would have made for a better story if she had been barefoot and leading a cow.’ Whatever the simplicity at the core of Secord’s story there’s nothing like a few pastoral embellishments to enhance a tale of selfless courage.   But whether shoed or barefoot, and with or without a cow Secord’s actions have become some of the most well known from the War of 1812.

And long lasting fame has such a sweet taste to it, in the form of Laura Secord’s chocolates; imagine that, a whole chocolate company named after you!  Such an accolade has to be worth a 20 mile hike. The first Laura Secord shop was opened in 1913 (there’s an centenary just round the corner, I wonder if that’s a free chocolate kind of event?) and by the end of the 1960s there were Secord shops from coast to coast.

Laura Secord stores in the 60s and today

I thought that it would be wrong not to try them so below is the selection I picked up from a local Secord store:

The swirling milk chocolate ball at the back had whole almonds inside, rather like an almond version of Roses hazel whirl, the pumpkins (obligatory I felt at this time of year) were milk chocolate beneath the orange, as were the Laura Secord cameo chocolates and the final chocolate at the bottom left was a French crisp which was recommended when I asked for something praliney but was perhaps a little more brittle than I’d have liked. 

The anatomy of a pumpkin; the chocolate reminded me of Cadbury’s Roses. 

The Secord chocolates are not above their own bit of mythologising, giving the profile of Laura on their signature chocolate and logo a distinctly mid-nineteenth century feel than the more severe regency appearance she might have had; a bit more American Civil War (via Gone with the Wind) than the War of 1812 in the style of Jane Austen.   Still I’m more than happy with any excuse to mix chocolate and history and I’m looking forward to seeing what cocoa filled legacy is created for 2013.


Oh, for an orchard now September’s here

19 Sep

On Sunday I returned to Spadina House, the lovely historic Austin home in Toronto, for their City Cider day, which I learnt about during my first visit when I asked ‘What do you do with all the apples from your orchard?’  With fall sunshine sparkling through the still green leaves of the apple trees and turning the kitchen garden into a riot of russets and mustard hues the day was perfect for ambling round the grounds and learning more about the process of making cider.

Spadina House had teamed up with the Not Far from the Tree, a charity which aims to make good use of surplus fruit in Toronto.  At Spadina the NFFTT challenge was to make use of the 20 or so bushels of apples which had grown on the Spadina trees.  In fact, with all the windfalls that I kept trudging over I’m sure it could be a lot more.  Now, I’ve always had difficulty getting my head around how large a bushel actually was, every time I’d read about in books or heard a character mention it in some old time movie.  So it was really helpful to see so many actual bushels of apples, giving me a mental (and digital since I took a i-phone photo) image of how much we were talking about.

I think that this photo shows at least 5 bushels

So how do you make cider?  Well it has to be said that this was non alcoholic cider, obviously without any need for fermentation a lot quicker so with the advantage that visitors could watch the process from start to finish.  First the apples were washed and then quartered but not destalked or cored, before being sent through the grinding, chopping them up into lots of rough cut pieces.  This part of the process was repeated again, with the fruit falling into a big plastic tub which was then carried over to the cider presses.  With a big hand-turned screw these forced the apple mash down, squeezing out the juice which was gathered in a tub beneath.  I enquired what happened to the pulp after the pressing process?  Well it just goes to food waste, apparently too acidic to be used as compost.  And, said a lady next to me, apple pips have arsenic in them.  Having looked it up on the internet later it turns out that it’s a cynanide compound rather than arsenic in the pips and you need to consume the pips of about 100 bushels of apples before you run any real danger of death by apple pip consumption but still, maybe I’ll hold off investigating the undiscovered potential of apple pips as cake decoration.



the apple mulch



And so to tasting…. for a very reasonable two dollars you got a little glass cupful of the freshly pressed cider.  I  had thought that they cider was heated, because they said that’s the way it would traditionally have been served but mine felt pretty much air temperature when I drank it.  The taste was great though, I’m not usually a fan of apple juice, but this wasn’t too sweet and had a rich honey colour.

There were a couple of food trucks discreetly placed to the side, so that you could purchase a little something with which to accompany your cider.  Despite having just had lunch I sidled up to have a discreet look and perhaps unsurprisingly I was tempted to try a chocolate cup cake and from the Pretty Sweet mobile bakery van, painted in fresh ice cream colours.  The cup cake was rich and moist, topped off by swirl of vanilla icing and a shake of sugar sprinkles.

I sat down on the orchard grass to savour my cider and cupcake, whilst enjoying watching the activities scattered through the trees.  There was plenty on offer to keep children amused from baby yoga to a costume tree (a lovely idea which had echoes of the folk tradition of shoe trees in South Bucks and the beautiful Tim Walker photo of clothes lanterns, though it was a pity none of the clothes were child size)  and two different music stages with a mixture of music from country to mystic.  Meanwhile on the east lawn competitive children could enjoy a good, old-fashioned sack race (my greatest sporting achievement was joint third in the sack race when I was six, a position epic enough to be marked at the time by framing the certificate but not to encourage me to try and better my result thirty years on).  The south lawn was reserved for the stately sport of croquet and offered potential croquet stars the chance to try their hand with the Lawrence Park Lawn croquet and bowling club.  Finally, running short of time I missed the chance to go into the house where they were doing demonstrations of apple butter making using the wonderful Miss Canada cooker I blogged about before.

baby yoga in action

taking me back to my days of sporting glory

So a pretty much a perfect September afternoon historic house event, and now I know first hand what happens to all Spandina’s apples.   I’m hoping that they repeat the event next year.

Dining on dim sum

16 Sep

Rol-san restaurant and Toronto patrons, dim sum morning, noon and night

What’s the earliest you’ve ever had dim sum?  Until yesterday my only pre-noon consumption of dim sum was the breakfast buffet I had in Singapore in July but after this trip I’d be quite happy to make dim sum brunch a regular outing.  My dining companions were Sue Jefferies, former curator of modern and contemporary ceramics at the Gardiner Museum and Linda Sormin, head of ceramics at Sheridan College, just outside of Toronto.  Linda recommended a dim sum restaurant Rol San, on Spandina Road, right in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, which is one of her favourites. An instant sign that it’s a great restaurant was the fact that even at 10.30am we had to be ushered to be back room as the front of the restaurant was already full.

Linda did the ordering, which was the perfect opportunity for me to be introduced to a range of new dishes (it will come as no surprise to people that Mr Kim’s selection of dim sum tends to veer towards the meat, meat and shell fish variety.)

left to right: har gau (prawn dumplings), wu gock (taro dumplings), snow pea tips, beef cheung fung (rice roll with beef), eggplant with shrimp

Pretty soon we had a table decked out with a variety of delectable and tempting dishes: beef cheung fun, har gau, lo bak goh, Eggplant with shrimp and wu gock among them.  Helpfully most of the dishes came with three pieces so there were no difficult decisions to make about who got what and we could munch away while discussing ceramics, museums and Toronto life.  Each of the dishes were delicious; most of the them, apart from the har gau, the plump prawn dumplings, were ones that I had never or rarely had, but the combination of flavours worked beautifully and the har gau, which had a great taste, were so stuffed full of prawns that my attempts to elegantly handle them with the chop sticks failed dismally as the prawns were bursting out of their rice casing.  The wu gock dumplings, cocooned in their wisps of fried taro (as Sue pointed bearing something of an echo of Linda’s ceramic work), were fantastically crisp, with a succulent pork filling.  And to accompany all of these dim sum delights Linda chose snow pea tips, gently tossed in garlic.

eggplants are one of my favourite vegetables so I loved these slices with pureed shrimp

The wispy taro dumplings.

You might have thought that by the end of this I would be so full of food I wouldn’t be able to leave the restaurant, let alone contemplate dessert, but when Linda ordered some freshly steamed custard buns, I felt that they deserved to be tried.  Now, I’m not usually a fan of Chinese desserts since I’m not particularly good with custards or sweet pastes, unless of course it’s marzipan.  But that’s maybe why I got on so well with the custard bun; its filling was almost as thick as a marzipan, with a rich vanillery taste, and all wrapped round by the rich bread.  It looked not dissimilar to a boiled egg with its fluffy white bread and sunshine yellow centre.  A perfect finish to the meal.

Linda with the steamed egg bun, with its bright yellow centre

Any one for dim sum brunch next Saturday?

Blueberry brunch bar or Cassonade cake

14 Sep

I think that this is the first time I’ve ever tried baking a cake with a crumble topping; which presented an interesting challenge; how to get the cake out of the tin?  I decided that the best method might be to cut it into four and then use a fish slice to carefully extract each large piece.  So here you see me at one down, three to go.

Cinammon and blueberries; what’s not to like?  My new Wilton baking tray (with the size helpfully embossed in the handles so you don’t need to pull out your measuring tape to check you’ve got the right size for each recipe) came with this very tempting sounding recipe for a cake with a mouth-watering medley of blueberries, cinnamon, pecans and the cassonade sugar I used for the lemon drizzle cake.

Even better still the cake was beautifully easy to make, although it did feel like I’d used half the kitchen equipment and I had bowls and measuring jugs scattered across the counter.  The sponge mixture was enriched by a half a cup of sour cream, something which I always think of as very north American and which keeps the cake really moist.  And when the cake came out of the oven the top had a great crunch to it, where the cassonade mixture had formed a crust.  The only thing I wondered as I munched through a testing slice was whether the flavour from the fresh blueberries was too subtle – would blueberry jam have worked better?   However I took some round as a gift to a friend who invited me to lunch and there were no complaints so it can’t have been all bad.  Still I might have to try another slice just to check ………

The ingredients with the cassonade, sour cream and useful butter stick. 

It’s not here but I did remember the baking powder this time. 


Making the cassonade mixture; cassonade, cinnamon and pecan pieces.



You make the cake by layering; first a layer of sponge, then cassonade mixture with blueberries….



…then another layer of sponge and topped off by cassonade mixture. 


Blueberry brunch bar or Cassonade cake recipe


½ cup softened unsalted butter

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda

¼ tsp salt

½ cup sour cream

½ light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup blueberries

Preheat the oven to 180oC.  Grease an 8 inch square baking tray.  Cream butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy and then add eggs and vanilla.  Toss flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt with a fork in another bowl and then add alternately with sour cream to creamed mixture.  Mix until smooth.  In another bowl mix brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts together.

Pour half the batter into the tray.  Mix the blueberries with half of the cassonade mixture and spread over the mixture, before adding the remaining cake mixture.  Finish off with the other half of the cassonade mixture.  Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.

Makes 8 generous slices.

Note on the recipe; I’m afraid that I haven’t done the cups to metric or imperial weights conversion but have left the plain flour with added raising agents, though I’m sure it would work equally well with self-raising flour.

MacCulloch classic no. 1 – lemon drizzle cake

13 Sep

With one (fairly) successful bake under my belt I thought it was time to see how one of my British recipes fared in Canada and decided to start with lemon drizzle cake.  This is one of my all time favourite recipes; family lore has it that the basic recipe was one which my Aunt Rena found from a gas cooker recipe book she got from a travelling gas salesman in 1930s Edinburgh.  I can remember my mother making this cake when I was a child and the family not even letting it get out the tin before we began eating it, never mind getting the sugar topping drizzled over it.  Mr Kim doesn’t like the sugar topping either but he’s responsible for the addition of the poppy seeds, which are a good foil for the lemon and sugar.  Either way it’s delicious and easy to make.   So definitely, worthwhile finding out what happened to it when I tested it in Toronto.

The Redpath cassonade sugar


The ingredients and the mixture.  By the time the mixture was in the tin I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t added the baking powder – oh well, too late now!

The first point to note was that my ingredients were slightly different from those I’d be using in the UK.  I usually make this with Stork maragrine, which gives it a lovely light texture but not having fully worked out margarines here I used butter.  The recipe originally called for a light brown sugar but I like making it with Demerara sugar.  In Canada Demerara is called cassonade, a beautifully lyrical name for a sugar which actually in texture is half way between Demerara and light brown sugar.  The mixture was quite thick so I ended up adding an extra egg.  Finally, in the UK this recipe uses self-raising flour; in Toronto I managed to get the cake all the way into the oven before reaslising that I’d forgotten to add any baking powder.

Given this potentially serious omission the cake didn’t turn out too badly at all; Mr Kim was willing to eat two pieces.  The texture was definitely finer than my UK version would have been, which seems to follow on from my experience of making the cup cakes.  It also had a darker colour to the sponge, which I put down to the quality of the cassonade.

The cake – not bad considering it’s evolution.

The poppy seeds came from another of our great discoveries Bulk Barn, which is a shop selling all manner of ingredients by weight and in bulk.  I’d been to versions of these in the UK but they always seemed rather sad and dingy places.  BB was light and bright, filled not only with a seemingly endless supply of potential ingredients (I was able to find my favourite diced apricots here which I love on breakfast cereal) but also a fantastic selection of baking accessories from tins to cookie cutters, icing pens and cup cake cases – what a great place!

BTW, if the recipe has a long history in my family so does my name and in a sense I was named after the family discoverer of this recipe so it’s entirely appropriate it’s the first MacCulloch recipe I baked in Canada.  There’s always been an Alex or one sort or another in my mother’s father’s family, whether Alexander, Sandy, Alexandra or Alexandrina.  My great aunt was an Alexandrina, hence the Rena, and my mother always wished that she had decided to give me this more unusual version of my name.  And then of course I ended up working in a palace where another Alexandrina was born…….

From Patagonia to Japan in Toronto

9 Sep

On Friday night I went along to the first of my TIFF films with a good friend.  This film was the Argentinian Gone Fishing, which was beautiful and lyrical, with a very simple story and little that actually happened, leaving plenty of time to observe people and their relationships.  The film was shot against the backdrop of the stunning Patagonian scenery with a wonderful musical soundtrack; as the director Carlos Sorin explained in his after screening Q&A (apparently these are a big part of the TIFF) it good have been only too easy to let the scenery take over but he wanted viewers to concentrate on the landscape of his characters’ faces.  One of the really interesting points to emerge from his Q&A was that only the two central characters, the recovering alcoholic father and his on screen daughter, were actors, all the others, from the guy who ran a shark fishing business to the boxing trainer and female boxer, were all people not acting at all but simply doing what they did in life.  It was as Sorin said, as if they had been training for these parts all their lives.


Alejandro Awada in Gone Fishing contemplating the coast line of Patagonia

There wasn’t much cooking in the film, just a sliver of a scene with some barbecuing,  but afterwards Sue and I went to a small and friendly Japanese restaurant,  Konnichiwa, near the university, where I had a delicious Katsu curry, sitting out front.  The intense heat of the Toronto summer has gone, leaving beautifully balmy evenings, although as many friends keep telling me winter is only just around the corner.

Toronto on the big screen

7 Sep

I’ve just been to see the film Take this Waltz, which is set in Toronto and which I managed to miss before leaving the UK.  The only cinema still showing TTW in Toronto (it came out last year) was the Mount Pleasant Cinema, a cosy, slightly shabby cinema, with rich red and gold wallpaper on the walls and about a dozen people in the audience.

Michelle Williams baking muffins at the start of Take this Waltz

My particular reason for wanting to see the film is the fact that it’s set in Toronto and I was keen to find out how the city was represented.  The answer to this is beautifully in a nostalgic rose tinted glasses kind of way.  The whole film is intense with colour, mirroring the emotional and erotic tension of the characters, though it did keep reminding me of Instagram’s 1977 colour wash!  I enjoyed the film, even if it did feel a bit too long; a scene where the central character Margot (Michelle Williams) goes down to the lake shore and you can hear a man’s voice but aren’t sure if it’s her husband or her lover, would, I think have been the perfect place to end the film.  But since I’m not a film writer/maker ……

On the food front, the film has some beautifully evocative moments, like the opening sequence of Margot making blueberry muffins and the scene when her husband is roasting a chicken (slightly unbelievably he’s a writer of cookery books about cooking chicken… at least this helped to explain why he was around the house so much.)  I also enjoyed looking at all their cooking paraphernalia in the kitchen scenes.  Other great non-food related moments in the film included the swimming pool sequences and the cold water in the shower joke, all very bittersweet.

Seth Rogen’s character busy cooking up some chicken in Take this Waltz

The Toronto International Film Festival is now in full swing and I have tickets to go and see a varied mix of three films, ranging from an Argentinian film Gone Fishing to the new Great Expectations starring Helen Boham Carter.  I shall have to see what food moments I can find in these!