Eat, Drink (and Breathe) Carrot Cake

I was the oddball kid who grew to favour pseudo-healthy food for breakfast. I began with an oversized appetite for Eggo toaster waffles drenched in melted margarine, Nesquik cereal nuggets that doubled as chocolate milk-makers, and my mom’s doctored up Betty Crocker butter pecan cakes. But gradually, I developed an affinity for fibre-filled flax and bran flakes, steel cut oats simmered in cinnamon-infused milk, Greek yogurt with a rotation of seedy and nutty accoutrements, and, above all, carrot cake.

Sure, carrot cake hardly comes close to health food status. And it rarely makes an appearance at the breakfast table. But in my sugar-spun fantasy world, I would eat carrot cake for breakfast at least once weekly, if not more, without fear of turning orange. Moist (I have no qualms about using the word), gently spiced, springy slices of carrot cake, frosted white and ribboned with coconut, and studded with walnuts and fleshy fruit gems.

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I became reacquainted with the charm of carrot cake three years ago while visiting New York. One August morning, I rose before the sun, loosened my belt and donned my Toms, and began a pilgrimage through the foodie Mecca aptly nicknamed “The Big Apple.” My hundred-some-block journey by foot took me down thoroughfares less touched by tourists, exposing me to the kaleidoscope of a city that New York is: ever-moving, ever-evolving, ever-multicoloured. For every surly man skulking in the alleyway, lighting up a cigar (or was it a joint?), there is an ebullient woman with unabashedly ruby lips swaying her hips and singing aloud to her music. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Much the same could be said of Billy’s Bakery, where, in a city often condemned for being cold and impersonal, warm pastries and equally warm conversation awaited me. The cashier, who introduced himself as “Vlad,” poured me cup of milk (soon to be followed by a second with the “neighbourhood discount”) and sliced me a slab of carrot cake that one crossword, two Sudoku puzzles, and two cups of milk could not even help me to finish. The cake was enough to make me really mean it when I told Vlad to have a nice day. And it was enough to leave me perpetually dreaming about carrot cake for three years, inspiring cake and smoothie recipes all the while.

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Flashback: Painting My D.C. Summer by Numbers (08/11/12)

To commemorate my first month as a “real-world” D.C. resident, enclosed below is an excerpt of a blog post about my first D.C. summer, three years ago and pre-real world.  


Here are some highlights of and reflections on my nine-week stay in this thriving city, in numerical form:

First Time in Washington, D.C., A Summer of Many Firsts

I had visited the capital cities of my ancestral motherland and my homeland, but never that of my birthplace, Washington D.C. Ten minutes into my stay in D.C., I got my first glimpse of American national monuments, perhaps a peek of the Capitol Building in the distance, I sensed the gravity of this place, felt a private thrill at the prospect of living, working, and existing in such an importance place for the next nine weeks.

I had good reason to be excited. D.C. is to Beijing and Ottawa as NYC is to Shanghai and Toronto. The former is the latter’s less vivacious and less schizophrenic, but more civilized and equally important brother. In the summertime, D.C. is especially vibrant. You can feel the energy of the city and its inhabitants wherever you go that feels less in-your-face than that of NYC.

Heavy-lifting, D.C.-style.

Nine weeks in D.C. would provide me with the opportunities to accomplish many “firsts.” It started off with the first of taking Amtrak for the first time. With regards to work, I started my first paid summer internship in an office, conducted the first of many international Skype interviews and team meetings, managed my first course website, not to mention fist-pumped in an office setting for the first time while watching Spain dominate Euro 2012.Outside of work, I got my first exclusive tours of the Washington Post and the Library of Congress, earned fleeting first-name recognition from an eminent pollster, became starstruck by news anchors at my first live taping of PBS News Hour, all courtesy of the IOP’s SIW Program.

PBS News Hour Taping!

Moreover, I volunteered at my first voter phone bank, cooked my first ever risotto from scratch, celebrated a national birthday in that nation’s capital for the first time, watched my first spoken word exhibition at the Jerusalem Fund, set foot for the first time in the Smithsonian Museums, held my first exotic insect, and heard lions roar and witnessed zebras fighting up-close for the first time.

He was a cutie.

On a more personal note, I accomplished some more momentous firsts, all related to writing. I finished my first Model UN study guide, started my first blog, created my first and only bucket list, and finished my first full-length novel. The rare freedom of summer has allowed me to ride the natural ebb and flow of my inspiration, which comes to my in bursts, rather than in a constant stream. I have continued writing and will never stop as long as I live. My passion for writing is as much a part of me as my flesh and blood, my characters as much my children as my brainchildren, their storylines my lifelines. I have flirted with the idea of giving up meat before, tried to cut myself off from Facebook, all things that I renounced for a spell, albeit with difficulty. But I could never, ever give up on writing and storytelling, and this summer has reinforced that to me.
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Peach-Blueberry Galette + “Market Research”

Fresh produce connected the dots of my culinary journey through Europe. Punnets of strawberries packed for a picnic by the Seine and in palatial parks. Sprightly bell peppers cut into matchsticks and nibbled with Comté aboard the train. Plastic cups overflowing with nuggets of pineapple and melon hawked by Mercat de La Boqueria vendors to unwitting tourists for four times the price of the same amount of produce just a few feet farther (A-, N-, R-, and I ventured past, before opting for bargain juices four times cheaper than what we would find at farmer’s markets back home). Pan con tomate and tortilla española, perfumed from floral olive oils and paired with glasses of feathery, effervescent Cava.

This celebration of the seasonal has followed me back to America. My windowsill now hosts pots of chives and basil, ready to be folded into omelettes and layered in caprese salads. I have mixed mango into muesli, squeezed lemons into muffin top batter, and slathered strawberry sauce on panna cotta. Yet, still, I find myself dreaming in flavours that I once took for granted. A bag of cherries as precious as polished rubies, their worth weighed in the palm of my hand. Creamy avocados sliced over salads or scrambled with eggs the way my sister does, fluffier than cumulus clouds – my kryptonite. Peaches bursting out of their velvety skins and dribbling juice down your chin – my nectar and ambrosia.

I remember the first peach that I had in college. One night, a basket of peaches appeared in the dining hall. I pounced on them. They bore signs of jetlag, but I did not care. The peach bruised at my fingertips as I built up to that first bite, a moment of great anticipation; the seconds following, of bitter disappointment. It was an experience comparable to, I imagine, eating a hairball. I finished the peach on principle, before retreating to fantasies of peach jam and peach cobbler and peaches in their purest form, plucked straight from the tree on an Okanagan family vacation.

So when I was feeling the itch to make a galette à la Paris street food, laced with crisp edges and oozing with filling, and when I spotted just-ripe peaches at the grocery store, I knew it was meant to be. This galette recipe happens to be gluten-free and dairy-free, for those of you with associated food allergies or sensitivities. I happen to love the robust, earthy flavour of buckwheat, which is usually used for such a galette, but since my recent experiments with nut products (vanilla almond milk, cinnamon raisin cashew cream) left me with a surfeit of almond meal, almond milk, and cashew cream, I incorporated those instead. I could see other sweet and savoury combinations bringing out the almond flavor of the crepes – claret cherry compote, roasted pear and blue cheese medley, caramelized onions and Gruyère, brown butter and sage sweet potato stuffing – but for my peach craving, this galette hit the spot.
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Patriotic Pavlova

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As an Americanadian, I have the privilege of celebrating the birth of nations on both sides of the 49th parallel. I grew up among Canadians who, come July 1st, would fire up their grills in the day, watch fireworks displays at night, and, for the avid bakers, seize the opportunity to cater a dessert buffet coloured red and white.

In comparison, the 4th of July boasts a more boisterous brand of patriotism. From infancy, Americans learn to brandish their heritage, enrobing themselves in stars and stripes, a sartorial statement that they are red, white, and blue, through and through. Gaggles of college guys, buzzed from beer and sunshine, chant about freedom and “‘Murica,” met with mild disapproval or, equally as often, mild amusement. And whereas the Canadian anthem sings smoothly and slowly, the American anthem rides like a roller coaster that hurtles up to high notes when you least expect them, prone to producing off-key cadences either belted out with gusto or, for those with less vocal aptitude and lung capacity like yours truly, finished in a winded, wheezing flourish.

Yet, what threatens to become a day of star-spangled sensory overload somehow does not. Instead, it is a symphony of sounds, smells, and sights – watermelon split open with the thwack of a knife and perfuming the air, children and canine companions splashing in swimming pools and lakes, fireworks blasting and blooming across the sky – harmonizing into one loud and proud commemoration of independence and celebration of America’s birthday.

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This Patriotic Pavlova operates in much the same way. Sundry flavors, aromas, and textures coalesce into a confection that somehow works. The gentle heat of the oven coaxes the marshmallowy cloud into a meringue. A crisp crust forms and, promptly thereafter, cracks, folding and fissuring under its own weight. Yogurt whipped into cream, once dolloped onto the meringue, simultaneously creeps into the crevices and crests in soft, snowy peaks. A halo of blueberries and cherries soon joins the cream in crowning the confection. Tart fruit juices burst like sunbeams with every bite, counterbalancing the tang of yogurt and the delicate sweetness of the meringue. In the sticky summer heat, scoops of vanilla ice cream plopped onto plates pool around the slices of pavlova, ready to catch any crumb or shard that breaks off when spoon carves into crust. It is as airy-fairy as ballet performances by its eponym and sugar-spun fantasies of Bomb Pops and flag cakes realized on this special day.

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Gorgonzola and Greens Pasta + The (Sort of) Last Supper

IMG_4937We thought that it would be our last shared meal for a long time. In fact, that “long time” turned out to be six-and-a-half sleepy hours, before he joined me in eating corn flakes bathed in cold milk, mine slightly soggy and peppered with peanuts, his still crisp enough to create crunching noises in rhythm with the steady striking of rain. Bowls rinsed, bags gathered, bodies embraced and released all too soon, I set out beneath a canopy of steel-grey clouds that flapped like slashed curtains.

See you laters can be just as hard as goodbyes, especially when the point at which “later” will become “now” remains undefined. After finishing my final college exam on the final day of Finals Period, I went through Senior Week and Commencement Week much like many of my peers, seeing and saying see you later to the people whose presence had enriched and defined the last four years of my life, whose absence would at first feel alien. In a flurry of duct-taped boxes, UPS receipts, and flights, I was off romping through Europe with A-, N-, and R-, spending more time applying knowledge gained in my senior spring architecture course and expanding my stomach for gelato after every meal than I was dwelling on having to part ways with my travel companions eventually, for a long time, or at least for some time.

Despite what this post may suggest, super-sentimentality is far from my natural frame of mind. I could, and will now attempt to, keep this post crossing the line to nostalgia by noting all of the recent developments that have kept me engaged, excited, looking forward to the future while reveling in the present: moving into my first apartment (small but cozy, with fluffy carpet, at least twice as much counter space than my cramped dorm kitchens ever had, and a price that’s right for D.C.), assembling my small set of furniture (received piece by piece in the mail), getting reacquainted with the Metro (that is, paying steep fares, Kindle-ing it up, and being sandwiched between sweaty strangers), getting to know the locals (almost jarringly genuinely friendly, opening doors, holding elevators, and beaming smiles without fail), and starting my first full-time salaried job (I have already learned a lot from colleagues generous with their knowledge and their time). I have loved the past few weeks and cannot wait to see what the next, and yet more after, will bring.

But when the inevitable desire to reminisce about college, Europe, and the time spent in those places with people whom I love dearly arrives, I’ll gather some Gorgonzola, greens, and grains, and recreate my last supper with A-, itself inspired by one of our last meals in Venice. We made a few modifications, in part to use up pantry ingredients, in part on a whim. We threw in several handfuls of baby spinach, substituted pepitas for pistachios, and added a good glug of heavy cream nearing expiration. What we did make sure to include was Gorgonzola, rich and robust, our tried-and-true cheese that we had bought in blue-marbled blocks and smeared over crusty €1 baguettes wherever we picnicked in Europe and, most memorably, that we had devoured in that tagliatelle dish. One of my mottos for the trip (and in my life, really) was “the dairier, the merrier,” as a healthy appetite for adventure and cheese – nutty Comté, buttery Brie, and milky mozzarella still warm in its pillowy and pliant bundle – sustained us through scaling seemingly endless stairways, navigating labyrinths of alleyways, and crossing borders via overnight bus. Anointed with velvety and pleasantly pungent sauce, streaked with spinach, and freckled with pepitas and black pepper, this dish is the epitome of comfort food, reminding me of good times that were had and manifold good times to come, much sooner than later.

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Berry Basil Panna Cotta + Venetian Reflection

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The City of Water lived up to its name. As if to counterbalance the surfeit of sunshine that my travel companions and I had enjoyed in other European cities, Venice gave us days during which it rarely stopped raining. Water maintained a permanent presence, churning in the canals, running in rivulets between pavement stones, and flooding the Piazza San Marco, summoning street vendors peddling ponchos and umbrellas to drenched tourists. When tiptoeing around ever-expanding puddles proved futile, my comrades and I lugged our waterlogged selves, sodden shoes and all, through the city.

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Brief interludes of sunshine bookended storms and brightened our moods, permitting us to wander down winding roads and to take a gondola ride down the Grand Canal, during which our gondolier peppered us with Venetian trivia while we soaked in the sights, before seeking shelter from torrential downpour once more.IMG_4970

Restaurants were our favourite refuge. We filled up on flavourful Venetian fare, sometimes to to the point of feeling like overstuffed ravioli: heaping platefuls of pasta in myriad shapes, sizes, and sauces; pillowy pieces of still-warm mozzarella sandwiched between tomato slices and basil leaves; and piping-hot pizzas topped with molten ricotta, all washed down with glasses of wine as cheap as water.

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In the midst of gorging on great food and wringing water out of hair, I encountered one of the best desserts of the entire trip, which was high praise considering that I had already eaten my weight in gelato by the time we had reached Venice. A shot glass of panna cotta, studded with just with enough pieces of strawberry to stain my lips pink and to make me crave more, serves as the inspiration for this recipe.

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My version of panna cotta – or “pan”-na cotta, as I like to pun – embraces more unabashedly the flavour of fragola, a fruit as curvaceous and delicious as the softly rounded Italian word sounds. Sweet strawberries, hand-picked by me at a Michigan farm back here in America and macerated with fresh basil and mint, complement the tartness of the lemon juice and the yogurt incorporated into the panna cotta. Easy to make and even easier to enjoy, this panna cotta is the perfect summer dessert.

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