Against the Grain: Chai Coconut Baked Alaska Brownie Bites

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Like many second-generation Chinese immigrants, I developed an appreciation for resourcefulness in the kitchen from an early age. For as long as I can remember, my parents have preserved used oil in a cool corner of the pantry, which they reused once, twice, several times over. Bread bought in bulk supplied weeks of school-lunch sandwiches. Cheap cuts of meat, once sauced, spiced, and stir-fried with fresh vegetables, produced dishes rich in flavour that kept our family well-fed. Following family dinners, my parents scooped any leftovers into Tupperware containers, ready to be nuked back to life for lunch the next day, unless, in the case of the choicest dishes, deviant fingers got to them first. Flavour, more than frugality, drove these habits. I never understood why so many North Americans limit themselves to chalky chicken breasts, plain pork chops, and flaccid fish fillets when, for a fraction of the price, they could play around with and savour hearty hog maw, crunchy pig ears, and fine-boned whole fish, eyes and all. To this day, I save vegetable scraps – carrot tops, onion peels, celery leaves, cauliflower nubbins – to make stock, and my freezer houses enough leftovers to feed a family of five for a week.

Another major benefit of an economical approach to food is that it invites inventiveness. Before blitzing canned chickpeas into a batch of hummus, I always add some of the reserved bean brine to help thin the mixture. Given the utility of the bean brine, it now seems silly to me that I never thought to reserve and to repurpose the rest of the brine. Never, that is, until a post-pavlova craving for more meringue and a lack of eggs in the fridge set me on a quest for an eggless meringue recipe and directed me to an article on aquafaba. “Bean water,” it turned out, could function as the foaming agent in a meringue. Intrigued, I saved canned chickpea liquid the next time I made hummus. Sure enough, armed with a hand mixer, a bag of sugar, and a vial of vinegar, I beat the bean brine into a fluffy cloud of meringue.

The rest unfolded organically. Half of a can of coconut cream, initially purchased to make curry, went into making a chai-spiced ice cream. Black bean brownies, leftover from a recent movie night, served as the bases for the Baked Alaska bites, ensconced in a snowfall of ice cream and freshly whipped meringue. I left the Baked Alaskas under the broiler just long enough to gild the tips. The result was serendipitously vegan and gluten-free, making this recipe safe for the growing number of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of real to imagined food sensitivities. More importantly, it was delicious. And now I am spilling the beans on how to make these Baked Alaska brownie bites that wildly taste nothing like beans, just wildly good.

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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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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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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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Cashew Maple Condensed Milk Cake

 CASHEW MAPLE CONDENSED MILK CAKE

Ingredients

Cake:
1 can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup maple milk
4 eggs
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup finely chopped cashews

Frosting + Toppings:
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ roughly chopped cashews

C + M + CM + ♥ = CMCMC

This recipe is made for the rare occasion when you have leftover maple syrup in the fridge and a spare can of condensed milk in your pantry. Throw in a hodgepodge of other ingredients, mix with a lot of love, and, soon enough, you will have baked a no-brainer cake. The maple Greek yogurt frosting strikes the balance between tangy and sweet, jazzing up an otherwise basic condensed milk cake. Any nuts would work well in this cake. I went with cashews when devising this recipe, because 1) those were the nuts that I had on hand, and 2) who doesn’t love a palatable palindrome? Bake at 350º for about 30 minutes, and let cool before frosting the layers. Perfect as a mid-week pick-me-up or for weekend tea time.