Self-Guided Kensington Market Tour

Eat Locals!

In the last couple of years of travel, we had changed our focus from whirlwind sightseeing to a more food-based activities.  We are by no means foodies and cannot tell if the particular food is one dimensional or not.  We just like to eat – preferably large varieties and small portions.  Food tours are a great way to get introduced to local dishes, especially in a new country where we may not even speak the language.  Another benefit is that you can usually pump the guides for more information about sightseeing and other local food joints to sample on your own.

Toronto is a very multicultural city with many diverse neighbourhoods.  Having lived here(ish) for so long, there are many pockets of the city I haven’t really checked out, so I figured it would be cool to do food themed tourism, one neighbourhood at a time.  I asked my two travel buddies if they would like to do this together (well, more people, more stuff to sample!)  I think I had them at the word “food”.

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Our first stop is Kensington Market.  There are a few food tour companies that have Kensington Market tours.  However, being our frugal selves, we just scoured websites and best of lists (Yelp, Chowhound, BlogTO, Toronto Life, etc.) and came up with our “targets” of 11 places.  Armed with a TTC day pass (to share between 2 adults on weekends), tupperware(s) and the best plastic utensils one could procure from previous takeout restaurants, we embarked on our quest. We actually made it to 8 of the places on the list and added 2 more stops!  Here is the list and a brief “review” of each place.

Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters

Address: 96 Spadina Avenue  

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We wanted to try the coffee from some local roasters and we found this one just down the street (ish) from Kensington.  (Adelaide & Spadina is walking distance, OK?)  There are some interesting selections on the menu and we ordered 2 regular lattes and a Turkish latte to share.  We took our coffee to the upstairs sitting area, which also happened to be the lobby of the building and enjoyed the drinks.

We always get the latte at coffee shops.  Many places seem to use too much milk in their drink and you don’t even know you are drinking coffee.  The regular latte here was good – the slightly sweet milk complimented rather than diluted the taste of the coffee and the drink really goes down smoothly.

The Turkish latte was interesting – you could tell the distinctive Turkish coffee taste but because it was in latte form, it was less bitter than I remembered.  That said, I am not sure I liked this flavour.  I would go back for the latte.  We actually bought some beans to take home.

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FIKA Cafe

28 Kensington Avenue

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Since it was only around 10:30am when we got to the Kensington Market area, our brains were still on breakfast, so FIKA seemed like the most logical choice.  According to the blogsphere, they had pretty good brunch, coffee, and ice cream sandwiches.  We walked down Kensington Avenue and almost missed the cafe, which is located in one of the many houses on the street.

The staff at the cafe was very helpful.  We selected 1 portion of the grilled cheese with prosciutto and 1 croissant to share.  We passed on coffee but were convinced to come back later in the afternoon to sample the FIKA iced coffee and the famed ice cream sandwich.

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We grabbed a table in the backyard (there is a hammock and all) and enjoyed the beautiful day while waiting for our breakfast.  The seats were very comfortable and welcoming although we should have brought some bug spray – we kind of forgotten about mosquitoes since it seemed like winter never left until a couple of days before.  (Being the genius that I am, I forgot to take a picture of the backyard area!)

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Right, the food.  The grilled cheese was made with bread from the bakery up the street and it was just right – crunchy crust but soft, pillowy bread.  The cheese and the prosciutto went well together.  The prosciutto was a bit salty to us but I think it was just because we were comparing this to the pata negra / prescunto we had in Portugal, which were not salty at all.  We quite enjoyed this grilled cheese and would order it again.

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The croissant was awesome.  We had been searching for a croissant with the perfectly flaky crust and the right amount of buttery goodness.  Normally, we found one or the other, but this croissant hit the jackpot on both counts.  We even hear the crunch when we cut into the bread.  It is interesting that not a lot of people have commented on the croissant.

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So, the verdict was that we were definitely coming back in the afternoon.

Rasta Pasta

61 Kensington Avenue

It was around 11:15 am when we left FIKA, so as far as we are concerned, lunch was fair game!

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The next stop on our list was Rasta Pasta.  A couple of months ago, I went to check out the Japanese cone-styled crepes at Millie’s Creperie with a friend and she mentioned that Rasta Pasta was supposed to be quite good.  However, I didn’t get to the store until around 5pm and by that time, the famed jerk chicken was already sold out, so I bought some goat curry to take home.  I enjoyed the curry very much, so I added this to the list.resized_P7050374

The owner was just starting to grill the jerk chicken.  We asked him if we could order or if we should come back and he showed us a batch of delicious looking chicken sitting ready on the side of the grill.  We went inside to pay for 1 portion of the Jerk Chicken special ($4.99).  We were handed a box with rice, sides, and went outside to collect our chicken.  resized_P7050375

I didn’t have many experience with jerk chicken before and the ones I had did not leave much of an impression. On the contrary, Rasta Pasta’s jerk chicken was tender and juicy, well marinated and finger licking good.  Despite having to eat with a plastic fork while standing in the sidewalk next to an empty store, we were completely satisfied with the choice.  The chicken was as good as the “frango” we had in Cascais, where tore into and devoured in unladylike manners while sitting on a park bench.  (Hmmm, I see a pattern.)  Had we actually drove downtown, I think we would each have taken a large portion of chicken home with us at the end of the day.

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We wanted to get the rasta pasta as well, but they were not available that day.  The owner told us that he just took over the space next door.  The renovations should be completed in a few weeks and we would be able to sit down and have both the Italian and the Jamaican stuff. Guess I know where I will be next month!

Pancho Bakery

214 Augusta Avenue

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We came here for the churros.  We probably would have tried a few other things but our stomachs were starting to protest.  We had the churros here before because they also run the “I Love Churros” food truck that occasionally stops near our office.

We were greeted by a friendly face, who very efficiently got our order of 4 churros (for $5) – 2 chocolate and 2 dulce de leche (caramel).  The dulce de leche actually wasn’t very sweet, which was welcoming.  I don’t think I need to say more – go get the churros while they are warm.  

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The mime was not around at the time but he popped up again in the afternoon.  Maybe he was watching the Argentina vs. Belgium game?  We said we were rooting for Argentina, which was the right answer.  :)

Bunner’s

244 Augusta Avenue

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This vegan, gluten free cafe just opened today, so they were giving away free treats from noon-3pm.  We went in and got an ice cream.  Because it was vegan and gluten free, it had a softer texture than regular soft serve ice cream.  It was quite refreshing and the taste was good.

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A Small Break

By this time, we had been eating non-stop for 2 hours, so we had to take a pretty long walk to calm our stomachs.  I think the churros did us in.  Check out these random street scenes!

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Coffee Culture

It was getting pretty hot, so we just wanted to sit down somewhere and surf the net.  We ended up at Coffee Culture near College & Bathurst. We had the iced lemonade here.  It was nice, tart, and not too sweet.  They serve hot food as well, but we didn’t try any.

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Takoyaki

 Alley between 214 and 218 Augusta Avenue

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There were a few food stalls in the alley between the 2 buildings.  The first stall sells juice and the second sells takoyaki, a Japanese snack that essentially a fried dough with octopus inside.resized_P7050409

The ones at this stall was quite delicious with a nice portion of octopus inside.  The sauce was also pretty good.  Since we still had many stops, we just ordered one portion of 3 takoyai ($3) and split.  It was another one where we would have got more if our stomachs could handle this.

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Seven Lives Tacos y Mariscos

69 Kensington Avenue

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A colleague said that this place has amazing fish tacos.  Since we were still rather full, we only ordered 1 portion of the Baja fish tacos, despite wanting to try the blackened mahi mahi and the Gobernador as well.  The place was packed, so while we waited, we checked out the quirky decor. There was a lot of macabre imagery in the restaurant – to go with the theme of seven lives?

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We finally got our fish tacos.  We still kept our bamboo boat and the forks from the takoyaki place, so we were able to split the tacos into 3 equal portions.  This was the first time we had Baja fish tacos and we tasted something different – the fish was quite fresh and seasoned with something that is popular in North African cuisine.  (I googled the recipe and it was indeed cumin that was used.)  The taco shell was OK, but the fish was the main star and it did not disappoint. We would come back one day with a more empty stomach and try the other stuff too.

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Nu Bagel

240 Augusta Avenue

You may notice that we seemed to be going back and forth between Kensington and Augusta Avenue. This normally would not make sense on an organized food tour logistically but seeing as we were full since 2 hours ago, we did this intentionally to walk off some of the food.  That said, we still had limits, so we were going to take food home to sample.

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Nu Bagel specialized in wood-fire baked bagels.  They had these basic flavours: plain, sesame, poppy seed, coconut, onion, everything, and whole wheat.  We got 1 dozen to split ($9) and I took 3 of them.  So far, I had tried the “everything” and the “coconut”.

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I liked the flavour but the bagel was a little denser than I liked. Not sure I needed to try again.

Segovia Meat Market

218 Augusta Avenue

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This store was known for chorizo and other South American snacks.  We tried a coxinha de gallina con catupiry (chicken balls) and a mini chorizo.  I saw some Inca Kola and bought one to take home as well.

The Brazilian chicken ball was interesting – the texture was quite “sticky”, which would make sense since apparently catupiry is a Brazilian cheese.  The chicken and corn was nice, though I would like a bit more flavour in the chicken.  The chorizo was a bit dryer than we expected.  

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I think we would try some other stuff at this store next time as they have a lot more on their menu.

El Gordo Find Foods

214 Augusta Avenue

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El Gordo serves many different styles of Chilean empanadas as you can see in the above picture.  Seeing as empanadas are quite heavy and we had only been eating for hours on end, we split 1/2 dozen of empanadas to take home.  I got the Chicken Habanero and Chorizo Chipotle.

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Empanada with different fillings were made in different shapes.  We got 6 to share ($20) and it was a good thing.  We didn’t realize they were quite large when we ordered.

The chicken habanero was super hot, so I wasn’t able to taste anything other than heat.  The chicken might be on the salty side, but I couldn’t tell as I was busy choking down water.  Yes, I may have overestimated my spiciness tolerance.  

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The chorizo chipotle, despite also having a 1 pepper sign next to it, was way less spicy.  I think it was pretty good for empanadas.  The dough was a little too heavy though.  I would prefer a lighter dough and smaller size.

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FIKA (Redux)

We saved just enough room for the iced coffee and ice cream sandwich, although truth be told, we weren’t quite ready for the ice cream sandwich, which the staff in the morning described as homemade vanilla ice cream, covered with a layer of jam, and sandwiched between two shortbread cookies.  

We got the FIKA iced coffee and took it out to the same table in the backyard.  The coffee was spiced with cardamom and garnished with a sprig of mint, giving it an interesting and refreshing taste.  I think it worked well with the iced coffee but I don’t know if everyone will like the spice.  

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By the time we wanted to order the ice cream sandwiches, we were told that they were completely sold out.  Disappointed, but I suppose we might be able to get some Japanese crepes?  We bought the last 3 croissants to take home and left.  

I was checking Yelp afterwards and someone said that the ice cream sandwich was replaced recently.  It used to be homemade ice cream with lemon compote and sandwiched between pistachio cookies.  That sounds really delicious.

Afterword

So, we walked by Millie’s Creperie and we were still too full after all.  I guess we would have to save the Japanese special crepe (with green tea ice cream, red bean, and other goodies) for next time.

 

 

 

 

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Chocolate Truffles Experiment with Black Sesame, Lychee, Wasabi?

I did a workshop at Chocolate Tales recently and got interested in making my own chocolate truffles at home.  In the 90 minute workshop, they actually gave us all the tools and the pre-made ganache, so it was more like a decorating exercise with really good quality ingredients, which was a lot of fun and relatively “easy”.

I tried to make some ganache the week before and while the texture works, making truffle balls proved to be pretty messy – who knew warm hands will melt chocolate!  My testers said that the ganache (using Lindt’s recipe) was the right texture, but the shape was very… um… abstract.  (I said they were “inspired” by volcanic rocks.)  Undeterred, I tried again this week and decided to ad-lib.  Hence – truffles with Asian inspired ingredients!  Here I present: Black sesame / Wasabi / Lychee Truffles!

Ingredients:

  • 150g dark chocolate
  • 60ml whipping (35%) cream
  • 15g butter
  • 1/2 tbsp Lychee liquor
  • 20g Lindt wasabi chocolate
  • 100g dark chocolate
  • Cocoa powder – for rolling
  • Black sesame – for rolling
  • Wasabi peas – crushed for rolling

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Method

Ganache

1.  Chop the 150g of chocolate and place in a separate bowl.

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2.  Heat the cream in a pan just before it boils.  Take the pan off heat and pour over the chopped chocolate.  Let it sit for a bit to melt the chocolate.

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3.  Mix the cream and chocolate until smooth.  If the chocolate is not melting enough, place the bowl on top of simmering / boiling water.  Make sure the bowl has a lip so the steam does not get in the chocolate.  Water seizes up the chocolate as I had learned in class.

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4.  Add the butter to the chocolate cream mixture.  It’s probably better if the butter is slightly melty, or else the chocolate mixture may not be warm enough to melt the butter properly.  As you can see, I left my bowl on top of the pan.  Strangely, the chocolate was not burnt or anything.

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5.  Scoop the mixture into a ziploc bag and let out all the air so that you can make a ganache block.  I got this from one of Chocolate Tales’s demo videos.

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6.  In my experiment – I split the chocolate in two.  I added the lychee liquor into half the cream mixture and placed in a separate bag.  This batch was slightly more watered down but appeared to be OK after.

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7.  Make sure the bags are flat so that the slab looks even.  My ziploc bags were a bit creased, but that was OK after I finished them.  At least, that wasn’t the biggest problem!  Put the bags in the fridge and let cool until harden (a few hours) or better yet, overnight.

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Finish

Batch 1(Lychee ganache)

Black sesame coated lychee truffles, Lychee truffles covered with wasabi chocolate, Black sesame & cocoa powder covered wasabi lychee truffles.  Yes – that was batch 1.

1.  I shook out a bit of black sesame powder, available at Asian supermarkets, into a ramekin.  I put some cocoa powder in a second ramekin.  Then I realized the cocoa powder was a bit bitter, so I mixed the two bowls after.

2.  Melt the wasabi chocolate using the double boiler method.  I found that the chocolate hardened pretty quickly in the big bowl, so I had to put it back on the heat to melt it again.

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3.  Cut up the ganache slab. You can use ganache cutters to make different shapes.  Unfortunately, I do not have anything like that, so I just cut them up in squares.

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4.  I rolled the remaining chocolate bits into ball shaped truffles – this step was messy.  I dunked them into the black sesame to cover them.

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5.  I dipped each ganache piece into the melted chocolate before placing them on parchment paper.  I also rolled some of them in the black sesame powder, cocoa powder, or black sesame / cocoa powder mix so they are not as melty looking.

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6.  Place the finished products in the fridge to set.

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Here are the finished products from this batch.  The cocoa powdered ones look a bit rough.  The plain chocolate ones weren’t too shiny either.  Might work better with tempered chocolate and sifted cocoa powder.  Next time!

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Batch 2 (Normal ganache)

The method is pretty much the same, just different finish.  Some changes include:

1.  I crushed the wasabi peas so I could roll truffles in them.

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2.  I also mixed the black sesame into the chocolate this time as theses are just normal dark chocolate.

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3.  Finally, after I melted the chocolate, I transferred them into smaller bowls (or in my case, a custard mold).  According to the Chocolate Tales video, the chocolate will stay soft longer in a smaller container, since there is less surface area for the heat to dissipate.  Makes sense.

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4.  Once assembled, I put them on parchment paper and put the plate in the fridge.

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Here are the finished products after they set

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I used compound chocolate instead of couverture chocolate.  Apparently, the couverture chocolate has a higher percentage of cocoa butter, so together with proper tempering, it will produce a more shiny and smooth texture.  And the more obvious thing was that I lacked any chocolate handling skill or equipment to make nice, “non abstract” looking truffles.  Might give it a shot again some other time.

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Sidewalk Food Tour – Wicker Park

We had pretty good experiences with food tours in Buenos Aires (Parrilla Tour) and Niagara on the Lake (Taste the Town), so I was looking at Groupon and Livingsocial to see if there is another deal.  The Wicker Park tour offered by Sidewalk Food Tours of Chicago seemed to cover the foods that Chicago is known for, namely the Chicago dog and the deep dish pizza.  The tripadvisor reviews are excellent, so we went for it.

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We met Jake and our fellow tour mates in front of the Walgreens, which has re-purposed the old Noel State Bank building and restored it to its former glory.  It even converted the old bank vault converted into the vitamin vault!

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After we all had time to check out the vault, Jake gave us a bottle of water each and a short history lesson about Wicker Park.  The recent history was typical of a formerly rundown neighbourhood that became gentrified over the past 20 – 30 years.  You know, the area was unsavory in the 60’s and 70’s due to gang violence, then the artists moved in due to the cheap rent, made it cool, then the young professionals moved in due to the coolness and cheaper accommodations, then Starbucks invaded.  It is basically the same story of the Village in New York, or of Queen West / Cabbagetown / St Lawrence / Distillery in Toronto.

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Our first stop was a specialty donut place called Glazed and Infused.  We each tried half a maple bacon long john, which is a donut with no filling, glazed lightly with maple syrup and topped wit a strip of pepper bacon.  It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.  The texture of the donut was light and fluffy and the glaze was just enough to give it the donut sweetness without the sugar coma.  As usual, the savory bacon provided a good contrast to the sweetness, and the added kick from the pepper was a welcoming surprise.  All in all, not a bad donut, and I usually don’t like donuts.

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We took a slight detour into the residential neighbourhood to get to Pizano’s.  I think I really like these food themed walking tours, since you get food AND real estate info!  Sorry, I mean history.  I never did write up the Niagara on the Lake tour but we also did the same type of thing, and frankly, as a tourist, how often do we wander off and look at houses?

Anyway, the first house has a cannon in the lawn!  It was purchased by a young couple looking to start a family back in the 70’s.  Back then, Wicker Park was still kind of a war zone with major gang violence.  But, you can get a large house for just $8,000.  (Or was it $43,000? Both numbers seemed familiar.)  Either way, this was super cheap and also indicated how little people wanted to be there back in the 70’s  Obviously, a lot of work and care was put into the house over the years.  I think Jake said the house is now worth about $1M.  We saw other houses owned by prominent Chicagoans along the way.

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We popped out to Pizano’s, where a slice of deep dish pizza was waiting for each of us.  A Chicago invention, the pizza was first molded and blind baked in a cake pan.  Then the cheese was first added, then the tomatoes and sauce.  Why?  If the cheese was added to the top like regular pizza, it would burn from the cook time required for the deep dish pizza.  There are a few famous deep dish pizza places like Lugano’s, and everybody have their personal favourites.  Our pizza was cut table side to ensure freshness.  The crust was thin and crispy, but I find the filling a bit bland.  Gooey but bland.  Can’t say deep dish pizza is my favourite food, but as a tourist, it should be tasted once and Pizano’s is not a bad option.  Hey, even President Obama visited before!

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Already full, but with 4 more stops, we were in trouble.  The entire tour was comprised to heavy foods, but even with preparations (ie not eating breakfast), we were ill prepared.  That said, I intend to eat till the bitter end!  We ended up in The Haute and the Dog, serving Chicago’s other famous food – the Chicago dog.  One important rule to remember: you can put anything on a Chicago dog but NO ketchup.  We each had half a hotdog. It was OK, but I do miss my ketchup.  I should have added some mustard or sriracha sauce (that’s really popular).  But I had more immediate concerns – fried chicken, Italian beef sandwich, and macaron.  (Not macaroon!)

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We went by the Wicker Dog Park and saw the dog fountain.  They really like dogs there!  We then leave the leafy neighbournood and again see the elevated tracks.

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Back to the main street, we visited Harold’s Original Fried Chicken.  Started just before KFC, Harold’s chicken expanded in a much smaller scale.  The chicken were freshly deep fried and you need to order 20 minutes in advance so they could fry the chicken to perfection.  In practice, it was more a 25 minute wait.  The quality between franchises are inconsistent.  The one we went to was very good – crispy skin, good seasoning, and juicy meat.  Apparently the one in the West Loop isn’t that great.  We know there is one near our hotel, but not sure where that ranked.  I could come back here for some fried chicken, but not sure I would make a special trip.

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We visited the Boring store.  It sells mainly kitschy stuff to support its real purpose: an educational center for kids.  There are actually classrooms in the back of the store.

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Al’s Beef was a replacement for Antique Tacos on our tour, which closes on Mondays.  I could not complain.  Al’s Beef is another Chicago chain that specializes in Italian beef sandwiches.  According to Jake, he once had a couple of Philly tourists who told him they preferred this to the Philly cheese steak!  I think I may have to agree.  Italian beef sandwiches probably isn’t as well known as the deep dished pizza and the Chicago dog, but I highly recommend this.  Tender, juicy beef steak, cooked in a slightly spicy sauce, served on a hot dog bun, it was messy eating them, but worth the trouble.  Despite my stomach’s protest, I finished most of my half sandwich, leaving behind just a little sauce soaked bun.  Sorry, sandwich. I will eat you properly next time.

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Finally, the last stop to our enjoyable tour – .  We each picked a macaron from the store – I chose pistachio.  Didn’t know why I expected to be surprised, but let’s just say this was no Luxemburgerli.  The flavours were all in the slightly too sweet filling and the shells were indistinguishable from the taste of the filling.  Then again, there is a reason the Luxemburgerli is what it is.  And with that, our tour was over.

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I really recommend the tour.  Jake was a fantastic guide and you learned a bit about the history of the city.  And food.

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Chicago Cityscapes

Chicago is probably known for its skyline, architecture and waterfront.

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Due to good city planning, there are actually a lot of public places in the city. According to our Chicago greeter, for each commercial building, the builders have to submit a plan that include public space. As a result, you just need to walk down the street and see art pieces amongst the skyscrapers. We saw pieces by (or inspired by) Chagall, Picasso, and Miro, etc on Dearborn inside the loop.

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The Chicago Transportation System consists of buses, subways, and the elevated trains, although I think the “L” train refers to both the loop lines and the elevated tracks. While many lines go through part of the loop, the only one that goes all the way around is the Brown line. It was interesting to take the loop line once, even if just to save some energy and stare at buildings from an elevated view.

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On the street level, the elevated tracks are kind of an eyesore though. With most infrastructure, it takes a lot to keep them operational. The tracks themselves looked their age, and in certain streets, like Wabash, it gave the street a bit of that slightly seedy feel. A lot of the storefronts sit empty, currently displaying pop art pieces to beautify the area. I think someone mentioned that they filmed parts of Batman Begin in Chicago. I definitely got that vibe.

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The waterfront is a must see, especially if you are into architecture. Take a boat cruise, walking tour, or segway tour and you can see the various architecture styles in play from the Wrigley building to the Trump Tower. One weird thing I noticed are the double decker streets, specifically Wacker and parts of Michigan. It makes it super hard to find the free trolley to Navy Pier. And at night, the lower streets were all sorts of creepy.

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One tip: if you want a picture of the riverside and all the bridges, take the brown line from the loop towards Harlem. As it cross the river from Clark and Lake to Merchandise Mart, you can see everything lined up neatly. I was too slow with my camera, so only have this shot. Obviously the reverse direction works too. You just need to take the train to cross the river, I am saying.

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Millennium Park was an ambitious project built on public land that was atop the metra trains. Inside was the masterpiece by Frank Gehry, the Printzer Auditorium that was said to have the most awesome acoustic of recent history. We caught the last free concert of the year and even standing on the fringes, I could see what the fuzz was.

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Another much photographed sight is the Bean, that strategically reflected the sky and the buildings on its smooth surface.

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A lesser known piece in the park is the Crown fountain, two rectangular structures, cascading water to form a pool in the middle and broadcasting a slide show of people of all races and in different stages of life. That was really cool.

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We also headed down to the Buckingham Fountain, built to commemorate Buckingham, an unfortunate soldier who died in the World War without much glorious history but a rich sister. The fountain was so old school that it provided a contrast to the modern environment that is Chicago.

Buckingham

Then there is Navy Pier. It is so full of kitsch but people will go anyway. We wanted to see the Big Art and Stain Glass Museum, but due to the epic trolley hunt, we got there just before the fireworks and barely had time to set up. (See this sign? Not obvious when you are looking for it but you keep seeing it when you know it is there!) Looked cool on the website.

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Anyway, Chicago is a modern city with lots of history. Friendly and metropolitan.

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Bike and Roll: Skyscraper Segway Tour

Chicago Skyline

I always wanted to try the segway, but the costs for most sightseeing tours range from pricey to exorbitant.  (Not to knock the local TO business, but the half-hour segway Distillery District tour doesn’t scream value… unless you just want toget on a segway.)  Chicago, with its 18-mile lake front trail is the perfect setup for such a tour, and therefore sprung numerous segway and bike tour outfits.  This means an abundance of Groupon type deals.

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I was watching Groupon, Livingsocial, Goldstar and the Choose Chicago sites for a couple of months.  I think I saw maybe 4 cycle of deals.  We got a really great deal for the Bike and Roll Skyscraper Segway tour, made even more attractive with the use of monthly promo codes and referrals.  I will say I paid much less than the full price of $69, or even the deal price of $35.  (There was a $3.15 tax on top of that.)

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The Skyscraper Segway tour starts on 9:30am Sunday at the Bike and Roll satellite location at the Northwest corner of Wacker and Wabash.  Our guide was Bianca, and because they were opening up shop, it took a little longer to start.  We were given a one-on-one lesson to get on, go forward, stop, turn, and get off, then off we went in circles around the shop until we were comfortable enough.  The location was great since we had access to the waterfront trail without having to cross any streets.  The early start meant that there were less pedestrians and bikes.  We made many stops to talk about the history and buildings and went all the way to the Shedd Aquarium.  I am just going to post the pictures.

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Quick notes about riding a segway.  The feet power the device and the hands are used for steering.  Throw your weight forward towards your toes and you go forward faster.  Throw your weight back and you slow down (or move backwards if you persist).  To stop, you just need to slow down enough and adjust.  The steering is just as easy. Move the column a little to the left, you start to turn left and vice versa. At first, you will have a tendency to rock back and forth or turn by mistake, but soon, you will become one with the segway. All the movements are micro movements, so to the casual observer, it seemed like you are just standing on the segway. Take every opportunity to stretch out your legs though. My leg practically fell asleep from the 2-3 hours of standing!

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I think it was a fun way to explore the waterfront. While we only went about 8 – 9km, it would’ve been a bit tiring to explore on foot. It wasn’t completely without danger. There was a young teen on our tour. She got the hang of the segway pretty early on and was a bit more adventurous than the rest of us. However, she may have been going a little too fast and the segway went a little ahead of her. She was probably panicking a bit and instead of slowing down, she accidentally threw her body weight forward and basically crashed to the ground. Luckily, she was only a bit scraped up. Because she was also lighter, she would need a lot more to stop to begin with. I guess if you are going on the segway and this happens, just take a deep breathe and slow down. It is important to keep calm or it is easy to essentially step on the accelerator than the brake.

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Chicago… or did the plane turn back to Toronto?

Porter sale, no vacation till Iceland, food… the decision to go to Chicago wasn’t hard.  I was hoping to get one of those 5,000 pointbreak rooms at Holiday Inn, but that didn’t pan out.  So, I ended up using Priceline and lucked out with the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel.  I didn’t do much planning this time, other than scouring yelp, Opentable.com, Groupon, LivingSocial, and Goldstar.  Unfortunately, since this was a last minute trip (i.e. not booked six months before), this also meant that popular restaurants were booked out a month in advance.  No problem.  Dinner at 9:45 wasn’t that unreasonable, right?

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After a satisfying flight (we got food!) with Porter, we rode the orange line from the Chicago Midway to town.  As the “L” train turned the corner on Roosevelt, I thought I was staring at the Toronto skyline.  Everywhere we went in the first afternoon was a sense of deja vu.  I know Chicago and Toronto are sister cities, but they both have similar population and vibe to the casual observer. Until at night anyway.  I posted some random street scenes from the Loop and River North.  I am going to see if I can find some downtown TO “twins”.

Fake TD Courtyard

I am doing a few posts on food, the tours, transportation for those planning a trip, and some cityscape and that will be it.

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Meringue Cookies

I got tons of egg whites due to the custard tart experiment, so I ended up making meringue cookies.

Ingredients:

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 cup of sugar (superfine if you have it, can reduce a little if you find the finished product too sweet)
  • 1 tsp of vinegar
  • 1 tsp of vanilla
  • 2 tbsp of chocolate powder

Method:

1. Whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form.

2. Beat sugar into the egg whites 1 tbsp at a time.  The egg whites should be stiff and shiny after.  Don’t overmix.

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3. Add vinegar, vanilla and chocolate powder by hand until even.

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4. Preheat oven at 350 F.  Meanwhile, spoon the meringue mixture onto a cookie sheet, leaving at least 1 inch of space between each cookie.

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5. Once the oven reaches 350 F, turn off oven and place cookie sheets inside.  Leave overnight undisturbed.  I took the batch out at 3 hours and the bottoms were still not quite dessicated, so it really is best to leave overnight.

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That’s it.  Pretty simple, huh?

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Pasteis de Nata – 2nd Attempt

OK, so the first attempt wasn’t successful.  The dough was too chewy and the custard looked kinda brown and wrinkly.  So, I had to try again.  Besides, I still have some cream and eggs left and they’re not going to use themselves up!

One thing I changed up was the dough.  Instead of doing the traditional puff pastry, I used the rough puff pastry dough instead.  You can find a few recipes online, like here, here, and here.  I will post the one I used below.  For the custard, I’m sticking with the one on Leite’s Culinaria.  Since I modified the recipes, I’ll include the ingredients and method below.  They are definitely inspired by the recipe and comments online.  This is not the most authentic, but I don’t think I have the right equipment anyway.

Ingredients:

Rough Puff Pastry

  • 1 stick of butter (weight 115g)
  • 115g of all purpose flour
  • 75ml of water
  • 1/2 tsp of sea salt

Custard

  • 3 tbsp of all purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups of light cream
  • 1 1/4 cups of sugar
  • 8 pieces of cinnamon bark
  • 2/3 cup of water
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 6 large egg yolks

* Basically, the butter and flour should be equal weight, so use the scale to measure the ingredients to be more accurate.

Makes 12 tarts

Method:

Rough puff pastry

1. Cut the stick of butter up into cubes.  Make sure the butter is chilled.

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2. Rub the butter into the flour while tearing the butter into large pieces.  This is similar to making the pie dough, except you leave the butter in larger pieces.

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3. Make a hole in the middle and add about 50ml of cool water.  Mix the butter & flour bits into a rough dough.  Add more water if necessary.

4. Pat the dough into a 8 inch square.  Cover in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes.

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5. Flour the table and roll the dough into 8-by-24 inches.  Basically, the length should be 3 times the width.  According to Gordon Ramsay’s recipe, you should roll in 1 direction.  It’s actually quite a bit harder than it sounds, since the dough is just held together roughly.  I might try the method used in the finecooking.com link next time.

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6. Fold the top 1/3 of the dough towards the centre then fold the bottom 1/3 over the top 1/3.  Turn the dough 90 degrees either to the left or right.

7. Roll the dough out to 8-by-24 inches again.  Fold into 1/3’s as with step 6.  Turn the dough 90 degrees in the same direction as step 6.  Repeat this step again.

8. Roll the dough out to 8-by-24 inches.  Roll the dough tightly into a log.  Wrap in plastic and chill for a few hours, or better, overnight.

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Custard

9. Whisk flour and 1/4 cup of cream.

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10. Bring the remaining 1 cup of cream to boil.  Whisk this into the flour and cream mixture from step 9.

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11. Add sugar, cinnamon bark, and water into pot and boil.  Do not stir.  I only boiled mixture to 200 F.  The first batch I made was boiled to 220 F, but my thermometer might be a little off and the sugar hardened before I even managed to mix in the next step.

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12. Slowly pour the syrup into the hot flour mixture and whisk.  Add the vanilla and whisk till the mixture is warm but not hot.

13. Whisk the egg yolks.  Add the syrup mixture slowly into the eggs to temper.  Be careful, or you’ll have boiled egg bits in the custard.  Strain the custard into another bowl.

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Custard cups

14. Preheat oven to 450 F.  Take the chilled dough and let sit in room temperature for a few minutes until malleable.

15. Cut the dough into 12 equal pieces, roughly 1 inch in width.

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16. Take each piece and place in the cups with the disc side facing down.  Dip your finger in water and work the dough from the middle up against the side, leaving a small lip at the top.  The bottom should be thinner than the top. My dough was thinner than the 1/8″ thickness mentioned in a few other recipes since I have to cook it at a lower heat.  The first time was unsuccessful partly because the dough was too thick and basically wasn’t cooked properly before the custard started to burn.

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17. Fill the tarts up to about 4/5 with custard.  Bake in oven for about 12-14 minutes, or until the sides brown.  As mentioned last time, I set off the fire alarm, so when the time was up, I turned off the oven and left the tarts to bake for another 5 minutes while the temperature cooled down a little.  Still managed to set off the alarm in batch 1 but not in batch 2, so that’s an improvement!

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My tarts were not too puffy (they did puff a bit) but was more brown than last time.  The custard was cooked but not caramelized.  I don’t want to put this in a low broil in case I “toughened” the crust again.  The custard was a little soft but I’m not sure if that is supposed to be the texture.  I am more used to the Chinese egg tarts, where the custard is a bit firmer.  The custard could firm up as the pastry cooled though.

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Anyway, the second outing was definitely more successful than the first.  As my friend said, they actually looked somewhat appetizing.  :)  I might try again, but I need to see if I can borrow my friend’s oven, which can burn so much higher.  I will tinker with the custard a bit more.  I dropped a bit of sugar above.  The original recipe was a tad too sweet for my taste. I do wonder if the thickness of the syrup affected the texture of the custard. Will try again in done later date.

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Tebasaki Chicken Wings… sort of

I got some cheap wings this week and I wanted to do the Nagoya style chicken wings.  However, I’m deathly afraid of deep frying in oil, so I’m attempting to make crispy wings with the oven.  I am using the recipe from the “No Recipes” blog with some modifications, which means these aren’t exactly Tebasaki wings.  Oh well.  I also read the very detailed discussion on the Food Lab about making the perfect crispy oven-fried wings.  His articles are really cool if you’re into what makes food act the way they do.  I have to see if he has a cure for wrinkly custard.

As usual, I’ve run out of stuff, so I, um,  replaced with a few things that may or may not work.  I can’t remember what the Tebasaki wings tasted like since I only had them once.  I thought I tasted white pepper in addition to black pepper but I am really not sure.  In any case, I actually have no black pepper at home, so I had to make a substitution.  All I am saying is that this is more “fusion” than true tebasaki wings.  I’ll attempt to stick much closer to the recipe next time, minus the frying.

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs of chicken wings
  • 2 tsp of black pepper [I ran out of black pepper, so I used 2 tsp of white pepper and 1 tsp of five spice powder – which I guess changed this recipe into just Asian wings?  Sorry for the misleading post, but the recipe without the mods is really for tebasaki wings.  :P]
  • 2 tsp of sea salt
  • 6 tbsp golden brown sugar
  • 6 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 6 tbsp sake
  • 6 tbsp mirin
  • 2 tsp ginger juice [except I don’t have any, so I skipped this]
  • 2 medium clove garlic, grated [I used 1 tbsp of pre-grated garlic, I don’t cook enough to have real garlic at home]
  • 2 tbsp vinegar
  • Some flour mixed with 1 tsp of baking powder.

Method:  (I am paraphrasing the steps from No Recipes)

1.  Wash, cut, and pat the chicken wings dry.  Rub the salt, white pepper, and five spice powder into the dried chicken wings and place on baking tray.

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2.  Put the trays of chicken in the refrigerator to chill uncovered a few hours, or better overnight, to further air dry.  This is very important as dessicated skin is the key to crispiness.  Apparently, that’s the way they prep Peking duck according to the Food Lab.  Didn’t know that before.  I ended up leaving the wings in the fridge for 4 hours.

3. Preheat the oven to 425F.

4.  Take the chicken out of the tray and lightly coat them with with flour + baking soda mixture.  You should spray the trays prior to putting in the oven.  I’ve sprinkled a little bit of white pepper on the chicken as well.  Bake for around 35 to 40 minutes or until cooked.

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This picture is taken about 30 minutes into the bake.  See how there seems to be a little “frying” action going on?

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5.  For the glaze, add the sugar, soy sauce, mirin, sake, garlic and ginger juice (if any) in the pot and boil.  I did not completely reduced the glaze – it was just a bit thicker but still running.  According to “No Recipes”, you should bring it to a “rolling boil”.  Add the vinegar at the end and let cool.

I confess in my case of not following instructions, I added all of the above + vinegar in the sauce and finished it just a few minutes prior to the wings being ready, so hardly cooled.

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6.  Now the wings are ready to come out.  As you can see, there is indeed some sign of “frying”.  That said, the air drying indeed works as the skin on top was also crispy with blistering.

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7.  Quickly dunk the still hot wings into the glaze to quickly coat the skin.  Since they didn’t come out of hot oil, I wasn’t sure I was able to get much of the caramelizing action mentioned in “No Recipes” blog, but the wings were definitely not soggy.

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Anyway, here are the finished products, photographed under side-sunlight.  I tried one and while the skin wasn’t as crispy as it originally came out of the oven, it was still OK.  The wings were still juicy enough.  So, not a bad outing, unlike the ill-fated custard tarts.  :)

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Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tart )

I’ve been looking into Portugal as a possible winter vacation spot.  While that is still up to debate (the rain doesn’t seem appealing though the price does), I immediately look at what’s important – what can I eat there.

There are a few popular dishes from Macau that is also quite popular in HK and by extension, Chinese stores and restaurants here.  I am, of course, talking about the Portuguese tart, the pork chop bun, and the “Portuguese”-style baked chicken rice.  After hearing that the Singapore Fried Noodle originated from HK, I am curious to see any of the Macau dishes actually originated from Portugal or was purely an invention in Asia.  Well, turns out there are indeed Portuguese counterparts for the tart and the bun: Pasteis de nata and Bifana.  Still working on the Portuguese oven-baked rice.

According to research, the original recipe and method for making Pasteis de Belem are shrouded in secrecy and is only known by a chosen few at the Antiga Confeiteira de Belém, Lda.  The ability to keep such a big secret is likely because the recipe is passed on orally.  Lots of shops in Portugal sell “alternative” versions are generally referred to as pasteis de nata.  I’ve only tried the ones from Macau (and those purported to be Portuguese tarts at the local Chinese supermarket).  If I do end up going to Lisbon, I am definitely going to take a tour of the factory.

For this experiment, I used the recipe by David Leite but also looked at the article by Joe Pastry.  I’ve never made puff pastry or custard tart before, so this could end in disaster.  Well, that’s actually pretty normal.  I should create a blog called Kitchen Disasters, except that is probably taken already.  :P

Ingredients & Method – Please refer to the recipe linked above.  I’ll just include the comments.

I used the full recipe for the dough and only 1/2 the recipe for the custard.  Also, instead of mini muffin pans, I ended up using 12 silicone baking cups.

Ingredient replacements:

  • Light cream (5%) for milk
  • 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon for 1/2 cinnamon stick

Method

Make the dough

1. I tried making this using sifted cake & pastry flour initially, since I have a bag of unidentified but likely all purpose flour.  According to TLC’s conversion, I could have substituted the all purpose flour with 2 cups + 2tbsp of cake sifted flour, but my dough was very “batter” form.  I supposed I could just add more flour to the mixture to get it to the “pillowy dough” form, but since I don’t actually know what it is supposed to look like, I decided to restart using the mystery flour.  It was indeed all purpose flour and soon my dough was in that pillowy form.  It took around 1 minute of beating at medium high speed.  (6, then 8 out of 10 on my mixer).

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2. I pat the dough into a 6-inch square as instructed. Then floured the dough, covered with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes.

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*I found another non-action use of GoPro! I’ve turned on ProTune in this set of pictures but forgot in the custard pictures.  It actually made quite a difference in terms of editing but that’s another story.

3. I am supposed to roll this into an 18-inch square, but it was kind of hard and the dough is quite thin and delicate.  The other recipe said to roll it to 1/8″.  Mine ended up looking a little trapezium  and it was a tad uneven.  I do think I need to get a pastry rolling pin instead of my normal one.  I got the shape to around 16-17″ and gave up.  I think next time, I’ll do half the dough recipe since I am very limited in space and equipment.

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4. Brush excess flour off the top, trim any uneven edges, and using a small offset spatula dot and then spread the left two-thirds of the dough with a little less than one-third of the butter to within 1 inch of the edge.

4. Well, I forgot to stir the butter as instructed above, so I actually tried to put the whole blob of butter on the pastry and spread.  Bad idea.  You’ll break the delicate pastry.  I scooped up the butter and whipped it in my mixer a bit.  I do need a much larger spreading knife.   Neither my metal pastry scraper nor my butter knife worked very well.  Anyway, I finally managed to butter 2/3 of the dough, leaving a 1″ edge with 1/3 of the butter.

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5. I folded the unbuttered 1/3 over the middle.  Then I folded the other 1/3 over the top.  I completely forgot about the air bubbles and the pinching.  I was concerned that the edges didn’t line up properly.  Oh well.  It looked rectangular shaped for the turning.  It was super fascinating to watch the video on the Pasteis de Belem website.  Everything looked so simple.  Note how they only showed you the assembly of custard steps?

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6. I turned the dough 90 degrees, though I may have turned it the wrong way.  Or not.  I really should read recipes more carefully before making stuff.  That said, it appeared to work OK.  Anyway, I rolled this out to an 18″ square again.

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7. I turned the dough another 90 degrees, though likely not in the same direction.  I am supposed to roll it out to 18-by-21, but I could not get it to 21 inches without breaking the dough.  Also, I ran out of room on my counter.  It was about 18″ in total.  I figured it’ll have to do. 

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8. I accidentally started folding again.  (I made croissant once and that’s what you do.)  Then I remembered the rolling and had to unfold the dough (which surprisingly didn’t break) and started rolling.  Rolling was actually a lot easier, but I clearly didn’t do the brushing of underside excess flour or press it very hard.  Next time should be better.  I chilled the dough for about 5 hours for the first batch of tarts.

* For fun, I’ve done a time lapse video of the puff pastry dough steps.

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Make the custard

9. As mentioned, I only ended up making 1/2 the custard recipe, so I changed his steps to include the modified ingredients.  In square brackets.  I whisked the flour and cream and set aside.

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10. I boiled the sugar, cinnamon powder and water as instructed.  Since I didn’t have an instant-read thermometer, I just guessed the temperature.  Because I used cinnamon powder instead, the custard ended up looking a bit brown.  Other recipes said we should use lemon.  I will try all these next time.

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11. Scalding milk, even I could not mess this up.  Right?  Whisking the hot milk into the flour mixture is not that difficult either.

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12. Mixing the sugar and flour mixture was pretty easy, but because I hadn’t stirred the mixture enough since the cinnamon separated a bit in the final product.  Also, I forgot to strain the mixture into a bowl after I added the egg.  Next time.

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Assemble and bake the pastries

13. I used silicone tart cups instead of mini muffin pan, so I cut the dough into 1″ pieces.  Also, since my tart cups can only take up to 500°F, I only preheated the oven to 450°F.

14. The dough was a bit glutenous, so it was a bit hard working the dough to include a raised lip of about 1/8″.  I probably need to use 1.5″ pieces above.  I used 3/4 of the dough to make 12 tarts, but I think I could actually use the whole thing to make 12 tarts because the cups are somewhat large.  The custard filled 12 cups.

* Another time lapse video of this step.

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15. I filled the custard about 4/5 of the way.  Since I am baking at lower temperature, I baked the pasteis for 20 minutes instead of 8 to 9 minutes.  I then broiled the goodies in 2 batches – one for 4 minutes, one for 6 minutes.  The brown spots formed in the 2nd batch only.  Unfortunately, my lower temperature bake + broiler seemed to have contributed to overcooking of the custard, so it ended up looking a bit wrinkly.  I think I need to move the tarts to the bottom rack and bake for 25 minutes.  I might try to use 475F, though it may set off my fire alarm again.

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16. Remove the tarts from the oven and sprinkle powdered sugar and cinnamon on them.

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The first picture was how the custard tarts looked straight out of the oven.  The second was how the custard collapsed and browned after I put them under the broiler.  In hindsight, I think the custard probably just needed another 5 minutes in the regular oven, rather than taken out and broiled.  Unfortunately, I set off my fire alarm when checking on the tarts at 20 minutes and freaked out (not about the house burning down, but about setting off the building alarm and have to pay the $1,000 fine.)

So, the final products did not look too appetizing but tasted OK.  It definitely did not look like the pasteis de nata I saw online or even at the local supermarket.  The custard was the right level of firmness and creaminess, though surprisingly less sweet than I thought.  The pastry didn’t puff too much, so I probably blotched the batch a little.  Also, due to the broiling, it didn’t have the crispiness and was a bit chewy.

I took some pictures in side daylight the next day and they looked more appetizing.  Florescent light is NOT good for food photography.  Anyway, I still have some dough left, so I’ll try this again.  Will probably do another post with modifications listed *if* successful.

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Update: So, I tried to heat them up the next day and the crust had became almost hard as rock.  Definitely a fail.  :(  Will have to work on my puff pastry and figure out how to work the oven better next time.

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