Friday, April 8, 2016

Hong Kong 2016

Friends! I did it!! We decided to take the plunge and do a big Asia trip this year. We meant to go two years ago, but a lot of things came up and I was really, really scared about the flight. I mean, I still was, but I survived it. And that probably means I'm stronger for it. Right? If you're wondering, the flight from Toronto to Hong Kong is about 15-16 hours depending on lots of sciency things that I can't explain. That is a long time to be stuck in a vehicle with little arm and leg space. That is a long time to travel in economy (because have you seen the prices for any of the seat upgrades? They're insane). We decided to fly Cathay Pacific and collected a lot of Asia Miles - which means we might be able to actually upgrade our seats next time (that's if I can stomach another long flight).
Obviously there aren't any perks flying economy, but compared to Air Canada, we were allowed to bring two suitcases each at no extra cost (not that we needed four suitcases for three weeks). You line up to check in your luggage with everyone else. You wait in a long, snake-like line to board. You fight for overhead space for your carry on (we did see a heated argument between some people sitting in front of us which didn't help with my calming my nerves).
But the service is lovely on this airline. We were handed napkins and a menu of the in-flight meals. The individual screens were loaded with movies, television shows, games, and even a camera under the airplane so you can watch the city twinkle beneath you during take off. Pillows, blankets, and headphones are given to everyone. The facilities are kept clean. And there are snacks and beverages hat you can ask for anytime during the flight. Fruits, instant noodles, and even ice cream! Hey, I can get excited about that. You can tell I'm not a frequent flyer.
Still, the flight was long and it's really difficult to sleep when your bum is getting numb. I watched a bunch of movies and tried to nap as much as I could between the served meals (we had congee for breakfast on the plane! What!). It was fantastic to finally land and see my aunt and uncle waiting to pick us up bright and early.
After dropping our things and freshening up, we went downstairs for breakfast. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. The food is made right at the door for those who want to grab a quick take out on their way to work. We got in to sit down on the stools and order sticky rice (chi fan), fried dumplings, and sweet soy milk. Sigh, we rarely get this in Toronto because there are so few places that make it well. The food is so good that I don't mind the cracked plastic bowls and the feeling of a matte film over the utensils. Or the fact that the sticky rice was made wrapped in a thin plastic bag. We're definitely not in Canada anymore.
I'm incredibly weary of cleanliness because of my sensitive stomach, but I felt that I had to ignore it all or I'd miss out on some great eats. We got rice noodle rolls (chee cheong fun), another favourite breakfast item of mine, from a street vendor that sold mini bouquets. I watched with fascination behind the glass window as the vendor pulled out the noodles onto a piece of paper and then topped it with black sweet sauce and chili sauce with sprinkles of sesame. Two wooden sticks get skewered in and breakfast is served. Um, it was ridiculously good as the sign of a good rice noodle roll is how smooth and silky it is. (We also did end up buying bouquets from him before we went to pay our respects to our ancestors.)
If you've never been to Hong Kong or haven't been back since you were an infant (like me), here are some of the things you'll notice right off the bat. The buildings are tall. And there are lots of them. If you thought New York City had lots of skyscrapers, imagine double, triple, or quadruple that. Apartments are clustered close together and you wonder in astonishment what happens during a fire drill or how long those elevator waits must be or if anyone ever tackles the stairs. Stores and restaurants aren't always on street level. You might have to walk up a few staircases and follow signs and arrows before you find the place.
It's also very hilly there - think San Francisco. There are lots and lots of high-end malls that are connected by the subways or high walks - think Las Vegas. You can actually manage to go an entire day under awnings and weaving in malls and subways, which is pretty handy when it's raining. If you go during winter, it is cold. Apartments here aren't insulated, nor do they have heaters. Instead, there's a bone chilling cold that feels damp, a type of shiver that we don't feel in Toronto. The subway system is so great, clean, clear on directions, and well thought out. There are lines on the floor for us to line up where the train's door will stop. There are designated seats that people actually respect (unlike Toronto where commuters rudely take priority seating). And best of all, there is the Octopus card that works for transportation and in stores!
But it's also a place mixed with new and old. I didn't expect to see construction still help up by bamboo. Or expensive shops next to dives and hold-in-the-wall places. You can find the latest fashion here in boutiques or crevices (where you didn't think a store would fit) crammed with an assortment of items for less than a dollar. It's really baffling and amazing at the same time. And there are so many shops. How does one ever know where to even start?
There are so many alleys and streets where you could turn a corner and marvel at hundred-year-old trees incorporated into the landscape. Or you end up on a road where every store sells the exact same herbs or dried seafood. It's no wonder there isn't a need for large supermarkets, there's food vendors everywhere selling fruits, vegetables, protein, and snacks. Everyone is hustling and bustling, I can see why visitors to Canada find the pace slower.
We didn't stay long in Hong Kong, just four days in which the first I spent nursing some bad jet lag. I was running on adrenaline, but after lunch I really wanted to lie down and sleep. I lost my appetite and had a crushing headache. Luckily, I didn't get sick even though it felt like I was getting every flu symptom and was having trouble staying warm. I just had to remedy this by doing some retail therapy and buying some sweaters, extra layers, and a hoodie. Gawd I love Uniqlo. I even ended up buying a hot water bottle (no more cold feet!), that's when I knew I was finally old.
I had jotted down some rough plans for our four days. To climb Victoria Peak for the view and to walk by Victoria Harbour to check out the skyline by the water. But thanks to the fog and drizzly weather, we didn't do any of those. We stayed near Causeway Bay and Central, dragged my aunt and uncle out so they could show us around the city they grew up in. I couldn't even tell you where we've been, we just followed them around, walking everywhere and stopping for snacks where we saw lineups.
Howard and I both wore our Fitbits during this trip and logged in over 15,000-20,000 steps a day. The nights were spent cozy on a couch (hah, no night life for us) as we rested up for the next day of walking. What will also amaze me is that space is never an issue. My aunt has a breakfast nook in her apartment, not even a dining room, but the ten of us crammed into that space and we had hot pot like it was no big deal. And it wasn't. But here I am in Toronto struggling to invite any more than four friends over because our dining table doesn't comfortably fit more than four. The kitchen there is the size of a small powder room or a closet, but everything fits (gah, guess I'm not allowed to complain about my kitchen space). There may be three bedrooms and two washrooms, but every room is efficiently filled to the brim with stuff.
Eating out is the same. We share tables with strangers, sit with our backs against each other and keep our eyes on the best dishes coming out of the kitchens. We couldn't visit Hong Kong without having dim sum. To my surprise, my aunt and uncle took us to a traditional tea house where tea is served in bowls. I had the best egg custard bun there, I probably could have gobbled all three but wouldn't be able to live up the scolding I would get from my family.
We also couldn't stop in Hong Kong and not have egg waffles (gai daan jai). These are my favourite childhood snacks and lately there's been a resurgent of them in Toronto. To my delight, shops in Toronto now incorporate other ingredients like pork floss and seaweed, sausage and seaweed, cookies and cream, chocolate, matcha, red bean, cheese, coconut, and so on. And even pairing them with soft serve ice cream. I'm pretty tempted to open a shop of my own ... if only I could get the egg waffle maker here.
Finally, during the various legs of our trip, we stopped at the Hong Kong airport three times and have yet to fully explore it. This place was huge and the food offerings are amazing. There's restaurants and food courts with so many different types of food, each with their own fan base. Some of the lunches and dinners we had at the airport while waiting for our flights were even better than ones out in the city. Aside from the food, the service and cleanliness at this airport was top notch. The free WiFi must be hella strong because there are so many people on their mobile devices here. There are prayer rooms and breastfeeding rooms. Overall, we found Hong Kong to be friendly to new parents and respectful to people with various beliefs. Spots where you can fill your water bottles and lots of retail shops to browse. Frankly, you can't be bored waiting here!

Oh, and if you love bakeries, this is your city! There are bakeries on every corner, in every subway stop, and on every street. Feel like a sweet or savoury bun? You got it. Need a pick me up or a special dessert for a celebration? It's right there. It was simply impossible for us to sample every bakery, but I would like to see somebody try!

Okay, our next leg of the trip was to Vietnam, stay tuned!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

HOWIAmoon

Happy first day of spring! We're one more season closer to summer and when the days are still hitting negative temperatures, I think back to happier and warmer weathers. Last fall, Howard and I went to Jamaica for our honeymoon and it was glorious. After a year of planning, our wedding came and went. It felt so good for all the stress and worry to wash away as we boarded that plane for our destination. We were hoping for a surprise seat upgrade (just like the movies), but with the automatic check-in's nowadays, you lose that face-to-face interaction at the airport.

After lots of months deliberating, we finally decided to book Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall. This all-inclusive adult-only resort had the highest rating on TripAdvisor as well as their Travelers' Choice award. We had a fantastic time at Iberostar in Varadero a few years back and it has simply become a chain that we can trust and rely on.
We knew we were in a special treat when the staff at the airport in Montego Bay were telling us that this was the crème de la crème. Once we stepped off the shuttle bus, our luggage was promptly taken and we were given towels to refresh with (because you don't just get use to the heat that quickly). Check-in at the hotel lobby was quick and courteous - made even better when they told us they upgrade us newlyweds to an ocean view suite (it really is like the movies). One thing I did notice was that it always smelled nice and floral on our resort. I think there's some aromatherapy or scents being pumped out somewhere.

Our suite was gigantic. The washroom included a bathtub and rain forest shower with two sinks on either side. There were two closets with bathrobes and a mini bar that was part of the all-inclusive package. My favourite item were the snack-size Pringles! There was a king-size bed and a separate seating area. Then a large balcony with seating and a patio swing. They also have butlers assigned to each room, but we found that we didn't need their services as we booked our restaurant reservations through concierge.
The beach front was large enough that you don't feel crowded among the other guests. Some of the water sports are included and lessons for scuba diving (which we did in the safely of the pool - it was fun! I'd love to try it again). The beach's sand was soft and they are very careful with keeping the place clean. The grounds were always wiped down as it can get sandy and by the beach. Puddles swept to the drains. I've never been to a resort that was so well kept before. Towels are always available and they keep an eye on the lounge chairs and cabanas to turn them over when guests leave.
There's lots to do from the daily entertainment schedule if you don't feel like floating in the pool or napping on a chair. The star friends are friendly and are able to quickly persuade you to join them in games and events. We did yoga under the wooden awnings, ping-pong in the shade, soccer and volleyball on the beach, fitness in the pool, and dancing lessons on the stage. In the evenings, there are shows in the theater and dancing at the club. In face, that's where Howard and I had our first dance as husband and wife! In a room with a smoke machine, a DJ, and a bunch of resort guests. Can't say what song our first dance was to, but it was loud and extremely fun.
There are two buffets here, one inside and one by the beach, each with their own schedule. Bars are always open of course (I could use a piña colada right now). But it was the à la carte restaurants that shined. Also, beach events where everyone had delicious food on the beach - I will forever crave that jerk steak I had.
Most people keep this week for themselves, but we invited our wedding guests to join us. Four members of our wedding party joined us mid-week and we had an even better time! We did more exploring, went on the lazy river at the resort next door, and the guys tried some cigars. One night, we went to see the Luminous Lagoon and it's one of the best memories in my life. Everyone on the boat was stunned to see the areas where we made waves across the water light up. Those brave enough jumped into the dark waters and their surroundings started to glow. Seeing the bio-luminescent waters is definitely something you'd want to check off your bucket list!
We also lucked out on some great weather. There weren't furious downpours or even lots of mosquitoes. There was a good mix of sun and cloud - and you start to become grateful for clouds as they provide nice relief from the scorching sun.

Our resort also granted us access to the two Iberostar hotels next door where it's not adults-only and there are more pools, beach area, restaurants, and other activities for you to join.
And those sunsets. Sigh!
We did some more travelling this month, so I'll be sharing our journey to Asia where we met relatives and ate lots and lots of food!

I've filled my airplane quota this year, but I am looking forward to another Caribbean holiday next year. Hmm, where should we go?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Looking Back: 30 Years

Happy New Year (23 days into 2016, so it still counts)! How was your 2015? How were your holidays? I hope everyone had a wonderful end of year. I love how everything feels so festive in December, twinkly lights and decorations everywhere. The atmosphere is fun and light, especially at work when everyone is looking forward to some time off.

I actually made this pie on Christmas Eve because I was hosting a family dinner with my dad and brother. I figured Howard likes citrus flavours and my brother loves meringue that this pie would be the perfect dessert to serve. It was . . . but it tasted better the day after when I brought it to my in-law's for Christmas day dinner. Letting it set and chill in the fridge actually tasted better than fresh!

Speaking of chill, do you have Netflix? We watched a lot of shows during the holidays that had us doing all-nighters. My whole sleeping schedule got flipped thanks to the addicting series. We managed to finish Luther, Narcos, and started Making a Murderer. Have you seen these shows? What did you think? What would you recommend we watch next?
I'm deciding to make this a combination post too. Not only are we celebrating national pie day, I also want to chat birthday. I've also hit a new milestone, I'm officially in my thirties!!! Way to make myself feel old there. My favourite cousin recently turned 13 - gasp, a teenager - and I remember babysitting him as toddler. He's still not taller than me yet, I hope that takes a bit more time (we have a height bet). It's amazing how fast time flies. There has been so many neat changes in the past year alone that I'm excited for this year.
Looking back, here are thirty highlights:
  1. WE GOT MARRIED! Finally!
  2. Had an amazing and memorable honeymoon in Jamaica. Which reminds me, I want to share that in a post soon.
  3. In Jamaica, we visited the Luminous Lagoon. Very cool experience, we'd recommend going if you get a chance.
  4. Tried scuba diving for the first time. 
  5. Met new relatives that flew in from Taiwan and South Africa.
  6. Felt the love at my bridal showers. Good friends and colleagues are hard to come by, so when you do find them, make them bake and cook for you.
  7. We were fortunate enough to squeeze in some travel. We visited Chicago and flew Porter for the first time!
  8. Work perks: Met Judy Blume and had my book signed. Had my photo taken with Chef Curtis Stone. Ate dinner with Alan Doyle. Shook hands with Al Gore. Saw Chef Michael Smith. Shook hands and had my booked signed by Chris Hadfield. Felt the excitement when Ethan Hawke and Rainn Wilson were in the office. Seen Margaret Atwood roam the floors.
  9. Helped plan Anne Michaels' book launch for The Adventures of Miss Petitfour. She's a fantastic reader and there were sea shanties.
  10. Gained a godson because we're awesome godparents. Still watching in awe as our goddaughter becomes more vocal.
  11. Survived an office move. Boxes of books are incredibly heavy.
  12. Made new friends with new colleagues thanks to the merge.
  13. Switched from the editorial department to the marketing and publicity department. Every day is a learning experience, but we do such cool things.
  14. Working with the coolest children's marketing and publicity team ever, I love my pod.
  15. Finished watching Veronica Mars as numerous interns vouched for it. It lived up to the hype.
  16. Lost at Pongapalooza. In the first round.
  17. Made lots and lots of bunting. Then more and more. I've been given the title Baroness of Bunting.
  18. Also been given the title Countess of Cake.
  19. Featured in the Globe and Mail as an office model.
  20. Had an amazing dinner at Grand Electric's Champagne Room.
  21. Discovered my new favourite chocolate chip cookies recipe!
  22. Had my hair coloured and my nails done for the first time.
  23. Got a waffle maker. Just you wait for all the waffle posts.
  24. Saw the Pan Am excitement around the city of Toronto.
  25. Gave pop pilates a try and was surprised I enjoyed it.
  26. My orchid bloomed!
  27. Not getting cable and just having Netflix was the best decision ever.
  28. Discovering canelés. Ugh, craving one now.
  29. Howard surprised me with a spa date. His first one ever!
  30. Booked an ambitious trip to Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan for 2016.
And if you were just here for the pie. The recipe is from the New York Times, which they adapted from Alice Water of Chez Panisse. If you read the comments, you'll see that lots of people doubled the lemon recipe. I ended up doing so as well and it gave the pie a nice inch of lemon filling. I also found that the lemon filling set better in the fridge, despite the recipe's instruction saying not to place it in the fridge after letting it cool for one to two hours.
Recipes: Flaky pie crust | Chez Panisse Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wedding Cakes

Okay, finally! I'm sharing my favourite wedding project - the cakes! You might not believe this, but there was a time where I didn't think we needed a wedding cake, I figured there was a dessert course in the menu and that would be the sweet ending for the meal. But Howard pointed out that it would be weird for us to not have cake - especially with me being known as being a baker and all. So I thought about it and decided it would kind of be odd and I did like the idea of baking for our guests.
Then came the hard part, what type of cake would I make? What flavours? How would I decorate them? I looked in many cookbooks and my past blog posts. What did we like to eat? What would cause me the less amount of stress?
What I did know was that we wouldn't use fondant. Even though we started this blog showcasing fondant decorations and even though fondant looks really good, we personally don't enjoy eating it. I wanted the cakes to look natural to match the venue. This wasn't a sleek and polished event, it was small, intimate, and homey. I wanted the application of the frosting to look homemade. I wanted one to be naked with no frosting covering it. Then I wanted a cake that didn't look like much, but upon closer inspection, was something special.
So my next project was to figure out what types of cake toppers I wanted to make. Pinterest was extremely helpful in providing ideas and I eventually picked three: a "Mr and Mrs" bunting, a "LOVE" sign, and a "JUST MARRIED" banner. I used cardboard, paper, thread, and wooden skewers to make them. What I liked about these was the extra height it gave my six-inch cakes.
No one else would know this, but it bugs me that I made the mistake in pairing up the cakes with the cake stands. In my original plan and sketches, I had the naked cake on the white cake stand and the white cake on the glass cake stand. In my own nervousness, I accidentally set them up wrong on the day of. I could have also pushed down the skewers a bit more - like maybe an inch. This is just me over-thinking it and being critical. Since I was the one who set up the cakes, I have no one else to blame but myself! The staff did an outstanding job decorating the rest of the table with greenery and candles - seriously, best team ever!
Here we are, our first task as a married couple! Don't we look happy getting ready to cut the cake? (Another reason why I love my wedding dress, it almost looks like another dress when you don't see the bottom part of the gown. This could have been a knee-length cocktail dress since you can't tell with the table covering the bottom.)
We picked the easier cake to cut into. The restaurant provided the knife and cake lifter.
I'm over the moon here. If Howard fed me cake everyday, I'd be the plumpest and happiest wife on the planet.
I'm sure he doesn't feel the same.
When we were finished our photos, the staff took all three cakes back into the kitchen so they could divide them up and plate them. Then they were carried back out and placed on the table as a self-serve station. To my surprise - because a lot of my family members don't have a big sweet tooth - everyone went up for cake. At one point, I thought we didn't have enough (we did, there was like three slices left at the end of the night).
I made a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting - a classic and one of my favourite go-to cakes.
The next cake I made is one that is a bit more unique. Not a lot of people have tried a mille crêpes cake before and I feel that it's that something extra for special occasions. Plus, it's a favourite of ours ever since we tried it in New York where we got engaged.
The third cake I made was mainly for Howard. Even though the mille crêpes cake is his all-time favourite, he also loves citrus flavours. This was a lemon cake with lime buttercream.

Wedding Photography: Ikonica | Venue: Auberge du Pommier | Cake Knife: Auberge du Pommier | Cake Lifter: Auberge du Pommier | Cakes: A Baked Creation | Cake Toppers: A Baked Creation | Cake Label Signs: A Baked Creation | Glass Cake Stand: Crate and Barrel | White Cake Stand: Crate and Barrel | Wooden Cake Stand: Chapters Indigo | Six-inch cake boards: PME Sugarcraft | Wedding Dress: Mori Lee Blu 5108

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wedding Menu

Finally, we're getting to the FOOD portion of our wedding! One of the main reasons we picked Auberge du Pommier as our venue was for the food. Yes, you can call me a baker, a foodie, or someone who takes photos of her food, and this meant that I wanted our guests to be given various choices and to be well fed at our wedding. We decided on a French restaurant because most of our fond dining experiences happened in French restaurants.

The restaurant doesn't offer a complimentary tasting, but you are able to schedule one for an additional cost. We felt pretty confident that the food would be good, so we skipped the option and picked the dishes based on the menu descriptions.

Of course, the first edible treat they received was part of the program. After the ceremony, the drinks were generously circulated to our guests. Lots of wine and cocktails to start the party with.
We also ordered three types of canapés to be circulated at this time. A vegetarian pick - savoury scallion madeleines with lemon crème fraîche - as you may know, I love madeleines! Next up, a seafood option - grilled octopus brochettes with strawberry gastrique. Then, because most people love meatballs, grilled Moroccan lamb on a stick.
Auberge du Pommier printed the menus for every guest, but the children's menu wasn't included in it. But our flower girl and ring bearer had some great choices for dinner as well! Caesar salad, crudités and dips, or greens with house vinaigrette for an appetizer. Fish goujonettes with chips and tartar sauce, petit filet of beef with vegetables and potatoes, or roasted chicken with vegetables and potatoes for their entrée choice. Then for dessert, they could pick a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream, a banana split, or fruit salad with cookies. The children's portion were actually really large so the parents happily helped finish all the food.
For the adult guests, they could order the soup of the day which was fennel and leek vichyssoise with fennel front mascarpone and mint pesto or the chou frisé consisting of kale, radish, pickled granny apple, and horseradish kefir vinaigrette.
One of the popular mains that guests ordered was the canard: roasted duck breast with apricot, coriander tabbouleh, fennel salad, pickled red onion, and grilled lemon jus.
Next, the boeuf: a beef tenderloin with braised broccolini, pommes purée, shallot confit, a scallion compte, and bordelaise sauce.
And since no one RSVPed with food restrictions, we offered a saumon choice instead of a vegetarian one: B.C. salmon with charred romaine, braised radish, spicy pea purée, and goat cheese cream.
Even though there would be cake, we still wanted a dessert course (who doesn't want more dessert?) The mousse au chocolat was served with a mixed berry compote, nut clusters, and salted caramel.
And the rhubarbe consisted of chilled rhubarb coulis, yoghurt gâteau, toasted almonds, and crème fraîche ice cream. Howard's and my plate were personalized from the chef with a note of congratulations (the only photo I took that day).
Cheers! More about those cakes next time . . .

Wedding Photography: Ikonica | Venue: Auberge du Pommier | Food and Drink: Auberge du Pommier | Printed Menus: Auberge du Pommier
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