Eating my way through the Distillery District Christmas Market

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The holidays are just a license to eat and to buy treats for friends that we hope will share them with us.  Sunday’s sunny weather brought many people out to Toronto’s Distillery District to eat and drink to keep warm. There are only about two weeks left for the annual Christmas market.  If you’re going on the weekends, get there before 2:00 p.m. so that you can shop and then settle down in one of the many good restaurants for lunch and cocktails.

Maman in First Canadian Place

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Maman, the Parisian inspired bakery from New York’s SoHo district opened its second location here in Toronto on July 6, in First Canadian Place.  The bakery is in the space formerly occupied by Szechuan Szechuan on the second level food court.  The fast-casual café bakery is owned by Michelin starred, Chef Arman Arnal of La Chassagnet in the South of France and designer/baker, Elise Marshall.

The bright farmhouse chic, in blue and whites is cosy with communal tables and a wall of windows that gives it a standalone feel.

Opening hours are bright and early at 7:00 a.m. when you can get a variety of freshly baked croissants, yogurt and coffees. Lunch time offerings include traditional French favourites like Croque- Madame, Quiche, salads and fresh baguette sandwiches.  I selected the lunch box of ham and cheese Quiche and a salad of fresh greens, strawberries and goat cheese.

The Quiche Lorraine was warm, with a flakey crust and actual pieces of ham and a savoury filling where you could actually taste and see the cheese. A good change from the tasteless and rubbery Quiche available in food courts. Lemon-Thyme Madeleines are buttery treat with coffee for that mid-afternoon lull, keep one handy in your desk drawer.

A number of retail items are also available including teas, popcorn and South of France styled goods. The line up moves quickly, but always wise to get there starting about 11:30 a.m.  Most customers are grab and go, so seating up to about 12:30 is pretty good.

Maman is worth the walk over from whatever food court you inhabit in the vast Toronto Path system. They are looking soon to add a cocktail hour. It’ll be a nice place to relax after work and I look forward trying to it.  Bon appétit, fellow eaters!

Cake

 

Cluny’s in the Distillery District

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It’s December 26, and while many of you have barely digested and recovered from your big Christmas dinners, I know there are also a lot of you looking forward to more eating for New Year’s.  So with that in mind, let me recommend Cluny’s in the Distillery District.  A few weeks ago, I ventured into this beautiful new restaurant on Tank House lane for a solo brunch.

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Washed in natural and warm lighting, Cluny’s is like a very large European cafe, there is an intricately laid blue and white tiled floor separating the space into grouped tables and intimate spaces.  Bouquets of cream and buttercup yellow flowers in large vases, showcase the bakery buffet where staff prepare your baskets of croissants and breads.

Maria

The raw bar is stocked with a daily selection of oysters, claims and shrimp.  Behind the bar is the bustling kitchen, efficiently sending out orders or egg dishes, burgers and salads from the brunch menu.

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My server greets me warmly and asks what my preferences for my morning pastry basket to accompany my French press coffee.

French Press

My oeufs en cocotte, eggs cooked in a vessel like a small dutch oven, arrives with a grilled tomato, greens, truffle and fries.  It is a dish that feels indulgent for a sunny but cold Sunday morning.  I am thrilled that the frites are still quite warm, and soak up the truffle mayonnaise very well.

Oeufs en cocotte

I people watch from my seat at the raw bar, where the friendly staff tell me about the menu and the features with entusiasm.  I also get a great view of the other dishes guests are enjoying at the bar next to me.

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Photo Credit: Cluny Bistro website – clunybistro.com

The dinner menu features traditional bistro fare including foie gras dishes, mussels and frogs legs as well as some continental favourites to satisfy kids and non-seafood eaters.  My best part of the menu for me,  is the selection of cheese dishes, which includes my favourite, Sauvagine stuffed with truffle and sauteed in wild mushroom.

A wonderful setting, lots of seats – however, it is popular, so many sure to call ahead and make a reservation.

 Cluny Bistro – 35 Tank House Lane, Distillery District, Toronto, Ontario

St. Lawrence Market, Saturday in Pictures

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I spent Saturday afternoon at the market, navigating the shoppers to capture the stores that I like to go to.  These photos are from the walk around.

The Danish are calling…

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There’s a reason I haul myself out of the bed at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning to get to the gym. It’s so that I can leave by 10:00 a.m. to get to my favourite bakery  just as the fresh Danish and morning pastries are  being put on the shelves.

Danish pastry is my guilty pleasure.  I relish nothing more than a leisurely Saturday morning drinking cappuccino and enjoying a fresh buttery pastry after my exercising is done. These are some of the spots in Toronto’s downtown core where I like my fix.

Pastry selection Pusateri's on Saturday morning

Pastry selection Pusateri’s on Saturday morning

Pusateri’s on Bay St has one of the best choice of baked goods.  Their morning pastries, in fact all their desserts and breads too, are sourced from some of the best bakeries and patisseries in Toronto.  You can find selections  from Harbord Bakery, Clafouti, Patachou to name a few.  There’s no mistaking the taste of  real butter croissants and the custard and fruit Danish is like having dessert for breakfast. Pusateri’s serves Illy coffee, a perfect pairing to anything flaky and rich.

I love prune Danish.  It’s a comfort food that not many places carry.  In fact it’s been years since I’ve seen any in grocery store, they were popular in the 60’s but not so much anymore.  The one place you can still get them is Harbord Bakery.

Scones at Harbord Bakery

Scones at Harbord Bakery

Harbord Bakery is one of the few bakeries downtown that still has that old-fashioned  feel to it.  Harbord opens early on Saturday and if you’ve never been it’s worth taking a visit, wonderful challah, cookies, great scones, Eccles cakes and many different kinds of fruit and cheese danish.  While they supply to a few grocers, their baked goods never taste manufactured or commercial, everything always looks and tastes homey. The line up on a Saturday can get pretty long and the bread and pastry go really quickly, so get there early.I believe you can also place an order by phone and have it ready.

St. Lawrence market houses several great bakeries, Carousel, Future Bakery and Stonemill Bakehouse all under one roof.  I make the rounds to all three usually buying what I think is their best item- Carousel for bread, Future  Bakery for croissants or danish.  While plenty of choices, the best danish is downstairs at Stonemill Bakery. Shelves are refilled regularly to satisfy the bread and cake lovers who are sometimes three people deep at the bins of baguettes and sweet breads and pastries.

There are some other fabulous French bakeries and cafes uptown including Rahier and Jules Cafe Patisserie which I will make a special trip for this year.

Rich pastry and prunes make up my Saturday morning cheat foods. It’s all good and justified in my head, the process of walking around the city to enjoy these, is a joyful exercise.  So, it’s all good (and delicious!).

My passion for Italian confections, Part 2 – Panettone

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Longo's Exquisite Offering

Longo’s Exquisite Offering

Panettone has a romantic and legendary history that dates back  to 15th century Milan.  Enjoyed at Christmastime, this light rich and buttery bread is one of the foods I look forward to most during the holidays.  If you’ve never had one, there’s still opportunity to find some in Italian grocers and delis. Look for them as well in major grocery stores at reduced prices now that the holidays are over.

So what is a panettone exactly?  It’s a raised dough confection that traditionally has sultana raisins or dried fruit, it’s light but quite rich given the butter and more like bread although some refer to it as a cake.  (which I really don’t agree with but, nevertheless)  You can also find many varieties of vanilla custard and chocolate filled. Panettone are fairly new to the traditional grocery stores, making their appearance in my area about six or seven years ago.

Each year I seek out new and different versions.  Panettone range in price from about seven dollars to fifty dollars for the most beautifully wrapped ones – which make excellent hostess or family gifts.

The most memorable one so far, was a gift from my mom.  As I remember it was chocolate and rum in a canister that looked like a drum. I lived in a long narrow house at the time and the kitchen was at the very back.  Once I cut into this panettone the unmistakable fragrance of rum filled the air all the way to the front entrance.  Every Christmas since, I try to find one that can top that. This Christmas I believe I did.

My quest begins early every season.  More and more stores are beginning to carry these.  Most come in very nice boxes. I am taken by the beauty of the presentation.  This year I found the ultimate panettone at Longo’s.  This panettone comes from Sicily and as you can see from the featured image,  is a white chocolate and pistachio topped panettone and included are pistachio cream and a spreading knife wrapped in a designer box.  It was my gift to my mom, who gets equally excited about these as I do.

After the picture was taken we dove in.  The pistachio cream added smoothness to an already rich bread – such heaven.  There was less than half of the wonderful domed bread left by the time we were done.  Panettone never makes it past three days at our house.

Although panettone should just be eaten by itself, it makes the best french toast  or a very rich bread pudding.  My hint, adding some Grand Marnier and a little orange rind to the custard of either the french toast or bread pudding will make your house smell wonderful.  Local grocery stores will have sales on the less expensive panettone that come packaged only in a plastic bags now.  They have a very long shelf life so don’t be afraid to buy one.

I hope you learn to enjoy these are much as I do,  In the meantime, happy eating!

Photo of gift wrapped panettone boxes by Michelle Little, The Italian Pantry (NDG Montreal)

My passion for Italian confections – part I.

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hDecember 1st is a green light for me to start exploring new things to eat and drink, but also to indulge in many favourite Christmas foods from  childhood.  Interestingly, many of these beloved treats  are Italian. I get really excited when I spot the first displays of panettone, Baci Perugina, and pandoro, traditional Italian confections.  These are the holiday treats that make this Asian girl feel warm, comforted and happy.

Perhaps I should back the story up for a moment.  I grew up in the 60’s in a largely Italian community in Montreal where my mother was an elementary teacher at the Catholic all girls school.  We’d moved to that neighborhood  so that it was close for mom to walk to work.

It was here that my early adventures in food began. Half a block up from our apartment was the main street of the community, Liege St.  Liege is the French word for “cork”.  The street was lined with small business owned by European immigrants who had arrived in the early fifties,  an Austrian butcher, a German hairdressing salon, a Viennese and an Italian bakery, and our favourite grocer, Giovanni & Sons. It was at this grocery store that I was first exposed to and  came to love all things Italian.

The big sign above the store was painted  green, red and white and always parked in front were the two or three black delivery bicycles. It didn’t matter if was sunny or snowy, Giovanni’s sons were a familiar sight speeding along the avenue delivering boxes of groceries quickly, only to ride back up the street to pick up the next orders that were lined up all the way down the first aisle of the store.

delivery bike2

At first I didn’t really like going to the Giovanni’s.  The smell of the deli meats, the barrels of olives, bags of dried beans and the sawdust that covered the floor seemed messy.  The aisles were narrow, there were always lots of men drinking coffee, laughing, speaking Italian at the back while women pushed around miniature carts filling them with jars of tomatoes, peppers and cheese.  It was always crowded on a Saturday, as a five-year old it was a frenzied place, but my parents and our Spanish neighbour always talked about the bread.  The bread? What was the big deal?  Years later,  I understand how good a loaf of Italian bread is.

As a kid Christmas time is always magical.  Christmas inside Giovanni’s was delightfully chaotic. In November, lots of new inventory would start to make the store even smaller. There were  many beautifully decorated and brightly coloured boxes with different kinds of chocolates and cookies that crowded the tiny aisles. Piled up as far as my five-year old eyes could see, were pretty blue boxes with stars from a company called Baci Perugina. The front window of the store was filled with big boxes of what looked to me to be bread with dried fruit.  This was my introduction to Italian Christmas confections.

Baci packagingOn the last day of school before Christmas holidays, my dad would have to pick my mom up by car.  Many of her students parents’ were grocers and there would be a bounty of boxes of Baci Perugina, biscotti, liqueur filled chocolates, imported soaps, perfume and talcum powder imported from Italy that she would receive as gifts.  I can remember my excitement  as I ran from the French school that I attended to my mom’s school down the street to help her carry all these gifts outside to wait for my dad to arrive.

Unpacking what seemed like endless boxes of Baci and other chocolates was one task that I enjoyed very much.  I can distinctly recall once when my mom let my little sister and I open one box to each have a chocolate, that in our avaricious haste,  we had opened a box and  stuffed our faces with a first chocolate only to realize to our horror, that it was filled with liqueur!  From that day forward we made sure to only ever open the pretty blue boxes with the stars because we knew these were Baci.

I don’t think I will ever forget the first one I ever had.  Unwrapping a chocolate that was almost as big as my five or six-year-old hand, to find a little piece of paper with a special message that I couldn’t read, then to bite into it and discover a whole hazelnut and truffle filling was exceptional, especially since it took three bites to finish it.   This wasn’t your average Pot of Gold chocolate, this indeed was something far more special.  My mom soon discovered that she had to find a hiding place for the boxes of Baci as they would’ve all disappeared before Christmas.

You can get Baci all year round now, but I never buy them.  To me, they’re special and represent something more than just a great truffle, it’s the memories that they bring back.  Memories about a special time and special foods and a special place in my childhood.

I was recently introduced to a short film on how Baci is made by my friends at  Zeppoli’s Italian Comfort Food in Niagara Falls.  If you’ve never tried one, go out and buy yourself the biggest box you can find, you will enjoy every last one!  Come back to my blog as Part 2 of my Italian Confection series will be on my passion for panettone, so make sure to read it.  In the meantime, enjoy some holiday indulgences.  Happy eating! Here is the link to the video.