Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tarta de Santiago - My Gluten-Free Easter, Passover and Book Club Cake

Like many book club hosts, I fuss about the food.  As life would have it, this past Tuesday's meeting was no exception.  We are morning bookworms.  Well, truth be told the last of the special ladies left somewhere around 3 pm.  Our only rule for hosting is that there needs to be good strong coffee, decaf for a select few and a pot of hot water for our one teabag carrying, baby pinky pointer.  I, like the rest, do more.  It's a labour of love for sure.

In these times of great indulgence, I try to keep the main choices satisfying but not too heavy.  The fruit salad is a staple starter.  I thought an egg protein dish sans crust could keep our brains firing with thoughtful dialogue.  As our appetites waned, a light cake can be the great finisher.

Wanting a hint of Easter, I found a flourless Almond Cake, subtitled as Tarta de Santiago and adorned with a stenciled cross.  I knew nothing of its pedigree or history.  It turns out the Tarta de Santiago has deep roots in the food culture of Northern Spain.  My ignorance.  It was the picture that drew me in and I liked the cake's simple decoration.  It was Holy Week after all.  In hindsight my quick choice was quite shallow as it may be more of a Passover cake. As luck would have it, I made a fine pick.

It wasn't until after the meeting that I found the time to read more about the Tarta de Santiago and the many, many recipe choices out on the Internet.  Many of them in other languages.  I was pleased to find that from a culinary perspective, the recipe I chose for my inspiration was the one I would have chosen anyway had I put in all those hours beforehand pouring over recipes in order to make the perfect choice.

Why did I like this recipe best?
  • It is a light cake in texture, where others are very dense.  This is partly due to separating the eggs and incorporating the sugar and flavourings with the yokes first.  Then the ground almonds are added and most importantly, the stiffened egg whites are folded in gently. I chose to fold in the whites in 4 batches.
  • This recipe has less sugar than others.  I also cut back on what was recommended.  With flavourings like zests of orange and lemon, plus almond extract, these scents carry their own nectar.
  • It uses no butter.
  • It is gluten-free, as this version uses no flour. (When greasing the pan, I dust with powdered sugar.)
  • It has a beautiful form.  Since it is a sponge cake, the top stays flat and the side are straight.
  • It is approximately 155 calories a slice.  Which by cake standards is nothing short of an Easter miracle.
As for it's history and naming, here are some interesting notes.
  • The cake's origins are Galician.
  • It was named for Spain's patron saint, Saint James. Hence Santiago. (I had my wits about me enough to use the Cross of Saint James, like most everyone else, for the stenciled pattern on the top of the cake.)
  • During the Middle Ages, the pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia was considered the most important pilgrimage for Christians.
  • Claudia Roden, author of The Food of Spain, believes that the tarta evolved from a Passover cake brought to Galicia by Jews fleeing Andalusia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. 
  • This cake is very popular and sold all over Santiago de Compostela.  Even more so on Saint James Day on July 25.
  • In 2006, Spain filed an application to register the name Tarta de Santiago on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs.  In 2010 it was approved.

Tarta de Santiago (Almond Cake or Saint James' Cake)
Adapted from Claudia Roden, author of  The Food of Spain
Sourced from
Serves as many as 16 slices

250 grams ground almonds
6  large eggs, separated
150 grams superfine sugar
35 grams powdered sugar
5 ml lemon zest
5 ml orange zest
5 ml pure almond extract
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Grease a 24-cm springform pan lightly with butter, then dust with powdered sugar.

Beat egg yolks, gradually adding the two sugars until a very pale yellow, almost white in colour.  It will be very stiff.  Make sure to scrape down the sides regularly. Beat in the zests and extract. Stir in the ground almonds. (I prefer to use whole blanched almonds and grind them myself in the food processor. I would not use Marcona Almonds. Do not use roasted almonds.  They need to be raw and preferably skinned.)

With very clean beaters, whip the egg whites until stiff.  Fold about 1/4 of the egg whites into the almond mixture. Make sure it is well mixed. Continue with the next 1/4 of egg whites.  You will find it much easier to fold in gently with each 1/4. Try to fold as gently as possible.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes.  The cake should come away from the pan a bit.  The cake will be a golden brown.  It will spring back to the touch.

Cool on a cake rake before removing the springform ring.  Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar, using a stencil of the Cross of Saint James for decorating.  Remove cake from cake bottom, using a sharp dinner knife or long offset spatula to loosen.  Place gently on a bake stand. Use kitchen tweezers to remove the stencil.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Supporting Tomorrow's Chefs Today: On-line Auction Now Open For Ron Eade Culinary Bursary

The special eBay auction site is now open in support of Algonquin College's Ron Eade Culinary Bursary. Get in on the fun and support a great cause. 39 spectacular auction items await you.

The Algonquin College School of Hospitality and Tourism is launching the bursary with a student-led fundraising dinner this Thursday, March 21.

Event co-ordinators, Scott Warrick and Mario Ramsay, both chef professors at Algonquin College, couldn't be more pleased with how Ottawa has responded to support the launch.

First, the good news of so many impressive auction items pouring in. Then, the dinner tickets sold out quickly. An added bonus has been the generousity shown by those who have chosen to give direct donations to the bursary.

Warrick told me today, "The investment in the bursary thus far means it is already financially viable and ready to go."

Although the dinner is sold out, Warrick and Ramsay have arranged for the auction items to be available to all through a special eBay auction site. The auction will remain open for bids until this Thursday, March 21 at 9:00 pm edt.

To shop, those at the dinner will be placing their bids on the eBay site too. That evening MC Derick Fage of Rogers Daytime Ottawa, will be getting the dinner guests in the dining room whipped into a spending frenzy and you can compete along side them.

It is as easy as 1-2-3, to start shopping today.  If you have an eBay account already, just sign in.  If not, the registration sign-up is straightforward.  Even if your strategy is to play big on the night of the event, make sure your account is set up and ready to go now. Though, you might enjoy some practise bidding beforehand!

I for one have bookmarked this special site (, as well as installed the eBay app on my smartphone. Some of my bids are already in.

For those attending the event and not 'packing' technology, a bank of computers will be available so you can keep shopping throughout the evening.

A number of well-known graduates of the culinary programs at Algonquin College have thrown their support behind the event.  When you check out the auction items their generousity looms large.  Look for the names Michael Moffatt,  John Leung, Walid El-Tawel, Katie Brown Ardington, Patricia Larkin and Anna March to name a few.

The bigger ticket items of special chef dinners in your home are real crowd-pleasers.  I confess to having a personal history of seeking out these types of auction items.  They are ideal for celebrating a very special occasion with close friends and family.  We have even teamed up with other couples to win ourselves a night to remember. Maybe this time it will be your turn.

One of the chef dinners being much talked about includes graduates Patricia Larkin, Chef at Black Cat Bistro, Anna March, Resident Chef at Urban Element, and Katie Brown Ardington Chef de Cuisine at Beckta.  To create an out-of-this-world dining experience, they will team with Pascale Berthiaume of Pascale's All Natural Ice Cream and Marysol Foucault, owner/chef of both Edgar and Odile.

One graduate who is in full support of the event is Patricia Larkin, Chef at Black Cat Bistro.

Patricia Larkin, Chef at Black Cat Bistro. Photo Credit:

I spoke with Chef Larkin recently. Lucky for us that she chose to follow her passion.  She told me that she almost missed her calling.  
"I was taking early childhood education in 2000 and knew I would rather be cooking. But I just couldn't get over the idea of wearing those checkered pants! After a year of walking past the culinary wing, wishing I was in there, I bit the bullet, bought the checkered pants and enrolled in culinary management from 2001-2003."

This bursary means a lot to the students coming through the culinary program. Extra financial support  can make a difference to stemming the tide of the mounting costs for post secondary schooling. Larkin shares her insights.  
"The money would of course be helpful for all the extras that the program requires such as uniforms, knives, tools and books. Also, because the culinary field has become so popular in the last 10 years I suspect more and more students are coming from out of town, which makes cost of living quite expensive for a student. This bursary will give a hard working student the confidence and support to succeed through the program and start their career."

Is Larkin glad she made the program switch from early childhood education to culinary management?  She sure is.  
"I had a very good experience in the culinary management program at Algonquin.I learned a lot and I enjoyed being there. It is what set me up for the career I have now. With a push from Chef/Professor Mario Ramsay, I applied to work at the Fairmont Hotel in Jasper, Alberta after college. I stayed for 2.5 years and came back to Ottawa with more skills and a thicker skin - two things you need in the kitchen."

Asked why we should support the establishment of this bursary, Larkin says,  
"For one, it is a great way to honour Ron Eade's career and all he has done for the culinary field in Ottawa. Also, this bursary is going to not only financially help but also inspire and give confidence to a culinary student on the same path that I took 10 years ago. That support will go a long way."

Do we want a few more Chef Larkins in our kitchens here in Ottawa?  You bet we do.  Here is your chance to make a difference for tomorrow's chefs today. Participate in the eBay auction. Start your bidding.  Bid big and bid often.

  • Setup (or dust off) your eBay account. (Dinner guests that are a bit technology shy can get assistance Thursday evening.)
  • If you have a smartphone or iPad, download the eBay app for table side mobile shopping.
  • Check out out the eBay auction website before Thursday's dinner and start bidding.
  • Not a shopper? Consider a direct donation to the bursary at [Full tax receipt issued.]
  • Dinner guests: Prep your party clothes - Reception starts 5:30 pm. Dinner at 6:30 pm. The Restaurant International at Algonquin College, 1385 Woodroffe Avenue, Ottawa
  • More information on the College’s event website

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Birthday Lunch That Celebrated Life

Our book club gals gathered today for a celebratory birthday.  We have no particular protocol in our informal constitution (there is no constitution) on how such events should unfold.  Sometimes a milestone year is a grand affair. Sometimes it commands a lunch out.  Sometimes it is a cake at a regular meeting and sometimes it is nary a whisper.  We are pretty free wheeling that way.

When we do congregate in the name of birthday milestones, it can often be just a side show to the whole outing. Our time together becomes more about sharing all of our lives.  The wonderful triumphs and crushing defeats.  Today we talked more about death than candles. For this group it is the topic du jour. Two had just lost fathers in the past week.  My uncle died just days ago.  Others had passings that they also wanted to share. We are at that age I guess.

Two blog posts I read recently resonated with me today as we confided and comforted each other at our not so birthday-ish lunch.

The first post is one I actually read often as a way of keeping my keel even when I know I need a reminder to stay caring, thoughtful and giving.  I hope you will enjoy it too.  It is by Darren Poke and is called Always Take The High Road.

The second post fresh off the press from Doris Belland is called What Do You Say And Do When Someone Dies?  I appreciated Doris' reminder "Food first, flowers later".

In some ways we are a disparate group with differences spanning age, religion, politics, means, family experiences, and hobbies.  Even our interest in books can be quite diverse. After 13 years together, despite our many differences, I continue to be reminded that I belong to a special group.

Again I came away refreshed and renewed. These outings force me to slow down, let time stand still and just take it all in. It is my chance to rebalance priorities and put people first. To quote the birthday girl, "Life is rich, and enriched with good friends.  Death is a poignant reminder of our transience on this planet."

Yes, in the glowing warmth of the tall, waxy candles, perhaps we did call it a birthday cake.  But in fact, it was a "life" cake.  Today we celebrated life.

“our life is a journey, and if we stop, things don’t go well.” - Pope Francis I

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Chef Duo From SAT's Foodlab Import Quebec Terroir "Temps des Sucres" To Ottawa

Chef Michelle Marek handily torches the maple meringue on the maple cream crêpe cake.

I have a bi-polar relationship with multi-course, wine-matched dining out experiences.  Last night's Quebec Terroir "Temps des Sucres" at The Urban Element was no exception.

Shawna Wagman, Food Editor at Ottawa Magazine and our host for CITY BITES LIVE!

Shawna Wagman, Food Editor for Ottawa Magazine was hosting Montreal's Foodlab chefs Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek, both formerly from the kitchen of Montreal's bistro Laloux.

Chef Seth Gabrielse shares in the dessert plating.
Shawna's connection to the pair is through Michelle.  Their significant-others were in grad school together at McGill.  My connection to the pair is from dining out a few times at Laloux when they were at the helm. Michelle's cardamom panna cotta with carrot sorbet remains memorable.

Shawna started the soft sell on me back in early December with a hint and a Twitter tease.  The news was formally announced on her Ottawa Magazine blog at the end of January.

Then the dilemma began. Do I go? At $150 plus tax, it is a pricey evening out.  I have a bit of a value shopper bent and struggle to assess premium pricing when I want to indulge. The description was intimating to anyone's health with words like marinated in maple, burnt onion oil and meringue brûlée.

As chef Marek said last night regarding these multi-course dinners, "sometimes you feel like you are facing your death at the end of the meal". Truth be told, I am not much of a wine drinker either. Many pours will go unfinished. Oh what to do?

The sale for the 18 tickets seemed to move slowly.  I wondered who in this town was even aware of Gabrielse and Marek's top talents.  They left Laloux in late 2011 for SAT's Foodlab, a not-for-profit, artistic culinary adventure into food research. No kitchen, no phone, no equipment to start, not even water, they chose to see this as opportunity as opposed to adversity. Ego-centric chefs need not apply.

Maybe not celebrity rock star status yet - and I doubt that moniker is actually their ultimate mark of success -  this fledgling food lab is becoming well-known.

Their work is impressive enough to garner attention from the New York Times after just 9 short months at the lab.

TV crews have been all over them. Thankfully there will be an episode coming up where I finally will learn how to make Chef Marek's strudel as she visually will walk us through the method for her well-guarded recipe. Michelle took a shot at running cooking sessions only to find out it was not for her. Hopefully TV will be more her thing.

They are also being featured in an upcoming Bon Appetit Magazine.

Gabrielse and Marek's low key Ottawa profile was partly what pushed me into going last night.  I was hoping my dining confreres were there more out of food curiosity than the buzz that can go with coveting a private dinner with a more recognized name of a star-studded celebrity chef. I don't want to go to say "I was there" or "to be seen". Dining out for me is a quiet, personal affair.

So with a single ticket remaining unsold for days, on Monday, just 5 sleeps away, I moved the event to 'sold out' status. No regrets.

Seth's roots are Dutch and Michelle's are Czech.  To not be born and raised in La Belle Province, means their interpretation for Quebec Terroir "Temps des Sucres" would bring a less traditional perspective.

In the intro to the evening, the chefs were quick to dispel my concern for 'the end of evening hangover'.  They take meal pacing very seriously and feel that it is the responsibility of the kitchen to move you gracefully through the courses - not just your taste buds but also all our digestive and vital organs.  For the most part, they lived up to their promise. Although I thought the pork dish was a bit hefty. Its delicious, tender, maple flavour didn't stop me from finishing and near licking the plate.

Echine de porc marinated in maple and citrus juice with burnt onion oil, grilled green onions, jus, and white vegetable purée.

I gave my dessert a good college try but for me, pork followed by a big slab of goat cheese and then a carb bomb dessert with cream and sugar meant that I was done. Delicious but just too much. I didn't even touch the last pour, a Riesling.

Maple cream crêpe cake with maple meringue brûlée and apple sauce.

Knitted through the evening were fun food finds.

The bread on the table was from a new bakery at Montreal's Jean Talon Market called Joe La Croûte. Owner Daniel Jobin, studied specific techniques of kneading in the south of France with Benoît Fradette, formerly of Montreal's Le Fromentier.

Bread from Joe La Croûte in Montreal's Jean Talon Market.

Our oyster was garnished with heat packed Preservation Society's Caesar Celery.  Montreal-based Preservation Society is known for their small batch preserves.

Whalesbone oysters with Preservation Society's pickled Caesar Celery.

Many star ingredients came from Société-Orignal, a Montreal-based 'rare foods' company.  The cold-pressed sunflower oil and the Balconville vinaigrette on the salad and cheese plate were but a few.

Rye berry salad with roasted squash, kale, shallots, and Balconville vinaigrette.
Fresh Quebec chèvre with Boston lettuce, mixed greens, oat cakes and cold-pressed sunflower oil and espelette.

Société-Orignal is not just a distributor.  They work actively with purveyors to create best of breed products - the sunflower oil coming from a specific stand of plants with maximized sun exposure; the maple syrup developed from a specific part of the woodlot vs. a blend of the farm's full acreage of trees.

Chris Nuttall-Smith describes them better in his October 2012 Globe and Mail article, "Yet the most interesting thing about the venture is how promising its model is for the future of small but innovative family farms. Rather than peddling the usual commodity products, or the typical farmers’ market offerings, Société-Orignal focuses on unique, unknown and under-appreciated foods, and then finds them high-value markets. The appetite for this sort of product, the company is discovering, is limitless so far."  I think we need to keep an eye out for that name.

Lucky for Société-Orignal to be moving into Williams-Sonoma stores, remaining under their label. But maybe not so lucky for us.  I have to wonder when specialized products go nationwide with a chain, how does one preserve their identity around specialized and rare foods, while still maintaining the original standard of high quality.

I even learned a food tip for myself. Seth said he poached his young ramp leaves, laid them flat to freeze and then carefully wrapped them to store. A trick I will try come May when they are in season.  His pickled ramps are based on Tom Collicchio's pickled ramp recipe.  Both leaves and pickles were featured in the seafood dish.

Black bass with ramp royale, ramp leaves, pickled ramps and radishes.

The Urban Element team, including house chef Anna March, did a great job of supporting Shawna and guest chefs with the pace and logistics of the evening.  Their pairings for the meal were Norman Hardie wines from Prince Edward County. Our meal, save dessert, was served at the long communal table.  Place cards were laid out for direction. Full credit for somehow knowing my left-handedness and seating me at the right side of the head, allowing for plenty of wing space as I lifted my fork.

Of course the food was exceptional.  But I think what I enjoyed most of all was the chance to converse with others who also share a genuine love of food. I barely left the table to check our guest chefs in action. When it came time for the Q&A, my list for the chefs was too long.  We didn't even touch a favourite topic of mine - food styling. After all we eat with our eyes. So there in lies some more of that bi-polar feeling.  I come for the tastes and wizardry in the kitchen and I leave reminiscing about the conversation and good company.

Foodlab SAT (Labo Culinaire) is located at 1201, boulevard St. Laurent on the less than posh side of town in Montreal.  They do dinner service Tuesday to Friday from 5 - 10 pm.  Their menus are themed and change typically in two week rotations. Call ahead for reservations 514-844-2033 ext. 225.
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