7 Tips for the Perfect Gingerbread House

I still remember my excitement when I got my first gingerbread house kit. It was something that I had never seen before and it was never a part of Christmas celebrations in my family. As the years have gone by, I’ve experienced so many different gingerbread houses for many different occasions. For example, there’s the classic Christmas house, the Easter house, and of course, the haunted Halloween house.

IMG_20151030_180712This year, I really got into the Halloween spirit and in addition to dressing up and getting my family into handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, I decided to whip out a good ol’ fashioned gingerbread house kit. Of course, it wouldn’t be spooky enough if it wasn’t a chocolate gingerbread haunted village. (My mom works for a company that produces all these kits so I’m lucky enough to get them for free, but really you can find them at any grocery store, Walmart, Costco, etc.)

IMG_20151030_180924The kits come with the pre-baked cookie pieces, icing, and loads of candy. I always worry about the amount of candy that I get and not having enough to properly decorate the houses with. But I always have leftovers. Always. There are printed instructions on the back of the box and also videos online on how to assemble the cookie pieces. But from my many years of gingerbread house decorating, here are some tips if you ever decide to make your own for whatever occasion:

  1. Village kits come with smaller cookies that need to be broken apart. Be careful when doing this since they tend to crack in the wrong places. But don’t panic if your cookies do break; simply glue them together with some icing!
  2. The box will ask you to massage the icing packs. Do it. Your hands will thank you later when you won’t have to squeeze like death to get icing out of the bag. BUT, this is not to say that you should melt the icing, maintain a good temperature so that the icing is easy to work with.
  3. Speaking of icing, when you’re cutting the tip of the piping bag open, don’t cut too much. You can always cut more off the tip if you find that not enough icing is coming out. But you can’t un-cut the tip!
  4. I like to pour all my candy into little dishes just to keep my work area relatively clean and organized. This is optional, but I find it does stop things from rolling everywhere or spilling inadvertently from the little baggies.

5. The box will tell you to assemble your houses first and then decorate. Don’t listen to the box. Decorate your cookies first and then assemble when everything is dry and secure. You’ll thank me later for recommending that you DON’T defy gravity.

6.  Think of a plan before you start. Do you want to design your own? Follow the box? This will contribute to your gingerbread house looking truly wondrously festive rather than crumbly and dilapidated. Unless of course that’s the look you’re going for.

7. Lastly, be patient, this is not a project that you can do on the fly. It takes a lot of time, especially if you’re detail oriented and a control freak like me.

This is merely something that I wanted to share with you guys, perhaps as suggestion for a festive activity for Christmas or Halloween next year. What do you guys do to celebrate?

Advertisements

Baking Chinese Egg Tarts

Have you ever had a craving so strong that it was impossible to ignore? On one particular day, I found myself stuck at home with the biggest craving for Chinese egg tarts. The closest bakery was about a half-hour drive away and with no car in the driveway, I was determined to make myself a nice, fresh batch. I found the following recipe for 12 tarts and modified it to make 24 tarts by doubling everything:

DOUGH
Butter Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1¾ stick (which also equals ¾ cup + 2 tbsp) cold, unsalted butter
Water Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks (save the egg whites for the filling)
¼ cup cold water
FILLING
Simple Syrup:
⅓ cup sugar
½ cup water
Egg Custard:
3 large eggs + reserved egg whites from earlier
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

If you would like to make these egg tarts yourself, I would recommend you give yourself sufficient time since there is a lot of waiting in between steps. This was quite a lengthy and strenuous endeavor. Here’s a brief walkthrough of the process with measurements from the original recipe. You can adjust accordingly depending on how many you want to make.

The first step is to make the “butter” dough portion of the puff pastry that your custard filling is going to sit in. Start by combining the flour and butter (cut into small cubes) together until you have smooth uniform dough. Make sure that the butter is cold. It should be coarse and flaky to begin with, but as you work more with the dough, the two will incorporate nicely. When you’re satisfied with the consistency, flatten the dough into a square about a ½” thick, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator.

The next step is to make the “water” dough. Separate your two eggs but set aside the egg whites for the filling and add the yolks to the flour. The cold water should be added gradually to the mix since too much would make your dough too sticky. When you feel that everything is evenly combined, it’s time to roll out the dough. Sprinkle some flour onto a work surface to avoid sticking and roll out the dough to about a ¼” thickness. It should be laid out in a diamond formation and be big enough to encase the butter dough from before. After this, take the butter dough out of the fridge and wrap it up in the rolled out dough.

At this point you’ll begin the rolling and folding process three times. Firstly, roll out the dough to a ¼” long rectangle and fold it into thirds. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes. Then roll it out again, fold it into quarters and refrigerate for another fifteen minutes. Repeat the previous step one last time and your dough should be ready for cutting. In summary, roll and fold in a 3-4-4 sequence.

In between rolling and waiting for the dough to chill, you can prepare the custard filling. Create a simple syrup by melting the sugar in the water using a microwave and stir well to combine. Set this aside to cool since it will cook your eggs if you add this in right away. Next, mix together three eggs, the egg whites that were reserved from the dough, milk, and some vanilla extract. Feel free to adjust the amount of vanilla extract that you add. Since I baked my egg tarts in batches, I noticed that they were not as sweet as I would have liked and added a little more to my unused custard to supplement. Add your syrup to the rest of the custard after it has cooled and run everything through a strainer to remove any unincorporated egg whites and undissolved sugar.

At this point, your dough should be nicely chilled so roll it out one last time to a ¼” thickness and use a circular cutter that has a similar diameter as your baking molds (I used a cupcake tray) and cut out circles of your dough. Grease your molds with a bit of melted butter. Lay the dough over the mold, press into the middle and using your thumbs, slowly work your way around the mold pressing the dough up along the sides of the mold. Using a fork, gently prick the bottom of the tart to prevent the dough from puffing up during cooking. When the tarts are ready, pour the custard filling into the cups and they’re ready to bake! The oven needs to be preheated to 400°F and the tarts will bake for about 25 to 35 minutes. Keep an eye out for the custard browning at the top; they should be a light golden colour, not dark. My adjusted recipe made around 60 tarts even though I intended to make only 24. The recipe is suited to making larger egg tarts so keep that in mind when playing around the ratios and adjusting the recipe.

These tarts were most definitely worth all the work and the process of rolling out the chilled dough was quite the workout. The hard work assuaged the guilt from eating way too many of these after they were done. Good luck, and happy baking!

Special Occasion at O&B!

There are many milestones that should be celebrated in life, be it birthdays and anniversaries or hard-earned achievements. Thinking back, there were many wonderful moments spent at themed birthday parties and silly laughs at childhood jokes. The one thing that has remained constant has been the wonderful friends that have always been there, old and new, that make each milestone just that much more special. As we all got older, it seemed more difficult to get everyone together to celebrate, with busy schedules and distance separating us. While I panicked about hitting the 2-0s in age, I realized that the only thing that I wanted was to have all my friends together for a great meal.

I settled on the Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill at Bayview Village. I’d always wanted to try a restaurant in the O&B chain and the location seemed the closest to being the center point of all of our homes. If you have a party greater than 15, you won’t be able to make a reservation online and the restaurant won’t seat you for 5-7pm on weekends. Those are their high volume service times so they offered me a table for 8pm (you’re welcome to stay for as long as you need to after closing so don’t worry about the restaurant hours). Since I had gathered everyone together under the pretense of celebrating my birthday (I really just wanted to see all of them), my friends wanted to bring a cake. O&B does charge a $2.50 plating fee per person at the table but will plate and decorate the cake, portion and cut, and package any leftovers for you. Since some of my friends had allergies and wouldn’t be participating in the eating, we cheated and a friend of mine (shoutout to Jen K.!) convinced the waitress to allow the cupcakes that she had baked at no charge. I guess you’re welcome to get creative with this rule but there are no guarantees for what they will and will not allow.

The evening started out a bit rocky since the hostess at the entrance didn’t exactly leave the most friendly or warmest of impressions. Upon approaching her, she directly told me that we couldn’t be seated until at least 75% of my party was confirmed to be present. It was a fair policy but her delivery didn’t exactly sit well. Huge portions of my experience at restaurants are the staff that work there and it really contributes to a positive impression if they’re courteous and go the extra mile to make you feel welcome. Perhaps she was having a bad day, but it’s more comfortable for everyone if emotions are kept in check for a private setting. Due to the size of my party, we had to be split into two tables. The décor of the restaurant gave a relaxed, low-key vibe as you are immersed in a space of ambient conversations and the sounds and smells of the open kitchen. Silhouetted candles helped to brighten up the tables by supplementing the slightly dim lighting. Our very friendly waitress made up for the earlier exchange with the hostess.

My friends insisted that I start out my meal with a cocktail so I opted for the Bayview Sangria. It’s a fruity drink that’s based in vodka, but the strong taste of the liquor is masked by cranberry, peach and fresh lemon. I don’t drink too much at restaurants (always driving home) so I can’t comment much on the price but I will say that it was delicious and fun! A funny routine of my friends and I is our usual inspection and critique of the breadbasket. On very few occasions will a restaurant deliver on nice, fresh, soft bread and O&B did not earn that distinction that night. For our table, we had two orders of Grilled Brown Butter Calamari with olives, anchovies & Tuscan bean salad as an appetizer. The calamari was most definitely a standout from the evening: the squid was so nicely prepared and just melted in your mouth with a subtle hint of butter. Although I’m not a fan of olives, the Tuscan bean salad gave a nice refreshing bite to contrast with the creamy goodness of the calamari. It’s safe to say that we happily cleared both dishes.

Roasted Heritage Salmon
Roasted Heritage Salmon

The menu at Bayview Village’s O&B does not differ too greatly with its downtown counterpart and features a varying selection of foods that range from pizza to steak. According to our waitress, the daily specials can be quite popular depending on the day of the week but, unfortunately for us, they were all out of the Sunday Roast Dinner. Instead, I chose the Roasted Heritage Salmon with tomato ratatouille, basil pesto, fregula & winter squash mostarda. Quite frankly I chose after seeing “salmon” since I didn’t know what half of what the other things listed with this dish were. The dish came layered with what I assumed to be the basil pesto on the bottom and then the fregula (small, chewy, grain-like pasta) and tomato ratatouille in the middle and the salmon sitting on top. I’m not sure where the winter squash mostarda (usually candied fruit) was hiding out. Each element had a distinct flavour and texture that mixed well to create a complex dish. The salmon was cooked to medium-rare and retained a buttery consistency. I really enjoyed the fregula since the dough absorbed a lot of flavour and gave an interesting chew. One point of conflict would be the amount of oil that this dish held. Towards the end it seemed as if each bite had too much slickness and got a little sickening.

Leo’s Parsnip Ravioli- Closeup
Leo’s Parsnip Ravioli- Closeup

The best part about eating with friends is being able to mooch off bites of their food and having the opportunity to try more than one thing during a meal. Two other dishes worth mentioning are the Fish and Chips (two pieces of haddock, Yukon Gold fries, creamy coleslaw & tartar sauce) and Leo’s Parsnip Ravioli with wilted spinach, toasted walnuts, Woolwich goat cheese & brown butter sauce. Fish and chips seem like a pretty boring and standard dish but was really nicely prepared. The batter was flavourful, full of crunch, and provided the perfect home for a nice succulent piece of haddock. The ravioli was really rich, creamy, and was unsuspectingly filling compared to some of the larger sized entrées. My friends and I found the food greatly enjoyable and the menu provided a lot of options for those with allergies and particular dietary choices (gluten-free, vegetarian).

Overall, the dining experience at Oliver & Bonacini Bayview Village was amicable with good food and even better service. The wait staff were truly tremendous and offered friendly service, excellent recommendations and, of course, patience at our indecision. It was evident that they were comfortable with parties of all sizes and facilitated the bill splits and special requests with ease. Oftentimes restaurants will make the final moments of a shared meal complicated and awkward by not allowing parties to split bills or having some sort of rule to limit the ways to combine checks. The atmosphere at O&B provided a nice backdrop for a relaxed evening of dining out with friends. It’s a definite recommendation for larger parties due to the wide variety in food options and the accommodations that the restaurant provides.

Here are the wine & cocktails and dinner menus for your convenience!

Ben Thanh

Since moving to the Waterloo area for school, I’ve only ventured out to eat at the restaurants that were walking distance from where I lived. One of the only restaurants to make the list of few exceptions from this would be Ben Thanh. A favourite among my friends, we almost always choose to eat out and celebrate special occasions at Ben Thanh while in Waterloo. On a past Saturday night, my friends decided to take me out for an early birthday celebration.

The restaurant can get quite packed in the evenings and on the weekends, so if you’re not partial to a wait, you’d be better off making a reservation, especially if you have a larger party. The wait isn’t too horrible, around 15-20 minutes if you’re eating with 3-4 people. Ben Thanh’s wait-staff are very courteous and polite and their clothing coordination in all black contributes positively to the restaurant’s atmosphere. To me, having some sort of uniform required for staff really adds to the restaurant’s image and the whole dining experience. The service at Ben Thanh is quick and the staff are more than willing to oblige to your requests. Your standard choice of water or hot tea is served along with your menus though their selection of drinks is quite large and includes Vietnamese specialties such as iced espresso and chè (any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage). The triple-coloured sweet beans with coconut milk (chè ba màu) is one of my personal favourites, since the three types of sweetened beans (red adzuki, green mung, white black-eyed) gives texture to the drink and balances out the coconut milk.

Ben Thanh’s menu is quite extensive and is ordered by the type of entrée (noodle soup, congee, or rice) and by the type of meat (seafood, beef, pork, or chicken) or the vegetarian selection. My friends and I started out our meal with an order of Vietnamese deep-fried spring rolls, an order of chili salt calamari, and an order of crispy cyclone shrimp rolls. There isn’t much that I could say about the spring rolls, other than the fact that the outer skin didn’t pack as much crunch as was expected for a fried roll. The shrimp on the other hand were a whole other story and remains a favourite for my friends and I. The roll featured a coating of thin, deep-fried noodles that surrounded thick dough that was sweet and chewy. Inside the dough was jumbo shrimp. What we’ve noticed is that if you are eating with one other person, your two shrimp will be left intact while with more than two persons, they will cut the shrimp into halves, making it easier to share and eating more manageable. Be warned though that the shrimp is quite large in diameter; so make sure to only bite off as much as you can chew. Our calamari delivered on flavour though the squid itself was a bit disappointing. The outer skin was only slightly crunchy at first but the residual heat of the dish rendered it slightly soft rather quickly. The squid wasn’t as soft and chewy as you’d wish for in a calamari dish, but rather on the rubbery side. Despite this, the seasoning was what you’d look for in a chili salt dish and wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy.

PicsArt_1424242203948
Mussels with Thai Sauce

Aside from our appetizers, we also got some mussels with Thai sauce. The flavours of the sauce are really the standout of this dish and it had a creamy consistency that clung on nicely to the mussels. The peppers in the sauce packed a bit of a kick that helped to mask the fishiness of the mussels. The size of the dish was agreeable since we had more than enough to share between three people.

PicsArt_1424242354128
Phở

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, the menu at Ben Thanh is large and offers a variety of entrées that cater to all sorts of palates. But for my friends and I, the real treat is the phở or beef noodle soup. While it sounds quite simple, phở is a rather difficult dish to perfect since it is the union of so many different parts. Quite frankly, the broth is the main determinant for separating the good from the bad. The broth is a medley of complex flavours that is simmered for hours on end. Others will consider the noodle to be the star, which should be a nice thin rice noodle that is tender but still holds its own. Where each bowl of phở will vary is what garnishes a person wants to have included. For me, the different cuts of meat all have their individual merit but my personal favourite remains the flank brisket (both lean and fatty, so soft that it’ll melt in your mouth like butter) and tripe (crunchy and chewy, a slightly rough but interesting texture). Deciding on which bowl of phở to order for me is always the easiest; my go-to selection would be the Ben Thanh special beef soup, including lean beef, flank brisket, soft tendon, tripe and beef ball. My philosophy is that I could always pick out whatever it is that I don’t like after at least trying it out once. I am a bit picky with my garnishes so I always ask for “no greens” which means the exclusion of green onion, parsley and onion from my bowl; there is simply too much to pick out. On the side, you can soak in some bean sprouts, some basil leaves and some chilies along with the standard Sriracha and hoisin sauces. Be warned: those chilies are deadly and not for the faint of heart. For those that don’t do so already, try putting the additional sauces into your soupspoon or a sauce dish for individual bites rather than directly into the bowl. That way, you won’t ruin the purity of your broth. The soup at Ben Thanh could be a hit or miss depending on the day but it’s got a fairly reliable streak when it comes to the quality of their broth. They don’t skimp out on the contents of your bowl and, really, you get what you asked for.

Of course, there is rice and vermicelli dishes to be had but in my opinion, the phở is the must try. My friends and I have deviated only occasionally to try other dishes and the notable mentions would be the grilled chicken and beef skewers and the Thai green curry shrimp on rice. Presentation wise, the curry dishes are very appealing and further contribute to the dining experience.

Overall, Ben Thanh may not be the best phở you’ll ever have but I would venture to say that it’s of a top quality difficult to find in Waterloo for this particular type of cuisine. The staff are very friendly and their consideration makes you feel welcome and comfortable in the restaurant. The ambience is one of sophistication with moderate sound levels that create a nice buzz around the establishment that ensures that everyone around you is enjoying good drinks, great food, and even better company.

Note from the author: By no means am I an expert on any type of cuisine; this review is merely based on personal dining experience and opinion.