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Masala to Almond Cake: Restaurant-Hopping in Toronto’s East End
It’s been a rough few weeks.
In mid-December, my wise therapist, inspired spiritual teacher and beloved friend Terry Flynn died. It was sudden and unexpected. Although he had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease called ALS (Lou Gehrig’s), Terry assumed he had months, maybe more, to live. I miss him with all my heart.
Hot on the heels of this came two work-related setbacks. In both cases, I didn’t see them coming. Both triggered strong emotions. Both made me doubt my judgment, something that’s been shaken up since I quit the corporate world in 2007 after 18 years as food editor/columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and embarked on my intrepid, often lonely, frequently bumpy path as a fledgling freelance food sleuth.
And so I am trying, in middle age (happily, immaturity and hair dye keep me young) to handle these new challenges: financial insecurity (I’m self-employed but haven’t yet given myself a paying job) and what I can only describe as the steep learning curve called Life.
The ongoing lessons are many, most of them learned the hard way. But enough about me.
In the litany of mishaps from recent weeks are some that befell others.
My boyfriend Ross’s mother Betty fell down the stairs on Christmas Day eve and broke her femur. Thanks to some nifty surgery, she is on the mend.
Then the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit rocks off the Italian island of Giglio. On it were Ross’s sister Laurie and her husband Alan, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Thankfully, they survived; others were not so lucky.
Meanwhile, as I am wont to do in difficult times, I recalled the upbeat words of my dear late friend and mentor, Julia Child: “Don’t look back. Look forward.”
Then I took to the kitchen and cooked up a storm - the best way I know to soothe my troubled soul and one highly recommended by the inimitable Ms. Child who famously said: “Cooking is the best work there is. You get to eat the results.” (Read to the end of this blog for the fruits of this labour.)
Also comforting in troubled times is breaking bread with those I love. One recent, rainy Sunday eve, this pursuit took me to Little India accompanied by my daughter Ruthie and her girlfriend Usha.
Usha, whose heritage is Sri Lankan, suggested dinner at Moti Mahal, a casual cafe-style eatery that’s been a popular haunt in that ‘nabe for many moons. For some reason, I overrode her idea in favour of the nearby Udupi Palace, home to the dosa: a giant thin and crispy curry-filled crepe I was craving on that particular night.
For once, my restaurant radar was off. I should have known things might go wrong after noting bulbs for the word “Palace” were defunct on the Udupi emporium’s outside sign. Lukewarm, underwhelming dosas with too little, underspiced filling followed. Oy vey!
In an effort to save the evening — nothing puts me in a bad mood like inferior food — I suggested we move on to Moti Mahal where Usha had mentioned the desserts are terrific, especially something called Ras Malai.
Wow, the noisy diners dipping into oversized thali plates while enjoying lively conversation crowded into the utilatarian booths couldn’t have been having more fun. When Usha came to our table bearing a bevy of desserts, nor could we.
Ras Malai is a sweet, creamy “patty” made from milk swimming in a sweet, creamy sauce with little chunks of chopped pistachio floating therein. I hate the term “comfort food’ but this delectable confection could give it a good name.
The following week, I informed Ross that Moti Mahal was calling my name at dinner time. Alas, it was Tuesday night and the place was closed.
En route home along Queen Street East, I saw the sign “Edward Levesque” and remembered eating at that resto almost 10 years ago. Home to clever chef/owner with the above name, its food, I recalled, was refined downhome cooking — just darn good, real food. The room is pretty and tranquil.
After a short chat with the chatty Mr. Levesque, who recognized me after all this time, we sat down to eat. Ross’s creamy Chicken Pot Pie was old-fashioned, crowned with perfect pastry and resplendent with juicy chicken and green peas in a creamy sauce. A side of skinny, crunchy fries was simple, salty and superb; my Duck Confit was above average.
But dessert was the crowning glory: a rich, moist wedge of Orange Almond Cake topped with luscious Lemon Confit and a dollop of whipped cream.
I am a food sleuth and sleuthing is my game. So I asked chef Levesque about this dish. Yes, you guessed — I wanted the recipe.
He was discreet at first, saying a pastry chef makes his desserts. Then he offered up a few clues. “I think it’s an old recipe that originally called for clementines.” Then the name “Nigella” came up and some key info: that the oranges/clementines are cooked whole before being incorporated.
Back home, I took to the Internet. It quickly served up a trademark recipe from Nigella Lawson for Clementine Cake. I made it the next day and served it with Lemon Confit: a recipe shared with me on this sleuthing trail by my pastry chef buddy Joanne Yolles. It and a scoop of Loblaws divine Crackle ice cream were the crowning glory.
By the way, a week later Ross and I returned for dinner to Moti Mahal where we each dug into a thali platter — mine with goat curry, his with curried chicken but both including cinnamon-infused basmati rice, delicious and not-at-all-slimy, spicy okra, cauliflower potato curry, top-notch naan and chile-laced raw onion pickle. Delish — and we’ll be back.
So here’s that cake from Edward Levesque followed by the Lemon Confit that I plan to make regularly and use to garnish all kinds of desserts.
I used organic sugar, which is light brown rather than white, and whole unblanched almonds (skins on) which I ground in the food processor to resemble coarse crumbs.
5 or 6 clementines, preferably seedless (about 1 lb/500g)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
2 1⁄3 cups ground almonds
1 heaping tsp baking powder
Place clementines in medium saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Drain and cool. Remove stem ends, halve and remove any stray seeds. Chop coarsely, skin and all.
Butter and line 8-inch/2L springform pan with parchment paper. (If you don’t have the paper, butter and dust with flour.)
Preheat oven to 375F.
Beat eggs in medium bowl. Add sugar, almonds and baking powder; mix well. Add chopped clementines; stir until combined. Transfer mixture to prepared springform pan.
Bake in oven about 1 hour or until tester inserted in centre of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan placed on wire rack. Remove rim from pan.
Serve thin wedges of cake with a little Lemon Confit (recipe below) spooned on to each wedge and a scoop of ice cream, whipped cream or thickened yogurt. (This cake tastes better the day after it is made and keeps well stored covered in a cool place.
Makes about 12 to 16 servings.
I definitely recommend Meyer lemons for this — their robust sweet/sour taste is ideal. I used a mandoline to slice the lemons.
3 or 4 Meyer lemons, very thinly sliced
1 cup sugar
1 1⁄4 cups water
Preheat oven to 300F.
Arrange lemons in small baking dish. Combie sugar and water in small bowl. Pour over lemons. Cover with foil; cut small slits in foil.
Bake in oven about 2 hours.