Tag Archives: sandwiches

An ode to cheese bread

Long ago, when my kids were still in grade school and I rose early every weekday to make their lunches, cheese bread was The King. It was the kind of bread that didn’t need much more than a smear of butter. The sandwich filling didn’t really count. What counted was the bread itself and mine had big, hulking chunks of old, sharp cheddar cheese. It was the kind of bread that would grease up my kids’ hands as they anxiously clutched their gourmet sandwiches in a crowded lunchroom full of underage and drooling cheese bread-eating-wannabes.IMG_6187

It took me a while to get cheese bread down. My goal was Maria’s Mythic Cheese Bread: a soft, white marvel riddled with cheesy chunks the size of marbles. The crust was dark amber and rivers of melted cheese ran in streaks down its domed sides.

Maria was my grandparents’ cook and every summer she traveled up to Lake of Bays to their sprawling cottage to assume authority over the kitchen. When bread was in the making, she closed the kitchen down like Fort Knox. All windows and doors were clamped shut. But the kitchen’s one swinging door to the dining room was seductively lacking a lock. One day I thought I’d satisfy my eight-year-old curiosity and give it a little push.

“Oh no!” squealed Maria, her plump cheeks red and flustered. “The bread’s proofing!” she howled while snapping a tea towel like a whip in my direction.

A warm kitchen was Maria’s religious rite. If the bread failed to rise, it was obviously the fault of a no-good child who’d let loose a draft assaulting her dough. She did everything in her power to humidify and intensify the room’s heat, closing all the windows and doors, cranking up the heat in the empty stove and boiling endless kettles of water – all in the middle of summer. But our taste buds totally respected every iota of her madness, since Maria’s cheddar and chive loaf was pure alchemy.

Mine would be too, after a little tinkering.

IMG_1259Parmesan Chunk and Rosemary Sourdough

My bible was Great Breads by Martha Rose Shulman. This pivotal cookbook walked me page by page through the rites of bread making, eradicating my Maria-instilled terror of yeast. I learned to use little envelopes of Fleischmann’s yeast, pouring their contents into a small bowl of water with a pinch of sugar, waiting just a minute or two for the yeast to bubble up and tell me it was alive and ready to go. Then I’d measure the flour by spooning it from the bag and filling it above the edge of a dry measure cup, shaving off the excess with the edge of the spoon’s handle.

I could have used some help in the kneading department, for a cookbook was a lousy substitute for Maria’s strong hands and knowledge. I knew a little of its rhythm from quick peeks through the cracked door, but Maria always shooed me away. I had to learn it for myself, pushing and pulling what started as a crumbly, floury mass until it morphed into a flexible ball and eventually ballooned around my fingers. Every recipe warned against over-kneading and over-flouring the counter top and only through experience could I sense where that magical line was drawn. There were many of those lines, from the right kind of flour to the right amount of time.

I’ve been baking bread for 20 years now and still perplex over the many variables of baking, but the one that made Maria frantic, turns out to be the one I choose to ignore. Bread does not need a warm kitchen to rise, unless you want to make bread fast. Over the years, I’ve chosen to make my loaves slower and slower because they taste better that way.

But let’s get back to cheese bread and the magic of Maria’s loaf. Every single bite delivered a mouthful of cheese spiked with garden-fresh chive. My grandmother grew chives as high as hay at the cottage and an addictive, confetti of chives was doused over new potatoes, devilled eggs and chicken salad all summer long.

But chives in bread are difficult to calibrate. In fact, all herbs are. Too much, you wreck the bread. Too little, it’s lost and indiscernible. Maria knew exactly how much was right but it still eludes me, so I focus on the cheese, instead.

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Most bread recipes will tell you to knead grated cheese right into the dough. Once baked, it disappears into the crumb – lunch bag letdown!

I like to cube and coarsely grate it. If it’s a straight-yeast dough, I will roll it out into a rectangle, sprinkle it with a cup or two of cubed cheddar then roll it into a loaf. A liberal sprinkling of grated cheese goes on the top of the loaf just before it enters the oven and parchment paper is a must! If your baking pan isn’t lined with this true friend of baking, all that yummy cheese will melt and attach itself to the pan rather than the loaf.IMG_1819

Once my kids were growing into full-fledged cheese bread-aholics, Maria and my grandparents were no longer coming to the cottage. Those days were gone, but I dared to fill some mighty shoes and bake bread in the same kitchen, with the windows wide open and the floor scattered with sleeping dogs and crawling toddlers. I’d whip up a sponge starter in the morning in my KitchenAid mixer adding less than a teaspoon of instant yeast to the mixture. After an hour or two at room temperature, the surface would be riddled with holey bubbles, looking like its namesake. I’d toss cupfuls of white and whole wheat flour into the bowl and let the dough hook do what Maria never taught me: knead. Once the dough had proofed once, rising up into twice its size, I’d ask my eight-year-old niece, Jessie to perform one of her favourite tasks – punching down the dough. Then Jessie and I would roll out the dough and nestle it into two parchment-lined pans.

There was always a big smile on her little face and mine when we put the loaves into that oven, the same one Maria blessed with her baking 30 years earlier. We knew some magic was about to transpire when we closed the door. And no matter how many times we did this, we always sighed in utter amazement at the beauty and achievement of our cheesy loaves emerging from the oven knowing full well they’d be wolfed down in hours and we’d be doing it all over again, soon.

IMG_1825Seven-Hour Whole Wheat Cheese Bread
Makes 2 large sandwich loaves
For best results, use organic, hard flours for this bread.

In a large mixing bowl combine:
3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups warm milk
1 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 scant tsp instant yeast

Using the paddle attachment, mix on low for 1 minute until smooth. Leave in bowl (covered with plastic wrap) at room temperature until sponge has lots of small bubbles on surface, about 2 hrs. Add:
1 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats

Mix until it forms a shaggy mass and leave at room temperature for 15-30 min. Add:
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 ½- 1 ¾ cups whole wheat or white bread flour

Add flour by the ½ cup until it forms a ball. Mix at med-low speed about 6 minutes or until the bread starts to balloon around the dough hook.

Transfer to big plastic container or large bowl covered with plastic wrap. First rise 2 hours.

Divide dough in half. On a floured counter, roll one piece of dough into a 12 inch x 8 inch rectangle. Evenly scatter one cup of diced cheese on top. Roll up then shape into a loaf and place into a parchment-lined pan. Sprinkle over with half a cup grated cheese. Repeat for second loaf. OR make into cheese spiral buns by cutting one-inch thick slices from the cheese roll. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets, sprinkle over with grated cheese.

Second rise in loaf pans or as spiral buns: 45-60 minutes (or about ¾ inch over top of loaf pan). Cover lightly with oiled plastic wrap.
Preheat oven to 425 °F (30 minutes before baking)
For loaves, bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375°F and bake 40 minutes more or until bottom of loaves sound hollow when tapped.
For spiral buns bake at 375 F for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown. Continue reading

The Fish Store

I’ve been on a fish kick lately, eating it much more regularly than I usually do because truth be told, fish can throw me off my game. Every time I eat a flaky, moist fork-full of perfectly cooked salmon,Rainbow Trout tilapia or black cod I dive in with true adoration, savouring every mouthful, but the food issues inherent to our finned friends often throw me a curve ball. I get to thinking about their dwindling numbers and feel guilty if there isn’t an Ocean Wise logo nearby. It gets worse when I start to ponder mercury or the high price tag of fresh caught fish.

Enter the fish sandwich.

Of late, it’s been canned wild sockeye salmon for my noontime repast. Not only is the provenance of this fish considered as politically correct as you can go, but even the Food Police agree that the bones are edible and calcium rich. Give the can a drain, spritz the lot with fresh lemon juice and lay on the Asian ingredients: finely chopped fresh coriander, green onions and mayo whipped up with a healthy dose of sriracha sauce. Roll it up in a tortilla with some baby greens and few wraps satisfy better.

Or ditch the kitchen and head to the numero uno fish shack in town – aptly named- The Fish Store (657 College St. at Grace).IMG_7025

Is it a store or a resto? The answer is both and the space is a lot less than you’d think when considering this tandem offering. In fact, summer is the best time to visit as the front patio affords more seating than the closet-sized interior with its two small tables for two. Pull open the door and not two feet away is the cash register with a huge display of fresh fish on ice and another foot away, there’s Chef Mama toiling away.

Take your pick: Tuna, shrimp, calamari, wild sockeye salmon, grouper, snapper, tilapia, scallops, halibut and black cod all ready for purchase or cooked à la minute.

Despite the lack of space, there’s no lack of signage, IMG_7026advertising a slew of dining options at unbeatable prices, be it sandwich, burrito, salad, tacos or the ”brown rice meal”. No deep fryer to be found here plus a gentle emphasis on good health, from the whole wheat option in the sandwich bun to the brown rice.

On a recent visit on a cold rainy day, I was warmed by a luscious bowl of butternut squash soup ($3.99) that was perfectly calibrated in both sweet and IMG_7028 salty departments and duly rich in deep, squash flavour. I asked Mama for the recipe but she laughed sweetly and declined. Beside her work section is a shelf piled high with their signature paposecos bun (from nearby Golden Wheat bakery) all pre-loaded with sliced tomatoes, red onions and lettuce.

I ordered the day’s special – grouper – and was rewarded with three flash-fried and very fat morsels of silken, juicy fish pillowed in a soft bun draped in a garlicky, tangy vinaigrette. IMG_7029What’s not to love about this combo of hot, insanely fresh fish, mixed up with the soft yeasty bun and the crunch of lettuce? I could imagine ordering several and getting lost in consumption… staring out the sea-blue paned windows of this ultra adorable eatery for hours.

But all good things come to an end and The Fish Store does it aptly. IMG_7027When it’s time to pay at the cash register, Papa Hwang nods down at the tattered edges of a cardboard box full of complimentary pieces of personal-sized gum that he has painstakingly and individually hand cut from a sleeve of Dentyne. I like to oblige him and “ooh and aah” a little between chomps of the gum, saying goodbye to my garlic after-glow but not to the memory of the finest fish sandie in town.

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La Cubana

LC Entrance

Sometimes we foodies just get lucky. Forget about those resto-reviews written by folks like me. Forget about reservations and research. Simply close your eyes and tap your sparkly red shoes like Dorothy. Okay, one exception: Make sure you are walking the golden culinary pathway (Roncesvalles) and throw a dart at the first appealing doorway on the street’s north end: La Cubana (392 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-538-7500, lacubana.ca) .

That’s what my friend Rocca and I did last month and the place blew our not-very-Spanish socks off.

It didn’t hurt that we got the last table before a weekday lunch line started to pile up at 1pm. LC Seating We stepped lightly as a server guided us towards the last vacant booth, sighing happily to claim a little territory in this highly manicured eatery that is both bright and airy, with wake-me-up colourful tiles covering the floors and a long, soda fountain-type bar separating hungry customers from a busy grill-line-cook outputting seafood and pork delights.LC Signs

At La Cubana back-lit signs yell out red-lettered words from the menu, creating a mystique called hunger (if you are like us) and no entiendo.

Bocaditos, medianoche, frituras, dolce and tostones say the signs and that’s all part of La Cubana’s charm. Enter here a new world of flavours all expertly prepared, at great prices and in beautiful surroundings.

Take the sandwiches and medianoches section of the menu. You think the latter means something different, but it doesn’t. A medianoche is what any serious salsa dancer turns to for a midnight snack.

“Those are sandwiches, too,” explained our friendly server who was moving at Roadrunner speed to keep up with the lunch traffic.

“Duh,” said we in tandem and along came a LC Fish Sandmost sumptuous grilled fish sandwich, its contents spilling out of a soft, sweet-dough egg bun. A big hunk of perfectly grilled pickerel resided within, wedged around avocado, pineapple salsa, red cabbage slaw and mayo making the whole thing a textural, multi-sensory delight.

We were having a girls’ lunch and sharing was part of the package. The mother-and-daughter-team beside us were in the same mode and I couldn’t help but notice they were switching between Spanish and English convo while nibbling away at a feast of small-plated bocaditos such as habanero glazed fried squid ($7), mussels with coconut and lime ($6) and tropical chips and salsa ($6).

Not us. As a Ricky Ricardo voice-alike sounded over the airwaves we happily awaited arrival of our second order: a big bowl stuffed to the brim with avocado, LC Saladhearts of palm, orange segments and Bibb lettuce. This clean, fresh offering with its crunchy white, baby palm stems (memories of white asparagus) would be a winner served at a beachside cafe in Nice or Veradero.

Speaking of all-inclusive vacations to Cuba and the wretched food sagas I’ve suffered through (second-hand) via rants from returning travellers, I assure you there will be no déjà vu at La Cubana. In fact, nothing should stop you from racing across the threshold of this newly opened (November 2013) establishment as soon as possible.

Especially, if you’re a dessert hound and want to join the fresh-out-of-the-fryer donut trend that has swept across North America’s beltline.

Rocca made me do it.

She forced me to share five, TimBit-sized donuts under the dolce portion of the menu, where it says quite plainly “donuts” and doesn’t whisper to you that these

LC donuts

seductive little creatures have been whipped up from a buttermilk Béarnaise batter that balloons into warm, sweet, heavenly dough that’s lovingly tossed and turned in a dry bath of cinnamon sugar so that when it hits your open mouth all that comes to mind is simply x-rated.

Five dollars for five! Priceless.LC Coffee

Especially if you pair it with a bistro glass full of cafe con leche ($4) that rivals any latte I’ve tasted in Riverdale, especially since the last drops in the glass are pure sugar (gracias, sweetened condensed milk).

Adios La Cubana. I hope to see you again, soon.