Tree tapping and the science of syrup

Guys. Jen, Ian and I did the most Canadian thing ever. We tapped the maple tree in our front yard.

Ian with tree
BACK WHEN WE HAD SO LITTLE SNOW. WAH.

Well, to be perfectly honest, Jen tapped it. She macgyvered a tapping device out of a piece of copper pipe (which our metallurgist friend said shouldn’t poison the tree or us, don’t worry!) and hung a giant bucket on said tap using an S-hook and the will of a woman determined to make it work. She remains one of the most resourceful people I know.

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The thing about making maple syrup is that it’s a process of timely refinement. In order to reach the optimal 67 per cent sugar content, we had to simmer our sap for…about seven hours. Jen has reported that our hydro bill went up by approximately $20 (we justify this by concluding that we’ve made at least this much money’s worth of syrup). As seen above, our sap was being held in a giant soup stock pot, the contents of which threatened to slosh over the side as we made our way from the maple tree up our partly snow-packed, gravel driveway. That, say, 40 cups of sap per pot then had to be cooked down to about 1/40 of its original volume.

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So our stove has been working in overdrive the past few weeks. On the night of seven hour sap reducing, our entire house was filled with humidity. I used my fingertips to paint condensation cartoons on the walls and windows, and our basement was dank with the weight of evaporated water and the smell of cedar walls.

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After about three weeks of tapping, this is the result of our botanical bounty:

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Yes, that’s a gin bottle

The thing the three of us found most fascinating about the syrup was the different shades of amber (and yellow) we attained. As I learned from Dan and Tracy Seguin at their sugar bush south of Sudbury (this was an awesome story to do), the first tap of the season creates the most coveted syrup. As you can see in the photo above, our first tap was much lighter in colour and was milder in taste. It is a finer, better grade of syrup. Taps following the first yield darker syrup with more traditional colour tones. We found this to be consistent with our experience, until we got to tap number three (actually the fourth jar from the left). Tap number three froze in the bucket, when left outside on one of those “spring” evenings where it was actually much more like the depths of winter. Because it froze, the sugar layer partially separated from the water layer, making it far faster to boil down and, curiously enough, making it bear more of a resemblance to the extra light, grade A, first tap syrup. As you can see, however, we may have boiled this batch a bit too much, since it developed a bad case of the sugar crystals. Also super interesting: it tastes so much like honey!

Maple chrystals

Anyways, we’re still tapping, despite it being mid-April. There’s half a bucket of sap hanging from the tree as I type. The weather this year has really been pretty perfect for sap producers, it seems. Since the ideal maple syrup season is where the nights reach -5°C and the days reach +5°C, it looks like we could be in the midst of what is a longer-than-usual production year. Which is good, because last spring it was hot, hot, hot! Spring snowstorms (no seriously), meet your silver lining.

Norbert, wanting so badly to cause so mischief
Norbert, wanting so badly to cause some mischief
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Awaiting the grand reveal: Ukrainian egg making 2013

When Jen brought forward the idea of decorating Ukrainian eggs this past weekend, I jumped at the opportunity.

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I don’t know if it’s just me and my friends, it seems as though many people have had exposure to Ukrainian egg painting at some point in their lives. For me, it was in either grade two or three, when I was living in Sudbury the first time around. My mom and I made a set of three eggs on a mother-daughter craft date. The details of the actual painting aren’t too clear in my mind, but I do know the legacy of those eggs live on. Up until this past week, the eggs were sitting in the display cabinet in my parent’s dining room. Because you don’t empty the contents of the egg prior to painting (the membrane serves as insulation, otherwise the empty shell would become too hot and delicate when you burn off the wax with a candle) they have to be rotated every few weeks until everything dries up inside. Two of the eggs my mom and I painted a decade-and-a-half ago are still going through this drying process, and she has recently taken them out of the cabinet in hopes they’ll receive benefit from better air circulation on the kitchen window sill.

Photo 2013-03-25 5 36 43 PM
The original Ukrainian eggs made by Hilary and mom. Bunny ears courtesy of dad.

My egg painting outing this time around was with Jen, and our other friend and colleague, Martha. It was at the Ukrainian Seniors’ Centre in Sudbury. We entered the room where, over the next two hours, a set of medium eggs would be transformed into an intricate display of layered dyes.

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Most of the people attending the workshop were presumably mothers on a  Saturday morning outing with their kids. Jen, Martha, and I look as though we could be anywhere between the ages of 16 and 30, so the two older ladies running the workshop earmarked us as high school students, an assumption likely confirmed as we rebelliously displayed our “free-spirited” egg design techniques over the next two hours.

The entrance of the seniors centre had a map of Ukraine with eggs painted in the style of the region; an Ophelia-esque flower crown, dye from 1997 (!!)
The entrance of the seniors centre had a map of Ukraine with eggs painted in the style of each region; an Ophelia-esque flower crown, dye from 1997 (!!)

The purpose of the workshop was to create the traditional “pysanka” style of Ukrainian eggs. Traditionally, the labrynth-like design was used to trap evil spirits as they penetrated a household. The design relies on the use of symmetry and quadrants and involves the use of a “kystka,” a copper funnel tool you heat in order to melt beeswax, which is then drawn onto the surface of the egg. Using the kystka is a lot of fun, and I love watching the funnelled edge gobble up the freshly melted wax.

The basis of the pysanka design, which was first drawn on in pencil. Traditionally the "arrows" you see on the lines are supposed to be pussy willows, which replace palms on Palm Sunday
The basis of the pysanka design, which was first drawn on in pencil. Traditionally the “arrows” you see on the lines are supposed to be pussy willows, which replace palms on Palm Sunday

The steps of creating a pysanka were extensively detailed in an instruction book the three of us got when we started the workshop. As you can see from the final photos at the bottom of this post, I think our eggs all captured the gist of the traditional style. They do, however, have their own signature – something that makes each distinguishable from the next. This creativity, we discovered, was not in the spirit of what the ladies running the workshop wanted. They were very sweet and well-intentioned, however they did not want us to express any of our personality on the eggs. I understand – traditional Ukrainian motifs should be respected – but we were not treading so far off the path as to dishonour that tradition. We were simply adding wheat where there should have been pussy willows, and additional green dye where there should have been black. Because much of the religious significance is lost on my agnostic-self, I didn’t feel the need to conform with the Christian symbolism. This led to a bit of backseat egg decorating. I’ll leave it at that.

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Ukrainian egg16

In the end, I think the two ladies running the workshop were relieved to see our eggs still resembled the traditional pysanka, and that we had some level of competence that was formally doubted. Of course, the workshop facilitators are very talented and experienced egg designers themselves, and created such beauties as these beaded designs:

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The workshop was tonnes of fun and I learned a lot – not only about how to design more Ukrainian eggs in the future, but also about Ukrainian culture and tradition.

In terms of how to create the actual pysanka design, here’s how that worked: The egg is separated into different sections – split vertically à la Greenwich Meridian and horizontally à la equator. That centre point is then intersected diagonally across the egg to create a series of eight triangles in each quadrant on either side of the egg.

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At the top of this photo is the beeswax block used to dip the krystka in. The smell of beeswax reminds me of the mom, who used to make beeswax candles with sheets of wax bought at a flea market north of New Liskeard, Ont.

From there, an eight-pointed star is added on each side to represent the sun god (or Christ, following the advent of Christianity in Ukraine), and other flourishes are added as well. Dye-wise, you dip from lightest colour (yellow) to the darkest (black). The areas you cover in beeswax with the kystka will be immune to the next shade of dye, thereby allowing you to dip the egg in its entirety, while only colouring it in parts. At the end, you burn off the wax using the side of a candle flame, and gingerly wipe the glossy melted bits for the grand reveal. It’s all very exciting, and after two hours of covering the egg in wax and dye, it’s rewarding the see your handiwork transform into a beautiful pysanka.

The same, but different. Jen's egg, mine, and Martha's
The same, but different. Jen’s egg, mine, and Martha’s

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February 14: Annual day of paper crafts and cookies*

*Also known by most as Valentine’s Day.

So here’s the thing. I’m obsessed with Valentine’s Day for all the wrong reasons. I don’t like the phoney (sounding like Holden Caulfield here) romance of it – the rush of people to buy flowers and cakes and fine dinners for their loved ones, because it’s the one time during the year they feel as though they need to make an effort. Is that cynical? I think it is. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Maybe the real reason for my not liking Valentine’s Day is because I once had to use a teddy bear-shaped paddle to spank a man dressed up as Cupid for a television story in j-school. Folks, that footage still exists somewhere. Ten thousand buckets of tears to whomever can uncover it.

What do like about Valentine’s Day is the excuse to make crafts and cookies, treats that I hope are so carefully and lovingly created that they can make up for the fact that I can sometimes be a cynical bum.

Vday1

Like Christmas, to me the mid-February affair is more about the lead-up than the actual day – the time before the event when, every night for a week, I’m yanking my craft drawer off its night-table tracks and plopping it down on our gaudy lime green craft table cloth. Valentine’s Day is an invitation to make something – and not just any something, but paper somethings. A time to put my rainbow hued collection of bits and bobs to good use. And unlike birthdays, I don’t get to make just one card, but rather a whole collection for a whole lot of wonderful people. As you can see, I have selfish, DIY motives behind this day, too.

As with all card-making, I very much try and match my creation to its intended receiver. Example: My friend Yoshi who owns Café Petit Gâteau in downtown Sudbury got a little cupcake card, complete with a muffin liner flower on the inside. Ella, my former classmate and fellow Ottawa food-lover, got a card embellished with a whole pile of doughnuts, a throwback to the Capital city’s fairly recent revelation that it is (and rightfully so) in love with the deep-fried dessert. And so on and so forth.

card collage

The cards were mailed off in homemade envelopes (I always get really into making these bizarrely-shaped cards, before realizing that, damnit, they do not fit in any standard postage packages). Out of five cards for out-of-town friends, I managed to create one envelope. Just one. Jen made the rest. While an experienced cutter, gluer, and marker-user, paper folding is an area in which I lack all skill. As a 10-year-old, the only thing I could ever make in my Origami kit was the paper crane, and even then, that was only because I was so determined after reading one of my favourite childhood books, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Anyways, digressing like crazy here, but point is: Jen is far more proficient at envelopes, and made a lovely set of them. Some were two shades of pink, some had zigzag-ed edges. All (except mine) were great.

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And, of course, what would DIY Valentine’s Day be without baking. Actually, what would any night with me be without baking?

Jen, Ian and I had a team effort cookie-making session into the late hours of Valentine’s eve. Here’s how that developed:

1. Hilary decides to bake cookies for work. Because, if nothing else, Valentine’s Day is about showing your appreciation for the friends and co-workers you admire.

2. Jen suggests making a cookie cutter out of a tin can. Hilary hesitates, Jen persists. She proceedds to make an impressive mould out of an old chick pea tin.

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“CRUSHED IT” – Jenifer Norwell

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3. Sugar cookies are made.

From here, the decorating was improvised step-by-step. I originally planned to cut another mini heart inside the heart cookie, and melt Jolly Rancher candies inside, through which creating a stained-glass effect. However, liking the unusual chick pea can heart shape so much, I decided against it, and turned these into little mouse (or some other animal of your choice) cookies. The discovery of decorations was swift.

“Hmm, what can I use for the nose?” A: Why, those “pretty bubble” pink dragées that I bought two years ago at the fancy kitchen store near my Ottawa house.

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“Uhh, what about the eyes?” A: Easy, chocolate chips. Bake the cookies without them and put them on immediately after, so they melt to the top.

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“Okay, but it needs ears.” A: OH, I just happen to have this tube of red icing sitting in my closet. I was going to use to make the laces on a baseball cake in the summer. (note: it was too late to make homemade icing. I only have so much energy on Thursday nights)

icing-collage

It all worked out. I think, anyways.

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Oh right. Here! Have a Valentine’s Day kitty. I love you, Norbert.

vday kitty

Sudbury’s newest culinary creation: Rose Apple Asian Fusion & Bakery

Here I am, back with my first blog post in nearly two months. I’ll be perfectly frank with you – for the first time in almost three years, I didn’t miss blogging. As the initial days and weeks trickled by without an update, I did feel like a neglectful parent. But soon I was so absorbed by work and life around me that I didn’t think twice of Hilary Makes or blogging. Throughout university, blogging was an escape, an excuse to stay up late and bake a ridiculous amount of cupcakes to bring to class. It was a way for me to express creativity when frustrated with assignments (not to mention procrastinate) and feel like I was carving a niche for myself. “Oh yeah, you know Hilary – she’s the one with the  food blog!” was the general introduction at group gatherings. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not sure where the blog fits into my life anymore. I don’t have a lot of dispensable time, and so it has sometimes become more of a burden than a blessing to have around. I’m going to keep posting here, just with less frequency (and likely less words) than before. I’m not ready to give up on this little home just yet. 

Anyways, here’s the actual post:

Today I discovered a new place. And by discovered, I mean I had been driving by the location approximately twice a month or whenever I was borrowing my parents’ minivan. I would cruise by and crane my neck over the passenger seat, focussing my attention for those two seconds on trying to peer through the glassy window to get a sneak peek of what upcoming treasures the place may hold.

Rose Apple.

The restaurant’s exterior sign (actually, I thought it was solely a bakery at first) has intrigued for months.

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This weekend it finally opened. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to visit, and invited my mom along for what was planned as our cute mother-daughter date.

Mom!
My pretty mom!

Walking into Rose Apple, you could tell the owners had been assembly the place since September. The details were all there, something that can sometimes be lacking with newly-opened restaurants. Chalked full of interesting wall art (a giant whisk! bird decals!), it was charm at first sight.

Rose Apple literal
Some literal decorations, too

Transformed from the Indian restaurant and fish market of 1543 Paris St. past, Rose Apple’s decor is bright, peppy, and fun. Each of the walls are slightly contrasting in nature, but I suppose that goes along well with the fusion theme. The tables are a clean, cafeteria white, with most chairs cushioned in gumdrop colours.

Oh yes, and cupcake-shaped salt and pepper shakers. As you can imagine, these won me over.

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My mom and I estimated Rose Apple has seating for about 50-60 people. We took turns counting the tables and seats under our breath, looking as though we were Professor Quirrell murmuring an incantation at a Quidditch match. There’s a diversity of seating options, too. My mom and I were at a two person table, but another larger party was seated comfortably in the opposite corner in a trendy-looking zebra booth that bore just the right amount of animal motif.

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White walls section off the restaurant, and are thoughtfully placed to create an air of privacy while not interfering with the open flow of the space. The best part about those dividers is that they’re moveable, meaning I’m already fantasizing some intimate party being held here…buffet in the front, DJ in the back. While the seating primarily caters to the lunch and dinner crowd, there’s also a counter along the front window with bar seats – a sunny invitation to come back, drink tea, and write. Plus, iPhone told me there was a guest wifi account. If tea isn’t your thing, Rose Apple is also licensed, which means a solo afternoon date and an evening return to spend time with friends.

The restaurant is also a family affair.

Sumitta, Minil (19-months-old) and Mookie
Sumitta, Milin (19-months-old) and Mookie

It’s co-owned by two – Sumitta and her cousin Pipat (Mookie, pictured above, is Pipat’s wife). Mookie’s two daughters were also occasionally spotted behind the cash, 19-month-old Milin, and her other little girl. Both were wearing lots of Hello Kitty garb, which means I loved them even more. Mookie and Pipat are the duo behind My Thai Palace, a successful Sudbury restaurant where I have been going ever since I moved back to the city in order to satisfy my pad thai cravings.

This dessert case is where my mom and I hovered when we first entered Rose Apple. I crouched and took photos as my mom did her part to ask the new staff questions about every last dessert. Flaky green tea cake. A cake with layer upon layer of crepes stacked high with whipping cream as its mortar. Pumpkin and mango puddings. Spoons with a berry crumble lined in front of the cash register. That plate, and several more, were refilled throughout our lunch. We left our seats both before and after, hungry and stuffed, to sample more. My favourite was the crepe cake, delicately dripped with a tangy strawberry coulis. A dessert lasagna.

Dessert Rose Apple

Okay, but let’s talk main courses. Rose Apple markets itself as an “Asian fusion” restaurant, which is sometimes disconcerting since I once read it’s always a tad unpredictable how people decide to interpret the word “fusion.” In the case of Rose Apple, fusion meant Chinese-Thai-Italian. My mom got the crispy wonton pad thai ($14.95) which was a heaping bowl (seriously HUGE) of deep fried wonton papers piled high will pad thai noodles, shrimp, and all the fixings. I think I’ve been converted from a potato chip lover – please, just please, give me a bowl of deep fried wontons with a sweet chili sauce. Since some of the wontons were buried beneath the “all the fixings” part of the dish, some of them went from crispy to soggy. Still, I found myself frequently reaching across the table to clumsily take some of my mom’s dish.

Mom's dish
Mom’s dish

I got the massaman chicken ($15.95) – stewed chicken drumstick with a sauce of coconut milk, massaman curry paste and peanuts, served with a steaming bowl of jasmine rice. It was spicy. The dish had a single “chili pepper” rating on the menu, but I foolishly brushed it off. I can do hot, I thought. Oh dear. It was a building heat, one that made my forehead sweat, nose drip, and tongue burn.

Prices were a little high for lunch, but right on the mark for dinner. Plus the portions were huge, so you don’t have to worry about being skimped in value.

My dish
My dish

After dinner we basked in the contentment of our full stomachs. I drank a quick cup of coffee (I didn’t want to fall asleep in the movie my mom and I were going to see) in a mug that looked as though it were stolen straight from an industrial design student’s workshop.

Good design, good function
Good design, good function

I’m looking forward to my next visit to Rose Apple, and will probably pop by one day next weekend for coffee and cake. New openings like Rose Apple show progress in Sudbury – and not just any progress, but a move towards bringing something innovative and different to the city. Opening Rose Apple is surely a risk (as is opening any small business, I suppose), and I hope Sudburnians will learn to adapt, try new things, and swing by for a visit.

Hours: 
Monday: closed
Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Living the life of leafsure (fall wrap-up, Halloween, and orange chocolate yogurt cake)

Forgive me for that pun.

An end-of-Fall blog post seems inappropriate at this point in November.

Most parts of northern Ontario have already had their first encounter with a snowy friend, and leaves that once clung to the maple trees in our front yard have since drifted to the ground. Fallen, rotten, raked. I am justifying this blog post now on the presumption that it is still autumn in the community where you’re living. Also, a slight Halloween wrap-up post is totally necessary because I believe my frugal AND seasonally-appropriate costume choice must be shown to the world.

But first: fall. Jen and I spent a few hours raking the front and backyard two weekends ago. Ian had done the same just days earlier, however many more leaves had fallen since, creating a matted gold carpet atop the grass.
I’m not a particularly effective raker, however I do happen to be an accomplished leaf-jumper. I am of the belief that no pile of leaves is complete without being collapsed in at least once. Jen and I did our part to ensure this.

Since our front yard clean-up corresponded with the last weekend before Halloween, I was also faced with the task of finding a costume for a get together at my friend’s place that night. I inherently leave Halloween until the last minute every single year, and had already used my procrastination-heavy, improvised-as-hell costume idea last year when I paired my rainbow screen inspired Douglas Coupland shirt dress with a pizza box and donned pipe cleaner antennae. Thats another thing – I’m not a fan of slutty or uncreative Halloween costumes. For the past three years I’ve taken pride in my costume being something you’ve probably never see before – something a little bit kooky. That normally translates to my costume being difficult to understand for anyone who has been drinking. Case in point: I was a California Roll in third-year university, and people kept asking me if I was a soap dish. A soap dish!!! Really??!? Is anyone ever really a hand sanitation holder for Halloween? Anyways, Halloween is something I give no thought to until the day of the party, when, in typical Hilary fashion, I go completely bananas with panic.
The Hilary of Halloween’s past: harajuku girl and a California Roll
And so, with no Halloween costume at 2 p.m. on the day of my party, I set out to transform myself into a leaf bag. I had already been inside one of the bags, after all, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.

Head pieces also prevail when designing my last minute costume. Be it a tiny cardboard sushi headband or pipe cleaner antennae, I’m going for the head-to-toe look. So naturally I used a needle and thread to sew freshly plucked leaves onto a headband. Matched with these earrings I made in September (see, this costume was as totally meant to be), I was all set.

Jen and Ian also took a last minute approach to Halloween, and came up with equally as creative and downright topical costumes.

Locked out NHL player and a Quebec protester
THE FOOD PART
And because I like to include something food-related with every blog post, here are a few pictures of an orange and chocolate marble yogurt cake I made sometime around Halloween. It was super moist (thanks, yogurt) and paired perfectly with a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream.

And because every blog post nowadays seems to end with a picture of Norbert…

I love you, I hate you, I love you, I hate you

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