A Table in Toronto

Friday, May 27, 2016


A collection of vintage wares make their daily appearance in Jennifer's photos. Here, showing mise en place for rye brownies from the Violet Bakery cookbook.

In downtown Toronto, where an impressive skyline keeps watch over beautiful Lake Ontario and an eclectic assortment of restaurants, posh shops and ethnic markets jostle for prime retail space, an apron-clad cook stands by her stove, stirring risotto while listening to jazz. Nearby, cats Phineas and Zelda lounge on the couch with a lazy eye turned towards the smell of food drifting from the simmering pot. The counter is strewn with all the makings of an Italian meal while an assortment of vintage plates, from her mother's pewter to her grandmother's Royal Delft fill the cupboards.  This is the world of Jennifer Emilson - cook, baker and self-proclaimed cat servant.


Jennifer, who hosts the blog, The Lemon Apron grew up as the child of German immigrants, in a home where food was the center of everything. From a mother trained in French cooking and a father who tended orchard groves and made wine, Jennifer learned the importance of food and its preparation, both by watching and doing as she worked her way through sauces, gravies, spices and dough, a skill she would hone and make her own in later years. Now, Jennifer spends her days recreating the cuisine of her childhood while also experimenting with new recipes, whether cooking at home for ice-cream-loving husband, Jim, or the 50 volunteers she feeds at her church on a weekly basis. Her blog carries the sense of someone who cooks for the love of it and is filled with German recipes from her mother, alongside a variety of other ethnic dishes, from soups and main dishes to tarts and desserts. There's even a section titled Recipes of Happiness! Her posts portray a sense of joy and camaraderie, drawing us into her kitchen and her world.

Read on for my interview with this kind and generous cook who carries a love for serving people akin to her love for food.




Jennifer Emilson, author of the cooking blog, The Lemon Apron.


Jen, tell us a bit about yourself.  I live in downtown Toronto, with my sweet hubby Jim and my two cats, Phineas and Zelda. Even though we both grew up in rural settings, we've managed to make a success of city and condo life. I support my husband at the creative end of his sales and marketing firm and real estate endeavors. We're both creative, entrepreneurial types, so home is a constant flurry of ideas and experiments! And as much as we love the city, and the vibrancy and energy it gives us, we both see ourselves living on a farm with horses, goats, chickens and sheep one day. He'll make cheese, and I'll spin yarn and we'll live off the land! For me, starting a blog was another creative outlet. I'm by no means a professional photographer (hopefully a better camera one day will help me), but I hope my joy of cooking comes through. I've worked hard to ensure that I look for the positive, see the cup as half full, and remember that, for the most part, our problems are only 'first world' problems. I try to keep everything in perspective. 





Trays of apple strudel cooling on racks for a volunteer dinner at her church.


"It was nothing out of the ordinary for me to come home from school and find a side of pig draped across the table of our apartment kitchen."


As a first generation immigrant in Canada, give us a glimpse into your childhood.   My parents came from Germany and I was the first to be born in Canada. It was nothing out of the ordinary for me to come home from school and find a side of pig draped across the table of our apartment kitchen, no joke! Then when we moved to where there was land, in southern Ontario, Canada, our backyard was transformed into a mini farm and orchard, and row upon row of fruits and vegetables. We may have lived in suburbia, but that didn’t stop my parents from having a chicken coop, making sausages, having oak barrels of homemade wine in the basement, and pantry shelves filled with glass mason jars of preserved fruit and veggies to get us through several winters. Considering that my mom made me wear a dirndl (traditional German folk dress) to school (mortifying when you are eight years old and living in a Canadian city!), the chickens were a walk in the park. She taught us well - my sister went on to attend cooking school, and I cook for crowds upwards of 40 or 50 regularly, and with joy. 




 Just call her "pie girl". Strawberry Rhubarb is her favorite.


Where did your passion for cooking come from?   Obviously food was at the center of our home life. My mom would make fondue bourguignon for the four of us regularly. We got to help creating the dipping sauces. My mom was also very practical, a skill she had to learn quickly growing up in post-war Germany. And she could truly take the most meager of ingredients and transform them into a meal fit for royalty. This mentality was instilled in us and guides me to this day. As a kid, I remember watching the only cooking shows we could find in Canada: Wok with Yan or the Galloping Gourmet. Boy, have cooking shows come a long way since then! I also remember PBS and Julia Child. And then came Jaques Pepin. So, you could say, my initial inspiration came from the 4 J’s: Jennifer’s Mom, Julia Child, Jaques Pepin, and the Joy of Cooking. And it's my mother that I'm trying to pay tribute to now, through my blog. She passed away recently, but for a few years I had been conscientiously trying to get her recipes out of her memory and onto paper, so that they will live on. My German heritage, my mom's knack of combining spices, and finding ways to reflect these in a modern, approachable manner are my goals. 





Lemon Black Bottom Pie, from the Four and Twenty Blackbirds pie book, a favorite reference for pie inspiration. 


Besides having your hands in the dough, what else have you have done with your life?   I studied art in school, and spent years as an illustrator, both independently, and working for architects, producing interior design elevations from their blueprints. I learned my skills old-school, before computer graphics etc, and I was hired by one firm because, to quote the owner, "I've got a room full of guys at computers who can do so much, but they can't draw a straight line with a ruler! You're the first one who came in here and could free-hand my ideas onto paper." And of course, through it all, I waited on tables! I was even 'silver service' trained, and worked in high end restaurants in Sydney, Australia. That's how I paid the bills, and I was also busy spending my youthful energy in volunteer work in the community.






"I'm a typical German: give me Brie and sourdough and call it a night! Add wine and marcona almonds, and all is good. Put it on my mom's pewter plate, and it's even better." 


Do you have a love story?  Jim and I have spent 20 years together in a joyous and humorous marriage. We also have a love affair with New York City.  It's truly our home away from home. It's nothing for us to jump in the car on a whim, and drive the 8 or so hours and hang out in the city for the weekend. We just love walking the streets, eating in our old favorite haunts, discovering new ones, or relaxing with books in the park. Any time of year, blizzards, thunderstorms, sweltering heat, autumn colors, we find a grit and beauty to the city that keeps pulling us back for more. 





Creamy eggs with salmon and ham, following the tradition of her mother's cooking and served on her Oma's plate.


"I love that I was raised by thoughtful, centered parents with values and principles. I love that I found a husband who was raised the same way."


What do you love about your life?  I love that I was raised by thoughtful, centered parents with values and principles. I love that I found a husband who was raised the same way. I love that we share a joy of travel, exploring new places and new foods, both being willing to step outside our comfort zones. I love that I have the freedom to be creative, cook for a wonderful group of friends and family. I love that at the end of the day, I'm truly a homebody, and find contentment in cooking, making a home cozy, reading a book with a cuppa tea, and listening to jazz and big band standards. 





These Caramelized Onion, Caraway and Gruyere Scones reflect the flavors Jennifer grew up with.


"Whether it's a savory chicken pot pie, a classic pumpkin pie, or a funky peach and bourbon pie, give me pie! "


What is your favorite thing to do in the kitchen?  That's a hard one! I love trying new recipes. But then I guess I do have tried-and-true recipes as well. I guess my go-to is pie! Any pie!! I love using a pie plate and pastry as a canvas and medium for artistic expression. I used to be scared of pies- the pastry was so fickle. But I kept at it for years till I perfected the perfect recipe. It never lets me down. I get giddy when I know I'm going into the kitchen to bake a pie. Whether it's a savory chicken pot pie, a classic pumpkin pie, or a funky peach and bourbon pie, give me pie!




"I love using a pie plate and pastry as a canvas and medium for artistic expression."



What inspires you? I think all creative types are inspired by life in general. A new or blossoming idea can come from a walk down the street, an old movie, a painting, music, listening to a group of grandmothers chatting while they knit, travel etc. I've always loved history, historical novels, museums, old photographs, and they've inspired me to explore how things were done in days long past. How they cooked, what they cooked, what was posh and popular in different eras. If I had my way, we'd be living as they did 150 plus years past. Yes, I love the convenience and what technology can do for us today. But I'd much rather live in a time where life and family and cooking were more deliberate and 'in the moment'. Even preparing the most simple meal was a production. You had to get your eggs from the coop; heat the cast iron pot; prepare baking molds with beeswax; and one only cooked with what was in season, available. I'm not alone- there are entire movements to bring this way of thinking back to the forefront.





Lamb Biryani, a recipe Jennifer gleaned from the many friends she has made in their culturally diverse city of Toronto.


Do you have hobbies? I love to knit! We were taught by my mom as little girls. And we have cupboards filled with yarn! Our poor hubbies. When we were dating, one of my first gifts to Jim was a Nordic fair isle sweater that I worked diligently on. All of us are also avid collectors. My kitchen is filled with vintage and antique kitchen and serving ware. Jim tolerates and even keeps his eye open for pieces. And friends who know me well will randomly show up with old egg beaters, cutlery, rolling pins etc. It's become a group effort! 




Lime Soup with Chicken and Tortilla Strips was a soup Jim and Jennifer discovered on their honeymoon in Mexico. She has been making it ever since.


Do you have a favorite food? If it's not nailed down, I'll try anything once! I do love certain cuisines: North African, Middle Eastern and Indian are ones that we are both always up for. Lately I've been intrigued by Nordic cuisines. Jim is Swedish, and a recent trip to Sweden made me realize that there's a whole world beyond Swedish meatballs to explore! Bottom line though: eggs, cheese and sourdough bread!!! In all forms.





A summer berry tart.


Are you involved in your local community? I'm busy with my church. On Fridays, I volunteer by cooking for upwards of 30 or 40 other volunteers every week. While Jim is busy helping care for 40 plus acres with a crew, I'm inside, coming up with menus that are budget friendly and still tasty that will feed a hungry crowd. If it's been a cold day, their tummies want comfort food! I'm also very aware of supporting our local farmers markets. As soon as the season starts and the booths become a fixture, I talk up the joy of exploring, and need to support them to friends and neighbors. If you need a ride, we'll bring you along. 




Herbed Kefir Biscuits


Tell me something funny about your life. When I was a kid, I was so skinny! Not for lack of trying- I would eat guys under the table, spending years to put on weight. I heard every name in school. Well, when the wind blew me over once and I broke me arm, I never heard the end of it. I would get phone calls "Hey Windblown (the ensuing nickname) it's going to be breezy today, you better put bricks in your jacket!" These days my weight is no longer an issue. But I get teased for being totally oblivious. We can be going to our car and Jim will purposely walk towards the vehicle waiting to see what I'll do. I'll just assume he's walking to the correct one. I've even opened up the door to get in the passenger seat and wonder why my coffee mug isn't there. Then I'll hear laughing from a totally different car. One time the driver was also in the car I chose- obviously his wife does the same thing, as he was laughing at me as well. What do you want, all black SUV's look alike, especially when my mind is on my grocery list!!




At a baseball game in New York with husband, Jim, and a nephew.

Recipes...




Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Mint and Bitters


Strawberry Rhubarb Pie With Mint And Bitters
  • 1 double crust Pie Crust recipe 
  • 2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and chopped
  • 3 cups rhubarb, chopped (if the stalk is large, split lengthwise and then chop)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp arrowroot starch or cornstarch
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh mint
  • 4-5 large dashes of rhubarb bitters
  • 1 tbsp ground almonds
  • Egg wash (1 egg beaten with a tsp of water)
  • 1 tbsp raw or demerara sugar

Instructions

1.  Preheat the oven to 425 F and place the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven.
2.  Combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, cornstarch, flour, mint and bitters in a bowl, stirring to ensure that the starches and sugar are coating all the fruit.
3.  Line a 9 inch pie tin with one portion of the pie crust dough. Spread out the ground almonds evenly across the bottom of the pie plate.
4.  Pour the filling into the pie plate.
5.  Prepare the top crust the way you would like: lattice, patterned, even just a flat cover (in this case ensure that there are vent holes, not just cut lines- the juices need a little bit of an escape route!!) Crimp the edges. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
6.  Brush the entire top with the egg wash, and sprinkle with raw or demerara sugar.
7.  Place the pie on a baking sheet.
8.  Bake the pie for 30 minutes.
9.  Reduce the temperature to 375 F and bake for a further 30 minutes or so, until the juices are bubbling, and the crust is golden brown. (if you find that the edges are getting browned before the pie is done, place a pie guard or tinfoil over the edges, and continue baking.
10.  Let the pie cool at least 4 hours to set the juices.


·     Note:  I find it best with juicy pies like this to either bake it first thing in the morning, or even the day before. You want the juices to set properly.




German Marble Cake


German Marble Cake 

Ingredients (have all ingredients at room temperature)

  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached or organic
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, cage free if possible
  • 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup Dutch processed organic, raw cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup coconut palm sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 2 tbsp brewed espresso or strong coffee
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1/4 tsp lemon extract

Instructions

1.  Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter or grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch (or similar) loaf pan. Line    the pan with parchment paper going up and over the long sides, and grease the parchment.

2.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3.  In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter on       medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar and cream on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix thoroughly after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract.
4.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour and milk, alternating, beginning and ending with the flour, and mixing only until each addition is just incorporated. Keep the empty bowl that the flour mixture was in nearby
5.  Scrape down the bowl with a spatula and scoop half of the batter into the now empty flour bowl. Set aside. This will be the lemon part of the marble loaf. The chocolate part of the marble loaf will be made with the remaining half of the batter in the stand mixer.
6.  Whisk the cocoa powder, coconut palm sugar, rum and coffee together in a small bowl. Add the chocolate mixture into the bowl of your electric mixer and mix on low speed to combine.
7.  To the vanilla batter in the other bowl add the zest and lemon extract and stir well to blend.

To Assemble

1.  Randomly drop spoonfuls of the vanilla and chocolate batters into the pan Try to cover the bottom with half of each batter, and then layer the remaining batter on top, dropping chocolate on lemon, and lemon on chocolate.
2.  Take the top end of a wooden spoon and plunge it into the batter at one end of the loaf. Drag the spoon to the other side of the loaf pan in a zig-zag motion, careful not to exceed 5 zig-zags.
3.  Don’t get too picky about a perfect marble, but it is best not to over-mix the doughs once they are in the pan. That's why I use a wooden spoon and not a knife- a knife tends to mix up too finely and you get more of a muddy mess.
4.  Bake the loaf, on a cookie sheet, for 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the top is lightly golden and a wooden skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.
5.  Cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Then run a knife along either end and use the parchment paper to pull it out of the pan and cool on a rack.

Notes
      Wrapped tightly in cling film, this will actually taste better the next day. This cake freezes well.


All photos courtesy of Jennifer Emilson and used with permission.

2 comments:

  1. Naomi this is a FANTASTIC interview and portrait of Jennifer. You have such a way with words and I feel like you've painted an intimate picture into her world and her blog The Lemon Apron. I've been following her on instagram and now I feel like I know her even more. Thanks for sharing and I love your work!!
    xoxo Emilie | The Clever Carrot

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  2. Hi Naomi! My extreme apologies in not responding earlier. Thanks so much for wanting to include me in such a fantastic group of cooks, artisans, and all creators of yummy meals. You manage to capture our essence, as well as our passion for food and family. Keep up your own passion of writing, story telling, family and tradition. Love Jen

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