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Keep Calm And Create Art: Jackie Kai Ellis

In the spirit of creativity and self-care, S/ presents Keep Calm and Create Art, a series exploring the meditative, rewarding, and soothing practice of making art during uncertain times. 

For the fourth installment, best-selling author, creative director, and pastry chef, Jackie Kai Ellis reveals what led her to pen her memoire The Measure of My Powers, how to find confidence in the kitchen, along with a step-by-step of perfecting her carrot cake with cream cheese recipe.

What prompted you to pen your memoire The Measure of My Powers?

“When the idea of a memoir was first suggested by my publisher, I immediately declined. I recognized that, especially with today’s culture of polished and curated social media lives, writing a memoir that was so raw and honest that someone in their most vulnerable moments could recognize themselves in my story, would require a level of vulnerability that I wasn’t sure I was quite ready for. But that hesitation was exactly why I decided to write it anyway, that I had gone through moments where I had felt so chillingly alone and I wanted someone who felt the same to read it and know that they were not. I also have a general rule for myself, that when I want to do something, and the only reason I haven’t is fear, then it’s time to get up and walk straight through it…that in the very least I would be a more courageous person to have tried.”

When did your love affair with food start?

“I was born into a Chinese family, so I jokingly say that I was born to a culture of food critics. Food was the blood that ran through the veins of our home, we communicated and loved each other with food, it was the topic of most conversation. In many Cantonese families, instead of asking ‘how are you?’ we ask, ‘have you eaten yet?'”

You split your time between Vancouver and Paris, what do you love most about each city?

“I love the nature in Vancouver. We are surrounded by mountains and water, and when I’m away, I miss the smell of rain and forest. It’s earthy and sweet like wet pine cones. As for Paris, it’s got history, stories to tell in every corner. It’s elegant and refined but also a little wild and a little defiant…and then there’s the butter of course.”

Tell us about what you baked for our series Keep Calm and Create Art?

“It is a classic carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Since food was the ‘language’ that I grew up speaking in my family, most chapters in the memoir end with a recipe that expresses the story associated with it. There are chapters with pork and chive dumplings that speak of my grandmother, cookies that helped me climb out of depression, and recipes that are like love and finding new languages and new voices. This specific one was about how I first began to bake as a child and it’s the exact recipe that I baked from when I was very young. Even after pastry school in Paris, it’s still one of the best carrot cakes I’ve made!”

How do you stay focused when you’re cooking and baking?

“For me, cooking and baking is so sensual that it almost drags you into the present moment. I’m smelling nuts toasting in the oven, listening to the bubble of coffee when it’s finished percolating, tasting for salt, rubbing herbs on a roast and the way the skin of an onion reflects light like pearls do.”

Do you have any mantras that you’ve relied on during this uncertain time?

“Something that I’ve been reminding myself lately is that life is, by nature, uncertain. We make sense and order so we don’t have to feel so afraid of what might happen in the next moment, but we never really do know. Though, all of the best things that have happened in my life, didn’t come by walking the safest, expected or certain paths. So perhaps uncertainty is also, by nature, a way of opening our minds to possibility.”

Due to social distancing measures, many have found more time to hone in on their cooking and baking skills, do you have any tips to share to stay confident and inspired in the kitchen?  

“Some of the most memorable things I’ve eaten are so deceptively simple. A ripe tomato with olive oil, salt and pepper on toast to soak up the juices. Though, the simpler it is, the less there is to hide behind so make sure the ingredients are as good as you can get, in season is usually better.”

Carrot Cake With Cream Cheese

“This recipe is written exactly as it was in the fundraising cookbook that my elementary school, Highlands Elementary School had created, except this version omits the grated finger. The recipe was constructed by Trish McMordie, and I decided not to change any of the wording, but I’ve included notes at the end to make it a touch tastier and a touch better in my opinion. I’ve also added a recipe for cream cheese frosting because it’s so delicious with carrot cake.”

INGREDIENTS

  • 2⁄3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped nuts
  • 11⁄2 cups grated carrots

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Mix together oil, sugar, and eggs. Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, cinnamon + salt & slowly add to the egg mixture, stirring well. Add and blend in well the nuts and carrots. Bake into a greased and floured 8”x8” pan for about 30 minutes. Cool and ice with cream cheese icing.

CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

  • 1 package (8 oz) of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1⁄4 cup (2 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup (4 oz) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1⁄2 tsp fine sea salt
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
  • Zest of 1 lemon

DIRECTIONS

Place the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer and cream them until light and airy. Slowly add the sugar and salt while mixing on low speed. Add the vanilla bean seeds and lemon zest and mix on high speed until well incorporated. Use it immediately or keep it refrigerated for up to 2 days, until you are ready to use it. If the texture is too hard, place back into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix again until the texture is spreadable. Makes enough frosting for a one-layer cake, but can be doubled for a two-layer cake.

ADDITIONAL NOTES ON THE RECIPE

  • Light Brown Sugar: “I like to use light brown sugar as opposed to dark brown, as I find the latter has a molasses flavour that is too heavy for my taste. Make sure the brown sugar is packed and not loose when measuring.”
  • Fine Sea Salt: “I always prefer to use fine sea salt in baking recipes.”
  • Walnuts: “This recipe calls for chopped nuts, and I love toasted walnuts. Toast the walnuts in a 300°F oven for 10–15 minutes or until they are lightly toasted, being sure to toss them every 5 minutes.
  • Extra Flavour: “I like my carrot cakes to have warm spice flavours, so I add a 1⁄4 teaspoon of cardamom, 1⁄4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon of ground cloves, and 1/8 teaspoon of ground allspice to the flour mixture.
  • How To Stir: “When adding the flour mixture to the egg mixture, I stir with a wooden spoon, a mixer, or a stand mixer until it is only just combined and there are still large streaks of flour. You will be continuing to mix after you add the nuts and carrots so this keeps you from over-mixing the batter, keeping the crumb tender. Then scrape the bowl well and add the nuts and carrots.
  • Option To Add Raisons: “I like raisins in my carrot cakes and added them when I was young. If you choose to, add 1⁄2 cup plump golden raisins to the batter with the nuts.
  • Choosing The Right Pan: “Makes one 9″ round or 8″x8″ square cake. I like to bake mine in a 9-inch round pan. Butter the inside of the pan and then line the bottom with parchment paper. To unmold, run a thin knife or offset spatula along the sides, put a plate upside down on the top of the pan and flip the entire thing so the cake is inverted onto the plate. Peel off the parchment and ice the top.”
  • Know When It’s Ready: “Every oven is different. Some ovens will take up to 45–50 minutes to bake the cake. To know when it is done, take a toothpick and insert it into the centre. The exact moment that the toothpick comes out clean with a few crumbs attached, the cake is done.”
  • Bonus: “You can double this recipe to make a two-layer carrot cake.”

Photo courtesy of Jackie Kai Ellis. Cardigan by Chanel.