Sunday 19 August 2007

Rice Pudding, Cumquats and Chocolate

It is difficult for me to decide which of these 3 components should be the leading star of this dessert just as it is hard for me to decide which of my 3 current favourite actors I would like nothing more than to have a cuddle with.

I simply adore rice pudding but not the sort you get in tins under the name "creamed rice" nor the type served in a large bain-marie at some hotel buffet looking all sad and remorseful at the end of the evening because it hasn't been too popular (surprise, surprise). I am no rice pud snob though as I have been known to tuck into little plastic tubs of Le Rice when I get a snack attack but they cannot be compared to the real McCoy, can they?

Rice pudding has a somewhat romantic history dating back to the Middle Ages. Every culture has a different take on this classic but the recipes always include milk, a sweetener, an aromat, maybe even nuts and fruit. Oh! and rice of course which is THE integral part of the pud.

The first rice pudding I ever made involved partially cooking the rice on the stove then completing it in a moderate oven with the custard base. It was a very old-fashioned recipe I dug out from some English cookbook. Maybe it was the anticipation and the mouth-watering photograph featured with the recipe but no words could describe how anticlimactic the whole experience quickly became for me. The rice grains were chalky in the middle and sat in a swamp of scrambled eggy mess. I mean, wasn't the rice meant to finish in a thick creamy custard like in the photo?! It took me a while to get over this unfortunate incident.

Thankfully, over the years, I have learnt to make an almost perfect rice pudding. The secret, I believe, is in the type of rice you choose. I have experimented with several varietals and finally settled on a pearly-white Japanese grain which is shorter than that of Calrose, Vialone Nano, Arborio and Carnaroli. When cooked, the grains plump up dramatically, become very aromatic and has the most satisfying glutinous bite. Also, the rice contains enough starch to thicken the milk to a velvety finish so there is no need for the addition of eggs or cornstarch as some dated recipes call for.

Look, I realise some modern recipes for rice pudding do prescribe to the risotto method of preparation and if you feel inclined, then do so by all means but really, my method is far simpler and the results are just as good - if not better.

Simply rain rice into scalded semi-skimmed milk perfumed with vanilla, grated orange rind and a crushed cardamom pod, gently sweetened with a minimum amount of sugar, then bring to a boil before covering and placing into a moderate oven to cook for 18 minutes and no more! Remove from the oven and give the rice a good stir and allow to cool. I have opted for semi-skimmed milk instead of whole milk because softly whipped cream is gently folded through the cooked rice after it has cooled. This not only gives it body but also a light creaminess.

The rice pudding is delicious as it is with a sprinkling of pistachio nuts for added crunch but I decided to take it up a notch serving it with some precious jewel-like cumquats (I preserved a fortnight ago as a condiment for a future savoury project). But why stop there, when warm dark chocolate sauce finishes this humble pud with a dreamy voluptuousness. Mmm...

Friday 17 August 2007

"browniebabe of the month": Wasabi Brownies

Admittedly, I was in a slightly drug-induced daze whilst baking this batch of delectable brownies, for you see, I am nursing an extremely sore lower back. (NOTE: The brownies contain NO traces of narcotics). Anyway, my friends seem to be interested in how I managed to cause so much damage to myself - they ask with concern, with a cheeky gleam in their eyes and a slightly naughty inflexion in their voice. I suppose they expect me to say I did it attempting some bizzare sexual position only very flexible and nubile centrefold models should attempt and I suppose that sounds far more juicy and exciting than saying I put my back out trying to lift a toolbox from the ground. *sigh*

Anyway, back to the brownies. These are Japanese inspired (as were my previous entry to Myriam's "brownie babe of the month" event) with the inclusion of sinus-clearing wasabi paste and tummy-settling grated ginger root. I must confess the idea came from a Recchiuti pamphlet I found whilst unpacking some boxes (which incidentally led to my sore back) and I did find the pairing of wasabi and chocolate rather peculiar but let's face it, every fellow seem to have some pretty outrageous chocolate pairing (with garlic, olives and blue cheese to name a few) these days which work, I suppose.

Unlike many of my kitchen-related undertakings, this one in particular took much careful planning and consideration simply because I was limited in my movement and I really shouldn't have been operating any machinery (hey, that's what the fine print on the box of tablets state) thus my initial plan of making a wasabi truffle cake was scrapped or more accurately, filed under "future projects" for the time being as I settled to make these brownies following my favourite brownie recipe supplemented with wasabi paste and grated ginger root.

Surprisingly, the wasabi's tear-inducing property was greatly diminished in the baked product and paired with the ginger created a complex warm and earthy flavour. Of course, with the addition of a handful of leftover marshmallows and chocolate chunks, the texture became irresistibly moist, chewy and suspiciously... chocolatey. This is definately a brownie you would make to impress and surprise your grown-up friends with a more developed and sophisticated palate (compared to a child... though this is sometimes arguable). It is such a special coupling of flavours; balanced, rounded and utterly delicious!

wasabi brownies
200g dark chocolate
100g butter
250g brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
16g wasabi paste
10g grated ginger root
100g plain flour
(makes a 18x18cm pan, 12 generoud squares)
preheat oven to 170C, line the base of tin with baking paper
beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, wasabi paste and grated ginger until pale
melt butter and dark chocolate in au bain marie
fold chocolate mixture into egg mixture
fold flour into mixture
stir chocolate chunks and marshmallow into mixture if using
pour into prepared pan
bake for 20-25 minutes and allow to cool.

Duck Egg Project II: Potato Omelette

Cooking for one can be quite a challenge at times. Back when I was a student, the concept of a freshly cooked home meal was simply quite alien to me unless I was eating at my girlfriend's home whose mum cooked dinner everyday. I went through a phase of scouring internet sites for advice on the best freezeable ingredients so I could cook when time permitted, portioned my balanced and diet-friendly meals in freezable containers that could be conveniently re-heated when I returned home from class. It was definately a cheaper alternative to the frozen meals you could so easily pick up from the supermarket and definately more healthy. Of course, unless you never tire of the usual (and endless) frozen selection of "tuna bake", "hungarian goulash", "penne arrabiata" or "vegetable soup", life is sweet.

I proudly declare I have come a long way as far as my choices for dinner-for-one are concerned. I hate eating alone so I usually seek a companion when it comes to mealtimes. Failing to find a willing mealtime partner, I usually indulge in rye crackers with cream cheese and smoked salmon, or salad sandwiches, or rice with tinned tuna or soup (freshly prepared, tinned or packet). And if I feel up to it, I make myself an omelette!

Today I prepared an omelette filled with thinly sliced baby potatoes sauteed in olive oil and parsley. The texture of the omelette made extra fluffy with the addition of 2 tablespoons of ricotta cheese to a single beaten duck egg. Seasoned with salt and pepper and served with a side salad of bitter greens and sprouts, who could deny this being a well-balanced meal? Mum would be so proud of me...

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Duck Egg Project I: Poached Egg with Lemon Spinach Soup

There was only too brief a respite from the dreary weather on Sunday so I made most of the afternoon lying on the grass leisurely leafing through the cook's companion by Stephanie Alexander while capturing whatever warmth the sun could offer before it disappeared once again behind the heavy clouds. Earlier at the grocers I had picked up a bag of royal blue potatoes, a bunch of vibrant green spinach and half a carton of fresh duck eggs. The eggs were a splurge - costing me $4.50 for a half dozen, but I simply could not have resisted them even if I tried.

When steamed salted eggs ("harm-dan") and century eggs ("pey-dan"), both preserved versions of the duck egg, are offered at my family's dinner table with bowls of warm fragrant rice, there is little else I would really care for. Having said that, I have never eaten duck eggs prepared anyway else - hence my excitement when I came upon them. Mum suggested I make steamed sponge cakes like the ones my late paternal grandmother made with her bounty but I wanted to cook the eggs in a way that I could compare its texture and taste to a chicken's egg.

With the persuasion of the returning grey weather outside my window, I decided a soup with a gently poached egg would be just perfect for my first duck egg project. The preparation of this nutritious and most importantly, soul-warming meal is shamefully easy, I promise it would take no more than half an hour of your time so I urge you to give it a go.

If like me, you have never tried a poached duck egg, its texture (and size) will catch you a little by surprise. Softly poached, the white has a slight bite and bouncy quality (though not like a squash ball), whilst the yolk a luxuriously thick and almost creamy consistency. All in all, a delightfully rich marriage of texture and flavour with the zesty soup which makes one long for warmer weather. This dish makes for a perfect entree at your next dinner party or as a decadent dinner for one.

Lemon Spinach Soup
1 medium brown onion, roughly chopped
2 fat garlic cloves, smashed
3 medium royal blue potatoes, roughly chopped
1 litre chicken stock
1 large unwaxed lemon
1 bunch english spinach, stems removed
salt and pepper
(serves 4 generously)
sweat onions til soft then add garlic and cook til translucent
add potatoes and cook for a minute or two
pour chicken stock over vegetables and allow to simmer til potatoes are tender
grate lemon zest into the soup
saute spinach in a separate pan, squeeze dry and add to the soup
blitz soup with a blender to a desired consistency (i stopped when a speckled-green-pond effect was achieved)
season with salt, pepper and lemon juice
thicken with thick pouring cream if you like