Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Boo-boo Choo-choo cupcakes

Gavin, my favourite little man, just turned 2 and although he is too young to remember how we celebrated his special day it is for us, the grown ups who adore him so much, part of the ceremony of him becoming a year older.

This year, Gavin's birthday celebration was kept fairly low-key because the poor little man was experiencing a bout of growing pains. Although we (his parents and myself) anticipated a birthday cake based on his favourite character, Thomas the Tank, we decided Gavin would appreciate it a little more when he is in better health and affection.

Instead I modelled a small train with coloured fondant to top a few chocolate-peanut butter cupcakes. Needless to say, we struggled to get him to blow out the candles but afterwards, he politely obliged us by tasting the icing on the cake ("Mummy, no cake!") so he could get on with playing with his "toy" train.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Happy Chinese New Year

How quickly time passes and I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, celebrating Chinese New Year with my family. Arrived just a day before, I was not present for our traditional family Lunar New Year biscuit bake-off. This year, Mum replaced her popular pineapple tarts with some pineapple logs that I am not particularly enthused about although admittedly, they do not make for bad eating. I have myself to blame for this experience of disappointment because I arrived too late to help her with the necessary tasks of jam stirring, pastry stamping and lattice forming which are ALL (laboriously) part of pineapple tart-making . Next year I hope to return in time for the bake fest so we can have our pineapple tarts the way they are always intended. I cannot possibly allow this pineapple log business to continue and break our family tradition!

As for me, I managed to make a trio of treats to share with my friends before returning home. The treat featured overhead is a fruit and nut crunch cup inspired by the French confection mendiant. I adore the colours and find them very bold and festive, quite befitting of Chinese New Year celebrations. It consists of a crunchy almond biscuit base, topped with Green & Black's 70% dark chocolate which is a current favourite of mine, jewel-like dried fruit, shredded coconut and crunchy toasted pistachios and walnuts. A far call from traditional Chinese New Year pineapple tarts but I never meant for them to be a replacement.

I wish those who are celebrating the occasion a very Happy Chinese New Year!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Barley for breakfast

I mentioned how I am a real fan of breakfast. To start my day, I am not all that keen on processed cereal that comes in a box as I have always looked at them as some kind of healthy junk-food. A paradox, I know. A friend of mine insists on eating a bowl of raw muesli with skim milk every morning and will willingly swear on his pet's life that it is the best way to start the day. I will not challenge him. Each to his own.

I came across a book the other day while unpacking some moving boxes and found one titled "Cooking with Soy", an Australian Family Circle publication. It features recipes using various soy-based products that can be incorporated into a myriad of everyday meals. Leafing through the book I found a breakfast recipe for pearl barley served with a caramel apple-raisin compote. I thought it sounded nice.

So here is my take on barley for breakfast. Almost like an oatmeal porridge except you are more likely to eat it on a warm summer's morning and texturally more interesting that Bircher muesli.

barley with yogurt and berries

1 cup pearl barley
750 ml soy milk (I used Lite soy milk, you can use dairy milk if you wish)
1 cup fresh/frozen raspberries
1 tablespoon raw sugar
1 cup good natural yogurt (I used a Greek-style yogurt)
3-4 tablespoon honey (or to taste)
fresh fruit
toasted almonds or pepitas (optional)
(serves 4)
place soy milk, pearl barley and a pinch of salt into a saucepan
simmer over low heat stirring occasionally for 20 minutes or until barley is soft but not mushy.
refrigerate to cool (you can store refrigerate the barley for up to 3 days and continue with the next step when you are ready to serve)
sprinkle raw sugar over berries, crush slightly and stir occasionally
fold crushed berries into 1/3 cup of yogurt
stir remaining yogurt and honey into the cold cooked barley adding a bit of milk if it appears dry
to serve spoon some barley into a bowl, top with berry yogurt, sliced fruit and toasted nuts and seeds.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

En papillote - a great way to cook fish

En papillote is a method of cooking food in a paper pouch or parcel. It is a very effective manner of cookery because all the nutrients are contained within - it works on the basis whereby moisture from the meat and/or vegetables is trapped and steams themselves.

This was last night's dinner: well-seasoned coral trout cutlet/steaks, on a bed of summer vegetables like yellow capsicums, tomatoes, zucchini and red onion, lemon slices, bit of minced garlic, thyme, dash of white wine and a good slug of extra virgin olive oil.

I cooked the parcels in a very hot oven (210C) for 15 minutes, then left it in the oven with the heat turned off, for a further 5 minutes. The beauty of cooking fish and meats this way is that over-cooking won't render them tough and dry because the pouch in which they cook in prevents any moisture from being lost.

My only regret is I didn't have any steamed rice to soak up the sweet delicious fish juices.

Maybe next time.

Another meatball - steamed Chinese pearly balls

Earlier this week, I visited a friend of mine who was in the midst of clearing her over-stocked pantry. She offered me a huge bag of glutinous rice - I would say a good 5 kilos worth so I had to think of things to cook with it.

Glutinous rice has a sticky and chewy texture when cooked al dente but becomes glue-like when overcooked. It is a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines featuring in starters, main courses and even desserts. Glutinuos rice is milled to produce a flour that is used as a thickening agent, in baking, and in the making of some traditional Asian sweets like mochi, niangao and tangyuen, all of which I look forward to eating when I return to my parents' home in Malaysia for Chinese New Year.

Anyway, I made these steamed meatballs based loosely on the Pearl meatball recipe that caught my eye in Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.

Following the quantity of ingredients below will yield many meatballs but it is okay to cook them ahead and re-heat when required.

  • 1 cup glutinous rice soaked overnight
  • 2 large skinned and de-boned chicken thighs (about 200g), minced
  • 100g peeled and de-veined raw prawns, chopped
  • 2 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1/2 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup reconstituted wood fungus, chopped finely (NB Alternatively, use 4 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked and finely chopped)
  • 1/2 medium carrot, finely diced
  • 2-3 tablespoon cornflour
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/2-3/4 teaspoon table salt
  • pepper

Combine all the above ingredients except the rice in a medium sized bowl and mix well. To check if the seasoning of the mix is adequate, steam a small amount to taste before shaping the mixture into balls then rolling them in the glutinous rice to coat completely.

The size to shape the meatball is up to you but I prefer to make little ones (a heaped teaspoon of mixture) so I don't end up with meatballs raw in the middle and gummy on the outside. Also, I favour the rice to meat ratio of smaller meatballs. Be sure to arrange meatballs in a single layer on a plate that will fit into your steamer so they will cook evenly and thoroughly. I cooked mine over rapid steam for 3 minutes then turned the heat down to steam gently for a further 17 minutes. This I find seals in the moisture in the meatball and allows the glutinous rice to cook through so there are no crunchy chalky bits.

We are experiencing a respite from the scorching heat so I think it will be a good idea to brew a dashi with a few suspended leaves of choy-sum to accompany the leftover meatballs for lunch.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Spanish meatballs, olives and a piquant sauce

Here is another savoury instalment - Spanish meatballs, a recipe I came across in a tapas cookbook I received last Christmas. They look very appetising in the photo and I put them down as part of a menu for a wedding I am planning for somebody else. I made them a few nights ago with a few additions and changes to the original recipe and they were very well-received at the table.

The meatballs simply comprised of the following mixed together then shaped into balls the size of walnuts or smaller:

  • 400g regular mince beef and not the premium lean stuff. You can substitute this with pork and veal mince. Or try a combination of different mince,
  • a diced onion cooked on low heat for 5-10 minutes until soft and slightly caramelised,
  • 2-3 finely chopped anchovy fillets. Optional but adds a nice savoury flavour to the meat,
  • 2-3 cloves minced garlic,
  • some chopped parsley,
  • salt,
  • cracked black pepper,
  • piment d'espelette (offers heat without the fire) or hot paprika
  • ground cumin
  • 1/3 cup breadcrumbs. I used puffed quinoa in my version which makes it gluten-free,
  • a large egg

Tip: Shaping meatballs can be a laborious task and is better enjoyed when there are extra hands to help.

Instead of frying the meatballs in a pan, I arranged them in an ovenproof dish and cooked them in a very hot oven (210C) for 10 minutes. In the meantime, I prepared the piquant sauce which was basically the following ingredients cooked in a pot for 10 minutes then roughly blitzed with a hand-held blender:
  • 2 roasted red/yellow capsicums
  • 1 large onion roughly chopped and sauteed until no longer crunchy
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 teaspoon store-bought harissa depending on your tolerance for spice
  • 3 generous tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon smokey-sweet paprika
  • salt
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • splash of white wine vinegar (quite necessary, do not omit)
  • sugar to taste

Pour the sauce while its hot over the meatballs when they come out of the oven (Caution: A bit of sizzling action may occur), scatter a handful of your favourite olives, curshed, atop and return to the oven to cook for a further 10 minutes. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, stir to coat the meatballs with sauce before serving.

As an accompaniment, I sauteed some sliced zucchini in a very hot pan with chopped garlic, parsley, lemon zest, a generous amount of seasoning, then finished with a slug of good extra virgin olive oil.

This is a very satisfying meatball dish served as a meal with some steamed rice or as a tapas . I urge you to attempt this and any leftovers can be enjoyed cold for lunch the next day.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Pickled vegetables

Some recipes offer instant gratification while others require a longer wait before you can taste the rewards. This is one of those recipes because it involves pickling, a method of preserving food in liquid concoctions with varying amounts of salt, sugar and acid.

My love for pickles go beyond the dill cucumber slices found in cheeseburgers, or the almost flourescent green and yellow pickles in a Japanese bento. No, I too love the spicy and sour achar pickles made from a combination of fruit and vegetables commonly found as an accompaniment in some South-East Asian cuisines. And lately, I have become obsessed with pickled garden vegetables also known as giardiniera- colourful, fresh and lip-puckeringly delicious!

There are numerous recipes for giardiniera about and this is my version which works for me because I prefer my pickles less sweet. You can always personalise your pickles by altering the proportions of salt, sugar and vinegar, and by adding different aromats like mustard seeds, garlic, coriander seeds and so on. Although there are no strict rules to pickling, I tend to keep to an approximate ratio of 1 part sugar to 3 parts vinegar and I always salt my vegetables before placing them into clean jars with the hot pickling solution. It is imperative that the vegetables are completely submerged in the pickling solution.

Obviously, the vinegar you use will determine the flavour of your pickles so use a fairly good and light sort like malt vinegar, cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or a combination. Also, pickling cannot give tired old vegetables a new life so please don't be tempted to even try. Choose vegetables like carrots, celery, cauliflower, stringless beans, capsicums, zucchini and turnips that have a robust structure so they remain crisp and yielding to the bite.

It has been 48 hours since I started on the pickles, the solution has turned a rosey hue courtesy of the radish, chillies and red onion, and the vegetables have achieved quite the perfect texture and flavour. The recipes I read suggested storing them for up to 2 weeks in a cool dark place before use but they will probably get eaten before then.

My suggestion is you keep the pickles in the refrigerator so you can enjoy them well-chilled. A very fresh tasting accompaniment to grilled meats or fish or just as part of an antipasto platter.

crisp pickled vegetables
1/2 head of cauliflower
3 medium carrots, peeled
2 yellow/orange capsicums
4 celery stalks
1 bunch of radish
1 medium red onion
3 large red chillies
4 tablespoon table salt
2 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon red mustard seeds
5 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
250ml white wine vinegar
500ml champagne vinegar
250ml water
200g white sugar
(4 1L jars)
wash clean and dry 4 1L capacity jars
wash vegetables thoroughly
cut vegetables into more or less the same size
salt vegetables
divide salted vegetables and aromats amongst the jar
dissolve sugar in both vinegars and water
bring pickling solution to a boil
pour solution into the jars carefully making sure the vegetables are completely immersed
store in a cool dark place (I keep mine in the fridge)

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Hello Mr. Zebra - A cream cheese marble cake

Visually appealing, this cake is perfect for those who cannot decide between making a cheese cake and a pound cake. It would be misleading to call it a pound cake because it does not follow the mass ratio of a true pound cake, nor is it made by the usual creaming method. This cake is simply a hybrid of 3 recipes: Japanese cotton cheesecake, cream cheese pound cake and Jaffa cake.

This recipe highlights the salty dairyness of cream cheese in a cake which holds its pleasing moist crumb for a few days after it has been baked. It is difficult to describe its texture as it possesses neither a cloying nor the melt-in-your-mouth quality of a cheesecake. It is neither crumbly nor fluffy. I can only liken its texture to that of a rich and heavy genoise because I think it is essentially just that.

I think this would make the perfect kid's party cake, all that is lacking is a generous slathering of good chocolate frosting and a few obligatory crunchy and colourful sugar adornments kids adore. Their parent's might even indulge and enjoy a slice or two.

cream cheese marble cake
250g cream cheese (full fat please!)
50g butter
1 tsp vanilla paste/extract
100ml milk (full fat again, please!)
6 large eggs, separated
200g caster sugar
(NB this cake is not overly sweet, you can increase the quantity of sugar to 300g if you wish)
200g plain flour, double sifted
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
makes 1 8-inch round cake

preheat oven to 180C
line cake tin with baking paper and set aside
gently heat milk, butter, cream cheese and vanilla in a medium saucepan
whisk until mixture is smooth and remove from heat
beat egg yolks and 100g sugar for at least 5 minutes until thick, pale and tripled in volume
whisk egg whites in a separate bowl adding remaining 100g sugar gradually to achieve a shiny meringue that will hold its shape
fold the egg yolk mixture into the cheese mixture gently
sift flour into this mixture and mix well without knocking too much air out
stir 1/3 of the meringue into the mixture to lighten in slightly
fold remaining meringue into the mixture
divide mixture into half
sift cocoa powder into half of the mixture. (NB you may need to add 1-2 tablespoon of milk to adjust the consistency of the batter so it is similar to the vanilla flavoured half)
pour batter in an alternate fashion into the prepared cake tin
bake for 15 minutes at 180C then reduce temperature to 160C and bake for a further 40 minutes or until cake is ready.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A quick apple tart

Here is a cheat's version of a tarte fine of apple I made a few days ago with a few items I found while cleaning out the fridge and freezer: store-bought butter puff pastry, some leftover frangipane (from my previous summer apricot tart post), and a couple of old but still crisp Granny Smith apples (frankly, any tart apple will do - try Pink Lady or Sundowner) . There is really nothing to it. The assembly takes all but 10 minutes at most, then 15 minutes in a hot oven (about 200C). If you haven't got any frangipane, use a good-quality bottled apple sauce. If you have none of that too, then just use some really good apples - the finished product will be just as delightful. I promise you, it is very little effort for a lot of satisfaction.

Look, this is the type of dessert or tea time snack you want to be making in summer. It is quick, delicious and you can go nuts with it. I sprinkle ground cinnamon and coarse raw sugar atop for flavour and crunch. You might be inclined sprinkle chopped nuts after glazing the baked tart with hot apricot jam. A tart with sliced plums, ground cardamom and sugar would also go down a treat. How about sliced peaches and chopped mint? Be inventive and creative.

Summer is for enjoying - you really don't want to be trapped indoors cooking complicated recipes.