Saturday, 28 February 2009

Daring Bakers February Challenge: A flourless chocolate cake

Another month, another Daring Baker's instalment:

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. They have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

What this specimen lacks in the usual aesthetics of a cake, it definately makes up for in character and flavour. While photographing it, I thought it resembled a rather large chocolate Yorkshire pudding, puffed up around the edges and collapsed in the middle. I assure you though, the texture is anything but Yorky-ish. It's more like your favourite dark chocolate mousse but with more body, structure and depth. Perhaps it sounds excessively poetic, but imagine a baked chocolate cloud that completely surrenders to the warmth of your mouth.

A little departure I took from the recipe was the addition of a generous slug of brandy and a half teaspoon of almond extract to the melted chocolate. Also, because I absolutely adore walnuts in dark chocolate, I scattered the base of my baking tin with finely chopped toasted walnuts which added a pleasant textural dimension to the end product. I suspect this will work well with any nut you favour and I might be inclined to try the cake again in future with Brazil nuts and Cointreau liquer.

Although the challenge included making an ice-cream of choice, I absolutely failed to do so for you see, although it was met with much enthusiasm, the emotion dissipated quickly replaced only with irritated disappointment when I discovered a little piece (the integral part) of my ice-cream maker was missing and after much searching, I was too exhausted to even contemplate making the ice-cream manually (although I had this fleeting thought of making a parfait instead). Of course getting some store-bought ice-cream like this and claiming I made it was oh-so-tempting, but that is just cheating, isn't it? Instead. I made do eating generous wedges of the cake with luscious pure cream by Barambah Organics and patted myself on the back for preserving a clear conscience and making a not-so-poor choice with the cream.

So there you have it Daring Baker's February Challenge: Chocolate Valentino hosted by Wendy and Dharm (thanks for hosting!). The recipe and method for preparing this delicious cake and vanilla ice-cream can also be found on their blog.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

Cake decorating has never been my forte but I am starting to appreciate it as a form of art. Modelling with sugar paste (aka rolled fondant, pastillage, plastic icing) is like sculpting with clay - it requires getting proportions right and it helps if you have the ability to visualise form and structure without having to physically see it. Although not entirely necessary, it also helps if you have the steady hands of a watchmaker. Now, I like to consider that I have a good pair of hands but for the love of all things beautiful, when it comes to working with fine details, my fingers become clumsy sausages.

Then there is piping with icing. Where do I begin? My friend R whom I went to cooking school with used to encourage me endlessly to practice the skill of piping with icing and it will become as natural as writing with a pen. I avoided it like the plague. It never really interest me - I never thought of becoming a patissier - at least not in a patisserie. So now, when I see someone execute an arabesque or fleur de lis or even a simple rosette with such finesse and perfection, I turn green with envy.

So this morning, I decided to face my cake decorating demons and tackle them one at a time with these romantic themed cupcakes, since it is Valentine's Day. Here's a breakdown of what I did:

  • Baked 12 cupcakes - lemon flavoured, if you were wondering
  • While cupcakes were baking, I started: cutting out heart shape fondant motifs with cookie cutters and roses of various sizes, allowing them to dry and harden
  • Made a small batch of royal icing and practiced piping daisies and those little white flowers (I dont know what they are called but they are usually used as fillers to make a bouquet look less sparse)
  • Made vanilla flavoured Italian buttercream, tinting half of it dusty pink (for that romantic, antiquey look) and leaving the remainder white (ivory actually)
  • While cupcakes cooled on a wire rack, I made a quick sketch of how I wanted to decorate them - I find this step helps me greatly as I suffer from brain scatter from time to time. It also helps coordinate the design and colour of choice
  • Masked cakes with buttercream and decorated with sugar motifs.

From start to finish, these took me about 4 hours to complete but to be honest, I was actually enjoying myself so much I hadn't noticed. Now, I am staring at them sitting pretty on a cake stand and wondering who to give them to...

Friday, 13 February 2009

A Valentine's Day quickie

I suppose the title is a bit misleading but if you are like me, always leaving things to the last minute but still want a handmade gift for your special sweetheart on St. Valentine's day (which is, by the way, tommorow - Feb 14), then I suggest you make these palmiers.

All you need is some store bought puff pastry - the good sort like this, some white sugar and natural red food colour. Place 1/4 cup of sugar in a freezer bag with a few drops of food colouring and give it a good shake to distribute the colour et voila red sugar!

Sprinkle red sugar liberally over a sheet of puff pastry and start rolling loosely from one side, then the other until they meet in the middle. Cut pasry into 5mm-thick pieces, place on to a pre-lined baking tray and bake in a pre-heated oven (190C) for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Allow to cool before packing them away in a fancy giftbox lined with red and pink tissue.

Alternatively, serve these gorgeous crisp little pastry hearts with a cream dessert like a rich dark chocolate mousse or lemon cream.

Who could resist?

Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Tender little things - custard cashew bites

I have been meaning to share these tender little treats with you for a while now. Last week S, my sister-in-law , told me she would like to make some butter cookies - the really short and crumbly sort. Although the ones she helped Mum make for Chinese New Year tasted good, she was a little disappointed with the texture as they turned out slightly crunchier than expected.

The texture of biscuits all come down to the golden ratio of fat : sugar : flour. By altering these quantities, different textural outcomes can be achieved. Depending on my mood, sometimes I crave the crunchy and nutty. at times. the chewy or crisp and the other times, the sandy and crumbly. The size and texture of these cashew biscuits make them a great accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.

These cashew biscuits are extremely easy to make and if you don't have a piping bag and a star-nozzle, you can easily shape them into balls 2cm in diameter and press a cashew down the middle to flatten slightly.

The biscuits below were ones I made with S when I was in Kuala Lumpur over Chinese New Year. They were made using a rather old-fashion contraption we found in Mum's drawer - an Italian biscuit press. We used several different discs but agreed these designs looked the best. Also, we found it was quite alright to substitute the custard powder with the same amount of cornflour without unduly affecting the texture or flavour of the biscuit.

custard cashew bites
250g butter
120g pure icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
270g plain flour
60g custard powder
(makes 3 dozen)
preheat oven to 160C
beat butter, vanilla and sugar until light and well combined
sift flour and custard powder into butter mixture
mix until dough just comes together
shape using a biscuit press or a piping bag fitted with a 2cm star nozzle (alternatively, just roll teaspoonful of dough into balls and press down lightly with a cashew)
bake for 14 minutes turning tray around after the first 7 minutes to ensure the biscuits cook evenly
remove from baking tray and allow to cool on a rack

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Pineapple and mint coleslaw

As a child growing up in Asia, I knew salads came in 2 varieties: the one that looks well arranged in a bowl like the garden salad served with Thousand Island dressing and the other that looks like a bit of a mess but tastes really good, like the coleslaw and the potato salad. Almost every form of salad I knew back then was dressed in salad cream or Thousand Island dressing. I can't say I was particularly fond of the ubiquitous duo but I was definately partial to mayonaise - especially in a fresh coleslaw, not the limp, watery sort that is beginning to froth on the surface.

Let's face it, the mere mention of cabbage will have a few of us shifting uncomfortably in our seat. Belonging to the Brassicaceae family, this vegetable is notorious for causing flatulence and many would forgo dishes made from it in order to avoid any embarassing slips later on. But for those of us who don't, we reap the benefits of a vegetable high in folate, vitamin B and C.

After yesterday's scorching maximum temperature of 39C, I was in no condition to prepare a hot meal. I was craving something bright and fresh on the palate, something to stimulate the appetite. After much umm-ing and ahh-ing, almost succumbing to a liquid meal, I made this coleslaw for dinner to accompany a couple of grilled steaks. The flavours are Asian-inspired combining the unctuous flavour of fish sauce, the piquancy of lime and chilli and spiciness of garlic and fresh coriander in a light dressing, The slaw contains the usual suspects: shredded carrots and cabbage, with the addition of finely sliced blanched green beans, picked fresh coriander and mint leaves, and pineapple cut into matchstick pieces.

I personally love pineapple in savoury dishes. There is just something about combining the sweet sharpness of this tropical fruit with a spicy savoury sauce. It's experiencing the complete flavour spectrum (sans bitterness of course)all at once - I mean, could you get any closer to having a party in your mouth?! The flavours of this slaw is quite reminiscent of a Nonya favourite, assam laksa, which is a dish of noodles served in a fish broth flavoured with belachan (shrimp paste), tamarind, chillies and shallots.

Simply put, I think this slaw is the perfect alternative to the traditional coleslaw. It is tasty, zesty, low in fat (even fat-free if you choose to omit the oil in the dressing) and it makes a welcome addition to any BBQ, summertime party or picnic.

pineapple and mint coleslaw
1 1/2 cup finely shredded red cabbage
1 medium carrot, finely shredded
1 handful green stringless beans, blanched n finely sliced
1/2 medium ripe pineapple, cut into matchsticks
1/2 cup mint leaves, picked
1/2 cup coriander leaves, picked
1 lime, zest n juice
1-2 tsp sugar
1 large red chilli, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely sliced coriander stems
2 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
(serves 4)
combine ingredients for the dressing in a little jar, shake to mix and set aside
toss the ingredients for the slaw in a large bowl
dress the slaw about 5 minutes before serving. This allows the flavours to come together while maintaining the perfect coleslaw crunch.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A quick guacamole...

Avocado is one of my favourite fruit. It is also aptly known as the butter pear because its flesh bears a buttery quality and the fruit resembles a pear with thick and dark bumpy skin. I was introduced to this peculiar looking fruit as a child and could not really appreciate its taste nor could I understand why Mum waxed lyrical about it. But now, I eat it almost everyday in summer when it is in abundance; on toast with Vegemite for breakfast, in a multigrain roll with sprouts for lunch and in a salad for dinner. I absolutely adore eating avocados!

There are many ways to test avocados for ripeness. The colour, depending on the type of avocado, is often a good indication. Hass avocados, for example, turn from green to a purplish-black hue when ripe. Fuertes, on the other hand, remain fairly green when ripe. In any case, please refrain from pressing down too firmly on the fruit with your fingertips. This often bruises the fruit leaving dark unsightly blotches in its gold-green flesh. I like to press down on its "button" (the stalk) and the base of the fruit with my thumb and middle finger (at the same time). If the fruit is slightly yielding when pressure is applied, it is ripe and ready to eat.

I thought of including a recipe for a quick guacamole here because I think it is a simple and appetising way of presenting the fruit. I find few restaurants can get it right because they are too cheap to use the genuine stuff, often replacing it with frozen avocado puree to cut down their food cost. Appalling, I know, but it happens. Its not difficult to make great guacamole. You just need to be generous with your pennies and get your hands on some ripe avocados.

So here is what you'll need to do to make one of my favourite dips in less than 10 minutes:

  1. Dice 1 large ripe tomato
  2. Mash a small clove of garlic
  3. Dice 1/2 small red onion (please do not be tempted to replace this with brown onion - red onion has a sweeter pungency that is more suited to this dish)
  4. Chop 1 tablespoon of fresh coriander
  5. Grate the zest of 1 large lime
  6. Juice the lime after zesting
  7. Roughly chop the flesh of 2 large ripe avocados
  8. Mix all the above
  9. Add salt and a pinch of cayenne to taste
  10. Mix again

Since we didn't have any corn chips in the cupboard, Mum and I ate the guacamole with some tortilla chips we made by simply brushing some olive oil over a few leftover tortillas, sprinkling chopped parsley, paprika, cumin and asiago cheese on top, cutting them into wedges and drying them out in the oven until crisp.

Word of warning, this combination makes an incredibly more-ish snack!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

This little piggy...

Remember those pineapple tarts I mentioned in an earlier post? Well, I discovered some pineapple "jam" and pastry left in Mum's freezer so I decided to use them up before they find themselves forgotten and part of the deep polar cavern of her age-weathered icebox.

I was going to make the pineapple tarts the traditional way but after watching an episode of The Little Einsteins with my nephew, I decided to shape them into the faces of little pigs instead.

Although I would love to share my Mum's recipe with you, I am afraid I can't. Sorry. But if you feel spirited enough to spend a few hours stirring hand-grated fresh pineapples and stamping out a few dozen shortbread cases, you may find a similar recipe here. Or you might like to try a simpler version like this one here.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

sugar + eggs + milk + vanilla = creme caramel

There are a handful of desserts that cross cultural boundaries and get the universal nod of approval. I think creme caramel is one of them. A mixture of sugar, eggs, vanilla and milk cooked gently in a hot water bath to set in the most luxurious silken texture, it is a dessert to eat and remind yourself comfort can be derived from the most humble of beginnings.

creme caramel

500 ml full-cream milk
4 large eggs
80 g sugar
1 vanilla pod, split and seeded
100g caster sugar
1/2 lemon
(makes 8 150ml portions)
place a medium saucepan over a medium-high flame to heat
pour 2 tablespoon caster sugar into the heated saucepan and allow sugar to melt before adding more
(NB this is the method to prepare caramel sec - dry caramel. It yields a thicker and darker caramel in less time)
arrest the cooking of the sugar by squeezing some lemon juice into the caramel when the desired colour is achieved
quickly and carefully pour caramel into 8-9 dariole moulds or ramekins
allow caramel to set
whisk eggs and sugar in a bowl
heat milk and vanilla seeds n pod in a medium size saucepan until the surface barely breaks into a simmer
remove milk from heat and gently pour into egg mixture whilst constantly whisking
refrigerate for 2-3 hours or overnight to allow vanilla to infuse
pre-heat oven to 170C
strain custard through a fine sieve and into a pouring jug
fill the caramel filled darioles leaving a 5mm allowance - this is to facilitate handling in and out of a hot oven
wrap the top of the dariole with foil - this is to prevent a skin from forming while the custard cooks
place custards into a roasting pan and fill with hot water 3/4 of the way up the side of the darioles
bake for 20 minutes
reduce oven temperature to 150C and bake for a further 20 minutes
check custard to see if it is ready by removing the foil lid and tapping it gently. The middle should tremble slightly
remove from oven and allow custard to remain in the hot water bath
remove from the hot water bath after 1 hour
refrigerate for at least 8 hours
unmould creme caramel by running a thin-bladed knife around the edge and inverting onto a bowl
serve cold with sliced fruit.