'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Beijing 1

Even though I have been to quite a lot of provinces in China, this is my very first visit to Beijing. First thing I saw as I stepped out of the plane was a coffee shop:

Correct me if I'm wrong - but I can't imagine coffee shops to be so ubiquitous in China ten years ago. With its increasing status quo and wealth, China has lost no time devouring Western consumer goods - including coffee.

Being the capital of the Qing dynasty, Beijing (and northern Chinese cuisines in general) food has been influenced non-Han traditions, especially Muslim. While pork is the most common meat throughout China, lamb is very common here. The most celebrated way of eating it is to blanch paper-thin slices of lamb or mutton in a hotpot. A friend of mine took me out to one of the most traditional places for Beijing-style hotpot (涮羊肉):


All sorts of snacks are sold here as well
The greenish-grey liquid on the left is worth of mention here. It's called 'bean juice' 豆汁. Remember those thin vermicelli (粉絲) made from mung beans? If you ferment the water leftover from making the vermicelli, you're left with this sour, kind of foul-tasting beverage that traditional Beijing people drink at breakfast time. You're meant to dip the crispy wafer and spicy pickle at the bottom of the photo into the drink so that you experience sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavours all at once. The challenging taste of bean juice is legendary, and I had wanted to try it for donkey's years. Verdict? It's best left for discerning locals...

The traditional kind of hotpot used in Beijing-style hotpot - a fluted copper pan. The soup base is simply water with leeks, red dates and goji berries.

There were only two of us, so a feast was out of the question. We ordered lamb and beef intestines in their natural colour - black. The white variety you see in Cantonese dim sum is actually bleached.
Sesame paste is the common dipping sauce here. As I would experience in the next few days, saltiness predominates in northern Chinese cuisine, and they hardly use much sugar in their cooking. I like my savoury food to have some sweetness to it, and if I were to make my own dipping sauce I would have added sugar to the sesame paste as well... As it is it's too salty for me.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas yule log

Noël, Noël!

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us”. Matthew 1:22-23

As an ex-Christian-turned-agnostic, my feeling towards Christmas is somewhat ambivalent. While I think that the claims of Christianity are probably untrue, I continue to be moved by the image of a God who is 'Emmanuel' - not the terrifying God of the Old Testament whose name is so holy that one cannot even utter his name - but a God who loves us so much that he became incarnate and lived amongst us. As Umberto Eco puts it so eloquently:
If I am a believer, I find it sublime that God asked his only son to sacrifice himself for the salvation of all mankind. That's what is specific to Christianity: it isn't the fact that Christianity spent 700 or 800 years debating whether Christ is endowed only with a divine nature, or only a human one, or both, or how many persons and wills he incarnated. Such questions seem to me to belong to a futile theological game, whereas what was really at stake was understanding of the following mystery: How could God have done that for us? But if I think that God does not exist, the the question becomes even more sublime: I have to ask myself how a section of humanity possessed enough imagination to invent a God who was made man and who allowed himself to die for the love of humanity. The fact that humanity could conceive of so sublime and paradoxical an idea, on which mankind's intimacy with the divine is founded, inspires me with great admiration for it. There's no doubt but that this same humanity has done some terrible things, but it was able none the less to invent this really extraordinary story, even if God himself does not exist.
Eco's words resonate with how I feel about Christianity in general: the idea of God becoming man is so paradoxical that, on the one hand I feel that it's the most sublime conception of God imaginable, and a pathetically anthropomorphic conception of the ultimate reality on the other.

The Nativity by Federio Barocci
In spite of any misgivings I might have about Christianity (and fundamentalist Protestantism in particular), every year during this season I cannot help but think of what a wondrous idea the Nativity is. It is in this season that (Christians believe) God is born among us and experiences what it is like to be human. No wonder Christianity still exerts such a magnetic hold on so many peoples even after two thousand years.

Please forgive me for ranting about religion in a food blog - but it is Christmas after all and we should all remember why we have this season in the first place, even for non-believers. Since I will not partake in the Church's celebration of the birth of its Saviour, the best offering I could put on the table is a Christmas yule log, which I'm told is the dessert served around Christmas-time in France. It is essentially a chocolate Swiss roll slathered with frosting and decorated like a tree trunk. There's no end to the possibilities of decorations for a bûche de Noël, and I'm sticking to meringue mushrooms as the only additional decoration, although I may try some crushed pistachios next year as well.

Merry Christmas to you all! May this season be filled with joy, peace and traquillity and may we be thankful for the miracle that we are living in.

A more artistic rendition I made last Christmas...

Monday, 10 December 2012

Meringue mushrooms

It's Christmas season! It's advent in the liturgical year of the Church, and even though I'm a retired Christian, it is by far still my favourite season of the year. I feel a heightened awareness of the blessings in our lives and it's not difficult to see an abundance of joy everywhere in this season of festivities.

I like to make Christmas yule logs in this season even though it's a lot of work (and therefore has to remain a once-a-year undertaking), and one of the funniest elements involved is making meringue mushrooms. I was transfixed by their look the first time I saw them: I had no clue how it could be done. Even though I do a lot of baking, I'm more into the actual mixing of batters and doughs and I'm not really into decorations and piping. Since last year I have been inflicting my friend Hitomi to pipe these meringue mushrooms for me - I mix the batter and she pipes, and I assembled the stems and caps to form mushrooms.

This recipe is from the chocolate guru Alice Medrich. Her instructions on how to make them are fantastic and I'm quoting them almost ad verbatim here. I love her addition of coffee to the meringue to give them some actual flavour other than pure sweetness too. I did however reduce the sugar to make them less tooth-achingly sweet...

Friday, 7 December 2012

Black sesame cookies

No explanations needed I think: crunchy, moreish cookies bursting with the irresistable flavour of black sesames. Either toast the sesames yourself and grind them in a food processor after cooling, or buy ready-ground sesame powder.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Homemade chocolate milk

En blanc et noir

If you grew up in Hong Kong as a kid in the 80's you must have seen this advert:

Like many Asian children, I was forced to drink milk every morning when I was little. I actually didn't mind it, although I knew many friends who absolutely hated it. That said, given the choice, I would have chocolate milk rather than 'plain' milk any day - and I'm sure I'm not alone here! Milk was tolerable, but chocolate milk was just yum.

I still remember how amazed I was when I had my first taste of English milk at 16 - only then did I realise that good milk could actually taste sweet, even grassy. The kind of white watery drink loaded with dry milk powder in Hong Kong obviously gave me the wrong impression of the drink. I became a convert, and chocolate milk gradually faded out from my life.

Since I'm subscribing to a herdshare programme with Highland Haven Farm, I receive 3 litres of milk each week. As much as I love my dairy, I usually have a hard time finishing the stuff unless I use most of it for dessert making. What I tend to do is turning the milk into different beverages:  usually milk tea and matcha latte. This week I have a whopping 6 litres of milk to finish, and I didn't want to repeat milk tea and matcha latte again, so I decided to give chocolate milk a shot. It turned out much better than I could have hoped for, and I think I'll be drinking the stuff every other day for the rest of my life. Incidentally, research shows that downing chocolate milk after a tough workout can help replenish exhausted muscles and significantly aid exercise recovery. Plenty of reasons to consume gallons of chocolate milk every day!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Kitchen disaster 2

It starting promising, with a well-meant Portugese custard tart:

Twenty minutes later:

Culprit: there was not enough overhang of puff pastry and it shrank during baking, the custard filling spilled...

In desperation, I scooped up some of the filling as midnight snack, which surprisingly tasted pretty moreish!
Bonus: you get to know that your baking pan is really non-stick!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

My 29th birthday

I don't know if I'm alone here, but as I started approaching the end of my 20's, each birthday almost became a dread rather than a blessing. That said, I had a very relaxed and pleasant 29th birthday yesterday - especially since I had a stomach flu on my birthday last year! I spent the day meeting up with some of my students and chilling at uni, and had a potluck with friends in the evening at home. After dinner we watched tonnes of YIF magic videos and tried to decipher how he did those unbelievable feats. It was a day well spent and thanks to everybody for their kind birthday wishes!

First of all, the wacky birthday gifts:

Baking gadgets that I requested, courtesy of my flatmate Tim!

Also from Tim: an unusual recording of the Chopin Etudes by Evelyn Brancatt, with 24 accompanying recipes...

My favourite potato crisps and Vita lemon tea from Yuqing and Bing Bing:

Truffles from one of my students

Free vacuuming tickets from my neighbour Hitomi!

And roses (!!) from Jin Hai - the first time I received flowers outside of a recital...! I'm not sure how I should feel about it haha! :P