'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.'

Monday, 22 July 2013

Tom Kha Gai, or Chicken soup with coconut milk and galangal 南薑椰汁雞湯

As home cooks, we tend to stay in our comfort zones and stick with the cuisines that we grew up eating. As a Chinese who spent almost half of my life in the West, I cook mostly Chinese food and bake western-style desserts, with occassional forays into French cooking. After all, the food of a people is like a language with its own distinct vocabulary that takes years to master. In this day and age, it's easy to pull out recipes of any cuisine in the world on the internet and try to cook up something 'ethnic'. But it takes years of living with the locals for a person to really know the food of a country different from his own.

I've always loved the food of southeast Asia with its kaleidoscopic melange of fresh herbs and spices. My grandma from my mother's side actually was born in Indonesia and my family always had a penchant for the spicy, aromatic cuisines of that part of the world. In Hong Kong, however, Thai food a lot more popular than Indonesian food. Most of the local Thai restaurants are not terribly authentic - they tone down the spices, the herbs and sourness for Cantonese people who like mild flavours. I've long stayed away from cooking Thai food since I felt that I don't have the necessary culinary experience and knowledge to cook genuine Thai food - until now!

I came across this cookbook by a Thai hairstylist called  阿泰 who has been living in Taiwan since 10. Even though he left Thailand at an early age, the flavours of his country stuck with him and he learnt to cook Thai food from his mother, who has sadly passed away. In fact, cooking Thai food has become something of an emotional therapy for him. It's a gem of a cookbook, with an index of common Thai ingredients and how to use them. The recipes range from familiar fair such as curry and tom yum kung to interesting dishes like raw shrimp in spicy fish sauce and sago meatballs. The book is in Chinese, and I would recommend anyone who likes Thai food to grab a copy.

Massaman chicken curry - first attempt at making my own curry paste!
I've made three dishes from the book so far: massaman chicken curry (see picture above), steamed fish with lime, chilli and garlic sauce, and this chicken soup with coconut milk and galangal which I'm sharing with you today. It's incredibly easy to cook so long as you can lay your hand on the ingredients. If you have a southeastern asian grocery nearby, chances are they'll carry them: galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass. One caveat: you really need to use fresh, rather than dried herbs! It summons up the fresh, herby, spicy mixtures of flavours that make Thai food so addictive.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Spaghetti with mussels

Recently I rediscovered how delectable mussels are, having forgotten about them for some time. I've been looking at recipes and looking for new ways of preparing them. I got another 2 kilos of them today but sadly they're not as plump as those I got last week - not that size is everything. Even though this batch of mussels wasn't the best, they were enough to satisfy my craving.

I stumbled upon a really simple recipe of spaghetti with mussels by the renowned English chef Nigel Slater, and I tried his recipe for dinner tonight. It's the sort of simple but rewarding dishes that should be a staple of home cooking. The flavour of the pasta comes from the liquor from cooking the mussels, but the brilliant use of chilli and fennel feeds make the flavours really exciting. The only change I would make to the recipe is to reduce the cooking liquor before incorporating into the pasta - you don't want your pasta to swim in a broth!

Nigel Slater's spaghetti with mussels

Serves 2 as a main dish

mussels - 1kg
white wine - 1 small glass
bay leaves - 2
whole black peppercorns - 6
spaghetti - 250g
garlic - 2 cloves
a hot, ripe chilli
fennel seed - a tsp
parsley - a few sprigs

Scrub the mussels and tug off their beards. Check thoroughly for any whose shells are chipped. Pour the wine into a deep saucepan, add the bay leaves and the peppercorns and bring to the boil.

Tip the mussels into the pan and cover with a lid. Leave for 3 or 4 minutes to steam until the mussels have opened. Take them off the heat and leave until cool enough to handle.

Cook the pasta in unsalted water - the mussel liquor will add plenty of saltiness. Remove the mussels from their shells, discard the shells but save a couple for decoration. Drain the cooking liquor through a very fine sieve, and reduce it in a saucepan until reduced by two-thirds.

Chop the parsley and the garlic.

Pour a little olive oil into a shallow pan. Add the chilli, the fennel seed and the garlic, cook briefly until fragrant then add the reserved cooking liquor and the mussels and warm through.

Drain the pasta as soon as it is ready, then toss together with the mussels along with a little of the cooking liquid. Add the parsley, some olive oil, check the seasoning and serve.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Cocoa chiffon cake

I've been making quite a lot of cakes lately. Soft, billowy sponge cakes are the perfect snack to nibble on in summer. Even though the actual process of making cakes requires more work than cookies, at the end of the day you are just responsible for making one 'thing'. For some reason I find the whole process of dividing up a cookie dough into individual cookies strangely tiring, so I tend to shy away from making cookies unless I have an insatiable craving or upon my friends' request.

Chiffon cakes, in particular, are a cinch to make. True, you have to whip up the egg whites, but so long as you make sure your bowl and beaters are clean and use a bit of cream of tartar to stabilise the meringue, it's almost fail-proof. It's much easier than génoise and what I love about it is that it is fantastic served on its own. You can of course glaze it but it's entirely optional.

Chocolate is my favourite flavour of all and here's my rendition of it in the form of a chiffon cake. It's essentially 'basic' - it uses only cocoa powder so it's light enough for people who aren't crazy about chocolate (and trust me, there're more out there than you think!).

Monday, 27 May 2013

Mussel risotto

A friend of mine was kind enough to take me to the local Findlay Market a few days ago, and I seized the opportunity to buy some fresh and plump mussels from the fishmonger there. I've always loved mussels - I can't get enough of their marine aromas, their juiciness and the ease with which one can reasonably cook up a good mussel dish. They're much easier to clean than, say, clams, too. (They didn't used to be, apparently!)

I used about half of the mussels I bought to cook in a Thai-style stew which turned out really well. I cooked them like moules à la marinière except the flavourings were Thai: coconut milk, red curry paste, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, lime juice. They turned out remarkably well although I improvised the dish:

I was rather encouraged by my little success with these little molluscs, and I wanted to cook something I'm a little unfamiliar with. I flipped through my cookbooks and came across a recipe of mussel risotto by Simon Hopkinson. I tried to think when was the last time I made a risotto, and I quivered when it struck me that it was 9 years ago, back in my undergrad! I still remember it was a pumpkin and bacon risotto I cooked back then. While I still remember the basics of cooking a risotto, I'm hardly experienced with cooking this ubiquitous staple of northern Italy.

Thankfully, Simon's recipe rarely fails, and I was rewarded with a glorious dish beaming with flavours of the sea. It was so sensational that I was almost in disbelief when I had my first bite. It was a beautiful amalgamation of al dente rice grains, plump mussels, acidic white wine and tomatoes, all spiced up by subtle garlic and parsley, and the final addition of butter binds everything together in a homogeneous mass of deliciousness.

I must confess that used one tomato instead of two because I'm not too keen on them, and I also needed more stock than Simon's recipe suggested. My only serious qualm about the recipe, however, is that the portion seems to feed one, rather than two, people (which Simon reckoned would serve). I adjusted the amounts slightly, but here is the recipe word by word from Simon's incomparable Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.

Swiss roll

'The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.'

Oscar Wilde

In food as in life, simplicity ought to be the ultimate goal of our endeavours. I'm reminded, however, of Oscar Wilde's timeless aphorism - simple things are only simple superficially. In cooking, for instance, the simplest dishes require the most painstaking precision since every tiny step is going to have profound repercussions for the finished dish.

Take the humble Swiss roll, for instance. The cake we associate with childhood. At its most basic, it's just a sponge sheet rolled up with a whipped cream filling.  With only two ingredients, it's more prone to failure than a fancy dressed up layer cake. The sponge sheet has to be feathery light, moist but not gummy, and God forbid if it cracks when you roll it! No matter how many times I make it, there's always a sense of trepidation every time I make a new one.

Swiss rolls have become really popular in the past few years in Japan and Hong Kong, and you see fancy renditions involving coloured sponges and you-name-it flavours and fillings. The ones you get from good bakeries are actually very pricey, and although I'm tempted by the look of the fancy Swiss rolls every time, I could never bring myself to actually buy one!

The Swiss roll is one of the pastries where I think the original flavour is best. I get tempted by all the exciting flavours - purple potatoes, charcoal, etc. - but there's something very tempting about the pure flavours of eggs and cream. I've experimented with all sorts of sponges for the body of the roll - génoise and chiffon mainly. While chiffon sheets are wondrously soft and moist, it lacks the evenness of texture that I crave. On the other hand, génoises can easily be dry. This can be remedied by adding melted butter to the egg foam, but it's quite a finicky process and it can deflate the batter if you're not adept at it. Some American recipes suggest adding water to the egg foam to make it moist, but I find that it makes the finished sponge rather coarse in texture.

Here's my secret ingredient: whipped cream! Not only is it a dream to fold in, it also adds a creamy flavour to the sponge that complements beautifully with the cream filling. I first got the idea of using whipped cream for a génoise from Flo Braker's brown sugar génoise recipe, but I don't think she used it as a sponge sheet. Once I tried incorporating whipped cream into my génoise, there's no looking back.

Check out my cocoa Swiss roll on more pictures of rolling a cake!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Flo Braker's PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is is close to alchemy as baking gets. As Joe puts it, 'it’s comprised of hundreds and hundreds of individual layers of dough, all of them separated by ultra-thin layers of butter. When the pastry is inserted in the oven the butter melts, freeing and lubricating the dough sheets so they can separate from one another.' The result? Hundreds of layers of feather-light, fragile sheets of buttery goodness shattering in your mouth, vanishing into nothing. As with all good things, it's ephemeral, and you can't help but give it another bite to re-experience that nanosecond of hedonistic pleasure. It's one of the most wondrous gastronomic sensations one could have.

All good things come at a price; and puff pastry takes a lot of time to make and even longer to master the art. You need to make a dough (détrempe) which encases a butter slab, from there you begin a process of folding and turning that can easily take half a day. As much as I love puff pastry, I usually go for 'quick' puff pastries, which skip the process of making a dough and a butter slab. In this quick version, you partially mix the butter into the dough. As you roll out the dough, the butter bits are stretched to laminate the dough. The other shortcut is that instead of having six folds, there're only four. It doesn't provide as dramatic a rise as a real puff pastry dough, but the result is good enough for most purposes, and vastly superior to anything you can buy. The following recipe is one by Flo Braker's from her Baking for All Occasions.

For lovers of puff pastry, I highly recommend the fantastic book by  Gregoire Michaud. The imagination behind his puff pastry creations is staggering!
Flo uses two kinds of flour here: a combination of all-purpose and cake flour. It helps with lowering the
gluten formation and therefore ensures that your final product will be light. Be sure to use the best butter you can find, preferably an European high-butterfat butter, and use a scale to weight the flour. Once you have made your puff pastry, there're endless pastries you can make. From palmiers to puff pastry tarts and mille-feuille, the possibilities are endless.

Tarte à la crème

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Cantonese-style sesame cake 芝麻糕

The Asian answer to brownies?

The semester finished a few weeks ago and here I am with almost four months of holiday awaiting me! That should mean that I have a lot more time for cooking and baking, and for the most part, I have been cooking more. That said, I've been sticking to simple-but-true kind of cooking and baking and have steered away from fancy frosted cakes and pastries.

I've also been making and experimenting with Chinese desserts. Compared to western desserts, Chinese (and Asian) desserts are more straightforward, usually concentrating on one or two flavours and textures. There're simply no plated desserts as such. I personally think that western desserts are a more developed and sophisticated art form, Nevertheless, there's still something homey and comforting about Chinese desserts that I return to from time to time.

Chinese desserts can be divided into two kinds: sweet soups and solid cake-like desserts called gao 糕. They're usually starch-based, and the texture of the gao ranges from soft to chewy, almost jelly-like. I think most people translate it as 'cake', even though they are worlds apart in texture!

I recently noticed that I have two jars of sesame paste that I bought in Beijing last year sitting in my cupboard. I decided to put them to good use by making a sesame cake that is quite popular in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the commercial ones are often too sweet and lacking in sesame flavour. Fortunately for us, it's quite easy to make at home if you start with store-bought black sesame paste/butter. The drawback to that it is that it's usually pretty pricey. You can, of course, toast the sesame seeds yourself and grind it to a puree with a food processor!

The other ingredient that you'll need is water chestnut flour (馬蹄粉), which is often used for thickening soups and gao-making (water chestnut cake 馬蹄糕). This flour gives a chewy but light texture that works well in cutting down the richness of the copious amounts of fat in sesame puree. I've tried making it with some rice flour (粘米粉) in addition to the water chestnut flour, but it made the cake unplesantly sticky and heavy. Better to stick with water chestnut flour only!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Brown butter chocolate chip cookies

Chocolate chip cookies. That iconic cookie that is loved and raved about universally, and one that provokes the strongest personal responses and biases. Crisp vs chewy; giant vs dainty; nuts vs plain. A quick search on Google yielded 24,200,040 results which only shows how popular and divisive this humble cookie is! Every serious baker has got to have his own chocolate chip cookie recipe in his sleeves. Well, this is mine. I must qualify that statement because I always tweak the recipe slightly depending on what I have on hand - less nuts, no nuts, more chips, using a higher percentage of chocolate, etc. I suppose that's what makes this American cookie so endearing and endlessly creative - it's the fact that you can mix and match to suit your own taste.

With this in mind, this version sums up how I like my chocolate chip cookie: flat and crisp, with nuts, and loaded with the finest dark chocolate chips. I'm fully aware that in America, which is where this cookie originated, the majority of the people fancy the thick and chewy kind. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I've always found that underbaked chewy centre rather challenging. Most American versions also contain an astonishing amount of sugars (white and brown) to attain crispiness/chewiness. In fact, it's impossible to recreate the traditional American cookie texture if you cut down on the sugar.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lemon chicken 西檸煎軟雞

We are all (or at least myself...) slaves of our habits, and I've been finding it extremely difficult to drag myself to go back to writing blog posts after a three-month absence! But here I am - the semester is drawing to a close and I'll try my best to dig up all the saved photos and recipes that I meant to post up ages ago. Thank you for checking for updates!

A few days ago the great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away. It was a news that I had anticipated for a long time since her health had been on the decline for more than a decade, and yet when the news struck I was still shocked and saddened. Growing up in Hong Kong, many of us had a special fascination for all things British, and I remember that I went through a phase of Anglophilia in my teenage years. I held Margaret Thatcher in very high esteem and even read his memoir The Downing Street Years as a thirteen-year-old even though I hadn't the slightest clue about British politics!

 Even today, many Hong Kong people are still nostalgic about our colonial past. I dare say many of us wish the clock could tick back in time! It's common in human history to look at the past with somewhat misplaced nostalgia and think of the past as a bygone golden age. Such a tendency is even more pronounced when the current state of affairs is a cause for discontentment - which is the case with Hong Kong at the moment.

While the Brits aren't known for for their gastronomy, they had left an unmistakable stamp on the food culture of Hong Kong. Think of milk tea, custard tarts, and the fusion dishes that were created as a result of British influence on Cantonese cuisine. The dish that I'm preparing today, lemon chicken, is undoubtedly a product of Hong Kong's colonial melange of East meets West. Its name in Chinese, 西檸煎軟雞 'pan-fried succulent chicken with western lemon', clearly shows that it's a fusion dish. The Chinese didn't use fresh fruits in their savoury cooking traditionally, and the sauce for this dish usually contains Bird's custard powder, an unmistakably British product that lends a fluorescent yellow colour and a custardy flavour and consistency. It is the sort of sweet-and-sour flavour that Westerners love, and it's no surprise that it's a popular item in Chinese takeaways overseas - although I heard that orange (rather than lemon) chicken is the default version in the USA?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Würzburg, Germany

Sorry for abandoning my blog for more than three months! In the past three months I was focusing on my real major - piano - and was preparing for an international piano competition focusing on the works of J S Bach. Bach's music has been closest to my heart since my early childhood, so this was a challenge that was as pleasurable as it was challenging. Since I didn't have the foresight to start preparing sooner, in the past three months I had to spend all the spare time I had practising the pieces for the competition. The actual competition took place in March in Würzburg, central Germany in mid-March:

In the event, I got to the semi-finals. I was very nervous on stage and hardly played my best. In retrospect, even if I had played my best I doubt if the judges would have chosen me as a finalist. It turned out that they had rather dogmatic tastes and my style wouldn't be what they were seeking.

The former bishops's palace, opposite the music school

I hadn't heard of Würzburg prior to this competition, but it is a very beautiful city in Bavaria. Despite the devastating bombings in the Second World War, one could feel an unmistakable link to Germany's glorious cultural heritage.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Darkest dark chocolate cookies

I received these Scharffenberger 99% chocolate and cocoa nibs in the post a few days ago. I had been wanting to have unsweetened chocolate for baking for some time since its high cocoa content gives me more room in eliminating sugar in the recipe. If you haven't figured out by now, I like my chocolate desserts very dark and minimally sweetened, but sadly a lot of recipes that require a whole egg foam or a meringue need a good amount of sugar for the foam to be stable. If I used a 70% chocolate in such a recipe, the dessert would end up too sweet for my taste. Much better, then, to use less chocolate quantitatively, but up the cocoa content to 99 or 100% so that you have complete control of how much sweetness you add!

I scratched my head looking for a good recipe to use these fruity and pretty acidic Scharffenberger unsweetened chocolate. I dug in my word document of recipes and was reminded of these very dark and quintessentially American chocolate cookies. They're unusual because they rely on beating whole eggs until they reach a stable foam before folding in melted unsweetened chocolate. A minimal amount of flour is then blended in along with more unsweetened chocolate chips. I saw versions of this cookie by David Lebovitz, Alice Medrich as well as Essence of Chocolate (by Scharffenberger). My version is based on Alice Medrich's with some amendments:

1. I'm using baking soda rather than baking powder to neutralise some of the acidity of all the unsweetened chocolate.

2. Since I've kept the sugar amount very low, it's difficult to keep the centre of the cookies moist and gooey. I came to think of these cookies as miniature cakes, and I use Shirley Corriher's technique for adding a little cream to flourless chocolate cakes to keep them moist. I therefore replaced some of the butter with cream. Use only butter if that's what you have on hand.

3. I also added some SP cake emulsifier to fight with the deflation that inevitably comes with folding chocolate into a whole egg foam. Your cookies will have less volume if you don't add SP, but the recipe doesn't use SP to start with. Worry not!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Crème caramel - plain and caffeinated

There're certain dishes that I often associate with individual people around me. It's usually because of a person's love of a dish - or in some cases aversion to a dish - that gives me this association. I used to have a Taiwanese friend here in Cincinnati called Willy who absolutely loved all kinds of baked custards - custard tart, crème caramel, crème brûlée, etc. Initially, I was secretly shocked by how much he loved his custards especially since he didn't have a sweet tooth in general. He was also something of a purist in the sense that preferred pure eggy custards to flavoured ones. I really treasured Willy's friendship but he moved back to Taiwan a while ago. I continue to think of the time I spent with him and his friends in Cincinnati even though I cannot bake these custards again for him for some time.

Crème caramel is wonderfully simple to make but yields maximum deliciousness. You make a caramel, pour it onto individual ramekins, add custard on top and bake the ramekins in a water-bath in the oven. After a good chill in the fridge, you run a knife round the edges and invert the whole thing to serve so that the caramel (which by then has re-liquefied) runs seductively around the custard. It's amazing how a little caramel could elevate a simple baked custard to undreamt-of heights.

I'm offering two versions here: plain and coffee-flavoured. For the plain version, I use extra egg yolks to boost the custardy flavour; for the coffee version, I replace part of the milk with strong espresso and stick with whole eggs. It's really worth seeking the best eggs and milk you can find for the plain version. In either case, I've kept the sugar in the custard to a minimum since the caramel sweetens it plenty anyway.

Incidentally, it seems that people in the States don't really know these custards by their French name 'crème caramel'. I've always called them crème caramel and my friends always give me a bewildered look for that. Apparently 'flan' is how they're known here, like in Latin countries.

A few observations:

1. It's better to bake these custards in the lower third of the oven. In the past when I baked them in the centre of the oven, the top half of the custards was overbaked and wasn't as smooth as the part that was submerged in the water. You want heat to be away from the custards as much as you can.

2. You can steam these custards rather than bake them if you wish. If you decide to go down this route, make sure that you cover each ramekin with cling film / plastic wrap before steaming or the texture will be rough.

3. Gentle baking is the key to a smooth baked custard. After the initial 10 minutes at 180C/350F, I turn the heat down to 130C/250F which is a lower temperature than most recipes. This gentler temperature ensures that the custards emerge smooth and creamy.

4. The caramel will harden upon contact with the cold ramekins. If you're really picky about getting perfectly caramel-filled bottoms, you can preheat the ramekins (in the roasting tin) in the oven first so that they'll be warm when you pour the caramel on them. Even if your caramel doesn't cover the entire surface of the base, remember it will liquidy eventually to cover the entire base (or top) by the time you serve them.

5. I like to pour fridge-cold milk into the saucepan you made the caramel with to dissolve any stubborn bits of caramel that stayed on the pan. This isn't just frugality, but adds an extra something in the flavour of the custard itself. This also conveniently warms up the milk every so slightly to shorten the baking time.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Beijing 4

While my trip was mostly about eating and more eating, I did do some obligatory sightseeing... It was mainly strolling down the alleys of traditional Beijing in the east side of the city and visiting the Imperial Palace which is right behind the Tianamen Square.

Due to its highly political past - think of the 1989 student revolution - there were many state officers and policemen patrolling the square. It was a tense atmosphere and I felt there and then that China was still very much an authoritarian regime. How long will it take for China to wake up to a more liberal society?

I really am not trying to be difficult here, but I've always felt much closer to the Greco-Roman civilisation than my own - namely Chinese. I was still taken by the grandeur of this complex of palaces that was the seat of the Ming and Qing dynasties, but I didn't have the shiver of beholding the Parthenon in Athens or the Forum in Rome. I like to persuade myself that I must have lived in that part of the world in one of my past lives haha! With that in mind, I do think that ancient Chinese cuisine must have been greater than Greco-Roman fare...

Cream of mushroom soup

When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my exposure to western food was limited. Sure, compared to China and other less developed countries in the world, our food scene was already much more cosmopolitan in its outlook. That said, as a little kid, my conception of western food consisted of KFC, McDonald's and Pizza Hut. I knew that there were steak houses but obviously I couldn't afford it! It was when I moved to England at 16 that I gradually got to know the diverse traditions and culture behinds the cuisines of Western Europe.

I also remember going to Pizza Hut was something of a family treat at weekends. Unfortunately, I didn't really like pizzas nor the salad bar there, so I would smuggle spicy chicken wings from KFC (which was in the same shopping centre CityPlaza) and indulge in them while the grown-ups were eating pizzas and salad. I could eat 18 wings at a time, btw! One item that I did enjoy at Pizza Hut, however, was their cream of mushroom soup. It was unlike any Chinese soup mum would make at home, and its creaminess and bold flavour were addictive for a kid. It also had bits of chicken in it I believe?

I stopped going to Pizza Hut a long time ago when I discovered how pizzas should be like, so the taste of their cream of mushroom soup is buried in a distant corner of my memory. I actually think that I probably wouldn't like it any more, but I do have my own version that I can resort to in moments of desperation. It's based on Simon Hopkinson's recipe, but I've streamlined the preparation somewhat. The large amount of mushrooms thickens the soup naturally after blending, so there is no need to make a roux or add any potato to the soup.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Beijing 3

I'm not really a breakfast person, but since I was blissfully jet-lagged, I could actually wake up in time for breakfast while I was in Beijing. I went to a stall specialising in 燒餅 recommended by a friend of mine. It's basically a savoury crepe with a filling of eggs, spring onions, a crispy wafer and ham or sausage if you pay extra. It is a very traditional breakfast item in Beijing and is usually sold at stalls in the street in the early mornings. The crepe batter could be made from mung beans, buckwheat or other sorts of grains, and you also get to choose what sort of sauce you want: sesame (麻醬), fermented red tofu (南乳), fermented soybean paste (黃醬).

Verdict?  was already cold by the time I went back to the hotel, and the crispy wafer had became sad and limp. I think I still prefer a sweet crepe...

Fastest chocolate fudge cake

It must be a sign of my lack of creativity that I've been shamelessly posting recipes by famous authors lately. I have been spending a lot of time on the piano rather than in the kitchen (believe it or not!) and therefore had to resort to quick, simple recipes that could satisfy my (slightly) sweet tooth.

Let me introduce you to this wonderful, super-easy quick-fix chocolate cake by Alice Medrich who many consider to be America's First Lady of chocolate. She first had an epiphany making and eating real French truffles in Paris - it was a revelation that changed her conception of how chocolate could and should taste like. Upon her return to America, she opened the famed Chocolat shop selling giant truffles as well as other chocolate confections (in California I believe). She was instrumental in awakening America's interest in *real* chocolate rather than the mass-produced, milky stuff produced by Hershey's and other brands.

The very first book I bought by Alice was Bittersweet. It answered many questions about using chocolate in dessert recipes with a depth and thoroughness that was unique. It made me understand why my brownies were so crumbly and almost impossible to hold without breaking: most recipes ask you to fold in the flour as little as possible, but as Alice points out, with the high-fat content of modern brownie recipes, you want to whisk the batter as vigorously as you can so that you develop gluten to hold everything together. I also loved how she varied the amounts of chocolate in a dessert recipe according to the percentage of the chocolate. It just all made perfect sense.

This is Alice's chocolate fudge cake from A Year in Chocolate. I have reduced the sugar amounts dramatically to highlight the chocolate flavour (rather than sugar) as well as modified the mixing method. Do not skip the divine frosting though - it's to die for.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Tish Boyle's caramel apple tart

I usually try to avoid posting other people's recipes straight since I think that there's not much point to it - why not just refer readers to the original recipe? Well, I'm going to do exactly that, for this caramel apple tart by Tish Boyle was so unbelievably delicious that I want to tell the whole world about it! I fell in love with caramelised fruits again after making tarte tatin a couple of times in the past few weeks, and I suddenly remembered that Tish has a recipe for a caramel apple tart on her blog. I tried making one and it was one of the nicest tarts I've ever had the fortune to have. The creamy caramel custard envelops the apples and almost acts as a sauce to the apples. While a tarte tatin needs some sort of cream to soften its edge, this tart needs no accompaniment and is utterly delicious on its own. Think of it as a mellower, self-saucing version of tarte tatin.

I couldn't resist tweaking the recipe slightly: I added an extra apple and skipped the cinnamon. I also macerated the apples in sugar before reducing the syrup drawn from the apples to a caramel before proceeding in similar fashion as as Tish had it. I prefer serving it cold, too.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Beijing 2

If there's one dish that's most inextricably linked with Beijing, it's got to be Peking duck. I'm a sucker for any roast meat with a crispy skin, so you can imagine how much I anticipated eating Peking duck in Beijing. I was taken to a local restaurant for a casual lunch one day, and I had the best Peking duck ever. The skin was dry, crisp and not excessively oily, and the flesh had a nicely earthy flavour to it (the duck fat helped obviously!). The wrapping skin that accompanied the duck was disappointing though.

There were many unusual accompaniments to the duck including pickled radish and haw jelly. I heard that this was a trend set up by the upscale peking duck restaurant Da Dong 大董烤鸭.

Da Dong restaurant also popularised dipping duck skin in sugar which was supposedly Qing dynasty concubines' favourite way of eating them. It was certainly interesting, but dare I say a judicious sprinkling of fleur de sel would have taken it to a high level altogether...

Friday, 4 January 2013

Pear Tarte Tatin

In search of the perfect tarte tatin

I love tarts in general - there's something about that combination of the soft, creamy filling and the crisp tart shell that is utterly irresistible. One of the most famous of tarts, of course, is tarte tatin, the upside-down apple tart that was created by accident at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron by Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin. Unlike most tarts, you caramelise the fruits (usually apples) first and leave them at the bottom of the pan. You then put the pastry on top of the fruits and bake it like that in the oven. You take the tart out and invert it to serve so that it's fruits up, pastry down.

This method of preparation is meant to avoid a soggy pastry because the pastry is placed on top of rather than beneath the fruits. After years of continuous frustration, whether at home or at restaurant, I am convinced that it is a myth. The baking process extracts so much juice from the fruits that, more often than not, the juice drowns the hard-won pastry into a sad, soggy mess when you invert the tart, and all your naive hopes for a crisp tart are ruthlessly crushed. Apples tend to be more forgiving, but with a juicy fruit like pears or peaches, you're almost guaranteed that your finished tart will be swamped with fruit juices. It's in moments like this that I curse myself for bothering to put a pastry crust there in the first place. Incidentally, I used to have two friends in London who, believe or not, preferred a swamped, soggy pastry (and croissants) to a dry, crisp one. I am gratified to know that one of them has repented and changed his mind since then.

Despite these pitfalls, I was convinced that there must be ways one could undertake to preserve the glory of a tarte tatin with beautifully caramelised fruits and divinely crisp pastry. Water is the sworn enemy of a proper tarte tatin, I have tried various ways to eliminate it as far as I can. Here's how I go about it.

Beautifully fragrant pears from Xinjiang, China (庫爾勒香梨) that have a crunchy texture perfect for baking, but they're also extremely juicy. If you use a 'normal' pear, make sure they're under-ripe.