'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.'

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.