'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, 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!