The house cake

Over the past few years, as S and I have been travelling, visiting and sometimes staying with friends, we’ve noticed a very interesting shift. Not too long ago, we would have been offered a foldaway couch, or some uncomfortable cot in a friend’s living room. Most recently, though, friends have pleasantly surprised us with very well-appointed guest rooms. Not only have they been clean, comfy and functional, there has also been ample closet space and fine linens. Some have even come stocked with a wide range of toiletries to choose from. Obviously, we’ve all been getting older — which is something we usually complain about. But one of the nice by-products of getting older (and hopefully more successful) is we all eventually move into larger and nicer homes.

One of the things that S wanted to do when we built our new home was create a really nice guest room. Ours is on the ground floor of the house. It’s done up in neutral colors and planned very much the way a hotel room would be set up. In addition to the comfy queen-size bed, there’s a nice wood desk, two vintage chairs, a small flatscreen TV, and loads of closet space. S has also kitted out the bathroom with a full range of… well, whatever someone might need, be it toothbrushes, band-aids, even contact lens solution. Overall, we felt that the room was pretty darned stylish and we’ve been eagerly awaiting our first house guests. (Keep reading…)

Simple fare and a great peach cake

As I mentioned in my previous post, S and I have just moved into a new house. You can’t imagine just how happy we are with our new place. The house itself is a project that was two years in the making — starting with purchasing a small one-story intermediate terrace house; tearing it down; working with a brilliant but fussy architect to design a New York inspired redbrick townhouse in Singapore; months spent negotiating with contractors to work within the tiny budget that we had set aside for the build; and then finally, patiently waiting and watching over the actual build for the last 13 months.

As you might imagine, we allocated a pretty healthy space for our kitchen. I’ll devote a future post to photographing the kitchen and telling you guys and gals all about it but suffice it to say, it’s pretty darned impressive. S was in charge of both space planning and choosing our appliances. She did an amazing job… well, to be accurate, she put us in some serious debt, but it looks amazing. And since moving in last month, we’ve been having a ball entertaining again. (Keep reading…)

Sunday roast and chocolate cake

Whenever a friend who we know is a pretty darned good cook calls us and invites us over for a meal, we’re usually pretty excited. When that friend is more than just “good” — when she’s taught cooking classes in Europe, comes from a family of restaurateurs, and most recently worked on Anne Willan’s The Country Cooking of France — we get ridiculously giddy.

Our good friend V moved back to Singapore a couple of years ago. Since then, she’s been thrilling us and over-feeding us with a slew of delicious meals and dishes. (Sadly though, ever since she’s come back to the Lion City, she’s been a tad delinquent on updating her blog, A Life in Food.) Last week, V called us and said a couple of magic words, specifically, “Easter lunch” and “roast leg of lamb”. Well, that’s all I needed to hear. Nothing could have kept me from that meal.

The lunch was everything I knew it would be. V pulled out all the stops. She whipped up a sloppy, sumptuous gratin dauphinois; a perfectly roasted leg of lamb with salsa verde; baked her own ham; prepared a humongous bowl of peas; mixed up a super-yummy vegetable and feta orzo salad; and put together a mean cheese plate. To follow all this, she served a lemon tart and a sinfully rich and gooey chocolate-raspberry cake.

The meal was fabulous. I pigged out on the lamb, ham and potatoes. When it came time to serve the cakes, everyone crowded around the table, eagerly jostling for a piece of the “gateau cocoframboise”. (Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera with me, so the pictures that accompany this post were taken with my Nokia e61i.) The great food, good wine, and cool company made this past Easter’s feast one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed.

I’ve asked V to do me a favour and share two of her recipes. I’m running them below, as written by her. I hope you enjoy making them as much as I enjoyed eating the resulting dishes.

Easter Recipes by V

Roast leg of lamb with salsa verde
Serves 8 normal people (or 4 greedy ones!)

Lamb is a fairly traditional Easter meal, but I like it with an Italian twist. The Salsa Verde really adds a lot of flavour as both a marinade and a sauce and is extremely versatile. I sometimes add mustard, chopped cornichons and/or other herbs (fresh coriander or basil are good ones). And any leftovers can be used for poached or grilled fish or chicken. You can keep it in a jar in the fridge for a week or more.

Salsa verde
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 handfuls of fresh Italian parsley, chopped
6 green onions, finely chopped
1 handful of fresh mint, chopped
1/3 cup salted capers, soaked in cold water 30 minutes, chopped
3 or 4 fillets of anchovies, chopped
1 teaspoon salt

1 2kg boneless leg of lamb, butterflied, trimmed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt

Stir the salsa verde ingredients in large bowl. Taste and see if you want to add any more of anything; like most things in cooking, it’s all very personal. Place lamb on a tray, smooth-side down. Season the lamb with salt and pepper, then garlic. Massage 1/4 cup salsa verde into lamb (lucky lamb!). Roll up the lamb. Using kitchen string, tie the lamb every 2-inches in order to hold it together. Bear in mind this can be a slippery process and prepare to get a bit messy. Ideally you have a kitchen slave on hand to cut you bits of string. Or you could be super organised and have all the string you need cut beforehand. I have/am neither so messy it is.

Preheat oven to 220°C/450°F. Place lamb on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast for about 30 minutes then lower the oven temp to 170°C/350°F and add about an inch of water to make sure the lamb doesn’t burn (this also makes yummy pan juices). Continue cooking until thermometer inserted into thickest part of lamb registers 60°C/120°F for medium-rare, another 45 minutes or so.

Serve to happy friends.

Gâteau CocoFramboise (based on a Nigella recipe)

This cake is a fine example of a marriage made in heaven; chocolate and raspberries. The texture is what I would call a bit sludgy, in the best possible sense. Don’t worry that the batter seems too runny, the oven will sort it out and that’s what gives the cake its lovely gooeyness. And please, please, please use the best chocolate you can get your hands on. In my kitchen, that means Valrhona.

40g cocoa powder
200g self-raising flour
250g butter, cut into small pieces
100g dark muscovado sugar
100g golden caster sugar
300g dark chocolate, chopped
350g of water mixed with 2 teaspoons of instant expresso
2 eggs, at room temperature
350g frozen raspberries, well thawed

To serve
2 punnets of fresh raspberries
crème fraîche, quantity at your discretion

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F. Lightly butter a 9in/24cm cake pan (I use a silicone one). Combine the cocoa and flour in a bowl, whisk vigourously to remove any lumps and set to one side. In a pan over low heat, mix the next 5 ingredients (butter through expresso) together until smooth. Add this mixture to the cocoa and flour, mixing well. Then add the eggs, again mixing well. Pour half of the batter into the cake pan, then cover with the frozen thawed raspberries. Add the remaining batter and put into the oven for about 30-40 minutes, turning the cake around half way through. The best way to tell if this cake is cooked is to look at the top. If it is cracked and a bit firm, she’s good to go. Don’t try the normal skewer test with this one as the desirably sludgy factor will yield a very dirty skewer. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a rack for about half an hour.

Turn the cake out carefully onto a platter and dust with icing sugar. Best to eat this whilst warm and gooey with the fresh raspberries and crème fraîche dolloped on generously. Long live sludge!

Surf and Turf and other weekend announcements

While my darling wife S and I usually try to ensure that our dinner parties unfold smoothly and surely, sometimes mistakes just happen. A couple of years ago, we had planned a rather ambitious menu for a dinner party we were hosting. One of the courses was an oxtail ravioli, made entirely from scratch. I made the oxtail ragout while S made the pasta dough. We had a lot of fun making the ravioli the afternoon of the party, which we floured and stored in our fridge. Foolishly though, we took the ravioli out a little too early, letting our beautiful pile of ravioli sit in our way-too-hot kitchen for far too long. By the time I checked on the ravioli, just a few minutes before I had planned to cook them, to my horror, I discovered that the dough had softened and “melted” together. Instead of several separate and delicate little oxtail parcels, I found myself staring at one rather solid mess.

We had to serve something though. We still had a pretty healthy amount of oxtail ragout, so making a quick pasta — like a fettuccine tossed in oxtail — was definitely an option. But I had an idea, which when I told it to S, she reacted by throwing her hands up in the air, relegating the task of salvaging the course in question to me.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the States, but I really like the idea of surf and turf. Well, let me rephrase that. The idea of a steak served with lobster doesn’t float my boat. But I do like seafood and meat combinations. S, on the other hand, isn’t keen on the concept of combining the two, at least not on one plate or in one dish. The idea that I proposed, that drove S out of the kitchen but which really excited me was a lasagna combining our oxtail ragout with some shrimp and served with some lobster sauce that I’d had sitting in the fridge. I went ahead and made the dish. Which, fortunately for me, was received very well. Our guests heralded the lasagna as a great, surprising dish that combined classic flavours with some new ideas. It still isn’t one of S’s favourites among my many creations, but she does admit that it ain’t bad either. I, on the other hand, really do enjoy this slightly quirky but definitely yummy dish.

Surf and Turf Lasagne

1 portion oxtail ragout
700ml milk
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons tomato paste
100g baby spinach
250g shrimp, peeled
50g mozzarella, chopped
100g Parmesan, grated
instant lasagna sheets
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil

Oxtail Ragout
4 large pieces of oxtail
300 ml red wine
chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 carrot, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Heat the olive oil in a small dutch oven over high heat. Salt and pepper your oxtail pieces generously and then sear them so that all surfaces are browned. Set aside. Lower the heat to medium and then fry the onion, leek and carrot, stirring constantly. When the onion is soft, add the tomato paste and keep stirring for 2 minutes. Then add the red wine and let heat until boiling. Add the oxtail pieces and then the chicken stock until the oxtail pieces are just submerged. Cut a piece of greaseproof paper so it sits inside the dutch oven, over the oxtail and liquid. Cover and place in the oven for 3 hours. When finished, take it out and let cool to room temp. Then debone the oxtail meat, shredding it and placing it in a container. Strain the sauce into the container and cover. Place in the fridge for at least 6 hours before you use it.

Before you make the lasagna, make a Bechamel sauce. In a high-sided sauce pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When it’s all melted, take the pan off the heat and toss in the flour, stirring vigourously. Put the pan back on the fire, lowering the heat, and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Add the tomato paste and stir. Pour in the milk slowly, stirring constantly to ensure that the mixture isn’t lumpy. Add all the milk in and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste.

When you want to make the lasagna, preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Use a 9inch by 6inch pan. Heat a fry pan and add the olive oil. Toss your spinach quickly in it. You want it just a tad wilted. Set aside. Reheat your oxtail ragout. Cook your prawns by either blanching or searing. You just want the exterior just cooked (for the version photographed above, I used little shrimp, but you can also you larger prawns). Place a layer of lasagna sheets at the bottom of the pan. Then add half of the oxtail ragout. Pour some Bechamel over this and add another layer of lasagna sheets. Then add in your spinach and the cooked shrimp. Add another layer of lasagna sheets and the rest of the oxtail ragout and some Bechamel. Cover with another layer of lasagna sheets, add the mozzarella and some more Bechamel and top with the Parmesan.

Pop this into your oven for 35 minutes and enjoy.

A Futuristic Dinner
Want S and I, plus a few other friends, like restaurateur Beppe deVito (of Il Lido) and Business Times food writer Geoffrey Eu to cook dinner for you? Want to experience an odd vision of the future of dining, as imagined by one of Singapore’s top contemporary artists, Heman Chong?

Click for Art is The Substation’s major fundraising event for 2007, and is an online auction of exclusive art works and experiences. Click for Art aims to raise much-needed funds to continue The Substation’s mission to nurture, promote and grow the arts in Singapore. Works are available for bid on eBay from 30 October to 30 November with an exhibition of selected works at Millenia Walk from 1- 9 November and lunch time performances from 12:30 to 2pm.

Artist Heman Chong is curating Dinner Tomorrow (Year 2020), a dinner for 6 which we have elected to help prepare. It’s for a really good cause, so log in and make a bid. I promise the dinner will be both unique and pretty amazing.

Cook’s Delight
Singapore’s cookbook scene is getting a little hotter, not because of any new releases but thanks to the opening of 25 degree Celsius, the country’s first dedicated cookbook bookstore. This great and gorgeous little store is located on Keong Saik Road, just up the road from the equally trendy 1929 Hotel. 25 degree Celsius also serves food in a little cafe area towards the back of the space.
25 degree Celsius
25 Keong Saik Road #01-01
Singapore 089132
Tel: +65 6225 5986

An Event for Wine Lovers
One of my advertisers, uber-catering company The Hidden Host, has asked me to give a little shout out to all my readers about their upcoming event, the Singapore Beaujolais Nouveau Festival 2007. Held on 15 November 2007, this very popular outdoor festival celebrates French food, culture and, of course, the latest release of Beaujolais Nouveau. If you’re free, definitely check it out. Tickets are available through Sistic.

Behind the Scenes
Super-cool Aussie chef Chris Millar (from Poppi) is opening a new business. Later this year, he’ll be launching SweetSaltySpicy, an Asian grocery store/food market cum Modern Thai cafe.  To run the latter, he’s brought in some guys from the very famous Sailors Thai in Sydney, so the food should be really fantastic. This neat new place will be in Upper Bukit Timah. From what Chris tells me, SweetSaltySpicy sounds like the perfect place to drop in on — to pick up groceries and also to grab a yummy bite. His partner is already one of Singapore’s top produce suppliers, so freshness is guaranteed.

Chris has shot a couple of short, home-made clips, posted on YouTube, that give us a behind the scenes look at this new food business. Watch Part One here and Part Two here.

Laksa fisherman’s pie, a post inspired by Adventures of an Italian Food Lover

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Food author Faith Heller Willinger has had the great fortune of calling Florence home for the last thirty years. (If only we were all so fortunate!) In her latest release, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, she has created a gorgeous hybrid food lover’s tome which is part cookbook, part travel guide and part old-school Facebook. She shares her love for Italy and the friends she’s met there (each anecdote is illustrated with a watercolour portrait painted by her sister); offers restaurant, accommodation, and all manner of other gastronomy-related recommendations (replete with addresses, phone numbers, website URLs and email addresses); then slips in a recipe or two from (or inspired by) each friend. Mind you, we’re talking about Arrigo Cipriani’s shrimp sandwiches, the Illy family’s shakerato espresso, and Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri’s (the brother and sister team behind Amadei) Tuscan chocolate sauce here. It’s wonderful getting to know the people behind the great restaurants, hotels, vineyards and brands we’ve already grown to respect. Faith’s elegant prose makes it a joy to read. And we are certainly grateful for her sharing her Rolodex with us. So, when Cathy over at A Blithe Palate and her co-host Ivonne invited us to participate in their blog event inspired by Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, we were happy to oblige

Participants (from what I understand) are given the option of writing about a recipe that has been inspired or given to them by someone or that they would like to share with someone special. I’ve chosen the former. Not too long ago, a chef-friend of mine and S’s made a dish that had me hooked from the first bite. Actually, I was pretty excited from the name alone, “laksa fisherman’s pie”. I love a good laksa lemak (meaning the Johor or Singaporean style of laksa which has been made with coconut milk). I’m also quite a big fan of a good fish pie. Put the two together and call me a happy camper.

S and I had the pleasure of working with Chef “IL” when we helped him design a menu for his new gastrobar. We were especially impressed that this charming, young self-trained chef was extremely versatile, able to cook some really yummy dishes from a variety of cuisines, from Malay to Mexican. We also liked how open he was to both new ideas and criticism. While we co-created several delish dishes, the laksa fisherman’s pie was purely IL’s idea. And it was amazing. It was also a pretty simple dish — not so much in terms of execution but in terms of conceptualization. Essentially, it’s puff pastry over a medley of seafood and other ingredients, served in a rich laksa broth.

Unfortunately, because of a couple of unforeseen events, IL’s not currently serving the laksa fisherman’s pie at the bar whose kitchens he’s running. Unable to get my new favourite pie whenever I want, I’ve been suffering from some pretty serious withdrawal symptoms.

laksarempah.jpgIn honour of IL, and because I really, really needed a laksa fisherman’s pie fix, S and I decided to try making our own version. My darling wife insisted that we make the laksa from scratch. She wanted to prove to me just how much better a home-made laksa was than the obviously mass-produced Katong laksas now sold all over the island (which I have to admit I am rather fond of). Neither of us had ever made our own laksa rempah from scratch before. After looking at over a half dozen recipes, we decided to adapt J’s, of Kuidaore fame. While time-consuming, it was highly rewarding. Not only was the process of making the rempah with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle really cool, the eventual laksa tasted better than any I’ve had in a really long time.

Laksa, like many local dishes, is very individual, i.e. everyone has their own personal preferences. When S and I made our rounds around Tekka Market, hunting down ingredients for our pie, we spoke with many of our favourite suppliers. When they asked us what we were buying supplies for and we told them we were attempting to make our own laksa, each one offered their own helpful hints and advice on what ingredients to use. It was interesting that while many of the offered recipes were similar, some had some rather unique additions and ingredients.

As mentioned, making a fisherman’s pie the way we did (using the below recipe) takes quite a bit of time. But it is worth it. This is a rich, hearty, and savory feast that anyone with a penchant for Southeast Asian flavours and seafood should enjoy. We plan on making this for many friends and of course serving it to IL someday soon. Hopefully, he’ll like our version as much as we love his.

Laksa Fisherman’s Pie
makes 8 pies

Prawn Stock
750g large tiger prawns
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1.5 liters water or stock

Rempah
20 shallots, peeled and minced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
10 dried red chillies, deseeded, soaked till soft, drained and minced
10 candlenuts, chopped
3 lemongrass stalks, tender inner stems only, minced
Fresh turmeric, 2 inch piece, peeled and minced
Galangal, 2 inch piece, peeled and minced
1/2 gingerflower, outer petals removed and finely minced
1 tablespoon belachan (shrimp paste)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds

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Laksa sauce
6 tablespoons corn oil
4 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked till soft and drained
800ml coconut milk, preferably fresh
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons gula melaka (palm sugar)

Pie filler
raw prawns, shelled and de-veined (left from making prawn stock)
400g cod, cut into bite-size pieces
8 scallops, halved or quartered
Large handful of beansprouts
2 fried fishcakes, sliced thickly
2 taupok (deep-fried tofu puffs) squares, sliced thickly
4 small eggs
Handful of finely shredded laksa leaves (daun kesom)

Approximately 2 sheets pre-rolled store bought puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

For the prawn stock: Peel and de-vein the prawns. Set aside the peeled prawns. You’ll only use the shells and heads for the stock. Heat the oil over a medium flame in a large pot. Fry the prawn heads and shells until they turn orange. Add the water (we actually used chicken stock that had been used to braise pork belly) and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for 1 hour. Strain the stock and set it aside.

For the rempah: Wrap the shrimp paste in a small square of aluminium foil and toast it over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic. This should take 2-3 minutes. Unwrap and set aside. Toast the coriander seeds over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic. This takes about 60 seconds. Grind the seeds into a fine powder. Using your mortar and pestle, start to make your paste. Incorporate the rempah ingredients, starting with the shallots and following the order that they are in above. Ensure that each ingredient is thoroughly assimilated before adding the next. The shrimp paste and coriander powder should be the last two ingredients added to the paste.

For the laksa sauce: Grind the softened dried shrimp to a fine powdery consistency (we found some lovely tiger prawn dried shrimp at Tekka Market). Set aside. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame. The oil should ripple slightly. The rempah needs to sizzle upon contact with the hot oil. Add the rempah and fry for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. The paste needs to darken considerably. Add the ground dried shrimp and stir for 1 minute. Add the prawn stock, coconut milk and salt. Crumble the palm sugar into the sauce. Bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered for a few minutes. Add more salt or sugar to taste. Turn off heat, cover, and set aside.

laksapieingredients.jpgFor the pie fillers: If you have the ingredients handy, top the peeled prawns with a few sprigs of fresh coriander, some young ginger juliennes and a splash of Chinese cooking wine (optional). Steam the prawns until they turn pink (just a few minutes).

Cook the cod in browned butter (beurre noisette) and sear the scallops in sesame oil. Blanch the beansprouts, fish cake and taupok in boiling water.

Hard-boil the eggs, peel them and quarter or halve them.

To finish: It would’ve been nice to make our own puff pastry, but we didn’t have the luxury of time. Follow the instructions on the puff pastry packaging. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celsius.

Fill each heat-proof bowl with equal portions of pie-filler and garnish with laksa leaf. Top with laksa sauce. Top each bowl with enough puff pastry to cover it completely and brush the top with some of the beaten egg. Insert the bowls into the oven and bake until the puff pastry is golden brown (approximately 20 minutes). Serve immediately.

A festive dish for family

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One of the meals I look forward to preparing each year is the dinner our family shares on the eve of Chinese New Year. I remember the frenzied research and rounds of rehearsal dinners I went through before I prepared my first reunion dinner four years ago. I must confess that I was crazily ambitious and aspired to incorporate traditional Shanghainese, Hokkien and Teochew dishes into my menu in order to honour my family’s various heritages. Then there was the attempt to cram in every auspicious ingredient I could get my hands on. Eight treasure duck? Done it. Lohan chai (Buddha’s vegetarian feast) with 18 ingredients? Attempted that. Shanghainese lion’s head? Yes, I’ve tried out the whole mix-the-minced-pork-in-only-one-direction technique. Trust me, that’s not the secret to those airy meatballs. Jiaozi (a kind of dumpling which is served at this time of the year because it looks like ancient Chinese money)? Let me know if you ever want a recipe for nouvelle foie gras jiaozi in double-boiled chicken consommé perfumed with Jasmine tea leaves. After all, a girl naturally hopes to impress her in-laws, no?

I guess, with age and some experience, one learns restraint. I’ve whittled what were once seven-course extravaganzas down to four this year (and since the fabulous J made dessert, I only really made three courses). It’s my shortest menu yet. I chose to revisit Thomas Keller’s “Macaroni and Cheese” (Butter-poached lobster with creamy lobster broth and mascarpone-enriched orzo) from The French Laundry Cookbook because I adore the depth of flavour you get from his magnificent lobster broth; and lobster, in any language, continues to be associated with luxury and indulgence. To temper the richness of the mac ‘n’ cheese, I paired Yoshii Ryuichi’s yuzu miso lamb chops with dashi-braised organic Japanese carrots, daikon and mizuna. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I figured that the yuzu would stand in for tangerines which are incredibly popular at this time of year because “jú” (tangerine in Mandarin) sounds very similar to “jí” (meaning auspicious or lucky).

But neither of these dishes were particularly traditional nor Chinese. To retain some element of tradition, I returned to a very simple, light and healthy dish: savoury custard. Made with rich, homemade chicken stock and covered with a reduction made from the same stock, it is a delicately elegant, yet powerfully flavourful canvas against which one may choose to showcase anything from steamed prawns to freshly picked crabmeat. We are very fortunate that a very generous, close family friend gives us pre-prepared shark’s fin and abalone as a gift every Chinese New Year. (Yes, I know some of you are tut-tutting. I don’t actively seek to eat shark’s fin, but I feel that if a living being has had its life taken from it for my dinner, then I should jolly well honour it with a dish worthy of its sacrifice.) I steamed the thick, whole fins in chicken stock with coriander, spring onions, a few slivers of young ginger and a splash of Chinese cooking wine. The abalone was thinly sliced and gently heated through with more hot chicken stock. Both the shark’s fin and abalone were placed on the custard and garnished with blanched bean sprouts. This was served with Chinese vinegar and ground white pepper. However, by changing the kind of stock (a Japanese dashi instead of chicken, for example) and the items you choose to place in or on the custard (mushrooms, minced pork, salted duck egg yolk), you’ll be able to create a host of dishes based upon this master recipe. It’s the culinary equivalent of a crisp white shirt. I hope you’ll find it as handy as I do!

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Chinese-style chicken stock
(Makes a little less than 4 litres)

2 kampung (free range) chickens
5 stalks spring onions
5 stalks coriander
3-4 slices young ginger
5-6 medium dried scallops
3-4 slices Chinese ham
Chinese cooking wine to taste

Skin the chickens and chop each one into six pieces. Discard the skin. Slice the spring onions and coriander into 5-centimetre lengths. Place all the ingredients in a large stock pot. Cover with 4 litres of water and bring to a boil over a small fire. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until the stock tastes flavourful to you. Strain and discard the solids.

Steamed custard
(Makes 6 small, shallow portions)

400 milliltres Chinese-style chicken stock
3 eggs
Light soy sauce to taste

Beat eggs with a pair of chopsticks taking care not to create too many bubbles. Combine with chicken stock and season with soy sauce. Strain through a fine sieve. I often strain it again as I pour it into individual dishes.

Divide equally between six shallow soup plates. Steam for 25 to 30 minutes. This really varies depending on how you steam them. I like placing them in my Miele steam oven set at 90 degree Celsius. When they are done, the custards should still be a little wobbly.

Chinese-style chicken stock reduction
I usually take the remaining stock and boil it until it reduces to a level of concentration that I find tasty and well-suited for the particular dish it is intended for. So I can’t really indicate how much reduction you will end up with. I like it best when it starts to develop a silky, almost gelatinous texture and deep, savoury flavour. You may wish to season it or add a little more Chinese cooking wine to taste.

To assemble, gently pour some reduction onto the surface of the custard (start from the side of the dish rather than the middle so that you don’t create tears on the surface of the custard) and garnish with ingredients of your choice.

Coffee and Donuts

This past New Year’s Eve, S and I hosted a small dinner party for 6 other friends. Because neither of us wanted to work too hard that night, we hired a super-talented chef, Jimmy Chok, to prepare our meal. Jimmy had also cooked for us the previous New Year’s Eve. (I’ll write more about the fabulous meal Jimmy made for us in an upcoming post.) Because we did want at least one course to come from us, however, S opted to make the evening’s dessert. We spent several days discussing the kinds of things that she could make before settling on a duo of desserts that we felt would go really well together. She also decided that the duo would be called (her version of) “coffee and donuts”.

The “coffee” in this combination is a vanilla panna cotta covered with a layer of espresso gelée. The “donuts” are bite-sized, sugar-coated, fried choux pastries with liquid chocolate fillings. The dessert was the perfect end to a great meal, served right before the fireworks went off (which we could partially see from our dining room window). Our friends especially loved the donuts. We had told them to eat each with one with just one bite, popping the whole thing into their mouths. The oozing chocolate centre was a delicious, bittersweet and sinfully yummy surprise. I, on the other hand, adored the panna cotta and coffee gelée (no suprise that this fat fella prefers the richer, creamier dessert). The panna cotta itself was lovely; it was smooth, satisfying and sweet. The espresso gelée carried the perfect flavor accent for the dish. Together, the two desserts worked really well. Vanilla, coffee, chocolate and citrus are all classic complimentary flavours. The two very different textures from the two desserts were a delightful contrast. And thirdly, the contrast of the warm donuts and the cold panna cotta and espresso gelée was really nice.

While time-consuming to prepare, this dessert is very much worth the effort to make. S used four different cookbooks for the four main components of this combination. You can make the panna cotta with espresso gelée a day ahead and you’ll need to make the donuts a day or even two ahead. Which means that once you make this dessert, you can rest pretty easy the day you plan to serve this. The only fiddly bit is frying the donuts and dipping them in sugar right before serving. The recipes below include her annotations and comments.

“Coffee & Donuts”
Makes approximately 25 “donuts” and 12 small portions of panna cotta with espresso gelée

GANACHE
(Adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s Secrets)

80g bittersweet chocolate (I used a 66% cacao Valrhona and added 1 tablespoon castor sugar because CH prefers sweeter chocolate)
40g unsalted butter, cubed
3 tablespoons double cream (I used whipping cream)

Chop the chocolate into rough pieces and place in a heatproof bowl with the rest of the ganache ingredients. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until evenly combined (the ganache should look smooth). Remove from the heat, cool, then refrigerate until firm.

Use a small melon baller to scoop approximately 25 balls of ganache. Place them on a tray lined with greaseproof paper and freeze until required.

CHOUX PASTE
(Adapted from Oriol Balaguer’s Dessert Cuisine)

200g milk (I used regular whole milk)
100g unsalted butter
100g weak flour, sifted (I used cake flour)
150g eggs (I whisked three large eggs together and used 150g of this)
2 whole pieces of star anise
1 vanilla bean (I used 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla paste instead)
1 cinnamon stick
1 orange zest (I used the zest of 1 orange)
1 lemon zest (I used the zest of 1 lemon)

Note: Balaguer calls for 70% cacao chocolate drops instead of a chocolate ganache in his recipe for chocolate “bunyols”. My “donuts” are really tweaked versions of his “bunyols”. If you prefer, you may opt to use chocolate drops instead of a ganache.

Infuse the milk with the butter, spices and zests (I heated the milk until small bubbles rose to its surface, took it off the heat and let the mixture stand for at least 30 minutes). If you choose to use a vanilla bean, presumably, you should split the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds and add them to the milk along with the other spices and throw the pod in.

Strain the milk. (I added my vanilla paste into the milk at this point.) Bring the milk to a boil, remove it from the heat and add the flour. Stir it with a wooden spoon and return it to a low fire. Continue stirring (using a smearing action) until it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and begins to look like wet sand (it should also look shiny). Work it slightly in the blender at low speed. (I put it in my KitchenAid and worked it with the paddle attachment. This cooled the paste much faster than when I did it in my food processor.) Add the eggs gradually. Scrape the dough off the sides of the bowl and work it a little more until it is smooth. (If you prefer, follow the techniques in your favourite choux pastry recipe in place of the instructions here.)

Fill a piping bag with the paste. Fill ice cube moulds with the paste. Stop when each mould is only filled to the halfway point. Insert a ball of chocolate ganache (or chocolate drops) into each mould, making sure that it doesn’t push though the dough. Cover with more paste. Smooth down the tops of the dough with the back of a wet spoon. Freeze and unmould. Store in the freezer until they need to be served.

PANNA COTTA
(Adapted from Italian Classics by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated)

1 cup whole milk
2¾ teaspoons flavourless powdered gelatin (reduce to 2 5/8 teaspoons if making a day ahead)
3 cups heavy cream (I used whipping cream)
1 vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons pure extract
6 tablespoons (2½ oz) sugar
Pinch of salt

Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin evenly on its surface. Let it stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with 2 trays of ice cubes and 4 cups of cold water. Measure the cream into a large measuring cup or pitcher. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream; place the pod in the cream and set the mixture aside. Place 12 small glasses on a tray small enough to place in your refrigerator.

Heat the milk and gelatin mixture over high heat, stirring constantly until the gelatin is dissolved and the mixture registers 135 degrees Fahrenheit (around 65 degrees Celsius) on an instant read thermometer (about 1½ minutes). Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sugar and salt; stir until dissolved (about 1 minute).

Stirring constantly, slowly pour the cream with vanilla into the saucepan containing the milk, then transfer the mixture into a medium bowl and set the bowl over the ice water bath. Stir frequently until the mixture thickens to the consistency of egg nog and registers 50 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes. Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup or pitcher, then distribute it evenly among the glasses. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until just set (the mixture should wobble when shaken), about 4 hours.

ESPRESSO GELÉE
(Adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course)

1 cup espresso (cold filtered)
1 teaspoon flavourless powdered gelatin
3 tablespoons sugar

Place ¼ cup of the espresso in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over it. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes, until the gelatin softens. Bring the remaining espresso to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add the sugar. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the softened gelatin mixture to the warm sweet espresso. Return the saucepan to low heat, whisking until the gelatin dissolves. Do not let the mixture come to a simmer. Strain through a fine sieve. Let the espresso mixture cool to room temperature. Gently pour it over each portion of panna cotta. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate until set, about 1 hour.

To serve, fill a small saucepan with sunflower oil (the oil should be approximately 3 cm deep). Heat the oil to 150 degrees Celsius and fry the still frozen “donuts” for 5-6 minutes until they are golden brown and start to float. (You may need to adjust cooking temperature and time.) Drain and coat with castor sugar. Plate alongside glasses of espresso panna cotta and serve.

Dinner for some restaurateurs

This past weekend, S and I hosted a few friends for dinner. We were a tad nervous because these three gentlemen own one of the city’s coolest and most popular restaurants. In other words, the meal had to both innovative and very, very good. And because these three prize good, well-cooked simple food over fussy, fancy fare, the dishes we chose to cook couldn’t be too pretentious. Dessert was an easy choice. We’d been promising them a sampler of S’s superb ice creams for months. For the other courses, we raided our cookbook collection and came up with two interesting starters. As a first course, we tried out a simple dish from Michel Roux’s devilishly cute book, Eggs. Any egg lover needs to buy this book. It’s pages and pages of egg recipes and egg-based (e.g. pastas, pastries, etc) dishes. We chose to make Roux’s baked eggs with chicken livers and shallots in red wine (pictured below).

It’s a relatively easy dish. The only time-consuming thing is creating a reduction of red wine (flavored with bay leaf and thyme), chicken stock and shallots. The chicken livers are cut into small pieces and sautéed quickly and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper. The liver is mixed with the shallots and red wine reduction and then distributed into buttered ramekins. An egg is cracked into each ramekin and baked for 10 minutes. Roux recommends serving this with toasted brioche. The dish was not bad. Not fantastic, but pretty good. It was earthy, rich and tasty and a nice way to begin the meal.

Our next course was something simple but spectacular (and something I will dedicate a whole post to later this week). Despite S having bought Jill Norman’s The Cook’s Book mostly because of Ferran Adria’s chapter on foam, we had yet to try any of Adria’s rather amazing recipes. For this course, we successfully pulled off Adria’s 21st Century Tortilla — a dish composed of caramelised onions, sabayon and potato foam.

For our third and main course, S and I recreated a dish that we’ve only just learnt how to make, khao soi. Instead of making this Northern Thai curry noodle dish with chicken, as is usually the case, we served ours with slices of wonderfully tender braised beef cheek. The beef cheeks were braised over low heat for 2 hours and then very, very slowly in incredibly low heat for 8 more hours. For the braising liquid, I used the one recommended for Osso Buco in Joyce Goldstein’s Italian Slow and Savory. The khao soi’s curry recipe came from the Four Seasons cooking school in Chiang Mai. It was a delicious course and the boys all loved it. P, who is a big fan of khao soi, paid us the ultimate compliment by saying it tasted just like the best ones he had eaten in Chiang Mai. The soft, tender and oh so tasty beef cheek was a wonderful choice of meat and I think what I plan on serving with khao soi from now on.

For dessert, as I mentioned, S had made an ice cream sampler. She served 3 homemade flavours. The first was an abacadabra ice cream, so named because the spice blend she infused the ice cream with is named abacadabra. From what I can tell it has roses, spearmint, cinnamon and cracked black pepper in it. The second ice cream was a gula-melaka coconut ice cream and the third was a chocolate malt. After dessert, S brought out a special little treat she had spent a few days making, chocolate Easter eggs (pictured at the top of this post). She had watched a very amusing video demonstrating how to make this on, of all things, Martha Stewart’s website and was rather inspired. First she drained the insides of 8 farm fresh eggs and then dyed them robin blue. She then filled each egg with milk chocolate and after that was cooled, white chocolate, creating two layers of chocolate within each egg. For an added touch of color, she paired the eggs with some lovely chocolate ribbon. It was a fun, playful and sinful final touch to a lovely meal.

Perfect pies

Having spent 14 years of my life in New York City, I, like most New Yorkers, consider myself a pizza aficionado. In the mid 1970s, my family lived in the East 70s, in an old apartment building that was fortuitously just a few steps away from what I’m told was one of the very first Original Ray’s Pizza parlors in the city. Even now, I can see that corner building, painted the colors of the Italian flag, and smell the amazing aromas of freshly baked pies coming out of the ovens. Those wonderful pies were my first. And since then, I’ve happily and unhappily eaten my way through hundreds of slices, good and bad, all over the planet. Fortunately, my wife S enjoys pizza as much as I do.

While I was away in Hong Kong, S, her friend Baker L, J and my brother W decided to try their hands at making their own pizzas. Because a friend had reported success using a pizza dough recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, they gave it a go. They also tried a recipe for Napoletana pizza dough from a pretty amazing book, Peter Reinhart’s American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. This book, which I’ve since flipped through, chronicles Mr Reinhart’s search across Italy and the United States for the perfect pizza. The first third of the book is pure editorial. The rest of the book contains fantastic recipes culled together by this talented baking instructor and award-winning cookbook author.

With these two pizza bases, a tomato sauce made from a Jamie Oliver recipe, a mushroom medley made from a Chez Panisse recipe, a huge variety of cheeses (taleggio, asiago, parmigiano reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, Danish blue) and toppings, S and her fellow bakers made several pies. The gals, I’m told, enjoyed the pies made with both Reinhart’s and Stewart’s bases, but for very different reasons. S reports that the Martha Stewart recipe “yielded a reasonably thin crust that was forgivingly resilient, making it the perfect base for pizza-lovers who can’t resist overloading their pies. Peter Reinhart’s base was ultra-thin, yet just thick enough to deliver a hint of chewiness rather then a pure, crisp snap. The unbaked dough was also light and airy, and a pleasure to work with.”

This past weekend, S and I hosted a few friends for dinner. One of them is a passionate young food blogger whose posts we’ve enjoyed reading this past year and whom we’ve enjoyed getting to know via email. We were really looking forward to cooking for her. Another of our guests, a really close friend who very sadly will be moving from Singapore to Switzerland later this year, is a fellow pizza lover. Like us, he likes crispy pizzas with a thin crust. Eager to put her newly-acquired Miele baking stone to the test, as a second course of our dinner, S put together a lovely pizza margherita with some piquant Spanish pork sausage that a colleague had generously carried back for me from a recent work trip to Madrid. (S had a little bit of trouble getting the sticky Reinhart base to slide of the peel, but the crust turned out crisp and mouthwateringly browned.) The rest of the dinner was also good. We started the meal with a very retro prawn cocktail. After the pizza we served a deboned milk-fed veal osso buco, made with a recipe from Joyce Goldstein’s Italian Slow and Savory, plated over some risotto a la Milanese. For an avant-dessert, we made Michel Richard’s egg soufflé, followed by an orange cake with some amazing ice cream flavored from a spice mix amusingly called “abracadabra”. I’ll write more about both the ice cream and the cake in a future post.

I’ve decided not to copy the Reinhart pizza dough recipe. While easy to make and using very few ingredients, the recipe itself is lengthy. Because of the number of steps required, it covers almost two and a half pages. I’d also encourage all of you to buy a copy of Reinhart’s book for yourself.