The luxurious Mulia Resort in Nusa Dua, Bali

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Since my first child came along almost six years ago, I have never been apart from my family. Holidays were always taken with the kids, and since we don’t have hired help for the rugrats, they are pretty much attached to me at the hip almost every minute of everyday. Until a few weeks ago that is, when I embarked on a solo escapade to Bali, and spent three fabulous nights at the Mulia Resort, in Nusa Dua. Continue Reading →

Making cents in dinner with wines

The Tastings Room

Like most other fresh university graduates, my first year in the working world saw me nowhere near being financially robust. Going for a Valentine’s date often translates to wallet hemorrhage. Although many relationship ‘experts’ have purported that a good relationship is not how much you spend, the innate manly ego often spurs us to spend like tomorrow may never come. But having gone through such years, I am now more inclined towards maximising my budget on this occasion. Continue Reading →

The Siam, Bangkok (part 1)

The Siam hotel Bangkok

Over a decade ago, my next door neighbor, a stunning half Chinese, half British gal from Hong Kong met an equally handsome Thai rock star and fell in love. A number of years later, Kriss (the rock star, now also an actor) led S and me on a fun, rather amusing tour of his favourite old buildings in Bangkok, which culminated in us being chased out of the former Russian Embassy by security guards at two in the morning. Another couple of years later, Kriss showed us an amazing plot of land, on the river and in the old part of the city, that had been in his mother’s family for decades. He told us how he wanted to build a truly stunning, riverside, five-star urban resort there – something that would fit within his mother’s hotel company but that would also embrace his love of antiques, architecture, vintage glamour and luxury. That dream would eventually become The Siam, one of the most stunning hotels in Asia and easily the most significant new property to open in Thailand this year.  Continue Reading →

Super simple Valentine’s Day dinner

I’m one of those guys that doesn’t really buy into the whole Valentine’s Day shtick. For two reasons. First, I believe that if you’re with someone you really care about, then every day together should be a special day. Which leads me to the second reason. I consider Valentine’s Day to be an artificial, commercial creation used to con you into spending extra money on overpriced meals by restaurants you normally wouldn’t patronize to begin with. I’m one of those oddball romantic yet cynical blokes that scorns Valentine’s Day but likes buying his wife gifts for no reason at all. Why should she have to wait for a birthday, anniversary, or other so-called special occasions for me to do something especially nice? In fact, it’s a hell of a lot more fun when she doesn’t expect anything. And it doesn’t have to be big. My latest present to S, in fact, was a gorgeous walnut wood clutch (purse), handmade by a wizard artist named Tadd Sackville-West, that I discovered while surfing design sites. While I briefly considered waiting till Valentine’s Day or her birthday (which is in a few weeks) to give it to her, I decided to give it to her as soon as it arrived in the mail. (It was, quite simply, gift from me for no other reason than that I adore her.)

As an anti-Valentine’s Day person, most years I eat dinner on the 14th with S at home. Which is something I would advocate to anyone and everyone, regardless of your views of the day in question. I say this because, as alluded to above, restaurants like to sell Valentine’s Day packages. Unfortunately, these are usually rather bland, over-priced set menus, with a few cheesy, romantic items–rose petals on the table, a glass of bubbly upon arrival, an annoying violinist in the corner of the room, etc–thrown in to justify the hefty price tag. Maybe I’m strange, but I don’t find the idea of sitting in a room filled with other couples, all of us eating the same over-priced food, very romantic.

Instead, consider cooking a small, light dinner for your loved one. He or she will appreciate the effort. Eating at home means you can tailor the mood to your exact specifications, i.e. you can pick the music, the table settings, how bright or how dim the lights should be, etc. I suggest a light menu because after a romantic dinner you want to have the energy for a little romping around. Big dinners are great for greedy gourmands but suck if you’re trying to get jiggy with someone. Because I know all I ever want to do after having eaten till bursting is lie down and take a nap. A light dinner ensures that both you and your companion have the energy for some good old-fashioned cardiovascular fun.

Also, don’t kill yourself in the kitchen. Cooking a meal from French Laundry is fine if you have a team of kitchen elves, but for the solo home-chef, it’s hell. You want to look your best on Valentine’s Day. You want to feel and look rested. The last thing you want to do is to exhaust yourself before you even sit down to eat.

For those of you in search of a fast, easy but delicious and very, very sexy Valentine’s Day menu, I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting one. (Regular readers will recognize two of the three dishes and the images, which have appeared in previous posts.) The whole dinner shouldn’t take you much more than an hour or two of prep and each of the two savory dishes only requires a few minutes to cook. I’d serve the whole dinner with a bottle of bubbly. I recomend a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvée or a bottle of Taittinger Comte de Champagne.

Scallops with bacon and parmesan, grilled in their own shell

This recipe is inspired by one from Nobu’s second cookbook, Nobu Now. You’ll need to buy some good, fresh scallops. Make sure they come with their shells. In addition, you’ll need soy sauce, garlic, butter, lemon, bacon and parmesan. The bacon should be chopped into tiny pieces and fried ahead of time. The parmesan must be fresh. Grate a little and set it aside as well.

Clean your scallops, disconnecting them from their shells and then after patting dry, place each back on a shell. Add a tiny amount of butter on the scallop, a drop of soy, a little grated garlic, and a little bit of bacon. Sprinkle the scallops with the freshly grated parmesan and pop them into a preheated oven and cook at 200 Degrees C for 4-5 minutes or until the cheese is nicely browned. Please note that if using a convection oven, place your scallops on the highest rack, so that the cheese is nearest the hot metal conductors. Serve the finished scallops with a wedge of lemon.

Confit of Salmon topped with hijiki and ikura, served with mushrooms

This dish is a variation of Tetsuya’s famous confit of ocean trout–the cooking method is the same. You’ll need some sashimi-grade salmon, grapeseed oil, fresh coriander and basil, some chopped garlic, an orange, shiso-flavored hijiki (which you can buy in packets at Japanese grocery stores), ikura, nameko mushrooms, mirin, butter, salt and pepper.

Marinate the salmon for a day in a bowl that’s been filled with grapeseed oil (the oil should just cover the fish). In the oil, add some coriander, basil, garlic, pepper, and the zest of one orange. When ready to eat, take the salmon out of the oil, pat dry and then place on a baking tray or baking dish. Cook the salmon for 7 minutes at 100 degrees Celsius. Chop the hijiki into tiny pieces and then cover the top of the salmon with it. Then add a small spoonful of ikura.

The mushrooms are really easy. Melt a pat of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Toss in your mushrooms, and stir. After a minute of cooking, add a splash of mirin and cook for another minute or two. Add salt to taste.

Chocolate Red Wine Soup with Strawberries

This recipe comes from Michel Richard, a French chef based in Washington DC, where I lived between 1984 and 1990. It’s an utterly sexy, easy-to-make and yummy dessert that needs to be made ahead of time–it needs to chill for 4-6 hours before serving. This was my favorite “date night” dessert for years.

You’ll need 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup dry red wine, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 1 pint strawberries (hulled and thinly sliced lengthwise), 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (finely chopped) and some strawberries for garnish.

Mix the sugar, red wine and vanilla in a large bowl. Add the strawberries and marinate for 2 hours. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler above gently simmering water and stir until smooth. Strain the strawberry mixture, reserving the strawberries. Heat the marinating liquid in a medium saucepan to the same temperature as the chocolate. Whisk several tablespoons of the marinating liquid into the chocolate and stir until smooth. Then whisk in the remaining liquid. Strain back into the bowl through a fine sieve. Cool to room temperature. Add the reserved strawberries and refigerate until well chilled, 4-6 hours.

To serve, ladle into a small cup or soup bowl and garnish with 1 strawberry.

After dinner, if your companion’s looking a little sleepy, serve him or her an espresso. If s/he doesn’t need it, grab an extra bottle of bubbly and adjourn to a much more comfortable room for some post-dinner fun.

Sachertorte

CH says: During the summer of 1994, I spent a little over a month in Vienna, doing an intensive German language course. The school was located in the heart of the oldest and most beautiful part of the city, just steps from St Stephansplatz. In addition to being located perfectly for lunch hour and after school sightseeing sessions, this meant that most of Vienna’s best and most famous coffeehouses were just a few minutes away. My 5 classmates and I took 6 hours of classes a day from a couple of really grumpy old Austrians, so you can bet we really needed to unwind in between and after classes. Our lunch hour was literally one hour. Which meant that we couldn’t spend too much time exploring. Most days, we grabbed a bratwurst and a beer and ate sitting on the steps of some grand historic building, enjoying both the cityscape and the fantastic weather. After school, however, (and on weekends) we spent as much time as possible checking out the coffeehouses, pastry shops, wine taverns and bars that make Vienna famous. It was during this summer stint that I took my first bite of Sachertorte. Sure, I had heard of it. But for some reason, I’d never actually eaten one. I had the pleasure to try both the versions at the Hotel Sacher and at Demel’s, possibly Vienna’s most renowned café. Both were amazing. And over that summer, I became totally hooked (I should also admit that I don’t usually enjoy chocolate desserts, but I loved these). It got to the point where I’d save money on other things just so I could sneak off by myself to the Hotel Sacher (whose version I like just a bit better) and indulge in a slice and a mélange. Let me say that I’m so very glad I had never eaten a Sachertorte before then. I have friends (like my wife) who, when I tell them I’m a Sachertorte addict, shake their heads, unable to understand and appreciate my enormous fondness for this historic, apricot-enhanced chocolate cake. The reason, I have come to believe, is because of the vast numbers of substandard Sachertortes that proliferate pastry shops around the world.

For those who may not be so familiar with this cake, a Sachertorte consists of chocolate sponge cake cut into layers, between which and over which apricot jam is spread. The whole cake is then iced with a chocolate ganache and served with a side dish of whipped cream. The cake was created in 1832 by a 16 year old chef named was Franz Sacher. Early that year, Prince Clemens Lothar Wensel Metternich (1773-1859) of Austria, famous for his love of new flavours and foods, ordered his kitchens to create a new cake. When the orders made their way down, the kitchen went a tad nuts. The head chef was sick and the rest of the cooks didn’t know what they should make. Sixteen-year old Sacher, an apprentice cook, took charge and created this famous chocolate cake with the ingredients that were available. The Sachertorte (and other recipes) eventually made him rich, and he was able to open several cafes and restaurants over time.

In 1876, his son, Eduard Sacher, opened the Hotel Sacher, known to every traveler as one of Vienna’s best hotels. On a curious and inexplicable note, Franz Sacher sold his original recipe to Demel’s, while the Hotel Sacher made and still makes its own version, calling it the “Original Sachertorte,” while Demel’s has to call its “Demel Sachertorte.” Of course, many other coffeehouses make their own versions.

A couple of years ago, I ran across a book by Rick Rodgers called Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Of course, I had to buy it. Not only am I a fan of Sachertorte, I’m also enamored with Kipferln, Strudel (especially milchrahmstrudel), Buchteln, Topfenpalatschinken, and a number of other Central European yummies. But more than anything, I wanted this book in order to learn to make Sachertorte. Unfortunately, Sachertorte quickly became to me what the River Café’s Chocolate Nemesis is to so many others… you know, that damn yummy cake you just can’t make properly, no matter how many times you try. Each time I tried making it, something would go wrong. Either my jam was too lumpy or the sponge cake had too many holes or came out too dry. Eventually, I gave up and began begging my wife S, a much more talented baker than I am, to try making it. After a year of groveling, she’s finally tried. And, on only her second attempt, pulled off a winner!

S says: Having never been to Vienna (as yet), I’m a Sachertorte non-convert. Friends have cracked open their beautiful packages from the famed Hotel Sacher (and Demel’s, I do vaguely recall) and generously shared their stash of black gold with me. I’ve sniffed, nibbled and tasted, but each experience has left me wondering if there was something wrong with my tastebuds. What am I missing out on? I don’t get it.

But CH can get very persistent when his tummy gets fixated with any manner of gustatory pleasure. (Don’t get me wrong, I say this with great affection.) With little more than a desire to please my husband to inspire me, I’ve read pretty much every Sachertorte recipe I could get my hands on. (As CH read this over my shoulder, he muttered something about how good I am at making myself sound like such a martyr.) Eventually, I settled on a trio of recipes, two of which are not Sachertorte recipes per se. For the chocolate sponge itself, I chose Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Moist Chocolate Genoise from her award-winning Cake Bible. Light, yet velvety and moist, it is the perfect canvas for our elegant chocolate extravaganza. I like that she uses chocolate cooked with water in place of the more commonly employed cocoa powder. Just a half portion of her recipe is needed for a 9-inch cake (plus our little KitchenAid nearly overflowed when I first attempted her full recipe and because of that, I couldn’t fold the chocolate in properly, resulting in a less-than-pleasing torte).

This is the halved recipe. I’ve paraphrased the instructions heavily.
113g bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2cup boiling water
4 large eggs
100g sugar
75g sifted cake flour

Grease 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan, line bottom with parchment, grease again and flour.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a saucepan, bring chocolate and water to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly, Simmer, stirring until chocolate thickens to a pudding-like consistency. Cool completely.

Beat eggs and sugar with whisk beater on high speed until triple in volume. Sift half the flour over the egg mixture and fold it in. Repeat with the remaining flour until all the flour has disappeared. Fold in the chocolate mixture until incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan (Baking Illustrated advises that you NOT pour it in from a great height, keep the lip of your mixing bowl as close to the base of your cake pan as possible to retain the fine bubbles needed to give your genoise its airy lift) and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a tester inserted in the centre enters as easily as it does when inserted closer to the sides. The cake will pull slightly away from the sides when it’s done. Unmold immediately to cool. Trim cake only when ready to assemble.

For the all-important apricot jam element (and general assembly procedure) I dipped into Baking Illustrated. While the amount of apricot jam they asked for was far too generous (I eventually settled on a 10oz jar), blending it until smooth in a food processor then heating it on the stove resulted in the perfect pouring consistency. (After having tasted J’s jam, however, I’m inspired to try making apricot jam myself.) Slipping the cake into the refrigerator for 30min after the apricot jam has been slathered in-between and all over the assembled discs of cake also makes applying the final glaze of chocolate ganache a breeze.

When it came to the chocolate ganache glaze, I finally picked Sherry Yard’s recipe from The Secrets of Baking. Again, half the recipe is more than enough. I like the touch of apricot jelly she calls for which subtly echoes the haunting apricot top notes in the cake. Light corn syrup gives it a gorgeous, velvety sheen.

This is for a half portion of Sherry Yard’s ganache glaze, enough for the torte I made.
113g bittersweet chocolate, chopped and placed in a heatproof bowl
2 tbs apricot jelly
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup milk
1 tbs light corn syrup

Warm the apricot jelly over low heat, stirring until it is melted. Whisk in the cream, milk and corn syrup. Increase the heat to medium and bring the mixture to a boil. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chopped chocolate. Using a rubber spatula, slowly stir in a circular motion, being careful not to add too much air to the ganache. Stir until chocolate is melted. Glazing should be done once the ganache reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

To assemble, trim your cake and slice it to form two thinner discs. Spread apricot jam on one disc, then place the other layer over it. Cover the top and sides of the assembled cake with remaining apricot jam. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then glaze with chocolate ganache. For both genoise and ganache, I used Valrhona (66 per cent cacao). The next thing I’ll have to master is writing the word Sacher, in chocolate, across the cake. Perhaps I’ll leave that project to another rainy afternoon in.

We’ve discovered that the Sachertorte actually tastes better a day after it’s been made. The chocolate flavours become more pronounced (important for a chocolate lover like me) and the apricot jam tastes less petulantly sugary. Freshly whipped cream is the other essential element. Each slice of cake demands a huge dollop of it. The clean simplicity of its flavour simultaneously heightens and yet softens the rich, dark complexity of the torte. I won’t say that this has become the most favoured chocolate cake recipe in my repertoire, but it certainly is one that I will keep returning to because for minimal effort, you end up with a timelessly elegant dessert. Like a beautiful string of South Sea pearls, it projects itself as being effortlessly stylish no matter what the occasion. And that makes it a winner in my book.

P.S.: The above recipes are not word-for-word reproductions of the ones in the books I’ve mentioned. I highly recommend taking a look at the originals. All three titles are ones I consult regularly.