Monday, 14 May 2012

geylang serai, singapore

peranakan houses near joo chiat street
rempah udang are one of many kinds of nyonya kuih (snack). they are cylinders of glutinous rice stained orange from their filling and are wrapped in banana leaves and secured with toothpicks. the rempah filling constitutes a spice paste with protein in the form of fresh and dried shrimp and ikan bilis (dried anchovies). 

nyonya is a honorific title used to refer to peranakan women. the pernakan were chinese settlers in the straits area. they married local non-muslim women and developed their own cuisine that is a cusp of chinese and malay flavours and techniques. they say that making rempah is an art as well as an essential skill for marriageable girls. as per tradition girl children learnt the art of cooking from an early age and it is said that nyonya’s can gauge a prospective daughter-in-laws rempah making skills merely by the sound of pounding.

nyonya kuih
i unwrap the lightly greasy banana leaf and bite into the cylinder. the coconut rice has a gentle sweetness and moistness. i can detect the citrusy fragrance of the lemongrass. it is unlike anything i have tasted before. there is texture from the two types of prawns, the unmistakable salty sharpness of anchovy and a soft heat from the chilli. i was sad to have left trying these to the last day and really wish i had eaten more peranakan food in singapore.

aside from its cuisine the peranakan pride themselves for their bright textiles, intricate beadwork, china and colourful houses with woodwork. there are plenty of these to be seen around geylang. i visited rumah bebe, a heritage home that gives insight into peranakan culture.

peranakan lace textiles 
peranakan china
peranakan china
after rumah bebe, i retraced my steps to  the geylang serai, one of many large wet markets in singapore. this one has been recently refurbished and is consequently much better organised than places like tekka market in little india. the design itself is quintessentially malay echoing old kampong houses. it incorporates wooden beams and latticework. the markets are busiest in the morning when the produce is fresh. geylang serai announces its strong muslim flavour through the attire of the women shoppers many of whom wear scarves. there are plenty of bright dried red chillies and ikan bilis along with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. i bought myself discs of gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) from one of the vendors. it is evident that the shopkeepers and shoppers have an established relationship and i am told that many have open accounts as a sign of trust and loyalty. it reminded me of the time when mama would shop in bazaari (our local market in pindi) and in rana market. up until the nineties we had an open account with our local shopkeeper. what this meant was that if we were short of money or picking up items in a hurry, the shopkeeper would note the purchase in his register and tally the payment at a later day. this tradition still persists in singapore despite the rise of  supermarket and mall culture. i do wonder how long it will survive though given singapore’s journey into hyper-modernity.

stalls at geylang serai
women shopping at geylang serai
shopkeeper at geylang serai
entrance to geylang serai
as always, there is a brisk trade in the food centre and various makkan places. i pass a number of bakeries stacked with curry puffs. these popular malay snacks are a kin to savoury patties in pakistan. flaky fried pastry stuffed with fillings like mutton or spiced potato are taken with teh (pulled tea). the sweetness of the tea exaggerates the heat of the chilli. i make a brief stop at hjh maimunah restaurant. the queue extends outward from the door. a large sign announces that you should find yourself a seat before ordering, but the warning is too late as it is near the ordering area. i get a small portion of beef rendang to go.  in singapore rendang is retailed by the piece so i get a large chunk of beef. a reduction of spiced gravy redolent with coconut clings to the surface of the meat.

geylang serai was my last outing in singapore as the next day i caught a flight back to london. i do wish i had spent more time exploring the area especially by night given that it is well known as singapore’s red light district. i also wish that the heat had not dulled my appetite so much. it was hard for me to muster the ability to eat nasi padang (spicy curries with coconut rice) and other rich dishes like laksa. i have always associated these with cooler temperatures and spent most of my trip eating dim sum, a smattering of sushi and soba and indian vegetables.

rose bakery, dover street market

rose bakery, dover street market
rose bakery looks like a polished industrial unit with its grey-silver surfaces. the tableware is grey-green and is very sturdy, as are the cast iron teapots. cakes in hues of yellow progressing to orange and chocolate are seated on the long length of counter. the carrot cake is impressive. it is shaped like an angular cup cake with a crown of frosting. the space is fragranced by a spiced crumble warming itself in the oven behind the counter.

i was introduced to rose bakery by t, the brains behind the london review cake shop. it’s hidden away on the fourth floor of dover street market, the independent and swanky outpost of tokyo based designer rei kawakubo. on my first visit there t and i had large bowls of chickpea and spinach soup. there is no other way to describe the soup than by saying it had received ‘mayfair’ treatment. rose bakery’s version of spinach and chickpea soup is sophisticated. it  had been pureed to the point that it still retained texture. it was a substantial soup with roasted flavours and was decorated with a flourish of fruity olive oil and a hint of parsley. it was exceptionally good.

date scones
o and i returned a couple of weeks later for afternoon tea. it was the week that he had become british and so we decided to go the traditional route and have scones and tea. although not the traditional kind (wholemeal and date) they were excellent because they had all the characteristics of a classic scone. endearingly irregular, they had a golden brown top and were easy to break open into half with out using a knife. most importantly they had that lingering aftertaste of soda that comes a combination of leavening agents. they were accompanied by a pat of butter and two kinds of jam. i had a yellow-orange fresh fig jam and o a blue-purple morello cherry. the jams were more fruity than sweet which was perfect. i just wish that the butter had been clotted cream. to me scones are never complete without that dense, almost yellow cream.

dover street market
come to rose bakery if you happen to be around mayfair and want a cup of tea and something sweet. you are unlikely to be disappointed. i for one am planning a return for the carrot cake.    

Rose on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 12 May 2012

hummerstons, singapore

sourced from hummerstons facebook
there is something about hummerstons that is vaguely reminiscent of restaurants in scottsdale, arizona. perhaps it is the gentle whirl of ceiling fans above the balcony seating or the clean lines and eclectic décor on the inside. a narrow strip of window allows a view of the kitchen. bouk, the chef at hummerstons was the former head-chef of ps café. although japanese, he has american leanings having been adopted by an american couple and grown up on the east coast. hummerstons is his mother’s maiden name. 

o and his colleagues frequent hummerstons often. i suspect mostly because of the familiarity of the food. in fact most of them tend to gravitate towards the burgers. they are a busy assemblage of american beef, apple wood smoked bacon, oak smoked cheddar and mushrooms piled on a brioche bun. i wonder if the kitchen could have possibly included any more? for me the star of a burger is the meat and it is a real pity that such excellent quality meat is drowned out by the extensive medley of additions. i guess i am just not a fancy-pants burger person.  

our starter of grecian style squid with sautéed lemon and olive-tomato tapenade is worthy of mention. large curls of squid had been cooked till succulent. the saltiness of the olives brought out the tart sweetness of cherry tomatoes that had been cooked just to soften them slightly. the sautéed lemon had a mild caramelisation and brightened the flavours of the whole.

my entrée of grilled salmon with cold soba salad would have benefited from better execution. the flavour combinations were thoughtful and interesting. the sweetness of the mango was sharpened by the chilli vinaigrette and yet contrasted well with the fatty notes in the salmon fillet. sesame oil lent nuttiness and paired well with the soba. the soba itself was meant to be cold but was warm which is a real pity as i was looking forward to the contrasting temperatures.

the kitchen at hummerstons has a lot of potential. it has a knack for flavours but what it really needs is better execution. i feel compelled to mention that it was the one of the few places in singapore where service was efficient and the bill was correct when presented. hummerstons is definitely worth eating at provided they can get the standard of service and the execution to the food to coincide.  

Friday, 11 May 2012

notes on how to entertain, miso-marinated cod and ottolenghi's soba, aubergine and mango salad

ottolenghi's soba, aubergine and mango salad
i learnt much about running house and entertaining in the years that we lived in our f seven two house in islamabad. mama’s poetry club always included tea with cake, sandwiches and scones. baba would retreat into his office to silence the cacophony of voices. sometimes even i wondered what the ruckus was all about. but before the ladies arrived the tea had to be ready. lightly starched white napkins with crocheted edges were checked for stains. cutlery was shined and the right number of teacups and tea plates were taken out and arranged at diagonal ends of our large bevelled glass table. the worst of the lot was the glass table that needed extensive cleaning with the aid of a newspaper and vinegar. mama would survey this with eyes of a hawk. at some point i came to be in charge of all these arrangements and although i hated cleaning the table and glasses it was an excellent way to learn perfection and running house.

now years later as i run my house i do the very things that mama did. i shine the cutlery with a slightly damp cloth, hold up glasses to the light to check for water stains and give as much thought as possible to crockery i am likely to need when entertaining. presentation was important both for the food and the table. mama always reminded me to wipe the edges of serving dishes with a wet kitchen roll. sandwiches were to be laid in an over-lapping fashion with crusts that had been perfectly removed.  mama and baba planned the menus for lunches and dinners together. little did i know that these discussions would turn out to be very important to me.

i have condensed the notes from menu planning conversations into some basic principles, foremost of which is that there has to be a unity of elements, a consistent thread that binds a meal together. the most obvious of this is not to mix two totally different cuisines. on a subtle note even if you are cooking from a particular region it is helpful to have a shared base flavour. ideally, refrain from trying out new recipes when cooking to entertain. i broke this rule recently when s and h came to lunch. but then i was not very concerned because three quarters of the recipes were about cooking technique and i was very familiar with the ingredients that i was working with.

the reason why i was remembering the preparing and planning elements was because putting the lunch menu together had been a bit of a challenge. i had made up my mind that i wanted to prepare miso-marinated cod but was not quite sure about what to accompany with it. i turned to ottolenghi’s plenty for inspiration thinking that something with soba would be good to tie the lunch together. mama and baba’s rule of thumb that there should be an affinity between the ingredients was what helped me decide. both recipes shared ingredients providing a base note that would help tie them together.

the miso-marinated cod was inspired by a very popular entrée by nobu. it calls for sablefish (also known as black cod) which is not easily available. i spoke with my local fishmonger paul who suggested that i could use regular cod instead. this recipe would be excellent with salmon as well. paul had the freshest and thickest cod fillets, almost an inch and a half thick. i really recommend getting your fish from a fishmonger for this recipe as it pays in thickness. what you want is a fish that has a large flake with a thick girth. this is necessary for it to hold its own in the marinade and on the grill. it is best to let the fish rest in the marinade for at least two days, bringing it to room temperature before you cook it. the sear on the fish has a mild sweetness and the colour of light caramel. the flakes of fish are silky and moist. because this is a fish of gentle flavours, we all ate the cod on its own taking the salad as a second course.

the soba noodles with aubergine and mango was a trademark ottolenghi recipe. it had the perfect composition of sweet, savoury, sharpness and depth. the aubergine flesh made silky with oil lent richness. the dispersed heat of chopped red chilli was a welcome surprise and the mango along with the lime and zest brightened the salad. this salad plays to warm and cold weather because it is fruity, nutty and chilli at the same time, which is just as well because we are experiencing a cold summer in england.

since i did not have a white salad bowl i used a glass bowl. placing it on a red place mat provided a bright canvas that amplified the colours of the mango and chopped basil and coriander. it is best to make the salad a couple of hours ahead. let it is sit on the counter as room temperature lets the ingredients get to know each other more intimately than in the cold of the fridge. i have learnt that the charm of ottolenghi’s recipes lie in letting the ingredients discover each other. as in most cases, the leftovers taste so much better!

i am including the recipes for miso-marinated cod and ottolenghi’s soba noodles with aubergine and mango below, along with minor adaptations. they are uncomplicated recipes that taste really good. heidi of one o one cookbooks has recommendations that transform the salad into a meal by using tofu, as well as ideas for seasonal variations.  

miso-marinated cod

three cod fillets, two hundred and fifty grams each, about one and a half inches thick
six tablespoons mirin sake
half a cup white miso paste
one third of a cup sugar
vegetable oil for grilling

in a small saucepan, bring the mirin sake to a boil. whisk in the miso until dissolved. add the sugar and cook over moderate heat, whisking, just until dissolved. transfer the marinade to a large baking dish and let cool. add the fish and turn to coat. cover and refrigerate for two days (or at the very least overnight).

preheat the oven to two hundred degrees. heat a grill pan and oil it. scrape the marinade off the fish. add the fish and cook skin side up over high heat until browned, about two minutes. flip the fish onto a heavy rimmed baking sheet and roast for fifteen minutes, until flaky. transfer to plates and serve.
soba with aubergine and mango salad
ottolenghi’s soba with aubergine and mango
[this recipe appears in the new vegetarian as well as in the cookbook ‘plenty’]

one hundred and twenty ml mirin
forty grams sugar
half a teaspoon salt
two garlic cloves, crushed
half a red chilli, finely chopped
one teaspoon toasted sesame oil
one lime, grated zest and juice
three hundred ml sunflower oil
two aubergines, cut into two cm dice
two hundred and fifty grams soba noodles
half a red onion, thinly sliced
one large mango, peeled and cut into long strips
twenty-five grams basil, chopped
twenty-five grams coriander, chopped

in a saucepan, gently heat the vinegar, sugar and salt, just until the sugar dissolves, for up to a minute. remove from the heat and add the garlic, chilli and toasted sesame oil. set aside to cool, then add the lime zest and juice.

heat the sunflower oil in a large pan and shallow-fry the aubergine in three or four batches. once golden-brown, transfer to a colander, sprinkle liberally with salt and leave to drain.
cook the noodles in plenty of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally, for five to eight minutes - the noodles should retain a bite - then drain and rinse under cold water. shake off the excess water and place on kitchen towel to dry.

in a mixing bowl, toss the noodles with the dressing, aubergine, onion, mango and half the herbs. you can leave it aside for an hour or two. when ready to serve, add the rest of the herbs, mix and pile on a plate or in a bowl.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

lau pa sat and a little bit about singapore's hawker centres

lau pa sat during lunch time
as per the singlish dictionary makkan is both a verb and a noun. it denotes food as well as the eating of it. makkan time is singapore’s national past time (along with shopping that is). there is a range of ‘makkan’ places in singapore starting from the ubiquitous hawker centres to kopitiams, food courts and food republics in its many malls to high-end restaurants. it’s diverse population of indians, malays, chinese and pernakan have influenced its cuisine. the hawker centres in particular offer great variety from around south east asia. 

inside lau pa sat
the one’s that o and i frequented most during our trip were chinatown complex and lau pa sat simply because they were the closest to us. singapore’s modern day food centres are a throwback to its tradition of street hawkers. the hawkers were an expression of the national preoccupation with 'makkan' as well as the nature and dynamics of singapore's population. in the late eighteen sixties the male-female ratio was ten to one. this is unsurprising as singapore was a trading hub and therefore populated by traders who were male. the lack of family life specifically women, coupled with the fact that men could not cook meant that someone had to assume the role of sustenance. it was the hawkers and later the kopitiams that filled this gap. post-independence the imperatives of public health and sanitation led the government to build facilities to house hawkers. most of these facilities came to be centred around public housing providing cheap and accessible meals. by the mid nineteen eighties all of singapore’s hawkers had been relocated from the street and installed in purpose built food centres. the government continues to manage the stalls through a strict food hygiene grading system and if you look carefully all stalls display their hygiene certificates. 

food centres also have their own set of rules foremost of which is securing a table to eat at. when you find a vacant seat or table all you have to do is leave a tissue or a personal item such as a pen or lighter. then make a note of your table/aisle number. most food stalls are self-service but the ones that serve will ask you for your table number. you do not have to clean up after yourself as all food centres have staff that attends to clearing the tables. 

hawkers inside lau pa sat
once you have your table secured its time to do a recce and figure out what you want to eat. i was partial to the dim sum at lau pa sat and often found myself at the dim sum stall. it was easy to find as it was always clouded in steam and populated with mini-towers of bamboo steamers. the cooks look like laboratory personnel in their white uniforms. it takes roughly three to five minutes for the dim sum to be steamed. i would order a combination of opaque steamed buns that melt softly in the mouth along with the translucent ones that display their insides. the prawn dim sum assumes the shape of its contents and dim sum with chives show flashes of green.

one afternoon o and i had indian food. the vegetables had been cooked with little sympathy and were quite mushy but the chicken tikka along with a slim dhal were quite tasty as was the tandoori roti. on another occasion i tried thunder tea rice. this stall has inordinately long queues between noon and two pm. i must admit i was a little reluctant to try a dish that boldly advertises itself as a nutritionally balanced meal that aids the digestive system and expels gases and winds. but after days of eating chicken and fish i was craving something bright and green. traditionally known as lei cha, thunder tea rice is a hakka chinese dish that has an illustrious history. its origins lie in the time of the qin dynasty. it is said that the combination of ingredients in lei cha served with rice sustained the hans during turbulent war and plague. the green tea has the consistency of a thick broth and is made with a combination of herbs including basil and mint. it is poured over rice and an assortment of greens, nuts and tofu. there is a gentle simplicity of flavours with lots of texture from vegetables that hold their bite. in addition, there is a two toned nuttiness from the brown rice and peanuts. if you want something that is healthy and with lean flavours i’d definitely recommend lei chai. 

thunder tea rice
satay stalls at lau pa sat
a corny advertisement 
lau pa sat at night
in the evening lau pa sat is transformed into a satay-fest. rows and rows of grills line the street along with tables and chairs for diners. it was the only time i saw the food centre spill outside their purpose built structure. a rather bossy lady took charge of our order, which was a pity as i would have liked to wander and see what was on offer. we had the famous singapore chilli crab, chicken, beef and prawn satay. the prawn satay was outstanding. the otherwise round bodies had been skewered straight and grilled in their shells. this is messy eating but so worth it! the chilli crab although very tasty makes for an unpleasant experience because it is so badly cut. this is further compounded by the lack of proper cutlery. plastic forks are no match for the hard-shelled crustacean. i suspect we would have had a better experience if we had headed down to the east coast lagoon hawker centre that is famous for its seafood offerings but we didn’t manage to fit that into our trip. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

hajmeer kwaja muslim food

singapore’s status as a trading port explains why the origin of much of its popular cuisine lies beyond its borders. there are four major cuisines that hold sway and are deeply entwined with its history - chinese, indian, malay and peranakan. the latter is unique to singapore as it emanates from the straits traders who married local non-muslim women. i have already written about indian food, eating dessert and coffee culture in singapore but felt compelled to write a distinct post on murtabak. this is because murtabak neatly illustrates the fluid exchange of food cultures.

maxwell park food centre
i had assumed that murtabak had sub-contiental origins, as it is essentially a stuffed paratha. but it turns out that murtabak gains its name from the arabic ‘mutabbaq’ which means folded. it originated in yemen and the hejaz region of saudi arabia and arrived in malaysia, singapore and indonesia through the movement of traders. in malaysia murtabak is sold by mamak (tamil muslim) sales men who were responsible for bringing it to singapore as well. our first experience of eating murtabak was at hajmeer kwaja muslim food at the maxwell centre food park.

true to the word it originated from, murtabak is constructed by folding white flour dough that has been stretched to a translucent thinness. savoury ingredients such as minced chicken and egg are used to stuff the roti, that are secured by the folding over of the dough to a square shape. it is cooked on a hot plate with a shimmering oily surface. murtabak shares an unmistaken resonance with paratha but is much lighter than it on account of the thinness of the dough and the method of cooking. the aloo (potato) and keema (beef mince) parathas i grew up eating were denser because they were made with whole-wheat flour and were rolled thicker.

the making of murtabak
stretched dough with filing
the folded murtabak
murtabak served
a glimpse into the layers of murtabak
the murtabak is served to us at our table. it is seared golden brown and is accompanied by a curry sauce that has a concentrated meaty and tomato flavour. i like that it has been scored into bite-size squares. we dispense with cutlery using our hands to dip the squares into the curry and scooping into our mouths. four of us shared the murtabak that night as o and i were joined by a colleague of his as well as sung of eats noodles love noodles fame. it is through his blog that i first came to know about this calorific delight but it never occurred to me that we’d be eating it together half away across the world. the world truly is a global village.    

Sunday, 6 May 2012

apricot-miso jam

apricot-miso jam
for the last fortnight the kitchen at thirty-two has been having a miso affair. it all started with an article on bon appétit on ten unexpected ways to use miso. the recipe that caught my eye was apricot-miso jam. it mirrors the practice of using a salty element to pique sweetness. think salted caramel and salted chocolate. earlier this year i made confiture de lait using maldon sea salt. the result was a sweet-salty spreadable caramel with a decidedly grown up flavour. it was the sophisticated equivalent of the sickly sweet chewy ones that i grew up eating.

but to return to apricot jam. before mama started making jam we'd get mitchell's jams. their apricot jam had a bit of texture but was super sweet. i ate this spread thickly on toast buttered with lightly salted nurpur. during my university years i ate marks and spencer apricot preserves. however, as of late apricot preserves have struck me as being quite tasteless. fresh apricots in england and even in the united states are an even greater disappointment. they do not have the heady fragrance that pakistani apricots have and are flavourless. the apricots of my childhood had a soft downy skin and the taste of wild flower honey. it was by accident that i discovered that soft dried turkish apricots have somewhat of that flavour. since the base of the apricot-miso jam is dried apricots, i decided to make it.

the result was a beautiful saffron-orange jam. the miso gives it a glossy appearance as well as a savoury-sweet flavour. the original recipe does not use sweetener but since i tweaked it, i added two tablespoons of honey and varied the amount of miso. i substituted mirin sake (cooking sake) for the sake in the recipe. as always curious about the effects of ingredients, i looked up sake in the oxford companion to food. sake is used as a tenderizer, to preserve delicate flavours and to tame saltiness. the last effect is easily identifiable in the jam. you can find the original recipe here.

chopped apricots and cherries
apricot-miso jam
[adapted from justin cucci’s recipe on bonappétit]
this recipe makes enough to fill two four hundred and thirty ml jars plus a couple of extra teaspoons which i put into a bowl for immediate use.

five hundred grams soft apricots, chopped
one hundred grams dried cherries, chopped
three quarter cup mirin sake
quarter cup lemon juice
two cups water
one whole star anise
half a cinnamon stick
one small bayleaf
three slices of fresh ginger (medium thickness)
quarter cup white miso
two tablespoons runny honey
zest of a lemon
a cheesecloth for the spices
a food processor
two four hundred and thirty ml jam jars

star anise, cinnamon and a bay leaf
place the apricots, cherries, mirin sake, lemon juice and water in a large saucepan and let soak for two hours.

place the spices in the cheesecloth and secure with a knot or some kitchen twine. add them to the pan. bring to a simmer over medium heat. then reduce the heat to low and let cook until the moisture evaporates.

at this point let the jam cool a bit and then roughly process three quarters of it. i like a smoother jam which is why i did this. you can skip this step if you like a very chunky jam.

return the processed jam to saucepan and reheat on low heat. mix together the miso with the honey and introduce it to the jam. continue to cook the jam for ten to fifteen minutes until it thickens. iuse grigson’s jar sterilisation technique to jar my jam as it is very easy.

breakfast today was a large teaspoon of apricot-miso jam stirred through greek yoghurt. this is the breakfast that will satisfy both sweet and savoury cravings. greek yoghurt has a balanced creaminess. cream would soften the salty fruitiness of the jam but a tart yoghurt has the opposite effect as it amplifies both. the star anise gives the jam a spicy aroma.

i think i’ve found the perfect version of my childhood favourite.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

beatty's chocolate cake for n's birthday

beatty's chocolate cake
cake is the marilyn monroe of bread. if you think of it, elaborate breads are the progenitor of cake. throughout ancient history sweetened enriched breads were made for special occasions like births, weddings, funerals, harvest festivals and religious occasions. but birthday cake, as we know it now is very much a nineteenth century custom. it was made possible by the industrial revolution when the ingredients that combine to make cake became easy to buy. it was helped along by the urbanisation of society and its various domestic paraphernalia like ovens, kitchen appliances and bake-ware. and of course the many house wives who pursued home economics as a profession. it is suggested that the modern form of birthday cake originated in america in the mid-nineteenth century, the standard birthday cake being one constructed from filled and frosted layers. this does not surprise me in the least given the american affinity for multi-layered cakes with over generous frosting.  

whatever it’s history, the tradition of birthday cake is one that i wholeheartedly agree with. as a child, both mama and baba always got fabulous birthday cakes for my brother and i. the best ones of course were home-made. my friends were fascinated by girly cakes constructed with the dismembered torso of barbie dolls, whose flared gowns were constructed with cake finished with bright pink and white piped frosting. i was always much more interested in the edible cake rather than the ensemble.

melting chocolate
creaming the butter for the buttercream
two-tone, adding the melted chocolate to the buttercream
homemade cake is wonderful. perhaps it is the alchemy of the batter or the smell of baking that warms and fills the house. it may also be the charm of eating teaspoons of batter on the pretext of affirming the taste of the cake. and most importantly the pleasure of watching the cake being eaten with impatience and delight. living abroad for the last several years has meant that i have been homemade birthday cake-less, which always makes me a little sad. but it is also the reason why i make o a birthday cake every year. this year my sister-in-law n got a homemade birthday cake too. while h pulled together a surprise dinner party i set out with my mixing bowls, mixer and the necessary ingredients to bake ‘beatty’s chocolate cake’ from barefoot contessa.

beatty’s chocolate cake is a lovely combination of a very moist chocolate cake made possible through ample liquid (buttermilk and freshly brewed coffee). it is sandwiched with chocolate buttercream made richer with a yolk. the combination works because the cake itself has very little fat (half a cup of vegetable oil) so the buttercream is essential to glam it up. i must confess i was a little alarmed by the thinness of the batter as it was like milk. i also had bake the cake in one tin as i did not have sandwich pans. this turned out to be a bit of a challenge as cutting the layers damaged the shape of the cake. i almost baked a new one but stopped myself when o called me bree van de camp. her character gives me the creeps! 

instead, i used the buttercream to effectively bandage the disintegrating cake. the glossy uneven flourish not only announced the cake’s homemade-ness but also camouflaged its slight lopsidedness. in any case, all of n’s friends were too busy eating and arguing over who would get the last slice of cake to pay attention to my ‘not-so-perfect’ baking. it made me realise that it isn’t perfection but the love of homemade cake that make’s birthday cake so special.

i am re-producing the recipe for beatty’s chocolate cake as it appears on the food network website. i did not make any changes to the recipe but include some notes from baking. the first one is obvious. follow the recipe to a t. as mentioned earlier i had to bake the cake in a single tin. aside from having to bake it for longer, it was quite difficult to cut the cake into two layers. the cake is so moist making it hard to cut properly which is what led to the cake being lopsided. however, i was certain that i could not dispense with the layer of buttercream in a centre as that’s what gives the cake it’s real flavour. also, use excellent quality cocoa, coffee and milk chocolate for the cake and the buttercream. i used nespresso as we have nespresso maker at home. if you don’t just use really good fresh coffee. in fact that was the only change i made in the frosting where i substituted the instant coffee for warm espresso.

beatty's chocolate cake from barefoot contessa at home

butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
chocolate buttercream, recipe follows

preheat the oven to 350 degrees f. butter two 8-inch x 2-inch round cake pans. line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. in another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. with the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. with mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. with a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.

milk chocolate buttercream
 chocolate frosting

6 ounces good semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water. on low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended. don't whip! spread immediately on the cooled cake.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

ginger spring onion sauce with miso soba

ginger spring onion sauce with miso soba
this may sound absurd but i sometimes wish that i could buy individual spring onions. this is because i usually use them as a garnish and find that a large remainder of the bunch languishes in the vegetable drawer. however this week the fortunes of my bunch of spring onion changed all because of an adaptation momofuku’s ginger spring onion sauce.

shuhan of mummy, i can cook writes a lovely blog with an emphasis on how to eat and how to cook. she’s an art student so her blog has a refreshing appeal with colours that mimic spring and graphics to illustrate her recipes. her adaptation of momofuku’s ginger spring onion sauce is called ‘ginger-garlic-spring onion miracle sauce’ and she marries the chinese sauce with spelt tagliolini. i decided to keep to the east asian region by using soba noodles as the base for my dish. because it is still cold i had my soba hot which in japanese cuisine is known as kakejiru. i am certain that this would taste equally good cold.

the flavour of the broth is derived from powdered  dashi (stock) and a teaspoon of miso. i love the nutty, briny umami flavour of this combination. i poured this over soba noodles boiled to the point where they retained a bite. a version of ginger spring onion sauce was the centrepiece of the miso along with the soft heat from a sprinkle of ‘nanami togarashi’. the latter is a blend of seven essential japanese spices. there is the two-tone nuttiness of while and black sesame seeds, the freshness of orange peel and ginger which melds into a warm heat with two kinds of chilli pepper. the seaweed amplifies the umami in the soup. the ginger spring onion sauce itself is surprisingly sweet. it appears that the a little heat brings out the sweetness of the spring onions and wilts them into a soft collapse. the very slight bite of raw spring onion is nowhere to be found.

the recipe below makes one bowl of miso soba with ginger spring onion sauce.

a teaspoon of blonde miso
three hundred ml hot water (from a just boiled kettle)
three quarters of a tablespoon powered dashi
eighty grams soba noodles
one and a half teaspoons ground nut oil
two cloves of garlic, finely minced
a thimble sized lump of ginger, grated fine
four spring onions, thinly sliced (use both the green and white part)
two tablespoons mirin sake

make the miso soup by combining the first three ingredients on the list in a saucepan. keep the saucepan on low heat so that the soup remains hot while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

cook the soba as per the instructions on the packet. i like mine to retain a strong bite. after draining place the soba in a soup bowl.

warm the groundnut oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. cook the ginger and garlic in the warmed oil taking care that they  do not colour at all. what you are looking for is for the heat to soften and release their aromas. this should take around two minutes.

at this point raise the heat to medium-high. working quickly  put the sliced spring onions in the pan and give them a quick stir. then introduce the mirin sake and turn the heat up to high. it will sizzle a bit. what i wanted was the shortest possible braise that collects the flavours of the three elements in the pan. this part should take no more than a minute. the spring onions should maintain their brightness but soften completely.

the final part is assembling the soup. pour the miso soup over the soba and top with the ginger spring onion sauce. sprinkle it with the ‘nanami togarashi’ and eat.