Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Inspire. Inspiring. Inspiration.

My biggest source of cooking and baking inspiration
Where do you go to find inspiration? Who inspires you to be a better person? When have you inspired someone else? And what was your most memorable moment of the last 12 months?
Believe it or not, these were the questions that I was confronted with as a 21 year old while applying for a graduate position at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Questions which I have never had the chance to think about or even thought I had any perspectives on.
So where do 21 year olds get their inspirations from? The bar? The dance floor? Fashion magazines? Shows like the Hills or Jersey shore?
I am (very obviously) not 21 anymore. My metabolism, waist line and tolerance of loud music are all evidence of this fact. Not merely the birth date on my driver’s license.
As a 21 year old, I said I was a team leader in a volunteer role and inspired the juniors I was leading, to volunteer the next year. My most memorable moment was giving up a seat on the bus to an old lady, who was extremely surprised and grateful of my initiation, stating that the youth of today tend not to have these manners anymore, and that I was very special. This surprised me in return.
If I was to answer the same questions now, what would my answers be? And how would they differ from all those years ago?
Many of my friends have said that my blog has inspired them to start baking also. I am so happy to hear this, it makes me so proud. This venture was purely an outlet for my passion and obsession. Yet it has served not just me, but others too. This is more than I have hoped for.
With age and experience, the biggest difference is how I have broadened my sources of inspiration. From the fresh flowers I keep at home, which I buy religiously every week; to a simple chat with a good friend (or sometimes even a stranger); to reading Jane Austen, Henry James, Hemingway, Voltaire, Foucault etc.
I know what you are thinking now. And no. I do not spend my days pondering the meaning of life. No, that would drive me crazy. I am afterall still in my 20s and enjoy moments of irresponsibility; hours of trashy, mindless TV; and outrageous nail polish colours.
I just believe that it is important to inspire and feel inspired once in a while.

If you've ever wondered what I have on my dressing table, here it is. Including the collar that my cat refuses to wear...

In a few days time, I will be going to a different kind of place to find inspiration. Am I scared? Yes. Am I excited? Yes. Do I have great expectations? Yes. Do I have faith in myself to make the best of it? Of course I do.
I’m going to Cambodia. This will not merely be a holiday. It is more. I’m going for a month of volunteer work on the outskirts of Siem Reap. It’s my chance to bring out a part of myself I don’t see very often... the audacity to go a whole month without makeup. Instead it'll be layer upon layer of moisturiser, sunscreen, insect repellent (both cream and spray) and tiger balm.
And the most daunting thought on my mind right now? Withdrawal symptoms from not baking or cooking for a month.

Coffee Cake Muffins with Crumble topping

Monday, 16 April 2012

Why my cat is really a dog

Lizzie’s shower part II
I have a cat. Many of you know this already. But she’s not really a cat either. She kind of oscillates between a cat and a dog. Here’s proof:
-          She’s intelligent like a dog. By 4 months, she has learnt how to undo the buckle on her collar as well as a full knot. In fact, she has out-smarted me, and managed to undo everything I try to tie onto her neck.
-          She wakes me up every morning by licking my face. Except that her tongue is dry and coarse, not smooth and wet like that of a dog.
-          She’s more affectionate than most cats I have known. Whether its 12pm, 9pm or 2am, she waits at the door for me when I get home, but of course, instead of pouncing on me, she rubs herself on my legs. And no, it’s not just because she’s hungry. It’s real love J
-          I live in an apartment so you don’t get to see the postman, but if she sees one, I’m sure she will chase the postman too.
Here are the aspects of a cat she has managed to retain:
-          She’s religiously clean. Her fur is silky and whiter than cotton.
-          She, thankfully, doesn’t bark.
-          She doesn’t need to be walked
-          She entertains herself. Even a stray litter crystal can entertain her for hours.
I’m not trying to spark a war room debate between cats and dogs. But I just wanted to share that this cat/dog has managed to amuse me for hours on end. But then again, I am easily amused.
In my previous post, I mentioned that I threw a shower for her. Here’s the menu from the shower:
Pink and white macarons (the white is cream cheese frosting)
Strawberry frangipani tartlets
Lemonade scones
White chocolate and raspberry brownies
Banana and coconut cake covered with fondant/RTR
Tuna, corn and mayo sandwiches
Salmon and cucumber sandwiches
Kitten sugar cookies as party favours
Pink Lemonade
Assortment of teas
As you can probably tell, the theme is pink and white to pay homage to Lizzie’s colouring.
Pink Lemonade
Pink Lemonade is the easiest thing in the world. It’s one part cranberry juice to 4 parts lemonade. Or adjust to your liking.
That was the shortest recipe EVER!
Strawberry and frangipani tartlets
Tart shell
Use the recipe from the lemon tart recipe
1/3 cup good strawberry jam
100g almond meal
100g butter, softened
90g caster sugar
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon vanilla paste or extract
Prepare and blind bake tartlets per instruction. You can make the tartlets in patty pan moulds or muffin pans.
Turn oven to 170 degrees C.
Make frangipane cream by mixing together all ingredients for the filling (except strawberry jam) in a medium bowl using a fork.
Drop ½ teaspoon of strawberry jam in the bottom of the tart cases. Dollop over frangipane cream.
Bake for 15 minutes or until golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Lemonade scones
3 cups self-raising flour
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup fizzy lemonade
I egg yolk for egg wash
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Add more flour or lemonade if needed to get the right dough. It won’t ruin the final product. I promise.
The dough should be light and just holds together but not sticky. Do not overwork.
On a lightly floured surface, flatten dough to about 2cm in height. Your hands are fine. No need for a rolling pin. Dip an 8cm round cutter into flour and cut rounds from the dough. Combine scraps of the dough and reroll out to cut out more. However, everytime you cut from the re-rolled dough, make sure you roll the dough thicker to compensate for the air escaping.
Place each round next to each other, and make sure they are lightly touching.  That helps it to rise in the oven.
Whisk egg yolk with 1 tbsp of water. Brush over top of scones.
Put in oven and bake for 20 minutes or tops are golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream and strawberry jam.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Homemade Ricotta Gnocchi, with love

My most damning vice is my curiosity. Obsession with knowing why things are the way they are. Trying to find explanations for how things work. And then I challenge myself to create it from scratch. This is also expressed in my cooking and baking. I want to make pasta, bread, pizza dough all by hand, even though it’s a thousand times easier to buy from the shop. Not just that, it’s also because I believe everything tastes better when it’s made with love, rather than on a conveyor belt.
And the enjoyment I get seeing the happiness that is so evident on people’s faces, as they taste my food. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.
I made hot cross buns. Actually, my Kitchenaid mixer did most of the hard labour. But nevertheless I made hot cross buns. I made 10 and I only ate 1. Because I underestimated how much boys eat. By boys, I meant one boy. Singular.
But Easter is over, and it’s therefore pointless to post a recipe for hot cross buns. I did however, also make gnocchi. I found if you use Ricotta in place of the potato, it reduces the amount of carbs, makes the gnocchi lighter and you don’t need to peel, cut, and boil potatoes. Technically you need to weight the ingredients etc. But I didn’t so the quantities below are only an estimate of what I actually used. I think the most important reference point is how the dough feels in your hand rather than the exact science.
I also made the sauce using canned cherry tomatoes to make it that extra bit special J
For the gnocchi:
200g fresh ricotta
1 cup plain flour, preferably Italian 00 (more as needed)
2 egg yolks (freeze the whites to make meringues, macarons etc later on)
½ coarse salt such as Maldon
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
For the sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large onion (or one small one), diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried basil
½ dried chilli flakes
1/3 cup vodka
1 can cherry tomatoes (regular canned tomatoes are also fine)
Handful of rocket
Handful of fresh basil
Extra parmesan for garnish
* Prawns, beef or other meats as you prefer. I’ve left mine vegetarian.
For the gnocchi:

Put all ingredients into a large bowl and mix with a fork until combined.
Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly and gently just until smooth. Do not over-knead or your gnocchi will be tough. The dough should feel moist and silky but not sticky. Incorporate more flour as needed, but again, too much flour also makes gnocchi tough.
Separate the dough into 3 portions and roll each portion into a long log 1 centimetre in diameter. Cut small pillows from the log, and using a fork dipped in flour, roll the pillows with the back of the fork.  
Remember that the gnocchi will swell when boiled so keep that in mind when deciding how big to cut your pillows.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add salt (like you do normally with pasta). Drop the gnocchi in. Gnocchi is cooked when it floats to the surface of the water.
They also freeze well uncooked.
For the sauce:
Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and garlic with a little salt. Cook until fragrant and soft. Add dried basil and chilli.
Turn the heat up. Tip in the vodka (making sure your face is not directly over the saucepan. I won’t tell you why, you can just try it if you wish and tell me what happens J )
Cook until the alcohol is nearly evaporated.
Add canned tomatoes and half fill the empty can with water and add that too.
Bring to the boil and cook into the sauce is thick without the lid on. Approximately 20 minutes.
Add cooked, drained gnocchi.
Take the saucepan off heat. Wilt the rocket and basil in the residual heat. Grate over parmesan and serve 2 greedy people.
* If you wish to add meat to the sauce, add it after the vodka and before the cherry tomatoes. Make sure you brown the meat/mince sufficiently. If you want to add prawns, add this about 5 minutes before the sauce finishes cooking as prawns take a lot shorter to cook and overcooking will make it rubbery.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

I love my job and this mud cake

I love my job. Don’t turn your eyebrows at me.
Why am I telling you this on a baking blog you ask?
For one thing, I bribe people at work with my baking. It’s a good negotiation tool to have on hand. You should try it one day. And best of all, it is not covered by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act J
Food aside, my job is also a significant part of how I experience my life. It may not be as enjoyable as food, but it really helps if I at least like it. And I do.
I look at software contracts, bids and accounting standards all day, all week, all year. Software revenue recognition is the Everest of the accounting world. Because once you have conquered that, everything else seems only remotely interesting. At least I believe so.

Everyday I deal with idiots who really belong in the circus. But I appreciate it when I do find someone who just gets it. It helps me build relationships with people who count.
Once in a while I need to stay up late for an overseas conference call. It works well, because I’m practically nocturnal. But not so well when it’s an early morning one.
Every month end I have 50 billion journals to approve. It helps me understand the details. When it’s year end, I stay back late every day. It makes me feel like I’m contributing, even though I’m really just writing in my blog.
Every other day, I have auditors on my back. But it puts me on my toes and allows me to see the big picture. They are also an easy target for venting.
It also makes me crave chocolate more than what is natural and acceptable. I obsess over it all day, and then go home and bake something chocolatey and post it on here. See? It’s the cycle of life.
So now I have to tell you about this Mississippi mud cake. It’s dense, chocolatey and above all, sodden with Kahlua. It should be what people make wedding cakes out of, rather than that dry, solid stuff you need to eat like you would a steak.

Recipe: Mississippi Mud Cake
A liquid batter makes for a moist, dense cake. Baking it at low temperatures also helps. But you do have to be patient waiting for it to bake.
I recently made a double batch of this recipe and made a 2 tier cake to take to a birthday party where 1/3 of the attendees were children. It really only hit me much later that the liqueur and coffee wasn’t exactly appropriate for consumption by children. But hey, they enjoyed it and no one complained. That I know of.

Makes 1 x 23cm/ 9” round cake

200g unsalted butter, chopped
150g best quality dark chocolate, chopped
250ml (1 cup) hot water
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder
80ml (1/3 cup) Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
1 tsp vanilla extract
440g (2 cups) caster sugar
250g (1½ cups) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
25g (¼ cup) cocoa powder, sifted (very important, unless you are using the ultra expensive Valrhona cocoa)
½ tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten


Preheat oven to 160 degrees C. Lightly grease a 23cm/9” cake pan with butter or veg oil; then line the bottom with baking paper.

Melt butter and chocolate over low heat. Let cool.

Whisk together the coffee powder and hot water until no lumps remain. Add to the chocolate mixture along with the Kahlua and vanilla.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and cocoa. Whisk this slowly into the chocolate mixture to avoid spillage. Then the eggs.

Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour. I would start poking at it with a toothpick around 45 minutes, just because ovens vary greatly.

Stand cake 30 minutes; turn onto wire rack to cool completely.

You can do so much with this cake. You can stack layers of it with ganache and sculpt into different shapes. You can make it ahead of time and freeze; or refrigerate. It’s so versatile, and tastes devine! Just don’t make it for children like I did.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Lizzie's shower - Part I

I have previously spoken about making plans and things not going according to plan (which happens more often than not...at least for me. If you’ve experienced otherwise, then I offer you my heartfelt congratulations). This is one example of an opportunity that was thrust upon me with very little planning.
Just over a month ago, some photos my friend posted on facebook of a kitten caught my eye. While he is a good person, I could never imagine him nursing a kitten, until I saw photographic proof. I inquired into the situation and found that a stray cat close by, had a litter of 5 kittens, all needing good homes... and 2 of them were female and pure white; exactly what I had wanted for a very long time.
Now, for the next 3 days I tore myself apart finding excuses why I am an unfit cat mum:
“I’m so busy at work, the kitten would never be happy being left by itself for so long.”
“I will have to go home EVERY night; no sleepovers!!!”
“Kittens need to be fed 4-5 times a day; does that mean I need to go home at lunch time every day to feed it???”
And most persistently:
“I can handle plants, but I’m just not ready now to be responsible for another living thing!”
In the end, I pushed all those fears aside, and just did it. And I’m way happier for it. The kitten seems pretty smitten too. Exhibit A.
Given she was a stray, and presumably not litter trained, I was prepared to buy carpet stain removers in bulk. But the clever little thing knew instinctively to use the litter tray. In fact, she would hold it in than do it on the carpet.  She has yet to have an accident. Touch wood.
She also instinctively knew not to continue eating once she’s full; a task that’s proving near impossible for many a well trained; fully grown human. So I can leave dry food out all day, and give her wet food as a treat when and if I make it home. And no, I’m not breaching any laws for the mistreatment of animals. It’s a perfectly fine diet for a kitten. I’ve done my research.
Most people, myself included, will focus on the 101 ways things will go wrong. But once you’re actually in the situation, you realise just how quickly you adapt. All the things you had imagined to be too difficult; will suddenly seem second nature.
Looking at the situation from another perspective, the happiness that the kitten had brought into my life far outweighs the minor disruptions that I have to endure; or even the kaleidoscope of scratch marks on my limbs. Exhibit B.

So really, it’s not about whether I can make my kitten happy, but how much I value my own happiness. Yes, it’s narcissistic and selfish.  But its human nature, and subconsciously, it’s the motivation we leverage when deciding what actions to take.
How much effort am I willing to put in to make myself happy?
Of course, what you’re thinking of doing need to be feasible too. I mean I would love to jump straight to getting a puppy; but I would be breaking a few building bylaws. In any case, I had a shower for my kitten in celebration of her arrival in my life. Yes, I can completely understand if you are raising your eyebrows at me in disdain. But once you see the food, you will forgive me. I promise.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Triple chocolate mousse cake

I’ve made this cake countless times, and it has been a roaring success everytime. One time I took it to a friend’s birthday and someone I’ve only just met told me they had an orgasm in their mouth after the first bite. I know it was a compliment, albeit an overwhelming one, but the image that it conjured up immediately afterwards was not pleasant.
The bottom layer is a flourless chocolate cake, with a layer of dark chocolate mousse in the middle and white chocolate mousse on top. Having said though, if you didn’t want to bother with separating eggs and making a meringue etc, you could so easily replace the flourless chocolate cake with my brownie recipe in the chocolate blog, and perhaps make ¾ of the recipe, depending on how thick you want the bottom layer to be. But as it is, the cake is gluten free. J
What makes this cake so popular, I’ve been told, is that the mousse layers are extremely light; which means you can eat lots of it without feeling sick. Though I’m sure many of you wouldn’t think of that as a positive attribute of the cake. I do have to mention however, that the top layer of white chocolate mousse contains gelatine, so if you are cooking for vegetarians, replace with agar agar; though I won’t be held accountable for the difference in texture.
Ingredients:Makes one 9 inch cake
Bottom layer:
85g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate
¾ tsp instant espresso powder (instant espresso not instant coffee!)
1 ½ vanilla extract
4 large eggs, separated
Pinch salt
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
Middle layer
2 tbsp cocoa powder
5 tbsp hot water (75 ml)
200g dark chocolate
1 ½ cups thickened cream
1 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch salt
Top layer
¾ tsp powdered gelatine
1 tbsp water
170g white chocolate
1 ½ cups thickened cream

Bottom layer
Line the bottom of a 9 inch springform pan with baking paper. Preheat oven to 160 degrees.
Melt butter, chocolate and espresso powder together using whichever method you like (refer to my chocolate post). I used (surprise, surprise) a microwave. 2 minutes at medium. Then whisk to smooth. Let cool.
Whisk in vanilla and egg yolks.
Beat egg whites with the salt in a stand mixer or hand-held electric whisk till foamy and loses its yellow tinge. Crumble in the brown sugar with the motor running and whisk till shiny and stiff. That is, you should be able to invert the bowl and nothing will move. Don’t be scared... live dangerously.
Whisk 1/3 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture. You don’t have to do this gently, it is only to lighten the chocolate to make the folding easier later on. Combine with the remaining of the meringue mixture and fold through until no streaks remain. Make sure this time that you are gentle.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Don’t worry, it will look as if the cake takes up the entire pan after coming out of the oven. As it cools it will sink.
Once the cake is cooled to room temperature, you will realise the middle has sunk, but the sides are still up high, like a crater. If you wish, you can unmold the cake and cut off the sides so the surface is even, but make sure you clip the side of the springform pan back. Or leave it as it is.
DO NOT top with the mousse layers until the bottom layer has cooled completely, or else the mousse will melt in the residual heat and you end up with a mess. To some people, this is common sense, but I’ve seen Masterchef finalists make this mistake, so I thought it would be helpful to at least mention it.
Middle layer
Whisk together the hot water and cocoa till no lumps remain. Set aside to cool.
Melt chocolate, however you like. Let cool slightly.
Whisk cream, sugar and salt until soft peaks (ie holds shape but still floppy). Add the cocoa mixture and whisk till combined.
Again, vigorously whisk in 1/3 of the cream mixture to the melted chocolate to lighten it. Fold in the rest. Pour the mousse onto the cooled cake layer, smooth the top with a spatula. Put in the fridge as you make the top layer.
Top layer
Sprinkle gelatine over the water in a small bowl. Let stand until the gelatine has swollen.
Chop the white chocolate finely and place in a medium bowl. Bring ½ cup of the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat, and stir in the gelatine until dissolved. Pour over the white chocolate and let stand for a minute. You can swirl the bowl but do not stir during this time.
Whisk till smooth. If the chocolate has not fully melted, put it in the microwave at medium for 10 second intervals until melted and smooth. But you must make sure the melted chocolate is cooled to room temperature before mixing with the whipped cream.
Whisk the remaining cup of cream till soft peaks. Again, whisk in vigorously 1/3 of the cream to the melted chocolate. Then carefully fold in the rest of the cream. Pour into the pan over the dark chocolate mousse layer, and smooth the top.
The white chocolate layer will be a lot runnier than the dark chocolate layer. So don’t panic. It will still set in the end.
Leave in the fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When unmolding, run a hot knife around the side of the pan, and carefully unclip the springform. Then marvel in the chocolate creation that is an orgasm in edible disguise.
Source: Cook's Illustrated

Monday, 27 February 2012

Lemon Curd Tart

If you’ve never tried making a lemon tart at home, I have to warn you, once you have, you will never go back those commercially prepared ones. Many people have complained that most recipes they have tried did not strike the right balance between sweet and tangy. I don’t know how this recipe fixes this problem, or what the perfect scientific balance is between sweet and tangy, but take my word for it, this is brilliant. At least for me.
You may find from the picture that the crust is a little thick; I did that on purpose. The crust is amazing. You can buy a pre-baked tart crust or use frozen shortcrust pastry and just make the lemon curd. But if you have the right machinery, I urge you to make it yourself. It really takes 3 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to chill in the freezer, during which time you don’t have to do anything. And the flavour is worlds better. You’ll thank me...
As you can see, I didn’t include a picture of the sliced lemon tart or even a decent photo of the whole tart, because it was devoured before I got a chance. That’s a good sign don’t you think?
Please note: the recipe may seem long, but that’s because I have trouble being concise and I wanted to include all the details. It really doesn’t include more than a handful of actions... I promise J
Sweet tart pastry (or cheats shortcrust pastry)
1 ¼ cups plain flour
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 tsp table salt
150g cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk, cold
1 tbsp thickened cream, cold
½ tsp vanilla extract
Combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a standmixer with paddle attachment, or in a food processor. Throw in the butter and turn on your machine on low until butter is the size of peas and partially incorporated into the flour mixture. The lumpiness is good here, as it makes a flaky pastry, so don’t over-process your butter.
Add the egg yolk, cream and vanilla and mix until the dough is like wet sand. If you find the dough is still too dry, you can add a bit of the egg whites too.... go slowly though.
Tip it out onto a floured surface or a sheet of baking paper. Press into a ball and roll out dough to fit your tart dish. It should ideally be about ½ centimetre in thickness. You can either roll on the floured surface, and then lift the dough by rolling it around your rolling pin and unroll onto your tart tin. Or roll in between 2 sheets of baking paper and inverting onto the tart tin.
Press into tart tin, until you are happy with the shape. If parts of the dough tears, don’t worry, just use the scraps to fix any holes; you won’t be able to see it once baked. I usually fold the overhanging dough back in, to create a double layer crust. You can do as you wish.
Stab the base a few times with a fork. Wrap in cling to avoid the crust from drying out, and leave in freezer for at least 30 minutes. This is the magic trick to prevent the crust from shrinking when baked.
Blind baking
Preheat oven to 170 degrees.
Lay a sheet of baking paper over the frozen tart crust, and fill with pie weights or uncooked rice. The weight prevents the base of the tart from rising too much when baked. If you find it has risen, just press it down with the base of a spoon.
Bake for 15 minutes, and remove baking paper and pie weights. Bake for a further 10 minutes or until the edges are a deep golden brown.
Remember: colour = flavour; but like with anything, don’t overbake until it is dark brown or (gasp...) black. I don’t think I need to tell you why that’s bad.  
 Meanwhile, prepare the curd. Refer below.
Lemon Curd
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup thickened cream
4 eggs, whisked until whites and yolks are combined but not aerated, at room temperature
40g butter, at room temperature
200g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
Firstly, I say all ingredients need to be at room temperature, that’s because it’ll take shorter to actually cook. But it’s not mandatory. You’ll just have to pour over the hot stove a bit longer if everything’s fridge cold.
Mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl and place over a pan of simmering water (ie double boiler), making sure the base of the bowl does not touch the water.
Stir consistently until custard is thickened. Should take about 8-10 minutes.
Once tart shell is cooked, lower oven temperature to 140 degrees.
Pour custard into the baked tart shell and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the edges are set, but the middle still jiggles slightly when you softly shake the tart tin.
Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate thoroughly until set, about 2 hours.
For serving, dust with icing sugar, or decorate with candied lemon slices.
Source: Tart shell from Williams Sonoma; Lemon Curd from Exclusively Food.