Thursday, June 30, 2005

Orange Caramel, Marsala & Vanilla Cheesecake

I had brought back some lovely scorzetta d'arancia candita (candied orange peel) and a bottle of Cantine Florio's delicious Targa Riserva 1840 (a Vendemmia 1997 Vino Marsala Superiore Riserva) from Sicily with the vague intent of using the former to flavour either cannoli or cassata and to drink the latter with said dessert. The gem-like succulent wedges of candied peel are entirely different from the often waxen and tasteless travesty in plastic tubs available at the Baking Needs aisle of your friendly neighbourhood supermarket. For starters, these actually taste of oranges, rather than chemical preservatives and colouring agents. As for the semisecco ambra wine, it's an elegant dessert wine crafted from selected Grillo grapes picked at peak maturity from vineyards along the coastal strip of Petrosino in Triglia. A fortified wine aged for 6 years in oak casks then matured for at least 6 months in bottle, the Targa Riserva 1840 is beautifully amber in hue. Profusely aromatic like a Christmassy spiced dried fruit compote, the flavour is full, warm and mellow. While scrumptious sipped on its own or paired with a fine pastry, the baker in me simply couldn't resist flavouring a dessert with it. Homework on which cannoli or cassata recipe to follow (currently, the recipes in Nick Malgieri's Great Italian Desserts, Victoria Granof's Sweet Sicily, and Mary Taylor Simeti's Bitter Almonds look the most enticing) not having been completed, I decided I would incorporate both the candied orange peel and marsala in some other dessert, namely cheesecake, the logic being that both flavours tasted great in ricotta-based pastry creams so why not some other mild creamy cheese?

For the cheesecake component, I used my favourite recipe thus far - a fabulously creamy number that's baked for 8 hours (yup, 8, this is not a typo error) in a water bath at the very gentle temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It's based on a recipe from Maida Heatter's Cakes, a wonderful little volume. First, a caveat: If you're a fan of the dense and firm New York-style cheesecake, this - being the very antithesis of dense and firm - is not the recipe for you. It is, however, the ultimate recipe (thus far) for fans of the lushly creamy cheesecake style. Before coming across Heatter's method, I used to follow the "Rich and Creamy Cheesecake" recipe found in the 1999 edition of The Best Recipe cookbook by Cook's Illustrated, from whence I learnt the importance of using a water bath in order to achieve a perfectly flat and uncracked top. While indeed "Rich" and "Creamy" as promised in the recipe's name, it is significantly different from that of the 8-hour cake in texture. Baked at an extremely low temperature and coddled from direct heat in a bain-marie, the ingredients have the luxury of melding together at an unhurried pace, thus setting to a delicately tender and creamily custard-like velvet. The only departure from Heatter's recipe I've made is the choice of flavouring - I've used the tiny seeds scraped from a split vanilla pod and a splash of marsala instead of vanilla extract and cognac, in addition to the Myer's Dark Rum the author specifies. I then cut out columns using a deep round cutter for an individual presentation, jiggling them into place atop crumbly, cookie-like discs of separately baked buttery pate sablee. The mirror-like finish comes from a caramel-based glaze flavoured with orange juice and more vanilla - being a clear liquid topaz, the glaze prettily holds the specks of vanilla seeds in suspension. And finally, the cakes are topped with chocolate dipped candied orange peel (made by dipping strips of peel, which have had their sugar crystal coating scraped off, in tempered Valrhona Guanaja 70.5%).

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Cookbook Meme(s): Confessions of a Junkie

Ahh...cookbooks. I will start by coming clean about my habit. What started off many years ago as an innocent-enough by-product of my love for cooking - a core collection of beloved essentials and classics - has taken on a life of its own and grown off-shoots of the most esoteric variety, depending on which obsession I'm in the grip of. You know you have gone over the edge when you entertain such ponderous questions at the bookshop as "Is my collection complete without a Georgian cookery book?" and are severely tempted to answer in the negative. You know you need help when you start sneaking new books home despite the fact that you really don't have the space for them just so as to avoid raised eyebrows from loved ones. Pleasure, it seems, is that much more so when it's guilty...

Was tagged by Nibble & Scribble for this cookbook meme and have answered the questions below. And while we're on the subject of cookbooks, have taken the liberty of answering the highly thought-provoking questions by Anthony of Spiceblog in his cookbook meme as well. I don't know if this two-headed post violates some unsaid meme law or not. Anyways...

1. Total number of cook books I've owned
Does two Ikea shelving units worth count as a quantifiable? Discounting wine books, food essay anthologies, food related memoirs, food history books and the ilk, a conservative estimate would be just shy of 300. Is this too few or too many, and is there such a thing as owning too many (incidentally, in The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes has written a hysterical essay on the subject)?

2. Last cookbook I bought
Alain Ducasse's Culinary Encyclopedia, Grand Livre de Cuisine, a gargantuan tome brimming with highly involved haute cuisine dishes that more often than not cross-reference at least three others. What valid reason (read: excuse) do I have for parting with a rather obscene amount of money for a book I am likely to use only very occasionally? I present, here, the diary of a bookshop food section indweller:
Day 1: Spy brand new shipment of Grand Livre de Cuisine! Only 5 copies! Ouch! Incredibly exorbitant pricetag. Retreat home to calm down and think about it.
Day 2: Can't stop thinking about book. Return to bookshop. 3 copies remain. Pulse races. I want, I want, I want! I mean, I need, I need, I need! Feel light-headed. Retreat home to lie down.
Day 3: Have decided to return and if there remains a copy, I shall take it as a divine sign. There remains a copy. And what looks to be a hotel restaurant sous chef (Austrian, mid-30s, unshaven, looks like he hasn't slept in years) is headed in the same direction. I swoop in and snatch up the book, almost spraining my wrist in the process (book weighs in at over 1000 pages).

3. Last food book I read
Mes Confitures and Mes Tartes, concurrently, by Christine Ferber, otherwise known as la fee des confitures, "the jam fairy". Handcrafted in the traditional way in the picturesque village of Niedermorschwihr in Alsace, Ferber's jams are made from local seasonal fruit, cooked in small batches using copper pans. Outside of Au Relais des Trois Epis, her boulangerie-patisserie in Alsace, Ferber's exquisite and special confitures, charmingly be-ribboned and clad in polka-dotted packaging, can be found in only the most exclusive of Parisian gourmet establishments. She also supplies culinary world heavyweights such as Alain Ducasse, the Troisgros family, and Pierre Herme, to name a few. Of the flavours I have had the opportunity to try, my favourite is Confiture Ispahan, which Ferber makes for Pierre Herme. It captures in a jar the ethereal taste of Herme's signature macaron, the Ispahan - a celestial creation comprising of two rose water-flavoured macarons sandwiching a delicious lychee cream and whole raspberries. The recipe, unfortunately, is not in her book. Nonetheless, having always wanted to be the sort of domestic goddess with a larder full of home-made preserves, this book makes for compulsive reading. Jams and jellies, here I come!

4.Five cookbooks that mean a lot to me
2 are old friends, the other 3 more recent influences. My tatty copies of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and Richard Olney's Simple French Food were acquired in my university days, when I spent every waking moment and every penny of spare cash at Books for Cooks, a veritable sanctuary for cookbook addicts in Notting Hill, London, rather than attending lectures and acquiring, say, textbooks. Family Food by Heston Blumenthal and Bouchon by Thomas Keller are on this list because the food they are cooking leads the pack. Short of eating at The Fat Duck, The French Laundry and Bouchon (which I one day will), I want to learn as much as I can about/from these modern masters. In his book, Heston Blumenthal looks at comfort food staples we all want to eat (like mashed potatoes and roast beef), as opposed to cheffy conceits designed to earn stars, through the lens of molecular gastronomy thus making the subject accessible and relevant to all. In Bouchon, Thomas Keller meticulously and methodically re-thinks the techniques and processes behind such bistro gold standards like boeuf bourguignon and creme caramel - there isn't a single recipe in this book I am not inspired to try. And finally, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, written by Dorie Greenspan, because I am totally fixated with the Picasso of Pastry's breathtaking sweets, and nothing would give me more personal satisfaction at this point than to cook my way through every single recipe.

5. Which 5 people would you like to see fill this out in their blog?
I can't think of anyone who hasn't already filled out at least one of the 2 cookbook memes. And if I'm wrong, to-whom-it-may-concern, please feel free to correct me by filling it out and/or passing it on!

And now for Spiceblog's questions...

1. Rationale behind what we're seeing?
Organised by subject, author and region/country on flimsy shelves evidently not designed to take the weight of this number of books. A bookcase upgrade is in order, as well as the devising of a new organizational system, both subjects on which merit a new post entirely.

2. Most recommended?
Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking (the new vastly updated and revised edition, not the 1984 one), and Shirley Corriher's Cookwise will answer every question you ever had regarding why a recipe didn't turn out perfectly. Nigel Slater's Appetite and Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion are great all-rounders that will answer the daily question of "What shall I cook today?" in an admirably stylish fashion. For when you're feeling ambitious, there's Tom Colicchio urging you to Think Like A Chef (nobody ever did say it was going to be easy...). And to spur you on to even greater heights (home-ground, mixed, cured, cased and fermented Soppressata, anyone?), there's Cooking By Hand by Paul Bertolli, a paean to the joys of cooking from scratch.

3. Cookbook that made you what you were?
Keep It Simple
by Alastair Little, which was the first book to de-mystify classic cookery for me, and taught me the vital importance of mise en place - thinking and planning ahead - in cooking.

4. Porniest cookbook?
Tie between The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, which gets my salivary glands going into overdrive every time I open it, and Shunju: New Japanese Cooking by Takashi Sugimoto & Marcia Iwatate, an enigmatic confluence of austere Zen-like beauty and latent sensuality.

5. Sophie's Choice cookbook?
Asking me to choose one to save is akin to asking a mother which of her drowning brood to rescue.

6. If you were a cookbook, which cookbook would you be?
How to be a Domestic Goddess
by Nigella Lawson? The title may have been ironically intended by the author, but sadly enough, yes, it perfectly sums up my chief ambition in life.

7. If your cookbooks were extremely valuable, so valuable you might hide it with other valuables, where would that place be?
This is classified information.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Meme: The Cook Next Door!

Been tagged by The Baker of She Bakes and She Cooks for this meme started by Nicky of Delicious Days . Here goes...

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
As a child, I looked forward not so much to Lunar New Year itself, but the weeks that preceded it, the flurry of activity in the kitchen as my granny prepared all manner of treats for the impending festivities. The biggest production of all being her pineapple tarts, which she made in the hundreds to give away to friends and family. One year, when I was about eight or nine, she decided to promote me from pineapple grating to stirring the cauldron of boiling fruit pulp. Largely unsupervised (well, actually, she was standing in a far corner of the kitchen watching me like a hawk), little chest puffed with pride, I stood on a stool next to the stove, engulfed in wafts of cinnamon-scented steam, as I maneuvered the spatula. This became increasingly tricky as the pineapple jam got progressively thicker and stickier. I could barely lift my arms for two days after that.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
My granny. Like many women of her generation, she believes that the only way is the hard way. For sure, if she can peel, mince, and pound it by hand - from rempah (curry paste) to sambal to salted bean sauces for stir-frying - it'll never come from a shop-bought jar. And at well over 80, she remains just about the most curious cook I know - when the family eats out, you can see her silently speculating how to replicate a particular dish as she's tasting it for the first time, or not so silently as she interrogates the waitress about some elusive taste she can't quite place.

Do you have an old photo as “evidence” of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
I would proffer and take a picture of my chocolate-stained baby pillow, which I clung to right into my pre-adolescence, except my mum tossed it out one day when I was at school. I don't think I ever got over it.

Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I am fascinated by le pain au levain naturel, or naturally leavened bread. I have attempted to grow my own le chef, or wild yeast starter, twice. And until I get round to acquiring a climate-controlled proof box, I am very unlikely to attempt it again. The first time, I was tardy about my feeding schedule, thus causing my starter to angrily mutate into a vile sour sludge from malnourishment. The second, I was overzealous with feeding, thus waking up one morning to an overflowing monstrosity worthy of a cameo on Swamp Thing.

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
I love my KitchenAid for taking the elbow grease out of tasks like whipping egg whites and kneading sticky doughs like brioche. Pots and pans wise, I probably couldn't live without my enamelled cast iron Le Creuset dutch oven and my E.Dehillerin stainless steel-lined copper sauteuse. And the white elephant in my kitchen is the handsome, heavy and well-crafted Bron mandolin. Restaurant kitchen workhorse that it may be, the small amount of grating and slicing performed in my galley of a kitchen - easily achieved with, say, a Kyocera ceramic slicer - simply does not justify the Bron's cumbersome presence. Plus it's a real bore to clean.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like - and probably no one else!
Spooning Nutella straight out of the jar and into my mouth. The whole jar. And more precisely, Nutella that's been taken out of the fridge 45 minutes earlier so it reaches the perfect consistency - slightly firm round the edges, wonderfully gooey within. Same goes for condensed milk (this I eat fridge cold) and smooth, not chunky, peanut butter (30 minute wait from fridge, this) - neat from the jar, no accompaniment whatsoever needed or wanted.

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don’t want to live without?
O-toro, or fatty tuna belly; a ripe, swollen, buttery soft Epoisse; Valrhona Manjari chocolate.

Three quickies:
Your favorite ice-cream…
Rocombe's Madagascan Vanilla Organic Ice Cream from Devon, UK. Berthillon's Chocolat Amer from Paris. Il Gelato di San Crispino's Wild Honey gelato from Rome.
You will probably never eat… Reptiles and insects, by which I do not mean to denigrate the many cultures that find them to be delicious and excellent sources of nutritional value...
Your own signature dish…An omelette, made with three eggs and filled with molten gruyere.

And last but not least: Tag three people!
I am tagging Chubby Hubby (which is, technically speaking, 2 sets of responses. S: would love to know your answers too...), McAuliflower at Brownie Points, and Rachael of Fresh Approach Cooking.

Cleaning Out the Fridge

It's high time to purge my fridge of odds and ends from meals of the fortnight past. I assembled dinner tonight in no time at all thanks to leftover building blocks of a couple of dishes, which I put together exactly as in their original incarnation - namely, porcini galettes and parmigiana di melanzane. Given the same state-of-the-fridge scenario on another given day, I would probably have felt compelled to reconfigure the elements in a shiny new permutation. Wherein lies the pleasure of solitary meals - having to please nobody but yourself, yourself being the one who really doesn't mind eating the same thing twice. Not that others necessarily mind, of course - put it down to my neurosis.
For the porcini galettes, which are inspired by a recipe from Gordon Ramsay's Secrets cookbook, I baked pre-sheeted and formed discs of homemade pate demi-feuilletee, or rough puff, straight from the freezer till crisply golden before adding a smear of onion cream flavoured with meaty morsels of Salame di Sant'Angelo di Brolo, the delicious cured pork product air-dried in the pristine cool air of the Nebrodie Mountains.
For the topping, I used a little of my precious stash of funghi porcini secchi - thrillingly aromatic specimens, these large slices are all designer cream and ecru, with nary a blemish in sight - resuscitated in a little vermouth and sauteed in butter with garlic and thyme. The galettes are finished with shavings of parmesan and a tiny splash of white truffle oil.
The parmigiana di melazane layers, as per normal, richly caramelised slices of fried aubergine, tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, and basil leaves. The difference lies in the sauce. I wanted the tomato sauce to be robust, to taste of gloriously hot summers, of long sun-drenched days and balmy nights. I wanted, more specifically, to emulate the intensity of estratto, the potent rusty-red, putty-like Sicilian tomato paste laboriously worked by hand.

To this end, I very slowly reduced some canned Italian plum tomatoes, cut up with their juice, with minced onion, garlic, and sea salt in olive oil over the merest flame until thickly jammy. What ups the ante? The addition of some pomodoro secco di Sicilia - moist, plump and succulent, these sun-dried tomato halves were just the sun-kissed dimension the sauce sought.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Sake no Oyako Don, or Mother & Child Salmon Rice Bowl

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W left on a work trip tonight. As is our ritual, dinner was something dear and familiar, a comfort food staple (to us, anyway) as a for-now last taste of home. This is our piscine spin on the popular chicken-and-egg-on-rice affectionately named oyako, "mother and child", donburi. Sashimi-grade raw sake (salmon) belly, richly marbled with fat and buttery in texture, is chopped and subtly seasoned, with ikura (salted salmon roe) and tobiko (flying fish roe) gently folded in. Mount this tartar-like mixture on a nest of finely shredded daikon atop a steaming bed of plain Japonica rice, dimple the top and nestle a raw egg yolk within, and it's a meal-in-a-bowl. Diners can help themselves to a trickle of shoyu and a dab of wasabi if they see fit.

Textural contrast is part of the enjoyment of this dish. Smooth fatty salmon, crunchy ebiko, pearls of ikura popping against the palate to release their oily juice, crisp matchsticks of daikon and grains of sticky rice meld as you stir everything together with chopsticks. The hot rice part- cooks the yolk, which clings to and binds the myriad components like a sauce. And texture being key, paying attention to how ingredients are cut makes a difference. Tempting as it is to bung everything in the food processor, unless you want a mulch that's good for nothing but very expensive salmon burgers (by which I do not mean to imply there's anything wrong with salmon burgers), only a well-sharpened chef's knife will do here. I like to finely mince half of the salmon, than chopping the other half in uniform dice approximately the size of a pea, before combining the two.

Seasoning-wise, it really is up to you. I usually use some or all of the following, depending on the quality of the fish and what I have on hand: aonegi (Japanese green onion), finely sliced; myoga (ginger bud), finely chopped; ginger, freshly grated; garlic, freshly grated; shiso (perilla) leaves, minced; shoyu; mirin; shiro miso; sansho pepper; ichimi togarashi (chilli powder). Heavy-handedness is fatal, so think in terms of a pinch of this and a dash of that - the overriding taste should be that of the sea.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

IMBB #16 Eggs!: Savoury Custard with Century Egg and Tobiko

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This is my first time taking part in Is My Blog Burning?, which is hosted this month by Seattle Bon Vivant. I have been really psyched about the theme - eggs - one of my favourite foods. Hen's eggs alone already posed the question of which amongst my many beloved egg dishes to cook. Throwing the door wide open to include eggs of every possible kind made the choice even tougher. At W's suggestion, I made my version of an appetizer we frequently enjoy at a local Japanese restaurant - which is to say, it is Japanese-y, rather than Japanese, in inspiration. Happily, it combines three kinds of eggs - hen's eggs, century eggs, and tobiko (flying fish roe).

The savoury custard, otherwise known as tamago-dofu (egg tofu), actually contains no bean curd (dofu) whatsoever. It is so named because the texture of the delicately-set custard has the fine consistency of silken tofu. Tamago-dofu is just a tad firmer than chawan-mushi, its ubiquitous soupy cousin steamed and served in a lidded cup . Set just so, it is firm enough to turn out and cut into cubes, but not so firm as to desist shivering voluptuously like a Rubenesque thigh when plopped onto the plate. It can be served hot or cold, alone or as a component. There are countless sauces that will tastily blanket its rippling depths, as there are innumerable toppings that will enhance its custardy savoriness. I chose to serve the tamago-dofu chilled, with a creamy mayonnaise spiked with thrice-sieved century egg yolks, and topped with diced century egg white (which is, through the preservation process, not white anymore, but a translucent jelly not unlike tortoiseshell in appearance), a dollop of tobiko, and finely snipped aonegi (Japanese green onion). As I know lots of folks don't share my partiality for century eggs, the recipe below is simply for the tamago-dofu - the perfect canvas for improvisation.


280ml chicken stock, or dashi (preferably home-made)
1.5 Tbsp mirin
1.5 Tbsp light soy sauce (preferably usukuchi shoyu)
3 eggs

Stir the chicken stock or dashi, mirin, and light soy sauce together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix, not beat, the eggs gently until yolks and whites are well blended. Pour the seasoned stock mixture into the eggs and gently stir till mixed. Using a fine-meshed sieve, strain into a small loaf pan lined with foil (try to get the bottom as unwrinkled as possible; the foil assists later in lifting out the custard). If there are any bubbles on the surface, prick them with a toothpick. The dimensions of the pan aren't important; what's important is that the liquid comes up to a depth of around 1 inch. Cover the top of the loaf pan tightly with clingwrap or foil to keep out moisture. Line the steamer insert above a pan of simmering water with a dampened folded tea towel before putting the loaf pan in - this helps coddle the loaf pan from direct heat as gentle even heat is necessary to achieve the perfect set. Steam over a medium-low flame for about 20 minutes - the custard is done when a skewer inserted in the centre emerges clean. The top should not be dry, rubbery, firm or pocked - it should wobble when you tap the loaf pan. If eating hot, cut and serve. If eating cold, place the loaf pan in a pan of iced water until cool before cutting and chilling.

Serves 2 greedy people, variously topped, as an appetizer.

Friday, June 24, 2005

For Mains: Saffron Tortellini filled with Herbed Mascarpone in Sea Urchin Sauce

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This is my take on the stuffed pasta dish we had devoured with such gusto at Ristorante Oliviero in Villa Sant' Andrea. As I am partial to pairing seafood with the sensual, earthy aroma of saffron, I wanted to introduce the flavour to the dish. When using these precious golden filaments, there is a very fine line to thread - just enough, and it imparts an intriguingly honeyed, floral note, too much, and it's bitter medicine. I didn't want to muddle the delicate mascarpone filling, or overwhelm the distinctive sea urchin sauce. After only the faintest whiff of the musky crocus stamens, I thought flavouring the fresh egg pasta dough instead of either the filling or the sauce would be the most subtle way of going about it. The sea urchin sauce is loosely based on a recipe from Grand Livre de Cuisine, Alain Ducasse's behemoth of a culinary encyclopedia, which I had finally succumbed to after deliberating for the grand duration of three days.

To Start: Lobster Cream with Shavings of Bottarga

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I thought it would be nice for tonight's dinner to feature ingredients I had brought back from Sicily. To start, we will be having a creamy lobster soup, its crustacean sweetness tempered by shavings of bottarga - the preserved tuna roe commonly used in both Sicilian and Sardinian cooking, often called "the caviar of the poor". Whole egg sacs, extricated as soon as the tuna is caught, are cleaned, brined, washed, salted and massaged by hand over a period of weeks before being pressed (hence its petrified wood-like appearance, as you can see in the background of the picture) and sun-dried.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pierre Herme's Faubourg Pave, or is it Rondelle?

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Chubby Hubby and his fabulously sexy gourmand of a wife, S, are coming over for dinner tommorrow. When it comes to cooking for company, I am a big believer of the do-ahead - anything and everything that can be prepped ahead of time means less time spent slaving away at the stove while everyone's at the table (not that I mind in the least; in fact, far from), and more time actually at the table.

For several reasons, I made the Faubourg Pave from the Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme book today. I know C.H. and S are, like myself, major fans of the genius otherwise known as the Picasso of Pastry. Also, my ambition in life as of late (in case anyone hasn't noticed...) is to cook my way through the two Pierre Herme books I own. Typically, I'm not being very methodical about it. Instead of systematically working through the cake chapter, the cookie chapter, the tart chapter and so on and so forth, my approach (if one can call it that) has been one of random selection, depending on what sounds particularly enticing on any given occasion.

Named for the Faubourg Saint-Honore (the luxurious locale of the original Laduree tea salon, for which the cake had been dreamt up by Pierre Herme when he first took its helm), and shaped like a pave (paving stone), layers of caramel syrup-drenched chocolate cake and onctueuse chocolate caramel ganache hide a layer of tangy macerated apricots. The background note of salt (the signature Herme touch when it comes to all things caramel) is courtesy of the judicious use of salted butter (I used beurre d'Echire demi-sel, the fabulous high-butterfat AOC stuff that I know S loves). The fine balance of flavours is in no small part due to the chocolate used - a mixture of Valrhona Grand Cru Manjari 64% and Jivara Lait 40%. As with each and every of his recipes that feature chocolate, Pierre Herme specifies his preferred choice of Valrhona chocolate (and he only uses Valrhona). This may seem fastidious, but is actually critical in striking the said balance, particularly when unusual flavour combinations are in question. Manjari, blended from specially selected Criollo and Trinitario beans from Madagascar, is an alluringly aromatic chocolate that's not in the least harsh, making it the ideal chocolate for preparations with acidic notes.

The only thing I did differently was the presentation - individual portions shaped using my little oval rings rather than a whole rectangular cake, making the result more a Faubourg Rondelle rather then a Pave!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Sweetly Sicilian

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Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's melancholic masterpiece, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), is laced with sumptuous period details, sensual passages bringing to life the Prince of Salina's lavish meals (and appetite for sugary treats) being amongst the most vivid. For the unabashedly sweet-toothed, Sicily must seem like a spiritual home - where else do people breakfast on granita, accompanied by a warm sweet brioche and washed down with a potent little espresso?

Sadly, time did not permit a visit to any of the few remaining convents where nuns prepare traditional sweetmeats for sale through a girandola (a revolving wheel used to pass goods without having to actually open the cloister to the secular world). Nonetheless, we made a daily pilgrimmage to Pasticceria Etna, the splendid bakery located along the main drag of Corso Umberto in Taormina. The raven-haired signorina behind the counter, fortunately, seemed rather amused by our insatiable appetite and curiosity.

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The bakery's justly famed Brontesi - commonly known as Fior di Pistacchio - makes for a magnificent mid-morning pastry. Poetically named after Bronte, the area on the fertile slopes of Mount Etna where pistachios grow, its jewel-like hue is entirely thanks to the brilliant emerald green of the region's crop.

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The Pasta di Mandorla al Fichi is another sweet perfectly suited to enjoying with a strong espresso. Aromatic almond paste, which is ubiquitous in Sicilian baking, coddles a jammy fig filling, stickily oozing and Moorish-ly spiced.

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Come merenda, a slice of baroquely embellished cassata siciliana is hard to beat. Layers of pan di Spagna (a sponge cake) encase a creamy ricotta filling, the whole enrobed with marzipan and garnished with candied fruit.

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Or have a cannoli - Pasticceria Etna's is plain astounding. The perfectly deep-fried tube of pastry dough - golden, crisp and beautifully blistered - shatters in your mouth, giving way to a luscious ricotta filling studded with bits of bitter chocolate and candied citrus peel.

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And if you find it impossible to stop at one, there's always the non-traditional but equally delectable icebox variant - chocolate dipped pastry cylinders packed with sublime gelato and smothered with chopped pistachios.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Villa Sant' Andrea

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We're back from a glorious week in Taormina, Sicily. We stayed at Villa Sant' Andrea, the charming hotel located in Mazzaro, the seaside community beneath Taormina. Famished from our flight and many trying transfers, we headed straight for Ristorante Oliviero having barely put our luggage down. This excellent restaurant in a postcard-perfect setting overlooking the coastline, conveniently enough, happens to be located within Sant' Andrea's premises.

The waiter promptly brought us plates of succulent pescespada (swordfish), locally caught and smoked, marinated with dill and diced peaches.

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As we perused the menu, cubes of hearth-baked bread and a dish of Furgentini extra virgin olive oil, headily floral and intensely fruity, magically appeared.

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To start, W had a delicious cream of fennel soup, beautifully punctuated by salty shavings of bottarga (dried tuna roe) and a herbaceous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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I ordered a pescespada terrine - meatily dense swordfish swaddled in sweet tomato confit and char-grilled aubergine - daubed with savory crema di olive nere (a black olive and caper paste).

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W has a knack of ordering the right dish, at the right time, in the right place. True to form, his choice of ravioli really hit the spot. Filled with goat's milk ricotta scented with the merest hint of oregano, the stuffed pasta was sauced with a luscious ricci (sea urchin) flavoured cream.

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The grilled sgombri (mackerel) I ordered was deboned and utterly devoid of the mustiness so often associated with this fish - it was of a spanking freshness that tasted of the sea. Served with preternaturally sweet cherry tomatoes, ripened by the intense Sicilian sun, crescents of pungently aromatic Tropea onion, and a frothy oregano-inflected sabayon, it was nothing short of stunning.

Monday, June 13, 2005

XO Sauce - I

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We're off to Sicily for the week today - W for work, me, to eat. So for lunch, something quick and simple was in order. I had made up a batch of XO Sauce over the weekend from Grace Young's wonderful The Breath of a Wok. Brimming with recipes, lore and anecdotal incidence, it's a cookbook that's so much more than just a cookbook. I keep meaning to be the sort of fearsomely disciplined cook with an organised pantry full of homemade condiments and sauces at her disposal, ready to be called into service for any meal in the upcoming weeks. Instead, any forward-thinking on my part happens on a sporadic basis, as and when I have a moment.

W loves XO Sauce - so this is, hopefully, the first in a series of posts about cooking with it (there's plenty left from the large batch, which keeps for weeks, I made). For lunch, I tossed some Chinese egg noodles (mee pok) together with thinly sliced discs of fresh scallops, asparagus, and a helping of the spicy sauce thick with dried scallops, dried shrimp, and red chillies. The nicest thing is, seeing as you're not confined to a tiny (and exorbitantly-priced) jar of the shop-bought stuff (which, incidentally, is searingly hot and tastes as much of MSG as it does of dried scallops), there's no need to hold back on making it a healthy helping of sauce.

Homemade XO Sauce Posted by Hello

Pierre Herme's Riviera

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The first recipe I ever attempted from the Desserts by Pierre Herme book was his lemon tart. Seductively simple in construction - comprising merely of a pastry crust and lemon cream filling - its taste is anything but. The lemon cream was a true revelation, sublimely silky and unlike your everyday lemon curd texture although exactly the same ingredients are used. The genius, as always, lies in Herme's departure from conventional wisdom and technique - butter is added only after the lemon cream has cooled significantly to ensure smoothness, and the whole is then energetically aerated in a blender to produce a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

I wanted to try another recipe featuring the luscious lemon cream and decided on the Riviera. Here, the tart lemon cream is sandwiched between alternating layers of flourless chocolate cake and bittersweet chocolate mousse. I down-sized the recipe to make individual portions, and fiddled with the presentation - instead of decorating the surface with spokes of mousse and a cut lemon, I applied a dark chocolate glaze and scattered on some finely grated lemon zest.