Friday, July 29, 2005

IMBB #17: Tempest in a Teacup

For the 17th edition of Is My Blog Burning?, the theme is tasteTea, as dreamt up by the inimitable Clement of a la cuisine! . Irresolution being a particular specialty of mine, I decided to embrace the vast possibilities of tea as an ingredient by composing a meal. Or, in other words, I totally copped out of having to make an ultimate choice. But seriously, indecisiveness aside, I'm fascinated by chakaiseki, the elaborate procession of seasonal dishes that's part of the chaji, the full formal Japanese tea ceremony. I am also partial to the French art of tea as gloriously embodied by Mariage Freres, the venerable Maison de The whose fabulously appointed tea salons, discriminate selection of the world's most exquisite teas, and magical tea-infused menus (everything from financier to fish is subtly spiked with tea) make it a must-visit in Paris. In designing my modest menu, I wanted each dish to feature both a different tea and a different manner of using tea to impart flavour.

Oolong Tea Eggs One of my favourite ways of enjoying hard-cooked eggs, these beautifully marbled orbs look stunning when piled into a bowl, like so many exotic objets d'art. Their extraordinary appearance is acquired by steeping hard-cooked eggs - gently tapped with a heavy spoon to create a fine web of hairline cracks without actually removing any shell - in a barely trembling hot bath flavoured with loose tea leaves, soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon for several hours. I used Tie Guan Yin, the oolong tea named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy that's beloved for its delicate, orchid-like perfume. Off heat, the eggs are left to sit in the aromatic infusion, which further develops their flavour and mottled patina. I gingerly peel the eggshells off after a 12-hour soak - you could leave them for an even longer period if a deeper colour is desired - and serve them with roasted Sichuan pepper-salt.

Roast Tiger Prawns with White Tea Oil & Spiced Tea Salt This is based on a recipe from Tetsuya Wakuda's book. Large tiger prawns, beheaded and de-veined, are split lengthwise and seasoned with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and tea - I used silvery needles of the white tea known as Pai Mu Dan (White Peony), grinding the tea to a fine dust with a spice mill. The prawns are roasted in a very hot oven for a couple of minutes, emerging succulent and juicy, and garnished with shreds of toasted nori. Delicious as they are, I couldn't resist serving them with a spiced salt not unlike the Japanese goma shio condiment. Making it was as simple as stirring together some fine sea salt with pinches of aonori (fine nori seaweed flakes), sansho (the ground spice made from the prickly ash pod), crushed dried red chillies, toasted black sesame, and last but not least, ground white tea.

Jasmine Tea Smoked Poussin Lucid and highly detailed instructions for smoking all manner of poultry using equipment no fancier than an old battered wok can be found in both of Barbara Tropp's wonderful books, the China Moon Cookbook and The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. I used several poussin, each of which makes for a perfectly-sized individual serving, providing every diner with an ideal package of skin and flesh to chew and bone to gnaw. The baby birds are thoroughly massaged with roasted Sichuan pepper-salt and tangerine peel, stuffed with crushed scallions and ginger, and left to marinate overnight before being steamed till partially cooked. They are then smoked over a mixture made up of equal parts tea leaves, brown sugar and raw rice. Ring the changes with your choice of tea and additional spices to flavour the smoke - I added Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, tangerine peel, star anise and cloves to the basic smoking mixture, and used large-leaf semi-fermented jasmine tea, which made for plumes of smoke with a heady incense-like redolence. I pull the plump poussin out of the wok when they've turned a rich amber hue - colouring is a good gauge of degree of flavour intensity when smoking. If you're after only the faintest whiff of smoke, pull them out when they're pale gold. If you like it pungent, wait till they're a deep mahogany. Enhance their lacquered sheen with a light glossing of fragrant sesame oil and devour warm, tepid, or best of all, cold. Ethereal is the only word to describe the experience of sensuously perfumed skin and melt-in-the-mouth fat melding into silken tender flesh with each bite.

Chazuke Tea Rice This is comfort food at its homely, soothing best. Hot cooked japonica rice is topped with some preserved fish - I used a mixture of shio sake (salted salmon) and tarako (salted cod roe) - crumbled toasted nori and sesame seeds. At the table, hot Japanese green tea - typically bancha, but I like using genmai-cha, the blend of coarse green bancha leaves and grains of roasted popped rice, whose nutty flavour I find wonderful in the dish - is poured over the garnished rice, the whole stirred together with chopsticks and relished alongside Japanese pickles and wasabi. Depending on your toppings - slices of rare beef, smoked eel, sashimi-grade salmon or sea bream are also nice - chazuke can be as grand or as humble as you wish.

Matcha Panna Cotta with Langue du Chat Having recently read my copy of Okakura Kakuzo's classic The Book of Tea again, with its riveting account of Zen Buddhism and chado, the Way of Tea, I wanted to make something sweet using matcha, the powdered green tea used in the etiquette and ritual steeped tea ceremony by whipping with a bamboo whisk to a luxuriant froth. Nothing as intricate as some wagashi style confectionery, but an easy panna cotta adapted from a recipe in Jane Lawson's Yoshoku (yoshoku refers to the intriguing style of Japanese food which fuses Western and Japanese ingredients and techniques). I topped the softly set cream, dreamy in its pale celadon beauty, with a tiny dollop of whipped heavy cream and marron glace, candied chestnuts. And on the side, an intensely buttery tongue of langue du chat.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Canele de Bordeaux, or is it Cannele Bordelais?

Stubby, almost-burnt brown in colour, a canele is not exactly the kind of pastry you look at and think "Whoah!". However, take one bite and you'll be an instant fan. A thin, crunchy caramelized shell holds a rich, wobbly, custard-like interior, warmly scented with vanilla and dark rum - many have likened the canele to a portable creme brulee. My first taste was at Jean-Luc Poujauran's jewel box of a bakery, esteemed by most to make the most definitive version in Paris. Suffice to say words fail me when asked to describe his revelatory sweet. This little cake hails from Bordeaux, where a confrerie or brotherhood of patissiers have been sworn to protect its secret recipe, to defend its integrity, and to distinguish their canele de Bordeaux - the official cake of the city - with its mysterious method of preparation from cannele bordelais, the generic term used everywhere else from Paris to Los Angeles. In The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Paula Wolfert gives a fascinating account of the story and politics behind this peerless confection, including a recipe and clear instructions on how to season the molds.

Earlier this year, I finally made the plunge and acquired some tin-lined copper canele molds I had been lusting after since having first spied them some time ago - don't you love the idea of specially crafted molds designed with a singular purpose in life? And my justification for such a splurge? Well, I figured, if I did manage to learn how to make a proper canele, the sheer bliss that is the experience of sinking my teeth into its moist fragrant depths would be priceless...and the expense of acquiring the molds, surely a small price to pay. Perhaps I should also mention that on this particular occasion, I learnt that these were the last 6 molds in stock at the shop, that they were being held for another customer who wasn't quite certain if she wanted them, and that no, I couldn't have them just yet. A good hour of gentle persuasion and getting on the phone with the store manager (who wasn't around that day) ensued, and I was finally allowed to hand over the plastic. So, to whom it may concern who didn't want them badly enough to snatch up the molds when she had the opportunity, I would like to convey my deep gratitude and thanks.

I would love to say I've been making good use of the molds, feverishly baking up batch after batch ad nauseam until I'd perfected the recipe. Instead, given that I suffer from a mild case of culinary ADD, I baked every recipe I could lay my hands on (namely, from Wolfert's book, Pascal Rigo's The American Boulangerie, and Nancy Silverton's Pastries from the La Brea Bakery) in the first flush of triumphant mold ownership, got frustrated with my less-than-spectacular results, and promptly relegated the molds to the back of a deep drawer, very much neglected until a recent hunt for a missing pastry brush inevitably unearthed them. Feeling somewhat guilty, I gave the caneles another go. The recipe I remember being happiest with was Wolfert's. While less cakey or bready in texture than the others, it still wasn't as pronouncedly custardy as Poujauran's. While certainly more custardy relative to the other recipes, it wasn't so custardy that "custardy" would be the first adjective to spring to mind when you tasted it. I followed Wolfert's impeccable instructions for preparing the molds with beeswax (instrumental not only for ease of unmolding but, as she advises, to getting a proper crust), as well as her unusual technique of mixing the ingredients (she adds butter then eggs to the flour before the milk; the other recipes mix the butter with the milk before adding it to the flour and eggs) but tweaked the proportions (increasing the amount of butter and sugar, and decreasing the amount of flour) gradually in consecutive batches until the result came close to the texture I so well remember. I also tried using the batter after different periods of rest - a full 24-hour rest in the fridge results in a canele that's significantly improved in texture and flavour than one that's baked after only a few hours of rest. For a more rounded vanilla flavour, I've also infused the milk with split and scraped vanilla pods in addition to using pure vanilla extract.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Mee Siam

Despite his robust build and appearance, W really has a fairly sensitive constitution - by which I mean his poor tolerance of spicy food. As much as he loves it, he has a pretty low threshold when it comes to the Scoville stakes, paying dearly every time he indulges in a fashion I don't think I need to go into detail here. I attribute it to his Stateside upbringing; not having been weaned on sambal at a tender age, he never built up an endurance. Nonetheless, like every self-respecting Asian, he's totally addicted to the no pain-no gain hot pepper high, the endorphin rush that's released as tingled nerve endings trick your brain into thinking you're in pain. Amongst the spicy foods W will gladly suffer for, Mee Siam ranks high on the list. This tangily spicy rice vermicelli dish, like many other classics in the Nonya repertoire, blends essentially Malay flavours like belachan (shrimp paste) and coconut milk with unmistakably Chinese accents. In this particular instance, taucheo (salted soy beans) adds intrigue to the rempah (spice paste). Mee Siam is so-named as its spicy, sweet and sour flavour and redolence are somewhat similar to, or influenced by, Thai food. If you're petrified of chillies or are cooking for loved ones who are, reduce the fear (or rather, heat) factor by stripping out the veins and seeds of the fruit - that's where the capsaicin is concentrated. And like many other Nonya dishes, Mee Siam is pretty labour-intensive. However, the rempah, gravy and toppings can all be prepared ahead of time - it's then just a matter of quick assembly when you're ready to tuck in. You can dish everything out attractively into individual bowls, serving the piping hot gravy in a separate jug for people to pour over just before eating - all the better to unleash the heady aroma of the slivered bunga siantan (the beautiful pink ginger buds of the torch ginger plant - an optional, but lovely, touch) that tops the vermicelli. Have fresh chilli sambal and cut kalamansi limes at the table for those who like it hot and/or tart, as well as some keropok (prawn crackers) for sopping up the gravy.


Prawn Stock
*12 large tiger prawns *2 litres water
De-shell and de-vein the prawns. Set them aside. Only the heads and shells are needed for the stock. Place heads and shells in a stockpot. Add 2 litres of water. Bring slowly to the boil, then turn heat down so water simmers. Simmer for 1 hr, or until water is reduced to 1 litre. Strain. Set aside.

*10 shallots, peeled and minced *6 fresh red chillies, de-seeded and minced *6 dried red chillies, de-seeded, soaked till soft, drained and minced *2 lemongrass stalks, tender inner stems only, minced *6 candlenuts, chopped *1 heaped Tbsp belachan (shrimp paste)
Pound together all the ingredients listed except for the belachan. Wrap belachan in a small square of aluminium foil. Toast package in a small dry pan over low heat till aromatic. Unwrap, crumble into the rempah, incorporate. Set aside.

*4 Tbsp peanut oil *100gm dried shrimp, soaked till soft, drained and finely minced *3 heaped Tbsp taucheo (salted soy beans), lightly crushed *1 litre prawn stock (from above)*4 Tbsp dried tamarind pulp dissolved in 1 cup water, sieved, tamarind water reserved *2 Tbsp gula melaka (palm sugar), or more *1 red onion, halved and finely sliced *600ml coconut milk, preferably freshly extracted
Heat oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. When fairly hot, add the rempah along with the finely minced dried shrimp. Turn heat down. Patiently stir-fry the mixture until it turns a deep terracotta colour and the oil separates - at least 30 minutes. Do not leave the pan unattended. When the paste is correctly cooked, add the taucheo. Stir for 1 minute. Now scoop out a third of the paste into a bowl and set the bowl aside (this will be used to cook and flavour the rice vermicelli later). To the remaining paste in the pan, add the prawn stock made earlier. Bring to a simmer, then add half the quantity of tamarind water specified, sugar and onion. Simmer for 30 minutes. Now add the coconut milk and simmer for a further 10 minutes, or till slightly thickened. Adjust seasoning to taste with the reserved tamarind water and more sugar (it is unlikely you'll need any salt). Turn heat off, cover pan, set aside.

*12 large tiger prawns, de-shelled and de-veined (from making the prawn stock), poached 2 minutes in simmering salted water till cooked, drained, sliced lengthwise *4 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled, quartered *A large handful of ku chai (Chinese chives; you can substitute chives or scallions), green section only, snipped into 2cm lengths *1 square taukua (firm tofu), well drained, sliced into 2cm strips, deep-fried in a vat of hot peanut oil till golden brown, drained on paper towels *4 kalamansi limes, halved *1 ginger flower bud, pink petals only, slivered (optional)
Prepare all the toppings as described ahead of serving. Set aside.

*200gm beehoon (dried rice vermicelli)
*Fried rempah (reserved quantity from making gravy earlier)
*250ml water
*Large handful of bean sprouts, topped and tailed
When ready to eat, soak the dried rice vermicelli in a large bowl of tepid water for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Place the reserved quantity of fried rempah (set aside from making the gravy earlier) in a wok or large frying pan over medium heat. Add the water. Bring to the boil. Add beansprouts. Stir and cook for a minute. Add the rice vermicelli, turn down the heat, and toss repeatedly with long cooking chopsticks to evenly mix everything. When the pan is fairly dry, dish the vermicelli out into individual serving bowls. Top each portion with prawn slices, egg quarters, ku chai, taukwa, a lime halve, and a scattering of ginger flower bud slivers.

To Serve
*Fresh chilli sambal
*Keropok (prawn crackers)
Bring out the dressed bowls of vermicelli along with dishes of fresh chilli sambal, keropok, and more lime halves. Bring the saucepan of gravy back to the boil. Pour into a jug and bring to the table. Pour gravy over vermicelli just before eating. Let diners add squeeze of lime and chilli sambal to taste.

Serves 4 to 6.

Friday, July 15, 2005

SHF#10: Fig & Honey Caramel Tart with Miel du Gatinais Parfait

This month's Sugar High Friday is hosted by Nic of the delectable bakingsheet, and the theme is honey. What a theme! My first thoughts were of the extended family of spiced honey cakes - bread-like French pain d'epices, candied-fruit and nut-studded German lebkuchen, sticky English gingerbread, and all other Brothers Grimm-worthy manner of sweetmeats straight from the proverbial land of milk and honey. But seeing as Christmas is hardly round the corner, my thoughts turned to the more prosaic - what are my favourite ways of enjoying honey? Thickly dribbled over wheaten toast slathered with salted butter, it's a fabulous breakfast treat that's hard to beat. Thinly drizzled over gorgonzola served with figs and walnuts, you've assembled an elegant luncheon in no time at all. Rippled through some creme fraiche, it dresses up simple poached fruit and transforms it into a dinner party star. Honey has a natural affinity with salted butter, figs, nuts, and creme fraiche - I had my job cut out for me. I've chosen to use Miel du Gatinais, the justly famed wild flower honey of the Orleanais region that, while hauntingly and distinctively floral, is not so assertive as to lord it over the other elements. A honey with great presence, say lavender or chestnut, is perfect in certain desserts, but not appropriate for the tarts I planned to make.

Yes, tarts - I evidently haven't gotten over my tardiness at missing the last SHF#9: Tantalizing Titillating Tempting Tarts! My tarts, or rather tartlets, are based on a recipe from Christine Ferber's lovely Mes Tartes, a book brimming with unusual but utterly delicious ideas for the countless wonders you can create simply by filling a pastry case. But hers is no ordinary pastry - enriched with ground almonds and praline, it's a scrumptiously buttery dough that's good enough to be eaten like a cookie on its own. The tart is filled with an aromatic almond cream, into which I've folded some luscious creme fraiche d'Isigny and honey. Once baked, the tart is smothered with a creamy honey caramel sauce, from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. In addition to heavy cream, she stirs honey and creme fraiche into the caramelised sugar. With its subtly cultured tang, creme fraiche brings beautiful balance to the sauce. And of course, a soupcon of salt is never out of place in caramel. But instead of mere salt, I whisked in a goodly lump of salted butter right at the end when the sauce is just taken off heat - beurre de baratte from Nantais luxuriously salted with sel de mer de Guerande, a decadent butter made by the traditional churn method with a sumptuous caramelised flavour. Finally, the fresh figs which top the tart. The fruit is poached the day before in a wine syrup, which I made by heating together a bottle's worth of Brown Brothers' Late Harvested Orange Muscat & Flora (I used a 2003 vintage), honey, and lemon juice. And to accentuate the phantom citrus dimension, a few drops of orange blossom water - Orange Muscat has nothing whatsoever to actually do with oranges, it just happens to be a varietal that smells like a simmering copper pan of the most divine homemade marmalade, with a zesty citrus zip on the lovely finish. The figs are left to cool and sit in their honeyed bath overnight, emerging the next morning perfumed and plump, their Scheherazade-sque scent and succulence considerably heightened by the leisurely soak. To finish, slivers of candied orange peel - I've used my precious stash of Sicilian scorzetta d'arancia candita. I think had my only recourse been the putrid neon stubs that so often masquerade as orange peel, I would have used a sprinkle of pulverised almond brittle instead.

If the tart is a tout ensemble in which the Miel du Gatinais is but one of several supporting - which is not to say dispensable - players, it gains prima donna-like ascendancy in the whisper-light parfait, adapted from a recipe in Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir's Frozen Desserts book. The enigmatic wild flower flavour is underscored by a dash of dark rum and a trickle of orange blossom water, rounded out by softly whipped cream and more creme fraiche. In retrospect, orange blossom honey would have worked wonderfully here - looking through my books today, I've just spied a wonderful sounding recipe for Frozen Orange-Blossom Honey Mousse in Claudia Fleming's The Last Course. Now, to hunt down a good jar of orange blossom honey and try the recipe...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Paper Chef #8: Cheese & Crema di Olive Nere Torte on Cheddar Shortbread with A Salad of Ratte Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Prosciutto

For the 8th edition of Paper Chef, judged by Sarah of the fabulous The Delicious Life , the final ingredient list came down to Cheddar cheese, olives, spinach and potatoes or cream. What a serendipitous selection! I simply couldn't resist taking part. The problem was, there were so many things I could think of making using the shortlisted ingredients, I was paralysed by indecision. However, as I was making my weekend grocery shopping rounds, I finally had a galvanising moment, having set eyes on the loveliest La Rattes - ratte potatoes - from Jargeau, along the Loire in France. Like chubby little fingers in shape, this thin-skinned waxy variety is delectably creamy-fleshed and fine of texture - and really really good simply sauteed in olive oil or butter, needing no other seasoning frankly than some flakes of Maldon sea salt or grains of fleur de sel.

I made some cheese tortes, inspired by a recipe I'd seen from Nancy Silverton's excellent Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, stirring together ricotta, mascarpone, some mature English farmhouse Cheddar, and parmesan. The tortes are spiked with some crema di olive nere, which is really like an Italian tapenade minus the tuna fish. Once baked, the puffy little golden discs are then plopped atop Cheddar shortbread, which I thought would afford a nice crumbly contrast to the richly cheesy tortes. The savoury cheesecake is accompanied by a warm salad of crisped ratte potatoes folded together with shards of caramelised prosciutto and tender leaves of baby spinach. While I had it for dinner, I think it would be right in keeping at a leisurely brunch.

Cheese & Crema di Olive Nere Torte on Cheddar Shortbread with A Salad of Ratte Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Prosciutto

For the Crema di Olive Nere: Blend together 15 pitted oil-cured black olives, 1 chopped anchovy fillet, 1 tsp well-drained capers, 1 chopped clove of garlic, 1 tsp rum, and 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a food processor, pulsing to obtain a fine and nubbly - but not completely smooth - texture. Scrape the paste into a bowl and set aside. You will only be using 1 Tbsp of the paste; save the rest for use as a spread on crostini.

For the Cheddar Shortbread: Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut 60gm of well-chilled unsalted butter into a bowl with 75gm plain flour which has been seasoned with 1/8 tsp salt and 1/8tsp cayenne pepper. When the mixture resembles oatmeal, stir in 1/2 cup of finely grated mature Cheddar. Tip the mixture into a buttered 7-inch square baking tin, pressing down firmly to level the surface. Chill the dough for at least 30minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 150 degrees Centigrade. Bake the shortbread for about 40 minutes or until pale gold. Stamp out four 3-inch circles with a cookie cutter whilst hot. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes before lifting the circles out (be careful - the shortbread crumbles very easily) to a rack to cool. As for the remnants, they make a tasty cook's reward...

For the Cheese Tortes: Grease four 3-inch metal rings (which are at least 1.5 inch high) with melted butter. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine 250gm mascarpone, 250gm ricotta, 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan, 1/2 cup finely grated mature cheddar, 2 eggs and 1Tbsp minced fresh thyme leaves. Fold in 1Tbsp crema di olive nere. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the metal rings on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon the cheese mixture into the rings, filling to just below the rim. Sprinkle each with some more finely grated mature cheddar, about 1 Tbsp per torte. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until firm and golden brown.

(While the tortes are baking, prepare the following)
Very thinly slice half a red onion. Macerate the onion with a touch of salt, a tiny pinch of caster sugar, and a spritz of lemon juice so it loses a little of its edge. Set aside.

Lightly toast 2 Tbsp pinenuts in a dry pan. Set aside.

Heat a little olive oil in a large heavy non-stick frying pan. When the fat is hot, lay down 2 prosciutto slices and let them sizzle till crisp and slightly caramelised around the edges, turning once. When done, pull the prosciutto apart into rough shards. Drain on paper towels. Set aside. Do not wash the frying pan.

For the Sauteed Potatoes: Place 12 ratte potatoes (or other new potato variety no more than 1 inch in diameter) in a large saucepan, along with 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 bushy thyme sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and 3 smashed garlic cloves. Add cold water to cover by 1 inch and season the water assertively with sea salt. To quote Thomas Keller, "The water should taste like the sea. It must be highly seasoned, since it will flavour the potatoes as they cook." Over a high heat, bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes (depending on the size of your potatoes) until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes, discard the herbs and such, and pat the potatoes dry with paper towels. Slice each potato in half lengthwise. Using the same frying pan containing the prosciutto-flavoured olive oil, add more olive oil to generously film the pan surface. Over a medium-high heat, add the potatoes in a single layer and saute 5 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden and crusty. Sprinkle the potatoes with good salt (preferably Maldon or fleur de sel).

To Serve: Just before the cheese tortes are ready, make the salad. Toss the reserved prosciutto shards, drained macerated red onion, and sauteed potatoes together with a large handful of baby spinach leaves, anointing with a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil, adding more salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice to taste if necessary. Stir in the toasted pinenuts last. Divide the salad between four plates. Place a disc of Cheddar shortbread on each plate. Pull the cheese tortes from the oven, and gingerly lift the metal rings off using a pair of tongs. Deftly slide the tortes onto the waiting shortbread discs with the aid of a thin, wide metal spatula. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a light lunch.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Macaron By Any Other Name - Luxemburgerli

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet

Like so many sweet-toothed others, if I had to pick one weakness, one gourmandise, it would have to be macarons. Which visitor to Paris hasn't made the pilgrimmage to Laduree's opulent tea salon on the Champs Elysees to gawk at their elegant pyramids of macarons, beckoning like jewels? A few very special patisseries making very special macarons hold a very special place in my modest les bonnes adresses. Gerard Mulot makes some lovely ones in traditional flavours, my favourite being the divine pistachio. For chocolate macarons, there's La Maison du Chocolat's coffee macaron with bittersweet chocolate and coffee ganache and Jean-Paul Hevin's Macaron Chocolat a l'ancienne - both houses, incidentally, were awarded "The Best Macaron in Paris" by Le Meilleur Macaron de Paris. Make no mistake about it; Parisians are so serious about their favourite le gouter indulgence they've now created the perfect excuse - an official award - to eat their way through the city's most moreish macarons and argue about their respective merits. For out-of-this-world flavours, there's Pierre Herme (in particular, the breathtaking Ispahan, with rose water flavoured macarons sandwiching a dreamy rose petal-infused cream, lychee puree and whole raspberries, and the delicious caramel au fleur de sel).

Now, scrap that. Like so many sweet-toothed others, if I had to pick one weakness, it would be the macaroon family of cookies, for macarons (or, more specifically, macarons de paris), are but one in the pantheon of ground almond cookies held together by nothing more than whipped egg whites and sugar. The perfect macaron is defined by a smooth domed top, with a delicately thin, barely resistant exterior crust that gives way under your teeth to a soft chewy interior, encircled by a craggy edge known as "the foot". This definition of perfection differs, obviously, across the spectrum of almond cookies. In Italy, Amaretti di Saronno spiked with crushed apricot kernels and wrapped in pairs, powdery Sicilian Fior di Mandorla, and Sienese Ricciarelli that's almost marzipan-like in texture, are prized for their moist, succulent chewiness. English bitter almond-flavoured ratafias are similarly beloved for their slight resilience.

As of late, thanks to W's frequent trips to Zurich, I've become acquainted with yet another confection that's different yet the same, that exhibits characteristics distinct from its Parisian counterpart yet indubitably belongs to the same family. Luxemburgerli from Confiserie Sprungli are the most ethereal little mouthfuls imaginable. In appearance, it is like a miniature Parisian macaron, not much larger than a quail's egg in size. And the top crust is just about as fragile as a quail's egg shell. Thenceforth, it departs from the Parisian paradigm by being all about friability. So how does the cookie crumble? On the tongue, the brittle shell airily dissipates as the teeth sink into a cloud-soft buttercream that manages to be feather light yet luscious.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Laksa Lemak

Last night, W called to ask if I could make him some laksa lemak, one of his all-time local favourites. He's back today for a very brief spell before taking off again, so it goes without saying that I obliged. Laksa exists in countless incarnations throughout the Malay Peninsula - Sarawak, Malacca, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, and of course Singapore, each have their own tasty version. Extravagantly enriched with coconut milk, laksa lemak is the version most commonly found across the length and breath of our island (and particularly in the Katong area, but that's another anecdote altogether...). Influenced by my maternal grandmother - who was, incidentally, as formidable a cook as the paternal grandmother who brought me up - the laksa lemak I make is Nonya in style. The recipe is hers, except that she would have made her own fish balls using ikan tenggiri (I've used ready-made fried fishcakes) and extracted her own coconut milk using freshly grated coconut (instead, I turn to the stall at Tekka Market which sells freshly extracted coconut milk).


Prawn Stock
20 large tiger prawns
1Tbsp peanut oil
1.5 liters water

15 shallots, peeled and minced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
10 to 15 dried red chillies, deseeded, soaked till soft, drained and minced
10 candlenuts, chopped
3 lemongrass stalks, tender inner stems only, minced
Fresh tumeric, 1 thumb-length piece, peeled and minced
Galangal, 1 thumb-length piece, peeled and minced
1Tbsp belachan (shrimp paste)
2 Tbsp coriander seeds

4Tbsp dried shrimp, soaked till soft and drained
6Tbsp peanut oil
600ml coconut milk, preferably fresh
1Tbsp salt, or more

2Tbsp gula melaka (palm sugar), or more

500gm fresh laksa noodles, or thick vermicelli

20 raw prawns, shelled and de-veined (left from making prawn stock)
Large handful of beansprouts
2 fried fishcakes, sliced thickly
2 taupok (deep-fried tofu puffs) squares, sliced thickly
8 quail's eggs
Large handful of finely shredded cucumber
Handful of finely shredded laksa leaves (daun kesom)

To Serve: Sambal Goreng
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 candlenuts, chopped
10 shallots, peeled and minced
10 dried red chillies, soaked till soft and minced
1Tbsp tamarind pulp soaked in 100ml water
3Tbsp peanut oil
1Tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp salt
1Tbsp gula melaka (palm sugar)

For the prawn stock: Peel and de-vein the prawns. Set them aside. Only the heads and shells are needed for the stock. Heat the oil over a medium flame in a stockpot. Stir fry the prawn heads and shells till bright orange and slightly caramelised. Add the water and bring to the boil. Turn heat down and simmer gently for 1 hr. Strain and reserve.

For the rempah: Except for the shrimp paste and coriander seeds, pound all the ingredients for the spice paste according to the order listed with mortar and pestle. Ensure that each ingredient is thoroughly assimilated before adding the next. Wrap the shrimp paste in a small square of aluminium foil and toast it over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic - about 2-3 minutes. Unwrap, add to spice paste, and incorporate. Toast the coriander seeds over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic - about 60 seconds. Grind to a fine powder with a spice/coffee mill. Stir the ground coriander into the spice paste.

For the laksa broth: Grind the softened dried shrimp to a fine powdery consistency. Set aside. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame until fairly hot. Add the rempah and fry for about 10 minutes - be patient and stir constantly until the paste becomes thick, fragrant, several shades deeper, and the oil separates from the paste. When the paste is sufficiently cooked, add the ground dried shrimp. Stir for 1 minute. Add the reserved prawn stock, coconut milk, salt and palm sugar. Slowly bring to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for a few minutes, adjusting seasoning with more salt or sugar as needed. When broth tastes right, turn off heat, cover, and set aside.

Bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Scald laksa noodles for 15 to 30 seconds. Drain in colander and arrest cooking by placing under a running tap for a few minutes. Drain again and set aside. Using the same pot, bring some fresh water to a rolling boil. Blanch whole prawns until cooked, about 2 minutes. Lift out with a slotted spoon and split in half lengthwise. In the same water, scald bean sprouts, fishcake slices, and taupok slices in separate batches for 10 seconds each, lifting each out with a slotted spoon. Set aside. Place the quail's eggs in a small pan of salted cold water. Bring to a boil over brisk heat and boil for 1 minute before draining and cooling under a running cold tap. Shell carefully. Cucumber and laksa leaves should be shredded as close to your serving time as possible.

For the sambal goreng (this can be made several days in advance): Pound the garlic with mortar and pestle to a pulp. Pounding each ingredient till incorporated before adding the next, pound the candlenuts, shallots and chillies. Set paste aside. Strain the tamarind water; reserve the liquid and discard the seeds left in sieve. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat till fairly hot. Add reserved paste, turn heat down to low, and slowly fry for about 10 minutes until thickened, a deep ruddy brown, and the oil separates from the paste. Be patient; the spices must be adequately cooked to mellow and lose their raw taste. Now add the reserved tamarind water, tomato paste, salt and sugar. Stir constantly over a low heat until reduced to a jammy consistency, adjusting seasoning to taste. Scrape into a bowl. Cool. Chill till needed.

To serve: Portion noodles and beansprouts between deep bowls. Top each bowl with prawns, fishcake, taupok, quail's eggs, and cucumber. Bring laksa broth to the boil. Ladle boiling broth into waiting bowls. Scatter the shredded laksa leaves on top and serve immediately. Let diners help themselves to the sambal.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Polenta with Truffled Brie & Caramelised Sage Butter

Everytime W goes to Switzerland, I know I can look forward to a few things (besides his homecoming, of course). If it's Zurich, I know there will be boxes of divine handmade pralines, luscious Grand Cru truffles crafted from the finest cocoa beans and fresh cream, and Luxemburgerli (an airy macaron-type confection), all of which he knows I adore, from the famed Confiserie Sprungli. If it's Geneva, I know he'll pop into the chic food hall of the city's grandest department store, Globus-Grand Passage in Place du Molard, for some truffled brie, which he knows I can't get enough of.

This last trip was to Geneva - suffice to say I have been happily living on warm crusty baguette thickly smeared with the aforementioned surface ripened white mould cheese the last few days. Lovingly ripened by skilled affinage and released only at the peak of its oozing perfection, this cheese's golden yellow pate is a creamy delight, intensely permeated with the swoon-inducing aroma of black truffle, with which it is generously speckled.

I love smothering griddled polenta under a blanket of molten cheese (torta mascarpone gorgonzola or taleggio have always worked a treat) and thought I would make a luxurious supper for one tonight using the truffled brie. For the polenta, I am a total convert to Judy Rodgers' method as detailed in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, a treasure trove of wonderful stories, recipes and refined technique. The fluffy texture is thanks to a high ratio of water to corn meal and long leisurely cooking, finished by a resting period in a bain marie wherein the polenta swells even more to acquire its uniquely tender texture. Once the polenta was made and still soft, I stirred in some dried porcini pieces which I had first reconsituted and sauteed with a touch of garlic in butter. The warm mixture is then spread onto a tray to cool. When set till firm, it's sliced and brushed with melted butter before being roasted in the oven, emerging delicately crunchy outside yet yielding within. For the sauce, I melt a good lump of unsalted butter and a dollop of mascarpone in a small pan over a gentle flame till liquid before adding some brie, stirring all the while. When the mixture is piping hot, tip it over the waiting polenta slices. As for the finishing touch, it is as simple as heating some unsalted butter to the point where the milk solids caramelise and the fat becomes nuttily aromatic, then tossing in a handful of young, tender sage leaves to frizzle and crisp.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Petites Brioches a Tete with Prosciutto & Gruyere

I hesitate to count the trays of eggs and pats of butter I've imprudently consumed in the name of working on brioche. Some time last year, I became somewhat obsessed with making a decent brioche. In my books, that's one that manages to be tenderly feathery in texture yet bursting with buttery richness in taste. To create a tight-crumbed brioche that's cake-like in texture (which some may prefer) was not my goal - for that, if you ask me, I might as well make pound cake, which also happens to be a tiny fraction of the trouble. Naturally, many said trays of eggs and pats of butter were flagrantly dumped in recipes that promised one texture but turned out another. To minimise waste of time, I have since learnt - an education paid for in eggs and butter - to sort the feathery from the cakey by scrutinising the recipe instructions (no matter what the author may purport) before springing for my KitchenAid. After many intermittent spells of brioche recipe tinkering (poor "Why can't we just eat normal bread?" W), I have finally grasped the essentials (invaluably gleaned, amongst others, from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cookery Volume II, and Nancy Silverton's advice in Baking with Julia) for creating some semblance of the texture I so desire, and have thus officially entered the second phase of my pathological brioche baking, the miasma of myths that shrouded my path to perfect brioche having been cleared...

Mention the word prosciutto, and I used to immediately think of the justly legendary prosciutto di Parma, the fabulous air-cured ham from Langhirano in Emilia- Romagna. Well, as of a couple of days ago, not anymore. Thanks to Chubby Hubby and his lovely wife, S, who generously gave us some of the prosciutto di San Daniele he had brought back from a recent trip to Venice, I now know why this mandoline-shaped ham from the province of Udine in Friuli is considered by many to at least rival, if not better, its more famous cousin. Less assertively salted than Parma ham, the San Daniele ham seems sweeter in contrast. As Fred Plotkin (the author of the indispensable Italy for the Gourmet Traveller guide) puts it in La Terra Fortunata - his ode to the glorious food and wine of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region - prosciutto di San Daniele at its best is "a miraculous hybrid of flesh and silk". I had taken out some slices for a quick lunch of cold cuts, cheese and bread yesterday. We polished off everything laid out save a few scraps, which I was reluctant to toss out - the idea of buttered fresh egg noodles tossed with sage and ham was burning dimly at the back of my mind, I guess. As happens a lot when there are too many reminders of meals past, present and future - read: odds and ends - lurking in the fridge, I got sidetracked. Namely, by a big bowl of hibernating brioche dough leftover from some flamiche I made a few days ago (brioche dough, incidentally, makes a terrific tart shell). I am particularly fond of this batch, which is bursting with buttery flavour thanks to the unsalted beurre d'Echire used.

Inspired by the spicy salami and cheese flecked Casatiello bread I had read about in Carol Field's wonderful The Italian Baker, I decided to make some petites brioches a tete flavoured with prosciutto di San Daniele and gruyere. Depending on your frame of reference, Casatiello (being an egg and butter enriched dough) is like a piquantly flavoured Italian relative of brioche, or a savoury version of panettone (the rich Milanese bread consumed at Christmas) studded with cured meat and cheese in lieu of nuts and candied fruit. The resulting little rolls were pretty tasty - I can't wait to try making the Casatiello recipe proper.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


W loves lasagne. He came home yesterday, only to depart again today. So I really wanted to make something special for dinner. I think of Vincisgrassi, which is a baked pasta layered with chicken liver sauce and besciamella, as being a rich lasagne. According to Anna del Conte in Gastronomy of Italy, the original recipe for the sauce uses prosciutto, chicken livers, porcini, calf's brains and sweetbreads, slowly simmered then given a final enrichment of cream and spicing with nutmeg. She also mentions that these days, the brains and sweetbreads are often replaced by ground veal. The only other recipe I could find in my books for Vincisgrassi is from Ann and Franco Taruschio's Leaves from The Walnut Tree (the recipe for which has been replicated in their more recent title on pasta), a charming book illustrated with exquisite woodblock prints by Sarah van Niekerk. Franco Taruschio comes from the Marche region, whence this splendid dish originates. Italian food historians can't seem to agree on the story behind its odd name. One romantic story goes that it was created and named (not too accurately!) by a chef in Macerata in honour of Prince Alfred zu Windischgratz, the Austrian commander of the occupation forces based in neighbouring Ancona in 1799 during the Napoleonic wars. It is, however, just as likely (if not more) to be based upon a similar dish called Princisgras, mentioned in Antonio Nebbia's gastronomic manual of 1784. If you're interested, Waverly Root gives a pretty entertaining account of the dish in The Food of Italy. Anyways, whatever the provenance, Vincisgrassi is delicious.

My first encounter with Vincisgrassi was at The Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny in Wales about a decade ago. As far as I can recall, there was meat in their sauce, which was confirmed by looking at the Taruschios' recipe (theirs really isn't unlike a ragu alla Bolognese in construction). In Anna del Conte's recipe (which is indubitably the authentic article), she only uses offal. After much dithering, I finally decided to make my sauce using a mixture of chicken livers, ground beef (for meatiness), ground pork (for sweetness), and ground veal (for delicacy). So apart from substituting Anna del Conte's brains and sweetbreads with an equal weight of mixed ground meats, I've kept to her recipe. I'm also really glad I followed her instructions for the unusual pasta dough instead of sticking with my regular dough recipe. Made from farina 00 flour, semolina flour, eggs, butter and vin santo, the resulting lasagne sheets seemed more greedily absorbent (before baking, the assembled layers of pasta, sauce and besciamella are left to stand for at least four hours for the flavours and elements to intermarry), yet had a fabulous resilience that withstood baking without dissolving into a mush. As a vegetable course, I made a platter of 3 bite-sized aubergine-based dishes - a wonderfully crisp aubergine patty based on a Marcella Hazan recipe and served with a dab of sundried tomato compote; an aubergine "caviar" flavoured with oil-cured black olives, parsley and shallots and served with a parmesan crisp; and a griddled aubergine slice stuffed with roasted red peppers and mozzarella before being baked till oozily molten then topped with pesto.