Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lost & Found: A Mariage Frères Brûle Parfum Teapot

I have a great weakness for all things Mariage Frères. The elegance of the sky-lit tearoom on Rue du Bourg-Tibourg appointed in chic colonial style, the sophistication of their distinctive black-and-yellow canisters, the artfulness of their classic blends, the intoxicating fragrance of their teas flavoured with a lush mix of fruit, flowers and spices - the Mariage Frères experience is sheer sensory escapism. Don't take it from me; Michèle of Oswego Tea, Sam of Becks & Posh, and Santos of The Scent of Green Bananas - ladies of impeccable taste - have all written eloquent accounts of their own encounters.

Short of hopping onto a plane, I was pretty much dependent on friends travelling to Paris or Tokyo to bring me back a fix or two. W is all too familiar with my slight obsession - on our trip to Bangkok in September, I persuaded him to travel halfway across town (no mean feat given Bangkok traffic) to The Oriental, just so as to drink “The Oriental”, a brew of high grown black tea perfumed with jasmine and mandarin specially created by the maison de thé in honour of the grand hotel. On a previous trip to Tokyo, I left with a half-empty suitcase and upon checking into the hotel and barely dropping my bags, headed straight for the Mariage Frères salon de thé in Ginza where I proceeded to buy as much as my luggage could hold.

And then, on my way out, my eyes fell upon The Most Perfect Teapot I Had Ever Seen. An exquisite form, a rare beauty, the teapot of my dreams, the one I never knew I was looking for. Love at first sight, no questions about it. Sadly, where objects of desire are concerned, it's very often love for money - I was on a budget far too modest to accommodate the likes of this precious thoroughbred. Steeling myself, almost choking back a tear, I spun around and slowly, deliberately, walked out. That night, I tossed and turned in the unfamiliar hotel bedding, unable to fall asleep, consumed by thoughts of how much better tea could taste thanks to a teapot. Need I say that come daybreak, I had decided that I could afford it afterall, the better part of that sleepless night having been spent performing some complex mental budgetary arithmetic. And need I say that my overnight dithering meant that The Most Perfect Teapot I Had Ever Seen also became The One That Got Away? Such is life - it was gone when I returned to Ginza that morning.

They say opportunity never knocks twice. Happily, I can now beg to differ. Some weeks back, as I was doing a spot of Christmas shopping, just when I wasn't looking, there it sat on the back of a shelf (for anyone who's interested, The Link Home in Singapore also carries a small selection of Mariage Frères teas). The Brûle Parfum, or "Scent Holder", is so-named after its inspiration, an 18th century incense holder Kitti Cha Sangmanee (part of the creative force behind the renaissance of the venerable house) had seen in Japan. The fluted body of this porcelain teapot, draped in a platinum glaze of subdued sheen, is crowned with a cast-iron top, pierced so as to let the tea's ethereal perfume rise in tantalising plumes.

And yes, the tea does taste better...

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Compleat Dumpling

I took the longest time to work up the nerve to make my own dumpling wrappers. Which is sort of odd, given that it is no harder or easier than making pasta, an exercise I really enjoy. Simply put, my trepidation stems from the fact that I am Chinese - it's always easier to plunge headlong into the food of a culture other than one's own given that there are no deeply ingrained ideals to live up to. My grandmother is a formidable cook. If she can make it herself, she will make it herself. What this means, apart from a great childhood spent alongside her kneading, rolling and pounding away in the kitchen, is that I know whatever I care to attempt to reproduce will always fall short of my remembrance of those dumplings past.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using shop-bought wrappers, a true boon to the time-pressed. However, as good as they can be, they are also entirely different from the handmade deal. The readymade one-type(or at best, several types)-fits-all approach is completely acceptable so long as you're prepared to overlook the fact that there's a right wrapper (is it a hot water dough? is it enriched with egg? is it based on wheat starch or rice flour rather than all-purpose plain flour? is it paper thin or the thickness of a dollar coin? the list goes on) for every type of dumpling.

Eventually realising that nothing can live up to the taste of memory, but that shouldn't stop one from trying to come close, I finally gave it a go. And another. And then some. As with all things requiring some semblance of dexterity, practice makes perfect. Or in my case, not perfect but at least easier, less intimidating, and more approachable. So much so, I've even begun to actually enjoy the process. The Compleat Dumpling, as I like to think of it, is by no means The Perfect Dumpling of my sepia toned recollection, nor will it ever be. It is, however, most certainly honest and delicious - few things yield as generous returns with so modest an investment of effort. W came home last Friday from a work trip and I wanted supper to be a simple yet luxurious affair.

Crab & Scallop Soup Dumplings

Not a dumpling floating in broth (unless you choose to ladle some over after it's been steamed), but broth in a dumpling - seeming magic courtesy of pork stock. Highly reduced and left to chill to a gelled state, this fairly firm aspic is then diced and incorporated into the filling. The wrapper dough is pasta-like in that the flour is mostly hydrated by egg yolks rather than water. Steaming the finished dumplings, each coddled in its very own little lidded bowl, not only cooks the wrapper and filling, but reverts the stock within to the state of broth.

Potstickers with Hand-Chopped Wagyu

Beautifully marbled wagyu is hardly necessary or authentic, but it does make for an incredibly juicy filling. Chopping by hand ensures the right texture; the food processor or blender reduces the beef to a paste-like pulp that isn't appropriate for the loose, moist stuffing needed for guo tie (or gyoza, its Japanese cousin). Hot water dough makes for a slightly glutinous texture, a wonderful wrapper with a subtly resilient bite that stands up to the part-pan-fried, part-steamed cooking method which results in tender dumplings with toasty golden bottoms. The malleability of fresh dough also allows for greater ease of manipulation; the requisite form, a plump pillow, is smooth on one side and pot-bellied on the other thanks to a series of tiny pleats which also ensures a pretty arc of an edge, and sits flat on its bottom.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Cooking for Company

I love every aspect about creating a meal. Browsing through cookbooks to plan the menu, shopping for ingredients, the mise en place, the actual cooking, plating and eating - it's a ritual that makes me happy on a daily basis. And when cooking for company, the exact same process, albeit on a different scale, does it for me. However, given my self-acknowledged impulse towards excess, I've wisely granted W the powers of veto whenever the feeding involves more than the two of us - I'll present him with several contending recipes for each course, he makes the final cut, as was the case with the menu when we hosted dinner for friends (two couples) yesterday.

Sea Urchin Custard with Velouté of Tiger Prawn

This is an adaptation of an Alain Ducasse and Didier Eléna recipe that's one of our favourite ways with sea urchin roe, from Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must've Been Something I Ate. If you're not a fan of sea urchin, this may well be the recipe to change your mind.

Black & White Truffle Soup, Truffled Parmesan Shortbread

This fabulous number, which Rick Tramonto calls his "Totally Insane Black and White Truffle Soup" in his cookbook Tru, is heart-stoppingly extravagant with the prized fungi, and all the better for it. The accompanying savoury shortbread is based on a faithful standby from Sue Lawrence's Book of Baking, in party dress of course - I stirred a heaping dollop of Tetsuya's Black Truffle Salsa into the dough before shaping and baking.

Fresh Egg Tagliatelle with Mentaiko

A Japanese-Western pasta dish W and I adore, lavishly flavoured with salted and spiced cod roe. Spaghetti is typically used, although we've never had two versions that tasted alike - it's one of those dishes that embraces liberal interpretation. Aside from insisting on homemade egg noodles, W also prefers it thus: Snippets of streaky bacon slowly crisped in a good lump of butter then set aside, a pile of thinly sliced onions cooked in the same highly flavoured fat till soft and caramelised, a quick deglazing with a tiny splash of mirin before the addition of chubby fingers of buna shimeji mushrooms - cooked just, to retain their meaty texture. Only after the freshly boiled pasta is drained and tossed in the pan, are the bacon, mentaiko paste (the fleshy pink roe, scraped from its sacs, is mashed with more butter), and finely sliced negi added. W's version, as I like to think of it, is sublime in a homespun soul food kind of fashion. But there are as many ways with mentaiko pasta as there are cooks; as if you haven't already, see Chubby Hubby's exquisitely elegant (not to mention wonderfully delicious) signature dish here.

Stracotto of Beef Shin & Porcini, Roasted Sage & Onion Polenta

Meat marinated and braised in a big, muscular Barolo till meltingly fall apart, loosely following the principles of the exemplary method as outlined in Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand. The resulting sugo, the pot liquor if you will, is lent greater body thanks to the pork trotter that goes into the braising vessel right from the beginning. The usual aromatic suspects (onion, carrot, celery, garlic, rosemary et al) aside, vincotto and dried porcini add further depth and savour. As for the polenta, I like Judy Rodgers' technique as set forth in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, an unusual one which I've gushed about before - I've yet to encounter another that results in as perfectly fluffy a texture.

Chocolate Pannacotta, Manjari and Macadamia Toffee Crunch, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

An unabashedly over-the-top composed dessert for the decidedly sweet-toothed (funnily enough, all the menfolk present at dinner) from the Boulevard cookbook by Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola. The chocolate panna cotta is set atop an ultra-rich brownie bottom, and tastes like a grown-up's fudgesicle, while the Valrhona Manjari chocolate and macadamia nut toffee crunch, as sophisticated as a candy bar gets. A delicate chocolate lace tuile affords crisp, brittle contrast. I had some salted caramel sauce handy in the fridge so I used that instead of the hot fudge sauce called for. Vanilla bean ice cream, freshly churned earlier in the day, provides a cool respite from all that bittersweet intensity.