Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Gift of Gifting

As a child, few things came close in the excitement stakes than being allowed to help my grandmother in the kitchen with the preparation of a plethora of traditional treats in the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year festivities. Equally exciting was witnessing the seemingly endless stream of gifts beating a path through the front door, from mammoth hampers brimming with delicacies like bird's nest, abalone and dried scallops to small jars of homemade pineapple tarts or squares of Kuih Lapis, each layer impossibly thin and even and perfect.

As an adult, I have to wistfully confess this palpable sense of anticipation has almost all but vanished. I know I am not alone; many friends recount a similar feeling of loss. I suspect it largely has to do with the malady of the modern age - the chronically time-strapped condition we find ourselves in. Said tarts and kuih are notoriously painstaking and laborious to make - I remember my grandmother taking a whole day alone to grate dozens of pineapples and simmer the pulp down with sugar and spice just to make a vat of jam. Then there was another day spent making, rolling, stamping, crimping and filling the tart pastry. And we haven't even come to the batch baking part of the story yet - Who has the time? Or the energy? Especially given that the ready made option is so readily accessible?

Convenience, alas, may have been bought at the expense of the true spirit of the season. Handcrafted gifts of food have sadly become a dying tradition, and along with its demise, there's a waning sense of the momentousness, the very pomp and splendour, of the occasion - no mere coincidence, surely. Of course, it should not be gifting per se that defines the season, but the gift of gifting. And as far as I can speak from personal experience, nothing quite puts me in the right spirit of things than rolling up my sleeves and putting my hands to work. It may not be weeks, or even days, on end. Just the odd hour stolen here and there. Nonetheless, the satisfaction at having produced something from scratch - and whoever said it shouldn't also be simple and quick? - more than amply repays whatever little time was set aside.

I imagine I can't be the only baker in a hurry. The sort who needs things done in a jiffy. Yet insists on something freshly baked and crafted by hand. And it is for this very reason that I designed the recipes for this series of classes the way they are - effortless recipes where speed and ease of preparation do not compromise deliciousness. The wow factor comes not so much from how many man-hours it apparently took you, but the element of surprise, of using familiar flavours in wholly unexpected ways. Flexibility was another major consideration - the freedom to bake just one, or two, or all four of the basic recipes (Jasmine Tea Macarons, Mandarin Friands, Sesame Financiers, and/or Almond Shortbread) to give away. Or choosing to jazz one up at reunion dinner table (or any other dinner table with an Asian menu at any other time of the year, for that matter) with an easy accompaniment to compose a plated dessert. Each of the four recipes will, hopefully, also provide plenty room for improvisation and invention. The remaining sessions are on 26 January(Saturday) and 27 January (Sunday) (the January schedule has all the details; please call the school at +65 6479 8442 or email shermaycs@yahoo.com.sg for all inquiries).

Even if you take the minimal approach and zoom in on only one of the baked treats that speaks to your particular sensibilities, that doesn't mean the packaging and presentation has to be anything less than spectacular. I can't say often enough how most of us eat with our eyes first, and presenting what you've taken the effort to make in a thoughtful manner really is half the battle won.
Felt and silk cord can dress up vibrantly coloured boxes, adorned perhaps with a fabric bloom or two. Treats can come coddled in twists of metallic tissue, interleaved with squares of mulberry paper, or simply cradled in pleated cases. Art papers, be they silk screened or reversible crepe or corrugated card stock, can make for rather special envelopes, pouches and wrappers. I sincerely hope this series of pictures illustrates how a little imagination goes a long way when it comes to artful gifting.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Minor Tweaks, Major Impact

I haven't had much time lately to bake strictly for leisure, which is not to say a girl can't have her cake and eat it too. Instead, I've been having a bit of a blast mixing work and play by tinkering with these recipes (see details for the sessions on 12 January, 13 January, 26 January and 27 January on the January schedule ).

Quite aside from effectively using up all the spare ingredients and preparations invariably produced from each test-run, it has also proven most effective at keeping boredom at bay - not so much mine, but that of my long-suffering loved ones who've had to polish off whichever nth version of whatever recipe I happen to be refining, oftentimes days in a row.

Good recipes to have up the time-pressed baker's sleeve, besides of course being good to eat, are hardworking recipes. In other words, recipes that do double, even triple, duty with hardly any effort on your part. A nip here, a tuck there (read: virtually no fuss for you) - sometimes as simple as a change of baking tin, sometimes requiring no more energy than whipping up a fresh new accompaniment - VoilĂ ! A brand new dessert as far as the beholder is concerned.

Some easy variations on the theme that I had fun coming up with, and more importantly, were enthusiastically received:

Jasmine Tea Macaron and Lychee & Rose Sorbet Sandwich
A cool permutation from exactly the same collection of basic recipes. And because we eat with our eyes first, all I did to romanticize the look of this exotic sorbet sandwich and give it a Moorish mood was tint the macaron batter pink.

Mandarin Friand, Orange Blossom Cream, Fresh Citrus Salad
Another Moorish twist. I used a mini tart pan with a fluted edge instead of oval moulds to bake the friands. Topped with a dollop of clotted cream scented with a few drops of orange blossom water and chopped pistachios, and paired with a fresh fruit salad composed of an assortment of citrus segments (macerated with more orange blossom water and orange zest), it's a refreshing yet satisfying end to a rich meal.

Sesame Financier, Matcha White Chocolate Ganache, Candied Yuzu Peel
I had candied some yuzu peel late last year when this precious fruit was briefly in season and naturally, thought to take the presentation of the sesame financiers in a Japanesey direction - miniaturized, finished with a rosette of white chocolate ganache flavoured with matcha and the yuzu comfit.
Almond Shortbread Sandwich with Praline Buttercream and Dark Chocolate Glaze
A cookie sandwich that's dressy enough to serve as dessert per se - a pair of almond shortbread slices filled with almond praline buttercream, the topmost slice glazed with tempered dark chocolate and coated with toasted chopped almonds.