Sunday, August 28, 2005

IMBB#18: A Doughnut By Any Other Name

W is not the easiest person to please when it comes to food. By this, I do not mean it has to be fancy. It just has to be good. Whether it's spending hours on the road in search of the best bowl of pho in Orange County, cramming in three of his favourite sushi bars before his flight leaves Tokyo, or timing soft-boiled eggs down to the last second with the countdown function of his PanoRetroGraph, W is prepared to go to extremes in the name of eating well. His particular standards apply equally to fast food - having lived Stateside many years, he's in fact quite the expert on the subject. What makes the cut? Perfection comes in the form of an In-N-Out burger. A hotdog from Pink's ranks up there too. And when it comes to doughnuts, the choice is clear - Krispy Kreme, not Dunkin' Donuts.

This month's IMBB is hosted by Linda of the wonderful At Our Table, and the theme is Summer's Flying, Let's Get Frying! Here was the perfect excuse to try my hand at making doughnuts, one of W's favourite foods. While looking through my cookbooks, I naturally got sidetracked by other fried dough sweets in the extended doughnut family as well. With the exception of the churros (which do not use any leavening), the other doughs are all yeast-raised. As much as I appreciate a good buttermilk or cake doughnut , I much prefer the airy texture and rounded taste of the yeast-raised variety. With a long slow overnight rise, the egg and butter enriched dough - which is not unlike brioche in construction - develops a nuanced flavour profile that the chemically leavened (typically baking powder) cake doughnut lacks. I also think of them as being spiritually closer to their ancestors, the oliekoecken, fastnachts and beignet viennois brought by Dutch, German and French settlers.

When deep-frying dough, a couple of things are critical. The choice of fat - as leaf lard is virtually impossible to find here, I use canola oil, which is neutral in taste and has a high smoke-point. The deep-frying vessel - heavy, tall rather than wide, and in a material with excellent heat-retention properties, say cast iron. And most vital of all, the temperature of the fat - too low and your doughnuts will emerge sodden with grease, too high and you'll wind up with a burnt exterior and raw interior, so 365 degrees Fahrenheit to be precise (a thermometer clipped to the side of the pan lets you monitor the temperature throughout and adjust your heat accordingly). Hence the need for a great enough body of fat (3 to 4 inches deep is good) so the temperature remains fairly stable, the need to avoid overcrowding the pan (which causes too drastic a drop in temperature) so each doughnut has the luxury of floating freely without jostling for space, and the need to wait for the temperature to recover between batches. Taking a little care ensures a result that's not in the least heavy, beautifully crisp outside and tender within.

"Coffee & Doughnuts", or Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon Sugar Doughnuts

I have a real weakness for recipes that are, for lack of a better description, classics-with-a-twist. From the moment I first set eyes on this heavenly dessert pairing in The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, I knew I had to make it. The doughnuts are good old-fashioned deep-fried treats dredged in cinnamon-scented sugar, while the "Coffee" element is a frozen mousse topped with frothy steamed milk. I used some softly whipped Gippsland double cream - lovely stuff, incidentally - instead of steamed milk. I like the charming ring-and-jauntily-perched-hole presentation. As if rendered in spare Modigliani-esque lines, it resembles a top-knotted brioche a tete.

Chocolate Truffle Ravioli and Confiture de Lait

The Chocolate Truffle Ravioli recipe alone in Gordon Ramsay's Secrets is worth the price of the book, which is not to say it isn't an all-round fantastic book. Thinly worked brioche dough encloses a luscious bittersweet ganache. The unctuous chocolate cream oozes out languorously as you sink your teeth into the puff. Messy? Yes. But so very, very wicked. Just to ensure things are teeth-vibratingly sweet, I served them with a tiny bit of confiture de lait, the divine milk jam also known as dulce de leche, simply made by cooking milk with sugar together slowly until the mixture is a lovely caramel blond and almost taffy-like in consistency.

Jelly Beignets and Deep Chocolate Cream with Raspberry Coulis

This New Orleans-style beignet recipe comes from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. The yeasted dough is filled with raspberry jam. Once deep-fried, the little golden pillows are doused in icing sugar. Alongside, the silken Deep Chocolate Cream with Raspberry Coulis from Desserts by Pierre Herme. As with all his recipes that call for chocolate, Herme specifies the exact chocolate to use. In this case, some Valrhona Grand Cru Manjari 64%. Its aromatic fruitiness and soft, rounded flavour makes it the ideal candidate for fruit-and-chocolate desserts.

Churros con Chocolate

Churrerias are ubiquitous in Spain, where you can buy lines or coils of dough fritters to dip into cafe con leche (milky coffee) or rich, velvety hot chocolate. Typically eaten for breakfast, sometimes as an afternoon snack, churros are irresistible when freshly fried, piping hot from the bubbling vat of oil. Madrilenos, however, don't just start the day with churros. It is customary to end an evening of juerga, or all-night revelry, at a churreria, many of which open at the crack of dawn or keep similar nightbird hours. On a trip to Madrid some years back, I met up with friends at Chocolateria San Gines in the wee hours. They had just stumbled out of a club, I had woken up extra early to visit this institution in existence for over a century, which serves an incredible pudding-thick hot chocolate - just the consistency for dunking churros into.

This recipe is from Penelope Casas' excellent book, La Cocina de Mama, which takes you into the home kitchens of Spain's finest cooks (including the three Michelin-starred likes of Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak) and pays homage to their greatest culinary influence - mama's cooking. The recipe is inspired by Rufino Lopez of Solera in New York, who is Galician by birth. By ingeniously concentrating the hot chocolate into a potent sauce, churros con chocolate becomes appropriate even for postre.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Too Many Recipes, Too Few Peaches

My father, who knows I adore peaches, had brought back a large crate of the sumptuous specimens known as Shui Mi Tao (loosely translated, honey peaches) for me from his last business trip to Shanghai. These fabulous white-fleshed numbers, a specialty from Wuxi province, more than live up to their namesake. Biting into one that's perfectly ripe and heavy with juice, you understand why the peach is thought of as the fruit of immortality in Chinese mythology. An entire crate of perfectly ripe peaches, however, waits for no man. It deserves, no demands, to be eaten pronto. Which is exactly what I did, except even I couldn't eat them fast enough. Hence this dessert-making frenzy - a week's worth of peach-based sweets to ensure no peach languishes in ripeness and goes to waste. Typically, turning to my cookbooks for inspiration ensured that a major bout of dithering indecision ensued - too many fantastic recipes, and it turns out, too few peaches. These here are the recipes that made the final, albeit painful, cut.

White Peach & Vanilla Jam, White Peach & Saffron Jam

These were based on recipes from Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber, la fee des confitures "the jam fairy" whose legendary confitures handcrafted in Niedermorschwihr, Alsace, have beguiled even the likes of Alain Ducasse, Antoine Westermann, the Troisgros family, and Pierre Herme, whose revered establishments she supplies. If you dislike the tight texture of jams and jellies made with the addition of commercial pectin, this is the book for you - Ferber's technique often calls for the maceration of fruit, sugar and lemon juice overnight (lemon not only brings out the fruit's flavour and preserves its colour, but also awakens the gelling power of the naturally occuring pectin). In the case of low pectin fruits, she adds apply jelly - the "pectin stock" jelly - to facilitate jelling. The succulent texture of the peach slices in these two jams is preserved thanks to a two-step cooking process - the macerating syrup is first boiled to a sufficient concentration at 221 degrees Fahrenheit before the fruit is added.

Peach and Blackberry Shortcakes

Aside from butter-slathered toast, I love jam in shortcakes. Still warm from the oven, these shortcakes are split and filled with the vanilla-scented peach jam, then topped with some softly whipped cream and tart blackberries.

Jam Crostata with Slow Roasted Peach in Orange Caramel Sauce

With good jam, homemade or otherwise, crostata is a doddle. The quality of the jam, in fact, is imperative, given that no other flavouring doctors the tart. As for the pastry, any favourite sweet short crust recipe is fine - for crostata, I like using pasta frolla, the basic sweet short pastry of Italian baking (Carol Field's recipe from The Italian Baker is unimpeachably fine and silken). Crostata is charming in its rustic simplicity. But never one to leave well alone, I couldn't resist dressing them up with a few slivers of emerald green pistachios, and serving a slow-roasted peach drenched in orange caramel (from Gordon Ramsay's Just Desserts) alongside.

Peach & Blueberry Crisp

For American home classics such as crisps, cobblers and fruit pies, I consistently turn to Baking Illustrated, the no-nonsense goofproof companion for the home baker by the editors of Cook's Illustrated. As blueberries throw off a good bit of juice, I added a tiny pinch of potato starch to the fruit mixture - as a thickener here, it's superior to flavour-dulling cornstarch or flour. The cinnamon and nutmeg spiced streusel topping is given added crunch with chopped pecans, and emerges from the oven wonderfully crisp and crumbly - some vanilla ice cream, or heavy cream, is all else that's needed.

Peach & Pinenut Upside-Down Baby Cakes

This is adapted from Johanne Killeen's lovely recipe in one of my favourite books, Baking with Julia. I must come clean about my great weakness for Mini Me desserts - I am fatally drawn to recipes for the miniaturized form of any classic cake. Even in the case where I'm not a huge fan of the fully-grown version, so long as the recipe title reads"baby", I'm a goner. Luckily, in this instance, I actually do like upside-down cakes - yes, even the maraschino-topped pineapple ones (in fact, especially the maraschino-topped pineapple ones...). Here, individual cake pans (you could use jumbo muffin pans) are slicked with melted butter, brown sugar and pinenuts, before the peach slices and butter cake batter are added. Best eaten warm, when the caramelised juices are at their sticky best.

Peach Melba

I must also confess my soft spot for old school standbys like Prawn Cocktail, Quiche Lorraine, Chicken Kiev, Black Forest Gateau and such like, unceremoniously slung out like a dirty dishrag by the vagaries of food fashion into naff purgatory. Made with good ingredients and prepared with love, there's no reason why they need only be relevant today as an ironic exercise in retro chic. Hence, when I saw Patrick O'Connell's elegant take on Peach Melba in his book, Refined American Cuisine, I knew I had to make it. Culinary lore has it that Auguste Escoffier created this in honour of Dame Nellie Melba. The Inn at Little Washington's diva-worthy rendition has the peach half and a disc of almond-scented cake sandwich a layer of vanilla and buttermilk ice cream, served with a drizzle of raspberry coulis and a sprinkle of toasted almonds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Hokkien Prawn Mee Soup

The secret to making a memorable Hokkien Prawn Mee Soup is in, as with most Asian noodle soups, the stock. My grandmother, who spent a good part of her childhood in Penang (to this day, I think of Gurney Drive's version as the definitive one), taught me that a properly made Hokkien Mee stock should be a deep ruddy brown even before the addition of soy sauce or palm sugar. The stock derives its rich flavour and colouring from prawn shells, patiently sauteed until well caramelized - not only is much flavour concentrated in the shells, but their carotenoid pigments contribute to the stock's characteristic burnt umber hue. Skimp on this step and the resulting stock will be anaemic in both flavour and colour. Whenever we eat crabs, prawns, crayfish or lobster, I hoard their throwaway heads and shells. Carefully cleaned, wrapped and frozen into packages, it means there's always a stash to call upon for amplifying any shellfish based stock, ensuring a brew sweetly saturated with shellfish flavour - as was the case when we decided to have Hokkien Mee last Sunday. A mixture of pork is also used to round out and frame the shellfish flavour - tail lends succulence and body, while meaty bones and ribs add flavour. The following recipe is my grandmother's - the only change I've made is to cook a separate batch of pork for topping the Hokkien Mee instead of using the meat from the stockpot, which tends to be tired, having given its best to the liquid.


Prawn and Pork Stock
*1Tbsp peanut oil *200gm pork fat, cubed *15 shallots, thinly sliced *300gm pork ribs *300gm meaty pork bones *1 pork tail *5 dried red chillies *At least 4 cups of loosely packed prawn heads and shells, including those of 12 large tiger prawns (to be used later for topping) which have been de-veined and set aside *3 litres water *1 tsp salt *1 tsp black peppercorns *3 cloves *1 cinnamon stick *1 star anise *2 Tbsp gula melaka (palm sugar), or more *2 Tbsp light soy sauce, or more

Heat wok over high flame until very hot. Add oil and pork fat dice, which will release a lot of oil as it crisps and browns. Remove, drain well on paper towels, and set aside (to be used later for topping). Now fry the shallots in the same wok till golden brown. Remove, drain well on paper towels, and set aside. Turn flame down to medium-high. Stir-fry the pork ribs, bones, tail and chillies (in batches if necessary) till crusty and golden brown. Remove and place in a roomy stock pot. Set aside. Turn flame down to medium. Add prawn heads and shells to the wok, frying slowly until shells are crisp, caramelised and well-coloured. Remove and add to stock pot. Add water, salt, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, and star anise to stock pot. Bring to the boil. Turn down to a leisurely simmer. Simmer for 4 to 6 hours, until stock tastes richly flavoured and is the colour of tea. Add palm sugar and soy sauce to taste. Simmer another 30minutes. Strain stock. Set aside.

Toppings & Garnishes
*12 large tiger prawns, de-shelled and de-veined (from making the stock earlier), poached 2 minutes in simmering salted water till cooked, drained, sliced lengthwise *Fried pork fat cubes (from making the stock earlier) *Fried shallots (from making the stock earlier) *6 pork spare ribs, cubed, rubbed with 1 Tbsp soy sauce and steamed over high heat for 2 hours (add resulting juices to stock; set meat aside) *2 finely sliced fresh red chillies, placed in a small bowl with 3 Tbsp light soy sauce *Large handful of beansprouts, topped and tailed *Large bunch of kangkong (water convolvulus, or morning glory; substitute spinach if unavailable), thoroughly rinsed, woody stems discarded, leaves plucked with a little hollow tender stem attached *Pinch of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

Prepare all the toppings and garnishes as described up to the red chillies macerated in soy sauce. Set aside in individual bowls. Blanch beansprouts and kangkong separately in a large pot of boiling water into which a tiny pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added (this helps retain colour). Drain very well and set aside.

*1 kg Hokkien mee (fresh yellow egg noodles)
*200gm beehoon (dried rice vermicelli)

When ready to eat, blanch Hokkien mee and beehoon separately in large pot of boiling water. Drain well. Divide both into deep roomy serving bowls. Top with prawns, pork cubes, beansprouts, kangkong, fried shallots and fried pork fat. Bring soup to the boil. Ladle over each bowl of noodles and serve immediately. Let diners help themselves to the chillies and soy sauce. Alternatively, bring everything out on separate serving dishes for everyone to help themselves, including the hot stock in a large pitcher or bowl.

Serves 4 to 6

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Straits Times Hot Blog!

Yesterday morning, I received a message saying that my blog had been featured in The Straits Times! The alert was from the formidably plugged-in Chubby Hubby, whose own fabulous blog, incidentally, had been glowingly reviewed earlier this year in the same column. I would have missed it entirely otherwise, being the lazy skim-and-scan newspaper reader that I am...Anyways, there it was, in the paper's weekly Hot Blog feature (the curious can click on the picture above for a more legible read). I'm incredibly flattered, not to mention grateful for the very kind review by Selina Yeo, the writer.

Friday, August 12, 2005

SHF#11:A Pair of Coffee Desserts

Amongst the many kitchen gadgets on my wish list, a pump-driven La Pavoni espresso machine ranks up there in the lust-worthy stakes. I love a properly made espresso - smooth, suave and seductively syrupy in consistency, replete with a luxuriant cap of fine-grained crema. Unfortunately, a state-of-the-art machine capable of producing a real espresso is also capable of inducing severe sticker shock. Back in the real world, my daily caffeine-delivery system of choice is a French press by Bodum, which makes a decent-enough cuppa to feed my habit. I used to drink so many cups of coffee a day (think double-digits) I had withdrawal symptoms (read cantankerous) when doing without. Fortunately for my near and dear, I am down to a modest 3-cups-a-day and am reassuringly mild mannered in between fixes.

Coffee is the fabulous theme of SHF#11, hosted by Ronald of the wonderful LoveSicily. I love using coffee to flavour desserts almost as much as I love coffee, or I love desserts. Its deep, dark and full-bodied flavour perfectly frames chocolate, and surprisingly enough, can be an excellent foil to fruit (particularly orange).

White Chocolate & Coffee Towers with Mocha Creme Anglaise
Based on a recipe in A Passion for Desserts by Emily Luchetti, this elegant sweet features a fudgy chocolate cake layer topped with an extravagant white chocolate and coffee mousse, the whole gilded with an intense bittersweet chocolate glaze. To contrast its velvety lushness, I topped it with some shards of homemade honeycomb - the crackling texture is exactly like the moreish interior of candy bars like Violet Crumble or Crunchie - which I had handy thanks to a candy-making bout last week; almond or hazelnut praline would work just as well, I imagine. For the mocha creme anglaise, I spiked it with a touch of coffee liqueur (either Kahlua or Tia Maria are good) after the sauce was taken off heat.

Espresso Orange Panna Cotta Parfait with Coffee Gelee
I turn to Claudia Fleming's The Last Course whenever I seek special desserts that are unusual yet decidedly lovely. The panna cotta parfait is a perfect example of Fleming at her inspired best. A translucent layer of potently flavoured coffee gelee is suspended between two decadently creamy layers of panna cotta - one infused with finely ground espresso (I use Illy), the other perfumed with orange zest. The result is real eye candy, which counts for a fair bit in my books where desserts are concerned. But far more importantly, the combination of flavours beautifully exploits the natural affinity between coffee and cream, and coffee and orange. To hint at the citrus cameo, I topped its quiveringly set-just-so surface with slivers of candied orange peel. While I used glasses to show off the parfait's striking layers, porcelain is a terrific idea if you're intent on surprising your guests.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

White Peach Tarte Tatin with Rose Champagne & Raspberry Gelee

I was down to the last of the luscious Shimizu white peaches that my parents had kindly passed to me, the very generous gift of a close Japanese family friend who was visiting. Amongst the many peach cultivars grown in Okayama prefecture, the Shimizu is the most sought after for its ambrosial sweetness - each bite into its yieldingly succulent flesh floods the mouth with a divinely perfumed nectar, a scent so haunting that all you can think of is the passing of its all-too-brief season (the best specimens are picked late July-early August), and all you can do is eagerly anticipate the next. I stared long and hard at the remaining two of my stash (the rest having been voraciously scarfed next to the sink, sticky juices trickling down and licked off arm), wondering how I could best stretch them to feed company for dessert. Blushed the tenderest dusty pink and covered with a fuzz that feels like the finest Hungarian goosedown, the precious peaches are presented individually wrapped in tissue-soft paper and swaddled by cushioned netting, a coddled appearance that befits their coddled existence - to ripen the prized peaches to perfection before harvest, each and every fruit on the tree grows under the protective swathe of its very own bag.

I then stared long and hard at my cookbooks, before finally deciding on a tarte Tatin recipe from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course. I must confess that I find inverting a tarte Tatin (or tartes Tatin, in this case, given that each peach half makes for an individual tarte) tremendously exciting. It's the moment of truth - Will it satisfyingly slide out with a resounding plop, resplendent in its caramel-glossed glory as you beam with triumphant pride (and breathe a sigh of relief)? Or is it stubbornly stuck, a taunting burnt sugar catastrophe as you burst into tears contemplating your ruinous course of action? Call it living dangerously (well, I did have store-bought ice-cream in the freezer as a back-up dessert plan, just in case...), but if the kitchen gods are smiling, and more importantly, you've correctly gauged the juiciness/ripeness of the fruit - be it apples, peaches, or otherwise - in question and adapted the degree of caramelization and cooking/baking times accordingly, the gratification of unmolding a just-right tarte renversee is unsurpassed. In this particular instance, I needn't have fretted - the fruit was so juicy the caramel never stood a chance of overcooking. The peaches emerged burnished yet tender, candied from the syrupy, buttery and deeply flavoured self-made sauce. And thanks to the upside-down order of things, the puff pastry lid-turned-base, still crisp and delectably flaky. To accompany, an elegant rose champagne gelee also adapted from Fleming's book - I used raspberries instead of the white peaches called for to flavour the bubbly (not having enough peaches to stretch that far, and having always liked the combination of peaches and raspberries) - and a dribble of raspberry coulis. No need to bust out a Billecart-Salmon vintaged rose for this; a Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Rose, which I happened to have at hand, or some such like, will do very nicely here.