Sunday, October 22, 2006

An Awesome New Book & A Luxurious Laksa

Where would you find a scintillating blend of impeccable French culinary technique and a uniquely Asian sense and sensibility?

For many (and not just those of us lucky enough to reside in Southeast Asia), the answer lies with Justin Quek, widely acclaimed as one of the best French chefs Singapore (and Asia) has ever produced, and La Petite Cuisine, his much-beloved restaurant in Taipei.

And now, thanks to the publication of Justin Quek's Passion & Inspiration, longtime fans and the recently initiated alike can find it between the gorgeous covers of what is surely this year's most exciting and eagerly anticipated cookbook by a Southeast Asian chef. Page after page, the chef's passion and steadfast commitment to the quest for perfection shine through. The avid cook will be inspired, to say the least. The high production values will come as no surprise given as there was the culinary equivalent of a SWAT team working on the book, including author Tan Su-Lyn and media consultant Aun Koh, also known as some of the food blogosphere's finest - the husband-and-wife team behind Chubby Hubby. My praise is unstinting, and not only because I happen to be Singaporean or CH & S happen to be dear to me - that having been said, if you were in my shoes, wouldn't you be pleased as Punch too? But don't take my word for it - the book has been lauded by the supernova likes of Ferran Adrià, Charlie Trotter, Neil Perry, and Pierre Hermé, with glowing forewords written by Tetsuya Wakuda and Michel Roux Junior.

Tagliatelle with Fresh Summer Truffles and Sauteed Pork Neck Confit, Lobster Bisque Herb Souffle, Parfait of Goose Foie Gras with Black Truffle Jelly and Caramelised Filo, Tartare of Langoustines with Smoked Caviar and Vodka Cream...a mere glance at the recipes for the decidedly modern French food Chef Quek is known for will give you an inkling as to why he's put Singapore on the globe-trotting food-lover's map. But as much as I gravitated to such, the recipes which really spoke to the true blue local girl that I am were the ones with a distinctly Asian bent.

Think Crab Beehoon, braised in an aromatic broth, inspired by a street food favourite by Chef Quek's favourite hawker, Tian Jin Hai Seafood. Or Chinese Herbal Duck Consommé with Wild Mushroom and Black Truffle Tortellini, a decadent take on the delicious soup known as bak kut teh which the chef aptly describes as "a Southeast Asian pot au feu". And of course, Hainanese chicken rice - a dish virtually synonymous with Singapore - makes an outing in the elegant form of a Singapore-Style Chicken Rice Salad, vibrant with the unmistakable flavours of soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and coriander. And it's not just hawker and street fare that have been transformed by the chef into incredibly refined dishes appropriate to a restaurant context. There're also the comforting homespun classics, such as ngoh hiang, traditionally a Teochew speciality, adopting a voluptuous aspect as Deep-Fried Duck Foie Gras Roll in Beancurd Skin.

When I saw the recipe for Lobster Laksa, I knew it would be the first recipe I had to try. I love laksa lemak, and Chef Quek's ultra luxurious version uses lobster in lieu of prawns. I didn't have the time to track down Maine lobsters, so used a combination of slipper lobster, crab and jumbo king prawns instead. By being extravagant with the choice of seafood, practising restraint with noodle portions, and taking the time to craft a rich, luscious and deeply savoury broth based on freshly pounded rempah, homemade chicken stock and just-extracted coconut milk, the simple enters the realm of the sublime. What is well worth the effort tracking down is the polygonum odoratum leaf, which is also known as hot mint or Vietnamese mint (rau răm, often part of the bouquet of fresh herbs served alongside the noodle soups and spring rolls of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). In Singapore - where no laksa is considered complete without it - polygonum is known as daun kesom or daun laksa (the latter means "laksa leaf"). Despite what some of its monikers may suggest, polygonum bears little resemblance to mint whether in terms of looks, flavour or scent. The herb boasts a zesty and intensely peppery bite that counterbalances the fat, creamy character of the broth.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Pair of Paco Torreblanca Desserts

When I heard the English edition of Paco Torreblanca: The Book was out, I developed what can only be described as a fixation. W very generously offered to buy me a copy, possibly in part to stem my incessant babbling about the book, the man, and his sweet works of edible art (see here for all the news) - in case anyone's wondering, I am well aware that I am an outrageously lucky girl. Since it arrived, my every waking moment has been consumed by visions of isomalt bells and the hydroscopic properties of trimoline/invert sugar (useful for everything from preventing crystallization and lowering the freezing point of ice-cream to stabilizing the emulsion-suspension that is ganache and ensuring its extraordinarily smooth texture).

If Spain is indeed the new restaurant frontier, it's also where the whole concept of dessert cuisine has really taken off. Pastry geeks need no introduction to hypermodern joints like Talaia and Espai Sucre or the celebrated It likes of Oriol Balaguer and Jordi Butrón or legends such as maestro heladero, Angelo Corvitto. But if there's one man who can be called the padre of the contemporary Spanish pastry scene, it's Francisco Torreblanca.

As it's not a book written with the domestic kitchen in mind, you'll have to do the math where quantities are concerned, as well as read between the cheffy shorthand lines when following instructions - caveats that apply with any book of such a genre. Having got that out of the way, it's a page-turning read of incandescent ideas, headily mixing vibrant re-thinks of classics with searingly original creations. It's also a heartbreakingly handsome volume thanks to the photography of Francesc Guillamet (best known for his work on the elBulli books). The search for balance, both in terms of flavour and aesthetic, informs many of the desserts. From the purity of line to the meticulous attention to detail, the creations often offer a glimpse of the chef's professed affinity for Japanese culture and sensibility. What's more, the tome is thoughtfully accompanied by a softcover book. Containing all the recipes as well as detailed construction diagrams, with laminated smear-proof pages, it's intended as a "working book" to be brought into the kitchen so you can keep the exquisite hardcover edition in pristine, un-besmirched condition - how considerate is that?

Evidently, much to W's amusement/resignation, ownership has yet to forestall my chatty cathy repetitiveness. But enough already; the proof of the pudding is in the eating.


Not that I know squat about kadō, but there's something about the linear construct of the Marronier that reminds of ikebana. A rich center of chestnut crème caramel sits between pillowy bavarois layers flavoured with chestnut, milk chocolate and rum, the whole supported by a disc of chestnut ladyfinger sponge. Once set, a dark chocolate glaze is applied. To finish, an ingot of crema de frutas de marron (chestnut cream paste), caramel-coated "stems" of chestnut and hazelnut, and a dab of gold leaf. I couldn't find sprigs of fennel blossoms to candy - the final touch - but I don't think the end result looks too shabby for it.

El Bizcocho de Calabaza

Think pumpkin seed oil, olive oil, goat cheese, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, apricots and balsamic vinegar - Have the myriad soup or salad or other small plate/antipasti/tapas/meze possibilities taken shape in your mind's eye? Dessert certainly didn't occur to me. Yet here it is, in the guise of pumpkin seed oil and olive oil sponge cake, goat's cheese mousse, pumpkin sorbet, pumpkin seed brittle, apricot cream paste (essentially a pate de fruit), "couscous" made by sauteing cake crumbs in butter, caramelized balsamic vinegar reduction...alone, each of these preparations may seem a bit eccentric, but on the same plate, they make perfect sense. As much sense as had the featured ingredients met a savoury fate. The contrast in textures and harmony of flavours make this unexpected combination work. It's also another study in balance, with each element subtly flavoured and not excessively sweet so the final impression is of order, not dissonance.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Never-Ending Tea Party

I am neither professionally trained, nor do I harbour any illusions as to the lot of a pastry chef. Just attempting some ambitious dessert for some ambitious dinner party is taste enough - all that blood, sweat and tears, imagine it intensified and multiplied over an intimidating scale, add an artery-popping dose of stress...I get the picture. Not that I find the process joyless - far from. What is happiness if you don't get to know pain a little better?

So imagine my reaction when Chubby Hubby and S asked if I would cater an event they were organizing on behalf of Gryphon Tea Company - I think the best way to sum it up would be to say I was as excited as I was freaked out by the prospect. Despite the fear factor, I took the plunge in the end for a very simple reason - I really like the product.

When it comes to matters of presentation, my personal inclination is towards the bold and graphic rather than the cute and precious, but keeping the Alice in Wonderland theme in mind was surprisingly easy. In fact, I'll go so far as to confess that I wholeheartedly embraced the twee and thoroughly enjoyed the excuse to revel in the girlishness of it all.

Not wanting to take any chances, I went with tried-and-tested recipes which I then tweaked to fulfil the requirements in the looks and size department. But taste and looks aside, the recipes chosen for the tea party menu would also have to meet a very pragmatic criteria - not having kitchen facilities at my disposal at the venue, all items had to be prepared ahead of time, keep well, travel well, and require the minimum of fuss in terms of last minute finishing.

The Devil's Food Cupcakes with White Chocolate & Espresso Topping, and Vanilla Cupcakes with Truffle Cream Topping are based on recipes from Michael Recchiuti & Fran Gage's Chocolate Obsession. Ultra-moist, they were also eminently suited to being up-sized or shrunk.

The recipe for Straits Chai Spice Bundt is adapted from one in Marcy Goldman's The Best of, which I've previously written about (PS: The whimsical little flags were a stroke of sheer genius on S's part.) As for the Raspberry & Chocolate Cake, the original recipe can be found in Alice Medrich's Bittersweet - cocoa-rich and laced with fresh raspberry puree (which also ensures a very soft and tender crumb), it's one of those wonderful cakes that seem to taste best when left to rest overnight. In other words, ideal for the occasion.

Notice a recurring motif? It goes without saying Linzer Cookies would feature (I like the recipe from Carole Walter's Great Cookies). The delicate, friable texture comes from the addition of sieved hard-boiled egg yolks and ground almonds, while the rich flavour is thanks to cinnamon and citrus zest. Besides the classic sandwich with raspberry jam and tiny shapes (a nifty by-product from stamping out windows for the top half of the cookie sandwiches, which I decorated with coloured sugar), I also made a few large, Christmas ornament-style numbers for dramatic effect. The fun bit comes when giving the cut-outs a stained glass effect - there are many recipes which will tell you it's as easy as crushing some hard candies to fill the cut-outs and letting the oven do the rest. What they don't usually tell you is that some candy melts beautifully, others don't - definitely a trial and error process. For fool-proof shimmering crystalline panes every time, check out the method in The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion - bring mixture of sugar and corn syrup to hard-crack stage (300 to 310 °F), colour and flavour as you wish, then use syrup to fill the cut-outs; the syrup cools and sets into candy centers.

The rest of the cookie assortment: Chocolate Shortbread, Checkerboard Cookies (both recipes adapted from Nick Malgieri's Cookies Unlimited), and Orange Vanilla Shortbread (from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking). My favourite cookie of the bunch (the Lavishly Lemony ones, also from Carole Walter's Great Cookies) happens to be the one I didn't get a chance to take a picture of - I took these photographs after the fact, of "spares" I'd left at home. W, as it turns out, liked them as much as I did.

Catering for 20 to 25 people was made manageable as small group sessions were staggered throughout the day. What this also meant was that the never-ending tea party, mid-way through the veritable Groundhog Day, felt like the day that would never end. For sure, I'm in no rush to go call upon the decorative values of sweetheart paillettes, sweetheart nesting cutters or sweetheart molds anytime soon (and you won't catch me listening to Chris Isaak). But would I do it again? In a heartbeat. The planning, the build-up, the process, the adrenaline rush - there's nothing like it.