Friday, December 26, 2008

Recipe: Chinese New Year Lo Hei

The answer is, Hua Ting at Orchard Hotel makes the best yu sheng. Why? Because they put in parma ham with the cantouloupe, crispy fish skin and candied preserved papaya with smoked salmon and salmon roe. It is yu sheng worth crying for and it retails from the price of $56 onward.

That important question out of the way, there are three very key (personal) principles to remember about yu sheng. The first is, I love it very much and I have eaten a lot of s*** over the years that passed as yu sheng. No more. Proud modern Chinese should not eat greying salmon and over-oiled dry carrots any more than they do newts and monkey brains, so I am resolved to no longer bother wasting those calories.

Second, the best surity of love and heart, is to take charge of situations and put something of yourself in them and maybe even walk away with a deeper appreciation of our traditions and food. Third, with the economy the way it is, we may need all the prosperity we can save, so what better way to save your pocketbook and waistband, then by trying your hand at making this dish for your reunion dinner.

To make it less horrifying a thought, this DIY idea, I thought I would do a little research into what the experts say and to increase the value add of this post, I've even researched what you are meant to say, when you mimic the lady in the cheongsum. This will impress all your relatives and really, we should all learn these phrases so that the practice doesn't die out, like our cultural language heritage, like our good government always says.

I have a good idea- to include this as a chapter of the primary school chinese textbook or hao gong min. In our identity-starved society, we really should tailor our learning more around our nuances, pragmatism and creations, rather than forever idolising historical Chinese iconography, half of which the kids don't remember nor practice anyway.

Before I get shot off the air for being politically incorrect, let me just speed through the one minute history of this very local but seasonal dish. Four chefs in Singapore, Messrs Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai, Lau Yoke Pui and Than Mui Kai invented this dish using raw fish slices used in simple fish porridge and combining it with a variety of ingredients like shredded lettuce, carrots, turnips, red and yellow ginger, pickled onions, jellyfish and sun dried plums with a sweet-sour sauce.

Each food would to symbolise particular significant well wishes because each wish had a pronounciation approximating the Chinese name of the food. Fishermen from the cost of Guangzhou province in southern China celebrated the seventh day of the new year by feasting on fish, which symbolised wealth. Yu sheng is traditionally eaten on Ren-ri, which is the common birthday to all mankind.

The elaborate family-sized platter and the attendant ritual of standing around the dinner table has been re-exported back to China, where it can be found in some major cities. I've sized this to feed 20 people, which is surprise, surprise, what the size of my own reunion dinner will likely be.

1. According to tradition, the fish is laid onto the plate first. At the table, you offer New Year greetings. Say Say Gong Xi Fa Cai 恭喜发财 (getting rich) and Wan Shi Ru Yi (to be smooth sailing) when putting down the Yu Sheng on the table. However, according to another text I read, you don't add the fish till later and in fact that text assumes the carrot part is on the plate first. Irritatingly, there are seperate phrases for the fish, the carrot, the daikon and the green radish, which I guess means that to get the full impact of impressing your grandmother, you have to start with the lettuce first.

2. Oh well. Write to me if you have a good idea on which ingredient goes first. I shall just put that the lettuce goes first. The base of the salad is in fact 1/2 a lettuce, thinly sliced. For all the veggies, you want to use a mandolin to slice them up very finely and then keep them in ice cold water, till you are ready to toss the salad. This is important, or your veggies will dry out nastily.

3. Add 500g of sashimi grade salmon, sliced against the grain and marinated with a little sesame oil and even soy-wasabi if you feel like. You can also use trout or sea bass or if you want to be fancy, use abalone or Japanese swordfish, tuna or horse mackeral. You can buy these from the wet market and clean them yourself but I think the more sanitary way would probably be to go to a Japanese supermarket sushi counter and get blocks of sashimi. The salmon is a large 20cm by 5 cm block for about $15 . Say Nian Nian You Yu 年年有余 (to have a surplus every year) and Long Ma Jing Shen (to enjoy great health).

4. Squeeze 3 small limes. Add this, then follow with 6 segments of pomelo (you have to deskin the pomelo and flake out the 6 segments). Say Da Ji Da Li 大吉大利 (to be very auspicious) when adding limejuice/pomelo.

5. Add 2 tsp five spice/cinnamon powder and 2 tsp white pepper. Say Yi Ben Wan Li 一本万利 (business to be flourishing) or 鸿运当头 Hong Yun Dang Tou or 五福临门 Wu Fu Lin Men when putting pepper and five-spice powder to the Yu Sheng

6. You then add oil, to circle the ingredients, increasing all profits 10,000 times and encouraging money to flow in all directions. This sounds like a good thing. What is not good, is to use nasty cooking oil, which when injested, probably makes your heart valves look like the interior of your kitchen sink pipe. What I would recommend using is grapeseed oil or walnut oil or even flaxseed oil. These are largely tasteless oils that are very light and high in omega-3, which improves mental and brain function. Walnut oil in particular, has a slightly nutty flavour, a beautiful oil to use for salads. Say You Shui Duo Duo 油水多多 (business to be flourishing) when adding oil and sauces.

7. This is the second part that confuses me, most texts say you should add oil before the carrots, radish and all the other ingredients but don't we add oil right at the very end, in Singapore? Oh well. Add 2 shredded carrots and say Hong Yun Dang Tou. Again, you want to use a mandolin to slice this up very finely yet neatly (not in shards and pieces) and then keep it cold water, till you are ready to toss the salad. Add 2 shredded green radishes, symbolising eternal youth say Qing Chun Chang Zhu. Wish especially those older aunties who give generous hong bao. Add 1.5 white daikon, shredded and say Feng sheng shui qi and bu bu gao sheng- prosperity in business and promotion at work.

8. Then add the condiments. First, 5 Tbsp sesame seeds- toast these and rattle them around the tray for 10 minutes earlier in the day so that they are roasted and crispy. Say Sheng Yi Xing Long 生意兴隆 (business to be flourishing) when sprinkling the sesame powder.

9. Then add 3/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts Say Jin Yin Man Wu 金银满屋 or 金沙满堂 (hallways of golden sands) when sprinkling the golden peanut powder

10. If you haven't added the oil, drizzle the oil at the end, with the plum sauce. I would recommend a mix of 150 ml walnut oil, 30 ml sesame oil and 150ml plum sauce. Say You Shui Duo Duo 油水多多 (business to be flourishing) when adding oil and sauces to the Yu Sheng. You can also say Rong Hua Fu Gui (May you enjoy prosperity) and Tian Tian Mi Mi 甜甜蜜蜜 (May sweetness enter your life) for the plum sauce.

11. Add the Pok Choy crispy crackers- does anyone know where to buy these? You can also make your own home-alternatives by deep frying sliced up wanton skins. Say Man Di Huang Jin 满地黄金 (Full Floor of Gold) when adding the crackers.

12. When tossing the Yu Sheng, toss 7 times with loud shouts of Lo Hei and say 身体建康 shen ti jian kang (good health),万事如意 (success in all tasks), 生意兴隆 sheng yi xing long (business prosperity), 捞个风升水起 Lao Ge Feng Shen Shui Qi (Toss higher and higher, till the wind and oceans rise up for a good year ahead)

13. Additional ingredients to add include: a bowl of ikura, a bowl of crispy dried flat fish or crispy Japenese eel, or even jellyfish. You can also add 1/2 cup preserved melon or candied citrus strips (these are the sweet ingredients, so slice finely!), 1/2 cup preserved leek strips or sweetened ginger strips (this is the bright green stuff, which I prefer to skip). You can replace the latter items with 1/2 cup of finely shredded yam.

Recipe: Steamed Beets with Truffle Oil and Feta Cheese

This has become one of my favourite recipes, inspired by a meal from long-ago at Robochon in IFC Hong Kong. They served it as a beet carpaccio.

The thing about beets, is that I find a lot of Singaporeans don't eat them. Are they really such a quintessentially Western thing? My dad just assumed beet carpaccio was beef carpaccio and was quite crestfallen when they turned up, thin, red, yet distinctly un-meat-like.

When I made this version of beet carpaccio, he rather sniffed at it as "not particularly", which equals in Dad-speak that "he won't eat it", although I sold my mother on how it was so very healthy. It is, too. Healthy, full of texture, colour and essential vitamins. It has become one of my favourite things to serve at dinner parties, or bring along to pot lucks, it's easy to prepare and stores beautifully overnight.

First you have to scrape the beets free of their skin- most beets that you buy, especially at the wet market in Singapore, tend to come caked with mud so make sure you give it a through wash and scrub. Then, you want to slice them very thin (the thinner the better) and into rounds. Hehe, the thinner the beeter.

Steam them until they are floppy and soft. This can take quite awhile, especially if your steamer is like ours, huge and inefficient. Then arrange them prettily on the plate, drizzle with truffle oil, cube some feta cheese and dot with kalamata olives.

Finely shred some basil or parsley and halve a few cherry tomatoes and sprikle with broken pistachio nuts, over the beets. The basil and cheese really help to bring out the subtle taste of the beets. Refrigerate until ready to serve. If you allow this to macerate overnight, the taste becomes more concentrated.

Recipe: Mentaiko pasta

Mentaiko (spicy cod roe) pasta seems to be the blogger obsession. I am guilty of always being tempted to order it on the menu when I see it and the thing is, no one really does know what mentaiko pasta is supposed to taste like, do they? Thus, it's kind of a blank canvas on which you can paint your own taste.

Of course, this means that most mentaiko pasta will be out of your taste, which to me, is a dry, cheesy pasta, spicy and taut with mentaiko roe. I had yet to find one in Singapore that I was happy to eat, I vaguely remember one from Macaron which was just way too creamy. That was until I met the one at Raw Kitchen Bar.

Over the weekend, I had a second craving and decided to make my own mentaiko pasta, having searched out Chubby Hubby's version and Joone's version. In the end, I adapted it from the pasta carbonara recipe and it was yummy.

Usually I make four regular helpings so this is the approximate amounts for that size. What you need are:

1. Linguini pasta for four helpings (I usually prefer to use thinner pasta, which is less starchy)
2. 3 eggs
3. 1/2 Cup cream (regular whipping cream, rather than double heavy cream)
4. 200g shaved parmesan
5. 6 shitake mushrooms, sliced into long strips
6. 2 or 3 slices of bacon, diced up into small bits
7. 1 onion diced and I like to add several white stems of spring onions, chopped
8. A handful of Italian parsley, chopped
9. 2 or 3 sacs of mentaiko (in the jap supermarket at the sushi counters in the back, they sell 4 sacs for 12 dollars). So either I make mentaiko pasta twice, or I put all 4 in for a spicier pasta which is also nice.
10. 1 Tbsp of japanese mayonnaise
11. 1 Tbsp of rice vinegar
12. 3 Tbsp of Kenko sesame garlic sauce (optional, I found it wasn't that necessary in the end)
14. Tobiko roe and sliced crispy seawed and seasame seeds, for garnishing.

The first thing to do is slit the sac of the mentaiko and scrape all the roe out.
Mix it with the mayo and vinegar. Cook the pasta, while it is boiling, fry the bacon and onions with a bit of garlic and olive oil in a deep pan. Crack and mix eggs with cheese, cream and parsley. When cooked, transfer the pasta, drained, into the onions and bacon. You want to slightly undercook the pasta, because it will continue to cook with the onions/bacon.

Turn the heat, count to 8, then empty the egg mixture and the mentaiko mixture over the pasta. The heat from the pan and pasta will cook the egg etc onto the pasta. Serve hot with shaved chese, fresh parsley or tobiko roe, sesame seeds and strips of seaweed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: Viva Mexico

I had the most delightful experience recently. You may have heard me say before that I am not a fan of Mexican food. I put this down to my dislike of bell peppers, paprika, mushy beans and paste-y textures in general. Well, I had a dinner that surprised my taste buds and made me feel that perhaps, I could be converted after all.

I've procrastinated putting up pictures and a review for a few weeks now. I had a couple of work trips to Australia (fantastic produce, not as good eating) and to go diving and I'm still watching the computer screen sway, wave-like, in front of my eyes. I've kept it too long though and so I finally got to uploading the photos.

The photos are bad, the lighting was awful. I was also suspicious for, the restaurant was in Cuppage Terrace, proclaimed "the latest lifestyle and dining enclave" but really more like, well, an enclave. It's a stone's throw from the obscenely expatish Diagon Alley hangout of Emerald Hill, except perhaps it's poorer and somewhat more Japanese cousin. The servers and greeters were in flamenco bright and tight lurex maracas sleeves and they looked just a little ridiculous. Not the best start to a meal.

I had been invited by the Sixth Sense PR group and part of the reason I accepted, was to have dinner with one of their lovely partners, who proved as warm and charming in person as she had over our email correspondance. When we arrived, she was sitting with a welcome platter of nachos and sauces. She had picked a selection of dishes for tasting, beginning with an Acapulco cocktail ($14) which was shrimp, fish, octopus and squid, in a tomato-ed mix of lemon, coriander and onion.

It tasted of fresh seafood, or tobasco and onion and it was at once soothing and sharp. It was brilliantly executed and was a more than pleasant surprise to the beginning of the meal. Funny, I thought, that was really rather good.

The next two dishes where the Chile relleno de jaiba ($16) or jalapeno chillies filled with seasoned crab meat and the Tamales larranzair ($12), corn dough steamed and filled with chicken, raisins and mole. The first I sampled delicately with the tip of my fork. They looked mildly threatening, a gourmet version of penalty foods served to unfortunate bridesgrooms. They weren't that spicy and the combination of the chilli (skins only, really) and crab, was very palattable.

The tameles were good too, if a somewhat corny version of chinese ba-zhang (steamed glutinous rice dumplings with pork). These dishes weren't blow-my-socks off good but they were tasty and quite refined in their preparation. I was finally getting why my American friends insist that Mexican food tastes like Asian cuisine.

The next dish was a Chilli poblano soup ($8), a wedding delicacy made of Chile Poblano and cream. A Chilli soup? Uh-oh. I don't even eat chilli with most of my food (I eat curry, but that's a seperate kind of heat), preferring to taste the nuances of my food rather than burn my palatte beyond recognition. I sipped at a spoonful of the pea-green soup gingerly and waited for the worst.

The soup taste more of cream than chilli, to be honest, but the chilli had imparted a kind of latent heat to the soup, while the cream picked up and created a long, smooth nuanced arc of spice from the back of my mouth to the tip of my throat. It was the most enjoyable experience and woke and tickled my senses in a way that I hadn't felt for ages. I think this was the turning point of the meal and the dish that convinced me that I needed to look at Mexican food with a more open engagement- my, my my...

The next two dishes, or traditional mains, were more comfort food, foods that I remembered from the US and probably from their inferior Tex-Mex cousins. The first was Tacos Doradosde Pollo ($18) or fried chicken Tacos, filled with the usual accompaniments of lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and cream. The tacos were still crispy, a good sign. The beans were not sweet (unlike in a certain competitor's house at Dempsey), another good sign.

The second main was a beef filet filled with Cuitlacoche ($26), which is a difficult to harvest mushroom that grows between the corn ear and husk. Although it disturbed me to think human hands had pushed these little critters right into my meat, the Brazilian rib-eye was of a really good quality, marbled to rich and tender smoothess.

Out of all the dishes, the dessert was the one that hit it truly out of the ballpark-the Pumpkin en tacha ($9) was a fresh pumpkin slice baked with piloncillo (a sweet Mexican concentrate- a bit like the Asian gula melaka palm sugar), cinnamon, cloves, pepper and guava, then soaked in a bowl of cream. It contrasted cold with hot, fibrous with smooth, savoury with sweet.

It was enormously good. Enormously. It was reminiscent of the Afghanistani Kaddo Borwani, an appetizer of pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce and traditional caramelized pumpkin pie. I could have eaten more than two servings and licked up all the pumpkin infused cream, when my host had politely looked away.

The meal reminded me of the basics- good ingredients, good food and good company. I liked that it was casual, indeed, liked it a lot better than eateries that were trying to be upscale or worse, just being upscale by being pretentious. I didn't particularly care than each piece of decor had been painstakingly sourced for and imported from Mexico but I thought it was very commendable that the Palate Vine group (an F&B group that also runs The Tent Mongolian Fresh Grill and Bar and Vintage India) had managed to source and find three Mexican chefs, headed by Chef Mario Galan, to showcase the Mexican cooking and menu.

I did return to Viva Mexico, about two weeks later. I found the menu much the same as I had the first time, comforting, tasty and unpretentious. A couple of things struck me the second time, firstly, that it was actually fairly well populated, despite the relative quiet of Cuppage Terrace. Secondly, the food is relatively affordable but the drinks prices are quite exhorbitant. A jug of sangria cost (in my rough memory) about $40+, which seemed a bit pricey and given the number of drinks that the group ordered, the alcohol bill almost approximated the food bill.

Viva Mexico
23 Cuppage Road
Cuppage Terrace
Tel: 6235 0440

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: Raw Kitchen Bar

I always marvel at owner-run restaurants, I like how they are not souless like all these trendy, make-up-a-scene places. But I don't understand how the owners can deal with the daily runs of operations, staff management and set-up. Don't get me wrong. I love cooking, I love food, I love interior design. But I think running my own place would squeeze me dry of that love.

This is a charming place near my home, run by two friends, Sharon and Javier. The setting is coolly and unapolegetically homely and the menu is full of comforting, well-executed dishes. The name is rather strange, given that it invokes the Raw Food movement but there is nothing really raw about their food. Apparently, it refers to the look and image of the building and restaurant.

There is a definite flair to their cooking and presentation. I brought cousin C. here to try their specialties.

The first dish we had was the Mango Ahi Tuna Poke with Wanton Chips ($15). For the uninitiated, ahi poke is a Hawaiian dish made from raw sashimi cubes, cucumber and drizzled through with sesame, soy and wasabi. I ate this straight out of the supermarket container at M's house in Maui, it was that fresh and good and then she had to drive me back to buy another big, spicy ol' tub for the guests!

The second dish was the UFO gyoza ($10), so named because the fritter part of the dumpling had been poured over all the dumplings, creating a batter freize that crackled lightly when you snapped your dumpling way from the pile. Dumplings are always such comfort food, you can't really go wrong, these were very tasty.

On a second trip to this place, I ordered the salt and pepper squid ($8) which were addictively excellent. I would rock out on the appetizers, perhaps more than the mains, if I were to visit again.

The first of the mains was the caramelized balsamic vinegar duck ($28). I had ignored my friend's suggestions toward the lamb and she was proved correct. The duck was dry and tasted like the Chinese dressing that is usually reserved for the pork in Kung Ba pao. The meat mains like the beef tenderloin, by the way, are about $35 and above in price.

Luckily, the second main was the mentaiko pasta, which I think was the best thing there and the best mentaiko pasta I've had in Singapore. Which, considering who makes mentaiko pasta here, is a pretty big compliment. Cheesey, spicy, rich yet sharp, it was perfection in a bite and the cucumber shavings on the top were genius. This was lapped up.

We also had the prawn and chilli pizza, I thought it was a bit light on the toppings but the crust had an excellent crunch to it. My meal companions thought it was not up to scratch.

The last main we had was the crab pasta ($22), which was also very well-received. It wasn't my personal favourite but stuck top marks with the others at the table. The sauce was suitably rich but I noted a slightly sour aftertaste, which I couldn't identify but didn't like.

The desserts were a chocolate fondant cake and basil panna cotta. The chocolate cake was well executed but a little, well, predictable. The basil panna cotta tasted vaguely of cough medication but was left unfinished. They only had two desserts, so there wasn't much to speak of. I would Definitely work on the dessert menu- they could be churning out tiramisus, comforting fruit crumbles, even cupcake displays and it would all go with the comforting kitsch of the set-up.

The main draw of the restaurant seems to be their far-flung location, nestled at the edge of the Bukit Timah reserve, in the very niche Spectra building (used to be the old Bukit Timah fire station). The owners have done a charming job incorporating the natural and vintage elements of the surrouding into their restaurant space. It's in a residential hinterland, so hopefully that will work to their advantage, although the prices are a tad high for the crowd (a simple dinner came up to $50 a person without drinks)- there is a reason after all, that Marmalade Pantry does not open in Rail Mall.

I still think the decor and ideas are undeniably hip and worth a trip out but I did bring Colin and my family back for a return trip and it didn't go down so well. The mentaiko pasta was spicy and very dry, the rack of pork which my dad opted for tasted to him to be very much tenderized and the desserts were the same, a bit of a let-down which we didn't stay for in the end.

Raw Kitchen Bar
Spectra/The Old Bukit Timah Fire Station
276 Bukit Timah Road
6467 3987
Tue-Thu: 5.30pm - Midnight
Fri-Sat-Sun: 5.30pm - 1am
(Closed on Mon)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Miscellaneous Food: Cooking Classes

I am always asked if I attend cooking classes and the answer is, rarely but yes, from time to time, when I find a dish or item that I want to take instruction in, or perfect. The last two classes I attended were Chef Pang's Choux Pastry class in Canele and at Shermay's cooking school in Chip Bee Gardens. My most recent class there was with Joycelyn Shu, the author of the lovely food blog, Kuidaore.

If you read the blurbs, you'll know that Chef Pang Kok Keong was a student at SHATEC (the Singapore hotelling school) and worked at Miachealangelo's, the now defunct Salut, Baker's Inn and interned at the Totel Pasteleria in Spain.

He then worked for Ritz Carlton, the Hilton Hotel and became subsequently, the executive pastry chef for the Les Amis Group and the operator behind the Canele Patisserie. He has been nominated and won numerous awards for both cold and hot cooking. Shermay Lee, on the other hand, is the cousin of our current prime minister and an investment-banker-turned award winning cookbook author, having represented Singapore and won awards at a number of international competitions.

Both places run relatively small classes, although Canale's classes are smaller at 20people per class. (Joycelyn's classes at Shermay's are small but some other guest chefs run larger classes). Both are about the same price, although Shermay cooking school classes can be more expensive (or less, depending on the recipes and the teacher, while Canale's is a flat $120) they are also at least an hour longer. Generally I found the classes at Shemay's more interactive, although Chef Pang did encourage us to stand up and view the contents of the bowls.

I guess the thing about Canale's classes is that there isn't a dedicated classroom, rather it's a cordoned off area of the store with a standing island stove. Strangely though, while there is ample chandelier-try, they did not put in any mirrors either directly on top or above but behind the chef, so it makes it pretty much impossible for the seated audience to see what is going on.

The main difference is probably two-fold. The first is the audience, Shermay's has a reputation for being a tai-tai hangout, that is, supermoms who lunch and bond over beautiful cookies, or ladies who lunch and send their maids to cooking school. The reality is more that there are a lot of young women in the class, most working but perhaps many on their way to a marriage of luxury.

It's not uncommon for people to stroll in looking immaculate in ready-to-wear that have strange names like Victor and Rolf, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Alessandro Dell Acqua and carrying leather bags more gorgeous than their clothing. If people could cook in Manolos, this would be the place and the way. Nobody asks whether Grand Marnier is "orange liquor" and while not everyone pipes straight, they all know love decorated cupcakes. Nobody asks if they can make durian versions of what we are learning.

The Canale class, by contrast, was the weirdest mix of people I've come across of late. I was amazed to find that secondary school students will pay so much for cooking classes and sure, there were the requisite young women aspiring to domesticity but there were an awful lot of old aunties as well who seemed to have trouble following an English syllabus. How do you spell Gruyere? Gee- AHH rer- U- whyer- eeAHH rer.... It didn't bother me, as much I thought it was great that they were trying to upgrade their skills. But why learn recipes like this when you don't like cream and cheese and want to infuse them with durian?

In some sense, it makes a lot of sense. Canale is a patisserie, people of all walks of life get seduced by chocolate and refined pastry. Shermay's is a dedicated cooking school, on the second floor of a thin residential shophouse. To Chef Pang's credit, he kept the class flowing quickly and smoothly, incorporating both the air from the high-falutin British accents and the ackward questions about items already in the recipe.

In Chef Pang's class, we were taught cheese gruyere puffs and larger biscuit-crusted puffs, filled with grand marnier pastry cream, strawberries and chantilly cream. We also learnt chocolate eclairs and the crocombouque, which was the highlight of the class.

The second difference is thus the chefs. Chef Pang may be a brilliant chef but upon first sight, he looks a little like a Phua Chu Kang. Wait, make that a hungover Phua Chu Kang. Before the class really started to liven up, he was pretty deadly in his monotone about this much flour into this much sugar.

The excitement level was probably below what was caused by his multiple earrings and thick metal chain clipped to his belt. A class at Shermay's though, is a briskly perky affair, it starts with a Good Afternoon Everyone and is buzzing with Gryphon teawater and the sound of people buying things and watching Joycelyn ease her way around the kitchen in a slim black apron and gorgeous bright green jade stud earrings. It has less to do, I suspect, with looks as it has the level of preparation.

When I called up for the class at Canale, I was given a brief run-down of what we would be taught. When I enquired about future lessons, I was told it was Tarts in October and Christmas in November.

Yes, but what tarts, I persisted. She had to check with the chef, who apparently, wasn't sure. Nutella tart, I was told. And what else? She had to check with the chef again and came back with a couple of items which sounded rather short. They would all be on the web, she said, but the page that links to the classes was still empty.

I've seen Joycelyn before a class. She is activity, merticulousness and anxiety personified. She is one of the only bloggers I know who has as good pictures of her baking process, as her end result. In her class, you are blanketed with notations and helpful tips.

There are "extra" sections and "variation" segments and detailed page instructions on how to pipe, roll, smoothen and dot. Everything needed is placed by her, Shermay, or one of their kitchen hands on trays and each demonstration is exact and prompt.

In this class, we were learning to make meringue kisses and fruit-filled meringue cups, sticky toffee bundts and mini-cakes, gingerbread cupcakes and hot and cold chocolate pudding. The class moved seamlessly and the steps listed in the recipe packs were more than coherant, they were almost exhaustive. However, this left Joycelyn free and able to point out the finer details and tips to achieving a palatable and presentable product.

Chef Pang's process seemed equally fool-proof but it's clear that his minions are not as well-trained. The recipe reads Flour- 100g, Cream- 100g. Well, what flour, cake flour, plain flour and what cream? Joycelyn's would probably read something like President Whipping Cream (28% fat, available at Cold Storage or Phoon Huat, do not use thickened cream as it contains gelatin)- 100g and have some note on the consistency of the mixture pre and post adding the cream.

Several times, Chef Pang would look up? Then have to call into the kitchen for the chantilly cream, or,  I don't have enough choux pastry here for one whole recipe. The variations are listed as seperate recipes in the instruction pack.

Not, at the end of the day, that that really matters. The funny thing is, well, Chef Pang is more funny. Usually, the guest chef's at Shermay's find it difficult to lift a laugh out of their smiling audience. But Chef Pang gets a lot of laughs out of his dull mob.

When one lady comments (frequently) that the mixture smells too milky and that it is 'gelat' (local lingo for 'too rich'), Chef Pang takes it in stride and says, but if you really did use water, it wouldn't taste as good but yes, you can use soya milk!

Strangely, Joycelyn would probably be the first to suggest soya milk in her own recipes but Chef Pang takes a more unapologetic view toward trivialities. Later, when demonstrating a crocombouche, he says slyly, too bad you can't make it of durian.... And then riffs, durian, also very gelat hor? He is off-the-cuff and unexpected, sometimes staring down questions and saying, literally, I Donch know! To which he adds, I've always done it this way, I've never tried that, maybe it will work?

Their results were both undeniable in the class. In Chef Pang's class, I was struck by the crocombouque, which is something that can be made for Christmas or a party. It is a cone of profiteroles that is stuck together with caramel and wrapped in a beautiful delicate coat of spun sugar, the only item that really showed off Chef Pang's magic fingers with sugar art. 

In Joycelyn's class, I was bowled over by the mini toffee bundts and the meringue mushrooms. Who could fail to be charmed by these life-like pieces, perfect for decorating the top of a classy chocolate birthday cake?

Of course, the proof is in the making. A week later, as a result of the vague directions sheet though, of course, I could not remember the details on what Chef Pang's ingredients specifically were. I had the vague notion that the consistency of some processes were not quite right but having made them over several times, I had forgotten what they initially looked like. So-far, my two attempts at cheese gruyeres have been entirely unsuccessful. Joycelyn's sticky toffee date bundt, on the other hand, though arguably an easier recipe, worked well for me on the first try and I was confident enough to try it as a birthday cake for a friend's party.

On the other hand, having written to Chef Pang about the lovely chocolate filling in the eclairs at Dalloyau in Paris and he was gracious enough to have replied with a recipe for a thicker, richer chocolate cream, so if I ever do get my choux pastry to rise, I can make a world-class product!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dinner with a Bride

If you cook often, you'll understand how lovely it is to be cooked for. This past week, I received an invitation from a friend to go to her new house for dinner. She is getting married and had a scrapbook that she wanted to show me.

She's a very involved bride...I saw a lot of details and I won't release details of her colour theme but as you can see from the photos, she has culinary skills as well and a beautiful assortmenet of Japanese plates, so I'm definitely looking forward to seeing her big-day photos.

She made a crazy good tahini tofu salad and a plate of roast chicken that had been marinated in her special sauce (a blend of capsicum, tomato, herbs and mustard), as well as a tray of chocolate souffle.

Hopefully I'll make some headway experimenting with her instructions and you can expect recipes to come. I must say she is one of those chosen few who possess a "Japanese" hand. That is, everything she cooks comes out miraculously tasting Japanese- my college housemate was like that as well and I do envy these people!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Christmas Cake

This recipe for sugee fruit cake was gifted to me, so I can't perhaps take the liberty to share it. Sugee cake is very common amongst Eurasian family desserts and this fruit cake is made espcially for Christmas.

What I like a lot about it, other than the soaking of fruits and nuts in brandy, is that you can adjust how wet or dry you like your cake. I was actually after a rich dense fruitcake and I was definitely hankering after the marzipan and royal icing. I underbaked this one slightly, so I'm definitely going to do this recipe once more before Christmas. I'll have more to report!

Recipe: Berry Almond Cream Pie

I have a strange quirk, I don't like raw almonds much and I dislike almond essence (and hence almond jelly) immensely. However, I quite like almonds pieces when they are baked into biscuits or a cake.

This recipe uses up the second half of the pate sucre dough but the filling, instead of a lemon curd or pastry cream, is a almond filling which bakes into a solid pie. I had my doubts about this recipe because from the pictures (It's terrible how these are misleading sometimes isn't it!) it looked like the almond cream was very thick and I was afraid it would produce a semi-solid yet heavy dense pudding like almond-y filling.

Instead, my conclusion was that this recipe is actually very briliant and it tastes, like a mouthful of comforting home food. It was warm and berry-full, juicy and yes, slightly dense but wonderful nonetheless. All the guests enjoyed this immensely and I would definitely make this again.

The only warning though, is that of course, I gilded the lily and tipped in heaps more blueberries than I should have (but worth it, look at those dimples!) and as such, the baking time was a lot longer than suggested here. It might be different for you but I think the pie would take much longer to brown than the recipe states, even with fewer berries.

This sweet pastry dough is like a delicate butter cookie rather than a traditional flaky pie dough. The almond cream is said to have been created by French pastry chefs in honor of the 16th century Italian nobleman Marquis Muzio Frangipani, who invented a technique to infuse gloves with the perfume of bitter almonds. You can also use apricots, cherries or poached pears in this recipe.

1 3/4 cups (254 grams) all purpose flour
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (122 grams) confectioners' sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (127 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg

1. Sift together the confectioners' sugar, flour, and salt into a bowl.
2. Add butter in a food processor and process until smooth, about 15 seconds. Scatter the flour mixture over the butter, add the egg, and process just unitl the dough forms a mass; do not over mix. Turn the dough out onto the counter and divide it in two. Shape each half into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 day. (Freeze half of the dough, well wrapped, for up to 1 month.)
3. Dust a work surface lightly with flour. Dust the dough lightly with flour and, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out into a rough 12 inch circle. Lift the dough often, make sure that the dough does not stick to the work surface; dust the work surface lightly with flour as needed.
4. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch removable bottom tart pan by rolling the dough up onto a rolling pin into the pan and unroll the dough over the tart pan. Gently press the dough into the pan, especially where the bottom and the side of the pan meet and up sides. Remove any excess dough. Prick the bottom of the tart shells all over with a fork. Chill the tart shell for 20 minutes.

1 cup (125 grams) almond flour
1/4 cup (125 grams)granulated sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (125 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, at room temperature
1/4 cup (20 grams) all purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/2 pint of fresh raspberries or frozen raspberries
Sliced Almonds

1. Place butter, sugar, and almond in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the egg and mix until it is light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the all-purpose flour and beat on low speed until it is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Do not overmix. (Place the almond cream into an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to five days or freeze up to one month.) 2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake chilled crust until just set; the tart shell should have little or no color, about 18 minutes. Cool crust on rack for 15 minutes. 3. Spread filling evenly in crust. Arrange raspberries, atop filling, fitting in as many as you like. Sprinkle with sliced almonds. Bake tart until filling is golden brown and set, about 35 minutes. Cool tart completely on rack.

1/3 cup apricot jam
2 teaspoons water

Combine jam and 2 teaspoons water in heavy small saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat 1 minute, stirring constantly. Strain glaze into small bowl. Push up pan bottom to release tart. Place tart on platter. Brush glaze over tart.(Can be prepared 8 hours ahead; let stand at room temperature.)

Recipe: Raspberry Macarons

My original thought, upon contemplating the berries, is that I wanted to make a white chocolate raspberry ganache. So I did. It was really rich and yet berry light and what I really wanted it for, was to sandwich between macarons.

I don't know why I suddenly had the craving to make macarons. It's really quite a torture as it's a delicate, exacting process that has little to recommend it, except an incredibly self-righteous high when you get it right.

It involves aging egg whites for a day to dry them out, then whipping the egg whites till stiff and doing the macronage process, which is folding in a mix of almond and icing sugar, which has to be ground till really fine. This process of folding is ridiculously instinctive, one fold too few and the mixture doesn't actually blend, one fold too many and your mixture has become too liquid and too thin. When you pipe out the macarons, they spread, crack and don't develope the beautiful smooth domes and frothy "feet" at the base.

This is a recipe for masochists but little beats the taste of a freshly made macaron, it is as rich as it is ephemeral. It's the encapsulation of awe and greed, just as this recipe can sometimes be the encapsulation of kitchen weirdness and madness. I have some friends who are masters of this and maybe you can be too.

The recipe has three steps, making the macaron shells is the hardest. When you've mastered the technique, you can change the taste and make chocolate, peanut, green tea, for example. Making the filling is easy and you're only limited by the scope of your imagination (you can make chocolate ganaches, berry fruit, mango, green tea, chestnut, ginger, salted caramel).

The third part is sandwiching the shells and the piped in filling- the perfect macaron is a compact size of about a 1.3 inches in diameter, with high shells and a five layer sandwich created by the split between the smooth shells and crumbly feet of each macaron.

The filling layer should be solid and thick, with a great flavour and maybe even a hidden block of chocolate or crystallized ginger in the center. The shell should be dry to the touch but shatter upon a bite into it's inherant crumbly texture. Unfortunately, my ganache hadn't been frozen long enough and so was a bit liquid, instead of the dry, rich paste that should have been squeezed through the piping bag.


For the Macarons:
3 egg whites (use 1-2 day old egg whites)
50 gr. granulated sugar
200 gr. powdered sugar
110 gr. ground almonds
3 Tb cocoa powder or a small drop of gel food colouring

1. Grind the powdered sugar and ground almonds in a food processor till fine.
2. Whip the egg whites in an eggbeater and drizzle in the granulated sugar. Egg whites should be stiff enough for you to upturn the bowl without the egg whites falling out.
3. Mix the almond mixture into the bowl with the cocoa powder for chocolate shells, or use a drop of food colouring gel. Don't use liquid food colouring as it make the batter too soft.
4. Fold in the mixture by lifting with a spatula, along the sides of the bowl from the center, in the base. Do not over-fold, as you will cause the egg whites to collapse. You should fold about 50 strokes and it is obvious when you've overdone it because the mixture starts to lose it's stiffness and fall into a thinner viscousity. This difference in texture is easy to feel through the spatula in your hand, as the mixture will start to feel less thick.
5. It is better to under, then over-fold, as the mixture will continue to thin on the baking sheet.
6. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and pipe out onto a silpat mat or parchment paper on a baking tray.
7. Leave the little coin-shaped macarons out for an hour to dry somemore. This creates the smooth skin of the macaron.
8. Preheat the oven to 315F and bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on their size. Let cool completely.

For the raspberry white chocolate ganache:
1.5 cups of white chocolate feves
1/2 cup of heavy cream
fresh raspberries or raspberry puree

1. Heat the cream until it starts to approach boiling. Don't let the cream boil and burn.
2. Pour the hot cream into the white chocolate. Stir as the chocolate melts into the cream.
3. Pour in the raspberries and crush them into the white chocolate. If using puree, stir it into the ganache.
4. Let it cool for a few hours until stiff enough to pipe and use to fill the macarons.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Recipe: Blackberry Pie

I always feel that there's something special about berry pies, it's just such an indulgent sight! I was intrigued by a recipe for pate sucre, which is a rich sweet short pastry, I kept seeing this term "pate sucre" and I never really had the chance to use it or make it. What it was, I understood, was the tart base that you find on most French pastries, including those tarts that you get at Delifrance.

I always tend to make pie crusts out of graham cookies, because I like the taste. To my surprise, I found pate sucre to be a very easy recipe and came together beautifully, although I had my doubts. The pastry cream, which I did have more experience with, was also very easy to make and I didn't even need to break out the eggbeater, so don't be discouraged by the fact that this recipe has parts to it.


Tart Dough

This recipe make two 10-inch tarts. I saved the second one to make a Raspberry Almond Tart.

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg

1. Sift together the confectioners' sugar, flour, and salt into a bowl.
2. Place the butter in a food processor and process until smooth, about 15 seconds. Distribute the flour mixture over the butter, add the egg, and process just until the dough comes together; do not overmix. Turn the dough out onto the counter and divide it in two. Shape each half into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. (You may freeze the other half for up to one month.)
3. Let the dough stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to soften.
4. Dust a work surface lightly with flour. Dust one of the discs lightly with flour and, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out into about 12-inch circle.

Pastry Cream

2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
4 yolks
4 Tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract or half of a vanilla bean

1. Combine 1 1/2 cups of the milk with the sugar, and the vanilla seed and pod if using, in a medium, heavy saucepan, and whisk to dissolve the sugar.
2. In a medium bowl, dissolve cornstarch in the remaining 1/2 cup milk. Whisk the eggs and yolk into the dissolved cornstarch until completely smooth.
3. Bring the milk and sugar to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir 1/4 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture to temper it. Whisk in the remaining milk mixture, 1/4 cup at a time until completely combined.
4. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until the custard thickens and comes to a slow boil. Cook stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla until both are completely incorparated.
5. Now you should pour custard through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl but I couldn't be bothered to strain it. If you've stirred vigourously and not cooked your egg, you should be alright. Press plastic wrap over the surface of the hot pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming as the cream cools. Poke a few holes in the plastic wrap to allow steam to escape. Refrigerate until completely cold, about 3 hours. Makes 3 cups.


2 cups fresh blackberries or blueberries, cleaned

1. Place the tart shell on a flat platter. Pour and spread, using a spatula or spoon, the pastry cream all the way to the sides of the crust.
2. Place the fruit on the surface of the pastry cream. You can also use straeverries. Use a whole strawberry right in the center and lean half strawberries in a circular fashion from the center outward.
3. If you feel hardworking, you can make a glaze and brush it on the fruit using a pastry brush. This will keep the fruit from browning and it adds shine. Serve within a few hours or the tart will be soggy.


1/3 cup apricot jam
2 teaspoons water

Combine jam and 2 teaspoons water in heavy small saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat 1 minute, stirring constantly. Strain glaze into small bowl. Push up pan bottom to release tart. Place tart on platter. Brush glaze over tart.(Can be prepared 8 hours ahead; let stand at room temperature.)

Tip: You may brush the bottom of the tart shell with melted white chocolate and let it set before you fill with the cream, this will prevent the tart crust from getting soggy.

Recipe: Creme Brulee with Fresh Berries

The second recipe I thought to make with my berry haul was a creme brulee, to bring to a dinner I was invited to at a friend's new house (more photos on that to come later). I like creme brulee a lot but I always relate to it as a contextual food. I remember the places that I eat creme brulee and for me, it's reminiscent of New York and of course, Paris.

For awhile I went on a search for Singapore's best creme brulee but more often than not it can be quite disappointing. It's one of those foods that is theoretically not difficult to make but what makes it brilliant can be quite according to personal taste.

I made the custard with a healthy spoonful of vanilla paste, chock-full of vanilla seeds and a dribble of grand marnier, which I feel helps to kill the "eggy" taste, which is one of my personal criteria. My second criteria is a crackly hard sugar surface and the third is a brulee that is heaped with fresh berries!

The custard part turned out lovely and nuanced but when it came to creating the crackly surface, I found that my brother's blow-torch had run out of bhutane! Thankfully, my resourceful friend also had a blow-torch. The other method I've heard of is to grill the surface in the top of an oven but I must admit, I have never grilled a creme brulee surface satisfactorarily.

(makes 6)

500ml double cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
4 egg yolks
60g sugar (see note above)
2 tbsp caster sugar, extra

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
2. Place the cream and vanilla bean inb a small saucepan over low heat and cook gently until the mixture just comes to the boil.
3. Remove from the heat.
4. Whisk the egg yolk and sugar together until thick, pale and frothy. Pour the warm mixture over the eggs and whisk to combine.
5. Return to the saucepan and whisk on low heat for 6-8 minutes or until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
6. Pour the custard into 6 ovenproof ramekins and place into a deep baking dish. Pour in enough water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
7. Bake for 25 minutes or until just set.
8. Remove the crèmes from the baking dish and refrigirate for 3 hours. Sprinkle each dessert with two teaspoons of extra sugar and caramelize the topping either with a hot spoon or a blowtorch.

Recipe: Raspberry Friands

The exciting part of this weekend is that I received a lovely gift of some punnets of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. It's like the last hurrah of summer before the world sets into winter. I immediately went into berry baking overdrive.

The first recipe, which sounded really pretty, was raspberry friands. The "Friand" is a small, moist cake made with almond meal and flour. It is of French origin and may be related to the Parisian "financier" cake and the ubiquitous madelaines. It is most common in France, of course, but also now in Australia.

The friand is supposed to be quite a small cake, if you've ever seen these trays with little depression-moulds, they are usually in the shape of shells (madelaines), or rectangles (friands). Other little french tins that can be used also have cute names like Dariole or Barquette moulds.

Unfortunately, I don't have any of these trays and I used small loaf tins. You should use the trays though, the reason is that this recipe, which uses quite a bit of whipped stiff egg white, produces a little cake that is very soft and spongy on the inside and crusty on the exterior. So you need the cake to be small to have a good bite, since the inside is so steamy.

I was also a little trigger happy with the berries. In the recipe, it says to push in two raspberries into the thick batter of each friand. Of course, I tipped in a cup of berries and as a result, the interior of the cake was even softer and fruity then I had planned. Still, fresh out of the hot oven, it was still lovely.

125 unsalted butter, diced
1 cup almond meal
1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 tsp. baking powder
5 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/2 cup fresh berries (raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries), sliced

1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
2. Prepare a friand tin or 6 individual dariole molds by lightly brushing them with butter.
3. Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat until golden in color. Set side to cool.
4. Place almond meal, icing sugar, flour and baking powder in a bowl and stir to combine.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk egg whites until foamy. Add the egg whites to the flour mixture and stir to combine.
6. Then add the cooled butter and stir until thoroughly blended.
7. Spoon the mixture into the tin/moulds, dropping some berries halfway through. Fill the tins/molds 1.5cm from the top. Place a berry on top.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tops are golden brown and springy to touch.
9. Cool for 10 minutes and unmold the friands by tapping the bases lightly a couple of times until they are released. Dust with icing sugar.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Recipe: Chocolate Cupcakes

A quick picture of the flower garden pink cupcakes I made for a little girl's birthday! You can't see it but in the plain cupcake icing you can see red segment nibs from the raspberry puree that I added for natural tasting pale pink icing.

These were really fun to make and I got to try out my new pearly sugar beads. I think these would be just the thing to sprinkle around a pale green marzipan pea in the pod, on a whirl of pale pink icing. More on that when January rolls around!

I've also found my favourite chocolate cupcake recipe, this makes a dense, rich, moist American style chocolate cake, perfect for fudging into layer cakes. I've tried many recipes that give a brown crumb, rather than a moist black crumb and this is not just the best recipe I've tasted but also one of the easiest. I iced them with raspberry buttercream but the recipe below is for a traditional chocolate fudge icing.

Recipe from Ina Garten aka the Barefoot Contessa:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed very hot coffee

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans or line them with wax parchment paper. Otherwise, set out 20 cupcake cups.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, mix the flour with the sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt at low speed.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk the buttermilk with the oil, eggs and vanilla. Slowly beat the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients until just incorporated, then slowly beat in the hot coffee until fully incorporated.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then invert the cakes onto a rack to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper.

Ingredients for chocolate frosting:

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon instant coffee granules

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate at high power in 30-second intervals, stirring, until most of the chocolate is melted. Stir until completely melted, then set aside to cool to room temperature. Alternatively, you can melt the chocolate over a double-boiler, over a saucepan of boiling water.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat for 1 minute, scraping down the side of the bowl.

3. At low speed, slowly beat in the confectioners’ sugar, about 1 minute. In a small bowl, dissolve the instant coffee in 2 teaspoons of hot water. Slowly beat the coffee and the cooled chocolate into the butter mixture until just combined.

4. Set a cake layer on a plate with the flat side facing up. Evenly spread one-third of the frosting over the cake to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, rounded side up. Spread the remaining frosting over the top and side of the cake.

5. MAKE AHEAD The frosted cake can be refrigerated for 2 days. Even if you make it on the day of, it should be refrigerated for 1 hour before serving.

Recipe: Red Velvet Cake

I have slowly moved to this new paradigm of not having any plans for the weekend. I'm not sure why that is, perhaps I'm stressed or perhaps I'm just getting old. It's not fair to say nothing though, of course, I have wonderful meals with friends, check out some new places when I'm able, dress up dress down, hang around, in all too Singaporean-a-fashion. Time to take a long trip to the US, I think, this little residential town is getting too small!

As a sure sign that I was starting to feel restless, I dug up some old macaron recipes that I'd been meaning to try. Some New York Times recipes and some oldie but goodie festive recipes (to come soon!). One of them, was Red Velvet Cake, a hot sexy coloured cupcake made popular by Magnolia Bakery in New York. This is an old school American-as-pie product, which people get nostalgic about, the same way they get about their grandmothers.

Personally, I had always thought Red Velvet Cake was sponge cake dyed a brilliant hue of crimson. Then it occured to me that maybe it did have some flavour, like cocoa or maybe even beetroot. I'd been wanting to try to make it for some time and had to wait for the right occasion, which presented itself when a friend asked if I would make cupcakes for her daughter's birthday. I made an assortement of chocolate, orange and you got it, red velvet cake.

This is the recipe that I got from the New York Times, it's not the Magnolia Bakery recipe because all of those are cream-butter-and-sugar recipes, whereas this is a grapeseed oil-and-buttermilk recipe which I find much more moist. My cupcakes were not a fire-engine red though, so my suspicion is that you either have to be much more heavy-handed on the red food colouring then I was prepared to be (yes, it really did say 6 Tbsps and I guess I shortchanged it) or cut down the amount of cocoa and replace it say, with minced or juiced beets.

What I read later on is that a Red Velvet Cake is really a Southern Devil's Food Cake that has red food coloring added to it and is so called "because it is supposedly so rich and delicious that it must, to a moralist, be somewhat sinful." Cute! I even found a post on Colin Goh and Yen Yen's Live from New York blog about it. I used a buttercream frosting because it was for kids but if not I would advise using a traditional Cream Cheese/Whipped Cream Frosting with Fresh Coconut Shavings, the icing recipe here is from the Waldorf Astoria. I would also advise making a whole cake and frosting the layers- makes for a really dramatic contrast with the red and white colours.

Recipe by Elisa Strauss in the Confetti Cakes Cookbook:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil (I used grapeseed oil)
2¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2½ teaspoons white vinegar.

* If I were to do this again, I would decrease the cocoa powder to just two tablespoons and add 1/2 cup of pureed beets.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place teaspoon of butter in each of 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and place pans in oven for a few minutes until butter melts. Remove pans from oven, brush interior bottom and sides of each with butter and line bottoms with parchment.

2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.

Icing Recipe:

2 cups heavy cream, cold
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
12 ounces mascarpone
½ teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted.

1. Softly whip cream by hand, in electric mixer or in food processor. Cover in bowl and refrigerate.

2. Blend cream cheese and mascarpone in food processor or electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, pulse briefly, and add confectioners’ sugar. Blend well.

3. Transfer cream cheese mixture to bowl; fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.

Yield: Icing for top and sides of 3-layer cake.

Recipe: Orange Cake

Its been awhile since I've made anything to really talk about. Not because I haven't been baking but because the photography conditions were poor, the products were kid-friendly and somehow in the mix I'd lost the dessert mojo. The dry spell had been as uninspiring as the markets.

This last week though, I had a moment of rare sunshine in dessert land, when through the bleak disbelief, I found myself dreaming of citrus and orange. Not just any orange though but a sweet steamy sexy orange flavour, something mystical and Mediterranean, something with both a warm browned mist and a heady note of orange blossom clarity.

There is only one recipe I know of that really brings out the heat and fullness of an orange cake and it is actually quite Moroccan in origin. The oranges are boiled in a little water until they are cooked, soft and syrupy. (If you can't wait an hour, then you can prick them and microwave them for 8 minutes and they should bleed out their juices, which you can then serve as a spooning sauce over the cake).

Then the cake batter is assembled with ground almond instead of flour, from which the cake derives it's dense yet succulent texture. The entire orange, except the seeds, is blended with the eggs and ground almond to form a thick batter, streaked through with speckles of orange peel.

I used vanilla paste to up the ante on the taste and dribbled in some grand marnier for good measure (though you could also use Cointreau or even Brandy, I suspect). Here is the recipe, which worked exactly for me. I plated the squares of cake with a spoon of the orange syrup from the cooking of the oranges, a dollop of mixed whipped and ice cream (though you can use creme fraiche or marscapone) and some sliced strawberries.

Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Cake:

1. Barely cover 2 large unwaxed oranges in a medium-sized pot with water. Bring to a boil, clamp on a lid, lower heat to a simmer, and simmer for 1-2 hours. Lift out oranges, allow to cool, cut open, remove and discard the pips. Chop oranges up, including the rind.

If you don't want to wait, prick the oranges all over with a fork and place them in a covered container (prefably with a drip tray) and microwave for 8 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 190°C. Line a 24cm non-stick heavy-gauge springform tin you trust to be leakproof (the batter is very wet) with wax paper, or butter and flour the surfaces.

3. Blend chopped oranges and 6 eggs thoroughly in a food processor or blender. Add 250 gm ground almonds, 250 gm caster sugar and 1 tsp double-action baking powder and blend. Add 1 Tbsp of vanilla paste and 1 Tbsp of Grand Marnier.

4. Scrape batter into prepared tin and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour; the cake is done when it's a deep golden brown, has come away slightly from the sides of the tin, and the top springs back when touched. If cake is still very wet, cook a little longer.

5. Cool in tin before turning out gently. I find it easiest to slice up the cake when it is hot (or you can heat your knife by passing the blade through an open flame) and when the crust has not yet set. You can store the cake on a cling- wrapped plate, in the fridge. I like the cake warm but the next day, there is, I think, an accentuation of the depth and nuance of the orange flavour.