Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chocolate Banana Cupcakes

These were my little minions for an office tea to celebrate the anniversary of a colleague and the almost-end to a tough work period. The base was a chocolatey, chunky chocolate banana cake and I beat some buttercream for frosting.

Now that I have discovered Italian buttercream (as opposed to Swiss Meringue buttercream, do you know the difference?) and since discovering that buttercream is actually not meant to be yellow, I've been icing everything white. I'm developing a white fetish (how wrong that sounds) for cakes because I know I can make bright white frosting. This is after I spent 3 years believing that buttercream was inherently yellow (it isn't, I just wasn't making it with French butter cos you know, heck, French butter is expensive) and thus has to be tinted into a darker, more palatable colour. And now that I've discovered which are the cheaper French brands of butter to buy in bulk, I can have French butter most, or at least, more of the time.

All this explains why the buttercream was, of course, white. I was also, though, having a hundreds and thousands infatuation. While I was searching for the best chocolate cupcake in sites like these, I had come across the cutest picture of chocolate ganache cupcakes with old school hundreds and thousands. Something about it triggered a childish memory of eating chocolate frosting (no kidding, I used to eat it out of the Duncan Hines paper jar) with sprinkles at the back of tuition class and suddenly I was craving childish cupcakes.

These ones come pretty close. They were delish and in their small, considerate size, even my health-conscious colleagues reached for one, abstained from scraping off the frosting and didn't ask the guy next to them to share!

Recipe: Caramelized Onions

One theme I've been thinking about recently is this recurring idea of "Luxe for Less". This concept can be applied to some inexpensive home-made recipes that really take the cake on the store-bought version, or, quick, simple ways that you can jazz up recipes or well-worn dishes.

This is a really simple side dish or garnish that really adds to meat dishes or burgers. What you do is get some red onions (I tend to use 4-5 large ones) and slice them thinly. You can slice them in half, then in thin half-rounds or if you're aesthetically picky, you can slice them all in round onion rings. I tend to make a big batch of this and then freeze the remainder, so when you need an emergency side or garnish for meat, it's already there waiting for you. The way this recipe approximates also makes it a bit hard to make a wee little bit for say, 2 people.

Heat a pan and add a small slice of butter and 3 Tbsp of olive oil (or grapeseed oil, if you prefer). Saute your onion shavings, leaving them to cook and soften in the pan. This can take up to 10-15 minutes if you've crowded your pan. If you have a pan that you've used to sear meat and then deglazed, you can use the same pan for these onions. You can also add thyme or rosemary to your onions if you fancy. This will all add to the flavour absorbed by the onions, which should now have turned wet, transculent and shiny.

Throw 3 heaped soup spoons of white sugar into the onions and stir to distribute. The heat will continue to melt the sugar into the onion mixture. When the sugar has at least partially dissolved, pour in 1/2 a cup (feel free to approximate, depending on how many onions you've used, you may need more or less sugar and balsamic) of balsamic vinegar into the onions and mix again.

As you cook the mixture, the onions will continue to soften, take on a dark hue and the resulting liquid will thicken slightly. The mixture is done, as soon as the vinegar is well distributed and the onions are an even colour. You can either drain away the liquid, or save it for something else. Serve a heapful of this on burger patties or with steak, or pack it like a skin, over a hot roast. Delish!

Just a note, this works with yellow or white onions too but it really actualizes itself with red onions which are sweeter and caramelize better. If you use small red onions, you will probably have to use 8-10 little ones but the trade-off is that the small little rings and dainty shavings are aesthetically very pretty, especially when plated with small-boned meat like frenched lamb rack.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Recipe: Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

I am one of the few people I know who enjoys cold soup as much as hot soups. As a result, I am always on the lookout for soups that can be served both warm and cold, such as vichyssoise, gazpacho and so on. The benefit of these soups, apart from their versatility, is that they improve with age, in a way soups like consommes do not, so you can feel good about leaving leftovers.

This recipe is one of Gordon Ramsay's, and unlike a normal tomato soup, this one makes use of red peppers to sweeten the soup, and in order to really enhance the flavours, the peppers (in fact all the fruits and vegetables) are roasted first.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

Olive oil
6 or 7 ripe plum tomatoes
3 large red peppers
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp caster sugar
500ml tomato juice
500ml vegetable or chicken stock
200-300g (8 to 12) baby cherry tomatoes on the vine (optional)

It's worth paying more for beautiful, plump, juicy tomatoes...they don't necessarily have to be on the stem, but I regard that as a sign of freshness. While the locally-grown beef tomatoes may be much cheaper, they tend to be quite sour and even harsh, so I would not recommend using them. Tomato juice is easily found in cans or tetra-paks in supermarkets.

1. Quarter and de-seed the tomatoes

This is important, as it ensures that your soup will be perfectly smooth and lush. I have had many tomato soups which were gritty, and while you can always sieve your soup, it is extraordinarily difficult to remove tomato seeds once they have been blended.

To de-seed tomatoes, simply quarter them, and using a spoon or the tip of your knife, tease out the wet, mushy cores containing the seeds. Do not discard these, but place them into a sieve with a bowl underneath. The watery cores contain lots of tomato juice that you can squeeze out with the back of a spoon (or your hands), leaving the tomato seed and pulp in the sieve but ensuring that you do not waste too much of the sweet, refreshing juices.

2. Quarter and de-seed the peppers

This is not particularly difficult; you may de-seed the peppers any way you think convenient.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 220C.

4. Tip the tomatoes, peppers, sliced onion and garlic into a roasting tin, and lubricate liberally with olive oil (about 4 Tbsp worth). Sprinkle with a handful of fresh thyme leaves, and toss to coat all the ingredients in the oil. Sprinkle with sugar and season with salt.

5. Roast in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes until the tomatoes and peppers are caramelised (but not browned), adding a handful of fresh basil sprigs towards the end of cooking (so they do not char).

6. Tip the roasted vegetables into a saucepan, and add the reserved juice from the tomato pulp you strained earlier, the 500ml of tomato juice and the vegetable/chicken stock. Bring to the boil, and cook for 5 minutes.

7. (Optional) If possible, leave to marinate overnight, as this will really intensify the flavours. If you don't have the time for that, at least wait for the ingredients to cool down before blending them.

8. Blend the ingredients in a blender (in batches).

9. (Optional) To obtain a really smooth soup, sieve the mixture at least once (twice is better).

10. This is what you should end up with: a bright, carroty-orange soup, that should be adjusted to the consistency you desire by adding more stock or tomato juice. Once you're happy with the consistency, you can serve it either warm or chilled.

11. (Optional) To jazz up the appearance of your soup, and to create an interesting flavour/texture contrast, when you're ready to serve, heat up some olive oil in a frying pan and simply place baby cherry tomatoes on the vine (2 or 3 to each person) into the hot oil. Let them sizzle away for a minute or so, then remove them and place them gently into the soup bowls.

The great thing about this soup is that even if you serve it warm at the height of summer (in Singapore that would be about 1pm any day of the week, I guess), it still seems refreshing and zesty, bursting with great flavours: sweetness from the tomatoes, some piquancy from the peppers, and a general sense of satisfaction as you finish the whole bowl.

Review: Forlino

I've been hearing about Forlino for quite a long time, and its reputation for high-quality Italian fine-dining preceded it, but, sadly, so did reports of its high prices. Thankfully, a special discount gave us the perfect opportunity to sample the set lunch.

The entrance to Forlino is somewhat foreboding, making use of ashen greys and pitch blacks, with solitary lights spotlighting a bureau, or a sculpture, reminiscent of a slightly macabre museum, or a desolate mansion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as the effect is certainly strikingly dramatic.

Entering the restaurant proper is an equally interesting affair: the decor changes to something that would not be out of place in the Schloss Schonbrunn - corridors of blue walls with gilded stuccoes frame chequered floor tiles, achieving a palatial, chiaroscuro effect that one might think slightly out of keeping with Forlino's modern cuisine.

The main dining area is very contemporary though, all darkness and light: black carpeted floors and a plush ebon upholstery absorbing dining room chatter, while floor to ceiling glass panes allow you to enjoy the view of the Fullerton hotel and the city skyline with your meal.

Said meal commenced with an amuse-bouche of marinated cod and micro vegetables. The firm, fresh fish (alliteration unintended) and the melange of salad leaves certainly serve to excite the tastebuds, and hint at more to come.

The wild mushrooms with robbiola cheese fondue and cornmeal polenta followed, which I thought was delectable. Intense, earthy mushroom flavours danced on the tongue and down the back of the throat, while the rich, creamy polenta enveloped the aroma of the funghi, diffusing it across the palate. I could probably have eaten a whole bowl of this without much difficulty.

The second course was an elegant homemade pasta dish: tagliolini with clams cooked in white wine and served with slivers of green chillies. The chillies tasted more like peppers, which added a piquant sweetness to the dish which cut through the umami of the clam sauce.

The meat course was a dish of slow-cooked Wagyu beef cheeks with herbed mashed potatoes. Just what you'd expect: unctuous, almost gelatinous hunks of beef cooked till meltingly tender, paired with a decadent sauce and a hearty mashed potato.

Alternatively, you could have the halibut and asparagus with orange and martini vermouth sauce.

Dessert was a less complicated affair: a molten chocolate cake served with banana gelato and rum sauce. The cake was soft and delicate, giving way to a thick, luscious hot chocolate interior. It's true that molten chocolate cakes are a dime a dozen these days, but they're still delightful when done properly.

It's true that Forlino is not especially cheap (although it gets cheaper if you have certain credit cards), but it's a beautiful restaurant located in a picturesque part of the city, and is a perfect spot for a romantic or special meal. Food is very good, and an extensive menu means you'll be spoilt for choice while being attended to with care and meticulous service: ladies are provided with cute plastic stools on which they can place their handbags, and any requests or inquiries will be discreetly seen to.

1 Fullerton Road
#02-06 One Fullerton
Tel: 6877 6995

Review: Oriole

I'd heard a bit about Oriole and Bedrock Bar and Grill, the new cafe and restaurant opened by the people who started Whitebait and Kale, but it's taken me a while to find an opportunity to try either. Intrigued by the reviews of the hot chocolate at Oriole, I decided to go give it a try.

The two are opposite each other, which I would have thought is a form of cannibalism, but on the bright side, at least there are two more places to have a decent meal in town, which I've long complained suffers from a dearth of venues for a meal.

I rather like the decor in Oriole; the light fixtures in particular are very striking, resembling giant spindly wooden spiders. Generous glass panels allow in a fair amount of natural light, while upholstered booths line the walls, making it a pleasant enough place to while away the afternoon.

Unfortunately, Oriole's drinks do not really live up to their reputation. The latte, hot vanilla, and hot chocolate were all reported to be rather too sweet, resulting in forlorn half-drunk cups being left behind on the table.

The chocolate milkshake wasn't too bad, especially since chocolate milkshakes can handle being over-sweetened, but it's not the best milkshake I've had.

Being boring, I ordered a plate of linguine vongole, which was acceptable, though with some minor cavils: the aroma of the white wine was almost completely dissipated, and a heavy hand with the minced garlic resulted in a fair bit of heat emanating off the dish.

A salad of harissa prawns and chickpeas was not, however, that well-received, as the prawns were tough and harsh, instead of being plumply firm and sea-fresh.

Desserts at Oriole are surprisingly disappointing, with offerings like chocolate brownies and bread and butter puddings, though happily their specials are a bit more attractive. The chocolate tart with vanilla bean ice cream was comfortingly rustic, without unnecessary accoutrements like icing sugar or superfluous flower petals.

All in all, Oriole is still finding its wings, trying to live up to its songbird potential. A good, affordable cafe close enough to the centre of the Orchard shopping district to be a welcome distraction from the hordes, Oriole is worth keeping in mind, if only because TCC and Coffee Bean become monotonous after a while.

Oriole Cafe and Bar
#01-01/05, 96 Somerset Road
Tel: 6238 8348

Monday, August 17, 2009

Miscellaneous Food: Butter - A Taste Test

Over the last couple years, I'd written many diatribes about supermarkets and grocery prices in Singapore. Alarmed by the rapid rise in price of basic food and dairy prices, I wondered how the average Singaporean was coping and if they were being scammed by grocery companies, which were, the last time I checked, still making healthy profit margins.

Of course, we in Singapore are lucky, there are a multitude of cheap eating stalls and generally, you can still afford to eat well but gradually, it appears that you won't be able to afford to cook. Last week I decided to act upon an idea that had been brewing for a while and, instead of reviewing a restaurant, try to add value as a blogger by reviewing something far more sensible.

My central premise was that all butters are not created equal. But surely, some butters were more economical than others and I wondered, is there a difference between butters? Was it possible to get a good deal? The best balance between taste and price? Which was, for want of a better term, "luxe for less"?

To help me decide this, I recruited three famous bloggers and with some cajoling, and where that failed, brow-beating, persuaded them that they really did want to do a butter test. We tasted 6 butters, all of lower price points and all unsalted versions where available - Greenfields ($1.60 from Phoon Huat), Goldtree ($1.60 from Phoon Huat), Le Petit Normand ($2.80 from Phoon Huat), Cowhead (from NTUC $5.35 for 2), SCS (from NTUC $4.50, $3.80 on special) and Elle et Vire ($3.50 from Sun Lik, $3.16 for 6 or $3.60 for 3 from Shermay, please note this is packed in a 200g as opposed to 250g block).

These prices compare to the creme de la creme butters (literally), at $5.60 (from NTUC) for Lurpak, which was the unanimous favourite amongst all the bloggers and $5.20 (from NTUC) for President. I avoided buying a block of Anchor ($3.70, $3.20 on special at NTUC) because I already knew we all disliked it and made a concession for SCS, even though some had already registered their distaste for its oilyness, only because it's such an iconic Singaporean brand.

Generally, most of the low-range butters that are available in Singapore are from Australia and a couple are from France. The first conclusion is yes, there is a difference between butters, both upon a blind tasting and also when you use them in say, butter cake. I tend to find that the more solid, pale-coloured french butters are in fact, a lot less oily than the darker yellow butters, say like SCS. Your cake tends to be less dense in texture, with flaky granules rather than melted, heavy ones. I also think where the butter is a dominant feature, like in buttercream, there is a rich wholesomeness to using President for a macaron filling and it clearly gives a white, rather than a yellow tint to the cream.

Our notes on the butter tasting were that Goldtree, as I suppose you can expect from its dark yellow colouring and super cheap price, had no taste at all and was declared the worst one. Greenfields had a weird synthetic, very buttery tasting aftertaste, which, although artificial, didn't taste completely out of sync. SCS was also rather buttery, with a similarly oily aftertaste.

The Petit Normand was a lighter tasting butter, somewhat tasteless unfortunately but with the characteristic paleness and sweetness of french butters. Elle et Vire was the best tasting, the lightest and the one that approximated the nuanced flavours that one associates with good quality butter. It was probably the closest proxy for President butter that we had.

So there we have it. Apparently one can buy President when it goes on special and just hoard and freeze it (Lurpak apparently, never goes on sale) but if it were my choice, I guess I would use Le Petit Normand or Elle et Vire (on the 6 piece special price) for my baking. Or maybe skip the mid range altogether and use Greenfields for regular baking and upgrade to President for buttercream!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Macarons: More than a one-trick pony?

After a tremendous weekend of macaron baking, I was satisfied that I sort of had the technique down. Sure, it wasn't perfect, sometimes they were a little flatter and they still had an annoying granularity that K's macarons seem to be devoid of but they all had happy, thick, luscious feet and they peeled off the paper easy enough and I was feeling pleased with myself.

You would think that would be reason enough to kick up your heels and sit down with a dark chocolate ganache or a salted caramel macaron. But no, Z. had to taste them and say, yes, but how come you always make these same flavours? "That's all I know how" I replied rather haughtily and with as much dignity as an amateur macaroner can be expected to have.

"You are a one-trick pony", he beamed. Well, technically, I was a two-trick pony...or a two-flavour pony, which I suppose, is kind of a zebra. Point taken. With Colin's suggestion that I could try (meaning, I suppose, that he wouldn't mind eating) a passionfruit and milk chocolate macaron ala Pierre Herme and the long weekend ahead, it seemed like a good time for further experimentation.

For a week, I randomly pondered flavours and colours. Could lemon curd be sandwiched in a macaron? How about glace ginger- never mind that I don't even like glace ginger but it seemed a terribly sexy thing to put in your macaron. Green macarons? I'd done green tea before, with chocolate ganache and even with chestnut puree for my cousin when he came down with the mumps but I'd been slightly biased by the pasty, rather musty taste of chestnut and the ease with which it curdled.

Lychee and raspberry?, I texted K. Basil and lime? Raspberry White Chocolate? One late night, it came to me- Rosemary shells with Pineapple Jam, I suggested to K. excitedly. For Chinese New Year! "Too exotic for me, I doubt the old people will like", the answer came back. I guess the symptoms of macaron madness are fairly obvious. I was undeterred. The long weekend rolled around and by the time it did, I grudgingly admitted that coffee buttercream would probably be a good place to start and that no, I had never in my life liked black sesame so I probably shouldn't embark on that.

I didn't understand how I had managed to leave it till months into my macaron experience to make coffee buttercream but truth be told, I was a bit worried about pouring acidic coffee into buttercream. I dissolved the coffee granules and added, for good measure, a teaspoon of Neilson-Massey's beautifully flavourful coffee essence and half a vanilla pod. I needn't have worried, the buttercream swirled into a creamy smooth, speckled coffee coloured mix that was easy on the eye and on the wrist. The reality was I was so concerned, I probably under-flavoured the buttercream, though I discovered the next day that the taste does get stronger as the days go by.

I piped it into hazlenut shells and sandwiched dark chocolate ganache inside the swirl. I also used chocolate shells for the coffee and dark chocolate combination of filling. This found quite a bit of favour with the older people, I noticed, in particular, the men, rather than the women.

In this round, I'd used a french butter, so the lot of buttercream was white. Not wanting to miss my chance, I flavoured it with ginger juice, lemongrass juice, vanilla seeds and grated ginger. Then I piped it into plain shells and buried a small piece of glace ginger within each.

What was left? The rest of the batches were tinted yellow and flavoured with passionfruit juice, which I extraceted by straining the seed (the seeds then went into the lemon-passionfruit curd). Then half were sandwiched with lemon curd and the other half with milk chocolate. This turned out somewhat alright, except that in my zeal, I had put in a couple drops of Nielson-Massey lemon extract, a very bad idea as it overwhelmed the passionfruit juice.

That and the milk chocolate in Singapore tends to be somewhat too thin- I tried this with Valronha milk chocolate from Sun Lik and another round with Valronha milk chocolate from Shermay's Kitchen. Both were very liquid, thin and not terribly sweet nor light in colour. I'm not quite sure why that is but if I can find better milk chocolate, perhaps I'll try this recipe again.

At the end of the day, I had solved some mysteries. I understood that the reason for my grainy macarons was because my sieve was not fine enough and also, my macronage process was not comprehensive enough. But the biggest lesson I'd learnt, is that nobody actually wants to eat ginger macarons and even lemon curd or raspberry white chocolate macarons, oh yes, they have their occasional fan....but most of the feedback, went something like, more dark chocolate ganache ones and no ginger! I guess the reason I'm a two-trick pony is that those are the ones that people actually like!

Macarons: Take 200 and 12...

I hadn't realized how much I'd been flogging the macaron horse (that sounds really wrong) until today, when Colin lit up upon entering the kitchen, then peered into the mixing bowl where I was creaming some butter and in a crestfallen tone said, "not making macarons"?

Since K's refresher, I've been trying to practice, to keep the wheels of precision and cogs of memory well-oiled. To prevent myself from forgetting or my memory to get stale. But also because it is such a rewardingly aesthetic process. I actually do think I'm improving- these are some strawberry macarons I made, filled with raspberry white chocolate buttercream. I'm especially better when I have the time and isolation to be disciplined and unhurried about the whole thing. I almost think macaron-making is a state of mind and I aim to become unflappable, serene, tranquil in my steps and breathing....still a big step away from where I am now.

"You always give them away" he elucidated reproachfully, as he carefully carried out three on his plate for breakfast, "and then we have so very few left". It's true. How could you not love the aesthetic of macarons? Who could resist looking at them? Seeing the world in one of these lush little packages of almond meal and rich, dark chocolate- it's simple and complex at the same time, yet oh so good.

Icing a layered cake.

Most of you would probably have been familiar with my last post about having a craving for the springtime yellow lemon tiered cake that appeared in a Martha Stewart magazine some time back. Even if you had not been, you may have seen my last enthusiastic, slightly ghastly perhaps, attempt. While I was gratified by the height of the cake, I felt that my icing skills could use some work.

The cake turned out a medium yellow, with pale yellow and chrome yellow iced ribbon and some purple daisy and silver dragee decorations. With its lemon poppy seed zing and the flavoured buttercream, it was absolutely delicious but had a bit of a party pop flair to it. A kid's party, that is.

Undaunted I went out, bought a turntable, then proceeded to procrastinate making another cake. The problem was really that the number of steps involved in making a layered cake and then finding an occasion big enough to eat an entire cake, was still such that it remains quite a party trick. First, you have to make each flavour of cake. For this cake, there were two flavours, lemon pound cake and lemon poppy seed cake. You bake each cake in a round cake tin of the same size. then you turn out each cake and slice it evenly into two half rounds.

Then you stack each half alternately onto each other, beginning and ending with the flat bottom of each cake and sandwiching each layer with home-made lemon and passionfruit curd (yes, this is where the excess lemon and passionfruit curd from tarts went to). The next step is to smear some buttercream around the sides of the cake to even out the round shape and then to refrigerate it so that the whole cake sets and the crumbs that inevitably flick off the sides and top of the cake set into the thin layer of cream.

The last step was a few hours later when the cake was relatively hard. This involved softening the buttercream, then smoothing layer upon layer till the whole cake was smoothly and evenly covered with cream. Scraping the remaining cream into a piping nozzle, I made a dam of piped stars along the top and bottom circumference of the cake (all the better to hide my messy icing endings with, my pretty). I could have left it simple and neatly covered, if a little boring looking. The top of my cake had been very well-iced. But I thought, oh, what the hey and added a layer of passionfruit curd on top, then topped the cake with flowers.

When you finally get done messing and smoothing about with your layered cake, there is something immensely satisfying but almost paranoid about the feeling you get. It's a bit like having a child actually, after all your efforts and worries and anticipation, it's a bit overwhelming, almost, to see your expressions and features, but in this case, your aesthetic and crafting vision, take physical form.

Halfway through, I thought- this cake would look so sophisticated, if I iced it in tan-coloured salted caramel cream and then topped it with a circumference of white icing and a topper of white flowers. Or what about pink buttercream with a brown and fuschia flower topper? (I am so excited to get my Sarah Masjid Organic Cakes and Cake Decoration book soon!).

As it was though, the palette of ivory, white and pale yellow made for a very understatedly gorgeous, if a little feminine, cake. The cake was rather thick, it must have stood at a good four and a half inches tall (even though this cake had three layers inside, rather than the previous cake that had four), so I cut each slice fairly thin. It was dense, lemony, sandwiched in lemon passionfruit curd and delicately iced in buttercream. And when I sliced through it, it cut cleanly into three gratifying distinct and beautiful layers. Lots of oohing and ahhing, just as a good party trick should have.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Recipe: Lemon and Passionfruit Cream

One of the things you learn very quickly, when you live out, is that independence is often overrated. There is no real sense of aspiration that comes from doing your own laundry. However, there are perks too, one of which is that a leisurely breakfast is suddenly a very enjoyable meal and available to you at whatever time of the day you happen to define as morning.

In fact, breakfast might be my favourite meal of the day, a fact masked, perhaps, by my failure to rise early enough anytime during my college years to squeeze in a breakfast before running wildly to class.

Fluffy eggs, ricotta hotcakes, heck, even soft boiled eggs with black sauce and kaya toast, I love them all. One of my favourite things to do, though, is collect the ingredients for breakfast food and surprise everyone in the morning. One of the absolutely necessary ingredients is lemon curd, which is also one of my favourite things to make.

I've often been asked about this recipe, it sounds very complex, perhaps because it involves a "bain-marie" (french for water bath) and blending but it is actually super easy. On this particular occasion, I decided to add some passionfruit to give the curd a more nuanced flavour.

1 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 3 lemons
4 large eggs
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 4 to 5 lemons)
2 sticks plus 5 tablespoons (21 tablespoons; 10 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
2 passionfruits

1. Place the lemon peel, the seeds from the vanilla pod and the sugar in a bowl and rub the lemon and sugar together with your fingers to infuse the lemon oil from the peel into the sugar. How much sugar you use will determine the overall sharpness of the curd- I like my lemons tart so I use less than the prescribed amount.

2. Crack the eggs into the bowl, add the lemon juice and mix the sugar, juice, peel and egg together. Then place it over a saucepan half-filled with boiling water, as shown in the picture. Place the saucepan to simmer over a small flame on the stove and slowly cook and stir the mixture.

I like to use a glass bowl because the heat is more diffused and regulated. Metal bowls are hot to handle and cook your curd too quickly.

3. The curd will take at least 15 min to cook and thicken. Cook it slowly and stir frequently to keep the curd smooth. It is ready when your spoon or whisk leaves tracks as you stir the curd.

4. At this stage, the curd is ready for use. You can also go on to thicken the curd to lemon-passionfruit cream. If you intend to stop at this point, then you can go ahead and add the passionfruit pulp and seeds in now. The difference in stopping here, is that the curd is more liquid and sharp tasting.

5. If not, cool the lemon curd thouroughly. Then, place the curd in a blender, cut the butter up into small pieces and blend the butter into the cream. It takes about 10 min of blending but what you will see is that as the butter emulsifies the curd, it will get thicker and creamier (though still liquid).

6. Pour out the cream into a bowl, mix in the passionfruit pulp (you don't want to add it before because the seeds would get blitzed in the blender) and refrigerate. During the refrigeration, the cream will become even more firm and solid.

This lemon passionfruit cream has a multitude of uses! I've used it to fill macarons, to make lemon cream or meringue pie and to flavour buttercream for piping on cupcakes. Here, I used them in a healthy way, to complement breakfast pancakes with honeycomb and berries but the curd itself can be packaged as a present, as shown by this clever organic wrapper that Jamie Oliver has come up with.

Apologies, I just realized that we had already posted what else we made with these- the caramelized brulee tarts, so that's a bit anticlimatic but still, try this out at home!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Passionfruit Lemon Brulee Tarts

Inspired by a lovely brulee tart that I'd had in Australia, I'd set my mind to trying to re-create it. This tart is made of a biscuit-like shortcrust but the one I tried had a flaky texture to it that was even more yummy.

The first step was, I made flaky pastry tart shells and baked them blind, meaning, I weighed them down with beans (you can use pie weights or rice), then baked them so that they would rise but still stay flat and thickly layered.

When they cooled, we chopped up strawberries, layered these at the bottom of the tart and scooped the lemon-passionfruit cream into each. At the last stage, sprinkle white sugar on the surface of the tarts and using a flame torch, sear the sugar till it melts and browns.

These are best eaten when the sugar has just cooled enough to harden. The combination of the warm crackled caramelized surface, the cold tart cream, sweet strawberry pieces and the savoury flaky pastry is very good. Luckily my cousins were over that day and they helped out!

A word on packaging- I finally got to use the Martha Stewart boxes that I'd bought on sale on her website. The packaging materials, with the thin satin ribbon, coloured circle stickers and patterned parchment paper were so pretty, they were worth hoarding it for a year, I think!

Review: Chalk

I've been putting off blogging this entry for a number of days (weeks) now because I've been distracted, so I apologise to those who've been anxiously awaiting new updates about where to eat.

Every once in a while, I am reminded of why, for me, dining out is more than just a matter of going out, forking out some money and eating what's placed in front of me. It's true that eating is such a visceral and fundamental part of our being that, to some extent, writing a paean about it seems ludicrous. But if we've turned writing, singing, or some other natural human activity into artforms, why shouldn't the same be true of eating?

In which case, it's not just about the food. Everything from the fall of the tablecloth to the design of the bathroom, and even the blush of falling twilight, comes together in a confluence of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and expectations, well before you've even entered the restaurant or picked up your fork.

One of the places where I've had a bit of an epiphany is Chalk at Old School. I'd never even heard of Old School, on Mount Sophia, and I was pleasantly surprised when I got there. An old Methodist Girls' School has been converted into an arthouse district, complete with independent cinema, a popular bar (Timbre), and a lovely restaurant.

Chalk is a large restaurant, with both indoor seating and an outdoor verandah. Lights are dimmed and tables are spaced far enough that only snippets of neighbouring conversation filter through from time to time. Service is fairly on the ball; waitstaff take the trouble to clearly explain the specials of the day, instead of rapidly mumbling some prepared speech.

As for food, Chef Marcus has brought with him a confident and skilful team, and Chalk is one of the few restaurants that handles both Italian and French cuisine with equal deftness, without collapsing into hopeless confusion. The restaurant also offers tantalising daily and weekly specials; look out for them on the chalkboard.

My starter was a mushroom timbale served with a poached egg and some asparagus. A light, almost creamy mushroom pate enriched by the broken, runny egg yolk and made more interesting when contrasted with crunchy asparagus spears, this dish was not technically complicated, but was executed with straightforward ability - something that sounds simple enough, but is so rarely attained by restaurants.

This theme continued with the main course. A braised duck pappardelle is not, all things considered, a particularly creative or difficult dish (though I must confess I have yet to produce one that I've been wholly satisfied with), but done well it is sublime, and Chalk's version is definitely done well. The helping of pappardelle was just right, the sauce was just the right consistency and the duck leg was braised beautifully. The beans lent colour and texture to a deeply robust dish, providing a nuanced lightheartedness in their unexpected presence.

The other duck/pasta dish on the menu is the duck ravioli with a butter sage sauce, which I didn't enjoy as much, but is something out of the ordinary, served as it is with tiny diced carrots and a lush, smooth sauce perfumed with delicate hints of sage.

Continuing the Italian trend for the evening, the pizza was thin, crusty, and tasty, packed as it was with slices of parma ham, a handful of arugula, and just the right amount of cheese. Pizza aficionados should not be disappointed.

Desserts run the gamut in Chalk: on one hand you have the traditional puddings and souffles, while if you're lucky (depending on how much you like bananas), you might get fried banana fritters with coconut ice cream. I suppose these are essentially goreng pisang, but they went well with the coconut ice cream, which was mild and complementary, without tasting powdery or artificial, as shaved coconut usually does.

For the more traditional dessert purists, there are also classic favourites such as creme brulee, served in a classically shallow dish, maximising the space from which the browned, glistening shell of caramelised sugar winks up at you.

My own dessert was a passionfruit souffle, served with creme anglaise. There is something unabashedly suspenseful about ordering a souffle, part of which comes from it having to be cooked a la minute. The question is always, "was it worth the wait"? Well, Chalk's passionfruit souffle certainly was: towering majestically out of its ramekin, the souffle was airy, not too eggy, and the characteristic sour-sweetness of the passionfruit embedded within every cloudy tuft and bubble of protein.

Another dessert to try is the sticky toffee pudding, which no self-respecting Australian chef leaves off the menu. A rich, pillowy pudding that never feels dense or heavy, glazed over with a thick, unctuous coating of toffee syrup, paired with a creamy vanilla bean ice cream, I imagine the average time before the whole pudding disappears is something like twenty seconds.

It really is back to the Old School philosophy of eating with Chalk, nestled on Mount Sophia: old-style attention to detail in food preparation which results in some truly enjoyable food at generous prices (in their words, "we don't do +++"), meticulous and hands-on service, and a charming ambience. Chalk may not produce mind-boggling high-end gourmet cuisine, but they take acute pride in serving you high-quality, contemporary, tasty and beautiful food that is treated with respect, which is more than can be said for many restaurants that purport to be exclusive or avant-garde. Honest, intelligently and well-cooked food not only respects the dish, but more importantly, the diner, in providing him more than just a meal, more than just fuel for the body, but in engaging him in an unspoken dialogue that whets the appetite, excites the mind, enriches the soul and nourishes the being: in short, a true experience. I can think of no more appropriate restaurant to be commemorating the Old School than Chalk, and I look forward to further offerings from this delightful location.

11 Mount Sophia
#01-03 The Old School
Tel: 6883 2120
Closed on Mondays