Monday, September 19, 2011

Miscellaneous Food: Pierre Herme's Macaron Cookbook

This week, I celebrated the launch of the Pierre Herme book in English in a big way by baking with C. and K. of MadBaker fame. I picked the two flavours that had the biggest impact on me when I tried them in Paris, Jasmine and Olive Oil. These were flavours that both my baking buddies had never considered but they gamely agreed to have them a go. K was even gracious enough to lend her gorgeous photographs to the occasion, please visit her blog for more beautiful macaron creations here

The session was relatively without incident. Clearly, the baking gods were smiling down upon us, even with white chocolate recipes that are prone to seizing up. The Italian meringue recipe for the shells is not different to what I usually use, only the addition of colouring surprised me- there is quite a lot of colouring added and it makes the batter somewhat softer than I am accustomed to.

For the first recipe, we steeped jasmine tea in cream, which was then added to the melted white chocolate. K's concern was the too-high proportion of liquid to solids in Pierre Herme's ganache recipes, which is something that has been brought up before. Mine was the amount of tea used, I knew from my experience with Darjeeling tea tarts that a copious and wasteful amount of tea must be used to extract flavour in cream or custards. The recipe called for just 25g of tea, which seemed improbable, given that we were then diluting it with a far more flavourful white chocolate.

Both concerns as it turned out, were accurate, we reduced the cream:solids ratio to 1:1 for the jasmine recipe which worked out well but the flavour was still weak and like the earlier Earl Grey macarons, dissapated fairly quickly. In his footnote, Pierre Herme says he uses Sambac jasmine essence for this macaron, which is definitely something I would consider if I made this again.

The book, I concluded, is quite a fascinating read about all the different flavours, sorted in buckets like staples and then "fetish" flavours. Some of the photography is just beautiful and breath-taking, for example, the pure-white Alba truffle macaron, which is shot against a panel of mirrored glass, or the ostraica caviar macaron, sitting amonst jet black caviar in a vat of dark lilac ice cubes. However, some of the photography shows smashed macarons and collapsed interiors.

There are also some inexcusable errors in the book, which really should have been spotted by the copy editor and which leads me to suspect that there wasn't a recipe tester. For example, in the carrot macaron recipe, the ingredients list excludes the chocolate ganache, while the method includes it. For the Milk Chocolate and Earl Grey Tea Macaron, the ingredients list includes 12g cocao pate but nowhere in the method does the ingredient appear.

For the olive oil macarons, we used a strong, fruity Provence oil from A L'Olivier, which wound up being somewhat too strong. I was looking for the greenest Italian olive oil, thinking this would have the strongest flavour but we would have been better off with a young but fruity French olive oil. If you are going to try the recipe, I would strongly advise using a single vineyard oil, I've bought one before from a Parisien farmer's market that would have been perfect for this purpose.

We emulsified the oil into the ganache, which formed a fragrant, smooth paste, then loaded the inside of the macaron with diced Sicilian green olives that had been washed of their brine. These Silician olives are darker green, larger and sturdier then the regular Greek Kalamata olives and they are fantastic, turgid and chewy, with a real salty kick.

K. did most of the heavy lifting of sifting and macronage for these, while C. and I got to do the fun parts, like slicing, piping, matching and filling. I stacked them with dark chocolate ganache macarons in assortment boxes and overall, I'm really happy with the way the recipes turned out, even if we probably will move on to the more conservative flavours!

* Having now made some additional flavours, I realize that there is two added issues- first, the addition of colouring to the egg white tends to make the shells soft and wet. Also, some recipes call for compotes which are frozen into jellies (like in the Arabella macaron), without gelatin. These frozen jellies are then sandwiched within the ganache but when they start to melt, they also make the macarons shells wet and soft.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Recipe: Prune Cake

Doesn't it look delicious? It is, too. This is a family secret recipe, a prune cake with a small amount of cocoa (to darken it), that is moist, delicious and yet fairly healthy. The method used in this recipe is similar to a sticky toffee date pudding and produces the same soft and loose crumb texture. I'm not a prune fan but it is so, so good, chock full of smooth, sweet fruit and then just a little decadent with the chocolate. A huge hit at home and I would think, very acceptable for older folk and kids.

320 grams pitted prunes
250 ml water
200 grams all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
50 grams cocoa powder
230 grams butter, room temperature
210 grams caster sugar
5 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Boil the prunes in the water until the prunes soften. Strain the boiled prunes to reserve 160 ml of juice. Allow the prunes to cool, then chop finely.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 165 degrees Celsius.
3. Sieve the flour, baking soda and cocoa powder separately. Mix them together and sieve again.
4. Prepare a 7-inch by 10-inch baking pan. Using a paper towel, spread a thin layer of butter on the bottom and sides of the pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and spread with butter again. Dust the pan with flour and discard any excess flour.
5. Using an electric mixer, cream butter and caster sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy.
6. Add the eggs one at a time. Mix until creamy. Do not overbeat. If the mixture curdles, add a spoonful of the flour mixture and resume mixing.
7. Add the vanilla extract to the prune juice.
8. Fold the flour mixture and prune juice into the batter. You can use a mixer on low speed or fold by hand.
9. Add the flour mixture alternately with the reserved prune juice. Mix well each time and always end with the flour mixture.
10. Fold in the chopped prunes, mix well and pour into the baking pan.
11. Bake for about 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean.
12. When the cake is ready, remove from the oven to cool for about 5 minutes in the baking pan, before inverting the cake to cool over a wire rack.
13. The cake is best served at room temperature after resting overnight.

* A huge thanks to M. for the gorgeous photo.

Miscellaneous Food: The New Miette Cookbook

I don't know if you've heard me say it before but my favourite bakery in the world is Miette, in the San Francisco Ferry Terminal. My friends all cringe when they hear me talk about it yet again but you have to remember that back in the day, it was one of the first bakeries to champion the use of local produce, organic, fresh dairy and it was helmed by a home baker who got her start running stalls at farmers markets.

I loved everything about them, from their little loaves of lemon tea cakes to their packagine, stickers in cool powder tones and cursive fonts that walked the fine line between elegant and cute. Miette's tagline is American, impeccable and charming. Even the owner's name, Meg Ray, is so impeccably and charmingly American, don't you think?

When the Miette cookbook eventually hit the market, I didn't hesistate to pick up a copy and was excited to finally be able to execute some of the treats that I had enjoyed for so long. For those who are interested, yes, the book is much cheaper online then in Singapore bookstores.

No sooner had the book been delivered, I received a retraction notice for mistakes in the book. Upon reading the book, this is very apparent, in one recipe, 1 1/2 cups is converted as 7.5 oz while 1 1/4 cups is converted as 4.5 oz. The 61 reviews on Amazon point similarly to poor technical editing and poorly-written and therefore unclear directions, and the price has plunged from the initial $28 to $15. Luckily for me, American consumer rights meant that Amazon would send me a new copy of the corrected book in October and I could also keep the copy that I had already received. No such luck for people who bought it in stores in Singapore.

We had decided to test two of the recipes, the first the lime meringue tart and the second, the tomboy cake and the third recipe we made was David Leibovitz White Chocolate Ice Cream. However, this day of baking was not destined to be as successful as last month's. First, I bought lemons instead of limes. Nothing loath, we made the custard for the ice cream, melted down the white chocolate and churned the ice cream and swirled in some artisinal grape jam from Lisbon that I received from my Portugese neighbour (no incidents here).

Then we grated the lemon, squeezed the lemon juice and stirred the curd over a water bath. Ray's lemon curd recipe is not unusual, but what stands out about it is a high proportion of lemon rind and a huge amount of butter that is stirred and melted into the cooling lemon curd. We doubled the recipe but if it seems too little, not to worry, it really lightens and puffs up as butter is stirred in and as the mixture cools.

We used her sweet tart pastry for the tart shells, as opposed to the graham cracker crust, graham crackers being in rather short supply in Singapore! This doesn't give you as nice a honeyed colour on the tart but the texture is lighter, flakier and saltier. It is a really interesting recipe, it calls for cream into the tart batter, which I'd never done before (but which makes a lot of sense).

The most annoying part of the recipe, for me, was the boiled icing. In theory, this shouldn't be hard to make at all. Boiled icing is the starting point for macaron meringue, for marshmellows and for buttercream icing, utilising the same method of heating a sugar syrup and pouring it into beaten egg white. The first time though, I didn't read the recipe carefully, which said, beat for 10 minutes only, if you continue beating, the icing will become hard and stiff and impossible to swirl. I realized this mistake precisely as I was trying to swirl the icing. We wound up beating the whole lot into buttercream and starting over.

The second time, I neglected to use a candy thermometer and the mixture became too hot. C. turned off the flame and the sugar started to caramelize. I turned the flame back on, realizing this but then even as it uncrystallized, the mixture became even hotter. When it was poured into the egg white, we started to see little grains of sugar, becoming visible in the previously smooth icing. Great. From then on, it was a balance of trying to smoothen out the icing without beating it stiff.

This recipe really does work well and the lemon tarts are gorgeous when they are cold. However, I started to feel that Ray leave out a lot of the technique in her writing. The recipes are okay, in fact, the lemon curd recipe is excellent but there is very little instruction on presentation and what there is, is pretty skimpy. It makes it sound like everyone should know how to level a cake evenly or swirl icing with a spoon. There aren't really step-by-step pictures in the book either, the pictures unhelpfully cut out when the going gets tough.

For example, what I did at first, pipe the lemon curd with little tips in the center, is actually not helpful to layering on the boiled icing. To ensure that the icing covers the curd, it's better for the curd layer to be flat, rather than domed. It is also easier to work with cold curd, so that it doesn't shift around as much, when the icing is piped on top of it. It would also have been helpful to have some idea of how much icing to pipe in- too much and you wind up swirling the meringue out and overflowing the tart shell, too little and it can be hard to form any swirl at all. It took a long time to get these going and they don't even look anywhere as pretty as in the book.

The tomboy cake is another example of a really interesting recipe but a rather screwed up presentation guide. This is one of the first instances where I've experienced a recipe where the chopped chocolate is melted with hot water! This is added to eggs beated with oil, then buttermilk and vanilla essence are added and the dry ingredients, flour, cocoa and leavening agents. Most of the chocolate from this recipe actually comes from the 1 1/4 cups of cocoa, because there is only 60g of actual chocolate. The resulting mixture is somewhat thick and gunky.

This went into two 6 inch pans and the recipe actually says 2 6-inch cakes can be made. However, we experienced two exploded cakes and were only able to salvage enough layers from both to make one cake. This was my first experience with a cake doweler and I have to say, it's a really nifty little device. It's essentially two levels, attached by a thin wire that cuts through the cake.

As we started to stack the cake, the puzzled of why the cakes seemed to be a little dry, so low and violently bloomed was solved. C. picked up the crumbs of the cake cap, expecting to taste something really fudgy and moist, instead she let out a scream. "It's tasteless, it's tasteless!" Alas, between the both of us, we had neglected to add the substantial amout of sugar, right at the end of the recipe. One of the odd things about the recipe, was that the sugar was added right at the end, with the dry ingredients. Having got to that stage in the recipe, we'd both assumed, incorrectly, that the sugar had already been incorporated and hadn't given it a second thought.

The only good thing about baking mistakes is that if you make them with the right person, gales of laughter ensue. We were already well onto piping the layers with raspberry-flavoured buttercream and it was much too late to cry about spilt milk. Tasting the cake with the buttercream seemed to suggest that the buttercream had more than enough sugar for the both, in fact, as C. corrrectly surmised, people would probably like the cake for the often-quoted reason "it isn't too sweet".

Piping a tomboy cake is not easy and I felt there were insufficient instructions to making it look presentable. Although there was a fair amount written about each layer, there really needed to be more photos that showed in between steps, rather than each layer as completed. As you can see from the photos, we would have done better if we had used a larger star tip, if we had known to only pipe one layer of icing on each cake base and if we'd known better how to smoothen the top surface. You can really only take one shot at doing the top surface and often what happens is that the icing gets pushed out toward the edges of the cake, in fact overflowing the cake surface.

That's how we wound up with the crumbs and smears on one part of the cake (near the top layer). This is a really fiddly cake to ice and doesn't allow any room for mistakes as all the layers are exposed. I also don't know that it's the best chocolate cake that I've eaten but it is pretty good and dense. C. had also tried the hot milk cake and found it quite dry, similarly, this cake was not very moist but it did have a slightly sticky texture and thick crumb, if you like this sort of very typical dark American chocolate cake.

All in all, I'm not sorry I bought the Miette cakebook but I do think it's more of a charming book than it is an instructional one. C. contrasted it to Dorie Greenspan, whose products are quite rustic and not good to look at but which have a great taste and technicality. Also, we weren't sure how much would be omitted, given that Ray is the proprietor of Miette, she might not be able to share all her secrets with readers.

Review: Zambuca

Despite being so out of the way, the Pan Pacific Hotel has a rather impressive stable of restaurants catering to a variety of tastes: you have Hai Tien Lo serving high-end Cantonese cuisine, Rang Mahal handling posh Indian food, and Keyaki's dependable Japanese offerings in their adorable rooftop garden.

Strangely, however, I don't think I've ever been to Zambuca, a stalwart of the Italian dining scene.

The restaurant is a rather dramatic affair at night, as the liberal use of dark colours throws the pristine white tablecloths (which are illuminated by spotlights) into stark contrast, and suffuses the entire restaurant with an intense, respectful, and indeed almost sepulchral atmosphere.

Seated in couches at the right of the dining hall gave us a clear view out into Suntec City, which, for some reason, cast a rather ethereal blue light on its surroundings.

A lovely champagne peach Bellini as an aperitif, and dinner was ready to start. Zambuca is one of those rare restaurants that offers a set menu for dinner, and what is even rarer is that the set menu price can be discounted with the use of appropriate credit cards. Although I cannot now remember how much dinner cost, I do recall thinking at the time that it was surprisingly affordable.

Our amuse bouche was a delightful mushroom-topped crostini, which married the crunchy toast with the slippery, supple mushroom bits in a delectable bite-sized morsel.

I was under the impression that a waitstaff had told me the soup of the day was "mushroom soup", so I was somewhat surprised to receive a pumpkin soup, but it may well have been that I was not listening very carefully, and in any event the pumpkin soup had a wonderful golden hue and a lovely velvety texture, with just the right amount of natural sweetness, making it an extremely enjoyable first course.

S had a pair of grilled scallops on puff pastry and accompanied by some chicory. The scallops appeared to me to be plump and delectable, and sure enough they were wolfed down without much difficulty.

The problem, I find, is that while serving food on slate plates or tablets is visually quite attractive, they make for terrible photos because the dark rock absorbs a great deal of light. Still, I had no complaints with how my tenderloin actually tasted, and the vegetables with which it was paired (some sliced asparagus and wilted spinach) provided sufficiently contrasting flavours and textures to liven up the medium-done steak.

S's prawn capellini looked a little heavy-handed with the tomato sauce, but I suppose this sort of thing is to a large extent a matter of taste - in particular, how much of a taste you have for tomatoes.

We shared a tiramisu, which no self-respecting Italian restaurant can afford to leave off its menu, but unfortunately I was not particularly impressed with Zambuca's offering: it was rather thick and dry, with very little sponge, so it felt like I was eating a particularly dense clotted cream which had hardened after being left untouched for too long.

Overall, Zambuca serves extremely respectable Italian cuisine in a classy and comfortable setting, and with a fairly unbeatable set dinner, there's really no reason not to come here with friends or loved ones to unwind on a Friday night.

Level 3, Pan Pacific Hotel
7 Raffles Boulevard
Tel: +65 6826 8240
(Closed Sundays)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Luke's Oyster Bar and Chop House

If you are in the mood for a splurge, this is the new place in town to do it. Filled to the brim with buzzing expat-y types and with prices to match ($75 for a lobster pot pie), the first thing that strikes you about Luke's is its smart, poshly convincing New York-esque exterior.

Despite chef Travis Masiero's mantra of serving up home-casual cooking, this is unlike most chop and chowder houses in the USA, the best of which tend to be fairly rugged affairs (think Swan Oyster Bar and Peter Lugur's).

Luke's is definitely on the upscale, city-fied end of the date or ladies-who-lunch restaurant spectrum, sort of a cleaned-up and Sex-in-the-city version of Pearl Oyster Bar. This is one of those urbane spots that tells you Singapore has arrived, although arrived at where is a very apt question with the serious over-congestion of our roads.

The produce is lovely, oysters from both coasts are fresh and unlike the typical Singaporean buffet experience, the briney taste of the ocean still lingers. Unlike the typical buffet meal or the shuck stations of the USA, these are $6 per piece or $60 per dozen. There is Happy Hour pricing before 6pm for oysters and beer though, something you might want to consider if you are more on a budget.

We also tried the traditional New England clam chowder ($17), served in a small glass jar, with a generous serving of clams, the crab cakes and the scallops, which I thought were the two best dishes.

We enjoyed the starters with the home-baked corn bread, which, served warm and crumbly with some creamed butter dusted with paprika, was probably one of the best I've had in a long while. I also enjoyed the salads ($24), the Caesar Salad and the Beetroot salad (mixed with greens, mint leaves, orange sections and radish), were both generously sized and excellent.

The crab cakes were dense and heavy with crab meat ($45 for 2) and the scallops were fat, juicy and perfectly seared. We also ordered the old-school hash browns, this was served as a round disc of light rosti, or shaved potato, this had been crisply fried and was delicious.

The lunchtime menu features a traditional New England Lobster Roll ($45), steamed lobster chunks with home-made aioli, served in a toasted hot dog bun. I was slightly disappointed by the lobster roll, as I felt the meat was a bit soft and the bun could have been fatter, thicker and more well-toasted (it really shouldn't be like a soft Gardenia hot dog bun). I have heard similar complaints from other diners that the bread (not cornbread) was also too doughy and the food too salty.

I'm nitpicking here though, as there really aren't any lobster rolls to be had in Singapore, so short of flying to New York or bestirring to make it myself, I'll have to get to Luke's to get my fix.

The menu also includes meats like prime ribeye ($82) and well-marinated lamb chops ($65), which I tried on a subsequent lunch visit. The steak was good but not really memorable (memorable being the wild perfection of Osteria Mozza's $200 Bistecca Florentina). Also, without ordering a meat, to be honest, most men would probably leave dinner slightly hungry. Though, with a crowd this rich, white and thick, that probably isn't an issue. Business was packed from the start of the evening at Happy Hour and the restaurant runs two punctual covers, which is a good thing to know if you're intending to linger on dinner.

It is impossible to get a table even mid-week, unless you have booked ahead. Given Singapore's rising affluence and the foreign population, unless the economy tanks, I would really expat it to remain that way!

Masiero, who has overseen a few restaurants either as chef or consultant since he moved to Singapore several years ago (Wine Garage, Spruce and Spruce Taqueria), knows his way around a casual all-American menu and delivers well into what the his following wants. This place has the beautiful control and standards of a owner-operated place, with all the charm of a family-operated restaurant.

I'm really pleased to see his success, as he is the most self-effacing and diffident chef. He's friendly and competent but not oozy, much like his well-trained service staff. There are a couple of shortcomings, none more so than the top restaurants in Singapore, which is why I think if you want a really good meal on a special occasion, this is definitely the place to head to.

Luke's Oyster Bar and Chop House
20 Gemmill Lane, Singapore 069256
Phone: 6221 4468
Closed on Sundays

Review: Taratata Bistrot

As the 10th year anniversary of 9/11 came and went, I couldn't help recalling what the dining scene was like 10 years ago, and musing to myself that, although there've always been hotel restaurants, it wasn't that long ago that the only place you could generally go for French bistro food was Au Petit Salut at Holland Village.

Times have changed since then, and these days you're more likely to find French food in the CBD, as is the case with Taratata Bistrot, a restaurant that's one of the latest editions to Keong Saik Road. Certainly, as you can see, the look is absolutely spot-on, what with the maroon-backed booths, salt-and-pepper tile flooring, and lamps that could pass for being gas-fired, though I'm not entirely sure about the lack of the door; the proprietors may have been trying to go for that Parisian summer feel, but it does get somewhat uncomfortable.

Set lunches are priced at $28 for two courses and $32 for three (including coffee), and the menu changes pretty frequently, but hostess Beatrice is always on hand to explain what's on offer, which, as you'd expect, is classic bistro fare like charcuterie, boeuf bourguignon and cassoulet. In the kitchen are the owners, Philippe Nouzillat and Bertrand Raguin, who are obviously old hands.

My crab starter salad was a little unexpected; the menu had said something about "stuffed tomato", so I envisioned an enormous heirloom tomato stuffed with fresh crabmeat, and as a result I was disappointed with what I received, as it was essentially a garden salad with some crab mayonnaise, which was resting on rather than stuffing a tomato cross-section.

The soup of the day was a mushroom soup, which was quite decent, if a little light-coloured. It is a bit unfortunate that we generally do not get tasty mushrooms in Asia, as it makes it difficult to satisfactorily produce staples like mushroom soup: it's a little bit like trying to create good sushi in Liechtenstein.

Sadly, I was rather underwhelmed by my main course, a grilled onglet steak served with a Madagascan peppercorn sauce. The steak was rather small, and it was smothered with sauce which contained a great deal of peppercorns, and as a result went from being piquant to excessively peppery quite quickly. The beans were nothing special either, but the fries were actually excellent.

I didn't try the sauteed cod fillet, but it seems the fries don't come with everything, while the beans do.

The creme brulee was served in a classically shallow dish, but also rather untraditionally accompanied by vanilla ice cream. Although it looked spectacular when it was first served, with a brilliantly scorched surface, I soon discovered that underneath that attractive crust, the creme brulee was in fact very runny, which is probably the last adjective you want running through your mind when eating a dish with eggs in it.

The molten chocolate cake arrived with some luscious vanilla ice cream and an unexpected moat of creme anglaise. The problem, I find, with serving something familiar like warm chocolate cake, is that small errors are instantly magnified by the lens of ubiquity, and as a result, the fact that the caked had been slightly over-baked was instantly recognisable due to the unusual viscosity of the chocolate lava.

Overall, I wasn't all that impressed with what Taratata had to offer. Still, the restaurant is new, and it looks like they're putting a lot of effort into new dinner menus, so we may yet see exciting things from the Nouzillat-Raguin duo. In the meantime, though, it's probably safe to say that the French bistro scene in Singapore is not yet exhausted.

Taratata Bistrot
35A Keong Saik Road
Tel: +65 6221 4506