Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thank you and Orange Sugee Cake for Chinese New Year sale!

We hope you all had the most wonderful Christmas and New Year! We definitely had a big season of baking this year. As you know, in previous years, we have always put some of our own Christmas and seasonal baking up for sale. As home bakers, we are very fastidious about the quality and consistency with which we bake. As a person who appreciates and writes about food, I have become increasingly concerned about the safety, quality and source of our ingredients, whether they are single origin, whether they are produced by people who similarly care about the taste and nutrition of what we are eating.
I think it is fair to say that I have become more particular and also more careful about how much and what I consume, because it's one of the only ways to moderate against my love for food generally. Where possible, we try to cut out the sugar levels, salt levels and artificial flavourings that otherwise make dessert particularly unsustainable and heavy instead of light and delicious.

We really believe that baking should be about fun but also about really great ingredients, good recipes, freshness, dedication and being special to the occasion. We believe in simple product that tastes and looks good. With the increasing price of ingredients and inflation in Singapore, you know this is not an easy task and one thing that we found really helpful was to buy direct from suppliers.
This enabled us to get quality French butters (if you bake, you know how much yellow artificial colouring seeps out of many commercial butters), Madagascan vanilla pods, Portugese pears, rum, fruit and nuts, fresh black cherries and so on. Buying in bulk is efficient, but only if you can bake all of it, so we started to put up some of our baking, for sale, to make up the numbers.  

In truth, it has also allowed us to better enjoy the process of baking our Christmas cakes for the festive season and I can't tell you how good the warm aromas of rum, fruit, nuts and vanilla, smell. We spent the weekends baking the Christmas fruit that had been soaked for over three months in rum.
Even the glace cherries become a tan-gold colour after all the soaking, so being the traditionalist that I am, I chopped and soaked another batch of green and red glace cherries and candied peel. It is hugely therapeutic, the weighing out the butter, sugar, flour, toasting the nuts and folding the batter and citrus peel into a rich, moist crumb, and building up a stack of honey-brown, brandy-brushed cakes.

This year, we made more changes to try to get our friends to try different products that we ourselves enjoy. All the products we offered were items that we love too and which we have for Christmas, especially the sour cherry pie. This pie is absolutely superb, and I am quite picky about pies. The crust is an American all-butter crust into which we add pistachios for a nice crunch and flavour. The filling consists of two kinds of cherries, the prunus avium is the sweet, black cherry, while the prunus cerasus is the sour cherry.

The red morello sour cherry is less sweet, firmer and is one of the superfoods, the black cherries have to be freshly pitted, fruit by fruit. Yes, you heard me right, imagine sitting there, pitting your way through a couple hundred cherries- it is absolutely a labour of love (and wayy tedious) but we believe it really makes a huge difference to the texture and bite of the filling. Then there is pleating the lattice, while the dough is in between various states of being frozen and chilled, trust me, you do not want to make this pie yourself.

Another really fun addition this year, was to have specific cake and pie boxes, in a sturdy kraft cardboard. Apart from making really beautiful product, we also wanted to have a proper packaging that was, like our mantra about baking, simple, straightforward, evergreen and effective. We had our packaging stickers made like a picture on an old chalkboard door and we called our efforts 'Monk's Hill Bakery', which seemed fitting, given it was where we first baked together and shared laughs.
Monk's Hill is actually a really old place in Singapore and we liked this reference to our local history. It is the stretch of green, hilly, windy, and now very urban space, which borders Cairnhill and Clemenceau Avenue North, which turns into the back of Paragon, and Newton where Newton Hawker Center is. It was named for the old Chinese cemetary that sat on the hill that now leads upward to Anglo Chinese School, but the monastery and school that bore the same name, have long since ceased to exist.
In the evenings, as you walk up the quiet and green lanes, flanked by the old black and white colonial flats and townhouses, sometimes it's misty and you can imagine what you would have been like- a really beautiful, contemplative place. 
One of the old products we decided to put on the menu this year, was our Caramelized Pumpkin Pie. This is no wishy-washy, gently smooth pumpkin pie- the addition of caramel, port and spices to the traditional recipe adds a lot of punch and a deep jazzy depth that is smooth but strong in each mouthful. It contrasts really well with the decorative border of freshly whipped cream and it's one of my sentimental, seasonal favourites.
Although Christmas is just over, we are already thinking of new products to offer next Christmas and at different points across the year. Over the last year, we have been making celebration cakes, customized children's birthday cakes, seasonal cakes like our Triple Lemon Bluberry stacked cake and our many flavours of Macarons, when we can and when the ingredients are in season.  Our hope is that by agglomerating all our bakes into Monk's Hill Bakery, we will have a more coherant way to manage the custom orders and seasonal bakes that we do- feel free to email us at monkshillbakery@yahoo.com anytime, if you have a custom cake in mind. 

The truth is, these pictures make the entire process look beautiful and festive, don't they? They were taken by our dear friend Melvin. He should really be a professional but he has too many talents to make this his main line of work. He was generous enough to give us some of his time and he really makes the cakes and pies look out-of-this-world good. There were so many people who have really made our baking experience fun and fulfilling, so we would really like to thank you all for your support. It made Christmas special to meet each and every one of you and we hope the eating was as good for you, as it was for us. 

In the background of the picture, you can kind of see the batter for this cake and you can see how inlaid with pear it is. These are pears that have been seared with brandy, which causes the caramelisation of the cake itself, in the foreground. It is an absolutely intoxicating cake, with a rich, dense crumb and smooth fruit finish, true to it's provenance, it goes really well with port.

We've tried this cake with all kinds of different fruit and pears, and it is only the Portugese Rocha Pear which makes it sublime. We love Portugal, it's beautiful towns, rich agrarian produce, sea-side fresh food, with their sharp flavours of cilantro, fresh octopus, chorizo and crates of farm citrus and we are happy to support their exports, especially to Singapore. This season for Rocha Pears was really short, so it caused us some anxiety to be doing these cakes for Christmas, but it all worked out well in the end and we hope to keep it on as a seasonal offering .

This last cake is one, and the only one, we will be offering for Chinese New Year. This is because CNY this year, falls rather close to the end-of-year festivities. This cake is our Orange Sugee Cake and comes topped with an organic flaked almond icing drizzle. I particularly like our version of sugee cake because it is not as dense, oily and yet dry, as the regular Eurasian version. The texture is lighter and more aerated, with fresh orange zest that really brightens up each slice.
It goes wonderfully with tea for your New Year guests, so if you would like to have some, please drop us a line to order at monkshillbakery@yahoo.com with your contact details. Each cake costs $50 and comes as a boxed 6 inch square. The cakes will be ready for self-collection on the 25th of January, the Saturday before Chinese New Year and visiting begins.   
Have a wonderful and blessed New Year, we wish you good health, good luck and good eating!

Monday, December 30, 2013

An Ombre Children's Birthday Cake, Redux

It's nice to ring in the New Year with a sweet little cake for a barely one-year old. This is one we made for P's daughter, D on her first birthday and while she won't remember it, it's a bit metaphorical of how a New Year has all the potential in the world.

D's mum, clever woman that she is, requested a non-fondant, delicious cake, so we made a blueberry lemon cake and started stacking it with buttercream and home-made lemon curd. This kind of cake, is rather a labour of love, it has to be made fresh, whole and is just beautiful inside and out. When you slice through those even layers of cream, curd and cake... ooh, it gives me shivers just thinking about it. 

This is the cake all beautifully stacked and ready to go. It was very even, before the frosting was even applied, always a good sign and just studded through with blueberries. It was crumb coated and then the ombre buttercream was carefully swirled on. 

As they say, practice makes perfect when it comes to colouring and frosting. I think I learnt a lot from my previous ombre cakes and I love how this turned out, with the waves of colour graduating upward. We put the sprinkles on, the fondant ducks and that's it- as fresh and clean as a cake can be. 

Happy Birthday little D! We hope you and your family enjoyed your cake and we wish you all the blessings in the world.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Quick and Easy Christmas Meal

For those of you who are on the hook for Christmas meals and New Year's, here are some really simple dishes to throw together. I really enjoy making these because they practically cook themselves and leave you plenty of time to get the dishes done before hand, as well as be out of the kitchen and enjoying the company of guests.

I'm not going to go into desserts, as there are ample recipes that we've done over the year and unless you insist on a creme brulee or souffle of some kind (wow, you really are masochistic!), most desserts can be, indeed have to be, prepared beforehand and at the most, warmed up before serving. There are also some like eclairs, or cake or trifle which are served cold. We did a dark fruit trifle of blackberry, strawberry and cherries this year, primarily because I had a round of pound cake, some cherries and strawberries left after making a previous stacked cake.

For a vegetable and a change from a cold salad, I like to make this simple dish of roasted brussel sprouts and corn. I had shown this salad in an earlier post but it is a very good one for large crowds particularly. It is both healthy and easy to make- I assemble the four ingredients ahead of time, bacon, which I slice and freeze for use, corn kernels which I slice off the cob, store in a tupperware and which can also be frozen, the brussel sprouts which I wash and slice before, storing in a zip lock and the cilantro, which can be chopped and put in a bowl or zip lock.

Assembly is simplicity itself, I just line a oven tray in foil and pour the brussel sprouts, corn and bacon in, give it a toss and roast it in an 180C oven for 20 minutes. When it comes out, allow it to cool and toss in the cilantro. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it can be assembled pretty much anytime before your dinner and it can also be roasted before the dinner, as it does not need to be served hot. It also doesn't require any oil or butter (you can add these but it tastes just fine without them.

Another easy veg is a sliced potato and caramelized onion cake, as adapted from Jamie Oliver. You simply slice the baby potatoes and par boil them, which takes very little time when they are so thin. Arrange them in a dish, sandwich two layers of potatoes with the caramelized onions and toss them into the oven (at the same time with the brussel sprouts if you wish) and they come out golden brown. The only part that requires a bit more work is the caramelized onions but these can be done ahead of time, stored in tupperware and frozen for ease of use. Simply slice three red onions, cook them in a saucepan, add two tablespoons of white sugar when they soften and then three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and continue to cook until they are limp.

If this is too much work for you, simply line another roasting tray, spread the quartered, uncooked potatoes with some cauliflower florets, drizzle with oil, herbs and sprinkle with salt and roast together with the brussel sprouts. I love recipes that can all be cooked together, it saves energy and time to be able to roast both together in the oven and I often even add a third tray on top, of thinly sliced bread for bruschetta!

The other part that is really easy to do is a quick carbohydrate, instead of doing a pasta, which requires you to boil pasta right before guests arrive- there is little way to prepare a pasta in advance, I have taken to doing a rice pilaf or a rice dish with basmati rice, enriched with some veg and protein. This is my Christmas take on a salmon kedgeree- you might think that dry-frying is a very Asian technique but apparently (judging by the recipes of Nigella and just about everyone who has a kedgeree something), it isn't.

What I do is fry a tablespoon of minced ginger, garlic and shallots in a little oil (I use a little sesame oil for the effect) and then add 3 cups of washed and drained basmati rice. Fry the rice and then add a cup of diced white onion. Continue to fry till the rice is fairly dry, then push it all into a rice cooker and steam the rice till cooked. Halfway through the steaming, I open the lid and stir in a teaspoon of parika, a handful of peas, cranberries, fried shallots and chopped dill. It smells just heavenly!

Again, this recipe is so simple and the steaming process means both that it can be done ahead of time and it will keep warm. I smoke my salmon piece on a cedar plank but you can just roast it in the oven, or poach it, anything that you prefer. In this instance, I flaked the salmon over the rice but you can also just serve it as a large piece of salmon lying atop the rice. The juices from the salmon seep into the rice and the whole thing is just potently delicious. It is a dish that is equally acceptable to older people, as well as to younger children, which suits parties.

The last thing we do is make a meat, now this can be seafood, if that your preference, or a bird, or lamb leg or a steak or a traditional roast. My vote would actually be for a traditional roast, becuase it is the easiest to do, simply marinade, sear, roast in the oven and then pull out and carve before or as the guests arrive. It's just one piece of meat and it has to rest, which gives you ample time to get ready and mingle with your guests.

It's also hard to mess up a roast, if you start with a quality piece of meat and it doesn't require too much fussing about or stuffing, just the oven or BBQ grill doing it's work. In our house though, it was steaks and lobsers this year, hot, crusty and juicy soft off the smoker.

Bon appetit!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Recipe: Butter Cake

Dear readers, Merry Christmas! We hope your December and New Year's are filled with warmth, charity and loved ones. This year, like most others has been a mixed bag of some good and some bad and while we look forward to better times and new adventures ahead, we also reflect on how lucky we are and how fortunate we continue to be, not least because we have shared and had your support and encouragement from the first day till today. We really appreciate that and we hope your life too, continues to be full of the excitement, contentment and blessings of good food and good meals. 


This was one of the first recipes I ever made and continues to be one of the most applicable, a simple and tasty butter cake. The strength of this cake is it's plainess, which lends itself to the best ingredients and a moist crumb, if you are patient and thorough. It can also be flavoured with orange peel and juice for an orange cake, or stir half the batter with dark cocoa powder for a marble cake.

250g butter unsalted
250g white sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence or seeds from a vanilla pod
250g self-raising flour
1 Tbsp brandy
For orange cake, add 2 Tbsp orange juice and rind of an orange, for a marble cake, mix a third of the batter with 2 Tbsp dark chocolate cocoa powder.


1. This is known as the simplest of recipes, essentially creaming together an equal quantity of fat, sugar and flour. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and light coloured. The key to this recipe is really vigourously creaming the butter and then adding the sugar, whipping both until sufficient air is incorporated to make it light and crumbly.

2. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure that the creaming in between is enough to really mix in the egg. Add the vanilla or orange if you are using it.

3. Fold in the flour gently, so as not to deflate the air you've so carefully introduced, and the brandy.

4. Pour into a 8 inch square tin and bake at 150 degrees C for 1 hour. You can use a larger tin and make a flatter sheet cake, or else spoon it into cupcake moulds and bake the cupcakes for 40 min at the same temperature.

Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: Burnt Ends

Ladies and Gentlemen, stop the presses, I'm crowning the new It restaurant of Singapore (the last It restaurant being The Naked Finn, sometime before that, Esquina and Mozza and before that still, Luke's and way before that, Artichoke) and it is Burnt Ends. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. An It restaurant, has to have certain characteristics- it has to have absolute attraction. That is, it has to have the je ne se qois of Disneyland- that special something, that life and buzz and pace of being somewhere special, a place where you are happy when you're there, and if you're unhappy before you're there, you're happier for being there. 

It isn't necessarily the structured beauty of a white-tablecloth high-end restaurant and it can be the quality of insouciance in straight-up great food, great ambience, great style, preferably in that order. It has to possess a personality, it has to be what people want. And often, I find, although you do find those rare special few places, it winds up being a restaurant that you can't eat at every day (just like how even though she is never short suitors, no one, really, can date an It girl every day, or at least, not for long). This isn't the local where you can go for a quiet dinner or a comforting meal, this is the girl-down-the-street-and-around-the-corner whom you go out with for a drink and a good time. 

The funny thing about living in Singapore is that I was starting to get really cynical about the new restaurants that were opening. You know, I heard a statistic that over 700 restaurants had opened in Singapore in the last year, on a base of over 4000 restaurants. That is a really high turnover and I was starting to bore of mismatched chairs and new concepts

A lot of them seemed to take their marketing material and billboard fonts more seriously than the substance of their food. Many of them probably couldn't turn out large volumes consistently, never mind elevate food at a global level, with new taste combinations and flair. After awhile, they were even starting to all sound alike as we went through seasons of one-word, half noun names and then moniker odds to colours and odd geographical legacies- Chop Suey, Morsels, Suprette, OCF, The Green Door, The Black Swan, The Market Grill, The Cajun Kings. 

And this is excluding the flood of Italian and semi-Italian eateries, pizzerias and wishful, wistful bakeries flooding each neighbourhood. Good grief! How is a blogger to keep up with it all? And have you seen the prices of food recently, especially food in hospitality? How can I justify paying $80 for a 200-gram steak when that is a month of commuting fare (and when I can smoke a far heavier and superior one at home for $35)? Most restaurants out there, except the dismally unsuccessful, are making a decent return from the new Singapore of free-wheeling youthful diners and free-spending expatriates and tourists, to the extent that restaurant groups have easily grown from one to five in half a decade and chefs are the new investors in eateries. 

The upside is, once in awhile, a place like Burnt Ends comes along. I want to tell you their provinance is different, but it really is not. The owners here are Loh Lik Peng (Majestic Hotel, 1927, Cocotte@Wanderlust Hotel) and Andre Chiang (Andre). The space is intimate and expertly crafted. From their eye-catching giant fig tart, to their uber-thick letterpressed kraft cardstock business card, this place could fit in in Soho in New York or Shoreditch in London, it is that contemporary in culinary standard and attention to detail. Is it creative? Yes, it is. Is there much service? No, there isn't.

I had been to Burnt Ends once with a friend for a boozy lunch and made a booking to go back on a public holiday. Thankfully, it was raining cats and dogs that day and pretty much no one else was out, except the party of 6 which had the best reserved seats in the house (that later turned out to be Andre Chiang, little surprise- he also mentions Burnt Ends in his FB posts, raving about the incredible food, haha). If you make the trip down, try to sit right in the middle of the bar, in front of the chefs, so that you can take in all the action and live theatre of the kitchen. Don't sit at the ends, where you have only the smoke of the giant coke fires and the surly gaze of their sommelier.

It's rare to find a place that even my mum thinks is fun and trendy, she has an even more particular palate that either C. or I and her dislikes run a mile long. Halfway in, when she said cheerfully, how I wish I could have a cold glass on white wine! I knew this concept was something that would please and impress most. We ordered a bottle of their cider, 4% alcohol, for those who are just looking for a touch of bubbly.

We began with the salmon skin roe that you see atop, thin morsels of flavour and briney eggs that were gone in a flash. Then their charred BBQ leeks with pasley and hazlenuts (titled Leek, Hazlenut and Brown Butter). The leek was literally black when it came out of the smoker, they peeled off the outside layer to reveal that deliciously soft and succulent interior. Ingenious and definitely something I will be trying in our own smoker. In terms of cost, this reminded me a little of Franny's in Brooklyn, that charged $16 for one similarly caramelized leek, cut into two. Although this was a huge fat Australian leek, it really is an awful mark up for something that is as cheap as chips in a wetmarket. The first time that I visited, we had bruschetta, or rather, sourdough bread slices rubbed with garlic, smoked and layered with fat italian tomatoes and a verdant green parsley basil reduction. It was excellent, no less because their sourdough bread is very good. As you can imagine, not many of the items on the menu are vegetarian but there are some small and simple vegetarian dishes like this, leeks or Cos lettuce salads to be had.

This was followed up with what I believe were duck hearts and fennel- as you can see, without a professional lens and reflector, the food doesn't look particularly appetizing but it is much more hearty and attractive in real life. Each dish was also cleverly balanced with watercress and salt, providing some sharp to help balance out the smokiness of the meats. We then had the beef tongue, with caramelized onions, followed by the grilled squid.

The beef tongues (Wagyu Tongue and Beer Pickled Onions)- I actually prefer the braised tongues at WOLF dining, because I think tongue tends to get tough when seared too quickly. The grilled squid is the most famous dish on the menu and although I liked the diversity of taste in the dish, with the corn and spring onions, the squid itself I felt was not really the right balance of bounce and chewiness. I think it was much better than ordinary squid but for an Asian palate used to some fantastic stir-fried baby octopus and sambal squids, this could have done better. All of it was well executed, just that some dishes were better than others.

The dish that followed is the second favourite in the restaurant, the pulled pork burger (Burnt Ends Sanger), with a heap of red lettuce and their spicy mayonnaise-tomato-horseradish based sauce. This is very good, succulent and juicy, I find the sauce overpoweringly hot and peppery but the others seemed to like it. I must say that because it was split in 4s, it was a lot less gelat than when I had it in a lunch of 2. The chefs were very gracious about splitting everything for us so that we could try more dishes, which I really appreciated. The pork is served atop a freshly baked and sliced bun, which was excellent, soft, warm and pillowy.

As far as the mainstay of the menu goes, this would be their beef (Flank, Burnt Onions and Bone Marrow). In the previous time that I had been at Burnt Ends, they had a fish dish, a flounder with crispy fried drippings, smooth, tender and probably my favourite dish of the day. If they had any fish when you go, that should definitely be one of your picks. The second time I went back, they had had a massive Friday night and sold out of all the several fish on the menu for the entire weekend (yes, they are doing that well). So we could only have the beef. 

The chef is very good about estimating how much space you might have after you submit your rolladex of dishes and will use that to estimate the cut of beef to proportion to your party. In our case, this has generally ranged from 130-160g. As someone used to smoking 1.4kg of prime rib or rib eye, it is almost laughable to think that you can get (read: pay for) the same effect with a thin little slice of 130g beef. Indeed, on both occasions, the beef was a little charred, a little bitter on the exterior and didn't have enough of the taste of smoke. But it was very juicy and sliced beautifully on the inside, still one of the better beefs in Singapore. 

Here's a second picture of the meat, so you can see what I mean. I'm all for charred surfaces it was a lovely pink inside but when there's only 130g of meat and the outside is that black, it's quite honestly, burnt. Again, I could have used more variety in their salad (watercress) but it's the beef marrow and onion reduction sauce that really makes the dish shine. 

Sometimes an It restaurant is where you can pinpoint exactly how they can improve (as oppose to something mediocre where there's almost nothing much to point out). So how could Burnt Ends have been better? It could have oysters, cold, fresh, sharp oysters to cut through the heaviness and grease of the food and meat. The steak could have been less bitter, the skin had been burnt to a charred and sour skin. The desserts could have been lighter and more elevated, similarly to give a bit of clean and astringent finish to the meal.

We wound up going across the street to Keong Siak Street for their molton chocolate cake and fresh-fried doughnuts with cinammon cream, as we weren't tempted by the heavy fig tart at Burnt Ends, but what I would have really loved would be a simple lemon sorbet or a fluffy sticky date pudding with cinammon cream, or even a sharp lemon and raspberry cake. The meal could have been cheaper (we averaged about $50 a person by sharing but if you pig out with alcohol, it would be more like $130 a person) but then, hey, it won't be, because it's Singapore. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Recipe: Four-Angled Winged Bean Salad

I have two really awesome salad recipes to share, for those of you who want to eat a little healthier in preparation for the year-end binge. I've been trying to increase the amount of veggies that make up our meals (much in vain, I must say) and this has been part of that effort. 

This bean was first introduced to me by the wife of one of our senior management when I was putting together a cookbook for work. She was an elderly, firm yet fun lady, exactly what you would expect for an erudite English literature professor and an alumnus of Stanford. She explained that this vegetable, otherwise known as kacang botol, is something quite particular to South East Asia even though it can be grown in similar climates and you will rarely find someone not of Malay or Peranakan descent who enjoys cooking and eating these. 

Since then, I've always looked out for this vegetable at the markets and have made some tweaks to the recipe each time I've made it. The vegetable is easy to spot, it's a verdant green long bean, and has the most odd four-angled shape, a bit like a four-pointed star, when you cut it across. Reminiscent of a long, skinny, crunchy starfruit. The trick is, you should only buy them when they are fresh and bright, for they do not last long and taste something special when you find really springy, feathery beans. 

Slice them cross-wise and if you don't like the taste of fresh bean, blanche them for two minutes in hot water. I prefer to blanche them in water that has already been pulled off the stove, and really quickly, for they will otherwise turn a darker foresty green. Or else, don't blanche them at all, it's probably better for you raw anyway.

Finely slice three or four shallots, the skin of a red chilli (discarding the seeds), dice the base of a stick of young lemongrass, two cloves garlic and halve five or six fresh prawns. Fry them together in a bit of onion oil, or any oil you have- the mixture of the garlic, lemongrass and shallots is so fragrant, I think of it as the East Asian trinity, every time I smell this sharp, savoury combination (usually with some red chilli), I immediately think of humidity and street markets. Toss these into the beans and mix. 

For the salad dressing, juice five small limes (limau kasturi), again this is something specific to the tropics. I'm not sure what these limes are properly called, is it kaffir lime? These are baby limes which have a deep yellow juice and fruit, with a sweet smell, very unlike the larger key limes that are green inside and out. Mix this with 1 tsp of salt and 2 tsp of sugar and pour over the beans and prawn. 

I like to crumble in some crispy rice crackers. This is something that has been showing up in our supermarkets and is originally from Thailand. I like the textural difference between the bean, prawn and crackly rice and because the rice grains are thicker they hold their crunch for longer than if you were to use, say papadums. If you don't have any, you can omit it, or use other kinds of rice crackers.

I like that this salad is so easy and quick to throw together (especially if you don't blanche the greens) and utilises things that are so common to markets here. It also goes well with all kinds of Asian food, it complements heavy, earthy dishes like salmon curry or beef shank buakaluak, or you can eat it with a light lunch of porridge or kuay teow soup noodles. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Recipe: An Easy-Peasy Best Baklava Recipe!

Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup and honey. I think one reason that this dessert is so popular and accepted, is that it has roots in many old civilizations of the former Ottoman Empire, in places like Mesopotamia and in the Byzantine era, spread across Central and Southwest Asia. The word baklava is first attested in English in 1650, and may come from the Mongolian root 'bayla' which means 'to tie, wrap up, pile up'. Although the history of baklava is not well documented, it is suggested that it's current form was developed based on a Central Asian tradition of layered breads.

I find baklava one of the easiest and possibly cheapest, desserts to make, even though if you buy it in Singapore, it is usually quite expensive (I'm told up to $8 a slice at Suntec City, which seems an extravagant mark-up). In fact, I keep a pack of frozen filo pastry in my freezer just for the purpose of throwing together a last minute dessert should we have a group over for dinner or if we are invited to someone's home. The ingredients are merely filo pastry, pistachios, butter, sugar, orange peel and heat. The odd thing about baklava is that it tends to attract a polarisation of views, some people dislike it intensely for it's sickly sweetness and buttery texture, some people just love it and are fanactical about the proper way to make baklava. For example, there are a few recipes that mix different nuts, like walnuts, hazlenuts and pistachios in fractions, but purists say that only pistachios should be used. Also, I cook my syrup with orange peel, which isn't as strong, but many people will attest to using only orange blossom water, for a more flowery and scented taste. 


1 pack of frozen filo pastry
3.5 cups pistachios, finely chopped
1 cup melted butter
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
Pistachios for garnish

Ingredients for syrup:

1 1/2 cup sugar
½ cup honey
3/4 cup water
1 strip of orange peel
1 vanilla pod

1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Pulse the nuts, cinnamon & sugar in a food processor until you
reach a slightly coarse consistency.
2. With a pastry brush begin by brushing the bottom of a 9X13, or similar pan. The size of the pan is not too important, it will affect the height of your baklava but the process is still the same.
3. Layer 8 sheets of phyllo dough, making sure to brush butter between each one. I like to lay my sheets in both directions, as shown by the picture above. This is to make sure that there is less spillage of the nuts between the layers. I also try to save the beautiful, untorn sheets for the top of the baklava and to use up any more mangled sheets in the middle. Lastly, when forming the baklava, I tuck the sides of the top most sheets under those below, again, so that the nuts are trapped inside.
4. Spread half of the nut mixture on top of the 8 sheets.
5. Layer 8 more sheets of phyllo dough. (If your pack of pastry has fewer sheets, just divide the number by three, as essentially we are making three sections of dough, in-filled with two layers of nuts).
6. Spread the remaining half of the nut mixture.
7. Top with the remaining 8 sheets of phyllo, making sure to brush the top layer with butter as well.
8. Slice the baklava into small diamonds (approx 24-32) then bake for at least 2 hours until slightly golden brown on top.
9. While baklava is baking, make the syrup by bringing all the syrup ingredients to a simmer over medium heat. Continue cooking over low heat until mixture becomes syrupy (approximately 10 minutes), then remove from heat and allow to cool.
10. Pour cooled syrup over the baklava as soon as it comes out of the oven and allow to come to room temperature again before serving. The important thing is that either the baklava or the syrup has to be hot for the syrup to be easily absorbed, if not, you will wind up with a sticky mess.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Review: WOLF nose-to-tail dining

This past weekend, we were very fortunate to be part of a small group that tested some of the dishes that came out of WOLF, a nose-to-tail restaurant, the latest project by Yuan Oeij of the The Prive Group. The restaurant is heavily influenced by London restaurant St John and is helmed by Alysia Chan, the owner's niece.

Nose-to-tail eating is centered on restoring respect for the whole animal and appreciation for the lesser known parts. Because the whole animal is consumed, it is considered ecologically sound and a no-waste approach to dining that has of late, been really popular in London and Manhattan.

Personally, I am not a fan of offal, which probably makes me a fairly good barometer of nose-to-tail cooking and I want to put it out there that I have not enjoyed my experiences at all nose-to-tail restaurants, neither do I think it is an easy form of cooking to execute well. Like the very concept on which it is founded, I tend to find that nose-to-tail restaurants sound and look better than they actually taste. I travel a lot to obscure Asian destinations where eating the odd ends of a rabbit or a cow, isn't really by choice but by poverty, so paying more, to eat the bits which we've already ascertained aren't as prime, just seems very unappetising to me, though not for the normal reasons. Also, somehow this idea that they are doing something 'groundbreaking' (although it's no longer a new commercial idea anymore), means that the lighting is invariably dim, the service pretentious (because really, how many diners know what pig's ears are supposed to be called?) and the decor plays with glorifying motifs of cute or sympatico animals.

I have this theory that when you walk into a restaurant and you see a $8000 Mooi lamp or commissioned mural, then the food is at best, tiny and pretty and at worst, not going to be the straightforward, punchy, confident cooking that you hope. This restaurant was 'influenced' by The Spotted Pig in Gramercy and The Breslin in Chelsea also does nose-to-tail dinners- I have to say, the food here reminded me very little of both and I wasn't a huge fan of either The Spotted Pig nor The Breslin, although I understand their renown.

That being said, WOLF is an absolutely beautiful restaurant, the 40-seater is handsome and complete with a full wine list. The all-glass fa├žade leads into a warm space of leather banquettes and timber tables with brass inlays of flying pigs and the attention to detail is carried through in the ceiling, covered with circular copper plates and moulding.

The centerpiece has to be a huge, roughly hewn, beautiful and masculine wall carving of a wolf. The decor is a testament to the love and effort that has gone into the restaurant and is perfection for a swanky first date or a photo shoot, the Gemill Lane stretch has become so hip and insouciant that you can't go wrong with the location. The prices are comparable to similar eateries, a 300gram rib-eye steak will set you back $68 and $38 for the beef tongue entree.

I don't want to spend too much time on the dishes, as what we tasted was a work in progress and will presumably be re-worked over the coming weeks, except to say there were many dishes that we really enjoyed on the menu. I would highly recommend the ox-tail tongue with lentils de puy, salsa verde and mint. The tongue had an exquisite texture, too often, it can become grainy and taste slightly mouldy, this meat was firm, yet pliable, had a melting and chewy mouth-feel and was perfectly offset by the slightly tart salsa verde and the rich and hearty lentils. One of the best beef tongues I have tried anywhere.
We also tried the chicken hearts in parsley, the beef lips with potato, the chorizo and octopus stew and the sweetbreads, which were all good. There were also some dishes that taste-wise, probably should not even have made it onto any tasting menu. The fennel salad with goat's cheese sounded very promising, but came out as two large, barely cooked halves of a fennel bulb, drizzled in oil and balsamic and the pear tartin, blackened to a caramel perfection at Yuan's previous restaurants Brown Sugar, unfortunately came off puffy and pallid here.
One of the weak points of the restaurant is that I don't get a sense that each member of the kitchen and service staff are seamlessly competent in what they are doing (unlike, say, blistering and tight restaurants like Esquina or Burnt Ends or Luke's, which is right next door on Gemill Lane). On the other hand, I think that might be too high a standard to hold and compared to many restaurants, certainly places like Pollen or Cataluyna, WOLF gets top marks for a more cohesive theme and taste.

Part of this is perhaps the lack of experience as they are just getting started and the chef is fresh off her Sunrice training, having then been a sous-chef at Cocotte and completed a two-week stage at St John's. It can be challenging to micro-manage a large kitchen staff and control the standard of every single plate of food that comes out, which may be why there were hits and misses in the more mainstream dishes.

I am not sure that the taste experience here elevated the food to a new level for me, but overall, I am really happy that local restaurants and groups can be competitive and successful in Singapore's intense but frequently hollow restaurant and restaurant marketing scene, and introduce diners in Singapore to new food concepts and culinary experiences. I would definitely encourage you to wander down Gemmill Lane and step in to enjoy the buzz when WOLF is up and running. 

18 Gemmill Lane
Tel: 65572224
* Pictures used are taken from the restaurant website and Facebook page.