Monday, February 10, 2014

What to bring (and not to bring) your dinner host

Since we are just at the beginning of a new year, I am going to list some lovely and not-so-lovely gifts to bring to the hopefully, delicious dinners you will be having this year. As someone who hosts a lot, I usually say don’t bring anything and I really mean it. Friendship isn't about material exchange, and an invitation does not come with an obligation to give anything, except your company, time and appetite. If I wanted a contribution, I would ask specifically. That being said, I have received a wide assortment of good and also useless gifts over the years, so in hope of spreading the joy and considerate gifting, here are the Do’s and Don’ts of bringing a gift. I've deliberately avoided any brands or specific homeware gift shopping, as I think that what constitutes a beautiful piece, can be fairly subjective.


Cutlery. Cooks are notoriously finicky about the cutlery with which they eat off and their taste in these will, over the years, become as personal as their taste in clothes. You would never buy bedlinen for someone else would you (or would you, mother-in-laws?) and unless this is your best friend and even then, you should probably not venture to buy crockery or cutlery for someone who cooks, because by sheer repetition, they would never use everyday stuff that they didn’t absolutely love. I had a family friend who is a frequent guest, give me an Ikea cutlery set for Christmas once and even though I love Ikea in general, I was a little taken aback at how the gift was the antithesis to how I think of food. Maybe, I thought in horror, they think my cooking is pretty Ikea-like.

Kitchen equipment. I have an entire cupboard full of gag gifts and unused kitchen equipment. This runs the gamut from small cheese knives, glass pepper and salt shakers, colourful nesting baking bowls, silicon bakeware (rubbish), aprons, measuring cups that say rude, alcoholic slogans. I have wine glass charms up the wazoo and I have never used a single one. I swear the Insert-Action-and-Stay-Calm movement was a boon to manufacturers of useless merchandise and napkins.

Unless they have specified to you what they would like to receive eg. “a grey Cuisineart medium spatula”, or you’ve spent a lot of time in their kitchen observing their habits, you can never tell what someone will find irrelevant or deeply impractical. In most places, I also find that apartments have very limited storage space, which most cooks and bakers will have no problem filling up with their own little-used gadgetry. In recent years, clearing out unused equipment has a discipline I actually enjoy, unless something really gets used in my kitchen, I just don’t have the space and bandwidth to keep cleaning it.

A cookbook. Why, people, why? Unless you, a fellow cook, have roadtested the recipes yourself or have found something that you empirically find of great quality, what I don’t want most, is another cookbook. In this day of the internet, I don’t even need to read cookbooks. And, I am deeply suspicious of pretty, girly cookbooks. Most of them have recipes that don’t stand up to the test in terms of actual texture and quality, or are blatently missing ingredients and steps.

I understand that people who give me cookbooks are trying to inspire me. But please understand that I feel very bad throwing them away, particularly because I know people have gone out of their way to search for something for me. And then I also feel bad having rows of books that I’ve never more than flipped through, usually within the five minutes of having received them.

Wine and beer. Unless we are talking about a particularly special bottle like an organic wine you picked up from a trip, or a tasty Burgundy magnum or a 1982 Petit Cheval (in which case, yes please), don’t bring more wine and beer. I have nothing against people bringing any wine, or beer, that they are intending to consume, but if you had to stop at a supermarket for a $17 bottle of table wine on the way over, then well, don’t.

I know it’s the perfect throwaway, big-party gift but first, the food you are going to consume is more than $17, second, no one is going to drink it and then, when everyone has left, I will have no place to store it. If you have to bring it, then please bring a red, so I can make some pasta sauce.

A small portion. If this is a pot-luck and you are ‘contributing’, make sure you know how many people are attending. I really appreciate when someone brings a starter or a dessert, but I appreciate it more if the salad comes washed and with dressing and the dessert comes plated, rather than in a dessert soup tureen that involves warming and preparing bowls and spoons. One reason I’ve stopped asking people to bring anything, is because I’ve had guests bring half a baguette, or a bag of supermarket greens, or a small packet of cherry tomatoes for 12 people. At which point, I just gave up.

Honey. I understand the itch to buy artisanal honey. I really do. I can’t walk past a farmers market myself, without getting attracted to some beautiful pot of golden honey. And this is why, I have five giant jars of honey in my fridge. I have more honey then I am ever or should ever consume in three years.

Truffle anything. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone likes truffle. In anything more than small and infrequent doses, it can start to smell a bit rancid. For someone who is not a cook, gifting them this means they have to cook something and truffle oil goes bad, really quickly. I also feel that manufacturers have been quick to leverage on the truffle trend, many truffle products are actually not infused but flavoured with chemical truffle, to taste like the real thing, but with a remarkably strong but monotone flavour.

Chocolates and ice cream. It is a probably an assumption to expect that cooks and bakers like to eat store-bought chocolate. Some do, most really don’t. Who can afford to eat pieces of chocolate every day? As popular as chocolate are as a gift, it’s more likely that it will simply build up in their fridge or get re-gifted. If you really want to buy them a chocolate treat, gift them a bag of Valrhona couverture or dark cocoa, to use in their next baking experiment.

Tea and posh spices. You don’t want to see my tea drawer. You really don’t. It overflows with tins and packets and teabags, oh, the variety of stuff I have. I guess they intend it for other guests but so far, no guest has actually requested tea and I guess they wouldn’t at dinner. I've been given so much tea, I’ve researched dying my hair with it, on multiple occasions. I have Irish Breakfast (I don’t even know what that is), and Orange Pekoe and Oolong of several different varieties. And I don’t even drink caffeinated tea.

Also, there is a finite number of spices that I or any cook uses, cinnamon, five-spice, paprika, very rarely nutmeg. Anything else is just going to go bad, or clutter up shelves in hardened, beached-up little jars. And the answer is no, I'm probably never going to even get close to making the Pakistani Tandoor Kelaki Chicken with Moorish Spices.

Nuts. Unless your host is fanatic about nuts and all kinds of nuts, most people will have a personal preference in nuts and dried fruit. Neither one of the two keep well in our climate and I can tell you from personal experience that once packed together, mixed nuts and fruit develop a musty, oxidised and undifferentiated taste that is quite unpleasant.

If you have to bring nuts (and who brings a little packet of mixed nuts anyway, I'm not a zoo monkey), avoid mixed nuts and bring them a bag of raw almonds or cashews that they can choose to eat whole, cook into their food, or use to bake with.


Gift vouchers to grocery or food stores. Cooks and hosts consume a lot of ingredients and some foods, like beef, butter and milk, are more expensive than ever. It doesn’t take any imagination or creativity at all, but a gift voucher to the local supermarket or specialty butcher will always be appreciated and goes to the heart of gratitude as a guest.

An (unopened) bottle of multi-vits. Cooks are not always the most healthy of people, a good dose of Vit C or multi-vitamins is both a generous and a thoughtful gift and certainly never hurt anyone. Tell them to take one every time they are in the kitchen.

A luxurious dish-washing soup. The thing about cooks and bakers- they wash a lot of dishes. I don’t always run the dishwasher because it isn’t energy efficient, especially if I’m just baking a cake. Also, many baking implements need to be washed by hand or require soaking. I use regular dish soup in my kitchen, but a gift of a biodegradable, environment-friendly soap with a great scent, like a Seventh Generation or Method, or Murchison-Hume, which comes in a beautiful big refillable brown glass bottle, if you are feeling really generous? I wouldn’t say no to that!

For those who have children, a $5 bottle of Kirei-Kirei, by Lion Corp, makes a really thoughtful gift, the foamy soap is wonderful for children as it gently but effectively lifts colouring from your hands and nails. If you want to give an adult gift of soap, maybe consider Fresh soaps, which come in hefty big pieces and gentle french-milled fragrances like Verbana and Mangosteen, wrapped in paisley paper.

Fresh mint or a pot of herbs. If you are confident that your host will use them, the ability to boil a pot of fresh mint tea, or to cut and preserve some herbs for your next gift, is a wonderful luxury. I received a giant pot of rosemary once, which is still a gift that keeps giving. If you decide to be this creative, make sure it’s a bigger pot and that your host doesn’t have to grow it themselves, nursery pots are $10 for a knee high shrub as opposed to $4.50 for a cup-sized pot in the grocery.

A box of fruits. This is always welcome. Four golden kiwis? Done. A box of Australian peaches? Lovely. A bag of thin-skinned grapes? Practical. Fruits are healthy, universally enjoyed and appreciated. They can be shared between families, or eaten in place of a meal, or juiced the next day.

A sharp pair of kitchen scissors or shears. Every kitchen could always use another pair and these are relatively inexpensive, maybe $10 on sale in kitchen shops like TOTT or your regular hardware or Japanese dollar store. In Chinese tradition, you are not meant to give sharp objects to friends as it symbolises that your relationship will be severed, ask them to give you a dollar back!

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Again, only if you have observed that they do cook with these. I don’t mean the extra-special, tiny little bottle of French cold-pressed olive oil, although that is good too. Just a regular bottle of olive oil or balsamic vinegar, to replenish their kitchen stock, would always be a thoughtful gift and gets eventually used by most people. Nowadays, there are these whimsical websites where you can send time-lapsed gifts, a box of in-season CSA produce, a bottle of seasoned olive oil from an adopted tree in Italy at Nudo

Allergies, Egg-free and milk-free cakes and cupcakes

One thing that I have noticed lately, and I'm not sure if that's because I've become more sensitive to food issues and sources, is the increase in allergies to food. A few years ago, I had an incident of edema, which is basically a severe reaction, in my case, where your face swells up and becomes inflamed. I looked like Will Smith in the movie Hitch! It took two days for the swelling to fade and it was a truly scary experience, which came coupled with fierce cold and allergy type reactions of sneezing, swelling and difficulty breathing. 

Even though I lived with a roommate in college, with serious enough allergies to warrant an epipen, I've never been fully sympathetic to how much of a wake-up call it can be, until I experienced it myself. I was fortunate that this was an isolated incident and that I was able to quickly get some antihistemine, but it did make me much more careful, if not outright cautious, about items I ate and biodegradable cleaners in the kitchen. (The doctor's prognosis was that it would have to be something I had ingested or something in the kitchen that may have entered the food, because of the speed of the reaction). 

Given that the reaction was very early in the day, my own guess is that it would have been something chemical, or a derivative of, something in processed or canned foods, which I don't often eat, but which may have been in the brunch we had just had. More then before, eating and living healthy and doing so in a pared-down and organic fashion, became my new year resolution. 

The most interesting part of that experience was the nonchalence of the doctor- he told me that he sees twenty cases of allergies a month and 2 or 3 of edema, but both have been on the rise! (While I understood his reassurance, I felt his diffidence, as someone of the medical practice, was misplaced). 

Indeed, it seems commonplace nowadays for children in particular to have allergies, and to fairly ordinary ingredients, like egg, milk and other dairy, rather than something like nuts or seafood. Imagine my horror last year, when out of just my own friends, five of their children have had serious allergies to egg. These symptoms started when they were babies, at less than a year old. One grew out of the allergy, but the rest have not and may never. How can so many children be allergic to egg, or milk? 

Do I want to know the answer? I have my suspicions, which are in-line with my deep suspicion about the media myths about the milk industry, and the cleanliness of the physical and clinical process of rearing and innoculating chickens and cows, but whether we just look away, is not the point of my post. 

One of my enduring interests has become finding biodegradable cleaning products that actually work effectively and are better for you, and I've done the same with regard to food and recipes. Removing ingredients from recipes, is actually much more tricky than merely awareness toward food safety. For a long while, I used to find it frustrating when people would say glibly oh, can you not put in alcohol, or only use raisins, because these are often there for a reason.


Why bother destroying a perfectly good recipe, I would silently wonder to myself- it is difficult to find substitutes for all of these ingredients, egg and egg white in particular, is the structure that holds up cake and frosting. And if you take away egg, or try to take gluten out of flour, you wind up just adding more sugar or thickened rice, which is neither healthy nor delicious, and quite honestly, is pretty unrewarding to bake.  I don't like doing that and I also wanted to enjoy the requests for egg-free, milk-free, gluten-free, butter-free, so I've looked through many books and many recipes to find recipes that I actually think can square this circle. 

Because can you imagine being a child and never having any ice-cream, cake or a milkshake? And how you feel when other kids eat without having to ask, or only being able to eat entirely artificial things like bread with condensed milk and sprinkles (yes, true story)? I actually think it's better for children not to need milk, meat and sugar and I would never contravene parents who steer their children away from any or all of that, especially if that means they eat a diet rich in greens and unprocessed grains but it is a little sad to never have cake, because life needs to be a treat, now and again. 

We've just made a cake for a 1 year-old, with one of my favourite names- Luke! The cake is egg-free, milk-free and butter-free chocolate cake, with is deep, luscious and because we use a high-cocoa-content dark chocolate, not sweet. The layers of cake are sandwiched with a dark chocolate frosting, which is also egg-free and milk-free (it does have a smidgeon of butter, but I suspect it can be made without). It is so smooth, rich and amazingly good! The cake is then frosted with a salted caramel buttercream, made in a rather non-traditional way (the traditional way being with whipped egg white). I think it looks so cheerful and I hope he had a wonderful celebration. 

In recognition of children that have such allergies, we did a particularly special bake this weekend which was egg-free and milk-free cupcakes. The cupcakes that are both egg and milk-free will be frosted with the chocolate frosting, which the egg-free (but not milk-free) cupcakes with the salted caramel buttercream. I was pretty happy with the results, they looked so happy, tall cupcakes and tall frosting. Hopefully they went down well with the kids, some of the parents sent lovely messages to say that they tasted great with no egg and milk, which was great to hear! 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Recipe: Strawberry Victoria Sponge Cake

Strawberry cake is something simple that I really enjoy, I guess I have fond childhood memories of good strawberry shortcake. We are particularly lucky in Asia, soft Japanese sponge, light chantilly cream and sweet Japanese strawberries. This is definitely one dessert that I have spent too many calories on! 

We had a friend request a Victorian sponge for her birthday- something simple but pretty rare! I remember making Victorian sponge when I first started baking and honestly, I'm not sure why I stopped, it is such a great cake, slightly firmer than a full chiffon sponge, but light and fluffy. At her request, the layers were brushed with a strawberry compote and then layered with a strawberry-raspberry cream before it was piped with a smooth, white cream, which you can appreciate when it was sliced open.


225g butter
225g sugar
4 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
225g self-raising flour
1 tbs milk
1/2 tsp salt

Bake at 180C for 30-40 mins until light and risen. The secret to a wonderful cake is to adequately cream the butter and sugar and also to use the best ingredients possible, a Madagascan vanilla essence or even a vanilla pod. 

In case you were wondering, this is what we made with the other half of the layered cake, a raspberry buttercream, rainbow sprinkle cake. Not bad for a Saturday morning's bake!