28 December 2006

Cinnamon and Orange Mini Pavlovas with (Straw)berries

I recently invited a few of my old Junior College friends ( has it been that long ago already?) over to my place for a potluck, with a red-and-white theme (our school colours) and a restriction that all contributions should start with either 'N', 'J' or 'C'.

Although very few of them brought home-cooked food (only 2), the gathering was still a blast. We had Noodles (home-cooked!), Chocolate truffles (home-made!), Nuggets, Cold drinks (that's pushing it a little too far, but what the heck), Chicken, Japanese food, Curry puffs and Chicken pies. Most importantly, we had many hilarious conversations about desperate men, overseas life, kobe beef and god-knows-what-but-it-was-damn-funny.

My little contribution at the end of the meal were these mini pavlovas that just called out to be eaten. They were extremely delicate and it was very comical watching the guys trying to be gentle with them. I had picked this recipe out from one of the Murdoch range of cookbooks - Sweet Food, a gift from a dear friend who knew I would need a quick dessert recipe sooner or later. These were ultra easy, to the point of my kitchen helpers asking me, 'That's it?'

Even without blueberries or raspberries, they tasted great. Melt-in-your mouth pavlovas with a little sweetened whipped cream and a few cubes of tart strawberry make great (and most importantly easy to make) finger food. As you can see from the above photo, this is a dessert even dummies can put together ;p Only the baking can be a little time consuming, and whipped cream doesn't stay whipped for long in humid weather, so don't let your desserts sit for too long and dress them only just before serving.

Cinnamon Orange Mini Pavlovas with Berries
Serves 4

2 egg whites
125g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
3 tsp cornflour
1 tsp white vinegar
125 ml whipping cream
fresh berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries)

Beat egg whites with electric mixer until soft peaks form.
Gradually add sugar, beating well after each addition.
Beat for 4-5 minutes or until sugar has dissolved and meringue is thick and glossy.
Gently fold in cinnamon, orange zest, cornflour and vinegar.
Place 2 tbspns (or tsps, depending on the size you want, they don't puff up much after baking) of mixture onto a baking paper lined baking tray and hollow out each centre to make nest shapes.
Bake for 10 minutes in a 140 degrees celcius preheated oven, turn tray around and bake for another 30-35 minutes or until the pavlovas are pale and crisp.
Turn oven off and leave to cool completely with door slightly ajar (pavlovas may crack slightly)
Whip the cream (add a little sugar to this as well) and spoon a little into each pavlova.
Top with berries and serve immediately.

26 December 2006

A Piece of Cake

PS Cafe Carrot Cake - chockful of walnuts and raisins and a thick slab of cream cheese frosting - my brother's absolute favorite carrot cake that he swears by.

Being in the midst (or rather at the tail-end) of redecorating my home, I've hardly had time to cook even though I've finally got a PROPER oven at home to do baking and roasting. Goodbye 2-in-one microwave cum convection oven!

Now when I step into the kitchen, it is merely to reorganise all my herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, salts (I just found out I have 6 different kinds of salt), flours (5 kinds), sugars (4 types), pots, pans, baking tins, baking equipment (lets not even go there), spatulas, strainers... and the list goes on.

I look at the state that my house is in now and I'm frankly a little appalled at how I expect to have guests coming over tomorrow night. The tarp is still on the floor, bundled up, I've got wires running all over the place, boxes with trash by the door, more boxes with trash around the house, plastic bags of DIY stuff my father has yet to put up and a very dusty floor. 'Yikes' doesn't even express what I'm feeling now.

But, it has been great fun so far. Staying up till late painting the walls and cupboards with my dad, standing side by side my brother evaluating the position of our furniture and adjusting them all over again, squatting by my mother's side telling her which plates and bowls we should keep; basically just enjoying being a part of this home again.

Perhaps you don't understand, but ever since I left to study overseas, the home started changed bit by bit. Our living room would alter just a little each time I returned during the summer hols until it turned into something almost foreign and only just bearable. I would not know where everything was put (or rather everything was everywhere) and the only thing unchanged was my room, other than the occasional drawer or cupboard that would be packed with things I did not recognise.

The great thing about redecorating is that you're forced to reorganise everything and you know exactly where things are put. It has also made me a little more anal about seeing things lying around and I never thought this day would come. I used to be able to live in an organised mess, but now I can't wait to put things in their place.

It is great knowing that I will start the new year with a clean slate/home. In the meantime, Merry Christmas everyone! I hope this coming new year will be a piece of cake for all.

20 December 2006

Butter Pillows

Delicate cookies that are firm between your fingers but which crumble more than willingly under the bite. Buttery, laced with ground almonds and rolled in cinnamon sugar, giving it a nice hint of spice and the slightest crunch with each mouthful, these cookies when hand-shaped and baked, puff up into extremely adorable crescents blushing golden brown at their tips.

I made them fairly plump and substantial, the kind that you would dig out from the large cookie jar to munch on senselessly, wrapped up in a faded yellow fleece blanket and watching your favourite drama serial (Judging Amy) or bitchy reality show (Project Runway).

But make them small and bite-sized, and they'll be perfect for a chic tea party - uber cute and easy to pop into your mouth without any unglamourous mess. The only problem would be restraining yourself from grabbing too many at a time lest it runs out before you can have your third piece. If you have a few girlfriends over who want to help with some cookie-making, these are also perfect since the only time consuming part is the shaping of the cookies. Plenty of fun and girl bonding is guaranteed. The dough took just about 5 minutes to put together (with a KitchenAid or any sturdy electric mixer with a paddle attachment).

I have no idea who would turn down these beautiful buttery pillows, which are actually called Fleisher Family Hornchen. Made with finely ground blanched almonds, these are German cookies that I found in Carole Walter's 'Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets'. The recipe can actually be found online as well. If you're looking for a cookie to add to your repertoire of Christmas Cookie Recipes, this is a definite must-have.

17 December 2006

Going Mediterranean

'What is Mediterranean food?' my friend asked. When I think Mediterranean, plenty of beans and healthy food comes to mind. Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, Moroccan, Turkish... all fall under that category among others (which is just a convenient way of saying that I am not entirely sure myself).

Many recipes I looked through required a wide variety of spices. Some also involved Harisa, a Tunisian chilli paste that one can make from scratch at home but using ingredients that are difficult to find here in Singapore. Thankfully, I managed to find a Paula Wolfert recipe from 'The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook (that's me!)', that involved only a reasonable amount of work and easily accessible spices - Lamb Smothered in Onions. The lamb, braised slowly in the oven for 3 whole hours then roasted for another half an hour, was fork tender and an explosion of flavours from the caramelised onions, ground cinnamon, ginger, saffron and tomatoes. I combined some pasta, spinach and red lentils, tossed in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, as the lamb's sidekick - there to support and complement, but never to steal the show.

In addition, I found a greater treasure trove of Mediterranean recipes in Claudia Roden's 'Arabesque'. Sorted into the various parts of the Mediterranean region then split into the starters, mains and desserts, her book was easy to navigate and had better food porn. Also, the recipes featured seemed a little less fiddly than the previous cookbook. I attempted a Cream of Dried Broad Bean Soup that awoke the tastebuds with garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and caraway. And to finish off the meal, I chose Sweet Cous Cous with walnuts, sultanas and pomegranate. It was the simplest dessert I have ever put together and thankfully it did not lack in taste.

The only un-Mediterranean part of the meal was the Korova Sables (Pierre Herme's prized recipe) that I had baked earlier in the day and served with a scoop of S's delicious and smooth (it's as smooth as it gets!) eggless milk ice cream. GreedyGoose had written about these delectable chocolate chip cookies before and it's worth every turn of the KitchenAid, every chip off the Valrhona chocolate block and every calorie consumed.

Cream of Dried Broad Bean Soup
Adapted from Arabesque
Serves 3

125g dried broad beans, soaked overnight
3/4 litres water
2 whole garlic cloves
1 chicken stock cube
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground caraway
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
salt to taste
Strips of fried bacon (optional)

Simmer beans, water and garlic cloves for an hour.
Crumble stock cube into soup and simmer for another 30 minutes or until beans are tender.
Mash the beans in the pot, add spices and salt to taste.
Simmer longer if soup is not thick enough, if not, serve immediately with strips of fried bacon (optional).

Sweet Cous Cous
Serves 6-8

500g fine ground cous cous
600 ml warm water
1/2-1 tsp salt
2 tbspn sunflower/veg. oil
100g or more unsalted butter
2 tbspn caster sugar
Chopped and toasted walnuts, raisins and pomegranate seeds
Icing sugar, ground cinnamon (to decorate)

Mix warm water with salt and add to cous cous.
Leave for 10 minutes for cous cous to swell.
Add oil and fluff with a fork.
Work in butter and sugar until butter has all melted.
Add in walnuts and raisins then shape on a plate using high ring molds.
Sift icing sugar and ground cinnamon over cous cous and serve with more walnuts and raisins, and the pomegranate seeds.

14 December 2006

Parlez Vous Francais?

When I found out that Germaine, a good friend from Warwick, had just returned from UK, I was overjoyed. We had not seen each other in ages and she is one of the purest girls I know with the sincerest of hearts. She has truly been a blessing to know and to be with. So I eagerly invited her for a simple wholesome lunch.

The only problem was that I had not had the time to look for the recipes until the morning itself. That's when I panicked, faced with a whole bookshelf of cookbooks to pick from and no clue where to start. I looked to Neil Perry for inspiration but had no time to read through his recipes without help from some eye-stopping food porn. I browsed through a whole slew of other cooks before finally spotting Raymond Blanc's book called Foolproof French Cookery.

With just 3 hours left till Germaine was due to arrive, and little fresh ingredients at hand, it was perfect for my menu planning. The recipes (each with an accompanying photo) looked simple to prepare, chic yet not over done, and even had very helpful preparation time estimates. All that gave me time to to my spot of grocery shopping at the wet market and head back to do all the cooking, in time for her arrival.

In the end, I served us some fuss-free and seriously foolproof french onion soup (above), poached asparagus with homemade mayonnaise, followed by salmon, prawn and sweet potato with a fresh cherry sauce. Duck breasts were recommended but were replaced with the seafood since I could not get any duck breasts in time. Pan-fried exactly like how the duck was meant to be prepared, I felt they made a good substitute. This cherry sauce was a cinch to make and uber satisfying, and I can't wait to try them with duck next time.

Cherry Sauce
Adapted from Raymond Blanc's Foolproof French Cookery
For 4 servings

300g fresh cherries, stoned
100ml chicken stock
1 tbspn sugar
2 pinches of ground cinnamon
3/4 to 1 tbspn all purpose flour
sea salt and black pepper

Boil cherries in chicken stock.
Add sugar and cinnamon, and then simmer until cherries soften.
Remove from heat, remove cherries and whisk 3/4 tbspn flour into cherry sauce.
Return to heat and whisk vigorously until thickened (add more flour if necessary).
Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper (or sugar).
Return cherries to sauce and spoon over salmon or duck breasts.

Rice and Veggie

Vinaigrettes made with balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, truffle-infused vinegar, fig vinegar, quince vinegar...... you name it, I've tried it. Well, almost. Sadly, my family has gotten terribly tired of these salad dressings, especially when I tried comparing the subtle flavours of the various vinegars through vinaigrettes by making a whole range of them for just one dinner.

Thankfully (for my family), I had gotten tired of them as well and was searching for a different kind of salad. Enough of leafy greens or bitter (but nice) reds. A certain Sesame Chicken and Noodle Salad in The Cook's Book, contributed by Christine Manfield, attracted me enough (food porn WORKS) to make me stop, drink in the picture and savour the recipe. I attempted the salad but chose to substitute the noodles with julienned carrots in light of the risotto I was preparing as well.

It was exactly what I was looking for - aromatic, refreshing, piquant and slightly spicy.

In fact, it was a great prelude to my very simple main course of risotto served with a garlic and saffron aioli. This was taken from a recipe by Anderson Ho in Menu Degustation, of a squid ink risotto served with saffron aioli. Omitting the squid ink in order to accomodate a friend with a rather conservative palate, I created a plain risotto perfumed by the lightest hint of lemon zest. Both risotto and aioli complimented each other, but the aioli might be a little too strong on the garlic for people who are not fans (like me) of that pale yellow bulb. Otherwise, the tangy yet earthy flavour of the aioli helped relieve some of the risotto's weight on the palate.

Sesame Dressing for Salad (of Shredded Chicken, Noodles and Cucumbers)
Adapted from The Cook's Book
Makes about 180ml of salad dressing

3 tbspn sesame seeds
1/4 Sichuan peppercorns, dry-roasted and ground
4 garlic cloves
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp chilli paste or sambal
2 tbspn vegetable oil
2 tbspn light soy sauce
1 tbspn fish sauce
1 tbspn Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tbspn Chinese black vinegar
1 tbspn caster sugar
100 ml chicken stock

Process all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
Spoon dressing over salad and serve.

Saffron Aioli
For 200g Risotto

1 g saffron
20ml white wine vinegar
20g peeled and finely chopped garlic
2 egg yolks
1 tsp dijon mustard
200ml olive oil

Soak saffron in vinegar to bleach for 30 minutes.
Remove saffron and keep aside.
Whisk vinegar with garlic, egg yolk and dijon mustard together vigorously.
Add saffron.
Pour in olive oil by the trickle to incorporate.
Season to taste.
Garnish risotto with a dollop of aioli and shaved parmesan cheese.