24 June 2007

Molecul... Avant Garde Cuisine

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Vanilla Ice Cream with Raspberry Petals and Green Tea and Olive Oil Dust

El Bulli and The Fat Duck are 2 of the many restaurants on my 'Go-Before-You-Die' list. However, I can understand why some people might be averse to the food served there. I don't think the motivating factor of the chefs in such restaurants is to satiate the appetites of their guests, but rather to bring a whole new gastronomical experience to revive worn out palates.

My first personal experience with anything similar to that cuisine (Avant Garde Cuisine, so I learnt) was with my Gourmet Whip. I followed a few recipes from The Cook's Book and made 21st Century Tortilla, as well as a Basil Foam to accompany some rich tomato soup that I took from Justin Quek's Passion and Inspiration. It was pretty fun to play with and I'm only starting to understand how it works as well as appreciate that a little goes a long way.

Edward Voon of Aurum

So when I heard about Aurum a few months ago, I was thoroughly excited. While I was waiting for the restaurant to work out the intial kinks (as any new restaurant would have to do), I was also on the lookout for dining companions willing to shell out SGD$165 for a single meal, and who would not balk at such unique food (for lack of a better word).

But when I was at Palate Sensations a while ago for a corporate bonding session (which was fun by the way), Lynette told me of the upcoming cooking class by Aurum, at Aurum, when I was gushing over one of Aurum's brochures. I immediately jumped onto the opportunity even though it was not a hands-on class. My curiosity about the restaurant needed to be addressed before it killed the cat.

So on Saturday morning, I let my dragonboat teammates down by skipping the practice session, and instead headed to The Cannery for the class.

Though the highchairs were really uncomfortable, though the arrangement of the demonstation meant that some had to stand the entire 2 over hours, and despite the lack of hands-on, I would have spent that $100 again if they had a part 2. At the end of the session, I had tasted 4 items on their menu, as well as 3 small 'snacks' - Parmesan Cheese (foam) on toast, Green Olive 'Ravioli', and Carrot Cotton Candy. Understanding that we would not be able to lay our hands on some of the 'ingredients' required in the preparation of the snacks (Algin, Xantham gum, Calcium), they did not provide these recipes.
However, other recipes (although slightly sketchy) were handed out at the beginning of the class. Unfortunately, the dish that I enjoyed the most - Confit of Salmon on Broccoli Cous Cous Salad with Cured Salmon Tartare and Mango Relish - was the one that I neglected to snap. Understandable since I simply could not wait to tear apart the slow poached salmon confit flake by flake.
That was, among the others, the most accessible recipe. Other than the vacuum packed bag, I can get everything required on the dish. Arguably, I can attempt the Crackling Suckling Pig (pictured above) and French Fry as well, but I'm not going to allow my oven to run for 14 hours straight. As for the dessert (top picture) that requires nitrogen, unless I can snitch some nitrogen from a science lab (anyone?), I doubt I'll be able to attempt it anyday soon.

It was an amusing class, with some technique and science (and hell of a lot of big, expensive machines) involved. Perhaps most amusing was the mix of characters attracted to the class - culinary students, tai-tais, men in tight t-shirts, and curious individuals like me.

10 June 2007

When looks don't (really) count

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One fine afternoon, I received a text from my brother that said 'I bought Chewy Juniors!'. I had never heard of it and frankly the name was not very inspiring. It brought to mind a certain muesli bar that used to be all the rage in my junior college days, that I have since gotten entirely sick of.

When he rang me up to share his very amusing excitement, the first thing I practically (and affectionately) hollered into the phone to him was 'What the hell are chewy juniors??' His description was 'They are like cream puffs, but flat. And instead of the puff being soft, they are chewy!'

I thought they really just sounded like a batch of cream puffs gone very very wrong. But when I went home and very cautiously chewed on one (of the two left for me), they.... well, they really grow on you. At first you think they're not really thaaat impressive. But the more I chewed (and chewed and chewed and chewed), the more I got hooked onto their... chewiness.

I simply cannot carry on with this post because there's just no other way to describe them other than that, chewy. Apparently they sell like hotcakes, and there's always a long queue. But being located in the rather ulu Tanjong Pagar Plaza, it's no wonder 'westerners' like me don't hear about them much.
Chewy Juniors
Blk 1 Tanjong Pagar Plaza, #01-18.

Finally, Creme Brulee

Before I bought my blowtorch, I swore I would attempt Creme Brulees once I laid my hands on one. After I did, I resolutely declared that the only thing standing between me and the perfect creme brulee is a ramekin. Plain, simple ramekins - preferably a set of 6 at least. And when a very generous friend gave me a set that had sentimental value to her, I waited and waited. And waited and waited until today, to make Creme Brulee.

I think the reason I hummed and hawed my way till today was because I imagined that something so delectable would involve long, tedious procedures akin to making macarons. To my tremendous surprise, they took much less than the 5 hours that I took to make macarons previously. In fact, I only needed a measuring cup, a whisk, a bowl, ramekins and a blowtorch. Of course, plenty of egg yolks and heavy cream, a little sugar and good ol' vanilla pods.

Who would have known, without looking at the recipe, that making Creme Brulees would be so easy and fun? My first attempt at it however, resulted in something less than desirable. The filling was chalky, dry and almost hard, which I attributed to the oven that I had not gotten acquainted with before.

Each oven has its own character. Some are quick-tempered and firey: fast to heat up, and tend to reach a temperature higher than required. Others could be sloth-like and unflappable: which means that you should preheat it much earlier than you think you need it, and need to jack the heat up a little in order for it to reach the temperature required to make your cookies puff up. My guess was that the oven was a little too hot for the liking of the Creme Brulee.

However, back in the comfort of my tiny kitchen and with my own petulant oven, I found the recipe needed slight tweaking as well. While it was definitely a better version compared to the first attempt, there's still some way yet before it can attain the ethereal quality that I have in my mind's eye. What I have pictured is something that surrenders more than willingly to the slightest touch of the teaspoon, like the best steamed egg pudding you've ever had, that would bulge in the middle under its own weight if inverted onto a plate.
What I have somewhat mastered however (after torching so many Creme Brulees) is how to give the Creme Brulee a beautifully thin, crisp caramelised sugar lid with a gorgeous brown hue. While my first few Creme Brulees started out charred at the edges, all it took was a tiny adjustment to the size of the flame and a gentler nursing of the fine sugar from crystals into a golden liquid, then solid again.

Still, the recipe will have to undergo a few more tries before it can be shared with anyone. Once it has been perfected, I can see it bringing much joy and excitement to a dinner party by letting everyone torch their own Creme Brulees. A DIY Creme Brulee, wouldn't that be cool!

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08 June 2007

Hot Flavour of the Month

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New kid on the block? Hardly, really. When Chubby Hubby wrote about it here, it understandably shot up to the top on the 'who's who' list in the food scene. I had paid it a visit earlier on and got a seat easily. After the fateful entry however, not only was I turned away, I could not get a reservation for the rest of the month! Even the lady boss looked extremely frazzled by the busy state of affairs.

Now that things have quietened down slightly, it is easier to make a reservation, and if you're lucky, you could even walk in unannounced and get a seat (though I would rather err on the side of caution than make a futile trip down).

I love this place. From the atmosphere to the food. From the conscientious service to the Maccha Au Lait (Iced Green Tea with Milk).

The appetisers are presented in a small 2 tiered basket, come in 6 different varieties, and have never been the same each time I return. But I've never once disagreed with any of them. The most interesting item I had ever tried was some tiny raw cuttlefish/squid morsels that were marinated in a light wasabi sauce.

The last time I was there, the set dinner came with a little serving of light green tea tiramisu. My favourite choice if dessert would have to be the chef's selections though. Perhaps it is the element of surprise when the dessert comes, or that when I had it to share with a friend, there was a great variety of textures to tease and please.

What pleases me the most about the place however, is not so much the food, but the pace. It is almost like a sanctuary for me, a place I can run to when I have been too caught up in work that I have not taken enough time off for myself and need somewhere to hide.

Hide among the faux moss and beautiful lacquer ware. With homely Japanese food and a great book. Ahhhh......

06 June 2007

Fig and Hazelnut Cake

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Alright, you caught me there. Those aren't figs, but both fruits have a whole load of crunchy black seeds, no? It was meant to be a luscious Fig and Hazelnut Cake from Bill Granger, but as a matter of convenience, I changed the fig to kiwi. The little drizzling of honey just before serving feliticiously cut through the tang of the kiwi. Though still delicious on the whole, I can imagine how much more delectable they'd be if made with figs instead.

I must admit, my reason for making this cake was a purely superficial one. I wanted to use the beautiful rectangle tart pan that I had purchased from The Pantry Magic (which I almost religiously drop in everytime I am in the area) at Chip Bee Gardens a while ago.

I almost always end up buying something when I'm there, and take my own time looking at things I've probably seen a thousand times before. The next thing on my list would be the gorgeous set of red salt and pepper grinder, tall and elegant, and absolutely fitting with my home decor.

I had half a day off yesterday and decided to warm my kitchen a little with some baking, almost immediately after I woke up at 11. I picked out May's issue of delicious, then flipped to the flagged page with a photo of the glorious, almost luminous cake. By 12pm, the cake was in the oven and would be taken out half an hour later.

After cooling, I sliced it up into 2 inch slices and wrapped them in some parchment paper, secured with a little ribbon, and distributed them to friends with a little note to drizzle with honey before eating. They were a hit and a great mid-day snack to have with some light, citrus tea. Such simple pleasures, such great times.

Fig and Hazelnut Cake
Serves 4-6
Bill Granger's recipe from delicious magazine (May 2007)

225g toasted hazelnuts (ground)
2 tsp orange zest
75 g plain flour
110g raw sugar
40g unsalted butter (and then some), melted
1 egg, plus 1 eggwhite
1 tbs marsala or other sweet wine
6 fresh figs
Honey, to drizzle
Whipped cream or mascarpone, to serve

Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius and grease a 10cmx34cm rectangular loose-bottomed tart pan.

Finely grind the hazelnuts in a food processor.
Add the flour, zest, sugar, butter, egg, eggwhite and marsala and process to combine.
Add 2 figs and pulse to roughly chop into the mixture, then spread in the tart pan.
Cut each remaining fig into six wedges and sit on top of the mixture, skin side down.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Cool slightly, then remove from pan.
Drizzle with honey just before serving with cream or mascarpone.

04 June 2007

Tak Glam 'Picnic'

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Eating out of takeaway boxes with plastic cutlery probably isn't your idea of a great dinner. It probably even looks slightly miserable. Nevertheless, I had a great time with Addy at Chip Bee Gardens, right outside Da Paolo Gastronomia. Although we were mildly disturbed by a few mosquitoes mercilessly feeding on us the moment we settled down, they soon got their fill and moved on.

This definitely wasn't the first time I visited Da Paolo Gastronomia. As a tiny outlet specialising in ready made food for takeaway, I imagine it attracts couples who have little time or energy to cook, and is sick of eating out or eating hawker food out of cardboard boxes. As a simple treat that can be simply reheated and enjoyed in the total privacy of your own home.

Addy and I were able to enjoy it in the cool evening air, soft evening blue-tinged light, totally undisturbed.

All we had to do was take our pick of Salmon and Spinach in Puff Pastry, Saffron Risotto with Prawns; Marinated Artichokes, Grilled Asparagus and Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms; request to have them briefly heated up; carry it out to one of the two alfresco tables; tuck in and do a little chin-wagging.

The food was not cheap, nor as unbelievably tasty as I had hoped. It is also unsurprising that texture had been compromised as a result of the reheating, and using a microwave nonetheless. Although aesthetically tempting, the Salmon and Spinach in Puff Pastry was not as exciting on the palate. The dish that did stand the test of taste and texture was the Stuffed Portobello Mushroom - excellent.

The entire experience was pleasant though as they have a wide variety of very bewitching food that sounds incredibly enticing. The desserts and bread were particularly alluring but we resisted them to avoid overstuffing ourselves, even though I had thoroughly enjoyed some of them before.

After having said all that, we did finish every morsel in those little plastic boxes. It is a great place to get food to stock up for a picnic, if you want something a touch more luxurious with virtually no effort. It's a bonus that the food is nicely packed into convenient containers, with all the necessary cutlery you would need. No preparation, other than a picnic mat, would be needed.

da paolo gastronomia (HV)
43 Jalan Merah Saga, #01-74,
Chip Bee Gardens, Holland Village.
Tel: 6475 1323

da paolo gastronomia (bt)
501 Bukit Timah Road, #01-01,
Singapore 259760.
Tel: 6468 7010

Hours: Open daily 9.15 amto 9 pm

03 June 2007

Mad about typography.

Support me in my bid to raise money for the Children's Cancer Foundation through Hair For Hope 2007. Read more about it here.

I have been spending my time productively.

Very productively indeed.

Someone pull me out of this madness!