27 January 2008

Chinese Take-outs

Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, when I saw these tres cute Chinese take-out boxes, it reminded me more of America than of China. The first time I saw these was on an American television programme, thanks to globalisation, where a fair-skinned, pale-haired couple was eating noodles clumsily with a pair of wooden chopsticks.

Ever since I spotted them at 'Baguette' at Raffles City Shopping Centre (they use it for their salad takeaways), I have been hunting them down. Lo and behold, where else would I spot it but at Spotlight, the one-stop place for arts and craft that also stocks random home-ware.

It was also extremely timely and felicitous that I spotted them just a day before a scheduled American-Diner-themed potluck party with a couple of friends who studied or have visited America at some point or another. They had no problems coming up with items to bring, we had gherkins, burgers, tater tots, crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw, pancakes, milkshakes... the works.

And because I don't like sending people home empty-handed, I decided to get the take-out boxes to use as a simple packaging for some cookies. Or more specifically, homemade Butter Shortbread Cookies made with love and vanilla beans that imparted delicious scent and flavour. I spiked half of the batch with lemon essence and a touch of cinnamon, while I added dried cranberries and raisins to the other half batch.

I used to have to take a whole day just to fill up my cookie jar. Well I bet you would too if you were using a tiny convection oven, that doubled up as a microwave oven, too small to bake more than 6 muffins or a batch of 9 cookies at one time. Agonising would be too mild a word to use and everytime I baked cookies they were truly a labour of love. More labour than love though. Thankfully a built-in convection oven solved all that. I can now bake 2 sheets of cookies at one go, each holding up to 40 cookies each.

And so within just two hours, after placing the big bowl of coleslaw in the chiller and putting a lid on the saucepan of freshly made barbeque sauce, I had about 100 shortbread cookies filling the home with the irresistible aroma of butter and cinnamon.

Ever since my alma mater - SCGS - introduced me to the wonderful world of baking with cheese twists and scones, I have baked countless cookies using countless recipes. And only a handful of these cookies have stood out, for their amazing crumbly texture, their oat-ful chewiness (even if they don't look appetising at all), their incredibly nutty flavour, or simply for how cute they look.

What this cookie stands out for is in its slight touch of saltiness, that while may sound odd, definitely tastes unique. But not unique the way one would usually say, 'Hmmm, this Fennel Cheesecake certainly tastes... *gag*... unique.' On the contrary, the mildly perceptible saltiness of the cookies seemed to help accentuate the lemon essence and the amazing vanilla.

Admittedly, the cookies are more crunchy than melt-in-your-mouth crumbly, the way I expect shortbread cookies to be. I would lower the temperature a little in future and bake them only until the very moment their edges turn sun-kissed. But I'm sure that even if the cookies had turned out rock hard, my friends would have appreciated the gesture. Who can resist such cute Chinese take-out boxes?!

Click here for Ming Tsai's recipe on Epicurious, for the Butter Shortbread Cookies.

07 January 2008


I'm so terribly ashamed of myself. That for as long as I have not blogged, I have not touched a pan, or a whisk. Nor the pale yellow skin of a bulb of fresh, raw garlic. Or heard the sizzle of the garlic as it touches gently heated olive oil.

In the past few weeks, when people talked about food, my eyes didn't sparkle the way they usually would have. Even more blasphemous, I caught myself, on multiple occasions during lunch, buying a tuna sandwich that was evidently hastily put together a good 4 hours ago, rather than queueing up for a delicious bowl of Wanton Noodles at the store next door. Of course, that tuna sandwich would not be able to fill me up, and I would resort to crackers or biscuits at half-hourly intervals.

Each weekend was burnt paying back my sleep debt that I had accumulated at an alarming rate through the week. I spent my few waking hours putting some food into my tummy just so that I would not be disturbed by a growling tummy while I was asleep.

I wasn't sulking my days away of course, but I must admit rather embarrassingly that my kitchen apron has been very much neglected. Of course, this blog included.

I have however, much fodder to last me a couple of blog entries to come, just simply no time to blog about it. And so it is, that I am at my desk now, taking a much needed break while waiting for my bosses to reply my emails, blogging about homemade ricotta cheese.

Making cheese is possibly among the ranks of making ice-cream for most people - incredulously impossible. Yet both are, like the violin or the guitar, so deceptively simple to pick up, though perhaps difficult to master. While I approached the recipe that I had spotted in Donna Hay's magazine on making my own ricotta cheese with much trepidation, I am extremely delighted to report that it is incredibly simple.

My friends who had arrived early for a party, were eager beavers and asked to help. So they got into an assembly line to dish out little table water crackers of homemade ricotta cheese, oven roasted tomatoes soaked in olive oil (yes, the same ones from the previous post), diced ham and parsley. Season and serve, tres simple.

It helped that the ricotta cheese could be made up to a week in advance so I didn't have to worry about the ricotta cheese draining in time for the finger food to be served. A word of warning however, is that starting out with just a little milk will yield a pathetically measley portion of ricotta cheese. So be daring and just pour the whole darned carton of fresh milk in!

Makes 1 1/4 cups (287g)
Donna Hay Issue 35

6 cups (48 fl oz) full cream milk
2 tbspns white vinegar

Place milk and a candy thermometer in a saucepan over medium heat and heat to 80 degrees celcius.
Remove from heat, add vinegar and allow to sit for 5 minutes or until curds form.
Line a colander with fine muslin and place over a deep bowl.
Use a slotted spoon to carefully spoon the curds into the colander.*
Allow to drain for 5 minutes.
(I improvised with some coffee machine filter paper instead.)
Spoon the ricotta into a glass or ceramic dish and loosely cover with plastic wrap.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

* The reason the curds need to be carefully spooned is to ensure they hold their shape. Pouring the curds straight into the colander will result in the cheese becoming dry and grainy.