Sunday, May 29, 2005
It wasn’t a complicated job: I was just supposed to ice a cupcake. One cupcake. After about ten failed attempts, though, my patience with myself was beginning to wear thin. How hard can it be to ice a cupcake? You stick the icing in the piping bag, squirt and swirl, right?
Wrong. They all turned out so horribly that I considered taking pictures of them for something to look back on and laugh at one day, but even my best effort was so poor that I couldn’t bring myself to post a picture of it on a blog that only my mother reads. I tried every trick I had, but all I managed to consistently produce were piles of lopsided, ugly pink squiggles perched haphazardly atop cupcakes, making them look like a crowd of Indians who had turbaned themselves while under the influence. After almost an hour of icing efforts without a single worthy specimen to show for it, I did what any mature, rational girl would have done: I pouted. And then I slunk into bed and pouted there until I fell asleep.
I woke up and hour later to the sound of A. coming home from running errands. The black cloud hovering over me earlier that day clearly hadn’t gone unnoticed, because he had come back with the only thing that could possibly cheer me up…presents! Thoughtful (and wonderful, and sweet and perfect) guy that he is, A. had picked up the set of 20 piping nozzles I’d been eyeing for a while, and explained to a suddenly-all-sunshine-and-bluebirds me that there had to be the perfect cupcake icing nozzle in there somewhere.
There wasn’t, and I continued to churn out hideously iced cupcakes anyway, but when those pretty silver nozzles glittered and winked in the bright lights of our kitchen, I couldn’t help but wink back.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Unlike most people I know, I can actually associate fruits with a range of emotions that covers everything from love to sadness. Fragrant pears will always make me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I think of my mother stewing them in sugar for me when I was little, and every time I see cherries, I’m reminded of Tony, our old fruit deliveryman, coming up the elevator with a box of fruit for my parents and a bag of shiny red cherries just for me. Pomelos are reminiscent of the Mooncake Festival, when dinner was eaten picnic style on the floor of our living room with mooncakes and pomelos passed around for dessert, and eating just one Concord grape makes me think of my Grand-Aunt Ah-Poh, and all the time I spent sitting outside her hospital room trying to while away the hours by sucking the grape meat out of their skins. And the list goes on.
Somewhere down the line of emotions, there is fear. Not the I’m-in-mortal-danger kind of fear; more like the feeling you get when a cockroach runs up towards your feet. That mixture of disgust, fear and squeamishness is exactly what I feel whenever I come too close to a whole mango. Sliced mangos pose no threat to my sanity whatsoever, and mango smoothies are my drink of choice whenever they are available, but whole mangos – especially those fresh off a tree – make my toes curl.
This mild psychosis of mine can be traced back to a very innocent activity: picking mangos off my Aunt Meg’s mango tree in her front yard. She had just moved into that new house and –what good timing! – my mother and I had decided to visit just when the mangos on her tree had started to ripen. While Aunt Meg bustled in the kitchen cooking dinner, we stripped the tree of every plump, fragrant, sap-coated mango we could reach, pausing every now and then to happily squeeze and sniff our bounty. The mangos were supposed to be for dessert, but being impatient, my mother and I started into one the second we got inside. Though we noticed some imperfections after she had sliced the skin off, my mother dismissed them as surface blemishes and proffered me a chunk of the fruit, taking a big bite of a piece herself. The mango was decent in taste, but grainy in texture. We looked at each other, puzzled, before looking down at the mango my mother had just carved up…in our haste to devour the mango, we had failed to notice that the whole fruit was riddled with worms! At that point, I’m pretty sure I either paled significantly or turned what my mother (who is definitely made of sterner stuff than I) likes to call ‘green around the gills’, because I remember her laughing at my pained expression and telling me to “relax”, because “worms are a great source of protein”. Gee, thanks mom.
Where I once used to peel mangos and eat them as one would an apple, I now insist on thinly slicing every mango that falls into my possession, much to A.’s bemusement. Don’t call the funny farm just yet: this quirk does benefit me in some cases, like when I’m plating Thai Mango Sticky Rice and trying to make it look pretty. If I needed a reason to overcome my mangophobia, this rich dessert would probably be it.
Thai Sticky Rice and Mango
(Khao Nieow Ma Muang)
1 1/4 cups raw sticky rice
3/4 cup very thick ccoconut cream
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup very thick coconut cream (freeze the remainder for later use)
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp salt
6 medium mangoes -- peeled and sliced
Wash and rinse the sticky rice well. Add enough water to the rice so until the water is about 1/4" above the rice surface. Cook rice in an automatic rice cooker or in a bowl in a steamer. Do not open disturb the rice until fully cooked (about 20-25 mins).
Heat, on low, 3/4 cup coconut cream in a small saucepan. Add sugar and 1/2 tbsp salt to the cream and cook until dissolved. Remove from heat and pour into cooked rice. Stir to mix well and set aside to let stand for about 15 mins.
For the topping: Heat the rest of coconut cream and add salt. Stir until the salt is dissolved.
To serve, place sliced mangoes with some sticky rice on a plate. Top the rice with 1 or 2 tsp of coconut sauce and serve.
Makes about 6 servings.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
After a long weekend of trying unsuccessfully to finish off a wok full of Yam Rice, A. and I decided to give up on it for a while and make something different for dinner tonight. I’m not sure where the inspiration to make char siew (Chinese bbq pork) came from, but ever since last summer when A. flew down to Singapore to meet my parents, he’s been tirelessly trying to recreate what he calls “the only way to eat pork”.
His obsession with char siew manifested after his first encounter with Geylang’s Village Wok. Geylang, Singapore’s official red light district, is home not only to rows of doorways strung with red lanterns, but also to some of the best hawker food in the country. The porcelain-skinned, leggy Chinese beauties who walk the streets there are strong lures for tourist philanderers, but the locals go there for the real gems – the noisy, cramped little food stalls that either line Geylang’s neon-lit main strip, or are secreted away between secluded sin inns and sleazy karaoke joints. Village Wok, a brightly-lit, breezy restaurant, is located slightly off the main drag and is patronized mainly by large, boisterous families as opposed to the unlikely couples you would see in most other eateries in the area.
While Village Wok offers an extensive variety of “house specials”, the only reason I ever make the trek out to Geylang is for their char siew, which is made daily and is known to sell out hours before closing time. The bbq pork there, incredibly tender and caramelized to a dark brown, bears no resemblance to the bright red variety other hawkers sell. One taste was enough to get me hooked on the slightly sweet, smoky flavour of their char siew, praised highly by many food critics who claim that this is the way the dish should taste. It was only natural that when A. showed up, Village Wok was one of the first places I took him to, and he’s been addicted ever since.
Problem is, since we don’t live in Singapore, we don’t get to go to Village Wok nearly as much as we’d like, and have decided - after taste-testing char siew from every Chinatown restaurant - to try to recreate the pork ourselves. It’s really more A.’s obsession/project than mine, and he’s turned up some great results so far, though all have sadly fallen short of his very high, Geylang-induced standards. Tonight’s attempt was made using a powder mix we found in Chinatown. We rated it good overall, but that was after dumping in half a cup of sugar to neutralize the overpowering sour-salty taste it started out with. After an hour of toiling, A. managed to turn the pork into very good char siew, and though it definitely wasn’t what they serve at Village Wok, it was tender and flavourful and just sweet enough…though I suspect our quest for perfect pork has only just begun.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
Until I recently started making it for A., I'd only ever eaten baklava once before. My mother had brought some home in a small plastic container, a puddle of syrup already beginning to form under the desserts. To my mother’s credit, she was a real enforcer of trying-new-things and keeping-an-open-mind; efforts which I am grateful for now, but had little appreciation for back when I felt hamburgers were a legitimate food group and broccoli was evil. I regarded the baklava with great suspicion: it didn’t look anything like the tea-time sweets I was used to – brightly coloured, bite sized cakes made from rice flour and flavoured with coconut and pandan – it just looked like a heap of nuts and pastry. Under my mother’s smiling encouragement, I took a tentative bite…and nearly choked on the cloying sweetness. I looked back up at my mother, my nose wrinkling before I could politely decline the rest, but she had already taken a bite herself and I noticed her face beginning to mimic mine. “Too sweet,” she said as she threw it out, but her assurance that ‘real’ baklava was better came too late – I had already written it off as something I would never eat again.
This happened many years ago, before I knew I would one day move across the world and date a European who held baklava – good baklava - right up there with meat and bread. I make it every once in a while now, for A. and his mother, who also loves the stuff. As for myself, the painstaking assembly required to make the dessert has instilled in me a greater reverence for what I once considered a mere mound of nuts and pastry and I find that each time I make it, sweet as it is, it grows on me a little more.
This recipe is from epicurious.com and produces wonderful results. I do only make half the required amount of syrup though: any more than that and it becomes too sweet for even A. and his mom.
½ package Phylo Pasty
1 ½ sticks melted butter
1 pound finely chopped walnuts
½ - 1 cup honey
1 2/3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup honey
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons rose water
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
First, make the baklava.
1. Preheat the oven to 325
2. Mix the walnuts with enough honey for them to clump together
3. Brush butter over the bottom of a 13x9x2 pan
4. Lay down one sheet phyllo (folded in half) and brush surface with butter.
5. Lay down another sheet (folded in half) and brush with butter as well.
6. Spread a thin layer of walnuts as evenly as possible over the buttered phyllo.
7. Repeat steps 4,5,6 until you are out of honeyed walnuts.
8. Repeat steps 4 and 5 to finish.
9. Cut the baklava into diamond shapes (or squares) and pour remaining butter evenly over it, (Don’t worry, it’ll seep in once its in the oven.)
10. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
Meanwhile, make the syrup.
1. In a saucepan, add the sugar and the water.
2. On medium heat, stir till sugar dissolves completely.
3. Throw in the cinnamon sticks, honey and spices, and bring to a boil.
4. Once boiled, take it off the heat and stir in the rose water.
5. Set aside to cool.
6. Once cooled, strain the syrup.
Finally, put it all together.
1. Once the baklava is out of the oven, re-cut the lines you made before baking.
2. Pour 2 cups of the strained syrup over the baklava evenly.
3. Leave it to sit for at least 4 hours before serving, it improves over a couple of days
4. Serve with remaining syrup (about 1 cup or so), or you can pour the rest of the syrup over it to taste. Can also be served with chilled natural yoghurt.
Friday, May 20, 2005
Food blogging is sort of a new thing to me, though I’m not sure why I’d never thought to put two of my interests – cooking and writing – together and do something with them. I toyed with the idea of participating in SHF for a while, but between projects and laundry (ah, the life of a student!) I never quite found the time till now. The theme this month was so summery I couldn’t resist, and when A. pointed out that the first four letters of my name backwards spells ‘lime’, it was a sealed deal.
I initially wanted to use oranges and pair them with a chocolate something-or-other, but since that’s my favourite flavour combination, I decided to step out of my cooking comfort zone and use (ugh) grapefruits instead. And trust me, grapefruits are far out of my comfort zone - I can trace my dislike for them back to our first meeting when one spat in my eye.
Forgive me, epicurious.com, but the recipe for the grapefruit cake I ended up making came from a Disney website, which I happened across while planning A.’s birthday present (a trip to Disney World). I halved the recipe, not having enough people to force such a rich looking cake on, and made it in miniature because as we all know: anything that is bite sized doesn’t contain any calories at all. The cakes came out of the oven fluffy and moist, and the frosting, though hell to spread evenly, was so good I was licking remnants off the palette knife. I decided to serve them with a blackberry-lime honey for colour more than anything, but the flavours complimented each other so well that I’m considering telling people I’d planned it all along.
The recipe for the cake can be found at http://familyfun.go.com/recipes/disney/feature/dmag79derby/dmag79derby4.html
Monday, May 16, 2005
Since A. and I woke up feeling almost normal this morning, we decided to spend the day looking at condos for rent. Now I don’t know about you, but I love apartment hunting. As a creative type, I tend to view unfurnished apartments as blank canvasses, and can spend hours bent over floor plans with a set of markers, drawing couches and beds and tables in every arrangement possible. I suppose that’s why I find myself moving every year (though I hate the physical act of moving as much as the next person); each new, spotless, white apartment teases my imagination with its possibilities and inspires design fantasies of lush fabrics, sleek furniture and rooms rich with ambiance. Immediately upon entry, my mind fills each empty room with furniture and decoration, not always limited to what I have at home. So what if I don’t own a pony hair chaise? It’ll be perfect next to that antique armoire I’ll buy someday.
One of the greatest downfalls of being a student is living on a student’s budget. While all the rooms I envision are almost always filled with beautiful antiques and elegant furniture, they are, upon my moving in, inevitably furnished by Ikea (and low-end Ikea at that). Budget aside, its pretty daunting trying to find a safe neighborhood to move into when newscasters pepper their sentences with words like “drive-by”, “homicide” and “kidnapping” as if they were nouns. I’m beginning to wonder how lucky I am to have survived living across a strip joint on Yonge Street for a year by myself.
A. and I didn’t make any life-altering choices today, which is ok since we have till the end of August to clear out of our current apartment. He’s too practical to start committing to anything this early on, but those floor plans we got today are just begging to be drawn on.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Home cooking seemed so boring compared to the fascinating dishes offered up on menus. Sea Urchin? Fish eggs? Goose Liver? To hell with pork chops, when would our housekeeper learn to cook like THAT I’d wonder. Sure, I appreciated a good home-cooked meal every now and then, but restaurant fare was so exciting, so limitless, so….grown up. I could barely wait till I was old enough to take myself out and try everything the world had to offer, one amuse bouche at a time.
Fast forward ten or so years to the present.
I wish I could get as riled up about food as I used to, but what with maturing taste buds and getting cranky in my old age, I find myself getting more and more disappointed with every restaurant I eat at. And I haven’t been limiting myself to the Swiss Chalets of the gourmet world, either. My mother, quite a foodie herself, has never begrudged me the opportunity to dine at the best restaurants or order the most extravagant thing on the menu. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel a lot for someone my age, which has broadened my cuisine horizons considerably. Yet, no matter how positive I try to be, I’ve been continually disappointed by almost every restaurant I’ve eaten at recently. Believe me, I really try to enjoy myself despite encounters with bone-dry filet mignon, literally tasteless risotto, congealed seafood, and, very memorably, food poisoning (from a five start restaurant, no less), but even I have my limits.
I think the time has come to announce my temporary retirement from everything gourmet. Goodbye blinis, its pancakes from here on out. Farewell pecorino romano, processed cheese hasn’t killed anyone yet. Take care, black truffles – I’ll miss you over my salmon sashimi, but soy sauce is just going to have to do.
I’ll eventually return to all my wallet-busting bad habits, I’m sure, but – and you might think me plebian for saying this – I think I’ll work on exploring food in all its simplistic glory for a while. At the very least to build a stronger appreciation for all the home-style comfort food I so callously shunned when I was a little girl. So wish me luck, all, as I probe the balance between low cooking and high style.