Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Almost Famous

cookies, originally uploaded by emily loke.

There are few things as both simple and comforting as chocolate chip cookies – just the mention of them conjures memories of childhood days spent mucking around in the kitchen with my mom, who always made them oversized and with Smarties smiley faces. Sadly, because of her crazy work schedule, my mother’s batches of chocolate chip cookies were few and far between. It quickly became clear to me that I had to find another source of freshly baked cookies. I eventually did – ironically, on my way to a dentist appointment downtown.

My dentist’s office is (a little too conveniently) located smack above one of the most tempting cookie stores in the world. It’s not a very big store – really just a counter with a till fronting some large ovens – but it has the best advertising I’ve ever encountered. Their slogan, ‘Free Smells’, is not just a gimmicky catch phrase; it’s the real deal. The smell of baking chocolate chip cookies assaults you as you descend on the escalator to the basement level of the mall in question, and trails you, badgering you mercilessly should you attempt to ignore its beckoning. Resistance, in this case, is futile.

Advertising ploys aside, Famous Amos offers up the best commercially-made cookies I’ve ever had, hands-down. At this establishment, cookie dough has found its calling as a vehicle for chocolate chips, as opposed to mere filler material. Each tiny cookie is full of chocolate, not that I would complain if they weren’t – the dough that holds them together is nothing short of perfection on its own. Here, cookies are sold by weight and shoveled into little bags which are then taped shut, as if to discourage immediate gorging. Their sneaky tape trick, by the way, does not work on me.

Though you may be able to get them in boxes or bags at grocery stores around the world, Famos Amos cookies just don’t taste the same unless they’re eaten fresh, right out of the store’s oven, after you’ve been following your nose through the mall looking for the source of the smell for ages. The only way to enjoy a similar sensory experience, I find, is to bake them yourself. The list of ingredients may appear daunting to those who are used to making their cookies with the basic cookie recipe or (shudder) from Pillsbury sludge, but I assure you that your efforts will be well worth it. Over a hundred of these cookies disappeared from my cookie jar in a single day, and I doubt the results will differ much in your household.

Famous Amos No-Nut Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar; packed
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 cup Bisquick
1 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup non-fat milk powder
2 tbs Sanka
1 tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbs vanilla essence
16 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Cream butter.
2. Beat in sugars, beat till the mixture is as creamy as possible.
3. Beat in eggs.
4. Beat in all other ingredients except chocolate chips, and mix till combined.
5. Toss in chocolate chips, and work them in with a spatula till distributed evenly.
6. Drop by half-teaspoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet, one inch apart.
7. Bake at 350 degrees for 17 minutes or until golden brown.

This recipe makes 12 dozen teeny-tiny crunchy cookies. Halving the recipe is perfectly fine, but if you choose to go the whole hog, you can freeze the extra dough for up to 4 months.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Birthday Cake Bliss

birthdaycake, originally uploaded by emily loke.

Yesterday was A.’s mom’s birthday. I’ve always loved baking birthday cakes because birthdays are the perfect occasion to go all out in every way possible. It’s the one time you can really justify (not that any serious baker should ever need to) holing yourself up in the kitchen for a day or so and emerging with a tower of calorie-laden decadence. And in the age of diets-as-religions, it’s the one time your cake won’t be politely declined: nobody turns down birthday cake.

Though not as elaborate as some of the other birthday cakes I’ve made recently, Michelle’s cake was definitely one of the best tasting. It was an orange cake filled with whipped cream and berries, covered completely in dark chocolate, and was sincerely well received – most had second and third helpings after the first obligatory slice.

The party is long over, taking with it a particularly warbly rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” and an impromptu magic-and-comedy show, among other memories. The best part of the night, however, is tucked away in our fridge till tomorrow (at least) – a fragment of birthday magic captured in Tupperware.

Friday, June 17, 2005

SHF#9: Blueberry-Peach Tarts

tart1, originally uploaded by emily loke.

I’m jinxed. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow, I got jinxed. Maybe I unknowingly looked the wrong way at a gypsy woman, perhaps I ticked off a black cat somewhere along the way. The only thing I can be sure of is that it sure is a potent jinx: not one thing I’ve baked recently has come out well.

Alright, I’ll admit I have very high standards. But my losing streak in the baking department (oven 14: baker 0) has lowered my standards somewhat: I’m not even striving for Zagat perfection anymore. These days, edible-and-does-not-look-like-slop will do. And some days, even that’s asking a lot. I’ve only been scraping by (and barely so) by serving ice cream sandwiches as dessert. Praise be to my new holy trinity: Ben, Jerry and Mr. Christie.

Today of all days – the due date for my SHF entry – the jinx kicks into overdrive. All within the span of 2 hours, my pineapple tart pastry crumbles into superfine dust, my custard liquefies and leaks out of my tart shells, my banana-mango crumble turns into a very unattractive mulch in the oven, and my butter tart filling enthusiastically bubbles itself right out of the tart shells and all over the muffin tin.

My tart lineup may sound impressive: “four different tarts?” you may ask. In actuality, tarts number 2,3 and 4 were really just backup plans created when their predecessor failed. Failure usually has quite a sobering effect on people: they become self-reflective, evaluating themselves and their situation in an attempt to find out, logically, what went wrong. I, on the other hand, completely lost it. By failed tart #4, I was checking behind furniture for voodoo dolls of myself and contemplating hiring an exorcist.

A., ever cautious, watched from a safe distance, and called out, “Want some help?” extremely half-heartedly every now and then, more out of politeness than true desire to interfere with his now clearly-insane girlfriend.

He needn’t have worried: my temporary psychosis had created a rather zen state of mind for me. My mind switched off and my body took over, hands deftly slicing, stirring, kneading – all without any thought or measurement. It wasn’t until I had popped the tarts into the oven that I even felt myself draw a breath; I had been on baking autopilot. Anyone who gets stressed out doing something they love will understand this: sometimes you get so stressed out that you crack and become the other extreme – very laid back – and everything miraculously falls into place from that point on. Your instincts kick in and take over, and you stop doubting yourself and stop caring, and you are suddenly very sure that it will all be ok.

And it was all ok. My blueberry-peach tarts turned out beautifully, so much so that they almost made up for all the failed attempts that came before them.


tart2, originally uploaded by emily loke.

Super Zen Blueberry-Peach Tarts

Note: I made this recipe with leftovers from various botched tarts, so I’m sorry if the measurements are not precise. Just relax and wing it like I did! I made my tarts in miniature tart pans, but this recipe should make a full-sized tart. (It’s good enough to want one that big, trust me.)

Crust: Pate Sable
2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar
2 egg yolks
2 cups flour

Filling: Blueberry Jam and Slice Peaches
1 jar good quality blueberry jam (I recommend making your own)*
3-4 firm peaches, pitted and sliced thinly into half-moon looking slices
3 tbs sugar

1. Mix all the crust ingredients in a bowl till combined
2. Pat into a ball and chill for 30 minutes
3. Roll out pastry between two sheets of waxed paper
4. Line tart pan with pastry, cover with sheet of waxed paper, and bake (weighted) at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes till crust is firm but not completely cooked/browned.
5. Remove from oven and fill with blueberry jam
6. Arrange peach slices on top of jam and sprinkle with sugar
7. Bake for another 30 minutes
8. Remove from oven, cool, and chill till jam is set again.
9. Serve with vanilla ice cream

*Blueberry Jam
4 1/2 cups crushed wild blueberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
7 cups sugar
2 pouches liquid pectin

1. Remove leaves or stems from blueberries, and crush them.
2. Put blueberry mulch into a heavy pot and add sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and stir for a minute.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in pectin. Skim off the foamy layer.
4. Spoon into sterilized mason jars and seal them tightly.
5.Ta-daa! Blueberry jam!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


onigiri, originally uploaded by emily loke.

Monday, June 06, 2005

My Breakfast Credo

pancakes, originally uploaded by emily loke.

Not being much of a morning person, I’m seldom awake early enough for breakfast anywhere but at home. Not that it mattered until recently: having to wake up at some ungodly hour of the morning and eat breakfast bleary-eyed, half asleep and unable-to-taste-anything-I-was-so-tired, was a (week) daily occurrence - thanks to 8 a.m. classes - that completely put me off even the suggestion of breakfast for the longest time. Though I’m much more appreciative of breakfast these days, its still a meal that is usually passed over in favour of a good lunch at a cafĂ© or restaurant instead.

The prospect of cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt or whole wheat anythings just doesn’t strike me as a good enough reason to get up in the morning, and similarly, I know very few people who will willingly hop out of bed in the morning at the promise of a steaming bowl of oatmeal. Breakfast, as far as I’m concerned, should be as decadently unhealthy as possible. Breakfast, if you’re having it, should be your very reason to wake up that morning. Whose ever heard of anyone waking up to the smell of an organic wheat germ smoothie?

One of my newly discovered favourite breakfast foods is pancakes. I say newly discovered because until recently, I’d never actually enjoyed them much before: I’d always found them too eggy for me. When A. requested them one morning a few months back, I looked all over for a version we could both eat, but having found none, made one up (ok, reappropriated one) myself. It doesn’t contain any egg yolks and I don’t use butter for the pan, which I’m told practically halves the calorie count, but depending on what you like on your pancakes, they’re still unhealthy enough to be worth waking up for.

Kind-of-healthy-but-not-really-because-we-like-them-with-tons-of-syrup Pancakes:

(This recipe makes about 12 littlepancakes, each 4 inches across)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbs sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 egg whites
1 cup milk
2 tbs butter, very soft or slightly melted
Cooking spray

1. Heat your frying pan on the stove on medium-low heat while you mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Preheat your oven to the lowest temperature it will go.
2. Lightly coat the pan with cooking spray, and then pour a large serving spoon full of the batter into the centre of the pan for little pancakes, or a ladleful of batter for larger ones.
3. Cook the batter, untouched, until you see the edges starting to cook. Bubbles should have formed on the uncooked surface of the pancake.
4. For the unskilled like me: Slide a metal spatula under the pancake and flip it quickly onto its uncooked side. For the showoffs: Pick up the frying pan and flip the pancake with a simultaneous outwards and upwards flick of your wrist.
5. Cook the other side of the pancake till its browned up nicely like the top side. (Times obviously vary per stove, but as a guide, it takes mine about 1-2 minutes.)
6. Stick your cooked pancake into the warm oven on either an ovenproof plate or a baking tray.
7. Repeat steps 2-6 till your batter runs out, then remove all your pancakes from the oven and serve with anything toothache-inducingly sweet you like (we recommend maple syrup or nutella).

Sunday, June 05, 2005

You're Scared of What?

fish, originally uploaded by emily loke.

I have a love-hate relationship with fish. I love to eat them – any fish cooked any way I’ll happily devour – but I really, really hate them live. Just as people who lecture against discrimination (and jedi masters) warn: fear breeds hate. So you can probably guess where all this fish-hating stems from – my mind-numbing fear of fish. Being scared of fish might be ok for an ang moh (white person), but when you’re asian, boy do you get made fun of. Considered lucky by the Chinese (yu, the word for fish, sounds similar to the word for fortune), fish, in Asia, are taken very seriously and are thus a positively inescapable aspect of Chinese culture. Singaporeans especially, I find, are unsettlingly devoted to their aquatic friends. My friend’s father, who is an architect, designed their entire house around their huge koi pond. My mother’s ex-colleague devoted one of the two bedrooms in his shoe box-sized apartment (which he shared with his wife) to housing his extensive tropical fish collection, climate controls, filters and all. This lady I know has a moat around her house which is home to huge, prehistoric, carnivorous fish. And she feeds them several pounds of raw meat every day.

I’ve tried several times to overcome my phobia. And at some point I was actually succeeding until I went deep sea fishing once with a good friend of mine in the middle of the pacific ocean. The islanders who lived on the smattering of islands there had boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks and so weren’t able to venture very far out to sea, which left the fish population in the deeper waters pretty much unchecked. Can you say personal hell? I saw some suckers out there that were almost as long as the zodiac I was in, who pounded back fishing hooks like candies, snapped almost all our lines, and left us with almost no baits by the end of the day. The avid fishermen who were with us were practically having seizures they were so happy, and kept hoisting in catch after 100-pound catch which flapped and gasped and bled all over me so much so that I was frozen in sheer terror and almost passed out from forgetting to breathe. I even considered swimming back to the main cruise ship, just to get away from the ever-growing pile of terrifying fish, but that’s when I caught sight of what looked like a Russian submarine with fins, and decided that being traumatized in a zodiac full of fish was the lesser of two very evil evils.

Scenes from that trip still haunt my dreams, but my neurosis is slowly subsiding. When a tummy ache yesterday made A. pledge to start eating better, I (and I’m proud to finally be able to say this) managed to quell my fear and steam two whole pomfrets for dinner tonight. They turned out spectacularly, especially since they were prepared with minimal me-to-fish contact, and I daresay everyone was quite impressed…no one more so than Danbi, who witnessed my last attempt to cook a whole fish – an incident that resulted in meatballs for dinner. Since it was balmy out, tonight’s meal was had on our balcony (which A. had decked out with vases and martini glasses full of floating candles) to the strains of Astrud Gilberto and the snippets of chatter drifting over from our neighbor’s apartment. There was good conversation and lots of laughter, and I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate my release from the clutches of fishphobia.

Steamed Fresh Pomfret

2 pomfrets
4 tsp salt
4 tbs black bean paste
4 stalks spring onions
2-3 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, cut into fine strips
handful of cilantro, chopped roughly
¼ cup soy sauce

1. Clean and gut your pomfrets unless your nice fish monger did it for you already.
2. Cut a # pattern into each side of each fish, and rub cavity, skin and the inside of the cuts with salt.
3. Bundle up the spring onions and stuff them inside the cavity.
4. Push strips of ginger into the slits you made in the fish
5. Massage each side of the fish with the black bean paste, and coat with cilantro.
6. Put fishes on a plate in a steamer (I use a wok filled with water and a plate that sits on an upside-down bowl) and pour soy sauce over them.
Cover and steam for 15 minutes, or until fish meat is flaky but not dry. (I used foil to cover my wok. If you’re doing it this way, make sure to secure it so the steam doesn’t escape or you’ll end up with rubbery fish.)