Moving to the Next Stage AKA The Post about Cooking, but with No Recipe

I’ve just entered a new stage of life, and getting used to it has naturally taken some time. DC and I have moved into grandma’s old place for the time being and it’s wonderful finally having a kitchen all to myself again. Getting settled and getting used to our surroundings has taken a while. It is an old place after all as we’ve dealt with our fair share of pests, from ants to cockroaches and even nasty rats. But the best part is the large kitchen and the pandan growing practically wild at the back. I’ve been spending plenty of time catching up with my cooking and now have a backlog of posts to work through. While that’s an explanation, it’s not an excuse for neglecting this blog.

I’ve stocked up my kitchen with all sorts of herbs and spices and bought a massive 40 inch wok from Buffalo (great for fried rice!). DC contributed his sturdy old Tanyu claypot that is, sadly, chipped on the cover. DC’s aunt called one day and asked if we’d like to take a standalone stove with oven off her hands. We of course greeted that offer with great enthusiasm. I wondered for a while how to justify paying hundreds of dollars for a Kenwood chef mixer, till we looked in the spare room and found grandma’s old one. Checking online, we realised that the mixer was older than me! So that was me a few weeks ago, and I’ve been happily stocking up the freezer since.

Today, I made some of my favourite watercress soup, this time modified with chicken-white wine stock from last night’s poached chicken breast, plenty of bacon, a carrot and a little more butter. DC must’ve been pleased that I finally got round to using his Tanyu pot, I see why he loves it so much now! Lunch was the soup with salad greens and wheat berries dressed in anchovied mustard. As if I’d not pottered around in the kitchen enough, I laid down even more things in the freezer. Previously, I’d processed lots of seasoning items and put them in the freezer for later, like pureed ginger, pureed shallots, sliced galangal, sliced red chillies and calamansi halves. I rounded off the collection by finally laying my hands on kaffir lime leaves, fresh bay leaves and young ginger. Those again went into ziploc sandwich bags for removing bits later whenever I want a quick meal going.

Mid-way through the tedium of preparing these, I checked out the Saveur video on how to skin a head of garlic in less than 10 seconds. Of course, it was because I had a few heads of garlic to process too. Sadly, it didn’t work for me because I didn’t have any suitable metal or plastic bowl. DC suggested the wok and its lid. I could hardly lift it, let alone shake Dickenses out of it. But DC could, and soon he was dancing round the kitchen (good thing it’s a big one!) having fun clanging it about. It worked fairly well, though of course you’ll have to live with bruised cloves of garlic. That’s not a big problem if you’re chopping them up to stick in the freezer later.

In between all that, I managed to bake a loaf of bread (which I need to tweak slightly before blogging about it) and a failed fig and blackberry tart. I was trying to use up some fresh figs that were past their prime and chanced upon an interesting pastry recipe that called for cornmeal (which I was dying to get rid of). It was too juicy and came out so soggy that most of the pastry didn’t get a chance to brown, though DC said it was like eating fig and blackberry crumble. I suppose the blackberries saved the day.

And the point of this post? To say that I’m still alive and cooking. And will get round to posting about recent travels, eating and cooking real soon. Bear with me!

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A Very Alcoholic Cherry Almond Cake

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I’d recently discovered some really nice dried cherries in Carrefour that don’t quite cost the sky (just an arm and a leg). It allowed me to finally try out Nigella’s recipe for a cherry cake. Her version involved natural glace cherries. I haven’t seen natural glace cherries anywhere in this corner of the world before and I thoroughly detest the typical bright scarlet ones, so I upped the decadence level by soaking the dried cherries for some hours in a mixture of kirsch and rum. It worked out beautifully, tasting a little like christmas fruit cake. It gets even better the next morning as the alcohol from the cherries infuses the cake. I’d imagine it’ll do wonderfully with extra dark rum scattered over the cake and left to age for a week before serving.

Before we get to the recipe, a few tips on prep work. First, soak the cherries overnight in a mixture of kirsch and rum. I ran out of kirsch, so topped up the alcohol with dark rum to cover the cherries in a bowl. Use brandy, whisky or vodka if you don’t have either the above. Next, halve your cherries or chop them very roughly  as I think the cherried alcohol infuses better in the cake that way. Last word on flour: I don’t really like the hassle of stocking both plain and self-raising flour and also keeping track of my baking powder to make sure that it’s not expired yet. What I do instead is to make up my own baking powder by using cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda. If you’d like to tailor your own recipes, halve the amount of baking powder to find out how much cream of tartar to use, and halve the amount of cream of tartar for how much bicarbonate of soda to add.

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Ingredients:

200g dried cherries, soaked overnight in alcohol mix and then halved
250g flour
1½tsp cream of tartar
¾tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g butter
120g sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 drops almond essence
100g ground almonds
about 3 tbsp milk

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Butter and line a loaf cake tin.
  2. Drain the cherries, reserving the soaking liquid
  3. Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy, then add eggs and almond essence.
  4. Fold in flour and ground almonds.
  5. Make up the cherry soaking liquid to 6 tbsp with the milk and fold into the cake mixture.
  6. Fold in the cherries and scrape out into tin.
  7. Bake for 1 hour or so until a satay stick comes out clean.
  8. Let cool completely before removing from tin.

Makes about 12 slices.

Blue Cheese Biscuits

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I’m going to admit upfront that I’m not the biggest fan of blue cheese. But I wanted to make something a little special for two important men in my life. I knew that it had to be something special and something that wasn’t the usual type of baked good that comes out of my oven. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by getting a recipe from Nigella. (The other “bird” of course being me wanting to try out every single recipe in her book.)

These blue cheese biscuits really rocked, they were aromatic, robust and very tasty. In fact my aunt, who usually just pecks at food, ate up the entire plate of ugly bits after they were warm out of the oven! They’re also a very good introduction to blue cheese. While still tasting emphatically like blue cheese, the biscuits have a more tempered and less punchy in-your-face flavour. While I could only take a bite of blue cheese before getting overwhelmed, I could snack on these little gems for ages. I especially like the green-blue pistachio-y hue of the biscuits, makes them look so pretty in the jar for giving away.

A note of caution: it gets very, very pongy on the preparation and even more so when baking. My cheese-averse mum had to banish herself to the balcony while I made them. A couple of days later, she was still complaining about the smell in the kitchen storeroom (beats me how the smell got there!).

On the ingredients, I’d say don’t buy a very expensive blue like a roquefort. I snagged a schizophrenic blue from Fairprice that was labelled Danish on one side and British on the other for $7 and had cheese to spare. The cheese should probably be quite salty, but if it isn’t, add a pinch of salt. Lastly, Nigella’s recipe called from blue cornmeal. Needless to say, my local supermarket hadn’t any in sight, despite there being both a Cold Storage and a Fairprice Finest (which sucked, it didn’t even have blue cheese!). I resorted to getting some corn thins, a sort of health cracker like rice cakes, and crushing them for a cornmeal substitute. They gave a nice, slightly chewy texture to the biscuits fresh out of the oven. The only(!) problem was that they went soft soon after and needed a little (pongy!) while in the toaster before crisping up nicely. Next time I’ll try doing them with all plain flour instead, or with the prescribed blue cornmeal and tell you the difference.

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Ingredients:

175g blue cheese
100g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
125g plain flour
50g corn thins, crushed to a powder
1 beaten egg for glaze

Method:

  1. Squish the cheese and butter together, then mix in the egg yolk till it forms a pungent blue-green paste. Using your hands, work in flour and corn thin powder till just combined into a soft dough.
  2. Shape into a rough disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour or till ready to bake. It’s a good time to preheat the oven to 200ºC at this point.
  3. After the dough has been nicely chilled, dust a large piece of aluminium foil with flour and roll out the dough to about half cm thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into little squares about 2 by 2 cm. Transfer to a lined tray. Gather together the scraps and roll out and cut. Glaze the biscuits with the beaten egg.
  5. Bake the biscuits for about 10 minutes till just tinged golden at the sides.
  6. Remove and cool on a wire tray. Eat warm or leave to cool and store in an airtight bottle.

Makes about 100.

Sticky Snail Buns

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These sticky snail buns are always a big hit. As Mum prefers non-chocolatey things and DC’s mum likes nuts, these were a natural choice for Mother’s Day last week. They’re so good that I caught Mum chewing on something as she snuck out of the kitchen. True enough, there was one less on the rack! These gooey, crunchy spiced buns are quite irresistible both fresh out of the oven and also the next day cold from the fridge. Somehow keeping it cold keeps the syrupy bits crackly and crunchy. I can never stop at one.

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Packed into a pretty box, these little buns beckon so glisteningly and enticingly, it’s no wonder Nigella urges in her Schnecken recipe to “apply to face” as soon as cool! Now I’ve made loads of modifications to her recipe to suit my taste and sense of practicality. I replaced golden syrup and maple syrup with honey because it’s easier to find and I have no idea what to do with leftover golden syrup. Plus I find that the fragrant honey I use gives a lovely aroma to the buns. Also, I find  the recommended amount of 150g sugar for the filling a bit excessive and have cut it down tremendously. Feel free to scale up the sugar if you have an especially sweet tooth! Lastly, I find that this recipe makes quite a lot of dough, so make sure that the buns don’t sit too long in the proving stage. Either that or halve the amount of dough and make 18 instead of 24. That would mean less dough and more syrup, so leave to prove for as long as you like instead of hawkishly watching them to make sure they don’t fill up the muffin tin too easily.

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Ingredients:

dough
3 eggs
150ml plus 1tbsp milk
75g unsalted butter
500g bread flour
40g sugar
¼tsp ground cloves
½tsp salt
1½tsp yeast

syrup
125g unsalted butter
4 tbsp brown sugar (or equal proportions of white sugar and dark brown sugar)
5 tbsp honey

150g pecan halves

filling
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated

Method:

  1. Beat the eggs. In a separate bowl, combine 1 tbsp of the beaten egg with 1 tbsp milk and set aside the mixture to glaze the buns later.
  2. Melt the butter, then combine with the eggs and 150 ml milk.
  3. Into a bowl, stir the flour, sugar, cloves, salt and yeast together and then pour in the liquid ingredients above. Using the dough hook of a cake mixer, knead for 5 minutes on high. Alternatively, knead by hand for 10 minutes.
  4. Form into a ball, oil the bottom of the mixing bowl and drop into the bowl, turning to coat with oil. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for about an hour or till doubled in size.
  5. In the mean time, prepare the syrup. Melt the butter in the microwave (medium for 1-2 minutes), then whisk in the sugar and honey. I don’t know how it works, but this magically turns it into a thick syrup. Spoon about 1 tbsp of syrup into each cup in two 12-bun muffin tins.
  6. Top with the pecans, making sure that each pecan half faces down. About four halves go into each muffin cup.
  7. When the dough is ready, knock it back, knead once or twice and halve the dough. On a flat surface (I normally use a long piece of aluminium foil), spread out half the dough with your fingers to form a rectangle about 15 cm long and 30 cm wide. Glaze the surface of the dough so it’s damp and sprinkle on a thin layer of sugar. Sprinkle on half the cinnamon and half the nutmeg, or just grate the nutmeg directly onto the dough.
  8. Roll up the bun from the long side and push it gently but firmly away from you till you have a sausage seam side down. Don’t worry if the dough is a bit sticky, with careful handling, it shouldn’t go too pear-shaped! Using a sharp knife, cut the dough sausage into 12 even pieces. I normally halve and halve it again to get four logs, then cut each into three. Take each swirly piece and lay into the muffin cup so the swirly part lies on the syrupy-nut mixture.
  9. Repeat with the other half of the dough mixture.
  10. Leave to prove for 20 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC.
  11. When the 20 minutes is over, or the buns are risen and puffy, bake for 20 minutes. You’ll probably want to swap the trays at the 10-minute mark so they brown evenly. They’ll come out brown and gooey and the syrup is likely to bubble over, so make sure there’s a pan on the bottom of your oven to catch drips.
  12. Carefully loosen each bun with a knife and place a roasting tin over the muffin tin. Invert carefully and the sticky buns should pop out into the roasting tin. Carefully replace any fallen nuts and transfer any leftover syrup in the muffin cups onto the buns.
  13. Leave to cool and either eat as soon as possible or keep in the fridge overnight.

Makes 24.

Special Oat Cookies

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I made these oat cookies as a birthday present for someone special. Not only did it have to have less sugar, it also needed unique flavours to distinguish it from store-bought or other quotidian home-baked stuff. Oat cookies can be boring as it seems so healthy, but fiddling around with the flavours gave the old-fashioned recipe a nice lift. The verdict? She liked it!

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Ingredients:

250g rolled oats
130g plain flour
130g sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½tsp salt
200g butter, melted
1 egg

cherry and chocolate
1 small handful dried cherries, chopped
20g dark chocolate, chopped

pistachio and orange flower
1 handful of shelled pistachios, chopped
1 tsp orange flower water

apricot and almond
5 dried apricots, chopped
1 small handful almonds, chopped

crystallised ginger and walnut
6 cubes crystallised ginger, chopped
5 walnut halves, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 150°C. Line 2 cookie trays with greaseproof paper.
  2. Mix all the dry ingredients thoroughly, then stir in the egg and butter. Feel free to use your fingers to mix thoroughly.
  3. Divide into 4 lots and mix in the flavourings separately.
  4. Using your hands, roll the mixture into tight balls and space out about 2 inches apart on the lined trays.
  5. Bake for 20 to 30 mins or until golden brown. Remove immediately and cool on a wire rack.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Orange Clove Cake

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It was a good thing sis-in-law borrowed my usual baking book. I had to dig out my folder of recipes printed off the net, most untried and some 10 years old even. This one came off epicurious.com and I’ve done the usual modification to my own taste. The cake turned out surprisingly good. Somehow the clove brought out the freshness of the orange zest and lifted the flavour very well. This is a great recipe also because it uses up egg whites, the bane of kitchen leftovers.

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I served it with yogurt, honey and orange slices for breakfast and it made for a faintly indulgent yet not too sinful start to the day.

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Ingredients:

240g plain flour
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp salt
¼tsp ground cloves
170g butter
200g sugar
zest from 1½ oranges
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
2 egg whites
½cup milk

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 160°C. Line and butter a loaf pan.
  2. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, salt and ground cloves.
  3. Beat butter, sugar and orange zest till creamy. Add in the eggs one by one, beating in between each addition, followed by the egg whites and vanilla extract. Beat till light and creamy.
  4. Fold in the flour mixture and milk alternately till you get a thick batter.
  5. Smooth into loaf pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a satay stick comes out clean. Let cool in pan and slice when cold.

Makes 1 large loaf, approx 12 thick slices.

Tangerine Syrup Cake

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It’s the Chinese New Year season and there are loads of tangerines in the house. I’m not very hot on eating them as is. Far too often I get a dry one and it’s just not worth the effort to eat. Give me an orange any time.

Faced with so many tangerines, I made a something festive yet different for another one of those family gatherings. It’s based on Nigella Lawson’s Lemon Syrup Cake recipe. The syrup makes it very moist and the fact that it’s an angmoh cake makes it very popular after a week’s worth of Chinese New Year goodies baddies .

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Ingredients:

[cake]
large loaf tin (22 by 11 by 6 cm)
110 g butter
125 g sugar
3 eggs
zest of ½ lemon
zest of 2 tangerines
180 g plain flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
4 tbsp milk

[syrup]
juice of the ½ lemon and 2 tangerines
80 g icing sugar

Method:

  1. Butter and line the loaf tin with overproof paper. Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar, then add in the eggs and zest. Beat well.
  3. Stir into the flour the cream of tartar, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  4. Fold the flour mixture into the egg and butter mixture, then add the milk and continue folding in.
  5. Scrape into the loaf tin and bake for45 minutes. It’s done when it’s golden and a satay stick comes out clean.
  6. Meanwhile, make the syrup by gently heating the citrus juice and icing sugar in a pan till the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.
  7. Poke lots of holes in the top of the cake and drench with the syrup. Leave overnight for the syrup to penetrate the cake.
  8. Slice and serve.

Makes about 12 slices.

Note: You can use 2 tsp of baking powder instead of the cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda.