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!

A Whirlwind Work Trip: Sightseeing Milan’s Duomo and Other Escapades

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As it happened, we had a weekend off and spent a glorious summer Saturday enjoying Milan. First was a revisit of the Duomo I last saw 10 years ago. Then, it was grey and swathed in scaffolding. Now, it’d been restored to a beautiful white and tan.

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The hotel was just round the corner and I was too lazy stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Duomo in all its glory. You’ll just have to imagine what it looked like with the sun starting to shine hotly down its spires.

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The inside, while pretty awe-inspiring in its sense of space, was pretty grey like the last time I saw it.

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Nonetheless, the rose window was a beautiful sight to behold…

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… as were the many minor side nooks…

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… and the beautiful stained glass.

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I stood for ages admiring the rich colours of the religious scenes.

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But the roof of the Duomo beckoned too. I paid a few euro to get some exercise climbing up the stairs. It was lovely to see the skyline with all the old buildings, not a skyscraper in sight.

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On the roof, there were delicate carvings on the flying buttresses repeating themselves over and over again.

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And more of them framed the brands of the shops down below.

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It was time to answer the call of commercial Milan and go shopping! And right next to the Duomo stood Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, apparently the world’s first shopping centre.

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It was beautiful inside, with a lovely glass ceiling and big shopfronts, rather unlike modern shopping malls.

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Then the photos stop because I started shopping. I walked the entire Quadrilatero, those few streets housing the biggest fashion brands in the world. It happened to be the first day of the sale and outside the major brands like Gucci, Prada and Miu Miu, long lines formed just to go in. I had to take a break after a while and ended up in Cafe Cova eating the most expensive wild strawberry tart I’ve ever had. To be fair, it was rather big, but paying something like €20 for a piece of confectionery made me blanch.  At least it was really yummy before the bill came!

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3 Inches of Goodness

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After a burger lunch at Relish, we trooped to 3 Inch Sin to try out the chocolate cakes there. Between the four of us, we shared three desserts. One was their eponymous 3 inch molten chocolate cakes – we had one in the bitter orange flavour. I’m not normally a fan of molten chocolate cake as it’s awful when not done well – either too floury and gloopy on the inside or not molten at all. This one was truly worth setting up a shop for. It was well set on the outside, with just the right cake to ooze ratio and was deeply chocolatey and beautifully rich. And the ooze? It was a thick sauce (not floury) and had plenty of bitter orange – kinda like grown up marmalade. Very good.

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DC had the Fudge and Smother cake. It was really excellent too. I liked that the cake stayed as cake in that it was still fairly light like proper sponge cake instead of being dense pound cake. The fudge also was proper chocolate fudge, which is paradoxically not very chocolatey – just a touch that’s all. It’s great in being light, just having the right touch of chocolate yet still being a really good chocolate cake.

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My favourite was my choice (yes my choices are normally very accurately good). The Dark Side chocolate tart was insanely good. If they hadn’t already set up this shop I’d urge them to set one up just to sell chocolate tart. Let’s start with the filling – deep, intense, dark velvety chocolate ganache that melts beautifully in the mouth. DC and the others thought it was like eating pure chocolate. But of course not! It’s good quality dark, dark chocolate melted with cream; and that’s what makes it so lusciously good. The ganache was good enough to hook me, and to reel me in was the excellent oh so short pastry. The pate sucree was yielding with just the slightest crunch, crumbling to perfection in the mouth. I almost resented the rest with whom I had to share the dessert. I almost tried to fend them off with my fork!

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I’m not normally a chocolate dessert person, but this place may make a convert of me yet!

3 Inch Sin
501 Bukit Timah Road
Cluny Court #02-27
Tel: 6314 1217

April in The Philippines: Wrecks and Good Food

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Coron is less than an hour away by plane from El Nido. By ferry, however, it takes an eternity. I caught the morning ferry and only got there 10 hours later. Nothing much happened on the way, save that we saw an eagle of sorts kept as a house bird.

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The scenery wasn’t quite as good as that in El Nido. The limestone crags were still draped with lovely green, but the cloudy skies turned the water a dull grey-blue.

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We finally arrived as the sun was going down. Thankfully I’d booked ahead and the dive resort was right where the boat dropped us.

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Coron is famed for its wreck diving. An island surrounded by shallows, its warm waters are ideal for diving year round. It was this same shallow water that stranded a whole fleet of WWII Japanese warships and all of them went down under Allied fire. I didn’t yet have my underwater camera at this point, so all I have is this photo of the dive brief.

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I wasn’t particularly keen on wreck diving. All wrecks look pretty much the same to me and marine life on wrecks hardly seems varied enough to sustain my interest. I feel that wrecks, being dead things, are very unnatural and it’s quite spooky even in the day time to go there. The idea that people died there, that I’m diving a grave site is quite unnerving.

Obviously, I enjoyed mealtimes a lot more. The crew made excellent food and there was plenty to go round.

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Aside from the food, other things caught my fancy too. Here is the entrance to Barracuda Lake. The lake is enclosed within the island and to get there, we had to scramble up and down craggy rocks. Only some bits of the way was a proper path connected by wooden planks. And if that doesn’t sound hard enough, we had to do this with full scuba gear on. OK fine, so we hung the fins round our necks, but you get the idea. It was awful!

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The dive itself was fantastic though. I didn’t see the barracuda, later someone told me others had spotted it on the other side. What an experience it was! Fresh water running into the saltwater lake somehow forms a film on the top which traps heat from the sun. It results in (relatively) cold water of 30ºC at the top and warm water of 38ºC at the bottom. It felt like diving in a nice warm bath. I loved it. At 10m, there’s a halocline where salt water and fresh water meet in a hazy muddle. It’s really strange to pass through that transition. I saw the bottom at the shallower part of the lake and it was made of a strange kind of earthy, soft sand. You could dig your arm right inside and still not reach anything hard. Squeamish about odd encounters with the unseen, I only reached in up to my elbow. The dive guides told me that someone had once taken a photo with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich!

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As usual, the food was excellent, with fresh grilled fish at practically every meal. It was great.

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While we’re still on the topic of food, there was this great French place on Coron that served up amazing food, especially considering that we were hours away from freshly imported gourmet food. I had the booziest coq au vin ever, so full of red wine that I had to go back to my room to lie down before heading out to check my email and then head back Coron Bistro for some very good apple tart.

Tart at Toast

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Toast, like its sister joint Marmalade Pantry, is another one of those dependables that shouldn’t go too wrong if you’re stuck in the Orchard area. A bunch of us went shopping, first just me and G, then we picked up Misa and finally HM. When the troops were assembled, we thought tea would be a good idea and wandered over to the little corner of Taka that’s Toast.

I normally go for the ice lemon tea, it’s quite different from the norm as they blend it with whole pieces of lemon so the zest flavours it nicely and it turns slightly cloudy, almost milky. I like how fresh it tastes, though I’m on the fence on the latest less-sweet formulation.

I liked the lemon meringue tart. For something that’d probably been sitting around all day, the pastry was still quite short, unlike the slightly soggy texture you invariably get with stuff that’s not fresh out of the oven. I’m quite fussy about meringue and am not keen on super high spongy peaks. This version was nicely thick with smaller air bubbles and had lovely burnt tips. It contrasted very well with the sweet-sour lemon curd. A winner.

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Toast
#02-11 Ngee Ann City
391 Orchard Road
Tel: 6733 8489

Basement Restaurants at Liang Court

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I wanted to have Okinawa food again and DC suggested trying Ichibantei at Liang Court. While not strictly an Okinawan restaurants, it served pretty decent food. The deep fried mini prawns were pretty good even though they didn’t quite have the oomph of the version done at Nirai Kanai next door. I liked how they were so crispy everything could be crunched up nicely. The only problem was making sure that I put the prawn in  my mouth tail first, if not I’d get pricked by the spikes on its head.

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The goma salad wasn’t particularly exciting, though the deep fried noodles add a nice touch.

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An unexpected find was the pork belly ramen. I wasn’t expecting much but I liked this quite a lot. The soup was rich and the noodles firm and bouncy. It’s runner up to my favourite at Ken’s.

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Last dish here was the deep fried prawn roll with tai and mentaiko. I liked how the rich grilled mentaiko topping went really well with the prawn. While the tai added a smooth, almost silky dimension, the delicate flavour was a little overwhelmed by the prawn and mentaiko. A bit of a pity as this imaginative dish could have been that much better.

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The desserts at Ichibantei weren’t very inspiring, so we headed over to Tampopo Deli where we tucked into the tart pudding. It was lovely! The tart at the bottom was buttery and nutty (almonds?) and went really well with the rich caramel pudding on top. The syrup topping and real cream gilded the lily incredibly well. It’s a simple pairing that worked incredibly well. Definitely a winner.

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Ichibantei
177 River Valley Road
#B1-50 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 0393

Tampopo Deli
#B1-16 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 7386

Chin Mee Chin

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Chin Mee Chin is an East Coast institution. I wonder how many generations have run that venerable old coffee shop. You have to eat in at this place, there’s something about the round marble table tops, the dark wood chairs  and the Old School mosaic floor that make the experience so special. Those and the glass  cases filled with all sorts of baked temptations.

What draws me here is the great kaya toast. Here it’s done on a well-toasted bun lovingly slathered on both sides with their signature kaya. It’s thick and very sweet compared to other famous versions. It’s also very very good. I indulge only occasionally because the butter probably bypasses my digestive system and goes straight from throat to  heart. Mmm mmm good!

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The custard tart is one of those cult favourites of the East Coast set. I think it takes growing up eating these to appreciate them. It wasn’t such a big deal to me. The custard was acceptable and the pastry tasty, but it didn’t make my toes curl in bliss.

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Chin Mee Chin Coffeeshop
204 East Coast Road
Tel: 63450419