Friday, June 19, 2015
We recently turned two.
As another chapter will soon come to a close, this place, for which I gave up most of my kitchen time and energy, will tell a new story. It seems like it wasn't too long ago when I drew that pig, baked that coconut lime curd cake and worked Sundays not having a moment to stop for a breather. Was it only a few months ago I baked muffins exploding with chocolate and those little black sesame cookies customers tend to forget to eat with their coffee?
While the owner of that pig tattoo and a few of us share this small nostalgic and romantic spirit of why we are here; at the same time, we embrace change and accept new challenges. Every shift is an opportunity for learning and pushing ourselves further. Every mistake made is a chance to grow stronger. Roles have changed, the roaster and coffee sacks replaced with a befitting wooden centerpiece; ready for hours of congressional laughter over good food and better company.
The time has come for the better.
Time and again I explore my curiosity...
... and so I question our customers, friends we bring to this place, fearless additions to the team and those young, determined, hardworking part-timing kids - why do they love it here?
Why track across the island to this corner of the neighborhood over an hour of public transport, where it's so quiet on some days our visiting dogs have no problem catching their afternoon naps? Why put yourself through all these back-breaking shifts when there's so much to do at school, exams, a full time job, sleepless nights, relationships to be taken care of and life to be enjoyed elsewhere?
"It just feels like (an extension of) home."
"There's no other place like this."
"I'm learning a lot here."
"We share the same principles."
"We are like a family."
"I keep craving for that fried rice. Nothing out there is like it."
As I wash the rice and try to keep those sliced shallots evenly thin, I listen to those answers. Sometimes when the mundane prep work transports my tired, forgetful mind elsewhere, these convictions come back to remind me to step it up. If we are all here for the right fundamental reasons and work together to maintain a sound foundation, our differences will not keep us apart but only complement each other.
Will those blue benches see another two years of blood, sweat and tears? I believe our story has been written, of course, but we will just find out as we move along.
Continue reading Happy Two
Monday, April 20, 2015
For the past two weekends, I've been mostly home bound due to a knee injury. Just as well, as this gave me more than enough time to experiment with two things very Chinese - the pau and pork belly. Okay, let's cut to the chase and put it out there, I really wanted to eat pork belly pau - a piece of melt-in-your-mouth fatty pork belly wedged between one soft, fluffy, slight sweet steamed bun. The Hokkien Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包) is made with pork belly first deep fried, then either steamed or braised in soy sauce.
This is not the weather for any kind of deep frying, and faced with the motivation to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, we made Dong Bo Rou in a clay pot instead. After using my cheap sand pot so many times, with minor cracks threatening to destroy it, I finally discovered the method to correctly season a clay pot prior to the first use. The things our grandmothers use don't come with manuals, you have to know what you're doing or risk learning from mistakes.
As for the pau, one attempt with a recipe I shall not mention here - surprisingly from a very well known, albeit Western (what was I thinking, really...) food portal - taught me something. Always trust your instincts. If a recipe looks questionable (steamed bun using bread flour?) then it will most likely not work.
Apparently history has it that the pau (one of my favorite Chinese thing to eat), originally called mantou (literally meaning 'flour head'), was first invented by the famous Three Kingdoms Chinese military strategist, inventor and writer Zhuge Liang! As the story goes, Liang was engaged in a military campaign in southern China when his army was hit with a plague. He then came up with a giant dumpling made of pork and beef, shaped like a human head. The unconventional thinker wrapped the head in wheat dough, steamed it and offered it as ritual sacrifice, after which he offered it to his men as a curative. How cool is this right? Although I've not read nor watched Romance of the Three Kingdoms (this must be remedied soon), Zhuge Liang's character in Red Cliff reminded me how brilliant he was (although, of course, it did help that Takeshi Kaneshiro played him in the movie).
As for these pork buns, they are evil. Make and eat at your own risk.
Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
Clay Pot Dong Bo Rou (东坡肉)
- 1 kilogram pork belly, skin on, cut into 4 2.5-inch square pieces
- peanut oil for frying
- 1 sprig spring onion, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 5 inches ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 100 grams rock sugar or brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1 cup Shaoxing wine
- 2 cups chicken/vegetable stock
- boiling water (to scald pork)
- baby romaine lettuce
- chopped fresh scallion
- pickled radish
Soak the clay pot for at least 15 minutes (completely submerged in water) before use. Bring a kettle of water to boil. Set a wire rack in the sink and arrange the pork belly pieces on it.
Heat the clay pot up gently over low flame on the stove while prepping the ingredients. Bring heat to medium high and wait for the pot to smoke, then add peanut oil. Sauté the spring onion, ginger and garlic until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, scald the pork belly pieces on all sides with the boiling water. Add the sugar to the clay pot and stir constantly till sugar melts. Add the wine and soy sauces. Once boiling, reduce to low and pour in half the stock. Mix well.
Place the pork belly pieces skin side down in the pot. Top up with the rest of the stock. The liquid must at least almost cover the pork. Add water if necessary. Increase heat to medium high and wait for the liquid to come to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to the lowest simmer, cover and braise for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, flip the pork belly pieces and continue braising, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, basting the skin occasionally, until pork is tender enough to be broken with a pair of chopsticks. Meanwhile, you can prepare the bun dough and let it rise (recipe following).
Remove the pork belly pieces onto a tray and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, skim off any extra oil from the sauce in the pot. Whisk the reduced sauce while the pot is still hot, add boiling water bit by bit to get a nice gravy consistency. Remove and let stand. Sauce will thicken as it cools. While waiting for the pork to cool, prepare the steamed buns.
To assemble the buns: With a thin, sharp knife, slice the pork belly into 1/2-inch thick pieces (each square should cut into 3 pieces). Open up slightly one steamed bun, smear generously the cooled sauce on the inside and stuff a romaine leaf in between. Add a slice of pork, a few pieces of pickled radish and a scattering of scallion. Repeat with the remaining buns, and eat!
Chinese Steamed Buns
Recipe adapted Jen Yu's Chinese Sweet Red Bean Steamed Buns at Use Real Butter.
Yield: 20 lotus leaf buns.
- 1/8 cup sugar
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F to 115°F)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
- vegetable oil
In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water and add the yeast. Let the yeast stand until it becomes foamy, floating to the top, about 10 minutes. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the baking powder, shortening, and the yeast liquid. Mix well. If the dough is dry, add a little water. If the dough is too wet, add a bit more flour. Knead the dough until smooth on the counter top, about 8 to 10 minutes. Place it back into the bowl and cover tightly with cling film. Let the dough rise in a warm place for till it has tripled in size, about 2 hours.
Cut 20 squares of parchment paper, 3-inches a side.
Knead the risen dough until it is smooth and elastic. Again, if it is too dry, wet your hand(s) and knead it. If too wet, add some flour and knead it in. Cut the dough into quarters and make a log from each quarter. Keep the unused dough under in the bowl covered with a damp kitchen towel to prevent from drying out. Cut each log into 5 equal pieces. Roll lightly into a ball, then flatten each piece into a 4-inch oval with a small rolling pin, about 4 millimetres thick. Brush lightly with vegetable oil, lay a chopstick horizontally across the center of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form a bun. Gently pull out the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and transfer it to a square of parchment paper. Place the bun on a tray, cover with a damp towel. Repeat and shape the rest of the dough.
Let the buns rest for 30 to 45 minutes: they will rise a little.
Set up a steamer on top of the stove - I use a large wok and bamboo steamer. Working in batches (give them space in the steamer as they will expand), steam the buns on the parchment squares for 10 minutes. Remove the parchment. You can use the buns immediately or allow them to cool completely, then put them in plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to 2 months. Reheat the frozen buns in a stove top steamer for 3 to 5 minutes, until puffy, soft, and warmed all the way through.
Continue reading Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Although I am never a follower of any food blogs in particular (contrary to popular belief), I read with interest this piece at Lottie and Doof and its ensuing comments. It made me wonder if I'm boring and will you be so surprised to hear me tell you I find myself boring sometimes? Due to circumstances of course, because if we could all go play in my head, I'd assure you I'd be here way more often. I just find it an irony how people are drawn to people so much like themselves (it's only natural, really) and then come around the corner saying "No, I don't think I can read this anymore because this is so much like my life. I mean, I just cooked this last week!"
All this drama sprouting from a competition pitting one cookbook against another, looking for 'the best'. Forgive me for being blunt, but these days, anyone, and I mean anyone can publish a cookbook. Whether or not one pulls your fancy can be as subjective as a piece of art exhibit at the gallery. We read cookbooks for different reasons now. Some for the recipes because they are really tested and unique, some for the stories and (gasp!) photography, others for the entire package (because believe it or not, these are the people who should write cookbooks).
I think the world and its food is big enough and one doesn't have to dig around too deep to look for diversity. While I don't make béarnaise, mole or choux every other weekend it doesn't mean I can't read about it or even see how they are best made. I won't dismiss anyone as boring just because oh look, there's another pot of pork belly stew like the one I ate yesterday.
No, not another recipe of marble cake, or anything with kale because we want to be over it like it's some sort of poison to our seemingly exciting eating life. While yet another talk about this green, cottony cake may make your eye roll, I'd like to think that someone in Paris would find this weird and mistake it as a matcha tea cake.
While herd mentality threatens to seep into every crevice of our being, media is one of the food world's greatest enemy. To sell and promote what others are looking for. To publish cookbooks and magazines people would buy. Eggs at brunch. Homemade looking cakes must be cheap - why am I paying four bloody dollars for something which that auntie at my bakery downstairs sell for a dollar fifty? Pandan gula Melaka anything, salted caramel and popcorn on cakes, coffee that's not 'acidic'. Oh we don't lack criticism at all in this part of the world because we are so in it we know everything. When in doubt, just check that latest propaganda, hashtag, Twitter feed or 'famous' Instagram account with the most followers.
As for me, I don't know that much. For God's sake I'm still trying to make this cake better. As I slowly wash every piece of pandan leaf and snip them off into the blender, separate so many eggs and beat yet another batch of meringue, I think to myself - how boring can I be? But as the cake unmolds and I take my time to scrape the cake tin down to those last bits of fragrant crust stuck between the corners, I wanted to eat a full slice. After that slice I wanted another. So be it if I am boring, I will have my cake and eat it too.
Pandan Chiffon Cake (Improved)
Recipe adapted from this one, it still makes a 25cm 5-inches tall cake.
Notes: I've made the following changes in this recipe.
Pandan leaves increased - as I prefer not to use pandan essence or any other artificial flavorings. To make the juice extraction process easier, I use more water during the blending process. The resulting liquid from 20-30 pieces of leaves will be about a cup. I then chill the juice in the fridge (right in the measuring cup, cling wrapped) and let it sit overnight. The concentrated chlorophyll will form a sediment at the bottom, like so here. When preparing the batter, discard the clear liquid without the sediment and you will find yourself making a cake so green, fragrant and flavorful without a drop of essence!
Top or cake flour instead of AP flour - for a finer, softer texture. Top flour is processed to be extra fine and soft, especially to make chiffon cakes. Failing this, you can use cake flour (or make your own).
Extra-fine castor sugar instead of regular castor sugar - again, for a finer texture. The only problem is, I've not seen this sugar at regular supermarkets. You can get them easily from Phoon Huat or other specialty baking supply shops. It's worth the effort I think, if you like chiffon cakes enough. Reserve this sugar for the finer things like this or to torch on a crème brûlée.
For the ½ cup pandan leaf juice:
- 20-30 pieces pandan leaves (see note)
- 3-4 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons coconut milk (optional)
For the flour batter:
- 200 grams top/cake flour (see note)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking of soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 100 grams extra-fine castor sugar (see note)
- 8 egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons corn (or other vegetable) oil
For the meringue:
- 8 egg whites
- 100 grams extra-fine castor sugar
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
Pre-heat oven to 170°C and position a wire rack at the lower third rack. Prepare a clean 25cm chiffon cake tin, do not grease.
Wash and cut the spears of pandan leaves into ½-inch pieces (using a pair of kitchen scissors is easier here). Place into a blender and add 3 tablespoons of the water. Blend to form a thick paste, add another tablespoon of water if it is difficult to blend. If you have a mortar and pestle, pounding the leaves will be easier and less water will be required. Remove and squeeze out all the liquid from the paste through a fine strainer. You should be able to yield close to ½ cup of liquid. To top up and make exactly ½ cup, you can either add some coconut milk, which will go nicely with the pandan flavor, or add more water.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a small bowl. In a separate large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the corn oil to form an emulsion. Add the pandan leaf juice or pandan leaf juice plus coconut milk mixture. Mix well before adding the sugar and whisk till sugar has melted. Pour the mixture into the dry ingredients and whisk well into a smooth batter, there should be no lumps. Set aside.
On high speed of a stand or hand held mixer, whisk together the egg whites and cream of tartar. Start adding the sugar once the egg whites begin to foam, gradually in 3 additions. Beat till the meringue is smooth and glossy, with stiff peaks. Be careful not to overbeat the egg whites.
Immediately stir in approximately 1/3 of the meringue into the flour batter. With a flexible rubber or silicon spatula, fold in the meringue gently and mix well. Once a roughly homogeneous mixture is achieved, add the rest of the meringue and repeat the gentle, light-handed folding process till the cake batter is well combined. Scoop from the bottom of the bowl to ensure no meringue or flour batter is left unmixed. Do not beat or overwork the batter as this will knock out the air you've put into the meringue. Pour the cake mixture into the cake tin. Using your spatula, dip it into the batter right to the bottom and make circles around the tin twice. This is to remove any large air bubbles possibly trapped while pouring in the cake batter.
Bake at 170°C for 50-55 minutes or until cake is done. The cake tester should come out clean. Don't fret if the top of your cake cracks a little, this is normal. Remove the cake from the oven and immediately overturn it to cool completely, for at least to 2 hours. I like to do this over an upturned funnel as the legs of the chiffon cake tin are not long enough to avoid the top of the cake touching its resting surface - the cake should rise to the same level or slightly higher than the center tube. You can also use a narrow necked bottle but ensure that it's stable enough to support the weight of the cake.
Release the cake by running a sharp, thin knife along the sides of the cake tin and subsequently the bottom of the tube. The cake is meant to be served upside down as it is heavier on the top, however, you can display it top side up like this, displaying cracks and all. Cake keeps well chilled in an airtight container or cling wrapped up to five days (three if using coconut milk). If chilled, bring to room temperature before serving.
Continue reading Pandan Chiffon Cake (Improved)
Life Is Great explores the incredible world of food and cooking. We hope to share with you our most delicious moments and inspirations.
“Just like becoming an expert in wine–you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford–you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simply or luxurious. The you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.”
Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
“Life is short. Live your dream and share your passion.”
- Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
- Pandan Chiffon Cake (Improved)
- Crispy Fried Egg
- Tamago Kake Gohan (卵かけご飯)
- Strawberry Pie
- One Pot Chicken Rice
- Bak Chor Mee (肉脞面 - Minced Pork Noodle)
- Hakka Salted Egg Steamed Pork (咸蛋蒸猪肉)
- Best Egg Salad
- Blood Orange Chiffon Cake
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
- Hong Kong Part III
- Hong Kong Part II: Zongzi/Bakchang (粽子/肉粽)
- Caffè HABITŪ (the table) at G.O.D. Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
- Hong Kong Part I
- Australia 2010 Part 1: Melbourne
- Bourke Street Bakery, Sydney
- Il Fornaio, St Kilda
- Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne