Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Pretty pumpkin patch cakes

Happy Halloween! In celebration of this candy laden holiday, I've ventured into the unknown and made something, for the first time ever, with pumpkin. Yes, I lived 10 years in the US but have never eaten, much less made, a pumpkin pie or anything like that. So, in the spirit of crossing yet another item off my culinary to-do list, I decided to bake little pumpkin patch cakes.

Truth be told, the choice of what to make was made much much easier by the acquisition of a beautiful baking pan by Nordicware in the shape of little pumpkin halves. I bought this at Williams-Sonoma, a store which I absolutely adore. I lament everyday the fact that I did not take more advantage of it when I was living in the US but if I ever move back to America, it will be because of this store. No kidding. In fact, whenever I travel to the States now, I always return with a suitcase full of things that I have picked up from Wiliams-Sonoma. This pan was one of those things that I lugged back to London at the risk of overweight baggage and all.

Since the pan bakes up the pumpkins in halves, one can choose to assemble the cakes into whole pumpkins with a layer of frosting in between (as shown above) or simply serve them as is as little tea cakes of sorts. As the assembled pumpkin turns out to be fairly large, I decided to assemble half of them and leave the rest as is. For those who don't have a special pumpkin shaped pan, don't let that deter you. I used some of the excess batter in a regular muffin pan and it turned out really well. The frosting can then be used to frost the muffin, like a cupcake.

I was pressed for time while making these but I think the pumpkins would do well with some icing decorations such as little leaves or tendrils. Despite the plainer look though, the cake was absolutely delish. A little big to hand out to trick-or-treaters, perhaps, but they'd definitely work well at a Halloween or Thanksgiving party.

Pumpkin Patch Cakes
From Williams-Sonoma

530g all-purpose flour
2 3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
2 1/4 tsp salt
5 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 3/4 tsp freshly grarted nutmeg
1 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
220g unsalted butter
375g firmly packed light brown sugar
410g granulated sugar
4 eggs
250ml milk
395g pumpkin puree

For the frosting:
250g cream cheese
125g unsalted butter
125g confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Food colouring as desired

Have all the ingredients at room temperature.

Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 350F. Generously grease and flour the wells of the pumpkin patch (or muffin) pan; tap out excess flour.

To make the cakes, over a sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the brown and granulated sugars and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with te flour. Beat each addition just until incorporated, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the pumpkin puree and beat until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer.

Divide half of the batter between the wells of the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted near the center of a cake half comes out clean, 18 to 22 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake halves cool upright in the pan for 15 minutes.

Gently tap the pan on a work surface to loosen the cakes. Invert the pan onto the rack and lift off the pan. Let the cakes cool completely before decorating. Wash and thoroughly dry the pan, grease and flour the wells and repeat with the remaining batter.

Meanwhile, make the frosting. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the butter and beat until combined, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the confectioners' sugar and vanilla and beat until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in food coloring as desired.

To assemble the cakes, using a bread knife, cut off any portion of each cake that rose above the rim of the pan. Place a cake half, flat side up, on a cake stand or plate and spread the frosting on top. Place its matching cake half, flat side down, on top. Repeat with the remaining cakes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then decorate as desired.

For unassembled cake halves, decorate the exterior of each half as desired.

Makes 24 cake halves or 12 assembled cakes

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Steaming hot

As the weather turns colder here in London, I find myself often craving a bowl of hot soup. So this weekend, I decided to make a simple noodle soup for dinner. The dish I chose was a variation on laksa, which is a popular spicy noodle soup from Peranakan culture.

I find traditional laksa to be somewhat heavy as it is usually made with coconut milk. The version I chose to make, courtesy of Bill Granger, is much lighter given that it substitutes the majority of the coconut milk with chicken stock instead. While I added chicken and eggplant to my laksa, feel free to mix it up and use things like shrimp or bok choy instead.

Light Laksa

Adapted from this book

1 tsp peanut oil
1 tbsp red curry paste
4 cups chicken stock
150 ml coconut milk
2 kaffir lime leaves, plus thinly sliced leaves to garnish
3 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
500g boneless chicken breasts
soft brown sugar and lime juice, to taste
150g rice noodles, soaked in hot water and drained
1 medium eggplant

Cut the eggplant into thin (5mm) slices and place under a grill for 7-8 minutes. Take out to cool.

Heat the peanut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the stock, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and ginger.

Increase the heat to high and bring to the boil. Then reduce the heat to very low, add the chicken, cover the pan and poach the chicken gently for 7 minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool slightly, then shred.

Season the soup with the brown sugar and lime juice, to taste. Divide the rice noodles, shredded chicken, eggplant and bean sprouts among four large bowls. Pour in the hot soup and garnish with thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves.
Makes 4 servings

Monday, 29 October 2007

Another month, another challenge done

Its been a month since I first wrote about the Daring Bakers, the online baking group that I've become a member end, and since its the month end, it means that its time to unveil the challenge for October. The host for this month's challenge is Mary and she's chosen a Bostini Cream Pie to be the recipe for the month.

Now prior to reading about this month's challenge, I had absolutely no idea what a Bostini Cream Pie is. Thanks to the Daring Bakers, not only do I know what it is and how it is made, but I also know what it tastes like and its good. Seriously good.

Bostini Cream Pie is probably one of those desserts which I would never have ordered on my own accord in a restaurant (just because my tendency is usually to head for something that is pure chocolate) so I'm thankful that this challenge forced me to try it out because I got the opportunity to discover something new.

Now for those of you still wondering what I'm talking about, Bostini Cream Pie was created by Donna Scala and Kurtis L. Baguley of Bistro Don Giovanni and selected as the San Francisco Chronicle's best recipe of 1996. It was created to be a take on the famous Boston Cream pie and is really more of a cake than a pie. It is composed of an orange chiffon cake sitting on top of a rich vanilla custard and covered with a warm gooey chocolate glaze. Sounds good, eh? Trust me, it is!

If you're looking for something to serve at your next dinner party, look no further. This will definitely wow your guests but be forewarned, it is incredibly rich. The recipe uses a grand total of 14 eggs so maybe you should just skip right to dessert.

Bostini Cream Pie

(from Donna Scala & Kurtis Baguley of Bistro Don Giovanni and Scala's Bistro)


Custard (Pastry Cream) 3/4 cup whole milk
2 3/4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 whole egg, beaten
9 egg yolks, beaten
3 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract)
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

Chiffon Cake 1 1/2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1 1/3 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup beaten egg yolks (3 to 4 yolks)
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup egg whites (about 8 large)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Chocolate Glaze 8 ounces semi or bittersweet chocolate
8 ounces unsalted butter


To prepare the custard (pastry cream): Combine the milk and cornstarch in a bowl; blend until smooth. Whisk in the whole egg and yolks, beating until smooth. Combine the cream, vanilla bean and sugar in a saucepan and carefully bring to a boil. When the mixture just boils, whisk a ladleful into the egg mixture to temper it, then whisk this back into the cream mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard and pour into 8 large custard cups. Refrigerate to chill.

To prepare the chiffon cakes: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray 8 molds with nonstick cooking spray. You may use 7-ounce custard cups, ovenproof wide mugs or even large foil cups. Whatever you use should be the same size as the custard cups.

Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add the oil, egg yolks, orange juice, zest and vanilla. Stir until smooth, but do not overbeat.

Beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gently fold the beaten whites into the orange batter. Fill the sprayed molds nearly to the top with the batter.

Bake approximately 25 minutes, until the cakes bounce back when lightly pressed with your fingertip. Do not overbake. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. When completely cool, remove the cakes from the molds. Cover the cakes to keep them moist.

To prepare the glaze:
Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Place the butter in a saucepan and heat until it is just about to bubble. Remove from the heat; add the chocolate and stir to melt. Pour through a strainer and keep warm.

To assemble:
Cut a thin slice from the top of each cake to create a flat surface. Place a cake flat-side down on top of each custard. Cover the tops with warm chocolate glaze. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 generous servings

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Death by chocolate

Death by chocolate is an oft used phrase and for me, a chocoholic through and through, it conjures up images of the most sinful, decadent, chocolicious dessert imaginable. Every chocoholic probably has his/her own definition of what that dessert might be but for me, I'd have to say its the simple brownie - nothing fancy.

Just like people are split into two camps on chocolate chip cookies - those who prefer them chewy vs those who prefer then crispy - brownie lovers are also similarly divided. Those who like them fudgy vs those who like them more cakey. And don't even get me started on the topic of nuts.

I have just 2 requirements for my brownies. One, they absolutely must be fudgy. In fact, the gooier the inside the better. Two, they should contain as must chocolate as possible. There are probably many recipes that will satisfy those criteria but few probably contain as much chocolate as the Three-Chocolate Brownies from Emily Luchetti of Stars fame. These brownies contain no fewer than 5 different types of chocolate: unsweetened, cocoa powder, bittersweet, milk and white! So if you need a chocolate fix, look no further. Chocolate sauce anyone?

Triple Chocolate Brownies
From Classic Stars Desserts

Butter for the pan
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
4 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 oz white chocolate, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
2 oz milk chocolate, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan.

Melt the unsweetened chocolate in a double boiler until just melted but not hot.

Put the butter an sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the eggs two at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the melted chocolate and the vanilla and mix until incorporated. Reduce the speed to low; add the white, bittersweet, and milk chocolate pieces and mix to distribute evenly. Mix in the flour, cocoa powder, salt, and walnuts (if using). Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out with a moist crumb, about 30 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. Cut into 16 squares, each about 2 1/4 inches square.

Makes 16 brownies

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Another trusted Chinese cookbook

My last post centered around one of my favourite Chinese food cookbooks and I thought I'd share with you yet another. This one is not so much one cookbook but a set of 3 and they are titled Xi Yan I, II and III. Xi Yan, which translates into banquet dinner, is actually a private kitchen which originated in Hong Kong in 2000. Unlike a regular restuarant, Xi Yan dictates many rules for its diners including what time they should eat (there is only 1 seating time per night), how many people should eat (a minimum table size of 6) and what they should eat (there is no menu per se - the chef serves whatever he feels like). Despite this, due to the quality and innovativeness of the food, Xi Yan has enjoyed immense popularity with waiting lists in Hong Kong as long as 6 months.

The food at Xi Yan is based in Chinese cuisine but is also influenced by the different cuisines of East and South-East Asia. It is this creative genius, I believe, that has been at the heart of Xi Yan's ascent in the culinary world. Since its humble origins back in 2000, Xi Yan now also has a branch in Singapore and has plans to open in Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo. I've had the good fortune to dine at the Singapore branch and I must say that I was blown away. From simple dishes such as Momotaro tomatoes in a wasabi sesame sauce to more unusual dishes such as Shisamo (pregnant fish) in chili oil, the freshness and quality of the ingredients always shone through.

Xi Yan is the brainchild of Jacky Yu who spent 19 years working in advertising before deciding to make a radical change in career. This gives me some hope that maybe its not too late for me to consider a switch in career afterall!

Dumplings before cooking

Sichuan Dumplings in Chili Oil
From Xi Yan

20 pieces wanton wrap
300g pork shank (minced)
diced spring onion

seasoning 1
1 tsp salt
ground white pepper

seasoning 2
3/4 cup ginger and spring onion juice

chili sauce 1 (makes 8 servings)
8 tbsps dark soy sauce
2 1/2 tbsp Zhenjiang black vinegar
4 tbsp cold boiled water
2 tbsp sugar

chili sauce 2
1/3 tsp finely chopped garlic
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
chili oil
diced spring onion
ground Sichuan peppercorn

Mixed minced pork with seasoning 1. Add seasoning 2 and keep stirring until the mixture is sticky. This is the filling for the dumplings.

Wrap some filling in each piece of wanton wrap.

Pour 1 1/2 tbsp of chili sauce 1 in a bowl. Add chili sauce 2 and mix well.

Bring water to the boil. Put in dumplings and cook until they float. Remove from heat and drain. Transfer to the bowl with chili sauce and sprinkle diced spring onion on top. Toss the dumplings in chili sauce and serve.

NB: To make ginger and spring onion juice, put 1 cup of water, 1 small piece of thinly sliced ginger and 3 sprigs of spring onion (shredded) in a big bowl. Squeeze with hands to extract the juice. Discard ginger and spring onion and reserve the juice.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Eggplant with garlic sauce

In keeping with my recent craving for foods from home, I have been reaching with regularity for the Chinese food cookbooks on my shelf. One which I have used with some frequency is the Shun Lee cookbook from the restuarant of the same name in the Big Apple. When I used to live there some years ago, I only ever went to eat there once, preferring to wander into Chinatown instead whenever I needed my Chinese food fix. Still, the book is a treasure trove of good Chinese recipes and everything that I have tried from it so far has turned out good.

This time, I chose to make eggplant with garlic sauce, another dish of Sichuan origin. In order to up the heartiness quotient of the dish, I decided to tweak it slightly by adding some minced pork. The results were surprisingly good and were reminiscent of a ma po tofu. Even M, who isn't big on eggplant, turned out to be a fan.

Eggplant with Garlic Sauce
Adapted from Shun Lee cookbook

4 small Japanese eggplants (about 1 pound total), trimmed
1/2 pound minced pork
Vegetable oil

for the sauce:
2 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1 tbsp rice wine
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp cornstarch

1 scallion, white and green parts, trimmed and minced
1 tbsp peeled and minced fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
I tbsp hot bean paste
1 tsp hot chili oil
1 tbsp dark sesame oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Keep the water at a simmer. Line a baking sheet with paper towels and place it near the stove.

Using a sharp knife, lightly score the skin of the eggplants in a crosshatch pattern, with the lines about 1 inch apart. Halve or quarter the eggplants lengthwise to make sticks about 1/2 inch wide. Cut the sticks into 2-inch lengths.

Heat a large wok over high heat. Add enough oil to come about 1 1/2 inches up the sides of the wok, and heat it to 325F. Working in batches without crowding, add the eggplant to the oil and fry until it softens but still holds its shape, about 45 seconds. Do not overcook. Using a wide wire-mesh strainer, dip the eggplant briefly in the hot water, then spread it out on the paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, wiping the strainer dry after each frying. DIscard all but 2 tbsp of the oil from the wok.

Saute the minced pork in a frying pan until cooked and set aside.

To begin the sauce, mix the soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, rice wine, and white pepper in a small bowl, and set it aside. Dissolve the cornstarch in 3 tbsp cold water in another small bowl, and set it aside.

Return the wok with 2 tbsp of oil to high heat. Add the scallion, ginger, and garlic, and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the hot bean paste and the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Add the eggplant and minced pork, then stir-fry until the sauce is boiling and the eggplant and pork are hot. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir until the sauce thickens, about 10 seconds. Add the hot chili oil and stir-fry for 10 seconds more. Add the sesame oil and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Happy Birthday Dad!

Its my dad's birthday together and since I can't spend it with him personally, I'm taking the opportunity to wish him "Happy Birthday" with this cake that I made for him. Like me, my dad has a sweet tooth. (Unlike me, though, my dad has, for most of his life, been blessed with an amazing metabolism which means that it takes a quite a lot for him to put on any weight.) As such, I'm sure he would love this cake which is made of dark chocolate cake layers, a decadent white chocolate filling and then glazed with a generous layer of thinned dark chocolate ganache. Appropriately, the cake is called Blanc et Noir.

Although the cake has quite a few components to it, it is a relatively easy cake to make. The trickiest parts are handling the cake layers as they tend to be very moist and delicate, and getting the glaze to go on smoothly. Unfortunately, although I managed to cover the whole cake, I had a few small air bubbles on the surface of my glaze which though not fatal, does slightly mar the appearance of the cake. This is somewhat made up for by the marbling effect that is created with the white chocolate on the dark glaze - an easy technique that produces impressive looking results.

Since I can't share the cake with you, Dad, in person today, I'll make this for you another time. Hopefully, it'll turn out perfect. In the meantime, M and I have been enjoying this incredibly rich cake all of today.

Happy birthday again, Dad! I hope you're having a great day.

Blanc et Noir
From Pure Chocolate

White-chocolate ganache filling:
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 oz white chocolate, finely chopped

Noir cake layers:
8 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
5 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
Dark-chocolate ganache glaze

White chocolate for writing:
2 oz white chocolate, roughly chopped
2 tsp vegetable oil

to make the filling
In a saucepan, heat the cream over medium-high heat just until it begins to boil. Remove from the heat and add the white chocolate, stirring until the chocolate is smooth and melted. Pour into a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap touching the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let the ganache set up at least 12 hours or overnight at room temperature.

to make the cake

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 300F.

Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch quarter sheet pan and line with parchment paper. Then lightly butter the parchment paper.

In a double boiler melt the chocolate over low heat. Remove the boiler top when the chocolate is nearly melted and continue stirring until completely smooth. Add the softened butter in 3 parts, stirring until no visible traces of butter remain. (If the butter begins to melt and separate, stop and allow the chocolate more time to cool.) The finished mixture should be glossy and smooth. Set aside to cool until the mixture is the consistency of softened butter. Briefly return to the double boiler if it begins to thicken too much.

In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the egg yolks with half the sugar at medium-high speed, increasing to high speed until pale yellow and tripled in volume, 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. With a rubber spatula fold in the melted chocolate mixture. The mixture should be smooth and glossy.

Clean the whisk and in another clean bowl begin whipping the egg whites on medium-high speed, increasing the speed and allowing them to become quite frothy. Slowly add the remaining sugar and continue whipping until the peaks are stiff and creamy.

Lighten the chocolate mixture by quickly folding in a quarter of the whites until smooth and no traces of white remain. Then gently fold in the remaining whites in 3 parts, trying not to overmix and lose the volume. Evenly spread the batter into the prepared pan. The pan will be two-thirds full.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. The cake will rise above the edges of the pan, and a light crust will form on top. A cake tester inserted in the center will have a few moist crumbs.

Let the cake cool in the pan at room temperature for 10 minutes. Then chill until thoroughly cold, 4 hours or overnight. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap if chilling for longer than 4 hours. (The layer can be wrapped in plastic once cooled and placed in freezer up to a week prior to assembly.)

to assemble the cake
Have ready the white-chocolate ganache filling.

To remove the well-chilled cake from the pan, run a thin-bladed knife around the edges. Place the bottom of a baking sheet over the cake and invert. Remove the parchment paper.

Place the filling in a mixing bowl. It should be the consistency of softened butter. (If not thick enough, stir and let sit longer to thicken.) With a whisk attachment or using a hand-mixer, mix on high speed until the ganache is lighter in colour and texture and soft peaks form, 2 to 4 minutes. Stop several times and scrape down the side of the bowl.

Using a ruler and the tip of a paring knife, mark the cake in thirds across its width. Cut the cake with a serrated blade into 3 approximately 4-inch-wide sections.

Place one chilled layer of the cake on the serving plate or on a 4-by-8-inch cardboard cake board. With a metal spatula, spread half of the white ganache filling on the layer. Top with the second chilled cake layer and spread with the remaining filling. Top with the last chilled cake layer.

Using a thin-bladed knife, trim the sides of the cake. Let set in the refrigerator at least 1 hour.

to finish the cake

Make the dark-chocolate ganache glaze.

Pour about 1/4 cup of the glaze into a small bowl and place in the refrigerator to chill for approximately 25 minutes. Set aside the remaining ganache to cool about 30 minutes, gently stirring occasionally until it thickens and ribbons off the end of the spatula, 80-85F.

Meanwhile, make white chocolate for writing.

to make writing chocolate
In a small bowl over simmering water, melt the chocolate. Remove from the heat, add the vegetable oil, and stir with a spatula until smooth. Set aside.

With an offset spatula, thinly coat the top and sides of the finished cake with the 1/4 cup chilled ganache glaze. Transfer to a cooling or pouring rack positioned over a rimmed baking sheet.

Slowly and evenly pour the rest of the glaze around the sides of the cake, being careful to cover all the corners. Then pour the remaining glaze down the center using a metal spatula to spread the glaze evenly over the top, letting the excess run down the sides. Before glaze sets, decorate.

Pour the writing chocolate into a small parchment paper cone. Pipe 3 thin white parallel lines, 1/4 inch apart, lengthwise, down the center of the cake over the soft glaze. Working quickly, with a toothpick draw small figure eights crosswise through the ganache and white stripes all along the cake's length.

Chill for 1 to 2 hours to set. Remove half an hour before serving. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

serves 12 to 18

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

I know, I know. Its still a little while before Christmas gets here but its starting to look like Christmas in my kitchen. Just a couple of nights ago, inspired by this blog and my recent exploits in cookie decoration, I decided to make a cookie Christmas tree.

The tree is really simple to make - all you really need are 5 0r 6 star-shaped cookie cutters in varying sizes, a good sugar or gingerbread cookie recipe and some royal icing to decorate the tree with - but yet, when assembled, I think it looks like it took a little more effort. I also think it makes a cute gift which is why this is also my entry for A Spoonful of Christmas, a blog event showcasing all types of food gifts for Christmas. So if you're looking for ideas on what to bring to that holiday party you've been invited to, why not bring a cookie Christmas tree?

Cookie Christmas Tree
Sugar cookie recipe from Pretty Party Cakes

200g unsalted soft butter
200g caster sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
400g plain flour, plus more for dusting
1 vanilla pod

In an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar and seeds from the split vanilla pod until well mixed and just creamy in texture. Do not overwork, or the cookies will spread during baking.

Beat in the eggs until well combined. Add the flour and mix on low speed until a dough forms. Gather into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 1 hour.

Place the dough on a floured surface and knead briefly. Using two 1/4 inch guide sticks, roll out to an even thickness.

Cut out 2 cookies using each of the different sized cookie cutters (i.e., if you have 5 different sized star shaped cookies, you should have 10 cut cookies). Place them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Chill again for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Bake for 8-12 minutes, depending on size, until golden-brown on the edges. Let cool on a wire rack.

When cool, decorate cookies as desired with royal icing. Leave to dry.

To assemble the tree, start with your largest sized cookie as the base. Then layer on the second cookie of the same size but offset the tips of the star so that they appear in between the tips of the star below. Glue together using a dollop of icing. Repeat with the second largest set of cookies and so on until you reach the smallest set of cookies you have. For this set, layer on one of the cookies onto the tree as before but this time, use the second cookie for the tree top decoration.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Fondants aux Pommes

Its time again for Sugar High Fridays, and this time, SHF #36 is hosted by Spittoon Extra with a theme of Drunken Apples. As you may surmise then, in order to participate, one needs to find a recipe that pairs apples with alcohol.

When I first read the theme, my mind instinctively thought to make something French since I often come across French recipes that combine apples with Calvados, an apple brandy from Lower Normandy. So I reached into my bookshelf for my copy of Paris Sweets and started searching for a recipe. It wasn't long before I found the recipe for Soft Apple Cakes, or Fondants aux Pommes - doesn't it sound so much more poetic in French? The alcohol used for this recipe, however, is rum not Calvados as it is the raisins, which also go into the apple cakes, that are soaked in the alcohol.

As Dorie Greenspan promises in her introduction to these treats, which originate from the famed Boulangerie Kayser, the cake in this recipe is incredibly soft and creamy. Not at all like the texture of a muffin even though this is the type of tray in which they are baked in. Combined with the sweetness of the apples and the slight kick from the rum, it makes for an irresistible snack. Bet you can't stop at just one!

PS: Special credit goes to M for helping me with flambe-ing the raisins. Something I didn't dare do on my own!

Fondants aux Pommes
From Paris Sweets

60g moist, plump raisins
30g dark rum
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 to 4 large apples, peeled and cored
105g all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
100g sugar
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
60g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Soak the raisins in hot water for about 4 minutes, until they are puffed. Drain, drop them into a small saucepan, and, stirring constantly, warm them over low heat until they are very hot. Remove the pan from the heat, pour the rum over the raisins, and, standing back, ignite the rum with a match. Swirl the pan until the flame goes out.

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325F. Line 20 muffin molds with cupcake liners.

Put the lemon juice in a large bowl. Cut each apple in half from top to bottom, cut each half into 1/4 inch slices, and then cut the slices crosswise in half. Toss the slices in the bowl with the lemon juice.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Put the eggs and sugar in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed until the eggs are pale and voluminous, about 4 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Switch to a large rubber spatula and stir a couple of spoonfuls of the batter into the melted butter. Working gently, fold the flour into the remaining batter, followed by the melted butter, apples and raisins.

Spoon the batter into the lined muffin tins, filling each mold just about to the top, and slip the tins into the oven. Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, rotating the tins top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking; the cakes are done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the tins to a rack and wait for 5 minutes before gently lifting the cakes, in their papers, from them. Allow the cakes to cool to tepid or room temperature before serving.

Makes 20 little cakes

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Back to making savoury food

It seems that my last few posts have all been dessert related so I thought it was high time that I posted a savoury recipe instead lest you readers begin to think that I subsist slowly on sweets (although, frankly, if health wasn't an issue, I would). But that's a discussion for another time.

Ever since I got back from Toronto, I've been on an Asian food kick. I'm guessing it has to do with the fact that I had lots of my mom's wonderful home cooking while I was there. So, I've been trying out a few new recipes to broaden my Asian food repertoire.

One of the latest to grace our table is Kung Pao Shrimp. As Kung Pao <insert your favourite meat here> appears on many a Chinese menu in the west, some people seem to think that this dish is a western invention that doesn't exist in China. In reality, it does. Kung Pao chicken is a classic Sichuan dish which originated in the province of the same name. The dish is actually named after a late Qing dynasty official who served as the governor of Sichuan. The words Kung Pao actually originated from his title (Gong Bao) which translates as palatial guardian. There are differences, however, between the western and traditional Sichuan versions, the biggest of which is the use of Sichuan peppercorns in the latter which help to give the dish its distinctive hot, numbing flavour. If you can't take spicy food, lighten up on the peppercorns.

Kung Pao Shrimp

From Xi Yan

900g fresh medium seawater shrimps
20 dried chillies (sectioned)
ground Sichuan peppercorn

For the sauce:
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Zhenjiang vinegar
1 tbsp water
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp sesame oil

1. Wash shrimps then shell them leaving the tails intact. Cut along the back and de-vein. Wipe dry then mix with salt and leave to marinate for 1/2 hour.

2. Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl and test taste to suit.

3. Heat oil in wok. Add shrimps and deep fry until they are 70% done, start to curl and turn red. Strain and set aside.

4. Wash the wok and wipe dry. Heat 2 tbsp of oil. Add dried chillies and stir fry until they are slightly burnt. Add shrimps to wok and stir fry. Pour sauce onto shrimps and cook until it thickens slightly. Add ground Sichuan peppercorn and stir well.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Dressing up cupcakes

As previously mentioned, while in Toronto, I managed to squeeze in a class on decorating cupcakes at Bonnie Gordon Cakes. For those of you who haven't heard of Bonnie Gordon, she is the genius behind all the wonderful creations featured on the Heather Locklear movie, The Perfect Man. (You can check out pictures of her creations by clicking on the link above)

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Designer Cookie class that I took with several days prior, I was very much looking forward to this particular class. In addition, since I had scheduled a private session, I was relishing the chance to ask all the stupid questions that I had about decorating that I didn't quite want to voice in front of other people.

My teacher this time was a lovely lady named Sarah who spent about 7 years as a pastry chef at a restaurant before deciding to move into cake decorating and chocolate making. She is the person responsible for all the lovely creations featured in the photo at the beginning of this post and below. (Sorry to disappoint those of you who thought I might have been the one who made these lovely cupcakes!)

During our two and a half hour class we covered the basics of decorating cupcakes such as the right buttercream consistency for cupcakes (used to create even mounds on top of cupcakes before layering on the fondant), creating thumb roses and ribbon roses from 50/50 (a 50-50 mix of fondant and gum paste), using cutters, embossers and veiners to create decorations for cupcakes, etc. We also spent time talking about the endless possibilities for coloring the decorations such as using gel pastes, lustre dusts and petal dusts. Before this session, I had no idea the sheer amount of tools that existed to aid in making baked goods look pretty. One can easily spend thousands, and I really mean thousands, on this equipment. Don't believe me? Just go to Yahoo or Google and search for cake decorating or sugarcraft equipment to see for yourself.

In the short time allocated for the class, it was hard to complete many of the more intricate designs that Sarah had done in advance since many of the decorations you see take about 24 hours to fully dry. Still, I was able to create some simple roses, bows and butterflies to make my own cupcakes. (see smaller pictures directly below) I know I've got a long way to go, but hey, you have to start somewhere! In any case, for those of you who are interested in cupcake decorating, I've reproduced the perfect buttercream recipe below. Enjoy!

Perfect Buttercream

1 cup sugar
5 pasteurized egg whites
2 cups butter, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla

Warm egg whites and sugar, whisking continuously over a pot of simmering water. When sugar has dissolved and egg whites are hot, whip meringue in a bowl of an electric mixer until cooled, thick and tripled in volume. Add butter in chunks mixing continuously. When butter if fully incorporated and the buttercream has a smooth silky look, whisk in any desired flavourings.

Fill a piping bag fitted with a round tip and pipe buttercream on tops of cooled cupcakes.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Kaiseki Sakura

As I've now mentioned twice on my blog now, my family and I dined at a wonderful Japanese restaurant last week in Toronto. The restaurant, Kaiseki Sakura, serves an omakase meal which I like to think of as a Japanese version of tapas. In reality, however, the only similarity really is that you get to eat a series of dishes in tasting portion size. Omakase literally means "Chef, in your hands" and when you order one of these, you don't get to choose what you eat. Instead, the chef will make whatever he feels like serving but at most good restaurants, this usually means he will create dishes that showcase his freshest ingredients or those that are in season.

At Kaiseki Sakura, diners get to choose if they want a 5, 6 or 7 course omakase meal. For some reason, however, these numbers do not equate to the number of plates you get served. For a 5 course meal, you get served 7 plates and so on and so forth. For smaller eaters, an a la carte menu is also available. Since there were quite a few women at our table, my family chose to have a 5 course meal, which was also titled Four Seasons.

To start, we were served an amuse-bouche of aubergine and fig puree topped with pomegranate seeds in a martini glass. Unfortunately, in my haste to eat, I forgot to take a picture. Hopefully, the next few pictures will help make up for this!

After this starter was our first real course, which we realized was meant to represent Spring. This was a dobinmushi served in the beautiful Japanese teapot that you see in the picture above. I must say that notwithstanding the quality of the food that we had, part of the fun of the meal was also in the exquisite presentation. For this dish, we were instructed to remove the top of the teapot, which also doubles as a tea cup, remove the lid to the pot and squeeze some lime into the soup within. The soup is then poured into the tea cup for drinking. Finally, the ingredients used to make the soup, including shrimp and mushrooms, can also be eaten.

It comes as no surprise that Summer follow Spring and just like in real life, this plate, in all its multi-hued splendour, did not disappoint. Since I accidentally threw away the piece of paper on which I wrote down the description of each meal, I'm afraid that I'll have to do the description from memory. As such, its likely that I'll miss out several of the ingredients that go towards making each dish so special. For Summer then, the plate consisted of two small servings of fish. The first was a seared salmon with garlic oil on a bed of heirloom tomatoes. The second was a sea bass topped with konbu (sea kelp). The decorative swirls that you see on the plate are made from various kinds of beet and the small leaves are made from deep fried sweet potato.

To go with this dish, we were also given a portion of fresh wasabi and a small grater on which to grate our own wasabi. Yes, even as a paying guest, you have to work for your food!

Before we knew it, Summer was over and Autumn was upon us. This dish, unlike the first few we had, was much more substantial in size and consisted of fewer than 7 different elements. There was a small shot glass of a tart soup that truth be told I can't remember much about except that it was the one thing that I did not like as much. There were also little clusters of edamame tempura, two pieces of unagi sushi, some sea urchin, a shrimp covered in seaweed powder, two meat balls and small pieces of sweet potato covered in crab roe powder. Again, you'll notice that the plate is garnished with some "leaves", again made of sweet potato and appropriately coloured to mirror the shades found in nature.

By this time, I was starting to get really full but I really couldn't pass up on Winter, which was a hearty stew of braised beef tongue served with bread from the famous Thuet bakery in Toronto. While I've had beef tongue before, prior to this, I never knew that it could be so tender. In fact, if you had told me it was just a regular cut of beef, I would have believed you.

Since the menu was titled Four Seasons, I was assuming that after winter we would be served dessert. Unfortunately for my already overbloated stomach, I was wrong. Before dessert, we were served ochazuke which I think of as great hangover food. Its essentially a Japanese style porridge which is usually served with savoury toppings such as furikake or nori. This version was served with a preserved plum paste and garnished with nori as you'll see below. I had to skip most of this dish since I was full almost to the point of bursting but my family thoroughly enjoyed this.

Finally, the course that I'd been waiting for dessert! Thankfully, dessert was on the small side but what it lacked in size, it made up for in satisfaction. The dessert plate was actually a composition of three treats - black sesame cookies, a green tea mousse and a red bean pancake. Just the way to cap a perfect meal.

The omakase menu at Kaiseki Sakura changes every month so you can be sure I'll be back the next time I'm in Toronto to check out what the chef has in store.

Kaiseki Sakura

556 Church Street
Toronto, ON M4Y 2E3

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A new arrival

I'm back from my trip to Toronto and I had an amazingly good time. For starters, it was one of the few times that my whole family got together for an entire week and after almost 11 years away from home, I must say that this was a rare treat indeed. I also got to do many cool things on this vacation including enjoying a fine omakase meal at a great Japanese restaurant and attending two cooking classes, one on decorating cookies and the other on decorating cupcakes. To top it all off, my sister gave birth to her first child. Yes, I am now officially an aunt!

Now, a momentous occasion like this most certainly calls for some sort of celebratory baking. T put my newly acquired skills to the test, I chose to make some baby-themed sugar cookies. Making sugar cookies are easy as pie but in order to create the perfect canvas for decorating it is important that your dough is well chilled so that minimal spread occurs during the baking process. I choose to refrigerate my dough after cutting them out into shapes for about 15 minutes before baking. It is also important not to over brown the cookies in the oven - they should be removed as soon as the edges start to pick up some colour.

Similarly, it is important to achieve the right consistency for the royal icing. The icing used to outline the cookies should be of soft-peak consistency whereas the icing for the floodwork (for the inside of the cookie) should be of a runny consistency. For my cookies, I used cutters in the shapes of a baby pram, a rubber duckie, a square and a flower, and decorated them with white and pink royal icing. I still need some practice to get my outline edges perfectly straight but overall, I was pretty happy with these given it was my first time making decorated cookies like these on my own.

For those of you who may be interested, here are also some pictures of the cookies that I made during the previously mentioned cooking class. If you've never tried making cookies like these, do give them a go. I have to warn you though that's its seriously addictive. The good thing though is that given the range of cookie cutter shapes available, there's always an excuse to make some.

Sugar Cookies

6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
2 cups unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a large bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

Use an electric mixer to cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs. Add flour mixture and mix on low speed until thoroughly combined. Stir in vanilla extract. Wrap dough in plastic; chill for about 3o minutes.

On a floured surface, roll dough to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes. Transfer to an ungreased baking sheet and refrigerate until firm about 15 minutes. Bake at 325F until edges just start to brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Cookies may be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Makes a seriously huge amount of cookies

Royal icing

5 tbsp meringue powder
3 oz water
1 lb icing sugar

Measure all ingredients into a bowl and beat on the lowest speed of your mixer for 15 minutes for full peak royal icing. After mixing, the icing should be covered with a damp cloth if being used and well-covered when being stored.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007


In my last post, I had said that I was on vacation this week and hoping to make up for my lack of posts the week before. Some of you may be wondering, therefore, why I haven't updated in a quite a few days now. Reason is, in packing for my trip to Toronto, I stupidly forgot to pack my camera's USB cable so I can't upload any of my pictures... Arrgh!

I do have a few things saved up for next week including a write-up on a wonderful omakase restaurant here in Toronto, pictures from a cookie decorating that I've taken and a recipe for a crepe cake that I made for my family. Until I get back home, however, I'm afraid that there won't be much happening on this blog. Stay tuned!