'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matcha green tea biscuits (and a latte)

Matcha craze

For the British people, tea is the tipple to turn to in times of crisis. Not that I've been experiencing any crisis personally, but there's definitely something hovering in the air this week as so much of the east coast of America is being affected by the Frankenstorm Sandy. Ohio state barely escaped from a direct onslaught by the storm, nevertheless the weather turned icy cold in the past few days and and has been unpleasantly damp, grey and depressing. I'm sure the sudden change in weather has got something to do with the hurricane that is wreaking so many people's lives right now. My thoughts are with those families out there whose lives are being turned upside down by this calamity.

Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I feel like it's because of the depressing weather that I got myself into a green tea craze lately. I revisited my green tea butter cake, made lots of green tea biscuits, and am sipping a cup of green tea latte right now as I'm writing at 2am. It's really comforting - I just hope that I will be able to fall asleep tonight!

The green tea biscuits that I make are the kind that you'd want to nibble on quietly with a cup of tea or whenever you want. They're not the kind of moreish baked goods that you want to stuff into your mouth until your stomach explodes, but they have a quiet presence and a pure taste of tea that lingers on your tongue subtly.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Strawberry cream tart

Kitchen disaster (and how to get on with life)

In many creation myths throughout the world, the apparent order of the universe emerged out of a primeval chaos. In Greek mythology, Chaos was personified as the first of the primordial deities and the god of the air. In fact, primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality (particularly by Ionian philosophers such as Heraclitus). Cooks often have to do just the same: turning culinary chaos into something edible and tasty with a sensible form. With baking there is much less room for for this transformation: everything has to be 'right' to start with if you want your batter to turn into a cake rather than a cookie. Sometimes, however, you're left with no choice but to summon all your faculties to save your failed baking attempts.

Yesterday I had to prepare dessert for a last-minute dinner the next day with a friend who was leaving town soon. I had a carton of strawberries sitting in the fridge, so I thought it's good timing to make a strawberry dessert. I started preparing the dessert last night, thinking that I would have plenty of time in case something didn't quite work out. As it happened, one disaster followed another and it ended up with something very different from what I had set out to make. Thankfully, my rescue efforts weren't in vain it and I was informed that the end-result was edible!

Originally, I wanted to serve berries with a sabayon and caramelise it with a blowtorch. It looks stunning and doesn't require much work. A sabayon is an egg foam made with egg yolks and a sweet wine like Marsala. I didn't have sweet wine any on hand, so I thought that I could substitute with Chinese rose wine, thinking that rose would complement strawberries very well - I often make strawberry tarts with a pastry cream flavoured with this wine and it works beautifully. Well, this particular rose wine I had wasn't of very good quality to start with, and maybe there's just too much of it compared to its subtle presence in a pastry cream... The sabayon tasted bitter, confused and... cheap. I dumped the whole batch.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Mung bean drink 清熱解毒綠豆水

Like the ubiquitous red bean soup, mung bean soup (綠豆沙) is the other popular sweet dessert soup in China. I like to think of them as the ying and yang of legumes: while red beans are warm and comforting, mung beans are cooling and detoxifying. The medicinal properties of mung beans have long been prized in China. The father of Chinese medicine 李時珍 taught that :「綠豆消腫下氣,治寒熱,止泄痢,利小便,除脹滿,厚實腸胃,補益元氣,調和五臟,安精神,去浮風,潤皮膚,解金石、砒霜、草本等一切毒。」 Maybe we don't use them often enough to experience these medicinal benefits, but I'm sure those of you who have had well-chilled mung bean soup at the height of summer would agree with me that it's a godsend: it cools you down immediately like nothing else. No, not even ice cream. It cleanses you from within without the headache that accompanies an icy scoop of sorbet.

The part in the mung bean that gives the detox and cooling effects (清熱解毒) is actually the skin, and its medicinal properties diminish when you cook them for too long. Those who have made mung bean soup will recall that the colour starts off as a bright, clear yellow-green and gradually becomes darker and cloudier after half an hour or so. For this reason, if you want to exploit mung bean's medicinal properties, it's best to cook them very briefly and drain the beans while the soup is still a bright yellow-green. If you continue to cook the beans as you would for mung bean soup, they'd lose much of their detox and cooling properties, but would still help with getting rid of excess liquid and toxins in your digestive tracts (健脾祛濕). If you soak the beans for a few days, they'd transform into bean sprouts (綠豆芽) which are extremely high in vitamin C and full of essential amino acids. A real superfood!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Earl Grey chiffon cake

The English people are known for their love of tea. Even with the onslaught of coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa in recent years, England is still by and large a tea-drinking nation. Even though it's a terrible stereotype, I did hear the expression 'Would you like some tea?' countless times during the seven years I spent in England (with fond memories, of course). Like coffee, tea refreshes your spirit but doesn't give you the unpleasant jittery attack you get with coffee. It's much more calming and soothing and fits the English national character perfectly - moderation and restraint.

I grew up drinking mainly Chinese tea of course, and I don't think I had heard about the two main types of tea consumed in England, English Breakfast and Earl Grey, until I moved to Wells when I was 16. I remember finding the taste of Earl Grey very intriguing - it had an unmistakable aroma that took me some time getting used to. Its distinctive aroma comes from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a citrus fruit that grows mainly in Italy.

Bergamot orange

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Steamed salmon with black beans 豆豉蒸三文魚

The power of steam

It is well-known that the invention of the steam engine was pivotal in Great Britain's Industrial Revolution (and therefore all the wonderful technological gadgets that you and I are enjoying right now). I'm of the opinion that steam had already contributed to to a revolution no less important for human happiness in ages past. It took place in China more than 3000 years ago when, in a stroke of genius, someone got inspired by the steam that emerged out of boiling water and came up with the idea that one could actually cook in the steam. Even though boiling and steaming both employ hydrogen, it was a hugely significant step in the development of gastronomy:

1. Steam has a higher temperature than boiling water and can cook food in a very short span of time. It takes about 25 minutes to steam a chicken that weighs 1.5 kg. The same bird would need about an hour in the oven.

2. Most of the preparation is done before the actual steaming - you only need to add a few final touches afterwards, if at all, It's much simpler than frying or braising, for instance.

3. It preserves the flavours and nutrients of your food in a way that few other cooking methods can. Your food would literally be cooking in its own juice and, unlike blanching, there's no loss of flavour and nutrients.  Phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties have been found to retain significantly better through steaming than through boiling or microwaving.

4. Since steam is the vehicle for heat, you can use less oil than say, frying or stir-frying. That also means that no oil would splatter and your countertop would be scrupulously clean.

5. Most importantly, you only have to wash the dish you steam in (okay, the knife and chopping board as well...). No need to wash grease-ridden pans and utensils!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Not-so-tangy lemon tart

'Lemon lovers are a special breed. They are shamelessly devoted to their favourite flavour, and they like it to be assertive and bold.' So wrote Tish Boyle, author of the Cake Book and one of my favourite American recipe writers. Since childhood, I've always been aversive to anything sour. Sure, I find vinegar and lemon juice essential in highlighting the flavours in a dish, but among the 'five flavours' sourness is the one that I've always been apprehensive about. I'm defensively sceptical whenever people tell me that an orange is sweet because I would always find it incredibly sour when I taste it myself - it's a topic which I've decided that I can trust no-one about. For the same reason I try to avoid tomatoes, and all kinds of berries. So I'm sorry, I don't belong to the breed.

That said, I do love the bright, zingy flavour of lemon. Thankfully, you can get plenty of citrus flavour from the skin and be light-handed with how much lemon juice you use. Now a true lemon-lover would argue that sourness is as essential a part of lemony-ness as the zesty fragrance, but I just can't. I shiver when I eat anything moderately tangy - I blame it on my genetics. Perhaps I should be equally magnanimous when I hear people complain that something is 'too chocolatey'.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Thin and crispy sesame biscuits 香脆芝麻餅

In my earlier post on shortbread, I wrote about my predilection for crisp biscuits rather than soft cookies. The biscuits that I am sharing today are thin, shattery and loaded with nutty sesame seeds. Like the whipped cream cake that I made a few days ago, they are extremely easy to make and perfect for those who are sceptical about baking.

Sesame seeds are the seeds of a flowering plant that is grown all over the world. In fact, it is considered the oldest oilseed crop discovered by man (more than 5000 years ago).The sesame tree is actually quite short and rarely grows more than two metres in height, and the pods that contains the sesame seeds are only about three centimetres long. Every year in May and August, the pods split and release the seeds. There're many varieties of sesame seeds, with white sesame seeds being the most common kind, followed by black sesame seeds. The rarest and the most aromatic are golden sesame seeds, which grow mainly in India and, like all good things, are highly sought after by the Japanese.

Sesame seeds are very versatile and are especially popular in Asian cuisines. The Chinese and Japanese, above all, are very fond of these tiny seeds and employ them in countless ways. There's a Chinese sweet soup called sesame soup (芝麻糊) made of pureed black sesames; crispy fried dough covered with golden sesame seeds (煎堆); crispy chicken slathered with sesame seeds (not sesame chicken, by the way!). The Japanese love their sesame seeds no less: from their gorgeous, gorgeous (and pricey!) black sesame paste that you smear onto bread or eat with a spoon; the authentic dip for a pork cutlet (tonkatsu) involves grounding sesame seeds yourself right before mixing in the brown tonkatsu sauce; likewise a healthy sprinkling of sesame seeds on ramen is de rigueur. (Incidentally, sprinkling sesame seeds onto instant noodles makes them a lot more palatable...) Last but not least, there's the ubiquitous sesame oil which has made its way beyond Asia into kitchens worldwide.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Whipped cream cake

There's this saying that people are either cooks or bakers, and that they're entirely different breeds. My first attempts at preparing food was of course cooking rather than baking. When I attended boarding school in Wells, England, the food served at the dining hall was so appalling that I just had to cook something, even though my cooking was probably no better. I remember the very first thing I cooked was 'lemon chicken' - I chopped up chicken breasts crudely, threw it into the wok, and then added this synthetically fluorescent bottled lemon sauce into the wok. Easy accomplishment, I thought, but my momentary self-inflation came to a halt when I put the first bite in my mouth. It was dreadful. I realised there and then that cooking was nowhere as easy as I had imagined. Since that first failure, I cooked almost every day when I was at boarding school (and therefore stank the entire boarding house) and gradually got the hang of it. It wasn't until I moved to London for my undergrad, though, that I learnt about Chinese cooking more systematically by reading excellent food writing and recipes by 江獻珠 and Fuchsia Dunlop.

Moving to London, I occasionally dined at French restaurants which offered cheap lunch deals. A favourite restaurant I used to go in my first year was Deca in Conduit Street near Oxford Circus. Even more than the appetisers and the mains, I was truly captivated by the wonderful world of French desserts. I still remember how unbelievably fresh and fruity their sorbets were - they tasted more 'real' than the real thing! There was also this heart-shaped white chocolate mousse which was encased in tempered chocolate that was just immaculate. A three-course lunch at Deca cost £12.50 so long as you stuck to tap water and avoided wine, which was incredible value for the level of cooking . I got more and more interested in Western desserts, but I didn't start giving a go at baking until my third year of undergrad. The very first dessert recipe book I baked from was Gordon Ramsay's Just Desserts. While it's full of gorgeous recipes, it focuses mostly on restaurant-style, high-end desserts and wasn't so helpful for a novice baker like myself.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Steamed pork patty 簡易蒸肉餅

If you read the title of this dish in English I'm sure you wouldn't find it terribly appetising. If you've lived in Canton, however, I'm sure you'd agree with me that it's a great, great dish. Steamed pork patty or 蒸肉餅 is one of the most well-loved of Cantonese dishes, and its apparent simplicity belies the great sophistication that underlies its preparation. It is essentially hand-minced pork to which a complimentary ingredient - usually intensely savoury and flavourful - is added. After that everything is mixed together until it's the right consistency and steamed. As anyone from the Canton area would tell you, it goes down terribly well with rice. I was told that before the 80's, a familiar sound emerging from the homes across Hong Kong during dinner time was the rhythmic pounding of the cleaver against the chopping board - families hand-mincing pork for preparing 蒸肉餅.

Herein lies the key to an authentic 蒸肉餅 - the pork ought to be hand-minced. Machine-minced pork isn't quite the same because mincing by hand preserves more fibres in the meat and gives a chewier texture; machine-minced versions are comparatively disappointing in texture. To mince pork by hand, you have to slice it thinly first then cut the slices into slivers, you then cut the slivers into tiny cubes of meat (like brunoise) - 切片,後切絲,再切丁. As if this is not enough work already, you then have to use your cleaver like an axe to soften some of the fibres in the meat furiously on a chopping board until everything blends to a sticky, soft, pliable consistency. I'm not sure there's an English term for this procedure - in Chinese it's called 剁. This process can take up to 10 or 15 minutes and anyone who's tried it can tell you how tiring it is. The simplest things are always the most difficult!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Homemade lemon tea 自製凍檸茶

I always feel a sense of unease and embarrassment when I go over to friends' for dinner or party, and they ask me what I'd like to drink. In 9 out of 10 cases, I would say 'Oh, water would do.' They would either think I'm a health freak (which I clearly am not) or a weirdo (can't judge on that...). The truth is, in all humility, I just can't stand artificial flavours... Soft drinks are basically chemicals of course, and even 'healthy' commerical drinks like juice or pre-packaged tea still taste of those un-nameable ingredients that my tongue would instantly identify as chemicals, not food. Obviously I can't really tell people this when they offer me a drink - unless I want them to think that I'm an obnoxious snob!

At home, I like to make my own drinks with the exception of milk since I can't make it myself for obvious reasons. My beverage repertoire is still rather limited, but iced lemon tea is one that I often make. It's extremely easy to put together, and I don't know anyone who doesn't like iced lemon tea! When I was growing up, I loved the iced lemon tea we had in Hong Kong. There's the kind served in fast food restaurants which is basically strong black tea sweetened with syrup, filled with ice cubes and a few slices of lemon. I loved poking through the lemon flesh with the stirring stick and as a child, the amalgamation of tangy lemon juice, slightly bitter tea and sweet syrup felt like alchemy.

And then there were the two major commercial brands for lemon tea:  and 陽光 - I'm sure you would know these two brands if you are from Hong Kong. I don't know about you, but I've always preferred . It has a much stronger taste of tea which I consider essential in a decent lemon tea. 陽光 just tasted like sweetened lemon water to me... In fact, for many years, I thought that Vita lemon tea (維他檸檬茶) with Calbee's Hot and Spicy crisps (熱浪薯片) were the best things one could possibly eat on earth. They accompanied me in countless hours of watching anime and later, Japanese drama.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Coffee chiffon cake

I've always found it bewildering that in America 'coffee cake' doesn't mean what it appears to mean. While chocolate cake means... chocolate cake, coffee cake has nothing to do with coffee flavour at all. It's simply a cake eaten with coffee - usually a large, flat cake, and often with loads of crumbs on top - think of New York-style coffee cake. I suppose this usage of the word isn't so outrageous when English teacakes aren't really tea-flavoured either!

I think I'm also justified in saying that coffee-flavoured desserts aren't so common in the West. While vanilla, chocolate, lemon, etc. are dominant flavours that you can find across the board, coffee-flavoured desserts are much rarer - maybe ice cream? When coffee is used in desserts it's mostly for enhancing the flavour of chocolate. Other than that I can't think of many desserts that are purely 'coffee'.

Not so in Asia! Coffee-flavoured desserts are among the most popular, ranging from coffee-flavoured Swiss rolls to coffee shortbread. I find this intriguing because Western people drink a lot more coffee than Asians, so you'd expect that coffee-flavoured desserts would be a staple in the West too (rather than in Asia which is by and large tea-oriented). Maybe they already drink enough coffee as a beverage to want it in anything else? :P

There's a marked differences in the kinds of cakes Asians and Westerners like, too. While butter cakes or pound cakes are the most common in the West, Asians like their cakes soft and light - i.e. sponge cakes. Westerns usually find this kind of cakes too dry and plain, and would slather them with syrups (an idea which might prove abhorrent to Asian cake-lovers...). In fact, most Asian cake recipes centre around génoise and chiffon cakes. While genoise cakes are often used as the base for layered cakes, chiffon cakes have an impressive range of flavours and are usually eaten on their own.

Matcha génoise

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Poached pears with honey 蜂蜜燉梨

The weather here in Cincinnati got really cold all of a sudden a while ago, so I thought this year we basically skipped autumn and plunged right into winter instead. Thankfully, this week has been warmer again, and as I saw cascades of golden trees on the road, I was reminded that fall is with us.

Incidentally, I'm much more used to saying 'autumn' than 'fall', but I do like the poetic imagery of the word 'fall' since it really encapsulates what's so special about this season. In fact, like 'spring', 'summer' and 'winter', 'fall' is of true Anglo-Saxon origin. It originated in English as early as the 16th century - that was before America was born, and it is in America that this old Anglo-Saxon term lingered on. In England, the word 'autumn' (from the French word automne) gained prominence from the 18th century onwards and the word 'fall' eventually became archaic and was no longer in common use. I heard that in some villages in Dorset or Somerset the word 'fall' is still used to denote autumn, but I never heard it first-hand during my two years in Somerset.

I digress. Whether you say autumn or fall, it is probably most people's favourite season of the year. The weather is as ideal as it can get; trees put on an amazing glow; and it's harvest season. In Chinese thinking, the dryness that makes autumn such a pleasant season also means that our bodies have a tendency to dry out. Not just dehydration as such, but dryness in our skin, lips, our nostrils, throat and eyes. It is the season when Chinese medicine recommends food that 'clears the heart and nourishes the lungs' (清心潤肺): bird's nests, aloe vera, almonds, lilly bulbs (百合), dried figs, gingko (銀杏), snow ear (雪耳), goji berries (枸杞), etc. Many of these would sound exotic to non-Chinese people, but pears and honey are two ingredients that I find incredibly 'autumnal' and they don't raise eyebrows among Westerners.

Would you have thought that these are pears? They look incredibly like strawberries do they not?

Friday, 12 October 2012

Sichuan-style spicy diced chicken 辣子雞

Reminiscing about London

My friends here in the States are often shocked by how frequently I cook. It's true that I don't really eat out often and that's because there aren't any good restaurants near school. The Asian places in particular are so loaded with MSG in their food that I always feel dreadful after eating. Since eating out isn't really a regular option, what I tend to do is cooking big portions and reheat them over a few days. I can then survive without killing myself by cooking every meal every day.

Back in my years in London, though, I really cooked. As one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, you can get so many different kinds of ingredients from across the globe (although at a price). I loved visiting Selfridge's food hall in search of well-marbled English pork belly and special French chicken breeds; going to the world-renowned Borough market on Saturdays and lose myself in the dizzying web of vendors; heading to the local market in Fulham for cheap-and-cheerful fruits and veggies; paying weekly visits to the Chinatown in Leicester Square for everything Chinese; stopping at my local, unfailingly professional butcher at Baron's Court for top-notch meat. The list could go on and on. Even supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury's are infinitely better than their American counterparts Kroger and Walmart. It's truly a heaven for food lovers and I was spoilt for ingredients and choices. I looked forward to cooking different dishes every day (lunch and dinner), and held dinner party for friends regularly. Maybe that's why I'm still a poor pianist - only if I spent more time in the practice room! Here are some of the (Cantonese) dishes I cooked back in those days, thanks to Walton's stunning photography:

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Sweet purple rice soup with coconut milk 椰汁紫米露

In my earlier posts on congee and panna cotta, I wrote about how different colours in food often carry unique characteristics, flavours and connotations - that's why we're recommended to eat at least five different colours of food every day, right?

Well, I'm not sure many of us live up to that lofty ideal, but I'd like to introduce a sweet soup today made of my favourite colour: purple. It's interesting that there isn't actually much purple food around. I can think of aubergine (eggplant), but that's just the skin. I'm sure there're other purple ingredients, but it seems much rarer than other colours. Incidentally, the rarest colour in food has got to be blue, which is a rare pigment in nature. That's why we find blue eyes so attractive, right? A blue cocktail never fails to deliver the impression 'Caution! Is it really food?' (Am I alone in thinking this?)

In recent years, however, purple food has been all the rage. Think of purple potatoes and purple broccoli. I'm sure they have always been around, but the exponential growth in their popularity is staggering. Fifty years ago who would have dreamt of eating a purple potato or broccoli? The major factor in their recently popularity (apart from their catchy colour) is their exceptional nutritional values. Take purple potatoes, for instance: unlike white potatoes, they are rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. This flavonoid has been shown to be an immune system booster and aid in the prevention of certain cancers, and more importantly, promote weight loss!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

My granola

For as long as I have lived,  I have never been a morning person (maybe I'm not alone here?). It is only natural  that I have never been fond of breakfast either. We all carry the memories of the food we ate in childhood throughout our lives, and one of the most dreadful food memories that will continue to haunt me till my very last day is being forced to eat oatmeal for breakfast at 6am when I was in primary school. It was cooked in water rather than milk and with an egg mixed in. Maybe it doesn't sound that bad to you, but to me it was horror. I was constantly told that one needs to eat a full breakfast because you need energy, and that it's the most important meal of the day and so on. But the thing is, it's just so difficult to have an appetite when your body hasn't truly woken up yet! Why force-feed yourself like a goose destined for foie gras when you are still half asleep?

Another breakfast item that I absolutely hated was congee. Ugh! Who wants to eat a boiling soup of plain rice first thing in the morning to burn your tongue? What I do like, though, is soya milk with fried doughnut (油炸鬼) - kind of like churros. That aside, one of my first love affairs with food was going to a tofu shop in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong before my piano lesson on Sunday mornings when I was in primary school. I would go there on my own and order pan-fried stuffed tofu (煎釀豆腐), tofu pudding (豆腐花) and fresh soya milk. I must have been ecstatic when I was eating since the staff offered to show me their kitchen and the soya milk-making process! As a Chinese, I liked dim sum too, but it's more brunch than breakfast I suppose. In any case it's not something you can eat on a daily basis...

Monday, 8 October 2012

Red bean soup, Cantonese style 起沙紅豆沙

Among the the many sweet soups in Cantonese repertoire, red bean soup (紅豆沙) and mung bean soup (綠豆沙) are undoubtedly the most popular. They always show up among the complimentary sweet soups served at Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong. When I was a kid, my parents would take me out for dinner at weekends. It was a family event that I always looked forward to, and I always awaited these sweet soups with great anticipation since mum didn't cook sweet soups at home. It's the kind of simple, wholesome food that are always intertwined with childhood memories.

Interestingly, according to traditional Chinese medicine, red beans are considered 'warming' and mung beans 'cooling'. The weather turned really cold in the last few days so I made some red bean soup for some extra warmth. Red beans are also known as azuki beans in Japan and they're as common in Asian desserts as chocolate in western baking. They are rich in iron and Chinese medicine claims that they are good for replenishing the blood and getting rid of excess liquid in the body (利水消腫).

Red bean soups can be found all over China, but the Cantonese call their version 'red bean sand' (紅豆沙) rather than 'red bean soup' (紅豆湯). With normal red bean soup you simply boil the red beans with water until it becomes a a watery mixture, with the Cantonese version it is imperative that the starch inside the beans be released into the soup so that the soup is not watery, but has a hint of sandiness - 起沙. Cantonese people also like to add aged tangerine peel (陳皮), an obligatory addition to a genuine red bean soup for any 老廣東.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Biscuits VS Cookies (and two shortbreads)

Having lived in both the UK and the US, I'm constantly bewildered by the enormous differences between British and American English terminology. In my own field of music, I'm yet to come to terms with the American way of denoting note values - quarter notes, sixteenths, etc. In daily life, I still say dustbin rather than trash can, trolley rather than cart, socket rather than outlet. It goes without saying that I still ask my American friends occasionally for a rubber which always makes them burst out laughing. George Bernard Shaw's famous statement that 'England and America are two countries separated by a common language' really hits the nail on its head.

Since food is such an integral part of any culture, it is expected that British and American English would have very different vocabulary for food. The following are some of the new terminologies that I had to 'relearn' when I first came here three years ago:

 UK / US
rocket / arugula
swede / rutabaga
spring onions / scallions
crisps / chips
chips / French fries
treacle / molasses
icing sugar / confectioner's sugar
digestives / graham crackers
sultanas / raisins
muesli / granola
skimmed milk / non-fat milk
cling film / plastic wrap
cornflour / cornstarch

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Classic crème brûlée

A week after getting the lovely local cream, I still had a jar (almost a pound) of the stuff sitting in my fridge. I had already made panna cotta with it, and wanted to encapsulate the remaining cream in a form that would do it justice. I thought about making a whipped cream cake that uses all cream rather than butter, but it came to me that it's the perfect occasion for making crème brûlée.

Despite its French name, legend has it that crème brûlée is in fact of English origin. According to James Beard, before the Gallicization of its name, it was known as burnt cream for a long time in England. One of the earliest recipes of 'burnt cream' was from a 17th-century cookbook from Dorsetshire. It was a mixture of sugar, egg yolks and cream cooked over heat - just like how creme anglaise is prepared - then poured into a dish and cooled (a few chefs like Simon Hopkinson still prepare the dish this way). The top was then sprinkled with sugar and the sugar caramelised to a brown glaze with a red-hot salamander, and old type of heavy metal tool which was lowered to the surface of the sugar and moved over it until the intense heat melted and browned the sugar, hence the name burnt cream. It subsequently became a standard dessert at Cambridge University, especially Christ College. ("Creme Brulee: Dessert One of the Greatest," James A. Beard, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1970.)

Like so many other great dishes, the allure of crème brûlée consists in its textural combination of crispiness and creaminess. This combination can be found across the board: roast suckling pig, with its crackled skin and the melting fat lying underneath; ice cream served with a dainty tuile or with a chocolate sauce that hardens to a crisp layer; tarts and quiches, cream puffs, etc. It is possibly the most endearing textural combination known to humankind, and I feel that western plated desserts are largely created with this principle in mind.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Melon tapioca soup 蜜瓜西米露

While most western desserts are solid (even ice cream is semi-solid, no?), I think it is true to say that most Asian desserts are in some form of liquid. The southern Chinese province Canton boasts an impressive array of 'sweet soups' - a strange concept to westerners I'm sure. They are actually eaten in a bowl with a spoon rather than consumed as a drink. Thus in Cantonese we wouldn't say we're 'drinking sweet soup', but rather 'eating sweet soup' 食糖水.

One of the most popular sweets soups in Hong Kong is tapioca soup 西米露. Thanks to the restaurant chain 許留山, mango tapioca soup has become one of the household desserts in Hong Kong. Tapioca soup is actually extremely easy to make at home, and at a fraction of the price you pay at a sweet soup vendor. Since it's a soupy mixture, the proportions of the ingredients are kind of ad lib. - there's no need for finicky precision like baking a cake.

Since good mangoes are impossible to come by in the States, I decided to make melon tapioca soup instead. I like to mix different kinds of melons for a more interesting flavour, but you can stick to only one kind if you wish. The same method of preparation goes for other fruits like mangoes and watermelon (very popular in Hong Kong), although I'm yet to encounter strawberry or banana tapioca soup... Anyone?