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Through thick and thin

6 Sep

WHY do some recipes work and others don’t? Have you ever followed a recipe, word for word, step by step only to fail? Well, that’s my puzzle this week.  I decided to make Spekkoek, or the famous Indonesian layer cake as it is one of my favourite cakes. After browsing through several recipes online, looking through the ingredients and the instructions, I concluded that it wasn’t too difficult to execute. Sure, it called for a lot of time and patience —  it isn’t called “thousand layer cake” for nothing. Though way less than a thousand, the cake has many thin layers (about 40) that have to be grilled one by one. Each layer is about 1mm thick, no more.  But, apart from having to spend a couple of hours literally in front of the oven, the cake seemed simple enough to make. True?

OF COURSE NOT. Making Spekkoek proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in the kitchen.

I had to make this cake five times before it turned out decent. Five times! Ordinarily, I would have given up after attempt No. 3 but I was making it  for this month’s Don’t Call Me Chef column (which comes out today) so I had no choice but to complete it.

I must have gone through at least a dozen different recipes for Spekkoek. I studied each one, wondering why my cakes looked nothing like the Spekkoek you buy in the shops. The taste was pretty similar but that was as close as I seemed to be getting.

With the Spekkoek, looks matter you see.

I followed the recipes to a T and yet my cakes were dry, my layers too chunky. I didn’t get the fine brown layer. I couldn’t get moisture in the cake. Nothing seemed to work. ARRRRRRRGH.

Finally, a decent Spekkoek

Finally, after five attempts I baked a cake that looked authentic. My cake was still not moist enough. It wasn’t dry but if you’ve tasted a good Spekkoek, you’ll know that it is really quite moist and very rich.  My Spekkoek was nice and fragrant and tasty too but, darn it, it still  was nothing like the Spekkoek I look forward to eating at my friends’ houses every Raya.

I don’t think I will be making any more Spekkoeks anytime soon but I did learn a few things in the process which will, hopefully, make me a better baker. Still, I was proud of my Spekkoek.

I learnt some valuable lessons making the cake and this is what I want to share. (For the recipe per se, you can read the column here). Some of the lessons I learnt may seem pretty obvious (to me esp, on hindsight) so, bear with me.

LESSON 1: The layers in the Spekkoek may look like interlying layers of two different types of batter (one light, one dark; one spiced one not) but THEY AREN’T! The first recipe I tried, had me alternating between a plain butter batter and a spiced batter (Pic, top left). Maybe this is another version of the cake but the authentic cake calles of layering just ONE BATTER over and over. The brown layer you see in the cake is because the cake is GRILLED, so the top of the cake browns while the rest remains pale.

Its not two different batters, lah!

LESSON 2: Spread the layers really thin. About four tabelspoons per layer in a 6 inch X 6 inch pan may seem too little but believe me, it’s being generous. For my first attempt I decided to double the amount. The result? See the pic above. The batter rises.

LESSON 3: The recipe requires you to separate the egg whites from the yolks. Some recipes use only the yolks, some use both the yolks and the whites (though always more yolks than whites). Some require you to whip the whites to a meringue. My conclusion: use yolks only. If you want to use a couple of egg whites, DO NOT whip them too much or your cake will be too airy, too dry. I don’t know if my conclusion is right though. Would appreciate some feedback. Please?

LESSON 4: Grill NOT bake. This was my mistake. All the recipes call for the cake to be GRILLED. The first time I made it however, I somehow didn’t register that command and so I BAKED the cake. The result? No browning of the top and so, no distinct brown layer (See pic below).  Also, I forgot that to grill in the oven, I’d have to shift my rack right to the top. DUH!

LESSON 5: The recipes uses a lot of butter, presumably to make the cake nice and moist. Butter alone didn’t work for me. I even substituted oil for butter a couple of times. Still, I couldn’t get a moist enough cake. My last recipe used condensed milk + icing instead of granulated sugar and that worked better. Suggestions, anyone?

Jelly without the belly

4 Aug

It’s almost always hot and I’m almost always hot and bothered and not to mention sweaty. Air conditioning helps, as does water but one of the best reprieves from the heat is … AGAR AGAR. A dessert staple for many Malaysians, agar agar or jelly is the perfect panacea for the heat. Agree?

A slightly firmer version of the American dessert Jell-O, Agar Agar is derived from seaweed. Red seaweed. It is a natural thickener and unlike gelatine, which is largely extracted from animals, it’s suitable for vegetarians/vegans. The agar agar jelly is firmer than its American counterpart but, if you adjust the liquid-agar agar ratio, you can get a softer, sloppier textured agar agar too.

The best way (the only way, I think) to eat agar agar is chilled. Don’t bite it, rather just let it slither down your throat and enjoy the soothing coolness of the jelly as it goes down.

The best part? It takes very little time and hardly any effort. The basic agar agar recipe will have you boil the agar agar in water until it dissolves  adding just sugar and colouring. But there are variations. I like the coconut milk agar agar (where you replace a portion of the water with thick coconut milk) the best. There are also healthier options where you replace white sugar with fresh fruit juice (also adjusting the liquid accordingly).

It’s really a fun dessert to make and eat. It doesn’t require technique (well, not much) and it apart from boiling the agar agar till it dissolves, there is no real cooking involved. You don’t need your stand mixer, your whisk or your oven. At the most, you will need just a little whimsy as you can, unlike me, go a little crazy shaping your agar agar. Depending on the moulds you have, you can shape your agar agar to look pretty: animal and flower shaped moulds are common but you can fool around a little and create a lanscaped garden with your agar? Why? It’s like edible silly putty, that’s why! Check out the pic below which was taken from foodinthelibrary.com — Jell-O San Fransisco! Ain’t that cool?

Anyway, here’s my recipe for the basic agar agar which I made which is a combo of the clear agar agar (sugar syrup) with the coconut milk agar agar.

35g agar agar — strips (one pkt)

1200 ml water

200 ml coconut milk

1 cup sugar (you can adjust acc to your taste)

Soak the agar agar in enough water to cover it. Heat the 12oo ml water and when it starts to boil, add the soaked agar agar. Add the sugar and let the mixture boil, med heat, till the agar agar dissolves completely. Add colour of choice.

Remove 2/3 of the agar and pour into sterilized (with hot water) moulds: just halfway, not to the brim as you want to top it up with the coconut milk agar. Continue boiling the remaining, adding the coconut milk. Let it simmer while the earlier batch sets. (15 to 20 mins). Pour the coconut milk agar over the plain agar. Leave to set and refrigerate.

Cereal killer

26 Jul

I was inspired by crack (pie). Haven’t heard of crack pie? Well neither had I until my colleague and fellow blogger Marty brought a deliciously sinful plate of pie to work and declared that it was called Crack Pie.

A Momofuku creation, Crack Pie is essentially all butter and sugar on a homemade oatmeal crust (read more here). Oh Marty, how you tempt me. She  made the pie to collaborate with another colleague and fellow blogger, The Hungry Caterpillar who was doing a review of the Momofuku cookbook. This is beginning to sound all too confusing isn’t it? Simply put, I jumped on the Momofuku bandwagon minutes after perusing the book and corresponding website. You will too, if you dare to check it out.

So anyway, I was attracted to the Cereal milk panna cotta recipe. Why did I find it so appealing? Firstly, the idea of using cereal milk — not the cereal itself mind you, just the milk you steep them in — was intriguing.  The pana cotta itself uses very little sugar — less than a tbsp — so the flavour is really from the cereal.  A breakfast dessert if you will.

Now the other attraction to this recipe is the garnishes: caramelised corn flakes and a slab of home-modified chocolate dubbed, the Chocolate Hazelnut Thing (chocolate with hazelnut praline and caramelised cornflakes in it — oh yum).

I have to apologise for my picture which barely does any justice to the recipe. To see a more aestheically pleasing version of the dessert, click HERE.

The panna cotta is also served with an avocado puree but I prefered mine without it.

Here’s how you do it. Be warned, there are more than a couple of steps to the recipe but they’re really easy to follow and pretty quick to execute.

Cereal panna cotta

First, toast  4 cups of corn flakes lightly in the oven (150C) for about 10 to 15 mins. Then, mix 2 cups of milk with 2 cups of heavy cream in a bowl. Add the cups of cereal to the milk + cream mixture and steep for 45 mins. Now, strain the milk from the cereal (get as much of the milk out). Now, add 3/4 tbsp  sugar and a pinch of salt to the milk heat the milk+cream mixture slowly until the sugar dissolves. Keep stirring.

Set aside 1 tbsp agar agar flakes or 1/2 tbsp agar agar powder in a bowl. As the milk+cream+sugar heats up, ladle some of it into the bowl with the agar-agar and let it dissolve. Once done, whisk soaked gelatin back into remaining milk + cream mixture. Strain the mixture so that any undissolved bits of agar agar or sugar are containes and pour the liquid into wither ramekins or wine/cocktail glasses. Refrigerate until set (at least 2 hours).

Chocolate hazelnut thing

Part A: Caramelised corn flakes

Mix 1 cup of corn flakes + 2 tbsp sugar + 2 tbsp millk powder. Spread the coated flakes out on a tray and bake (120C) for about 15 mins or until it’s a deep golden colour. Set aside.

Part B: Hazelnut Praline

Roast 1/2 cup skinned hazelnuts till they’re nice and toasty. Set aside.  Heat 3/4 cup sugar on the stove (low heat) until it melts and becomes a syrup. Add the nuts and stir the mix so the nuts are nicely coated. Turn off and let the sugar+nuts cool.

Blend or pound the mixture  to a paste/powder. Set aside.

Part 3: Melting the chocolate and assembling all parts

Choose a choclate of your choice: plain or one with a nutty flavour would be good. Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl over simmering water. Once melted, add the praline and caramelised corn flakes and spread the mixture on a tray. (I kept aside some of the praline  powder to sprinkle on the panna cotta seperately). Freeze till it sets and break it up into pieces.

Once the panna cotta and the chocolate are set, it’s time to put the sum of all parts together and enjoy the fruit of your labour 🙂

Thermodynamics rocks

8 Jul

Wanna make homemade frozen yoghurt but you don’t have a ice cream machine? No problem, just turn to science!

Would you believe that making a batch of frozen yoghurt (or ice cream if you like) is faster if you do it by hand, the old fashioned way, than with an ice cream maker? Seriously!

Ice and salt. That’s your Ice cream maker right there! Here’s how it works:

When you use ice to cool the ingredients for ice cream, the energy is absorbed from the ingredients and from the outside environment. By adding salt to the ice, it lowers the freezing point of the ice, so even more energy has to be absorbed from the environment in order for the ice to melt. This makes the ice colder and that is how your ice cream freezes. Using rock salt is better as it takes longer to dissolve in the water, allowing more time for your yoghurt to freeze. Read more about this HERE.

I could not believe how easy it was. I had to try it.

First, you have to use greek yoghurt simply because it’s nice and thick and rich. It costs a bomb: about RM14 to 18 a small tub. What? Well, make some yourself. How? Pour a tub of regular yoghurt (about RM4 for 150g) onto a cheese cloth; wrap it into a ball and allow to drip, in the fridge (you need a tall container to collect the whey) for about 6 hours.

Done? Unwrap the cheese cloth and you will see a wonderful smooth ball of rich yoghurt. Oh my. The texture is slightly cheesy and the consistency is thick. Oh my.

Next. Mix sugar or honey or as I did, maple syrup to the yoghurt: to your taste. And, if you like, vanilla extract (just a drop).

Transfer the yoghurt into a ziploc bag and seal tight. Put the bag in another ziploc bag and seal tight.

Put enough ice to fill a huge saucepan. Cover the ice with salt (about 1/2 cup). Place the bag of bagged yoghurt in the ice (surround it with salted ice as much as possible) and cover the container. Shake, shake and shake so the yoghurt is kneaded by the ice. Shake for about 10 mins and leave the yoghurt to sit in the ice a further 15 mins or so. More if you like it really frozen solid. I liked mine frozen but not hard (kinda like how I like my martinis shaken, and not stirred) so I didn’t let it sit longer. NOTE: It took me some time to get this shot — I shot it outdoors under the morning sun so the yoghurt melted a wee bit 🙂

REMEMBER your zip lock bag has to be really sealed tight so the salt does not seap through.

Is that it? You betcha. Scoop out your yoghurt and eat it immediately. You will, like me, probably wanna lick the zip lock bag … not one bit should be wasted! Only hitch is you can’t make a huge batch at one go. Unless you have gallon-sized zipper bags and a huge stock pot. You can make enough for a party of four or five. Or four or five servings just for you 🙂

Isn’t science just delicious?

Veggie Chick

PBJ cookies

2 Jul

What’s better than PBJ sandwiches? How about PBJ cookies? They’re flourless (yes, you read right), have practically no sugar and takes just about 30 mins to make from start to finish.

This recipe was screaming my name when I skimmed it on the Internet. I have a jar of homemade peanut butter and another of homemade jam and I’ve been stuffing myself silly with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and it was getting a little stale.

So I begin surfing for ideas and came upon two great recipes, both of which were twists to the classic PBJ. The first uses peanut butter in a loaf cake; the loaf cake is then sliced and sandwiched with jam. Oh, my. I so wanted to try this.

The second was a recipe was for this flourless PBJ thumbprint cookies on a blog Healthy Food for Living. Say what? A flourless peanut butter cookie?  I just had to try this one too.

I settled on the cookies simply because I had to leave for the gym in an hour and a half which didn’t leave much time to bake a cake. With the cookies, I had plenty of time to not just bake them but also photograph them and eat a couple: heck, I was going to exercise my butt off, I might as well make it worth my effort! 😛

What you need

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1 egg white, lightly whisked

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Jam

Preheat the over to 180C. Mix the peanut butter, egg white, sugar, baking soda and vanilla extract in a bowl till everything is well incorporated.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Using a spoon, scoop the cookie dough and shape it into a ball. Using your thumb or finger, make an indentation in the center. Cool, crater cookies 🙂 Repeat the same process with the rest of the cookie dough. You should get about 8 cookies. Make sure you leave about an inch between the cookies.

Now, use a teaspoon to fill the craters with jam.

Bake for 10-15 mins or till the cookies start to get golden. They will be crispy on the outside but a little soft inside. Allow to cool (and harden a little) before gobbling them down!

That’s it.

Believe it: an avocado + chocolate cake

14 Jun

Avocado? Are you puzzled? I couldn’t quite believe it myself when I saw a recipe for an Avocado Chocolate cake on Joy the Baker recently.  I mean I love avocado but so far, I’ve had it as a dip, a spread and in salads. But in a cake and frosting?

I bookmarked the recipe about a week ago and even bought some avocados: they were going at RM2.70 each: a steal by KL standards. Today, despite having to go into work (on a Sunday, can you beat that?) and despite having to bake 18 buns and a meatloaf for Crazy Juliet’s orders tomorrow I decided to bake the Avocado Chocolate cake. I wasn’t convinced yet but I was mighty curious.

There were a few things I was concerned about: although carrots go amazingly well  in cake, would avocados confuse things? I decided to google — wonderful thing the internet, you can find answers to almost any question you have. I discovered that the avocado+ chocolate combo isn’t exactly alien (as it was to me). There were pages and pages of recipes for avocado+chocolate mousse, avocado+chocloate shakes, avocado+chocolate cup cakes, pudding… you name it. There was even a recipe for a banana+avocado+chocolate cake. Holey moley!

I followed Joy the Baker’s recipe for the cake but I reduced the sugar and altered the recipe for the  frosting just a little. Also, she made hers a double layered cake but I was a little lazy and decided to make mine a single layered one.

My verdict. The best, best part about this cake is the texture. It’s the most moist chocolate cake I have ever tasted. So moist and yummy. Not surprising I suppose, given the rich, creamy texture of avocados. And, it’s also pitch black .. well, daaaaaaaaaark chocolate!   You can’t really taste the avocado, although there is a distinct taste about this chocolate cake that sets it apart.

Even though I reduced the sugar, I found the cake a little too sweet with the  frosting. Next time, I will put next to no sugar in the frosting and perhaps reduce the sugar in the cake some more.

Oh yes, the cake has no butter and is therefore vegan but the frosting has cheese!

Chocolate Avocado Cake (adapted from Joy the Baker)
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp  cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1.5 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup soft avocado, mashed
2 cups water
2 tbsp white vinegar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 180C.  Grease an  8 inch round tin and set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and soda. Set aside.

Mix the water, oil, vinegar, mashed avocado and vanilla and mix well. Add the sugar and mix well again. Pour the wet mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer and using a low speed (4-6) add the flour mix gradually and mix till smooth. Remove and pour into baking tin. Bake for 30-40 mins or till a tester comes out clean.

Butter cream frosting

4 oz cream cheese

2 oz butter

3 tbsp mashed avocado

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 cup icing sugar

Using a paddle attachement, mix the cream cheese and butter till light and fluffy. Add the avocado, lemon juice and the sugar (gradually) and mix till well incroporated. Remove and chill till you’re ready to ice the cake. The lemon will prevent the avocado from browning.

Melt-in-your-mouth pastry

28 May

Funny how I woke up today and only one filled my head: shortcrust pastry. Why? Beats me. Maybe it was the mini-mushroom quiches I gobbled down at the American Idol screening on Wednesday night haunting me … or maybe it was just one of my many cravings.

So, I got out of bed, made myself a cup…no, a mug of strong milk tea, had a shower and got down to it. Shortcrust pastry is so easy to make and I wonder why I sometimes cave into my laziness and buy the ready-made frozen sheets in the supermarket when they’re so freakishly expensive. Dumb me.

Anyway, today I wasn’t lazy. In fact, I was feeling especially industrious. Why not? It was a Friday and it was a public holiday … which meant a three-day weekend. Whoopee. I had a whole box full of extra mung bean paste from a week ago (the result of my angku kueh) and I decided to try making mung bean pastry balls.

Shortcrust pastry can be used for pies, quiches, tarts … a number of savoury and sweet dishes. You can season it with salt or sugar, depending on what you’re using it for. I decided on salt.

You just need three ingredients: Flour, butter and egg or chilled water.

First step: Sift the all purpose flour. I used 200g and usually you use half the ratio of fat: so, 100g butter.

Make sure your butter is chilled, not melted. I used Amul butter for the very first time for no reason other than curiosity. Went to an Indian speciality grocer in Brickfields a fortnight ago and saw it and bought it. I am a sucker for anything different and attractive, even butter! Anyway, butter is butter and nothing spectacular to report here. 🙂

Step two: Cut the butter in cubes into the flour. Using your finger tips, crumble the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs. Add a pinch of salt and roughly toss the crumbs to incorporate the salt.

Now, to bind the butter-flour crumbs together, you can use chilled water (about 1-2  tbsp) or, for a richer pastry, egg (about 1/2 to 2/3).

I chose egg.

Beat a whole egg and add half into the crumbly mess. Using your hand, form the crumbs into a dough ball. If you need a little more, spoon as much as you need in. Don’t use too much; just enough to make the mixture come together into a ball.

Still using your hands, flatten out the ball of the dough until it is about 2cm thick.

Divide it in half or quarters. I cut mine in quarters and decided to freeze two quarters for  another day. I was only making tea for myself after all, not catering a party!

If you’re freezing the pastry, wrap it firmly in cligfilm first. If you’re using all the pastry, it’s still a good idea to roll out portion by portion so the pastry does not dry up too quickly. While you’re rolling one, wrap the remaining in clingfilm and set aside first.

Roll one quarter of the dough into a  ball, flatten with your palm and divide the dough into small balls, slightly bigger than a 20sen coin (or half  the size of  a golf ball).

Meanwhile, prepare the filling by rolling 1/2 tbsp sized scoops of the beans (you can use any filling you please; some make pineapple tarts this way too) into balls.

Depress the centre of the mini dough balls till it forms a well, fill with the mung bean balls. Re-seal and roll into a ball, carefully as you don’t want the filling to come out. Repeat. Brush tops with egg wash.

Grease a baking sheet with butter and line the sheet with the pastries. Bake at 200C for 15 mins or till golden on top.