Sunday, December 28, 2008

Birds of a Feather

Traditionally, our family gets together every Christmas Eve for our yuletide meal. Aunties, uncles, children, parents and grandparents all under one roof devouring the spoils of the Christmas season. Then some years ago, my cousins started a new tradition: the Cousins Christmas Dinner, which, unlike the repast that our older relatives create, is always a little more decadent.

There's always good wine, lots of red meat and some manner of foie gras. Last year we bought 120 oysters, which we had to shuck. We're never doing that again. A few years ago we had a massive cote de bouef, on top of a roasted pork belly and a giant pasta pie.

And this year was no different—except someone came up with the idea of a turducken, and the rest, as the saying goes, is family history.

Thanks to good foresight on the part of our youngest cousin G, we got a de-boned chicken and duck from a butcher. And having read and reread Jeffrey Steingarten's account of his search for the authentic turducken in his book It Must Have Been Something I Ate, I decided that it was imperative I make three different stuffings for maximum flavour.

So here it is, our account of our first turducken in pictures. It wasn't as much work as I had imagined it would be (thanks in large part to the already deboned chicken and duck), and the process was wonderfully hilarious and just the thing to put us in the Christmas spirit. Every time I looked at the turducken I just had to laugh, it was ridiculously massive and a miracle that it fit in my oven.

Debone turkey, backbone first.

Beware the spotted beast stalking the raw meat.

Remove all but the thigh bones and wings of the turkey.

Spread over a layer of shrimp and cornbread stuffing.

Place the de-boned duck on top.

Spread a layer of pork and chestnut stuffing on top.

Place the deboned chicken on top...

And then a layer of smoked oyster and bacon stuffing. We also threw in the turkey giblets for good measure.

We figured we'd tie the bird up before stitching it together. But I think I over-did the stuffing a little and the chicken tried to make its way out of the crowded cavity.

Close up the beast with Christmas-red cotton thread. My fingers were sore the next day from it!

Season with salt and pepper.

Place in the oven at 100 degrees C for the first 6 hours and then increasing by 10 degrees C every hour after that.

The bird is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 74 degrees C or 165 degrees F.

Keep basting as you cook. The bird oozed a whopping 15 cups of juices and fat as it cooked and I ladled the fat out every few hours so the bird wouldn't steam.

The result: gorgeous layers of wonderfully moist meat and cupfuls of juices swishing about in the pan. Even with 17 of us at dinner, we only managed to eat about a third of the turducken. What a feast!

Happy holidays!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Canelés de Bordeaux

As with all things, there are pros and cons to owning just 10 canelé moulds. The cons: My recipe for canelés will fill about 16 moulds. And because these copper moulds need to be seasoned and frozen for at least 6 hours before baking, you’ll have to wait at least 7 hours between each batch. But that’s assuming you’re a bit of a canelé expert. For a canelé virgin such as I, the 10 moulds proved to be a godsend. It meant I could make mistakes with my first batch and then correct them with my second — and that was not intentional, I assure you. In my mind, my maiden batch of canelé would be beautifully burnished, crisp on the outside and custardy on the inside. I never imagined I would yield beeswax-flavoured pucks of deep, dark brown — okay, black — shelled… things.

As anyone who’s ever made a canelé will tell you, it’s not really hard work. It is simply an amalgamation of several elements which require time and patience. Once you’ve made that initial outlay of effort, your subsequent experiences will then be a cinch.

For starters, new canelé moulds need seasoning — not unlike how you would season a new cast iron grill pan by brushing it with oil and sealing it in with heat. Canelé moulds however, require an initial seasoning with vegetable oil, and then further seasonings with “white oil”, which is made from 1 ounce of beeswax and 1 cup of safflower oil.

First, you have to find a beeswax supplier, which in Singapore, is no mean feat. (Especially not if you don’t want to buy 2kg of it — which is the minimum amount the wholesalers will sell you). So I ordered my soap-bar-sized beeswax through the internet; and shipping from the US to Singapore cost more than the beeswax itself. Safflower oil is much easier — it is available from organic supermarkets.

Before each use, the moulds should be brushed with the white oil, inverted onto a rack set atop a foil-lined baking sheet and baked for a minute to allow the excess oil to run out. You remove the moulds, let them cool to room temperature and then freeze them before filling and baking. In this way, your caneles moulds will remain mercifully non-stick.

The batter is much easier, requiring only that you heat milk to 183 degrees fahrenheit, pulse butter, cake flour and salt in a food processor; add sugar and egg yolks, and finally the hot milk. The batter is then strained through a fine sieve before the addition of rum and vanilla. A day or two later, it is ready to be poured into those gorgeous copper moulds.

Paula Wolfort’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen contains the full recipe and everything you need to know about making canelés. I love that she writes each recipe and story with such lyricism and care.

As you can see from the picture above, by the time I was done with first try at canelés, only two emerged edible. In my initial excitement, I baked my first batch of white-oil-brushed canelé moulds crown-side down, which meant I was baking AND filling my moulds with white oil. We had wax flavoured canelés for petite fours at dinner that night.

I prepared four more moulds the next morning (the correct way, this time) and baked the canelés for almost 2 hours at 200 degrees C. They were almost good — the interiors were suitably custardy, but the shells just a bit charred. So this time, we had soot flavoured caneles with our post-prandial coffees.

Yet the next morning, I prepared two more moulds. And this time I baked them at 180 degrees C for about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Magic — well, almost. There was the crunchy burnt sugar shell and the sweet luscious filling perfumed with vanilla and rum. But because I had filled them almost to the top, as the recipe implied — and likely because mine is a small oven — the bases of my canelés were slightly burnt.

So those bases were shorn off with a sharp knife and the new pretty canalés were placed on a plate after dinner. Again. No one seemed to mind — and by no one, I really mean my dear lab rat and loving partner C.

Next time, I reckon I’ll fill my moulds just three-quarters full so the batter doesn’t rise out of them, and hopefully, doesn’t burn. And thankfully, the next time around, the white oil is all mixed up and ready to use.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

I Heart Cherries!

But in these tropical climes, fresh, juicy red cherries are fleeting, not to mention expensive. But hey, a girl’s gotta live a little, no?

Recently C and I passed a fruit stall along Geylang where we journey to every now and then for our fix of pomfret charcoal steamboat. The pile of gleaming, rubescent fruit were simply impossible to resist — well, that and the durians that C carted home in a pungent Styrofoam box.

We had cherries, stoned and sliced into our bowls of yoghurt and cereal at breakfast; we ate them for dessert, and then for supper. They also found their way into this deceptively delicious cake from Mich Turner’s Fantastic Party Cakes.

Now there are books I buy for the recipes and those I pick purely for aesthetic inspiration. This book falls in the latter category. So until I read a review of the book in last Sunday’s newspapers, I’d never actually thought try out any recipe from it. But the reviewer said something about the author’s recipe yielding the best butter cake that had ever come out of her oven. And in our house, the quest for the perfect easy-to-make butter cake is a never-ending one.

Indeed, Turner’s recipe for a basic vanilla butter cake yielded one of the best that’s ever come out of my oven. And a few pages away was the recipe for this gem. It is moist, soft, fluffy and just downright delicious. The crumble on the top also gives it a nice, light crunch. It is a cake that needs no accompaniment — not ice cream, not crème fraiche, not whipped cream, nothing. Well, maybe just a steaming cup of coffee or tea.

Cherry & Almond Cake
(adapted from Mich Turner’s Fantastic Party Cakes)

For the cake:
140g self-raising flour
50g sugar
1 large egg
4 tbsp milk
85g unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp almond extract (I used vanilla instead)
350g cherries, stoned and cut in half or quarters (I got away with using about 200g)

For the crumble topping:
25g butter
25g ground almonds
25g sugar
1/2 tsp almond or vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line the base of a shallow 20cm tin.
2. Measure flour and sugar into a bowl and mix well. Make a well in the centre and add the egg, milk, melted butter and almond or vanilla extract.
3. Beat with a wooden spoon till smooth.
4. Spoon into the tin and spread evenly.
5. Scatter the cherries over the cake mixture and gently press them in.
6. Make the topping by measuring all the ingredients into a clean bowl.
7. Rub the butter in until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs gently clumped together. Scatter this over the cherries.
8. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake emerges clean.
5. Allow the cake to cool and then remove it from the tin to cool completely on a wire rack.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Easy Biscuits

I can't say I've ever had a real Southern meal. Despite being a city rich with world-class restaurants serving all manner of cuisines, Singapore is not well endowed with eateries serving Southern food (that is, Southern USA — biscuits, gravy, fried chicken, grits, red velvet cake). And no, Popeye's doesn't count.

But I love biscuits. The kind you mop up brown gravy with; the kind they used to serve at McDonald's for breakfast many years ago.

My many attempts at making those flaky, fluffy buttermilk biscuits have all been in vain. Our tropical weather and my non-air-conditioned kitchen make it damn near impossible — which probably says something about my talents and patience, or lack of. So C and I would settle for the Pilsbury variety. That's until they stopped stocking it at Jason's several years ago.

So the long and short of it is that we haven't had biscuits for a while. Well, we stopped at Popeye's one night but they make a poor excuse for biscuits, which don't even come with gravy!

It's a good thing then that I discovered Bon Appetit, Y'All by Virginia Willis. Its catchy title grabbed me immediately, and as it turns out, it is filled with easy-to-do home-style yet refined Southern recipes gleaned from the author's family kitchen. Within its pages are a recipe for Buttermilk Angel Biscuits, which, with its "trio of leaveners protects even the worst of bakers from abject failure", she writes. She must be speaking to me.

But before I tread once more into that familiar territory of biscuit failure, I figured I'd have a go at a decidedly easier recipe for Mayonnaise Biscuits. It is such a simple throw-everything-together recipe that the even author confesses to — in her younger, more foolish days — regarding it as one step above a baking mix. Be that as it may, it yielded such fabulous results that I am now determined to try her recipe for Buttermilk Angel Biscuits.

When I eventually find the time to, that is.

Mayonnaise Biscuits
adapted from Bon Appetit, Y'All by Virginia Willis
(Makes 9-12, depending on the size of your muffin tins)

1 tbsp canola oil, for brushing your tins
2 cups self-raising flour (I made mine by following Ms Willis' instructions to mix 1 cup cake flour with 1 cup plain flour, 3 tsp baking powder, and 1 tsp fine sea salt)
1 cup milk
3 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp sugar

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.
2. Brush muffin tins with the oil.
3. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl.
4. Using an ice-cream scoop, drop a scoopful of batter into each muffin tin and bake for 20–30 mins, or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In the Mood for Spanish

My brother recently returned from a month-long holiday to Spain and Paris and came home carting a bag full of delicious edibles for this grateful and gluttonous sister. There were macarons from Pierre Herme, jamon serrano from Barcelona, jamon iberico bellota from Bellota-Bellota in Paris (check out Chubby Hubby's post on this gorgeous ham), and a hunk of Manchego cheese.

Perhaps Spain's best known cheese, Manchego is typically made from sheep's milk in the central region of La Mancha. I like to think of it as the pecorino of Spain since it has a similar brittle texture and a sharp, nutty taste.

I used my stash to make a tapas of delicate triangles of bread fried in olive oil, layered with quince paste and topped with chopped toasted pine nuts. The honeyed flavour of quince paste provides a wonderful contrast to the sharp cheese, while the flavour of the olive oil which the bread is fried in just ups the whole Spanish-ness of it all. The recipe I used is from Spain and the World Table, a fantastic book filled with easy-to-follow recipes and lots of great information about Spanish ingredients, dishes and produce.

For this classic tapas of cheese-stuffed dates rolled in serrano ham, I used some leftover blue cheese that I had in the fridge and added a sprinkling of cocoa nibs for added depth and crunch. This surprising inspiration I gleaned from the same book, which uses figs instead of dates, but the principle remains the same. You could pop these sweet-salty dates straight into your mouth, but a short blitz in a hot oven intensifies its flavours, making the salty ham saltier, the sweet dates sweeter and endowing the blue cheese with added robustness — turning it all, quite literally, into a taste sensation.

More manchego went into this crab pasta, which is based loosely on a recipe for crab ravioli in Cocina Nueva, another book I turn to often when in the mood for Spanish. Plenty of freshly picked crabmeat is folded into a tomato sauce that is richly flavoured with carrot, leek, brandy, white wine, thyme, garlic and bay leaves. Before serving, the sauce gets a shot of cream infused with a flurry of Manchego shavings and a bay leaf.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Cookie Crunch

I found myself with a rare free afternoon the Saturday before Easter and since I've had my Easter cookie cutter set for over a year, I decided now was as good a time as any to make my virgin attempt at cookie decorating.

And boy did I suck at it.

Patience, as anyone who knows me will tell you, is not one of my virtues. And cookie decorating requires plenty of it. Well, that and talent — which, as the pictures of my cookies will attest — is not something I am particularly blessed with in this respect.

Firstly, my cookies didn't bake to perfectly even surfaces, so the flooding didn't quite sit well. Secondly, my flooding was probably a little too thin, so it didn't render a nice opaque tone. Then there's my unsteady hand, which translated to quivering borders and, well... child-like designs would be a kind way to put it.

And then there's the patience thing again. I just couldn't wait for the icing to dry before piping in more dots and things. My dots had tails, my lines broke mid-way... I don't really need to go on, do I?

The only good thing that came out of this experiment were the cookies, which came from Peggy Porschen's Pretty Party Cakes. They are basic cocoa-flavoured sugar cookies, but they pack an intense chocolatey taste and a nice crisp texture. So I did the sane thing and cut the remaining cookie dough with a bite-size circular cutter and now serve them on a saucer with post-dinner coffee.

Chocolate Sugar Cookies
(Adapted from Peggy Porschen's Pretty Party Cakes)

200g unsalted butter
200g sugar
1 egg, beaten lightly
50g cocoa powder (I used Valrhona)
350g plain flour

1. Cream the butter and sugar until well mixed and just creamy in texture. Don't overwork or the cookies will spread during baking.

2. Beat in the egg until well combined. Add the flour and cocoa powder and mix on low speed until a dough forms.

3. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

4. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead briefly.

5. Roll out to about 5mm thickness.

6. Use your cookie cutters to cut out shapes and then lay them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

7. Chill again for about 30 minutes.

8. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

9. Bake for 8-12 minutes, depending on size.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Raising Elephants

Here's a lesson I learned this week: When make fondant cakes in tropical weather, keep them small. I'd been making cupcakes with fondant figurines for a while now, so when a friend asked if I could make her a birthday cake with elephants on it, I thought, now why the hell not?

So off I set to work, fashioning the cutest little elephant (well, at least I thought so) sitting up with a fat round belly complete with a belly button and a raised trunk. I figured I didn't want to bother with leaving it in an air-conditioned room because a) I'm tight and b) I didn't want it to wilt the minute the cake was taken out of the dry air-conditioning and into our humid climes. If it was going to wilt, it may as well do so right in front of me where I could rectify it. And of course, it didn't disappoint. When I woke up the next morning, my little fella had put on some weight, lost some height, and was slipping backwards. His trunk had lost a little enthusiasm too -- it was no longer raised.

So it was back to the drawing board. After flipping through a couple of books, I found inspiration in this one. A lying-down elephant, in a sort of clambering-up-the-cake kinda position. Why didn't I think of that? I also made a little baby one to accompany it.

I made this two days before it was to be collected, hoping against all hope that it would dry. It rained and rained and my elephants got less perky by the day. But I guess they held up well enough (the picture was taken shortly before it was sent on its way to the birthday girl).

Over lunch the next day, my friend D, who is spectacular at making fondant cakes — she's made entire Thomas the Tank Engine cakes, Spiderman cakes, and teddy bear creations (all while living IN LONDON) — later told me that in this weather, it's best to just keep the fondant figurines small so they'll dry out faster and won't wilt. I wish I'd had that conversation with her earlier.

But then I remembered her telling me that she'd made a Spiderman cake for her twin sons recently and asked her how she managed that. As it turns out, she ended up making little fondant buildings and streets and then sticking a plastic Spidy figurine in the centre of it all. "If I'd made a fondant Spiderman," she said, "the black webs on his mask and costume would have streaked, and he would have to be lying down playing dead."

She'd also left the air-conditioning on for four days straight so that the cake wouldn't melt and die. Next time someone asks for a large fondant covered cake, I'm going to suggest a Dali theme.