Monday, March 09, 2009

Baking with friends - Part 2 Macarons with the Master

On the same Saturday, I had the great pleasure and privilege of baking the afternoon away with Karen, who is an obsessively, obscenely good baker. I love that on the same day, I was fortunate enough to teach and be taught.

I certainly learnt a lot, enough to convince me that my process had been all wrong. I was inspired by Karen's meticulousness and her dedication to detail and aesthetics and truly impressed by her deliberate baking technique. To be honest, after noting all the work and ingredients that go into these little treasures, I'm not at all sure that it is worth her time, nor mine, to craft them!

What I did realize, was that she is such a talented yet earnest baker and it really made me feel that whatever she does, is a labour of love. She was kind enough to bake my favourites, a rich chocolate macaron piped with dark chocolate ganache and hazlenut macarons piped with salted caramel buttercream. If you look carefully into the filling, you can see the beautiful little black dots of fresh vanilla.

To sample some of her sublime work (if you're lucky!) or to inquire about classes, please see Karen's blog Mad Baker.

A Seafood Lesson

I'm often asked if I go for cooking lessons and the answer is, perhaps not as often as I should. A few weeks ago, goaded by Ivan from Recent Ruins's great generousity, I did attend one, conducted in the backyard of a chef from a rather popular cooking academy.

This class was a strange experience, according to this guy, let's call him M. he is looking to set up his own school for private classes and local market tours. In fact, he claims, in his rather overwrought and edacious fashion, that he has had many private classes. He repeats stories of his clients through the lesson, while giving instructions to "roll the skin off the squid like a condom".

So suffice to say, I did not quite take to the teacher nor the class, particularly because the dishes were quite ordinary. We made a rampah from grinding de-seeded chillies, tomatoes, cilantro and cilantro root, shallots, garlic and ginger together. Then we made a baked garoupa by smothering it on a fish wrapped in banana leaf and a curry squid dish by stir frying it in a diluted version of the rampah. The third dish was a baked crab with egg and oats, or nestum crab (remember nestum chicken from secondary school home economics?)

I don't mind chopping shallots on a rainy Sunday afternoon but you would have to be an absolute beginner to pay $80-120 for these classes. I'm still waiting on my recipe pack but feel free to contact me for more details if you feel like attending! If you must spend money during these times though, might I suggest the $68 tasting of 15 1994 Bordeaux wines, organized by Crystal Wines for this 21st March weekend as a particularly good value event.

Blueberry Cake

I have lately had a slight madness over layer cakes and old forgotten memories of cake. After hearing my cousin talk about it, I became inspired to make this blueberry cake, which I vividly remember "helping" to make when I was a child. The recipe is for a light optima sponge cake, sandwiched between layers of blueberry filling and fresh whipped cream.

It's a very airy, very ethereal cake which can be a pain to handle because when the sponge is truly well-made, it actually tends to sink in the middle and pull away from the cake tin rims. It's only when overbaked and slightly denser, that this cake actually holds it's shape and is easy to ice.

Instead of blueberry, you can fill the top with other berry fillings or a fresh lemon curd, or you can mix and match lemon curd and blueberry or add, as I do, chocolate rice on the sides. This has actually become one of my favourite recipes becuase it's so easy to make and it assembles easily in one bowl (I like easy-clean recipes, I hate having to wash out the KitchenAid mixer). I particularly like how light it is, how little fat there is in the recipe and how beautifully fluffy the batter looks folded into all that stiff egg white.

After acquiring a turntable (best $8 I ever spent!), icing these cakes also became much easier, though I've become slightly fanatic about achieving a really smooth white snow run of cream icing. Good thing Z likes blueberry cakes, apparently they were his default birthday cakes when he was a child, so he happily eats my experiments.

Korean Beef - The Valentines Day Dinner

I had been gifted with a large tray of Korean beef and it was Valentines Day. Back in university, I used to host this annual Lonely Heart's Club, a little tongue-in-cheek (given none of them were actually single) and just for my girlfriends so we could indulge in baking strawberry shortcake and watch Audrey Hepburn movies.

This year, I decided to hold the Lonely Hearts Dinner for friends the day before Valentines and it turned out to be a good Friday night catch-up. My Boston housemate brought me a cast iron skillet pan which makes the loveliest grill marks and I finally got another reason to put it to some use. Not exactly very romantic, as we were all standing around, in the smoke of the outdoor grill but the beef was superb.

It was also a good reason to hunt down the Korean supermarkets in Singapore. I had been to the one in the basement of Cineleisure (I always thought this was a weird location for a Korean supermarket, given the movie mall's young and skvvy looking teenager crowd) but I found that there was one at the back of Amara Hotel in Tanjong Pagar and also another in a shophouse near George Street and Raffles Place.

The proprietors are all none too friendly but finally I managed to walk out with pajeon mix (for seafood or hae-mol-pajeon) and home-made kim chi. Rather than risk making my own short ribs (Gal-bi) marinade, which involves Nashi pear or apple juice, I bought two different bottles of commercial marinade. They were very good. I paired the beef with sushi rice (steamed with sesame seeds), stir-fried spinach, crispy seaweed and frisee lettuce for wraps.