Friday, 30 March 2012

Home Baking

I pondered upon the concept of home baking as I strolled through a Tesco Extra. There were aisles and aisles of baked goods ranging from humble ginger breads, apple crumbles, and sticky toffee puddings, to lavish chocolate eclaires, profiteroles, and citrus tarts. Upon these superordinate categories of tarts and fruit breads, you have the basic level of muffins and scones, and then the subordinate levels of fruit scones and chocolate chip scones, and each of these then has their own numerous subtypes. Choices are overwhelming. Take a plain sultana scone. One can decide to get it in the Cake and Baked Goods aisle, packaged and mass produced by different companies, ranging from Tesco Value to Tesco Finest and the common big brands. One can go to the Bakery aisle and find fresher scones made recently with simple clear pastic packaging only with the name of the item and the date of production shown. Or put in a bit more effort and go to the frozen aisles where they're jumbled up in a bag, ready to be popped in the oven. With a little more work, there is the Cake Mixes aisle with the boxed mix -- add an egg and some butter and cream, stir and bake. You could even get fresher mixes in the refrigerator aisles. If the choice is a plain sultana scone with cream and jam to accompany an Earl Gray at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, there is a pool of choices before deciding how and what to acquire.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Simple Breakfast Polenta

My mother has a bowl of plain cornmeal porridge for breakfast with half a cup of ground white sesame  seeds for breakfast everyday.  No sugar, no salt, no seasoning.  It's how my mom likes it, health food to the max, eating merely for the nutrition. She was always very much a health freak.  I had a very healthy childhood -- no junk food in the house, desserts once in a blue moon, and fried foods didn't exist.   Don't worry, I was a healthy and happy child.  Anyway, back to my mother.   At one point, I think it was when she hit midlife crisis, her diet basically started consisting of only porridge, steamed vegetables and  fruits.  Oh and the essential sweet that must accompany her cappuccino every afternoon at 3 o'clock. 
While I very much value the need for having a healthy diet, I'm not quite at that point yet.  Maybe these are baby steps following my mother's path, because here I'm already eating polenta porridge for breakfast.  But I like to flavor it with nuts and apples and spices and sugar.  Look how pretty.  Isn't it nice to wake up to a colorful breakfast? 

Monday, 26 March 2012

Ballotine of Chicken with Onions & Raisins, Root Veg Puree

I have this friend that's an amazing cook.  If anybody's got a talent for cooking, it's him.  Last time at a dinner party he made ballotine of  chicken with nuts and honey, accompanied by fresh fruits, a blue cheese sauce, and roasted root veg.  So this is an amateur attempt of that.
It was fun/such a pain stuffing the chicken.  It's basically like rolling a maki.  The key is just to roll it as tightly as possible,  and making sure that the chicken breast is intact.  When you flatten it sometimes it can..fall apart, and you don't want that.  Anything stuffed is impressive. Stuffed vegetables, stuffed roasts, stuffed chicken breasts -- never fail to impress at dinner parties.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Cold Sesame Noodles (凉拌麻酱面)

It's warm and it's sunny -- oh so incredibly sunny. It's the start of my favorite couple of months in Britain.  It honestly doesn't take much to make me happy, good weather, good food, good company -- It may be that bad time of the month for me, I may have an Economics essay I need to stress about, I may have to catch up on some readings for Psychology, and by some I mean about 200 pages. But it's okay, it's 18 degrees, it's not windy, the sunshine is blinding, and I'm on holiday. 
You can imagine why I love picnics so much.  I love being outdoors and I love good food. So here's something different for your picnic basket -- ditch your finger sandwiches and cous cous salads, try some cold sesame noodles!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Savory Bread Pudding

There's always that sense of excitement, anticipation and stress when I have people try my food for the first time.  First impressions matter so much, especially when it's about a particular..skill.  I remember the first time I cooked for my friends in university, I served them raw chicken with orange juice.  Yes, my cooking skills have improved since then.  Although I'm still not very comfortable with meat. I'm getting better with chicken though.  Living on a student budget means I get my source of protein mainly from eggs, milk and chicken.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Healthy Raw Brownies

My problem is, if I know it's healthy, I'll eat more than I should, because it's healthy, it's half the calories, it's all good stuff, right?  Right, two nights ago I ate half of this as dessert to accompany my healthy dinner (cheese. ridiculous amounts of cheese. And bread. Oh and some green beans).  Well, it's better than the usual chocolate ice-cream fix for when you're sad.
Healthy desserts often have a bad stigma.  After all, it is the sugar and the butter and the cream that makes everything taste so good, right?  It's the decadence.  It's the guilty pleasure that we so often crave for.  But yes, it's so good for that brief moment as you eat it but then you're faced with that guilt.  Or maybe not, maybe you have really good self control and you can restrict yourself to just one cupcake a week.  But don't you love the idea of a delicious dessert you can eat a lot of?  Ah I remember when I had my first gluten-free, vegan chocolate brownie from Cookies and Scream.  It's managed by this sweet lady who's vegan and whose husband is allergic to gluten.  So good. And since then I've been obsessed with this whole vegan, healthy dessert idea.
Here I present you with this healthy raw brownie. It's amazing.  It really is. I mean, don't expect it to replace your good old traditional brownie, they're different.  In no way can it replace your traditional brownie.  But it's a decent substitute sometimes as it's absolutely delicious.

Prep time:  15 min

1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup almonds
1/2  cup cocoa
1 cup dates, pitted
1/4 cup raisins

Pulse up your walnuts, almonds, cocoa, raisins and dates in a food processor. Press down in a tray lined with baking paper and put in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Variations: add some honey if you don't think it's holding together very well, but don't be tempted to add too much.  Add some oats if you want.  Spices: cinnamon, maybe some chili even.  You don't have to pulse up everything finely, you can have 1/2 cup of nuts folded in to add a crunch to it.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Dark Chocolate Torte

I think it may have been too cute for St.Patrick's Day.  It's more Eastery-y instead. Maybe I'll make the same thing for Easter.  It was for a friend's birthday party (hope you enjoyed it, Saanya.  Sorry I got crumbs all over your floor, Hunter, Lauren).  Yes, it's a crumbly cake.  A delicious, decadent, soft, moist, crumbly cake.
Serve with some mascarpone, ice cream, or whipped cream to counterbalance the richness of the cake if you wish.
Recipe adapted from here

Prep time: 15 min  Cook time: 40 min  Suitable for: birthdays and whatnot

200g unsalted butter
200g good quality dark chocolate, chopped
5 medium eggs
100g brown sugar
100g caster sugar
60g ground almonds
40g plain flour

For decoration
flaked almonds

Preheat oven to 180C and butter an cake tin.  Melt the butter and chocolate over and double boiler until melted and set aside.  Beat the eggs and the sugars with an electric whisk until light and fluffy, for about 5 minutes.  Fold in the chocolate mixture, and the flours.  Pour mixture into the tin and bake for about 40 minutes or until evenly set and it passes the toothpick test (stick a toothpick all the way through and if it comes out clean it's good).  When cooled, turn it out, dust with cocoa powder and decorate with flaked almonds and marzipan.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Parmesan Flans

Oh it's getting warm and sunny.  I love the current weather.  It's sunny but still too cold to be outside and procrastinate by having a picnic and sleeping on the lawn, so I still have to stay enclosed in a cell in the library but I can enjoy the sunshine from indoors.  Well, I'm currently in the wrong corner of the library so I can't feel the sunshine from here but it's nice just knowing that it's sunny outside.

I went to a dinner party where we each had to bring a dish based on our designated ingredient.  I got parmesan. We usually associate flans with desserts but you can get so creative with these.  Unfortunately they weren't the product of my incredible creativity, I got this recipe from Giallo Zafferano. These flans were served with a fennel, spinach and wild mushroom salad.  I didn't include that recipe because it's quite straightforward: fry up some onions, add the mushrooms, spinach and fennel, season and done.

Serve it on its own too if you want, though I think it goes quite well with a salad as it balances out the richness of the flan.

Prep time: 20 Cook time: 20  Makes: 4 large flans or 6 small flans   Suitable for: dinner parties

40g butter
40g flour
150g grated parmiggiano/grana padano/ any grated hard cheese
200ml whole milk
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 eggs, separated

Heat the butter in a pan over medium high heat until it starts to bubble but not change color.  Add the flour, take off the heat and whisk vigorously.  Put it back on medium heat and slowly whisk in the milk.  Keep whisking until it thickens and starts to boil.  Then take off heat, tir in the parmesan, nutmeg, and season lightly if you wish.  Let it cool.  Once cooled, add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well until fully incorporated.  Then add then egg whites all at once and stir well.  Oil little ramekans and fill it in 3/4 of the way through.  Fill a baking tray with water that come to at least half way of the ramekans.  Bake in a preheated oven of 160C for about 20 minutes until slightly golden on top.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Romesco Sauce

I love Spain. I love the climate, I love the scenery, I love the people, and my goodness I love the food.  What I love most about Spanish cuisine, and Italian, and most Mediterranean cuisines, is that, because of the climate, you just have such wonderful produce, and so the food focuses on simplicity with beautiful ingredients.  There's no need to add so much flavoring to everything to mask the blandness of your sauce or fish or meat.  My aunt always told me that with every dish you cook, 80% of how well it turns out depends on your ingredients, that's why the best Italian food needs to be eaten in Italy, the best Spanish food needs to be eaten in Spain.

Now unfortunately we can't go to Spain to eat Spanish food all the time, so we have to adapt. Here's my adapted version of romesco sauce. It's meant to be made with dried nora peppers, but it can't be found here, so I added some paprika to give a bit of kick to it.  Romesco sauce is so wonderful on everything. Put it on top of your fish, your chicken, your veggies, or even just eat it with bread.

As it's a sauce/dip, please feel free to just wing it with the recipe.  Add a bit more oil if you like it smoother, add more paprika, add more garlic, leave out the peppers. It's all up to you, you have full control over it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Warm Breakfast Quinoa

"While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom."  -- PhilipWhite

While I don't know who this researcher, Philip White, is, I'm sure he knows what he's talking about.

I'm all about healthy whole grains.  I think in my cupboard I've got polenta, cous cous, quinoa, oats, barley, brown rice and whole wheat flour...And along with that I've got so many legumes and pulses, different beans, different lentils.  Good carbs, guys, good carbs.
Quinoa is high in protein, fibre, magnesium, iron etc etc.  Fun fact: according to wkipiedia "Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possicle crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long diration human occupied spaceflights."

Monday, 12 March 2012

Chinese Steamed Buns (包子)

Mastering the art of making these steamed buns will open up a whole new approachable culinary world of dim sum for you.
On a totally unrelated note, that's my friend, Lang.  Lang is essentially a big ball of joy and positive energy that, with just one hug, can brighten up your day.  Oh no, I'm not exaggerating.
Back to these buns. This is going to be a long, yet brief, educating overview of Chinese buns.  With the dough in this recipe you can make so many different things.  But please don't confuse them with the doughs of other dim sums, like char siu, the doughs are very different.  I mean, you could stuff them with the same filling but it would be different from the classic char siu baos.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Chinese Sesame Pancakes/Rolls (芝麻酱烙饼)

These are really things from my childhood.  I remember getting these on the streets for 20p.  I've used Chinese sesame paste in some of my other recipes, like in my peanut butter and sesame mousse.  If you find it difficult to acquire it, then feel free to replace it with tahini or even peanut butter here.

You can make this a savory staple by replacing the filling with oil, salt and spring onions.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Classic Flan

Oh you can get so creative with these.

This is the classic one.  It's flavored with just lemon zest and vanilla. But the world is your oyster when it comes to making the flan your own.

Let's start with the base:  this is just made with milk.  Why not make it richer by making it part cream part milk?  Why not use coconut milk?  Why not use almond, soya or rice milk?

Flan flavorings: this is, like i said, made with lemons and vanilla. But why not add some orange peel?  Infuse it with nuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts.  Make it spicy, add a cinnamon stick, some cardamom pods, some cloves.  Add chocolate!  Add coffee!

Caramel flavorings: this is just sugar. But imagine: salted caramel. Mmm.

1 cup/200 g caster sugar 
4 cups/950 mls whole milk 
1 vanilla pod, split/ 2 tsp vanilla extract
Lemon peel 
4 eggs 
4 egg yolks

1. Preheat oven to 160C. 
2. Pour the sugar into a pan over medium low heat until it melts and changes and color.
Pour the caramel into 8 ramekins. 
3. Boil the milk with the vanilla and the lemon peel, turn the heat down and let it simmer
for 10 minutes to infuse the flavor. 
4. Beat the eggs, the egg yolks and the sugar until smooth. Strain the milk and slowly add it to the egg mixture while whisking continuously. Pour into the ramekins. Line a baking tray with a towel and place the ramekins on top. Fill the tray with about an inch of hot water. Bake for about 45 minutes until set.  

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Pretty Coleslaw

"Pretty" is the most apt word for this. You shouldn't just eat your greens, eat all the colors.  This is as fresh and healthy as it gets.

I felt so girly eating this.  Nonetheless, it's a nice little salad perfect for an appetizer or as a side to a main dish.  It's made with yoghurt instead of mayonnaise, so it's got extra health points, in addition to all the fruit and veg.

With the ingredients, feel free to just wing it, please.  I encourage you to.  It's a salad, do as you please.

Total time: 20 min   Serves: 2  Suitable for: picnics in the sun 

1 small apple, grated
1/2 courgette, grated
1/4 head of white cabbage, grated
1/2 beetroot, grated
1 small carrot, grated
a handful of mint, roughly chopped
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup plain yoghurt

Mix all the ingredients together and season well.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Lemon, Thyme and Almond Souffle Cakes

"You know you don't have to put all your ingredients in your title!"

It was meant to be "Lemon, Thyme and Almond Souffle Cakes with a Nut and Date Crust and a Layer of Marzipan"

Yes, it would have been a tad bit too much but if I don't name all the ingredients you won't know straight away how amazing it is!  It's like on fancy restaurant menus, they always put in all the ingredients to catch your attention. Like the main title would be "Mushroom Mousse" and underneath in smaller print you'll see "Pickled mustard seeds, fried fennel, butternut squash and apple crisps".

My friend was telling me all about this lemon mousse, and as amazing as it sounds, it is too complicated.  I sometimes just don't have the patience to follow recipes.  There are days where I can take hours and measure out every ingredient to the nearest milligram and fold everything in with the utmost care and attention.  But then there are most days where I just put my imagination and all the ingredients in my well-stocked pantry that I take so much pride in into a bowl, food processor, pot, mould, oven, and hope for the best.  It's usually by impulse.  I'm sick of Economics, I'm sick of Psychology, I'm no longer productive, I'm frustrated, I'm impatient -- I go to the kitchen and everything outside this 15sqm cubicle comes to a halt.  My mind is constrained to what's around me -- fruits, cheese, nuts, honey, spices, grains, flour.  Everything mingles and gets jumbled up into an organized mess and a mind map forms in front of my eyes.  Lines are drawn linking ingredients together and separating them, all the while thinking back to the dozens of recipes that I read daily.  Then I grab my tools and I start.  Tasting every second as I continuously make adjustments and drown myself in doubt and anticipation.  Then it goes in the oven and I sit there and I watch.  I watch the oven and I watch the clock.  I watch and I wait.  And finally, it's done.  I taste it, I'm satisfied, but this only ends after other people try it.  That's my favorite bit of the whole process.  The recognition.  And when they make the right sounds, say the right words -- a huge sense of relief.  Yes, I'm happy, I'm proud, but most of all I'm just relieved.  I'm relaxed.  Now I can go back to reality.

I love my little spontaneous, amateur creations.

Prep time: 20 min  Cook time: 30 min   Serves: 4  

250g mascarpone
1 egg
1 yolk
75g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pecans
1/3 cup pitted dried dates

Marzipan (very little, about a small handful)

some flaked almonds and other nuts for decoration

Preheat the oven to 180C.  Whisk all the ingredients for the souffle together, taste and make slight adjustments to your liking.  Put the crust ingredients into a food processor and blend for a few minutes until it becomes a paste.  Butter little hollow tube-like cake tins or a large cheesecake tins.  If you have the tube-like tins or you've lost the bottom bit of your cheesecake tin, a trick I learned is to use aluminum foil as a base.  Fold it around the tin securely and voila.  Divide the paste evenly among the tins and press into an even layer.  Roll the marzipan out into a thin layer, about 2mm, and using an extra cake tin, cut out little circles that are of the same size as the ones you're using for the souffle.  Place it carefully on top of the crust and then fill with the cheese mixture.  Add some sliced almonds on top and bake for 30 minutes.  Carefully remove them from the tins and add some more nuts on top for serving if you wish.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Goat's Cheese Filled Polenta Parcels with Roasted Veg and Balsamic Sauce

I have difficulties keeping my titles short sometimes because I need you to know just what wonderful ingredients are in these things I make.

I've never had a problem with vegetarian food.  Some people can't comprehend the concept of a proper meal without any sort of meat or seafood present.  Growing up, I mostly ate vegetarian food at home since my sister became vegetarian at a young age, and my mother was too lazy to cook too many dishes.  Coming from an Italian and Chinese background, it's easy to be vegetarian.  If you know what to eat, being vegetarian is very healthy, and often much cheaper as well since meat is expensive.  I'd actually like to try to follow a vegan diet for a week or two.  I love tofu and I already drink soya milk, so why not.  Hmm. Anyway, this isn't vegan, but it's vegetarian and it's very yummy.

Loosely adapted from BBC GoodFood

Total time: 40 min   Serves: 5

350g instant polenta
1 1/2 L vegetable stock
100g grated parmesan or any other hard cheese
200g spinach
100g goat's cheese, sliced into 5 rounds
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Vegetable Ragout
1 onion, finely sliced
1 red pepper, cut up into chunks
1/2 large aubergine, cut into chunks
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 cup capers

1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp honey

Vegetable ragout:
Fry the onions until translucent and add all the other ingredients.  Lower the heat, add enough oil to make sure it doesnt stick and cover with lid.

Boil the stock in a large pot and then slowly whisk in the polenta in a steady stream.  Blanch the spinach in some boiling water until wilted, and add that into the polenta along with the parmesan and nutmeg.  Cut out pieces of cling film, about the size of an A4 piece of paper.  Scoop 1/5 of the polenta, while still soft, onto the center and put a piece of goat's cheese in the middle.  Draw the edges of the cling film around to cover the cheese completely with the polenta, and twist the cling film, to make little patties of polenta.  Cool and Chill for up to 2 days.

When ready to serve, fry them in a pan over medium heat to warm them up until they're crispy on the outside.

Boil the balsamic vinegar over medium heat and let it reduce to about 1/4 cup and add honey.

Put the polenta cakes on the middle of the cake, place a large spoonful of the vegetable ragout on top and drizzle with sauce.

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