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Monday, December 26, 2005

Dessert from an all-time classic

Growing up in New York City, one of the restaurants I always wanted to go to was Lutece. It was, in its heyday, considered by many to be New York's--or even America's--best French restaurant. As a child who liked going to restaurants, how could I not dream of dining there? Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective of child-rearing, my parents never took me. There were, to them, some restaurants that children--no matter how addicted they are to foie gras--just shouldn't be allowed into. (Ironically, I have to admit that S and I will probably adopt the same perspective when we become parents.) This list included some of the city's great gastronomic temples, many of which have sadly closed, places like Lutece, La Cote Basque, The Quilted Giraffe, Le Cirque and La Caravelle.

Of these, Lutece, for reasons I can't quite explain, had a special appeal. Perhaps it was because, more than any other restaurant in the 1980s, it was THE place for special occasions. No matter the reason, it was the one restaurant throughout my early years in NYC that I most eagerly wanted to experience.

Regrettably, from the list of restaurants above, I've only been to one, and that one only once. It was, as you might already have guessed, Lutece. I went there in 1995--sadly, a year after André Soltner, the restaurant's remarkable founding chef, had left. I took one of my closest friends there for dinner, to celebrate her 21st Birthday. I'd saved up a big chunk of money and allowed her, a fellow foodie, to choose where she wanted to go from a list of 5 restaurants that I proposed to her (I forget what the complete list was now, but I think 2 of the other 4 were Montrachet and Chanterelle). It was, looking back, an easy choice for her. M had grown up in upstate New York and like so many kids who grew up in both upstate New York and New Jersey--close to the city but not in it--moving to, living in and living large in Manhattan was a childhood ambition and dream. Eating at Lutece was, just as it was for me, something she'd had ambitions to do as a child but never really thought she'd ever get around to doing.

The meal was wonderful. Made especially so by the fact that the staff didn't treat two kids in their early 20s any differently than they treated any other guest that night. If anything, we felt that they were being especially attentive to us. I honestly forget what we ate or drank, but I do remember leaving elated--despite having just spent more money there than in any other restaurant at that point in my life.

A few months ago, while S and I were in Taipei, I ran across The Lutece Cookbook in the "bargain bin" at a Page One bookstore. It was a book I knew I had to have. Since there was no way I'd be able to eat in Lutece ever again (it shut its doors in 2004), at least I could learn some of the recipes that had made it so famous and so well-reviewed.

Since buying the book, though, it, like so many others, has sat on our bookshelf unused. And while I have opened it and read it from time to time, I hadn't made any of its dishes. On my most recent reading though, I was particularly taken by Soltner's recipes for Soufflé Glacé aux Framboises--Lutece's all-time best-selling dessert--and Soufflé Glacé au Citron (frozen soufflé with raspberries and frozen lemon soufflé respectively). I'm not, unlike S, a huge chocolate fan, so I'm always on the lookout for non-chocolately desserts. And while I don't really enjoy eating fruits, I do love fruit flavors... odd, I know. I'm also a sucker for frozen desserts: ice cream, semifreddo, soufflé glacé, cassata, ice box pie, etc. These soufflés sounded great. Essentially, it's a frozen dessert comprising layers of meringue cookie in between layers of a fruit-flavored mousse. I had originally intended to make the raspberry souffé, but because the recipe called for 3 cups of fresh raspberries--both hard to find and expensive here--I opted to to prepare the lemon version as the dessert for a Christmas lunch that S and I hosted for a few friends.

I have to admit, it's not an easy recipe to do alone. Fortunately for me, S was an enthusiastic collaborator on this project. We made the soufflés a day ahead, allowing them to chill in the freezer overnight. And I'm relieved to say that the results were excellent. Our friends yummed enthusiastically when they dug in, especially when they discovered the crunchy layers of meringue cookie.

Soufflé Glacé au Citron
tweaked from André Soltner's recipe to make 10 small frozen souffles in 2inch ramekins

Meringue cookies
oil for oiling the parchment paper
2 egg whites
2/3 cup blanched ground almonds
1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 200ºF/95ºC. Line baking sheets with the parchment paper. Trace 20 2inch (diameter) circles on the paper. Lightly oil the paper. Use parchment paper to make high collars to fit around the ramekins, taping them shut as tightly as possible. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir together the almonds, flour and the sugar. Then gently fold them into the beaten egg whites. Put this mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a round 1/2-inch tip. From the pastry bag, squeeze the mixture into the circles. Bake these in the oven until crisp--about 90 minutes. Let them cool on a rack. (You may need to use a round 2inch metal ring to shave the finished cookies to fit the ramekins.)

Lemon Mousse
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups sugar
8 egg yolks
grated rind of 3 lemons
juice of 3 lemons

Whip the cream and set it aside in a cool place. Cook 2 cups of sugar in 5 ounces of water until the sugar is dissolved and the temperature reaches 275ºF on a candy thermometer. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks. When they are light and fluffy, slowly pour in the hot syrup. Continue beating until the mixture is cool to touch. Stir in the grated lemon and lemon juice. Fold in the whipped cream. Do not overwork.

To assemble, put a small layer of the mousse on the bottom of each ramekin, then a cookie, then another layer of mousse and another cookie. On top of the second cookie, spoon more mousse so that it extends above the ramekin top (it should be held in place by the paper collars) and looks like a soufllé that has risen. Freeze these for at least 3 hours. To serve, remove the paper collars, smooth the top of the soufflés with a metal spatula and dust with icing sugar.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Gingerbread tidings


Building from my last post, here's a bunch of gingerbread cookies that S had whipped up, but which I secretly--in the wee hours of the night/morning--adorned. I figured instead of the usual outlines of people, I'd have some fun. I do have to admit that I was somewhat inspired by contemporary artists Barbara Kruger--who was in town this past week--and Jenny Holzer, both of whom I admire and both of whom create art through text. I also really enjoyed the look on S's face this morning when she saw what I had done--somewhere between mirth and annoyance. Heh heh... Happy Holidays and good eating!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The smell of Christmas

S and I love gingerbread. Nothing quite smells so much like Christmas as the smell of a batch of gingerbread cookies baking away in the oven. S likes hers naked. I prefer mine with icing. For me, it's the combination of the sweet sugary icing and the rich, spicy cookie that makes my mouth water. S, never one for frills, argues that a well-made gingerbread cookie should be able to hold its own without any sweet adornment. For her, a good gingerbread cookie is about the texture and the interplay of various spices that meld together in one magical mouthful.

Of course, this kind of dispute between us is hardly new. I like my (fruit) pies served up hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side; a good pie to S doesn't need any kind of accompaniment, other than good conversation. I like topping a salad with a hard-boiled egg and some bacon bits; a salad to her is first and foremost about the fresh vegetables, whose taste doesn't need to be masked by additional ingredients.

S made up the pictured batch of gingerbread cookies recently, following a recipe from Baking Illustrated, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine. As expected, she refused to decorate them and I was, at the time, too busy (making something else in the kitchen) to make a batch of icing and do it myself. Nonetheless, they were delicious, with a good crunch on the surface and a slightly chewy center (the way I like it).

Anyway, I'm writing all this partly because of an email from a friend who also happens to be a major foodie and an ex-Wine & Dine magazine writer. F sent S and I the below flyer this morning:

A couple of my friends and I will be selling gingerbread men and gingerbread houses with separate accessories so that you can decorate and customise your purchases as Christmas gifts for friends (or use em' as a family bonding activity). We'll also be conducting gingerbread house decoration demostrations, as well as a children's corner for the young ones to decorate their very own gingerbread men on the spot. Ready-made Christmas cookies in snowflake and Christmas tree shapes are also available.

"Christmas @ Katong
Christmas bazaar with food, games and merchandise stalls
22nd and 23rd Dec (Thu & Fri)
10am to 10pm
Area outside Odeon Katong. For a map, please click on the link below:"

I have no doubt that F's cookies will be fabulous. So, if you love gingerbread but don't quite feel like slaving over a hot oven, here's the perfect place and time for you to stock up. I especially like the DIY nature of what she's doing. It means that I can decorate the ones I buy to my heart's content while S can happily tuck into her own, most likely, naked ones.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The new "it" restaurant in town

One of my all-time favorite places for a relaxed yet slightly swanky bite is the café attached to the Project Shop boutique in Paragon shopping centre. Owners Peter and Philip, svelte, elegant gourmands, created an utterly charming and effortlessly trendy café there. From the rows and rows of imported fashion, design and lifestyle magazines to pick from and read, to the super-delicious, freshly-baked cakes on display; from the signature blackboard wall announcing each day's specials to the constant slew of socialites and celebrities that eat there regularly in between visits to their favorite designer shops; from the beautifully refurbished vintage furniture to the simple yet delicious, Aussie cuisine prepared here lovingly; the Project Shop Café has made a name and reputation for itself for both its amazing food and its great style.

However, not ones to rest on their laurels, the boys behind Blood Brothers have one-upped themselves in a huge way. This past weekend, they opened a bigger, cooler, groovier and (dare I say) even better restaurant. The PS. Café is housed in a rebuilt glass, brick and steel building in one of Singapore's quietest but most central neighborhoods, known simply by one of its main tributaries--Dempsey Road. PS. Café is located on Harding Road, which is accessible by either Dempsey or Minden Roads, both of which connect to Holland Road.

The building is stunning, in a kind of 50s, Hollywood Hills, Modernist kind of way. It's a one story house, with one side entirely of glass. In front of the glass wall, there's an outdoor deck area, perfect for diners who smoke or for pre-dinner (or post) drinks for the rest of us. The view--all green grass and tall trees--is, for a Singaporean restaurant in the city, unique. PS. Café shares many similarities with its smaller, older brother, among them wooden floors, a classic, monochromatic color palette, vintage chairs, a chalkboard wall for specials, and cool hip waiters in funky T-shirts. But chief among them is the great, hearty, simple Aussie and Aussie-Singaporean food. Many of their classic, signature dishes--like the caesar salad, the "Laksa Pesto" and the carrot cake (the best in town in my opinion)--are on the menu. But there is a greater variety on offer at this new, larger café.

S and I and two friends visited tonight--their third official night of operation. We started with drinks on the deck. S and I had mojitos while our friends had a longan martini and a Bloody Mary (one of Peter's signature cocktails). We started our dinner by sharing two specials, a prawn salad and a medley of mushrooms, mixed with roquefort, wrapped in phyllo. The mushroom-phyllo dish was wonderful and we begged Peter to put it on his regular menu For mains, S and one friend had the moussaka; our other friend had a cottage pie topped with cheesy mash. I had a duck leg rendang, that was braised till fork-tender and served with fresh herbs and rice. Peter and Philip also very kindly sent us a portion of the steak sandwich with frites to try. We washed all of this down with a bottle of a lovely Zinfandel. For dessert, we shared a steamed ginger pudding, a steamed lemon pudding (both served with vanilla ice cream), and a key lime pie.

Everything was delicious. Enhanced by the fantastic atmosphere and great music (a mix of 50s swing and jazz).

Right now, PS. Café is only open for dinner. So book ahead, because I guarantee, judging by the enormous number of fans that Project Shop Café already has, the awesome building this new restaurant is in, the expanded cocktail menu, and the great, affordable food, this café is right now and will be for the next few weeks THE place to eat in Singapore.

PS. Café
28B Harding Road
Tel: 6479 3343

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

12 days of Christmas...

While I know that a number of magazines and other fabulous food bloggers have already printed and posted their own holiday gift guides, I thought I’d share my own ideas for what you could buy a loved one, or yourself, this year for Christmas.

And in the spirit of Christmas, I’ve chosen 12 items, one for each day (although admittedly, one of the items below is a range of 7 different things). I’ve also imposed two criteria while putting together this list. The first is that S and I had to have it already. Which means the products showcased here are all tried and tested. I’d never want to recommend something we didn’t have and therefore only knew about second-hand. Everything here is something either I or S loves. Secondly, these holiday picks had to be current. Everything I’ve selected was either first produced this past year (especially the books) or else S and I had acquired it in the last 7 months, meaning it should still be readily available in stores near you.

You’ll note that I’ve numbered the products for ease of identification. Start from the top and slowly work clockwise. Oh, I should add that the products aren’t in any particular order, i.e. number 1 isn’t better than number 7. All of them are awesome and great gifts that should put a smile on the face of any foodie friend or loved one. (Please note that most of the headers below contain hyperlinks to the brand's pages. Please mouse over to check.)

1. Bodum Columbia Thermo Press
I’ve written about these fantastic coffee makers before. These double-walled, stainless steel, French Press style beauties are as easy to use as they are gorgeous. They not only make great coffee (of course, that implies you’re using good coffee) but also make your table look just that much more stylish.

2. William Yeoward glass cake dome
S has been looking for the perfect cake dome to fit her Bison cake stands (below) for months. Important to her was that the dome’s sides had to relatively straight; domes with sides that curved inwards at too great an angle would be useless for covering layered or high cakes. She finally found her dream dome in, of all places, our local Jim Thompson boutique. William Yeoward’s glass cake dome, like all of his other glassware, crystal and home accessories, is stunning. Its brilliance comes from its simplicity, elegance, and amazing quality, all things Yeoward is famous for. Domes come in several sizes so please measure your cake stand before rushing out to buy one.

3. Bison cake stand
S and I are huge fans of Brian Tunks’ stoneware company. Bison makes the most beautiful, handcrafted ceramics. Of all of his company’s designs, we like his cake stands the most, so much so that we have 3, two larger ones (the black is pictured here) and one tiny one. They’re a joy to touch and they look smashing—which explains why they are so often featured in the pages of Aussie food magazines like Donna Hay and Gourmet Traveller.

4. Chroma Type 301 Chef's Knife
These FA Porsche-designed knives are sex with a honed edge. Forget Global. These are the designer knives you want. Especially once you handle one. Despite the ultra-modern and angled look, these knives are extremely comfortable to hold and to use. So cool and comfy, in fact, that they are the knives of choice of some of the world’s greatest chefs, notably Alain Ducasse. In Singapore, pick yours up from BATS Singapore.

5. Egg Top Cutter
I know I just mentioned this super-cool, palm-sized product in my last post, but S and I cannot describe just how cool we think this egg top cutter is. Of course, to appreciate it fully, you have to be either a bit of an egg fanatic, which I am, or have aspirations to serve cool eggshell-enclosed dishes, like Thomas Keller’s famous egg custard, at dinner parties, which S has. Singaporeans can buy it at Sia Huat, the cool kitchen-supply store on Temple Street.

6. Porcelain-lined Cast Iron Teapot
This super-cute and gorgeous teapot is one of S’s favourite finds of the year. The second she saw it in the homeware section of Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, she knew she’d be carrying it back home with her. Cast iron, as most of you already know, retains heat beautifully. The porcelain lining ensures that the tea flavours are as pure as can be. How could any tea lover resist such a beautiful find?

7. Bernardaud Tea
Of course, a great tea pot demands great tea. We’ve built up quite a collection of teas, including several wonderful blends from Bernardaud. Of course, I’m a big sucker for great packaging and I really admire the sleek, silver container these come in—perfect for making a good impression on a friend.

8. Cookbooks, cookbooks, and more cookbooks
This was, of course, the hardest category to put together, simply because there have been so many great cookbooks published in 2005. But nonetheless, here’s our picks for the best (in our minds) this year, chosen not so much because of great packaging or content, but based on what we felt were ones we’d end up opening and referring to the most over the coming years (listed from top to bottom).

Neil Perry, The Food I Love
We adore this book. It’s clean, simple, and full of great, gorgeous and easy to make recipes. Who knew that Perry had this book in him? It’s a great and soon to become classic book everyone who appreciates home-cooked food should buy.

Neale Whitaker, The Accidental Foodie
Whitaker is an editorial genius. He’s been the brains behind some of the world’s best food magazines for years and, hence, has worked with some of the world’s best food writers and chefs. This beautiful book, photographed by the hugely talented Petrina Tinslay, collects recipes and stories from and about the foodies that have made a huge impact on Whitaker’s life. It’s both a wonderful love letter to friends and a great collection of delicious-looking dishes.

Jane Lawson, Yoshoku
I've also written previously about Lawson's excellent Western-Japanese book. The recipes in this softcover are mouth-wateringly good and a breeze to make. Everyone should have a copy of Yoshoku.

Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
I've also just written about this beautiful book just last week. I love the look of this book. The design of the pages is exquisite, with real attention here paid to typography and choosing the right color palette. The photographs are sumptuous. And most importantly, the recipes here work. Another baking book I love is Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess. However, I like Lawson's book more because of its style and tone; also, I've found the recipes, especially the baking temperatures, untrustworthy. With Stewart's book, I've discovered that I don't need to worry about this. The recipes have obviously been tested properly, and everything from the measurements to the temperatures to the timings seem spot on.

Jill Norman’s The Cook’s Book
S loves this DK book because of the way in which editor Norman has brought together some of the world's best chefs to pen their thoughts and share their cooking techniques. Truly noteworthy is Ferran Adria's chapter on foam and Pierre Hermé's chapter on pastry.

Alain Ducasse, Le Grande Livre du Cuisine
What can we say about this book that hasn't already been said? It's huge. It's ridiculously expensive. And every chef has to have a copy, 'nuff said.

Jane Rocca, The Cocktail: 200 Fabulous Drinks (standing)
This fantastically cheeky and pretty book was a recent gift from a friend. The recipes and the copy are marvelous. The graphics are both hilarious and gorgeous. Buy this for the femme fatale that you love drinking with.

9. LSA Otto glasses
S and I both adore glassware. And we're constantly searching for the perfect water glass, wine glass, lowball glass, etc. These handmade glasses, LSA's Otto, in a rich brown (they also come clear), are, we think, the perfect water glasses. They fit wonderfully in the hand. They have a nice, comfortable heft. They're exquisitely made. And they just look damn sexy. Drinking water never felt so chic.

10. Beach shoe from Crocs
First things first, these are not the clogs that Mario Batali wears. He wears Calzuro clogs, which are made for medical practitioners. These, though, especially for those of us working in hot kitchens, are the next best thing. Crocs' clogs are incredibly comfortable. They are light and airy. And moulded with just the right amount of support to make standing in the kitchen, prepping a 5 course meal for 5 hours, feel like a walk in the park. Seriously, if you spend a lot of time on your feet in the kitchen, you should put on a pair of these.

11. 40cm Staub Oval Cocotte
This is probably S's favorite acquisition of 2005. This monstrously huge cocotte, big enough to fit a miniature long-haired dachshund and a few of his favorite toys (not that we'd ever actually do that), is perfect for slow-roasting and braising everything from a leg of lamb, a chicken and a couple of lobsters, or lamb shanks for 8. While it is rather expensive, it's a worthwhile investment and, if treated properly, it should last you a lifetime. In Singapore, buy yours from BATS Singapore.

12. Nigella Lawson Serving Hands
I love all of Nigella's Living Kitchen products. These salad forks are more rustic than a lot of her other things, but they're very well-made and a joy to use. It, of course, doesn't hurt that they look really sexy as well.

Well, that's it. 12 fabulous gifts for yourself or your loved one(s). I'm off to Bangkok tonight for a few days. Good luck with your Christmas shopping!

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Truffle Menu

Sometimes it really pays off to have foodie friends who know you like to cook. This past Sunday, we had the most amazing feast, thanks entirely to the gift of a fantastically aromatic (and of course ridiculously expensive) white Alba truffle. The only caveat imposed by the friends who gave us this precious delicacy, of course, was that that they, in addition to ourselves and two others, be present at the ensuing truffle feast.

Inspired by the white truffle, S and I put together a whole truffle menu. Two of the four savory courses would use the white truffle, while the two others would call upon its black cousin. The dessert course would also be truffled, thanks to a wonderful white truffle-honey that S buys in a local gourmet store.

Given the grandeur of the occasion, S and I went all out, laying out a crisp, starched, white table cloth, pulling out plates and crystal we rarely use, and chilling several bottles of good Champagne--which we felt would match most of the dishes better than any other kind of wine. We also dimmed the lights rather dramatically, which while great for entertaining stinks for photography. I was forced to shoot the pictures at 1600 ISO, which exlains the graininess of the shots below. Truth be told, I wasn't really that interested in shooting this meal. Just in eating it.

Soft-boiled egg with black truffle salsa and maple-smoked bacon
This is one of the easiest and most wonderful dishes to make. And also extremely presentable, thanks mostly to the ultra-cool egg top cutter we bought recently. This cool, palm-sized metal device helps you cut the tops off your eggs perfectly and cleanly. For this dish, we soft-boiled some eggs (3 minutes in boiling water), then cut off their tops, scooping out a little of the white to allow for the addition of new ingredients. We sprinkled a touch of fleur de sel and added in a small spoonful of Tetsuya's Black Truffle Salsa, a product that I've lauded several times in the past. On top of this, we placed a bit of crispy, shredded maple-smoked bacon. This was served with a Jacquesson Cuvée 729.

Foie gras ravioli with a chicken jus-truffle glaze and white truffle shavings
This was the first of our two white truffle dishes and is a variation of a recipe from Alain Ducasse's enormous and seminal book, Le Grande Livre du Cuisine. Ducasse's recipe calls for ravioli made with only foie gras. S decided to mix some other ingredients into it, adding roasted duck, shallots, cream, some herbs and extra flavoring. All of this was pureed in her much-loved and trusted Sumeet "Asia Kitchen Machine". She also decided to use won-ton skins instead of making a ravioli pasta dough--a shortcut we felt would reduce our prep time without sacrificing any flavor. The glaze is a simple reduced chicken stock (homemade of course), emulsified with butter and truffle oil. Over this, we shaved the white truffles, which gave the whole dish an intoxicating aroma and lifted its flavors gorgeously. We had this with a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut.

Chicken en cocotte with truffled risotto, truffle-butter braised leeks and white truffle shavings
Years ago, on our honeymoon, S and I dined at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in the Plaza Athenée Hotel in Paris. We ordered the white truffle menu that night as well, which was both wonderful and incredibly insane given that dinner for two ended up costing us more than one economy rountrip air ticket to Paris. One of the courses in that menu was a sumptuously tender morsel of poulet Bresse, bathed in a light cream sauce, and covered (literally) with white truffle shavings. That dish was pretty much the inspiration for what we wanted to do with this course. We cooked a chicken "en cocotte", meaning we slow-cooked a chicken, sitting over a medley of aromatic veggies and a glass of white wine, in a casserole pot for an hour (at 125ºC).

When we were given the truffle, it was wrapped in tissue and sealed in an airtight container that was also filled with risotto rice. I used this rice for our truffled risotto but also stirred in, when it was almost finished cooking, a large pat of butter that had been blended with Tetsuya's Black Truffle Salsa. In addition, I had bought a can of TartfufLanghe's Fonduta con Tartufo (cheese fondue with white truffles) and added a spoonful of it to help both thicken and flavor the risotto. The leeks were steamed and then braised in the same butter-black truffle salsa mix that I had used for the risotto.

When ready to serve, we plated a bit of chicken, some risotto and the leeks. Over the chicken we drizzled a tiny bit of a sauce made by combining the chicken jus from the previous course and some of the truffle cheese fondue. Over all this, of course, we shaved the rest of the white truffle. We served a Krug Rosé with this dish.

Tagliatelle with black truffle, braised lamb ragout and porcini mushrooms

This is another simple dish. We made a lamb ragout using meat taken off a slow-cooked (seven hours) leg of lamb. This was blended with a chopped black truffle (another gift--this truffle has been stored in VSOP) and chopped sautéed porcini. We used the porcini water to soften the ragout and continued to add the water and reduce, until the ragout had a wonderful, earthy flavor. This was tossed with some very al denté tagliatelle. With this, we had our only non-Champagne wine of the night, a wonderfully smooth Torbreck's The Steading 2002.

White truffle-honey ice cream with apple tart
S's white-truffle honey ice cream has, by now, become of of her signature desserts. Friends who have had it are often shocked and then delighted by the contrast of such strong flavors. The secret ingredient in this sinfully sexy ice cream is TartufLanghe's Acacia Honey with White Truffles. To balance the ice cream, S made a French Apple Tart, following a recipe from Susan Purdy's The Perfect Pie.

The meal, as a whole, was pretty amazing. It's not every day that one gets to eat an entirely truffle-based dinner, let along handle a white truffle in person. As said, It was a meal that was inspired through the generosity of two great friends. And at the end of the night, when everyone had left and we'd cleaned ourselves up, S and I, a tad tipsy, extremely tired, went to bed extremely grateful.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Discovering Martha: Carrot-ginger cupcakes with orange cream-cheese frosting

Like so many others around the world, I'm fascinated by Martha Stewart. As an ex-magazine professional, I totally admire her. She has amazing editorial vision. Over the years, I've marveled over countless copies of Martha Stewart Living, admiring both this groundbreaking product's design and content. When we were planning our wedding, S and I turned to Martha Stewart Weddings more often than any other magazine. Everything in those pages were so beautiful, from the flowers to the cakes to the shiny, happy people dressed like movie stars. We also oohed and aahed over the first issue of Everyday Food, a brilliant product for a new generation of foodies and amateur cooks.

In addition to being an editorial inspiration, Martha is also a figure that seems larger than life. She may be an editorial genius but, according to the media, she's also an evil meglomaniac. This dichotomy has always been both captivating and frightening. I especially enjoyed reading Christopher Byron's Martha Inc, one of the smarter and more well-balanced books about her life.

Oddly enough, while I've admired Martha, and followed her via the media, for years, I'd never actually tried any of her recipes. For some strange reason, I was never motivated to. I think, deep down, I was suspicious, not trusting that her recipes would actually work. I think that I may have assumed that she was more style than substance. I was also never motivated to buy her older books. For one thing, they didn't have that gorgeous look that made her magazines so appealing. For another, if I was going to shell out serious cash for a cookbook, I wanted one written by a serious, properly trained chef.

Recently, however, a friend of mine and S's who, thanks to a fantastic renovation that has resulted in a stunning new kitchen, has been cooking up a storm, invited us over to her place for some homemade pizza. It was fantastic. It was, she also told us, a cinch to make. And when we asked what recipe she followed, it turned out to be from Martha Stewart. In fact, she informed us, everything she's made from Martha's books and magazines, has come out perfectly.

Inspired, S and I picked up our first Martha Stewart book a few weeks ago. Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, published this past year, is simply beautiful. This book is sleek, smart and filled with the kinds of photos that make the very best food magazines like Martha Stewart Living, Donna Hay or Gourmet Traveller so stunning. Its layout is clean and modern, the text limited to 3 colors--black for main text and raw sienna and bright orange for accents. As we leafed through its pages, we also discovered a plethora of mouth-watering recipes that we couldn't wait to try, things like torta della nona, Mexican wedding cookies, Easter pie, and potato and onion tarte tatins.

The first recipe I tested though was Martha's carrot-ginger cupcakes with orange cream-cheese frosting. I adore cupcakes. I love carrot cake, especially with a cream-cheese frosting. And I like desserts flavored with oranges. Which made choosing this recipe a no-brainer. I will admit that while putting all the ingredients together, I did have some small doubts. Despite the batter tasting great, I guess I was still unsure that Martha's recipes would work as perfectly for me as they had for my friend. I shouldn't have worried. The cupcakes came out moist, light and delicious. The frosting was both sensational and sensuous. Together, they were fantastic. I've made carrot cake and carrot cupcakes from recipes by Donnay Hay and Nigella Lawson respectively. This was by far better than either or those efforts. Martha's carrot cake was both fluffier and more moist than Hay's or Lawson's. And the frosting was richer, with the orange and ginger giving it a lovely air of elegance.

Given how well these have turned out, I can't wait to try out the other recipes in this book. I also can't believe that I'm now even considering the possibility that a Martha Stewart cookbook might eventually become one of my favorite and most trusted cookbooks. Then again, stranger things have happened.

Carrot-Ginger Cupcakes
makes 2 dozen

84g pecan halves
426g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
450g carrots, peeled.
3 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
400g sugar
1.5 cups vegetable oil
1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh ginger

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line your muffin pans with muffin paper liners. Toast pecans in the oven and when cool, chop finely.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; set aside. Grate carrots. Mix 2.5 cups of the grated carrots with the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, sugar, oil and ginger in a large bowl; whisk until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the carrot mixture until combined. Then fold in the pecans.

Divide batter into the muffin cups and bake for 20-25 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Transfer muffins to a wire rack and allow to cool. Spread frosting (below) on the cupcakes and either eat or store in an airtight container in the fridge (will last up to 3 days).

Orange Cream-Cheese Frosting

170g unsalted butter, room temperature
3 packages (8oz each) cream cheese, room temperature
230g confectioner's sugar, sifted
3/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon grated, peeled fresh ginger
pinch of salt

In the bowl of an electric mixture fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, and beat until combined and fluffy, another 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add remaining ingredients and beat for 5 minutes. Frosting can be kept at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 2 hours.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fish head curry and crab beehoon

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the best, casual and local dining experience in Singapore can be found at the Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant, located at the corner of Geylang Road and Geylang Lorong 35. Of course, for many foodies out there, and especially the local ones, this is hardly news. Sin Huat is a cult phenomenon, a foodie pilgrimage point written about in dozens of international publications from the New York Times to Gourmet. It was also famously featured as "the finest restaurant in Singapore" by Anthony Bourdain in his TV show, A Cook's Tour, early this year.

S and I first discovered this restaurant in late 1999/early 2000. We had gone searching for it for two reasons. The first was that friends connected with the film industry had told us it was Michelle Yeoh's favorite place to eat in Singapore--a place that she insisted on eating at on every trip. The second was because of the chef's most famous dish, a sinful combination of Sri Lankan crabs fried with beehoon noodles. At the time, S was, among other editorial duties, writing the food reviews for 8 Days, Singapore's highest circulated newsstand magazine. Her article on Sin Huat was, we believe, the first one to publicize Sin Huat and the amazing food cooked by the very cool but very eccentric self-trained chef-owner, Danny Lee. A few weeks after S's 8 Days article, the 2000 edition of Makansutra, the awesome street food guide published by a friend of ours, KF Seetoh, hit the bookshelves. This edition also carried a rave review of Sin Huat. And just like that, Sin Huat was no longer a secret.

Over the next few months, 8 Days regularly ran short, edited versions of S's review, ensuring that readers couldn't help but take note of Sin Huat. Here's an example that ran in the 20 May 2000 edition:

"Sin Huat's famous crab beehoon (for four) alone may set you back an eye-popping $72 and six steamed tiger prawns can cost something in the region of $42! Yet, you would hear nary a peep of complaint from their diners, which includes chop-socky goddess of action, Michelle Yeoh, who we understand makes it a point to tuck into the steamed fish here whenever she's in town. Be warned, though. To dine here, one must firmly believe that 'all good things come to those who wait'... and wait. Once the food arrives, though, all impatience will dissipate. The fresh steamed gong-gongs (mini-size conchs, $25 a kilo) come with an extraordinary chilli dip, its garlicky spiciness addictive to the last bit. The steamed prawns ($42), gargantuan by any standards, are tastebud-thrillers to the end. The pièce de résistance, the award-winning crab beehoon ($36, one crab), is equally stunning - both in size and flavour. The Godzillian crab bursts with roe and the flesh is firm, as it should be, though the beehoon is a tad too sweet for our liking. Still, we wouldn't have seafood any other way. Michelle Yeoh is certainly on to a good thing...."

In addition to eating at Sin Huat as often as possible, S and I loved introducing it to friends, including many friends who write about food for a living. Over the past few years, we've introduced Danny's crab beehoon to several famous foodies, including Matthew Evans, the food reviewer of the Sydney Morning Herald and at the time with The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Rob McKeown, then Asia correspondent for Gourmet and now with Travel + Leisure, famed British foodie Kevin Gould, and yes, Anthony Bourdain.

The flip side, however, of all this advocacy, is that Danny's restaurant is now perpetually packed. Smart and regular patrons dine later and later in order to avoid sitting around for up to an hour waiting for their food. Danny himself, on a recent visit, advised us that the best time to come is after 9pm (he's open to 1am). Local friends, who had been dining there prior to all the publicity, now sometimes give us dirty looks, blaming us for making it difficult for them to get Danny's food whenever they want.

Anyway, as mentioned, writing about just how amazing Danny's crab beehoon is, is hardly news. What is news though (at least to me) is that Danny is now serving up fish head curry at lunch time. Previously, Danny leased space to a fish head curry hawker (he also leases space to a very famous duck rice hawker and another well-known turtle soup hawker). But recently, he decided that the quality of the fish head being sold out of his coffee shop just wasn't good enough. So, when the hawker's lease was up, he didn't renew it and took over the stall himself.

S and I went over last Saturday to check it out. I'm happy to say that it was good. Very good in fact. The curry was tasty and not too spicy. The fish meat was incredibly tender. When I asked Danny if he steamed it first, he grinned but refused to give me an answer. When I asked again and he changed the subject, S elbowed me and told me to just shut up and enjoy my food. Which was damn good advice.

What amazes me about Danny is he serves breakfast (you should try his coffee--made from beans he roasts himself), lunch and dinner every day of the week. He must sleep less than 3 or 4 hours a night. But nonetheless, everything he serves is always excellent.

Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant
659-661 Geylang Lorong 35 (at the corner of Geylang Rd)
Tel: 6744-9778

p.s. For another good review of Sin Huat, check out this review on Nibble & Scribble

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Voting has begun!

I was going to post today about some delicious fish head curry that S and I had over the weekend at an old fave that’s doing new things. But, before I get to that post (and Shanghai Part 3, which I really do need to get around to doing), I thought I’d post a thank you to all who helped nominate me for the 2005 Urban Blogging Awards.

Well, I’ve made it. Chubby Hubby is one of the 6 finalists for World's Best Urban Food Blog. But now I need your votes. So, please, if you have some free time, click over to Gridskipper and vote for me. Then tell your friends to vote for me! Thanks so very much!

Also, nominations for the 2005 Food Blog Awards has just opened over at The Accidental Hedonist. It’s really great cruising through the nominations and discovering new blogs to check out and drool over. Of course, I’m grateful to friends like Monkey Gland for nominating me for Best Food Photography. Cheers mate!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tweaking tradition

We held another dinner party yesterday evening, hosting two friends from Singapore and two friends visiting from out of town--Washington DC and Bhutan. S and I planned a simple menu of 4 small courses, each a slight tweak of some of our favorite classic dishes.

Duo of Mentaiko Pasta and Prawns with a Salted Egg Crust
Our first course was a plated combination of two of my all-time faves. I've written about Mentaiko pasta in the past, so I won't go into details here. For the prawns, I used a recipe from Jereme Leung's New Shanghai Cuisine, a book that S helped to write. I love seafood cooked and coated in a salted duck egg yolk sauce. The sauce has a super-rich and utterly delicious umaminess that I can never get enough of. My favorite version of this prawn dish here in Singapore is the one served at Hu Cui, a fantastic Shanghainese restaurant in Ngee Ann City. Every time I have it, I can't help but lean back in my chair and moan in pleasure. It's that good. Understandably then, I was thrilled when I discovered a recipe for "crab claws and prawns with a salted egg crust" in Jereme's book. I was even more excited when I realized how easy it was to make. Essentially, the egg yolks (separated from the whites) are steamed for 5-7 minutes and then allowed to cool. Once cooled, the yolks should be chopped up into tiny bits and set aside. The prawns need to be coated in potato flour and then fried over high heat in some (normal vegetable) oil. Once they're just cooked, drain the oil and set aside the prawns. Then melt some salted butter in another fry pan. Once the butter begins to foam, toss in the chopped up egg yolk. Stir until it becomes a saucy paste. Then throw the prawns in, stirring everything gently until the egg yolk sauce coats the prawns thoroughly. For our dinner party, we used a long rectangular plate, setting a twirl of Mentaiko pasta, topped with nori, on one end. On the other end, we gave each person 4-5 prawns, topped with a small spoonful of tobiko.

Thomas Keller's Caesar Salad
S and I love this dish. It's also one of the few recipes from The French Laundry Cookbook that doesn't require a team of assistants or a professional kitchen. Essentially, this "salad" is a crouton topped with a parmesan custard topped with a parmesan crisp topped with Romaine lettuce chiffonade topped with some parmesan shavings (phew!). This all sits in an anchovy dressing and complimented with a balsamic glaze. I particularly like this for a few reasons. First, it looks fantastic and always gets a fantastic, jaw-dropping reaction from friends. Secondly, I love the combination of textures--the creamy custard contrasting elegantly with the crunchy parmesan crisp and crouton. The flavors, as you would expect from a Thomas Keller recipe, all blend beautifully. The balsamic glaze, especially, lifts the dish gorgeously.

Pie Floaters of Braised Leg of Lamb with Roasted Garlic and Pea Purée
S and I really enjoyed coming up with this recipe. We love pie floaters. We first discovered them in Adelaide, South Australia, while attending Tasting Australia, in 2001. I think it's a particularly Australian invention. Essentially, it's a meat pie, turned upside down and bathed in either pea soup or topped with a healthy portion of mushy peas. Over this is often squirted ketchup or gravy, and sometimes both. While this may not sound like a culinary masterpiece, it's damn tasty. Especially after a big night out. S and I wanted to see if we could come up with an elegant version to serve friends. For the purée, we used a Nigella Lawson recipe for a roasted garlic and pea soup that I've loved for years. But because we wanted the purée slightly thick, I used a bit less stock and cream than Nigella's original recipe calls for. I also added a few drops of malted vinegar. S made a tart case following a recipe from Susan Purdy's The Perfect Pie. For the meat, we used a recipe for Seven-Hour Leg of Lamb from Molly Stevens' All About Braising. The lamb came out wonderfully. We'd previously tried Anthony Bourdain's 7 Hour Leg of Lamb, which was fantastic, but because Ms Stevens' recipe used more vegetables and more liquid, we thought it might work better for our pies. Once cooked, we deboned the leg, shredding the meat and setting it aside. Then, we puréed some of the braised vegetables with the braising liquid and some additional chicken stock. This was mixed into the shredded lamb meat and allowed to rest in the fridge overnight--allowing the flavors to develop. Right before serving, we heated up the lamb ragout and divided it into the tart cases. On top of this, we placed a small round disc of puff pastry. I'm happy to report our nouveau pie floaters went across really well. And despite some concerns about how well the flavors would go together, they worked fantastically.

Profiteroles with Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Valrhona Chocolate Sauce
I adore profiteroles. And I've been bugging S for years to make them for me. I also love the combination of caramel and fleur de sel. S found this ice cream recipe in a book we've only just acquired, Artisanal Cooking by Terrance Brennan and Andrew Friedman. For the profiterole pastry itself, she turned to her favorite baking book, Baking Illustrated, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine. These were fantastic as well. The salted caramel flavor of the ice cream was incredibly intense, which was tempered by the pastry and challenged in just the right way by the chocolate sauce. While I'm usually a traditionalist--favoring vanilla ice cream in my profiteroles--I have to say that these were pretty special.

Dinner was complimented with a bottle of Jacquesson Cuvée 729 and a bottle of Cheval des Andes 2002. The Champage was wonderful but the red wine, while good, probably needed a few more years to mature.