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Colour me fooled

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sweet potato
Nature is lovely and generous – provided you're nice to her too – but she can also be deceptive.

The sweet potato above has, as you can see, purple skin. Would it be incorrect to think that the flesh might also be purple? Well, as it turned out, it was a mistake to think so. Because you skin the potato and find it's not purple.

When I made kuih keria for the October Daring Bakers challenge, I used local sweet potato. The skin was brown, but the flesh was orange and I got the much desired orange-coloured doughnuts.

The ones above are touted as Japanese sweet potatoes, but after reading up on the variety, it made me think that the ones I had bought might have been mislabelled.

But then, colour no longer remains a concern when you cook the vegetable and end up with a dish – like the one below – that reminds you of the wonder of nature, and all is good in the world again.

Baked sweet potato with za'atar and chilli
These potatoes are baked with za'atar and cayenne pepper. There are of course many recipes for the za'atar spice blend, but I am using one that I put together because I happen to have all the spices at the time I saw the recipe (can't remember where now). It's only a small amount so there's less possibility of it going stale. I have also used it on grilled chicken and sprinkled on to flat breads brushed with melted ghee. Here's my blend:

2 tablespoons sumac
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
  • Mix all the ingredients together and store in an air-tight jar in the refrigerator. Use within 2 weeks.
To make the dish, peel some sweet potato and cut into thick slices. Place in a baking tray, sprinkle with za'atar, cayenne pepper and salt (all to taste) and drizzle with vegetable oil. Toss well to coat evenly and bake in a moderately hot oven for 12-15 minutes or until tender.

* In the next issue of The Thymes, which coincides with the publication of Don't Call Me Chef in The Star on Dec 6 – the theme is the tiffin lunch – I'll be posting on a dish made with sweet potato that can be toted to the office/school.

Daring Bakers: Pasta frolla & crostata

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I don't know if a crostata must be made in a round tart tin to be authentic, but I just got myself a rectangular loose-based tart pan (35cm x 13cm) from Australia and simply had to use it for the latest Daring Bakers' challenge.

I have been looking for this tin for a long time now, but it wasn't until I was in Sydney recently that I found it.

I like it because it makes cutting whatever is made in it easier and more uniform compared to a round tin ­­– I'm quite hopeless at dividing cakes up equally.

And so on with the challenge.

The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well.

I used version 2 of the pasta frolla, and added almond meal to the mix. The pastry was just enough for the 38cm by 13cm tin. (The original recipe and other versions can be found here.)

My oven is a bit wonky and the base of many of the tarts I have made lately have been undercooked, so I decided to parbake the crust before filling it and baking completely.

The filling is a lotus seed paste "custard". Lotus seed paste is the stuff used in mooncakes; I got it from a baking supply shop. Initially, I thought I would just spread a layer of it at the bottom of the crust and top that with pastry cream and fruit, but I decided to live up to the "daring" name and experiment. I mixed up the custard, tasting as I went along, but to be honest, I didn't know if this filling would work. As it turned out, the result was a pleasant surprise. Chalk up one for the Daring Bakers!

Bar bella!
The recipe for each component follows

1 quantity pasta frolla
1 quantity lotus seed paste custard
Crumble topping
  • Roll out the pasta frolla to fit a lightly greased 38 x 13cm tart pan. Chill for 30 minutes. Preheat oven at 190°C.
  • Bake crust until just beginning to brown, 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
  • Parbaked tart shell
  • Spoon the custard into the pie shell. Sprinkle on the crumble topping. Bake at 190°C for 20-25 minutes or until the edges of the custard are firm (the centre will still be a little wobbly but will firm up as the tart cools) and the crust has browned. Place on a wire rack to cool. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Pasta Frolla
(from Simona/Daring Bakers) 
For a 38 x 13cm tart pan

⅓ cup caster (superfine) sugar
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
¼ cup almond meal
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Whisk together sugar, flours and salt in a bowl.
  • Rub or cut the butter into the sugar and flour mixture until it has the consistency of coarse crumbs.
  • Make a well in the centre of the flour and butter mixture and pour the beaten egg and vanilla extract into it.
  • Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into mixture and then use your fingertips.
  • Knead lightly just until the dough comes together into a ball.
  • Shape the dough into a flat disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least two hours, or refrigerate overnight.
Lotus Seed Paste Custard
2 eggs
1¼ cup lotus seed paste (store-bought)
⅓ cup whipping cream
Pinch of salt
Crumble topping
  • In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Whisk in the lotus seed paste until smooth. Add cream and salt and stir to combine.
Crumble Topping
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Large pinch of cinnamon
3 tablespoons crushed nuts
3 tablespoons cold butter
  • Mix the dry ingredients together. Rub in the butter to form a crumbly mixture.

Block party

Monday, November 22, 2010

I took this picture of my half-eaten lamington at Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport on the day I flew home after a week in the city for a course I was taking. While I have baked lamingtons at home before, I have never actually eaten an authentic one made by Australians until this trip.

I had one a few days before that but didn't take a picture. As you can see below, I made up for it the second time round by taking a picture of the cube after every bite. I didn't actually finish the cake in 60 seconds, or in eight bites, but I think I came pretty close!

Gone in 60 seconds
Here are several recipes for lamingtons:
  • I have been using a similar recipe to this one from The outer layer of chocolate is a thin coating made from icing sugar, cocoa powder, milk and hot water. But after having the cake in Australia, I noticed that the frosting was slightly thicker.
  • The frosting recipe in Joy of Cooking contains butter ­­– just a bit, but it makes the frosting a little firmer, I think. It is poured onto the sponge cake cubes before they are rolled in dessicated coconut.
  • Donna Hay's recipe for lamington slices has only the top covered in icing and coconut.
Now I have to say a little bit about some of the other dishes I had in Sydney. I stayed with a host family and mostly had what they prepared for dinner, but we did go out as well. The first meal out was at a Lebanese restaurant ­­– for the life of me, I can't remember the name, but it's in Bondi ­­– and we had a few varieties of mezze, or finger food. They were all very good.

On our last night in Sydney, we went to another Lebanese place. Al-Jannah in Granville (it has another outlet elsewhere in the city) specialises in charcoal-grilled chicken. It looks like a typical takeout restaurant, but can actually claim to have finger-licking good fried chicken. The queue is often right out the door and the Lebanese family we had dinner with said they go to the restaurant at least once a week even though the drive there took about 40 minutes. I didn't take any pictures, but you can see some lovely ones, complete with all the side dishes, at The Lebanese lady with us said there was definitely lemon juice in the marinade, but she couldn't tell what the other ingredients were. This recipe seems authentic, in case you want to try. 

Your meal must include French fries and the condiment must be Lebanese garlic sauce, or toum, according to this blog (with recipe). You just cannot stop dipping your fries, chicken and flat bread into it. I tell you, if you lose a few friends over your breath, it would be worth it!

Just a few doors away from Al-Jannah is Abla, a Lebanese pastry shop like none I've seen. It has a very long glass display case with every baklava you can imagine, and many, many more Lebanese sweets. Some of them are, as you can imagine, are very sweet, but have them with the delicious coffee that is served and it is all a blissful balance.

Marmite + cheese = cracking good

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marmite oatmeal cheese biscuits
Some people lick their lips at the sight of a bottle of Marmite, but for others, I bet even reading the word Marmite makes them go “blecch”.

I have to admit, I wasn’t fond of  Marmite (and its beefy cousin, Bovril) as a child, but I think it had a lot to do with the rice porridge it was added to. I wasn’t averse to the yeast extract on its own, but I always associated it with congee (this site provides lengthy background information) because Marmite was stirred into the rice porridge for taste (and nutrition) and I didn’t – and still don’t – like rice porridge (I associate it with being ill – I’m not the only one; although Fuchsia Dunlop likes it). But later, I discovered Marmite was good with other things, like toast, and developed a liking for it (and the Australian version, Vegemite).

Two tablespoons of Marmite might seem a lot in this recipe, but if you’re going to go that way, then go all the way, right? The Marmite doesn’t really overwhelm – it just adds a pleasant yeasty saltiness to the taste. In fact, I think I may add more the next time I make these biscuits.

I got the idea for these snacks from Dan Lepard’s recipe for Red Leicester Seed Biscuits. There’s no Marmite in Mr Lepard’s biscuits, but in his introduction, he compares caraway seeds to Marmite – how they’re both an acquired taste – which made me think of using the two ingredients in one item. How’s that for inspiration?

As for the seeds, I use three other types apart from the caraway: onion seeds and a combination of blue poppy and white sesame seeds.

Brushed with egg white and rolled in seeds
My digital scale has gone haywire – the display jumps about without stopping at any number – so I have given cup measurements here. But this biscuit is quite forgiving. Initially, I didn’t include any flour, but after mixing up the dough, it felt a little too wet and I added half a cup.

Makes about 20

1 cup rolled oats
½ cup all-purpose flour, sifted
Large pinch of salt
A few grindings of black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups finely grated cheese (sharp Cheddar, Red Leicester, Emmenthal)
2 tablespoons Marmite
125g (½ cup) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
Lightly beaten egg white
Seeds (caraway, sesame, poppy or onion seeds)
  • Place rolled oats in a food processor and process until fine, 20 seconds. Add flour, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cheese, Marmite and butter to the food processor bowl and pulse until ingredients are combined and come together; do no over-process.
  • Divide dough into 2 or 3 portions. Place each portion onto grease-proof paper and roll tightly into a 4cm-diameter log; twist the ends of the paper firmly. Freeze for 30 minutes.
  • Remove from freezer and unwrap. Stand the logs upright and brush with egg white. Roll in the seeds so the sides are well coated (see picture above). Re-wrap the logs and freeze until ready to bake.
  • Turn on oven to 180°C. Unwrap the logs and slice into ¾cm-thick rounds. Place on an ungreased baking tray and bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool; store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Spinach to the rescue

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spinach roti
I had spent two days trying to counter the effects of indulging on Nov 5. I visited relatives on Deepavali day and at one house, I was force-fed mutton varuval. It was very good curry, but it was also very rich and the aunty kept spooning more on to my plate as I finished the last mouthful.

I’ve had to be very careful with my food intake in the past couple of weeks because I need to be fit and healthy. Tomorrow I leave for Sydney to take a course and sit for an exam and I cannot fall ill. To refuse the delicious, but artery-clogging dishes served would have been an insult – and too much of a hassle to explain why I could eat only a little of it.

After that day, I just felt very heavy and sluggish and so all I had allowed myself to eat were fruits (nice!) and cereal (not so great). But last night, I had had enough.

So out came the flour and whatever I could find in the fridge. It seemed that I had everything for an Indian flat bread. Delicious and an opportunity to continue with the Deepavali theme.

I make chappati all the time. It uses few ingredients, is easy to make, and cooks quickly. I usually make it plain or with the simple addition of some fennel or cumin seeds, to eat with curry or chutney. This time, I didn't have anything to go with the bread and I wasn't keen on turning the spinach I had into a side dish, so I decided to just throw the vegetable into the mix. Hence, spinach roti.

The rolling method I detail below isn't necessary but it does help create a flaky, puffy roti. This method is used for Chinese spring onion pancakes, as well as Indian paratha, so I decided to give it a try.

The yoghurt makes the bread soft. If you add a little bit more of it as well as some instant yeast to the dough mix (plus some sugar), you could easily turn this roti into naan.

Makes 5-6

Spinach leaves from 1 bunch, cleaned (water still clinging to the leaves)
1 cup atta (or wholemeal) flour
1 cup bread flour
½ teaspoon salt
Large pinch of fennel, cumin, or onion seeds
Pinch of chilli powder
5-6 curry leaves, shredded
1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons yoghurt
¾-1 cup hot water
Oil or ghee for brushing and frying
  • Place spinach leaves in a large pan over medium heat. Cover and steam until lightly wilted. Remove from pan, squeeze out excess water and chop finely.
  • Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix in chopped spinach, ghee and yoghurt. Add water gradually until mixture forms a soft, sticky dough. Knead for 5 minutes, then cover bowl and set aside for 30 minutes.
  • Divide dough into 5 or 6 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into a thin circle. Brush the top with a little oil/ghee and roll up like a Swiss roll. Twist the length of dough into a loose spiral, flatten and roll out again into a 2mm-thick circle.
1&2: Roll out, spread with ghee and roll up like a Swiss roll; 3: Twist into a spiral; 4: Press to help the roti puff up
  • Heat a griddle over high heat, put in a little oil/ghee and rub the base lightly with a scrunched up paper towel so that the whole surface is greased. Place the roti into the hot griddle and press with a spatula or clean kitchen cloth. When air pockets start to form, flip the roti; there should be brown spots all over the surface.* Cook the other side.
  • Remove and keep warm while you cook the rest of the roti.
  • Fold into halves or triangles and serve with a curry or chutney.
* The heat should be kept on medium high so that the roti cooks quickly and puffs up. But if you're getting black spots instead of brown, then you know it's too hot!

Crabs at a pinch

Monday, November 1, 2010

Baked crabs
There was no getting out of the task – for this dish, ­­it was necessary to get crabs and dress them myself.

What I didn't do was buy live crabs, which is the best way to start out. But it was a day before I had to hand in the article for Don't Call Me Chef, and I  hadn't even started on the Prawn Varai I was featuring, as well as the baked crabs for this post that links to the newspaper column (here's the link; the theme is Deepavali dishes) so I just popped into the nearest hypermarket one morning and got the crustaceans from there. 

But as it turned out, the crabs I got must have just arrived even if they weren't alive anymore, because they still smelled fresh.

This is the first time I have cleaned crabs. I am not squeamish and have no problem with guts – I just never learned how to do it. So I googled "how to clean crabs" and found several sites and some bonus information about boy and girl crabs, and I just got down to the task. Not as difficult as I had imagined, I must say.

You can boil or steam the crabs to extract the meat, but I think steaming prevents the flesh from getting too wet. It only takes seven minutes – once the shells go pink, they're done. Be careful when removing the flesh as the pincers of blue crabs have spikes on them. I have a gash in my left thumb from being pierced by one of those spikes. I don't know why I can't do anything in the kitchen without getting hurt.

Pinch me, I must be dreaming
The Mr Silu of the recipe title is Mr S. Siluvairasa, the proprietor of the Yarl Beach Inn in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, when I was there in August 2003 (I speak of him in my contribution to the column). He was a wonderful cook and opened his guest house not only to boarders, but dinner guests as well and when I stayed there, he always had a large number of diners coming by. These baked crabs were one of his specialties.

The crabs he used were meaty but not as large as the one I have here. They were about the size of a bar of soap and normally, each diner would be served two of these. I remember Mr Silu saying that he used to fry the stuffed crabs before he got an oven, and that is how many people still prepared it then.

Serves 2-3

2 large blue crabs (about 800g)
½ tsp mustard powder
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 green chillies, finely chopped
½ tsp curry powder
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2cm ginger, finely chopped
1 sprig curry leaves, leaves removed and finely sliced
1 beaten egg
4 tablespoons finely grated cheese (use any hard cheese)
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • Clean the crabs. Remove the carapace carefully and set aside. 
  • Remove the pincers and cut the crabs in half. Steam the crabs for 10 minutes or until the shells turn pink.Cool, then remove the flesh from the shells. Mix the flesh with mustard powder, shallots, chillies, curry powder, and salt and pepper to taste; set aside.
  • Fry garlic, ginger and curry leaves for 1-2 minutes. Add crab flesh; stir-fry until lightly golden. Remove from pan and cool. Preheat oven to 180°C.
  • Mix the egg with the crab. Stuff mixture into shells. Mix cheese and breadcrumbs together; sprinkle over the filling. Bake the stuffed crabs until topping is golden, 12-15 minutes. If the topping browns too quickly, cover the pan with foil to ensure that the filling is heated through. Serve immediately.