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Daring Bakers: From Phyllo to Baklava

Monday, June 27, 2011

I've used store-bought phyllo enough times to know that I like it a lot but I only recently made baklava for the first time ­­– with pistachio and coconut from Lori Longbotham's Luscious Coconut Desserts (pictured below). It was an easy process and I knew I would be making the sweet again and again. I've always liked baklava despite the common complaint of it being too sweet ­­– I think the syrup is essential to produce that unique and moreish crisp and chewy texture and flavour.

I like making doughs and pastries from scratch, but I never thought I'd ever make phyllo. This month, the Daring Bakers were given precisely that mission.

Erica of Erica’s Edibles was our host for the Daring Baker’s June challenge. Erica challenged us to be truly DARING by making homemade phyllo dough and then to use that homemade dough to make Baklava.

Here's the Daring Bakers' pdf of the recipe and the whole process. I adapted the coconut-nut filling from the baklava I did before for the confection (filling recipe follows).

Baklava using ready-made phyllo
I'll be honest, for baklava – and other pastries where you want to see those puffy layers – I would use ready-made phyllo dough. Though a little expensive over here, it makes a better-looking baklava, as in the picture on the right of the baklava I made some time ago. Compare it to the picture below. Not very pretty, is it? (Which I why I put it last in this post!)

But it was still enjoyable making phyllo from scratch. Mixing the dough and rolling it out was not difficult. This is a sturdy dough which readily allows itself to be pushed and pulled into compliance. However, I couldn't roll out the sheets evenly. So after the first three sheets, I decided that instead of rolling out all the portions of dough into sheets before lining the tin, I would roll out one portion at a time, lining and brushing with butter as I went along, then layering with the filling before continuing with more pastry sheets and filling. If the dough sheet was a little thick in some places, I would just stretch it gently and cut off the excess at the edge of the tin. In the end, I got quite thin sheets, after all. I rolled out the cut-off dough and made cigars with leftover filling.

To have a go at making your own phyllo dough, go to the pdf link provided earlier. For a filling made with coconut, try out the recipe that follows. The lime syrup is a must ­­– it is really what makes this baklava special. And it makes me want to get up and do the joget (a lively traditional Malay dance)!

Pumpkin seed and coconut baklava with lime syrup
Makes 2 layers for a 20cm square baking tin

1¼ cup shredded coconut
½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped glacé pineapple
2 tablespoons water
½ tablespoon rose water
Pinch of salt
  • Stir all the ingredients together.
Lime Syrup
½ cup caster sugar
100ml water
Large pinch of salt
2 tablespoon lime juice
 ½ tablespoon rose water
  • Put sugar, water and salt into a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Lower heat and simmer syrup for 10 minutes until slightly reduced and thickened. Take off the heat and stir in lime juice and rose water.
  • When baklava has been taken out of the oven and allowed to cool for 10 minutes, sprinkle top with finely minced nuts and pour the syrup evenly over the top. Cool completely on wire rack.

Pink, it's like red but not quite

Monday, June 20, 2011

I often forget what dried goods I have stashed away in my kitchen. I keep a lot of these – left in their original packaging or transferred to glass bottles – in two large basket drawers in an island trolley, but the stuff sometimes get nudged into a corner or under something bigger and are lost from sight. And when you don't see something, you probably will not use it, right? 

I bought a bag of pink peppercorns more than a year ago, put it away and only found it a couple of days ago. As you can see in the picture below, the opening of the plastic bag the peppercorns came in was simply folded over twice and stapled, so I was surprised to find that the berries hadn't gone stale. In fact, they were still potent. 

Here's what GourmetSleuth says about these berries: "Pink peppercorns (Schinus Terebinthifolius) are from Brazil but are not a true peppercorn. They are actually the dried fruit of the Baies Rose. The berries have a sweet peppery flavour and are quite popular in French cuisine. Use in a vinaigrette or crush and use as a coating for a filet mignon or pork tenderloin."

According to Wikipedia, the American Food and Drug Administration banned pink peppercorns in 1982 because they were thought to cause allergic reactions. However, it was later discovered that the toxic berries actually came from another plant and the ban was lifted in 2005.

Pink peppercorns
It so happened, I was channel surfing and came upon Nigella Lawson in the process of making salt and pepper squid. While not a fan of her TV persona, especially in her later shows, I admit I'm okay with the way she cooks. I like fried calamari, but I am no fan of deep frying, so when I saw that Nigella Lawson uses only 1cm of oil when frying the squid, I decided to give the recipe a try, substituting the black variety she used with my pink peppercorns.

I don't know if it was my imagination, but I felt quite lightheaded after having just a couple of those squid rings. Pink is thought to have a happy effect, and as Aerosmith sang, "Pink gets me high as a kite" (the title of this post is also from that song), so perhaps I wasn't completely out of my mind.

The recipe says to bash the Maldon salt and peppercorns together using a mortar and pestle. I roughly pounded the pink peppercorns and then mixed in some flaky sea salt instead, before combining them with cornflour to coat the squid rings and tentacles. While frying, the squid still spit some hot oil at me, but I used long tongs and stood quite a way back from the stove so only my arms got spattered.

It was worth it. I wish I had a little fresh lime or lemon juice to squeeze over the squid after they came out of the hot oil, but they were still good without it. Don't forget to drain the used oil through a sieve to collect all those crunchy salt and pepper bits that floated off the squid when you put them into the pan they're delicious!

Sass up your supper

Monday, June 13, 2011

Under the Don't Call Me Chef column in the newspaper I work at, my co-producers and I started three new recipe series to coincide with the paper's revamp on May 27. Veggie Chick started off the first "Singled Out" segment with her sandwich recipes, and Hungry Caterpillar followed a week later with a food and travel story on Taipei in the segment called "On The Road". The last new segment is "Review", which is not really new because we used to review only cookbooks before but have now expanded the series to include other food-related items such as gadgets, recipe blogs and cooking shows on TV.

I was actually supposed to come out with the first Singled Out column for the initial revamp date on Feb 14, and I had fun writing about cooking for one on a day meant for couples. Unfortunately, the revamp was postponed, but I'm keeping my story on file. Maybe for Valentine's Day next year. (Actually, Singled out isn't just for someone cooking only for themselves; it also focuses on a specific ingredient, cooking method, or food item.)

Anyway, my new story appears in print today. The quick tomato sauce I feature is good on its own, but can also be transformed into other sauces with a few additions as shown in the two other recipes in the article. As promised in that story, here are a couple more recipes. For some reason, I went Mexican and made guacamole and salsa cruda (both recipes are adapted from 500 Mexican Recipes by Judith Fertig). Maybe because I happen to have all the ingredients at hand. In fact, I found some Roma tomatoes at my neighbourhood grocer and they taste really good. Italian tomatoes in a Mexican dish ­­– eating around the world at home.

The quesadillas in the picture above are made with the two condiments: Heat a little oil in a skillet. Place a flour tortilla into the skillet, spread with a thin layer of guacamole and salsa cruda, and sprinkle with grated cheese. When the cheese starts to melt, fold one half of the tortilla over the other into a half moon; serve cut into wedges.

Dip away!
Makes about 375ml. Serve right away as guacamole can discolour as it sits.

2 large ripe avocado
160g fresh tomatoes, chopped*
3 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander
2 fresh jalapeño peppers^, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • Halve, pit, peel and slice the avocados into a bowl. With a fork, mash the avocados with the remaining ingredients until chunky but well blended. Serve with tortilla chips or as a garnish for other dishes.
* Use cherry tomatoes in red and yellow for colour.
^ Use long green chillies as a substitute.

Salad supremo
Makes about 500ml

2 cloves garlic, minced
40g finely chopped onions
75g chopped green pepper
75g chopped cucumber
1 fresh jalapeño pepper*, stemmed, deseeded and finely chopped
10g fresh chopped coriander
450g firm ripe tomatoes, stemmed and chopped
Juice of 2 limes
Salt and pepper
  • Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste and leave to sit at room temperature until ready to serve.
* Use long green chillies as a substitute.

Cookie counter

Monday, June 6, 2011

AND THE TURTLE PULLS AHEAD... a cookie and two bars
We all know what's it like. When you're out of it, there's nothing anyone can do to help. You just have to wait it out.

My enthusiasm for cooking went away for a while. I don't know why and I don't know how. And it wasn't just all those things I love doing in the kitchen; it was everything I knew about cooking and baking, and all my interest in food (I rarely visited cooking sites and recipe blogs and even neglected my own). They all just left.

Everything I cooked tasted terrible, my breads (and people who know me know I am crazy about breadmaking) were either hard or gummy, and one batch of buns I made were so salty though I don't remember adding more salt than usual.

On top of that, my oven went on the blink. A non-functioning oven is, of course, one of the biggest misfortunes for any avid baker. The trouble started when it wouldn't heat from the bottom. Later, the top started overheating. Only certain dishes can be cooked in the oven now. Breads are okay, since they do well in high heat, and cookies are all right, since they only take minutes to bake. But cakes are out ­­– the centre hardly cooks. And that's the reason the Tiger Brownies here look terrible.

Oh yes, the cookie and two bars in the picture above. I'll come to those in a bit.

Long story short, I'm back to cooking and baking and happily being in the kitchen now. My oven is still wonky, but I'll have to use it until I put my new one in.

Right, the cookie and bars. The theme for the June issue of Don't Call Me Chef was "road trip". My story was on food aptly named for travel, and I featured Rocky Road Chunky Chews. The other three snacks that I mentioned are featured here.

First up is a Happy Trails Bar. These are high-fibre granola/muesli bars and use whole wheat instead of white flour. With all the nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, they're healthy and great to snack on anytime of the day. I have a set of recipe books from Pillsbury and one of the books has a recipe for apple sauce granola bar. I have adapted the recipe below from that one. On the Pillsbury website, however, there is a recipe for Crunchy Trail Mix Bars which has a topping of cereal.
A bar that's full of energy
½ cup butter, at room temperature
½ cup firmly packed soft brown sugar
½ cup apple sauce*
1 egg
1 cup fine whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon allspice
¾ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup trail mix^
  • Preheat oven at 180°C. Grease a 24cm square baking tin.
  • Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in apple sauce and egg; blend well.
  • Sift flour, allspice, bicarbonate of soda and salt together; add to the butter mixture and mix well.
  • Stir in trail mix. Spread into prepared tin and bake for 20-25 minutes until cooked. Cool completely before cutting into bars.
* Cut peeled apples into cubes; place in a saucepan with a tiny bit of water and cook until soft enough to mash; purée. Store tightly covered in the fridge.
^ Mix your choice of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and grain together. The one used here is a combination of sliced almonds, sunflower seeds, dried coconut, dates and crystallised ginger.

Next are Tiger Brownies. As you can see from the picture, the tiger stripes (made from cream cheese) are not at all distinct. The bottoms of the brownies are also undercooked and I admit, I had to smoosh two bars together for them to look a little presentable. So I am cheating here with the picture.
A brownie that earns its stripes
However, I have made these before when the oven was fine, and they turned out well. The Pillsbury website has a recipe for Tiger Brownies that utilises a fudge brownie mix (the picture on the site looks delicious!). There are lots of recipes from scratch online (look for cream cheese swirl brownies and colour the cream cheese mixture with food gel ­­– mix yellow and red together as in the Pillsbury recipe).

Finally, I mentioned Turtle Cookies in my article. After the Rocky Road Chews, these were my favourite snack to make because of the amusing shape. The cookie dough is good even without the turtle's head and feet, but why omit them, right?
A cookie that makes you smile 

One of my Pillsbury books has a recipe for Snappy Turtle Cookies. Since the recipe is also online at Pillsbury's website, I am directing you there. I followed it to a T(urtle!)