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Wave the flag for Italian cookies

Sunday, June 30, 2013

There's a delightful looking biscuit called Italian rainbow cookies, which are often made at Christmas. They have almond paste or ground almonds in them and are in the colours of the Italian flag.
The red, green and white layers are made separately and sandwiched together with apricot jam. Finally, the top and bottom are coated in chocolate. That makes seven layers (3 dough + 2 jam + 2 chocolate), and that's why they are also known as seven-layer cookies.
Well, I decided to forgo the bottom chocolate layer and so there are only six layers to my cookie. Hence, 7-minus-1-layer cookies. And that's why the Roman numeral in the picture at the top is a six.
The recipe for these chewy biscuits can be found all over the Internet. Those recipes use one large sheet pan (33x22cm/13x9") for baking, and because of this, the three layers of biscuit dough have to be baked separately – the pan is lined with baking paper, one layer is baked, removed, and the same pan is lined with paper again, the second layer is baked, and then on to the final layer.
That's too much work for me and raised too many potential problems, especially with a wayward oven that overheats and can cause uneven baking. So I cut down the amount and since I have three shallow 18cm (7") square pans, I baked all three biscuit layers at the same time. 
So why didn't I give the biscuit another layer of chocolate? I really don't know...
Six layers are just as good as seven
Layered Almond Cookies
Makes about 2½ dozen. Based on the Italian seven-layer cookie.

2 eggs, separated
160g sugar, divided
140g butter, softened
½ tsp vanilla extract
65g almond meal (ground almonds)
140g all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
Red and green food dye (liquid or gel)
5-6 tbsp apricot jam
50g chocolate
½ tsp corn syrup

Line 3 shallow 18cm square baking pan with baking paper, with two opposite sides overhanging. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
With electric beaters, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. Continue beating and add 2 tbsp of sugar slowly. Whisk until the meringue is glossy and forms stiff peaks.
Place butter in another mixing bowl. Using the same egg beaters, whip butter and remaining sugar until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Beat in yolks and vanilla until combined, 1 minute.
Combine almond meal, flour and salt, and fold into butter mixture.
Stir a third of the egg whites into the butter mixture to loosen, then fold in the rest of the whites.
Divide batter into three equal parts, about 200g each. Colour one portion red and another green (about ½ tsp liquid or ¼ tsp gel) and leave the third portion natural.
Place the batters into the three prepared pans and bake for 8-10 minutes until cooked but still soft as they will firm up while cooling. Remove from oven and from the pans, and cool on a wire rack (leave the baking paper on).
Warm the apricot jam to loosen it.
Line a tray with greaseproof paper or a silicon mat and upturn the green layer onto it. Peel off the baking paper. Spread with a thin layer of jam and upturn the white layer on top; peel off the baking paper. Spread with jam and upturn the red layer on top; peel off the baking paper.
Cover with cling film and place a tray or baking pan on top of the cling film and weight it down with something heavy to press the layers together. Refrigerate for 8 hours.
Melt the chocolate with the corn syrup in a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water. Remove cling film and spread chocolate on top of the red layer. Chill until chocolate is set. (If making a seven-layer cookie, invert the cookie onto another tray and spread the green layer with chocolate. Chill until set. The chocolate and corn syrup need to be doubled.)
Trim the edges and cut into fingers, about 4cm by 2cm.

Sourdough crêpes with crunch

Friday, June 28, 2013

These crêpes are based on the Malaysian street-food snack called apam balik (apam = pancake; one of the definitions of balik in Malay is to turn over) – a folded pancake traditionally filled with a mixture of peanuts and sugar, but creamed corn can also be added if you ask for it.
There's a thick, puffy version, which, when cooked by experts, have vertical tunnels of air running through the inside of the pancake. That might have something to do with the thick heavy brass pans that apam balik are cooked in – they distribute heat better and food cooked in them don't burn easily. Expert vendors often cook these pancakes six at a time!
There are also thinner, crunchy pancakes called apam balik rangup, which often shatter into splinters and crumbs as you bite into them hot off the vendor's stove – but that's the joy in eating them! These are the crêpes I have attempted in a sourdough version.
I was supposed to make them for the June Sourdough Surprises group challenge and post about them on the 20th of last month. With all that's been happening, it's taken me a while to even make the attempt.
Filled with a peanut-sugar mixture
In a traditional apam balik batter, rice flour is the most important component as it provides the crunch  plus it's a very Asian type of ingredient. I made my batter with about a cup each of fed sourdough starter and rice flour together with cornstarch, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and salt, and added just enough water to make a moderately thick batter. I left it overnight and the next day, it was a little puffy.
Unfortunately, the crêpes didn't turn out as I had hoped. They tasted good, and the crushed peanut and sugar mixture on the inside provided some crunch, but the shell wasn't really crisp. I think it was because I couldn't spread out the batter thin enough. In hindsight, I should have made the batter more runny so it could be swirled around the pan and just coat the base. Next time.
For now, looks like these crêpes are best left to the experts at the pasar malam (night market)!

A bit of culinary Kerala

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

At the time of writing, I should have been packed and ready to fly to Chennai in India, and then on to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in the southern state of Kerala for a short holiday.
Unfortunately, the trip has had to be postponed.
The Husband and I had planned to watch some Kathakali performances, eat Keralan food, visit interested sites, perhaps take a boat in the backwaters, gorge on Keralan seafood, explore markets, browse through bookshops, stuff myself... um, ourselves with Keralan food, and more.
I was disappointed... for a second, because I always remember my late father saying that "everything happens for the best". I've always believed in that and things usually work out. My father's parents were originally from Kerala and came to then British Malaya to work in the rubber estates, so perhaps they're telling me, in spirit, that it's not the right time to visit their homeland. *wink*
It would have been good to get out of Malaysia at this time, though. We are experiencing the worst haze (smog) I can remember. I don't think it has ever been this bad. I look out the glass doors of my flat and just beyond my balcony, I can see the haze pollutants just hanging in the air. Outdoors, it's hard to breathe and my eyes hurt. There's an eerie glow all around, which I would describe as pretty if it wasn't hazardous (in some places, it's at dangerous levels).
Well, if you have to stay in, cooking is always a good way to pass some time. And since I had been looking forward to Keralan food in Kerala but not getting to eat it there, I thought I should make a few dishes at home.
Coconut and green chillies are used a lot in Keralan cooking. A dish that contains both of these ingredients is aviyal, a mixed vegetable curry cooked with a fresh coconut-green chilli spice paste. Root and hardy vegetables like potatoes, plantain, carrots, long beans and drumstick pods are often included. I didn't have any of those so I used French beans, sweet potatoes, cabbage and after I turned off the heat, I added spinach so that it just wilted in the hot curry. I think I added too much water though, so the aviyal is not thick enough. And it should be yellow, which means I didn't add enough turmeric powder.
Fried fish with crisp onions
Kerala is also famous for its seafood dishes. Since there was already the aviyal, which has gravy to mix into rice, I just fried a couple slices of tenggiri fish that had been simply dredged in curry powder, turmeric and salt, and then garnished it with fried crisp onions and curry leaves.
For me, no curry meal can be complete without rasam – a tamarind-based soup. I like my rasam sour because that's what I grew up with, while the Husband prefers rasam that is not so sour. I add hot water to it to thin it down.
Rasam is kind of a tonic, so I always make extra and drink it like a beverage. Taken on its own, I water it down slightly because without the rice, my version can be too sour even for me.
It was a good meal. It wasn't Kerala, but at least I ate well.

Love and hate bring out the passion for muffins

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I'm not a fan of muffins. They seem to be confused about who they are: Are we cake? Are we bread? Scones perhaps? 
I'm not sold on white chocolate either. After all, anything that calls itself something that it isn't is just masquerading.
Despite using the word in the post title, I don't "hate" muffins or white chocolate. They're just not the first things I think of when I want to make or eat something.
But I love passionfruit. Sour and sweet all at the same time.
And when I put what I love with something that I'm not crazy about, the love seems to get spread around and the result is quite appealing. 
The muffin mix can also be made into a loaf cake
I followed this recipe for passionfruit and white chocolate muffins, and the only change I made to the batter was to swap half the melted butter for sunflower oil.
And then I used a jelly cake pan as a mould for a slightly different shape (I guess any little thing helps to take my mind off the fact that these are muffins!). The leftover batter was baked in a mini loaf pan.
I think my icing was a little runny, so it isn't pretty. Other than that though, I liked how this turned out.
* * *
This post has been a long time coming. I have been out of blogging action for a while because I have been so busy with work and too tired to do much of anything else. It's hard to get back into the swing of things when you've been out for a while, and this is one of those times.
Also, I think I have been consuming too much sugar in the form of cakes and sweet snacks and this has some bearing on my current lack of energy. Because I've had little time to prepare my own meals, I have just been grabbing a quick bite of unwholesome – though tasty – food when I can, which, again, isn't beneficial for my well-being.
Having said that though, I don't expect to stop posting on the sweet stuff!

Rice, lentils and crisp onion

Thursday, June 6, 2013

I first made mejadra from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi which I found online. It was adapted from the recipe in his book Jerusalem, written with Sami Tamimi, which I now have and from which I have cooked extensively.
I have prepared a mejadra-like dish many times since then, but have done it in a way that I consider much simpler. The original recipe lists uncooked rice as an ingredient and everything is cooked together like  a paella. I start with already cooked rice, leftover from the day or two before (always have some lying around), so this is like a salad in a way.
I also use the oil used to fry the onions as part of the "dressing"; the original recipe uses fresh oil to cook the spices and rice. But this is such a delicious ingredient, and it's a shame not to use it.
I've used white, brown and even black rice for my dish. I started eating red rice recently (ooh, try saying "red rice recently" quickly three times!) and have used it this time.
As for the lentils, I have used puy lentils and green lentils, which I suspect are the same thing. Although some recipes say to soak them overnight first, I have cooked them immediately after rinsing and they are tender in about 15 minutes.
I suppose this rice would be a side dish to meats and seafood, but I love it on its own as a one-dish meal and so I have added some rocket to it to get in some fresh and raw.
Salad or side dish... either one is fine by me

Rice & Lentils with Crisp Onion
Serves 2

3 tbsp green lentils, rinsed
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tbsp rice flour (or cornstarch)
Vegetable oil
¼ tsp fennel seeds
Large pinch each of ground cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and allspice
1¼ cup cooked rice (coloured rice is nuttier and chewier)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Salad leaves, optional

Place lentils and a pinch of salt in a small pot and cover with water. Cook until tender. Drain the lentils but retain a little of the cooking liquid.
Toss sliced onion with both flours. Heat 2 to 3 tbsp of oil in a frying pan. Shake off excess flour and fry the onion until crisp. Remove onion from pan and transfer to a kitchen paper-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle some salt over it.
Leave about 2 tsp of oil in the frying pan and over low heat stir-fry the fennel seeds and ground spices until fragrant. Add the cooked rice and toss about to coat with the oil and spices. Add the cooked lentils. Add some of the lentil liquid if the mixture sticks to the bottom of the pan. Give it a few tosses and take off the heat. Add salt and plenty of black pepper and toss with the fried onion. Serve as a side dish or with salad leaves as a one-dish meal.

More (and moreish) sourdough brownies

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Everyone has their own favourite brownie recipe, the one some people call "the best brownie recipe ever" or "the ultimate brownie".
I don't doubt that a brownie can be the best ever or the ultimate one. But it is all a matter of taste. Personally, I'm not so keen on really squidgy or pudding-like brownies or the ones with an additional gooey layer slathered on top. If I have to eat it with a fork or keep wiping away the creamy topping or chocolate smears from around my mouth and on my fingers, then I consider that not quite ideal.
I prefer my brownies crisp and crackled on top, and chewy and tender in the middle. Brownies are often referred to as a cross between cake and cookie and that's how I like it. If there's a topping, it should be baked on. I'd like to be able to pick up a brownie with one hand and not have it crumble as I eat it.
These brownies came about because I wasn't satisfied with the Coconut Nut Sourdough Brownies that I made for the Sourdough Surprises baking group challenge. That recipe was adapted from a sourdough-less but very reliable cocoa brownie recipe from Mad About Brownies by Barbara Albright and Leslie Weiner. Well, I did say in that post that I would be tweaking the recipe. 
So I played around with my basic sourdough recipe, and thought about reducing some ingredients and adding others – and changing how they are added – and this is what I came up with.
I think  in fact, I know since I have done it many times before – that it's easy to make ordinary brownies. But it's easy to make extraordinary ones too. 
These cocoa sourdough brownies may not be everyone's idea of the best ever or ultimate brownie, but to my taste, they are.
Crisp top, firm nutty centre
White Chocolate & Almond Sourdough Brownies
Makes 16

25g unfed leaven
55g all-purpose flour
45g tepid water

Mix all the ingredients together, cover and set aside until slightly bubbly, 2-3 hours.

Final batter
25g all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp table salt
150g caster sugar
75g butter, softened
1 egg yolk
2 egg whites
All the sponge (about 110g)
1 tsp vanilla extract
50g unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
90g almond nibs
50g white chocolate, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 20cm square baking tin and line the base and sides with parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, beat together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolk until just combined.
Beat in the sponge and vanilla extract.
Fold in the cocoa powder, followed by the flour mixture and almond nibs.
Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until the soft peak stage. Stir a third of the egg whites into the cocoa mixture to loosen it. Fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and sprinkle with the chopped white chocolate. Press down lightly and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out with just a few crumbs sticking to it.
Cool in the tin on a wire rack until warm, the remove from the tin. Best cut and served after storing overnight in an air-tight container at room temperature.