Category Archives: Oops

Embracing the spirit of French cooking

I had my first French meal and I never got over it.
~ Julia Child

I remember only a few things about my first trip to France. Being fascinated and enamoured by the French dish and its name – soupe de poisson (fish soup). Discovering the folly of eating at McDonalds in France (never to be repeated). Trying to enjoy the view from the Eiffel tower while the cold wind whipped my hair into a formidable tangle.

Then, I was a child too young to grasp the notion of romance, or the charm of the French spirit and culture. I was cold, and unaccustomed to eating so much dairy, or indeed, what seemed to be very rich food no matter where we went. I focused on the wrong things, like trying to spot signs in English, or getting my parents to buy me a miniature Eiffel Tower to take home. I ate escargot In Lyon without fuss – thanks to my food-loving family – but without the appreciation for the novelty of eating escargot in France which I would now have.

Years later, the magic of France would once again beckon, this time through a friend asking me to join her at the Alliance Française for evening classes. She had recently fallen for a French man. I rolled my eyes but oui, I went along. And twice, after class, we took the train down to a little French restaurant nestled in Little India in Singapore where we ate – I forget what now, except that our meals were unbelievably delicious. As life will have it, mere weeks later, I encountered a French man who – despite my inhibitions – managed to make me lose my head briefly. Alas! My friend had told me it would happen. She had warned me that I would find a French man “irresistible”. No, that will never happen to me, I had said to her, I will vomit if someone is too romantic. Also, it would be such a cliché.

Never be proud. Never say never. Or you’ll have to eat your words one heavy morsel at a time … c’est la vie

I went back to Paris in 2010 with my friend Annisha, after I spent a few days visiting her in London. We were there for a day. Our brief visit was nice but a little less than what we had hoped it would be. Annisha was feeling quite ill, we were so cold we could hardly think, and we were not successful in getting to the places we had hoped to see. The main redeeming moment for me was us, lost and hungry, stumbling upon a small humble hole-in-the-wall shop that turned out to have the most stunning slice of Tarte Aux Pommes.


From my visit in 2010

Here we are in 2017 and my heart aches for some of the things that have taken place and are taking place in beautiful France (not to mention the rest of the world). Yet as I pen this post I know that there are some things which will endure for as long as the French spirit endures. Her timeless beauty, her rich history, her elegance, her decadence, her soul, her charm, her deep connection with the seasons, her rituals, her ability to celebrate the everyday, to name a few …

For some reason France has been on my mind a lot of late, and yesterday, looking at some leftover wine from our dinner party last week, I decided to try making a version of coq au vin. I can hardly describe how good it smells frying sliced white onions and diced carrots in a pan just recently used to fry tiny strips of bacon and brown a few wine-stained chicken pieces. Sadly the finished dish did not turn out as I had hoped, despite the good smells and presence of good wine and a pretty bouquet garni. I had not followed any one recipe for it in particular, but I have definitely learned now that it is not a dish that deals well with indecision or an attempt to shortcut the process. It is a simple dish, but it is not easy … it is not a dish you can make without presence of mind and attention to detail. I have no doubt a well-made coq au vin would make a memorable meal … some time I will try again.

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After spending the afternoon in the kitchen, I asked my husband if he would come with me to visit the Green Bay Street Food market. We went along, it was delightful, and – still in French mode – I could not resist a crêpe with Nutella from the friendly couple running The Fab Truck. Verdict: C’est délicieux!

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This morning I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, having had a series of unsettling dreams. For some reason or other I found myself looking up Julia Child’s recipe for scrambled eggs online. I then went into the kitchen, placed a saucepan on medium-low heat, and slid a generous chunk of butter into the saucepan. While it melted with a pleasing aroma, I beat two eggs quickly in a bowl with a dash of salt and pepper and slid a slice of frozen bread into the toaster. Swirling the butter in the saucepan until it evenly coated the bottom, I poured the eggs in, and cut up some leftover chives I had in the fridge. I stirred the mix with a wooden spoon, watching as the bottom started to cook – at which I added in a dribble of milk and gave it a slow stir again. The slice of toast popped out nicely brown. I put it on a plate with a sprinkle of grated cheese, and stirred the soft egg mixture again till it looked almost done. I took the saucepan off the heat, ladled the egg on to the toast, added the chopped chives over the lot … and found The Cure for Unsatisfactory Sleep.

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… And perhaps gained a little more practical understanding of the spirit of French cooking: taking care and effort, being unafraid, allowing elegance and simplicity to meet in a dish as simple as scrambled eggs.

Bonne journée.

Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.
~ Julia Child

Broken

Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
~ Fanny Crosby

I am having one of those weeks where nearly nothing goes right in the kitchen.

Mmmmmm… or not.

I can’t even talk about the two banana cakes… and just this morning, I wasted a couple of good eggs whilst attempting to make tiramisu. Le sigh! Butter fingers and brains, be gone! Kitchen coordination fairy, please return! :-(

On a separate note: I’ve been eating lots of lovely persimmons off the plants of family and friends – thankfully fruit don’t need much help to taste good, given my current lack of kitchen coordination. And pictured above is my most recent fruit discovery at the farmers’ market: the ice cream fruit, which I found lightly reminiscent of (but not comparable to) one of my favourite fruits – the custard apple or cherimoya. Interesting, as my friend Ariel put it – it tastes like an overripe pear… not sure it caused me to fall in love with it, but I’m glad I tried it, since its name would have lingered on in my consciousness for weeks otherwise.

And that’s all for now. Hope you are all having a lovely (and warm, if you are in NZ) day!

Walking on a cake dream

Let’s face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people; it does for me.
~ Audrey Hepburn

The cake aliens have arrived with one mission: to turn me into Planet Cake. Will I retaliate, escape my fate, and live to tell the tale? We shall see…

Right now, I have three kinds of cake in my kitchen – (1) fountain mini no-bake cheesecakes in the fridge, (2) Smitten Kitchen’s strawberry summer cake, and (3) Ottolenghi’s chocolate fudge cake (currently at stage two in the oven).

This is the fountain cheesecake, so named due to its consistency. I made it without a recipe, just for fun, from due-to-expire cream cheese, sour cream and cream in the fridge. I added honey and an egg to the cheese mix, poured it on an impromptu base of biscuits and melted butter, and topped it all with Hakanoa ginger syrup and a slice of green kiwifruit. Not bad taste-wise, according to my sweet flatmate, but the texture needs some work!

We’re having a bake off at work tomorrow, and from serving as Guest Judge at previous bake offs, I know I’ll be up against formidable competition. So I turned to a blog that has often inspired me – Smitten Kitchen.

I haven’t tried this cake, but I can tell you that it is a minimum-fuss, sweet-smelling cake involving pretty fruit… also, when it is a Smitten Kitchen recipe – you don’t have much to worry about :-)

I did use less sugar than what the recipe stated though. One cup looked like a bit much!

And now, chocolate fudge cake. This is a birthday gift for E, a person whom I am so grateful exists. E is truly herself, bold, bearer of truth and love… I respect her as much as I love her.

Among my favourite memories is the one where we dressed up as cows and went to a party when we were in uni… you know, even if you find a person who is willing to do this with you (and I promise you I haven’t met many such courageous folk) – not everyone makes the experience gigglingly fun.

Now she is wife to a great man and mother to a baby who actually, miraculously, awakens my mostly dormant maternal instincts… I use the word “miraculously” because most babies do not manage to do this.

This cake is a twice baked, dark chocolate cake (I used both 50% and 72% cocoa content Whittaker’s chocolate) which is decadent in every way – rich, deep, extravagant and sweet, the way E has been to me.

And of course the recipe is from Ottolenghi – The Cookbook (page 196). I made two modifications to the recipe: (1) having no light muscovado sugar, I mixed dark muscovado and caster sugar, and (2) I had to set up an impromptu bain-marie to melt the butter/choc which I should have cut into “small pieces” as listed in the recipe.

I don’t have a picture of the final cake as it’s still baking in the oven… but it will be dusted with cocoa tomorrow, and I will try to take a picture then. Just for you.

P.S. Beware of the cake aliens. They don’t like being told to go away.

In other (non-cake) news:

    NZ bloggers who are attending the inaugural NZ Food Bloggers’ Conference this weekend – I hope you have a SUPER time and wish I could join you! I’ll look forward to reading all about it.
    Auckland readers – eat well and do good this Saturday – see Garden to Table. A portion of the $ will go towards supporting programmes in NZ primary schools to teach children to grow, harvest, prepare and share food through gardening and cooking.
    “It’s more expensive but your budget is tight, you believe in supporting sustainable products but what does that ‘Go Green’ sticker actually mean?” – from ‘Greenwashing’: consumers beware. Interesting read, and one that begs more thought… does sustainability matter to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts/point of view.

Perfume: spray on self, spare from mouth

You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.
~ Thomas More

At one point two nights ago, I contemplated whether the taste in my mouth was more likely to kill someone or wake the dead.

That night, I learned a very important lesson: when working with an ingredient for the first time, it is better to go slow. Perhaps even taste it first.

I should have known when I took my first whiff of the open bottle, recently acquired from a trip to Sabato. In fact, “this is potent stuff” was the thought that immediately leaped into my brain… so I’m not sure what prompted me to use a full tablespoon of it on my dinner that evening. I can tell you that the flavour of it invaded my airway and filled me with a keen sense of desperation mingled with stupid thoughts.

It sure started off innocently enough. I halved two nectarines, washed a few spears of asparagus (finally got my first Spring bunch!), took out some prawns. I arranged these on a lined baking tray, drizzled some oil on the lot and grilled everything for around five minutes before plating it and adding some diced feta, lemon zest, fresh minced garlic and black pepper. I then put together a dressing inspired by Ottolenghi’s Cookbook (speaking of, I recently got a FANTASTIC bundle of cookbooks… but more on that another time).

The dressing consisted of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, oil and orange blossom water.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: Careful now with the orange blossom water. Less is infinitely more.

I cannot hope to describe what it was like eating this, but it went a little like this: (1) I was excited about my dinner (before I opened my mouth to eat it). (2) Some bites later, the excitement gave way to a few seconds of general unease. (3) I suddenly felt as alarmed as if my hair was on fire. Actually, I’m pretty sure that if my hair did catch fire I might have felt similar.

I tried to remember when food last managed to make me feel this way. Was it when I tried chou dou fu (fermented tofu) in China? Or when I bit into a peculiar pork stew cooked by a well-meaning friend? (Two bites into this meal, he told me it contained berry jam and an entire tub of sour cream. “Aren’t they [jam and sour cream] substitutes for chutney and yoghurt? They kind of look the same,” he said).

Anyway. On the orange blossom water. When the alarm kicked in, I knew that I had to do something. Fast. My senses were rapidly being overtaken by a field of flowers. It’s not as romantic as it sounds. My throat, tongue, ears, airway all felt like they were ablaze with perfume. The sort that you should wear on your clothes.

I’m almost a bit embarrassed to tell you the next bit, but I ran a running tap over my remaining nectarine, feta, asparagus and prawns and fried it all with a heavy shake of Moroccan spices, chilli flakes and garlic, then doused it all with lemon juice (yes… I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking). I chewed on cloves of raw garlic. I ate teaspoons of sauce. I brushed my teeth multiple times.

When I went to bed, I was still exhaling perfume.

Unswirly

Dear Cheesecake Brownie,

I know pleasure should be derived as much from the journey as from the destination – but I cannot hide my disappointment. See, I’d love to say I am wholly pleased with how you turned out, but the truth is… I am not (even though I do accept all the blame in this instance).

I am sorry that I swirled you so much with a rough wooden spoon instead of a sleek dull knife or dainty spatula… how I regretted it the moment your surface turned into a slushy brown! It took just a few seconds to ruin your face. I wanted to turn back time and swirl you again, carefully this time…

When I took you out from the oven, it was with a mildly heavy heart that I did so:

I mean… you could have looked like this instead! If only I had been more careful. (last image (c) David Lebovitz, recipe here)

You do, however, still taste quite nice ;-)

Swiiiiirrrrirl.

Oven-baked French Toast (or pudding?)

I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.
~ Eartha Kitt

Someone I know through work recently emailed me this: “I have just recently come to understand the journey is just as important as the destination.” How I love that. We were discussing the mysteries of life, but I am so reminded of his wise words as I write this post now!

I decided to invite a few friends around for brunch in the weekend – so on Friday, I went to buy ingredients for Oven-Baked French Toast and spent a glorious half hour preparing it.

It was the most beautiful night. Honestly. Listening to the pitter-patter of rain falling outside while slicing bread, zesting an orange, sprinkling raisins and almonds, whisking milk with eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and a tiny amount of Baileys… It felt like a dream, and I was so looking forward to sharing perfect French Toast with my friends the next morning.

I arranged everything in the baking dish, glad-wrapped it and left the bread to soak in custard heaven while I slept…

Nothing could go wrong, right? Nothing. I awoke on Saturday morning with a smile on my face, and the French Toast still looked good as I slipped it into the oven. I even had time to toss 4 plates in the oven to warm them while the French Toast was baking. I had juice and coffee prepared. My friends arrived on time. Cutlery was on the table.

Within minutes, I smelled the awful smell none of us like at all – the odour of something burning. Gah, stupid raisins!! I really should’ve made a double-layered French Toast after all.

Worse still, in my haste to save the raisins, I put a layer of foil on the whole thing and baked it some more.

For Saturday brunch, we had soggy pudding with scorched raisins. My friends finished everything on their plates. A firm reminder of them being WONDERFUL people – and friends.

Well. This wasn’t so fun to eat, but it was a very fun journey (part of it anyway!) and the road to perfecting a delicious brunch continues…!

Things I can think of to make a more pleasurable oven-baked French Toast in future: try a different bread (a soft loaf, perhaps?) and form two layers of it with the raisins hidden in the middle. Aluminium foil should not be allowed to interfere with the cooking process either.

Does anyone have oven-baked French Toast tips to share? ;-)

Chocolate and Herb Infused Imsomnia

Ever close your eyes
Ever stop and listen
Ever feel alive
And you’ve nothing missing
You don’t need a reason
Let the day go on and on
~ Enya, Wild Child lyrics

Dear Imsomnia,
I wish I could wish you away with a snap of my fingers, or drown you in a river of champagne, or set you a-sailing on the back of a yellow rubber ducky.

The minutes tick on, and you grow in my mind – a mountain reaching far beyond the highest storm clouds.

I am going to conquer you. Someday soon.

Even if meanwhile I have to bake a cake on tiptoe while my flatmates frolic in Dreamland.

Sincerely,
me

* Pictured above: chocolate cake with rubbed basil, marjoram, thyme; caster & muscovado sugar. Frosting: a rich dark chocolate buttercream.

Inspirations: here and here (Thank you Camilla and Deb).