February 22, 2011

Russian Twix: "Twixels"

Found these today in my local supermarket: Orange and chocolate Twixels all the way from Moscow, Russia.

Twixels are basically small elongated Twix. They look more elegant (could pass as dinner party nibbles) and are less chewy due to their thinness. They tasted basically the same as regular Twix but with less caramel. OK, but not sure I would buy these again as I'm trying to cut down on candies and sweets (I prefer saving my calories and money for higher quality splurges).

February 19, 2011

Going bananas

The supermarket here sells the usual Cavendish bananas but they occasionally stock other varieties, including the popular "emperor" bananas (small and sweet bananas with thin peel and little thready fibre) which you can find across Asia. Red bananas, on the other hand, are relatively more exotic (at least for me in Hong Kong). The supermarket here labels these as "Moroccan red bananas" but it seems that these are grown in Asia as well.

As for the flavor, they're a bit firmer and less mealy/mushy than regular Cavendishes. While they're still sweet and have the familar banana flavour, I thought the red ones had a little more tartness and complexity to them which I don't find in the normal yellow Cavendish.

Have you ever wondered why you can buy different kinds of apples, pears, potatoes and melons, but across the (developed) world, you usually can only buy one kind of banana (the Cavendish)? The reason for the domination of the Cavendish banana in supermarkets is mainly because of its hardiness/ability to withstand long-distance transport and ease of propagation. However, the whole banana issue is pretty complex - when you are dependent on only one single type of banana, you render the commercial crop vulnerable to pests/disease [viz. the Irish dependency on potatoes that caused the potato famine in the 1800s]). Also, the Cavendish is a relatively bland flavour, but it is popular because it is easy to ship and keeps for a long time. This means that consumers have sacrificed variety and taste in favour of convenience and mass production.

I find this kind of social info pretty fascinating because I believe that we take so many conveniences for granted in our 21st century lives.

For example, in Hong Kong, Sunkist oranges from California still dominate the market, even though it would probably be simpler and more cost-effective to buy fresh oranges grown in Asia/closer to home. Also, how can oranges/apples/strawberries shipped thousands of miles across the Pacific arrive in stores so fresh and sold at such a relatively low cost? Oranges from California at 40 US cents each? Apples from Washington state for US 30 cents each? I suspect that some of these costs, e.g. pollution and waste, is being passed on to the public and on to nature and is not being reflected in the supermarket sticker price.

And why doesn't China start growing high-quality perishable fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and other "Western" fruit? I'm sure there is a huge market in Asia for reasonably priced "luxury" fruits. I would totally buy blueberries grown in the region rather than blueberries flown all the way from Chile (which is what you currently get in the stores here for US$0.60 - $1.20 per 125g carton - how can they sell them so cheap?!).

Actually there are many types of bananas: at my parents' home in Hong Kong, they grow the common banana (or "big banana" in Cantonese), which is fatter and shorter than the Cavendish. It's also tart with only a mild sweetness which I like as it's not overwhelming. The ones my parents grow also occasionally produce black seeds. When was the last time you saw seeds in your supermarket banana?

Confession: my parents merely tend the banana plants, which grow wild in many places in Hong Kong. It's mainly transplanting the offshoots [bananas can reproduce by seeds which are genetically different or by offshoots which are clones] to avoid overcrowding, harvesting bananas and chopping down the trunks/stems to make room for new plants once the fruit is harvested as each plant usually only produces a single hand of fruit.

If you're interested in reading more about the commercial banana and the current challenge to the global crop caused by an infectious fungus, I highly recommend a recent New Yorker article from January 2011 by Mike Peed: We Have No Bananas (Scientists fight a devastating banana blight) -- subscription might be required but you can see a related short video for free on the magazine's Tumblr site (also pretty interesting).

February 13, 2011

Stecca - Jim Lahey's little baguettes

I used to be afraid of making bread, despite years of baking quick breads, cakes and cookies. The prospect of baking with yeast filled me with anxiety - what if the bread didn't rise? What if it just didn't taste right? I think the idea of working with a living organism was a tiny bit intimidating, to say the least.

Jim Lahey, via Mark Bittman, was the baker whose methods helped me lose my fear of working with yeast and making real bread. Now I've a convert and race through bags of flour and countless sachets of yeast. From pizzas to cinnamon rolls, Jim Lahey has opened up a whole new world of baking for me.

This is one of his easier no-knead bread recipes. As it's a essentially a small, flatter baguette with simple toppings, almost a cross between puffy breadstick and focaccia, there's much less anxiety about having the bread rise to the towering magnificence of the boule (round country loaf).

You can find the recipe at the blog Steamy Kitchen, which is where I first found the recipe. I've now bought Jim Lahey's My Bread book, which is the original source.

It makes an amazing country-style baguette (or giant breadstick, I guess you could call it) and is a good recipe to try if you're a relative beginner (like me) to baking with yeast. Actually it's good even if you are experienced with yeast, as it's an easy and tasty crusty bread that looks quite impressive and will awe your friends/family while the effort involved is quite minimal. Time does all the work for you.

PS As Jaden on Steamy Kitchen noted, this baguette might go soft relatively quickly after baking due to the sea salt and olive oil on top. To crisp it back up, put it in a toaster oven for 5-10 minutes. Perfect!

Here's the dough after the first rise.

Here's the dough on the baking sheet after the second rise, shaping, and adding toppings and olive oil.

Here's the dough after it comes out of the oven. The top one is garlic; the bottom is cherry tomato. Both are sprinkled with Maldon sea salt.

Door Door nougat - the best nougat I've ever had

The above picture might not look like much, but the unassuming little piece of nougat you see before you is SERIOUSLY the best nougat I've ever eaten!

Chewy but yielding rather than jaw-breaking, sweet but not sickeningly so, with a light layer of chocolate on top, and crunchy but not overbearing peanuts....it all adds up to nougat perfection.

Let me add that normally, I'm not a nougat kind of gal. I was a nougat Goldilocks - the different brands I tried before were all either too chewy or too crunchy/splintery. Unexpectedly, I've discovered the nougat that was just right.

There is a little story behind my nougat revelation:

In December, a close friend from college held her wedding celebrations in Hong Kong. A few of our mutual friends (my group of girlfriends) came from China, US and Thailand to attend the wedding banquet. As I had some free time, I met up with the ladies to shop, eat and get our hair done. You know, the stereotypical things that women do when they get together.

A, who had flown in from Bangkok, asked if we could go to this bakery to buy nougat. Sure, we all said; as we are all Asians, we understand the foodie obsession and think nothing of traveling far for delicious eats.

A: "It's called Door Door and it's in Mei Foo."
The rest of us: "?"

Now, understand that despite having been born, grown up and now returned to Hong Kong for 9 years, I had never heard of this place. In addition, Mei Foo is far off the usual tourist radar - it's a non-descript private housing estate about half an hour by MTR train from the usual shopping districts.

A then went on to explain that every time her Thai friends visit Hong Kong, they make a pilgrimage to this small family-owned bakery and cafe to buy the nougat. One of our group, Y, actually lived in Mei Foo but had never bought nougat at Door Door, so she offered to buy some and bring it over the next day.

The next day, Y came laden with heavy carrier bags of nougat. There were a few types:

1. Original peanut (shown in above picture)
2. Chocolate crispy (chocolate Rice Krispies sandwiched between original peanut nougat)
3. Coffee (a mocha style nougat with maple undertones)

The clear winner was the chocolate crispy nougat, as the crunchy chocolate krispies cut through the chewy sweetness of the nougat. It's incredibly more-ish - so much so that I went myself to Mei Foo the next week and bought 4 boxes of nougat to give to other friends, though unsurprisingly, I ended up eating a lot of them myself.

They also have a (healthier?) prune and cashew nougat which I haven't yet tried...not sure if it'll be a tad too healthy for my liking!

The moral of this little story is that if people from another country are willing to visit a previously-unheard-of little bakery out in the suburbs, then you would be a fool not to give it a try too!

Door Door Bakery (多多麵飽西餅)
G/F 65 Broadway Street
Mei Foo Sun Chuen
Kowloon, Hong Kong

February 5, 2011

Quest for home-made pizza

February 4, 2011: tomato, basil, onion, sopressata pizza before it entered the oven

Until Paisano's came along last year, you could not, for love or money, get decent New York-style pizza in Hong Kong. If you've ever had proper New York-style pizza you'll understand how much of a tragedy this was. My pizza cravings went unsatisfied by the meagre local offerings: Pizza Hut (ick!), Spaghetti House (gross), Pepperonis (mediocre but better than nothing), and Pizza Express (nice UK/Continental thin crust, but not the same as a New York plain slice). Oh for a proper New York cheese pizza, or for the white pies of Connecticut. I still have fantasies over an Italian sausage & caramelized onion white pizza that I had several years ago at the Fat Cat Pie Co. in Norwalk, CT. Other girls might dream of Brad Pitt, but I can't get that memory of those perfectly browned onions on a light, thin, crispy crust, out of my mind. (Yes, I'm sick and have an addiction! I freely admit it!)

After experimenting with baking bread at home, I had a Eureka! moment when I realized that pizza is essentially just flat thin bread with toppings, which meant I could probably make it at home. This meant I could make white pizzas, plain cheese pizzas, margherita pizzas...the world was my oyster pizza.

For me, pizza is all about the crust and the dough. I like my crust to be light and airy, crispy but not too chewy. I can't bear spongy or soggy pizza bases. I tried a couple of dough recipes but was never satisfied with the results (too bready, too soft, too ....). Finally, I found the GOLD recipe for pizza dough and now that I've found it, I'm going to stick with it.

Unless you've been hiding under a metaphorical rock for the past few years, you've probably heard of Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, made famous by Mark Bittman at the New York Times. It's not surprising then that the easiest and best recipe for pizza, which is at its most basic just a yeasted flat bread with toppings, also comes courtesy of Jim Lahey and his Sullivan Street Bakery.

I don't use a pizza stone or peel or any fancy equipment, just a baking sheet greased with olive oil. I never thought I could make decent pizza in a mini convection oven so I bow down and worship at Jim Lahey's feet. (OK, that might be overdoing it a bit but seriously, I am soooo happy to be able to make decent pizza at home and satisfy my pizza cravings!)

Here's a link to the recipe but I usually use my copy of Jim Lahey's book, My Bread, which gives slightly different instructions.

The base is essentially the same (the main difference is how thin or thick you stretch the base crust), so I've been playing around with different toppings.

May 26, 2010: Semi-white pizza with fresh tomatoes but no tomato sauce. I'm very partial to a good pizza bianca - it's less heavy than sauced pizzas.

December 21, 2010: Jon's favourite, with a LOT of cheese (mix of Cheddar, Parmesan, and Mozzarella) and tomato sauce. The uglier cousin due to the molten cheese and tomato that oozes everywhere, but undeniably finger-lickin' good. This one has portabello mushrooms and spicy Italian sausage.

I'm still experimenting with different toppings and crust thickness: these might not be true New York-style pizzas, but I find them pretty damn tasty. :)

Next post will be for another Jim Lahey recipe that's one of my favourite pot-luck and party standby: stecca with garlic and cherry tomatoes.

February 4, 2011

Kitto Katsu (Japanese Kit Kats)

Japanese Kit Kats: (top to bottom)

- Blueberry cheesecake
- Wasabi
- Matcha green tea

Not pictured (already eaten!):
- Japanese red apple

In Japan, Kit Kats are given to students before they take exams, as the name Kit Kat is similar to the Japanese for "sure win" - きっと勝つ "Kitto Katsu".

Thanks Mayumi-san for bringing these from Tokyo!

February 3, 2011

Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, Nanjing, Suzhou


My family is originally from Shanghai - Zhujiajiao (朱家角) water town in Qingpu (青浦) district to be precise. (Well, further back another few hundred years we are from Manchuria but for the past 700 years Shanghai has been the family "ancestral town".) My aunt and cousin still live in Shanghai, and my brother and his girlfriend were visiting from the US so we made a short trip up there to visit the old hometown.

Jon and I only went for two days because of work, but the others went for four days. They also went to Hangzhou to the West Lake, which I went to back in 2008, I think.

Anyway, not much to say about Shanghai - modern, polluted, expensive, lots of good food, and lots of photo-taking opportunities.

Here are the photos from Nanjing and Suzhou first as Blogger seems to have a photo limit:

Jon taking a photo of the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Nanjing.

Sun Yat-sen is considered to be the father of modern-day China. Personally I find it a slightly creepy Communist propaganda tactic to put their embalmed leaders on display (Lenin, Stalin, Mao...). Sun Yat-sen's body is not on display but his marble sarcophagus is. I guess you never stop working in the service of the people, even after death!

The Nanjing massacre memorial. (An estimated 300,000 people were killed by the invading Japanese forces.)

KFC street advertising in Suzhou

Our gluttonous, gourmet banquet in Zhujiajiao. I love Shanghai food - my mom makes it sometimes at home. My favourites are the Dongbo pork belly and the bamboo, but frankly, I love it all!

You can rent these boats to go up and down the canals.

Making pork belly wrapped in bamboo leaf.

Despite it being a bit touristy these days with souvenir shops, new cafés and art galleries, Zhujiajiao is still home to quite a few people.

You can see many more photos here.

February 2, 2011

Gougères (Cheese puffs)

I first had gougères at Caprice, the 3-star Michelin French restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong (you can read my review of that meal here). My first bite of hot cheesy puffiness and I was in love...

I tried to recreate the same feelings at home, with some success. It's all about the cheesy puffy holes (like a cheesy savory choux puff). Best served warm.

This Alain Ducasse recipe works wonderfully - my local supermarket doesn't carry Gruyère so I used Parmesan instead, but otherwise I followed the recipe exactly. This type of pastry is called pâte à choux/choux pastry - similar to that used in éclairs, cream puffs, profiterôles, etc.

After making these a few times, I do have a few suggestions if you want to use this recipe:

  • Sift the flour before using (actually, do this for EVERY recipe that calls for flour)
  • Bring butter and eggs to room temperature before using. It really makes a difference.
  • Don't be tempted to use more cheese in the dough than the recipe calls for. (Otherwise your puffs may be a bit too heavy and the holes won't be nice and large and airy.)
  • I think any of your favourite semi-dry/firm cheeses would work here, not just Gruyère - I've used both Parmesan and Comté with success.

  • When heating the milk, butter and salt in the pan, dice the butter first so it melts quickly and evenly. Don't let the mixture foam up.
  • Dump the flour all in at once and stir with brisk motion until you don't see any white bits of flour any more and it becomes a drier dough in the shape of a ball (it comes away from the sides of the pan). There may be a white film on the bottom of the pan - don't scrape it in. The drier the dough, the puffier your gougères will be.
  • This cooked dough is called a panade.
  • When adding eggs, don't worry if it doesn't combine with the dough at first and looks like it "curdles" - just keep stirring.
  • From personal experience: do NOT hold pastry bag in one hand and try to transfer hot dough from bowl using spatula/spoon with other hand. Recipe for disaster: spillage of hot dough on countertop, fingers, etc. guaranteed. After losing a batch of dough this way (and almost breaking out in tears from trying to force the sticky dough into the bag), the magic of Google showed me that you can place the pastry bag upright in a tall glass and then spoon the dough in. Definitely going to try this next time! Also tying the other end of the bag is a MUST..
  • Careful cooling of the puffs is important otherwise they might deflate. I would open the oven door to let the moisture escape, then leave it open as you allow the puffs to cool slowly (the point is for any remaining moisture to dry off, otherwise you get an eggy, soggy interior).
  • Careful storing. If serving immediately, do NOT store in plastic/ziploc bags (it traps moisture and makes the puffs deflate/go soggy). Put in a paper bag. When completely cooled, you can store in fridge or freezer (plastic bags OK here): reheat before serving.

February 1, 2011

Baked Blueberry Cheesecake

This was my second attempt at making cheesecake. The first time, I used a New York cheesecake recipe from the Joy of Baking website and while the results were OK, the cheesecake was more moussy and lacked the dense richness of true NY cheesecake.

This time, I decided to try a different recipe entirely and used the baked cheesecake recipe from Coco & Me, one of my favourite baking and all-round food blogs. My presentation's nowhere near as good as Tamami-san's, but not bad for an amateur, I guess :)

I added blueberries as they were very cheap and fresh(ly imported from Chile/USA) at my local market - HK$10 (about US$1.30) for two 125 punnets. It's a little disturbing how cheap they were but blueberries are usually quite hard to find here so I jumped at the opportunity to have some. (I'm determined not to feel tooooo guilty about the carbon footprint etc because I try to eat local/regional fruit & veg but they just don't grow berries in Asia yet!)

I made a couple of minor alterations to the cheesecake recipe:
  • I upped the lemon juice a bit to 20ml and reduced the sugar slightly as I don't like overly sweet cakes.
  • After baking it 30 minutes in the oven, I took it out to cool.
  • Then I spread on the sour cream topping (combined 150g sour cream, 2 tablespoons of vanilla sugar) and baked it a further 10 minutes in the oven.
  • Take out and let cool; decorate with blueberries and let stand overnight.

Unfortunately, I think I overbaked the cheesecake a little this time, as it was not quite wobbly enough when I took it out of the oven (cheesecake is very dense so it continues to cook for a bit after you take it out), but not bad for my second-ever attempt at cheesecake!

Post-script (the day after):
Finally cut into and tasted the cheesecake after a day of chilling and waiting. I was very nervous on account of having baked it for so long, and because I was bringing to a family dinner with lots of people on Lunar New Year Eve. The taste and texture was amazing (dense but not too heavy, not too sweet to obscure the fresh cream cheese taste) though I might bake it a few minutes less next time. I got rave reviews for the cheesecake, though I can't take that much of the credit: Thanks to Tamami for the cheesecake recipe, and to Joy of Baking for sour cream topping recipe!