Friday, November 20, 2009

November Bento Days (3)

Since I am not celebrating Thanksgiving this year, I skipped to the X'mas feel fast forward! Instead of orange, brown and red, all I see these days are red, green and white. Although there will be no white X'mas in Asia, I can still resort to making cookies iced white with sprinkles. As long as the icing doesn't melt in the heat before I get them onto the cookies!

2009 has come and almost gone too fast for my counting and reminiscing. Both my kids are off to school, although not full time but the 3 hours absence of them gives me more time to sip a cup of tea and reconnect with my brain cells and of course to keep a little peace and try to keep my house neat. It is that time of the year again to set goals and list things to do for next year. Funny on how I love to plan everything these days and simply cannot function when I don't set it out in paper & pen. Raising kids have really took away my spontaneity in life and as they grow each year, I wish I can maintain my young at heart self and be more relaxed in doing everything.

For this week's Bentos, I attempted more on the cute characters and figured on how to take the usual bread, rice and even frozen food to the next level! Although I very much wanted to make a complete Bento with X'mas themes, I was always short of time this week and only able to make one character at a time. I found some X'mas themed non-pareils at the craft store and used them to accent the reindeer's nose and ears. They will be very useful in decorating X'mas baked goods for people like me who don't really like tinting my icing creams with food coloring, just a few sprinkles over a white cookie brings out all the festive spirit! For the brown chick, I heated up a piece of frozen chicken nugget in the toaster oven and decorated it with carrot, cheese and seaweed pieces. I find that microwaving nuggets give them a soggy texture and although baking them in the oven takes a bit more time but they do turn out crisp and I learned the trick of putting them in an aluminum liner before inserting them into the box to keep it fresh and crisp till snack time. The snowman was made with 2 rice balls, pinned together from top to bottom with a food pick through a small piece of chicken wiener as the hat. The hands are just heart shaped picks and the buttons are made up of peas, attached to the rice with a dab of mayo. I only dare to use picks with Miss E as she knows how to remove them before eating but it is advisable not to use picks for children who are younger and Prince D definitely cannot really differentiate yet between what is edible and what is not.

We will be leaving early Monday for HK and I am so excited to see all my family and relatives again in Malaysia. The last time I visited my homeland was 2 years ago and I am sure alot has changed but one thing I am very sure, my family and relatives always welcome us with rows and rows of food on the potluck table and I can't wait to document all of them and post it here! After picking up this hobby of cooking, baking and blogging, I really understand the phrase that "food is what brings the family together" and I would like to thank all my uncles, aunties and cousins who always supported this blog of mine and always tuning in to see my culinary adventure! I am going home... see you all soon.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chestnut Cream Cocoa Cake

If the summer is loaded with fresh beautiful berries, autumn and winter surely belongs to the nuts of all kinds big and small. After using up the pecan in the pantry, I bought some fresh chestnuts to try out. Although I made a chestnut mousse cake earlier this year for Curry's birthday, the fact that I used prepacked and pre cleaned chestnuts meant that I haven't actually experience handling a real chestnut and I was eager to learn! Oh boy, half way in peeling the outer shells of 1 lb of chestnuts I was already cursing myself for being too curious! And after the outer shells were removed by poking and running a small knife around it, there was still the husks. And worst, some of them were rotten and after husking, all was left was a mere 6 oz (175g)!

Initially I was planning to make a chestnut cream cake with the famous Mont Blanc design of chestnut puree sizzled all over in strands on the top of the cake but with that little chestnut left, I was to decide on either the cream part or the fancy design part! With a cocoa genoise cake as the base, I figured that the cream was a better option as the contrast of the light and dark brown colors and the similar layer effect was more pleasing to the eyes than all the busy swirls. I love the blackberries for its dark color and they added an extra sweetness and kind of cut down the richness of chestnut cream in the palate.

Although I dislike working with chocolate in my baking, cocoa powder is not a problem. As with chocolate, only the best quality cocoa powder will do in producing a good cake. Basically this genoise cake is built up from the air incorporated into the batter from the beating of eggs and no other types of leavener or liquid was used. The key to a successful genoise cake is to properly beat the eggs with the sugar in a bowl over simmering water or bain marie which dissolves the sugar and warming the eggs helps to trap more air during the beating and double up its volume which builds the structure of the cake. I adapted this recipe from my favorite cake making book, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking by Flo Braker. This was my first serious cake recipe book and although there are no bright colorful photos in my old edition cookbook, the black and white illustrations of the cakes and the easy to read and understand recipes and notes were appealing to me and so far, I have never failed in anything when using this book. Sometimes the best recipes are in these types of cookbooks which explains and shows the basics of a few cakes baked from the same method and introduces multiple ways to dress up the basic cakes rather than the numerous cookbooks that are circulating in the market these days which can be overwhelming with too many photos and similarities with other publications.

I boiled the cleaned chestnuts in milk and sugar for almost 20 mins to soften it and till the milk evaporated and because of the high starch content of the nuts, once pureed, it produces a paste like texture instantly and I stirred in the dissolved gelatin before adding the whole mixture to the whipped cream. I left the chestnut cream layer set over the cocoa cake layer in the fridge overnight before cutting them into slices and garnishing them with the blackberries. I used frozen blackberries and cooked them with a bit of sugar for 10 mins to make them softer and sweeter. Sprinkled with more cocoa powder, this cake makes a perfect start to a festive eating season, rich in taste and indulgent.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bento Days November (2)

One more week of Bento next week and I am off duty doing it till next year! But hey, I am eager to go shopping for Bento tools in Asia though, and will come back with loads of new things! I am a manic Bento mom you know!!!!

Big thank you to Crazymommy for the fruits picks. Looks like my Bento tools container is filling up very quickly and soon I might need a cupboard space to store everything!

This week I tried the sandwich rolls and I find only the store bought white bread is soft enough to be rolled thin with a rolling pin. My first attempt with the ham and cheese didn't turn out very well and I tried again with the egg salad. I rolled them tightly and wrapped the bread roll in a cling film and left it overnight in the fridge. It came out better in shape.

I introduced persimmon to Miss E and she liked it for its crunchiness. I find that the persimmons we get here never seem to soften even after sitting at the countertop for a week. But they are sweet though. Cubed pineapple is a good alternative to oranges and they fit snuggly in a side container. One of the easiest dish to cook for kids is chicken in cream of mushroom. Stir fry the chicken meat for 5 mins and pour over the cream of mushroom and let it simmer for a further 15 mins. Add in peas and you get a yummy creamy lunch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pumpkin Sweet Rolls

I just couldn't let this Autumn pass without making something out of the pumpkin. There was no chance of a pumpkin pie, no matter how small as I will be the only one eating it and a pumpkin bread cake doesn't seem so appealing either! The next best thing would be something breadlike, tastes sweet and with other ingredients added. I took the idea of the cinnamon roll and made these rolls in an angel pan, with high anticipation that they will turn out a stripe and swirl pattern with 2 color toned bread dough but resulted very pale and subtle instead! With some more pecans and dried cranberries left, I just mixed them up with light brown sugar and rolled them up tight with 2 layers of different colored bread dough. The addition of the pumpkin puree to the bread dough makes it very wet and although I used 2 eggs in this recipe, I think 1 should be enough taking into account the liquid in the pumpkin puree.

It has been a long time since I made bread or buns and I kind of forgotten on how the dough texture should feel in the hands. A good bread dough should always feel heavy, elastic and not dry and the resting and rising period is very important to ensure a good texture of the bread. These buns are more dense due to the added pumpkin and the outer layer is crusty. As I didn't soak them in heavy amount of Maple syrup, they don't look gooey but it is better that way so that my kids don't get all sticky with their fingers. My effort to create the plain and pumpkin swirls failed but the 2 tones are visible as soon as you tear open one. Like all sweet rolls, this pumpkin one is best when served straight out of the oven or warm. After overnight, the bread kind of stale and a quick warm up in the oven will bring them back to its original state. And drizzle the maple syrup as soon as possible when it is still hot!

Recipe :

Bread Dough
3-1/4 cups All Purpose Flour
1 tbsp yeast
2/3 cup warm milk
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
10 oz pumpkin (yields 3/4 cup puree)
Extra 1 cup all purpose flour
1 egg
4 oz (1/2 cup or 1 stick butter), cold and malleable

Method :
1)Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and let it stand at room temperature.
2)Sift the flour, salt and cinnamon together.
3)Rub in the butter till coarse crumbs or use the paddle attachment in the mixer and mix for 1 minute on medium speed.
4)Beat the egg lightly and mix into the flour mixture using a spatula or the mixer. Don't overmix at this stage.
5)The dough will appear in a rough mass. Divide into 2 equal amounts and remove half to a floured countertop and knead with your hands, sprinkling flour as you go till the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Knead for 2 minutes, shape into a ball and place in a clean bowl, cover with cling film and let the dough rest and rise for 1 hour and 30 mins.
6)Turn on the paddle beater for the remaining dough. Slowly add in the pumpkin puree in 3 batches, mixing and incorporating well. Do not over mix.
7)Starting with 1/4 cup, slowly fold in the extra flour till the batter comes together to form a dough. The dough will be sticky and heavy.
8)Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead with hands for 3 to 5 mins, adding flour as you go till you get a heavy and elastic dough. Sprinkle flour on the bottom and sides of a clean bowl and shape the dough into a ball and let it rest and rise inside the bowl, covered with cling film for 1 hour & 30 mins.

Sweet Fillings :
1 cup Pecan, toasted and processed to small bits
1/2 cup dried cranberry
4 tbsp light brown sugar

Method: Mix all ingredients together and leave aside till the dough is ready.

To Assemble :
1)Roll out the 2 dough separately to a large rectangle.
2)Layer the pumpkin dough on top of the plain dough.
3)Sprinkle the filling onto the dough to cover the whole surface.
4)Starting from the edge nearer to you, slowly roll up the dough all the way and tuck the seam underneath.
5)Using a knife, mark about 2 inches line apart on the roll and cut to equal size pieces, which should yield 10 to 12 pieces.
6)If you like crusty crust, flour the angel pan or large rectangle pan or round pan and tap out excess. If not, grease the pan with butter only. Place the cut out rolls, with the cut side down into the pan and arrange them sitting next to each other. Cover with cling film and let them rest and rise for another 30 mins.
7)Preheat the oven to 350F, bake the rolls on the bottom rack for 35 mins. Remove from the oven and drizzle with maple syrup when they are still warm.
Makes : 10 to 12 rolls/buns

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pecan & Dried Fruits Tartlets

In less than 3 weeks time I will be flying off back to Malaysia and I am excited and stressed at the same time. I don't remember flying was so dreadful when I was younger but now, I simply feel claustrophobic even before I board the plane. I just hope my 2 kids behave and co-operate with me and each other during the whole period of 16 hours coop up in a small space with other strangers and the minutes and hours just tick tock away as I blink my eyes and they sleep at their normal bed time! I am just thankful that I don't have to carry a loadful of diapers and milk bottles anymore this time round.

I love the season of Thanksgiving and X'mas in New England. As I browse through catalogs of boxed and food gifts and the home stores with multiple choices of festive goodies that simply gets my cooking and baking spirit soaring, I feel sad that I will miss out on buying and giving out homemade cookies and baked goods as I did last year. I haven't been back to Malaysia for 2 years and everytime I go back, I cannot recognize much anymore of the hometown that I grew up in due to the rampant expansion of roads, malls and buildings mushrooming everywhere and everyone else is always in a rush to somewhere between places and friendly faces are getting less and less in a once very laid back and easy place.

To get my festive mood going, I made something which is more representable of the season's palate. Tartlets with a hint of nutmeg filled with the wonderful Pecan, dried figs and cranberry, drenched and baked in maple syrup. It took me a while to start serious baking again and I was unable to give up the summer flavors of fresh berries and mousse type cakes and without them, I was so lost for ideas! Actually, I intended to bring the packs of pecan and dried figs for my relatives back in Malaysia but funny, they looked so tempting and hence that was how these tartlets came to be!

Pecan is a very rich tasting nut and quite similar to walnut in chunkiness. Besides fresh fruits, I love nuts too and none but all types are my favorite! The maple syrup binds all the nuts and fruits together and gives out a slight burnt aroma which is nutty and sweet to the palate. Nothing is light about the ingredients but that is the taste of the end of the year holiday season, rich, thick and fulfilling. Maybe they don't look so colorful as my other summer cakes and tarts, tastewise they are better during these cold months!


Tart Shells :
1-1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup almond meal
1/4 cup confectioner sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg powder
4 oz (1 stick) cold and malleable butter
1 egg

1)Sift the flour, almond meal, confectioner sugar and nutmeg powder into a large bowl.
2)Cut the butter into smaller pieces and drop them into the flour mixture or use a food processor. Coat the flour with the butter pieces and crumble till resembles coarse crumbs. Do not over process.
3)Beat the egg lightly and pour into the flour and butter mixture. Process and mix till the mixture comes together as a dough. Remove and flatten to a disk and place in plastic bag and let it rest in the fridge for 30 mins.
4)Grease 5 of 4 inch tartlet pans with butter and leave aside. Prepare parchment paper and baking beans.
5)Preheat oven to 375F. Place rack at bottom of the oven. Roll out the dough between 2 pieces of wax paper to 1/2 inch thick and cut with a large bowl, larger than the whole of the tartlet pans. Transfer the cut out dough to the pans and tuck in the sides first with your fingers to fit. Trim edges. Continue with the rest of the dough and pans.
6)Place parchment paper and baking beans onto the dough in the pans. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, remove paper and baking beans and continue to bake for another 10 mins. Once done, remove the tart shells from the oven and lower the oven to 350F.

Filling :
1 cup Pecan halves, toasted for 7 mins
1/4 cup dried cranberry
1/4 cup dried figs (about 6 figs, each quartered)
2 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tbsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup maple syrup

1)Mix the nuts and dried fruits together in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the brown sugar and flour and stir to mix.
2)Mix in the melted butter and beaten eggs and stir to mix and stir to distribute out the nuts and fruits.
3)Lastly pour in the maple syrup and coat the filling.
4)Using a spoon, divide and distribute the filling between each tart shell, making sure that each has all the ingredients. Spoon the liquid from the maple syrup into the tart shells too. Fill to the top.
5)At a 350F oven, bake the tartlets for 40 mins, rotating the pan the last 15 mins to get an even baking. Remove, and let them cool on the rack.
6)Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream.

Makes: 5 tartlets (measuring 4 inch each) or a 10 inch tart for 6 servings

Friday, November 6, 2009

Kindergarten Bento Days (November Week 1)

Perhaps my camera is not working right anymore or the sun rises more later in the day, I was a bit lazy in blogging about the Bentos that I made in the last 3 weeks! And I totally lost track on what week it is now that Miss E has been in kindergarten! When my inner drive to do it is lost, I just have to click on other Bento sites to get me going again. Making Bento has given me a different perspective in food preparation and presentation and giving up on it is really a pity when my kids do enjoy the cute rice balls and colorful ingredients. I may not be able to bake everyday but I should be making Bento for my kids as it is good for me, physically I become an early riser and go to bed at normal time, mentally I feel good that I have tried my best to give my kids good choices in food while my kids eat healthy and hopefully appreciate my efforts too. Prince D will have the opportunity to attend longer hours at his pre school next year and I am looking forward to pack him some nice lunch bento.

I have taken a liking to the kiwi fruit as it is sweet at this time of the year and very reasonably priced. Although the pomegranate is in season now, I find it a bit messy with its staining red juice and perhaps not a wise choice for a kindergarten Bento box. For the flower patterns on the crackers and rice balls, I attached them with a bit of mayonaise and they did transported well without falling apart till snack time. I find mini cookie cutters very useful in the quick preparation of the decorating part in Bento boxes and little touches like black poppy seeds, sesame seeds and seaweed nori strips makes a plain rice ball more interesting.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chicken Pot Pie

What better comfort food than an individual ramekin chicken pot pie, piping hot and tucked into your palms on a cold autumn day. With a substantial filling consisting chicken meat, peas, potato, herbs and cream and a light buttery crust to cut and dip into the hot creamy filling, it warms you up instantly at the first bite.

For this pie, I made up a buttery dough for the crust and I find that working with vegetable shortening and butter requires different amount of water in the making of the dough. And I find that a butter based crust is much more easier to roll and doesn't break apart easily when being moved. Although vegetable shortening yields a more flakier crust, this butter crust has more taste to it and infact very light and airy.

I added baking powder to the flour so that the crust will puff up during the baking. Cream of mushroom is my favorite canned food to use and no matter what you cook with it, the end result is always good. For a better presentation, I sprinkled some white sesame seeds on the crust and it lends a subtle nutty flavor to the pie. The potato need not be boiled prior to adding it into the cream of mushroom mixture so that it will still retain its shape and not mushy after the baking.

Recipe :

250g all Purpose Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
125g cold & malleable butter
5 to 6 tbsp cold water
1 egg, beaten

1)Sift the flour and baking powder together.
2)Dice the butter and drop into the flour mixture. Use food processor to pulse and combine the mixture. If using hand, rub the butter pieces into the flour till resembles coarse crumbs. Do not overmix.
3)Starting with 3 tbsp of the cold water, add in gradually to the butter and flour mixture till it comes together into a dough. The dough must not be too wet. Place in a plastic bag and flatten it and let it rest for 30 mins in the fridge.
4)Meanwhile, prepare and cook the filling.

4 chicken drumsticks, remove bones and dice the meat
1 cup of chopped ham chunks
1 medium size potato, cleaned and diced
2/3 cup peas
1 shallot, sliced and diced
4 pips of garlic, minced
1-3/4 cup Cream of Mushroom
1 tbsp dried oregano (or any herbs of your choice)
1 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp cornflour

1)Marinate the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, 1 tbsp cooking oil and the cornflour. Let it marinate in the fridge for 1 hour.
2)Heat a large skillet with 3 tbsp cooking oil. Fry the shallots and garlic. Add in the chicken and potato pieces and stir to mix. Add in 1/2 cup of water and cover and let simmer for 5 mins. Remove lid and add in chopped ham. Stir to mix and cover and let it cook for another 5 mins.
3)Pour in the cream of mushroom and add 1/4 cup of water to dilute the sauce. Cover and let simmer for 10 mins.
4)Lastly season with salt, oregano and add in the peas. Cover and cook for another 3 mins. Turn off heat. Let the filling cool slightly.
5)Prepare 6 ramekins, measuring 4 inch in width and 2 inch in height.

To assemble :
1)Preheat the oven to 375F. Take out dough from the fridge, let it rest at countertop for 10 mins.
2)Dust countertop with a little flour and roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thickness. Using the largest round cookie cutter (3.5 inches), cut 6 rounds from the dough.
3)Scoop equal spoonfuls of the filling and divide into the 6 ramekins (roughly around 4 tbsp each).
4)Place the cut out round dough on top of each filling. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle each pie with sesame seeds.
5)Bake for 40 mins. Half time into the baking, brush the crust again with egg wash.
6)Remove and serve hot or warm.

Makes: 6 individual pot pies