In Which There are Three Unusual Red Desserts at the End of the Meal…

It's like an o-bento, except it's all sweet...
It’s like an o-bento, except it’s all sweet…

Red is one of my favourite colours: powerful, vibrant, and energetic, it’s the sort of shade that makes the heart pound and the blood race.  It calls to mind battles and victories; passion and fury; life, love, and everything glorious in between.

When it comes to desserts, however, red has not always been that appealing to me.  I am not that big a fan of scarlet-hued desserts, really, though I do confess to a weakness for billowy whipped Greek yogurt topped with a profusion of strawberries, cherries, and cranberries.  But a meal at Inagiku over at the Shangri-La in Makati brought a few bright crimson desserts that I found most interesting and quite pretty, to boot.

First, there was a tsubaki (camellia blossom) dumpling (lower right).  This is a prime example of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) made with an or sweetened bean paste.  Here, the bean paste is coloured and moulded by hand to resemble the flower from which it takes its name.  Flavour-wise it is a one-note wonder: the classically earthy sweetness of an calling to mind similar Oriental sweets made with bean or lotus paste.  If you love snow-skin mooncakes or or eat your hopia (Chinese griddle cakes filled with sweetened mung bean or adzuki paste) straight out of the fridge, you may find this delightful.  It goes beautifully with green tea, if I may add.

verrine of cherry and mascarpone cream (upper left) with a buttery sesame-studded sable sticking out of it is, essentially, a stripped-down and miniaturised cheesecake.  The mascarpone cream is lush, subtly sweet, but its flavour stands up well to the bright-flavoured, slightly tart cherry compote.  Swirl the compote through the cream to truly appreciate this little dessert.

The final dessert is, believe it or not, a blueberry cheesecake bombe (lower left).  It looks like a ripe Fuji apple, but look for the seam running along its circumference and the globe splits open to reveal blueberry compote swirled into mascarpone cream with a cinnamon-walnut streusel scattered through it.  Similar to the verrine, it also makes for an interesting dessert.  Oh, and the shell?  It’s also edible; it’s made of white chocolate.  ;)

While its the buffet that is Inagiku’s primary draw, these desserts show a level of pastry craftsmanship that is both laudable and delectable.



In Which the Mushroom Sauce Made Lunch Perfect…

Chicken Katsu with Mushroom Sauce
Chicken Katsu with Mushroom Sauce

I had the perfect lunch last week…and “perfect” is not a word I throw around lightly.

With traffic gone absolutely haywire last week, tempers were fraying all over the place.  Patience was rapidly running out at the office.  In my case, the malaise of the past month still hadn’t lifted and there was the loneliness I’ve had to live with these past several months on my shoulders, to boot.  Things were, to be very honest at this point in time, absolutely dismal and I have developed a habit of isolating myself from the rest of my colleagues at lunchtime.

I was dithering over grabbing a burger or just a couple pieces of chicken.  However, high noon on Monday last week was blisteringly hot – so much so, in fact, that I could not bear to walk any farther than the intersection leading into the Burgos Circle.  Trudging just down to the corner to Tokyo Bubble Tea, I was pretty surprised to see that the teashop was virtually empty for a Monday.  (Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised, seeing how so many people fled the capital to maximise the APEC break.)  I plunked onto a chair, cast a glance at the menu, and pointed to the chicken katsu with mushroom sauce.  I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed; far from it, as a matter of fact.

What you get is a parsley-speckled, breadcrumbed, and deep-fried chicken thigh fillet, seasoned in a rather balanced manner – neither too salty nor overly peppery.  The chicken is delicious as is, really, but the mushroom sauce definitely elevated it in a major way.  It is a dark demiglace sauce with a hint of red wine and caramelised onions, simmered down until thick and rich.  The sauce was made earthy and deliciously funky by the addition of three kinds of mushrooms: shiitake, oyster, and brown button.  Swiping a bite of chicken through the sauce made for a most flavourful mouthful: you would think you were eating partridge or quail; properly-cooked game as opposed to standard-issue battery fowl.  The rich, dark thigh meat was cut somewhat by the slight acidity from the wine in the sauce, while the mushrooms brought all the flavours into high relief.  Goodness me; such divine decadence!

You will be given a choice between rice and mashed potatoes to go with the dish.  I recommend the rice as it’s cooked with garlic and keeps the dish from getting too much for comfort.  I daresay I would order this again.  And again.  And, well, yes: again.

In Which a Homemade Dish is Lots Better Than Takeaway…

Peanut noodles, anyone?
Peanut noodles, anyone?

To everyone whom I worried with my last post, let me apologise in all sincerity.  It has been an extremely difficult time and I have not had the easiest time coping with all the stress.  Rest assured, however, that I am on the mend; I’m taking some time away from the rat race for a bit – taking advantage of the APEC holiday, to be exact – to get myself back on track.

But, anyway, to the business at hand: I adore the cold Asian noodles served at Peanut Butter Co. over at the Paseo Centre in Makati.  It’s a dish that never fails to satisfy: cold noodles tossed in a creamy, tangy peanut and sesame vinaigrette topped with freshly grated cucumber and diced tomatoes.  As stated before, it’s like a cross between Indonesian gado-gado and a Vietnamese noodle salad.

Unfortunately, given where I work these days, it has become nigh-on impossible to get my favourite lunch.  (Previously, I only had to traipse down the length of Paseo de Roxas, et voila: lunch is served!)  So I’ve despaired of ever getting to eat it again unless I had the moxie to make it myself.  (And, you know, of course, that I do.)  That said, I went through Google to look for a recipe.

It wasn’t easy to find one that suited me, of course.  Some recipes were dead-fiddly to do; others would force me to hunt down ingredients that were virtually impossible to find in this part of the world unless one braved traffic (and believe me when I say Manila traffic makes the situation in Bangkok look like a kids’ playground) and then some.  Finally, I found one that I could very easily tweak to suit my temperament and tastebuds.

This recipe is adapted from the one featured in The New York Times, an amalgam built from the collective input of author Sam Sifton, restaurateur Eddie Schoenfeld, and chefs Martin Yan and Marian Burros.  The NYT recipe uses fresh egg noodles which aren’t exactly easy to find.  Thus, I swapped these out for ramyeunsari, those Korean noodle packets that come without flavourings.  You could also use the noodles in standard instant noodle packets; just save the flavouring packs for another use.  Since I couldn’t find any sesame paste, – tahini or the Chinese kind – I just increased the amount of peanut butter in the mixture, which is a very good thing as it amplifies the nutty savour so integral to the success of the dish.  Also, if you haven’t got any chili-garlic paste, a squirt or two of sriracha or any other red-pepper hot sauce works wonders.

Note that this recipe is easily doubled in case you feel like feeding a crowd.

Takeaway-style Asian Noodles

  • 1 pack ramyeunsari noodles or 2 standard packs of instant pancit canton, flavouring packets saved for another use
  • 2 tablespoons creamy/smooth peanut butter
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil, plus additional for sprinkling
  • 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger or 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon chili-garlic paste or hot sauce, or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons finely shredded Chinese (Savoy) cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons shredded cucumber
  • 1 tablespoon diced tomato

Cook the noodles in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes.  Drain and rinse in cold running water; drain well.  Transfer to a clean dish and toss with a sprinkle of sesame oil.  Refrigerate for about 10 minutes.

While the noodles are chilling, make the dressing by combining the soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, peanut butter, remaining sesame oil, ginger, sugar, and chili paste or hot sauce.  Whisk well until properly emulsified.  Pour over the chilled noodles and toss well.  Refrigerate an additional 10-15 minutes for the flavours to meld.

Transfer the dressed noodles to a serving bowl and top with the vegetables.  Consume immediately.

Serves 1 – 2.

In Which There is an Unusual Chicken Noodle Soup

Comfort food from scratch
Comfort food from scratch

I’ve said this often enough: I am not recovering as rapidly as possible from the stresses that have so marked the last several months.  A trip to a hospital emergency room earned me a stern scolding from the doctor who direly predicted that my recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) would take the better part of the next two (or, alas, three) years.  But no one else seems to care: work seems to get heavier with each day that passes.  There are so many things I want to do, but I can’t do any of them: either my hands are tied up at work or, unfortunately, I have little to no energy to do anything outside of work.  I no longer have a social life, to be honest; between work and the traffic, there is neither time nor energy to call people up let alone hang out.  Besides, who would want to hang out with someone as washed up and burnt out as me?

Cooking is one of the few things I manage to find solace in these days, but even my time in the kitchen has been curtailed by circumstances.  But, on those now relatively rare times when I do get to work in the kitchen, I can still manage to come up with unusual and tasty things.  Today’s browned-butter chicken noodle soup, for one.

This takes a little more effort than most, but it really does take things up a notch from one’s usual instant ramen.  To be perfectly honest, it’s what you’ll want to eat when you’re feeling a little sorry for yourself and things just won’t go your way no matter what you do and no one seems to care.

Browned-butter Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 2 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1-1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 pack ramyeunsari (ramen noodles sans flavour packet)
  • 1/4 cup chopped mixed vegetables
  • 1/4 cup cooked chicken, shredded
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced onion or spring onion
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat a saucepan over medium heat.  Add the butter and allow to melt completely.  When the butter has browned at the edges, add the minced onion and cook till softened.  Add the garlic and cook till the edges have browned.  Add the vegetables; saute for about two minutes and then add the chicken.  Cook for an additional two minutes.  Pour in the chicken broth; bring to a boil.  Add the ramyeunsari and allow to cook whilst stirring occasionally for about two minutes; season to taste.  Crack in the egg and cover the pot.  Lower heat to a simmer and cook an additional two to three minutes depending on how done you want your poached egg.  Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Serves 1.

In Which One’s Tea Break Involves an Ensaymada

Tea, ensaymada, and chill...
Tea, ensaymada, and chill…

At this time of year, the weather is getting a little colder (just a little; we’re currently in the throes of the El Nino) so there are those of us who start craving for something heftier when mid-afternoon rolls around and it’s time for tea.  This means crisps and soda are no longer de rigeur, but it isn’t cold enough just yet for stodgier fare like kakanin (rice cakes) or bowls of champorado (chocolate rice porridge) and congee.  No: this time of year calls for things that fall in between: sandwiches, perhaps; cupcakes and biscuits/cookies; and, of course, ensaymada.

Inspired by the Mallorcan ensaimada (soft eggy dough dipped into melted lard [saim] or butter before being coiled and baked), this rich yeast bread is usually slathered on top with butter and sprinkled with sugar and/or grated cheese after baking.  That, of course, goes for the regular version of ensaymada.  Believe me when I say it can get pretty fancy.

The ensaymada espesyal varies depending on which bakeshop you go to.  If you get one from Eurobake in Malolos, Bulacan, you get a version that’s more buttery than the regular kind and has sliced salted duck eggs on top to cut some of the sweetness with a salty contrast.  Some of the larger bakeshop chains in urban areas offer ensaymadas that are filled with ham; more bespoke ones tout buns filled with gobbets of rich, dark Belgian chocolate or slathered with sweetly golden dulce de leche.

I prefer my ensaymada more on the savoury side rather than sweet, so my go-to bun is the one from Pan de Manila.  Golden with butter and egg yolks, this roll has but a bare scattering of sugar on top and a regular snowdrift of shredded sharp Cheddar.  While this is gloriously decadent on its own, it gains further glory by being popped into a toaster oven for three minutes for the outside to crisp up, the cheese toasty in spots and melting in others.

Rather than coffee, though, this is better eaten with a bottle of cold milk tea for a bit of afternoon bliss; a slight pocket in which to relax towards the end of a busy day.


In Which a Seasonal Beverage Was a Serious Disappointment…

Sad and definitely not worth it
Sad and definitely not worth it

You, dear reader, are looking at what has got to be one of the most depressing Christmas beverages ever produced by a chain of coffee bars.

This is from Starbucks‘ 2015 Holiday Menu: an Italian Pannettone Frappucino.  In essence, it is supposed to be a liquefied, drinkable, coffee-infused version of pannettone: that sweet, golden yeast bread studded with fruit and nuts that graces the Yuletide table in that part of the world.  The reality, however, is absolutely horrid.

Either in Frappucino or latte form, it just doesn’t work.  The first sip carries a disturbingly yeasty aftertaste; quite palatable, to be honest.  However, as you sip further down the drink and the taste of fruit and nut kick in, the aftertaste becomes strangely salty for some reason and unpleasant.  Definitely not an experience I am keen on repeating.

I ordered this drink fancying that it would be close enough in flavour to the much-missed gingerbread latte; sadly not.  If you’re collecting stickers for a planner from Starbucks, skip this and go for the toffee nut latte – which is probably the most palatable seasonal drink currently on the menu.

In Which We Have a Sweet Taste of Autumn…

Almond Crumble Apple Pie...and pistachio ice cream!
Almond Crumble Apple Pie…and pistachio ice cream!

I live in the tropics, so this means we only have two seasons: blisteringly hot and dry and torrentially wet.  As we are currently in the throes of an El Nino, the weather continues unusually hot despite the fact that we are nearly halfway through November.  Nevertheless, in my book at the very least, it wouldn’t be the run-up to Christmas without me baking at least one apple pie.

I featured my personal recipe for apple pie six years ago and it is a recipe that has stood the test of time and remains a firm favourite among family and friends.  It has evolved over the years and its 2015 iteration is the most interesting it has ever been.

Toss apples in sugar, cinnamon, and a touch of flour...
Toss apples in sugar, cinnamon, and a touch of flour…

This year, we have a touch too many almonds in the house at the moment.  My sister’s boyfriend gave Mom a massive bag of those nuts earlier this year.  Then a cousin sent over an equally large bag.  Throw in the huge jar of unroasted almonds an aunt brought in from California and it would certainly be safe to say that we have a regular glut of the stuff.

Apples and almonds are a classic combination that is usually eaten in salads or in traditional Jewish desserts and seasonal condiments such as haroset which is eaten during Passover.  In many Western countries, the combination is more commonly seen in baked goods that are warm and satisfying, perfect foil to the encroaching cold that seeps in as autumn gradually gives way to winter.  That said, I decided to use the nuts to give my pie a toasty aroma and a luscious taste that certainly evokes the hearty flavours of the season – a perfect precursor to the delights of the Holiday feast.

Use two kinds of apples...
Use two kinds of apples…

One more thing: I subscribe to the notion of using two varieties of apples for an apple pie.  In Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, she features a dish referred to as “Double Apple Pie as it uses Cox and Bramley apples.  The thing here is that you need a crisp, tart apple to bring on the texture and a sweeter, mealier-textured one to round out the taste.  For this particular recipe, I used mealy but sweet Washington apples with their dark red – almost maroon-coloured – skins and the paler, crispier Fuji variety.  When you bake this in your own kitchen, try different varieties until you find a combination that suits you just fine.

Also: throw in a pinch of cinnamon into the crust for extra flavour.  ;)

Serve cold with hot coffee (or hot with ice cream)!
Serve cold with hot coffee (or hot with ice cream)!

Almond Crumble Apple Pie
For the Crust:

  • 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable shortening or butter
  • 1/4 cup iced water
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the Filling:

  • 3 medium Fuji apples, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 3 medium Washington apples, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

For the Streusel:

  • 1/4 cup ground almonds
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons margarine or butter

Grease a nine-inch pie plate; set aside.  Cut the shortening and salt into the flour with two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs.  Add the iced water by tablespoons, tossing the mixture with a fork until well combined.  Form dough into a ball and set upon a floured surface.  Roll out the dough to approximately 1/2 inch thickness and line the prepared pan.  Set aside.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees / Gas Mark 5.

Make the streusel by cutting together the flour, brown sugar, and butter till the mixture also resembles breadcrumbs.  Set aside.

Toss the sliced apples with the brown sugar, cinnamon, and flour.  Leave to rest for about fifteen minutes.  Drain off much of the liquid; otherwise, your filling could make the crust soggy.

Dump the filling into the prepared crust, evenly spreading it over the surface.  Cover with the streusel.

Cover with aluminium foile and bake for 25 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake an additional 20 minutes.

Serve hot with ice cream or allow to cool completely and serve with hot coffee.

Makes 1 pie and serves about 8.