In Which Dinner Was Inspired by Cherry Blossoms…

Sakura-inspired milk tea for one
Sakura-inspired milk tea for one

A while back, I left work late and felt more than a little ravenous.  It had been an off-day: nothing went right, whips were cracked, tempers lost, tears shed, and there was just a feeling of nervous tension throughout the whole bloody environment.  As a result, I went and had my hair lopped short, bought what had to be a barge-load of chocolate, and scampered down to Tokyo Bubble Tea over at the corner of 30th St. and 2nd Avenue for dinner…and this particular dinner bordered on overkill.

As part of the celebration of sakura [cherry blossom] viewing season in Japan, Tokyo Bubble Tea offered Sakura Bento Trays to its patrons.  Each tray featured a salad, a couple pieces of sakura-maki (think California maki but rolled in a sweet pink mixture), a bowl of miso soup, yasai itame (sautéed vegetables), a main / protein course, and a bowl of yakimeshi (fried rice).  Throw in an additional charge and you’d get a mug of one of the shop’s signature JCC [Japanese cheesecake] milk teas as shown above.  (This one was an Earl Grey, if I recall.)

Salad and maki...
Salad and maki…

The o-bento set looked manageable enough in the menu.  I erroneously assumed that it would be served in doll-sized portions as in the case of many boxed meals served at Japanese restaurants throughout the metropolis.  I did not, alas, expect deep bowls or hefty portions.

The sakura salad and its maki companion both tasted fresh, though I take issue with the amount of disturbingly pink dressing (Kewpie mayo Thousand Island, I think) that was glopped over the salad.  It would have been better if it have been served on the side.  Nevertheless, once the bulk of said dressing was pushed to one side, the fresh flavours and textures of the salad with its lettuce, red cabbage, mango, and carrot all came into play.  The maki, however, tasted like a standard-issue California maki: pleasant, but nothing to write home about.

Soy Ginger Fish and Yasai Itame
Soy Ginger Fish and Yasai Itame

The soy ginger fish cake, however, was simple yet delicious.  Deep-fried dory crumbed tonkatsu-style was lightly drizzled over with the soy-ginger tare with some toasted sesame and pickled myoga (pink ginger) on the side.  The fish was toothsome, mildly flavoured, but it was definitely amped up by the subtle-tasting sauce.

The yasai itame was, again, pretty standard but made a crunchy contrast with the tender fish; the sweetness of the cabbage and carrots also brought the bright, gingery taste of the sauce to the fore.

Soup and rice
Soup and rice

The miso soup served as something of a palate-cleanser and belly soother between every few bites.  The fried rice, on the other hand, was good: well-prepared, properly seasoned, and quite filling.  Alas, there was so much that I ended up having it all packed up to be taken home and shared with the family.  It was worth it, though.

Soy-Ginger Fish Sakura Bento
Soy-Ginger Fish Sakura Bento

Sakura season is over, of course.  We are now at the beginning of momiji [autumn maple leaf] viewing season as summer turns into fall.  But Tokyo Bubble Tea has kept this ample set meal on the menu; those with hearty appetites – or those happy to share – would do well to consider this for a satisfying meal and then some.


In Which There are Homespun Peanut Butter Cups…

Homemade peanut butter cups
Homemade peanut butter cups

I’ve meant to post this particular entry for ages.  For some weird reason, however, other things took precedence and this topic was stuck on the backburner for a while.

For nearly a decade, I’ve been working with chocolate.  Initially, this was because I was helping friends out with the Chocolate Appreciation 101 lectures over at Heavenly Chocolates in Quezon City.  (Alas, the HC is now closed.)  Later, it was more of a way to put a smile on friends’ faces: the dark chocolate and salted cashew mendiants for the person whom I consider my best friend, for one.  Truffles infused with lavender vodka for a friend who had the blues.  Mochi filled with one ganache or another.

And then, there were peanut butter cups.

The thing about peanut butter cups is that these are, believe it or not, one of my guiltiest pleasures.  Anything with chocolate, I love.  Anything with peanut butter, I eat.  (Heck, I have been known to sneak tablespoonfuls of the stuff straight out of the jar.)  Bring those two together as in the case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or those newfangled peanut butter Snickers bars, and I am a lost cause.

These homespun peanut butter cups, however, have a little backstory to them.  In a nutshell, this involves the person whom I consider my best friend, the crowd down at the Boiler Room (whom I miss because I haven’t seen them since Clem and Ian left for the tour), my boss (!), and a dinky little recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess.  Specifically, this recipe was for peanut butter squares: think Reese’s, but bigger – hunks of the good stuff, even!

In HtBaDG, the recipe is found in the section for Children: kiddie party food, kitschy cookie cutouts, Barbie cakes…you know the sort.  When I decided to make these, though, I added a few grown-up twists.  One batch had an alcohol-enhanced chocolate topping; another had a spicy peanut-butter filling.  In its final iteration, I’ve incorporated spices traditionally used for gingerbread or spice cake.; plus, the topping involves dark chocolate as opposed to milk.  It’s a touch that elevates this kid-pleasing sweet into a snack even grown-ups will enjoy.

Grown-Up Peanut Butter Cups

  • 50 grams muscovado / dark brown sugar
  • 150 grams confectioner’s / icing sugar
  • 200 grams crunchychunky peanut butter
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
  • dash of ground black pepper (optional)
  • scant 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 200 grams dark chocolate
  • 100 grams milk chocolate or Meiji Black Chocolate (this Japanese confection is actually milk chocolate but has a higher percentage of cocoa solids)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or margarine

Line a mini-muffin tin with small-size paper cupcake liners; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the brown and icing sugars, peanut butter, and – if using them – the spices.  Mix until well-combined.  Press a rounded tablespoon of the mixture into the prepared tin.  Set aside.

Break up the chocolates and place in a microwaveable bowl.  Microwave at medium or high for a minute.  Remove from the microwave and mix till all of the chocolate has melted.  Add the oil or margarine and mix until the consistency is more or less fluid.  Pour the melted chocolate over the peanut butter bases in increments of 1 tablespoon per cup.

Chill for at least 45 minutes.  Remove from the tins and store in the fridge in  a covered container.

Makes approximately 3 dozen cups.

In Which the Blogger Approximates the Savour of a Classic Thai Curry…

Not your usual Massaman curry
Not your usual Massaman curry

Massamana curry made by my beloved, 

Is made fragrant by cumin and other spices.

Any man who consumes this curry

Is bound to long for her.

(Verses dedicated to Queen Sri Suriyendra of Thailand and written by her husband, King Rama II)

The massaman curry is one of the most popular dishes in all of Thai cuisine which, in itself, is interesting as it isn’t exactly native to Thailand.  As the story goes, the making of this particular curry as well as its name comes from the Persian merchants who came over the Silk Route to Old Siam in the late 17th Century and settled there permanently.  Unlike the more traditional yellow curries made with ginger and galangal or even the fragrant green curries made with basil and lemongrass, the massaman pays homage to its Middle Eastern roots with its potent mix of sweet and earthy spices and the fact that it is normally made with beef due to its halal origins.

Traditionally, a massaman spice mix (Thai: nam phrik kaeng matsaman) is made with cumin, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mace (a spice made from dried and ground nutmeg rind), and bay leaves.  The resulting spice paste is fried in oil with finely chopped shallots before being stirred into rich coconut milk with a touch of sweet-tart tamarind for a wonted sharpness.  It is so headily fragrant that, as shown above, the late King Rama II waxed poetic about a version that his bride cooked for him – and how the dish only strengthened his love and ardor for that noble lady.

When in doubt of your spice blending abilities, ready-made pastes work like a charm.
When in doubt of your spice blending abilities, ready-made pastes work like a charm.

I must admit that Queen Sri Suriyendra must have been quite a cook given her husband’s verses of praise for the meal she set before him.  Indeed, it is said that this particular Thai royal consort made her own spice blends and insisted on doing her own cooking despite, I’d like to think, an army of servants at her beck and call.  (Incidentally, she became the mother of King Mongkut whom most people are familiar with from the Broadway musical The King and I.)  It takes an amazing sort of woman to do that sort of thing.

I, however, am not as confident with my spice blending abilities as that particular queen from the Golden Triangle.  The only two spice blends I have memorised are pretty generic: the blend I use for Christmas gingerbread and the Moroccan-inspired one I use sparingly for grilled chicken or lamb.  Full-blown curry mixes, however, I leave to the experts.  This, of course, has led to my dependence on Japanese curry roux and this most recent discovery, the Kanokwan recipe pastes from Thailand.

Each packet is good for one stewpot’s worth of curry and is deliciously fragrant: heady and earthy with cumin and mace, a slight sweetness from the cinnamon and star anise.  Cooked into coconut milk, it becomes a gravy that is both decadently rich yet cut just so by the faint sharpness of dried tamarind and fiery chilies.

It isn’t exactly orthodox to use it in a meatball curry, but I find that it transforms a standard-issue dinner viand into something decidedly exotic yet lusciously satisfying.

Now: if only I could get the lodestone of my existence to write glowing, praising verses about me and my cooking, I daresay I’d feel more than blessed…

In Which We Talk About Kaki-Age

Kaki-age from Kenji Tei
Kaki-age from Kenji Tei

Kaki-age is a variation on the standard tempura recipe that involves shredding a number of vegetables, mostly root veg, and tossing them into a very cold, lightly seasoned batter that fries up into a shaggy-looking fritter that, if done right, is crisp all the way through.

The name is something of a misnomer because the literal translation of kaki-age is “fried oyster” (kaki = oyster; age = cooked in hot oil / fried), but I have never encountered actual oysters featured in the dish.  (I have heard about the corn and oyster kaki-age over at Ooma at the Megamall, but I’ve hadn’t had the opportunity to go there and taste for myself.)  As stated previously, it’s predominantly made with vegetables.  In the Philippines, this is usually a combination of carrots, sweet white onions, potato or sweet potato, and kabocha pumpkin.  In the case of restaurants like Kenji Tei and Teriyaki Boy, bits and bobs of prawn, squid, and crab are sometimes added to add a savory and slightly fishy twist to something whose basic flavor is essentially sweet and earthy.  There have also been spicy versions wherein the brilliantly colored and aromatically incendiary shichimi togarashi was added to the batter for a touch of heat and zing.

The average serving of kaki-age comes to the table with the standard-issue dish of tentsuyu into which one dips the fritters.  My favorite way of eating them, however, is the way it’s served at Kenji Tei: a wedge of fresh lemon comes alongside your tempura, squeeze it over the fritters evenly, and then you dip it into the tentsuyu.  This gives the sweet, earthy kaki-age a fresh, citrusy overtone that goes beautifully with the ginger and radish in the sauce.  It’s the sort of dish that calls to mind summer lunches alone and you haven’t got a care in the world.  :)


In Which the Blogger Makes Her Own Granola…

Better than store-bought...promise!
Better than store-bought…promise!

Overnight oats have been a favourite of mine since I started making the stuff for breakfast some time ago.  There is just something comforting and satisfying about this mix of oats, yogurt, and peanut butter that is just halfway between porridge and cream-pudding.  For me, it’s happy food, comfort food; something to get the day started on a high note and the right foot.

Overnight oats are usually made with plain quick-cooking oats, but there is actually a way to spiff up your morning bowl – and that’s to make it with granola.

However, we aren’t just talking about regular, garden variety, supermarket purchased granola (or its fruitier Continental counterpart Birchermuesli).  Today, I will show you how to make your own.  Why?  Two reasons:

  1. Given the alarming number of cases of food poisoning, contamination, and the tampering of foodstuffs appearing in the news of late, it’s best that you personally know what’s going into your food.  Not to sound too paranoid, but with all those reports of oxalic acid maliciously being added to beverages and reports of faux foods being imported from China or elsewhere, you can never be too careful; and
  2. It’s always nice to have your own stock of the stuff in the pantry.  Granola also works well in cookies, after all, and you could always make granola bars to tote along for long trips out.
It's all crisp and glorious, believe me.
It’s all crisp and glorious, believe me.

The first time I made granola, I committed a serious error.  Granola calls for rolled oats: you know the sort, those big flattened whole grains.  I ended up using the quick-cooking kind (eep!), so the end results weren’t exactly the nice, grainy sort I expected.  Nevertheless, my finished product was pretty darned delicious: crisp yet chewy, the nuts toasty and crunchy; the addition of mixed dried berries adding fresh flavour and a contrasting tartness against the honey I used to sweeten the mixture.

My recipe is actually a variation on one featured in the book Martha Stewart: Cookies where it was featured as part of a recipe for something called blueberry bonanza bars.  The original recipe calls for the addition of coconut and raisins – two ingredients that don’t exactly go over well with either my family or my friends.  As a result, I gave the recipe a bit of a tweak and threw in ingredients that would be more appealing to kith and kin.  You could do pretty much the same when you make yourself a batch.  :D

One thing, though: while this granola is suitable for vegetarians in the sense that I used vegetable oil-based margarine rather than the butter called for in Martha Stewart’s original, this is not suitable for vegans because of the honey.  Other than that, bash on…

Stick it into a jar...
Stick it into a jar…

Homemade Granola

  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup margarine
  • 1 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/4 cup chopped cashews
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower kernels
  • 1/2 cup dried mixed berries or your choice of mixed dried fruit

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees / Gas Mark 3.  Line a deep rectangular baking tin with waxed paper or baking parchment; set aside.

Combine the oats, nuts, seeds, and sunflower kernels in a large bowl; set aside.

In a saucepan over low-medium heat, warm together the honey and margarine till the margarine has all melted.  Stir well and pour into the oat mixture.  Using your hands, evenly coat all of the contents with the honey-margarine mixture.  Spread evenly in the prepared baking tin.

Bake for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Allow to cool before breaking up into clusters.  Toss in the mixed berries.  Scoop the granola into an airtight container.

Doesn't look like much...
Doesn’t look like much…

Now that you have your granola, you would do well to keep some on hand for snack attacks.  It is, after all, healthier than most overly sugared or salted snacks.  If you’re lucky to have a fridge in your office pantry, here’s a nifty recipe that you can make when you get into the office and will be ready for noshing come your afternoon tea break.  It’s kind of like a fruity oat and yogurt pudding, rather refreshing and satisfying all at the same time.

...but it is creamy, fruity, and good.
…but it is creamy, fruity, and good.

Granola Pudding

  • 1/3 cup granola
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 small tub thick / Greek-style yogurt with fruit.

Place all of the ingredients in a mug; mix well.  Cover the mug and refrigerate for at least five to six hours.

Serves 1.


In Which There are Cream Puffs…

Choux pastry
Choux pastry

When I was about twelve and in sixth grade, I had the dubious privilege of belonging to the school Homemakers’ Club.  You know how these things are when you’re in your final year of school (in this case, elementary): you join all the clubs that you can for the equally dubious privilege of having a rather stellar roster of participation to go with your yearbook photo.  In my case, I was with the Library Club and the Glee Club.  (Oh, God; if my friend Clem reads this, I will never hear the end of it.)  I threw in the Homemakers because I wanted to learn how to cook – which, alas, at the time, probably wasn’t the best decision I could have made as cooking was something of a group activity where only the truly vicious girls who weren’t above bullying and pushing “lesser” girls away could shine.  (No, wait; scratch that: cooking was something of a contact sport for girls.  It sounds crazy, but there were threats to scald others with either boiling water or bubbling oil!)

It was only years later when I left school for good (Home Economics in grade school, high school, and university – go figure!), that I learned how to cook on my own steam, my own terms, and at my own pace.  I subscribe to Banana Yoshimoto’s sentiments regarding the culinary arts: there is only one way to learn and that is by doing everything yourself.

Which brings us to today’s post: cream puffs.

Ooh, yes...  Come to momma, babies!
Ooh, yes… Come to momma, babies!

I know people, unfortunately, who will tell me to cease and desist with regard to making cream puffs.  These people will say that, for a beginner (said with a sneer) or an amateur (with an even bigger sneer), it just won’t do; that it’s a fiddly recipe; that my attempts will all be doomed to fail.  Well, shows you what they know.

The critical thing in cream puffs is the pastry used to make them: choux pastry.  Referred to in the Larousse Gastronomique as pâte à choux, it is a distinctly dense, eggy, buttery paste that is made without leavening of any kind.  The basic principle is that the liquids in the dough will turn to steam in a very hot oven, causing the pastry to puff up into billowy shells that can be filled later on with either sweet or savoury fillings.  The ingredients for it are simple enough, basic even: flour, water, cold butter, salt, and eggs.  It does take a considerable amount of muscle power to stir in the eggs and, in doing so, build up the internal gluten structure necessary to transform a gloppy dough into a crisp-surfaced pastry shell.

Most home bakers shy away from baking cream puffs because, yes, it is a bloody fiddly recipe.  However, once you get into the swing of things and you have them down pat, baking with choux pastry becomes relatively easy to do.

A little chocolate hides the flaws!  ;)
A little chocolate hides the flaws! ;)

For those of you brave enough to take a cue from me and bake these at home, a few tips:

  • Be sure to pre-heat your oven.  If it isn’t hot enough, your puffs won’t rise.  Fire up the oven at least 15 – 20 minutes before baking;
  • Use cold butter – butter, mind you, and not margarine!  I made that mistake once; the wretched puffs went all limp soon as I took them out of the oven.  They were still edible, though;
  • Bring the water and butter mixture to a boil.  It has to be bubbling before you toss in the flour;
  • Keep your puffs small – any bigger than two tablespoons’ worth of dough and they won’t cook properly; and
  • Let the puffs cool completely before filling them.

Now that we’re clear with that, let me just say that my recipe for choux pastry is from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, specifically the one for her recipe “Profiteroles, My Way.”  I haven’t made any modifications to the paste, but I have not included a recipe for the filling.  Let your own preferences guide you on that score, though I can make the following suggestions:

  • Vanilla or chocolate pudding like the stuff I used for the cream puffs featured today.  I made mine from scratch, but you could also use Jell-O instant puddings or those ready-to-eat Elle et Vire puddings;
  • Lightly sweetened whipped cream with a touch of vanilla bean or lemon zest;
  • Whipped Greek yogurt with some honey swirled through it;
  • Whipped Nutella or a similar gianduia product;
  • Whipped cookie butter or peanut butter lightened with some heavy cream;
  • A vanilla creme patisserie, or one flavoured with a touch of coffee; or even
  • Chocolate mousse.
Pick up.  Apply to face.  Repeat as often as necessary...or until you run out of puffs.
Pick up. Apply to face. Repeat as often as necessary…or until you run out of puffs.

Cream Puffs

  • 200 grams all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 350 mL water
  • 150 grams (1 stick) cold butter, diced
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 eggs
  • Your filling of choice
  • 100 grams dark chocolate
  • Olive oil

Grease a pair of lipped baking sheets.  Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.

Place the water, diced butter, and salt into a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.  Stir until the butter has melted and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and stir in the flour; work vigorously until a dough that easily pulls away from the sides of the pan is formed.  Remove from the heat and add the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition until a smooth-surfaced, slightly glossy dough is achieved.

Spoon out the dough in 2-tablespoon portions onto the greased baking sheets, making sure to space them evenly.  (For smaller puffs, 1 tablespoon of dough will do.)  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until lightly browned on top and inflated.  Remove from oven and set on a wire rack to cool; pierce each puff with a toothpick to let out steam lest this turns them soggy.  Allow to cool completely before stuffing with the filling of your choice.  You make choose to pipe in the fillings or split the puffs and spoon it in.  Arrange the filled puffs onto a serving dish.

Melt the chocolate in a microwave around 45 seconds at HIGH.  Stir in about a tablespoon of the olive oil to make the texture fluid enough to drizzle over.  Drizzle the chocolate over the puffs.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes approximately 25 puffs.

Incidentally…  Not in the mood for cream puffs?  Heat up a saucepan of oil for deep-frying and turn the dough into churros!  Pipe the dough through a star-shaped nozzle right into the hot oil.  Fish out and drain well on a rack or on paper towels.  Dust up with some icing sugar and serve with thick, Spanish-style hot chocolate.

In Which French Bread Shines On as French Toast…

French toast is always a pleasure.
French toast is always a pleasure.

French toast  – pain perdu or “lost bread” – is one of those “love food / hate waste” ideas that has stood the test of time.  A way of upcycling stale bread, it has become a popular breakfast or afternoon tea item around the globe.

It is one of the first things that many home cooks learn to prepare as it is also the easiest.  Crack an egg into a bowl; whisk well with some milk and sugar.  Soak in a few stale slices of bread.  Heat up some butter in a frying pan and cook the soaked slices till browned on all sides.

Making French toast is my second favourite way of dealing with leftover bread.  (Longtime readers know that my actual fave involves transforming stale bread – and cake – into a rich, killer-diller bread pudding that goes down a treat with vanilla ice cream.)  The eggy bread method is best for breads made with lean dough, which is to say that the bread was made with little to no fat, as these soak up the whisked custard beautifully and the resulting texture is crisp outside and fluffy within.  That said, you can’t go wrong with an old-school baguette or slices of crusty pain ancienne or pain de campagne.  

I don’t like my French toast too sweet, so I use a bare amount of sugar in my recipe.  Likewise, I also like to liven things up by adding lemon extract or lemon zest to my toast as it gives the finished product a citrusy zing that is just lovely on the palate.

Serve with jam, marmalade, peanut butter,...
Serve with jam, marmalade, peanut butter,…

Pain Perdu au Citron

  • 8 slices from a baguette or pain ancienne (I get my pain ancienne from Paul Boulangerie.  The French-style loaves over at Wildflour and Tous de Jours are also excellent.)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract or finely grated fresh lemon zest
  • butter for frying

Whisk together the egg, milk, and lemon extract.  Soak the sliced bread, making sure that all sides are properly battered.  Set aside.

Put a frying pan over medium heat.  Add the butter and swirl it around the pan as it melts to evenly grease the surface.  Once the butter starts to brown at the edges (you want a beurre noisette thing going on here), add the soaked bread.  Cook until browned on both sides; remove to a serving plate and serve immediately with your choice of spreads or syrups.

Serves 4.