In Which One Finds Churros in a Most Unlikely Place…

Churros!

Churros!

“What do you eat whenever you’re stressed?” a friend asked recently, seeing how I was having another case of the sulks – one bad enough to make Grumpy Cat look bloody cheerful.

“I don’t,” I reply with a shrug.  “I can’t eat when I’m stressed; my appetite disappears whenever I’m stressed.”

“Come on; surely there must be something you crave whenever you get pissed off!”

Actually, yes: I do crave something whenever things seem all shot to hell and my temper is none too sweet: churros.  Yes: those crunchy deep-fried choux-paste crullers one dips wantonly into thick Spanish-style hot chocolate. Nothing seems to bring a deep sense of comfort into my harried soul faster than these crispy golden fritters; that’s why I crave them even whenever things go into the deep south and I’m surlier than a bear with a migraine.

There is just one small problem: working in the BGC as I do, where in blazes does a girl get a churros fix?!?

Into chocolate!

Into chocolate!

Las Flores, a Spanish establishment that does jim-dandy churros, is at least five or six blocks away.  As if that weren’t bad enough, there isn’t a Dulcinea anywhere close by and I’d have to hop a shuttle over to Glorietta in order to get there.  Now, much as I’m craving the good stuff, I am not about to traipse down five blocks for a fix.  It just isn’t done and, given my current state of mind, it may already be too late by the time I get there.  (I may have already clobbered some poor innocent bystander in a fit of pique!)

The closest, most reasonable substitute would have to be the baked churros sold over at Pan De Manila. These, alas, do not have the crispy crunchiness that gives the fried original much of its appeal.  But, you have to admit that these are pretty darned good: tender, not at all sweet despite the sprinkle of sugar on top, and rather moreish.  Plus, they aren’t greasy the way too many mediocre churros tend to be.

These babies go for only P 10.00 apiece (per stick); dips go for an additional P 10.00 a tub.  Very reasonably priced, if you ask me.

All gone!

All gone!

Grab a few, make yourself a milky cup of coffee, and feel the tension slipping out of you.  Keep nibbling till you’ve either A) reached a reasonable state of Nirvana; or B) your nerves have been soothed and settled down.

 

In Which a Deep-fried Fish Classic Gets a Fiery Twist…

Panko-crusted cobbler with a chilli-butter sauce

Panko-crusted cobbler with a chilli-butter sauce

 

The principle of cooking deep-fried crumbed or battered fish is such a simple one that it boggles the mind why it’s done so badly both at home and even at the nicest restaurants.  The fish is either overseasoned or underseasoned; soggier than wet paper; burnt to a crisp – definitely not palatable.

But, when it’s done right, it can be sheer delight: a crispy exterior encasing a meltingly soft and almost creamy interior that doesn’t taste too fishy because it’s been seasoned properly.  Plus points if it comes with a proper batch of deep-fried spuds or, perhaps, a salad dressed impeccably with a citrusy sauce.  

That said, the panko-crusted cobbler over at Melo’s (yes, the steakhouse; you can get lovely fish at a steakhouse!) is a paragon that others would do well to imitate.  Each piece is properly crumbed, seasoned, and deep-fried into the crispy outside / tender inside ideal.  But what sets this one apart from the competition is the smattering of sauce that gets drizzled over it: a garlic, chili, and lemon-infused clarified butter whose taste infuses each and every piece – spicy, sharp, lightly salty.  The steamed veg and the small portion of potato Parmigiana seem almost unnecessary; yes, the fish is that good.

In Which One Attempts a Japanese Cheesecake…

Meringue: also known as the reason why I could never get top marks in HomeEc

Meringue: also known as the reason why I could never get top marks in HomeEc

No se puede hacer tortilla sin romper los huevos.  (You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.) – Spanish/Catalan proverb

I’ve said this time and again whenever anyone tells me I should make a business out of cooking and baking: NO.  I have neither the patience nor the acumen for turning my favorite hobby into a business, though I do confess that I have been sorely tempted to drop everything and do so.  Indeed, my pet threat whenever the chips are way down is that I will run away to Barcelona when I’ve had enough and open a cafe.  Or a chocolateria.  Maybe give the siblings running the famed conservas bar Quimet y Quimet a run for their money.

But, again: NO.  Ask my best friend and he will tell you – provided he remembers – about the time I baked those hideously hard Milo biscuits that could have doubled as either hockey pucks or weapons for use in a riot.  While my cooking and baking have improved considerably over time, there’s a nagging feeling at the backs of both of our minds that we have not seen the last of the like of those dreaded biscuits from our days in uni.  Oh, dear…

Nevertheless, my willingness to try new things in the kitchen has had amazing results over the past decade since I started this blog.  I’ve tried new techniques, made twists on existing recipes, and, yes: I even got over my fear of making meringue as shown above.

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An oh-so-billowy batter…

My family was torn between having our mother’s chiffon cake or one of my baked cheesecakes for dessert yesterday.  Since no clear answer could be found and Mom was busy, I decided to make the most out of the situation and try my hand at making a nama or momengoshi cheesecake which is pretty much a gorgeously fluffy hybrid of the two.

Also known as Japanese cheesecake, the dessert is so called because it is usually served unadorned (nama = naked) and because it has the light, fluffy texture of cotton puffs (momengoshi = cotton-style).  You could get a reasonable version at Uncle Tetsu or, better yet, at JiPan; even SM supermarkets and Family Mart branches offer acceptable variations on the theme.  But, you know this blogger: if I try it from the shop often enough, I will be tempted to make it at home.  And so it went…

...turns into a fluffy cake

…turns into a fluffy cake

As I stated above, this is pretty much a cross between a chiffon cake and a baked cheesecake.  You’ll need a proper mixer (or a very strong mixing arm), patience, and a bowl of egg whites at room temperature to make the meringue that gives this dessert much of its airy heft.  While it does sound fiddly – and, to the uninitiated and the impatient, it is fiddly – don’t ever make the mistake of not doing this properly: you will regret it.

The end result is a light, tangy, fluffy dessert that certainly casts the commercially made ones into the shade and you will feel a sense of pride and sheer delight that borders upon the unholy as you slide a butter knife into its cottony innards to serve it.  (Yes, it is that soft.)

The recipe I am sharing with you is somewhat modified.  Feel free, nevertheless, to swap the lemon juice in the recipe for kalamansi juice (for a more blossomy citrus taste), orange juice (admittedly, you can use half-lemon and half-orange for a Gateau St. Clement [You know the nursery rhyme: “‘Oranges and lemons,’ say the bells of St. Clement’s.”  Just don’t tell my best friend; he’ll raise an eyebrow, no doubt…]), the beans scraped from half a vanilla pod, or even an equal amount of either Bailey’s or Kahlua.

So, who wants a slice?

So, who wants a slice?

Momengoshi Cheesecake

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 block cream cheese, softened (8oz/225 or 250g)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup softened butter or margarine
  • additional butter and powdered sugar

Grease and line an 8-inch springform pan or disposable aluminum baking tin with baking parchment / waxed paper.  If using a springform pan, wrap the bottom of the pan with aluminum foil.  Grease the parchment and dust over with powdered sugar; set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees / Gas Mark 3.

Put the cream cheese and milk into a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Setting the mixer to medium speed, blend until smooth and creamy.  Add the butter, flour, lemon juice, and half of the sugar (1/4 cup); blend until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula from time to time.  Add the egg yolks and blend well; set aside.

Put the egg whites in another bowl and beat at lowest speed for about 30 seconds or until frothy.  Add the cream of tartar; whisk another 30 seconds.  Increase speed to medium and gradually add the remaining sugar; whisk until soft peaks form.

Fold the meringue into the egg yolk and cheese mixture in thirds, incorporating gently.  Pour into the prepared baking tin and gently shake down to remove air pockets. Set the filled pan into a larger baking dish; fill the baking dish with boiling water till it reaches about halfway up the sides of the filled pan.  Carefully place in the oven; bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Check for doneness with a toothpick; turn the oven off and leave the oven door ajar for about 15 – 30 minutes.  Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool on a rack for an additional 30 – 45 minutes.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

Serves 8.

In Which One Slow-Cooks a Savoury Beef Stew…

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble...

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…

For most modern home cooks, a pressure cooker is a key piece of kitchen equipment they can’t seem to do without.  I can’t blame them: you get to tenderise cheap and tough cuts of beef in 10 – 15 minutes tops rather than wait forever and six days.  However, what it delivers on in terms of speed and tenderness tends – alas! – to fall short with regard to flavour.  Sure, your beef is as tender – perhaps even more so – than your first kiss, but it’s about as bland as a chunk of cardboard.  Nine times out of ten, home cooks tend to keep adding more salt or bouillon cubes to whatever it is they’re cooking just to give it more taste – and, unfortunately, also raise everyone’s blood sodium levels in the process.

Slow cooking, on the other hand, takes forever and six days to do – but the results are absolutely worth it because stews and soups are more flavourful without having to chuck in any additional salt.  Beef stews, specifically those from France and Spain, are prepared in such a manner for lavish Sunday family dinners: pots are prepared as early as the night before and allowed to simmer on the stovetop or sealed into tightly covered saucepans and slow-baked in the oven for hours on end.  Modern-day cooks – especially urbanites – may look askance at this long-winded cooking method, but let me be quick to assure you again: the results will be worth it.

Be ready with your plates, boys and girls!

Be ready with your plates, boys and girls!

After a glorious meal of tuhod y batoc (a slow-cooked stew featuring beef shin and neck in a wine-infused brown gravy) at Dulcinea recently, I was certainly convinced of the merits of slow-cooking: the beef was very tender, silken almost; the gravy rich and full-bodied and truly savoury having absorbed the bare essence of the meat.  Something to be savoured with a bowl of just-cooked rice or maybe mashed potatoes for a taste of glorious comfort on a rainy evening.

That said, I tried my hand at slow-cooking a beef stew inspired by a French classic: the cream and wine-enriched blanquette de veau.  However, given that veal is hard to find in these parts, stewing beef had to do – and the term blanquette kind of becomes a misnomer because you have to brown the beef prior to stewing as opposed to gently poaching it directly in a fond blanc (white stock) with aromatics such as citrus rind, fennel fronds, and herbs.  Plus, the aromatics for this particular stew are more robust: red onions, garlic, rosemary, and bay leaves round out the flavour profile here and bacon throws in additional savour and smokiness.

But a slow, gentle simmer for the better part of an hour and more tempers these robust tastes, softening and melding them into a delicious whole.  The beef – cartilaginous and tough – becomes almost meltingly tender; the onions take on an appealing sweetness.  The addition of heavy cream towards the end of cooking evokes a classic blanquette and the enriched sauce blankets the rest of the elements to make a meal that is both satisfying and absolutely indulgent.

I know it is more than a little time consuming, but take the time and the effort to cook this at least once – and you’ll find this becoming a regular feature on your weekend menu.  😉

Blanquette de Boeuf

  • 1/4 kilo stewing beef, cut into chunks
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 medium tin whole button mushrooms, drained and liquid reserved
  • 1 beef bouillon / stock cube
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • large or 2 small bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup bacon or hickory- / bacon-flavoured Spam, finely chopped
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon rock salt
  • ground black pepper to taste

Additional

  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or wok over medium heat.  Brown the beef in batches; set aside.

Add the onions to the pan and cook till softened and slightly caramelised at the edges.  Add the garlic and cook till slightly browned.  Stir in the bacon and the beef cube; cook until the beef cube dissolves.  Combine enough water with the reserved mushroom liquid to yield 1 cup total.  Pour this in along with the water, 1/4 cup wine, rosemary, and bay leaf.  Stir well and bring to a boil.  Add the potatoes and carrot chunks and lower the heat.  Allow to simmer for 45 minutes before adding the mushrooms.  Cover and cook an additional 20 minutes.

Whisk together 1/3 cup water and the cornstarch to make a slurry.  Uncover the pan and pour in the slurry, mixing well.  Cook until slightly thickened, then add the wine.  Stir well and allow to cook an additional 10 minutes before stirring in the cream.  Remove from heat and serve immediately with rice or mashed potatoes.

Serves 6.

In Which One Cooks a Sweet and Peppery Ragu Bolognese

A bit of pasta and ragu for you?

A bit of pasta and ragu for you?

Under ordinary circumstances, I turn my nose up at local versions of spaghetti Bolognese.  Time and again, I’ve stated – quite bluntly, actually – I don’t care much for the saccharine sweetness that goes into most renditions of this dish.  It’s a classic case of seriously mucking up a very basic recipe that tastes magnificent if you’d just keep the damned thing simple and stick to the fundamentals.

Honestly, if you want a sweet hint in the taste of your classic red sauce, don’t – under any circumstances whatsoever – load the ragu with ketchup.  Not tomato, not banana – just don’t – wait, make that never – put ketchup into your red sauce.  It’s a travesty; a slur against everything that is good and wholesome.  Yes, I’m starting to sound like a hard-core culinary purist here, but this is one cause for which I won’t get off my soapbox: there is no place for ketchup in a proper pasta sauce.  End of story.

Now, if you want to add some sweetness to your Bolognese, add sweet elements to it: a bit of brown sugar to make the flavour of the tomatoes pop right out, let the sugars in a proper red wine do the trick, or use sausages with a sweet flavour profile like those made with fennel or, better yet, hamonado-style longganiza or a Spanish chorizo with a bit of caramel going on.

This is the principle behind today’s recipe for ragu di Marga (“Marga’s sauce”; my full given name is Maria Margarita, go figure…) which features sweet Aklanon longganiza, skinless pork links from the Central Philippines.  These sausages are pink when raw, but cook to a gorgeous reddish-caramel colour; be sure the char them a bit on all sides as some charring amps up the flavours of the garlic, black pepper, and muscovado sugar used to season these links.  When used in a pasta sauce, these sausages add a sweet, peppery nuance that perfectly balances the acidity of the tomato sauce and a scattering of pungent aged Edam completes a mouthwatering dish.

Try this at home for the weekend; it’s quite a treat.  Oh, and if you haven’t got access to skinless longganiza, Aklanon or otherwise, use another sausage with a hint of sweetness.

Ragu di Marga

  • 1/2 kilo spaghetti, prepared according to package instructions, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water
  • 4 links skinless longganiza, coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup tomato-based pasta sauce
  • 1 cup plain tomato sauce
  • 1 eggplant, peeled and diced
  • 1 pork bouillon cube
  • 2 tablespoons Italian mixed herbs
  • 2 tablespoons red wine
  • 1 tablespoon muscovado or brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • grated Edam or Parmesan cheese to serve

Set aside the spaghetti, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat.  Pour in the oil.  When it begins to sizzle, add the onion and cook till softened.  Add the garlic and cook till browned at the edges.  Add the eggplant and the sausage and cook until the former has softened and the latter has browned, about 2 minutes.  Add the bouillon cube and herbs and cook till the bouillon as dissolved.  Pour in the pasta cooking water and the wine; bring to a boil.  Add the pasta sauce and tomato sauce; stir well and return to a boil.  Add the brown sugar, pepper, and paprika; stir well and cook for another two or three minutes.  Remove from heat and transfer to a serving bowl.

Pour over individual portions of pasta and sprinkle over the grated cheese.

Serves 6.