A revelatory experiment

There was just one question on my mind as I wandered the supermarket aisles, clutching little jars of star anise and cinnamon in one hand and a pot of creme fraiche in the other: where the bloody hell do they keep the polenta?

I thought it would be in the same section as the flour – nope. What about the cereal section? Nope. Bread? No. Pasta? No. I even tried Google for help, except my phone’s 4G wasn’t working. Thank you, Vodafone.

It was only when I got home and hopped on the wonderful world of the Internet did I realise my mistake. I had been looking solely for ‘polenta’ when I could have also been searching for ‘cornmeal’.

Experienced foodies out there are most likely scoffing at my amateur discovery but you better believe it was a big revelation for me. That thing on TV that always looks like silky potato mash and has developed a bit of a ‘hipster’ status, that thing that always sounded so fancy and almost mysterious, is actually just humble ol’ cornmeal.

According to The New York Times, ‘polenta’ is the Italian term for cornmeal and comes from an ancient Roman dish of the poorer classes called pulmentum.

More precisely, polenta isn’t such until it’s cooked. Until then, it’s just cornmeal.

When I looked up the recipe of an orange syrup cake that I saw on the latest season of My Kitchen Rules, I was confused as to why it used polenta. That confusion has now dissipated after learning what polenta actually is and trying out the cake for myself.

The orange syrup cake was served with caramelised pineapples, toasted nuts and creme fraiche on the show and there was only one word the judges had for it: “Yum”. Naturally, I had to give it a go.

I halved the recipe used and didn’t bother with the caramelised pineapple and the nuts as my primary focus was trying out the cake.

For the syrup:

  • 247.5g caster sugar
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
  • 1/2 orange, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, juiced

How to:

  1. Heat all the ingredients up in a saucepan over low heat until all the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes until reduced by half
  3. Let cool and pour through a fine sieve into a jug to discard the solids

For the cake:

  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 92.5g unsalted butter, softened
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 75g plain flour
  • 27.5g fine polenta
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder

How to:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C and grease cake/muffin tins (I used large ramekins)
  2. Using an electric beater, mix together the butter and sugar until light and creamy
  3. Beat in the egg and then the reduced orange juice
  4. Stir in the zest
  5. Sift in the flour, polenta, baking powder and cinnamon and stir to combine
  6. Divide mixture among prepared tins
  7. Bake for around 20-30 mins, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  8. While cakes are hot, prick holes all over it with a skewer and pour half the syrup onto the cakes. Repeat once all the syrup has been absorbed.

I served the cakes with some creme fraiche mixed with 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 vanilla bean seeds.

It was moist, crumbly, so light it melted in the mouth and the sourness of the creme fraiche helped prevent the cake from being sickly sweet. It was just so delicious and it’s definitely something I would be excited, happy and proud to make for others.

To be honest, I don’t know what the cornmeal adds to the overall result but it can’t be bad with a result this good!

As you can see, my presentation skills are severely lacking and don’t, in any way, reflect how amazing this cake is – excuse the photo and try it out for yourself šŸ™‚

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

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The art of timing

Shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules have taught me many, many things about cooking but perhaps one of the greatest lessons has been the importance of mastering timing.

Too much time in the oven and that beautiful (and expensive) beef tenderloin overcooks, becoming less tender and more dry and tough. Too little time and that pork belly that’s meant to melt in your mouth is a rubbery, chewy, downright nasty slab of greasy meat.

Desserts too rely immensely on correct timing, where one minute could mean the difference between serving your guests a molten chocolate cake that oozes when you dig in with a spoon or just another chocolate cake.

I was faced with this scenario when my friends and I gathered for a potluck dinner. Tasked with dessert, I chose to recreate my previously successful chocolate fondant with the addition of some almond biscuit crumble and vanilla mascarpone cream. I erred on the side of caution with my timing and failed to deliver exactly what I wanted.

The recipe I followed for the cake was one by Nigella Lawson. I used less chocolate – about 300g, whereas the recipe calls for 350g – and it was very rich but I think I would use the recipe again. It tasted really nice and it was really easy to put together, PLUS no left-over egg parts!

I also used a muffin tin because I didn’t have enough ramekins of the same size to serve everyone. I repeated what I did the first time I made these cakes, which was to brush melted butter in every dish and then sprinkle with some cocoa powder. This helps immensely when it comes to removing the baby cakes to serve.

The cakes only needed about 10 or 11 minutes but I cooked them for about 13 minutes. They had been sitting in the fridge for a few hours so I thought they would need those extra couple of minutes but it was too much and they ended up only being a little bit gooey in the middle with no molten flow of chocolate whatsoever – disappointing!

For the almond crumble:

  • 125g unsalted butter, chopped, warmed/slightly melted
  • 150g plain flour
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 150g almonds, chopped coarsely

Simply squish the butter with the flour and sugar until it resembles bread crumbs. Add the almonds and stir together

I got this from a recipe cooked on the latest season of My Kitchen Rules. In hindsight, this made way too much crumble and it was a bit tasteless so I would decrease the amount of butter, flour and almonds by maybe 50g and keep the same amount of sugar.

For the mascarpone cream, I just whisked together 200g of mascarpone with about tsp of vanilla extract, ground vanilla bean (I have pure vanilla beans in a grinder) and about a tbsp of icing sugar. This goes great with a rich dessert like chocolate fondant.

There was a lot of silence during dessert time and plenty of compliments about the taste, which makes me very happy but there’s no denying it: they were hardly chocolate fondants.

Chocolate fondant, lava cakes or molten cakes lose their identity without that melted centre and it can be a gamble to get them out of the oven at the right time in order to achieve the right consistency. That’s just how it is with cooking I suppose and it is a bit of a mix between a fine art and sheer luck to get the food just right. It’s all a matter of trial and error – I’m sure my friends won’t mind being taste testers!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

 

Tickled pink

Today is Jenny’s birthday – baker extraordinaire and a close friend of mine since primary school. For a few years now, she has made some visually stunning and taste bud-tantalising birthday cakes for our circle of girlfriends, as well as a number of other cakes for various other people and occasions. The time, effort, imagination and love she puts into each and every single one of those cakes is truly astounding and I hope she knows how much we appreciate her thought, generosity and talent.

Last night, we celebrated her birthday in stylish settings by the beach, where she unveiled her creation for her own birthday: chocolate cake with wonderfully pink raspberry buttercream icing.

Enjoy.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Something easy for a lazy day

A couple of months ago I made lemon syrup cake following a recipe by Nigella Lawson: this blog presents this recipe in a really pretty, pictorial and easy-to-follow way. The cake turned out really good and I felt that it would taste just as good with some coconut in it. The flavour of the cake begged for coconut to be added and you didn’t have to try very hard to almost taste that coconut flavour.

Google gave me several recipes for coconut cake and lemon coconut cake.Ā ThisĀ coconut cake looks amazing but it requires way too much effort for me today. Being in the condition I am today – cold and sleepy – I didn’t really want to go out shopping for ingredients or have to make anything too complicated. Ā I will endeavour to try it another time when I’m feeling more energetic!

It didn’t take long for me to give up on finding a new recipe and I reverted back to my original plan, which was to add desiccated coconut to the recipe I followed for the lemon syrup cake. I also happened to have coconut milk so I added that to the mix as well. Here’s the ingredients list I ultimately came up with:

  • 50g unsalted butter (the only reason I didn’t use the original 125g was because I only had about 50g left and I didn’t want to go out and buy a new block. Lazy, I know)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • The juice of one lemon
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons of coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup of desiccated coconut

The method I followed was the same as the original recipe, I just sifted the coconut in with the flour and salt. The cake did crack on top but I’m not too bothered by this since the rest of the it cooked really nicely.

For the lemon syrup, I started heating the lemon juice up in a pan and I put about half a tablespoon of icing sugar in before I had a mini epiphany and said to myself, why not use honey instead? So, I ditched the rest of the sugar and melted in about 1.5 tablespoons of honey. I honestly don’t think you can taste the difference but it works all the same.

Ever have cravings for cake but you’re just having one of thoseĀ days? This is the recipe for you!

I really sold that, didn’t I šŸ˜‰

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Use all the sugar? Definitely not.

Fudge, brownies and various slices are things that I generally don’t choose to eat and my mind doesn’t give these items much more than a cursory acknowledgement of their existence whenever I come across them. I’m not 100 per cent sure of why that is but it might have something to do with the fact that I find them incredibly rich, sweet and not very filling.Ā 

I did, however, have a fair bit of evaporate milk left over from when I made pumpkin pieĀ and I wanted to use it up before I inevitably spill the can all over the inside of my fridge. A quick Google search gave me this recipe for chocolate marshmallow brown sugar fudge, which surprisingly tickled my fancy (I think it was the marshmallows ;)).Ā 

The process, as I followed it, wasn’t complicated at all. The most time consuming part was chopping all that chocolate up. And by “all that chocolate”, I mean only half the amount of chocolate as required by the recipe (recipe asked for 300g of milk chocolate, I used just under 150g). I also used less than half the amount of brown sugar (130g as opposed to 300g) and much less than half the amount of marshmallows (two handfuls rather than 225g).

The fudge turned out lovely and creamy and very, very sweet. It makes me feel a bit sick to think how much sweeter it would have been if I had followed the recipe exactly. I have a massive sweet tooth but how does anyone stomach THAT much sugar?Ā 

Fudge does have its merits though – apart from being a guilty pleasure, it also makes for an enticing little gift for friends who might be in need of a bit of comfort:

Flowers, chocolates and fudge (lower right-hand corner) for comfort! Photo: Jenny Lee

Flowers, chocolates and fudge (lower right-hand corner) for comfort! Photo: Jenny Lee

Despite not being the biggest fan of fudge, I enjoyed learning how to make it and actually learning what ingredients are in it, something which I had no idea of a day ago.Ā 

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Baking blind: First attempt at pumpkin pie

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Last week my parents bought a pumpkin and said, “Tao, make something out of this.”Ā I said, “Soup?” They said, “No…” I said, “Pie?” And they said, “Yes!” From my last experience making pie, I knew it was going to take forever, or at least the whole day, so I chose to attempt it at the beginning of my two-week break before uni starts again.

Unlike most of the other things I’ve made so far, I’ve never had pumpkin pie before. I don’t actually think I’ve ever had much pumpkin full stop. For this reason, I really felt like I was “baking blind” – all I could do was follow the recipe as best I could and trust that the result turns out as it’s meant to be. I suppose it’s a bit redundant worrying about how it should turn out because I don’t have anything to compare it with but there’s a greater sense of security, for me, that comes with knowing the taste and texture of whatever it is you’re cooking.

Funny, and not in a ‘ha ha’ kind of sense, that I had trouble finding a recipe that I was happy with. I ended up mostly following this one found at BBC Good Food and followed the instructions hereĀ to making pumpkin puree from scratch. In hindsight I don’t really know why I needed instructions to puree pumpkin, it’s commonsense, really! Also, because I don’t have a large pie or tart dish handy I just used my small tart dishes and I ended up making eight really full tarts.

When I was mashing the pumpkin I thought, “Why not make this harder for myself and push all of this through a sieve!” Half an hour later, I had stiff hands but very smooth pureed pumpkin. I guess it was worth the effort but I’m not sure I would have lost much sleep over it if it wasn’t completely smooth.

I also made my own pastry, although I’m not quite sure I achieved short crust pastry. No matter, it tasted good and made my kitchen smell mouth-wateringly delicious when I blind baked them. I would, however, like to be able to perfect my pastry-making skills eventually, even though that’s probably highly dangerous for my waistline.

The instructions I followed for the pastry can be found here.

Pastry shells after some blind baking. Photo: Tao Lin

Pastry shells after some blind baking. Photo: Tao Lin

Everything went pretty smoothly and the pies tasted pretty good. I’m not sure if I would go through the trouble of making it all again but I’m definitely glad I gave it a go.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin