A memorable Easter experiment

I remember the very first batch of cookies I ever baked. Classic chocolate chip, all flat as a pancake, ultra crispy and so oily they were practically swimming in butter. I was in high school at that time and have tried several different recipes since, some with acceptable results and others not so much. None have been overly memorable – none that is, until now.

A four-day weekend with no plans to get out of town and dodgy autumnal weather is, for me, the perfect opportunity for cooking experiments. I wanted to make something specifically Easter and what is more evocative of Easter, in terms of food, than chocolate. Well, actually, there are hot cross buns but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Almost every Easter for as long as I can remember, my parents have bought me some form of Easter-themed chocolate, ranging from marshmallow eggs to big chocolate rabbits. My personal favourites are the marshmallow eggs and that’s why I thought it would be quintessentially Easter to bake some chocolate cookies filled with gooey marshmallow.

Sounds sinfully delicious, doesn’t it? I used a basic chocolate cookie recipe and sandwiched some mini marshmallows between two rolled out cookies to make one big cookie. I also chopped up some dark chocolate to use as chocolate chunks, which I folded into the dough. I ended up with about 7 cookies that were soft, chocolately, marshmallowy and very sweet.

Chocolate cookies with gooey marshmallow centres. Photo: Tao Lin

Chocolate cookies with gooey marshmallow centres. Photo: Tao Lin

So yes, very decadent but not the cookie for me. I found them just a bit too sweet, with too much chocolate and too sticky in the mouth.

Before the weekend I was all set on making this my big Easter baking success but on Thursday, I remembered there’s something else just as quintessentially Easter as chocolate. People go nuts for hot cross buns and I figured I could get more experimental if I turned those delicious little spiced pillows of bread into a cookie.

I tried out a recipe for brown butter salted caramel cookies the other week and really liked the dough so decided to use that as my foundation and build from there. I got the spices in there by infusing them into the browned butter and I added white chocolate bits, just ‘cos. Thankfully, they ended up going really well with this recipe.

These cookies are perfect as they are but to go with the Easter theme, I added white chocolate crosses on top once the cookies had cooled. I didn’t have a piping bag handy – makeshift or not – so I just used a spoon to haphazardly drip melted white chocolate into very rough cross-like shapes 🙂

As far as cookie experiments go, this is my favourite so far because I got to be a bit creative with them and they taste pretty good too.

Here’s the recipe –

You need:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cream of tartar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar – I used 1/4 cup brown sugar with 1/4 cup caster sugar but all of either works just fine
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
  • 200g unsalted butter
  • Dried cloves – I used around 10 but this might be a bit strong for some so adjust accordingly
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom seeds (or 2 cardamom pods)
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • White chocolate – I used 100g of Cadbury Dream with each square chopped into quarters
  • Raisins – I used about 3/4 cup

How to:

1. Soak raisins: Place raisins in a small bowl together with boiling water. Cover with a plate for 10 minutes, or for however long you have. If you want to add a “special” touch, add a bit of rum as well.
2. Prepare dry ingredients: Sift flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt and cinnamon into a bowl. Put aside.
3. Brown butter: Place butter, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger into a saucepan. Gently melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when brown specks start forming on the bottom of the pan. Let cool to room temperature.
4. Cream butter and sugar: Strain cooled butter into a bowl with the sugar. Use electric beaters to combine butter and sugar until smooth. You won’t get it completely combined because of the consistency of the butter but give it a good whisk for a couple of minutes.
5. Add other ingredients: Beat in egg and then the yolk. Add vanilla extract and yoghurt and fold in mixture until combined.
6. Add dry ingredients: Mix in flour a bit at a time until all combined. Fold in raisins and white chocolate.
7. Chill: Form mixture into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a couple of hours (or until the mixture is hard if you’re feeling impatient ;))
8. Bake: Heat oven to 176°C (350°F) and prepare baking trays with baking or parchment paper. Roll about 2 tbsp of dough into a ball, flatten with palm and place on tray. Repeat until trays are filled, leaving about 5cm (2 inches) between each cookie. Bake in oven for around 10 minutes, or until the edges start to brown lightly. Take out of the oven and leave on trays for a couple of minutes to allow cookies to set before transferring to a cooling rack.

Hot cross bun cookies. Photo: Tao Lin

Hot cross bun cookies. Photo: Tao Lin

Hope everybody had a safe and happy Easter!

Preparing for winter

I can’t believe it’s almost the end of the first month of autumn. It’s cooler in the mornings and evenings, there’s a lot more rain about and it’s much harder forcing myself to rise out of bed for work. But summer is really hanging on – we still get a considerable number of hot, golden days throughout the week where cicadas sing and the kiss of the sun’s rays warms and illuminates everything upon the earth.

Winter here in New Zealand isn’t my favourite season. The awful combination of heavy rain and strong winds often leaves trails of umbrella skeletons and angry nose-to-tail car accidents in its wake. There are always dirty wet footprints in places where there shouldn’t be and forget about dry, sun kissed washing.

There are fantastic things about winter, though, and one of those is all the hearty meals that really fill your belly and warm your heart in ways that summery salads can’t.

I decided to kick off my cold weather cooking with something basic – soup. My mum’s noodle soup is one of my favourite meals – light, simple and quick. But I wanted to try something that had a few more elements to it. Recalling shreds of a conversation I had a few years ago when I was travelling in China about the pronunciation of a certain South East Asian dish, I settled for the national dish of Vietnam, pho (pronouced “fuh”, not “fo” nor “poo”).

Having never been to Vietnam nor eaten that much Vietnamese food, I’ve only had one instance of eating pho and this was at a little Vietnamese restaurant in the ooh la la Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn called Cafe Viet. I remember it being fragrant, salty and very filling.

One of the things I definitely wanted to do with this cooking experiment was making everything from scratch. Normally I would opt for the ready-made stock from the supermarket, which has always worked well for me, but I had time this weekend and felt like putting in the extra effort in creating my own beef stock. It took quite a long time but it tasted really good and it filled the house with beautiful aromas from all the different spices.

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

I found a good recipe that explains everything really well, especially the stock-making part. See it here: http://steamykitchen.com/271-vietnamese-beef-noodle-soup-pho.html

It all turned out pretty well. The only issue I had was the soup didn’t really cook the raw beef as well as I wanted it to but I probably didn’t slice it thin enough. It’s something to remember for next time – “pho” sure….:P

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Daniel

He fixed me with a cool stare as the water streamed over and through his body, taking away the last vestiges of the things that made him whole. He continued to stare silently as I dried him, dressed him and placed him on his bed, his final resting place. After tucking him in, I bid Daniel a final farewell before shutting the door.

When I opened it again, he was cooked and ready to eat. Of course, “Daniel” was the star of my Christmas lunch – a tarakihi fish baked in salt.

Every year since I started taking an interest in cooking, I’ve used Christmas as a chance to try out recipes using ingredients or techniques I wouldn’t normally use. In 2012 it was honey mustard glazed ham. In 2013 it was “Pinchy” the crayfish. And in 2014, it was “Daniel” the salt-baked fish.

The first time I saw the technique of baking something in salt was on one of last year’s episodes of My Kitchen Rules, where a team cooked beef in a salt casing. It’s an old technique that, as far as my extremely limited research has shown, probably originated in Carthage (north Africa). More commonly, I’ve seen recipes state that it’s an old Spanish or Italian technique of cooking.

I debated whether salt-baking would be worth the effort and I’ve decided it really is. It produced some of the most tender, well-seasoned fish I’ve ever eaten and it really doesn’t require that much effort. Even the amount of salt wasn’t as ridiculous as I initially thought it would be. While recipes call for rock or sea salt (more expensive but preferred because the larger granules allow the salt mixture to form more easily), I found it worked perfectly well with a combination of table salt and sea salt.

Here is the recipe I followed. Just a little tip: apparently it’s best to leave the scales on the fish, which is what I did, but some recipes make no distinction. The scales prevent the fish from being over-salted but if you’ve found this otherwise then do let me know!

Have a go and take pleasure in cracking open that beautiful golden salt casing!

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

The good sort of change

It was the end of the world as I knew it. For some reason I can no longer remember, I was plucked out of the form class I had been in for my foundation years at high school and dumped unceremoniously into a newly formed class, away from the friends and teachers I had come to know. I knew who some of my new classmates were but most I had never seen before. I remember the teacher – a new recruit to the school – asked us to write about ourselves and what we like and disliked. I wrote that I hated change.

Then, in no time at all, I met a bubbly, friendly, inquisitive girl who would later become one of my closest friends. Sheila and her sisters had only just started at the school after moving to Auckland from the east coast area of the Hawkes Bay. Starting at a new school – and a high school, no less – after the first formative years, when everyone kind of figures out who they want to hang out with and cliques are set, must be hard. I can only imagine as I’ve never been in that situation but it didn’t seem to faze Sheila one bit.

She was, and still, is a natural people-person, able to strike up a conversation with anyone and always giving the other person her undivided attention. Before texting and Facebook, we spent hours on the phone to each other, talking about nothing and everything and giggling until our bellies hurt and tears streamed down our faces. My mum always knew who it was on the phone because all she heard was hysterical laughter.

We had different circles of friends for much of our time at school and for some time during our university years we lost sight of each other, although we never lost touch. We were never each other’s best friends but we’ve shared plenty of “bestie” moments. We still have moments when we laugh until we cry and our deeply personal conversations still happen fairly regularly. The nature of those conversations has evolved from talking about boys and our classmates, to our career aspirations and desires for the future.

Like most us, she went through a major drinking and partying phase, a life crisis, and a first heartbreak, all of which could have derailed her in bad ways. But, she’s grown into a savvy, determined, courageous young woman who’s loved and trusted by many. I’m proud to call her my friend and incredibly grateful for that day of change.

We recently celebrated Sheila’s 27th birthday. That makes it more than a decade since we first met and that kind of blows my mind.

Here are some pictures of the cake:

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Stunning student-made cupcake designs

It was hectic at the local technical institute today – students stressing, students crying, students giving their all at the National Secondary Schools Culinary Challenge.

I was there, tip toeing around frantic competitors, dodging plates of food and trying to keep out of everyone’s way, and I was amazed at what the students created in the cupcake icing competition.

These were some of the ones that stood out for me. I’m speaking for myself here when I say that I can’t even imagine creating anything like this now, let alone back when I was 16 or 17. One of the lecturers told me the students attended workshops prior to the competition so they could familiarise themselves with what they had to do and how they could do it. Even so, massive props to these budding young culinary stars for their creativity, preparation and skill.

My personal favourite is the cupcakes-turned-burgers!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Humble and homemade

There’s a video going around of professor of journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Michael Pollan giving a talk about a number of things: the relationship between cooking and health, the changing cultural perceptions and role of cooking over time, the rise of processed foods, our heavy reliance upon food corporations, and McDonald’s french fries.

I don’t find what he argues particularly profound or groundbreaking but I do agree with some of what he says. He argues, among other things, that cooking is the simplest and easiest way to improve health. This is something I’ve come to realise very quickly upon starting on my own cooking adventure because I came to see how much butter actually goes into that chocolate cake and how much salt I end up using to season my food.

Sometimes it’s scary how much fat, salt or sugar I use – and if you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll notice I’ll always try and lessen the amount of sugar or fat used, especially in desserts – but this makes not being able to see for myself what’s going into my food when I buy takeaways or fast food even scarier.

Pollan points out that corporations cook very differently to individuals. Of course they do. Mass produced food is laden with salt, fat, sugar, additives, preservatives – how else are they going to make it taste good, withstand a long shelf-life and most importantly, make money?

The increased reliance upon processed foods means people are eating stuff that’s not great for them more often. Pollan uses the example of fries. Instead of having to wash, peel, cut and bake/fry potatoes to make fries, you can just buy a frozen bag full of yummy potato and pop it straight into the oven or deep fryer. Less work, less mess to clean up.

I’m absolutely guilty of this, especially with regards to fries. I remember having frozen fries at home from when I was at primary school and only in recent years have I stopped turning to them regularly as a snack or make-do meal when there’s nothing else to eat.

As an aside, some of you may wonder why my parents let me eat those things in the first place and well, I guess they just didn’t think they were that bad. Potato doesn’t feature all that much in Chinese cuisine and I think they figured they didn’t look or taste all that harmful. They were easy to rustle up and I loved them.

Once I discovered how delicious hand-cut, oven-baked potato fries and wedges could be though, I found it harder and harder to pull out that greasy bag of McCain chunky cut chips from the freezer.

Admittedly, it does take more work and more cleaning up but it’s infinitely more satisfactory. Peel ’em or don’t, cut ’em anyway you want, fry ’em or bake ’em, season with your own herbs and spices, serve with a main meal or have ’em on their own.

They’re yours for the taking.

Photo: Tao Lin

Potato wedges and kumara (sweet potato) tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, baked at 200C non-fan bake for around 40 to 50 minutes, until soft. Photo: Tao Lin

 

Got too many carrots? Make a pie!

About a month ago, I moved out of home to live with my boyfriend of 5 years. Finally, most people said. Most people, except my mum.

I heard a radio DJ talk recently about the two types of mums: those who can’t wait for their children to leave the nest and those who are happy to keep looking after their kids and don’t ever want them to leave. My mum is irrefutably the latter and even though I have left, she still finds ways to make sure she’s still looking after me.

One of the ways she does this is by giving me groceries – bags of carrots, stalks of celery, onions, potatoes, bread, broccoli. The more I say “no”, the more forcefully I get these things shoved into my arms. There is no rejecting an Asian mum when she makes an offer like this (Good tip for if/when you ever have dinner at a Chinese friend’s house: when the mum offers food, just accept it graciously. You’ll be wasting your breath otherwise.)

Because of this, our pantry is full of onions, probably more than I would ever use in a year, and I’ve had to chop off parts of the celery because it’s withering away faster than we can eat it.

To help deplete these resources a bit before taking on more the following week, I decided to make my very first cottage pie, using chopped onion, carrots and celery. The following recipe is adapted from www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/775643/cottage-pie

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Serves 4. Or 2 really hungry adults.

For the pie:

  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 2 medium to large carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 brown onion, chopped
  • 500g beef mince
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • Large glass of red wine
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 300ml beef stock
  • 1 tsp sage
  • A couple sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

For the topping:

  • About 1 kg of potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 75g butter, softened
  • 4 tbsp milk
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard (optional)

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 190C (non-fan bake).
  2. Heat some olive oil in a saucepan or large frying pan over medium heat and add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery. Fry off gently until soft (doesn’t have to mushy but do give it some time in the pan). I prefer to do this over a medium-low heat to stop the garlic from burning.
  3. Push everything to the outside of the pan and brown the mince in the middle.
  4. Stir in puree and add the wine. Then add stock, herbs, sauce. Taste and then season accordingly with salt and pepper.
  5. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until stock is reduced. If it’s a bit watery and you want it like a gravy, try adding plain flour, starting with about 1 tbsp.
  6. Boil potatoes until soft, then drain. Let cool for a bit before mashing it together with the butter, milk and mustard
  7. Once the mince is ready, transfer to an oven-proof dish and cover evenly with mashed potato. Bake until golden.

My potato didn’t colour as nicely as I wanted it to, with some parts of it starting to get a little burnt, so I may try lowering the oven temperature next time I make this.

While the pie was baking I made some crispy green beans as well – cook in boiling salted water for about 2 mins, drain and immerse immediately into a ice bath or if you’re like me and you don’t have ice cubes or even a freezer, do some forward-thinking and get a bowl of cold water into the fridge before you start the pie. Chucking them into the icy water will stop them from cooking and going soft.

Then I popped them onto the frying pan with some heated olive oil and tossed them around with a minced garlic clove and some salt. Delicious 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Which vegetable is king?

My mum’s watercress broth is one of my most favourite things to eat in the world. It’s really simple – water, stock, watercress, ginger, sesame oil and sometimes, very rarely, some chicken nibbles.

According to a new study, watercress beats out broccoli, spinach, pumpkin, even hyped-up trendy kale, to come out on top of a list compiled of 41 “powerhouse” fruits and vegetables.

Not only can you see where your favourite vegetables and fruit rank, but you may also be like me and learn about plants you’ve never even heard about before, like chicory…

Read the full article here.

Easiest soup ever

When I come home from uni or work in the middle of winter, or even just a cold, rainy day, one of the most comforting things to find is a saucepan simmering with steaming, nutritious soup. The soups my mum makes are more broths under the English definition but I prefer them like that – no cream, no milk, no mush that was apparently once vegetables.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all kinds of soup – pumpkin, tomato, potato, minestrone, chicken etc, etc – but I love even more the lightness of Chinese soups. One of my favourites is sweet corn soup. No chicken, just sweet corn. In fact, my mum doesn’t even make it using stock and yes, that can be a bit bland compared to one made with a good stock, but I love it nonetheless.

I’ve made my own variation before but the most recent attempt has been my favourite so far. It really all comes down to the stock. Unfortunately, I can’t say I made my own stock this time so I guess I can’t credit the success to myself entirely. I wanted to use a vegetarian stock but literally had nothing in the fridge to make it with, except a couple of carrots and some old stems of celery, so I just used store-bought stock, which I think is perfectly fine.

I used 400ml of Campbell’s vegetarian stock, heated it up with a can of creamy sweetcorn after very gently frying some crushed/finely diced (or chopped, whatever!) garlic and ginger in the saucepan. Once that boils, you just simmer everything for about 10 minutes and then lightly beat an egg and dribble that into the soup so it forms long, wispy strands. If you want to add sesame oil, add that at the very end before serving. The same goes for spring onions and/or coriander.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

This has got to be one of the easiest soups to make and for me, it beats the time and process required to make other vegetable soups (don’t get me started on my attempt at pumpkin soup), plus it tastes fantastic too. It’s also really easy to add some chicken or even ham to the pot. Finally, this soup has never been something I’ve had just on its own but always as an accompaniment to a larger meal because it’s so light.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin