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 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

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

 

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.

Very dry mini meat mince pie

As a regular school tuck shop and bakery staple, the meat mince pie has filled my belly countless times. Sometimes the pastry is too hard, sometimes there’s a lot of gravy and not very much else, sometimes I feel as if I’ve just eaten a giant ball of fat.

Crispy golden pastry that gives way to a flowing, molten gravy of well-seasoned mince – that’s what a mince pie should be like. Once eaten, it should sit comfortably in the stomach, leaving only crumbs of pastry and a warm, satisfied smile on your face.

That’s what I was aiming for when I made my mini mince pies but unfortunately I missed the mark slightly.

I found a recipe on Taste.com.au and made some adjustments to it:

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 brown onion, halved, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 500g lean beef mince
  • 1 carrot, peeled, coarsely grated
  • 25g (1/4 cup) powdered gravy (Gravox Traditional brand) – I used equal amounts of beef stock instead of powdered gravy and water
  • 250ml (1 cup) boiling water
  • 2 sheets (25 x 25cm) ready-rolled shortcrust pastry, just thawed
  • 2 sheets (25 x 25cm) ready-rolled puff pastry, just thawed
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked
  • Tomato ketchup, to serve

Method

  1. Heat oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until onion softens. Add the mince and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up any lumps, for 5 minutes or until mince changes colour. Add the carrot and stir until well combined.
  2. Meanwhile, place gravy powder in a heatproof jug. Add boiling water and whisk with a fork until combined. Add to mince mixture and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes to cool.
  3. Preheat oven to 180°C. Cut the shortcrust pastry sheets into 24 even squares. Line twenty-four 40ml (2-tablespoons) capacity mini muffin pans with the shortcrust pastry squares. Spoon mince mixture among pastry cases.
  4. Cut puff pastry sheets into 24 even squares. Top each pie with a pastry square. Use a small sharp knife to trim excess pastry. Brush tops with egg.
  5. Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside in the pans for 5 minutes to cool. Serve pies with tomato ketchup.

The filling of my little pies turned out a bit under-seasoned and very dry (no flowing molten gravy of mince here), which was probably caused by my adjustment of the recipe. It also lacked the wonderful depth of flavour I found when I made a Guinness and steak pie last Christmas.

I love pie so I’m going to keep working on this recipe, especially with winter settling in. Nothing better than a hearty meat pie to fill an empty belly on a cold day 😉

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This is what happens when you lack good food decoration skills

The weekend before Christmas, I helped my friends make some Santa Strawberries. They turned out very cute and all that so I thought, why not make these for my own Christmas meal?

My lack of decorative expertise really showed, especially in the weirdly shaped “eyes” hastily cut out of a gummy snake. The little Santas ended up looking more like zombies, prompting the important eternal question: do these belong at Christmas time or would they be better served at Halloween?

Zombie Santas. Photo: Tao Lin

Zombie Santas are coming to get you. Photo: Tao Lin

Season’s greetings from “Pinchy”, the Christmas crayfish

It arrived on Christmas eve in a tightly sealed styrofoam box.

My scissors sliced through the billowing plastic and industrial strength tape surrounding the container.

I tentatively lifted the lid – but only a little – and promptly dropped it back down again. I had seen nothing.

I called my mum over to help.

We both glimpsed cautiously into the box when suddenly, she let out a small yelp of surprise.

I had received a text message, which caused a loud, sudden buzz to reverberate across the counter top. We both giggled ferociously.

Our laughter gave us the courage to throw the lid off, pull back the sheet filled with melted ice and uncover the greatly anticipated star of our Christmas – Christmas lunch, that is: a brilliantly orange and very much cooked crayfish.

I can’t explain the irrational fear I felt when first attempting to open the box and it doesn’t make sense to me why I chicken out at handling a once-living creature that still looks like an animal (spit roasts are a prime case in point). Whatever the reason, I couldn’t bring myself to drive a knife through the crayfish’s head to split it open so I asked Andrew to do it for me.

Being the endearing soul he is, he promptly named our little buddy “Pinchy”, before cracking open its head.

"I shall name him Pinchy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Pinchy."  Photo: Tao Lin

“I shall name him Pinchy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Pinchy.”
Photo: Tao Lin

Once he cracked open the crayfish, Andrew removed the mustard-coloured liver and some other soft gooey stuff before I brushed over the flesh with a mix of melted butter, a chopped red chilli, crushed garlic and grated zest of a lime (recipe by Nadia Lim). It then went onto a heated pan to grill, flesh-side down, for a couple of minutes before serving.

It was a surprise for my dad, who loves shellfish, and part of my Christmas gift to him. It was a nice feeling seeing his joy from something that is so basic and his enthusiasm in encouraging us all to enjoy the dish with him.

I hope everyone’s had such warm moments this festive season and a fabulously happy holiday!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

And so the festive season of eating too much begins…

Roast turkey, meat pie, oven-baked salmon, bread rolls, salad, chocolate cake, tiramisu. That was my lunch this weekend gone by and the start of some serious (over)eating.

My friends and I decided to do a shared lunch and Secret Santa. I was tasked with a main and dessert, both of which turned out pretty well. For the main, I made Guinness steak and mushroom pie and for dessert, tiramisu.

I’ve come to realise that pie takes a heck of a long time to make – much longer than it would take you to drive down to the local pub and order one there, and it would taste about the same too. However, I’m glad I made the effort this time because it turned out delicious. It’s based on a Jamie Oliver recipe for a boozy Guinness steak and cheese pie but I did my own thing with it by adding shiitake mushrooms.

Guinness steak and mushroom pie
Serves 6

Ingredients
1 red onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
About 10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water overnight and cut into thin strips. Keep the water that the mushrooms have been in to top up the stew.
600g stewing beef
A couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
A couple of sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
300ml Guinness
200ml beef stock
2 heaped tablespoons of flour
Puff pastry (I used store bought because I am terrible at making pastry)
One egg, beaten

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 190ºC. Heat olive oil over low heat in saucepan and gently fry the onions for about 10 minutes. Don’t let them color too much.
  2. Turn the heat up and add carrots and garlic. Mix it together before adding mushrooms. Stir together and add beef, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
  3. Fry for 3-4 minutes and then add Guinness and stock. Stir in the flour and then top with the water saved from soaking the mushrooms.
  4. Bring to a simmer and then pour into an ovenproof dish. Cover with tin foil and place in oven for about 90 minutes.
  5. After 90 mins or so, remove from oven and stir. At this point I added more salt and pepper to taste because it tasted quite bland – it may pay to do the same but always check first!
  6. Place back in the oven for another hour or so the beef is tender and stew is thick.

For the pastry lid I took out a sheet of pastry, laid it over the top of the stew, folded the sides down to make a bit of a crust, sliced the top with a sharp knife, brushed it with the egg and popped it back in the oven for about half an hour.

When I was looking for a tiramisu recipe, I quickly came to the realisation that most recipes for the fluffy Italian dessert use raw egg. Considering I didn’t want to unwittingly give my friends food poisoning, I looked semi-hard for a recipe that doesn’t use raw egg. I trawled through some Google results and found one using cooked egg yolks. You can find the recipe here: http://www.askchefdennis.com/2011/04/the-best-tiramisu-you-will-ever-make/ and trust me, you will love it. I had heaps leftover after lunch and I found the tiramisu actually tastes even better once it’s been in the fridge for a day. Not sure whether that’s because I wasn’t so stuffed when I ate it a day later or if it’s actually legitimately better.

I’ve been tasked with making Christmas lunch on the actual day again this year. So far, I have a crayfish. More ideas?

Christmas lunch feast with friends. Photo: Tao Lin

Christmas lunch feast with friends. 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

Three memorable food experiences

This isn’t strictly about food but I’m pretty happy about this little bit of news.

At some point in the second semester my magazine journalism lecturer asked our class to do an exercise in colour writing. I think maybe three out of 14 or so chose to do it. Our reward? Getting published in Sunday magazine, which is part and parcel of one of our Sunday newspapers, the Sunday Star Times. This is the first time I’ve been published in something as nationwide as this so I’m fairly stoked!

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Photo: Tao Lin

It’s probably a bit difficult to read from the picture but I’ll type it all out if anyone is really, super keen to read it 🙂

Another MKR “inspirated” experiment

Call me slow but yesterday I realised aioli, that creamy white-ish dipping sauce you always see accompanying chips at a bar, is essentially just mayonnaise plus garlic. I have never been a huge fan of aioli, despite everybody around me seeming to love it, and after making it yesterday I’m no more or less of a fan, although I now have a greater appreciation of what it is.

Along with my cordon bleu and spaghetti frutti di mare from last night, I made a prawn and squid salad, which was noticeably devoid of any greens apart from avocado. The inspiration for this came from our ever-copious amounts of frozen prawns and this recipe from the last season of My Kitchen Rules (eagerly awaiting for the next season here, by the way). The team that made this received rave reviews from the two judges and it looked pretty darn tasty too.

Luke and Scott's zesty prawn salad from season 4 of MKR. Photo: Yahoo!7

Luke and Scott’s zesty prawn salad from season 4 of MKR. Photo: Yahoo!7

I did a couple of things differently: I didn’t have any chillis or peanuts, I omitted the salad greens and grapefuit, I used lemons instead of lime and I added squid. I also didn’t put as much love and attention into presentation as these guys did, hence the lack of my own photo and cheating use of one taken from the website.

For the aioli, I actually used 2 egg yolks instead of 3 (not enough eggs in the house!) and it did end up a bit runny. To remedy that, I added in mustard powder, which worked to a certain point but this was enough to get it to a consistency that I was happy with. In turn though, it did make the aioli taste something more like honey mustard but it still tasted pretty good.

Overall, it was well-received and there were quite a few mussels left over from the spaghetti so we dipped those in the aioli. Tasted great!

Note: For those who don’t know, the “inspirated” reference refers to one of the contestants on MKR, Jenna, who said a number of “inspirating” things, including: “I’m feeling really inspirated” and “I find that inspirating”. Here’s a blog post for your entertainment.