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!

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

A light and airy version of a classic

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It was 2009 and I was sitting in the lobby of my London hotel with a friend.

We were waiting for something – I no longer remember what – but while we waited, an array of premium Ben & Jerry’s ice creams stared at us, beckoning us from within phosphorescent glass.

Bored and tempted, we walked towards the humming vending machine. All the flavours were a blur to me – all except one: milk and cookies.

In went the coins and out shot a pot of one of the greatest, most classic flavour combinations around. I didn’t want that tub to end.

For years, my family kept cookies & cream ice cream in the freezer and it was always devoured quicker than any of the other flavours. We don’t buy ice cream much nowadays and I don’t often eat a lot of cookies & cream flavoured things now either – it just sort of disappeared after a while.

It may be this marked absence that explains why this particular flavour combination came to me so strongly when I decided to try out my very first mousse.

I couldn’t find a recipe that gave me what I wanted so I decided to marry two recipes together to create a silky, airy vanilla mousse speckled with chocolate cookies.

Use your favourite chocolate cookie recipe, or here’s how I made mine:

  • 3/4 cup plain flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • A pinch of salt

*Sourced from foodnetwork.com. I halved the original recipe and this was enough to make about 12 small to medium sized cookies.

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 160C.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until light in colour and fluffy. Beat in egg and incorporate fully, then mix in vanilla extract. *If you’re increasing this recipe to make more cookies, beat in each egg individually.
  3. Sift in the flour, cocoa and salt and mix until just incorporated.
  4. You can refrigerate the dough for about an hour or you can do what I did and just bake it straight away – separate the dough into small balls and squish them gently onto an oven tray lined with baking paper.
  5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Take out of oven and let cool on a rack.

For the mousse, I found a wonderful recipe for vanilla bean mousse on sugarlaws.com and made my own additions and modifications:

I used:

  • The equivalent of 1 vanilla bean from my vanilla bean grinder
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 120g creme fraiche

How to:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat together the creme, vanilla bean and 1/4 cup sugar with electric beaters until the creme forms soft peaks.
    *If this makes any sense, I usually whip cream until the ripples created from the beaters stay in place and look nice and thick, kind of like cake batter.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with electric beaters until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar, tablespoon by tablespoon, while continuing to beat the eggs until thick and glossy.
  3. Crumble 2 or 3 cookies into the cream mixture and fold in. Then fold the egg whites into the cream until everything is just incorporated.
  4. Pour or spoon into serving dishes (I used drinking glasses) and top mousse with crumbled cookies. I used about 2 cookies for each mousse but this will depend on how big you make your cookies and how much you want on top 🙂
  5. Place in fridge for about 6 hours, or overnight.

This makes 3-4 servings. It’s quite a sweet dessert for my taste but it just melts in your mouth and the cookies I made had a bitterness to them, which cut through the sweetness of the mousse really nicely.

The real positive aspect of making this was how much easier it was than I thought it would be. I’ve always hated beating egg whites and my attempts at making things with egg whites – meringue, souffle – haven’t really turned out that amazingly. In comparison, this was pleasantly successful without being stressful, complicated or time-consuming.

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

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