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 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

 

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

A Colourful Affair

Great Thai food, for me, is synonymous with wonderously generous portions, close friends and family and colour. Lots and lots of colour, both literally – beautiful and brilliant reds, greens, oranges, yellows – and metaphorically, in terms of the taste – a perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour elements and different textures throughout the dishes.

About one month ago my friends and I organised one of our delightful dinners together (that’s not a typo by the way, we really do need to organise things like this very well in advance) and decided on Thai as a theme, which if I recall correctly was inspired by one of the girls’ recent trips to Thailand and Bali.

There was more than enough food, as there always is at these kinds of things, but everything was delicious (except for 1/2 of my dessert – more on that soon).

There was a refreshing and vibrant tofu salad with lemongrass, crispy noodles and cashews dressed in Thai chilli sauce:

Vibrant Asian salad. Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

The always-reliable and tasty Pad Thai:

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

For mains there was also a Thai red curry with chicken and mixed veges served with sticky white rice but unfortunately I failed to get a photo of it. It was very well-seasoned with Thai spices and red chillis, which gave it a really nice kick.

For dessert, coconut creme brulee with toasted dessicated coconut:

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

The reason I say 1/2 of my dessert wasn’t quite as good as everything else is because I tested two different recipes for creme brulee and all the desserts made from one recipe were undercooked and failed to set. I have to say the flavour was fine, it probably needed a good 15-20 minutes more in the oven. The recipe I followed can be found here.

I made the other creme brulees using the same recipe I follow for creme caramel and those turned out lovely. The reason I chose to follow this recipe, as opposed to a traditional/authentic creme brulee recipe was because I’ve made it twice before and it has always tasted amazingly delicate and fresh. I didn’t make it as a creme caramel for this dinner party because I didn’t want to stress about getting the custards out of the ramekins all perfect and in one piece! This recipe is a real winner and just boosts my love of My Kitchen Rules even more.

Because it was the host’s birthday the weekend before, our resident Baking Queen made a gorgeous yellow cake with buttercream frosting and it truly was something spectacular. The birthday girl loves beautiful things and so the cake reflected this:

IMG_0507

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Beautiful inside and out. Photo: Tao Lin

Coincidentally, the gift (beauty voucher) and birthday card were also presented in exactly the same colours. It was just meant to be!

We spent a good couple of hours after dinner chatting, gossiping, laughing, conversing and sometimes just sitting in brief silence sipping our tea. There’s something so heartwarming and special about these gatherings and I think a part of it is because we’ve all become so much busier now since we all left school.

When we do manage to get together, we eat too much, our conversation topics change ferociously and they’re always interjected with tremendous laughter and fits of giggles. But no matter what the conversation is about, whether it’s serious, lighthearted, trivial or meaningful, and how much effort it is to organise one of these gatherings, it is always a delightfully colourful affair.

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. This 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.  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 those days? This is the recipe for you!

I really sold that, didn’t I 😉

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin