Archive for May 2010

“The Food Of Malaysia”

May 29, 2010

When I started thinking about this cookbook giveaway project, I didn’t realize that it would be an exercise in grief.  Not that I’m so attached to the pages themselves, it’s all about what they represent to me.

This beautiful mango pudding didn’t come from “The Food of Malaysia: Authentic Recipes From The Crossroads Of Asia,”  although it very well could have.  Nor did I test it for you today.  It’s been a long time since I made it, and I’ll most likely never make it again.  Just as I’ll never again make anything from this lovely book.

I picked up this book today because just looking at it gave me a swift and sharp craving for Malaysian food.  I’m used to doing a lot of vicarious traveling with food, and I love shopping in little hole in the wall stores where not all of the food is labelled in English, taking home my mystery ingredients and whipping up a dish that transports me instantly to places I’ve never been.  Malaysian food is perfect for that, it’s exotic, savory, intriguing, full of umami, and sadly, sweet.  Every single recipe has sugar, or starch, most often both.  Leafing through the book makes me realize that now I can never visit Malaysia.  There would be nothing at all for me to eat.  It makes me cry to hear that door slam.  I wonder what Malaysian diabetics do eat?

It’s true that the book has a daunting list of ingredients: candlenuts, cloud ear fungus, daun kesum, ikan bilis, pandan leaf, belacan. Fortunately, living near Seattle, I can find those things.  What puts me off though, and why you may have this book if you’d like it,  is the sugar. Lots of the recipes contain no more that a teaspoon, or a tablespoon, of the stuff, so someone might admonish me to just leave it out.  But no, Asian cooking is predicated on the balance of subtle flavors, and even a teaspoon of sugar will transform a dish.

Someone else might admonish me that a few grains of sugar or a bit of rice aren’t going to hurt me.  And they might be right.  But as I think we all know, that’s a slippery slope, one I’m not inclined to step onto.  And so for now, and maybe forever, no Malaysian food for me.  No Thai food, my hands-down favorite cuisine in the world.  No Japanese food and precious little Chinese food.

I could keep the book, and others based on the forbidden cuisines, hoping that someday my world might change and I’d be able to plunge back into these favorite foods.  Just like deep in the garage I have a box of clothes that are too small, kept in case I’d ever be able to wear them again.  Some of those garments I’ve had for 20 years, without being able to bear giving them up.  Hope dies an aching, invisible death.  So which is better, to fan the flames with constant reminders, or to just walk away?

But on a more practical note, my bookcases are overflowing, and if Malaysian food speaks to you like it does to me, don’t be afraid of this book.  There are stories about the various cuisines that have come together in ethnically diverse Malaysia to create its special food, pictures and explanations of ingredients and techniques, nice pictures of the finished dishes, everything you need to get started. If you live in a small town without access to Asian ingredients this probably isn’t the book for you, because the ingredients are pretty hardcore.  But if you’re brave and have a good Asian market near you, have at it, it’s well worth it.

If you’re ready for a trip to Malaysia, just leave a comment saying so.  If several people would like this book, I’ll put your names in a mixing bowl, give them a good stir, and draw one.  I’ll send it to you and I’ll ask you to pay for the postage, if you can, via PayPal.  For security and anti-spam reasons, please don’t put your email address or snail mail address in the Comments section.  When you comment I see your email address and I’ll contact you soon if I draw your name.  Give this book a good home, make something delicious from it, and I’ll be happy.

Too Many Cookbooks

May 27, 2010

I have a lot of cookbooks, for a person who rarely uses one.

In the past I decided to limit myself to these two bookshelves, imposing a strict one-for-one discipline.  If I wanted a new one, I had to get rid of an old one.  In this way I got rid of a lot of perfectly good cookbooks, and acquired some that I hoped would be even better.

When I had a personal chef business, I needed all these books in order to surprise and delight my clients.  And then…..the Internet became a superb recipe source, both in English and in French, I stopped cooking for a living, and I started neglecting my cookbook collection.  Plus, as you’ll notice, they no longer fit into two bookshelves.

And so, I’ve decided to give some of them away to you, dear readers.  But which ones?  Nearly every one tells me a story, and whispers its desire to live right here cozily near its familiar neighbors.  But reason prevails.  And here’s my plan.

Several times a week I’ll pick up one of these treasures and give it a good look-through.  I’ll cook the one recipe from it that speaks to me the loudest on that day.  I’ll share the recipe with you.  I’ll do a little review of the book.  And then I’ll decide.  Will I use it enough to warrant keeping it?  Or would one of you appreciate it more than I would?  The truth will out, and my library will shrink.  And you’ll have a chance to help me clear my shelves.  Stay tuned.

Wiki Wow Cinnamon Buns

May 23, 2010

The other day Shel surprised me by confessing to a craving for cinnamon rolls.  Coming from a guy whose favorite breakfast food is Nutella, this was an unexpected and welcome development, since I love fussing with yeast dough and haven’t had a chance to do so in a good long while.

I didn’t have a favorite cinnamon roll recipe, having, over the years, made several versions that were pretty good, but none that was really killer.  I started looking online, and voilà, a treasure trove.  I began by looking for a recipe that resembled the iconic Cinnabon, and let me tell you, there are many, many pretenders to the crown.  But the real virtue of using an online resource, the real wiki wow, is that some of the recipes have been tested and commented on hundreds of times by dedicated home bakers.

I chose a recipe that had 383 comments, and started sifting through them.  Shel always says that I read recipes like a conductor reads a musical score, and I’m also pretty good at reading recipe reviews.  I can distinguish  right away between a commenter who’s an experienced baker and one whose cinnamon roll standard is a can of whomp! buns. You know, those tubes that one whomps on the counter to split the packaging and release some doughy mass with a packet of sugary goo for topping.  Sticking to the smart reviewers, I analyzed the original recipe.

I sifted through about 150 of the comments, adding flour here, subtracting steps there, adding time, tweaking techniques, lowering temperatures, all based on blind faith in the experience of those who had baked before me.  And then I tweaked the recipe some more as I made them, ending up with a true wiki bun, although whether it resembles a Cinnabon or not I cannot say, since I’ve only once eaten a cinnabon and I’ve never tasted the version I produced yesterday.  But, and this is a big but, those who tasted it pronounced it perfect in every way and instructed me to stop looking for any other recipe and make them just like this  forever.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

My tasters say they are not too sweet, perfectly tender, with just the right amount of filling and just the right amount of frosting (which is the gooey sort that doesn’t set up overnight), and in every way what you want for breakfast on Sunday morning.  I used Penzey’s Cinnamon blend, their own mixture of China, Vietnamese, Korintje, and Ceylon cinnamons.  It’s a beautifully aromatic cinnamon, and I advise you to get some posthaste.  But if you can’t wait to try these buns, be sure you use the freshest and most fragrant cinnamon you can find.   A cup of great coffee, the Sunday paper, maybe a Mimosa, and you’re in business.  Wiki business.

Wiki Wow Cinnamon Buns

For the dough:
1 packet dry yeast (1/4 oz)
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sugar (I used a golden unbleached organic sugar)
5 Tablespoons soft butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
4 1/2 cups flour
For the filling:
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 1/2 Tablespoons cinnamon (yep, it’s a lot)
1 1/2 Tablespoons flour
5 Tablespoons soft butter
For the icing:
8 Tablespoons soft butter
4 oz cream cheese
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

Set the butter out to soften well in advance, you need it to be really soft.

For the dough: Place the warm milk in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  Add the yeast and 1 Tablespoon of the sugar. Allow to rest for 5 minutes until the yeast looks foamy.  On low speed, beat in the rest of the sugar, then the eggs, then the flour and salt.  Use 4 cups plus two Tablespoons of flour here and reserve the rest of the flour for rolling out the dough.  On medium speed, beat the dough for at least 5 minutes.  The dough will remain sticky and won’t quite clean the bowl, but don’t worry about that. Butter a large bowl, scoop the dough into the buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rise, about 1 hour.

While the dough is rising, prepare the filling by placing all of the ingredients in a small bowl and rubbing them lightly together with your fingertips.

Once the dough has doubled, using the remaining flour, lightly flour a large work surface that will let you roll the dough out to a rectangle 21″x16″.  This is a lot bigger than you think it is, so use a measuring tape. Lightly punch down the doubled dough, turning it over and over in the buttered bowl to coat all parts of the dough with butter.  Roll it out patiently until it’s 21″x16″. The top surface of the dough should be slippery enough from the butter that you don’t need to add any flour on top.

Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough, leaving little margins around the edges.  Beginning with a long side, tightly roll up the dough around the filling.

Butter a 9″x13″ pan and an 8″ square pan.  Take a piece of white thread and use it to slice the dough roll into 16 pieces.  Just slide the thread under the dough and pull the two ends across each other as if you were tying a knot.  This makes a nice, clean cut that doesn’t squash the dough. Place 10 rolls in the larger pan and 6 in the smaller one.  Tuck any loose dough ends under the rolls to prevent unraveling.  Set the two pans in a warm place to rise until nearly doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350° convection, or a little hotter if not using convection. Bake the rolls for 25-30 minutes, depending on your oven. Mine took 27 minutes to reach a uniform deep golden brown.  Remove pans from the oven and let cool on a rack.

While the rolls are cooling, make the frosting.  Place the powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of the food processor.  With the motor running, begin tossing in chunks of the cream cheese and butter, finishing with the vanilla extract.  Whizz this mixture until it’s fluffy and no lumps remain. When the rolls are just barely warm to the touch, spread them with the frosting.

Hold This Thought

May 21, 2010

Always remember that life is very fragile.

Accept that sometimes you have to stand alone.

Face the day with optimism.

Find courage when darkness falls.

Look for beauty everywhere, all the time.

Shine with all you’ve got.

Six survival techniques voiced in the imperative.

Never Too Many Cooks

May 16, 2010

Happy is she who has friends that love to cook.  And in this case, the she in question is me, and the friends are a group of 12-14 who gather at least once per season to cook, dine, and drink together.  We always do this at the home of our friend Steve, who bought a table that holds 14 people snugly just for this bunch, folks who like each other a lot and don’t mind cuddling up to their fellow diners.  But now Steve is moving, after years of hosting these dinners on a ridge top above Seattle, and so last night’s event had a bittersweet air of finality, tempered by a certain amount of packing-related chaos and confusion.

Arriving at Steve’s house yesterday we were greeted by the sight of 17 boxes filled to overflowing with books in need of a new home, as Steve emptied his bookcases in preparation for a down-sizing move.  It was a super-eclectic collection, and we were delighted to snag The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Brillat-Savarin.  I decided to abandon Natural Capitalism to its fate, since given the current economic climate, capitalism seems downright unnatural.

Sadly for us all, Steve wasn’t emptying his excellent cellar with similar abandon, but he did break out this lovely 1998 Côte-Rôtie, something that you don’t get to drink just every day.

This is a group that takes mixology as seriously as oenology and gastronomy, so someone’s always inventing a cocktail to suit the season.

But let it never be said that we don’t cook at least as much as we drink. And if you’ve never tried asparagus and prawns with a curry mayonnaise, make it today.  Just poach the prawns and the asparagus, make a good mayonnaise, and season it judiciously with curry powder. It’s an awesome flavor combination.

Watercress soup is the essence of springtime, and if you add a dollop of lemon crème fraîche, it’s heavenly.  Double points if you have a pot almost the exact color of the soup.

Or make a duck egg and caviar omelette and serve it with slices of rare duck breast and sautéed mushrooms with duck confit.  That may sound excessive, and it probably was by some rational measure, but then, sheer unmitigated excess never stopped this bunch for a second.

Alternatively, make a little flan of cardoons and serve it next to a baby turnip, fresh new turnip greens, and Dark Mocha Lamb*, which I can’t seem to stop making.  Or do all of the above, plus assorted appetizers, lemon and oregano sorbets, a berry genoise, and an overflowing cheese platter, and then you’ll have recreated our dinner exactly.

But as we know, all good things must eventually come to an end.  Or maybe it’s not that they must, it’s just that they do.  So this sweet house has seen its last gathering of the merry band, and soon we’ll be reconvening on a floating home lazing at the dock in Lake Union.  Steve says that the huge dinner table will fit in his new nest, and it had better, since none of us will allow him to live where 14 people cannot cook and eat together.

photo credit Eric Hall

We’re back on our island now, looking across the 8 miles of open water that separates us from that house, those friends, that lake, and that table. It’s a goodly distance, but one easily traversed, especially when a large dining table floating on a small lake beckons.

* If you missed Dark Mocha Lamb the first time, click here for the recipe.

The Mother Of Us All

May 8, 2010

It’s been a very long time since I had a mother, almost 30 years now, so I’ve pretty much forgotten what it feels like.  And into the bargain my mother and I weren’t close, so that when sometimes, even now, I Want My Mommy, it’s not my personal Mom I’m longing for, but just the mother of all mothers.  Capital M Mother.  The essence of comfort and wisdom and caring, the person who loves us more than anything in the world, the mother that we all want no matter how old we are.

I try to believe that each and every mother wants to be that perfect one, the one that so few mothers manage to become. Probably every mother has one shot at perfection, in the moments after birth, when she can think of nothing but the new life before her eyes.  But it’s a tumble downhill from there, as the distractions fly fast and furious.

Because mothers , in addition to motherhood, also work, they pay bills, they put food in the fridge and meals on the table, they go to college, they clean house, they have parent-teacher conferences, they keep the kids in shoes, they worry about wrinkles and sags and the fact that those jeans will certainly never fit again.  They try to remember who they were before that first kid arrived, and they try not to think about who they’ll be when the last one leaves the nest.  They have a lot on their minds besides the actual mothering part of the whole business, so who can blame them for their fall from perfection?

Now, in retrospect, I see that I really ought to cut my Mom some slack. She did the best she could, and really, it’s hard to ask for more than that. And I hope that my sons will cut me a little slack too.  Most of the time I did the best I could, and those times I didn’t, you better believe that I still regret them. It’s tough being a mother at all, let alone a good one.

Motherhood: it’s a damned hard job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Sweet Nothings

May 6, 2010

Preparing food without tasting it is a cardinal sin among cooks.  How can I put delicious food in front of people unless I’ve tasted it to be sure that I didn’t accidentally put peppermint extract in the Scallops in Vanilla Beurre Blanc? But because I’m minding my blood sugar I eat absolutely nothing sweet these days, not even the merest molecule, and so baking presents the greatest challenge of all.

Lots of people have asked me how I can bake treats for Shel and our friends when I don’t eat them myself.  “All that temptation,” they say, “how can you resist?”  After thinking about that a lot I have a Eureka! moment and realize that I’m very lucky to have been a personal chef for a few years.  In that gig I learned to separate the act of cooking from the act of eating.  Cooking for its own sake, just for the pleasure of working with the ingredients, and for the pleasure your efforts will bring to others, and not because you’ll be rewarded with a good meal, is an art in itself.  I’ve always said that cooking is my art, but still, as a food artist you must taste, even if you don’t actually eat.

Last night I made some frosting for Shel, to top the muffins-that-wanted-to-be-cupcakes that I’d made the day before.  He wanted mocha frosting. Easy peasey, right?  I put a small amount of instant espresso powder in a bowl, added some cocoa, some sugar, stirred it with a little cream, and added mascarpone until the texture looked right.  Except, something seemed wrong.  It didn’t seem sweet enough.  It didn’t look sweet enough, it didn’t smell sweet enough.  Since I’ve given up sugar and all forms of sweeteners I think I’m developing sugar ESP.  I’ve always been able to smell when a food needed salt, but judging the degree of sweetness by smell might be a new skill, even if it’s a skill I’d prefer not to have been forced to acquire. So I added more sugar to the frosting and called Shel to taste.  “More sugar, more cocoa, more coffee?” I queried. “Perfect as is,” he pronounced.  Now how had I managed that?

Of course, one way to handle this situation is to make a recipe that’s already perfect, that I’ve tasted many times, and that’s guaranteed to work.  And that brings me to the carrot cupcake you see floating lusciously at the top of the page.  While you were reading my story about the mocha frosting, you make have done a little double take when I added the mascarpone.  It’s not a typical frosting ingredient, but I learned it from a fantastic recipe for Carrot Cake with Lemon Mascarpone Frosting.  I’ve never made another carrot cake recipe since I discovered that one, and possibly you’ll be equally enchanted by this recipe.  As I recently discovered, it makes admirable cupcakes, and the frosting technique has a much wider application than the original recipe envisions.

Cupcakes are perfect if you’re in “sweet for him, nothing for me” mode, but don’t hesitate to make the whole cake just as written.  I’ve wowed countless people with this cake, and there’s never much left over.  I make it exactly as written, and you shouldn’t change a thing either until you’ve made it once. And after that, I’m betting that you won’t want to change it at all.  One click and sweet bliss is within your grasp Carrot Cake with Lemon Mascarpone Frosting.