Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Who does the b*tch think she is? La reine de Saba?

If it weren't for my basic biblical and Islamic knowledge, I would have assumed that the Queen of Sheba was a notoriously haughty woman who did as she pleased, a non-fictional, pre-Common Era Duchess of Langeais. This impression stems from the colloquialism in the title of this post (but for the French name for the queen). In fact, I recall a few childhood moments witnessing my mother's frustration as women cut in front of her in queues or acted superior to her when they were the ones behind the counter. Out of an offending woman's earshot, my mother would mutter under her breath, "Who does she think she is? The Queen of Sheba?"

The Queen of Sheba is recorded to have travelled from the areas of contemporary Eritrea and Ethiopia to Jerusalem as a monarch conducting international affairs. She was impressed by King Solomon's wisdom, to whom she presented many questions and riddles, and submitted to monotheism.

What the gâteau, reine de Saba, has to do with the Queen of Sheba, I do not know. I have thus far not been able to find a connection between the two and have thus invented it: 1) The cake contains almonds, which are part of the regular diet in Ethiopia; 2) The cake is rich, and the Queen of Sheba is recorded as being a very wealthy monarch, having gifted a load of gold to King Solomon.

Reine de Saba with Glaçage au chocolat
(from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

For the cake:

120g/4 oz chocolate (I used 68%)
2 tablespoons espresso (or rum)
113g/4 oz unsalted butter
2/3 cup and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided use
3 eggs, divided into yolks and whites
pinch of salt
1/3 cup finely ground almonds
1/4 teaspoon bitter almond extract
1/2 cup flour (cake flour is also good), scooped, levelled and sifted

1) Pre-heat oven to 180 C/350 F.
2) Butter and flour a cake tin (I used a 23cm/9" springform pan).
3) Create a double-boiler and set chocolate and espresso on top, letting the chocolate melt while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
4) Cream the butter and 2/3 cup of sugar until pale and fluffy.
5) Beat in the egg yolks.
6) In a separate bowl, such as a clean stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks are formed.
7) Sprinkle one tablespoon of sugar on the soft peaks and beat until you have stiff peaks.
8) Blend the melted chocolate into the creamed mixture.
9) Stir in almonds and almond extract.
10) Stir in 1/4 of the beaten egg whites to lighten the density, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites 1/3 at a time, interspersed with additions of flour by the third.
11) Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake on the middle shelf in your oven for approximately 25 minutes.
12) The cake is ready when it has puffed slightly and 6cm/2.5" around the circumference are set (a toothpick test in this section should be clean, and it should be oily if poked into the centre of the cake).

For the icing:

60g/2 oz chocolate (again, I used 68%)
2 tablespoons espresso
56g/4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1) Melt chocolate with espresso in a double-boiler.
2) When perfectly smooth, remove from heat and beat in butter one tablespoon at a time.
3) A spreading consistency needs to be achieved. As the icing is cooling, you can beat over a bowl of ice until spreading consistency is reached.

Decorating the cake with almonds tells your quests that there almonds are present in the cake. As I mentioned around this time last year, almond flour adds depth of flavour and imparts a moist result. Reine de Saba is rich beyond belief; it is both dense and creamy.

I don't who she thinks she is, but reine de Saba is welcome to turn up any time an easy-to-make and rich cake is desired.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Homemade Pasta

For the interested/serious homecook, there are many culinary milestones. Most of these milestones involve learning and honing a technical skill (such as boning a chicken or mincing garlic with the back of a knife at a breakneck speed - a vital skill that I have yet to accomplish) or making a certain dish or component of one. In that which concerns the latter, something that my angelheart Eric and I have long wanted to do is make pasta at home. Accompanied by my good friends the sassy sauciere queen Lily and the gardenia-loving epicure Titaina on a day of bone-chilling breezes and distant Winter light, I crossed a culinary goal off my list.

While dried pasta is a great convenience and shop-bought fresh pasta is typically of good quality, apparently nothing holds a candle to pasta made simply and quickly at home. The options are limitless for he or she who has long crossed the pasta-making divide before me. One can use almost any type of flour with almost any type of flavouring. But first things first, the following recounts our baby-steps into the world of making pasta from scratch (but for the milling of the flour and the gathering of eggs; however, this is as close to "from scratch" as most of us ever get, and technically, this is the spirit of the expression), as taught by the sassy sauciere queen Lily. (Funnily enough, the pasta-making machine was a gift to the sassy sauciere queen Lily from the gardenia-loving epicure Titaina, who probably had an ulterior motive at the time, but I'm sure she didn't expect it to take a good year or two before finding herself invited over for homemade pasta!)

The following amount of dough makes enough for four (that said, we had no pasta left over, but we were especially hungry and were so enamoured of our first group effort that there somehow managed to be more room for pasta in our bellies than usual).

Homemade Pasta

2 1/2 - 3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs

Yes, that's it!

1) In a medium-sized bowl, stir salt into 2 1/2 cups of the flour to combine well.
2) Add the eggs.
3) Combine with a fork until granules are formed. If the mixture is too dry, add water by 1 tablespoon increments. If the mixture is too moist, add extra flour by one tablespoon increments.
4) On a very lightly-floured surface, knead the granules into a ball.
5) Cover with cling-film and allow to rest for 30 minutes (it was a cool day, so we let the dough rest at room temperature for 20 minutes).
6) Most hand-cranked pasta machines have two sets of rollers: one to roll out the pasta dough, the other to cut the dough into a desire shape. We separated our ball of dough into 5 smaller balls.
7) Take one of the small balls, flatten with the palm of your hand.
8) Set the machine at the widest setting (number 1 on the sassy sauciere queen Lily's Marcato - made in Padua) and feed the flattened dough through it, turning the crank slowly. Fold the dough in three (as one did up until the late-90s when preparing letters for envelopes), and pass through again. Repeat once more.
9) Increase the setting by increments of one, passing the pasta dough once each time (you no longer need to fold the dough). The higher the setting, the narrower the setting becomes, creating very flat dough (the highest setting on our machine is 7). You will find that the pasta dough becomes shinier and that you have to pull it gently - otherwise it will fold and/or tear (only dust lightly with flour if you feel that the dough is too soft and is likely to stick to the machine).
9) Choose desired rollers for cutting the pasta (we chose fettuccine - long flat ribbons), and pass your long, flattened dough through the cutters. Place in a pile, with a mere pinch of flour to prevent sticking.
10) Repeat steps 7 to 9 with the remaining small balls.

One only needs to cook the pasta for two to three minutes until it is al dente. To ensure this is a quick process, bring a large pan or pot of heavily-salted water to a rolling boil before adding the pasta. If is is not boiling rapidly, there is a possibility of the pasta becoming water-logged and viscid.

The possibilities for pasta are endless with this egg dough. Instead of cutting it into fettuccine, the dough can be adapted for all types of pasta: other long pastas, such as pappardelle (wide ribbons) and tagliatelle; short pasta, such as garganelli and penne (both tubular pastas); flat pasta, such as lasagne and cannelloni; and filled pastas, such as tortelloni (large parcels), ravioli (square-filled pasta with fluted edges) and cappelletti (little hats). Apart from shapes, there are endless variations on flavourings also. One of the most intriguing to my mind is Stephane's semolina dough flavoured with beetroot and squid ink, which he combined into striped ravioli cases, "zebravioli". Clearly, you can let you imagination run free.

We, on the other hand, kept it simple with a topping a rustically grated parmesan after tumbling our fettuccine into a ragù (a meat sauce, which for us was made by sweating down an onion and two small bulbs on fennel in olive oil with thyme, to which was added two 450g/14oz cans of tomatoes plus 3/4 of its juice, 1 cup of beef broth and one bay leaf, brought to the boil and left at a steady simmer for 40 minutes, by which time the liquid was mostly absorbed by the mince). Homemade pasta is silken, light, and a joy to behold. We all felt like we were taking part in a time-honoured tradition, albeit with steel rolling pins and cranks to make life easier. That said, there is a great sense of accomplishment that comes from making pasta oneself. I would not recommend it when preparing for a crowd, but for a small lunch for three or four, it seems no big deal, especially when one can rope friends in for assistance. Seconds, ladies?

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Saturday, July 05, 2008


Tsung Yo Bing, or Scallion Oil Pancakes

Some days one cannot but try to recapture the past. I have recently been caught up in wistful reveries since learning of a food blog event hosted by my friend the inimitable Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook: Pancakes on Parade: A Sweet and Savoury Event. Unless one has issues with gluten, pancakes are the friendliest, most accessible food. Almost always golden and circular, pancakes are like the sun: cheerful, warming, and good for you (at least mentally - and spiritually, depending on your needs for the day). I really had two choices: either my mum's pikelets or a variation on Taiwanese Scallion Oil Pancakes, Tsung yo bing.

My father often begs my mother to make pikelets, which are miniature pancakes (made with self-raising flour, generally), approximately 12cm/5" in diameter. They are common Kiwi fare, typically as a breakfast option, but since childhood, they have been a treasured dessert in my household, topped with a sprinkle of sugar and loads of freshly-squeezed lemon juice from our sole fruit-bearing backyard tree. I decided not to make them for this event because my efforts are not as good as my mother's, and also because I was worried that they would not photograph well.

Tsung yo bing were new to me in 2001, when I moved to Los Angeles County. Being dutiful sons, we made sure that we spent regular time with Eric's mother, often going to lunch, a movie, and grocery shopping together. The first time I had Scallion Oil Pancakes was at a very small restaurant in Temple City, fifteen minutes east of Pasadena. I never saw a temple in the two years we spent having lunch or dinner there or in nearby Alhambra, but every Scallion Oil Pancake I had was a divine experience: crisp on the outside, fluffy inside, full of allium goodness, and caressed with oil. They are sooooo good when nursing a hangover - not that I ever told my angelheart's mom.

Soon after my angelheart Eric's mom moved to Orange County in 2004, we had moved from Pasadena to Long Beach, so it was both easy and convenient to continue our regular lunch dates (the restaurant locales for Taiwanese food, however, switched from Temple City and Alhambra to Cerritos and Huntington Beach). By then it had become a running joke - I would not need to read the menu, my angelheart Eric and his mom ordered my Tsung yo bing and beef with scallions (to gild the lily).

I decided to make scallion oil pancakes because I had never eaten homemade ones, thus I had no family member's reputation to live up to. Also, it was lunchtime. Because this is a submission to a food blog event, I wanted to spice up the pancakes and found a delightful recipe to follow.

After the experience of following the recipe, I have to warn you, reader, should you choose to follow this recipe: try to stick to the amount given regarding the paste to spread on the dough, for the paste is going to squirt when you flatten out your spirals, whether you do so lightly or with a rolling pin. It is a messy job at worst, but the result makes the constant wiping down of the rolling pin and surface area a means to a satisfying end.

Tsung Yo Bing, or Scallion Oil Pancakes
(closely adapted from Michele Cranston's recipe for Spiced Pan Bread in Marie Claire: Food + Drink)

For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup hot water
1/3 cup cold water

1) Sieve flour and baking powder into a bowl.
2) Add hot water and cold water in quick succession, constantly stirring.
3) When dough comes together, cover with cling-film for 15 minutes.

For the paste:

1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup / 2 fl. oz olive oil
1/4 cup / 2 fl. oz bran oil
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup sliced spring onions/scallions
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 roasted red capsicum/bell pepper, blistered skin and seeds removed

1) Blitz all ingredents together until a paste is formed.

To assemble:

1) Divide dough into four sections.
2) Roll out one section to a circle of approximately 17cm/7" in diameter.
3) Brush the surface with one tablespoon of the paste.
4) Roll the dough into a long, then form into a spiral, tucking the end under.
5) Flatten lightly with the palm of one of your hands or with a rolling pin. I did mine with a rolling pin, which proved unwise as the circles became misshapen despite my experience handling dough with a rolling pin.
6) In a frying pan/skillet, heat 2 tablespoons bran or olive oil.
7) Cook over medium-heat for 3-4 minutes, or until the underside is golden, and then flip over for the same result on the other side.
8) While cooking the pancake, prepare the next section of dough by following steps 2-5.
9) Add one extra tablespoon of oil before the addition of each section of dough to be cooked.
10) Drain on paper towels until ready to eat.

When I told my angelheart Eric that I had finally made Tsung yo bing, all he asked me was "Were they oily?" I answered in the affirmative, and he said that he was very happy for me. Admittedly the spring onion presence wasn't as great as I had hoped, so if you love touches of allium, I would increase the spring onion/scallion content by 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Of course, one could always make these the traditional way, which is simply to fold loads of spring onion into the dough before it rests - this, of course, also means that you avoid a mess when rolling out sections of the dough. It is a good idea to serve these warm, whether with food (such as stir-fried beef), a sauce (such as one of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic and fresh ginger) or on their own. Tsung yo bing make for fragrant bites, perfect as a submission to the inimitable Susan's Pancakes on Parade: A Sweet and Savoury Event.

Post-script: Please see Susan's round-up of Pancakes on Parade: A Sweet and Savoury Event.

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