The Saturday Kitchen – Shanghai Mooncakes with Lotus Paste

I have always had a weakness for traditional Chinese pastries, particularly those filled with lotus paste or red bean paste. But I always thought they were prohibitively complicated to make, until about a year ago when I rashly agreed to make some for a photoshoot and cookbook on mooncakes. That got me learning and practising how to make a variety mooncakes for months ahead of the shoot, and I realised that while it was a lot of work, it wasn’t too hard to tackle. Especially if one was not a novice at baking.

So this weekend, instead of taking a break on Labour Day, I decided to pull out that bag of lotus paste from the fridge and make a batch of Shanghai Mooncakes. This is my favourite, as it is relatively easy to make and rather more-ish. The pastry is cookie-like, crumbly and quite light — especially with the addition of custard powder — and makes a nice complement to the rich filling inside. This goes very nicely with a pot of Chinese tea. (On a side note, I have made this mooncake with a most untraditional filling of red bean paste mixed with crumbled Reese’s chocolate peanut bar and dessicated coconut. It was very successful, if I may say so myself.) Oh, and yes, I’m aware that today is not Saturday, but better bake than never! 🙂

Shanghai Mooncakes

  • Servings: 12 mini mooncakes
  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
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90g butter, softened and cubed
30g sugar
1 Tbsp milk
120g self raising flour
20g custard powder
Small pinch of salt
200g lotus paste (store bought)
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp water

Method
1. Combine all the ingredients except for the lotus paste, and blitz into a dough.
2. Knead until smooth, then set aside to rest for at least 20 mins.
3. Meanwhile, divide the lotus paste into 12 equal portions and roll each into a ball. Set aside.
4. After the dough has rested, divide them into 12 equal portions as well.
5. Take one portion of dough and roll into a ball. Then roll it out into a flat disc using a rolling pin. I like to use the small Chinese rolling pin that cooks usually use to make dim sum.
6. Place one ball of lotus paste in the middle of the dough disc and wrap it up neatly, then roll between the palms of your hand until it forms a nice neat ball again.
7. Place on a tray lined with baking paper or silicone mat. Repeat until all is done.
8. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 10 mins.
9. Remove from oven, brush over with egg wash, then return it to the oven for another 10-15 mins.
10. Take it out when they are beige as they will continue to darken once out of the oven.
11. Leave to *cool for 10 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.

*Note: It’s important you let it cool a little before handling them as the pastry is very crumbly and fragile when it is still hot.

The Saturday Kitchen – Still in The Mood for Oat (Cookies)

 

I am still in the mood for oats. Apart from Yee Por’s elusive savoury oat porridge, I only like oats in cookie or bar form. I found a pack of oats in my baking supplies drawer yesterday and felt the need to bake them up before they reached their expiry date. This is an old, reliable recipe which I often use when the mood hits. They are hearty, chewy and goes best dunked in a cup of tea. Good for flushing out the excess cholesterol, as the doctor ordered, and with reduced sugar, it’s a healthier option than store bought. And it’s so easy to make, why even buy?

Reliable Chewy Oat & Raisin Cookies

  • Servings: 25-30 pieces
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

120g butter, softened
160g sugar (half brown and half white)
1 egg
2 Tbsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
120g self-raising flour
3 Tbsp dessicated coconut
Pinch of salt
200g rolled oats
3 Tbsp raisins

Method
Beat butter and sugar in a bowl with an electric beater until light and fluffy.
Then beat in the egg, water and vanilla essence.
Add in the flour, salt and dessicated coconut and mix gently until well combined.
Fold in the oats and raisins.
Plop spoonsful onto a lined baking tray and bake for 20 mins at 180C. Done!

 

The Elusive Recipe, Mumps & Indigo Tigers

I’ve been following the blog Brilliant Viewpoint for some time now, and always enjoy her writing. Her recent post Authentic Italian Cooking recounts her search for an elusive recipe for a cake she enjoyed years ago, and recently found. It was a lucky, happy coincidence for her. It made me think about my elusive recipe which unfortunately I still have not found. For me, the dish — that memory of a taste so impactful that it has followed me for the last 44 years — is a delectable, comforting, soy-infused bowl of savoury oats. If my memory serves me well, it had some mince meat in it, chopped spring onions, possibly soy sauce or five-spice powder,  and a texture that was chewy and bouncy.  I can taste the memory of it now even as I write, and remember the gentle morning sun that accompanied that early gastronomic moment of mine.

I tasted that dish only once when I was five years old, then never again. The day I encountered it is imprinted firmly in my memory. (Funny, the things one remembers.) I was down with the mumps and could not go to kindergarten that day. My jaw was sore and my cheeks were swollen and painful; I could barely open my mouth let alone smile. My parents had to go to work, my siblings were in school and the only thing to do was to be left for the morning at my grandmother’s house.

I was very close to my Por-Por (maternal grandma) and her maid, whom I called Yee Por. Both were about the same age and they were like two grannies to me. Love them both to bits.

Image result for indigo chinese word tigerMy grandmother was very much subscribed to Chinese medical traditions. When I arrived, I found she had prepared a bowl of deep blue liquid. With her finger, she painted the Chinese word 虎 (meaning tiger) on both my swollen cheeks. Then she let me go play in the garden. (Grandma didn’t play with me, but she was loving, a source of comfort and always there when I needed her.)

My mother told me years later that the blue liquid was indigo, and it was believed to be effective in treating mumps, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (now somewhat proven by recent research). The word ‘虎’ (tiger) was significant, because it was believed that the symbolic tiger would eat away the affliction that was causing the mumps.

Anyway, back to that morning in 1973. I soon realised that the blue liquid on my cheek, now dried up, had  a very strong and unpleasant smell. Like the good girl I was, I tried to obey Por-Por and keep the indigo on as was her wish. But it soon became most unbearable, and I decided, quite out of character, to disobey. So while my grandmother was in the dining room towards the back of the house, I sneaked into the bathroom in the front just off the living room and washed off the indigo. As a five year old, that was messy business and I found my clothes rather wet as a result of all the splashing. Then I realised I could not seek out Grandma to fix my wet clothes as she would then discover my naughty deed. So I decided to hang around the living room and lurk about the garden for a suitable duration, after which I would figure out what to do next.

That was when Yee Por, the servant, came out with a small bowl of mid-morning snack. Sitting at the coffee table in the living room, I tucked into this little bowl of what looked like (rice) porridge, but it was nothing I had tasted before. It was bouncy, chewy, with grains I had never encountered; darkly soy infused and rich and comforting in flavour. I enjoyed it so much, I ventured into the kitchen — hazarding being discovered by Grandmother — and asked for another bowl. For the risk I took, sadly Yee Por said there was no more, as she didn’t think I would have much appetite anyway with my painful jaw and all.

Yee Por never made that dish ever again. And it has haunted my palate off and on all these years. As an adult, I tried to replicate it a few times, but never succeeded. The recipe remains elusive.

The two old ladies have since gone and I did not have the foresight to ask them — but I was still a child when they bade their final goodbyes. Perhaps I will try to make it again one of these days. Or with a stroke of luck, I may chance upon the recipe some day, too. For sure, it is a traditional Chinese one, which was the only sort of food Yee Por would have made.

As for my vanished indigo tigers, Grandma did see, but thankfully did not make a fuss. She fixed my wet clothes, and simply let me carry on. She didn’t try to put the tigers back on my cheeks.

My new children’s book – The House on Palmer Road

I have been off radar quite a bit lately as I have been quite tied up with the release of our second book, and until yesterday, been involved in two literary festivals back to back. What an amazing journey though – which I would like to share bit by bit over a few posts so I don’t bore you. But I am excited and thrilled to introduce you first to our new book……

Cover
Captures childhood in 1930s Singapore

My business partner and I just released our second book two weeks ago. Called The House on Palmer Road, it’s a children’s chapter book for 7-12-year-old’s. It contains a series of 15 short stories based on the adventures of Sing, a tree-climbing, ‘tom-boyish’ 8-year-old girl together with her 9 brothers and sisters. They are all playful, light-hearted stories set in late 1930’s colonial Singapore, just before WWII and the Japanese Occupation. In its pages, young readers accompany Sing and her siblings on adventures in the vicinity of Palmer Road and nearby Chinatown: from frog hunting in the wasteland, to being chased by guard geese in dark godowns, to evenings in the Great World Amusement Park and getting into scrapes in the Salted Egg Incident.

You get a gentle taste of what life was like in the 1930’s through the people she meets and the slices of grown-up life she encounters: such as the itinerant hawkers, the Patriotic Woman who raises funds to send to China to support its war effort (the Second Sino-Japanese war was taking place then), and overheard conversation among grown-ups talking about war in Europe, and how the Japanese army is marching south. While all worrying, these are half-understood by Sing and the adult characters’ distant conversations shield both protagonists and readers from the worrying ramifications of unfolding world affairs. The focus remains on the playfulness of the stories.

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Frog hunting with Father, Fifth Brother and Sixth Brother in the wasteland

These stories and characters are all real, because they are actually based on my mother’s childhood. The wooden house on Palmer Road — after which the book is titled and where her family of 13 lived — was built by my grandfather, a building contractor. The landscape is vividly detailed, all based on my mother’s amazing memory, which we also verified against old maps and photographs and archival material to ensure accuracy. Landmarks mentioned include the wasteland behind the house, the train tracks along towards Telok Ayer piers, the godowns, the embankment by the sea, Mount Palmer, Mariner’s Club along Anson Road, and lots more which have long been demolished.

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Sing and Sixth Brother get chased by guard geese at the myseterious Black Hole godowns

We released this book two weeks ago, just before Singapore observed the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in WWII (15 Feb 1942). This is significant to us because the story ends when Singapore fell. What’s particularly unique about this book is it presents pre-war Singapore through the eyes of a local, and a child to boot. There is very little written of this period from a local’s perspective: most accounts of pre-war Singapore have been written by the British colonials then, and many local people of that time — except for the local elite — were not educated enough to do so. So this presents a rarely seen account of Singapore. Rest assured, though, this book is not pedantic, and the focus remains firmly on telling fun, enjoyable stories for kids.

My 83-year-old mother had written this initially as her own private memoir for herself and the family. She wanted to recapture her childhood as she had such an enjoyable time then, she told me. But she had such a lovely writing style and the stories were so playful, I persuaded her to let me turn it into a children’s book. There was some rewriting to do because we had to change the perspective from an adult’s retrospective to a first-person narrative in a child’s voice.

Meanwhile, we got a really talented artist Lim Anling to provide us lots of black and white illustrations to go along with it. And finally after a year’s work on it, the book is done, printed and released during the recent #buySinglit festival, a nation-wide weekend affair which focused on the growing body of Singapore literature.

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I am awfully proud of my mother, who has become a first-time author at 83! Lots of people who saw the book assumed that I had written it for her or translated it for her, assuming that she could not speak English (which indeed is quite typical of people in her age group). However my mother is an exceptional lady especially for her generation in Singapore. She not only speaks and writes perfect English, she also holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry (she was one of just a handful of girls in the university then). So no, I did not have to translate or write the book for her. I did it with her and it was such an honour to capture a slice of history with her!

It’s available at several bookstores in Singapore including Books Ahoy, Woods in the Books, Books Kinokuniya and online store localbooks.sg 

The Saturday Kitchen – Old School Coconut Candy

I have been off blogging for a bit lately, being busy with my second book. Sorry if I have not popped in to read your blogs for a while now. (I will resume my visits, I promise!) However, most of the book is now done; almost ready to go to the printers except for some tweaking. Today, I finally have a bit of a breather, and I’m finally posting this, which I had been putting off since New Year’s Eve. My all-time favourite confection, coconut candy.

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Whenever the word ‘retro’ pops up, these coconut candies spring to mind. This, to me, is the taste of the ’70s. They are moist, flaky, milky and sweet, rich with coconut milk and crumbly with one bite.

The look and taste of it brings me back to my primary school days when coconut candies were invariably sold at school funfairs or other fund-raising events. Sometimes, my mother bought them for us when we went grocery shopping at the old Tay Buan Guan supermarket in Joo Chiat Road. It was a great supermarket — very modern and progressive for its time, which sold all sorts of British-made confections like dolly mixtures and liquorice in boxes, chocolate bars and honey-bake ham (which in 1970s Singapore were high end gourmet items). The supermarket ran a bakery as well, and it was there that she would buy these wonderful coconut candies. Commercially made ones like theirs tended to be drier and harder, but homemade coconut candy — like those we bought at school funfairs — were more moist and always delightful.

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They must surely originate from this part of the world. They are essentially compressed blocks of freshly grated coconut cooked with evaporated milk and butter, and fried and tossed in a pan until they were almost dry. (Desiccated coconut will not do — though perhaps they could be reconstituted. I have yet to try.) They had be coloured pink, or green — any other colours would not make them ‘coconut candy’.

I realised just recently that I have been making these candies on New Year’s Eve for the last two or three years. Quite unplanned, but it just reflects,  perhaps, an unconscious longing for a time past, a fun-filled childhood encapsulated in a coconut-filled mouthful. It’s always a hit among friends, and I have yet to meet a child who didn’t like them. They make great food gifts, too.
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1970s Old School Coconut Candy

  • Servings: 18-20 pieces
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

400g fresh grated coconut

200g sugar

1/2 cup evaporated milk

1 tsp vanilla essence

A pinch of salt

Green or red food colouring

Method

  • Combine coconut, sugar and milk in a generously sized pot and heat it up over a gentle-to-moderate flame to melt the sugar and bring the mixture to a simmer.
  • Stir often to avoid burning, especially as the mixture starts to dry out. Stir in vanilla essence and salt.
  • Continue to heat until the coconut mixture comes away in dry clumps (they should be just damp enough to hold together in a ball, but not soggy) and leaves the bottom of the pot clean. This could take around 20 minutes.
  • When it’s ready, remove from the heat and stir in food colouring.
  • Spread it out on a pan, and pack it down tightly and evenly at about 3-4cm in height.
  • Using a spatula, make deep grooves into the warm candy without cutting through, to create a squares of candy. Mould the edges to neaten.
  • Set it aside to cool, then pop it into the fridge to set further overnight.
  • Cut out the candy according to the grooves you made earlier and serve chilled or at room temperature.

The Cat of Hanoi

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The streets of Hanoi are crazy, chaotic, vibrant and exciting. Every pedestrian walkway and space in front of the shops is either filled with tables and chairs for a street-side food stall, or with scooters squashed together handlebar to handlebar. There’s really no place for a cat to find a foothold. But while on a night time food tour in Hanoi just a couple days ago, I came across this magnificent creature, all fuzzy, fat and pristine in its white coat and elegant black accents. Never mind that the horns of scooters were blaring incessantly, and people were trudging past barely a whisker away from its face. Here it sat, most serene; a picture of tranquility and dignity in a messy, crazy world. After a crazy, mind-blowing surprise like today, perhaps there’s something we can all learn from the Cat of Hanoi.

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The Saturday Kitchen – Piquant Asian Tomato & Cucumber Salad

I am trying to eat healthier these days to keep the excess weight away. My metabolic rate is slowing down and now that I am writing my second children’s book, I am spending more time seated. (Not good for the waist and the hips.) So I’ve taken to being mindful and eating only what I need. But I do like my food, and am unwilling to compromise too much on taste for health. Chia seeds, juiced kale and dry grainy things are not on my list of edibles, sorry. Picking through the refrigerator yesterday, I bunged up a quick salad that turned out refreshing and pretty strong on flavours.

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My trick to making salads is to add a few strong, accent flavours against a canvas of vegetables to make a tasty dish. In the Asian larder, there are many of these ingredients to use; the most commonly available would be coriander, crisp fried shallots and sesame oil. They will do the same work as bacon or chorizo does in western dishes.

• Coriander has a strong, minty, peppery and fresh flavour which lifts the dish.
• Crisp fried shallots adds texture (it’s crispy — like croutons), and the frying process heightens the shallots natural sweetness, while giving it a deep low flavour at the same time. Adds depth to the dish.
• Sesame oil is also a deep, rich flavour with natural sweet-umami flavours that provides a lovely, rich note to things otherwise bland. But remember, a little goes a long way. It is possible to overdose on sesame oil!

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Against chilled cucumbers and tomatoes, these aromatics add a stronger taste, acts as high points of flavour and adds contrast to the mix of tastes that pop in your mouth as you eat. And they are generally healthy — except perhaps for the fried shallots, but it is added in small portions, and you have to live a little, right? That is the salad’s answer to quality of life against health considerations.

This Asian style salad which I share here can be eaten as is like I did yesterday at my desk, or popped into hamburgers and sandwiches, or served as a side with meat or grilled fish. If you want it more substantial, add in steamed prawns, leftover chicken or assorted leftover meat items from the fridge.

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It’s like a basic dish for you to add and enhance with your favourite bits and pieces. Enjoy.

 

Asian Style Cucumber and Tomato Salad


Refreshing and piquant, this recipe makes use of the natural juices of the vegetables to moisten the salad. So don’t worry if the dressing looks a little meagre at first.

1 tomato, sliced
1/2 Japanese cucumber, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
3 stalks spring onions, sliced
1 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tsp crisp fried shallots*

Dressing
2 tsp lime juice
1 tsp sesame oil or to taste
Salt and sugar to taste

Method
• Make the dressing.
• Combine all the vegetables except the crisp fried shallots. Toss with dressing.
• Sprinkle with crisp fried shallots just before serving.

*Note: To make crisp fried shallots, slice about 10-12 shallots and fry in at least 1/2 cup of oil until brown and crisp. Remove shallots onto kitchen towel to drain off excess oil and store in an air tight container. Use in place of croutons for salads and soups, or noodle dishes. Store the shallot flavoured oil in another clean container, and use for salad dressings or to finish dishes.