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
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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.

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
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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 Saturday Kitchen – Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

The Chinese don’t often use glutinous rice in their cooking, but when they do, one of the most delectable dishes is fried glutinous rice. The moist nuo mai fan wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed with lup cheong (Chinese sausage), black mushrooms and chicken and served at dim sum is much more common the world over. But this fried version is a not-so-distant cousin, with its roots also in Cantonese cuisine. In Singapore, it is a very common breakfast dish which you’ll find at the hawker centres, though hardly seen in proper restaurants. Perhaps it is considered too humble.

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My mother told me her family’s maidservant Ah Seem used to cook it when my mother was a child back in the 1930s. Ah Seem tended to cook mainly dishes from her home village back in Kaiping. While I know this is indeed a traditional dish, a nugget of information like this just brings alive that sense of continuous heritage and history with the food we eat.

Lately I have been experimenting with this fried glutinous rice dish. I like it very much but I always thought it was tricky to make. Once I got hands-on, it is surprisingly quite simple. It is cooked in a way similar to making risotto but the end result is springy dry-ish rice with a short bite, tender and moist inside. It is nicely complemented with a plethora of textures and flavours from the savoury depth of the lup cheong, the softness and fragrance of the Chinese mushrooms and the crunch of fried peanuts. The final sprinkling of spring onions is important too. Apart from making the dish look prettier, its subtle minty flavour lifts the dish with its high notes.

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The trick to making this  dish is to cook it over low flame, adding a little water at a time to get the rice cooking, but not to get it too soggy. Patience is paramount because the end point is rice which is moist inside, but largely dry on the outside. Having said that, it is not an arduous dish to make. Have a go at it.

Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Moderate
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1 cup glutinous rice, soaked for 2-3 hours at least
4 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp oil
6 black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in 1/4 cup water and sliced
2 Tbsp dried prawns, soaked in 4 Tbsp water
1 lup cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
2-3 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine
Salt and white pepper to taste
2/3 cup stock (or water mixed with 1/2 tsp chicken stock powder)

3 Tbsp peanuts, skin on, toasted in a pan
2 Tbsp sliced deep fried shallots
1 Tbsp Chopped spring onions

Method
• Heat oil in a wok and sauté garlic and ginger for a few minutes until fragrant.
• Drain the dried prawns and mushrooms, but set aside their soaking liquid for use later. Add prawns, mushrooms and lup cheong into the wok to saute. Add cooking wine and fry until fragrant – about 2 minutes.
• Drain the rice and add to the wok. Toss to coat, and fry for about 2 minutes,  then add 1/4 cup of the stock as well as the prawn and mushroom soaking liquid, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Stir fry and let the rice soak up the liquid. Add salt and pepper.
• When the rice has soaked up the liquid, add another 1/4 cup and fry until it has soaked up the liquid again.
• By now it should be al dente, so proceed slowly. Keep adding 2 Tbsp of the stock and fry until the rice has soaked up the liquid, then check if it is cooked through. If it isn’t, add another 2 Tbsp stock at a time until it is done. Do so over a fairly low flame, and keep the rice quite dry.
• When the rice is fully cooked but still with a touch of al dente, turn off the flame, check on the seasoning. To serve, top with some peanuts, deep fried shallots and chopped spring onions.

Note: For added crunch, you can also sprinkle some deep fried silver bait to the dish which also gives you your day’s worth of calcium. 🙂 If you want to add a spot of ‘gourmet’ to this humble dish, add some dried scallops (soaked in water for 20 minutes, and drained) and replace oyster sauce with XO Sauce.  

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The Saturday Kitchen — Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

It’s been quite a few weeks since I last wrote. I had been caught up with some exciting collaborations with our public libraries regarding my children’s book (I’ll write about that in another post), and made a trip to Kaiping in Guangzhou to see the UNESCO World Heritage diaolou. Incidentally that area is also where my grandfather came from 97 years ago. More of that too, in another post. 🙂

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But staying true to the Saturday Kitchen, for which I have to do lots of catch up, I’m posting an Indonesian vegetable recipe which I cooked a while ago. While it sounds bland, it really isn’t due to the strong aromatics that go into the recipe.  I think it goes nicely with coconut rice, and a curry chicken. The added plus is that these are very inexpensive ingredients here in Asia. So here goes:

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Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
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8 shallots, sliced
4 garlic, sliced
4 large chillies, seeded and sliced
5 thick slices ginger
5 thick slices galangal
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 head of cabbage, sliced
200g green beans, slice into 2-3cm lengths
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Pound the shallots, garlic, chilli, ginger and galangal in a mortar & pestle, or blitz it in a blender.
Heat about 1 Tbsp oil in a wok and saute the pounded ingredients for about 2-3 minutes until it has softened.
Add the cabbage and green beans, salt and pepper to taste and stir fry until it is softened and cooked through. You may want to sprinkle 1/2 tsp of water into the vegetables to prevent it from burning or getting too dry. But this is really just to dampen the vegetables, not to add any significant amount of water.
When the vegetables are cooked through, dish it out and garnish with sliced red chillies.

 

Spicy Green beans and cabbage

The Saturday Kitchen – Easy Balinese Roast Chicken (Ayam Betutu)

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I’m almost apologetic posting yet another Bali inspired recipe, but let me say first that the cuisine of Bali is quite different from the rest of Indonesia. While it features the same kind of ingredients, the Balinese use them in a way that results in distinctly different flavours. It’s a bit more earthy, less fiery, and the flavours of the individual ingredients are somehow a bit more pronounced. Another distinct difference in the cuisine of Bali is that it includes pork, as most Balinese are Hindus, whilst the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim.

So that said, here is my latest offering — an easy to make Balinese-style Roast Chicken, or Ayam Betutu. The original recipe requires the chicken to be marinated, wrapped in opor leaves, steamed for over an hour, then roasted for another hour or so. Like with the babi guling, I have taken the pretty elaborate recipe and whittled it down to something I can make easily, while (hopefully) maintaining all the flavours. The only lengthy process is the marinating. What I did was to marinate it in the morning, leave it to soak and roast it just before dinner.

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Easy Balinese Style Chicken

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 40 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
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12 chicken thighs or one whole chicken

Marinade
8 shallots
5 garlic cloves
6-8 candlenuts
1 chilli padi (add more if you like it hotter)
25g ginger
25g kecur (lesser galangal)
40g galangal
1/2 tsp belacan
2 stalks lemongrass
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp black peppercorns
11/2 tsp salt or to taste

Method
• Pound all the marinade ingredients together into a paste. Rub it all over the chicken and leave to marinade for 4 hours at least.
• Roast in the oven for 40 mins at 180C, or until cooked through.