Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cilantro corn rice (and thoughts on food critiques)

I've become that person. A person I hoped growing up I'd never become: an ajumma. Ajumma in Korean means "married woman" or "middle-aged woman" - and like many Korean words, is perfectly fine when used in certain contexts and carries a negative connotation when used in others.

When I think of the word ajumma, I think of opinionated middle-aged Korean women who tell you what's up, even if you never asked. And that's exactly what I've become.

On a recent visit to one of HK's hottest newly opened restaurants, when one of the owners came to ask how the food was, my dining companions all answered as they were expected to, with assurances of "everything's delicious." I answered with a half-hearted "'s good." pause. "I mean, some things could use some work, but generally the food was ok." I'm sure my friends wanted to hide under the table. But honestly, I thought I was being kind because: (1) the food was actually terrible, and I at least softened my response by saying it was ok, and (2) if a new restaurant wants to stay open in the long run and their food sucks, they need to fix it - but if people keep telling them that their mediocre food is good, they'll never know they have anything to fix.

The owner actually seemed interested in my response and asked what I would suggest. I told him their albondigas were too dry and needed to be made with fattier meat and that the potatoes in the tortilla espanola were undercooked, as were the onions, which should reach a caramelized state before the eggs are added. I could have gone on, but I thought I'd stop with the two most glaring shortcomings. The owner took my comments graciously and even sent a round of drinks our way. I hope the restaurant improves their food and succeeds, because I am a huge supporter of anyone trying to start a new food business, especially because I know how hard it is. And really, I'm trying to keep my ajumma comments to myself because I don't want to be that annoying opinionated customer!

When I opened love at first bite in Berkeley, I listened to people's suggestions, whether they were good or bad, reasonable or farfetched. Because as a business owner, that's what you have to do - you have to be open to both customers' praise and complaints. Sometimes, even when you want to tell people to go away, you have to smile and listen. And then you have to make a judgment call - whether their suggestion is worth taking into account or not. Sometimes, it's not.

One day, in the early days of the bakery, a person walked in and asked if we had any items that did not contain any of the following: gluten (which is in wheat), eggs, dairy or sugar. Um, an item that doesn't contain any flour, sugar, eggs or butter? In my head I screamed: "We sell cupcakes! What the hell do you think cupcakes are made of?!" But to the lady, I answered with the nicest smile I could muster: "I'm really sorry, we currently only have cupcakes and cookies that include those items, but you know what, we really should look into developing recipes that don't have any of them." She nodded in agreement and left the store. And I mentally checked her suggestion into the box called: NEVER.

Which is not to say that someone out there shouldn't open a bakery that is wheat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and egg-free. Especially in Berkeley or the SF Bay Area, where there is certainly a market for it. But it just wasn't going to be me. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to open love at first bite was because I felt that the area didn't have an old-fashioned American bakery - fancy French patisseries, artisan sourdough bread bakeries, vegan collective bakeries, yes. But not a good old-fashioned American bakery specializing in exactly what the woman didn't want: butter, sugar, flour, eggs.

However, in order to be successful, you have to take your customer base into account. And having lived in Berkeley for awhile, I knew that meant that I'd have to come up with at least a vegan cookie. But I refused to compromise on taste, or specifically, the down-home comforting taste of a lovingly made cupcake (which normally requires copious amounts of butter and sugar). In the end, I fiddled around until I came up with a recipe for vegan chocolate cake that was still sinfully rich and chocolatey, as well as a flourless almond orange torte that was moist and decadent. But I never could come up with a decent baked item that managed to be gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free and dairy-free, which is why we never offered them (and to my knowledge, still are not offered at love at first bite). It's just not possible: it will not taste the way a cupcake should, in which case, you're better off not eating it.

Happily, the majority of my wonderful customers were perfectly content with what we were offering, and the niche we were trying to fill in otherwise vegan, hippie Berkeley (as a side note, I have absolutely nothing but respect for vegans and maintain a vegan diet myself, except that it includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and lots of dairy).

These days, I cook mostly for my husband and myself, and the occasional dinner guest. And as fate would have it, I married a person who has an extremely sensitive palate. I've never been as nervous that someone would like my cooking or baking as I am with my husband. Mostly, because he's always right (don't ever tell him I said that).

There's rarely a meal that I prepare where when I ask him how the food is, he doesn't reply with "You know what would make it better? If you added a little [sugar/salt/garlic/soy/cheese/etc.]" And I have to admit - almost every single time, when I really parse the flavors in my mouth, I realize he's right. So when I put something in front of him and he says "this is good" without any other comment, I feel like I've won the James Beard award. And I can count on my fingers exactly how many times that's happened.

One of the first times he asked for seconds without any suggestion of how to make the dish better was when I made cilantro corn rice as a side dish to blackened Cajun catfish. The catfish itself had a little too much spice (the recipe I found called for WAY too much cayenne, and I really should have known better than adding the whole amount!), but the cilantro corn rice was delicious, and is a regular on our dinner table, especially with Southern or Mexican food. And best of all, it's extremely easy to make. I tossed this together because I happened to have cold leftover rice in our fridge, as well as a fresh bunch of cilantro (or coriander, as it's called in these parts) and a cob of sweet corn. It was a happy accident of flavors that compliment each other perfectly.

Leftover white rice - preferably long grain and at least a day old and refrigerated
Cilantro - chopped fine (I usually use just the leaves, but it's fine to throw in some stems too)
Lime or lemon
One ear of sweet organic corn (if you don't have this, you can use canned corn, but the results will be noticeably poorer)
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Butter (optional)

  1. Heat a glug of olive oil in a pan over medium high heat (about 1 tablespoon for each cup of cold rice). If you want a richer flavor, add a pat of butter.
  2. When the oil begins to form small bubbles, thrown in the cold rice. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break down any clumps of rice.
  3. Squeeze lemon or lime over the rice (about 1/4 of a lime or lemon for each cup of rice).
  4. Sprinkle a generous pinch of sea salt over the rice and mix. Add the chopped cilantro.
  5. Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels of corn off of the ear and add to the rice. Mix and continue to cook a minute. Ideally, you want the heat high enough that some of the kernels will start to brown but not burn. Turn off heat and serve immediately.
This dish goes well with fish and Mexican food, especially with burritos or tacos.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ginger molasses cookies

I've probably baked these cookies more than any other item in my life. While studying at Starbucks in law school about 10 years ago(!), I came across a chewy ginger cookie in the pastry case. I'd never had a ginger cookie before, save for a stale ginger snap offered by a classmate in elementary school which had basically turned me off of the entire institution. But the cookie behind the glass case at Starbucks looked so inviting - you could just tell it was going to be chewy and hearty. I fell in love with the cookie at first bite. It was everything that a generic ginger snap is not: fresh, moist, buttery, chewy, sweet, and paired with a glass of cold milk, possibly the best afternoon snack imaginable. I was instantly addicted.

I can be a bit OCD, so when I love something, I become absolutely obsessed with it. When I discover a new food that I love, I basically eat it again and again and again until I get sick of it. The problem was, I wasn't getting sick of the ginger cookie at Starbucks. And they were $2.75 a pop, and I was a poor law school student. So I decided one day that I was just going to learn how to make it at home.

It took a lot of trial and error. There are hundreds of recipes for ginger cookies out there, but I was very specific about what I wanted. It had to be thick and chewy. It had to have exactly the right combination of ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It had to have a rich molasses flavor that reminded me of the South (even though I'm not from the South).

I tinkered and tinkered with the recipe. My boyfriend at the time, who was the taste-tester for all my recipes, ate batch after batch happily, but still, I tinkered some more. The first time I finally got this recipe right was probably when the first seed of opening a bakery got planted in my mind. I wanted to share these cookies with everyone - friends, family, classmates, strangers. It's probably where I got the name for the bakery too, now that I think about it: love at first bite, because at least for me, it was.


2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
1/3 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 extra-large egg
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon regular unsulphured molasses (Brer Rabbit or Grandma brand)

Granulated sugar (for coating cookie dough before baking) 

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl with mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. With mixer on medium speed, beat in the egg and molasses, then increase the speed to high and beat about 1 minute longer, until the mixture no longer looks curdled. Scrape the sides with a rubber spatula several times while mixing.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and with a spatula mix together. You can also use an electric mixer on low speed, but make sure you have a large enough bowl or the flour will splatter. Mix until the flour is well incorporated and you have a sticky dough. Refrigerate for at least half an hour, which will help the dough firm up.
  5. Using a large spoon, scoop some of the batter into your hand and roll into a ball about 1 inch to 1 1/2 inch thick, depending on how large you want your cookies. Roll the ball in a bowl of granulated sugar until fully covered with sugar, then place on cookie sheet. Make sure to space the cookies at least 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches apart, as they will spread a lot during baking. 
Bake for 12 minutes, or until the cookies have spread and are firm to the touch. Rotate the sheet 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. Remove from the oven, sprinkle tops with more sugar and let the cookies cool on a baking sheet. 

 Put the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and sift together.
 Mix the butter, egg, brown sugar and molasses together. It will look curdled at first, but keep mixing.
 The butter-sugar-molasses mixture should look creamy and slightly fluffy when it's ready, as above.
 Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix together with a rubber spatula. The cookie dough will be sticky and a bit difficult to handle, but refrigerating for half an hour will firm it up and make it easier to form into balls.

After rolling the dough into balls, dip in granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet to bake.

 The finished cookie. Best eaten with a tall glass of ice cold milk.

General tips on baking:
- let your eggs and butter come to room temperature before using them, unless otherwise instructed.
- crack your eggs in a separate bowl before adding them to the butter. One stray eggshell can ruin an entire batch.
- when measuring drying ingredients, use a knife to level off the measuring cup so you get precisely the amount that the recipe calls for.
- use fresh ingredients - baking soda, baking flour, spices, flour can all go stale and ruin a recipe.
- mix your dry ingredients thoroughly first (I'm a huge fan of sifting, even if the recipe doesn't call for it).
- when making batter for cake, cream/mix the butter and sugar thoroughly until fluffy and creamy. You basically can't overmix at this point. The more you mix, the creamier and fluffier it will get.
- do NOT overmix the dry and wet ingredients together, or you will get a tough/chewy/non-fluffy cake.
- preheat the oven.
- invest in an oven thermometer.
- invest in a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of bowls.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cerveceria Catalana - a perfect meal

To me, there's no place in the world that encapsulates joie de vivre as much as Barcelona. It's a city that doesn't start to wake up until 10 am, enjoys a long leisurely lunch followed by a nice afternoon siesta, then really starts to come alive after 6 pm. It's a city where wine is literally cheaper than water, where jamon refers to fresh slices of rich, salty Serrano or Iberico ham cut straight from the hindleg of a pig that sits on a counter, hoof and all (rather than processed, oversalty, oversweet Oscar Meyer American ham), and where even the humblest loaf of bread is made magically delicious with a little bit of tomato, olive oil and salt. 

What I love best about Barcelona is its approach to food: simple, fresh, pure in flavor. One of my favorite places to eat in Barcelona is Cerveceria Catalana, an insanely popular casual eatery among locals and tourists alike. If you get here after 9 pm, you will have to wait outside with legions of other people waiting to grab a seat at the counter or a table. If you're used to eating at more "normal" hours (i.e, dinner before 8 pm), you'll fare better and should be able to snag a seat at the counter. Cerveceria Catalana is also open for breakfast and lunch - you can't go wrong any time of day, but for some of the best tapas in Barcelona, try to fit in at least one lunch or dinner.

Montaditos (mini sandwiches) available at breakfast. The full menu is not available at breakfast, just sandwiches, pastries, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee (and wine and beer, if you want)

Tapas offerings at the bar during lunch and dinner - if it's your first time, the best seat in the house is at the counter where you can simply point to the dishes you want (most of them are not listed on the printed English menu). You choose what you want, and the servers will start cooking/preparing your tapas - the green peppers above (pimientos de padron) would be fried with olive oil and sea salt, the goat cheese skewers covered with almonds would be deep-fried into a lollipop with soft gooey cheese covered by raspberry jam - decadent and delicious.

Pimientos de padron

 Marinated vegetables topped with goat cheese disc - the cheese is torched before being served so that it is soft and melty.

 Mini hamburguesa with cheese and caramelized onion - absolutely recommended!

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 5

The essentials:
No website
Location: 236 C/Mallorca, Eixample, Barcelona, Spain
Average price of meal for two (including drinks): 30 euros

Monday, October 29, 2012

Black truffle croutons

I used to throw away the remains of day-old baguettes, until I discovered that they are a perfect vehicle for bread pudding (although my favorite bread pudding is made with fresh toasted challah). But bread pudding, while wonderful in its dense, homey deliciousness, isn't something you can make every time you have leftover bread, unless you happen to have a couple marathon runners in the house (which I don't). Plus, while I love baking sweet goods, I actually prefer to eat savory foods.

I craved a lot of salads the past few weeks - the warm fall weather in Hong Kong reminds me so much of summer in Northern California, which made me want to eat as if I were in Northern California. That meant replacing boiled vegetables in broth (in HK, they even boil lettuce - and it's surprisingly delicious with a little bit of oyster sauce) with fresh leafy salads. I think that because salads require assembling more than cooking, I often forget to plan the ingredients I need carefully. So I usually end up chopping up whatever vegetables and cheeses I happen to have in the fridge with a bag of mixed lettuce, boiling a couple eggs, and tossing everything together with a homemade vinaigrette (on a tangential note: homemade salad dressing is the easiest thing to make in the world - I'll include a recipe later in this post. I never buy bottled dressing anymore!).

But a couple weeks ago as I was putting together a salad for dinner, I had a craving for panzanella - that wonderful, hearty tomato and bread salad that the Florentines ingeniously came up with as a way to use up stale bread. But I also wanted something a bit...meaty, without actually having meat in it. Truffles, that would do the trick.

I happened to have 1/2 a French baguette left over from the previous night's dinner. I had a bottle of black truffle oil and a jar of Maldon sea salt. And so I proceeded to make black truffle croutons for the salad. I tossed some mixed greens (romain, radicchio, frisee), sweet heirloom cherry tomatoes, shavings of pecorino cheese, fresh kernels cut from an ear of corn, avocado and a generous serving of black truffle croutons with dressing. What I ended up making was not so much a panzanella as a mixed summer salad starring truffled croutons. I decided then and there that my favorite salads from that day forward would not star vegetables, but bread. Stale bread.

It was so delicious that I've made it 3 more times in the past couple weeks, until my craving for truffle oil was fully satisfied.

Day old baguette or other hard-crusted bread (in HK, I especially like the baguettes from Little Mermaid Bakery inside IFC CitySuper, Il Bel Paese, or Po's Atelier for this recipe)
Black truffle oil - I like the brand Elle Esse, available at CitySuper (pictured)
Good quality extra virgin olive oil
Maldon sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 350F/180C.

2. Cut the bread into cubes, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch and place in a mixing bowl.

3. Pour a generous glug of black truffle oil and a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil over the bread.

4. Sprinkle a generous amount of sea salt over the bread and oil. Toss thoroughly, until all of the cubes are coated lightly with oil.

5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Spread the bread cubes on the lined baking sheet evenly. Make sure there is only one layer of cubes.

6. Bake for about 10 minutes, until crispy outside but still with a little bit of chewy pull on the inside.
The finished croutons. Looks so humble, but packs a powerful and delicious truffle punch to any salad.

Recipe for simple vinaigrette
Good quality fruity extra virgin olive oil
Good quality French mustard (Grey Poupon will do in a pinch, but try to get the best quality you can find)
Honey (any will do, but I am really partial to lavender honey for this recipe)
Sherry, apple cider or white wine vinegar
Sea salt
White or black pepper
Fresh herbs, whatever you have (thyme, rosemary or parsley work best)

1. Add a tablespoon of mustard, a teaspoon of vinegar and a good glug of olive oil to a big mixing bowl and whisk together until well-mixed.
2. Drizzle in some honey and whisk together.
3. Add a pinch of salt, a turn or two of freshly ground pepper and about 1/2 tablespoon of fresh chopped herbs and whisk.
4. Whisk in more olive oil until the dressing is the consistency you want. If the olive oil is too fruity, you can use a blend of 3/4 olive oil and 1/4 vegetable oil.
5. Taste the dressing and add more vinegar, honey or salt to your taste. If you're making bread salad with black truffle croutons, don't make the dressing too sweet or the sweetness will overpower the scent of the truffles.


October and November are my favorite months in Hong Kong. In October, the humidity dissipates and the weather starts to cool down. If you're lucky, some evenings, the air can even smell fresh. In Central no less! But November is when Hong Kong truly becomes lovely. It's the month during which you should plan to have every meal al fresco and enjoy long, leisurely hikes. The weather is sunny but cool and breezy, before the chill of winter creeps in.

Hong Kong doesn't offer a ton of al fresco dining options, probably because for 9-10 months out of the year, it's either too hot, too humid, too cold or too rainy to enjoy. One of my favorite spots for a semi-al fresco brunch in Hong Kong is Oolaa, which sits on the edge of Sheung Wan and Soho. The seating is technically indoors, but the floor-to-ceiling glass doors open up completely so that you get the al fresco feel.

Oolaa is the type of neighborhood joint everyone should have in their neighborhood. It's a terrific spot to drop in for a cappuccino or glass of wine at the bar, or to spend the afternoon reading the newspaper, or to have a casual business lunch, or to meet friends for an after-work drink. But most of all, it's best for a leisurely weekend brunch. Unfortunately, I'm not the only who thinks so, as evidenced by the crowds that descend each Saturday and Sunday morning, well into the late afternoon. If there's a wait (and there always is on the weekends), I like to pull up a stool at the bar and have a drink while we wait for a table. There are three distinct seating areas: a formal dining room, a casual communal dining room and a lounge-y area in between. I like the casual dining room the best - it reminds me a lot of Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Mimosas are made with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Breakfast bruschetta - grilled bread topped with grilled tomatoes, avocado and red onion, poached eggs and hollandaise. Served with a side of cured bacon. Love this dish!
Brekkie burrito - full of meat, but would be better with sides of sour cream, guacamole and salsa!

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 4.5 for brunch and weekday express lunch; 3.5 for dinner

The essentials:
Location: G/F Centrestage, Bridges Street, Soho, Hong Kong
Average price of brunch for two: $350

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Earl Grey Teacake

When I was growing up, my public school in San Leandro, California had a monthly Scholastic book club - basically, Scholastic's ingenious method of door-to-door sales aimed at kids. I'd come home with a colorful pamphlet with pictures and summaries of that month's featured books, and beg my mom to let me order a couple. Although my parents loved reading themselves, having discovered the public library system in America, my mom didn't see the point in having to buy books when we could borrow them for free. But she always let me choose one book each month and I still remember how much I looked forward to the days when the books were delivered and our teacher handed them out in the classroom. I loved alphabetizing the books by author on my bookshelf, just like a real library. What a nerd.

These days, I mostly download my books on Kindle/iPad because it's just so convenient to be able to carry a whole library of books with you on one contraption (and because in HK, we just don't have space to store books!), but I still love the tactile feeling of a physical book in my hands. 

A Kindle or iPad is no place for a cookbook though, and I'm glad for it. I love flipping through the heavy pages of a good, thick cookbook, looking at the vibrant photos and earmarking recipes to try at some point. But here's the thing about cookbooks: a lot of times, the recipes are inaccurate. Or perhaps they've never been tested in a real kitchen. All I know is that I've followed recipes to the T and sometimes ended up with a dish that has absolutely no depth of flavor or a stew that is so salty my mouth shrivels. There are three chefs whose books I trust though (and whose writing and recipes I absolutely adore): Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gale Gand.

Everyone knows Jamie Oliver - the host and star of the Naked Chef from days back. What I love about his books are that he doesn't provide any exact recipes. He doesn't tell you to add 1/2 teaspoon of salt or 2 tablespoons of olive oil. He'll usually call for a lug or two of olive oil (exactly how much is a lug?). Or even if he does provide a measurement, he'll add some adjective that makes it not completely measurable: 1 heaped teaspoon of cinnamon, for example. While some people may not like his style because his lack of precise measurements make it hard to follow, I love it, because I think he understands that: 1) not everyone's palates are the same - some people like it saltier, or sweeter, or spicier; and 2) when cooking with fresh ingredients (as he does religiously), it's almost impossible to give exact measurements anyway because 1 medium carrot in your grocery store might not be 1 medium carrot in my grocery store. But if you follow his recipes and fiddle with the seasonings to your liking, you will almost always end up with a fantastic dish. Plus, I just love his British slang: "preheat the oven to full whack," "beat up your eggs," "scrunch and mix well."

I used to think Nigella Lawson was just a pretty face who landed a cooking show, but once I tested out her recipes, I changed my mind. Ok, to be honest, I only tested out ONE recipe of hers, but it was absolutely divine. It's the recipe for homemade danish pastry from her book How to Be a Domestic Goddess and it will ensure that you will never eat a packaged pastry ever again. It's fairly simple to make as long as you have a food processor and a rolling pin, and start the recipe the day before you actually want to eat the danishes. That recipe alone made the $25 price tag on the book worth it - you can fill it with sweetened cream cheese, canned pie filling, or even just nutella or some chopped nuts with brown sugar - it's the pastry itself that will blow you away: sweet, buttery, delicate. 

Finally, Gale Gand. I wish I could meet Gale Gand and kiss her cheeks to thank her for her wonderful recipes. What I love about her is that she has a sweet tooth, but she has a complex, sophisticated sweet tooth. Most people I know who have a sweet tooth just need sugar, and lots of it. It could be in the form of Frosted Flakes or pop tarts or M&Ms or gummy bears or soda - they are not picky about the vehicle, as long as it's packed with sugar (or more likely, high fructose corn syrup). But Gale Gand understands that not all sweet things are the same. There's cake, then there's Gale Gand's cake. I made a grapefruit cake with sweet cream cheese frosting from her book Butter Sugar Flour Eggs and knew that I had found in her a soulmate. Not everyone shared my love for the tart-sweet cake, but I absolutely loved it. Grapefruit! In a cake!

One of my favorite recipes from Gale Gand is for a sour cream cake with poppy and fennel seeds, topped with an Earl Grey tea glaze. Sour cream is magic for cake - it makes the batter incredibly moist and fluffy. The fennel seeds in the cake give it a slightly savory dimension, which I love. 

The following recipe for Earl Grey Teacake, which I used to sell at Love at First Bite (not sure if it's offered on the menu anymore), is adapted from Gale Gand's recipe. You will need an electric mixer for this recipe. All of the ingredients below can be found in Hong Kong at Oliver's in the Prince's Building.

¼ cup poppy seeds (make sure they are fresh - poppy seeds can go rancid fairly quickly)
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
scant ½ cup strong Earl Grey tea (preferably Twinings – 2 bags brewed in 1/2 cup hot water for 10 minutes)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (approximately 115 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs
1 ½ teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

¼ cup strong Earl Grey tea
1 ½ cups + 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar (in HK, you'll find it labeled as icing sugar)

1.  Brew tea, remove teabags. Measure 1/2 cup of the tea and pour over the poppy and fennel seeds in a small bowl.
2.  Heat oven to 350F/180C. Grease and flour the loaf pans.
3.  Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together. Sifting is recommended in this recipe - it will make for a much fluffier cake and ensure that it bakes evenly.
4.  Cream butter with hand mixer or standing mixer. Add sugar and cream until soft and fluffy.
5.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add vanilla and mix again until well incorporated. The mixture should look creamy and fluffy.
6.  Add 1/2 the flour mixture and 1/2 the sour cream to the butter mixture, until just incorporated. Add the remaining flour mixture and sour cream and mix, until just incorporated. Add seeds and tea and mix until batter is smooth.
7.  Pour into 2 9-inch loaf pans and bake 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean (I always use the toothpick test rather than exact baking times, as ovens can be different - or you could get an oven thermometer).
8.   Mix 1/4 cup cooled strong Earl Grey tea with 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar and whisk until smooth. 
9.   After taking the cakes out of the oven, pierce the cakes all over with a toothpick and pour half the tea glaze over the tops. The holes will allow the glaze to soak the cake evenly. 
10. Add 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar to the remaining glaze and mix until smooth and thick - this will be used as icing to top the cake. After the cakes have cooled for at least 30 minutes, take them out of the pans and put on a plate. Take the icing and drizzle over the cake. 

 The batter should look like this when it's done mixing.
 Drizzle the tea glaze over the top of the cooled cake.
 Ready to serve.
I like this cake best with a cup of strong milky unsweetened coffee or tea.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pumpkin chocolate bread (and the story of love at first bite)

Back in 2005, when I was sort of a young hippie dreamer (well, let's be honest here - as young hippie a dreamer as a junior corporate lawyer can be), I came across an empty store for lease in Berkeley while I was grabbing coffee at the original Peet's Coffee on the corner of Vine and Walnut Streets. It was inside a sunny little square that included Peet's, a charming lettepress/stationery shop called Twig and Fig and a greasy spoon diner. And I thought: "this would be the perfect place for a cupcake bakery."

I'd been baking since I was a kid, and had spent an inordinate number of hours in law school baking and developing recipes. Cupcakes were all the rage in New York, but other than a cupcake delivery service in Silicon Valley/Peninsula (Sibby's), at the time, cupcakes hadn't really hit the San Francisco bay area yet. And my 25 year old self thought: "you know what, I think I am going to open a cupcake bakery in the Bay Area." And so that's just what I did. When you're 25, everything seems possible, and so, everything is possible.

Never mind that I'd never started a business, nor had any formal culinary or pastry training. Also, never mind that the store for lease was just a shell - no kitchen, not enough electrical wiring or plumbing, nothing. Within two months, I had contacted the landlord and negotiated a lease with a build-out period; hired contractors, carpenters, electricians to build out the space into a functioning bakery; and spent my entire meager life savings and maxed out two credit cards buying bakery equipment. I spent the next 3 months begging and pleading with the City of Berkeley zoning and permit departments to approve the space to be zoned as a bakery/food retail space and issue timely permits to allow the renovations/plumbing/rewirings (for a city that is supposed to be all about freedom and rights and the fight against the system, Berkeley has some of the most bureaucratic red tape in the country). I was still working full-time as a junior associate at a law firm as well, then going home and testing/adapting recipes at night to be sold in mass quantities.

After a couple delays, the doors to love at first bite cupcakery opened at the end of May 2005. It is to this day, my proudest accomplishment - the result of blood, sweat, tears, life savings, credit card debt, the love and support of family, friends and community, and many, many pounds of butter, sugar and flour.

I no longer own the bakery (that's a story for another day), and after I sold the bakery, I wasn't able to bake for years and years. I don't know if it's because I breathed in so much butter and sugar during my bakery days that afterward the scent of cakes baking made me nauseated, or whether it's because deep-down, selling the bakery felt a little bit like giving my baby away and I just wasn't able to face another mixing bowl again.

When I first started dating my now-husband, it had already been years since I sold the bakery and my fire-engine red Kitchenaid mixer had been gathering dust on my kitchen counter. He knew I had started a bakery previously, but because I never baked anything for him, I don't think he believed I actually knew how to bake. So one evening, I decided to bake him red velvet cupcakes, one of the bakery's best-sellers. I creamed the butter and sugar and bright red food dye. Mixed the dry ingredients together. Did that magical little step of adding vinegar to baking soda. Folded in all the ingredients, filled the cupcake pans and stuck them in the oven.

When the cakes came out of the oven, they hadn't risen properly. Instead of fluffy, moist cakes like the ones I used to make at love at first bite, these cakes were dense and heavy. It was a complete and utter fail. I don't know if it's because some of the ingredients had been sitting in my pantry too long, or whether it's because the cake batter just knew my heart still wasn't into baking again. But that miserable fail scared me away from baking again for years and years.

But it's October in Hong Kong, the weather has cooled considerably and the international grocery store aisles remind me that Thanksgiving is just around the corner (every store has piles and piles of Libby's canned pumpkin for sale and notices that turkeys can be pre-ordered already). It also happened to be a good friend's birthday this past Friday, and I suddenly felt inspired to bake again. And I knew just what I wanted to make: pumpkin bread.

To me, pumpkin bread tastes like Thanksgiving with its pumpkin pie spices. It's homey and soothing and very American. And even though I love living in Hong Kong, sometimes I just need a piece of America here.

I personally prefer it in loaf or muffin form, but if you've ever been to love at first bite and had the pumpkin cupcake with cream cheese frosting, this is the same recipe (just omit the chocolate chips and top with cream cheese frosting).

Pumpkin chocolate loaf

The pumpkin makes this bread extremely moist, and the combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves makes the kitchen smell like pumpkin pie.

Ingredients/Sources in HK
3 cups all-purpose flour - you can find Gold Medal flour at Oliver's in the Prince's building
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice  - recipe follows. You will need cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda  - I like Arm & Hammer, which you can find in almost any grocery store here
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt  - make sure you use table salt, not fancy or flaky salt
3 cups granulated sugar
15-ounce can of Libby's pure pumpkin - not the canned pumpkin pie mix, but pure pumpkin. It's available now at 360, Oliver's, CitySuper
4 large organic eggs
1 cup vegetable oil  - you want to use corn, canola or vegetable oil for this, not olive oil, which has a strong scent of its own and will change the flavor of the cake
2/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice  - one orange should yield about 2/3 cup. Find the sweetest oranges you can find
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips  - I like Hershey's or Ghirardelli, you can usually find these at CitySuper or Oliver's

Preheat oven to 350 F/180 C. Line muffin pans with paper liners (will make about 22-24 regular sized muffins/cupcakes) or grease and flour loaf pans (about 3 small loaves, or 2 large loaves).

Combine the flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Mix the ingredients together.

Whisk the sugar, pumpkin, eggs, oil and orange juice in a separate bowl and beat until smooth. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and whisk until the dry ingredients are just incorporated into the wet ingredients, but do not overmix. Fold in the chocolate chips. Fill muffin or loaf pans about 3/4 full. Do not overfill, or the batter might overflow while baking.

For cupcakes, bake about 20-25 minutes; for loaves, bake 60-65 minutes. A wooden toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving. 

Pumpkin pie spice

Some recipes call for allspice, but I like this version which omits it.

Mix 4 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon cloves. This will be more than you need for one batch recipe of the pumpkin chocolate bread, so store the rest in an airtight container.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blue Butcher

I walk by Blue Butcher several times a week but only finally got around to trying it tonight. I'm not exactly sure how we even ended up there - when we left the house this evening for dinner, the plan was to head to Life Cafe, an organic vegetarian restaurant in Soho. Instead, we somehow ended up at Blue Butcher, one of the most carnivorous restaurants in the city. I'm glad we did though, because the food was fantastic.

Belgian endive salad with candied bacon(!), oranges, blue cheese and truffle dressing. This dish was a fine starter, but not an absolute must-try. I did like the candied bacon.

 Lamb chops served with eggplant, mint sauce, au jus gravy and feta. The lamb is slow cooked sous vide, then finished over an open flame, and it is absolutely delicious. My husband, who hates lamb, loved this dish. The meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender, seasoned perfectly and complemented by the smoky eggplant.
 Beef tenderloin topped with ravioli. I don't recall how this dish was described on the menu, but it was basically a thick cut of tenderloin topped with a meat-filled ravioli and a sauce very similar to hollandaise. It was fine, but not the best steak you're going to eat in your life. The sauce was overly heavy, perhaps not the best complement to the meat. To be honest, while the meat itself was fine, we just didn't really understand the ravioli and sauce that accompanied it. The dish would have been better with a side of potatoes or spinach. The lamb chops were much, much better.
Granny smith apple crumble with port ice cream. If you could put an American summer in a dish and bake it, this is what you'd end up with. One bite and I thought of sunshine, apple orchards, a grandmother's love, a warm cozy kitchen. What's lovely about this dessert is that it stays true to the homey simplicity that is an apple crumble. Nothing gimmicky or overly creative - just well-cooked, sweet apples topped with a not-overly-sweet, cinnamony brown sugar crumble and complemented perfectly by the creamy port ice cream.

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: 108 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan Hong Kong
Average price of dinner for two: $1400

Txistorra with fagioli beans and bell pepper

The first time I tried txistorra was in Valencia at Casa Montaña, a fantastic tapa bar near the beach. It was presented simply on a white plate, fried in hard cider. Txistorra is a cured sausage from the Basque country, seasoned with garlic and paprika. It's fantastic for frying and serving with eggs for breakfast or as a tapa. Because it's rather fatty and salty, I like to fry txistorra with either mushrooms or beans, both of which mellow out the salt and spice. I've prepared txistorra a half dozen times now, but this recipe, which I assembled from what was available in my fridge and pantry, is my favorite so far. I served this dish for brunch along with Spanish tortilla, roasted asparagus and fruit salad.

Ingredients/Sources in HK
Txistorra - Available in the refrigerated cured meats section at CitySuper IFC
Fagioli beans - I used a can of beans that I picked up at Oliver's
Yellow bell pepper - anywhere, but try to get organic
Olive oil
Red wine 

Heat a pan over medium heat and add about 1 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Chop the txistorra and add to the hot oil, lower heat to somewhere between low and medium. The sausage should slowly brown, and the spices should be seeping out so that the olive oil is a bright burnt orange color. Drain the can of beans and rinse well. Chop the bell pepper into thin slices. Once the sausage has browned around the edges, add 2-3 tablespoons of red wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated. Add the bell pepper and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the drained beans and continue to cook until beans start to brown (but they should not get mushy). Turn off heat and serve immediately.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Andong Jjim Dak

This here is Andong Jjim Dak, which literally means steamed chicken from Andong (a region in Korea). It is absolutely delicious. I suspect that MSG might have something to do with that, but frankly, I'm beyond caring. Why does everyone hate MSG so much anyway? Yes, I know it's artificial. And maybe it's "cheating" on flavor. But let me put this out there: Japan has some of the most Michelin stars in the world, and Japanese cuisine is often lauded as one of the world's best. And you know what? MSG is widely used in Japanese cooking. In fact, ajinomoto (MSG) is a common kitchen ingredient alongside soy sauce. It's what adds umami. So let's not knock MSG. Anyway, that was a long digression.

Andong jjim dak, which is sold in Seoul at restaurants with the same name, is a spicy chicken dish made with a secret sauce of soy, red peppers, sugar and spices. It will usually also have clear yam noodles and chunks of potato and some green onions, but that's about it. You order it in small (serves 2), medium (serves 3-4) or large (serves 5-6), and choose the degree of spiciness you want. Then you dig in. Simple. Absolutely delicious - and super cheap, less than $10 per person.

The restaurants are all over Seoul, and there are several competing chains (Andong and Bongchu are two of the biggest), but my favorite is Andong Jjimdak (안동찜닭 in Korean).

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 5 

Spaghetti with bottarga

I recently watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations where he travels to Sardinia and eats a plate of spaghetti with bottarga. The way he waxed poetic about it immediately made me a bit obsessed with trying the dish. Luckily, just a week later I was assigned to review Nicholini's by Asia Tatler, where spaghetti with bottarga was on the menu. Nicholini's version included a dollop of sea urchin on the top, which I though made the dish metallic and bitter (even though I usually love sea urchin), so I didn't mix it in with the pasta. The dish itself was very simple: homemade spaghetti tossed in olive oil and bottarga. It's basically just aglio e olio, the most simple of pasta sauces, but with bottarga added in.

And bottarga makes ALL the difference. Bottarga is the dried roe sac of the mullet fish. It's reminiscent of Japanese mentaiko (cod roe), but a lot more unctuous and silky-tasting and a lot less salty. It looks like the photo on the right. The spaghetti with bottarga at Nicholini's was absolutely delicious - slick with olive oil and garlic, salty and savory from the bottarga. I was sold. But at something like US$50 for a plate, it's not something I can eat everyday, so I was obsessed with finding bottarga and making the dish at home. I went to every gourmet store in Hong Kong - the only store that carried bottarga was Il Bel Paese, an Italian grocer, but they didn't have the full dried sacs of roe - only a jar of shaved roe (and it was TUNA, not mullet).

But the heavens heard my plea for bottarga. Quite randomly, my husband and I decided to fly to Kaohsiung for the weekend, just to get out of HK for a day. And what do you know - dried mullet roe is a specialty of the region. So, I bought a sac of mullet roe and last night, I finally cooked spaghetti with bottarga at home. All you need are the 6 ingredients on the right: spaghetti, Italian red pepper flakes, good olive oil, parsley, garlic, and bottarga.

Ingredients/Sources in HK
Spaghetti - any grocery store
Red pepper - I found this bottle of dried Italian peperoncini at Apita in Quarry Bay
Italian parsley  - also available at Apita, but also at most other grocery stores
Olive oil  - we got the one pictured during our visit to France, but you can get good olive oil at any of the international grocery stores - CitySuper, Oliver's, 360
Garlic  - also available at any grocery store or wet market
Bottarga - sorry...not available in HK, except for out of a jar at Il Bel Paese. But you can buy bottarga at the airport in Kaohsiung, and you can also find it in Tokyo

Slice 2 cloves of garlic as thin as you can. Chop a handful of parsley (not as much as pictured above - about half that amount) finely. Slice the bottarga into thin slices. I used about half the bottarga shown above.

Heat a pot of water with a tablespoon of salt. When the water boils, add dry spaghetti. Cook to al dente.

Meanwhile, heat a pan over medium-high heat and add a very big glug of olive oil (6-8 tablespoons). Add the garlic and about 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes and stir so it doesn't burn. Lower the heat to medium-low. Add in the bottarga slices and stir around with a spatula or wooden spoon. Some of the bottarga should start crumbling, and this is what you want. Add about 3/4 of the parsley, stir to mix, then turn off the heat.

When the spaghetti is cooked to your liking (I like very slightly al dente), take off the heat and drain, saving about two tablespoons of the water. Turn on the heat under the olive oil-bottarga mixture. Add the pasta to the pot of oil and bottarga. If the pasta is too dry, add some of the reserved water from the cooked pasta to loosen. Toss to mix, add the rest of the parsley. Serve immediately. I like to drizzle more olive oil on top. I think it would also be good with toasted breadcrumbs on top, though I haven't tried it yet.

Stewed prunes. Really.

I realize that this picture isn't going to convince anyone that the much-maligned prune can be delicious, but if you could taste it, I think you'd love it. I'm reading a food memoir (I love that there's a genre of books called food memoirs!) called A Homemade Life, which I came across when I was reading the blog of the author of My Berlin Kitchen, another food memoir.

The recipes in A Homemade Life are simple Americana - the kind of stuff that some foodies might scoff at (such as potato salad, which the author swears is the best, made with Hidden Valley ranch salad dressing). But that's exactly the point of the book, or at least one of the points, I think. These recipes are actually the recipes the author grew up with in her family, and I have to admit, I kind of want to try some. One of the recipes that fascinated me was one for stewed prunes. I mean, it just sounds gross.

And yet. The way the author described how juicy and plump the prunes are, and how they're so good that she thinks they're better than fresh plums...well, I was intrigued. So today, I cooked a pot of stewed prunes. And what do you know - they are really delicious. They really are nothing like the dried prunes in the bag - they are plump and juicy and sweet and homey. I kind of enjoyed eating a couple straight out of the pot after they had cooled a bit, but you could serve it with oatmeal or yogurt or vanilla ice cream too. I didn't follow the author's recipe exactly, which includes a cinnamon stick, because I wasn't sure if I'd like the spice mixed in. I love the way it tastes without cinnamon, but I might try cooking it with a stick next time too, just to see how it tastes.

Ingredients/Source in HK
A bag of pitted prunes (I used Del Monte) - I'm pretty sure you can find these anywhere in HK, I found them at an International grocery store
One orange, the sweetest you can find - oranges are in season right now and they are SO sweet! I got mine at the big Wellcome on Caine Road

Wash the orange (I use fruit & vegetable spray). Slice the orange into very thin slices. Put the orange slices and prunes in a pot, fill with water until just covered. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the water has become sweet and almost syrupy. The oranges should be almost falling apart. Let it cool before you serve, or bring it to room temperature then refrigerate.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gazpacho, a taste of summer in Spain

I fell in love with Spain from the moment I arrived in Barcelona the first time, back in 2006. Since then, I've tried to visit at least once a year - my trips always include a new part of Spain I haven't been to previously, but also always include at least a couple days in Barcelona, my happiest place on earth. This past summer, my annual pilgrimage to Spain included a drive down to, then back up to Barcelona from, the Costa Blanca, with stops in Alicante, Denia and Valencia, and ended with the requisite couple days in Barcelona.

Gazpacho is the ultimate summer food in Spain - refreshing, light yet deeply satisfying. There are many variations to gazpacho, but my favorite is a nice and simple traditional version made with day-old bread that cuts the acidity of the tomato and vinegar and makes the cool soup creamy and smooth.

My recipe is adapted from Jamie Oliver's jamie does...spain, italy, sweden, morocco, greece, france. After fiddling with the recipe, I found that adding a handful of marcona almonds to the blend makes the soup even creamier, and really gives the dish a nice richness.

2 2-inch slices of day-old bread (I like to use rustic country bread - cut the crust off and just use the white part)
5 or 6 medium ripe tomatoes, the sweetest ones you can find
1/3 of an English cucumber or 1 kirby cucumber
1 bell pepper of any color, deseeded and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed roughly with the side of your knife
A glug of good-quality Spanish EVOO
Apple cider vinegar
Maldon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of marcona almonds

Garnishes: mini mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, olives, chopped boiled egg, hardboiled quail egg, herbs, croutons, Iberico or Serrano ham

Sources for ingredients in HK:
  • Bread - I love Po's Atelier, tucked away in a secluded, cozy corner of Sheung Wan. The fromage stick accompanying the gazpacho in the photo above is from Po's Atelier. 62 Po Hing Fong, Sheung Wan
  • Tomatoes  - I usually buy tomatoes still on the vine from CitySuper at IFC or Oliver's in the Prince's Building
  • Cucumber - buy organic, the firmest and freshest cucumber you can find. You can usually find decent ones at CitySuper
  • Bell pepper - most of the international grocery stores around town stock organic green, red and yellow bell peppers
  • Spanish EVOO - ok, so it doesn't have to be Spanish, but if you're making gazpacho, it just seems more authentic to use Spanish olive oil. You can find good variety at CitySuper
  • Apple cider vinegar  - I like the bio-dynamic apple cider vinegar from Mock Red Hill stocked at 360 in the Landmark
  • Maldon sea salt - you can find this at any of the gourmet international grocers (Oliver's, 360, CitySuper)
  • Marcona almonds - CitySuper stocks these. I suppose you could use regular almonds, but make sure they are skinless

Cut off the crust of the bread and soak in a bowl of water. Prick each of the tomatoes with a sharp knife, then put in a bowl and cover with boiling water for about 20-30 seconds. Drain, then peel the skins off the tomatoes. In a food processor or mixer, add the tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper and garlic. Top with the soaked bread, and pour in a generous glug of EVOO and a little apple cider vinegar. Go easy on the vinegar - you can add more later if you like it more tart. Blend until smooth, add salt and pepper to taste. If you really need to, you can add a pinch of sugar, but if the tomatoes are sweet, it will not be necessary. Add in the almonds and blend again until smooth. The color will be a cool orangeish pink, slightly creamy looking. Add more EVOO or vinegar to your liking and blend. Put into a bowl or jug and cover with saran wrap and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours.

I like to serve this topped with a little bit of chopped hardboiled egg or half a hardboiled quail egg, a bamboo stick skewer of sweet cherry tomatoes, mini mozzarella balls and olives, and a freshly baked crouton or fromage stick from Po's, as pictured above.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I'm baaaack

I know there's probably no one who checks this blog anymore, but I'm back. Since I last wrote over a year ago, I've been quite busy - getting engaged, changing day jobs, getting married, moving...

I've been in Hong Kong for over 2 years now and I feel like I'm just really starting to get it. It's a crazy, chaotic, wonderful, exasperating, local, international city, and at the end of the day, I just love it. It's also one of the best-eating cities in the world, and not just for Cantonese or other Chinese food.

I've been reviewing restaurants for Asia Tatler for two "seasons" now, and we just ended our season for 2012 (the season lasts from early June through mid/end October, when the editors and food writers try to review all of the restaurants that will go into the annual Hong Kong and Macau Best Restaurants Guide). After many calorie-laden, gut-busting meals, all for the sake of the greater good of course, I'm enjoying taking a break from fancified haute cuisine and cooking more at home. After visiting nearly every international grocery store, specialty food store and food pantry in Hong Kong, I now know where I need to go to get all of the ingredients I use when I cook or eat: the most authentic Korean kimchi, the best Japanese miso, organic rice, tahini, red quinoa, truffle oil, Maldon salt, fresh steaks, frisee, the best cheese, the sweetest oranges....

Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, there's no place for one-stop shopping - not if you want to find all the ingredients you need. But if you're willing to schlep your recyclable shopping bag (better for the environment, plus you save 50 cents, the charge per plastic bag in HK) to a few stores, you can find everything you need. Sometimes, you'll even come across a new ingredient or supplier you've never heard of because it's not imported to your own home country. The great thing about living in HK is that it's a port of trade - so I no longer buy EVOO that's bottled in the US since I can get infinitely better quality EVOO straight from the olive orchards in Italy or Portugal. And on the subject of EVOO, I've learned from my recent travels to France and Spain that you really need to have at least 4-5 varieties in your kitchen: a light one for basic cooking, a slightly fragrant one for finishing salad dressings, a few strong-tastings ones for dipping bread or eating straight. Olive oil can taste fruity, or nutty, or earthy, or pungent, or bland - you need all the different types in your kitchen to cook properly. But I digress.

I'll be blogging on this site more often with restaurant reviews as well as home recipes and tips on where to source ingredients in Hong Kong, so stay tuned!