June 25, 2010

Peanut Butter Crisscrosses for My Dads, and All Dads Alike: With and Without the Glutens

The turtle is back! And, she’s late for …

But, hey! Before I delve deeper into my thoughts, I’d like to let you know that I’m trying to catch up with all my fellow floggers and reply to all the comments and emails received. In the meantime, I’ve been plagued by migraine and hearing problem with my right ear. The latter pounced on me as a surprise, and I don’t know how it came about. As much as I try to stay positive, I’m worried. I just have that scary thought of having to live with an impaired eardrum for the rest of my life. I can’t bear to see this happening to myself right before I turn 23. *Sigh* Looking forward to my doctor’s appointment; I’m eager to learn about the reason behind. So, I hope you can empathize with me. I have to catch up with plenty of rest after work. I promise, I’ll keep myself updated with y’all. Here’s a big shout-out to all of you for the feedback and encouraging words I’ve gotten so far!

This post is a late Fathers’ Day tribute to the most important men of my life. If it weren’t for them, I can’t imagine how Pei-Lin would end up as today. It might still be a Pei-Lin, but it’s just not the Pei-Lin you’ve come to know of through this little journal.

I have two fathers. My very own dad has been my best friend since I first stepped into this world. Between these two buddies, of course, disagreement is inevitable. Beginning the age of 11 or 12, I’d have myself seated beside him, in front of our TV set, watching documentaries on the Chinese history and culture. Over the years, he let me discover that I actually bother to learn about the history and customs of different cultures. I discontinued this ritual when I entered college.

Nonetheless, the curiosity carries on; I gratify my nosiness through reading, cooking and baking different dishes. In fact, I’ve never been a science student; history, geography, English and Chinese are the papers I excelled at during my high school years. He’s a retired engineer, but I never inherit that “engineer gene” from him. Because he’s Chinese-illiterate, he ensured that I received 12 years of decent Chinese education so that I wouldn’t wind up like him. And, he bore the extra tuition fees solely for that. (I attended private Chinese school [馬來西亞華文獨立中學]. The free public education in Malaysia doesn’t recognize and offer comprehensive Chinese education. There, most of the subjects are taught in Bahasa Malaysia instead.) Even till now, this father-and-daughter team still admires the same politician, and it’s Lee Kuan Yew. (Every human isn’t born the same. So, please don’t come get us if you don’t share similar view.)

Lately, my dad has been questioning me, “What’d happen to you if I hadn’t granted your request of studying abroad?” Silence. Albeit feeling grateful, guilt and remorse would snatch me. He’d add, “What if I didn’t have the capability of fulfilling your dream?” Silence again. “Do you remember that unruly, demanding girl you once were?” (I still am, I think.)

All the self-reflection lately has made me realized that I’m very lucky. Throughout my college years, my dad never expected me to outperform academically. He’d feel content so long as I enjoyed a carefree college life. He makes me believe that my Le Cordon Bleu dream is alive, and that attending a pastry school at age 50 is never too late. I know I can never be able to repay him back fully, even with 40 years worth of salaries. Papa, thank you so much for the love, support and guidance you’ve been giving me. Thank you for letting me bake and cook up a storm every weekend. Thanks for lighting up my way as I wandered aimlessly over the years.

1988: Papa and little Pei-Lin. (Oh, no! The baby is salivating ...)

It’s just a matter of time when I’ll be flying across the Pacific Ocean, back to the friendly small town in north central Minnesota, to revisit my American dad and his family. The journey would take me 2 days by air. But it’s well worth the time, effort and money invested. I reminisce about those days I spent on Steve’s farm. I miss picking raspberries and currants with him. Some wild blackberries and gobs of sour cherries too, if we were lucky enough.

Amid the tall and prickly raspberry patch, I hesitated. But, the rubies in my hand were alluring. Steve hollered from the other side of the patch as he happily munched on his share of the berries – right off the bush, from his hand and into his mouth: “Eat ‘em! Boy, they are REALLY sweet!” All of a sudden, I forgot about the residing worm, bug and other "residents" within. As disgusting as it might sound, I stuffed a handful of the berries into my mouth. What a bliss! Sweet and juicy, burst full of flavor! That’s the fun part about berry picking, in a serene country far away from the city. Thanks for showing me the beauty of living a country life, Steve.

There isn’t a TV set at Steve’s. It’s filled with books instead. His family learns about other cultures by hooking up with international students like me. It’s all about the virtue of sharing. Just as they’re eager to share with us what the American culture is like, I’m just as excited to share mine! They’d opened me up to greater cultural diversity. His family had shown me how to share and love others. Steve, thank you for driving away that cold-heartedness in me.

(I do admit, though, I’m wary for fear of getting duped by others, especially when it’s so different in the culture I grew up in, where self-centeredness rules. Well, what to do?)

Back in May 2007. Steve working on his potato field, just before summer hit.

In Steve’s vocabulary, “boring,” “boredom,” “bored” are unheard of. He showed me that time is in our hands. It’s how we manage our time that makes the difference. These words woke me up from the misconception I once had. I’ve never complained about a boring life or that I’m bored since then. On the contrary, I think I’ve overloaded myself with too much that things are getting haywire. Time to negotiate and compromise. Haha! But, no worries. Steve, your teachings are safe with me.

Steve, with all the machinery and gadgets at his shop. He's the proud owner of a sharpening business. (I took this shot for one of my public relations assignments. Haha!)

There’re two things in common between the men of my life: nuts and simplicity. These two simple guys would go gaga over anything nutty. Both my dads are full-time nut nibblers. Peanuts, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts … and the list goes on. Hand them a bag of roasted nuts, they’ll be happy to do the honor for you.

Steve has a sweet tooth, which is typical of most American guys I’ve come to know of, while my own dad doesn’t, which is typical of most Chinese men I’ve come to know of. This difference bugged me initially. “Nah,” I thought to myself. “Let’s talk about peanut butter crisscrosses!” Heck, I myself have a sweet tooth anyway! Haha!

One of my first serious ventures into baking: flourless peanut butter crisscrosses. With just three ingredients -- or four, if you choose to add chocolate chips. Comes in an easy-to-remember formula. Recipe to follow at the bottom.

Can I call peanut butter America’s national food? My American family and friends would scoop heaped spoonfuls of peanut butter off from the jar. They’d then indulge themselves in the nutty gooeyness off from the spoon. Unsurprisingly, during my 3 years in the States, I acquired that habit too. Even now, I’d find myself licking peanut butter right off the spoon, without everyone else noticing.

(I was even taught that to cure hiccups, try eating peanut butter on its own. It’s that simple. Sounds like the sweetest and most pleasurable medication I’ve ever been prescribed to. Mmm …)

Peanut butter crisscrosses, an American classic, is Steve’s favorite. Whenever her daughter Keren bakes them, he’d help himself with a few pieces of the cookies – together with a glass of cold milk. For a simple guy like him, that’s a key to happiness. As for a savory person like my own dad, he still ate a few – simply because I baked these cookies. He then grumbled, “My blood-sugar level ...” (Ouch!)

Mind you, peanut butter crisscrosses are VERY sweet and downright nutty. For the sweet-toothed and peanut butter lovers alike, these cookies are soft and chewy. However, they have a tendency to fall apart in your hand if held too long. But, who cares! After all, for sweet snackers like Steve and I, these cookies are irresistible.

So, in a belated celebration of Father’s Day – and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, I adapted and made my peanut butter crisscrosses with a popular recipe from America’s most celebrated cookbook: “Betty Crocker Cookbook.” Keren, thanks for sharing the cookies and recipe with me!

Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
Adapted from "Betty Crocker Cookbook" (You can also retrieve the original recipe here, at BettyCrocker.com)

140 g all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

135 g dark brown sugar
80 g granulated sugar
113 g creamy peanut butter
57 g shortening
57 g unsalted butter -- softened

1 large egg -- at room temperature
Enough granulated sugar, for coating the cookies in
  1. Whisk (A) together, then sift once; set aside for use later.
  2. Cream (B) together till blended, then beat in the egg to incorporate.
  3. By hand, using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, blend the flour mixture into the creamed mixture till combined. Now, cover the cookie dough with cling wrap and refrigerate to chill till it's firm.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge; divide and shape it into 1¼-inch balls. I always use a metal spoon, i.e. the regular type we use for eating, to scoop up the dough. Then, I'd quickly and gently roll the small portion of dough in between my palms to make it round.
    Now, roll the ball of dough in granulated sugar to coat it and place on parchment-line baking sheet. Then, slightly flatten the dough by making a crisscross pattern atop with a fork.
  5. Repeat step #4 to the remaining dough. Leaving 3" in between the balls of cookie dough to allow for expansion.
  6. Bake at 190°C for 9~10 minutes or till the cookies turn light golden brown around the edges.
  7. Remove the cookies from the oven and let stand on the baking sheet(s) for 5 minutes.
  8. Transfer the cookies to cooling rack(s) and let cool completely. Serve and/or store in airtight container(s).
    * Well, Steve would still eat them up WARM. It's gooey and just as yummy, ya know ... *

Flourless Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
* I don't remember the source of the recipe. I got and adapted it from my American mom's old cookbook. This recipe doesn't make a lot. *

1 cup (227 g) creamy or crunchy peanut butter
1 cup (225 g) granulated sugar
* DO NOT cut down on the sugar; otherwise, you may risk ruining your cookies. Sugar contributes to the structure of the cookies, too, since these are flourless. With that said, these monsters are going to be REALLY rich and sweet. *
1 large egg -- at room temperature

Enough room-temperature water -- for dipping the fork in
Enough granulated sugar -- for dipping the fork in
Enough semi-sweet/milk chocolate chips -- for topping, optional though
  1. Mix (C) together to incorporate well.
    * I mix things up by hand, using a sturdy wooden spoon. *
  2. Divide by scooping the dough up by a teaspoonful for each cookie, and drop it onto parchment-lined baking sheet(s).
  3. Dip a fork in room-temperature water, then dip it in granulated sugar. Now, slightly flatten each of the dropped cookie dough by making a crisscross pattern atop. Whenever the fork starts sticking to the dough, dip it again first in water, then followed by sugar, and continue to flatten the dropped cookie dough slightly by making crisscross pattern atop.
    Stick some chocolate chips atop the cookies, if desired.
  4. Bake at 180°C for 9~10 minutes or till the cookies look golden brown.
  5. Remove the cookies from the oven and let stand on the baking sheet(s) for 2~3 minutes; transfer to cooling rack(s) to let cool completely upon serving or storing.

June 17, 2010

My Kind of Rice Dumpling Season and Cantonese Lemon Chicken 我的粽子季節和酸甜的西檸煎軟雞

I’ve been suffering from mild migraine this evening after work. But, I don’t simply bow down to that. Coming home, seeing my beloved family again, and being able to visit fellow bloggers can be such a blessing to life. I’m tired. Still, I feel motivated enough to march on with all the love and support I’ve been receiving.

On the Chinese calendar (農曆), the Fifth Day of the Fifth Month (五月初五) is when Chinese all over the world would observe the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節). This year, this meaningful day fell on June 16, which was yesterday. (Pei-Lin always likes to take her own sweet time. That’s why she’s so damn slow and late in everything. *Sigh*) When I was in elementary school, I remember I’d be told of such a legend. Well, I won’t go into detail as I can’t recall everything. In a gist, this was how the story went.

During the Warring States Period (戰國時代) of the ancient China, there was a patriotic scholar and politician who went by the name of Qu Yuan (屈原). He came from the state of Chu (楚國). He loved his country so much obviously; however, he held opinion that was the opposite of other fellow Chu politicians. Somehow, after all the glitches and whatnot, he got into serious conflict with other politicians. Some evil ministers became jealous of and thus framed him. So, he ended up getting fired and in an exile (for good). Throughout these years, he dedicated himself to literary work; however, he was not freed from the deep anguish, compassion and sorrow he felt for his fellow countrymen as he witnessed the downfall of Chu in the hands of those venal ministers. While he was disempowered from doing anything, he felt helpless and hopeless. Upon hearing the seize of Chu by Qin (秦國), the state which eventually brought the divided China under one ruling, Qu felt depressed and subsequently waded himself into the Miluo River (汨羅河) in the Hunan (湖南) province. The suicide took place on the Fifth Day of the Fifth Month of the Chinese calendar. (I've also heard that he jumped into the said river and ended his own life by drowning himself in the rapid, merciless current.)

My aunt's Malaccan Nyonya-style glutinous rice dumpling, homemade, with pork filling. Some of the glutinous rice used is tainted purplish blue with the butterfly pea flower (or bunga telang in Bahasa Malaysia).

So, we commemorate the great Poet on this day, which is now known as the Dragon Boat Festival. But, why are all the glutinous rice dumplings (粽子)? According to the Chinese folklore, the people worried about Qu’s body being eaten up by underwater creature. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I heard that the creature were turtles! Some said fish. Whatever that might be; unless, my memory is trying to fool me, which can be possible.) So, the people made and threw gobs of rice dumplings into the Miluo River to stuff the creature up real well. Now, that’s why we are stuffing ourselves up with rice dumplings during this time of the year.

This year, I had my first Dragon Boat Festival back home since I returned from the States last August. I personally think that as a Chinese, and to be a good mother and wife, I should learn how to make rice dumplings. Actually, I love doing so. I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up such skill while I was a college student in the U.S. as there’s no Asian grocer in that obscure little town I once lived in. Knowing that I’m now home, I called up one of my aunts and asked if I could be an apprentice. (我要上山拜師咯!)

My aunt lives in Malacca (or Melaka, 馬六甲), which is where my Teochew (潮州人) mom would call home. My goal of that southbound trip was to pick up the basics of wrapping rice dumplings. So, just 3 days ago, I took a 2-day annual leave and traveled for 2 hours down from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca. 

(Well, I also intended to spend quality time with my 70-year-old aunt, whom I last met during Lunar New Year. I’m glad I did! I had fun chatting and learning so much from her! Love you, Great Aunt 大姨媽! Oh, did I tell you it was also a sweet getaway from the city? It’s been ages since I last slept till 10-ish in the morning …)

“We shall make Cantonese pork-and-salted yolk rice dumplings,” I begged her. “No, we’ll stick to my original plan,” she replied. Think Malacca, think of the Baba and Nyonya (峇峇娘惹). We churned out close to a dozen of Nyonya-style rice dumplings (娘惹式粽子). With the surplus of marinated (long-grain) glutinous rice (長糯米), we turned the rest into Teochew-style savory rice dumplings (潮式鹹粽). According to my mom, these are known as “giam zang,” which is pronounced as “GHEE-ahm ZAH-ng” in the southern Chinese dialect of Teochew (潮州話).

No Cantonese pork-and-salted yolk rice dumpling (粵式鹹蛋豬肉粽) for me this year. Too bad, as a Cantonese (廣府人), this very dumpling is the one I grew up with. I simply love the bits of lard and meat amid the chewy stickiness. Mmm … But seriously, I’m not a fussy eater. I’m happy with just about any rice dumplings. At the end of the day, I happily gobbled down three Malaccan Nyonya rice dumplings. *Burp* (Of course, not in one sitting, I swear.)

After an evening of hands-on lesson and practice, to tell you that I’ve successfully picked up the skill of wrapping rice dumplings seems to be too early. My aunt has been wrapping rice dumplings for close to 20 years. She gave me golden advice before I departed: This is a skill that will take me years of practice, patience, trial and error to master. In fact, this is true in whatever we pursue. On top of that, she encourages me to observe and learn from others. She reminded me of not to expect an overnight success out of myself. Thank you once again, Great Aunt!

That’s about it for my Dragon Boat Festival experience this year. My family, especially my mom, have been pestering me to make rice dumplings since I got back. My mom loves her lye-water rice dumplings (鹼水粽) with either kaya or palm sugar syrup (sirup gula melaka). These rice dumplings, as the name implies, are treated with (edible) alkaline lye water; hence, the signature yellowish hue.

Though I have yet to officially wrap any rice dumpling that I can call my own, I’d like to share with you one of my all-time favorites: Cantonese-style fried chicken with lemon sauce (西檸煎軟雞). Well, don’t we all have some sort of reunion dinner on a special day like the Dragon Boat Festival?

The lemon chicken I made when I was still a college student in the States. I didn't use custard powder at that time as I couldn't source any in the States; hence, the dull color of the lemon sauce here.

Since I don’t get to have Cantonese rice dumpling this year, I’ll just rant on about something Cantonese. Haha! I have made this fusion dish a few times since my college days in the States. This classic Cantonese treat never fails to amaze me. It’s easy to execute; however, the following recipe is only for reference, which is typical of Chinese home cooking. Do note that the custard powder (吉士粉) is there to provide some flavor and that beautiful yellow golden color. So, don’t be too generous with it! Also, don’t cook the lemon sauce for too long as you may risk having the sauce thickened up way too much! (Or you’ll have lemon pudding for dessert instead! Haha!) Remember to remove the sauce from the heat the soonest bubbles appear. Stir or whisk the sauce, too, as you cook it. Last but not least, here’s a shout-out to Siukwan for sharing this fabulous recipe with us! 唔該晒小軍

Fresh-off-the-stove crisp fried chicken, coated in generous amount of sweet and sour lemon sauce. It’s that brief tangy spike, that citrus sweetness … that render you bursting with greater and greater appetite all at the same time! Pairing this ultimate sensation with the tender, succulent chicken, you’ve put yourself in finger-licking goodness! Yum!

I hope this post didn’t come too late for the Dragon Boat Festival. Still, even if it did, here’s to wish everyone a Happy Dragon Boat Festival! 在此恭祝大家端午節快樂!Hope you’ve had a great one, like mine!

Cantonese-Style Fried Chicken With Lemon Sauce 西檸煎軟雞
Adapted from Siukwan's

450 g chicken thighs and/or drumsticks -- washed to clean, then drained well and cut into smaller pieces
* I let the butcher cut up the chicken for me. I only did the cleaning and whatnot after I got back from the farmers' market. Don't remove the skin! For the health-conscious, this dish is perhaps not for you, unfortunately. *
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp granular chicken bouillon 雞粉 -- optional
Ground white pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp slightly beaten egg

Enough cornstarch, for coating the chicken pieces upon frying
Enough cooking oil, for frying the chicken pieces

1/3 cup (78 mL) water
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
* Don't even think of using bottled lemon juice! Fresh one DOES make a difference! *
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 Tbsp custard powder 吉士粉
1 tsp cornstarch
  1. Combine (A) together and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes or so.
  2. Once the chicken has been marinated, coat the chicken pieces with cornstarch thoroughly and evenly.
  3. In a wok/skillet/something similar, over medium heat, heat up a fair bit of cooking oil just enough to almost submerge the chicken pieces. Once the oil is hot enough, lower the heat slightly and fry the chicken pieces (半煎炸方式) till they are golden brown and cooked through -- turning the chicken halfway through the cooking process to fry and cook the other side too. Once the chicken is fried till golden brown, dish it out and drain off the excess oil. Then, transfer it onto a paper towel-lined plate (or something similar, as long as it's lined with paper towel). Set aside.
    When it comes to frying chicken, too high of a heat will have the outside of the chicken cooked too fast while the inside still remains, sort of, uncooked.
  4. For the lemon sauce, whisk (B) together to combine. Then, pour the mixture into a small saucepan/something similar, and bring it just to a boil over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat. Next, dump the fried chicken pieces into the sauce and toss to coat them up well. Dish out onto a serving plate.
  5. Serve the lemon chicken hot!

June 12, 2010

Bloggers' Meet-Up, Cookbook Addiction and 100-Percent Whole-Wheat Rolls

A lot of times, things just happen when you least expect them to – including friendships.

Like I said, I never thought blogging would be part of me. I never even thought blogging would bring me friends. REAL friends. Friends who share similar interest and passion. We don’t just interact in the cyber world.

It was a last-minute decision, after an exchange of emails. Last Saturday, we converged at The Curve, a humongous shopping mall just outside of Kuala Lumpur (K.L.) The six of us, including me, were:
Pei-Lin has three two push buttons in her. The green one is the “Talk and Play” button; the red one is the “Hush and Observe” button. Depending on the situation, I can go yadda without stopping. Or, I have to forklift my mouth just to spit out a few words. Dang, the green button was pushed real hard that Saturday! I found myself having a hard time trying to shut up! (It’s my temperament. I still love how the Chinese saying goes, “沉默是金,” which literally means silence is gold.)

Too bad, Reese had to leave earlier as she needed to pick up her daughter elsewhere. It was very nice of her to spend time with us amid a busy life. It was also very nice of Wendy and her family to drive all the way down from Kuala Kangsar to meet us up in K.L.

Reese, thanks a lot for giving me this cute stamp!

Wendy, thank you for the dried sweet osmanthus! (Sorry for the poor shot ...)

We ate, chatted and shopped. It’s so cool to have people sharing the fun together! After Reese left, the four of us – plus little Lyanne – went to Daiso and IKEA. All of us, except Tracie, bagged home some stuff. Though I left Daiso empty-handed, I wound up with six beautiful tumblers and a double boiler from IKEA! More verrines to come! I’m a sucker for verrines. Any glassed dessert in fact!

(My parents’ fridge and freezer seem to have implemented this no-vacancy policy. *Sigh* Now that you know why I’ve been shying away from chilled desserts and whatnot. I miss home-made ice cream … *Sob* I want my own home someday, with a fully equipped kitchen and a giant fridge and freezer! Working, saving up money and progressing toward that goal …)

After our raid on IKEA, Swee San and Tracie left. So, it was just me, Wendy and Lyanne. I’m sorry for that Wendy lost her cell phone at a public restroom while changing Lyanne’s diaper. No worries, Wendy! I know you’re going to get a better phone eventually. Your hubby may change his mind … Haha! Anyhow, thanks for letting me play with Lyanne! She’s is one easy baby to handle, seriously! I usually suck at babysitting. But with Lyanne? I’m sure I can handle a babysitter’s exam and perform with flying colors. *LOL* I’m starting to miss her now. Oh, no!

Actually, I meant to visit the Kinokuniya (bookstore) at KLCC after the meet-up since it was on the way home. Alas, I never made it there. That itch, that uneasiness continued to haunt me till Wednesday evening, when I said to myself, “Pei-Lin, that’s it!”

These books kept pestering me, even when I was at work. It was mentally torturing. As soon as 6 clocked in that Wednesday evening, I ran and took a bus ride to Kinokuniya. Finally, I got a hold of “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan and “Rose’s Heavenly Cakes” by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Phew, they were still in stock! Lucky me!

Image courtesy of Dorie Greenspan

I already have Greenspan’s “Paris Sweets,” which I purchased in the States over a year ago. I can tell you it’s one of the most utilized cookbooks out of my collection. I've tried and shared some of the recipes from the book, including this, this, this and this. So, I’m pretty confident that “Baking: From My Home to Yours” is just as good. Can’t wait to try out the recipes! The downside is that every ingredient is measured instead of weighed. *Sigh*

Image courtesy of Borders Australia

As for Beranbaum’s book, that wasn’t in my plan whatsoever till Monday evening, when I saw Faithy’s rendition of some of the Heavenly Cakes! I’d seen other Heavenly Cakes on quite a few blogs too, including Baking Library. I twat Faithy for advice on the book. (Money is hard to earn! *Sigh*) As long as the recipes are detailed and promising, I’m sold!

Image courtesy of Spruce TV

Nonetheless, I’m not going to talk about cakes this time around. Since I started working, baking cakes has been a luxury I only get to indulge in once every blue moon. Now, I cook and bake foods that are more “substantial” and “portable.” Bread is one of them.

At where I was born and bred raised, people are used to plain white bread that’s made with refined, bleached flour. Very unhealthy. People here seem to have a palate for super-soft and -fluffy bread. But ever since the encounter with my American family 3 years ago, my eating habits changed. My bread has to be home-made – and for the most part, whole-wheat.

My American mom Bonnie's home-made whole-wheat bread. She buys wheat from the wheat growers nearby and grinds the wheat to get her own fresh flour.

My American family and I advocate anything home-made and whole wheat. I love those fibers and brown specks. I adore that deeper brown tone. I like that sweet nutty whiff given out by freshly baked whole-wheat bread! Whole-wheat bread is wholesome and deliciously plain on its own!

Of course, I’d also bake white bread. Sometimes, it’s because I run out of whole-wheat flour. Sometimes, I just want to give my food a little change. (Crazy!?) But, rarely do I put myself in such position. I don’t fancy the feeling of having white bread literally melting in my mouth. (Neither do I like additives-loaded store-bought bread. Just skim through my Flickr photostream, you’ll know what I mean.)

As per Tracie’s request, here’s the recipe for that 100-percent whole-wheat rolls I posted onto Flickr a month ago. (She loves whole-wheat bread, too.)

One hundred-percent whole-wheat!? You bet! I won’t say they were tender. But these rolls were sure soft, a quality I wouldn’t expect much out of home-made whole-wheat bread, especially when it’s 100-percent whole wheat. And, the softness stayed for 3 days! I guess we can attribute this moisture retention to the whole-wheat sponge (全麥中種), which is part of the recipe. The oats topping gave the rolls a finishing touch by adding more texture, too! Yum!

Just like me, if you’re looking for wholesome, fibrous home-made bread … a bread that’s soft enough but still has that something for you to chew on, this recipe is for you. After all, how can one go wrong with the sweet nutty aroma of whole-wheat bread!

100-Percent Whole-Wheat Rolls With Oats Topping 麥片麵包
Makes 5 rolls
Adapted from "100 Bread Recipes by Madam Meng," by Meng Zhaoqing    摘自《孟老師的100道麵包》。孟兆慶 著

190 g whole-wheat bread flour
4 g instant (dry) yeast
125 g water -- at room temperature will do since we're using instant yeast here, but be sure that the yeast is fresh

110 g whole-wheat bread flour
25 g caster sugar
2/3 tsp salt
15 g milk powder
65 g water -- at room temperature

10 g unsalted butter -- cubed and kept cold till use

15 g egg white -- at room temperature
* I used slightly beaten whole egg. Couldn't be bothered about separating the egg. *
100 g quick oats
  1. For the whole-wheat sponge (全麥中種): mix (A) together till a dough forms, then cover the dough will cling wrap and set it side to proof for about 2 hours.
  2. Knead (B) altogether into the whole-wheat sponge, keep kneading till everything is incorporated and till you've gotten a smooth dough.
  3. Now, knead the cold butter cubes into the dough till everything is incorporated. Continue kneading the dough till it's smooth, supple and elastic.
    Place the dough into an oiled bowl, then cover with cling wrap and set aside to proof till it's doubled in size.
  4. Deflate the dough and divide it into five equal portions. (I weighed mine.) Round up each portion of the dough, be sure to pinch them up to seal well. Then, cover them with cling wrap and set aside to let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Take each portion of the dough, roll it into a 15 centimeter-long oval shape. Then starting from one end, lengthwise, roll the dough up tightly to get a cigar-like shape. Fold in both the narrow ends for a bit, then pinch the seams to seal the dough up real well. Place the shaped dough on a greased/parchment-lined baking sheet.
    Repeat the same to the remaining dough. When you're done with the shaping process, cover the shaped dough with cling wrap and set it aside to proof till almost doubled in size.
  6. Prior to baking, brush each of the rolls with egg white and then sprinkle some quick oats over it. Now, take a pair of scissors, position it 45° above the surface of the dough, and make three snips across the dough. Repeat the same to the remaining dough. Then, cover the dough up with cling wrap and let proof for another 8~10 minutes.
  7. Bake the rolls at 170°C for about 20 minutes till cooked through and look golden brown.
  8. Remove the rolls from the oven and immediately transfer them to cooling rack(s); let cool completely before serving and/or storing.

June 4, 2010

Happy Belated First Blogoversary and My Love Affair With Chewy Cookies

Since I was child, I’ve been a late bloomer in so many things. I’m always slow. So slow that I was supposed to wish my little journal a happy first birthday last Monday. Heck! That didn’t happen. If you’ve been reading up my ramblings here, you know what excuses reasons I’ll be citing, eh?

(Here she goes again … Jam your ears if you wish to …)

Yes. I’ve been worn out by job. I need to catch up with more sleep. A panda is typing away on the keyboard now. As I drive to work, I’d mutter to myself, “Time to go to hell again.” After the grumble, a LONG sigh follows. “Time to fight for my life till 6 p.m.!” I guess that’s work life; we suffer to earn a living. (Duh!)

Let’s blow all the gloomy clouds away. No more complaining. This entry means a lot to me. I brainstormed. I racked my brain. I couldn’t decide on which direction to take to write. Too emotional. Uffda!

So, be warned. As usual, I’m long-winded – except this time, I’ll be unusually long-winded – because Dodol & Mochi turned 1 on May 24! And I was super-late for that! Ugh!

Now, how and why did Pei-Lin start blogging?

Sad to say, I was reluctant to blog during my college years. I thought of blogging. But, I was quick to shook off the idea too as I was busy with school, in the kitchen and behind the camera. In fact, I started off journaling my culinary adventure way earlier through photography. I began sharing my (food) photos publicly on Flickr in January 2009, on which I’ve met and learned a whole lot from amazing food photographers and stylists.

One of my earlier food photos: dorayaki (銅鑼燒), filled with home-made azuki bean paste, from January 2009. This is at least presentable enough to go public. Don't even try to imagine how those preceding food pictures of mine looked like! They were an eyesore!

I was a journalism student. Now, I write to earn a living. (Yes, I write pretty much 24/7.) On top of that, English is my second language. I write to express myself and am loving it. Those were some of the reasons why I chose to blog. No doubt, blogging has helped improve my writing through reflection, organization and practice.

At the same time, I wanted to be heard by the Food Blogosphere. I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. Shortly after my graduation last year, I started Dodol & Mochi on May 24. Surprisingly, blogging has also led me to new and unexpected friendships! We even had bloggers’ meet-up, which seemed surreal!

Credit also goes to the following people, who had inspired and encouraged me to blog:

My American family, whom I will be sharing with you more later in the post.

My own biological family. They were wondering about the privacy issue at first. It hasn’t bugged me anyway. This is my space, and I do whatever that pleases me here.

My long-time blogger-and-baking friend You Fei, of loving baking. I think our friendship sparked off in this little conversation.

My Flickr buddy Leslie, a.k.a. kiwiasia. She kept wondering why I didn’t have a food blog in the first place … Hahaha! Anyway, she shares really interesting photos from her travels and kitchen experiments! Thanks, gal!

Last but not least, it was these words that had actually gotten me into the Push-Button Publishing deal. Thanks, Molly of Orangette!
“My best advice is just to write. Write honestly about whatever moves you. Start a blog, keep a journal – whatever works for you. Just keep writing, and have fun with it.”
As with how Pei-Lin started to bake and cook – and to take pictures of her foods frantically …

Before I went to the U.S. to pursue my undergraduate education, I was a true culinary idiot. I was that city girl who lived a fast-paced life; who tried to mold herself after a career woman. I couldn’t fry an egg. I’d flee away at the sight of a knife. I’d be terrified by the funny vibration given by a running hand mixer. I’d be overwhelmed by the “deafening” clunk made by all the pots and pans.

The environment can be a powerful force. It forces a change in you, somehow and unknowingly. My psychology professors told me that human is a composition of 60 percent nurture and 40 percent nature. Now, I’m a firm believer in that. When I look back, I’m glad that I decided to study abroad. I’m very thankful for this very path I took, for the American dream I’d been grasping onto since 14.

I landed on the American soil in the coldest month of the year. On January 16, 2007, I found myself shivering in the freezing northern Minnesota, in the place I called home for the past 3 years. (Two years and 8 months to be exact – and never traveled home even once.) During my first 7 months there, I was suffering from severe culture shock and depression. Most of my time was spent burying in the sea of homework and textbooks. But because I needed to eat, I forced myself to cook. Back then, food was randomly fixed and was as sloppy as it could get. I called it “trash-can food.”

(Growing up in an Asian culture, we’re taught to study – nothing but study – since young. It’s stereotypical, and might be inapplicable to some. Nonetheless, it’s a fact. The society here looks up on you when you excel academically, which is, I think, saddening.)

The first revelation came to me in March that same year. I was burning up books during spring break, locking myself up in the dorm. Then, my dearest American family convinced me and invited me out to their place, to spend quality time together for a day. (At that point, I was still trying to “figure them out” and to build trust in them.) I gave a reluctant “yes.”

Little did I know my family was going to cook and bake up a storm for all invitees. “Home-cooked food!” I exclaimed. “It’s been ages since I had good food!” Though I can’t recall what were served, I know for sure pies were on the menu. When I saw my good friend-cum-sister Keren preparing her pie dough, I got very curious. I stepped up and offered to “help” her.

Keren W. baking chocolate chip cookies

I fumbled. I fretted. I found myself having hard time rolling out the dough. I shrieked as I witnessed myself tearing up the dough (by accident). Keren came over and patched up the pieces. “Oh, you can actually mend torn dough this way!?” I asked. Bewildered, I felt enlightened at the same time. There, these revealing moments seeded a passion in me for baking and cooking.

That was me rolling that pie dough in March 2007. I'm glad I asked Keren to help take a photo of me in action -- and as I fumbled!

The addiction kept growing. In the summer that same year, I partook in a wedding. As usual, the nosy Pei-Lin offered to “help out” in the kitchen. I baked who-knows-how-many pans of brownies to feed a hungry horde – from Betty Crocker brownie mix. Shortly thereafter, I began a baking frenzy when I stayed on my family’s farm to help them out with the chores … till school resumed in the fall.

The brownies I baked at the wedding. I'll never bake from mix again ...

I moved out from the dorm to live in an off-campus apartment. My pantry was almost empty; I started out without much. The first I owned was an old muffin pan I got from Mrs. Ula Hoffer, my American grandma who was about to throw her antique away. (Her first name is pronounced as YOO-Lah.)

From left to right: Grandma Ula, Sunil and Emily. And, I got to bake the brownies for Sunil and Emily's wedding. 

On one chilly fall night, I saw a few cardboard boxes sitting at my apartment doorstep. It was close to 10 when I reached home from an evening class. Though cold, exhausted and hungry, I felt exuberated and dubious at the same time.

As I scrounged through the boxes, I found a cute little home-made birthday chocolate cake covered in peanut butter frosting (yes, that was my dinner, as pictured above), some sweet home-grown tomatoes and pumpkin – plus, gobs of baking ingredients: baking soda, baking powder, chocolate chips, baking cocoa and brown sugar … just to name a few.

Last but not least, a handwritten note that read, “Happy Birthday!” I knew immediately these were the birthday presents from my American family. I couldn’t help but burst into tears. It was just heart-warming.

And so, my first serious culinary venture came about when I turned 20 – that very birthday I just told you. I decided to give myself a birthday present, something home-made. Nothing fancy. Just some good old chewy chocolate chip cookies.

For my 20th birthday, from 3 years ago ...

Before I landed in America, I only knew of crisp and crunchy, or short and crumbly cookies. Now, I’ve embraced “soft,” “chewy,” “cakey” and “fudgy” in my lexicon for cookies. They are a fundamental part of the American gastronomy. I dare telling you that the American experience is incomplete if you haven’t tried the chewy cookie or fudgy brownie.

Trial #2: These M&M cookies dried up faster, and weren't as flat as I'd wanted them to be.

And the mysteries persist. Since I started baking, I’ve seen people either declaring they’ve found THE recipe or are still searching for THE one. I’m no exception.

Trial #2: These chocolate chip cookies dried up faster, and weren't as flat as I'd wanted them to be.

A good cookie – by the American standard – should be just crisp around the edges while remaining soft in the center. And very sweet, too – at least, for many Chinese. (I have a horribly sweet tooth, by the Chinese standard.) I’ve tried oodles of recipes, which claim to make you great chocolate chip cookies that are soft and chewy. Nonetheless, I got disappointed each time.

Some called for corn syrup, an ingredient I detest using. Some ended up too soft, so soft that they fell apart in my hand. Some were too cakey to my liking. Some dried out too fast. Some hardened up as they cooled, calling biscotto a close cousin of theirs.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been in a chewy-cookie mode. Been churning out chewy cookies to fix my sugar craving. One day, that adventurousness in me subdued. I thought, “Heck, what’s the point of trying here and there for the same thing without a guarantee to success!?”

Trial #1: Made with the recipe, unchanged, from the cookbook "Joy of Cooking: Christmas Cookies." These were disappointment. The cookies just fell apart the moment I held them. That was why I decided to photograph them this way ...

Straying from one recipe to another, I eventually returned to Betty Crocker, again. Not Betty Crocker cookie mix. It’s that classic chocolate chip cookie recipe from “Betty Crocker Cookbook,” a cookbook that many American cooks and bakers grow up with, including my American sister Keren. Because I felt like I’ve known the recipe for years … too familiar that I felt empowered to tweak it. (Sorry, Betty!)

(By the way, General Mills is based in Minnesota. So, does that make Betty Crocker Minnesotan? Hahaha! Anyway, there ain’t such lady. Betty Crocker is just an invented cultural icon and a brand name from America. I’d been fooled by Ms. Crocker for almost 2 years!)

“Dude, where’s the oats!?” I thought. The light bulb in me lit abruptly as I was commuting back home from work. Oats is a healthy answer to the chewy question that had been bugging me. I pulverized organic rolled oats to get ground oats. Instead of light brown sugar, I used dark brown sugar. In Malaysia, I still can’t find the moist brown sugar I once knew in the U.S. What we have here is dry, brown granulated sugar. (I think in British English, it's called "golden caster sugar.") I’ve been using organic molasses sugar, which is moister than the local one but drier than the one in the States. So, I increase its moistness by adding molasses. It may seem odd; however, it’s been working for me so far.

The high sugar content contributes to the chewiness and softness of the cookies. So is the molasses. It also prevents gluten from developing too much. So, don’t cut down on the sugar. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, perhaps, chewy American cookies just aren’t your thing.

As with most American recipes, whereby such measuring units like cup, tablespoon and teaspoon are used, all the chewy cookie recipes I've come across are indeed written this way. But to ensure accuracy and consistency, as usual, I weighed the ingredients (in metric units). I don't quite fancy the idea of measuring ingredients by volume because it's not really accurate.

I’m very happy to say that, after two trials, these cookies of mine came out slightly crisp around the edges while staying soft and chewy in the center. These qualities kept for 3 days, at least for me, in an airtight container. Thanks to the ground oats and dark brown sugar! The cookies don’t crumble in your hands, too! I could actually pick them up and hold them in my hands to chew on. Oh, besides the good old chocolate chips, I also made some with M&Ms for a real American twist! Add some chopped walnuts for a crunch, if you wish to. With some tweaking here and there, I think my quest for THE recipe can be put to a halt, as for now.

Chocolate Chip-Walnut/M&M Cookies -- Chewy American-Style
Adapted from "Betty Crocker Cookbook" (1980 ed.) and "Joy of Cooking: Christmas Cookies," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker

50~60 g walnuts, roughly chopped -- optional, for chocolate chip cookies; not for M&M cookies
* To toast the walnuts, bake them at 150°C for 13~15 minutes. Then, remove the nuts from the oven and let cool completely in the baking sheet before using. *

180 g all-purpose flour
100 g ground oats
* I processed 100 g (organic) rolled oats in the food processor to pulverize them. Some coarser bits will remain. So, no worries. Quick oats should work just as well, too. *
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda

1 egg -- at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

95 g granulated sugar
120 g dark moist brown sugar
* I can't find moist brown sugar locally. So, I used 110 g organic molasses sugar and 10 g molasses. Don't use blackstrap molasses! It's too strong for these cookies! *
75 g unsalted butter, softened
75 g shortening

170 g semi-sweet chocolate chips / 120 g M&Ms
* I actually eyeballed the quantity when it came down to these ingredients -- including the walnuts. It ain't hard, eh? *
  1. Whisk (A) together and sift once, dump the coarser bits of the oats into the mix too; set aside till use later. Then, lightly beat (B) together. Set aside.
  2. Cream (C) together till light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the egg-vanilla mixture to combine.
  3. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir in the flour mixture by hand. Halfway through the mixing process, stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts, or M&Ms. Mix things up to incorporate -- ensure that the morsels get distributed evenly in the dough toward the end of mixing.
    * After I'd fully incorporated the flour mixture into the creamed mixture, I divided the dough in half. One-half went with chocolate chips and walnuts whilst the other half went with M&Ms. *
    If you prefer to work with a firm, less-sticky dough, you may now cover the cookie dough with cling wrap and send it to chill in the fridge till it's firm.
  4. You may also opt to bake the dough immediately after the mixing process. For each cookie, drop the dough by one tablespoonful onto parchment-lined baking sheet -- spacing 2 inches apart in between the dropped cookie dough as the cookies will spread. To ensure perfect-looking round cookies, I purposely shaped each of the dropped cookie dough into a rough-looking ball with two spoons. Messy though.
    For chilled, firm cookie dough: one tablespoonful for each cookie, scoop the dough out with a spoon. Then, working quickly in between your palms, roll the dough into a ball and place it onto parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough -- spacing 2" in between the balls of cookie dough as the cookies will spread.
  5. One sheet of cookie dough at a time, bake at 180°C for 8~10 minutes or till the cookies look brown around the edges while the center looks somewhat golden in color -- and a little underdone, too. The cookies will spread during baking.
  6. Remove the cookies from the oven and let them stand on the baking sheet for 3~4 minutes. Now, transfer the cookies to cool on the cooling racks completely.
  7. Repeat step 5 and 6 with the remaining cookie dough.
  8. Serve or store airtight.

Once again, a Happy Belated First Birthday to Dodol & Mochi -- my baby, my canvas. Life's has been getting insanely busier and crazier than ever! I hope I'll still be able to keep my thoughts and words flowing here -- and to share with you the ups and downs of my kitchen experiments. Oftentimes, I do feel exhausted though. Still, here's a big thank-you for reading and visiting my journal! Do you know a comment or an email from you can actually lift me up, especially after a bad day at work? Thank you! Here's a monster cookie just for you!

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