November 24, 2010

At the Thanksgiving Table: Boston Baked Beans

How funny things can be oftentimes.

In January 2007, I mustered up my courage, waved goodbye to Malaysia, and boarded the plane for a 2 day-long journey to America — to a country I’d been dreaming of living in since I was in junior high.

During my 32 months in the land far away, I didn’t get to visit home once. For someone who had never traveled that far and been on her own for that long, I found myself struggling to adapt to the new physical environment. (An average of -15°C daily in the winter, for a season that lasts for 7 months a year. Imagine this, too: Sun rises at 9 a.m. and sets by 4.30 p.m. Vitamin-D deprivation? You bet!)

In the midst of coping with culture shock and academic requirements, I underwent depression during my first school term there, which took 7 kilograms out of me in 4 months. Time elapsed, and I was subsequently driven to constant homesickness. I’d daydream, missing my family and friends and everything at home that I took for granted. Every Lunar New Year, I’d be filled with deep remorse. “How I wish I’m home to immerse myself in the festivities … to celebrate New Year with my loved ones,” I’d say to myself as I sobbed.

Now that I’m home, I find myself in a similar situation. The tables are turned, however. I miss America, my “family” and friends and everything I took for granted there! With Thanksgiving drawing near, the sentiment gets even more overpowering! I’d daydream, reminiscing the moments I spent there.

Boston "Baked" Beans

In a winter, on one freezing Sunday afternoon, I was served with hot dishes and roast for lunch at my American family’s. Honestly, I can’t quite recall every item at the table except my American mom’s baked beans.

Ah, baked beans! They deserve more attention than being stereotyped as merely canned food. Call me naïve! I never thought that baked beans can be fixed from scratch! As simple as it may seem, for an Asian city girl who grew up with canned ones, my American mom’s baked beans blew me away. Hers tasted sweet, with a nice warm tone from the ketchup, molasses and mustard. I think she threw in quite a handful of finely diced potatoes, which helped thicken up the sauce. Nice!

Missing my American family and getting hit by my sudden cravings for good baked beans, I went around trying my luck in search of the right beans for my baked beans. Here’s what I’d learned: don’t use canned beans — use dried beans! (Duh!)

For my first batch of baked beans, to lessen my work and to save cost, I bought canned red kidney beans. A bad move? You betcha! The absence of that intense earthy flavor that characterizes most beans left me with discontent. I was unable to resign myself to the consequence my unwise decision had brought.

On the other hand, to cook and permeate them thoroughly with flavors, the beans are baked for very long hours. Alas, for a poor freshie like me, that very method of cooking isn’t fiscally feasible. My electric bill skyrocketed in the same month! (Ouch!)

My appetite for baked beans remained unsatisfied. To quell the uneasiness in me, I set off to make another batch.

What I have not told you, though, is I didn’t follow in my American mom’s footsteps. Learning from my mistakes, I referred to a couple of recipes and went my own way. Eventually, I was rewarded with a huge pot of Boston baked beans without much effort invested. Instead of in the oven, everything was done on the stove.

Boston "Baked" Beans

Boston baked beans are authentically American. They are so Bostonian now that the city itself has been nicknamed the “Beantown.” No ketchup is used. Instead, the beans are sweetened purely with molasses, and so they look darker. Other ingredients such as mustard, onion and cured pork help zest things up, too.

However, my Boston baked beans do have one thing in common with my American mom’s. Remembering the pinto beans I saw in her pantry, which almost always wind up as refried beans in her family’s tacos, I followed suit. So, ours are essentially baked pinto beans. Sounds Tex-Mex, huh? (Haha!)

How time flies! I’ve left America for 14 months! Continuing with my tradition of a virtual celebration, I’d like to share my Boston baked beans at the Thanksgiving table this holiday season.

Thanksgiving 2008 with my American sister Abbi and her family — my last Thanksgiving dinner in America

Just last weekend, I was lucky to have been able to catch up briefly with my American sister Keren. “We all miss you,” she said. “Serious?” I asked. “Of course, you’ve been part of our lives,” she answered. Hey, Keren! Ya know what, you just made Pei-Lin cry!

I’m no American, but the country and its people were part of my life for close to 3 years. I’m not physically in America anymore, but my thoughts are always with my folks back there. They always stood by me emotionally. It’s tough to imagine going through all the emotional setbacks alone back then.

This year, Thanksgiving falls on Nov 25. To all my “family” and friends back in the States, and to anyone who celebrates this special occasion, happy Thanksgiving! To all my readers, happy Thanksgiving too! Thank you for being supportive despite the fact that it’s getting harder and harder for me to write more frequently! You guys rock!

Boston "Baked" Beans

Boston Baked Beans
Adapted from “The James Beard Cookbook,” by James Beard
Originally published with The Arsenal, by Amanda Hesser
In The New York Times; on March 26, 2006

* I made a huge batch of the baked beans to freeze so I could bring to work for lunch throughout the week. I bet you’d scale down the recipe since most of you don’t have the habit of cooking in bulk. *

* Cooking is a live science. Adjust the seasonings to taste! *

6 cups dried navy beans
* I used dried pinto beans. *
Salt — to taste
3 large onions — peeled and washed to clean
400 ~ 500 g spareribs/ lean pork with rind on/ or salt-cured pork e.g. bacon
* Bacon gives the baked beans a pleasant smoky flavor. *

4 Tbsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper — or to taste
3 dried bay leaves
1/4 ~ 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups molasses
* Not blackstrap molasses! *

Salt — to taste
  1. Soak the beans in enough water overnight. After soaking, you should get about 12 cups of beans.
  2. Drain the beans the next day before cooking, and place them in a large pot that can be covered later. Add enough salt and enough room-temperature water to cover 2 inches above the beans. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Then with the lid on, lower the heat to simmer the mixture gently and cook till the beans are barely tender. Stir occasionally. Check every so often, adding more boiling water to keep the beans covered as necessary. Once the beans have gotten barely tender, drain well and set them aside.
  3. In the bottom of another large pot, which can be covered later, place the peeled onions — yes, whole — and the pork. Spread the beans on top.
  4. Mix together (A) and pour over the beans. Pour in just enough boiling water to cover the beans, and put the lid on. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, lower the heat to let the mixture simmer gently, till the beans are tender but not falling apart. Check occasionally, adding more boiling water to keep the beans covered as necessary.
  5. Uncover the pot, season the beans with salt. Continue to cook the beans, without additional water, till the sauce has somewhat thickened and caramelized. Monitor the mixture; or else, you may end up with a pot of dry beans!
  6. Serve immediately for hot or warm baked beans, or let cool to room temperature before serving if that’s what you prefer.

November 13, 2010

What Are Your Tiffin Moments?

Flavors. Colors. Memories. Tender Loving Care. They are all stacked in tiffin carriers, which have come to mean a whole lot to most Asians.
“Long before there were plastic bags and disposable containers, tiffin carriers were used to store and carry food. Tiffin carriers are stackable, multi-tiered containers that are looped to a handle with latches on the side. The separate containers allowed for different dishes to be stored separately, and it usually even comes with a plate.

“Originally from India, it was invented as the carry-all for workers to pack their lunch to take to the office.” (“Tiffin Moments,” November 9, 2010).

Of course today, tiffin carriers, which are normally made of stainless steel or enamel, can be found in many parts of Asia. That being said, convenience, functionality, and environmental-friendliness are what characterize tiffin carriers.

In Malaysian slang, “tapau” refers to take-out(s). Derived from local Chinese jargon “打包,” which literally means “to package,” the word can be used as both a noun and a verb. It’s been used widely by non-Chinese Malaysians as well. The word has made its presence felt at roadside stalls, hawker centers, diners and restaurants, fast-food chain outlets … Oh, well! Just about any corners of the country where delicious foods are sold to hungry customers who want to tapau!

Packing your home-cooked and -baked foods into tiffin carriers to bring elsewhere is also a means to tapau. Inspired by the tiffin carriers, Tupperware, a renowed international name for its toxin-free and eco-friendly products, is launching BYO (Bring Your Own) Ta Pau.

Resembling the good old tiffin carriers, Tupperware Ta Pau is a multi-tiered food carrier that:
  • comes with one microwaveable bowl, two dishes, a noodle holder, and a Grip-n-Go Carioller that’s designed to hold soup-based noodle and rice dishes;
  • is made with safe, microwaveable, non-toxic and non-carcinogenic materials;
  • does not release harmful chemicals to food or liquid contents.

Good news for all Malaysians in Malaysia! Don’t Call Me Chef, a food column that appears on the first Monday of every month in The Star, will be celebrating the tiffin carriers in the next issue, with the launch of Tupperware Ta Pau.

Tupperware products worth RM1,000, including Tupperware Ta Pau, will be given away to the senders of the three best entries for the below contest! What you have to do is:
  1. Share your tiffin-carrier stories with the nation, alongside recipes. You can talk about your memories of tiffin meals, or even a favorite dish you tapau for school or work;
  2. Cook the dishes as per the recipes, and capture them clearly through photography, with the meal in tiffin carriers, a bento or container, without the product name being visible. One photograph is required and must be of high resolution, i.e. at least 1,000 KB;
  3. Closing date is Nov 21, 2010. So, work around your schedule and email your entries to Don’t Call Me Chef at You can also snail-mail to:

    Don’t Call Me Chef

    c/o StarTwo
    Star Publications (M) Bhd.
    Menara Star
    15 Jalan 16/11
    46350 Petaling Jaya
    Selangor Darul Ehsan

The winning recipes will be featured in next month’s Don’t Call Me Chef!

A foodie? A kitchen enthusiast? A Malaysian in Malaysia? I urge you to be part of the event! Share your passion for food and culinary art with other fellow Malaysians!

When Ivy, an editor at The Star, informed me and other fellow Malaysian bloggers, including Joslynn, Zu and Sonia, about the tiffins contest, I could feel tinges of excitement in me! Ivy co-writes Don’t Call Me Chef with Jane of Marty Thyme and Veggie Chick of Nodesserts. She also runs the food blog The Hungry Caterpillar. Ivy, thanks for spreading the word out!

Ideas are coalescing in my head. I think I know what will serve my tummy well for work next week.

How about you? What are your tiffin moments?

November 10, 2010

The Tale of a Cat, a Dog and the Chocolate Muffin

In spite of the fact that I’m abjectly slow at blogging – and hardly brag about my love for chocolate, I’m actually a full-time chocoholic. A dark one to be exact: Only those that come with 70- to 85-percent cocoa content would please me inside out.

Sour Cream Banana-Chocolate Muffins

What’s more, I just realized that muffins and quick breads had never made their way to this journal of mine – even though they have been part of my baking repertoire for almost 3 years. In fact, besides bars and cookies and American biscuits, other quick breads and muffins were also my first bakes. (The American biscuit, just like the British scone, is considered quick bread.)

Perhaps, I’ve been taking these humble bakes for granted … that they just slipped right out of my mind. However, that’s not to say I don’t fancy baking them. As a matter of fact, I love these humble home-made goodies to bits. Nothing beats munching on a good muffin or a slice of quick bread for breakfast to kick-start the day! (I’m a breakfast person. And, I love morning sugar rush.)

Sour Cream Banana-Chocolate Muffins

Of all the quick bread recipes I’ve tried, these chocolate muffins win hands down. The chemistry took place on a carefree, laid-back college day of mine. As I hopped from one blog to another, these seductive muffins, which were featured on Florence’s blog, caught my eye. Sad to say, I never got around making these treats – till months later, when the recipe came to my attention once again. Curiosity killed the cat.

This particular chocolate muffin recipe calls for sour cream, which is something I don’t use regularly. At first, I worried about having to deal with extra sour cream prior to my flight back to Malaysia; however, my worries proved to be unnecessary. Sour cream complements soft-shell tacos well. My American family friends love their home-made tacos. (Note: These tacos are highly Americanized.) So, finishing up sour cream was easy-peasy.

I eventually bought a tub of sour cream. Last summer, just 10 days before bidding farewell to America for good, I whipped up close to a dozen of the chocolate muffins in my American mom’s kitchen.

Sour Cream Banana-Chocolate Muffins

Fresh off the oven, these rich, moist and intensely chocolaty muffins served their purpose well: Nine of us had them for dessert after lunch. Of course, we had them in moderation. I reserved three of the muffins for my photography session.

Snap! Snap! Snap! Just as everyone was taking a nap in the peaceful and quiet afternoon, I snapped away with my camera in the backyard, with the chocolate muffins posing diligently before my lens. After the few clicks on my camera, the moment I’d been waiting for finally arrived!

Sour Cream Chocolate Muffins
Once upon a time, we washed down some of these muffins with goat's milk from my American dad's farm. Yummy!

Getting all excited, I chuckled and maneuvered myself around swiftly and gently, trying not to make a din. I entered the house and returned my camera for safekeeping. “Nah, it’s just taking me a couple of minutes at most,” I thought.

“Geez, where are the muffins!?” I wondered. When I returned to the backyard, all that was left was a bare plate; the three dark musketeers disappeared! As I shifted my vision to the far left, I saw Buster, my family friends' pet dog, licking to “wipe” his mouth clean! He then sniffed the ground, licking here and there. I should have taken the warning given by my family friends seriously! That dog gobbled up three jumbo muffins in the blink of an eye!

You scratch my back, I scratch your back
Buster and his feline companions

That episode became the joke of the day. (My American dad laughed real hard!) We worried and suspected that the high cocoa content might do Buster no good. Ya know, chocolate kills dogs! It turned out there was nothing to worry about. Albeit getting old, Buster is still happily roaming on planet Earth. Now that I’m home, whenever I think back, I can’t help but to laugh about it. I usually end up yearning for the chocolate muffins, too!

And so, the once-familiar aroma, taste and texture were reproduced in my kitchen in Malaysia. As rebellious as I’ve always been, I tweaked the recipe. A few overripe local bananas found their way to the muffin batter, replacing the heavy cream. These exquisitely moist chocolate muffins rendered the chocoholic in me in submission.

Curiosity killed both the cat and the dog. In the end, satisfaction brought them back.

Sour Cream Banana-Chocolate Muffins

Sour Cream Chocolate Muffins
Adapted from Florence’s

Note: Florence has removed the recipe from her blog; therefore, I’m unable to link you to hers.

120 g all-purpose flour
15 g good-quality baking cocoa
½ tsp baking soda

25~35 g granulated sugar
50 g brown sugar
1 large egg – at room temperature
75 mL sour cream
45 mL heavy cream or milk
* I sometimes replace heavy cream or milk with mashed overripe bananas. Local (Malaysian) varieties are recommended, e.g. pisang emas, pisang tali, and pisang berangan. I’m sure these varieties are also available in the neighboring countries. *
55 g melted butter or neutral-flavored oil e.g. vegetable, canola, or corn oil
* I find that in comparison to those that are made with melted butter, muffins made with oil are and stay moister longer, especially when you are forced to prolong their shelf life via refrigeration. Imagine those who are living in a hot and humid climate all year round, including me. *

60 g bittersweet chocolate chips – or more, please adjust to taste
Enough bittersweet chocolate chips – for topping
  1. Grease regular-sized muffin molds. Alternatively, you can line the muffin molds with regular-sized paper liners. Set aside.
  2. Whisk (A) together in a mixing bowl; make a “well” in the center. Set aside.
  3. Whisk (B) together to combine, then pour into the “well” that you’ve just “built” in the center of the flour mixture. By hands, using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, fold the mixtures together, i.e. traces of the flour mixture have barely disappeared. Don’t overmix the mixtures; the batter should look lumpy. Halfway through the mixing process, stir in 60 g of chocolate chips. Make sure the chocolate chips are well dispersed in the batter.
  4. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin molds, dividing it up evenly. Each mold should be filled to about 80-percent full. To each of the batter-filled muffin molds, sprinkle some chocolate chips on top.
  5. Bake at 190°C for 25~30 minutes or till a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
  6. Remove the muffins from the oven and let stand in the molds for about 10 minutes before transferring to wire rack(s) to cool completely. Actually, you may devour the muffins while they are still warm or when they are cooled. It’s really a matter of personal preferences. Be sure to store them in airtight container, though.
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