December 24, 2010

This Christmas, Remembering a Long-Lost Friend and Her Mom’s Cookies

Pastelitas de Boda (Mexican Wedding Cakes, a.k.a. Russian Tea Cakes or Pecan Butter Balls): Vanilla (Plain) and Matcha Flavored

My days in the U.S. were marked by both the sweet and the bitter. I remember this particular episode vividly. It was in the late summer of 2007.

The university ground saw a sudden influx of students; there were the new and the returning ones. After a 3-month-long summer break, the campus came to life with all the hustles and bustles rolling around.

It was the first week of a brand new term. Fellow students were thrilled to see their friends again. They hugged and were busy visiting with each other. Of course, how could I not be caught up with the buzz!

Coincidentally, it was during that summer in which I picked up baking as a hobby. I was (and still am) a novice in the kitchen. Knowing that Molly, a good American friend of mine, was shifting back for school, I decided to chitchat with her in the dorm and bring her some freshly baked zucchini bars. (I moved out of the campus just before the summer break.)

These are the zucchini bars, one of my very first bakes, from August 2007.

Molly had shaggy auburn-blonde hair and dreamy turquoise eyes. Born and raised in Bigfork, a small Minnesotan town with a population of under 500, she was one of the most amazing people I’d ever met. Yet, our friendship didn’t hit right off.

I couldn’t remember how it all began. One thing for sure, though, is that we met in the same class and it took us quite an exchange of words before we finally got out of the shell. That instant rectified my false perception of her forever. Her mighty dose of friendliness and curiosity to learn about different cultures blew me away! That might explain why she was actively involved in the university’s international students’ organization!

Albeit busy unpacking her belongings and cleaning up her new dorm room, I was still greeted with open arms by Molly and her parents. Her parents left not too long thereafter to attend an event in another town nearby. Nevertheless, the two of us had tremendous fun chatting away while getting to know each other better. The afternoon came to an end in a flash!

Molly was noshing on my zucchini bars as she spoke of her fond memories from Bigfork. “My mom is famous for her Russian tea cakes,” she said. “She never fails to whip up batches of the cookies on special occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas!”

Boy, I could sense the excitement in Molly! “Ya know what, I shall bring you some on my next trip back home,” she added. And she kept her promise! I had the honor of trying her mom’s Russian tea cakes! These morsels were divine!

Pastelitas de Boda (Mexican Wedding Cakes, a.k.a. Russian Tea Cakes or Pecan Butter Balls): Vanilla (Plain) and Matcha Flavored

Buttery. Nutty. With an enchanting kiss from the sweet vanilla. Russian tea cakes, or Mexican wedding cakes (Pastelitas de Boda), are made into the form of a near-perfect sphere. The fine bits of toasted pecans within add a lovely crunch to the melt-in-your-mouth texture of these cookies. Mmm … Moreish!

Because of Molly and her mom, I got to know of the Russian tea cakes and have been associating the cookies with the holiday season. And because they are coated in layers of powdered sugar, their snowy looks reinforce that Christmassy connection in my head further.

Once in a while, I’d be missing these cookies. At this time of the year, the nostalgia hits me even harder. With Christmas approaching, I decided to bake a big batch of Russian tea cakes to drive away the melancholy in me.

While I’m somewhat loyal to the real McCoy, I’m also partial to fusion food. When I saw the matcha Russian tea cakes by Wendy, a Hong Kong baker based in Montréal, I knew I had to incorporate the East into the West. I just had to.

Pastelitas de Boda (Mexican Wedding Cakes, a.k.a. Russian Tea Cakes or Pecan Butter Balls): Vanilla (Plain) and Matcha Flavored
Russian tea cakes. Those in beige are the original ones while those in dark green are the matcha ones.

There’s a confession I have to make: My matcha Russian tea cakes were pampered with a heavy dose of matcha goodness. The cookies bore a strong milk-tea flavor. I felt like as if I was sipping on thé vert matcha au lait!

Now that my nostalgia has been remedied. Albeit feeling better, withheld deep inside me is remorse … about something that I can never be forgiven of.

I took Molly for granted. I’ve completely lost touch with Molly, someone I could have called friend for life … had I put in more effort and time in watering and growing our blossoming friendship. She introduced me to the Russian tea cakes. She showed me another facet of the American way of life and thinking: the openness and eagerness to experience the new and the different. I admire and respect her for that. I truly miss her.

This post is dedicated to Molly, her family and her mom’s Russian tea cakes. This post is also my entry in the Christmas giveaway, as hosted by Swee San of The Sweet Spot.

Christmas, just like any other major festivities, comes by once a year without fail. Nonetheless, one shall never take what’s given for granted, especially the people and things around you … for that tomorrows are unforeseeable. Don’t become another Pei-Lin. Don’t ever let go of another Molly.

Merry Christmas!

Pastelitas de Boda (Mexican Wedding Cakes, a.k.a. Russian Tea Cakes or Pecan Butter Balls): Vanilla (Plain) and Matcha Flavored

Russian Tea Cakes: The Original and the Matcha Flavors
Adapted from “Joy of Cooking: Christmas Cookies,” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker

57 g pecans

114 g unsalted butter — softened
1/8 tsp salt
25 g powdered sugar — sifted
* 1 tsp vanilla extract

** 142 g all-purpose flour — sifted

*** 14 g or enough powdered sugar — sifted, for coating the cookies
  1. Toast the pecans by baking them at 150°C for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Chop the cooled pecans into fine bits and set aside.
  2. Cream together (A) till fluffy and well-combined. Mix in the finely chopped pecans, then followed by the flour, till evenly incorporated.
  3. Pull off pieces of the dough and roll in between your palms into generous 1-inch balls. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet(s), spacing 1¼” apart.
  4. Bake at 180°C for 12~15 minutes or till faintly tinged with brown. Transfer the sheet(s) to wire rack(s) and let the cookies firm up slightly, for about 5 minutes. Next, roll the warm cookies in some powdered sugar till well coated. Now, transfer them to wire rack(s) to cool thoroughly.
  5. Roll the cooled cookies in some powdered sugar once again till well coated. Serve and/or store the cookies in an airtight container.

For matcha Russian tea cakes:

* Reduce the vanilla extract to ½ tsp
** Combine the 142 g all-purpose flour with 20 g matcha powder; sift before use
*** Combine the 14 g powdered sugar with ¼~½ tsp matcha powder; sift before use. However, the suggested ratio is for reference only; therefore, please adjust to taste.

December 13, 2010

My Tiffin Moments: When Traditions Evolve With Time

It was one of those tiring weekday evenings after work. The moment I finished reading Ivy’s email, excitement gushed through within me.

Memories flashed back, as if I was hiding in one corner of the dining area, witnessing my mom packing food into her tiffins the night before so she could bring to work the next day. I could faintly recall how old I was, though.

One thing for sure: For lunch, my mom almost always had a meager portion of cooked brown rice, some leftovers such as a vegetable stir-fry and a slice of fried mackerel. Occasionally, she would treat herself to the salt-baked chicken bought from the night market earlier.

After completing my routine workout within the neighborhood, I immediately ran to my mom and asked, “Mama, do you happen to keep the tiffins?” Without hesitation, she nodded. “Where would they be?” I investigated further.

Lately, my family relocated and has barely settled down. The new kitchen is still rather messy. With the instructions given, I rummaged through the wet-kitchen cabinet. “Bingo,” I exclaimed to myself. “I found ya!” To my surprise, there are not one but two sets of tiffins in our house. They are made of stainless steel and bear a very simple design.

There is a confession I have to make, though, and that is, I fail to preserve my mom’s practices — if at all. Because my interest in culinary art was founded during my college days in the States, when it comes to the kitchen, I do not resemble my mom. I have always been an advocate of multiculturalism. My mom, on the contrary, has always been a proponent of traditionalism.

Albeit an ocean apart, my American family is still influencing my culinary practices and eating habits. They are compassionate, friendly folks who are eager to befriend with people from around the world; who are curious about different cultures; who would love to try out new things, including food. I adopted these practices and have not looked back.

Chinese New Year 2007
February 2007: My first Chinese New Year in the States, with my American family and friends, as well as other international students

Not only did they let me discover my love of cooking and baking, my American family also brought me into the world of American country cooking. I, on the other hand, introduced them to Asian and French food. (I went crazy about the latter at that time, particularly, desserts and pastries. Oh! Have I told you they also make their own kimchi?)

Anna, one of my American sisters, made dolmas once and brought some along for us to try. The dolma is a kind of stuffed vegetable dish, which normally has a filling of cooked rice, ground meat, vegetables and grains, herbed and spiced and wrapped in grape leaf. Her Iraqi neighbor taught her family about the dish.

The Edwards and Henry the Dog
Summer 2007: Anna with her family and pet dog

I was trying to decide on what to fill the tiffins with, and that scene seized my attention.

Since I returned home a little over a year ago, I have noticed that there is a sizable population of Middle Easterners and North Africans in Kuala Lumpur. Before I left Malaysia 3 years ago, that was not the case.

My new neighborhood, which is close to the city’s “Korean Quarter,” is also housing quite a number of Middle Eastern families and diplomats. In the evening, as I jog in the streets, I can see them spending quality time together as a family, be it through playing badminton or taking a walk before dinnertime. In fact, the house on my right is rented to a Middle Eastern family. Needless to say, it has become easier for me to buy foodstuff from Middle Eastern grocers.

Part of my new neighborhood, in Kuala Lumpur, ...
The part of my new neighborhood from which you can see the Kuala Lumpur Tower (L) and Petronas Twin Towers (R)

To appreciate and learn about different cultures is a way to improve and advance, especially in a multicultural society like Malaysia. In the midst of preserving my own root, my life experience has molded me into a melting pot of cultures. My American family has set a good example for me to learn from. I like the idea of learning about cultures through food.

Remembering Anna, her Iraqi neighbor and her dolmas, I was inspired and concluded that tiffins are not just for the usual dishes my mom prepares. Tiffins can be opened up to endless possibilities amid an influx of new cultures. I was curious about the food brought in by these new immigrants. So, I decided to cook North African dishes for the first time. I made tagine and couscous.

The tagine got its name from the heavy clay pot traditionally used to prepare this dish. It involves an interesting blend of spices and ingredients, which lends interesting and complex flavors to the hearty stew. As I prepared the tagine under the guidance of the recipe, I learned a lot. The cooking process was an eye opener. So is the couscous, which was something I would consider unfamiliar before that.

Tagine (Image courtesy of Mediterranean Diet)

I packed the tagine and couscous to work the next day and shared them with my colleagues. I wanted to let them experience something new. We loved the fluffy and savory couscous. We were fascinated by the multidimensional quality of the tagine: It has got textures and an indescribable flavor combo that tastes naturally sweet and curry-like. It teases and tickles your tongue with nuances of spiciness; however, the creamy stew is no curry. A colleague even took some home for his wife to try.

I carry on with the tradition of storing my lunch in the tiffins. At the same time, I take pride in my own identity and the set of unique experience that makes me who I am. I am still my mom’s daughter, a Malaysian, who under the inspirations of my American family, has learned to appreciate different cultures through food. I am glad that I picked up something new about my new neighbor.

Chicken and Chickpea Tagine
Serves approximately 4
Adapted from Mark Bittman
Originally published with The Minimalist: “A Shortcut to Morocco”
In The New York Times; on Feb 25, 2004

2 Tbsp cooking oil
2 Tbsp butter — salted or unsalted is fine

1 large red onion — peeled; halved; and, sliced thinly

2~3 cloves of garlic — peeled; and, minced

Salt – to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne

1½ ~2½ cups chopped ripe tomatoes
2½ cups dried chickpeas — soaked overnight; drain well before use; you should get 4 cups soaked chickpeas eventually, and if you end up with more, use them
½ ~ ¾ cups raisins / chopped pitted dates / mix of raisins and chopped dried apricots
½ ~1 vanilla bean — split lengthwise

½ cup water — or more
(B) spices — to taste

8 chicken thighs / 4 leg-thigh pieces – cut in two

Chopped cilantro/parsley leaves — to garnish and serve
  1. Put (A) in a large casserole or kettle, which can be covered later, and turn heat to medium-high. When the butter melts, add the onion, cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens.
  2. Add the garlic and (B) to the casserole, cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds.
  3. Add (C) to the casserole, and bring to a boil. If the mixture is very dry, start by adding about ½ cup water. If the mixture is still very dry, add more water so the mixture is almost submerged in water. Now, season to taste with (B) spices.
  4. Rub the chicken with salt, and nestle them into the mixture. Cover. Five minutes later, adjust heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook till the chicken is very tender, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Taste, and adjust seasoning with (B) spices.
  5. Garnish with chopped cilantro, and serve with e.g. couscous, steamed rice, pita or any type of flatbread.

Basic Couscous
Serves approximately 4
Adapted from “The Kitchen Diaries,” by Nigel Slater

300 g couscous
Finely grated zest of about 4 lemons

About 1L stock, or less — chicken or vegetable or whichever you prefer
Salt — to taste

  1. Place (A) in a mixing bowl, which can be covered later, and rub together to unleash the lemony aroma and citrusy oil in the zest. Set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Taste and season with salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous. It should cover the grains by about 2 cm. Cover the mixing bowl with its lid, and set aside until the liquid has been absorbed by the couscous.
  3. Uncover the mixing bowl, using a fork, gently fluff up the couscous. Dish up and serve on the side with e.g. tagine, grilled chicken, or salad.

December 7, 2010

I Did It!

Yesterday afternoon, Pei-Lin had a hard time making up her mind. There were voices inside her head …

Tiffins: Yo! Whassup?

Dorayaki: Konnichiwa! I’m as sweet as I’ve always been. Doraemon is doing great, too.

Tiffins: Nice to hear that! Hey! I have a suggestion here.

Dorayaki: (Looking anxious like how a small kid would behave) Oh! Oh! What would that be?

Tiffins: (Giving an indecisive look) Erm … Well … Well …

Dorayaki: C’mon! Just spill it all out! What’s so fishy about it?

Tiffins: OK … It’s actually good news, but you’ll have to compromise and sacrifice for Pei-Lin’s sake. Can you do it? (Looking slightly perplexed, Dorayaki nodded its head anyway.)


(Dorayaki’s jaws dropped, and a great portion of its anko filling fell apart and onto the ground.)

Tiffins: Yeah, precisely! That means you’ll have to make way for me in Pei-Lin’s next blog post.

Dorayaki: But, she promised her readers to talk about me in the next installment!

Tiffins: Well, she did mention that you’d only be featured “IF things go as planned …”

Dorayaki: Yeah … Ya know what, I’m actually happy for her! Hey, buddy! Be my guest in the next post. You definitely deserve the attention.

Tiffins: Thank you! You must have not known of what happened to her. Pei-Lin checked the results at work this morning. When she saw her entries in the paper, she went almost frantic! She tried really hard to keep things cool at work, though. *LOL*

Dec 2010 Don't Call Me Chef -- Tiffins Carry the Memory

Gosh! I still CAN’T believe I won the “My Tiffin Moments” contest!

After winning the Beltrami County Fair’s chocolate bake-off in summer 2009, I guess this would be my second victory. Never would I dream of entering and winning a contest on a national level. Thank goodness! I didn’t lose my composure before my colleagues! *Pat on the back*

The rewards? Tupperware products worth of MYR1,000 (USD318) — AND, the joy and sense of accomplishment unobtainable elsewhere! Thank you to The Star’s Don’t Call Me Chef and Tupperware for organizing the contest!

Way to go to the other winners, too! Mr. Vander Slott and Mr. Richard Koh, whoever you’re, wherever you’re — in- or outside of Malaysia, congrats! I read your entries, and they rock!

My very own tiffin moments revolve not just around me but also my own family, my American family, and some new friends on this culturally rich land I call home — Malaysia.

These special moments are dedicated to the above inspirations of mine. Thank you for being my muses and guiding stars, and for encouraging me through and through!

My Tiffin Moments Contest Entries

Lastly, how could I not thank you the reader! If it weren’t for you, I guess I’d have stopped writing months ago. I’d rather remain anonymous as a home baker and cook who keeps her musings to herself.

It’s now apparent that I’ll be sharing my tiffin moments and dishes with you real soon. Let’s cross our fingers, hoping that Dorayaki-san will eventually make its way to this journal of mine. (Sorry about that!)

December 1, 2010

A Girls’ Night Out!

I have something to confess. I created an unprecedented record on Nov 27, 2010. I was about 2 hours late for a girls’ night out!

Seated cozily in an American-themed restaurant at the Curve, a shopping mall just outside of Kuala Lumpur (K.L.), eight gorgeous ladies were enjoying dinner while chatting away. And, I showed up toward the end of the dinner — just in time for dessert!

Well, I didn’t mean to create a brand new record that evening! Little did I know running errands around the town would take me almost an afternoon! Thank goodness! I managed to arrive just in time to spend an hour or so with the ladies — and to indulge myself in home-made desserts. *Chuckling*

Personally, I get to hang out with Swee San and Wendy fairly often. Whenever Wendy and her family get to visit to K.L., we’d try to meet up unless schedules don’t allow us to do so. For Reese and Sonia, it’d been a while since I last saw them, especially Sonia! My! Was it since February this year?

I was happy that Reese’s and Sonia’s daughters tagged along this time. So, adding in Wendy’s two baby girls, we’d got four little lasses at the table with us. Those quality moments spent had definitely bonded us closer.

(Sonia, thanks for the photo!)

Of course, for us sweet tooth, how could we not have dessert to conclude the evening! Sonia brought some freshly baked butter cake for us to try. The cake crumb was on the moist and tender side, emitting a pleasant sweet vanilla note as I nibbled it. (Oops! Don’t have photo for that!)

As for Swee San, we actually met up on an impulse (sort of) the Tuesday before at the same shopping mall to chat and share our latest creations with one another. (I brought my Serradura and pudding dorayaki.)

Not only did I get to try Swee San’s L’Emeraude that Tuesday evening, I also had a taste of her other creation last Saturday. While Swee San calls it “L’Exotique,” I call it “L’Hawaii.” Although the entire table paid full attention to the pro as she introduced her entremets, we still got lost toward the end. Why? Because the combination of ingredients and flavors was just — exotic. *LOL*  Shame on me! I don’t have photo of the dessert, too! Well, let’s just wait for the pastry chef to unveil her exotic entremets in her next blog post. Shall we?

Souvenir From Reese
From Reese

As sweet as they have always been, Reese and Wendy brought us souvenirs. The artsy-looking little present from Reese is safe on my display shelf now. I, in the meantime, can’t stop snacking on Wendy’s palm sugar-coated candied coconut at work. How can I resist when it’s got two of my favorite flavors combined!

Wendy's Palm Sugar-Candied Coconut
Wendy's palm sugar-coated candied coconut

Now, what did Pei-Lin bring to share with the ladies? Pudding dorayakis (プリンどら焼き). If things go as planned, these dorayakis extraordinaire, alongside those good old anko-filled ones (どら焼き), will be featured in the very next installment. Stay tuned!

Honey-Pudding Dorayakis 蜂蜜布甸銅鑼燒

Thank you for such a wonderful evening, ladies! With everyone getting busier, and with everyone living so far apart from each other, it’s rather challenging for us to meet up for a chatter. However, we already have ideas coalescing in our heads for the next few months. Let’s hope we can iron things out and put our words into action!

(Sonia, thanks for the photo!)
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