January 29, 2011

This Festive Season, When Nuttiness Reigns

At this time of year, I’ve been juggling with career on one hand and the mad Chinese New Year rush on the other.

Sometimes, I wish I was born a multitasker, an outstanding one. Weary days like these have had my brain going nuts, and so are my taste buds (literally). All that crunch and nutty tone seem appealing!

In 24 hours or so, I can gobble up one whole jar of toasted cashew nuts my mom had prepared for Chinese New Year. A sigh or a shake of head usually follows: Her Royal Highness would give me that dismayed look.

This nutty spirit prevails against the cookie monster in me. And so a hankering for traditional Chinese peanut cookies (花生餅).

Traditional Chinese Peanut Cookies 花生酥(餅)

With Chinese New Year drawing near, for most Malaysians and Singaporeans, it’s hard not to miss festive cookies. (You shall get haunted by them — for at least the first 15 days of the Chinese calendar. Here, we often wind up with leftovers surplus of cookies well after the festivities.)

Among others, the peanut cookies, a favorite of mine, are extremely popular. Less fuss and much easier to make when compared to other festive treats such as the pineapple tart and Indonesian layered cake (kek lapis legit, or spekkoek). The whole idea is pretty much the same as the one for the green-pea cookies I made last year.

Peanut butter, raw peanuts, flour, salt, oil, egg and sugar — powdered, caster or granulated, it’s to your call.

Peanut butter?

Indeed. I wouldn’t consider that cheating. A bit unorthodox, though, I must say. Peanut butter intensifies and at the same time, mellows the nuttiness of the cookies. Making the cookies not as dry, too. And it has served its purpose well.

I believe the slightly salted egg wash also adds a magical touch to the cookies. Somehow, that wee bit of salt on the cookies just stimulates saliva flow. It actually facilitates the sweet, nutty invasion to come, which is sooner than you think! After all, peanuts, sugar and salt form a perfect trinity. (Now that I know why I’ve been a honey-roasted-peanut addict!)

Chinese-New-Year Cookie Orders: Chinese Peanut Cookies and Coconut Butter Cookies
A one-day-old peanut-cookie factory: All these weigh close to six kilograms, and I took a-day leave and slogged the whole day for them. Oh! By the way, there's also a canister of coconut butter cookies. Am I exhausted by now? You bet!

From what was meant for personal consumption, this recipe helped me garner close to six kilograms worth of unanticipated cookie orders, in a day. So good that even the pickiest eater in my house can’t stop noshing on the peanut cookies.

“Yours are much, much better than those I’ve tasted before,” my brother said as he helped himself to the cookies. “They’re giving me that false perception as if I’m sipping on Chinese peanut paste dessert (花生糊)!”

Chinese-New-Year Cookie Orders: Chinese Peanut Cookies Galore
Unforeseen episode: These pans of cookies are just part of the orders ...

Thanks to Amy of Cooking Crave for her generosity in sharing this stellar recipe! I’ve found the recipe for traditional Chinese peanut cookies. And I’m going to be infinitely loyal to it.

With seven ingredients. In five straightforward steps — or six, if patiently letting the cookies cool is considered one. The last thing to do is pop these freshly baked morsels into my mouth for all the hard work.

Hush! Listen closely as the cookie dissolves into bits of nutty bliss in my mouth …

Mmm … Now that the craving for nuttiness is sated. Oh, the Year of the Rabbit! I’m so ready for you!

Si Arnab
Si Arnab

Together with my rabbit Fifi, I, a Rabbit baby myself, would like to wish you — my reader, my family and friends, blogger-friends and anyone else who celebrates Chinese New Year ...

恭喜發財!揚眉「兔」氣! (Or “gong hey fatt choy!” in Cantonese, which means congratulations and be prosperous! May the Year of the Rabbit do you proud — very, very proud!)

Traditional Chinese Peanut Cookies 花生酥(餅)

Traditional Chinese Peanut Cookies (花生餅)
Adapted from Amy’s

* This recipe yields a rather big batch. *

600 g raw peanuts — preferably skinned
* I buy skinned large ground nuts, or kacang tanah besar in Bahasa Malaysia. *

325 g sugar — separated
* Sifted powdered sugar for a superfine, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Caster or granulated sugar for that little crunch in the melt-in-your-mouth cookies. Either way, they're good. *

375 g all-purpose flour — sifted once
½ ~ 1 tsp salt
* I like mine saltier with 1 tsp salt. *

3 Tbsp creamy peanut butter
* Amy uses 2 Tbsp creamy peanut butter and 1 Tbsp softened unsalted or salted butter. Albeit optional, I don’t think they should ever be skipped! *

Enough neutrally flavored oil
* E.g. corn, sunflower-seed or rice-bran oil. Note: You’re going to need quite a fair amount of it. *

Enough peanut halves — skinned

1 egg — at room temperature
Pinch of salt

  1. Instead of roasting them in a wok with all the constant stirring and “shoveling” for a good chunk of the hour, I toast the peanuts in baking sheet(s), in an oven of 180°C for 15 minutes. By then, they should smell nuttier and look somewhat toasted. Remove the nuts from the oven and set aside to cool in the sheet(s) completely before use.
  2. In a food processor or coffee grinder, pulverize the toasted peanuts with about 60 g sugar until you get a finely ground texture, though, slightly larger bits here and there are inevitable. The cookies will turn out fine anyway.
  3. Combine the ground peanuts with the remaining sugar and (A), then mix in the peanut butter until it is well dispersed in the mixture.
  4. Mix in enough oil to the peanut-and-flour mixture, working it ever so slightly until you’ve gotten a dough that doesn’t fall apart and doesn’t stick to your hands badly. No fixed and fast rules here. Dough too wet and sticky? Mix in additional flour! Dough too dry and crumbly? Mix in more oil!
  5. Divide the dough into walnut-sized portions — or slightly smaller, if that’s what you prefer. Roll each into a ball and place on parchment-lined baking sheet(s). Gently press a peanut half slightly in the center of each of them.
  6. Lightly beat together (B) and apply this slightly salted egg wash on the shaped dough.
  7. Bake at 180°C, for 20 ~ 25 minutes, until the cookies look golden brown and slightly crackled. Don’t fret! The cookies will “shrink” up a wee bit as they cool.
  8. Remove from the oven and let the cookies sit on the baking sheet(s) for 5 minutes or so to set their underside. Then, carefully transfer the cookies to the cooling racks and let cool completely before storing airtight. These peanut cookies in fact taste better as they age.

Traditional Chinese Peanut Cookies 花生酥(餅)

January 19, 2011

At Life's Crossroads, Rekindling Childhood Moments

Matcha-Azuki Bean Dorayakis 紅豆沙抹茶銅鑼燒

My childhood may not be the world’s happiest. But every so often, I still can’t help but to yearn for those innocent days bygone.

Lately, the pang of nostalgia has grappled a good part of me even more. It must have been the painful struggles this transitional phase has put me into. It feels as if I’m standing stranded at a major crossroads, not knowing where I’m heading for. Really.

Which may explain my recent regression. At times, I’d daydream about watching Doraemon with my brothers — and munching on dorayakis, Doraemon’s favorite snack. If only I could get transported back in time … back to those carefree days of mine …

Doraemon (Image courtesy of 見たmorphosis)

I’m never a follower of manga and anime. I did grow up with Doraemon, though. In the hearts of many East Asians and Southeast Asians, Doraemon equates omnipotence. It’s a robotic cat that’s blue and white in color, that does just about any magic tricks imaginable. I kid you not.

Doraemon has this four-dimensional pocket clung to his big, round belly. For some obscure reason, I used to get the jitters whenever Doraemon placed its chubby, sphere-like fist into this pocket of marvels. Seated quietly before the TV set, little Pei-Lin would wonder, “Hmmm … What’s it going to be this time around?”

Hidden within this pocket of wonders, there’s the “Anywhere Door,” a door that opens up to anywhere you want; the “Time Machine,” a contraption that teleports you to the past and the future in the speed of light (duh!); the “bamboo-copter,” a mini head accessory with which you mount over your head and voila! — you can “fly” to just about anywhere you want … I guess I can rattle on … or maybe I shouldn’t. OK, let’s move on …

A robotic cat of virtues, Doraemon wields its fancy, powerful weapons only when necessary and oftentimes, with morally sound judgment. Nonetheless, evil still prevails — when you entice Doraemon with a heaped plateful of dorayakis. Is this good or bad?

Joy, to Doraemon, equates a heaped plateful of dorayakis! On the left is Masahiko Kōmura, former Japanese foreign minister. (Image courtesy of the Guardian)

What I’m positive about, though, is that “chewiness,” “springiness” and the like ought to be slashed out from any lines that attempt to describe the texture of the dorayaki; and that gluten formation ought to be inhibited, to the best that you can, from the dorayaki batter.

The base of this classic Japanese confection (wagashi 和菓子) is fundamentally kasutera, or honey-flavored Japanese sponge cake. Imagine pan-frying the kasutera batter on a skillet rather than baking it in a cake pan. So, it’s got to be cakey, nothing hotcake-like. Well, at least that’s what I think.

Honey-Pudding Dorayakis and Matcha-Azuki Bean Dorayakis 蜂蜜布甸銅鑼燒和紅豆沙抹茶銅鑼燒
On the left, matcha dorayakis filled with anko; on the right, pudding dorayakis with fresh blueberries

Perhaps, it was love at sight, with a little bit of logic thrown in for good measure. There are pages of dorayaki recipes circulating on the World Wide Web, but I’m partial to none of those except this. (Now, scroll down to learn more …)

Through both deductive and inductive reasoning, I concluded that everything about this recipe coheres with the Kasutera Tenet. Some of the ingredients called for, such as mirin (味醂) and shōyu (醤油), are Japanese. The methods, albeit déjà vu of chiffon making, could have produced a moist-sponge-cake-like mouthfeel — sans déjà vu of chewing on maple-syrup-and-butter-drenched hotcakes.

As for the filling, go explore beyond the norms! Besides the good ol’ anko, you’ll probably be enchanted by the gentle touch of honey sweetness of la crème pâtissière au miel. For a balance in sweetness and tartness? Sandwich with some fresh blueberries, strawberries, cubed mangoes or any other fruit of your choice!

At the late-November bloggers' meet-up: Wendy's youngest daughter Lyanne seems to enjoy the honey pastry cream more than she does for the kasutera pancakes! *LOL*

Uh oh … It sounds like I’ve just melded the Japanese with the French. I know these pudding dorayakis are not-so-Japanese, but Doraemon-san, I hope you don’t mind. Would you still like to help yourself to a plateful of these? They’re just as delectable.

Honey-Pudding Dorayakis 蜂蜜布甸銅鑼燒

Pudding Dorayaki (プリンどら焼き)
Adapted from SeaDragon’s

For the kasutera pancakes:

240 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

170 mL whole milk
60 g good-quality honey
* I use manuka honey, which comes with an intense and a unique flavor of its own. Albeit expensive, it’s highly recommended for its superior quality. I wouldn’t pay for a cheap bottle of honey that, to me, tastes like plain syrup. As the saying goes, “Quality comes with a price.” *

4 egg yolks — at room temperature
40 mL neutrally flavored oil e.g. vegetable, sunflower or canola oil
2 tsp mirin / shōyu
* Compared to those made with mirin, those with shōyu will color up more nicely and taste a tad different. I’ve made the confection with both, and like them all. My brother actually prefers those with shōyu. *

4 egg whites — at room temperature
110 g caster sugar

Enough chilled honey pastry cream AND/OR anko
Any choice fruit e.g. fresh blueberries, blackberries or cubed fresh mangoes — optional and used only when you choose to fill the dorayakis with honey pastry cream because I doubt they’d complement anko well
  1. Whisk together (A) and sift once; set aside. Dissolve together (B); set aside.
  2. Whisk together (C), then fold in (A) and (B) mixtures alternately until well combined. Set aside.
  3. Whip the egg whites till soft peaks form, then gradually beat in 110 g caster sugar till stiff peaks form. This is meringue.
  4. Gently fold the meringue into the yolk mixture, in two to three batches.
  5. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Next, dip a sheet of paper towel in a little cooking oil and wipe all over the surface of the hot skillet. This step helps to prevent the pancakes from sticking and needs to do be done only once, which is right before you start cooking.
  6. Now, I use a Chinese soup spoon for this: For one palm-sized pancake, ladle 1½~2 tablespoonfuls of the batter into the hot skillet. Cook over low to medium heat until it looks bubbly and starts to dry on the surface. Using a flat spatula, gently flip over the pancake. The bottom of the pancake may cling to the skillet slightly, i.e. behaving stubbornly. So, use a flat spatula to carefully release it from the skillet first before flipping it. Cook the other side of the pancake briefly until golden brown. Carefully dish it out to a wire rack or plate to cool thoroughly before filling. Repeat until the batter is used up.
  7. To serve, sandwich two pieces of the kasutera pancake with some honey pastry cream and fresh fruit of your choice. The fruit is optional, though. Alternatively, you can fill the pancakes with anko.
For matcha kasutera pancakes, before mixing in 60 g honey, gradually whisk 170 mL whole milk in 2~3 batches into 2~3 tsp matcha powder, which helps  to ensure a thorough combination.

For the honey pastry cream:

60 mL whole milk
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
35 g caster sugar — or adjust to taste
* I use 25 g. *
30 g good-quality honey
* Again, I use manuka honey, which comes with an intense and a unique flavor of its own. Albeit expensive, it’s highly recommended for its superior quality. I wouldn’t pay for a cheap bottle of honey that to me, tastes like plain syrup. As the saying goes, “Quality comes with a price.” *

10 g all-purpose flour
10 g custard powder or cornstarch
Pinch of salt

190 mL whole milk

25 g unsalted butter — cubed and at room temperature
  1. Whisk together (D), then mix in (E). Set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, bring 190 mL milk just to a boil. Then, temper into the egg mixture by gradually pouring the hot milk in a thin stream into the egg mixture, keep whisking the egg mixture as you pour lest the eggs “scramble.” Return the mixture to the saucepan.
  3. Over medium-low heat, whisk the mixture vigorously and constantly till it’s thickened and firmed up. Remove from heat and keep whisking till it’s cooled to room temperature. Fold in the butter till fully incorporated. Cover the pastry cream with a sheet of cling film coming into contact with its surface, which prevents a film of “skin” from forming on the cream. Keep refrigerated till ready to use.

Childhood memory: dorayaki with homemade sweetened adzuki bean paste 紅豆沙銅鑼燒
From exactly 2 years ago, made when I was still in the States, using home-made anko. Good recipes are always worth turning back to, including this very dorayaki recipe shown above.

January 11, 2011

It Just Gets Quieter and Quieter Here ...

Dearest reader/visitor:

Have I been MIA? Probably. But, I believe I'm at a turning point in my career. Having said that, I've been very tied down by things outside of this blogging world.

At the moment, I barely have the time to even bake and cook and photograph. Needless to say, I've been unable to sit down and brainstorm in peace ... to pen down my thoughts on life and food on this journal of mine.

So, I won't be able to update here as often as I wish to. It shall get quieter here from now on ... But once in a while, I'll pop by with some thoughts -- and one dish or bake at a time. Still, if you'd would like to check out updates from me, you can hop over to either my Flickr or Twitter page.

I appreciate the highly moving and encouraging words that you've given! You are the force that keeps this journal alive!

Have a gorgeous week and 2011!

Love lots,

Kaffir Plant

January 1, 2011

My New Year’s Confessions

Oh, December 2010! Thou must have kept me on the brink of insanity!

I shall keep this post relevant in the sense of being a blogger. A bad blogger as a matter of fact. I’ve not been able to write as frequently as I did.

So, will you be spammed with stale news? I suppose. Pardon me if that sounds like a bad idea. Allow me to ramble on before I can shut up and move on in a spanking new year …

Dec 09, 2010

What: Bloggers’ gathering
Who: Ann of Pig Pig’s Corner, Swee San of The Sweet Spot, Wendy of Table for 2 or more…, You Fei of loving baking, and me

That fateful Thursday evening was hard to come by. It was just 2 days before when I learned about You Fei’s short trip to Kuala Lumpur (K.L.). In the midst of organizing the meet-up, I got slightly panicked. Fortunately, with help from Swee San and Wendy, everything fell into place eventually. Phew!

As for Wendy, it was a beautiful coincidence. Her family decided to drive down from Kuala Kangsar to stay in the city over the weekend. At the same time, Ann, a Malaysian blogger based in England, is back in town for vacation. Since mid-2008, I’ve been following Pig Pig’s Corner, which is a food blog co-run by Ann and her hubby Jeff.

Now that we’d found the perfect excuse reason, why not a meet-up!

Me, Ann, You Fei, Swee San and Wendy. (Photo courtesy of Swee San.)

After my Singapore trip in August 2010, on which I got to see You Fei for the first time after “talking” to her for close to 3 years, I’ve since wanted to let my Singaporean friends try out local street fares. Something truly Malaysian. K.L. Hokkien mee was a great choice to start with.

(In these two countries, noodles are known affectionately as “mee” whereas “Hokkien” refers to the Chinese province of Fujian 福建. The dishes must have invented years ago by some Fujian immigrants here.)

While Singaporean Hokkien mee (新加坡福建麵) is a dish of braised egg noodle in thickened clear shrimp stock, K.L. Hokkien mee (吉隆坡福建麵) is a dish of stir-fried lye-water noodle (鹼水麵) darkened with dark soy sauce (老抽), spiked with smoky wok hei (鑊氣) — and saturated with lard. But once in a blue moon, a treat like this shouldn’t have you killed on the spot.

Kuala Lumpur-Style Hokkien Mee (Noodles) 吉隆坡福建麵
Think black, think K.L. Hokkien mee.

Besides the main course and hours of yakking, we also had side dishes and desserts to go along!

The restaurant’s famous deep-fried calamari rings. Great appetizers, Not overly greasy. Stayed crisp all the way through.
Deep-Fried Calamari

Romaine lettuce stir-fried with garlic (清炒油麥). I love dishes likes this when there’s wok hei to zip things up!
Simple Romaine Lettuce Stir-Fry  清炒油麥

Swee San’s home-made marshmallows. Egg free. Malt-chocolate flavored. Lethally chocolaty! Absolutely to die for!
Swee San's Malt-Chocolate Marshmallows

Wendy’s pumpkin butter cake. Moist. Light. Fluffy. And sweetened to perfection!
Wendy's Pumpkin Cake

And, I brought some Snickers macarons for them to try. Sadly, I generously filled the macs with my salted butter caramel, which made them taste a tad too sweet.
Snickers Macarons

Dec 11, 2010

What: Bloggers’ gathering (again!)
Who: Ann of Pig Pig’s Corner, Melody and her sons of Meldylocks and her Three Bears, Swee San of The Sweet Spot, Tracie of Bitter Sweet Flavours, Wendy and her daughters of Table for 2 or more…, and me

From left to right: Wendy and her girls Lydia and Lyanne, Melody and her boy Ee Sync, Tracie, Ann and Swee San

For a new driver and KL-ite who is pretty ignorant about the roads around, while navigating the route to the shopping mall, I got lost (and wasted lots of expensive gas) until I finally reached there. Worse comes worst, I had a minor accident in the parking lot. Oops!

Pretty much like what happened at the late-November meet-up, I came in just in time for dessert! I skipped Italian main courses! Lucky. Nay?

Swee San’s L’Opera! When I was told by the pastry chef herself that she was going to make this classic Parisian pastry, I went nuts! Almost. L’Opera has got to be one of my all-time favorites. What’s so sensually appealing about the dessert is the harmonization of flavors of the nutty almonds, bittersweet chocolate and perky aroma of coffee. (Pei-Lin is quite a caffeine junkie.)

Swee San's L'Operas

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

I also packed some Russian tea cakes for the ladies to take home as I reckoned our tummies might not have enough space to accommodate more food by then. Hop over here for the recipes. And, how could I not thank Wendy and Melody for the souvenirs they’d given us!

We were fascinated by how Ee Sync, Melody’s eldest son, and Lydia, Wendy’s eldest daughter, could get along so well. They just clicked! I have this crazy notion that these families may become in-laws in 20 years’ time … *LOL*

Love Is in the Air!!!

Ms. Lyanne, Wendy's youngest girl, is happily “juicing” tomatoes in her hand. Oh, a happy belated birthday to her too! She just turned 2 on New Year’s Eve.

Cute Little Girl!

Tracie, Ann and me

Honestly, December 2010 had been a seriously busy month for me. I’ve been feeling jaded. Almost wanted to give up on blogging. In fact, I did something special last Winter Solstice Festival (冬至), which was something I’d like to share but didn’t have time to do so.

Knowing that a colleague would be having his birthday on Winter Solstice Festival, on a tiring Sunday after a wedding the day before, I whipped up a batch of glutinous rice balls (湯圓) and filled them with homemade azuki bean paste (紅豆沙). We then served them in sweet azuki bean soup (紅豆沙糖水). Glad that the birthday boy and my other colleagues liked the dessert! (It’s a Chinese tradition to do so, just so you wonder.)

Azuki Bean Paste-Filled Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls, Served in Sweet Azuki Bean Soup 紅豆沙湯圓

Now, am I a party animal? Nah. I didn’t go all out and have myself stuck in the crowd of revelers. Armed with my darling camera, I soaked up the excitement and rang in 2011 with these fellas in my neighborhood.

My Neighborhood on 01-01-2011
Everyone stayed up. We got out onto the street a little before 12 a.m. of Jan 01, 2011. Boy, were we glad to be surprised with firework displays!

New Year's Firework Display at the Petronas Twin Towers
Watching the massive firework display at the Petronas Twin Towers from afar. Gorgeous!

Firework Display of my Neighborhood
There was another firework display right on our street, too!

Animals Terrified by Fireworks
It was deafening and we were slightly intimidated at first. Our rabbit Fifi and dog Chevy were no exceptions. *Chuckling*

On every New Year’s Eve and Day, I no longer resolve. I confess. I confess that 2011 will be rather demanding and challenging. It’s all about balancing my life between career and hobbies.

I love baking and cooking. I love food photography. I love writing. They form part of my identity. And nothing shall snatch away the things I hold dearest to my heart, no matter what.

Stay tough and stay strong, my friend. There shall be more good news awaiting you in 2011. Happy New Year!

An accidental shot at a wedding dinner ...
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