February 22, 2011

Patience: A Delicious Virtue

Psst … Did you get all messy and sticky on Monday?

The truth is, I did and instead of Monday, I was leaps ahead of everyone else. Unless you were also far ahead in this game, well, then, I’d been exaggerating. But the fact is, for me, everything seemed to happen by chance.

If it weren’t for Good Eats, if it weren’t for Alton Brown, I wouldn’t have known that Monday, Feb 21, was National Sticky Bun Day in America.

Sticky Buns

On the far end of the world where I called home, the sticky bun is a name that resonates in everyone’s head. Its status and level of popularity is almost on par with that of the chocolate chip cookie. (I was referring to the soft and chewy type.) It strikes the victim (whoever that may be) with a nostalgic blow from the yesteryears—including me! Geez, I do miss my American friend’s sticky buns.

Sticky buns were one of the first breads I learned to bake in America. These are the buns I made under the guidance of Mary, my American friend, in January 2008. As pictured here, they are still being proofed for baking in the oven later on.

Now on this end of the world where I call home, the sticky buns aren’t something that echoes in everyone’s head. In Malaysia, unless you’re one of those Cinnabon fanatics, the sweet roll is probably unheard of. Its status and level of popularity is lagging way behind that of, say, the pisang goreng, a.k.a. banana fritter or fried banana. (See, I could be wrong. So please correct me if that’s the case.) Try walking on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and ask a few passersby, and you may just have them dumbfounded on the spot.

Pardon me, but why would you verbally abuse a bun by calling it sticky?

As it turns out, the sticky buns are simply cinnamon rolls with an upside-down-caramel-and-pecan topping. They were first created by some German settlers in the Philadelphia area. Because they somewhat resemble the shell of a snail, it was known as “schnecken,” which is German for these slimy, sluggish creatures.

Due to the influences from the States and my absolute need in drawing clear lines within the clutter, distinction has been made between Western-inspired and Asian-style breads. So, I turned to American bread guru, Peter Reinhart, for the recipe.

And for a shortcut to mature and flavorful, and, in the words of Reinhart, world-class, bread. The answer? Overnight fermentation of bread dough, for at least 24 hours.

That’s not short.

In most cases, for European artisan breads, sponges and pre-ferments, such as sourdough starters, are required. And these, when starting out, take days to cultivate and to develop some levels of acidity as well as their own distinctive flavors. Needless to say, the days and months spent later on to preserve the lives in these pre-ferments span years. Before the advent of such convenience in the form of instant yeast, yeast was preserved and passed down from one generation to the next. Thus, accounting for the time factor, the method of overnight fermentation is decidedly short.

First Hour of Overnight Fermentation of All-Purpose Sweet Dough
This is how I perform overnight fermentation: tightly encase the dough in a 2.5-gallon heavy-duty Ziploc bag. What's depicted here is the dough at the first hour of proofing in the refrigerator.

Instead of speeding up the process, you first wake the yeast up and then tuck it into a cozy environment within the tacky dough so that it can go on a feast—just for that brief moment. Now, this is where things get interesting and a little less humane: chuck the dough—the activated yeast and everything else—into the fridge. Don’t fret, you’re not killing the yeast but only retarding its activity. It turns dormant when the temperature falls below four degrees Celsius. “A lot of the flavor transformation in the dough takes place during the dormant stage,” Reinhart expounded on the process. “Because the starch enzymes are still at work even while the yeast goes to sleep.”

Twelfth Hour of Overnight Fermentation of All-Purpose Sweet Dough
Overnight fermentation: the bread dough, at 12 hours of proofing in the refrigerator. No, it's not done with that just yet.

If you’re an avid bread baker, a homemade-bread lover, who wants to learn more about the science behind overnight fermentation of bread dough, I highly recommend Reinhart’s “Artisan Breads Every Day.” Take my word for it. Reinhart’s books on everything bread and yeasty make great additions to your library of cookbooks.

Image courtesy of The Kitchn

With Reinhart’s recipe, I made about two nine-by-nine-inch pans of sticky buns. The creamy caramel slurry recipe he’s provided in the book is stellar. It’s sweet (duh!), creamy (ditto), sticky, and gooey. However, he doesn’t stop there. He offers two more slurry recipes for the schnecken, and one of which is contributed by Mrs. Reinhart. Boy, I’m so going to try them out when that sticky yearning strikes me again!

One more. I guess everything isn’t made flawless. The only complaint I have about his bread recipes is that the bread dries up much faster and thus turns crumbly, too, when compared to bread made via Asian recipes. And nope, I ain’t talking about those that cheat with improver and the like. In terms of moisture retention, the tangzhong method still wins, hands down.

A solution to that problem? Wipe the whole tribe of schneckens out in a day. Share with your family, friends, or whomever you care about. After all, good stuff is meant to be enjoyed together.

Heed my warning, though: Eating sticky buns makes a slight royal mess out of you.

Sticky Buns

Sticky Buns
Adapted from “Artisan Breads Every Day,” by Peter Reinhart

Yield: about 24 buns

1 recipe for all-purpose sweet dough (recipe to follow)

42 g ground cinnamon
170 g granulated or caster sugar
* Can try with light brown sugar instead, or a mix of both the sugars. *

Any neutrally flavored oil e.g. vegetable, canola, or sunflower oil, OR slightly cooled melted butter, OR milk – for brushing
* I used milk. *

170 g raisins, soaked in rum or water for about 2 hours till they're plump; then drained well – to taste; optional, though
142 g coarsely chopped toasted pecans or walnuts, or a mix of both – to taste; optional, though
  1. About 3 hours before baking, remove the bread dough from the refrigerator. Divide it in half and form each piece into a ball. Cover each ball with a bowl or plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.
  2. On a floured work surface, roll each ball of dough into a 30-by-38-centimeter rectangle, rolling from the center to the corners and then rolling out to the sides. If the dough starts to resist or shrink back, let it rest for 1 minute or so, then continue rolling. The dough should be between 0.5 and 1 centimeter thick.
  3. For cinnamon sugar, whisk together (A) to combine. Brush the surface of the dough with melted butter, then sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over the surface, leaving a 0.5-centimeter border. Sprinkle (B) over the surface if you like. Roll up the dough like a rug, rolling from the bottom to the top to form of a tight log. Now, make the slurry (recipe to follow).
  4. Fill the bottom of two 8- or 9-inch round pans or one 12-inch square pan with 0.5 centimeter of the slurry. Store any excess slurry in the fridge, where it’ll keep for at least 2 weeks. (I used up mine, though, which was a good news.) Sprinkle coarsely chopped toasted nuts over the slurry if you like, which is highly advised for flavor, but this is optional.
  5. Cut the log into 1-inch slices and place them on the slurry with the nicest side down, leaving about 1 inch of space between the buns. Cover loosely with a slightly dampen dishtowel or plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature, until the dough swells noticeably and the buns begin to expand into each other.
  6. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  7. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. The slurry will melt, bubble, and caramelize, and the visible dough will be dark golden brown. Lift one of the buns with a metal spatula or a pair of tongs to check the underside of the dough, which should be light caramel brown, not white. The sugar slurry should turn a rich amber or golden brown, and all of the sugar should have melted to become caramel. (If it’s still grainy and not amber, continue baking; you can put a tent of aluminum foil over the buns to protect them from getting too dark while the slurry finishes caramelizing.)
  8. Remove the pans from the oven and let the buns cool for 2 to 3 minutes in the pans so the caramel begins to firm up. Place a platter or pan over the top of the baking pan. It should be large enough to cover the baking pan and hold all the buns. Wearing oven mitts or using hot pads, flip the entire assemblage over to release the buns and caramel onto the platter. Be careful, the glaze will still be very hot at this point. Use a rubber spatula to scrape any remaining glaze from the pan and drizzle it over the tops of the buns.
  9. Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

All-Purpose Sweet Dough
Adapted from “Artisan Breads Every Day,” Peter Reinhart

16 g instant yeast
225 g lukewarm water, at about 43°C

85 g granulated or caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

794 g all-purpose flour
* I much prefer unbleached organic all-purpose flour. In fact, I’ve been trying to incorporate unbleached, organic flours to my bakes. *
14 g salt
3 Tbsp milk powder or dry milk

300 g lukewarm milk, at about 43°C
113 g butter, unsalted or salted – cubed and kept chilled
Extra all-purpose flour – used as necessary, though, you may not need it
  1. Dissolve together (C) and set aside for about 10 minutes to activate the yeast. The mixture should appear somewhat frothy by then.
  2. Rub together (D) to release the citrusy oil and scent in the lemon zest, then stir into (E) and whisk together to combine.
  3. Stir the yeast mixture and warm milk into the flour mixture, and mix to combine, till you get a soft, coarse ball of dough.
  4. Turn the dough onto a work surface, and knead it by hand for about 4 minutes to develop the glutens. Then, thoroughly knead in the cubes of cold butter. Continue kneading till you get a supple, very soft, and tacky ball of dough. Knead on a lightly floured work surface for 1 minute or so, and form it into a ball. Place in an oiled large mixing bowl, and cover very well with cling wrap. Chuck the whole thing into the refrigerator and perform overnight fermentation of the dough for up to 4 days. The dough will rise remarkably during this stage.

Creamy Caramel Slurry
Adapted from “Artisan Breads Every Day,” by Peter Reinhart

113 g granulated or caster sugar
113 g light brown sugar
113 g heavy or whipping cream
14 g unsalted butter – melted or at room temperature
21 g light corn syrup
  1. Combine together (F) in a mixing bowl. If using a mixer, mix on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes. If mixing by hand, stir vigorously with large spoon for about 2 minutes. The mixture should be smooth and homogenous.

February 17, 2011

Scoopfuls of Simple Pleasure

I’m never alone. I wasn’t alone on Valentine’s. And I ain’t gonna be alone on Chap Goh Meh (宵節), a.k.a. Chinese Valentine’s. (The latter is the 15th day of Chinese New Year, which marks the end of the two-week-long celebration.)

In the office, sitting on my desk, was and has always been this bag of familiarity—a bag of loose, coarse flecks. It goes through the thick and thin with me. It never leaves my side. It cheers me up when I’m down. It fills my tummy when I’m hungry. It’s there, by the keyboard, looking at me closely while I type away at the speed of light.

Meet Mr. Oats—a lifelong, loyal companion of mine. (Lifelong? Yes, I have faith in our relationship.) And he’s of rolled oats—not your average quick oats.

One of the many things that glue us together is our love of life’s simplest pleasures. A minimalist that he’s always been, Mr. Oats can be a romantic, too. At times, he’d dress himself up and surprise me in this lovely costume:

Homemade Granola

Which is basically made of rolled oats, almonds, dried fruit, the seeds of certain grains, natural sweeteners, spices, and a touch of oil and sea salt. It calls for no fuss and is straightforward. It’s deliciously simple and healthy and sustainably filling. Nothing beats a bowl of homemade granola, drenched in cold milk, for breakfast to kick-start my every day. And you know, for someone like me, who’s more of a snacker than an eater, homemade granola makes an impeccable treat to munch on. I can nibble away sans the milk, and it’s just as good and satisfying. It reminds me so much of my American mom’s homemade granola, too.

Fresh homemade granola cooling on the baking sheets, in my American mom's kitchen in Minnesota, U.S.

Then there was also once in which he turned up in this costume instead:

Homemade Chocolate-and-Peanut Granola

Awww … How sweet!

After blending myself in the American culture for close to three years, I’m officially part of the ever-growing chocolate-and-peanut-butter cult. And here he is—in this bowl of homemade chocolate-and-peanut granola—who’d have thought of this variation!

With just a few simple tweaks, you’ve got yourself America’s most beloved flavor combo in a bowl! Sometimes, I love serving this kind of granola with a tide of marshmallows floating atop the cold milk, amid this rubble of goodness. It conjures up the scene whereby a bunch of college students encircling a campfire, on a frigid wintery night in northern Minnesota, patiently waiting for their s’mores to get all toasty and gooey. Mmm ...

I know, I can get all mushy easily. That was why Mr. Oats put himself in the position to serve me these mildly sweetened, spicy, and nutty granolas. He’s here for good to expel the melancholy in me. He knows a simple pleasure like homemade granola is sufficient to put a smile on my face.

There, scoopfuls of life’s purest pleasure, reduced to its simplest form. Just me, my nubbly sweetheart, and his granola.

See, didn’t I tell you we’re simple folks to please?

Homemade Granola

Andy’s Fairfield Granola
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Website, Nigella.com

Yield: About 2.5 Liters

175 g applesauce
* I always use homemade applesauce, which is ridiculously easy to make. I’ll share the recipe for that in the near future. *
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
120 g brown-rice syrup or rice-malt syrup or golden syrup
4 Tbsp runny honey e.g. clover honey
100 g light brown sugar
250 g whole almonds—with the skins on
1 tsp sea salt
2 Tbsp neutrally flavored oil e.g. sunflower, canola or corn oil

450 g rolled oats
120 g sunflower seeds
120 g white sesame seeds

300 g raisins

  1. Whisk together (A).
  2. Then, in a very large mixing bowl, toss together (B) with (A) mixture real well. Although a couple of large, rigid wooden spoons will do the job, I prefer to use my hands here. It’s such a sensual thing to do. Hmmm …
  3. Spread the mixture out on large baking sheet(s). Don’t crowd the sheet(s), or the mixture won’t get all dried and toasted while it bakes in the oven. Bake at 170°C for about 40 minutes. Halfway through baking, redistribute the mixture evenly to prevent overbrowning and/or burning in any one place.
  4. Once it’s baked and fully toasted, remove the granola from the oven and let cool completely in its baking sheet(s). Toss in the raisins once the granola is cooled, and store airtight.

Homemade Chocolate-and-Peanut Granola

For chocolate-and-peanut granola:
  • Use 300 g skinned raw peanuts in place of the almonds.
  • Stir in 25~30 g best-quality cocoa powder to (B) mixture, and before adding in (A) mixture, give them (the dry ingredients) a good raking so that the cocoa powder is dispersed throughout the mixture.
  • For this version, Nigella omits the raisins, but I, on the other hand, replace them with coarsely chopped prunes, because I believe chocolate and prunes go well together. She did suggest that dried cherries would be a great inclusion in this version, since cherries and chocolate do in fact complement each other.

Homemade Granola

February 10, 2011

A Poor Man’s Food, Served With Grandeur

I woke up. I ate. I yakked. I then ate. And I yakked again.

That was how my Chinese New Year had been, until earlier this week, when I dragged myself back to the office, and this vicious cycle was forcibly put to a stop.

Lit Up for Chinese New Year, With a Rabbit by the Side, at My House
Home sweet home ...

Oh, wait! I did more than that, didn’t I? (Pei-Lin isn’t that pathetic, anyway.) Let me recount the first days of my Chinese New Year:

I woke up. I ate. I yakked. I then baked. And I cooked. I ate. And I yakked again.

Ah, much better.

Now, I’m pretty sure most Chinese families around the world already had their reunion dinner. (If not, Pei-Lin would give you that searing look.)

In Chinese, we call this special occasion “團圓飯.” It’s pronounced in Cantonese as “TOO-yu-een YOO-een F-ahn,” or in Mandarin as “tuan yuan fan / t-ONE yoo-anne f-ahn.” Okay. Have I had you puzzled with phonetics? I hope not.

The reunion dinner — it’s a big thing. Every Chinese New Year’s Eve, my family never fails to put together a sumptuous spread of good food. Royal treatment for our tummies is not a must; it’s a guarantee.

My Family's Reunion Dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve of 2011

Typical of a southern Chinese household, we emphasize on lavishness — or should I say greatness. These sinographs sum it up best: 大魚大肉, which loosely translate as “fish in profusion, meat in profusion.”

My mom served up her lotus rhizome and peanut soup (蓮藕花生湯), stir-fried leeks with shrimp and carrots (甘筍蒜炒蝦球), Teochew-style steamed fish (潮式蒸魚), and simple stir-fried shrimp in soy sauce (豉油蝦). I, on the other hand, cooked up some chicken curry, zesting it up with the woodsy cardamom and cinnamon. Pretty Malaysian, I’d say. (Alas, I was too tired to snap any picture.)

Oh, one more dish. Here:

Tofu With XO Sauce XO醬嫩豆腐
Oops! I used the wrong plate for this one. Too much sauce? *LOL*

A poor man’s food served with grandeur. Say hi to the humble tofu, and its rich friend, XO sauce.

Sad to say, tofu by itself is nothing but blah. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to delve into that block of soft, white matter from a scientific point of view. But knowing that it does no evil to the body, and that it’s very affordable in this part of the world, I had this urge — the urge to fix something tofu-ish. It’d better be a snappy one, without compromising on the taste.

Image courtesy of Konark Enterprises

There, XO sauce came to my rescue, to imbue the tofu with its unique savory flavors. It’s a jumble of dried seafood like scallops and shrimp, red chili pepper, and spices. That said, it’s got to be rich — in flavor and cost (ouch!). As a matter of fact, it’s been a rich man’s food.

When opposites attract — when the bland meets the flavorful — wonders happen. I’m glad that tofu has found another soul mate, XO sauce, among others.

And the story goes, as the rich XO sauce brings out the humble tofu’s silken smoothness, and as the blah tofu tames down the burning passion of the XO sauce.

On a personal note, just a quibble of ours, we’ve dismissed the “extra hot” warning printed on the packaging. While ingesting XO sauce, we’ve yet to experience any of these symptoms: sweat, tears, sniveling, sniffling, and blushed cheeks.

Other than that, everything was 正 (“tzeh-ng” in Cantonese, meaning awesome)! After a rich flavor therapy, five poor hungry tummies were left filled to the brim.


Tofu With XO Sauce XO醬嫩豆腐

Tofu With XO Sauce   XO醬嫩豆腐
Adapted from “Hometown Delicious (sic)”**   改自《家味美餚》

* The recipe below is purely for reference. It’s recommended that you adjust things to taste. *

** I know it sounds odd, but don’t ask me about the book title. Personally, I think the English titles of many cookbooks and culinary periodicals from Malaysia and some other parts of Asia are worded inappropriately. More proofreading and editing perhaps? **

150 g silken tofu

Cooking oil – 1~2 tsp or adjust as necessary
4 shallots – thinly sliced

2 Tbsp dried shrimp 蝦米 – coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp freshly minced garlic
20 g Chinese sausage 臘腸 – thinly sliced

1 Tbsp light soy sauce 生抽

  1. Here’s how you take care of the tofu. Either you drain it real well and consume it right out of the packaging without reheating (well, give it a gentle rinse if it looks dirty) — or, gently transfer the tofu into a dish (glassware, or some vessel of that sort) and steam over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the steamer or wok or whatever that’s used to steam the tofu, and set side.
  2. For the topping: over medium heat, heat up some cooking oil in a wok or skillet. Once it’s hot enough, lower the heat to medium-low, and sauté the thinly sliced shallots till they smell aromatic and start to brown. Stir in (A), and continue to sauté everything till they are browned and smell absolutely great. Dish out and set aside. On the other hand, combine together (B).
  3. To serve, drain the steamed tofu and pour away the excess water — if you’d chosen to steam it earlier on. Then, spoon the sautéed mixture over the tofu, followed by the XO sauce. Dig in! I prefer mine not burning-hot, warm, or too cold. But this is an arbitrary thing anyway.
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