July 28, 2011

Things We Love and Talk About

Irish writer Oscar Wilde once said, “True friends stab you in the front.”

My Mom's Orchids(?)

And after stabbing you in the front, they also, for the most part, let you stand up and heal on your own. The wound is deep enough to inflict pain, to make you think twice and reflect upon yourself. The wound is also, however, shallow enough to induce self recovery in you. They’re skilled stabbers, I must say. They’re hard to come by, too.

And I must say, Qin Yi, a real close friend of mine whom I’ve known for six years, give or take a bit, is one rare gem, one that I’ll never want to let go of.

Maybe it’s been so long, we can’t recall how and when exactly we chanced upon each other. Perhaps it was through a common friend of ours? What I can be certain of, though, is the first days of our friendship. Both of us met at a small-town college in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, where we’d survived boredom for months because we only got to travel home once a few months. Fresh out of high school, she enrolled herself in an A-level program and I in an America-bound four-year undergrad program.

All these years, in my heart, Qin Yi has stood as a very independent, intelligent, mature, brave, and open-minded young woman, one who deserves my admiration. She’s one of those buddies who have been watching me grow — from a late adolescent to a young adult, from a naïve college kid to a relatively more mature (ah hem!) working lady — over the last few years.

When I was a college freshman, I knew nothing about baking and cooking; I’d either dine out or have take-outs for all three meals, every day. Even then, when I wasn’t acquainted with the oven and the stove and all the pots and pans, I’d still be treated to some home cooking occasionally. Qin Yi was the one who cooked and shared her food with me, churning out simple and yet tasty dishes with just a crock pot in the pantry of her dorm. I was lucky, I know.

The truth is, after spending about a year on the same campus, we had to part our way. In September 2006, Qin Yi left for England in pursuit of a medical degree, and only four months thereafter, I flew to the States to further my studies in journalism and writing. So, really, our friendship has been more of a long-distance one.

I remember, for a handful of months, we lost touch, but after that, were somehow reconnected on MSN. Or was it Skype? What I’m positive about, though, is the six-hour difference, that I often wound up calling her on the computer at five or six in the morning, when it was already one or two in the afternoon in England. The conversations usually dragged on for more than an hour.

What did we chat and rant about? Life. Our home, Malaysia. Our cultural experiences abroad. And of course, baking and cooking.

Thai Cellophane Noodle Salad

Since then, baking and cooking — things we love and talk about, among others — have been a huge part of our friendship. To be honest, Qin Yi was taken aback when she discovered my addiction to food porn on my Flickr page, which then led her to this blog. Who would have thought this girl enjoys being in the kitchen! This is so not the Pei-Lin of yore.

It’s not difficult to find trails of Qin Yi on this blog. Whenever time allows, she’d pop by and leave a line or two here. She’s been supportive of me. She even tried a number of recipes I’ve posted on here, including the sunshine salad, matcha au lait cheesecake, chocolate wassants, and our favorite Pierre Hermé’s sablés Korova.

In May, I was elated when Qin Yi emailed to tell me that she’d be in Ho Chi Minh City for a month of practical training and upon completion, would be staying in Seremban, her hometown, until early this month, before leaving for England again to partake in the commencement. Yes! After spending five years studying and working hard, she’s graduated! She’s about to embark on a journey that will eventually qualify her as an experienced general practitioner. (Qin Yi, if you’re reading this, congrats! I’m so proud of you.)

Now, I have to admit to living a very hectic schedule, to postponing a meet-up with Qin Yi twice. When there’s a will, however, there’s always a way. (Sorry for the cliché.) We worked hard. We played it by ear. I was so glad to have her over for a weekend late last month. We finally got to see each other in five years!

Just like most ladies, we yakked nonstop and shopped a lot — for, in fact, nearly five hours that Saturday. We ate a lot, too. We also churned out a dish or two every single day that weekend. We whipped up Thai cellophane-noodle salad for a late lunch on the first day, and then homemade mayo that night. We knocked together a pasta salad with the mayo the next morning before going on a shopping spree. And the next morning, just before Qin Yi left, again, we rose at six to bake a batch of super-size chocolate-chip cookies. It was crazy-fun time. We were just as tired as we were happy.

Prepping for Making Salad
Qin Yi prepping the ingredients for the pasta salad while I shot this.

I did mention to Qin Yi that I, also on her behalf, will be sharing our fruits of labor with you, my reader. Since we’d got quite a lot going on, let’s savor them but one at a time. If you’re a fan of seafood, if you crave acidic foods like nobody’s business, and if you’re born with a fancy for Thai fare, I would say, go for this, Thai cellophane-noodle salad.

Thai Cellophane Noodle Salad

Refreshing, savory, a tad pungent and hot, and somewhat sourish. Exciting-than-al-dente springiness from the cellophane noodles and the squid, with some crunch here and there from the bits of the Jew’s ear. And then you’ve also got succulent shrimp in the mix, which tease you with their fresh subtle ocean sweetness. You can’t get any more Thai than this salad; it’s about flavors and play of textures.

Really, you wouldn’t go wrong with this tropical salad in the summertime. And it’s darn easy to throw together, too. Oh, did I also mention it’s addictive? The salad is supposed to go with steamed rice, but Qin Yi and I couldn’t care less; we polished off that bowl of salad for four in one sitting.

Thai Cellophane Noodle Salad

Thai Cellophane-Noodle Salad
Adapted from Periplus Mini Cookbooks: Tropical Salads, by Geok Boi Lee

If you aren’t residing in this part of the world, i.e. Southeast Asia, where there’s easy access to the ingredients for this salad all year round, I myself, having lived in the States before, would think that most Asian grocers beyond this region are decent enough to carry such ingredients, especially the Jew’s ears, cellophane noodles, and fish sauce.

For this salad, we actually omitted the cilantro because Qin Yi would wind up picking it out from the stash while eating. The cilantro is only here to make its cameo appearance in the photos. But even without the cilantro, the salad still shone through with its sprightly flavors and textures. So, really, you should adjust things to taste, though a recipe is often just as important serving as a guide.

100 grams fresh squid, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
200 grams small or medium fresh shrimp, cleaned, peeled, and deveined
About 1 tablespoon worth of Jew’s ear (黑木耳), soaked in warm water until softened and has “expanded” and then drained
75 grams dried cellophane noodles (冬粉)

4 bird’s-eye chiles, deseeded and finely sliced
2½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 large scallion, finely chopped
5 shallots, thinly sliced

Cilantro leaves, to garnish and serve (recommended, though really optional)
Steamed rice, to serve (optional)

Blanch the squid in boiling water very briefly, until it becomes opaque, do not overcook. Dish out, drain, and set aside. Then, in the same pot of boiling water, blanch the shrimp until they turn pink. Dish out, drain, and let cool aside.

In the same pot of boiling water, blanch the Jew’s ear until cooked through. Dish out, drain, and let cool slightly aside. To tell when it’s done, cut off a teeny bit to test, which should feel much pliable to touch but still retain that signature slippery-crunch on your teeth. Neither Qin Yi nor I know the exact timing for cooking the Jew’s ear; it was all based off of our experiences, because we, as Chinese, grew up with consuming this edible fungus. Once the cooked fungus is cool enough to handle, cut into fine shreds and set aside.

Cook the cellophane noodles in boiling water until soft, but do not overcook. On your teeth, it should feel something between gummy-candy springiness and mochi-like tender-chewiness. Immediately drain and shock the cooked noodles in cold water to stop the cooking process and to keep from clumping together.

Drain the noodles and place in a large mixing bowl with the squid, shrimp, Jew’s ear, and (A). Toss them together so that the ingredients are evenly distributed. Garnish with some cilantro leaves. Serve at once, or, like what Qin Yi and I did, at room temperature, with or without steamed rice. It’s to your call.

Yield: four servings, or two for two really hungry people

July 25, 2011

The Wait

I, Pei-Lin, had temporarily jilted this blog. It was left in the lurch, remained stuck at the Fourth, when in reality, the world has moved on, and that now it’s already July 25.

It’s the end of July! There’s a three weeks’ gap in between! People, I’ve deserted this blog for a good three weeks! Ouch.

I’m sorry if I’ve kept you waiting. I know exactly how it feels, that the wait sucks, that waiting sucks, because I’d made myself wait, too.


In the last three weeks, I was waiting for miracles to happen, when the atheist and pragmatist in me should have told me earlier, that miracles are of nonexistence. The naïve me went out on a limb, jeopardizing myself — well, virtually — in the hands of a few morons. Sorry, but I have to be frank, because these fellas were utter morons. And I bet you can now sense in me an energy surrounding these, an anger that has yet to subside.

Trust has been violated. My heart was broken. I wept. But I’m getting over with it. I’m moving on. My family and close friends are there for me.

So, just so you wonder, during my absence here, I was out there getting my soul hurt, and at the same time, straining myself at the new job I’d embarked upon earlier this month. I’d had to work on weekend, to travel for official duty without an early notice. Not that I’m whining here, please don’t take me wrong, but I just want to let you know that things haven’t been easy on me. The transparency just isn’t there when there’s not much time, when there are so many stories I can’t possibly write and have not, or never, even blogged about.

I am where now I am. A different industry. A relatively new field and a new position that entails a relatively different job scope, with occasional out-of-town trips and two hours of commuting every day. I’m learning new stuff every day, too; hence, the mental and physical exhaustion. Now I’m no longer writing full time; writing, though still required, no longer takes center stage at my day job. The point is, I decided to redeem myself, career-wise, by taking up something a little different. It’s not the same as being a writer and a copywriter — where I was.

Somewhere in Ipoh, Perak ...
The new job has taken me to Ipoh ... More trips to Ipoh to come, for sure.

All of this, I believe, is going to make it even harder for me to let go of writing, of writing on this blog. Writing is a part of me, my catharsis, through which I let my creativity and imagination run free after hours of bureaucratic and corporate restraints.

I value trust — since I’ve been hurt — and I know the trust between a writer and her readers is important. Here’s my promise: In three days, there’ll be a new post and a recipe from me. In fact, this coming post has been in draft since July 7, and I’ve been writing it on and off, at home and at work and on my head while driving to and fro work. It's about there. I’ve been a doing terrible job, I know.

Anyhow, before I go, here are a few interesting stuff (well, at least to me) that I’d like to share with you. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ll know I’d tweeted about these a while back.

I’ll talk to you again in a few days, as promised. In the meantime, have a fabulous week ahead!

Hello, Koi!

July 4, 2011

Untimely and Timely as It Can Get

Just About to Feast ...

Boy, am I glad I didn’t have to celebrate the Fourth this year alone, literally, or what.

Hello, Pei-Lin. You’re Malaysian — not American!

I know. If you’ve been following my blog, by now you should be able to tell I’m a downright frank gal. And I may be one of the most stubborn persistent fellas you’ve ever come across, because I’ve not had qualms with anyone uttering that sort of remark about me. In fact, even though it’s been almost two years since my return from the States, I’m still celebrating the Fourth — but virtually, and literally alone — if you can recall the lengthy post I wrote on here a year ago.

Alongside Thanksgiving and Christmas (the latter is more of a secular deal for me, of course), the Fourth of July has got to be one of my favorite holidays in America.

Politics aside, I love the Fourth of July for the summer, food, and people — the nice people I got to know there, my American family and close friends, with whom I’ve formed eternal bonds. At this time of year, it’s especially hard for me not to think of them and the sweet memories they’d left behind.

One of the coolest things about celebrating the Fourth in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes — or more, actually.

I’m in Malaysia now, and for once I thought my American connection was coming to an end — until I met Gary, the husband to Veronica (she’s the brains behind Quay Po Cooks). It was through Veronica that I got to know this Oklahoma-born Californian. By spending time with Gary and his family, I can, on this side of the Pacific, feel closer to a beautiful country I once called home for about three years.

How unpredictable life can be.

A lot of times my inner self feels like it’s suspended between the conservative Chinese and the much-more-liberal American values. It’s tough, when I’m adamant about clinging onto my own set of beliefs and values. (One of the greatest tragedies in life, I think, has got to be the loss of one’s own identity, and I can see that’s happening around me, amid the rat race I’ve been a part of.) It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when I can spend hours with Gary and Veronica, and am almost always mentally stimulated and challenged just by exchanging views with them. All this reminds me of my days in the States.

Remembering the promise I had made a couple of months ago, that I’d visit with them once in June, before things start to get crazy-busy for me (I shall fill you in, slowly, in the next posts), I figured that my late-June schedule needed to be sorted out immediately. After a few tweets, phone calls, and text messages, we finally settled on having a lunch together at Gary and Veronica’s last Tuesday, and I, Pei-Lin, decided it’d be an early Fourth celebration, since I could already foresee myself slogging away in the office on the Big Day itself.

Veron's Xarém (Portuguese Corn, Pork, and Clam Mash)

For the main course, Veronica prepared xarém, a deliciously hearty Portuguese corn mash with pork and clams (you’ve been warned!). I, on the other hand, baked a pumpkin pie for dessert. (Ugh, another pie post?!)

It’s summer! HELLO. Where’s the cherry pie? Blueberry pie? Raspberry pie?

Sour-Cream Pumpkin Pie

I know it’s not even fall. It’s not even Thanksgiving and Christmas yet. But knowing there were two cups of pumpkin purée in the freezer, I couldn’t help. Miss Pumpkin Pie is as American as she can be. And she was calling my name.

When it comes to baking pies, I much prefer a custard one to a fruit one, because unlike the latter, the crust of a custard pie — pumpkin pie, lemon meringue pie, key lime pie — almost always stays crunchy and flaky and has a greater resistance to soddenness. Of its kind, a plain ol’ pumpkin pie served with whipped cream works nicely on my taste buds. But when sour cream and dark rum come into play, we’re giving this girl next door a little makeover.

“As all pumpkin pies should be, this one is slip-through-your-teeth smooth and lavishly rich and creamy, and it is also spiced like eggnog and spiked with dark rum.”

I was utterly convinced the moment I stumbled upon these words in Baking: From My Home to Yours, a dessert bible by Dorie Greenspan, the well-established American chef and cookbook writer.

Sour-Cream Pumpkin Pie

The pictures I’ve taken here may not do the pie justice, and for that, I apologize. But the good news is, all of us here who have tried it can attest to Dorie’s words; Gary, Veronica, my brother, and I are sold on the pie. It’s decadent. It’s glorious. It beams with an elegant shade of gold.

Oh, well. It’s not fall, and it’s not even Thanksgiving or Christmas now. But when pumpkin gets in the way, no one can stop it. This sour-cream pumpkin pie makes for an untimely dessert for a timely feast in the name of the Fourth, in the name of a country that gave birth to the many wonderful people — my American family and friends, including Gary — and the pumpkin pie. For all that, I love America.

Happy Fourth of July!

Sour-Cream Pumpkin Pie

Sour-Cream Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan, and Joy of Baking.com

This pumpkin pie filling recipe of Dorie’s wins, hands down. But to utilize what I had on hand, I tweaked it slightly. I subbed regular evaporated milk for heavy cream. (In fact, most traditional pumpkin pie fillings are made with evaporated milk. Even my first pumpkin pie, made more than three years ago when I was in the States, contained evaporated milk but not sour cream and heavy cream.) On top of that, I threw in ¼ teaspoon of allspice in place of the ground cloves and freshly ground nutmeg — a pinch of each of the latter two at Dorie’s suggestion.

For the pâte brisée:

700 grams all-purpose flour
60 grams granulated or caster sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt

226 grams shortening, cut into one-inch chunks and kept chilled
226 grams unsalted butter, cut into one-inch chunks and kept chilled

120 to 240 milliliters ice-cold water, or adjust as necessary
Milk and Demerara sugar

For the pie filling:

425 grams unsweetened pumpkin purée
3 large eggs, at room temperature
200 grams light brown sugar
28 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled
237 milliliters regular evaporated milk (don’t use evaporated filled milk for this!)
196 milliliters regular sour cream
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon allspice
Pinch of sea salt
44 milliliters (3 tablespoons) dark rum
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

To make the pâte brisée, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together (A). Then, cut in (B) with a pastry blender or fork or dull knife — working fast while the fats are still cold, especially on a hot day — until the mixture resembles coarse meals. Slowly pour in ice-cold water, work in just enough until the mixture holds together to form a dough that’s neither too sticky nor crumbly. Divide the dough in half. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least two hours. I always prepare mine the night before, so that the dough gets to relax and chill overnight.

After resting and chilling the dough, get a 23-centimeter (nine-inch) pie plate at the ready. Retrieve a portion of the dough from the fridge for the pie crust and keep the other half refrigerated — with the excess filling, you’re going to need more dough later to make more pie. Unwrap and lightly flour the dough, and then, on a well-floured work surface, with a floured rolling pin and floured hands, roll the dough out to a 0.5 centimeter-thick, 28-centimeter round — as long as it’s slightly larger than the pie plate, you’ll be fine. Make sure the dough, work surface, rolling pin, and your hands are well floured at all times. Now, gently fold the dough into quarters, and gingerly transfer it into the pie plate. Carefully unfold the dough, so that it’s now lining the pie plate. Brush off any excess flour. Trim, fold, and crimp the edges of the dough. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest and chill in the refrigerator for an hour. Repeat the above steps with the remaining dough in another 23-centimeter pie plate.

Here, I’ll be baking one pie at a time. But all this depends on the capacity of your oven and some other variables, so please attune the following steps to the situation in hand. After an hour, remove one of the pie plates from the fridge, unwrap, and set it on a baking sheet for easy transport. Dock the dough with a fork and brush it with milk and sprinkle all over with Demerara sugar. Partially bake it in an oven preheated to 200°C, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a light shade of golden brown. Remove the partially cooked dough from the oven and set it aside to cool completely. I personally don’t use, say, dried beans to weigh the puffing dough down during baking; I just let the dough puff — that’s how slack I am! However, if you, unlike me, want to properly bake the dough, simply line it with aluminum foil and weigh it down with dried beans before baking. Repeat with the remainder.

To prepare the filling, in a large mixing bowl, vigorously whisk together (C), and rap the mixing bowl against the counter to burst any surface bubbles. When stored in an airtight container and kept refrigerated, the filling can actually keep for two days. Now, with the pie plate still sitting on the baking sheet, pour the filling mixture into the cooled pie shell and bake it in an oven preheated to 230°C for about 10 minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature to 150°C and continue to bake for another 35 to 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted close to the center comes out clean. Alternatively, if you do not want to mar the pie’s surface, try tapping the pie plate gently — if it doesn’t jiggle, or jiggles a wee bit in the very center, it’s done. Remove from the oven and transfer the pie to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature before serving. Repeat with the remainder.

Sour-Cream Pumpkin Pie Baking in the Oven
When the crust is browning too much, cover it with aluminum foil.

Just like all pumpkin pies, this one is best enjoyed with dollops of lightly sweetened whipped cream — though, it’s just as toothsome sans the cream.

Note on storing: When wrapped in plastic wrap or sealed in a huge Ziploc bag, the pie keeps for up to three days in the refrigerator. Just reheat it in the microwave before serving.
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