October 30, 2011

Blessings, I’m Counting

Stroll through the woods in the twilight so serene.
There’s a stream that sounds so busy.
Cross the bridge above it and I see
The water underneath that's made me laugh and cry within.

There, that’s one of my maiden attempts at writing poems. (Oh well, if you’d even consider that a poem.) The idea and the urge to write that down struck me while I was at work (impeccable timing!), which was more than half a year ago, actually. The Muse paid me a surprise visit, and I jumped on the chance and had an intimate chat with her. I’m rather pleased with how things turned out then; I now have a poem that I can call my own — one that whispers to my heart.

Like the rapid water, time flushes down the stream, catching me off guard. I’d done things I never did before then — some commendable and some sober, while others regrettable and plain silly. I put myself on a limb through some painfully odd encounters while in search of the “soul mate” (soul mate, eh?); through immersing myself in the wrong industry and writing about subjects that never interest me; and shortly then, exhausting myself at the job I took up in July.

I’ve been missing in action. Life has been tough on my end. Nonetheless, I’m glad that now I can feel relieved for a little, because I’ve just left behind the job that’s turned my sense of time upside down. I’ll be embarking on a familiarly new and exciting journey as a full-time writer(!!) once again.

I could go on and on, ranting at you, about how miserable I feel and how terrible the last four months had been, but I’ve decided not to. Because of the inherent challenges, including handling the exacting supervisor, I grow. Plus, life is short, and I only live once, and there are many other things around me that deserve my attention and ought to be told.

The Emcees - W.H. Foong and Me
Albeit left behind, tagging along with me from my previous job are bittersweet memories, precious lessons learned, and invaluable friendships. (Photo courtesy of Andrew, my ex-colleague.)

I am sure I’ve said this many a time, but allow me to reiterate: How blessed I am to have a family, friends, and (former) co-workers who care and support me. Not that it’s my first time realizing this. But I’ve learned to appreciate these people even more. I’m counting my blessings.

I turned 24 on Oct. 3. From morning till late evening that day, to my pleasant surprise, I was showered with wishes after wishes, including the lovely email from my American mom, Bonnie. And then, during my last days of work, I was, again, deluged with advice, kind thoughts, and well wishes from my former co-workers.

Things got frustrating at work. But boy, these little messages, simple and yet thoughtful, cheered me up and kept me going. Other than a big thank-you, I’m not sure what else to say, or what to do in return to express my gratitude.

Well, actually, there’s another way. Those who know me deep and long enough, especially in real life, will tell you that Pei-Lin often shows her love through food. Or, to be more precise, her own food.

That’s what I’d learned from my American family and friends: The joy of baking and cooking and eating with loved ones transcends words. Sharing makes the world go round. Yes?

Of course, today I’m not here to list down every dish that I’d shared, but instead, I’m going to share with you the birthday treat I’d made for myself.

Chocolate-Thyme Cake (Gâteau Chocolat-Thym) 2

Never mind its sloppy looks as long as it tastes divine. And not to worry, because I did not have the cake all to myself.

This unusual chocolate cake recipe, adapted from Pâtisserie Stohrer in Dorie Greenspan’s book, Paris Sweets, introduced me to the unexpected pairing of chocolate and thyme. As odd as it may sound, things actually work out beautifully.

The cake starts off with thin layers of chocolate genoise, which tend to dry up easily, and so they’re fed with a judicious amount of thyme-infused syrup before smearing over with silky thyme-flavored pastry cream and luscious chocolate mousse. I know that at this stage, the cake already beckons. But you’re advised to allow the elements to set and mingle in the fridge for a few hours.

Chocolate-Thyme Cake (Gâteau Chocolat-Thym) 3

The reward is a perfectly moist, tender layered cake that, amid dark-chocolaty goodness, gives off the soft earthy, savory note of thyme. As a matter of fact, it may seem like there’s an overdose of thyme in the recipe, but it is not. The thyme actually brightens up the otherwise mundane, rich-tasting chocolate cake.

This is what happened then, during the week of my birthday …

Scrounged around the pantry after work, feeling dazed.
In the fridge I found slices of the cake looking unfazed.
Dainty helpings of thyme-ly chocolaty bliss
Had made me smile and dance within.

Good stuff is meant to be shared. So this cake is also for my dad, my brother, and my close friends Qin Yi, Ee Vian, and Phui Peng, whose birthdays — never mind whether now belated or not — aren’t far from mine.

Bestest Friends, Forever!
A friend is that special someone who always makes you feel cherished and happy amid life's ups and downs  as in Phui Peng is to me. (Photo courtesy of Cheng Wan, my ex-colleague.)

Le gâteau chocolat-thym is a toast to life, which has made me laugh and cry within, and a tribute to those who have stood by me and helped me pull through life.

Chocolate-Thyme Cake (Gâteau Chocolat-Thym)

Chocolate-Thyme Cake (Gâteau Chocolat-Thym)
Adapted from Pâtisserie Stohrer, via Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan

For the chocolate mousse, I find dark chocolate with 60-percent cacao content yields just the right sweetness and flavor. And don’t skimp on thyme; I’d up the quantity to six or seven sprigs — that is, if you have a fussy palate like mine — for the syrup and the cream each, if I were to the cake again.

I must also admit that preparing a genoise batter is still a weakness of mine. So, for gentler handling and a thorough incorporation of the ingredients, I followed the advice from Happy Homebaker and Zhuoyuan and used a balloon whisk instead of a large rubber spatula to fold the dry ingredients and melted butter into the main batter. It works, always!

And unlike Stohrer, instead of finishing the cake with a thin coating of chocolate glaze, I simply served it with a dusting of cocoa atop. Just as delicious.

For the cake:

70 grams all-purpose flour
25 grams Dutch-processed cocoa powder (unsweetened, for baking)
¼ teaspoon double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda

3 large eggs, at room temperature
100 grams superfine or granulated sugar

45 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the thyme syrup:

180 grams water
100 grams sugar
5 sprigs fresh thyme

For the thyme cream:

125 grams whole milk
125 grams heavy cream

50 grams superfine or granulated sugar, separated
5 sprigs fresh thyme, or more or less according to your taste
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature

1¼ teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
30 grams (2 tablespoons) cold water

For the chocolate mousse:

100 grams bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
250 grams heavy cream, chilled

To make the cake:

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 20 x 5-centimeter (8 x 2-inch) round cake pan, line the bottom with a circle of parchment, grease the parchment, too, and flour the entire interior, tapping out the excess.

Sift together (A), and set aside.

Whisk together (B) in a large mixing bowl, and place the bowl in a large skillet filled with a few inches of hot water. Working over medium-high heat and whisking without stop, beat the eggs and sugar till they are foamy and just warm to the touch. Remove the bowl from the skillet, and continue beating on high speed till the mixture is cool and at least double in volume. When you lift the whisk, the mixture should fall back into the bowl in a slowly dissolving ribbon. Switch to a large balloon whisk and gently and gradually fold in the sifted dry ingredients. When the dry ingredients are no longer visible, gently fold in the melted butter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 22 minutes, or till the cake is springy to the touch. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool for five minutes, then run a blunt knife between the cake and the sides of the pan, invert the cake onto another wire rack, remove the parchment, and invert again onto the first rack. Let cool to room temperature. The cake can now be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature for two days or frozen for a month.

To make the syrup:

Place (C) in a small saucepan and stir over high heat till the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil, pull from the heat, and cool. Discard the thyme. The syrup — minus the thyme sprigs — can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week.

To make the thyme cream:

Bring (D), two tablespoons of the sugar, and the thyme to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar, turn off the heat, and let infuse for at least 10 minutes or for up to an hour (if necessary, reheat till hot before using). Meanwhile, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water. When it is soft and spongy, heat it for 15 seconds in a microwave, or do this stovetop, to liquefy; set aside.

Discard the thyme in the milk-and-cream mixture. Whisk together the yolks and the remaining sugar in a small bowl. Still whisking, gradually pour in the hot thyme-infused milk-and-cream mixture over the yolks, then pour everything back into the saucepan. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat till the cream coats a spoon — when you run a finger down the back of the spoon, the track you create should remain. Strain the cream into a clean bowl, stir in the dissolved gelatin, and chill, stirring frequently, just till it thickens ever so slightly. Once the cream begins to show signs of thickening, pull it out of the fridge and keep it at room temperature while you make the mousse. When you’re ready to use it, the cream should be part pourable, part spreadable, like the mousse.

To make the mousse:

Put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring 125 grams (½ cup) of the cream to a full boil and pour it over the chocolate. Wait a minute, then gently stir till the chocolate is smooth and glossy. Cool the ganache, stirring occasionally, till it no longer feels warm to the touch.

Meanwhile, whip the remaining cream till it forms soft peaks — the cream has to be cold to be whipped. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the lightly whipped cream into the cooled ganache, then gently fold in the rest.

To assemble the cake:

Line the bottom of a 20-centimeter (eight-inch) springform pan with parchment (I used aluminum foil, and for the springform pan, mine is 23 centimeters, or nine inches, wide). Using a serrated knife, cut a thin slice off the top of the cake to level it; cut the cake horizontally in half. Put the bottom cake layer into the ring, cut side up (if needed, trim the layer to fit the pan), and brush with enough syrup to moisten it well. Spread the thyme cream evenly over the cake, making sure to spread it all the way to the edges, then top with the other layer of the cake. Moisten the cake with syrup (you may have the syrup left over) and top with the mousse, spreading it smoothly. Chill the cake for at least two hours. (As seen in the photos, you can probably tell the rebel in me didn’t quite follow the instructions. Well.)

If the cake is very cold, let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving. Unmold the cake and transfer it to a serving platter. The easiest way to unmold this cake is to warm the sides of the springform pan with a hairdryer before undoing the latch.

Note: The cake keeps for up to four days, refrigerated and covered and away from foods with strong odor. It also stores well frozen, wrapped airtight, for up to a month — just defrost overnight in the fridge to consume.

October 27, 2011

Are You Still There?

Hello, Friend.

I heart my new hairstyle!

It’s been more than six weeks, of what seems like forever for me to update this blog (FINALLY)!

In fact, there will be a new post and a recipe here in about two days, before we say goodbye to October and to fall and embrace winter. Oh, time flees!

On the other hand, I’m happy to announce that I survived possibly one of the roughest patches of my entire life. So, please allow me some more time to recover from fatigue and to get everything up and running here once again. And if you’d left me questions or comments during my long absence, please feel free to check them out now. It’s never my intention to keep you suspended, and for that, I apologize.

Alright, I shall sign off for now. See you in a couple of days!

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