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I don’t usually have a particularly sweet tooth, and I also tend to find Asian desserts to be a bit ho-hum. But Singapore and Malaysia may have changed those opinions forever, because the world of kueh has opened up for me. It all started in Singapore, where Kenny suggested that we buy some little cakes right after our massive blow-out meal at Chomp Chomp. We laughed, because really we couldn’t have eaten a wafer thin mint at that point. But Kenny insisted that we take some back to our hotel, so we bought two tiny, jewel-like green cakes. And sure enough, an hour later, in our hotel room, we thought why not, they’re very small…They proved to be absolutely delicious morsels, combining sweet sticky rice, coconut custard and pandan layers. When I reported this back to Kenny, he said that Singaporeans have a finely-tuned sense of when the human body will be ready to ingest just a little more food. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Rosh Hashanah and regular readers will know that I have a real love for holiday cooking. Jewish New Year is celebrated with apples and honey, and one of the traditional dishes is a dark and moist honey cake. Some people don’t like honey cake because bad versions tend to be dry. It can also be very heavily spiced with cinnamon and cloves, which I  find a bit overwhelming. So in thinking about honey cake, I wanted to start from a recipe I knew would be good and moist and I also wanted to think about ways to alter the flavours a bit to my own taste.

I began Smitten Kitchen’s recipe, which she herself adapted from Marcy Goldman’s Treasure of Jewish Holiday Baking. But I wasn’t keen on the idea of whisky and I wanted a rather different flavour profile. So instead of the traditional spices, I made a chai masala – the aromatic spice mix that goes into Indian tea. Chai masala has some of the same notes as a spiced cake – cinnamon and cloves – but it adds to them cardamom, mace, ginger and nutmeg. I love masala tea and its blend of peppery and perfumey spices with sweet tea seemed like rather a good combination for a cake. I also replaced the booze with apples, partly to keep tea the predominant liquid flavour and partly because I wanted to add a bit of New Year apples to the mix. Read the rest of this entry »

The lemurs have been on a bit of a vacation, here in the dog days of August. I know, we weren’t long back from Rome when we were off again, this time on a trip I’ve been excited about for months. Somehow, I learned that the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Centre in Jersey has a significant Madagascan wildlife collection and that, in particular, they have a lot of lemurs. My response? OMG squeeee!!!111!!!1! Yeah, here at The Lemurs are Hungry, we are kind of lemur crazy and it turns out, so is lemur friend Thrifty Gal. So, as a belated birthday jaunt, Thrifty Gal and I cooked up a plan to visit Jersey and see the lemurs. The Durrell Centre has a splendid offer that for just £50, a party of up to five people can go backstage with an animal keeper and get up close and personal with their choice of animal. So we booked flight and hotel and headed off to St Helier with very few other plans in mind.

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My green-fingered cousin sent me some rhubarb in the mail. When I saw her last week in Edinburgh, she offered to pop some of her bumper crop in the post for me but I didn’t quite believe she would do it. Next thing I knew, a large brown paper envelope was plopping through the door, filled with healthy stalks of rhubarb. I’m a big fan of this maligned fruit, in large measure because of the spectacular rhubarb pies my grandmother used to make. My nana was a great baker and her pastry was short, buttery, but not sweet. It was a great match for rhubarb, which she sweetened with mildly horrifying handfuls of sugar. The resulting pie set me up for a lifetime of rhubarb love but it’s not an everyday dish.

I’ve done a rhubarb compote before on the blog, but this is a neat technique that Lemur friend K shared, which he got (in some fashion lost in the midst of time) from iconic cookbook editor and writer Judith Jones. Here, the rhubarb pieces don’t break down but keep their shape and colour, while their liquid turns into a delicious ruby syrup. It’s very simple, but I had never done it this way before and it really is a cut above your regular compote.

Rhubarb compote

Start the day before you want to eat your compote. Slice the rhubarb into inch long chunks, put in a large bowl and sprinkle on as much sugar as you usually like (hint, more than seems initially reasonable, less than a Scottish grandmother would add).

Leave to sit overnight. The next morning, you’ll find the rhubarb has released a bunch of liquid.

Pour the whole lot into a pan and heat over a medium-high heat till boiling. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the rhubarb for about five minutes. If you are relatively gentle you’ll find the rhubarb keeps its shape and doesn’t break down as in a normal compote. It will also cook very quickly.

Remove the rhubarb carefully with a spider and reduce the remaining liquid to a thick pink-red syrup.

Pour the syrup over the rhubarb and enjoy with yoghurt and granola for breakfast, or with cake or on ice cream.

I know, another dessert from me, what’s the world coming to? Baking-phobic that I am, I have had one signal success in the world of desserts and that’s my pandan cheesecake. I’ve always loved pandan, a flavour that does the work of a kind of Asian vanilla. It is sweet but with a background nuttiness that works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are wrapped around chicken and grilled in Southeast Asia, but you most often come across pandan in the form of a concentrated essence, like vanilla, used to make bright green cakes or dessert noodles. I have a couple of problems with these uses though: first, the bottles of essence taste kind of chemically and second, I am really not a fan of those dry Asian cakes. I know, it’s probably a cultural bias but I do think cake is one area in which European and American cultures have Asia beaten. So, I came up with the idea of an East meets West dessert: New York style creamy cheesecake flavoured with pandan.

Over the weekend we had a visit from the Crocodiles, down from London and expecting to be impressed with some kind of Asian feast. It was nervous-making: they are very serious foodies with strong opinions on Chinese food in particular. I didn’t have the nerve to cook Chinese for them but I did put together a fun Vietnamese menu: thick rice noodles with fried pork skin and coconut milk, aromatic braised pork osso buco, sour soup with monkfish, and bitter melon salad. The pandan cheesecake seemed like an appropriate end to the meal, even though it’s not Vietnamese. I think I love it because it represents my cooking background – New York influenced by the Asian flavours of Chinatown.

Pandan Cheesecake

  • 3 digestive biscuits
  • 6 ginger biscuits
  • 85 g melted butter
  • 900 g cream cheese
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups caster sugar
  • 400 g sour cream
  • 1/4 cup pandan juice (see below)

Your first order of business is to extract the pandan juice, and this you can use for all kinds of things. You need pandan leaves, fresh or frozen, to begin with, which are available from many Asian markets.

Chop 12 leaves into 2 inch chunks, put them in a food processor or blender and add about a 1/2 cup of water.

Now blend until they are as mushed up as possible – you might need to stop and stir them a few times as the leaves are a bit resistant.

Next, put the mix through a cheesecloth and sieve into a bowl. Squish and squeeze the leaves with a spatula or your fingers to get all the liquid out.

You’ll end up with a thin but deep jade coloured liquid that’s ready for cooking.

Heat the oven to 250 F / 130 C / gas mark 1/2. This cake is going to cook very very gently! Butter a springform pan. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese and sugar with a hand mixer. In a separate bowl, beat six eggs, just to mix, then add these in to the cheese and sugar. This is the part where you have to just not think about how many calories you are planning to ingest. Add the pandan juice and the sour cream and mix well.

At this point, the cake mix will seem very liquidy. The pandan juice adds quite a bit of liquid but have faith. Pour into the springform pan and place on a baking tray on the bottom shelf in the oven. Cook for two hours – keep an eye on it as it may take a bit more or less. When the outside is firm but toward the centre is still pretty wibbly, turn off the oven and let it cool a bit in there. Then take it out and cover with a teatowel to cool before putting in the fridge to set for a few hours.

Serves 12.

Regular readers will have noticed that I’m not really a dessert person. First of all, I don’t have an enormously sweet tooth but mostly I am just not a baker. I completely subscribe to the idea that the world is split into cooks and bakers and I’m massively impressed by anyone who can do both. My grandmother was a baker: family lore has it that she was frustrated by my grandfather’s culinary conservatism and channeled all of her creative energies into the medium of cake. As a child, I loved going to her house because there was always a freshly made coconut cake or an Albert cake on hand. My mother, by contrast, is a cook: her lasagne is legendary and she makes a pretty good chicken korma too. I’ve inherited my mother’s love of cooking but whereas she can actually make a lovely dessert, I am terrified of the entire world of baking. I never know what things are supposed to look like at each stage and it all seems so unforgiving. That’s why I love this beautiful Seville orange cake recipe, which seems entirely idiot-proof… Read the rest of this entry »

After a long train journey north, we spent last night in Sukhothai. Our first night out of Bangkok was a bit of a blur of brightly lit stores, birds congregating at Hitchcock levels on electrical wires, dilapidated buildings and busy night streets. We ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe, which sounds a lot more fancy than it was. Our table was on the street, sandwiched between teenagers on Vespas hanging out on one side and a Thai soap opera playing silently on the other. In other words, it was pretty much my ideal eatery. After missing out on pad krapow for breakfast, I had it for dinner, with our guide Aom ordering it properly pet, or spicy for me. Mr Lemur had wide noodles that were revelatory: their relationship to noodles at home being the difference between pasta by Buitoni and pasta fresh made by your Italian grandmother. But the highlight of the evening was watching the hawker cart ladies at work. We followed up our meal with Thai roti: puffed up roti dough filled with banana, crisply fried on a griddle and then – wait for it – doused in chocolate sauce and condensed milk. Yeah, you think Thai food is all light and healthy with the salads and all, but there are enough fried things to keep any sweet lover happy. 

 

Her speed throwing the roti out was astonishing. She flips the dough back and forth till it’s paper thin. It’s a joy to watch her work.

Next comes the magic of puffed bread, with a generous helping of banana in the centre.

Can you tell we were awaiting our roti with excitement?

Just look at the condensed milk! This is the part that had Mr Lemur drooling. 

The finished article. The chocolate sauce is homemade, and the whole thing was a decadent treat. It’s possible that I’ll come home from Asia a couple of sizes larger…but it will totally be worth it.

 

Sometimes the universe is just in a good mood. Yesterday, a total stranger stopped me in the corridor to compliment my dress, instantly raising my spirits. And, if that wasn’t enough, someone I don’t know terribly well brought me a gift back from Taiwan of green tea and pineapple cake. It was such a lovely gesture and of course, tapped right into my love of Asian foods.

Since I was already wearing my posh frock, it seemed only correct to have tea and cake when I got home yesterday. The tea is amazing looking, with big clusters of whole, dark green leaves. (It looks a lot like some other kind of dried green leaves, not that I’d know about that…) I wasn’t sure exactly how much tea to put in the pot, and I think to be honest I overdid it a bit since the tea was rather on the strong and bitter side. But it had that distinctive heady aroma of good Chinese teas and I’m sure it will be delicious when I make it a bit less like the Chinese equivalent of builders’ tea.

The cakes, which are a Taiwanese speciality called feng li su, were a revelation. The outer cake is actually a bit like shortbread, but softer and chewy, more buttery than many Asian desserts. Inside is a thick and sweet pineapple jam. Sometimes, Asian sweets don’t entirely appeal to me – this is one of the few areas in which I agree that the French really do win the day – but these little mouthfuls of pineapple, butter and sugar are actually pretty damn good. And, of course, they were made even sweeter by arriving so unexpectedly. Sometimes, it really is the little things that count…

My year of travelling continues, this time closer to home with a long weekend in Glasgow. I was there both for work and to see family and old friends, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time for culinary planning. (Please feel free to translate this as ‘I didn’t do anything in my spare time except drink terrifying quantities of gin’.) Luckily, I know the city well and even on autopilot can steer myself toward deliciousness. Glasgow is a pretty good food city, especially in the West End where I was based. There’s a strong emphasis on new Scottish cuisine, in which traditional dishes are reimagined and local ingredients blended with the flavours of the city’s South and East Asian immigrant cuisines. You can have amazing local seafood, game, and vegetables here but we never forget the importance of a good curry. As my friend D says, the nan bread up here is giant and pillowy. I did have a proper old-school Glasgow curry but, unsurprisingly, I was far too drunk to photograph it, so you’ll have to take my word on that one. After the jump, a walk through some of the highlights both Scottish and cosmopolitan.

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I’ve spent most of this past week with old friends K & L. I met them in Providence, RI more years ago than any of us care to remember, but since then we’ve been barely missing each other in our various moves around and across the Atlantic. We lived just a few blocks apart in New York – except I moved there after they left – and both spent time in the Midwest – but only overlapped for a year. Although I speak to K on the phone more or less daily, we only get to cook together every couple of years, which is beyond wrong. K is one of the best cooks I know, with Italian cooking skills from his family that I’m massively jealous of (seriously, the man makes the best gnocchi ever) and an amazing feel for ingredients. The first time we cooked together was a wonderfully disastrous attempt to make the volcano chocolate cakes that were fashionable in the 1990s. Something went horribly wrong and we ended up with what was basically a vat of liquid chocolate ganache. But, you know, delicious liquid chocolate ganache that we totally ate anyway. Most everything I’ve cooked or eaten with him since then has been perfect, so I’ve been looking forward to the culinary possibilities of his visit.

Friday was L’s birthday so we wanted something suitably festive for dinner. K suggested doing a version of Paul Bertolli’s strawberry sorbet recipe that we’d made once before in Michigan. The recipe is brilliantly easy: no ice-cream maker required and no ingredients beyond fruit and a bit of sugar and water. I’m not a great maker of desserts so simplicity always appeals. Plus, it’s the middle of English strawberry season and I’ve been thinking about the combination of strawberries and black pepper since I read Miss Cay’s jam recipe and brought back the most amazing Madagascan black pepper from Paris. It was all coming together…

We futzed around with Bertolli’s recipe a bit: since neither of us likes our sorbet terribly sweet, we cut down the sugar and added in a bunch of black pepper instead. We also cut down on the water, since it already seemed liquidy enought. The basic technique is so simple that you could probably play with it a fair amount. Since we were celebrating L’s birthday in England, and during Wimbledon to boot, we thought it only correct to serve the sorbet with Jersey cream and shortbread biscuits. (Er, this might undermine the ‘not too sweet’ part but hey, it was a special occasion.)

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