Tuesday, 23 September 2014

It begins now

What an exciting week. It was my birthday, then it was the election, closely followed by the post-election doldrums. If you enjoy a bit of politics with your baked goods, I wrote about said doldrums on the other blog.

I do have a birthday cake, as well as a big post on Korean cooking to share with you, but I thought I would go back to basics for today. I made donut muffins. You make a vanilla and spice-laced muffin, dip it in butter while it is still hot from the oven, then cover it in cinnamon sugar. Apparently they are a breakfast food but they are delicious and certainly decadent enough to be a treat. They took 10 minutes to mix together and are flavourful, tender and not too sweet. They remind me more of snickerdoodles than donuts but that is hardly a bad thing. The fair trade cinnamon that I bought recently, really shone in this muffins.

They would be a lovely thing to take along to school or work to spread a bit of good cheer. Because we all have an obligation to look out for each other and make each person feel loved and valued, even if at times it seems like that isn't what our country wants.

Snickerdoodle or donut muffins
adapted slightly from Tasty Kitchen
Makes 9-10

1 3/4c flour
1 1/2tsp baking powder
1/2tsp salt
1/2tsp ground nutmeg
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp vanilla extract
1/3c vegetable oil, I used the rice bran oil that we use for cooking at home
3/4c white sugar
1 egg
3/4c whole milk

1/4c melted butter
1/3c brown sugar
2tsp cinnamon 

1. Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius and line a muffin tin with paper liners.
2. Combine flour, spices, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Stir with a whisk to combine.
3. In  smaller bowl, beat the egg, then add vanilla, oil, sugar and milk.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients then add the wet ingredients to the middle. Stir gently until everything is just combined, there may be small small lumps still remaining.
5. Divide batter (about 2Tb per muffin) into the muffin tin and bake for 15-20min. These muffins don't brown, so check for done-ness with a toothpick or by gently pressing on the top of the muffin - it should spring back when the muffin is done cooking.
6. Combine the brown sugar and second lot of cinnamon in a small bowl. 
7. While the muffins are still hot, dip the tops in butter then into the bowel of cinnamon sugar. I found that using tongs kept me fingertips from getting burnt.

Will keep for 2 days, in an airtight container at room temperature. Once cool, they are quite nice heated up in the microwave for 20 seconds. One of the commenters on the original recipe said that these muffins freeze well, place them in an airtight bag/container and freeze for up to 2 weeks. Defrost at room temperature then warm in over or microwave before eating.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Croquembouche and spring blooms

It was my mother's birthday earlier this month and it coincided with a flurry of spring blooms. It is particularly rewarding to see the bulbs you planted in winter suddenly and quietly burst into bloom. Apparently that is an apt metaphor for bringing up children. This is an image-heavy post because there is so much political drama in New Zealand and the motherland at the moment that I needed to create an area of peace.

Croquembouche with hazelnuts and pistachios
As I had done for my brother, I asked my mother what sort of cake she wanted for her birthday and she asked for her favourite profiteroles. I decided to attempt to construct a little croquembouche, which is something which I had wanted to try for quite some time. The addition of chocolate, toasted nuts and golden, crackling caramel to vanilla profiteroles is phenomenal in terms of taste and texture. It does take a bit of time and effort to make, but I had a lot of fun and the final product was definitely worth it.


I got 60 small choux pastries out of a half batch of this recipe and I used about half of them for the croquembouche. There is enough pastry cream to fill all 60 pastries and eat them too. Pipe 3cm rounds and make for 22min. Cool and fill the pastries with vanilla pastry cream.

Vanilla pastry cream
650mL whole milk
8 egg yolks - use the whites to make coconut cupcakes!
165g white sugar
65g corn flour
65g butter
2tsp vanilla extract

1. Heat the milk in a small pot.
2. Combine yolks, sugar and corn flour in a small bowl.
3. Once the milk is starting to simmer, pour about 1/3 of it into the yolk mixture and stir well.
4. Pour the egg-milk mixture through a sieve back into the pot of milk. Stir and continue to heat over a low-medium flame. The custard should be quite thick and spoonable.
5. Stir in the butter and vanilla until completely incorporated.
6. Remove from the heat, press clingfilm to the surface of the custard and allow to cool. If you're in a rush, place the pot in a big bowl of ice water and stir the custard until it is cold. Pipe cooled custard into the choux.

1/2c of chopped dark chocolate
1/2c hazelnuts
1/2c pistachios

7. Chop the hazelnuts and pistachio (separately), and toast each in a small pan over medium-high heat. Stir often to prevent burning.
8. Melt the chocolate - I used the microwave (20 second bursts on high heat, stirring in between).
9. Dip the tops of filled profiteroles in chocolate then either toasted pistachios or hazelnuts.
10. Repeat this with all the profiteroles and set aside so that the chocolate has time to firm up.

1/2c sugar
2Tb water
washed and dried camellia or rose petals for garnish

11. Arrange nine profiteroles in a ring formation in your serving dish.
12. Combine sugar and water in a small pot over medium-high heat. Continue to heat until becomes a golden brown colour.
13. Keep the pot in a baking dish of boiled water to keep it liquid. 
14. Using tongs, dip the bottoms of profiteroles and arrange 7-8 profiteroles on top of the base that you arranged in step 11. Continue to build up the tower until you finish with one profiterole.
15. Using a fork, swirl thin strands of the remaining caramel around your tower.
16. Arrange flower petals artfully around your tower.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Home economics and the elections (with recipe)

It isn't every day that I have four hours at home to make stock or a lovingly crafted bowl of French onion soup. Sometimes I have to plan ahead to make a packed lunch, and on such occasions, a simple pasta bake is often a quick and versatile option. I have been reducing my meat intake lately and pasta bakes are a great way to make a heart meat-free meal.

The original recipe that I used as a basis for this dish is a macaroni and cheese recipe that uses more than a pound of cheese in a variety of forms. It is delicious but a bit excessive to be everyday fare. I was inspired by an adorable little butternut squash that I picked up at the store and decided to take the recipe in a different direction. I replaced cottage cheese with pureed pumpkin, added greens and reduced the amount of cheese significantly. The resulting recipe was flavourful and satisfying without reaching food coma territory. There are endless variations that could be made on this theme and I look forward to trying them out in due course. In case you are on the fence, this recipe is ridiculously simple - basically it involves dumping raw pasta, milk, pumpkin and cheese into a dish and baking it.

Making this dish made me reflect once again on how lucky I am to know about the basics of cooking. With just a handful of ingredients and ten minutes of active time, it is possible to create a tasty and healthy meal. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about teaching civics in school, I think that teaching basic home economics-style skills to students may also be worthy of consideration. I was lucky enough to attend co-ed primary and intermediate schools where all students were exposed to some basic cooking, sewing and wood/metal work skills. I quite enjoyed soldering from what I remember. 

I know that not every school is equipped to teach these subjects to their students. And I think that in a public schooling system, this is unfair. As a society we have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent poverty or affluence from being hereditary and children should be able to look forward to limitless social mobility. It begins at a personal level with the idea that we should 'give back' to our communities, visiting schools on career days, mentoring and volunteering to teach special skills but it should also progress to demanding legislative change for fairer education and for fairer environments for kids to grow up in. 

There is one week left to vote in the New Zealand elections, which is probably why my thoughts have strayed from pasta casserole to education and kids. Everyone has different priorities and that is each person's right. But in order for us to have any rights at all, we need to take an active part in our democracy. It's easier than ever with all sorts of resources to help you pick a party which represents you.

Here are some of them:

1. http://www.onthefence.co.nz/  
2. http://tvnz.co.nz/votecompass 
3. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/election-2014/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503581&objectid=11318886
4. http://www.stuff.co.nz/interactives/electoral-map/general.php

Please, please, please vote! I have appropriated Laila Harre's idea to vote on September 19, the 121st anniversary of New Zealand women's suffrage. Looking at how far we have come and how much there is still left to change, voting is the most meaningful contribution that we can all make.

And afterwards, why not make pasta for dinner?

Pumpkin and kale pasta bake
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
serves 4-5

1c cooked pumpkin
2c milk
1tsp dry mustard
pinch of cayenne pepper
3/4tsp salt
1/4tsp black pepper
1c grated cheddar cheese + 1/2c for sprinkling on top
1c of kale, washed, dried and cut into 1cm thick ribbons
200g of uncooked pasta

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
2. Puree the pumpkin using a food processor or blender then add milk, salt, peppers and mustard. Stir in 1c cheese.
3. Lay the greens at the bottom of a 20cm round or square glass/ceramic baking dish. Cover with pasta. Pour the pumpkin-milk over the top. 
4. Cover with aluminium foil and bake for 30min.
5. Remove foil, sprinkle over remaining cheese and bake for another 30min.
6. Cool for at least 5min prior to serving.

Korean cooking: pumpkin in rice malt syrup (호박조청맛탕)

A quick Korean recipe that lends itself very easily to fusion. I had about a cup of pumpkin leftover from another dish and I decided to make a variation of a simple banchan called mat-tang (맛탕) which is essentially a dish of caramelised sweet potato.

The pumpkin that I had was already cooked, so it was just a matter of briefly pan-frying the pieces before caramelising them in a mixture of honey and rice malt syrup (jo-chung, 조청). The flavour of the pumpkin is deepened by the characteristic savoury caramel notes of rice malt syrup and is amazing wrapped in a slice of kimchi. After tasting the finished dish, I realised that it would be delicious in any number of desserts as well as in its original purpose as a banchan. Fusion is something that I do quite organically, like when I add gochujang (Korean chili paste, 고추장) to beef and red wine stew. I enjoyed some of this pumpkin as a yogurt topping and plan to make it again to go with rice pudding or a sweet couscous. 

Pumpkin and rice malt syrup mat-tang (호박조청맛탕)
makes enough to be banchan for 1 meal

1c of cooked pumpkin, cut up into bite-sized pieces
-the pumpkin should be easily sliced but not falling apart.
2Tb of rice malt syrup
1Tb honey
1 pinch of salt
oil for pan-frying
sesame seeds for garnish

1. Place a frying pan over medium heat and add about 1/2Tb of oil. Add the pumpkin pieces and fry until they are starting to brown. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Combine honey and malt syrup in a small bowl with 2Tb water, this is easier if you heat them up slightly. 
3. Pour over the pumpkin, stir to combine and reduce the heat to low. Simmer while stirring every couple of minutes for about 10 minutes.
4. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

In which I am thankful for cake

Sugar is the new dietary enemy. The sugar/junkfood lobby is just as morally reprehensible and malignant as those for alcohol and tobacco. Sugar is manufactured through unethical labour. It is enough to put you off your cake. Except not really because I know too many great cake recipes. 

This isn't intended to be a serious analysis of the health consequences of a high-sugar diet or of the marketing or manufacture of sugar - that said, these issues are very important and worth coming back to at a later date. And I implore that you research from a range of reliable sources if you plan to get informed. But I am of the opinion that I would like to live a life that includes the occasional slice of homemade cake (made all the sweeter by Fairtrade sugar). I think cooking in general frees you a lot from the influences of advertising and helps you focus on enjoyment of making and eating food. The more you learn, the more you realise you can make yourself, the ready-made sponge and custard trifle becomes homemade, and the jars of pasta sauce are replaced with actual vegetables, seasonings and proteins.

Today's recipe is an example of this. I had been enamoured with this almond cake recipe for a long time but hadn't been able to make it because the only almond paste I could buy at the supermarket was the stuff that resembles grouting in taste, texture and sight, and apparently does not expire. I could not imagine any cake containing it tasting good. But this week I realised that making almond paste was ridiculously easy and opened up a whole new world of Continental baking to dive into. 

Adorable ball of almond paste

Almond paste takes less then ten minutes to make. This cake takes maybe another ten. It bakes up into a plain-looking cake that is buttery, moist and imbued with the rich scent of almonds. It was lovely eaten warm from the oven but even better the next day when the flavours had mellowed. Another perfect afternoon tea cake. Three cheers for homemade cake.

Almond Paste 
Adapted from Simply So Good
makes about 200g, just enough for the cake

1c plus 2Tb of ground almonds
1/4c sugar
2Tb of room temperature butter
1 egg white
3/4tsp almond extract

1. Place almonds and sugar in a food processer and mix until combined.
2. Add butter and egg white and process until the ingredients come together as a smooth paste
3. Add almond extract and process for a few seconds to incorporate.
4. Remove from the food processor, use now or form into a log, wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge for 2 weeks or freeze for 1 month.

Almond Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

200g almond paste
1/4c sugar
115g butter, diced or cut into <0.5cm slices
2Tb honey
3 eggs
2Tb of amaretto OR 1/4tsp almond extract
1/3c plain flour
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon (optional)

icing sugar for topping
1/4c toasted sliced almonds for topping (optional)
extra amaretto for brushing on the cake (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius, line a 20cm square cake tin with baking paper.
2. Place almond paste and sugar in a large bowl and beat with electric beaters until the paste is broken up and the sugar is incorporated. Add the butter and beat until very light and fluffy.
4. Add honey, amaretto/extract, zest and the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides occasionally.
5. Stir in the flour and salt gently. 
6. Transfer to cake tin, smooth the top, bake for 25 min - check for doneness with a toothpick. Cool the cake in the tin.
7. Place the cake onto the serving dish. Brush the top of the cake with amaretto, top with sliced almonds if using and dust the top with icing sugar. Eat.

The cake can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Friday, 12 September 2014

New blog: The Popular Press

A group of friends and I have started a new blog, The Popular Press, an excerpt from the information page:

"The Popular Press is a blog about social, economic, and political issues that are relevant in the world today. A range of issues are covered on the blog. The goal of the Popular Press is to provide readers the most well researched, unbiased, and balanced coverage of modern issues."

It's an interesting concept, because we all have different opinions on just about everything and all work in different fields but wanted to create a space for balanced and fact-based discussions on these times. 

Please have a read sometime if you're interested.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Korean housewife cosplay (comes with recipe)

Clockwise from the left: Spicy eggplant (기지나물), Doenjang stew (된장찌개), Sauteed mushrooms (버섯볶음), trevally fritters (생선전)
There is something comforting and restorative about a simply set out Korean table. Each side dish (banchan 반찬) takes a certain amount of care, each dish has its own balance of sweet, salty, spicy, sour and umami. Setting out a Korean table requires you to think about how best to cook each ingredient and also how all the dishes will work together.

I haven't really cooked many Korean dishes because my mother is such a great cook already, but lately I've been thinking that I would like to get to know more about the philosophy behind Korean cooking and to eventually revive recipes that are fading into the past. It is a bit sad to see sausages or ham being served as banchan, or kids consistently choosing western food over Korean. 

It is in keeping with a growing interest in my country of origin that I have been experiencing lately. I have always identified as Korean, despite never having lived there and I managed to retain the language, culture and identity that many other second or 1.5 generation Koreans lose. I think losing ones language is a tragedy, I saw lots of parents discouraging their kids from speaking Korean when I was growing up and I had classmates who would refuse to answer unless spoken to in English. It is a sad side effect of emigration, because all languages are beautiful.

One of my favourite Korean musicians/artists Kim Min Ki, some of his music deals dismay at the Americanisation of Korean culture. To talk about what he means to be in more detail is at least a whole post in itself.
The first photo is my first attempt at the Korean table, I don't cook meat regularly, unless specifically asked to by my family so I set out a pescatarian spread to provide a balanced meal. Spicy eggplant is a perennial favourite of mine, and I couldn't leave the shop without a couple of new season specimens. Doenjang stew with potato, mushroom and tofu is a soup and a source of protein, a particular favourite of my mother's. Sauteed mushrooms are flavoured with a little garlic and sesame oil to complement their earthiness. Sustainably fished* trevally were dusted with seasoned flour and egg and lightly fried. I wanted to create a homely and calming meal, with a little spice in the eggplant dish to add interest and contrast. 

Cooking this (for two hours) made me realise how much work goes into making your typical Korean meal, I can't imagine expending that sort of energy on cooking everyday. However, most banchan keep for a couple of days and once you reach an equilibrium, you're only really making one or two new things for each meal, if that. The hard work was worth it though, because I got the nod of approval from my mother. There is a great satisfaction that comes with any sort of well set out meal, and I have to admit that I was particularly proud of my first complete Korean meal. I'll share one recipe with you today in what I hope becomes a multi-part series.

*I use an app from this website to make more environmentally friendly seafood choices.

Spicy eggplant (가지나물)
makes enough for 1 meal worth of banchan for 2 people

There are two main types of eggplant banchan in Korean cuisine that I know of, this type made with fresh eggplant and another type made with dried eggplant. They are both called gaji namul (eggplant seasoned vegetable dish. Namul is an integral part of Korean cuisine, utilising all sorts of fresh and preserved vegetables. The trick to getting them right is to make sure that the seasoning complements the flavour of the vegetables rather than overwhelming it. This means that you have to taste as you go and adjust flavourings until it tastes right to you.

1 eggplant
1tsp crushed garlic
1tsp Korean red chili flakes (Gochu garu 고추가루)
2tsp sesame oil (참기름)
1-2tsp of seasoning soy sauce (진긴장, the other type 국간장 is for seasoning soups)
1tsp white wine or apple cider vinegar
1Tb toasted sesame seeds
3Tb of finely sliced green onion

2tsp extra sliced green onion and some sesame seeds for garnish

1. Chop the top off the eggplant, cut it into quarters and place in a covered microwave safe container. Cook on HIGH for 4 minutes.
2. Place all the seasonings in the bowl. Once the eggplant is cooked (soft and the flesh has turned slightly translucent and brown from opaque and white),use two forks to break it up into bite-sized chunks. Stir well to coat all the eggplant in seasoning.
3. Taste and adjust seasoning.
4. Transfer to serving dish, sprinkle with green onion and sesame.

Sometimes, this and a bowl of freshly cooked rice is all you need for a delicious meal.