Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Sicilian Pasta with Tomatoes, Garlic & Almonds

Hello friends, how's everyone doing?! 

It's been two weeks since I moved to the Cayman Islands to start my new job as a pastry cook and it's been... Hmmm... I don't know... interesting, I guess...

I am still adjusting to my new life here on the island. To be honest, I have not seen much of it yet... The tourist attractions and all, but I have plenty of time for that later. The day after I got to the island, I went straight to orientation which lasted for three days. Then I've been working since (I'll get to more details about my new job in a bit). I did have a day off last week but it was moving day for me. After staying in a hotel for a week, I finally found a new home. I also have a housemate/workmate who is also new to the island and it's nice that we're on the same boat and discovering new places together.

It's so hot and humid here, and you know how I feel about hot and humid places... But I'm gonna keep my whining short... So, moving on...

Now, the new job as a pastry cook... I thoroughly enjoyed my first couple of weeks and what can I say, it's brilliant! I work in the bakery section and we bake so many wonderful breads everyday... From focaccia to sourdough, wheat bread, fruit and nut bread, and my current favourite is the fennel and raisin rolls. Ah, it's so good! I thought it was a strange combination at first but wait until you taste it. I posted a picture of it on my Instagram (@michael_toa). 

I have a great mentor and she is so good! She is fast with dough, highly organised, knowledgeable and most importantly she keeps me in line! It takes a different attitude and organisational skill to bake in a professional kitchen compare to baking at home... And it's something I'm still getting used to. 

The transition has not been an easy one if I'm being honest. I get nervous at times surrounded by these professional chefs with years of experience and I'm just a home baker, previously working in an office dealing with immigration issues. I got weird looks every time I'm asked about my working experience. 

Of course I want to do a great job and I try my best to not make a fool of myself but it's all too late... I am not clumsy, but the other day, I was just doing a simple task of rolling a pastry sheet and I wanted to, you know, do it quickly and efficiently like all the other chefs, and somehow my pastry sheet ended up on the floor in front of everyone. *insert swear word here* !!! I was mortified. What an amateur! 

*sigh... It's my day off today and I'm taking it easy. Relaxing at home and looking forward to catch up with my blog reading list. And for lunch I made Nigella's Sicilian pasta with tomatoes, garlic and almonds which is incredibly easy to make. You only need to boil the pasta to al dente and the sauce is done in a food processor. 

The sauce is really fresh with the cherry tomatoes, nice bite from the garlic, salty and tangy from the anchovies and capers, but also a little sweet, courtesy of the sultanas. Though I actually use golden raisins in mine. Whichever you have in your pantry. And the almonds and the olive oil bind the sauce together in the same way when you make a pesto. Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a little pasta cooking water if it needs it. The only thing that's missing is a little strew of fresh basil on top of the pasta, but it's not the end of the world.  And should you have some in your fridge, pour yourself a nice well-chilled wine and enjoy...

Sicilian Pasta with Tomatoes, Garlic and Almonds
Recipe by Nigella Lawson

For complete list of ingredients and instructions, click here.

Monday, 21 July 2014

I am moving...

Hello friends! How's everyone doing? I hope you are all well and eating deliciously...

I am taking a quick break from packing and this time it's the big suitcase that I need to pack because I am moving... 

A couple of months ago I applied for a job which I thought suits my passion and it also sounds like a great opportunity for me to continue growing and learning.  After waiting for few days, I was thrilled when I received a feedback regarding my application so quickly. They wanted to know more about my working experience which I happily explained; and a couple of correspondence later, I was invited for an interview... 

The interview was done over the phone... I was so nervous that day, waiting for that phone call. Finally it's 9PM my time. For the interviewer it was the morning because of the time difference. The interview itself went really well but still I didn't want to get too sure that I was gonna get it.  I mean, I've been to a job interview before where I thought it went extremely well and ended up not getting the job. 

After the interview, I waited for few days... don't you just hate that feeling of waiting... Just tell me already please... I checked my email constantly, refreshing the inbox on my phone like every fifteen minutes... until that email came. I went into my room, I took a deep breath and I opened that email which says "...I would like to go ahead and offer you the pastry cook position...". I was over the moon happy. 

For the past few weeks I've been doing all the paperwork for the working permit and travel documents and it's finally all done last week and I am ready to go and I can tell you where I'm heading to. Next week, I'll be boarding the longest flights in my life... a total of five flights and an approximately 38 hours journey. From Medan to Singapore and up north to Taipei, then cross the Pacific ocean to LA then to Houston where I'm going to take my last connecting flight to my destination at Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. 

To say that I am excited is an understatement. Not only I am excited to see parts of the world I have not been before, but also of course, for the job and the new adventure. And I look forward to sharing my experiences with you all :) 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Parmesan Shortbread with Smoked Paprika and Black Sesame Seeds

Happy Sunday friends! How is everyone doing?

I am currently taking a break from packing and I want to share with you a little something tasty for your next dinner party. These Parmesan shortbread are so good to pass around for nibbling with pre-dinner drinks/cocktails. And I do love to nibble before dinner, you know, little bites to whet the appetite.

I often make this 'plain' with just the Parmesan, but the addition of smoked paprika gives the shortbread a bacon-like flavour... and as Ina Garten would say, how bad can that be?! If you want some heat, you can also add a little cayenne pepper. And I chose black sesame seeds really just for aesthetic purpose. You can omit that if you don't want to risk having black sesame seeds stuck between your teeth, especially when having a party.

The shortbread dough is incredibly easy to make and the great thing is, once the dough is made, you can roll it straightaway without having to chill it in the fridge first. You can also make this a couple of days in advance and they keep well in an airtight container. Just be sure to keep them away from sight because they won't last long :)

Have a great day everyone!   

Parmesan Shortbread with Smoked Paprika and Black Sesame Seeds

150 gr butter
1 tsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/s tsp ground white pepper
1-2 tsp smoked paprika, depending taste
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
175 gr freshly grated Parmesan cheese + extra for sprinkling
250 gr plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten for brushing
2 tbsp black sesame seeds

In a bowl, using a free-standing or a hand-mixer, cream the butter, sugar, salt, pepper and smoked paprika until light and fluffy.  Add the one egg and one egg yolk and mix again to combine, followed by the Parmesan cheese.

In another bowl, sift the flour and baking powder. Now, using a spatula, fold in the dry ingredients into the buttery cheese mixture until it becomes a dough. 

You can roll the dough on a well floured surface, but I find it easier to roll it in between two non-stick parchment paper.  Roll the dough to the thickness of half a centimeter. Cut it with a knife into bite-size rectangles or use a cookie cutter. Arrange the shortbread on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Preheat the oven to 160 C.

Brush the shortbread with the lightly beaten egg and sprinkle with extra Parmesan and the black sesame seeds. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, rotating halfway through. Let the shortbread completely cool before storing in an airtight container.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Banana and Almond Ice Cream

Back when I was living in Sunderland, whenever I went to the cinema I like treating myself to a scoop or two of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. My favourite has got to be the Chunky Monkey which is banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts. Hmmm... doesn't that sound delicious?! I just love its nursery sweetness.  

And for some inexplicable reason, I would only have this ice cream exclusively at the cinema; even though the ice cream is widely available in supermarkets.

The other day I went to see the new X-Men movie (such a great movie and I love Jennifer Lawrence) at my local cinema here in Medan. I went to the concession stands to check out what snacks they have... you know, the usual popcorn, nachos, sweets, etc... and sadly, no ice cream :( So I thought, why not try making it at home... and this banana and almond ice cream is what I came up with. 

I was going to use walnuts in this ice cream, sticking to its original inspiration; but when I went to the shop, surprise surprise, walnuts were not available (story of my life...). So, I opted for almonds instead. Use any nuts you like... I suspect cashews or pecans will be nice as well.  Or if you're not a fan of nuts, simply omit them.

I must say I am very happy with this ice cream.  It's creamy, rich and comforting.  And most importantly, it's easy to make. Though you do need to make a custard, but it's not at all difficult.

Question of the day, what's your favourite snack to have at the cinema?

This banana and almond ice cream is also my second entry for this month's BSFIC Challenge hosted by the brilliant Kavey.  The theme this month is fruity ice cream, so if you plan to make a fruit base ice-cream in the next few days, be sure to join in.  My first entry was strawberry and rosewater ice cream.

Banana and Almond Ice Cream

500 ml full fat milk
500 ml double cream
1 vanilla pod
6 egg yolks
170 gr caster sugar
300 gr bananas, from 3 or 4 bananas depending on size
50 ml milk
75 gr whole almonds or walnuts

Start by making the custard base.  Pour the milk and double cream into a saucepan along with a vanilla pod that's been split down in the middle lengthwise to expose the seeds.  Bring this mixture almost to a boil, then take it off the heat and leave to infuse for 15 to 20 minutes.  Then take out the vanilla pod.  You can let it dry and add it to your sugar pot to make vanilla sugar.

Bring the milk and cream again to a simmer. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until the mixture turns thick and pale yellow.  Slowly and gradually pour and whisk in the warm vanilla cream to the yolks. Return this mixture to the saucepan and continue cooking over low heat, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon until it thickens. When it's done, take it off the heat and pour into a bowl to cool slightly. Give it a stir every now and then so that no skin will form on top of the custard.

Make the banana puree by simply blending the bananas with 50 ml of milk so that the mixture isn't too thick. Fold this peanut butter like puree into the slightly cooled custard. If using an ice cream maker, follow the manufacturer's instruction. If you don't have one, just put the ice cream base into a covered container and stick it in the freezer. Take it out after an hour and give it a good beating with a whisk. This will prevent ice crystals from forming and you'll end up with smooth and silky ice cream.   

Lightly toast the nuts of your choice in the oven or I just do it on the stove.  Heat a frying pan on the stove and add a single layer of nuts. Do not add any oil. The nuts contain enough oils of their own to cook. Stir frequently until the nuts turn golden brown and you can really smell their aroma.  Remove from heat and let the cool before giving them a rough chop.

After the second hour in the freezer, take the ice cream out for another 'beating' and fold in the nuts. Making sure they're dispersed throughout. Put the ice cream back in the freezer and do this again in an hour for the last time before putting it back in the freezer to chill completely. After a few hours, I think you know what to do next... :)

Monday, 16 June 2014

Tarte Bourdaloue aux poires

It's not a surprise that I love visiting bakeries and pastry shops. Being surrounded by the aroma of freshly baked breads is my idea of heaven (and eating loads of them too); and I love looking (again, also eating) at the beautiful assortment of delicate and often intricate French pastries in their display case... it's my idea of window shopping.  

Not only I admire the craftsmanship but also it gives me an inspiration to try baking them at home. An example is this Tarte Bourdaloue aux poires, a classic French pear and almond tart.  I saw this tart on a display window at a patisserie one day, and after reading the description, I thought what a delicious combination of poached pears in vanilla, with almond cream and sweet pastry.  And I want to try making it at home, so this is what I came up with.

It's a pretty simple tart to make... It takes a bit of time but it'll be worth it.  Think of all the compliments you're gonna get later :)  There are three part to this tart, the first one is poires pochées or the poached pears.  This can be done a day ahead, and actually it's best to do this ahead of time to allow the flavours to intensify.  In addition to the vanilla, I added the juice of one lime (or use lemon) because however strange, I feel adding a little acidity actually brings out more of the sweetness from the pears.  And to that, a star anise which perfumes the pears with sweet licorice aroma.  If you want to go all out, you can also add a cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves.  Do not throw away the syrupy poaching liquid.  Keep it in the fridge and it's so delicious to add to your ice tea, just saying...

Find me on Instagram @michael_toa
The second part to the recipe is the pastry.  You can make (or even buy) the usual sweet shortcrust pastry, but since this is a classic recipe, I opted for pate sucrée or French sweet pastry. It has a higher sugar content and also uses egg(s) for richness. This should be a straightforward task but... *sigh... it's so hot the past couple of days here and if you've made your own pastry before, you know that working with pastry in hot, humid weather is not very nice to say the very least. Note to self: when I have my dream home one day, I wanna make sure that I have air-conditioner in the kitchen no matter where I live. Anyway, if you have the same problem like myself, make my pastry late in the evening when the temperature is relatively cooler and letting it chill overnight in the fridge. Then early the next day, roll the pastry per usual, working quickly, and if it gets too soft too quickly, just put it back in the fridge for ten minutes or so. 

The last part of the tart is the crème d'amandes or the almond cream.  This is very easy to make... mix all the ingredients and voila!

Tarte Bourdaloue aux poires

For the poached pears:
3 pears
250 gr sugar
500 ml water
Juice of 1 lime (or lemon), save the zest for the pastry
Half a vanilla pod
1 star anise

For the pate sucrée:
100 gr soft butter
75 gr caster sugar
Zest of 1 lime (or lemon)
Half a vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
2 egg yolks
225 gr plain flour

For the frangipane:
80 gr icing sugar
80 gr butter
1 egg
80 gr ground almonds
10 gr plain flour
1 tsp almond extract

To sprinkle:
20 gr ground almonds

If possible poach the pears the day before. This will give them time to cool down and allow the flavours to intensify.  To do this, in a saucepan bring all the ingredients except the pears to a boil, until the sugar dissolve. Peel and cut the pears in half and add to the boiling liquid.  Let them simmer and poach until fork tender. Depending on the ripeness of your pear, this might take from 25 to 40 minutes. I would suggest you don't use over-ripe pears, as they'll be too soft and mushy.  Let the pears cool in the syrup and put in the fridge until when  you're ready for them.

To make the pate sucrée, cream the butter, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla seeds in a bowl until well combined. Then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time until it's fully incorporated into the mixture.  Add in the flour and mix until it comes together as a ball of dough.  Tip the pastry onto a floured work surface and very lightly and gently knead until smooth.  Wrap with cling film and put it in the fridge for an hour or two or even overnight.

The next day, take the pastry out from the fridge and roll to about 5 mm thickness.  In my, hot and humid case, I find it easier to do this between a couple of non stick parchment and place into a greased loose bottom tart tin.  Take a little piece of the dough and using this instead of your fingers, press the pastry into the sides. Prick the base with a fork and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.  This will ensure the pastry won't shrink during baking.

Preheat your oven to 180 C.  After 30 minutes, take the pastry out from the fridge and cut off the overhanging dough.  You can use a knife, but I prefer a gentle press with a rolling pin.  Cover the tart with non-stick baking parchment and top with ceramic beans or dried beans or rice.  Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.  Then remove the parchment and the beans and put the pastry back in the oven for 5-10 minutes until the sides begin to colour.  Remove from the oven and let it cool to room temperature.

Whilst waiting, make the frangipane by simply mixing the soft butter with sugar.  Then add the flour and a tablespoon of the ground almonds before mixing in the egg.  I find this will prevent the mixture from splitting. Mix to combine and add the rest of the ground almonds.

You can spread the almond cream to the cooled pastry case and leveling it with a spoon; or you can pipe it.  The choice is yours.  

Strain the pears and remove the seeds (I use a melon-baller) and the hard bits.  Slice each pear halves thinly across its width. Arrange over the almond cream and you can fan out the pears a bit, for aesthetic purpose. I then sprinkle the almond cream that's not covered with the pears with ground almonds... but that's optional. Place back in the oven for 30-40 minutes.

Sprinkle the sides with icing sugar and it's especially useful if you've got burnt bits :) and to make the pears shiny, brush them with warmed apricot jam.  When I made this, I ran out of apricot jam, so I use the pear poaching liquid instead.  

Now, go get the kettle on, cut the tart into slices and you know what to do next...