Monday, February 25, 2008

Bloody scared

Is there such thing as too much creative freedom? For me, order, guidelines, lists, and objectives have always ruled my life. Even within the world of pastry arts, there are methods and confines which are set, giving me great comfort in its exactness and precision. Recently, I had to step outside this comfort zone temporarily as part of a beginner DSLR photography course. Being asked to "just do anything" scares me to the core and amplifies my existing self-conscious and self-critical internal chatter ten-fold.

After getting over the initial hurdle, the field trip to Granville Island market with my photography class was very freeing and insightful. Given three hours to roam freely, eventually I found myself being oblivoius to anyone around me and not caring how silly I looked running towards beautifully lit potatoes or a gorgeous pile of blood oranges. My introverted self does have limits though and photographing people is still terrifying so for now, my subjects remain edible.

Of course, I could not resist buying blood oranges in order to make blood orange sorbet. They are so sanguine and juicy with the most appealing crimson flesh. The flavour is more mellow than a regular navel orange with a touch of bitterness. So simple to make, the whole batch of blood orange sorbet may be gone by the time I finish this post...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Time and thyme again

My watch broke recently and required a major overhaul. I purchased it in April 1992 on the day after the completion of my first year university final exams in order to mark the occasion and to reward myself. Although the crystal is scratched and it lacks a second hand, this watch has served me well over time and has great sentimental value, representing the endless hours of study and academic anxieties which were endured over the years. It knew me when I still did not know myself, during a time when my life could have veered onto a completely different path had I listened to that tiny inner voice which was shy and uncertain.

But time passes and life evolves. I find myself thinking less and less about my previous incarnation, although recently, pangs of reminiscence (not regret) were evoked when I served two customers with obvious ophthalmic ailments. A sense of curiosity combined with sadness was felt because of the realization that I possessed the knowledge but no longer the privilege of inquiring about their eye condition. I am surprisingly indifferent about this loss probably because what I have gained by taking the giant leap out of medicine into pastry is the recognition of my own parameters for success and happiness. I have learned to define what success is for myself, task by task, day by day.

Having said that, this chanterelle mushroom and thyme bread was certainly my personal success today. Giving it time to ferment overnight in the fridge gave it wonderful flavour. The crust is crackly and crisp, despite my unpredictable oven, because I threw ice cubes into the hot oven as the bread went inside in order to mimic the steam injection of a commerical bread oven (my boss' suggestion). The soft airy interior is enough to transform me into a breadlover. These loaves are the best breads I have ever made at home.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this is that all good things take time and for me, sixteen years later, my watch and I are still ticking, even if it is to a different rhythm.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Valentine's Day was celebrated early at our home this year and involved the obligatory silly cards and a beautiful floral bouquet filled with freesias, tulips, anenomes, and gerber daisies. I have to admit that I love receiving flowers. If I was a billionaire, I would be one of those women who would have a personal florist and a fresh bouquet everyday. In the meantime, the occasional heartfelt bouquet is just fine.

The most heartfelt cookie that I can imagine is the Linzer cookie. Such a perfect pairing of raspberry and hazelnut makes this traditional Austrian cookie an undeniable candidate for Most Romantic Cookie (is there such a list?), especially when shaped as a heart. The glassy ruby jam centre contrasts with the snowy white edges and the hint of clove complements the toasty hazelnut flavour. Somehow heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies or shortbread just don't compare.

From a technical standpoint, Linzer cookies are a bit fussy, to be honest. To achieve a perfectly glassy finish, the raspberry jam should definitely be strained to remove seeds. After dusting the top cookie with icing sugar, any unnecessary handling will lead to fingerprints in that lovely white layer. Spooning just the correct amount of jam into the centre while avoiding rogue drips elsewhere requires patience. Such effort must mean true love for whom Linzer cookies are made!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Good fortune

My childhood memories of Chinese New Year mainly involve things other than food. Dressing up to perform Chinese folk dancing, bringing plum blossoms to my grandparents in Chinatown, and receiving a shiny quarter in a lai-see are a few examples. Although food is a very central part of Chinese culture, I never developed a palate for the sweet traditional delicacies abundant during Chinese New Year celebrations. Nothing in that round lacquer box ever tasted good to me and no matter how hard I tried, I could never crack open those darned melon seeds. Instead, I headed straight for my savoury favourites, pan-fried lo baak gou (turnip cake) and any dumpling in sight.

I found a recipe for chocolate fortune cookies in Pichet Ong's cookbook which is basically just a simple tuile batter with added cocoa powder. Tuiles are very thin flat cookies, made from stenciling batter onto a baking sheet, which are baked and then quickly shaped while hot immediately out of the oven. Because I do not yet possess asbestos fingers like some fellow bakers out there, my fortune cookie shaping success rate was below 50% initially. Fortunately, a pair of latex gloves and perserverance helped produce 20 cookies which passed quality control.

Eric brought home some lovely Ataulfo mangos which prompted me to make an old favourite, mango pudding. Who can resist the creamy silken golden goodness? Not me. Instead of evaporated milk, my recipe from pastry school uses sour cream and heavy cream which gives it added richness. And isn't Chinese New Year all about richness, prosperity, and luck? Wishing you all good health and good fortune in the Year of the Rat...Gung Hay Fat Choy!