Thom & Aimee

Two Hobbits. The Kitchen. The Garden. And trouble ensues.

Vanilla Brioche and Butter Pudding

(This was supposed to be posted slightly over a week after our brioche recipe. By posting it now, I just made it look like we kept our brioche loaf for a month. That, my friends, is not humanly possible.)

There is something about bread and butter puddings that invoke an image of cuddly warm hugs and being wrapped in layers of soft quilts. Its probably just the buttery goodness in every mouthful – so much calories but too good to not sin. Best eaten after a hearty meal… don’t ask me why, I just love adding more guilt. Plus, it only proves that there’s always space for dessert. Every time Ned and I start talking about bread and butter puddings, we get a little too crazy like flustered cockroaches upside down (okay, that was not a very good reference but you get the picture).

We shall be very honest and confess that we made too much brioche for one reason: to make a huge serving of brioche and butter pudding. Yes, like a pair of cunning witches, we actually set aside a loaf of brioche and waited for it to become prey to eggy heaven. The best part was smelling butter in the air as it bakes in the oven. Nothing beats the fragrance of melting butter. Is it disgusting for us to love butter so much? We especially love hard cold butter stuffed into warm crusty bread.

Strangely, our brioche and butter pudding became a tad too dry when it came out of the oven. The bowl that was used was a little too wide, causing the custardy mixture to dry up and the top layer of bread to overcook. Despite the oversight in serveware, the flavours came out perfectly fine. The bottom layer of brioche had soaked up the rum and the essences of vanilla. In fact, it was a rather interesting pudding with a crusty top and a firm but custardy bottom (no, not soggy). Serve it with cream or homemade custard for added calories.

At the end, my only real complaint was that we should have added more butter. Well, I’ll just wait for Ned to make a Croissant and Butter pudding then.

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Vanilla Sablés Viennois (Viennese Biscuits)

Its pouring outside as I write this. And I have about 15 minutes to rush this post out before we head out for lunch. I wouldn’t lie and say that we have been cooking regularly. With Ned’s intense working hours, we barely even meet each other. When we do, we’d rather sit down and catch up on each other’s lives. It was just last night that we could sit down and have a meal properly. Oh, Ned did make some tamagoyaki (Japanese sweet rolled omelette) since we had Japanese for dinner yesterday.

Baking? Not so much. In fact, we feel a little guilty for not investing for time for T&A. As much as we love it, our conflicting schedules are proving to be a little difficult to plan. Its a little odd to open an empty fridge at times; it used to be filled with tons and tons of ingredients Ned bought. Just two days ago, we didn’t even know we ran out of black pepper and olive oil. Black pepper and olive oil!!! Staples in the kitchen were not available!! Well, that’s another misadventure I’d share another day.

It really hit me that there are moments that you just have to make do with what you have in your kitchen. Long gone are the days that we have a well-stocked or rather, overflowing pantry of food. We have so many types of flour, sugar and spices that I’ve lost count. Herbs? Just head out to the garden to snip some off. In fact, I had a lot of pride for our bursting kitchens. It was so easy to whip something up in seconds without a visit to the markets. Now… well… it’s a slightly different story.

But there’s no need to be a defeatist! Sometimes we forget how simple baking should really be when you look at the essentials: butter, flour, eggs and sugar. They are the foundation of homemade goodness like biscuits, cakes and everything awesome that grannies in storybooks make. And that’s how simple these sablés viennois are. With the only addition of vanilla and a touch of intricate piping, you get a tray of melt-in-the-mouth crumbly biscuits. Ned is not a big fan of biscuits but with what we had in the kitchen, it really wasn’t that bad to have a bit of sweetness after our meals.

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Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Ahhhh~~~ ice cream… Nothing beats hearing the familiar tinkling of a bell rung by the ice cream man, and then licking a ball of ice cold milky cream topped on a crispy golden biscuit cone. Walk under the blazing sun and fret over the sticky liquid going all over your fingers. It’s okay if it got messy, the sweetness of the dessert will solve it all. Drop it and it’s the end of the world (I have too many of such memories in my childhood to understand its traumatic effects).

With our current freak weather (Singapore’s getting too hot for comfort these days), ice cream is our only solace to calm our nerves and cool our souls. It is odd how such a simple item can bring so much joy and satisfaction into our lives. Try walking down the street with a cone of ice cream or a ice popsicle, then, be very aware of the stares you get as you walk by. The ice cream can be a very good attention-seeking tool.

When we got our little sticks of vanilla, we knew we had to make our own stash of vanilla ice cream. It might be the most common flavour but I swear that using proper real vanilla is a whole new world altogether. The flavour of the vanilla deepens and the intense smokey notes have a stronger presence that is usually overpowered by the cream. For once, we could appreciate vanilla ice cream as the main star rather than the accompaniment it has always been.

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Issue 12: Vanilla

There is no any other more common flavour than plain old vanilla. A good partner in crime to many other foods, vanilla complements a wide range of ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, custard, other spices such cardamom and cinnamon, and even with seafood. Have a slice of warm apple pie, moist chocolate brownie or even a glass of coke? Top a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, and you’ll have a luscious treat. I was one of those who didn’t really care about vanilla (too boring). Dependable, familiar, old-fashioned – the number of synonyms you can use on vanilla is endless. Vanilla was just too common.

Here’s where the oddity appears: vanilla is extremely expensive. Everyone might have easy access to vanilla-flavoured foods, but no one really understands how decadent the common vanilla is. Of course, we are talking about the real stuff. The sticky, almost pungent, brown little twigs with tiny little caviar-like seeds in it. Behind saffron, it is the second most expensive spice in the world. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

Just do a little read on how vanilla is harvested and the growing conditions needed, you’ll probably treasure vanilla a lot more than you do now. I remember watching documentary on BBC (channel-flipping brings me to strange places) and there I was, learning how vanilla was produced. The very first vanilla beans were discovered by Totonac Indians in Mexico, but yet again, it was the adventurous Spanish who shared this very special ingredient with the rest of the world. As usual, world goes gaga over it and everyone wants a piece of it. But they just couldn’t grow the damn bean in their own backyard. Up until the mid 19th century, Mexico had monopoly in the market of vanilla. It wasn’t that the Europeans weren’t enterprising enough. They just forgot to bring the bees back with them. (The bees in Mexico just know how get the orchids fruiting.)

The person the modern world needs to thank is Edmond Albius, a slave who found a way to pollinate the vanilla orchids by hand (a method still used today). Without him, a scoop of vanilla ice cream probably costs $1000. Just remember he died in poverty and probably never tasted vanilla ice cream before. So, remember Edmond Albius when you eat anything vanilla. Okay, enough documentary talk. Anyway, other than the fact that pollinating the flowers are so time consuming, the beans have to be harvested by hand, killed (submersion in a hot bath), sweat, dried and conditioned. The whole curing cycle is six months worth of laborious-intensive work (and I’m excluding growing and harvesting).

We managed to get hold of some vanilla pods of assorted variety. Like wine, the flavour of vanilla is often affected by its surroundings such as soil and growing conditions, and curing methods. You can just look at how different each variety look from the other. Some beans are broader than the other, some are tinged with copper or bronze.

The most well-known and probably most popular is the Madagascan (or Bourbon) vanilla beans. Rich, creamy and sweet flavour, its versatility lends itself to many recipes. While the Madagascan bean had a smooth fragrance, the original vanilla – Mexican beans impart smokey, complex and almost spicy notes. If you take a sniff, it’s as though you get a punch straight in the nose. But the King of vanilla is no doubt the Tahitian beans. With an intense fruity, floral aroma that is almost like a mix of cherry, chocolate and licorice, Tahitian vanilla is exceptional in custards and creams. (I personally love smelling its intoxicating scent. Jo Malone needs to make a one.)

The big three are not the only varieties available in the market, there are many other beans that you can sample. The Ugandan bean is almost like the Mexican with its bold aroma without the sharp smokiness. It has a very earthy raisin-like flavour that works well in rich and chocolate desserts. But the Indonesian beans beat both the Ugandan and Mexican in terms of intensity. Its woody flavour might sometimes be deemed too strong, but they are perfect for recipes made with lots of butterfat or cream.

The Tongan beans are another bold-flavoured vanilla that strangely works well in not only sweets, but savoury dishes (use them for dressings and marinades). They also stand up very well against chocolate with its unique fig-and-bark characteristics. Last but not least, the Indian vanilla beans are very similar to Madagascan beans with its sweet (almost too saccharine for my liking) and woodsy flavours. Comparatively plumper in size, they contain a very large amount of seeds.

(Now, my nose is clogged with smelling too much beans.)

It might seem rather confusing to decide which beans for what dish, but really, there is no strict rule. Whatever works for your palate. However, once you start using real vanilla beans, it will be tough to go back to your convenient vanilla extracts. Of course, we still depend very much on our bottled extracts and bean pastes if time was a constraint. Buying vanilla might seem like a luxury but no part of the vanilla will be wasted. The pods can be used to make vanilla sugars, extracts or infused liquors (it is actually the pod that imparts most of the flavour, not the caviar seeds).

After tasting the real stuff, vanilla did not appear faceless or unmemorable. In fact, I think I have a new found respect for the little guys. But I do think I need to lie down for awhile – too much of a vanilla overdose.

The Novice Cook: Beetroot, Anchovies and Eggs

In Singapore, land is scarce. Despite being known as a Garden City (every road you go down is lined with trees), access to a plot of land to grow your own food can be difficult. Most of us live in high-rise buildings and any form of gardening is confined to the limited space the common corridor permits. Of course, urban gardening might be gaining momentum in many cities of the world, but in Singapore, it’s not unusual to grab a few chillies or tomatoes from just outside your door. Yes, we might be living away from the ground, but it doesn’t mean we can’t grow our own food.

The tiny ‘garden’ we have, our Dad’s pride of joy, is becoming a little ecosystem on its own. Okay, my Dad is weird. If ferns and unwanted plants make our garden their home, he would allow them the right to live. Yes, we have weeds and all, my Dad is surprisingly very zen with life and death. Bees, bugs and butterflies often visit to feed on nectar. A couple of hummingbirds have made a nest recently. (We have had plenty of animals visiting our home – monkeys, owls, bats, random birds, the list goes on. And we live on the third floor. Once we had frogs on the loose, but that’s a story for another day.)

We have to admit that we can’t grow any fruit trees, and definitely cannot raise livestock. How we wish to have a brood of chickens! Imagine this: fresh eggs in the morning and free-range organic chickens! (Oh, Dad used to keep chickens as pets when he was a kid. But eventually, he did eat them though.) Most of our meat are imported – an example, our pork is from Down Under, or our poultry from the neighbouring Malaysia. But we will never know how these animals were treated before they end up in clean little plastic-wrapped packages in the markets.

Just ask a person on the street, they would paint you a picture of an idyllic farm land with lush green fields where the cows happily graze. That is still quite possible but a rarity in this day and age. In fact, most of our food come from huge industrialised farms and the animals are seen as part of a business model. This means welfare of these animals is not of top priority. Money first, how these animals feel can be on the agenda if there is a complaint. So ask yourself, are you okay eating that piece of steak on your plate tonight if I told you that the cow suffered when alive?

Ever since I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out and read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, I’ve become more conscious about eating meat. I’m going to make my stand clear: I’m not turning vegetarian and it’s not about being a earth-loving plant-chewing hippie. I grew up eating meat and have always felt amiss if meat is not present during a meal. But as much as I love eating beef, lamb, pork or chicken, I cannot allow myself to consume an animal who has suffered. Yes, in a way, death is a form of suffering. But at least, if it has lived a contented life doing what it is born to do and slaughtered with respect, that would be okay by me. Many might say I am contradicting myself. However, this is where I stand.

And where does this lead me to? It means I would have to know how these animals have lived prior their visit to the abattoir. In Singapore, we do not have these sort of information. There is no way I can drive down to the farm and watch how the farmer tends to his or her animals. Well, I simply cut meat from my meals unless I know its source. Since last December, I’ve lived on a diet of vegetables, beancurd, eggs and rice. (Diary products are another problem, but EGGS. Let me slowly take another step to rid diary off my diet.) I do eat the occasional meat when dining out with my friends. Otherwise, I’ll order a seafood dish (overfishing is also a troubling matter, sigh).

Going meatless is not difficult when you have recipes that have punchy strong flavours. In this dish, the earthy sweetness of the beetroot just melds with the sharp musky anchovies. I’ve tried both types of anchovies – one pickled in olive oil and the other pickled in vinegar. The latter had a lighter sourness that didn’t assault your tastebuds. Topped with a spicy mustard sauce and freshly picked chives, just eating this dish was like a kick right in the mouth – a combustion of sweet, sour and spice. Try not to boil the eggs fully, so that they will retain a runny yolk – just be careful when peeling the shells off. Another good thing out of this was being able to use the leftovers (I’m a small eater) for lunch the next day. With rice, of course.

I might be one person against a conglomerate of corporate giants. Some may not agree, and some may think it’s a useless battle. Well, at least, I’m doing my part. And I don’t have to worry about that piece of meat in my next meal.

The recipe can be found here.

Brioche

Some changes have taken place in this household recently. To be exact, a turning point has happened in Ned’s life and it’s nothing but excitement. After years of baking in the comfort of our tiny kitchen at home, she would finally spend most of her days in an actual kitchen doing what she loves best. Ladies and Gentlemen, say hello to a properly real (I’m stealing Moffat’s lines) Junior Pastry Chef.

As Ned embarks in this new chapter in life with anticipation and slight trepidation, we can’t help but look back at how much we have grown from when we started. Well, I should give most of the credit to Ned, who actually did 90% of the baking and cooking (I only did the eating). It’s always scary to foray into something foreign. Although she might have been baking for some time, going into the industry is a whole different level altogether. The speed, precision and consistency required is beyond the comforts of one’s home kitchen. But we are anal freaks already, so compromising on quality is a big no-no.

I don’t exactly remember when this sister of mine started baking. We were never really allowed in the kitchen so any real cooking was done during home economics in school. There were the few peanut cookies during the holidays when all four of us kids would sit on the floor rolling the dough. (Things were fun-ner when done on the ground.) Then, I made my first Victoria Sponge cake (which failed miserably – my late grandmother lovingly ate it anyway). My memory’s a little fuzzy now, but perhaps Ned did make a couple rounds of cornflake cookies, cupcakes and the odd jelly.

The only thing I oddly remember of Ned baking was her first tray of macarons. This was before macarons were fashionable and so readily available in this island. Go ahead, roll your eyes – instead of sticking to the idiot-proof cupcakes and biscuits, she went straight to the technically-challenging macarons. Well, she had plenty of beginner’s luck and it probably kickstarted her passion into the life of a baker.

After which, activity in the kitchen risen. No longer was it the domain of our grandmother, Ned was making her imprint felt. Slowly but surely, you’ll find the cupboards filled with baking trays and mixing bowls, boxes filled with different types of flour and sugars, and a fridge filled with goodies. Suddenly, it was a norm to see her in the kitchen every weekend. And yet, it never occurred to any of us (Ned included, I suspect) that one day she would actually turn this into a career. It took a lot of time to convince not only the parents, but ourselves that it was the route Ned was prepared to plunge into.

The brioche was one of the very first breads Ned baked. I think I’ve said this before, pastry was Ned’s first love and wife but bread will forever be her mistress. Bread-making can be very seductive (and so happens the brioche look like part of the female anatomy). Though, we can consider the brioche to be part-pastry with its addition of eggs, butter and sugar. Usually served for breakfast or as a dessert, it has a very rich and crumbly texture. I’d love to dip them into sweet chilli crab sauce for a snack.

How apt then, that Ned starts her new job with a fresh loaf of brioche. So, a toast (literally) to new beginnings and crazy futures! It’s going to be a wild ride.

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Pear and Chocolate Éclairs (Poire Belle Hélène)

It was one of those days that sudden cravings would hit you in the middle of the night. And all I wanted were some goddamn éclairs. To date, I’ve not eaten any éclair in this tiny island worth traveling a distance for. (Now, if you’re talking about the luscious chocolate éclairs from La Maison du Chocolat – that’s a whole new story altogether. I’d travel to Hong Kong for a day for those babies.)

Éclairs are a classic French pastry and traditionally flavoured with chocolate, coffee or white-glazed fondant. In the recent years, they have been given a makeover from different glazes, exotic flavours and extensive decorations (there are even savoury ones!). At times, you’re just eating half a pastry with tons of cream, puree, candy and what not’s. It doesn’t even look like an éclair anymore but nail art. One can just peer at the windows of Christophe Adam and Fauchon to see collections of extravagant and vibrant little ‘flashes’.

Move over, le macaron, it’s time for l’éclair to shine.

For our own attempt in a fashionable éclair, we wanted to incorporate the flavours of the classic dessert Poire belle Hélène – made with pears served with vanilla ice cream, chocolate and crystallised violets. We had a dilemma on the violets on whether to get fresh ones or the ready candied flowers. No one seemed to sell candied violets and buying them online meant we had to wait for shipping. At long last, we decided to candy our own violets and managed to get fresh edible violet flowers from the market – only to find out that we bought violas instead. No sweat, we’ll just have to make do.

Candying the tiny petals proved to be a challenge especially in this heat and humidity. The moment the flowers were exposed to the open air, their petals curl and shrink in size. And it doesn’t help that they are so fragile. Delicate sturdy hands and a very cold dry room are needed for this operation. The beautiful blue-purple violas don’t really taste of anything but at least they are a sight to behold. A pity though. (Guys, make sure you get the right flowers. Or better still, use the already candied ones.)

The pears (we used Williams in this recipe) were poached in sugar syrup infused with Mexican vanilla pods. The fruits were then cubed into tiny pieces and mixed into the crème pâtissière for piping after. While little rows of choux pastry were baking in the oven, a rich glossy dark chocolate glaze was prepared. I loved the combination of smells coming from the kitchen – chocolate, vanilla and custard. After the éclairs were piped and dipped, the final touches of flowers were pressed into the chocolate top. And voilà, an éclair au Poire belle Hélène was born.

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Pear and Frangipane Tarts (Tarte Bourdaloue aux Poires)

You would think we would be bored of baking tarts by now. On the contrary, I think we’d never stop popping them into the oven. There is a quiet sense of satisfaction knowing that slowly but surely, improvement could be tasted after every bake. Kudos to Ned who persevered despite it all and once again, delivered a tray filled with petite tartlets of crisp golden brown pastry, luscious fruits and delightful almond filling.

Frangipane is a filling made from almonds and acts like a pastry cream. Back then when I was clueless about baking and culinary terms, I always thought frangipane was made from frangipani flowers. That is, you have to admit, really quite an interesting flavour should it be true. (Technically, you can actually consume frangipani or plumeria flowers in salads, teas and even candy. My brain is raging with ideas now.) Now that I have grown a little wiser, visits to the local pâtisserie won’t have me leaving red-faced with my silly questions.

The almond acts like a base and pushes the honeyed sweetness of the pears in every bite. What I love is the burst of juice from the fruit against the dense frangipane filling – a mouthful of pure indulgence! For which, I am not ashamed to say that I ate two in one sitting.

Off to the gym…

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Issue 11: Pears

Note to myself: Never make promises on deadlines. I am officially the best procrastinator on this island. At least, I’m good at submitting late posts, that’s something to probably ‘brag’ about.

Okay, I digress.

In this household, we consume apples almost on a daily basis (even our dog loved them). If you peep into our fridge, there is a probability of 99% that there will be an apple over a pear. Compared to the crisp apple, there was a lack of crunchiness to be found in pears, they tend to be grainy and break down into a pulpy mush the moment you bite into them. Or perhaps, we have just been eating overripe pears to fully experience the actual lushness of the fruit. For that very reason, we figured it’s time we gave these voluptuous pears the attention they deserve.

That saying, we shouldn’t have put the pear against the apple. They are both utterly different in terms of texture, fragrance and taste. While an apple delivers punchy fruity notes, the pear offers subdued honeyed and floral flavours. The pear is like the awkward introverted kid in a party beside the boisterous loud apple, but in an one-on-one setting, you’ll find that the pear has a quiet confidence that will mesmerise and inspire. (Wow, I just made myself connect to pears on an endearing level now.)

With a determination to showcase the pear in its full glory, we surfed through the internet hoping to get a local supplier of pears but it seems our weather probably doesn’t permit the growing of pear trees. So it was off to scouring the markets for them. It’s good (and a little sad) to know that out of more than 400 varieties of pears, there is only a handful available to the public. And maybe because it’s not grown locally, the list is a lot shorter as compared to pear-growing countries. Our grocery notebook spotted the common Asian pear that is available all year round, and the occasional Packham, Conference, Anjou and Forelle, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Bosc and Williams.

Sadly, while we were shopping around for these sensual babies, the only varieties we could get our hands on were the Conference and Packham. The first is an elongated fruit with freckled skin and is a great cooking pear, while the latter is a succulent bottom-heavy variety best eaten raw. Our bakes used plenty of the Conference while we kept the Packhams for after-dinner refreshments.

We have paired pears with both savoury and sweet dishes before, and found the contrast of having pear present in a savoury dish most satisfying. Especially in salads with pungent blue cheeses and nuts. They go very well with spice like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger; are lovely companions to pork and game; and definitely shine alongside chocolate. In fact, pears such a versatile fruit, I wonder why we haven’t actually cooked them more. Pies, cakes, jams, tarts and biscuits, or even poached – they are no stranger to a dessert table.

Now, our Dad keeps stealing our Conference pears. Looks like we found a convert.

The Novice Cook: Apples, Pears and Bananas

At this rate, I’m supposed to be highly proficient around the kitchen and basic cooking methods should not faze me. But every single time, I surprise myself at my continued lack of skills and confidence. (In fact, I cooked myself dinner last night. And being alone, I decided on a poor man’s meal of eggs, soy sauce, leftover rice and beetroot. I managed to not cook the eggs properly.)

When Ned finds me rummaging through her sacred grounds, she would stand at the door and ask if I needed any supervision or guidance of sorts before she leaves the house. That’s how much of a dunce I am in the area of culinary arts. Each dish I have cooked was a battle fought – some with crushing defeat and some conquered with pride. Most times, I seek assistance from my parents who willingly help. They rather dirty their hands than me with the kitchen. And this time, Mom had to help me core the fruits because I’ve never done it before – using a knife felt a little daunting then.

Watching my mother skilfully remove the seeds from the fruits, it made me wonder why was there even fear in the first place. Was that what’s stopping people from entering the kitchen? As celebrity chefs show off their impressive chopping moves on television, we are slowly stepping away from actual cooking and relying on microwave meals. I do admit that watching my late mama whipping dinner up was awe-inspiring and yet, also intimidating. In my eyes, cooking was left for those who knew and understood it. With the lack of hands-on experience, cooking slowly became detached from my life. I don’t even know how to use a rice cooker.

That’s slowly changing though. Step by step, I’m learning the basics whether by watching others or plainly experimenting it on my own. I do prefer cooking alone – it pushes me to act on my feet using my own resources and not relying on others. Unfortunately, I had way too much help with this simple recipe from the cutting of the fruits to the toasting of the walnuts. Sure, I did them myself but they were executed under observation. It was like taking a Home Economics exam.

As I watched the fruits caramelise in the oven, peace and calmness settled in. The familiar therapeutic feeling I often get from cooking alone returned. Although my foray into cooking will be a never-ending challenge, but it was one I gladly took. After all, in return, I get to eat fantastic dishes such as this dessert (the baked bananas were sublime and the crunchy walnuts against the soft fruits was a great balance of textures). Nothing really beats cooking with your very own hands.

The recipe can be found here.

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