Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: fruit

Pancakes and A Broken Heart

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As I write this now, February will almost be over. How did we even start 2016? I am not one who bares my heart so readily on this blog, because why should I anyway? This is about Thom and Aimee, isn’t it? But I realised how food and cooking heals, and how the chef can translate his or her love through the dish. No, it’s not about Valentine’s (which is long over). It’s about starting the New Year with a broken heart and the healing process.

To be honest, I’ve expected this to happen back in last December. I think we all know how big a procrastinator I am, so I’ve dragged ending an almost-relationship (this term is funny no?) long enough. It is not to say that it hurt lesser by having the mental readiness, because nothing can really prepare you from an actual broken heart. Strangely, it was accompanied with relief and some peace. And then, the rally from loved ones around you that made you understand who actually truly cared.

Nothing comforts one best when your own sister wakes you up with homemade pancakes on a rainy weekend (great for mopping around while looking pretty). Ned makes the Crêpe Suzette almost every day at work, but it’s not about the dullness of routine that mattered. It’s always special when someone creates a dish from scratch for no special reason whatsoever, but just so you, the diner, can at least smile.

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The performance that comes with a Crêpe Suzette is alluring and magnetic. Maybe it was my emotional state that made the dish more romantic than it seemed. Yet, to watch the blue flames dance upon the delicate golden pancakes and the bright caramelised sauce bubble with slight ferocity was almost hypnotising. To be honest, nothing was romantic because Ned was screaming her head off when she splashed the liqueur into the pan. And you’d think she does this for a living.

But that’s what cooking is all about. Happiness, sadness, laughter, tears, and maybe all at once. It’s not uncommon to see people disappear into the kitchen to celebrate or to mourn. Or to eat cause they are just damn fucking hungry. There is something therapeutic about the whole process, whether it’s for you or someone else. That’s why I decided it was alright to talk about something personal alongside Thom and Aimee. Because both are important and so intrinsic with each other.

They say time heals, but I say, nothing heals better than a noisy kitchen that fills the house with the aromatic heady fragrance of citrus on a wet morning. It is difficult still, but I know things will get better. Hey, you know what, I did smile when eating those pancakes. Those were darn good pancakes.

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Issue 14: Durian

Alright, pledge your allegiance now. There can only be two sides to this important matter, you’re either on Team Durian or Team How-The-Hell-Are-You-Not-On-Team-Durian. Well, the fact that we have dedicated this issue to the prickly fruit, it’s glaringly obvious that we love our durians. And when we say ‘love’, we meant insanely obsessed. We cannot say the word ‘durian’ and not turn into a couple of rabid hyperventilating dorks. (I’m twitching in my seat at this moment. I. Need. Durian.)

“If you don’t love durian, you are not Singaporean” – there goes the saying. Of course, you are not forced to consume it to become a Singaporean, but it just shows how well-loved this fruit is. Not just in Singapore, it’s deemed the King of Fruits in the whole of South East Asia. (It should be for the world wide world.) Comes durian season (from late May to Early August), you’d find five-star hotels and fine-dining restaurants churning out durian desserts of sorts. Some even travel to neighbouring countries to have a durian-centred feast. There was even a durian buffet. A bloody buffet that allows you to eat all the durians you want! And yes, we went for that. *evil cackle*

To strangers to this odd food, durians can be an offensive assault to your senses. With sharp thorns covering every millimetre of the husk, you would think it’s probably dangerous to consume it. I think Mother Nature was just being a selfish bitch to deter us from eating such heavenly stuff.

Then, there’s the smell. Most are turned off by its pungent and rank stench. If you go onto google, you’d find descriptions such as rotten sewage, dead rats and smelly socks. Basically, one can hardly phantom why anyone would put durians in their mouth. Its fragrance is so strong that it’s literally banned in hotels or public transport. You can eat durians and become a durian-farting machine for the next few days. That’s how potent these stuff are. But sorry, dude, we find the smell of durians A-MAH-ZING. If our neighbours from three floors up are eating durians, we would know and we would be awfully filled with envy.

Past the smell, you pick up this gooey, creamy (sometimes watery) glob of yellow-orange flesh. If you thought the smell was intense, the fruit itself is like getting multiple special combo-attacks. It’s Hadouken, Kamehameha, Bankai and Gomu Gomu all at once. You have received 10000000 damage and have to respawn for the next 500 times. But if you can go beyond the smells and first taste, you’d find how amazingly complex durians are. The custard-like flesh can go from caramel sweet to bittersweet. You may find hints of nuts, caramel and fruits such as mango and overripe bananas.

We tried quite a few varieties for erm, research. From mao shan wang (loosely translated as mountain cat king), D24, D13, XO to jin feng (golden phoenix), hong xia (red prawn) and butter durians. And that’s just the top of the list. After so many durians, our taste buds got a little numb. Our reactions slowly became useless information like “arghmagawd” to “ugh, pass”. In any case, stick to the winners such as mao shan wang and D24. Though, we do love the ultra sweet butter durians as well.

Because of its overpowering flavours, it’s tough to pair durians with any other ingredient. The easiest way is to complement the pronounced notes present in the fruit. We looked at nuts, tropical fruits such as mangosteen and mangoes, and local foods such as palm sugar. The idea was to inject the awesomeness of durian into classic French desserts, with a touch of local flavours. Ah~ anything durian just works for me.

I could go on and on about durians. This controversial fruit may not be the most crowd-pleasing and it divides people into two distinct camps. But in my memories, it was about having the whole family squatting on the newspaper-covered floor as we slurp the buttery flesh off our fingers. Well, our youngest sister would be behind a closed door trying to avoid the smells. And that itself is one quirky memory to have.

Poached Mandarin Oranges with Vanilla Ice Cream

(I’m on fire here! Three posts in a row!! But that’s only because *cough* Ned sent me a threatening note this morning *cough*. I had to finish up all the old drafts left sitting on the shelf by today or *cough* certain misfortune might befall me.)

At times, we forget why we wanted to do this or our mantra for local seasonal produce. If you haven’t noticed, we barely focus on any fresh fruits or vegetables this year. With the lack of time to do anything in the kitchen, we wanted to avoid wastage of any sort. Fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood are too perishable to keep up with our schedules. We just finished up our next row of desserts and it features another dry ingredient (it’s coffee, if you need to know). If possible, we would love to return to the good old days where fruits play a major part.

The last time we handled fruit of any sort was after Chinese New Year. (Okay, that was four months ago. Please do not glare at me for being four months late in posting this.) Leftover mandarin oranges was common at most Chinese households after the festive season. These citruses are great on their own but we decided to finish the last batch of oranges with a little touch of Middle Eastern spice.

Unlike the typical oranges, mandarins are a lot more tender with its plump juicy pulp held together with thick with white pith. Some do not like the bitterness of the pith, but we tend to eat them anyway since the mandarins are sweet enough. The lovely thing about mandarins is that you can peel them open with just your hands. Just look at how pretty each segment looks! Like tiny gold Chinese ingots (currency of imperial china)! An interesting cultural fact: mandarin oranges and gold have the same pronunciation in Cantonese. And that’s why we exchange mandarins (or gold) during the New Year.

With that much leftover oranges and our (then) freshly made vanilla ice cream, we turned them into a simple dessert that give the usual citrus a little spicy kick. You can poach the mandarins in their tiny ingots or slice them in a cross-section to create beautiful floral shapes. What we really love is how a few added spice could bring the fruit a waft of fresh air. Instead of the usual saccharine taste of orange, the flavour of the fruit deepened with the vanilla, cardamom and cinnamon. To top it all off, add a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream and dust some chopped pistachios for added crunch – a Chinese tradition with an exotic Middle Eastern twist.

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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.

The Novice Cook: Squid, Potato and Chilli

I just had a couple of my wisdom teeth removed a few days back, which only meant a diet of gooey porridge and soup. The only joy I could partake in was the fact that I had five days off from work. This gave me the perfect opportunity to foray into the kitchen while everyone else was out of the house (except my Dad, he’s always home). The great thing about having the whole day free from work obligations meant I could have (A) a long relaxing brunch, (B) a leisurely grocery shopping trip and (C) short coffee break thereafter. And it’s always a joy to shop in a relatively empty market.

Although I was nursing a wounded mouth, it was in the midst of healing and I could slowly consume soft foods. I decided to be slightly more adventurous though – I figured squid should be tender enough. Or that all sense of wisdom was left at the dentist chair (we have a local saying that squids are ‘blur’, meaning dim and clueless. So, if someone calls you sotong, it’s an insult).

Why squid then? They just seemed odd, don’t they? A little like aliens of the sea world, with their stringy tentacles and bulging bug-eyed faces. They look slimy and slightly creepy as though they can murder you by wrapping multiple legs around you. Death By Sotong, that’s terrible. But that’s what intrigued me, because despite their unfortunate looks, they were a delight to taste.

My only problem was that I had no idea how to prepare squid. I knew I had to get rid of the transparent bone and make sure that none of the black ink is introduced into my dish. Thankfully I had help from my equally clueless father to cut the creature for me. I stood beside him as he explained the steps in a very convincing manner – dads are endearing this way. Well, luckily for both of us, he succeeded in cleaning the squid and I had something to cook with.

The recipe called for the squid to be covered with flour, which gave a very odd texture to the seafood when done. I’m not sure if it was supposed to create a crispy layer since it was baked and not fried. There wasn’t much a batter per se, so what resulted was a mushy-type texture I wasn’t crazy about. Paired with chilli (which Dad cut, because he was worried that I’d get them in my eyes) and potatoes, the dish had a piquant spicy kick and a refreshing citrusy taste from the lemon juice. I wouldn’t mind cooking this dish again, but without the flour and the potatoes. Maybe with a generous helping of blended chilli sauce and lime…. like sambal sotong

When he saw the final dish, Dad laughed and shook his head. At that moment, I transformed into a four-year-old girl playing chef in her toy kitchen.

The recipe can be found here.

Christmas Macarons

It was Macaron Overdose this Christmas, with trays and trays of colourful meringue shells filling the air with saccharine notes. So much so that I can not say ‘macaron’ without a sudden reflux welling up in my system. Both Ned and I have agreed not to mention the ‘M’ word or make any ‘M’s for the next few months. There was really such a thing as having too much of a good thing.

The original plan was to float past Christmas without doing anything at all. We wanted to be away from the kitchen and not fuss over tons of cooking. Festivities tend to bring unnecessary stress despite it being a holiday. (We even decided not to get a tree or do up the house in loads of pine and excessive reds and golds. Christmas this year was pleasantly un-festive.) That was the original plan. Was.

Until we received a text from a friend looking to order for festive macarons. And we obliged to a very very tiny order. Then came a whirlwind of madness, frustrations, sugar, sleepless nights, countless days of experimentation, sudden realisations, sugar, crazed debates on flavour, sugar, extreme fatigue, sugar and more sugar. We would not say much but let’s just put it down that we had a pretty interesting lesson and it never hurt to be a tad wiser in the future. It was simply one good experience to have, but that should hopefully be the first and the last.

Still, it was not all bad and no fun. Conjuring up flavour combinations was always the highlight of any food project. Christmas proved to be an easy challenge with its obvious seasonal offerings: cinnamon, dates, ginger, chestnuts, nutmeg, cranberries, clementines, mincemeat, brandy, peppermint, and so much more. Of course, we could be greedy but over-ambition could lead to serious trouble.

In the end, we settled for six different flavours:

Black Forest
This familiar cake is not a mainstay during Christmas but it was the magical winter wonderland image of a dense deep brown wooded forest capped with the whitest snow that lingered in our minds. It was like staring into a snow globe and watching the white flakes float gracefully – a little like Narnia.

Many different cherries and types of chocolate were tried and tested to recreate the flavours of Black Forest. The final ganache consisted of 70% dark chocolate ganache with a centre of Morello cherry compote. We would have wanted to add a dash of kirsch to intensify the cherry notes but alcohol was not permitted. The shells were coloured in the deepest red to give a big festive kick. It was a tiny pop of a sharp sour cherry flavour amidst the lushness of the chocolate. And it was a joy to bite into bits of actual fruit as well.

Gingerbread
Ahh, ginger… This is one food item that we grew to love as our taste buds mature (okay, we were getting older). We knew there had to be a ginger-flavoured macaron within the six. If you walk down the aisles of any supermarket, food department stores and bakeries, you’d find beautiful gingerbread architectures grace the shopping windows at this time of the year. There was something about having a kick of spice in the cold winters, from a hot cinnamon-chocolate drink or warm ginger date pudding.

It was definitely not winter here, but one can always imagine sitting in front of a fireplace in a snug warm blanket and munching on freshly baked ginger biscuits Grandma made. In our recipe, ground ginger powder and cinnamon was added to the macaron shell. Orange peels were then infused to the milk chocolate ganache for a fruity perfume – chocolate and citrus make good partners! Last but not least, tiny pieces of stem ginger were sprinkled in between the shells to give a good punch of warmness.

Marron Glacé
The famous Christmas song that went “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” created such a romantic picture and it has pretty much become an inside joke between Ned and I. Because chestnuts are a bitch to do –  there, I’ve said it. It only made us appreciate the makers of marron glacés and understand why they were priced exorbitantly. It was a time-consuming and labourous process that involved so many different components: the marron glacé, chestnut paste and chestnut purée. Never before did one macaron cause so much pain and exhaustion.

Because we were that anal to make sure everything was homemade, fresh chestnuts were bought and Ned’s fingers were raw prying the shells and skins off the scalding hot chestnuts with not much help other than a tiny toothpick. After which, three different batches of the nuts were transformed into either the confection, paste or purée.

The paste and purée were incorporated into the ganache, while the marron glacé was chopped and sprinkled over. And we love adding fruit so Conference pears were poached with vanilla pods and cubed to complement the chestnuts. Each time we look at the pinkish chestnut macarons, we sigh knowing that every ounce of effort poured into it was a piece of pure chestnut heaven. And every bite of it was just worth it.

Toffee Nut
How do we know the Christmas season has come to our tropical island? Other than the lights down Orchard Road, it’s when our friends go ga-ga every time they enter a Starbucks because they get to drink a toffee nut latte. What better way to take inspiration from one of the most commercialised retail store and make this popular drink into a macaron!

Toffee is an amazingly (probably too) sweet confection that involves caramelised sugar and tons of butter. So much so, that it was a pain to wash off all the grease afterwards. What we wanted was a thick sticky consistency that felt almost like they could glue your teeth together. Well, the kid in us used to think toffee were actually great tasting super glue. You could splash some rum for a more adult sweet (and we would probably add too much if we could). This was a rather carefree macaron as compared to the chestnut, albeit the wash-up.

Hazelnut Praline
Another nutty concoction but not as painstaking as the chestnuts. Watching Ned prepare the pralines was a pretty moment, the nuts were glazed with a golden brown sugary coat – they almost look like tiny precious golden glass marbles. You know how these translucent hazelnuts globes or spikes are used to decorate petite pastry creations, I felt like decorating my dressing table with them. And our Dad just stared at them, asking if he could pop them into his mouth.

Sadly, they all have to go into making our hazelnut praline macarons. These glossy babies were then smashed into pieces with a mortar and pestle (we have this granite stone set from our Mama – probably much older than us and one of the most precious items we have in the kitchen). This was my personal favourite out of the lot despite its humble ingredients; there was just something luxurious about hazelnuts with its distinct aroma. Or I really just like hazelnuts a lot in the first place.

Cranberry & Vanilla
Last but not least, we round up our Christmas collection with a dual-coloured macaron with the obvious cranberry and versatile vanilla. Ned actually bought proper vanilla pods which was probably too much of an expense. I think one can tell that we were losing money from this venture. Were we too silly? Maybe. But we always believed in giving the best, though not the smartest approach in actual business. Well, that’s one learning curve to hit.

We tried many ways to include the cranberry, either by adding its juices to the ganache but the vanilla was far too overpowering or having just the fruits which caused too much moisture. In the end, we went with the compote route à la Black Forest. The slight difference was that we jelly-fied the cranberry compote to give it more structure. The Cranberry & Vanilla combination was the simplest but also the most Christmassy macaron out of the bunch.

After weeks of experimentation and baking, we barely had time to sit down and actually look back at the past year. To be honest, we were pretty chuffed about how far we have come despite it being a short time frame. Thom & Aimee is barely more than a year old and we haven’t got bored of it (we do get bored very quickly but hey, here we are at our 100th post!!) at all. In fact, it only pushed us to better ourselves. So, 2014 – new beginnings, more cooking, fresh experiences and challenges.

Just no macarons. For now.

The Long-(Un)expected Party

It’s been about a year since we last hosted a proper formal dinner and despite all the praise, we did not get down to holding more dinners. Since then, all word about the previous party became stuff of memories. But strangely enough, the occasion was briefly mentioned during a recent family gathering and an aunt who missed the last party wanted to experience it for herself.

To be honest, cooking for family could be a very stressful job. Expectations were higher and the pressure to perform was more intense than usual. Families tend not to mince their words, no matter how awful they sound. But we were never one to back away from a challenge. We were given about one and a half months to start preparing: the menu, the wine list, the tableware and the decor. This includes a choice of two main courses (a beef dish was a must) for over 26 guests. It wasn’t a 100 person catering event, but over twenty diners for a course-by-course meal was equally intimidating. And it didn’t help that some of the guests had dietary restrictions.

To be honest, we were very frenzied by the amount of work that was needed for this dinner. And we didn’t help ourselves by deciding on an elaborate menu complete with a pre-dinner cocktail. The fact that we had to use an unfamiliar kitchen was already daunting. Doing a site recce of the kitchen was the very first thing we did off the checklist, which gave us a better idea of how the cooking should be done. There were two kitchens: one was located outdoors where the heavy work was done, and the other was the dry area where preparation took place.

Equipment was checked – oven was not working, certain kitchen utensils were not available, there weren’t enough tableware to go around, and tables needed for plating. Then came the front of the house: guests would have to be split into a few tables, the number of service staff needed (yes, even that!), and how the decor will be put up in the house. At that point in time, the both of us were slightly frazzled but the weight of the whole situation hasn’t really sunk in yet.We knew a lot of work was needed, and yet reality had barely seeped in.

The menu was the biggest hurdle. How were we going to serve 26 guests a range of courses in perfect timing, temperature and portion? We had a very clear idea of how the skeleton of the menu would be: an amuse bouche, a seafood starter, a salad, a pasta dish, the main courses and of course, dessert. And I was guilty of insisting on sorbet and petit fours (blame it on occupational habits). After a week of drafting and planning, the menu was sent over to the host for approval. Thankfully, it went through the first round which gave us enough time to start our trial tastings.

This was how the menu was like:

Canapes
Pork Sausage with Brie Cheese and Red Onion Chutney
Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut

Amuse Bouche
Cream of Broccoli Soup (served with sourdough bread)

Starter
Beetroot, Pear, Watercress, Walnut, Goat’s Cheese, Elderflower Vinaigrette
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc

Seafood
Prawn, Bloody Mary Jelly, Avocado Puree, Watercress

Entree
Spinach Ravioli, Sage Butter, Parmesan, Pine Nuts

Sorbet
Green Apple Sorbet with Mint

Main Course
Salmon, Potato Mash, Spinach, Dill Creme Fraiche

or

Beef, Mushrooms, Spinach, Foie Gras, Parsley Puree, Madeira Sauce

Dessert
Orange Basil Mille-feuille, Chocolate Ice Cream, Assorted Berries

Freshly Brewed Coffee or Gourmet Teas
(served with Valrhona Chocolate)

(Looking at it now, I have no idea how we even managed to convince ourselves that this menu could ever come out of the kitchen.) The trials gave us a chance to gauge how much time each dish required in terms of preparation and actual cooking. Because most of it were done by hand, freshness was crucial. It also gave Ned a chance to perfect the recipes and tweak it accordingly to suit the overall menu plan. At this point, we were off pre-ordering the main ingredients like the beef, salmon and tons of vegetables. That in itself was another crazy affair of bargaining and endless conversations about the best cuts.

Tableware was another obstacle, though luckily we had our own private sources. We really shouldn’t say as it’s almost illegal how we managed to get them. In all, we managed to procure a range of pure bone china for all five courses, amuse bouche, sorbets, side plates, flatware, wine glasses, champagne flutes, water goblets, dinner trays and even table cloths. Simple arrangements of flowers were done the night before, crystal beads all strewn up like pearl necklaces, and candles were bought.

After five days of mise-en-place, barely enough sleep and weeks of planning, it was almost surreal when the Big Day arrived. Right off the bat, Ned and I were off doing specific tasks early that morning. Being the head chef, she was off to the venue in preparation (with two cousins helping out) and I was running around to pick up all the main ingredients for utmost freshness. That was when I realised our butcher forgot about our order and we had to get our steak off the shelf instead.

The dining space was transformed into a cosy intimate French bistro with warm lighting and jazz playing in the background. Three more cousins were enlisted to help out with service, and a small briefing was held to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was almost as though we were getting ready for a typical day at a restaurant.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to say that no matter how much preparation you have gone through or bad luck you can anticipate, when shit happens, it just does. That’s when you just trudge on and try to make do with what you have. Were we afraid? Yes, because screwing things up was just too easy. At this point, we could only leave it to fate and sheer hard work.

And the show finally starts.

6.45pm: The first stream of guests arrived. Many oo’s and ah’s were heard from the dining area. Canapes and champagne were sent out to appease any impending hunger. The host has given instruction not to serve dinner until more of the guests were here. We were playing the waiting game.

7.15pm: Canapes have ran out and the guests were pretty high on bubbly now. Some stray unwanted guests decided to pop into the kitchen asking for more food and were shooed out. Still no news from the host on whether we could start proper dinner service.

7.17pm: Oh fish, service starts. The guests have promptly sat themselves down. Soup was given a quick heating up and poured into tiny espresso cups. Bread was given a toasting through. Kitchen crew have started plating the beetroot salad. (The broccoli soup was inspired by our lunch in The Gingerman, Brighton and what better way to start a meal with warm creamy liquid in the tummy.)

7.30pm: The momentum in the kitchen had picked up a few notches. Thin slices of beetroot and pear were laced intricately round the plate, topped with watercress salad, crumbly goat’s cheese and walnuts and dressed with elderflower vinaigrette. It was a little messy trying to make sure there were no pink fingerprints on the clean porcelain plates. As the service staff brought out the salad into the dining hall, almost immediately, fresh plates were laid out for the next course to be plated.

7.33pm: Too much beetroot, they said. Well, we did want to push the traditional Asian palate a little with the ‘unconventional’ beetroot, and surprise, surprise, the older crowd wasn’t a big fan of the deep-burgundy vegetable despite its natural sweetness. It was something that appealed more to the younger ones.

7.35pm: Prawns were being stacked. Avocado puree was piped delicately on the chilled Bloody Mary jelly. It was difficult trying the get the jelly pieces to stay in place. The warm temperature in the kitchen didn’t help at all. Update from the service team was that the guests were finishing up their salads. Boy, they were really starving themselves before this dinner. Then actual shit happened, because Ned found out that the ravioli pieces for the third course decided to morph into one gigantic pasta monster.

7.40pm: The seafood starter was sent out while the kitchen crew tried to salvage whatever ravioli parcels that could be used. Instead of serving three patchwork babies, we could only save two pieces per guest. Imagine our frustrations and panic!

7.41pm: Guests have devoured the seafood starter in seconds. Were we serving giants?

7.45pm: Patchwork ravioli babies were still in surgery. More stray giants guests wandered into the kitchen. Pressure level was boiling way over limit.

7.50pm: First of the spinach ravioli pieces were popped into water. With pine nuts and shaved Parmesan cheese, the third course was finally served. As quickly as the ravioli flew out of the kitchen, the crew were armed with spoons to quenelle lovely ovals of green apple sorbet. We should actually be worried with plating the sorbet that soon because they could melt before they were served. Should we?

7.52pm: Sorbet was served. I swear we were cooking for actual giants here. Most of the guests ordered the salmon course, so that was the first main course we attacked with. Ned starts panfrying the pink pieces of fish and our designated chef de partie was in pots and pans with getting the mash potato and spinach ready. We could hear the guests leaving their seats to mingle around. Which also meant the sorbet was slurped off the moment it was served.

7.58pm: The salmon was still sizzling away in its juices. Watching them turn into a rosy cooked pink seemed excruciatingly slow than usual. We didn’t want to serve them raw or overcooked, or upset the hungry guests out there. We have not started on the beef and everyone was on their toes and screaming for time-check at every minute. “Is the mash ready?”, “Fish, give me fish!”, “Where’s the creme fraiche?” and “Fisssshhh, we need fishhh”. It was difficult trying to juggle so many things at a time.

8.10pm: Oh boy, were we screwed.

8.15pm: The mash was plated onto every plate and spinach was laid out as neatly as possible. Tender salmon pieces with a crisp skin was laced with a quenelle of dill creme fraiche. Those who ordered the fish course were served immediately. The next ordeal was the beef course – a meat that required time to cook and to rest. New pots sat on the stove to cook the mushrooms and spinach, while the sauce gently warms up on the side. Ned looked a sight with two hands full of pans grilling the foie gras and beef away.

8.17pm: The beef-giants were getting restless watching the salmon-giants eat.

8.26pm: *Listens to the soundtrack of sizzling beef.*

8.38pm: The mushrooms and spinach were portioned onto individual plates and were cushioned with beautiful succulent steaks of beef, topped with a perfectly seared foie gras and parsley puree. They were out of the kitchen the moment a spoonful of sticky Madeira sauce was drizzled over the meat.

8.40pm: A sudden wave of relief seemed to hit the kitchen crew. There was a minute of silence and stares before we got hold of ourselves. Dessert plates were laid out.

8.45pm: Seconds were requested. Could you believe it? (Giants. Giants everywhere.) Since it was actually a family dinner, Ned obliged to stir up more salmon and beef to appease the crowd.

9.00pm: A dessert factory line was born. Orange basil cream was piped gently onto strips of puff pastry. Icing sugar snowed on the top of the mille-feuilles. Quenelles of chocolate ice cream were sprinkled with toasted almond flakes. Berries were strategically placed. Dessert seemed almost a breeze after The Saga of Main Courses. Coffee and tea accompanied the dessert. The giants seemed appeased.

9.16pm: Service finally ended. The kitchen and service crew fell into a sea of utter exhaustion and pure exhilaration. Two full hours to put out five proper courses alongside canapes, amuse bouche and sorbet. Secret bottles of alcohol were opened to celebrate.

Looking back, it was surprising how we jumped at the opportunity to get waist deep into trouble. We did not have the proper experience nor training to execute such an elaborate dinner. Overall, feedback was pretty satisfactory and we definitely need to practice a lot more before we embark on another dinner party. Timing was still a key weakness and presentation of the dish was an area both of us have to invest effort in.

Yet again, the dinner party stirred up some need to pull out dinners on a regular basis. Sure, they were back-breaking but the end result was so satisfactory. It made our tummies warm and our hearts a flutter. So much so, Ned and I were even contemplating whether we should host secret supper clubs. Right now, the idea is still dangling in the air. But who knows, maybe there would be.

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