Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: italian

Roasted Almond Affogato

With the unearthly timings the World Cup matches are broadcasting locally, a single cup of coffee is just not enough to last us through the night. Or should I say early morning. In any case, we are surviving on an average of two to three hours of sleep these days. And no matter how many cups of coffee you down, the caffeine seems to stop its magical effects after awhile. (I tried drinking a total of 8 shots once. Please do not try it unless you wish to have an accelerating heart rate.)

Sometimes, we do get a little hungry in the middle of the night. Swearing at the television and watching 22 men kick a ball can take up a lot of energy. Especially if your team is not playing up to expectations, hunger plus anger, on top of fatigue, makes a rabid fangirl. To combat potential crazy breakdowns, we figured a simple dessert would calm even the most frantic. (No, really, I actually lost sleep because Germany drew an equaliser with Ghana. A sleep-deprived person who can’t fall asleep. The world could have combusted.) A word of caution though: the sugar and caffeine rush might work differently on different people. And this is not for those worried about their waistlines.

Let’s turn back the clock a little. One of our very first meals in London was at Polpo and to beat the jet lag, we decided to have an affogato after our very satisfying meal. A dessert in a cup of coffee, nothing beats the simple combination of pure vanilla ice cream melting in your cup of rich espresso. I don’t know if it was the excitement of being on a holiday or that we were hungry and cold, but it was one of the most luscious cups of heaven we have had. Ever since then, we knew we had to recreate it when we go back home.

Back to the present, we came across the cookbook ‘One’ by Florence Knight, who is the head chef of Polpo. And to our delight, within it lies a recipe of an affogato. Traditionally made with vanilla ice cream and a cup of espresso, this version is a much richer concoction with its inclusion of roasted almonds. And boy, when we both tasted the dessert, it was like we were transported back to London and into the cosy corner of the bar at Polpo.

The combination of the caramelised almond ice cream lifted the bitterness of the coffee. We used a deeper roast of beans as we favoured the contrast of bittersweet. You can add pralines to the dessert for an extra indulgence but for convenience’s sake (half time is only 20 minutes), we are satisfied with just almond ice cream and coffee. In fact, almost too satisfied because we just downed two cups each. Well, stomachs come first, guilt can come later.

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Tiramisu

It’s typical to make a tiramisu when one thinks about coffee. This is probably the most famousest of Italian desserts in the world. Go to your nearest Italian eatery and you’d definitely find a tiramisu in the menu. You can even find it disguised under unfamiliar ingredients such as matcha, strawberries or even beer (you heard me right). Despite its worldwide reputation and popularity, the tiramisu was only a recent invention. Created in the 1970s at Le Beccherie in a northern town of Treviso (the restaurant is closing down though), the tiramisu is an icon beside the pizza and pasta of Italy.

To me, the tiramisu is almost like eating a trifle (will Italians kill me for saying that). Its too creamy for a cake but too stodgy to be called a mousse. With a concoction of mascarpone, coffee, marsala wine and sponge ladyfinger biscuits, the dessert is a great after-dinner treat of booze and coffee. We have eaten many tiramisu, from horrendous watery sloshes in cups to frozen ice-cream like cakes, and knew immediately what we wanted our own tiramisu to be like.

Although we grew up eating creamy cups of tiramisu, we were not big fans of digging our spoons into tons of cream. Here was the challenge: to make the tiramisu an elegant dish. It got Ned really excited with the prospect of designing and creating her own dessert. But that was where it got difficult. She had to get the ingredients, quantity and cooking methods right. It was basically a trial-and-error with a sit-and-pray mindset. You should see the number of designs she came up with. They were terrifying and amazing at the same time. It was like watching The Doctor come up with plans that aren’t really plans.

All the usual ingredients had to remain to stay true to its origin but the dessert will have to be almost cake-like for a cleaner shape. More chocolate was incorporated into the pastry in the form of luxurious ganaches. Soaked in potent espresso, ladyfinger biscuits act as the base and divider between the ganache and mascarpone custard. The key difference is the form of the mascarpone. No longer sloppy, the top layer is a sturdy semifreddo-like custard. Dusted with lavish sprinkles of cocoa powder, the dish was definitely a tiramisu when you taste it, but in a new dress.

We might have committed a crime by tweaking the recipe but as with life, nothing stays still. And with all things well-loved, classics will always stay close to one’s heart but new interpretations must be welcomed with open arms. Besides, the tiramisu itself is considered a new kid on the block in the books of history. So, a little makeover won’t do this dessert any harm. If anything, we are loving the new look.

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Homemade Margherita Pizza

As I write this now, I realised we can never end Project Italia. It will be something that would be revisited many times in the future because there is simply so much to explore and discover. We have only scraped the surface of a bottomless pit. This only reenforces how varied and colourful Italian cuisine is. That saying, this applies to all types of cuisines. Just using Chinese food as an example would suffice.

Okay, I digress.

Pizza is one of the most common and familiar dishes in the world. Immortalised by fast food chains, almost anyone living within the vicinity of a pizza delivery would have tasted this bread concoction. However, as with globalisation, the face of pizza has changed so much from its humble beginnings. We can simply look at our local offerings to know that the traditional pizza has transformed with its cheesy stuffed crust, spicy rendang sauce and the all-too familiar pineapple topping.

However, pizza is so old that no one really knows where it originated from. Flavoured flatbreads has long been part of history since the neolithic age. I could bore you with a lecture of how pizza became this easily recognisable dish, but I shall spare you the details. Just know that with the introduction of tomatoes in Europe, in the case of Naples, the fruit was used as a sauce base and the modern pizza was born. In fact, pizza is so much a symbol of Naples, Neapolitans are trying to get the dish listed by the UN. We should get all our local food listed then.

According to Associasione Verace Pizza Napoletana (they even have an authority!), only two possible combinations of toppings are considered “true” pizzas – the Marinara and Margherita. The Marinara is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. For the Margherita, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil is used. Strict rules applies to ensure the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza. It must be baked in a wood-fired oven, the dough must be hand-kneaded and the ingredients are very much regulated.

But really, I don’t think everyone should be so anal to confine the creativity pizza encourages. Ideally, pizza should feature fresh ingredients of the best quality. I remember reading Gin no Saji, a Japanese manga about agriculture, and I couldn’t stop salivating. It featured a group of teens attempting to bake pizzas using food they have grown and made. Be it the flour they milled from homegrown wheat, locally-made cheese (with milk from their own cows!), bacon from pigs they reared, vegetables they grew, and right down to the wood used to the heat up the oven. (It’s one of my favourite manga – truly inspiring.) And this didn’t help in aiding my hunger.

Our version of the Margherita might not be supposedly authentic, but nothing beats feasting on freshly-baked pizza that you’ve baked on your own. (Interesting tidbit: our pizza stone is actually this massive granite piece that was cut according to our specifications. We have an awesome Dad who did the sourcing.) So we had Ned going into her Italian nonna persona in the kitchen as she rolled out pizza after pizza. The homemade tomato sauce is such a glorious paste that we have used it for our pasta. Thank goodness we have jars of it left! Topped with good quality mozzarella and our own basil, I’m proud to say that this blasphemously: it was as good as any pizza in Naples.

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Prawn and Basil Risotto

I’m surprised how long ago my previous post was. Every time I got down to writing, I never went past clicking ‘Create a new post’ and would be distracted by really unimportant things like watching videos on YouTube. It’s not that we haven’t been cooking, I’m just guilty of backlogging all our posts!! I need the discipline to really get down and finish up all the work. (Yes, writing can be a bitch sometimes!)

Going back to Project Italia, we decided to recreate a risotto we fell in love with in London. Our first lunch in our beloved England was at Polpo – a cosy casual restaurant that serves humble Venetian dishes that are full of flavour and wholesome ingredients. It was already part of our itinerary in the early stages of planning as we read only favourable reviews. We were lucky to get a table despite not having any reservations, and it was the perfect spot to fill our tummies and rid us of the unwanted jet lag.

Since our return, the dish continued to be on our minds and we managed to get a copy of the Polpo cookbook. To our joy, it featured a similar recipe to that we had in London (they replaced the asparagus with monk’s beard, a type of chicory common in Tuscany). Our take involved the humble basil, a versatile and aromatic herb, that lifts the natural umami flavours of the prawns. And any dish that requires the help of our lovely Mr. Frodo (we christened all our herbs with names from *cough* Lord of the Rings) is always a big welcome.

The star of the recipe is undoubtedly the tiny crustacean. While some might label the prawns as cockroaches of the sea world, they look and taste far more superior than those unwanted pests. Our Dad used to buy live prawns and leave them to fall into a icy cold slumber in the freezer before cooking. It might sound almost cruel but nothing beats eating really fresh prawns. But chilled prawns will do the job equally well. Just make sure that those lovely shellfishes are from a sustainable source and that the variety is not in danger of overfishing.

I can still remember the piquant fragrance of the fish stock Ned was preparing the day before. It set the tasting notes of the risotto with a refreshing sweetness. The final plated dish brought back many good memories;  the smooth rice grains, crunchy succulent prawns and  basil hit the right notes of a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was like being transported back to the intimate confines of Polpo. We suggest some Parmesan cheese to serve, giving it another punch of savoury tang.

Ah, writing this makes me want to go back to London…

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Homemade Egg Tagliatelle and Salsa di Pomodoro (Tomato Sauce)

Starting from scratch seemed almost like madness in this current age when almost everything could be bought over the shelf. It is not abnormal to eat out of a box when processed food and TV dinners have found their way as a staple in many homes. Making anything at home becomes a luxury; it was only for those who have time and money. We would like to take that statement and throw it into the bin. Nothing beats making your own food with wholesome fresh ingredients.

When we started Thom & Aimee, one of the very first things we did was to eliminate processed food from our diets and kitchen. It was about going back to basics. Of course, it was not easy when all of us hold full-time jobs but we took it step by step. From introducing edible plants into the garden to making sure fundamental staples such as flour, butter, olive oil and lemons are always in the pantry, simple homemade dishes could easily be whipped up in minutes. We started educating the rest of our family on the values and importance of having fresh and natural food.

The other argument was that it could be awfully daunting. Trust us when we say that no matter how difficult it looks, digging into something you made lovingly with your own hands tastes tons better than those cardboard-flavoured ‘food’ in the supermarket. We had the same reservations when embarking on Project Italia: ‘it might be too difficult’, ‘we don’t have a pasta machine’ or ‘the consistency might come out wrong’. But after doing it, there was really no need to worry in the first place. In fact, it only emphasized our love and belief of simple home-cooking.

Italian cuisine is very accessible in Singapore from neighbourhood cafes to high-end fine dining restaurants. There are different varieties of sauces and pasta available in the markets. Many can easily prepare a pasta dish at home for a quick meal (the ultimate comfort food). I don’t know any other European cuisine that shares the same popularity and familiarity here in this country. The knowledge on Italian fare has grown beyond the typical spaghettis and pizzas and have slowly included regional dishes and less common recipes.

There are over 310 varieties of pasta, mostly made of wheat or semolina flour, and eggs. They are usually categorised into groups based on their shapes: long (fusilli, capellini, vermicelli); ribbon-cut (fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle); short-cut extruded (cannelloni, penne, tortiglioni); decorative (conchiglie, farfalle, rotini); minute (couscous, pastina); stuffed (ravioli, cappelletti, tortellini) and irregular (gnocchi). They can even be flavoured and come in different colours.

To understand pasta is to know the geography, culture and history of Italy. We are no experts but to learn about how one region consumes and cooks pasta differs from another is compelling. It all comes down to the climate, the availability of other ingredients, the type of flour used, even how currant affairs shaped the way Italians eat their pasta. We opened a can of worms when we forayed into the art of pasta-making. It only made this familiar staple more riveting than it already is.

There was no particular reason why we decided to try our hand on Italian food. It all stemmed down to the glorious tomato. Despite its availability all year round, the recent (super) hot weather got us dreaming up of a lush Mediterranean summer. The crisp flavours of the sea, the earthiness of the basil and the juicy sweetness of a bright red tomato. There is something seductive of the fruit. As Nigel Slater says, ‘Red is the colour of richness, ripeness and sensuality… It is the colour of that probably has the greatest effect on our emotions. No wonder we expect so much of the tomato.’

Tomatoes are synonymous to Italian cooking, so it was odd to learn that they were only introduced to Italy in the 1500s. Native to South America, they were first considered poison until the 18th century. Tomatoes were first given centre stage when featured in Vincenzo Corrado’s Il Cuoco Galante with thirteen recipes in 1773. Then, the versatile fruits were used for sauces, salads, eaten raw, baked, filled or made into soups. And as they say, the rest is history.

There are many different types of tomatoes available in the markets from all over the world, coming in all shapes, colours and sizes. They can be bought fresh or canned. Their qualities varies from sweet to tangy to fruity. Some varieties have thicker skins than others. Like pasta, it’s a crazy tomato universe out there. Plus they are very versatile and set themselves perfectly with many other ingredients such as bacon, anchovy, aubergine, bell pepper, caper, onion, etc.

We made the tagliatelle which originated from Emilia-Romagna and Marche. Usually made fresh, these long, flat ribbons have a rough, porous texture. It was surprisingly quick and fuss-free when Ned started to knead the dough. A bit of muscle will be needed to bring the flour and eggs together. She felt like an Italian nonna in her little cottage in the mountains. With the absence of a pasta machine, we made do with the traditional rolling pin to get the dough as even and thin as possible and cut into the standard 5mm.

The general way to serve pasta is al dente. It should feel a little elastic and a little resistance in the centre of the pasta should be felt when biting down. (So drain straight away.) Fresh pasta contains more moisture and hence, requires a shorter cooking time. A lot of practice will be needed to finally get the art of cooking al dente pasta. It’s not diffiult though.

Apparently, there is a rule of the world of pasta and its sauces. We don’t want to go into details but if you’re curious, you can check this guide. If it’s up to us, we would just cook it because we preferred it that way. With the tagliatelle’s rough texture, thick meat sauces such as the bolognese are perfect. But a simple sauce of tomato and basil pairs with the pasta equally well.

We never had fresh pasta before, so this would be difficult to really judge ours. But we can say this safely: homemade pasta is a whole different world of goodness. The natural eggy flavours of the pasta held its own against the sweet, tangy tomato sauce alongside the aromatic spice of basil. We added some mozzarella cheese on the top and it was like eating Italy in one bite. Oh, just a thought, it would be wonderful if we could make our own mozzarella cheese as well!

This doesn’t mean that we are swearing off dried pasta from the markets altogether. It will undeniably still be part of our pantry for those lazy afternoons and sudden midnight suppers. But we’re definitely be making our own pasta each time we can. For that moment, Italy seems almost close by.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Novice Cook: White Chocolate Panna Cotta with Raspberry Sauce and Homemade Shortbread Biscuits

Sometimes images of half-eaten food convey a stronger story than the clean unsullied ones. I particularly love how it can capture a sense of pleasure and a little lust as though the photographer couldn’t wait to eat it before shooting. Or maybe that’s just me.

The last dessert I made was a fairly successful one despite attempting it without any aid. This time, I’m not even sure if I could categorise this under The Novice Cook because I had so much assistance from Ned. The words I utter in the kitchen will stay secret as they are too embarrassing to be known to the world. Just picture this: flying batter, stubborn puddings, missing ramekins, gelatin leave uncertainty and plenty of exasperation. I’m glad to say I survived and that I even managed to get a compliment from my little sister Ned: “I’m so proud of you, Jie, you made shortbread.” Yes, for a girl who still doesn’t know how to cook rice, that’s grand.

The original recipe from Hugh did not have raspberry sauce but I thought it would make a lovely addition to the dish. And that worked very well indeed, especially against the crunchiness of the shortbread and creaminess of the panna cotta. I must stress that good quality white chocolate is highly essential to this dish or the pudding will be a let down. Also, Hugh did not specify the amount of gelatin leaves needed as different brands offer different leaf sizes. So keep the packaging so that you’d have the information readily.

For the shortbread, instead of crumbling them into little pieces, they were cut into smooth circles for very superficial reasons. The thing about recipe books is that they don’t make it dummy-proof for noobs like me. Instead of whisking the butter before adding the sugar, I mixed everything in together and started the electric whisker. Now, that explains the the story of the flying batter. Well, and that I had simply no common sense that a bigger bowl was more suitable for the job.

After the numerous casualties, the panna cotta turned out fine after some prodding. The smell of freshly baked shortbread was intoxicating. I enjoyed dipping the leftover biscuits into the bright red sauce for a light snack. Raspberry, creamy white chocolate and buttery shortbread biscuits – this is like the holy trinity of desserts.

This is my little tribute to our upcoming trip to the UK with the reds, whites and blues of the Union Jack. I have about eight hours and then the plane takes off to the city of fandom. We are huge Doctor Who fans, if you haven’t noticed already. Till then…

The recipe is from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Three Good Things.

Rhubarb Semifreddo and Pistachio Cream with Honey Madeleines

Was there ever a time when you watched a Masterchef episode and thought to yourself: ‘that looked really pretty, I wished I could do that’. Some desserts are plated with such detail that it almost looks like a painted portrait. Every single item is delicately placed to create a piece of art; it becomes an all-sensory immersion of sight, smell, taste and texture.

In one single plate, there lies multiple desserts that combine to become the masterpiece. There would probably be a sponge cake sitting on a shortbread or a puff pastry, topped with a sorbet, poached fruits, jelly cubes, sauces, flowers, tiny tuile bits and maybe puree. Basically, it looks and is very complicated, and everything is, in all possibilities, hand made from scratch. Then it hits you why it costs so much just to eat sweets in a fine-dining restaurant. Even the bloody sorbet is lovingly concocted in the kitchen.

We could be a little too ambitious to try our hand on such artistic masterpieces. It gave N plenty of tasks to accomplish in a short frame of time, especially since when we weren’t making any shortcuts by purchasing some of the items over-the-shelf. Yes, you read that right, whatever was on the that plate were painstakingly laid out by N, right down to the very chopped pistachio nuts.

The star of the dish was obviously the rhubarb semifreddo, a mousse-y ice-cream-like cake, that captured the tartiness of the vegetable perfectly. The quenelle of homemade pistachio cream (that is made with pistachio paste from our kitchen) might be as aesthetically pleasing as we would want it to be, but the minty green of the cream matches so well with the pastel pinks of the semifreddo. The honey madeleines gave the dessert bite, with its warm sponge and subtle sweetness. Poached rhubarb ties the dish together and brings vibrancy into the plate. A pity we accidentally dumped the juice away, that would have made for a lovely touch and perhaps bring it to completion.

Another challenge was assembling the different components on the plate. Some chefs draw out their creations on paper, while some simply have the talent. Well, we really just did what fools do – we just do it with no actual thought process. The final portrait was probably not of a Blumenthal quality, but as a start, it wasn’t really that bad.s Plus it was fun to exclaim sabayon in Raymond Blanc’s french accent at every opportunity.

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Mushroom Risotto with Parmesan and Truffle Oil


When one mentions truffles, fine-dining restaurants often comes into mind. The elusive ingredient seems out of reach most of the times. Truffle oil might not be anywhere close to the actual product, but this risotto seems to step into a whole new dimension when doused with it. Mushrooms very much find their way into our menus often. We love the earthy textures and they are just perfect for an autumn menu, non?

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