Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: uk

Fig and Marsala Trifle with Toasted Meringue

I must be watching too much Great British Bake Off or simply being too much of an anglophile. Every time a celebration or an occasion is mentioned in British context, there seems to be a glorious towering glass of trifle being brought out onto the dining table with all eyes fixed on the distinct multiple layers of cake, fruit, cream, custard and jelly (or not). Just reading about it just makes me salivate, I don’t even have a look at an image.

The French or the Italians may scoff at it, but digging my spoon into layers and layers of trifle-goodness is a personal dream of mine. Who in the sanest mind would refused a deep dish of overindulgence of possibly many desserts put into one? I wouldn’t. Sure, it could be a massive fool (the other dessert) in disguise but one would be an actual fool to not like it.

The challenge of trifle was the layers. Sadly, we did not have a trifle bowl so we had to make do with wineglasses. So, goodbye layers, we’ll be doing trifle free-style. The recipe called for rather unconventional ingredients so it didn’t matter how sticky we had to be with tradition. For example, we used a madeira sponge cake instead of the typical finger boudoir biscuits. We did however made sure the custard was as original as it was, without any added support from flour or corn starch.

After the cake was laid at the bottom, figs and pomegranate seeds were placed as neatly as they could. Custard was then poured into the glass, and thus filling up all the gaps the fruits and cake made. Topped with lightly toasted meringue, the dessert was like a gooey mixture of creamy goodness. The joy about trifle is not about looking good when eating it (it never be – just too sloppy), it’s about indulging the kid in you. Although we didn’t grow up eating trifle, at least we know how it feels like now.

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Warm Plum Clafoutis with Crème Fraiche Sorbet

For the record, I personally do not love shooting any cold desserts of any sort. Especially those that melt almost immediately the moment they come in contact with our local tropical humidity. It will only create unnecessary fuss and unwanted stress to race against time to capture the said cold item in its peak form. I have no bitterness against ice creams, sorbets, granita or semifreddo. I just do not love shooting them. Now I feel better after ranting.

This is another of never-tasted-before dishes that Ned has attempted. The risk of doing something absolutely new was not knowing if we were on the right track. It was like doing a Great British Bake Off technical challenge, but with the full set of instructions. It’s tough to actually be critical of one’s bake without any fore knowledge or experience. We could only leave it to gut instinct and taste buds. Up till now, we aren’t really sure if the consistency of the clafoutis batter was right. (Why aren’t there any clafoutis sold in any restaurants in Singapore?)

Doing my research online, it describes a clafoutis as a classic French dessert that’s almost flan-like, and typically uses black cherries over other types of fruit. Even by comparing our clafoutis against those experimented by Guardian’s Fecility Cloake, we can’t tell if we did the dessert justice or not. For example, our attempt utilises ground almond, which causes the batter to have a less-smooth texture. We know what flans look like, and yet our clafoutis didn’t resemble anything like the said dessert.

Plunging into unknown territory, Ned managed to pull off an enchanting dish – golden brown cake-ish exterior, sliced plum fan out like petals with a brilliant shade of deep burgundy and glossy blood red plum compote. This reminds me of the apple pudding we made a year back: it is just so yummy that I could clean a few off at one go. Topped with homemade creme fraiche ice cream, it created the perfect balance of sweet and sour. The tanginess of the creme fraiche refreshes the palate and reduces the sugary level of the clafoutis. We paired it up with vanilla ice cream as well, but it only made the dessert overwhelmingly rich.

If this was beginner’s luck, we cannot wait to taste what a masterclass clafoutis will be like. Till then, our tummies are pretty satisfied with our own creations.

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Baked Spiced Plums with Cream Chantilly

The simplest way to appreciate the natural taste notes of the ingredients is to step away from fussy cooking techniques and to avoid using too much of other contrasting flavours. By doing so, it sometimes brings out marvellous results. This recipe showcases the very best of plums in its most naked form, paired with the lightest chantilly cream. We especially love the intensity the cinnamon offered.

Because we couldn’t find passion fruit juice, we decided to make our own from the actual fruits. Strangely, it only brought home that nothing really beats stripping down to the beauty of fresh simple ingredients and homemade goodness.

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The Novice Cook: Chicken with Tomatoes and Tarragon

You know how dependant one is on cookbooks when you look at the state of the cover jacket. Hugh’s lovely face is now spotted with oil stains and other undistinguished sauces. The once pristine pages were tampered with soiled fingerprints and leftover flour have found home deep within the rim. But I’d like to think that Hugh would be proud of me ruining his book because that only meant I’ve been using it! (I’ve managed to wipe off the stains off his face for now.)

In all my attempts in The Novice Cook, I’ve yet to do a proper main course and much less, meat. It’s fascinating to learn about the different animal breeds, meat cuts, and cooking techniques. Unlike seafood, I’ve always found meat less daunting and slightly romantic. Maybe because these gentle beasts live on the same land that we do which makes our relationship a tad more closer. Man raises the animal, and the animal gives back to Man with meat or by kind.

I’m not trying to romanticise the reality of death and brutal farming methods. Battery chicken farms are not uncommon in the modern world where the demand for cheap poultry is high. These poor birds are kept in tight overcrowding barns covered in their own droppings, and spend their days being overfed with chemically-‘enhanced’ feed without seeing the outside world. This results in unhealthy short-lived chickens that appear on our tables. And you know what they say about “paying what you get”.

Sadly, organic or free-range chicken can only be found in speciality stores at an exuberant price (about $40!) and are mostly frozen. And yes, kampung does not mean it’s free-range. Isn’t it odd for a country who loves its poultry to not encourage sustainable and humanely-farmed meat? On another note, does anyone know if rearing one’s own chickens is illegal? With the avian bird flu, I suspect stringent regulations are in place to prevent the spread of diseases. For now, Ned and I will just have to keep dreaming of our little brood of chickens.

Back to the recipe: poulet à l’estragon is a classic French dish that features the chicken laced with a creamy tarragon sauce. Tarragon is one of the four herbs that makes up fines herbes and is often used in French cooking (the famous Béarnaise sauce is mainly flavoured with it). The herb has a very distinct grassy note of anise and one leave is enough to give a weighty liquorice-y punch into any dish – be it fish or fowl.

Tasting it for the first time, we love the complexity of flavours tarragon offered. It is odd how we have never used this herb more often. (Any French tarragon leaves around for us to propagate?) Cream or butter is usually paired up with it to balm the bitterness. In Hugh’s version, cream is plainly absent but to avoid the overwhelming pungency, the herb is only added at the very end to give a gentle perfume. It stood very well on its own against the chicken and the sweet-sour tang of the tomatoes.

A round of applause should be given to me for my very first stab at actual cooking. Yes, Ned had to supervise me again or I’d undercook the bird. Memories of hot oil bursting from the pan onto my skin and the long roasting hours were eased away by a crispy golden-brown skin of a tender chicken thigh with juicy tomatoes and aromatic tarragon leaves. And I foresee more stains on Hugh’s face soon.

Recipe can be found in Hugh’s Three Good Things.

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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Two Hobbits Travel: Brighton, England

I figured I should do our first day-trip out of London first.

Despite the streams of Londoners making their way down to Brighton for a weekend staycation, it was still a refreshing change from the cosmopolitan life of London. To be able to sit at the beach and watch time go by as you listen to the waves and seagulls was almost like a luxury. Or walking down the beach to enjoy the sun (finally) and sea breeze.

Obvious sightseeing in Brighton included the pier and the Royal Pavilion Palace, but it held a hidden gem that probably became The Highlight of the trip. (Even our Dad hasn’t stop talking about it up till now.) It was lunch at The Gingerman that cemented our love of simple good food even more.

After getting ourselves lost for about 30 minutes, we managed to find it almost camouflaged in one of the rows of houses. We were utterly lucky to get a table despite having no reservations at this cosy restaurant. It probably sits about 20 persons, so you can imagine how tiny the place was. They serve set lunches with serving options of either two or three courses.

The amuse bouche was an espresso cup of comforting broccoli soup, and that itself set the bar for the rest of the meal pretty high. Most soups often taste processed, but here, you could pick up the earthiness of the florets from the cream easily. Freshly baked bread sprinkled with sea salt was served after. Nothing beats cutting into steaming hot crust.

Ned had the starter: pea risotto with poached egg and parmesan – the grains had a slight chew, but when infused with the egg yolk, every bite was light but full of luscious flavours. We followed up with a succulent salmon, mashed potato and greens topped with crème fraiche; and a beautiful melt-in-your-mouth beef shank with cauliflower tempura and spinach mash. Coupled with a glass of rosé, our sore feet and aching backs no longer mattered. In fact, it made listening to Dad and his famous stories much more enjoyable.

If the meal was a Lord of the Rings trilogy, dessert was definitely a finale worthy of remembrance. The Lemon Posset was possibly the best thing that ever happened to us. How can a simple dish of just lemon juice, cream and sugar create such mind-blowing textures? Paired with tangy blueberry jam and cream, we thought we’ve gone to heaven and back. Yes, we sound almost crazy but we thought we were insane too. It. Was. Really. That. Good.

Food wasn’t the only showstopper; service was a delight as well. There were only two servers and both were amazingly helpful and kind. The whole dining experience was worth every second we spent trying to find our way there. If anything, this is more than enough to pull us back to Brighton for another visit.

When in Hong Kong, we had dim sum every morning. When in England, we had tea almost every afternoon. Plus, I love scones. After pushing ourselves past the festive crowds and meandering down little lanes, we made a tea-stop at The Mock Turtle Tea Shop. What greeted us was this assault of blues and rows of oriental-inspired porcelain plates filling any space on the walls and shelves. And of course, the stacks of tea cakes on the table.

Still satisfied from lunch, afternoon tea was a simple affair with a cream tea set and a lemon sponge cake. The scones were much more crumbly in texture, and tasted almost wheat-like. If you ignore the misshapen forms, it’s quite a refreshing take on the biscuits. Pile on the clotted cream and jam, and any scone can be as pleasurable.

We spent most of time getting lost down little streets and soaking in the festivities. There was joy sitting at the pier as well, listening to the seagulls and watching the waves hit the shores. For a moment, time almost stopped and we could forget words like ‘deadlines’, ‘projects’ and ‘bosses’. Feeling the cold sea breeze across your face and sniffing the waft of food from the roadside stalls, yes, life felt really good that day.

The Novice Cook: Tomatoes, Eggs, Bread and Mozzarella

They say cooking for your family and friends is a form of love and appreciation. For me, cooking is almost like therapy, but it truly becomes enjoyment when I am alone in the kitchen. Why? When one has parents like mine, there is a limit on how much one can take on senseless questions: “are you sure you can handle it”, “do you need help”, or “should I call Ned to come over”.

Yes, the Novice Cook is looking terribly vulnerable, and holding a knife can be awfully dangerous when pissed. Taking on my promise that I would return to the kitchen, I decided breakfast would be the best time to truly immerse myself into the experience. Waking up at 7am on a weekend morning meant that everyone else was still in bed, and all I can hear were the birds and the droning sounds of tomatoes being chopped up.

I decided to roast a simple dish of lightly seasoned tomatoes, eggs, mozzarella and bread in the oven. Hardly rocket science. The recipe might not be complicated but it requires plenty of waiting. If I had known, I would have grilled some sausages on the side. All I did was stare at the oven and wishing that I was back in bed.

The tricky part was the eggs. I must have mentioned it before but I’ve never ever fried an egg my entire life. Poached, yes. Baking them was an easy way out. I did manage to break a few yolks because of sleep depravation. However, the end result were wobbly eggs set against pure whites. I did increase the time because they didn’t cook enough as specified. Watching the oven has its good points.

By the time the dish was ready, no one was awake. So lucky me, I had first dips. It actually reminded me of the Shakshuka that Ned made some time back. The tangy sweetness of the tomatoes, the crisp crust of the bread, stringy buttery mozzarella and freshness of the eggs. With minimal seasoning, it’s a wonder how this dish managed to bring so much to the plate.

We had second breakfast afterwards though. I should really have cooked those sausages.

The recipe is from Hugh’s Three Good Things.

Lemon Posset

As I type this down, Ned and I have had a proper discussion about what to do next after these hectic few months. Not that we would be less busy in the coming weeks (quite the contrary), but we realised T&A needed some TLC after the long hiatus. Sitting down with recipe books splayed out and our handy journals, I had the slight tingles. It’s not that we haven’t been cooking, it’s just that we haven’t spoken about food for a long time. And that got us pretty excited.

In our conversations, The Gingerman would always be at the tip of our tongues: “wouldn’t be nice to be back there again”, “remember the broccoli soup” or simply “let’s go back to Brighton”. (I will do a proper post of that particular day… soon.) Their lemon posset was one of the reasons why the strawberries were dumped. Strange isn’t it? It was after all just cream, sugar and lemons. Just three basic ingredients and we were sent to candy heaven. (Ned loved the posset so much, she had another in Bath.)

The Gingerman’s posset was topped with cream and blueberry jam, and the custard was quite sturdy – almost like a jelly. It was difficult to achieve that sort of consistency; unless we stuffed the possets into a freezer. Ours turned out to be creamier and a lot sharper in taste. With the absence of the cream and jam, the dish felt slightly naked. Was it like the Gingerman? Not so much, but a little taste of England was good enough for us.

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Issue 08: Lemons

Strawberries were supposed to make their appearance as part of our Berries series. But in some weeks after London, the refreshing vivid flavours of lemons began to show up in our kitchen. Our favourite desserts in the UK just so happen to showcase the same zesty yellow fruit – a lemon posset in Gingerman and a lemon polenta cake in Ottolenghi. To satisfy our cravings and to evoke those wonderful memories we had there, we decided to give our berries a rest and bring out the proper taste of summer.

Lemons are one of those ingredients that will always have its presence felt in every kitchen all over the world. There are plenty of reasons why: it is a great companion to meat and seafood, gives a wonderful spritz of freshness to salads and is very well-loved in many sweets and desserts. Extremely versatile and full of vitamins, both the juice and its zest can be used to add a full-bodied perfume to a dish. (Just watch any episode of Raymond Blanc and you’ll see him asking of leh-mon almost every single time.)

The Eureka lemon is typically sold in supermarkets, but in recent years, the Meyer lemon has made its way into our shores. We have not had the chance to use Meyers but would love to one day. Another dream is to gather citrons (lemons, blood oranges, bitter oranges, clementines, etc) when in season in Italy, and then make jars and jars of marmalade and jam. Imagine that!

Picking lemons are simple – they should be firm and unblemished. Feel the weight, heavy fruits will contain more juice. If using the lemons for the zest, choose larger fruits with thicker skin. Make sure they are unwaxed.

We were spoiled for choice when deciding what to do. Cakes, ice creams, biscuits, fools, tarts, candies, jellies, even drinks. The list was endless. Thank goodness for London, we knew we just wanted to recreate our favourite desserts. Plus there is always a lemon at home, so the sweets would never stop.

An Ode to England

The past two months have been quite hectic, from our trip to England, a short visit to Penang, some birthdays and a wedding (and plenty of deadlines from the real world). I’ve been meaning to sit down to write but it seems that thingies just pop out of nowhere. Those, and a little procrastination.

Flying to Europe was a first for the both of us, and going to England was almost surreal. To us, it was almost alien as any Doctor Who episode. England was a place we read about, saw on TV and heard on our favourite tunes. When one is a BBC junkie, London almost becomes a huge movie set. (Yes, we were hoping to miraculously bump into a Doctor, Loki, Sherlock, Merlin, Thorin or even Robb Stark.)

The biggest pull was the culinary scene and the farm-to-table movement. To us, the English countryside was what the Shire was to the hobbits: living off the ground you lovingly tiled and worked on. Plenty of restaurants in England have embraced seasonal cooking and local produce, which was what we wanted to experience firsthand.

London was very much a city of the current world with a blend of heritage and modernity. The concrete skyline, the bustling streets, the swarms of faceless people, the noise, the endless cookie-cutter boutiques and cafes – not very unlike Singapore or any other urban city. Of course, if you dig deeper, you’d uncover curious finds that shed a different light.

It was however the cities outside of London that captured our hearts. The vast skies, open fields, little rivers, lush woodlands, pretty towns and flocks of free-ranging animals. Train rides were never dull. (Typical city girls ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every cow we passed by. Imagine how silly we sounded.)

To be honest, I was a little intimidated to write this piece (hence the very very long delay). Travel stories can become slightly self-absorbed and sound like a review out of Condé Nast Traveler. But if I could describe the whole journey in a nutshell: it was not love at first sight, but a familiar friend. It was about being comfortable, like an old married couple. England felt like home away from home!

Alas, eleven days felt too short a time to fully experience the spectrum of cuisines England had to offer. And to that we say “So much food, so little space (in our tummies)”. There were so many restaurants, cafes and bakeries we have yet to try. Hopefully, one day we can come back to savour those lost opportunities. And maybe use the local ingredients to whip up a few dishes of our own.

Our first dish after coming back was the English breakfast sans black pudding. Our interpretation includes runny scrambled eggs topped with chives; pork sausages and bacon cooked in their own fat; mélange of mushrooms sautéed with garlic; baked beans; roasted tomatoes with rosemary and freshly baked bread.

I will slowly but surely post our adventures in England as time goes by, so do look out for our Two Hobbits Travel tag. Yes, I will try not to be lazy.

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