Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: vanilla

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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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.

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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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 Novice Cook: Plum Crumble with Ice Cream

Crumbles are the ultimate comfort food. Soft baked fruits tender in its honey juices with a crunchy topping, usually made with oats or granola. They are easy to prepare and relatively convenient to consume. However, unlike the typical crumble, this recipe uses an ‘independent’ crumble where its prepared separately from the fruit, but equally as scrumptious.

I found the whole process of getting one’s fingers dirty with cold butter and flour amazingly therapeutic. The more I cook, the more I find it fascinating. It’s odd how food break down with heat and becomes something else entirely. It’s quite like alchemy, in this case, the gold meant delicious food in your tummy later on. And using your hands only makes the event very personal, it’s putting your handprint (literally) into your food and saying, “this is my gift to you”. I say that to my tummy.

The crumble was baked separately from the fruits. The key was to keep the crumble as loose as possible, hence turning and tossing with a fork (in which case, hands were not allowed unless one was keen to be burnt) whenever possible. Because the crumble remained on its own while baking, this only meant more time was needed to prepare this dish than a typical crumble. But what I love about an ‘independent’ crumble was that you could decide on how much of the crunchy oats you’d like on your fruits after. It’s such an unfussy way of enjoying the dessert.

Due to the lack of time, I decided to stew the plums instead of baking them. By adding a tiny amount of water, some sugar and star anise (I had quite a bit which overpowered the fruits a little), a deep red-purple infused into the fruit stew to become glorious plum syrup. In about 20 minutes, the plums were soft but kept their structure. Plate them up, sprinkle the crumble generously and scoop a dollop of the best vanilla (or clotted cream) ice cream, and give your tummy a lovely present.

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

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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Molten Dark Chocolate Cake

Look at the cake. A perfectly baked chiffon sponge-like cake.

But if you take a closer look…

There. Do you see it?

It beckons to you like a moth to a light.

This will inspire lovelorn gentlemen to abandon all reason and write beautiful poetry. It puts even the most beautiful ladies to shame. It could probably bring about world peace if it wanted. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  No more war because of a chocolate cake.

Nothing could beat a soft warm chocolate cake with thick creamy dark luscious sauce oozing out. Tearing the dessert open is like causing rainbows to spill out. And biting into a piece of heaven and attaining nirvana. Just looking at it makes me salivate. There is no other dessert that I crave that much. in fact, I almost sound crazy just describing it.

Yes, and you know why I went mad.

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