Friday, February 27, 2015

Bacon and Caramelized Onion Bun

Barbecue pork bun is the source of inspiration for the bacon and caramelized onion bun. Barbecue pork bun, or char siu bun, has to be one of the most popular dim sum items in Asia. In recent years, the oven-baked pork buns have gained popularity over the traditional steamed ones. The modernists prefer the former and the traditionalists usually go for the steamed buns. In blind taste tests, my bets are with the oven-baked ones. But, what do I know? Taste is a very personal thing. There are so many factors affecting our taste buds: nostalgia, familiarity with certain comfort food, memorable first bite, and individual cultural experiences….

The bacon and caramelized onion bun really appeals to the baker and food lover in me. This is the softest, fluffiest and silkiest bun I’ve ever tasted. Perhaps, nostalgia plays a part in my judgment, or misjudgment!

This bun takes advantage of common pantry items we most likely would have around our kitchens. Bacon, onion, flour, butter, egg, milk and yeast. All standard items. What’s thrilling about this recipe is the smell in the kitchen while you are making the bun. Imagine the intoxicating aroma of crackling bacon, caramelizing onion and followed by savoring the buns freshly baked from the oven. That’d please anyone in and out of the kitchen. Work through the steps outlined in the cheat sheet below, you’d understand what I mean. I can hardly wait to taste the bun as I took them out of the oven. No words! Pure goodness. If you don’t eat it right away, refresh by microwaving it for 10-15 seconds.

The dough can be used as master dough with sweet and savory fillings. It is very versatile. I've made buns with several variations: custard cream and duck confit with caramelized onion. They were all very pleasing. Variations are endless. Other fillings that come to mind are: nutella, pulled pork, anything curry, coconut, or beans. If you are short on time for homemade fillings, a jar of onion jam could easily do the trick.

I owe the success of this recipe to the online bakers’ community FreshLoaf. Among other things, there I learned about the Hokkaido milk bread with Tangzhong starter. It is the Tangzhong technique, making a roux paste by heating flour and water at a 1 to 5 ratio, that gives the bun its distinct soft texture. (More details on Tandzhong can be found at the FreshLoaf site.) Furthermore, I experimented with adding dry milk powder to the recipe, as a dough conditioner, which further lightens the texture of the bun. Adding about 6% (of the flour weight) dry milk seems optimal. As usual, adjust the hydration level by adding drops of water in case the dough seems dry. The dough should feel a little sticky, not dry.

Custard cream bun

This is enriched dough and requires intensive kneading in a mixer for 10-15 minutes. Be sure you don’t undermix it. If you find the dough too sticky to work with, use a bench knife and dust the work surface with plenty of flour. And breathe! Inhale the air of bacon goodness in the kitchen.

This post is written for my dearest friend R, who has the most exquisite taste in many areas. Her enormous strength of character and belief in me have inspired me to explore new grounds. This recipe is one of them. Bon appetit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Steamed Eggplant with Sesame and Green Onion

Today is the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, the Human Day, supposedly the birthday for all and everyone. I was looking for Asian dishes to cook for the Chinese New Year. I found this recipe in Ottolenghi's Plenty More. If you like eggplant and haven’t used the steaming technique to prepare it, you might just want to give this simple recipe a try. Steaming maintains the texture of the eggplant flesh, unlike any other techniques, like roasting or braising, which tend to dry out the vegetable. Steaming eggplant is commonly used in the Far East. Instead of the ubiquitous olive oil used in most Ottolenghi's recipes, he dressed the eggplants, appropriately, with an Asian dressing. Sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chopped fresh ginger and garlic. The resulting dish gives eggplant a substantial quality suitable to be served as a main course with just plain rice or fried tofu.

There are so few ingredients, yet this dish packs a big nutritional punch and taste that lingers. You want to eat more of it!

This may not be the dish everyone wants to be served on his/her birthday. Somehow, this is a very affordable and satisfying dish, with an equalitarian quality. Almost anyone is able to put this on the table, with a smile, anywhere in the world.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Five-spice flourless chocolate cakes

Infused with five-spice powder; topped with star anise

Who can resist baking some decadent chocolate cakes on Valentine's day? Since there is no flour of any kind used, the cakes are gluten free. Butter is called for to dust the baking pan and it is not included in the batter. The primary ingredients are chocolate and mascarpone cheese. They turned out better than I’ve expected. There is always a risk stepping into an unknown territory. There was the potential double whammy in the making with this bake: chocolate cake without flour and the use of five-spice powder? I certainly had my share of doubts.

Five-spice powder is a mixture of clove, fennel seed, ground cinnamon, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns, typically used in Chinese cooking. I was looking for something to bake for the Chinese New Year, which is coming soon, within a week. I came across this recipe in Martin Yan’s China. The chef, not a pastry chef if I may say, discovered this chocolate delight in one of the swanky restaurants in Shanghai. He injected his personal touch with the addition of five-spice powder. Who would have thought of that? I adapted this recipe to bake the cakes in muffin pans that most home bakers would have in their kitchens. Inverted the finished cakes on a plate, dusted with confectioners' sugar and decorated with star anise on top, a special-occasion chocolate dessert was created in time for Valentine's Day to help spice up the passion for life and good eats!

Note–The cake tasted even better the next day, more like chocolate fudge in texture, and the chocolate flavor intensified overnight. The five spice was barely noticeable except for the aromatic star anise laying on top that refused to be ignored. This cake is fun and whimsical to make; your heart skips a beat just looking at it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sprouted Quinoa-Spelt Bread

Not too long ago, the trick of pre-ferments was not widely used. Now it is common knowledge among bakers. Sprouted grain is a nothing new, but it is not a common bread-making approach. Try to think about it, sprouted grains are pre-ferment of sorts. You’re pre-fermenting the grains that would later incorporate into the dough as a flavoring agent, a way to up the anti on whole-grain flavor to a loaf, and without sacrificing the open texture of the finished loaf. It’ll be a matter of time before the words get out on sprouted grains (not sprouted flour) breads.

Again, it’s from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Book No.3 that I learned about this recipe and the benefits of sprouted grains. I ate a lot of bean sprouts growing up. “You are digesting a vegetable rather than a grain,” I was told. Quinoa has become trendy and is considered a super food high in protein and full of nutrients from the Andes. Sprouting quinoa is a convenient way to make the grain edible and more digestible without cooking. Adding sprouted quinoa in the already flavorful naturally leavened dough yields something quite remarkable—with a green note similar to that of spinach. Now I get it: you are having a piece of great tasting bread and getting a serving of grains at the same time. A win-win!

Sprouting grains is relatively straightforward. The steps are outlined in the cheat sheet. You start by soaking the whole intact quinoa in water in a clean glass jar until it germinates. It would take two to four days depending on the room temperature. Rinse, drain, aerate (oxygen promotes sprouting) the grains twice a day until you see sprouts emerge, but before spider shoots develop. The sprouted quinoa can be kept in the refrigerator in an airtight container for a few days. Drain the sprouted grains thoroughly before incorporating them into the dough, an hour after the start of bulk rise.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Beet, Avocado and Pea Salad

Dear Yotam Ottolenghi, 
Beet is one of my favorite vegetables. Maybe it’s the deep vibrant color purple red that captivates my imagination. About the only thing that worries me is the eerie-looking red beet juice bleeding all over my hands as I cut it. Otherwise, I love everything about beets. Honestly, I really don’t know or don’t bother to understand why I am attracted to one vegetable more than others. It must be one of those instinctual and primitive things that are programed in my DNA. More than that, I like my beets roasted. You wrote: “The possibility of blanching beets could do with some championing to those who always incline toward the hour-long boil or roasted: keeping a bite on the purple roots adds another layer of texture in a salad…” Sadly I am one of those who insist on roasting the beets and now you know me by name. I plead guilty for changing your otherwise perfect and amazing recipe: beet, avocado and pea salad. We are in the cold heart of winter and all I want is to heat up the oven as much as I can. When summer arrives, I’d definitely follow your direction to blanch the beets. 
I remain a huge fan,

I can write freely now once I got that off my chest. However, there is not much to write about other than my excitement of discovery-–the brightness of beets, the creamy texture of avocado and the sweetness of pea––all brought together in perfect harmony. I substituted mix salad greens for pea shoots since that's what I had. In the end, food is all about taste. One look at a few of my hastily taken shots of the dish, you know I was in a hurry to put food in my mouth. I almost ate most of what I prepared, there was hardly anything left for anyone else.

This dish is so easy to put together and delightful to look at. Give it a try and you won’t be disappointed.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Orange, Date and Almond Whole-Wheat Biscotti

substituted whole-wheat for all-purpose flour 

I was excited about my first ever attempt in making biscotti. What goes well with a lesisurely cup of coffee in the morning, afternoon or anytime of the day? Yes, you guessed it. I like the idea of baking a custom version to suit the taste and texture I prefer. My ideal biscotti should taste rich, and packed with nutrients; with a lighter crunch that you don’t feel compelled to dunk them in coffee to soften.  I’ve often found biscotti to be as hard as a rock. With one wrong bite, they may easily break your teeth or cut into the gum in your mouth. That exasperated crunch in my noisy brain biting into rock-hard biscotti can't be ignored. In short, I'm not interested in making dunkable biscotti. I want something softer and more delicate. Here is a chance to put my spin on a “flour.ish.en biscotti” by tweaking the ingredients and the baking process.

The original recipe came from Christina Marsigliese Scientifically Sweet. She wrote: “In the North of Italy it is very common to make biscotti with butter, like how it is common to cook with butter in place of olive oil sometimes. In the south, biscotti recipes tend to leave out any fat other than that provided by egg yolks, but these ones definitely need a good cup of Joe to soften them up.” This convinced me that I should leave butter alone in the recipe since I like my biscotti with a softer bite.

Other remaining issues I have to resolve are the refined all-purpose flour and the amount of sugar in the recipe. I’ve been able to find ways to replace all-purpose flour in most of my recipes found in this blog without compromising texture and structure of bread or pastries. Since these cookies do not need much leavening, there shouldn’t be any problem in replacing all-purpose flour with something more wholesome and softer. The list below shows the changes I’ve made to the original recipe. Please click here to see biscotti other creative bakers at ABC served up for the month of February.

  • I used 200 gram of whole-wheat pastry flour and 70 gram of almond meal, or roughly 75% and 25%, respectively, of total 270 gram of all-purpose flour required in the recipe. Pastry flour has lower protein content and almond flour interferes with gluten development. Both flours contributed to the desirable tender structure I preferred. It was also an opportunity for me to use up the remaining stock of almond meal/flour from baking almond tarts and macarons during the holidays.
  • I left out the whole almonds inadvertently but almond was in the dough in the form of meal/flour. It might not have been a bad idea to leave out the whole almond entirely; I don't miss the additional crunch in the crunchy biscotti.
  • Reduced the amount of sugar, using 125 gram of turbinado raw cane sugar instead of 150 gram of granulated sugar.