Salted Caramel and Cashew Brownies (of a Slightly Fluffy Nature)

Well, what does one do with an oven? The fact is that, growing up, we never had an oven at home; in Singapore, and across much of East Asia, the stove dominates cooking to such an extent that I never felt I was missing anything.

Then I went to London, and mostly used ovens to heat up yesterday’s pizza, but then I came across this: a recipe for salted caramel brownies from Smitten Kitchen. After thoroughly enjoying the well-written article, I set my mind on making this brownie.

That was a year and a half ago (thereabouts), and since then I’ve made this brownie a few times, with a few tweaks (there’s enough sugar in that caramel already) for special people, parties and the like. So it only seems fitting that it would be the first thing I make with my black, shiny monster of a new convection oven.

This might be mildly heretical, but I personally prefer my brownies to move more towards the cake end of the Gooey-Fluffy continuum; so the biggest change to the recipe as I make it is the self-raising flour. If you’re more the full gooey type, forego it. If you’ve got your own preferences (and why shouldn’t you), then adjust the ratios however you like. Go live your own life, for goodness’ sake!

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Sikpou Saturdays: Lemongrass Chicken

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Lemongrass is just such a versatile plant. Its flavour is friendly to both sweet and savoury dishes, and yet it is completely unmistakeable, standing out like an attractive and sociable person in any setting. Even outside of food, it has its uses; the oil is a good insect repellent, especially since it smells better than most alternatives, and also has antiseptic effects.

No wonder it’s so popular in the tropics, where food is strongly flavoured and the bugs are everywhere. The Malays use it liberally to season grilled meats; the Thais put it in their soups. But in my family, lemongrass goes with chicken, and a rich, dark gravy.

I asked my mother for specifics about this recipe, which I rarely do on my own, and now that I have it, there is a striking similarity between her recipe and the Vietnamese recipe for a lemongrass marinade to grill pork with. Of course, as a marinade, the ingredients are properly blitzed and basted; but all the elements are there. How on earth my mom learned this recipe (she doesn’t know any Vietnamese people or restaurants, as far as I know) is a bit of a mystery again. But you know what, I’m not complaining at all. Life is so much poorer without mysteries. And lemongrass chicken.

Being a proper homemaker and cook, she says I ought to use chicken legs with the bones included; the high heat cooking can glean more flavour from the bones. I didn’t do that in the end, but that’s personal preference. I expect chicken wings would do well with this sauce as well, if you brown them first; then the gravy becomes more of a deep-coloured glaze, fragrant with a slight ginger-kick.
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Sikpou Saturday: Minced Chicken with Thai Basil

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Thai food, strangely enough, is a larger part of my life in London than it ever was in Singapore. I’m not sure why – unfair as it sounds (and is), there might be just enough variety in the local cuisine to ‘crowd out’ Thai influences.

London was different, though. One of the first cook-offs we had, in the student halls, involved a massive and very delicious green curry; and this was in late November, the first actual winter I had experienced. (That it was nearing the end of term, and essays were coming due, helped not a bit.) So that was what got me hooked.

On going back to Singapore during the summer and winter breaks since then, I began to actively seek out Thai places in Singapore, and two dishes have caught me, besides the usual and excellent list of multicoloured curries. The first was Thai honey chicken, which remains a big and mysterious gap in my repertoire. (Will work on that, I swear.)

The second, and far more accessible, is Gai Pad Gapow – minced chicken with chilli and Thai basil. Now there is the question of what exactly is Thai basil, and I have to admit imperfect knowledge here. I would say that Thai basil leaves are… more sharply tapered, and more matte if that makes any sense. Apparently Thai and other Asian basils, being commonly used in frying and cooking, are meant to be more stable under heat; but as the preparation will show, this is not such a concern for this dish.

Simple to make, it is also such an excellent balance of sharp and rounded flavours – you have chilli and lime juice on the one hand, and the deep savouriness of fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar. Normally, to cut down on the amount of sugar necessary, I throw a tomato in as well – it’s not authentic, admittedly, so it’s up to you. But I’d say this dish is the kind of one-saucepan wonder that everyone (watch the chillies though) can agree on.
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Sikpou Saturday 2 – Roti John, or Pain Perdu de la Mer du Sud

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Sometimes the temptation is there to group Singaporean dishes along communal lines, given the vast range of culinary influences. It’s harder than it sounds, though, especially for a dish like Roti John.

Roti is a Malay and Indian word for bread, but the bread in question here is Western, a baguette. As for John, every westerner must have been called John those days, runs the assumption. So was it something Malays cooked for sale to the Brits? Was it a habit passed on from the Brits (Brits eating baguette?) to the Indians, and then to Singapore?

Goodness knows. But there is firm, historical evidence for the following assertion. This is a favourite dish for hot, humid late afternoons in an open air food court, freshly off the griddle and sliced, the aroma of onions and egg and a hint of heat. The sun is finally beating a retreat, and you celebrate with a swig of freshly mashed sugar cane juice. (Or beer, because why not.)

So here’s to some pain perdu, in the style of those from the Southern Seas.

The filling for Roti John is flexible; anything goes, from chicken chunks to beef or lamb mince, or even canned tuna. Here I’m using turkey mince and some mushrooms.

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Sikpou Saturdays 1: 姜蔥蝦 Jiang Cong Xia (Sautéed Shrimp with Spring Onions and Ginger)

I love me a bit of alliteration, but since there isn’t a day of the week that starts with R – what kind of lexical laxness is this, English language? – I shall have to use a Cantonese word to stand in for recipe instead.

Actually, come think of it, sikpou – or 食譜 shi pu – is a much more poetic thing to call a recipe than ‘recipe’. After all, recipe literally is an order to ‘take’ (or receive), and used to mean a prescription – as if food is merely something you take to keep alive, as with the horrible ‘food is fuel’ mantra. (Food is fuel? I suppose any intellectual nourishment is just so much lubricant, and you need to stick a gauge down your throat to figure if you need to drink water? Seriously.)

Sikpou, on the other hand, literally mean ‘a script or score for food’, since the character 譜 is also used in music to mean a score or manuscript. Now that’s a lot closer to the heart of what a recipe is. A manuscript you can consult every time you perform an act of artistic generosity that warms the heart and fills the stomach.

Sautéed Shrimp with Ginger and Spring Onions

My mum has the hardest job there is, homemaking, and this dish is one of her most potent tools. That also makes it one of the great pleasures of my childhood. The slight pungency and sweetness of spring onions, and the clean, subtle heat of the ginger, takes just a minute to bring out in a hot skillet, wafting aromas through the house.

Naturally it was one of the first dishes I tried to replicate since setting up in London, and after some years I think I have it mostly right now. (I suspect getting homemade dishes completely right is something only mothers can do.) One great thing about this dish – something that’s quite true of many Chinese dishes, I find – is that its spirit lies in the seasoning; you can whip up the sauce and add any source of protein that’s close at hand. At home, we have the luxury of thinly sliced lean pork loin; in London I mostly use chicken breast, but this time it’s prawns. Vegetarians could always substitute sliced firm tofu, which would approximate the mouthfeel and soak up the flavour properly as well.

This dish is also a standard in most Chinese restaurants, and the more deluxe types even use sliced venison (‘venison’, in any case), served sizzling on a hot plate. I shan’t presume to say how posh a dish should be, of course.

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