Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Party Dresses

Last week, I was invited to a trunk show at a swanky hotel on the Upper East Side.  One would have thought that I was shopping for myself.  Actually, I was previewing the Fall/Winter selection for children, under the new label of one of America's most famous designers...he who dresses First Ladies.  Carried away, I melted my credit card on a flouncy birthday dress for my daughter and a few more outfits for both daughter and son.  Then, these past few days, I have been looking high and low for kids' pajamas for a theme party.

When friends have babies, my husband's preference is to present them with clothes. The point being that children outgrow their clothes quickly.  Then again, my sister always cautions me not to overspend on children's clothes for that very reason.

For every season for the past eight years, I have shopped more for my children than anyone else.
Yet, each time I buy their clothes, particularly my daughter's party frocks, I hark back to my childhood.  My mother used to bring me along to "Great Wall".  It was a tiny shop situated at the back end of a storefront building across from Centrepoint on Orchard Road.  The air-con would rattle and drip above the main entrance.  It was always chilly in that room.  If only I could have snapped a photo of their display.  Two rows of party dresses in different sizes and pastel shades, with petticoats, smocking, tucks, darts, or frills; in organza, taffeta, cotton; adorned with sashes, lace or ribbons.  Those dresses were all hand-made on premise by a husband and wife team.  That indeed seems like an ancient memory as I have no idea what has happened to the shop or the couple for that matter.  The building was razed to make way for yet another shopping mall.

My mother tried to make a few similar dresses for me.  When I was placed temporarily in a primary school, waiting to be admitted to another, my mother had me show up for class in these dresses. I might as well have gone for a birthday party and not to class. She sewed during the evenings as much as she cooked and baked during the day.  She took classes and even graduated from one such course by designing, sewing and wearing her final project - a cheongsam. When she passed on, we were left with drawers full of thread, cloth and paper cutouts.  We could never bring ourselves to throw them out, knowing how much they meant to our mother.

In a few weeks' time, my family in Singapore will move from our old apartment to a new one.  Now the question remains about what to do with the sewing machine.  It just won't sit upright in its own wooden cabinet - so how then would you sew with the broken machine?  Just the thought of abandoning the sewing machine seems sacrilegious to the memory of a mother who used it to make our pajamas and school uniforms in addition to those home-made frou frou frocks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Eton Mess

Boys' schools have been on my mind of late. My son is 5 and we had just gone through the brutal process of applying him to "big boys' school". The jury is still out for us, it may not be resolved for months if not a year or two and as a concerned mother, it preoccupies me for the most part.

This experience, traumatic as it is, led me to make Eton Mess for our Easter dinner. Perhaps a subconscious action in response to the personal debacle I've created for myself. Having known for a long time that New York has literally a handful of all-boys' private schools - and the fact that most of them stop at the eighth grade with the tradition of moving on to boarding school - I have to be open-minded about the possibility that one day, my little precious boy might have to leave home sooner. What better place than to England - land of Harry Potter, Enid Blyton - and what even better place than Eton - alma mater of those dashing princes, Prime Ministers, lords and dukes....so I've often joked. Hence, Eton Mess.

At the same time, this circumstance brought back memories of the boys I grew up with. In Singapore, the boys I knew could be generalized into ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) boys or RI (Raffles Institution) boys. Yes, I also knew several from schools such as St. Patrick's and St. Andrew's though ironically, I did not know any from Gan Eng Seng (the eponymous school donated by my paternal great-great grandfather.)

It was often bantered about that "ACS boys owned Singapore and that RI boys ruled Singapore." I dated boys from both schools and studied with RI boys. To a large degree, they lived up to their stereotypes. I had lots of fun hanging out with my ACS friends. They were generous and charming. And I respected the academic brilliance that many of my RI schoolmates displayed. They were driven and cerebral. Perhaps, my experiences interacting with all these 'guys' influenced my direction as I searched for the right school for my son, here in New York.

Yes, there are the ACS and RI 'counterparts' here in New York. And for that matter, the SJI (St. Joseph's Institution) one too. I can only hope for my son to be everything he's meant to become. The Best is Yet to Be. Auspicum Melioris Aevi.

And as for Eton Mess? I experimented with Jamie Oliver's recipe (from what I think is his best cookbook "Cook with Jamie") and infused accents from Kueh Lapis Spekkoek (page 114 of my cookbook). After all, my little Baba boy might be heading to that institution someday. I hope that you like it.

Basic Meringue Recipe
6 large egg whites
1 cup plus 5 tablespoons superfine sugar
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons bumbu kueh (spice powder used for Lapis Spekkoek, you can check my cookbook for recipe. Alternatively, a bottle can be found in the baking section in an Asian supermarket.)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the egg whites in a mixing bowl, making sure that there is absolutely no trace of egg yolk. Whisk on medium speed until the egg whites form stiff peaks. Add the sugar, a little at a time, as well as the salt. Increase the speed and whisk for 7 to 8 more minutes until the meringue mixture is glossy white and stiff. Rub a little of the mixture between your thumb and finger to ensure that the mixture is smooth, not grainy. Avoid whisking for too long, otherwise the meringue peaks will collapse. Fold in the bumbu kueh. Then spread the mixture in one big blob or several smaller ones, on the baking sheet. Bake for an hour until the meringues are crisp on the outside and slightly chewy inside. The meringue will look off-white or pale brown because of the bumbu kueh. Remove to cool.

2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
9 ounces strawberries, hulled and sliced into quarters
9 ounces raspberries
1 tablespoon brandy

Whisk heavy cream and vanilla essence and 1 tablespoon of the superfine sugar until you get soft peaks. Keep chilled in the refrigerator.

Combine half of the strawberries and raspberries with the remaining sugar and the brandy. Leave to chill and macerate in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, best to use a trifle bowl. Layer the meringue (break the big blob into smaller ones), alternating with the whipped cream and the macerated fruit. Top with the remaining fresh strawberries and raspberries.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Salute to American Steak

On Good Friday, my husband and I sheepishly (excuse the pun) went to Peter Luger Steakhouse. On a day when many of our friends gave up meat, we obliged another pal to visit the temple for carnivores on his birthday. It was a good day to get a reservation - being the double whammy of a Christian day of observance and the Jewish Passover. This was not the first Good Friday where we had felt a tinge of guilt, even if we are not Catholic. One year, we fancied the nearby Avra Estiatoro, a restaurant that specializes in fresh fish prepared Mediterranean-style. It was unusually crowded. Thus we crossed the street to Smith and Wollensky to join the other meat harlots reveling in the den....our excuse being that we had to get home in time to relieve the nanny.

American steak is in a category of its own. I am not being biased. Even Jacques Pepin, a French-trained chef, proclaims the superiority of American beef above all others. For me, I specifically refer to the corn-fed, fat-marbled slabs that are dry-aged to perfection. I had tried grass-fed after having read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" but decided that if I was to be bad about consuming meat in the first place, I might as well be real bad. We went back to corn-fed, we had acquired that taste for it and were spoilt.

The trick is to buy the best quality beef possible. It then takes very little seasoning to produce a heavenly meal. Thankfully, our butcher Simchick scores a 29 on Zagat and happens to be at the end of our street. While he is still pricey, he is nowhere near the range of Lobel's. I had once gone in to get 2 NY strips from Lobel's. Upon being told that it was $98, sticker-shocked, I instantly called my husband and said "Whatever you do, make sure you come home at 7 tonight with a very good bottle of wine!"

Peter Luger stands as one of the landmark restaurants in the city. As a young associate in banking or advertising, a client dinner at Peter Luger was an upward stop on the career track. A visit back to the steakhouse this past Friday was a trip down memory lane for the nine of us whose recollection of the young, ambitious days included jaunts to Peter Luger and Nobu in the 90s. Alas, the place was not like the one we remembered it to be. The waiters were not gruff anymore, the crowd was too touristy, there were none of the "shady" Italian contractors and their molls by the bar counter. Like much of New York, the place has been sanitized. Besides, past the days of loyalty and brotherhood, many Peter Luger alum have gone on to open their own steakhouses to rival the godfather, almost all of them in Manhattan. Convenient for us urbanites who don't drive across the Williamsburg Bridge.

We were a raucous bunch nonetheless. Then we trooped off to karaoke, belting out 80s music. The night brought back memories of our 'breakfast club' of sorts, only for us, it was our supper.

Simple recipe for porterhouse:
2 slabs of high-quality porterhouse, 1.5" thick

Season with salt and pepper.

Sear for 2-3 minutes per side. Finish off in a broiler (460 degrees F) for 10 minutes of medium or 15-20 minutes for well done. Optional - turn over the slab midway.

Serve in its own juice or with a small dollop of horseradish.

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...