Friday, June 29, 2012

Fireworks and Blueberry Pies

I am quite the fireworks fanatic.  My Yarrow Gardens neighbor, Aunty Paddy, cultivated this passion in me.  Every National Day, she would leave her gate open so that the neighbors could walk through to her backyard.  It looked out at the Siglap Secondary School athletic track, clear of tall trees, thus it gave us a panoramic view of the Shenton Way skyline where the fireworks display took place.   The view got even better if we ran up the slope at the entrance to Yarrow Gardens.  Our house was at the bottom of the slope.

Now, I live in the land of the 4th of July fireworks.  It is a ritual that is taken very seriously in almost every city, small town and beach.  The display of fireworks was first suggested by John Adams who wrote that the day "ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.... solemnized with pomp and parade...., bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

My bedroom has a gorgeous view of the East River and for our first few years, we could observe the grand Macy's fireworks from our windows when the display was still on the east side.  Alas, the UN Plaza - where Johnny Carson and Truman Capote lived - blocked our view.  We could only see the top half and missed the bottom half altogether.

Someone recently said that the thrill is to hear the loud crackling, popping sounds that accompany fireworks.  Watching from a sound-proof room, albeit with the TV on, is not adequate.  That is true.  Recently, the kids and I had the chance to stand beside Buckingham Palace during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee concert.  We were startled when a gunshot-like noise heralded a series of pops and whistles of fireworks exploding right above our heads. I guess it brought to life for my children, the meaning of 'Firework' - the Katy Perry song they cannot stop belting, starting with "Do you ever a plastic bag?"

In 1997, I was invited to spend the 4th of July at the home of the CEO of our ad agency.  He lived in a picture-perfect seaside colonial on an exclusive island off Rye.  Prior to a magnificent display, we were treated to a full barbecue spread followed by a luscious blueberry pie from Abigail Kirsch.  It remains my gold standard for blueberry pie - often made in July which is the berry's peak season.   What was most memorable was that there were a substantial number of 'whole' berries in the filling that popped in my mouth. The filling was not smushy in that sense.

Once or twice, I dragged my husband to the New York Botanical Garden partly because I knew that Abigail Kirsch ran the cafeteria there and sold that same pie.  Later on, I discovered the trick.  While you cook the filling, you set a portion of the berries aside, then add them back after you have already cooked the filling.  This creates some mix to the texture, of firm and soft berries.

I also took a weeklong pie-making class.  Sadly, my apple pie skills are still weak, but I triumphed in mastering the lattice top for the blueberry pie.  I also learnt that a pie has a full crust over the top and a tart is open on the surface.  My mother was not accustomed to pies and tarts in the American tradition.  The only pie she was known for making was chicken pie, and she was a legend for her small delicate pineapple tarts.  Enjoy the recipe for this quintessential American pie and Happy 4th.

Blueberry Lattice Pie
(Adapted from Nick Malgieri)

Sweet Dough Recipe for Two Crusts


2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
2 large eggs


Using a food processor and a dough blade, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the work bowl.  Pulse at 1 second intervals to mix. 
Cut butter into 1 tablespoon pieces or smaller, and add to work bowl, a few at a time.  Pulse again repeatedly at 1 second intervals until mixture resembles coarse ground cornmeal.  About 15-20 pulses.  Ensure that no large pieces of butter remain visible. 
Add the eggs to the work bowl, one at a time, and pulse until the dough forms into a ball. 
Scatter flour on the counter, knead the dough until smooth.  Press the dough into two disks of equal size and sandwich each with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until dough is firm, at least for an hour. 

To mix dough by hand

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl.  Stir well.   Cut butter into 1 tablespoon pieces or smaller, and add to the bowl, a few at a time.  Using only fingertips, pinch and squeeze butter into the dry ingredients.  Rub this quickly until the mixture resembles  coarse ground cornmeal. Ensure that no large pieces of butter remain visible.  Add the eggs to the bowl, one at a time, and stir in with a fork pulse until the dough forms into a ball.  Scatter flour on the counter, knead the dough until smooth.  Press the dough into two disks of equal size and sandwich each with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until dough is firm, at least for an hour. 

Meanwhile, prepare:

Blueberry Filling


2 ½ pints of blueberries, remove soft mushy ones
¾ cup sugar
Lemon juice
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Egg Wash

1 egg well beaten with a pinch of salt


Combine 1 cup of blueberries with the sugar and bring to simmer over medium heat, covered.  Stir only to spread sugar evenly, do not over stir.  Add a few drops of lemon juice to avoid crystallization.

Combine cornstarch and water in another bowl.  When the sugar in the blueberry mixture has melted, stir the mixture into the cornstarch and water, and return everything into the saucepan.   Stir and let it boil over low heat until the mixture thickens.  All of the blueberries do not necessarily have to burst.

Pour into a bowl and stir in the rest of the ingredients, except for the remaining blueberries.  Then add the blueberries, leaving ½ pint aside for later.  Let mixture cool. 

Using a 9 inch Pyrex pie pan, grease and dust with flour.
Set the oven at 400 degrees F and the rack at the lower and upper one thirds of the oven.

Let the dough thaw for 5 to 10 minutes.  Roll one disk vertically, turn a quarter and roll vertically again.  Repeat until the disk flattens out into a larger disk.    Remove one side of plastic wrap and flip the dough over the pie pan.  Pour the cooled blueberry filling.  Then cover the filling with the ½ pint of fresh blueberries that had been set aside.

Now roll the other disk to a flatter, larger size.  (If the weather is too hot, this other disk may be kept in the refrigerator a little longer and left to thaw later.  This prevents the lattice strips from breaking.)

Remove one side of the plastic wrap and dust with flour.  Place the wrap back on, flip the dough over and remove the other wrap. (This allows for easy lifting of the thin strips.)  Cut the dough into twelve ½ inch strips.  Use the strips to make a lattice top for the pie. 

First place six strips in parallel formation, vertically towards you. 

Beginning with the extreme left strip, fold every other strip in half, peeling the top edge backwards towards you.

Place another strip across the folded strips, just above the fold.  Unfold the strips away from you back to their original position, over the horizontal strip. 

Now, with the second vertical strip on the left, begin to fold every other strip in half, peeling the top edge towards you. 

Place a second horizontal strip across.  Then unfold the strips back. 

Repeat until you complete the top half of the lattice pie.  Then turn the pie pan 180 degrees and repeat the process. 

Fold the edge of the pie crust under and brush the lattice top and edge with egg wash. 

Place the pie in the lower rack of the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees.  To avoid spillage, place a tray underneath the pie pan.  Bake for 40 minutes until the crust is  baked through to a deep golden brown and the filling is bubbling.  


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Black Forest Cake

Our German friend, Anke, was among those who came to dinner last Saturday.  To honor her....and the German soccer team (but let's not tell her)...I made my favorite cake - Black Forest Cake.   Anke was so delighted, she joked that she would wear her dirndl.  I love to hear her speak German.  Every word sounds like 'schlag' or 'schtein'.   Anke is quite the flower power child of the 60s - she even has a country place in Woodstock - that you could imagine her strumming her guitar with flowers in her blonde hair.  Then again, I would play Sergio Mendes and she would recognize it as her type of music (Anke music), totally imagine her groovying away in tie-dye and flared jeans, not dirndl.

Black Forest Cake summed up my primary school birthdays.  Cold Storage sold a pretty mean one which my sister Maggie would sponsor for my celebrations at school.   It had globs of blueberry on the surface and whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on the sides.  My classmates used to ooh and aah, peep into the cakebox, until one incident when an elbow landed on the top of the cake.  It pummeled and made a dent.  I cried.

My mother learnt to make the fluffiest cake from Mrs. Laycock who taught private lessons in the comfort of her Telok Kurau home.  Mrs. Laycock had married into a prominent lawyer family but fashioned her cake-making hobby into something more productive.  Last night, I read through the copy of her recipe.  It was descriptive enough to conjure up flashbacks of that large, heavenly slice of Black Forest cake my mother brought back to the car when my dad and I picked her up from class one evening.  

The recipe had required a can of blueberry preserves.  These days, we are lucky enough to concoct our own from fresh blueberries.  Here is my recipe, created out of cake-making classes I've taken....though not with Mrs. Laycock.  

Black Forest Cake

[To save time: Instead of preparing fresh blueberry filling, you can buy a can of blueberries.  Drain the blueberries but reserve the syrup.  Use the blueberry syrup in place of the sugar syrup noted below. With this alternative, you save time preparing the blueberry filling and the sugar syrup.]

The day before, make the chocolate genoise sponge cake. 

Chocolate Genoise

1/3 cup cake flour (Softasilk)
1/3 cup cornflour
¼ cup cocoa powder (semi-sweet)
pinch of baking soda
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
¾ cup sugar
pinch of salt


Butter a 9-inch round cake tin and line the base with parchment paper. 

Set the oven to 350 degrees F. 

Combine the cake flour, cornflour, cocoa powder and baking soda.  Sift into a bowl. 

Fill a third of a small saucepan with water.  Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer.  

Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in the bowl of an electric egg beater.  Stream in the sugar, followed by the pinch of salt.  Place the bowl over the pan of simmering water and hand-whisk  continuously to ensure that the sugar dissolves.  Bring the bowl back to the electric beater and continue to whisk until the egg mixture cools down and increases in volume. 

Fold in the sifted dry ingredients in 3 additions.  At each addition, fold in the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula, scooping from bottom up and turning a quarter round to repeat the folding action. 

Pour the batter into the round cake tin and bake for 30 minutes.  To check for doneness, insert a stick or a paring knife into them middle of the cake. It should come out clean. 

Let the cake cool.  Then run a paring knife around the cake to separate it from the sides of the round tin.   Invert the tin over a rack.  To keep the cake overnight, you could store it in a container or plastic wrap.  Refrigerate. 

Meanwhile, you could prepare the moistening syrup and the blueberry filling.  These can be refrigerated the day before assembling.  

Moistening Syrup

1/3 cup water
¼ cup sugar

Bring the sugar and water to a boil and then leave to cool.  Store in a container.

Blueberry Filling

2 pints blueberries, rinsed.  Discard softened berries.
3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons cornflour
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Set aside a third of the blueberries. Combine the rest of the blueberries and sugar in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and then quickly turn down to a simmer.  Stir occasionally until all the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. 
Combine the cornflour and water to make a slurry paste.  Add to the simmering blueberries and stir to thicken.   Turn off the heat.  Add the 3 cups of blueberries that had been set aside, along with the lemon zest.  Leave to cool.  Then store away. 

To assemble the Black Forest Cake.

Crème Chantilly (Icing)


2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla


Combine the ingredients and beat by hand or machine until the cream holds to a firm peak.  Do not overbeat.  Use immediately or refrigerate until needed. 

Additional Ingredients
3 tablespoons Kirsch or Cassis
2 cups cherries in syrup (S&W brand)
1 cup shaved, grated or finely chopped chocolate

To assemble and decorate

Using a cake knife, score around the circumference of the genoise, at the middle level.  Then gently slice through, following around the scored line, going deeper and deeper until you reach the center of the cake.  [To ensure that you obtain two even layers, you may have to slice around repeatedly until you reach the center.] 

Place the bottom layer on a cardboard disk and use a brush to ‘dust off’ the crumbs from the sliced surface.  Using a different brush, moisten the surface with some moistening syrup followed by the cassis.  Spread the layer with ¼ of the crème chantilly, followed by the blueberry filling. [Carefully spread the blueberry filling from the center outwards, in order to avoid spillage onto the sides.]   

With the other layer of the genoise, flip it upside down first and brush off the crumbs from the sliced surface.   Moisten with syrup and spread with ¼ of the crème chantilly.  Then flip the layer over again and place it over the other genoise layer such that the cut surface faces down to meet the blueberry filling. 

Spread the top and sides of the cake with the remaining whipped cream.  Use a small offset spatula to spread evenly. 

Sprinkle chocolate shavings around the side of the cake, using a cold teaspoon and not the hands to avoid melting the shavings.   

Spread the cherries on the middle of the cake surface.

Pipe rosettes of the remaining crème Chantilly around the top border of the cake.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Beef Wellington Promise

Our friend Lou is a mix of Kramer from 'Seinfeld' and your neighborhood pal who drops by informally....just the way it used to be when we were growing up.  Every so often, we would get a call on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The doorman would announce that Lou happened to walk by on his way home, and that he and his son - my son's best friend - would like to come up.  Back in November 2010, Lou did just that.  Except that he came with the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition tucked under his arm.  It featured a recipe for Beef Wellington and he wanted to follow up on his question a few months earlier about whether I knew how to do it.  I made a promise that one day I would prepare a meal for him featuring Beef Wellington.  The truth was, I could only vaguely remember experimenting with it once before without much deep thought into the science of perfecting it.  My clearest recollection was being served this grand meal on December 31, 1989 when this guy, Francis, a budding gourmet cook, fussed over his Beef Wellington for his buddies and their girlfriends.

Considering that it took me ten years to launch my cookbook, this promised meal for Lou followed a pretty similar pace.  Then again, our two little boys will no longer be together come September and I felt that this meal had better take place before we all inevitably drift in different directions.

This past Saturday, we gathered a few of our closest preschool family friends to celebrate the past and the future.....and to fulfill the Beef Wellington promise.  The menu included:

Prosciutto and Melon
Garlic and Pepper Cervelat, Gruyere Cheese
Tomatoes and Mozzarella, with balsamic vinegar drizzle
Truffle Pate and Crackers

A sit down meal starting with
Chilled Watercress and Potato Soup, then
Fennel, Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Icelandic Salmon Gravlax with Citrus dressing
followed by
Beef Wellington
served with blanched Asparagus in season, and Potato Gratin

Desserts of
English Trifle Pudding and Black Forest Cake

I told my guests that I could not be held liable if someone did not wake up the next morning, after a heart attack from all the heavy cream, foie gras and red meat.  For such an epic moment,  I had to bring out my silver flatware and pour good red wine into Baccarat.

I referred to Lou's Wall Street Journal Beef Wellington recipe. I turned up the decadence notch by replacing the truffle butter with foie gras.....bottle of it bought at the Charles de Gaulle airport on my last trip to Paris.  For the most part, I followed the rest of the instructions, including the duxelles and the ready-made puff pastry.  It was a heavenly meal and guess what, the slices of perfect medium rare beef filet with an elegant coating of foie gras, duxelles and prosciutto, enveloped in golden pastry even looked like what had appeared in the article.

It was a night to remember.  For the friendships and that much awaited Filet de Boeuf en Croute.

Sweet and Sour Pork

At the buffet parties thrown at our old house, a perennial dish on the table would have been 'Sweet and Sour Pork'.

As a young associate working at a food company, one of my projects was to launch 'sweet and sour' as a popular Chinese sauce.  I was stubbornly skeptical that it was Chinese at all.  I rudely assumed that it was a gwei-lo favorite simply because it was the closest thing to ketchup.

Many years later, I met my husband's family friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They were a tight-knit community of scientists whose families were displaced during the Communist revolution and therefore spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong.  One of them, Mrs. Chu, was terribly proud of her 'sweet and sour pork'.  She attributed her job promotion to the flavorful dish's hypnotic influence on her boss.  When I gave her my cookbook, I tested my recipe one more time to make sure that it would pass muster when she tried it.  Mrs. Chu had convinced me that the sauce indeed had a Chinese heritage, if I could find it in the middle of the desert, in the southwest of the USA.

Sweet and sour sauce was used for the popular Westlake fish - a legendary Hangzhou, Zhejiang dish which I had the privilege of trying at its original destination.....the restaurant fronting the lake itself with the carp caught from its source.  The sauce looked entirely different from the familiar orange goo we have come to associate sweet and sour sauce with. But the complex twist of two sensations remains the same.

There is a story about a younger brother who had protected his elder brother's wife from a covetous rascal.  The rascal had killed the elder brother and the younger tried to retaliate.  Unsuccessful, he had to run away from authorities.  In gratitude, the sister-in-law prepared a fish dish with sugar and vinegar and reminded him, "I made it sweet and sour so that you will not forget how your brother died.  If you have a sweet life in the future, recall the sourness of the past and the lives of those who have been bullied."  He went on to become a official and brought to justice the man who had killed his older brother.

In my recipe, I suggested pork shoulder which is a nice tender cut.  Nothing to do with the sauce but with the cut of meat, I recently had a really delicious  roasted pork chop at Maggie Jones, a quaint English restaurant just off Kensington Palace.  The manager told me that 'Maggie Jones', an establishment that started in the 60s, was named after Princess Margaret right after she married Antony Armstrong-Jones. The couple had lived at the palace. The restaurant continues to be the local haunt of the royal family to this day.

Sweet and Sour Pork

The sauce ingredients listed below bear testament to a colonial heritage.  I believe this recipe was adapted by a Hainanese chef.  These chefs, largely behind the stoves of private colonial clubs, homes of British civil servants and kitchens of army barracks, pioneered the art of marrying British food products like HP Sauce with Chinese ingredients. 

You can also substitute the 300g or 10.5 ounces of pork with the same amount of fish fillet or 600g or 1 pound 5.5 ounces of large prawns.  In this instance, leave out the sodium bicarbonate and water to the marinade. 

12 servings

300g or 10.5 ounces pork shoulder
1/4 teaspoon soda bicarbonate
1 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 egg yolk
1/2 tablespoon cornflour
6 cups oil for frying, preferably peanut oil
Cornflour for dredging

Ingredients for sauce
10 tablespoons water
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Lea and Perrins sauce
1 tablespoon A1 or HP Sauce
1 ½ tablespoons vinegar
½ tablespoon chili sauce, preferably Lingham’s

Ingredients for slurry
1½ tablespoon cornflour
2 tablespoons water

1 large onion, skinned and cut into wedges
3 stalks spring onions, cut into 1 inch or 2.5 cm pieces
1 red chili, seeded and cut into shreds
1 cucumber, skinned and cored, sliced finely
1 tomato, cut into wedges

Cut the pork into 2.5 cm or 1 inch cubes and marinate in the sodium bicarbonate, salt, sugar, water and egg yolks.  Sprinkle the cornflour and mix well to coat.  Leave aside for at least 15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients.  Prepare the slurry and set aside separately. 

Heat a deep Dutch oven or wok and add in the oil.   Dredge the marinated pork in the cornflour and deep fry until lightly golden and crispy, turning once over halfway through.  Remove and transfer to a tray lined with absorbent paper. 

Fry the pork a second time for crispiness.  Transfer to a serving dish.

Remove the oil, leaving only 2 tablespoons aside.  Stir fry the onion wedges.  Pour in the gravy, bring to a boil and then lower to simmer.  Add the slurry a bit at a time to thicken.  Pour the gravy over the fried pork and garnish with the spring onions, red chili, cucumber and tomato.  Serve immediately.

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