Monday, February 28, 2005

Back to Square One

One week after I successfuly made my very first loaf of sour-tasting sourdough, I find myself back to the drawing board.

This was supposed to be Parmesan Pepper Sourdough bread, but not only was it not sour, the only thing you could taste was the pepper. The 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmesan was only evident while the bread was in the oven by smell.

Why?! What have I done to be doomed with forever non-sour bread?!!!

Friday, February 25, 2005

Three-month Long Kimono Break

Hello, my name is Lynn, and it’s been three months since I last made it to kitsuke lesson (Kitsuke・着付け means the act of putting on a kimono).

I stepped sheepishly into the classroom, and was immediately greeted by Takamoto sensei’s warm hello. As you recall, she’s the one who used me as a mannequin to practice her very own kitsuke.

A round of greeting and catching up later, we got down to business. First, I had to put on my own kimono, as we do at the beginning of every lesson, even though today I won’t be tying the obi on myself. It was comforting to know that after three months I haven’t completely forgotten the basics. I did forget, however, how to tie the Otaiko・お太鼓 (translation: big drum, the most commonly seen boxy looking knot worn by married women). So I reviewed that too.

Next up, today’s obimusubi (帯結び・obi knot): Tateya (立て矢: vertical arrow) and Hirosue Tateya (広末立て矢: vertical arrow with a fanned out end). Hirosue Tateya or some of its variations are the most commonly used obi knots by brides on their wedding day after changing out of their white wedding kimono. You can also see them on young girls on Coming of Age Day (成人の日). In short, it’s a knot used on festive occasions, and this is what Hirosue Tateya (the more elaborate of the two) looks like.

Not particularly pretty if you ask me. Or maybe I am biased because it was a pain in the you-know-what to tie the darn knot. Because it is slanted, the balance is extremely important, and the rule of 1/3 is strictly followed every step of the way. One has to ensure that the bottom “wing” is not too large; and that the angle is just such. A special pillow (one that rotates) and a string with three elastic loops were used. When making the two “wings” of the knot, three clips were engaged to hold the yards of fabric in place; it was also a time one wished one had an extra hand. Thank goodness I was using my practice obi made out of polyester, which was relatively light. I couldn’t even begin to imagine tying a heavy, elaborately adorned silk obi into this knot.

While I was struggling with the darned “Vertical Arrow” a classmate of mine made this pretty knot, called Beni Tsubaki (red camellia). See flower on the left.

Now, isn’t this so much better looking than the Tateya? Can you see how the Tateya differs from Hirosue Tateya?

Yup, it’s missing the little fan shaped end on the upper right corner.

Next week, I start reviewing all the knots I learned in the practical lessons. Then it’s time for the test: putting on a kimono and tying the Otaiko knot on myself in less than ten minutes. I definitely need lots of practice to pass this test.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

IMBB 12 - Natto: You are what you don't eat

I didn’t find out about the 12th IMBB until after the fact. Then when I saw the theme, I wish I hadn’t missed the deadline, for I have the perfect food to subject myself to as the victim: natto (納豆) a.k.a. Japanese fermented soybeans. The Japanese believe that this verging-on- rotten bean product is extremely good for your health. It supposedly has all these enzymes unique only to natto that prevent blood clots and ward off heart attacks. It’s even said to be good for pets. In fact an ex-colleague of mine feeds his dog one pack a day.

I won’t dwell on health benefits of eating natto because that’s not the point. The main thing about natto is that it is disgusting to look at and has a distinct smell that’s best described as, surprise, rotten beans. Being a dog owner, I have had my share of bad smelling things. Libby’s breath could smell quite putrid sometimes but that didn’t stop me from kissing her. Natto, on the other hand, is an entirely different level of smelliness. It is definitely an acquired taste because according to my Japanese friends, most people in western Japan don’t even eat it. So is it any surprise that I was never able to get past the smell and the unpleasant aesthetics to bring myself to taste it?

I was going to be someone who’s never tasted natto if it weren’t for Carlo, host of the 12th IMBB, who extended the deadline. I took it as a sign that I should take this opportunity to overcome my aversion to natto and give it a try. So I went out and got the smallest packaged natto I could find in the supermarket, organic no less. It also came with two little packets: katsuo flavored sauce and organic mustard.

Cute, you say? You haven’t seen nothing yet, my friend.

This is what awaits you when you lift the plastic wrap on top of the natto. Combined with the rotten smell, is it not enough to turn any stomach?

Ewww, let me try the two beans stuck to the plastic wrap first and decide whether I want to eat the rest. I picked the two beans off the wrap and put them in my mouth and chewed. They were soft, with the expected texture of soy beans, but there’s an unpleasant bitter after taste. I looked down at Libby, who’s eagerly wagging her tail, and thought for a split second that maybe I should just dump the whole thing into her bowl and make her one happy pooch. Dogs are always fond of smelly stuff anyway, aren't they? But the next second my better sense took control and I was going to eat this rotten, smelly, unpleasant looking thing they call food for the name of IMBB.

I decided to make use of the sauce and mustard provided, and stirred them into the natto with chopsticks, more strings were generated with stirring. You’ll have to actually do this to fully appreciate the nastiness of the whole exercise. The more you stir, the stickier and slimier it gets and more strings are formed. It’s like a tangled ball of never-ending yarn. Yuck!

Luckily, the katsuo flavored sauce and mustard masked the bitter taste pretty well and I could almost convince myself that I am not eating natto, but rather some other dubious soy bean product, and I managed to finish the whole package.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it, which is a good thing because I still have the other container to finish. Don’t suppose I can disguise it somehow and convince my unsuspecting husband to give it a try?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Pitfalls of a Romantic Idea

This is the little cottage that we stayed in when we went skiing in Hakuba two weeks ago. Hakuba is known for its good snow quality outside of Hokkaido and has a high concentration of ski resorts, the most famous of which being Happone, where the 1998 winter Olympics was held.

Our friends Tomoko and Robbee, both avid snowboarders, are big fans of Hakuba and make at least one trip there per season. Under their influence, and the disappointment in Hokkaido last year still fresh on our mind (we had no snow in Hokkaido, if you could believe that), we said yes readily when Tomoko suggested a long weekend of skiing in Hakuba. I was even more thrilled when I found the above cottage on the internet that allows dogs. I have always wanted to stay in a cottage deep in the snow, have after dinner drinks around the fireplace (never mind I don’t drink and this particular cottage has no fireplace) and talk with friends well into the night. So it was decided that we would drive to the cottage on Thursday night so we could enjoy three full days of skiing.

First lesson: when traveling in rural areas, don’t trust your navigator, even if it managed to pinpoint the place with the phone number.

When we arrived at the spot where our cottage was supposed to be, there was no cottage in sight. Instead there was a ski shop. Lucky for us, the owner was still up and directed us to where our cottage was (3 km away). What happened is that the number listed was for the ski shop/reception area for cottage. Who would’ve guessed that the reception and cottage would be miles apart?!

Second lesson: oil heaters are your friends.

Twenty minutes later, we finally found our cottage. After climbing up a mound of snow with a couple of footholds carved out, we found ourselves in the living room of a VERY VERY cold cottage. We fiddled and waited for half an hour before concluding that the main heater was broken. This left us with two little oil heaters. If you have ever been in rural Japan in the winter, you would remember that unique gas smell. In Tokyo, you can usually find this type of oil burner in outdoor dining areas in the winter, in the shape of huge heat lamps. We had to make a decision: leave the heaters on all night long and be reasonably warm and face possible gas poisoning, or turn them off and face the consequences. We imagined what the headline of the local newspaper would say to describe the unfortunate ski accident “Five Bodies Found in Cottage, Four Human and One Dog” and decided to be cold and alive.

I spent half the night trying to warm up my body and when I finally fell asleep and woke up in the morning, my nose was freezing and I could see my own breath. Meanwhile, Robbee and Tomoko had resolved to bury themselves under piles of blankets so high that I didn’t even see them when I first woke up. Libby was probably the one that fared the best, curled up in her own little corner on a folded futon.

Third lesson: oil heaters give you headaches.

Second night, we got a third heater from the cottage owner and conquered our fear of death by gas poisoning. We kept all three heaters on all night. The heaters and the tabletop burner for our nabe dinner made the cottage very toasty, even on the verge of overheating. We had a nice night’s sleep, but Robbee and I woke up with pounding headaches, presumably from the gas smell and lack of oxygen.

Third night, we kept all the burners on and turned on the exhaust fans in the kitchen and the bathroom. The cottage wasn’t as warm as the night before, but no headaches, and we could even smell the wood. Finally, some kind of balance!

All those lessons learned will come in handy someday I am sure, but I am not eager to test them out any time soon. Which is why, for our next and final ski trip of the season, I chose Naeba Prince Hotel, a mammoth structure of a chain hotel that will not be missed by any car navigator. Sure, it will just be a standard hotel room and we won’t be able to bring Libby, but at least the inside temperature will be substantially higher than outside. I think it will be a good way to end the ski season.

For photos of this trip, click here.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Sourdough, AT LAST

Three starters and months of frustration later, I present to you, my very first sour-tasting bread. I don't know what I did right this time, but somehow, miraculously the stars were aligned and all the forces worked in harmony, and this loaf of bread had all the soury taste of a real bakery sourdough. It's got tahini and a whole cup of sesame seeds in it (should've only been half a cup, but I forgot to cut it down in half along with the rest of the recipe, oops), so it is extra fragrant too. I am so excited over this new turn of events in my kitchen that I just have to share it with everyone.

Now I can go walk my dog.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Music In My Kitchen

I can’t remember exactly when, but I have all but stopped listening to music some time ago. When I was little, my dad played classical music at full volume ALL the time. Under his influence, I couldn’t even go to sleep without listening to a little Mozart or Chopin. Remember back when walkmans are the size of a brick? I hauled one with me everywhere I went. I was in a CD club in college, when I couldn’t even afford it. Now, when there are MP3 and iPods to make listening to music while on the go so easy, and when I have the money to buy any CD I want, I stopped listening. Nowadays I prefer total silence. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea.

When Karen of the Pilgrim’s Pots and Pans tagged me for the music meme, I was in a dilemma. Do I really want to let the whole world know that I live in a self-imposed musicless world (don’t even own a MP3 or iPod), or should I just ignore the tag and pretend it never happened? After two days of pondering, I decided that ignoring the tag wouldn’t be the proper thing to do, so here it goes:

What is the total amount of music files on your computer?
6,472 KB, from a song by Utada Hikaru that my friend sent me recently. I know, it’s pathetic, but to be fair, this is a brand new computer, so I haven’t had a chance to load it up with stuff yet.

The CD you last bought?
Hmmm, it’s been a long time since I bought a CD, but I think it was Pet Music for my dog. It’s a pack of three CDs: Natural Rhythm, Peaceful Playground, and Sunday in the Park.

I bought them because I thought my dog needed to listen to some music when we are not home so she could relax. Call me a lunatic!

What was the last song you listened to before reading this message?
It’s now 11:30pm Saturday. The last time I listened to a song was the last time I was driving mindlessly, which puts me at 10:30am Tuesday. I think it was some J-pop on the FM radio.

Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.
1. 梅花三弄(Plum flower: three variations): Not exactly a song, it’s a piece played on the Gu Zheng (a traditional Chinese musical instrument). While in college, a friend of mine lent me a CD of Chinese songs and at the end was this piece. I fell in love with it, bought a Gu Zheng when I went to live in Singapore, and started taking lessons. Now I can play this piece too.

2. Fur Elise: Junior high school, Richard Clayderman was all the rage. Everywhere you go, his rendition of Fur Elise was playing on some radio or cassette player. I bought a jewelry box with laser etched Fur Elise sheet music on the lid (the same way it's etched in my mind) the first day of my piano lesson.

3. Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps (Doris Day): I was really into Ballroom dancing while in grad school. It was Ann Arbor, with six months of winter so you have to be creative when it comes to staying active. The movie Strictly Ballroom just came out and it was my favorite song in the whole movie. I bought the soundtrack CD and listened to it over and over again. I even briefly considered using it as music for the first dance at my wedding, but eventually gave up because 1. Jason wouldn’t have been able to learn the moves by wedding date, and 2. the lyrics wasn’t really suitable for a wedding.

4. Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again (phantom of the opera): the first musical Jason and I saw together, in Boston’s Wang theatre while I was there for the summer. We could only afford the student ticket, which were two rows from the ceiling and we could barely make out the figures on stage. I loved all the songs in that musical but this one struck a special cord, maybe because we were in a long distance relationship and I was *constantly* wishing that he was somehow here again. I listened to that song a lot in my dorm room in Ann Arbor. Hum, these were the days!

5. Carnival (Natalie Merchant, Tigerlily): I like the lyrics and the music of this song. Am hypnotized and mesmerized by it. I like it so much in fact, that I forgot I had the CD and bought a second copy. I see now that the onset of my senility was much much earlier than I thought.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
Hsin-li, because we never talk about music when we see each other, and this will be a good way to find out her interest.

Rachel, because she is also a dog-lover, and she is quirky and her writings make me laugh. I want to know if her choice of music is a reflection of her personality.

I was going to stop at two because I am really new at blogging and the people I can think of tagging have all been tagged. Then I thought of Yann at I stumbled onto his/her blog when an ex-colleague of mine told me he could find my food photos by searching LynnInTokyo on google. I did the same search and found Yann’s blog. Yann is probably in charge of photo editing at and seems to like my photos and posts them on his/her staff blog. I thought it would be good for him/her to share his/her music interest. But I’m really not sure how often he/she checks that blog and what’s policy is on staff blog, so this could be a dead lead.

So there you have it Karen, not so interesting I'm afraid. Thanks for the tag, it brought back memories.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

TV Cooking Tip #3 – Five Minute Pao

Ever since my mildly successful attempt at making chive pao, I’ve been looking for the perfect dough recipe. What I want to achieve is the kind that wraps around the cha siew pao, fluffy and soft.

As luck would have it, another one of my frequently watched Japanese TV shows, The Itos' Dinner Table (伊東家の食卓), taught a simple trick to make mini pao (饅頭) dough with only two ingredients. The picture you see above is my first attempt, not exactly pretty and the surface is fuzzy but the taste is uncannily similar to the cha siew pao dough.

You’ll appreciate it even more after you’ve seen how it’s made, I am sure. So here it goes:

80g fresh breadcrumb (生パン粉)
4 tbsp milk

1. Use your fingers to mix the two ingredients until the breadcrumb is wetted evenly. (Don't expect the dough to stick together, the milk only wets the crumbs)
2. Divide the mixture into four equal portions and spread each portion out on a square of saran wrap. Drop a tablespoonful of stuffing of your choice in the middle.
(I used red bean paste from my mame daifuku attempt, but savory filling can be used too)
3. Gather the corners of the saran wrap and twist it shut tight, like in the photo below.

4. Use a toothpick to prick four holes on the top of each wrapped pao, and microwave on 500W for 2 minutes.
5. Open up and you have yourself some mini paos.

I cut down the recipe, so I had to adjust microwave time. For two paos, I did 1 minute and 30 seconds. So total cooking time (including weighing out breadcrumb and digging out the red bean paste from the depth of the fridge) for those very cute and delectable after dinner snacks was a whopping FIVE minutes! This one is a keeper, until I find the perfect real pao recipe. And even when I do find the perfect real recipe, this one will still be on the top of the list for a quick snack.


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Renters Unite

Hey all you Tokyo renters, good news! Renters are finally fed up with the ridiculous and for the most part unreasonable damage that landlords have been charging when tenants move out (ex. house cleaning, replacement of wallpaper, carpet, light fixtures, etc) . The Tokyo Municipal government put together a rule book governing what expenses the landlords are responsible for.

Since I just saw it on the news, I wasn't able to find anything except for this little blurb on the internet. To put everything in a nutshell, repair of daily wear and tear, such as marks on wallpaper made by a clock or uneven color on carpet due to placement of furniture, are to be paid by the landlord. Based on the new rule, tenants were able to take landlords to court and waive most of the so-called damage.

I am going to get myself a copy of the rule book and learn my rights. When we moved out of our previous house, our landlord charged us almost $1200 for housecleaning even after my cleaning lady and I labored for 8 hours on the house. I won't let it happen again.

Renter's market, here we come!

Valentine’s Day Part 2: Lack of Planning

I woke up on Valentine’s day aching all over, from the three days of skiing over the weekend. Damn, I am getting old. Then came the realization that it is in fact Valentine’s day and neither of us has thought ahead to make a dinner reservation. Of course, being Valentine’s day and Tokyo, any self-respecting restaurant would have been booked out months in advance. Oh well, I will just make something for dinner and have a quiet evening at home.

I didn’t drag my sorry and aching ass (thanks to the snowboarders who crashed into me) out of bed until well past ten, and wasn’t functioning until noon, at which time Jason called to make sure that I wasn’t expecting a surprise dinner. I assured him that I am not delusional and have long given up hoping for surprises from him.

After reassuring him that I would cook Valentine’s dinner, I turned to to look for things to make. Since time was short, I quickly settled on a simple fish dish and a rice pilaf, which will enable me to use the dry apricot that I bought on our ski trip this weekend. For dessert, I chose a white chocolate raspberry cheesecake, which I will cut down and make in my super cute 4” springform pan.

Everything settled and shopping list in hand, I set out to take Libby for a walk before going to the grocery store. After a major delay , I finally started dinner preparation around 6pm.

The fish and pilaf turned out ok, but the dessert was a different story.

Due to the short time-frame, I didn’t have time to let the cake cool long enough before taking it out of the pan, and as a result, the cake broke up right in the middle.

For what it’s worth, all the taste is still there and the white chocolate and raspberry flavor complimented each other really well. Of course, knowing Saab-chan is sleeping safely at home made it extra sweet.

I think it was a nice ending for our Valentine’s Day 2005.
(Please ignore the lack of table coordination. Didn’t I say I was short on time?)

Valentine’s Day Part 1: Lost Dog Found

It happened while I was walking Libby in Aoyama cemetery. I let Libby off leash as I always do in places where there are no people or cars. Suddenly, she rushed ahead tail wagging. Following the direction she was going, I saw a -mix dog standing at the end of a row of tombstones, also off-leash. Libby took an instant liking to the shiba-mix and pranced around him in her play-invitation pose. The other dog seemed a little weary and mostly stayed still. When I got to where both dogs were, I realized something was wrong. There was no owner with the shiba dog. I looked around and called out to see if anyone is around but there was no answer. On a closer look, the shiba dog had on an old leather collar but no tag was attached. He appeared disoriented and a little apprehensive when I reached out to pet him. By the look of white hair on his muzzle and head, he must be around 8 or 9 years old. I decided that I couldn’t leave this Ojichan (old man) in the cemetery all by himself. Luckily, I was walking Libby with a multi-purpose adjustable leash with a hook on each end, so I hooked Ojichan shiba on to the other end of the leash and thought of what I should do next.

Bringing him home is not practical because I have no idea whether he’s house trained or not and I really can’t afford to have stained carpet in my apartment (wouldn’t the landlord just be waiting to pounce on that!). Leaving him in the yard is out of the question too because for one thing it is cold at night and he could bark all night in a strange environment, and if he'd been living on his own for long, he might have caught some disease and might give it to Libby. Thinking quickly, I decided to bring him to the Kouban (police box) at Omotesando crossing. Maybe the owner has reported the missing dog to the police, besides, the J-cops need some real work to do.

I was surprised at how well Libby and Ojichan shiba walked together on the same leash. As if knowing his rescuee status, Ojichan shiba walked two steps behind Libby, and when Libby stopped to sniff something, he waited until she’s done before taking a sniff himself. Thoughts of keeping him for myself crossed my mind, just fleetingly.

The arrival of Libby and Ojichan shiba caused a stir in the tiny police box (I counted seven cops in such a small space). As a standard procedure, I was asked to leave my name and contact information (I know this from a previous kouban experience). We then discussed in length what should be done with Ojichan shiba, since nobody has reported a missing dog. At first they wanted me to take him home with me, but I managed to persuade them that it’s better for them to keep him temporarily. They said they could keep him for two days, but if nobody claims him, they will need to send him to the shelter, but agreed to call me before they do so. While I negotiated with the J-cops, Ojichan shiba sat in a dignified posture outside the Kouban watching the fashionable Omotesando crowds milling about. He even patiently put up with one of the cops’ attempts to find out what tricks he knew. Once in a while, his ears would prick up, as if recognizing something or someone, but he soon went back to his calm observation mode.

Forty minutes after finding Ojichan shiba, I bade him farewell and wished him good luck. Walking home, I started to wonder if I had done the right thing turning him to the police. What if they send him to the shelter without telling me first? I heard animal shelters are extremely short of space and most dogs are only given two to three days before they are put down. Had I inadvertently sentenced Ojichan shiba to death? Will he have a better chance if I had taken him in? As I started making dinner, my agitation grew and I decided that I should put up some flyers in the neighborhood first thing in the morning telling Ojichan shiba’s owner to go to the police box to claim him. I mentally picked out the places where I would post the flyers and counted how many copies I'd need. I even emailed my Japanese friend to come up with a catchy title so people would take notice. (Wouldn’t you know it? The only time I don’t bring my T-1 on walks, something like this happens. It would’ve been so much better if I had a picture. Of course, taking a photo with my phone never crossed my one-track mind.)

Just when my paranoia was running rampant (images of Ojichan shiba pleading for his life with his eyes swirled wildly in my head), the phone rang. It was the police. The owner was found! Five minutes later, the owner called.

The dog actually lives in Roppongi (so the dog detective lady’s theory that says dogs who get lost rarely go out of a half-mile radius did not apply here) and ran away from home. His name is Saab, and the owner is on her way to collect him from the police.

This is what I call a happy ending.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Sugar High Friday - Portuguese Egg tart

This the second time this week I am making something Portuguese, reincarnated as a Chinese dessert. See the trend? Anyway, I have been wanting to try to make my own puff pastry ever since I fell in love with the chocolate croissants in Paris (can’t find the same in Tokyo anywhere) but was always intimidated by the formidable task: who has the time and patience? But what better way to try it for the first time than for Sugar High Friday hosted by A la Cuisine?

Recently I have been craving for egg tarts. They are my absolute favorite dim sum items, but again, very hard to find them in bakeries in Japan, unless I make a trip to Yokohama Chinatown. For my first SHF, however, I decided to make Portuguese egg tart. They differ from the dim sum egg tarts in that they are less regularly shaped, with a burned and wrinkled top. In other words, they are ugly looking thangs. So, it's perfect for me! I can definitely do ugly!

The first thing I did after I got up the morning of the pastry-making day was to turn off the heater in my apartment. I definitely needed all the help I could get for my first puff pastry attempt and I wasn’t about to let warm temperature turn my dough into goo. At about 2pm, the kitchen has only cooled down to 18C. Damn insulation material! Where’s a cold kitchen when you need one? Wanting to have the fresh out of the oven egg tart for tea however, I decided not to wait any longer.

I had been searching the internet for egg tart recipes and finally settled on one from a Hong Kong website. Portuguese egg tarts came to China via Macao, a former Portuguese colony. Since Hong Kong is separated from Macao only by a river, their egg tarts should still be authentically Portuguese/Macao, no?

Deciphering the recipe proved challenging. For one thing, I discovered that my cooking vocabulary in Chinese is extremely limited. Not knowing what some of the ingredients were, I had to make educated guesses (and measuring everything in grams is such a pain). So, the following is my interpretation of the recipe:

Pastry A:
2 ½ cup flour (low gluten)
1 tbsp milk powder

Pastry B:
2 tbsp shortening
¼ tsp salt
1 egg
approximately 1/3 cup ice water

¾ cup butter

¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup milk
¼ cup whipping cream
3 egg yolks

1. Sift A into a mixing bowl, add ingredients B and mix until it forms into a smooth ball. Chill in fridge for 30 minutes.
2. Bring butter to room temp, and cut into slices approximately 3mm thick.
3. Roll dough out into a big rectangle and arrange butter pieces on half of the dough, fold dough over to cover the butter pieces, press with hands and then roll out with rolling pin. Sprinkle top with flour, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
I have seen on TV where pastry chefs take their rolling pin and beat the block of butter into submission and seriously considered trying this out but my more practical judgment took over and I went the less dramatic way.

4. Turn dough a quarter turn, fold into threes (like a letter) and roll out. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this 3 or 4 times.

Let’s see, I think I started mine at 2:30pm and finished at around 5:00pm, so I guess I repeated this thing five times. Probably too many times, but I was having fun rolling the buttery dough out
5. Finally, roll the dough out into a large rectangle and fold onto itself like a jelly-roll. Let it rest in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, prepare tart filling by boiling the cream and milk gently and add the sugar to dissolve. Let cool slightly and add little by little into beaten egg yolks.
7. Strain through a tea strainer.
8. Preheat oven to 200F. Butter and flour a six-cup muffin pan.
9. Cut six 1cm thick slices from the rolled up dough (about 1 ounce each). Store the rest of the dough in fridge or freezer for later use.
10. Wet your fingers with cold water and shape each slice into a disc big enough to line a muffin cup.
11. Line the muffin cups and fill with egg mixture about ¾ full (about 2 tbsp per muffin cup)
12. Bake at 200C (400F) for 15-20 minutes, until brown spots appear on the surface of the filling.
13. Cool slightly on rack before removing.
14. Eat one right away to enjoy the flaky crust and the piping hot custard filling.

I am happy with the way the pastry turned out, although they didn’t puff up so magically as I had expected (I was of course watching the oven like a hawk the entire 20 minutes), but then again, for this recipe it's not supposed to puff up too much, otherwise the fillings would be expelled out of the shell. The tart filling however, can really be improved. For one thing, I probably overbaked it by a couple of minutes so the custard was a bit too cooked. A real Portuguese egg tart (ok, the Macao version) should just be on the verge of solid/liquid. Also, it wasn’t as flavorful as I had remembered. Maybe next time I will add a vanilla bean to the filling mixture.

The second time I made it, both pastry and custard filling had been sitting in the fridge for a couple of days, so the starting temp was low and I ended up under-baking it. You can see that the custard was not entirely solidified. And no signature brown spots! Will keep trying.

I really want to thank Clement at A la cuisine for hosting such a great theme. Although a bit involved, I find the whole pastry-making process very satisfying. Now with a whole log of unused pastry dough, I can make egg tarts on demand! I could use as little as one egg yolk and churn out egg tarts two at a time, and experiment with different fillings! And when I get tired of egg tarts (for now) I might even be able to use the leftover pastry dough and try my hands at making a chocolate croissant or two. The possibilities are endless! Now let me go do some power yoga to burn off all that butter!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Blueberry in winter: the ultimate comfort food

I've been reading this guy Adam’s food blog (the Amateur Gourmet ) for a while now and I really like it. Maybe I can relate to him because he's just an average guy trying to cook average things. Or maybe it was his humor and charming self-deprecation. Unlike some other food blogs that make you feel inferior because it seems that everything they make turns out perfect, I always get a sense of camaraderie when I read his blog.

So anyway, I saw this blueberry apple kuchen that he posted, and was instantly drawn by the perfect geometry of it. I begged, among other equally shameless recipe seekers, for the recipe (from French Laundry)
and Adam obliged (see comment section).

The recipe is actually for either blueberry or cranberry, but Nissin's cranberries were looking wrinkled and sickly so I decided to splurge and bought myself a teeny tiny container of blueberries for you don't want to know how much.

I followed Adam's pictures in arranging the apples in a spoke-pattern in my brand-new silicone cake pan . But alas, either Japanese apples are too big or I didn't slice them thin enough, I didn't have space in between the spokes to insert my blueberries like Adam did so neatly. Also, my batter is a bit runny (must be the low glutinous nature of the Japanese flour) so I had a hard time making the apple slices stand up vertically, but I made do.

The final dusting of cinnamon sugar is very important as the sugar caramelizes during the baking process, giving the cake a nice crusty shell. The best part I like about this particular cake is where the cake batter SQUEEZES itself in between the apple slices and BURSTS into little slices of crunchy heaven above the cake top. Remember that Seinfeld episode with Elaine's obssesion of muffin tops? This is the muffin top part of the cake!

Thanks to Adam for sharing a great recipe!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Fantasies Come True

When I was working, the weather determined the contents of my daydreams. If it was sunny and gorgeous, I’d be wishing I were somewhere in a park, having a picnic with a good book in hand and Libby by my side. If it was rainy and gloomy, I’d want to sit in my couch by the window and curl up with a cup of hot tea and stay there all day in my PJs.

Well, both fantasies have come true in the past week that I had been out of a job. I was blessed with blue skies and mild weather all week long. So I took Libby on long walks and thoroughly enjoyed the weather. Here are some of the photos I snapped with my Sony T1.

A big white pouf of cloud floating just above the tree top.

The weird-looking statue in front of the children’s castle on Aoyama-dori, next door to the UN building.

Walked past Pierre Herme’s new store on Aoyama-dori, not yet open but I am sure will have super-long lines when it does.

Fruity tarts all lined up at a newly opened café at the corner of Koto and Aoyama dori.
(Have I really been in Japan for too long? Why do these tarts loaded with fruits look almost vulgar to me? No portions should be bigger than a bite, damn it!)

The funny-looking building in Nishi-Azabu that went vacant for a long time when the nightclub it housed closed down. It now seems to have found a new tenant.

Picnic with Libby at Arisgawa park, and the meatloaf sandwich I packed for myself using home-made tomato sourdough bread.

Still winter, but the warm sun makes it all very tolerable.

Then today, it rained for the first time in more than a week, giving me a chance to act out my second fantasy: sitting by the window in my PJs all day long.

Someone gave me this tea a while ago and I wanted to save it for a special occasion. Today was the perfect occasion so I made it. The tea comes in little balls the size of small walnuts and open up into a flower in the hot water. I was in for a surprise because inside the tealeaves, there was a pink flower. It was really fragrant and pretty to look at too.

A perfect rainy day! Except, I had to fight with Libby for the spot.

Monday, February 07, 2005

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to

This pretty little thing is supposed to be Queijadas (or Queijadinhas), a Portugese dessert. Don't ask me how to pronounce it because I can't and all the websites I found on it seem to be written in Portugese. I found the recipe while browsing through's photo archives. I was instantly drawn to it because not only did it look yummy, it received VERY mixed reviews. People either loved it or hated its guts. I had to try and see for myself.

The recipe makes 18, way too many for the two of us, so I cut it down to 1/3 and made six. While they were in the oven, my kitchen smelled like Beard Papa (the very famous Japanese cream puff place). I baked it for an extra 5 minutes because I know my oven temperature is a little low. They looked like little muffins while in the oven and poofed up nicely with just a tiny golden dome where the light yellow custard inside peaked out from the tiny cracks. As soon as they are taken out of the oven though, they fell (I heard they are supposed to do this). Risking burning my fingers, I pryed one out of the muffin tin and ate it standing in the kitchen. A very funny thing happened so I had to eat another one to confirm.

According to people's reviews, the Queijada should be crusty on the outside and custardy on the inside. Maybe it was because I baked it an extra 5 minutes, although crusty ousdie, my queijadas were not so custardy inside. The gooey inside did, however, remind me of piping hot rice cake. To be exact, battered fried Chinese sweet rice cakes (面拖糖年糕)! How bizzare is that! There is no rice flour whatsoever in the recipe, yet the texture and taste is exactly the same as a rice cake.

When Jason came home from his basketball game, I gave him one and asked him what it reminded him of, and he was in the same opinion as me! So rather than calling it something I can't pronounce, I will call this my sweet rice cake.

The next day, after reheating, the eggy custard flavor did shine through and it was not so much like the rice cake any more, but it was still close enough that I could make myself believe that it is.

Chinese New Year is When?

What day is it now? Is it Feb 6th? Is it Chinese New Year (CNY) yet? I mean, I knew the elusive (to me only?) CNY is just around the corner, but I didn’t know exactly when until my friend told me (to make it even more elusive, the date changes from year to year because of the wonderful thing called the Lunar Calendar). As it turns out, it’s this week, Tuesday? Wednesday? I didn’t expect it to sneak up on me like this. Not that it would’ve made any difference. Growing up, my family never really celebrated CNY. Can you believe I’d never received a single Hong Bao (Ang Pao, 压岁钱,年玉) or whatever you call it until I was a grownup in Singapore? Yes, the Singaporeans, as I found out, have this wonderful tradition of giving out Hong Bao to not just kids, but all unmarried adults too! So the S$1 Hong Bao that I received at the “tender” age of 25 was the very first Hong Bao in my life! Talk about a deprived childhood!

To this day, I never quite figured out exactly why my family didn’t bother to celebrate. Was it laziness? Lack of interest? Or because our domestic helper always goes home to the countryside on CNY, leaving nobody to do the cooking and cleaning? I will never know. I remember only once, when my cousins came to Shanghai to spend the winter holidays, we had fireworks at night, but that was the extent of the celebration. No new padded jackets or shoes, no elaborate New Year’s eve dinner (年夜饭) and certainly no Hong Bao.

Most of our neighbors start buying foodstuff for the New Year (年货) in December. Meats were cured and hung out to dry, hens are brought back from the market and kept in the kitchen (to be fattened so they are ready to be cooked by CNY), relatives from other cities start to arrive. You could feel the festivity in the air. But all is quite in the Chen household. Things went on as usual, as it does any other time of the year. I remember my mom explaining it to me this way, “ People make a big deal out of the CNY and cook copious amount of meat and fish because they don’t usually eat them on a daily basis. Since we eat meat and fish everyday, there is no need to make CNY a special occasion.” I can’t believe I bought that! Ok, so it’s true that back in those days the majority of Chinese people, even in a big city like Shanghai, lived on monthly salaries of about $10 and meat dishes do not make daily appearances at dinner tables of ordinary households. And it is true that we were fortunate enough to have a diet with a heavier dose of meat and fish than other people, but is that the reason to skip the celebration altogether?

I remember my cousin, who goes to his fraternal grandparents’ house for CNY every year even though my grandmother (his maternal grandmother) did not like it. Could you blame him? His fraternal grandmother cooks, among other things, an Eight-Treasure-Duck (八宝鸭) every CNY. I’ve never had it, but from what I heard, it must be pretty darn tasty.

Of course, CNY is not all about the food (I am sure there are other things but having never experienced it, I wouldn’t know what they are, now would I?). If I just want the food, I can always buy or even make it myself if I so wish, but you can’t make up for the experience, especially from a child’s perspective. I guess what it comes down to is that if you have kids, even if you don’t want to be bogged down with all the “tradition” you should make an effort for your kids’ sake so they don’t miss out on anything. When they grow up, they can decide if they want to carry on the tradition or say to hell with it, but parents should do their part to make sure the kids at least know what it is about.

There you go, another reason why dogs are so much better kid-substitutes. Libby’s happy with a bone or some liver cakes. No need to make a whole roasted pig on CNY to keep her happy!

Friday, February 04, 2005

Who's the Luckiest Dog in the World?

Why, of course, Libby is! Who else gets to eat home-made liver cakes like these? (actually, my ex-colleagues' dogs do too as I am giving some of it to them tonight)

Still, Libby is one lucky pooch to sample this delicacy lovingly prepared by moi. I must say, they were a bloody mess (and I mean this literally) to make but for Libby, it was worth it! They smell pretty darn good too, just like liver pate.

Bon appetit, Wibby!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Chive Pao - 韭菜包子

Didn't I say I was going to be less wasteful about food this year? You didn't believe me? Here's proof. I used the leftover stuffing for the chive boxes and made them into Chive Pao for lunch. Yes, I did, even though I had no idea how to make the dough for Pao. All I knew was you need to put some yeast into the dough, so I did (one teaspoon to one cup of flour), and let it rise for about an hour before shaping them into Paos. No idea how to steam them either, so I randomly picked 15 minutes and prayed for good results.

I'm not completely satisfied with the dough though. As you can probably tell, it's not as fluffy as the ones you buy in stores and the surface is not very smooth. Jason, on the other hand, had no problem with the dough but reiterated his objection to the vermicelli. Ok! I get the point!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

TV Cooking Tips #2: homemade cottage cheese

I found this recipe for Broccoli and Cornmeal Upside-down Cake on Nicole’s website The Baking Sheet (actually it came from Chocolate and Zuccini originally), and wanted to give it a try. I had everything except for the cottage cheese, and what do you know? Peacock chose today to run out of it. I was sure Kinokuniya would have it, but didn’t feel like walking the extra 500m there, plus I had always wanted to try out what Sanbei did on one of the episodes of “10,000yen for a month” 一万円生活: turning milk into cottage cheese by adding vinegar into boiling milk.

Since I didn’t take notes when I watched the show, the only thing I could remember was 400ml of milk. So I poured 400ml of milk into a small saucepan and brought it to a gentle boil. Then, with blind faith, I added one tablespoonful of rice vinegar, and waited.

Nothing seemed to be happening, so I added another, and instantly the milk started to curdle and I had white bits floating up and down in the boiling liquid, now clear. After draining and rinsing with water really well, I had ---- homemade cottage cheese!

400ml of low fat milk plus 2 tbsp of vinegar yielded 1/3 cup of cottage cheese.

Oh yeah, the upside-down cake was not bad either.

Served with pork chop with bluecheese gravy