Friday, December 15, 2006

A New Chapter

On December 7th, 2006, I was handed my certificate of completion, diploma and a silver medal. My stint in Tokyo to finish the final level of the patisserie course at Le Cordon Bleu is officially over. In the course of two and half months I ate numerous cakes in the name of field study; bought too many cookbooks for research purposes; and force fed friends who are too nice to say no way too many versions of test cakes. What I thought was going to be two and half months of fun and carefree living turned out just to be that, thanks to the friendship and support of all my friends in Tokyo and my very supportive and understanding husband whom I left behind alone in Hong Kong.

Now that I have closed that chapter in my life, it’s time to move on, and move to Singapore. I flew back to Hong Kong the day after my final exam at Le Cordon Bleu to pack up the house. Libby left to go to Singapore three days ago on her own and we will leave in just four days. I am a little reluctant to say goodbye to Hong Kong, a city which I didn’t really get a chance to know better. I also feel sad to leave the new friends that I’ve made in my short stay in Hong Kong, but I am sure our paths will cross again some time in the future. At the same time, I am excited to move into our new home in Singapore and becoming LynnInSG. Until then, this is my last post as LynnInHK.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Just my luck

“I should go to the morning practical session even though we’re only making jam and jelly candy today.”

“I’m so tired I just want to go home and sleep.”

“Ok, if I can make the 8am bus I’ll go to class. If I miss it, I’ll take the Narita express and go home.”

“But even if I go home I’ll only get two hours of sleep before I have to get up again and go to the afternoon lecture.”

These thoughts drifted in and out of my half-awake consciousness the entire six hours of red-eye flight from Singapore to Tokyo. In the end I barely convinced myself to go to class, mostly because I thought it was more trouble than it’s worth to go home for the morning.

When I got to school, with 25 minutes to spare, however, I was told that there would be no school today because there’s no electricity. We were asked to write down our phone number so the school could contact us later to let us know whether there’ll be school tomorrow. Nobody knew why the electricity went out because all the other buildings in the area had electricity.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Out of all the days, it had to be today, when I had to drag both my sleepwalking self and my luggage from the airport to school! To think that I could’ve saved myself the trouble had I decided not to come in! I knew I shouldn’t have been so diligent…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Macaron, Macaron, Macaron!!

The original plan for Saturday was to go to Mt. Takao to take photos of the autumn leaves and then have dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Ukai Toriyama, with my roommate Tanya. Of course the weather wasn’t cooperating and started to rain before we even got up. Looking at the gloomy and dreary weather, Tanya and I decided to stay in and have a lazy day instead. I was finishing up my cake and thought of trying to decorate it with macarons.

I was naturally a little nervous because it took me five tries to work out the gas oven in my Tokyo apartment the last time I made macarons at home. I never tried making them in my electric oven (yup, I brought my own oven to Tanya’s house…) so I wasn’t sure how many tries it’d take for them to turn out right. With the rain and higher humidity, I almost gave up before I even started. Then again, what else was I going to do besides watching LOST? Out came the frozen egg whites, almond powder and silpats. Instead of dissolving the colorants in water I mixed the color powder with the granule sugar but didn’t know exactly how much to use. That’s why the macarons are ten shades brighter than I wanted them to be, but the shapes all turned out perfect on the second try! I could hardly believe my luck.

I tried putting them around the cake but because of the bright colors, it didn’t look right, so I put some chocolate ganache in between and had them with Tanya over a cup of hot tea. What a perfect rainy Saturday.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Just can’t stop

Before Sunday my entire thoughts were occupied with how to improve my cake recipe, but when it’s finalized at last there’s suddenly nothing to do. Jason’s leaving also left an empty feeling, even though I knew I’d see him again in less two weeks in Singapore. So when I got home after seeing him off in Tokyo station, I felt like I had to do something to occupy myself, like cooking something, anything.

The only thing in the fridge that can be used conceivably for dessert is a carton of almost expired milk. Not even an egg left after the weekend cake project. What could I make with just milk? Then it hit me. Rice! Every household in Japan has rice! So rice pudding is the natural thing to do. I also remembered the yummy fig mousse cake Jason and I had over the weekend and I happened to have bought some dried figs and was getting a little tired of eating them as is. I think the cake we had was made with port-poached figs, but my roommate has two bottles of un-finished red wine sitting there waiting to get spoiled. Red wine plus sugar equals port, right? Well, sort of, anyway, so I used that.

The end result is a creamy rice pudding topped with red wine poached figs.

Rice pudding:
500ml full-fat milk
¼ rice
sugar to taste
nutmeg, cinnamon to taste

- bring milk to a boil and add rice and all the other ingredients
- keep on simmering and stirring until rice is soft
- stop cooking when it’s still a little runny (will thicken)
- store in fridge overnight

Red wine poached figs:
Dry figs
Red wine

- place dry figs into saucepan until bottom is ¾ covered (leave space for figs to expand)
- Pour enough wine over fig to cover
- Add sugar
- Bring to a boil and then turn down heat to simmer
- Make a paper lid with parchment paper and place directly on figs
- Keep on simmering, adding more wine as needed so it doesn’t dry out, until figs are soft

It's decided

I finally have a cake recipe. After giving the first four prototypes to virtually everyone I know in Tokyo and getting plenty of feedbacks, I completely revamped the recipe(a big thank you to Pei-ran and Yoko who gave really honest and constructive criticisms). The complaints people had for the first four versions are mostly about the grapefruit. The taste was too subtle, so unless told, most people couldn’t tell it’s in it. There was also a disconnect between the white color of the mousse and the image of grapefruit. So in the final recipe, I added paste made of grapefruit peel, got rid of the meringue and used egg yolks to further enhance the yellow color. I also increased the amount of champagne in the gelee layer to the same amount as grapefruit juice. I'm such an alcoholic when it comes to alcohol in cakes, so the more the merrier.

The end result is this. It’s 16cm instead of 18cm so I still need to make a full-sized one.

I also need to think of what to put on the cake as decoration. This cake was made over the weekend when Jason decided to surprise me by coming to Tokyo for a visit. As a result it was made in stages, mostly in the morning before we went out and at night after we came back. During the rush of things, I made a calculation error and ended up short on the strawberry/raspberry mousse. In an desperate effort to salvage the cake before the mousse starts to set, I forgot to sprinkle grapefruit peel on the cake surface. The decorations were thrown on the cake ten minutes before Jason was due to leave for the airport so he could take a look/taste and give me his honest opinion. Since he’s usually my toughest critic, I was glad that he liked both the taste and the texture of the cake. I am still not entirely happy with the white chocolate/feuilletine mixture I spread on the cake base to provide texture contrast. It wasn’t too hard to eat but it could be hard to cut through with a fork. That’s one thing I still need to work on, but it’s such a relief to come to an end of this cake saga, although I did have fun and learned a lot in the process.

Stay tuned for the final version (if there ever is one).

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Final Exam

As you all know, the reason why I left Jason and Libby in Hong Kong in the care of a 26 year old nanny to come to Tokyo for three months right in the middle of yet another international house moving is to get my French patisserie diploma from Le Cordon Bleu. Seeing that it’s the one and only goal, it goes without saying that I aim to achieve it.

The final exam for the patisserie supreme course at LCB Japan differs from other LCB schools in that we have to come up with an original recipe and make it on the final day in 2.5 hours. (The final exam at the Paris school is sugar works) Before I even started school, friends from my previous LCB class warned me that it’s never too early to start thinking about what I’m going to make. So I started thinking while I was in HK and decided that I should do something with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit that has a unique fragrance and fresh flavor), only to come back to school and find a list of ingredients that we can use for the cake that, surprise, surprise!, does not include Yuzu. My second favorite ingredient, macha (Japanese green tea) is also not on the list. No time to waste, have to come up with another plan.

After weeks of eating more cakes than any human should legally allowed to do, and seeing dancing cakes whenever I close my eyes, I’ve finally narrowed it down to two choices:

1. A fromage blanc mousse cake with a layer of raspberry gelee and a layer of chocolate mousse in the middle, on a pistachio dacquoise cake base. The cake will be sprayed with white chocolate in a pistolet to give it a fuzzy texture. I’ll make pink macarons with green pistachios sprinkled on top and stick them around the cake and place a couple of white and dark chocolate curls on top along with some raspberries and pistachio nuts.

2. A strawberry/raspberry mousse cake with a layer of grapefruit mousse in the middle, on a chocolate biscuit cake base with maybe a thin layer of feuilletine flakes as a texture contrast. The bottom part of the cake will be coated with craquelin a la framboise (chopped almond mixed with raspberry puree and baked to dry at low temp). The cake top will be pink with threads of grapefruit peels showing through and will be decorated with strawberry, raspberry and dark chocolate curls.

The first idea came about because I fell in love with fromage blanc from the first bite, and one of my all time favorite cakes made at LCB is a fromage blanc raspberry creation called Schuss. Because there’ll be many test runs, it’s so very important to choose something you would want to eat, over and over again without getting sick of it, and who can get tired of fromage blanc and raspberry? The only problem is that the combo has been done so many times that it’s hard to come up with something new, which is why I’ve decided to add the pistachio and chocolate component. Only now, it’s gotten so complicated that I don’t know whether I’ll be able to finish it in time.

The second idea is a direct result of the visit to Idemi. After the fruit-gasm experience I couldn’t stop thinking about different ways to combine fruits. Initially I was going to do strawberry/raspberry with a lemon filling, then one day I drank some freshly squeezed grapefruit juice that my roommate Tanya made for breakfast and thought, hey, why not grapefruit! It’s less acidic than lemon so there’s no need to add too much sugar, but more importantly, a grapefruit is much bigger so I can get the same amount of juice of four lemons from just one grapefruit, which means precious squeezing time saved!

Now that I have the ideas, the next step is to start making them, one component at a time. First on the list, fromage blanc mousse. (TBC)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Inspired by Fruits

Dear Mr. Hidemi Sugino,

You don’t know me, but you probably remember the strange group of five women who went to your Kyobashi shop Idemi and ordered thirteen cakes, spent more than two hours passing the plates around taking turns tasting each cake, and each bought a copy of your autographed recipe book the other day. Well, I was one of them.

The first time I heard about you was from Keiko’s blog. She said she’d never been to your shop so I said I’d go try it for her. That was almost two years ago. I did make it to your shop once, but it was late in the afternoon and you had sold out all your cakes and closed up. Since then, I’ve learned that even though it’s not possible for you to make every cake from start to finish, you want to make sure each one was touched by you personally. This limits the number of cakes produced so they are sold out around noon everyday. To be very honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that anyone’s cake could be that good that it’s worth going at shop opening to try. I thought you were just another hyped up “celebrity chef.”

It took four of my classmates from Le Cordon Bleu to give me the initiative to get up early and line up before 10am to wait for your shop to open. I was somewhat surprised that a staff came out a few minutes before opening to explain that most of the freshly made cakes are not to be bought back and must be consumed in the shop, because they are so delicate that they’re sure to melt or lose shape en route. Right there I thought, “Wow, this is someone who really takes pride in what he does.”

I have seen photos of your creations in magazines and books, but to behold them with my own eyes was a whole different experience. I had thought Pierre Hermes was a genius in presentation, but you are something entirely different. If PH was bold and daring, you are delicate and subtle. From color coordination to attention to details, you are a master of the masters. Then when I actually tried the cakes, each one tastes familiar yet so different from anything I’ve ever had. Take your signature cake Ambroisie, for example, chocolate and pistachio. Who hasn’t had a chocolate and pistachio cake? Yet somehow, your pistachio cream is the smoothest of them all and the chocolate mousse is so fluffy and light it melted away in my mouth almost instantly with just enough after taste lingering on the tongue, wanting more.

You are also a genius when it comes to innovative combination of flavors. My second favorite, after Ambroisie was a guava/honeydew melon mousse. The naturally delicate flavor of guava blends with the distinct aroma of honeydew melon, creating such a refreshing taste that I thought I was eating watermelon on a hot summer day.

My only complaint is that you don’t allow photography in your store. With my hopelessly short-term memory, I can only remember a fraction of the thirteen cakes we tried. To prevent me from forgetting further, I’m going to write it down, in no particular order:

Miss Albion, a wonderful looking hexagonal creation of mint and chocolate mousse with thin butterfly-like chocolate wings on top.

Charme, a variation on the Foret Noire with chocolate au lait and chocolate flavored cream chantilly sandwiched in biscuit chocolat.

Paradis, a white wine and gooseberry mousse cake so pretty that I really had trouble taking the first bite.

Mariee, a strawberry and pistachio mousse cake that had the most beautiful pastel shade.

Exotique, a mango filled banana mousse dusted with fine coconut flakes.

La Harmonie, a cherry and lemon mousse combo that tasted so heavenly I couldn’t stop eating it. I never knew lemon and cherry could work so well together.

Larme, a chestnut mousse, chestnut cream concoction coated in coco powder. Enough said.

A mango layer cake that I couldn’t remember the name. Having had so many different types of mango dessert in Hong Kong, I must admit that I wasn’t extremely impressed with this one, but my classmates all said it was very good, so it must’ve been just me.

I know I’ve missed a few, but every one of the thirteen cakes we tried was so good that one tends to only remember the very best. I must admit that I’m not the easily-impressed type when it comes to food and drinks, but I was truly wowed by you, Mr. Sugino. I think this is beyond a doubt what you’re meant to do and you do it with such grace and sophistication. I cannot tell you how much I was inspired by you, and how humbled I was at the same time. Because of you, I am looking at fruits and mousse in a whole new way. For my final presentation at Le Cordon Bleu, I have decided to make a fruity mousse cake. I am under no delusion that it would be anything close to your ingenuity, but I only hope that it would reflect your spirit and philosophy that the cake should bring out the best of what the materials have to offer and make the materials come to life.

So I would just like to thank you not only for giving me the inspiration for my final project but for teaching me a lesson of dedication and the need to constantly improve myself.

Sincerely yours,

Lynn Chen

Monday, October 02, 2006

Moving, yet again

To make a long story short, five months after moving to Hong Kong, less than four months in our apartment, and two months after getting our brand new furniture that are custom made to fit our apartment, we are being transferred to Singapore. To be fair, the choice was partly ours because I never really managed to like living in Hong Kong, and on a recent trip back to Singapore I realized how much cleaner and orderly it is over there and how much I had missed the food. So when we were offered the chance to move back, we jumped at it.

Don’t get me wrong, Hong Kong has its good points: the best dim sum I’ve ever had; the best sales; my huge kitchen with the double fridge; the numerous hiking trails nearby; and the fantastic view on a clear day… But then again there’s the stress of having to deal with substandard quality of service on a daily basis; the crowd every time I go to Central to run errands; the language barrier; and the constant feeling of being ripped off because you’re an outsider and don’t speak the language.

So we’re moving, back to Singapore where Jason lived for more than four years when he first started working and I for less than three years. The only complication is that I’ll be in Tokyo for almost three months to finish the advanced level of Le Cordon Bleu’s pastry course and our move will happen while I’m in Tokyo. The packing won’t be too bad because the movers will take care of everything, but Libby has to be in quarantine for one month in Singapore and I won’t be there to visit her everyday. My poor baby!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Water Water Everywhere

Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere as wet as Hong Kong in my life. On top of the almost constant rain for the past month, water is literally coming out of thin air! Don’t believe me? Here’s how.

Almost as soon as we arrived in Hong Kong, everyone started warning us about the humidity in Hong Kong and how everything is susceptible to mold. A dehumidifier seems to be THE must-have item, so we duly purchased one. The water tank is 4L and on average I empty it twice a day. A week later, we found that all the clothes in the closet feel damp to the touch, so we buy another dehumidifier for the clost. This one runs 24/7 as well and with the smaller water tank (about 3L), I sometimes get 2.5 tanks a day. That’s a total of 15L of water per day! I wish there was some way I could use this water, because, doesn’t it feel wasteful to just pour it down the drain? With the water shortage in Hong Kong, you’d think someone would’ve thought of a way to take advantage of this “natural resource.” As for us, we’ve gotten a third dehumidifier to put in the kitchen, to keep the cork coasters and brown bagged flour from going moldy.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Would you like a piece of my soul to go with that?

Remember the apartment that I told you all about (the one with the nice kitchen and a double fridge)? Jason liked it too and we put in a bid for it. After a few rounds of back and forth we came to an agreement with the landlord on the rental price. This happened over the weekend, and I was so happy that this saga was finally coming to an end that I went furniture shopping. Then yesterday we received a copy of the lease. Now I think we might be back to square one, looking for another apartment.

What can go wrong after the rental is agreed upon? Let me quote some of the terms from the lease so you can get an idea:

Under Tenant’s Obligations: “To reimburse to the landlord the cost of all broken and damaged windows and glass whether or not the same be broken or damaged by the negligence of the Tenant.

Huh? Forget about typhoon or heavy storms, which HK is known for, let’s say the landlord takes a rock and throws it into the window. Window breaks. I have to pay for it?

Another example under Exclusions of Liability:
“The landlord shall not in any circumstances be liable … of any loss or damage to person or property sustained by the tenant … caused by or through or in anyway owing to any defect in or breakdown of any lifts, fire and security services equipment and/or other facilities of the said building…”

So if the elevator that the landlord is supposed to maintain breaks down and kills me, he is not liable??

The list goes on and on. The entire 28-page document was filled with tenant’s obligations, restrictions, prohibitions, and exclusion of landlord’s liabilities, except for three short paragraphs on landlord’s obligation, and it doesn’t even mention maintenance of electrical appliances that come with the apartment.

When we put in a bid for this place, one of things we thought of as being positive was that the entire complex was owned by a very well-known developer. We thought it would be easier to deal with a big corporation rather than a private owner, that they’d be fairer and less likely to cut corners. Our agent assures us that this is a so-called “standard” contract singed by all the tenants, but I just can’t imagine anyone in his/her right mind will sign a contract that so overwhelmingly protects the landlord’s interest. For instance, there’s a whole section on buying third party insurance to cover the contents of the apartment. We are not talking about our personal belongings here. Apparently the landlord wants us to buy insurance to cover any damage to the apartment, including appliances owned by the landlord! When I asked our agent if the landlord is out of their mind for making such ridiculous demands (well, not in those exact words), she said not to worry because all tenants sign it and nobody buys the insurance. Incredulously, I pointed it out to her that it states explicitly in the contract that the landlord has the right to demand proof of insurance including premium payment. She laughs it off and says the landlord never asks for proof, therefore there is no need to either buy the insurance or worry too much about the details. Excuse me, but are we not speaking the same language? Is the concept of a contract completely foreign to them? If I don’t have to do what’s written in the contract, by extension, am I to assume that even if the contract says the landlord has to maintain the apartment, which this contract actually doesn’t, they don’t have to do it, because… well, they didn’t think it was binding??

When we talked to friends in Hong Kong who are either renting from landlords or who are landlords themselves, they all agree that this is the weirdest contract they’ve ever seen. So now we’re in a really bad situation where on the one hand I want to move out of this serviced apartment a.s.a.p. so our normal life can resume, but on the other hand I refuse to enter into a contract that puts us in such a disadvantage where the landlord has iron-clad protection on all sides and we have nothing.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, right after we put in our bid, this apartment complex was all over the news for two days because a buyer sued the developer for falsifying sales record. The story goes that this guy from China bought two units in the complex for an obscenely large amount of money, after seeing past sales record from the developer of twelve other units in the complex sold for similar prices. He later found out that the two units he bought were the only units EVER sold after the building’s completion two years ago. Of course we’re not buying (who would at that ridiculous price!) and we wouldn’t have given it any second thoughts under normal circumstances, but it doesn’t exactly boost our confidence in the landlord/developer, does it? If they can conjure sales records out of thin air, who knows what they are capable of doing to us armed with a contract we ourselves signed?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Graceful Libby

Hi Jason-san

Libby-chan left Japan as scheduled. She is so cute dog. We let her drink some of the water before just before giving to CX also filled some water to the dish. She was shaking when I put onto the car but by the time we arrived NRT she was fine. At the quarantine inspection she was just walking around the room and looking for way to go out. After the inspections when I said 'HOUSE' she just went into the cage by herself.

Thank you very much for using our service and I hope you will enjoy HKG life with Libby-chan.

Best Regards
Kotaro Kino

We received the above email from our pet-mover in Japan. That same night, Libby arrived in our serviced apartment in Hong Kong. A little dazed and dehydrated but otherwise healthy, she gave the apartment a quick sniff and proceeded to drink all the water in the dish. Perhaps still in shock, she didn’t seem too happy to see us, but now, a week later, she’s fully adjusted to her new life in yet another crazy, busy, fast-paced Asian city.

From time to time, we still think back on the day almost eight years ago when we brought Libby home. She was so tiny that I used to take her outside holding her in my palm. Her nose would be at the tip of my fingertips and her little bum would just reach my wrist. When she was little, she looked remarkably like a German Shepherd puppy. As she grew up, however, her unmistaken identity of a Singaporean drain dog became apparent. In a nation where some so-called “dog lovers” hold a piece of pedigree paper to greater importance than the dog itself, poor Libby was unjustly ignored and discriminated against. We had another dog at the time, a handsome rambunctious beagle that demanded everyone’s attention wherever we went. Libby lived under his shadow quietly but gracefully, always the more obedient and better-behaved one.

When we moved to Tokyo, not only did she have to adjust to a drastically different climate, she also had to deal with a city that has much less green. She quickly changed her toilet habit and went from only going on grass to making do with dirt patches. As the temperature dropped, she slowly grew a thick coat of soft fluffy fur. My little scrawny dog was starting to look like an exotic beauty. Unfamiliar with her looks, many Japanese asked me what breed she was. Despite the fact that she was a mongrel through and through, they embraced her uniqueness all the same. That’s what I call true dog lovers.

This time around, what does Hong Kong have in store for us, I’m anxious to find out. I wasn’t sure how Libby would react to the small cramped space of our serviced apartment. Having lived most of her life in a place with an open garden, I also worried about her toilet schedule. Now a week later, all my worries have vanished. It took us a day or two, but Libby and I found a quiet street in the middle of SoHo (I later discovered that it was a prison on the other side of the tall wall) where she can do her business in peace. She’s even gotten used to going on concrete too. It just means that her human has to carry a bottle of water to wash it off. But hey, if Libby can adapt to such drastic changes without complaint, what’s toting a bottle of water around every time we go out?

Friday, April 14, 2006

House Hunting in Hong Kong

Jason has a strange fascination with apartments and houses. Back when we were in Tokyo and looking for a property to buy, he would sit at the computer and sift through hundreds of web pages, looking for something to catch his eye. When it became pretty clear that we were moving to Hong Kong, his attention turned to Hong Kong rental properties. He found about half a dozen property web sites and systematically searched the major neighborhoods that we were interested.

Me? I have no patience to do the sifting. I just want to find a place quick. I am also entirely practical when it comes to a place we don’t own. All I need is a nice and spacious kitchen with an oven that’s big enough to fit my baking sheets, and a fridge that has a spacious freezer compartment; plus a balcony or terrace so Libby can get some fresh air and where I can start a little herb garden. Very reasonable, won’t you say?

Combined with Jason’s requests, here’s the “LIST”:
- fully equipped gym
- easy access to Central, where Jason’s office is
- nice and spacious kitchen
- balcony or terrace
- unobstructed view i.e. not looking into someone else’s living room
- white walls and wooden or marble floor with simple finishing
- closet/built-in wardrobe in the bedrooms
- a maid’s room that’s not the size of a shoe closet

Is that too much to ask? Maybe it is. There must be some kind of unknown gold and green/brown marble quota to be used up by the contractor, because it is damn hard to find a place with just plain white walls and nothing gaudy such as ugly-assed chandelier-type light fixtures and gilded faucets everywhere you look.

Hard enough as it is to find a place that doesn’t make you go “ewwww”, there’s also the husband who doesn’t know how discouraging it is to see apartment after apartment that’s nothing but crap, and the elation of finally finding one that doesn’t have as much gold or green marble that you could actually see yourself dealing with it. After I showed him one place that I thought was not half bad, he turns up his nose and goes, “You actually LIKED this?” as if I’m the one with such unforgivingly poor taste that he can’t believe I’m wasting his precious time like this.

Then I finally found one as close to being a dream home as you can get for a rented place: spacious regularly shaped living/dining space with floor to ceiling windows, on top of Victoria Peak with an open view, a nice kitchen with a DOUBLE fridge, plus a fully equipped gym, swimming pool, and tennis court. What does Jason do (before even seeing it)? He decides the landlord’s asking price is way too much after hearing his buddies’ advice. Yes, I do think the rent is a little ridiculous but what can you do about it? Hong Kong rental price went up by almost 40% over the past two years after SARS, but is it our responsibility to take on the landlords and make a statement by depriving ourselves the place we really want to live in? Isn’t our happiness and peace of mind so much more important than the vindictive satisfaction in knowing that we didn’t yield to the landlord’s squeezing? What are we going to accomplish except getting stuck in a tiny serviced apartment for months on end under the illusion that one day a perfect place will come up on the market for us to grab for a reasonable price? Why does Jason always have to become a man with principles at the most inopportune time? I only hope that he will like the place as much as I do after seeing it and put things into perspectives. Fingers crossed.

Monday, April 10, 2006

For the Love of Libby

Take a good look at this picture. Can you find the bed? This is Shama SoHo, the one and only serviced apartment building in Hong Kong that will accept a dog. Located in the heart of Hong Kong’s SoHo district, it’s a stone’s throw from the famous bar and club district Lan Kwai Fong and just around the corner from the mid-level escalator. Not a bad place to be if you are into hanging out in pubs all day and clubbing all night, but definitely not ideal for walking our four-legged princess. Still, we were more than thrilled when our moving coordinator told us that he had found a place where Libby could stay with us. After putting her through a five-hour flight, I wanted to do everything to avoid sending her to a dog hotel for potentially a whole month before we find a permanent residence. I surfed through the hotel’s website and was satisfied with the services they offered. I did, however, have my suspicions when I spotted the word “boutique”. From past experiences, whenever a hotel calls itself “boutique” or “quaint” it invariably translates to overpriced and tiny. This one is no exception.

When our driver deposited us in front of the building I couldn’t quite believe that this was any kind of residence. The iron gate is only about shoulder-width. Although the stairway is nicely lit and tastefully guarded by a Buddha-like statue, there is no any semblance of a front desk. How do we get in? Luckily our driver from the car service is a man with a sense of responsibility and decided that he couldn’t just leave the two of us standing in the street with our bags. After a few phone calls he told us someone was coming. Two minutes later a young guy in a gray uniform materialized with mobile in hand. He unlocked the door and motioned for us to follow him. No elevators, and we are on the fourth floor!

While the boys, mainly Jason because the guy from the hotel looked like his arms would break if too much weight was applied didn’t do much to help, wrestled with the bags, I did a survey of the place that we would call home for the next month. It didn’t take long since there was only one room plus a little nook as “kitchen” and a bathroom. “Where is the bedroom?” I asked as soon as the hotel guy came in. “Ah, let me show you how the bed works,” he replied cheerfully and proceeded to the kitchen nook. At the push of a button, a bed started to lower from the ceiling, directly above the dining table. Jason and I stared at each other with the look of “you’ve gotta be kidding me” on our face. I mean, seriously! Not only is this room is smaller than my bedroom in the two-bedroom apartment I shared with someone while in grad school, we also have a bed that drops out of the ceiling? I was starting to think that Libby would have more space to move around in the dog hotel that I checked out with big air-conditioned rooms than this. Remembering seeing something about a one-bedroom apartment on the website, we decide to find out if we can move to another unit first thing the next day (the guy turned out to just work there and didn’t know the answers to anything we asked him except for how the bed worked).

Bad news came pretty early the next day. Our apartment was the last vacant one in this ten-unit building. Unless we are willing to ship Libby to a dog hotel, this is home until we find a place. Resigned to our fate, I started to unpack. Miraculously, everything fit, and this place is starting to grow on me. For one, the bed is surprisingly comfortable and it brought back childhood memories of sleeping on bunk beds at school (yup, Jason and I went to the same boarding school when we were little). The roof terrace is pretty nice and I discovered a little herb garden in the corner that had some pretty healthy mint and rosemary, among other things. I’m immediately thinking of mint tea or rosemary lamb chops. But above all, it’s the best incentive for us to find a place as fast as possible so we can move out of this tiny little thing of a “boutique” serviced apartment.

From Tokyo to Hong Kong

Let’s see, in my last blog entry I was telling you the secrets to perfect macorons. Two months passed by without a sound from me, and now I’m writing in a tiny little serviced apartment in Hong Kong’s SoHo district, sans dog, with a pot of hot soup simmering on the stove, waiting for Jason’s return from work.

Yes, life can be funny sometimes. Just when I thought I had everything planned out (I was going to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu and open up a cooking studio/language school at home, teaching French pastry in English or Japanese, depending on the students’ wishes) Jason decided to take a job in Hong Kong. Within a month we sold most of our furniture and the car, packed up everything, and voila! We are in Hong Kong!

I don’t quite yet know how I feel about the move, but let’s just say I am experiencing a sense of true sadness leaving Tokyo, something that never happened the last two times I moved (from US to Singapore, and from Singapore to Tokyo). I don’t think I fully admitted to myself that we were leaving Tokyo for good the whole time I was selling off furniture and household appliances. It didn’t hit me until the captain of our flight announced the final descent into Hong Kong airport. At that moment it was like a sledgehammer hit me in the chest and the wind was knocked out of me. That’s the moment that I realized that Tokyo is no longer my city. It made me want to cry.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Let's make macarons

First of all, I think something needs to be said about my long absence from this blog. I guess I just lost the motivation to write. Surprisingly, two days of school generated such copious amounts of notes to be typed up that it usually takes me two or three days to put them all in order. After that, who has the will to type anything else!

So what brought me out of “retirement”? Macarons! Yes, ever since I had my first taste of real Parisian macarons at Laduree, I have been obsessed. But it’s not easy to find macarons of the perfect texture. Since they’ve become somewhat of a trend in Tokyo recently, you can’t walk through a depa-chika (department store basement food section) without coming fact to face with a couple of macaron showcases. Some are pretty good, but some are downright horrible. The perfect macaron, in my humble opinion, should have a crunchy and dry surface with a slightly moist center. When you bite into one, the surface should crackle and crumble, before collapsing into the marzipan filling. At any rate, that’s the golden macaron standard I adhere to.

As much as I love macarons, however, I never tried to make it myself, because I know they are extremely temperamental little fellows and will not just puff up perfectly for just anybody. This fact changed, however, when I had to make them at Le Cordon Bleu. The three batches I made in class, although not perfect, were good enough to give me the confidence to try more. My bubbles were soon busted though as the first two home-baked batches cracked and spread out like a flat disc and had the texture of sticky gum. The key thing missing, I figured, was the powerful Electrolux oven we used in school. But how do I find a way to circumvent that? Time for some research. I hit the bookstores and read every recipe I could find on macarons, got some ideas and hit the kitchen again. The third and fourth batches turned out better but it wasn’t until the fifth batch that I was finally somewhat satisfied with the results.

Without further ado, I present to you a working recipe that I will probably continue to tweak further every time I make it, until perfection is finally achieved.

Basic macaron recipe:
60g almond powder
110g confectioner’s sugar
50g egg white
3g dry egg white
15g granule sugar

1. Sift together confectioner’s sugar and almond powder
2. Place egg white in a large bowl and break up the thick parts with whisk
3. Add dry egg white and beat with whisk (dry egg white absorbs moisture from egg white and makes meringue firm)
4. Add the granule sugar in two portions and beat into soft peaked meringue
5. Add half of the sifted sugar and almond powder into bowl, fold with spatula gently. If adding food dye, add with the first addition of dry ingredients.
6. Add the other half and fold (this is called macoronage). Stop mixing when batter becomes shiny. Do not over-mix.
7. Immediately fill pastry bag fitted with 11mm round tip and pipe onto baking sheet lined with silpat into rounds.
8. Leave macarons out to dry for about 30minutes, until it doesn’t stick to your finger when touched. Preheat oven to 350C.
9. When surface of macarons are sufficiently dry, place inside the oven to bake. After about five minutes, the “ruffled skirt” should develop around the bottom edge of each macaron. Rotate the baking sheet 180 degrees, and bake for another five to 7 minutes.
10. Check to see if macarons are done by grabbing the top of one macaron and try to shake it. It’s done if the top barely slides against the “ruffled skirt”. If it’s not done, extend baking time by two minutes intervals and checking after each extension.
11. Move silpat to a cooling rack. After macarons have cooled to touch, remove them from silpat and place upside down on rack. Place inside fridge to cool.
12. Sandwich with desired filling when macarons are cooled, and store in a tightly sealed container at room temperature.
Macarons taste the best the next day, after they’ve had a chance to dry out further.

1. The first step to successful macarons is the consistency of the meringue. If using stand-mixer, watch carefully and not let the meringue get too stiff, or it will become hard to incorporate the dry ingredients, which will lead to over-mixing.
2. It takes practice to know when to stop “macoronage”. If batter is over-mixed, macarons will have a very smooth and shiny surface but will not rise in the oven. If not mixed enough, surface will crack while baking. Within the acceptable range, you can adjust the degree of macaronage to achieve the right balance between smooth surface and airy texture.
3. If you have a good convection oven with circulating hot air, you may be able to reduce oven temperature to 150C/300F, as long as macarons are baked in about 12 minutes. If macarons don’t rise within the first five minutes, increase oven temperature.
4. If you have to take the macarons out of the oven before they are completely baked because they have started to brown, you may dry them out by leaving them in the fridge uncovered, bottom side up.
5. If on the other hand, you’ve over-baked them and the bottom is too dry, leave in the freezer so they soak up moisture (make sure there’s no smell in your freezer).

Final word of caution:
This recipe is developed to suit my big old GE gas oven, with the room humidity between 55-65% and room temperature around 22C. It will almost certainly need adjustment to suit your oven and climate. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up! Remember, fifth time was the charm for me.