Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Spreading the bad words about Gaggenau

Last week, my fickle Gaggenau fridge that refused to be fixed finally died a sudden, yet not completely unexpected death. It’s been months in the works. First too warm, then too cold, and when it finally reached the right temperature, it kept on tripping the circuit.

I am convinced that the repairmen who made at least ten trips in the doomed attempt to repair the fridge had somehow caused this. When they couldn’t find a way to keep the temperature in the fridge compartment above zero they blocked off more than half the airway between the freezer and fridge, stopping the cold air from flowing into the fridge. This had to have caused the refrigerator to overwork itself, adding load to the circuit. But let’s not put all the blames on the repair guys. They did dutifully show up at my house every time I called them in, even though it often takes three days and twice as many phone calls.

The one I blame for this ordeal is Gaggenau. Have you ever heard of a refrigerator (a damned expensive one at that) breaking in less than three years (only two of which in use)? For three months I lived like an obsessed maniac who kept three thermometers in one fridge. I checked them in the morning when I had my breakfast, I checked them at night before I went to bed, and countless times in between whenever I opened the fridge to get something out. Does that sound like a normal life to you? Yet the Gaggenau distributor in Singapore did nothing to help. The problem is that Gaggenau switched local representation some time after our condo was built so the company that originally imported the fridge no longer wants anything to do with me while the new importer claimed that since they did not sell the fridge to the developer, it’s not their problem either. They might be able to get away with it had their product kept on going like the energizer bunny, but what was I supposed to do when I won the Gaggenau piece of crap award and ended up with apparently the only fridge that had malfunctioned in the entire condo? So you see why when the fridge finally broke it was as if a heavy load had been taken off my shoulders. No more constant monitoring of the temperature, no more opening and closing the fridge door at the speed of lightening to avoid overheating, and no more worrying about eggs getting frozen or ice melting into a lump in the ice dispenser. Sure, we’re a couple of thousand dollars poorer, but you can’t put a price tag on your mental health, can you?

Of course, this is not the end of the losing battle with Gaggenau. The entire kitchen is outfitted with their products, from oven to microwave to stove. Recently I tried to change the filter in the exhaust fan but was told that Gaggenau no longer imports it. I guess I’ll have to live with a smelly filter and pray that no other appliances will break while we live here. The lack of follow-up service really amazes me. Does Gaggenau not realize that people are actually going to live here and use their appliances for at least the next thirty years? Did they think their appliances wouldn’t need any kind of maintenance during that time? Or maybe the real explanation is that Gaggenau only cares about getting the big fat paycheck that comes with big contracts with developers and couldn’t care less about little people like us who are the actual end consumers. One thing I do know is that I am never buying any Gaggenau products, ever, by choice or otherwise. So there!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Black Forest and Hidemi Sugino’s Charme – Searching for the Perfect Griotte

If you asked me what my all time favorite cake is, I’ll probably say black forest. Growing up in Shanghai, it was one of the few western desserts available, and mom used to buy me a piece from the bakery as a treat on special occasions. Ask Jason what his favorite cake is, he’d definitely say black forest. Maybe he had the same childhood memory or maybe it’s just a testament to black forest’s universal appeal.

I used to make a killer black forest when we lived in Tokyo. Jason and a friend who came for a visit had it for breakfast, tea and after dinner dessert, finishing it in 24 hours! I haven’t been able to make one as good since leaving Tokyo, because I haven’t been able to find the perfect kirsch soaked griotte. Sure, the chocolate mousse must be just-so and the chocolate cake must be moist, and there’s also the balance of whipped cream and chocolate mousse, but the perfect griotte is what sets a fantastic black forest apart from the ordinary bakery bought type (yes, my taste buds have become more discerning over the years). The perfect griotte has to be sufficiently boozy to give the cake its characteristic flavor, but it must not taste overly alcoholic that it overpowers the chocolate components. Just my two cents anyway.

Since moving to Singapore I’ve made three black forest cakes. The first two were made when we were still in the service apartment and without knowing any suppliers I used cherries in syrup and soaked them in kirsch myself. The result was less than satisfying. The kirsch flavor did not take, despite soaking the cherries for almost 2 whole days. Combined with the inhibitive alcohol prices in Singapore, the DIY griotte idea was axed.

I made the third black forest after finding griottes from a local fine food supplier. An entire liter of griottes soaked in brandy arrived in a glass jar, all uniform in size and looking promising. After trying one, however, my enthusiasm was checked as I felt the brandy taste was too sharp and unrefined. Mind you, I’m no brandy connoisseur. In fact my extent of alcohol consumption is sipping the occasional glass of wine through an entire four-course dinner, but that doesn’t mean one can’t tell good booze from not-so-good booze. So why did I make it into a black forest even though I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the initial taste test? Because, besides my personal obsession with the black forest, I had a customer inquiry to answer to.

There is really nothing new making the black forest, except I shrunk it this time and made a 14cm mini version. It turned out really cute, but as suspected, the griotte tasted too harsh. Rather than enhancing flavors, it was distracting. Jason and I each had a slice the day I made it and another slice the next day, just to make sure that we gave it a second chance. Unfortunately, it was a no-go on both tries.

Now I have a problem. Specifically, a huge-jar-of-useless-griotte problem. So what do I do? I make them into a Hidemi Sugino version of black forest, the Charme. I don’t know what I was thinking. Was I expecting that the Idemi magic would miraculously mellow the harsh alcohol tone of the griottes? Or did I think that they would taste better in a different recipe? I have no idea. The only saving grace is that I had fun making it. I had to double the milk chocolate mousse to fill my tall mold but still came a little short so the top surface was not as smooth as I would’ve liked it to be. My chocolate plaques are not nearly as thin as Mr. Sugino’s version but my excuse was that I was making another thicker plaques on the other half of the same sheet so I couldn’t spread the chocolate too thin. The honest truth, however, is that I probably would’ve never achieved the same paper-thin effects, not without a couple of failed attempts anyway. I also still don’t own a pistolet so I dusted the top with coco powder, which looked almost half decent. Overall I can’t say I have any problems with how it turned out visually, but when I tasted it, the griottes disappointed again.

This is a recap of our reaction when we ate it:
Mmmm, yummy milk chocolate mousse!
Yummy chocolate joconde biscuit!
Yummy dark chocolate mousse!
Oooooh, bad griotte!

So there you have it: a still more than half full 1L bottle of untouchable griottes. I wonder if the pungent cheap alcohol taste would evaporate if I baked it, because bad as they are they did not come cheap and I who never waste food now have a mission to find a use for them. Oh goodie, more bad desserts to look forward to!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Not Your Ordinary Pound Cake

I’m a girl of simple tastes. It doesn’t always have to take pan fried foie gras or melt-in-your-mouth millefeuille to wow me, although I have nothing against the finer things in life either. The point is, I’ve always been a fan of pound cakes. I know, I know, they’re loaded with sugar and butter and cholesterol from all those eggs, but what can I say? At three o’clock in the afternoon a slice of pound cake with a cup of good tea hits the spot for me every time.

I have some favorites, such as the incredibly moist and eye-pleasing pineapple-coconut cake that I make on a regular basis, the traditional pain d’epices, the citron cake, and any cake with figs in it (see above). I’m also always on the lookout for new recipes to add to the repertoire to keep Jason the self-pronounced pound-cake-hater on his toes.

I finally got around to trying out a pound cake recipe in a Le Cordon Bleu book that I’ve wanted to make for the longest time. It’s a ginger cake with mango, apricot, gingko, walnut, ginger compote and ginger confit in it. I am a great fan of ginger so the minute I saw this recipe I knew it was going to be the ultimate pound cake for me. I didn’t make it until now because of the amount of work involved was rather daunting.

To prepare the ingredients that go into the cake, you first need to poach the ginger roots in a spicy syrup and let it sit for one day. You then use the ginger poaching syrup to poach the mango, apricot and gingko nuts. While they are poaching, you make the ginger confit. Only when everything is properly prepared can you start making the cake, so that’s three days’ work by my calculation. With all the moving pains accompanied by the myriad of things that one needs to take care when moving to a new country, I simply didn’t have that kind of time to invest in a pound cake. But the lure of the ginger was just too strong that I finally penned it into my diary and forced myself to make time for it.

The aroma while the cake was in the oven was incredible, but when I bit into the cake it was rather disappointing. Maybe the deliciousness was jut not proportional to the amount of work that went into it, or maybe my expectations were too high, but it was just so-so. I was so discouraged that I shoved the cake into the back of the fridge and didn’t eat another slice for two days. When I did give it a second chance I was able to make a more objective assessment. The overall flavor was quite pleasant, but the ginger flavor was not as pronounced as I would’ve liked it to be. I think the one major thing that was wrong with this cake was the gingko nut. It should’ve never been in the cake in the first place. The texture of the nut remained firm and the flavor bland despite the poaching so that when you bit into one it created an anomaly. I didn’t know whether to chew it or to spit it out. In the end, Libby got most of the gingko nuts so she’s going to be one smart dog, or at least not go senile.

Without further delay, here’s the recipe. I’ve left the gingko nuts in place but decide for yourself if you want to include it. I’ll probably leave it out the next time, or boil the heck out of it first to ensure it’s soft before poaching it.

For two 8x18x6cm cake pans:

Ginger Compote:
150g fresh peeled ginger
1L water
400g granule sugar
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
5-6 peppercorn, cracked
150g granule sugar

Ginger flavored mango:
1 mango, cut into pieces
syrup from ginger compote

Ginger flavored apricot:
50g dried apricot
syrup from ginger compote

Ginger flavored gingko nuts:
80g gingko nuts
syrup from ginger compote

Ginger Confit:
50g freshly grated ginger
40g granule sugar
15g glucose

100g ginger compote
100g ginger flavored mango
100g ginger flavored apricot
80g ginger flavored gingko nuts
100g walnut, chopped
210g unsalted butter, let soften at room temperature
170g granule sugar
180g eggs
50g ginger confit
180g light flour
5g baking powder

Ginger Compote:
1. Boil water and sugar to make syrup
2. Place everything except 150g sugar into a large heavy-duty zip-loc bag, push out the air and seal
3. Bake at 80C oven for 40 minutes
4. Open bag and take out ginger. Place 600ml syrup into a saucepan with 150g sugar, cook for 30min without boiling. Remove from heat and add ginger, let stand for at least a day.
5. Save remaining syrup

Ginger flavored mango, apricot and gingko nuts:
1. Place mango, apricot and gingko nuts into separate Ziploc bags.
2. Add syrup from making ginger compote to bags until completely covering fruits
3. Push out air and seal bags
4. Heat in 80C oven for 40 minutes

Ginger confit:
1. Place grated ginger, sugar and glucose in saucepan and bring to a boil
2. Simmer while stirring with a wooden spoon constantly until most of the water is evaporated

1. Prepare pound cake pans by brushing with butter and coating with flour
2. Sift together flour and baking powder
3. Cut ginger, mango and apricot to 1cm cubes
4. Mix some honey into walnut until coated
5. Whisk softened butter until color lightens
6. Add granule sugar and egg alternately to butter while whisking
7. Whisk in ginger confit gently
8. Add all the sifted flour and baking powder, whisk in without introducing air
9. Fold in ginger compote, apricot, mango, walnut and gingko nuts
10. Pour into cake pans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes

Friday, May 11, 2007

Honey I can’t park the car!

We finally got our act together and bought a car. No more standing in the sun waving down taxis or calling four cab companies on a rainy day and not getting through to even one. All our troubles are over!

But not so fast. Here’s the thing. We didn’t stay long enough in Hong Kong to get a car and when we lived in Tokyo our car had a great navigation system that included a back camera with parking guidance. It allows you to program up to four parking spots so that you can park into those spots following voice guidance. Although I never had the patience to read through the thick operational manual (in Japanese) to figure out how to program it that way, I made full use of the back camera. The navigator screen turned into a viewfinder for the camera whenever the car was in reverse. The best thing about the camera was that it not only showed you what was behind the car, it had two sets of lines on the screen. The green lines showed where the car was at the moment, and the red lines showed where the car was going based on the position of your steering wheel. At first it took a little getting used to, but once you learned how to decipher those lines, parking was a breeze.

I only realized now that I should’ve never become a slave of the camera. What’s wrong with parking the old-fashioned way, without the aid of any high tech devices? I was pretty good at it before we ever had the aid of the camera. I backed our SUV into small Tokyo parking spots with no difficulties, and squeezing into tight parallel spaces was my specialty. Three years with the back camera, I don’t even know which mirror to look at when backing up. It took me four or five tries to wiggle into our own parking spot in the basement the other day and when I parallel parked on a street I was so far from the curb that I was worried about getting hit by passing cars. I am so glad we bought a sedan instead of a big-assed SUV, or would that have been easier to park because of the raised vantage point? God help me the next time I have to park the car!

Oh, did I mention I also seemed to have lost the ability to read maps?

Friday, May 04, 2007

So You Think You Can Make Macarons?

There must be a macaron goddess watching over all of us mortals who try to perfect the art of macaron making. She is the one who decides which worthy bakers are to be bestowed with the gift of the perfect macarons, and which ones must keep on whisking egg whites and sifting almond powder until the end of time. I thought I was the few lucky ones to have received the gift. Yesterday I learned that the gift can just as easily be taken away, without warning or explanations.

I taught a macaron lesson yesterday. It was a private lesson and everything turned out more or less according to plan. After the lesson I thought, as long as I have the egg whites all thawed out, I might as well experiment with some new flavors. I had gotten some pandan paste and Nonya kaya the other day because I wanted to make a macaron with some local flare. I did everything as I always do and slid the tray into the oven after it had reached 150C. Five minutes later when I went to rotate the tray I couldn’t believe my eyes. Cracked! Every single one of them, and no feet what so ever! What could’ve gone wrong? The batter didn’t look weird and the oven was working. Then it dawned on me that the air-conditioner in my kitchen had been turned off and the humidity was way up. It was more than 80% as compared to the 55% when the A/C is running. (Yes, I keep a hygrometer in my kitchen.) Usually in the amount of time that takes the oven to preheat the macarons will have formed a skin, but under 80% humidity it probably takes a lot longer than 10 minutes. Of course it was entirely my fault that I didn’t check for skin before baking them, and the goddess did not let that slip. I figure that’s probably her warning to me that “just because you can teach a class doesn’t mean you can get lazy and skip steps.” Ok, my bad. Got it!

Having eaten my slice of the humble pie, I tucked in my tail and managed to churn out two good batches: kaya and Dulce de Leche. I sprinkled some fleur de sel on the Dulce de Leche macarons to counter some of the sweetness and I must say the effect is quite nice. The kaya macaron is more subtle but not everything has to be loud and obvious, does it?

Getting back on the goddess’ good side I’m emboldened to try something radical. Having successfully substituted some of the almond powder with ground black sesame to make a black sesame macaron confirmed my belief that a nut is a nut is a nut. Although, sesames are techinically seeds and not nuts. Anyway, I ground up some peanuts and replaced the almond powder completely. As I soon found out, nuts are not all created equal in the eyes of the macaron goddess. I’ll have to look this one up to confirm but I think peanuts have higher fat contents than almonds. Makes sense because you see peanut oil all the time but almond oil are harder to find. To put a long story short, the peanut macaron batter was so thin that my first batch all became conjoined triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets. I spaced them out on the second try and they managed to stay their independent selves but they spread so thin that there was nary a dome to speak of and the each macaron was baked to a hard and crispy wafer. No moist chewyness, no crispy thin crust, just a dry hard disk.

All is not lost however, because the flavor was intensely peanuty and I sandwiched them with some peanut butter. Over a cup of tea I almost forgot what they were supposed to be and just enjoyed the pure goodness of the peanut. I’ll give it a crack again next week though. I can’t accept defeat so easily from the goddess. This is not the end…