Monday, August 18, 2008

Inspiration's in the Air

I have been watching the Olympics and getting so darn inspired by the amazing athletes. Without a question, they are all extremely talented but what I admire most is the sheer determination and dedication they have shown. The most obvious example is Michael Phelps, who’s won every one of the eight gold medals that he set his mind on winning. But it is those athletes who were dismissed as non-competition, or were deemed past their prime that inspired me even more.

Did you watch the tennis quarterfinals match between James Blake and Roger Federer? Who would’ve thought Blake could beat the invincible Federer? Or the women’s singles match between Venus Williams (world #7) and China’s Li Na (world #42)? When the game started everyone thought it would be a quickie with Williams crushing her opponent mercilessly, but Li held on, fought back, and won! In the gymnastics stadium, China’s Yang Wei finally won the men’s all-around after missing out on gold in two previous Olympic games. The next day, USA’s Nastia Liukin beat her teammate, the favored Shawn Johnson, and took the women’s all-around gold. To watch her on the balance beam was like watching a ballerina, except her whole dace floor is a piece of wood 10cm wide and 5m long! The Singapore women’s table tennis team also made history by brining home an Olympic medal after a 40-year draught. When they played the Korean team the entire island held its collective breath through the ordeal. In the end, the youngest team member Feng Tianwei played a critical part by winning two singles matches. And let’s not forget the 41-year-old American swimmer Dara Torres who missed the gold in the 50m freestyle by just 0.01 second. She became the oldest athlete to ever win a silver medal in the Olympics swimming events and a winner in my book.

The Olympics has almost another week to go and I am sure I will find inspiration over and over again. I guess you could say I am easily inspired. Since I am the type with no self-discipline and no self-motivation, I am always in awe of people who can drive themselves beyond their capabilities, and whose sheer mental force can push them to achieve the unthinkable. When Jason finished his first marathon in just over four hours with a badly twisted ankle, I briefly contemplated running a half marathon myself, before I remembered how much I hated running. That’s how easily I am inspired by people’s athletic abilities. I have never really been the athletic type and although over the years I’ve grown to tolerate hiking if there are nice sceneries to be seen, learned how to rollerblade because it was once cool, and even picked up tennis and golf so that Jason and I can have something to do together, I was never naturally athletic. I walk my dogs everyday for more than an hour and I play tennis at the American club every week anywhere from one to four hours, and I go to the occasional body pump or pilates class when I am feeling extremely motivated, but that is the extent of my exercise routine. Oh, I also hit a few balls at the driving range before my golf lessons so I don’t suck too much. But all that is going to change now, because if those Olympics athletes can win matches when all odds are against them, surely I can win over my own inertia and laziness.

Last week, after my one and half hour tennis clinic I sprinted to a Body Balance class five minutes later, sweat still dripping down my neck from tennis. After an hour of stretching and pilate/yoga-esque movements, I felt really good. Body Balance is the perfect cool-down to tennis, isn’t it? Riding the wave of inspiration, I also signed up for an 8-week spinning program at the club. It is actually a weight-loss program but heck, everyone can stand to lose a few pounds, right? The only problem is, the program starts after the Olympic ends. Will I still be motivated by then? It remains to be seen.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Search of the Perfect Almond Croissant

I’m a breakfast person. I like long leisurely breakfasts, either at home or at a roadside café, with a good cup of cappuccino. On weekdays I eat alone, because Jason leaves work at the ungodly hour of 7:30am and no amount of love can get this sleepyhead out of bed at that hour to have breakfast with dear hubby. Plus, unlike me, Jason is NOT a breakfast person. So weekday breakfasts are simple: a bowl of cereal with fresh summer berries, or a couple of slices of toasted artisan bread generously slathered with salted butter and a good jam. I’m still working my way through the jams I bought at the markets in Provence last summer and savoring every bit of it. Although I enjoy having my simple weekday breakfasts in front of the computer, I make it a point to sit down to have at least one proper breakfast every weekend. With three dogs by my feet, hubby sitting across the table from me, I don’t know a better way to spend a Sunday morning, which brings me to, my all time favorite breakfast food: almond croissant.

I first discovered almond croissant years ago in Paris, under the Eiffel tower. As far as the ways to discover a ubiquitous Parisian pastry item, is there any better location than a neighborhood café a few blocks away from the symbol of Paris? Before my encounter with the almond croissant, a nice flaky on the outside chewy on the inside regular croissant had always been my favorite. That day, however, among all the tempting pastries lined up behind the glass counter, my eyes were drawn to an “ugly mutant” croissant. You can sort of still make out the shape of a croissant but it had a bug-like shell, and almond slices sprinkled on top. I pointed to that, stuck out my index finger and said “S'il vous plait.” Minutes later, I was biting into the most luxurious breakfast pastry you could ever dream of. Granted, it was my first trip to Paris and I hadn’t embarked on my Le Cordon Bleu journey yet so you could say I was a lot more easily impressed then, but still, I think honest good food is honest good food no matter how discerning ones’ palate is. I had an almond croissant every chance I got for the rest of our stay in Paris and loved every one of them.

Back in Tokyo, I scoured every bakery in my neighborhood and found only one place that sold an interpretation of almond croissant. It was Yoku Moku, an iconic bakery on Omotesando that is famous for their petit cigare (a rolled up crepe-like cookie) of myriad flavors. The petit cigares can be found in the basement of most major department stores but the freshly baked cakes are only available at the Yoku Moku café on Omotesando. What a lot of people didn’t know was that in the morning, they put out baskets full of freshly baked pastries and among them I found a giant glazed croissant which they named almond croissant. It was vastly different from the ones I had in Paris, a more glamorous version if you would, and it was HUGE. It took Jason and I a lot of effort to chow down just that and two cups of coffee. It was also hard to come by. Over the years I was only able to buy it twice. It was always sold out, even when you go right at store opening. I suspect on some days they don’t make them.

Flash forward a couple of years and we’ve left Tokyo, escaped the humidity and air pollution of Hong Kong and ended up in Singapore again. Singapore, being humid, presents a lot of challenges to bakeries. Crusts on bread turn soggy almost the instant they hit the shelf and it’s virtually impossible to get a decent flaky croissant unless you bake it yourself. You would think that after so many years the almond croissant is but a distant memory, but not so, because we again had some amazing ones in a Parisian bakery called Boulangerie de Papa that supposedly had the best croissants in all of Paris. My passion was re-kindled and I was again on a quest to find the best almond croissant outside of Paris. And found it I did, in the most unlikely place.

We went on a holiday to Angkor Wat early this year and stayed in Hotel de la Paix for a few nights. Despite initial reservations about the hotel’s location right in the center of Siem Reap town, it turned out to be a tranquil sanctuary with tastefully decorated rooms and friendly staff.The best surprise, however, was the almond croissants at the breakfast buffet. I had one everyday of our stay there and bought everyone they had in the bakery the day we came back to Singapore. Sadly though, the curse of the Singapore humidity lived on. The nice crispy almond slices, along with the crunchy crust of almond paste turned soft when we brought them back home. Nonetheless, I was still happy, for Cambodia is a helluva lot closer than Paris. I was already making plans to revisit Hotel de la Paix, just so I could eat their almond croissants.

Why don’t I just make them myself, you ask? Believe me you, that thought crosses my mind every time I obsess about almond croissants, and my pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu did cover it in one of the demo sessions. Problem is, even in Tokyo, the land of DIY pastry, I was unable to find almond syrup, an indispensable ingredient in making the almond croissant, and substituting it with anything else, thereby compromising the authenticity was, to me, unthinkable.
So I sustain myself on memories of almond croissants I’ve had, the most recent ones being from Bouchon in Napa Valley and Tartine from San Francisco.

Then one day, the pastry goddess smiled upon me and told me to go into Hediard, which is just down the street from where I live but is so easy to miss that I’ve only been inside a handful of times. She told me to go all the way to the narrow hallway in the back of the store and there on the shelf, I saw, a bottle of almond syrup!

Did I run home with my precious bottle of almond syrup and make almond croissants right away? Of course not! I dug out the recipe and studied it and decided that I should start with the best croissant, which in Singapore, means frozen ones from Classic Fine Foods and baked to perfection in my own kitchen right before eating. Since almond croissants are traditionally made with day-old croissants (yes, it’s actually an ingenious way to recycle leftovers), I’d bake a few extras, eat some on day 1 and make the leftovers into almond croissants on day 2. Simple, right? Not so. It was months before I could find a weekend where we’d be eating breakfast home on Saturday (freshly baked flaky croissants) and have time on Sunday to transform the leftovers into almond croissants. You see when you’ve waited for so long to do something, you just want everything to be perfect.

The day finally came last weekend. It was Singapore’s National Day on Saturday and we were watching the Olympics at home on Sunday. So we had piping hot flaky croissants on Saturday and I made my first mini batch of almond croissants on Sunday. They had a glorious crunchy crust of sweet almond cream studded with crispy almond slices. Inside the croissant is a sweet filling of the same almond cream but it’s soft, which, combined with the subtle hint of orange blossom from the almond syrup, made it taste like something entirely different. It was perfect! Ok, maybe not perfect because I think I put too much almond cream on top so the almond slices slid off when the cream melted in the oven. But the point is, they tasted exactly the way I remembered, and now I can have them whenever I want. Is this the way to end an obsession or what!

Recipe (for six):

Six day-old croissants (the best you can find)

100g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar
100g almond powder
10g flour
2 medium eggs
10g rum
almond syrup
almond slices
icing sugar

1. Sift together flour, icing sugar and almond powder
2. Whisk together butter and eggs, then whisk in flour mixture
3. Whisk in rum – this is almond cream
4. Slice croissants down in the middle without slicing through
5. Soak cut surface in almond syrup
6. Pipe some almond cream into center of croissant, close up croissant and pipe more on top
7. Sprinkle almond slices on top
8. Bake at 180C/350F for 15 minutes or until golden brown
9. Sprinkle with more icing sugar if you want.
10. Cool on rack and eat when it’s cooled but before the sugary almond crust gets soggy