Monday, August 27, 2007

Inaugural Daring Bakers Challenge: Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart!!!

Yes, yes! I now officially belong to the The Daring Bakers community, the coolest online baking community/sorority ever! EVER! I feel like I'm one of the cool girls now! I'm so thrilled to be part of the Daring Bakers group and I was just so excited to bake my first DB creation: the Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart (and yes, the name deserves to be capitalized). When I was informed of this month's challenge, I was floored by the delicious simplicity of it and could hardly wait make it! I mean, seriously, who can resist a layered caramel and milk chocolate tart with a delicious hazelnut crust? The recipe comes from Eric Kayser's Sweet and Savory Tarts.

The tart-making process, as usual, starts with making and blind-baking of the crust. I feel that the crust is enough to make or break a tart, whether it's topped of with fruit, custard or chocolate. So it was with some excited trepidation that I started on the crust dough. It is actually a very simple shortbread crust with some extras such as ground hazelnuts and a pinch of ground cinnamon. The crust turned out nicely but it was rather difficult to handle and roll because it was so sticky (even after a rather generous sprinkling of flour).
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Next, came the ooey gooey caramel layer. I was even more nervous about this part because ... I've never made caramel sauce before! I know, I know, a baker who hasn't made caramel before? Who ever heard of that? So anyway, my virgin caramel-making experience was fraught with a few minor mishaps but it turned out ok too. Yay! Instead of using the dry method (the more difficult one), I cheated and used the beginner/wet method by caramelizing the sugar in some water and corn syrup. So, the first two times I tried, I made the fluke of turning off the fire once the solution came to a boil (which I was NOT supposed to do) and let it rest. Thanks to the miracles of Google, I finally figured out that I was supposed to let it come to a boil and then let it continue boiling (without stirring) until it turns a golden caramel color! It helps to test the caramel color by dripping some on a white napkin or paper plate. Isn't it a beaut?
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After baking the caramel layer and letting it cool, we come to the decadent milk chocolate mousse layer. This part was pretty simple but I still managed to fudge it up, bleah! The chocolate mousse part only needs whipped cream and melted chocolate. I had a difficult time getting my cream to stiffen, only to realize that I probably shouldn't have left it at room temperature before beating it. Fortunately, this kind of mistake isn't irreparable; I just had to chill it and the bowl I beat it in before whipping it again. And voila! Whipped cream! Next, I just had to fold in the melted milk chocolate into the whipped cream to create the mousse layer before spreading it the cooled caramel tart.

I think the milk chocolate mousse part looks a little bit grainy, probably because I let the melted chocolate cool for too long before folding it in the whipped cream. However, the grainy appearance didn't seem to take anything away from the taste; it was very rich and very chocolatey. I sliced a sliver of the tart for myself after minimal cooling time (hey! I was getting hungry!). The tart layers had different "fork feels" in that the mousse layer is soft and cloudy, whilst the caramel layer is ever so slightly less soft than the mousse, chewier and stickier. And carpeted beneath it all, is a layer of crisp, nutty crust. The different textures of the layers also lend some complexity to a tart that would otherwise be just pure sugar (not that pure sugar is THAT horrible). A slice of sin!

But anyway, this tart is pure sin, I tell you! As usual, I brought most of it to lab, where the always ravenous fellow grad students wolfed it down. Not only did I have a ton of fun making this tart, I had an almost "Zen" experience while doing so. Well, I always feel at peace with the world when I bake anything no matter whatever else was going on in my universe, but I felt especially fulfilled making this tart. Part of the reason is just the pure enjoyment of creating something so seemingly complex from simple everyday ingredients. The usual baked goods I make tend to be individual serving things such as cookies and cupcakes, so actually making and assembling something relatively big is a rare thing for me. So anyway, the appearance of the tart leaves a lot to be desired, what with the rather uneven layers and grainy-looking mousse, which I will definitely try to improve in the next DB challenge. Fortunately, the flavor, texture and taste of the tart is just nice. I love that the first DB challenge has already exposed me to new baking frontiers such as the art of making caramel and mousse. I'm just itching for our next project!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Two for the rat movie please ..."

... said the middle-aged guy to the teenager behind the ticket counter at the quaint (read: old, dilapidated) movie theater in Logan Square. Yep, I finally saw the rat movie! Shame on me for waiting so long to see this animated Pixar masterpiece! Seriously, you can't officially call yourself a foodie until you've seen "Ratatouile"!

I must admit that I wasn't too enthusiastic at the premise of a rat (a disease/plague carrier) hanging out in a restaurant kitchen, let alone cooking in it! But Pixar managed to do so with flair, humor and heart (as usual). For the benefit of those who've been residing in a cave for the last few months, "Ratatouille" is an animated film about Remy, a rat who loves to cook , create and enjoy delicious food. The movie is about Remy's culinary adventures in the Parisian kitchen of a former 5-star restaurant, Gusteau. He was fatefully led there by the ghost of the deceased Gusteau to help restore the restaurant to its former glory.

Besides facing the challenge of pursuing his passion for cooking despite being a rat, Remy also encounters the dilemmas that the average rat faces such as the long-standing battle of human vs. rat, the quandary of pursuing a seemingly selfish passion vs. conforming to community wishes, etc. In addition to a charmingly-illustrated cast, a wonderful story and the unbeatable background of Paris, there's the beautiful food that I've heard so much about.

Pixar animators definitely did French cuisine justice by lovingly creating CGI dishes that look good enough to salivate over. I simply adore the way the various cheeses look so luscious and creamy; I love the vibrancy of the green asparagus and flaming tomatoes; and most of all, I was just floored by the beauty and simplicity of the movie's namesake dish, ratatouille. This movie is a definite must-watch in my book. As a matter of fact, you can count on me being in line to get the DVD of this cute film when it's released! But before then, I just might watch it one more time so I can concentrate on the food this time!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Good" jet lag

It's incredible what "good" jet lag does to you! I tried staying up till 10 last night but I passed out at 8 p.m. So I ended up waking up at 3:30 a.m. this morning and couldn't get back to sleep! Due to this extra time in the morning, I managed to catch up with some work e-mails, chat with Singapore friends (with a 12-hour time difference between us) and go to work way earlier than normal. Unfortunately, I just know that this extra time in the morning won't remain for much longer because my body will return to its normal clock again soon.

But anyway, as alluded in the previous post, this homecoming was somehow very different from the others in the past. There were major changes (in my philosophy and external appearance) and for the most part, I had a lot of fun. My parents were less nag-gy, I got to see many family and friends (both old and new), and my loot from Asia is considerable! Not only did I bring back a lot of snacks/food items, I also acquired some new clothes which I love love love!

I did most of my clothes shopping in the eclectically fashionable Tokyo. Despite the fact that the Japanese absolutely worship Western brand names, there are still plenty of creative Japanese designers. Unlike the women in some other places I've been to, I find that all Japanese women exude a certain unique style and that they put considerable thought into their outfit every day. Most of them adopt a simple, elegant working-woman flair, but there are the occasional stand-outs who tend to be younger and more adventurous. I saw a few girls dressed in Little Bo Peep-style costumes and plenty of Goth and punky youngsters in the uber trendy areas of Harajuku, Roppongi and Shibuya. I also noticed that there's a sharp decline in the number of Japanese with super blonde hair. I guess either they've adopted a more sedate or "natural" hair color or they have finally realized that Asian bleach blondes' hair gets extremely dry and damaged. So anyway, with plenty of innovative Japanese designs to choose from, I pretty much got everything on my fashion with list (except for a cute cropped leather jacket). Check them out:

1. An adorable pair of leopard print peep toe stilettos
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2. A figure-flattering "bubble" dress + cami
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3. An awesome pair of running shoes

4. A beautiful yukata (obi, geta slippers and fan of course!)
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5. A few cute black tops (from Zara and Esprit)
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The Japanese-made shoes, dress and yukata were surprisingly affordable. I was ruminating over the many leopard print shoes that we saw in Japan. Most were either uncomfortably high-heeled or comfortable and exorbitant! The most comfortable ones I tried were made by the prolific Italians, Dolce & Gabbana, but I almost choked when I saw the price. Thankfully, I held off on the D&G's because I just couldn't justify spending what's approximately my monthly rent on a mere pair of shoes. Then I fell in love with the sexy, red-lined, cushioned (can you believe they are cushioned?!? I can literally live in these!) leopard print peep toes in a basement boutique in Shinjuku (that cost only 1/8 of the D&G's!) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Besides awesome clothes, Tokyo has a frenetic and marvelous culinary scene. Like many other Asian countries, the streets of Japan is literally littered with places that sell or serve food. The more amazing thing is that during my week in Tokyo, I only ate at one mediocre eatery, the food at the other places were all delectable. Taking into account that it's almost impossible to get a bad meal in Tokyo, the food prices were surprisingly reasonable. Even the airport food was delicious! Most media outlets agree that Singapore's Changi airport is the best in the world but I beg to differ. Personally, Tokyo's Narita is pretty frickin' awesome! It may have a less luxurious and sophisticated ambience than many other airports, but, not only is Narita's food selection crazy good, they have some pretty damn good shopping mall. I guess the only drawback I can think of is that most of the "good stuff" are located outside the boarding area, so travelers who just have a brief layover can't enjoy the amazing mall.

Most of the airport food offering at Narita's Terminal 1 South Hall is Japanese, but I remember seeing a Starbucks, a bagel shop, a Western-style soup restaurant, an obligatory Mickey D's and a French-style boulangerie. Being Japanese food enthusiasts, my family and I concentrated on the more traditional Japanese selection at the airport. We arrived in Tokyo at about 6 in the morning and had a few hours to kill before we had to board a shuttle for our hotel. Not all the eateries were open at that time, so we settled on a decent-looking udon house with a standard noods selection.

Upon inspection of the restaurant area, it's hard to forget you're in Japan. After all, nothing says "Welcome to Japan" like the barrage of looks-good-enough-to-eat plastic food!
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We weren't expecting much because of our generally mediocre experience with airport food. My parents had grilled salmon teriyaki set meals that consisted of the grilled salmon, plain fresh tofu, rice, miso soup and some Japanese pickled vegetables. The tofu was surprisingly exquisite; the salmon was perfectly grilled and seasoned; and the rice (gohan), boy, you can never seem to go wrong with Japanese gohan.
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My sister and I had the kitsune udon, which is basically hot udon topped with sweet sliced tofu skin. It is a very simple dish that speaks volumes about the quality of the udon eatery. Our kitsune tofu was chewy and delicate at the same time, and the udon was very tasty and perfect for polite slurping!
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We also ate another time at Narita Airport before our departure. This time, we discovered the second-level mall that was also full of restaurants and little shops selling souvenirs and Japanese snacks. Again, we chose a noodle house that serves both hot and cold udon. My sis chose the Katsudon set, not knowing that it also comes with udon. The katsu was moist and had a wonderfully crunchy skin; the gohan, as usual, was just delicious and the homemade udon couldn't be beat!
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My parents had similar versions of tempura udon. My dad had plain udon with a jumbo shrimp tempura on the side while my mum had a tempura+kitsune+fishcake+mushrooms udon. Both were delicious and my father's jumbo shrimp tempura was succulent and had a bite to it.
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I opted for the simple kitsune udon without knowing that it's served cold. Nevertheless, simple kitsune udon in cold soy broth was deeply satisfying and yummy!
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We then shared a Japanese-style summer dessert consisting of azuki (red beans), mochi balls and green tea soft-serve ice cream. The azuki+mochi combo is a pretty common one but adding green tea ice cream to that seemed a bit odd to me at first. However, upon tasting, it works out very well! The sweetness of azuki, the slight bitterness of green tea and the chewiness of the mochi was very oishii!
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After a little walk around the mall for last-minute gifts shopping, we chanced upon a snack stand selling gelato and Hokkaido soft serve. Yes, yes, we did indeed just have lunch a mere hour ago, but we decided to get some frozen treats anyway. The four of us shared a green tea gelato, a kurogoma (black sesame) gelato and a vanilla/chocolate swirl soft-serve ice cream. As usual, we weren't disappointed at all: the gelatos had such a rich texture and the soft serve was also very decadent in its own way. The Hokkaido soft serve was like no other that I've tasted and I'm sure it's made from full cream milk!
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Thursday, August 9, 2007

I'm homesick already...

Hi all!

I just returned to Chicago a few days ago and I'm homesick already! Unlike past trips back to Indonesia, this time, I found myself not really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I mean, I still like this place I've lived in for the last 8 years, but somehow, I don't feel as satisfied with being here the way I used to. My cousin said that I've been away from home for too long and that he felt the same way after having been in the States for close to a decade, which is the stage I'm at right now.

I also notice that I've been enjoying my homecomings more and more in recent years. Maybe it's the shedding of youth angst with age; or maybe it's the realization that I actually really like my family (despite them driving me crazy half the time); or maybe it's the recent surge in biotech opportunities in Asia, I don't know; but it has gradually dawned on me that my future is in Asia, near my family and friends, madness and all.

Talk about Asia, I spent an awesome week in Tokyo, Japan, with my parents and sis. I was super excited about it because I hadn't been there in about at least 10 years! My sister was just there earlier this summer and I thought it would be really cool to experience Japan as an adult. I'll get back to you about the many awesome places in Tokyo we went to and the food (of course!) that we enjoyed. For now, enjoy this little preview of the Land of the Rising Sun!

A time course of supposedly the most crowded crossing in Shibuya, Japan, at a not-so-crowded time. Blink at you might just get trampled!
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Japan's obsession with cutesy stuff is apparent even on signs that warn people of getting their hands jammed in the subway doors!
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With the statue of Hachiko, Japan's most loyal dog, outside Shibuya station.
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Don't worry, I didn't drink all this!
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Daydreams of Tokyo...
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Tokyo Station madness!
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Blending of new and old Japan.
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The stardard fixture in every Tokyo street corner.
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Only in good ole Japan, my friends! A square watermelon and a musical bidet!
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