Sunday, September 30, 2007

These bunz will go right onto your bunz!!!

It's true! They are oh-so good but oh-so bad at the same time. But really, who cares as long as they taste good, no? *winks* Anyway, it's that time of the month again: the DB challenge! And again my fellow baking soul mates have yet come up with another unbeatable crowd favorite: cinnamon buns and/or sticky buns. We have our Pip in the City, the lovely Marce to thank for this awesome selection. The recipe we used is the one from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Since I'm not a huuuge fan of sticky buns, I chose to make cinnabunz only.

I associate cinnabunz with warm childhood memories. I remember having my first cinnabun some time when I was in my teens, while vacationing in America with my aunt's wacky family. At the time, I was living in Singapore and found every facet of American culture (including food, of course) supremely fascinating. My first cinnabun seemed to me a warmly luxurious and luscious , even though it was just a snack we bought at the shopping mall we were in. I distinctly remember the cinnamon-y fragrance just wafting into my olfactory neurons and the pillowy concentric dough melting in my mouth, transporting me to the realms of cinnabun heaven, albeit for a few minutes only. So I was uber excited about this month's DB challenge!

This isn't my first time baking with yeast, so I wasn't too nervous. I have made some yeast-based goodies before here and here, but never cinnabunz. I thought making cinnabunz would be pretty complicated, what with the pretty swirly shape and getting the pillowy texture right. I ended up making it twice because the first time round, I overbaked my buns despite only baking them for minimal time. The second time, I decided to crowd the buns a little bit more before baking and the buns' mouth feel turned out to be closer to the desired cinnabunny, chewy and pillowy texture!
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Contrary to my expectation of cinnabunz being hard to make, it was pretty simple (especially if you have a Kitchenaid mixer, which I must say is a dream machine for all bakers!). The only adjustment to the recipe that I made was instead of using only cinnamon for the cinnamon sugar, I used a teeny bit more pumpkin pie spice, which basically comprises of a combo of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and nutmeg for extra spice! Besides spacing the buns correctly and slightly underbaking them for the right duration, the most challenging part of the recipe was the rolling of the dough! It was quite difficult to roll the dough tightly so that the concentric swirls aren't too far apart. Fortunately, despite the lack of talent in the dough rolling department, the bunz didn't turn out grotesque or anything!
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Baking with yeast never fails to give me a sense of earthy satisfaction and accomplishment. I remember the first time I used yeast, I underestimated the temperature and ended up killing my poor Saccharomyces cerevisiae (geek talk for yeast). The maiden bread was a heavy, brick-like thing that was reminiscent of a brick. Since then, thankfully, I've become more adept at not killing the dynamic baking ingredient.

Points of improvement for the future includes possibly rolling the dough thinner so that the circular concentric layers aren't as thick and underbaking them even more. It's pretty cool to have made something that seems to difficult. My lab mates (who I share all my baked goodies with) are all amazed that someone (or really, anyone) makes cinnabuns from scratch at home. And as usual, it's a great joy to be able to share my passion (or at least, the results of it) with people around me! Do check out my fellow baking soul mates' efforts here. They're pretty darn awesome!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

It's war!!!

The war of the frozen treats has descended on New York City this summer. Not only has Pinkberry entered the premium frozen yogurt (or fro yo as they like to call it in good ol' California) market in the East Coast, the Italian gelateria, Grom, opened their inaugural American store smack dab in Manhattan. This is all pretty awesome because as some of you already know, I am simply addicted to frozen treats, be it ice cream, gelato, or even tofuti! Yes, I eat "tofu ice cream" and they're so good!

So I spent a weekend with the family about two weeks ago in NYC. My parents happened to be there because they were visiting my sis in NYC to help her settle down with her new school. Since my family's there, I might as well join the fun, no? But anyway, my pop and I managed to snag some US Open tickets too, on Ebay for this past weekend, so it was even more awesome!

OK, before I get into the US Open, let's re-prioritize and get back to frozen treats! I was lucky enough to have tried out most of the frozen treat shops (except for the much-touted Grom) but there's always next time. I've heard and read a lot about the California house of fro yo, Pinkberry. Not only has their treats been endorsed by multiple celebrity sightings in those mindless glossy magazines, I've read about them in many other foodie blogs too. They're also thinking of setting up shop right here in Chicago, which is so awesome because another frozen treat option never hurts anyone. So anyway, Pinkberry entered the NYC market pretty aggressively, opening 4 shops just this summer alone. They only offer two flavors: the original (which is a bit tangy) and green tea (which I've never tried). Their specialty is the wide range of their toppings, from the more "mundane" such as Oreo bits, slivered almonds to the more unusual such as mini mochi (rice flour balls) and fresh fruits. My mum, who's an ice cream addict like me, absolutely adores this frozen treat option because she's also a health nut. So Pinkberry lets her indulge her frozen treat craving without the guilt. I topped mine with slivered almonds, chopped strawberries and blackberries. I found that the Pinkberry topping to fro yo ratio was scant and wish that they would've given us more berries and nuts. My sister said that it pretty much depends on the crowd in the shop at the time. She finds that they tend to be more generous when it's less crowded. I guess we caught them in their grumpy time...

About a block away from Pinkberry's 32nd Street branch is another fro yo shop called Crazy Bananas. They're less publicized but I got wind of them, thanks to fellow food blogger Robyn. Besides a bunch phallic banana-ish decor items (which I was too embarassed to document with my camera because my folks were with me), their offering is very similar to Pinkberry's: fro yo with awesome toppings. Also, Crazy Bananas only offer the original yogurt flavor, no green tea. Other items on the menu include tea and smoothies. Due to less publicity, there were no lines at Crazy Bananas. As a matter of fact, we were the only customers in the shop when we made our pilgrimage there. I must say that I prefer Crazy Bananas to Pinkberry for a few reasons. First, it's waaay less crowded than Pinkberry. Not only were the lines super long at Pinkberry, it was virtually impossible to get seats there. And second, due to the lack of a crowd, the proprietor was extremely generous with the toppings. Just check out the mile-high pile of mochi balls and Oreos, slivered almonds, beautiful kiwi and luscious whole berries below!!! Also, it doesn't hurt that Crazy Bananas is slightly cheaper.
Awesome fro yo at Crazy Bananas

Another participant in this frozen treats war is the legendary Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in (where else but) NYC's humongous Chinatown. They're famous for creating ice cream flavors with an Asian twist. Besides the obligatory vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, their regular flavors include lychee, green tea, pandan, black sesame and PB&J (yes, you read that right. PB&J!). The shop's mascot is this Godzilla-like green dinosaur with red flames eating ice cream; kinda weird, but oh-so Asian. Craving for a South-East Asian flavor, I opted for a scoop of the pandan ice cream. Pandan is a leaf that is used in South-East Asian cuisine as an aromatic addition mostly in curries and rice dishes, sort of like lemongrass. One of my favorite pandan-flavored food is the ever-popular pandan chiffon cake (which I hope to make soon!), so I was intrigued at the prospect of pandan ice cream. Well, I'm always thrilled at the prospect of any ice cream, really... but anyway, the ice cream has a very light but distinctive pandan flavor. It was pretty subtle and I personally would've liked a stronger flavor. The ice cream also has a rather chewy and less-creamy-than-normal texture, which I really like. I will definitely return to try out their other weird flavors! *evil laugh*
Pandan ice cream at Chinatown ice cream factory, NYC

The last frozen treat joint we sussed out was Il Laboratorio del Gelato in Manhattan's lower East side. It was a little bit difficult to locate because the shop is very teeny but the ever-present line that extends outside the shop made it easier to spot. The patriarch got a very blah vanilla cone and the sister got a Oreo scoop. I opted for a scoop each of hazelnut (what can be more Italian than hazelnut, right?) and the more unusual maple. Both flavors were a bit too similar to exist in the same cup, I think. The hazelnut flavor was stronger, while I could barely taste the maple. The texture of the gelato was very creamy and smooth, although it melts a bit too quickly for my taste.
My hazelnut + maple gelato combo

Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to try out the hottest new gelateria in NYC, Grom. But hey, there's always next time and after all, my sis lives there, which is a great excuse to visit! As I mentioned above, besides the orgy of frozen treats, I also did other stuff around the city, like go to the awesome US Open! We managed to score two tickets to the women's final match on Ebay. Only my father and I went to the game because the matriarch and the sister don't share our enthusiasm for racket sports, which was cool as my father and I don't really get to spend time alone, just the of us. Although the seats were "nosebleed" seats, we still had a great view of the court.
Happiness is to watch the US Open live!

Before the game started, we got a pretty cool bonus of having Carole King sing for us along with a local high school choir. The lone figure in black on the red carpet is Miz King rockin' the house at the Arthur Ashe stadium! Woohoo!
Carole King rockin' the house before the Women's final match

After that, a group of US Marines marched onto the court for a flag unveiling ceremony with the national anthem as a soundtrack. The ceremony finished with a fluorish of fireworks. Seriously, it would be sooo un-American to not end it with fireworks, no? *winks*
Us Open flag ceremonyIt would be sooo un-American to NOT end this sequence with fireworks, no?

As you all know now, the US Open finals were dominated totally by Europeans. I was a tad disappointed because I was hoping the Venus Williams was in the final match. The women's final match was a tad predictable but was nevertheless punctutated with great plays. Unlike the men's final match (with Federer vs. Djokovic), the women's final was very one-sided and the finalists both lacked personality on court. However, it was still pretty cool to watch such a great sporting event live even though in the beginning I remarked to my father that I needed some getting used to not hearing commentary after every play, haha!
Henin totally creaming Kuznetsova

Still, it was pretty cool to be doing something enjoyable together just with my father for once. He liked it so much that after the game, we checked out the other (read: better) seats so that we know which section to get the tickets for next year. Yay!
Pops + me-2

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ten things...

Seems like random lists of all kinds are popping up left and right thesedays. There's the perennial Dave Letterman's Top Ten List on his Late Show. Men's magazines never fail to have a top 100 or so hottest/sexiest women every year. NBC's Today show just finished showing their top ten list of America's most beautiful places today. There are also bestselling books listing the things to do and places to go before you die (how morbid!!!). I suppose it's the obsessive-compulsive side of us that keeps us coming back for more lists. As sloppy as I can be, even I write up to-do lists on occasion. Imagine that!

With my graduation looming around the corner (I hope), I've been evaluating (and re-evaluating) what I want to do or achieve in life. Unlike my more efficient friends, I don't have a five-year plan, let alone a 1.5-year one! But I do have an idea of some things I'd like to attempt before the turn of my third decade in this world. Of course, achieving them is another argument altogether, but anyways, here they are!

Ten things I'd like to (attempt to) do before I'm three decades young:

10. Play 18 holes
9. Set up business plan for a biotech (to take over the world!!!)
8. Have kids
7. Backpack in France (or Spain, or Russia, or Brazil, or Vietnam ... you get the idea)
6. Host a real dinner party
5. Complete a half-marathon
4. Bake a wedding cake
3. Re-read "Crime and Punishment"
2. Drive (or a get a ride in) a Lamborghini/Ferrari/Porsche (manual transmission please)
1. Taste fugu

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Tokyo Disney Sea experience

During our week-long sojourn in Tokyo, we made our way to Tokyo Disney Sea (TDS) at Maihama for one afternoon. My family and I have been to Tokyo Disneyland before in the past, when my sis and I were still mere impressionable kids. We had wonderful memories of Disneyland as this joyful, wintry place (we went over Christmas break) that not only had fun rides and entertainment but also great food (such as the delicious Jap curry rice, scrumptious Mexican churros and ginormous roasted turkey legs). So I was really looking forward to this new Disney-themed park with the heady anticipation of a ten-year-old.

First off, let me just say that TDS is NOT a water park (thank God for that). I thought it would be some water park that requires patrons to wear swimsuits and all. But as my sister reasoned, which vain, neatly-dressed Japanese would want to get that wet, right? So, in that respect, TDS was already different from what I expected. Also, besides adopting a "sea" theme for the most part, TDS is also an Epcot-wannabe in that the park is divided into different countries, such as America, Morroco and Mexico.

Upon arriving at the Maihama JR station, we still had to take a special Disney monorail to TDS. The monorail not only had Mickey-shaped windows, the handles for standing customers also had a Mickey design as well. Kawaii!
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We started off by exploring the exotic Middle East area of the park because we were raring for lunch after our train ride. The main eatery in this section of the park is the Casbah Food Court (cheesy name, I know) which specialize in curries and roasted chicken dishes. The food court was very clean and I thought it exuded a Morrocan feel, with a seemingly open ceiling loosely-lined with wood and draped with pretty carpets. And check out the details of the intricate exterior of the Mid-Eastern theatre!
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My mum, the health nut that she is, decided to forgo the curry and opted for the chicken duet with "nasi goreng". What they call "nasi goreng" (or Indonesian-style fried rice) was not nasi goreng at all! It was pretty bland and its texture shares more similarity to baby food than rice! However, I have to give them credit for roasting the chicken very nicely. One of them is a teriyaki style chicken topped with sesame seeds and the second type is more a jerk style. Both were tender and was literally falling off the bones (in a good way).
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My father, sister and I picked the beef and chicken curries that came with naan and rice. Unfortunately, the portion of meat was very meagre (4 friggin' cubes of beef?!?) but the soft pilowy naan and delicious rice more than made up for it. The naan was perfect for dipping into the rich curry and the rice formed a nice little nest for a slathering of curry. Oishii! Unfortunately, the coconut pudding with caramel sauce wasn't as tasty as it looks. Although the texture of the pudding was very luscious (quite like a good flan), it lacked flavor.
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We next explored the Little Mermaid's lore, where we watched a music show centered around the mermaid and encountered a store that's shaped like a whale! Isn't it adorable?
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We then took a walk to "America", where the Tower of Terror is located. The ToT is basically a ride that places you in an elevator that takes you to the top floor of the tower before letting gravity do its thing. Hahaha! Scary, I know, which is why I didn't ride it. Actually, we didn't really go on scary, twisty rides but I blame it all on my scaredy-cat family! If one of them would've accompanied me, I would've gone on some *winks*
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The scariest ride that I went on was the Indiana Jones adventure. My parents, especially my mum, scare pretty easily and thus skipped it. In the ride, we were Indiana's fellow adventurers who try to help him out by rising in a truck. It was pretty scary, what with skulls and Another show/ride we went to was something called "Stormrider" where we supposedly were part of a mission to stop a hurricane by riding a special plane called the stormrider into the eye of the storm. Weird, ya? Only the Japs can come up with this. That was pretty fun, albeit bumpy and slightly wet! We also watched a Jazz Age-themed dancing show with Disney characters frolicking around on stage and tap-dancing (or at least, they tried to).

After the legendary long lines of Disney and overly-amplified sound system, it was time for dinner! We weren't too impressed with the offering of the Japanese restaurant and decided on the Italian place in "Venice" instead and am I glad we did! The price was higher than the others in the park, but the food was definitely worth it. We started with a very fresh baby green salad topped with peppers, yellow cherry tomatoes and sliced almonds. The dressing was very delicate and the added crunch from the almonds made it really nice.
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My sis and I shared the thin crust sausage pizza that also had onions, peppers and basil leaves. The crust was a teeny tad thin for my taste but I still liked it immensely. It was very light but not at all "crackery" like some uber thin crust pizzas. To my surprise, the crust was charred beautifully too, which makes me wonder if they had used a real brick oven...
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My father, the carnivore that he is, had the lamb chops and lamented at the pathetic 2-chop portion. Despite the supposed meagre serving, the chops were cooked beautifully: succulent and tender with a hint of rosemary.
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My mother had the sirloin and ordered it to be well done. Despite it being well done, the steak was very tender and juicy! The roasted vegetables that accompanied the meat were also divinely yummy!
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Being blessed (or cursed, I don't know) with a relatively fast metabolism and big stomach, my father wasn't satisfied with the chops and just had to have the American hot dog that we saw earlier. Chomp!
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After a full day of TDS, we just had to get some of the famed Disney snacks in their pretty tins and adorable little knick-knacks. Overall, TDS was a lot of fun to visit. I'm not sure that it's the kind of place that warrants a return trip. Being a bit of a purist myself, I still prefer Disneyland to TDS, just because it's more ... what's the word, dreamy? And "fantastical"? Maybe that's just the Pisces in me talking. Okie dokes, till my next Jap-centric post, enjoy the pics!

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