One of the things about having an obsessive personality is you get really o-b-s-e-s-s-e-d when you love something. When Prison Break first started, I promoted the series to anyone who would listen. I’d rave about Wentworth Miller and how genius the plot was (season one, remember?) and I’d spread the love. After I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Nifenegger, I insisted my friends read the book. Any time anyone asked me for a book suggestion, I’d grab them by the shoulders, stare in their eyes and say, “The Time Traveler’s Wife. You. Need. To. Read. It.”

Well, you get the gist.

My unyielding obsession these days is with baking and cooking. Admittedly, I’ve always been pretty crazy about it. For my 21st birthday, I asked my father for my very own KitchenAid whilst my other girlfriends asked for jewellery or handbags. At 22, I saved up to splurge on a variety of pots and pans from the Jamie Oliver for Tefal range, a Global knife block and some Microplane graters (side note: Microplane graters-can’t live without them!). Majority of my expenses for 2009 was on cake decorating tools: piping tips, piping bags, gumpaste tools, gel paste colouring, stamens, books on cake decorating, and various types of cutters. I got more excited about heading to the cake supply store than hitting up a shopping mall.

Like I said, obsessed.

You know how people flip through magazines when they’re bored? Others curl up with a novel before bed. My father loses himself in news sites for hours, catching up on the latest happenings in the world. I have girlfriends who spend hours reading makeup blogs and watching makeup tutorials on YouTube.

Me? I read about food.

My latest obsessions.

The book right at the top of the pile is something I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America by Michael Ruhlman. It was simply impossible to track this book down in KL. Most of the Borders outlets didn’t have them, and only one MPH outlet had them in stock. It provides amazing insight to life inside The Culinary Institute of America as a student. It is nothing short of amazing and although I’ve said time and again that I’m more inclined towards pastry arts, Ruhlman’s experience as an undercover student in the CIA has me itching to sign up for the AOS in Culinary Arts as well. I’ve always respected chefs but this brought it to a whole new level. To read about how they think about food, how kitchens are run, the on-your-toes quick thinking required, the crazy hours, the mostly eccentric chefs that lead the kitchens and classrooms… I actually really want that. Some people said the book scared them off wanting to attend culinary school but this got me excited and dying to go. In fact, it’s so good that I hunted down Ruhlman’s following two books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity.

I got the hefty Mastering the Art and Craft: Baking & Pastry book by the Culinary Institute of America a few months back. It’s like a baking textbook. This is going to sound so nerdy, but I love reading it for the technical side of baking that people don’t think about. The Bakers’ Percentage, ingredient identification, the different types of flours and their uses, different types of chocolate and the different percentages of cocoa in them and how they’re used for different types of desserts, gluten development in bread doughs, the various types of cake mixing methods, the different types of meringue and buttercream, etc. It’s 902 pages (excluding the appendices) of education. It has many, many recipes in there but they’re targeted towards the professional baker so making one of these recipes could produce four cakes instead of just the one you’d want. I look at it as a reference book and insight into what it is professional pastry chefs are capable of, although I am certain it is but a meager portion of their full proficiency. It’s definitely something to strive towards.

The two “Essential” cookbooks I own were both bought, strangely enough, on sale. I got The Essential Baking Cookbook in Melbourne from the discount bookstore Andrew’s Bookshop and it was so thick and informative that I thought they priced it wrong. Then I found The Essential Dessert Cookbook in KL for RM27.90 which is crazy cheap. A novel costs around RM65 here and these “Essential” cookbooks are chock-full of recipes of every single kind of baked good you can imagine and they’re pretty good recipes too. My favourite is their “What Went Wrong?” section with pictures of what Perfect, Overcooked, Undercooked, and Undermixed goods look like. It’s fucking awesome, is what it is. They have the basic recipes for everything. I have a pretty huge stack of cookbooks (it’s a bit of an addiction, to be honest) and chefs like putting their own spin on things but I like to know exactly what their spin is. So I head towards an “Essential” cookbook and get enlightened on the basics first. I’m a firm believer of learning to walk before you run, especially when it comes to baking. It never pays to be too ambitious especially if you can’t even master the fundamentals.

If you ever see the Essential cookbooks in store, snag a copy.

Seriously tabbed.

I would like to think that I take great care with my cookbooks, and in a way I do treasure them, but they do get worn and used. I stick tabs on the recipes I want to try (as you can see, there are plenty!). My favourite roast chicken recipe in Kylie Kwong’s Heart and Soul is stained with some of said chicken’s gravy. Most of my books have flour and sugar somewhere between the pages. And all of them are tabbed to a certain degree. Okay, fine, they’re usually tabbed to death. Whenever I buy a new cookbook, I pore over it for hours. I read ingredient lists, the methods and I tab the ones I am dying to make. I’ve since moved on to colour-coded tabbing (more systematic!), which I didn’t get to apply to The Essential Baking Cookbook. Now they’re separated into, “TRY ASAP!” and “Looks interesting!”

I don’t limit the feeding of my obsession to just books, though. The Internet has been one of my greatest resources and source of inspiration. I recently added lots of links to the side of Hey, Sugar! so check them out if you want. Michael Ruhlman (author of the first book mentioned) runs a blog as well, and there are some other interesting blogs that I’ve recently discovered and they’re unlike most food blogs I’ve seen. I can’t pick a favourite but check the links out and you’ll see what I mean. They’ve definitely changed the way I think about food; and I’m sure they will you, too.

Bear-y Little Things

One of the things I was most awed and inspired by when looking at pictures of other people’s cakes are their fondant decorations. I still am. I sometimes can’t even fathom how they manage to make such great details on such little things. It must require a great deal of patience and really steady, dainty hands.

Once upon a time, I considered cakes covered in fondant the pinnacle of cake decorating difficulty, and the gum paste figurine toppers were at another level that I probably shouldn’t even think about. However, since covering a few cakes with fondant myself and playing around with the fun sugar dough, I had been itching to try modeling gum paste.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream.

So this week I’ve been playing with gum paste. I tried my hand at some teddy bears I saw in a Maisie Parrish book but as they dried, they drooped. Pretty soon I ended up with six bears that looked like they had back problems. I even accidentally dismembered one whilst trying to straighten its back! They had lopsided faces and my mother thought they resembled monkeys more than bears. They were still cute but in a “bad back bears need love too” way (as my friend Esther said).

Not dissuaded yet, I decided to try human figurines. I had given myself a pep talk in my head, rationalizing that it couldn’t be that hard. Ohhhhh I was WRONG. This time I followed the directions of Debbie Brown, the queen of adorable fondant cakes. They were pretty easy to assemble but I had the most problem with their limbs, especially because Miss Brown talks about sculpting their legs to have ankles, knees, foot arches and even shapely calves! For a person who had never attempted to make gum paste figurines before, it was tough. For a person who had never attempted gum paste figurines and has huge, clunky hands, it was near impossible. The limbs I speak of are half the size of my pinky. But I trudged onward stubbornly and produced four pixies. They wouldn’t look too bad in a room with dim lighting.

The bald pixies at the back were my hilarious attempt. I have yet to pipe their hair on, but I’m sure they’ll look better with some hair.

The first thing I realized was I could follow books for ideas but their gum paste figurines would never look like mine. It’s just like how I could attempt to draw Bugs Bunny but he wouldn’t really look exactly like the Bugs Bunny we all know and recognize as Bugs Bunny. My bears hadn’t looked like the ones Maisie Parrish had in her book and my pixies definitely didn’t look as dainty as the ones Debbie Brown had sculpted.

I had a think about it and decided I really liked the idea of adorable teddy bears. Bears that looked like they had been stitched by hand and represented cuddly warmth and evoked childhood memories. With a rough image in mind, I sat down and started sculpting these bears. I already had a rough idea of how to model the gum paste to look like bears from my first attempt (and Maisie Parrish’s detailed description), but I wasn’t going to weigh their limbs meticulously like I had initially. I was just going to wing it and I’d get a teddy bear somehow.

Freestyle teddy bears.

It turned out to be the best things I modeled out of gum paste of the three times I sat down to sculpt some figurines out. They were aww-inducing bears. I didn’t think they were impossible to make. I had so much fun making little bear limbs, indenting their feet so it looked like they had toes, and making little cups out of their paws. I made eight bears in two different shades of brown and none of them looked identical to the other. But they were all adorable as hell.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them (save them? but for what occasion?) so I decided to test out a chocolate cupcake recipe from the Martha Stewart Holiday Sweets magazine I had bought. Her cupcakes looked so good, but I’m of the opine that Martha Stewart cannot make a bad looking treat. I adore her publications because she always makes the most breathtaking desserts. I have her book of wedding cakes and I love flipping through it for inspiration and as a motivator to keep moving forward with my cake decorating skills to get to that level of mastery required to make the cakes pictured in that book.

Anyway, I digress. The cupcake recipe didn’t require butter but vegetable oil instead. It made for a really sticky batter and I had a little trouble when I was spooning them into the paper cups because they’d run down the sides, leaving them a little stained. I left them thinking that the cakes would rise and hide them but sadly, it didn’t rise all the way to the top of the mould so I had to deal with some eyesore streaks.

For the buttercream, I decided to test out the French buttercream. It requires the pâté à bombe method and I had a lot of fun with that (mostly because I recently acquired an infrared thermometer and well, what’s more fun than making use of ultra-cool kitchen gadgets?!). The pâté à bombe requires the whipping of egg yolks and pouring hot syrup (boiled until the soft ball stage) onto the lightly whipped egg yolks until they swelled up and transformed into a gorgeous, fluffy, silken batter.

It was one of the yummiest tasting buttercreams I’ve had in a long, long time and the texture of it was just so beautiful! It was soft and yet it had enough stiffness to it that it was easily piped. I think I’ve found my dream buttercream. Never again will I whip up a batch of buttercream using butter and icing sugar and some vanilla extract. Those are always limp and messy and impossible to handle in humidity. I hate those!

I used the open star tip on these cupcakes and I think I’ve found my favourite piping tip. These were a dream to handle and so easy! Just squeeze and release and you get a decent looking mound of buttercream on top and you don’t end up with a sickening amount of buttercream to eat your way through. I really detest cupcakes that are about 40% cupcake and 60% icing because they always end up being so tooth-achingly sweet that I have to scrape some off to truly enjoy the cupcake. It seems like such a waste to do that (and probably not economical for the vendor if they have to use so much per cupcake).

The only issues I had with this tip was, I really had to burp my bags after each refill. I’d get such ugly mounds if I didn’t and it really ruins the neat lines of the star tip. It’d also look a little wavy if I was hesitant. Note to self (and everyone): always wield a piping bag with confidence or it will definitely show.

Check out the slight wavy lines of the frosting with the confetti-sprinkles on them. Hesitation made that happen.

I ended up delivering some cupcakes to my aunt’s grandchildren and handing them out to a few of my girlfriends. They cooed at the teddy bears as expected and apparently everyone wants to save the bears, not eat them! I reckon they should because they’re chocolate flavoured gum paste and those are delicious.

I’d just like to point out that I drew Asian-like slanty eyes on this bear so he can be Asian bear. I figured I needed representing, somewhere in my creations! (Whoops just noticed I hadn’t dusted the icing sugar off properly)

Ps. Special thank you to my gorgeous friend Tina who helped me fix up my banner so the colours look a million times better. I am a mess with Photoshop and she so generously volunteered her services (actually, she said, “Your banner’s colours are bothering me. Can I please fix them for you?” to which I had replied, “I was waiting for someone to volunteer!”).

The Quack Salad

My family is food obsessed. My brother Ern, my mum and I are the ones who actually get behind the stove and attempt to make the food but my dad and other brother, Alvin are obsessed about eating really good food. It might be a Malaysian thing, this obsession with food. I don’t know a single Malaysian who isn’t constantly promoting some great food find to their friends. There may be much to critique about Malaysia but good food is not one of them. We have amazing food here.

So it is little surprise that my mother watches the Asian Food Channel and Travel & Living channel almost exclusively on the TV in her bedroom. We both particularly enjoy watching Chef’s Story. I had no idea they had it on DVD; I might have to get myself a copy soon.

One of our favourite chefs is Anthony Bourdain (who can resist that quick wit and bad boy charm?) and we grew roots watching him on Chef’s Story. When he made his Duck Confit with Frisee Salad, we watched hungrily, rapidly swallowing the saliva that was starting to pool in our mouths.

“We have to try that one of these days!” my mum had said to me.

That was months ago. Although we’re a food obsessed bunch, we’re also a procrastinating lot. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? My mum had reminded me that she had bought duck about two weeks ago. Last week I finally got around to making the salad, but not of my own accord. She had merely said, “I thawed out the duck, go make the salad.” Ma’am, yes, ma’am!

I printed out the recipe and I quickly noted that I would not be able to confit the duck because a) I didn’t have any rendered duck fat and b) I wanted to eat it for dinner and it was already 5 p.m. – no way would I have time to make a confit anything.

So here’s my speedy version of Bourdain’s way fancier (and probably tastier) Duck Confit Salad.

Sophia’s Hurried Pan Roasted Duck Salad
(Serves 4)

1 bag pre-packed salad leaves (this way I don’t have to wash any leaves and dry them – I believe I used the Caesar bag here)
Quarter-half a duck (no idea, my mum had them chopped and handed to me) – seasoned with sea salt and black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
2. Heat up oven-safe pan until very hot. Place duck pieces on pan and brown all sides to seal in the juice. I didn’t use any oil, it was rather fun watching the oil ooze out of the duck. Turn off fire.
3. I removed the leaves off 3 sprigs of thyme and scattered it around the pan, then placed a sprig on each piece of duck. I then spread out about 4 cloves of smashed garlic.
4. Pop the entire pan into the oven for… well this is a good question. I just checked for doneness, didn’t keep track of the time. Just until it’s cooked. Oh boy. I told you this isn’t a food blog, I cannot be trusted to offer precise recipes!
5. Remove from oven and let sit in pan for 10-15 minutes.
6. Slice duck thinly – well not very in my case cos I am pretty bad at carving any type of meat.
7. Place salad leaves on plates, top with duck slices. Spoon up the yummy, runny duck fat that’s in the pan and drizzle all over the salad leaves.
8. Garnish with the thyme sprigs (now wonderfully dried and crinkled looking) and garlic cloves.
9. Impress and enjoy.

It was an intensely enjoyable salad, and my mother claimed it was her favourite salad ever.

I will one day attempt the duck confit, though. I looooove duck confit. But really, who doesn’t?

Macaron Mania

I’ll be honest: I never understood the macaron craze and had never tried it until mid-last year. And it was awful. It was nauseatingly sweet and it just tasted really strange. It was from a random bakery in Singapore that happened to sell a variety of flavours and I was so excited to see them that I had to buy a few flavours to see what the fuss was about. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed especially because my friends would swoon at the mention of macarons.

I remember the very first time my friend asked me about them. “Oh my God! They are the BEST things. If I could make them, I don’t think I’d eat anything else,” she had a glazed over look in her eyes as her voice took on a wistful tone.

Wow, I had thought to myself. What is this macaron?!

Then I started seeing them on food blogs, and read about how Pierre Herme and Laduree make the best macarons. Last year I saw pictures of the macarons by Laduree in collaboration with Christian Louboutin (side note: I am a shoe fanatic!) and I figured it had to be something amazing that Monsieur Louboutin would choose that particular dessert to represent his shoes, and I must’ve ruined my first experience with them by tasting macarons from a bakery that clearly did not know how to make good macarons.

I did a little research and most food bloggers admitted that macarons were temperamental little things. Some complained that there was absolutely no guarantee they’d turn out perfectly. I read some recipes and noticed how much emphasis they all placed on sieving all the dry ingredients. I hadn’t found the cojones to attempt them but admired pictures of them all the same (they really are pretty little things!).

Vanilla Macarons with Vanilla Buttercream, Chocolate Macarons with Valrhona Araguani 72% Dark Chocolate Ganache.

Last weekend, I attended a macaron class by Joycelyn Shu. I’ve been reading her blog for years and am frequently blown away by her pictures of her gorgeous food. When I read on her blog that she’d be conducting a macaron class, I hopped right to it and booked myself a spot.

It was a 3 hour 45 minute class and I walked away with a cute little Chinese takeaway box of four different flavoured macarons, a twelve-page recipe booklet for macarons (and biscotti) and about three pages worth of notes on flavour variations. I walked away wielding important macaron how-tos and most importantly, stallion-sized cojones to attempt the recipe.

I reached home itching to dive right into it. It was tediously meticulous work. Setting up the mise en place for one batch of macarons (but for two flavour variations: vanilla and chocolate) took me close to 45 minutes! The process of sieving ground almonds had challenged my patience, and I only needed 250 grams of the stuff! By the time I had finished my mise en place, I discovered that the greatest form of torture to impose on a person would be sieving 10kg bag of ground almonds with a fine mesh sieve.

(FYI: I didn’t use a fine mesh sieve and you’re not meant to with ground almonds. I imagine it’d be much like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper – a little bit goes in but it’s mostly effort that gets you nowhere)

After I had made the macaron batter, I piped it out onto Silpat mats, then I waited for the skin to form. I prodded the surface of the macarons occasionally to test how dry they were. When I felt confident that they were at the right stage of dry-ness, I popped them into the oven. I plopped myself down in front of the oven, watching the little circles rise a little and… FEET formed! I did a little jig, gave myself a huge back-thump (a mere pat wouldn’t have sufficed for this glorious achievement) and when they were done, I took them out of the oven and made googly-eyes at my first attempt of macarons. I may or may not have muttered sweet little nothings to them, too.

I finally understood the fanaticism most bakers seemed to have with these little domed morsels of sweetness. They were such delights to watch in the oven and because they required a fair bit of work, I could only imagine the frustration if they didn’t turn out like they were meant to. I too am now aboard the wagon of People Who Are Unhealthily Obsessed With Macarons.

Whilst mine did turn out like they were meant to, and they certainly look and tasted like macarons; they weren’t without flaws. I had some minor freak outs in the kitchen (almost forgot the vanilla bean paste in the batter, my ganache separated and needed fixing), but the main issues for me were:

1. Not all of them turned out shiny, as you can see in the pictures, and they’re meant to be glossy looking.
2. I had major trouble with the vanilla macarons after they baked. They insisted on sticking to the Silpat mats and after wrestling them off, I had ended up with vanilla macaron shells. They were hollow in the middle. I must have messed up somewhere. I’m thinking it’s the baking time, or the temperature of the oven, or even the amount of moisture in the batter. I’m open to other tips, too.
3. Some of the chocolate macarons started looking a little wrinkled whilst baking!

I have to admit, I am pretty amazed they turned out this well on my first attempt. I was bracing myself for flat crisp discs that tasted like biscuits, not macarons!

I’ve been reassured that they look perfectly like good macarons but one of the trappings of being a perfectionist is that you just can’t let things slide. It may look and taste good to others but I know that it isn’t right and that’s what matters. I just need to fix this. I need to figure out WHY and not make the same mistakes again. I want whole macarons. I want them shiny. I want them with frilly feet. I want them perfect.

I’ll get there eventually. I plan on attempting them again some time this week, I just have to make sure I have nothing else to do on that day. What a time consuming treat this is!

Note: I apologize for the pictures because the macarons look slightly battered (pun unintended). They suffered from my lousy job of packaging them in individual cellophane bags and storing them in the refrigerator. They looked a whole lot prettier before their stint in the refrigerator but at midnight, there wasn’t much light to give me clear photographs.

With a spatula in hand, and a whisk in the other

This is tough for me, not because I have never written in a blog, but because I have. I know how momentous this entry will be a year, even five, from now as I look at the entry that started it all. Heck, it’s even momentous right now. You, you’re judging me based on this very first entry and you’ll use this to decide if I’m worth coming back to, or if I will be discarded like the pair of black shoes I discovered in my apartment after moving in; slightly curious and mostly insignificant. I think that pair of shoes might’ve impacted me more than I will you, actually. Those were some ugly shoes.

I am hesitant to call this a food blog for several reasons. Firstly, my train of thoughts usually have no direction and I am prone to running off tangents so I can’t guarantee that this will always be about food. B., I personally do not think I possess enough culinary prowess to admit to writing a food blog because that certainly implies that I am capable of spreading my knowledge/words to the masses and they would look upon it as reference. I cannot bear such a heavy responsibility, I’m afraid. And three, I would really prefer to look upon this space as my journal on the Internet that documents my adventures in the kitchen as well as the occasional celebration of flavour, beauty and art that I experience when I dine out.

Now let’s talk a little about food and our relationship together. I do both savoury and sweet cooking but I cook savoury food mostly to feed myself (and I most definitely ensure that it tastes good), but I see pastry as something of a creative outlet. I love being in the kitchen; it’s a great stress relief to work through a recipe and know exactly what will come of my efforts. Recipes that are tried, tested and triumphed are promptly added to my arsenal for the occasions when I need validation as a baker. Most women whip out their perfect Little Black Dress and sexy heels, and whilst I do have those on hand, whipping up a batch of yummy cakes and hearing the moans of satisfaction from people enjoying my food gives me more self-confidence than a Little Black Dress ever could.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t claim too many sweet delights under my spectrum of skills because I haven’t been playing around with them enough. I’d say cakes are the one thing that I make the most of, and often, but I have some serious skill sharpening to do when it comes to pastries, breads, tarts, biscuits, etc.

I am on a quest, and have been for a while, to truly master pastries. It isn’t about collecting recipes of every kind but being able to honestly say that I’ve mastered a certain technique, or a certain dessert. That is the source of my joy, and that quest is my adventure.

So tighten your apron strings, and join me on my quest to be a Jack-lynn of all pastries and most importantly, master of them all.