Sunday, 25 December 2011

Easy chocolate cake

Chocolate cake...who doesn't love them?  From fudgey dense ones to light airy mousse creations.  Everyone has their favourites and their favourite recipes.  I've had my fair share of trials with different recipes.  My colleague generously shared her recipe.  This version gives a moist dense-looking cake, yet is pretty light when you bite into it.  If you skip the frosting, it's less rich and just as yummy.  As a plus point, making this couldn't be easier - no creaming, no folding.  I'm not a good baker - sponges and chiffons defy me with all that airy lightness. 

After a good round of thumbs-up from the first one, I thought I'd bake one out for a Christmas party.  And because it's for a party, it had better be all tarted up ie frosted.  The photos show both versions - the stay-at-home cake vs the paint-the-town-red cake.

This is my very first attempt at icing and decorating a cake.  Until now, all my cakes have been naked cakes.  After reading up on different creams and their performance in heat and humidity (KL weather), I decide to chicken out and do a simpler ganache.   No need to OTT on the 'make-up'.   Lacking the confidence to pour the ganache on, I decided to spread it instead - more control, less dripping and less mess to clean up.  You can see that I need to work on the cake decorating skill :)  Should have halved the strawberries instead of plopping them on whole. 

Have a merry Christmas and happy holidays.

stay-at-home plain jane

all tarted up to paint the town red

There should be extra ganache left over.  Apparently you can freeze this for later use and heat it up using a water bath or double boil.  Or make truffles.  I'll have a go at this later.

Makes an 8 inch round tray
Ingredients for cake:

2 cups plain flour
1 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

3 eggs
2 cups caster sugar (note: I reduced it to 1 1/4 cup)
250gm butter, melted (note: 1 reduced this to 200gm)
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup warm water

1.  Mix the dry ingredients - flour, cocoa, leavening agents - and sift it to remove any lumps.  Set aside.
2.  Mix the eggs and sugar together.  Give it a light beating.
3.  Pour melted butter into the egg-sugar mixture.  Beat slowly for about 3 minutes just to incorporate the fat with the eggs. 
4.  Stir in the evaporated milk, then the water.  Mixture is quite runny at this stage.  Don't worry.

5.  Stir in the sifted dry ingredients, and your mix should come together and thicken.

6.  Pour into pan and bake at 160C oven for 45 - 50 minutes, depending on your oven.  It's safe to check at 40 minutes.  Mine took 55 minutes.
7.  Remove from oven, leave in pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack to cool.
8.  If intending to frost the cake, make sure cake is completely cool otherwise icing will just run off.

For ganache:
200ml whipping or heavy cream (35% - 40% fat)
200gm dark chocolate

1.  Chop the chocolate into smaller pieces to melt easier.
2.  Heat up the cream until just before boil.
3.  Pour the hot cream into the chocolate, wait about 3 minutes, then use a spatula to stir the melting chocolate.
4.  Keep stirring until you get a smooth glossy mixture.
5.  Cool to room temperature before using - about 20 minutes.  it should thicken slightly.  If you want to pour it on the cake, you can do it now.  If you prefer to spread it, then cool the ganache in the fridge, until you get a spreadable consistency.  I left mine for about 1 hour in the fridge.

you can see how shiny and glossy the ganache is

frosting work in progress
1.  You'll notice that the both cakes cracked at the top.  I think it's because the oven thermostat is acting up and it was hotter than 160C.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Borough Market, London

I love going to markets when I'm overseas. The likes of Victoria market in Melbourne, and Borough Market in London. For some reason, these are nothing like the wet, smelly pasar that we have despite selling fresh produce, meat and seafood too.  One of my favourite markets is Borough Market and I make it a point to visit it whenever I'm in London.  It's a foodies food market haven with stalls selling almost artisanal products.  I say almost artisanal, because Borough Market has becomed more commercialised, having jumped on the toursit trail with throngs of camera totting tourists descending on it on Saturday mornings. Okay, shouldn't comment so much on that since I'm part of the throng.

When it comes to cooked food, the variety is mind-boggling.  Stalls selling Spanish, Middle eastern, vegetarian, English, German, Turkish cuisines - heck I even spotted Malaysian chicken curry in a previous visit!  This time it was Thai green curry.  Grills are popular here - burgers with exotic meats, sausages, kebabs...

Then there are all the stalls selling cheese, cheese and more cheese, breads, cakes, spices, sweets, deli meats and fat juicy sausages, salamis and large joints of ham.

Not forgetting what's a market if it doesn't have fresh fruits, vegetables, the butchers and fishmongers?  The buzz is really something else and the onslaught of colours and smell can bring about a sensory overload.

clockwise from top left - giant scallops, a butcher, a fishmonger, kangaroo meat patties

Some of my favourites ...
A must-stop each visit is Cafe Brood for the paella.  Humongous pans filled with steaming paella, piping hot stew, chorizo sizzling on the griddle greet you at the entrance.  There's a choice of plain paella, or upsized with chorizos or prawns.  The stew looked great, but after chowing down a paella, it's tough to order a stew unless you have a stomach of steel.  With Southwark Cathedral next door, you may hear church bells ringing and organ recitals while you eat.

Brindisa is a Spanish grocer next to Ginger Pig.  This is where you can stock up on spices, spanish sausages, and serrano and Iberican hams.  The hams are priced according to their age - like wine, the aged ones will cost more.  My favourite chorizo supply comes from here - semi air-cured picante chorizo.

I couldn't find the Flour Power stall that sells the brownie slices anymore.  They must have moved out.  But I did find an equally good brownie here at the Bread Ahead Bakery.  If you head down towards the late afternoon, you'll find the bakery stalls discounting their products to clear.

meringues, cakes and brownies from cake stalls

Our shopping haul from the market:
1.  air-dried pork fillet
2.  3 types of sausages - lamb, venison, wild boar
3.  2 types of cheese - Croation manchego, Italian parmigiano-reggano
4.  1 pork pie
5.  1 lamb sausage roll
6.  brownies
7.  fresh produce - asparagus spears, raspberries, assorted capsicums
Mind you, these were on top of what we had stuffed our faces with at the market - coffee & croissants, paella, soup, grilled sausages.  Suffice to say, it was a very satisfying day out at the market.  Who would have thought a market would be this fun?

Take the Undergound and get off at London Bridge.  There are directional signs to Borough Market.
Avoid Saturdays if you want to browse peacefully and avoid the inevitable queues.
Most traders are happy to let you sample before you purchase - just ask them.
There are restaurants around the market if you want to sit down and get a cuppa - but they will be crowded.
Bring a shopping bag for your goodies and happy shopping :)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Ladies who lunch at maze by Gordon Ramsay

I've been meaning to post this for some time now, but was caught out by my recent trip which had me packing light ie no laptop ergo no posts.

As you can tell, I belong to the worker ant class, thus on the rare occassions that arise, I'll leap at the chance to do the 'ladies who lunch' thingamabob.  Having a day to kill with nothing more taxing than packing to fly back to KL, my friend Y and I decided we'll do our ladies of leisure impersonation and indulge in a long leisurely lunch, scattered with alcohol-fuelled sparkling conversation and observations ;p 

So off to Maze we went.  The restaurant is under the Gordon Ramsay brand and located at the swanky area of Pearl-Qatar, specifically at Porto Arabica. It boasts of an European-Asian influenced menu (hah! must mean fusion) and has fantastic views of the West Bay from the open terrace.  Although it was too hot to dine alfresco, there were a couple of diners working on their tans and lunch - and probably frying their brains too!

They only offer a set menu at lunch, so that took away difficult decisions - useful for ladies who lunch.
The menu stayed quite true to its claims of Asian influence - it included at most 1 Asian ingredient which played a mainly supporting role.  I gathered that the menu gets refreshed frequently.

 My plan was to go for the non-familiar and be more adventurous with selections.  I started off with the compressed watermelon, feta cheese mousse, walnut rocket salad with black sesame dressing, while Y had the seared tuna nicoise salad, olive powder, confit potato and kenya beans.  To me, watermelon and feta is an odd-sounding combination - a juicy wet fruit and salty cheese?  I must say after tasting this, I was won over.  The watermelon was very chilled, and its icy sweetness complemented the feta cheese mousse for a very refreshing summery salad.  The rocket salad  was lightly dressed in olive oil sprinkled with black sesame seeds (the Asian touch), and clearly was in a supporting role.  There was no mistaking the watermelon-cum-feta as the main stars of the dish.  Y was very happy with her selection and you can see how pretty it looked.

clockwise from top - watermelon and feta salad, seared tuna nicoise salad, pan-fried snapper, beetroot and goat cheese risotto

For mains, it was beetroot and goat cheese risotto, zaatar, roasted pine nuts and parsley crisp.  Clearly, beetroot risotto was something different.  Y chose to go for the pan-fried snapper, chickpea fries, tomato butter sauce and crushed peas.  The risotto came in all its violent purple glory, topped with crumbled goat's cheese.   Not a dish for the faint-hearted, the risotto had the sweetness from the beetroot cut by the faintly redolent cheese.  If parmesan puts you into a coma, forget about goat cheese.  I absolutely loved this dish for its flavours, and the zaatar added just a little spice to zing up the risotto.  Just a little.  The snapper was a nice safe choice, with the fish still juicy and sweet.  The chickpea fries was mashed chickpeas shaped into fingers and fried.  The crushed peas were more like mushy peas, but full of taste and sweetness.  A healthier variation to fish and chips, perhaps??

clockwise from top left - nougat glacee with raspberry sorbet, macaroon with creme chiboust, apple compote & apple sorbet, hummus & olives, turkish delight & chocolate chip cookies

I'd had enough of cheese by then, so that effectively removed the cheese platter choice from desserts.  I went along with the nougat glacee, lemon frangipane and raspberry sorbet.  Y chose the macaroon, creme chiboust, apple compote and apple sorbet.  We couldn't figure out where the Asian was in the desserts, but at that point we were beyond caring and just anticipating the goodies.  And boy, did they live up to expectations!  I have no idea what a glacee is, and  I would describe it as an ice-cream of sorts on a bed of frangipane.  The flavours were more or less from the same family ie berries and not too contrasting.  Y thought the macaroons were fine and again the flavours were kept very much together with apples as the theme.

Even though we declared ourselves stuffed to the ears by then, we still found some space for the complimentary turkish delight and chocolate chip cookies - which was a nice touch to end the meal.  Bread, hummus and olives were also complimentary at the start. 

All in all, we declared lunch a huge success - good times, great tastes, even better company!  Service while not overly friendly, was courteous and efficient.  Yes, it's rather pricey at QR140 per person without drinks, but the food, its quality and ambience all serve to make this a worthwhile treat on occasions.

the maze by Gordon Ramsay
Porto Arabica at Pearl-Doha

Be right back....

Dear readers, just a short note to say that I've been travelling and unable to post as usual.  Do keep a look out as I'm back and will post about my journeys by the end of this week.
cheerio - sugarplum.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Lemon and mint drink chill-out

This refreshing drink appears to be a favourite in the Middle East countries.  I couldn't get enough of this, and drank it at least once a day.  Simply, it's lemonade served with liberal amounts of chopped mint leaves.  It's tangy, citrusy and minty all at once - very refreshing too.  I also discovered that there were many variations to this drink.  The variations are in the amount of mint and whether it's chopped, bruised or whizzed in the blender.

Luck was upon me as the neighbourhood grocer had lemons on sale - 5 for $5, cheap eh?  The mint was plucked fresh from our little backyard garden.  Did you know that you can grow mint by sticking the stems into the ground?  That's how we grew ours.

our backyard mint peeking out from the pandan
Ingredients:5 lemons
10 tbsp white sugar (adjust to taste but I used 2 tbsp to each lemon)
1 handful mint
1 litre water

Method:1.  Make the syrup - bring 500ml water to boil and stir in the sugar to dissolve.  Allow to cool.
2.  Use only the mint leaves, discard the stems.  Finely chop the mint.
3.  Squeeze the lemons to extract the juice. 
4.  Throw everything together into a jug; water, juice, syrup, mint and give it a good stir
5.  Chill and serve over ice.

Notes :For a lighter mint flavour, bruise the mint with a rolling pin instead of chopping it.
I prefer using white sugar as brown sugar gives the drink an oxidised rusty colour.
You can serve this with sparkling water - it gives it a nice fizzy zing.
For even more zing, splash with some Bacardi for a Mojito :)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Middle-East eats

Not being very familiar with middle eastern cuisine, I did try some during my short visit to the Persian Gulf countries recently.

Arabic coffee, not to be confused with Arabica which is a coffee specie, is brewed coffee flavoured with cardamom.  When I was first served this, I thought it tasted weird until the aroma reminded me of chai - then bingo! Cardamom!  Don't expect Starbucks sizes for Arabic coffee though - it's usually served in a cup which is similar to the Chinese tea cup and meant to be sipped.  It can be an acquired taste especially if you're not used to the cardamon flavour, but being used to Indian spices I rather enjoyed drinking it.  It probably uses very light roast because the coffee has a light green tinge to it - not the usual dark brew that we're used to seeing.

A meal will normally start with mezze - Arabic mezze is what tapas is to the Spanish.  There's usually a basket of bread, hummus (chickpea dip), baba ghanoush (eggplant dip), tabbouleh (bulgur wheat salad), fatoush (green salad with pieces of pita), olives.  This is probably the most basic of mezze, and I'm told it can be as elaborate as 40 dishes or more.  Not being very partial to fatoush, I devoured the dips with gusto. 

Bread and dips at a neighbourhood restaurant

Courgette stuffed with rice


A jaunt to Souq Wakif in Doha led Y and I to Tagine Restaurant - as the name suggests it serves Moroccan cuisine.  It must have been football night; it was packed and we were led to the rooftop for our table.  Being a newbie at this, I left the orders to Y.  There was complimentary olives with a chilli salsa and we ordered vegetable couscous,lamb tagine and a green salad to start.  The couscous was very fluffy, and just right to absorb all that lovely juices from the lamb tagine.  And the lamb was so tender, it was falling off the bone. 

Morrocan dinner

We wanted mint tea without sugar which shocked the waiter to no end. No sugar?! Are you sure?  Yup - the tea is served so very sweet.  I bet dentists do a roaring trade here.  Shisha is popular and you'll see local men enveloped in a haze puffing great clouds of the sweet cloying smoke.
mint tea
It wasn't all just middle-eastern food though, there are other cuisines available especially in the malls.  I just had to add this in for variety :)  croissants and capuccino at Paul's.

breakfast at Paul's @ Villagio

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

48 hours in Doha

48 hours in Doha - that was the extent of my layover.  Doha is a puddle-jump from Dubai (only 45 minutes by flight) but that jump comes with a 1 hour time difference. Sigh.

Being in a desert city, I've realised how I've been taking our greenery for granted.  In Doha, sidewalks
are almost always not completed - it's just dirt. Grass, shrubs and trees in public areas are almost non-existent unless you're in an upmarket suburb.  And the landscape is primarily sand coloured - sand coloured houses behind walls, scrubby brown bush, desert sand, tan coloured mosques...after 1 day, I even missed our lallang.

houses are usually built behind high walls
Doha is also a city of a gazillion roundabouts - every other intersection is a roundabout which must be a bloody nightmare during peak hours to navigate.  There's also some sort of pecking order to the vehicles there, with Land Cruisers at the top of the food chain.  I guess if an SUV came hurtling behind you with its lights flashing and with no indication that it'll slow down, it's prudent to get out of the way.

I thought these are interesting street lights
Construction work is rife here, and the landscape is dotted with the national bird - cranes (haha, get it?).

view of buildings under construction from the Pearl
Managed to make a trip to the desert this time.  We were supposed to go to the Singing Dunes, but with almost non-existent road signs and relying only on google map, this wasn't meant to be.  So we drove in the approximate direction until the road literally ran out into the desert.

end of road....literally

walking off into the desert
 If bargaining is your cup of mint tea, Souq Wakif is the place for you.  It's a fully functional traditional market and you'll find everything from spices, perfumes, clothes, carpets to kitschy souvenirs and animals ( I saw rabbits, birds, cats for sale).  Haggling is expected here, so don't jump at the seller's first offer.  You'll find tourists and locals alike here.  The sellers don't loudly push you to buy or hassle you at all and leave you in relative peace to browse. There are also a lot of restaurants and shisha cafes here.  I noticed that there weren't any Arab women at the shisha cafes, if there were females, they were Westerners.  Restaurants ranged from Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, Morrocan to Baskin-Robbins.

assorted spices for sale

handicrafts and souvenirs

shisha break at a cafe - only men and western women
Not about to be beaten by Dubai in the mall stakes, Doha has the Villagio.  Villagio is modelled after Venice, complete with a canal running along the length of the mall, gondolas and ceilings painted to look like blue skies.  If you've been to the Venetian in Macau, you'll understand what I mean.  It's stocked with major western brands you can think of - although the window displays are more modest, in line with the conservative society.  In comparison with Dubai, Qatari women are more covered up, with more than a few fully veiled.   There's also the Pearl which is super-duper upmarket.  It's so upmarket that there's hardly any pedestrian traffic there, which makes you wonder how the boutiques pay the rent. 

Learning that Doha malls practised family days, I initially thought "wow, how pro-family!"  I later learnt that this is a form of discrimination to prevent single riff-raff (read foreign workers mainly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal) from thronging the malls on weekends.  However, the family unit is important in Doha - you'll see large family sizes, hyperactive children are tolerated and McDonald's features humongous Playplaces prominently.

48 hours is more than sufficient for a visit, unless you intend to watch all 80 episodes of "Shaun the Sheep" to kill time.
Katara cultural village

giant bird houses at Katara

zig zag buildings

amphitheatre at Katara - very Gladiator-like

Tallest building in Doha - Aspire tower also known as the Torch for the 2006 Asian Games

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Arabian nights in Dubai

the iconic sail-like Burj al Arab
I wonder if spending a couple of nights in the Persian Gulf region qualifies as Arabian nights?  Exotic visions of Arabian nights went up in a poof when I stepped foot in Dubai.  1st impressions? Ultra-modern city, no expense spared skyscrapers co-existing with a mosque every 500 metres.  It was remarkably like a faceless US city plonked in the middle of the dessert, albeit with shinier taller buildings and non-stop construction.

Dubai boasts of accolades - world's tallest building (Burj al Khalifa), world's best hotel (Burj al Arab), 1st indoor ski slope in the Middle-East(Ski Dubai), artificial islands of Palm Jumeirah and the World (why would you need artificial islands?!) are amongst some of them.

Whizzing along the highways, you'll see a plethora of brand new skyscrapers, and some more frenzied construction; but with a population of approximately 2 million (of which 80% are non-locals), you wonder if they are all going to be fully occupied.

Unfortunately for me, my trip agenda was packed out with meetings all day followed by dinners.  This didn't leave much time for any exploring. 

So armed with my "things to do in Dubai" list, here's how it went :
  1. The nearest I got to the desert and sand was the view from the airplane window.

    2. Camels? Only saw the pop kitsch statues that were scattered around the hotel.
    variety of spices sold in Carrefour
3.  Spice market - sadly, the only spice market I saw was in Carrefour. Managed to make a quick dash to Mall of Emirates one evening for spice supplies. While Carrefour may not be the most exotic of places, it has an amazing range of spices, nuts and dried fruits with English labels so it's very convenient and easy.  No haggling.  No chicken-duck talk.  The MOE is where the indoor ski slope is too. 
    fountain at Burj al Arab lobby area
4.  Burj al Arab, the world's first 7-star hotel -  check.  Great views from the hotel, and luckily just a 5 minute trot away too.  Managed to gawk at this opulently and lavishedly decorated hotel.  What can I say? I was blinged out. The interior is done in vibrant gem colours of fuschia, purples, blues, greens and all that gold everywhere.  It's like King Midas ran amok in there.  Good thing I had my trusty Ray-Bans with me.  It's still a gawk-worthy hotel, with the floor-to-ceiling aquariums flanking the lobby and boasting the tallest lobby atrium.
    Burj al Khalifa - tallest tower in the world
5.  Burj al Khalifa -  caught this as I was being whisked to the airport.
    selection of mezze
    Ourzi with rice
6.  Taste of Arabian mezze - check. Lucky for me, every meal started with the ubiquitous flatbreads served with multitudes of hummous, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, olives and a vast assortment of salads.  Suffice to say, I was very happy just tucking into the mezze.  Dinner one night had a roast lamb dish served with pilaf.  It was called ourzi.  Being a sucker for anything lamb, I thought it was fab.

Dubai is a city somewhat contradictory city; ultra-modern city and ostentatious wealth flaunted coupled with a shocking lack of social responsibility ( I've seen people littering without a thought in the malls), Chanel clutching women, covered head to toe with their Loubotins peeking from under their black abayas...While I've barely scratched the surface with this visit, Dubai is probably worth a look only if you are in the region and have a day or 2 to kill.  It hasn't rated yet an entry in my bucket list.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel looks like a sail

suburb in Jumeirah area

one of many mosques dotting the city

playground for the rich

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