How I miss the English summer.
The cloudless skies, the burning sun, the warm breeze sans the humidity. The way it snuck up on us, just as we threw our hands up in despair and protested, ‘You call this bleak piece of sh*t summer, dammit?!’.
I love the way we toiled through the bitter cold of winter and dragged our soaking wet boots through the black mush called s-n-o-w, just for one very cloudless, warm, snuggly day. I love the way that spring was practically non-existent and that everyone complained about it like they didn’t know better. Most of all, I love the way Londoners reacted to the rare burst of heat, the way every square feet of plump grass patches became precious commodity in Regents Park, Hyde Park…and the odd island at the traffic lights.
There is just something so magical about the English summer, a season that I took for granted as I was born and raised in the tropics. M and I used to celebrate those warm days with barbecue-offs on our shoebox of a balcony when we lived in London. There were a few things that had to go on the menu. Mozzarella, tomato and basil salad drizzled in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, accented with a good dash of capers and sprinkle of salt and black pepper. Homemade pork belly satay and satay sauce made with a killer secret recipe from my mother. Crisp romaine lettuce salad with pomodoro tomatoes and toasted pine nuts. Sometimes, we would cheat and do cola ribs for that instant caramel-y hit. Other times, we would tuck into M’s favourite BBQ whole chicken. And we always had wine.
We often had friends over to join in the fun. But really, my favourite summer days were spent with M and M alone, as the charcoal turned amber, as we toasted marshmallows in the twilight, as we wound down for the day with the last glass of wine and idle chatter.
Yes, how I miss our English summer.
After five long years in London, I’m finally back in Singapore, just in time for reunion dinner on the eve of Lunar New Year.
I am beyond excited. Not so much for meeting nosey people at gatherings, and giving red packets (being married also means I no longer qualify for shamelessly parking at random houses for red packets from strangers who clearly dread to see me), but I am thrilled to be spending the Lunar New Year with my folks and siblings, and I am keen to carve out new traditions with my husband and baby girl.
Before our daughter came along, M and I made up certain Lunar New Year traditions in London. We were very homesick and often rallied friends to ignite the good cheer that each New Year brought. We would host a steamboat reunion dinner with massive piles of sliced meats and vegetables, and inhale these after dipping them into divine sauces (often concocted with Sha Cha sauce, sesame paste, chilli paste, chopped coriander and raw eggs). We would bring out the games table and play Monopoly or poker (and very occasionally mahjong) whilst watching Stephen Chow comedies. I would makepineapple tarts, kueh bangkit, cornflake caramel drops and even clementine macarons for our friends to snack on. We also made sure to do a proper spring clean, arrange stalks of pussy willow in the only vase we own, and put up chun lien (New Year couplets) on the walls. We would have friends over for more steamboat dinners throughout the fifteen days of Lunar New Year, and we would head out to Min Jiang at the Royal Garden Hotel for yusheng and Peking duck. No Lunar New Year was complete without a trip to Chinatown in London, to take in a little of the festivities, jostle with the crowds and admire the rows and rows of Lanterns overlooking Gerrard Street.
Gosh, I miss those times.
I also craved for certain foods that we couldn’t quite get in London, bak kwa (Chinese barbecued pork jerky) for instance. I missed being greeted by wafts of smokey meat on the barbecue, sinking my teeth into ’em chewy, sticky slices, and licking remnants of that addictive sweet-savoury caramel off my fingers. What did I do then, to satisfy the craving? Why, I made bak kwa from scratch of course! The husband thought I was a little crazy but he was happy that I did! It turned out to be really easy, the marinade was simple enough (I omitted certain ingredients that I couldn’t get in London and improvised) and all we needed to do was to finish the slices off on the barbecue! I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they were authentic, but the homemade bak kwa came pretty close to the real thing.
I don’t know if anyone cares for the recipe; if you do, please comment away*! Bak kwa costs an arm and a leg in the days leading up to Lunar New Year, and I would make them again if I weren’t busy taking care of my daughter and finding time to brush my teeth.
Ahhh…the days when I could find the energy to cook anything and everything. Oh well, the time will come.
*UPDATED with recipe:
Homemade Bak Kwa
500g minced pork
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 tablespoons unrefined granulated sugar (regular sugar will do, I used this because I had spare unrefined sugar in my pantry)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon shao xing wine
1 tablespoon kecap manis
1/4 teaspoon five spice powder
1/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce
Red liquid food colouring (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 120 degrees Celsius.
2. Mix all ingredients together until well-combined.
3. Place the meat mixture onto a piece of baking parchment that is cut to be slightly larger than your oven tray.
4. Place a piece of cling film on top of the meat mixture and roll out the mixture with a rolling pin until 3-4mm thick. The cling film will prevent the meat from sticking to the rolling pin. Then, gently hold up the sides of the parchment and lay it on the oven tray.
5. Remove cling film and grill in the oven for 17 minutes (I used the fan assisted grill function). This dries up the meat a little so that the final product wouldn’t be too soft. Turn the temperature up to 170 degree Celsius and grill for another 10 minutes; this cooks the meat. You may then choose to char the meat at 200 degrees Celsius for 3 minutes or to finish it off on a charcoal BBQ. I prefer the BBQ as it gives the smokey flavour characteristic of bak kwa. Cool the meat down till desired temperature, cut into slices and serve. Do adjust your grilling times according to your oven idiosyncrasies to fine-tune the texture of your bak kwa.
The recipe is rather versatile and you can tweak the quantities of the seasoning to obtain a saltier or sweeter flavour.
I’ve procrastinated long enough on this teeny announcement. Or two teeny announcements, if you will. Some of you, whom I know personally, are already in the loop but I thought eight months is a long time to go on the blog without actually talking about it even in the most cryptic manner, so it is time to spill the beans. I had wanted to protect my privacy and keep the news all to my selfish self. The last I heard though, some naysayers have already caught wind of this anyway and I’ve been told by my loved ones that I should share the news because readers (who are still sticking around…I’m very happy to know you are, given that I barely wrote anything in the first three-quarter of 2012) would want to know, so here goes…
…I’ve moved back from London to Singapore for good, since eight months ago…and…I’m pregnant!
After five long years in London, I’m finally back home. Suffice to say that everything and yet nothing has changed since 2007. Suffice to say that I’ve done a whole lot of growing up in the UK, seen countless beautiful sceneries whilst travelling, made the most wonderful friends in the five years, tasted a decent portion of good food, started a blog that I thought no one would want to read, cooked/baked/photographed/styled my way from complete noob to amateur-amateur, interacted with the most amazing chefs, built a home from scratch (literally) and learnt a hell lot on ‘How to Live Life to the Fullest, Responsibly So 101’. I also found time to fall deeper in love with my best friend, get married, graduate with a doctorate and have a baby.
London is a big part of my life.
When it came down to the last second, to leave my home of five bittersweet years, I was devastated. The exit from London was pretty hasty. I quit my job, found out I was expecting (and hence decided that I should return to Singapore prematurely to prepare for delivery, I was supposed to leave London only in the summer of 2012), moved to Boston for six weeks as M was posted to Harvard, flew back to London for a night, switched my bags out for summer clothing and everything that I might need back home before speeding back to Singapore the next day. I didn’t really have time to say goodbye. To-date, I still keep the bucket list I had drafted for London and I hope that I will be able to return to the city one day to check the items off the list. I couldn’t even attend the Olympics events that I had bought tickets for.
The next months went by in a blur. There was so much to do with my relocation. I had to get my accounts, documents and life in order. I missed M terribly when he returned to London to finish up his studies. I went through pregnancy alone, save for support from my family and in-laws. None of the relocation bit, physical or emotional, was easy. The days started looking brighter when M came back, triumphant as a fully-qualified doctor after five gruelling years in med school. He packed up our flat in London as hastily as I had left UK, attended his graduation ceremony with his parents but without a very pregnant me, flew back to my arms in Singapore, sorted out whatever I couldn’t handle and supported me through the last trimester.
We had a heart-to-heart talk yesterday night before we fell asleep at 3.30am. It’s been a while since we chatted this much, for four hours in fact. And we both realised how different life is in Singapore. London was a dream. We lived life to the fullest, laughed and cried the hardest, seen the best and went through the worst. It was a city where we grew up the most as individuals and as a couple. It was our first real home together. Coming back to Singapore makes for an almost surreal dive back into reality, where we are suddenly challenged with obligations and responsibilities to others other than two of us, issues to do with fitting into the local culture and soon-to-be parenthood. Even though Singapore is our home, we haven’t got the slightest inkling as to what lies ahead and we will need to do to rise up to the challenges. One thing’s for sure; we are back now and we will make our lives here work. We will carve out new memories, strive towards new goals and conjure new dreams.
To celebrate the chapter that was London, and welcome the new that is Singapore, I prepared my very first dessert table before I left UK. I was challenged in every way, as I have been during my life in London. Different pastries and desserts to make on limited resources, thinking about what really mattered to me that would fit in with the theme, and putting it all together so it makes sense and gives heart. So there you have it, a blue-white-red presentation of a Victoria sponge, Marmite cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and macarons with rose buttercream, a true culmination of something that is quintessentially English, a little bit of what I have learnt to love and another that is a little cosmopolitan owing to the time I spent in Europe. I’ve also scattered the cards, letters, notes and gifts from family and friends around the entire dessert table just for…the two of us to enjoy. Shame I couldn’t offer the sweets to anyone else. Oh well, maybe next time.
Happy homecoming to us, and may we meet again, my fair London.
*Updated: This post is featured on Tastespotting. Check out my profile on Tastespotting to see my other featured posts!
Read on for my new journey as a mother.
Like my bakes? Then check out my other sweet adventures in the kitchen!
You know that I have a rather hefty backlog when I write about something that happened…(more than) a year ago. I’m truly embarrassed but erm, better late than never right? Right.
I have been rather busy, just not in the kitchen, unfortunately; for the record, I’ve only baked thrice this year, all for M’s birthday. Lately, a spin round the bakeries had me thinking about cakes again. Baking remains very much a passion of mine, and I do hope to do it on a more regular basis when I have the time and resources. Nailing recipes for the right taste and texture aside, I do love to try and churn out pretty treats, something that I don’t achieve very often with my meagre talent for craft. As such, I have always yearned to attend a decorating course to help me along but these are often costly ventures that add up and being a miserly self-taught baker, I dropped the idea very quickly.
I was thus absolutely delighted when E invited me for a cupcake decorating class at Bea’s of Bloomsbury. She had won four passes and thanks to her, I got to attend my very first decorating class! I made my way to the bakery at Holborn on a weekday, eagerly anticipating the lesson to come. We were going to learn all about buttercreams, ganaches, and decorating techniques; all these fitted perfectly into my agenda. I was also excited to get to see and work in a professional kitchen.
We took down recipes on how to create the perfect frosting, made our own piping bags, practised writing with ganache, and of course, worked on perfecting rosettes and what-not on the cupcakes. I haven’t got the piping perfect, but oh well, I had loads of fun decorating my cupcakes! We even got to take two dozen of these babies home (vanilla and chocolate ones, smothered in an assortment of dark chocolate ganache, praline Italian buttercream and raspberry Italian buttercream). I particularly enjoyed the chocolate cupcakes, which were moist, very dark and chocolatey, yet fluffy. The frostings were wonderfully light and not the least bit cloying – my colleagues were a big fan of the raspberry buttercream, while I loved the praline.
Now, all this talk about baking and decorating is making my stomach groan. Excuse me while I go rummage in my kitchen for some emergency sweet treats, before somebody gets hurt.
*Updated: This post is featured on Tastespotting. Check out my profile on Tastespotting to see my other featured posts!
Pan-seared scallops, with jamón ibérico chip, pomme purée, served with jamón ibérico foam and chestnuts.
Blimey, is it 2012 already? I can’t believe I have been away from the blog for three whole months! Thanks to all who have been dropping me tweets, messages and emails to check on how I am (and maybe to see if I’m still alive hehehe), I just want to say that everything’s good and I’m finally back with an entry that hopefully makes your mouth water, as much as it did to mine when I was browsing through my photo archives.
Black truffle spaghetti
I hate to admit it but oh gawwwwd, the backlog on my photos is truly appalling. Believe it or not, these pictures were taken a whopping ten months ago, in May 2011, after we returned from back-to-back travelling to Florence/Pisa and Murcia/Cartagena. Better late than never, eh (and yes, travelogues are coming up in future posts)? These dishes were lovingly prepared (how else would we have done it? =p) in our tiny kitchen in London, following our gastronomical trips which swaddled us in romantic (f00d) affairs.
Spaghetti with pan-fried prawns, green olives, and jamón ibérico chips
Like most of our holidays, we planned the trips according to meals and everything else was secondary to eating. This comes as no surprise as we’re after all the forever-hungry-pair-of-food-mongers. The delightful produce had us feeling like glam goddesses rolling in silk sheets that were the unspeakable pleasures; flavours of the earth and the sea couldn’t have been better represented by the black truffles we had in Florence, the fresh seafood and our favourite jamón ibérico de bellota we indulged in when travelling in Spain. We returned from our trips, completely inebriated by the tastes and smells of western Europe, and very quickly, we found ourselves working hard in the kitchen, slaving over the stoves all for the sake of reliving the experience.
The best thing that came out of this? Having to brainstorm, cook and savour a truly breathtaking meal with the one I love. There is really nothing quite like beating about the kitchen in our shabby home clothes, bantering, exchanging tips on cooking and fussing over each other’s poor plating skills. That, and reminiscing the wonderful memories we made on our trips together. Ahhhh, the good ol’ days…
Christmas is just around the corner. Are you busy wrapping up your work to prepare for a week’s worth of feasting and gifting? Well, for me, I have finished work for the year and aside from packing, tying up loose ends, spring cleaning and cooking for dinner parties, I’m mostly relaxing in the apartment, idling when I can and savouring some me-time and time with my husband.
For five years now, Christmas has mostly been rather quiet for us. If we’re not back in Singapore to celebrate the season with our families, we spend the holidays all wrapped up in the freezing cold, with each other in our cosy home. The shops are almost always closed during Christmas Eve and Day in Europe, and unlike Singapore, there’s nowhere to go during the holidays. At first, this came as a bit of a shock, because we didn’t know where to get groceries, or even a bottle of mineral water if we happen to be travelling. Over the years, however, we have come to appreciate the quiet time that is Christmas.
When there is nothing else to distract us, we focus on being with people. I’m not just talking about merry-making, but we catch up, talk about hopes and dreams for the new year, learn more about each other or about our friends and families, and most importantly, we appreciate and give thanks for the wonderful people in our lives. It is afterall the season of Joy and Love.
What better way to spend quality time with people whom you love than to sit around on the floor, huddled together under thick duvets by the drafty windows, laughing over mugs of hot chocolate? What better way to say thank you to your loved ones with a cosy dinner at your home? And what better way to send them home with good memories of the night, each with a bag of warm cookies in hand? I honestly can’t think of better ways to celebrate the season than with good food and good times together, but that’s just me.
Wherever you are, whatever you do and whoever you are with, I hope you enjoy the holidays. And I wish that the new year will bring you love, happiness and good health.
Happy Christmas, everyone!
Here’s the recipe for my Dark Chocolate & Coconut Cookies, if you’re interested:
Dark Chocolate & Coconut Cookies:
(adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)
230g unsalted butter, room temperature
300g soft light brown sugar
50g liquid glucose
2 medium eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
400g plain flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 and 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
200g 70% chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Lindt)
100g flaked coconut
1. Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
2. Beat butter, sugar and glucose on the stand mixer with a paddle attachment for about 8 minutes on medium speed till creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat at medium speed till combined (scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula after each addition to incorporate the unmixed parts). Turn the mixer down to low speed and add the vanilla extract.
4. Add flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda and mix until just incorporated. Stir in the roughly chopped chocolate chunks and flaked coconut.
5. Arrange 6 tablespoon-sized drops of cookie dough on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Ensure that these drops are spaced well apart (more than 2 inches apart) to allow for expansion. Bake in the preheated oven for 8-9 minutes, or until golden brown around the edges. At this point, the cookies will be quite flat, and frighteningly soft and pliable. Leave the cookies to cool slightly on the tray before transferring the cookies onto the cooling rack.
6. You can choose to eat them while they are warm (not hot!) and wash them down with a glass of cold milk, or have them at room temperature. I like them warm. When the cookies have cooled completely, store them in an air-tight container. These cookies should remain slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
The crisp winter air is getting chillier, and we are gratefully snuggled under a warm duvet on the sofa, listening to Christmas carols and watching holiday movies. Time seems to slow down as we take in the holiday cheer, and marvel at the simplest things such as the beautiful tree that is standing in our living room now and the pretty snowflakes that will soon grace the season. Even that mug of hot chocolate seems to be that much more special when tucked under your cold fingers. There is just something magical about the time that is Christmas. Everyone seems cheery despite the blistering cold. Shoppers smile as they bump into each other with their big bags in madly crowded stores. The lights are especially pretty, as if they were there to put the misery out of the shorter days and longer nights. The odd hum of a carol that pops in my head when I am cooking. The thought of seeing my family warms my heart, this year especially as we are moving across the globe (albeit with one or two pitstops) within the next year. This winter, our fifth, our last, the finale, is no doubt the most beautiful.
Delighted as we are to return home soon, we will come to miss everything and everyone that defines London. Our dear friends who have become our family over here, the stories that we share, the good and bad times that we have been through together, even the bitter cold and annoying rain that drapes London in a depressing shade of grey. It seems befitting to celebrate the last winter with our friends. What better way to do so than with a party full of cheer, brimming with home-cooked food and copious amounts of drinks?
And so we did. We came up with a menu that took all of what we experienced and loved whilst living in London, and entertained our friends with it. Grilled Camembert with tomato and chilli chutney, served with warm crusty bread and an assortment of cold meats. This was similar to what we had and loved during our recent trip to the Three Choirs Vineyard | An Ottolenghi-style salad of roasted aubergines with shredded roast chicken, pine nuts, pomegranate, basil and garlic yoghurt, something we have come to adore during our time here | Good ol’ steak, something that M has been crazy about after our trip to Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, New York, and has mastered during his time here, served with creamy mash potatoes and homemade béarnaise sauce, a sauce that paralysed both my arms after some Olympic-worthy whisking when I first attempted it years ago, and now I’ve found a shortcut to doing them, sparing my wings from pain and agony | Moroccan leg of lamb with mint yoghurt and chickpea sauce, which I learnt to cook in my first year here when I was an amateur in the kitchen, after falling in love with Jamie Oliver’s recipes | Matcha tiramisu, a testament to how my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of reinventing traditional recipes.
After much nerves, and toiling in the kitchen, we’re glad to say that everything, including the monstrous leg of lamb, was cooked to perfection. It was the best dinner party we have ever hosted, and even we were very surprised by the success of it, because a lot of cooking had to be done in a tiny kitchen, and as we know, the tension runs high when two cooks with very different styles are working in a small space together. Our friends were duly impressed and we were even happier to know that they went home well-fed, drink-drank-and-ever-so-slightly-inebriated. Jokes were cracked, and embarrassing stories were let slip. We laughed till our bellies ached and I drank till I was hung over the next day. It was all in good fun and I’m really going to miss all the times we’ve spent together. Everyone’s going their separate ways come the heart of winter, so I guess it’s goodbye for now. Till we meet again, my dear friends, till we meet again.
It feels soooo good to be back in the kitchen again. To feel inspired by sights, smells and flavours. To dream up things I want to eat and things I want to feed my husband. To chop, peel and grill. To present a beautiful plate of food. And most of all, to watch him tuck in happily.
You see, most of the time, M cooks for me. He is a wonderful cook, don’t get me wrong, and I’m very fortunate to have someone who tries his best to come up with something new, exciting and delicious on the menu everyday. Now it’s my turn and I’m gladly returning the favour.
I’ve been a little more cautious with what I eat lately, as I am getting older and it only makes sense to try and eat a more balanced diet in appropriate quantities. I used to have such a hearty appetite, even M was a little alarmed in the early stages of our relationship and casually mentioned that even if I don’t get fat, I might just eat till he and I are broke. After a health scare in my family this year, I’ve resolved to cut down on the quantities of food that I’m packing in, and surprisingly, it didn’t take much effort to do so – it’s the age thing I reckon, I feel full more quickly than I do before with the same quantities of food. But I have my weaknesses – the more-than-occasional chocolate, the incredibly tasty stuff (i.e. anything tasty is usually high in carbohydrates or fats) and man, do I dislike vegetables. To make matters worse, I don’t see the point of eating fruits. My philosophy was (still is, actually), why make yourself feel bloated with fruit when you can have your rice and meats, and feel properly full instead? People say they feel cleansed after eating fruits, I say I feel stupidly bloated and uncomfortable.
Regardless, I’ve started to pay more attention to what I eat. I still have a bit of a battle with fruits, but I try to have more vegetables and less carbohydrates (rice usually makes me happy). And the only person who could make me eat more vegetables is….unfortunately not my mother or my husband. It is Yotam Ottolenghi. If everyone makes salads like he does, we would all be vegetarians, I kid you not. I first heard of Ottolenghi about 6 years ago, when I realised that M loved the chocolate cake and I asked his good friend to get a birthday cake for him on my behalf as I was living in Singapore. When I came to London for a holiday, I made it a point to drop by Ottolenghi to try the cake for myself, and it was good but I remember thinking how silly those ridiculous good-looking model-esque people were to queue for….salads. I was clearly not herbivorous then. Two years ago, my good friend D suggested for us to have lunch at Ottolenghi, boy was I skeptical but I was keen to try the cakes, so I agreed. That changed my life forever (D has a knack for changing my life, first with macarons then this). I had the roasted aubergines with saffron yoghurt salad and I was SOLD.
I took M to Ottolenghi after that, and he too agreed that the salads were wonderful. So this week, I decided to make the roasted aubergines salad for lunch. I had only two strands of saffron left in the pantry and it wasn’t enough to make the yoghurt, so I tweaked the recipe and added whatever I fancied to make it better. It was mostly aubergines, pomegranate, pine nuts, basil drizzled with a yoghurt-y sauce made from 0% fat Greek yoghurt and some seasoning. I couldn’t stay away from meat of course, so I added some roast chicken slices into the salad, and it was divine. I can’t believe I’m saying this but it is possible to have a delicious AND healthy meal, and this revelation is all thanks to Ottolenghi! Needless to say, M was happy to come home to a good lunch.
We do have sinful meals of course. Just the other night, I made one of my favourite things in the world – Chorizo Spanish Tortilla! Turned out perfect and we were happily fighting for the last piece.
So it isn’t so bad to be healthier, really. I’m back to cooking with more of a healthy focus than before, everything’s still pretty damn tasty and our bellies are happy. I’m looking forward to trying out more new recipes in the kitchen and feeding M. Looks like New Year’s resolution came very much resolved…..early!