Dairy

Japanese melty iceboox cheesecake

I’m sitting here, struggling with how best to explain to you all why this Japanese version of the burnt basque cheesecake is superior than the original in every single way possible, mentally auditioning all the angles I could cut into this subject that I think is going to change the way you think about cheesecakes in general.  How it’s possibly the easiest cheesecake your kitchen-incompetence will ever behold… how it has complexities in its flavors that reminds me of a caramel flan… how its play between temperature and texture is brilliant… how the outer layer is rich yet airy while the center remains creamy and gooey, melting almost instantly around the heat of my tongue…  A R-rated story on how cheesecake and  ice cream had a baby?  I considered that, too.

But it dawned on me that these are all just supporting facts, facts that you will witness, I’ve no doubt, as soon as you make one yourself in your kitchen.  What really stands in between you and making this cake is not the certainties, no.  It is the doubt, one single doubt really, the only elephant that needs to be removed first and swiftly before everything else could just fall into place.  Because I know what you’re all thinking.  Here, I’ll say it with you.

Isn’t this just an undercooked mistake?  

No, no it is not.  It is fucking not.

Is soft-boiled egg a mistake?

There.  I don’t know how much simpler I could put it.

Now, welcome to the only cheesecake you’ll ever bake for the rest of your life.

if cheesecake and ice cream had a baby.

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Confession of an escapist cook, Hong Kong-style milk tea gelato

(I stood there) mildly confused about what just happened.  But a long-overdue sense of consolation and the temporary release from anger and malcontent forbid me to investigate.

 

(An edited version was published on Heathyish).

In a sweltering, Hong Kong summer afternoon only slightly tempered by the torrential rain that had just begun to batter the island, I stood in my kitchen trying to figure out the golden ratio for brewing a cup of silky Hong Kong-style milk tea, a legacy of course left by the city’s British colonial past, while on TV across the room, a black blanket of soaking wet protesters numbering in over a million stretching as far as the eye can see, were marching for Hong Kong’s future.

Democracy, is what’s on their table.

I felt a sense of commotion creeping up my chest as I tried to drown it by scorching the tea leaves with my screeching kettle, watching them tumble and twirl inside the tea pot in a hopeless toil.  But it did little to distract me from realizing, once again, what a familiar predicament I am in.  Because the very reason that I am in Hong Kong, is precisely because I was determined to leave the place that Hong Kong is becoming in its current trajectory – and fighting not to be – China.

In 2008, after the titanic economic crash that would later come to be know as The Great Recession, I left New York with my husband who was offered a job in Hong Kong and later moved to Beijing for its more stable market.  Little did I know, the following six years would become the most turbulent, if not emotionally destructive period of my life.  Under China’s increasingly heavy-handed authoritarian rule, the very act of living in a place clashed violently with what I was brought up to uphold, however naïve, as a principle for democracy and civil rights.  It’s a place where the personal surrender of liberty is made painfully apparent every day, where you are required to be okay with what you’re allowed to watch listen or say, where even the access to VPN (virtual private network to bypass the great firewall) is closely administered under the moody mercy of the Chinese government, which is difficult if not unreachable most times of the year.

Surely, as many would argue, that if you just take it lying down that the daily functions of life can go on like any other places, but I couldn’t just take it, this constant psychological bullying, and the worst of all is knowing that by accepting this oppressive reality in exchange for economic gains, I was in some way, complicit.

But leave… I did not; I stayed; I made dinners; I abided.

Then one night, as mundanely miserable as any other, as if something had snapped, neurologically almost, perhaps prompted by the salted sting of happier people living happier lives in Rome on TV, I hovered into my kitchen in an eerie silence.  I laid out my subjects in a pathological orderliness, unbleached flour with 9% protein, free-range egg yolks, water and salt.  I can still remember plunging my hands into the wetness of this flour mixture, in a trance almost, squeezing choking and tearing it until this unruly and sordid coagulation slowly transformed into a shiny globe of supple, silky and harmonious cohesion.  After impatiently allowing it to unwind, I then force its unsuspecting body through the cold, revolving steels of a pasta machine, watching silently its malleable mass extruded and aligned under the unnegotiable pressure into a pristinely edged and sleek sheet of silk.  Oh the jitters, I paused only momentarily to relish in this anticipated gratification, before I robotically drove repeated incisions into its surrendered body until its severed parts laid in uniform strands on my bare countertop.

For a while I stood there, looking down on my hands encrusted with dried fluids, mildly confused about what had just happened.  But there, a long-overdue sense of consolation and the temporary release from anger and malcontent forbid me to investigate.

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Goat cheese and cherry swirl ice cream

the goat cheese popping untimed and irregular bursts of mild saltiness and cheesy aroma that cuts and balance the sweetness, which then welcomes a current of tangy and floral compote of black cherries and honey

So some of you may already knew from my Instagram that I was forced onto a whiskey distillery tour in Scotland in spite of my lifelong disagreement with this confounding substance.  Although against contrary evidences, I could swear I exercised a generous though painful effort to have fun.  But ultimately, on a jam-packed five days excursion dead set on the sole purpose of hunting and gathering overpriced barley water and thus sidelining the other, infinitely more joyous activity of plowing into flocks of free-roaming sheep at every turn, it’s safe to assume that I absolutely did not.

And this brings us to today’s topic, Mary’s Milk Bar.  If there was any highlights at all in my five days of being unpaid escort, it had to be this highly acclaimed ice cream shop in Edinburgh, sitting just at the foothill against the backdrop of the magnificent Edinburgh’s Castle.  A fine quality creameries aside, what makes Mary’s Milk Bar attractive, to me at least, are her seasonal, unique profiles of unexpected flavors, pistachios and cardamom, orange and almond to name a few.  But I’m not going to focus on the flavors that she already perfected, instead, I want to remake one that I felt could improve to my likings, and that was one called goat cheese and honey.

Even through the cold barrier of the glass window, I could feel the strong attraction of this combination in my imagination, but when I actually tasted it, it fell softly on the promise.  The flavors of the goat cheese was very subtly blended into the smooth cream-base almost to the point of undetectability, which I guess I could understand, for goat cheese being such a pungent driver of tastes that too dominant of a presence could potentially ruin what is meant to be a sweet summer dessert.  But I couldn’t help but reimagining that instead of a smooth blend, the goat cheese should come as frozen bits of surprises scattered throughout a pure and dense cream base, popping untimed and irregular bursts of mild saltiness and cheesy aroma that cuts and balances the sweetness, which would make such an incredibly rich and intense ice cream that welcomes a current of tangy and floral compote of black cherries and honey.

I put my theory to the test.  And let me just say that if I had this with me everyday, I wouldn’t mind the fact that I was on a whiskey tour.

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Extra-browns Browned Butter

Not double, not triple, but ten, twenty-times of (salty) browned bits.

You’ve never known browned butter this way.  You’ll never want to know it any other way.

The other day, two hours after midnight while I was peeling through the dense jungle of Amazon’s available silicone microwave popcorn makers to be exact, something hit me like a lightening slitting down a tree.

Browned butter.

A glorious thing, absolutely.  But what is wrong with browned butter?  No, no, let me rephrase.  What is missing with browned butter?  It’s a beautiful thing that is butter made even more beautiful by letting the remaining traces of milk – an inevitable remnant from the process of making butter from cream – slowly caramelize into speckles of browned bits that, I want to argue, is the unsung hero that truly gives browned butter its celebrated nuttiness and deep, rich aroma.

So here I ask again, as attractive as is, what is missing with browned butter?

I say, not enough browned bits.

Yes, think about it!  Think about how sick browned butter could be if it is accompanied by not double, not triple, but ten, twenty-times the amount of browned bits that separates browned butter from being a component to a stand-alone, self-sufficient sauce all on its own.

Because I’m not just talking about browned bits, but salty, salty browned bits.  Relentlessly nutty to a point of almost sweet aroma storming your nasal cavity, with the saltiness bringing out all the nuance of depth and flavor that plain fat couldn’t physically carry by itself (salt can’t melt in oil), this is what I am calling Extra Browns, the late-arriving amplification of what browned butter could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been if everyone has been making it this way.  You’ve never known browned butter this way.  You’ll never want to know it any other way.

Simply add milk.  Simply add milk, my friends.

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Simplified, tall fluffy pancake, stuffed with cheese

NO SEPARATION OF EGG WHITES AND YOLKS, NO WHIPPING THE WHITES AND FOLDING IT BACK IN, AND YEAH, NO MAYONNAISE EITHER.

 

If you use the internet, you’ve probably seen this.  This super lofty, tall and wiggling souffle pancake, said to have originated from Japan, that will surely tickle the feathers of anyone who has a soft sentimental spots for stacked fluffiness.

I, for one, am not a pancake person.  Or at least, not in its traditional form.  But over the years, I’ve been patiently waiting for a game changer that would summon my inner fluff-craze that has been dormant inside my cold, pancake-less heart, and I thought, maybe, this is it.

Well, not quite.

Upon further investigation, I realized that the recipe for this pancake requires violating one of my many holy baking commandments – Thou shalt not ask for the separation of egg white and yolks, separate whippings, and folding them back in.  I am not thy bitch. – carved into a plastic chopping board and hung onto my fridge in permanence to remind me of the gods’ wrath against disobedience.  So typically, if I see such thing, I just walk away.  But something, a small voice inside my head, an imploding honey cake from the old ages perhaps, held my foot in the ground.

Thing is, whole eggs whip up marvelously fine just as well.

If it’s air that we’re after, whipping egg whites separately isn’t always necessary.  I thought, if I could just find the right ratio between flours and whole eggs that are whipped together with sugar until almost mousse-like in consistency, then I can streamline this recipe and turn this batter into a one-bowl, fuss-free and fool-proof epiphany that even I can’t fuck up.

And guess what, I did.  A super tall, lofty, spongy one-bowl batter that doesn’t need separation of white and yolks, no folding the whites back in, and yeah, no mayonnaise either.  My heart should be content.  My inner fluff-craze should awaken and shine lights upon the golden gate that welcomes me towards pancake enlightenment.  Right?

Well, not quite.

Thing is, like all other earnest yet disappointing pancakes that had come before it, flavor-wise, this pancake was still completely boring.  Cottony fluffiness, yeah, but remind me again why I want to eat cotton again?  I sat and stared, faithful, receptive, in waiting.  A sign will come.  It must come.  All these journeys of questions and answers, flipping and flopping, reincarnations and repetitions, can’t all be for nothing.  Pancake must mean something!  It must!

I waddled my slumbering, meditating body towards the fridge for a diet coke, the thought-juice if you will, and out the corner of my eyes, there it was – A Laughing Cow (regrettably not a sponsor).  Of course!  If the gods intend a purpose for this pancake’s spacious and buoyant volume, surely, it would be for nothing else but, stuffing!  And what is better to aid its mildly sweet and airy crumbs if not this exuberantly creamy and contrastingly salty cheese?

I put my theory to work, and it worked.  An unlikely but wondrous pairing that is texturally light yet creamy, flavorfully sweet yet salty, a faintly vanilla sponge moistened with a mildly cheesy funk.  In the end, excused by its entirely oil/butter-free crumbs, a slim waterfall of melted butter and a squirt of honey is appropriately commenced.  Pancake, is that finally you?  Oh where have you been…

 
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SIMPLE YET SURPRISING AMSTERDAM PANCAKE

 

I KNOW IT DOESN’T LOOK MUCH.  I PROBABLY WOULD’VE BYPASSED IT IF I WASN’T STUCK IN AMSTERDAM.  BUT I’M GLAD I WAS.  AND I KNOW YOU WILL, TOO

I’ve been to Amsterdam.  For a total of 18 hours.  I don’t know what people do during an overnight layover in a city they know nothing about, and I knew nearly nothing about Amsterdam.

However, pancake, seems to be a thing.

What did I know about “Amsterdam pancake”, or as I later found out, pannenkoeken?  Not much, really, aside from that it’s starkly different from the verticality of common stacked pancakes, in fact, it’s one of the flattest stand-alone foods I’ve came across.  And in my long years of hunting for culinary clues, when something spreads so unseemly, so 2D, so unornamented to a point of bleakness, yet is still adored as “a thing”, further investigation is warranted.  And rest assured, I was not disappointed.  To clarify upfront, during the only few hours of daytime we had, we only tried Amsterdam pancake once, from an unresearched, random cafe close to our Airbnb apartment, and had only a single pancake with cheese which we shared.  All in all, what I’m trying to say is, I am no expert.  But from the moment since the waitress placed something that looked exactly like this in front of us, as unflatteringly as it came, and I tore a small corner from the edge and put it faithfully in my mouth,  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Chewy.  Chewy was the first word that came to mind.  But soft though, really soft.  A combination of textures that, from the start, was already far more interesting than any of the spiritless associations of common pancakes, say, pfff, fluffy.  Flavor-wise, it wasn’t exceedingly eggy like Dutch baby or french crepe, nesting comfortably in the natural and mild sweetness of wheat flours and milk.  I also couldn’t stop thinking about how daringly minimal it presented itself on the table, a bare blanket of confidence with nothing else but a few slices of melted Dutch gouda on top, almost making a statement, declaring its independence from BS, secure with assurance.  It felt playful to eat, interacting, but comfortable, like having a conversation with a soft-spoken but funny stranger who underdressed with ease, while the whole time I wondered if it was too weird to ask if we could be friends for life.

And that’s exactly what I did.  All eight times of trials and errors.  It felt funny going after something, with this much effort, when I wasn’t even sure if it’s a classic representation in its category.  Is this the pannenkoeken?  I have no idea.  But I don’t really care.  I just want to find my way to back to that particular one that I really liked.  It was expectedly tricky to replicate that softly chewy texture which I hold as a key to its charm, leading to a combined conclusion of both wheat flour and potato starch in the batter.

I know it doesn’t look like much.  And I probably would’ve bypassed it if I wasn’t stuck in a city full of it.  But I’m glad I was.  And I know you will, too.

 
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SPRING CREAM PIZZA

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DOLLOPS OF SAVORY WHIPPED CREAM HELPLESSLY DESTABILIZE UNDER THE BLAZING HEAT OF THE OVEN, RENDERING INTO A PUDDLE OF SALTY, OILY, HERBY AND CREAMY MAGMA

You know, I try not to make pizzas nowadays.

Off carbs?  I wish.  Gluten-free?  Is there any other diet more torturous by design?  How about an oven that shuts down in the middle of nowhere for no reasons whatsoever?  OK, yeah I have that.  But, no.  No, not for any of those things.  In fact, the reason is a simple and straightforward one, in fact, one that deals with our most basic instinctual fear which drives, I believe, most human behaviors… the fear of dying alone.

Wait, pizza can do that?  Yes, pizza can do that.  How?  By making me fat.

 

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