Mooncakes: The Taste of Sweet Rebellion


 CIMG9739

You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.

The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore – they’re fearless cooks.

Pineapple tarts, bak-zhang (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), black vinegar-braised pig’s trotters? They could whip those together with their eyes closed.

Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.

Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)

During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.

It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.

Continue reading

Casatiello: A Marvel of Meat & Melted Cheese


CIMG8008

In my family’s Singapore kitchen this week, my mother carefully brought out a prized discovery from her fridge, nudging me to try it.

Inside the box was a lovingly swaddled loaf of bread, filled with slivers of ham and dappled with bits of melted and crusty cheese. A friend had given it to her and my mother had decided it was the best bread she’d ever tasted.

“Hey, I think I recently made something like this,” I said. 

“You DID?” came her incredulous response. 

Her disbelief was completely understandable — I rarely set foot in the kitchen as a child. And when I finally did start cooking in my 20s, I was initially more known for inedible cheesecakes than Julia Child creations.

As for baking bread, it’s something that seemed so difficult that I never considered trying it until I joined the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge in May. But baking a bread every week along with more than 200 bakers around the world has been a surprisingly empowering and therapeutic thing.

In a piece that I wrote for the Washington Post Food section about the proliferation of online cooking and baking groups, Jeff of Culinary Disasters talks about learning to be patient from baking bread for the challenge. Wendy of Pink Stripes says she’s become such a brave cook that she’s applied that confidence outside of the kitchen, too. (Wendy, who had always wanted to learn to scuba dive, took the plunge in December.)

As for me, I’ve learned gobs — about time management, the need for enough sleep, the importance of simply trying. Above all, through the exhilarating successes and occasional clouds of smoke, I’ve grown increasingly sure of one thing: If you set your mind to doing something — even if it seems impossible — you’re going to be able to do it. (And, if you’re lucky like I’ve been, you’ll have the fist-bumps of fellow bakers, pushing you along the way.)

And that’s intoxicating knowledge to have.

So, yes, Mum, I really did make casatiello, an Italian bread filled with cured meat and melted cheese that tastes just divine. And it was actually pretty simple …

Continue reading

Nutella-Ginger Cookies Only A Mother Could Love


CIMG8286

I have been yearning for butter ever since I saw Julie & Julia a few days ago.

From the first moment that I saw Meryl Streep as Julia Child drop a slab of butter onto a pan, my deep, deep hunger began.

It’s made me request extra pats of garlic butter to perch atop my steak in a French bistro and slather it so generously on bread that you could have omitted the bread and, honestly, I would not have noticed.

But, as Julia supposedly said, “With enough butter, anything is good.”

And it was this very spirit that led me to finally get off my tush and make the Nutella dessert that I had pledged to do when I signed up for The Nutella Challenge. (It’s a little exercise created by Paula at Bell’Alimento in which dozens of amateur bakers have agreed to come up with a dessert starring Nutella.)

Continue reading