Vintage Cake Toppers

I'm having a huge "oh, my gosh, I love these" moment over these candle holders and cake toppers that I found on Etsy. I don't normally like things that rarely get used because they just make me think about how they're going to end up in a garbage dump some day, polluting the Earth. The good news is that these particular pieces are vintage, so I can purchase them guilt free! (Okay, so I still feel guilty about the packaging involved in mail order, but most of that, if not all of it, can be recycled.) These would look so adorable atop your favorite cake or cupcake! Instant crowd appeal, with very little effort!

Fruits of Our Labor

There aren’t enough hours in a day. Everyone knows this (except perhaps for some lucky ducks that have perfected cosmic time-juggling), as do I, but every time it’s brought to fore I still shake my head and wonder where all those hours went.

Where indeed have all those hours gone? Not here – it’s been a week since I posted last. Not in my kitchen – I haven’t really been cooking or experimenting in there either. Not shoe shopping – you don’t even want to hear about the sad state of my shoes.

Work – the hungry god to whom I feed my hours. Perhaps you have a similar hungry god in your life? Some are lucky in that this hungry god also happens to be their lives’ passion, and so feeding it is a euphoric release. For many others, this hungry god pays for their shoes (and extra virgin olive oil supply), and so must be fed at any cost. And so friends, this is what I have been up to, when I’m MIA elsewhere in life (including from this blog) – I’m feeding my hungry god.

Now you may read this and think that I’m miffed at my hungry god for chomping away at those extra hours I could have been kneading dough or having before-noon Bloody Mary’s with mum – but in truth, there is no time like now to be thankful you have a hungry god in your life. Especially a hungry god that is growing...even if this means you need to feed him round the clock. Better than a not-so-hungry god that has to cut off its limbs to survive...and woe is you if you happen to be one of those limbs.

Despite feeling weary and beat, I also feel exhilarated. My work-plate being filled to overflowing is only a sign of things going in the right direction. And getting there fast...on a whoop and a gallop. So my hungry god and I sit side by side in this rollercoaster – scary and exciting. I feed him and he feeds me. The fruits of our labor.

Pictured above are some fledgling kaimito (star apple) that has started to fruit at my organic farmer’s. Though small, they were delicious – the flesh soft, white, and silky...and so sweet! They are popping up all over the markets now, both these light green ones and the more common, and bigger, purple ones. I love them cold...straight from the fridge. The green bananas in the background were from my mom-in-law’s cousin whose family has a plantation down south. They are unbelievably sweet and creamy, although they never fully turn yellow. The green tea towel they are resting on was a gift from a dear friend I met through blogging (thank you M!) :)

No matter what you labor at...don’t forget to enjoy the fruits!

Nestle Toll House Swirled Morsels

photo courtesy of Anna Kashkanova

Okay, I admit it. I don't know when Nestle introduced these swirled chips. It could have been last week or it could have been ten years ago, for all I know. If this is old news to some of you, excuse my delayed reaction, but I'm SUPER excited about them!! In the right dessert, they look so cute! It actually comes across as if you've done something really fancy, when really, all you've done is pour a bag of chocolate chips into your batter. Well, they aren't just plain old chocolate chips, really. Each chip is swirled with either white chocolate, peanut butter, or caramel. From a purely visual standpoint, I like the black and white chips the best. They stand out the most, although I've always had a soft spot for chocolate and peanut butter! If you need some inspiration, Nestle includes a whole slew of swirled-chip recipes on their site. Click here for more pictures/recipes and here for additional information on the chips.

Sinampalukan Manok (Tamarind'd Chicken)

I’m as romantic as the next girl (I think) but when it comes to Valentines I prefer to spend it at home. That’s not to say I have something against this day of hearts and roses and such – I am not one to turn up my nose at romance. In fact, I think everyone should indulge! Goodness knows that we might be in a better place if we all took some time to cuddle instead of plot and scheme. And a day that makes us stop and be nice to someone else (or to ourselves!) is a good day in my book no matter how trite that sounds!

(side note: one of the things I love about writing in a blog is that I can go off-tangent as many times as I please and I can run-on sentence to my heart’s content!)

AnyWAY, Valentines = stay at home. Yes, definitely, or at least as much as I can help it. I don’t know how it is over where you are, but Valentines here is frenetic. Frenzied. Off-the-charts hysterical. Everyone is out. It’s impossible to book a table, and when you do the restaurants are packed. You can just imagine what this does to our already horrid traffic. A good day to stay home and cook.

But I didn’t! Cook that is. This Valentines C decided to cook for me :) Now, I have to say at this point that, although most of the time I cook and C washes up, it isn’t always that way. Once in a while C cooks and C washes up. Steaks, for example, are always made by C (unless I have a rub or marinade I want to try, but even then I don’t actually cook the steak). As is sinigang – the ubiquitous Filipino sour soup.

Sinigang is one of C’s favourite dishes that I never learned to he did. And how. He started by following a friend’s recipe and built his own from there. He is nowhere near the persona of voracious foodie, waxing lyrical about truffles and fennel pollen. He is still a jock through and through. But sometimes, when he suddenly sits up in the middle of the night to explain exactly how he cuts the eggplants for his sinigang or what cut of meat he will use next, I have to wonder.

So this is what he made for us for Valentines – Sinampalukan Manok. When Filipinos refer to sinigang, they are usually referring to a soup with vegetables and meat (or fish), with a souring agent added. Most commonly used is sampalok (tamarind), but around the Philippines they also use kamias (Averrhoa bilimbi), unripe mango, or guava to sour the soup. For the meat, you can use pork or beef, fish or prawns. There are a myriad of versions and combinations for sinigang but for some reason, when you use chicken, it’s called Sinampalukan Manok (literally Tamarind’d Chicken).

C doesn’t use a recipe when he cooks any of his sinigang but I can share the general framework for his Sinampalukan Manok: He boils some water (he uses a lot because he likes a lot of soup) in our biggest pot with onions (whole but peeled) and tomatoes (whole), ginger (peeled and sliced), long green chilis (sili pangsigang, whole), some gabi (taro, peeled), and patis (fish sauce). Then he adds the chicken. When the gabi is soft he fishes it out, mashes it, and returns it to the pot. This makes the soup really thick which is how we like it. He then leaves it to cook until the chicken is tender. When the chicken is almost done he adds labanos (radish, sliced), let’s it cook a bit, and then adds eggplant (sliced on the diagonal). And then he adds the sinigang mix*** (no, we don’t make it from scratch!). We taste and adjust seasoning accordingly – if it needs more salt he adds fish sauce, more sourness then he adds more sinigang mix, more heat means more chilis. We like our sininigang really sour (the type that makes your forehead knot) and really spicy. Finally he adds mustasa (mustard) leaves, which he says are the perfect greens for sinigang. Stir, take off the heat, and enjoy with lots and lots of rice!

We used the free-range chicken from our organic farmer (the same place we got our duck) so we had to cook it for much longer than our regular grocery birds. The meat had leagues more flavour though and the dark meat was much, much actual meat as opposed to poultry.

This may not seem like the most romantic dish in the world but it can’t be beat for comfort and warmth. And someone doing the cooking and washing up helps too! Thank you C for a wonderful Valentines! :)

***You can make your sinigang na sampalok or sinampalukan broth from scratch by pounding and boiling tamarind. One day we'll try that...but for now sinigang mix does it fast and right for us :) Sinigang mix is available all over the Philippines from the biggest supermarket to the littlest sari-sari store. Elsewhere in the world you can find it in any Filipino store (which you will find anywhere there are Filipinos – which means everywhere).

Duck Pho

Remember that basket of fresh organic produce that landed on my doorstep on my birthday last year? Well, I have been getting regular baskets since then and have been enjoying the fruits (no pun intended) of supporting a small local organic farm. It’s always lovely to receive a basket brimming with crackly-fresh veggies any day, but knowing that they were all raised without chemicals and artificial doodads, so you are getting nothing but their pure gorgeous veggie-ness...that’s another pleasure all together. Added to the fact that, for me at least, any food tastes so much better, and is appreciated that much more, when you know its provenance...from whence it came!

There is more to this small farm than just sprightly vegetables though. They also have wild ducks and chickens and (from the hens) eggs. So after a while of ordering just veggies, I decided to try the other bounty, natural and free range, that the farm had to offer. The eggs are all different sizes and colors, from the lightest dusky pink to cafe con leche tan, and have deep yellow yolks that are deliciously rich. The wild duck is leaner that the fatty white ducks you buy in the grocery and specialty stores, with a deeper, gamier flavour.

I think a little more practice with duck is in order before I do a full blown duck dish – as I’ve never really cooked duck before (although a kind fellow-blogger friend has lent me an amazing duck cookbook so I'll soon be on my way!). For my first (and so far only) wild duck (let’s call him Benicio) we boiled it with some orange rind, star anise, celery, leek, and soy. Then we made a glaze of soy, honey, Chinese cooking wine, brown sugar, and 5-spice and slathered this on the bird before roasting it (stuffed with more orange rind, a cinnamon stick, and another star anise).

We weren’t planning to boil it first but some stubborn feather nibs (I have no clue what you call the end bits of the feather) made us decide on the hot bath (and a valiant last minute effort to remove the remove the stubborn bits) before roasting. Now I am glad we did. Because then I had duck stock. And now I have duck pho.

Duck Pho
(recipe adapted from Cherry Ripe’s Duck Pho in The Accidental Foodie by Neale Whitaker)

  • 1 quarter Peking duck
  • 750 ml duck stock (I used the stock I got from boiling the duck above, but you can also make stock as I have done here with a Peking Duck)
  • 1 star anise
  • 150 grams rice vermicelli
  • Small bunch of mint
  • Small bunch of saw tooth coriander (culantro)
  • Small bunch holy basil
  • Small bunch cilantro
  • 2 spring onions, slice thinly on the diagonal
  • Lime wedges
  • Vietnamese chilli sauce
  • Fish sauce with fresh birds eye chilli, finely chopped lemongrass, sugar, and lime...shaken not stirred

- Bone the Peking duck quarter and separate the skin from the meat. Shred the meat into bite-sized pieces large enough to be easily picked up with chopsticks. Set aside.
- Put the stock and the star anise in a pot and bring to the boil. Keep at a bare simmer until ready to serve. Keep covered to avoid evaporation.
- Prepare the noodles as per package instructions. Set aside.
- De-stalk the herbs. Set aside.
- Scrape off the fat from the duck skin (phooey, I know). Place the skin between two pieces of paper towel and microwave for a few seconds – watch it, you don’t want to burn the skin! Press down on the paper towel to squeeze out oil. Change to fresh paper towel and repeat until skin is crispy. Slice and set aside.
- To serve: Place noodles in a bowl. Top with duck meat and herbs. Ladle hot broth over the top and garnish with duck skin. Serve with chopsticks and a spoon (extra points if you’ve got Chinese-style ones). Serve condiments alongside.
- Serves 2.

This is an excellent way to make use of duck stock and/or leftover Peking duck! Between the flavourful broth and the bright green assertiveness of the herbs, it makes for a satisfying meal with a lot of personality. And slurping noodles from a bowl with chopsticks always puts a smile on my face :) Cherry Ripe (oh name envy!) also uses bean sprouts, Vietnamese mint, and butter lettuce in the pho...but I didn’t have them. She also uses fried shallots and peanuts to top and adds prawn crackers among the condiments. I didn’t have those either. No matter, this was a bowl full of unapologetic flavour and we enjoyed every single slurp! A bonus: prepping the duck skin as above is an easy and effective way of reviving it!

Happy weekend, and an advanced happy Valentine’s Day everyone! I hope you all do something you love on the day that celebrates love :) Yes, celebrating your love for bacon or your love for reading comic books in the can counts in my book – just light a candle and be celebratory about it ;) We will be lazy and eat in – something we love doing (especially during Valentine’s when restaurants are packed)! And we’ll be using part of today’s veggie basket while we are at it! :)

Beatty's Chocolate Cake

photo by Esme McClear

Last week my sister sent me an e-mail that said this:

I just ate an amazing cake my friend Jenny made.

Honestly, I'm always skeptical when people tell me about a cake that they really liked. People get excited about cake. I get excited about cake (mmmm…cake). Cakes have so much potential, but, really, most of the time I just end-up being disappointed by them. More often than not, for me, cake does not live up to its hype. So, when I finally got my hands on a piece of this so-called amazing cake, I wasn’t expecting much. I took a bite before I ate dinner, just to try it, and then I took another taste, and another, and then proceeded to eat the whole thing! It was really good. It's a very tasty chocolate cake and, like I said, I'm a bit of a cake snob! It does have a very slight coffee taste, but you don't notice it after the first bite. I hate the taste of coffee and I was pretty much licking the plate!

The recipe originally came from the Ina Garten's book Barefoot Contessa at Home, but Jenny found it on pete bakes. You can view the complete recipe on Pete's Web site by clicking here. Pete's version is a bit different, so it's fun to view his pics as well!

Jenny made some slight changes to the recipe, which you can find below. Thanks to Esme for taking the beautiful picture!
  • For the cocoa powder, I used half hot chocolate and cocoa powder.
  • I added hazelnuts, toasted them, crushed them, mixed them with sugar and cinnamon, and then pressed the mess to the sides.
  • I used canola oil instead of veg oil, but I don't think that would make a difference.

Unexpected Guests

We had some unexpected visitors last week. A rowdy bunch of crustaceans found their way to my doorstep...gifted to us by C’s godfather after their trip to the beach. C came home lugging a biggish, weave basket, announcing that we had fresh crabs.

Fresh crabs...yay!!!

Wait a minute...fresh crabs mean live crabs right? I looked at the basket, then at C, and I realized – although I have eaten crabs many, many times in my life, I have never dealt with live ones before. Uh-oh. I opened the basket, gave it a gentle shake, and took a tentative peek – multiple pairs of crab-eyes waved back at me. Stay calm, I told myself, before grabbing the phone to call a friend who also happens to be a fantastic cook. The conversation went something to the tune of me having a mini-fit trying to get 20 live, crawling crabs into the biggest basin I owned, while my friend laughed and pointed out quite needlessly, “You’re freaking out!

After much hilarity, he did give me the basic how-to on what to do, and what not to do, with my new pets, along with ideas on how to use them (I also consulted this terrific post). What I couldn’t do though was cook them right away because I had already prepared a BIG pot of chilli for dinner and I had nowhere near enough time to deal with the crabs. So, with assurances that they would indeed survive overnight, I left them in their basin, fretting like a nervous host over whether I should feed them or not, and if so what they should eat.

Sometime in the middle of dinner, we heard and scuffle and a thump and rushed to the basin and discovered that the crabs had formed a kind of crab-ladder with their bodies so that their mates could climb up and escape***! And one fellow already did! After a brief moment of discussion, and some worried murmuring from me about crabs crawling around the flat at night and getting into our bed, we decided to cook them right then and there! C got out biggest pot out; we passed around some beers, and got on with the business of, um, as my uncle called it – la matanza del cangrejo.

I won’t go into details here in consideration for the squeamish. Simply put, as we couldn’t eat them all, we boiled them and stored them (some in the fridge and some in the freezer). C and my cousin Y surprisingly rose to the occasion – a little too enthusiastically in fact! And at the end of it all, when the steaming hot, bright red crabs came out, all I could think of was how we were going to prepare them!

We had the first batch the very next day, steamed (just to heat them up again) in a bamboo steamer with wedges of lemon and sprigs of cilantro thrown in. I tossed knots of lemongrass into the steaming water to add another layer of fragrance. They were beyond delicious. Fresh white crabmeat, sweet and tender, eaten with our hands...dunked in C’s special dipping sauce, juices dripping from our fingers, as we recalled the night of “la matanza” like two old hands exchanging war tales.

The rest of the crab is safely tucked away in the freezer – waiting for me to decide what to do with them. I already have a few ideas, but suggestions are very much welcome!

So friends, keep yourself open to surprise, don’t buy into old ways of thinking, and always have room for unexpected guests! :)

***That part was actually incredible to see and would deserve a whole separate post of dissertation on the fallacies of “crab mentality” – a condition that I am now convinced exists only in humans! They should call it human-mentality and keep the crabs out of it!

April Reed, Cake Designer

I've been wanting to do a piece on cake designer April Reed for some time now and this seemed like the perfect time, considering that the subject of one of my recent posts, the Farnsworth gingerbread house, was created by Ms. Reed. One of the reasons that I love April Reed's cakes is because she, like me, is a genuine, old-fashioned cake head! After graduating from the Culinary Institute of American and working at Tom Coliccho's Craft Restaurant in NYC, she decided that she just couldn't keep cake of her mind! She chucked it all in in 2001 and began working on her dream job, her very own cake design company! Reed's creations are both beautiful and original. I am especially fond of the Carnation Cake (the detailing is wonderful) and the Studded Truffle Cake (so fun)! Click here for more great pictures and additional info.

Breakfast #25: Herby Eggs

Fresh herbs are a wonder to cook with. Nothing really matches the zingy brightness that makes their presence felt in a way that their dried cousins never can achieve. I love having fresh herbs always at the ready...ready to be called to action at any moment. I dream of having big pots of them scattered around the kitchen, where I could tear off handfuls of herby sprigs and toss them into my dishes like some twittering Food Network diva.

I pause while I imagine myself in soft focus, whispering sexy-sweet nothings into a hot bubbling pot without so much as breaking a sweat...

Alright. Moving right along. Most of the time, I’m not whipping up dishes that call for a fresh bunch of herbs meal after meal. By mid-week, the little fragrant bouquets that were so full of promise in the beginning start to look alarmingly glum. They are plucked at, having been used for this dish and that, but always left with some sullen wilty sprigs that have lost their purpose in life. Which is so sad really – such a waste for one (even a few sprigs of herbs left to rot is food waste and you know I want to avoid that!) and, my goodness, we all have a purpose! Even a few melancholy leftover herb sprigs.

This is one of my favourite ways to use, or give new purpose to, odd bits of leftover herbs. Quite reinventing the wheel here surely, as I’m sure loads of you do this, but just in case ;) These eggs make me so happy in the morning, when I am usually an incoherent amoeba until my first cup of coffee. The transcendent simplicity of good scrambled eggs shot through so thoroughly with greens always heralds a fresh, bright start.

This is so straightforward that it doesn’t even warrant a recipe. For two eggs (which would serve one me) I would use a couple of sprigs of whatever herbs I have lurking in the crisper. Use what you’ve got, you’ll be surprised how unlikely combinations can work so well under the auspices of a good egg. Pick the leaves off and roughly chop – I used about two tablespoons of chopped herbs here – they aren’t a garnish...the eggs should be bursting at the seams with them. For this dish I used parsley, dill, and green onion (sliced). Heat some olive oil in a pan (butter will do nicely too). Add the white parts of the green onions first – if I’m using green onions or leeks I like to sauté the white parts first just to soften a bit...about 10 seconds is good. I then pour in the eggs (which I have whisked lightly already) and cook as I did here...which is how I like my scrambled eggs. Add the herbs right before it's done. When done to your liking, quickly pile it on some toast and enjoy warm. You can choose to garnish the eggs further with other leftovers that may be vying for your attention. I put a dollop of caviar on top here – left over by a friend after a fun afternoon of shooting a “cooking party” for a local food magazine (more on that when it’s published!). Cheese would also be a fantastic addition to the eggs – tossed in while cooking.

Lovely, invigorating breakfast and leftover herbs’s good to feel this purposeful in the morning :)

HHDD #25: Sugar Grilled Chicos with Wild Honey Yogurt

It seems our brief period of “winter” has come to an end, lasting just under a month. For a while our whole city revelled in the under 22C weather, everyone wanting to eat outdoors in the cool breezes. Suddenly jackets and scarves and boots-wid-da-fur were being paraded out on the streets. There was an actual chill in the air and every person who sweated out 11 months of tropics wanted a piece of the action.

Now the chill is gone, we are back to using the a/c at night, and the sun has come out again to remind me who’s boss. But even as I fuss, you and I know that I love being in the sun – swimming in the sea, wearing tank tops and flip flops all year, and the vibrant tropical fruits! Mango is at the very top (come over here to try the very best in the world!), followed by mangosteens, pineapple, jackfruit, and banana. And then there is this little fellow – the chico. The chico (sapodilla) is a non-descript little brown ball...kinda scruffy and certainly not as beguiling in appearance as his other tropical brothers. The flesh is likewise brown and quite plain looking. The taste however is something else entirely. Its juicy, sandy meat has a sweetness that is at once caramelly and boozy (sometimes I feel I taste coffee...but that could just be me). I love this fruit!

I have been thinking of other ways to eat it, aside from straight with a teaspoon, ever since I baked it in a clafoutis for Hay Hay It’s Donna Day and discovered that chicos cook rather deliciously! So it’s only fitting that I bring them to service again for another round of HHDD. This time co-hosted by Tartasacher of Mil Postres***

Tartasacher chose a simple but luscious recipe from Donna Hay -- Sugar Grilled Fruits and Cinnamon Yogurt. The original recipe uses figs and pears, but as fresh figs are just a fantasy over here, I decided to use my much-loved chico. To excellent results! Instead of using regular brown sugar, I used our local muscovado which is dark and earthy. Grilling the raw sugar on the fruit heightened the dark, molasses personality of the chico, and gave it a gorgeously sweet crust as well. Let me say...this will not be the last time I sugar-grill chicos! For the yogurt, I mixed in a local wild honey (instead of the cinnamon) whose strong flavour stood up well to the wildly-caramel sugar-grilled chicos. This is a wonderful treat to have for breakfast. You can even serve them up in shot glasses like I did here to make a sophisticated light dessert.

I still hold an illogical hope that the cool breezes will return this month...even if only for a short while (aren’t the arctic winds suppose to come down in the middle of February?). Meanwhile I’ll comfort myself with sugar-grilled chicos :)

***A tie in HHDD’s last round had Meeta of What’s for lunch, Honey? and Tartasacher of Mil Postres co-hosting this round. Meeta chose the savory theme with delicious Chicken Satay (my entry here) and Tartasacher chose the sweet theme with these lovely sugar grilled fruits! Hay Hay It’s Donna Day was created by Barbara of Winos and Foodies and is now under the care of Bron of Bron Marshall.