Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A journey through Basilicata

Dinners at Vini are always a journey through different regions of Italy.

Understanding the different cuisines of the world or its regional differences is really “a look of the world through the kitchen window” as my book “Around the world in eighty dishes”, a book published in 1956, so writes in its foreword.

Expect plenty of surprises, pleasant surprises at that.

The night’s dinner at Vini had its focus on the cuisine from Basilicata. Basilicata is located in the South of Italy. It is a poor region and its cuisine mostly makes use of the products of the land and of the meat as fish and seafood is scarce in the region.

The chilli and peppers are present in the region’s cooking. It was once used to counter illnesses such as Malaria but has since found a permanent place in the distinctiveness of Basilicata’s food.

My best friend and I had a ball of a time eating and drinking at Vini last evening. It was good in every sense of the meal. The ambience, the company, the wine, and most importantly every course of the meal.

The antipasti platter started off our meal on a good note: buffalo mozerella was served with chilli jam. Sounds like a strange pairing but in fact, it worked really well. Sugna (flavoured pork rind and fat with herbs and salt) was served with crosini; this used to be a staple of the sheperds. Pan fried mandolin potatoes with baccalà (salted cod) was a real delight. It didn’t feel heavy on the palate. The deep fried assorted vegetables (Snake beans, broad beans, chick peas, aubergine, zucchini) with tiny morsels of cheese encrusted with really light batter could most probably give the boring salad a completely new face lift.

The Italian wine that was paired with the antipasti platter was a light, crisp, a touch of spiciness was really a pleasure to drink especially with the food.

Antipasti- Buffalo mozerella with chilli jam, baccala and potato, fried vegetable, sugna with crostini

Primi (first course) was farro ( a type of grain which has similarities to barley) is served with the tiniest but sweetest cherry tomatoes, zucchini and shaved ricotta salata (A type of dry, salted sheep’s milk cheese). This was really unusual and makes an interesting eat but at the same time, it was an enjoyable dish with all the flavours intertwining together, with the slightly chewy farro. This was served with an Italian merlot, a little heavy for a merlot but works perfectly well with the dish.

Farri cherry tomatoes with zuchini, ricotta salata

Main was roasted pork shoulder, braised pork, with a thin long strip of pork crackle. This was really good! The roasted pork was bursting with flavours and aromas yet it was so tender. The pork crackle (I say is even better than that at Aria!) was pure heaven. It crackles the moment you bite into it, the way it should. The sides were roasted peppers with almonds, simple and unassuming. The wine pairing ( Canneto Aglianico 05’) for this course, the only wine from the Basilicata region as we were informed, was a very acidic wine with deep tannins. Very rich and strong on its own but seems to mellow down with the richness of the pork.

Organic roast pork shoulder, cannelini beans

Dolci is the course that I look forward to all the time. We were served a slice of ricotta lemon tart with drizzle of honey and fried rosemary. I had to get over my initial shock at the rosemary and dessert combination. It worked perfectly well for me. The smoothness of the ricotta with that hint of lemon, a flaky pastry base, lightly sweet honey with the sharpness of the rosemary. That rounded off our dinner.

Dolci, ricotta lemon tart, honey and rosemary

The exploration of a small slice of Basilicata has ended along with the dinner. My desire to experience the little pockets of Italy and the rich diversity of their regional cuisine has been refuelled.

While to travel around Italy may be a distant dream, I know that I always can fall back on books and Vini for a little journey or two into the kitchen windows of Italy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Elegant Opera

IP Lesson XXI- Gateau Opera

Catch up blog.

Next on Gateau Opera.. that is going to be the real test for us as we are required to prepare the Gateau Opera for our practical assessment this term.

The Gateau Opera or L’Opéra in French is a traditional and popular French cake which is named after the Opera theatre in Paris. There are variations of this classic. Generally, it consists of layers of jaconde soaked in coffee punch, chocolate ganache, coffee buttercream, and finished off with a layer of chocolate glaze.

This is a rich and decadent dessert but if eaten in small quantities, can be really satisfying. I especially love it as the different layers of textures interplay in that single mouthful and how the strong coffee flavour cuts through the richness and smoothness of the dark chocolate ganache. I can already think of a couple of people I know who would absolutely love this cake!

The gateau Opera that we made in class was made of three layers of jaconde, a layer of coffee buttercream, and two layers of dark chocolate ganache.

While each of the component isn’t too difficult to make, it is the assembling of this gateau that is the real test.

Well, to me at least. You need to ensure that each layer is spread evenly and the thickness of each component is similar so that it would be a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach.

Other essential points to note: one, ensure that your jaconde (thin almond sponge) is not over baked. It is baked at a very high temperature for a very short period of time to ensure that it remains moist enough to absorb the coffee punch. Two, to take extra caution not to split the chocolate ganache. It happens especially when you get overzealous over the whisking of it to buttercream consistency (for it to be spreadable). Three, make sure that your buttercream doesn’t split. It wouldn’t if the butter is not cold when you add it to the meringue mixture.

Sounds easy?
Not exactly either especially when you have so many things to do in a single session.

The hardest part for me was still the pouring of the glaze. You need to be decisive and swift when you do it. I wasn’t. I kept trying to spread the glaze around with the palette knife. Too much fiddling around and the glaze wasn’t smooth!

My cake looks fine on the whole with the exception of the glaze.

Apart from the glaze, I didn’t soak the jaconde enough so they were a little on the drier side. I guess my punch was too thick when I tried to apply it and the jaconde refused to take in any more liquid.

It’s time to ensure that everything goes much better during assessment!

Till then, I’ll just sit back and relax with my opera and an English tea.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tetsuya's, Kent Street

You know what people say: Having great expectations can be both a good and bad thing. When something lives up to great expectations, the experience is complete, right down to the beginning: the point of anticipation. But, on the flip side, great expectations can lead to great disappointment. Tetsuya’s is a case in point.

Tetsuysa’s is rated as one of the top restaurants in Australia, and some say the world. After all it was once listed no. 5 in the renowned S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, that’s before it has tumbled down to no. 17 this year. Indeed, it has fallen from grace!

With a pedigree like Tetsuya’s under the helm of a chef with his own line of vinaigrettes and wares, Tetsuya Wakuda, it would be an insult if you didn’t have high expectations.


The reason why I put off writing this blog entry is that I didn’t know how to put to words my disappointment. On certain points during the four hour degustation meal, I even wondered if it was just me and my tastebuds playing tricks on me. How could everyone be raving about Tetsuya’s but me?


Tetsuya is located along Kent Street in the City. My three dining companions and I were greeted by well-trained wait staff. Service was immaculate.

Walking through the doors into the dining area of Tetsuya’s was actually pretty surreal. “I am finally here,” I thought to myself.

The vastness of the restaurant actually surprised me. Inclusive of its private dining rooms, it actually could seat a good hundred people. Even with a large restaurant, you still had to make reservations a few months in advanced to snag that coveted spot.

The dinner was off to a good start. Warm bread was served after we settled down in our seats. Given a choice between sourdough and white rolls, all of us promptly opted for the sourdough.

As I always say, the bread that the restaurant serves tells a lot about the restaurant and its food. Tetsuya’s has certainly passed the bread test. First, the bread was freshly baked and warm and secondly, it was served with black truffle and parmesan salsa butter which was “ooh, so divine”! It left me desiring more but I stopped myself to save my stomach for the 13 courses that followed.

Amuse bouche was a chestnut mushroom soup with shaved white mushrooms.

Amuse bouche

We also ordered an extra course which was coffin bay oysters with grapeseed oil, rice vinegar and ginger. A simple dish that brought out the freshness of the oysters and it was really refreshing in taste. The only complaint, if any, was that it left an oily sheen on my lips, much more than desired.

Coffin bay oysters

We moved on to smoked ocean trout with avruga caviar with a round reconstructed egg yolk in the center. We were advised to eat all three components together. I love caviar and I love smoked ocean trout. Poke into the egg yolk and it burst, the three weaved together beautifully with a good texture and flavour play.

smoked ocean trout with avruga caviar

Next came the spanner crab custard. Smooth, light custard with really fresh crab in it.

spanner crab custard

Dinner was building up pretty nicely. Well paced, good selection of dishes, freshest ingredients. But the dinner just went downhill from this point.

Ironically, that point coincided with Tetsuya’s signature dish: Confit of Petuna Tasmanian Ocean Trout with Konbu, Daikon and fennel green apple salad.

My first question is why they are serving us Ocean Trout twice in the same dinner in quite a similar way. The konbu crust unfortunately taste like MSG. The Ocean trout was soft as it was slowly-cooked under tender oven heat after being marinated in grapeseed oil and salt. Good but if this is his signature dish, then I was really very let down. The sides of daikon, fennel and julienned green apple was a nice complement but it isn’t an out of the world combination.

Confit of Tasmanian ocean trout with crusted daikon

I kind of lost track of the dishes in between. But the twice cooked de-boned spatchcock stuffed with foie gras with an olive tapenade with shaved truffles was another disappointing dish, just when you think things will get better. First of all, I don’t understand the use of summer truffles (Those truffles are from Perth apparently). But to me, it lacks the distinctive flavour that truffles ought to have. Summer truffles are a restaurant’s attempt to give a dish a boost of glamour. Other than that, I can’t imagine why they are included really. Oh, another thing was that I didn’t really enjoy the foie gras stuffing. To me, it just didn’t work. Call me a purist but I prefer my foie gras pan-seared where the crusty top gives way to a melt-in-the-mouth sensation.

Next, we had the terrine of Spanner crab with avocado soup. Why Spanner crab again? And I really didn’t think this dish work for me in terms of flavour and texture. It left me with a fishy after taste.

Spanner crab with avocado soup

The next course was grilled wagyu beef served with lime and wasabi and a jelly sheet made of dashi stock. Truth be told, it was good but not great.

Grilled waygu

But one can always look forward to great desserts to round up the meal nicely.

In this case, desserts really revealed the weakness of Tetsuya’s. In the presence of pastry students, the desserts were dissected apart.

To be honest, I cannot remember much of them. They were all too forgettable. Tetsuya lent his name to a dessert called Tetsuya’s strawberry shortcake. It was served in a fancy martini glass but fancy was the only way to describe it. It was simply strawberry puree with cream..the shortcake element was kind of missing.

Tetsuya's strawberry shortcake

Next was a chocolate mousse with a crème anglaise. Nothing exciting.

chocolate mousse and creme anglaise

My point exactly. The entire dinner was good but not great and I was certainly let down by a restaurant of such great pedigree. It did nothing to blow me away in any of the dishes at all. And I found out that Tetsuya’s menu don’t really change that much; it evolves but no radical changes. I feel that that isn’t quite becoming of one of the world’s best restaurant.

I like to be surprised when I dine out; to be surprised at the unexpected combinations of the textures, flavours that come to play so harmoniously.

I can think of many places that I have dined better than Tetsuya’s. this may be a harsh review but only because I was expecting a whole lot more.

See what they say: the more you expect, the greater the impact of the fall.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A demanding beauty

IP Lesson XIX-XX- Croquembouche

My Croquembouch, my dream wedding cake

I’ve been waiting for this lesson ever since I started my training in Le Cordon Bleu.

It has become personal since the Croquembouche is my dream wedding cake. For the uninitiated, the Croquembouche is a traditional French wedding cake made with a tower of profiteroles dipped in caramel on a nougatine base and decorated with spun sugar.

The French name, Croquembouche, loosely translate to “crack in the mouth” which refers to the crackle of the caramel as you pop one of those profiteroles into your mouth.

We spent two days preparing our croquembouche tower. The first day was spent baking the profiteroles, preparing the crème patisserie, and baking and cutting the nougatine sheets.

The second day was spent assembling our tower of profiteroles with caramel.

Day One was a disappointment for me. I wouldn’t make up any excuses for my below-par performance. Perhaps overconfidence has brought me down: As a result of letting my guard down, I ended up letting both my choux puffs and my partner down. It was an embarrassing episode for me especially after making choux pastry for the umpteen time.

What happened was I got carried away while adding the eggs and I added too much of it. As we all know, too much of something is not always a good thing, especially in the world of baking. My profiteroles didn’t puff up nicely as they should; in fact, they were pretty flat!

The day did not end with just the disappointment. Before I could sit around and mope, I was forced to confront my temperamental twin, Nougatine. This evil twin had me running to and fro the oven and my bench. By the end of lesson, my face was all flushed; beads of perspiration dotted my face and back; my arms were left aching.

You see, nougatine needs to be worked with when it is hot and pliable. That meant that you had to roll out the nougatine sheet before it cools down too much. Once it is cooled, it refuses to comply with you. Just like a difficult kid; nougatine simply snaps. You have to coax it by warming it up in the oven; however, you have to be extra careful, as overheating will over colour it.

Only tenacity will help you find a way with it.

“I’m going to whip you into shape,” I was lashing out a stern warning to my nougatine pieces. I still believe in the tough-line approach.

Some of my other course mates were coaxing their nougatine pieces.
Whatever the approach, we managed to cutting out our nougatine pieces ready for class the next day.


I went to bed that night with negative thoughts about my profiteroles.

I did not wake up feeling better. With the sinking feeling, I dragged my feet to the train station. But even while I was waiting for my train, I wanted to turn back for home.

I was facing the mountain of impossibility of having to stick my flat profiteroles together.

“Would my croquembouche even resemble one?” I thought to myself.

At that moment, my train arrived and left me with no time for any reconsideration.

I trudged on to class with heavy steps and a heavy heart.

“We’ll make the best with whatever we got,” my bench partner comforted me. With that, the both of us soldiered on.

Full concentration is an essential when assembling the croquembouche. Those negative thoughts dispersed the moment we started making caramel.

Caramel is made by heating up a sugar syrup to past hard crack stage (> 160 degrees Celsius). Imagine having to handle something of that temperature! If handling nougatine was like handling a difficult kid, handling caramel is like playing with fire.

A moment of distraction could result in dire consequences. All of us worked with the caramel with a bowl of ice water beside us- just in case. We were told of a story of how a student burn his finger in caramel and in reflex, used his other hand to swipe of the caramel and ended up ripping the skin of his finger off!

That being said, I find that to deal with caramel, one needs to be fearless. The more afraid you are, the more likely you will get hurt. Fearless was my doctrine for that day.

But I ended up with a burn on my thumb midway through my tower. I’m not going to try to pretend it didn’t hurt, because it sure hurts like hell. I dunk my thumb in the iced water and my entire face grimaced in intense pain.

You could hear expletives and swearing in the kitchen all through that afternoon. It is all the doing of caramel.

I would say that getting burnt was worth it the moment I pulled out the silicon paper cone that helped give the croquembouche tower its shape.
That was the only word that summed up how I felt at the point in time.

My very own croquembouche!

Chef noticed the lack of puff in the profiteroles but other than that, he said it was a job well-done.

Sadly, this might be the last croquembouche I would make. I have to say goodbye to my wedding cake dream. (Yes! Before this lesson, I was determined to make this for my wedding next year!)

The croquembouche is a beauty with too many demands; short shelf life of four to six hours; needs to be in a cool and dry place (fridge is not an answer with all the moisture). In hot and humid Singapore, I think that the caramel and spun sugar will sweat and melt before I say “I do”.
on a nougatine base decorated with nougatine triangles, bounded together with caramel and spun sugar

A beauty

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The bread of life

IP Lesson XVI, XVII, XVIII- Breads

Baguettes, Lavosh, Ciabatta


The four ingredients needed to bake a basic white loaf.

I’m just constantly amazed at how a tasty loaf is created just by using such basic ingredients.

One other fact of bread is that it contains about fifty percent water. I figure if you can bake enough bread for a business, you would be really rich!

Classes this week focused on continental breads such as the Pagnotta (a wholemeal bread), Ciabatta (Italian ‘Slipper’ bread), Baguettes (Traditional French loaves), Baps (Scottish loaves) and Fruit loaves.

Breads are not only therapeutic to eat but also therapeutic to bake; the kneading of the dough in an almost rhythmic fashion; the feel of rounding the bread dough into smalls rolls with the palms of your hands; the smells of the freshly baked loaves that musk the kitchen; the crackling sounds of the bread loaves as you tap your fingers against it when it is out of the oven.

That’s the therapy in baking your own bread.

On a gloomy grey Friday morning, the Pagnotta dipped with a fruity extra virgin olive oil helped chase away the blues.
On a busy Friday afternoon, a slice of the warm baguette with a thick slab of butter (just like the French do) renewed my strength and perked up my senses for the day in the kitchen.
On Sunday morning, I discovered the joy of a warm fruit loaf with apricot jam.

That’s the therapy of eating the very bread you bake.

If you know what those store-bought breads contain, you will probably not want to eat them anymore. Think about it: they can last for quite a while and still retain its softness. Preservatives such as calcium propionate to inhibit mould growth as well as flour treatment agents, emulsifiers are added to the bread we buy from supermarkets. The list goes on. I dare not think about what I’ve been putting into my body.

I need to be baking my own breads soon when I get home.

Vegetable rolls

fruit loaf with apricot jam

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My best part of the day

IP Lesson XV- Danish pastries

Hazelnut twist

Right from the first week of the Intermediate course, Ch*ef G*ert has been excitedly telling us that he hopes that he would taking the class for Danish pastries. After all, who would be more appropriate to teach us about Danish pastries than a Dane?

Maybe I ought to clear a huge misunderstanding right at the start of this blog entry. While the rest of the world know these lovely pastries as Danish pastries, in Denmark, they are known as “Wiener- brød” which means “bread from Vienna”.

Let’s take a trace back to the history of the Danish pastry or “Wiener- brød”. In the late 1800s, many bakers from Vienna were offered jobs in the bakeries at Copenhagen. Along with them, they brought along a recipe for a type of sweet bread which became hugely popular amongst the Danes. Its popularity led the Copenhagen bakers to develop the dough process behind this sweet bread and eventuality led to this much-loved pastry.

For the purpose of this entry, we shall just continue calling it “Danish pastry”. The pastry itself is similar to the puff pastry dough but instead of giving it 6 single turns, we only give the Danish pastry 3 single turns. This gives the pastry its soft, ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ sensation. According to Ch*ef G*ert, high quality cake margarine is used in the production of these delights in most bakeries in Denmark.

But since we don’t have access to that, we stuck with our good old friend, butter.

To me, the best thing about Danish pastries is that you can create a colourful plate of them in different shapes, sizes and flavours just with this single dough. The possibilities are endless!

Assortment of danish pastries

A variety from Kringles which is a pretzel-shaped pastry filled with Remonce, to apricot windmills filled with crème patissiere, as well as apple turnovers and hazelnut twists would be perfect for a sweet breakfast on a winter’s morning or a tea to be enjoyed with friends.

The dough was prepared the day before and it is made with basic ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, butter, yeast, eggs. The butter is then enclosed in the dough and given three single turns with a 20 minute resting period in-between turns. An amazing thing what simple and ordinary ingredients can present you at the end of the day.

The next day, when we took out the dough from the cooler room, the dough has puffed up to about double its size. It looked like a huge pillow and one that we embraced with arms wide open.

That expansion was most welcome; it simply meant that we were doing something right with our dough.

The fun part of the day began: it was time to shape our dough into windmills, pockets, twists and turnovers. I must admit to having a favourite and it does not even have anything to do with taste! The windmill looks fun, vivacious, bright and cheery. It reminds me of a kid’s toy, all it lacks is a stick to hold it, just like a lollipop.

The Danish pastries were given a final touch as soon as they were out of the oven. Though they already look attractive, a quick brush of the apricot glaze just made them glow in its beautiful shine even more.

That was the point where I didn’t bother resisting anymore. The aromas of the butter blended together with the sweetness of the apricot jam got me in the end. I did not even want to wait till I get home before biting into one of these!

A few of us spent the rest of the Saturday evening beside the oven, packing and eating our very own Danish pastries together.

And that, to me, was the best part of the day.

Devouring the twist

Traditional never tasted better!

IP Lesson XIV- Apple strudel

Tradional apple strudel

Often, we get excited about new desserts; the more foreign they look and sound, the more we want to try them.

Like all things traditional, traditional desserts tend to be forgotten or neglected. Or sometimes, they have evolved radically. Think of the Opera cake: How many variations of it have you seen?

While I don’t think that this evolution in the pastry world is a bad thing, I feel that we should not forget the good old traditional ones. For in them, we can learn about the fundamentals of baking, to understand culture, and to enjoy something that our predecessors have devoured and enjoyed.

I for one am guilty of embracing new dessert creations. I loved the surprise in every bite- new and unknown combinations of flavours and textures tease me and marvel me. Sometimes, I tend to snub off traditional pastries because most of the time, they are very humble or simple. Sometimes I am not even aware of the traditional pastries because of the ‘bastardized’ versions in the new world.

When you mention apple strudel, I think of the ones made with layers of puff pastry, pastry cream and apples, the ones that were responsible for a huge apple strudel craze in Singapore years ago.

Class today opened my eyes to the traditional apple strudel and to put it simply, I love it!

The traditional apple strudel is best known in Vienna, Austria. However, it actually originated in Hungary before spreading to the rest of the Austrian-Hungary empire.

Basically, this traditional apple strudel that we baked uses a paper-thin dough and filling the dough with tart green apples and flavourings before rolling and baking it.

The making of the strudel isn’t difficult. The hardest part lie in stretching the strudel dough. It was such a fun experience! Imagine just pulling the dough at all four corners till you get tracing paper thin dough where you can see your hands through it!

This must be done with much care and being impatient will just ruin the dough. Once you cause a tear or hole in the dough, you can’t scrunch up the dough and start over. This is due to the fact that the gluten needs to be well-relaxed (we left the dough overnight in the fridge) before stretching it.

Well, this is not to say that this dough is entirely unforgiving. A small tear wouldn’t hurt. Just continue with it and most probably you wouldn’t see it the moment you roll it up.

My Malaysian coursemate actually commented that the texture of the dough feels like prata (or the Malaysians will call it ‘Roti Chennai’) dough and to prove his point, he really went to pan fry the dough.

Surprisingly, it did have the taste of prata without the greasiness! Ch*ef G*ert, my Danish chef, liked it so much that he actually asked for seconds and thirds!

And so all students from SIM (Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia) all went crazy with the leftover strudel dough making variations of the prata (or roti Chennai)-with egg and without egg.

Now, while I can go on and on about the crazy variations of the prata, I should probably get back to the apple strudel proper.

Once you get past the hard bit, it’s time to be rewarded with the easy bit: comes the easy part: the random scattering of the ingredients for the filling. That is to allow those apple slices, brown sugar, sultanas and whatever you fancy to fall like autumn leaves onto the paper thin strudel dough which has been brushed with melted butter.

Then, it’s off to the oven to get it baked! Even though the apple strudel can be served cold, I think that it’s best served warm with a scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream.

That would be heaven on a plate.

Sometimes it is the most traditional desserts can taste so good and can be so comforting.

Give me this apple strudel and I will give up my fancy desserts!