Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wonderful Wales + My first Daring Bakers' Challenge

Some places just make your jaw drop and the corners of your lips curl up in wonderment. One such place that I visited in Wales is found along a river somewhere between Saundersfoot and St Gowan's Head. A field of grass sprouted huge bunches of bright yellow flowers. On top of it, the air was crisp and fresh from a downpour the day before.

In Bute Park in Cardiff, we came across evidence of a gardener's sense of humour: a plant, grass and wood formation of a hog's head complete with pointy ears. It did not fail to make onlookers smile and snap pictures.

Three weeks ago, I applied and got accepted as a member of Daring Bakers. This is a growing bunch of bloggers from all over the world who agree to take up a baking challenge proposed by a pair of members every month. There is a private members-only forum, but the earliest we can blog about the month's challenge is on the last day of the month.

My first challenge was Chocolate Eclairs. I had baked eclairs a few times before based on a simple recipe and used a whipped cream and custard filling.

For the Daring Bakers challenge, we were required to follow the given many-step eclair recipe and use its chocolate pastry cream or a chocolate glaze recipe. I chose to switch the chocolate in the pastry cream recipe to white chocolate as my other half is not too enamoured of chocolate desserts. Then I simplified the glaze to microwave-melted dark chocolate mixed with powdered sugar and butter.

The recipe called for leaving the oven door a crack open for part of the baking time (likely the recipe writer Pierre Herme's way of flaying us wannabe bakers). I found that it made the puffs of the top tray in the oven not rise as much as the lower tray (see pic above left: right is the 'unpuff' and left is the 'puffed'). The pastry cream was wonderful-delicious and quite a lot was left over. So, a couple of days later, I made another (slap my 'dieting' wrist!) batch of puffs - this time without messing with the oven door. They puffed up fine. Also, I didn't bother with piping out the choux pastry (cleaning the pump is akin to gouging out my eye) so the puffs had spikes like punk eclairs. Needless to say, my other half and I were happily stuffing our faces with the yummy eclairs - mine with lots of choco glaze and his with just a bit, and both with as much white-choc pastry cream as the burdened puffs could carry.

If you want any of the recipes, please let me know.

Here's pouting at you, kid. (Doesn't it look like 'hair' and 'lips'?)

In the meantime, all over the world, a gazillion chocolate eclairs are exploding across kitchen counter tops and creaming the baking blogosphere as the hundreds of Daring Bakers post their respective blog-thingies.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Wailing at a Welsh graveyard + Perky Glass Noodle Salad

There's no place as peaceful, quiet and mysterious as a cemetery. You wonder about the lives represented by every gravestone. You ruminate on the adventures and misadventures of those who died young. You think about the meaning of those lives that had gone on before you came traipsing about. So many of us -- how much meaning can we each create?

On a recent trip to Wales, my other half and I chanced upon the remains of a church with a graveyard around it. The church tower had ivy growing on two sides of its rough-hewn walls. It seemed to be in disuse; there was no signboard proffering its name.

Creeper plants partially shrouded the gravestones of Celtic design and leaves entombed some. The dead were safe from the worry and hassle of everyday life. They were no longer concerned by the whys and wherefores of the living. You wonder if they have indeed gone on to a better place.

You ponder on the possibility that life is a mere dream from which you awake when you pass on.

You wonder if death is only a gateway to an infinite cosmos.

After all that morbidity, how about some nudity? (Hah, awake now?!) Here's a pic of a furry friend I met at Bute Park in Cardiff. Squirrels are said to be only rats with couture and great public relations skills.

And now I tickle your tastebuds, dear reader, with a Perky Glass Noodle Salad recipe:

a handful of dried glass noodles, soaked 10 mins in freshly boiled water, then drained and rinsed with cold water
2/3 cup thinly julienned carrots
1/2 cup thinly julienned celery head (or cucumber or raw papaya)
2 spring onions, sliced thinly
1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced
a small handful of coriander leaves
1 cup of small or medium-sized shelled shrimp, salted lightly and panfried for 3-5 minutes in a bit of oil till just cooked
2 tsp lime juice (more if you like it tangier)
1 tsp castor sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
salt to taste

Mix it all together in a glass salad bowl. Adjust taste accordingly. Serves 2 right.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Discovering bodacious Croatia + stacked Blondies

Here are a few pictures of Croatia, as promised. We visited it in July when the temperatures were high and the wind was dry. Needless to say, I spent most of the days in the shade where possible.

For a week, we rented a sailing boat with a couple of friends and their two teenagers. That was the first time I've 'sailed' in my life. Learnt the meaning of tacking - when the crew shifted the front sail (jib) to the left or right, and the boat would tip strongly to the left or right. It was always interesting to hear the crockery in the galley shifting audibly. Then I understood why the gas stove is on hinges - so it could remain horizontal, more or less. ^_^

(Above) Omis in the daytime and after sunset. That rocky mountain sure is imposing, huh?

Being a visitor in Croatia is kind of expensive. The hotels are about the same prices as those in Italy and Germany but their standards are not as high or consistent. It's a better bet to rent one of the many apartmani (apartments) offered along the coastal road. We often saw an oldish 'auntie' seated in a chair at the roadside in the sunshine offering brochures or information about some apartment-for-rent.

The Croatians, generally, are friendly, helpful and courteous. They speak pretty good English, at least those in the tourism and service industry. The young women are long-legged and gorgeous, togged in all kinds of fashionable clothing. The outdoor cafe culture there is great for people-watching. It is not an uncommon thing to see families with four or five young children.

Our recommendation would be to visit during the cooler months, say, in September or May.

Ice-cream is a must for those sultry hot days, strolling about the ancient parts of small or big towns. It's five kuna for a scoop of one flavour. (Seven kunas to a euro.)

The beaches are only so-so - gravel and pebble beaches mostly - but the seawater away from main harbours is clear and beautifully blue or aquamarine. Those of us who come from South-East Asia and Australia are spoiled by the soft sandy beaches. So if you intend to visit Croatian beaches, bring a pair of rubbery beach shoes - to protect your feet against sharp pebbles and especially sea urchins in the water.

As for Croatian cuisine, alas! I've no pics for you. The most outstanding was the octopus salad and the fresh-from-the-Adriatic-Sea array of seafood. Yum, yum, yum!

One last note: Parking in Croatia can be rather costly. Don't be surprised to find fee collectors at a small desk under a tree at some remote beachside parking lot or halfway up to an ancient, picturesque chapel.

The view from a hill of a cove we anchored in. Yep, that's our rented boat with its sails furled. (Above right) The boats all docked neatly at Rogoznica at dusk.

And, for those who asked, "Where's the food?", here's the pic I took of a stack of Blondies (use Mr Oliver's recipe; just sub the dark choc for white and lessen the butter) beribboned with a cut napkin strip:

My old living-room

My old living-room
In Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

A cherished dream

A cherished dream
To live on a pale beach by a crystal clear sea. (This was taken on the east coast of Johor state, Malaysia.)