Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Solstice Cake 2008: Rich Chocolate Drambuie Fruit Cake

Fruit Cakes are not just for Christmas
The topic of fruit cake seems to divide people into pro- and anti-fruit cake camps. In my family, Mom, Dad and I love fruit cakes. My sis couldn't care less about fruit cakes - she prefers mince pies. I recall Mom spending hours preparing her fruit cake for festive occasions (not just for Christmas or weddings). My childhood memories of weeks leading up to those special occasions are filled with the wonderful smell of caramelised sugar, which is part of Mom's labour intensive recipe. Her large and rich fruit cake is steamed for hours on the stove, which means she has to regularly check if she needed to add more boiling water to the steamer. Even with her decades of experience making fruit cake, there were odd occasions when her cake does not turn out perfect such as resulting in a soggy consistency. During my annual visit to Singapore to visit my family, Mom always has some of her fruit cake in the freezer ready for me to devour slowly (one small slice a day till it runs out). Fortunately in Sydney, Quikong's grandmother also makes a deliciously moist traditional fruit cake each year for us in time for the Christmas season.

Solstice Cake Event 2008
So really, there has been no need for me to make fruit cakes for myself. But in the spirit of research and prompted mainly by Sydney's current winter weather as well as an Australian blogger, The Food Nazi's inaugural food blogging event Solstice Cake 2008, I decided to make a different sort of fruit cake. I would have loved to try Lucy's version of the Marzipan Solstice Cake, especially since I discovered how easy it was to make my own marzipan last Christmas, or Aimée's Figgy Christmas Fruit Roll, which are full of figs, dark chocolate and spices. Unfortunately, Quikong doesn't like marzipan and I also did not have much time to mess around in the kitchen last week, so I dabbled with this recipe from the Australian Women's weekly instead because it intrigued me. Similar to Aimée's Figgy fruit roll, this cake has chocolate as well as cocoa in fruit cake! This recipe did not require much effort or skill, just time because rich fruit cakes take a long time to bake in a slow oven. I had all the ingredients in the pantry - we eat dried fruit regularly, and yes, I even stock glacé cherries because Quikong loves them.

Rich Chocolate Drambuie Fruit Cake

This quantity of mixture makes one 22cm round cake and 6 individual cakes which are ideal for gift-giving. If you prefer, you can make a large cake from this mixture — use a deep 22cm square or deep 25cm round cake pan and allow about 4 to 4½ hours for baking. This cake can be made three months ahead and stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

Moist ~ Luscious ~ Goodness

Kitchen Notes
- My substitutions:
Thickly sliced soft & juicy figs (e.g. Angus Park brand) instead of mixed peel
Almonds instead of pecans
Golden syrup instead of honey
- I added 1 tsp vanilla essence and also threw in some ground cinnamon and some freshly grated nutmeg.
- I forgot to add the dates (aarrgh!!), happens to me sometimes with long ingredients lists.
- Omitted: I did not use the browning essence (food colouring)
- Since I have an electric scale, I was able to half the recipe and baked it in a 18cm round cake tin and one mini spring-form tin (9.5cm).
- I set the temperature at 130°C fan-forced (150°C) throughout the baking process. The large cake took about 2.5 hours to bake.

Original recipe below is from the Australian Women's Weekly

2 1/3 cups (375g) sultanas
2¼ cups (375g) raisins, chopped
1 2/3 cups (250g) currants
1½ cups (250g) pitted prunes, chopped
1½ cups (250g) pitted dates, chopped
¾ cup (125g) mixed peel
2/3 cup (140g) red glacé cherries, halved
1 1/3 cups (340ml) Drambuie
1/3 cup (115g) honey
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
250g butter, chopped
1½ cups (300g) firmly packed dark brown sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon Queen Parisian browning essence
90g dark chocolate, grated
1¼ cups (125g) pecans, toasted, chopped
2 cups (300g) plain flour
1 cup (150g) self-raising flour
¼ cup (25g) cocoa powder
extra pecans and glacé cherries, optional

Combine fruit, 1 cup of the Drambuie, honey and rind in a bowl; mix well. Cover and stand overnight or for several days.

Grease 6 (¾ cup/180ml) paper cake moulds (or 6-hole Texas muffin pan). Line base and side of a deep 22cm round cake pan (or deep 19cm square cake pan) with 2 layers of brown paper and 2 layers of baking paper, bringing paper 5cm above the edge of the pan. Preheat the oven to very slow (120°C/100°C fan-forced).

Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until just combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just combined between additions. Beat in the essence. Add butter mixture to fruit mixture; mix well. Stir in chocolate, nuts, then sifted dry ingredients in two batches; mix well.

Fill the paper cake moulds to within 1cm from the top (fill muffin pans level with top of pan). Spread the remaining cake mixture into prepared cake pan.

Decorate tops with extra nuts and glacé cherries, if desired.

Bake individual cakes in a very slow oven for about 1½ hours or until cooked when tested. Brush hot cakes with some of the remaining Drambuie. Cover hot cakes tightly with foil; cool in pans. Increase oven temperature to slow (150°C/130°C fan-forced). Bake round cake in slow oven for about 3 hours or until cooked when tested. Brush hot cake with Drambuie, cover tightly with foil; cool in pans. Suitable to freeze.

Baby Fruit Cake with Mama Fruitcake

Tasting Notes
The chocolate taste was subtle and compliments the fruits nicely. I enjoyed sinking my teeth into the moist figs and prunes. We usually prefer eating the traditional fruit cake with custard but I was too lazy to make some. Instead, Quikong enjoyed it with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. His only complaint was that it needed more fruits - I couldn't bring myself to tell him that I actually forgot to put in the dates. He doesn't usually read my blog, so I can admit this mistake to all of you :-)

I wonder if the flavours in this cake will develop more with time, just like a traditional fruit cake? But this cake is disappearing fast. This non-traditional fruit cake might even appeal to non-fruit cake lovers.

5-day update: Mmmm....The cake is even more moist and somehow the fruits have gotten sweeter after 5 days. I'll have to hide the rest of the cake from Quikong so that I can test out what happens to the cake when it has more time to rest.... ;-)

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Buñuelos y Natilla - Colombian Cheese Fritters and Custard

Not-quite-round Buñuelos and Natilla

A Savoury and Sweet Colombian Pair
Buñuelos and Natilla are traditional Colombian Christmas snacks. Buñuelos are of hispanic origin and different versions are popular all over Latin America. The Colombian variety are savoury cheese fritters made of "farmer's cheese" or queso fresco. While some Colombians prefer to serve buñuelos with hot chocolate, my friend, Jairo, prefers it with natilla. Natilla is a firm custard that is thickened with cornstarch rather than eggs. I was not sure how a savoury cheese puff would go well with a sweet custard, so I asked Jairo to explain how one would go about consuming these snacks. According to him: "You eat them separately, first you bite a piece of natilla and after that you bite your buñuelo, just delicious".

Thanks to Jairo, I've discovered two new recipes and the cultural stories that come with it. I never knew these snacks existed till last week when I asked Jairo what dessert he missed from home. His birthday was round the corner and special occasions are always good inspirations for me to bake/cook something different.

Adapting the Original Recipes
While researching the recipes, I discovered that a lot of Colombians make buñuelos and natilla from packet mixes because it was quicker and still tasted great. Thankfully, a blogger with Colombian roots, Paola, came to my rescue with the recipes of how to make them from scratch. The original recipes are from the book called Secrets of Colombian Cooking by Patricia McCausland-Gallo.

Then, I came across another problem - finding the right ingredients or substitutions. I could not find the correct cheese that is required for the fritters and also the panela (similar to jaggery in Indian cuisine) for the natilla. Fortunately, Jairo said that I can be creative with my interpretation, so I did. Queso fresco is made by pressing the whey from cottage cheese and therefore a substitute could be Indian paneer or mild feta. My local grocery store sold out of paneer (!!) so I went with an Australian-style feta, which is a creamier, milder version of the Greek feta.

Kitchen Notes
Buñuelo: If there are any Colombians reading this right now, you must be wondering why my buñuelos are not round. They are supposed to look like this. Due to my adaptation of the recipe, I got a softer dough that refused to be rolled into balls. Instead of adding more cornflour, I tried my best to make a round-ish shape with two spoons before slipping it into the hot oil (FYI: This is my first time deep-frying anything). Hence the rustic look of these buñuelos (don't you just love the word "rustic"). I almost threw the dough away and thought of just giving Jairo the natilla. But I remembered what he told me: "You know, having natilla without buñuelos would be almost a capital sin." I just had to pray real hard that somehow he will like these imperfect-looking buñuelos that were made of feta.

Natilla: I had better luck with the natilla, it tasted so good, even if I didn't use panela. I added golden syrup because it gave the natilla a deeper flavour. Paola remembers her aunt stirring the natilla for hours on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, I didn't have to stir it for hours, but I did cook it long enough to remove the "raw" taste of the cornstarch and for the mixture to thicken.

The Verdict
Jairo considers my experiment a success (he is such a sweet guy, so I hope he was not just being nice). I liked the texture of these buñuelos use it's airy and pillowy inside although Jairo said that the original is more compact than these. As for the natilla, it was hard not to eat spoonfuls of it, so very moreish!

You judge for yourself :-) Here are the recipes of my version (interpretation) of buñuelos y natilla.

~ Buñuelos ~
Colombian-style Cheese Fritters
(original recipe by Patricia McCausland-Gallo here)

Golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, and pillowy soft an airy on the inside.

200g feta (or paneer) cheese
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 large egg
Vegetable oil (e.g. peanut, sunflower, canola) for deep-frying

Place the cheese in a bowl and break it up with a fork. (If using paneer, you may need to add a salt to taste). Crack the egg on top of the cheese. Using a hand-held blender, blend the cheese with the eggs to form a smooth paste. You can also use a food processor. Add the sugar and cornstarch and mix it with a spatula till it is well blended.

Heat up a few inches of oil in a pot. Over medium heat, drop teaspoonfuls in the oil (I used two spoons to do this - use one spoon to scrape the dough off the other spoon). I cooked about 6-7 fritters at a time. The fritters should expand or "puff up" after about 30 seconds and shouldn't brown too quickly. If it does brown too quickly, then the temperature of the oil is too hot, so lower the heat slightly. This is not the traditional way to fry the fritters, see the original instructions for that. Turn the fritters occasionally so that they are golden brown all over, then remove the fritters with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with natilla. Cool completely if you want to store them in an airtight container.

Mixing the ingredients to a smooth dough.

My first time deep-frying anything ever!!

~ Natilla ~
Columbian Christmas Custard
inspired by the recipe by Patricia McCausland-Gallo)

Natilla firms up as it cools

2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 heaped tsp golden syrup
1 stick cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 tbsp butter
ground cinnamon for garnishing

Place 1 cup of the milk, sugar, syrup, cinnamon and salt in a pot and simmer over low heat till the sugar and syrup has dissolved completely. Do not let the mixture boil.

In a small bowl, stir the remaining 1 cup of milk and the cornstarch until completely dissolved. Stir it into the sugar mixture on the stovetop.

Raise the temperature slightly and stir continuously to "cook" the cornstarch (the taste of uncooked flour is awful). Add the cream, then raise the heat again to medium, continuously stir and scrape the bottom of the pot until the mixture has thickened.

Remove the pot from the heat, add the butter, mix well and remove the cinnamon sticks. Pour the mixture into a mould or serving dish. You can coat the mould with oil spray and it will unmold very easily if you prefer to serve it on a platter. Sprinkle with the ground cinnamon. Let it cool and set before serving (it will be firm).

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Feeling the Burn

This blog recently turned One. Anniversaries are naturally a time for reflection. Being part of the food blogging world has definitely changed the way I cook and bake. I learn so much from other food blogs (thank you!!) and that inevitably influences the recipes I use. The change that I am most proud of is my use of seasonal and local produce.

Buying Local and Seasonal Cooking
I never used to take much notice of this, but now, I really enjoy learning more about these ingredients and the best way to use them through various cooking techniques and recipes. Not only does buying seasonal and local taste better (and sometimes more economical), it also helps maintain a sustainable agriculture by minimising the environmental damage caused by transporting foods. We can also support our local farmers, and in some cases it means getting my hands on unprocessed fruits and vegetables.

Inspiration from the Markets
Visiting the local green grocers always fuels my culinary creativity. One such place that reminds me most of the “wet markets” in Singapore where I grew up is the weekend market at Sydney Paddy’s Market in Chinatown. I love being in the bustle of such markets, where one can still bargain. But it’s really less about the savings and more about the chase and acquisition of the produce. I much prefer this type of shopping high rather than shopping for Manolo Blahnik.

Speaking of getting high - regular readers and friends already know this - I’m a chilli (chile) junkie. Naturally, when I was at the markets recently, I was looking for my next hit. And look at these babies:

When I asked the lady what type of chillies they were, I didn’t quite catch what she said, but I knew I had to try some when she told me: “Very hot! Very hot! Cut it very small, don’t use too much.” Say no more! I grabbed a hand full. It felt like I had just acquired gold nuggets - I was so excited to return home with my prized find.

I always prided myself as being a very good chilli eater. I have never met a chilli that was too hot for me. Upon hearing my reputation, a few acquaintances (mostly guys) will inevitably proceed to challenge me to an impromptu chilli eating “face off’. On one occasion while having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, during a bird's eye chilli eating face off, I could tell that that the challenger was suffering - both his ego and his mouth - so I pretended to call it a draw. Of course we all know who reigns supreme ;-)

Back to my chilli bounty story: I made a terrible mistake when I got home. Without researching what type of chilli it was, I proceeded to chop up (fortunately, only the flesh) and sprinkled it liberally in my chickpea salad (recipe follows).

Oh boy.

What happened to me, I do not have words to describe. Tears instantaneously starting pouring out. I wish they were tears of joy. Something happened in my mouth, it was weird...I felt both pain and numbness. It didn’t feel good at all. And I did not get any sympathy from Quikong who just laughed at me and called me a "wuss". Ouch. I have to admit that this chilli was too much for me. I don’t know what hurt more - my ego or my mouth.

After some research, the variety I tried is probably a Hanoi Habanero. It’s similar to the typical Habanero [ah-bah-NEH-roh], but it has slightly thicker, juicer flesh. The Habanero is one hottest chilli (chile) in the world. Even a tiny piece of Habanero can cause “intense and prolonged oral suffering” (been there!). Underneath the heat is a “delicate plum-tomato apple-like flavour” (was in too much pain to notice). If you are curious about how the heat in chillies is rated, have a look here.

After removing the rest of the killer chillies from my chickpea salad, I have to say that I really enjoyed the rest of my lunch. It’s quick and easy to make and so flavoursome. A bonus: if you have it the next day, the flavours develop further. It can be eaten cool, so it’s good for the lunch box. The flavours are also not compromised when frozen.

Savoury Chickpea Salad (minus the pain)

1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
¼ red capsicum, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
½ small onion, chopped
fresh coriander (cilantro)
spicesto taste:
e.g. cumin, tumeric, sweet paprika, curry powder mix

To serve:
Salad leaves (baby spinach or Romaine lettuce)

Over medium-low heat, cook onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil (or ghee) till fragrant. Throw in the spices and heat through to release the fragrance of the spices. Add capsicum and chickpeas and cook till capsicum is tender to your liking. Throw in coriander (not need to chop them if you don’t feel like it, all parts of this herb can be used). Cool slightly and serve it on top of some baby spinach or lettuce.

Wrap it - Serve it in soft tortillas with some sour cream or yogurt.
Mash it – Serve with grilled chicken or prawns.

Other chickpea recipes from Life's Smörgåsbord's archives you might want to try:
Baked Chickpeas and Sweet Potato Patties
Chickpea and Pink Peppercorn Bread
Chickpea and Roasted Pumpkin Soup
Chickpea and Spinach Curry

This will be my contribution to the June challenge of “No Croutons Required”, hosted by Lisa’s Kitchen and Holler at Tinned Tomatoes. The theme for this month is “soups or salads featuring legumes because beans and pulses are an important part of a healthy vegetarian diet”. The deadline is 20th June, so it’s not too late to join in.