Sunday, September 30, 2012

[T&T] Mama Sita's Sinigang sa Sampalok (Filipino tamarind seasoning mix)

”The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
- St. Augustine
What can I say to that? While not a fan of the man himself - inveterate unbeliever that I am - , I have to admit he got this one right.
And, while I may be too poor (OK, and lazy too...) to get around much, I like to keep an open mind and sample as much of the other cultures as I can. Especially as far as food is concerned - but you guessed that much, right?

The average Italian could probably name at least a couple Chinese or Japanese dishes, but Filipino cuisine is not as well-known as other Asian ones - pity, really, because it is unique and quite interesting.
Immigration from the Philippines is as strong as ever, though, and more and more Pinoy-specific groceries and foodstores are popping up, catering for the cravings of this ever-growing community.

Scouring ethnic shops is a well-known pastime of mine, so I quickly became familiar with Mama Sita's, which is pretty much synonymous with Filipino food.
I bought a nice selection of sauces and marinades in the past, both powdered and bottled, and loved them all. Likewise I enjoy Ube Halaya, coconut jelly, jackfruit, and everything mango... so you see I was pretty much ready to declare myself a honorary Pinay.

And when I stumbled into this, I knew I had to try it.

The blurb on the package (which was exhaustive and written in very good English btw) stated that the main ingredient of the mix was unripe tamarind, which would result in a soup with a a distinctively sour, fruity taste.
...Well isn't it gorgeous? I love soup! I love tamarind! I love sour! I'm going to LOVE this!

So here's my huge pot of water, with a quartered onion and a few cherry tomatoes floating in it. At this point I had already stirred in the package's content - I didn't take a pic of it but I guess it's better this way, since it was a lumpy pinkish mush that, quite frankly, reminded me of puke...

Still following the recipe given, I then added long green peppers and brought it all to a boil...

"Double, double, toil and trouble! Fire, burn! And cauldron, bubble!"

(Heh. In case you didn't notice, I gave up apologising about this sort of things a while ago...)

The recipe called for turnips, long beans and spinach at this point, but I added a frozen minestrone mix instead - granted, cranberry beans may not be an ingredient one would immediately associate with the Philippine islands, still...
...lookie, it's beans all right, 'nkay?

Last but not least, shrimps. Lots of them!

The result was pretty enough; so much so, in fact, that I confidently served it to my unsuspecting sweetie...

Now my sweetie, he has read quite a few pages of St. Augustine's metaphorical book, having travelled extensively through Asia in the past; but the best he could say about this soup was, "I bet it's really healthy" - which, as you might be suspecting, is Latin for, "Yeuch, this stuff is disgusting!"
We ended up forlornly plucking shrimps out of the broth, and eating them dejectedly, as neither of us -try as we might - could stomach a second serving of it.

The fact is, it was sour. Sour soup is yummy, mind you, but in this instance... let us just say I don't mean it in a pretty way.
It was, frankly, off-putting - I tried adding salt and it helped a little, but it was still way far from the "heavenly comfort food" it was meant to be.
As my sweetie wisely said, it tasted unfinished...
...thus, before giving in to the Dark Side and publicly bashing both Mama Sita's product and what was inexplicably a beloved national dish for a whole nation, I took a steadying breath and did what I should have done before - I searched YouTube...
...and found this.

See where mine went wrong? I SKIPPED THE FISH JUICE!
Now to be honest, the recipe on the package went: "Add fish juice to taste"... which I had mistakenly registered as, "You can add it if you like".

So - me being this adorable ball of stubbornness you have come to love (er, right?) - I saved the leftover broth (and, ye Gods, I had lots of it!), got myself a bottle of fish juice, and decided to give Sinigang sa Sampalok another chance before passing judgement.
Yes, I know. Strict but fair, that's me in a nutshell!

Guess what? It made a HUGE difference!
The fish stuff turned the broth sligtly darker, deliciously hearty, and umami-laden in a way that worked perfectly with the basic sourness.
I ended up eating all of the leftover broth by myself, and although I wouldn't say I'm looking forward to making more any time soon, I certainly wouldn't mind trying the real thing if only I could manage to find a Filipino restaurant!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Of new beginnings and Italian plumbers


It is my birthday today (YAY!) and, as someone might remember from my very first entry, this date was supposed to mark the official start of my blog. 
I mean, we've been joking up to now, right? Warming up. Flexing our muscles, exchanging some friendly banter and so on. 
But now? 
Now's when the game gets tough. 

I could tell you how I enrolled on a photography class on Craftsy, in order to overcome my fear of a digicam once and for all. 
I could extoll the designers I entrusted with the task of creating a logo worth of my Efreet-y self. 


You all don't give a damn about that, right

You're here for the cake
Aww come on, do not pretend you don't know the one I'm talking about. 


My Super Mario Bros cake!

Starring Luigi... 

...and everyone's favorite Italian plumber*, Mario! 

Booty shot! Aren't those Silver Stars cute? 

The very same cake, with the sugarpaste decorations and the candle removed. 
You can see the wonky shape a little better in this one (and the flaws in my fondant stripes too, unfortunately...)

Well, it sure looks pretty. But was the actual cake any good? 

The following one's for all of you Doubting Thomases out there... 

(My answer to the above would be: If done well, a decorated cake is way yummy! I wouldn't go as far as eating the fondant figures myself, but the covering was thin enough to complement the hyper-chocolatey cake nicely, without overwhelming it with sweetness.)

I find it strangely fitting to post this cake today. I am really proud of it, and even if I know there are things I could have done better - that blasted striping AAARGH! - I learned a lot from it, and it gave my confidence a huge boost. 
It seems I can do designer cakes after all!

Plus, the kid I made it for was happy with it. In the end, this is the thing that really matters!

* = Although, I have to confess, not mine. I always thought Luigi's far cuter. He definitely deserves some more love!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

OMG I'm doing it all wrong!

"If a poet sees a daffodil he stares at it and writes a long poem about it, but Twoflower wanders off to find a book on botany. And treads on it."
- Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

OK, but - I hear you asking, O Faithful Reader, - what do we owe this quote to? 
To which I will reply: Shut your mouth, O Faithful Reader, and mind your own business. Since when do I need a logical reason to throw in a Discworld reference? 
Geez. Faithful Readers nowadays!

Anyway, if you have to know: I think my brain must be wired much like Twoflower's, because I generally have an urge to do the same - sticking my nose into a thing, picking it apart until I feel I got a good grasp of how it works. 
Then I either lose interest in it, or fall head-over-heels for it, at which point I will obsess over it until I am satisfied I'm doing it just right.

Take, for instance, this whole blogging business.

I am an avid blog reader; blogs are what I resort to during those interminable night shifts at work, or whenever I feel like stalking other people's pantry (and frankly, it happens quite often.)
I know sometimes I take an immediate liking to a blog I just stumbled into while googling for some recipe or other, and other times I find one that is choke filled with food I absolutely love, but something ineffable about its layout repels me so strongly that I have to give it up unless I can get the bare text through my feeds reader.

You'd suppose I should be able to put a finger on what works for me, and mimic it in my own blog. But NO.

So when one of those social buying websites offered a strongly discounted ticket for a blogging seminar to be held in my town, I decided to attend.

According to the confirmation mail I got, the seminar was going to start this morning at 9.00, in a hotel quite far from where I live. I had to wake up a 6.00 this morning... which is nothing unusual to me, but what the heck! I took a day off for this, I was hoping to get some more sleep!
I was a bit grumpy already by the time I reached the hotel (I wish I had taken some pics, but I felt kinda self-conscious standing there in the hall...)

We were about 40 people in there, and after a while it become clear to us that something was wrong - the receptionist wasn't telling us anything, but she was looking a little frantic.
One of the would-be attendees, on her own initiative, contacted the speaker through Facebook and discovered that he wasn't even in town... so in the end, the organisation admitted to the boo-boo. They could send in a replacement speaker, in a couple hours.

I won't describe what happened next, because it wasn't pretty. Some of the people there had come by train from other parts of the country; others were counting on the seminar to be over in the early afternoon, and had things to do later on.
We might, as a whole, have been a bit hard on the hotel staff, who had no fault since they were only providing a location. It is also true that they'd have kept there indefinitely without an explaination, even though no one was arriving so there could be no doubt that something fishy was going on. And even afterwards... they could have, I don't know, offered us coffee. Or told us where the toilets were, should we need them. But no, they just hoarded us all in a corner so that we wouldn't bother their paying guests.

In the end, those among us who stayed got to hear some very good tips about blogging in general (although the seminar was nominally geared towards foodies).
The speaker was very nice and knew his subject matter quite well - a bit too well maybe, as I felt the strategies he outlined were meant for people aiming at making a living out of their online presence, as opposed to those who blog for fun in their spare time (but still wish to make a decent job of it.)
And while I don't agree with everything he said, he most definitely made some good points. Namely:

1.  My blog should reflect my own personality. I must accept that not everyone will like it.

2.  I should update it more regularly (although I don't feel I need to go so far as posting on fixed days, like he suggested.)

3.  I should put some effort into my online presence - while I HATE Facebook with a passion, there are other social networks such as Pinterest and Google+, which I could use to keep in touch with other foodies.

4.  And finally, while I'm not interested in running a "food porn" blog, my pics should not, at the very least, be painful to look at.
(Guess what? My inner Twoflower is telling me a photography class might be in order...)

I've just got back home (after being out for more than 12 hours) so I'm positively exhausted. I can't say I am happy with the organisation, even when I take into account the cheap price of the ticket. But I got to chat with other foodies and hopefully our online paths will cross in the future, so all in all, it has been a positive and interesting experience.

...Oh, and right now my sweetie's texting me about how much his son liked my Mario cake.

Yep I did it! Yay me!

I have lotsa pics to show you, of course, but I just don't have enough steam left in me to download them right now. 

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Avast! Thar it blows... a M-ARR-io cake!

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Er. This would be it for today, actually.

But since you dropped by (which is AWESOME btw, thankyouthankyouthankyou!), I'll let you have a peek at what I'm currently up to, decorating-wise...

It's still a WIP of course, but I trust you can pretty much tell where I'm going.
And since it's September 17th, I get to call it a MARRio cake for a whole day! *nudge nudge* Geddit, uh?

This cake is meant as a special surprise for a kid who's turning eight today... but thankfully, his birthday party will be on Saturday, so unless something really bad happens to a) me, b) the cake, c) the sugarpaste figures or d) any combination of the above, I should be able to put it all together just in time...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tomato Jam

...Well, I am Italian. What else were you expecting? 

Hetalia: Axis Powers belongs to  Hidekaz Himaruya and Gentosha
S. Italy's character song, Oishii Tomato no Uta/The Delicious Tomato Song, is sung by Namikawa Daisuke

Making jam out of tomatoes might sound freakish to some, but please consider this: tomatoes are actually fruit. There's nothing weird about turning fruit into jam, right?


Just trust me on this one, hmm

Tomato Jam


* 2 cups pureed tomato (bottled sauce is fine as long as it's just tomato)
* 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
* 1/3 cup candied fruit, diced
* 1 cinnamon stick
* 6-7 whole cardamom pods
* a slosh of Alchermes (rum will do, too!)

1.  Pour the pureed tomatoes (or fresh bottled tomato sauce) into a saucepan. You can use a pan if your're in a hurry - the whole process will be faster that way, but you will need to keep  an eye on it all the time, otherwise it will burn. 

2.  Add sugar. Put on low fire and keep stirring with a wooden spoon, until all the sugar dissolves and the mixture bubbles gently. 

3.  Take the spices. Oooh pretty!

4.  Throw them into the tomato-and-sugar mix. Let it all simmer for about half an hour, stirring occasionally. Don't let it to its own devices or it will burn! *

5.  Once it has thickened to a proper jam-like consistency, remove it from heat. Fish the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods out of it. Pop them into your mouth while no one is looking. 

6.  Pour the jam into a bowl. It is perfectly fine to call it done at this stage, but to make it jummier, add the diced candied fruit and slosh in a little rum (or, ideally, Alchermes). 

Let it cool off, stirring from time to time so that the fruit is distributed evenly.

7.  Can your tomato jam, or bake it into a pie (the doses I gave you yeld enough to fill a medium, 8 servings-worth pie). Or you might want to try it as cookie filling, or just eat it with a spoon.
I grant you, next time you'll want to make a double batch!

* = It will burn anyway, unless you sing the Oishii Tomato no Uta the whole time while making this. True story! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hey, what is this? A Porco Gnu cake!

I baked and decorated this cake for a friend (uhm, kind of... the unadulterated truth is, he's an ex date of mine...) whose birthday is on September 4th.

Now this guy, he has a funny habit - you know when you start swearing real bad, then catch yourself just in time and utter something goofy instead?
Well, his trademark line is "Porco gnu!" - which can't be translated really, but is evocative of some sort of unholy union between a pig and a wildebeest.

Yep, I said PIG -

- and WILDEBEEST..., take a deep breath and picture it in your mind.

I did.

I followed Paul Bradford's sugar pig tutorial, then tweaked it by adding bovine features such as a brush-like tail, mane, beard, and of course the distinctive curvy horns.

I am especially proud of the tail. It does a good job of keeping up the whole "pig/wildebeest crossbreed" concept, and looks so funny and cute on him!

Obligatory out-of-focus mug shot:

For the cake itself I used this recipe from Aikko's blog, Bake Happy. It is one I baked over and over, and it never failed me - it's so easy and delicious!
This was the first time I put fondant on it, though, and it was a bit too crumbly to support its weight; I had left the cake to set for a full 1 hours before plopping the topper on it, but still it managed to sink visibly over the couple hours before the cake was cut. Mind you, the topper was a bit heavy, since I a full 250 g.  package of sugarpaste went into it... I think if I had used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour just for this once, it would have helped.

Even so, the cake was well received and made people giggle a lot, which was the whole point really! 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Fanbaking Project: Kareh-pan, a.k.a. Curry Bread (as seen in Kuroshitsuji)

So you have read this other post of mine, yes? 
Take a seat, grasshopper. I knew you would be back.

We are going to focus on making kareh-pan today, thus I'm taking it for granted that you already have some Japanese curry ready, either leftover or made for this purpose. If not, check my previous entry linked above and go make yourself some! It's super easy! 

Now let's pick up things right where we stopped last time. Remember how I told you that proper kareh is very runny, almost soup-like? That is the consistency you will get if you follow the directions on your curry package. Only this time we need it thicker, so keep it simmering on medium-low heat, stirring slowly with a wooden spoon to prevent it from burning.
It is a bit tricky to explain when it's done; basically you want it to get to a point where it doesn't slosh right back when you pile it on one side, but the different ingredients are still distinguishable. (The pic below is the best I could manage; it will become even firmer as it cools off, so it is fine to remove it from heat at this point.)

The kareh part is done. Time to deal with the pan!

(My recipe is a slight adaptation of this one by Makiko Itoh, hostess of Just Hungry. If you have even a passing interest in Japanese food, her blog is THE place to be!)


Ingredients (yelds 8):

* (300 g) Manitoba flour
* (70 g) all-purpose flour
* 1 packet (7 g) dry yeast
* 2 Tbsp sugar
* 2 tsp salt
* 5/8 cup milk (+ 2 Tbsp for the coating)
* 2 + 1/2 Tbs butter

* 3 medium eggs
* Panko bread crumbs
* frying oil

1.  Cube the butter and let it soften slightly. The eggs and the milk should be room temeperature too.

2.  Whisk together the dry ingredients (the two kinds of flour, sugar, salt, and yeast). Mix in two of the eggs, then - gradually - the milk. Finally, add the softened butter and knead (either manually or with a KitchenAid or somesuch) until you get a veeeeeery sticky ball of dough!

3.  Put it into a bowl, cover it with plastic film (or you can wrap the dough into it directly; if so, wrap loosely, because it will more or less double in bulk). 
Let it rest for a couple hours (you can get away with 1 1/2  in a particularly warm day, but don't skimp on the rising time! Your patience will be rewarded in the end!) 

4.  Go look at your dough. Has it grown into a huge, bloated, vaguely eldritch thing?
...Wow, that's GOOD!
Unceremonoiusly punch it down until it deflates, wrap it up again and put it back in its warm, cozy nook for 45 more minutes.
No, really, I mean it! I suggest re-watching your fave Kuroshitsuji episode and pretend you're Sebastian, keeping hunger in check while Ciel pursues his revenge... and waiting, waiting for his master's soul to distil into pure, perfect yumminess...

5.  OK, you can stop daydreaming now! Deflate the dough again (hee hee, isn't it fun?)
Cut it into 8 equal parts, and shape them into balls. Dampen a clean kitchen towel, cover your buns-in -progress with it, and - guess what? - let it rest for a further 15 minutes.

6.  In the meanwhile, beat the remaining egg with 2 Tbsp milk and a pinch of salt.
Take out the dough balls, one at a time, and roll them into flat rounds. Put some curry in the middle...

...then close up the dough around it. You can use a little egg mixture as glue, or dampen the edges with water;  in short, do whatever works for you. It doesn't have to be pretty, as long as it stays closed.

(This is why the filling needs to be so thick btw: if you get smudges of it on the edges, it will be very hard to seal the bun properly. Come on, ask me how I know.)

7.  Roll the filled bun gently into the egg mixture...

...and cover it in panko crumbs.
DON'T substitute plain bread crumbs for it; they are too fine and soak up tons of oil, so your coating turns out all soggy and not crunchy at all. If you can't find them, break up some crackers instead (son't salt the egg mixture if you're using salty crackers), or leave uncovered altogether.

8.  Now carefully place the buns on baking paper aaaaaaand... leave them alone for the usual 15 minutes.
Stop whining already; the coating needs to set at this point. If it doesn't, the crumbs will come loose in the hot oil and your pan will have a nasty burnt taste.

9.  Time to deep-fry! If you're using a frying machine, set it on the highest temperature; if not, you'll know the oil is hot enough when a bread crumb dropped into it turns crisp and golden right away. If it blackens as soon as it touches the oil, then it's too hot!

Carefully lower the buns in, so as to dislodge as few crumbs as possible.
Mine were done in 7-8 minutes, but they were on the largeish side. Simply keep an eye on them and fish them out when they look good!

Drain the excess oil on kitchen paper...

...and now, at last, you can nom them!




...Well, you got the hang of it, didn't you?

A few words of caution: 

*  Making kareh-pan is not difficult per se, but it takes a crapload of time due to the fact that you have to allow the dough to rest and rise multiple times. Try it on a day when you're happy and relaxed, and really have nothing more pressing to do.

*  It is also messy business. Very messy. This is how my kitchen looked right after I was done with them, just so you get the idea... 

*  You really, really do not want your buns to burst open while frying. I can't stress how important this is. This poor guy was unlucky...

...and it was pretty icky, let me tell you. The oil had seeped inside, so that it was basically a grease-soaked sponge. Ugh. 
(Even the digicam didn't have the heart to put the wretched thing into sharp focus. True story.)

*  Oh, and one last thing. When they cut the "mystery donut" in Kuroshitsuji, you can see tons of curry flowing dramatically out of it and onto the plate... 

Kuroshitsuji belongs to Yana Toboso and Square Enix

As you know by now, that is not the case. The filling is delicious and creamy, but definitely not this soupy.  Here I am squishing mine slightly to let you get a good peek at it...

It is, however, a devilishly delicious treat and I really hope you'll give it a try!