Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mooncake madness

Not once did I ever think that I would make mooncakes. It’s not something that a layperson does or thinks that he or she can make. For one, they’re fiddly as hell to make. And the mid-autumn season is so short, it’s way easier to just go down to the shops to buy them. After about two decades of not eating them, here I am, suddenly obsessed by these sweet morsels from my childhood. As a child eating lotus paste mooncakes were already indulgent, if we were lucky, we’d get a double salty egg yolk bunger – now that was luxury in my time.

Having just returned from Singapore and Malaysia where the mooncake is seeing a modern revival, I was blown away by the breadth of variety of these suckers. I was hooked. The mooncakes in Asia are like pieces of mini art works – the pastry skin takes on the intricate carvings of flowers and Chinese calligraphy and the fillings infinite and cleverly combined with western ingredients. I also had to justify my recent horde of mooncake moulds – what good are they sitting in the cupboard?

I happened to buy a Malaysian food magazine, Flavours at the airport on the way back to Australia. My mooncake obsession could take hold – there was a spread on mooncakes and recipes. What luck! So today, I made my first batch of mooncake dough. I didn’t want to make both dough and filling – thought I’d take baby steps first. I’m not the best of bakers – most of my baking expeditions veer off in unexpected tangents! I used a peanut-shaped mould, a traditional calligraphy mould and a tablet shaped mould.

The peach-shaped calligraphy mould was by far the most diffcult mould to use. The dough stuck furiously to its sides and it took a bit of beating mould on bench to unmould the sticky stuff.

(golden syrup, lye water and oil mix resting)

I have used the dough on its own as biscuits although its purpose is to form a skin around fillings. The dough works quite well on its own though a bit sweet. I divided my dough and mixed half of it with a mixture of grated nutmeg and ground cinnamon for a slightly spicy flavour.

(this is the shiniest dough mix ever!)

(pre-oven specimens)

My version puffed up about double and as a result, lost most of its intricate patterns. Perhaps I put too much sodium bicarbonate in? Or maybe with a filling the dough keeps its shape better. I will make some lotus paste for the next batch and see what happens. The texture is pretty good, it's slightly chewy and spicy from nutmeg and cinnamon - not unlike a German Christmas cookie!

(post-oven specimens)

Here is Flavours basic mooncake dough recipe.

250ml golden syrup
110ml peanut oil (I substituted this with canola oil)
1tsp alkaline (lye) water
430g plain flour sifted
¼tsp sodium bicarbonate

1 egg lightly beaten for egg wash

Mix golden syrup, oil and lye water in a bowl until well combined. Cover with cling film and set aside for 1 hour.

Sift in flour and sodium bicarbonate . Mix to firm a dough – if the dough is too sticky, work in 1 to 2 tbsp flour. When the dough looks shiny and smooth, cover with cling film and rest for another hour before filling and shaping.

Baking: Preheat oven to 170°C. Place shaped mooncake biscuits on greased or greaseproof lined tray. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and brush with egg wash. Lower heat to 160°C and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven when biscuits are golden brown.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Singapore Singapore!

The quest for great food is always a good excuse to leave the country in exchange for new culinary experiences. A wedding is an even better excuse to leave the country. My cousin YW finally tied the knot having found his soulmate in Singapore. Many family members traveled from Malaysia and with family and friends coming from various overseas countries. The wedding was beautiful. The bride and groom looked tired but very happy. I’ve got the menu from the wedding reception to reflect what is typically on offer if you do decide on a Chinese-style reception in a big hotel.

(menu from Chinese wedding)

The streets of Singapore seem almost swept clean of debris and most eating places on the surface look sanitised and very clean. Street food in Singapore has been kept confined in ‘coffeeshops’ in specially-built buildings for this purpose. There are no longer sit-on-footpath type eating. As a result of the government’s zeal for cleanliness, Singaporean food stalls shoved into custom-built buildings have lost a part of their street appeal – the vibrancy and authenticity just isn’t there. Food isn’t overly expensive but neither is it overly cheap. A typical bowl of noodles will cost around $5. Don’t get me wrong, there is good food to be had in Singapore, just don’t expect raw, edgy street food, like you would in the rest of South-east Asia.

A good place for a cheap eats is Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant, recommended by fellow Brisbane blogger, Tunaf_ranch was a hit. The murtabaks here are pretty big and crispy perfect with a pint of frothy teh tarik.

(fat crispy parcels of goodness at Zam Zam)

A good friend of mine and Singapore resident, D brought us to a Teo Chew restaurant, Hung Kang for dinner. It was a joy to find beautifully prepared food at very reasonable prices. We started with pomegranate-shaped bags with crispy spring roll skin filled with diced chicken, crunchy chestnuts and spring onions. A thick, sweet soy sauce made a good dipping accompaniment. Stir fried kai lan (Chinese broccoli) with shiitake mushrooms and crispy fish skin was a textural sensation. The match of crunchy vegetables with silky mushrooms and crispy skin is so clever. The century egg stir fried with water chestnuts and black fungus was a highlight. The century egg loses a bit of its pungency but marries perfectly with the other ingredients. Deep fried goose was tender and very moist.

(dinner at Hung Kang)

The pork thigh braised in a complex soy broth with chestnuts was excellent eating – the meat perfectly fall apart tender with nutty chestnuts and a layer of gelatinous rendered fat.

(this braised pork dish was absolutely delicious!)

(Hashima (or frogs glands)with gingko nuts)

We finished off with snow frog glands with gingko nuts warmed in a sweet soup and oh nee (yam in lard and sugar) and cheng teng (cold clear dessert soup with longans, snow fungus, dried jujubes). It was an interesting array of textures, flavours and ingredients and acted as a good palate cleanser.

We were also lucky to visit while the mooncake festival was on. There were mooncakes everywhere we looked. Some of the streets downtown turned into mooncake alleys. Dozens of Chinese bakeries and specialist mooncake makers displayed their colourful wares in tents. Singapore has not only modernised its street food, the traditional mooncake of my childhood has also been transformed into elaborate pieces of artworks.

(this photo doesn't do the mooncake booths justice but imagine these stalls multiplied by about thirty)

Hundreds of mooncakes were on show – the traditional pastry with lotus paste with egg yolks were a minority. The east-meets west samples seemed to rule. Five star hotels have also gotten in on the action – hotels like Raffles, Shangri-La, Goodwood Park Hotel were showcasing exquisite-looking specimens.

(and these little mooncake piglets went to market...)

We said goodbye to the old-style baked pastry with lotus seed varieties and said hello to a new variety of dewy delicate snowskin mooncakes. These snowskins come in D24 durian paste, apple caramel, mango and pomelo, single malt whiskey, chocolate with rum and raisin and the piece de resistance – champagne and truffle. These exotic specimens don’t come cheap – expect to pay from $42 for four pieces. We moved around these mooncake booths trying their free samples.

(sample of local bakery, Bakerzin's snowskin mooncakes from their 2010 collection!)

I managed to find some traditional wooden mooncake moulds in Malaysia and am going to start to try and make some mooncakes. It’s all a bit sad but wooden moulds are becoming harder and harder to source – plastic is gaining momentum with cooks everywhere apparently. I am going to attempt making some mooncakes in the next couple of weeks time so stay tuned.

(mooncake moulds washed and seasoned with oil)

D also brought us to sample beef balls noodle soups at Purvis Street. It was a memorable lunch at a beef ball koay teow restaurant in Purvis Street in Singapore.

The appetisers of lor bak (spiced fragrant meat with a crispy bean curd skin) and century egg were a good combination.

(lor bak with century egg appetisers)

(beef ball noodle soup. Photo by Neil Lee)
The broth was complex and rich without being overpowering and the beef balls were very tasty. The chilli sauce with Calamansi limes gave the beef some kick too.

The Teo Chew dinner, murtabak at Zam Zam and beef ball noodles lunch were some of my more memorable eats in Singapore.

The mid autumn mooncake festival ran from 10 August to 22 September 2010.
Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant can be found at 697, 699 North Bridge Road, Singapore.
Hung Kang Teochew Restaurant can be found at 28 North Canal Road, Singapore.
7th Storey Hainan Cafe, 27 Purvis Street, Singapore.