Kee chang / Alkaline rice dumplings

The Dragon Boat Festival is something I look forward to every year, for two reasons. One – it means summer has ‘officially’ begun. And more importantly – it means it is chang/zong zi (粽子) season.

I previously made bak chang (肉粽), and in that post I said I would have to learn how to make the sweet version: kee chang / jianshui zong (碱水粽) / alkaline dumplings… and I have! For those of you who have not heard about these little morsels, they are eaten as a sweet snack or dessert. They get their name because the glutinous rice is pre-treated with alkaline/lye water, which gives the rice its distinctive yellow colour. They often do not contain any fillings, and are eaten with a sugar syrup or kaya (Malaysian coconut jam).

kee chang 2

kee chang 3

I genuinely did not know how this was going to go, as I did not have a proper recipe to follow. Thankfully, they turned out reasonably well. I would do a few things differently next time though:
– Boil for 1.5-2 hours (I only boiled them for 1 hour and the rice was a not ‘mushy’ enough for my liking)
– Leave the rice for 60 mins at most (I left them for 3 hours and they had a very slight bitter aftertaste)
I’ve tweaked the recipe accordingly to reflect these changes.

The next ‘chang’ I’ll have to make will be the Nonya bak chang / Nonya zong (娘惹粽) – which is filled with pork, candied winter melon and peanuts. Watch this space!

kee chang 1

Kee chang / Alkaline dumplings
Makes 10-12 dumplings

For the kee chang:
– 200g glutinous rice
– 1/2 tbsp alkaline water
– 20 fresh, young bamboo leaves
– Cooking string/hemp leaves

The day before:
1. Wash glutinous rice until the water runs clear. Place rice in a tub, cover with water, and leave to soak overnight.
2. Wash the bamboo leaves, and leave to soak overnight.

On the day:
3. Drain the glutinous rice.
4. Add the alkaline water, and stir this through the rice. Leave aside for 30 min.
5. Whilst waiting for the alkaline water to permeate the rice, drain the water from the bamboo leaves. Pat the leaves dry with a cloth – it doesn’t matter if they are still slightly wet.
6. Select two leaves, and place them in opposite directions (i.e. the tail end of one lining up with the top end of the other). Do not use any leaves which already have holes in them, as they will cause water to seep into the bak chang during the cooking process.
7. Form leaves into a cone.
8. Fill the cone with the glutinous rice, until you reach the brim of the cone.
9. Fold the leaves around the pouch, and secure with cooking string/hemp leaves.
10. Boil water in a heavy based pot. When the water comes to a boil, gently lower the kee changs into the water. Make sure all the changs are completely submerged in water. Cover the pot with a lid, and cook over medium heat for 1.5-2 hours hours. (* I only boiled them for 1 hour, and think they would benefit from a longer cooking time to make the rice softer).
11. Leave to cool, and serve with palm sugar syrup.

For the palm sugar syrup:
– 200g gula melaka (palm sugar)
– 200ml water
– 2 pandan leaves

1. Place the palm sugar, water and pandan leaves in a pan.
2. Bring the ingredients to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes until the syrup thickens.
3. Strain and leave to cool.
4. Serve with kee changs, and enjoy! (This syrup also works well with ice cream and yogurt)

kee chang 4

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Revisited: Chinese New Year Pineapple ‘nastar’ tarts

Ah, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where the baking madness begins.

Pineapple tarts are, to me, synonymous with Chinese New Year. It simply is not Chinese New Year without them. Having said that, they are one of the more time consuming treats to bake, when compared to something like almond or peanut cookies. Cooking the pineapple jam took almost 3.5 hours! (It’s worth taking the time to cook out the jam though, as there was one year where I had a lazy moment – leading to wet jam, and thus a perfect environment for mould…)

chinese new year pineapple cookies 5

I thought I’d try a new recipe this year, and found a recipe from Sonia of Nasi Lemak Lover. It had rave reviews, so I tweaked it marginally, and went with it. They turned out well, and I love the fact that it utilises one of my favourite ingredients: condensed milk! They do not end up milky or too sweet, so fear not.

I’ve learnt a lot since my first attempt at making these, and my tips for making pineapple nastar tarts are as follows:
– Roll out your jam into rolls beforehand.
– Pipe out rolls of pastry beforehand.
– Have your pastry at room temperature as it is easier to pipe/push room temperature dough through the nastar mould. (This may be different in a humid environment, but in a cold country/during winter I definitely recommend room temperature pastry.)
– Do not let your nastar mould get oily. You will totally lose your grip if this happens, and things will rapidly become more difficult.
– Be gentle with your pastry, as you do not want to destroy the beautiful zigzag nastar design on the pastry.

chinese new year pineapple tarts 1

chinese new year pineapple cookies 6

Chinese New Year Pineapple nastar tarts
Based on a recipe from Nasi Lemak Lover
Makes 80 large tarts (you may get more if you make smaller ones)
 
For the pastry:
  • 350g salted butter, at room temperature\
  • 100g condensed milk
  • 470g plain flour
  • 40g cornflour
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 700-750g pineapple jam (I used 2 1/2 large pineapples)
    • roll into individual balls/logs, approx 3/4 tsp each
For egg wash:
  • 1 egg yolk + 1 tbsp milk (gently beaten)
Method:
1. Place the butter and condensed milk in the bowl of your stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Alternatively, you can use a spatula or a hand held mixer.
2. Add the egg yolks, and mix until just combined.
3. Add the plain flour and corn flour to the butter/condensed milk mixture in 2 additions, mix until just combined. The mixture should just come together to form a dough, and should not crumble when you roll it into a ball. If it crumbles, it is too dry – add some liquid. If it seems too sticky, add a little flour. This will change depending on climate( but not by very much).
4. Pipe out the pastry dough using your nastar mould, into 3 inch strips. If you do not have a nastar mould, you can wrap the dough up into the ‘enclosed’ version of pineapple tarts.
5. Place a ball of pineapple jam onto the pastry strip, and roll it up. Place on a silpat/parchment lined tray.
6. Repeat with all the remaining pastry and jam.
7. Brush the tarts lightly with the egg wash.
8. Bake in a 165’C oven (fan) for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown.

chinese new year pineapple cookies 3

chinese new year pineapple cookies 4

Are these time consuming? Yes. But are they worth the effort? Definitely.

Happy baking!

Chinese braised nuts

Most Chinese restaurants always serve a little ‘snack’ the moment you sit down at the table. These Chinese braised nuts (groundnuts) are a common feature, and I personally think they are a fabulous appetiser. Being in London means I don’t get to eat this as often as I’d like – which means there was only one solution: make it myself.

chinese braised peanuts

I’ve tweaked the recipe over my last few attempts, and I am finally happy enough to post the recipe. It is a very simple recipe, but does need a prolonged cooking time to ensure the flavours absorb into the nuts.

chinese braised peanuts

Chinese braised nuts
  • 500g raw peanuts/groundnuts (I prefer skinless ones)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp five spice powder
  • 5 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 5 tbsp kicap manis (alternatively, use dark soy sauce + 1 tsp sugar)
  • 3 star anise
  • 60g rock sugar (any other white sugar is fine)
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • orange peel from one orange (optional)
  • 5 cups water (you may need a few extra cups of water, see below)
  1. Wash the peanuts, drain, and place in a slow cooker/heavy bottomed pot.
  2. Add all the other ingredients to the pot.
  3. Cook on low heat (covered) for 2-3 hours, until the nuts are cooked through. Gently stir the mixture every 30 minutes. You may need to add in extra water as you go along – do not let the liquid dry out, as this will cause the peanuts to burn.
  4. Eat warm, or leave to cool and eat at room temperature.
On another note, here’s wishing all my Chinese readers a very Happy Chinese New Year! 恭喜发财, 万事如意! 
I leave you with a photo of us tossing ‘yee sang/yu sheng’ (Chinese New Year salad). Essentially, the higher you toss, the more luck you get!
yee sang
May the year of the Horse bring much joy, good health, prosperity, and good food!

[instagrammed] Pandan bundt eggwhite cake

I first made this pandan bundt cake when I realised I had an ever-growing stash of leftover eggwhites in my freezer. I’m not a huge fan of meringue/macaron baking, and was trying to figure out what I could do with all those leftover eggwhites. And I have yet to purchase a chiffon cake tin.

I then came across this recipe for “Munavalgekook”, an Estonian eggwhite cake. I was intrigued, and not just because I couldn’t pronounce the name of said cake! So I made it. And absolutely loved it.

pandan bundt eggwhite cake

This cake has a slight pound-cake like texture, but has a beautiful delicate crumb due to the volume created by the whipped eggwhites. I personally prefer whisking eggwhites separately in cake recipes (even when the recipe calls for a whole egg), as I find cakes made this way result in a finer crumb.

And in keeping with my aim in life of putting a Malaysian twist on all my baked goods, I added a dash of pandan (screwpine) extract into the cake mix.

pandan bundt slicedNot a very good slice through the cake, is it? I really need to sharpen my knives… Oops.

Pandan bundt cake
Adapted from this recipe for Munavalgekook, from Nami-Nami

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 2 tbsp + 100 g caster sugar
  • 160 g plain flour
  • 1 heaped tbsp potato starch or cornflour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 100 g melted butter, cooled slightly (I use salted butter)
  • 2 tbsp pandan extract (I never measure, I plonk in as much as I feel is necessary on that particular day…)

1. Preheat your oven to 170’C (fan assisted).
2. Sieve the flour, potato/corn starch, 100g of caster sugar, and baking powder into a bowl. Set aside.
3. Place egg whites and 2 tbsp of the caster sugar in a clean bowl. Whisk until the egg white/sugar mixture forms soft peaks.
4. Gently fold in the sieved flour/sugar mix into the whipped egg whites, until it forms a smooth mixture. Be careful when doing this as you do not want to knock the precious air bubbles out of the egg whites.
5. Slowly trickle the melted butter and pandan extract into the mixture, and gently fold until just incorporated.
6. Pour the cake mix into a bundt tin. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-45 minutes, until the cake becomes golden brown. A toothpick inserted into the cake should come out clean.
7. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.
8. Turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool, then eat!

Plum Valley Restaurant, Chinatown

I’m a creature of habit. I not only frequent the same restaurants, but I also order the exact same thing most of the time. Unsurprisingly, I have my list of favourite Chinese/dim sum restaurants in London. In fact, I don’t think I have tried dim sum at any place that isn’t on that list in recent years.

Having said that, I do like discovering other good restaurants, and had the opportunity to do so recently, courtesy of Cox and Kings. Cox and Kings are one of the world’s oldest travel companies, and pride themselves on specialising in high quality cultural (both group and private) holidays all over the world. In particular, they have a wonderful selection of holidays to China (a country I am yet to explore!). In line with the whole “China” theme, they invited a group of bloggers to review a selection of restaurants in Chinatown – with the aim of showcasing the range and standard of Chinatown eateries.

So this is how I ended up at Plum Valley.

Plum Valley offer both an a la carte and dim sum menu, but we chose the latter as it would allow us to sample a wider variety of their dishes. It also enabled me to perform a fairer assessment of the food, as dim sum offerings tend to be fairly standard (with a few exceptions, naturally!)

plum valley har kau

Prawn dumplings (Har kau). These steamed dumplings are a dim sum staple, and are personally a must order for me, especially in a new restaurant. These were good, with thin skins and a succulent prawn filling.

plum valley siu mai

Pork & prawn dumplings (Siu mai). Whilst the prawn dumplings were good, the siu mai unfortunately fell a little short. The pork used for the dumpling fillings seemed a tad too gelatinous, which resulted in a rather chewy texture.

plum valley black cod dumpling

Black cod dumplings. I was intrigued by these, as it was something that’s not seen commonly on dim sum menus. I was rather excited when they came to the table, as they looked rather intricate and pretty! Unfortunately they did not taste as good as they looked – the dumpling skin was very doughy, which led to a rather sandy texture. The black cod filling also seemed to be slightly overcooked. A shame, because this held much promise.

plum valley crispy eel cheung fun

Crispy eel cheung fun. I am a huge fan of contrasting textures, and this certainly delivered. The crispy fried eel worked well with the soft cheung fun – although it admittedly tasted a little more Japanese than Chinese!

plum valley scallop dumpling

Scallop dumplings. I was surprised to see them using some gold leaf on the top of these – pretty yes, but rather un-Chinese really. These tasted fine, but I would have preferred a larger piece of scallop – I suspect a whole scallop had been sliced into three to top these, which is a little stingy. I would prefer to pay more and get a whole scallop, but perhaps that is just my greed talking.

plum valley chicken feet in black bean sauce

Chicken feet in black bean sauce. This was cooked well, and had good flavour.

plum valley venison yam puff

Venison yam puffs. A slight tweak on the classic yam puffs. The ‘yam puff’ bit was rather well executed, but the venison filling lacked that ‘oomph’ I was hoping for.

plum valley xo fried rice

XO fried rice. The humble fried rice, which should be easy to whip up, is in reality quite a hard dish to get right. One of the most important aspects of any wok-fried dish is something called ‘wok hei’, which not-so-literally translates to “breath of the wok”. This dish had plenty of this, and was something I’d order again. Doesn’t look like much, but it delivered on taste.

A quick note on other aspects of the restaurant: Service (which is often poor or non-existent in many Chinatown restaurants) was actually pretty good – the food arrived in good time, and all requests were promptly dealt with.

Lastly, decor was fairly modern, with a decent amount of space between the tables. A little too posh perhaps, but in all fairness they market themselves as a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. I would have preferred it if the dining area was slightly better lit though – this is purely a personal preference stemming from the fact that I never saw a dimly lit Chinese restaurant growing up!

pplum valley dim sum

So yes – there were highs and lows of the meal. I cannot say I would rush back to dine here, but I would not rule out returning to try other offerings on their menu. At the end of it all, I feel that the quality of food is similar to the other Chinatown restaurants I have tried – but I maintain that better dim sum can be found outside Chinatown itself.

plum valley

Plum Valley
20 Gerrard Street
Chinatown
London W1D 6JQ

Disclaimer: I dined at Plum Valley courtesy of Cox and Kings, and also received a wine voucher as a token of appreciation. However, all views expressed above are my own. This review will also be published in ‘Compass’, their in-house travel magazine.

Chinese New Year: Almond cookies, with crunch!

Most Malaysians equate Chinese New Year with a few important things = family, friends, FOOD, and well, food. And let’s face it, it wouldn’t be Chinese New Year without all those typical CNY cookies – pineapple tarts, peanut cookies… and so forth.

I made some almond cookies last year, but wasn’t altogether pleased with their texture. You see, to me almond cookies should have a slight crunch, yet be slightly melty. My version from last year tasted good enough, but it didn’t have much of that ‘crunch factor’. I know I’m being pedantic, but if you’re going to stuff yourself with cookies, it might as well be ones you love!

chinese new year almond cookies 3

I found this recipe in one of the cookbooks I bought in Penang (oh yes, I totally buy local cookbooks whenever I go home – then lug them all back to London), and thought it looked promising. And it did deliver!

These cookies have a nice crunchy/firm exterior, with a slight melty interior. If you have never tasted such almond cookies, you must think I am completely bonkers. I know it sounds mad, but it works. Remarkably well, might I add.

chinese new year almond cookies 5

As always, I managed to eat 5 cookies in the first hour post-baking. I then had to take fairly drastic action to keep them all away in a sealed container, so I can’t get to them before Chinese New Year comes along! Yes, I am THAT lazy. If it’s sealed/hard to get to, I rather not eat it. Ha!

If you prefer a soft/completely ‘melt in the mouth’ almond cookie, you’ll prefer my recipe from last year. But if you prefer one with a slight crunch, try this one. I think you’ll like it!

chinese new year almond cookies 2

Chinese New Year Almond Cookies
Adapted from My Secret Recipe Series: New Year Cookies by Alan Ooi
Makes approximately 50-60 cookies, depending on size

  • 100g ground almonds
  • 150g plain flour
  • 100g caster sugar (I might cut down the sugar to 75g next time, as I prefer a less-sweet cookie)
  • 3/4tsp baking powder
  • 3/4tsp baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 100ml corn oil, or other flavourless oil (you may need a little more/less oil depending on the climate you are in)
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten

1. Sieve the flour, caster sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into bowl of your stand mixer.
2. Add the ground almonds to the flour/sugar mixture.
3. With your mixer on medium speed (with the beater attachment),* slowly trickle in the corn oil into the bowl containing the flour/sugar/almonds. Mix until a cohesive dough forms. You may need more or less oil depending on the humidity/moisture levels – the aim is to reach a dough which is just able to hold it’s shape (and doesn’t crumble) when you attempt to roll it into a ball. It’s rather dry here in London at the moment, so I had to use an extra 10ml of oil before the dough came together.
4. Heat the oven to 180’C.
5. Roll the dough into ~2.5cm balls, and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper/a silpat mat. Repeat until all the dough is used up.
6. Using a pastry brush, lightly glaze the tops of the cookie balls with the beaten egg yolk.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cookies become slightly golden.
8. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then tuck in.

* You don’t need a stand mixer to do this, you can use a handheld mixer/food processor/a spatula. I use my stand mixer because it’s permanently out on the counter, which makes it the easiest option. I told you I was lazy.

chinese new year almond cookies 4

Billy Law’s vinegar-braised pork belly & eggs

Well technically, it’s his mum’s recipe. But “Billy’s mum’s vinegar-braised pork belly & eggs” seemed a little bit long for a title!

For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Billy Law is a Malaysian (like myself) based in Australia. I first got to know of him through his food blog “A Table For Two”. Not long after, he appeared on one of my favourite shows – Masterchef Australia! For those of you who haven’t watched the Aussie version of Masterchef… you’re missing out! 🙂 Most people I know prefer the Australian format of the show, so it’s definitely worth watching to see if you like it.

But I digress.

Billy recently released his debut cookbook, aptly titled “Have You Eaten?”. I think he explains his choice of title very well here: “In Malaysia, it is quite common for Malaysians to greet each other saying, ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of the usual ‘Hey how are you’. I simply couldn’t think of anything more appropriate for the title of a cookbook that reflects my background, my culture, and my food.” And you know what, he is absolutely right. Though to be perfectly honest it usually comes out in typical Manglish (Malaysian English) as “Eat already ah?” 😉

I must admit that I was impressed by his cookbook after a quick flip through the book. Here’s a little confession: I almost never buy cookbooks that don’t “look” nice. Photography (and the way recipes are laid out) are the most important aspects of a cookbook to me, and I immediately loved the photography of this cookbook – which was, by the way, mostly styled and photographed by Billy himself. Some people have all the talent, hrmph!

The cookbook is divided into several chapters: “Snack Attack” (smaller bites e.g. Brie en croute with cranberries & walnuts); “On the Side” (e.g. Roast spiced cauliflower & corn salad); “Easy Peasy” (simple dishes e.g. Cola chilli chicken); “Over the Top” (more adventurous recipes e.g. Nonya spicy tamarind snapper); “Rice and Noodles” (all Malaysian/Chinese recipes e.g. “Nasi lemak”); and “Sugar Hit” (desserts e.g. Popcorn & salted caramel macarons). There is a good mix of both Malaysian/Chinese (think “Assam laksa” and “Kangkung belacan”) and non-Malaysian recipes (“Smoked ham hock baked beans”, “Lamb shank pie”, and “Rocky Road”). Now I know “non-Malaysian” isn’t exactly descriptive, but I have no idea how else to put it!

I cooked “Mum’s vingear-braised pork belly & eggs” from the “Easy Peasy” chapter, and it turned out remarkably well. I usually don’t put vinegar in my braised pork belly dish (called “Tau Yew Bak” in Hokkien), so I definitely learnt a new trick! I made a few tweaks to the recipe though – I used less sugar, and more chilli. A lot more chilli.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, but it does have to be slow cooked for at least 2 hours to ensure the meat is meltingly tender. I can’t complain, I love dishes that don’t require much attention!

P.S. Scroll to the bottom to find out how to win a copy of this fabulous cookbook!

Billy’s Mum’s vingear-braised pork belly & eggs
From Billy Law’s “Have You Eaten?”

  • 2 liters water
  • 500g pork ribs
  • 500g pork belly, chopped into 3cm chunks
  • 5cm ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 whole garlic, unpeeled
  • 10 star anise
  • 5 dried chillies (the recipe states this is optional. I used 10. Haha!)
  • 3 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons dark soy caramel (I used a mix of kecap manis + dark soy sauce)
  • 100ml light soy sauce
  • 1 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup)
  • 6 hard boiled eggs, peeled

1. Boil the water in a large pot over medium high heat, until it starts to bubble.
2. Add the pork ribs, pork belly, ginger, whole garlic, star anise and chillis to the pot of boiling water. Bring to the boil again.
3. Scoop out any impurities that float to the surface – I find that it is quite useful to use a small fine metal sieve. Alternatively, use a spoon.
4. Turn the heat down to low (until the liquid is simmering), and add the vinegar, dark soy caramel, light soy sauce, and sugar. Stir well.
5. Add the hard boiled eggs to the pot.
6. Cook on low heat for at least 2 hours (stirring occasionally), or until the pork is meltingly tender. I cooked it covered for the first hour, then left it uncovered for the remaining cooking time.
7. Once the sauce starts to thicken, taste, and adjust the seasoning accordingly. If it is too sour/too salty: add more sugar. If it is too sweet: add more light soy sauce. Billy notes that extra water should not be used, the exception being if the sauce is drying out too quickly!
8. Serve with rice (noodles work well too).

Have You Eaten? by Billy Law, £25 hardback, published by Hardie Grant, is now available at http://www.hardiegrant.co.uk/books/have-you-eaten-paperback

If you’re not convinced by what I’ve said here, have a look at what some other bloggers thought about the book (my post is part of a 5-part blog tour, ending today):
Monday 1st – http://junglefrog-cooking.com/
Tuesday 2nd – http://englishmum.com/
Wednesday 3rd – http://www.babaduck.com/
Thursday 4th – http://www.millycundall.com/
Friday 5th – Me!

And now – how can you WIN a copy of Have You Eaten?, thanks to Hardie Grant Books? Simply follow Hardie Grant on Twitter @hardiegrantuk and RT the relevant tweet – simples! Competition is only open to UK residents though (apologies to everyone who isn’t in the UK!). Winners will be announced on October 8 2012.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the cookbook, but all the views expressed above are my own.