Saturday, June 25, 2011

I ♥ cake - Lemon & Blueberry Cupcakes

With Agent T due with her first baby (it's a boyyyyy!!) within the next 4 weeks, a baby shower was de rigueur. Each of us was tasked to bring some food, so I thought I'd bake something blue... I adapted the recipe below (as often) from Annie's awesome blog - an easy recipe and a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Lemon & Blueberry cupcakes - an easy recipe and a simple and satisfying flavour combination

For about 16 cupcakes

1.5 cups plain white flour + 2tbsp, sifted
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
8 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup caster sugar
thinly chopped zest of 1 organic lemon
2 large eggs
1 tbsp natural vanilla extract
1.5 tbsp lemon juice
½ cup full fat milk
1 cup fresh blueberries

For the frosting:
8 oz cream cheese
5 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp lemon oil or other natural lemon flavouring
blue food colouring (optional)

To garnish: blue nonpareils, silver balls or fresh blueberries

·       Preheat the oven at 175°C.
·       Line the cupcake forms with paper cups.
·       In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Blend together and reserve.
·       In a separate bowl, combine the butter and sugar, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy (5 to 10 minutes depending on room temperature). Add the lemon zest.
·       Add the eggs, one at a time.
·       Add the vanilla and lemon juice.
·       With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and milk alternatively, 1/3 at a time. Beat until just incorporated.

·       In a small bowl, toss the blueberries in 2 tbsp flour before gently folding them into the batter (this prevents them from sinking at the bottom of the cupcakes during baking).

·       Divide the batter between the paper cups, filling them no more than ¾.

·       Bake for 18 to 20mn. Let cool in the forms for 5mn then transfer to a rack for complete cooling.

·       To make the frosting, combine the butter and cream cheese in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until homogenous.
·       Add the lemon juice and lemon oil.

·       Gradually add in the confectioner’s sugar, increasing the mixer speed. Beat until perfectly smooth.

·       If desired, add in the blue food colouring – use gel colouring if possible to avoid liquefying the frosting (dip a toothpick in the colouring and swirl in the frosting, beat until the colour is uniform and repeat until desired hue is achieved – bearing in mind that blue frosting will darken even if refrigerated).

·       Refrigerate the frosting for about 30mn before using. Sprinkle with the garnishes and refrigerate the cupcakes until about 30mn before serving.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Maiden Voyage (Tania Aebi)

Troubled teen and school dropout Tania Aebi was 18 when she slipped the lines of her 26-foot sloop Varuna off a New York dock and set out for a 2 and a half year round-the-world sailing trip. Maiden Voyage is her story - a true coming of age journey that would see her sail trough flat calms and monstrous storms, grow up into an entirely different person altogether and meet the man she will eventually marry. In turn heartbreaking or joyful, memories of childhood traumas, great personal losses and inspiring new friendships collide throughout the book, all contributing in their own particular way to the metamorphosis. Seeing the world through the eyes of this gutsy young lady certainly can readjust your perspective on life. A refreshing and most inspiring read.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Standing on the shoulders of a giant

Ever since my first visit to Cepage some three months ago, I had been looking forward to coming back. As Agent J is out of town on a secret mission involving deep-pan pizzas, Agent T and I decided to go for a long-awaited ladies' lunch. She was kind enough to treat me to lunch as a B-Day gift, and I cannot thank her enough for that :) This was the kind of meal where the food reduces the conversation level to grunts of happiness and where you want to run into the kitchen every 5 minutes to hug the Chef...

It turned out the Chef was out of town today but I had made this booking several weeks ago and he took extreme care to ensure we would be given a real taste of Cepage, and left instructions for the food that would be served, sparing us the impossible task of choosing between dozens of tantalizing dishes on the menu. This came as a surprise, as we had not let the restaurant know this was a special occasion, and we felt really spoilt that such great pains had been taken to make this lunch a memorable experience (we even thought at some point it was a case of mistaken identity...). I had been absolutely amazed the first time I ate here, today I was just blown away. The meal was absolutely perfect up to the tiniest details, from the service to the wonderful flavour pairings and utterly faultless execution of the dishes, to the amazing plating and the unbelievably knowledgeable dining room staff.
I rarely walk out of a restaurant in such a state of contented bliss, and I happily admit my fault-finding can sometimes be exhausting - I just could not find anything to latch on today. Agent T and I were positively impressed by how knowledgeable the dining room staff was - starred chefs sometimes get completely let down by their client-facing staff, but at Cepage it is obvious that the dining room staff have a passion for fine food and a keen interest in the details. This alone is rare enough to deserve praise.

Another point that deserves praise is the unbelievably arty plating of the dishes. The Chef favours white plates, on which ephemeral designs are hand-painted, and the balanced and minimalist visual composition of the dishes, with its emphasis on certain lines and forms, reminds me of ikebana. Discreet Oriental influences are also present in the flavour pairings, and underneath the personality of this incredibly talented Chef, which shines in every dish, one can feel the spirit of his mentor (and my hero...) is still a source of inspiration.

Starting off with a drop of bubbly - Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru

Surreal golden colour and crisp and floral on the palate. Excellent.

The bread basket is one of the best in town, on par levels with Caprice and L'Atelier

My pick for today: baguette, cheese bread and sourdough with raisins.

The incredibly fluffy baguette deserves a special mention. The cheese bread was as good as could be, with a sizeable glob of fragrant cheese but yet still light in texture (it reminded me of a similar one at Robuchon a Galera a while ago) and the sourdough was just delicious.

Amuse bouche - potato salad

I loved it that this amazingly elaborate AB, with its expensive ingredients, was introduced to us with such an understated name... The potatoes (from the US - the name escapes me but maybe fingerlings?) were slightly above room temperature and perfectly fondant with a nutty taste, and came with a light mayonnaise sauce topping, capers, chives, smoked salmon, pickled onion, caviar and shiso flowers. At the center of the dish was a generous lump of caviar topped with a deliciously fragrant mix of fresh herbs. The plating was impossibly pretty, and the balance of flavours and textures was incredible. What an amazing start to the meal...

Langoustine dim sum

Oh-my-gawd... where do I start?? Inside the relatively thin wrappers were succulent plump langoustines, cooked to perfection and garnished with a mix of fresh herbs (I detected chervil, dill, mint and flat parsley). Each dim sum was topped with a piece of the sweetest sea urchin and the plate was garnished with a creamy parmesan "foam" sauce which was admirably balanced so as to complement the other very delicate flavours on the plate. A few sprigs of chives completed the dish. Delicate and masterfully executed.

Scallops in seaweed butter

These giant scallops from Tasmania had nothing to envy to their Hokkaido cousins... The knowledgeable member of staff who introduced the dish informed us that these had been broiled under a salamander - where else have you heard dining room staff use this word !? The tender scallops were amazingly cooked, golden on the outside and still slightly translucent on the inside, and the seaweed butter sauce was generously sprinkled with crushed pink peppercorn and thinly chopped chives. I made a point of wiping every last drop of the warm buttery sauce with pieces of bread... and I probably licked my fingers in the process (before you ask, no, you can't take me anywhere lol).

Duck two ways

I never order foie gras in restaurants, because for some reason I never expect to be overly impressed by a comfort food, and when I have a rendez-vous with the Stars, I prefer to go for more adventurous dishes... but this might very well change after today. This had to be the best foie gras I had in a very long time. The pairing with the ultra-tender and slightly gamey sous-vide breast was a match made in heaven. The plate was garnished with a similar mixture of fresh herbs as on the AB and which turned out to work amazingly well with this dish too... The daikon/foie medaillons on the sides were an interesting (and daring) flavour combination. What a gorgeously decadent dish!

Serpolet (thyme) crème brûlée and honey-roasted Provence apricots

I had had my eye on this dessert ever since it was added on the menu a couple of weeks ago, and it was just as brilliant as I expected. An amazingly creamy brûlée, lightly caramelized, topped with sweet roasted apricots and enhanced by the invigorating herbal aroma of the thyme. The mini mille-feuilles garnish was deliciously flaky, creamy and buttery. The incredibly cute plating is a winner too :)

Wild strawberry tart in a cup

Strawberry coulis, vanilla custard, buttery biscuit crumbs, lime granité AND the star of the show... the French wild strawberry, finally in season! Fruity, fragrant and delicious. The lime granité was just tart and citrussy enough to highlight the sweetness and the deep aroma of the strawberries without overpowering it, before the mellow vanilla notes of the custard hit the palate. A seemingly simple flavour pairing, extremely well balanced and remarkably well executed.
Petits-fours - from front to back: mulled wine jellies, vanilla marshmallow, pistacchio and almond macarons, chocolate and raspberry shortbreads

I very distinctly remember being underwhelmed by the petits-fours on my first visit, but I am happy to report this was not the case today. These were on a completely different level. The mulled wine jellies were the only ones I recognised from my last meal here, and were still as good as I remembered. The other 3 were new to me. The marshmallows were packed with fragrant vanilla and had a light fluffy texture. The shortbreads were delicious, and the awesome chocolate cream that glued the raspberries on them deserves a special mention. The winner on this plate was the almond macaron - in these times on fancy-flavoured macarons, it is incredibly difficult to find a good, old-fashioned almond original, and this one was not only daringly classic, it was also absolutely perfect both in taste and texture; soft, sweet and roasted nutty flavours, and filled with an amazing almond buttercream. Wow.

More petits-fours: mini éclairs

I have to say I have a very classic taste when it comes to desserts, and these adorable éclairs were right up my alley. The vanilla cream filling was gorgeous, and the choux pastry was unnaturally light and soft. I wish these came in adult size :) 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Creature comforts & pet hates

I had not had the opportunity to eat at Amber (7/F, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Queen's Road Central, HK) for a very long time, and could only jump at the occasion when a friend and fellow foodie suggested to have lunch there. This is one of my 3 favourite restaurants in Hong Kong (I leave you to guess which are the other 2) and over the years I have been consistently impressed by Chef Ekkebus' style. He got me at hello with a Dungeness crab ice cream a few years ago, and I have been a faithful returning customer ever since :)

Today the food was at its usual best and revealed some interesting, carefully researched and brilliantly executed flavour pairings. The service was a bit of a let down though... I cannot believe myself that I am writing this about a Michelin starred restaurant within the Mandarin Oriental group, which is (rightly) reputed for its smooth and faultless service the world over. So what was it today? New staff? Training issues? I am not sure exactly what the problem can be attributed to, but it certainly came as a bit of a shock. I have come to be extremely demanding with establishments of this standing, and I admit that my expectations are quite high, but frankly that was a first. That won't stop me returning though, even if I will be strongly expecting they got their act together next time...

The flower displays at Amber are always quite spectacular... and so is the ceiling.

A healthy start to the meal - mixed fresh orange and carrot juice

I liked the refined touch brought by the tiny slice of lemon peel on the rim of the glass. The crisp citrussy notes brough some interesting depth to the carrot and orange juices, which were quite sweet on the palate.

Aaaah... Amber's mini focaccias! As delightful as ever, with their tasty olives and a touch of thyme.

One of us had brought a leftover bottle of delicious, sweet white wine which we had just started sipping when a waitress bounced out of nowhere and dropped a slice of lime in my water glass, which I promptly fished out with a grunt. She came back apologizing and whisked the damn thing away. What happened to asking !? Sorry but I expect waiting staff to know that any citrus in your glass will affect your ability to taste wine. I am already oenologically challenged, no need to make it more difficult for me, really...

Then another member of staff stopped by our table to explain some of the items on the menu... and I think my eyes might just have popped out of my head when he proceeded to declare that the Challans chicken on the menu came from Burgundy, as did the langoustine in the same dish. As far as I am aware, Challans is a protected "appellation" and is located in Vendée (i.e. a good 700km west of Burgundy), and if Burgundy certainly does have crayfish in its rivers, I am pretty sure all the said rivers are fresh water and a langoustine wouldn't really feel at home in them... I found this all the more unforgiveable that the member of staff in question was a fellow frog. Brilliant Chefs are let down by their dining room staff, this is not really news, and if I were them I would beat up the offenders with a rolling pin until they are able to recitate the origin and preparation of each and every single ingredient in all the dishes on the menu. Show some respect, people...

The foie gras lollipops, glazed in raspberry/beetroot jelly and decorated with a beetroot "chip" and a cinnamon crisp.

Tasty, creamy foie enlivened by the crisp fruitiness of the raspberry jelly. Always delicious.

Amuse-bouche - not sure what the name of this was, as the staff promptly dropped it on our table and ran away without a word of explanation (!?)

Ok then, blind tasting it is... The glass cup contained some deliciously sweet, warm beetroot coulis, topped with a dollop of creamy Meaux mustard mousse. The vinegared spiciness of the mustard cut the sweetness of the beetroot and offered some interesting, contrasting flavours. The croquette in the coquetier at the back was crispy, warm and deliciously wrapped around a liquid center of tarragon mustard, perhaps with a touch of honey. Very, very nice.

ALC starter - Organic spring vegetables & wild mushrooms marinated ‘à la grecque’ with
manni olive oil, fava bean purée & mint tea jell-O

I wanted to make it to dessert so I opted for a light starter. The 2-tier presentation was a bit gimmicky but I very much enjoyed the work and thought put into making simple veggies interesting (always a bit of a challenge for a chef IMHO). Clearly the Chef had a lot of fun creating this dish - I loved the play on the textures of the veggies created with different preparations (some raw, some cooked, some marinated and almost pickled) and different slicing (paper-thin slices, whole beans, navettes of pickled zucchini). A few dollops of sweet almond cream on the plate brought some delicious nuttiness to the dressing. It was a veritable veggie party in a plate!

The lower plate contained a glazed fava bean purée decorated with fresh mint leaves and whole baby fava beans, on top of which a waiter dropped a couple of spoonfuls of slightly salty cucumber foam. Very "green" and fresh in taste and very delish.

ALC main course: lamb greffeuille triple-A
roasted loin wrapped in ramsons leaves, confit of shoulder with smoked aubergine & ratatouille

The loin was obviously sous-vide, cooked medium-rare (this is what the Chef recommends and I was happy to go with that) and wrapped in ramsons leaves, which gave it a very delicate garlic aroma. The "ratatouille" was in fact a brunoise of veggies on top of yummy aubergine caviar. The confit shoulder was spiced up by a delicate touch of curry, and the generously sauced-up plate was additionally decorated with an intensely green ramsons leaf puree and a dollop of sweet onion purée. Absolutely delicious. Comfort food at its best.

As I started to chomp on my lamb, a zealous waiter tried to remove my bread plate (again, without asking...), which prompted yet another grunt on my part (on account of a full mouth) and he finally proceeded to send more bread over. Now tell me people - why the heck would you think that someone would leave all that delicious jus on their plate and not want to mop it clean ?? At this point I had become frankly annoyed by the waiting staff's poor performance.

Pre-dessert teaser: coconut ice cream dipped in dark chocolate with almond slivers

Always a welcome treat.

We then ordered dessert and coffee, and for some reason coffee was served before dessert (!?) but the petits-fours were despatched after we had finished our desserts (and coffees). Sigh...

Gariguette strawberries - in a sorbet and freshly sliced over Napoleon cream

The sorbet was very fruity and absolutely delicious, but I found the biscuit crumbs at the bottom very distracting and unnecessary. The fresh, clean flavours of these rare strawberries really didn't need any additional sweet and buttery crunchiness.

I am not entirely sure how a "Napoleon" cream is made (for all I could taste, it was like a very light chiboust cream with lots of fragrant vanilla seeds) but this was without contest the best vanilla cream I had in a long time. The texture was just heavenly and the sweet, creamy vanilla taste was a perfect complement for the fragrant strawberries, which still had a bit of acidity. Under the cream and on top of it was a tasty strawberry jelly, and on top of the strawberry slices was a strawberry mousse sprinkled with tiny bits of freeze-dried strawberry and topped with a strawberry juice "crisp". This was a very elaborate dessert with many textures and a very interesting work of various degrees of "strawberriness". A very delish variation on a strawberry :)
As usual, we ended the meal with some incredibly pretty and no less delicious petits-fours:

Chocolate madeleines - the chocolate disk was "glued" to the madeleine using chocolate flavoured whipped sour cream, which was a nice touch. I wish the chocolate was more intense in the madeleine, but it was probably meant to be eaten together with its little cap rather than deconstructed as I did.

The small golden cakes were packed with shredded coconut and dipped in dark chocolate, which reminded me of the much bigger, pyramidal "Congolais" cakes I used to get from my neighbourhood bakery as a kid. Hello memory lane...

Honey and passion fruit caramels (with edible wrappers) - these were absolutely awesome, with just the right sweet/tart balance. The PC used acacia honey (we asked...) which was pretty floral and added some complexity to the fruit.
The macarons were nice in texture but a bit weak taste-wise (we did not manage to identify the mystery berry).

Lemon tarts - awesome pastry crust, deliciously tart lemon curd and topped with a tiny white (coloured...) chocolate disk. Gorgeous.
Calissons with orange blossom water - more gorgeousness. Pleanty of nutty flavour from the almonds and a very floral nose. Yum!