December 30, 2010

last weekend of the year

So last Sunday went like this:
10 a.m.: Breakfast - a couple of slices of stollen(-ish bread) I'd baked for Christmas, using the bread machine. Not the greatest piece you can ever find, but fine enough.

3 p.m.: Late lunch - or early dinner? Dutch oven rice with seafood and chorizo, salad with smoked salmon, octopus and mushrooms with garlic-parsley butter, rye & walnut bread, and breadsticks with Parma ham. Toasting with sweet and light sparkling muscat rose.

8 p.m.: After a nap comes "coffee break" with a few small slices of fruit cake I'd baked about a month ago, using the fruits I'd soaked in booze back in September for Christmas.

10 p.m.: Finally, dessert - panettone tiramisu, or something like that, with season's first (!) fresh strawberries; served with a glass of elegant & smooth Moscato d'Asti, to wrap up the day of going slow, enjoying food and spending time with family.

3 a.m.: ... And a bit of alone time at the dead of night, with a few spoonfuls of honey ice cream with deeply boozy, honey-sweet dried fruits and almonds (and the booze - a.k.a. "liquid panettone; here is how I prepared it a month ago). Not a bad way of ending a Sunday.


I didn't really have anything planned for Christmas this year. It didn't occur to me until the 24th, but somehow I decided to cook Christmas lunch for three of us at home. It didn't take too long for me to decide on the menu as I was for something easy and casual, and off I went to neighborhood supermarkets to shop for the ingredients I needed.

And it was in that evening, on the Christmas eve no less, that I fell sick - probably stomach bug I assume, but I managed to spend a whole day curled up in bed on the Christmas day, unable to eat much - let alone cook. Not the best Christmas day that I've ever had, let's just say, but as they say, **** happens.

But it was lucky that I didn't seem to catch influenza as so many people appear to be out there. On late Saturday I was starting to feel better, and by the following morning I was able to get out of the bed, ready to cook. I had almost all the ingredients at hand, and some were perishable and needed to be used quickly. Christmas was over, but it was Sunday so I could settle with Sunday lunch, I decided. At least it should save me the effort of trying to make the table festive as I would have had to, had it been actually a Christmas lunch, I reckon.

My main was paella - or a distantly related cousin of it. I started with this recipe for Dutch oven paella, but made more than a few changes - most noticeably, I skipped saffron. So I think this did not qualify to be called "paella" any more, but it tasted good nonetheless, despite my stupid mistake of using too much water to cook (I disapprove of soggy rice unless it's porridge).

Everything else was put together while the rice was cooking in the oven, except for the bread which had been baked in the night before. Breadsticks were wrapped in slices of Parma ham (I forever owe Anthony for introducing me to this little trick for an appetizer that everyone loves when he cooked terrific dinner at his home in Perth).

Meanwhile, the salad was a breeze to prepare as a bunch of mixed greens were simply tossed in juice of lemon and olive oil, salt-and-pepper'ed, and nestled in a serving bowl with slices of smoked salmon. As for the octopus and mushrooms - well, if anyone is interested, it was easy to throw together as well; you prepare the butter by blending softened butter with chopped raw garlic and parsley; then you fry mushrooms in olive oil, add chopped (pre-boiled) octopus and fry a bit further, and add the garlic-parsley butter just before removing from heat. My mother saw something similar on TV a while ago, and has been making it for us since - we all love it. It goes really well with both bread and rice.

I had my family start with beer about an hour before the lunch was ready, serving them some bread and breadsticks. I warned them not to fill themselves up too much with them as the big rice dish was coming, but not sure if they heard it! Oh by the way, the bubbles was Sparkling Moscato Rose - I'd thought it'd make a nice aperitif but perhaps a little too sweet to go with the dishes; it was. So we opened more beer, but had no trouble finishing up the rose in the end!

I was planning to serve dessert - panettone tiramisu - right after the lunch, but we were really stuffed - and besides, the sweet rose sort of worked as dessert for now. We chatted away, dozed off for a while, and finally ready to have a small slice at ten o'clock (well, we did have some fruit cake before...). I'd in fact prepared it the night before (fresh off my sick bed!), but the whole thing was really easy to make, just a bit of cutting up and mixing up...

Panettone Tiramisu with Fresh Strawberries
Slice up panettone into small squares, ends trimmed off.
Lightly whip heavy cream and fold in some mascarpone cheese, and lightly sweeten with honey.
Bring to boil some white wine in a saucepan and stir in some honey, and leave it cool.
Puree a few fresh strawberries and sweeten with a bit of honey.
To assemble, dredge half of the panettone slices in the cooled wine 'syrup' and line the bottom of a pan with them in a single layer.
Spread half of the strawberry puree over the panettone, followed by half of the mascarpone mixture.
Repeat with the remaining half of panettone, strawberry puree, and mascarpone mixture.
Cover and chill in the fridge preferably overnight before serving
Serve slices with fresh strawberries and dust with confectioner's sugar.

I assume this would be a nice way to use up any leftover panettone that may be sitting around after Christmas - not that it's hard for me to finish them simply toasted! I served it with the lightly fizzy Moscato d'Asti (which is often served with Panettone, I was told) and it added just the right amount of sweetness to this not-overly-sweet dessert.

Speaking of panettone - well it can be a long story, but I've somehow been obsessed with "experimenting" on baking panettone in the bread machine - or maybe I should say panettone-like bread. From the amount of yeast (a kind specially made for panettone) I've used, I have apparently baked around 30 loaves of the stuff over the period of a month and a half (!). I'll spare you the details here (I did elaborate on this on my Japanese blog), but I've never managed to make mine really like the real panettone, although I think I have managed to make it as I like it.

Anyhow, this whole experimenting thing left me an abundance of panettone(-like bread) at any given time over the past month, and in particular around Christmas; at one point I baked six loaves in two days. So it proved quite handy to know a recipe or two to consume panettone other than toasting a few slices.

So on the following Monday, I made some french toast with panettone - another thing that I had planned to do on Christmas day but never happened. The recipe I used is this one; the batter is light compared to some others, which worked out nicely with the rich panettone. Orange and spices gave the bread a warm aroma perfect for any wintry morning, before or around or after Christmas.

... And when I thought the weekend was just over. another one is around the corner, this time with another year (gasp!). I honestly have no idea how and where the year has gone so quick, but as I type this, it is indeed the last day of the year where I am. Which makes this the last entry of the year around here, so let me finish by wishing you all the very best for the New Year. This is nothing but a small, personal place of mine on the vast cyberspace, but it wouldn't be the same without you popping by every now and then. So thank you.
Happy New Year & see you on the other side! -cx

December 22, 2010

my alternative little gingerbread house

As a young kid, I used to read quite a lot. I loved our biweekly trips to a local library to stock up on something new as well as my old favorites. From children's stories to classic novels re-written for younger readers, I'd devour books of all sorts, but on reflection, I seemed to have been spending a lot of my reading time in books that had some descriptions of food. Yes, I was always a hungry and greedy child, and apparently, certain things do not seem to have changed much after all these years.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of my favorite children's tales was Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. Or more precisely, what captured my heart was THE scene in the tale in which the young brother and sister wandered upon a cottage built of cakes and candies deep in the forest. I remember fantasizing about it, picturing myself living in one (sans a mean witch) and eating candy off the house.   I had just never seen or heard of such a thing.

It was not until I was fully grown up that I learned that there actually was such a thing as a house built of sweets in real life, too, though in smaller sizes in most cases, known as gingerbread houses.  Back in the day, it wasn't every day for a suburban kid in Japan to see one of those pretty and often very elaborately-built gingerbread houses in her neighborhood, really - not even in books or on TV.

Fascinated as I was to have discovered the existence of real "cake house", it never really occurred to me to make one myself.  For one thing, I've never been good at an art and craft kind of things; try as I might, I could tell I'd end up with a roofless box that was on the verge of collapsing, at best.

And even if I had a perfectly-built, straight-out-of-a-fairy-tale pretty gingerbread house in front of me, I'm not sure if I'd want to actually eat it.  I know the world may be divided into the two camps: those who eat their gingerbread houses and those who don't, after the house has completed its life as a decoration, sitting atop a counter or a table for days, or even weeks.  But my bigger issue here would be the icing (and candy) than the days it has spent uncovered/unwrapped; see, I'm one of those who normally steer clear of heavily-iced cookies and scrape the frosting off my muffins and cakes.  In my eye, gingerbread houses are pretty to look at, but never appealing as a food item.

So gingerbread houses have never really had their place in my life other than in my childhood reading, but last week found me something interesting - and a little different.  I was searching for some bread machine bread recipes on the Internet (as I have done a lot for the past couple of months),  I came across someone's recipe for a house built of a loaf of bread (in Japanese).  As you can see in the pictures on the page, it looked pretty enough, and quite straightforward to make, as it requires you to simply slice a few pieces off the loaf (which you'll have baked in a machine) and put them together, as opposed to cutting out shapes of thin sheet of cookie dough in precision and gluing them together with care. 

It certainly looked Christmassy, too, and seemed to make a fun project for a novice edible house builder like myself.

So here is how it goes like:
You begin with a half-pound one-pound loaf of chocolate and nut bread, baked in the bread machine and cooled completely. I mostly followed the recipe provided in the page and can't/won't copy and paste it here, but it was basically a cocoa bread with chopped chocolate, walnuts, and almonds added to it - this one looks close (though I haven't tried it, so cannot be sure). And since this was meant to be a gingerbread house, I took the liberty of adding some spices to the loaf: ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.

Whatever recipe you use, the bread probably should be more on the denser end rather than fluffy for the house to hold better. It may also be a good idea to bake your loaf on the day before you intend to build a house; just-baked bread tend to be trickier to slice neatly.

For decorations, I also took ideas from the original recipe, by having store-bought chocolate snacks that come in shapes of mushrooms and twigs - those two are real Japanese snack classics, having been around since I was a kid. I also got some silver dragees and sprinkles, as well as a few bits and pieces of non-edible Christmas decoration.

Firstly, cut up your loaf to to make the main part of the house, roof, and chimney. Begin by slicing the two ends of the loaf to make the two roof panels. Slice the bottom off so the house should stand straight. Cut the upper part of the loaf off in two pieces so the main part has a sloped top. Note that in the picture above, the roof panels that are placed to the right and left of the main part of the house were actually taken from the front and back of the main body (err, does this make sense? I'm sorry I'm such a bad instructions writer...)

Place the roof panels on top of the main part of the house. Connect them together with bamboo toothpicks so the roof won't slide off the house.

Meanwhile, make a chimney by cutting out a square column from the piece of bread that's been cut off the bottom of the loaf. Slice one end off in the angle that makes it fit onto the roof.

Stick the chimney onto the roof with a toothpick - and voila! Your house is complete. Easy, right? No patterns or templates are necessary - you just make sure that your roof panels and chimney are thick enough so they won't crumble apart as you build the house.

Now take out the chocolate mushrooms and twigs and other bits for the decoration to do up the house and maybe create the "garden". I also turned a rectangular piece of milk chocolate bar into a door - another idea from the original recipe.

Use non-food items, too, to make trees or whatever that floats your boat (and makes your house pretty).

And here I got great help in the form of my clever-fingered sister, who happened to be around and agreed to give a hand to me. This made a huge difference, as she is a lot more design-oriented and capable of bringing design ideas into shape.

After some cutting up and putting together (by my sister) and a liberal dusting of confectioner's sugar (well, that much was all I could do here), our gingerbread house bread (?) was complete. Hooray!

Pretty, isn't it? We were pretty content with ourselves!

Now I must add that the meringue snowmen are pre-made, coming from a baker's supply shop. Kinda cheating, I know, but I'd figured these cute guys would divert your attention away even if the house is rough around the edges. But the most important cover-up - I mean, finishing touch - is the liberal dose of confectioner's sugar, which not only makes a pretty snowy scene but also works to subtly obscure whatever imperfection the house may have in its appearance.

But really, there was little need for me to worry about covering up when I had my sister to help... phew!
She made some "trees" out of fake fir needles, a "shrubbery" with chocolate mushrooms and red ornamental berries sticking out of a piece of leftover bread, and a pile of "firewood" with chocolate twigs. My only contribution here was the door; I made a "wreath" with silver dragees and a red berry.

I suppose we could have done more elaborate and/or stylish decorations (at least my sister could) had we wanted to, but I wanted to keep my little project relatively stress-free, with a minimum amount of work and specialty ingredients involved.
Most things we used here came from local run-of-the- mill supermarkets, and everything should be put together pretty quick once you have all your ingredients and materials ready - especially so when you don't need to wait for the icing to dry and harden up as you would in making traditional a gingerbread house.

We placed our gingerbread house bread at the corner of a room and admired it for a while, with candles lit up at night.
We could have kept it until Christmas day, but after a couple of nights we figured we should eat it soon if we wanted to eat it at all, before the bread gets really stale. Let's just say that it was a little heartbreaking to demolish the little house!

And the bread had in fact gone stale already, but only on the outside; I had to toss the roof and the chimney, but the main part of the house was fine when I sliced off the sides that were exposed to the air. That said, it wasn't the softest loaf of bread to begin with, and something had to be done to improve the texture.

So I cut up the slab of bread into thin slices, dredged them in a bit of wine (leftover sparkling wine, if you must know - but something like brandy syrup would do, too) and served with dollops of lightly whipped cream and a few slices of apple poached with honey, wine, and cinnamon.
This made a nice mid-morning snack even with the generous amount of wine used in it, and actually made me feel as if it had been the day after Christmas. You see, we don't have anything particular planned for Christmas anyway, and now that what little holiday decoration I had had been put away, Christmas might have just been over.

But I know it's not, and I imagine a lot of you may now be about to start your holiday. I hope everyone is having a wonderful time with your families and friends, wherever you are. I'll have a quiet one with my folks, and probably have some panettone and wine.

Merry Christmas to You and Yours! -cx

December 13, 2010

christmas lights and soups: mid-december ramblings

Well Hello December, I thought you'd just arrived and now you're already half gone? I have no idea how that happened, but here we are, left with just about ten days until Christmas and a little over two weeks before the end of 2010.

As far as this December goes, it started while I was sick in bed with a nasty cold, but things picked up soon and I even gate-crashed made it to a Christmas party. Weatherwise, it was mostly sunny and mild up until a few days ago - temperatures seemed to drop quite a bit and we were hurriedly grabbing gloves and scarves and thick coats. Admittedly, to many of you elsewhere, it may perhaps not count as being "cold" at 50-60F/10-15C, but the dip was big enough for most of us in Tokyo to recognize the arrival of winter - and crave something hot to eat and drink.

When the chilly air makes us shudder and gives us cold hands, it's time for soups. A lot of soups, I should say, as I have already made a large pot of soup for the third time in the past week. And considering how you normally end up eating leftovers on the second day, it means that I have been eating soups pretty much every day of this past week. Nobody complains around here, perhaps because I'm the one making it and they could eat something else outside, and I for one certainly don't mind eating them every day. No, really.

This was the soup I made last week, a seafood chowder - except there wasn't much seafood in sight with the massive amount of vegetables and mushrooms dominating the scene. This is more or less the kind of soups I usually throw together; I'd fry up whatever veggies I have around in olive oil, add stock or maybe just water along with a lot of herbs, and let it simmer away. Sometimes I make it a clear broth, sometimes thick, cream soup. For today, for instance, I added some miso paste and soy milk at the end to make a rich, bold soup.

It went down pretty well with the folks, particularly with toasted slices of caramelized onion bread, which by itself has been a huge hit. I made it first with the soup pictured above, using this recipe. It was a stroke of genius that I made a double-batch of caramelized onions so I could bake another loaf of bread in a snap, which I did today. (Now I think about it, though, it may have been wiser to do a triple-batch so I could bake a third loaf....) I replaced some of the plain bread flour with wholewheat bread flour, and added a handful of toasted sesame seeds. It was delicious, and I'm convinced that the recipe must have been created to accompany soups.

At any rate, well, at the rate I'm going, I'd soon be all souped out? I don't think so, really, as I said last winter, everyday can be a soup day. Well, almost.

So, between my soup-laden days, one day I went out in the city and had a late lunch of... guess what? Soup.

I had been anxious to visit the first Tokyo outlet of English organic farm shop/cafe/deli/restaurant Daylesford Organic, which opened its doors this past November, ever since I heard the news of their entry to Japan early this year.

I have been to their shops in London a number of times, and even made it to their "headquarters" farm shop in Cotswold. I've been a fan of their products and brand, and I must say I was both excited and anxious when I learned that they would hit Tokyo, wondering how they'd do on this end of the world.

It was one sunny afternoon last week that I finally stood in front of the place on Aoyama-dori street between Shibuya and Omotesando (next to Pierre Herme, by the way). Since it was still relatively warm, I decided to grab an outside table for myself. And since it was not THAT warm, I went for a large mag of soup rather than, say, a bowl of green salad. I also picked up a chicken & basil sandwich, as well as a cup of tea.

The soup was packed with large chunks of root vegetables and full of flavor, and nicely warmed both my stomach and hands, which was a good thing as the sun was now rapidly going down and the air was starting to cool down.

When I was done, I went inside and browsed around in the shop to check out what's on offer. And I must say I was a little disappointed to see a very few of their great products that I'd enjoyed from their UK shops - with rather steep price tags (which was, after all, totally expected, but still).

The place is decently spacious, and I'd think they could fill it up with more of the Daylesford brand products as well as other things, especially more sweet stuff (cookies, chocolates, and pastries). And oh, I'm most partial to their Cheddar - apparently it's included in some of their menu at the restaurant, but I didn't see it available for purchase at the store. It would definitely be one thing that I'd most love to see there, if that's possible.

I've also had a chance to sit down at a table in their restaurant on the second floor, but only for a coffee and cake (chocolate-orange pound cake with ice cream and caramel sauce). I'd like to go back for a proper meal, either lunch or dinner, but all the same I really do hope they'll have a wider variety of products for us to take home.

The area (Omotesando/Aoyama) is home to a number of natural/organic food stores and restaurants, from the old names such as Natural House and Crayon House to new(er) and stylish places like Brown Rice (behind which is anther English establishment, Neal's Yard Remedies). If Daylesford can establish a presence with a strong brand to back it up, it'd help make the entire area even more exciting and attractive a place for the supporters of organic products and the likes. I don't hang around much in Aoyama these days, but I used to and I still like the area - and would love to pop round to see how things are going. We'll see.

Now I leave you with a few snapshots of the Omotesando in the evening, after I stopped by Daylesford and some other places. The street was lit up for Christmas, and it was certainly pretty - the whole street was glowing, and so were the faces of people walking down the street. I can't say I'm truly in the Christmas spirit, really, but it was nice to get the feeling of it a bit - Christmas is around the corner, after all.

You all have a wonderful week! -cx