Saturday, August 19, 2017

100% patriotic & guilt-free sheet cake!

Last weekend, the brilliant Tina Fey told us on Saturday Night Live that we should eat sheet cake this weekend instead of stressing out over things like what happened in Charlottesville. 

I totally agree. Life can be too overwhelming nowadays. I don't need to get my pulse up any higher than it already is. But I like cake. Cake is good.

The only thing is that I tend to binge eat when I'm very worried about what's going on, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. And so if you've been wondering why there have been so many recipes on this blog lately for custard tarts and the like, this is the reason.
Moist & delicious
In spite of all that, I want to eat at least semi-healthy whenever I can, and so I've come up with a great flourless and pretty much (if you want) sugarless sheet cake. 

This cake is super moist, incredibly light, and amazingly tasty, with the aroma of lemons and almonds weaving their magic. A crunchy caramelized top makes turns this into a delicious version of Old Glory with the absolute minimum of effort.

Honestly, the whole deal is a breeze to put together. Just measure out everything before you begin, prep the cake pan, and heat up the oven. If you have a stand mixer, even better.

Once the cake is done, just sprinkle the cake with some sugar and press foil strips in a flaglike pattern. Broil it, and it's done.

Ta-da. Flag cake. No guilt, just lots of happy feelings...

Triple lemon flourless sheet cake chez Huang
Feeds 1 to 12, depending upon your stress level
Soft egg white peaks

4 large egg whites
½ cup (100 g) sugar or sugar substitute (follow the package directions, since these vary)
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 generous tablespoon grated lemon zest
1½ cups (200 g) blanched almond flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon (or more) sugar (sanding sugar is great here)

1. Line a small rectangular pan (about 9 x 7 inches / 23 x 18 cm) with parchment paper and spray with oil. Place your oven rack in the center of the oven and set the heat to 350°F (175°C).

Egg whites into the batter
2. Use a stand mixer with a whisk attachment – or a hand mixer – beat the egg whites into a froth. Add the sugar (or sugar substitute) and beat the egg whites some more until they stand in soft peaks. Beat in the almond and lemon extracts, as well as the zest. 

3. In a dry work bowl, whisk together the almond flour, baking powder, and sea salt. Stir in the egg yolks and lemon juice to form a thick paste. Use a silicon spatula to fold the beaten egg whites in thirds into the yolk mixture, making sure that the batter is relatively smooth before adding the next batch, but not beating down the bubbles in the process. 

4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth out the top, and bake the cake for about 25 minutes. It will be done when it is a light gold on top. Check to make sure it's done by inserting a toothpick in the center: it should come out clean. 

5. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool for about 5 minutes, and then turn it out on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Set the rack in your oven to about 4 inches (10 cm) from the broiler element and turn the oven on to "broil."
Easy peasy flag pattern
6. Cut a small sheet of foil into thin (around ¼ inch / 50 mm) strips. Turn the cake out onto the lined baking sheet so that the moist bottom is facing you. Sprinkle the bottom of the cake with the sugar, and then arrange the foil in a flaglike pattern, as shown to the right.

7. Broil the cake for a couple of minutes, just until the sugar is caramelized. DO NOT WALK AWAY FROM THE OVEN WHILE YOU'RE DOING THIS. Remove the cake from the oven, discard the foil, and let the cake cool down to room temperature. Eat with the news turned off. A glass of warm milk and some bunny slippers are all you need.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hear me out on this... it's time we brought sweet-and-sour back

First, some incredible news: Madame Huang's Kitchen has been nominated for a Saveur Blog '17 Award in the (why do you need to ask?) category of Obsessives. I was totally floored by this, since I didn't even know I was in the running.

If you have a chance, please vote for this blog... it would be most appreciated!

Also, a nice group of Chengdu kids made a short film on my husband and me during our trip to Sichuan in July. The link to that is the top photo on the right. 

JH & me in the film

Warning: I am officially referred to as an old lady there. I hear that this title is meant with respect and love. I'm trying to pretend to be happy about my new senior status...

Nevertheless, Chengdu has turned into one of my favorite places on planet Earth. The people are so nice, the streets are incredibly clean, and the food is insanely good. Recipes from our trip will be up before long. Can't wait to go back!

*  *  *

I pretty much grew up on the Chinese-American classic known as sweet-and-sour pork. It was a vibrant scarlet, was more greasy batter than meat, and was very sweet. But I have to admit that I thought it was fabulous. 

It's time to resurrect this delicious dish because sweet-and-sour can in fact be lots more interesting than you might remember, and also surprisingly nuanced. 

Sesame & panko
I've gotten rid of the deep-frying, because it's really not necessary here. What we have instead is a little sesame-scented shaking and baking going on (another holdover from my high school years), and the meat becomes almost ethereal as a result.

The sauce is also lightyears from what I used to devour. The addition of pickles is traditional. They also make a whole lot of sense, when you think about it, for what goes better together than pickles and pork? And since these pickles are slightly sweet and slightly sour, they amp up the flavors with every bite.

While in Taiwan, I became introduced to this variation, and then gradually was turned on to the sweet-and-sour pork dishes from other parts of China, like Sichuan and Zhejiang, where the flavors are subtle, the emphasis is on the pork rather than the batter, the color is dark, and the savory edges are out of this world. 
Pork is great...

So, all of this led me back to where I began, and I started to look into how this classic was really done in the old country. One of my favorites was the basis for this interpretation. You will find more depth of flavor and more texture here, and I swear this will make you a believer.

Do note that unlike whatever sweet-and-sour recipe you’re used to by now, this one has no red food coloring in the sauce, just some catsup. 

Yes, you can add pineapple, if you wish. It’s optional, but to be honest it’s also very, very good.

Real deal sweet-and-sour
... & so is chicken
Chuántóng gūlăoròu 傳統咕咾肉
Serves 4

Meat and marinade:
8 to 10 ounces (225 to 285 g) boneless pork, like tenderloin or shoulder, or boneless chicken thighs (with or without the skin)
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
¾ cup (65 g) panko, or other dried bread crumbs
Spray oil
Get out your homemade pickles
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Sauce and pickles:
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 green onions, cut into rings
6 tablespoons (90 ml) catsup
6 tablespoons (75 g) sugar (use only 4 to 5 tablespoons if you are adding pineapple to the dish)
6 tablespoons (90 ml) water
¼ cup (60 ml) brine from Cantonese pickles
¼ cup (60 ml) pale rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (150 g) drained Cantonese pickles, or half pickles and half canned pineapple cubes

Coat the meat with panko & sesame
1. Chill the meat thoroughly for easy handling. Slice the pork (or chicken) into batons about the same shape as the cucumbers in the pickles or into cubes about the same size as the carrots. Place the meat in a small work bowl and toss with the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, five-spice powder, and chopped ginger. Marinate the meat for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours.

2. Set a rack in the center of your oven and heat it to 450°F (230°C). Spray a rimmed baking sheet and place it next to your work area. Drain the meat, toss in the flour and then the egg, and mix well. In a small work bowl, stir together the sesame seeds and panko or breadcrumbs. Use chopsticks to dip each piece into the panko, and then arrange these on the baking sheet so that they do not touch. Drizzle the oil over the coated meat. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning the meat once along the way. They are ready when the crusts are golden.
Much tastier than you remember

3. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the wok and set it over medium heat. Stir-fry the garlic and onion in the oil until they are fragrant but not yet browned, and then add the catsup, sugar, water, salt, pickle juice, and vinegar.

4. Just before serving, bring the sauce to a boil before tossing in the pickles and optional pineapple. Taste and adjust the seasoning. As soon as they have heated through but are not yet cooking, toss in the hot meat just until it is coated, and then scrape everything out onto a serving platter and serve immediately while the panko crust is still crunchy.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Quick & delicious Cantonese pickles

I seem to be on quite the Cantonese roll lately, and I really don’t know why. Lots of fried rice, stir-fries, custard tarts (of course), and char siu have been traveling through my kitchen for some reason.

Perhaps it was because we had too much Sichuan food in Chengdu last month. (On second thought, no, there is no such thing as too much Sichuan food.) But nevertheless, I’ve been craving things like roasted meats and crunchy pickles and all the other things that get made exceptionally well in places like Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and my neighborhood Chinatown deli.

One day I’m going to master crispy-skin chicken (cuìpí jī 脆皮雞), as that is my absolute must-have. This is usually served with crunchy shrimp crackers – which are made out of ground-up fresh shrimp mixed with rice flour – but I much prefer a flavorful pickle to jazz up the proceedings. Until I wrestle that chicken recipe to the ground, though, I’ll satisfy at least half of my cravings with deli chicken and the other half with a homemade tasty pickle.

And, I’m happy to say, that’s what we have here today.
Salted up
Cantonese quick pickles really are worth mastering for many reasons. First, they are easy. Second, they are one of the prettiest pickles around because you have lots of gorgeous hues – green, orange, red, yellow, and white – and a range of crisp textures that makes each bite a pleasure. And third, the seasonings are juuuust right. You have your vinegar, salt, and sugar, but all in a perfectly balanced medley.

This is a standard in just about every Cantonese restaurant I’ve been to, and is especially beloved as an accompaniment to deli meats, like roast duck or char siu pork. I have to point out that homemade pickles are even better. They taste sparklingly fresh because they are sparklingly fresh, and I use super fresh organic veggies, and I spice everything up with a good handful of fresh ginger slices.

I’ve gotten so bowled over by this that I’ve been slipping it into tossed green salads (especially when something like grilled salmon or chicken is on the menu), where it bounces up the flavors a couple of notches and adds lots of texture to what might otherwise be just a boring salad.

Roll-cut the carrots & radishes
We also had it last week alongside some grilled sausages – Italian sausages, mind you – and they were the perfect supporting cast. So you see, having a bowl of these in the fridge makes dinner come together quickly and easily.

You might not believe this, but they also are the secret to great sweet-and-sour. Yes, I know, I know. I used to think that way, too. Sweet-and-sour is a tired cliché that you find on every steam table in every Chinese-American fast food joint. 

But sweet-and-sour has a hallowed history in many parts of China, so we will take a look at a lovely old school recipe that will make you reconsider your position on the subject. 

I mean, just think: those delightful pickles standing in for gassy, semi-raw bell peppers and onions, their tartness enlivening the sauce, their textures bouncing off the meaty nuggets, the sauce a subtle balance of everything you'd wish it might possibly possess, including (gasp) garlic. I know this will make you smile a whole lot and fight for seconds.
Sweet pepper triangles
Anyway, I’ll continue my argument next week. For now, let’s go buy some vegetables…

Cantonese pickles

Guăngdōng pàocài 廣東泡菜
Makes 1 quart (1 l)

5 ounces (150 g) yellow rock sugar (about ¾ cup crushed), or white sugar to taste
¾ cup (180 ml) pale rice vinegar
8 thin slices peeled ginger
1 pound (450 g) Asian radish of any kind or color
4 carrots, about 8 ounces (225 g)
3 seedless cucumbers
1 sweet red pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt

1. Place the sugar, vinegar, and ginger in a small saucepan, bring the vinegar to a boil, and then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, and remove the pan from the heat when the sugar has dissolved. Cool the liquid to room temperature.

Tender cucumber wedges
2. Peel the radish and carrots, and then roll-cut them into pieces that are no more than 1 inch (2 cm) on the widest edge. Cut the cucumbers lengthwise into quarters, and then cut these wedges into pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) long. Cut the pepper in half, seed it and remove the stem end, and then cut it into strips around 1 inch (2 cm) wide before cutting these strips into triangles. Place all of the vegetables in a resealable quart bowl, toss with the salt, and let them sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour. You don’t need to drain the veggies.

3. Pour the sweet vinegar and ginger over the vegetables and toss well. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the pickles for at least a day. Don’t worry if the liquid doesn’t cover the vegetables, as it will gradually reach the top after a couple of hours. Toss around the pickles when you think of it so that they all get a chance to soak up some flavor. Use within 5 days for optimum flavor.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Hong Kong custard tarts, part 2

Here now is my lovely Hong Kong-style custard tart recipe. What amazes me is that it is such a simple, seemingly no-brainer sort of recipe, and yet it took me ages to get right.

Just about every recipe I referred to told me to fill the raw pie shells with the custard and bake on high heat. Failure after failure made me realize this is sheer nonsense. The
se glassy little gems require slow, gentle heat to nudge them into a perfect state of doneness. You don't want bubbles, you don't want browning, and you don't want puffing – just smooth, creamy, super-enticing custard.

However, the crusts have to be cooked at a high temperature in order to garner that right amount of crispness, so what to do? I settled on blind baking them (meaning just the piecrust without the filling) to set their shapes and give the crusts a head start.
Fill the partially baked shells

Since these are baked in muffin tins rather than the usual shallow aluminum ones you find in Chinese bakeries and dim sum teahouses, they are a tad bit heftier in size, but still amazingly light. In other words, you have a nice, deep-dish hand pie going on. And that is yet another reason why I so love this recipe of mine.

I also like the freeform crust edges. These look homemade, and they taste like they were created with love. Definitely not in the least generic or bakery-issue in appearance, they still embody the traditional loveliness of the beloved classic Cantonese teatime snack known as danta. The browned edges possess a wonderful crunch, and as the tart cools, the exterior crisps up and offers even more contrast to the eggy center.

Speaking of which, the eggs I've used here are of great quality, and that is why these don't taste overtly eggy and give off the sulphuric fumes you get from cheap eggs. Instead, they taste fresh and pure. I’ve come to be addicted to pasture-raised eggs, which have a true egg flavor, harder shells, and bright orange yolks. Have I mentioned how delicious they are, too? Let me repeat that anyway. Hunt these down. They are life-changers. 

Whatever you do, be sure and strain the eggs after they have been beaten with the sugar water, as this ensures a smooth texture. 

This recipe calls for a traditional ingredient, evaporated milk. I've made these with whipping cream on occasion, and they are delicious too, but in a different way. The filling somehow isn't as yellow, but the texture is truly lovely. Either way, these are terrific.
Ready for the oven
Custard tarts are wonderful the day they are made. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself with leftovers, be sure to refrigerate them, since they are, after all, basically just eggs and milk. 

One thing I have to tell you is that these are utterly stupendous the next day:

Heat the chilled tarts (just place the tarts directly on the oven rack without the muffin tin) in a toaster oven at 400°F (200°C) for around 5 minutes to warm them through and crisp up the crust. If you have a convection setting, use it this time around because it really gives the crust a whole lot of crunch. Because the custard is very cold when it goes on the oven, it will be just the right amount of hot at the end of 5 minutes. 

Don't you want to have a tea party right about now?

Hong Kong-style custard tarts
Găngshì dàntá 港式蛋撻
Hong Kong
Makes 18 custard tarts 
10 tablespoons (100 g) sugar
1 cup (235 ml) boiling water
Perfect crust & custard
4 whole large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
1 cup (235 ml) evaporated milk or heavy cream, or half evaporated and half cream
18 tart shells from last week's piecrust recipe, frozen or fresh
Boiling water, as needed

1. Stir the sugar into the boiling water and then let the sugar water cool down to room temperature.

2. Use a whisk to beat the eggs and yolks in a work bowl until they are barely frothy. Beat in the cooled sugar water, which will help break up the whites and make the mixture smooth. Pour this egg mixture through a sieve into another 4-cup (1 l) measuring cup and discard any solids in the sieve. Stir in the vanilla, salt, and evaporated milk or cream. 

3. Heat your oven to 275°F (135°C) and set 2 racks in the center. (Do not use the convection or fan setting.) Divide the filling among the tart shell. Pour half an inch of boiling water into any unused muffin cups so that the muffin tin does not scorch the tarts close to those areas.

4. Bake the tarts for around 20 minutes, and then rotate the pan from front to back. Note how done they are at that point, for the edges should be set with the centers still looking liquid. Bake another 5 to 10 minutes (note: each oven is different, so check them every minute or so if they seem to be setting up quickly) until the crusts are edged with gold and the filling is no longer wobbly in the center. When done, there will be a very slight puffing up around the edges of the custard, but no big bubbles – that puffing is telling you that the custard is on the verge of boiling, so keep your eyes peeled. Again, you need to watch these carefully toward the end of the cooking time, adjust the temperature as needed, and remove the tarts the moment they look perfect. You don’t want to overcook them – no browning on the eggs, no puffy centers – as this will lead to bubbles in the custard. 
A simple solution to sticking

5. Cool the tarts down before serving, if you can wait, since the piecrust will crisp up by then. 


Before you fill the shells, gently twist them in their tins so that any welded-on parts get dislodged.

To remove the tarts from the muffin tin, run a thin blade around the edge between the crust and the tin, and then slip a fork underneath the tart. I like to do this when they are warm and the crust is still a bit flexible. Also, I'm usually super anxious to eat one at that point, so perhaps I'm just looking for excuses.

If you worry that the piecrust will stick to your muffin tins, try this: Place a strip of parchment paper or foil in the oiled tins before you line them with piecrust.
Plum custard tarts

If you happen to have leftover custard, pour them into oiled custard cups (the name had to come from somewhere, right?) and bake them with the tarts. 

Again, remember that your oven will most definitely work differently than mine. A custard tart is one of the most finicky things to bake, and the major causes of failure are the baking time and the temperature. Just a few extra minutes too long in the oven will ruin the whole shebang. And it's not just our ovens that are different, for the temperature of the raw eggs and milk will also affect the timing. So, be sure to keep track of the exact times things get done and make notes for next time.

Always err on the side of undercooking. If you take the tarts out and all or a few still look a little runny in the centers, return these to the oven for a few minutes – no harm will have been done, and you will end up eating perfect custard tarts.

Variation on a theme...
Custard tarts with plums

It's high summer as I write this, so of course I have plums hanging around the kitchen, and they always seem to suggest that I come up with something fun for them to do. And, just to make them happy, I found out by playing around with them that they are absolutely incredible when tucked away in these tarts. 
Spoon cooked fruit into the shells

Plums (or plumcots or black apricots or any of those hybrids) are perfect here because of their tart centers and skins. And they are stunning, too.

Part of the allure is, of course, the flavor. But you have to admit that they also add pizazz just by dint of their color. 

Count on about half a plum per tart. Pit them, but leave their skins on. Cut the fruit into large dice and microwave for around 1 minute, which should barely cook them through and turn them into a nice puddle.

Spoon the cooked, unsweetened fruit into the bottom of each tart shell before pouring on the custard. These tarts might then require a few more minutes of cooking, so keep an eye on them.

As the seasons change, use other slightly (or very) tart fruits here, like strawberries and rhubarb. Anything with good color, great flavor, and a slightly puckery contrast to the custard will be perfect. Just be sure to cook the fruit first and make them jammy, as otherwise it will either not cook through or will release lots of liquid that will ruin your lovely tarts.