Sunday, May 30, 2010

Easy Weeknight Dinners

... or "Variations on the theme of Roast Chicken and Tinned Peas"

I know it's been a while since I've blogged about something that I've actually cooked. Yes, I know the name of my blog is Sarah Cooks, not "Sarah Bakes Cookies", "Sarah Goes to Bars", "Sarah Goes to Restaurants". Although they all make compelling titles, don't you think? In fact, just yesterday I was reminded that I haven't done a cooking-related post since the meaty goodness of early April. Time to remedy that!

Since I've moved out, I've been cooking more, and looking through my recent photos it seems we've been going through a huge peas-and-chicken phase!

I've gotten obsessed with these French tinned peas/beans, below:

They're about $3.50 at Leo's supermarket, and I don't know what they do to the peas - the ingredients are just "peas, water and salt" - but they are absolutely delicious! We've been eating them with everything.

So, without further ado, let's have a look at some quick and easy weeknight dinners that I've been cooking.

Mackerel with Mushy Peas

I bought a beautiful, super-fresh greasy mackerel at the fishmongers, and it was only $2.50. Bargain! I filleted it myself (rather messily, as you can see!), then dusted them in seasoned flour and fried them in a lightly oiled non-stick pan. For the mushy peas, I did a simplified version of Nigella's upmarket mushy peas. I heated up a tin of the D'aucy peas in a small saucepan with a touch of garlic, and then mashed them up with a touch of cream. Easy, cheap and full of healthy omega-3's.

Sirloin with Peas and Onions

My dad gave us a couple of excess sirloin steaks he'd bought, which became the basis for the following meal.

Quite simple - I sliced up an onion and cooked the slices on a low heat until soft and golden, fried the steaks, and heated up a tin of the flageolet beans. Ta-dah!

Spatchcocked Chicken and More

Although I love a proper roast chicken, like the one you can see at the top of this post, they do take quite a while to cook. (About 90 minutes depending on the weight). Lately I've been getting into the spatchcocked chicken in a big way - just flip the bird upside down, cut away the backbone, flip the bird over and squish it flat. Well, I make it sound easy, but it takes a bit of practise to get it right. It also helps if you have a super-sharp knife.

And may I present to you...

I got a Wüsthof carving knife set a few months back with my credit card points, and it came in this kick-ass container! Looking at the knife, I didn't think it would be sharp, but boy, was I wrong! It's an awesome knife - it cuts through semi frozen chicken bones like butter. *Love*

Once the chicken is flattened, it only takes 45 minutes to cook in a hot oven. Easy! I usually squeeze lemon juice over, maybe some thyme, and chuck a few garlic cloves in too.

We served the chicken with the following accompaniments:

Creamy mushrooms with a touch of chilli.

Cubes of crispy roast potatoes with garlic.

Pea and mint salad. This is just like Nigella's pea, avocado and mint salad from How to Eat, but without the avocado. Unlike the peas in the rest of this post, these ones are not from a tin, but frozen ones. They peas are cooked, then steeped in a dressing of olive oil, vinegar and chopped mint. Delicious.

I don't normally cook this much on a weeknight, but for this particular meal, we were having a friend over for dinner. It only took an hour and 15 minutes to make everything from start to finish. Not a bad effort, I think!

Lebanese-style Charcoal chicken with Mash and Gravy and Peas

Yes, it looks like a meal you could get at Red Rooster. But it tasted better!

This is another spatchcocked chicken, but with a different marinade. I made it after work one day when I'd been obsessing over the stickily-roasted chickens you get at the Lebanese or Greek suburban charcoal chicken shops.

After some mobile-phone googling, I came up with this recipe. I boiled some garlic cloves in their skins until soft, drained them, skinned them, and mashed them up with a fork. I added lemon juice, olive oil, dried oregano, a pinch of cinnamon and some cumin.

I rubbed that all over a spatchcocked chicken, and shoved it in the oven for 45 minutes. (Ideally you'd do this the night before and let the chicken marinate overnight).

Because I was feeling rather industrious, I whipped up an onion-marsala gravy to go with.

Delicious. The chicken was very juicy, and stickily burnished on the outside. I was very happy with it, and would definitely make it again!

Pasta with Leftover Pan Juices

As you can see in the above picture of the spatchcocked chicken, there were a lot of pan juices. Rather than let them go to waste, I scraped them into a little bowl, and refrigerated them for the next day. Roast chicken pan juices make a fabulous, intense pasta sauce. (I got this idea from How to Eat as well).

Check out how gelatinous it is!

You scrape off the excess fat and let it melt in a pan. Add some cooked pasta, and any leftover chicken meat. (I had quite a bit). Heat it all up, sprinkle over some parsley and you are done! A tasty, easy and cheap weeknight meal.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

David Lebovitz' Chocolate Chip Cookies

So, you may remember I received some pretty funky cookbooks for my birthday last month. I'm still deciding what to cook first from the Japanese ones - it's all just too pretty! - but there was no such indecision when it came to David Lebovitz' new one, Ready for Dessert. I haven't even read all of the book yet, but I knew that his chocolate chip cookies would have to be first thing I made. (Although technically these are second recipe I've made - I made his cheesecake brownies last year in July after he published the recipe on his blog). He's also posted up a cute video where he makes these cookies, and feeds them to unsuspecting Parisians, who, surprise surprise, think they're fabulous.

His cookies are quite similar to The Rock's chocolate chip cookies (minus the oats), and my favourite chocolate chip cookies.

David does have a few tips though, to make his cookies extra-special. He suggests that you don't overmix the butter and sugars, so that the mixture doesn't become aerated, as this will make the cookies spread when you bake them! The recipe calls for a mix of white and light brown sugars. I didn't have any light brown sugar, so I substituted a rich dark muscovado sugar.

He also suggests using a chopped bar of chocolate instead of chocolate chips. Chips are designed to hold their shape, and chopped chocolate will give you more melty goodness. I used a couple of bars of Lindt Excellence 50% cocoa dark chocolate. I quite like the 50% dark chocolate - it gives intensity without harsh bitterness.

Finally, the dough should rest for 24-hours in the fridge. Unfortunately, I did not have the patience for a whole 24 hours - I just left the dough in the fridge for a couple of hours until it was firm enough to slice.

They only take about 9 minutes to bake, at whcih time they will be golden brown and smelling delicious! They were quite soft on the tray, but firmed up as they cooled down. From the below photo, I can see that the cookies did spread a little, but not too much.

These were a-mazing! They're soft and chewy like a Mrs. Fields cookie, with a slight crunch around the edges. I was worried the dark muscovado sugar might be a little too dark, but it gave the cookies a wonderful caramelly flavour that complimented the walnuts perfectly. (You know, like that maple walnut flavour combo). I also loved how melty the chocolate was. Very decadent. I ate an insane amount the day I baked them, but after that common sense took over and we packed the rest up to take to work.

These will definitely be my go-to basic choc-chip cookie recipe from now on.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Japanese Cheesecake

When my dad requested a cheesecake for his birthday, I took the opportunity to try out a new type of cheesecake, one that I hadn't baked before. I knew that a rich and creamy European baked cheesecake would be too filling after a big meal, and I thought a better option would be the light and fluffy cheesecakes I loved in Japan! I didn't have my own recipe, so did a bit of googling, and came across this one from Diana's Desserts that got some good reviews. Another blogger made it and her version looked pretty tempting, so I was quite confident it would turn out ok.

The main differences between this cheesecake and a standard European/NY baked cheesecake is that the Japanese version is crustless, it uses less cream cheese, and that it has a whole lotta whipped egg whites for lightness. It is super, super fluffy!

Check out the fluffiness!

I don't normally print recipes, but I've included this one below, as it has been re-printed on blogs before, and I've adapted it slightly for my tastes. If you're good with egg whites and water baths, then this recipe will be a no-brainer for you!

I baked the cake on a Sunday, and we ate it late the next night (after the epic Kenzan dinner). However, we did get to sneak a few tastes on Sunday night - there was too much batter for the 20cm tin I used, so I made mini cheesecakelets with the remainder.

As you can see, I swirled Nutella into a few of them as well. They only needed about 15 minutes to bake through.

I didn't think we'd finish all of these, but between Sandra and myself, we ate ALL of them in front of the TV in less than an hour. Oops.

In our defence, they're really small and super-light! In the miniature, they taste almost like chiffon cake, with the slightest hint of cream cheese. Dangerously easy to eat. The flavour and texture were both super-light, so the nutella ones were overpowered by the nutella flavour. I'd definitely skip the nutella next time.

My little flying-saucer cheesecakelet

Now, as for the actual cheesecake! We had it with tea after our huge dinner (green tea would be very appropriate here), and it was a huge success. Yay! It was moister than the mini-ones, and had a stronger cheesecake taste. After slicing, the pieces tended to dry out quite quickly, so unlike regular cheesecake, I'd recommend eating all of the cheesecake as soon as possible. Not that that'll be a challenge, trust me!

I loved it, loved it, loved it! I will definitely be making this again and again. I'm thinking mattcha flavour next time, or maybe a strawberry swirl...

Japanese Cheesecake
Adapted from Diana's Desserts

1/2 a vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
250g cream cheese

50g butter
100 ml milk
140g castor sugar
60g cake flour
20g cornflour
6 eggs
1 tbs lemon juice
1/4 salt

Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place pod and seeds (or vanilly extract) into a double boiler, and add the cream cheese, butter and milk.

Place over a low heat, stirring frequently until melted and amalgamated. Remove the vanilla pod and discard.

Cooking point! Make sure the mixture is super smooth, without any lumps.

Allow the mixture to cool. Add in the flour, the cornflour, egg yolks, lemon juice and salt. Mix well.

In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites until foamy. Add in the sugar and whisk until soft peaks form.

Gently fold the egg whites into the cream cheese mixture, in 2 batches. Mix the egg whites in gently but thoroughly, so that you can maintain the volume whilst ensuring there are no white streaks left in the batter.

Line a deep 20cm springform tin, or a standard 23cm springform tin with greaseproof paper. Wrap the outside of the tin in 2 layers of cling wrap, and 2 layers of foil. The glad wrap isn't strictly necessary, but the idea is to create a waterproof barrier. For the record, I've never had cling wrap melt in the oven, and I find that it always comes away easily from the tin after baking. However, I can't make any guarantees for all brands of cling wrap - try this at your own risk!

Place the prepared cake tin into a roasting tray and pour in the batter. Pour water from a recently boiled kettle into the tray, to come halfway up the side of the tin.

Bake in an oven preheated to 160C for 1 hour and 10 minutes, until set and golden brown. Take it out of the waterbath straight away, and as soon as it is cool enough to bear, peel away the foil and gladwrap. Let the cheesecake cool in the tin on a wire rack.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kenzan Japanese Restaurant

Sushi and Sashimi Moriawase - Large $92.50

Kenzan Japanese Restaurant
Collins Place
45 Collins Street (56 Flinders Lane)
Melbourne 3000
(03) 9654 8933

Kenzan is one of my family's favourite restaurants. We used to come here quite often when I was a kid, but now I see the last time we went was four years ago (!!) for my bro's bday. Our long-overdue return was last week on Monday night, for my Dad's birthday. Kenzan is below ground level in Collins place. That's underneath the Sofitel and the Kino, up the Paris end of Collins street.

It's only now that I'm older and have been blogging for a while that I really took notice of the decor - Kenzan is simply decorated, with neutral-coloured walls and carpets, a couple of private Japanese-style dining rooms on one side. The first thing that really grabbed our attention was that unlike many fancy restaurants around town, Kenzan is nice and bright! This made it easy to read the menu and see our food.

We start with complimentary edamame.


My dad went for a Sapporo...
...while I went for a nice warm sake. Lovely and warming on these cold Melbourne nights!
I love the cute sake bottle, and it kept the sake piping hot for a good 2 hours.

For starters, Mum, Dad and I shared a magnificent large sushi and sashimi platter. We always order this plate of deliciousness when we come to Kenzan. Look at the photo at the top of this post and drool! Now, let's have a closer look:




Tobiko rolls

Kenzan's sushi is fabulously fresh and of a consistently high quality. Usually, the large sushi platter is a good quantity for my family, but now that my bro is in Japan, my parents and I found it really filling. The medium size would probably have been better for the 3 of us.

We also ordered a chawan-mushi for Mum. It's her daikoubutsu (favourite Japanese dish)!
Chawan Mushi - Steamed egg custard with chicken, shrimp and vegetables - $11.00

Sandra doesn't eat seafood, so she had tatsuta-age. Even though I love sushi, I was suffering serious dish-envy when this came out!
Tatsuta Age - Deep fried marinated chicken $16.50

Hot, juicy, crispy chicken. Is there anything better? The salad isn't just for garnish, it tastes great too and provides a light, refreshing counterpart against the fried chicken. Japanese salad dressing is so addictive, and everything on that plate got eaten (bar the lemon).

You might think that'd be enough, but there were still mains to come. Kenzan's main meal menu is a little limited, with only 4 or 5 dishes, but my Dad had a hankering for nabeyaki-udon, and when he asked the waitress if they had any, she brought out a separate noodle menu! If you love your udon and soba, make sure you ask for the separate noodle menu. (No ramen, unfortunately, but there was a good range of other items.)

Nabeyaki Udon - can't remember the price sorry!

Dad's favourite dish is nabeyaki udon, which is a rich broth, filled with udon, some vegetables and a tempura-ed prawn. His favourite version was actually at Murasaki on Russell street, but unfortunately, Murasaki has closed now (why Satou-san, why???). I'm glad to report he was most satisfied with Kenzan's version!

Sandra did the double-chicken thang, with a teriyaki chicken.

Tori Teriyaki – Grilled chicken with teriyaki sauce $29.50

It comes with a bowl of rice as well. I love the potato-brocolli-carrot-salad garnish - very Japanese housewife!

Mum and I both indulged with a tempura for our mains.

Tempura - Delicately prepared deep fried prawns, fish and vegetables - $29.50

Delicious! The pyramid-shaped presentation is very pretty, and in fact it looks vastly better than last time. I'm sure the author of my "beautiful Japanese plating" book would approve! I like the eggplant and the prawns the best, and just like I did when I was a kid, I always save them until last. But can I tell you a secret? I was actually really full by this stage, so I gave the last prawn to my Dad to eat with his nabeyaki. It was his birthday after all!

Ordinarily we'd order dessert (matcha ice-cream and anpan, anyone?), but this year I'd baked my dad a Japanese cheesecake for his birthday, so we had to save room for that. Japanese cheesecake is very different from the dense European-style baked cheesecakes that I am used to, and I'll make sure to blog about it next.

I can't believe it's been 4 years since I last visited Kenzan. I must make sure to go more often. At least every 2 years? Hehehe.

If you haven't been, or heard of it, Kenzan is really a stalwart of the Melbourne food scene, a consistent 1-hatter in the Good Food guide (not that I'm overly concerned with that), and a wonderful place for classic Japanese cuisine. It has been around for over 27 years (yes, it's older than me), and I hope it will be around for many years to come.

Kenzan Japanese on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte - Black Forest Cake

The Black Forest Cake that I made 2 weeks ago.

When I told Thanh that I'd bake him any cake he wanted as his birthday present, I thought I was taking the easy way out. And then I got this email:

hey i know what cake i want for my bday present
i want a massive glorious black forest cake beautifully decorated and with kirsch and morello cherries

Eek! Well, I love a challenge almost as much as I love German cakes, and I quickly started looking up recipes and researching.

You know what I discovered? No-one makes Black Forest cake any more! Of the few recipes that I did find, most were deconstructed, modernised, adapted. I also found lots of random dessert recipes which somehow involved the choc-cherry combo. But I wanted a properly German, traditional Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Not a pared-down, simplified version, not a trifle, not a cherry-flavoured chocolate biscuit! This also begs the question - why would anyone want to pare down the magnificence of this cake?

Ultimately, I turned to my classic Dr Oetker Backen Macht Freude book, as it was pretty much the only Rezepte I could find for a klassische Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.

I was hoping to show y'all a cross-section of an actual piece of cake to show you what should be inside Black Forest cake, but unfortunately the cake got a little smooshed on the drive to Thanh's and the slices were super messy!

Instead, here's a little something I whipped up on a post-it note:

Ta-dah! There are 3 main areas to which I'd like to draw your attention. The traditional cake includes a shortcrust pastry base, sour cherries, and most importantly, the whipped cream must include kirsch! Without the requisite cherry liquor, the cake won't taste right, and any Germans eating the cake to will be bitterly disappointed.

Before Thanh's birthday, I was planning on doing a trial run of the cake, but in the general confusion of moving house I somehow got the dates mixed up. And so the actual day came and I just had to wing it. Uh-oh. I'll show you all the individual components (with a recipe!), apart from the actual cake part, because it didn't turn out too well. But more on that later.

I only managed to start baking at about 3:30pm... and the party was at 7pm that night! I should totally have started earlier; it would have saved me a lot of stress!


Sieve 125g plain flour with 10g cocoa and 1 tsp baking powder into a mixing bowl. Add 50g sugar, 1 pack vanilla-sugar, 1 tbs kirsch and 75g softened butter. Mix using a dough hook or paddle beater until combined.

Roll out to a 28cm circle, and place into a lined 28cm springform tin. I still don't have a rolling pin at the new place, so I simply tipped the mixture into the tin, and pressed it out to fit. Poke the dough all over with a fork, as below.

Bake at 200C for 15 minutes.

Make sure you check at 10 minutes! Because the dough is so thin, it burns quite easily. And in fact, I burnt the edges of first one I made, and had to rapidly whip up a second one. GRAR! Anyhow, here is the second, non-burnt pastry circle.

With the first pastry circle, I broke off the burnt parts, and ate the good parts as a snack. And let me tell you, it was delicious! A smoky chocolate flavour, a short and crumbly texture - wow. It's certainly the easiest pastry recipe I've ever made. I think it would be good as the base for a tart, or even with ice-cream.

Cherry Filling

Drain a 350g jar of sour cherries (reserving the juice). Mix 30g cornflour with 4 tbs of the juice, whisking to dissolve any lumps. Put the rest of the juice in a pot and bring to the boil. Take it off the heat and whisk in the cornflour mixture. Put the pot back on the heat, stirring until thick. It should look like this:

Add the cherries and set it aside to cool. Once it has cooled, add 25g sugar and about 3 tbs Kirsch.

Chocolate Sponge

Now, I don't know what went wrong with the chocolate sponge, because I followed the recipe exactly. But there was barely enough dough for the tin, and it ended up like a large flat pancake.

The recipe then said "cut the sponge in half" - hah!

By this stage it was about 5:30pm, and I did not have time to start researching other recipes. Instead, I made a double-quantity of the same sponge, which ended up being an appropriate size for 1 layer.

Because it didn't work, I won't publish the recipe. I will just suggest you use a light chocolate sponge - one of those feather-light sponges where all the volume comes from beating whole eggs with sugar for 10 minutes - and emphatically not a buttery and heavy Victoria sponge. Delicious though they may be, you really need something light here, against all the cream and chocolate.

Whipped Cream

Mix 1 pack powdered gelatine with 5 tbs cold water in a small pot. (Check your packet for instructions, as all gelatines vary in strength). Place on a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring until dissolved. Beat 750ml cream until almost stiff. Then, slowly pour in the lukewarm gelatine mixture, whipping all the while, until the mixture is stiff. Add 1-2 tbs kirsch, sieve in 40g icing sugar and 1 packet vanilla sugar and mix in gently.

A short note about the kirsch. As I previously mentioned, adding kirsch to the cream is absolutely essential for an authentic Black Forest cake. The kirsch I happen to have was a gift from the family in Germany. They have a massive cherry tree in the backyard, and each summer they take all that fruit and brew their own Kirschwasser. I know - OMG. They gave me a coke-bottle full of it to bring home with me from my 2007 trip to Germany. It's amazing, but it's too strong for me to drink by itself. To me, weakling that I am, it tastes like paint stripper. In the cake though, it is perfect. I did halve the quantities though, as I figured it would be stronger than store-bought kirsch.

The Assembly

Place your cherries on top of the base:

Cover with 1/3 of the whipped cream. Place one cake round on top, and cover with 1/2 of the remaining cream. Place the remaining cake round on top.

With the remaining cream, cover the top and sides of the whole cake.

My recipe says to whip a further 100ml of cream to pipe rosettes on top, but I still had some cream leftover.

Of course, you must use bright red maraschino cherries for decoration, and be generous with the chocolate flakes. I used Lindt dark hot chocolate flakes (it actually works out cheaper than Cadbury Flake bars, which was my original idea!)

Aah... doesn't it look pretty! When we finished assembling the cake, it was already 8 o'clock. And the party started at 7. D'OH! No time to refrigerate the cake and let it set properly. We just had to quickly get dressed and get down to the party!

Despite my most careful, cautious driving, the cake didn't look quite so pretty by the time it got to Thanh's house. Whilst it maintained most of its structural integrity, the cherries and cream started oozing out the sides and the cake layers slid a little bit. It was the most tense drive of my life! Sandra was holding the cake in its container, and we had the air-conditioning on to prevent the cream from melting any further. Good lord, it was cold! Big apologies to anyone who was stuck behind me, crawling down Springvale Road at 40 km/hr.

But in the end, both of us and the cake got there. We unpacked it on the table (behind Lingy's delicious macarons and beautiful, flower-filled croquembouche), and I got stuck into the suckling pig! Mmm... suckling pig.

Cutting it was difficult as well, as the cake pieces slid everywhere. It turned out to be a 5-person job, including liberal use of the Chinese waiter-two-spoon trick.

Ultimately it all got cut up and passed around and eaten. I tasted some, and even though the sponge itself was a little denser than I'd like, the overall cake tasted good, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew!

Apart from the sponge cake, all the elements of the recipe worked really well (especially that chocolate pastry - Mmm!). The sponge cake was the first recipe from Backen Macht Freude that hasn't turned out well. Next time I make a Black Forest cake, I'll experiment with a different chocolate sponge recipe.

However, the key learning I took from this experience is that when making a Black Forest cake, the most important ingredient is time. Time to make all the separate components, time to assemble it, time for the cream to set, and time for all the flavours to meld together. I would definitely recommend making it the night before, or at least starting early in the morning.

Next year Thanh, you are getting a gift voucher from Michel's!