Baking technicalities & regional differences

Just read this very interesting article on ‘Crossing the Atlantic by Cookbook‘ about Rose Levy Beranbaum’s experience where the recipes in her US-published cookbooks didn’t work at all when used in Britain!

Beranbaum’s write-up on this and the many readers’ comments discuss the differences between British and American flours as well as measuring methods. This goes way beyond what most people are aware of, that altitude and humidity can affect the results of baked goods.

I have been using recipes from all over – especially ones from the internet – together with Waitrose organic flour from England or Origins Healthcare flour (a Singapore brand and the packaging says ‘Produce of USA’). Suddenly I feel as if I have been blessed with immense good luck that my baking usually turns out pretty well – to my own standards, at least (no sunken cakes so far). Rose Levy Beranbaum’s write-up gives me the impression that without an amazingly specialised knowledge of baking ingredients, it will all be a disaster and makes me feel too scared to even try any baking at all!

Perhaps the moral of the story is to use tried-and-tested recipes from cookbooks and websites from the area where one is doing the baking.

Purple soup: sweet potato & yam

Purple soup

Remember the two-coloured sweet potato balls? This is what I did with the extra purple sweet potato. I also had yam (white flesh with purple flecks) lying around getting rather withered so I put that in as well.

Getting a handheld blender* some years ago was a great move because blended soups are one of the easiest things to make and can be made with just about any combination of vegetables and other ingredients that takes your fancy. Besides the sweet potato and yam, this soup also has garlic and onions. More often my blended soups are based around cauliflower and cabbage (vegetables low in salicylates so food-intolerance-friendly), sometimes also pumpkin and potatoes.

The basic method is to lightly fry the vegetables which have been chopped into small pieces so that they cook more quickly. Use garlic and onions/shallots/spring onions/leeks for flavour if so desired, and start frying these first before adding the vegetables. Fry till the onions are limp and the vegetables are gently cooked. The browning effect makes the soup more flavourful. Then add soup stock or water and simmer till the vegetables are very soft and can be easily blended.

I also like to pulverise leftover dishes to ‘remake’ them into a different form. For example, chicken macaroni makes a nice and creamy tasting blended soup! If you include vegetables like leeks, celery, cabbage, potatoes etc. and use wholemeal pasta in the chicken macaroni, you get a pretty nutritious dish. And for times when you have a poor appetite, it’s much easier to swallow a liquid meal than chew through a solid one.

Actually, the sweet potato taste seemed to be more suited to a sweet dish than savoury soup. I imagine one could easily omit the other savoury ingredients, use milk (dairy or other types) for the liquid and make a Chinese-style creamy dessert paste similar to almond, walnut, peanut and sesame pastes.

*N.B.: A jug blender is more of a hassle to use because it’s so big and heavy and harder to wash up, but much quicker and more powerful – I use the jug blender for grinding soya beans when making soya bean milk. However for small amounts of softer, more liquid foods, the handheld blender is more convenient.

Finger foods bento & the ‘Five Principles’

Finger foods often work better for me in bento because they can be more easily eaten when one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down for a long stretch to enjoy a meal at a table. So this was quite a fun bento box to tuck into, apart from the abysmal attempt at making sushi with tuna filling (and making even more of a mess by simply pouring the extra aoi nori over the top because I didn’t want to waste it).

Bento fingerfoods variety

This was also one of the few bento I’ve done that includes enough of a variety to come closer to meeting the five sets of five rules of traditional Japanese cooking (read more here and here), which includes bento.

Although the online bento community frequently discusses what makes a good bento, there’s not much on creating bento that meet the principles of five colors (goshiki), the five methods (goho), the five flavors (gomi), the five senses (gokan); and for now, let’s leave out gokan no mon, a set of Buddhist principles on the appropriate state of mind when consuming food ^_^.

Perhaps the most commonly-known of these principles is that of colour, as this Washington Post article describes. Browsing Japanese bento cookbooks, you’ll often find a section dedicated to side dishes organised by colour to help you select a combination in contrasting colours. Of the five principles, this one is the one most obvious as the visual impact of a bento is the most immediate. (N.B.: Frank Tastes writes a commentary on the aesthetics of bento from a different perspective here.)

Some bento cookbooks lay out the fundamentals of bento-making, and 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 is one that explains how important balance is. A balance of nutritional elements (carbohydrates, protein, vegetables), colours as well as tastes.

On tastes, the book presents a chart listing four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This follows the categorisation in Tradtional Chinese Medicine, which also includes a fifth category – pungent, which refers to acrid, spicy, hot and aromatic flavours. As explained in Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford, each of these categories has particular warming/cooling values as well as therapeutic applications. Pungent and sweet flavours are yang, while sour, bitter and salty flavours are yin. The aim is to use these flavours to bring a person into balance with seasonal influences whilst considering the individual constitution.

Although 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 talks about different flavours, and using mild and strong tastes in different proportions, it is from the viewpoint of taste and variety only.

Apart from flavours, the method of cooking also affects the yin/yang value of a food, and that’s where goho comes in, which helps to achieve a better balance within a meal. In this bento, there’s tuna sushi rolled in aoi nori, fried mock poh piah (‘remade’ leftovers), fried sweet potato strips (also leftovers), a hard-boiled egg and raw pear pieces. Maybe not quite five methods, but at least at attempt in that direction.

I’ve personally experienced the importance of balancing yin/yang in bento, and bearing in mind goshiki, goho and gomi are good ways to encourage a variety and balance in this respect.

As for stimulating the five senses through gokan, I see it as a way of making one more mindful of the present by drawing attention to bodily sensations, along the lines of mindfulness practice in Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately, not something I’m able to achieve whilst dashing around and grabbing occasional mouthfuls of finger foods from my bento!

Mock poh piah

A long while back, I was brainstorming ideas for dishes that would meet the requirements of a Failsafe diet, i.e. free of additives, low in salicylates, amines and flavour enhancers, and yet have an Asian flavour. At that point, my only guide were the recipes in books by Sue Dengate, founder of the Food Intolerance Network, and because they were entirely geared towards an Australian diet, I really wanted to find some flavours closer to home.

During the brainstorming, poh piah was one of the traditional dishes I thought could be adapted. Of course, by leaving out the sweet flour sauce, bee cheo, and chilli, key components of the taste of poh piah are gone, but at least the shape and form of the dish provides variety in what could easily become a very limited diet.

Poh piah pretend

The photograph in the title header of this blog shows the surprisingly successful result of a ‘quick and dirty’ mock poh piah. Forget the time complicated and time-consuming methods of cooking the filling and making the egg skin, this is actually a simple stir-fry of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, carrots, spring onion topped with hard-boiled egg and wrapped in an eggy crepe (no recipe, sorry, simply made by approximating the batter consistency and using a higher proportion of egg than usual) ^_^.

To imitate poh piah more closely, cut the vegetables for the filling into strips, and use the same basic ingredients for the filling: bamboo shoot and bangkuang/jicama, streaky pork, prawns and taukwa/firm tofu. Fry chopped garlic, add organic miso as a replacement for Chinese fermented bean paste, taucheo, before adding the other ingredients to simmer as per these instructions.

In the end, I guess it’s not really much of a poh piah at all (though closer to the real thing than ‘mock duck‘ is anything like real duck, I’d say!), perhaps more similar to the various types of rolls pictured in Japanese bento cookbooks. However the familiar poh piah-like textures of the vegetable strips and springy egg skin really broke the monotony of my daily rice & stir-fry meals.

[17/1/08 Update: Lunch in a Box often does 'leftover remakes', so check out what happened when leftover mock poh piah went into a bento.]

On homemade soya sauce

Canton Pixie had asked in the comments here how on earth one makes soya sauce at home. Well, according to this e-Gullet forum thread, many people did so in the past and it can certainly still be done!

These days people are motivated by the dubious quality of foods from China, which is also what got me started on making salted eggs at home. Check out the e-Gullet thread for a full explanation with photos on making soya sauce.

One of the links from the thread is to a write-up by local star food blogger, Chubby Hubby, who raves about a traditional soya sauce business in Penang, Kilang Kicap Kwong Heng Loong. The family-run enterprise makes

soy sauce by hand, with no extra ingredients, unwanted additives or preservatives. They make their sauce the same way that it had been made for generations before them but which, sadly, is becoming more and more rare today.

The astounding experience Chubby Hubby had when tasting the Kwong Heng Loong soya sauce sounds exactly like my first brush with Mitoku brand macrobiotic grade shoyu. The deep, rich taste with winey, fermented overtones was absolutely unlike any soya sauce I had ever had before. It’s excellent for marinating and cooking flavourful dishes, and just a dash is enough. With my food intolerances, just a dash is all I can have anyway :).

While it’s not all that difficult to make soya sauce at home, it’s probably very very hard to achieve a quality to match that of experienced brewers. I might one day try DIY soya sauce for fun, I think I’m too addicted to Mitoku shoyu to give it up. Or maybe I should try to get my hands on Kwong Heng Loong (which I bet is a whole lot cheaper). Does anyone know if they are still in operation? It might not be for much longer…

New page on flours

Have been reading up on different types of flours used in the Chinese and Japanese recipes I’ve been looking at recently. See my notes here (or click on tab at top of page).

Steamed sponge cake 水蒸蛋糕

Before I started experimenting with Asian snacks, I used to bake tea time snacks several times a week – as you can see from the earlier entries on this blog. So my weekly supermarketing would inevitably include dairy staples of butter and eggs. Recently, I noticed that my stock of eggs and butter has been sitting in the fridge for a long time and realised that it’s because of my concentration on Chinese and Japanese snacks, which are mostly steamed. At that point it also struck me that these Asian snacks are wonderful vegan or dairy-free recipes (just make sure you substitute vegetable oil in any recipes that call for lard!).

However, I had to find a way to start using up all those eggs so I chose a recipe for a steamed cake that uses eggs. In Chinese, dan gao 蛋糕 is used to refer to western-style cakes; the first character meaning ‘egg’ and the second ‘cake’. The character gao 糕 is also used to refer to all those steamed snacks, which don’t have eggs. So the Chinese name for this cake, with the word dan 蛋 immediately alerted me to the presence of eggs :). The recipe comes from the book 《糕&炒年糕》.

Steamed Sponge Cake


250g eggs [1 large egg = 60-65g]
150g low-protein flour/cake flour
50g wheat starch
1g baking powder (optional) [how to weigh 1g?? even digital kitchen scales aren't accurate with such small amounts! so I 'agak-agak' i.e. guessed :P]
75g white sugar [reduced from original amount of 250g in recipe and it was just the right amount of sweetness]
raisins to taste (optional)

Actually, apart from creaming and muffin mix method, I have very little experience with cake-making techniques. So working with eggs and whisking them was a bit of a challenge.

I didn’t know why the step-by-step photos showed first a yellow whisked mixture of whole eggs and white sugar, which had become white in the following photo so I thought I would try out the method used in this pandan chiffon cupcake recipe where the egg whites and sugar are whisked first, and then the egg yolks blended in. It gave me a chance to practise separating eggs ^_^ (had one casualty, which I used for French toast later).

Once the egg & sugar mixture was done, I folded in the sifted mixture of cake flour, wheat starch and baking powder.

The cake mixture then went into a oiled square baking tin. In the recipe book, cling film is used to line the containers but I thought oiling the tin might be less wasteful.

If so desired, you can sprinkle raisins to taste on the surface of the cake mixture. I used the same organic sultanas as I did in this oatmeal cake.

Steam for 20 minutes. After my problem with the overly-dense texture of these brown sugar steamed buns, I made sure the water was really vigorously boiling before I put the cake in to steam.

In terms of texture, the result was similar to the photo in the recipe book, but it still seemed rather too dense to me. In retrospect, I think I didn’t whisk the egg whites enough (tired! and the volume didn’t seem to increase anymore…), and only got to the ‘soft peak’ stage, when I really should have continued till the ‘hard peak’ stage.

Another problem was that there were large air holes in certain parts of the cake. Possibly I didn’t mix the dry ingredients properly. Alternatively, I should have banged the cake tin to release any air bubbles to the top of the mixture.

The texture was also sort of bouncy, just like the brown sugar steamed buns, so I guess this could be a characteristic of steamed cakes.

As for the taste, it was uh, rather egg-y. It smelled and tasted sort of like hard-boiled eggs!?! I wonder if more sugar would have masked the egg smell (after all, I used about 1/3 of the suggested amount)? Perhaps pandan leaf juice or vanilla essence would also have done the job.

[21/1/0 update: I found a solution to the strong egg taste! It goes away when the steamed sponge cake cools down. Discovered this after having included the steamed cake in several bento recently. This is similar to the advice Ann Mah gave me regarding making Spinach Chocolate Brownies from Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious: the spinach taste is evident when the brownies are warm so they have to be served at room temperature/cold.]

Verdict: love the straightforward recipe and simple list of ingredients, but will need to try again to get a better result in taste in texture.

**Check out these other spongy steamed cakes I’ve tried:
Brown sugar steamed buns 黑糖饅頭
Steamed cupcakes: fatt gou/ huat kueh 發糕

Red bean soy smoothie

I’ve blogged earlier about various azuki/ red bean recipes and how versatile an ingredient they are. In my recent attempts at making Chinese snacks and Japanese wagashi, red beans are a very common ingredient.

Inspired by the packaged red bean milk 紅豆奶 and green bean milk 綠豆奶 I saw in convenience stores everywhere in Taiwan, one of my favourite ways to consume red beans (and green mung beans) is in a smoothie with whatever type of milk I have on hand – cow’s milk, soya bean milk, oat milk, rice milk etc. It’s a great breakfast food, sustaining and healthy.

Red milk soya milk

The best part about having red bean soya milk is that both the red bean and soya milk can be easily made at home with as little sugar as you want. I usually omit sugar completely and even with no sugar at all the smoothie can be very yummy!

Follow the instructions at Just Hungry for making soya bean milk and do have a look at Zlamushka’s helpful slideshow on how to make soya milk. Just Hungry also describes how to make red bean paste, however I do it slightly differently. I soak the beans in at least two and a half times the volume of water for a few hours – not as long as 24 hours – until they swell up, then I cook them in fresh water without salt or sugar in a mini electric crockpot, adding more water if it gets too dry.

Chunky red bean paste (as described in Just Hungry’s instructions) tastes better in various snacks and sweets (such as the familiar Chinese tau sar/dou sha bao 豆沙包, in steamed or bread bun versions, and Japanese botamochi/ohagi) but I’ve found that it’s more useful to blend the cooked red beans into a smooth paste. When you want to make a smoothie, the smooth red bean paste can be easily mixed by hand with the soya bean milk to the desired consistency. A mini whisk for beverages is very useful for this (available in Daiso).

I used to drink my red/green bean smoothies cold, but in the last couple of years I’ve noticed how cold foods upset my digestive system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cold foods and drinks are generally to be avoided as they are too cooling/yin. Do note that green mung beans are also classified as yin in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Red azuki beans are more neutral in yin/yang terms and therefore a better choice.

However, the wonderful thing about red/green bean milk is that it’s also delicious hot! Think of warm Chinese red bean desserts, such as the glutinous rice balls in sweet red bean soup I made earlier or the Korean version. After mixing the red bean paste & soya bean milk from the fridge, just heat up the smoothie in the microwave or on the stove and it’s ready to be enjoyed ^_^.

Rice bento for dinner

Bento dinner 080106

1) Japanese short-grain brown rice (genmai), topped with toasted pine nuts.

2) Miso pumpkin dish, which I’ve described here. Leftover from lunch, so all the fish cooked together with the pumpkin had already been eaten up.

3) Chicken and French beans stir-fried with salt and garlic. I packed the chicken and beans separately here, with the chicken in the middle and the green veg on the right side.

4) Plain omelette, rolled and sliced.

5) Fruit: guava in brown silicone baking cup, pear in orange cup. I didn’t really need to use the silicone cups as the box has built-in sections but I accidentally split garlic from the stir-fry into the small sections and I didn’t want my fruit to taste oily and salty :P.

This was a successful bento in various ways. I managed to include items in five colours (goshiki, one of the principles of traditional Japanese cuisine and bento, read more here), maintain a reasonable balance of yin/yang and it was tasty too.

There appears to be much less rice here than the proportions recommended in bento books: four parts rice, two parts protein side dish, one part vegetable side dish no. 1, one part vegetable side dish no. 2 [4:2:1:1], or as Just Bento explains, “4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part other ingredients”. However, I’m not a huge rice eater, mostly because I usually eat brown rice which is more chewy and filling than white rice. Also, one eats more rice when the dishes are very salty, spicy or have heavy gravy, but this is virtually never the case with my barebones, food-intolerance-friendly meals. I put in this bento the amount I usually eat in one meal, about three-quarters of a one-bowl sized microwavable plastic container from Daiso which is specifically meant for rice (it has an uneven surface in the bottom so that the cooked rice won’t stick).

Recently, I commented on using a box of the appropriate size. This E-Z Lock box from Lock & Lock has very handy divisions but is actually too big for a single meal for me. The large compartment is 610ml, which should contain my entire meal, including the fruit (I actually ended up the fruit much later, after I got home).

The two smaller compartments (145ml & 200ml) are good for packing other foods for a snack before or after the main meal, which is something that I often need to do as well. With the separate, water-tight compartments of this box, you don’t end up with the problem, which I described here, of the “Part 2″ food rolling and spilling inside a half-empty container.

This dedicated lunchbox is also practical because it’s shallow. This allows the food to be packed tightly, right up to the lid, so that it’s held in place whilst being carted around. In this case, the food still wasn’t packed tightly enough to be held in place so I put an anti-bacterial plastic sheet between the food and the lid – more to hold the stuff in place than because I feared it would go bad :)!

Many of my Lock & Lock boxes, even though they have the appropriate volume, are too deep for the foods to be nicely laid out side by side. The solution for rice bento is to use the rice as a base and layer the side dishes on top, in the manner that Frank Tastes has done here. Deep boxes are also useful for thick sandwiches, or packing them sliced in half with the attractive cross-section face-up, like this bento, also from Frank Tastes.

Quick links to useful posts

As the postings accumulate on this blog, it’s getting a bit hard for me to navigate back to pages with useful reference information, so I’ve set up a new tabbed page, ‘Useful posts‘, to compile a list of internal links.


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