‘Junk’ food: popcorn

When coated in artificial flavourings, tons of salt and/or sugar, popcorn can be very nasty (think of that fake butter smell from cinema popcorn — yuck!). However, natural popcorn is a great snack option which in its plain form is gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and low in fat, so one can happily indulge!

Here’s how I make it:
* find a large pot with lid
* measure out the desired amount of raw corn kernels — I use three-quarters of one small rice bowl to make a huge salad bowl amount of cooked popcorn
* poor into pot just enough oil to coat all the kernels of corn
* turn on medium-high heat and wait for oil to heat up
* once hot, put in the corn kernels, stir to coat all kernels with oil and try to make sure that as many kernels as possible are in touch with the bottom surface of the pot (to get them heated up as effectively as possible)
* cover and wait for popping to cease
* occasionally shake the pot — whilst holding the lid on tight — to encourage all the kernels to pop
* occasionally lift the lid a crack to allow the steam to escape (or use the steam vent if your pot lid has one), but be careful not to open so wide as to allow popping corn to spring out!
* remove popcorn from pot, I put in a large plastic basket to allow the popcorn to cool down
* store in airtight containers as soon as it has cooled down as popcorn goes soft very quickly

As I try to avoid sugar, I go with salted popcorn and simply sprinkle salt on the cooked popcorn.

Breakfast: baked beans, brown rice cake & Chinese tea

Now I can join the rest of my family when they eat baked beans & toast for breakfast with my own version :)!

* homemade baked beans

* organic, salt-free brown rice cake from Lundberg — a crumbly rice cake, not as smooth a texture as Kallo brand, but then again, this one is brown rice. Most rice cakes are soft and taste stale straight out of the packed, especially Lundberg, but nothing a couple of minutes in the oven toaster won’t fix. Be careful as rice cakes burn easily, so set the oven toaster timer for just 2 minutes but leave the rice cakes in for 5 minutes to crisp up slowly in low heat.

* Pearl of the Orient tea from Gryphon brand — Singapore brand of gourmet teas in elegant packing. The extra-large fine mesh bags seem excessive but actually tea leaves need space to expand and release their full flavour. Gryphon’s Earl Grey is lovely (the brand’s best-selling tea in Singapore) but Pearl of the Orient, a jasmine+rose Chinese tea is definitely over-fragranced. Cheapest place to buy Gryphon teas is NTUC Finest at S$10.50 a box of 20 tea bags, $2 cheaper than chi-chi gourmet delis like Culina.

Baked beans – homemade & failsafe!

For ages, I have been watching my family members eating tinned baked beans for breakfast, unable to join in because of the tomato sauce which is high in glutamates, amines and salicylates (not to mention plenty of salt & sugar)!! The other day, I finally got down to making Failsafe baked beans from the recipe in the Friendly Foods cookbook.

The result was wonderfully satisfying! Even my family members who are used to the over-flavoured commercial version pronounced this ‘surprisingly edible’.

RECIPE

300g (1 1/2 cups) dried beans – navy, cannellini or flageolet
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 sprigs parsley
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 x 5cm pieces celery
2 Tbs soft brown sugar
1/4 tsp citric acid
3/4 tsp saffron threads [which I omitted, hence the anemic colour of my baked beans]
sea salt

Wash beans and soak overnight with 1.5 litres water. Drain the next day.

Place beans & leek in saucepan. A heavy-bottomed pot for slow-cooking is good, such as a cast iron pot. You can also use a crockpot.Main-Main Masak-Masak › Edit Post — WordPress

Tie the parsley, garlic and celery into a bouquet garni with a piece of string and add this to the pot.

Pour in enough water to cover the beans. Simmer uncovered for about 1 hour or until tender. Remove the bouquet garni.

Add the sugar, citric acid, saffron and salt to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Here I used dried organic navy beans which I bought at Nature’s Glory.

If you don’t have time to soak the beans overnight, you can use canned beans. It can be hard to find navy/cannellini/flageolet beans, but I’ve seen them at Carrefour and Cold Storage, as well as at health food stores like Eat Organic and Nature’s Glory. Basically, check the stores which stock more western ingredients.

With navy and cannnellini beans being more unusual products in Singapore, even the non-organic canned ones only come in relatively expensive foreign brands. The good news is that tinned, organic navy and cannnellini beans are available at about the same price as non-organic ones :), S$2.30 per tin for Eden brand. Other organic brands cost about a dollar more.

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6/12/8 Update:

Tip 1: Make a large batch, divide into serving portions and freeze. Defrost as necessary.

Tip 2: Aside from eating baked beans with bread (gluten-free bean bread for me) and rice cakes, it’s also good with rice. Especially quick and easy if you have cooked rice on hand at all times in the fridge or freezer.

Recently, I enjoyed a midnight snack of Japanese rice and homemade baked beans, topped with strips of Japanese nori seaweed — delicious!

Gluten-free pumpkin muffins with carob topping

Here’s another experiment with alternative flours and this one is actually gluten-free, adapted from The Best Wheat and Gluten Free Baking Book. This is my first completely wheat and gluten-free recipe made with alternative flours intended to mimic the result of wheat flour.

I didn’t have the exact combination of flours used in the book’s recipe for Squash Muffins, so I improvised from things I had in the kitchen, and I was pleasantly surprised by the palatable result. So you too should not shy away from experimenting with alternative flour mixes. To be on the safe side, I added 1 tsp of xantham gum, which not required in the original recipe.

The original also calls for pure cocoa powder, which I replaced with carob powder.

The pumpkin is such a versatile ingredient – from savoury dishes to sweet desserts, that I often like to have one lying around in the fridge as a staple, which explains the frequency of pumpkin recipes on this blog.

gluten-freecarobpumpkinmuffins-0.jpg

WET INGREDIENTS
170g butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups pumpkin, cooked and mashed — i didn’t have enough so made up the remainder with pureed canned pears (which I have frozen in ice cube trays for easy usage) and 1/2 cup of red lentil dip. The latter was added by accident as I thought it was pureed pear! I wasn’t concerned about the mix-up though, remember how Jessica Seinfeld puts all sorts of vegetables into sweet cakes in her Deceptively Delicious recipes.

DRY INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup sugar [reduced to 1/4 cup]

1 1/2 cups brown rice flour
1/2 cup oat flour
1/2 tapioca flour
1/2 cup sweet potato flour

3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp xantham gum
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup raisins, coated in a bit of flour to prevent them sinking in the batter
1/2 cup hulled sunflower or pumpkin seeds, oven dried and ground in a coffee grinder

TOPPING
2 Tbs carob powder
2 Tbs butter [I guessed the amount, and ended up with probably about twice that amount!]
2 Tbs cinnamon
2 Tbs brown sugar

1) Preheat oven to 200°C and grease muffin tins.
2) Beat butter and sugar until light & fluffy.
3) Beat eggs and add into butter/sugar mixture one tablespoon at a time and beat well after each addition.
4) Add mashed pumpkin and mix well.
5) Sift the dry ingredients together to mix thoroughly.
6) Add dry ingredients, raisins and ground seeds to wet mixture. Mix well
7) Spoon into muffin tins,
8) Spoon on topping mixture.
9) Bake in lower third of oven at 200°C for 20 minutes or until well done.

Verdict: The flours I used seem to have a relatively neutral taste and this muffin tastes less ‘odd’ than the Kamut cranberry muffins. The carob topping seemed far too liquid, although it hardened nicely. Could have done without the carob topping. Can’t detect pumpkin taste. I like the way the ground seeds add body and protein to this muffin.

Incidentally, I recently came across this excellent baking blog, Pattycake.ca, that includes many recipes for those facing gluten-free restrictions (and other special diets). Like me, the author enjoys the creative challenge of food restrictions!

Kamut cranberry muffins

Kamut is another wheat substitute I’ve just tried. It’s supposed to be an ancient variety of durum wheat and replaces wheat easily in recipes. Kamut is a trademarked name for this strain.

I got some Bob’s Red Mill brand kamut flour, which can be found in health food shops and Marketplace supermarkets.

For my first kamut recipe, I also wanted to use the cranberries I had in the fridge, and fortunately I found this kamut cranberry muffin recipe. I omitted the orange peel and replaced the honey with light agave syrup.

It also happens to be a buttermilk-based muffin recipe, which is similar to my current preferred basic muffin recipe. You can see my other buttermilk muffin recipes here. As buttermilk is rather expensive in Singapore, I always substitute it with milk+citric acid or cream of tartar (as I’ve described here), or use some of the yoghurt I already have in the fridge.

I jazzed up these muffins with some inspiration from this kamut raisin walnut muffin recipe: I added a crumble topping made from kamut flour, sugar and butter (same as the recipe but I omitted the walnuts as I didn’t have any).

Verdict:

Buttermilk muffins generally give a good texture so no problems there. The taste is discernable from wheat, but still very palatable. With the crumble topping, this muffin is sweeter than than the sugar-free muffins I tend to make, and cranberries provided a welcome change to the usual raisins, so this was a sweet treat rather than just a solid tummy-filler.

Kamut flour is quite expensive though – a 567g (20oz) packet costing over S$5 would probably only last me two batches of muffins, so I don’t think I will be using it as a staple flour.

Okara sponge cake

Here’s another way to use the leftover lees from making soya bean milk, as well as a way to work with alternatives to wheat flour. This recipe from Shurtleff’s Book of Tofu doesn’t do away with wheat flour entirely, though, so it’s more for those who are interested in some degree of food rotation rather than those with a true wheat intolerance problem.

okaraspongecake-0.jpg

Ingredients

1/2 cup wholewheat flour
1tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup fresh okara [if using dried okara, add about 3/4 cup of soya bean milk to reconstitute to consistency of fresh okara]
3 eggs, separate yolks and white
4 tablespoons honey [replaced with light agave syrup]
1/2 tsp vanilla

Method

1) Sift together dry ingredients.
2) Beat egg yolks, then combine with okara, honey and vanilla.
3) Stir dry ingredients into egg-okara mixture.
4) Whisk egg whites till stiff peaks form. Fold gently into the rest of the mixture.
5) Spoon into lightly oiled pan and bake at 200°C. If making cupcakes, they will take at least 20mins or until toothpick comes out clean. The high temperature gives a strong browning effect to the cake.

You can see I made this into cupcakes, which is what I normally do with cake recipes. It’s easy to freeze the batch and take out one or two for a snack bento. I usually wrap them individually in paper towels which soak up any moisture from defrosting cakes, and also help to keep them from drying out should I decide to microwave them before eating. Most of the time though, cupcakes and muffins which defrost on their own inside my snackbox taste great without any microwaving at the time of eating.

Next time, I won’t use paper casings. As there’s no fats in this cake, it sticks like crazy to the paper :P.

okaraspongecake-1.jpg

The texture is distinctive, more bouncy than normal cakes and also light and airy. It reminds me of some Chinese New Year mini sponge cake. Perhaps this is the kind of texture that’s created when no fats are used. It’s also flavourful without being sweet. A good change from same old muffins in my snack bento.

Spelt pumpkin muffins (no sugar)

Here’s my first experiment with non-wheat flour. It really doesn’t taste very different, but that’s because spelt is actually a variety of wheat. Even if you don’t have an outright wheat intolerance problem, food rotation is a good idea.

I came up with this recipe after comparing the Pumpkin muffin recipes from the following books:
Diana Linfoot, Muffin Magic (Perth, Western Australia: Diana Linfoot, 1990)
Miriam Kasin Hospodar, Heaven’s Banquet: Vegetarian Cooking for Lifelong Health the Ayurveda Way
Mary Ann and Mace Wenniger, The Best-Ever Wheat and Gluten Free Baking Book

Spelt is not gluten-free so there really was no need for the last book, but it was still interesting to note the spices, raisins and nuts as well as orange juice used as milk replacement in the recipe (no citrus juices in large quantities for me – high in salicylates).

Both the vegetarian and gluten-free books’ muffin recipes use buttermilk or yoghurt, and I’ve found I prefer the texture from this mix than the old recipe I was using. I also use 2 eggs now instead of the 1 egg I did before.

The Ayurvedic book also melted ghee, butter or oil interchangeably for muffins, so I opened the first tin of ghee I’ve ever used . I already had it sitting in the cupboard, waiting to be experimented with.

For the flour mix, you can replace up to half a cup out of a total of two cups with alternative non-gluten flours.

You don’t need any sugar as the pumpkin, raisins and walnuts give this plenty of flavour.

speltpumpkinmuffins-0.jpg

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups wholegrain spelt flour
1/2 cup oat flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon

2 eggs
1/4 cup melted ghee
3/4 cup yoghurt
1/4 cup water

1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (if you have extra you can freeze it)

1 cup chopped walnuts, lightly roasted by dry-frying without oil in a skillet over low heat – you may want to sieve out the tiny pieces which get burnt during the roasting process
1/2 cup sultanas

1) Sift together dry ingredients. This is important to combine the leavening agents and flours properly. If they are not evenly mixed, there will be large holes in your muffins. I often have a problem sifting wholegrain flours with leavening agents because the large flakes in wholegrain flour don’t go through the sieve and I can’t get at the smaller clumps of baking powder/soda to break them up and press them through the mesh. Right now, I’m trying to get round the problem by using my sieve which has a coarser mesh.

2) Mix wet ingredients together. Put the eggs in last, because if you mix raw eggs with hot melted butter you will get cooked egg (yes, this happened to me before!).

3) Mix the pumpkin puree thoroughly with the wet ingredients. I like to use a whisk for the wet ingredients.

4) Coat the raisins and nuts with flour to prevent them from sinking in the batter whilst baking.

5) Mix all the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients all at once quickly and lightly with just a few strokes. It’s ok if there mixture is clumpy.

6) Mix in the raisins & nuts.

7) Put into greased muffin tins. Paper casing is unnecessary. I have discovered that unless the cake has a high fat content (such as this cake recipe), it will stick to the casing. Pour water into any unused holes in the muffin tin to keep the tin from warping, and to produce steam which helps to create crispy tops on the muffins.

8) Bake at 180°C for at least 20 mins, or until toothpick comes out clean and muffins are fragrant.

Pumpkin loaf cake

A while back I noted my unpleasant reaction to Dole bananas. While I suspect the intolerance is specific to certain strains of banana, I have been avoiding all bananas to be on the safe side.

At the same time, I’ve been dying to have grandma’s wonderful banana cake again. After cracking my head as to a suitable replacement for banana (what has the same consistency?), I decided to try pumpkin.

pumpkin-loaf-0.jpg

And the result was fabulous!! The taste had the same underlying flavours as the banana version, but with an added creamy richness from the pumpkin.

I used wholewheat flour, which gave a slightly gritty texture that my friend mistook for semolina/sugee.

Instead of the 115g instructed by the original recipe, I put in 60g — definitely more than sweet enough. Although my tendency is to reduce the sugar as much as possible in most recipes, I recently read that sugar grains help to create pockets of air that make the cake light and airy when baked. So far using a little as 1/4 the recommended amount of sugar has worked well for me, but I wonder if my baking would have turned out with better texture more of the time if I wasn’t so radical with the sugar reduction.

I used quite a lot of pumpkin, probably equal to the volume of two bananas. This produced a close-textured cake that was at the same time extremely soft and moist. Will definitely be doing this one again!

Chef Chan at the National Museum & cooking lectures/classes

I’ve been trying out dim sum recipes (steamed radish cake, water chestnut fritters and chewy pumpkin cake) from the cookbook by chef, Chan Chen Hei, without any idea who he is.

But I’ve just discovered that he’s opened a new restaurant at the National Museum of Singapore (the same place with this food history exhibit that features traditional coconut graters among other things). Not that I’ll be able to try it out… I’ve stayed far, far away from any kind of Chinese restaurant after single-mouthful tasters left me feeling unwell for an entire week, on more than one occasion.

Anyway, Chef Chan will be co-presenting a lecture at the museum on ‘Ancient Chinese Food’ with Huang Zhuolun 黃卓倫, the food writer from Lianhe Zaobao, on Sat, 20 Sep 08 from 4-5pm. Get the full details at the National Museum website‘s section on Lectures on Food & Culture. There are other sessions on tea (16 Aug) and chocolate (29 Aug) as well.

If you’re into learning about food and cooking but relate more to organic, healthy and holistic instead, the hands-on classes on tofu & okara, fermented foods, raw food, vegetarian cooking, baking bread (no oven necessary), traditional Chinese snacks and spreads made from nuts, seeds & fruits, then the sessions at Wholesome Living look quite exciting.

I’ve not been for any food classes before so if have any experiences to share, do leave a comment :).

All about scones

Scones are one of those inherently plain staples that you can add as much or as less little topping to, and which can be made sweet or savoury. That makes them ideal for those with food sensitivities as the whole family can enjoy the scones, customised to each individual. I’ve also turned to plain scones and muffins as bread alternatives when candidiasis has forced me to stay off yeasted breads.

I love scones when there’s nice thick cream available (Carrefour is a good source, in the form of the house brand crème frâiche), topped with a little bit of jam (my vote goes to Meridian brand organic fruit spreads, which have no added sugar and are particularly low in total sugars – as much as half of standard jams or even other organic brands) and enjoyed with a cup of strong English tea (my secret: Marks and Spencer tea bags, especially Red Label or Gold Label, and works out cheaper than standard supermarket brands). Recently, I tried out a few different scone recipes, including a new method I’ve never used before.

The first batch of scones I made were based on this recipe from my grandmother’s notebooks. omitting the sugar and salt. Comparing with Delia’s Smith’s recipe, the amount of butter looked too little to me, so I used a total of 50g butter. I’ve already written a fair bit about the method of making scones here, so please have a look.

N.B. I always make my scones with wholemeal flour. Sometimes I use all wholemeal, the scones here have been made with half wholemeal-half plain flour. The appropriate amount of baking powder to add is 4g (approx. 1tsp) per 100g of flour. Be careful: the same volume of wholemeal and plain flours weigh in differently.

You’ll notice in the photo that my scones were hexagonal in shape. That’s because I used a honeycomb scone cutter (which I’ve described here) that saves you having to roll out the leftover edges again and again. Each time you roll out the dough, it gets more tough too.

The scones came out OK. Even internal texture, dense in the way that scones should be but maybe a little too heavy. The bread-like consistency of this batch could also have been due to the fact that I used high-protein wholemeal bread flour because my packet was expiring and had to be used up quickly.

When I made scones again the following week, I decided to try out an interesting alternative method, which I saw on an America’s Test Kitchen free online video. In this method, the block of butter is frozen, then grated, and the grated bits then quickly mixed into the flour, without rubbing in. After adding the milk to make a dough and rolling it out, more grated butter is sprinkled evenly over the rolled out dough. Make sure that all your ingredients, not just the butter, are very cold.

Similar to making puff pastry, the dough is then folded in half and rolled out again, then put in the freezer to chill. After a short while, repeat the process by sprinkling more grated frozen butter, folding over and rolling out again, then put it back into the freezer.

Reading the buttermilk biscuits recipe in Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, I’ve just learnt more about this method:

This dough is rolled and folded repeatedly before it is cut into biscuits, a technique referred to as lamination. Laminating a dough in this manner creates layers that add extra flakiness and height to the finished biscuit. Try to make as few scraps as possible. After cutting, you can reroll the dough scraps and cut out more biscuits, but the biscuits made from the trimmings are usually a little less tender than the first ones.

As I didn’t have the exact quantities of butter from the video, I adapted this cheese & garlic scones recipe I have used with great success many times. Instead of the 1/2 cup grated cheese, I measured out the same amount of grated butter. The main problem is that in the hot Singapore weather, grated butter bits melt faster than you can say ‘frozen butter’, which a big problem as you need to prevent the butter from melting in order to get the desired flaky texture.

When you take the dough out from the freezer after it’s chilled, roll out and shape the dough into a rectangular piece about 1/2-inch thick, this time, you can add dried fruit (raisins, blueberries, cranberries etc), distributing them evenly over the dough surface.

Fold the rectangle into thirds, so that it resembles a sort of loaf shape. Slice the loaf into pieces to shape the scones. I much prefer this method of shaping scones to using a cutter. It’s messy to keep having to roll out the dough and be left with odd bits, not to mention the problem of overworking the dough through repeated rolling out. Another method of shaping I use is to pat the dough into a round and cut into wedges.

Bake as normal. Recommended hot oven of 220°C for about 10 minutes or until golden and fragrant.

As you can see from the photo, the results here were distinctive in the lighter, flaky texture produced by the butter and puff pastry method. I loved it! According to the video, the trick is in really, really cold butter and dough, and quick, light handling.

The original recipe included plenty of sugar as well so that this scone is more like eating a piece of cake, without any extra cream, butter, jam that needs to be added when serving.

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