Natural food colourings II

You may have already seen my earlier posting on natural food colourings here.

Since then, I came across this interesting video podcast from Curbly- DIY Design Community on natural colourings for Easter eggs, which suggests:

• For blue, use red cabbage
• For red, try whole beets (not canned), cherries, or cranberries
• For light green, use spinach or fresh green herbs
• For tan, brew some strong coffee, tea, or a handful of cumin seeds
• For yellow, try turmeric (a spice) and yellow onion skins
• For olive green, use red onion skins (the color is produced by a reaction with the vinegar)
• For purple, grape juice or frozen blueberries.

Moving from American Easter eggs to Japanese lunchboxes, Maki of Just Bento has also written on natural ways to add colour to your food, based on suggestions from the bento-making community via Japanese-language websites such as

In summary, some of the foods used are:

Orange: salmon, carrot, paprika
Pink: ume vinegar, sakuraebi (small dried shrimp), red cabbage liquid with lemon juice
Purple: red cabbage liquid, purple potato powder
Blue: red cabbage juice with baking soda, purple potato powder, pickled eggplant liquid
Yellow: mashed kobocha (Japanese pumpkin), curry powder, turmeric, egg yolk
Green: mashed up edamame beans, peas broccoli or spinach
Brown: inarizushi skins, dark soya sauce
Black: nori seaweed
Grey: shirasuboshi (tiny little semi-dried fish)

And also how red cabbage prepared in different ways can produce purple, blue, red and brown colours! For full instructions, go to the original Just Bento post.

Ricotta cheesecake

Cheesecake C

You’ve seen the buckwheat & okara pie crust and got a visual hint of the cheesecake there already :). This was my first cheesecake ever and will probably be my last for quite some time to come.

Not because the results were unsatisfactory – – quite the contrary — but because (a) it’s not often I’ll have unwanted homemade biscuits on hand (I certainly hope not!) to make the crust and (b) the cream cheese and ricotta cheese cost me a rather steep S$18, and they were simply supermarket cheeses (if the cake had been a failure, I would have cried at the wasted expensive ingredients!). Cheese has never been cheap in Singapore and the prices of dairy products are going up tremendously due to a worldwide shortage.

Ricotta isnt’t all that common and quite often it comes in flavoured varieties full of additives. I ended up with a plain organic ricotta from Naturally Marketplace at Vivocity, if I remember correctly, but it was no more expensive than non-organic ricotta I’d seen in other Cold Storage supermarkets. [Shopping tip: gourmet delicatessens sometimes stock cheeses at about the same price as better supermarket cheeses, but which are much better quality.]

The usual Philadelphia cream cheese in blocks is fine though it’s good to always check the label for preservatives. Earlier on, I mentioned my intolerance to mozarella and cheddar but fortunately soft white cheeses such as the ones used in this cake can be all right for those who are intolerant to the amines and glutamates in hard yellow cheeses.

It took me a long time to get round to making this recipe because often I didn’t have enough time to manage recipe of this level of complexity — when it’s important to have a calm frame of mind to follow instructions carefully, pay attention to the processes and changing foods and be able to deal with any unexpected things that crop up. There was one day when I thought I would make the cheesecake, only to discover that it required a springform pan (didn’t have one) and two large eggs (only had one). Quite often, I only have a limited block of time in which I have to produce something edible or else go hungry for the next few days. At such times, you just want a foolproof, no-fuss recipe.

This recipe came from Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America. There are certainly simpler cheesecake recipes out there (such as Harumi’s “foolproof” Japanese cheesecake recipe). The description for this recipe said that the use of ricotta produced a lighter cheesecake and I thought it might be similar to those those light fluffy Japanese cheesecakes that are commonly sold in Singapore (always in an oval shape!). As you can see from the photo, it isn’t one of those and still has a dense and heavy texture.


1 recipe pie crust
2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese [I used the whole tub, about 1 cup because I didn’t have enough cream cheese; whole-milk ricotta stays more tender when baked]
1/4 cup sugar [reduced from 1/2 cup]
1 lb cream cheese [2 full blocks of cream cheese would be just nice, but I had only 1.5 blocks of cream cheese after using some as a spread for the disastrous buckwheat biscuits]
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice [which I replaced with a pinch of citric acid dissolved in water – this is a good replacement for those trying to avoid the high level of salicylates in citrus fruits]
1 Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs bread flour
3 Tbs unsalted butter, melted and kept warm


1) Preheat oven to 160ºC , a slow oven. The moderately-low temperature (and water bath) ensure that the eggs are not over-cooked and that they bake into a smooth, moist texture. Baking at an excessively high cooking method, cheesecakes are actually classified as puddings.

2) Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan and wrap the outside carefully with aluminium foil. This is to prevent water from seeping in when the cake is baked in a water bath. Initially, I thought I could get away with the existing baking tins in my home but soon realised that this fragile cake probably shouldn’t be tipped upside down to be released from the pan! Phoon Huat of course had a variety of springform pans but they were not cheap: an 8-inch pan cost about S$21 (then again, even simple doughnut baking trays can cost that much!).

3) Prepare the biscuit pie crust in the springform pan.

4) Purée the ricotta and sugar with a food processor or handheld mixer until smooth. 3-5 mins.

5) Using the handheld mixer, combine the cream cream cheese with the ricotta mixture until smooth, about 10 mins.

6 ) Add the eggs and mix on low speed until very smooth, scraping down the bowl thoroughly.

7) Add vanilla extract, lemon juice, cornstarch and flour to the batter and blend on medium speed until smooth.

8) Gradually add the melted butter, mixing until evenly blended.

9) Pour the batter over the biscuit crust in the springform pan. Smoothen the surface. Drop the pan onto the kitchen counter from a height of 1 inch to get rid of any air bubbles.

10) Place the pan in a shallow baking dish on a pulled-out oven rack and add 1 inch of hot water. Carefully slide the rack back into the oven and bake until the edges are set and start to pull away from the side, and the top is just starting to brown. The centre of the cake should still be soft. 50-60 mins.

1 1) Remove the cake from the water bath and cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate for at least 3 hrs or overnight before unmoulding from the springform pan.

As a big fan of cheesecake, I was extremely pleased with the result. It tasted great, and despite being less sweet than bought cheesecakes, it managed to please the tastebuds of the rest of my family too. Eating this gave me tremedous satisfaction because my conscientious attention to the cake-making process paid off. And I’m savouring this because as I mentioned, who knows when I’ll ever attempt this again.

Buckwheat & okara pie crust

It’s quite amazing how this wonderful discovery was the result of a kitchen disaster that looked like this:

Soba Boro disaster

They are Japanese-style buckwheat cookies, soba boro (recipes here and here), that went wrong. The cookie dough was way too dry and I ended up adding a lot more oil to the mixture and when they came out of the oven, they were rock hard. Well, still edible but aside from the unpalatable hardness, the unrefined buckwheat flour and wholewheat flour which I used produced a coarse, rough texture, and the cookies were pretty tasteless. I did manage to eat up half the batch by slathering them with cream cheese and occasionally drizzling honey-tasting Organic Blue Agave Nectar.

However my plan was to recycle them into a pie or cheesecake crust that’s normally made with graham crackers or digestive biscuits. I wouldn’t want to use any commercially-prepared biscuits and it would be a shame to use some delicious cookies I had gone through the trouble of baking, so this was an ideal opportunity to bake a biscuit crust.

This is adapted from the graham cracker crust recipe from Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America.

Buckwheat Okara crust

Ingredients (for one pie crust)

Recipe calls for 10-12 graham crackers – I used the amount of cookies I had, as shown in the photo above.
3/4 Tbs sugar [reduced from 2 Tbs]
4 Tbs/60g unsalted butter, melted


I crushed the biscuits in two steps. Firstly by putting them into a plastic bag and using a rolling pin to smash them into smaller pieces. As the biscuits were so hard, the sharp crumb corners tended to pierce the plastic bag, so I wrapped the bag with a towel whilst smashing the biscuits. The smaller biscuit pieces could then be ground into a fine crumb with a food processor.

As the required amount of crumbs was 1.5 cups, I made up the shortfall with okara (leftover from the last batch of soya bean milk I made), which I also crushed using the food processor.

I then mixed the crumbs together with the sugar and butter. It looked a bit dry so I added another half tablespoon of sunflower oil.

After greasing a pie pan (or rather the springform pan I was going to use to make a cheesecake), I compressed the crumbs into the base using the bottom of a glass. Voila!

In the final cheesecake, the crust tasted great with perfect texture :).

Roasted soya beans

There are a million and one ways to enjoy soya beans that I’ve never tried before and many of them are described in this book that is often recommended as the bible about soya beans: The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff. It’s partially available online at GoogleBooks, or else many of the community public libraries in Singapore have a copy; check the online catalogue.

The book is not just about tofu, but all kinds of soya bean products, the process of making them – and how to do it yourself (yay!).

Soya beans roasted

Roasted soya beans are a great option to satisfy those TV-snacking cravings, and an alternative to the usual nuts. You can choose to salt or sweeten them or simply eat them plain, as I do.

In Japan, they are called irimame and enjoyed on the first day of the lunar new year. As roasted soya beans represent good fortune, a Japanese tradition is to throw them into the rooms in the house and also out the window. When coated with sugar, starch and nori seaweed, they are called Mishima Mame. (Read more here.)

Ground roasted soya beans is kinako ‘flour’, used for many Japanese wagashi snacks. It is deliciously fragrant and nutty; a super substitute for ground peanuts.


1 cup dried soya beans –> makes 1 cup roasted soya beans

Rinse and soak the beans for 5 to 6 hrs. If salty beans are desired, add salt to the soaking water.

Drain beans and dry them for 1 hr before roasting. Use towels or paper napkins to help soak up the water.

Transfer to unoiled baking trays in a layer 1-bean thick only.

Roast in slow oven of 100ºC-120ºC for 2 to 2.5 hrs or until beans are light brown. Check that the beans inside the lighter-coloured skins do not turn dark brown.

Shake the pans once every 15 mins for the first hour then every 30 mins.

Once done, remove the beans from the oven. They will still be soft, but will turn crunchy when cool.

I made some mistakes along the way by not letting the soya beans dry out enough before putting them in the oven, and piling too many into the same baking tray. As a result, the beans were still soft and moist inside after 3hrs in the oven. I ate a handful of these late in the evening and got bad indigestion that kept me up half the night!

My beans were easily rescued the next morning by dry roasting them in a pan on the stove. This time the beans became noticeably shrunken and were completely dry and crunchy.

The heat was a bit too high hence the burnt look on the soya beans in my photo. You’ll also notice the flaking skins, which come off very easily, just as with roasted groundnuts.

Steamed radish cake 蘿蔔糕


Ever since I started experimenting with different foods in an attempt at food rotation, I’ve been thinking of cooking this dish. It’s made from Chinese white radish, also known as daikon (and most confusingly, can be called ‘carrot’ when translated into English, as I’ve noted here).

What held me up was trying to think of substitutes for the usual preserved meats and dried products that usually go into this dish: laap cheong Chinese sausages, laap yok waxed pork, dried shrimps, dried mushrooms. Without the seasoning of oyster sauce, soya sauce and sugar, and no flavourful ingredients I wasn’t sure how this dish would work at all.

In the end I just went ahead and made it absolutely plain and believe it or not, it was absolutely delicious! There are no fillings in this lor bak gou at all, and no seasoning apart from a tiny pinch of salt, but the familiar taste is unmistakably that of lor bak gou .

Everything is in the additional toppings which can be adjusted to suit individual taste, so those family members who want to load up on laap cheong and bottled chilli sauce can do so as well, leaving the rest of us to enjoy this in a more simple fashion.

The toppings shown in the photo are chopped spring onion, homemade fried shallots, sesame seed furikake and sesame oil — my favourite way to garnish this basic lor bak gou.

This dish is suitable for bento, and the toppings can be packed into dedicated bento condiments containers, or even just wrapped up in folded aluminium foil. Personally, I prefer to eat lor bak gou warm and I didn’t try it in any bento this time round.

When I compared different recipes, the interesting thing was that they all used a different combination of flours in very different quantities. For example, for approx. 600g of radish:
a) 450g rice flour + 50g tapioca flour
b) 1400g rice flour + 80g tapioca flour
c) 450g rice flour + 1.5 Tbs corn flour + 1.5 Tbs wheat starch
d) 280g rice flour + 40g cornflour
e) 200g rice flour + 40g wheat starch
f) 150g rice flour

[To find out more about these types of flours, have a look at my info page on flours for Chinese & Japanese snacks.]

I decided to go with the quantities in what appears to be the most reliable of my cookbooks, Dim Sum by Chan Chen Hei, a renown chef who’s worked at top restaurants and hotels in Hong Kong and Singapore. The method was adapted from combining instructions in various cookbooks.

500g-600g white radish
200g rice flour
40g wheat starch
1 litre water
salt to taste

1) Peel and shred the radish (using a ceramic peeler and ceramic julienne slicer, if you have them ^_^). You can also chop the radish into strips, it’s said that these larger chunks give a better texture to the final dish.

2) Mix the flours with just enough water to form a smooth, liquid paste.

3) Pour the remaining water into a pot, put in the radish, season with salt to taste, bring to the boil and cook until it has turned transparent and soft.

4) Reduce the heat to low or turn off the heat completely and stir in the flour mixture. Combine thoroughly until thick and sticky.

5) Grease a container to hold the radish batter for steaming. If you wish, you can line the container with cling film to make it easier to remove the cooked radish cake intact. You can use any dish suitable for steaming, or even a disposable aluminium cake tin (cling film not needed, because you can transport, store and serve the radish cake in it, no need to remove the cooked product from the container) . In my experience, try to avoid anything that’s too thick and heavy or which does not conduct heat well.

6) Pour in radish mixture and smoothen the top. Preheat the steamer and steam on high heat for at least 30 minutes. It could take as long as 1hr, depending in the quantity and shape of the radish cake. Test the middle with skewer or chopstick; if it doesn’t stick, the dish is done.

There will be a watery liquid on the surface. Just leave it as it will be absorbed as the radish cake cools and prevents the surface from becoming dried out and cracked.

7) As the cake cools, it will firm up. You can then slice, garnish and serve.

Optionally, you can pan fry the slices until brown and fragrant, then garnish and serve.

Personally, I think this tastes best when hot. I kept it in the fridge and heated it up before eating. However, I found that it did not microwave very well. The outer edges would be hot and the centre still hard and cold, so I ended up having to reheat by steaming. Which isn’t really a bad thing since we should try to avoid the additional EMF exposure from microwaves — not to mention the questionable effect eating microwaved food (read more here and here), if we weren’t already so addicted to their convenience.

We have an electric stove at home, and it’s slower to heat up and cool down than a gas stove. My personal method to speed up the steaming/boiling is as follows:
1) Boil sufficient water for steaming in the kettle.
2) Whilst the kettle is boiling, heat up the pot on the stove by putting just enough water to cover the base.
3) When kettle has boiled, pour contents into the pot, which should be at boiling point by now.
4) Invest in good quality pots as the heat conduction is noticeably superior and the contents will boil faster.

16/4/08 Update: Just found this video of a cooking show demonstrating how to make traditional Hong Kong-style steamed radish cake, which is characterised by Chinese sausages (in Taiwanese dialect with Chinese subtitles).

13/6/08 Update: see also my steamed Chinese yam cake.

Alternative method for separating eggs

The most common ways of separating the egg white and yolk are to use an egg separator or by tipping the egg between the two halves of cracked shell and letting the white run into a bowl whilst keeping the yolk cupped in a shell-half.

Egg separators come in various designs. The most common type is a shallow dish with slits along the upper edge to allow the white to flow out leaving only the yolk sitting at the bottom. The wire mesh ones are probably much more effective, and I’ve just come across this novelty type. There are also various patent applications for new designs of egg separators.

However, I don’t have an egg separator and have often used the shell-tipping method, which my grandmother taught me decades ago.

Then several years back, my grandmother found a much more convenient method. We saw on TV an advertisement for special Omega-3 enriched eggs and the ad showed how the yolks could be removed simply by scooping them away from the white with one’s fingers. Grandma wasn’t convinced that only “Omega-3 eggs” had these special yolks and so she tried it with regular eggs. Voila! Success!


Recently, having had to whisk up eggs whites separately for some recipes, I’ve had to do a fair bit of separating. The tipping from shell to shell method has required much more care (in order not to pierce the yolk in the course of moving the yolk from one half to the other) and seems to leave a fair bit of white around the yolk. Most probably, the latter would also be a problem with dish-type egg separators if the dish is much bigger than the actual size of your yolk. Especially so when using regular supermarket eggs in Singapore which tend to be on the small side.

Anyway, no need to spend money on a dedicated egg separator; the hand-scooping method is much faster, easier, less chance of breaking the yolk and takes out only the yolk, leaving the maximum of white behind. Only more messy for your hands . (And I’m not the only one who recommends it — see here.)

Steamed cupcakes: fatt gou/ huat kueh 發糕

I’m back to experimenting with steamed Asian snacks. These ‘exploded’ steamed cupcakes (which probably accounts for their name in Chinese which means ‘risen cake’) are quite common. In Singapore, they are usually referred to by the Hokkien pronunciation, huat kueh, but I’m more at home with the Cantonese name, fatt gou, which is also used in the Malaysian Chinese bilingual cookbooks.

Fatt Gou Huat Kueh

While all the Malaysian Chinese recipes I’ve found use yeast, the recipe in this Taiwanese book of Chinese cakes used only baking powder – much easier and also avoids triggering possible food sensitivities to yeast I might have.


350g low-protein flour /cake flour
150g wheat starch 澄粉
20g baking powder
125g sugar [reduced from 350g]
1 egg white [see my method of separating eggs]
50ml oil [I used coconut oil for flavour]
250-270ml water

For brown-coloured cakes: cocoa powder to taste
For pink-coloured cakes: 150g strawberry jam


1. In a bowl, mix the white sugar, egg white, oil and water until evenly combined.

2. Mix the cake flour, wheat starch and baking powder in a large bowl. At this point, I noticed a slight sourish, sort of chemical smell coming from the flour mixture but I’m still not sure what it was.

3. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix until there are no more lumps of flour. Unlike normal wheat flour-only batter, the addition of wheat starch makes this batter clump together more easily and therefore can be cleanly divided

4. Divide into 2 or three portions depending on number of colours/flavours desired. Add in the cocoa powder and/or strawberry jam to one portion each and mix well. I made cocoa and plain.

After adding cocoa powder to the batter, it because a bit more stiff, and this produced a better result. After trying out one batch of mixed cocoa & plain cakes, I realised this and added more cake flour to my white batter.

5. Pour the batter into cupcake moulds. I made three sizes: large (round and square), mini and bite-sized, using a combination of silicone baking cups and an aluminium tray with bite-sized shapes which I lined with paper cups.

Fatt Gou mixed

Do not use square moulds as I did. None of the square cakes was able to produce the desired flower-shaped ‘explosion’ on top, as you can see below.

Fatt Gou square

6. Steam the cakes. IMPORTANT: the water must be at a rolling boil, on high heat and do add sufficient water to steam the cakes for 15 minutes. Given the amount of dough I had, I had to steam the cupcakes in three batches (could have squeezed into two lots if I had been organised enough).

The first thing is that I was very pleased with the successful splitting of the cake tops, unlike with the brown sugar steamed buns 黑糖饅頭 I made some time back. Only for the round shapes though, as I noted above.

If you look at the second photo above, particularly the large brown cake, you’ll notice the cakes have an attractive glossy sheen. This effect is created by the wheat starch. The glossy skins can be easily peeled off, just as with char siew pau.

Texture-wise, it had a distinctive very crumbly texture that reminded me of Chinese steamed buns I’d eaten in shops and restaurants before, perhaps char siew pau skin. It was great to produce a kind of texture I’d never made before, yet one that was immediately recognisable to my palate.

However, that strange smell from the flour mixture gave the white cakes a slightly odd taste. This was masked by the cocoa powder in the brown ones. So perhaps one should avoid making these cakes in ‘plain’ flavour. But this also raises a worrying issue – just what is that smell/taste? The first thing that came to mind is that chemicals are often used to bleach and process flours. Wheat starch probably requires more processing than regular flour so is a likely candidate for chemical additives. I have used wheat starch before without noticing anything (such as here), but then again it was only in much smaller quantities. While I have been eating these cakes with no reactions, the idea of chemical fumes from my flours is rather off-putting and certainly undesirable.

Another important point to note is that these cakes do not seem to freeze well and cannot be reheated in the microwave. Microwaving them the same way I do with all my muffins and cakes so far turned them into hard lumps with plastic skins. So you’ll need to steam them to reheat, and even this did not produce a nice texture on the inside.

While I was pleased with the shape and texture, my concerns about the wheat starch and the fact that these do not freeze/reheat well mean that they are not practical as part of my weekly bento/snack reserves.