The Estelle + Truffles = Love

A refresh of The Estelle is, so far, paying dividends.

It sounds a bit weird given it only opened three years ago, but things appear to move pretty fast in Scott Pickett’s world.

In a little over the last twelve months he’s opened Saint Crispin with Joe Grbac. Then last October, chef and business partner, Ryan Flaherty, left the business to start his own restaurant, Mr Jennings (Bridge Rd, Richmond), which coincidentally opens today… I can’t wait to check it out.

More recently, there has been an impressive renovation of the courtyard (previously home to a fire pit and suckling pig on a spit) which delivers full overhead cover and comfortable heating to increase patronage by around 30 seats and an excellent refurbishment of the amenities.

This is all topped off with the addition of Josh Pelham as Head Chef in the kitchen. Like Scott, Josh is an alumnus of Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred London restaurant, The Square, where Josh was Head Chef.

See? Whirlwind.

I dined here several weeks ago and noticed that there have also been a few alterations to the menu. What once was a choice of 5, 7 or 9 courses has become 6, 8 or 10. And gone is the ‘adventurous’ beverage pairing, which offered some more left-of-field alternatives to the more basic wine matches; like maybe a sake or a simple cocktail. Alas, making a cocktail (to order) is a far more laborious task within a very busy restaurant and relying on the next beverage match to be ready for its accompanying course is paramount. It makes sense.

As for the food, it was better. The pork jowl, apple and turnip has become my all-time favourite dish, closely followed by the Phil Howard-esque hand rolled macaroni, featuring pine mushrooms, parmesan and (in addition to a $15 supplement) a generous shaving of black truffle.

And to my not-so-subtle segue.

Last night, was the Fringe Food Festival’s fourth annual Truffle Dinner hosted by The Estelle (with the exception of last year, which was held at Saint Crispin), with truffles lovingly supplied by Madame Truffles.

The Menu

Winter staples are a perfect vehicle for the unbridled addition of truffle; rich pasta dishes, creamy sauces, under chicken skin and many other delights where buttery and cheesey goodness go hand in hand with nature’s black gold… I had a crack at a few recipes myself a few years back. And yes, we all know that high amounts of this stuff is not good for you in the long term, but The Estelle does moderation quite well and to be frank, the truffle season is very short indeed.

Truffles (Braidwood, NSW)

Last night’s menu kicked off with salty and warm – fresh from the oven – foccacia with truffled olive oil. This is opposed to the various incarnations of ‘truffle infused’ olive oils which are in most cases inferior. The olive oil was grassy and rich with the perfume from the very visible shaved truffle from Daylesford (VIC). Bagel and Pretzel mogul, Dan Taranto and I took turns seeing who could capture the most bits of shaved truffle onto our focaccia. It was a draw.

A delicious scrumpy-style cider from WA’s Custard & Co accompanied a most delicious Isle of Mull Cheddar and Truffle cheese soldier to whet our appetites. I’m not a big cider fan; my foray into fermented apple drinks was largely killed off thanks to the likes of Strongbow as a teenager. I will be heading to Wine Republic later this week to pick up a flagon (such a great choice of receptacle) or two as I am now a convert.

Cheese Soldier

The warming and satisfying Jerusalem artichoke veloute with pine mushrooms and a 63 degree egg (for 40 minutes) was topped with the nutty crunch of toasted rice and truffle from Pemberton in WA.

Jerusalem Artichoke and 63C egg

For the next course, we stayed in WA for a little longer. Western Australian marron was teamed with the most famous hand-rolled macaroni, basil and pan fried Brussels Sprout leaves. The sauce that embalmed the pasta was heavenly; rich with flavour from what I assume was the shells of the marron.

WA Marron

A quick trip from the west coast to the east coast was taken for our next course. Truffles from Braidwood (NSW) were paired with meltingly tender, slow-cooked beef shin, oyster mushrooms, miso and oyster mushroom puree, jus and a small nugget of deep-fried bone marrow.

Wagyu and all the trimmings

We closed the night closer to home, with truffle from the Yarra Valley (VIC) featuring in the (truffle infused) sponge cake and the ice cream, as well as honeycomb crumb and charred pear. I was a little apprehensive about the ice cream. I’ve had great truffle-flavoured ice cream in the past, but some former versions have been far too dominant in flavour, overpowering the other elements of the dessert and the wine. This version was quite redeeming.

Dessert

Another memorable night at The Estelle and if you’re quick, you may be able to snag a ticket to next Monday’s Truffle Dinner (details are here), which coincides with Bastille Day.

You wouldn’t think it could get any busier for Scott, but it does. There’s also a book coming out in November. Teaming up with renowned Australian food writer, Rita Erlich, Scott’s next foray delves into stories and recipes that have shaped and pay homage to his so-far 25-year journey in cooking.

I know what will be on the top of my Christmas list.

Hainanese Chicken and Rice

I’ve recently spent several months working in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs. Work-wise, it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the corporate environment in the CBD. For food and my lunch in particular, the outer south-east is a great area to sample some good fare. So beyond avoiding Sofia’s colossus pasta meals or averting the temptation of yet another six-inch Subway Club on honey oat with all the salads, extra pickles… no onion or carrot, a short drive to Glen Waverley or Box Hill in pursuit of finding the best Hainanese Chicken and Rice was a far more sporting challenge.

Hainanese Chicken from the Chinese island province of Hainan is actually known as Wenchang chicken, which is not to be confused with UK’s new wave pop group.

DanceHallDays_cover

Wenchang actually means ‘white cut’.

As the Hainanese settled throughout South-East Asia, the dish became prominent in both Malaysia and Singapore. Of course, there’s contention as to which is better; the Malaysian version, which is subtler in flavour or the Singaporean version, which features a more savoury rice. My preference is the latter.

Did I find my utopian chicken and rice? I don’t think so. Whilst I scoured the net to give me a few clues as to where I might find a really good serving of chicken and rice, I also came across some real shockers; chicken that had been boiled for far too long that resulted in tight, stringy proteins, flavourless rice, insipid or no condiments.

Surprisingly, the best and most consistent chicken and rice was from none other than China Bar on Kingsway in Glen Waverley, with its robust condiments, moist chicken and extremely flavourful rice.

Still, nothing is as rewarding as cooking it yourself and taking advantage of a quiet weekend, I could think of nothing more therapeutic than spending several hours creating this wonderful dish. Of all of the recipes I read through, there are key methods that largely remain the same, as do the core ingredients of chicken, ginger, garlic, chillies and soy sauce. Then there are the hundreds of variances in the methods and other ingredients.

Very few ingredients

Very few ingredients go a long way

This was the second time I had cooked chicken and rice and I decided to stick with Adam Liaw’s Grandmother’s recipe as my base recipe, which features in his book, Two Asian Kitchens. I’ve made a few modifications, which are largely made out of taking on some of the other techniques in other recipes plus a bit of cheating in an attempt to boost the flavour of the rice.

The Chicken:

1 whole chicken (about 1.5kg), at room temperature
a good handful of sea salt flakes
5 whole cloves garlic
5 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 tbsp sesame oil
coriander, sliced cucumber and spring onion, to serve

The Rice:

350g jasmine rice
625ml reserved chicken stock
2 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 sachet of Asian Home Gourmet Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste

Chilli Sauce:

3 red birds-eye chillies
3 red long chillies… the mild ones
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp reserved chicken stock

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil:

4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
3 tbsp peanut oil

The Dressing:

1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
50ml reserved chicken stock

One of the great tips I found was to give the chicken some love by means of an exfoliation. A handful of sea salt rubbed judiciously all over the chicken will leave you with one good looking bird. It’s amazing how much gunk is removed leaving the chicken with taught, smooth skin and a better final result.

Remember to exfoliate

Remember to exfoliate

One of the other handy tips to produce really good rice is the use of chicken fat. Trim any of the visible pieces of fat from the chicken; there’s usually a good amount inside the rear cavity and I also use the parson’s nose. Roughly chop all of the fatty bits and place them into a small saucepan and over a very low heat, in around 30-45 minutes, you should have 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat.

Don’t throw away those crispy pieces of chickeny goodness either. Season them and stack them on top of your rice as a garnish or even better, crack a beer and have yourself a most excellent beer snack to keep you going whilst you’re cooking.

Ready for some gentle cooking

Spa Bath

After your chicken’s skin rejuvenation, it’s time for a spa bath. Place the garlic cloves and ginger slices in the cavity of the chicken and place breast-side down in a saucepan that is just bigger than your chicken. Ideally you want to make enough chicken stock to cook the rice, plus the small amount required for the condiments and at least a litre left over to serve as a cleansing broth. So that’s probably around two litres of cold water to cover your chicken.

Get the heat ticking to just under a simmer and keep it going for around 20 minutes, then place a lid on your saucepan and leave it to continue cooking in the residual heat for another 30 minutes. The end result should be a perfectly, ever so just cooked chook.

Remove the chicken from the stock, drain, then place your chook onto some plastic wrap.  Rub the chicken all over with a good drizzle of sesame oil, then wrap it up snugly. It will look a little like Laura Palmer.

Your chicken is now ready to cut up when it’s time to serve. Put your stock to one side as you’ll be needing it later on.

Laura Palmer

Laura Palmer

While your chicken is cooking and resting, it’s time to get stuck into making the condiments.

To make the chilli sauce, combine the chillies, ginger, garlic, sugar and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for six birds-eye chillies, but to make this a little more kid-friendly with less heat, I used three long red chillies to keep the chilli volume without adding any more heat. Once I had a relatively smooth paste, I added the lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of the reserved chicken stock. The result is a fragrant, spicy and sweet sauce that it much needed to cut through the richness of some of the other elements.

Chilli & Ginger Paste

Chilli & Ginger Paste

To make the spring onion and ginger oil, again in your mortar, add the spring onion, ginger and salt and pound lightly with the pestle. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until it just hits smoking point and pour onto the mixture. Once the crackling and sizzling stops, combine lightly with the pestle and leave to infuse for a few minutes, giving you a punchy, yet rich condiment.

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil

The dressing for the chicken is pretty simple and serves as an integral background flavour for the chicken. Mix together the sesame oil and soy sauce with 50ml of the reserved chicken stock and add the sugar until dissolved. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for light soy. I didn’t have any, so I used normal soy. I also opted to add a touch of sweetness, hence the addition of a little sugar. You can leave it out if you want to.

My Little Secret

My Little Secret

My tweaks to the rice would most likely raise the scorn and ire of the purists, but it’s a delicious result, so I’ll stick to it. Heat your 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and the sachet of Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste, which is pretty much shallots, ginger and garlic. Cook out the paste until fragrant, then add the rice and toss until well coated and it starts to become opaque and begins to crackle… a bit like making a risotto. Add the reserved chicken stock, give it a stir and when it comes to the boil, pop the lid on, set your smallest burner to the lowest heat possible and leave your rice to cook slowly for 12-15 minutes. Try not to remove the lid and after the time is up, leave your rice to rest for a further 5-10 minutes.

The Final Result

The Final Result

To serve, slice the chicken up without hacking it into a complete mess. One day I’ll learn how to cut a chicken ‘Chinese-style’, which for me means annoying bones in every bite. Pour over the dressing and make it look pretty with some coriander and cucumber. Serve it with your most very flavourful rice, condiments and broth, which is the remaining chicken stock plus a little adjusting to the seasoning thanks to some salt and soy sauce.

Cooking Hainanese Chicken and Rice is most definitely a labour of love; given there are quite a number of steps. However, it’s more than worth the end result as it is one of those dishes that exemplifies how you can treat a very small number of ingredients with some care and respect to deliver a complete meal.

The things I love

I haven’t posted anything since last September. Time tends to get away from you a bit… family, work, moving house. One month becomes two, then six. I haven’t really been eating out as much either. A few places, but nothing new… except for a trip to New Zealand. Cibo in Parnell, just out of the Auckland CBD, was great, but I forgot to take photos, otherwise I would have written a review.

There have been a few articles of late that spruik the latest and greatest food fads, which are more or less titled [insert number here] of the [best / weirdest / latest] foods you need to eat before you die. I don’t want to think about dying in that way. On my deathbed, with tubes inserted into every orifice, connected up to a machine that goes ‘ping’, the last thing I’d be thinking about would be a truffle-filled cronut wrapped in lardo. Maybe.

But it did get me thinking about my top 5 things that I love. The things that I tend to revert back to and revere. They’re not necessarily fancy or expensive, nor would they rate too highly on someone’s culinary bucket list (some might).

My Top 5... make that 4

So, without trying to sound like John Cusack in High Fidelity, here is my all-time, desert island foodie top 5…

5. Bread
Coeliacs, look away now. I’m not talking about your standard Wonder White variety that I feed to my kids. I’m talking about bread with character. Stuff that’s been made with love. A Treat of France is a Boulangerie and Patisserie that is only a few doors down from my place. They make the best olive sour dough I’ve ever eaten. Hit that shit up with some Myrtleford Butter, Pepe Saya or at the very least, Lurpak.

Random bread pic from Google

Northcote Bakeshop make the bestest, densest fruit loaf. Cut thin and crisped up in a low oven. Forego butter and opt for a tangy, creamy blue or a perfectly ripe triple cream brie.

Toasted sandwiches also rate a mention… on Wonder White if that’s all you have. I originate from Adelaide, so it’s not a jaffle either. Nan used to make us toasties with that Kraft processed cheese that you bought in the aisle, near the Vegemite or with tinned braised steak and onion that was so hot, you couldn’t taste anything else for a week until your tongue healed.

 

Kraft Cheddar anyone?

These days, simple ham and cheese is just fine or at the very least, the perfect medium for left-overs… like the meat from the previous night’s lamb shanks with cannellini beans. The best baked bean toastie there is.

4. Coffee
I only started drinking coffee when I started my first full-time job in 1994; nearly half my life ago and of course, it was Nescafé from one of those cafébar things where one click of the dial dispensed the recommended amount.

One click or three?

Way back then, I think my three clicks into a plastic disposable cup bred my love of a strong coffee. Fortunately, my tastes in coffee have matured, as has my passion for making the best coffee I can. I use St Ali’s Steadfast Blend, (formerly known as Orthodox and before that, known as Chompy) and with my Breville Smart Grinder and Gaggia Classic, I can belt out a most very decent, rich creamy shot, time after time. It seems more satisfying with the more tactile process of making an espresso with a manual machine. People may scoff at the rest of the process. Skinny milk in my favourite rabbit mug, heated in the microwave for 70 seconds, topped with a double shot and half a teaspoon of panella sugar. Hey, that’s how I like it.

STSKFW 0.5

I also feel like a bit of a wanker when it comes to ordering my small strong skinny flat white with half a sugar. I always have this feeling that then they write STSKFW 0.5 on my coffee lid with a sharpie it could also mean stupid skanky fuck wit. I hope they don’t mean that.

3. Condiments
I know that’s a pretty broad brush to paint with, but life without condiments would be joyless and somewhat less tangy, fruity, sweet and delicious.

I moved house recently and it was a good time to take stock of what lived in my fridge. Six kinds of mustard; Sweet Alstertor Mustard (that comes in the small beer mug), which we slather on sausages to get our German on, Maille Dijon and wholegrain mustards for cooking, Masterfoods Mild English for Lily’s ham and cheese roll for school, Hot English (Colman’s, of course) and that yellow stuff you put on hotdogs.

condimentspoons

There is also Gochujang chilli paste, hoi sin, miso, pickles in many forms. Countless jars of preserves, chutneys, sauces. Hank’s Chilli Jam goes with practically everything. They will all be required at some point… maybe to make up a quick BBQ sauce for ribs with tomato sauce, mustard, plum sauce and sriracha. I also keep a big jar of homemade chimichurri sauce in the fridge too. It goes with everything. I start with this recipe from Matt Preston, but vary the heat and herbs depending on how I’m feeling at the time.

2. Asian Food

And you thought condiments was a pretty broad brush. Unfortunately there’s no better way to describe so many dishes that I love that cross Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai borders. There are probably more too. It’s safe to say that of the 14 lunches and dinners available to me per week, some form of Asian cuisine would take up at least 10 of these spots.

I love dumplings. But then if I just had dumplings on my list, I couldn’t have pho or sashimi or bibimbap or any of the meats that feature in the window of a good Chinese restaurant.

Mmm... window meats

Other favourites are Hainanese chicken and rice, Korean fried chicken (and beer) with pickles and kimchee, a laksa that blows your head off, crispy crunchy Vietnamese coleslaw and rare beef salad with roasted rice, broken rice with a perfectly cooked pork chop and a punchy nuoc cham, freshly made banh mi with lots of coriander, pickled carrot and chilli, gua bao, agedashi tofu, My discovery of the raw prawn dish, Gung Chae Nam Pla, Karē Raisu, okonomiyaki, satay, red duck curry, chicken skin yakitori… any yakitori!

Gung Chae Nam Pla

A fresh Thai dish that can nail the perfect combination of hot, sour, sweet, bitter and salty can be just as exciting as a simple and comforting congee. I love it all – I’m enjoying a Bulgogi Hot Pot for lunch even as I write this; rich, sweet stock, a little heat from chilli, slippery sweet potato noodles, tender beef… You don’t get that from a salad sandwich or something from Red Rooster.

So what’s number one? Number one is tough. There are many things I’ve missed, like beer, potatoes in many forms, good hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, pigs, fresh strawberries at their prime, roast chicken, a perfect steak, ribs… or fancy stuff like truffles or even the Chinese deliacy tong zi dan, where every spring in the city of Dongyang, eggs are boiled in the urine of young schoolboys (I’m not making this up).

Sadly, there is no number one. Yet… and this remains a top 4 for now (sorry John Cusack). Fact is that there are so many things in the culinary world that I revert back to and revere and I guess that’s part of being a so-called foodie.

Gua Bao – Part 1

I missed the beginning of the Bao phenomenon. I must have been looking the other way or sick that day. I guess they were probably made famous throughout the western world by David Chang’s momofuku Pork Buns. Here in Melbourne, Wonderbao and Bao Now turned up around 18 months ago and have been belting out these Chinese / Taiwanese / Vietnamese steamed treats. Wonderbao sticks to the more traditional fillings, whereas Bao Now opts for an ‘international’ twist, stuffing buns with buffalo chicken, bacon cheeseburger, cheesecake and so on.

I’ve had steamed buns before. Lots of times. But I have simply known them as ‘steamed pork buns’ and didn’t think anything else of it or really care. Several weeks ago I attended the launch of lil nomnoms; Melbourne’s newest food truck, dolling out Vietnamese-inspired food. At the launch, I tried my very first Gua Bao and I loved it! I liked the beer in one hand, food in the other convenience and I liked the contrast of warm, soft, sweet dough stuffed with cold, crisp, fresh ingredients. Then of course, I noticed them everywhere.

Bao means bun or bread in Chinese (and I think Vietnamese). The universal characteristic is the whiter than white, soft, steamed sweet dough. The aforementioned Chinese Bao (also known as bāozi, bau, humbow, nunu, bausak, pow or pau) is the ubiquitous steamed bun, traditionally stuffed with char sui pork. The Vietnamese Bánh Bao (meaning enveloping cake) is also a steamed bun, but traditionally filled with minced pork or chicken meat, Chinese sausage, onion, boiled egg, mushroom and other vegetables. The Japanese also have a version called Nikuman. The Filipinos have Siopao and the Thais have Salapao. I could go on. Basically one can deduce that every Asian country has their own version.

Gua Bao originates from Taiwan and the dough is rolled and steamed to form a taco / slider hybrid. It’s traditionally filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar. Tradition aside, it’s a no brainer that it also makes the perfect base for other combinations, but why you’d want to deviate from pork belly is a mystery… unless it’s duck, but more on that in Part 2.

Being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, I decided to have a go at making these for a friend’s up-and-coming dinner party. Given that there was dough involved and the more regular readers would already understand that dough and me have a strained history, I decided that there had to be several experiments to get my head around achieving perfection, or at the very least something that wouldn’t make me look inept.

Let’s start with the dough. In most recipes, it’s pretty simple; flour, water, sugar, some kind of fat, a raising agent of some description and salt. Then come all of the variants which seem countless; even when it comes to flour. High protein (12%-15%) bread flour will give a better result as it produces a light, springy dough that also stays moist and softer for longer because the protein continues to absorb moisture.

Contrary to this, there are some recipes that use cake flour, which contains less protein (7%-9%). This is what tends to happen when you do too much research. If it’s all too hard, stick to plain flour or another option is to buy ready-prepared flour from most Asian grocery stores, which already contains the required raising agents. But I guess if you want to steer clear of phosphates and sulphates, then avoid the ready-prepared stuff, which looks like this…

Bao Mix

The quantities of sugar vary from recipe to recipe and I guess it’s up to personal choice and to an extent, your filling of choice. Most recipes call for around 25-30g (2 tablespoons) per 125g (1 cup) of flour.

You didn’t think I’d need to mention water, did you? It warrants a mention; only because most Taiwanese and Chinese recipes call for water and the Vietnamese recipes tend to use milk. My preferred recipe usues water, but it also contains milk powder.

As far as raising agents go, some recipes call for dry (instant) yeast, baking powder or both. However, I’d stear clear of baking (bi-carb) soda. In an attempt to produce a lighter, fluffier Gua Bao, I decided to modify a dough recipe to incorporate yeast, baking powder and baking soda. My Gua Bao turned an unappealing shade of light brown and after some research, I later discovered that when baking soda produces an alkaline solution in water, the alkalinity accelerates the browning reaction. Apparently this is the reason that baking soda (or lye) and a water wash is recommended for pretzels to achieve that deep brown, pretzely colour.

Some recipes call for (melted) solidified fats, like lard or some simply state to use canola oil. Whatever neutral tasting oil you have at home is probably fine. I used duck fat.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I had succeeded and failed with a number of Gua Bao dough recipes. The first version I tried was from Gourmet Traveller; purportedly adapted from a David Chang recipe, however the recipe is very different from the original. The outcome was OK; they kinda looked the part, but they just weren’t fluffy enough and a little on the heavy side.

The second attempt was from some random blog. This is where I went a bit freestyle in the desperate pursuit of lightness and fluffiness, used baking soda and failed. Whilst they tasted OK and were a little bit lighter, the colour was a little off-putting.

Two bags of the ready-prepared flour from an Asian Grocery store ($2.20 for 445g) remain unused in my pantry, so I never got around to trialling them. Although the instructions give an indication that it required far less time to prepare the dough, the recipe didn’t contain yeast.

I doubt I’ll even get around to using the ready-prepared flour because when D-Day came along, another google search found me the original momofuku book recipe and the results were brilliant:

1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups water, at room temperature
4 ¼ cups bread flour
6 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons non-fat dry milk powder (mine was full-fat)
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda (I omitted this)
1/3 cup rendered fat or vegetable shortening, melted in the microwave (I used duck fat)

The first thing I noticed was the quantity of this recipe. It yields 50 (smaller) buns. The second thing I noticed was that it was an easier recipe; the yeast and water were added straight into the bowl of a stand mixer, with a dough hook attached. The flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder (I omitted the baking soda) and duck fat were all dumped into the bowl and then mixed on the lowest speed possible for 8 to 10 minutes… No waiting for the yeast to activate in the water. It was practically fool-proof.

After the required time, the dough had gathered into a smooth, not-too-tacky ball on the hook; very similar to a brioche dough. I then placed it into a lightly oiled pyrex bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and placed it into my oven, set at 50 degrees (fan on), with the door open. The recipe suggests leaving it to prove for at least an hour and 15 minutes. I had other stuff to do, so mine was left for about twice that amount of time.

After punching the dough down, I digressed a little. Whilst the recipe called for dividing the dough to make 50 x 25g balls, I only needed 12 and upped the size to 50g, as I was serving two per person. I wrapped the rest of the dough in cling wrap and chucked it in the freezer. The balls were then left covered with cling wrap for a further 30 minutes to rest and rise. I had more stuff to do, so they again had a little more resting time (around two hours).

Dough

Before the next stage, I cut out a dozen 10cm squares of baking paper; one for each bao. Each ball was the flattened lightly by hand, before lightly rolling to make a 15-20cm oval. From previous experience, I then sprayed the dough with a little rice bran spray oil before folding over very lightly to form the bun shape and placing each bun onto its baking paper base. The third and final rise took place under some more cling wrap for another 30 to 45 minutes.

When it was time to steam (placing about ½ a cup of white vinegar into the boiling water, which apparently makes them whiter), I placed three buns into the steamer. The baking paper made it easier to transfer the buns without touching the dough and flattening them. After about 10 minutes, they were ready and I almost shed a tear; they were perfect; light, billowy, soft and more importantly, looked exactly like the ones in the Momofuku book. From there you can use them straight away, pop them in the fridge for later or freeze them for up to a week.

Gua Bao

Stay tuned for Part 2… dinner party Gua Bao.

Epocha – 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton

My overly-elaborate definition of regret is not blogging for four months, then dining at Epocha in Carlton. With absolutely no desire beforehand to post a review, then realising too late into the night, it was a misjudgement. This place is worth reviewing.

However, my secondary overly-elaborate definition of (slight) regret is placing our unbridled palates into the hands of Sommelier, Angie Giannakodakis (there was nothing wrong with that part), to match wines and not talk cost. Being slugged $220 for a 1970’s vintage Eiswein (which was delicious) that at the time was declared “not expensive” was an important lesson learned that there are different perceptions of ‘expensive’, especially when it comes to Sommeliers. It wasn’t expensive compared to, say the $980 1981 Chateau d’Yquem that was also on the wine list. Or maybe in respect of other Eiswines, which can command up to $400-$700, but you see my point.

This got me thinking about the tactics that restaurants use to potentially discombobulate diners and extract more revenue on already paper-thin margins. Hey, the capitalist in me doesn’t blame them; most of them need it. Look at how the industry is suffering at the moment and every extra dollar makes a difference. On this night, we simply went with the flow as to what was offered to us.

For example, we ordered two espresso martinis and two espressos at the end of the night. Clearly on a roll with the wanton disregard possibly coming from our table, one of the staff came forward and suggested we “may as well ditch the coffees and make that four espresso martinis”. What are you going to say, no?

By placing ourselves into the good hands of the staff, the bill reflected that. If treated well, you become comfortable, you don’t want it to end and you can easily succumb to the upsell… like the Eiswine, the martinis… hey, it was our choice and they did their job extremely well and we had an excellent night. It’s merely a heads up to the cost-conscious (and reminder to me) to be more wary. Actually, excluding the cost of the Eiswein and it was pretty good value, around $175 for food matched with wine.

Epocha opened in September last year and it sits comfortably amongst the Victorian terraces on the top end of Rathdowne Street, across from Carlton Gardens. Inside, you immediately feel that it won’t be a difficult task at all to stay as long as you can, in an inviting room of dark timber, candles, crystal decanters, marble fireplaces and low light. It’s romantic, but it’s also a place where you’d feel very comfortable with a group of your nearest and dearest. The website states that they look forward to welcoming you to their home and they are spot on.

The menu is very much pan-European; it’s a little bit of everything from across the continent and some Rule Britannia thrown in for good measure (well, they are part of the EU). There is also a great emphasis on sharing. The $68 sharing menu is good value and probably more or less the same in cost if you were to order the same dishes a’la carte. Value went from good to great by taking the option to add the 550g Côte de Boeuf (on the menu for $64) for an additional $12 per person (for a table of four); a self-proclaimed feast and they weren’t wrong. The offerings were more than generous; rustic but very much refined.

House-baked bread arrived in a calico bag. Still warm, the bread was dark and sweet, like it had been made using a stout or a porter. It was flecked with caraway and a wonderful house-churned sea salt butter sealed the deal. Mixed olives ($6), with their own little silver tray for pits (the little things that made a difference) were full of flavour. The chicken liver pate ($9) was smooth and rich, but not rich enough to want to go back for more. The toasted bread-to-pate ratio was spot on.

I had a lot of favoured dishes throughout the night but the crispy pigs ears ($6) were outstanding and yet, probably the most simplistic. Finely shaved pigs ear, deep fried and seasoned. It was just missing a cold beer. Mushroom arancini ($8) were small, delicate and packed with flavour.

That was the end of the first wave of food. The second wave delivered venison carpaccio, with pickled mushrooms, hazelnuts and some spherified PX sherry ($16). Definitely the classiest dish of the night and one that I’d go back and selfishly have all to myself… with some pigs ears and the Kefalograviera saganaki ($14). Perfectly pan fried, salty, some punch and texture from currants and pickled apricots, a little acidity from some verjuice and a touch of honey for sweetness.

The quinoa salad with apricots and yoghurt ($14) was the healthy option of the night. Probably much needed in hindsight. Another belter was the Blue grenadier (with perfectly crispy skin) with a creamy pearl barley and celery risotto and shards of cavolo nero ($34).

Wave three saw us tucking into slow-roasted lamb leg, served in a rich pan gravy and stuffing ($38), a dish called simply ‘Bird’, which was the breast, thigh, leg and wing of a bird, presumably chicken ($32). All of the protein dishes had their own respective jus and they were all sublime, including the bone marrow jus that accompanied the 550g Côte de Boeuf, which was cooked perfectly to medium rare. This was protein overload. Fortunately two serves of duck fat roast potatoes ($9) and the obligatory green vegetable in the form of green beans with toasted almonds ($9) eased the pain.

Just when you think you can do no more, the final wave arrived… although nothing like the preceding tsunami-sized waves of protein; this was more akin to gently caressing the shore as it broke (it’s diners) and receded. Small, simple, decadent desserts. A couple of slices of (what might have been) a frangipane tart, some of the best choux pastry profiteroles I’ve ever had, filled with a light vanilla pastry cream and covered in salted caramel, a couple of slices of (again, what might have been) chocolate delice and a trifle-like thing in a glass that no one really touched because we were all too full. Things always get a little sketchy at the end. Desserts ($12 a piece) are rolled out on an old-school dessert trolley. A nice touch.

The wine list is extensive and if you’re one of those people that tends not to stray from stra’ya when in comes to wine, then perhaps this is the place for you to get out of your comfort zone. You won’t find any Australian wines on the list, nor anything Australian for that matter. Not unless you’re dyslexic and misread Austria. There’s a price point to suit all and like us, if you’re unsure about what’s what when it comes to wines of the Old World, you can always place your night into the hands of Angie, but unlike us, be a little more upfront about your preferred spend.

Epocha is a must-try. You won’t be disappointed.

Epocha on Urbanspoon

Epocha
49 Rathdowne St, Carlton VIC
(03) 9036 4949

http://www.epocha.com.au/

Good For: Guaranteed, rib sticking, interesting, honest, wonderful food and wine. Impeccable service. It’s a gem.

Not Good For: Vinoxenophobes… I’m copyrighting that.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

It’s a day late, but better late than never.

Most people are familiar with the background of the ANZAC biscuit; it probably formed part of what we learned in school, but for the sake of padding out this post, it’s claimed that the biscuits were sent by wives to soldiers abroad because the simple ingredients (rolled oats, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, butter, golden syrup, baking soda and water) did not spoil easily. The omission of eggs was also thought to be because of the scarcity of eggs during the First World War, after most poultry farmers had joined the war effort. Then there is also the typical Trans-Tasman rivalry and conjecture around whether it was the Kiwis or the Aussies that invented the biscuit first, like the pavlova, lamington or claiming Neil and Tim Finn as our own. Alas, still no one is willing to claim Russell Crowe (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming).

Personally, I am not a massive fan of the ANZAC biscuit. Whilst we grew up on Nan’s homemade ones, like most Australian and New Zealand kids would have, I find them too sweet. However, like Nan’s, they have to be crunchy. The soft ones just don’t seem right. But, each to their own. We are lucky we have the freedom of choice, as trivial as it is to muse over a biscuit preference. I think that falls into the category of first world problems.

Yesterday morning’s last minute decision to make ANZAC biscuits was my 6 year old’s idea. She enjoys the helping part, but I knew that she wouldn’t be a fan of the end result… mainly because it’s not a mass-produced Tiny Teddy or a packet of the recently-discovered Uglies. I had all of the ingredients on hand with the exception of rolled oats, so a quick run up to the local Foodworks ensured we could knock up a batch to take to the park later on.

At this point, the traditional recipe started to take a turn. I ended up having to settle for quick oats (the smaller cut version of whole rolled oats) because that’s all they had, which in hindsight is what I will continue to use in the future. But more on that later. As I mentioned earlier, the sweetness is what puts me off ANZAC biscuits, so I began to think about what I could do to offset the sweetness… Maybe in a number of ways. Then slowly, I began to feel a tiny pang of guilt. I was messing with such a sacrosanct recipe! It usually pisses me off when people mess around with things that shouldn’t be messed with. Now I was one of those people. However, I was prepared to overlook it when I finally tried the end result.

Firstly, I decided to back off on the sugar in the recipe, using about ¾ of a cup as opposed to a full cup. Whilst this was a bit of a risk in achieving my preferred crunchy version, I did it anyway. A higher sugar content relative to the amount of golden syrup results in a crisper biscuit, whereas a greater percentage of golden syrup gives you a softer and chewier result. I kept the golden syrup to the one tablespoon, as listed in the recipe.

The second change was the  spontaneous addition of something controversial, mainly because I saw them in Foodworks, and hardly Antipodean – Hershey Reece’s Pieces. I guess you could dedicate it to our alliance with the US. Whilst they’re still relatively sweet, I decided that they might add some of that slightly salty, peanut buttery richness in bursts.

Thirdly, hot out of the oven, I gave each biscuit a tiny pinch of Murray Pink Salt to give that slight contrast to the sweetness and finally, a drizzle of bitter, 85% dark chocolate.

The rest of the ingredients were (practically) straight up and taken from Margaret Fulton’s ANZAC Biscuit recipe… that is with the exception of the oats. Using the smaller cut, quick oats resulted in a denser biscuit. Oh, and I used dried coconut instead of desiccated. And biscuit flour instead of plain flour… Actually, in hindsight, my version a little removed from the recipe developed by our ancestors to keep our troops fuelled and motivated. But they were delicious.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

125g unsalted butter
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp boiling water
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 cup quick oats (smaller cut ‘quick’ oats)
¾ cup dried coconut (not desiccated)
1 cup flour (I used biscuit flour, with a lower protein content)
¾ cup brown sugar
2 x 43g packets Reese’s Pieces
Murray Pink Salt
150g 85% good quality dark chocolate (I used Lindt)

Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Melt butter, golden syrup and sugar over a low heat in a small heavy based pan until melted. Add the baking soda to the boiling water, then mix into the melted syrup mixture. When well combined and frothy, pour the mixture into the combined oats, flour and coconut dry ingredients and mix well. When the mixture has cooled a little, gently mix in the Reese’s Pieces until they are well distributed throughout the mixture.

Roll mixture into small (2cm) balls onto greased baking trays, leaving room for spreading. I found that using the smaller cut oats resulted in not as much spreading as you’d typically expect from an ANZAC biscuit.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. If you want to achieve a crispier biscuit, drop the temperature a little and extend the cooking time.

Upon removing the hot biscuits from the oven, flatten slightly and sprinkle each with a tiny amount of Murray Pink Salt. Cool on the tray for a few minutes, then remove onto wire racks.

When completely cooled, drizzle with dark chocolate and leave to set.

I’m not much of a baker, but I was extremely proud the end result. Overall, it was crispy on the outside softer on the inside and to be perfectly honest they were awesome – even if they weren’t technically a true ANZAC Biscuit.

Lest we forget.

Feelings & Memories

Food and feelings go together like… vegemite and cheese. How could you not cheer on your team at the footy without a lukewarm pie and sauce? How could you not mend a broken heart without ice cream? You get the picture. It conjures up memories, good and bad and it can effectively use all of your senses (unless you also see dead people) or at the very least, enhance them. It makes you remember.

As a lover of food, some of my happier moments in life have been closely related to it; a meal out with people that are special to me or cooking for them. Or even better, cooking with them.

It took some years to get better at cooking with people. I was told that I was too bossy in the kitchen… too much of a perfectionist, which I guess is a toughie when you lack the desired skill. And if things went a little pear-shaped, I cracked the shits. I’ve improved immensely over the years. I don’t know why… Maybe my knowledge and technique have improved with practise. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I’ve learned not to sweat the little things. I think I’ve said before that pastry and me are slowly learning to get along.

Whilst there are fond memories of great meals with friends, things I’ve eaten by myself in amazing places in the world or meals I’ve made for others that I believe I truly nailed, I have two very vivid memories of cooking with people dear to me.

One dates back to around thirteen years ago when I was living my carefree, backpacker life. I was staying in a town called Jelsa, on the island of Hvar in Croatia. My travelling partner and I scored this ridiculously cheap apartment and we ended up staying there for two weeks. I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Most days we’d head to the markets. We’d buy whatever fish they’d have on offer… usually a small snapper, and we’d stuff it with ham, mushrooms (one day we endured a 16km round trip walk to another town because the market at Jelsa had no mushrooms) and leeks and make a flavoured butter out of some paprika-based seasoning we’d found that was a little bit sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. We’d bake it and serve it with what we christened ‘Jelsa Salad’, which was pretty much roughly chopped up red onion, red capsicum, carrot and cucumber, tossed in lemon juice. None of it was fancy or even regional for that matter, but every now and again, if I want to take myself back to those days, I’ll make Jelsa Salad and I am there.

Whilst my other standout food memory didn’t involve an exotic setting, it’s arguably to date, my best food memory. Why? Put simply, it epitomises why I love to cook; the challenge, the fun, being able to share and of course the end result. All combined it evokes happiness and isn’t that something everyone wants to be able to remember?

Over the years, I have attempted to cook Thai cuisine; it’s never really been something  that I’ve put my love and soul into in order to deliver something that is better than OK. It’s probably also a little out of my comfort zone. However, a friend of mine who had spent a number of years living in Thailand changed that. Having someone that knew Thai food beyond the probable farang holiday-maker stuff most travellers would sample helped a lot.

Raw protein polarises people. Most will try fish in the form of sashimi or beef as carpaccio or tartare. I love stuff raw, but I’d never tried raw prawns; accidentally or as a dish.

Gung Chae Nam Pla is something I have not seen in Australian Thai restaurants, quite possibly because it might not be popular. If you have a sense of adventure and can get beyond eating a raw prawn, then give it a go. It’s amazing. One of the most extraordinary, yet simplest dishes I’ve ever made or tasted, consisting of essentially fresh (the fresher, the better) raw green prawns that have been butterflied and just prior to being served, anointed with a paste that features the usual Thai suspects and some fresh mint.

Raw Prawns with Thai Chillies (Gung Chae Nam Pla)

10-12 medium sized, raw fresh green prawns with the tail shell on
6 chillies
coriander leaves
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh mint leaves

Now the method was no brain surgery; processing the chillies, garlic, shallot, coriander, fish sauce and lemon juice into a rough paste, then artfully added it to the prawns (tails up!). Grab a couple of mint leaves to top each prawn and eat the prawn in one go, picking it up by the tail shell. We paired it with a few glasses of Mumm, which you probably wouldn’t do in Thailand, but it worked.

Gung Chae Nam Pla

One of the quintessential Thai recipes is Green Curry. Made from scratch, it’s a true labour of love and the one we made was pretty close to perfection. David Thompson may disagree.

The recipe we used was a bit of a jumble from a number of recipes, plus a bit of our own doctoring along the way. What I’ve listed below will get you pretty close.

Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)

Curry paste, made from:
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh green chillies
12-15 small green chillies
4 -5 shallots, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
Coriander stems and roots from a bunch of coriander
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
Shrimp paste, to taste (start at 1 tsp and go from there)
1 tsp salt
Zest of one or two limes

The rest…

oil
3 chicken thighs, bone in
6 Thai eggplants
10-12 Green beans
1 can of coconut cream
Fish sauce, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Palm sugar, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Lime juice, to taste (start at 1 lime)

Whilst it would be very much authentic to use a mortar and pestle to make your paste, the one we had was a bit small. So we cheated and used one of those small food processors, like you might get as an attachment to a bamix.

First, we toasted the coriander and cumin in a dry pan until fragrant, then ground the toasted spices in the mortar and pestle (at least it got used for something) with the white pepper corns. The ground spices were added to the rest of the paste ingredients (we forgot the ginger) in the processor and blitzed until they resembled a fine paste. Try not to add water to advance the process; it only dilutes your paste.

Some of the ingredients were amped up a bit, to taste. We added more shrimp paste (maybe another half a tablespoon… maybe more). As for the chillies, the long green ones didn’t provide the heat, as much as they added to the colour (although our paste was quite a brown colour, then end result looked like the proper green curry colour). The chillies we used for heat were purchased at the Footscray markets. I will have to go there again and find out what they were; they were tiny, no more than 2cm in length, quite thin, a bit nobbly and pale green in colour. They packed a good heat that built up on you.

After we were happy with the paste, we fried of at least half a cup over a slow heat in a heavy based casserole dish. Once the paste was fragrant, we added the chopped chicken thighs, to cook in the paste for a few minutes, then the halved eggplants, more kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar and a can of coconut cream. Then we left it for about 20 minutes, continuing on a very slow heat.

About 10 minutes before serving, we checked the flavours, added a little more sugar and some lime juice. The sauce, in my opinion, had reduced a little bit too much, but there was a little bit of coconut cream left in the tin, which I added and it seemed to correct this. We added the beans and popped the lid on the let the residual heat cook the beans, but leave some crunch.

Served with the some rice, this was the end result:

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Whilst factors beyond just the cooking attributed to this being my best food memory (like the company, lots of wine, the fun and so on), I have never been so pleased with the end results of the dishes we created. Sharing the toils and fruits of your labour can conjure up some great memories. Just worry about the dirty dishes later.