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Muffins: The Versatile Pastry

24 Apr

The Versatile Muffin Recipe

Piping hot, moist and dangerously moreish, few come close to beating freshly baked homemade muffins.

Truly the greatest thing since sliced bread (though which came first is poised for debate), the meek little muffin is incredibly conversant and can be adapted, modified and jazzed with a multitude of ingredients. You can keep it traditional with cinnamon apple or kick it up kinky with a crushed Mars bar, though many simply keep it wholesome with seasonal fruit/veg. Imagination is the only limitation in the magical sphere of muffins. Have some leftover pieces of overripe fruit? – make muffins! Bread gone moldy and no breakfast for tomorrow? – make muffins! Bored and needing a little boost of self-accomplishment? – Just.Make.Muffins.!

Numerous muffin recipes float the cyber realm, and I often hop from one recipe to the next in a restless bid to experiment with different mixing methods. This recipe is my present favourite as it consists of only a handful (and mostly “guilt-free”) ingredients and is a simple ‘one-bowl-wonder’. Honestly, it is so easy it almost seems unfair.

*The original recipe came out of a dated newpaper clipping and I’ve modified some of the ingredients. The fruit and choc chip can be substituted for 2 cups of any other fruit/toppings of a similar volume.



2 cups plain flour (I substituted half of this with wholemeal flour, feel free to do the same with other flours)

2 tsp baking powder

1 cup caster sugar

1 cup Greek-style yoghurt (You can substitute with lite sour cream, full cream or creme fraiche or 3/4 cup milk or buttermilk)

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

1/3 cup vegetable oil (or any other tasteless oil)

1 banana (sliced)

1/2 cup choc chips

1/3 cup rolled oats (*optional, for topping)


1. Preheat the oven to 170C fan forced (180C standard).

2. Place flour, sugar & baking powder in a mixing bowl and mix to distribute.

3. Make a well in centre of dry ingredients and place yogurt, eggs, vanilla and oil in the centre.

4. Using a whisk, start from the centre and gently whisk the wet ingredients together. When this has combined, change over to a spatula and fold all ingredients together until partly combined.

5. Add in the fruits/topping and continue folding until combined (no more clumps of flour). DO NOT mix until completely smooth as is it easy to OVERMIX muffins leading to dryness. Simply mix till combined and floury bits disappear.


6. Fill greased (non-stick) muffin tins till just over half full. Sprinkle on the oats and bake for approx 20-30 minutes. Test with a skewer to ensure it comes out dry (do not overbake).

7. Leave to cool and turn out of muffin tin using a prod of a paring knife. (I pop them out whilst still warm as I find it sticks less to the tin. Alternatively, use patti pans). Makes 12 small-medium muffins.

*Store in the fridge to increase shelf life. Warm up in a toaster oven or microwave just before serving.



Have a stupendously memorable long weekend making muffins 🙂

xoxo Amanda


The Great ‘Xiao Long Bao’ Experiment

30 May

The year was 2011, a grey blustery day – experiencing a sudden craving for soup dumplings, five unknowing madcaps decided to take on the challenge of making the famed ‘xiao long bao’, thinking – “how hard could it possibly be?”.

Go the crazees..

The engineering of these dainty, pleated pillows consists of fine dough-skins encased around juicy nuggets of pork and scalding, aromatic broth. A gustatory gala for the senses.

Inspired by a recipe from Steamy Kitchen, we plowed straight into the mammoth task with much ignorant gusto. At first glance, we were a touch daunted by the sheer amount of ingredients needed for this recipe; but it worked out to be a fairly economical meal, with some ingredients used repeatedly throughout the recipe.

In all honesty, making these yummy gems is a time-consuming job (with many pockets of waiting time in between), but undoubtedly gratifying. I highly recommend making an occasion out of it. Think “pizza-making party”, but…Asian.

So, round-up a couple of mates, pull out the Pictionary from the garage and pass round a few beers – and let the dumpling delirium begin!

RECIPE (makes approximately 40 dumplings)

Jellied Soup:

2 litres water

1 kg chicken bones (hacked into big chunks)

Smoked pork hoc (1 small bone) OR 100g ham offcuts

300g pork skin and/or fat

3 cloves garlic, peeled & bruised with the back of a knife

1 inch piece ginger, roughly chopped

2 stalks spring onions (roughly chopped)

2 tbsp Shao Tsing Chinese cooking wine

*1 tbsp agar-agar powder or unflavoured gelatin powder

Meat Filling

500g pork mince

120g prawn meat (shelled and minced finely)

3 stalks spring onions, finely chopped

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

1 tsp white pepper

1/2 tsp freshly grated ginger

1 tsp Shao Tsing Chinese cooking wine

1/2 tsp sesame oil


400g all-purpose flour

3/4 cups hot boiling water

1/4 cup cold water

1 tsp cooking oil

Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup black vinegar

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp shaved ginger

1 tbsp sambal/chilli sauce

To steam

1/2 head Chinese Cabbage



1. Place all of the ‘Jellied Soup’ ingredients in a large stock pot, but HOLD OFF the gelatine/agar-agar (we’ll use this later).

2. Bring this up to a boil – at which, reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 2 hours  *(alternatively – cook the stock for 30 minutes in a pressure cooker)

3. Skim the surface periodically

Whilst that is simmering away, get your dough going.


4. Place the flour in a mixing bowl with the hot water. Mix with a fork till a rough dough forms.

5. Add in the cold water and cooking oil and mix till combined.

6. Tip out the dough onto a clean countertop and knead for 10 minutes until dough is smooth and resembles a baby’s bottom (wink*). Cover and allow to rest for at least 1/2 hour.

If the stock hasn’t finished its 2 hour simmer – you can start on the ‘meat filling’.

(meat filling)

7. Thoroughly mix all the ingredients for the ‘Meat Filling” together in a large bowl. Store covered in the fridge.

(dipping sauce)

8. Mix together all the ingredients for the ‘Dipping Sauce’ and store covered in the fridge. Feel free to alter the spiciness to your liking.

(jellied soup)

8. After its 2 hour simmer, skim the fat and scum off the surface of the stock. Strain the stock into a heatproof bowl (discard bones & aromats).

9. Measure out 4 cups of broth and pour this back into the pot (you can do as you wish with the excess).

10. Just as it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and whisk in the agar-agar/gelatin powder. When all of the powder has dissolved, pour the mix into a baking dish/wide container (it doesn’t matter what dish you use, as long as the soup comes up to about 1.5cm high).

11. Chill in the fridge till set (or speed-up the setting process up by placing in the freezer). Be sure to place on a level surface.

12. When the jellied stock has set, run a knife through it length ways and width ways to create 1.5 x 1.5 cm squares. Run your fingers through the jelly to separate from the base of the dish.

13. Take out 2 cups of jelly and add it to the ‘meat filling’. Smoosh it into the mince till evenly combined.


14. Shape your dough into small balls (roughly the size of a gumball). *Ensure you dough is always covered with cling wrap or a dishcloth.

15. With a dusting of flour, roll out the balls of dough with a small rolling pin. Remember to turn the dough as you’re rolling in order to get a circle instead of an oval. Roll to a 2mm thickness. (remember to keep dusting the countertop with flour to prevent dough from sticking)

16. To form a dumpling, smoosh a cube of ‘jellied soup’ on a rolled out dough circle. Place a ball of meat filling on top of that. Now with your fairy-fingers, start at one edge of the dough and work your way around, gradually gathering the edges together in small folds (nip-nip-nip as you go along). Squeeze & twist the tip gently at the top. Place on a heavily dusted tray.


17. Line you steamer with a layer of cabbage leaves and place dumplings on top, leaving sufficient gaps between each dumpling.

18. Using a toothpick, gently prod the centre of each dumpling tip (this will allow the steam to escape whilst cooking – preventing the dumplings from bursting mid-way in the steamer).

19. Steam (covered) over hot boiling water for precisely 12 minutes. Eat immediately.

Preparation time: 6 hours (with a whole-lotta Monopoly in between)
Life span of cooked dumplings: Nil
End result: A raving success (with a few dumpling casualties).

Mastering Meringue

17 Apr

Why all the fuss over poufy white fluff?

The skill of meringue-making is a common kitchen artistry that all aspiring cooks should have in their back pockets. The ability to whip up a perfect bowl of foamy egg whites forms the foundation for perfecting a multitude of desserts/confectionery , some of which include the prevalent Pavlova, mousse, nougat, marshmallows, buttercream, semifreddo, macarons, the list goes on.. The exact measurements in meringue recipes vary according to intended use, but the fundamental techniques are always the same.

However, before you flex those guns’ and crack out the trusty whisk, here are some meringue facts you need to know:

The two most common methods of making meringue:

Italian Meringue – A stable meringue that is made by slowly drizzling hot sugar (112°C to 116°C)  into egg whites as its being whipped.

French Meringue – A more basic meringue whereby sugar is gradually rained into the egg whites as it’s being whisked, with icing sugar folded through at the end.

Less common is Swiss Meringue, which is made by heating the sugar and whites over a bain marie to 110-120°C and then beating the mixture until stiff.


Hard and soft. Hard meringue is made with a higher sugar content and baked for a long time period at a low temperature. Soft meringue is often used to ice tarts (i.e.lemon meringue tart), cakes or in desserts (i.e. floating islands).

Today, we’re going to tackle the kinder beast, the French Meringue technique. The recipe is easy to remember as it simply calls for equal quantities of egg whites, caster sugar and  icing sugar.



200g egg whites *NOTE: Ensure no residual egg yolk. Traces of yolk (even small ones) can prevent the whites from whisking up)

200g caster sugar

200g icing sugar (sifted)


A squeaky clean mixing bowl

Whisk (you can either do this by hand or electric mixer)



Firstly, make sure that all of your equipment (especially the mixing bowl and whisk) are clean and grease-free. Fat (even in small amounts) will prevent the whites from foaming up. Preheat your oven to a low 120°C. If you’re using a fan forced oven set the temperature to 100°C/105°C.

Place the whites in the bowl (you can add in two drops of lemon juice OR a pinch of cream of tartar to help stabilise the mix, but it would still work without) and whisk on high till it becomes a soft foamy mass  (i.e.bubble bath). DO NOT add in any sugar before it reaches this stage.

At this point, add in the caster sugar a little at a time, whisking continually. You’ll notice the meringue getting denser (resembling whipped cream). Once you’ve finished adding in all the sugar, keep whisking until the meringue is stiff (test it out by turning the bowl upside down. If nothing slops out, you’re set).

Tip the icing sugar into the meringue and FOLD together, confidently but gently, from the outside in (in a figure-of-eight motion). Once the icing sugar is mixed in, STOP folding. Overworking the meringue will cause it to collapse and lose its air. What you’re left with is a pearly, glossy bowl of light meringue that is now ready to be used as your recipe directs *Pat on the back.

To make crispy meringue shells, you can choose to pipe you meringue onto a tray lined with baking paper; either in rosettes using a star nozzle, or in long lines to create logs. If you can’t be bothered, you can spoon them out onto the tray as big blobs (for those wanting a more “organic” look).

These go in the oven for one-and-a-half to two hours. Best thing to do is to turn off the oven after its done baking, and leave the shells in the oven overnight with the door slightly ajar. This allows them to dry out completely, producing crisp shells.


You can put your meringue biscuits to good use by whipping up this simple dessert favourite. Traditional Eton Mess is usually made with fresh strawberries, cream and meringue biscuits (some add yoghurt in as well). This is a personal rendition of the dessert with the addition of red wine.


Meringue shells (about 80g worth)

300ml fresh cream

40g caster sugar

1/2 punnet Fresh strawberries (roughly chopped)

For strawberry compote:

Punnet of strawberries (whole, with leaves off)

1  1/2 cups red wine (use a cheap cleanskin; you can substitute with other grape variety though I’d stay away from pinot noir)

1 cup brown/white sugar

Rind of 1/2 an orange (grated)

A dribble of vanilla essence/extract/paste/pod

Put all ingredients for the compote into a saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook at a simmer until mixture resembles a chunky jam (make sure you stir from time to time to prevent from burning).

When it has reached a thick gloopy consistency, pour in a splash (about 1/2 cup) of ADDITIONAL red wine – mix and take off the heat. Store covered in the fridge to chill.

Whisk up the cream together with the 40g caster sugar until firm peaks.

To assemble, mix the cream, compote, fresh strawberries and CRUSHED meringue biscuits together in a bowl. Serve in a large dish or in individual glasses. Serve with additional chopped strawberries to garnish (makes about 6-8 serves).

The Importance of Learning: Custard

17 Feb

If eggs yolks and full cream milk could make babies, I’d imagine they’d taste a lot like custard.

The promiscuous mingling of these two key ingredients (and some other naughty bits thrown in) have resulted in an iconic sauce embraced the world over. Custard (creme anglaise)  forms the foundation of many dessert favourites such as ice-cream, trifle, bavarois (custard based-mousse) and fools. It also fulfills the letter of being one of the most accommodative dessert accompaniments known to man.

The utilitarian cousin of creme anglaise: – Pastry cream (creme patissiere) , is a denser, thicker version of the sauce and is used extensively by pastry chefs to fill cakes, pastries, tarts and choux buns (think croquembouche). Pastry cream consists of the exact same elements used to make custard, with the slight difference of a thickening agent (usually cornflour) cooked into the mix.

Grasping the concept of custard-making is imperative for any aspiring-cook, as it aids one in understanding the building blocks of many well-known desserts. Take creme brulee and creme caramel for instance; these two classics possess a similar ingredient composition as custard (egg, milk/cream,sugar, vanilla) with slight variances in the mixing process, proportions and heat application.


90g caster sugar

6 egg yolks

300ml milk

300ml cream

1/2 vanilla pod (scored lengthways with seeds scraped out) *you can use a vanilla substitute if pods are hard to obtain

Place milk, cream, vanilla seeds and pod in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and remove from heat the moment it begins to bubble (leaving it to boil too long will cause moisture to evaporate). Set aside, and get on to the next job which is whisking the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl (metal, glass or ceramic – stay away from plastic) till combined and slightly pale (don’t have to get too crazy!).

STRAIN half of your hot milk mix into the whisked yolks – whisk immediately till well combined. Decant in the remaining hot milk mix and whisk well till smooth.

Pour boiling water into the saucepan and sit the bowl of mixture on top ensuring that the base of the bowl isn’t touching the water (bain marie). Now to exercise some patience. Use a silicon scraper, rubber spatula or wooden spoon and stir CONSTANTLY for the next few minutes (remember to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl). The mix will thicken gradually.

To test whether your custard has reached the desired consistency, coat the back of a wooden spoon with the mix, then quickly swipe a line across the surface with your finger (*refer to picture). Tilt the spoon slightly and if the mix shows some resistance before flowing back over the swipe, it’s ready. Immediately remove from heat and serve (hot/cold).


~ If too much heat is applied, the custard might begin to scramble. You can avert disaster by transferring the mix right away into a cool bowl. Subsequently, strain the custard through a fine sift.

~ Remember that the custard will always be thicker when chilled

~ Try not to make custard in overly large batches. It is always harder to control the cooking

~ When your custard-making skills develop, you can scrap the bain marie altogether and try cooking the custard in a thick-based saucepan over a low heat. The custard will come together much quicker. Just remember to scrape the sides and bottom of the saucepan well, and keep stirring!

~ Have a go at flavouring your custard (e.g. wattle seeds, cinnamon, mandarin zest, star anise, chai herbs etc.). Infuse these aromats as you would the vanilla.

Whipping up a batch of fresh custard does take a little more time out of our day, but it is definitely worth the effort. Take my word for it – once you’ve tasted home-made custard, you won’t go back to using the powdered or cartoned stuff. Don’t worry if you muck up initially; making mistakes is the best way to learn what not to do. Just have another go till you get it right. It is a fundamental skill that once acquired, will open up a gateway of dessert possibilities!

Get your custard on!

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