My new year food resolution: eat breakfast.

When I was a child, my regular breakfast item would be a cup of milk made by my dad. My dad would wake up earlier to prepare the milk and then drove me to school later. I was very fortunate, wasn’t I? Every morning, a cup of milk, made from powdered milk… with clumps of undissolved powder floating on the surface. I tried breaking the lumps with the back of the spoon. I tried gulping it fast so that I wouldn’t feel the lumps broke into a powdery mush on my tongue. I tried staying in my room until almost late for school and rushed straight into the car without having to drink the milk.

One morning, dad knocked on my door and said “The milk is ready, come and drink it when it is hot.”

Reluctantly, I came out from my room. There it was, the cup of milk. Wait a minute, something was different. It was a cup of chocolate milk! Dad tried making the milk more appetising by adding some cocoa powder. Dad was smiling but me wasn’t. It was yet another cup of milk with more clumps of milk powder and cocoa powder and a mixture of both! I couldn’t bear hurting his feelings for all the love and effort he put. I drank it and said thank you. The next day, it was a cup of chocolate milk, again. And the “to drink or not to drink” battle went on.

Until now, my pace will naturally speed up when I walk past the shelf of milk powder in the supermarket. Ever since I have the decision power on the drink for my breakfast, reconstituted powdered milk is simply out of sight, out of mind.

What do you have for breakfast today? Oliver Schwarzwald has taken a series of photos of common breakfast item in different countries. If he ever comes to Malaysia, a favourite breakfast food he shouldn’t miss will be nasi lemak. Nasi lemak is made from rice cooked in coconut milk and usually served with cucumber slices, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), roasted peanuts, hard-boiled egg and sambal (a spicy chili sauce). Pretty solid for breakfast, maybe too much kick to some. A nutritionist will probably advice that if you are taking nasi lemak as breakfast, add this and that, replace this to that and reduce this and that to achieve a more balanced diet.

My suggestion: to start with, choose the food that you like to eat for breakfast, so that you won’t find excuses for skipping it.

photo courtesy of mrllamatastic, crunchybottom, bistrochic, pancious, paniconcept, wikimedia

 

The easiest and hardest question asked by many culinary students is: how long do you …?

Poach an egg?
Bake the choux pastry?
Fry the chips?

Chef Christophe would probably use his thumb and index finger to act as a caliper, showing a few inches gap and say “this long.” Why did Chef want to give student a hard time? Why didn’t he tell his students the time needed?

Sometimes, student came to me and complained that although he/she followed the recipe given by me and baked the product for the same amount of time like what I did in class, the product did not turn out properly.

In general, pastry requires  precise scaling of ingredient, so following a formula is crucial. Yet, blindly following a recipe can be disastrous. One of the most common mistakes made by many freshies in the kitchen is over-obsessed with the time stated in the recipe.

Whipped cream becomes butter, tart with undercooked/raw dough, and  amazingly, burnt cake is left in the oven just because the recipe indicated that the cake should be baked for forty minutes. Mistakes after mistakes, they learned an important lesson: pay attention observing the condition of the product itself, not the timer.

 

My relatives who just came back from a trip to France complained to me that they had enough bread, and especially baguette, for the rest of their life. To many people in Asia, a bread with a hard crust is considered stale.   Soft buns, sandwich bread and flat bread remain dominant in the bread market.

Sandwich is convenient. Put any filling in between two slices of bread, your meal is complete. However, there are times when you are so busy that you only have one free hand to hold your food (Boss, I am working very very hard). It becomes irritating when some fillings (like onion, pickles, sauce) drop off from the sandwich. Grr.  Solution: I made bread tube instead.  Mess free.

When searching for the usage of bread, I came across a brilliant food designer, Katja Gruijter’s website. She has fascinating ideas on using food as her design material. During ancient times, stale bread was made into trenchers, a bread plate slightly hollow in the centre, to fill up food. Katja Gruijter designs a bread plate in the form of a palette. A great alternatives to paper plates used for buffets. More and more merchants are charging consumers for plastic bags requested to encourage consumers to live in a more environmental friendly way. Again, Katja Gruitjer’s breadbag sparks.

Bread, oh bread. If you experienced kneading bread dough to a smooth ball, waiting patiently for the dough to rise, and especially, inhaling the smell of fresh bread from oven, you will find that no matter how badly you have shaped your bread, you will still easily set your bread apart from the commercially mass produced variety. There’s a saying that before you decide on parenting a newborn, try parenting a plant first. What about the idea of parenting a yeasted bread? When was the last time you heard the calling of yeast?

 

“Mari mari merry oom. Beli Beli berry boom.”

Once upon a time, on a dark silent night, a wizard cast a spell in Cameron Highlands. The next day, residents in Cameron Highlands were surprised that many of them shared the same message from their dream: strawberry =prosperous.

A brainstorming session began (and it never ends).

“Let’s grow strawberry.” Good, but not enough. “Let’s grow strawberry and engage visitors to pick them!” Seems fun. Kasimanis Strawberry Farm, Raju’s Hill Strawberry Farm, Healthy Strawberry Farm, EQ Strawberry Farm, KHM Strawberry Farm, Big Red Strawberry Farm, Mountain Strawberry Farm…On my last visit to Cameron Highlands, I spotted easily a dozen strawberry farms.

Strawberries. Strawberries. What to do with it? Eat it. Sure. Sell it.  Definitely. Process it. We have strawberry milkshake, strawberry and cream, strawberry ice cream, strawberry jam, chocolate dipped strawberry, strawberry shortcake. We have strawberry-themed restaurant like Strawberry Moment. Hey, but we still have TONS OF strawberries! Ideas! Ideas! Roti canai (indian flat bread) with strawberry, nasi goreng (fried rice) strawberry…F&B outlets are squeezing their brain to put strawberry in the menu. What’s the weirdest strawberry dish you ever tasted?

Visitors need to bring home all these luscious juicy memories. “Souvenirs!” Strawberry pillows, strawberry umbrellas, strawberry magnets, strawberry slippers… Red is catchy. Now, give me slogans. “Think strawberry.” “Simply strawberry.” Try Sloganizer for more options. Not strawberrised yet? Stay at Strawberry Park Resort. Take photo with giant strawberry sculptures.  Make a homemade strawberry facial mask. At Cameron Highlands, strawberry never sleeps.

Strawberry is indeed a tourist magnet that brings prosperity to Cameron Highlands. The Highlands is crowded, especially during weekends. You picked or bought your strawberries, but you would probably be finishing it on your way back. No, not because these glossy strawberries that claimed to be organic are sweet and addictive. It’s because you are stuck in the traffic and are hungry for food. Flashy strawberry souvenirs are drowning the green landscape. Watch out, strawberry has gradually mutated into a ladybird and infecting Cameron Highlands. Should resources be spent on researching and improving strawberry quality? Or another strawberry themed toy or folly? Who is living happily ever after in Cameron Highlands? Strawberry or ladybird?

Scenario A: At a fruit stall in Cameron Highlands

What’s the name of this fruit?

Cameron apple.

(Apple? It doesn’t resemble apple at all?! )

How do you tell if it’s ripe?

Light colour and green skin is not ripe, yellowish skin with dark purple stripe is ripe.

How much does it cost?

RM1 each.

Scenario B: At home with a few of these fruits at hand and an encyclopedia of ingredients.

What exactly is the name of this fruit?

Solanum muricatum. Or more commonly known as Pepino.

(Not related to apple at all, I really wonder how the farmers at Cameron Highlands come out with the idea of naming it Cameron apple)

How does it taste like?

Soft texture, taste like a combination of cantaloupe, honeydew and pear. Sweet and super juicy (bursting out like those oranges in Sunkist advertisement)

What should I do with it?

Eat by itself (skin removed), add to your fruit salad or like what I did: caramelised it and served with blancmange.

One of the great things I learned by teaching others is to ask WHY.

There are a lot of recipes telling you: first you do this then you do that, follow by this and that. Even in a professional kitchen, you are so accustomed in doing things in a certain way until it becomes a routine or common sense. When being questioned, a more experienced chef/cook will probably answer: “it’s just the way it’s done”.

Freshies in patisserie are like kids who like to ask lots of question. As papa or mama, sometimes you can get away with your kids endless question by saying: you will know it when you grow up. However, for eager freshies, they NEED AN ANSWER. Luckily, it’s convenient to perform some research on internet, and with the popularity of molecular gastronomy and food science, reference is usually readily available.

When making custard, why do you add half of the sugar to the milk and the other half to the egg?

Why not all into milk? or all into egg? Why half and half? Why not 1/4 and 3/4? Why? Why? Why?

1. If you add all your sugar into your milk, you may need to wait for a longer time for the milk to heat up before you can add to your egg.

2. If you add all your sugar into your egg, you may need to whisk it longer to ensure sugar and egg are mixed properly. Over-whisking will create too much air bubbles in your mixture. Too much air bubbles will affect the smoothness of custard like crème caramel.

3. Sugar is a poor heat conductor. By adding a layer of sugar on the bottom of a pan when heating milk can prevent milk from burning onto the pan.

So, actually in this case, it actually doesn’t matter how much you add your sugar into the milk IF your are mixing the milk, sugar and egg carefully. To be honest, sometimes, methods are just up to own preference or norm, no big theory. I’m definitely not a food scientist, but I believe understanding the WHYs behind the HOWs will give you more freedom to play around with a recipe.

Have fun WHY-ing.

Why? Because I enjoy cooking for family and friends, you replied. Enjoy cooking, yes, it’s a prerequisite for a chef. Cooking for family and friends? Sorry, think again. You will be working nights, weekends, holidays. You will be so preoccupied with the list of things to prepare for the guests in the F&B establishment you work in until you forgot the last time you met with your family and friends. Hopefully, your family and friends will forgive you that you choose to rest rather than to cook for them after working 50+ hours a week.  (P/s: Perhaps that the reason cooks are not well paid?! You don’t have time to spend!)

If you can’t stand the heat, or simply can’t stand, stay out of the kitchen. You will be on your feet almost constantly. Before becoming a chef, you will be trained as a cook that performs monotonous chores rigorously. It may be the Nth prawn you have shelled for the day, but bear in mind Chef Louis Eguaras’s reminder: A chef’s routine is the customer’s special event. Even if you swear that you won’t eat prawn for the rest of your life, you will still need to shell it like the one you first did. Customer comes first, not your sore feet, not your hatred.

And did I mention burns and cuts? Stressed out by flooded orders and irrational customers? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting people off from pursuing their dreams to be a chef. I am just trying to share some insights of the real world, other than the Chefdom glamour portrayed by celebrity chefs on TV.  Professional kitchen is a hectic workplace packed with adrenaline rush. A great teamwork, a smooth service, and an appreciation from the customer are certainly the fruits of labour sought after by many chefs in the industry.  Don’t limit yourself in the kitchen either, because a Chef does more than just cooking.