Sunday, February 24, 2013

blueberries do not grow in Singapore but you can have cake

I have a weakness for blueberries. I acquired a blueberry habit in Australia and to my horror, it followed me to Singapore.

Blueberries do not grow in Singapore.

They grow in America, England, South Africa and Australia but not Singapore. This means that the blueberries that do finally get to this country tend to be painfully expensive and powdery - very sad-making. It also means that recipes like these are usually out of reach.

I posted last year about the recipes I wanted to try when I finally moved out and got my own kitchen and one of them was a recipe for a cake evocatively named "Blueberry boy bait". For a year, I kept a sharp eye out for blueberries on sale but! BUT! I had not reckoned on Mr Grey liking blueberries just as much and so every time we bought affordable delicious blueberries, Mr Grey would persuade me that they were best eaten all by themselves.

I gave in every time. After all, he's right. Blueberries - like all fruit in season - taste beautiful unadorned. Besides, they were still quite expensive and I didn't have the heart to experiment with them. So it was that we made apple crumble and flapjacks twice in a row (apples and raisins being cheaper) and didn't do a single blueberry related food item.

This weekend I finally spotted blueberries going for $2.65 a punnet and I decided that at this price point, I could bake with them.

Ooooh let me just say, this recipe is worth the price of those blueberries. It turns out a buttery delicious cake wafting blueberries and cinnamon in equal measure and we loved it. This recipe is a keeper for sure.

But uh, because it was kind of difficult explaining the name of the cake to my  Chinese speaking family, I decided to just tell them it was blueberry butter cake. It's less evocative but the cake is good enough that it will stand on its own, sans the cute name.

I'm sorry I don't have pictures - the cake went real fast! But it was goooood and I will bake it again - that's a promise!


Yes I realise it's been all food posts for awhile - but I can't help it. I moved to Singapore in mid 2008 and didn't get my own kitchen till April 2011 - that's a really long time to go without my own kitchen so I've all this cooking-ness and baking-ness all built up within me.




Blueberry Boy Bait Butter Cake

2 cups plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
225g butter, softened**
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, do not defrost first as it tends to muddle in the batter)

1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen do not defrost)
1/4 cup granulated sugar (I used brown sugar and it was fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the cake: 

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 13 by 9-inch baking pan.
Whisk two cups flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl. With electric mixer, beat butter and sugars on medium-high speed until fluffy, about two minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just incorporated and scraping down bowl. Reduce speed to medium and beat in one-third of flour mixture until incorporated; beat in half of milk. Beat in half of remaining flour mixture, then remaining milk, and finally remaining flour mixture. Toss blueberries with remaining one teaspoon flour. Using rubber spatula, gently fold in blueberries. Spread batter into prepared pan.

For the topping:
Scatter blueberries over top of batter. Stir sugar and cinnamon together in small bowl and sprinkle over batter. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 20 minutes, then turn out and place on serving platter (topping side up). Serve warm or at room temperature. (Cake can be stored in airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.)

**Recipe is American and called for 2 sticks of butter which converts to roughly 225grams. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beginner recipe: Nelly's easy chicken stew

Recently I've been reflecting on how hard it really is to learn to cook. I've hit the age (gulp!) where loads of my friends have married, moved out, had (or having) kiddies and I've noticed this trend. Generally, if someone has managed to learn to cook before getting married and/or having kiddies - there is a much higher likelihood that the person will continue to cook for their household after the aforesaid life changes.


Because cooking - or learning to cook - is really not as easy as it sounds. And if you're not used to having to forage for yourself day after day and plan ahead - then it just gets so much harder. I mean, I once read this saying: "if you can read, you can cook" - and now, I think it isn't really true. Cooking - even simple home cooking - is full of skills to learn, jargon to decipher.

The second reason so few people cook is because cooking - for those with kiddies and households to manage - is tiring. It generates washing up. It involves taking out appropriate pans and chopping things up. Even cooking one meal per week means you need to plan ahead and buy the right stuff. Plus if you have kids, it gets even trickier because you have to plan for toddler or child friendly meals. Plus... you're tired and have no time. Eating out gets the trick done and then you can get kiddies off the bed and plop down somewhere to nap.

Well, last week I was thinking about this cooking issue (because I am random like that) and I remembered myself about 5 years ago, just starting to cook and trying to decipher cooking jargon. During that time, I stumbled on Chubby Hubby's food blog and was amazed by his recipes. One day, when reading an especially enticing recipe filled with mysterious ingredients that I wasn't sure of, I finally plucked up my courage to send him a question - What is lemon zest?

What is lemon zest?!!

Can you believe it? I use practically every part of the lemon now but then! Then, lemons were for iced lemon tea (which came out of a can) and for scenting dishwashing liquid (we were a Mama Lemon household). As far as I was aware, that's all lemons were used for.

I am grateful to Chubby Hubby (or rather the kind Mr Koh who runs it) for being nice enough to send me a reply explaining lemon zest. I believe he may even have explained how to zest a lemon.

However, I am even more grateful that I did eventually manage to learn adequate home cooking skills. Oh I still can't do lots of stuff (what does it mean to gently fold something through batter?!) but I can manage basic stuff.  It also helped that for some time, I lived with a talented home cook - Nelly - who taught me Chinese home cooking and some baking.

This Saturday, a friend from church is flying off to Australia for a year. This is her first time having to cook for herself everyday and she was anxiously asking for recipes and whether she should buy packets of food mixes (not really necessary but a good crutch for beginners). I told her I'd write out my beginner recipes for her to try out and assured her that all of them had three steps or less. It then occurred to me that what people really need are beginner recipes - recipes with three steps or less, involving easy to obtain ingredients and basic kitchen equipment.

The very first recipe I thought of was Nelly's chicken stew which was so tremendously easy (and cheap), I cooked it nearly every week for some months. The ingredients are simple but effective and the genius is that as the potato cooks, the starch thickens the stew and therefore no other thickeners are required. The other genius of this stew is that if you add vegetables like carrots and celery, this is essentially a one pot meal.

(One pot is all bold because for tired students with limited energy and time, you really don't want too much to wash up. There is a very special place in my heart for one pot recipes of all stripes.)

Nelly's easy chicken stew


2-3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 potato
1 onion
8-10 Mushrooms
1.5 tablespoons of oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cooking oil


1 non-stick pot/pan
1 spatula
1 knife
Chopping board

How to cook:

1. Cut up the chicken into bit size pieces (this can also be done with a kitchen scissors). Dice the onion, potato and mushrooms.

2. Heat oil in pan until bubbles start forming, then fry the onions for about 2 - 3 minutes. Add the chicken and fry until chicken is no longer pink. Add the mushrooms then the oyster sauce and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the diced potato and enough water to cover everything in the pan.

3. After adding potato and water, allow the stew to boil then turn the heat down and cover the pan so that the stew simmers gently. Allow the stew to simmer for at least 20 minutes. During this time, wash up the cutting board and knife.

4. Add pepper and more oyster sauce to taste (if you like), then serve.


In addition to oyster sauce, you can also add chinese cooking wine (this goes in just before the oyster sauce). But this is purely optional - I've only added it a few times. The stew will smell a little nicer but the taste does not change.

If you like a thicker stew, you can try adding a teaspoon of corn starch mixed with hot water.

Celery and carrots also make good additions to this stew. This was not part of Nelly's original recipe but I experimented and these two are the best fit.

Finally, this works just as well with minced pork but I'd suggest being careful with the simmering time. Normally, with chicken, I let it simmer for as long as 30-45 minutes but with minced pork, I try and turn off the heat once the potato is adequately cooked and the stew has got all nice and flavourful (15-20 minutes).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Getting the order right

One of the greatest takeaways from my parents' lifelong romance was to set priorities in the proper order: God first, then spouse, after the spouse the kids, and then everything else.  No doubt they had a unique perspective, having been in love with each other since Dad was five and Mom was three. 

Legion are my memories where the three boys were with Mom and Dad going to fancy restaurants, taking long coastal drives, spending the day at far away beach cities, shopping for antiques, fishing, spending a Saturday at an auction house, hanging out at their workplace (they always worked together), and going with them wherever they wanted to go.

Few are my memories of going to the party of a classmate, me or my brothers causing one of our sporting events to swallow an entire weekend, or doing some other kid-centered activity. 

My parents were intentional that having kids wasn't going to stop them from doing the things they did before they had kids. Their object was to bring the kids into their marriage, not allow the kids to drown their marriage in a sea of tasks for the children. For this reason, our kid activities were pretty limited. 

This idea probably sounds foreign to many people. It seems the pervasive thinking in the Western world is that the lives of parents generally revolve around their children. Beginning each Monday, day in and day out, parents run themselves ragged tearing around from practice to recital to dance class to art school to theater to band until they fall into a heap on Sunday night, only to start again the next morning. So, what happens after that final Sunday, when you've dropped off your baby girl at the college of her choice and you walk away, hand in hand with your spouse, no longer knowing the hand you hold? One way to fight that scenario is to make serious efforts to make your husband or wife a priority in your life. 

From here.

A bit of an eye-opener. Especially for Singapore, what with fifty million extra curricular activities now being the norm for the average kid.