Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!
Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01
Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple
There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients
Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

~~~

Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Almond Tofu (杏仁豆腐) and Syrupy Smashed Cherries–A Childhood Favorite Teams up with Summer Lovelies For Bliss in a Bowl

Cherries in syrup is quick and simple to make. Feel free to embellish with booze.

Almond tofu or almond jelly is one of the most popular desserts to come out of the Chinese restaurant. It’s almost always served at the end of a Chinese banquet, usually with canned longans in syrup and/or fruit cocktail.

As a little girl in swishy pigtails, I liked almond tofu enough but I lived for the bright pink cherries bobbing like rubies alongside the squishy grapes, soggy pear chunks, and soft peach slices in the accompanying fruit cocktail. With only two or three cherries to a can, a catfight inevitably broke out among the kids.

Flash forward three decades. I am older, wiser, and most importantly, I have enough money to buy as many cans of fruit cocktail as I desire.

However it does seem silly to stock up on canned fruit when cherry season is in full swing here in the Northwest. I am surrounded by cherries. Everywhere I look I see dark purple, almost black, Bing cherries, cheery-yellow Rainier cherries blushing with rouge, bright red sour cherries beckoning like sirens from a neighbor’s yard.

In what can only be defined as an aha moment, I realized I could have all the fruit cocktail-esque cherries I wanted, no hair-pulling required.

A quick Web surf later, I found recipes for macerated cherries, cherries in boozy syrup and cherries in almond syrup which I decided to adapt.

The cherries were easy. Next, it was on to the almond tofu.

The descriptor “tofu” is somewhat of a misnomer as the dessert’s ingredients usually comprise agar agar (a vegan gelling agent made from seaweed), and evaporated milk (which is cheaper and more common than fresh milk in Asia). I suppose the resulting color and delicate texture is similar to silken tofu. You could use soymilk to make it true to its moniker, a great substitute too if you can’t have dairy.

Almond tofu mixes are readily available at Asian stores but I like to make mine from scratch. I went in search of the agar agar brand my mom always used, Swallow Globe. The bright yellow packets are usually unmistakable on the shelf but it was out of stock at my Asian market so I settled for Golden Coins brand manufactured in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

I like that Golden Coins brand is made in California. I don’t quite like that it has added sugar but at least it wasn’t too sweet.

I removed the sachet from the box to discover the mix already includes sugar, which isn’t usually the case with other brands. Fortunately, the box had detailed instructions for making almond tofu so I didn’t have to guess.

I more or less followed the instructions, except I used only 1 cup of half-and-half instead of 3 cups of whole milk. I wanted to use these cute little molds my mom had bought in Singapore and I wanted to ensure they were firm enough to unmold cleanly. To use pure agar agar or gelatin, try this recipe, which will yield a more tofu-like consistency.

Right now, I’m lovin’ eating syrupy cherries to my heart’s content! And for me, almond tofu and cherries go together like black tea and milk in the British Isles.

As it turns out I’m not the only cherry-crazy fruit cocktail-lover. Enter Del Monte’s Very Cherry Mixed Fruit with extra cherries!

~~~

Almond Tofu with Syrupy Smashed Cherries

If you have a cherry pitter, by all means use it. I try to keep my kitchen gadgets to a minimum so I simply thwack my cherries with a large chef’s knife. With crimson juice splattering everywhere, it’s messy but lots of fun and you can save the juice to add to the syrup. It’s also very therapeutic. I used red Bing cherries but go ahead and use any type of cherry just not sour cherries. I have my eye on Rainier cherries for next time!

Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 35 minutes active

Syrupy Smashed Cherries:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
3-inch curl of lemon zest
2-inch piece vanilla bean, seeds scraped
2 cups pitted cherries of your choice (about 1 pound)

Almond tofu:
1 (6 ounce) box of Golden Coins agar agar powder
1/2 cup sugar
6 cups water
1 cup half-and-half
2 teaspoons almond extract
2-quart shallow pan or mold(s)

Place the sugar, water, lemon curl, and vanilla pod and seeds in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and add the cherries (plus juice, if any). Let cool and pour into a 16-ounce jar. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight, or up to one week.

Make the almond tofu. Place the contents of the box together with the sugar and water in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the agar agar and sugar completely dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the half-and-half and almond extract. Let cool a little.

Rinse the pan or molds with water to make it easier to unmold. I use hot water but I don’t think it matters, just don’t wipe it out. Pour the cooled mixture slowly into the pan or mold.

Refrigerate until the agar agar is set, about 2 hours. Serve with the smashed cherries.

Triggering Taste Memory with Purple Rice Pudding

Gorgeous black grains are transformed into a luscious burgundy pudding

There’s rice pudding and then there’s rice pudding.

Or more precisely, my rice pudding: “my” being yours, mine, or Uncle Bob’s.

Ask just about anyone and you’ll probably get an earful about a “secret” ingredient, or a tale inextricably linked to the memory of their childhood (or perhaps adulthood) rice pudding, be it seeds scraped straight from the vanilla pod or an emotional recounting of their six-year-old self standing by the stove watching mom stir rice and milk into a whirlpool of thick, creamy custard.

I’m no different.

When I first spied Maria Speck’s Purple Rice Pudding with Rose Water and Dates recipe (Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, Ten Speed Press, 2010), I was overwhelmed by the taste memory of bubur pulot hitam (black glutinous rice porridge) swirled with smooth, velvety milk still warm from the first squeeze of freshly-grated coconut flesh. The result: a burgundy bowl of sweet bliss.

Ah, the power of comfort food! Just one whiff or taste (or the mere imagining) is enough to spotlight a singular emotion or event amidst the jumble of memories and thoughts that are churning in our minds day after day, year after year.

Dusty Springfield’s “The Windmills of Your Mind” from the soundtrack of the original “The Thomas Crowne Affair” started playing in my head in stereo.

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning,
On an ever spinning wheel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

I can’t say for certain what it was about Maria’s recipe that triggered my memory. Perhaps it was the Forbidden Rice, an heirloom black rice variety trademarked by Lotus Foods. During Ming Dynasty China, this medium grain rice was reserved for the Emperor to ensure good health and long life. I’m not one to resist the thrill of an illicit ingredient.

Find Forbidden Rice and other Lotus Foods rice products at Whole Foods Market

Plus, the rice reminded me of black glutinous rice, the grain used to make pulot hitam. Uncooked, black glutinous rice and Chinese black rice are almost identical. After a spell on the stove, black glutinous rice huddles together and transforms into a chewy, almost gummy (but not in a bad way) porridge. Forbidden rice is more toothsome and the individual grains hold their shape better.

Once I started making the dish, I literally started tearing as I doused the chopped dates in the fragrant liquid. The fragrance transported me to my childhood kitchen where on the refrigerator’s topmost shelf always sat a bottle of rose syrup, far out of the reach of prying little hands. As a little girl, ambrosia was defined by one part rose syrup and four parts water served in a tall glass. Alas, this was a drink mainly served to guests. Only once in awhile, my brother and I were given a glass as a special treat.

Rose syrup is not to be mistaken for rose water. Or for that matter, a natural product infused with the essence of rose petals. It was (and probably still is) made with artificial flavoring and coloring, clearly, since just one glassful left my tongue stained a deep crimson.

No matter the source, memory is both a marvelous and precious thing. And just like Dusty sings, “Never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning wheel” our memories are in constant flux. But rest assured the images will always unwind in the “windmills of your mind.”

~~~

Purple Rice Pudding with Rose Water Dates

A food writer friend once said that he wouldn’t let chefs test his recipes because they couldn’t follow directions and always wanted to add their own spin. I’m not a chef but I’m guilty as charged. While it is difficult for me to follow a recipe to a ‘T’, I ended up giving this one just a mini makeover. Amidst claims that I am in denial about my lactose intolerance, I used coconut milk instead of half-and-half to nudge it closer to the rice pudding I own kinship with. And in place of the cinnamon stick, I sprinkled ground cardamom as an ode to my favorite kulfi flavor–rose water and cardamom.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup Chinese black rice
1/4 cup finely chopped pitted dates (about 6)
2 dates, pitted and cut into thin strips
4 teaspoons rose water, divided
1 1/4 cups coconut milk (slightly less than one 13 oz can)
2 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom or 2 cardamom pods
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, bring the water and rice to a boil. Lower the temperature to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the rice is tender yet still slightly chewy, about 30 minutes. Some water will remain (do not drain).

While the rice is cooking, prepare the date topping. Place the chopped dates in a small bowl and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the rose water. Add the date strips to a different small bowl and drizzle with 1 teaspoon rose water. Stir the dates in both bowls and set aside, stirring once or twice more.

Add the remaining 1 teaspoon rosewater, coconut milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, and vanilla to the rice. Raise the heat slightly until the mixture starts to bubble, stirring several times. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle bubble and cook, uncovered, for 15 more minutes, stirring every few minutes or so. The consistency should be creamy yet soupy — the mixture will thicken as it cools. Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove the cardamom pods if using. Stir in the chopped dates.

Divide the rice pudding among small individual dessert bowls or cups. Garnish with the rose water-infused date strips, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Notes:
Maria recommends choosing firmer dates such as Deglet Noor that won’t turn to mush in the pudding. To lighten up the pudding, she also suggests using whole milk instead of half-and-half. In the same vein, you can use light coconut milk.

~~~

This music-inspired (well kinda) post is part of the Twitter #LetsLunch bunch. Here’s what the rest of the crew is raving about:

Tiger Cakes ~ from Ellise at Cowgirl Chef
Honey Mac Wafers with Coconut ~ from Lisa at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Tommy’s Chili ~ from Felicia at Burnt-out Baker
Banana Bread ~ from Rashda at Hot Curries and Cold Beer
Chicken and Dumplings ~ from Cathy at ShowFood Chef
Quiet munchies for concert-going ~ from Patrick at Patrick G. Lee
Coconut Cake ~ from Steff at The Kitchen Trials
Cuban black beans ~ from Linda at Spicebox Travels
Gluten-free Thin Mints ~ from Linda at Free Range Cookies

A Not So Christmassy Christmas Cookie

IMG_0810 by you.

It’s amazing what you discover just by plugging words into Google.

Do you know what manju is? Well, in my books, it’s a Japanese confection that has myriad guises. It can be baked or steamed and filled with anything from azuki beans, lima beans to kabocha. According to Wikipedia, manju is also a Sanskrit word meaning “pleasing” or “sweet,” it is the Tamil word for “cloud,” as well as a popular name for females. Plus, Manchu (as in the people of Manchuria in what is today Northeastern China) comes from the Chinese Manju or Manzhou. Who would have thought?

Anyways, back to manju the Japanese confection. If baking is a holiday tradition in your family, or if you’d like to start the tradition, try this recipe on for size.

Yaki, or baked, manju is not your typical Christmas cookie–there’s no ginger, cinnamon or star shapes involved–but Katie Kiyonaga’s Auntie Shiz has been making them for the holidays for decades. Aunty Shiz makes a number of varieties with different fillings and in different shapes (including a brown-tinged sweet potatoe shape). Needless to say, each piece is an individual work of art.

Making manju from scratch takes quite a bit of work but you can hardly find them in stores anymore here in the U.S. I believe it’s worth all the effort to keep this recipe alive.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Japanese Sweet Bean Cookies (Yaki Manju)

IMG_0818 by you.

The recipe is deceptively simple because it doesn’t reflect the years and years of experience it takes to develop the know-how of when the dough is exactly the right texture, how to get the knack for rolling the manju so that there are no gaps between filling and dough. But keep practicing and you’ll eventually get it right.

Time: 1 1/2 hours
Makes: 3 to 3 1/2 dozen cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 cups flour, or as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 drops soy sauce for color (optional)
2 1/2 to 3 cups lima bean paste (recipe follows)

Glaze:
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon evaporated milk (Carnation is the preferred brand)
3 tablespoons soy sauce

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and then the egg whites and beat until smooth and well combined. Add the corn syrup and mix well.

Stir in 2 cups of flour, the baking soda, and salt. Knead everything into a smooth dough with your hands. Sprinkle in the remaining cup of flour, a little at a time, and knead until the dough pulls away easily from the sides of the bowl and no longer sticks to your fingers. If desired, add the soy sauce and knead into the dough to color it evenly.

Pinch off a small portion of dough and roll it into a ball the size of a gumball (about 1-inch in diameter). Roll a small portion of the lima bean paste into a ball of the same size. Flatten the dough ball between your palms and cup it in one hand. Place the lima bean ball in the middle. Stretch the dough over the lima bean ball and pinch the ends together to cover the filling completely. Shape as desired into a ball or an egg-shaped confection with two pointy ends. Repeat with the remaining dough and lima bean paste.

Arrange the cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Brush thickly with glaze. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until light golden.

Lima Bean Paste (Shiro An)
If you’re short on time, or patience, lima bean paste is available at most Asian markets well-stocked with Japanese merchandise. The beauty of making the paste at home is you can control the amount of sugar that goes into it. Lima bean paste keeps in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and in the freezer indefinitely.

Time: 3 hours plus soaking time
Makes: 4 cups

1 pound (3 cups) dried lima beans
2 cups sugar
Pinch salt

Place the lima beans in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for at least 3 hours, up to 12 hours.

Drain. Using your fingers, slip the skins off gently–they will pop off easily–and discard. Remove any sprouts. The beans might split but that’s okay.

The skins pop off with little effort

Transfer the beans to a medium saucepan and pour in enough water to cover the beans by an inch. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the beans are fall-apart tender and crumble easily between your fingers. Replenish the water as it evaporates so that the beans are submerged at all times (you will probably add 1 to 2 more cups of water), and stir often. If the beans scorch, they will turn an ugly brown and taste as bad as they look.

When the beans are tender, mash them with a potato masher or large fork until the texture resembles chunky mashed potatoes. Working in batches, use a wooden spatula to press the bean mixture through a sieve. Add a little water if the mashed beans are having trouble going through. The sieved bean mixture should now resemble smooth mashed potatoes.

The post-sieve lima bean mixture

Return the bean mixture to the same saucepan and add the sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from scorching. Run your wooden spatula through the paste and if the paste holds it shape and remains parted for a few seconds, it is ready. The paste will thicken as it cools anyway, so don’t worry about cooking it down until it’s really thick.

Parting of the yellow sea

Remove from the heat and cool before using as a filling for confections.

The thickened lima bean paste

It’s Pumpkin Time!

Sunshine kabocha from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Picture courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

I can’t believe it’s already October 1st. Fall is upon us and Halloween is just around the corner… which means it’s pumpkin time!

Mind you, pumpkins haven’t always instilled such excitement in me.

I’ve always thought of the pumpkin as an all-American vegetable (or is it a fruit?). Growing up in Singapore, it was never a part of my diet. And unfortunately, my inaugural experience with the orange gourd was not a very pleasant one. My very first taste of pumpkin came in the form of a slice of pie when I was a college freshman in Seattle. The overly-sweet yet vaguely bitter filling slid down my throat in a glob of mush. Blaeh. Needless to say I wasn’t too fond of it.

Before all you pumpkin pie lovers out there start chastising me (my husband included), I have to admit it could’ve been the spice triumvirate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) overkill or perhaps because it was served at the dining hall… hmm…

However, I recently discovered its importance in Japanese culture and history when I was researching a story for Seattle Metropolitan magazine. You may have heard of kabocha (pronounced kah-boh-CHA), or Japanese squash/pumpkin. In the U.S., kabocha comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Black Forest is flat and round, while Hokkaido is teardrop-shaped–and the rinds range in color from forest green to tangerine and grayish-green. But they are all varieties originating from Japanese seeds.

Wouldn’t you know it, kabocha is very popular in Japan and finds its way into everything from tempura to wagashi (Japanese sweets). Easy-to-grow, kabocha has been credited with saving many Japanese from starvation after World War II when rice fields were mostly destroyed. (Read more about kabocha and Katsumi Taki, the Japanese farmer I interviewed here).

Then, I met Phiroum Svy who taught me how to make pumpkin custard. Yes, pumpkins grow in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia! On another occasion, my mom’s friend Auntie Helen used pumpkin instead of daikon to make traditional Chinese radish cake (lo bo gao). It was utterly yummy! Now I’m hooked on pumpkin and love finding new ways to cook it Asian-style.

If you use pumpkin in your Asian dishes, sweet or savory, please share!

~~~

Pumpkin Custard (Num Sang Khya L’peou)

IMG_1177 by you.

Hollowed-out pumpkins are filled with coconut custard in this delightful dessert that Phiroum Svy learned how to make from her grandma in Cambodia. When the pumpkin is cut, each wedge shows off the creamy yellow custard contrasting beautifully with the orange pumpkin flesh. Traditionally, larger pumpkins are used but Phiroum prefers to use cute little sugar pumpkins for individual servings.

Time: 1 hour (20 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Four 2- to 3-inch wide sugar pumpkins (or one 6- to 7-inch wide pumpkin)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup sugar
4 eggs

Wipe the pumpkins with a damp cloth to remove any dust or dirt.

Insert the tip of a sharp paring knife diagonally into the top of a pumpkin until it pierces through the skin and flesh and into the cavity. Make short cuts in a zigzag or hexagonal pattern and go around the stem in a circle to make a hole large enough to insert a teaspoon (1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter). With a smaller pumpkin, it might be easier just to slice the top off straight across. Repeat with the remaining pumpkins.

Lift off the lid and scrape out the seeds and stringy bits with a teaspoon.

Set up your steamer.

Fill the steamer pan half full of water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium until you are ready to steam.

In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar and coconut milk together. Crack the eggs into the bowl and whisk until just incorporated. Place the pumpkins in the top tier of your steamer with the pumpkin lids on the side. Using a ladle, carefully pour equal amounts of custard into each pumpkin cavity until only about three quarters full since the custard will rise and pouf up beyond the hole. Try not to spill any custard over the sides of the pumpkins. If you do, wipe it clean with a damp cloth.

Return the water in the steamer to a rolling boil. Set the steamer basket or rack on top of the steamer pan. Cover and steam over medium heat for 30 to 35 minutes (UPDATE: If using larger pumpkins, steam for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours). The custard is set when it doesn’t jiggle when shaken and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Don’t steam for more than 45 minutes or the pumpkin will fall apart.

When done, turn off the heat and wait for the steam to subside before lifting the lid. Lift it away from you to prevent condensation from dripping onto the pumpkins, or scalding yourself. Carefully remove the pumpkins from the steamer and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 10 to 12 hours to let the custard firm up. Don’t worry if the custard falls a little.

Cut each pumpkin into 4 to 6 wedges and serve cold or warm (heat it up in the microwave). Use a spoon to scoop up some pumpkin flesh together with the custard, making sure you get a little of each with every bite.

Pat’s notes:
Instead of sugar pumpkins, any winter squash such as kabocha squash or acorn squash work just as well.

My New Orleans Grandma

DSC06535 by you.

The “Dead End” sign next to Mary de Veer’s house aptly reflected the mood right after hurricane Katrina struck. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

With the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up on August 29, 2008, let us remember the people who survived (and those who didn’t) the horrific events, many of whom are still trying to rebuild their lives. Regardless of where they are now, the people of New Orleans will never forget this natural disaster that changed their lives forever. And neither should we.

Here is my tribute to one survivor.

Mary de Veer

No, don’t worry, you’ve come to the right blog. Yes, you’re right. Mary de Veer is neither Asian, nor a native Louisianan for that matter. What she is is a spunky 86-year-old grandmother brimming with a wry sense of humor and wonderful stories aching to be told. That’s reason enough for me to want to tell her story.

And contrary to what you might think, she ain’t Dutch either. Her married last name comes from her late Dutch-American husband whom she met in her birthplace, Scotland.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my husband’s friend Chris invited us to his uncle Denis’s 40th birthday barbecue which was held at his grandmother Mary’s house. Who could resist a genuine Southern barbecue?

 

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Chowing down on barbecue. Can you spot Mary?

When I was introduced to Mary, it took me a few minutes to register her accent. She was a petite waif of a lady and her gentle, sing-song voice sounded kinda Southern yet there was something different about its timbre. I turned to Chris and he clarified. “She was born in Scotland.” Mary’s hug, on the other hand, was as warm as any grandmother’s, Southern or not.

As is my nature, I offered to help in the kitchen. Mary quickly put me to task whipping cream for her famous trifle. While we worked, we chatted. Of course I wanted to know how she landed up thousands of miles away from home.

Mary’s journey to Louisiana is the stuff fairy tales are made of, set against the backdrop of World War II.

The year was 1941, and a certain Frederick Edward de Veer, a Louisiana country boy with Dutch roots, was stationed in Prestwick, Scotland where Mary’s brother lived. One weekend, the local parish church organized a dance and the priest had given the American army chaplain half a dozen tickets. Fred grabbed one. As Mary put it, “He was one of the lucky winners.”

And a winner Fred was. But wait, the rest of the story doesn’t play out as one might think. Mary did attend the dance but she didn’t even talk very much to Fred that evening. In fact, Fred got friendly with her brother, not with her. Mary wasn’t bothered. “American soldiers had a bad reputation as all soldiers from occupation forces do,” she explains. So it was definitely not love at first sight!

Perhaps it was all part of Fred’s plans.

Mary lived in Glasgow with the rest of her family and somehow Fred became a regular visitor whenever he could get off base. Mary and her sister took turns as his personal tour guides. For awhile, you couldn’t tell whom Fred liked more. “If I wasn’t home he would go out with my sister!” Mary notes matter-of-factly.

In the end, Fred chose Mary. However, Mary’s mother wouldn’t let them get married. She told him to go home to his family first and if their love endured across time and the Atlantic they would figure things out.

When the war ended, Fred went home to the U.S. and they corresponded for a year. “He never wrote a letter, he only wrote notes,” the ever facetious Mary says.

Obviously, whatever words of endearment Fred jotted down in those notes did the trick. Mary was soon on her way to New York on a passenger liner. Fred met her in the city and they journeyed together to New Orleans to meet his family.

A few months later, on January 25, 1947 (the birthday of the famous poet Robert Burns Mary points out), Mary and Fred were married.

The happy married couple settled into a house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, one of many that had been built for returning soldiers. Over the next 20 years, they had 11 sons. As their family grew, Fred added more and more bedrooms. “Fred did all the work, I cooked,” says Mary.

With 11 boys and a husband to feed, quantity was key. When it came to food, Mary cooked lots of it and whatever was cheapest. “The boys were easy to please just as long as it tasted OK.”

The menu ranged from a Scottish dish here and there to typical Louisianan fare. The kids loved red beans and rice and Mary often fed the family grits at breakfast and sometimes supper. Other favorites were gumbo and jambalaya, one of the few Southern dishes she actually liked. Instead of crawfish pie, she made a tasty Scottish meat pie. Mary didn’t care too much for seafood but her kids would go crabbing and fishing all the time and bring the still-wriggling morsels back home for her to cook.

Today, Mary’s children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are scattered across the U.S. Several live in New Orleans and within the state of Louisiana; her son Brian lives down the street.

Mary loves gathering her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren together. They visit often, mostly for happy occasions like birthdays and holidays. However, one of Mary’s most recent memories is of the time they all rallied around her in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that struck on August 29, 2005.

On that fateful day, Mary was sitting in her living room with her son Peter. She describes the events briefly in her own words.

“We were watching parts of our neighbor’s house being blown against our windows. The waters started to rise and we couldn’t get out the front as the oak tree had fallen into the front yard as well as the telephone pole.

We stepped out the back door into four feet of water. Peter made me put on a life jacket but I wasn’t afraid. We swam down the block. The water was about 5 or 6 feet high.

Peter didn’t know how to get me over the neighbor’s fence. Then we saw part of my privacy fence sail past us like a raft and we climbed on top of it and sailed to the end of the street. Then we went up the embankment.

We had planned on taking my car but the windows had blown in and there was glass everywhere. So we climbed onto Peter’s truck but Peter didn’t have his keys. So he had to swam back to the house to get them. He left me with the dog on the tailgate of the truck. The dog was bigger and heavier than me and he wanted to follow Peter. We were having quite a struggle (she laughs).

Peter came back with the keys and we drive a block away to the arena where we spent a night on the floor. Denis came and took us to the levee board offices and we stayed there for a week. We were allowed to stay there only because Denis worked there. It made me feel so bad. There were people behind us but they wouldn’t let them in.

Then we got word that we were going to Baton Rouge. We spent a week here, a month there, with family.

When I left the house, it (the water) was up to my chest. I knew everything was gone. I was absolutely in shock. I didn’t believe it had happened. My life was gone but I was still alive.”

A few weeks later, when people were allowed to return to their homes, Chris came with a crew of volunteers to strip the house where Mary had lived for 58 years.

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Mary’s house, post Katrina, is on the left. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Mary stayed away. She couldn’t bear to set foot in the house. It was too painful for her, knowing all her important papers, as well as her family’s history had been washed away in the flood. (Thankfully Chris had digitized some old photos before the flood and Mary still had those to cling to.) The emotions Mary felt were familiar but no less painful. “I can’t say I was used to the feeling but I felt like that during the war when I was a young girl,” she explains.

 

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The street number framed by deer antlers Denis had placed out in front. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Mary’s children congregated to clean up the house and salvage items. They went through the house and managed to save certain things including furniture (such as the coffee table and TV cabinet) that her husband had made. “He made them to last,” she says proudly. “All the store-bought ones were all gone.”

Other items like silverware, bowls, and plates were intact and just needed a little cleaning up from the mud. To this day, even after 3 years, some things are still covered in mud.

In August 2006, Mary moved to a rambler (her children all pitched in to buy it for her) in Tallow Creek in Covington on the North Shore, about 25 miles away from New Orleans. But things will never be the same. Everything that Mary was used to is no more. She misses the familiarity of the neighborhood and her independence, not to mention the memories ensconced in the house she lived in for all her married life. There isn’t a post office or grocery store within walking distance and Mary has to rely on her children who live a short distance away.

 

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Mary’s new house in Covington is modern but devoid of the memories (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Yet Mary acknowledges that she’s one of the lucky ones and she knows she’ll get through it. “I guess you could say I’m a survivor.”

Good Old Fashioned Trifle

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The trifle lasted long enough for me to take a picture of Mary with it.

Trifle is a traditional Scottish/English dessert usually comprising sherry-soaked sponge cake layered with preserves and custard. Typical of immigrants, Mary adapted the dish to suit her American family (I doubt instant jelly is a staple in Great Britain). Mary had already started losing her sense of taste even before Hurricane Katrina but it’s gotten worse since the storm, she says. “Nothing tastes the same.” Trifle is one of the dishes she can still make without much effort. While I was visiting, I was tasked with whipping cream and decorating the trifle. It’s really easy and doesn’t require a recipe. Just go with whatever amounts suit your fancy.

Sponge cake, lady fingers, pound cake, dessert shells, or jam rolls (stale cake holds up better, says Mary)
Sherry, brandy or rum
Frozen strawberries, thawed and drained, saving the juice to make jello (you can use fresh as well)
1 packet instant strawberry jelly
1 packet instant vanilla custard
Whipped cream
Canned pears or peaches

Line the bottom and sides of a large bowl or individual serving-sized bowls with the cake. Drizzle with a little sherry.

Spread the strawberries evenly over the sponge.

Cook the jelly according to the package directions (Mary likes quick-set jello) using the reserved strawberry juice. Allow it to cool before pouring it over the cake and strawberries. Put the bowl in the fridge to set.

Cook the vanilla pudding according to the package instructions and set aside.

When the jelly has just set (about 30 minutes to 1 hour), pour the custard over. It will dribble down the sides of the bowl but it’s OK.

When everything has set, spread as much whipped cream as you’d like over the trifle and decorate with strawberries, pears and/or chocolate shavings to your taste.

Serve chilled.

Flim Flum Flan

Cardamom-studded Flan

One wouldn’t necessarily think of flan as an Indian dessert but this fusion recipe comes from someone with a fascinating provenance. Mumtaz Rahemtulla is of Indian origin (from the Western-most state of Gujarat) and a fourth generation Kenyan. Both she and her husband were born British nationals in Kenya. But when Kenya gained independence, they opted for Kenyan citizenship. In the 1970’s, she and her husband migrated to Canada where her children were born, before moving again to the U.S. Mumtaz usually steams her flan on the stove (over medium heat for about 30 minutes) but I have altered the recipe to bake in a water bath in the oven. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with a rich, creamy, melt-in-your mouth treat harboring a surprise in every bite–a heady shot of cardamom.

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (20 minutes active)
Makes: 8 servings
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 cups 2-percent fresh milk
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk (about half of a 14-ounce can)
5 eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
Seeds from 6 green cardamom pods, ground with a mortar and pestle (about 1/4 teaspoon), plus more for garnish
Pinch saffron

In a small, heavy saucepan (cast iron or aluminum are ideal), melt sugar over medium heat undisturbed. The sugar will start to melt around the edges of the pan at the 5 to 7 minute mark. When a syrup starts to form, swirl the pan occasionally or stir with a wooden spoon to encourage the rest of the sugar to melt. The light golden color will shift from lighter to darker shades of amber. After about 15 minutes in total, the sugar will have completely melted into a thick, deep amber syrup. Don’t step away from the stove during this process, even for a minute. If at any time you need to stop the caramelizing process abruptly, pull the pan off the stove and carefully immerse the bottom of the pan into your sink filled with cool water.

Quickly pour caramel into a 10-inch pie plate and swirl to coat the bottom. If the caramel hardens before you’re done, microwave plate for 30 to 45 seconds until the caramel is runny again. Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine fresh, evaporated, and condensed milks, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron. Whisk until smooth. Pour custard into the caramel-coated plate.

Place the pie plate in a baking pan. Fill the pan with water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the pie plate to create a water bath.

Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the flan crinkles at the edges and is speckled with light brown spots. A toothpick inserted into the middle should come out clean.

Cool to room temperature and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, run a thin-bladed knife along the edge of the plate. Place a serving platter on top of the pie plate and turn over. The flan should release easily from the pie plate onto the platter. Cut into 8 slices and garnish with hand-crushed cardamom seeds.

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