Archive for January, 2009

so many kaffeehausen, so little time

This is a post I had started a while ago, a few days after returning from Vienna. It’s finally time I posted it! Hopefully there will be more to follow…


The second day in Vienna (see here for the post on the first day) began without breakfast – the first thing to hit my palate was a supremely rich sacherpunsch (which is essentially a sachertorte, with the exception that the usually dry cake is soaked in rum) and a strong espresso at L. Heiner, a professed favourite of my extremely knowledgable tour guide.

Café Drechsler

Highlights of the day included nipping quickly through the Naschmarkt (Vienna’s most famous food market, which also hosts a flea market on Saturdays; more on it later) and ending up at Café Drechsler. This old-timer, established in 1919, was a popular haunt of marketgoers and stallholders alike (it only closed for one hour every day, from 2am-3am). So connected were the market regulars to the kaffeehaus that Herr Drechsler himself would bring coffees to them, every day without fail, so they would not have to leave their stalls. It closed several years ago, but was rescued and given a new lease of life thanks to the joint efforts of Manfred Stallmajer and Sir Terence Conran. A regular himself in his younger years, Stallmajer would simply and thriftily order a simple melange until, coerced by a grumpy Drechsler, supplement it with a goulash. To him, it would have been a shame for the space left by the closure to go to a brand like McDonalds or Starbucks (snaking their way around the city, slowly but surely) so he took it into his own hands to relaunch the café.

Café Drechsler

The aim was simple – to hold onto the principles of the kaffeehaus while bringing it more in line with the 21st century (a manifesto that was, of course, met with criticism and scepticism); anything which was original to the restaurant must be kept, unless it was proven to be beyond repair. The chairs and timber wood panelling were meticulously restored, and some of the original bauhaus fittings (such as the lights) were also kept, though placed differently. The original ceiling of the building was also kept, after stripping away thick decades of yellowed wallpaper (apparently the layers just kept going on one after the other whenever the most recent layer got too stained). Shiny new mirrors have been put in, and distinctively modern transparent light fittings installed in place of the heavy globes that dominate most kaffeehausen.

Café Drechsler

It felt worlds apart from many of the other traditional kaffeehausen I visited, yet not. The patrons were not, as expected, hipsters or yuppies attracted by the rebranding (though there were a few), but a few gentlemen who looked like comfortable old-timers. These little details, coupled with the ever so subtle ‘upgrades’ of materials and fabrics and combined with the essential air of the café means that the spirit of the kaffeehausen is not lost.

January 29, 2009 at 12:15 am 4 comments

Making Chinese New Year radish cake (蘿蔔糕)

First, get your radish...
First, get your radish…

It’s Chinese New Year tomorrow and it’d be a travesty not to have lor bak go (蘿蔔糕/ radish or turnip cake) to eat in celebration. It’s always been one of my favourite dim sum items, and the fact that it’s a vital part of CNY lends the perfect excuse to make it at home. ;)

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to head back home to Hong Kong to celebrate CNY, but this year not so much. So in the past few weeks I’ve been trying to cast my mind back to 2008 when my mom taught me step by step how to make radish cake at home. Of course, I called a few days before and grilled her on the various steps, since I didn’t note down any quantities last time around! Her tips were to make sure your radish:rice flour ratio is high (minimum 4:1, though according to my calculations the ratio we used at home is more like 7:1); that you don’t add too much water when you cook the grated radish (as the veg will release enough of its own juices when cooking) and to sift the rice flour well to avoid lumps.

Vital ingredients

The vital ingredients are simple. With the ingredients I had, I made about 4 containers worth of radish cake paste, which makes a LOT – it would probably feed a family of four for at least a few days. To cook the radish cake, I use those simple aluminium foil loaf tins. You’ll also need two fresh, long white radishes, rice flour, 4-5 sticks of Chinese laap cheung (wind-dried sausage), 8 shiitake mushrooms and a small handful of dried shrimps. And we keep the seasonings simple with a small amount of salt and white pepper.

Grating the radishes

Step 1: peel and grate your radishes. This is the most physically exerting bit – my upper arms ache a bit the day after (er, which is probably a sign of how little exercise I’ve been getting lately…). I weighed all the grated radish afterwards so I could work out the ratio of flour I should be using. My two large radishes came to about 1.6kg’s worth.

* Now I should say now that my radish cakes in the end came out a bit too gluey because I got confused with my mom’s instructions – she told me to use a 4:1 ratio, so I calculated 400g worth of rice flour but used 300g to make sure it wouldn’t be too sticky. Turns out I noted in the margins that they used 200-250g of flour for their 1.8kg worth of radishes – a 9:1 ratio! D:

ANYWAYS, so make sure you don’t have too much rice flour. You can always add more if your mixture is too soft, but it will be hard to rectify a stiff radish cake!


Step 2: chop up your sausages and shiitake mushrooms (soaked beforehand, naturally. Reserve the soaking liquid for later!) so that they’re quite small. Wash and drain your dried shrimp. Heat a large pan and add the sausages (don’t add any oil) and fry for several minutes over a medium low heat until the fat in the sausages has rendered out. Then add the mushrooms and then the dried shrimp. Fry lightly until fragrant but don’t allow them to brown. Transfer the mixture to a bowl (keeping most of the oil in the pan) and set aside.

Cooking the grated radish

Step 3: tip your grated radish into the pan, along with about a small cup of the water used to soak the shiitake mushrooms, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occassionally, until softened. Make sure your radish isn’t swimming in liquid, but are comfortably moist. Season to taste with salt (not too much as the sausages and shrimp are quite salty already) and white pepper. Turn off the heat.

Step 4: measure out your rice flour, then sieve it. Add small quantities of the flour into the pan with the radish, stirring well to incorporate it before adding more. You want a mixture that isn’t too stiff, but not too watery either. It should be relatively loose and have a dropping consistency. Then, stir in your goodies – the sausage, mushrooms and shrimps from earlier!

Steaming the turnip cake

Step 5: pour the mixture into your containers of choice (they should be heatproof). Set up your steamer. I didn’t have one large enough, so improvised with a wok, a steam rack, and another wok to act as the lid… haha. Set your radish cakes into the steamer (don’t let it touch the water) and steam for about 45 minutes to an hour. My mom says the water should be bubbling, not simmering. So keep an eye on the water level and top up with hot water often. When ready, a skewer (or chopstick ;D) inserted into the middle should come out clean.

At this point we take it out to cool, and we like to add a sprinkling of chopped spring onions and a drizzle of sesame oil. You can eat the cake now as is, but I much prefer radish cake pan-fried… (If you’re not eating immediately, allow to cool completely then put into the fridge. It’ll last about 3-4 days).

So, if you want to pan-fry…

Pan-frying the turnip cake

T’is simple. Heat up a good non-stick frying pan, add a drizzle of oil and pan-fry on both sides for about 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp :-) Best washed down with copious amounts of Chinese tea…

Two pieces are not enough...

Every family’s recipe is different, so you don’t have to take this as gospel. I have to say, my first attempt came out pretty decently, but I’m still a bit miffed with my messing up the radish:flour ratio as I like my radish cake a bit less firm (the crisp exterior/melting interior is king!). But essentially the recipe works. If you have any tips to add, please do!

In two weeks’ time, I’ll be looking forward to making tong yuen (glutinous rice balls) to mark the end of the new year… :-)

January 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm 29 comments

Berry and pistachio yoghurt cake

Yoghurt cake

Some recipes are just so versatile – like this gorgeous yoghurt cake recipe from Bill Granger that a friend of mine recently modified. The original was a splendid sounding peach and almond yoghurt cake, but she replaced it with blueberries, raspberries and pistachio nuts. Three of my favourite things – naturally, I had to nick it and make it myself so I could spend my days stuffing it in my face.

The yoghurt in the cake is what makes it so lovely and moist – the crumb is quite dense, and yet it’s still quite light. I love the tartness of the blueberries and raspberries (uhh, not quite back in season yet), which offset the sweet sponge. The crushed pistachios also look great on top and add a nice crunch. This will definitely be something I’ll be whipping up at the next charity bake sale at work… ;-)

Many thanks to Fanny at Foodbeam for posting the recipe up – judging by how good the original looks, I’ll have to try it out with ripe peaches come summertime!

Berry and pistachio yoghurt cake
Adapted from Bill Granger’s peach and almond yoghurt cake

serves: 8

220g unsalted butter, softened
250g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
225g self-raising flour, sifted
50ml milk
250ml plain yoghurt
250-300g mixed blueberries and raspberries
50g shelled pistachios, roughly crushed

1. Preheat oven to 170°C. Grease and line the base of a 23cm springform cake pan. (I used a 23cm deep square cake tin and it fits perfectly).

2. Place the butter and sugar into a bowl mix until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, then add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition.

3. Fold in the flour, milk and yoghurt and mix until barely combined.

4. Gently fold in the berries.

5. I crush my pistachios by whizzing them quickly in a mini food processor until they’re nicely crushed but not blitzed to a powder. Then, I put them through a sieve so I can mix the finer powdery bits directly into the cake batter. Fold the pistachio ‘dust’ through the mixture.

6. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin, then sprinkle the remaining crushed pistachios over the top. Bake in the centre of the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. If the cake is browning too quickly, cover with foil for the last 20 minutes of cooking.

7. Allow the cake to cool… and resist touching it in the meantime – I couldn’t help it, it’s just so nice and springy to the touch! Serve in thick wodges with a nice cuppa :-)

January 20, 2009 at 12:38 am 3 comments


A freelance journalist and full-time gourmand, eating her way mostly through London and Hong Kong.

Current location: London


Charmaine currently digs: the smell of coffee; adding ponzu to everything; bill granger; still eating natto with every meal; caressing her Nikon FM2n.



January 2009

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