Posts filed under ‘london’

Black sesame macarons and memories of Paris

Black sesame macarons

I sure do love macarons. When did the obsession begin? Ah it was the year before university and the time of Xanga (who even uses that anymore?) when I was particularly enamoured by a glamorous blogger who wrote about her travails to Paris, Tokyo and beyond… one of the treasures she mentioned in one particularly fabulous post were macarons. Cue an image of the most adorable, pastel-coloured sweets I had ever set eyes upon.

Fast forward to university year one. Having made the move from Hong Kong to London, my very first foray into Europe had to be no other place but Paris. Ah, I was a knave living on cheap croissants and pain au chocolats for breakfast, baguettes for lunch, and god-knows-what for dinner – one night, we met a Belgian friend there one night and horreur of horreurs, he took us to a deep pan pizza place. Sigh. We also had a snack at McDonald’s, of all places… And that’s not all! Those were the days when I ddn’t know what an escalope was, oh ho! But that isn’t to say those ‘cheap’ purchases were anything but fantastic (maybe that’s stretching the truth a bit about the pizza and mini maccie D fish fingers) – it IS Paris, afterall. But if there was one thing I took away with me to heart, it had to be those lovely little macarons.


On our last day, oblivious to the joys of Pierre Hermé or even Sadaharu Aoki, we traipsed to Le Printemps’ food hall in search of these elusive little almond minxes. I gorged on the sight of those luscious little confectionaries in their hundreds, set behind glass domes. I don’t even remember whose macarons I bought, but I settled on a counter with relatively reasonable prices (I remember gasping when I realised how much these little things cost). With godawful GCSE French, I ordered a box. It was quite unglamorous as we took our bounty upstairs and plonked ourselves down in a random waiting area where there happened to be tables and chairs.


I opened the box and hovered my fingers over the rainbow discs… I believe the first one I sampled was classic vanilla, with its light golden buttery hue and slightly shimmery dome. I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful it was. Such a delicate, crisp shell giving way almost immediately to a texture that can’t be labelled as ‘chewy’ – indeed, it had some bite but it was so soft, so creamy at the same time. It was, quite literally, an epiphany. I couldn’t bear to eat the rest of my 11 remaining macarons because I didn’t want them to disappear! Looking back at the photo, the macarons I bought look amateurish compared to the picture-perfect versions perfected by Mr Hermé or at Ladurée.

(Thanks to the enduring qualities of the internet, the images above were the same ones I took from that trip and uploaded onto photobucket more than 3 years ago!)

It wasn’t until a year ago I attempted to make my own macarons. A combination of cockiness, impatience and a temperamental oven did not a success make. It wasn’t until the third try that my pistachio macarons came out with uncracked, smooth domes and the requisite feet – what an achievement! But that time, I’d fooled around with the recipe so much I had forgotten what made it so successful. So ever since, I haven’t been able to replicate the success.

Black sesame macaron batter But thanks to a group of bloggers who recently attended a macaron-making class at L’Atelier des Chefs, some of whom were kind enough to publish the recipes on their blogs, I decided to give it another shot. Everything this time was measured to perfection, and the store-bought ground almonds milled even finer in my tiny pestle and mortar (I lack a food processor, sadly, or even a spice/coffee grinder). I had always been afraid of over-mixing my batter, but persevered until my batter was somewhat shiny (the black sesame ‘dulled’ the mixture somewhat) and had reached the ribbon stage. I took it as a good sign that my macarons were developing a skin rather quickly – something that had never happened with any of my previous batches. Popped them in the oven for about 10-12 minutes and squeaked with joy when I saw they had come out perfectly, despite the fact that I had to make do with some foil when I came home and realised I didn’t have any baking sheets or even a proper baking tray…

In my recipe, I used about 100g ground almonds and 25g ground black sesame seeds – next time I’m going to increase the black sesame to almond ratio, since I prefer more speckling. I love the way the batter looks like smooth granite or pebbles when piped out! I also mixed plenty of ground black sesame into an Italian buttercream (which kept separating into a dreadful cottage cheese-like texture, though I managed to salvage some of it) – I used salted butter for it to take away the excessive sweetness I feel most macarons have. So I sandwiched them and left the macarons to rest overnight and tasted them the next day.

Now… I don’t want to brag, but it made me feel like that 18 year old girl again in Paris, trying macarons for the very first time.


November 30, 2008 at 11:59 pm 6 comments

Pork kakuni with scallop congee

pork kakuni with scallop congee

So I have the itch to blog again… and what better time than now, when it’s time to hash out those lovely winter recipes that have been sitting around the kitchen for months on end? The last time I made buta no kakuni was last Christmas; impatience and a loose hand with the soy sauce led to a sad and salty affair with rough meat. This time, I was going to bring out the big guns. Cue this excellent recipe I came across from Chubby Hubby‘s blog, which in turn comes from Masaharu Morimoto’s ‘The New Art of Japanese Cooking’. When I first came across it, it looked impossibly complicated – with a very long cooking time and lots of waiting about, I was turned off of the idea. But I decided the effort would be worth it, and took the plunge.

I didn’t take any photos during the process because (a) who said I was cooking this for purpose of blogging about it? (b) I wasn’t sure how successful it’d be. Well, here I am now, blogging about a very successful dish… and it has inspired me to blog more again!

I did, as I’m prone to do, make a few alterations. One was using ordinary white short grain rice in the initial braising process instead of brown – I just couldn’t be bothered to buy a pack of brown rice (weirdly expensive in Japan Centre) and I couldn’t find any information on what the effect would be, except that it ‘tenderises’ the meat – not sure what the difference is between brown and white rice, though. For the first part, I’m guessing the rice keeps the pork tender by ‘insulating’ it as it braises, protecting it from too much direct heat? Brown rice probably doesn’t break down as much as white in that time, therefore ‘protecting’ the pork for longer? Err, Heston, give us a hand…?

The initial braising process is 8 hours, but I cheated. I did it only for 4 – my pork belly was already sliced into strips when I bought them, so I figured it needed less time. I started at 8pm after work and couldn’t leave the oven on all night, either! Then it was left to rest, as Chubby Hubby did, in the oven overnight. The next night, the pork was removed from the thick rice mixture and, instead of wastefully discarding the rice as suggested, I bunged it into my rice cooker, added some chicken stock and the soaked dried scallops and made the congee that way! The rice, afterall, had soaked up so much flavour from the pork during that initial cooking process so it would have been silly to throw all that away.

scallop congee
The resulting congee was so silky, and so full of porcine goodness and lovely dried scallop flavours. With some chopped spring onions and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, it was enough!

So then the pork went on to be braised again for several hours with a mixture of soy sauce, sake, sugar and water, along with bamboo shoots and chunky pieces of daikon (my own additions, because I love the way they soak up the flavours of anything it is braised with). Result! The pork was already falling apart after the first cooking process and by the second it was meltingly tender. Gorgeous.

pork kakuni

See that piece just falling off? ;)

I’d recommend anyone to give this recipe a shot. It may sound daunting at first, but you really do just leave it to do its own thing most of the time. Set it aside for a weekend when you’re home, shying away from the cold.

The full recipe can be found on Chubby Hubby’s blog. Remember not to throw the rice away! ;) Times like these you really can tell I’m of an Asian (or ‘Oriental’ as they say here) persuasion…

Oh, and I’m intending to do a few more posts that I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Yes, I am talking about Colombia! And I have also recently discovered an unfinished draft of a second Vienna post hidden in my dashboard. Oops. So, yeah. Stay tuned.

November 29, 2008 at 1:03 am 4 comments

onsen tamago

onsen tamago

I don’t know when the obsession started, but I began dreaming about hot spring eggs (onsen tamago) a week or so ago. I blame Amy and all her wonderfully documented meals in Japan. Even more so when I discovered that it was so simple to make yourself at home. Short of a hot spring in your backyard, an onsen tamago is only ever a few short steps away (as long as you’re making rice in a rice cooker in the first place, that is).

Backtracking a bit – some of you might be wondering “What the heck is onsen tamago anyway?” The short answer is that it’s a gorgeous egg dish that’s commonly served as a breakfast item at hot springs hotels in Japan. The reason being that the temperatures of the hot springs (ie below boiling point) are perfect for poaching these eggs so lightly that they just become ethreally silky and just slide lusciously down your throat. It also works so that the yolks are set on the outside, but the whites are only loosely set and creamy. Essentially, the eggs are ‘poached’ inside the shells; when they’re ready, you crack it open into a bowl filled with a mixture of dashi, mirin and soy sauce, sprinkle over some spring onions, and slurp it all down. It’s fascinating that such a simple dish can be so satisfying (though those of you who feel squeamish at the thought of semi-raw eggs should turn away, now!).

So how do you make it? First thing would be to get the ‘broth’ ready for your egg. All I did was use a teaspoon of dashi powder dissolved in about 4 tablespoons of water, a teaspoon of mirin and a teaspoon of soy sauce. Mix together and leave to chill in the fridge until needed.

Clearly, it’s important to make sure you get the freshest eggs you can, and make sure they’re at room temperature (run under warm water if you take them straight out of the fridge and want to use immediately). Then, all you need is a rice cooker that’s just finished cooking some rice, and some kitchen paper. Because I was steaming rice for dinner anyway, this all worked out fine.

onsen tamago

Once the rice has finished cooking, the rice cooker will automatically switch to the handy ‘keep warm’ function – which coincidentally maintains the perfect temperature for making onsen tamago. All you need to do then is wrap the egg in a layer of kitchen paper (this is just to make sure the eggs aren’t heated directly) and set it gently on top of the cooked rice. Cover, and leave to ‘cook’ for one hour. When time’s up, gently crack your egg open and let it slide into the dashi/soy sauce/mirin mixture you’ve made in advance. Sprinkle over some chopped spring onions, and, if you’re feeling particularly decadent, a few bonito flakes. Slurp it all down in one go a la prairie oysters, or eat the egg white and yolk separately in spoonfuls. The egg whites take on a super silken tofu-like texture, which is extremely yummy and even better when eaten with the broth.

onsen tamago

Too bad I didn’t get to experience the entire egg yolk, considering I dropped it after taking the first photo on the left! I managed to salvage half. The things I do for this blog…

The much harder way to make onsen tamago is to keep a pot of warm water going at the constant temperature of 65C for 20-30 minutes while you cook the eggs, but that requires way too much patience and a thermometer (both of which I do not have). Another way, I’ve heard, was to fill a thermos full of hot water and keep the egg in it overnight, so you can have it the next morning! Not so sure about that one though, it seems like leaving a semi-warm egg overnight and then eating it seems like you’re just asking for food poisoning.

March 31, 2008 at 7:18 am 24 comments

a case of ‘we already knew that’

Monmouth Coffee aka REAL coffee.

So in London, the peeps over at Which? have finally worked out that chains like Starbucks have been offering the consumer ‘inferior coffee at inflated prices‘. Now tell us something we didn’t know.

I admit to having fallen for Starbucks’ clever marketing strategies when they first arrived in Hong Kong – for a time, I’d drink nothing but caramel macchiatos and frappucinos, I’d never tasted a real espresso before in my life, and for my undeveloped palate, the sweet milky “coffees” served by Starbucks suited me just fine. I was never raised on coffee, but tea (that much is obvious), so the strong bitterness of espresso was never something that attracted me.

Somehow, somewhere along the line I began to appreciate the brew a lot more. Maybe it was from working at the student union bar at my university – oddly, they didn’t make it compulsory for all staff to attend barista training (only about 6-7 of us went) – where I first learned the basics of making coffee. The trainer, a seasoned barista herself, was dead serious about coffee. We had an hour long seminar on the history of coffee, the do’s and don’ts of coffee making, and finally we spent another few hours getting to grips with the espresso machine and coffee grinder. At the end of the day, I’d made the perfect cappuccino that garnered a round of applause from our trainer and the rest of the group. Since then, I’ve never been able to forgive anyone for a poorly made cappuccino – it seems like most people think that its the same thing as a latte.

it's that time of the year!L: Don’t do it! I still get sucked in by the ‘red cups’.

Another thing I can’t stand about Starbucks is their ‘caramel macchiato’, which is basically a milk drink with oodles of caramel and about a drop of espresso. ‘Macchiato’, meaning ‘marked’ in Italian, the most common usage being in the drink ‘caffe macchiato’ – an espresso with a drop of milk or foam. It’s hilarious how Starbucks turns this right around and marks the milk with very little coffee and a mountain of caramel (if it were a ‘caramel macchiato’, surely it means to be marked with a bit of caramel, not an entire half-bottle?). I still stop by Starbucks occasionally for a quick drink, but it’s never on the merits of its coffee – I go when I suddenly need a sugar fix. I’m going to kick the habit this year, because thinking about how much milk and sugar are in its drinks makes me ill.

So to offset the bitter tone of this entry, here are some places where I’ve had some pretty decent cuppas:

1. Flat White
Located in Soho (right across from Yauatcha), Flat White is one of the best destinations for a decent coffee. Care is given to both making it, and serving to the customer – the first time I went there I was momentarily baffled by the friendliness of the staff, who asked me for my name so they could write it on the cup. Somehow it seems so much nicer when they’ve prepared you your coffee and say, ‘Here you go, Charmaine!’ with a smile. I haven’t tried the signature flat white yet, but their latte was so decadent, creamy, and full of zing.
Flat White, 17 Berwick St, Soho, W1F 0PT, London (020 7734 0370/

we're not dead2. Sacred
Located just off Carnaby Street, Sacred is one of my favourite places for a drink and a natter around the area. It’s particularly good in the summer, when you can lounge on the sofas on the ground floor, or the alfreso seating outside of the cafe, soaking up the sun. Their cappucinos may not be up to scratch (still too much milk, too little foam), but the coffee is acceptable and they’ve got a fabulous range for tea-lovers as well. The aboriginal/tribal artefacts that decorate Sacred are fun and give the place its very unique kind of atmosphere.
Sacred, 13 Ganton St (off Carnaby St), W1F 9BL, London (020 7734 1415/

ca phe vn 3. Ca Phe VN
(photo credit: Ca Phe VN website)
A lovely couple, Rob and Thuyen, bring their love of Vietnamese coffee to the East London community. They set up stall every week at Broadway Market, selling classic Vietnamese brews as well as more unusual drinks such as artichoke tea (which I haven’t had the courage to try yet). Vietnamese coffee is a result of French colonial rule, and so uses French coffee beans. Ground and placed into a unique metal coffee filter, where the espresso drips slowly through – the resulting espresso is extremely strong, though the strength is offset by sweet and creamy condensed milk. A perfect pick-me-up, especially in the winter cold. I bought one of their single-cup coffee filters (extremely cheap!) and a bag of ground coffee (from Buon Ma Thuot) so my dad and I have been enjoying many a Vietnamese coffee here in Hong Kong. You can find their wares at the Algerian Coffee Store in Soho, or can order online at the Ca Phe VN website, alternatively there are many other stores listed in their stockists page.
Ca Phe VN, Broadway Market, E8, London. Open every Saturday 9am-5pm.

Honorary mentions
Benugo at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9PA, Bethnal Green, London
Scoop, 40 Shorts Gardens, WC2H 2AB, London (my review)

January 26, 2008 at 2:16 pm 3 comments

the monks’ meal

the monks’ meal, originally uploaded by super charz.

At the Buddhapadipa temple, people bring food as an offering to the monks. It’s then prepared and cooked by the same people, and served to the monks after a ritual blessing. The monks all sit down to eat, and after they’re finished they say a prayer of thanks and then everyone else gets to eat (basically their leftovers, but then that’s why they make SO much food)!

You can read more about it here .

December 16, 2007 at 4:17 am Leave a comment

the things you see in london

marylebone onion seller!, originally uploaded by super charz.


December 3, 2007 at 7:44 am Leave a comment

lovely lewisham


I know what you’re thinking – Lewisham, lovely? An oxymoron, much? I myself have never been too enamoured with this part of south-east London, visiting sporadically during my uni days only for the daily street market (cheap fruit and veg), Primark (shamefully) and the occasional treat from Marks & Spencer’s (mmm, it’s not just steak…). Now that I live a lot closer, I figured I should give this battered old place another chance. Spinning off the well-trodden paths of Lewisham High Street, I wandered onto Lewis Grove and stumbled across this lovely Italian delicatessen. It’s been operating for over 25 years, and has been passed down from generation to generation, so I had a bit of a forehead-slapping moment when I realised this gem of a place had gone unnoticed by me for the past 4 years!


Serendipity is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?


November 2, 2007 at 9:04 am 13 comments

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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.



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