Pandesal baking for when another dry active yeast packet is alive

On Sunday afternoon, I tested another dry active yeast packet from two years ago to see if it was still alive, and I was in luck: it was the 3rd one that was alive out of four, so I have a 75% success rate so far (just two more packets to go!). I wanted to make something easy that would not yield too much, as we are really pushing it with the tiny bit of space still left in our freezer. So I decided on pandesal, a Filipino bread roll (literally meaning “salt bread,” though I have no idea why since there’s so little salt in it…) that is known for being like a round dinner roll. It’s characterized by being very soft, airy, and subtly sweet. Versions also exist other than the regular one with eggs, sugar, and oil that have ube or pandan, but I just wanted something quick and I didn’t want to buy any more ingredients, and so I stuck with the plain version to begin with. I was also disheartened to see that most versions of the ube pandesal recipe online called for artificial ube extract, which is exactly what I did not want. If I’m making it at home, I want it to be all natural with no artificial ingredients! Some versions use ube powder, which I assume to be dried, ground up ube, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I actually saw the ingredients on the packet. So I guess I can keep a lookout for it the next time I’m at a Filipino grocery store.

It was quick to put together the dough, though quite soft and sticky. I kneaded it well in the bowl on Sunday, then rolled it out on Monday and allowed it a second rise. Then, I baked it in the oven at 350 F for 20 minutes, and they came out perfectly: beautifully and evenly browned on top, with a nice, pillowy, airy inside. The dough is sweet, but not too sweet, so I was comfortable giving Pookster some as a treat at the end of dinner. And boy, did she gobble it up! I didn’t want her to have a full bun, so I ended up taking two generous bites out of hers when she offered me some, which of course caused her to wail nonstop (she believes sharing is caring… to a degree :D).

Few homemade things are more satisfying to me than the result of successful, tasty homemade bread. It always hits the spot and makes me feel really accomplished when it comes out right.

My road to making good dal

Anthony Bourdain once famously said that India is likely the only country he’s ever visited where he could imagine happily enjoying life as a vegetarian. And I completely understand what he means: so many Indian dishes across its many regions treat beans so well with endless spices and seasonings that oftentimes when you are enjoying them, you forget there isn’t any meat on the table. It doesn’t matter if it’s strong spices like cumin and hing or fresh curry leaves or cardamom — the cuisine is so rich that if you want to make something seemingly bland like the humble lentil delicious, it’s really easy to do so.

Living in a rich western country, I have always had easy and affordable access to animal protein. My mom, on the other hand, living in rural, poor, Central Vietnam as a growing child, did not, and so when she came to the U.S and had easy, cheap access to meat, she obviously wanted to take advantage of it. So growing up, when I would occasionally threaten to be vegetarian after learning of animal cruelty or factory farms, she would scoff at me and say that “being vegetarian is not allowed.” She just saw it as my being spoiled: only someone extremely privileged would give up meat.

She’s kind of right. But as the world moves forward, and climate change, global warming, and the environment are becoming far more of a concern, meat consumption really does need to decrease. And so in my mind, the only way to really get tasty protein into one’s diet is to eat more beans – the South Asian way. So I started experimenting a lot more with different Indian pulses and legumes. I’ve tried endless dal recipes and spice combinations for tadka. And I’ve realized that the most flavorful dal is definitely one with a dal tadka, or a spiced oil that is added towards the end that really gives dal quite the “pizzazz.” I made this today after a while of not doing it (doing full Instant Pot dal is honestly so much easier than dealing with tadka, as there’s no splatter on the stove to clean up!), and after having a spoonful, I’ve reminded myself why I need to do this more often to eat more dal.

Dal is the future. Dal is tasty. Dal is good for the environment (I just learned on the beans episode of Gastropod that growing beans and having that be a part of crop rotation enriches the soil and land! Another win!). So we should all eat more dal.

Trader Joe’s chicken or vegetable stock: never again

As long as I have been cooking for myself, I have always insisted on making stock from scratch. I usually keep freezer-safe gallon-sized ziplock bags in the freezer and keep filling them with meat bones/vegetable scraps until the bag is full, and then I throw them all into my Instant Pot for the best easy homemade stock. The problem with this, though, is when you don’t have many bones. I really haven’t made any whole chickens at home this year. A lot of the meat I’ve purchased has been boneless. So I haven’t made much homemade stock at all this year, sadly. And well, food just never tastes as good when you use a canned stock or broth. There are certainly ways to doctor up a canned stock where it isn’t obvious you are using something from a can or carton. I grew up knowing that my mom usually used Swanson’s brand when she didn’t have the time to make stock from scratch. But there are certain things that you would always, always use from-scratch stock for: jook/congee, any type of soup tonic meant for healing/rejuvenation/sickness, and Chinese sticky rice. You just cannot substitute canned/cartoned for these dishes. A trained palette will always know.

I didn’t have enough bones/vegetable scraps to make stock this time around for my planned soup. So I begrudgingly considered my options. Ages ago, I had sworn off Trader Joe’s chicken stock. I have no idea what they put in theirs, but it always tasted… artificial, as though their “natural flavor” additive really was quite fake, and so fake that I just couldn’t stand it. The mere smell of it grossed me out. But when I saw that they had a low-sodium vegetable stock that was quite inexpensive, I thought I’d at least give it a shot. It was a $1.99 investment for a full quart, so what could really go wrong?

Well, everything, apparently. I opened the carton, and similar to the bad memory I have of the TJs chicken stock in the carton, this smell was… not great. It smelled almost like tomatoes. And who the hell uses tomatoes in their vegetable stock? Vegetable stock should smell like… onions, carrots, and celery. NO TOMATOES. IS THERE ACTUALLY TOMATO IN THIS?

I ended up using this horrible stuff to make my second butternut squash soup of the season. And it did not taste as good as I hoped. Part of it was maybe due to the recipe. But the main reason it was not good… I strongly believe it’s because of this stock. And what’s worse is that when Chris took a first taste of the soup after I told him I wasn’t happy with it… He confirmed my annoyance and fear all along. He simply said, “It tastes… very tomato-y.”

Yep. This stock sucks, and I am never, ever buying it ever, ever again. And the next time I make butternut squash soup, it will not be “not good” like these last two times, and I am definitely going to use homemade stock.

Taro – what color is it supposed to be: purple or white?

Bubble tea has come a long way since… well, I first heard about it. A lot of tea shops have taken shortcuts on how to make the tea, so instead of freshly brewing real tea, they will instead use cheap powders loaded with artificial flavors, colors, and excessive sugar, then charge you $5-7 for a low quality drink.

The good news is that while many shops have done this, a good number of other shops are doing the opposite. These shops are the ones that use fresh, seasonal fruit, make their own in-house tapioca balls, among other treats like grass jelly, lychee jelly, and pudding, use fresh milk (dairy and non-dairy versions), and freshly brew tea every single day. One of my and Chris’s favorite variations of bubble tea is fresh taro bubble tea, and I mean the REAL taro: the ones that use real, fresh taro paste and mix or blend it into the milk or tea, along with the tapioca balls or the jelly. Chris’s preference is pudding on the bottom, and I will take any and all of the above if there is fresh taro paste involved.

Since Chris’s cousin’s daughter is a big fan of taro, and I happened to see taro at a good price at the Chinese market while in Elmhurst last Friday, I decided to buy some to make homemade taro milk. At this time of year, taro isn’t actually in season and because of that, tends to be more on the pale white side in terms of color. The color of taro tends to vary: sometimes, it can be a nice purple color after steaming or boiling. Other times, it can be a pale purple or grey, and many times even just white or off white. After steaming my little taros today, they really didn’t turn any shade of purple at all like they do in the winter time. So in order to add color without using artificial flavoring (because at the end of the day, we all do eat with our eyes first, and the color of taro matters because people associate taro with the color purple), a lot of shops will add some purple yam or mashed ube and mix it into their taro paste. And that’s what I’m doing today for fresh taro milk!

The magic of simple desserts

As long as I’ve been baking, I’ve made endless different recipes of pumpkin bread. For many years since college, I used the recipe from my resident advisor from my sophomore year dorm, who was so kind and generous as to regularly make pumpkin bread, pumpkin ice cream, and other fall treats for the residents of our hall. But of course, I got curious to try and tweak many other recipes I’ve stumbled upon. And since, I’ve settled on a variation of Smitten Kitchen’s pumpkin bread, which uses an entire 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree and is topped with cinnamon sugar to create a decadent and crunchy “lid” on top. Quick breads like pumpkin or banana bread are so easy and quick to make that I rarely think of them as special or “occasion” bakes. They just seem like the type of thing you’d bake up when you wanted to have some decadent treat, but you didn’t want to put too much time, effort, or thought into something homemade. It’s the no-brainer crowd pleaser. And I always use coconut oil in place of vegetable oil, as I find that coconut oil keeps the bread more moist for much longer.

As last Christmas was the first Christmas we’d gone back to Australia with Kaia baby in tow (plus, I was still pumping!), I really did not want to spend that much time cooking or baking anything. So I found that I had left a can of pumpkin in Chris’s parents’ cupboard from the last time we were there (in 2019!), and then decided to use it for this same Smitten pumpkin bread. Thank goodness for the pumpkin being canned, so I knew it was still good to use! I didn’t think anything of it — I quickly whipped up the batter, poured it into an oiled loaf pan, put it in the oven, baked it for 65 minutes, and out it came. I didn’t even remember to bother with the cinnamon sugar topping. We brought it as a dessert for Boxing Day, and I couldn’t believe how many of Chris’s relatives raved about it. Even the young kids enjoyed it and kept coming back for more. Chris’s cousin, who is visiting this week, was totally obsessed with it. He kept coming up to me to compliment how good it was and said it was the best pumpkin cake he’d ever had. He even reminded me how much he liked it in the lead up to this visit, so I figured I’d indulge him and make the bread for this visit. So I made it this afternoon for him and his daughter to enjoy for the remainder of their trip.

Times like this are always a gentle reminder that while I may want to make something that looks fancy, has “different” flavors or textures, or has many elements or nuances of flavor, that the average person really doesn’t care for all that fussiness or hoopla; most people are satisfied by the simplest treats and desserts, the ones that are not fancy or expensive but are simply delicious and make you happy. In the end, the lemon bars, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and pumpkin bread will still win everyone’s hearts.

Sometimes it’s the little things: when your frittata releases perfectly from your cast iron pan

In cooking forums and groups all over the internet, everyone always has the same question over and over again: what’s the best nonstick pan for X or overall? And the answer that someone will inevitably give, multiple times over, is: Cast iron! Carbon Steel! If you season them properly, then they will always be perfectly nonstick!

The problem, though, is “seasoning” can seem very bewildering to someone who is not used to this type of cookware. “Seasoning” really means ensuring that the pan always has a nice coat of fat on it to keep it slick. This means that the more you cook with it and have some sort of oil, butter, or animal fat on it, the more “seasoned” the pan will become. I’ve mostly used my big cast iron pan for roasting chicken, but I’ve shied away from using it for everyday cooking out of fear that things will stick. Well, I finally tested its nonstick quality yesterday morning when I made a butternut squash, kale, and goat cheese frittata: I sautéed my aromatics, tossed in my pre-cooked kale and butternut squash, added in the eggs, and baked the frittata in the cast iron pan in the oven for about 10 minutes. When I popped it out to cool and loosened the edges, I was pleasantly surprised to see how easily the frittata released. And when I finally used my flat spatula and pushed it onto my cutting board to serve, I felt so much glee at the frittata easily sliding off the cast iron pan, right onto the cutting board. IT DID NOT RESIST OR STICK AT ALL.

I was so happy about this for at least the next few hours that all I could think was: my cast iron pan is well seasoned! It tolerated the frittata! WHOPPEEE!!!! It seems like such a simple thing, but I suppose that is where it’s important to find joy — in the little things in life like a well-seasoned cast iron pan that allows your frittata to release without problem!

No-knead brioche: finally baking this after YEARS of wanting to do it!

On Thursday night, after finding out that yet another packet of dry active yeast was still alive, I finally decided to carry out a goal of mine since maybe five years ago: baking no-knead brioche. Funnily enough, as much as I adore brioche and think it’s likely one of the top five best breads on earth, I haven’t made it since 2012. Yep, that’s right: that means it’s been ELEVEN YEARS since I last made this incredible, ethereal buttery bread. Back then, I made brioche the “old fashioned” way, which meant making sure that literally everything, from the bowl, the counter, the spatula, the utensils, EVERYTHING was super cold. The idea is that to make a really luscious, buttery, almost flaky brioche, you need to allow the butter never to fully melt, otherwise the dough would just get far too sticky, which means you couldn’t knead it without making a total mess. This would THEN require you to add more flour… meaning you’d eventually just get a glorified challah. To be clear, I am in no way knocking challah because challah also ranks quite high up there for one of my favorite breads, but brioche is just not challah, and challah is not brioche.

So when I heard about America’s Test Kitchen’s innovative version that would remove the kneading completely, I was floored. No kneading? How is that even possible? What else is blasphemous about this — it uses MELTED butter as opposed to ice cold butter.

Of course, since the ATK version came out, many others have modified it and made it… a little healthier to say the least. The version of the recipe I used uses two sticks of butter for two standard sized loaf pans, which, if you can imagine without chuckling, is actually considered LIGHT for brioche, especially in comparison with ATK’s original recipe, which uses far more butter. And instead of kneading the dough (with melted butter, which is still very shocking to me as someone who has only ever made brioche the traditional way), you “fold” the dough from bottom to top several times over the course of about two hours. As each 30 minute period passes, the dough becomes easier to work with, more pliable, and slightly less sticky.

Well, I made the original dough on Thursday night. I let it proof in the fridge for almost two days. And today, we came home early from our Saturday outing so I could shape my loaves and bake. And WOW – I am never going back to the traditional method of brioche ever again: The brioche proofed beautifully and baked up with this gorgeous brown shade, almost flaky on the top. And the crumb was moist, buttery, spongy, and perfect…. If I do say so myself. This recipe is definitely a keeper, and I’ll take folded brioche over kneaded brioche any day now!!!!

Rosemary focaccia this morning

Kneading dough is a really good feeling. When you have any stress or aggression, it’s a really great, active way to let all that tension go. The last time I made focaccia, I had used my sourdough starter in May 2020 and was just blown away (very humble, I know) by how good it turned out. It rose evenly and beautifully. It had these little perfect dimples at even intersections. It even pillowed on the top and made for great photographs. I also remember it tasted delicious, too: a little nutty, complex, and herby from the rosemary. That loaf had just the right amount of olive oil, too, so that it wasn’t too lean, but it wasn’t at at greasy. I served it with honey ricotta and was just glowing for days about it.

Well, this one turned out okay, but it was nothing compared to that one. This one came out a little flat. It didn’t rise evenly. The flavor was very one dimensional. I also felt it could use a bit more fat from more olive oil, but I had already tripled the amount of oil from the recipe because of all the comments. Unfortunately, my quick pick wasn’t the best pick. I will be more conservative choosing recipes from the New York Times cooking app now, knowing that the reviews were quite accurate with the end result.

Bread baking revived

Baking bread has always been a passion of mine. While I did attempt the sourdough path during the height of the pandemic in 2020, I quickly realized that it just wasn’t for me. Although tending to a sourdough starter for 15 minutes a day is not really a huge ask, what WAS a big ask for me was to constantly remove or even (gasp) discard starter. I am very anti food waste, so discarding was completely out of the question. Instead, I would always hasten to figure out yet another way to use sourdough starter discard, and eventually, it just got really tiring. I didn’t always want to make or eat bread. I didn’t always want to be fiddling in the kitchen. Sometimes, I just want to make bread and be done with it. And that’s where yeast packets are really handy: I can make my own recipe, get excited at the yeast being alive and growing, bake, and then be done!

Two years ago when I was very pregnant, I went a little nuts at Trader Joe’s and stocked up on six dry active yeast packets. I had this (extremely naive) thought that during my maternity leave, I would knead and bake bread while Kaia Pookie napped. Well, that never happened during maternity leave. In fact, I have not baked any bread since literally this time two years ago! The last thing I remember making was hot dog bao and freezing them to eat while recovering from giving birth. Boy, was our freezer stocked with homemade goodies!

Well, the expiration date on the packets said November 2022. It made me a little sad, but hey, many times expiration dates are not accurate. So I tested one packet of yeast with some warm water and sugar. Ten minutes later, it bubbled and grew large, so I knew it was still good to use! So I decided to make something quick with little fuss: focaccia. I chose a focaccia recipe on the New York Times cooking app that would also include some whole wheat (we have to be healthy sometimes, right?), and hoped for the best. I’m planning to make it as part of our breakfast on Sunday morning, so it will have two days in the fridge to develop flavor, so we shall see how it turns out.

Celebrating 10 years of the Sambal Lady / Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen

Today, we made the trek out to Flatbush, Brooklyn, for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Sambal Lady, also known as Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen. To optimize for families and young children, Auria and her beer partner Josh decided on two dining sessions, one at 4pm and one at 7pm. So we choose the 4pm slot to ensure Pookster got home at a semi reasonable time to sleep.

We’ve been attending Auria and Josh’s joint Malaysian food/beer events for the last three years: the first year in 2021, I was about seven months pregnant with Pookster. Last year in 2022, we came out on a very rainy September evening for “Laksapalooza” and parked Kaia in her car seat under an umbrella on Auria’s deck once she fell asleep; this year, Kaia is walking, and we brought her in a stroller. The meals are always held in Flatbush right in Auria’s massive backyard. It’s always a bit of a novelty for us to be in anyone’s backyard here in New York City, as you rarely think of New York City as a place where you’d not only see detached, multi-story homes (this one has FOUR levels if you include the basement!!), but also large backyards with decks! And feeling quite suburban, Auria’s green thumb certainly shines in her backyard: she grows massive pots of Italian and Thai basil, makrut lime, endless other herbs, and elephant ears, amongst other seasonal vegetables.

I’ve always loved cooking for small dinner parties we’ve hosted over the last 11 years of being together. But I have rarely, if ever, prepared meals for more than 10-12 people. So when I think about preparing a massive dinner party for a group of 50+ the way Auria does at these events, all I can think about is total chaos. How do you cook at scale while also ensuring high quality? Is there going to be enough food? Can we ensure that each dish will be served at the correct doneness and temperature? But Auria’s been doing this for the last 10 years, so this is one of her big joys and specialties. She outsources a lot of help, including rented furniture, front-door security, setup, and cleanup. She asks supportive friends for extra help in the kitchen and also hires additional kitchen help. And with having her beer friend Josh involved, she doesn’t have to worry about drinks or booze since he and his people will cover that. Auria also has industrial sized pots and pans to cook her massive portions of food. Tonight, the menu included spinach and chickpea fritters served with mango coulis, her signature and much loved beef rendang, white rice, Malaysian cucumber salad, and a stir-fry of fried tofu puffs and vegetables. And as a seasonal touch for dessert, she also brought back 200 white lotus seed paste and red bean moon cakes baked by a local Chinese bakery in her hometown of Seramban, Malaysia, which she visited just a few weeks ago (since yesterday was Mid-Autumn Moon Festival).

Much to my dismay since Kaia has been on a heightened level of toddler selectivity this week, Pookster ate nothing at the event other than a large chunk of red bean mooncake. That actually did make me happy, though, since that was Kaia’s very first mooncake as well as her first time having red bean. It made me feel happy that her first mooncake was made in Asia (mmmm, Chinese food in Malaysia) and made at a bakery that has Auria’s stamp of approval. I didn’t get to talk much to Auria directly since she was running around everywhere all at once to ensure everyone was happy and things were going well, but she did tell me she’s an originalist when it comes to mooncakes given her upbringing: white lotus seed paste and red bean are her favorite fillings for mooncakes, and they are also some of the OG Cantonese flavors for mooncake. These were made a little different with the addition of small watermelon seeds, which I’d never had before. What a nice and unique crunch!

In the last few years, I have seen other brands of kaya jam that are imported from various countries in Southeast Asia, but when I think about potentially trying them, the thought disappears after a second or so when I look at preservatives noted under the ingredients list, or when I think about how the flavor would compare with Auria’s pandan kaya jam. Why bother fixing what’s not broken? We named Pookster after Auria’s pandan kaya jam, after all, so it will always be close to our hearts. Auria had previously asked if I had tried another “modern” kaya jam that I’d gotten a lot of social media ads for, but I told her this same sentiment: Meh, why bother trying it when I know this one is so good? Auria even mentioned this during the short speech she gave at the event, to which Pookster started clapping and yelling “yayay!’ like crazy. It’s like Pookster inherently knows.