Home Cooking NY cooking classes

This past Christmas, Chris gifted me a cheesemaking cooking class at Home Cooking NY on Grand Street in lower Manhattan that took place yesterday. It was the second time I’ve taken a class here, as the first one was on Vietnamese cooking that I did last year after returning from Vietnam. I didn’t really love the Vietnamese cooking class last year, as I felt that the main instructor kept talking over and interrupting her Vietnamese guest instructor too much to the point that it seemed condescending. But during this cheesemaking course, the instructor seemed far more in her own element, going through facts on the cheese industry both in the U.S. and abroad while also making wise cracks and sarcastic comments about the U.S. federal and state level government regulations on raw milk and cheese (“Here in New York state, it’s illegal to sell raw milk, so you have to go to the border of Pennsylvania to buy it … the state is trying to protect you from absolutely nothing, so…” and also about the poor state of education here in the U.S. (“when I used to teach real culinary school, you wouldn’t believe how dumb my students were… they didn’t know what terms like ‘opaque’ or ‘translucent’ meant. I said to them, ‘do you know what ‘see-through’ means? Well, that is what ‘translucent’ means. And the opposite of that — what you CANNOT see through, that is ‘opaque’! Got it?!” It was a bit hilarious and unexpected, and at times could be tiring to see how jaded she was, but it definitely was entertaining at times.

We made mozzarella, paneer, ricotta, cashew “ricotta,” saag paneer, and caprese sandwiches during class. I enjoyed it and learned a good amount, and I’m now feeling more interested in prioritizing making ricotta and paneer myself sometime soon, as both had already been on my to-make list for a while (isn’t everything?). But, I will say that the instructor’s saag paneer was not to my liking; everyone else raved about it (some of these people claimed to eat Indian food regularly but had never heard of saag paneer or palak paneer — how can you claim to eat Indian food in this country and never have eaten or even seen this at a restaurant?!), but I found it too heavy on the tomatoes and a bit westernized. I realize that dried methi leaves are not easily sourced, but if you really want to make authentic tasting saag paneer, you absolutely need to have these, and all it takes is one or two tiny pinches of it to make a world’s difference. They can be bought at any Indian grocery store or on Amazon. I wasn’t going to be the smart ass in class to say it to the instructor or any other white person raving about this dish in class (even though my instructor was a self-professed “smart ass” and likely could have handled it), so I said nothing instead, preferring to keep the peace with 10 people I’d likely never see again.

Nian gao – Chinese New Year Cake sweetness

Nian gao, or Chinese new year cake, is one of those cakes that is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to how much people like it. There are the people who love it and absolutely cannot imagine Chinese New Year without it; it’s considered arguably the “most important” cake to eat during Chinese New Year. “Nian” in “nian gao” means “year,” but it’s also a homonym for “sticky,” and “gao” in “nian gao” means “cake,” but is also a homonym for “high” or “tall.” So in other words, if you eat this cake during the new year, then you will have a highly prosperous and cohesive new year. And who would not want that?

There are also the people who think it’s bland, boring, and don’t understand what the hype is around it. It’s very lightly sweetened with Chinese brown sugar slabs, and in most cases, the excitement of eating it is really around the chewy, mochi-like texture. After all, it’s made with glutinous rice flour, so it should be chewy and a bit sticky. There are also those who have improvised the cake to make it more flavorful by adding additional flavorings like ginger, vanilla or almond extract, and even coconut milk and panda juice. The coconut milk and pandan versions look to be quite popular especially in Southeast Asia, no surprise.

I’m a bit in the middle camp: I appreciate it and enjoy it; it’s a very simple cake to make and steam, as the base has only three ingredients – glutinous rice flour, brown sugar, and water. But I definitely do not crave it. After learning about these other flavored versions, I am very tempted to try making these variations myself, especially the pandan flavored one after being spoiled with pandan flavored everything in Indonesia just a few weeks ago. You really need to appreciate subtle flavors and slight sweetness to enjoy this cake.

Chris took one bite of it, insisted it was not sweet enough, and said it was like eating calories for the sake of eating calories. Then he refused to eat more of it and went back to his Maltesers.

So… maybe I could have added more sugar to this version. But I will try again next time, as well as with a pandan coconut version. 🙂

Southern Hemisphere Christmas and the downfall of the Silky Smooth Pumpkin Pie

Dear Southern Hemisphere,

Thank you for welcoming me to have Christmas down under (and in South Africa) over the last seven years. I am very grateful for your generosity in hosting me and allowing me to fully experience and immerse myself in a summer Christmas. It has been a true, refreshing delight to see Santas on surf boards and beaches, cars decked out in tinsel, reindeer antlers, and Rudolph red noses, as well as people wearing shorts and T-shirts on Christmas Day whilst barbecuing. Warm weather, “White Sand Christmas” in place of “White Christmas” on my Spotify playlist? Yes, please. “I rather be freezing cold than basking in warmth,” said no one ever.

However, I have a confession, or rather, a complaint to make. In the Northern Hemisphere, I have never really had a problem making pumpkin pie, or most desserts, for that matter. There, I bake in Fahrenheit. I have access to a cold-ish kitchen in the winter time (pro tip: cold kitchen = best pie crusts and anything that has buttery, flaky layers). I have all the necessary tools and guides at my disposal to make my ideal silky smooth pumpkin pie. Here, year after year, things seem to go wrong. Year 1, I discovered that canned pumpkin is not a thing down under. Therefore, there was no pumpkin pie. Then, year 2 and 3, I attempted an all-butter crust for pumpkin pie, and the pie dough was gooey and lumpy. The crust “bled” butter, shrunk, burnt in some places and were raw in others — all the common mistakes of a pie making novice, much to my embarrassment. One year, I had to throw the entire crust out. Southern Hemisphere, why do you fail me? Why can’t you allow me to show my pie crust making skills down here? Now, Chris’s family thinks I just cannot make pie in different environments. On a report card or performance report, they would comment, “Incapable of adapting to change or new environments.” Today, the pie crust was so hard at the rim that we had rip and peel it off the pie pan and discard it. At least the bottom was edible. The part I did try to eat felt like plastic in my mouth, which I immediately spit out.

Then, with the pumpkin custard, we have another issue (because of course, the problems noted above were not enough). The adjustment from Fahrenheit to Centigrade is not exact. 350 degrees Fahrenheit is technically 176.67 Celsius, but there’s no setting that is that exact on a centigrade oven, so you either have to choose: 170 or 180 C? Do you round up or down? I round down, which seems to be the conservative approach. And what ends up happening? The custard doesn’t set in the middle; it never sets in the middle and instead of pumpkin custard, we reveal pumpkin MILK coming out of the oven with pumpkin custard at the edges. WHY?

And for the second round of custard, I round up. What happens? The custard CRACKS, meaning that it has been overbaked. Sure, the custard has set, and it’s no liquidy mess, but it’s no longer pretty to look at. It’s like a reject pie from the pie shop.

So, I’m admitting this now: I have given up on making pumpkin pie, or any pie for that matter, while I am down here. From now on, I will stick with cookies, custards (well, who even knows about that!), and potentially cakes. The battle is over, and you have won. I can’t stand the wasted time and ingredients, so I defer to you. I hope you have a great Christmas knowing you have defeated my pie making down under.



Spaghetti squash

I’ve never been into the low-carb, anti-carb dieting (well, I’m not really into the concept of “dieting,” but that’s another story). But what I really could not stand that became trendy years ago was people who were trying to cut down on carbs in the form of pasta by replacing their spaghetti noodles with spaghetti squash “noodles.”Spaghetti squash is an interesting type of autumn squash in that when it’s roasted properly, its liquids evaporated and when you pierce through it with a fork, the squash fibers come apart like tiny little noodles that resemble very thin angel-hair pasta. One cup of spaghetti squash “noodles” contain about 7 grams of carbohydrates, whereas one cup of actual wheat-based spaghetti noodles contain about 43 grams.

None of the above is necessarily “bad,” but squash is squash, meaning that it’s mostly water. So, if you were to douse a bunch of squash “noodles” with a thick tomato-y sauce, it would immediately become soggy unless you were quick and ate it right away. That is just terrible to me. Why would you do this? Enjoy your spaghetti squash as a vegetable or grain/wheat substitute, but NOT as a replacement for noodles. Just don’t do it!

I feel the same way about “zoodles” or zucchini noodles. Just throw them in a salad. Stop using them as noodles, please.

Yvonne meets Food “launch”

After several months of studying and practicing video editing about once a week, shooting videos both in my kitchen and on the road, today, I’m finally launching my YouTube channel Yvonne meets Food, which as of today, has 10 videos fully edited and uploaded. Most of them are cooking videos which are focused on basic recipes that have just a handful of ingredients; others are more complex, like the red mole recipe. And then I have one travel video posted where I filmed in Chengdu while eating mapo doufu (tofu). Not all of this was very well planned, and there aren’t always smooth transitions or the best use of color overlays since I’m still in the process of figuring things out, but it’s coming along, and I’m enjoying the process a lot more now that I have a semi-hang of things.

In the beginning, video editing was extremely painful, but now, it’s almost like a fun, interesting creative release, a far departure from the everyday expected ups and downs of office and customer life. I can experiment with color, angles, and music. Even though I’m not much of a music person, testing out different types of music to set moods for different shots has probably been the most interesting for me. The music site I’ve been using for music has really great tutorials on how to edit videos to the beat, which I plan on using more when I shoot travel and field pieces.

In some ways, it feels like a second job, and in other ways, it feels like a creative outlet that just requires a bit more time and intense focus. But I hope something interesting will come of this. Life is short.

Dosa batter fails, take 2

The dosa batter has failed for the second time in this apartment. I even tried a second full-proof recipe, using baking soda as a “helper” to allow the batter to ferment. It’s been said that rice and dried lentils naturally have enzymes in them that allow for fermentation, so I cannot understand what exactly is going wrong. I tossed my old fenugreek seeds and thought that it might help to buy new ones, yet still, nothing. Twelve hours in the Instant Pot under “yogurt” mode, and still nothing. I tested some dry active yeast to see if it was still alive, tossed it into the dosa batter, and the batter started to bubble and rise… but the idlis once put into their little molds and steamed did not even rise the slightest. I was so deflated today. However, the taste seems pretty accurate, though.

I’m convinced that the real issue is that there is not enough natural bacteria in the air in this apartment to get the fermentation going. Maybe the old (actually, old in age) apartment was just better suited for that.

learning new software = painful

So one of the new hobbies that I’ve picked up over the last couple months, which has been extremely slow moving, is video editing. I cook a lot and also watch a lot of travel and cooking videos online, particularly on YouTube, so I thought it would be fun to do my own videos. I already get so much joy out of cooking and documenting via photo and Instagram, so how hard could it possibly be to edit videos using real video software?

The truth is… it’s pretty frustrating, difficult, and exacerbating, like with learning any new skill or software for the first time. I was thinking about the first time I had to learn all the “e,” “eu,” “eau,” “ou,” etc., sounds in French my first two weeks in freshman year of high school, and that was extremely brutal. Studying Chinese every night and doing homework was just excruciating in college, as we had daily quizzes (which in the end, truly served their purpose because somehow, all these years later, I still know most of that stuff!). Any new skill is painful and annoying in the beginning, but I hope this all pays off.

Collectively over Saturday and Sunday, I probably spent over six hours…. just trying to figure out how to create and save templates in Adobe Premiere Pro, only to find out that the method I was using was relevant in older outdated versions of the software, and that “Legacy Title” templates no longer exist in the latest version. Instead, I’d need to undo all that because they could no longer be used, and instead create new templates in what they are now calling “effects graphics.” It took several Google and Adobe forum searches to find what I was looking for. Yep, it only took six hours — no big deal.

I have to keep telling myself that this is just part of learning, that eventually, this will all get much easier, and it will become like second nature to me. It’s a small investment of time now for a bigger payoff later. Fingers crossed.

Lavender syrup

After having so much delicious coffee in Colombia, and then traveling in Michigan and having notable coffee drinks such as my cafe miel and lavender latte, I decided I would make my own special coffee drinks by creating my own lavender syrup at home. Sugar syrups are super easy to make — all you really need is some water and sugar dissolved over high heat, and it keeps for weeks, if not months. And then if you want to flavor it with a herb like lavender, rosemary, etc., you just have to add a tablespoon or two during the simmering process.

Today, I made about half a cup of lavender syrup to add to our coffee drinks, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out in our Sunday morning lattes.

10-min meals

One of the biggest game changers for me with Indian cooking was the Instant Pot. Since we purchased one last summer during a big sale on Amazon, my life has forever been changed when cooking Indian food, especially when it comes to stews, beans, and biryani dishes. Another game changer was finding this incredible Indian cooking blog called My Heart Beets, which is hands down one of my all-time favorite food blogs. One of the best recipes she has on her blog is for onion masala, which basically has key components distilled down into a masala mix of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, and various common Indian spices, all cooked in an Instant Pot, then frozen into 1/2 or 1/4-cup portions so that you can fish them out of your freezer and use them at any time to make authentic Indian food faster and easier.

I’ve since made a batch of this onion masala and have already used it for several dishes. The most rewarding dish I’ve used it for was just this morning, when I made Indian-style shakshuka in just 10 minutes! I took out about one cup of onion masala and defrosted it overnight, then I used that as the base for my shakshuka, just adding some crumbled sausage into the tomato mix, then eggs, and topping with cilantro and salt and pepper. It was one of the simplest, fastest, and most satisfying fully-homemade meals I’ve made in a long time.

The only way to have quick homemade meals is to do a lot of meal prep beforehand and in bulk, and this onion masala is definitely a key to that. Luckily for me, we have a much bigger freezer than before, so we can store things like this.

kitchen sink cooking

I really didn’t want to buy too many groceries for this weekend given that both Chris and I would be traveling for work this week, so I tried to make dinner from mostly what was in our pantry or fridge, with the exception of fresh vegetables. I ended up cooking green lentils, the dried fusilli bucati pasta we brought back from our Northern Italy trip, and tossing it in my homemade pesto from two weeks ago, roasted zucchini and broccoli, and some red pepper flakes. Chris felt like we needed some real cheese in this pasta (I used nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute in the pesto making because I didn’t have any cheese on hand and didn’t want to buy any at that time), so he ran out to buy some grana padano for grating, which is basically like a very young and un-aged parmesan.

I realize that my “kitchen sink” cooking can be perceived as a bit uppity, because who really has homemade pesto that just happens to be sitting in one’s fridge, and who has fancy dried pasta brought back from a foreign country in their pantry? But hey, this is how we roll in our apartment.