Dan and the art of kitchen appreciation


(Adzuki bean and black sesame brownie)

It was only when someone asked me recently, “What do you do exactly?” that I realised I don’t blog in as much detail as I used to, about my work life. I work in a commercial kitchen in the city and like most typical kitchens, it is a predominantly male environment. Despite the multitude of personalities or the testosterone overload, it’s one of the few times I’ve felt as though I’m in a place where everyone is truly bonding as a team; from the pointy end of the kitchen heirarchy, right down to the little fishes. Even the kitchenhands are happy people : one sings throughout the day and loves decorating his apron with vegetable art, and the other works two physically-demanding full time jobs but still has time to smile and have a laugh.

These days I’m finding it strange that my blog life is intersecting with real life. For the longest time, this blog was a little secret. A place I came to, to air woes. But since it appears that quite a few people I work with are aware of this blog, I thought I might as well introduce you to some of these characters from my kitchen life.

In no particular order :

Mike. You should see Mike dance to one of his favourite songs by Rick Astley. I swear, it’s a YouTube moment waiting to happen. Mike is also allergic to cashews and hates coconut. Apparently last week, almost all the staff desserts I made had coconut in them. How did that happen??

Miles is capable of appearing to be ‘miles away’; completely wasted without even needing drugs or alcohol. I attribute it to a combination of love-sickness, long work hours and vivid gangsta dreams related to his new-found addiction to The Wire. On a good day, Miles is capable of correctly counting the number of bread rolls he is required to warm in the oven.

Mitch is my Food Disposal Unit #1. He eats everything, and I do quite like that in a person.

Spud. We once both pulled the coolroom door open simultaneously while standing on opposing sides of the door. We stood there like stunned mullets for a second then burst into 5 minutes of uncontrollable laughter. I guess that pretty much sums up my relationship with Spud.

Terry. While I’m sure most guys would hate to be landed with the ‘nice’ tag, Terry is truly the nicest guy ever. He also looks like an attractive Abraham Lincoln and bakes from his grandmother’s recipes.

Mark Anthony. Is always referred to as Mark Anthony. I can’t remember why, but it seems to make sense.

Zach. Could almost be considered an honorary member of the pastry department because he’s always there to help out whenever help is needed most.

Dan. Of course, I saved the best for last. Dan is a creative spirit. He encompasses all the qualities you would expect a great chef to possess. He leads with respect, and (knowledge being more powerful than fear), he is followed with respect. He can be tough, but also fair, and is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Lesser known fact : he can also swing dance.

As a ‘family’, we eat well, and we work hard. There is no shouting and minimal swearing in this kitchen. In fact, I made a joke the other day about loving ‘the new rack’ in my section and was greeted by stunned silence.

Oh, I love this work place, yes I do.

Adzuki bean and black sesame brownie :
(I adapted these rich gluten-free brownies from Heidi’s Black Bean Brownie recipe as seen on 101 Cookbooks.)

115g bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
225g unsalted butter
310g cooked adzuki beans
60g black sesame meal/powder
100g walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
25g cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
360g plain honey

Preheat the oven to 160’C. Grease and line a 7″ x 10″ baking tin and set it aside.

Place the chocolate and butter in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring just until the chocolate has melted. In a food processor, combine the adzuki beans with the black sesame powder, vanilla and a couple of spoonfuls of the melted chocolate mixture. Blend until smooth, about 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, stir the walnuts with the remaining melted chocolate, along with the cocoa powder and salt.

In an electric mixer, whisk the eggs until light and creamy, then add the honey and whisk well.

Fold the bean mixture into the walnut/chocolate mixture, then fold in the egg mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared baking tin and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until set. Once baked, allow to cool on a wire rack before transferring to the fridge to chill well before cutting. These brownies are best served from the fridge as they are slightly crumbly, but assuredly very moist and delicious!

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One Perfect Day

(Rose Bakery’s Red Bean Slice)

Today my Optometrist asked me two questions that I inevitably get asked all the time :

1) Why did you decide to cook


2) What is your all-time favourite thing to cook

A few days before, I had what I would consider a pretty perfect kind of day. It was mostly spent with a good friend who I don’t really see much of, ever since she pulled up stumps and moved overseas to work and live. Now that she is back briefly for a visit, we caught up over a movie, a piece of cake and a spot of Japanese grocery shopping, then inexplicably found ourselves motoring deeper into the city, towards more cake (though I somehow managed to not buy anything there). When we finally parted company, she left me with the latest issue of her craft zine, Sharp and Pointy.

(Pineapple Tarts)

Sharp and Pointy, it must be said, is like a tiny chocolate cake : a perfect sampling, that hints at just enough to leave you wanting more. In it, was a quote by Ivan Illich that has been reverberating in my head ever since I set eyes on it :

I believe a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, of our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows us to produce and consume.

–Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich.

That quote, my dear, is going straight to the poolroom, Kerrigan-style. Or rather, I want to have it laminated and strung around my neck so that I can always be reminded of it.

Which brings us back to the first question. I cook because I like to eat. My dad says that a common Asian greeting is to ask someone if they have eaten, as opposed to saying Hello. Being able to say you’ve had enough to eat, is considered very important, especially in Chinese culture. This could partly explain my obsession with food. The other part I think, has to do with my fractured childhood, and why I often look to things that have great nostalgic value. True to form, I still remember one of the first things I ever made, standing precariously on a wooden stool in order to reach the stove : flapjacks. Singed and overly crispy, yet strangely so tasty.

I also cook because I want to create and share. I am fearful of falling into the trap of needing to maintain a lifestyle (or a blog), or of becoming a “weapon of massive consumption”, as Lily Allen would say. It worries me that I can’t tell whether I’m succeeding or failing, because I have to consume to create, but I feel (and hope) the balance is tipped in favour of the former.

So please know, when you ask me this, that you’re hearing from someone who wants nothing more than to be doing (cooking, blogging and living (with a fair share of perfect days)) something that retains an element of integrity, passion and creativity. She will never be the prettiest or the most popular, and god help her, her eyesight is pretty bad (or ‘interesting’ as the Optometrist puts it), but hopefully she is managing to live a relevant, uncalculated life, doing something she loves. When she finally disappears, may people not walk right through her, but allow her to own for a brief second that space she once quietly occupied.

As to the second question and a recipe for the pineapple tarts, I will leave that for another day.

(Chamomile Custard Tart)

Red Bean Slices :
(makes 15-20 squares; from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini)

200g adzuki beans, soaked overnight in 3 times their volume of water
180g caster sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
150g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
100g plain flour
100g ground almonds
100g rice flour
pinch of salt

Darin the beans, put them into a saucepan, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil.

Drain them again, put them back in the saucepan with the same amount of fresh water, then turn the heat down and simmer the beans for about 1 1/2 hours till they are very soft. Keep adding water if they start to dry out and skim the surface carefully.

When the beans are completely soft, drain them and put them back in the saucepan.

Add 100g of the sugar, and the honey and vanilla extract. Stir over a low heat for about 5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved.

Put into a food processor and process till smooth, or put through a siece until the beans are paste-like in texture. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 180’C.

Butter a 20 x 28cm baking tin and line it with parchment paper.

If you are using a food processor, process the flour, ground almonds, rice flour, butter, the remaining sugar and the salt until the mixture is quite crumbly. Otherwise, cut the butter into small pieces, mix the dry ingredients together and rub the butter into them with your fingers. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter.

Press half the mixture into the prepared tin.

Spread the adzuki paste evenly over the top and sprinkle with the remaining flour-and-almond mixture (like a crumble). Bake for 25 – 30 minutes till the topping is golden and crisp.

Cool in the tin.

When cold, cut into squares. Take the slices out of the tin very carefully as the topping tends to crumble (because of the rice flour).

[Note : Rose says you can use tinned, ready-cooked adzuki beans instead of cooking your own (which is what I did, because I had some tinned beans to use up). It is also possible to convert this slice into a vegan recipe by replacing the butter with a vegan margarine and using golden syrup (or light corn syrup) instead of honey.]

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