Chocolate & Spice

chocolate, spice and the other pleasures in life

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Drama in a Birthday Cake

Birthday cake for my dad and a golfing buddy

Birthdays are always great occasions to splash out and have some fun. Besides the thrill in matching the right gift to the birthday person, there's also lots of fun planning the party and the food. I always think the highlight of the party is the moment the birthday cake is brought out!

When we were kids, birthday cakes were elaborate creations (in our time, Spiderman & Strawberry Shortcake cakes were popular) and having a cake in the figure of the cartoon character would leave you the subject of envy amongst your friends at the party.

As we grew older, the focus turned more to the cake itself and decorations were usually limited to a simple piped birthday greeting in icing. After all, we adults rationalised that the cake would be devoured in no time and I think most of us would rather forget that we're another year older! Thankfully, my mom decided to put back the fun and drama back into birthday cakes for the birthdays of family member over the last couple of years.

It started when my mom met Beng Li Sher, a couple of years ago. Li Sher had left legal practice and attended Le Cordon Bleu for their patissier course. Upon her return to Singapore, she started her own business doing custom-themed cakes, most popular of which are the cakes with hand-crafted sugar paste figurines.

Book of Life & Goldilocks & the 3 Bears

Our family has been ordering birthday cakes from her since then and each time, we have been greatly entertained at Li Sher's accurate characterisation of the birthday person derived from personal information provided to her. Whimsical flights of fantasy, the birthday cakes have since ranged from golf-themed cakes for my dad and his golf buddies, to our pet zoo on my mom's, and to Goldilocks and the 3 Bears for my niece's birthday a couple of years ago.

You probably have to look really hard
but there's a pile of cash at A's feet!

More recently when we arrived back in Singapore, we celebrated the birthdays of my cousin Mel and A with a tiered cake with figurines depicting them at their current stages in life. Mel recently graduated from university and is about to start working life (WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD MEL!), while A joined a new company earlier this year.

Li Sher's cake is a rich chocolate ganache, definitely one for the chocoholics out there. It keeps quite well in the fridge so no worries if you can't quite manage more than one slice that night! While the sugar paste figurines are definitely edible, most of the recipients of the cakes have chosen to take them home with them instead. Last I checked, my niece still looks in on the 3 Bears sitting in her fridge and our pet zoo continues to reign in ours!

Besides the figurine cakes, Li Sher also does amazing 3D cakes and cupcakes as well. At Christmas, she usually puts out a selection of Christmas cupcakes and cookies which make great gifts to friends and family. Li Sher also works with a caterer to provide an all-round catering service for any functions you may have.

Do note that as the cakes are very labour intensive creations and Li Sher is often very busy with orders, you would do well to give her sufficient notice if you require a cake!

To order cakes from Li Sher and to view samples of her work, check out her website, Hot Fuchsia.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sleep is a luxury now.....

after 2 whirlwind weeks in New York City. Most nights, we lent credence to the statement that it's a city that never sleeps! We arrived back in Singapore early this morning with a severe case of sleep deprivation but with many happy memories of our time there.

Having friends in NYC (residents and non-residents joining us on holiday) and A's colleagues around meant that we were never short of company to check out the city's thriving night scene. Add this to the intense walking 'tours' of the various parts of the city I embarked on in the day while A was working and you have a surefire way of enjoying dreamless sleep later that night.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to access the blog site over there to post daily accounts of our days there. So there'll be a couple of posts over the next few weeks about the highlights of our trip - w
hether about the friendly chap I met at the jewellery market on the corner of Spring Street in SOHO, our yummy eating sprees ranging from excellent steak, New American fare, the legendary cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery immortalised in Sex and the City and of course the numerous shopping and sightseeing expeditions we took ourselves on.

Meanwhile, we have a few more days in Singapore before we head back to Melbourne this Saturday. Despite the surfeit of orgiastic eating we've indulged in over the past weeks, we're definitely planning to hit our usual favourite local food joints. We'll worry about the excess weight gain when we get back to Melbourne and our daily routine!

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Home for a visit and yet another holiday

I'm glad that today dawned nice and sunny – I would have bawled if we had to depart Melbourne in a hail of rain and gloom which had been a big probability seeing that the past few days had been rainy and cold.

We leave later tonight (well, it's really early Friday morning since our flight is just past midnight) for a much anticipated trip back to Singapore to attend a close friend's wedding, see my family and our friends and to hit our favourite local food places. Midway, we're headed to New York for 2 weeks - A is scheduled for training and conferences at his company's headquarters and I am going to catch up with my old friend C, shop and sightsee. Thankfully, a couple of our friends will also be with us for the later part of the trip so I don't spend the entire 2 weeks at Barneys!

I spent most of today packing and getting the apartment in order. In between, I took a quick walk down to my favourite cooking emporium, The Essential Ingredient at the Prahran Market, to get some olive tapenade my mom requested. I am distracted by the display of some new produce that's just in before I find what I came out for. I wasn't about to lug back a 600g or a 1.5kg jar (it will just molder in my mom's fridge) so I detour to Oliveria, an olive oil emporium just across the road (and a little bit). I've been meaning to come to Oliveria for a while, as some of the olive oil and balsamic vinegar stocked there are produced locally in Victoria. Oliveria is out of the locally-produced tapenade so I settle for a small jar imported from Italy (the irony of it). Everything I see in The Essential Ingredient and Oliveria today is tempting me to buy one of each for foodie friends/cooks back home but there is a limit of our luggage this trip around!

Here's a photo of the garden outside our apartment (aptly named Les Jardins)

I enjoy my walk back immensely, today being a really nice spring day. I see that the trees on our street have left their barren look behind with winter and have started sprouting leaves. The garden outside our apartment is also looking very well, with flowers in full bloom. I'm a little sad that we'll be missing the early part of spring, where flowers and trees start budding and blooming – we'll be back in Melbourne on 1 October and spring would be in full swing by then. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to heading home and the big Peranakan feast with family that's planned for this Sunday.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A's Baking Adventures - A Touch of Chocolate

A's been expressing an intention to get his hands dirty in the kitchen for the last couple of years. I rarely take him at his word, except to help me out occasionally with slicing onions, garlic and general prep work. Other than the sole occasion that he cooked his special pasta for me (in our first few months of dating), he hasn't tried his hand at anything else since.

However, after tasting the Sultana Syrup Cake I made a couple of weeks ago and learning that the recipe was really simple, A decided he wanted to have a go at the same over the weekend. I'd also been meaning to do my first post on chocolate for some time and had earmarked a couple of recipes to try. Seeing that A would be doing this for the first time, I decided to leave Damien Pignolet's "Eve's Chocolate Cake" for another occasion and try a simple Molten Chocolate Pudding instead. It would also allow me to finally use the new pot pie dishes I bought from Robert Gordon a couple of weeks back.

We decide the Molten Chocolate Puddings would make a lovely late night dessert and accordingly, we drive over for dinner at a Vietnamese eatery on Victoria Street, Richmond, which we had heard about from A's colleague. We'd been to Bridge Road in Richmond for the outlet shopping a couple of times, as well as for lunch at Richmond Hill Café & Larder and for ramen at Momotaro's but had never headed north to the parallel Victoria Street. Victoria Street is locally known as "Little Vietnam" with Asian grocery stores, butchers and Vietnamese eateries in abundance.

Quan at 88 Victoria Street looked like any of the other restaurants offering Vietnamese/Laotian/Thai cuisine dotting the street. We had been treated the night before to enthusiastic raves about the rice paper rolls, spicy quail and salty squid and duly ordered the same dishes, together with the waiter's recommendation of Beef fried "Thai-style" with chilli and basil. The recommended dish was not only NOT Vietnamese, it catered to the Western palates that frequented the joint. What was finger-licking good however, was the spicy quail, which came in a serving of 2 wing portions dipped in a dark spicy and piquant sauce. The other dishes were tasty enough, but definitely not beating any of the concoctions offered at many of Singapore's zi-char (literally "stir-fry") places. Nevertheless, Quan offered a cheap and cheerful dinner and BYO is available (at an incredible A$0.80 corkage charge a person). We would definitely head back to Victoria Street another weekend to check out all the other offerings.

A hard at work whisking the egg yolks with caster sugar

Back to the important bit of this post – A's virgin baking experience. I start him off with the easy bits – greasing the pot pie dishes and melting the chocolate in the bain marie. I show him how to separate the egg yolks from the whites and he decides to try his hand at the last egg. I'm a firm believer in everyone trying their hand once at anything, so I hand over the egg without a bleat. Unfortunately, most of the yolk ends up on the counter and part of it with the other whites as he laments his "strong fingers"! (The eggs aren't wasted though, with the addition of another egg, they form the base of a carbonara sauce for dinner on Sunday night.)


The recipe for Molten Chocolate Puddings is easy enough and in no time, we've got the pudding ready for the oven. After 15 minutes in the oven, and a generous pouring of thickened cream over, we sat down to enjoy our dessert while watching Bette Middler on "Beaches".


The Molten Chocolate Puddings turn out really well, with spongy sides and the proper molten centre. The recipe provided enough mix for 4 puddings and I put the remaining 2 puddings in the fridge. These are still yummy a couple of days later after heating the microwave (although this meant that the molten centre becomes fully cooked) as the chocolate flavour has become more pronounced. Served with a scoop of caramel icecream, this is an easy dessert to replicate at any of your dinner parties.

The next day after a huge yum cha lunch in Kew with A's colleagues, A attempted the Sultana Syrup Cake and was amazed to find the recipe easy to do (although I had to help him out with certain bits). He's thrilled to bits that he can now bake and I'm pleased that I now have an assistant in the kitchen when I attempt the more complex cakes.

Here's the recipe for Molten Chocolate Puddings, with many thanks again to Donna Hay:

150g dark chocolate - either cooking or eating chocolate is fine
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
2 extra egg yolks
¼ cup caster sugar
2 tablespoons plain flour, sifted
Thickened cream to serve

1. Preheat the oven to 180'C and lightly grease 4 1-cup capacity ovenproof dishes.
2. Place the chocolate and butter in a bain marie over low heat (or a heatproof bowl set over simmering water that does not touch the bottom of the bowl) and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth.
3. Place the eggs, extra yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until pale.
4. Using a metal spoon, gently fold in the flour and chocolate mixture and spoon into the greased dishes.
5. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the puddings are puffed. Top with the cream to serve. Sliced strawberries or kiwifruit on the side, optional.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What kept me glued to the TV today....

were the many tributes on Channels 7, 9 and 10 to the life of the "Crocodile Hunter", Steve Irwin, who sadly died in a freak accident yesterday at the Great Barrier Reef. Steve Irwin had apparently been filming an episode for his daughter's pilot environmental TV programme and had been swimming above a stingray, when the stingray lashed out and he was hit in the chest with the ray's poisonous barbs.

According to news reports, there was video footage of that moment (which experts on rays said was "one in a million") which apparently showed Steve Irwin plucking the barb from his chest before collapsing.

With the many times that we had spent watching him on wildlife programmes cheat death at the jaws of a huge crocodile or the fangs of some of the most poisonous snakes (including a taipan, the most venomous snake in the world, according to an article off the website of the Singapore newspaper,
the Straits Times), I suppose he had in the public mind developed an aura of invincibility. That was certainly the case with me - I was a bit incredulous when I saw the breaking news tag interrupting "Huey's Cooking Adventures" on Channel 10 yesterday afternoon.

It's a monument to the life of this chap and his efforts at wildlife conservation that his untimely death is the leading news in his home country and around the world, with tributes pouring in from all over and where politicians even delayed the start of the parliamentary session today with fitting words of homage.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Lunch amongst the Vines

Now that A and I have a car in Melbourne, we are ready to explore more of Victoria and Melbourne's surrounds. A couple of Saturdays ago, we took a day trip out to Victoria's famous wine country, the Yarra Valley, to load up on vino for the rest of the year. Make no mistake, the corner bottle shop has proved sufficient so far for all our libations at dinner, but with the Yarra Valley just a short 45 minute drive away, we had been looking forward to a day out visiting the vineyards.
First stop - Moet & Chandon's Australian vineyard, Domain Chandon at Green Point, for bubbly! We don't take long as Domain Chandon is primarily known for their sparkling wine (under the Green Point and Chandon label) and we leave the cellar door with a box-load of their best-selling 2003 Vintage Brut and 2003 Vintage Brut Rose.
We visit a couple more vineyards before lunch, including Oakridge and Dominique Portet, and the car boot fills rapidly up with yet more bottles. But with the prospect of a delicious lunch ahead of us, we skip the remaining vineyards on the Maroondah Highway and gun the car in the direction of Healesville.
Having read that the Healesville Hotel Dining Room had been awarded "Country Restaurant of the Year" and 2 Hats (the only restaurant in the Yarra Valley to receive this accolade) at the illustrious 2006 The Age Good Food Guide Awards, we had decided to lunch there that afternoon. What followed was a decadent Saturday afternoon lunch lasting close to 3 hours with all the works!

After perusing the Specials board and the menu, here's what we had for lunch that day:

A enjoying his freshly shucked Tasmanian oysters with a classic shallot vinaigrette

A had half a dozen freshly shucked oysters from Tasmania with a classic shallot vinaigrette while I had a chorizo-stuffed squid with a warm salad of white beans, potato and mint. Nothing quite like fresh produce to whet the appetite although I felt that the chorizo-stuffed squid seemed a tad mismatched albeit tasty.


Eye fillet with anchovy butter, rosemary fried 'taters and a watercress salad

I toyed with the thought of paprika roasted Yarra Valley rabbit but in the end A and I both opted for the char-grilled eye fillet with anchovy butter, rosemary fried potatoes and a watercress salad. The meaty aroma of the eye fillet preceded its arrival and our first bite was accompanied with sighs of delight. Very nicely done, the eye fillet paired well with the anchovy butter, the salty tang of the butter offsetting the richness of the meat. The watercress salad proved to be an effective palate cleanser for the next bite of the fillet.

A enjoyed a lovely shiraz (I forgot which one it was though) with his meal but having gotten a little heady with the bubbly at Domain Chandon's cellar door, I decided to skip the wines for that afternoon.

Desserts and Coffee

Chocolate Brulee , spiced poached pear & quince with ginger shortbread

By now, we are nicely sated and if possible, a little too stuffed to order any of the delicious-sounding desserts. But after a short interval, greed gets the upper hand and we rouse ourselves to order some coffee and the Rich Kennedy & Wilson chocolate brulee with spiced poached pear & quince on a slice of ginger shortbread. Done in a similar fashion to the classic crème brulee, the dark chocolate slice was topped with the pre-requisite caramelised sugar topping which made for a lovely combination of bitter-sweetness. The pear & quince compote allowed us a respite from the intense chocolate flavour of the brulee, with the ginger shortbread providing a nice hint of spice.

The Healesville Hotel is located smack on the main road of Healesville and not in any of the surrounding vineyards. The Dining Room overlooks a small courtyard and does not have any of the spectacular views of the typical winery restaurant. It does however, come with a whole lot of charm in its old-world ambience complete with soaring ceilings, open fireplace and French wicker chairs. Seated by the window with the sun shining in on us, A and I enjoyed a lovely dining experience at the Healesville Hotel Dining Room. Portions were generous and service was professional, unhurried and unobtrusive allowing us plenty of time to linger over our lunch that afternoon.

Although the Dining Room was only half-full for lunch that day (but fully booked for dinner as we overheard the staff telling a couple in front of us that the only dinner sitting was at 6pm and they had to leave by 8pm), reservations are highly recommended particularly for dinner as you wouldn't want to drive all that distance not to get a table. If you prefer not to tie yourself down, it is definitely easier to walk-in for a table during lunch and if you come after the main lunch crowd leaves at about 2pm. One caveat though - this is unlikely to be the case during the summer months when hordes of tourists and Melburnians alike descend on the Yarra Valley for sunshine amidst the vines.

We are almost too full to continue on our drive but we continue on our way to Rochford Wines, Tarrawarra Estate (where A purchases a couple of bottles of the excellent 2003 Shiraz and 2004 Pinot Noir under their Tin Cows label) and finally to De Bortoli wines for the sweet wines. I have a field day at the latter, getting gloriously high on their "Sticky Experience" (comprising tastings of 5 dessert and fortified wines for A$5, including Noble One) before buying several bottles of sweet wine (Black Noble, the Show Liqueur Muscat and a Windy Peak Spaetlese Riesling). We still have many more vineyards to visit but decide to leave that for another weekend and a further excuse to come back to Healesville for more great food!

Some useful links:

Healesville Hotel
256 Maroondah Highway
Healesville 3777
Tel: (03) 5962 4002

Visit the Yarra Valley information website at

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Tea and Camellias

Did you know that tea is made from the newly-sprouted leaves of the camellia plant? I didn't, not until I took a guided walk at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. Earlier that week, I had gone on another guided walk on herbs and spices and found it such an interesting way to see and learn more about the RBG that I had signed up for this walk immediately after.

The RBG is very much part of my routine here in Melbourne, being only 5 minutes walk from our apartment. A few times a week, I walk the "Tan" as part of my exercise regime and A and I jog/walk the same route on weekends too. Quite often on sunny days, I take a book, some cookies or a sandwich and make my way to my favourite spot overlooking the central lake for a pleasant afternoon. The RBG is an ideal place to daydream, to smell the flowers (literally), to relax and to rejuvenate in peace and quiet, having over 36 hectares of sprawling grounds. Solitude is readily available to those who seek it. But the sheer enormity of the grounds of the RBG made me realise that too many nooks and crannies lay unexplored so it seemed like a good time as any to sign up for some of their guided walks.

The Friday for the camellia walk dawned grey, wet and cold, having rained continuously the day before up to early that morning. I wasn't sure the walk would still continue but right about 9:30a.m., the sun made an appearance and I decided to make my way down.

Assembling at the RBG's Visitor Centre, our group (comprising mostly retirees and visitors to Melbourne) were greeted by our volunteer guide, Jenny, who has been in charge of the camellias in the RBG since she started volunteering in 1991. That made her somewhat of an expert on camellias as was evident from her detailed knowledge shown throughout the walk. Jenny started our walk with a display of camellia flowers in the foyer and gave us a short history of the camellia and the various species. If you look closely at the photos in this post, you'll see that camellias come in all shapes, sizes and colours.

Camellia x Williamsi "Hari Withers"

Setting out on our walk, Jenny took us around the camellia displays in the gardens, including some areas not usually accessible to the public (one of the perks of going on these walks) and entertained us with trivia about some of the different varieties. Like the orchids in Singapore's Botanic Gardens, some of the camellias had been named for important personages, although not all of these personages quite took to the particular camellia named after them! Lasting 2 hours and ending with a steaming cup of tea at the RBG's Tea Rooms, the RBG guided tour was truly an enjoyable way to spend a Friday morning and meet people.

Camellia reticulata "Sir Eric Pearse" (named after a Channel 9 newsreader)

If you find yourself in Melbourne some day, do stop by the RBG as part of the many places to visit. Volunteer guides at the RBG conduct twice daily (non-themed) walks around the gardens as well as themed walks, usually according to the seasons, such as the upcoming "Walk on the wildside" (1, 7 and 29 October) to view the wildlife in the RBG. There is also the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, a division of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, located about 50 minutes from Melbourne, which highlights the natural flora and fauna of the Western Port and Port Philip Bay regions and where the award-winning Australian Garden is located. For more information on the fees and dates of guided tours, do check out the RBG's very informative website.

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
Birdwood Avenue
South Yarra Victoria
Australia 3141
Tel: (03) 9252 2300


Friday, September 01, 2006

Spring is in the air

Everyone has the same idea - enjoy the sunshine!
It seems like spring is here, right on the dot! There were subtle signs over the last couple of days that the cold days of winter will soon be behind us. On Wednesday as I was leaving class about 645pm, I noticed that the sky wasn't as dark as it had been during winter. Yesterday, Melbourne posted a max of 22'C and the oodles of sunshine that greeted me when I awoke, just called for a lunch picnic at my favourite spot in the Botanic Gardens (together with many other Melburnians!).

Today, Channel 7 News says that Melbourne is looking at a max of 23'C! Yippee! It's time to break out my skirts (without the addition of winter tights) and sandals from their lonely place in the cupboard where they have been languishing for the last 6 weeks. Knowing Melbourne's infamous 4 seasons in one day weather patterns, I'm hoping this nice warm spell keeps up till next week. For now, I'm going to enjoy all the best parts of spring today...