Saturday, December 25, 2010

Make No Mistake About Fruitcake

Fruitcake made with cherries, cranberries, lemon peels, raisins, walnuts,
and coated with marzipan and fondant icing.
If you asked me one year ago, I'd have assured you that few foods are as vile and as pointless as the fruitcake. Heavy, dry, artificially-cloying and dotted with candied kryptonite-like "fruit" bits which always tasted nasty (even to a non-superhuman like me), I winced inwardly whenever I spotted slices of this logic-defying confection paraded on wedding tables as wedding favours.

It therefore came as no surprise that I flinched perceptibly when, in my endeavour to be a doting wife earlier this year, I encouraged my husband to name a dish he would like me to whip up for him, and he said: "Fruitcake". My response somehow segued from muted revulsion to skeptical curiosity as my husband patiently made his case for fruitcakes which contain real fruits and are moist, smooth and flavoursome. Really? Can it be?

Well, the gauntlet had been thrown and I was irrevocably obliged to bake a fruitcake that my husband would appreciate. I knew I needed help, and I turned to one of my favourite baking authors, Rose Levy Beranbaum, or rather, her book. Reading the recipe for a fruitcake in Rose's Heavenly Cakes was an exercise in uttering reluctantly appreciative "Hmms". Hmm, so real ingredients actually go into a fruitcake: high-quality glacéed fruit (Hmm, I can see how those would taste superior to luminous green cherries), raisins and rum (Hmm, can't go wrong with this pairing), pecans and walnuts (Hmm, yummy nuts), and cake ingredients (Hmm, there's actually cake in it). As a baking enthusiast, I could not help but allow the words I read in the recipe tear down my blinkers of prejudice because given a reliable recipe and barring any failure in execution, good ingredients always beget a good product.

And the baked product was indeed good. Just as my husband represented, it was moist, smooth and flavoursome. And the really wonderful thing is, a fruitcake improves in taste as it matures. Think aged beef or aged cheese and you'll know what I mean. At as young as three weeks old, the fruitcake already acquired a subtly seductive complexity. My delighted husband declared it to be the best fruitcake he ever had. And for me, it was the best humble pie (or cake) I ever had to eat.

I made another fruitcake for Christmas this year and decided to frost this one to give it a festive feel. It was my first time working with marzipan and fondant and I must say that it was addictively fun. Making the green holly and berries was easy enough:

Equipment / Materials
- Small paring knife
- Some marzipan (I used the left-overs from the marzipan used to cover the fruitcake)
- Red food colouring
- Green food colouring
- Small bottle cap
- Disposable gloves

For the holly leaves
a. Put on the gloves to prevent staining your hands.
b. Mix a few drops of the green food colouring with a small piece of marzipan and knead until you get the desired shade of green.
c. Roll out the green marzipan into a sheet which is about a quarter-inch thick.
d. Cut out almond-shaped "leaves" on a cutting board with the knife.
e. Use the small bottle cap to clip away at the outline of each leaf to make an inverted scallop pattern.
f. To create the veins on the leaves, press the back of the knife on each leaf length-wise, and then repeat for the upward-sweeping slanted veins which stem from the centre vein.
g. Stand back and marvel at how easy it was.
h. Allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two.

For the holly berries
a. Mix a few drops of the red food colouring with a small piece of marzipan and knead until you get the desired shade of red.
b. Pinch a small piece of the red marzipan and roll it between your palms to create a small ball. That's your holly berry / red currant / cranberry.
c. Allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two.

Finally, I share below my thoughts and tips on making a fruitcake:

1. Get a reliable recipe - I followed the Fruitcake Wreath recipe in Rose's Heavenly Cakes which has proven to be highly reliable but I've also read excellent reviews on Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake Recipe. Try a recipe that's remotely dubious and you are on your own.

2. Use good ingredients - A fruitcake can be very costly to make after you factor in the glacéed fruits, the nuts, the marzipan, the fondant, and the copious amount of booze needed to both macerate the glacéed fruits AND feed the cake over time. If you have already decided to undertake this expensive labour of love, do yourself a favour and buy the best ingredients you can find and afford. Skimping on the ingredients will only undermine your efforts.

3. Intoxicate your fruitcake - If you want to keep your fruitcake for some time, and by some time, I mean months or years, splash some rum over your fruitcake every 3 months or so. This will help keep it moist and happy.

4. Be prepared to lose some refrigerator real estate - If you intend to consume your fruitcake slowly over the months or year, do remember that the fruitcake is a space hog. No, not the porcine creature but an occupier of considerable and valuable space in your ever shrinking refrigerator. Not much you can do about it but it's good to think ahead.

5. Do not refrigerate the iced fruitcake - If you want to retain the satiny and matte finish on your fondant icing, remember not to refrigerate the iced fruitcake. The condensation that occurs when you remove your iced fruitcake from the refrigerator will not be pretty.

6. Plan ahead - If you intend to make an iced fruitcake for an occasion, plan ahead. Depending on the recipe you use, macerating the dried fruits can take up to a week and drying the marzipan can take anything from a day up to a week (depending on whether the marzipan is store-bought or homemade).

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Noma - A Nordic Epiphany

Sea buckthorn leather with rose petal pickled in apple cider for 6 months.
I've been experiencing writer's block for this post for a long time. It should not have been difficult, considering that the 6 Ws (namely, what, why, who, where, when and how) are straightforward: -

What: 4-hour meal at Noma.
Why:  It is by a mile the most interesting meal I have had so far.
Who: Head chef and co-owner, René Redzepi.
Where: Copenhagen, Denmark.
When: June 2010.
How: Sheer fortuity.

I attribute my writer's block to self-doubt. Self-doubt is one of those insidious parasites that feeds on a writer's insecurities and, if left unchecked, will eventually paralyse the writer. Thankfully, liberation arrived at my doorstep yesterday in the form of a gift from a dear friend, P, for an occasion. The gift is the newly-published Noma cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Flipping through the pages and spotting some of the dishes I had at Noma suddenly unblocked me. Just like that. (Thank you, P!)

I came to know about Noma over two years ago indirectly through a cooking programme known as "New Scandinavian Cooking". This programme was, in my opinion, really a tourism pitch for the Scandinavian countries masquerading as a cooking show. Not that I minded it one bit because the hosts of the show were very charming and engaging and the Scandinavian landscapes were simply breathtaking.

While reading up on the hosts, I found out that the Danish host for the programme, Claus Meyer, is a co-owner of a highly-regarded restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark - Noma. Having since been sold on Scandinavia as a holiday destination (well done, producers), my husband and I decided earlier this year that we should also schedule a visit to Noma. And I have to say it was most fortuitous that we secured our reservations at Noma just shortly before Noma was named the world's best restaurant by the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants List 2010 in late April this year. I would otherwise never have been able to get a table because on the very next day, the newly-crowned Noma reportedly received more than 100,000 email reservations requests!

Did Noma live up to its hype? Oh, yes, unequivocally. And this is where I pass the baton to the pictures I took of my 4-hour, 12-course Noma nassaaq (itself preceded by half a dozen appetisers), which my Danish server suggested should be "taken with some velocity"!

Savoury cookie with speck, blackcurrants and spruce. Crisp, chewy, savoury and tangy.

A playful sandwich of crisp ryebread, smoked cheese and lumpfish roe cream, and chicken skin. The chicken skin (with fat scraped off) needed to be baked for 2 hours under ovenproof weights.

Quail eggs that had been blanched, smoked and pickled. The edible quail eggs came ensconced within an inedible quail egg container that trapped smoke for a very dramatic uncovering. I find this dish reminiscent of the soft-boiled eggs at Japanese ramen shops but these are smaller, smokey and the yolk is completely liquid.
Organic asparagus and radish in 2 types of "soil", a herb cream and a malt soil. I was shocked to see this dish because I had something very similar at Les Creations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, just last year. I asked when this dish was created and was told that it was probably about 5 years ago. I decided not to probe further because I really like both these restaurants. Whether it is mimicry, flattery or coincidence, the customers are the winners here.

Herb toast with cod roe emulsion topped with skin of duck sauce. Ethereal.

Unusual and fun take on a traditional Danish pastry - Aebleskiver with Finnish fish and cucumber, dusted with vinegar meringue powder. The cucumber is hidden in the pastry.
Smoked lard that came with the bread. Pure pork fat = flavour.

Beetroot with dill emulsion.

Dried scallops, hazelnuts, grains marinated in watercress
with squid and blue mussel sauce. Very interesting take on scallops.

Tartare of ox, wood sorrel, juniper powder and cream of tarragon. The ox is hiding under the bed of wood sorrel leaves and this dish has to be eaten with your hands. One of my favourite courses.

Langoustines from the west coast of Denmark dusted with red seaweed powder with an oyster and parsley emulsion and rye bread crumble. The langoustines were sauteed at high heat for 30 seconds on one side and a mere 2 seconds on the other side, which created a barely-cooked texture that brought out the natural sweetness of the langoustines. It was perfect. Really.

New potatoes, potato puree in milk skin and chervil. Delicate flavours here.

Purple carrot with a decadent-tasting truffle vinaigrette. 
The carrot was cooked by continuously spooning hot goat butter over it for 45 minutes. One of the chefs kindly brought out his pan to our table 4 courses earlier to show us how he was cooking our purple carrots!

Norwegian king crab and leeks rolled in ashes with a mussel emulsion and breadcrumbs.
Hen and the Egg - participation time! We had to cook the egg ourselves according to very specific instructions from our server. I could see that every customer in the restaurant was delighted by this amusing course when it came to his or her turn.

Danish pork neck with chicory and sheets of pear and verbana sauce.

Goat milk mousse with sorrel granitas finished with grapeseed oil. A refreshing dessert in many ways.
Carrots done five ways: carrot sorbet (encased in buttermilk foam),
carrot top, pickled carrot dried carrot and fresh carrot. Yes, this is a dessert course too.

Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream with apple and brown discs. It was nicely weird and weirdly nice.

Potato crisps with anise and chocolate.

Sea buckthorn and beetroot flødeboller. Flødeboller is a traditional Danish sweet.

Apart from the very delightful and surprising food that Noma serves, what makes Noma that special rare restaurant are the people. The servers are relaxed, chatty and friendly, in direct contrast with the servers you would meet at 3-Michelin-star French restaurants who would speak to you in a formal manner and address you as "Monsieur" or "Madame". There is no dress code for Noma - that was a first for me for fine dining restaurants. For some of the courses, the chefs actually served and introduced the food they cooked to the customers directly - that was another first for me. The sous chef, Sam Miller, was an exceptionally nice chap. After service was over, he invited my husband and I into the Noma kitchen for a little tour which thrilled me to bits because I could see where all the fun and magic happens. In fact, I am convinced that the chefs have more fun preparing the courses than the customers do eating them.

Bread proofing in the Noma kitchen.
According to our server (and echoed by Sam), the man behind this amazing restaurant is the head chef, René Redzepi, who unfortunately was not present that day. Sam also shared with us that chef René Redzepi serves in Noma what he likes to eat himself. I may not have met the man myself but I can conclude that he eats really well. And I am grateful to him and his wonderful team for letting me sample Nordic food at its best.