From Couch Potato To Decadent Dessert - Peanut Sticky Rice Dumplings with Chocolate Shortbread and Salted Caramel Sauce

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Does reality television kill off brain cells like a game of Space Invaders so that you stare slack-jawed at the accomplishment of others while sitting glued to the couch, shovelling down fast food? Or does it inspire you to leap forth, conquering new frontiers you would never have imagined? The truth is probably somewhere in between, but that would never make the news...


Last week, Marty Wilson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about what else people could accomplish in the time they spend watching reality shows and the artificial emotions experienced from vicariously living through the contestants. As a population, we watch more TV than ever before, we get bigger by creeping increments, we move less. But the (increasing) weight of statistics conceals the quiet minority, gobbling it up like a packet of salt and vinegar chips without pausing to brush the crumbs from its Snuggie.

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce
From reality TV inspiration to the sticky reality of dessert... 

Because some people are out there, writing their novels or working as lifeguards on the weekend or renovating the house. And some of them (especially, perhaps, the ones doing all those things) collapse in a heap at the end of the day and watch some TV to relax and switch off from whirling thoughts of chapter structures, training drills, how they’re going to fit the microwave into the redesigned kitchen or whatever else has been occupying their attention.

Others see people on TV doing something that looks like fun and think “Wow, I’d like to try that!”. In the place where that brain cell was killed off, a seed gets planted instead. That’s partly why I’m writing a food blog. Watching the enthusiastic amateurs on MasterChef make a huge range of dishes (and, sometimes, a hell of a mess as well), push their limits in the kitchen and visibly improve their skills was so much more approachable and motivating than watching a well-prepared and tightly edited chef make the same recipes. And into the kitchen I went. Tentatively at first, and then with increasing confidence (punctuated with regular baking fails, but also lots of things devoured happily by friends, workmates and the Other Penguin (who has infinite patience with a cinnamon-sprinkled and chocolate-daubed blur dashing between bowls and saucepans in the wee small hours, and even with the ensuing mountain of washing up).

This season, still watching MasterChef (go Team Billy!), I turn over ideas of what I’d make if faced with that particular range of ingredients. I look at the techniques and think of other places I could apply them. And, on a good day (and there are more and more of those), looking at a recipe gives me an idea for an adaptation of my own, or even a completely different dish. And, just this week, this led to sticky peanut dumplings with chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce…

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce
Crunchy peanut filling

Alvin Quah was one of my favourite contestants on the second series of MasterChef – owing to a wonderfully sly sense of humour and a range of recipes that looked evocative and delicious in equal measure. He returned to the current series as a guest on last Friday’s masterclass, where he made black sesame dumplings in ginger syrup with wonton wafers. It looked like a perfect winter dessert – warming but not too stodgy. I’ve often enjoyed sweet, sticky dumplings with a peanut paste filling at yum cha, and this provided a starting idea. But, rather than pairing them with other Asian flavours, I took inspiration from the likes of Dan Hong and David Chang, and decided on the combination of peanuts, chocolate and caramel for a different twist.

I started out with such a vivid impression of the dessert I was aiming to create that I was a little apprehensive that it might’ve all been a little premature. Perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew – as those glutinous dumplings can be very chewy indeed. As the components gradually came together, I started to relax a bit more and felt quite proud when it was completed, as it was more elaborate than a lot of my usual baking inventions...

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce
Can you have too much caramel sauce...?

This is how it was made:
Sticky Penguin’s Peanut Sticky Rice Dumplings with Chocolate Shortbread and Salted Caramel Sauce
What you need
For the shortbread
125 g (1 US cup) plain flour
63 g (¼ US cup) white sugar
32 g (¼ US cup) icing sugar
3 tbsp Dutch cocoa powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
113 g (½ US cup) butter
Cold water as required (I used about 3 tsp)

For the dumpling filling
75 g peanuts (unshelled and unsalted)
37 g butter
37 g sugar

For the dumplings
250 g glutinous rice flour
240 ml water (approximate)

For the salted caramel sauce
115 g butter
200 g white sugar
300 ml heavy cream
Salt to taste

What to do
For the chocolate shortbread
(adapted from a previously adapted recipe)
1. Combine the flour, white sugar, icing sugar, cocoa powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until evenly combined.
2. Add the vanilla extract and butter, and pulse to combine until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
3. Add the water, a teaspoon at a time, until the mixture comes together into a dough that rumbles round the bowl leaving just a few sticky traces behind.
4. Turn out the dough onto a piece of kitchen wrap or baking paper and roll into an even sausage (I made mine about 30 cm long and as wide as the circle formed when you join your thumb to your middle finger). Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Note: if you’re trying to be efficient (and in a sticky penguin’s case, trying is usually the operative word), the dumplings can be made and filled while the shortbread dough chills and firms up.
5. Preheat the oven to 190°C / 375°F and line two baking sheets with non-stick paper. 
6. Using a serrated knife, cut the chilled dough in slices around 3-4 mm thick and place on the baking sheets. As the dough warms up a little, the cookies can be reshaped slightly if needed (if you're being fussy and want to make them completely round).
7. Bake the shortbread for around 12 minutes. The cookies will be firm around the edges but still a little soft in the middle when they are ready - they firm up as they cool. Cooking them longer will make them more of a brittle consistency.
8. Allow the shortbread to cool on a wire rack so they're barely warm before using them in the dessert. Leftover cookies (as the recipe makes more than you'll need for 16 dumplings) are great with a cup of tea (or, with the rich chocolate flavour, an espresso).

For the dumpling filling
1. Grind the peanuts until they are reduced to very small pieces (just a little finer than the consistency coarse breadcrumbs or sea salt flakes). I used a food processor to do this (a stick blender attachment would be more efficient with this small quantity, but, alas, mine has recently died).
2. Melt the butter and sugar in a small saucepan, and then stir in the crushed peanuts. Stir to combine thoroughly, and continue cooking for a minute or two. Set the resulting crunchy peanut paste aside to cool. 

For the dumplings
(made using the recipe  from Alvin Quah, with my notes on what I discovered in the process of making dumplings for the first time)
1. Place the glutinous rice flour in a medium sized mixing bowl (the texture was loose enough that I opted not to sieve my flour, and didn’t end up with lumpy dumplings) and make a well in the centre.
2. Gradually add the water into the centre, mixing with one hand (or with a small metal spoon). Keep adding the water until the mixture comes together into a firm paste,  which doesn't stick to your fingers (at least, not more than a tiny bit - I'm incapable of working dough without ending up in a bit of a sticky mess!). 
Note: I made my dumplings  in advance and left them for around half an hour while I pottered onto other kitchen experiments... when I came back to  fill them, the dough had dried out and cracked when I tried to work it. I made a second batch of dumplings and used a tiny bit more water to make the dough more malleable, and rolled and filled the dumplings straight away, which was much more successful. I also followed rolled and filled the dumplings, as per the following three steps, one at a time, so that the dough didn't dry out quicker from sitting there in smaller pieces. 
3. Divide the dough into 15-16 even pieces (they will weigh around 30 g each, if you're being fussy and want them all the same size), and roll each piece into a ball.
4. Gently flatten each dumpling a little, and press an indentation into it to contain the filling. Scoop a small amount of peanut filling into the centre of each dumpling (I found a measuring teaspoon was the ideal shape and size for this).
5.  Fold the edges of the dumpling over the filling and press them together to seal the join. Roll the dumpling lightly between the palms of your hands to achieve a uniform shape and remove the sign of the join.
Note: When folding and sealing the dumplings, it is preferable for the filling to remain centred inside them, rather than off to one side. Next time I make these, I will roll the dumplings a little thinner and squeeze in more filling for a better squish-to-crunch ratio. 
6. The dumplings can now be set aside until you're ready to start assembling the dessert.
7. To cook the dumplings, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Carefully add the dumplings (I lowered each one into the water using a quarter cup measure) and use a metal spoon to separate any that cluster together (I cooked the dumplings in two batches to avoid overcrowding). The dumplings are cooked when they float to the surface of the water (this took about 5 minutes).
8. Remove the dumplings from the boiling water (I used the cup measure again) and drain on a plate. I was very wary of using a sieve or kitchen paper to drain the dumplings, in case they stuck.

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce

For the salted caramel sauce
(adapted, just a little, from Ready for Dessert, by David Lebovitz)
1. Place the butter and sugar in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan (it's important to use a big saucepan, as the sauce will bubble up when the cream is added) and cook over a medium heat until the butter melts and the sugar has dissolved. Stir occasionally.
2. Continue cooking until the melted butter and sugar caramelise to a deep, rich golden colour. For quite a lot of the cooking process, the melted butter didn't emulsify with the sugar and floated as a separate layer on top. This will be resolved as it continues to cook and thicken, and a bit of a stir with a silicone spatula also helps.
3. Once you've boiled the caramel until it is as dark as you'd like, making sure you don't let it burn, remove it from the heat and, standing well back as it bubbles, add the cream and whisk like mad. Keep whisking until the mixture is smooth.
4. Add salt to taste (I used just under a teaspoonful).
5. Sieve the sauce into a container - it will keep for over a week in the fridge, and the recipe makes more than you will need for the dessert (though it is utterly delectable, so having some on hand for top ups might also be an option!).

To assemble the dessert
1. Place several spoonfuls of the salted caramel sauce in a flat bowl and swirl to evenly coat the bottom.
2. Put a shortbread biscuit in the centre of the caramel sauce.
3. Balance a dumpling on the shortbread, and sprinkle lightly with some of the leftover peanut filling.

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce

The finished dessert was much more glamorous anything that's eventuated on a Sunday night at home before. It turned out very close to my imagining, and the mix of flavours and textures made the overall dish better than the sum of the parts. The silky caramel sauce unites the sleekly chewy dumpling with the crunchy crumble of the shortbread. The saltiness of the nuts and caramel, the slight bitterness of the dark chocolate just balance out the overall sweetness of the dish. I also liked that the dumpling, rather than making the dish heavy, was a simple contrast with the other flavours.

The Other Penguin, not typically a dumpling fan, polished it off, pronouncing the caramel sauce his favourite part. This is definitely a recipe I will return to – it would be ideal for dinner parties, as the components can be made in advance, and the dumplings cooked in a few minutes before serving.

Sticky Penguin's sticky rice dumplings with peanut filling, chocolate shortbread and salted caramel sauce

After my first attempt at making sticky rice dumplings, I've decided that I’d far rather be one of the people who does stuff and then watches crap TV shows to unwind, rather than somebody with impeccable taste and nothing to show for it. Now, I’m off to knock up a batch of scones in the ad break...

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Pulled Pork? Pull The Other One!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sandwiches tend to be practical. Utilitarian. A concise report rather than a dulcet whisper. A pit-stop for fuel rather than a longed-for indulgence. The Other Penguin flat out refuses to buy them, on the basis that paying for something so mundane and so readily made at home is a highly objectionable concept. While I don't go quite that far, the number of sandwiches that are etched in my memory are few and far between.

Don't be deceived by its innocent appearance - this roll packs a porcine punch!

The Sticky Penguin Sandwich Hall of Fame comprises the following members (some of which, I'm almost certain, are all the more alluring for being hard to come by):

  • Coronation chicken from Albion Caff in Shoreditch. London's a long way for a sandwich, though (even one that good, and large enough to qualify as dinner).
  • Special chicken salad* with celery and mayonnaise on fluffy white bread, that used to be served in the murky peace and quiet of the cafe underneath David Jones, before it was very ill-advisedly removed to stuff in more cosmetics. Preferably accompanied with thin and crispily golden chips (that'd be the sandwich, not the make-up. Not so keen on fries with that when hunting down mascara or browsing the latest OPI shades). 
  • Ham and cheese baguette in the cafe at the Louvre. A combination of the appetite built up wandering corridors gazing at art, the happy surprise of finding exactly-what-I-felt-like-eating at a major tourist spot (let alone finding it well-executed) and the timeless simplicity of the food itself.  
  • Just about anything from EARL Canteen (with preference for the slow-cooked lamb or - so far, alas, only vicariously - the duck confit).
  • Sausage and tomato sauce sandwiches, made using cold left-over sausages. Long ago, a favourite lunch-box discovery (second only to leftover home-made lasagna**) and now a summertime pleasure after over-catering for barbecues, and Christmas treat when down the coast (the Trifle-Eating Cat's Parents have a ready supply of sausages, and aren't the slightest bit sparing in their use. Squee!)
  • And an honorary mention also goes to just about anything from the now-departed and much missed Moose General Store.
Having settled on that list (with one notable omission, which is of such significance as to warrant proper consideration separately), I will doubtless go pootling through the week beset by random thoughts of the Sandwiches I Loved And Forgot. Which tends to be the way when trying to come up with any sort of definitive list, from groceries to wedding guests.

This weekend, though, a new contender for the Best Ever Sandwich emerged. Like the cool new kid at school, it swaggered in and grabbed my attention, distracting me from faithful and familiar friends... 

Could you go past the pulled pork?

The prospect of a trip to the Pyrmont Growers Market was sufficiently enticing to prompt a rare early start on a Saturday morning. It was ages since I'd paid a visit, and I was keen to suss out what interesting discoveries might be made. The market was bigger, busier and much muddier than I remembered . Old favourites like the Australian Honey Sellers and Whisk & Pin had been joined by wontons, micro herbs and an array of condiments that bordered on boggling. 

I'd run out the door without breakfast in the hope that something tasty would present itself, and I wasn't disappointed. There were lengthy queues for coffee and at any stall with the wafting fragrance of bacon. There was also a stall offering a minimalist menu of pulled pork rolls and porridge. It smelt fabulous. It looked delicious. I got in during a rare lull in the crowd. Much as the porridge, on offer with rhubarb and almonds, sounded entirely satisfying, there was no going past the pork. And there it was... a sandwich revelation...

The pulled pork (made with Berkshire free range pork) was matched with vividly pink beetroot coleslaw, squirted with a tangy barbecue sauce that bore as much resemblance to the usual sugary gloop as a duck does to a flamingo. The roll was soft and tender, filling but still light, and the perfect size and shape to pick up. The proportions of pork, slaw, sauce and bun were the edible equivalent of the golden ratio. Heaven, without need of a stick. I perched on a sandstone wall and blissfully munched until all that remained was a warm, comfortable not-too-fullness and a fuchsia smear on the plate. The astonishing sandwich came from The Table Sessions, which also does guerrilla dining events in Sydney, something which I'm now going to need to investigate very thoroughly.

Once more, for those who missed it! Complete with dodgy camera phone photos... 

Have you had a sandwich that elevates the lunch--on-the-run staple to something special? I'd love to hear about it, and where you found it. I suspect the next stop on the trail to find culinary nirvana might need to involve a Reuben...

* For those to whom "special chicken" denotes a source of protein originating from almost any bird, beast, fish or creature other than an actual chicken, I believe the description of "special" is properly applied in this instance to the chicken as turned into a salad, or perhaps to the sandwich in its entirety.
** The range of foods which a Sticky Penguin will cheerfully tuck into with relish (not literally - I've never been one for pickles and suchlike) at cold-to-room-temperature is an occasional source of mystification to others. Perhaps it's because microwaves are relatively rare in the Antarctic. But then again, so's home-made lasagna...

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Talking About Food Doesn't Have To Be Funny

Saturday, July 2, 2011

When I first came to Australia, I wanted to fit in with all the desperation my ten-year-old heart could muster. I longed to fly under the radar after the “new girl” awkwardness had faded. But there were two things that stood in my way. The twin crimes of an English accent and an apparently precocious vocabulary marked me as that most un-Australian of things, “up myself”. I was frustrated and confused by it – I’d recently arrived from a small-ish town in New Zealand, where I’d never been singled out for being different, much less had it held against me.

What time had (mostly) dismissed as the ability of children of a certain age to go straight for the jugular came back to me earlier today. Sue Bennett’s article in the weekend Sydney Morning Herald transported me from sprawling on the couch with the weekend papers on my lap to standing in a playground in the height of summer with my words stuck in my throat.

Bennett takes a well-worn Blundstone to people who say foreign words with the accompanying accent when it isn’t native to themselves. Saying parmegiano instead of parmesan, for instance. Such pronunciation apparently amounts to pretentiousness of, if not the worst kind, at least a kind that can be safely lampooned from behind the pie stand.

The particularly blood-boiling example Bennett gives is when people apply an accent when all they’ve done is to live there. How dare they have the temerity to live in Italy for ten years and then come back here and talk about gelato instead of ice cream? Or have spent a decent length of time in France and be so bold as to not stumble when pronouncing hors d’oeuvres. And a friend who’s travelled widely in China and can hold their own ordering dim sum is a rare gift, and no cause for mockery.

When we travel abroad and try different foods in their countries of origin, efforts, however wobbly and unconvincing, to speak the local language almost always receive a kind reception. Why can’t we practice a little before we go without being sneered at? Why not show respect for another whose food you’ve had a lifelong love for by trying not to mangle the names of recipes and ingredients. The “poor ill-educated person out there” at the deli counter, patisserie or caf├ę who doesn’t know the word might not mind finding out what it is, as long as you don’t ram it down their throat.

Sure, there are some people with affectations to rival Hyacinth Bucket’s, who grasp at every misplaced opportunity to appear more sophisticated. And I’ll cheerfully laugh at that sort of thing through a mouthful of sausage roll. But the idea that simply using the right word for something, native pronunciation and all, makes you a snob is to sit in a Vegemite-smeared cave of ignorance.

On the multicultural platter that is Sydney’s food scene, should we have to ask for gnocchi, pho, dulce de leche or (gulp) gew├╝rztraminer in broad ‘Strine? And where would Bennett have us draw the line? Should we all be calling a jus a juice or lumping it in alongside lumpy gravy? And there’s the never-ending macaron versus macaroon debate that’s been bubbling away ever since we discovered those delectably impossible confections. How presumptuous of us to lay claim to these foods with names that make us feel more comfortable. If all we want is comfort, why not stay at home with cheese on toast. As long as it isn’t groo-yeah, that is. Better just have a couple of slices of good old Bega tasty.

We want to embrace the ever-increasing variety of delicious food that’s available here, as long as it fits in and we don’t have to use any funny words. If we applied that sort of logic to people, there’d be an uproar. Oh, hang on…

But if you say tomato on toast and I say bruschetta, does it really matter? If we can eat better, travel more, and revel in the opportunity to enjoy everything that other parts of the world have to offer, getting caught up in the semantics seems a petty schoolyard relic. Some of us, though, are left with the memory of a choked up feeling that didn’t have words, as though a piece of prosciutto had gone down the wrong way.

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