Hello all!  The calendar says Christmas will be here in couple of days...then comes 2011 and then the year of the Cat (I'm Vietnamese...we don't have rabbits in our zodiac, lol!).  Man oh man... how time flies!  I've been so busy lately...to busy to post anything or ever take pictures.  Things are calming down now and I owe it to myself to say hi to everyone out there who still visits.

***Hi, hope you're doing well!***

Seeing the picture above you've probably already figured out what I've been up to, but...it doesn't take 4 months to create a Gingerbread house right?  Or does it? No it doesn't.  The Gingerbread displays were created for Wild Ginger and The Triple Door...where I've been working at since August.  I made the Pagoda (yes, I know it looks like a Church), which is on display at the Triple Door.  The train and the Christmas tree made by my pastry team - Aja and Davona; are on display at Wild Ginger Seattle (train) and Wild Ginger Bellevue (tree).  Come check it out! While you're there why not have dessert made my yours truly?  

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Sương Sáo aka Grass Jelly is a dessert/drink popular throughout Southeast Asia.  According to Chinese medicine it has "cooling" properties and is good for the skin.  Grass Jelly is actually made from a dried herb that is a member of the mint family...not grass as the name suggests.  The herb's name in Chinese which is "len fan chou" (cooling grass). Thus, jelly made from cooling grass is....you guessed it Grass Jelly.

You can purchase Grass Jelly at just about any Asian grocery store for dirt cheap...but where's the fun in that?

"Grass" to make Grass Jelly can be found at most Chinese Herbal/Medicine Shops.  Rinse/wash the grass, add water to cover the grass by 2", simmer for at least 1 hour. 

Cool and strain the grass through a cheese cloth or a fine sieve or...both.  The liquid obtained will be used as the base to make grass jelly.

To make grass jelly.....
Use a measuring cup to measure the liquid obtained after straining out the herb.  Dilute that liquid with an equal amount of water.  For example, if you got 2 cups of liquid add 2 cups water (+/- depending on how pronounced you want you jelly to taste).  For every 6 cups of diluted liquid you will need 75g of tapioca starch (+/- depending on how firm you want you jelly to be).

Bring 5 cups of liquid to a boil.  Meanwhile, dissolve the tapioca starch in the remaining 1 cup of liquid.  As soon as the liquid in the pot begins to boil, stir in the starch mixture.  You'll notice the liquid will thicken immediately.  Mix well and fast, then pour the mixture into a clean bowl and allow to set.  The jelly set right before you eyes...literally.  In about 20 mins the grass jelly is ready to be served.

To serve: cut the jelly into small pieces, mix with sugar or honey...grass jelly also pairs exceptionally well with Nước Rau Má (Pennywort drink)....I was going to post a recipe but my dear friend Lily beat me to it...you can find her recipe here http://lilyng2000.blogspot.com/2010/07/pennywortpegaga-drink-secret-fountain.html 

Just in case you're wondering...this isn't 'real' grass jelly since the starch is setting the jelly and not the grass.  I thought so too...so I experimented.  I tried to thicken 6 cups of water with 75g of tapioca starch to see if the liquid would set like grass jelly....it didn't...as you can see from the picture below.  The white mess in the bowl is the water + tapioca starch vs. grass jelly + tapioca starch.  

The starch triggers a chemical reaction with the grass jelly liquid to set the jelly.  The starch alone can not do the job.  Besides tapioca starch you can also use corn starch, mung bean starch, arrow root starch or rice flour.  However, I found that tapioca starch gives the jelly the best appearance (clear and pitch black). If you prefer a very soft jelly, use 30g of starch (it's the minimum amount of starch you'll need to set 6 cups of grass jelly; the more starch the firmer the jelly).  For a slightly chewy texture add 1/2 tsp lye water
A Vietnamese favorite with Chinese origins, Mì Vịt Tiềm is composed of fresh egg noodles, shiitake mushrooms, watercress, and a braised duck leg quarter.  The duck is braised in a mix of spices creating a rich flavorful broth for the noodles.  Condiments include hot mustard, and pickled green papaya and carrots. 

For the Braise Duck:
**For every pound of duck**
-1/2 tsp salt
-1/4 tsp 5 spice
-1 tsp cooking wine
-1 tsp dark soy sauce
-1/2 tsp honey or maltose
-2 slices of ginger
-oil for deep frying
-a few shiitake mushrooms

*Rub the duck leg quarters with ginger, salt, 5 spice and cooking wine.  Marinate for at least 2 hours, pat dry with a towel.   Combine honey and soy sauce, bush the mixture over the duck leg.  Deep fry the legs until golden (doesn't need to be cooked all the way, just aim for color).  Reconstitute the mushrooms.

Meanwhile, in a large stock pot to toast...

-1/2 tsp fennel
-1 clove
-2 star anise
-3 pieces/slices of licorice root
-1 piece of cinnamon about 1/2 inch long
-1 piece of dried tangerine peel

...until fragrant add water and...

-2 tbs soy sauce
-1 1/2 tsp salt
-1 tsp sugar

...bring to a boil.

Add the duck legs (fried), and mushrooms.  Add more water if necessary to cover the duck.  Simmer over low heat for about 45 mins or until the duck is tender. 

Serve with fresh egg noodles (blanched) and watercress, bok choy, yu choy or iceberg lettuce (I prefer watercress, it's peppery taste goes well with the duck).

The noodles are served with pickled green papaya and carrots. Hot mustard is perfect for dipping the duck into. To make the pickled green papaya and carrots use this recipe, replace the daikon with thinly sliced green papaya.
What's an orchid cake?  If you've ever tasted Sponge Cake or Génoise you've tasted Orchid Cake.  Bánh Bông Lan/Orchid Cakes are small sponge cakes baked the old school way.  Although génoise's family tree traces it back to Italy; cake was introduced to Vietnam by the French.

What's with the name?  Génoise are often flavored with vanilla.  Vanilla comes from/is an type of orchid.  Orchid in Vietnamese is "Bông Lan", thus the name Bánh Bông Lan - Orchid Cakes.  Traditionally, the cakes are baked in a cast iron mold heated with charcoal.  Modern ovens make baking these cakes much less laborious...but some how I still prefer the traditional way...nothing like sitting outside on a mild spring day, enjoying the light breeze, the bright shinning sun and baking sponge cakes. 

-4 egg (200g)
-120g flour
-120g sugar
-1 tbs tsp oil or melted butter
-1 tsp vanilla powder or extract

Beat the egg whites with the sugar until stiff peaks are formed.  Add the yolks one at a time.  Sift and fold the flour into the eggs.  Fold in the butter and vanilla last.

To Bake: 

 Preheat the mold, brush each cavity with a cotton ball dipped in oil.

Fill until 3/4 full of batter.

Cover and bake for about 3-5 mins.
Hoa Thủy Tiên literally translates to "Water Angel/Fairy Flower". It's, or shall I say "her" botanical name is narcissus tazetta and they're a variety of narcissus (daffodil, paper whites, etc...). The bulbs are forced in water to set off graceful flowers for Tết - Chinese/Vietnamese/Lunar New Year. Thus, the name "Water Angel/Fairy".

Angel or Fairy? In Vietnamese, Tiên is a mythical being from the heavens who is beautiful and graceful while possessing supernatural powers. Although Tiên can be either male or female....it usually implies female. For example, Chị Hằng Nga of the mid-autumn festival. Angel for fairy? I'll let you decide.

There are 2 ways to force these bulbs into blooming. One is to simply stick the bulbs in a container filled with water, change the water every few days and in about 6 weeks you'll see angels. The second method is more traditional and complicated. The bulbs are "carved" to expose the flower buds and then placed in water. As the leaves and stems grow, they too are carved to manipulate them into their graceful shapes. With this method, the bulbs should bloom in 20 days (+/-). As with all plants temperature plays an important role, if the temp is too warm, then they'll bloom earlier and vice versa. You can somewhat control how fast they bloom by controlling the temperature of the water. It is desirable to have the flowers bloom exactly at midnight on the eve of the New Year….so plan accordingly.

*Click on the pictures for larger images*

Step 1:  The bulbs will look like this when you buy them from the store.  Look for ones that are plump, white with plenty of bulbs attached (each bulb is a flower stalk); each attached bulb should be at least thumb size (smaller ones won't bloom).

Step 2:  Using a sharp paring knife, begin carving away the outer layers of the bulb (the bulb is made up of many layers like an onion).   Use extreme caution as you get to the center of the bulb.

Step 3:  Only cut away half/one side of the bulb like in the picture above.  Stop once you get to the young shoots in the center (if you look closely you'll notice the flower buds are already set).  It's ok if you damage the leaves but if any of the flower buds are hurt they will not bloom. 

Step 4: Soak the bulb cut side down in cold water.  Soak for 2 days, changing the water and carefully washing the bulbs everyday. 

Step 5: After 2 day, flip the bulb over and soak it for another 2 days, changing the water everyday. 

Step 6: Next step is to place the bulb into a vase/container, use rocks, marbles, etc...to anchor the plant if you need too.

Step 7: Cover the cut surface of the bulb with a wet paper towel or cotton, fill the container with fresh water.  Make sure the towel or cotton touches the water underneath (or else it will dry out, defeating the purpose of using it to keep the top of the bulb moist).   Change the water every few days....sit back, relax and watch your angel bloom.  

**As the plant grows you can trim/carve the leaves and flower stems to turn them into unique patterns.  For the leaves, just trim away a small sliver of the leaf.    The leaf will bend/curl towards the side that's been trimmed.  Same goes for the stems of the flowers.  DO NOT touch the flower heads/buds.  Any damage to them will cause the bulbs to abort the flowers.**

I'll post an update when mine's bloom...but until then...you can google "hoa thuy tien" for a few images, if you're curious.

Vietnamese 101....

Bánh = pastry
Gai = thorn
Đuông = a type of worm, found in the heart of coconut and palm trees

Thus gives us the name for these cookies.

They are somewhat related to "Dragon Cookies" which are found in other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia during Chinese New Year. The Vietnamese version is a bit more complicated in ingredients.  In this speciality, traditional Southeast Asian ingredients such as tapioca starch and coconut milk are paired with French influences of butter and condensed milk.....goes to show the east meets west concept is not just a fad it's..., well....it's history and tradition.  The texture and method for making the cookies very much resemble Les sablés pouchés (piped shortbread cookies).  The worm shape is strictly Vietnamese.

-100g all purpose flour
-100g tapioca starh
-80g sugar
-25g coconut milk
-1 1/2 tbs condensed milk
-20g butter, melted
-2 egg yolks
-1/2 tsp baking soda
-1/2 tsp lemon extract 

What to Do:
Sift together flours and baking soda.  Whisk together sugar, coconut milk, condensed milk , butter, egg yolks and extract.  Add the flour mixture to the mix of wet ingredients.  Mix to form a slightly sticky dough.

To Make Bánh Gai:
Fit a star tip into a piping bag and fill with cookie dough.  Pipe the dough onto a baking sheet.  Traditionally, these cookies are made with the aid of a specially created mold.  The mold works like a cookie gun. However, if you live outside of Vietnam or Asia...chances are pretty slim that you'll be able to get your hands on one... The pastry bag works just as great.

To Make Bánh Đuông:
Add 1 tbs tapioca starch to the above dough (the dough should be firmer).  Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll them between the palms of your hand to turn them into worms.  Use a clean comb to give the worms the signature indentation. 

Bake the cookies at 350'F until golden (about 12-15 mins).