Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Banh Khoai Mi Nuong: Vietnamese Yuca Cake


I’ve noticed that I’ve been cooking with banana leaves more than usual recently.  Between the tamales, the banana sticky rice, and now the banh khoai mi nuong (baked Vietnamese yuca/cassava cake), I’ve finally depleted the stockpile of banana leaves that was sitting in my freezer.


Vietnamese yuca cake is by far one of my favorite sweet banhs of all time.  For the longest time, I had no idea this banh was made from yuca.  I always thought it was made primarily from mung beans due to it’s yellow color and sometimes grainy texture.  In actuality, I wasn’t too far off because some renditions of the banh do call for some mung beans, but the main ingredient is of course yuca.  Having been exposed to more foods made from tapioca starch and yuca over the years, I can safely say that the banh’s slightly chewy texture is distinctly that of yuca.

However, my favorite thing about this banh is the deep, rich coconut flavor that you get from it, as there is nothing to really get in its way.  In fact, the yuca does wonders to highlight the coconut milk and vice versa: the coconut milk makes the yuca shine.


Grating and squeezing the moisture out of the yuca was interesting.  After letting the expelled moisture sit in a bowl for a while, I noticed that the yuca’s pasty starch that was squeezed out settled to the bottom of bowl.  I’d made tapioca starch!  At least I’m pretty sure I did.

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The recipe I followed was cobbled together from a couple recipes and my own personal taste and intuition:

  • Grate (or perhaps puree?) 2 lbs of yuca and squeeze moisture out
  • Combine yuca with 14 oz sweetened condensed milk, ~7 oz coconut milk, and 2 egg yolks
  • Salt to taste in order to bring out the coconut flavor and balance the sweetness
  • Optionally line pan with buttered banana leaves
  • Fill pan with yuca mixture
  • Bake at 350 F for 1 to 1.5 hours, until golden brown


I’m actually on the fence about the grating method.  Whenever I buy this banh from a bakery or a grocery store, it seems like the yuca has been pureed, which gives the cake a smoother texture on the top.  I prefer the smoother texture because sometimes the browned tips from the grated yuca can add an unpleasant hard texture to the banh.  Moreover, I sometimes find inedible, woody pieces of grated yuca in the banh.  Typically, I’m all for a mingling of textures, but not in this case.  The inside, though, comes out nice and yuca-y in texture with a slight chew and no signs of stringy, grated pieces of yuca aside from the woody pieces every now and then.

Red Chile Pork Tamales

One of the things I always look forward to during the holiday season are my uncle Jose’s mom’s tamales.  During the family’s annual Christmas dinner, Vietnamese hot pot and prime rib are usually the stars of the show, but deep down everyone is praying that uncle Jose walks into the house with a bag full of his mom’s tamales.

With a hankering for tamales, I decided to adapt Rick Bayless’s recipe for red chile pork tamales.  I was set on making half the batch with meat from a pig’s head after the great experience I had cooking jook/congee with it.  It’s so hard to resist the many textures and flavors that the head provides.  On my trip to Marketplace on Oakton, not only did I find the usual pig’s heads, but they had suckling pig’s heads too!  Not only that, but they were priced the same as a normal’s pig’s head at $0.99/lbs!


Just like the jook, I used the skull to make some tasty pork stock and substituted it for the water and chicken broth in the recipe.  Also, as I’ve said before and the recipe suggests, freshly toasted and ground spices are always so much better.  I find this especially true for cumin, which was freshly ground along with the pepper.  However, one thing that didn’t work for me was using a food processor to blend the guajillo chiles with liquid as the recipe suggests.  In its defense, it does also say a blender can be used and I should’ve known better by the amount of liquid in the recipe.  Anyways, using a food processor lead to a splashy mess, so I transferred the chiles and liquid to a blender, which worked much better.


With the filling done, I turned my focus to the tamal batter.  Rick Bayless must have known I was making tamales, because the day I went shopping for ingredients he tweeted about his favorite brands of masa: El Popo and El Milagro.  I was set on using fresh masa for the tamales, but I was too lazy to go to a tortilleria or one of the several mercados around Rogers Park.  My next option was masa preparada, which is masa already mixed with lard and salt.  Unfortunately, the Food 4 Less in Evanston, which by the way stocks a good deal of Mexican products, only had pineapple-coconut flavored masa preparada made by La Guadalupana.  As a result, I had to settle with Maseca brand masa harina: dried and powdered masa which needs to be reconstituted with hot liquid.  I decided to use the freshly made pork stock instead of water to reconstitute the masa harina with the hopes that it would add another level of porky flavor to the tamales.


Regarding the lard, I would probably make my own fresh lard next time or go to a proper mercado to get some lard that isn’t shelf stable and not hydrogenated like the bucket-o-lard that I got off of the grocery store shelf.  After whipping the lard until it was fluffy, the masa is added and mixed until a small dollop of batter floats in cold water.

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Filling and wrapping the tamales took a really, really, really long time.  I have experience wrapping sticky rice in banana leaves and lotus leaves, so I thought filling the tamales would be a cakewalk.  This was not the case.  Tamales take much longer because of the fact that you have to evenly spread the masa out.  I’m just glad I had an offset spatula to help speed up the spreading process.  The dimensions of the masa spread specified in the recipe was a little wide for my personal preference.  I prefer a thin and tall tamal as opposed to a fat and short one due to it’s fork-sized friendliness.


The first few tamales I ate actually kind of psyched me out.  The fact that I knew how much hydrogonated lard went into the masa made swallowing a little hard.  I thought it was kind of funny that I’m more psychologically averse to hydrogonated lard than I am to things like eyes, tongues, ears, and snout: all of which were in the pork filling.

Overall, the tamales came out pretty good for my first attempt.  Not quite at the level of uncle Jose’s mom’s tamales, but I don’t think I’ll be attaining that level of yumminess in tamal form until I start making tamales on a regular basis.

For my next batch of tamales, I’m thinking sweet rather than savory, much like the one I recently had at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun and similar to the sweet corn tamales I’ve had at Frontera Fresco for many a lunch meal.  The taste of the tamal I had in Cancun reminded me of Vietnamese corn che, che bap, that contains sweet corn, coconut milk, and tapioca or sweet rice.  Perhaps I’ll reconstitute the masa harina with coconut milk and fill the tamales with fresh, young coconut and sweet corn.

I also really want to try making a batch of tamales wrapped in lotus leaves, much like Chinese sticky rice.  When it comes to things wrapped in leaves or husks, I enjoy the flavor and aroma that lotus leaves impart over banana leaves and corn husks.  But the much loved pandan leaves would trump even the mighty lotus leaves if I could just get my hands on some.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pig’s Head Jook/Congee With 1000-Year-Old Egg

Jook, congee, chao: whatever you call it, this humble rice porridge is a staple of many Asian cuisines.  I grew up calling it jook, which from my understanding is the Cantonese name for it.  Whenever my family would go to Chinese restaurants, I always thought it was weird to see it called congee, which I would assume is the Mandarin name for it?

I have fond memories of going to my grandma’s house for Thanksgiving and her making jook the morning after Thanksgiving with the Turkey carcass, and this tradition has continued into my parent’s household.  Topped with a 1000-year old egg, a dash of white pepper, and fresh green onion and cilantro from her garden, it’s such a simple yet gratifying thing to eat.  Her rendition of jook is pretty much the gold standard for which I compare all other versions to.  One thing missing from her version, though, was the Chinese doughnut.  The doughnut adds not only flavor, but more importantly a crunchy texture to what is mostly a mushy textured bowl of gruel.  Tasty, tasty gruel, mind you.


My initial thoughts were to use pork belly prepared as it is in thit kho, inspired by my mom’s use of thinly sliced, caramelized pork with a similar flavor profile in her jook.  However, the pig’s heads split down the middle at my grocery store always intrigued me, but I never bought it because I couldn’t think of a good use for it other than making a terrine.   I fantasized about the tender cheek, tasty tongue, crunchy ear, squishy eye and heavenly jowl in a bowl of jook and thought it’d be a good candidate.

Not to mention the bones from the skull and copious amounts of gelatin in the head would make for a delicious stock for the jook to simmer in.  So I went with the head and simmered it with mirepoix  to create a solid pork stock and cook the meat until it was fall-off-the-head tender.  As you can see, the head didn’t fit all the way in the pot and the snout wasn’t fully submerged in water.


Harvesting the meat from the head was a true test of my will.  Several times I wanted to stick my face into the meat and start chomping.  The rectangular white strips are pieces of the ear that I cut up in order to spread that great crunchy, cartilage-y texture throughout the meat.  I also wished I had some corn tortillas and barbeque sauce so I could make tacos and a pulled pork sandwich while I harvested.  Sadly, the snout didn’t make it into the meat mix since I was afraid that it’d be covered in pathogens since it sat above the water line for several hours.
I let the stock cool overnight so I could easily skim off the fat, and then proceeded to make the jook.  The steps to make jook couldn’t be simpler:
  • Simmer the rice in a lot of water or stock for a few hours, stirring occasionally
  • Eat
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I took a departure from traditional jook and decided to use brown rice, hoping it would add more flavor.  It did, but it didn’t.  It tasted like brown rice, but I missed the comforting and familiar taste of white rice.  Overall, I don’t think it was worth using brown rice.

One thing I definitely did not departure from was the use of preserved egg, or as most of my family calls it, 1000-year old egg.  To me, the use of the 1000-year old egg is essential to my perfect bowl of jook.  In fact, I’d say that if a bowl of jook didn’t have 1000-year old egg in it, I wouldn’t eat it.  I have no idea how to describe how 1000-year old egg tastes, because I’ve never tasted anything like it.  I did notice that on the egg carton that it said lye was one of the ingredients, so perhaps it has flavors that are found in lutifisk?

My favorite part of the egg is by far the creamy yolk.  It’s packed with flavor, while the egg “white” (I guess you could call it the egg opaque black) is relatively bland and simply adds another layer of texture to the jook.  Green onion, cilantro, and pepper add pop and brightness to round out the deeply flavored porridge.


For those not turned off by seeing a pig’s head, there are a couple details about prepping the head after the jump.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Baked Taro Bao


After making steamed char siu bao, I felt confident enough to try making baked bao.  I didn’t want to do char siu again, though, and I wanted to do a sweet rather than savory bao.  A few options for the filling crossed my mind: custard, cream, red bean, yellow mung bean with ginger, green mung bean, black eyed peas with coconut milk.  In the end, I chose taro because I thought it would be fun to work with fresh taro for the first time.

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Cutting into the taro was a little surprising.  Most taro I’ve seen has been more on the grayish-purplish hue, but this variety was a lot whiter than what I am used to seeing.  I later realized that taro changes color slightly upon cooking, which may explain the discrepancy.  In any case, preparing the taro filling wasn’t too complicated:

  • Peel, cut into thin slices
  • Steam until soft, ~30 minutes
  • Mash
  • Heat oil in cooking vessel
  • Add taro and sugar to taste
  • Cook until thickened

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I followed the same technique and recipe in preparing the bao dough as I did with the steamed char siu bao.  However, to construct the bao, I used a slightly different technique than the steamed bao.  Instead of bringing all the edge of the dough up to the top and twisting to seal, I brought in opposite edges into the center and folded them as if I were wrapping a gift.  I then made sure to bake the bao with the folds on the bottom to give them the distinctively smooth top that baked bao are known for rather than the puffy top that’s common in steamed char siu bao.

I also had some spare cheese in the fridge, so I thought it’d be pretty awesome to fill a bao with cheese.  The cheese was a random mélange of gruyere, mozzarella, and 2 other cheeses I couldn’t make out.  The previous week I discovered that my grocery’s deli sold end cuts of meats and cheeses at dirt cheap prices.  I scored a ton of random yet high quality meats and cheeses for a couple of bucks.

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Baked bao typically has a glaze or egg wash on the top for sweetness and color.  Unfortunately, my egg wash came out a little sloppy.


The bao itself could have turned out better.  It wasn’t light enough for my tastes, but the flavor was there.  At this point, I’m too inexperienced with dough to really know what to do next time to make the bao lighter.  The taro filling turned out well, though, so that sort of offset any shortcomings of the bao.


The cheese-filled bao turned out as awesome as I anticipated.  I mean, how can you really go wrong with gooey, melted cheese?