Monday, July 13, 2015

Mexican Brownies

There is nothing more tantalizing than the rich aroma of chocolate brownies baking away in the kitchen... except brownies secretly spiked with cinnamon and a pinch of Mexican chile.

Cinnamon and chili work magic when fused with chocolate, period. I first experienced the mouthwatering chocolate-cinnamon duo taking my first sips of Mexican hot chocolate in charming Oaxaca. It was love at first taste. Then, some years ago I timidly reached for my first scoop of Chili Chocolate at my favorite local artisan gelateria. The unprecedented pairing of bittersweet and heat gave a not-so-subtle kick. I was hooked.

Both cinnamon and cayenne (or chile pequin) add warm spiciness that intensifies and complements the rich flavor of chocolate. For years I longed to recreate this sensational experience in the ordinary brownie, but shame on me - I procrastinated. Finally, I ran out of excuses when I was invited to a weekend rooftop housewarming fiesta at my Mexican ex-pat friend Miguel's cozy new pad in the Midlevels. Highly portable, a breeze to make, and just a tad twisted - spiked brownies are perfect for any sorts of gathering especially when you are tight on time. And, they go fast.

Add a touch of spice and heat to these fudgy chocolate brownies for a surprising twist!

Before the squeamish ones turn away - "Mexican brownies" ain't tongue-burning hot; rather, the spices deliver a gentle, delayed kick that leaves folks wondering and pondering, while lip-smacking, just when, and how, they got this elusive kick... and they will never get their heads around it. Try it and you will know what I mean.

Add chocolate chips for extra fudgy chocolate goodness or chopped nuts for texture and an extra layer of flavor. I added a handful of chopped Almond Roca. Finally, finish with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, cocoa, cinnamon and one last pinch of cayenne to really set these brownies apart.

 To prepare...
Brownies just got sexier.
112g (4 oz, approx. 3/4 cup) baking chocolate, any combination of semi-sweet, unsweetened, dark, and milk chocolates
170g (3/4 cup) butter
1 1/4 cup sugar, or more as desired
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground chile pequin (or replace with cayenne)
Pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup mini chocolate chips (I used chopped Almond Roca)

For the sprinkle...
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Pinch of cocoa powder
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cayenne

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a 9x12" pan with parchment paper so that it overhangs on the sides. Set aside.

2. Place baking chocolate and butter in a large, microwave-safe bowl. Heat on high for 2-3 minutes, stirring every 30-40 seconds, until chocolate is smooth. Stir in sugar. Once mixture slight cools, stir in vanilla extract, eggs, cocoa powder, cinnamon, cayenne, chile pequin, and salt. Mix in flour and stir until combined.

3. Pour the batter in prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out with just a few crumbs stuck on it. For even cutting, allow brownies to cool completely before slicing into squares.

4. Mix powdered sugar and a pinch each of cocoa, cinnamon, and cayenne and sprinkle over sliced brownie. Serve as is or à la mode!

A fun-filled night surrounded by skyscrapers and new and old faces; (far right) Mexican Brownies all packed and ready to go!

 [Write to me under comments! Follow me on Instagram @alvinckl and check out my Facebook Fan Page!]

Monday, July 6, 2015

Winter Melon Soup with Tonkin Jasmine and Chinese Mushroom

July has barely just arrived, Hong Kong surely already feels like a raging furnace. The crippling heat is exacerbated only by a heavy cloak of subtropical humidity that spares no nook or cranny in its reach. At such times when mere breathing is sufficient to make one perspire, the last thing one would dream of is slurping a scalding hot bowl of soup.

Add flavor with dried mushrooms or seafood
Much to the contrary, generations of wisdom in Cantonese cuisine - backed by an all-encompassing, deep-seated "science" of internal balance and "hot versus cold" - have developed just the kind of soups that are believed to beat the heat with the right application of ingredients.

One such summer-specific "tonic" is the winter melon soup (an interesting irony, I reckon). White and mildly sweet in the flesh and dark green and waxy on the skin, the winter melon (冬瓜) - also known as wax gourd - typically grows to impressive sizes and often comes in pre-sliced wheels or otherwise dissected on the spot at markets. Winter melon soups are widely known to help dispel excessive heat and moisture accumulated in one's body, and are generally nourishing and cooling against summer's unforgiving climate.

A winter melon's delicate white flesh carries no distinct taste on its own, so other flavorful ingredients such as pork bones, dried Chinese mushrooms, dried shrimps and conpoy take up the role in flavoring.

Tonkin Jasmine: the "Night Fragrance"
If you are lucky, you might just run into packets of handpicked Tonkin jasmine flowers (夜香花) sold alongside winter melons which, to me, are like the cherry on the cake in this popular summer soup. Known as "Night Fragrance" in Chinese, these unassuming green and golden yellow blooms got its namesake for seducing passerbys with an even richer fragrance as night falls. During summer months, these inexpensive, modest flower buds silently make their way into local markets in small batches, often used in soups and favored for their delicate perfume and alleged ability to detoxify, maintain eye health, as well as eliminate excessive moisture. Not only do the flowers add a pleasing pop of jade, their crunch also gives a nice contrast to the soft, velvety texture that the winter melon takes on during cooking.

Under the weather? Beat the heat with this "cooling" winter melon soup!
To prepare...
1 1/2 lb winter melon
1 lb pork bones or lean pork
1 inch ginger, sliced
8 Chinese dried mushroom
4 dried scallops (optional), rinsed
8 cups water
A large handful of Tonkin jasmine
Salt, to taste (optional)

1. Soak dried mushrooms in water for a minimum of 20 minutes. Soak Tonkin jasmine in salted water for at least 15 minutes, rinse then set aside.

2. In a small pot, add pork, several slices of ginger and water. Bring to a rolling boil for 4-5 minutes, then turn heat off and discard scum and water. This is a crucial step to ensure a clear soup free from unsightly impurities and unpleasant odours from the pork.

3. Discard seeds and cut winter melon into roughly bite-sized chunks, keeping skin on for aesthetic reasons if desired. Cut mushrooms into thin slices. Place pork, winter melon, mushrooms, scallops (if using), and the rest of the sliced ginger into a large stock pot. Pour in 8 cups of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Continue to boil on medium heat for 15 minutes, then lower to a simmer for 1 hour.

4. When soup is almost done, tip in Tonkin jasmine and leave to simmer for one more minute before turning heat off. Serve piping hot in bowls and season with salt to taste. Happy Summer!!

For more traditional Chinese soup recipes, try:
Fish Maw, Monkey Head Mushroom, Whelk, and Lean Pork Soup

[Write to me under comments! Follow me on Instagram @alvinckl and check out my Facebook Fan Page!]