Friday, 11 October 2013

Visual Diary: Jewels of this season

This year the winter months were short and quickly replaced by spring. But to make up for it, spring has turned out to be rather wet this year. As much as I love the rain and how it feeds the soil and cleanses the earth, sunshine just brings with it endless rays of happiness and joy. Summer is just around the corner and I cannot wait to tread the earth in jandal-bearing feet and feel the warmth on my naked arms. While I'm dreaming about spending time on the cruise sailing around New Zealand waters or sitting in the scorching humid heat in a cafe in Malaysia, I am glad that spring gave us a taste of this summer - dressed in the beautiful light of the sun but adorned with blooms and blossoms that only spring up in this beautiful season.  

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Food for thought: Education can save our world

I recently watched several very insightful and educational videos on interviews and talks with a Buddhist master, Master Jing Kong 净空法师. One particular topic is the importance and power of education. Having extensively studied Chinese history, as well as the history of other religions, the Master concluded that the tumultuous state of our world today is the result of lack of education, or rather, correct education. 

Historically, religious practices, Confucius way of life are guidelines teaching people how to be ideal humans. In one of the important texts that people have to recite and learn, 三字经, the first line goes something like this 'the true nature of all human is of love and kindness' (人之初,性本善). That is the basis of education, and the basis of education is to nurture this true nature of human being. In later lines of that text, it goes on to say that human 'nature' changes depending on their environment, therefore it is of utmost importance that humans are educated. Educated in this sense does not mean academic education, but rather, human education. 

What I found really interesting but made so much sense, was that traditional Chinese education always begins with teaching people the way of life. It is all about respecting our parents, teachers, elderly, our peers and even the environment. From young age, children are taught these morals. How? The only and most effective way was through the parents and teachers themselves setting examples. For instance, parents will respect grandparents - even those that are deceased, through paying respect by kneeling, bowing, praying in front of their ancestors' memorial signs. If parents themselves pay respect to their elders, naturally the children will follow suit. Furthermore, the parents will also pay respect to the teachers, bowing and thanking them for their service. If parents show respect to the teachers, naturally the children will also respect the teachers. And if parents put so much faith in the teachers, naturally the teachers will do their best in educating the children. 

Another very interesting and logical thing is that only when the students have proven themselves as moral humans are they allowed to proceed to study other subjects. 

In Western countries of course, religion plays a big role in educating people. Again, religion acts as a guideline to life.

Nowadays, education has turned upside down and religion are increasingly being shunned.  Parents often have to listen to their children. Some parents are even abused by their children! Parents have lost faith in teachers, and teachers have lost sense of their jobs. Traditionally, parents would thank the teachers for punishing their children as they are educating them. But nowadays teachers are not allowed to punish the students. And what is education about these days? Right from primary through to the highest level of tertiary education, isn't it about pushing your competitiveness, teaching you what the best way to make money is? Isn't it about cramming you with as much 'knowledge' as possible - language, maths, science, history, art, etc. just so one day you can find a job? Isn't it mostly about how to stand out as an individual, rather than how to work with others as a whole to make society a better place? And what more, the media plays such an enormous role in influencing people. Celebrities that are supposed to be role models are themselves confused. And what do we learn from the media? Movies and games teach us how to kill, celebrities teach us about divorce, the media teaches us about materialism. The media promotes that sort of fake ideal life so much. Everyone wants to be rich and live a luxurious life. Because of that, look at society today - divorce rates, suicide rates, killing rates are at an all time high. People have lost that sense of humanity and morality.

If you take a look at the people around you, as I certainly have, most people are just going through life blindly. A lot of my friends that have graduated felt lost. What are they supposed to do now that they've finished studying? Find a job. Why? To pay back their student loans. What job do they want? Any. Whatever they can get their hands on. Are they happy? Well, yes, because they have a job and they get paid. Are they truly happy? Not sure. Are they doing something meaningful to society? If you think about economics, maybe, if you think about morals and nurturing humanity, hmm... only a rare few are. People today have lost that sense of purpose in life. Their only concerns in life are to find a job and find a good boyfriend/girlfriend. 

Something else that really said a lot about our ancestors, the ancient Chinese people is their extremely far-sightedness. Today, the farthest most of us think about is probably the next few years. Even me, what I always thought about was what I should study and how I should plan for my career. Now I know that is pretty selfish. Ancient Chinese people think about the next generations. They think about how their actions will impact generations to come. One example is 诸葛亮, Zhu Ge Liang, a genius scholar who invented many weapons and tools for the war. However, just before he died, he destroyed all of them. Why? It is because he knew that if those inventions fell into the wrong hands, that would mean disaster. He was considerate of his future generations. Do people think about that today? Not really. There are new advancements in the technology of weaponry everyday. Have the inventors any idea what it would cost the world? No. Because if they did, they wouldn't have invented them in the first place. And in fact that is severely irresponsible. 

So, how crucial is education to human society? How important are parents to their children? How essential it is to nurture humanity and morality right from a young age? And if you go back to that saying 'the true nature of all humans is of love and kindness', then even the most evil human being is loving deep down inside. It was just the lack of education to nurture their true nature that resulted in their mistakes. So, education can truly save the world. Education is the only thing that can save the world. And we all can definitely play a part in healing our extremely bruised and battered world, starting from nurturing our own humanity and morality, then extending it to others. - For the sake of our children, and their children, and the many generations to come.

For anyone that is interested in watching the talk (though it is only in Mandarin >.<): 
This video is the first of a series. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

"Snickers" cake

I remember this time last year there was an abundance of stone fruits. Peaches, nectarines, plums, all these shades of crimson and canary lined up beautifully in the markets. Peter's favourite cake was peaches and cream sponge cake and I earnestly wanted to make him one that brings him back to his childhood. I got to the supermarket and there they were. Peaches and nectarines side by side. This is quite embarrassing because being someone that not only cooks/bakes, but also LOVES fruits, I should know the difference between peaches and nectarines right? But I didn't. And the signs were pretty ambiguous. Being on a hurry that day, I just grabbed 3 of the one I thought was peach. And guess what? Yup, I grabbed nectarines. 

But matters not, I used them in the cake anyway. The cake was organic, simple and covered with delicious cream (shown in the pictures above). I actually screwed up with the icing of the cake. And in my attempt to fix it, the strokes of the palette knife on the icing gradually and organically led to a rather radical decoration. I loved it. It was so different from the usual icing, but it was bold and it showcased what the cake was. Though the nectarines were on the raw side, the cake was delicious. And I was determined that next year, I'd get it right and make PEACHES and cream cake! 

Flash-forward a year, and it is now time to reconquer that cake. But low and behold, I combed through the markets and there were no signs of peaches OR nectarines! Or any kind of stone fruits for that matter! The only peaches I found, besides the canned ones swimming in those sugary pools that I absolutely refuse to use, were some sad looking ones that were flown thousands of miles here from America. And they were $9/kg. No thanks! So, no peaches and cream birthday cake yet again this year. But of course I had to come up with a brilliant enough cake to make. 

After much deliberation and loads of ideas jumping around in my head, I decided to make a vertical swiss roll. The recipe for swiss roll on Sorted Food seemed easy enough to make. Five minutes to whip up and only takes 5 minutes to bake! Win. Since I haven't made anything chocolatey in a while, I decided to bash some good old dark cocoa powder in and make it a chocolate cake. For the icing, the extra cream cheese leftover from my previous shopping spree found its way into the equation. Mix in some shiny melted dark chocolate and the richness instantly leveled up 10 notches. The chocolate sand(!) from What Katie Ate's cake sounded too good to not be included. Instead of hazelnut, I used peanut. So, this cake is basically an amalgamation of much foodie genius and brilliance. 

First time making a vertical swiss roll (Scroll down for photo of what it looks like inside), I didn't know what to expect. The cake turned out smaller than I wanted it to be. I was contemplating whether or not to make more, but the prospect of having to do all the washing up again pushed me to deciding against that idea. And it turned out that after slicing up the cake, each person got a perfect portion! As the cake was so rich, any more than that would've been severely overkill. Some people even thought that smaller pieces of cakes would've been better.Although I think my chocolate sand didn't turn out quite how it was supposed to (my meringue was too soft, and my ground peanut was slightly too fine, so it turned out more like chocolate mud?), the gooey meringue gave a nice caramel touch. The combination of flavours - chocolate, peanut, some caramelly notes resonated with the taste of a Snickers bar. So, unknowingly, I've created a Snickers cake! And comparing the cake from last year and this year, I just realised they both have that similar organic touch. 

[Snickers Cake]

Serves 8
The recipe has many components and seem quite long, but it is actually pretty easy to make and put together. 

Chocolate swiss roll
Recipe adapted from Sorted Food
3 eggs, separated
Pinch of cream of tartar
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
90g raw sugar, blended
90g flour
45ml olive oil

Chocolate cream cheese icing
Recipe adapted from Cupcake Project
250g cream cheese, room temperature
50g butter, room temperature
3/4 cup raw sugar, blended
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1/2 cup dark cocoa powder
90g melted dark chocolate 

Chocolate sand
Recipe adapted from What Katie Ate
45g ground, roasted peanuts
50g roughly ground meringue**
50g dark chocolate, melted

1. For the cake: Line a swiss roll pan, or any flat pan. I used a 32cmx32cm pan. Preheat oven to 200C. Beat together the egg yolks with half the sugar and vanilla until thick and pale. In another bowl, whip up the egg whites with the cream of tartar until you form soft peaks. Add in the other half of the sugar and whip until the sugar is well incorporated and the mixture appears glossy. Fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Add in the flour and olive oil and stir gently until there are no lumps, but take care not to knock out the air you have whipped in. Pour the mixture into the lined pan, spreading it evenly and well into the corners of the pan. Bake for 5-6 minutes until golden. Tear out a piece of parchment paper big enough to put your cake on. sprinkle on some sugar and cocoa powder. Remove cake from oven and flip onto the sugared parchment paper. Peel back the other parchment paper carefully, so as to not tear the cake. Roll up the cake + sugared parchment to form a swiss roll shape (do this while the cake is warm so it's easier to roll!). Set aside. 

2. For the icing: Beat the cream cheese on low speed until it has softened and is slightly aerated. Add in the butter and beat until well mixed and light. Add in the sugar, vanilla and cocoa powder and beat until smooth. Finally, beat in the melted chocolate* until well incorporated. 

*To melt the chocolate, heat up some water in a pot. Place a bowl on the pot. The bowl must be able to cover the pot so no steam can escape from the sides. The bowl must not touch the water, because you only want heat from the steam. Once the water has boiled, turn it down to a simmer. Add the chocolate, which you have chopped up. (Add in the portion for the chocolate sand as well). Leave the chocolate, don't be tempted to stir it! Gradually, the chocolate will turn glossy as it starts to melt. You can aid the melting process by pushing the unmelted pieces into the melted pool of chocolate. Turn of the heat and once the chocolate has melted you can give it a little stir. The chocolate will appear silky and glossy. Cool it slightly before adding it to the cream cheese mixture. Reserve some chocolate for the chocolate sand.

3. For the chocolate sand: Mix the ground peanuts and meringue** together. Add them into the melted chocolate and stir. 

**For the meringue, you can either buy it, which probably will ensure that it's crunchy. Or you can make it like I did. For a my melty, gooey meringue, whip up 2 egg whites + pinch of salt + 100g of raw blended sugar, until you form stiff peaks, and when you tip the mixture upside down, it doesn't fall off the bowl. Drop little tablespoon fulls of meringue onto a lined tray. Bake at 100C for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. 

4. To assemble the cake: Unroll the swiss roll. Cut into three equal sized strips. On each strip, pile on some chocolate cream cheese icing. Smooth the filling out into every inch and corner of the swiss roll. Sprinkle on the chocolate sand. It's fun to use your fingers! Take one strip of cake and start rolling it up as you would a normal swiss roll. Make sure to roll it up firmly and quite tightly. Once it's rolled up, line the end of that first roll with the start of the second strip (so the roll is continuous), and roll the second cake over the first, again make sure it is firm, tight and nicely aligned. Repeat with the third strip.*** Now, flip the cake so that it stands vertically, and walah! You now have a vertical swiss roll. Apply icing onto the cake how you would a normal cake. Decorate the top with some nuts. 

Refrigerate the cake before serving. 

***If you don't want your cake as tall as mine, you can always cut the cake into 4 strips instead of 3.