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Asian Sweets, A Wonderful Experience

by Vicky Li

Personal Perspectives

Winter Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(4) page(s): 15


For me, walking into a bakery is like walking into a candy store. Walking into an Asian bakery is walking into a delicious all-chocolate candy store. I admire classic and innovative bakery goods, particularly those that Asian bakeries display, and seeing and smelling them is a terrific experience.

Let me be honest, I love to bake and I do take considerable pleasure in watching others enjoy devouring the things I make. With that in mind, I decided to take the plunge and enroll in some baking courses. What better place to learn these techniques than in Hong Kong?

As a serious amateur, I have taken a few recreational courses at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. There, I did learn a few tricks of the trade. However, I never attempted recreating items admired in Asian bakeries. That said, my main requirement was attending a school in Hong Kong teaching baking, Asian style.

While investigating schools, I found most fall into the traditional program of teaching a set menu with a set time and specific dates; these would need me to schedule a trip around them. No easy feat for a mom from New York with two teen-age sons. Finally, I did discover something that could work for me; it was at Cookhouse. This find was in plain site at www.cookhouse.com.hk

Rather than plan a trip around a set schedule, Cookhouse offers private classes that can fit into anyone's specific schedule, even mine. Folks can choose things they want to learn and schedule many courses in one day, taking into consideration their abilities, of course, or they can attend as many days as they like or have the time for.

A selection of their courses can be found on their website. Unfortunately, it is only in Chinese. Worry not, using the Google translation service the site can be translated into English enabling viewing the vast selection they have available. One can choose only what one wants to learn, contact the school via e-mail with an inquiry, and advise them when one has time to take these classes. The school can then set up a schedule and notify the inquirer requesting approval of their proposal.

I am not a novice baker. My tutor there was Ms. Phoebe Leung. She was able to schedule between five to seven items for me to learn per day. I could attend classes for five days with one-on-one tutoring; and it was the best experience I ever had.

From day one, Ms. Leung put me to work measuring, chopping, dicing, slicing, folding, kneading, and pounding. No Kitchenaid here. A three-speed electric hand mixer and a scale for weighing the ingredients became my best friends. Aside from one item where a cake enhancer was necessary, no pre-made ingredients were used to make any of the cakes or bread batters in my lessons. Pre-made ingredients were limited to those that could not be duplicated in a home kitchen, items absolutely necessary for the recipe. Everything else was made from scratch.

The recipes were provided in Chinese, and though I am Chinese, I can not read that language. No problem, Ms. Leung translated as we worked. Her lessons were in a mix of Cantonese and English, mostly Cantonese, but as I was making the bakery items, that was no real problem either. Aside from learning how to make many items, I also learned some Cantonese names for ingredients and cooking and baking terms, an unexpected added benefit! For those not knowing nor not fluent in Cantonese, do inquire if lessons can be conducted in Mandarin or in English. The Cookhouse workshop is located in an older, non-descript building next to a driving school. It is in the Ho Man Tin area of Kowloon. One might not know the workshop was there without its specific address. There are no signs or large displays with its mane affixed. The cooking studio itself is set up very simply, but the amount of molds, pans and baking paraphernalia made it feel as if one is in cake supply heaven. Forget about baking, I just wanted to sit there and admire the school's inventory!

Some of the many delights learned at Cookhouse included: Snowskin Mooncakes with Greenbean Filling, Peninsula Hotel-style Custard Mooncakes, Pineapple Buns, Green Tea Cake Rolls, Almond Cookies, Sandy-textured Custard Buns, Hong Kong Egg Tarts, Red Bean Gao, Green-tea Layer Cake, and Nian Gao Ingots. The last three items are pictures I took. If you are planning a trip to Hong Kong and like to bake, I whole-heartedly endorse spending some learning time at Cookhouse. The school is located at 2/F, Flat B, No. 4B Liberty Avenue, Houmantin, Kowloon. Their telephone number is 3422-3211, and the best e-mail address to use when contacting them is: cook_house_1@yahoo.com.hk

As the recipes are the rice bowl of the Cookhouse, I deem it unfair to divulge them; but the editor has offered to include a pair of them similar to those I did learn at the Cookhouse. They are below.
Almond Cookies
Ingredients:
3/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon all purpose flour
7 Tablespoons room-temperature lard
7 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 beaten egg, in three equal parts
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
24 whole almonds, blanched
Preparation:
1. Mix all the flour and lard, then add the brown sugar, baking soda, and baking powder, and two-thirds of the beaten egg, and knead lightly just until everything is well combined. Then add the almond extract and knead gently until soft but smooth.
2. Roll into 24 small balls, put a thumb print into each one, and press an almond firmly into each depression. Then gently flatten each cookie.
3. Put the cookies on a baking sheet, and using the remaining beaten egg, brush each cookie twice with this egg wash.
4. Bake the cookies in a pre-heated 350 degree F oven for eighteen minutes until the cookie is a deep tan and has crackles all over it. Remove and cool on a cookie sheet, and when at room temperature, serve.
Egg Tarts
Ingredients for Dough #1:
6 Tablespoons and 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons lard at room temperature
1 Tablespoon Birds custard powder
1 teaspoon creamy peanut butter
Ingredients for Dough# 2:
6 Tablespoons and 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
6 Tablespoons lard at room temperature
5 Tablespoons margarine at room temperature
Custard filling:
2 teaspoons Birdís custard powder
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons evaporated milk
three drops vanilla extract
3 eggs, beaten gently
Preparation:
1. Mix all four ingredients for Dough #1 with five tablespoons cool water and knead gently into a soft dough. Then set this dough aside for an hour, then roll it out until about quarter-inch thick.
2. Mix the three ingredients for Dough #2 and knead into a well-combined dough, then roll it out until it is half-inch thick. Refrigerate until firm, about an hour.
3. Put Dough #2 on top of Dough #1, fold in the ends, and roll them together, making this into a box shape and freeze for half an hour. Take out of the freezer and roll the box to a thickness between what Dough #1 and Dough #2 were.
4. Using a glass with a diameter about half inch larger than your tart pans, cut circles out of the rolled dough and gently press one into each of the tart molds gently pushing the dough into each mold. There should be one-quarter inch of dough above the edge of each tart mold.
5. Mix custard powder and the sugar, and add seven tablespoons boiling water and stir until all the sugar dissolves, then add the evaporated milk and the vanilla and stir well.
6. Fill each individual tart pan until three-quarters full, and put each one on a large jelly-roll pan or a pan with sides. Bake them in a pre-heated 400 F degree oven for 18 minutes, cool, then serve warm or at room temperature.

                                                                                                                                                       
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