for the love of food (and my mum)

When conversation turns to cooking, I sometimes joke to my friends that I learnt all I know about cooking from watching food-related TV shows. All through school and university, as much as I was an outdoors kid, and as much as I was a diligent student, I watched so much TV. As a teenager, I proudly told people that I just completed my homework during ad breaks, such was my dedication to various programs.

But, of course, it’s not true. At least, it’s not all true. Yes, celebrity chefs and food gurus taught me how to make béchamel sauce, how to cook crepes, and which spices work best together; but they can’t take all the credit for my culinary know-how. As is probably the case for a lot of people, I learnt most of what I know about the fundamentals of cooking from my mum.

Of course, this was always obvious to me. Who else would I learn from? Other relatives, yes, and certain friends, but I grew up watching her cook, eating her food, and asking her questions. But I think it’s only since moving out (about half a year ago), and having to cook more often, that I’ve become so much more aware of the things I learnt from her. And, as with any recurrent thought, I feel a need to write about this in order to release it from the mental roundabout in the centre of my mind.

Things I have learnt from my mum about food and cooking:

Don’t be afraid of hot surfaces, but know when not to touch something directly: As a kid, I used to be afraid of touching saucepan lids (and the steam released when opening them), and of taking hot bowls/containers out of the microwave. Of course, these days, those things don’t faze me. Sometimes I accidentally touch hot pans, and just shrug it off.

How to make the most of scraps and left-overs AKA it’s ok to throw things out, but if it can be salvaged, it will be salvaged: This might also explain my interest in being experimental with food combinations. Sure, the popular trend toward unusual food pairings probably has something to do with it, but my mum’s thinking is more practical for everyday eating.

You don’t always need salt: As far as I remember, my mum was always quite reserved with her use of salt, preferring other seasonings instead. Sometimes eating and tasting something as it is, unseasoned, is good too.

It is possible to clean as you cook: This can be important for staying organised and ensuring you don’t run out of bench space (or spoons).

How to make a simple sauce that will work with almost any stir fry: soy sauce, fish sauce, corn flour; maybe oyster sauce and other things if you have them.

Kitchen scissors are a necessity: This might seem like an odd thing for some people, but I’ve learnt that a good pair of kitchen scissors can often substitute a knife and chopping board (which is particularly good for people like me who don’t like washing up).

The best (and safest) way to cut tomatoes, carrots, onions, capsicum, etc, etc: all to do with making sure the knife doesn’t slip, and you don’t accidentally cut your fingers. She also taught me efficient ways to dice, julienne, and roughly chop vegetables. I was helping with mise en place before I even knew what that was (TV taught me that phrase).

How to segment apples/pears/whatever and peel their skin using a small knife: Somehow, apples and pears seem to taste better if someone has cut them up for you (or if you cut them up yourself)

Good meals don’t have to be fancy: Of all the things that my mum cooks, among my favourite dishes are a simple broccoli and mushroom stir fry, a tofu and mince dish, and marinated/stewed pork belly (although the pork belly dish always seemed kind of complex to me…)

Allow yourself enough time to prepare a dish i.e. know when to start cooking: There’s a good reason why some days she started preparing lunch (or dinner) while we were just finishing breakfast. (When I was really young, this confused me, but it made more sense as I got older.)

How to fix a cake batter that’s a bit too dry or a bit too wet: She baked a lot (still does) and often “winged it” with recipes, so she sometimes needed to adjust the consistency of the batter at the end, just before putting it in the tin and into the oven. She also taught me that I don’t always have to follow the sugar and butter measurements stated in other people’s recipes, as they may be too sweet or too greasy. (I tend not to compromise the butter/oil too much, but sugar I’ll often reduce.)

There’s undoubtedly a lot more that I learnt from her – maybe a lot that I’ve learnt subconsciously and don’t even realise – but I think this is a decent enough list for now. (The list is undoubtedly still growing too…)

Sure, my mum taught me a lot of general life skills/lessons too, but they (whoever they are) say that food is life (and food is love), and I don’t know how long I’d survive on my own if I hadn’t learnt these things from her.


spilt milk and split cream

You probably all know the expression “no use crying over spilt milk” or some variation of it, right? Well, whenever I hear it, I think of this one time in my childhood when I actually did cry over spilt milk – not just figuratively speaking, but literal spilt milk and literal crying.

I was quite young at the time (maybe six? maybe four?) and it would’ve been at home one day, in the kitchen. I really don’t remember the circumstances surrounding it, but I remember there was milk spilt, and for some reason I was really upset and cried.

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happiness in the form of cake and cold mornings

I am absolutely loving this cold weather we’re having right now. It’s pretty much right in the middle of winter, so it’s perfect. I was really getting worried that we wouldn’t get a proper winter at all this year, but – ta da! – here it is.

To clarify, “cold” here is about 4-6 degrees Celsius overnight. (I’m not too sure what the daytime maximum has been because I actually don’t check the weather reports much, and I’m inside all day, anyway.) This morning was perfect: beautiful blue sky streaked with wispy clouds, no/minimal wind, and the air fogging up in front of me with every breath… If I could’ve taken the morning off work just to sit in the sunshine and read a book, or just do some cloud-gazing while sipping a cup of coffee, I think that would’ve been a morning well-spent.

But I had an important delivery to make.

Yesterday, two colleagues of mine were just having a bit of playful banter (nothing unusual). I happened to be in the vicinity, so was brought into it, and got asked to bring in food for one of them, “for tomorrow”, which was today. This went back and forth for a bit, then evolved into bringing cake in, and we were all deflecting the responsibility, and the result was inconclusive (two of us had finished for the day and were on our way out).

On my way home, I thought about it some more, Googled some recipes, and found a simple one for sticky date pudding. I’d settled on sticky date pudding for two reasons: (1) I knew I had plenty of dates at home, and (2) GI said she’d never had sticky date pudding before.

Once I was at home, I was actually a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. It was already a bit late by the time I finished dinner… I needed to sleep earlier… No one was really expecting me to act on this request for cake… But I thought about it some more and, in the time it took to clean up the kitchen a bit while watching MasterChef, I’d made up my mind: this pud was getting baked tonight!

I might post the recipe, but this is not about the recipe or the baking process. There are two things I want to remember from this:

One: As Marco Pierre White (who’s been a guest mentor on MasterChef this week) says: “A good cook cooks for others”. I think the cooking experience is more enjoyable and more purposeful when cooking for a particular friend or family member. Whether the end product turns out better…? Well, I suppose it’s been proven true time and again.

Two: This is something I learnt from a friend (I credit it to her, anyway), and was probably the main reason why I decided to just go ahead and make this impromptu cake. I think that it’s kind of somewhere between that mantra of “being as nice as you can, to as many people as you can, in as many ways as you can” and the one about living with no regrets. Basically, I asked myself if I would regret attempting to make this cake more than I would regret missing this opportunity to do something nice for someone who’s been absolutely delightful to work with. (Side note: there’s no real special occasion for this, hence “impromptu cake”.)

Well, the answer was obvious and, despite getting to bed later than I should have, and having a bit of a restless night’s sleep (my subconscious always worries a lot about whether people will like my creations; also, it was a tad chilly last night), I do not regret my decision in the least. Not because she said it was delicious or because another colleague said it’s probably the best cake I’ve ever brought in to work – well, ok, partly for those reasons… but mostly because of how almost-childishly-happy she was when she discovered that I’d actually gone ahead and made the sticky date pudding just for her.

peanut butter and jelly

It’s been some time coming, but I’ve finally had another attempt at making truffles. Since my coconut and lime truffles worked so well, and got such good feedback from my colleagues, I’ve been meaning to make more truffles, experimenting with ingredients and flavour combinations. I like making truffles because you can play around with different flavours, but mostly because it’s generally easier and requires fewer ingredients than baking a cake (which I also enjoy, but sometimes just don’t have the time or energy for).

Another big bonus is that it’s easier to adjust quantities/proportions as you prepare the truffle mix, whereas baking tends to require very (or at least reasonably) accurate measurements. If you’ve read my previous posts on baking, or if I’ve told you of my baking adventures before, you’ll know that I’m not great with precise measurements and sticking to recipes…

Anyway, I can’t remember when the inspiration hit me, but I believe it was while talking to a colleague about the gloriousness of peanut butter. I reckon PB is great as it is, on toast or bread, but I especially like it with jam. From there, I started thinking about how I could recreate the flavours of a good PB&J sandwich in a truffle form, and the following recipe was born:


  • ~170-180mL (thickened) cream
  • 4 tbsp smooth peanut butter (I guess you could use crunchy PB but I was worried about the peanuts going soft/weird while being cooked in the cream …but that could just be me being paranoid)
  • ~240g dark chocolate (melting chips, or a cut-up block)
  • 1 small tin/jar of some sort of fruit-flavoured hard candy, crushed with a mortar & pestle to get little granules of candy (I reckon it works best if you get it to just bigger than raw sugar granule size)

I think the process for all truffles is basically the same, so once you’ve mastered one, you’ll probably find it easy enough to adapt for other flavours. In this case, I just put the cream and PB into a saucepan to heat slowly, stirring until the PB melted and incorporated into the cream. Once it looked like it was just about to come to a simmer, I took it off the heat and added the chocolate, stirring until it all melted.

At this point, I contemplated adding choc chips (like the ones you use for baking cookies) to give an internal crunch element to kind of resemble the texture of crunchy PB, but I didn’t really have that many, so I left them out. Besides, I figured that the candy coating would give enough of a crunch.

After leaving the truffle mix in the fridge to cool overnight, I cut it up (because too lazy to use a melon baller and scoop out individual ones), and rolled it in the candy crumbs/powder.

I’m really bad at remembering to take photos of food, so of course I don’t have a photo, but I reckon they looked pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. The candy I used was red/pink, so just imagine little cubes of dark chocolate covered in little pink jewels. It gets a bit of a reaction. I will say, however, that if the candy powder is too fine, it kind of melts when applied to the truffles, and then it becomes quite sticky (although people said it was worth the stickiness).

When I did my taste-test at home, I was actually a bit apprehensive. It worked, but the flavour wasn’t as amazing as the coconut and lime truffles (sorry I keep mentioning those, but I feel like I set too high a benchmark when I made them). But you do get the nice combination of salty, creamy peanut butter and sugary fruit (or should that be “fruity sugar”?) so I was satisfied. What I really judge a recipe’s success on, however, is the reaction I get from others, particularly if anyone asks for the recipe because it means they liked it enough to want to make it themselves. On this criteria, I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that these PB&J truffles passed 🙂

coconut + lime + dark chocolate

I reckon the best thing about baking is being able to create something delicious, and then share that with family/friends, and just watching them enjoy it. It’s really something special, hey?

Well, after work on Sunday, I could not be stuffed baking anything, so I decided to just make truffles. No special occasion, but I’ve just been compulsively buying dark chocolate to kind of give myself an excuse to use it. I was also inspired by this post on Jane’s Patisserie, and wanted to experiement around with some flavours.

Also, apparently you can get the same satisfaction from sharing home-made truffles as you get from sharing a home-baked cake. I took my truffles in to work with me today, and everyone loved them, so I thought maybe it was worth sharing the recipe here (especially since I also got a few recipe requests)

Truffles are amazingly easy to make, which makes me like them even more. I’d previously made a chocolate cake with lime and coconut, so I figured the same thing should work in truffle form (not sure if it still counts as an experiment then, but oh well…)

As well as being easy to make, there were only four ingredients:

  • ~165mL coconut cream (I just happened to have a small tin in the pantry that was exactly this amount. I weighed it in the tin to be ~200g, which, yes, is kind of a meaningless value since I didn’t weigh the empty tin)
  • ~365g dark chocolate (I’ve put the “approximately” tilde on this one because I ate a bit of the chocolate before it went in. You’ve got to check for quality, right?)
  • ~2 tsp Gin Gin & Dry lime powder (I assume lime zest would work fine as well)
  • enough dessicated coconut to coat truffles

All I did was heat the cream with the lime powder on a low heat until it was just about to boil. Then I took it off the heat, and added the chocolate, stirring until it all melted. It was then a simple case of pouring it into a lined container, and waiting for it to set (I left it overnight). Once set, because I was too lazy to scoop them out individually, I just cut them into squares, and kind of rolled them into ball-like shapes while coating them in dessicated coconut.

Here’s a photo (but it’s not very good because I took the good ones to work, and completely forgot to take a photo, so these are the few random pieces I kept at home)

Coconut and lime truffles (well, you get the general idea...)

Coconut and lime truffles (well, you get the general idea…)

I’m not a truffle expert (yet) but I assume you can just adjust the cream/chocolate ratio depending on whether you prefer the truffles softer/harder. The ratio I used seemed to give a satisfyingly rich truffle.