Monday, November 19, 2012

What is a cupcake without frosting?

Lately these days, I've been thinking about how blessed I am to be able to speak English, and how I take it for granted. Not in the sense of "English is the best language in the world because I speak it!", but how much more convenient the skill of being able to use it makes my life, and also how much more careless I become because of it.

Of course, a lot of research and information is conducted and recorded in English these days, and certainly it would almost be essential to the life of an academic. But I'm also talking about how the regular non-English speaker comes across English on a daily basis and has to expend a lot more effort to function around it, despite English not being one of their own languages. This came across my mind again the other night when I was putting a carton of 1% buttermilk into the fridge that I had bought to make cupcakes, and I was thinking how I'd have to tell my grandma that it was buttermilk and not the usual 1% milk that they drink.

Sometimes I look up information on websites or read receipts for my grandma, and I've taught her how to ride the skytrain and how to recognize which one to take as well. Of course, there are multiple ways to learn a routine, like looking at the first capital letter of the destination written on the incoming train and remembering the difference between how an "R" and a "Y" looks (which is how I taught it to my grandma). But in the end, it's inconvenient and ultimately requires someone else to teach it once to you first for every task. This is in a case where you don't speak English and live in a country where English is predominantly being used.

I'm still often told by friends and family how envious they are of me and my ability to speak English. When I was in Hong Kong, my uncle--whose undefeatable hobby is cars--browsed online forums a lot and would often ask me questions on what certain terms meant, or would ask me to interpret what other users posted in English (although sometimes I really had no idea, especially if they were words concerning car specs and such). Recently, when I mentioned how I've been learning programming lately, another friend also told me how much easier it is to learn coding if you already speak English. That is, it doesn't automatically make programming an easy skill to learn, but it would definitely make learning code a lot more manageable--and I agree. It's like learning French if Spanish was your native language rather than, say, Tibetan.

Business-wise, obviously, English is being used to conduct international trade for the most part. I recently participated in the Boston Career Forum for Japanese-English bilinguals, and in that sort of environment, I almost felt that it was treated as a "privilege" to be able to speak English. One of the requirements to participate in the forum was that one must have studied abroad as an exchange student at a foreign university or graduated from one (thus [supposedly] leading to one's English competency). Especially for Japanese nationals who grew up in Japan, I think, that would imply having the means of doing so in the first place. Aside from requiring a decent amount of money, study abroad opportunities are mostly available only at major universities. So it seems to me that, in general, it's not simply the willpower or determination to study English that is being required, but also the financial means and educational background, amongst other personal factors to obtain such an opportunity and then participate in a forum restricted to these kinds of individuals. In a way, this seems very elitist to me. It creates this terribly competitive atmosphere and pressure involved with being able to speak English, and honestly, I really dislike it.

I'm getting a little off track; back to talking about English in the daily life. The other day, I was reading something at home and my grandma had made a passing comment (in Chinese) like, "It's so nice, being able to read English." I had replied, "Is it nice? You can read Chinese, that must be nice too." And she had said, "No, being able to use English is so much better." I won't disagree with how convenient it is to know English, but I think it would be just as well if she could take an equal amount of pride in the language she can speak herself too. I heard from my grandma's brother that she never formally learned to read and write Chinese in school, and that makes me all the more amazed at the fact that she regularly reads newspaper and watches foreign shows with subtitles now. I feel it's as if she worked much harder for the skills that she possesses now, in comparison to me who learned to read and write inductively at school while growing up, with no particular effort or determination on my part to do so.

All in all, I often get comments on how "smart" I am for being able to speak English, but to the point that I've started to feel a little guilty about it. Because, really, I've done nothing to deserve such a comment. I started using English when I was 4 years old because my teachers and friends spoke it to me at school, and every time I turned on the TV or radio, or opened a book, it would be in English. If anything, the praise should go to my mother for having invested her daughter in an education in an English-speaking country. The looks of awe that I find myself receiving when I speak English in an environment where English is not a dominant language, I never know what to make of it. Because I'm not exerting any special skill when I'm speaking in English--I'm simply speaking. As can most people in this world, in their respective (and equally beautiful) languages.

That's why I've decided that in order to feel less undeserving of my ability to use English, I'm going to have to develop a real skill to complement it. Like programming. Or being able to speak another language equally as well, so I can proceed onto learning the art of translation. Or at least utilizing English in a way that will produce some kind of result, like finishing my novella. There must be many more ways I can develop my set of skills, but in the meantime, I've decided to focus on these three for now. Instead of theorizing on what could be done, I want to aim for something concrete so when someone compliments me on my English skill, I can say, "English is a great language, because I was also able to use it to learn ______ and to do _______."

I want to be a useful human being!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Walking in a Wooden Wonderland

Today, I went hiking with a friend in West Vancouver at Cypress Falls Park.
The name is misleading for two reasons: 1) it's not a park, it's a forest; and 2) it's literally just some water falling. When I think "waterfall", I think of massive curtains of water plunging down from a cliff and thundering into the depths of an otherwise serene reservoir. Today's was not so. It was... a spray.

But no matter, it was a very peaceful time getting in touch with nature again. I just really needed to be surrounded by green, and it was a refreshing and quick walk through a wooden wonderland. An afternoon well spent!

In the end, I had to go back to my usual world of gray. But I'll be back soon!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Happy Birthday to my favourite people in the world: my grandparents!

Last Wednesday was my grandma's birthday, August 29th, and the week before that was my grandpa's birthday on the 18th. A birthday month for the family!

Usually my grandma cooks dinner every night, but I had told her in advance that I would cook dinner instead on her birthday. Since my grandma is the world's best cook (I know that's what everyone says about their grandmas, but I assure you, mine is the best) and cooks amazing Chinese food for us every night, I figured I'd go for a Western meal instead. You know, instead of putting her through the torture of eating something that she could make ten times better.

My entire family are incredibly light eaters, so I scrapped my original plan to make a 4 course meal and settled with a soup and main dish combination. I turned all my bookshelves inside out for my Julia Child "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" cookbook, but unfortunately, I had to make do without it. But no matter--cookbooks are almost redundant these days with the invention of the internet (almost is the keyword; I still like using cookbooks). And so, with the efficient help of a friend who happened to be staying over for the week, we made a potato and leek soup, with a scrumptious lasagna as the main dish. The lasagna was made with pasta, yogurt, mozzarella and cheddar cheese, tomatoes and tomato sauce, mushrooms, spinach, onions, a small amount of ground beef, and a tinge of parsley.

It was a success! My grandparents seemed happy, especially with the dozen roses I gave my grandma as an extra. Mission complete (and appetites satiated)!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Every day is a perfect baking day.

The Vancouver weather has been fluctuating again this past week, alternating between warm, sunny days and windy, rainy days. I don't mind it too much, because nothing really dampens my mood for baking.

Every day is a perfect baking day. If it's sunny, loads of sunshine stream through the kitchen windows and I feel really at peace looking out into the garden as I mix the dough and hum a happy tune. If it's raining, I'd have to stay indoors anyway and nothing adds more to the feeling of coziness than the smell of freshly baked pastries while it's cold and raining outside. Baking is so soothing, rain or shine.

I'm not an optimist, it's the truth.

Last week, I tried another recipe from "Boutique Baking" and made a marble coffee cake. For some reason, I couldn't find my Bundt cake pan so it didn't turn out quite the way as I had expected, but it was deemed a success by my classmates nonetheless (phew!). This week, I was lent Dr. Oetker's "German Baking Today", a fantastic recipe book full of delicious-looking German pastries that I had never thought of trying before! I looked through it and bookmarked a few recipes.

Yesterday, I tried my first one. I always feel bad for making only sweet things like cookies and cakes, because my grandma has diabetes and she can never have any of it. So I decided to try out the recipe for ham and cheese croissants! And, as it turns out, it worked and tastes fine despite the fact that I forgot to shape them into, well, croissants before putting them in the oven. Oh well.

I don't really eat much of what I bake, to be honest, but I guess my grandparents will be having ham and cheese croissants for breakfast these next few days!

My plan was to try the recipe for plum cake next, maybe on Monday so I can bring it to class on Tuesday. But I ended up staying home today and didn't have much to do, so I wandered around the house until I decided to rummage through the kitchen cupboards to see what ingredients we had at home.

And somehow, I ended up making chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. They actually turned out really nicely and taste great, even though I made them for the sole purpose of using up my remaining chocolate chips. I made at least four dozen of them, so I suppose I'll be bringing these instead of the plum cake to class first! I also saved a fair amount for my grandpa to enjoy during his afternoon teatimes. I hope he likes them.

Oh dear, my blog is slowly turning into a baking diary, isn't it? I promise it's only a phase, I'll eventually tire of it and write about something else.

But honestly, who cares, right? Who doesn't like looking at pictures of food!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I was right to be skeptical of the "Magic" in baking powder!

Boys and girls, it is good to be back in the beautiful city of Vancouver!

When I first came back, the weather was quite chilly despite it being the end of June. Coming from Hong Kong where it was 35 degrees and 80% humidity, I thought it was practically freezing. Whatever thick skin I had grown from spending four winters in Montreal, I had lost it in my one year in Hong Kong; and for some reason, I feel that it's always colder in the house. But, luckily the sun is shining now and summer is finally here! I took full advantage of that last Friday by spending my afternoon lounging on the grass at English Bay.

Despite my constant complaining about my lack of belonging anywhere, I think there's no other place I can even come close to calling home than here in Vancouver. The fresh air, the nice weather, the bustling but not too busy streets. The friendliness. How, when I walk under the sunlight in the morning, I can't help but smile to myself. These are things I was never able to find in Hong Kong, and I have missed them dearly. Knowing myself, I'm sure that I'll soon be complaining about how boring it is in Vancouver again; but in the meantime, I'm still grateful.

I had the most wonderful day last week, having lunch with my new classmates and soaking in the sun afterwards. When I got home that evening, there was a warm meal home-cooked by my grandma. But before dinner, I opened a package that had come in the mail for me that day... to find the loveliest, loveliest baking recipe book from a friend living in Sydney, Australia. She had decided to send it to me as a present when I mentioned my excitement in being able to bake again upon my return to Vancouver. I was so happy I felt like exploding into confetti!

The book is "Boutique Baking" by Peggy Porschen, and contains detailed recipes for cupcakes, tarts, cakes, macarons, and plenty of other sweets. It is also pink. Isn't that lovely?

Having been a rebellious teenager who rebelled in a rather strange way, I don't have a driving license because I didn't want to get one "like everybody else" when I was in high school. And since I moved away for university, I never got the chance to take the test and lessons after that. I'm feeling the inconvenience now especially when I live with only my grandparents and none of us can drive, but it's manageable. Having said that, though, I did have quite a hard time when I bought my baking supplies over the weekend. My grandma had done some cleaning during my absence and a lot of my baking ingredients have disappeared, so I had to go out and get a lot of the basic stuff again like flour, baking powder, etc. It was a lot of work just preparing to bake!

So anyway, I decided to try the recipe of the black forest cupcake first. All the recipes in the book are a lot more difficult than what I usually make, so maybe it wasn't the best choice for getting back into "baking mode" after a year of not having an oven. But nonetheless, I modified a few things in the recipe and gave it a shot. It took a very long time... and I'm not sure if it's my oven from having been out of use for a while, or if it was my slight tweaking of the recipe, but it didn't seem to bake very well and had me worried for a second that it would be my first baking disaster.

But I think it turned out all right in the end, although I definitely have to practice my piping skills. The frosting took a while to make prior to making the cupcake, and this was the first time I tried my hand at piping a cupcake (notice below that I did choose the ugliest cupcake to try on first). I don't think I let the frosting chill long enough in the fridge, so using a star nozzle didn't make much of a difference on the piping... but I'd like to try again maybe for another recipe! I also switched out the Griottine cherries and Kirsch liqueur/syrup I was supposed to use (Kirsch liqueur is terribly expensive), and simply soaked fresh cherries in brandy. I think that worked out fine.

In any case, maybe a pictorial summary of the messy process will be more interesting than my endless blocks of text. Let's see tomorrow if they taste any good! And perhaps next time I'll use less expensive recipes to experiment with, hah.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One can never be too old for Hello Kitty.

Hello wonderful people from all over the world, I'd like to wish you a Happy Valentine's Day! I hope you are spending it thinking about the people you appreciate and love very much.

Every year around this time of the season, I use Valentine's Day as an excuse to experiment with chocolate. I recommend trying chocolate recipes for those of you who aren't very good at following instructions--you can't go wrong with chocolate, it'll still taste good even if the result doesn't turn out to be what you had set out to make it. Chocolate is chocolate.

In the past few years, I've made plain, round truffles (which are still very good and fun to make, by the way) rolled in cocoa powder as a finish. But this year, I decided to try a new recipe that involves making a red wine ganache first before making the outer layer of the truffle with a mold. It just so happens that while shopping with a friend some weeks ago, I came across a super cute Hello Kitty silicone mold, so snagging it right away (can't be helped, it was pink), I just couldn't wait to try it out with this year's batch of chocolates.

And despite a few setbacks due to a terribly useless wine bottle opener and some broken china, luckily, it seems the chocolates were a success!

I followed the outlines of a recipe I found online but here is how the general process of my truffles went. I finely chopped up a bar of dark chocolate, briefly heated some heavy cream and poured it onto the chopped dark chocolate, mixing it until all the chocolate melted. Then I added a few tablespoons of red wine and a bit of red food colouring. I put the concoction in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

I had bought two pink "chocolate pens" that were filled with light pink-coloured chocolate. I softened the chocolate in a cup of warm water before cutting the end and filling the bow part of the Hello Kitty molds with pink chocolate. You can probably easily do this even without a fancy chocolate pen. Mix a drop or two of red food colouring with white chocolate and just apply with a small spoon (or piping bag if you insist on being at least somewhat fancy). I know it looks kind of like the disgusting globs of chewing gum your fingers sometimes come across on the underside of old school desks, but try not to think of it that way.

A while later, I broke up another bar of dark chocolate and heated that on the stove until it melted. Using a brush, I painted the sides of the silicone mold with the melted chocolate. I put the entire mold in the freezer, took it out again to double coat the molds with chocolate, and put it back in the fridge before finally filling it with the ganache. I stuck the filled molds in the freezer again before sealing off the truffles by adding the rest of the newly melted dark chocolate on top to complete the bottom.

I left the truffles in the freezer overnight for the chocolates to set, and in the morning I slowly removed the truffles from the mold by pushing upwards... and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw that it actually worked--and looked nice too!

I tried one myself since I didn't want to be giving away death chocolate, and fortunately, it tasted just fine! Wrapped it up nicely with some fancy packaging and shiny boxes, and off they went. Regardless of each person's chocolate preferences, at least they're quite nice to look at this year, so that's a +1!

On a side note, our resident kitty was preying on her chocolate counterparts when I was making them in the kitchen. Sadly for her (but fortunate for her health), she didn't get any in the end... so instead, I'll just feature her at the end of this entry. I'm not a fan of cats, but apparently most people are, so here you go!


Happy Valentine's Day!

And don't forget to rest well tonight so you can dash off to the store early next morning and stock up on even more chocolate... when all of it is 50% off!