Bach to Life

And so the morning starts with a bad pun and wonderful music, Johann Sebastian’s Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord with the odd Viola da Gamba thrown in for good measure. In case you didn’t know, harpsichords were those plinkety things people bought when they couldn’t afford a proper piano. I found this 2 CD album with Rachel Podger on violin and Trevor Pinnock on the harpsy at the back of the shelf, which means it hasn’t had an airing in a while. Shame, because it’s as pleasant as it’s well played. I’m not likely to be listening to the entire 139 minutes and 23 seconds, but I’m good for the first 5 sonatas. Join me and let me know whether it’s your thing or not. And if it’s not, send me your selection for the mornings.

As to the question whether Bach ever actually heard or played on a piano, an instrument that was only invented about 1700, when Bach was 15 years old. News didn’t travel that fast in those days, but Bach had another 50 years of life ahead of him and was from a highly educated, musical family and he was quite famous in his own lifetime, so we would definitely have know about the piano. But don’t take it from me, here is Charles Rosen, the pianist on the subject. It’s a great, if somewhat old article, so I recommend you read it all.

And then when your interest in the instrument is whetted, you can ask Yamaha about its history. And that’s enough for one morning, I’d say.

Jogging dans le Parking

We are still locked down and sedentary, my butt is starting to spread like cheese in a raclette and I’m going a bit apeshit. In my mind only, though. The exterior remains reasonably calm, so Eddie doesn’t notice I might soon rappel down the balcony. I tried running on the spot, but I’m so clumsy, I broke my phone, which was attached to my ears, playing “Stranger Things”, the phone, not the ears and I thought it a good idea to leave “the spot” and run backwards and forwards a bit, which is obviously a bad idea when your ears are connected to your phone on a cord shorter than the length of the room. So now I’ve taken to running in the car park.

Not that pretty when you first start. But one can find beauty in anything, if one tries. I am a great fan of industrial buildings, factories, the concrete ugly. There are the cement works outside Ipoh, which you can see from the gorgeous temple in a cave. Well, the temple is ugly, but the cave is beautiful. So I tried to look for the beauty in my 9 story car park. And I found it.

A slice of greenery in the sunlight. If I was a decent photographer, I would be able to show this contrast between the concrete and the light much better, but you get the idea. Running up the next ramp (there are nine of these and bloody steep they are too), turning the corner and there it is:

In metal.
And chrome.

Whatever happened to chrome? Does anyone know why it has so completely vanished from our cars? Yes, there’s still the odd bit of plastic trying to look like chrome, but that’s rhinestone to Ms Taylor’s lavaliere. But I digress. By now I needed a bit of a breather from the bastard ramps so I took a good look. Alfa Romeos are as beautiful as they are temperamental, something not entirely unusual in human beauty either. I remember driving one in Luxembourg whose gear box stick was so completely wonky, you had to guess where anything was. I am of course still talking about the car. On to the next level…

Two more ramps and I get a view up the road where the Pavilion guys are trying to block our last bit of view. They will probably succeed. We used to have the Twin Towers as well, but they vanished. Behind the nausea inducing ugliness of Vida, a building distinguished by nothing at all. And now this highly anticipated piece of Pavilion real estate is going to take away the pink erection that is the Telecom Tower. Not that that is in any way an architectural masterpiece, but at least it is funny. With all those tacky dancing lights in varying colours. Tax payers’ money well spent, I say!

Have you noticed that as I tackle more and more ramps, my temper does not seem to improve?

That’s probably why I come across this temple telling me to Zen out a bit. That’s the idea, but it’s not really a Zen kind of temple. They have nightlong performances of gongs and opera and I swear, Karaoke! But still, it’s pretty, there among the greenery. Which leads me to another point; the city is greener than you imagine! We are here, right in the middle of the urban jungle and it’s as much ape as asphalt. Actually until Pavilion started their construction we still had monkeys up on the hill. Not sure where they’ve gone. Down to Changkat, I imagine.

Our building management hates visitors, so they put the visitor car bays at the second but last level and make them so narrow guests can just about park, but once they’ve parked, they can’t get out of the car. And if they do manage to get out, they can’t have a drink, or they won’t be able to get down the narrow (and steep) ramps without incurring large bodywork bills.

Now I’m almost at the top, panting like an elephant ballerina past her prime, not sure whether this might be my last opportunity to call the cardiologist, but I ignore the stabbing pain and shortness of breath and wobble on up the last bloody ramp, fight the nausea, make it to the end of the level and hang my head over the wall, ready to fertilise the herb garden below.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have a herb garden! Our mid range, dubiously maintained abode sports a sizeable garden. We have hillocks of wild pepper leaf, three types of basil, rosemary so fragrant, we had the vice squad in twice, looking for weed. Of which there is none, as our gardener takes care of it all. Ginger flowers, pandan leaf, mint, stevia, enough ulam to feed a village and all free for anyone to pick. Provided they live here.

This is the point at which I notice there is another ramp to tackle, but it really is the last one this time. Past one more beautiful car, which I know also belongs to that friend of ours. We see him taking them for a spin every now and again, not too far away, lest they get grumpy and want to go home, like the old age pensioners they are.
At last and finally I’m at the top, so now I just have to run down and do the whole thing another four times and that’s an hour’s run.

A Great Little Fish Fry

I was going to call this post “She’s a Meen Varathathu”, but then I relented. We had some gin & tonics with friend yesterday, online, of course, and they were complaining that I don’t post enough. I was going to keep it to one post every 2-3 days, just so I don’t inundate everyone, but here’s one just for you. You know who you are!

She’s a Meen Varathathu

This time, I’ll do the recipe before I start rambling on about all sorts of stuff:

  • 300g-500g little fishes, or any other fish you can deep fry
  • juice of 1 juicy or 3 dry limes
  • juice of 2 kalamansi (remove those pips!)
  • 2 pinch salt
  • 1 thumb sized piece old ginger, 20g-25g
  • 4 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp good quality turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tsp water

Get your fish man to scale and clean the little blighters, but leave the bones in. Wash and dry the fish on kitchen towel, if necessary and it probably will be necessary. I used fish Eddie’s mum bought for us months ago and that had travelled from Ipoh to KL and then entered a long hibernation in permafrost, i.e., our freezer. I defrosted them in the chiller over 2 days and they came out beautifully clean, fresh sea smelling. Now that we have time, I suggest you never defrost anything by leaving it out in the KL heat. Do it slowly and you shall be rewarded by a much better quality.

Next, put you fish in a bowl,squeeze the limes and kalamansi on it, sprinkle the salt on and toss it about. Leave it for 20 minutes, while you make the paste. You don’t need to put it in the chiller, it will be fine on the kitchen counter.

Peel the ginger, chop it into smallish pieces and put it into a mortar. I tried to use the blender, but the quantity was too small. And anyway, it’s pretty easy to pound. Add the chilli, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, salt, vinegar and water and pound to a fine paste.
Pour the excess lime juice out of the bowl. You don’t need to be anal about this and dry the fish again, just pour what comes out easily. Put the paste into the bowl and coat the fish as evenly as they will coat.

Leave the little fishes alone for another 20 minutes while you have that first glass of cold white wine. Then comes the fun, scary part. Frying those fish in a lake of oil. Like a good housewife, I keep oil for frying in a recycling jar, so I don’t waste so much every time. Here is think I used about 2 cups (that’s Chinese rice bowls, not American measuring ones) and I fried 3 fish at a time. Make sure your oil is smoking hot and beware of the splatter. I really think a wok is much better for this than a deep fryer, but that could be having lived in Asia for 30 years. When’s your fish ready? First the bubbling will subside and then the fish will start to look golden. Tip: The fish always looks lighter in the oil than out of it. It’s perfectly fine to fish out one and see how it looks.

about halfway through frying
checking the colour

We ate this with Eddie’s fantastic Thai green mango salad and as we were out of long beans we used blanched Thai bitter gourd. Blanched, because raw it is VERY bitter, even for aficionados of bitter stuff. What, you ask is a Thai bitter gourd? I’m thinking of creating an ingredient glossary page with loads of pictures, so just wait for that one.
I’m going to try and get Eddie to share his recipe today. He’s such a perfectionist, he only wants to share perfected recipes that he approves of completely. If I did that, I’d never post anything. As it reached final approval level yesterday, I just might be able to get him to share it today!

What’s Meen Varathathu?

I have to admit that I didn’t come up with this recipe myself. I got it from this book, but I fiddled with it a bit and made some changes which seem to have worked out just fine. Eddie and I joined two friends for a trip to Kerala in January, whcih was quite fantastic (post will come) and instead of buying souvenirs, we brought back a lot of spices and foodstuff and of course cookbooks to help us recreate the food we enjoyed there. The Essential Kerala Cookbook is a rather academic tome, no pictures, no anecdotes, but a great reference book. So once you buy the glossy picture laden food porn, get this one to help you make the stuff correctly. So if you want to make a mean meen varathuthu, this is where you look it up. I think I’ve just about milked that joke dry now, so on to more important things:

Chilli, Chili & Chile

They are of course all the same, but not all chillies are the same. I found that the chilli powder they use in Kerala is very much different from the one we use here in Malaysia. For one, it is much less spicy, so adding it by the tablespoonful will not kill you. It’s also a lot more fragrant. I’m not sure how to explain it, but if you wanted to recreate Kerala chilli powder, I think a mix of local chilli powder, mild chilli powder and a tiny pinch of smoked paprika will do it.

Talking about paprika, we went for a few few cooking classes and the were obviously all geared to the mat salleh market (white people, for those who don’t know), so everyone was replacing chilli powder with paprika, which is a really dreadful idea! The beautiful fragrance is lost and it’s like making Hungarian curry.

The difference is actually clearly visible. On the left Shaury chilli powder, on the right Spice Market Fort Kochi chilli. Shaury is a great brand, they pack the best juniper berries and dry herbs I have been able to find here, so this is not to say their chilli isn’t good. It’s just very different! One last word about the shop, Spice Market, it’s a women’s co-operative, so it supports women farmers, etc., all the way to the women retailers, who run the shop. Scary aunties, really describes them better. They passive aggressively coax you to buy spices by the kilo, so you’re likely to walk in “just to have a look” and walk out laden like a donkey.

Look out for one of the next Blogs: “It’s all Fenugreek to me!” about the weird and wonderful properties of fenugreek seeds.

Music for a Sunday Morning

Amsterdam Sinfonietta with violist Janine Jansen; Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’; Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival 2014.

A cup of coffee, the weekend papers (FT Weekend for the frivolous part of it) and some Sunday morning music. I’m quite predictable. It can’t be challenging, or too violent, so I end up with the same sort of selection. Pavarotti singing Neapolitan songs in an atrocious Neapolitan accent if it’s Italian for lunch (Eddie hates all that screaming), or a good dose of Teutonic tunes with Beethoven’s 6th conducted by Karajan and if I’m feeling frivolous, it’s Handel and his fire and water musics (sic), but today I found that we do not possess a copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is surely the MOST Sunday music ever written and we don’t have it! YouTube to the rescue and I find an very interesting chamber orchestra interpretation of it. Not all saccharine and speed fiddle, but virtuoso enough and with a more period inclination. Very good indeed, as the don’t stop saying on the BBC.

Polenta, the ignored

It’s like Sunday in an Italian Village!

When did you last eat polenta that didn’t languish under some fish or lamb chop, or some ossobuco? I’m talking just polenta, as a meal. On its own. Thought you hadn’t. Believe me your life is poorer for it! Polenta in its own right is a wonderful thing if you make it fresh. The recipe below is for ricotta polenta, but you can just as well leave the ricotta out and you will still get a wonderful dish. Serve it with a simple tomato sauce and there’s lunch. Here I have added a simple vegetable stew, a bit like a caponata minus the aubergine (so not a caponata at all). The acidity goes very well with the richness of the polenta.

This entire dish, tomato sauce, vegetables and all can be ready in an hour! Start with the tomato sauce, then make the polenta and while that sets, make the vegetables. It doesn’t take longer than a glass of wine! Note that there is enough for four. All the quantities are correct for one party of four.

Let’s start with the simple tomato sauce. This is not my recipe, but one by Marcella Hazan, who basically introduced the English speaking world to Italian cooking. thank you for this recipe.
I am going to leave the discussion whether this is real Italian tomato sauce or not to others. I make a vast variety of tomato sauces, depending on what happens to be in my chiller and pantry and this is still one of my favourites. It’s especially good if you don’t have time to simmer a big pot for hours. Feel free to add basil or oregano, or garlic (crushed cloves, not chopped, please) or stick in a bay leaf or chop the onion and serve it all together, or give it a dash of wine; red for a deep colour and rich flavour, white for a touch of acidity. But before you do any of that, just try it as is and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Tomato Sauce
  • 2 cans whole peeled tomatoes (400g per can, 800g in total)
  • 140g butter
  • 1 brown onion

Pour the cans of tomato, juice and all into a saucepan. Cut the tomatoes up with a pair of scissors, or mash them with a fork (don’t wear white for this), turn the heat on low and while this heats up, peel the onion and cut it in half and drop it into the sauce. Cut a big piece of butter off the block and drop it into the sauce as well. Simmer for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. It won’t look so great at first, kind of pale and sad, but it will perk up as it simmers along. Once it has thickened, just remove the onion and you’re done.

The Ricotta Polenta
Creamy crumbly, slightly dense, it’s like a huge ricotta gnocchi
  • 600ml milk
  • 40g butter
  • plenty of nutmeg
  • 125g semolina
  • 50g grated Parmesan
  • 100g ricotta
  • 2 egg yolk
  • salt
  • 500-600ml mold of any shape you like (I used an old quite flat ring mold)

This is ridiculously easy, you’ll see. Pour the milk into a saucepan, grate as much nutmeg into it as you like, but remember, it’s a spice, not a vegetable. Turn the heat to medium and while that is heating up, butter your mold very generously. Once the milk is simmering, slowly pour in all the semolina, stirring all the time. This will thicken up quite a bit, but keep stirring for a couple of minutes to cook the semolina properly. Turn off the heat, drop in the butter and stir it in. If you find it too stiff, add a little more milk, but careful, it needs to set. You want to achieve a texture soft enough to push into the mold, but not so soft it pours. Stir in the ricotta and Parmesan and once that’s evenly in there, add the egg yolks and stir in again.

Ladle the polenta into your mold. It won’t go in evenly, but try not to have empty spaces at the bottom of the mold. Now wet your hands and squish the polenta gently into the mold, flatten the top and leave it at room temperature while you make the vegetables.

You can stop right here, if you like.

Leave the polenta for about 10-15 minutes, then gently un-mold it. Depending on the shape of your mold, you may need to use a butter knife (or any knife that’s not pointy) to let some air into the bottom of the mold by gently loosening the polenta from the side while the mold is upside down. Gently does it! My ring let go of the polenta bit by bit, following the circle, so I had to lift the mold gently, following the curve. Shake or tap too much and it will break. The good news is that it tastes just as good in pieces as whole. Add freshly ground black pepper, grated cheese and some good olive oil and you have yourself a great lunch!

But you can also carry on and make…
The Vegetables
  • about 15 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 zucchini
  • small handful basil whole leaves
  • 1 can anchovies (30g-50g)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 50ml water (or stock, if you have it)
  • a dash of red wine, about 2 Tbsp (it’s optional, but it helps)
  • 1/2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
  • salt, sugar & black pepper
Clockwise from bottom left corner; zucchini, onion & celery, sherry vinegar, cherry tomatoes, basil and an invisible can of anchovies.

Of course if you’re clever, you will have washed and cut your vegetables earlier on. Did I not mention that? Anyway, here we are; cut the cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise, sprinkle with good salt, a pinch or two of sugar and a grind or three of pepper and leave them to marinate while you do the rest. cut the celery into 1cm slices, cut your onion in half across the rings, then cut each half into 6 wedges (4, if 6 is too difficult). Cut the half zucchini in half lengthwise, the in half again lengthwise, then into 1.5cm slices. Look at the picture, its easier. Pluck the basil leaves and open the can of anchovies. By the way, you don’t need super quality anchovies for this, just a normal little can will do.

waiting for the stock to evaporate

In a cast iron pot (if you have one), heat 2 Tbsp oil to medium, throw in the onions and celery and stir about for 2-3 minutes. DON’T salt it, you’re going to be adding anchovies and there’s plenty of salt in there. Now tip in the entire can of anchovies, oil, juice and all and stir it in. The anchovies will melt and smell quite strong and that’s okay. Fry for a minute, add the zucchini and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Add the water or stock and a dash of wine and let it boil until it’s thickened, about 3 more minutes at most. Last add the tomatoes and the vinegar and stir to just heat. Add the basil leaves just before you serve it.

And if you add up all the minutes, you will get to 10 if you’re fast and 15 if you’re not. One way or the other, enough for the polenta to cool to shape.

All you need to do now is get the polenta out of its tin onto a plate, ladle the vegetables over it and surround it with tomato sauce. If you have a ring mold, you can make it look flash like I tried to, but honestly, you could set it in a plastic tub, out the veg over it and serve the sauce on the side and all will be well.


The tomato sauce will easily reheat, so you can make it in the morning, if you like. I actually got Eddie to do it while I went to get the week’s shopping. It keeps in the chiller for 3 days at least and freezes beautifully.
Use a large-ish pot to fry the vegetables in. I used a 24cm Le Creuset, which I may have stolen from a friend, but that’s another story. The larger surface area will prevent the vegetables from stewing and will allow for much faster evaporation of the stock or water.
Leftovers will keep in the chiller for 3 days at least, but probably won’t, because it’s quite delicious cold!

A Note on Polenta

Polenta flour isn’t flour, it’s cornmeal and it comes in all sorts of different textures, from ultra fine to really coarse. I used “Granoro” brand, not because it’s the best, but it’s quite easy to find in KL (that’s Kuala Lumpur). It’s quite a fine meal, so it cooks quickly. Read the instructions on the packet of the brand you buy and adjust the quantity of milk and the cooking time. The manufacturers mostly get it right. If you bought the polenta a while back and it’s been languishing in your cupboard, I suggest you strain it before use. Little animals like to live in it. They are not in any way dangerous and polenta becomes extremely hot, so you’ll be fine if you’re not squeamish.

Cooking for a Lock-Down

Handmade Tortellini

Making tortellini by hand from start to finish is a very good way to while away an afternoon. Throw in boiling your own soup and making the stuffing from scratch and it could take up 2 days. None of it is particularly difficult to do and if you’re locked down with your partner, it’s a great way to test each other’s patience. If you’re still on speaking terms after grinding the meat, rolling the pasta sheets and arguing about how to fold the tortellini, you’re probably destined for a life together.

To make tortellini in brodo, I find it best to follow this order of making things: Make the broth, make the dough, while the dough is resting, make the filling, roll out the dough, cut, fill, shape. This recipe will give you more tortellini and broth than 2 people can eat, but it all freezes perfectly and you’ll get 2 great meals out of it. I’ll even show you how to make tortellini alla panna (tortellini in cream sauce) out of the same bases plus cream and parma ham.

The Dough

If like me you ground the gears of your hand-cranked machine to smithereens, threw it away, never bought a new one and are now waiting for one to be delivered from Louisville Kentucky (don’t ask!), you’re going to have to follow me and do it all by hand. At least it’s good exercise!

So let’s start with the dough. The ingredients for this could not be simpler:

350g plain flour
200g egg

I use local Malaysian flour, which works perfectly well and gives me pasta of a texture I really like, but if you’re Italian (yes, it’s an excuse), or a flour snob and need to order “typo 00” or wheat milled by octogenarian virgins in the dales of some hamlet the world forgot, be my guest.

There are 2 different types of eggs in my chiller, each claiming to be “Large”. One weights 58g and the other 52g with shell (you will need to get rid of the shells, though) and that’s why I am giving you the eggs in grams. Now to the work:

Put the flour into a bowl, break the eggs into it and work the whole thing with your hands into a messy dough. Yes, I know, there’s the floured marble surface, the well dug into the middle, the eggs, yellow and rich, broken into the well, the old lady’s hands deftly drawing the flour into the eggs from the edges… work on that and come back to me later. your messy dough may have some flour left in the bowl that doesn’t seem to want to go into the dough (just throw it out), the egg may be visibly darker in places, but trust me, it’s going to work. You just need to knead. Use a machine, if you like, but it’s hard on domestic equipment. My “Heavy Duty” Kitchenaid groans like it’s having fun, but I know it really isn’t and might join my paste machine on the scrap heap soon, if I make it do pasta dough one more time. So take that dough out of the bowl, lean your whole weight into it and push/stretch it away from you. Fold back into a odd shaped ball and start again. Do that for 15 minutes. Yes, I’m not kidding. I’m going to upload a video showing me kneading the dough in a couple of days (unless my pasta machine arrives before that. Then you’re on your own, suckers! – just kidding)

Wrap the dough in clingfilm, leave it out at room temperature and get yourself a cold beer. You’ve earned it. Take an hour. So that’s really two beers!
Oh, and while we are chatting; there is a much simpler way of kneading your dough. I’ll show when my pasta machine arrives.

So there we are; the ball of dough is rested and ready to go. I’ll guide you through it step by step:

1. First flatten the ball with your hand into an oblong shape about 3cm thick.
2. Using a rolling pin (or a wine bottle) roll the oblong out to about 1cm
3. Turn the dough by 90 degrees; so from vertical to horizontal
4. Fold the right third over, so you have half a double layer of dough and half single
5. Fold the single layer over the double. You should now have a rough rectangle of 3 layers of dough (this is damn sight more difficult to explain than to do!)
6. Roll this out once again to about 1cm and repeat steps 3-5.
7. Repeat again and again and again and again….

…until you have a really smooth dough that keeps its shape without shrinking back much. You should really not have to do more than 4 turns in total, so if it doesn’t seem to happen, rest it another 30 minutes, covered in cling film and give it one last turn.

Cut your dough in half, wrap one half and start to roll out the other half as thin as you can. You definitely need to be able to see the pattern of the marble (or the wood, or whatever is underneath through the dough. See picture above. Unless you’re a genius, you are not going to achieve absolute even flatness and that’s okay. Just roll that dough as flat as it will go.

Next you need to decide what to do. If you’ve had enough, you can just cut it into strips to make spaghetti, linguini, fettuccini, taglerini, tagliatelle, pappardelle or even sagnette. It’s all just different thickness, length and width. For scientific interest, you can check out this:

We are almost done! Cut the pasta into 4cm squares, pile the squares into stacks (this way they don’t dry out so fast) and start. Now here is the point at which I give up. There is no way I can effectively describe the folding in words. You have to see it. First of all you need to use a very small amount of filling, about the size of a big pea (or a small peanut). Place filling in the middle, wet 2 sides of the pasta square (in an L, not on opposite side, dumbo!), fold over into a rectangle.

So far so good. Now the difficult part. Hold the pasta so the tip of the triangle points to the sky (you can change direction to anywhere you like once you got the hang of it, but for now, for God’s sake, just do what I tell you!) triangle tip pointing to the sky, lightly pull down the two tips pointing to the walls, so you get a shape that looks a little like the Star Trek Enterprise logo. Pull the bottom tips around so they meet under the sky pointing tip and squeeze them together. Move the tips up to the belly of the filling to make what looks like a bishop’s mitre (a one sided one, admittedly). If your tortellini can stand o the table without falling over, you’ve done good. Congratulations! You just have another 299 to make.

Traditionally, you boil the tortellini in the broth you serve it in, grate Parmesan on top, grind black pepper into it and eat it for Sunday Lunch.

The Filling

Making the filling is much easier! You will need:

  • 100g pork loin or chicken breast
  • 100g mortadella (smoked chicken breast or turkey slice might work too)
  • 25g Parma ham or air dried beef
  • 50g Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
  • 20g egg
  • salt & nutmeg to taste

If you have a meat grinder, chuck the pork/chicken, mortadella and ham into it and grind, then put that mix though the grinder one more time. You want a very fine mince. Then add the rest of the ingredients; Parmesan, egg, salt & nutmeg and mix it all together. You want quite a dry mix. If it seems too wet, add a little dry breadcrumbs. Tortellini filling is dry, but highly flavoured!
Alternatively, you can put the whole batch of ingredients into a food processor and blitz it to a paste. That will work too. Just try not to get the mix to heat up too much.

Cheat yourself to a Croque Monsieur

Creamy, bechamel covered ham & cheese sandwich

The difference between a ham and cheese sandwich and a Croque-Monsieur lies in the cheesy bechamel, a white sauce made with butter, flour, milk and cheese. Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the mood for a sandwich, I don’t exactly want to start making cheese sauce. And so, according to my motto: “A good chef is a lazy chef”, I have found a way to cheat myself into a perfect Croque-Monsieur without the need of a Bechamel. Here’s how you do it:

Mix your grated cheese with cream!

Ingredients for 2 Croque-Monsieur:

4 slices of bread (I used sprouted seed bread)
15g butter (don’t measure, just butter your bread, you’ll be fine)
2 small spoon mustard (Dijon, English, Grain, anything)
80g grated cheese (a mix of Gouda & Cheddar works well)
60g/ml whipping cream or liquid cream
2 big slices of cooked ham (or whatever else you fancy, really)

Remember you’re making 2 sandwiches. Lay your slices out on a board, butter one side and spread a little mustard on the butter. I actually keep all my bread in the freezer, as I don’t eat that much bread and don’t want it to go to waste. So I leave the butter to soften and then butter the frozen slices. That way soft bread doesn’t tear and the butter spreads evenly.
Now that you’ve buttered and mustarded (?) your bread, layer a generous amount of ham on it.
Grate your cheese, if you haven’t already done it. Any mix of hard cheeses should really work. It’s a good way to use up ends of cheese that are kicking around in your chiller. Pour the cream into the grated cheese and play with your food like a child, squish and mash until you get a weird textured paste and don’t worry if the cream oozes out a bit. Divide your cheesy paste into 4 roughly equal parts and spread a quarter each on the ham. (If that seems difficult, you could spread it on the other slice and then flip that on top of the ham, if you see what I mean.)
Cover your sandwich with the other slice of bread and now you should have 2 complete sandwiches with a layer of ham and cheese paste inside. If you also have 2 more quarters of cheese paste left over, you’ve done it right.

Spread the remaining 2 quarters of cheesy paste on top of each sandwich and bake the things in a 180C oven or toaster oven for about 10-12 minutes until the cheese looks like the picture above. Take out, leave to rest for 3 minutes, cut in half, plate like a pro and serve.


You can use any cheese, but I don’t recommend using cheeses that are too strong. Parmesan added in small quantities is fine, but a whole grated Parmesan Croque will be horrible. Try to use a good, pure cream, not one of those gelatin added “thickened” things. Double cream does not make it twice as good, in fact it doesn’t work very well at all. If it’s all you have, dilute with water.


Instead of using ham, mustard and cheese & cream, you can let your imagination run riot and see what happens. These are some of the things I’m thinking about. Haven’t tried them all, so if you do, or if you come up with different, exciting things, let me know.

  • Smoked salmon, horseradish, cheese & cream cheese
  • Parma ham, pesto, cheese & ricotta
  • Roast chicken, cheese, cream & curry powder (Coronation Sandwich anyone?)
  • Chopped up herbs; feta, cheddar & cream
  • Any leftover roast vegetables; chopped garlic, pesto, cheese & cream
  • Ham, garlic butter, cheese & cream


It’s all about me now.

This blooming blog machine has been bugging me to talk about MYSELF for days now, so I’m giving in. Reluctantly. I guess I’m supposed to say what a great chef I am, how my life is beyond fabulous and how everyone else is really just a loser who takes the bus to their own funeral. But that’d not really me. I don’t blow my own trumpet. For one, I’m not flexible enough. But I have had quite an interesting life for someone with slightly deficient education. So below, if you can really be bothered is the whole sordid history. I wrote this quite a while back, when I still thought I was funny.

Christian Bauer’s Sordid History

Born in 1964 in the tiny grand duchy of Luxembourg, right in the middle of Europe, Christian Bauer spent the early years of his childhood quietly and more or less successfully attending school. Born into a family of very discerning eaters with a surprising lack of culinary competence, he figured that if he was ever to eat anything decent in his own house, he would have to produce it himself. Thus he applied himself to the craft at the no longer so tender age of twelve. He fondly remembers coming home after a hard day at the lycée to produce a string of mildly temperamental gateaux and tea cakes, with the odd quiche thrown in for good measure.

Around the time Christian turned 14, his mother thought him talented enough and dispensed with the help of caterers to put him in charge of her simple little dinner parties. Three days of preparation and an eight course dinner for twelve soon became a routine occurrence and apart from a rubber herb mousse, he claims never to have experienced any major catastrophes. Soufflé followed ever more airy soufflé until at the age of 21 he found that he had become a teacher at the local Ecole Primaire. For the next two years, he drummed a variety of subjects into a variety of pupils until the thought came to him that if he was ever to fulfil his wish of seeing the world, he would have to give up the very cushy teaching job in this highly affluent country and get out.

This he did with spectacular short sightedness when it came to the financial side of the matter. Having never taught any subject in English, except for English, he found himself in very little demand in London and wandered the streets penniless through the beginning of summer. When the summer ended about two days after it had begun, he managed to get a highly sought after job  as a temporary sales assistant at Selfridges, where the stringent hiring criteria included a rudimentary knowledge of English.

Within two years he had risen to the dizzying heights of assistant manager of the luggage department, but his culinary skills in a city where a restaurant could call itself French if its salad had dressing on it (this was still the earlyish eighties and the culinary revival of the Empire’s capital had to wait another decade or two), did not evolve and so he decided to leave for one of the last colonial outposts of the crumbling Empire and boarded a plane to Hong Kong.

Apart from showing him what truly wonderful things could be done with a pig, Hong Kong with kitchens the size of a cocktail napkin taught him space management, if nothing else. Still he remained outside the profession, entertaining at home in the evenings, while teaching English to the Japanese during the days. The job was lucrative and not very demanding, as most of his students were company bosses who were willing to pay, but had not the faintest desire to learn or even to turn up with any regularity at all. Being paid pretty large amounts of money to stay at home evidently furthered his culinary skills.

After little more than a year of this, Chris grew tired of his absent students and accepted a job selling third rate jewellery in rickety roadside stalls using rib splitting Cantonese acquired from his New Zealand sales colleagues. In the late eighties, a white face on the streets of Hong Kong could have sold air in cardboard boxes, so it will not surprise that the company was phenomenally successful, especially since the most expensive thing about the jewellery was the box it came in.

Feeling very flush, the above mentioned company decided to expand into Malaysia, where a general manager with better looks than knowledge managed to rapidly loose whatever money the company would send her. Because our not particularly aspiring chef seemed to have a little common sense or possibly because the situation couldn’t become much worse anyway, Chris was sent to see whether there remained anything to save. And so he ended up in Kuala Lumpur as the nineties kicked off.

It is here that he really set his mind to developing his culinary skills, thinking that some day, somewhere, he would open a little restaurant and at last be able to charge his friends for the food he now dished out for free. Being a relatively quick learner, it took him another ten years to acquire not only the knowledge, but the confidence to contemplate setting himself up commercially. In the meantime, he changed jobs a few times and ended up managing the Tower Records stores that were just starting out in Malaysia. In his four years with Tower, he learned many invaluable lessons from the Singapore businessman who owned it, lessons that would later help him manage the commercial side of his restaurant.

And here we come at last to the point where dream became reality and like surprisingly many thing in Christian Bauer’s life the story is almost too good to be true: Sipping champagne at a friend’s rather smart house, he was introduced to a nice if somewhat neurotic lady and the two of them spent most of the evening chatting about food they had enjoyed and restaurants they had been to. At one point in the conversation the lady asked whether Chris had ever contemplated opening his own restaurant. He answered that indeed that was his wish, but that he did not have the necessary funds. To this she replied that she herself did have the required funds. Having had many conversations at many a party, Chris did not really give this one much additional thought, until two days later the phone rang…

Frangipani, as the restaurant was eventually named opened on Christmas eve 2001 with Christian Bauer as the executive and indeed executing chef and a menu that already had the three dishes on it that would grow to be a signature of the house. French, yet modern and unfussy, with a stunningly beautiful interior based around a big, still pond supported by elegant columns and an attentive, but not overbearing front of house crew, the restaurant was a success from day one. The Malaysia Tatler’s Best Restaurant guide first listed Frangipani in 2002 with a rating of 8/10. This rating has since gone up to 9/10, making Frangipani one of only four restaurants awarded that score.

Our hero remained as co-owner at the helm of the kitchens of Frangipani for ten years, during which time the restaurant went from strength to strength and Christian Bauer became a highly regarded chef and could at last wear his whites without feeling like an imposter at a fancy dress party. In these years he trained a number of chefs who went on to become highly rated chefs in their own right.

Apart from heading the operations at Frangipani, Christian also found the time to help various friend and business associates to set up restaurants. He designed and implemented the menus for “The Daily Grind”, a homemade burger restaurant in Bangsar, “Matsu”, an Izakaya Japanese restaurant on Batu Ferringgi beach in Penang and “1885 Grill”, the fine dining restaurant at the E&O hotel in Georgetown, Penang.

For “The Daily Grind”, Christian created not only burgers, but invented a new method for creating burger patties that added juiciness and flavour to the meat. The Grind also produced their own chilli sauce and ketchup, all based on the recipes Chef Chris devised. The 1885 Grill was given a menu that used colonial influences in a modern and inventive menu. Tatler rated the new menu 9/10, which was the first time in recorded history that a restaurant in Penang was rated so highly.

In 2011 things between the partners at Frangipani began to sour when our by now more neurotic than nice lady decided last minute not to join the already planned company’s move from Changkat Bukit Bintang to The Troika and continued to run the establishment with more stubbornness than competence, turning a successful operation into an ailing street pub. Chef Christian sold his share in the business he built and concentrated fully on the new exciting venture.

The Troika had been introduced to Christian Bauer and his partner Eddie Chew way back in 2008 when the building came up and when it was decided that given the invasion of cheap beer joints and their clientele of backpackers and prostitutes into Changkat a move was the right thing, the option was explored more seriously. The Troika presented a unique challenge with its 24,000 square feet distributed over three high rise towers. Never one to dream small, Christian Bauer decided together with Eddie to take on the entire space and create three distinct restaurants and three bars.

Two and a half years and a dramatic change of investors later, Troika Sky Dining with its fine dining restaurant Cantaloupe, the Cantaloupe Bar, Strato, its Italian restaurant, Claret, the wine bar, Coppersmith the cocktail bar and Fuego the South American inspired diner are the talk of the town and the naysayers, including the neurotic lady, have been proven wrong. People will ascend 24 floors up to eat in restaurants that have no signage on the ground floor and have never placed an ad in any paper or magazine.