August 15, 2012

Pasta with Cream Sauce

This recipe gives the basic ingredients and technique for "Pasta with Cream Sauce". The 'creaminess' comes from cheese and milk/cream. Once you get familiar with it, experiment with your own additions and tweaks.

serves: 4-6 people

500 g (1 lb) dried pasta*
enough water to boil pasta

180-200 g (7 oz) cheese**, grated
240 ml (1 cup) milk or cooking cream
2-3 tablespoons butter
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-5 strips bacon (optional), diced or chopped
olive oil (optional)
salt & pepper to taste

Ingredients notes:

* Good pasta doesn't have to be expensive/imported. It needs to have just ONE thing on its 'ingredients' list: Semolina Durum Wheat. That's IT. No additives, no added flour, no 'fillers', etc. So read the label. If it lists anything other than Semolina Durum Wheat, put it back. I use a local (Indonesian) brand "La Fonte" which fits that description and so far I've been satisfied with it. As for the pasta shapes: it's really up to you, but I like to use 'tubed' shaped pasta (ridged penne, at the top photo; or ridged elbow macaroni for the cooking step photos) because those shapes offer lots of nooks & crannies to catch the cream sauce.

** Experiment with your favorite cheese. So far I've used Gouda, Cheddar, Edam and Mozzarella but more often than not, I use the widely available (and more economical) Kraft Cheddar.

  • a large pan (roomy enough to cook the Cream Sauce and accommodate the cooked pasta)
  • a large pot (big enough to boil water + pasta).
  • a large strainer

DIRECTIONS: note that the pasta and the sauce are cooked simultaneously (see photo), so have all the utensils and ingredients ready.

  1. In a pot large enough to boil the pasta, put enough water and salt it until it's as salty as seawater. When the water boils, put in the dried pasta and cook it according to the directions on its package.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil/the pasta to cook, prepare the Cream Sauce: if using bacon (I hope you do), put the chopped bacon on the unheated pan, then heat it over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the fat is rendered and the bacon bits are crispy.
    [If you're not using bacon/bacon fat: heat several tablespoons of olive oil/cooking oil/butter for this step].
  3. Saute the chopped garlic in the rendered bacon fat [or oil] until fragrant and golden (about 30 seconds... don't let the garlic turn brown). Enjoy that mouth-watering aroma ... 
  4. Pour in the milk/cream into the pan. Stir and let it come to a simmer.
  5. Mix the grated cheese into the simmering milk. Stir until melted.
  6. Add the butter and stir until melted into the sauce.
  7. Add a few teaspoons of olive oil (optional).
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. When the sauce is gently bubbling, it's done. Cooking the Cream Sauce itself only takes a few minutes, so most probably your pasta is still cooking when the sauce is finished. That's okay. Just turn off the heat (but keep the sauce in the pan) while waiting for the pasta to cook.
  10. Test your pasta, especially near the end of the prescribed cooking time. When it's almost al dente (still has a 'bite', not mushy!), get the strainer and start straining the cooked pasta and transferring it directly into the Cream Sauce (see photo) until all the pasta has been transferred. Don't worry if some water still clings to the pasta when you transfer it. Pasta water is good for the sauce.
  11. Turn on the heat for the sauce again. Gently stir the pasta until everything gets coated by the Cream Sauce. If the sauce is too thick/dry, spoon some of the pasta water and stir into it. Cook for just another minute or so, until the sauce is bubbly again, but the pasta is still firm.
  12. Serve immediately. May be served with Toasted Breadcrumbs topping or extra grated cheese.
Leftovers can be refrigerated in a covered container. Reheat using microwave or steamer.

April 8, 2011

Toasted Bread Crumb Topping (or How to Dress Up your Mac'n'Cheese)

As much as I like to cook and eat pasta, I never really like plain ol' mac-n-cheese. It's just too... plain.

Back when I was living in the United States, I would make a decadent baked mac-n-cheese studded with diced smoked ham and oozing with Gruyere or Gouda (or both). It was dense, it was substantial. But I haven't cooked that dish in Jakarta, because I don't have an oven (yet. Oh, how I miss having an oven and all the scrumptious things I could bake in it. But that's another post.)

I came up with this 'topping' because I miss having the browned, crispy bits of goodness that would adorn an oven-baked mac-n-cheese. And because I didn't have any bacon to crisp and crumble over the top.

So I took Japanese-style bread crumbs (panko) and 'toasted' it on a fry pan with some olive oil and butter to be the savory crunch to complement the creamy pasta.

Even though butter-toasted panko is wonderfully nutty by itself, I wanted to have more flavor, more depth — so, in went some dried Italian seasoning* and also lime** zest and a light sprinkle of its juice to add some zing.

* because I live in Jakarta, people. Finding fresh Italian herbs here is a frustrating task; if not impossible. Only certain high-end supermarkets on the other side of town stock them, if at all.

** why lime? Because I didn't have a lemon. As simple as that. If I had a lemon, I'd use it. Flexibility is key ;).

I made this topping a few hours before I cooked the mac-n-cheese itself. My youngest son kept trying to sneak a 'pinch' of it to snack on. Actually, I had to restrain myself from doing the same thing. It's already so good by itself!

But its ultimate destiny (at least as I intended it) is to enliven a plain mac-n-cheese. And boy, lunch was lively! The creamy mac-n-cheese topped with these Toasted Bread Crumbs was a hit with my whole household, from a toddler to grandmothers (and even my two maids, who had never eaten any pasta until they work for me, enjoyed it).

This thing is definitely a keeper! :)


1 cup of panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
3-4 tablespoons of butter
(or you can just use all olive oil or all butter)
Dried Italian seasoning or any fresh Italian herbs of your choice/mix, to taste
1 lime/lemon, zest and juice
salt & pepper, to taste

- heat the oil and butter on a frying pan (I use non-stick) over medium heat.
- add the panko, stir to coat with oil/butter evenly.
- stir continuously to ensure even browning of the crumbs. Lower the heat if needed, to avoid the crumbs from browning too fast.
- when the crumbs start to turn golden brown and give off a delicious nutty aroma, sprinkle the Italian seasoning, lightly at first. You can always add more later.
- continue to stir until the crumbs are evenly golden grown, about 5 minutes. Don't let them burn!
- turn off heat.
- add salt & pepper to taste.
- add a light squirt of the lime/lemon juice to the crumbs (maybe less than 1/2 teaspoon) and mix thoroughly. You just want a subtle hint of citrus, not to make it sour. And the crumbs should still be loose, not clumpy/wet.

- using a Microplane grater or a regular grater with very small holes, zest the lime/lemon, start with just 1/3 of the skin (the green/yellow layer only, not the bitter white part underneath it). Mix it thoroughly and taste it. Add more if needed. Again, you're aiming for a whiff of citrus in contrast to the nutty brown aroma of the crumbs. So go lightly on the zest and juice. The main attraction should still be the crisp, savory crumbs.

Sprinkle over mac-n-cheese, or any other pasta dish that need an extra 'oomph'.

And please try not to snack on the topping or eat it by the spoonful like my 4 year-old son did. Okay? :)

December 30, 2010

Spiced Egg Nog

Truth be told, I never made egg nog when we were living in the United States. We simply bought it in cartons as supermarkets stocked them when the Christmas holiday season drew near. The store-bought egg nog was full of artificial flavors and preservatives (but no real liquor), but we didn't really know it (or care) back then.

Well, since we moved back to Indonesia I had to accept the fact that Christmas in Jakarta was... Christmas in Jakarta. Egg nog is simply not in the Christmas culinary tradition here (except in a few restaurants and hotels that cater to international clientele). As far as I know, there's no ready-made egg nog sold anywhere. So, just like what I did when my favorite brand of mayonnaise disappeared from Jakarta store shelves, I decided to make my own.

And you know what? I will never buy store-bought nog again, even if it becomes available.

My recipe below is adapted and tweaked from this one I found at I specifically searched for a cooked egg nog recipe (traditionally the eggs stay raw, but I don't want to take the chance). So in essence this is a version of crème anglaise or custard sauce (or as Indonesians call it: vla). But it's not your ordinary vla ... no, sirree! And because of the booze content (about 10% rum by volume), it's definitely not for kids, though it's not likely to make the adults drunk either. And make no mistake about it, this stuff is rich. It's a dessert that you drink. :)

Spiced Egg Nog
Make this one day or the night before you plan to serve it, because the spices and rum need to hangout with the milk and sugar overnight, resulting in an oh-so-creamy smooth indulgence, elegantly nuanced with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. 

YIELD: this makes a little over one liter of egg nog. As to how many servings it will yield, that's up to you and your guests, isn't it? ;)

5 yolks from large eggs
150 gr sugar (regular or powder/castor)
1000 ml (1 L) milk*
100-150 ml dark rum
1-2 sticks of cinnamon
3-5 buds of cloves
1 stick of vanilla bean (or 1/2-1 tsp. vanilla substitute)
grated nutmeg (I grate at least 1/4 of a nutmeg. Your mileage may vary)

Toppings (optional):
whipped cream
more grated nutmeg

*you can use an entire liter of milk, or you can combine milk + heavy cream (ie. 750 ml milk + 250 ml cream, or even 50/50) for a richer nog.

  • Whisk yolks and sugar in a bowl until the mixture is thick and pale yellow.
  • Put the milk, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla bean (if you're using vanilla substitute, add it later after the mixture is cooled down a bit) in a pot over low heat, making sure it never, ever boil. Stir it often so the milk doesn't scorch at the bottom. 
  • When the milk is hot (but not boiling), whisk a ladleful of the hot milk into the yolk mixture — this is called tempering the yolk (want to see a video demo of this technique?).
  • Now slowly pour the entire bowl of tempered yolk mixture into the hot milk, whisking constantly.
  • Continue whisking this milk mixture until it steams (but not boiling) for about 3 minutes. 
  • Take off from the heat immediately. If you want, have a large bowl of ice water ready and put the hot pan in there to stop any further cooking.
  • Cool for about 1 hour, then strain the liquid, discarding the cinnamon, clove and vanilla bean.
  • Mix the rum into the milk, you may want to start with 100 ml first, then add the rest to taste (if the egg nog tastes a bit harsh from the rum at first, don't worry, it will mellow out).
  • Stir in the grated nutmeg to taste (and if you're using vanilla substitute, add in small increments until the vanilla 'taste' comes through, but doesn't overwhelm).
  • Chill the egg nog overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Serve with whipped cream and top with freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • Leftovers (if any) can be refrigerated.

One of my most favorite and often-used kitchen gadgets:
the Microplane grater — simply the BEST tool to turn a hard nutmeg into fragrant fluffs, or zest a lime or lemon. You can also use a regular grater with very small holes, but the result will be much coarser. Or use store-bought ground nutmeg.

But it won't beat freshly grated one. Just sayin'.

February 20, 2010

Why I Cook

Inspired by a post and tweet by Michael Ruhlman, along with his compelling reason that 'writing it down forces you to know what you think' (which is true for any subject, not just cooking/food), below I list the reasons why I cook:

• I like to eat

• I like to eat good food

• I want and need to feed myself and my family tasty and (mostly) nutritious, healthy food in the most economical way possible (though we still enjoy eating out)

• I like variety in my food

• I like to recreate great dishes that I first tasted somewhere else (a restaurant, a friend's house, etc.) or the ones from my childhood (I teared up the first time I watched that scene from Ratatouille when Anton Ego's snobbish-food-critic demeanor melted away as his first bite of Remy's ratatouille instantly took him back to his childhood when his mother comforted him with her homemade one. What a brilliant scene! Comfort + Food + Childhood = One Emotional Wallop).

• Some of my favorite dishes/food aren't available in nearby restaurants/food vendors/stores. (That's why I learned to make mayonnaise and a Thai dish).

• It's relaxing

• I like the taste of accomplishment (ehm) after I cook a dish/meal: it's tangible and something I can truly savor (ehm), and it's quite immediate (less than 30 minutes for most dishes, a couple of hours for a few, but not weeks, months or years!), and other people can also enjoy it (which is another accomplishment in itself).

• It's one of my creative outlets. Yes, I read recipes, but I hardly ever follow it to the dot. I'd tweak things along the way. Once I know a basic recipe/technique, I'd experiment with it.

• In general, I like to know how things are made, what's the process of things becoming what they are — whether it's a dish, products, people, events, etc. Cooking explores that aspect of food. Cooking is the journey.

• I can learn about cultures and society, both my own and others. I like how Anthony Bourdain expresses a similar sentiment when an American-Egyptian chef pointed out food from his ethnic heritage and said "Look. The history of the world" — to which Bourdain remarks in his typical jaded (but accurate) way,
"He had just put in extraordinarily succinct terms what any well traveled eater, student of ethnic or national food ways – or serious food nerd has come to know: that what is on your plate, the choice or selection, or preferences – or ingredients – almost any place you are eating, are the end result of movements of people and resources, the punch line of a story usually involving (at some point in history), deprivation, starvation, colonialism, slavery, greed, and warfare. ... The end result of the above — at least (and only) as far as cuisine — is more often than not, good."

That's all I can think so far.

Well. Why do (or don't) you cook?

February 18, 2010

Craving for Thai food

I had my first taste of Thai food when I lived in southern California and promptly fell in love with it! Its 'flavor profile' is quite similar to the Manadonese cuisine that I grew up eating and loving (and still do) with its prodigious use of chilies and sour/citrus components such as limes, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

There are plenty of great Thai restaurants throughout Los Angeles, but my favorites were the ever-popular Sanam Luang in Pomona (there's another one in North Hollywood) and its competition just a hop-and-skip away on the same street: Mix Bowl.

Both restaurants served delicious, yet thankfully inexpensive, Thai food — I lost count how many times I dined there or ordered 'to go/take-away' meals over the years. Their proximity to my workplace and church also made them the 'default' go-to places after music rehearsals and other church events (their late hours helped, too!).

Pad Ka Pao (or Pad Kra Pao, there are different spellings) was a dish I frequently ordered. Its primary ingredients are green beans and Thai basil (similar to kemangi in Indonesian. It's not the same basil used in Italian food!), sauteed with your choice of ground meat (beef, pork or chicken) with lots of garlic and chilies. Fish sauce and lime juice give the dish its salty and sour kicks. In the restaurants it's available 'over rice' or sauteed along with flat rice noodles (kwetiau). You could also order it with its traditional 'crowning glory': a sunny-side-up egg, its yolk still rich and creamy.

I never cooked Pad Ka Pao when I lived in L.A., there was no need! Sanam Luang or Mix Bowl was just a short drive away. But when I returned to Jakarta, where Thai restaurants are quite scarce (and they're more of a 'dining' destination here, not your down-to-earth neighborhood hang-out place), I decided to satisfy my craving for one of my favorite Thai dishes by cooking it myself. Plus, all the ingredients are easily available here.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm not big on writing out recipes here (because I hardly ever measure out ingredients when I'm cooking). But if you want a recipe, here's one for Pad Krapow over at Chez Pim's food blog (she's a food blog pioneer based in San Francisco, she has her own cookbook and she's Thai, so you can trust her :).

October 24, 2009


"Kue Serabi" is a traditional Indonesian snack with many regional variations, but this is how I remember, and like, it best. The 'pancake' batter is made from rice flour and coconut milk and flavored with pandan. Then it's drenched with a thin syrup of gula jawa (palm sugar) and coconut milk. As with many 'jajanan pasar' (market goodies/snacks), most people don't make them at home, but simply buy these tasty pancakes from vendors.

October 13, 2009

Out of desperation...

I made my own mayonnaise not because I wanted to broaden my culinary horizon. I made it because I was desperate.

When I was living in the United States, mayo was another staple in the kitchen. There was always a store-bought jar in the fridge. I love mayo on bread, either as a solo spread or as the key element to a satisfyingly toothsome turkey sandwich. Mayo was very affordable, ubiquitous and available in many different brands, making it easy to be taken for granted.

But when I went back to live in Jakarta in early 2008, it was a different story. I was happy to find at least one American brand of mayo (Kraft) in some supermarkets (though not a single sighting of my favorite: Best Foods/Hellmann's). Then about the middle of the year, I found out even that had completely disappeared from the stores. I searched everywhere. Even the most 'exclusive' chains of supermarkets that specialize in imported goods didn't have it. I heard something about the Indonesian government passing a ban on certain kinds of imported foods (another 'victim' was the good ol' Oscar Meyer bacon... *hiks*). The only mayo available here now are the domestic brands, plus a few imported ones from Japan and Korea. I found them to be artificial tasting, cloyingly sweet and/or tart and thin textured (apparently this is the type of mayo that Indonesians/Asians prefer).

I couldn't stand them. At this point I can no longer just 'go buy' the mayo of my preference in any store!

So out of reach now...

I had read and watched from many different sources that homemade mayonnaise was (supposedly) easy to make and its taste was superior than any store-bought stuff. But somehow the prospect of making my own mayo seemed so intimidating. There's no 'in-between' results: you either end up with a deliciously creamy concoction, or just a runny, 'broken' mess.

Mayonnaise is basically an emulsion of ingredients easily found in any kitchen: egg yolks, cooking oil, lemon juice/vinegar, salt. You can vary the flavors by adding seasonings such as garlic, herbs, white wine, mustards, etc.

I settled on using Michael Ruhlman's mayo recipe because I already had all the ingredients and also because he's one of my favorite food writers (the 'trust' factor is important to me :) ). In place of the stated vegetable oil, I used palm oil (the most common cooking oil in Indonesia and the only one I had at hand, and it's 'vegetable', right?). Well, this proved to be a significant factor, but more on that later. Most of the other recipes require mustard or white wine, I had neither one and I didn't want to buy a jar/bottle just to use a few tablespoons of each. And because I was still a bit spooked by the hand-whipping technique, I decided to use the immersion/stick blender, 'learning' how to do it via (what else?) a YouTube video.

It looked simple enough in the video: dump all the ingredients in a tall container, dip the blender to the bottom, whip it up and voilà: mayo in under one minute!

Not in my case. I whipped and whipped, but it just wasn't happening. It never changed from a runny, 'broken' mess. (I tweeted Ruhlman about using a stick blender for his recipe, he actually answered me back and said there shouldn't be a problem. I'm not sure what went wrong, maybe the container wasn't narrow enough? Too much oil?)

Not accepting defeat, several hours later I decided to try again. This time I faced my 'fear' and did it manually: a balloon whisk powered by my arm. (The photos that accompanied the recipe on Ruhlman's blog egged me on. Ha.). Starting with the yolk, lemon juice and salt, I whipped as fast as I could, then added the oil bit by bit. And less than 10 minutes later, I successfully whipped up my first ever batch of homemade mayo! It was thick, smooth and creamy, with just enough tang from the lemon juice.

My (slightly) sore arm was worth it.

I immediately smeared some on a piece of bread and savored every bite. Finally.

I stored the rest in the fridge as I eagerly looked forward to enjoy my mayo for many more days ahead.

But the next morning when I took it out, what greeted me was a sad, solid lump. Just like cold butter. I tried spreading it on bread, but the thawed mayo just separated into a yucky, oily smear.

Okay, remember the palm oil? I suspected it was the culprit and after I did some Googling, my suspicion was confirmed: palm oil solidifies in the fridge, thus mayo made from it will also. (I never stored palm oil in the fridge, I didn't know it would congeal like that!).

Anyway, I'm not too disappointed because I gained a new culinary technique (and confidence) out of this. Next time I'll make sure to use the right oil(s), and maybe try to make some aïoli... mmmmm....

PS: Just as I was finishing this post, this article on Serious Eats caught my attention: mayo from animal fat! Baconnaise, anyone? (Ahhh, but I have to find great bacon first! It's not an easy task here ... Or should I make my own bacon? Maybe I'll tweet Ruhlman again, this time for tips on curing bacon in the humid tropics...).