I am a scientist who loves to cook because there are many similarities between working in a lab and cooking in a kitchen. I love to share my cooking experience with you and to inspire others to cook.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Oxtail Soup

When I was little, my family used to go to this nice little steak house once a year on special occasions. This steak house was the real deal in my little brain at that time because of its red and white checkered table clothes and steaks that were served on wooden board. The only thing that I remember about this place other than the deco and the serving-wares is the Oxtail soup.

This soup has a special place in my heart because I associate it with special occasions. I don't remember those occasions anymore but I sure do remember the soup. After all these years, I finally decided to make an oxtail soup and tried to recreate childhood memory.

I looked around the internet for a recipe that has some of the ingredients that will create the flavor that I was looking for. This led me to the recipe on this website: http://www.thecookingdoctor.co.uk/search?q=oxtail  do check it out for its complete recipe.

Ingredients: (8 medium size bowl servings)

A) Main Ingredients
2-2.5lb oxtails
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1 head of celery


B) Aromatics

1 large shallots or 3 small shallots (roughly chopped)
2 inches of ginger (roughly chopped)
1 large tomato or 2 small tomatoes (cut into small chunks)
1.5 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tbsp ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon cumin powder
2 stalks of lemon grass, the white part only.


Two Parts Instructions: 
A) Roasting the oxtail (I adapted this step from the French technique of making soup stock)

1. Preheat the oven to 450F.
2. Cut the carrots, celery and onion into rough pieces.
3. Lay the cut vegetables at the bottom of a roasting pan and overlay the top with the oxtails.
4. Roast the bones for 30 minutes until the meat and bones turn brown.


B) Cooking the soup
1. Transfer the bones, all the vegetables and the juices into a large pot.
2. Add all the aromatics to the pot and add enough water to cover all the ingredients.
3. Turn the heat to medium and cook the soup for 2-3 hours.
4. Season the soup with salt

(In my case, I used a pressure cooker and cooked the soup for 45 minutes)

In my opinion, this soup came out PERFECT. It tasted exactly the way I remembered. I would say the key ingredient is indeed the top note aroma of the lemon grass, without it, it will not be the same. The middle note of the "holy trinity" of soup - onion, carrots, celery, enhances the flavor and the tomato flavor completes this dish.

Oh, did I mention the meat was "fell of the bones" tender???

Monday, March 19, 2012

Molten Chocolate Cake (Update)

If there is a word that is repeated in the laboratory more than any other words, that word is --- "REPEAT". Whether it is a successful or failed experiment, you will always have to REPEAT until you correct the failure or duplicate the success. For a chef or scientist or musician or athlete, they achieve success by doing one thing really well --- REPEAT --- over and over again until they achieve greatness or perfection.

In my truly scientific nature, I was compelled to, what's the word? REPEAT making molten chocolate. As you have read in the post immediately before this, my molten chocolate wasn't quite "molten" because I over-baked it, so I REPEATED the experiment.

                                              9 minutes = 80% molten

                                                        10 minutes = 40% molten

                                              11 minutes = 10% molten

What's the moral of the story?

1. Timing is everything. 9 minutes in my oven is not the same as 9 minutes in your oven. Your oven might be 10, 20, 30F different from my oven. You have to do this a couple times in your own oven to know for sure when to take your cake out.

2. This is purely empirical -- there are two signs that the cake is ready when
a) you smell the warm chocolate scent in the kitchen
b) the top of the cake has set

3. I would be fearful as a pastry chef in charged of making molten chocolate cake. Success and failure is in the difference of 30 seconds. Imagine you have to make many orders that come in at random time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Molten Chocolate Cake

   (I apologize for the out-of-focus picture. I am learning how to use a new tool to take these pictures)

When I look back at the list of food that I have cooked and documented in this blog, I realized most of the dishes either have sentimental value or trigger a specific memory. I think this is what makes food special. Just like music, it triggers neurotransmission in the brain in a way that is still a mystery.

Molten Chocolate Cake is one of those dishes that brought back memory.

I don't remember when was the first time I had molten chocolate cake but I do remember one memorable occasion sharing molten chocolate cake with wonderful friends and family at "Finale Desserterie" (Cambridge, Mass) two Augusts ago.

History books documented that famous chef Jean-George Vongericthen invented this dish many years ago after pulling the cake out of the oven too early.

I finally get around making molten chocolate cake recently and I am very pleased to share the experience with you.

Ingredients (6 servings of 1/2 cup size ramekin)

One stick of unsalted butter
6-9 ounces of dark chocolate (I used a 72% cacao dark chocolate)
2 eggs + 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour

Instructions (some of the lines are copied verbatim from Jean-Georges' recipe that has been circulating everywhere)

1. Preheat the oven to 450F
2. Rub butter on the inside of the ramekins, lightly flour the ramekins and tap out excess flour. Set the ramekins in a baking sheet
3. In a double boiler, over simmer water, melt the butter with the chocolate (break into smaller pieces first). Once the chocolate and butter have melted completely, mix it well and make sure there is no lumps. Set the mixture aside to cool down to room temperature.


4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, egg yolks, sugar and salt until the mixture turns pale yellow and thick.

                                  I love how the light reflects off the melted chocolate

5. Slowly add and mix (original recipe uses the word "quickly fold") the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, add the flour during this time. Once everything is mixed properly, transfer the batter to the ramekins. Tap the ramekins to make sure that the batter sits evenly.

6. Bake the cake for 6-7 minutes. If you have lights in your oven, you can take your cake out when you see the outer layer of the cake sets.

7. Let the cake cool outside of the oven for 1 minute, cover the cake with an inverted dessert plate and reverse the ramekin (beware of hot ramekins). Wait for 10 seconds. Slowly remove the ramekins.

8. Voila!  serve immediately. 

                             The finish product with a dollop of homemade whipped cream

                                                 Is it molten inside?

                                                    No!!!  Explanation bellow

Although this cake wasn't exactly a molten chocolate cake, the core of the cake was very moist. Eating a warm, freshly baked chocolate cake is truly and purely an enjoyment. There is something magical about the smell of the kitchen when the cake is being baked. I baked 6 cakes for a party of 5 and we have to fight for the 6th. "Hunger Game"-style!

Here are some extra after-thoughts:
1. If you look at most of the published "official" Jean-George recipe, it says "bake for 12 minutes". I baked for 11 minutes because I was impatient. Turns out 12 minutes is absolutely too long. Most food-bloggers who documented this dish baked their cake for 6-7 minutes. Hence no molten chocolate. Easy fix!

2. Many places also suggested that you can make the batter a few hours before, store it in the refrigerator and warm it at room temperature prior to baking. I am a little skeptical about the integrity of the batter (especially when beaten eggs are involved). I made the melted chocolate butter ahead but the egg mixture right before baking.  Perhaps someone can share their personal experience.

3. If you are uber-health conscious, read no further and consider yourself warned:
a) 1 stick of butter (8 tablespoon) between 6 cakes, which is 3/4 tablespoon of butter in each cake
b) Half a chocolate bar in each cake
c) and finally 2 grams of sugar in each cake

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Macoroni and Cheese


I am not a food historian but if there is one dish that can be claimed as a traditional American dish, macaroni and cheese would be one of them.

I can think of one unique mac & cheese experience. I had leftover mac & cheese at a friend's place (at least four years ago) and I found out that his roommate was a waiter at Blue Smoke and he would sometimes take leftover mac & cheese home. I was at lost of words and vowed to go to Blue Smoke for fresh mac & cheese. 4 years have past and I finally had Blue Smoke's mac & cheese sometime around last November. The mac and cheese at Blue Smoke is very creamy and very cheesy yet not heavy at all. Go figure.

After sitting on a recipe for 3 months, I finally got around making mac & cheese. My main references are Martha Stewart and Alton Brown's recipes with my own modification as usual.


4.5 cups of grated cheese
(approximately 20 ounces or 1.2lbs of total cheese). I used 50% white sharp cheddar and 50% Cabot.

half a pound elbow pasta
half a yellow onion, diced
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups of milk
Panko bread crumbs
1 bay leave (optional)
Pinched of cayenne pepper powder or paprika (optional) 
many recipes asked for mustard but I did not use it in this dish.


1. Heat the oven to 375F.
2. Boil a pot of water and cook the pasta to al dante according to the manufacturer's instructions.  At the end of cooking the pasta, rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking and drain the pasta completely.
3. Melt the butter in a large pot using medium heat.
4. Add the flour to the melted butter and keep stirring until all the lumps disappear. This thing that you just make is called a roux, which is a thickener. 
5. Stir in milk, bay leaf, onion and paprika.
6. Simmer this at medium heat for about 10 minutes until the sauce thickens. Remove the bay leaf.
7. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese and make sure the cheese are completely melted in the sauce.
8. Season with salt and pepper. (I made a mistake here which you can read about at the end)
9. Mix the cooked and drained pasta into the cheese sauce.
10. Transfer the cheese-coated pasta to a pyrex dish or any baking dish. Cover the top of the pasta with one layer of the reaming cheese and sprinkle the panko bread crumbs over the cheese.

11. Baked for 30 minutes until the panko break crumbs turn brown.
12. Let it set for 5 minutes before serving.

The MOST challenging part of making this dish was grating the cheese (I want to thank the Hayes for lending me their cheese grater). Took me about 30 minutes to grate all the cheese and my arms were sore at the end. I wonder how the mac & cheese would taste like with grated cheese from the grocery store. There may or may not be any differences but I like the fact that I can grate the cheese of my own choosing.

I was fortunate to have two food-tasters and they gave me encouraging feed backs. I warned them that my mac & cheese was too salty and they agreed. When I was salting the cheese sauce, I decided, unwisely, to over-salt it expecting the pasta to balance the saltiness. Nope, it didn't and it was a big mistake. You should salt the cheese sauce to your exact preference. Lesson learned.

Another problem that I am yet to figure out how to overcome is this - the pasta came out over-cooked after the baking. Which begs the questions: should I under cook the pasta first? or should I increase the baking temperature while reducing the baking time? Only a second trial will answer these questions.

Back to blue smoke. I have a feeling that they put their mac & cheese under a broiler for 5 minutes to brown the bread crumbs (do they even have bread crumbs on their mac & cheese??)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Pan Fried Tofu with Spicy Scallion Garlic Sauce

Tofu is like a blank canvass. Literally BLANK. It is colorless and almost tasteless. Most people either "Like" or "don't like" tofu, and many people dislike it because of the soft texture. Tofu is rich in protein, calcium, and it can be tasty with little manipulation, such as this dish:

Pan Fried Tofu with Spicy Scallion Garlic Sauce.

Ingredients: (serves 4)
1 pack for medium/firm tofu (not soft tofu)

1 stalk of chopped scallion
1 clove of chopped garlic
hot pepper flakes/chilli powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoon of cooking oil


1. Prepping the Tofu
Remove the tofu from the package and place it on a flat plate. Then put something heavy, like a pot filled with some water, on top of the tofu to apply pressure. The purpose of doing this is to squeeze most of the water out of the tofu. Remove the liquid that comes out from the tofu every 5 minutes until very few liquid is left.

2. Slice the tofu into bit size square pieces and pat the tofu dry.
3. Heat a non-stick pan with about 2 tablespoon of oil. Once the oil is hot, add the tofu and lower the heat to medium.
4. After 5-7 minutes, check the bottom of the tofu to make sure it looks golden brown. I tend to cook this a little longer so that the tofu will come out a little crunchy.
5. Turn the tofu around and cook for another 5-7 minutes.
6. Transfer the tofu on to a serving plate

7. Making the sauce
This is a technique that I like to use for making garlic/scallion sauce
a) Place the chopped scallion, chopped garlic, red pepper flakes/chilli powder in a small bowl
b) Heat some oil in a pot at low heat. Be careful as oil heats up fast
c) Once the oil starts to smoke a little, turn off the heat and pour the oil over the chopped scallion. Again, be careful when you do this. The ingredients will sizzle and it is quite harmless if you know what you are doing.
d) add the rest of the sauce ingredients and mix well

8. Spoon the sauce over the fried tofu and enjoy!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ginseng Chicken Soup

My cousin showed up at my apartment one day holding a box of fresh ginseng and two Cornish hens and said "make this soup!"

I obliged and went online to find a recipe. I have been using this website as my go-to Korea recipe site http://www.maangchi.com/  since learning about it.  

Since ginseng is grown in Korea, this could explain why Ginseng Chicken Soup is commonly associated with Korea. However, I don't think this soup is native only to the Koreans. I was also told that Koreans consume Ginseng Chicken Soup only twice a year in the Fall when the weather turns cold.

                           Scallion, garlic, wolfberry and ginseng (forgot the jujube)

Ingredients: (serves 4)

1. One Cornish Hen (Cornish hen are young chickens and the meat are more tender than fully grown chicken)
2. 1/4 cup of rice
3. One dozen cloves of garlic (don't skim on this). Use it as whole garlic.
4. Green onions/scallions (roughly cut length wise, you don't want to chop this into pieces)
5. A few jujubes and a pinch of wolfberries (optional)
6. 2 small ginseng roots (fresh ginseng would be best but the dried kind is fine). Roughly cut into small pieces)
7. 1/2 cup of rice


1. Wash and rinse the chicken.
2. Put the chicken in a pot and add just enough water to cover the chicken.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients including rice into the pot. Including the rice
(traditional way of cooking is to stuff the cavity of the chicken with the rest of the ingredients).
4. Cook the soup in medium heat for about 1.5 hours.
5. Season with salt and pepper

This soup taste refreshingly "sweet". Not sugar-sweet, but a 5th taste-sense kind of sweetness. It is hard to explain the taste. None of the flavor in this dish overpowers each other. What you get is a perfect blend of flavors with the unmistakeable smell of ginseng. True to its name, the meat of the Cornish hen is so tender that it falls apart and melts in my mouth.

It cost $15 to buy a bowl of this soup in K-town. How much would you like to pay me for a bowl of homemade soup?