Monday, May 16, 2016

My Blueberry Cream Cheese Scones Recipe - With A Twist

Of my nearly three years living in the magical Hawaiian island of Oahu, certain local culinary wonders were introduced to me.  Some were downright amazing (love me some Kalua pig and ahi/tako poke any day, any time,) others were too cloying for my liking (I'm looking at you, poi,) a couple were baffling (spam musubi, anyone?) and then there were those that were stratospherically awesome.

Case in point: The blueberry cream cheese scones baked fresh daily at Diamond Head Market and Grill in Honolulu.


These addictive mounds of goodness simply and literally explode with whole blueberries and chunks of cream cheese.  In fact, if done right, there should barely be enough of the scone to hold them together - that's how good each bite is.

Now since any travel back to Honolulu is unfortunately not in my foreseeable future due to my work schedule, I resorted to doing the next best thing, which is to try to replicate these scones in my own home.  For those who don't know me, I'm going to pause here to reiterate just how much I'm not a baker.  Honestly, I've baked less than five times in my entire life and none of those have ended in anything that's close to being edible; that should give you a helluva indication how much I love these special scones.  Seriously, for me to take some time to actually do all that prep work and then, you know, bake, it's a huge friggin' deal.

So as I understand it, the owner of Diamond Head Market and Grill is keeping mum about the recipe. Can't quite blame him as they're hot sellers and don't come cheap at USD3.95 a pop.  However, his reticence hasn't stopped intrepid bakers and foodies from trying to deconstruct those scones and come up with their own directives.  Amateur bakers on the internet swear by the recipe from Honolulu Star Bulletin's Betty Shimabukuro so that's exactly what I went with.  The photos below documented my process.

(Full disclosure: I didn't follow her recipe word-for-word as I'd taken the shortcut of using the fine specialty scone mix from Laucke but the rest is pretty much on the nose.) 

No matter what, you gotta have good cream cheese.  What I love about using a Japanese brand is that not only the cheese's texture and consistency is excellent, but that their baking-friendly packaging allows for easy portioning.
I used fresh blueberries even though the recipe called for the frozen kind.  Raisins were also added to the dough.  Just because.  Here's where I mixed the flour, cream cheese and a whole lot of butter for about three minutes in medium speed.
The dough was then stretched flat and thin to a rectangular shape.  I love how Betty tells us to "gently push blueberries and cream cheese pieces into the dough" which was my favourite part of the entire baking process.
Once the blueberries, cream cheese and raisins were placed, the dough was rolled and then cut into eight equal pieces.  Had to pinch bits of the dough to keep the blueberries and cream cheese inside or they'd spill out whilst baking.  In hindsight, I may have pinched too much and covered them too well as a wee bit of spillage is also quite acceptable (and, at least to me, more visually appealing.)
Eight mounds of dough going into the oven that's already pre-heated at 200 degrees Celsius.
Ta-da!  15 minutes later, I have my own batch of blueberry cream cheese (and raisin) scones.  Instead of glazing with a blend of sugar and hot water, I infused a bit of Canadiana by using maple syrup instead.
The verdict?  Pretty good for my first attempt.  The crust was flaky but firm, and the blueberries and raisins were a nice complement to the slight tartness of the cream cheese. My two takeaways for future bake-offs would be that I need to inject double the portion of cream cheese (it wasn't enough for my personal taste,) and then flatten the scones so that they rise wider and become less dense after coming out of the oven.  Well, at least I know what I'll be doing next weekend......

Blueberry Cream Cheese Scones

by Betty Shimabukuro

1/3 cup (76 grams) butter, cut in pieces
2 cups (250 grams) flour
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (75 ml) milk
3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese, softened
1 egg, beaten
1/2 (53 grams) cup frozen blueberries, thawed, rinsed and drained, sprinkled with sugar

50 raisins (my addition: totally optional, of course.)
2 ounces (57 grams) cream cheese, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Combine butter, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl and cut with a pastry blender or two butter knives until crumbly.
Stir milk into softened cream cheese, then stir in egg until well-combined. Stir cream cheese mixture into flour mixture until dough forms a ball.
Gently push blueberries and cream cheese pieces into the dough to incorporate evenly. Be careful not to crush the berries or mash the cream cheese pieces.
Spoon mounds of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet to make 8 scones. Tuck berries and cream cheese pieces into the dough as much as possible. (Or, for traditional scones, gently pat the dough into a 9-inch circle on the cookie sheet. Sprinkle with sugar. Cut into 8 wedges, but do not separate.)
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, until golden. Makes 8 scones.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bite-Size Review: Home-Cooking Goodness in Ho Chi Minh City

When I visited Vietnam, specifically Ho Chi Minh City, for the very first time last year, I totally binged on phở (rice noodles in broth,) bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls,) and gỏi cuốn (spring rolls.)  I couldn't help myself; they were ubiquitous throughout the city - in restaurants, street stalls, food carts and markets, each one tastier than the last.

But as I was trawling the online food sites for ever more recommendations, I came across one that extolled the virtues of eating with a local, honest to goodness, Vietnamese family, and my curiosity got the better of me.  I mean, in a city bursting with over 8 million people, I figured there must be a plethora of fresh, made-to-order, authentic family fare to which visiting foodies may rarely have access beyond the usual dining haunts.

Enter Eating Saigon.


Jointly run by local chef Hai (who has his own restaurant Dong Hua Xuan) and his partner Joe, the Eating Saigon website is full of information on the best eating spots in the capital, along with a helpful glossary of the most popular types of Vietnamese dishes.  One section titled Eat With A Local Saigon Family! features three hosts who welcome guests into their home to eat their traditional dishes, generally with their own family members.  Once a host is selected, reservations may be made online, and you're well on your way to some home-cooked goodness.

Enroute to our dinner and battling through this traffic madness which everyone seems to take as par for the course of living in downtown HCMC.

The first host I picked had to bow out due to medical reasons, so Joe quickly and apologetically arranged for replacement host Dng Thi Nhật Minh (pictured below) to cook and dine with us.  Her home is set within a warren of streets in the Bình Tân district which was a bit of a challenge to find, even with Google map directions, a helpful hotel concierge and an eager taxi driver.  As the crow flies, it's less than a 10 minute cab ride from the main downtown core of Saigon, but taking the traffic into account, we got there in about 20 minutes.

Dng Thi Nhật Minh in her kitchen
We arrived to find Minh making the last preparations in her large open kitchen. She shooed away our offers to help and we were left to be entertained by her multiple and extended family members, some of whom were only too eager to practice their spoken English with us.  In particular, Minh's son Thành (or James, as he preferred to be called) took the mantle of being the family spokesperson, introducing us to the rest of his family, chatting about his current school courses and asking about our impressions of his city.

Minh taking a brief break from the kitchen to share a laugh with her two sons, nephew and husband.  James is the one in the purple checked shirt.

Eating Saigon provided us with an English translator, who in turn, brought a young apprentice in tow. The dinner turned out to be a giggly, good natured feast with Minh, her husband Thanh Binh, sons James and Quân, as well as her sister Thang Long and her family.  All 11 of us sat comfortably around the dining table which had a direct view of the open kitchen and the parade of dishes that just kept coming throughout the evening.

Tucking into the first course - making our own spring rolls garnished with fresh basil, pork, bean sprouts, romaine lettuce, mint leaves and cooked shrimp.




Sliced pork belly and shrimp as fillers for the DIY spring rolls
Cold appetizer of braised aubergine / eggplant drizzled with oil and garnished with scallion.
One of Minh's signature dishes: Claypot fish steaks in a spicy caramelized sauce
Braised bittergourd stuffed with minced pork in a clear broth with spring onions.
Feasting with the locals.  The food was plentiful, the beer and soda were flowing, and the hospitality was heartfelt and exceedingly warm.

Dessert came in the delicious form of pan-fried banana fritters, with gratuitous dollops of coconut milk and tapioca pearls (sago) and topped with fine sesame seeds.
My banana fritter being doused with generous helpings of coconut milk.

The gang's all here.  By the way, both Minh and her sister Thang Long (standing third from right) are cooking lecturers at the Ly Tu Trong Technical College which meant that we totally lucked out in these home-cooked stakes by having two pros feed us so well.
My verdict is that this event was an adventure that nicely complemented our desire to experience, and eat, locally, as much as we could in the short time we were in HCMC.  Relatively speaking, the cost per person at USD24 is on the high side (the same amount would net a nice dinner at a swanky restaurant in the city,) but honestly, it's a small price to pay to be accepted into someone's home and family, and partaking in their local home-cooked dishes deftly made with equal measures of care and warmth. 

Eat With A Local Saigon Family
Available Days/Hours:  
Weekdays:  5:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays:   Noon – 2:00 pm
Sundays:     1:00 – 3:00 pm
Number of Guests: 2 – 10
Seating:  Table seating
Cost: US$24/guest
Advance booking required.
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