Friday, December 30, 2011

Pad Thai - key elements for making a successful Pad Thai

Every country has a national dish that it’s famous for and is found everywhere. Pad Thai is a dish you will often see listed as the top Thai dish, sometimes it’s a toss up between Tom Yam soup and Pad Thai, but I think that Pad Thai is more representative of Thai cuisine as it’s the ultimate street food and you will often find food carts in Thailand cooking it fresh on the streets.

(Photo I took of a street cart selling Pad Thai in Bangkok)

When I traveled to Bangkok in September, I had Pad Thai almost every day. It was everywhere, so it was hard to avoid eating. I’ve always enjoyed eating Pad Thai and it’s a dish that I would often order at home in Perth, so while I was in Bangkok I was interested in trying Pad Thai as often as possible to see how it was cooked, and explore its taste and the ingredients used to cook it.

Ever since coming back from Bangkok I wanted to recreate the Pad Thai that I had there. I consulted my Thai bible aka David Thompson’s Thai Food and my favourite Thai food blogs Chez Pim and She Simmers.

From my research, I learnt that the three key elements for a successful Pad Thai are:
  • Premixing the sauce beforehand – A Pad Thai needs to be fried up quickly so there is little time for adding in and adjusting all the seasonings as you cook. Premix a batch of the sauce and spoon it in as you cook (any unused sauce keeps well in the fridge). When you taste the sauce it will appear quite pungent but keep in mind that once you use it to cook Pad Thai and add in all the other ingredients, the flavour will be diluted somewhat, so make sure that as you premix the sauce it maintains a robust flavour – it should mainly taste salty and sour with a slight sweetness.
  • Getting the texture of the noodles right – Pad Thai noodles should be soft but also a little chewy, and not overcooked, gummy or mushy. To get this texture, buy dried rice noodles and soak the noodles with room temperature water to soften, not boil. I have never thought of just soaking noodles before cooking, I have always boiled or blanched them. You need to undersoak the noodles a little as they will continue to soften as it cooks in the pan. The noodles should be pliable but still firm, check that it passes the swirl around the finger test.
  • Using a large frying pan instead of a wok – I always use a wok so I would have never thought of using a frying pan to cook Pad Thai until I read a detailed blog post from She Shimmers which recommends the use of a flat bottomed pan. The large surface area helps the sauce to absorb more and the excess moisture evaporates to allow more browning of the noodles. It also provides more space for stirring and frying to ensure that everything cooks evenly. I found Pad Thai easier to cook in a frying pan.
 Swirl around the finger test for soaking dried rice noodles

Here’s my rendition of Pad Thai, I’m pretty happy with the result.


Pad Thai sauce (Adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Food - makes around ¾ cup and can be used to cook 2-3 serves of Pad Thai, increase quantities to make more sauce)

•    3 tablespoons palm sugar (I grated my palm sugar before adding it)
•    1 tablespoon white sugar
•    3 tablespoons prepared tamarind pulp
•    5 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
•    pinch of ground chilli powder

To prepare the tamarind pulp – buy a block of shelled and seeded tamarind, soak required amount in hot water for 10-15 minutes, mash up with a spoon and then strain.

Tamarind Block
 Tamarind soaking in hot water
Mashed up tamarind
 Strained tamarind pulp

For one serve of Pad Thai

•    Peanut oil
•    Handful/2 loosely packed cups of dried thin rice noodles (Banh Pho) which has been reconstituted
•    ¼ cup of minced chicken/chopped into small pieces (about ½ a chicken thigh)
•    5 prawns, shelled and deveined
•    pinch of ground chilli powder
•    Handful of Bean sprouts (plus extra for garnish)
•    Handful of Chinese flat leaf garlic chives, chopped into 2 inch lengths (plus extra for garnish)
•    ½ shallot, thinly sliced
•    1 clove crushed garlic
•    1 Egg
•    1-2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
•    wedge of lime

Note: You can also add in some sliced firm tofu.

 Chinese flat leaf garlic chives
Sliced shallots and minced garlic

This was the packet of dried rice noodles that I used, available from most Asian supermarkets. How did I know that it would be the right one to use? Well the back of the packet said that it was a product of Thailand and that was good enough for me.


(Reference: David Thompson’s Thai Food, Chez Pim and She Simmers)

Soak the dried rice noodles in room temperature water for 30-45 minutes until it softens and is pliable. Drain well. 

 Prepare the sauce – simmer the palm sugar, white sugar, tamarind pulp and fish sauce for 1-2 minutes until dissolved. Taste and adjust the flavour balance until it suits you. 

Note: It’s best to make one serving at a time!

Heat up frying pan and add in some peanut oil (add in more oil throughout the cooking process as necessary, ie: when things start to stick to the pan). Add in the minced chicken, fry until halfway done then add in 1-2 teaspoons of sauce to flavour the chicken.

Add in the rice noodles, 2-3 tablespoons of sauce and fry rigorously, stirring everything around (the amount of sauce added to the Pad Thai can be adjusted according to how strong a flavour you like). Add in some water, a tablespoon at a time, if the sauce evaporates too quickly and/or the noodles get dry and haven’t cooked through yet. Keep the noodles moving around constantly to keep from burning or forming a crust. Cook until the noodles are soft. 

When the noodles are ready (pull out a strand to taste), push the noodles to one side of the pan and add in the prawns, shallots and garlic, and cook until the prawns are nearly done. Then add in the bean sprouts and garlic chives, and quickly toss everything together. Taste and check the seasoning, add more sauce if necessary and a pinch of chilli powder if more heat is desired. Create some space in the middle of the frying pan and crack in the egg, let it sit for 10-15 seconds and then fry everything together. 

Serve the Pad Thai on a plate with crushed roasted peanuts, wedge of lime and some extra bean sprouts and garlic chives.

Wipe down the pan and then make another serve.

Squeezing lime over Pad Thai

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marque Degustation at Restaurant Amuse

Mark Best’s restaurant in Sydney, Marque, was awarded 2012 Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year and he recently published a cookbook Marque: A culinary Journey. To launch the cookbook in Perth, Mark Best and his head chef Pasi Petanen came over and cooked a special degustation at Restaurant Amuse. The opportunity to eat dinner cooked by undoubtedly one of the best chefs in Australia and consume signature Marque dishes without having to travel to Sydney was too good to pass up.

On Thursday, 8 December I found myself at Restaurant Amuse for the third time this year with fellow dining partners in food crimes Linda, David and Chris to experience what would be the best meal that I have had this year.

Degustation means a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods. A degustation is much more than just tasting an array of small dishes served one after the other, together with matched wines, in the one sitting. A degustation is an experience and takes your pallet on a journey. At a degustation I am always introduced to interesting creations and new flavour combinations. The dishes served should have a natural progression and flow on from one another, building on different tastes. A degustation in a lot of ways is like a symphony, it needs to be well orchestrated, with every dish working together to create a beautiful harmony. The degustation provided by Mark Best was the finest symphony that I have experienced, everything was beautifully and tastefully executed.

The evening started with some hors d’oeuvres. First up was Beetroot Macaroon with Foie Gras. They looked like macarons, two little meringue like shells encompassing custard made of foie gras. We thought that there was a misspelling on the menu – shouldn’t it be called macaron not macaroon? In the book Marque: A culinary Journey, it states that the word macaroon is used to put the diner off guard. You think that you will be biting into a crisp meringue shell with a soft interior, but instead, when you put this little morsel into your mouth, the texture is so light that it’s what I imagine biting into a cloud would be like if it was edible. Next was Pacific Oyster with Grilled Sea Foam. You have to pop the oyster and foam into your mouth all at once for the marriage of texture and flavour to take full effect, and when you do, the feeling of the sea fills your senses. 

 Beetroot Macaroon with Foie Gras
Pacific Oyster with Grilled Sea Foam

Then discussions ensued over whether or not to take the matched wine option or to (be responsible because it’s a school night and work beckons the next day) order just a few glasses. Linda and I went with the matched wine option. I always go for the matched wine option with a degustation. I am not much of a wine connoisseur but I appreciate how wine complements and enhances the food you eat, and with a degustation, the wine matches have been even more carefully considered so that like the dishes served, the wines flow on from one another and don’t overwhelm the palate. The sommelier at Restaurant Amuse is Kim, I love her enthusiasm, the way she described each wine before she pours it into our glasses made me excited to try it. Each course was expertly and thoughtfully matched with a wine to fit in with the elements presented on Mark Best’s dishes.

The first course was Almond Jelly with Blue Swimmer Crab, Almond Gazpacho, Sweet Corn & Avruga paired with A. Christmann, 2009 Riesling, Pfalz Germany. We were presented with a plate that had a little snowy almond mountain, we dig into the mound to find the lovely meat of the blue swimmer crab with its natural sweetness lifted by the almond and sweet corn. For the second course, we were presented with Scallops with White Asparagus, Yoghurt Whey & Togarashi paired wth Prager, 2009 ‘Hinter Der Burg’ Federspiel Grüner Veltliner, Wachau Austria. The scallops were ceviche style with thinly julienned white asparagus to provide texture and the togarashi (Japanese spice mix) scattered on top provided little pops of flavour. I loved the interplay of flavours and textures in this dish.

Almond Jelly with Blue Swimmer Crab, Almond Gazpacho, Sweet Corn & Avruga
Scallops with White Asparagus, Yoghurt Whey & Togarashi

The third course of Dutch Cream Potato with Bone Marrow, Sea Urchin & Coffee paired with Josmeyer, 2008 ‘Le Fromenteau’ Pinot Gris, Alsace France was undisputedly the dish of the night for all. The Dutch potatoes were specially smuggled in for the occasion. It was an interesting but cohesive combination. The coffee being the most surprising element, which was lightly sprinkled over the top, it was like icing on a cake. One spoonful and everyone around the table released sounds of contentment. It was truly an exquisite dish. As everyone finished and little scrapings on the plate were left, we were left wanting to lick the plate clean in order to savour every last bit of the dish. Thankfully the bread came out at this point in time and we prevented the waitresses from collecting our plates so that we could use the bread to wipe up whatever was left. 

 Dutch Cream Potato with Bone Marrow, Sea Urchin & Coffee
The bread was accompanied with creamed butter and volcanic salt.

The fourth course was Bar Cod with Polenta, Buddha’s Hands, Witlof & Vadouvan paired with Man O’ War, 2009 ‘Valhalla’ Chardonnay, Waiheke Island New Zealand. I don't think that I have ever consumed fish that has been cooked so well, the bar cod was a delight to eat, I could have eaten it on it’s own with nothing else. The outside was lightly seared and the flesh was so soft that you could cut through it like butter. A teaspoon sized amount of polenta and buddha’s hand accompanied the fish on either side of the plate, providing contrasting flavours to go with the fish. This was the first time that I had eaten buddha’s hand which is a fruit that is fragrant with a citrusy taste. The fifth course was Glenloth Pigeon and Duck Liver with Green Strawberries, Beer & Fennel paired with Chimay, 2011, Baileux Belgium. This dish to me was about the pleasure of eating well cooked game meat. On one side you had pigeon and on the other side you had the duck liver, both cooked perfectly and served with some green strawberries which provided a pleasant tartness, accented with a spike of beer and fennel. 

Bar Cod with Polenta, Buddha’s Hands, Witlof & Vadouvan
 Glenloth Pigeon and Duck Liver with Green Strawberries, Beer & Fennel

The sixth course was Blackmore Grain Fed Wagyu with Beef Tendon, Wasabi & Fermented Vegetables paired with Le Fonti, 2006 Riserva Chianti Classico, Tuscany Italy. Compared to the other dishes we had consumed throughout the night, some felt that this dish didn’t have the wow factor that the other dishes did, but I liked the simplicity of this dish with its subtle flavours and vibrant colours. The beef was the star presented in its purest form teamed with delicately fermented vegetables where the wasabi felt almost not present. 

 Blackmore Grain Fed Wagyu with Beef Tendon, Wasabi & Fermented Vegetables

Next was the famous Marque egg dish. The Sauternes Custard. This has been served as a pre-dessert since Marque began. It’s a delicate and rich tasting custard. The final dessert dish was “Tomberries” with Chocolate Jelly & Crème Fraiche paired with ‘The Portberries’. The tomberries are baby tomatoes cooked in a strawberry syrup creating an art of deception as you try to figure out what you are eating. I liked how this dessert wasn’t overly sweet but still hit the sweet spot.  

 The Sauternes Custard
“Tomberries” with Chocolate Jelly & Crème Fraiche

The night ended with petit fours of Salted Caramel Chocolates, Lemon Drops & Bitter Bon Bons. I was very impressed with the bursts of flavour that came through the petit fours. One thing that I found throughout the night with every dish that I ate was that I could never fully predict what was ahead of me, the tastes I assumed that I would be confronted with was always taken to another level. The petit fours were no exception. I had the lemon drop first and it felt like I had bitten into an actual lemon as the sourness of the lemon came through prominently but the white chocolate coating was a saving grace tempering the acidity. My personal favourites were the bitter bon bons, they are like fruits jubes. I love fruit jubes and these were the best jubes that I have ever eaten in terms of taste and texture.

 Petit Fours

In the middle of service, Mark gave a little speech and then he spent the rest of the night making the rounds to each table and having a chat with all the diners. Mark not only shows an appreciation of how to use ingredients and techniques to provide a mesmerising dining experience but also an appreciation of the consumers of it.

The service that the Restaurant Amuse staff provided throughout the night was impeccable. Having been to Amuse a few times, the staff remembered us and made us feel right at home. This was one of the most memorable dining experiences that I have had. This event also provided an opportunity for the Restaurant Amuse staff to work with Mark Best and Pasi Petamen, and for both sides to learn from each other and share knowledge. When Carolynne, manager of Restaurant Amuse, was asked how were the staff coping with having to learn to cook a whole new menu amongst running the usual Amuse degustation, Carolynne told us that this was like a holiday because it had been a lot of fun.

The collaborative effort of the chefs from Restaurant Amuse and Marque put on a really special event with amazing food. I hope that in the future there will be more events like this.

Restaurant Amuse on Urbanspoon

Marque on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Almond Croissant Taste Test – Looking for the best Almond Croissant in Perth

Mmmm (made after taking a bite of croissant), Mmm Mmmm (additional approval), Woah, heya (hello!), Hmmm (contemplative), uhuh (yes, interesting).

This is what an almond croissant taste test sounds like. 

 (Almond Croissant taste test set up)

An almond croissant taste test that involved 6 different bakeries and a total of 18 croissants (3 from each bakery), which were consumed by 5 almond croissant appreciators on a Saturday morning. Eating around 3 croissants each (half of each of the 6 croissants) on a Saturday morning is heavy going, especially a week before Christmas when one should be pacing food intake. We all loved almond croissants but yes, we did all feel just a little bit sick afterwards - it affected my ability to drive properly and others reported having a 4 hour nap afterwards. But some questions demand answers. We just wanted to find out where you can get the best almond croissants in Perth. So someone’s got to do it right?

We decided to take on the challenge – We were:
Originally we bought almond croissants from 5 bakeries – Le Galette de France (Nedlands), Barrett’s Bread (Nedlands), Choux Café (Swanbourne), Jean Pierre Sancho (CDB) and Brioche Bakery which is a stall at the Subiaco Farmer’s Market. Then a coffee expedition by @KCrusader to La Papillon Patisserie (Northbridge) during almond croissant tasting led to another addition to the tasting plate.

We sampled from 6 bakeries, just a small selection of what Perth has to offer compiled from previous experiences, things we had heard and recommendations. We narrowed down the bakeries to around the inner city area, to places that would be realistic for us to travel to for an almond croissant fix. I’m sure there are other bakeries that could have been in contention, notably Chez Jean Claude Patisserie (Subiaco) which @maxpolitation claims to have the best almond croissants in Perth but was not open on the weekend, @jrrdrbb had heard of a bakery in Dunsborough which is famous for its almond croissants (does anyone know the name of this bakery?) and Abhi’s Bread in Fremantle is supposed to be good as well as Tammy’s Bakery in Victoria Park. West End Deli (West Perth, Leederville) is my personal favourite for almond croissants but I recently found out that they were no longer  making them. 

 (Paper bags filled with almond croissants in the back seat of my car)

I did the almond croissant bakery run on Saturday morning and 1.5 hours later I had 5 paper bags with 3 croissants each sitting in the backseat of my car. At 10am we all met up at Hyde Park for the almond croissant face off. Once we had settled down on our picnic rugs, we got down to the serious question of what criteria we would use for judging. The first criteria was easy, it had to be the filling – without the frangipane filling it would not be an almond croissant. Controversially, it’s the frangipane that makes some people have a distaste of almond croissants with the offence being almond essence. I like my frangipane to be made with real almonds, anything made with almond essence can also be a turn off for me as it reminds me of marzipan. I am not a fan of almond essence. The second criteria had to be the croissant itself, in terms of the texture – crisp vs soft, how good were the buttery layers of puff pastry? A score of 5 for the filling, 5 for the texture and then something else. Another criteria was needed to allow a score for what made one almond croissant different from the rest. @KCrusader suggested that we look at its X Factor. The final criteria was a score out of 5 for the almond croissant’s X Factor which could be anything - ranging from it’s appearance/aesthetics, to the overall mouthfeel/taste, a feature that made the croissant different from the rest and should be allocated bonus points for. A score out of 15 would be given to each almond croissant by each judge, with a total score of 75 possible.

Please note: Out of the 6 bakeries we tasted, I had personally only eaten almond croissants previously at one of them – Choux Café. It was a blind taste test for everyone except me as I knew which bakery the croissant came from as I did the almond croissant run in the morning.

Here are the results.

Coming in at 6th place was the Brioche stall from the Subiaco Farmers Market. Most thought that it was not bad as a sweetbread but just didn’t tick all the boxes of what we wanted in an almond croissant. The filling was minimal and a citrus (lemon) element in the flavour of the croissant was noted, which we all found a little unusual. The texture of the croissant was soft and not as crispy on the outside as others. It was an almost croissant, not quite an almond one but had potential.

 (Brioche Bakery stall at Subiaco Farmers Market)

The almond croissant from Barrett’s Bread certainly had an X Factor about it. One bite and we were all like “Hello!” I think this is when the almond croissant taste test suddenly become a party as the frangipane filling woke us up with an alcoholic shot. The frangipane filling was soaked in alcohol which we concluded to be brandy – it was a highlight for some but others thought that a little less brandy would be more ideal. The filling also resulted in a more soggier base than others but it contained almond flakes inside which was a nice touch, whereas the others generally had almond flakes scattered over the top.  The taste of the croissant was good but the texture was soft and it was also the least appealing out of all the croissants to look at. Someone commented that it looked like a facehugger from the movie Aliens (note: this was a joke and not critical feedback!). The almond croissant from Barrett’s Bread was nicknamed boozey Barrett.

 (Barrett's Bread, almond croissant)

The almond croissant from Le Papillon was a late addition to the almond croissant taste test. It came after all the others had been sampled and @KCrusader went on a coffee run while the results were being tallied. Le Papillon had the advantage of being still warm from the oven which was rewarding to eat. It rated favourably on texture but the area it was marked down on was the filling, which comes down to a personal preference. The frangipane filling tasted like it had almond essence in it, similar to the flavour of marzipan. Some were fans of it and some weren’t. 

 (Le Papillon Patisserie, almond croissant)

The almond croissant from Jean Pierre Sancho was very pleasant to eat, overall it was much lighter and not as sweet as the others. It was the croissant that people could eat more than one of. However, the frangipane was more like a thick glaze and we noted little black spots of vanilla bean in it, so it had a more vanilla flavour. The look and texture of the croissant was really good and put it in competition with the texture of the croissant which took out first place, but after trying the croissant of the first place winner again (there was one half leftover which was divided between three people) and comparing it with the croissant of Jean Pierre Sancho, the first place winner one was still the favourite.

 (Slicing up Jean Pierre Sancho, almond croissant)

(Jean Pierre Sancho, almond croissant)

The almond croissant from Choux Café came a very close second, it was only 1.5 points away from taking the top spot. The exterior of the almond croissant worked to complement the interior, there was less disparity between the outside and inside of the croissant – it all became one. It had an X Factor that was different from the rest - some commented that it was like eating an almond cake or almond sandwich. The almond croissant from Choux was rich and decadent, a croissant that you would not be eating everyday but as a special treat now and then.

 (Choux Cafe, almond croissant - don't be deceived by it's flattened look, it has been double baked between two trays and the result is delicious)

(Choux Cafe, almond croissant sliced open)

As the almond croissant from Le Galette de France was being carved up for tasting we all oohh and aahhed at the look of it. Le Galette de France won the X Factor for appearance. It was the best looking almond croissant of the day but it wasn’t just pretty on the outside, it was delicious on the inside. The frangipane filling was real smooth with a great flavour and a touch of alcohol (maybe rum?), but the alcohol was not too noticeable, it just lingered in the background to provide depth to the taste of the frangipane. The texture of the croissant was a standout too, with the outside baked till crispy and it had a lovely caramelized taste to it. 

 (Slicing up almond croissant from Le Galette de France)

 (Le Galette de France, almond croissant)

Le Galette de France won as a holistic eating experience, it ticked all the boxes of the criteria we were judging on.  

So there you go, Le Galette de France has the X Factor

 (Le Galette de France, Nedlands)

 (Almond croissant taste test aftermath)

Would love to hear about others experiences of eating almond croissants and what people think is the best almond croissant in Perth. Are there any bakeries that we should have included in our almond croissant taste test?

La Galette De France Nedlands on Urbanspoon

Choux Cafe on Urbanspoon

Jean Pierre Sancho on Hay Street on Urbanspoon