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New Zealand’s Passion for Pavlova

mixed berry pavlova in New Zealand

The mixed berry pavlova in Queenstown, NZ may have looked garish but it tasted extraordinary.

At one time I thought of New Zealand as the land of extreme sports, flightless birds, Flight of the Conchords, magnificent scenery, Maoris, fine wine and the films of Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. Then I spent last month in this island nation and learned of our shared passion for the meringue-based dessert pavlova.

Baked meringue serves as the base for pavlova.

It all begins with a baked meringue.

All pavlovas begin with a crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside meringue. The addition of vinegar or lemon juice helps the meringue to achieve its chewiness. So, too, does low, slow baking.

Once the meringue has cooled to room temperature, lightly whipped cream and fresh fruit are heaped on top of it. Although berries, kiwi and mango are popular options, the traditional filling is passion fruit.

Meringue, cream and fruit. That’s it. That’s all there is to “the pav.”

passion fruit pavlova

A traditional pavlova contains passion fruit. Dunedin, NZ.

It sounds like such a simple, uncontroversial dessert. Yet it’s not. For almost a century debate has raged over whether New Zealand or Australia invented the pav. Australians claim that Perth chef Herbert Sachse made the first at the Esplanade Hotel in 1935. Kiwis point to its inclusion in a 1927, NZ cookbook, a cookbook published a year after the dessert’s namesake, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, visited New Zealand. Even so, historians continue to wrangle over which country holds claim.

Commercially produced meringue base

Commercially produced meringue in a grocery store in Te Anau, NZ.

Maybe I was just more attuned to my surroundings but I seemed to come across pavlovas far more often on New Zealand’s South Island than I did in Eastern Australia. They popped up frequently on restaurant menus and in bakery cases. Had I wanted to whip up a pav at that night’s airbnb, I could buy a commercially made meringue base or Edmonds Pavlova Magic at any NZ supermarket. That’s a lot of pavlova options for one small island. In spite of this prevalence I think it’s wise to stay out of the ‘who created the pav’ dispute.

Edmonds Pavlova Magic

All the way from New Zealand, Edmonds Pavlova Magic

While its country of origin may be in question, one thing is not. The pavlova is one delicious dessert. Even if you never choose to endure that ridiculously long plane ride—23 hours from the U.S. East Coast—to New Zealand or Australia, treat yourself to the pleasure of a good pavlova. It’s a unique and ethereal sweet.

Sliced strawberry pavlova

Sliced strawberry pavlova

Serves 8

for the meringue:
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

for the fruit topping:
2 cups sliced strawberries
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Juice of 1/2 lime

for the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the egg whites in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. See the photo directly below for an example of soft peaks.

Soft peaked egg whites

Egg whites beaten into soft peaks.

Add the vanilla extract and lemon juice and beat to incorporate. Add the sugar a spoonful at a time, continuing to beat the egg whites until stiff, glossy peaks form. The photo below depicts stiff, glossy peaks.

Stiff, glossy-peaked egg whites

Egg whites beaten into stiff, glossy peaks.

Taking a spatula, spoon the meringue onto the prepared baking sheet and shape it into an even circle. If, like me, your circles tend to come out lopsided, feel free to recreate my small cheat and mound the meringue onto a parchment round that you’ve placed on top of the original parchment sheet. Perfect circles every time!

Meringue mounded on parchment round

Meringue mounded on a parchment round makes a perfectly circular base.

Place the baking sheet in the oven, lower the temperature to 225 degrees F and bake for 1 hour. After 1 hour turn off the oven and allow the meringue to cool for at least 1 hour or overnight.

When you’re ready to assemble your pav, place the strawberries in a small saucepan with the sugar and lime and simmer over medium-low until the berries begin to release their juices. Remove the berries, straining them to return any excess liquid to the pan. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high and then reduce the heat to medium low, allowing the liquid to simmer until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes.

As the liquid is reducing, make the whipped cream. Place the cream, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and beat until soft peaks form.

To assemble, spread the whipped cream over the meringue, leaving a bare edge of 1 to 2 inches. (See the image below for further details.)

Pavlova base covered in whipped cream

Pavlova base covered in whipped cream

Spoon the fruit into the center of the whipped cream. Drizzle the reduced strawberry juice over the berries and cream. Serve immediately.

Eating Breakfast in Australia

Tim Tams for breakfast

Starting the day with coffee and Tim Tams in Bairnsdale, Victoria.

Travel can sound so appealing. Historic sites. Unusual wildlife. Exotic cultures, customs and cuisines. There is a less glamorous side, one that gets glossed over by pretty photos and exciting tales. It involves doing what you’d do back at home but with far less understanding or finesse. I’m talking about the day-to-day things such as grocery shopping and eating.

On any trip I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what, when and where I’ll eat. The meal over which I obsess the most, the one where I try my hardest to eat as I think the locals do is “the most important meal of the day.” Yes, I’m talking about breakfast and, at present, breakfast in Australia.

Pikelets, jam and cream for breakfast

Breakfast pikelets, jam and cream on Phillip Island, Victoria

After two weeks in Australia I’ve sampled a range of local breakfast specialties. Although meat products remain absent from my menu, I have added pikelets to the morning repertoire. No, these are not little fish cakes as fans of pike might assume. Ever had dollar pancakes? Then you’ve had a fluffier, syrup-soaked version of pikelets. Sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and paired with jam and whipped cream, they kick off my day in a very indulgent way.

No less sweet but a tad less traditional are the chocolate wafer cookies Tim Tams. People dunk Tim Tams in coffee or use them as a straw to slurp up that morning cup of joe. I attempted and failed to do the latter, known as the “Tim Tam Slam,” in the above video. Don’t worry. I’ll keep practicing. It won’t be a hardship to master this technique.

Apple-cinnamon muffin for breakfast in NSW

Warm apple-cinnamon muffin for breakfast in Broken Hill, New South Wales

When ordered at a coffee shop, my morning flat white usually gets partnered with a warmed baked good. Here muffins, quick breads, croissants and doughnuts get toasted or popped into a microwave for 30 seconds before serving. I’m not a huge fan of re-heated pastries; doughnuts tend to get greasier and taste like cooking oil while croissants just get limp and chewy. Even so, I’ve yet to turn down the offer of a free sweet with my coffee.

Vegemite, cheese and toast for breakfast

Vegemite, cheese and toast for breakfast in Broken Hill, NSW

Vegemite falls at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum and of my favorite breakfasts. Made from brewer’s yeast extract, Vegemite has a pungent, salty, bitter taste that reminds me of a bouillon cube or a paste made from soy sauce. As with the similar British spread Marmite, Australians slather Vegemite over toast and sometimes pair the duo with cheese and/or butter.

Bread, cheese and honey, the go-to meal when traveling

Enjoying the go-to travel meal of bread, cheese and honey in Paynesville, Victoria

Rather than sully a good piece of bread and cheese with Vegemite, I’d rather stick with an old travel standby, a hunk of bread and a wedge of cheese. On this journey I’ve lucked out and found a plethora of outstanding, local bakeries as well as cheese and honey makers to supply me with all three. As with Tim Tams and muffins, savor your bread and cheese throughout the day. If you don’t have to drive anywhere, wash the combo down with a glass of Shiraz or cold Gold XXXX. Why not? You’re on holiday! And, if you’re feeling bold, do try Vegemite on toast.

Serves 1

2 slices white or rye bread, toasted
Butter, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons Vegemite
2 slices of mild cheddar, optional

Butter the warm toast. Spread a thin layer of Vegemite over each piece. Place an optional slice of mild cheddar on top of the Vegemite and bite into this classic meal.

Revisiting Palmiers – Cinnamon Palmiers

Sliced cinnamon palmier dough

Cinnamon palmiers, sliced and ready to be baked

I spent last week preoccupied with the age-old question of how to pack just enough clothing and books in a carry-on—a carry-on that can only weigh 15 pounds and that will be my only piece of luggage on this trip—for a month of traveling and working on another continent. My fixation meant that I fell a tad behind on sharing a variation on Kitchen Kat’s Lemon Palmiers. Forget what that alternate recipe was? As they say in Australia, which is where I’m headed, “no worries!” It is for cinnamon palmiers.

Think back to July 21st when I posted a scintillating entry on the flaky, caramelized, French cookies known as palmiers. As you might recall, these treats derive their name from their palm-like shape; in French palmier means “palm.” Comprised of folded layers of puff pastry and sugar, which gives them their distinct shape, they’re a light and delicious little sweet.

Cinnamon palmiers

Crisp and aromatic cinnamon palmiers

Palmiers traditionally feature just those two ingredients, sugar and puff pastry. However, as indicated in the previous post, you can spice them up with such additions as citrus zest, cocoa powder or ground cinnamon. As much as I adore the sweetly tart lemon palmiers, I find the headiness of cinnamon palmiers equally, if not more, delightful. Why not try them both and let me know which tastes better to you.

Makes 3 dozen

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 pound (2 sheets) puff pastry, defrosted

Lightly dust a clean work surface with some of the cinnamon sugar. Place a sheet of puff pastry on top of the sugar and then sprinkle sugar on top of the pastry. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry until it’s roughly a 12″ x 24″ rectangle. Sprinkle more sugar on top of the rolled out pastry.

rolling out cinnamon palmier dough

Rolling out the palmier dough

Bring the shorter ends of the pastry to the middle, leaving a half-inch between to two edges. Dust with sugar and then fold each end so that the two edges touch. Dust with sugar again and make one final fold, bringing the one half over the other. Think of this as closing a book and bringing the pages together. Repeat the dusting, rolling, dusting and folding steps with the other sheet of puff pastry.

Refrigerate the palmier dough for 30 to 60 minutes. This will make it easier to slice.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

palmiers on parchment paper

Cinnamon palmiers on a parchment-lined baking sheet

Remove the dough from refrigerator. Using a sharp knife, slice the dough into half-inch cookies. Place them 1 inch apart a lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, until the bottoms have turned golden brown. Turn the cookies over and bake for another 5 to 8 minutes, until crisp and golden. Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing and placing in an airtight container. The cookies will keep for up to 3 days.

Travel through Baking Lemon Palmiers

lemon palmiers

A platter of lemon palmiers

Because I lack the patience to wait in long lines, fight the crowds at historic sites and deal with other cranky, sweaty tourists, while friends are off baking at the beach or exploring national parks, I spend the summer tucked in my kitchen, reliving past vacations through food. Few sweets remind me more of poking around picturesque French villages than palmiers. Originating in Southern France, these flaky, caramelized cookies are a mainstay of patisseries and, in my case, the perfect breakfast-on-the-go. What can I say? Whether at home or on the road, I like my breakfasts small, portable and sweet.

Palmiers get their name from their unmistakable shape. In French palmier means “palm.” Along with being compared to palm leaves, they have been likened to butterflies, eyeglasses, hearts and elephant ears. If I’m baking these cookies, they might resemble a palm tree or, on an especially harried day, a work of modern art.

Coffee and lemon palmiers

Perfect start to the day? Drinking coffee from a pirate cup and eating lemon palmiers

How do these cookies end up looking like palm leaves? Imagine dozens of layers of buttery puff pastry dusted with sugar and folded over and over again until they form a long, plump log. The log is then sliced and the slices are baked. As they bake, each layer of pastry expands and then comes together with the other layers to form a palm-shaped cookie.

Palmiers sliced and ready to be baked

Palmiers sliced and ready to be baked

Traditionally, palmiers consist of two ingredients—granulated sugar and puff pastry or, to be more precise, laminated dough. A laminated dough consists of alternating layers of paper-thin dough and butter that, when baked, puff up. Although you can make your own puff pastry, I tend to take the quick route and just buy it in the frozen foods section of my local grocery store.

If you’re a purist, omit the grated lemon zest in the following recipe. That’s the original French way to make palmiers. However, if you’re a fan of cinnamon, check back in a few weeks for another delicious take on this classic confection, cinnamon palmiers.


Makes 3 dozen

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Grated zest of 4 lemons
1 pound (2 sheets) puff pastry, defrosted

In a small bowl stir together the sugar and grated lemon zest until well combined. If you’re uncertain what grated zest is, see the photo below. You don’t want strips of lemon peel but instead the grated peel or zest of the fruit.

grated lemon zest and sugar

Bowl of grated lemon zest and sugar

Lightly dust a clean work surface with some of the lemon sugar. Place a sheet of puff pastry on top of the sugar and then sprinkle sugar on top of the pastry. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry until it’s roughly a 12″ x 24″ rectangle. Sprinkle more sugar on top of the rolled out pastry.

Bring the shorter ends of the pastry to the middle, leaving a half-inch between to two edges. Dust with sugar and then fold each end so that the two edges touch. Dust with sugar again and make one final fold, bringing the one half over the other. Think of this as closing a book and bringing the pages together. Repeat the dusting, rolling, dusting and folding steps with the other sheet of puff pastry.

Folded puff pastry

The final final fold of puff pastry should remind you of a closed book.

Refrigerate the palmier dough for 30 to 60 minutes. This will make it easier to slice.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from refrigerator. Using a sharp knife, slice the dough into half-inch cookies. Place them 1 inch apart a lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, until the bottoms have turned golden brown. Turn the cookies over and bake for another 5 to 8 minutes, until crisp and golden. Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing and placing in an airtight container. The cookies will keep for up to 3 days.

Thai Sticky Rice with Mango

Sticky rice with mango

Sticky rice with mango served on a banana leaf

I promise that Kitchen Kat isn’t evolving into a Southeast Asian food blog. However, I do have one more tantalizing recipe from this part of the world to share. This time it’s an iconic Thai sweet, sticky rice with mango. One of those rare desserts that is as straightforward as it sounds, here steamed sticky rice or khâo niaw gets paired with cut mango.

Sometimes referred to as glutinous rice, sticky rice’s name comes from its texture. When cooked, this short, oval-shaped rice becomes quite gummy. Its color also changes from white to almost translucent, which is the opposite of how white rice looks before and after steaming. Especially popular in Northern Thailand, sticky rice can be eaten by hand.

Assortment of tropical fruit

Tropical fruit from top left to right: mangoes, dragon fruit, soursop, rambutan, sapodilla, custard apples

Occasionally sticky rice is consumed on its own. On some rare occasions it is served alongside fresh or dried shrimp, giving diners a sweet-salty-savory experience. Although it usually pairs up with mango, it also goes nicely with such tropical fruits as soursop, pineapple and jackfruit or tart and fruity sorbet. I like it best, though, when it’s featured in the following classic recipe, sticky rice with mango.

Thai sticky rice with cut mango

The finished dish, Thai sticky rice with cut mango

Serves 4

1 cup sticky/glutinous rice, soaked in water overnight
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup coconut milk
Pinch salt
2 to 4 ripe mangoes

Drain and rinse the rice and, using either a heavy bottomed pot with a lid or a rice cooker, steam the rice for 20 minutes.

As the rice is steaming, whisk together the sugar, coconut milk and salt. Once the rice has finished cooking, pour the liquid over it and stir to combine. Cover and allow the rice to soak up all the liquid, about 20 minutes.

Sliced mango

Prepping the sliced mango

As the rice is steeping, prepare the mangoes. Using a thin, sharp knife, slice a mango in half lengthwise and then cut evenly spaced vertical and horizontal rows into its flesh. (See image above to see how the cut mango should look.) Gently push up on the fruit’s skin so that the sliced squares pop up. Place the cut half on a plate. Repeat these steps with the remaining fruit.

When the rice has finished steeping, spoon equal amounts next to the sliced mango. Serve immediately.

Sizzling Shrimp Spring Rolls

frying shrimp rolls

Shrimp rolls sizzling in the pan

Thanks to my step-father-in-law, travel and Asian cooking classes, I’ve unintentionally become a master at making fried shrimp spring rolls or cha giò tôm. Accident or not, I’m thankful for this skill for spring rolls have turned out to be a fun group activity, popular cooking lesson and intriguing hot appetizer at parties. Just imagine your — or my — friends’ faces when offered a warm, crunchy, golden hors d’oeuvre and hearing the words, “Want to try some crunchy shrimp spring rolls? Nope, they’re not from the Chinese restaurant down the street. I made them myself!” Talk about impressing guests!

Although I came to shrimp spring rolls through Vietnamese cuisine, these snacks have their origins in China. During the Tang Dynasty, between the 7th and 10th century, people began serving spring rolls to celebrate the Chinese New Year and the planting of the new season’s crops.

Rolling up a spring roll

Rolling up the spring roll filling in a rice paper wrapper

The early version of this finger food featured sliced spring vegetables rolled up in a delicate pastry or pancake. Thus how it got the name “spring roll.” Once sealed, the bundles were briefly deep-fried so that the wrappers became crisp while the filling remained soft. Think of this as culinary yin and yang with the two contrasting textures complementing one another.

Ingredients for shrimp spring rolls

The ingredients in shrimp spring rolls

Vietnamese spring rolls differ from their Chinese predecessors in that they pair shrimp, pork and vermicelli rice noodles with spring vegetables such as carrots, scallions and mushrooms. They also use herbs such as coriander, mint and chives. Occasionally, one or two eggs are included in the mix. After being tossed together, the ingredients are enfolded in fragile rice paper wrappers and pan-fried.

Snipping rice noodles

Snipping vermicelli rice noodles to add to the filling

When making spring rolls, be sure not to overstuff the wrappers. If you add too much filling, the wrappers won’t seal tightly and will subsequently pop open in the frying pan. For the proper sized roll, see the first photo at the top of the entry. For rolls bordering on overstuffed, note the plump ones on the edges of the white platter in the image below. To avoid overly fat rolls, use between one and two tablespoons of stuffing.

Uncooked spring rolls

Platter of plump, uncooked spring rolls

Because I am a pescetarian and don’t eat pork, the following recipe does not include meat. If you’re seeking a truly authentic cha giò tôm, replace three-fourths of the shrimp with ground pork.

Makes approximately 4 dozen spring rolls

for the rolls:
4 ounces vermicelli rice noodles
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
1 1/2 cups grated carrot
2/3 cup chopped spring onion
2/3 cup cremini or shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
14 to 16 ounces peeled, defrosted shrimp, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablepoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 packages of rice paper wrappers
Grapeseed or canola oil, enough to have a 1-inch deep layer of oil in your frying pan

for the dipping sauce:
3 tablespoons hot water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced

Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Allow them to soak for 10 minutes, periodically stirring and pulling the noodles apart. After 10 minutes drain off the water and snip them into 2-inch strips.

In a large bowl mix together the egg, bean sprouts, carrot, onion, mushrooms, garlic, shrimp and noodles. In a smaller bowl stir together the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, pepper and salt until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Pour the sauce over the filling and stir until well combined.

Folding the spring roll's edges

Folding over the edges of a spring roll wrapper

Place a wrapper on a clean work surface and moisten the wrapper with a clean, damp cloth. Using a measuring spoon, put 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling one inch from the bottom of the wrapper. Fold the bottom edge over the filling and then roll the wrapper over itself once. Fold the sides of the wrapper inward until their ends meet. (See image above for details.)

Roll up the spring roll. If the edge doesn’t seal tightly, lightly wet it with water and press down until sealed. Repeat these steps with the remaining filling, placing the spring rolls on a platter until you’re ready to fry them.

To fry, heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is ready, it will read 365 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy or instant-read thermometer. As the oil is heating, whisk together the hot water, sugar, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, crushed chili pepper, black pepper and garlic. Set the dipping sauce aside.

frying spring rolls

Mixture of over-stuffed and just right spring rolls frying in hot oil

Using heat-proof tongs, place the spring rolls in the pan, making sure that they don’t touch each other. Fry the spring rolls on one side for 2 minutes or until golden brown. Turn them over and fry for another 2 minutes. Remove the rolls from the pan and place on a platter lined with paper towels. Repeat until all the spring rolls have been fried. Serve warm with the dipping sauce.

Czech Strawberry Dumplings

sliced strawberry dumplings

Hot-from-the-pot Czech strawberry dumplings or “jahoda knedlíky”

With strawberry season right around the corner, it seems like a good time to talk about Czech strawberry dumplings. Until two years ago, whenever I heard the phrase “dessert dumpling,” I imagined a cinnamon- and sugar-dusted apple bundled into a buttery pastry and baked until golden brown. The thought of a whole strawberry boiled inside a casing of cheese-laced dough never occurred to me. Then I made several trips to the Czech Republic and learned how to make jahoda knedlíky or strawberry dumplings. After that I forgot all about those apple pie-like treats.

strawberry on dumpling dough

About to encase a ripe strawberry in the dumpling dough

It’s been said that no traditional Czech dinner is complete without the inclusion of a dumpling or two. A staple since the Middle Ages, the plump, round dumpling can be either sweet or savory. The latter tends to use potatoes and potato flour as its base while the former features flour and/or breadcrumbs and a filling of whole, locally grown fruit such as strawberries, plums or cherries. Shaped into balls, both types of dumpling are boiled, drained, sliced in half with a thread and dressed with melted butter. Cooks also top sweet dumplings with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or grated cheese and a dollop of whipped cream.

dumpling dough

A mound of dough, ready to be cut and shaped into dumplings

Sound easy? It is! To make the dessert dumpling dough, I just stir together quark, eggs, milk and semolina flour until a soft dough forms. From there I plop the dough onto a dusted work surface, pat or roll it out to about 1-inch in thickness and cut it into equal-sized squares. I wrap those squares around fresh, ripe strawberries. From there it’s just a few steps and minutes more until I have a batch of hot, delicious strawberry dumplings.

Since I like saucy dumplings, I usually put few strawberries, a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar and a squeeze of lime juice in a blender and puree the ingredients together until I have a coulis or sauce. If I’m eating alone, I’ll just dunk bits of the dumpling into the sauce. If sharing with friends, I’ll drizzle the sauce over the sliced sweets. However, you should not feel compelled to make any toppings. Czech strawberry dumplings are delightful as is or with a smidgen of confectioner’s sugar or whipped cream.


Makes 6 to 8 dumplings

500 grams (16 ounces or 2 cups) quark
2/3 cup milk
2 large eggs
500 grams (1 lb. 2 ounces or 2 2/3 cups) semolina flour, plus more if needed
Pinch salt
6 to 8 fresh, ripe, large strawberries, stems removed
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
Whipped cream, optional, for serving

Whisk together the quark, milk and eggs. In a separate bowl stir together the flour and salt.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the wet ingredients into it. Stir the wet and dry ingredients together until well-combined. If the dough seems too wet and sticky, add up to 1/3 cup flour until a soft, pliable dough is achieved.

Shape the dough into a ball and allow it to rest for 15 minutes.

While the dough is resting, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Spread a thin layer of semolina flour over a clean work surface.

Place the dough on the floured work surface. Using your hands or a rolling pin, flatten the dough until it’s roughly 1/2-inch thick. With a sharp knife cut out a square of dough; you want it to be large enough to cover a whole strawberry. Put the strawberry in the center of the square and fold the dough over the berry, shaping it into a smooth ball. Continue cutting, shaping and wrapping the dough until you have 6 to 8 dumplings.

Dumplings boiling in water

Boiled strawberry dumplings about to be removed from the pot

Drop the dumplings into the boiling water and allow them to cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Once the dumplings have risen to the surface of the water, they are done.

Using a slotted spoon, remove each dumpling and place it on a plate or in a bowl. Allow each to cool slightly before cutting it in half and decorating with confectioner’s sugar and, if desired, whipped cream.

Pad Thai in Thailand

Plate of pad Thai

Simple yet elegant pad Thai

Pad Thai was my gateway into Thai cuisine. In my early 20s and unsure of what to order at a new, neighborhood, Southeast Asian restaurant, I opted for a simple noodle dish that promised complex flavors, interesting textures and a touch of the exotic. With hints of piquant tamarind, crunchy peanuts and salty fish sauce pad Thai delivered on its word. After that first satisfying encounter it became my go-to meal when dining or ordering out.

pad Thai from Bangkok street cart

Bangkok street vendor serving made-to-order pad Thai

After 15 years of sampling this specialty on American soil, I wanted it to be the first thing that I ate in Thailand. I’d tried countless Western interpretations of this stir fry. It was time to experience the real deal. This proved surprisingly easy for you can find noodle carts, shops and restaurants serving phàt Thai on almost every street in Bangkok. The same holds true in Northern Thailand.

Popular with locals as well as food-obsessed tourists, this dish has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s inexpensive. Depending on where you buy it in Thailand, you can pay as little as $1 for this filling and wholesome food. Obviously, it’s not difficult to find and, when you do, your repast will be fresh and made-to-order. Whether it’s the abundance of fresh, local ingredients or my overactive imagination, pad Thai does taste markedly brighter and better in Thailand.

Stir-frying pad Thai

Stir-frying pad Thai

For a dish that packs a tremendous amount of flavor, pad Thai requires few ingredients. Along with the aforementioned tamarind paste, peanuts and fish sauce, it contains rice noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, shallots, preserved turnip and tofu. Occasionally, cooks will scramble a raw egg into the mixture. They may also add dried or fresh shrimp. A few Bangkok street vendors offer chicken, too, but this is less authentic than the inclusion of egg and/or shrimp.

Ingredients in pad Thai

You need just a few ingredients to make pad Thai.

Considering the limited number of ingredients and speed and ease of preparation, I’m surprised that I hadn’t tried making pad Thai at home sooner. After all, I have a wok, rice noodles, tamarind paste, fish sauce, sugar and peanuts. Tofu, scallions, shallots and bean sprouts aren’t tough to track down. Only the preserved sweet radish proved challenging. This I ordered online.

If you leave out the fish sauce, pad Thai is a delightful dish for vegan friends. For those vegans interested in making the following recipe, try this Cook’s Illustrated substitution for fish sauce.

pad Thai

My first pad Thai meal in Thailand

If you own a wok, use it to stir fry the ingredients. Otherwise, a heavy, well-oiled sauté or frying pan will work.
Serves 2

2 teaspoons grapeseed or canola oil
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce or vegan “fish sauce”
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 large shallot, diced
2 teaspoons preserved sweet radish, rinsed and minced
4 to 5 ounces firm tofu, diced
Generous handful of rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 5 minutes to soften
2 spring onions, whites sliced and greens cut into 2-inch long matchsticks
Handful of bean sprouts
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 lime wedges

Heat the oil on medium-high until almost smoking. As the oil is heating, whisk together the tamarind paste, water, fish sauce and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside.

Add the shallot to the wok and stir fry for 1 minute before adding the preserved turnip and tofu. Stir fry for 30 to 60 seconds before adding the rice noodles and a smidgen of water. You want the noodles to be soft but not soggy. Stir fry for 1 minute and then add the tamarind fish sauce.

Stir-frying pad Thai

Stir-frying noodles for pad Thai

Simmer the ingredients for another 1 to 2 minutes before adding the spring onions and most of the bean sprouts. Cook for 30 seconds or until the sprouts and onions look slightly wilted. Remove the pan from the heat.

Place equal amounts of chopped peanuts and chili powder on two plates. Divide the pad Thai evenly between the plates and sprinkle the remaining bean sprouts over each. Place a lime wedge next to the pad Thai and serve hot.

Sweet Steamed Banana Cakes

steamed banana cakes

What steamed banana cakes lack in sexiness, they make up for in deliciousness.

Still enamored with the foods that I made and ate in Southeast Asia, I want to share another recipe from Thailand. This time it is a dessert featuring my favorite fruit, bananas.

When I say “dessert,” you might imagine a thick slice of Red Eye Chocolate Cake, a bowl of velvety Pumpkin Ginger Trifle or plate of the elegant, jam-filled cookie hindbærsnitte. In the U.S. we tend to like our desserts bursting with flavor, textures, sugar and fat. However, in terms of dessert, Asia resembles the Mediterranean; both regions end their meals on a lighter note with fruit-based sweets. In Thailand you may cap off the night with pieces of fresh mango or jack fruit, poached custard apples or, as is the case in this post, steamed banana cakes.

sliced bananas

Bananas before the mashing.

This dish is a straightforward as its name indicates. To make sweet steamed banana cakes, you mash together bananas, flour, sugar and coconut milk until a smooth batter forms. You then spoon the batter into small bowls, place the bowls in a steamer basket, cover and steam the little cakes for roughly 15 minutes or until firm and cake-like. Easy!

bunches of bananas

A few of the banana varieties available at Thai markets

The only trick to making great steamed banana cakes involves the bananas. In Thailand you have over 30 varieties from which to choose. In the U.S. we have one, the mild tasting Cavendish. Because it is neither as sweet nor as flavorful as its Asian relations, the Cavendish performs best when fully ripe. I wait until my bananas have browned and softened before using them in this recipe. Wanting these truly to be “sweet steamed banana cakes,” I also alter the type of and quantity of sugar added, switching out granulated for light brown sugar and bumping up the amount a smidgen. When serving these to diehard sweets lovers, I might pair the cakes with macerated strawberries, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or drizzle of chocolate sauce. Otherwise, I just serve them warm.

Makes 8 to 12 small cakes

3 large, extremely ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
1/3 cup rice or coconut flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch salt
1/2 firmly packed cup light brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup coconut milk

Place a steamer basket inside a stockpot or steamer filled with 1-2 inches of water. Cover and bring the water to a simmer over medium high heat.

In a large bowl using a heavy spoon, mash the bananas until smooth. Add the flour and cornstarch and mash again until the ingredients are well-combined and no large lumps exist. Add the salt, half of the brown sugar and coconut milk and mash again until a batter forms.

Mashed bananas

Mashing together bananas and flour

Taste and adjust for sweetness, adding up to 1/4 cup (all of the remaining) brown sugar. Note that, if you use coconut flour, you should not need to add the remaining sugar.

Stir the ingredients together until the batter is smooth. Evenly spoon the batter into 8 to 12 small bowls.

Place the bowls on the steamer basket, cover the basket with a lid and steam for up to 15 minutes, checking after 10 minutes to see if the cakes are cooked through. The tops will appear set and be firm yet springy to the touch. The exact timing depends upon the size of bowls that you use. Deep bowls will require longer than shallow ones. Remove the basket from the stockpot or steamer and allow the cakes to cool slightly before serving.

Eating Like the Locals with the Vietnamese Fish Dish Cha Ca

cha ca

The finished dish, cha ca

Thanks to my husband’s stepfather Luong, who was born and raised in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), I know a bit more than the average red-haired, American food writer about Vietnamese home cooking. For starters, in the country you might make your meals on a stove fueled by coconut husks while in the city you probably cook over a gas flame. Your meals may be as simple as noodles, rice or steamed fish or as complicated as spring rolls, hot and sour soups or meat-filled crepes. Whatever you make, it invariably is fresh, seasonal and local.

Cha ca simmering in frying pan

Cha ca cooking away in Hanoi

While I understand Vietnamese home cooking, until last month, I didn’t have a good sense of what constituted a traditional restaurant meal. By this I mean something generally eaten outside the home or that bears the signature of one chef or restaurant. That all changed when I traveled to North Vietnam and ate cha ca.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in Hanoi’s old quarter, a shop owned by the Doan family began selling a fish dish known as châ cá; cha ca means “fried fish.” Using white, firm-fleshed fish such as locally caught snakehead or Vietnamese catfish, Mr. Doan marinated slices of fish in a combination of fresh galangal, turmeric, fish sauce and lemon juice. After marinating the fish, he lightly grilled it. He then delivered it, along with bowls of dill, basil, spring onions, peanuts and vermicelli noodles, a frying pan and portable burner, to his customer. In turn, the customer fried the fish, herbs and onions until hot.

cha ca ingredients

Vermicelli noodles, shrimp paste sauce, scallions, fish sauce & peanuts all go into cha ca.

Once the ingredients had finished cooking, they were piled atop vermicelli noodles. Dressed with fish and shrimp paste sauces, the dish was finished with a smattering of roasted peanuts. With that the diner could dig into his fish dinner at Mr. Doan’s restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong.

Due to exhaustion, traffic and the confusion brought on by both (8 flights in 11 days can be a killer), I didn’t get my first taste of cha ca at its birthplace, Cha Ca La Vong. Instead I ended up across the street at Cha Ca La Luong. Seated outside at a standard, child-sized dining table on equally small stools, we watched as our server sautéed the greens and pre-cooked fish in a steaming hot, non-stick pan. The experience was memorable, the resulting dish was, too. Cha ca is a pleasing combination of textures and savory flavors and, although associated with restaurant cooking, it can be made at home.

Note: If you cannot find fresh galangal, substitute fresh ginger. Likewise, if fresh turmeric is unavailable, increase the amount of ground turmeric to 2 1/2 teaspoons.
Serves 4

2-inch piece fresh galangal, peeled
3-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 pounds Alaskan cod fillets, snakehead fillets or other firm, white-fleshed fish
1 tablespoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes
4 ounces rice/vermicelli noodles
3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bunches scallions, trimmed to 4-inch lengths
1 small white onion, sliced
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
2/3 cup fresh dill
1/3 cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Shrimp paste sauce, optional, to taste

Place the galangal, fresh and ground turmeric and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blend and pulse into a paste has formed. Scoop the paste from the bowl, spread it over the fish slices, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

As the fish is marinating, whisk together the sugar, lemon juice, fish sauce and chili flakes. Set aside.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the rice/vermicelli noodles and cook for 1 minute. Place the noodles in a colander and set aside.

Remove the fish from the refrigerator. Heat half the oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the fish and cook for 1 to 2 minutes before flipping over the slices and cooking on the other side for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the fish from the pan and set it aside on a plate.

Heat the remaining oil in the pan over medium heat. Add half the scallions, the onion, basil and dill and season with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add the fish back to the pan and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, until warmed.

Spoon equal amounts of noodles into 4 bowls. Place the greens and fish in the bowls. Sprinkle the peanuts over top. Serve with the fish sauce and optional shrimp paste sauce.