Well hello, all you Nona Nona followers! Here we are again, this time with a seasonally appropriate theme, PUMPKINS, proposed by Biren, my blogger buddy at Roti n Rice. By now, some of you may know about Nona Nona, but if you've just joined us (Hello!) click here to find out more about the nonas behind Nona Nona and why we do what we do.
If you'd like to see all our other Nona Nona recipes, click here. Each month we feature a dish based on varying themes, and pretty much anything goes, so long as dish and theme tie in. Only one thing remains the same - Saturnine secrecy until the day of the reveal; not a word to the other, or to anyone else about what each is doing. Thus far, we have worked very hard on avoiding duplicate dishes though last month, for the first time since Nona Nona began, we collided in the dark, and brought the same dish to the table. Hmm, might be time for a change....
We're talking about pumpkin shortage induced panic and a mad scramble for pumpkin recipes from food blogs and sites like Pinterest. Drop a good pumpkin recipe with a decent picture into the Pinterest pool and watch it get devoured (and regurgitated and devoured, repeatedly) like chum in shark infested waters ;)
What are a couple of food blogger buddies supposed to do, under the circumstances? Why, feed the frenzy of course, and add to the swirling, orange insanity. Autumn pumpkin fever is an unknown phenomenon in Singapore, as is Autumn, for that matter. But, virtually living in the food blogosphere, as many food bloggers do, it's hard not to get sucked right in.
Sankaya phak tong is probably one of the most delicious things you can make with a pumpkin. It's not a Singaporean dish, but one of the many foreign imports that have become so familiar and so loved by us, that we sometimes forget where they actually came from and start to think of them as our own. We certainly eat it so often, that I think, the lovely, gentle natured people of Thailand would forgive us for wanting to claim it as our own.
The concept of a steamed coconut milk based custard though, is not unique to the Thais. They just raised the artistry bar by pouring the custard into a hollowed out pumpkin before steaming it. So while kaya (coconut milk and egg custard flavoured with pandan) is common in the region as a sublime, spoonable and spreadable jarred paste, the Thais showed us how to turn it into a beautiful and sliceable dessert presentable enough to serve on your finest China, to your most distinguished guests. I've often felt that Thailand is the Japan of south East Asia, as like the Japanese, Thais seem to delight in the aesthetics of a meal, as much as they do, in the nourishment and gratification it provides.
Cooking Thai food can be an involved process as Thai cuisine is rather refined, at times, bordering on courtly. Even a simple home cooked or provincial dish is expected to heed the Thai food philosophy of beauty, balance and harmony and requires quite a handful of spices, flavours and garnishes or careful, deliberate preparation to achieve this culinary ideal. Those who persevere will be richly rewarded as Thai cuisine is among the most tantalising and visually stunning in the world; a true feast for all the senses.
Today's dish doesn't require an arsenal of ingredients and the recipe may not appear complicated but it is not easy to cook the pumpkin and custard simultaneously to perfection, perfection being a fully cooked but still wobbly custard without any bubbles and tender pumpkin flesh that still has enough body to frame and cup the custard. It should slice cleanly and the custard must not fall or slide off the pumpkin 'shell' once cut. My additional rule is that the amount of custard and the capacity of the pumpkin must be a perfect match as my pet kitchen peeve is a recipe with leftovers and loose ends. Reading it below, you will think I'm pedantic or umm.... retentive. When you have cooked this, you will thank me silently, as the last drop of custard slithers obligingly, and perfectly, into the waiting pumpkin.
In Thailand, duck eggs are preferred as they are richer and produce a very creamy, rich and tender custard. My relationship with eggs in general, remains a work in progress and chicken eggs are plenty rich, for me. I'll pass on the ducky ones, thanks, but feel free to substitute if you like. Just remember to get an equal amount of duck eggs by weight, not number or volume.
I have had enough epic failures with this dish, in my kitchen, to now know and avoid all the pitfalls. Too often, even in restaurants, the custard will be riddled with little bubbles or holes or the custard and pumpkin will separate once cut, or, the custard will be runny towards the middle and will not slice cleanly, while the pumpkin will be slightly under cooked close to the custard. This recipe requires the mindset and accuracy of a military general executing a plan of attack and will send OCD-ers into raptures.
Nothing is left to chance. Bring your tape measure to the vegetable stand and measure your pumpkin, weird stares be damned. Make sure it's an Asian variety as they have thicker walls that can stand up to the steaming process.Cut your pumpkin with the delicacy and precision of a neuro surgeon, so the lid will fit perfectly and your pumpkin slice will look like it was filled by injection moulding. Cover your pumpkin with a folded cloth so condensed steam won't drip into the custard and wreck the texture. Weigh each egg and strain, strain then strain your custard again before pouring into your pumpkin, because stringy egg white and pandan leaf fibres in a custard are unforgiveable. Steam gently, don't rush the process with high heat - you want a voluptous, velvety custard, not scrambled or honeycombed eggs! Don't get distracted - turn off the heat after precisely 45 minutes of steaming.
I wrote this post while the pumpkin was in the steamer and left it SIX minutes too long, and that's all it took. If you look closely at the pictures you will see a section where the pumpkin is overcooked and pulling away slightly from the skin *sigh* Next time, I swear, next time. So, now that you know every 'secret' there is to a perfect sankaya phak tong, you must be as curious as I am about what Biren has for us in her kitchen, this-a-way!
Before I forget, I'd like to (gently *smile*) remind you about Biren's wonderful giveaway of my cook book Mum's Not Cooking, which is still on at Roti N Rice. You really don't want to miss out because what can I say, but, it's a fantastic and fun book which I know you will love!
It's open to readers WORLDWIDE and running until 18 Nov 2012. Just leave a comment here and you're in the running for the prize. And now, let's look at that recipe!
Recipe Advisory : I wrote this recipe while giddy with sweet success. The instructions are very precise because I wanted to help you achieve the result that had eluded me for years. That said, you don't need to measure anything, and surgical training while preferred, is strictly optional ;) Just get a small pumpkin the size of a cantaloupe. If you have left over custard, steam it in a small bowl or cup alongside the pumpkin. If the pumpkin's a bit too big for the amount of custard, you will have a gap between the top of the custard and the top of the pumpkin cavity. No biggy. It will still taste delicious. So if you already have a small pumpkin in your kitchen, just grab it and make this, even if you don't have a tape measure. Oh, and if you don't have pandan, replace it with 2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 tsp ground cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg. Life and cooking can be as complicated, or as easy, as you want it....