Author Archives: yewnique

Book Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

I borrowed the Audiobook version from my local library and we listened to it on a car trip up to my mother-in-law’s place and back again. I found it difficult to catch everything that was read (maybe our car is old and noisy), so I’m sure that affected our enjoyment of it.

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Paul Stewart is a food writer who is going through a serious case of writer’s block in large part due to his girlfriend of four years, Becky, leaving him for her personal trainer. His editor, Gloria, suggests that he do some in-the-field research for his overdue book on Italian cuisine by going to Tuscany. Upon his arrival at the airport, he discovers that his rental car is not available and, after some frustrating moments, Paul is offered the use of a bulldozer. Thus begins his three-week adventure in Italy.

Although Paul is a food writer in Italy, I found that there wasn’t really much devoted to that in the book. Also, the bulldozer didn’t feature that prominently either.

What the book did focus on was Paul’s obsession with Becky and his seemingly inability to move on with his life. He meets someone in Italy and wonders if this new friendship might possibly blossom into something more.

I think the best way to sum up this book is “A romance book with a male protagonist”.

It was okay, but not as enjoyable as McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Before I get into the review of this book, allow me to tell you story. I most probably would not have picked it up on my own, so I should tell you how I came to hear of it.

Earlier this year on Facebook, a friend of a friend posted a picture of their third-grade class. He tagged her, which is how it appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. He asked if anyone else recognised anybody in the photo and requested that we tag ourselves or the people in question.

I was astonished when I saw the photo because I have the exact same photo in my albums!

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Ms Helen Aoyagi’s Third Grade Class 1979-1980

Front row: Yours Truly (from Malaysia), Amy, Joe, Neuzeil (sp?, from Hong Kong), ??, Ms Aoyagi, Priscilla, Tommy, Jennifer, Jenny, Hiro (from Japan)

Second row: Ron (from Israel), Kent, Karine, Karen, Flavia (from Brazil), Adam (from Australia)

Third row: Jay, Mohsin (from Pakistan), Douglas, Alejandro (from Venezuela), Adi, Amanda, Hobbie, Bobby, Lisa, Michael, Christine

This is what I remember. It may not be 100% correct.

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Strawberry Cheesecake – Take 2

My daughter found a new way to make the base for a cheesecake. I love it so much that it is going to be my go-to method from now on.

I have made Strawberry Cheesecake before for my daughter’s 17th birthday, and I made one again for my son’s 15th. I guess you could say we all love cheesecake around here.

Base:

  • 1 packet of chocolate cream cookies (eg Oreos) crushed until fine
  • 1 tbsp (or so) melted butter

Filling:

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. gelatine, dissolved in 1/4 cup water (sprinkle gelatine over cold water, stir to combine, and then microwave on high for 30 seconds)
  • 2 x 250g cream cheese, softened at room temperature
  • 1 x 400g can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups mashed strawberries

Topping:

  • sliced fresh strawberries
  • 1 x 57g packet of strawberry flavoured jelly crystals

Collar (optional):

  • 135g chocolate (milk, dark, white, your choice)

Method

  1. Combine biscuit crumbs and butter. Press firmly into base of a 22cm (9-in) spring form pan. Chill until firm.
  2. In a blender, or using a hand-held electric mixer, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add gelatine mixture, sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice and mashed strawberries. Blend until well combined.
  3. Pour into crumb base. Return to refrigerator and chill until firm. This will take at least four hours.
  4. Place sliced strawberries over the top.
  5. Prepare jelly but only use half the amount of water needed, ie, if the instructions call for 500mL of water, only use about 250mL. We want a jelly top, but we want it to be firm and not too wobbly.
  6. Return to fridge and chill until firm. This will take at least a few hours (preferably overnight).

To make chocolate collar:

  1. Fold two layers of foil or baking paper around the outer circumference of the cake tin, ensuring that it is 2-3 cm higher than the sides of the cake. Cut paper to meet exactly around.
  2. Spread paper flat on work surface and tape down (if necessary).
  3. Melt chocolate. I did it in the microwave for one minute on HIGH.
  4. Spread melted chocolate onto paper with spatula. Let it cool and set slightly. Chocolate needs to be firm enough to hold its shape, but not too firm that it will crack when bent.
  5. Remove cake from springform pan and place on a serving dish.
  6. Bend chocolate-coated paper around cake, pressing gently against the sides of the cake.
  7. Return cake into fridge to chill until set (about 15 minutes).
  8. Carefully peel away paper from cake.

Strawberry Cheesecake

 

 

15

The younger son turned 15 today. Fifteen!

Yesterday, I wondered what I should make for breakfast for him and was tossing up between French Toast and pancakes. I had also bought some crumpets that were on special from the supermarket.

“Do you prefer French Toast or pancakes?”

“Umm….pancakes…?”

Then I remembered his love for Nasi Lemak.

“Would you like Nasi Lemak for breakfast?” I asked.

“Is that even a question?”

Nasi Lemak

 

Lamb Vindaloo for dinner. Forgot to take a picture! It was very good!

Strawberry Cheesecake for dessert.

Strawberry Cheesecake

 

 

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

When the animated version of Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991, I was a young university student. Disney was going through its Renaissance period at that time and audiences were expecting great things after the success of The Little Mermaid. A group of us went to watch Beauty at the cinema and left absolutely thrilled. Disney delivered!

So many memorable and sing-a-longable songs. So many new and funny characters. And that ballroom dance scene was breathtakingly stunning. Computer generated imagery was in its infancy at that time and this was spectacularly rendered.

Well, that was 26 years ago and a new Beauty and the Beast has come out. My oldest is now slightly older than what I was when the animated version came out! This movie opened here a couple of weeks ago, but we decided to wait until school was back in session because I hate crowded cinemas, so we went on the first Friday of Term 2. The Little Athletics club gave our family a very generous gift of movie gift cards as a thank you for our years of service and we put that to good use!

In 2015, Disney did a remake of Cinderella (reviewed here). The remake was rather different from the original. In contrast, the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast is very faithful to the 1991 animated original. Everything that made the first movie so great is there. Fans of the original in all its glory will not be disappointed.

All the great songs are there and I believe the actors do their own singing, which makes it just a tad more delightful, in my opinion. There are also a couple of new songs thrown in.

The backstory of how the Beast and his household end up in their cursed state is expanded upon. We also learn how Belle and her father end up in the “poor, provincial town” without a mother and wife. These added scenes make the film 45 minutes longer than the original. Whereas the original was just under 90 minutes long, this remake is over two hours. Too much? I don’t think so. Your mileage might vary.

The story is set in France with English-speaking (English-English, not American-English) characters.

There is a more multi-racial cast, featuring both Black and White characters. I didn’t see any Asians, though, but I suppose there weren’t any Asians in 18th-century France. Then again, there probably weren’t any Blacks in France at that time, either. So….?

Belle’s father, Maurice, played by Kevin Kline is little more toned down in this version — not so eccentric —  and we see more of his relationship with Belle.

The “inanimate objects” characters have more speaking parts in this version and sometimes it can feel like it detracts from the main focus of the movie. I suppose it is a way to showcase the special effects.

What about that “exclusively gay moment”?
When producer Bill Condon announced — with some pride — that the movie would feature an exclusively gay scene with LeFou (Gaston’s sidekick), he managed to ruffle a lot of feathers. Some called for a boycott of the film.

Malaysia first considered banning the film entirely, and then softened its stance to “merely” deleting the “gay” scene. Disney said, “No deal. Show the film in its entirety or not at all.” After some more thought, Malaysia decided to show the film without any cuts.

The so-called “gay scene” occurs when LeFou is singing his praises to Gaston. It’s not overt at all — only hinted at —  and if Condon hadn’t made any announcement, the moment would have passed over me and I would have been none the wiser. Then again, I really am not the sharpest knife in the block….

LeFou is depicted as a gay character because Howard Ashman, the lyricist for the original Beauty and the Beast was a homosexual. He died in 1991 from AIDS-related complications. Bill Condon wanted to honour his memory.

What I find really amusing about the whole situation is that Luke Evans, the actor who plays Gaston, is openly gay in real life!

So, go watch it, and remember Howard Ashman.

What about “Beauty-and-the-Beast Syndrome”? Isn’t that a dangerous message?
Many people have voiced their concern that Beauty and the Beast glorifies Stockholm Syndrome, whereby hostages sympathise with their captors and even go so far as to defend them or refuse to charge them with wrongdoing. Others, including Emma Watson who plays Belle, have come out and said that Belle does not show the classic symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome at all. Still others have said that Stockholm Syndrome is a complex issue and there is no one-size-fits-all scenario.

Years ago, I read something called Beauty-and-the-Beast Syndrome, ie,  where one party (typically a woman) stays with an abusive partner (typically a male) not out of fear and helplessness or religious conviction, but because she believes that underneath all that ugliness lies a prince waiting to be released. All the “beast” needs is someone to see past all his rage and anger and to love him unconditionally and she is the person to do that. Sadly, many stay in abusive relationships because they are still waiting for the prince to emerge when, in fact, there isn’t one.

In my opinion, the Beast’s bad temper is worse in this version than the original. Far worse. Maybe it’s because live action makes it seem more real. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more experienced and no longer a naive university student.

Spotting Unhealthy Behaviors in Beauty and the Beast

Perhaps use this as an opportunity to talk with your kids about what is healthy and what is not, what is realistic and what is not.

Finally, because this film is live action, certain scenes may seem more intense and scary especially for younger viewers. In particular the wolves scene and the mob scene may be frightening for very young viewers. Mine are older (youngest is ten) and don’t scare easily, so they coped just fine.

 

Little Athletics Presentation 2016/17 Season

This has been sitting in my Drafts folder for almost a month! Yikes!

As followers of my blog know, we have been involved with our local Little Athletics club for over ten years now. I put my older children in because I am not sporty in any way, shape, or form so I needed to outsource their physical education.

This season, Mark was once again the President of the club, and I was once again the Results Input person. Our older son served as a General Committee member and our older daughter helped out with entering the sprint results electronically.

Our younger son competed in the U15 age group. I think he only missed one week of competition when he was away at a Boys’ Brigade camp, so he had an almost perfect attendance. That, coupled with the fact that when he was present at Little Aths he competed in every single event, earned him the most points for his age group and he was awarded First Place for the U15 Boys.

Our younger daughter decided not to continue with Little Athletics, turning her time, energy, and focus instead to dancing. My husband predicted that the day would come when she would choose to give up Little Athletics but it was still a bittersweet moment for me. Several times over the season I asked whether she was sure, and each time she assured me she was. “No regrets?” I asked. “No regrets,” she said, firmly.

Benjamin is entitled to compete for another year as an U16; he may or may not continue this coming season, he’s not sure yet. Nevertheless, the rest of us have decided to step down from our various positions.

We’ve had a good experience with the club and, as Life Members, it is not good-bye. We will definitely be in touch and be kept in the know with the club’s events and happenings.

Cooking Around the World

This year, my youngest has been studying Eastern Hemisphere countries. To round off each topic, the student has to choose a project to do.

Here are some things she has done.

Pacific Islands
She cooked (with a bit of help) Ham and Pineapple Fried Rice and Mango Salsa. For dessert, Fakakai Topai (Dumplings in Sweet Coconut Sauce), a dish from Tonga.

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Australia

Lamingtons.

Confession: I have never made lamingtons from scratch. Years ago, someone on the homeschool forums tried making lamingtons for their Australian project. She posted pictures of their attempts where they had trouble coating the little pieces of cake evenly. The cakes came out all splotchy. She asked the Australians on the forums how we got our lamingtons evenly coated.

Without fail, every single Australian on the forum said, “We don’t make them; we just buy them at the shop.”

That said, Miss 10 and I did try to make lamingtons from scratch. It’s a lot of effort, and it really is easier to just buy them if you ever have a hankering for lamingtons.

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New Zealand

There is some controversy where pavlova — a meringue-based dessert topped with fruit and cream — originated. Some say it is Australia. Some say it is New Zealand. The Eastern Hemisphere workbook Miss 10 is working on says it is New Zealand. And the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with that.

Here is our feeble attempt. Everything was made from scratch and it is our very first attempt at making this oh-so-very-sweet dessert.

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Japan

Read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and tried our hand at some origami, including making cranes and working out how long it would take to fold one thousand of them.

One paper crane: Roughly three and a half minutes.
One thousand paper cranes: 3500 minutes (58.3 hours if done continuously without stopping!)

We didn’t take a photo of our paper cranes, but here are some other origami creations.

We live in an area where it is very convenient to buy “foreign” ingredients.

Chinese New Year 2017

Today is the last day of the year of the Monkey.

It’s been a year of many ups and downs.

In case you missed any of it:

Warning: Contains the ‘F’ word. It’s British.

If they had waited a couple of more weeks, they could have added George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds onto the list. 😦

To mark the end of the Monkey and to usher in the Rooster, this is what we had:

Fish in Cheong Cheng Sauce

Fish in Cheong Cheng Sauce

Fried Noodles

Fried Noodles

Roast Duck (store bought)

Roast Duck (store bought)

Chinese Roast Pork (store bought)

Chinese Roast Pork (store bought)

Chinese BBQ Pork (Char Siew) -- I bought the mat and a packet of marinade powder (just add water and meat).

Chinese BBQ Pork (Char Siew) — I bought the meat and a packet of marinade powder (just add water and meat).

Top: Buk Choy with garlic and soy sauce Bottom: Chinese Broccoli with garlic and oyster sauce

Top: Buk Choy with garlic and soy sauce
Bottom: Chinese Broccoli with garlic and oyster sauce

Orange Cake

Orange Cake

Mark’s sister and husband, who just happen to be here for a couple of weeks joined us for dinner.

As per tradition, there was plenty of leftovers! And it all fit in the fridge — phew!

Happy Lunar New Year, everyone!

No-Bake Pandan Cheesecake with Pandan Agar Topping

I made a Pandan Cheesecake for my daughter’s birthday last November.

This is a tweaked version of that recipe.

Ingredients:

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Base:
1 – 1 1/2 cup crushed biscuits
1/3 to 1/2 cup butter, melted

Filling:
2 x 250g cream cheese, softened at room temperature
1 x 400g can sweetened condensed milk
1 Tablespoon pandan extract
1 teaspoon pandan essence
1 1/2 Tablespoons gelatine, dissolved in 1/3 cup water*

* sprinkle gelatine over cold water, stir well and heat gently in a saucepan until dissolved OR heat in a microwave oven on High for 45 seconds

Method:

1. Combine biscuit crumbs and melted butter. Press into a 24cm (9.5 in) square springform cake tin. Put in the refrigerator to chill and set.

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2. In a large bowl, add ingredients for filling one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour into  cake tin over the base. Chill until firm.

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Topping:
100 ml coconut milk
400 ml water
1/2 teaspoon pandan paste
13 g agar powder*
75 g sugar
pinch of salt
desiccated coconut

agar-powder

* agar is a plant-based gelling agent. Commonly used in South-east Asian cuisines/desserts. Because it is plant-based, it is suitable for vegetarians/vegans, unlike gelatine which is animal-based. Agar can be found in Asian supermarkets and some urban/urbane mainstream supermarkets. If in a pinch, gelatine is a good substitute. (Pandan paste and pandan essence may be more difficult to obtain!)

Here is an interesting article about the difference between agar and gelatin.

Combine all the ingredients for the topping — except the desiccated coconut — in a small saucepan. Stir over high heat until it boils. Then, lower heat and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

If you are using gelatine, you do not need to boil the mixture. Using warm/hot water should be sufficient.

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Pour agar mixture over the chilled cheesecake and, working quickly, remove as many bubbles as possible. Agar can set at above room temperature! It was >30C today and you can actually see traces where the bubbles were! The agar was setting as I was popping the bubbles!

Put back in the refrigerator to chill (if necessary).

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Sprinkle desiccated coconut over the cake.

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Serve!

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Enjoy!

Home School 2017

Today is actually a public holiday since New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday. However, I cannot start school on a Tuesday. The curriculum we use has the weekly schedules all printed out nicely and I try to follow that. I know I don’t have to adhere to it strictly; if there are public holidays, or whatever, just move the work over to the next day. But doing that makes everything off-kilter and more difficult. We might end up finishing a book on a Monday, instead of Friday the week before, and start a new book on Tuesday, instead of Monday, which is the proper way to do things. So, over the years, my children have resigned themselves to doing school on a public holiday. Besides, they’ve been on holiday since November 12, so it’s been seven weeks, and that’s long enough.

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