Happy 2010! Would you believe it, it's another year already. Given the fact that the Lunar New Year was just last weekend, I had an excuse for not turning the apartment upside down and taking care of all my bills by January 1. The Vietnamese believe that all old business needs to be settled in the old year; else bad luck ensued. Needless to say, on February 14, Mugg and I were furiously doing laundry, folding clothes, casting checks, wiping everything spotless. One thing I could not do was sweeping, since it's believed that I might as well carelessly sweep "luck" out. We then decided to... vacuum instead. I'm not sure what the consensus stands on this one, but technically since no "dirt" left the house, we should be okay lol

2010 promises to be an exciting year - Mugg has just started his new job downtown, I will be stepping a first toe into law school. Nonetheless, I was sad to see 2009 go. It has been somewhat of a watershed year for us. In the summer, Mugg and I moved in together after 16 months dating. It was my first attempt to cohabit with the not-so-neat sex, so I was of course terrified. I'm happy to report that the arrangement has worked really well so far. Being home and cooking for two has in fact become my most loved and peaceful moments.

Last May, Yuko and I ran out first marathon in Ottawa - the start of a running addiction. I haven't planned for a marathon this year yet, but am aiming for a 4-hour finish (9 minute/mile average pace for 26.2 miles). Two weeks ago, I finished my second half-marathon in 1:55'' - a 15-minute improvement from my first attempt. Speed training really does wonder. Only if it's less painful!

On the law school front, the latest news is that I'm in at Columbia, and have been awarded a full-tuition plus stipend scholarship (the Darrow) worth $150,000 from Michigan. UMich is flying me out to Ann Arbor during the last weekend of March for their Admitted Students' Weekend. I really look forward to the midwest's fresh air - certainly something that runs low in NYC.

On the first day of New Year, I took a long, relaxed run in the Park and entered the apartment with wet and muddy shoes. Just then, it dawned on me that I had just "opened" the apartment for us! This ritual is called "xông nhà" where the first visitor of the year is deemed to influence one's fortune that entire year. For this reason, the first visitor is often picked carefully. She has to be born in a good year, do well for herself, have good character and sometimes even needs a good-sounding name to make the cut. Given that the choice was between me and Mugg, and Mugg was still sleeping, I guess that qualified me :D

To "open" the kitchen for a year of good food and happy meal, and to celebrate Valentine's Day, allow me to introduce to you this amazing recipe for chocolate soufflé. As soufflé means "puff up" in French, you can imagine already that this dessert involves the ariest, prettiest, fluffiest cloud of dark chocolate, sprinkled with powdered sugar or dark cocoa. The rising of the cake is due to whipped egg whites, which incorporated air. When baked, those air bubbles expanded and rose, showcasing the amazing lift of the cake. Having heard many horror stories on deflated souffles, I had a nervous vision of introducing my kitchen to the New Year with a disaster. But no worry, as the trick to success lies with the whipped egg whites (which I have learned the ins and outs of during the macaroon class), I will be sharing with you some tips to make this a fool-proof recipe.

Chocolate Soufflé
Adapted from Eat My Cake Now, in turn adapted from Dori Greenspan's "Baking from My Home to Yours"

80 g (3/4 cup) of a good, dark chocolate, up to 70% cocoa - I used Lindt
90 g (1/2 cup) sugar

70 ml (1/3 cup) milk at room temperature

3 egg whites at room temperature

A pinch of salt

A pinch of cream of tatar
Butter (1 tbsp) + a dash of sugar and cocoa to coat the ramekins
Extra powder sugar or cocoa powder to sprinkle the tops

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Clean and pat dry 4 individual ramekins. Give their insides a thick coating of butter, then sprinkle them with sugar and cocoa.
3. Break the chocolate into small pieces. Put the chocolate and the sugar in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water; heat until the chocolate is melted. I simply put a ceramic bowl in the middle of a wide, slightly deep pan.
4. Transfer the bowl to the counter and add the milk.
5. In a deep, dry bowl, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and cream of tatar until soft peaks form.* Make sure that everything is dry, from your bowl to your whisk. Egg whites are super sensitive to moisture, and won't form peaks if exposed to so much as half a drop of water
6. Stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the remaining whites.
7. Bake for 20 minutes. You will see during this time that the souffle rise like crazy in the oven. Do NOT open the oven door to peek! If you must watch them (I know I did), just turn on the oven light and watch from outside. The tops will become crisp and might crack - it's not a bad thing.
8. Remove the soufflé from the oven, sprinkle the top with powdered sugar or cocoa and serve immediately. Warning: these things fall fast, so get your camera ready if you want to snap pictures. At any rate, they still taste heavenly after cooling down and losing some volume, so don't hesitate to save one for breakfast.

Bon Appétit!

*Tips on working with egg whites:

Egg whites are easiest to be separated from the yolks when the eggs are cold. In macaron recipes, the whites are whipped with granulated sugar to make meringue, a fluffy, glossy mixture. All bakers' attention: whipped egg whites absolutely hates moisture and fat. It won't fluff up if there's even a drop of water on your whisks - so towel dry everything before starting! Similarly, it won't fluff if there is oil.

I always have a hard time telling whether my whites is soft, medium or stiff peaking, until an ICE student shared a tip: the meringue is soft-peaked if it draws out a long 'tail', and the tail is pretty bendy when the whisk is tilted right and left. A medium peak means a shorter tail and much less bent. A stiff peak, it follows, means a curt tail if any; when lifting the whisk, the egg whites peaks can stand up on their own without any bent (see picture below, courtesy of Joe's Bake)

Soft peak and medium peak