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An outrageously Bon Cinnamon thats not Cinnabon

7 Oct

Being from Africa, read the wrong side of history, we are not used to all the corporate food rave chains you find in America. Krispy Kreme dounughts, Cinnabon, or even Starbucks…  Living in Thailand, its not much better… But, recently both Krispy Kreme and Cinnabon opened a branch here in Bangkok.

My American friends rave about Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and I hear stories of people driving a hundred miles to pick up a dozen. Two weeks ago they opened a branch in Bangkok, and the queue, this morning, was still 3 hours long. How anyone could be bothered to be standing in a 3 hour line for a doughnut is way beyond what I consider to be within the margins of sanity.

So, I still have to taste one.

I am very skeptical about people raving about anything from a fast-food chain, cause how good can something made for masses actually be ?  I remember, we never had Mc Donald’s in South Africa. Friends who had gone to America and Europe raved about these burgers. So when I visited Europe in the early nineties, I picked up a standard hamburger at an outlet in London and was aghast that something slightly bigger than the rim of a coffee cup, a slice of meat that tasted like someone’s shoe, a paper thin slice of gherkin and a blob of tomato sauce could reach such epic fame.

So I was more than sceptical about trying out the Cinnabon Cinnamon roll.  Tipped to be ‘world famous cinnamon rolls‘ which is just one away from, the best cinnamon roll in the world, I wondered how companies manage to make such outrageous claims. But wait, I have no right to judge as I still had to taste one.

So I got in line for mine. The line was not very long, and I waited about 5 minutes to reach the front.  I ordered 2 x coffee and cinnamon roll for my nanny and a chocolate milk drink for my son.  I calculated in my head that it should be about B280-B290, but once rung up, ended up being B325. I asked the cashier how she arrived at this amount, but instead of giving me an answer, started pointing at random things on the menu. I tried again, but the response was equaly non-sensical. Frustrated that Cinnabon employs a person at a ‘world famous cinnamon roll’ outlet,  in the center of a world famous tourist disctrict, who were incapable of speaking the most basic English, I reacted a little  rude – I curtly thanked her, and left.

Two days later, I tried again. It was around 2 on a Sunday afternoon. There was feverish activity in the tiny little shop. But there was nobody in line. “Sorry ka… sold ou(t), no have, come in 2 hours….”

The next day I tried again. Having chalked up some experience by now, I knew exactly what I was going to order and how much it will be. : a coffee cinnamon roll combo, B105. I got to the front and slowly gave the cashier my order.   She smiled saying, “Sorry ka, only have cinnamon sticks… ”    I looked looked at the 4 servings of cinnamon sticks on the tray, and the queue of about 20 people, and wondered where exactly they would be running out of things to sell.

Of course I did not want a cinnamon stick. Hell Im would not be going to to KFC for the first time and order french fries now would I ?

So I left and returned an hour later. This time, the trays were brimming with all kinds of lovely looking baked goods, and YES! they had more than enough classic cinnamon rolls for me to order to my hearts content! And if they ran out of coffee, I would be a little taken aback, but would still go ahead and just have the cinnamon roll… and act asif I was not the least bit surprised.

I ordered a cinnamon roll that had just come out of the oven and a coffee that had just come out of the shiney espresso machine. I sat down with a cuppachino, or something resembling one, and a nice hot world famous cinnamon roll in front of me. I took the first bite. I tried to taste and analyse all the expected goodness..  Mmmmm !   Good….  Excellent?   Uhm …not quite…  Could it be better?  Well,  yes… it could be.

But all the criticism aside…   I could understand how someone would make a killing franchising a roll like this. Especially to people who really do not understand good food.  Not that I claim to, but atmittedly the main component of my diet does not consist of buckets of fried chicken, washed down by a half a litre of Cola in a massive plastic cup.

I ended up feeling a little dissapointed. Dissapointed in myself that I had was stupid enough to trust other people’s taste buds when it comes to rating food. I realised its one thing if your friend recommends a book, its entirely different when they recommend a fast food chain.  I was also slightly depressed thinking how things that are just  vaguely good, become a golden standard by which everything else is measured. Think about hamburgers – Is the golden standard your mom’s ?  Or even a well known mom and pop shop in town?  No, sadly it is not. And who has the best hamburgers is no longer my mom or yours… You make a great hamburger, the best ever – and it is obvious how it will be measured and judged.

Its sad that we have sold ourselves out to fast food chains which dictate what is good,  famous, or  world class.

As I was about to leave, I watched them make the rolls, Huge slabs of dough rolled out in exact rectangles, then spread with butter and sprinkled with a bowl of brown stuff, presumably brown sugar and cinnamon.

As I watched them, and immensely cheerful though occured to me :  Im sure I can make these at home, and you know what  - Im sure they will be better.

So I went home. I discovered that the original Sticky bun originated centuries ago in Sri Lanka, and that they became popular in the Western world around  the turn of the century. Two versions exist in the English Speaking world. Cinnamon Rolls, from America and Chelsea Buns from England. They differ sligtly in the amounts of dough that are present. The english use a white frosting which hardens and sets, the Americans a creamcheese based topping which melts into the baked roll.

So I searched for a recipe, and came up with this one which I tweaked a little :

_______________________________________________

Outrageously good Cinnabun

Ingredients

  • 1 cup warm milk (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons yeast

Filling:

  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons of plain cocoa (optional)

Frosting

  • 125g / 3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Place ingredients in the pan of the bread machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer. Select dough cycle; press Start.
  2. After the dough has doubled in size turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, cover and let rest for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, combine brown sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Roll dough into a 16×21 inch rectangle. Spread dough with 1/3 cup butter and sprinkle evenly with sugar/cinnamon mixture. Roll up dough and cut into 12 rolls. Place rolls in a lightly greased 9×13 inch baking pan. Cover and let rise until nearly doubled, about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
  4. Bake rolls in preheated oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes. While rolls are baking, beat together cream cheese, 1/4 cup butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla extract and salt. Spread frosting on warm rolls before serving.

___________________________

Though it took a time, it required very little effort.  Also it made about 2 trays, more than enough for our family, enough, in fact to hand out some to the Thais in my neighbourhood.

When they were done, I spoooned over the frosting, made a cup of earl grey tea, and sat down to try them…

They were absolutely amazing. In fact they were exactly what I would have expected ‘world famous cinnamon rolls’ to taste like. Could they have been better ? Honestly ?  No… they could not.  They were just out of this world. In fact I guess the original cinnabon must have tasted something like this before it became ‘world famous’.

Whats great about this recipe, apart from it being the best cinnamon roll youll ever have, is that you can make it the night before, store them covered in the fridge, then bake them from a cold oven, and have lovely hot cinnamon rolls ready in under 20 minutes.

Most of all, I am so pleased that I managed to produce something that was just so much better than any franchise were able to claim. Silently, as I was munching on what was in reality nothing different to a good old Chelsea bun, I wondered what my American friends would say if they could taste these?

Perhaps, “Wow Pierre – you should open a bakery!”

Poor man’s Cordon Bleu

11 Sep

Some time ago, perhaps it was about a month or so, I investigated enrolling at the Cordon Bleu Cooking school here in BKK.  Yeah hell why not?  They have saturday classes, and you can do the 3 tier basic, intermediate and superior course in around 18 months.

Bad news was the cost. At 180 000 baht ($6000 US) per course, so that is almost $20 000 including the kit, it meant that I would have to sell my house in order to attend.  Scrap that idea…

There had to be a better way – I decided that, instead of picking at cooking random things on a Saturday as I have been doing, I could just make it a little more structured. Find a cooking course that I could do at home. So I looked at Cooking books which teach cooking as you go along.

Julia Childs’ Excellent Mastering the Art of cooking, was my first choice. But, unfortunately its not really structured as a book which incorporates learning in the kind of way I had in mind.  So I looked at books that actually teach you cooking. The first one was Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, and though the book seems quite good, I did not feel that it was really who I would like to learn from. Yeah, Martha has some great recipes, and great ideas, but if I wanted to learn how to do Shakespeare, would I not want to learn from Sir Lawrence Olivier, rather than Tom Cruise?

No Martha was not it.

I looked at some ebooks – There is the Tante Marie’s cooking school, which, I downloaded a sample on Kindle, and seemed really good. It has great reviews and the recipes are all good. So over the next week I milled over whether I should invest $10 and just get it.

But on Friday after school, I went to the Kimoninmonuiyayiah (or however you spell that bookshop’s name) at Paragon, and whilst browsing, saw a copy of Cordon Bleu at home.

Leafing through it, I became so excited. The book really is the actual cooking course at Cordon Bleu, divided into 3 sections – Basic, Intermediate and Superior, spanning over 90 lessons, each with a starter, a main course and a dessert. Exactly what I wanted to do… and ingredients aside, the book cost just over $50 which seems free compared to $20 000.

Perfect.  Though it will be challenging to find some of the ingredients (have you ever seen skinned rabbit for sale anywhere, ever !?!), I’m sure a change here and a little substitution there will only add to the learning process…

So I bought the book, and the ingredients for the first lesson:

Cucumber Salad with Mint Yogurt
Pea and Lettuce with Roasted Chicken
Fruit Salad

Very do-able… if not a tad boring….

Porkribs in tomato and ginger

6 Sep

This is a excellent recipe – especially in  a pressure cooker. Its gorgeous spare ribs, and it will take a pro to recognize the slightly citrus taste in the sauce, which blends beautifully with the tomato base. When I first had it I was convinced it was lemongrass. But, once the recipe was revealed, after much begging and pleading, it turned out to be rather disappointing – 1  1/2 tablespoons of finely chopped ginger.

I do not like recipes which call for canned or bottled anything – even something as common as ketchup. When I read a recipe which calls for ketchup or a tin of this or a packet of that, my feeling hovers between having a sense that something has been compromised, cheapened, or just plain rushed. This recipe however turns out to be an exception. If you use the pressure cooker, its an exceptional Sunday lunch, clocking in at just under an hour.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 kg of pork ribs, cut between the ribs
  • 1 cup of sweet tomato sauce, if you can get ROZA its got a great taste
  • 1 cup of chicken stock or water (obviously chicken stock will add to the end result)
  • 2 tomatoes – finely chopped with the juice
  • 1 1/2 medium  onions  or one large one, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tbs finely chopped fresh ginger (more if you like the ginger to be a bit more ‘there’)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • vegetable oil for frying.

Method Conventional

  • Dry the ribs in a paper or kitchen towel to ensure browning. Heat oil in a heavy skillet, and brown over high heat until the ribs they have a nice deep brown colour shaking the pan occasionally. A nice dark brown on the ribs is especially important if you are going to use a pressure cooker, as the pressure tends to pale meat.
  • Remove the ribs
  • Using the fat of the ribs, add the onions and ginger and saute briefly, then add the tomatoes. Saute until the onions change colour and is soft and transparent. Add the ribs back into the pot as well as any juice.
  • Add the chicken stock and tomato sauce, mix thoroughly.
  • Cook over slow, conventional heat for about 1.5 hours or until the meat is soft and tender.  Check frequently to ensure that the sauce does not burn.

Pressure cooker

  • Read through the conventional method so that you have an idea of the different steps.  Once the meat has browned, add it to the pressure cooker and cook for 10 minutes in the stock.
  • Whilst its cooking,  saute onions, ginger and tomato in the same pot as you used to brown the meat.  When done with the saute, add the saute mix to the pressure cooked ribs in the pressure cooker, the pepper and tomato sauce. Mix well so that the sauce and juices blend thoroughly.
  • Now pressure cook for 15 minutes

The reason for this extra step is to avoid burning the sauce. Tomato sauce is high in sugar, and sugar tends to crystalise and then burn easily,  particularly when the temperature is raised for a long time.

Final Step

  • Remove the meat into a separate container so that you are left with only the sauce.
  • Over very high heat, reduce the sauce until it is a thick syrup. To avoid burning its best to stand over the boiling liquid continually scraping the bottom of the skillet with the flat end of an egg-lifter. Work briskly. It takes about 10 minutes or so to reduce the sauce.  Taste every now and then for texture and intensity.  If you are happy with the intensity of the reduced sauce, stop the process. The more the sauce reduces, the more intense the flavour. SO be careful. Personally I let the liquid reduce to a deep red,  has a shiny consistency similar to chutney and has become quite thick. Then I add the ribs back into the sauce and move the meat for a minute or two, until the liquid starts simmering again – pushing it around with the back of the egg-lifter.
  • Taste and carefully add final seasoning. The final sauce has a shiny appearance, and is quite thick. It has a slightly velvety texture and is slightly heavy. The aroma and taste on your tongue should be of a sauce that has been cooked for hours, and the flavours blended into a velvety, slightly sweet heavy texture that lingers.  If you feel it needs a little more ginger, fry a teaspoon or so separately in a tablespoon of oil and then add to the sauce.
  • Adjust seasoning carefully, adding a little salt pepper or a sugar, if needed.

Serve on a flavourful rice, such as Basmati or Thai Jasmine.

A deeper desire – pining for the perfect pie…

2 Aug

Over the years I have longed to find the perfect pie, alla Ramona, and here in the East, with pies not tasting anything like they are supposed to, my craving for a decent pie has turned into something moving in the direction of desperation.

We have something here in Thailand called Puff and Pie, but despite the promise in their name, their pastries are neither puffed, nor are they worthy of being called a pie.

Many years ago I read a short story called ‘Dieper Dors’ (a Deeper Thirst). It dealt with a woman who was stuck on a farm in the arid Karoo, and all she wanted was to return to the excitement of the big city. This desire had become an unquenchable thirst, where the sweltering daily heat and the sound of the passing cars on the distant motorway, were a constant reminder of her unfulfilled emotional thirst.

So Ramona Bakery is my Dieper Dors, my very own pie in the sky.  Over the last few days I had the need to get something which would qualify as an actual pie into my system, so I decided the only solution would be to make a batch myself.  Select and prepare an appropriate filling, crack some eggs, cube the butter for the puff pastry, the works.

But I did not just want any old thrown together cafe pie.  I wanted to make a pie which someone would have had the courtesy of bringing to a Biduur, or perhaps, as a thoughtful afterthought to a grieving widow, would leave her with a plate of these after all had left her husbands funeral… she would have the bittersweet comfort of being able to delay having to cook for her widowed-self for the first time, thanks to the plate of homemade pies she was now holding in her hand. I longed for a culinary experience that reminded one of wildsvleis en bokskiet, one which would connect with such primitive desires, it could bring about a culinary catharsis by ultimately allowing one the luxury of having a meaningful cry about the untold shortcomings of this imperfect world.

Ok, wait -  this is really taking it a bit far… I mean this is real life, and this me and my imperfect baking record we are dealing with, not a scene from Like Water for Chocolate.

So, toned town, I would be quite pleased if I could manage to produce a litter of pies which would not be out of place in a dining room somewhere in the Karoo. There they wait in all their plated glory, under faded recoloured photographs of an austere dead relative, staring out at them from above a heavy oak dining table. Yah, a beautiful plate of pies somewhere in the inner confines of a dusty farm, situated on a windswept African plain, miles away from a shop that sold Rennies. Yes, this is a far more delicious fantasy, and one within the boundaries of my actual baking abilities.

So I went about the next few days planning how I would construct my object of deep desire.  I wanted a taste which would remind me of  boerewors or biltong, or something which would make me think of  wildspastei, in short an experience  which would quantum leap over my rather safe definition of what I considered to be comfort food.

The crust had to be somewhere between pastry and tart, the way that they would make it on a farm. So a sophisticated flakey pastry alla Ramona was absolutely out of the question. The filling would need to be very there and very plaas.  Quite salty. something slightly sour, perhaps malt vinegar, the undeniable presence of copious amounts of dried coriander,  some spices which were hinted at – maybe just the slightest suggestion of nutmeg or a whisper of cloves.

This is what I came up with…

Kamma Wildsvleis Begrafnis pies / Widow’s Sausage Rolls

Filling

750g ground beef

450g pork mince or a packet of fatty beacon, ok make that two…

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 level teaspoon nutmeg

A splash of cinnamon

A decent pinch of ground cloves.

About a Teaspoon of salt

About a  teaspoon of pepper depending on how you prefer it.

1/2 cup of malt (brown) vinegar

2 slices of white bread, crumbed

Two eggs

Oil for browning

Except for the breadcrumbs and eggs – mix the whole lot using the dough hook on your mixer for about a minute. or in the absence of one, your hands. Careful not to over mix, especially if the meat is near room temp. Put in the fridge to marinade for a half hour

Once done, test-fry a small piece in a little oil to make sure you are satisfied with the taste. Add whatever you feel it may lack. If its over seasoned, you can add another egg or slice of bread. Or a bit of frozen mixed veggies. ( though introducing anything healthy like a vegetable, you’d be straying from what would be a boere funeral pie, so consider making the pies for a different charitable cause. Now let me think… Veggies boiled in salt? quite English – the local church Anglican church fete, perhaps? )

Having mixed up the batch, I realise that there would soon be a choice to be made regarding the cooking methodology.  A critical decision, which would bring about two very different end results: 1) I could either mix in the crumbs and egg, put the raw mix in the fridge, then shape the pies using the raw meat and dough, and bake it in the oven till done. Or  2) I could cook the meat a little, then let it cool, mix in the crumbs and beaten egg, shape the filling fold the pastry.

Knowing that Afrikaner boeretannies would fear all kinds of unspeakable disease from half cooked meat, I decide that the woman who would be cooking for her widowed best friend’s freshly departed husband’s Karoo funeral, would definitely make sure the meat would be done when the pies eventually get out of the oven. This approach is admittedly a little risky, cause the meat can easily end up becoming overcooked and dry.

In the end I went on the hunch that she would probably risk a dry pie, over having her pastries be the cause of another funeral.

Here is how I prepared the filling…

Preparing the Filling

Heat up a thin film of sunflower oil until sizzling hot in a heavy base frying pan. Add the mix bit by bit, frying it in two or three batches. This is fairly important, as you want to brown the meat – not end up with a pale and watery mince concoction, which is exactly what you would get if you add all the meat at once into the sizzling pan. Once browned, set aside to cool..

Now the pastry dough.

If you have any doubt about making pastry, then don’t. It is a very risky affair, which, considering the time, and expense, will most likely not be worth the disappointment. They make ready puff pastry for a very good reason: making perfect puff pastry in your own kitchen is quite possible if you are nearing your sixties, belong to  a biduur group and have won at least one award for previous pastries at the annual fair.

So run out and get two packs, but don’t admit to anyone what you are about to do – -only when pressed, admit to everyone what hell it was to get the pastry this perfect. (they don’t have to know you mean cutting the corners of each sausage roll at a perfect 90’ angle)

I, however do not have the luxury of dashing to a supermarket stocked with much in the line of anything western, so I am faced with the prospect of having to actually make this dough. Getting ready-to-use puff pastry at a supermarket in a dead average Thai suburb is as much a fantasy as pretending I am cooking in a plaaskombuis in the Karoo. The only baking Thais do, is in their cars in the traffic, and puff pastry can be found, baked to near perfection, in quant shops located just off the foyers of luxury hotels, carefully quaffed and coiffured by chefs who’s parents have spent a fortune to allow them to produce pastries that look and taste like a lost Picasso.

Whatever I would be using to make the outer layer of the pie, would have to be something I made myself.

Puff Pastry. My kitchen nemesis.  The holy grail of baking. I have heard so many people talk about how difficult it is to get right. Everything should be cold. the almost frozen butter, the ice water, the cooled flour, the chilled fingers.  The picture which was emerging for the perfect pastry dough was clearly that it should preferably be prepared on a marble slab in a walk-in deepfreeze.

I’m stuck in the tropics. My kitchen is around 32′C on any given day, and dips just below 40 if I decide to boil the kettle.

Making Pastry in my kitchen is thus out of the question.  The coolest place is the lounge. If I run the ancient aircon for an hour I can get it to about 28C. I could cut the butter in sessions, store it, bit by bit in the minute freezing compartment of the lounge bar fridge. Sounds like a workable plan.

I switch on the aircon, pack up half my kitchen and move into the lounge.

I follow this failproof recipe carefully:

Kittencall’s Fail-proof flaky puff pastry.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups pastry cake flour (or use 3 cups all purpose)

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup butter, very cold consider freezing it for a few hours

1/4 cup lard, very cold (you can also use shortening / Crisco

1 egg yolk

7 tablespoons ice water

1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions

Mix both flours, and salt in a large bowl.

With a pastry cutter (or knife) cut in the very cold butter and lard until the consistency of tiny peas. (tiny peas? im using a knife not a miniature ice cream scoop – little cubes will have to do)

In a small bowl whisk the egg yolk, vinegar and water.

Stir the egg/water mixture into the flour mixture until moistened and dough holds together (usually it takes the full amount of water/egg mixture).

Gather into a ball then divide into two.

Cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge for 30 minutes (or the dough may be frozen after the 30 minutes chilling time, just wrap firstly in plastic wrap and then tightly in foil, leave in fridge overnight to defrost).

PROCESSOR METHOD: whirl the flour and salt for a couple of seconds.

In a small bowl mix the egg, vinegar and water together; set aside.

Add in the partially frozen butter cubes and lard to the flour mixture; pulse until well mixed, then add in the water/egg mixture.

Process/pulse JUST until the dough holds together (do not over process, or your dough will be tough!).

If it holds together, collect your junior pastry chef certificate on your way out.

Wow, that actually worked. To my utter surprise, I have a very workable dough.  I finish off a double batch of the dough, cut it up into 4 equal bits and cool it for an hour.

In the meantime, I take the cooked and cooled meat mixture out of the fridge, add two beaten eggs and two handfulls of breadcrumbs, mix it well and put it back into the fridge. Back to the dough, I take a lump and cut it in two. One half goes back into the fridge with the others, the remaining one is rolled into a rectangle of about 15x25cm.  I spoon a rectangle of cooled meat onto the dough, roll it over with my fingers to shape it into an cylinder, then seal it with eggwash and transfer it carefully onto the  baking tray, covering each sausage roll with clingfilm to prevent the raw dough from drying.  Each sausage roll takes about 5-10 minutes to complete.

So is this what those bakers at Ramona had to do for each of the hundreds of pies they made every day, multiplied by the fifty years they were in production? This is a helluva lot of work for a measly sausage roll…  My adoration for Ramona has just deepened to a genuine desire to worship.

After about forty minutes I have 7 sausage rolls, each differing ever so slightly in shape and size.

Having never baked pastries, and being rather surprised that the failproof recipe did not include baking instructions, I resort to reason and experience to figure out the baking time and temperature. So I preheat the oven to 210′C and set the timer for 25 minutes.  My reasoning is that at the traditional180’C, they may take too long to cook, and this would most likely increase the risk of drying out the meat more than it needs. Increasing the heat by 30 degrees would allow a faster baking time and, in theory at least, reduce the time for the moisture in the meat to escape. At 25 minutes they should be golden brown, and if they are not, I can always leave them in a little longer until they are the desired colour.

I make an eggwash made up of one egg beaten with a half an eggshell of water. What the hell, if this ratio produces perfect scrambled egg and perfect omelet’s every time, it should produce a perfectly fine eggwash. I brush the wash liberally over the pastries before putting them into the oven.

My reasoning turns out to be well-argued . At 210C they are done after 25 minutes. I take them from the oven and let them cool for 30 minutes before I try the first one.

Stop the clock :

Total time to from the moment I pack up the kitchen, to the moment I bite into a cooled sausage roll : 4 hours and twelve minutes.

Total time since I have had the desire to bite into a cooled sausage roll in asia and actually bit into one:  8 years and 7 months.

V E R D I C T

The piecrust.

Softens after cooling. Not overly flaky, in fact not flaky at all. It is just moist enough to produce a slight crunch when you bite into it. Definitely not London Pie Co, instead very Sunday afternoon with tea on the stoep, sheep grazing  motionless in the endless dusty veld, whilst I effortlessly cut through the warm pastries with my knipmes.

The filling

Unsurprisingly, the filling is slightly dry. (more pork fat next time?) But the texture and wildsvleis taste is totally from someone’s plaaskombuis. The coriander and nutmeg, combined with the slightly sour taste of the cooked vinegar, creates the impression that this is authentic fake wildsvleispastei.  A culinary quantum leap has occurred in the comfort-food department.  Very much what I was aiming for.

CONCLUSION

I imagine these pastries on that oak table on the crocheted beige tablecloth, neatly plated next to the fake flowers in the elaborate turquoise vase. I imagine the murmur of the funeral guests and the distant crinkling of teacups in the nearby kitchen.  Not wanting to seem impolite or overzealous, I reach over for my second pastry in just under three minutes. I glance at the family portrait on the wall as I take a bite. Perhaps it’s the way the afternoon sunlight has caught the glass, or perhaps it’s my imagination, but that menacing stare has definitely softened to something far less threatening… For  the moment, I cannot hear any cars on the distant motorway, and for a brief instant the room feels slightly less oppresive.

And if there had been any doubt about having satisfied my Dieper Dors after this elaborate undertaking, not 15 minutes after the first pie, I am searching for the pack of expired Rennies I keep in the Deepfreeze for these kind of emergencies.

Kitchenless living, a toasted microwave and the merits of having a bread machine.

23 Jan


For someone who loves cooking, living without a kitchen is something of a prison sentence. For the first few years living in Asia I did not have a one. In fact, as a result of my choice of living a rather Zen existence, I lived on a bed for the first two years, had a kettle for making dreadful instant coffee and dreamed about having a kitchen. So after about 2 years, I decided to get a small fridge, and then later a basic electric cooker, capable of making stews.

This all changed about 4 years ago when I moved to a house, which had a kitchen sink and, well, a kitchen too. Since then, everything changed – I have been quite active in the cooking department and have added every kitchen appliance I thought necessary for the kitchen.  I’m a total sucker for kitchen appliances.

When the nanny turned the previous microwave into a melted mess after turning sticky rice into molten ash by heating it for 99 minutes at 600W, it was time to get a proper convection/microwave oven.  We settled for a Toshiba, and though it is fairly small, it has turned out to be a little gem.  The oven temperature is fairly even, thanks to the fans and small inside space. So the baking turns out beautiful. Also, it measures surface temperatures, so I can set the desired temperature of a glass of milk, or frozen butter, press a button, and it will be heated to that temperature. Very nifty. It also has a setting for fermentation, which allows for ideal temperatures for getting dough to rise, ranging from 35-45 degrees Celsius.   It comes with an Asian version of a baking stone, a flat pan made of ceramic, and the oven is capable of making stone baked pizza. So it’s perfect for a compact, cluttered Asian kitchen.

On the day I bought the oven, I also bought a bread maker.  I did so begrudgingly, because hell, I just spent $500 on an oven so small, I could carry it out the store by myself. There was a lengthy debate about spending another $120, if really we already had a Kenwood chef and this great little oven.

Eventually the reasoning for the bread maker is that I really hate kneading dough.  It takes a lot of time and effort and I can’t stand the sticky bits between my fingers and on my hands.  The bread maker would solve all that. The other reason is that finding good bread here in Thailand is a mission. And it’s expensive, at around $3 a loaf. There are 7-11’s on every street corner, and they all sell a small selection of breads. However, the average 7-11 bread is light, airy and even though it looks like bread, it tastes nothing like it.  In short its bread by name only.

Another reason for buying it was to use it as a pasta maker.  At home we make fresh pasta often, and it has replaced the store bought stuff entirely. In fact, once you get used to fresh pasta, its difficult to be satisfied with the dry variety. Even a good brand like Barilla tastes bland and flat. Making pasta is time consuming, so anything to speed up the process would be welcome.

So with this in mind, the machine, a Spanish one named Fagor (Probably made in China) soon decked my kitchen in all its white plastic glory.  I use it a lot. Even though it takes around three hours to make the bread, my part in the making only takes three minutes. So, making bread is a no brainer, takes almost no time, and of course,  makes near perfect bread.

If you love bread, or like making pasta, or even cooking jam, the bread maker is essential. If you do decide to buy one, try to get a model that has two rotating blades as opposed to just one. This takes a lot of strain off the motor, and allows for a longer machine life.

Yup, I am not sorry I bought a bread machine. Besides, where else would my daily bread be coming from?

I use the following ingredients, in the order given, for making basic machine bread:

Classic Bread

400ml water

2 tbsp oil (you could use olive oil)

500 – 520g bread flour depending on the brand of flour

2 tsp yeast

1 tbsp white sugar

2 tsp salt

Throw into the machine, press the button, wait for the beep…

Note, though bread machine instructions would say add all the ingredients together in the above order, I usually separate some of the water – about 50 ml in a cup, warm it to about 50 ‘C,  dissolve the sugar in it, add the yeast , mix and wait until the whole lot foams. Then add that to the contents in the machine, and press the button.

This way the bread does not run the risk of falling flat.

Quick history of Modern Bread

21 Jan

JAMES NEIL HOLLINGSWORTH

Commissioned Painting No.2: Bread Bag
oil on canvas
30” x 30″

During the twentieth century there were two main trends in the consumption of bread.  As the average income rose, and the middle class emerged, people were able to eat more meat and were able to afford more expensive high sugar and high-fat cakes and pastries.

By the 60’s mass production, mechanisation and the drive to reduce the time which industrial dough needed to leaven, culminated in a bread which was very different to the ones found early in the century. Instead of textured crusty bread, loaves were soft and insides resembled that of cake.  Instead of being fresh for a day or two, these breads remained edible for a week, albeit at the overall expense of taste and texture.

However, the 1980’s changed much of that. During the rise of a new generation of young and upcoming professionals (yuppies), there was a conscious move toward the modern and sophisticated, coupled with a longing for the traditional and time-honoured. Young professionals moved into loft apartments, revived old factories into living spaces and bought restored vintage cars.  In the food department it was the rise of the espresso and the latte, the Italian panini and French croissant. Having cakey, lily-white bread was not only seen as unhealthy, but sneered at as being middle class and uncool.

So by the 90’s North Americans and Europeans were eating significantly more breads than the decade before. This was a trend for most of the English speaking world.

Another significant development during this time, was the invention of the bread machine. Originally produced by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (Panasonic), in 1986, it became a common sight in American and English kitchens by the late 1990’s.

Today small bakery/coffee shops dots every city, and it would simply be ghastly to have a plain ordinary factory loaf arrive as part of your ordered sandwich. In recent years consumers have become far more selective about bread, and the trend to buying fresh artisan or locally baked bread has become the norm for the upper middle classes.

But again, this is in the English speaking world and Europe. In Asia, where bread making is really in its infancy, bread production is firmly stuck in the 60’s. This is the general trend, with the exceptions of countries like Laos, where you can have the best baguettes in Asia, thanks to the French leaving the recipe when they lost interest and left Indo-China in the 1950’s.

Asians, however, do not come from a bread making culture, and have only recently introduced bread into their diet, and subsequently set up mass produced factory quickbread as the bread standard. The bread found here in Thailand in local supermarkets or corner 7-11’s are much worse than the ones we in the West were consuming, en-masse, 15 years ago.  They are without a crust, cakey, and are almost entirely without flavour.  One wonders when, if ever, this will change.  I cannot foresee a good quality beautiful loaf of bread at the seven eleven anything earlier than maybe 2025.

So, little wonder then, so many Asians, when pressed, will tell you they do not care for bread – most of them have never tasted the kind of bread that has made bread, well bread!

chicken or egg ?

5 Jan

The first two letters in the alphabet...

The chicken or egg dilemma is a little more layered than the chicken or beef question when faced with a supper choice on a 12 hour inter-continental flight. Chickens hatch from eggs, but eggs are laid by chickens, making it difficult to say which originally gave rise to the other.

The Thai Alphabet has forty-four consonants, fifteen vowel symbols, that combine into at least twenty-eight vowel forms, and four tone marks. Consonants are written as words. So instead of saying ‘dee’ for the letter d, Thais would say ‘Doh Dek’ (child) for the ‘D’ sound.

Their alphabet starts with consonant, Goh Gai (chicken), followed by Koh Kai (egg). Perhaps the early Thais, who had part of their language influenced by the ancient Indo-Aryan language of Pali and Sanskrit,  may have been influenced by the idea of creation as an egg as described in my previous post. The Upanishads describes in detail the world as an egg, but leaves no possible clues who or what parted with this substantial contribution. There are no answers in Buddhism, and even though this religion was an indirect outflow from Hinduism, it is silent about anything related to the creation of the universe.  But then, Buddhism is not a Thai invention, merely something they have practiced over millenia. The fact remains the first two consonants in the Thai script, is chicken and egg and it may not be all that  coincidental.

Be that as it may – at least for Thais, the chicken takes priority over the egg. (irrespective of whether my philosophical babble above is correct or not.)

According to the Hindus, the world started as an egg.  According to Genesis, God created creatures first, not their reproductive apparatus. For this reason the Church fathers sided with the chicken.

Ok, so we are not getting any conclusive answers from language or religion. What about philosophy or the arts?

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was puzzled by the idea that there could be a first bird or egg and concluded that both the bird and egg must have always existed. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett said that the chicken is “just an eggs’ way of making another egg.”

But really, that’s not an answer, its simply a creative perspective.  I guess we need to look at science…

Science has the following to say : “Prior to that first true chicken zygote, there were only non-chickens. The zygote cell is the only place where DNA mutations could produce a new animal, and the zygote cell is housed in the chicken’s egg. So, the egg must have come first.”  (from the “How Stuff works” website)

So really, where is the cooking connection?

In his monumental work on science and the kitchen, On Food and Cooking – The science and lore of the kitchen, Harold McGee has the following to say: “About one point there is no dispute, eggs existed long before chickens did. Ultimately, we owe our soufflés and sunny sides up to the invention of sex.”

And there… suddenly frying, boiling or scrambling an egg takes on a whole different dimension. Classic Italian Frittate anyone ?

Creation as an egg.

5 Jan

I’m still on the eggs…  I found an interesting reference in Hindu scriptures regarding the egg.  It comes from the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture which is almost 3000 years old:

The Sun is Brahman-this is the teaching. An explanation .thereof (is this). In the beginning this (world) was non-existent. It became existent. It grew. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It burst open. Then came out of the eggshell, two parts, one of silver, the other of gold. That which was of silver is this earth; that which was of gold is the sky. What was the outer membrane is the mountains; that which was the inner membrane is the mist with the clouds. What were the veins were the rivers. What was the fluid within is the ocean. (Chandogya Upanishad, III, Circa 800 BCE, 19, 1-2.)

Who, would have thought to compare creation with an egg ?  It is also interesting  that even 3000 years ago, at least in the Hindu world, the earth was thought of as a round sphere rather than a flat disk.  Also it leads to the inevitable question – the chicken or the egg?

I will look at this in my next post…

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The art of the egg.

1 Jan

We share a relationship with food which goes back to when we were babies. Perhaps even further, to when we were in the womb. Food makes up an integral part of what we are and who we are. For some, food is something which has to be consumed 3 times a day, for some it is a passion. For others an obsession.

Jamie Oliver once said, “If you are going to eat 3 times a day – you may as well make it worth your while…” or something to that effect.

I personally have moved from the habit part of it to the passion part. And maybe even a little towards the obsessive. My first baby steps in cooking took place around the age of 12, when I learned how to fry an egg.

I had a working mother, and living in apartheid South Africa in the late 70′s meant that our family had a maid. Our maid, named Evaline, was a plump African who had been our cleaning fairy for as long as I could remember. She did the cleaning and the washing and the dusting and the ironing. She could turn the house from dirty to sparkling in a matter of minutes. If ever there were someone who was the magic cleaning fairy, it was her. She was Mrs Sparkle, the definitive ad for Mrs Min…

But, alas, when it came to Evaline’s cooking repertoire, it was a different matter altogether. It boiled down to a simple test : how well our Evaline could fry an egg.

The first thing chef Gordon Ramsey asks his apprentice chefs to make, is not Quail Eggs in Rose Petal sauce, or Creme Brulee, but rather to make Scrambled Egg.

There is a very simple test in this. To make truly great scrambled egg is indeed an art. To boil an egg, is indeed also an art. It is if you want it to be perfect.

Evaline’s cooking repertoire revolved exclusively around doing eggs. And quite frankly, doing them badly; no matter how she did them – either boiled or fried (forget poached, omelette, frigate even scrambled). These boiled or fried eggs landed in our plates with a bounce, for they were rubbery affairs which had an elastic quality similar to a small fried beach ball. It would bounce to a different location on the plate, when making an attempt to pin it down with a fork. If it happened to be fried, the whites had a plastic quality and the centers cooked until there were no moisture left. Her boiled eggs were boiled in fast boiling water for a long, long time. The effect of the rapid boiling, indeed, made them like little rubber balls. The outer layer of the yolk would have a signature smudgy green coating from excessive cooking and they were hard to swallow, sticking to the back of your throat and requiring gulps of milk to try to wash them down.

This may have partly been a cultural thing. Evaline, despite her cooking abilities being restricted to two styles of eggs, actually could not stand the sight of them. Particularly when they were raw. She could not understand how anyone could put a warm runny yolk in their mouth and swallow. It made her shudder and she would mutter disapproving noises in her native Xhosa.

It did not take long to realise that the two things on the menu were probably never going to change, unless I take matters into my own hands. And taking action on the hopeless kitchen situation, and cracking open an egg into a hot pan, over sizzling butter, I fried my own sunny side up egg, with yolk that had not set. With that simple, necessary act of making the most basic meal I was capable of, my love for cooking started. It would take decades to learn how to get them perfect, but the love for cooking was instant. Soon fried eggs turned to scrambled eggs, poached eggs, boiled eggs, omelets, and later elaborate Italian fritates.

This is how my love for cooking was born, all thanks to Evaline and her grumpy, rubbery green eggs. And in Evaline’s defence, it really is not easy to fry an egg. Even after so many years, and after having cooked so many meals, the odd day in the kitchen would still produce an egg which is just , well, not perfect.

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