Monday, January 31, 2011

cake culture

Chinese New Year begins this week. The streets are filled with red lanterns, and the foyer of my apartment building has been decked out with strings of firecrackers and miniature orange trees. The festive atmosphere reminds me of the December holiday season, but its trappings are somehow both oddly familiar and utterly alien. This might be my heritage, but it isn't my culture.

I don't have any notable childhood memories of Chinese New Year. I know I received "red packets" - a nice addition to my bank account - but I don't think my family ever engaged in any of the other rituals. What I know of the traditional foods associated with Chinese New Year comes less from personal experience and more from Wikipedia.

I've folded dumplings for Chinese New Year, but at my table, they probably make for better comedy fodder than they do celebratory material. I'd rather do as I often do, and make it up myself. This year, I decided I wanted cake.

My starting point was the little sponge cakes with raisins that are typical fare at Chinese bakeries. (They're small, round and yellow, suggestive of gold coins, which would be appropriate for the wealth theme of Chinese New Year.) They tend to be sweet and bland and a little too dry for my taste, so I set about to tweak them into something richer and moister.

Butter was an obvious addition, and when I thought about soaking the raisins to improve their texture, I remembered I had a bottle of brandy from my grandfather. The brandy darkened the batter, though, so I skipped the idea of small golden cakes and baked one big cake instead.

This cake bakes up to a fairly unremarkable shade of light brown, but it fills the kitchen with a heady scent of butter and brandy when it's in the oven. It comes out nicely moist, and its flavor improves with age, making it eminently suitable for making in advance. Even if I give heritage another shot and submit to the comedy routine of dumplings again this year, I'll be all set for dessert. As far as cultural traditions go, that's one I can definitely get behind.

Brandy Raisin Butter Cake 

Brandy is the dominant flavor in this cake, so use a variety you'd drink. Feel free to play with the seasonings - I imagine a little fresh orange zest or a pinch of cinnamon and cloves might be a nice addition. This cake tastes best a day or two after it's been made.

(Makes one eight-inch cake. Leftovers keep for a while in the fridge.)

Place a quarter-cup of golden raisins in a bowl or jar with a quarter-cup of brandy. Cover well, and leave to soften overnight. (You can speed up the process by putting them in the microwave for a minute or two.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Butter and flour an eight-inch cake or tart pan.

In a small mixing bowl, sift together a little over three-quarters of a cup (four ounces) of pastry flour, a half-teaspoon baking powder, and a half-teaspoon salt. In a bigger mixing bowl, cream three-quarters of a stick (three ounces) softened butter with a half-cup (four ounces) of sugar.

In a third bowl, beat two eggs until light and foamy. Pour a little of the egg mixture into the creamed butter, beating steadily, until the mixture reaches a pourable consistency. Fold in half the flour mixture. Fold in the rest of the egg mixture, then the other half of the flour. Finally, fold in the raisins along with any remaining brandy.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan; shake gently to smooth out the top. Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack. When fully cool, turn out gently and wrap tightly in foil, and let it sit for at least a few hours before serving.

Serve slightly warm with tea, or coffee, or a glass of brandy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

a little incentive

When I lived in Boston, I had no reason to bake my own bread.

I lived within walking distance of several bakeries – I had Kupel's, Yi Soon, and Cafe Japonaise just a few blocks away. For a few months, I even had a sublet on the same street as Clear Flour. With a quick stroll and a few dollars, I could easily satisfy every desire of my little carboholic heart.

Here in Beijing, I have every reason to bake my own bread. The one import store within walking distance has mediocre baked goods, and the city's awful traffic leaves me reluctant to trek further afield. Frankly, I could have a yeasted dough on its second proofing in the time that it would take me to go out and come back with better bread.

Instead, I'm working with the ten-pound bag of flour in my freezer, the brick of instant active yeast in my fridge, and a half-size electric oven with a single baking tray. Necessity is the mother of invention: I finally came up with a recipe for the kind of challah they sell at Kupel's.

The challah from Kupel's is soft and chewy, with a dense, almost doughy texture. It's the kind of bread that you can tear into without bothering with a knife, the kind of bread that tastes good plain. Placed on a countertop with easy access, it has a tendency to disappear with alarming speed.

I tried my hand at replicating Kupel's-style challah when I went through my sweet yeasted bread phase last summer, with little success. Though the internet abounded with recipes for light, airy challah, instructions for soft, chewy challah proved elusive, and frankly, I lacked the incentive to puzzle out a recipe myself. Why persist with hard-crusted, airy failures when I could find soft, chewy perfection just minutes away?

As it turns out, the threat of passing two-and-a-half hours in some of the world's worst traffic is more than adequate incentive. After re-checking the internet for soft, chewy challah instructions and still coming up empty-handed, I sat down to reason my way to a recipe.

Soft bread suggests a lowish baking temperature (it's high temperature that produces crackling crusts.) Chewy bread is bread with heavy gluten development. Dense bread means a dough on the drier side (the wetter the dough, the lighter the bread.)

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the dough for soft, chewy challah might look more like pasta dough than bread dough. So I cross-referenced my pasta dough recipe with my sweet yeast bread recipes, sketched out ingredients and quantities, and set to work.

A few hours later: soft, chewy challah, and not a traffic jam in sight. And yes, I did tear into it without bothering with a knife.

Soft, Chewy Challah

I used instant active yeast in this recipe, which is mixed in directly with the dry ingredients. I haven't tested it out yet with regular active yeast, but if you try it, bump up the quantity to one-and-a-half teaspoons, and stir it into the lukewarm water along with the sugar. Let it sit until foamy, then add the mixture to the flour, and continue with the recipe from that point.

(Makes one large loaf. Can be frozen. Stale leftovers make for good bread pudding.)

Dump four cups of all-purpose flour (twenty ounces) in a big mixing bowl. Add a quarter-cup of sugar, one teaspoon instant active yeast and one teaspoon salt. Stir briefly to combine.

Separate four eggs. Set the yolks aside. (Use the whites for meringues.)

Add one-and-a-half cups lukewarm water. Stick your hand in the bowl and mix until you have the beginnings of dough. Add the yolks along with a quarter-cup of vegetable oil. Mix until you have lumpy dough that is only a little sticky. If the mixture seems very dry, with a lot of loose flour in the bowl, add a few more tablespoons of water.

Roll up your sleeves. Turn the dough out on a clean countertop.

Get ready for a workout. This dough has to be kneaded for at least twenty minutes, if not longer. It's fine if you take breaks, but don't be tempted to cut back on the kneading time - the texture of the bread will suffer.

The dough will start out tacky, but it shouldn't be too wet. If it is, sprinkle it with additional flour. As you knead, the dough will gradually lose its sticky, lumpy quality, and start to pull together, becoming more elastic. Keep going. The dough will lose elasticity and develop more resistance. Stop once it develops a smooth, almost skin-like texture.

Shape the dough into a ball, and place it back in the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place for an hour to rise.

Press down on the dough to deflate. Divide into three (or four, or six) pieces, and roll or squeeze each piece out into a rope. (It will be quite resistant.) Braid the ropes together. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Cover with foil, and leave in a warm place for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Crack an egg in a small bowl and beat it well. Brush the challah with beaten egg. If you like, you can sprinkle it with sesame or poppy seeds.

Place the challah in the oven. Bake uncovered for fifteen minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown in color, then tent with foil and bake for another fifteen to twenty minutes.

Transfer to a baking rack to cool. Store in a plastic bag to keep it from drying out.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

boundaries of the familiar

There is an adjustment period for every relocation.

No matter how well you plan, there are always the details you will not think about until after you arrive. Where to buy a padlock in Rome (hardware store), how to say "bleach" in French (eau de javel), why there is no drip coffee to be found in Perth (no Starbucks.)

It isn't the language or the landscape that feels most foreign. It's the tiny things that make up everyday living, the fixtures you have come to rely on without realizing it. Their absence puts you off-kilter. Like stepping off a curb just a fraction shorter than you expected, the missing milimetres that leave you reeling.

To navigate, you must reestablish the baseline. Trace the lacunae, mark their lines. Seek out windfalls to stop the gaps. Redraw the boundaries of the familiar.

That which was prized is prosaic; that which is commonplace becomes rare. Know that this city will offer you neither apples nor buttermilk; here there is rosemary, but no sage, no thyme. Instead, chestnuts and fennel fronds; buckwheat flour, cheap and plentiful. Not an oddity here, but a constant.

Blended with ground almonds and sugar, mixed with butter and eggs, buckwheat produces a rustic cake of unusual fragrance. Absence of gluten gives it a delicate, tender crumb. There is still afternoon tea, basking in late winter light. Soothing, this ritual. Settling. The boundaries of the familiar, shifted.

Buckwheat Almond Cake

Despite its name, buckwheat bears no relation to true wheat, and is gluten-free.

I've kept the flavoring in this cake simple - just a little vanilla - but you could also add cinnamon, nutmeg, or orange zest, or use browned butter in place of plain. This cake can be served warm from the oven, but it's really at its best a day or two later.

(Draws some inspiration from this and this. Serves one with leftovers; cake may be wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a mixing bowl, cream together one stick (four ounces) softened butter with half a cup of white sugar. Beat in two eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is thick and creamy (it's fine if it looks slightly curdled.) Stir in a half-teaspoon of salt and a half-teaspoon of vanilla.

Stir in a half-teaspoon of baking powder. Fold in half a cup (two ounces) of finely ground almonds. Fold in three-quarters of a cup (three and a half ounces) of buckwheat flour. The batter will be quite thick.

Glop the batter into a greased 5.75 inch by 3 inch loaf pan (two-cup capacity) or an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan. Bake for thirty minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Allow the cake to cool in the pan. Wrap tightly and let it sit overnight before serving.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

in home itself, there is no room for home

I am homesick. 

In some ways, this goes without saying. As a third culture kid, I am always homesick, because I am never homesick.

There is no "homesickness" when you cannot define "home;" when you cannot define "home," there is nothing but. "Home" is best described by tracing the arc of what it isn't: home is somewhere else, home is someplace not here. "Home" is a space or time you mislaid but surely could find, if only you knew where to start looking.

Such nebulousness breeds uncertain allegiances. If patriotism is the memory of foods eaten in childhood, then the closest thing to home and country lies somewhere within a foreign grocery store. Homesickness cannot be cured, but it can be soothed by wandering the aisles, finding some comfort within their unlikely juxtapositions.

There is neither rhyme nor reason to the selection here. The biscuits span two aisles and four, maybe five continents, but the cheese counter is determinedly Western European. The store won't stock exactly what you look for, but it will stock what you never expected to find, and sometimes it will offer just what you longed for, even before you could ever have pinned it down and given it a name.

The produce aisle is generally unremarkable, which makes its rare oddities all the more pronounced. I notice the passionfruit immediately.

Dark and wrinkled, they look strange and sad next to the finely waxed sheen of the Red Delicious apples, the coddled plumpness of the organic strawberries. I know instinctively that these fruits have been passed over by the patrons, dismissed as products past their prime, evidence of poor inventory control.

Management, it seems, feels the same way. I could buy lunch for a week with the asking price for four fresh figs, but two dozen passionfruit will set me back little more than the cost of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

Passionfruit are the product of passiflora edulis, a vine that grows energetically and profusely on many a backyard fence and swimming pool enclosure in Australia. Passionflowers are strange and stunning blooms, almost alien in appearance. The fruit, like other strange fruit from tropical climates, reach their peak flavor when they look their worst.

Unripe, a passionfruit has an appealing egg-like smoothness, a skin a beguiling shade of red-hued purple. Unripe, its shell rejects the onslaught of all but the sharpest of knives, and its pulp is as sour and tart as a lemon's flesh.

A ripe passionfruit has a wrinkled, shrivelled appearance. Its shell is almost brittle, and splits with ease under pressure from a blade. The pulp is a glorious yellow-orange hue, like the yolk from a freshly-laid egg, and intensely, deliciously fragrant.

The fragrance is the smell of a hot summer morning, the light sparkling off the water of the backyard pool, the promise of a whole lazy afternoon for swimming. The pulp tastes of fruit ice-blocks and Deep Spring fizzy drink, of custard slice and finger buns. The seeds contain the sheen of sunblock, the traces of chlorine that cling to hair and skin.

This is not a remedy or panacea; the story is not so simple. Instead, I'll take this fruit and scrape the pulp, and blend it with cream and sugar and bloomed gelatin. I'll use all I've learned since I left that child in her Australian summer, still splashing in the backyard pool.

Maybe when I'm done, I'll know where to start looking for home.

Passionfruit Bavarian Cream

The French culinary lexicon appears to be lacking a name for a gelatin-stabilized whipped-cream dessert that doesn't contain eggs. This dessert would be bavarois if it had a custard base, but it uses just sweetened fruit puree, so the name doesn't quite fit. Early American cookbooks do offer examples of "plain Bavarian cream" that don't contain eggs, however, and so that's the name I'm sticking with.

(Makes about four quarter-cup servings.)

Place a sheet of unflavored gelatin (two grams) in a small bowl, and sprinkle over three tablespoons of water. Set aside to soften.

Next, take four to six ripe passionfruit, depending on their size, cut them in half, and scrape the pulp into a small bowl. Measure out one quarter-cup of pulp into a small saucepan. (Strain out the seeds, if you object to seeds.)

Stir in two tablespoons white sugar (one ounce.) Cook the mixture over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Allow to cool to lukewarm.

Check on the softened gelatin; it should have dissolved into a thick, sticky liquid. If there are still uneven bits, stir until you have a smooth consistency.

Stir the softened gelatin into the passionfruit mixture. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat half a cup of heavy cream until it holds stiff peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the passionfruit mixture.

Spoon the mixture into small ramekins or molds. Cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the fridge for several hours, until firm.

To unmold, briefly dip the molds or ramekins in hot water to loosen, and turn out on chilled plates. Decorate with extra passionfruit pulp. Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

drawing the kings to the Orient, or an Epiphany in Beijing

January sixth is a day that goes by many names.

It's the final day of Christmas (also known as the very last day on which retailers can possibly get away with playing obnoxious holiday music before unpleasant fates befall them.)

The British call it Twelfth Night (as in Shakespeare's play.)

It is most widely known as the Epiphany, a day celebrating the three wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for a new king.

And it marks my latest mad culinary endeavour.

It's no secret that I like obscure holidays, particularly those that come with culinary curiosities. No surprise, then, that I couldn't resist Epiphany, which has rich and storied culinary traditions that vary by country. This year, I opted for a classic, the French dessert known as galette des rois.

Galette des rois is a puff pastry tart with an almond filling. It hails from northern France, and according to tradition, it contains a fève, a bean, "to draw the kings" to the Epiphany. After the galette is cut, whoever finds the fève in their slice is crowned king or queen for the day. (The French pastry shops take this seriously – galettes are sold with paper crowns, and the fèves are porcelain trinkets, often quite elaborate.)

It's a charming tradition - if you're in France. In Beijing, it's a little less charming, and a little more mad.

A porcelain fève is out of the question unless you have helpful friends visiting you by way of France. (You'd best make do with a dried bean, or a whole almond.)

Good luck finding a paper crown. (Looking inside a British Christmas cracker might be your best bet; try the sale aisle of an imported goods store.)

Should you find the requisite items, there's still no guarantee that you'll be able to explain the holiday and the tradition to your bemused family or your befuddled co-workers. (No, not even with the combined help of multiple dictionaries, Google, and Chinese-language Wikipedia.)

And all that's before you even get to the baking.

There's puff pastry you'll have to make from scratch, because your chances of finding any sort of ready-made puff pastry, let alone all-butter ready-made puff pastry, are very close to nil. By the time you're standing in a freezing cold kitchen, bundled up in your heaviest jumper (and contemplating the merits of adding a parka) as you give your puff pastry a fourth turn, you might - just might - start to question your sanity.

You'll stop questioning your sanity when you come to the frangipane. That's when you'll know you've definitely lost it.

The terms frangipane and crème d'amandes are often used interchangably outside of a French-speaking context. Unfortunately, they don't refer to the same thing. Crème d'amandes is a paste of butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg and flour, and it's mixed with crème pâtissière - a custard of eggs, sugar, and milk, thickened with flour - to produce frangipane. Crème d'amandes is a little like marzipan in texture and flavor; frangipane is more like a dense, eggy almond custard.

The traditional filling for galette des rois is frangipane. Strictly speaking, a puff pastry tart with a filling of just crème d'amandes isn't a galette des rois, but a pithiviers feuilleté. But if you forget to buy the damn milk for the crème pâtissière, and don't realise your mistake until well after the shops have closed for the evening, you'll use crème d'amandes alone and call it galette des rois anyway.

That's fine. The insane are allowed to dispense with tradition. Besides, neither your bemused family nor your befuddled co-workers will know the difference anyway.

Galette des Rois

This dessert was originally eaten only on Epiphany, but its season has gradually been extended to span nearly the whole of January. If you're reading this on January seventh, you've still got time to make it in season.

(Inspired by the recipes here, here, here, and here. Makes one eight-inch galette – enough for eight to twelve servings, depending how thinly you slice it.)

First, the puff pastry. If you have a source for all-butter puff pastry, this is a same-day recipe, and you can scroll down to the paragraph about crème d'amandes. If you don't have a source for all-butter puff pastry, this is best done over the course of two days.

Puff pastry begins with a detrempe, a water-flour dough with a bit of butter in it. So: dump one-and-a-half cups (seven and a half ounces) flour in a mixing bowl. Add half a teaspoon of salt. Rub in half a stick (two ounces ) of chilled unsalted butter until you have a loose, crumbly mixture. Add a half-cup of cold water. Stir. Add additional water, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture forms a soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper. Dust it with flour. Take one-and-a-half sticks (six ounces) chilled unsalted butter, and cut them so that the pieces can be arranged in a rough square. Sprinkle with more flour. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper. Whale on the butter with a rolling pin until you have a rough square about three-sixteenths of an inch (four milimetres) thick. Put the butter in the fridge.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Remove the dough from the fridge and set it on the parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and cover with another sheet of parchment. Roll it out into a rough square large enough to fit the butter square diagonally, such that the corners of the butter square touch the mid-points of the dough square.

Get the butter out of the fridge. Place it on the dough diagonally, so that the corners of the butter touch the edges of the dough. Fold the dough over and pinch gently to seal, creating a dough envelope with butter inside. Wrap in plastic wrap, and put it back in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Now the rolling-and-folding process begins. Most cookbooks will tell you this is best done with a marble rolling pin on a marble board. Neither is essential, but it helps to get the room as cold as possible. (Don't do this near a warm oven; chances are you'll end up with a greasy mess.)

Lay out parchment, sprinkle with flour. Get out your pastry-butter envelope and set it on the counter. Cover with more parchment. Roll it out until you have a longish rectangle roughly three-sixteenths of an inch thick. (For photos of the process, look here.)

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter, and flip it over so that the seam is on the underside.

Roll it out again to three-sixteenths of an inch, and fold and flip again. Every fold-and-flip is called a turn. You've given the dough two turns, so gently press two fingertips into the dough. Wrap in plastic, and allow to chill for at least an hour, preferably two.

Give the dough two more turns. Mark the dough with four impressions. Wrap in plastic; chill for at least an hour, preferably two.

Give the dough two final turns. Mark the dough with six impressions. Wrap in plastic and stick in the fridge. Let it rest for at least three hours, preferably overnight, before you use it.

While the dough rests, make the crème d'amandes. Start by creaming together half a stick (two ounces) of softened unsalted butter with a quarter-cup of sugar. Work in half a cup of almond meal (a little less than two ounces). Add one egg; beat the mixture until it is smooth and well-blended.

Stir in two tablespoons of flour. The mixture should be a thick paste; if it seems runny, add a little more flour. Finally, stir in a few drops of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. (Optional extra: a half-teaspoon of dark rum. And a nip of rum for yourself.) Cover with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.

To assemble the galette, take the puff pastry from the fridge and divide it in half. Roll each half out on a floured surface until it's about one-eighth of an inch thick.

Use a sharp knife to cut an eight-inch circle from the first half (you can use a plate or a cake pan as a template). Cut a slightly larger round from the second half – about eight-and-a-half inches in diameter. (Any pastry scraps can be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked for a snack.)

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the eight-inch pastry circle on the baking sheet. Remove the crème d'amandes from the fridge.

Crack an egg into a small bowl and beat well. Brush the beaten egg on the outer half-inch of the circle. Avoid the very edge of the pastry circle – the egg will seal it, and it won't rise properly.

Spoon the crème d'amandes into the space inside the eggwash ring and spread it out with a spatula or the back of a spoon. If you're keeping with tradition, hide a whole almond or a dried bean (the fève) in the crème d'amandes, close to the edge.

Lay the second pastry circle atop the first. Smooth out any air pockets, and press around the eggwash ring to seal. (You can press the edges with a fork to decorate.)

Use a knife or a skewer to score a decorative pattern in the pastry. If you're unsure of your abilities, try a diamond-shaped grid or a series of straight lines radiating outwards from a center point; if you're feeling a little more confident, you can cut curved lines radiating outwards to form a sun- or flower- shape. Either way, you only want to score the pastry – don't cut all the way through.

Brush the galette with beaten egg. Cut four or five evenly-spaced slits – cut all the way through the pastry this time – for steam vents. Chill the galette in the fridge for an hour.

Time to bake. Preheat the oven to 375F. Pull the galette from the fridge and place it on a middle rack in the oven. Bake for thirty minutes, or until the pastry is a rich golden brown.

Transfer to a cooling rack. The galette can be served at room temperature, or slightly warm (I prefer it slightly warm.) If you placed a fève in the galette, warn your guests that it's there before they start eating. The person who gets the slice with the fève is royalty for the day.