Tuesday, March 29, 2011

not by halves

I wasn’t always homesick.

Long ago, before my life story became complicated, long before I ever came across the term “third culture kid,” let alone recognized myself in its description, my sense of home was certain. When I was ten years old, I could tell you where I was from in a single sentence. When I was ten years old, I was an Australian schoolchild at an all-girls’ school in Sydney.

My parents were Chinese, which gave me an extra adjective and a hyphen, Chinese-Australian, and complications in the form of math tutoring, piano lessons, and writing my own sick notes, but I had classmates who were similarly hyphenated, and classmates who were unhyphenated, and we all wore the same checked blue uniform dresses in summer, and the same navy blue tunics over lemon yellow blouses in winter. We did our best to avoid wearing our school hats (navy blue, hot and ugly) but never our school blazers (navy blue, boxy and ugly), because you could get into Serious Trouble if you were ever caught wearing your school jumper (navy blue, itchy and ugly) without your blazer. (None of us knew why this was the rule, but it was, and it came right after the rule about not being allowed to wear your sports uniform in public.)

We sat underneath the trees on the playground and ate packed lunches, swapping ham sandwiches for cheese-and-pickle, sharing bags of chips (chicken chips were good, but salt-and-vinegar chips were better), and sometimes bemoaning the rice balls or steamed buns our mothers saw fit to introduce into our lunchboxes, even if we secretly enjoyed them. We preferred the days when our parents were feeling either harried or indulgent, and we could buy lunch at the tuck shop.

A tuck shop, or a canteen, is the place that sells food at school in Australia. Typically staffed by parent volunteers, it offers homemade sandwiches (and possibly soups and salads if the volunteers are particularly enthusiastic) and a standard array of unhealthy but delicious lunchtime staples. The tuck shop is where we would buy potato pies with crispy browned tops, sausage rolls with deliciously salty fillings, and meat pies with tiny single-serve squeeze packets of tomato sauce.

The tuck shop is also where we went when we were in possession of unexpected wealth: ten cents discovered in the pocket of a rarely-worn jacket, a fifty-cent piece found on the train platform, five whole dollars from a generous relative. (Even now, an Australian five-dollar note still seems more valuable than its American analog.) Thirty cents meant six sticks of plain liquorice, or two sticks of carob-coated liquorice, or a tiny bag of eucalyptus drops. For seventy-five cents you could get a Paddle Pop, chocolate or rainbow. (I preferred rainbow.) And for eighty cents – extravagance of extravagances – you could have a finger bun.

A finger bun is a rich yeasted bun, elongated in shape, studded with sultanas and topped with pink icing. (Wikipedia claims that they may also be topped with white icing, but that’s an aberration I’ve never witnessed. The icing is supposed to taste pink.) Finger buns are pleasantly soft and agreeably sticky, and they are much beloved by schoolchildren, if not so much by adults.

My Year 5 teacher was one of those rare adults who understood the delights of the finger bun. Miss Wettone was everyone’s favorite teacher, and I felt privileged on the occasional mornings when she’d stop me on the way out to morning recess, hand me a few coins, and ask me to pick up a finger bun for her from the tuck shop. Miss Wettone would eat half a finger bun for morning tea, and save the other half for later, but she had a tendency, or so she said, of losing track of the remaining half before it ever made it to her afternoon tea. The disappearance of her finger bun halves became a running joke. Somewhere in the accordion file folder that contains all the detritus of my schooling years – reports, test scores, certificates, ribbons, diplomas – there’s a card from Miss Wettone wishing me luck in Year 6, with a comment about baffled archaeologists in the future digging up a trove of fossilized half-finger buns.

I was once an Australian schoolchild at an all-girls’ school. I knew where home was, and I could tell you where I was from in a single sentence. I don’t have that certainty any longer, but as the saying goes, you can’t go home again–even if you do know where home is.

Instead, what I can do is make rich yeast dough, and put it to proof. I can shape it into logs, and glaze and bake them until they’re richly brown and shiny on top. I can mix up sugar icing to a perfect sticky consistency, and tint it to taste properly pink. I can eat finger buns for morning tea, and amuse myself with the thought of future archeologists who will dig up absolutely nothing, because I don’t eat my finger buns by halves.

Finger Buns (with Pink Icing, of Course) 

This recipe can also be used to make iced scrolls - just shape the dough into spirals rather logs.

(Makes three buns. Best eaten fresh.)

Soak half a cup of raisins (approximately ninety grams, about three ounces) in hot water until softened. Drain; set aside. Leave one large egg and two tablespoons (sixty grams) of butter to come to room temperature.

In a mixing bowl, combine one-and-three-quarters of a cup of flour (two hundred and fifty grams, eight point eight ounces), a teaspoon of instant yeast (five grams), half a teaspoon salt (four grams), and two tablespoons sugar (thirty grams).

Add half a cup (one hundred and twenty mililitres) lightly warmed whole milk. Stick a hand in the mixture and stir until it forms clumps. Crack in the egg; knead until you have a sticky, lumpy dough.

Turn your dough out on a clean countertop. Ready a bench scraper. This dough isn't terribly wet, but it is very, very sticky, and every so often you'll need to stop kneading to gather together stray bits. Knead for ten minutes, or until the dough smooths out and starts to develop resistance.

Flatten out the dough, and place a tablespoon of softened butter on it. Fold it over, and knead so that the butter works its way into the dough. Repeat with the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Work the softened raisins into the dough. They will be reluctant to incorporate at first; keep going, and don't be afraid to push them in with a finger if they really refuse to stay put.

Grease your mixing bowl lightly with butter and place the dough back in it. Cover with plastic wrap; leave in a warm place until doubled in volume (about an hour or two.)

Grease an eight-by-eight inch (twenty by twenty centimeter) square cake tin.

Press down on the dough to deflate. Divide the dough into three pieces; shape each piece into a long, thin log just small enough to fit into the cake tin. Arrange the logs in the tin (there should be room in between.) Cover with wax paper; leave in a warm place until doubled in volume again (another hour or so.)

Preheat the oven to 375F. Crack and egg and beat until foamy; brush the buns with the beaten egg.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the buns sound hollow when tapped with a finger. (If necessary, tent them with foil to keep them from browning too quickly.) Allow the buns to cool in the pan for five minutes or so, then turn out on a wire rack.

When the buns are merely warm, gently pull them apart.

To make the icing, start by putting a tablespoon of milk in a bowl, and stir in icing sugar, a heaped tablespoon at a time, until you have a thick, sticky mixture that falls off a spoon in a ribbon-like dribble. If it pours steadily, like pancake batter, it's too thin - add more sugar. If it's pasty, it's too thick - add milk, a drop at a time, until it thins out to the right consistency. When you have your icing at the right consistency, add a drop or two of vanilla extract, and use a toothpick to add just enough food coloring to tint the mixture pink.

Slide a sheet of wax paper underneath the wire rack. Spoon the icing over the buns; let the excess drip off completely before serving. For strict authenticity, sit out in the sunshine on a metal bench, and eat them out of waxed brown paper bags.


JacquelineC said...

Adele - I just love this story!! This is what good food writing should be. Why don't you write a book? Your voice is just lovely and your recipes are beautiful complements to the memories. Thanks so much for sharing this link!

Cakelaw said...

You have brought so many childhhod memories rushing back to me. The tuckshop was fabulous. At primary school, we used to have mince rolls in winter, and wonderful coloured boiled lollies in cellophane wrappers (which you can't seem to buy anymore) all year round. Mums used to write your order on an envelope or a brown paper bag and put the money inside, and you took the order down before school to pick up at lunch so you could eat like kings and queens. One of the very few things I miss about school! Love your bright pink iced finger buns. Of course the icing has to be pink Wilipedia, get with the program! Pink icing tastes better :)

yuey said...

hey adele, really enjoyed reading this post. Have you thought writing about your experiences as a guest writer for Slanted Magazine?

It's an Asian Australian mag with a mix of articles.


adele said...

Jacqueline - I'm glad you enjoyed it! I feel like I'm still getting a handle on my voice, but once I have it, maybe I'll work on my elevator pitch. :)

Cakelaw - I'm so glad someone else has fond memories of the tuck shop! I remember brown paper bags were standard - it was quite a victory when I managed to persuade my mother to buy brown paper bags and not use business envelopes.

yuey - Thanks for the feedback! I'm not familiar with Slanted, but I'll be sure to check it out.

~~louise~~ said...

A beautiful post Adele. My oh my how you've grown and found your voice. They say home is where the heart is and it looks like you've found yours...

Thank you so much for sharing...

adele said...

Louise - You're welcome!

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Oh your buns look lovely! (Can I really say that?!) The pink icing is pretty charming too. Saw that WBUR featured you on their site: you are on a roll in the bread department. (Forgive the pun.) I love it! Keep 'em coming!

adele said...

Plum - I was pleasantly surprised! Pink icing, uniting lovers of baked goods the world over. :)