Sunday, 26 July 2015

Humanity

Green tea latte with shells

I am an idealist and consequently a believer in the redemptive qualities of humanity. However, this is easier in theory than in practice, it is much easier to have faith in a undifferentiated collective called humanity than in the people that inhabit ones day-to-day life. It all sounds quite grand until someone hurts your feelings or leaves you disappointed. Maintaining a promising outlook on humanity is much more difficult in that moment.

I had such an experience recently. It wasn't anything too tumultuous, but nonetheless I was left wondering whether trying to be kind and responsive to the needs of others was worth it. In my world that is a pretty bad mental space. Being decidedly introverted, with the potential to go full hermit at any stage, this kind of thinking threatens to topple the foundations of my rickety philosophy for dealing with people. All the dry, logical arguments about not being reactionary and maintaining my centre were swept into disarray by a wave of cortisol and adrenalin.

As is so often the case, I sought wisdom from the arts. I recently watched 'Taxi' by Jafar Panahi at the film festival and fell in love with Mr Panahi's perspective on everyday life. It was so gentle, bemused, interested, and above all, loving. My friends and I used to say of particularly good and kind people, "He has a good heart," and I could feel that his heart was not only good but gigantic. So, in my temporary and reactionary despondency, I looked to him again. I watched, 'This is not a film,' and despite the uncertainty and claustrophobia that runs through the film, it is the sympathetic interactions with his family, friends, iguana and especially the young man who collects the rubbish that demonstrated his quiet charisma. I finished watching the film a bit more hopeful than when I started, and that is no small feat.

Being part of academia and thinking lots of scientific thoughts has given me a greater appreciation for the power of art. The good stuff can use something as mundane as a streak of paint or a few well chosen words to demonstrate a situation or emotion with more truth than all the facts and figures in the world. After a time of quiet reflection and a good book, thudding hearts are calmed and angry thoughts can be organised. 

Once again, the recipe has become a bit of an afterthought to this post, but it is a nice one to know. I recently opened a package of green tea (matcha) powder and am trying to use it as quickly as possible, knowing that it oxidizes rapidly. One way of using the powder is to make green tea lattes. They are sweet, mellow and not challenging - which is nice sometimes. 

Green tea latte
makes 1 serving

3/4c whole milk (or your choice of other milks)
1tsp sugar
1/2tsp green tea powder

1. Warm up your serving vessel by filling it with boiling water.
2. In a small bowl, combine sugar, tea and 1Tb of hot-but-not boiling water. Stir well to get rid of lumps.
3. Heat the milk in a small saucepan until it is almost simmering. At this point you can use a milk frother if you have one.
4. Pour the boiling water out of the serving vessel. Pour in green tea mixture followed by the milk. Sift a little extra powder over the foam for decoration if you want to.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Cosiness

Pear-buckwheat upside down cake with the fire going in the background

Because it is truly the middle of winter now and perhaps because I have just finished speeding through centuries of Americana by way of Sarah Vowell's wonderful books, Assassination Vacation (about American presidents and their assassins) and The Wordy Shipmates (about the Boston Puritans settlement), I was in the mood for something simple, sweet and homey. 

To borrow from her dark wit, I don't know exactly why reading passages about musty theological quibbles and forlorn assassins had me hankering for crackling fires and the scent of caramelised fruit. There was something comforting about reading about historical figures as if they were real people. Vowell's empathy is as warm as a blanket and thinking about the hopes and dreams, and pettiness and foibles of those who now occupy history books and commemorative plaques brought them alive in a new way. Gaining insight into how the past, in a series of flukes and often silly mistakes, had shaped the present was a bit of a downer, which the cake also helped remedy.

For my own amusement, I decided to make something which reflected my experience of reading the books and also paid tribute to the most appealing attributes of the 'America of yesteryear' that was evoked during my reading. I also had a can of pears in juice that I had been meaning to use for quite some time now, which helped narrow down my choices significantly (although apple would probably be more to theme). Pragmatism in household affairs is undoubtedly a Puritan value.

I found a very simple looking recipe for a buckwheat and pear cake that looked like something that could be made in a rudimentary log cabin kitchen (no electric beater required). I fiddled with the quantities of ingredients to account for the fact that my pears were already sweetened and then turned the whole thing upside down in an homage to American-style upside down cake, the kind with the pineapple rings and electric-red cherries. Wikipedia says buckwheat was a common crop in the northeastern United States in the 18th and 19th century.

Luckily the cake turned out very well on first attempt, the cake was tender and interesting thanks to the buckwheat, the pear/caramel/cinnamon combination was delightful, and the sweetness was just right for a weekday. It is a very well-balanced cake, probably on the modest end of the spectrum of upside down cakes, and although it doesn't contain a lot of butter (tablespoons rather than sticks), it is one of those times when you can tell that the butter has been used well. 

It is very adaptable, with any number of different flour and fruit combinations. A lovely cake to take us through to springtime.

Pear-buckwheat upside down cake
makes one 22cm cake
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

1/2c plain flour
1/2c buckwheat flour (or some other flour of your choosing)
1tsp baking powder
1/4tsp salt
4Tb brown sugar
3Tb butter, cold
1 egg + enough whole milk to make up 1/2c of liquid
1tsp vanilla extract

400g can of tinned pear slices in juice (alternatively 2 large or 3 small pears, peeled/cored/cut into eighths or quarters, respectively)
3Tb butter, melted
5Tb brown sugar
1tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 210 degrees Celsius and line the base of a 22cm round cake tin with baking paper (these days I tear off a large piece of paper and fold it to cover the sides rather than trimming it to fit the base).
2. Arrange the pears on the base of the tin. I made a spiral pattern with my pear slices
3. Combine 3Tb of melted butter, 5Tb brown sugar and cinnamon. Pour this over the pears.
4. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. Add the remaining butter and rub into the dry ingredients, using a pastry cutter or fingers. Continue until the mixture looks like sand.
5. Beat the egg, milk and vanilla extract together in a measuring cup. Use the fork to mix this into the flour mixture. It will be quite thick.
6. Take spoonfuls of the dough and drop it on top of the pears. Gently flatten down the dough.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, the top should be golden brown and the pears cooked through.
8. Cook the cake in the tin for 10 minutes. Place the serving plate on top of the tin then flip the cake over and serve. Delicious with gently whipped cream or a pour of custard.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Feminism/Gender Equality

Lemon/chamomile/poppy seed muffins with a painting by my Aunt in the background

It's that time of year again, when I willing venture out on cold nights and spend my days in crowded places. When films I actually want to watch are playing at the cinemas. Right on the heels of the Documentary Edge Festival is the New Zealand International Film Festival. I pored over the programme as soon as it was released and managed to carefully select 37 films that I wanted to watch, before painstakingly paring the list down to a more realistic dozen.

I watched the first one of these this evening. She's Beautiful When She's Angry is a documentary that examines the American perspective of the Women's Liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. It was sobering to see the conditions from which the movement began, and inspiring and exhilarating to see how it grew and matured. Some of the activists that were interviewed were already known to me, and I was also introduced to new figures. 

Set to a soundtrack that included many of my favourites such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, the Velvet Underground and Nico, I felt a fuzzy sense of homecoming while watching it. However, towards the close of the documentary I felt inexplicably sad. After seeing the energy and righteous anger of our feminist forebears, it suddenly seemed that the battles we are still having to fight were terribly repetitive and redundant. 

Little glimpses of those moments when I, though I have live with countless privileges of the country I live in and the class that I occupy, have felt the exhausting weight of sexism. Each time I have to choose between Miss/Ms/Mrs, each time a man assumes that I will cook for him, each experience of workplace sexual harassment. Equally, when I see my brother, father or a male friend compromise their sense of self or struggle to live up to someone else's expectations of what it means to be male, another affront inflicted on our freedom.

To me, as it was to the women featured in the documentary, feminism and gender equality are a inseparable part of the civil rights movement - the movement to ensure that all people are treated as citizens and equals. Perhaps even more fundamentally, respect and equal-treatment of all is a basic level of decency that we should all be striving to attain. It is an integral aspect of the revolution. To quote the great mind and heart, and newly minted centenarian Grace Lee Boggs:

"To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more 'human' human beings. In order to change/ transform the world, they must change/ transform themselves."

Despite the momentary despair, I realise that "freedom is a moving target," (to quote one of the women in the film whose name I can't recall) and that an individual revolution and sense of freedom must be sought individually, simultaneously and in conjunction with freedom for all. It isn't an easy thing to attain but the pursuit of it is something that I support with my whole person. It is something that makes my heart skip a beat.

I didn't start this post with the intention of discussing feminism and the revolution at such length but so it goes. I really wanted to share another simple but interestingly novel recipe. I found the recipe while looking through this beautiful blog. The addition of a chamomile infusion to an otherwise straightforward lemon-poppy seed combination was unique enough for me to get over my baseline aversion to muffins (also known as lacklustre cupcakes) to try the recipe.

The only changes I made were to halve the recipe and glaze the muffins with marmalade rather than lemon curd, adding a tangy-bitter note to the mix. The muffins bake up tender, fragrant and not overly sweet - with chamomile adding a enticing complexity to the familiar scent of lemon. Treats such as these are what drizzly afternoons and hot cups of tea exist for. Although they are best eaten on the day that they are made, they were still very good on day 2 after 15 second burst in the microwave.

Lemon, chamomile and poppy seed muffins with marmalade glaze
makes 8 muffins
adapted slightly from Butter and Brioche

1/2c whole milk
2 chamomile tea bags 
1 1/4c plain flour
2tsp baking powder
1.5Tb poppy seeds
1.5Tb lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/3c caster sugar
60g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten slightly

2Tb marmalade to glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a muffin tray with paper liners.
2. In a small pot, heat the milk until steaming, remove from the heat and add the tea bags. Steep until the mixture is just warm to touch.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the sugar and lemon zest with your fingertips until the sugar looks moistened and smells very lemony. Sift in the the flour and baking powder.
4. Add the poppy seeds and combine with a whisk.
5. Add the milk, lemon juice, butter and egg and gently combine, taking care not to overmix.
6. Spoon the batter into the muffin tray and bake for 15-20 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick. Note that these muffins do not brown very much.
7. While the muffins are baking, prepare the glaze. Dissolve the marmalade with a tablespoon of boiling water. Strain out any bits of peel using a tea strainer.
8. Glaze muffins with a pastry brush, while they are still warm.





Monday, 13 July 2015

Conversation food


From the top: coconut-almond crisps, aquafaba meringues and cream scones.

One of my favourite types of gatherings are small ones which involve good conversation and things to graze on. I had the pleasure of hosting such an occasion on a rainy Saturday morning a few weekends ago and felt that it was a good enough reason to bring out the 3-tiered tea stand.

After laying down a couple of doilies, the small selection of sweets I had prepared looked rather inviting and I was quite pleased with the overall effect. 

The coconut-almond crisps and the meringues were made using aquafaba, also known as the water from a can of chickpeas. I made them on a whim after reading about aquafaba, mostly because I couldn't believe that chickpea-water+sugar = meringue. They were both the result of experimentation so I don't have recipes for them yet. I highly recommended that you play around with the stuff yourself if you are interested, it's pretty exciting from a food-nerd point of view.


The scones were made using my go-to recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I'm not blessed with the 'light hands' that are required to make good scones, so using cream to ensure tender scones is an ideal technique for me.



My favourite scones are plain ones, split and served with cream and jam, but these scones can be adapted in any number of ways:
-adding 1/2c chopped, dried fruit before adding the cream
-adding 1/2c chopped chocolate
-adding 1/2-1tsp of dried herbs to the dry ingredients
-drizzled with glaze for a more American coffee shop type scone

Below is the recipe as I made it.

Cream scones for tea parties
makes about 16 scones that are 4cm in diameter
very slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2c plain flour
1Tb baking powder
3Tb sugar
1/4tsp salt
70g butter, cold and diced up
1c cream

I used a 4cm round cutter to form dainty scones

1. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with baking paper.
2. Sift together the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the dry ingredients using your fingers or a pastry cutter. You can also do this with a food processor.
3. When the mixture looks like coarse sand with just a few lumps of butter (pea-sized or smaller), add the cream and stir with a fork for about 30 seconds, until a dough is formed. It is okay if there is some floury rubble remaining.
4. Transfer the contents of the bowl onto a flour-dusted surface and knead the dough for about 10-20 seconds until you have a ball of dough. Flatten the dough out with your hands or with a rolling pin so that it is around 3cm thick. 
5. Cut out as many rounds as you can from the sheet of dough. Place these on a baking sheet and baking for about 10 minutes - the tops of the scones should be a light brown.
6. Cool the scones on the sheet for 10 minutes before serving or transferring to a cooling rack.
7. The remaining dough can be rerolled to make more scones, these will not be as light and tender as the first lot.

Serve with whipped cream and jam. Best eaten the day you make them.

The comeback

My only excuse is that it's been cold, and that has sapped my will to write things down. I have been baking and cooking voraciously but have been quite lax with writing or reading very much at all of late. Knowing that all it takes to begin is to sit down and start the damn thing, I have settled down with a pot of coffee (overkill but nice to have) to get back into the habit of writing something.


What I've been up to (from top left corner): aquafaba meringues, aquafaba coconut-almond crisps, scones, green tea cupcakes, lemon cake 1, bagels, lemon cupcakes, high tea spread, lemon cake 2
As you can see, I haven't been idle except in an intellectual or mental sense. There is something insidiously attractive about not being too self-reflective and I think that this has been the true root of my lack of posts.

Interesting things that I have learnt of or that have happened during my hiatus include:

1. The first anniversary of the occupation of Gwanghwamun Square by the families and supporters of the Sewol Ferry Disaster victims. And the discovery that the Korean Government hasn't allocated any money to the Sewol Disaster Investigation Task Force (I couldn't find any English links, sorry).

2. Eat My Lunch, the lunch delivery service which enables you to give a lunch to a hungry kid for every one that you buy yourself. With none other than my favourite Michael Meredith at the co-helm.

My first eatmylunch lunch

3. Lucky Iron Fish, a cute little iron fish that can add iron to your diet and enables you to share one with someone in Cambodia where iron deficiency is endemic. Perfect for the meat-averse.
The fish is smiling!

4. John Campbell was pushed out of TV3, leading to an ongoing boycott of Mediaworks. I eagerly await his next project.

5. Charleston, Greece, the TPPA fast-track, the Australian government's gagging of doctors and teachers. Here is a petition you can sign that urges the Australian government to adopt transparency regarding the treatment of those with refugee status and others who are in vulnerable situations.

6. To end on a bright note, there is the upcoming NZ Ninja Baking Drop, an event for which you can choose to contribute baking or nominate someone to receive baking as a random act of kindness from a stranger. It is a small and lovely idea.

I will get cracking with sharing recipes from the next post, here's hoping for a a regular stream of them from now on. I hope you are all keeping warm or cool depending on where you are.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Trendy

The photo looks very sparse and severe but these blondies weren't at all.


I tend to be a bit late with getting on board with trends. Perhaps because I don't watch television or listen to the radio, I'm less exposed to advertising and general pop culture hype. I don't think I miss out on much but just today I finally caught on to a trend that I am a bit miffed for being to late for. 


I made caramelised white chocolate for the first time and I'm enamoured. Unlike its Maillard Reaction cousins brown butter or salted caramel, it can be served straight without seeming excessively rich nor cloyingly sweet. It's a flavour that one can swirl through brownies and drape on top of caked without feeling ridiculous, like I did the time I made browned butter-salted caramel ice cream and realised that I was pouring melted butter into ice cream. It's a homemade substitute for butterscotch chips. It fills the kitchen with the most intoxicating of scents.

I found the technique for making it a bit fiddly but it is mostly my fault for using baking paper (which slides around) rather than a silicone sheet. Other than that, all that is required to turn boring old white chocolate into its luscious caramelised counterpart is an oven turned low and some time.

The method for making caramelised white chocolate are set out in beautiful detail here by Joe Pastry. And below are my notes from making it for the first time.

1. Use real white chocolate with a cocoa butter content of around 30% or more. 
2. I added 2 tablespoons of coconut butter to ensure that the chocolate melted smoothly. 
3.The completed product will be the colour of peanut butter and although it may be a bit lumpy coming out of the oven, this will even out with some gentle stirring and the residual heat of the baking pan. 
4. Caramelised white chocolate can be used in liquid form to drizzle or turn into ganache, or cooled, chopped into pieces and used like chocolate chips.

The first place I used my freshly made batch of caramelised chocolate was as a swirl through a pan of blondies while the chocolate was still warm and liquid. The swirls were a bit difficult to see in the finished product but lent a rounded, butterscotch flavour. When combined with gooey banana-scented batter and crunchy toasted pecans, the humble blondie is elevated to the level of A Food Experience. Not bad for about 10 minutes-worth of pottering around the kitchen!

Banana-pecan blondies with caramelised white chocolate swirl
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

113g butter, melted
160g brown sugar (I decreased this from the original amount as both the banana and chocolate add sweetness)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8tsp salt
1c plain flour

1/2c mashed ripe banana
1/2c pecans, chopped and toasted
3 Tablespoons of caramelised white chocolate, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius and line a 20cm square pan with baking paper.
2. Stir the melted butter and sugar together until smooth, then beat in the egg, vanilla, banana and salt.
3. Add the flour and stir until no traces of it remain. Stir in the pecans.
4. Pour the batter into the pan and drizzle the white chocolate over the top, use a skewer or chopstick to create swirls.
5. Bake for 18-22 minutes - the centre should be set.
6. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. These are killer when served warm with vanilla ice cream and an extra drizzle of caramelised white chocolate.

PS.
I signed up to receive weekday lunches from Eat My Lunch from this week. This is a social enterprise that allows customers to give one lunch for every one that they buy. The second lunch goes to a primary school-aged child who would not have a lunch otherwise. 

This is a picture of my lunch from today: 

A beef and vegetable wrap, mandarin, boysenberry(?) yogurt, cucumber and grape tomato and shortbread cookies for dessert.


Everything was fresh and crisp, and the knowledge that a child somewhere across town was enjoying their lunch too made it all taste even better. I know that $10 for lunch is more than some budgets allow for but if it is just a matter of what you are going to have for lunch, this is a fantastic premise and the fact that Michael Meredith (my favourite chef in Auckland by light years) is part of the team behind it is awesome. They only operate within Auckland at the moment, please visit the website if you are interested.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Chya/Chiya/Chai




Back in the summer, at the very gathering where I debuted this banana cake, was the first time I had homemade Nepali spiced tea. The tea was made by the hostess who had spent many years in Nepal doing missionary work, she talked us through the brewing process and even in the relative warmth of late summer, the fragrances brought about by its preparation made the house feel especially cosy and inviting.

Known as chya/chiya/chai, the Nepali spiced tea that I was introduced to has a few distinct characteristics:

  • It is made with a half-milk-half-water mixture
  • You can use whichever warm spices you have on hand but cardamon is a must
  • It is brewed using tea powder or leaves rather than bags
Now that the temperatures have dropped and the winter rains have arrived, I find myself brewing chiya with some regularity, it is warming and restorative and ideal for when a plain cup of tea or coffee just won't do. 

Of course, with a cup of steaming chiya in my hands, I can't help but think about the people of Nepal. The situation in the areas badly effected by the earthquake is still dire and factors such as poor sanitation and housing are expected to cause ongoing problems as time goes on. I have been donating to UNICEF mostly, and am considering making a regular monthly donation as way to offer ongoing help to their relief efforts. 

I realise that not everyone feels that they have enough to give - one way that was able to informally fundraise was by asking a group of friends who I was meeting for dinner if they would mind eating at a slightly less expensive restaurant and donating $5-10 each to UNICEF. Together we raised $100 to donate, not bad for a spontaneous effort among a small group of people and hopefully it lead the way for the people involved to stay interested in the cause.


Below is a simple little recipe for warming and fragrant chiya. Here's hoping you will be warm this winter.

Chiya (spicy Nepali tea)
makes 2 servings

1c milk
1c water

Any of the following, although cardamon is recommended:
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
2-3 cloves
4-5 cardamon pods
2cm knob of ginger
2-3 black peppercorns

2tsp black tea leaves
1-2tsp sugar

1. Measure milk and water in a 2c capacity measuring cup and pour it into a small pot. Put the measuring cup to one side.
2. Add spices to the milk/water and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to med-low and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Add sugar and tea and boil for 1 minute.
4. Pour tea back into the measuring cup through a tea strainer and divide into two cups.