April 30, 2011

Struggle / Love

Oh, dear. Here I go …

I’m gripping a ball pen and scribbling on paper. I am writing a blog post on paper!

Musing on paper ...

Thanks to Trojans and computer viruses, for crippling my computer (or maybe I should be blamed for?). It’s now fastened inside the laptop bag, waiting to be reborn. I’m living without a personal computer. I am surviving through this!

But by the time you’re reading this, I’m sure I’ve found a way to relocate the draft to the World Wide Web, to this blog that’s basking in your attention.

It could be a mix of nervousness, uncertainty, and excitement. My left hand quivered, for a few seconds, while reaching out for the pen. Staring at a clean sheet of paper, I hesitated, I wasn’t sure where to begin with. Still, there was something at the tip of my tongue, waiting to be penciled down, waiting to be clarified. 

The Muse is here! The Muse can’t wait! I dipped my foot into the pool of words and ideas and found myself, in the words of Molly Wizenberg, “wade way in and splash around.” Within minutes, now, as I’m writing this paragraph, ADD has kicked in and my mind is wandering. Yet, I keep telling myself to persist. I guess that’s how I write. It’s a love I’ve been struggling at.

And whenever I write, I’d be reminded of kneading – the kneading of a bread dough.

I rest my hands on the dough. I trust that they’d go all out with this adhesive amalgam. In seconds, clashing thoughts and mixed sentiments color my world. Staring at the shaggy mass, thrusting my hands into the sticky mess, I grumble – or, sometimes, curse – as my hands toil in stubborn ickiness.

But with experience and confidence I persist, I anticipate, knowing that through consistent pressing and stretching and folding of the gluten only I’ll have the unruly dough tamed. My hands hunger for a smooth and supple – if not, tacky – ball of dough. Interestingly though, the longer I’m at it, the likelier my mind is to wander, too. And, if the day spells frustration, you’ll see me turning into a grumpy lady, who pulls and stretches and slaps the dough against the counter repeatedly. (Why don’t you worry, I would never, ever overknead the dough.)

On some other days, aggression – in the form of constant, more forceful pulling and stretching and slapping – is required to conquer a stickier dough like this.

I Love Kneading Bread Dough

I’d plunge my hands into a mélange of flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, among the myriad of ingredients, that will lead me to the homey aroma of freshly baked bread, that will bake into this nicely browned, impeccably verdant, whole wheat loaf of bread. It’s got matcha and azuki beans in it. It’s got a magic ingredient known as the tangzhong (湯種) in it, too.

Whole-Wheat Tangzhong Matcha-and-Azuki-Bean (Bread) Loaf

It’s sheer magic. It’s caught the attention of The Fresh Loaf. The tangzhong makes the dough rather a challenge to tackle, though, due to its phenomenal water retention properties. This should make sense, if you’ve already read my lengthy post on the how and whys of the tangzhong business. (My post has been referred to by The Fresh Loaf community, too. Hurrah!) (Stay tuned, because I’ll soon be screaming at the world “I nuke my tangzhong!” Yes, I do nuke my tangzhong.)

Adding to the loaf are the matcha (抹茶) powder, which bears a mellow and naturally sweet floral fragrance, as well as azuki beans (紅豆), which lend a wonderful grainy mouth feel and a distinctively earthy and savory tone. The beans, when stewed, also make for a clingier, wetter dough that had me break into sweat and had me fight to knead my way out.

My complaining was ephemeral, though. The aroma, flavor, and texture of the bread made up for all the bad and the sad episodes, including the backache I got out of the doughy workout. At the end of the day, I was graced with a soft crumb, which is a success indicator in baking most Asian-style breads.

At the first bite, then a second bite, then another bite, my senses were greeted by the refreshing herby-floral, sweet-smelling mild cologne that matcha wears. Albeit faint, at least for me, it hit the right note. What also delighted me are those azuki beans. I seriously think these two are match made in heaven. I mean, chocolate and yuzu are probably good candidates, offsetting matcha’s bittersweet-ness with ease. Still, the azuki bean, when stewed, with its unmistakable warm tone, not only offsets matcha’s bittersweet-ness but also complements and even accentuates matcha’s understated charm.

Really. The hard work and persistence paid off. Look at what I’d got: a handsome green loaf that tastes as good as it looks. And now, as I’m wrapping things up here, a blog post. This is yet another snippet of my life, which takes five days, on and off – in my bedroom, on the train, and on my work desk in the office – to write. It’s dear to me, because it’s so me. (Sorry for spamming you with Pei-Linness.)

Scribbling and Doodling(?) ...

Writing and kneading bread dough are my catharses. I dread doing them as much as I love. It seems they’ve become struggles that I love having, too.

Whole-Wheat Tangzhong Matcha-and-Azuki-Bean (Bread) Loaf

Matcha and Azuki Bean Bread (抹茶紅豆吐司)
Adapted from Bread Doctor, by Yvonne Chen

474 grams bread flour (I’ve been using unbleached organic whole wheat bread flour for my bread.)
2 tablespoons milk powder or dry milk
10 grams baking matcha powder 煮食焗焙專用的抹茶粉
10 grams instant yeast
30 grams caster or granulated sugar
6 grams salt

200 grams milk, preferably at room temperature
156 grams tangzhong 湯種, at room temperature (I used 30 grams of unbleached organic white bread flour and 150 grams of water for this batch. And I nuked to prepare the tangzhong, like I said. I’ll tell you more about microwaved tangzhong next month. Okay?)

50 grams unsalted butter, cubed and kept chilled
200 grams sweetened cooked azuki beans 蜜紅豆, a.k.a. tsubuan (粒餡), drained (I bought canned ones imported from Hokkaido, Japan. Back in the States, I used to make them from scratch. With age, I’m getting lazier and less civilized, apparently.)

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together (A). Then stir in (B), and, with a huge, sturdy wooden spoon, combine both the dry and wet ingredients together until a coarse-looking ball of dough has formed. The shaggy mass should almost pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Use a bench scraper to scrape the bowl clean, if the dough sticks.

Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead – press, stretch, fold and, if possible, slap the flabby thing against the work surface – until the gluten in the flour has been activated and has developed. Keep kneading until you’ve gotten a dough that feels tacky, almost supple to the touch. Now, remove the butter from the fridge and knead to incorporate it into the dough. Keep kneading until the dough becomes less tacky. Knead in the azuki beans just to have them mixed into the dough. The dough, because of the additional moisture from the beans, should now be stickier, and if that’s the case, don’t hesitate to flour your hands and the work surface – of course, do so judiciously. Excess flour in an Asian-style bread dough may lead to a drier bread. You can stop kneading once the dough has become fairly supple and not as tacky. It won’t look super smooth, mind you, which is okay, because this dough is supposed to contain a higher moisture content. Round it up tightly, and place in a large, oiled mixing bowl. Cover loosely with, say, a sheet of plastic wrap. Or you can do what I do with a clean, huge plastic bag:

Proofing the Dough

Set the dough aside to proof until it’s doubled in size. Your eyes can do the judging, trust me. But if you’re still unsure, dip your finger into some all-purpose flour and slowly and gently poke it into the center of the risen dough, taking care not to puncture it. If a dent remains at where you poked your finger into, this shows the dough has been given sufficient time to proof. Otherwise, if the same spot bounces back, continue with proofing the dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, deflate the risen dough and divide it into three equal portions (I always weigh the dough for that; greater accuracy this way). Round them up tightly and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Rest the dough for 15 minutes.

To shape, take one portion of the dough and, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roughly roll it out for the shape of a rectangle or an oval. (In the meantime, leave the other two blanketed in plastic wrap to keep them away from drafts.) Then, roll it up tightly from one of the shorter ends to the other, like how you would a jelly roll, and pinch the seam to seal the dough. Because you’re dealing with a stickier dough, lightly flour your hands and the work surface, if needed and only as necessary, while you proceed with the recipe. If possible, minimize the use of extra flour throughout the process. Repeat with the other two portions.

Generously grease a 15(L)x8(W)x8(H)-centimeter Pullman loaf pan with, say, shortening (which is a much cheaper alternative to butter). Arrange the shaped dough in the prepared loaf pan starting from the middle, then to the left, and then to the right. Now, the dough should have about half the height of the loaf pan. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap, and set it aside to proof until the dough is almost double in size. Warning: this dough will wind up to be a very tall loaf – as though it’s going to explode anytime while it bakes in the oven.

Preheat the oven to 170°C.

Gently remove the plastic wrap from the loaf pan. Bake the risen dough for 35 to 40 minutes, or until it is cooked through and looks golden brown – gently tap on the center of the baked loaf, it should sound hollow. Remove from the oven and unmold the loaf immediately. Leave to cool completely, on a cooling rack, before slicing to serve and/or storing in, say, a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. The bread keeps for about three days in room temperature, but beyond that, it’ll start to go stale. So at that point, I kept mine refrigerated, and I nuked it for a few seconds, which helped to warm and soften it up again, right before serving.

P.S. As you can see, I knead my bread dough manually, with my hands. And, as of now, the laptop has yet to be fixed.

April 19, 2011

In My Backyard

Hey, I have a new friend. I never knew of Lynn until a few Sundays ago.

On that fateful Sunday, I was caught slurping on sinfully creamy pâtes au citron for a late lunch. (Just so you wonder, that’s something I’ve yet to blog brag about. Lately I’ve been reading up too much of Laura Calder’s, but nothing shall stop me, there’s this pâtes au bleu recipe of hers I’m tempted to try. Sounds hip-huggers already, I know.)

Because the lazy bone in me was hibernating, I managed to pull out my socks and tennis shoes and, as usual, dashed out for a good run. Just a few feet from my house, a soft, feeble cry seized my attention. I let dubiousness take hold and maternal instinct(!) guide my way.

There, I wound up by a drain, looking down and I saw a black kitten with grayish-blue eyes. The drain was dry; the kitten, though, was struggling to get itself back up. Without hesitation, I reached out to grab it. Feeling somewhat panicked, I sprinted home, with the frightened kitten in my hands.

Comelnya anak kucing!
Chants of excitement instantly pierced through my ears, all I could hear was “kitten” and “cute” uttered in Malay. These children stopped their game, tossed their badminton rackets, and went ecstatic over the little feline.

Within seconds, I was found entangled in a web of disagreement: the children were calling the kitten theirs! He wanted; she wanted; I was divided. Let me tell ya, it wasn’t easy dealing with parents who were strangers in the place. Mr. and Mrs. A said no, while Mr. and Mrs. B gave an unwelcoming look. Even my mom said, “Return the kitten to where it was.”

Instead of in the drain, I grudgingly left the kitten in a cardboard box, placed on top of the pile of waste in a huge Dumpster, to steer clear from any potential predators.

Deserting the poor kitten sickened me and the children – Rafeef, Raneem, Rana, and Mohamed – of an Arab family that lives across the street. But there wasn’t much we could do other than obeying our parents. Life moved on, and so was my plan to work out. Time to hit the road again.

“We’d like to join you,” said the sisters of Rafeef, Raneem, and Rana. Feeling lonesome and longing for company, I spurted out a yes. I was so happy that my face was falling apart. Poor Mohamed, though, wanted to join us but was impeded by his dad, because he is a boy(!).

Did I beat my own record or what that Sunday evening. We walked, jogged, ran, and chatted for about two hours! (My previous best was held at one hour, minus chatting.) What were also exciting are the new friends I’ve made. And, because “Pei-Lin” sounded rather alien exotic, they gave me a one-syllable name: Lynn.

Remember I told you about my family moving into this new neighborhood late last year? It houses quite a handful of Middle Easterners, including this family from Jidda. My new friends are quite international: they are part Arab, Turkish, Egyptian, and Indonesian. They speak Arabic (duh!), English (how else can I talk to them?), a little Iranian, Turkish, Malay, and Mandarin! I was taken aback when the eight-year-old Mohamed uttered “你nihaoma (how are you)?”. Of course, I answered, “我wohenhao (I’m very good)!”. (His Taiwanese classmate taught him that. I didn’t.)

It was so good, I was so pleased to discover the love of international foods in these friends of mine: Arab (duh!), Moroccan, Turkish, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, French, and even Chinese, just to name a few. Raneem told me that, back in Jidda, her family frequented Chinese restaurants, which would, unlike those in Malaysia, offer halal menus that adhere to Islamic practices. We youngsters were even treated to Thai food for supper by the father. Being the shy me, and since I don’t eat late into the night, I declined his offer. “Please, please help yourself to the food, daughter,” he insisted. What else could I say in return but a thank you. And I did eat some – some kind of Thai salad, I think?

Dried dates (top) and halvah (bottom). These are the gifts from Hind, the aunt of Rafeef, Raneem, Rana, and Mohamed.

In their living room I spotted little tagines: on the TV set, display counter, coffee tables, and by the couch. I love their conical shape. Such works of art. Even the vessel used for holding dried dates is made to resemble a tagine, except it’s made of glass. These were the first tagines I’d encountered in real life. Unbelievable. I thought I’d never get to see one unless I leave for Morocco.

Ever since I made my first tagine, I’ve fallen head over heels for it. Albeit introduced as Moroccan, similar dishes can be found throughout the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia – Raneem, Rafeef, Rana, and Mohamed’s homeland.

A tagine plays on herbs and spices and fills your head with herby, spicy nuances. In the dead of winter or on a nippy rainy day, it gladdens you with warmth and comfort. Think of a tagine as a giant pot of savory hot chocolate: sonorously comforting, toothsomely satisfying. It’s something I won’t mind going for seconds, or thirds.

Zucchini, Tomato and Chickpea Tagine

And it’s especially true about this tagine, in which zucchini, tomatoes and chickpeas take the lead, alongside spices, of course. It may not sound as rich as hot chocolate and other tagines, but I couldn’t care less. Pure vegan stuff like this fills my growling tummy, and doesn’t stretch my already-expanding waistline, which I like.

Tossing vegetables and peas and herbs and spices into a pot eases the urban tension in me. Letting them bathe, slow, in a Middle-Eastern-scented broth soothes the weary soul in me. All the waiting and patience (important!) rewarded me with a big potful of wholesomeness stewed to perfection: zucchini that verges on mushiness, tomatoes that invigorate your palate with a zing, and chickpeas tender enough to chew on but with the chunkiness of its partially mashed sibs. Last but not least, a warm, curry-like, mildly hot, sapid base for you to wash down all the goodness with.

As the spicy perfume of the tagine wafted through the kitchen, and as I savored the humbly rich, soupy stewed vegetables, I was taken on a journey across the globe, to cultures unexplored. Through this tagine, and other tagines, and my new friends, I discovered life’s little pleasures, including my new moniker, Lynn.

I am traveling without leaving my backyard.

Zucchini, Tomato and Chickpea Tagine

Zucchini, Tomato, and Chickpea Tagine
Adapted from Moroccan Bible, by Rachael Lane

1 cup dried chickpeas
60 milliliters (¼ cup) olive oil

1 large red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cayenne
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

4 tomatoes, quartered
2 medium-size zucchini, quartered
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

80 milliliters (1/3 cup) water or vegetable stock

Soak the chickpeas in water overnight. On the next day, drain and rinse them and place in a medium-size saucepan. Cover with water, and bring to the boil over high heat. Cook for one hour, or until tender. Drain and set aside.

Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a medium-large tagine or heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add (A), and sauté until softened and fragrant. Add the chickpeas and (B), and stir to combine. Pour in the water or stock, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Serve.

Yield: about four servings

April 5, 2011

The Classroom

Filling Macarons_APAM

At one point in my life this desire was held so high. I was a senior in college, and I was juggling with my thesis paper, an obsession with baking, and a desire to enroll myself in a pastry school, with which I hoped to make a career out of. Well, anything that has to do with food, I’d be in!

Two years had passed, that desire of mine, however, has faded. Thank goodness, though the obsession is no longer growing, my love of baking is here to stay — and so is my curiosity for the Classroom — that spacious room in which I sink my hands in flour, butter, sugar, eggs, cream and much more!

Sugar Sculpture_APAM
Fondant Cakes_APAM

Couple weekends ago, I found myself bedazzled by the stunning sugar sculptures, fondant figurines, and fondant-covered tiered cakes at the Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia (APAM). As I toured around the pastry school — one of the first of its kind in Malaysia — I realized quality education isn’t solely about state-of-the-art facilities and all-encompassing curricula — it’s also about connection. The connection tutors form with their students.

Chef Guillaume_APAM
Chef Guillaume_APAM

With years of experience under his sleeves, including a stint at Fauchon and the National Hospitality Institute of Oman, chef Guillaume Lejuene now heads APAM as the director of pastry arts. He highlighted that, at APAM, the number of students per class is kept between 12 and 15, which makes the group neither too big nor too small to handle. Even with 15, he said an additional tutor may be called upon and the class may be divided into two smaller groups.

Chef Tan_APAM

As an almost-self-taught home baker (my first days of culinary training came from my American family friends), I’d say a one-to-one approach is crucial to the success of any budding bakers, and APAM has done remarkably well in that sense. I stood on one side, quietly observed, and I saw teamwork. I felt rapport that bound the students and tutors together.

With rapport and teamwork, and, of course, the talents and passion, toothsome works of art such as these can only be produced, with precision and efficiency.

Desserts Galore_APAM

Now that’s a feast to the eye — and the tummy! (Yum. Some wound up in my tummy, and some in the freezer.)

APAM offers a wide array of pastry courses: bakery and artisan breads; European breakfast pastries; ice cream, gelato, sorbet, and frozen desserts; chocolate pralines and candies; art of plating dessert. Well, all these are just to name a few!

What’s also worthy of a mention is, for the first time ever, APAM will be conducting courses on the art of cake making and designing (think celebration and designer cakes) as well as part-time courses on pastries (think petits fours and chocolate). Both are, I think, especially suited to busy working people who have only weekends to spare. (Yes, these classes run on weekends only.) You can check out APAM’s Web site for more information that you may find useful.

If you’ve been tinkering with the idea of, say, picking up baking knowledge and skills just for fun, or, say, pursuing a formal education and training in baking (just like the Pei-Lin before), APAM can perhaps jump-start your plans.

Heed my words though, especially when you are considering getting into the pastry line for a career. In our (Asian) society, this isn’t an easy path to take, so I urge you to think twice — or thrice(!) — before arriving at a decision, which would lead to either a hit or a miss.

Image courtesy of Veronica of Quay Po Cooks.

Or maybe it’s a gamble I couldn’t put up with, and so I chicken out. But hey, I love what I’m doing, and I shall not grumble much. I’m thankful to APAM and Jade, the correspondent with whom I’ve been liaising, for giving me the opportunity to experience the Classroom.

And in the end, no matter what, if these — baking, pastries, and long hours of work in the kitchen — are what you are after and passionate about, you have the indisputable right to pursue your dreams.

After all, the world is your oyster.
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