Bao Chika Wow

Two years ago I had the grand ambition to bake 12 different types of bread – ranging from relatively simple bread like Challah, to naturally fermented breads like Chickpea Loaf. I got about half way and then got busy with life and my little challenge got forgotten about.

But I’m back! Since picking up Elizabeth David’s book on English Yeast and Bread cookery I have been inspired to get back into it. No time limit this time though.

One of the breads I had on my list was Mantou.

Mantou are Chinese steamed buns. They are light and fluffy and very easy to make. The only downside is that I didn’t have a big enough steamer, so I had to cook them in batches which took ages.

Mantou is the name for the plain bun. When filled with sweet or savoury ingredients, they are known as Bao (note the pun in the title of this blogpost) which are also very delicious and make great snacks.

The buns themselves are pretty unassuming. They’re very plain but that’s the point of them. You use them to carry meats and other flavourful ingredients.

Despite their simplicity, they have a long history. Mantou/Bao have been mentioned in texts as early as the Warring States period in China which means that they are over 2000 years old.

They also play a starring role in Chinese folklore and are mentioned in the Romance of Three Kingdoms story:

According to Ming Dynasty scholar Lang Ying, the original name for mantou was barbarian’s head. During the Three Kingdom Period, barbarians used human heads to worship gods.

Chancellor Zhuge Liang went on a battle to suppress the Southern barbarians and won. On his way back, he and his army had to cross the Lu River, which had big, stormy waves. The locals told them that using human heads as a sacrifice was the only way to cross the river.

Zhuge Liang couldn’t bear to kill innocent people, so instead he ordered his soldiers to kill some of their animals and put beef and lamb into flour dough in the shape of a head and steam them, and then throw them into the river as fake heads. Since they were fake heads to fool the river god, they got the name Cheat Heads. Others say they represented barbarian’s heads, so they were called Barbarian’s Heads.

Thus, mantou were born from the good thoughts of Zhuge Liang. The mantou he made at that time were in fact modern-day meat buns.

These are my attempt at Mantou. They were very simple to make but I accidentally put them in the steaming the wrong way so they don’t have the same look that steamed buns in a Chinese supermarket would have. I used a recipe from the Guardian and make the accompanying pork belly to go with it. It was delicious! I would recommend making a whole heap of mantou and freezing them. That way you can then use a few of them each time with different fillings.

Have you tried home-made steam buns before? Do you have any tasty filling suggestions?

 

On second hand bookshop finds and Elizabeth David

A favourite thing to do when on holiday in smallish towns (and cities) is to visit the local second hand book shop. During the summer break in Whangarei I popped into one of its second hand book stores, The Piggery. The cooking sections in these bookstores can be quite hit and miss. Like with fashion, cooking and culinary books cycle through trends and fads.

Photography style changes, the types of recipes (jelly moulds!?) as well as the category of recipes (microwave cookery anyone?). If you’re lucky you can pick up some rather vintage cookbooks (I picked up a war time rations cookbook in Hastings once) and some rather odd books (Be Bold with Bananas). And there is a lot of junk such as recipe books for specific branded appliances.

breadAt The Piggery, I managed to pick up a copy of Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. David is one of Britain’s best food writers and her books are classics among food writers and chefs.  Her influence also reached other countries as well. Many of my Australian and New Zealand cookbooks references her recipes and writing.

I started reading the book last night and got curious about who she was as a person and did a quick google search. What an interesting woman of her time and a fascinating life she led!

Her early life

Starting as an art student in Paris, she then turned to acting and when this did not work out, she then ran off with a married man and ended up in Italy. The couple then narrowly escaped getting trapped by the German invasion of Greece during WWII. They split in Egypt. Before marrying her husband Tony David, she had a number of lovers in Cairo, Egypt. According to her biographer Artemis Cooper, ‘she enjoyed them for what they were…with one exception she did not fall in love.’

Her influence

When she arrived back in England after her travels overseas to post war Britain, it was as if she had returned to a different country.

Returning to England after her travels overseas was like returning to a different country. Her long-time editor described her as being “upset: shocked, even.” David described food in Britain as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. It was a jarring contrast to the fresh and seasonal food she had enjoyed overseas.

She began writing about her memories from her time overseas. Her first book in 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food contained recipes that called for Mediterranean ingredients such as basil, figs and olive oil. This first book was essentially a piece of ‘imaginative fiction’ as readers were unable to access the ingredients due to war rationing.  She followed this with books on Italian and French cuisine.

Her writing style

Her writing style was opinionated, to the point.

For instance, she despised the word ‘crispy’ because she couldn’t understand what it conveyed that ‘crisp’ did not.

It is also wonderfully eloquent and expressive

Her thoughts on cooking in summer:

Summer cooking implies a sense of immediacy, a capacity to capture the essence of the fleeting moment

Or her thoughts on why the kitchen was a place to invest time and money:

Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or in your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.

On the pleasures of the Mediterranean:

To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.

And returning to the book that prompted this blog post, her thoughts on toast:

It isn’t only fictional heroes to whom toast means home and comfort. It is related of the Duke of Wellington – I believe by Lord Ellesmere – that when he landed at Dover in 1814, after six years’ absence from England, the first order he gave at the Ship Inn was for an unlimited supply of buttered toast.

What do you think about Elizabeth David? Have you read any of her books?  

Hush Puppies Y’all

It’s funny to think that the words that we use everyday can be considered historical relics. We forget that our day-to-day vocabulary is peppered with expressions and phrases that preserve elements of our history, offering insight into the ordinary lives of our ancestors.

The ways in which we refer to different types of meat is a fascinating example of class and authority in English society during the 11th century.

Sheep, cow, ox all have an Ango-saxon root. In contrast, what we call meat once it gets to the table (boeuf, mutton, veal) has a French root. These differences emerged in the post Norman invasion of England. Those who were preparing the meat were Anglo Saxon commoners, hence why the names for livestock have retained an Anglo-Saxon origin. In contrast, the names for prepared meat have a French root because the meat would have already been prepared for and eaten by the Norman nobility and aristocracy (who spoke French).

All these musings on language are interesting segue into my bread of the month – hush puppies!

How deep fried cornmeal bread balls came to have the delightful name ‘hush puppies’ is an interesting insight into the folklore and cultural history of the southern part of the United States in the 1700s. There are several versions for how hush puppies got their name:

The one common thread is that this fried cornmeal was used to “hush the dogs.” I have heard that Confederate soldiers used it to hush their dogs when the Union troops were getting near. I also have heard a similar story in which runaway slaves would use this favourite food to hush the dogs. The characters change but the story is the same.

The link to the need to quell barking dogs is also found in this story:

Hushpuppies are also said to have gotten their name from the dredging of the catfish that would have been thrown out. Being thrifty, the cook from the house would send them down the slave quarters and the women added a little milk, egg and onion and fried it up. It is said they were tossed to the dogs to keep them quiet while the food was being transferred from the pot to the table. “Hush puppy! Hush puppy!”

There is also reason to believe that the name developed because refined southern ladies didn’t want to be known for eating fried dough which was considered lowly:

Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins cites a Southern reader’s account that in the South the aquatic reptile called the salamander was often known as a “water dog” or “water puppy.” These were deep fried with cornmeal dough and formed into sticks. They were called “hushpuppies” because eating such a lowly food was not something a Southern wife would want known to her neighbours.

If you’re interested, the second story appears to be the most accepted origin story.

My attempt

I made my hush puppies with a recipe from Joy.

I’ve never had hush puppies before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from them. The dough didn’t seem to bind together and when I put them in the deep fryer they kept on falling apart. But I did I managed to refine my spooning technique by the third batch.

Hush puppies don’t have a particularly strong flavour. There was a hint of spiciness from the cayenne pepper but not much else. If was going to make these again, I would chop up some jalapenos and add these to the dough for a fiery taste.

I served mine in true southern style – with BBQ pulled pork and coleslaw.

Golden Syrup and Brown Sugar Cinnamon Sticky Buns

I know I’ve already posted about sticky buns before, but they are one of my favourite recipes and they are especially delicious to eat on a cold winter’s day with a hot drink.

The sticky buns that my family usually make have a toffee and walnut base, but lately, I’ve been experimenting with different sticky elements. Last time I used a caramel sauce and this time I decided to give golden syrup a go. Both were equally delicious. A+ would recommend.

One thing to I will remember for next time is to increase the stickiness element. Sticky buns, of course, need to be sticky. It really does means you have to be generous with the sticky element even though it increases the likelihood of sticky hands and really sticky cake tins.

Bake these in a cake tin to get a pretty design when you pull them out of the oven and flip upside down.

 

Golden Syrup and Brown Sugar Cinnamon Sticky Buns

Ingredients

Yeasted coffee cake dough

1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
½ cup flour (cake flour if possible)
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour (bread flour if possible)
65g butter, cut into chunks and left to soften

Glaze

¼ cup golden syrup
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup brown sugar, packed
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Method

Yeasted coffee cake dough

Mix yeast and warm water together and leave for 5 minutes until dissolved. Add cake flour, sugar, salt, eggs, milk and vanilla and mix until smooth. Add bread flour and mix for one minute until dough comes together. Tip onto a floured surface and knead for around 10 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic. At this point add the butter.

I found the easiest way to do this is to stretch the dough out and add around ¼ of the butter you have and then fold the dough in half and stretch it out again. Add another ¼ of the butter and repeat. The dough will be very sticky and you’ll feel like it’s not working, but you need to persist! Keep kneading it and the butter will eventually incorporate itself into the dough.

Shape into a ball and place in a buttered bowl. Keep dough in warm place for an hour or so until it has doubled in size.

If you want to make really flavoursome dough, Joy recommends you leave it for 1 ½ hours, punch it down after that and then let rise again for 4 – 12 hours. Punch it down again and then refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Glaze

Once your dough is ready, roll it out onto a 12 x 9 inch rectangle. Mix cinnamon, brown sugar and butter together and brush over dough. Carefully roll the dough as if you were making a chocolate log. Cut crosswise into 6 – 8 slices.

Grease a cake tin. At the bottom, carefully pour the golden syrup so it lines the base. Place buns on top of golden syrup and pack them in carefully so they fill the tin completely. Place in a 180° preheated oven and cook for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Invert the pan onto a hot sheet or plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

New project: editing the family cook book

Just another family dinnerEvery second Sunday since I have been on this earth (barring illness, travel and other engagements) my extended family get together for dinner. We eat delicious food, drink a bit of wine and catch up. We’ll celebrate each other’s achievements but also provide support in times of sadness. And we always have lots of laughs.

I always look forward to family dinners as the food is always delicious. It’s usually very rich and we always will have more than enough. There is a joke in our family that none of us are able to correctly estimate how much food to make, so we will always double the quantity, forgetting that everyone else is doing the same thing.

We’ve often talked about putting together a family cook book with a selection of our favourite recipes. My personal favourites are Grandpa’s tomato sauce, my mum’s jambalaya bread and butter pudding with bourbon whiskey sauce and the range of tarts and pies that my Grandma makes. As part of this, we would also include some history about the recipe and why we like it.

I’ve decided that this year (and probably next) will be the year in which we get this project underway.

One of the reasons why I’m interested in this idea is I think it’s a really distinctive way in which family history can be recorded. It’s a well-known fact that sensory experiences can trigger memories much more effectively than trying to directly remember past events and people. I believe that by writing through the lens of food and cooking, you can get a much richer insight into your family history and gain a better understand of the character and personality of your ancestors. It is also a valuable way of capturing the spirit and atmosphere of family occasions – bringing to life the dynamics of family life.

I’ve made an initial start on the project by beginning the process of sourcing the recipes. My next step is to start interviewing everyone and sourcing further recipes. I’m very excited about this project! I hope to share the process with you.

Plum Jam and Raisin Swirl Bread

Mystery ingredient time!

Today’s mystery ingredient is the delicious Anathoth Plum Jam. I originally planned to create a Louise Cake Tart using the jam but I lacked a loose bottom tart tin so I thought I might save that recipe for when I eventually get around to buying some new tart tins.

Instead I decided to have a go at creating a bread swirl. I’ve seen bread swirls a lot on Pinterest and they look very intricate and detailed even though they appear to very easy create and very pretty to look at. In saying that however, Pinterest is known for having pins which are not an accurate representation of what would happen if you actually followed the instructions. There are many BuzzFeed articles which document attempts by Pinterest users to recreate ideas they have seen on the social networking site and the spectacular failures that result.

I can safely say that bread swirls are not one of these Pinterest fails. I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to make this swirl. I would also recommend playing around with the filling. I used plum jam and raisins, but you could use a whole range of different things – fresh fruit, spices, caramel, chocolate or even something savoury like cheese.

I used the recipe from Joy the Baker as part of her Baking Bootcamp, but I think any enriched dough would work fine. Instead of berries and cinnamon I used jam and raisins.

I also learnt two things when making this bread which I would like to share.

When I first pulled it out of the oven, the centre of this bread was a little undercooked and I had to put it back into the oven for ten more minutes. This happened because:

Once I had threaded the dough I didn’t let the it prove in the cake tin.

If I had done so, the dough would have more air bubbles. This would have created a lighter, airier dough and would have been less dense in the centre thus ensuring a consistent bake.

My oven is hotter than what the temperature reads.

I believe that this is the main reason. Because it was too hot, the bread cooked too fast on the outside. Cover the bread in foil and keep cooking if you find yourself in this situation.

 

Leek and rice pilaf: the story of a failed side dish

Last night, some friends of ours (Penny and Shayne) invited us over to their place for dinner. It was a bit of a pot luck so I decided I would bring a vegetable dish to complement the pie that they were making. Vegetable dishes can be difficult to make sometimes – not because they require great skill, but there is an art in selecting a vegetable dish that works well with the main meat dish but doesn’t overpower it.

I have a really useful cookbook for these types of occasion – The New Zealand Vegetable Cookbook by Lauraine Jacobs, Ginny Grant and Kathy Paterson. The book is divided into seasons, making it easy to find recipes that don’t require you to track down expensive vegetables that are out of season.

I wanted something simple to make that didn’t require a lot of preparation or a lot of different types of ingredients. As I was flicking through I found a recipe for a leek and red rice pilaf. It fitted what I was looking for – simple, very few ingredients, tasty and had something that you don’t eat everyday – red rice.

As the leeks were cooking, they developed this vibrant green shine to them. They were rather photogenic if I must say, and I felt quite pleased with myself.

I started to think about the angle for this post and came up with the idea of developing a blog series on dishes that would be perfect to take to a pot luck dinner. I mentally starting preparing a list of requirements that dishes would have to have.

Feeling quite smug that I had come up with an interesting angle for the blog, I checked on my leek pilaf.

It looked terrible.

One of the basic requirements that pot luck dishes should have (or any meal for that matter) is that it should on some level, look appetizing. People should want to eat it.

This looks liked this weird off-green mush with red specks of rice.

I reasoned with myself – surely it would taste delicious. I picked up a teaspoon to try it.

Bland.

I felt somewhat betrayed. I’m under no illusions that leeks are not exactly the most flavour packed vegetables, but the recipe promised that the red rice would make up for this – complementing the ‘sweet mellow leek’ with the nuttiness of the rice.

There was no way I could bring this to dinner.

I felt terrible, especially as we were already running slightly late. There was no way I could whip something else up and we needed to bring something.

Instead, I admitted defeat. We popped by the supermarket on the way and I bought a delicious, decadent chocolate molten tart. I’ve had this tart before and it is divine.

When we arrived, I discovered that Penny had made some roast vegetables so the absence of my leek pilaf did not leave a gaping hole in the meal. And on the plus side, no one had bought dessert so my tart went down a treat.