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?

 

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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.

Lagana (λαγάνα)

I’ve slipped a little on my bread challenge and I did not make my April bread. Quelle horreur!

Early in the month I promised myself that I would do it before I went overseas, but as my trip approached I managed to convince myself that I would be able to squeeze it in on the last two days of April. Unfortunately, I underestimated how affected I would be by the jet lag. I was also really silly and stayed up very late on the day after I got back catching up on Game of Thrones episodes when I should have been sleeping. Opps.

I’ve tried to atone for my bread sins by making my April bread now, while we’re are in the early part of May.

April’s bread was Lagana.

Lagana is a traditional flatbread. It is usually baked for Clean Monday, the first day of Greek Lent. Apparently, there is some folklore associated with this bread. You’re not supposed to cut this bread with a knife; you should tear it instead to ward off evil spirits.

I found this bread a little boring to make. When you knead dough it often seems like you’ll never get it to state where it forms a nice smooth ball. But slowly, after some strong kneading you can coax the gluten in the flour to stretch out. There is a nice sense of achievement when you can transform something that’s very crumbly into a smooth, stretchy piece of dough. I didn’t get this with this dough. It simply refused to stretch no matter how much I tried. And it was tough! At one point I had to wipe sweat off my brow!

You would normally prove this bread for longer, but as I was making it for a family dinner and running late I cut back on the time. Instead of the 2+ hours you would normally leave the dough for, I only left it for an hour. Because of this, the bread was a little dense. Not obviously so, because it still had that delicious taste that only fresh bread can have, but I could sense that it could have done with a little bit more time for the yeast to work its magic. Flatbreads like Lagana requires a longer rising time because it has less liquid in the dough.

The bread does have a lovely, rich golden look to it when it’s finished. It would recommend making it for a stew or casserole type dish. It is perfect for tearing bits off and using it to soak up delicious meaty and savoury juices.

Recipe for Lagana can be found here

Russian Bagels (Bubliki)

Making bubliki is my March bread challenge. I use the word ‘bread’ here loosely as bubliki aren’t really considered bread. They’re more of a half bread, half pastry that you eat with tea or coffee. They have a really scone like texture – dense but quite soft. The difference between them and scones is that Bubliki are sweeter due to the sugar, butter and eggs added.

A wee bit of history

The bublik has its origins in the Pale of Settlement. This was the:

territory within the borders of czarist Russia wherein the residence of Jews was legally authorized. Limits for the area in which Jewish settlement was permissible in Russia came into being when Russia was confronted with the necessity of adjusting to a Jewish element within its borders, from which Jews had been excluded since the end of the 15th century.

Bubliki popularity emerged in the 1920s, under Soviet Russia’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which permitted a certain degree of private enterprise. According to Darra Goldstein:

A new breed of Soviet citizen, the wily entrepreneur, emerged, wheedling the public to buy wares of often dubious quality. Many less sophisticated sellers also took to the streets in an attempt to peddle their goods, and for a while the cities were once again full of all manner of colour hawkers.

One of the most popular products of this era was the bublik, sold hot from portable ovens and immortalized in a contemporary song, “Bublichiki,” in which a young girl bewails her father’s drunkenness and the fact that she must eke out her livelihood selling buns on the street

References to bubliki can also be found in Russian and Ukrainian cultural history. According the page on wikipedia:

A common Russian and Ukrainian phrase is “a hole from a bublik” (Russian: Дырка от бу́блика, Ukrainian: Ді́рка з (від) бу́блика) – which means “absolutely nothing” or “worthless”. Examples:

I worked so hard, and what did I get for it? A hole from a bublik,

He is not worth a hole from a bublik.

Our attempt 

For starters, our bubliki were not worthless! To mix things up a bit I made these with my friend Analiese (who also happens to have a very witty and hilarious fashion and makeup blog) at her house and we ate these for brunch.

They were pretty easy to make, but they didn’t make as many as we thought. Instead of yielding 12, we only made six in the end.

The most entertaining part was when we had to boil the dough in the vanilla milk. It reminded me of watching hot doughnuts being made at food trucks. There is something quite entrancing about dropping dough into hot liquid and then eagerly waiting for it to rise to the surface.

I would recommend eating these with cream cheese and salmon as we did. The slightly sourness of the cream cheese along with the oiliness of the salmon went quite well with the sweet bagels. A few salty capers would have also been delicious.  We also tried it with feijoa and vanilla jam. This was nice, but it was almost too sweet.

Bubliki (Russian bagels or sweet boiled buns) 

I found the recipe for bubliki in Darra Goldstein’s A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality. She notes that her recipe is a less common version.

We did make a few small changes to the recipe. We reduced the number of eggs because Analiese has an egg allergy. We also added a bit of water to the dough. When we initially made it, the dough was very dry and needed a bit of liquid to get it to a point that we were then able to shape it.

Ingredients

¼ cup butter, softened
½ cup caster sugar
2 egg yolks
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ cup flour
¼ cup water
4 cups milk
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

Method

Cream the butter and the sugar. Beat in the egg yolks. Stir in the baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and enough flour to make a firm dough. If dough is too crumbly, add a bit of water to get it into a wetter texture. Divide the dough into six pieces. Shape each piece into a ring around two inches in diameter.

In a deep pot bring the milk and vanilla to boil. Drop in the rings of dough, a few at a time, and cook them in the boiling milk until they rise to the surface. This should take around one minute.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the rings to a baking tray. At this point you could brush them with an egg yolk, or butter.

Cook in a preheated (160˚ C oven) and bake the bubliki until they are puffed and brown. Around 30 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool.

Yield: Six buns

Pane di Altamura

Pane di Altamura is my February bread challenge. Pane di Altamura is a regional Italian bread made out of durum wheat (semolina).

This is what Italian magazine Essen has to say about Pane di Altamura,

In Puglia on a tract of land in the mountains in Murgia, among a landscape of volcanic rocks, the passage from barbarism to civility was made beautifully possible with the Pane d’Altamura. Linked twice over with peasant culture since the end of medieval times, the “u skuanete,” or kneaded bread, is the principal good produced by the inhabitants of Alta Murgia and the centre of pugliese society. It is the best bread in the world – or, so said the Latin poet Horace – and the clever adventurer always took a loaf away with him. Made from durum wheat semolina, derived from the grains of the varieties “appulo,” “archangelo” “duilio” and “simeto,” water, natural yeast and salt. It is a process carried out in five phases: making of the dough, formation, proofing (the rising of the dough), shaping, and finally baking in a wood oven. These phases give the Pane d’Altamura an exceptional longevity. One loaf can be enjoyed even a few weeks after its baking, with tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil maintaining unaltered the flavour and nutritive properties.

The process

This bread was quite a challenge. For starters, it was not an easy bread to find out how to make.

I couldn’t find an ‘official’ recipe anywhere. I went to the library to see if I could find some Italian bread making recipie books, but none of them had this specific one. Searching on the internet was also a bit difficult – there didn’t seem to be an authentic Italian recipe. At one point I decided use Google Translate and search for recipes in Italian which is how I found the recipe that I’m using today.

My main point of confusion was what type of yeast I needed to use. Some recipes said that the usual yeast packet would do, while others were adamant that natural yeast was the correct way. Natural yeast is made by creating a ‘starter’ which uses the natural yeast spores in the air.

Luckily, Joe had been gifted ‘Herman the German’ (a chain letter starter which requires you to feed Herman until he has multiplied and then divide him up and give to five new friends) so I was able to use 40 grams of Herman for my bread. What really confused me was whether or not the bread required a starter made out of durum wheat or whether a plain flour starter would suffice.

In the end, I couldn’t find a straight answer on the Internet and as I was running out if time I opted to use Herman.

The other hard part was the kneading time – 30 minutes! It might not have been a problem if I hadn’t stretched my muscle in my hand from play cricket on Friday night.

Working with durum wheat (semolina) was fun. It’s a different kneading experience to using standard flour. Durum flour is much more course than standard flour and less fine. It’s grittier which is a weird feeling to begin with, but as you start kneading the dough, the coarseness disappears and you get nice silky, smooth dough. 

 

Despite leaving the dough in a warm place for three hours it refused to rise much. Clearly Herman was a bit impotent and was unable to make the dough rise successfully. Such a shame! Perhaps he should have been fed more.

Because the bread failed to rise properly, the marks that I cut in the dough did not open up as they are supposed to. Another consequence of the dough not rising well was the bread itself being quite dense, lacking the small air pockets that you would expect to be there.

In hindsight, I should have also shortened the time that the bread was in the oven. The crust was very thick and impenetrable due to the fact that the bread didn’t rise.

So this is a rather sad ending to this bread challenge. The next day, the bread became so hard that I couldn’t even cut it. We ended up having to through it in the bin.

The recipe for this bread can be found here.  Just remember to use good quality natural yeast!

Challah Bread


Last night was the the 31st of January, the last day in which I could achieve my January bread goal – making challah bread. As usual, I’ve left things to the last minute and I’ve now sacrificed my Friday night to stay at home and making bread. I’m not that that disappointed though. Last weekend I was insanely busy so it’s nice to have a quiet one at home.

Challah Bread

The first time I tried challah was on a road trip across the United States in a small city called Asheville in North Carolina.

I didn’t know anything about Asheville, but one of my friends on the road trip had some contacts there so we decided to spend two nights there. I was pleasantly surprised by Asheville. Its main street was dotted with cute alternative indie shops and the food that I ate in Asheville was some of the best I had in the US. My favourite memory of the city was the French toast that I had at little café called Over Easy Café.  This French toast  – challah bread topped with house-made granola, vanilla lavender yoghurt and powdered sugar was the best French toast I have ever had. This is not an exaggeration. According to my friends, when I took my first bite I made an involuntary enraptured grunt. It was that good.

I suspect that it was the challah bread that really made this dish. Challah is an eggy bread which means when you dip the bread in the egg, milk and vanilla custard and fry it, it enhances the creaminess of the toast and adds a delicious richness to it.

A little about challah bread

Braided challah is a Jewish Sabbath and holiday bread. According to Claudia Roden, challah is

surrounded by folklore and tradition and loaded with symbolism. On festive occasions a blessing is said over two loaves, symbolizing the two portions of the manna that was distributed on Fridays to the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt. The breads are covered on the table by a decorative challah cover or a white napkin, which represents the dew that collected on the manna in the morning. Poppy and sesame seeds sprinkled on the bread also symbolize the manna that fell from heaven.

The bread also comes in different shapes and sizes and as Roden explains they all have different meanings:

Challah is made in various sizes and shapes, all of which have a meaning. Braided ones, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common, and because they look like arms intertwined, symbolize love. Three braids symbolize truth, peace, and justice. Twelve humps from two small or one large braided bread recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel. Round loaves, where there is no beginning and no end, are baked for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize continuity. Ladder and hand shapes are served at the meal before the fast of Yom Kippurthe ladder signifying that we should ascend to great heights, the hand that we may be inscribed for a good year. On Purim, small triangular loaves symbolize Haman’s ears; at Shavuot, two oblongs side by side represent the Tablets of the Law. The bulkah is a segmented rectangular challah. Sweet challahs with honey or raisins are baked during the festive season to bring joy and happiness.

My attempt

I used Deb Perelman’s recipe from Smitten Kitchen – one of my favourite food blogs.

The process started well until I was in the middle of weighing the flour and realised that I was short around 400g of flour. Quelle Disastre!

Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, a quick trip to the shops would have solved things. Unfortunately for me, I had already mixed the yeast, sugar and water together and it was expanding rapidly. As you can see from the picture, it only took five minutes for the mixture to start threatening to spill over the jug. I hurriedly sent Joe out to get more flour (and our Friday night takeaways) and transferred the yeast monster into another bowl while keeping a watchful eye over it.

After Joe arrived back, the process of making the dough was relatively easy.

The challenge with making challah bread is the time that it takes. If you want to get a really rich and tasty bread you do need to let it rise three times. These risings take at least 2 and half hours to complete.

Braiding the dough was also quite difficult. For starters you really do need to get the six strands of dough the same size and length and it’s not always easy to do this. When you’re braiding the dough it always looks amateur which can also be a bit disheartening.

A final point to note is that you need to work quickly with this dough. After I had completed the braiding for the second loaf I turned around to place it on the baking tray and was shocked at how fast my first loaf had grown. It had almost taken up the whole half of the baking tray.

Despite some of the obstacles, I think the bread turned out pretty good. It certainly smelled amazing when I pulled it out of the oven.

This morning I sliced up a few pieces of the challah bread and used them to make french toast. I usually make french toast with basic toast slices but I’ve now realised the error of my ways. Challah bread takes french toast to a whole new level. It was so creamy, rich and deliciously eggy! I will never again use sandwich bread again.

 

Breaking Bread

ImageI have a thing for New Year resolutions. There is something about putting the previous year behind you, closing the door and starting the new year with fresh intentions. Extremely clichéd, but I’m one of those weird people who likes setting goals.

Last year was the first year I’d actually kept a new year’s resolution and I suspect it was because it was a concrete, tangible resolution: enter the Auckland half marathon. It wasn’t run a half marathon, or complete a half marathon in x amount of hours. It was simply to enter. Instead of the usual ‘get fit’, I reasoned that by entering a half marathon, the fear of coming last would motivate me to do regular exercise. And it worked! Last year was the first time I’ve ever stuck to a plan of regular exercise – jogging and swimming.

This year I have a different resolution in mind. I want to be a better baker. I’m not a bad baker – I understand the basics pretty well, but I’d like to be much better. In order to extend my baking skills I thought I’d start right back at the basics of baking – bread making.

Bread is one of the earliest forms of baking – human beings have been baking bread for at least the last 30,000 year.  Some of the earliest breads were flatbreads – and many of these can still be found in today’s cooking – tortillas, roti and pita to name a few.

As human beings developed beyond flatbreads, – other ingredients were added and we now have a wonderful array of cakes, biscuits, scones, pies – all of which have their foundations in the basics of bread making – making a dough. By baking bread, I hope to understand the basics of baking better.

This gets me to my specific resolution for 2014. I will bake twelve different types of bread this year. I have one few rule. I can only make bread that I haven’t made before. So no plain ol’ white bread, no pizza dough, tortillas and no brioche.

With this is mind here are the 12 breads that I will make. I’ve tried to select a variety of leavened and unleavened types as well as sampling how different cultures have made bread.

January – Challah

February – Pane di Altamura

March –  Bublik

April – Lagana

May – Sourdough bread

June – Melonpan

July – Chickpea bread

August – Hushpuppy

September – Mantou

October – Zwieback

November – Lavash

December – Potato bread

As I go, I may make changes to what I’ve selected, or move them around depending on when appropriate. For instance, I’ve made Lagana the April bread because it’s linked to Lent.

Wish me luck!