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.

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.


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

Apple and Caramel Sticky Buns

There is something a bit naughty about sticky buns. Made out of rich, buttery dough stuffed with a toffee and brown sugar glaze and then baked on a sticky bed of caramel or rich toffee, they are quite a treat.

It’s not just the ingredients either that invite a sense of playfulness. The name ‘sticky buns’ sounds like a remark that you would use to describe a small child who has smeared chocolate sauce all over their face and their bedroom wall and who looks rather pleased with themselves.

These sticky buns came out of an idea I had for this blog. My blog is largely about challenging myself to be a better cook – that’s where the bread challenge comes in. Another area of cooking that I would like to develop my skills is the ability to be more resourceful with ingredients.

To do this, Joe and I have started a small challenge. Every fortnight, Joe will choose a ‘mystery’ ingredient as part of the supermarket run which I will then have to create a recipe staring this mystery item.

This week, Joe bought home a small jar of apple sauce which is a puree of apples flavoured with sugar or honey and spiced with cinnamon. It has a variety of uses – apple sauce cake, a condiment for roast pork or in some cases, as a substitute for butter or oil in baking.

I came up with this idea of apple and caramel sticky buns late at night when I was lying in bed trying to get to sleep. I was so excited I jumped out of bed and rushed into our living room to excitedly tell Joe about how delicious these buns would be.

They are inspired by some apple and caramel pancakes I had during a Wairarapa weekend  as well as the Joy of Cooking sticky bun recipe that I have adapted for this occasion.

Recipe on next page

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!