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.

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.

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

Vietnam bound

I’m off to Vietnam today for a holiday over the Easter break. I haven’t traveled in Asia before so I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m particularly looking forward to eating Vietnamese cuisine. I haven’t had it much here in New Zealand but when I have I’ve really enjoyed the fresh flavours that it is renown for.

I’ve done some research on Vietnamese cuisine and discovered how dishes should strive to incorporate five elements of taste: spicy, sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Dishes also include five different nutrients: powder, water/liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat. Not only this, Vietnamese cooks also try to have five different colours present in what they serve (white, green, yellow, red and black. This explains why Vietnamese dishes are always so vibrant in colour. There is also another layer of five – dishes must appeal to the five senses – smell, taste, touch, sight and sound.

Attributions for these images on next page

Muffins are due for a comeback

Sometimes when you set out to make delicious food to write about on a food blog, the results are not always what you are hoping for.

On Sunday it was a beautiful, gorgeous day in Auckland. We’ve been having some stunning weather lately and this Sunday was another exceptional day. I woke up feeling in a muffin mood. I’m not sure how to describe what exactly is a ‘muffin’ mood is but muffins are ridiculously easy to make as a breakfast food so maybe there is a sense of feeling of cheerfulness and relaxation.

Unfortunately, my muffins were a bit of a disappointment. I wish I had followed a previously used recipe, but I decided to give Nigella Lawson’s Pear and Ginger muffin recipe. I adapted it by replacing the pear with apple, and including cinnamon as a spice.

Although they tasted fine they had this really odd consistency – very oily. They reminded me of a pound cake I had once made that had called for a lot of oil. I’m not used to cooking with oil in baking – I think butter gives a much richer and better consistency. Oil just doesn’t feel right in baking! And the amount of sugar in these! I don’t think I’ve ever used so much sugar in making muffins. Maybe I’m just a sugar prude.

It’s quite frustrating when the subject of your blog post turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s not worth my while really sharing this recipe. However, I didn’t want to waste a baking experience, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about muffins in general.

If baked goods were all at high school, muffins would be in the uncool clique. In the foodie scene they have been totally dismissed and ignored – not on the radar at all (unless you count duffins – but they don’t seem to be happening).

It’s not really fair, because muffins are very versatile as baked goods – they can be both sweet or savoury. They’re easy to make and they fit a whole manner of difference occasions.

Perhaps that is the problem with muffins – unlike cupcakes, macarons and cronuts, muffins are very every day. They don’t have a sense of specialness or occasion that these other baked treats have, nor do they come across as particularly indulgent.They’re humble and unpretentious and I think that’s largely why they have been overlooked by the foodie scene.

Muffins became a popular café item in the 70s and 80s. Until this point, muffins had been relatively petite. It was their popularity within these cafes that resulted in an explosion in their size, become at least three times bigger than previous. Since then muffins have been closely associated with chain coffee shops and petrol stations. No wonder they are so uncool.

I think it is time to bring the humble muffin back. Muffins need to reclaim a sense of occasion. It’s not an indulgent or elegant occasion where you’re trying to impress. Muffins suit a more laid back, relaxed occasion – an unhurried breakfast or perhaps a casual picnic with friends. We need to liberate muffins from their daggy chain café locations and free them from their banal flavours. Time for a muffin revolution!