Diary

A full circle

For a few days now I’ve had a hankering for a German pancake and despite the surprising wave of heat we’re having now, I decided to bake one. Together with a super iced coffee, it should make a nice afternoon treat.

The first time I ever had a German pancake was during a family visit to the USA.  My aunt and uncle were living in Albuquerque at that time with my great-aunt Irma. She was the one who, closer to the German side of the family, had a recipe which she made for us once. It was like nothing my sister and I had ever had before: gloriously puffy, golden and crispy all at the same time. Served simply with icing sugar, it was one of those things you love straight away.

Since then, I’ve only tried to make it once before.  Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what recipe great-aunt Irma used at the time and it’s too late to find out now. But the Internet is resourceful; recipes for German pancakes (or Dutch babies, as they’re called, as well) can be found easily. The one I’ve used is this one, and it produces the puffiest pancake you can imagine.

In making this pancake, newfound curiosity for my family’s background led me to ask my mother a few questions. I thought I knew the story, but actually I missed a few details. I always thought it was my great grandfather who settled in Honduras, but it was actually a generation further than that. Both my great grandfather’s parents were German while he was born in southern Honduras. And while I know my great great grandfather was a consul in Amapala, that just raises more questions than it answers.

I find it interesting how a few generations later, my family has done a full circle. Specifically, my sister in Germany and me in England; each living in a country that contributed to our existence today (funnily enough, my English great great grandfather used to live in south London).

Back to the pancake… In my anticipation, I miscalculated how hot the oven should be and probably raised it a bit higher than recommended, as the pancake got quite brown too quickly. The pancake then had a second stage of baking where the temperature was lowered and left to bake a further 13-15min. I, thinking it must be quite done, took it out a couple of minutes early (mistake number 2). So, because of my impatience, I was left with both an overdone and underdone pancake! Too brown outside and slightly doughy in the middle. Oh well. I still enjoyed it; iced coffee goes well with anything, even the sad version of a German pancake.

Diary

Practice buns

It’s been some time since my last post, quite a bit has happened since then: I finished the Level 1 course with a Distinction (super happy about it!) and got an additional tutor role to fill out my work days. From here on until August, my days are set.

 

Creme caramels from Level 1 exam

 

I also started the Level 2 Patisserie course a few weeks ago and this Friday will be the first practical assessment. We will be tested on bread and it will be much more intense than Level 1 ever was. We will need to produce and present brown plaited rolls and Belgian buns (4 of each). Both of these will be tasted and assessed as products in a proper bakery would be.

 

Brown plaited rolls from class which failed to be recreated at home

 

Since today I had the morning off, naturally I decided to practice. The Belgian buns were easy enough since I had frozen the dough leftover from class. I only had to defrost it, let it rise and shape the buns. I did have to improvise, however, due to having no sultanas or raisins in the house (also no fondant for glazing). I did without the dried fruit and decided to try a chocolate glaze since that’s what I had in the cupboard. The only thing I cared about in terms of the glaze was the actual skill (getting it as even as possible), otherwise I’d have done without it too.

 

Pre-glaze Belgian buns

 

The buns looked great straight out of the oven and brushed with bun wash (sugar syrup). The chocolate glaze was a tad thick so the buns’ spirals got a bit lost.  Hopefully I can manage a thinner, even coating of fondant on Friday’s test.

 

Chocolate glazed buns

 

I had no wholemeal at home, so decided to just make plain white dough to practice the shaping of the plaited rolls… Big fail! I still haven’t quite got the conversion of fresh to dry yeast so whenever I try to recreate the course’s bread recipes they almost never work out. And today was no different… I guess the fact that I halved the recipe didn’t help either. The end dough was too soft; I tried plaiting one roll and gave up. The dough was too soft to hold the shape (I was also running out of time as I had to leave for work), so the rest of the dough ended up as plain rolls. Not even good rolls…they were over proofed in my makeshift prover. I can only hope that Friday will see better rolls (very likely given the proper ingredients and the professional equipment). Wish me luck!

Honduras · Switzerland · Taiwan · the Netherlands · UK

A taste of five pancakes

Before moving to London, I never knew about Pancake Day. Despite growing up in a Catholic household, there never was any change in our diets before, during or after Lent. We’d go to church, maybe eat more seafood during Easter, but never try to consume all the rich foods before Lent. Also, culturally pancakes are foreign to us. We eat both American-style pancakes and crepes but pancakes themselves are not part of a typical Honduran diet.

I love pancakes: blueberry pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, thick pancakes, thin pannekoeken or crepes, you name it. So it was only natural for me to tackle pancakes on such a special day. I’ve been making pancakes with my mum’s recipe for years, though adapted to yield one portion of pancakes. To challenge myself, I tried to make different pancakes for each country I’ve lived in. It was fun to brainstorm though I spent 2 hours making said pancakes.

For reference, this is my mum’s recipe (which she got from my grandmother and who knows where she got it from…basically it’s the Motz family pancake recipe):

1 cup flour

1 cup milk

1 egg

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp butter (which I’ve always omitted, never changed the end results)

1 tbsp sugar (again, optional, especially if adding sweet toppings)

All the ingredients are mixed into a batter. Scoop batter onto pan with the teeniest amount of butter (which has been wiped around the pan with a paper towel), unless you’re doing Dutch style pancakes (pannekoeken) which do need a healthy nob of butter to cook in. A tip to keep them fluffy: don’t press down on the pancakes with a spatula while cooking.

 

Now, here are my five-country variations:

Honduras (family recipe, served just with maple syrup)

These are my mum’s pancakes, which I’ve eaten my whole life. We would usually have them with honey or, my personal favorite, Hershey’s chocolate syrup. However, I ran out of honey and I don’t have Hershey’s syrup either, so maple syrup it is. I actually like the taste of it more than honey’s.

 
Taiwan (pineapple pancakes)

So I tried the pineapple cakes before and I thought I could adapt the recipe into pancakes. I made the pineapple jam and mixed it in with the batter, to which I also added a spoonful of milk powder to evoke more of the pastry flavor. They were tricky to shape into circles, but they tasted nice (very sweet, though).

 
the Netherlands (pannekoeken with brown sugar or hagelslag)

One of the things I miss about the Netherlands and Belgium was their style of pancakes, thin as crepes but laden with goodness. I always had pannekoeken with either cassonade (brown icing sugar) or hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles); savoury pannekoeken I’ve only had here in London at My Old Dutch Pancake House (really tasty, but enormous things!). So that’s how I had my small portion of pannekoeken (I thinned out the batter with milk to get the crepe-like pancake): with brown sugar and lemon, and hagelslag.

 
Switzerland (pancake fondue)

For this one, I cheated a bit. The pancake itself isn’t anything Swiss; I just cut up my mum’s pancakes into bite-size pieces. But I did make a chocolate sauce for dipping as you would with dessert fondue. Definitely more of a snack than a meal!

 
UK (digestive pancakes)

I know ‘digestive pancakes’ sounds hilarious but when you find out that Britain’s favorite biscuit is the digestive biscuit (essentially, a cookie with oats and brown sugar) then it all makes sense. I attempted to recreate the biscuits in pancake form. I ground a couple of tablespoons of oats and added them to the batter, along with a tablespoon of brown sugar (instead of the original tablespoon of sugar). These came out alright, though I would probably add more oatmeal in future batches or just mix ground digestive biscuits into the batter. I spread some of the chocolate sauce on top, just as digestive biscuits sometimes have a layer of chocolate.

Unsurprisingly, I had a lot of pancakes. At least I’ve got breakfast sorted for the rest of the week!

Honduras

Pan de coco

I’ve always been funny about coconut. I’m not a picky eater, but I have decisive opinions about different products derived from this fruit. Coconut milk? I love it in food. Coconut water? Only from fresh coconuts, and the big green ones at that, not the hairy brown ones. Desiccated coconut? Disgusting. It’s the texture I can’t get past.

Having said that, I love pan de coco (coconut bread), which comes from the north coast of Honduras. It is made with coconut milk as the liquid to bind the dry ingredients, together with an egg. It is soft and rich and full of flavour. I’ve been craving some ever since the Independence Day celebrations in September organised by the Honduran embassy here in London.

Having found a recipe here and seeing how simple it was, there was no way I could delay making some. I chose that recipe for its smaller yield and measurements in the metric system. Here is the English version of the recipe :

Ingredients

453g strong flour

5g dry yeast

20ml water (to dissolve the yeast in)

10g butter

15g sugar

5g salt

260ml coconut milk (you might need a bit more if mixture is too dry)

 

Method

Dissolve the yeast in the water and one tablespoon of flour, mix and let rest until foamy (about 15-20 minutes). Mix all the ingredients (except for the butter) until they come together. Add the butter and knead until the dough becomes soft and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl, cover and let rest until it has doubled in volume, about an hour.

Divide the dough in equal portions, shape into rolls and let rest a further 15 min. Place rolls on a baking tray, leaving some space between them.

Bake at 175 °C for 30 min (or until golden brown). Once baked place rolls on a rack to cool.

The rolls, while a bit dense and of closed texture, looked and tasted as they should. A couple got stuck to the tray (I ran out of baking paper), but no big deal. I think I might have  also overworked the dough as I shaped them into rolls, so 15 min wasn’t enough to let the dough relax before baking. Seeing how easy they were to make, I’m definitely trying again (until I get them right)!

UK

Whisk insanity workout

This week we covered sponges in the course: we made a Victoria sandwich and two Swiss rolls. Little did I know it would involve more physical effort than pushing an elephant and more determination than doing a triathlon.  

It started off innocently enough, creaming soft butter and sugar by hand (literally, the Chef used his hand as a paddle to cream the ingredients together…what technique!), then incorporating eggs bit by bit. The Victoria sponge would be ready for the oven as soon as the flour had been folded into the mixture. This was just the warm-up.

Then came the first whisk insanity challenge: a plain genoise sponge. This time we used a different method, the egg foam method. The only rising agent in this sponge is the eggs, beaten with the sugat over a bain marie until achieving a thick, creamy consistency, much like a sabayon. I thought my arm would break, the urgency of keeping the whisk moving stronger than my wish to stop. I alternated hands, making my clumsy left hand take on some of the workload,  moving at a slower pace, but moving nonetheless. 

It all paid off though when the sponge came out of the oven. So golden, so…spongy. It was love at first sight. Even more so after I rolled it up while hot to hold its shape and no cracks were to be seen. 

Soon after we did the same process, this time for a chocolate genoise. Much more cumbersome…the cocoa powder was heavier and thus much easier to knock out precious air out of the mix. The loss of volume made the mix seem sparse and it wasn’t a surprise when I couldn’t fill out the mold. I didn’t try, because spreading it too thin could leave you with a biscuit rather than a sponge. 

I wasn’t hopeful at all, so it was a nice surprise to see that my overworked mix still rose a bit and looked like cake. Rolling it up was alright, too, no cracks again. When I tried the bits I trimmed off, I thought it felt denser than the plain one, which was to be expected. 

Another part of the whisk workout included making buttercream, creaming butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Thank god the chocolate buttercream for the chocolate Swiss roll was prepared by the Chef beforehand. I don’t think my arm muscles would have spoken to me again if I had put them through that. 

All in all, quite a vigorous class. It’ll probably be quite some time before I attempt to make another genoise. 

Diary

A month of changes 

I never really subscribed to the whole “new year, new me” idea, but for me 2017 has certainly brought many changes (and it’s only been a month!). Not only have I started the patisserie course, but I’ve also moved to a different flat (there’s only so much you can take from an agency which doesn’t really give a crap about the residents it gives service to). On top of that I’ve also changed jobs, giving me more flexibility with my time. Except for one or two bumps in the road, it’s been great. 

At the very beginning of the course, I felt like I couldn’t catch up; everybody else seemed to be much more experienced in baking. I could hear people kneading and pounding their doughs while I was still mixing my ingredients. I was the first to cut my finger while slicing our sweet buns (who knew professional knives were that sharp). I also cracked my sweet shorcrust pastry shell while transferring it to a cooling rack (only a bit, but still…in pastry-making the quest is for perfection). Not to mention almost grating my finger with the cheese the other day. 

Cracked pastry shell hidden under pastry cream and apricots

With each day, however, I learn to focus on the things I’m doing well  and just make a mental note of what I need to practice more. I could use more practice shaping bread and piping in general, but my choux pastry is not bad. Same for my rolling: rolling out sweet dough to cover with cinnamon sugar and raisins and then roll up into a roll to make Chelsea buns was fun and not as hard as I thought. 

Chelsea/sticky buns, a step away from cinnamon rolls

I think my favourite lesson so far has been making profiteroles, eclairs and one Paris-Brest; all simple enough but with different components each. Choux pastry is so versatile; I wish we had a deep fryer to make churros. 

Heaven in a puff

Besides the pastry, we also learned to make creme patissiere for the eclairs, chantilly cream and chocolate sauce for the profiteroles, and a praline cream for the Paris-Brest. Very handy things to keep in my arsenal of recipes. 

A lone Paris-Brest 

A useful tip I learned for filling eclairs: make two small holes on the bottom of each eclair, one on either end. Pipe the pastry cream in one hole and check when it peeps through the other hole; there’s nothing sadder than a half-full eclair. 

During the last class we made rough puff pastry and to be honest, mine looked really bad by comparison. In the end though, it became gloriously flaky and crispy around some sausage meat and twisted around lots of cheese. 

Cheese straws

Each week brings something new and exciting, keeping me on my toes. I still want to continue my project now that I’m more settled in my schedule. I still need to make something Honduran, probably semitas or rosquillas,  if I find a cheese that resembles the original. It’s something to look forward to, especially since half-term is coming up. Plenty of time to mess around in the kitchen… 

Taiwan

Winter solstice, a time for 軟Q湯圓

During my years in Taiwan I somehow found myself getting involved in all sorts of random things. I joined Dao lessons, karate club, and different student meetups revolving around international friendships. I even participated in a home stay program; I ended up staying at a Taiwanese girl’s house in Taoyuan for a weekend (after I met her once…talk about awkward). While being thrown into all these situations, I got to experience a side of Taiwan that is not immediately perceived by an outsider. I learned some Buddhist stories and Daoist rituals (I even went to a summer camp for young people, involving waking up at dawn for prayers), tried amazing vegetarian food, hot pot, all kinds of street food that locals love (including stinky tofu).  I learned how to make dumplings, including tang yuan for the winter solstice.
I learned how tang yuan are made during my first “winter” (I discovered the true meaning of winter here in Europe) in Taiwan. In a small room somewhere in Fu Jen Catholic University, I joined a group of students to make traditional tang yuan to celebrate the Dong Zhi Festival (winter solstice).  We made lots of dough balls using sticky rice flour and water, which we then boiled in a sweet soup. Visually, they were very appealing: bright pink balls contrasting with the white ones. Inside they were very chewy. The ones we made were plain, but since then I’ve seen tang yuan filled with sesame, peanut or red bean paste. I had them a couple of times in Taiwan, but since that one time I never made them again.

Fast forward to last week when I realized the Winter Solstice Festival would fall just before Christmas. It would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in more Taiwanese food (the pineapple cakes were just not enough). Best of all, that would leave Christmas dinner to be claimed by Honduras with a menu that pretty much planned itself. I take the holidays very seriously.

To celebrate the winter solstice, I spent a total of four hours in the kitchen and by the end I had a ton of food to show for it: the biggest plate of prawn pancakes (月亮蝦餅) you will ever see and a mountain of popcorn chicken(鹽酥雞), washed down with a jug of Thai iced tea (just because). To finish a small serving of tang yuan in a sweet ginger broth. So actually only the tang yuan are traditionally Dong Zhi Festival food, but I had a hankering for some of my favorite discoveries from Taiwan.

For years, I had been searching for crispy prawn pancakes in restaurants, but I never found them outside Taiwan. I was so excited when I accidentally came across this video by Taiwan Cooking showing how to make them. The recipe on the video had a very large yield, so I used half the amount of prawns and guesstimated the amounts for the seasonings. They turned out quite tasty (just a teeny bit too much fish seasoning, a little bit goes a long way) and even though I halved the recipe, I still got about 8 pancakes.

Add to that the popcorn chicken and there’s a food baby on the way. Ever since I discovered Bigbe Chicken in London’s Chinatown, I’ve been wanting to do popcorn chicken myself. It is a hassle reserved for special occasions. Seeing the success I had with the pineapple cakes, I went with another video by Angel Wong’s Kitchen, this time to make popcorn chicken. I chose it because it had a simplified method compared to other videos and the results looked great. I discovered the secret to popcorn chicken lies in the final dusting of white pepper and salt (years I spent wondering what made Taiwanese fried chicken so addictive).
To end this Taiwanese food extravaganza, the tang yuan. Although Taiwan Cooking has a video on tang yuan I actually followed Rasa Malaysia’s recipe, since it had accurate measurements for a set number of portions. I wouldn’t know what to do with all the extra dough, especially since I have a boyfriend who sometimes is a bit skeptical about what I cook.

Making tang yuan is exactly as I remembered: simple dough, boiled in water and served with the steaming, sweet broth. I did follow Taiwan Cooking’s tip on soaking the tang yuan in ice water right after being cooked. They were definitely more Q (Taiwanese expression for chewy).

The best part was eating it all and Boyfriend actually liking it (even the spiced ice tea and he doesn’t like tea). Not to mention the fairy lights and unwanted Christmas tree branches Boyfriend secured to decorate the room, Love Actually playing on TV. He made his own first winter wonderland while watching Colin Firth fumble with Portuguese and Hugh Grant traipsing through Wandsworth, an area we know so well. The eating and drinking, the lights and the movie made it the perfect prelude to Christmas.