Holiday research or the discovery of Chak Chak

Placed on .

Sometimes I go on research trips and sometimes I just go on holiday. And sometimes a holiday provides such interesting material that it could rightly be called a holiday-research trip. Last month I went to Canada, to visit my sister and her family and our parents. It’s always lovely to be back in Canada, as it brings back happy memories of my university years spent in Halifax. This time, my destination was a suburb just outside Toronto, a pleasant place with well-kept houses and gardens that were starting to show determined signs of life after the long and cold winter.

My sister is a dedicated sampler of snacks and other good food and she always has a list of places for us to visit together. She had been planning to take me to Sue’s Market for a few years, but somehow, other things always intervened. The main attraction of Sue’s was that the owners were Jamaican Chinese, home people, from our part of the world. I had already eaten a lot of delicacies from their store, which my sister always referred to as ‘a convenience store’. I went in, expecting a tiny down-home Mom and Pop establishment. It’s not that she had deliberately misled me. I think it’s more that we have been living on our respective continents for so long that we have diverged in our interpretation of size. Mild culture shock always sets in when I fly across the Atlantic: everything seems to grow in size, from tubes of toothpaste to household cats. So I was quite taken aback to find that her ‘convenience store’ was about the size of my local supermarket. And what an assortment of top products and produce! But let me not get side-tracked, because I want to tell you something else.

Still reeling from the shock, we went on to stop number two for that day. The exterior was not very reassuring: a utilitarian-looking building whose only apparent concession to decoration was a sober logo above the door, promising a European food experience. They weren’t lying. Believe me when I tell you that it is possible to collect all the best products from Europe and house them in a single spot. And then keep on adding items for local ethnic minorities. Have you ever seen whole smoked sturgeon and salmon in the same place as pickled apples and cabbage, Dutch cheeses, mahleb, mastic and Korean beef bulgogi? Of course, I didn’t see any of these things until the next day, because first there was the bakery…

We walked in – straight into the bakery section. There were European rye breads and Parisian pastries next to baklava from several countries, including the lesser-known Azerbaijani type I gave in Warm Bread and Honey Cake. I saw an interesting-looking concoction on the counter. Not a beauty by any means, but very intriguing: a high anthill shaped pastry-thing that seemed to be coated in caramel. (Later, I was told by a Russian friend of my son’s that they call it ‘anthill’ at home.) I was still too dizzy from the rest of the display to pay it much attention at that stage, but then they gave me some to taste and I was completely lost. I discovered chak chak. You know how I love to bring the world together in my books. Well this single mouthful brought together the crunchy sugar-coated mithai of my Guyanese childhood with the ordinary but delicious North American treat made from rice crispies and melted marshmallows, but in a Russian kind of way. The pastry was crisp and unexpectedly airy in texture and it was all held together with a sticky honey syrup, sweet but not cloyingly so. And it was very moreish. In fact, I have to confess that in the time it took to take a few photographs so that I could show it to you, I managed to eat most of the back of this one. I bet you can’t even tell. The sticky coating holds it together beautifully. You just keep eating and before you know it, it has disappeared and you wonder where it went. Isn’t it wonderful when simple ingredients have that effect?

chak chak

Wrapped has been released!

Placed on .


So exciting! Wrapped has been released in the UK (Pavilion). US release to follow next month (Interlink). I’ll upload some recipes next week so that you can have a little taster. Meanwhile, read about the book here.

A plea for uniformity

Placed on .

Uniformity. The mere word takes me back to my schooldays. Schoolgirls in school uniforms, standing in uniform lines at assembly, singing as uniformly as can be expected of schoolgirls, then filing out equally uniformly to our uniform classrooms. But we were relatively lucky at my school. Unlike other schools who went drably clad in maroon, dark green, navy blue and the like, we had the choice of four pastel colours: pink (yuck! too sweet), yellow (ack! makes any medium complexion look like mud), green and blue. First to third formers had to have small pleats in their skirts; fourth and fifth formers had box pleats. If you made it to the sixth, you enjoyed the privilege of an A-line skirt, even with a slight flare to it, if you wanted. So we were more fortunate than many, because our uniforms were not quite uniform. Uniformity is not something I generally admire. I’ll take eccentrics, free thinkers and flamboyant dressers any day. Misshapen fruit and veg too. And please keep the slick pastry-shop, production line cakes away from me. But there is one area in which I long for uniformity: baking tins.

Baking tins

Is it too much to ask for manufacturers to stamp their tins with the real dimensions? Or even to tell us what it is that they are measuring? And surely, when volume measurements are given, they could take the trouble to label the packaging correctly. It’s hard to measure volume wrongly. Recently, I wrote to the customer service department of a top American manufacturer, whose tins I really love. They are beautifully crafted and give excellent results in baking. Because I am a bit finicky – and because of the non-standardisation of sizes – I tend to measure a tin before I use it for the first time. The cardboard packaging of the sweetheart rose sheet blithely announced that the cavities would fit more than they turned out to fit. Which leaves you with a choice: overfill and end up with misshapen cakes, or have leftover batter reproaching you from the mixing bowl. I dutifully emailed them, to tell them about this slip-up. Next day, I received the following message from a bored customer service representative: ‘thanks for the information – I have passed on to our products team.’ Naively, I thought that ‘products team’ would let me have some kind of response. I am still waiting. And I have lost a tiny bit of my naivety.

Rectangular and square tins are an absolute nightmare. As they tend to have sloping sides, you are left with the question: ‘did they measure the top or the bottom? And if the top, was it the inside or outside?’ Volume measurements for loaf tins are the logical option, as no two companies seem to use the same length x breadth x height criteria.

I feel that manufacturers are trying to keep everyone happy, so what they do is pick a metric or Imperial number (depending on the company’s location) and match it with a rounded-off opposite number. But which is the right one? Is 8″ really 20 cm? And is 9″ the same as 24 cm? 8″approximates quite well to 20 cm, but 9″ converts to 22.86 cm. And, as they have a maddening tendency to give you the furthest exterior dimensions possible, including the curled metal rim, the inner dimensions usually turn out to be scant 22 cm. Those two centimetres can make all the difference between success and failure.

Last year, I was thrilled to discover springform tins that actually had the inner dimensions that were stamped on them. This well-known manufacturer of French cast ironware has now branched out into several other areas, including high-quality metal baking tins. In a wave of euphoria, I felt like immediately calling them up to congratulate them on using a common sense approach. (Their website proved too confusing for me to do so.) Thinking it over, I realised that these correct dimensions don’t mean much, unless other manufacturers follow suit and all use a reliable standardised system.

You may feel that I am splitting hairs. Perhaps I am, just a little, but my frustration is great. I write with joy and enthusiasm for readers around the world and my books usually carry both metric and Imperial measurements. But what actual tin size am I writing a recipe for? Will the batter run over in my readers’ possibly mislabelled tins? Or will there be too little batter in too large a tin, with a dry and unappetising end result? Please, manufacturers, make us happy and tell us the truth. Even better: use a properly standardised system that really is the same all over the world. We live in a global marketplace. We see each other’s stuff on Facebook and internet every day. And we want it too. It no longer matters where we live. A click of the button is  enough to obtain your lovely products.

Normally, uniformity of any kind is my sworn enemy. But it is there for a purpose, don’t you think?

Dutch treats

Placed on .

Dull thuds, resounding crashes and metallic clangs pierce the early morning air. Men shout as tractors alternately chug and roar on our usually quiet street. It’s time to get up. Things to do. A little later, I make my way downstairs and peer bleary-eyed out of the kitchen window. Ah! It has arrived! It’s going to be a long, exhausting day, but not a word of complaint will be heard – unless it’s about our collective pet gripe: the weather. But even that will only be half-hearted as the atmosphere will ooze benevolence, cheer and camaraderie.

Don’t be fooled. Our idyllic riverside village has its share of discord, bickering and feuds, some of which have become so hazy over the years that the feuders only vaguely remember the cause. It doesn’t deter them in the least from keeping it going, though. We even have a village feud with the neighbouring village, centring around the respective brass bands and a boundary and etiquette dispute . But this special day lowers most barriers.

As a posse of energetic men and boys build the stalls on the street outside, I quickly make a large pot of tea for any droppers-in who may be parking their bikes in our yard. I have a quick one myself, just to wet my throat, like, because I will be more than usually vocal today, hailing prospective customers as they saunter by.

Oh, wait. You still don’t know what’s going on. It’s the day of the village Bring & Buy sale, our annual Big Event. The day the village pulls together as one man, to collect lots of cash for the church fabric fund. We all donate generously, man the stalls willingly and buy extravagantly from fellow stallholders. Usefulness and desirability are not real considerations. It can always be re-donated next year.

Usually aided by my friend and fellow committee member Thea, I man my stall in my capacity as chairperson of the local old folks’ club. (A position for which a kind friend volunteered me years ago, fearing that time might be hanging too heavily on my hands.) This means that we get to use part of the takings for our club activities. The stall is stocked with appealing items, such as a doll with hand-stitched wardrobe; all you have to do to win is to guess her name correctly. Believe it or not, the same lady won three years running. I’m thinking of just handing it over when she comes this year. It will save me the drive to deliver it later. Or you might prefer to guess how many sweets are in the jar. Hand-knitted socks, comfy cushions or crocheted pot holders, anyone? And don’t forget to buy your raffle tickets. You could go home with a butcher’s gift voucher, or one for an enormous amount of cheese, or our well-filled super-deluxe grocery hamper.

But pride of place is reserved for the large fruit loaf or krentenwegge – the one that the baker deposited by my back door as the birds awoke. Guess its weight and it’s yours. No prodding, poking or lifting, please. Almond paste filling? (We have a serious contestant here; almond paste will make it heavier.) No, this one is ‘plain’. Yes, it’s absolutely fine to look at the other entrants’ guesses. And no, we don’t know the weight either. It’s in this sealed envelope the baker left this morning.

Krentenwegge 2014

In Warm Bread and Honey Cake I told the story of this bread in detail and gave a recipe for a typical Dutch fruit loaf, which cannot rightly be called a krentenwegge because it simply does not measure up – quite literally. Even the one on my stall is modest, compared with the traditional ones from Twente, where it originated. Although the region was plagued by poverty, there were ways to provide hospitality. In the really poor parts, when a baby was born neighbours clubbed together to provide a fruit loaf to be shared with visitors, calling it a ‘kraamschudderswegge‘ or ‘cradle-shaking loaf’. The money was then taken to a local baker who was asked to do what he could with the amount, so the actual size was always a bit of a surprise. In wealthier households the loaves could be far more than a metre in length and they were often delivered with great pomp and ceremony. The English-speaking world has given a derogatory slant to the expression, emphasising miserliness; the true meaning of ‘Dutch treat’ conveys far more positive notes: reciprocality, solidarity and community spirit, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Last year, a lovely lady with a large family won our krentenwegge, guessing the weight almost to the gram. Shortly after 8 p.m. the doorbell rang. Her husband and one of their daughters were doing a bicycle round with a few stops around the village, to share their bounty. That’s village life on a good day.

May baking challenge

Placed on .

A few months ago, I had a little poll among the readers on my Facebook page and they enthusiastically accepted my idea of a baking/cooking challenge each month. The first challenge was to make either the cake from the cover of Warm Bread and Honey Cake, or the Lamingtons from the same book, in whatever form they liked. Some were so enthusiastic that they made both! The second challenge was from Sugar & Spice, to make two Creamy Creations and/or Nice and Nutty treats. The way it works is that you bake/cook from your own copy of the books. Then you send in a photo to my Facebook page so that we can all admire, like, comment and compliment. Drooling is also permitted. After the new challenge is posted, I compile the previous one into a Facebook album on my page.

Griddle Pasties (Photo Vanessa Courtier)

Griddle Pasties (Photo Vanessa Courtier)

The challenge for May is once again from Warm Bread and Honey Cake as there seems to be a marked preference for this book and it’s the one most of you have. Here’s the deal: make a savoury item from Warm Bread and Honey Cake. There are several items to choose from: griddled meat or vegetarian pasties, chicken or prawn patties, cheese rolls, steamed buns, quick cheese and parsley buns …. And don’t forget to send your entry in to my Author page!

What makes food memorable?

Placed on .

Market in Turkey

What makes food memorable? Often it is the food itself, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the food was wonderful, either. A ghastly experience is sure to stick in your mind forever, however much you try to erase it. I’ve eaten a lot of food, and some it has been truly memorable: magnificent meals shared with friends, simple meals prepared with love and care, experimental disasters in my own kitchen.

A few months ago, a blogger asked me to write a piece about a memorable meal for her blog. I pondered. What should I write about? The Roman banquet? The lotus leaf vegetarian meal at a Hindu wedding? Or should it be the lavish 10-course Turkish wedding feast? Perhaps my first brush with salt-of-the-earth Dutch country cooking? There was enough to choose from. But at the back of my mind lurked an experience that I have never forgotten. It happened in Turkey, during a research trip. Read about it on Sarah Scott’s blog The View from the Table.



New job opportunity

Placed on .

Recently I was given a new job opportunity. Just like that. Handed to me on a plate. I was invited to be a guest columnist. And when I say ‘invited’, I use the word loosely. Here’s how it went…. My daughter has also gone into the food business. When she is not busy at her day job, she cooks and writes for her food blog. A few weeks ago, she informed me that I was being given a chance to make myself useful as her guest columnist, to answer her readers’ baking questions. A slight sense of déjà vu creeps in here, except that the roles have changed. When she was a child, I struggled to keep her constructively occupied. Now she’s returning the favour. Isn’t that kind of her?

My first column appeared on her blog today. The small snag for many of you is that it’s in Dutch, but I’m sure you already know the answer. The question was ‘What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder?’ Read about it here

Books and childhood ambitions

Placed on .

GP keuken met boeken

I love books. Not only cookbooks, almost any book will do: a beautifully produced book with thick paper and gorgeous pictures, a yellowing shoddily glued-together one that is falling to pieces as you look at it (but full of the most interesting, if obscure, information imaginable), a well-told children’s story that can be read on several levels, a novel that grips you from the first sentence, and so on. There is almost always something to enjoy in a book.

Read more…