I was born into a family and a culture where bread and buns made out of white flour were bought, baking was done only very rarely and then only of cakes, and most desserts were based on rice flour. Moving to North America from the Philippines widened the range of breads and desserts I was exposed to.
For example, we could buy frozen breads and stockpile them in our freezer, ready to be popped into the oven whenever we had need of them. I was also introduced to such abominations as store-bought pita breads and pizza bases with a half-life of several years. Needless to say, aside from pumpkin pie and the occasional doughnut, I stuck to rice.
However, all this changed in a few short years, after the advent of the millennium. Meeting my wife, Melanie, who is from Germany, proved to be the start of a new relationship to bread, and then spending a year in Turkey only confirmed it.
I might have given the impression that I wasn't used to bread before Turkey, which isn't really the case. What I wasn't used to was the fact that bread could take so many varied forms and actually have some substance and show some resistance to my biting into it. Yes, yes, I did try the “artisanal” breads of California, but they were a bit, ehrm, precious, perhaps more in hindsight than when I was in the moment. And yes, the Philippines has a bread and wheat culture, with quite an assortment of mostly sweet breads and pastries: after 500 years with Spaniards around, something had to stick. But the true revelation of bread came with my journeys to Germany and Turkey.
Germany has, more than any other country I know, a vast and varied assortment. Some heavy and dark, others light and fluffy, still others seemingly consisting of various grains still retaining their individual forms, and steamed instead of baked. What stands out, even today, is that I actually need to adopt a fighting stance when I carry the one of the heavier breads, as they can actually weigh as much as a newborn, and especially when I cut into it. Biting into the crust, it sometimes almost feels like, for vegetarians, chewing on a medium-well done Worthington Prosage chunk. The experience actually forces you to experience the texture as well as the taste of the food that you take in.
However, Turkey was a revelation. Everything was different, all cultural cues were from sources (Arabic, Persian and Turkish cultures all subsumed under the rubric of Islam) that seemed to have only the barest essentials in common with my Christian culture, and even when they had the same story as we do, it was often told differently. I still remember the shocked face of one of my Turkic friends when we made the mutual discovery that Abraham’s promised son in our respective cultures was actually the usurper in the other one’s story. I think I might have managed marginally better at hiding my shock.
Food, the substance as well as the etiquette surrounding it, was also something that I had to relearn. For example, if you see a morsel that piques you when eating with friends, it is acceptable to lean over, spear it and pop it into your mouth, without so much as a by your leave. Of course, thanking your friend and commenting on how delicious it was are expected.
It is with breadstuff, however, that I could see why Turkish cuisine is world-class. Turks love their breads almost as much as they love their children, and they do love their children. Even the meanest village will have an assortment of breads to rival the most chi-de-chi, soi-disant boulangerie: thin, golden-brown crusty breads with fluffy interiors and coated with toasted sesame seeds; circular poppy-seed-coated discs fragrant with wood smoke; fat, flat loaves with nothing better to do than tempt you. And Turks eat bread with everything. At least the Turks I got to know. And when I say everything…
One of my friends, a great big bear of a man named Vakur, was my “kanka,” a sort of tutelary guardian designated to guide me through the intricacies of Turkish culture. On one of our trips to Istanbul, he decided that the time had come for him to actually try Chinese food. After we had gotten our food, he noticed that something was missing. Yes, bread. So he called the waiter over to ask why he had not yet received the bread, to which the waiter, a fellow Turk, replied that it was a Chinese restaurant. Vakur riposted with, “Yes?” The waiter next tried to explain that they had no bread on site as it was in fact a Chinese restaurant. Ten minutes later, the waiter returned from buying bread and brought it to our table, sliced. Vakur ate his rice as well, though.
It’s been several years now that I’ve come to appreciate the wide world of wheat. My wife and I have two daughters and are living in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom surrounded by a most eclectic group of people. Our close circle of friends on site includes Germans of various stripes, Poles, Japanese, assorted Filipinos and a Magyar or two who could pass as Romanian. We also keep up our relationships with close friends in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Greece, California and Texas.
This diversity in our social ties is reflected in the food we eat en famille, as we pull together elements from our culinary experiences to try and achieve our own brand of fusion. When our circle of friends meets up, we still manage to surprise each other and learn new ways of making food. As we feed off each other’s differences, so we feed each other. And the medium in which we do a lot of our feeding is that of wheat-based products.
Glenn Leihner-Guarin has managed to maroon himself in Cambridge, England. Fortunately, he has his lovely wife and children to make the time go faster. He hasn’t ever lived in any place longer than eight years, and loves to visit new countries, mainly to try new foods.
This week’s recipe for Chocolate Snack Buns is from Glenn Leihner-Guarin, and offers many opportunities for variation. It is adapted from one that his wife acquired during her elementary home economics course. Leihner-Guarin notes, “The original recipe’s German provenance can be seen in one of its ingredients being quark, a type of cheese that isn’t readily available in the U.S. The buns taste just as good with the recommended substitutes, though.” See additional notes.
Chocolate Snack Buns Makes: 12 Total time: 35-40 min.
250 g (1 cup) quark (or organic plain soy, coconut or almond yogurt) 3 tablespoons expeller-pressed vegetable or canola oil 4-6 tablespoons milk (dairy, soy or almond) 300 g (2 cups) flour (whole-wheat or a mix of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour) 2 tablespoons baking powder 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar and/or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 100 g (1/2 cup) or less sugar (or about 1/3 cup agave nectar) Optional: 1 pinch salt 80 g (1/2 cup) chocolate chips Optional: 1 egg for egg wash
1. Mix all the ingredients and knead well; add a bit of flour if too sticky.
2. Form into a roll approximately 2 inches thick. Cut into 1½-inch slices and roll into balls.
3. Using the back of a knife, press down on the middle of each bun. Place onto baking sheet lined with reusable baking paper.
3. Bake for 20–25 minutes at 350–400°F (175–200°C), until brown but not too dark.
Sweet: Replace chocolate chips with raisins, blueberries or chopped apple. Savory: Omit sugar completely; replace chocolate chips with chopped sundried tomatoes, chopped olives and/or diced or grated cheese.
Variation 2: Strawberry Shortcakes Makes: 12 Total prep time: 35-40 min.
Cake 250 g (1 cup) organic plain soy yogurt 3 tablespoons expeller-pressed vegetable or canola oil 4 tablespoons almond milk 300 g (2 cups) flour (whole-wheat or a mix of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour) 2 tablespoons baking powder 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar 100 g (½ cup) or less sugar 1 pinch salt
Topping 1½ pints strawberries 1 lime (organic, unwaxed) 1 lemon (organic, unwaxed) 500 g (2 cups) organic plain soy yogurt 1–2 tablespoons sugar
1. Mix all the cake ingredients and knead well; add a bit of flour if too sticky.
2. Spread evenly onto baking sheet lined with reusable baking paper. The dough should be roughly ½ inch (1½ cm) thick.
3. Bake for 10–15 minutes at 350–400°F (175–200°C) until brown but not too dark.
4. While cakes are baking, hull the strawberries, cut in half and place in a bowl. Grate the lime and lemon zests onto the strawberries, and squeeze the lime juice onto the strawberries as well. Set aside to marinade.
5. Squeeze the lemon, mixing its juice with the yogurt. Add 1–2 tablespoons sugar or to taste.
6. To serve, cut cake in squares, then top with yogurt mixture and strawberries.
Tips and Pointers
*Agave nectar is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar and is often substituted for sugar or honey in recipes. In cooking, it is commonly used as a vegan alternative to honey for those who choose to exclude animal products from their diets. Agave nectar dissolves quickly and so it can be used as a sweetener for cold beverages such as iced tea. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave_nectar) * Ingredients such as milk, butter, yogurt/quark, etc., can often be replaced by dairy-free products such as soy/almond/rice milk, dairy-free non-hydrogenated margarine/vegetable oil, soy yogurt. Experience plus trial and error will help achieve desired texture and consistency—the taste should remain unaffected. * Substitute whole-wheat flour for white flour in whole or in part. Taste and texture may seem unusual at first, but it’s a healthier option worth trying.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5352