Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dumbo the Accidental Baker - #3: The Rock, the Mushy, and the Dense

Following my first two near-successes, I became very - even overly - enthusiastic about bread-making, and in the few days that followed, I made several more attempts (sometimes, twice a day). Listed below, in order of "occurrence", are attempt #3 ("The Rock"), attempt #4 ("The Mushy"), and attempt #5 ("The Dense").


A few bananas hanging on the kitchen wall were getting over-ripe, so I decided to puree them and throw them into the dough. My first - and I'm sure not the last - attempt at banana bread (most of the times, "banana breads" are actually a kind of quick bread; here, what I was attempting was an ordinary sort of bread, since I did not know - and do not intend to learn yet - how to make quick breads).

I had wanted to make a half-size bread using only 1 and a half cups of flour, but I forgot that banana puree contains moisture - and lots of it - on top of the half cup of water I put in, so I found myself kept adding flour to the mixture, and it ended up a full-size one, with about 3 cups of flour in it. =.=

I tried to shape them into "rolls", like cinnamon rolls, but it ended up looking more like comic depiction of you-know-what. But I prefer to think of it as "clouds". Banana clouds. Not bad, I thought.

Well, so much for calling it banana "clouds". They ended up having none of the fluffiness of clouds, but plenty of hardness as when you have not gone a few days. :-p At least the color looks healthy, if you know what I mean. And I'm sure it will float. :-D

But, to be fair to myself, it was quite good, when dunked in hot chocolate or spread with peanut butter. O, it had only a very faint smell of banana, and did not taste like banana at all. It was kind of bland. Hence the need for dunking in hot chocolate or spreading with peanut butter. =.=


Then I tried to use butter instead of cooking oil in the recipe. And I used two tablespoons of butter (mistake, which I was to realize later) for the 1-and-a-half-cup-flour dough, which was twice the amount of oil required by the recipe. I was hoping that butter would be the key to the thus-far elusive fluffiness...

I rolled in some honeyed sunflower seed kernels, and dusted the top with oat powder...

Baked the bunch...

And got some impressive-looking buns!

And it tasted soft... and fragrant... it was a success!

... or so I thought. I realized in my second bite that the buns were too mushy. The softness is not fluffiness, but rather cake-like in texture, and kind of oily. The description that came to mind was "mushy". =.=

And it only tasted good when hot. After it cooled... well, "not nice" is an understatement. :-p


Then Thomas, our master-baker, advised me that I should sift my flour, and put in a couple of eggs, as emulsifier.

Eggs. Hmm.

I sifted my flour, and I ignored the egg part. :-D Sorry, Thomas... Because most of the bread recipes I found do not use eggs, therefore I wasn't really convinced. But I listened to your advice about sifting the flour. :-)

I tried to make a couple of loaves of wholemeal bread with nuts and seeds (particularly, walnuts and almonds and sunflower seeds and poppy seeds).

They looked OK... but a bit flatter than I had hoped.

I brought them to our Saturday evening worship service to be shared with the brothers and sisters after the service, and they said they liked the taste. But the honest opinion? "Too err... how do you say?... Dense. The texture is too dense." And I totally agreed.

But they bravely stomached them all. You've gotta love them for that. :-)

Well, that's what brothers and sisters are for, right? ;-p

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dumbo the Accidental Baker - #2: Saving a Limp Lump of Dough

So, what fate became that first lump of limp dough?

I took half a tablespoon of the new batch of active dry yeast, added a little bit of warm water, poured it onto the dough, added a bit more flour, and kneaded away...

And finally, after another half an hour, it rose.

I happened to have prepared quite a lot of fried shallot the day before, so I rolled the dough into a long strip and twirled in some of that fried shallot...

And let it sit for the second proofing. This time, I was going to bake it in the container it was proofed in.

After the second proofing, I dusted it with the same oat-and-muesli dust I prepared for the English muffins...

And baked it at 175 degree Celcius for twenty minutes (I would later find out from Thomas that twenty minutes is too long for bread, making the texture too dry and hard).

It turned out to be rather good. :-)

You can tell from the number of pictures I took that I was rather proud with this attempt. ;-)

The bread tasted nice when it was fresh from the oven, with a hint of the fragrance of the fried shallot. It is rather bland when it is cool, because I did not really put in any flavoring.

Dumbo the Accidental Baker - #1: Simple English Muffins

I had always wanted to try my hands at baking bread. Long I had dreamed of the days when I no longer need to buy those mass-produced-bland-tasting-bread with who-knows-what-additives inside. But somehow, I never really, seriously, attempted to make a bread, until the events I related in the previous post.

My eldest sister had once tried to convince me to buy a fully-automatic bread machine from her (she is really into her Amway business), but I still preferred the idea of making breads with my own hands, so I declined. (Besides, she demonstrated making bread with the machine, and the loaf turned out to have one corner not properly mixed - you could still see the flour and sugar and what-not we added as the ingredients.)

Actually, after the events related in the previous post, what I was trying to make was muffin, not bread, but then I came across this unbelievably simple recipe for "Simple English Muffins", and my direction was all together altered from that point on.


An English muffin is more bread-like, unlike the cake-like muffins (American muffins) that we normally think of when we use the word "muffin". And I like the recipe I found because it is the simplest recipe I had ever seen for baked good: everything is spelled out in terms of cups or tablespoon or teaspoon rather than the complicated units of pounds and ounces and grams and liters. The simplicity of the recipe makes it very easy to remember.

Nevertheless, the recipe being simple did not mean the process of making it was simple. For my first attempt, I made only half the amount stated in the recipe, in case it was not successful.

I rolled the ingredients into a lump of dough, as instructed, and waited eagerly for it to rise.

Five hours later, it remained this limp lump of dough. :-(

The dry yeast that I used in that batch was bought over a year ago, and I wasn't sure it was still active, so I went out a bought another bag - a huge bag; they ran out of the small sachet version - and made another dough with the new "instant dry yeast". The following picture shows how it looked like in the beginning:

Barely ten minutes later, it had already risen visibly.

About half and hour later, it had doubled in size. I was elated!

The recipe calls for some cornmeal for dusting, but I did not have any, so I took some instant Quaker oat, some muesli, and ground them together into fine powder using the blender.

I added dried fruits into the dough, then I divided it into six smaller pieces. Here, I believe I had made a mistake: I should have directly placed the small pieces onto the baking pan for the second proofing, but I let them proof in one pan and then transfer them to the other for baking. Big mistake...

As soon as I touched them, they "degassed", and went limp. So, after baking, the texture turned out to be denser than I had hoped.

Nevertheless, for the first attempt, I was quite happy with the result.

It tasted quite nice, actually, if you think of it as a cross between a bread and a cookie. :-p

Of Gatherings and Baking

In the past one week, I had baked over half a dozen batches of buns and breads, and it all started because of a fortnightly cell-group gathering at our place, an aspiring master-baker named Thomas, and some last-minute change-of-plan he twice pulled on us. :-D


The story started a couple of months ago, when we decided to change the way we conduct our cell-group meetings.

Our gatherings used to be just a half-hour session of singing praises followed by a one-hour (or less) session of bible study, for which we seldom managed to get any non-believers to attend.

Then we decided to do it in a more "out-reaching" way. And we targeted this small fishing village that we presently lived in, in which the children grow up perilously exposed to constant influences from gambling adults, gangsters, and drug addicts. We decided to bring a more positive influence into the lives of these young ones by turning our cell-group gathering into a combination of Sunday School and Young Adults fellowship, where fun, food and faith are served in a short one-and-a-half-hours session. :-)


The gatherings are held every first and third Fridays of the month (used to be second and fourth), and a typical gathering would go as depicted below:

Primary-school-aged children will have their gathering in the living room (we don't have sofas and TV and the other usual nonsense in the living room, therefore it is a perfect place for the fifty or so children who usually attend to run around and do what children do), in which they sing praises, listen to some Bible stories, play some simple games, and have refreshment (some snacks and drinks).

At the meantime, in the kitchen, the adults and young adults (secondary school and older) get to see a cooking demonstration, and while the food is cooking, a very short session of Bible study wil be conducted, and when the food is cooked, everyone will get to taste it. :-)

In the particular occasion depicted below, sister Lay Hooi was demonstrating how to make "bao zi" (包子), or Chinese buns (with fillings).

Two types of filling were available that evening: stir-fried pork and sweet red bean paste (红豆沙).

The dough was made by the master (Lay Hooi, center, white polo shirt), but every spectator got to get his/her hands dirty by making a bun.

While the adults were having fun making buns (no pun intended), the children were having their refreshments, which, on this particular occasion, was quite lavish...

... someone even brought durians! The durians were from bro. Chuan's durian orchard.

Seen below are all the weird-shaped buns churned out by our secret sweat shop of under-aged young adults. :-D (I wondered if all of them remembered to properly wash their hands...)

Chinese buns are steamed, not baked.

Seen below is Thomas holding the steamed buns. (You understand that I must emphasize here the word "steamed"). Thomas is our aspiring master-baker (his day job is project manager at a major MNC in Bayan Lepas), and you may visit his baking blog here. More story on him later. :-)

And everyone enjoyed tremendously the buns they made with their own don't-know-whether-properly-washed-or-not hands.

Now, the further story about Thomas, and how it got me baking...

After the event depicted in the pictures above, we suggested that Thomas demonstrate making muffin during the next gathering, and he agreed, so we duly spread the word that a muffin-making demonstration would be held the next time we meet.

The following gathering, Thomas was rather late in coming, and when he appeared, he held in his hands a butter cake, which he had made at home. He said it was not practical to bring the huge oven over to my place (I only had a smallish toaster oven), so he baked the cake at home.

OK. No muffin. :-/ But the cake was very nice, so all was forgiven. :-)

After that incident, Thomas proposed that we all chip in to buy an oven to be put at my place for the sake of the gatherings, and everyone agreed, so a brand new oven took its place in our kitchen the following week.

Then came the next gathering, and we had again spread word that Thomas was finally going to demonstrate muffin-making, for real. :-D

But before the gathering, as a contingency plan, we - my wife and I - bought two boxes of pre-mixed muffin powder, just in case Thomas changed his mind in the last minute again. (Sorry, Thomas, for not having faith in you, he-he).

To his credit, Thomas showed up early this time with all the baking thingy: mixer, bowls, spatula, baking pan, flour, butter (REAL butter), orange juice, poppy seeds, sugar... wait, did I say, "baking pan"? What about muffin cups?

So, it turned out he did have a minor change of mind after all: he decided to bake an orange and poppy seed cake instead of muffins (actually, come to think of it, he was being practical: with muffins, you can at most make two dozens at a time, which would not be enough to go around; but with a huge piece of cake, you can cut it anyway you like and get even a hundred small pieces out of it, which is more practical for a group gathering for which you cannot predict the number of attendees).

And his orange and poppy seed cake turned out to be "heavenly" (which is an honest description; I had never tasted a cake so soft and fluffy and light and all together delicious).


But what should we do with the two boxes of pre-mixed muffin powder we bought? Well, if life throws you a couple of boxes of muffin powder, you make muffins. :-)

Our first attempt at muffin making! And it overflowed. :-( ... not to mentioned over-baked.

In the picture below, I had trimmed away the charred tops using a pair of kitchen scissors.

Incidentally, it was also orange and poppy seed flavor. :-) And of course it could not compare in taste and texture with the orange and poppy seed cake that Thomas made, but, they were edible, nonetheless.


We haven't opened the second box of pre-mixed muffin powder yet, because I had decided to look around for REAL muffin recipes and try my hands at making them from scratch instead of relying on pre-mixed powder (which contains who-knows-what chemicals and additives). And in the process of looking for muffin recipes, I came across this recipe for "Simple English Muffin", and my "destiny" was forever changed...

Find out what this means in the next post. :-)

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #15: The Near-Perfect Poached Egg

When I have noodle soup, I prefer poached eggs over fried eggs or hard-boiled eggs. But it is not easy doing it right - solid white and runny yolk - without some special equipment.

The other day, I got it near perfect (without any special tool), and I realized the following keys to a successful poached egg:

1) Fresh eggs (as anyone who knows how to cook eggs will tell you: the white of fresher eggs stick together better);

2) Shallow water (whatever type of pan you use, make sure you have only enough water to cover the eggs; if the water is too deep, the momentum of the eggs "plunging" into the water will surely disperse the egg white); and

3) The water should be simmering rather than boiling, that is to say, make sure the water is still. To do this, after bringing the water to a boil, turn the flame down as low as possible, then wait till the water calms down before carefully putting in the eggs.

And the result was marvelous. :-)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dumbo up the Hills - #5: Half-way Up Penang Hill

I was a bit apprehensive when my uncle told me that day that we were going half-way up the Penang Hill. I mean, prior to that, I had only done the Ayer Itam Dam and the "Happy Hill" in Jawi, and both were not very high in altitude. With Penang Hill, even at only the half-way point, it would be more than double the previously attempted altitude.

I almost chickened out of it, but then I thought: I would be attempting Mount Kinabalu in less than three months, which is more than three times the altitude of Penang Hill (the actual altitude of Mt. K is more than six times taller, but the "climbable" stretch is only three times taller than Penang Hill), and here I was, worrying about climbing half-way up Penang Hill?

So I boldly went where my feet have never trekked before. :-)


We started when it was just getting light. There are a number of hill paths that will eventually lead to the top of Penang Hill, and on that day, the path we took starts from a point quite near my grandma's place. The first few hundred meters of the path were stone steps that were a bit slippery due to the rainfall the previous evening.

The stone steps, together with another mud/cement path (wide enough for motorcycles) that ran roughly parallel to it, are the access roads for vegetable farmers around that area.

Below is the view of part of the Ayer Itam town (old town, as opposed to the "new town" more commonly known as "Farlim" after the main developer of the area) from the stone steps.

Another view of the Ayer Itam town through the woods.

The stone steps stretched on...

... and on...

... and finally, came to an end here. On the left is a house, and the compound area is rather picturesque, but I dared not openly take pictures of a private residence while there might be eyes looking out the windows or something. :-p

We then switched to the cement path...

... or, mud path, for certain stretches along the way.

At one point, we came to this open area, with a mud path going right through a shack used by the farmers to store their fertilizers...

And from that vantage point, you could almost take in the whole Ayer Itam Valley.

For our reassurance, we came across this huge boulder spray-painted with the words "F3 PG HILL -->" to tell hikers which way to go. Actually, a while back before we reached this point, my uncle had asked a middle-age lady going down the path whether we were on the right path that leads to the middle station (half way point) of Penang Hill, and she had assured us that we were, and had given some detailed directions. The residents of those hill slopes regularly go up and down those hill paths to run their daily errands, some more than one time a day. That middle-aged lady had the look of someone going to the market to buy something, and she was walking bare-footed with her sandals in her hands! I felt embarrassed that I was gasping for air like fish out of water... :-p

The path that we took was definitely not the shortest path to the middle station (that is, the middle station of the funicular train; there's this "bottom station" at the foot of the hill, and a "top station" at - where else? - the top of the hill), but the remaining journey was rather uneventful, except at one point when an Indon worker going up the same path overtook me and turned to jeer me, "Eh, tired already? Come on, go faster!" What cheek!

A glimpse of the rising sun...

An interesting house on the slope...

If your are the romantic type, think mist. If you are the practical type, think haze. =.=

At one point, we came to this fork in the road, and there were these signs nailed to the tree telling us: left, top station; right, middle station. And we took the right turn.

Finally, a glimpse of the middle station...

My uncle pointed out to me something growing by the roadside. The plant looks like grass, each with about five leaves, but it is not grass; according to my uncle, it is a type of CORIANDER! And indeed, it smelled like coriander (cilantro).

We finally came to the middle station. We decided to take the funicular train down, because two and a half hours of hiking was decidedly quite enough for a morning! And my stomach was already screaming for breakfast.

A tram arriving from the top station.

On weekdays, during off-peak hours, you can practically have the whole train to yourself. On that day, there were only three passengers on the tram: a middle-aged Indian man, my uncle, and I.

Next time: to the top!