What feels like a million years ago, the Ninja and I lived in a tiny high rise apartment in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. We were doing the teacher thing, or at least, he was discovering his talent for it while I mostly ran around with my camera trying to eat as much as possible. I’m a predictable traveller and not a good teacher, but I did find that it was possible in a year to get familiar with a lot of what Vietnamese cuisine is. Continue reading
There are benefits. More than I’m probably aware of. I can walk the streets gathering concrete paste, smashed fruit and red dust all over my shoes, and still have someone to twine my (showered) legs with in the night. I can live for 3 weeks straight in a new country without working while I finish my ESL training, because I know that there’s someone back at our apartment figuring out the ass-backwards banking system in Vietnam that freezes one’s account while trying to pay rent because the lease hasn’t been signed (because the first month hasn’t been paid with that money that’s locked up — facepalm), and will still have the patience to deal with my occasional freak-outs. I’m not lonely, or at least not fundamentally so, and the language gap between me and the people here isn’t a monolith that keeps me from everyday communication (and is generally crossed by a genuine smile and some awkward but universal gestures). At the end of each day, there’s still something to quote Tarantino, begrudgingly miss hipsters, and pine for a good burger with, unfailing.
It’s a balance, though. For all the support, we have to share in each other’s rocky transition to our new life as well. When it’s been easier for me, I can only guess at something having to do with my high tolerance for noise, crowds, and aloneness. When it’s easier for him, I think it’s when there are whispers of the wild places that creep into the concrete of Hanoi. I don’t know precisely what his inner sanctum looks like, but I bet it resembles the mossy tranquility of the remote maritime forests of Canada, and that’s basically the opposite of anything that surrounds us for miles.
In the night, without meaningful friendships made here yet, it is the other we must lean on. There are times when I wish I could send him happy on his way to meet a best friend, and come home full of sparkling vinegar and private jokes. And since I can’t, I offer him the gift of strength. I reconsider my needless dramas and realize soon after that they weren’t dire at all in the first place. I stay honest about the dramas that DO matter. I ask for help when I need it, and don’t explain too much when I anticipate his needs, exchanging small and great favours, preserving some small magic in a box, under the altar, offered to the warm neon wind that courses like dogs through the flowering trees on our terrace.
The mystery, I encase into sweets, too. When it works well, the transfusion of emotion, I can make buttery vanilla pudding out of just oil, egg, milk and sugar. I can turn fake melon flavoured cookies into ochre-singed tropical cinnamon-toasted wafer crunchies. I needn’t do anything to the bananas, mind; the tiny variety sold from the basket-women are already perfectly sweet with a hint of chartreuse tang. Who’s surprised that banana pudding works best in southeast asia, though? Not I, said the pastry girl… not I.
Cinnamon-Crunch Topped Banana Pudding
from David Guas & Raquel Pelzel’s DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style, via Epicurious
For the pudding:
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons banana liqueur (or 1 teaspoon banana flavoring)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 ripe bananas
For the crumble:
- 1 cup vanilla wafers (about 15 cookies)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
To make the pudding:
Whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside. Bring the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from the heat and whisk a little at a time into the egg mixture. Once the bottom of the bowl is warm, slowly whisk in the remaining hot milk. Pour the mixture back into a clean medium saucepan (cleaning the saucepan prevents the pudding from scorching), add the banana liqueur, and whisk over medium-low heat until it thickens, about 2 minutes. Cook while constantly whisking until the pudding is glossy and quite thick, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes longer. Transfer the pudding to a clean bowl.
Add the vanilla and butter and gently whisk until the butter is completely melted and incorporated. Press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
To make the crumble:
While the pudding sets, heat the oven to 325°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place the wafers in a resealable plastic bag and seal (make sure there is no air in the bag prior to sealing). Using a rolling pin or a flat-bottomed saucepan or pot, crush the vanilla wafers until they’re coarsely ground. Transfer them to a small bowl and stir in the sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Use a spoon to evenly stir in the melted butter, transfer to the prepared baking sheet, and toast in the oven until brown and fragrant, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. (The crumbs can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days at room temperature or frozen for up to 2 months; re-crisp in a 325°F oven for 6 to 7 minutes if necessary.)
Slice the bananas in half crosswise and then slice in half lengthwise so you have 4 quarters. Slice the banana quarters crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces and divide between 6 custard cups or martini glasses (sprinkle with a squeeze of lemon juice if you like—this helps prevent browning). Whisk the pudding until it is soft and smooth, about 30 seconds, and then divide it between the custard cups. Top with the vanilla wafer mixture and serve. (If not served immediately, the pudding will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, with plastic wrap intact. Sprinkle the crumbs on just before serving.)
If I can make something tropical I will do it. If I can cook something great without picking up a thing outside what I have in the kitchen already, I will verily do it. And, when the kitchen contains fruit, I am a happy sun-cheeked girl, and making sweets that are all colours of the rainbow and – although pining just a bit for the promised million kinds of fruits that are available all the time in Vietnam ^^;;;;; – making my kind of worship to the varieties at my disposal here in Quebec, which is still a riotous bounty, truth told.
Any kind of upside down cake is good (yes even, and maybe especially the kind with those little canned cherries) and almost any kind of gingerbread cake is good. Anything with tropical fruit on it is irresistible, so how could I stop myself from jamsing all these properties together into one moist-tastic clove-kissed flipped-over gemdisplay? Ya, I couldn’t, and the roommates benefitted. Vegans benefit too, because I bet you could probably omit that egg, and I know that replacing the butter with Earth Balance works fine ’cause I did that – partly out of necessity and partly because I rather like using high quality solid alterna-fats in certain desserts instead of dairy. Coconut oil would have been epic!!
Tropical Upside Down Gingerbread Cake
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s recipe in Ready for Dessert.
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 3/4 cup of brown sugar
- 1 large ripe mango, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
- 2 kiwis, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
- 1 cup of pineapple slices (you guessed it, 1/2 thick)
- 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons of ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- two pinches of salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter, softened
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1/3 cup of molasses (not blackstrap)
- 2 large eggs (at room temperature)
- 1/4 cup of room temperature milk
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Place the butter for the fruit topping in a 9 inch round cake pan and set it directly on a burner. Melt the butter over low heat, then stir in the brown sugar. Remove from the burner and let cool while you prep the fruit.
3. Evenly distribute the fruit over the brown sugar/butter mixture, taking care to place things artfully in overlapping circles.
4. Make the gingerbread cake: whisk the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
5. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed for about 3-5 minutes (until it is light in texture and color).
6. Beat in the molasses, then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure all of the ingredients are fully incorporated.
7. Mix in half of the dry ingredients from the bowl. Stir in the milk, then mix in the rest of the dry mix until just incorporated.
8. Distribute the cake batter over the fruit, evening it out with a spatula.
9. Bake the cake for about 45-55 minutes (be careful not to let the top burn). Test for doneness by inserting a wooden toothpick into the center of the cake (if it comes out clean, it’s done).
10. Let the cake cool slightly before running a knife along the edges and inverting it onto a plate.
11. Serve warm, with homemade whipped cream.
I like apple crumble okay, and with pecans involved I’m SO there, but really – in the summer anyway – my heart belongs exclusively to only one variety. You could give me mango crumble every day in the warm months and I’d be happy as a bug with a mouthful of crispy coconut-laced nugget chunks. (strawberry-plum is a close second, but another story). One day I’ll write down my exact recipe for this mango thing, I promise, but for now, the guidelines are…
Mango Crisp (a rough guideline)
Take 2 fat mangoes and diced them up. Toss them with 2-3 tbsp brown sugar, 1 tbsp cornstarch, the juice of 1 lime, and if you have fresh ginger lying around, you could add a little grate of that, too. You want it to be just a touch sweet, super mango-y, and tart from the lime juice. Sploosh that in a baking dish and figure out the dry goods. What I do is take about 1 cup of oats, 1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut, 1/3 cup butter, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp amchoor (dried mango powder – an indian seasoning, and optional), a good pinch of salt, and enough flour until it is wet enough to hold it’s shape firm when you squeeze it, but still crumbly enough to be, well, a crumble by definition. Sprinkle over the fruit making sure there are big and little chunks, and bake in a relatively warm oven – 375 F maybe, for about 30-40 minutes until the topping is browned and the filling is bubbling stickily at you. Serve warm with ice cream, obviously! Vanilla, or coconut, or green tea, or honey, or fudge ripple or whatever.
Then again, if your fruit collection contains avocados and you have some dietary restrictions to consider, a raw lime pie might be the way to go. It is way way WAY easier to make than you might think, with only one heavy machinery requirement, and not-very-heavy one at that, since I can attest to a stick/immersion blender’s ability to replace something more serious like a blender. Even if you don’t have a food processor for the nuts, well….. rolling pin and sturdy plastic bag them! Excellent stress relief, actually.
Raw Lime Avocado Tart w/Blueberry Swirl
adapted, more or less, from the Crudessence recipe
- 1 cup macadamia nuts (I used almonds)
- 1 1/4 cups coconut flakes
- 1/2 cup dates
- 2 tbsp water (or more, as needed to make a pliable but stiff dough)
- 1/4-1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
First grind the nuts, either in a food processor or by putting them in a bag and smashing them with a rolling pin. Then, process the dates – either with machinery or with your fingers. If the dates are hard, you can soak them in warm water for 30 minutes (discard the water afterwards). Moosh the nuts and dates together with the rest of the ingredients until it’s a uniform paste, and then press into the bottom of a greased 9″ pan. It helps to use a tool like a metal measuring cup or a mug to press the mix firmly into the corners! Shape a pretty crust around the edge with your fingers and put in the freezer to set.
- 300 grams ripe avocado flesh (about 3 medium avocats)
- 3/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 cup coconut butter OR 1/2 cup raw cashews soaked in warm water for an hour and then drained.
- 1/2 cup agave nectar
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Blend all the ingredients in a blender or with an immersion blender until very, very smooth and creamy. Spread into the pie crust and smooth the top.
- 1 cup aromatic juicy blueberries
- 1/4 cup agave nectar
Blend together until smooth (you can strain it at this point if you want a perfectly smooth sauce, or leave the pretty purple skins in). Pour the sauce in a circular swirl on the top of the lime cream, then drag a toothpick or a knife through the lines to form a spiderweb pattern.
Chill the pie for at least 2 hours, then slice and eat! It might be cheating to suggest whipped cream, but I’d do it! ★ ★
Finally, if you’re faced with a surplus of luscious manic-coloured summerfruits, and not feeing the need to break out measuring tools, you could always just cut them all up into wee pieces and have a juicy salad, tossed with a bit of citrus and golden syrup. It’s how I was raised, and sometimes, simplicity counts.
There are enormous windows around me letting the virulent green of pine trees into my morning, rain drip-dripping on grey earth, like the waters rising up from the very Atlantic to say hello to this out-of-town newcomer. We’re staying in the Ninja’s mother’s bedroom right now, though I think at first opportunity I’d like to return it back to her and see if we can’t camp out in the saffron yellow guest room. I always hate displacing people from their space, but it’s also kinda important to let them give you something first thing as you walk in the door. Personally, I’m wont to offer still-warm biscuits, but that’s just me. ;)
My very first night in Cape Breton was kind of akin to being thrown fully clothed in the ocean, if by ocean I actually should have said country dance with a live performance by blues-er Matt Minglewood in a tennis court populated by this whole small town, about 30% is related to my boyfriend in some way and 90% of whom are druuuuuunk. I was also drunk. Tee! It was AWESOME. And people here dance, like *really* dance, from the core of their being, just having fun, it’s great. I got showed around a bit, “oh, this is the girlfriend?” and generally felt like an inadvertent city girl, but surreality aside, it was one of the most unique saturday nights I’ve had in ages. Reminds me terribly of the four years I spent living in rural Ontario, but…. different.
Later, after nursing some mild hangovers, we went to Little Judique Harbour for a shot of paradise and even got all totally nudist on some remote and private wave-crashing rock-lagoon. Ocean swimming ensued naturally, and after all that, we worked up a powerful hunger but were too lazy to really make food (like this 3$ blood sausage I picked up at the one food co-op for miles around), so we just ate peanut noodles instead.
His mom is gluten free, so my busy fingers are on a particular mission and I found a stash of old Betty Crocker cookbooks that seemed a reasonable way to kill time and wait for my hair to dry off. Aging bananas on the counter led me banana bread thoughts.. and then Australian banana cake… but then! Oh, Betty Crocker, thank heavens for your comprehensive scope – I found a basic recipe for vanilla pudding (something totally missing from my iPod recipe database), turned it into a butterscotch pudding, and caramelized those bananas with whiskey and poured it on top. Ahhhhh time well spent. (Ed’s note: caramelized stuff + butterscotch turned out to be a bit sweet – who would have guessed? – so I’m not suggesting that you do what I did with the bananas. The pudding is great though, that gets a pass on it’s own!)
I really don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, but there’s a strawberry birthday cake to make for Tuesday (also gluten free), and if I can collect enough wild cranberries from the craggy oceanside, I might figure out a way to incorporate those into the mix.
Anyhoo, here’s Betty’s take on the deal, slightly paraphrased:
Ingredient ratios from the Betty Crocker cookbook circa pinafore era. Method by me.
- 2 cups milk / 500 g
- 3 tbsp cornstarch / 16 g
- 2 tbsp softened butter / 30 g
- 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar / 100 g
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 egg yolks / 40 g
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Whisk the milk and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan to make a smooth slurry. Heat gently on low until the milk thickens slightly, whisking often and scraping the sides and bottom.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the brown sugar and stir to dissolve. Heat the mixture to a gentle bubble and cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in the hot milk & cornstarch. Take off the heat and let cool slightly, until it feels hot, not burning, to touch..
In a large bowl set over a damp towel, whisk the eggs until liquid. Strain the hot milk slowly into the eggs, then pour everything back into the pan. Whisk the mixture on medium heat until it thickens and bubbles appear, then cook for 1 minute more, stirring constantly.
Take off the heat, add the vanilla, pour into serving dishes and chill for at least 4 hours before serving.
For more photos, check out the Flickr set.
Every year I make a pilgrimage to the same place. It changes, like a nebula, gaining limbs (friends) and losing others (uh, also referring to friends here), but the change is slow, organic, natural and altogether comfortable. In the woods, time passes in it’s own microcosm, and the city just… doesn’t matter. Ceases to factor in.
It’s the kind of environment you might expect me to leave my kitchen tools behind in, while I’m on the train of liberty, right? But, I dunno. It’s in my animal nature to dice things and boil water, and make something from nothing, from maligned vegetables and extra time and waking up refreshed from 10+ hours sleep and the clacking of trees and birds and drumming.
Some context: Many years running, my friends have thrown a kind of intimate woods festival, with a generator to make christmas lights and music, an exceptionally well equipped and beautiful kitchen, a classy kaibo (read: outhouse with tarps instead of walls), absolutely no running water, and enough calm vibes to soothe even the most frazzled entrant upon making it through the big green gate. It’s a little slice of paradise, and I’m lucky enough to be given some freedom in the kitchen there, turning the daily donations of fresh fruit and veg into stuff that’s more akin to dinner than the usual camper rations of dried crackery things.
Some years we even make sushi! Okay, maybe, every year we make sushi. It’s kind of a tradition at this point. I was grateful I didn’t have to spearhead that operation this year, and it’s a good thing it was up to two of the other incredibly talented cooks working in the kitchen. I don’t know how they did it, but was the nicest sushi rice I’ve tasted in like, a year. Seriously.
If you’ve never organized a festival kitchen (and I never really have, I’ve only stuck my hand in to help for a few days, and observed a bit along the way), there are a few things to keep in mind. First: Keep It Simple. For everyone’s sanity, and your enjoyment, and frankly, as a favour to the food. It’s not the time to try and reinvent the wheel or get all mission impossible about things. Work with what you’ve got and cook it well. Have eggplants and tahini? Salt those, wring them, fry them and drizzle with sesame goodness, lemon and mint – faboo. Have too much stale bread and old bananas? Vegan french toast, my friends. Coleslaw is easy, colourful, keeps well, and there’s always big hard grate-able veggies around – notwithstanding that I think it’s important to aways have a good crunchy salad out there on the front table to counteract the effects of partying all night and day. No wimpy lettuce. Tell your friends not to bring lettuce. Cut up plenty of fruit for people. Figure out how to A: boil (sanitize) water, B: make coffee, and C: keep the dish-pit supplied with said sanitized water. Do some dishes when no one’s around. Other things.
And so, when it rained on the last day, like a biblical 6AM head-bucket of lake-sized proportions, turning my tent (without fly, without tarp) into a swimming pool in about eight seconds, I turned to the campstove for warmth and made morale-chili while everyone was asleep. And, later when I had to finally take my toes from the soft ground and force them back into socks and sneakers and turn them towards the loud distilled air of the city, I was cool with it (I guess). Because it won’t be for long, really. I’m going to the maritimes in a week, and I’m bringing my campstove, my metal dishes, and a few select spices with me. ;)
Coconut Chai Rice Pudding with Crunchy Lemon Coconut
- 1 cup brown rice
- two 400ml cans of coconut
- 1 litre carton of rice milk
- 2 chai tea bags
- 1/2 cup raw organic sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 vanilla bean, split
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- pinch of cloves
- 1/2 cup dried fruit (raisins, apricots or mango would be nice)
- maple syrup (optional)
Add all ingredients except the dried fruit to a large sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and gently simmer, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn, for at least 60 minutes or until the rice is very soft and thick. Stir in the fruit.
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1/3 cup coarse organic sugar
- juice of 1 lemon
Toast the coconut in a heavy skillet over medium heat until golden brown. Add the coarse sugar and lemon juice and toss until the coconut is well coated in crystals. Let cool, and serve sprinkled on the pudding.