Tuesday, February 28, 2006

King Cake

Today is Mardi Gras! I should have posted this earlier, but this will give you plenty of time to prepare for next year...

The King Cake is a Mardi Gras Celebration cake. It was named after the Three Kings who came to visit Jesus on Epiphany, or the twelfth day of Christmas. This is the official start of Mardi Gras season and it lasts through what we know and celebrate as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, King Cake is eaten anytime throughout Mardi Gras season and these days, you can buy one any time of year.

The three royal colors of the cake-green, yellow and purple represent the three kings. These cakes are made for sharing and traditionally, a little plastic baby or bean is hidden somewhere in the cake. Whoever finds the baby is king for a day will have good luck for one year. They also must buy or make the next king cake! The baby or bean is thought to represent fertility, or new life. Some say it represents the baby Jesus who was found by the three kings on the twelfth day of Christmas, thus you must “find” the hidden baby in the cake.

If you have a bread maker, you can use it to make the brioche or sweet roll dough. I prefer to make the dough by hand and used the following recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart.

Middle-Class Brioche Dough
(as opposed to Rich Man’s or Poor Man’s which use more or less butter)

For the Sponge:
½ cup unbleached flour
2 tsp. instant yeast
½ cup whole milk, lukewarm (90 to 100 degrees F)

5 large eggs
3 cups unbleached flour
2 T granulated sugar
1¼ tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, whisked until frothy, for egg wash

1) To make the sponge, stir together the flour and yeast in a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Stir in the milk until all the flour is hydrated. Cover with plastic wrap and ferment for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the sponge rises and then falls when you tap the bowl.

2) To make the dough, add the eggs to the sponge and whisk (or beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment) until smooth. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add this mixture to the sponge and eggs and stir (or continue to mix with the paddle on low speed for about 2 minutes) until all the ingredients are hydrated and evenly distributed. Let this mixture rest for 5 minutes so that the gluten can begin to develop. Then, while mixing with a large spoon (or on medium speed with the paddle), gradually work in the butter, about one quarter at a time waiting until each addition of butter assimilates before adding more. This will take a few minutes. Continue mixing for about 6 more minutes, or until the dough is very well mixed. You will have to scrape down the bowl from time to time as the dough will cling to it. The dough will be very smooth and soft.

3) Transfer the dough to a greased sheet pan, spreading it to form a large, thick rectangle measuring about 6 inches by 8 inches. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil and cover the pan with plastic wrap. Put in the refrigerator and chill overnight or for at least 4 hours.

This dough makes enough for two king cakes- one for home and one to take to work!

Fruit and Cream Cheese Filling for 2 King Cakes

Fruit filling:
(You could use a 16 oz. can pie filling, but I chose to use my own pie filling…)
1 lb. fresh or frozen raspberries, blackberries, or boysenberries (or a mixture of these)
1 cup sugar
1 T unsalted butter
3 T Cornstarch
½ tsp. cinnamon

In a medium saucepan, stir together the ingredients for the fruit filling. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until thick and the mixture is no longer cloudy and turns glossy. Remove from heat, and cool to room temperature.

Cream cheese filling:
8 oz. cream cheese
¼ cup sugar
2 T flour
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla

In a medium bowl, mix together the ingredients for the cream cheese filling. Set aside.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into two halves. Place one of the halves back in the refrigerator while working with the other. With well-floured hands, on a well floured sheet of parchment, shape the dough into a long sausage shape. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 30 by 9 inch rectangle. The dough will be sticky so it is best to do this while very firm and cold. Let the dough rest for a few minutes.

Spoon an inch-wide strip of cream cheese filling about 3 inches from one side down the length of the dough. Spoon the fruit filling alongside, about 3 inches from the other edge. Brush both sides of dough with the egg wash. Insert a bean if using one. (the baby needs to be inserted after baking or it will melt and you will have a very scary looking baby)

Fold one edge of dough over the cream cheese and fruit, then fold the other edge over, covering the fillings completely with dough. Form a ring or oval with the long tube of dough by lifting gently with a bench scraper and joining the two ends. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect. Transfer the parchment paper and the King Cake onto a pizza pan or large cookie sheet. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35o degrees. Brush with egg wash and cut vents into the cake. If you do not want to frost, you can sprinkle heavily with blotches of purple, green, and gold colored sugar at this time.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until cake is well risen and golden. Let cool on baking sheet, transfer to a serving tray after completely cooled and it is easier to handle.

Butter Icing
Prepare a butter icing by melting 1 tablespoon of butter. Add milk and confectioner’s sugar to desired consistency plus a pinch of salt. You can either divide the frosting into 3 parts and color with purple, green, and gold or sprinkle the frosted cake with colored sugars. The cake should look over-decorated and even gaudy. Insert the plastic baby if using and enjoy!

Cinnamon Roll Filling

Another common king cake is to roll the dough out as described above and fill like a cinnamon roll: brush with melted butter, then sprinkle with a mixture of ½ cup brown sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon. Add pecans or walnuts if desired. Then, roll, starting from one long edge into a log. Form into a circle on a baking pan as described above. Butter icing goes very well on this version.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hawaii's Poi

Lou and I just moved into a new place with a bigger kitchen! We had been eating meals out while our lives were packed up in boxes, but now I'm back to cooking. We also just returned from a short trip to Hawaii last Wednesday. Hawaii has become somewhat of a tourist trap for the American mainland, but if you seek it out, you can still find some authentic Hawaiian culture in local food establishments and in the return of the authentic hula.
The place for real native Hawaiian food, (not the fancy pan-pacific fusion) is "Ono Hawaiian Foods". Located in Waikiki, it was a short cab ride from our beachfront hotel. I was delighted to see the place only sat about a dozen diners at a time and the brown-paneled walls likely hadn't been changed since the mid 1970s. (I subscribe to the school of thought that "dives" tend to have the best food when it comes to ethnic cuisine.) After staring at a menu on which we recognized few dishes, the owner's son told us they were out of the Laulau. Apparently, that is their specialty. We knew we wanted to try the Kalua pig, which is barbecued pork. The traditional way of cooking the Kalua pork involves wrapping the meat in ti leaves and burying it in the ground amongst hot stones. Our other choice was the Chicken Long Rice, which turned out to be a chicken soup with silver noodles, made from rice, hence they called them "long rice". It wasn't exactly what I had expected, but it was tasty and satisfying none-the-less. Of course, our priority was in trying the Poi. It is not easily found as it is known to be of an "acquired taste". Mostly only eaten by the locals. In fact the owner's son recommended we order rice with our meals and that he would give us a taste of the poi. We were not persuaded. Instead we ordered one poi and one rice. Poi is to Hawaiians what rice is to Chinese. Made from mashed up taro root, it was a daily staple for Hawaiians for centuries, and so they had much time to acquire a taste for it. To my taste buds, it seemed a bit bland-I wanted to add salt, but we learned that the correct way to eat poi was to eat small amounts of it following a bite of the Kalua pork or other flavorful food. That made it doable, but I don't think I'll find myself craving it as many of the native Hawaiians do. The poi was also quite pasty and runnier than I had expected. Traditionally, poi was eaten with the fingers and its thickness was described by the number of fingers one would use to eat it...2-finger poi being thicker than 3-finger poi. Another tradition for this native food is to leave it sit out for a few days. We had one-day old poi, but the older generation tends to like it aged for up to a couple of weeks, with mold stirred in...it becomes sour and more flavorful.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bali's Jackfruit

You may be wondering what the heck is so special about Jackfruit. Its texture is that of a typical tropical fruit: sweet, juicy, luscious, with a unique structure. Its flavor is a spot on match to bubble gum. Not any fancy sugar free bubble gum, but regular flavor Bazooka, Bubbalicious, Hubba Bubba bubble gum. So it's a taste of home in a sense in an exotic package, but it's also my taste of a vacation that I never want to forget...

We were in Bali for our honeymoon in October of 2002, during the Bali bombings. We started our trip in Kuta enjoying the sandy beaches, great restaurants, and nightclubs. I had some of the most amazing sushi in this town and the nightclubs were a blast. (It was a Mexico for Australians.) The first thing I noticed about the Balinese people was their spirituality and how happy they were. Every door step had an offering on the sidewalk and every person was smiling. After a few days relaxing and partying in Kuta, we went to Ubud, the artsy, cultural town in a central hilly area of Bali. Ubud is known for its monkey forest and museums.

Lou and I took a cooking class at the Casa Luna restaurant in Ubud. We started out the morning by going to the market where our instructor purchased various fruits and ingredients for our lunch that we would later prepare. We went back to her restaurant where she served us tastes of the unknown fruits, one of which was Jackfruit. It was pink in color with unique sections unlike any fruit I had tried before. Of course, like anyone does when they first try something new, I carefully placed a very small portion of this newly discovered fruit on my tongue. I was absolutely wowed by the flavor and finished my piece in hopes for another taste. I did not get one that day, but kept my eyes peeled for a taste of jackfruit through the remaining days of our trip.

After Ubud, we climbed the volcano, Gunung Batur. It was considered active and the ground was warm. After climbing to the top, our guide dug a hole and placed a couple of eggs and bananas into it then covered it with straw that was lying about. We walked around and gazed at the crater that was blown out in the last eruption. About 15 minutes later, we had a little snack of eggs and bananas. I was eager to get off this mountain. It seemed it could blow at any time.

After our hike, we continued on to Sanur, which is about 30 km away from Kuta. We had planned to go out in Kuta on that Saturday night, but Lou came down with travelers sickness. We think he had eaten too much of some of the local roadside food when we stopped and ate with our driver or perhaps it was the eggs and bananas cooked on a volcano. We'll never know, but it was all for the best because the bombings occurred that night and we were safe and sound in Sanur. Lou thought he was on the verge of death, but the next day he was feeling better and we were able to venture out again and enjoy the beach on what was an abnormally somber Sunday. We had no idea the bombings occured until that night while we were emailing our parents and Lou happened to see it on the internet.

A taste of jackfruit was offered to me a few days later by an old man sittting by a newspaper stand. We were waiting to board the boat to go to Nusa Lembongan, a small island just off the coast of Bali. I was checking out the uncensored pictures of the aftermath of the bombings wondering why we back home in the US are so reluctant to publish truth. He turned to me and offered a large segment of jackfruit from the small bunch he must have just purchased pre-peeled. His hands were less than sanitary so I reluctantly declined with thanks, smiled at him and called it jackfruit. He obviously did not know the fruit by that name but replied with sadness in broken English pointing to the news article he was reading, "Bad for Bali". His words and the sadness in his eyes broke my heart. The recent bombings were small in comparison to the tragedy of 9/11, but the devastation was far worse. These happy people depended on tourism for their livelihoods and in one blast, had the smile wiped from their faces, but still he was offering a complete stranger from a wealthy land a generous piece of his treasured jackfruit.

Later on that week, as we arrived at the deserted airport, I felt as though I was abandoning these people that had next to nothing when we arrived and even less on our departure. Who had just learned that they may face financial trouble in the coming months but still shared their treasures with us as generously as before. Who made me feel so welcome.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ode to Jackfruit

I tasted you but once or twice on an exotic holiday in Bali. You were a stranger to me, but the flavor of your flesh was so familiar, as though I had always known you. A taste I experienced often in my life, but never in this new, unknown package. Three years have passed since that first encounter, but I have not forgotten your unparalleled sweetness. Back home in San Francisco, I’ve searched the streets of China town for your rough skin hoping that you may have braved the high seas just so that I might taste you again. I once mistakenly bought a Durian thinking that it was you, only to find upon cracking him open that he was just your distant relative, another member of the bread fruit family. As his pungent, strange, almost rotten odor wafted through my kitchen, I longed for you and your sweet, fresh, bubble gum flesh. Jackfruit, oh how I miss thee.