Baking with a Banneton

On my trip to the US in early December, my friend Mabel gave me a gift she had been holding for some time: a pair of banneton.  These wicker baskets are used by the French when proofing bread dough – after it is shaped and is undergoing its final rise before baking.  At some point in the past I had mentioned that I’d like to find some banneton and when she saw them, she purchased them for me.  Since December I’ve had the opportunity to use them a few time and thought I’d share the results.

The video is here, a nice, succinct two-and-a-half minute piece.  If you cannot view, pictures are below.  Link to the video is here.

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The banneton is traditionally made of wicker, although some modern ones are made of plastic.  The purpose of the wicker, though, is that it wicks moisture away from the surface of the dough, making for a better crust.

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Proper flouring is essential, otherwise the dough may not want to leave the cozy nest of the banneton once it is finished proofing.  After reading a few online baking sites, I decided to go with the suggested mix of all-purpose wheat flour and rice flour.  This worked very nicely and I’ve had minimal troubles with sticking.  It was also a neat way to use up some leftover rice flour.

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After removing the dough from the banneton, you can see the lines left by the wicker.  A few slashes to help the loaf expand and then slide it into the hot oven and onto a baking stone.

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The end result is very beautiful and, I must say, rustic-looking.  Not sure to what extent I can tell if the crust is really any better.  I create a steam bath in the oven with a small tray of boiling water, so the environment is going to be about as conducive to a good crust as this home-use oven will allow.  Nonetheless, Tawn and I have been enjoying the results, especially when it is time for panini!  Thanks for the thoughtful gift, Mabel!

 

Curbing Our Walking Space

After writing about some potentially good news for pedestrians in Bangkok, I have to strive for some karmic balance by writing about something else what is currently underway that is impinging on the foot-friendliness of a soi in my neighborhood.

“Soi” is a word in Thai that is often translated into English as “alley”.  It means a smaller street, often not connecting, that branches off a major road.  The neighborhood I live in is in the midst of a veritable maze of sois, some of which have footpaths (sidewalks) and others of which don’t.  One main soi on which I regularly have to walk has undergone some road construction this past week that ended up with a pedestrian unfriendly result.

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This particular soi is called Thong Lor Soi 9, indicating it is the ninth soi off a larger street called Thong Lor – which is itself a soi of Sukhumvit Road, Sukhumvit Soi 55, to be precise.  (Confused yet?)  Soi 9 parallels a small khlong (canal) that is really more of a drainage ditch with some stagnant water in it.  There isn’t much space and when you walk along it you have to be careful of passing traffic.  Thankfully, though, there is a wide dirt shoulder that you can step onto if you become concerned about the passing vehicles.

Two weeks ago when I saw workers shoveling gravel along the khlong side of the soi, I was optimistic that perhaps they would widen it just a bit, making a little more room for the many pedestrians who walk this soi from the residential area to the main street where all the shops and markets are.

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Unfortunately, the plan was not to widen the street but instead to add a curb along the side of the existing street.  Not that I’ve seen it happen, but perhaps they are suddenly concerned about vehicles ending up in the ditch like some pilot of a South African 737.  Or, more likely, they are trying to channel rain water into the storm drains (concrete rectangles with metal grates in them in the picture below) instead of into the khlong. 

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The net effect for pedestrians is that now you really have to walk in the street.  An easy step off the street now involves stepping over a curb and onto uneven ground, increasing the risk of tripping or ending up on your butt in the khlong.

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From a pedestrian perspective, the best solution would probably be to install a wide pipe in place of the khlong and pave over that area with a wide footpath.  They did this on part of Sukhumvit Soi 38 (above) and it is beautiful.  Yes, there isn’t as much greenery although that could be addressed in several different ways.  But you do have one of the widest, smoothest footpaths in the city, complete with ample curb cuts. 

I’m curious to see whether Thong Lo Soi 9 ever receives similar treatment.  For now, I’ll just have to be that much more careful when walking along the soi.

 

50km of Skywalks to be Built in Bangkok

Bangkok has a unique street-level culture.  Footpaths overflow with food vendors, hawkers, beggars, and motorbikes.  Sometimes there is even room for pedestrians.  This sidewalk chaos is simultaneously the charm of the city and the bane of its residents’ efforts to get from place to place.  The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has announced big plans to move the pedestrians above the crowd onto a 50-km network of skywalks.

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In the future, it seems we will all be computer animated!

Dubbed the “Super Skywalk”, this network would connect existing Skytrain stations with nearby businesses, much in the way the Ratchaprasong shopping district is connected to both the Chidlom and Siam stations.  Ambitious in scope, the skywalks would not only follow all existing Skytrain lines, they would also trace new paths above busy streets like Thong Lo, Asoke, Ramkhamhaeng, and Whithayu (Wireless).

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Map from the BMA showing the proposed Super Skywalk network.

The entire network is slated to be complete in four years, with the first portion, 16 km following the Sukhumvit line from Nana station to Soi Baring (Sukhumvit 107, end of the extension to the line that should open later in 2011), set to open within 18 months.  Interestingly, some of the sections such as Thong Lo and Ramkhamhaeng follow routes Bangkok’s governor has proposed for a monorail line.  There has been no explanation if those plans are still underway.

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The pedestrian bridge built under the Skytrain viaduct, heading east from the Asoke station.

I’ve written previously about various pedestrian bridges being built to connect to Skytrain stations and I’m certainly not the first person to think that a wider network of skywalks would encourage more use of the mass transit systems. 

There are many questions to consider, though.  Will these new skywalks be kept clear of vendors?  Some of the elevated footpaths near Siam Square often look like a repeat of the sidewalks down below, minus the motorbikes.  Also, will the skywalks result in diminished business for the vendors along the street or even for regular, fixed businesses?  Considering that the governor has also proposed creating designated spaces for the vendors similar to Singapore’s hawker centers, perhaps this is part of a larger plan.

It will be interesting to see if and when this project actually is built, what the effects are.  Original article in The Nation newspaper.

Why They Don’t Teach a Three-Point Turn in Flight School

This photo came as part of an email my father forwarded to me.  As a former employee at a major airline, many of the humorous emails he receives (and often forwards) are related to his former industry.  I didn’t take the time to fact-check this one, but I found it funny enough to share with you as a bit of midweek levity.

According to the email, the pilot of this Boeing 737-200 (an aircraft that is pushing 30 years old if not older) was departing a small airport in South Africa during the night to ferry the plane back to Johannesburg.  The pilot got confused on the taxiway and reached a dead end without the room to turn around.  His solution was to engage the thrust reversers and back out of the dead end, trying to perform a three-point turn.

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Unfortunately, he backed the plane into a culvert alongside the taxiway.  To make matters worse, he tried to get the plane back onto the taxiway by throttling up the engine.  The end result was that the engines ingested all sorts of rocks, dirt, and other debris since they were resting pretty much on the ground.  The damage was such that the cost of repair exceeds the airframe’s insured value and so the craft will be written off.  No word what happened to the pilot.

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Of course, silly things happen all the times.  Back in August 2005, a mechanic at United Airlines’ San Francisco maintenance base accidentally retracted the main landing gear on a Boeing 747, resulting on the plane resting on its tail.  Fortunately, no structural damage was caused and the plane was back into service after a thorough check.  No word on what happened to the mechanic.

 

Saturday Cooking Part 2

Whereas Saturday morning was spent at the Seagull Cooking Cafe helping break in their new cooking school, Saturday evening was spent at the house of Khun Nat, co-editor of the website catandnat.com where some of my entries are cross-posted.  After he started editing my pieces and discovered our common interest of food, he suggested we cook together.  Our first venture: Hearty Italian Sunday Gravy based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated.

This over-the-top tomato sauce usually calls for six cuts of meat and half a day by the stove.  Thankfully, the CI recipe cuts that down to just three cuts (ribs, sausages, and meatballs) and just a few hours, most of which is in the oven.  In addition to preparing the sauce, spaghetti and a salad, Nat prepared an angel food cake.  Not wanting to waste the egg yolks, we also prepared two batches of ice cream: one banana and the other raspberry.

I did not go to the trouble of shooting everything, simply because I was being put to work.  But here is a video showing the highlights of the afternoon and evening.  If you cannot view the video embedded in this entry, the link for it is here.

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Raised in New York City, Nat moved here in his mid-twenties and has been here ever since.  He is one of those fortunate souls who got to design his kitchen from scratch and it is perfectly laid out to have lots of people involved in the cooking.  Off to the left is a seating area where guests can relax and talk with the chef.  Very useful arrangement, if only I had another few dozen square meters in my condo!

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Iron Chef New York prepares the tomato sauce after browning in the meats in a skillet.  The secret behind the rich flavor is that you sautee the onions until they start to brown and then add tomato paste and cook it until nearly burned.  While this may seem too far at first, it concentrates the flavors and nicely caramelizes the sugars in the paste, and it ends up adding an incredible richness to the sauce.

After adding crushed canned tomatoes and cooking for a while, you add the ribs and sausages to the sauce and let them bake, covered, in the oven for two hours.

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Starting ingredients for the meatballs: Italian parsley, egg yolk, bread crumbs, buttermilk, chili flakes, salt, and spices.

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Nicely shaped (golf ball sized) meatballs.

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Nat has a half-dozen or more beagles, all of which are very cute.  They must have been tortured by the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen!

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Fry the meatballs until browned.

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Busy kitchen as Tawn and Cha handle the wine, Nat keeps an eye on the meatballs, and the angel food cake rests upside down on the concrete countertop.

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The finished meatballs with nice browned bits on the outside, ready to add succulent flavor to the Sunday Gravy.

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After the first round of cooking the ribs and sausages in the sauce, we agreed that it needed more liquid so added some water.  Then added the meatballs and let them finish cooking.

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Beautiful angel food cake.  I really should make these more often.  They are fat-free and very showy and satisfying desserts, especially with some fresh berries spooned on top.  We went for homemade ice cream, but berries would have been nice, too.

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Keeping with the Italian theme, a nice mixed salad with cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, salami, feta cheese, and olives.

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The meat piled on a platter, ready to serve.  Too bad Xanga doesn’t have a smell-o-blog feature.

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The final product: whole wheat spaghetti served with rich sauce and three types of meat.  Oh, this was good.  I hate to rub it in, but you really missed out!

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A slice of heaven.  Didn’t photograph the two types of ice cream, but you can trust me that they were tasty, too.  Is there room in my kitchen for an ice cream machine?

 

Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls

Food in Bangkok.  While my blog covers a wide range of topics, “food in Bangkok” would be a fair summation of one of the major topic areas.  About the same time that I started my “Great Eats in Bangkok” video series, covering various types of food that you really must try while you are here, I had the fortune to be introduced to the author of the newly-released book, Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls.

Enjoying a pre-dinner drink as I waited for guests at Soul Food Mahanakorn, the owner handed me a copy of this book and asked if I had seen it yet.  Thumbing through the well-organized pages, each of which lists another great street food vendor, I expressed my admiration.  At which point, Jarrett introduced me to the author, Chawadee Nualkhair, who was dining at the table just behind me.

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I know what you are thinking.  “If ever there was a book I would have bought Chris for his birthday, this is it.”  Right?  Of course you would have.  No need, now, since I already have a copy.  You can get one from local Bangkok bookstores.

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It turns out that Khun Chawadee is the person behind the useful foodie website Bangkok Glutton.  A Thai who was raised in western Pennsylvania state, she has split her time between the US and Thailand for the last fifteen years.  Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls grew out of her desire to eat great Thai food when here, combined with the usual apprehension most foreigners have when approaching Thai street food.  We’re unsure what the food is, what the specialties are, how to order them, and how to eat them once they are served.

Khun Chawadee’s book does an excellent job of laying all that out in the picture-rich pages.  There’s even an explanation of the seating arrangements, what condiments and utensils are on the table, and whether or not there are restrooms at the shop.  Talk about handy information!

After a few email exchanges, Khun Chawadee invited me to join her for lunch at a Muslim restaurant in Banglamphu, the shady older area of the city located between the Chao Phraya River and backpacker headquarters Khao San Road.

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After I arrived at our designated meeting spot more than a half-hour late (note: river taxis are not as fast as you might think), Khun Chawadee led me on a brisk walk down Phra Athit Road, around a few corners, and down the street.  Our destination:Aicha Rot Dii (“Aicha Good Taste”) Restaurant, a literal hole-in-the-wall that many people would pass by, not realizing what good eats are inside.

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From the street side of things, all you see is a narrow walkway passing a food vendor.  But if you walk in, you pass a long row of prepared food that opens into an interior courtyard, clean and relatively well ventilated.  The menu is Thai Muslim, meaning mostly southern Thai style food.  Much of the influence comes from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India and beef is the meat of choice.

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Our meal included an oxtail soup that was wonderfully gelatinous.  Unlike western-style oxtail soups, which are often tomato-based and very hearty, this soup had a clear broth with fried shallots and herbs and was very light but full of flavor.

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We tried a noodle dish called guaytiaw gaeng nua, a curried beef noodle soup.  The noodles are hidden under this spicy curry broth but the beef was very tender.  The curry was very nice, too.

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We tried two rice dishes, khao mok gai and khao mok nua.  The name “khao mok” implies “buried under a mountain of rice”, so the dishes are chicken and beef, respectively, served with a heaping portion of a biryani-style rice.  Of the two, I thought the beef was better.  The sauce, which at first glance you might fear to be a horrendously spicy chili sauce, is actually made with cilantro, lime, and sugar and is very sweet and sour.  The rice itself was a little disappointing, lacking in flavor compared to other khao mok dishes I’ve had.  The beef, though, was very tender and flavorful.

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The seating place is friendly to foreigners with large pictures of all the dishes on the wall with their names in both English and Thai.  You can pretty much just point and eat.  Beverages run the range of sodas, waters, and some Thai juices.  Be sure to bring your own napkins.

This was a pleasant discovery.  More pleasant was the opportunity to meet Khun Chawadee and learn a bit more about what drives her passion for Thai food.  Find out more about the book at Chawadee’s blog. She’s also on Twitter as @bangkokglutton.

 

Saturday Cooking Part 1

Saturday a week ago, the one before Valentine’s Day, was a full day spent cooking.  There were two separate events, both of which will get their own blog entry.  The morning event was the soft opening of the Seagull Cooking Cafe, a cooking school that the makers of Thailand’s premier line of stainless steel cookware products have opened on Sukhumvit Soi 63.

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The menu was Linguine Carbonara, Chocolate Truffles, and a mocktail called the Cinderella.  One of Tawn’s cousins, Wan, is friends with the daughter of the family that owns the Seagull company.  In additional to inviting her two sisters, Wan also invited Tawn and me to participate.

Tawn comes from a big family – he is number 35 out of 38 grandchildren on his father’s side of the family.  Keeping track of all these cousins is a bit of a challenge, especially those cousins here in Bangkok.  While I’ve met several of Tawn’s Bangkok cousins once or twice before in passing and am connected with some of them on facebook, this was my first opportunity to spend any significant time with them.

This opportunity fit perfectly with my plan to build connections with the rest of the family, in anticipation of the day that Tawn’s father, who regards me with something akin to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, either changes his mind or is no longer a factor – to put it delicately.

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The school is on the top floor of Seagull’s headquarters in a large and brightly lit space.  There are fifteen working stations, each with stainless steel tops (no surprise there!) and all the other equipment you would need.  Tawn and his cousins were at the front of the class.

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We started by making the chocolate truffles as these would need to be refrigerated.  Here, Tawn poses with Som and Wan as they squirt chocolate ganache from a pastry bag onto parchment paper.

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My partner for the cooking was Pueng.  Despite her good humor and many talents, her ganache came out looking like little chocolate poos.

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See?

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After refrigerating the chocolates for a bit, we were able to shape them by hand, ostensibly rolling them into balls.  In practice, this didn’t work out so well.

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The end result of our efforts?  Some damn ugly and unevenly-sized truffles.

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Som’s two-year old daughter, First, was there as well, spending most of her time playing with her father.  Tawn was playing with her but she seemed a little shy.

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While not officially involved in the project, Chef Ian Kittichai (who has several famous Thai restaurants in New York, Barcelona, and Mumbai) had chefs from his organization conducting the class.  Tawn has appeared on his local TV show before as a guest (just chat with the chef and help as he cooks) and also knows his wife through common friends.  Had a nice chat with him about the challenges of managing restaurants around the globe and he provided some assistance with our truffles.  All the ones that are actually round were rolled by him!

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Next up was the Linguine Carbonara, which actually was not a Carbonara sauce since it contained milk and cream.  Nonetheless, Pueng practiced her technique of putting the pasta into the boiling water, twisting a standing bunch of dry pasta so is splays out.

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Somehow, partners were swapped during the course of the cooking so Tawn ended up helping me finish the pasta.

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Looks quite pretty, doesn’t it?  I hadn’t cooked the bacon as crispy as I could have and didn’t salt the water sufficiently.  Nonetheless, it was tasty.

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Pueng, Tawn’s elder, feels compelled to help him eat his pasta.

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I poked my head into the adjacent kitchen to see the cleanup process.  This being their trial run, they had tons of staff on hand and still seemed a little overwhelmed.  I think they didn’t anticipate just how much counter space they will need to handle the cleanup from fifteen cooking stations.

It was a fun experience and I enjoyed the chance to spend more time with Tawn’s cousins.  It is fun watching them interact with each other and I look forward to the day when I can be a part of family events.