Baby It’s Warm Outside – Merry Christmas

It is a warm and humid Christmas Day here in Thailand.  After some extensive cooking for last night’s Christmas Eve party with Tawn’s university friends (I’ll write about that tomorrow – homemade Lasagna Bolognese entirely from scratch!), I’m back in the kitchen today preparing maple-rosemary candied pecans for my mother-in-law and an apple pie for dessert tonight with American friends.

A week or so ago, Val wrote an entry wondering what everyone’s Christmas tree looks like.  While we don’t celebrate it as a religious holiday, it is hard not to get caught up in the spirit – even here in Buddhist Bangkok.  Perhaps especially here in Bangkok, where there are more holiday decorations and Christmas music than at a Minneapolis mall.  Here is a look at our two trees:

The first tree is a potted one that looks pine-like, brought in for the season and simply decorated.  It has spent the last six months resting up by the pool.  Seriously, the condo maids felt that it wasn’t getting enough sun on the walkway outside our front door so they spirited it away to the pool deck, tending after it for us.

The second tree is an artificial one, pulled out from storage and given a more thorough decorating, graced with dozens of ornaments that hark back to my childhood, many of them handmade by my paternal grandparents.  As I type this, some 166 holiday songs are shuffling on my iPod, my current favorite of which is the duet of the Frank Loesser song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside by Glee stars Chris Colfer and Darren Criss.  Video here.  Granted, it isn’t cold outside, but with the air conditioning on full blast, one can imagine.

After waking up about 7:30 I prepared a simple Christmas breakfast of baked eggs: stale bread cubes soaked in an egg-milk mixture, tossed with green onions, ham, and mozzarella cheese.  After making a well in the bread mixture, I break an egg, sprinkle with salt, and bake for fifteen minutes.

This results in a warm and satisfyingly simple breakfast, accompanied by a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a hot latte.

For all of our Christian friends and family members (as well as those who aren’t Christian but who enjoy celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday), we wish you the very warmest greetings and hope you and your loved ones have a happy Christmas and a healthy and peaceful year ahead!

Happy Year of the Ox

Growing up in one of the most diverse areas of California, Santa Clara County (what we called it before it became “Silicon Valley”), I was privileged to have a large number of friends who are Chinese or of Chinese heritage.  Privileged because this afforded me a literal seat at the table for various cultural holidays and festivals, none of which was more enjoyed by me than the lunar new year!

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Illustration courtesy of Singaporean cartoonist (and friend and all-around good guy) Otto Fong.

We are starting the year of the ox, specifically the year of the Yin earth ox.  Raymond Lo, a professional Feng Shui practitioner, advises:

The Year of the Ox, 2009, in the Hsia calendar, is symbolized by two elements – with earth sitting on top of earth. So is the same element on top of each other.  According to the cycle of birth and destruction, which governs the interrelationship between the elements, earth and earth are like brothers and sisters and so they do not have birth nor destructive relationship with each other.  They can be friends and they can be competitors. Therefore, earth sitting on earth does not give sign of conflict.

The Earth on top is Yin earth which symbolizes a garden, and garden gives sense of harmony and peace and relaxation. The Ox underneath is actually matching with the picture of a peaceful field with ox eating grass.  As such, I anticipate this elemental relationship will bring a year of more harmony and peace in international relationships and it is a year for healing and cure and relaxation from the turbulent time the world has experienced since 2001.  It is a time for rebuilding and reconstructions from the damage brought by war and natural disasters, and the financial tsunami of 2008, and also a time to seek peace settlement and to narrow the differences between different culture, religious believes and begin to care for one another, and make some achievement in solving the global warming issue.  It is a year of pure earth element and the theme for this year should be caring for our planet earth.

So to all of my friends who celebrate the lunar new year – and to everyone else as well – best wishes for good health, happiness, prosperity and peace in the coming year!

 

P.S.

As a little aside, if you scroll down Mr. Lo’s predictions and overview of the year of the ox, there’s this random tidbit:

The Earth element is also associate with homosexuality. It so happens many famous homosexuals is born on the day of earth – this includes Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Tchaikovsky, George Michael, Boy George, Andy Warhol, Tracy Chapman, K.D. Lang. Rosie O’Donnell etc. As such, there could be more issues in this aspect in 2009. It is not really clear how earth element is linked with homosexuality. Perhaps earth is an element of more neutral nature, compare against the other four, water and fire, wood and metal.

Strange, strange, strange…

 

Thailand Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving has come and gone and it was, by most measures, the most successful party we’ve hosted here in Thailand.  The last minutes weren’t a frenzied rush to the table, clean-up wasn’t such a hassle, and the food was very good.

I started Friday about 6 pm and prepped until just after midnight, focusing mostly on the stuffing and getting dry ingredients measured out for Saturday’s baking.  All about that in the previous entry.

Saturday I started about 8 am and worked through my list one item at a time.  The morning was spent baking pecan pies and squash rolls.  After making four dozen rolls I still had dough left over, so I played with it, making a braid, some mini rolls in a muffin tine, and a pretzel.

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This time around, I tried brushing the rolls with a milk and egg wash.  Ultimately, I think they are butter wish just some butter on top.  Also, I think I overbaked them a little.  They were not as light as the test batch I did earlier in the week.  The pecan pies were gorgeous and not too sweet.  I love the recipe.

Our guest list continued to fluctuate.  Ultimately, of the original guest list, we lost four because of the airport closure, gained two because of some new friends that entered the group, and then lost three at the last minute because of various complications.

Trying to plan for an ever-changing number of guests is a pain.  I ended up making a lot of extra food, which I realize is the case for Thanksgiving, but I’m not sure how much stuffing I really need.

Fearing that the 16-lbs turkey would not be sufficient (remember, it looked like we were going to be up to 20 guests at one point), I bought an additional turkey breast, dry brined it and roasted it Saturday morning.

Despite dry brining it only about 30 hours, it turned out very salty throughout.  Not sure whether I used the wrong type of salt or more than I should have but, while not inedible, it left me drinking a lot of water.

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For the sweet potatoes, I went with the toasted spice rub.  They turned out well, again I had way too many prepared, but I think they were a little over-cooked and mushy.

Things that were very positive:

P1120356Setting up tables and chairs downstairs by the pool.  The weather was perfect – about 80 degrees and a light breeze – and having a company provide all the dishes, etc. (and taking them away afterwards to be cleaned) made all the difference in the world.  Having people outside the house kept the gathering from feeling crowded.  Our house is really at its best with six guests, no more.

P1120359Having some friends come over early to help.  Boon (in green, right) and Kobfa lent extra hands in the kitchen and as other guests arrived, Tawn wasn’t shy about getting their help with last minute arrangements.

Tawn’s aunt also came over to keep an eye on things and lend a hand.  Since we were downstairs by the pool, we wanted to be able to keep the house open for people to get things and use the toilet.  Having someone there ensured that possessions were safe and secure.  Also, she helped washing dishes so we didn’t have as much of a mess to clean up at the end of the night.

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Above, our poolside location.  Below, table arrangement by Tawn.

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Here’s the menu.  Links go to the recipes.

Pear and Blue Cheese Salad

Traditional Roast Turkey with Gravy

Dry Brined Roasted Turkey Breast

Cornbread Chorizo Stuffing

Braintree Squash Rolls

Yams with Toasted Spice Rub

Italian-Style Cranberry Citrus Dressing

Southern-Style Creamed Peas

Fresh Green Beans with Bacon

Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Assorted Macarons

The pumpkin pie was made by Matt’s partner Si.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of either his pies or the pecan pies I made.  They were tasty, though, so if you want his recipe I can track it down.

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We had time for a group photo before we tucked in.  Standing from left to right: Chairat, Francois, Doug, Matt, Markus, Suchai.  Seated from left to right: Chris, Tawn, Boon, Kitty, Si, Tam, Kobfa.  David arrived a bit later.

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While guests started serving themselves, Markus assisted me with the turkey carving, a task made all the more difficult by a wobbly table and the wrong type of knife.  I guess I should cave in and purchase a carving knife.

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Below, Kitty and Doug confer, Matt spreads butter on his roll, and Si, Kobfa and Boon converse.

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Below, the happy hosts with Kitty and Doug.

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We started dinner about 4:30, which meant that even after a very leisurely meal and visit, we were wrapped up by 9:00.  Even after cleaning up and driving Tawn’s aunt home, we were in bed by 11:00.  Now that’s quite a feat on a party night!

Baking gingerbread cookies and souffles

A recent purchase at Playground’s design and arts bookstore was The Best Make-Ahead Recipe Cookbook from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  I’m a big fan of CI magazine and the companion show on US public television, America’s Test Kitchen, because the editors are detailed and yet no-nonsense and they talk about technique, mechanics, and the science behind what’s happening in the recipes.

The premise behind the cookbook is the idea that modern-day cooks haven’t the time to prepare full meals from scratch each and every time the clock strikes breakfast, lunch or dinner.  So they tested their recipes to determine how to create ones that could be prepared in advance and come out of a few days in the refrigerator or even a few weeks in the freezer, looking and tasting as good as (or better than) their freshly-made counterparts.

Individual chocolate souffles was one recipe that piqued my interest as I think souffles are a fantastic dessert but am hampered by what I perceived to be the amount of last-minute time needed in the kitchen.  I’d rather be out enjoying my guests’ company than whipping up egg whites.

On Friday evening I prepared the recipe and put the individual souffles, tightly wrapped in plastic and aluminum foil, in the freezer.  Trying something different and playful, I used a combination of Illy Caffe cappuccino cups along with traditional ramekins.

Starting at the top left and working across and down: Whip the egg yolks and sugar to create a pale, frothy mixture.  Melt the chocolate over a bain-marie, a water bathFold the eggs into the chocolate mixture.  Stir to combine.  Spoon into prepared ramekins.  The finished product, ready to wrap and freeze.

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But how would they turn out after two nights in the freezer?  Roka came over on Sunday to help me make gingerbread cookies and Tawn had two friends over to listen to one’s relationship troubles, so I had a ready audience of guinea pigs.

Fifteen minutes in a 180-degree C oven was enough to bring the souffles to modest heights, hampered by their lack of paper collars to help the climb.  But they were evenly cooked and very tasty.  Plus, they look cute in the cups!

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Below, Tawn, Pim and Prince enjoy their “cups” of souffle.

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P1020810 Roka (left)makes for an excellent co-chef.  She is knowledgable and passionate about cooking, is able to provide good insights and helpful suggestions, and it very willing to pitch in above and beyond the “just tell me what to do” level.

What was originally just an evening making gingerbread cookies turned into a whole lot more.  I had some recipes I was meaning to try and since the cookie dough needs to chill in the refrigerator, we had some time on our hands. 

The additional menu items included an Ecuadorean potato soup called locro de papas which is flavored with anatto seed oil (easy to make at home) and fish cakes with paprika-lemon mayonnaise made from cod.

The gingerbread was a new thing for both of us, so we used a Martha Stewart recipe for “easy” gingerbread.  It was fairly easy but for the life of me it seemed really dry.  Also, we had not found a person-shaped cookie cutter so we used biscuit cutters and a hand-made template for the profile of a house. 

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Above: fish cakes with paprika-lemon mayonnaise.  Below: Decorating the cookies with our makeshift pastry bag.

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Below: Our finished cookies.  Can you spot the Wat Phra Gaew cookie – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha?  This may not be the most appropriate image to put on a cookie, but it seemed to go with the theme of gingerbread houses. 

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Loi Krathong 2548

Loi Krathong 2548 (Buddhist calendar) was a big splash, especially as it fell on my birthday this year.  This was my first Krathong festival and it is definitely one of those sights that, if you’re planning on going to Thailand, you should schedule your trip around.

My previous blog entry provides a link and some more details about the festival, but something I can add is that I read on 2Bangkok is that Loi Krathong was originally a festival in just the northern provinces of Thailand.  Sometime in the past twenty five years of so, the Tourism Authority of Thailand appropriated the festival and encouraged it as a more widespread event.  Don’t know if this is true or not, but it would be interesting.  2Bangkok has some good photos of the event, along with photos from 2004 and 2004 (or, if you prefer, 2547 and 2546).

Here’s are some of mine to add to the experience:

 

Above – our two Krathong.  We received these at the Metro Mall (small underground shopping area at our local Metro station) for each spending more than 50 baht.  Basically, buy a smoothie, get a Krathong.  Not bad for US$1.25.

Above right – after years of environmental degradation caused by literally hundreds of thousands of Krathong made of foam and other non-biodegradable materials clogging the rivers, canals and waterways of the Kingdom, the government started a campaign a few years ago to encourage (and eventually mandated!) the use of environmentally-friendly materials.  Tawn shows that our Krathong are made from a slice of palm trunk.  They are further decorated with banana leaves, flowers, incense, and candles.  Some can be quite elaborate.

For dinner we walked to Sukhumvit Soi 12, about 15 minutes from the house and hiked far back into the soi (alley) to Crepes & Company.  This is a widely known “family” restaurant that serves, obviously, crepes as well as a wide variety of Mediterranean foods.  Every few months they set up a special menu featuring the cuisine of a particular country.  Right now it is Morocco, so we had a lovely red snapper tajine – sort of a clay pot stew.  We also enjoyed a Massaman curry chicken crepe and a nice salad with eggplant, roasted red peppers and olives served on leaf lettuce.

With the dinner we had a For desert we had a wonderful Australian Cab-Shiraz-Malbec blend that complemented everything nicely.  For dessert we had fried almond and honey pastries that were similar to baklava except that instead of using filo dough they actually had a pastry crust. Then I was surprised by the arrival of pancakes (not crepes – pancakes!) with bananas, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, two scoops of ice cream, and a birthday candle!

After dinner we took a cab to Chulalongkorn University – where Tawn received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science.  “Chula,” as it is affectionately known, is the Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale of Thailand.  It is not the Berkeley of Thailand.  That honor (notoriety?) is bestowed on crosstown rival Thammasat University where the student riots of October 6, 1976 occurred.. 

There were literally tens of thousands of students and other young people gathered on the campus for the festivities.  It was a bit of a cross between homecoming and a religious event.  Every faculty (school) at the university had an entry in the “best Krathong” competition, performed a staged event along a set theme including floats and costumes, and most groups also had food or beverage booths set up as fund-raisers.

Everyone made a stop by the lagoon, which is next to the marching field and the huge statue of King Rama IV and King Rama V.  The university was named after King Rama V.  The lagoon is perhaps two or three acres in size and already there were thousands or Krathong floating in it. 

It had rained while we were at dinner, so the air was cooler but spirits were not dampened at all.  We took our Krathong from their bags and prepared them.  First, we placed a coin on each for charity.  Later on, the coins would be collected from all the Krathong and donated to various social service groups.  Then, we plucked a hair and put it on the Krathong, so that a part of us would go with it.

Walking the water’s edge (Tawn being especially careful not to slip in since he was wearing stylish sandals) and lit the candles and incense.  All around use were hundreds of other people doing the same thing. 

Finally, we said a short blessing, thanking nature for its bounty and asking for good fortune in the season to come.  Then we set our Krathong into the water.  Since there was no current, a little light splashing helped get them on their way.  One important part of the customs surrounding the festival is that couples are supposed to launch their Krathong at the same time.  It the rafts follow and bump into each other, that is an auspicious sign for the relationship.  This is supposed to be especially true if you launch the Krathong at Chula – but that may be since it is a lagoon the odds of them bumping into each other increase!

From there we took a taxi home and called it a night, thoroughly exhausted after all our walking and excitement.  Plus, I started my Thai language classes this morning at 8:00 and needed all the sleep I could get.  More about that tomorrow.