Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peppermint, Chocolate and the emotional beatdown

Regan, no sweet things?  Oh, that is just so sad!  Well, hold onto your hat, because this post is all about Christmas cookies.  Actually, it is about one type in particular that turned into an adventure and the discovery that the Dutch don't know chocolate.

If you weren't aware before, the Dutch are not big bakers.  As far as I can tell, they aren't really much for the domestic arts: no Dutch Etsy; very few young people taking up knitting, crocheting, or sewing; and very little baking going on in the kitchens.  I scavenged two major cities last year in an effort to find cake flour before I finally just gave up and had friends bring some over in their suitcases.  When I asked about it in stores, I just got blank stares.  I've had the same reaction for other ingredients like baking soda, molasses, corn syrup (no surprise considering the main sweetening source in Europe is the sugar beet), condensed milk, vanilla extract...good God, this list could go on forever!  I will now add to that baker's chocolate.

Just straight up, plain old, nothing special baker's chocolate.  The kind I found in my mom's pantry when I was young, thought I had hit the chocolate jackpot, and after one bite and realized my sorry mistake.  Niek and I spent probably a good four hours hunting it down in Amsterdam and failed!  Because, you know, I just needed to have the 1.5 oz. of baker's chocolate for the chocolate and peppermint crackle cookies, otherwise the recipe would be a disaster!  After whining and crying a little bit I eventually did just give up and buy the chocolate with the highest cocoa content and the lowest amount of sugar.  Incidentally, I found baker's chocolate the next day at the American & British store for about $9, but seeing as I had already dropped a small fortune on the fair trade, organic, grown in small batches by self-sustaining family farmers in South America, bitter, dark chocolate, I was no longer in the mood to pay for the privilege of buying what seemed to be a novelty food item.

The day I searched for ingredients wasn't all that bad.  Here is my look of triumph from the spice store that actually had peppermint extract:

And here are the candy canes I found the next day after I realized the candy canes I bought last week were some sort of cherry flavor instead of the expected peppermint:

Now, Americans, would you or would you not assume these candy canes would be peppermint?  They were also the strange, sweet flavor of the ones I had already purchased.  This would be what I am now going to call a failure of visual culture cues.  It's the false cognate of Christmas candy.  Man, did I make an incorrect assumption about what stripes of red and white will tell you about sweets, or what?  You'd think a country that truly seemed to love peppermint would have hopped on the candy cane band wagon, but nope, you'd be wrong! I used the candy canes anyway, just for the "crackle" effect, but then cut down on the sugar in the recipe.

All this searching high and low was for my favorite cookie, and do you know what?  After all that ground work, all the effort, this is where they ended up:

They were probably the worst cookies I've ever made.  It wasn't because of the candy canes or the lack of unsweetened chocolate.  In the end, it was the peppermint extract.  Taking a bite of one of these was like eating a tube of toothpaste.  I'm not even sure the pepermunt aroma the woman sold to me was actually meant for consumption, even though she assured me it was.  Blech!  Oh, Nederland, why do you make it so hard sometimes?  I think I may have contemplated flying back to America at this point just for the extract.  Locating and also not being able to locate key ingredients took a bit of an emotional toll on me this week.  And yes, I am aware of how overly dramatic that sounds, but it is Christmas, and I do like to bake, so I'm going to allow myself a moment of pity.

Despite my major failure with the crackle cookies, I did manage to back a few winners.  Niek has made me promise to talk about those, too.  So, I will leave you with some images that don't make me want to cry.  In fact, they make me want to eat and then eat some more, and then eat a little more.  Thank you, delicious cookies!  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Honey Cake

The Dutch like black licorice?  Gross.  But are you ready for this?  Most Nigerians and Ghanaians don’t like food that is too sweet.  We’re talking cookies and cake here, people.  During my junior year semester abroad, I lived with an awesome host family in Accra, Ghana.  To show them how much I appreciated their awesomeness (and because, let’s face it, a girl can only eat so much fufu before she needs a cookie to wash it down) I decided to make no-bake cookies for them.  Oatmeal, chocolate, peanut butter and a ton of sugar: no-bake cookies are yummmmmy.  Well, my plan didn’t work out so well for two reasons: First, the cookies didn’t set up at all, so instead I ended up with a giant pile of chocolate-peanut-butter-oatmeal on a tray (yes, it looked a little bit like poop). And second, after my Ghanaian host family kindly ate a few spoonfuls of the stuff, they found it too sweet.  What?!  Mind-blowing cultural learning experience.  (Not to worry, no food was wasted – I ate every last bit of that cookie pile over the course of the next three days.)

During my time in West Africa, I’ve learned that people here generally prefer savory tastes over sweet, and even the sweet stuff is low on sugar for my taste.  Of course, you can buy cookies and candies in every market, but people seem to eat very little of it.  It is mostly me and small children begging for sweets.

So where was I going with this?  Oh, yeah!  I was going to brag about how I’m starting to get the hang of this country . . . and when I decided to make something sweet for friends this time, I baked a cake that was not too sweet – a little sugar, a little honey and voila! Nigerian-approved honey cake:

150 g butter (Google translate to find cups!)
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup sugar (plus a little extra, for good measure)
1 tablespoon water
            -- combine these ingredients in a saucepan, then cool

1 2/3 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
            -- sift dry ingredients (or just stir with a spoon, who sifts?!)

2 beaten eggs
            -- combine all ingredients

Bake at 350°F (or the number 7 on my crazy oven dial) for 35-40 minutes.
(And don’t forget to grease the 9x9 pan – or whatever you have handy.)

The original recipe called for some fancier ingredients and included a lemon glaze which absolutely did not work in my Nigerian kitchen, but around here we like to eat it just the way it is – straight out of the oven and with a cold Coke.  Preferably, there is light (electricity) while we eat, but I can say that honey cake tastes good in the dark, too.  It is a dessert even an American could love. 

Now that I’ve come to terms with the fact that Nigerians like slightly-sweet sweets, I have turned out some pretty delicious cakes.  (Alas, no cookies, since I can’t find a baking sheet anywhere and cookies seem a too labor-intensive for my tiny oven and roasting hot kitchen.)  I was extremely honored when a friend, Abigail’s sister-in-law Victoria, asked me to make the cake for her engagement ceremony.  Engagements are a big deal in Yorubaland – they involve dowries, ceremonies, dancing and, most importantly, eating amala.  So I was really nervous about turning out a good cake.  I even had to take two days off from research to mentally prepare and then bake.  Ok, I took three days.  But in the end, the cake turned out perfectly!  Here is a picture of the couple cutting the cake at the engagement.

And the wedding was beautiful.  Engagement on Friday, church ceremony on Saturday and Thanksgiving service on Sunday, with different outfits and different kinds of food for each day.  Nigerians may not like sweets, but they certainly like to throw parties.  (Below is a picture taken at the Saturday wedding – I post it to the blog only as evidence of why white people should never be allowed to wear Nigerian clothes.  Best to stick with our nondescript t-shirts and Chacos.)

I don’t know how the bride and groom survived all of the festivities.  Even I had to take a few days off from research to recover afterwards!  But I was so thankful to be invited to take part.  So here is to food opening up doors to friendship – may my cakes here in Nigeria never be too sweet and may I always have room to eat amala.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Late Night Chat (a.k.a. what grad students talk about when they're not actually cooking or working)

The following is an excerpt from a recent Skype chat we had.  I will actually post about cooking and food again sometime in the near future.  I just need to finish a huge amount of little work first.  Next week, I am all about the spritz cookies!

[12/15/09 10:41:55 PM] Diana : And then I realized last week that I should have looked at a particular document in London last year, but I didn't
[12/15/09 10:42:15 PM] Diana : and know I read references to it  all over the place in books and articles I've been reading for the past two years
[12/15/09 10:42:24 PM] Diana : Tell me how that one escaped me!
[12/15/09 10:42:34 PM] Regan : I understand!
[12/15/09 10:42:50 PM] Regan : I'm always finding things that I should have looked at.
[12/15/09 10:43:21 PM] Regan : Hell, I still haven't read about 90 percent of the secondary sources that I should have!!
[12/15/09 10:43:46 PM] Diana : Yes, but you don't have to present a chapter in less than a month
[12/15/09 10:43:48 PM] Diana : :)
[12/15/09 10:43:50 PM] Regan : Anyway, I still think that you're super fancy and totally awesome for doing such difficult research.
[12/15/09 10:44:06 PM] Diana : lol.  It's not that fancy
[12/15/09 10:44:14 PM] Diana : but I did find this super cool quote today:
[12/15/09 10:44:35 PM] Diana : "Former director van den Heuvel has consumed himself so much in his agitation, either from the furies of his conscience or from fear of punishment, that he remains alive without hope, abandoned not only from his friends, but also from the old woman who had nursed him, as if in retaliation, he now has to pay for his former brutality."
[12/15/09 10:45:18 PM] Diana : Doesn't that sound so mean and vindictive?  The man died soon after.  K had been writing to him begging for a post transfer, which he was never given
[12/15/09 10:48:15 PM] Regan : Did K write that?
[12/15/09 10:48:25 PM] Diana : Yeah.  To one of his friends
[12/15/09 10:48:48 PM] Regan : sad.
[12/15/09 10:49:03 PM] Diana : Yes, sad, but also an awesome quote
[12/15/09 10:49:31 PM] Diana : Apparently this is how you're remembered when the weak ties of intellectual friendships break down
[12/15/09 10:50:26 PM] Regan : (shake) You're such an intellectual historian.
[12/15/09 10:50:37 PM] Diana : What does that mean?
[12/15/09 10:50:38 PM] Regan : Don't try to deny your true self.
[12/15/09 10:50:43 PM] Diana : I'm cultural history all the way
[12/15/09 10:51:07 PM] Diana : You and [mutual friend] can go play in your little social history corner
[12/15/09 10:51:09 PM] Diana : :)
[12/15/09 10:51:27 PM] Regan : whatevs.
[12/15/09 10:53:07 PM] Regan : Don't worry - I'll have some awesome quotes about books in Yorubaland to share with you soon.   (y)
[12/15/09 10:53:18 PM] Diana : awesome
[12/15/09 10:54:21 PM] Diana : I can't wait to hear more about what you have found.
[12/15/09 10:55:09 PM] Regan : it will only take one minute to tell - not that much!
[12/15/09 10:55:26 PM] Diana : oh, stop it!
[12/15/09 10:57:14 PM] Regan : I'm not trying to be modest . . .
[12/15/09 10:57:39 PM] Diana : I know.  But it seems almost all academics are self-deprecating
[12/15/09 10:58:38 PM] Regan : But you know what would encourage me?  A fresh salad, some crusty bread and smelly cheese and a big glass of wine.
[12/15/09 11:01:39 PM] Diana : I don't know if I can help you with a fresh salad, but I can help with the rest
[12/15/09 11:01:52 PM] Diana : Endives are in season, though
[12/15/09 11:02:01 PM] Diana : I could make a salad out of that
[12/15/09 11:03:12 PM] Regan : that sounds good.  really, any fresh vegetables - everything is cooked here, for safety.
[12/15/09 11:03:27 PM] Diana : oh, right
[12/15/09 11:03:40 PM] Diana : That would be tough for me
[12/15/09 11:04:58 PM] Regan : But the fruit is amazing!
[12/15/09 11:06:06 PM] Diana : Why would you tell me that?
[12/15/09 11:06:21 PM] Diana : I've been eating bananas and tangerines for the last month

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Perfect Dinner



Imagine my cry of joy when I found a forgotten can of pumpkin in the back of my pantry this week.  I made this for dinner tonight, and I'm pretty sure I was close to heaven.  It's the first truly cold week here this winter, making me recall why heavy creams and pork products are staples of a Dutch kitchen.  The hardest ingredient to find on the list was black beans, which wasn't difficult at all to track down; my local Moroccan market always has bags in stock.  Little cubes of pork and a dollop of sour just fills you up and makes you feel all happy on a cold, dark, winter night.  Excuse me now while I go fall into a food induced coma on my couch.
Also, I promise this will be my last mention of pumpkin this year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dutch Black Menace

Regan, in response to your question in your last, I cannot think of one particular taste or ingredient that would define Dutch cooking.  Lots of ingredients come to mind: the ever present potato, various pork products, basically any food item made from milk, but not one specific taste that would define Dutch cuisine.

On a related note, though, I would like to take this moment to talk about the most disgusting taste in the world. Can you guess what it is? I'm thinking most of my friends can, because I have commented before on the Dutch love for this particular flavor.

Conversation Niek and I had two weeks ago at a party:

D: Ooh, this looks interesting. What is it?
N: That? That's [enter in some Dutch word I can't remember]
D: Oh, okay. But what is it?
N: It's a Christmas thing.
D: Well, what does it taste like?
N: I can't explain it. You should just try it.
D: But, what...
N: Just try it. It's good.
[pause in conversation while I take a piece]
D: NIEK! This is anise flavored. Oh, gross, yuck. Why would you do that to me?
N: Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry I forgot. I didn't know it would taste like that.
[I discreetly run to the nearest trash can to deposit the remnants of my half-chewed piece]

Licorice...the word that Americans use to describe how anise tastes.

Eww, just writing it down makes me want to gag a little bit. I'm talking about the strangely sweet smell yet repulsive taste black licorice possesses. This is the stuff my dad would occasionally try to give me as a child, and to which I would respond, "No, Dad. I want the licorice (i.e. Twizzlers) that actually tastes good." Some of my friends have admitted to liking “good” Dutch licorice, known here as drop, but I am not convinced that they are not lying.

I bet the Dutch might even consider licorice a national treasure. It comes in many forms here and many flavors, ranging from sweet and soft to salty and tough. It sits proudly next to the candy bars in the check-out line at the supermarket, and the specialty sweets shops usually have whole walls dedicated to its many forms. I see people eating it here like it was...well..candy. I once sat across from a woman on a train and watched her devour an entire bag of it. It was like I was watching a car accident or the out-takes from American Idol; I couldn't look away but I was horrified by what I was seeing. She ate those little black suckers sort of like the way I would eat a bag of Lay's potato chips or a pound of gummi bears. (And yes, in case you're wondering, I have eaten an entire Cost-co bag of gummi bears in one go. Just you try driving from Milwaukee to the Florida Keys without stopping and see if you can make it without high-fructose corn syrup.)

I am not anti-anise flavoring nor am I opposed to its cousin in crime, fennel. I have been known to use both in my baking and cooking. However, anise isn't like some flavors, say maple or vanilla, that can be tossed around willy-nilly with a little bit extra thrown in for good measure. No, it's one of those ingredients that is best when it teases you just a little bit, almost as if you weren't sure it was there at all. It shouldn't come barreling out of your sweets, filling your nose and mouth like smoke.

If it were only the licorice, maybe I could deal, but I find the flavors of anise in unexpected places, like at parties where my husband suggests holiday goodies. When a baby is born in the Netherlands, it’s customary to eat hard biscuits topped with butter and candy-coated anise seeds . The seeds are apparently good for the new mother’s milk supply, so why everyone is eating them I don't know. I tried it when our friends had a new baby, but their older son ended up eating most of mine. My half-hearted attempts to assimilate into Dutch society via anise-flavored food product consumption regularly end in failure.

This post obviously has a lot to do with cultural taste preferences. My husband thinks licorice is delicious, because he grew up eating it. He also thinks the idea of putting peanut butter and jelly on the same sandwich is appalling. Needless to say his parents did not pack those in his lunchbox as a child. I am sometimes surprised that anise has such an appeal here, among other places in Northern Europe. If I ever get bored or just really tired of writing the dissertation, I might look into the development of taste for this flavor. Maybe I should be asking myself instead why the general American population does not care for it. Why has America turned away from the licorice? I think I know why, though. It’s pretty gross.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our Dear Lady Maggi

Diana, is there one particular ingredient that defines Dutch cooking?  Because Nigerian dishes certainly have one: the Maggi brand bouillon cube.  The ubiquitous red and yellow wrapper is found in every kitchen and the smell of Maggi wafts from every pot.  Maggi advertisements shout from billboards and jingle on tv - the smiling mom serenely stirs her Maggi-seasoned pot while her husband and son look on adoringly.  And most people seem to agree that you can’t cook Nigerian food (at least southern Nigerian food) without Maggi.

I recently learned that you also can’t cook in Nigeria without Maggi.  A few days before Thanksgiving, I decided I’d use the holiday to make an “American” meal (whatever that is, although I’m positive that it doesn’t call for a Maggi cube).  So I bought a chicken to roast and found a delicious recipe, courtesy of Google and Jamie Oliver.  I boiled potatoes with lemon and garlic while the chicken began roasting, then  added the potatoes to the roasting pan, pierced the lemons and stuffed them in the chicken and put everything back in the oven to finish cooking.  Abigail, not trusting me to not poison myself  and my guests, decided to come over and check the chicken when it was done.  

Aside from the fact that the chicken looks disturbingly like it is break-dancing, isn't it lovely?  I pulled it out of the oven, snapped a picture (I was fairly proud of myself at this point) and sliced off a piece of meat to sample.  It was delicious, if I do say so myself – moist, with just a hint of lemon and garlic.  Abigail, however, promptly announced it tasteless and underdone.  And then – well, my American chicken’s visa was fast-tracked to regularization and became a Nigerian chicken before I could open my mouth.  Abigail proceeded to crumble a couple of Maggi-s and rub them firmly into the skin of my beautiful lemony bird.  Another hour in the oven and my Thanksgiving meal was Maggi-ized.  Lesson?  When in Nigeria, cook Nigerian food.  Also, never ever ever try to forego the Maggi cube.

But the potatoes were beautiful.  (I hid them while Abigail was adding some Maggi to the green beans.)

Oh, Maggi, you flavorful lady of the Nigerian kitchen.  You may be small, but you always make your presence known.  I tip my hat to you, Maggi – may you continue to make my fish and vegetables delicious.  But next time, stay away from the lemon-roasted chicken!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

With all of your posts of good-looking food, Diana, you're making me look bad!  And I feel that I need to make a confession.*

I don’t cook most of my own food here in Nigeria.

There, I said it.  Also, I hate being hungry.  I mean, really hate it – being hungry and car crashes are the two things I fear most in life (and being in really deep water and imagining giant whales and other creatures swimming around below me).  At home, I typically manage my hunger through prodigious snacking until James gets back from work and I can ask him what we’re eating for dinner.  But here I have Abigail.  Dear, wonderful Abigail, who comes every morning to make sure that I haven’t accidentally burned the house down and every night to cook dinner for me.  This way, I don't have to negotiate the vastly different world of Nigerian food alone . . . and I don't go hungry!  Fears allayed.  

Here we are discussing the length of church services in Nigeria and the fact that I usually need a snack in the middle of one if I'm going to make it to the end.  We are standing in front of her house; my house is off in the distance behind us.  So, as you can see, Abigail is a neighbor and now – a friend.  Not only does she cook my dinners, she also lets me follow her to the market every week, where I’m sure that I make negotiating good prices more difficult with all of my questions and taking-of-pictures.  She is even teaching me how to cook all of my favorite Nigerian dishes.  I’ve promised her that I’m going to cook a Nigerian meal for her entire family before I leave . . . but as she doesn’t trust me alone in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure that she’s put in a prayer request that I’ll forget to do it.

While I spend my days reading about early 20th-century Yoruba libraries, my evenings are spent in the kitchen with Abigail.  In the picture above, she is laughing at me and my ever-present camera.  (And in case you're wondering, we're preparing greens for soup.)  So you’ll hear plenty about Abigail and her family on this blog, as they are an important part of my life in Nigeria.  After all, if not for her, I would be subsisting on peanuts and bananas.  But when I get home, I’ll be steaming piles of moin-moin and pounding yam.  Get ready to eat, everyone!

*Diana, you're from the Midwest - you know how we tend to feel guilty and confess a great deal.  :)

Friday, December 4, 2009

American Chili and Netherlandish Beer

A dear, dear friend has been visiting me this week, and we have been having such a great time together despite a few days of dreary weather. She lives in California, which makes the overcast skies, daily bouts of rain, and the long winter nights a little difficult for her to handle. We've made the best of it and have had relatively little rain and, thankfully, for the first time in a few weeks no howling wind. I should be grateful, really, for the cold and the short days, because it forces me to stay inside more often to do some writing. She and I both managed to cram in at least a few hours of quality work most days, and while I didn't reach my number of goal pages, I'll take what I can get.

It's been quite fun to have a writing buddy again, and you can't beat the motivation an outside source provides. Working in a café is infintiely more enjoyable when "writing breaks" consist of actually talking to another human being instead just typing to one on gchat (although the girl watching her YouTube videos next to us at the café would probably disagree with that statement). Besides our attempts to put in the work the world and our advisors expect of us as graduate students, we have spent plenty of time biking around the city, visiting my in-laws in nearby Utrecht (i.e. partaking of my father-in-law's excellent cooking skills), and...and...drinking beer.

Oh yes, this is mostly a post about my love of Netherlandish beer. Beer, how I love the many variations you take on in the Low Countries. My quick survey of the internet informs me that the term, "Netherlandish," most often used in nerdy, art history circles, is not really used to categorize beer, and that really is a pity. I understand that Belgian beer and Dutch beer aren't exactly the same thing, but I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to lump them together for cataloging purposes. The Belgians may get all the attention, and let's be honest here, those accolades are well-deserved, but there are some pretty good brews north of Flanders, too. We tried some more obscure ones on Sunday just for fun. Here we are at a smaller brewery, Brouwerij de Molen, where the flavors can get pretty exotic, but that just makes it more of an adventure:

There is my husband attempting to play some sort of bowling game set up in front of the hearth. More important for this post are the list of beers on the blackboard behind him and further back all the bottles for sale in the shop. I had a coffee flavored stout, which was...interesting...and quite good.
Here I am with my friend finishing my husband's beer, because he thought it was, "disgusting." We were not in accordance with that sentiment and we left the brewery feeling all warm and tipsy from our extra half glass of strong beer. If you don't know already, I really like beer, but I'm a lightweight, so an extra half glass will push me over the edge.
The rest of the week saw us drinking pretty standard bottles at home. We mostly drank Palm and seasonal varieties from Grolsch. Yesterday, my friend informed me that her visit would not be complete without a visit to Gollem, one of the first Amsterdam bars that really made me love beers from the Low Countries. So, while chili was cooking in my imported Crock-Pot (another lovely wedding gift), we were off consuming these:

Whoops! How did those delicious delicacies get into the picture? I meant to show you this:

Because when it's raining and nasty outside, nothing will make you feel quite as lovely as some fried carbs with a side of liquid carbs. Mmmmmmmmm...carbs. The guy behind the bar let us sample all the beers on tap before ordering, and now I love that place even more. I would ask about a beer, he would begin to explain it but then just couldn't be bothered, so in the end he just poured us a sample of them all.

As the title of the post implies, we fit in time to have a bowl of American chili for dinner. The recipe is straight from the Heartland, my mother's kitchen. My chili here tastes the same as it did back the U.S., although you should have seen the look on my face last fall when I realized this crazy country doesn't sell canned beans. That's not entirely true, but the vast majority of them are canned in tomato sauce and/or use a ridiculous amount of sugar in the canning process. That is when I learned the joy of cooking with dried beans. They are cheap, keep forever, and weigh much less in the shopping bag slung over my bike's handlebars. What, besides their long soak time, is not to love?

Yesterday morning, I took the beans that had soaked overnight, dumped them into my Crock-Pot, added some canned tomatoes, garlic cloves, diced onions, browned hamburger and a crazy amount of chili pepper, and then I walked away for about six hours. This was the result, my lovely American dinner coupled with a nice cold Duvel and made complete with a side of good conversation.