Monday, December 31, 2012

Life in this Land--Baking

I have done a lot of baking over the past month or so here.  Baking here presents some challenges, but to avoid any misunderstandings, let me first start by saying that I really enjoy it!  There is a certain satisfaction I get in figuring out a way to make familiar or fun foods here and conquer those challenges!  Some people climb Everest here.  I figure out ways to make food and home work here.
Also, I should give credit where it is due, as very few of these things are my original ideas.  I soak up every bit of knowledge my friends who have been here longer are willing to share with me--tips, recipes, where to find ingredients or make substitutions, etc.  My good friend Lizzy has a great blog she has started called Foodies in a Foreign Land, which I have used a ton or have picked her brain more about food stuff here.
And, finally, let's be honest that one of my favorite parts about cooking and baking here is that someone else cleans up after me!  Seriously!  Unbelievable blessing to have a sweet young girl who works in our home and is so patient and thorough and cleans up after my kitchen adventures!  Really, really thankful for her!

Some of my baking adventures and victories...

The green bean casserole I made last week for a Christmas Eve meal...from SCRATCH!  I grew up Mennonite, and even Mennonites don't do that!  I'm talking no canned soup, no French's fried onions.  I totally ripped this one off from Lizzy (the one she lists as "Best Ever Green Bean Casserole"), but I still felt pretty pleased with myself.

Lizzy had blogged about using a local item called chaaku to make molasses.  I have been on a quest since then to find it.  Apparently, it is much more limited as to where you can find it outside of festival times.  Shop owners would bring me charcoal or chocolate or ask me if I wanted a knife (apparently, the Hindi word for knife sounds very much like this word), and usually after several rounds of trying to properly communicate the word, they would say, "Oh, chaaku!  No, we don't have."
Finally, one Sunday afternoon, my good friend here and I headed out to explore Assan Tole, an older market in downtown Kathmandu, to hunt down some chaaku and some soap nuts (which I use for laundry soap here).  The strategy is to go and just start asking and following the pointing until you find a little shop that has the item.  It was quite fun, actually.  When we finally located the chaaku, the shop owner spoke quite good English and asked us what we were using it for, and we told him baking cakes and cookies and such.  He said that only pregnant women here eat it, which would explain some of the confusion in my search, I suppose!  (My Nepali friends here have said that many people do eat it in special dishes during festival times, but outside of that, yes, only pregnant women.)
My plunder from the conquest...3 kg of soap nuts and three 500g bars of chaaku.

I followed Lizzy's instructions to add a little water and melt it in a pot and kept thinking that it was seeming very thick.

I tried to strain it, and nothing would even go through the strainer.  I considered skipping the straining (nothing seemed visible, how bad could it be?), though on future batches you can see why I was glad I did not skip that step.  (In case it is not visible, there are quite a lot of twigs and random bits of things that look like they belonged in my yard.)

Anyway, I realized that Lizzy had probably used a 250g bar (which were also available), so I had not added nearly enough water.  I had already tried to scoop it into a container, and I couldn't even move the spoon around, so I tried adding some boiling water to it.  Plastic here is not made to receive boiling water! :(
In addition to my quantity issue, it is entirely possible that I did not have it on a low enough heat, as it is hard to get a good low heat on my stovetop...and I'm not known to be a patient person.  So, sadly my first bar got wasted.
On my second batch, I realized the quantity issue, was extra careful to keep it on the lowest heat possible, and I got a nice-looking molasses out of it.  It took quite awhile, and I knew my boys would be getting up from naps soon, so I was really hoping it would be enough.
What I did not yet mention is that what I had decided to use the molasses for was a sextupled (Is that even a word?) batch of cookies, as a few of the other ladies and I had decided to each make 200 cookies for the CloudFactory Christmas party.  That meant I needed 3 cups of molasses.  The bar yielded about 2.  Of course.  So, I melted up my third bar and even had some extra to save for a future baking endeavor. 

With my molasses complete, I was ready to mix up my cookie dough.  Martha Stewart has a recipe for chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies that I think are so delicious, so I was determined to make those.
Now, one thing about Martha is that I always think she makes things just a little too complicated, so even in the States, I often roll my eyes at some of her steps or ingredients.  Perhaps there really would be a difference if I did those things, and those who are more hardcore bakers than I am would notice, but I think the stuff comes out yummy without some of the crazy steps/ingredients, so I short cut.  And, here, the thought of "best quality" semisweet chocolate or "Dutch processed cocoa powder," or in this case even the specificity on the molasses made me laugh.  I also always skip the freshly grated ginger because I don't love super strong ginger taste, and well, I'm a little lazy when it comes to things like that!  Also, since my kitchen in the evening barely feels warmer than inside my refrigerator, I wasn't too concerned about the multiple chilling steps!
I didn't yet have an electric hand mixer (though I ended up getting one as my Christmas present!), and with 12 hours a day without electricity anyway, I started off the cookies with my egg beater.  I am super grateful that my friend ended up letting me borrow her electric mixer later in the evening as this thing doesn't really cut it when you're talking about 6 times a recipe of cookie dough!

My oven is small, so a standard cookie sheet won't fit in it, so I've taken to putting the cookies on what I assume is supposed to be my broiler pan/tray and sliding that right in one of the notches for the oven rack.  I also have a couple of round pizza pans I bought here, the largest of which can hold about 9 cookies at a time.  (Remember I mentioned needing to make at least 200?)
Ooh, another thing that was fun about these cookies is that it doesn't have any eggs in the dough, so for the first time since getting here, I could actually eat the dough!  It feels like torture sometimes to restrain myself from licking the spoons and beaters and such!
Some of the many finished cookies.  I was really pleased with how they turned out!
Once I finished the dough, I still needed to make some more cookies and figured I would make some sugar cookies for the season anyway, so I mixed up some dough to make a few rounds of those.
This is my frequent kitchen "helper."  He cannot resist being right in the mix whenever something is going on in the kitchen!  Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is valuable because he loves it and is learning and is SO adorable, but it is a bit of a slowing dynamic and adds exponentially to the mess.  But who can resist this cutie as a helper?!
I pulled out some of my grandmother's cookie cutters I had brought along with me because, in addition to just loving food, it is also usually very nostalgic for me.
I skipped the icing and just put on sprinkles (which John had brought back from New York this fall, but I also have in the past used the large crystal sugar that is the common kind to find here and colored it with food coloring, which is also easily available here.)

Last thing I made for the party was Rice Krispie treats (or "Crisp Rice" as the generic of the cereal that is available here is called).  The marshmallows we can find here are in smaller bags that are pink and white (or sometimes rhombus-shaped and pink on one side and yellow on the other).

I decided to go with the tint and make them look festive, so I added some food coloring to the butter marshmallow mixture before I stirred in the cereal.  Then I decided to top off with some sprinkles, which in the case of red sugar on green treats ended up looking like chili powder or some other odd creation, but people seemed to roll with it.

Earlier in the month, we had a little "candy cane party" with a few friends because a great visiting friend from the States brought us a couple boxes of candy canes, which I haven't seen here.  I crushed up two of the candy canes (which had already gotten broken by my boys) and put them on top of oreos I had dipped in melted white chocolate chips.  Oreos are actually quite common here, though there are some made in India (not so good) and the good ones made in Thailand.  A friend tipped me off on this info, which I believe is the critical kind of information that should be included in orientation stuff here!  The treats didn't turn out super pretty because the white chocolate chips (probably not "best quality," Martha!) seized on me.  (Learned that term from my friend when I told her about this project.)  Still tasted delicious, but not a very practical one to remake.

The final one I'll post for now was English muffins!  Isaiah LOVES them and misses them, and one of John's favorite foods is Eggs Benedict.  Thankfully, my supplier (aka Lizzy) gave me a recipe to make them!  On Christmas morning,  Isaiah said to me, "What are those things that Grandma gives me for breakfast?  I am really missing those!"  Fear not, little buddy, I'm on it!
I had to plug in one of our electric space heaters (during a stretch we actually had electricity) so that the dough would rise.  Yeast is not any more fond of the cold than I am!

I made them too small and will use something other than our drinking cups to cut the rounds next time.  They didn't really have the nooks and crannies of Thomas's, but the taste was there, and Isaiah (well, all of us) gobbled them up.

And, thanks to a Hollandaise sauce packet (a little wimpy about making it from scratch, though all ingredients would be easy to get here to make it) sent in a care package from my mother-in-law, we had Eggs Benedict for Christmas dinner! :)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Our Life in this Land--Staying Warm

I have not kept up with blogging lately, and my emotional and mental energy is a bit low to write anything terribly reflective, so I thought I'd start a series of posts on some basics of life as we experience it here in Kathmandu.  I'll call them "Life in this Land."  There are many things that are different for us here than what we are used to.  Some are exciting, and some are a bit more challenging.  John and I have spent the last 12-13 years in Southern California, so the cold here is one of the things that we are definitely not used to.  During the day it is quite pleasant, even warm usually, in the sun outside.  But nights get quite cold.  And buildings here are all made of cement or marble, so even during the day, it seems to always feel cold inside.  It is a bit of a flip to go outside to get warm.  Even in places we've lived (and I grew up) where winters are really cold, you go inside to warm up.  So, we are trying to gather tips from people around us and build our arsenal of defenses against the cold here.  
One of the things we do is to put hot water bottles into the bed at night.  This is perhaps not foreign to many, but I had never done this before.  We boil water and then pour it into the bottles.  This has become John's job mostly, as I seem to have a knack for getting the boiling water on myself or dropping the bottle or other such things.  If we slip them into the covers we bought and then tuck them under our blankets, they actually stay warm until morning.  

Several of my friends suggested putting some flannel over the sheets on the boys' beds, as it feels more comfortable and retains heat a bit better than just laying right on the cold cotton sheets.  You can find flannel here in many little fabric/clothing shops.  This is the least "busy" pattern I have seen, and Isaiah actually really liked it.  There is a word/phrase in Nepali "rangi changi," which I love to say and means multi-colored (or many colors) and describes most things that are available here.  But, when you're cold, who cares about color overload?!
As you can see in this picture, Ezekiel also always sleeps on top of a quilt Grandma made for Isaiah when he was a baby.  It is soft and warm and cozy, and Ezekiel totally expects it now.  We drape it over the side of the crib closer to the wall to also help try to block some of the draft.

This is a space heater that we purchased to use in Ezekiel's room.  There is no central heat in homes here, so space heaters are the option.  There are larger gas ones that are much more efficient, but they are also much more expensive, and they are fairly dangerous, as they literally have a gas tank just setting on the back (think propane tank like you use for a big grill in the States), and you can't leave them running while sleeping because of leaking gas.  The downside of the ones like we have is that they are electric.  That seems good, but we are up to 10 hours per day without electricity, so that limits things notably.  And, they are bright!  So, it's pretty much like leaving the bedroom light on in Ezekiel's room.  But, it seems to help take the chill out of the room.

I didn't take a photo of it, but we have also tried to cover one of Ezekiel's windows with a big piece of plastic that we got when we bought some cushions because his one window felt as if it might as well have just been wide open.  The windows in general here in our home don't quite close tightly or fit quite right, so we are thinking we'll try to follow up on a tip to get more big sheets of plastic to put up on other windows, but Ezekiel's room was definitely the worst.

"Chinese" blankets.  These seem to all be imported from China, and they are big and fuzzy.  Again, they are nearly always very rangi changi, so in spite of the funky velour pattern look to this, it is the most mellow one I could find.  It is barely wider than the top of our mattress, so I recently bought a second one, as I was often waking up with the blanket all piled on the other half (um, my husband is a sound sleeper and a blanket thief!).  I actually found one that was all brown!  Those of you who know me can imagine my excitement! :)

We wear a LOT of layers and much of the time have our coats on in the house!

They make these great felt slippers here.  This is a picture of Isaiah and I showing ours off after we bought them a couple weeks ago.

Perhaps my "favorite" thing that is a new experience here (not specific to winter but used more frequently now) is lighting my oven.  I've taken a little video to let you in on this little task of mine.