Monday, April 30, 2012

Boxty, Irish Poor Man's bread

Gullible Geek
The geeky Caucasian male in line behind me at the cash register in my dreary neighborhood supermarket moves with me towards check out aisle #2, in anticipation of the arrival of the supermarket manager, jumping in to slash the queue in half.

I've seen the geek's face before. Like Pavlov's dog we both respond to the manager's rattling key chain approaching from some distance. The store has just opened, and against all logic, it invariably is the worst time to come here for my quick breakfast fix: coffee and croissants. The kids working here, pretty much process customers the way I suspect they have been ripping open cardboard boxes and flinging their contents onto the shelves before opening hours. The store still belongs to them, and it will be at least another hour before they'll even be willing to pretend we could be anything else than deaf, mute walking pieces of meat.

The manager, a tiny overweight woman in her thirties, snugly filling the cashier's cubicle, routinely opens up cash register #2. She has changed her hair to platinum blond. It was black before. She dyed it December 5th 2011. The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas that day, a precursor to  modern day Christmas, that is why I remember.

That day she was walking around the store fully dressed like 'Zwarte Piet'; a somewhat questionable, character appearing in the festivities at hand. She trotted around wearing a colorful hat with a contrasting feather and matching knickerbockers. Her face (and hair) painted black, her lips painted red. Think minstrel show.

Weary looks from all of us were her part. The rest of the staff, all Muslim girls, didn't dress up.  She clearly didn't bother about this; she was going to have her fun, whether her subordinates liked it or not.

Blind Finches
The geek has one item, and as I am still struggling to put my stuff on the moving belt, I signal him to go ahead and jump the line.

After he pays the manager asks him if she can have a look into his shopping bag. He refuses. Immediately the fuzzy, just-out-of-bed attitude of all people waiting in line focuses on the geek. "There is nothing in there" he mutters. The obligatory "so if there's nothing in it, I can have a peek?" is met with a cornered look from the geek, whose voice goes into a whisper as he says: "okay, I'll pay for it".

When the manager's hand comes out of the linen shopping bag, it contains the loot. It is meat. To be more precise it is two "blinde vinken" ("blind finches"), basically two meatballs with a piece of bacon wrapped around it. The cheapest meat product on the shelf.

Being so close to all that is happening I start feeling embarrassed. It is nothing compared to the shame that is emanating from every pore in the geek's sorry body by now. "Why are you doing this?" the manager shrieks, realizing there is no way back now any more and she will have to sit with the geek in the employer's canteen, holding him until the law arrives.

I am still with the meat. Maybe it is because I am an actor and always look for the story behind the story. The only thing I'm thinking now is: "why on earth did he go for mince meat, and not for the fattest steak he could find?" Something along the lines of: 'if you gonna do it, do it right'.

The manager screams a girl's name into the intercom system and wanders off with the very docile culprit. We, the other customers, don't seem to exist any more by now. 

After a few minutes the girl whose name was shouted arrives. She sits down and takes over where her manager left off. 

"Could I...." I start asking, but the newly arrived interrupts."Who's been stealing?" she shouts. She hasn't acknowledged my existence yet, so I'm not really sure who this question is directed at. The girl at check out #1 responds; "some white guy"

Her blank gaze turns to where her manager just left with the thief as she hisses "whore mother"... It takes a few baffled seconds before I realize she is talking about the manager.

I pay for my coffee and croissants, by now making sure to mirror the girl's behavior, by far the best way to confront people with their own, I find. So, I do not acknowledge her existence and instead of answering her robot question "do you want a printed receipt with that" I make sure to turn away from her and start talking to the customer behind me, smack in the middle of her question. Sometimes it pays to be an actor.

Walking out of the supermarket, there is a guy standing there with two cans of beer. He asks: "I'm waiting for the guy that was in front of you in line, where did he go?"

I tell him it will take a while before his friend will be done, and from his reaction I can tell he is in on it.

I'm confused. The 2€ thief is the bad guy, but "whore mother"-girl is cramping my style way beyond my tolerance levels. The guy at the door looks like the kind of guy the gullible geek would wrongly put his trust in. The manager is probably the reason why her staff take so much pleasure in ignoring their customers.

Walking home I think back to the most successful shoplift I ever witnessed. In this same supermarket in fact. Scrupulous, yet genius in its manipulation of human behavior and prejudice. Even though I saw it happening right in front of my eyes I decided not to act on it. Maybe when you read the story you'll understand why.

Successful Shoplifting
Enter 2 mothers and 5 little kids. They are doing serious groceries. Two big shopping carts,  filled to the hilt with hundreds of items arrive at the register. The cashier girl sighs at the prospect of this daunting task. The kids of course, are running around, screaming, shouting, playing and being obnoxious.

One of them isn't, though. The oldest kid, around 5 years of age, is dragging along a trolley, and positions himself at the end of the conveyor belt. The groceries are starting to pile up. The mothers make the cashier work hard. The amount of groceries is going to surpass the capacity at the end of the conveyor belt. Chaos is every where, most of all with the cashier.

The oldest kid helps out. He has put four cardboard boxes next to his trolley and starts loading. Cheeses and meats, coffee and more meat are carefully wrapped and placed into the trolley. The cashier gives him a thankful smile. With the end in sight, the cashier has to get up to scan the beer crates on the shopping cart. All went well. The job has been done. A hefty 350 € worth of groceries is rung up.

The mothers start squabbling in a foreign language, pointing at each other. Even the kids seem impressed. The cashier looks on blankly, not sure what is going to happen next.

Then the finale. "Ever so sorry, but we forgot to take our wallet". The cashier is not happy. What do they want? If it is okay to pack the groceries, leave them here and come back in 20 minutes to pay?

Yes, that is okay to the reluctant cashier (and a growing line of impatient customers). The mothers set the kids to work to get the last of the stuff out of the way. 4 Kids do as they are told.

The 5th one has already left the building, taking the trolley with the most expensive groceries with him...

I guess this one is for all the kids who wonder whether they maybe shouldn't be doing what their parents tell them to do

Boxty (Irish Potato Bread)

350 gr / 12.3 oz potatoes, peeled & grated
350 gr / 12.3 oz potatoes, boiled & mashed
350 gr / 12.3 oz AP flour
10 gr / 0.3 oz baking powder
1 egg
6 gr / 0.2 oz salt
pinch of white pepper
Preheat your oven to 190°C / 375°F

Boil half of the potatoes, mash them and leave them to cool. Grate the other half raw and squeeze as much moisture out of them as you can with the help of a tea towel or cotton cloth.

Combine the flour, the baking powder, salt, pepper,  grated - and mashed potatoes. Add the egg and knead by hand for a short time to make the dough come together. If the dough seems very dry, add a little (butter)milk. Form into a loaf and make a nice deep slash at a 45° angle to make the loaf open up nicely on top.

Bake in a preheated oven for about 40 - 45 minutes until golden brown. Make sure to rotate the loaf halfway through the bake for even browning.

Right after the Boxty comes out of the oven, I like to brush it with butter. That must have been considered an ultimate luxury, back in the days. This bread performs particularly well under the grill or on the griddle. The coarser you grate your potatoes, the closer you get to a perfect cross over between a potato bread and a hash brown.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Dutch Babies and the universe

Walking this earth, sooner or later we all notice that time seems to be moving faster as we grow older. The eternal summers of our childhood are fading to a distant memory in a world that speeds up. Why?

One giant leap

Ask any cosmologist you happen to know, and they will tell you these are exciting times to be working in the universe business.

Just this week, there was remarkable news. The Dutch physicist Leo Kouwenberg and his team from Delft announced their experiments have deducted the presence of a very elusive exotic particle. The Majorana-fermion, as it is called, is the kind of matter that - so far - only existed in the text books, left behind by great minds long gone to greener pastures by now. In 1937, the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana predicted the particle bearing his name should be out there somewhere. 75 Years later it looks like "they got 'em".

A number of  consequences come with this 'discovery in progress'. It could potentially shake the foundations we have created for ourselves and come to trust over the past millenniums. With finding this particle, we are one giant leap closer to finding a lot of answers to some of the big questions in a fraction of the time it took us before.  Enter left; the quantum computer!

A quantum computer doesn't just do 0's and 1's to make calculations. It does bizarre things making use of the principles of quantum mechanics, and it calculates a lot faster! So much faster in fact that we might hear some answers to existential questions in our current life time. On top of that, the Majorana particle seems to be a good candidate to account for the huge amount of 'missing matter' that apparently holds our universe together without us being able to detect it. Exciting stuff.


Time becomes a very complicated matter pretty soon after you start thinking about it.

I once explained the concept of time zones to a suspiciously short Masaï warrior who, quite frankly,  was way too short to be a real Masaï warrior in my opinion. With the help of the sun and the shadow on an orange representing the earth, I showed him that at that very moment in space and time, sitting on that sunny beach, the sky over my house back home was dark and the moon and the stars were out.

He laughed at the very notion at first, then seemed disappointed when the simple truth that one sun can only light up half an orange, sunk in. He declared it all a big mess. He nodded at the horizon and said he regarded the sun his only time keeper in life. 

Why does time seem to be moving faster as we grow older? The eternal summers of our childhood  transform into a much needed week off from work that's gone before you know it. New family members are born and grow up to be back-packing, four-wheel-drive-wrecking hotties, whereas, as far as you are concerned, they should still be dotting their I's with little hearts.

It might have something to do with the same principle that reverberates throughout the entire universe; chaos...

Like the universe, we run into a lot of chaos in our lifetime, an increasing amount of it if you're half a curious human being. We start out with little to no chaos at all; children, freshly big-banged (pardon my French) into being, are blissfully unaware of the chaos surrounding them and can experience the world an hour per second. With the passing of time, the laws of entropy roll out and our lives become entangled with obstacles, choices, dangers and responsibilities. Sticky matter(s) that makes time fly, whether you're having fun or not.

Rinse with salt water

There are scientists out there who say time actually doesn't exist at all. It is merely something we humans have invented to be able to make sense of it all. As a matter of fact, the peeps in the quantum business don't really need time in their equations to make them work.

Ah well, without time, everything would just be happening in a jumble and things would become pretty confusing. At least now our summers are eternal when we are young,  and even if they feel a lot shorter as time progresses, it won't stop us from trying to make them last as if we were 8 years old for the remainder of our time here under the sun.

Pretty soon I will be attempting to slow down time for myself. I find that a sea, a beach and a lot of sun work quite well for me. These three things are abundantly present on the island of Bali.

The trick, it seems, is to drown out as much entropy as possible. If you hear only the sound of the breaking waves, only feel the warm sun on your skin and see two basic shades of blue; the water and the blue sky, you just might succeed in touching on that elusive space and time again, where everything comes to a halt, serenity sets in and you could watch the grass grow, if you chose to...

In case of fading serenity; rinse off with salt water, apply sunscreen and digest a stiff drink; you are good to go for the remainder of the day!

If you have ever watched a Dutch Baby pop up in your oven, you have been watching entropy in progress. Quite soon after introducing the orderly arranged atoms in this delicious batter to some serious temperature changes, it will twist and turn and eventually clot into a bizarrely shaped universe in your oven.

Dutch Babies
3 eggs
60 gr / 2.1 oz AP flour
125 gr / 4.4 oz milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter
Whisk the eggs until blended.
Sift in the flour.
Beat until smooth after each addition.
Add the salt.
Add the milk in 2 additions.
Lightly beat in the melted butter.
Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9 or 10-inch oven-proof frying pan, 2 or 3 individual pans or a muffin pan for bite-size Dutch Babies.

Pour batter in the muffin pans and bake for 10 minutes at 230°C / 450°F. Reduce oven temperature to 175°C / 350°F and bake for 5 minutes more. If using one single pan, bake for 20 minutes on 230°C / 450°F. Reduce oven temperature to 175°C / 350°F degrees and bake for 10 minutes more.

Slip onto heated platter, fill with fresh fruit and dust with powdered sugar. Add a dollop of cream if you feel scrumptious... Serve immediately!

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Chicken on a Stick; Colomba Pasquale

When was that again?
For the peeps who rather watch things than read, here we go! 

I'm always a bit confused about Easter.

I'm never sure when it's going to happen. Last year it was at the end of April. This year it's the 8th! As usual, I visit the Wiki Easter page in an attempt to, for once and for all, understand about full moons, spring equinoxes, Julian and Gregorian calendars and... well, that's usually where I give up. 

Just hit me with it when it comes along! I usually start shifting gear when people actually start buying the chocolate eggs, -bunnies, and other Easter paraphernalia that have been patiently sitting on the supermarket shelves ever since the X-mas deco was chucked out.

With Easter shifting so violently all over the April calendar, and all the related holidays shifting with it, it is my most likely season for a good old "showing up at work on a national holiday"-experience.

Most of all I'm a bit confused about Easter itself. I have some distinct associations ingrained in my gray matter and gene pool. 

Friendly Fire
This one is in the genes I'm afraid. A bonfire is a Northern European's traditional way of chasing away the winter demons and welcoming back the light. The sight of a big pile of wood waiting to turn bonfire in the middle of a field somewhere when visiting my family for Easter up North, where the tradition still lives on, never fails to get me all revved up with anticipation. As a kid the bonfires seemed a multitude of impressions bigger and more awesome. The smells and intense heat have remained equally intoxicating.  This year there is a small village in the East trying to beat their own Guinness World Record. They have a live web cam, so you can see the biggest ever bonfire  go up in flames if you want to, and who wouldn't! Nothing like a good friendly fire.

Chicken on a Stick
Another strong  association with Easter is the Palm Sunday Parade. It involved a bread roll shaped like a rooster on top of a decorated cross. It's eye was a currant that came off quite easy. I was the kind of kid looking up all the time to make sure my rooster wasn't going blind up there on his stick.

Much later I realized the full meaning of this (literal) crossover tradition. Eggs, oranges and roosters; all pagan "finally-it-is-spring-again"-symbols mingled in with Christian symbols like (palm)leaves and the cross Christ died on. The rooster became associated with the bread Jesus broke at Last Supper and even with the rooster crowing after Peter denied knowing Jesus three times on Good Friday. Eggs doubled as symbols of spring as well as a symbol of new life (Easter Sunday).

Blissfully unaware of all of this, I was most of all concerned with my currant-eyed rooster and oranges surviving the parade. My mother once told me her story. When she was a kid, right after world war II, oranges were the stuff dreams were made off. And then; lo and behold; the first Easter came around that she proudly paraded around her chicken on a stick with two shiny oranges pinned on both ends.

My mother was of course as proud as a peacock. As soon as she came home, she took the oranges off carefully and put them in a box, carefully wrapped, guarding it with her life, to admire and eat later.

When she finally gave into her desire to eat her precious jewels, she found them dried out and wasted in her beautiful box. I consider it one of my more important lessons in life.

All Together Now
And then you realize that Jewish Pesach and Christian Easter share a whole lot of history as well, and were at one time the same thing. Christian Easter allegedly gets its name from the Saxon Goddess Eastre, the spring goddess. The Netherlands is a linguistic border in the Northern regions of Europe. All around us, geographically speaking, there is talk of "Ostern" or "Easter", but the Dutch have stuck with French & Latin influences and celebrate "Pasen", like the Flemish their "Paas", the French their "Paques" and the Italian their "Pasqua".

So what are we celebrating? The return of the light, the resurrection of Christ AND the end of slavery and thus freedom regained. That's a whole lot of celebrating! Let's turn to the Italians to provide us with the necessary festive bread. The message of this bread is simple: Peace! All of the above celebrations will benefit from that beautiful word, even if the tulip named after it at the tulip exhibition certainly isn't going to win any big prizes soon, except for maybe in the category awkward yet true...

Colomba Pasquale

550 gr / 22.9 oz bread flour
8½ gr / 0.2 oz salt
4 eggs
1 x 120 gr / 4.2 oz soft butter
2 x 40 gr / 1.4 oz soft butter
120 gr /  4.2 oz whole milk
150 gr /  5.2 oz sugar
75 gr / 2.6 oz candied lemon peel
75 gr / 2.6 oz candied orange peel
50 gr / 1.7 oz of small pearl sugar


Home made orange/lemon peel

The day before; Wash and peel the skins of two oranges (or lemons). Cut into thin strips. Cover them with water, bring to a quick boil, simmer for 5 minutes and then drain. Put fresh cold water in the pan, and repeat this twice.
Then dissolve 450 gr / 15.9 oz sugar in 435 gr / 15.3 oz of water. Add 1 TBS of lemon juice. Simmer the orange peels in the sugar syrup for about 1 - 1½ hrs until translucent. Drain and dry the peels over night on a cooling rack. The next day put 100 gr / 3.5 oz of sugar in a plastic bag, add the peels and toss around to cover them well. Cut into little cubes and put aside until needed in the dough. If you want to shape your Pasquale in the traditional way, you might want to browse around for sturdy card board that can be cut into the shape of a (rudimentary) dove. The amount of risen dough yielded from this recipe gives you two medium sized loafs when baked in standard bread pans.

The starter
Mix 12 gr / 0.4 oz of instant yeast with 100 gr / 5.3 oz of flour and add just enough water to make the dough come together; 2-4 TBS. Cover and let rest at room temp until the stiff dough has turned puffy; about 45 minutes. Alternatively; try submerging your ball of dough in warm (30° C / 86° F) water.
Your starter is ready to go when it floats to the surface! (I finally tried this method, and it really works...)

The dough
Combine flour, salt, sugar and candied lemon peel, mix together. Then add the eggs, a little at a time until incorporated. Add 120 gr / 4.2 oz soft butter in pieces and mix. When the dough gets dry, add the milk and the starter dough. Mix very well on low-medium speed until you have a firm and elastic dough. Depending on what sort of flour you are using, you might have to add a few extra TBS of flour, or hold back a little of the milk to get the right consistency.

First rise
Transfer the mixed dough to an oiled bowl. Cover the dough and let it rest until increased in volume by ⅓.

Second rise
When the dough has risen by a third, turn it out into the mixer bowl again. Add 40 gr / 1.4 oz of soft butter and the orange peel in portions. Mix until well distributed. Transfer the dough to an oiled container once again, and this time leave it to rise until doubled in volume.

Third rise
Transfer the dough to the mixer one last time to incorporate the last 40 gr / 1.4 oz of soft butter. Mix it in and transfer the dough to your mold or bread pan(s). In Italy the traditional Colomba Pasquale mold is easily found. Outside of Italy that might be a bit of a problem. If you are dead set on shaping it the traditional way, you might have to get your card board and scissors out to put one together yourself. Don't worry about making it neat; the more "rustic" your "bricolage"-mold looks, the more rustic your Colomba will look as well.

Cover and let the dough proof one final time.

Making the topping

200 gr / 7.0 oz sugar
80 gr / 2.8 oz ground almonds
3 egg whites
¼ TSP of almond extract
almond flakes
pearl sugar (optional, but very pretty)
confectioners sugar

When the dough has almost fully proofed (poke it with a wet finger; if the dough springs back immediately, you are not there yet. If the dent fills back slowly, you are on the money and ready to go on) continue making the topping. First, preheat your oven to 200°C/ 390°F.

In a fat free mixer bowl, whip up a meringue using three egg whites. Fold in the sugar and the ground almonds and spread out evenly over the dough when using the traditional mold or bread pans. Sprinkle royally with flaked almonds and pearl sugar.

(Alternatively; if you are using a dove mold, you will first have to bake the bread in the mold and then add the topping to it after taking it out of the mold. You can put it back in the oven to make the meringue set and brown the almonds on top).

Put the Colomba on a rack in the middle of a preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes on 200°C/ 390°F. Then lower the temp to 170°C/335°F and bake for 35-45 minutes more until nice and golden on top. Make sure to rotate the loaf halfway the bake to ensure even browning. Keep an eye on the top; if it goes too fast, you can cover it with foil to prevent burning.

When your Colomba is done, let it cool completely before taking it out of the mold.

The first day it tastes great, the second day, it tastes better, so making this Pasquale ahead of the Easter festivities is no problem at all!

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