Saturday, February 27, 2010

Not Quite Like Pie

Born in Lahore, raised in Glasgow, poet, artist and film-maker Imtiaz Dharker likes to refer to herself as a cultural mongrel.

Cultural mongrel.

I like that phrase. I too, am a cultural mongrel. Born and raised in Canada to Chinese and Japanese parents, I am neither here nor there, though more here than there. I grew up in a predominantly WASP neighbourhood, in a multi-ethnic city, within a francophone province. My classmates were the mishmash population of non-Catholics who couldn't or wouldn't go to the "other" school board. Quebec politics were beyond our understanding, but we all knew one thing: we were Canadians.

I am a cultural mongrel. Or in shorthand, I am a Canadian.

My cultural background is neither clear-cut nor neatly defined. I cannot say whether I am more or less Japanese, more or less Chinese. I've recently had to answer that question in a survey, and I must admit I was dumbstruck: my two-year stay in Japan proved that I was definitely not Japanese, despite looking and fluently speaking Japanese; a short holiday in China showed that I had little understanding of Chinese culture. Neither my brother nor I have much in common with our paternal cousins, who are more ensconced in their Chinese-ness. My cultural baggage is filled with all the knick-knacks left behind by the people who have passed through my life: French, French-Canadian, Anglo-Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Haitian, Lebanese...

A funny aside: the sun has gone down, and I haven't yet turned up the heat, in the room. My hands are cold, and I am having the darnedest time trying to type the word culture. It keeps coming out as clutter. Perhaps, in my case, it would be a more apt word: my clutter heritage...

My cultural confusion is most apparent in the foods I eat and cook. I learned French cooking, so my food  is influenced by my training. Yet Italian, or more generally, Mediterranean cuisine is easier to adapt to my vegetarian diet. My cupboard and fridge are filled with Asian ingredients like tamarind paste, ginger, tofu, sesame oil and lime leaves. I rarely cook Chinese, because my scant knowledge of it is filled with pork and duck -despite the fact that the fourteen days I spent in China were the easiest in terms of vegetarian foraging. I occasionally venture into Japanese foods, but I usually go to my Mum for that. I am increasingly aware that I actually like eating rice, but I am a devout bread-eater.

Give me bread, and I will make you a meal.

There was a lot of bread in my childhood. One of my family's Sunday ritual was to go to a nearby bakery for pains au chocolat, croissants and a baguette. The pastries were for breakfast, and the bread was for lunch. As a kid, I didn't really see the appeal of baguette: the crust was hard and hurt my gums, and there was too little of the soft centre, la mie or crumb. I grew up, the bakery closed.  Then I rediscovered bread with thick and crunchy crusts. I started trekking across town for good bread.

My fondest memories of living in France are of lazy Sundays spent at the market along the Quaies  de Saône in Lyon. I am not usually an early riser, but I always tried to get to the market by 7a.m. -even if I went out with friends the night before. The market got crowded by 8:30, and one could no longer stroll at a leisurely pace. I liked to go up and down the stalls, trying to figure out what to eat. I'd more or less think of a menu for the week, buy whatever would keep or needed extra ripening on the windowsill, then I would start on lunch. By the time I purchased my feast and squeezed through the crowds, I would find some friends sitting at the Café des Quaies. We would order some ice-cold wine, break into a hunk of cheese, tear off some bread. More friends would join us, some bringing Muscat grapes or spicy olives, others a nice, dry saucisson. A true feast would be had. Sometimes our lunches lasted forever, moving from one café to another, or to the park. Other times, I actually made it back to the dorm before all my food was gone.

It didn't much matter anyway, because there was a nice maraîcher -produce shop-  and two good bakeries a hop and a skip away from school. Though I had kept the terribly North American habit of buying (or at least trying to buy) enough food for the week, bread was the one thing I made a point of getting daily. If I couldn't make it to the boulangerie before they ran out of bread, I (sometimes) would swipe a half baguette from the kitchens at school.

There was one week every August when both bakeries would be closed for vacation, leaving the third one as the only source of fresh bread near school. That one week, I would make a point of going daily to town after classes to get my bread. Or I would do without bread.

There a few good bakeries in Montreal, but I no longer go out of my way to get fresh bread. A loaf of bread doesn't disappear nearly as quickly as it did when I was in France. One probable reason is that I no longer buy as much cheese as I used to (it was so inexpensive and plentiful in France...) But more likely is a desire to keep those memories intact: that bread, and the feasts that ensued, are sacred tidbits on my altar to food, it cannot be replaced or replicated.

When I returned to Montreal, I tried keeping a sourdough starter, so that I can make breads similar to those I learned to love. But I couldn't keep up with the bread eating. Then I heard about an easy, almost sourdough-like recipe that I had to try. It's definitely easy, but not quite to my liking, so I tried tweaking it. At first I tried using my sourdough starter. It wasn't really a success (Cléa seems to have succeeded.) I gave up for a while, but a recent craving for bread made me want to give it another go.

I no longer had a sourdough starter -winter is not an ideal time to start one- but I wanted the depth of flavour that comes with the long and slow rise. So I reworked the recipe a few times. I think I got it: easy-as-pie almost-sourdough bread! Actually, it's not "easy as pie" as I have never found pies particularly easy to make. This bread looks like a sourdough bread, with big air bubbles and a subtle sheen to the crumb, but it isn't quite the same. The dough is not kneaded, so the strands of gluten are not as resistant: it does not hold up well to an overly moist filling. But for breakfast toasts, cheese sandwiches,  or sloppy veggie burgers, it is really nice. The crust is not too thick, yet it has a deep crunch to it, and the mie is elastic and chewy.



You will need a 3 quart (3L) dutch oven -cast iron or stoneware is fine- or a pyrex dish with a lid. I've also had success with a stoneware bowl and a foil lid, so I guess you basically need a thick-bottom dish (3 quarts or 3 litres) and some form of tight-fitting lid. The other important element for this bread is a cool room: my kitchen's temperature hovers between 16'C and 18'C (60'F-64'F). If your house is too warm, your bread will have to rest in the fridge for at least half of the time.


Easy Almost-Sourdough Bread


3 cups/ 390g  unbleached, all-purpose flour, divided
½ tsp/ 3g active, dry yeast or 10g (1tsp) yeast cake
2 tsp/ 10g salt
1¾ cups/ 438g water
½ cup/ 100g wheat bran, oatmeal or cereal flakes


Mix half the flour, all the yeast, salt and water in a large bowl. The dough will rise like crazy, so you will need the largest bowl you have (the salad bowl I use can hold 6l - ±7 quarts)

Cover with plastic wrap, and leave to rest in a cool, draft-free spot for 12-18 hours. Take a whiff after 6 hours: if your dough smells of beer, pop it in the fridge.

Add the rest of the flour, mix until all the clumps of flour disappear. Leave to rest for another 12 hours. I usually park the dough in my fridge for the second rise.
 Place your baking dish in the oven, pre-heat your oven to 500'F/ 250'C.

Scrape down the edge of the dough with a spatula, it will be extremely soft and sticky, so don't try to handle it with your bare hands. 

Sprinkle the top with half of the bran, oatmeal or cereal flakes.

When your oven is hot, take out the dutch oven, and sprinkle the rest of the bran on the bottom of the pot.
Scrape the dough into the dish, cover, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid, and bake for another 10 minutes or until nicely browned.
 

If you want a multi-grain bread, you can add up to ½ cup/ 100g of mixed cereal flakes at the second rise. The bread will be more dense and chewy than the plain bread.

Even if you have a good and reliable source for bread, you should try your hand at bread-making at least once. There are few satisfactions like biting into a slice of still-warm, homemade bread. And the best part is when your bread speaks to you:  as it cools down, the crust starts to crinkle and crackle in a way only bread can. It is quite charming, and never loses its appeal.

Bon app'!

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