Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Cookie Baking + Caramel!

This post begins where the last one left off. I received some reinforcements from home in the form of a wonderful care package. This delivery also included a bag of Nestle's Toll House Semi-Sweet morsels, and a bag of Hershey's Chocolate Kisses in addition to my probe thermometer and baking sheet which were both crucial to the weekend's success. I took these supplies to Kalocsa for some good 'ol fashioned Christmas baking as is my family tradition. Though I should note that "baking" doesn't quite capture the reality of this family tradition. Pictures of chain-gangs, industrial speed, and true artistry all come to mind; in the best way possible. : )

Chapter 1: Ovens

Since the ovens here, all of them I've seen, I'm sure there's one or two professional model ovens in Hungary, all have a knob with arbitrary numbers to control the heat of the oven. This means nothing to me, and up to this last weekend I had not used an oven to bake anything, I've only used the broiler, because that's just about all these ovens are useful for until you can get a handle on the heat. So I put a paper clip on one of the racks and suspended my probe thermometer through that to take readings of the oven at different numbers. This gave me a ballpark idea of where the oven runs, but it was still wildly uncontrollable...

Chapter 2: Cookies

With the oven as tame and as reliable as a drugged circus bear it was time to bake, so we offered traditional chocolate chip cookies as a sacrifice to the oven gods. The dough was amazing! The baking was another story. It probably took 5 batches before we were happy with the results. We were constantly moving the orientation of the cookies on the sheet, adjusting the temperature, and doing rain dances in the living room, but to no avail some cookies were getting singed. Luckily we persevered as the flavor of the final product was not drastically affected, just the visual aesthetic. A side note: Saying "cookie" makes just about any Hungarian laugh because when they hear it they think "kuki" which is slang for penis.

Chapter 3: Breakthrough!

Between batches of cookie dough I conceived an idea: put the broiler pan in the oven to block the direct heat of the broiler. This was a promising idea as it would shield the cookies from some of the direct heat and instead bake more by the indirect heat of the oven walls and the broiler pan. This was a major help! This enabled Franny to successfully bake her walnut crescent cookies which were not only absolutely beautiful, but delicious and perfectly baked. I learned earlier this week that Hungarians refer to this as dios kifli.

Chapter 4: Kissey Time

Although the oven had been mastered for the walnut crescents that was not to last. Although we didn't experience the same problems as with the chocolate chip cookies the kiss cookies would be a little underdone at the proper time, or begin to scorch before the time was up. This was really frustrating after having believed that the oven had been tamed. Here's an important Hungarian lesson: just because something works for you once doesn't mean it'll work again... or something like that. :P

Chapter 5: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Between batches of cookies I put my thermometer to further use. I've attempted caramel twice since I've been in Hungary; and without a thermometer. It was hard times without a proper gauge or recent enough experience to estimate the temperature of the caramel. The first batch prematurely recrystallized and became a chunky horrible mess after I added the cream and butter, not good. The second batch was nice and smooth, but when I tried to make caramel apples with it I succeeded only in making toffee apples: I had gone too far. So this time was just right. I had my trusty helper to tell me exactly when the caramel was ready to pull and cool. I sliced the solid sheet of caramel into ~2 inch squares and wrapped them in baking paper.

Chapter 6: End Game

These attractively festive tins were purchased at Tesco *shakes fist* for a decent price. Franny made them look even better by expertly installing the baked goods and candy to their new homes! Everyone I've given these to has loved them. I gave Trixi, my host teacher, the biggest tin because she has been the biggest help and because she's wonderful. She gave cookies to fellow teachers and I had the experience of walking into the teacher's room between classes and have teachers kind of point at me while nodding at Trixi and then Trixi would tell me that they loved the cookies. I had many requests for recipes and baking advice, what a day! Too bad two of the cookies are nearly impossible without the imported chocolates.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Birthday/Christmas Delivery!

Now to preface this those of you who know me probably know that food is kind of important to me, and to those of you who don't really know me, you probably know the same thing. So I got a text today while I was at the bus stop in Sándorfalva leaving for Szeged. It was Trixi, and she was telling me that two packages had arrived for me at the high school. Then not two minutes later Sándor called me telling me that there was yet a third package. This all happened at once: I was so excited that I got off the bus early, but closer to the high school than my usual stop, to walk the rest of the distance instead of taking another bus to Csillag ter. When I got into the office what teachers that were still remaining from the day's lessons seemed to be waiting in anticipation for me to open the boxes. But I was hesitant because I was trying to figure out how to get two giant boxes in my arms and on the bus to my apartment on the other side of the city.

Luckily I now habitually carry plastic grocery bags with me where ever I go. So I opened the boxes and started to pretend like I had just gone to some magical store where Jiff peanut butter, the Nestle's Toll House chocolate chips, Tao of Tea loose leaf teas, udon noodles, Vietnamese cassia, Japanese Curry, Ghirardelli chocolates, and Oberto beef jerky, and real soy sauce were available. Or how about my silpat, probe thermometer, kosher salt (yes, you heard me, kosher salt), and "real" baking sheet. (Sorry Hungary, you just don't win when it comes to readily available baking supplies.)

So I loaded up all of my treasures when I realized that one giant bag would be really nice but I didn't have that, so I used the next best thing, the biggest of the boxes that was sent to me had been reinforced by the Hungarian Postal Service, there is "Posta" tape all around it where the box was beginning to fail, and filled it up with my grocery bags. So now I'm this awkward American in the middle of Szeged carrying a huge box of something, people really can't tell, but, is that a ....baking sheet sticking out of the top? Anyway, I made it home fine and was so excited I took this picture. I'm really excited to do some Christmas baking this weekend. Seriously, these packages couldn't have come at a better time! I'll be sure to post about my candy making. Stay tuned!
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Kömény Update!

I found kömény, that is real cumin, at a "middle eastern" market just two blocks towards the city center, on Kálvária Sgt., from my flat! I also bought some tahini, chickpeas, yellow lentils, and 100% Halal certified corned beef.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kömény Madness!

This is a picture of caraway fruit, yes they're fruit...

So I've had this problem trying to figure out the difference, in Hungary, between cumin and caraway. This is not a problem when specimens of either one of the two fruits are in front of me: the appearance, smell, and of course, taste are all unique to either fruit. Now this has eluded me ever since I was told some pálinka I was drinking in Transylvania was cumin flavored, it definitely was not! Why would a VERY intelligent Hungarian native speaker with a near native fluency of English make such a mistake and tell me I was drinking pálinka made from cumin? And how could this EVER be a confusion in the first place?

So what we have here is a good 'ol fashioned cultural and linguistic mystery. I turned to my dictionary, two of them actually, a matching set written by the same Hungarian language experts: one is Hungarian to English (Magyar-Angol), the other English to Hungarian (Angol-Magyar). So I started from the Hungarian side of the equation by looking up the presumed word for cumin: kömény. The dictionary tells me that this is the Hungarian word for caraway, yay! No more confusion! But that was a little TOO easy, and it didn't account for the entire misunderstanding in the first place. So I dug into my English to Hungarian dictionary and looked up cumin: kömény. What!? No help there, so I turned to caraway and saw the very same entry: kömény. So I have one dictionary telling me that two very different spices are the same, while the other is telling me that kömény only means caraway.

With this mystery only half solved, if anyone looks these words up the authorities are telling them that one Hungarian word is just as good as two English words when in reality that just isn't true and it misleads good people seeking knowledge, I had to go deeper...

So, I did a little digging on the internet and found a site for spices and found a little history on the matter. To begin: caraway is more native and has been adapted on a far wider culinary scale in Northern and Eastern European countries. The opposite is true for the part of Europe and Asia where the cumin fruit reigns supreme. Some languages also have equal and opposite names for the two spices that include naming the native fruit by a local name, then referring to the other fruit by a similar name, but with an exotic twist. For example, in Hungarian you now know that caraway is called kömény whereas the foreign cumin can go by the exotic misnomer of egyiptomi
kömény: makes a lot of sense, right?

This is a picture of cumin fruit, yes, they're fruit too!