Baking a Bread

One day, quite recently…
Me: “I am going to bake a bread”
Family: “Bake a – WHAT?”

The entire household was practically paused for well over a few minutes.
In total disbelief.

“Why bother making something you can easily get for BHD 0.100?”*
“Bread? One can NEVER bake a bread at home!”
“Baking a bread needs special equipment. Forget it!”
“Hmmmm…. you’ve found another way to waste money, time and effort…
But
The above comments could not dissuade the baker from chasing, and later achieving, his dream.

*BHD 1 = USD 2.57 appx.

Let me take you back to another day, many many years ago…

The idea of baking a bread at home was toyed since childhood.
The inspiration was the small local bakery near the place of domicile.

Around mid-afternoon, the heavenly aroma of the nearby baker baking his loaves will find its way to our home. Giving the baker a few more minutes to finish his work, a fresh loaf will be at home soon. The family gathers around, being a Sunday, marvelling the freshness and softness of the bread. Baker refuses to slice the bread as he maintains it is too early to slice a bread straight from the oven. There were many times when the bread was enjoyed without being sliced. The experience was always worthy of repeating a million times. That is when the idea of baking bread at home was born.

During those years, my Mother used to cook many dishes. Most of them could be categorised as nothing short of “complicated”. List of ingredients, the processes included in preparation and cooking, adjustment of heat by adding or removing firewood from the stove (those were pre-LPG days) were some reasons for the complexity. Delicious sweets which require hours on fire were made only during festive seasons: Easter or Christmas. Whole family chips in and the house maids also join to support but the main cook was always Mother.

Yet another day, couple of years back…

The childhood idea was put to action quite recently. May be a couple of years back when the first bread was baked in-house. Only few super markets carried bread flour. The recipe said bread flour specifically. Some of them mentioned using all-purpose flour but the fear of failure in first attempt prompted the would-be baker to travel to the edge of the world to find the perfect bread flour. He found it in a super market in the Amwaj Island.

Other ingredients were a fairly easy to come through: yeast, egg, milk, honey, salt. The 10-year old Italian-made oven with an external temperature gauge were the major components towards the first bake. Stove-top cooking was for every day but the oven was rarely used.

All the ingredients were mixed with yeast added in to the traditional well in the centre. The mixture was far from promising. Sticky, without any form or shape.

Baking a bread is all about proving. First the yeast has to prove itself. Then the dough. Then the dough in loaf-tin, again. But the real proof is in the pudding which is the proof of the baker himself. Yeast was over-energetic. It was excited to thrive in the 114 degree Fahrenheit water mixed with honey. In less than 10 minutes, the yeast-proofing was done.

Slowly, the dough began to transform itself as if by a magic spell. The mix was then kneaded by hand. Five or ten minutes, I do not remember. But the kneading stopped only when the dough felt pliable and soft. Time for the dough to prove itself. Well oiled glass bowl, the recipe did not specify which oil, was used to store the dough “for an hour or until it doubles in size in a warm, dark place”.

Slowly lifted the tea-towel that covered the dough-bowl. Could not believe own eyes. The dough had proved itself!

Followed the recipe to the t and inflated the dough after a bit of hesitation. Baker is still not confident. Is it not the first attempt to bake a bread? Pardoned.

Left the dough in a loaf tin this time in the warm dark place to prove again. The dough took the challenge well and overflew the standard bread tin thus ensuring the classic champagne-cork shape.

Meanwhile, in another part of the kitchen…
Pre-heating the oven was meticulously done. Temperature was monitored to the degree. The risen-dough went straight into the oven. Half-way into the baking process, the rich, heavenly aroma of the bread began to fill the apartment. The crust was light brown. There was no way to test the doneness of bread without opening the oven door. Door was open, crust was knocked for that reassuring hollow “thud” sound.

A home-made bread was born.

Family, who were nearby since the aroma started filling the air, now gathered around the bread.

Some suggested butter. Others jam. How about chicken curry? Plain bread taste as good, came in another revelation. Olive oil and salt. Creativity is beginning to cross boundaries now.

Five minutes later, I thanked the heavens for the family leaving the loaf tin alone.

A question came up… when are you going to bake the next bread?

Soon, the baker said, and smiled to himself.

A few weeks back, a Challah was baked.

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John Dory, Baked.

What’s for dinner?
As in whats|for|dinn|er|
Typical question on a weekend.
Mostly the dinner is cooked by me at home during the weekend.
Therefore it is not surprising that the family awaits dinnertime, on a weekend.
(Ed: Well, that may seem like a tall statement but then you have not tasted my cooking, have you?).
Apart from cooking being a passion, the time spend in creating a dish based solely on a recipe distracts one from most other complexities of life. Someone’s passion could well be another’s chore.

First question.
Meat? Lamb? Chicken? Fish?
Answer: Fish.
Which fish?
Silence.
Yes, the family sometimes think too.

White-meat fishes are often mild in their flavour.
Sole is a good example.
Local favourite Hamour-e Khaldar-e Qahvei (or simply, Hamour: the Brown-spotted Reef Cod) is another.
But John Dory is what got caught in the net.
So the choice of fish was settled.
A Dory doesn’t have a strong fishy smell.

Note: Some photographs follow the write-up.

Next question…
Grilling? Poaching? Baking? Pan-fry?
Grilling would be harsh on a Dory.
Poaching would be too subtle.
Pan-fry would be good to try.
Finally, settled for Baking.

Now for the recipe.
Salt & Pepper Fish was the first choice.
The simplicity of the recipe was in fact a deterrent to me.
Less room to play around.

Looked for more options.
Did not have to go far.
Limón!
Lemon always gave that great tasting result with white-meat fishes.
Added Lemon and fresh, flat-leaf Parsley to the list.

Accompaniment to Dory?
Mashed Potatoes was the unanimous favourite of the family.
A silence fell when the discussion moved on to the greens.
Vegetables, I mean.
No movement.
No enthusiasm.
Quite understandable.
Had to choose it myself.
Mangetouts.
How about some Mushrooms?
Yesss….
Some movement there.
People love mushrooms for their own reasons.

Thus the dinner menu was agreed upon.

John Dory baked with Lemon and Parsley in extra virgin Olive oil
seasoned with sea-salt and ground black pepper.
Sautéed Mushrooms and Mangetouts
served with mildly creamed silk-smooth Mashed Potatoes.

Little extra virgin Olive oil. Lemon juice. Sea-salt and ground black Pepper. Sprinkle once-chopped fresh flat-leaf Parsley. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven heated to 170C. Check for flaking with a fork.

Combined taste of slightly salty Mashed Potatoes and Dory was exquisite. Sautéed Mangetouts were so crunchy that the dining room reverberated with the sound. Mushrooms with a dash of dark soy-sauce added a different dimension to its flavour. A fillet of Dory was pan-fried indeed.

Dinner was served.
Few minutes into the ritual,
some asked for more potatoes.
Others, Dory.
Mushrooms disappeared in no time.
Only a few Mangetouts were left in their bowl.

All the dinner plates got emptied quick.
What else an ordinary cook like me could possibly ask for?

Pièce de Résistance

Geographically, the beautiful island of Bahrain may be small. But the cultural and artistic events happening within its confines hosted by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities – BACA – and other organisations, are many.

BACA itself organises several events throughout the year. Festivals and Annual Activities includes Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, where space, colours, imagination and boundaries merge; Bahrain Summer, the journey of musical to theatrical; Ta’a Al Shabab, a month-long event involving youth in culture; Bahrain International Music Festival, an expression of musical talent from home and abroad; Spring of Culture, an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences and learn about the intellectual underpinnings of different nations and Heritage Festival, taking the people from now to then.

Though the various events fall in the same time of the year, the themes keep changing. This year’s Food is Culture event had Bahrain National Museum as the venue. Confluence of the minds of Chefs and Artists was the theme. MyRefractions visited one such event during the month of January 2017.

Meeting with Chef Brian and Chef Pierre was the highlight. The chocolate palm tree was the pièce de résistance of the evening.

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Date palms represented Middle-Eastern culture around the world. A drive through the palm-laned road leading towards the magnificent Ritz-Carlton hotel in itself is a memorable experience. Imagine a date palm that snaps at your touch, made with the most delicious, just-sweet, nutty, creamy and melt-in-mouth dark chocolate with real Dates. That was the experience presented by the Executive Chef Brian of re Asian Cuisine and Head Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant “CUT” both at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain whose culinary inspiration began in his grandmother’s kitchen, and Pierre, professional Pastry Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s “CUT” restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain, whose love of pastries comes as an artistic medium which fuels his passionate creations and the Artist Somaya Abdulghani who is specialised in photography, collage and mixed media, seeking to promote Islam’s enlightening nature by creating rhythmic and organic patterns that combine forms of Islamic art.

In a higher conceptual level, one would find it hard to separate the space of cooking and that of art.

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The passionate audience had a casual enjoyable time interacting with the Chefs and the Artist. They also relished the chocolate palm tree and made it vanish into thin air within minutes much to the delight of the Chefs and the Artist who created it.

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The event brought to surface the complexities within the intermingling of the two seemingly different worlds… and a treat for the palate and the mind of the discerning intellect.

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Ghriyba Marocaine aux Amandes

Weekends are cooking days. Sometimes the daughter joins in but mostly it is alone.
Bahrain feels like the best-of-Europe with it’s mild weather. While sunny and bright in the day time, the temperature stays at around 12-14 deg C. The weather was never lovelier before than today.

Rib-eye Steak with Mushroom Sauce served with Mashed Potatoes and crisp, sautéed Mangetouts for the lunch.
Thai Green Seafood curry with Jasmine Rice for dinner.
[Ed: Those posts are for another day].
But the highlight of the day was Moroccan Almond Cookies or Ghriba.
The sweet from Marrakesh took everyone by storm.

Most of the dishes tried at home were tried before in a restaurant or at a baker’s.
Ghriba was an exception. Came to learn about the sweet from a beautiful blog in WordPress https://thetaste0flife.wordpress.com/

Ghriba is something unlike any of the sweets.
It does not use any flour (wheat or rice, eg.)
Sites those talked about Ghriba mentioned the Moroccan Mint Tea that goes well with the sweet.
[Ed: Forgotten to make mint tea, by the way].

Almonds eggs caster sugar lemon zest lemon juice almond extract orange blossom water.
The taste was much beyond the realms of any sweet tried so far.

Started off with zesting the lemon after keeping the oven to heat-up to the required temperature of 350F (180C).
Prepared the baking tray with parchment paper and kept aside.

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Almond flour and sugar were then blended in a food-processor briefly.
Baking powder, vanilla extract, almond flavour, salt, lemon juice and lemon zest were whisked in.

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Egg yolks were then added to the above mixed using fingers taking care not to knead towards bread consistency. However, as the four eggs were added, the dough was bit like a bread dough.

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Added less caster sugar though the recipe asked 125 gm as the cookies are going to be rolled on icing sugar before baking.

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Baked at 350 deg F just till cooked… a cookie unlike any cookie. Inside the oven, the cookies began to crack about 12 minutes into the baking process.

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The oven was switched off soon after the cookies started to crack.
Rest of the baking happened in the subsiding heat and for about 18 minutes.

Final note:
Mildly crunchy outside and soft,chewy inside, the Ghriba was loved instantly at first bite. There sure is a lot of room for excelling and the pursuit of excellence makes the baking process more challenging and therefore enjoyable.

Reviews say that the cookies can be stored in airtight containers for 2-3 weeks. May not be applicable at our place. Confluence of flavours will take several hours was a maxim seldom listened to by the end users. Thus, the cookies finished fast. But their taste remains.

Reason for Everything

Visited local stores for the best ingredients.
Shortage of mixed peel was unusual this year.
Not a single store carried them.
So
went and bought fresh Navel oranges; scoured and peeled and sliced the peels 1/4″.
Boiled them peels, rinsed and repeated thrice.

Candy thermometer. Sugar solution.
Latter tricky without the former.
Orange peels, again.
Got them candied, got them dried.
End result: better than store-brought ones.

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More photos follow…

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the kitchen.
A clean glass bowl.
Sultanas, Raisins, Black Currants, Glacé Cherries (washed, dried and halved) in St. Remy brandy.
Set aside after securing with cling film.
Mixed every other day and added more Remy if needed.

Mise en place seems to be the word, to begin with, from this point.
Everything in place before starting.
Preparing the baking tin to preheating the oven.
Glass bowl of dried fruits made succulent by the St. Remy for weeks.

Unsalted butter with lesser water content at room temperature.
One would do well if the stand mixer with balloon whisk attached is avoided for this preparation.
Hand mixer with whisker attachment is more suited.

All-purpose flour.
Mixed spice. Cinnamon.
Whole Nutmeg. Grater.
Pinch of ground, coarse, sea-salt.

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Zest of Oranges and Lemon.
Freshly squeezed juice of one orange.
Dark brown sugar. (Tried Muscovado?)
Treacle.
Five fresh, brown, medium-large eggs.

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Bowl #2 readied.
Measuring cups, spoons.
Wooden spoon. Wooden spatula.
Silicon spatula.
Parchment paper.
Walnuts Brazil nuts Almonds
Most chopped and some slivered.

1. Cream butter.
Kids will be around for a bit of taste.
Dark Brown Sugar and Black Treacle are also in great demand.
2. Whisk in eggs kept at room temparature, one at a time.
3. Spoon in flour, a spoon at a time.
4. Maintain 150˚C in the oven.

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Mixture looks curdled.
Keep paddling…
Gentle on the mixture, please.
Gluten, unwelcome.

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5. Scoop the cake mixture into the prepared bake-tin.
6. In goes the tin to the pre-heated oven for 3-4 hours.
7. At 2 1/2 hours, kids will start to visit the kitchen as the aroma arises and begins to fill the home.
8. First time the heated oven is open once the batter is in is after 2 1/2 hours.
9. Skewer comes out clean or not?

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Anticipation builds from the day the dry fruits are soaked in brandy.
(Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?)
That day would be almost a month before Christmas.
Day the cake is baked, hopes are high.
Who will eat what and how much and who gets to keep the decor-berry and ivy for the new year.
Thankful that the cake did not carry fancy, pastel pink roses and cloud-white, Royal icing.
(Editor: The kids’ Mama baked one with all the above accessories almost bringing the house down).

Mittens… where are the mittens?
(So much for the mise en place).
Cake out of oven on to a cooling rack.
Not so lovely as once thought.
Wait, kids, tomorrow we decorate the cake.
Excitement builds up again.

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Dusted confectioner’s sugar hoping to get a it-just-snowed effect.
Berry-ivy-leaf decor, one. Picked that from the local M & S.
Is that all? Kids asketh in chorus.
Yes, that’s all. Pâtissier replieth, solo.

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Tiny plates.
Knife, the sharpest.
Shouldn’t it cut through the nuts and dry fruits?
Serving time…

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Note: The orange peels, lemon zest and treacle make the cake a bit bitter. And the dark brown sugar and the mildly sweet sultanas and raisins brings in some sweetness. Nutmeg and cinnamon tries their best to add in the spiciness. A bitter-sweet-spicy cake? Yes, I would say. But you know it’s much more complex-er than that.

Now comes the best part…
Sharing the cake with others.
The cake is carefully sliced, wrapped carefully in parchment paper, tied carefully with strings and now ready to be shared.

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Spiritual part
The spirit of Christmas in the air filled with hope, felt by everyone around is perhaps the greatest gift of the season. Sharing the bounty of blessings showered on each one of us by the Almighty is the next best. Bondage between simple human mortals based on unconditional love comes a close third.

Change the order – hope share bond love
if you may,
but that is what
Christmas is all about.

Rest everything is just a reason.

Let us carry the remnants of Christmas spirit all through the New Year.

Wishing you a Bright & Happy New Year!

Baker

Succulant Chicken Tikka.
Freshly grilled Riyash (Lamb Rib Chops).
Tabouleh, the great salad made of Flat Parsley, Mint, Tomato, soaked Burgul wheat and Lemon.
Hummous, the chick peas and garlic dip with olive oil.
Kubooz from the Tandoor (a brick-and-mud oven) completes the list.

Kubooz bakeries comes alive as the sun sets.
The baker remembers who came first and what he had ordered.
No notepads and paper slips.
Everyone is served.

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Home baked!

Spend months looking for the best recipe.

Ingredients were all hand-picked from super market baking sections and grocery stores.
Befriending chefs from the bakery section; picking up pearls of wisdom.

Best possible dry fruits… Medjool Dates, Dried Figs, Sundried Apricots, Glacé Cherries, Golden Sultanas, Dark Raisins, Cranberries, Black Currants,… all soaked in very special old pale brandy for weeks and months.

Then those, ah,
Chopped Brazil nuts.
Slivered Almonds.
Halved Walnuts.

Mixed with freshly milled flour, free-range eggs, butter@room-temperature, dark muscovado sugar… with a touch of Treacle.

Not to forget the nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spices.

Oven pre-heated to a modestly warm 150 degree Centigrade (300F).

Patience.
Patience.
Patience.

And then, three and a half hours later… where did the mittens go? Whole family assembles in the small kitchen…

Moment of truth.

cake

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They say this cake will last for months if kept in an airtight container.
Yet to see one last that long.