Friday, July 24, 2009

When the moon hits your eye.....

Like a big pizza pie..

I grew up eating pizza. As a boy, we would have special days at home where my parents joined forces to make home made pizza. Papa would mix and knead the dough…with the scent of Fleischman's activated yeast permeating the air. Mommy would then roll out the dough, slather it with tomato sauce, top it with Swift’s beef pepperoni and sprinkle it with grated Kraft cheddar cheese. This was a happy meal at home, washed down with Pepsi from the corner store, pizza days were good.

My own experiences making home made pizza have not always been as successful and satisfying.

First there was making the dough, which, before I studied breadmaking, typically had a 50% success rate. Before I truly understood how to make dough, I may as well have been shaping mud or sand. It just felt so elusive, the technique...the dough would come out too sticky or too dry....sometimes it would not rise unless I stuck a bicycle pump in was just not an encouraging endeavor with me.

Exit from the breadmaking class...great. Now I knew how to make the dough...I was still all thumbs at shaping it to become a passable pizza.

As late as a year ago, I couldn’t really figure out how to properly shape pizza dough so it came out even and round. I would recklessly flatten it with a rolling pin or manually shape it, coaxing it with my hands. I'd end up making a doughy, floury mess - all over the counter, the floor, my forehead, my clothes. My dough would tear or stick to the rolling pin, pan or counter. It rarely came out round and had, what I would call, at best, a 'rustic' shape (note: rustic...chefspeak for 'messy') other words, it had a distinct amoeba-like shape..sometimes an amoeba in the early stages of mitosis....Vs the circle I was trying so desperately to make. On more than one occassion, I would re-hash the randomly shaped dough and cheat the situation by folding the dough over, nonchalantly saying, "I felt like making a rustic calzone today," as if this was my original plan. I stared through the kitchen windows at yellow cab and jealously observed the cooks turn out pie after pie of perfect roundness.

I felt as if the flour in the canisters had a secret conspiracy to prevent me from true success in the pizza arena. The dough had a mind of its own, opting to go free form and resisting all attempts at disciplined circular shapes.

I’m glad I pressed on.....I kneaded to find a good dough recipe and shaping technique.

I did research on different flour combinations and techniques......reading cookbooks and surfing the net. After many, many attempts, I’ve finally settled on a recipe for the dough that uses 3 kinds of flour. I also found a simple and effective technique for shaping the crust. Peter Rheinhart (look him up) is my hero. These plus an oven that heats up like the devil, and the transformation to a bespoke pizza is almost magical. I finally had a pizza that, in my heart, mind and palate, was finally passable.

Topped with a combination of 2 or more cheeses - mozzarella of course, plus parmesan, edam, fontina, gouda or emmenthal, then a choice from a wide range of cold cuts; maybe a subtley-seasoned italian sausage or a more assertive paprika and garlic-laced chorizo pamplona, add olives, capers or tomatoes, fresh herbs...the palette is most accommodating.... ...generally celebrating with most ingredients and turning out a hot, cheezy, gooey, thin and just barely crisp, slightly chewy pizza.

Today, I scoff and spit at the thought of any flour or dough conspiracy. Ha!...and pweh! No more shapeless pies or accidental calzones! I have seen the light!

If I could, I would grow a graceful moustache like a regular Papa Picolino. I would happily sing 'Finiculi, finicula' as I deftly mix the dough, knead and shape it into uniform and deliberate circular pizzas and top these with any combination of ingredients that might be available. I would slip the pizzas into the oven and, at the right moment, take them out and triumphantly serve them up, as I sing the closing bars of 'Nessun Dorma.'....Vincero, vincero! (I win, I win!)

Really...there are few things that can compare with a good home made pizza....that's amore!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Iya, 3rd Born

It is Iya's fourth birthday today.

Up to the time she was 2 to 2 1/2 years old, Iya was a quiet little baby who didn't give us much trouble other than the mandatory diaper change. She gladly, if not quietly, came with us and ate what she was fed...from chicken soup to tomatoes to cheese to carrots. On our trip to Australia and New Zealand, it was not difficult at all to have her as a traveling companion. I observed and often wondered how she would turn out compared to her siblings, whose character and personalities had already begun to take shape and show themselves, more or less.

At 2 years old, Camille, our eldest daughter, was smart and alert, carrying on straight conversations with grown ups and kids alike, surprising people who would engage her in a chat. Lucas, the second, was making up his own words and was endlessly curious, exploring the things around him, earning him an 'explorer's' medal in pre-school for exploring the world outside the classroom...during class hours.

Iya, on the other hand was quiet and observant, happy with the simple joys of kicking around a pile of leaves or leading a little pull toy, not wanting to let it out of its sight and not caring where her steps took her.

Her one assertive decision at that time was that she did not like to drink from a baby bottle. If she had to drink from a vessel at all, it had to be a glass. This did not apply, however, to her preference for her mother's God-given repositories of nutrition and nourishment. She was breastfed until she was just about 2 1/2 years old. Maybe this accounted for her calm disposition..there must be a natural dose of Prozac in mother's milk.

It was also about this time at 2 1/2, that she started to show hints of the person she was growing up to be. She had started to recognize (and prefer) specific video shows, Blue's Clues, Dora the explorer and the movie that created the monster, "Enchanted," the first full length movie she truly focused on, understood and watched...about 2,342 times (and counting). I still wonder if it was, in fact a good decision to buy the DVD of the movie. This shaped the world of Iya. In a trip to HK Disneyland, she would not choose any other gown BUT..Giselle's gown...not Snow white, not, Sleeping Beauty, not Minnie Mouse......the white gown of Giselle...never mind that it was 2 sizes too large for her. And just like the Enchanted DVD, the Enchanted gown paid out in terms of times used, displayed and seen.

She wore the gown at home, while watching the 'Enchanted' DVD, she wore it to school, she wore it to the movies....her Kuya did not want to be seen with her anymore if she insisted on wearing the gown outside the house. She, had, in a word, become 'enchanted' with the movie, the gown, the concept of being a princess, engaging others in dialogues as Giselle, making up her own monologues while playing by herself.

When we took a trip to France and had a chance to stay in a house with a home theatre set up, the main feature, day-in, day-out, was....yes, 'Enchanted.' It didn't help that we were in a place where there were castles and little towns. This reinforced the idea in her that she was really Giselle and she was just humoring us by being Iya, once in a while.

I could never really understand the French obsession with carousels. It seemed everywhere we went, there were carousels. Actually, I wouldn't have noticed except Giselle, I mean, Iya, would never miss one. Whether it was in Paris, under the Eiffel Tower or on market day, in the little town of Lourmalin in Provence. She insisted on riding every big or little carousel she saw. I think I know now that they heard Princess Giselle was coming and they made sure her royal horses were available at her bidding.

At this point also, Iya started to assert herself.....and assert herself in a very, well...assertive way. She would, in our words, "hulk out" if she did not get what she wanted, clenching her fists, grinding her teeth and letting out an extended, gutteral groan...the intense and gradually intensifying expression of her inner rage. Bruce Banner..step aside...Iya's here. It still rears its ugly head today, once in a while. But her gamma rays are now more controlled, now replaced with schizophrenic mood swings I think might be the early onset of infantile dementia.

Between 3 and 4, Iya's interests have veered away (a little) from "Enchanted" (although she still gets enchanted when the Disney Channel happens to be showing it) and have moved on. She has, in turns, become EVA (from Wall-e), Tinker Bell, Supergirl and, today, Ginormica from Monsters Vs Aliens.

She has become talkative and charming, entertaining our house guests with her stories and confidently introducing herself as 'the prettiest' among her siblings. She is prone to mood changes at one point boiling over with frustration and, with a snap of a finger, laughing at something else totally unrelated, as if to escape from the embarassing frustration. Iya, like her siblings, now loves to curl up on my shoulder, randomly giving me a hug, a kiss and a whispered 'I love you,' falling asleep and giving me a sense of fatherhood and family that can only be felt but not fully explained.

Sometimes I wonder if she is the same little girl I brought home from the hospital, small and frail, yellowed from jaundice as I walked her in the morning sun. Is this the same baby who calmly sat in her stroller as we walked in Christchurch and Queenstown?

Or has she somehow been showered with pixie dust, blasted with gamma rays or exposed to an alien meteor that has changed her to a different being...a pixie, a raging mutant, a giant human...grunting, shouting, laughing, jumping, living in a little girl's world of castles and aliens and a real world of parents and siblings, school and playmates...all worlds where she skips along her happy way.

Happy birthday Iya.

(Photo by Dave Fabros)

Thursday, July 16, 2009


No this isn't about that chain famous for pork floss buns which I confess I do enjoy....slathered with butter and topped with your choice of animal floss...a rather good fat and starch fix.

I have been fascinated with bread for a long time and like many of my food obsessions, am thrilled with the idea of making my own. This was why I immediately jumped at the opportunity to sign up for a bread baking course at ISCAHM 2 years ago.

Around the same time, our home kitchen was being renovated and my wife was in a food company, which gave us access to the annual kitchen and food service suppliers' trade show. I admit I am like many men, fascinated by the equipment that is attached to a hobby. Unlike other men though, I would rather go to the annual kitchen and food suppliers' trade show than the annual Trans Show. The time was right to procure a few tools along with my bread obsession - baking pans, an infra red thermometer, a good home oven, mixing bowls, scrapers, a multi-wheel pastry cutter and a compact bread steamer to name a few.

With the equipment and some knowledge, I have since been building the skill. I recall the time when making dough was a frustrating experience. I could never get beyond the mixing stage and my dough barely ever became the homogenous mass it was meant to be. In bread class, I saw the benefit of using a dough hook with a heavy duty mixture and started my own bread projects at home relying on my trusty 5 liter Kitchen Aid. This was all well and good and I did get some consistently smoothly textured, well-formed dough.

As several batches of bread passed on, I slowly realized I could comfortably mix and knead by hand learning to handle and feel the dough.

I found myself using less of the machine and more of my hands.

This became more satisfying and felt closer to all these romantic impressions of an artisan baker's craft. There was a tactile pleasure of the dough forming in my hands as the gluten developed and the mass became more homogenous and no longer its individual ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast.

As in many pursuits, I typically 'switch off' when I do this, totally immersed in the experience of seeing the salt and yeast disappear into the flour, feeling the flour dampen with water, then form into clumps, seemingly unsure of whether to transform beyond an unruly mass of damp flour rags but finally yielding to the natural compulsion of getting kneaded together, proudly transforming to a pliable, flexible, smooth and homogenous ball of dough, ready for forming or fermentation.

The dough settles and again attains a different character after fermentation, filling with gas where the yeast consumes the sugar which it finds in the starch molecules. Like a different material, the dough becomes soft, feels more fragile but more flexible. It reluctantly gives in to the baker's manipulation, folding or stretching, pinching or rolling. Depending on the type of bread, the dough is left to ferment and balloon with even more gas, is chilled to inhibit or slow down fermentation or is prepared for the oven, for its final transformation.

The oven is, unsurprisingly, a key piece of equipment in the process. Baking the crusty, chewy european type hearth breads require baking temperatures in excess of 500 degrees F....something my old oven could only dream of, barely managing 350 to 400 degrees F and resulting in a bread that was so dense, it would collapse on itself before the crumb could form and the crust could caramelize.

The new oven stood up to this test and fired away in excess of 550 degrees, enveloping the dough in enough heat that transformed it to proud samples of fine breadmaking.

It's a continuous learning experience, this passion for bread-making. It is exciting and, like many of my cooking experiences, relaxing...the prep, making, waiting, baking and, ultimately, the sharing. The bread journey continues.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ramen Memory on a Rainy Day

On a rainy day like today, my absolute favorite food would be a big, steaming bowl of Ramen....not the 'add flavor to hot water and cover for 2 minutes' kind but the authentic Japanese kind..served in a bowl big enough to wash your face in, with ramen noodles that offer a little resistance when chewed and are, of themselves, quite tasty. The noodles swim in a hot broth redolent of kombu seaweed, bonito flakes, miso or pork bones...boiling for days and extracting every molecule of flavor from the source. They sit beside slices of roast pork or shrimp and are accompanied by napa cabbage, carrots, beansprouts, green pepper and slices of kamaboko, the dainty pink and white japanese fish cakes.

The first time I tasted Ramen was in a small Rice and Noodle house in Pasay Road..Ramen Tei. My High school buddy, Butch, brought me there after a movie. That was many years ago and I've been hooked ever since.

I have several recollections of Ramen...almost all of them pleasant. A good meal is always a happy time. There was however, this not so good one instance when I went to Ramen Tei for a late night meal after a long day at the office. This was my restaurant of choice for overtime meals. Quiet, clean, surrounded by Japanese executives reading Mangga comicbooks, it felt like I walked through a portal and somehow popped into a little ramen house in Osaka.

So on that one night, when I happened to be extremely tired, I decided, "A simple bowl of Ramen then home to bed," and just pointed to the menu without looking, confident that the kitchen of my favorite ramen house would turn out something delicious. When my order came, not a few Japanese heads looked up from the Mangga magazines. It came on a bamboo tray...a cast iron pot, complete with cover. When I lifted the cover, the initial cloud of steam obscured the dish below. When I blew the steam away, I could make out whole shrimp, squid tentacles, vegetables in a reddish colored broth...which was still boiling owing to the superior heat retaining properties of the cast iron pot.

I looked around and made out a few Japanese heads, quickly looking back at their magazines. I thought..."this must be some sort of Kung Fu ramen." With a cast iron pot of boiling ramen in front of me, I had visions of Kwai Chang Cain, baring his thin forearms and lifting the pot to his lips...he then finds the Ramen Master's mark permanently burned into his forearms.."No service charge."

Back to Ramen Tei....As I did with previous hot ramen dishes I've tried, I picked up the chopsticks with my right hand and the soup spoon in my left. I swirled the noodles and other ingredients slowly, clockwise..which did little to reduce the heat and only encouraged a few more wisps of steam to evaporate in front of me. I contemplated on the shrimp then dipped the spoon to take a little broth and bravely took a slurp, believing that, as it had done in the past, the rapid air suction would cool the broth down.

Ahhhhh.....I was wrong. The liquid went past my lips, through my teeth, grazed my tongue and finally singed the roof of my mouth before leaving a trail of heat down my throat and into my stomach. My nostrils flared, tears welled up in my eyes, blurring my vision and all I could manage to say was a combination of loose vowels (and a few H's) which didn't really mean anything in any language but had a more obvious meaning in man's primordial and instinctive expression of pain and suffering. Something like "aaaaahhiiieeuuoohhhhoooeehh!"

As I blinked away the tears from my eyes and normal vision was slowly restored, I took stock of the damage. My tongue felt raw and bruised.The roof of my mouth was so badly singed I could feel a tiny flap of roof with my tongue. It stung when touched with my already sore tongue. Added to the pain a few of my Japanese seatmates seemed to be talking in even lower, hushed tones, pointing at me with there eyes but not facing me and then smiling among themselves.

I eventually asked for an extra bowl and transferred the contents a small bit at a time and consumed the rest of the dish, now cooler and more palatable. I went home with a bruised mouth and a bruised ego, wondering if I could ever walk into the Ramen portal again.

But I did keep going back and continued to enjoy the other ramen dishes but steered clear of the cast iron disaster. I still enjoy it and will keep going back.

Enjoy the scene from the quintessential ramen movie, "Tampopo," how to enjoy and appreciate ramen--Tampopo

Day 1 as a Blogger

Many things drove me to begin writing in a blog...scratching a writer's itch that hasn't been scratched in years, sharing and reflecting on what I have tasted, been tasting, want to taste and will taste in this life, caving in to my loving wife's pleadings to do some writing and a secret, egotistical belief that I can, in fact, write as well as, if not better than many of the bloggers out there acknowledging, however, the presence of a lot of thoughtful, entertaining and inspiring talent in the bloggers' world. I think I've led a fairly interesting life powered by just enough curiosity, an active imagination and (in my mind) an enviable sense of humor.

Why tikim? Because I've believed that the best way to enjoy life is to take a dip and at least take a nibble, a sniff, a taste, if not truly gobble it up and live in the moment. The allusion to food and taste is not coincidental. I like food. I like to eat and to cook, to try new flavours, to watch others eat, cook and enjoy. I like making connections to places through food and food culture. Travel is not complete without tasting and (hopefully) enjoying the local delicacies, prepared in authentic settings, using authentic ingredients.

But tasting is not just about food but, more broadly, about life. Having been around for some 46 years, I've had the benefit of tasting and trying other things and other adventures...bungee jumping in New Zealand, scuba diving in Tubbataha, going to market day in the little towns of the Luberon in Provence, riding a Ducati Monster in the hills of Rizal or just taking pictures of my children in the perfect light of day.

So I embark on this blog...another adventure, another bite out of life...maybe a new flavor..tikman natin.