30 September 2009

A little huge appreciation

My father is an educator. I have childhood memories of helping to decorate his classrooms, and later, as he moved from a teacher to a principal, hanging out in the copy room and helping to staple endless packets of paper together. Today, he is a superintendent and, when I have to opportunity to visit, I still enjoy a trip to his colorful office full of reminders of my childhood.

From the years of watching my father work endless hours to foster a love of learning in children, I know the around the clock commitment that goes into such a job. The staff at my daughter's school is no exception. So, as my daughter completes her first month of school in Thailand, it seems only natural to take a moment and recognize those who have made her transition into formal education a successful one. So, a few days back, I concocted a plan to bring some treats into the teacher's lounge accompanied by a few written words expressing my thanks. Sounded simple enough at the time, but, like most things in life, the path to my gift of appreciation's creation took a few unexpected twists and turns.

While we have a well stocked market in our Bangkok neighborhood, it requires a bit of an outing to get to. We try to do our shopping, for our family of four, once per week so we can qualify for the home delivery option available. Wonderfully convenient... unless you forget just a few heavy items and find yourself lugging them home through the heat and humidity (with a child begging to be carried and wanting to stop for sticky rice from the neighborhood street vendor).

So, planning ahead, I added my necessary ingredients to our weekly list for the HUGE candy cookies I planned to make (show stoppers always and a little play on words... "HUGE cookies for HUGE appreciation"... I know, corny, but, trust me... completely effective). The groceries arrived a couple of days ago and I got started baking this morning. I hadn't counted on two elements that became a part of my morning-- the first: my newly created recipe yielded a very small amount of cookies and the second: the sneaky ability of my son to consume massive quantities of candy when my back is turned. My recipe made a whopping four cookies (I needed about 50 to complete my project) and my son found the giant bowl of M&M's I placed on the apparently now accessible to him counter. I saw him licking the bowl clean before he turned into a whirling blur of sugar energy bouncing off the walls of our dining room.

Two additional trips to the store were taken today, with me lugging pounds of butter, sacks of flour, bags of sugar, and endless tiny bags of M&M candies (since the store's larger bag supply was already purchased a couple of days earlier during our weekly grocery shopping!).

The huge cookies fit three at a time in my Bangkok-sized oven. This post has been written eight minutes at a time as I place a new batch of cookies into the oven and wait for them to turn from pasty white to a beautiful golden brown. I've personally consumed several cookies worth of dough and have broken out in a sweat at the thought that I might have to make another run to the store for yet another sack of M&Ms.

It's now two o'clock in the morning on the day of my planned delivery to the staff lounge. The kids have long been asleep and I'm clicking the dials off on the oven. I just finished individually wrapping the final batch of cookies and have packed them into their basket along with my note of appreciation. Now, perhaps I should wander to the bedroom and set an alarm clock before getting a few hours of sleep.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 65:
HUGE Candy Popping Cookies
This is one of my favorite cookies to buy in a bakery, but now that I've created this recipe I may never need to buy another. The size of them makes them seem extra special when you're giving them as a gift. I've tried to make other large sized cookies only to be disappointed by them crumbly apart after they had cooled. Finally, I have a recipe that yields delicious, gift worthy cookies that won't immediately crumble to pieces! Make them as large as you like and remove them from the pan with care. They'll firm up nicely on a wire rack without risk of crumbly apart later.

1 cup of unsalted butter
2 cups of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
2 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups of all-purpose flour
2 cups of M&M candies, frozen

In a large bowl, whip the butter with the sugar until the mixture is a light lemon color. Add the eggs. Mix to combine. Then, add the baking soda, vanilla and flour. Mix into a dough. Form into balls slightly larger than a golf ball in size and place onto a silicone mat lined baking sheet, three cookies per sheet. Flatten the balls and press a generous amount of M&Ms onto each cookie. Bake at 375 degrees for eight minutes until lightly golden on the edges of the cookies. Remove from oven and allow to cool for three minutes on the pan. Using a large spatula, remove carefully to a wire rack. Allow to harden and wrap individually in saran wrap to preserve the texture.

Yield: 8 huge cookies

21 September 2009

Ginormous Art: Here today, gone tomorrow

If I was ever in a situation where a producer screamed at me, "Hire an art director today!" I would immediately fly to Bangkok, walk into any of the city's shopping centers and demand to know who was in charge of art installations. Now, that scenario will never happen because a) I'm not a famous director (or for that matter, not even a part of the film industry at all) and b) because I am certain that the shopping centers in question would be foolish to let their art teams get away.

The thought that must go into the exhibits featured in Bangkok's shopping centers must be tremendous. For starters, the scale is huge-- at times seven floors in height and courtyards larger than several football fields. Additionally, the amount of time the exhibits are available for viewing enjoyment is absolutely mind boggling-- sometimes as short as a week before one massive exhibit is swapped for another that is equally stunning (and massive).

I was walking through Bangkok's CentralWorld one week and the entire seven story atrium was covered in humongous decorative lanterns. Meanwhile, outside the giant (several football fields long) courtyard was covered in twinkly lights and bamboo poles with smaller versions of the lanterns suspended overhead.

The very next week, the same atrium featured a chandelier of fresh orchids and jasmine strung in combination with dazzling pink twinkly lights. The overwhelmingly sweet scent wafted through the stores. And, simultaneously, just down the hallway, a series of "tunnels" created out of more exotic fresh flowers, including thousands of fresh roses in varying shades of pink, stood awaiting shoppers to stroll through the indoor garden they created. A mossy floor was laid and spritzed with water by the attending cleaning crew. A small box with a sign saying "please remove shoes" in both English and Thai was placed at the edge of the display.

Yet again, two weeks later, the same shopping center featured a tribute to local artists and the traditional Thai fan. Artists were commissioned to imprint their work onto fans which were then strung the series of seven floors to create a massive installation that swayed with the breeze of the indoor air conditioning. Giant pieces of bamboo were woven together to form 12 foot tall spheres that paid tribute to the region's basket making artisans. Baskets were piled together to form functional furniture as a part of the display and invited shoppers to sit and relax on surprisingly comfortable "furniture." I went back to snap a few more pictures two weeks later and, of course, the entire display was gone.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 64:
Red or Green Curry Paste
An art form in its own right, the pounding of your own curry paste is a richly rewarding process. Unless you live in southeast Asia where you can walk to any outdoor market and buy some fresh paste, you're probably stuck with one brand of generic red curry or green curry. Walk away from the jar and head to the produce section of your grocery. But, warning: once you've tasted the difference a fresh curry paste can make, and experienced how joyfully rhythmic the process of pounding your own is, you'll never go back to the preservative laden jar on your grocer's shelf.

For red and green curry paste base:
6 shallots, skins removed and diced finely
3 garlic cloves, skins removed and diced finely
a one inch piece of galangal, finely diced
1 stalk of lemon grass
zest of one lime (kaffir lime is preferable)
2 tablespoons of small dried shrimp
salt, to taste, approximately 1 teaspoon

For red curry paste, all of the above, plus:
Two dried red chilies
Paprika, a couple pinches
dried red pepper flakes, optional, to alter heat

For green curry paste, all of the above (not the red curry ingredients), plus:
3 stalks of cilantro, finely diced
turmeric, 1/8 teaspoon
two fresh green chilies, finely diced
dried red pepper flakes, optional, to alter heat

Begin by making the curry paste base: Cut the stalk of lemon grass in half, discard top "leafier" side and finely dice the remaining piece. Set aside. Place the shallots and garlic into the base of a mortar and begin pounding until mashed and combined. Continue adding ingredients in the order stated above, working until each ingredient is well combined. The texture of a good curry paste will be chunky, not completely smooth. You should be able to recognize filaments of the galangal and lemon grass and small flecks of the other ingredients within the combination.

To make red curry paste: Soak the dried chilies in a small amount of water for approximately 30 minutes. Remove chilies and dice finely, discard water. Add the chilies to the curry paste base already created and pound to incorporate. Add paprika to further color the base and add desired amount of red chili flakes (working with a few at a time and increasing amount as necessary). Place finished paste in an air tight container and refrigerate for up to one month.

To make green curry paste: Add all listed ingredients to the already created curry paste and pound to incorporate. Remember to add desired amount of red chili flakes to increase the heat (working with a few at a time and increasing amount as necessary). Place finished paste in an air tight container and refrigerate for up to one month.

Yield: The amount of curry paste you will use will vary with the recipe (and level of spice you prefer). As a general guideline, the above ingredients will produce two meals of red chicken curry, serving four people per meal.

*Note that the following substitutions will alter the traditional flavor of the curry paste, but if you can't easily find the first ingredient, substitute as necessary and you'll still have a magnificent, fresh version:
Galangal: substitute fresh ginger
Dried shrimp: substitute shrimp paste, found in your grocer's Asian foods aisle

**I enjoy pounding my curry paste by hand and the results are a beautifully textured paste. However, if pressed for time, a food processor is a great alternative to a mortar and pestle. The end product will be a bit watery in texture and will not keep as long in the fridge without a definite texture change so the machine produced product is best used immediately.

07 September 2009

School days

I'm attempting for the third time to rip the suction that has been created between my eyeball and my contact lens. Somehow, a week of tears, stress and anxiety have taken their toll on my contacts as well as my emotional state. My oldest child, now five, started school five days ago and the ride leading up to the first day was a quiet, relaxed one spent mostly at home enjoying each other. But, as perhaps any parent who has been through it before will agree, the first day of school is nothing short of traumatic.

My daughter is attending a beautiful school with a garden setting and beautiful Thai woodwork surrounding the buildings. The teachers are caring and the campus is close to our home. Yet, that first day, I saw the effects living overseas has on a child, which are both positive and negative. We've always been a very close-knit family, but the last year of tuk tuk riding, market going and curry pounding together has created an even stronger dependence on one another. And, while playgrounds and the promise of new friends are always welcomed, the idea of being apart from each other from 8:30 to 3:30 was a new concept for both my daughter and me.

Days of my daughter pleading not to take her back to school, tears of dread over what the next day may bring, and the worry of missing her mama while sitting in the cafeteria filled her waking moments. So, after agreeing that it was a hard week, I set out to make Friday evening extra special. A celebration, if you will, of my daughter's bravery, my husband's undying support and my ability to see through swollen eyes.

After dropping off my daughter at school on Friday, my son and I returned home to put the plan into action. Stringing up a sunset sky of blue and red streamers, laced with silvery star garland, our setting was taking form. We spread out a bunch of pillows and covered them with a dirt colored quilt. A giant metal tray filled with wadded up black construction paper rocks and some well crafted paper logs and a few red tissue flames completed our faux fireplace that would later serve as a home to indoor s'mores. While my son set up a few wild (stuffed) animals within our camp site, I prepped a picnic dinner full of my family's favorites.

Probably needless to say, the smile that spread across my daughter's face upon returning home and discovering our week's end celebration was a moment I will hold in my heart and never forget. As for the health of my swollen eyes and suction cupped contact lenses, I will rise again on Monday morning and see what the second week of school holds in store for us. (And, there's always more ingredients in the pantry should another round of s'mores be necessary!).

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 63:
Teddy Bear S'Mores
A perfect little bite of dessert for the kids, but one with flavors that adults love too. If serving for adults, just alter the shape of the cracker as desired. Serve warm for a wonderful gooey finish to a meal.

For the crackers:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
7 tablespoons butter, very cold
1/3 cup honey or agave syrup
5 tablespoons milk
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1/4 cup chocolate chips (measure first, then finely chop)
small teddy bear cookie cutter

For the filling:
1/2 cup, approximately, mini marshmallows (I use the colored ones for the kids)
1/4 cup, approximately, chocolate chips

For the crackers, mix the first five ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter and cut into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse sand. Add the honey/agave, the milk, the contents of the vanilla bean and the chocolate chips. Stir until well combined. Form into a ball, press flat and wrap in parchment or plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour or up to three days.

Remove from refrigeration and roll out on a well floured surface. Roll as thin as possible (the dough will puff a bit in the oven) without tearing and cut your desired shapes. Place on a silicone lined(or well greased) cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes until golden and firm. The baking time will vary depending on what size cutter you select to use.

To build the s'more, just before serving, place a cracker on a cookie sheet. Top with two mini marshmallows and place under the broiler. When the marshmallows puff, remove from oven, insert chocolate chips into the marshmallows (very carefully... they are really, really hot!) and top with another cracker. Serve and enjoy!