Recreating the taste of home
Exploring beyond my (culinary) comfort zone
“Do you need anything from home?” say my parents whenever we chat, asking if I wanted anything to be mailed. “I’m good!” I usually reply.
There was one thing I missed from home, but it certainly couldn’t be mailed—the bakeries. Every visit to an Asian bakery was reminiscent of childhood memories of visiting the warm, glowing stores after family dim sum. I always gleefully picked up bread and pastries in the wooden trays with tongs as I immersed myself in their fresh baked, buttery scent.
The pandemic has made it hard to go home and revisit my favorite baked goods. Perpetually having a difficult time lighting my gas oven did not help my lack of motivation in baking either, but my love of pastries lingered on. As I could not go to the bakeries back home, I started reading more baking recipes. Then, after numerous excuses and one day finally being able to turn on the finicky oven, I decided to recreate some of my favorite pastries myself. While initially sticking to my comfort zone of yeasted breads, which I have baked numerous times at home, I slowly found myself piqued by new recipes—recipes I would not have otherwise tried—such as banana bread (because I did not imagine I would end up with so many overripe bananas), kouign-amanns (like a caramelized croissant—certainly a labor of love), and even egg tarts. Each recipe was a different challenge in itself.
In a time when in-person adventures were no longer possible, baking became my way of exploring new cultures. Depending on the time I had, I would either bake something familiar and quick (hello, one-bowl recipes, mug cakes, frozen cookie dough), or try out an entirely new recipe (the aforementioned kouign-amann took 8 hours). But even without trying a new recipe, simply reading the recipes, the detailed tips (and trial-and-errors), and the stories behind each recipe helped me feel connected to the recipe developers and their cultures.
So here are, in no particular order, some recipes that brought me joy, and I hope you have the chance to try some of these recipes as well.
For the cheesecake lover: Basque cheesecake by Molly Baz
Originating in Spain, Basque cheesecakes are meant to have a burnt top—meaning that they are far less fussy than traditional cheesecakes that need a water bath and a springform pan.With this recipe, I delight in not having to wait (or maybe I am not patient enough to wait) until the cheesecake cools down to try a soft, tangy bite. Here is a video tutorial by Molly Baz as well.
For something chewy: Butterscotch mochi bars by Two Red Bowls
This one’s for the gluten-free friends in your life, as glutinous rice flour is, despite the name, naturally gluten free! This was also the recipe that allowed me to try making butterscotch the first time, and it provides a wonderful flavor contrast with the chewy mochi.
I am a firm believer in savory flavours having a place in desserts. Miso and sesame added the perfect depth to the chocolate chip cookies, and I love that the dough can be frozen, and then sliced and baked later for the days that call for a chocolate chip cookie in 5 minutes.
For a classic: Flour’s banana bread by Joanne Chang (a Boston local star!)
Fun fact: Flour is a beloved local bakery from chef Joanne Chang! I started making banana bread after having too many overripe bananas (that I told myself I would save for smoothies). One of my greatest comforts during the pandemic was waking up before classes to frozen bananas, dumping all the ingredients together in one bowl, and popping the loaf pan in the oven before the first Zoom class of the day (rest assured, no ovens were left unattended). The scent of sweet banana bread would gradually fill the apartment and when class ended, a fresh loaf of banana bread awaited.
For when you have a lot of short breaks to undertake a larger project: Kouign amanns
This recipe took me 8 hours from start to finish, but most of it is dedicated towards letting the laminated dough rest. Laminating the dough is what forms the beautiful, flaky layers in a kouign-amann). I found the kouign-amann to have a more unique flavor than a croissant, given that the dough is rolled in seasoned sugar (read: salt + sugar + butter). This is an ambitious project for a day when you have a few breaks (and the patience!) to roll out lots of dough.
For the love of bread: Japanese milk bread from King Arthur Flour
This is the recipe that reminds me of my favourite soft breads in the Asian bakeries. I love swirling different fillings (red bean paste, brownie batter) into the bread and shaping the dough into braids—when slicing the loaf at the end the final result was always a surprise.
Much like the rest of the pandemic world, baking did not always guarantee certainty. Sometimes, my baked goods came out over- or under-baked, depending on the mood of the gas oven. However, baking did guarantee that I (generally) ended up with something edible—and in some cases, treats that were worthy enough to share with friends. Dropping off baked goods (socially distanced of course) for friends and seeing their smiles reminded me of sharing bakery pastries with my family back at home. While my baking skills are far from the bakeries at home, I think I have recreated the taste and the sense of home, even from afar.
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