Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Random Thoughts, Photos and Recipe: Outstanding French Country Bread

So, as this adventure in Qatar continues, I have some random thoughts about being here, working here and such.
The Beautiful Beach of the Persian Gulf
I’ve gone on and on about how beautiful the water/beaches are here. Yes, the water is turquoise blue, the sand almost white, and the water is warm and salty as you would expect. The views of the water are surprising at times with the absolute beauty. There is also the opulence of some of the places we’ve been. The crystal chandeliers, the gold leaf trim or speck in the walkways. The towers of the downtown Doha area are so interesting and reach to the sky with such a beauty in the way that they seem to defy gravity and involve such ingenuity.

But, right alongside of all that beauty is poverty. The men who work on the towers to build them so beautifully sleep in shacks that don’t have air conditioning or running water. They work in the heat of the day and sometimes into the heat of the night to meet the deadlines set by those who sit in plush offices. The workers only make on average $300 Qatari Riyals a month…that is the equivalent of about $82 US Dollars. They send most of that home to their family in their country of origin. It is sad to see the heartache and tiredness in their eyes. You know they live in such awful conditions yet have such a love for their family that this hard life seems like the best option for them. As they lay specks of gold into the walkways, they simply dream of providing a better life for their family back home. I suppose that, in and of itself, is beautiful, yet heartbreaking at the same time.
Towers Area of Downtown Doha
Another thing that boggles me sometimes is the way that the “locals” feel so entitled. I’ve been told many, many times when working to open the bakery to remember that you can’t tell a customer “no” when they ask for something. They say to remember that if you tell them “no” that they could complain to higher management to get what they want or simply just never set foot into the store again. Can you imagine? I mean, I understand making a request and being disappointed that the store doesn’t offer it (heck, I’ve been lots of places here that don’t serve iced tea, a staple for me in the States!), but to complain to the point of going to higher management because we don’t serve the flavor of juice you want? It’s a challenge to remember that I’m not dealing with the American way of thinking and the way of doing business. The Arab world apparently does not like to confront people directly nor call people out when they are just plain wrong or telling mistruths (note I didn’t say lies…that would be rude!). This creates a culture of a lot of double-talk and going around people to get what you want. The He-said, she-said game is quite maddening at times.
Camel Crossing
They also have a lot of “tomorrows” here. I’ll do it tomorrow can mean that they will actually do it the next day, or it could mean a week (or more!) from now. For this “say what you mean, mean what you say” gal, that is difficult to handle. I always try to explain why something is delayed if I can’t meet a deadline, not just “Oh, I’m working on it, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Let's think about that tomorrow!
On a happier note, the pubs and clubs here are quite fun! One of the few forms of entertainment that I have indulged in is going out at night to dance and let my hair down so to speak. The places I have gone are normally crowded with a lot of international people…a slice of the United Nations! Most people are very fun and are there to just have a good time. I’ve met some interesting people who are always interested (and some surprised) that I’m from the United States. It seems that not many Americans find their way over here for an extended period of time. I also think it’s great that English is so often spoken and understood by the internationals. I wish I knew at least one other language, as it seems everyone here knows several (yes, I know, that high school Spanish class didn’t quite stick with me all these years later).
Shiny Happy American Gals!
The photo below makes me laugh. It was taken the night that Lindsay and I decided to have Taco Tuesday! We had gone to the store and purchased everything we (thought we) needed to make a great taco night. We started to make dinner and got interrupted by the villa maintenance people who were there to fix our washing machine. After three weeks without the machine we weren’t about to turn them away. Well, three hours later, we were able to finish cooking our meal!! This is when we also discovered that we had a bottle opener, but not a can opener. I wasn’t about to let that fact keep us from our beans, so I started to dig into the can…besides being dangerous, it actually worked out great…we got our beans and had super yummy tacos…just a bit later than expected. We call this photo a testament to American ingenuity…I didn’t get a photo of the strainer we made from an aluminum tray, but we credited that same ingenuity for that invention as well. Oh, and for those that are curious, we bought a can opener and proper strainer the next time we were at the store. Heehee!
American ingenuity at it's finest!
Now for a random recipe. The recipe below was taken from a cookbook by Marcy Goldman called “A Passion for Baking”. This bread recipe was one that my mom and I made while I was in CA waiting to start this Qatari adventure. It looks like it requires a lot, but most of the time is spent waiting for the bread to rise and do its thing. I must say, this bread tastes SO good. If I had the means here, I would try to make this bread every week and use it in place of the stuff we buy at the store. Worth every second of waiting…give it a try (We made one big loaf, but later thought it would have been better as two smaller loaves). The whole cookbook has several recipes that we tried and loved…and several that we just didn’t around to making but look so yummy. I’d recommend the cookbook as well as this bread!!

Outstanding French Country Bread
Recipe: Outstanding French Country Bread
Source: A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman

Sponge Starter (8-16 hours ahead)
1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees)
1/4 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 cups, approximately, bread flour

All of sponge starter
1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees)
1/2 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 to 6 cups bread flour

For Sponge Starter, in a small bowl, stir together water and yeast and let yeast dissolve by briskly whisking.

With a whisk or wooden spoon, stir in bread flour to make a thick mixture. It should be like a gloppy pudding. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap (leaving a small air space); let stand at room temperature 8-16 hours.

Stack two baking sheets together and line top sheet with two sheets of parchment paper. If your oven and baking sheets cannot accommodate two breads, prepare another set of sheets to bake second bread (or make one large bread).

To make the bread, stir down starter to deflate it. Spoon it into mixer bowl. Hand-whisk in 1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees), yeast, oil, salt, sugar, and most of flour. Stir to make a messy mass and then loosely cover bowl and let until dough is smooth and resilient but not tough and bouncy. Remove dough hook and lightly spray dough with nonstick cooking spray. Cover entire mixer and bowl with a large clear plastic bag. Let rise 90 minutes to 2 1/2 hours until dough has doubled.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface and gently deflate. Divide dough in half (or keep it as one large bread); form into two balls.

Gently place balls of dough, seam sides down, on prepared baking sheets. Spray dough with nonstick cooking spray. Cover baking sheets loosely with large clear plastic bag. Let dough rise until puffy (and 50% larger in volume).

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Slash loaves with a sharp knife before baking. Spritz with water and dust with flour. (If dough deflates with you slash it, it rose too much but might recover with oven heat.)

Atomize oven with a few squirts of water and place baking sheets on lower oven rack. Spray oven interior every 5 minutes for the first 15 minutes (Do not spray oven lightbulb!). When 20 minutes remain, reduce heat to 425 degrees to finish baking. Loaf should be well browned after a total of 25-35 minutes. Cool well on a wire rack before slicing. To store, keep in a loosely sealed plastic bag (which softens crust but keeps bread moist) or in a brown paper bag lightly sealed.

With Love,

Monday, July 4, 2011

3 Weeks Down, 101 To Go…and a Recipe for Strawberry Summer Cake

Happy Independence Day Americans! July 4th has always been one of my favorite holidays. As Americans we give ourselves permission to get outside in the sunshine, go to the pool, lake or other body of water, wear our swimsuits all weekend, have summer foods such as hot dogs and homemade ice cream all while enjoying time with friends and family. To top it all off, we watch the grand fireworks displays and go “Ohhh, ahhh, so pretty!” Good stuff all around.

This July 4th, since I’m living in a foreign land, I wasn’t sure how this holiday would be celebrated, if at all. Lindsay and I had tossed about the idea of hosting a party with all-American foods, but that seemed to fizzle a bit since we really didn’t get a good head start on the planning. As the weekend approached, we ended up making plans to go out to a nightclub one night and then to spend the night on the beach the next night.

The nightclub was fun, but really, not very July 4th inspired. People here dance and drink too much just like they do in America, but there are also all kinds of social rules that make things a bit more interesting. Not to mention the fact that since most of the people don’t seem to speak really great English, when you’re yelling over the music it’s twice as hard to have a decent conversation…things get lost in translation or just aren’t understood at all.

Personally, I was looking forward to the beach. I was anticipating swimming in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf in the dark, laying under the stars on my new beach towel and just having a good time with my new friends. We did all that, and it was a great night, but the real treat came when someone down the beach from us shot off some fireworks. Yes, this American girl who seems to miss home a bit too much at times, got to see fireworks for July 4th weekend. Granted, it was only 5-6 fireworks, shot one at a time, but it made me so content and happy to know that even in this land, far away, I was able to experience a bit of an American tradition. To know that not everything would be have to be sacrificed for this experience, that there would be glimpses of home even in the desert, made me a bit giddy inside. I watched each one wide-eyed with a huge grin on my face.

In honor of the weekend and home, I’m posting a recipe that I made while I was home in California, waiting for this adventure to begin. It’s a super yummy Strawberry Summer Cake from Smitten Kitchen. I made this one day after going to the farmer’s market with my mom. We bought the sweetest, early season strawberries! I adore strawberries and I didn’t want any of them to go to waste, so after I ate some, covered some in chocolate and still had some leftover I searched for a recipe that would let the strawberries shine. Smitten Kitchen has never disappointed me, so I went with her recipe.

The results were great! The cake was light and moist, yet let the warm strawberries shine as the star. It was best when slightly warm and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. But who am I kidding, it was also great direct from the pan the next day too. It would be a great pot-luck recipe because it can be made ahead of time, uses “normal” ingredients, keeps really well and is easy to serve (not messy).

Give this one a try…If fruit wasn’t so expensive here and our oven wasn’t on the fritz, I may have just tried to make this one for the beach…then again, our peaches and grapes from Tunisia were pretty good all on their own.
Strawberry Summer Cake

A slice of Strawberry Summer Cake

Enjoy the holiday my American friends!

Recipe: Strawberry Summer Cake
Source: Smitten Kitchen

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pie plate
1 1/2 cups (188 grams) all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 cup (200 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (25 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup (118 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 pound (450 grams) strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 10-inch pie pan or 9-inch deep-dish pie pan (what I used). I did not test this with a standard 9-inch pie plate but looking at the margin of space leftover in my deep-dish pan after baking the cake, I suspect you’d be safe. This cake would also work in a 9- or 10-inch springform or cake pan. The 10-inch would make a thinner cake than pictured.

Whisk flour or flours, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, beat butter and 1 cup sugar until pale and fluffy with an electric mixer, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg, milk and vanilla until just combined. Add dry mixture gradually, mixing until just smooth.

Pour into prepared pie plate. Arrange strawberries, cut side down, on top of batter, as closely as possible in a single layer (though I had to overlap a few to get them all in). Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons sugar over berries.

Bake cake for 10 minutes then reduce oven temperature to 325°F and bake cake until golden brown and a tester comes out free of wet batter, about 50 minutes to 60 minutes. (Gooey strawberries on the tester are a given.) Let cool in pan on a rack. Cut into wedges. Serve with lightly whipped cream.

With Love,