August 19th, 2006


ghetto improv cooking special edition: yakitate panpan!

On impulse during a particularly frustrating bout of writer's block, I baked my first loaf of bread yesterday. It was almost edible. :D

I probably could have made a much better bread if I followed a recipe, but the purpose was not so much to make something edible as it was to understand how bread works. Sure, anyone can make a decent roast chicken if they know how many cups of flour to use and exactly how long the meat needs to be baked, but would they understand why that specific amount of flour is used? Or why flour is used at all? Our cuisine is increasingly a just-add-water affair, with all the magic behind the production of food abstracted into cans and powders and plastic trays. Those things are convenient and consistant ways to produce food, but a poor way for new cooks like me to learn. We're forgetting, as a generation, that cooking is an art, not a science, and I feel like there's a lot more to learn if I play by ear. Cookbooks are for reference. Beakers and measuring cups belong in the laboratory.

There's something wonderfully elegant about bread. Optional ingredients aside, it's just flour, water, and yeast--combine and heat, and chemistry does the rest. It's simple enough to have been discovered by accident, and any combination of the three will produce a bread (if not a very palatable one), but each variable is so sensitive to change, each part of the process so important, that there are thousands of varieties, and thousands more to be discovered. Making a bread that is good enough to eat is hard enough--designing a new one is quite a feat.

There's also something intensely satisfying, on a visceral level, about producing bread. Humans are powered by bread. Wherever wheat grows, there's a bread. Every country, village, and dirt patch has its own bread. Even rice-eating cultures like China and India have breads. Breads are convenient, they can be produced with a minimum of ingredients, they provide lasting energy. To understand the process by which bread is made, and to produce some yourself, is to understand one of the most basic aspects of human civilization, on which civilizations and economies are founded. (Who the hell would care about trade if everyone had the time and energy to make bread, and also do everything else?) If we lived in a fascist society I would argue that baking your first loaf should be a mandatory requirement for citizenship, if you are able. It's what makes the difference between a consumer and a consumer-producer.

For all my pretentious whinging, however, I really suck at making bread. (Guess I'll have to wait on that citizenship, then.) I didn't have any yeast, so I decided to try for a flat, crackerlike pastry. Online recipes recommended three and a half parts flour for each part water, so I put the flour in a bowl and added water incrementally until it became a nice firm dough. I kneaded the dough for a bit (probably unnecessary, as there was no yeast, but better safe than sorry), flattened it into a rectangle the size of a Pop-Tart, wrapped it in aluminum foil and baked it for thirty minutes at 350 degrees. It came out stiff and disgustingly flour-y, but, remembering a breading technique I used on roast chicken, which turns excess flour into deliciously crispy crust, I fried the bread in canola oil over high heat. The end result looked, amusingly, like roast chicken, and was still a little to flour-y to be tasty, but with a little soy sauce it was reminiscent of 蔥油餠 (Chinese onion pancake) without the 蔥, and barely good enough to choke down.

Things didn't get any better when I tried to improve on the recipe this afternoon. Not wanting to use too much flour, as I did yesterday, I added just a bit too much water, and no amount of extra flour would even it out. The dough got too sticky to knead, and as it was baking the burning smell got so bad I had to take it out early. How did it taste? I don't know--it was so hard I couldn't penetrate it with a fork. I had to throw the whole thing out. Huge waste of flour, huge waste of time. Very discouraging.

I wonder what my grandfather would think of this? The last of a long line of bakers, he lived just long enough to watch his nine kids grow up and choose to do things other than baking, forcing the family buisness to close down. Maybe he'd be proud to see a Chen baking again. Maybe he'd be disgusted with how bad I suck at it. Most likely he wouldn't care. Oh well.

hey kevin. what's up?

It has occurred to me that, even though I write daily reams of shit in this journal, I'm not doing a very good job of letting people know how I'm doing (which I suspect is the main reason why most of you have friended me). So, a brief recap:

  • I'm still in San Francisco. Things were bad for a while, but they've gotten better. I'm renting a small unfurnished room in someone else's apartment. It costs a lot for not much, but it's in a pretty neighborhood and it's a roof over my head. Couldn't find cheaper housing, but aside from that it's nothing to complain about.
  • I finally found a summer job. It's telecommute, which is why I have time to stay at home surfing the web, cooking, and writing garbage on LJ. I'm an apprentice programmer, and I'm working with a guy in Hong Kong. Together we're doing a Chinese IME (input method editor), a program that allows people to write Chinese words with English keyboards. Our employer is the Hawaii-based Sunrise Center Inc., which maintains an online Chinese dictionary and thesaurus, as well as other Chinese-learning tools, at I'm not at liberty to say much more than that because I'm under NDA. It is uncertain at this point whether or not I will be paid.
  • I've been talking to a Chinese Pentacostal church about doing volunteer work on weekends, but that seems to have fallen through. The way things are going, I'd be scheduled to come by for exactly one day before leaving for Oberlin. Ah, the wonders of decentralized decision-making.
  • The writing is coming in fits and starts. Due to dietary problems early on (as in, alternating between malnutrition and feeling bloated), the two page a day regimen didn't really work out. I had really serious writer's block for a good two weeks before starting again, followed by an astonishingly good run in the past two days. It's a little embarrassing that all summer I've only managed to produce two separate halves of short stories (and two-thirds of a longer one), but I'm hoping to make up in quality what I'm losing in quantity--so much of the stories I'm revising has been rewritten that you wouldn't recognize some of them if you compared them to the originals. Not going to help my chances of ever getting published, though. :/
  • Money is dwindling but stable. My parents called today and told me they sent me a fresh infusion of cash--going to have to make sure that went through.
  • I'm catching a red-eye flight to Cleveland on August 30, which means I should arrive in Oberlin on the 31st.

    So, in summary: Not much. You?
    • Current Music
      Eminem - Like Toy Soldiers