Friday, 27 February 2009

Corn bread in a cast-iron skillet

A year or so back I read a piece in the Vancouver Sun extolling the virtues of the cast-iron skillet. The article made it sound like a real wonder-tool: an all-purpose frying pan that would pay back a little love and attention with a unique cooking experience that flimsy modern non-stick pans just can't match. It piqued my interest on a number of levels, but could I really justify the expense. Back in the days when I was paid commissions and didn't have 3 kids I used to love going and scouting round the fancy cookshops, where you'd spend $20 on the latest silcone non-stick easy grip teaspoon measure or some such nonsense. Now, though, I was back with a mortgage, a baby on the way and these kinds of thing just weren't really essential.

A week or so later I was walking up Main Street with one of the boys. For some reason we had to go to the dollar store, Welk's, at 19th & Main. It may have been halloween, I don't know. Anyway - imagine my surprise when amongst all the plastic food savers and toys designed to fall apart on their second use, I saw a selection of cast iron frying pans. There I was, expecting to have to shell out at least a hundred bucks and the dollar store had the most fantastic, simple, heavy cast-iron 12 inch skillet for only $14.

Needless to say, I bought it. I had great fun seasoning it - rubbing it with vegetable oil and then baking it in the oven upside down at 350F for half an hour. Job done! Ever since, it has given sterling service not only as a frying pan, but also for baking, especially corn bread.

Traditional southern corn bread served with a meal like meatloaf or roat chicken can make a great alternative starch. The kids love it because it's a bit sweet, and it's really easy to make. Cooking it in a skillet gives the crust a really nice caramelized chewiness.

This is the recipe I used for the one in the picture. I like it with less sugar than many of the American recipes I've seen.

4 oz butter
1 cup natural yogurt
1 cup milk
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal (polenta)
1 cup maize flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder

Heat oven to 350F

Melt the butter in the skillet, swirling it around well to coat the pan. Whisk eggs, milk, yogurt and sugar together and pour in the melted butter. Don't worry about scraping it all out of the skillet - what's left in the pan will lubricate and cook the outside nicely. Put the skillet back on the stove to keep hot, but don't burn the butter in the pan.

Stir in the dry ingredients and mix to a thick batter and pour it into the skillet. Leave it on the stovetop over a low heat for a few minutes until you can see the edges starting to cook. Transfer it to the oven and bake for about 30 mins or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean.

It's probably possible to cook the whole thing over a lowish heat on the stove, if you have a suitable lid for the skillet. I'm going to try this soon and report back.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

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A fountain in our yard

We moved into our house about 18 months ago. It's an old house. You'd like to think it had seen better days, although in reality I suspect it's been a bit run down and off-kilter ever since it was built. This is one of the older neighbourhoods outside of downtown, as far as I can tell. I've seen maps that show our street basically surrounded by forest wilderness on at least 2 sides, around the turn of the century.
The neighbourhood probably hasn't always been as pleasant as it is now. It's definitely changing, but you don't have to look far to see signs of a recent, less affluent past. That's why Main Street is such a fascinating blend of modern trendy and 70s shabby.
One of the consequences of this past is some rather creaky water services around here. In the 18 months we've been here we've had to call the city out 3 times to fix leaky water pipes, two within 20 yards of each other in the large water main that goes up the street alongside us.
The first leak appeared within a few days of our arrival in the house, in September 2007. This is not the kind of thing you want to see when you've just paid over the odds for a house you're only just beginning to realise isn't quite as nice as it looked when you walked round with the realtor. The first signs were a slightly squelchy patch on the front lawn, just off the sidewalk. Over a couple of days this became a fully-fledged water feature.
We called out the city, unsure as to whose responsibility these things were. They dug a hole, which exposed the leak, causing the delightful fountain you see in the picture. Fortunately the leak was on the city's side of the shut-off valve - the junction between their pipe and ours. They fixed it and went on their way.
Has anyone else noticed how the City seem to have a never ending supply of sterile grass seed?
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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Multigrain loaf

In the end, the secret to making a decent loaf with the 8-grain flake mix was to reduce the amount of water a little and cook it on a shorter program.

300g water
120g milk
150g 8-grain rolled grain mix
25g butter
1tsp salt
1tsp brown sugar
450g all-purpose flour
1tsp yeast

Cooked on the 'sandwich' program, 2.5lb, which lasts for 3h05 overall. The result was pretty good, the different grains giving a different quality to the loaf than the oatmeal. I think overall it still needs work, though. I wonder what happens if you cook the mixture first...

See and download the full gallery on posterous

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Monday, 23 February 2009


Dragonflies have to be my favourite insects. Their sleek, colourful styling is more like a futuristic spacecraft than an ancient insect species.
In the summer, dragonflies seem to thrive around British Columbia. This was one of a pair that were flying around a reed bed on the edge of Whiteswan Lake in the Kootenay region of Southeastern BC, not far from the Alberta border. We visited this area in August 2005, our first summer in Canada, on our way back from a stay in Edmonton.
I stood in the water on the edge of the lake and just waited for the right moment as the dragonflies hovered around, darting from side to side. I seem to remember things weren't helped much by two young boys chucking things in the lake from the water's edge. Still, dragonflies aren't scared easily and so I managed to get some nice pictures.
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Saturday, 21 February 2009

Sea to sky highway

The Sea-to-sky highway, Highway 99 north from Vancouver, is the main route to the Olympic skiing centre at Whistler. After passing the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay, the road hugs the coastline of Howe Sound all the way to Squamish.
This is the view you get as you leave Horseshoe Bay on the ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, or to the Sunshine Coast. You can see the line of the road just above the water. The mountains rise up here towards Cypress Mountain, and further along towards the Lions, the iconic twin peaks that dominate the northern skyline in the city of Vancouver.
Driving along the Sea-to-Sky can be breathtaking on a fine day, but for me nothing can beat standing on the top deck of the Langdale ferry as it passes Bowen Island and crosses Howe Sound. Even on a rainy day with limited visibility, the shadowy hulks of the islands and mountains have an awesome magic of their own.
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Disaster strikes

Heady with the early success of my oatmeal bread in the machine I was all ready to try something new. At Famous Foods last week my attention was caught by an 8-grain mixture of rolled wheat, barley, triticale, spelt, soy and a bunch of other things. It looked like it would be an interesting substitute for the rolled oats in my recipe.

I bought a 1lb bag and tried it out earlier this week, substituting the oats weight-for-weight with this new 8-grain mixture in my original oaten bread recipe (not the 'rustic' one). As you can see from the picture, the results were less than inspiring. I guess the fact that the oat bread was a litle bit deflated should have been a warning, but I just wasn't prepared for this.

The problem is that the dough is too light and the bread machine program leaves it proving for too long. I'll have to try a different program (this was done on the standard, basic loaf program) and maybe a little less water.

As old Freddie Nietszche said, Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker. Mind you, he never tried making bread in a bread machine.

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Friday, 20 February 2009

Indian Pipe - plant, fungus or what?

The first time we went camping at Porpoise Bay, on BC's Sunshine Coast, I spotted this odd, white growth on the floor of the forest. It was just off the main path from the campground to the beach. I was amazed by the fact that it was totally white - not a hint of green at all.

At first, I thought it must be a fungus, because I didn't understand how it could photosynthesize without chlorophyll. I took this photo as much for reference, so I could look it up when I got home.

It turns out that it does indeed have no cholorphyll but it is in fact a flowering plant. This plant apparently gets all its nutrition from a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that itself is dependent on the roots of certain species of tree, including some of the big conifers that grow here in the Pacific Northwest. The plant is called the Indian Pipe, presumably because of its resemblance to clay pipes for smoking.

To find out more about this amazing plant, check out this article, which is ironically from right over the other side of the country.

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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Sticky Currant Buns

I love fruity buns. Hot cross buns, currant buns, raisin bran muffins, fruit scones, lardy cake - you name it, if it's got dried grapes of any description I'm in. I did find a bakery in Kerrisdale a few months ago that had a great line in english-style currant buns and it made me very happy for a couple of days.

So I thought I'd have a go at making some for myself. I looked at a couple of recipes for sweet doughs and hot cross buns, and then thought about what I really like (and what I had in the cupboard). I ended up with this. It made 24 good sized buns about 3 inches across - about the size of a large tangerine.

700g All purpose (bread) flour
300g Cake flour
100g Butter
2 eggs
650g Milk (I used 1%)
2 tsp brown sugar
150g white sugar
grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp yeast
150g currants

First of all I made a sponge. This is not a cake, but a paste of flour, liquid and yeast that is left to ferment for a while before being used as the basis for the real dough. It helps really develop a gluten network and gives a structure around which the softer starches of the cake flour can form.

For the sponge, I warmed the milk to around 30C and poured it into a bowl containing 500g of the bread flour, 2tbsp brown sugar and 1tsp of dried yeast. I beat this well with the cake-beater attachment of my mixer, covered it and left it to stand for an hour.

Meanwhile, I washed the currants in hot water briefly and then strained and rinsed them under the cold tap.

I then poured in the melted butter to the mixture and added the rest of the flour, the spices, the eggs, the lemon zest and the white sugar together with another tsp of yeast. With the dough hook attachment I mixed the whole lot together. When it had started to come together, but before it had formed a proper dough, I added the currants and left it kneading in the machine for around 3 minutes.

I then removed the dough from the mixer, covered it with a plastic bag and left it to prove for around 90 minutes.

Once it had doubled in size, I turned the dough out onto a floured workspace, kneaded it very lightly and cut it into four equal parts. Working each part in turn, I made a rough sausage and cut each into 6, forming each into a round ball with a taut surface by repeatedly pulling the sides down and in under the bottom. I placed them on a greased baking sheet.

I left them to rise again - not for quite long enough: they really do need to be left to double again. They baked in the oven at 475F for around 15 - 20 minutes. After baking, I glazed the tops by brushing with a sugar syrup made with 2tbsp white sugar and 2tbsp water boiled quickly on the stove.

I was very pleased with the result. The dough tasted great with the lemon zest giving it a hint of citrus without the overpowering nature of candied peel that you get in traditional hot cross buns. Nutmeg and lemon go together really well, and I think the ginger helped give it a warm richness. The currants were great, especially having been washed in hot water - giving them an extra chance to plump up and get nice and juicy.

Next time I make these, I might try adding a tsp of salt - I omitted it by accident but they weren't too bad considering. It would also be nice to see if there's a way to make them keep their soft, pull-apart texture into the second day. They didn't keep particularly well and seemed to dry out a bit by day two. They were still very toothsome and would have been great toasted! I'll have to do some experimentation into what helps breads keep their softness.

Unfortunately, it turns out the rest of my family don't like currants, raisins or sultanas. My wife gamely ate one and pronounced it very nice, but I could tell her heart wasn't in it. So in the end, I had to take them to work and offer them to my co-workers, who seemed to appreciate them. I can't complain though, my lovely wife puts up with all this baking, so it's a bit much of me to expect her to eat it all as well!

I think I might have to dig out a recipe for lardy cake next...

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A licence to print money?

I don't know a lot about the operation of financial markets. I've watched Trading Places, so I know that if you buy Pork Bellies when the pigs are flying then you'll end up losing your seat, or something. But I was listening to a BBC World Service documentary about the financial markets the other day and it struck me that Credit Default Swaps might have a lot to answer for.

This docco was recorded in the early autumn - before everyone finally admitted that the global economy was effectively floating on a cloud of superheated gas emitted from the bottoms of the besuited peakcocks who flock around Wall Street, Bay Street and the City of London. So it was interesting to listen to it with the 20/20 vision that comes from hindsight.

The comment that struck me hardest was that credit default swaps are almost entirely unregulated and that there are no capital reserve requirements for the organisations that write the contracts.

Here's some background, as I understand it:

Banks lend money to companies by buying bonds.

Bonds constitute an obligation buy the company to pay back an amount of money at a certain point in the future, and to pay interest regularly until then. For every $100 the company promises to pay in the future, the bank will pay them some amount now - usually less than $100. The difference between the amount the company promises to repay plus the interest they will pay, and the amount paid by the bank, is the profit on the deal and will vary according to how likely the company is to meet its future obligation.

The amount of money banks make by lending money is dictated by the risk level they take on. If the company makes good on its obligations, the bank will make a tidy profit. If the company goes bankrupt and cannot make its payments, the bank loses out. The overall riskiness of the debt obligations they hold will impact a bank's own credit rating and hence it's ability to borrow money itself to lend out to more companies.

Credit default swaps are basically a way for a bank to reduce the risk that they will lose out. In a credit default swap, the bank buying the debt makes a contract with another bank - the insurer. The insurer promises to pay an amount of money to the bank in the event that the company defaults on its debt. In return, the bank pays a premium. This premium is also dependent on the risk that the company will be unable to repay their debt.

The idea is that the premium paid by the bank to the insurer is less than the profit the bank will make on the debt and so there is still some net profit for the bank. The bank is still making money, but the risk has been reduced because the insurer will cover them if the company goes tits-up. The insurer is happy because they're making the premium. If they want, they can go out and buy more CDS contracts from another insurer to offset their risk.

This all goes along quite well while everyone's behaving and paying off their debt. The system can generally survive the odd corporate bankruptcy along the way - the insurers pay the bank the difference betweent what the bank paid for the debt and what it's worth after the bankruptcy and everything goes back to normal.

However, what's happening now is that banks are starting to collapse. These are the very institutions who are the insurers in CDS contracts. What this means is that the CDS insurance is effectively worthless. Imagine if you are a bank who bought a bunch of sub-prime debt and then insured it with CDS contracts with Lehman Bros or RBOS. Your debt is worthless and your protection is worthless.

What seemed particularly astonishing is that because credit default swaps are unregulated (thanks to an act of Congress passed in 2000 - the same one that allowed Enron to fiddle the books so effectively) there are no capital reserve requirements for insurers. For real insurance - life insurance, car insurance, business continuity insurance etc. - there are laws that state how much capital an insurance company must hold to cover its potential liabilities in case of a spate of claims. For CDS contracts, there is no such requirement.

If banks buying debt are treating these CDS contracts as an effective form of risk mitigation, it seems to me that CDS is enabling a huge increase in the amount of money a bank will lend. It seems also that the banks would be able to fund that additional lending through issuing their own debt at a faster rate because of the apparent reduction in risk the CDSs provide.

With no obligation to actually back up CDSs with real capital, it seems also that there is no real limit to the number of CDS contracts an insurer can write. The more CDSs, the lower the apparent risk of the real debt, the more lending, the more money circulates. Isn't the CDS basically just a licence to print money?

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Back once again

A lot of catching up to do. It will happen in no particular order.

There's a bit in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo recalls what Bilbo used to say about travelling. You have to be careful when you walk out of your front door, because one path leads to another and another and before you know where you are you're on the other side of the world, or something to that effect.

The great thing about living in Vancouver is that here on the westernmost edge of this enormous continent, I can walk out of my front door, turn right and keep walking for 6,142km and end up on the Atlantic coast in Halifax. Alternatively, we could jump in our car, head north through Pemberton, Lillooet, Williams Lake, Prince George and numerous other places either too small or too Albertan to remember and end up in the Northwest Territories, Canada's Arctic.

Although the former adventure remains but a dream for a far-off future free of the cares of work, we did do the latter in 2007. With our clapped out 1994 Volvo 850, a bargain $200 dual-screen DVD player and no air conditioning we headed north for Yellowknife.

One of the places we passed on our way was so small that had it been further south we probably would have forgotten about it. But Fort Providence, NWT, is so remote it is hard to forget. This is it's church - dedicated to Our Lady of Providence.

Fort Providence sits on the banks of the mighty Mackenzie River, just downstream from the Great Slave Lake. Just off the Mackenzie Highway, it is a staging post on this vital supply route from Yellowknife to Alberta and the South. We stopped here on the way up, and on the way back, visiting the general store, a small, windowless functional building and the café. One of the memorable things about this café was the pictures on the wall of various incidents that have occurred over the years on the Mackenzie River crossing. In particular, in the early 2000s when a semi-trailer pulling fuel tankers ignored the fact that the relatively new ice was only rated for up to 9 tons, and ended up falling through the ice. Thankfully the driver made it out and the risk of pollution was averted.

On the days we passed through, the weather was beautiful - 20 degrees and sunny. It was hard to imagine this place as it must look most of the year - frozen in a blanket of snow and ice.
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