Baking Extravaganza

Mid-terms here were more challenging than I expected, and I hobbled through the week in a half-awake daze. I managed to stay away from making anything too crazy but I did sneak in these pumpkin muffins, as I didn’t want the other half to go bad in my fridge.

I always use this recipe, and it has always been amazing, but this time, I didn’t have quite enough pumpkin. Then I came up with the silly idea to cut down on oil/sugar. Well, it wasn’t good idea, because the best part about this bread is its denseness, and these turned out to be way too fluffy. I wasn’t happy, but they came in handy for early morning and long nights at the library.

I was so excited for the week to be over, because for a month now, I have been looking forward to taking part in a foreigner’s flea market where I hope to sell some baked goodies for charity and pocket change. I had been planning on what to make, and after deciding on a “menu” of three simple items, I went to the baking market to stock up on butter, cream cheese and some cute packaging materials.

I spent Friday night baking brownies and carrot cake, and Saturday making red velvet cupcakes. And then on Sunday morning (today), I got up early to prepare the frosting.

I struggled with everything; I over-baked the brownies and then under-baked the carrot cake. Then too much batter in the muffin liners caused some of my cupcakes to overflow. With careful damage control, I managed to fix everything and with S’ help, we created a little assembly line and put it all together quite nicely for sale.

But just as I was getting ready to go, I looked up the directions to the flea market one more time and realized in a classic case of clumsiness, that I had mixed up the dates and it was actually yesterday. I looked at the pile of goodies we lovingly prepared, then I flushed as red as my red velvet when I told S the embarrassing news, who didn’t seem all surprised. Together, we lamented our wasted effort and thought about ways to deal with the excess in the house.

Luckily, S recently changed work teams, and had been wanting to do something nice for his former co-workers. We decided that cupcakes will go to them, while his new co-workers will get a slice of carrot cake each. Still, it was a sad realization. They are holding another flea market next week, and hopefully, I’ll get the time right and be able to participate in that one.

And since I no longer had any plans for the day, I made some baked potatoes to go with all that sugar.

The Art of Procrastination

Lately I’ve been distracted by everything. Well, it’s mid-term season, and pretty much anything is more exciting than going to the library to study or write essays. In Montreal, I was always pretty good at turning my eyes away from a good time, and into my books, but here I am having trouble maintaining that same level of discipline. I find myself making excuses to cook, brainstorming for a blog post, getting lost in daydreams or going outside to enjoy the cherry blossoms. I even cleaned the shower. Right now, I’m writing one sentence here for every one sentence I write for an essay on Northeast Asia Politics class. And yesterday, I made pasta and baked pumpkin for dinner. In Montreal, I would have just starved.

I don’t quite know what compelled me to buy a pumpkin in a first place. I never liked pumpkin, except when it is camouflaged in cake. But when I saw this one at the market a while back, it looked so wholesome that I had to have it. I brought it home, put it on top of the fridge and forgot about it. I let it sit there, and it was only while cleaning yesterday that I felt forced to confront it before it had to be made into budae-jjigae. So I cut it up, brushed the slices with oil and baked them with some salt and spices. It tasted just like sweet potato, and I actually liked it.

As for the pasta, I always make this simple tomato sauce. The only trouble I ran into here was that my can opener broke, and I had to resort to savagely tearing the tin open with a knife and a rolling pin.

But after that, I just stewed the plum tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, some honey and herbs, and ate it over spaghetti with some parmesan cheese. Yum!

Food is definitely the best kind of distraction there is, and really, who can blame me for wanting to feed myself well.

Blog Envy

After 3 days, I’ve finally gotten over whatever was causing my stomach to churn. I didn’t have much of an appetite, and found solace only in bread. At first, I made do with the white fluffy sliced stuff that is available en masse in Korea, but on a walk near Ehwa Women’s University, I stumbled across Brown Bread bakery. It is a wonderful little shop, where you can see bakers working in the background, turning out all sorts of loaves. For the first time since I got here, I had a very decent demi-campagne and a pain au chocolat, which even my upset stomach was strangely receptive to.

During this time of non-eating, I renewed my love of reading other people’s food blogs, and became terribly envious of the normal size kitchens and variety of tools that these bloggers work with. I coveted the pretty pictures they took with their fancy lenses, and the whimsical accessories that adored the meal they made. I looked at my pitiful single burner and the Corelle plates that make up my “kitchen”, and tried to blame them for my lack of enthusiasm to regularly make food as exciting as what is featured on other blogs. We don’t even have a proper table to eat on. Rather, we make do with some leftover curtain and an ironing board, and sit on the floor.

But I couldn’t wallow in self-pity forever, and since I finally had my appetite back, I came home from class today to prove myself wrong. I made this chicken-ginger noodle soup and sesame tofu salad. Simple for sure, but healthy, and good.

I also became so mesmerized by this picture and story of chocolate mousse cake that I had to have it…. immediately. And so I made it. But it was only after all the ingredients were mixed that I realized that it was one of those mousse cakes that you don’t bake, but rather let set for 2 days. Well, given that I couldn’t possibly wait that long, I took a chance, poured the batter into my loaf tins and baked them in a bain marie. I’m so glad because it turned out to be a divinely dense mousse cake after it cooled.

I know it doesn’t look like much (nothing I make ever does), but everything from its colour, texture to taste was like an oasis of pleasure to my dessert-deprived tastebuds. Korean cakes tend to be overly light in every dimension and just don’t do it for me so I rarely bother ordering any. The mousse was a perfect ending to a very happy dinner, and one that reminded me of the infinite possibilities of my little kitchen.

And to keep to mood merry, here are some more pictures of the sakura near Sinchon area.

(I know it says Casse Croute, but believe me when I say it is not.)

Seoul in Bloom

This post has nothing to do with cooking, but I just had to mention how beautiful the Yonsei campus has become since the flowers have started blooming. I’m just about the furthest thing from a gardening enthusiast, and I can’t even name most of the flowers I am admiring, but you would have to be pretty heartless not to feel something at the sight of this stunning scene. I find myself wandering off the path home just to get a closer look at the blossoms, and I get excited when people tell me that the day of full bloom isn’t even here yet! I brought my camera to class one day to try to capture the dreaminess of it all, but the pictures (and my lack of photography skills) simply don’t do it any justice.

I mean, look at these magnolia trees! How can you not be excited?

They really make going to school so much more pleasant. I know they won’t be here forever, so the only thing to do is enjoy them while they last.  And enjoy them I most certainly will.

Reunification

This past week has been unexpectedly busy. My cousins from Taiwan and Canada were in town, spring finally emerged from what seemed like an endless winter (and called for a new wardrobe), and midterm exams are steadily creeping up. So the last few weekends have been spent catching up with family, sightseeing, eating out (a lot!), shopping, enjoying the warm weather and a few desperate attempts to catch up on reading at the library.

I think the theme of the past week was definitely that of reunification, or reunion. First of all, it was lovely to have so many familiar faces around. I haven’t spent so much time with Caleb, Winnie and Joseph since I was teenager, and it was nice to know that some things, like our ability to unreasonably silly with each other, don’t change. I did my best to share with them some of my favourite things to do/eat in Seoul, and I think they genuinely enjoyed their stay. Joseph seemed particularly impressed with the orderliness and ingenuity of Korea, and opened my eyes to things I had previously overlooked. Being able to share my thoughts and observations about this place made realize just how much I enjoy living here.

One of the things we did together was visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which is a 4km wide stretch along the 38th parallel. There we were able to see areas closed off because of land mines, walk in an infiltration tunnel and go to a observation tower where we can take a peek into the isolated North. I thought the most interesting part of the tour was a brand new train station that was built by donations from Koreans living in the South, who had been separated from their family in the War. During the Sunshine Policies, train tracks were laid between the North and South when the relationship between the two sides were friendly. Now the station sits empty, and serves no purpose other than that as a tourist trap, but it’s exciting to think that this train station may one day be used to travel between and Seoul and Pyongyang, or even Europe.

Finally, on more cheery note, I was also reunited with my copy of How to be a Domestic Goddess, thanks to Caleb who brought it all the way from home. I absolutely love this cookbook, and had to celebrate having it by immediately baking something inside. Since it was Easter Sunday, I decided to make Norwegian Cinnamon Rolls. But I was so confident in Nigella, that I followed the directions precisely without thinking about how hot my little toaster oven can get. I ended up burning the top of the buns that would have otherwise been a perfect Easter breakfast. Hence, no after picture.

They were still good though, and since I have some cinnamon butter left, I’ll probably try these again sometime soon.

부대찌개 (Budae Jjigae)

There is a dish here called budae jjigae, which literally translates into “army base” stew. The devastation of the Korean War left South Korea as one of the poorest countries in the world, and food became dangerously scarce. Some families resorted to scavenging for edible weeds, while others sought foreign food donations.

The story goes that in areas around US military bases, people made a stew out of American leftovers they found, including hot dogs and spam, and called it budae jjigae. Today, budae jjigae remains a popular dish and preserves the legacy of post-war hardship in a rich and shiny new Korea. Each restaurant serves it a bit differently, and the one I tried had kimchi, fishcake, ddeok (rice cake), some processed meats and kraft cheese cooked, in a spicy soup. Sometimes you can find ramen and baked beans among the mix too. I didn’t take a picture, but I pulled this one from a Korean cooking website.

I can’t say it was my favourite meal here, or anywhere near really, but I like what it represents, and it makes try harder to not waste what was once so precious in my fridge. So sometimes I make things that I say are “budae jjigae” inspired, when I have to use things that are on the brink of being thrown out, like these stir-fried noodles, made with udon noodle, enoki mushrooms, fish cake, some lettuce and onions.

I flavoured it with this awesome sauce that I came up with, derived from bulgogi marinade, made of soy sauce, sesame oil, a tiny bit of vinegar, brown sugar, sesame seeds, chilli powder and pepper. It pretty much works with everything or a combination of.  I’ve used it on meats, noodles, rice cakes, tofu and veggies and it always tastes great.

So in times when I have simply have to make do with what I have, I think about budae jjigae, whip up some awesome sauce, and we are usually good to go.