Baking hot

Many of you have probably come across my affection to baking in one way or another. Well, currently I live in an apartment with no oven, so it has taken me a while (admittedly a long one) to get into it here in Laos. Luckily I have friends who have chosen more wisely in terms of their kitchen facilities and are happy to oblige every now and then. It hasn’t been a particularly smooth ride though as there are some real differences to baking over here compared to home. However, I firmly believe that resourcefulness and passion can take you along way and this challenge is by no means insurmountable.

Firstly, ovens. The most common ones are gas ovens which I openly admit I have never used for baking before (or anything else for that matter). So it took me a while to pluck up the courage to do it. So I did what I always do when I have no idea what to do, ask the internet (actually when it comes to baking I would normally ask my mom first, but I know she has no experience of gas ovens as they simply don’t seem to exist back home). I read all sorts of blog entries which complain about how your creations are doomed to burn on the bottom and stay pale on the top, how gas oven temperatures are difficult to adjust and a number of other related issues. I absorbed a handful of tips and was sure I had it covered. Until I was actually in a situation where I have a rising dough and I need to operate the oven.

So I’m at a friends’ house, my friends have never used the (brand new) oven before and the operational manual is printed on a small sticker in Thai script. It took us a while to realise you need to pull out what looks like the bottom of the oven in order to be able to light the gas flame. So far so good and pre-heating of the oven was happily underway. We put the first batch of cinnamon pastries in and expect a baking time similar to electric ovens, say 12-15 minutes. You peek into the oven (which by the way has no lightbulb inside) after 15 minutes and the pastries have tripled in size but are completely pale at the top and brown at the bottom. The only thing that would happen if you were to leave them there like that for any longer, is exactly what most blogs warned about that is they would burn on the bottom. So I pulled the oven tin out, flipped all the pastries and pushed them back in for another few minutes, thinking who cares about how they look as long as they taste good. This is when I remembered reading you should use an extra oven tin at the lowest possible level to buffer the heat from the gas flame and distribute the heat more evenly in the oven. There were no extra oven tins lying around, so we decided to bake the next batch of pastries on one of those metal grids. What a difference that made! The rest of the pastries actually baked really nicely, didn’t rise out of proportion and got a beautiful golden colour on the top while staying just the perfect brown at the bottom.

Secondly, this climate. The first time I baked at another friends’ house, I made one of my favourite cakes to celebrate Finland’s world championship in ice hockey. That favourite is a Brita-cake which involves meringue baked directly onto a sponge cake. The meringue was beautifully airy and crispy the minute it came out of the oven (which, though electric this time round also had no lightbulb inside which makes the meringue business somewhat tricky). About five minutes later, it had absorbed moisture from the air and lost its crispness and all the airiness it had when emerging from the oven. Filled with raspberries and a mascarpone-cream filling it was a success in terms of taste though it hardly scored any points on appearance. Another aspect of the climate is the heat which made one of my friends recently question the convenience of doing any baking, but I barely notice it. Maybe I’m used to the heat by now, maybe my passion for baking far overrides the inconvenience of minor sweating or maybe a bit of both. In any case I’m as happy as ever when I get to sink my hands in a dough, whisk a batter or solve the mysteries of inconsistent measuring units and equipment, slightly different ingredients and the more or less regular lack of what I have come to think of as standard baking aids. Next time probably lemon biscuits and white chocolate and macadamia cookies…

Whilst writing this: the longest days of the year are among us and light makes me very happy.

Currently reading: The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris. I’m approximately one third through the book and yet to decide whether I like it, it has a really ominous feel to it.

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