The Great Banh Chung Experiment of 2009

I could pretend to be a high-falutin' expert like some folks, but it's easier if I just direct you to universal blogging source Wikipedia for a crash course in banh chung. Now that that's over with, let's move on to my experience.

It's been several years since I've had one of these rice cakes since they are most certainly not vegan, and somehow I got it into my head one day at work that I would make my own. Over several days and two markets, I collected glutinous rice, hulled mung beans, canned green jackfruit, and frozen banana leaves. After several more days (or weeks, really...I don't often have 8 hour blocks of time to hover near the stove), I finally settled in to making my banh chung. You might have noticed in the link above that they are generally filled with pork, wrapped in neat squares, and bound with kitchen twine. None of that applies to mine.

I wish I had a real, fool-proof recipe to offer you, but unfortunately, as this was my first and extremely experimental attempt, I can only offer guidelines. This website and this one were extremely helpful, and I loosely based my own process off of their information.

I started by soaking the rice and mung beans overnight, and preparing my jackfruit marinade, which I can give a recipe for!

Jackfruit filling
1 c. coarsely chopped green jackfruit
2 tbs. soy sauce
1 tbs. rice wine vinegar
1 tbs. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and pepper in a bowl and stir. Mix in the chopped jackfruit, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, I drained the rice and set it aside. I heated 2 tsp. of cooking oil in a skillet over medium high heat. I added the jackfruit and sauteed for 4-5 minutes until the fruit softened and began to caramelize. Using a fork, I mashed and broke up the fruit into a shredded consistency.

Next, I drained and rinsed the mung beans, then placed them in a steamer basket for about 10 minutes until tender. I mashed the beans with a fork and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, I soaked the banana leaves in warm water to defrost, then gently (I can't stress this enough) unfolded them on my kitchen table that I had covered with a layer of towels. I pat them dry, then cut them into several strips. Four that were approximately 5 x 18" and 4 that were about 12 x 18". I was planning to make 2 cakes.

I referenced this video to attempt to make my cakes without a mold. I placed two of the larger leaf rectangles so that they overlapped by about 5" lengthwise. Then I placed one of the narrower strips perpendicular over the first two, and the final narrow leaf, perpendicular over that one. (See video @ 15 seconds)

I scooped some rice into the center of the leaves, followed by a handful of mung beans that I had flattened into a disk. Next came a few spoonfuls of jackfruit, then another mung bean disk. At this point, I realized that I had failed to acquire kitchen twine. Not wanting to bury the beautiful leaves under layers of foil, I raided my sewing kit for some thread that I hoped would withstand several hours in simmering water. I followed the video as closely as I could, but that guy has some serious skills. When my packets were wrapped and bound, they were sad, square pillows at best and barely reminiscent of the tight geometry of tradition.

I placed my two cakes into a large stock pot, covered them with water, and brought it to a boil. I then reduced the heat to a simmer and got ready for a long night. Now, for some reason, every recipe that Google provided me with insisted on cooking these suckers uncovered. Not wanting to tempt fate, I did just that and kept a second pot on low heat, so I could top off the water as needed. But this just seems ludicrous to me. Seven hours of cooking and I'm not allowed to use a lid to reduce evaporation? I can't possibly think of a reason why that would be neccessary when cooking something that needs to be constantly submerged under water. It's not like flavors are getting concentrated since new water is being added. If someone can convince me of a good reason why I shouldn't use a lid or even a slow cooker, please let me know.

I dilligently topped off my pot and rotated my cakes every hour or so. At about 1 a.m., I figured they had had enough and removed the cakes to a colander. I placed a folded tea towel on a large plate, stacked the cakes, and covered them with another towel. I placed another plate on top, a large can of tomatoes on top of that, and left them on the counter to drain while I got some sleep.

The next morning, I cut the string and carefully unfolded to leaves to what I hoped would not be disaster.

The long, steamy bath renders the already sticky rice into a homogenous, chewy cake, stained green with the smokey, tea-like aroma of banana leaves. You can enjoy it a room temperature, or lightly heated in a steamer or microwave. The nutty mung beans and salty jackfruit, while tasty, add only a hint for flavor to this subtle cake. So how do you fix this? By frying of course! This was my favorite preparation as a child, and I would eat it drowned in mysterious Maggi sauce.

Cut your cake into slices about 3/4" thick and heat a couple teaspoons of oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. (No one said this would be healthy.) Place a couple slices in the skillet and let them sizzle for several minutes until they begin to turn golden. Flip each slice, then using a large spoon, press the slices outwards toward each other. Continue flipping and pressing until you have one, crispy pancake, about 1/2" in thickness. It's easiest to press the side that was just browned, because the hardened rice will prevent your spoon from getting glued to the cake. Eat immediately with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a dash of soy sauce.

Toasted coconut ribbons

Anyone who knows me knows that I love coconut, so it's no surprise that one of my favorite Lunar New Year treats are candied coconut ribbons called mut dua. Now, if you're actually familiar with this confection, you're probably looking at my blog and thinking, "Dude, you totally burned your mut dua." And you're be correct. I was too distracted watching a fascinating documentary that analyzed the stresses placed on women by our overbearing consumer culture and stifling heteronormativity (::cough::rockoflovebus::cough::) to stir my coconut as frequently as I should have.

These strips of coconut are usually pure, powdery white, or sometimes dyed pink and green. But they're also cloyingly sweet and lacking in any real flavor other than the in-your-face-and-piss-your-dentist-off scream of sugar. My accident was actually a great mistake that tuned up the coconut's creamy flavor, while the caramelization and hint of vanilla softened the blow of the sweetness. Handling mature coconuts is a bit of an endeavor, but it's totally worth it. Bland, store-bought mut dua no more!

Toasted coconut ribbons
1 mature coconut (the brown, hairy ones)
3/4 c. vanilla sugar

Preheat oven to 375F.

Using a hammer and large nail (or power drill, if you want to get fancy), poke holes in 2 of your coconut's 3 eyes and drain out the water. Strain the liquid to remove any hair or shell bits that might have fallen in, then set aside.

Bake your coconut on the center rack of you oven for about 20 minutes. The shell should be cracked in several places. Remove the coconut and set it on a solid counter top on folded dishtowel to help secure it in place. Get out some aggression and firmly beat your coconut with the hammer several times until the shell splits open. You'll notice that the coconut is covered with two layers of bark: a hard, hairy outer shell and a thin, snug inner skin. A combination of hammer-abuse and gentle prying with a paring knife will separate the hard shell from the meat. Use the knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the inner skin. Try to keep your coconut in as large of pieces as possible so you'll have bigger ribbons. (You might notice that I wasn't too successful at this final note myself, but this was my first attempt at opening a mature coconut, so deal with it!)

Once you have peeled off the inner skin, rinse your coconut chunks under running water to remove any hairs or skin bits that still remain. Pat the coconut dry, then using a sharp knife, slice your coconut into slices about 1/8" thick. Place the ribbons in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer the coconut for about 3-5 minutes to remove some of the oil. Drain the coconut in a colander and rinse out your pot.

Over medium heat, combine the vanilla sugar and 1/4 c. of the coconut water, and stir until dissolved. If you don't have vanilla sugar on hand, use regular sugar plus 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract. Add the coconut ribbons and stir to cover them all in syrup. Reduce heat to medium-low, stirring frequently. The ribbons will turn translucent as they cook.

After about 30 minutes, the pot should be almost dry and the sugar will begin to crystallize. At this point, you can break tradition and stop stirring for a couple minutes. As the sugar at the bottom of the pot begins to caramelize, stir the mixture to get fresh coconut and sugar at the bottom. If the pot starts to get too dry add a tablespoon or two of coconut water to promote caramelization and prevent burning. Continue this process for another 20-25 minutes until your ribbons are nicely toasted and all the water has evaporated.

Spread the coconut ribbons on a baking sheet and allow them to cool completely. They will keep for a couple weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.

ACAB bakesale

On New Year's Day, BART cop Johannes Mehserle murdered Oscar Grant while Grant was face down on the platform of the Fruitvale station. His four year old daughter is now without a father.

Please support this benefit event at 924 Gilman on Sunday, February 8th, starting at 3:00 p.m. There are going to be some stellar bands, as well as a bakesale hosted by Allison, Kristen, Toni, and myself. All of our proceeds will go to Oscar's family.

Slacker Roundup: What have I been up to?

I'm still here! The holiday season was busy, I've been sick, work has been stressful, my cat ate my homework.

Despite my dislike for shopping and even stronger dislike for Jesus, I appreciate the gatherings and food that go hand in hand with the winter holidays, and the opportunity to hang out with family and friends. Friends that do it up big.

The Spread

Danny harnessed his inner Martha for the centerpiece.

The entirely homemade array of goodies included chocolate chip-walnut cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, mini mocha bundt cakes, sherry cake, chips & salsa, chocolate-drizzled pretzels and popcorn, seitan-in-a-blanket, stuffed mushrooms, mo-f-ing samoas, spinach hummus, pita chips, chocolates, truffles, gingerfolk, sugar cookies, and pure black metal.

Mini-bundts (thanks to shane's folks for the kick ass pan!) also made an appearance at the annual white elephant at Shalon and RJ's, this time in chocolate-cream-filled form.

Coworkers received Mexican wedding cakes and cookie cutters.

Recipe from Joy of Baking, modded with Earth Balance, a full 1 c. of nuts, and only 2 tbs. of sugar in the dough.

Hiboux received some organic wheatgrass from the Temescal Farmer's Market.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the bûche de Noël that I made for my family.

Dressed with pecans, cranberries, and quickly dissolving snow.

I used caramel cake from Hannah, knowing that it would stand up to a rolling. The roll was filled with a cooked buttercream flavored with espresso powder and hazelnut extract, then sprinkled with toasted pecans. Finally, a decadent layer of Isa's ganache went over the top for that tooth-aching, bark-like finish. It probably weighed in at about 5 pounds and I ate the leftovers for breakfast for 2 days. Yum! (shane: You should call this a log blog.)

shane also celebrated a birthday recently, which called for a 4-layer vanilla latte cake, in honor of one of this favorite beverages.

4 layers of vanilla cake, brushed with fresh coffee, and filled with espresso-flavored cooked buttercream.