An email exchange with a friend...
I wrote: Check out the 2 pics from my latest cooking experiment...stuffed buns...turned out to be pretty edible. Killed mom's kitchen in the process, but she's recovered.
His reply: That's called making a sandwich - I can put some turkey between slices of bread also. Call me when you graduate to cooking cereal.
My reply to his exceptionally ignorant comment: I baked the buns at home, and the bread was potato-based (which is *bleep*ing hard to make) and the stuffing had to be put in the thing before it was baked. So go get a life.
His final words: Ok that's legit :)
OF COURSE THAT'S LEGIT. After the five hour ordeal (and that doesn't even begin to include the kitchen clean-up) I went through last weekend to concoct these innocuous-looking 'sandwiches,' I DEMAND recognition. And a back massage.
But it really didn't start out that way. I certainly hadn't intended to throw myself into the stuffed buns torture chamber from the outset. My initial plan was to cook up a relatively simple Venezualen Friday brunch, with chips and guasacaca (Venezualan guacamole, which differs from traditional guacamole in that it uses vinegar instead of lime, and tons of garlic) for starters, and then arepas: tiny corn pockets bursting with cheesy, veggie, meat, or all of the above, goodness. And in case Cynical Email Friend quoted above reads this blog: no, I would not have bought mini corn tortillas and stuffed them with Chilli's takeout fajitas...I would have crafted the corn pockets from scratch. With the traditional Haripa PAN flour. Kneaded by hand. And some homemade veggie stuffing - dad had made turkey this past week and we were pretty meated out by the time the weekend rolled around. I wasn't sure what a traditional Venezualen vegetable was (other than plantains, which I’d use for my chips), so I went with eggplant because I'd encountered an absolutely divine Japanese eggplant arepa (culinary fusion at its best) at the Caracas arepa bar in New York. And I'd even found an online attempt at breaking down Caracas' secret arepa side sauce. So I had a plan. A well-thought-out, and heavily researched plan. Fully documented in MS Word. I even had the steps in the kitchen planned out - what gets made in what order. As mom would say, if you're doing something, do it right or don't do it all. And boy was I going to do this right.
And then everything went wrong. As I roamed the aisles of a local reputable grocery chain the night before my big Venezualan feast, my intricately assembled and documented plan for a Venezualan feast started to wheeze.
sputter. tremble. choke. And then right there, in aisle #4, the ethnic foods aisle, it collapsed into a morbid, hopeless pile of unfulfilled brunch dreams. They didn't have Haripa Pan flour, the key ingredient needed to make soft, airy, semi-spongey arepas. Substitutes you say? Not this time, my online research had led me to believe that there really weren't any good substitutes out there. So I had no plan B. All I had was a pile of ripe avocados, some plantains and other random grizzly root vegetables for my veggie chips, and a farm load of baby eggplants - all staring up at me from my grocery cart, silently mocking me and my brilliantly flawed strategy. Worse, this was the second time in a row that this had happened - the last time was when I ambitiously decided to create Banh mi's, a local Vietnamese sandwich. Only to learn that there's no shop in Dubai (or none that I know of) that sells the perfect Vietnamese baguette critical for an all-encompassing Banh mi experience. Argh.
In times of culinary crisis, the secret to redemption is Improvization. What would be similar in concept to a stuffed pocket-like arepa, flow well from a starter of guac and chips, serve as the most hospitable host for any eggplant concoction, and provide a new challenge in the kitchen? And that's when eggplant-stuffed buns dawned on me. Stuffed, pocket-like? Check. Flows well from starters? Check. Serve as good host to eggplants? Check. New personal challenge? Check, with a thick permanent marker.
Back in my culinary research lab (aka Google), I hunted around for recipes for stuffed bun dough. And there were tons. Traditional bun techniques with all the usual flour, water, butter, yeast suspects, and filling slapped on at some point in the pre-baking, bun-shaping stages. Or dough made with honey, rolled out like a pastry crust, coated with filling, rolled lengthwise into a jam roll, and then sliced up into mini discs that are then baked in a muffin tin. Of course, there were the imposter store-bought bun ones, with the bun sliced in half and jammed back shut once the filling is in place, the kind that may have been fed at some point to my Cynical Email Friend.
And then, I hit something totally different. A blog by Shilpa, that referenced another blog by Tanna (love the incestuousness of food and recipe sites), which spoke about savory potato-based dough. About soft, pain-in-the-knuckles messy dough. About two-hour-rising-time-needed dough. About...the Daring Baker Challenge. Tanna has built a site that challenges people to undertake impossibly hard baking recipes that she has cleverly designed for other baking gurus like herself, or for others who watch far too much Food Network and end up believing that they have an undetected Iron chef spark deep down inside. Or for overambitous egotistical people like myself, who are fully aware that they can bake nothing other than hockey pucks, but are super competitive and drawn to the smell of a challenge like pirhanas are to flesh. We can't help it, we've been hard-wired to be shamelessly cutthroat. So what ensured in the kitchen was really unavoidable, genetically ordained, and not my fault.
So that was the plan. And let's not forget, I'd still be making the guac, chips, and secret Caracas sauce. And I'd have to make non-spicy versions of the guac and stuffed buns eggplant filling, for granddad and myself (spice and I haven’t been getting along well lately). All to be executed in my mom's kitchen - a sacred and holy shrine whose divine order had to be respected, and maintained at all times to avoid incurring her wrath. All for a target deadline of 1.30pm. Anything later, and I'd be cutting into weekend afternoon nap time of two very hungry and grumpy parents, automatically getting brownie points slashed off for the quality of my Friday brunch service. To me, this plan seemed totally attainable. But any reasonably intelligent person with the baking skills of a bulldog would have donned their overalls, brought out a spade, and started digging a 6 foot hole in their backyard right then.
Just in case you've never cooked a daring meal before, and you're wondering, what could possibly go wrong? Let me break it down for you:
1. You can wake up late Friday morning and enter the kitchen an hour later than planned, because you'd been up for much of the night hunting for the killer recipe. Something's going to have to give way to make the 1.30pm deadline. Maybe the two hours of rising time for that dough would have to be squished down to an hour and a half.
2. You realize that there's no butter in the fridge. Imagine, no butter! No one ever needs to check if there's enough butter in the fridge, it should just magically always be there. I felt momentarily zapped for a second, flailing my arms and ranting like a crazed French chef would if you didn't keep fridgeloads of the precious fatty French staple on hand. Luckily, others in the building came to my rescue...but the frantic door-to-door beg-borrow-steal strategy meant precious minutes lopped off my cooking time.
3. The active-every-other-day-of-the-year yeast decide it's their day off, and leave you staring hopelessly into a baking bowl of cloudy water and potato starch globules.
4. You open the mini carton of spicy tomato sauce for your eggplant filling with such finesse that it squirts up like the fountains of Bellagio, sans Bocelli in the background. Of course you weren't wearing an apron.
5. As promised to every daring baker out there, your dough is a sticky stretchy wet gloopy mess that oozes out from between your fingers. So that part at least is going according to plan. The deviation that’s eventually going to led to a week-long trial with your mother is when you slapped the dough on the counter, sending bits of that wet stickly gloop flying across the kitchen, and miraculously lodging itself into infinite tiny nooks and crannies, including the microwave vents.
6. It’s 45 minutes to showtime, and your plan for healthy baked plantain and root veggie chips is dying a slow, inedible death in an oven that you forgot to pre-heat. Not only does the kitchen look like it’s been hit by a tsunami, but now I need mom’s help to deep fry the chips because there’s far too much left to do before my 1.30pm deadline.
7. You start pelting out a combination of both spicy and non-spicy stuffed buns on the baking tray like your life depended on it. Only to realize that stuffed buns, once shut and sealed, don’t magically sprout a flag which indicates which of the two spicy/bland fillings they contain. There’s going to be some pain on the brunch table.
It’s 1.20, you’ve done the guac, mom’s doing the chips, and sister has been called in to play the role of the Caracas secret saucier (sisterly help comes at a hefty price. You’ve sold your weekend afternoon siesta to help her prep for her marketing term paper.) You just slid the first batch of some pretty decent-looking buns in the oven, which should take no more than 10 minutes to bake. You think, Maybe this won’t turn out so bad after all.
8. 1.30pm, your decent-looking buns are looking no different than they did 10 minutes ago when you’d popped them in for heat treatment. This confounding contraption in disguise of an oven is out to get me.
9. 1.45pm, buns finally look cooked. And totally unappetizing. Their faces look like they’ve gone for a dip…in a dry and dusty Arabian desert. What happened to the golden-brown tops I was promised if I followed the daring baker recipe to the ‘T’?
Mom: You should have applied eggwash, that would have helped.
Me: Mom, that wasn’t in the daring baker recipe!
Mom: Neither was a hurricane-hit kitchen.
Me: Ok. I’ll get the eggwash out for the next batch.
The 2.15pm brunch result – Guac, chips, secret Caracas sauce, and surprisingly soft and yummy stuffed buns. Maybe the first few were a bit on the doughy side, but the remaining batch turned out to be far more light and airy than my usual need-a-hammer-and-chisel-for-this-one kind. Frankly, for all the work putting in, I can’t say that the bread ‘tasted’ anything extraordinary, but it did keep soft and fluffy even a day later. Totally unheard of in my entire personal baking history.
I’d definitely make these again once memories of a dough-splattered kitchen have somewhat faded in everyone’s minds, but probably spread the process over two days: sauces and stuffing on day 1, bun making and chips on day 2. What I loved was the little surprise factor you get with each bun (unless you were part of the kitchen craziness that preceded the meal). Your teeth sink into an ordinary sesame-seed sprinkled roll on the outside, but then unexpectedly discover an entire layer of flavorful vegetables and masala on the inside. The perfect all-in-one handheld meal, with a spicy Venezuelan mango dipping sauce (didn’t taste exactly like the real thing, but it was a crowd-pleaser nevertheless).
Next week’s experiment will be something simpler. Maybe I’ll give myself a break and do turkey and cheese sammies after all.
A quick round-up of all the recipes used in my Friday brunch:
I referred to both http://southamericanfood.about.com/od/appetizersfirstcourses/r/Guasacaca.htm and http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/george-duran/guasacaca-sauce-recipe/index.html , and did some hybrid version in between. Also added in lemon juice in addition to vinegar - just felt that the white vinegar I had on hand and wasn’t enough to give my guac the right tangy kick.
- Grab plantains, yucca, sweet potato, and any other root veggies that grab your interest at your local grocery chain
- Peel, and then slice with a mandolin
- If you’re not frying them immediately, plunge the chips in salt or acidified (e.g. vinegar) water to avoid browning. And then remove them from the solution and spread them out to dry (on a muslin cloth or rack) once you’re ready to fry.
- Deep-fry in oil. (Unless you want to try the baking route like I unsuccessfully did, and have a baking method guaranteed to give you crisp tasty chips)
Cheekystitch’s take on the Secret sauce at Caracas arepa bar, NYC:
I was less maniacal about the proportions, and also excluded the mayo because my sister has some sort of not-fun mayo reaction. We still loved the sauce anyway. Her recipe can be found at http://cheekystitch.com/craft_your_future/tag/venezuela-caracas
Eggplan t stuffing: (my own simple, add-as-I-go creation)
- 1 tsp fennel seeds (you can use more if you like the taste of fennel)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- ¼ tsp of minced ginger (I just use my beloved microplane to zap some up)
- Green chillies, to taste (you can exclude this if you’re a bland baby like I am temporarily)
- 2 finely chopped onions
- 5-6 baby eggplants, chopped up into tiny, filling appropriate pieces (maybe 7-8cm thick)
- 1 green and 1 red pepper (capsicum), deveined, de-seeded, and chopped up the same way as the eggplants
- 3 T of spicy tomato sauce or tomato puree or anything tomato-ey that you think pairs well with eggplant
- ½ cup water
- Olive oil
- Salt to taste
Add a few (3-4) tablespoons of olive oil in a wok, and toss in the fennel seeds once the oil is hot and starts to fizzle (but not smoke). After about a minute, throw in the garlic, ginger and green chillies, and sauté for a few minutes.
Add in the chopped onions, and sauté till translucent. Then mix in the chopped eggplants, peppers, tomato sauce, and water, cooking until the veggies are soft. Your filling is ready once most of the water has evaporated, leaving behind a nice saucy coating for the vegetables that will make them taste moist and curried, whilst avoiding the drippy mess you’d have if the bun filling had retained too much water.
Refer to the entire convoluted recipe on Tanna’s site (use the dinner rolls version), whilst referring to Shilpa’s blog to understand how to stuff the dough with filling. Tanna suggests dividing the dough into 12 dinner rolls. I ended up making 16 buns, and would probably make them even thinner and less doughy (so approx 20 buns) the next time I make them.
In case you don’t feel daring (and don’t suffer from the competitive drag-me-down-a-hole bug that routinely afflicts me), feel free to try out some of the other recipes on stuffed buns, namely the more traditional bun-making technique (I was afraid that this would be too thick and dry for my taste), jam-roll-and-muffin-tray strategy, or the store-bought shortcut strategy. Or, you could go all-out and make Ukranian stuffed buns called Pyrizhky.