Saturday, April 26, 2008


Today was the big day for baking with my new toy. The main objective was to try out foccacia and I selected the basic foccacia recipe from Carol Field's book on Foccacia. I used Gold Medal Unbleached AP Flour. It is a waste of charcoal to fire up the oven just to make bread. We decided to cook lunch with the oven. My wife decided on a lemon garlic recipe from Williams' Sonoma Essentials of Roasting which I had borrowed from the library the day before. After sending my daughter for her classes, it was a mad rush to the supermarket to get all the required ingredients. By the time I came back, I was faced with the task of setting up the fire, preparing the dough and the topping. However, this had to wait because breakfast must come first!!

After my daily dose of newspaper and coffee was sated, I swung into action by starting the fire in a flower pot outside the house. This was the only time where smoke is generated from the firestarter which contains wax. After transferring the smouldering charcoal into the oven, I plied on some more and started fanning the oven like a satay-man. I used an old aluminum tray, fanning the oven in a vertical motion which looks as if I am offering incense from the side view. My wife and I thought that the oven made our house look like a temple and now with my fanning action, I certainly look like I was worshipping a deity.

I had read from Hamelman that the ancient Romans worshiped Fornax, the goddess of the hearth or fireplace. (If you look up Wikipedia, Fornax was the goddess of bread and baking). It is interesting that bread is inextricably linked to life. The oven is linked to fertility and today we have phrases like 'a bun in the oven' for example. Even in anatomy of the womb, parts of it is named Fornix which is from the Goddess of the Hearth again.

After the fire was big enough, I pushed out the coals to the the back of the oven in a semi-circular arc. The foccacia was topped with my favorite laksa pesto and bell peppers. I used the 3 terracotta roasters that came with the oven and made the mistake of putting all 3 into the oven at the same time. I faced some difficulty adjusting their placement inside the oven and as a result, some parts of the breads were burnt at the bottom. In retrospect, I should not have baked such a large quantity.

The chicken could have been better had it been marinaded a little longer. The roasted tomatoes with Sumac was delightful. I was introduced to this dish when I was invited to lunch at my friend's house. It was a spice that I have not heard of before so I was very happy to learn something new that day.

Today's bake showed that I have a long way to go before I can orchestrate the kind of cooking session that my friend executed. There are so many factors to watch out for. Next time, I'd definitely have to be more diligent in my planning.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Animal magnet

This is a little off topic from my usual theme but I was delighted by the emerging of a large number of Painted Jezebel butterflies on a Wrightia Religiosa(Shui Mei) bush in front of my house. This is the latest in a string of wonderful visits by some unusual guests. They seem to want to share in my little abode of peace. For the last couple of weeks, that bush was invaded by an army of hairy caterpillars. They disappeared suddenly but one Saturday while pruning the bush, I saw a huge number of chrysalises on the underside of the leaves. This morning they emerged eventually just after I returned from breakfast with my wife. The burst of color was so delightful to watch. I was glad that I had left them alone.

One week after I moved in many years ago, a cat gave birth to a litter of kittens in my garden. They were inconspicuously hidden under some shrubs and nobody would have known of their existence had they not mewed when their mother was not around. Although I grew up in a countryside setting, I had never looked after a pet directly. In those days, there was no shortage of wildlife and in the family compound, there was a talking mynah, parakeets and even a monkey from goodness knows where. Not knowing what to do with the cats, I called the SPCA.

My neighbor's runaway pets also had a penchant of ending up in my house too. I had a Chinchilla hiding under my Christmas tree once. The Chinchilla even dropped me a few black pellets as a Christmas present. This was followed by a visit by her white mouse and rabbit.

Even though my house is not at the edge of any forest, I had a visit from an Iguana in my backyard. I was not there to greet him as I was at work. However, my wife came face to face with him while hanging out the clothes to dry in the backyard. I had to do some homework that evening to seal up the backyard grating to prevent him from getting trapped in my backyard.

The most memorable visit must be from a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds who built their nest right in front of my sliding door. For the next couple of months, my sliding door stayed shut as I did not want to be an inconsiderate neighbor. I tried my best to respect their privacy. I guess nobody likes to have busybodies peering in while passing by. The wife finally laid an egg which hatched eventually. From then on, dad and mum were busy flying in and out feeding and cleaning up baby. When I had to change my babies' diapers, I had hands but for these bird parents, clearing up after baby involved baby raising its rear to the nest opening. Daddy bird, perched at the entrance, grabbed the white dollop of poo in its beak and proceeded to the nearest tree to wipe off on a twig. It was just fascinating.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A new toy

Do dreams come true in real life? Perhaps only the Divine knows the answer and sometimes they do come true. Unfortunately for most of us, we do not know what is really good for us. I was told that if the Divine gave us everything we wished for, there would be an excess of firemen, bus-drivers or any occupation that a kid think is 'cool'.

Ever since I started baking, I have always dreamt of doing it the traditional way in a wood fired oven. After reading Dan Wing and Kiko Denzer, the idea of baking in a wood fired oven was so enticing that I even toyed with the idea of flying to Australia to take a course in baking bread in wood fired ovens just for the experience. However, this remained a dream with my limited resources.

One day, out of the blue, I received an email from a fellow baker who bake breads out of a wood fired beehive oven. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation to see the oven in action without hesitation. The foccacias and bread that came out from the oven was exceptional. It was the kind of bread that I'd have loved to bake and eat. I was amazed by my friend's passion in baking bread and culinary talents which exceeded mine in all counts.

My friend told me that there was still one more oven left sitting in the warehouse. After almost half a year later, the oven is finally sitting in my front yard. The months were spent on indecision, procrastination and anxiety about whether the oven will survive the move. Finally, I opted for the lowest cost solution in siting and housing my oven. Instead of getting a contractor to do up a lean-to extension in my backyard, I opted for a wrought iron stand and a parasol. I will be fabricating an aluminum cover to keep the oven out of the rain. The canvass cover that came with the oven was clearly insufficient for our climate.

This weekend, I finally got to fire up the oven. This was neccessary to season the oven and drive out the moisture in the walls. I got a lot of advice from my kindly friend. The week before, I went down to Temple Street and picked up an ash scraper, a pair of charcoal tongs, a brush for clearing the ash. It was exciting firing up the oven. My wife took the opportunity to pop in chicken to roast since she was in the process of preparing lunch. I couldn't wait for next week to bake some foccacias and pizzas.