Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Family Feast cookbook: recipe review for spanakopita

I looked at this book again with a more critical eye. First came the index review, then I looked at the recipes and then to test my hunch that publishers don't always test their recipes; I put one of the Greek recipes to test on the weekend. A visit to a country produce market yielded the freshest bunch of silverbeet so spanakopita was the logical choice. I don't usually follow recipes religiously as I tend to alter ingredients to suit what I have available. My Family Feast's spanakopita gives the recipe for its filo pastry. I had never made filo pastry before so I thought I'd give it a go. It was also the only pastry recipe in the book that had exact measurements for its dough.

The pastry recipe calls for:

525g (3½ C) plain flour
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp warm water
100g butter melted and mixed with 1 extra tablespoon olive oil

(spanakopita recipe from My Family Feast)

Those of you who are well acquainted with making pastry and breads will know that these liquid-to-dry ingredients ratio don't add up. In fact, if you do follow this recipe to a tee you'll notice that the dough consistency is that of dry sand. The butter/oil mixture is for brushing between layers, by the way. There is no chance that this dough was forming a soft dough. I kneaded and kneaded and nothing happened so I added more oil, more water – so much more than I thought I'd better check another recipe to see if I was going down the right track.

I had an old copy of an SBS Feast magazine lying about – I happened to remember seeing a spanakopita recipe. I found it in the June 2013 edition. Its recipe for spanakopita pastry called for:

1kg plain flour
500ml lukewarm water
250ml vegetable oil
¼ tsp salt

Notice the difference in dry ingredients-to-liquid ratio? No wonder I had trouble forming a soft dough! By this time I had lost count of how much oil and warm water I had added. I ended up with what I thought should be a fairly pliable dough and crossed my fingers.

(SBS Feast magazine's spanakopita recipe, June 2013)

Here is the end result. The pastry was a tad too thick but the filling was delicious, the end result was nice thankfully.

Picking a successful recipe out of a cookbook shouldn't be a matter of a lucky draw. Needless to say I will think twice about making anything from this particular cookbook in the future. How many more incorrect recipes are there I wonder?

Whilst I was researching more spanakopita recipes for this post, I ended up finding this recipe on the SBS food website. The pastry is identical to the My Family Feast's except that it uses ¼ C warm water – not 3 tablespoons. Wish I had seen this when I was frantically looking for alternate backup when it really mattered.

Anybody have any similar experiences with recipes that just didn't work?

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Family Feast: a world of family recipes and tradition by Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly hosted SBS's multicultural extravaganza of how Australian migrants and refugees keep their culinary heritage alive. This compelling show made its television debut in 2009 – the book tie-in was published in 2010. I watched the series with interest and looked forward to the book when it came out.

The book is attractively produced with stories of families featured in Sean's series interspersed with their traditional recipes. One endearing element of the book is that we are told who contributed recipes – it's nice to acknowledge these folks. There are lots of recipes to try some using everyday ingredients and other not so common ingredients.

(note that Helen Greenwood's name is not advertised on the cover but the inside cover. The copyright for the text in this cookbook belongs to Greenwood too. Wonder why SBS didn't get Greenwood to host the program as she's a wonderful food writer/reviewer)

I have been a fan of the Afghani bulani for quite some time now, having had them about half a dozen times. I was happy to see the inclusion of these addictive wafer-thin stuffed breads. Now I admit I am a novice baker and maker of breads and baked goods; imagine my surprise when I read the recipe for bulani. The recipe calls for 1kg plain flour, 1 teaspoon salt and water.
The recipe says I should mix them together until the dough is soft.

Now as a learner-maker of baked goods and breads – this sort of vagueness filled me with fear. 1 kg of flour is a lot of flour to waste if I get the dough mixture wrong. How much water is needed? Should the water be cold, hot or lukewarm? What exactly is a soft dough? How should it feel in my hands? Sticky, tacky, wet? Dry, smooth and elastic? These are the sorts of questions I ask.

(recipe for bulani)

I looked up the SBS website for some enlightenment but instead there was this:

Plain flour
½ tsp salt

Place flour in a large mixing bowl and gradually add water, mixing with your hands until it becomes doughy.
Leave the dough to settle for 15–20 minutes.
Separate dough into large handfuls, and rolling each one into a ball shape.
Scatter some flour on the bench surface and roll the balls flat with a rolling pin keeping the circular shape.

Clear as mud? There are even less measurements on the website. How much flour is needed? How thin do you roll it out? How large or small is an authentic bulani? I've eaten a few bulanis so at least I have some idea. Imagine if you have never eaten this and was feeling adventurous – you'd have no idea how to attempt this. The website recipe doesn't even specify how the dough should feel!
There are plenty measurements for the filling – down to very precise teaspoons full of spices and oil quantities. So why such imprecise dough requirements?

Further research for recipes on the internet consistently ask for lukewarm water and even a bit of oil to be added to the dough mix. It seems it's roughly about 1 part water to 3.5 parts flour.

And if you're like me and love dumplings – you'd probably want to attempt the Afghani version called mantu – made with lamb in this case. Lots of precise quantities for the filling but no real measurement for the dough wrapper. All it requires is apparently 500grams of plain flour and water. Again mix enough water until a soft dough forms....

I am perplexed as to why these Afghani recipes have been written this way. The Greek spanakopita actually has exact measurements for its filo pastry component; meanwhile the gozleme dough has, again, fairly vague amounts. I know some people cook by feel and approximation, like my my late grandmother but to have a combination of exact and inadequate measurements in the one publication, is frustrating and unhelpful – especially when the cuisine is unfamiliar to a mainstream readership.

Some thought has gone into the index but unfortunately there are some curious inconsistencies. There are some inconsistencies with capitalisations throughout: why 'Potato tortilla'? But 'potato bulani'?
Typesetting glitches see indentation skewed, making a dish sound like it's two dishes at first glance, etc.
There are only three dishes listed under dessert – arroz con leche, flan de leche and black sticky rice are the only sweet treats recognised. What happened to date, sesame and walnut balls, caramel coconut balls (naru), honey balls (loukoumades) and honey jumbles (medenjake)? Don't these sweeties warrant a dessert rating? There's not a 'Sweets' header where I thought I'd find them.

The double entries for the ethnic name and English names are I think redundant. The index is quite a small one and I think to make it easier and clearer for readers – either put the ethnic or English name in brackets - that would have done the trick and might have saved a few lines in the scheme of things.

  bulani 13, 21
  flatbread 204
  stuffed breads 21

Instead of having bulani appear twice as a subheading – would it not have been clearer as:

  bulani (stuffed breads) 13, 21

This way the reader makes a quick connection that a bulani is a stuffed bread, rather than forgetting and seeing a separate 'stuffed bread' entry and thinking it's a different product – only to discover it's a bulani after you've flicked back! Confused?

(examples of the index)

I looked up gozleme under bread and it was not there. I found gozleme under 'Pies, tarts and pastries'. Perhaps this is where a cross reference would have been helfpul.

bread See also pies, tarts and pastries
tarts See pies, tarts and pastries
pastries See pies, tarts and pastries

Having said all that, the index is not altogether bad - like the rest of the book and its usability – the editorial inconsistencies make it less usable than it should be. I wanted to use this book over and over again but instead, I have had to go to other sources for clarification and validation. The point is to have a book that we can cook from and use with a sense of confidence that all the recipes have been tried and tested – in this case, I'm just not so sure that they have. 

What do cooks look for when they use cookbooks? If recipes don't work - do you try another recipe to test the waters? 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cookbook indexing woes II

Here is the second instalment of my cookbook indexing woes. Back in 2011 I gave a talk as a member of ANZSI QLD about cookbook indexing. For those of you who don’t know what ANZSI is – it stands for Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers. Like professional editors and their societies, we indexers also have our own, believe it not! For a bit of fun I brought along a few cookbooks that I owned and ones I had borrowed from the library. The night was a rowdy one, who knew that people felt so strongly about the usability of cookbook indexes! We discussed very passionately about the cookbooks we loved, and there was the odd disagreement about how we look up dishes, etc. Among some of the issues we discussed were the usability of ethnic food cookbooks, food memoir/cookbooks, and cookbooks that are published for one local market but what happens when you take it out of its local context.

How do we look up or refer to ethnic dishes that have no English equivalents? How over-indexed are some books? For example, instead of having an entry for ‘Sriracha chilli sauce’ – how about indexing an entry under ‘chilli’ or ‘sauce’ for those who don’t know that Sriracha is a type of Thai chilli sauce. It’s details like these that matter when one is cooking with foreign ingredients.

There are many books to discuss and look at but one of the cookbooks that I want to briefly discuss is the beautifully produced memoir/cookbook hybrid – Pauline Nguyen’s Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes From the Heart.

(a well-worn and thumbed through copy from the library!)

Sumptuous, mouthwatering-looking photographs of dishes feature throughout the book alongside with photographs of the author’s family – past and present. These photographs of people and place tell an important but sad story of displacement and an attempt by a family to hang onto one’s cultural integrity in a foreign land. What it does is it gives Red Lantern’s food an irresistible appeal given its context of the rags-to-riches Vietnamese migrant/refugee narrative and the difference food and culture can make in our lives. Each chapter opens with narrative and ends with recipes.

The index targets a Western/English-speaking audience. The index itself is not inadequate – in fact – it’s a good recipe index. What I find curious is while all the recipes have Vietnamese names and their English equivalents – only the English names are indexed. Perhaps economy of pages dictated this decision.

(Examples of the index from the book: simple and concise)

The memoir component is an interesting one – Pauline gives us her family history, talks about the fall of Saigon and its consequences, the rise of communism and the escape from political tyranny by boat to arrive in Thailand and their subsequent arrival in Australia, etc, (there’s a typo too with the spelling of Pilau Bidong – it should be ‘Pulau’). We’re taken through the social and cultural history of Cabramatta in the early 1980s when it was a place of migrants and refugees. She gives readers another perspective on life there as a migrant family, most of us would only know Cabramatta for its druggy reputation from the media.

Imagine my disappointment when I went to the index to look up Aunty Eight’s corn business – only to find that the entire memoir section is unindexed. I am not sure if this was a conscious decision – perhaps marketing decided that this is sold predominantly as a cookbook? Surely the backstory to Red Lantern is important too? There are plenty of interesting characters dotted throughout the book - don't they deserve a mention in the index? I’m sure many bought the book for its memoir component too? I think this lack of a separate general index for the memoir is a shame – it would have given the book more weight and it would have carried far more historical/social and cultural insight had there been an index. By not acknowledging the story in the index (and I'm sure this was not their intention), I think the publisher has diluted the effect of Pauline’s story - for me, that is disappointing. Not that the Nguyen’s family story is not fascinating enough – it is precisely that it is interesting that I want the option of looking certain aspects up! This could have been an important reference for the present and future generational Nguyen clan in search of family history and the events that have been so significant in their lives.

Those who are after an unconventional review for the book, I found this site, Syrup and Tang, which I only came across recently; it highlights some important publishing issues. It doesn't shy away from being really critical. The reviewer has a valid point: it's important for publishers to make books accessible to its readers; we value the integrity of good editing but we also want to allow the author’s authentic voice to come through the page. Interesting reading, indeed!