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? 

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