Monday, January 21, 2013

Lebkuchen und Stollen: A German Christmas

The Germans have a great tradition of Christmas treats, so I chose theirs as the theme of the season. I wanted to make Stollen again, and since I wanted to make a gingerbread, I decided to supplement it with German ginger cookies called Lebkuchen.

First, honey, dark sugar and butter are melted in a pot (which will also be used to make the batter).

Next, flour and baking powder are mixed with powdered ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon.

The dry ingredients are stirred into the melted ingredients with ground almond until a thick, tough batter results.

The batter is chilled overnight until it's firm and malleable. It can then be rolled out and cut into shapes, but I used my trusty tart pan to shape them while they baked at 180C, turning them over and flattening them out with a spoon about two-thirds of the way into the baking.

Once baked and fully cooled, they can be glazed with a simple glaze of confectioner's sugar mixed with a little water. The lebkuchen can be served cold, and if baked dry enough, will keep for a long time.

For the stollen, chopped candied fruit and raisins are drizzled with vanilla and almond extracts, sprinkled with grated lemon peel, and mixed in with ricotta cheese, egg and egg yolk, and toasted almonds.

Flour, sugar, baking powder and a pinch of salt are mixed with butter until a crumbly texture results.

The dry ingredients are mixed in with the wet ones and the resulting dough is kneaded and molded into a loaf on a floured baking pan.

Baked at about 180C, it will rise a little, and brown a crust.

The stollen loaf can then have confectioner's sugar sifted over it for a traditional look.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

MIT and the WIDS experience

So much has gone on since then that I didn't elaborate on my trip to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab for the Workshop on Information and Decisions in Social Networks.

It was my first time back in the US after my graduation from Illinois Tech over 8 years prior, and my first time in Boston. I spent most of my time in Cambridge, though, as I was there primarily for work - either to engage in face-to-face collaboration with SCAI Lab's research contacts at the Media Lab, or to attend WIDS. My attendance at WIDS itself was facilitated by a poster based on a research publication co-authored by me, as a result of which I and a colleague - also a co-author on the same publication - were sent by Masdar Institute to the workshop. I'd say we had a pretty productive time, and it was nice to see our collaborators' lab in person, not to mention meet some folks I had previously known only as email ids.

Dr Pentland's group

Human Dynamics at the Media Lab

The legendary Network Challenge prize
My temporary desk at the lab

Cambridge was quite chilly, possibly as a result of Hurricane Sandy a few days prior. I also arrived the night before the re-election of Barack Obama, so there was plenty of TV programming with which to occupy oneself when bundled up in a warm and comfortable room at the nearby Le Meridien. It even snowed on my third night, and there was also quite a bit of rain and sleet.

The next morning

The campus was, of course, something I saw everyday. Again, due to work, I did not get a lot of exploration time, but I did get to peek around the Media Lab and the surrounding buildings.

The Great Dome

The old Media Lab building

The so-called Infinite Corridor

Food trucks nourish countless students and researchers

 The workshop, held at the Media Lab, was very pleasant to attend, thanks to the work of our collaborators and other organizers, the quality of research and speakers, and - in our specific case - the focus of the workshop on a particular area of research overlapping with one of the focal areas of my team at SCAI Lab. The great majority of the work presented in the speaking and poster sessions was very relevant to what we do and what we are interested in doing.

First day of the workshop

Workshop programme

Nobel laureate in Economics, Dr Alvin E. Roth, one of the plenary speakers

Our poster also attracted significant attention and insights

Although I spent most of my days at work or at the workshop, I did get nights free to head out and enjoy the city. Apart from great local clubs and bars, I did my first stand-up open mic in the US at The Tavern at the End of the World in nearby Charlestown.

Now or Later, a play I went to in downtown Boston

Attending a Grace Kelly performance at the famous Scullers Jazz Club

I sampled some local delicacies, including clam chowder

A night trek through downtown Boston

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Maya Have Some More, Please?

I tend to come back from travels with a taste for the foreign, and an itch to try out my new culinary acquaintances in the kitchen. My latest trip was a semi-backpacking bus blitz from Mexico City to Cancun, visiting over 10 Teotihuacano, Zapotec, Maya and Olmec archaeological sites in 10 days. My trip to the western hemisphere to attend a workshop at MIT gave me an opportunity to witness the marvels of ancient Mesoamerica first-hand, and try out some exotic foods while at it. While I had plenty to tickle my inner history geek, I also had my taste buds just as tickled by authentic Mexican food. And one sub-cuisine that especially stood out on this trip was the Maya cuisine I relished in the Yucatan.

The ancient Maya, of course, are famous for their impressive pyramids and other stone structures (built without wheeled vehicles, draught animals or metal tools, I might add), their mathematics, and of course, their "doomsday calendar". Their modern-day descendants, many of whom still speak Mayan languages, still have a taste for traditional foods. While not completely unpolluted by Old World ingredients, they mostly remain true to the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican heritage of corn, turkey, tomatoes and peppers (and chocolate, for which I will be eternally grateful). Here are some Maya dishes I tried out to entertain friends upon my return, to celebrate the beginning of the 14th b'ak'tun.

The Maya salsa "Xni-Pec" ("dog nose", because it's so fiery that your nose will end up runny and wet) is pretty simple. Chopped tomatoes and chili peppers (I used Serrano) with chopped red onion and cilantro, dressed with fresh lime juice and white vinegar, adding a pinch of salt.

This is a great dip to go with corn tortilla chips.

For the soup course, I prepared pumpkin soup. Pumpkins, and squashes in general, were and are an important crop in the region. Pumpkin seeds are also served as a seasoned paste for dipping corn tortilla chips. For the soup, stock is prepared.

In the meantime, pumpkins are roasted in an oven until soft. The seeds are then removed and sauteed, then put back in the oven to roast until browned.

The flesh is scooped out and mashed.

To the flesh, ground allspice and honey are added, and the stock is added. The mixture is brought to a boil, and simmered until the pumpkin completely softens to loose pulp. Salt is added to taste, and the mixture may be electrically blended if a smoother, more homogenous texture is desired.

The pumpkin soup is served hot, garnished with browned pumpkin seeds and chopped green onions.

A great accompaniment to the soup (and to the salsa as well) is the tamale, one of the most ancient traditional foods of the Maya and other Mesoamericans. The steamed gob of cornmeal was their bread, and, with various old and new fillings, is one of the most common (and delicious) street foods in today's Mexico. I made these tamales using cornmeal and frijol (black beans).

The cooked black beans with cooking liquid are poured into cornmeal slowly, while vigorously stirring for homogeneity.

The resulting loose dough is molded into balls or ingots, which are then steamed. Traditionally, this is done in leftover corn husks, but due to the lack of this material, I used foil to steam my tamales.

As a vegetable dish, I prepared a bean stew, beans being an important ancient Maya protein source. For this, chopped hot chili peppers and bell peppers are stir-fried with chili powder and ground allspice.

Cooked pinto beans and a little water are added, and the mixture is cooked.

This can be garnished with chopped tomatoes, and goes well with fresh corn tortillas to scoop or roll.

One of the best dishes I ate in Maya country was the pibil. Pibil, a roast marinated with citrus juice and annatto seed and roasted in banana leaf, is traditionally made with pork (which makes a good main course and an awesome sandwich filling), but can be made with most any meat. The turkey also being indigenous to the region, and also one of the main sources of ancient Maya animal protein, I chose to make a pibil of turkey. As I did not have annatto handy, I prepared the achiote paste using a substitute involving garlic, chili paste, vinegar and other seasonings, and added the required lime juice, orange juice and oil.

The roasting pan is lined with banana leaves.

The marinated turkey is placed in the pan, and topped with slices of tomato and onion, and a large hot chili pepper split in half.

The turkey is then covered with banana leaves, sealed in with foil, and roasted.

Due to my unfortunate inexperience with the intricacies of roasting technique, the turkey pibil turned out to require a couple of return trips to the oven. Still, it fed everyone well, and me for days after.

For dessert, I paid tribute to the great ancient Mesoamerican discovery of the secret to happiness: chocolate. For this dish of chocolate truffles, creamy coconut milk is brought to boil (the Maya did not use milk).

It is then poured into broken bits of dark chocolate with ground cinnamon, chili powder, and the innards of a vanilla bean.

As it is poured, the mixture is stirred so that all the chocolate is melted, resulting in a thick dark ganache.

The hot ganache is poured into a flat greased/paper-lined dish so it is a centimeter or so deep, or into molds. After refrigerating overnight, chunks of cold ganache are cut/pried out and tossed with cocoa powder until covered in it, resulting in these delectable truffles.