Sunday, March 14, 2010

The resemblance is uncanny

Chantel and her namesake, Chantel (Carla Peterson):

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The official Kookie Cake recipe

After three attempts at baking cakes that include couscous (the first one tasted great but was too sandy. The second was too bland and dry, the third a little too dense and didn't rise), we'd run out of time to experiment before the big women's day event in Fes. So what could I do but piece together what I'd learned from the three previous trials, throw in some new random ingredients just for fun, quadruple the recipe to fill a huge sheet cake pan, and cart it off to the public oven, positive that the fourth time was going to be the charm. And it was. I think it turned out shockingly good, considering how terrible I'd recently proven myself to be at recipe creation. Here's the recipe. I've named it the official Kookie cake because all of the interesting ingredients (couscous, olive oil, carrots, apples and almonds) are grown or produced in the village.
6 eggs
2 cups sugar
2 cups mild olive oil
4 cups flour
2 packages of baking powder (2 tsp maybe?)
3 packages of vanilla sugar (1.5 tsp vanilla extract maybe?)
a pinch or two of salt
2 large apples, peeled and grated
3 cups shredded carrots
1 cup dry El Karma hand-rolled couscous, boiled in water until it softens and loses its uncooked-flour smell (or steamed if you have time to kill)
3 cups almonds, crushed (sprinkle on top of batter before you bake it)

Cynthia Berning, Professional Olive Oil Taster

Another random addition to my list of newly-acquired skills, a bit unexpected considering that my first year in Morocco I could not even eat olive oil straight with bread because it had such a strong flavor. And then one day I started loving it. Last week in Fes, my friend Gail and I brought together all the different olive oils we could find to learn how to taste them. Tara, an actual professional, led us through the steps of looking at the color, smelling, feeling, and tasting the different oils. It felt so sophisticated, and the seven oils we tasted were all extremely different. We decided the oil I brought from our village's olives that had been ground on a stone (not electric) press had hints of apple flavor, and most definitely an award-winner. Now I have to find someone who can give that award.

Kicking off Biking Season

I have long suspected that my site is the perfect place for long bike trips. But the Peace Corps issues just one bike per volunteer, and since my sitemate doesn't ever want to bike with me and bike trips alone aren't nearly as much fun as with someone else, I haven't taken advantage of the fantastic biking trails in the area. I finally acquired a small fleet of three peace corps issued mountain bikes, borrowing them from nearby volunteers who weren't using theirs, so I can finally take my brothers or friends or visiting volunteers on serious bike trips. The first one was a trip to a lake about 30 km away from the village. I knew generally where it was, and had checked out the google satellite maps to be sure that there was a road leading there, but we still managed to get lost several times and had to ask random sheep herders for directions. After three hours of relatively hard biking we arrived at maybe the most beautiful view I've discovered yet in Morocco.

Curly ears are always better than normal ears, right?

So last week I bought a goat. My neighbors and I had been talking about getting a goat for awhile now, basically, I would make the initial investment, then sell the babies to get my money back, all the while milking it, making cheese maybe, and then leave it with the family when I left. Sounded like fun, since they agreed to take care of its food and everything, and who doesn't need a pet goat? I decided even if I didn't actually end up getting back my investment, just having a goat to milk, and goat babies following me around, and fresh goat cheese was worth the $120. Because the goal is mostly my own amusement, I of course bought the goat with the most ridiculous-looking curly ears. And then I named her Chantel, after the villain in Morocco's favorite Mexican soap opera, Frijolito. At first I was hesitant to name my goat after such a nasty character, but then I realized that getting a goat named after you isn't generally considered to be the best compliment. The village is pretty amused too.

When the cows come home

I know I already used that cliché once already in my blog, but I can't think of any other cow-related clichés at the moment. All the cows from Izzie-ville get taken out to graze every morning together, and come back together every afternoon, a lot like kids going off to school for the day, and coming home to their houses at night. For a long time this was a mystery to me - how, in a herd of 140 identical-looking cows, could you ever find the ones that belong to you to bring them home every night? The answer is, the cows know where they live, and go straight home. All you have to do is open the barn door at the right time, and the right cows will march right in. And in the morning, you just have to open the door again, and they'll march out and assemble in the open space outside of town to get led out to pasture. Pretty impressive for such a big, stupid-looking animal.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

This is some Quality Peanut Butter

There are two brands of Peanut Butter in Morocco: Jesse's and Dakota. Jesse's is generally considered among Peace Corps volunteers to be the better of the two, and it's not hard to see why. This is the back label, word for word, of the Dakota Delights Crunchy Peanut Butter Jar:

Nutrition Information (values per 100g)
Energy 640kcal
Protein 641kcal
Fat 642kcal
Carbohydrate 643kcal
Sugar 644kcal
Sodium 645kcal
Phosphorus 646kcal
Iron 647kcal
Nicotinicacid 648kcal
Vitamine 649kcal
Cholesterol 650kcal

Ingredients: Roasted Peanuts, vegetables oil, sugar, salt
Produced by (Please insert your company name only)

Hilarious but a little scary. I think I'll stick with Jesse's Peanut Butter.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Caramel Apple Couscous Ball Truffles, Part II

I trudged up to Fes a few days later, not excited about breaking the sad news that for all of our brilliant ideas, we were unable to come up with a single good recipe for couscous desserts that could be eaten with fingers. I met the woman who had commissioned the couscous truffles in a cafe, along with another of our Fes friends, a professional food writer and recipe-inventer, who was shaking her head before I finished telling her what we'd been trying to do, and immediately said, no, couscous will never roll into a ball. The answer, she said, was to think of what couscous will act like, not what it's made from. So we couldn't just substitute couscous for flour, even though essentially, couscous is 100% flour, but we could substitute couscous into recipes calling for polenta. A quick internet search gave us lots of recipes for polenta cakes and cookies. So the challenge was back on.
I whipped up a polenta lemon cake and a batch of Italian polenta cookies, both using our whole-wheat couscous, and took them off to the public oven in the Fes medina. The oven guy had a huge wood-fire oven full of cakes, cookies, breads and whatever else the people in the neighborhood needed to bake that afternoon. I hung out and chatted with him and watched him shuffle everything around using long-poled oars so that everything was perfectly and evenly baked. In an hour of watching I didn't see anything emerge even slightly burned. When the cookies were done, he shook his head at me and told me that the next time I wanted to bake some cookies, why didn't I just come and tell him what kind I wanted, and his wife would make them for me, because clearly I was not cut out for cookie baking. The verdict: better than the couscous truffles, but they felt a little bit like I'd accidentally mixed a handful of sand into the batter, crunchy, in a way that cakes and cookies are not supposed to be. And thus the list of couscous recipes for my book dropped back down to one.

Caramel Apple Couscous Ball Truffles, Part I

Our association was invited to prepare snacks that would accompany afternoon tea at an afternoon event celebrating International Women's Day this weekend in Fes. The task: create sweet, small finger-food desserts using products from the association, as a way to provide us with some publicity and provide a novelty snack for attendees. One of the women in charge of the event and I began dreaming of truffles and pastries made from balls of couscous, and we were pretty sure we'd stumbled upon the idea of the century. What if we opened a bakery/patisserie where everything was made out of couscous? And this could be a whole chapter in the (yet-to-be-started) book I'm writing called 101 Couscous Recipes! Some of our fabulous, mouth-watering ideas included:
• Strawberry Jam and Dark Chocolate Couscous Balls
• Apple Cinnamon Raison Couscous Balls
• Reece's Peanut Butter Cup Couscous Balls
• Coconut Macaroon Couscous Balls
• Date, almond and honey Couscous Balls
• Caramel Apple Couscous Balls
• Snickers Couscous Balls
• Chocolate Orange Couscous Balls
• Boston Cream Couscous Balls
• Lemon Meringue Couscous Balls
• Carrot Cake Couscous Balls
• Chocolate Mint Couscous Balls
• Mojito Couscous Balls

So I bought a big bag of baking supplies, including a syringe to inject jam into the middle of these balls, and a friend who was visiting from the states, and my tutor and I spent a long rainy day trying to turn our brilliant ideas into reality. It didn't take long, however, for it to become clear that pastry chef was not my calling, and there was probably a reason why none of these had ever been created before. Couscous, quite simply, does not roll into balls. Refuses to roll into balls, even when combined with things that we thought should make it sticky, like honey, or melted chocolate. Every single combination we tried fell apart in a drippy, crumbly mess. We managed to trick the couscous into making a ball shape only twice: once, we found that if you boil, not steam the couscous, and leave it undercooked, it stays sticky enough to roll into balls that can then be dipped in chocolate. However, undercooked couscous has a pretty distinct, raw-flour taste that could not be covered up no matter how much jam we injected into the middle with the syringe. The second trick was to coat the inside of a tiny muffin paper with chocolate, stuff a tiny pinch of sweetened couscous into the middle, the pour more chocolate into the cup, encasing the couscous in chocolate and creating a kind of Reece's Miniatures. This method was not only a lot of work, but also left us with what was little more than cheap chocolate in a little cup, hardly a very exciting creation. At some point we gave up, dejected, cooked the remaining couscous with vegetables and spices the way it was intended, and resigned ourselves to thinking that maybe the book should be called "1 Recipe for Couscous" since that's how many recipes there seemed to be that actually worked.

School Bathroom Nightmare, Final Part (hopefully)

Beginning the second toilet project did what we had hoped for the first project: provide some incentive to actually finish it. And sometime near the end of January, we declared the project finished, and began planning the toilet party.
To my disappointment, the toilet party included neither a toilet-shaped cake nor an inaugural use of the toilets by the director of the school. Instead, it was a long program of religious songs, performed by the girls in matching outfits, and a series of skits performed by the boys, including one about swine flu, one about hand-washing, and several other (very relevant) other skits about playing tricks on your neighbors. In all, a good time, and even though my toilet-cake idea was rejected, I still giggled to myself as I poured everyone lemonade, my private little joke with myself.