Friday, June 16, 2006

The Five o'clock Afternoon Tea

Guillermo and I, we are a multicultural unit (he is Argentine and I am culturally confused); adapting to each other’s customs is often a cause of amusement and at times, frustration. Family gatherings, I am speaking only of his family since my relatives are scattered everywhere else but here, are potential pitfalls for me.

We have afternoon tea on Sundays at the abuelos' (grandparents). The typical fare would be dainty wafer-thin sandwiches (sandwich de miga) like you could imagine Oscar Wilde nibbled on in his time, medialunas (half moons – most similar to Italian brioche but look like croissants), churros (deep fried sticks of dough filled with caramel like dulce de leche), and sometimes a ricotta cake snowed under an inch of icing sugar or an apple tart filled with tooth-achingly sweet apple compote and topped with a thick disc of white glaze.

It would have been fine if these gatherings were held at 3-4 p.m. – no, no, it starts at 5:00 p.m. on a good day (that would be the normal Argentine time for tea) but most of the time at 7:30 p.m. This posts a dilemma for me because they usually last a good few hours. While I like something sweet in the afternoon, it is no substitute for a proper meal. It leaves me, at 10:30 p.m., in no man's land; still hungry, yet too late to cook plus I feel jittery and bad-tempered after a high GI overload.

We don't yet have a solution to my problem because I turned down Guille's kind suggestion of bringing my dinner in a tuck box. With my opinionated ranting on coca-cola in feeding bottles, tablespoonfuls of sugar in milk for toddlers, parents forcing chupete (dummy/ pacifier) on their cubs...I am already que raro! (equivalent to "Is she from Mars?"). A serving of pasta with roasted vegetables, just enough sauce to coat each strand, topped with a scant sprinkling of parmigiano would only invite more "que raro!".

While I have decided to soldier on with this afternoon tea arrangement, I feel less stoic about our family fiestas de cumpleanos (birthday parties). With an immediate family of almost twenty, it has become a real and frequent concern of mine. The Argentines excel at parrillas (barbeques); theirs put the proverbial Aussie Barbie to shame. However, porteños (inhabitants of the City of Buenos Aires) do not seem to like cooking for groups, even when they are family.

Most often, empanadas (like Cornish Pasties with various fillings) are duly ordered and delivered for such occasions. When they really "go to town" and order fancy cocktail food, I have to be extra careful - I was brought up to eat whatever is offered to me and say thank you, however, the time when I bit into a sickly sweet and dense Swiss roll filled with tuna and mayonnaise, I had to rush to the loo; and I am speaking as a person who happily tucked into pan-fried fish sperm - oh, where else but Tokyo.

It turns out that the Chinese have sweet & sour, the Venetians have agro-dolce, and the Argentines have salty & sweet. In principle, I have no objection to such combination; the Thais, Vietnamese and Indonesians are masters at pairing opposing flavours, balancing each other; and their food tastes like a harmonious symphony.

My problem is probably a cultural one: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiched between a scone; slice of mini Swiss roll topped with mayonnaise, ham and pickled onion; plastic cheese and ham lying between two squares of sweet flaky pastry (fosforitos); or a mini round of sweet sponge cake topped with tuna and me at least, are visually and psychologically unacceptable – blame it on my confused Anglo-Chinese-Aussie upbringing.

So when we have a weekend off from la familia, we invite friends over to ours for tea so I can do it my way. I often make a traditional cake like banana bread or gingerbread, and some rolled oat biscuits.

I found, in a dated cookbook, one spicy gingerbread recipe. I liked the ingredients; living in BA poses difficulties in sourcing ingredients so I avoided recipes with my beloved black treacle. I now use this recipe all the time. Whenever I make this gingerbread, a divine fug fills the kitchen – the smells of Christmas: mulled wine, mince pies, clementines, and log fire.

In the beginning, after I managed to procure all the ingredients, I felt the recipe was too "safe". To overcome this, I grated fresh young ginger which I had cooked in muscovado sugar syrup and preserved in a jar.

I have greatly augmented the quantity of ginger in the recipe by grating 2 thumbs of my muscovado preserved ginger and if I have oranges lying around, some zest too. – together, they add a modern touch, I think.

The cake is moist even when eaten straight out of the oven, and it improves so much more upon storing. Best to wrap it in foil and eat it the day after. I happen to like the slightly gritty texture from the wholemeal flour, if you prefer otherwise, just use plain flour.

175ml golden syrup
175ml water
1/2 cup muscovado light brown sugar packed
200g butter
2 cups plain flour
1/4 cup wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
3 tbsp ground ginger
3 tsp mixed spice
2 pieces of fresh ginger cooked in syrup, grated
1 tsp orange zest, grated (optional)

In a saucepan gently melt butter then add water, golden syrup and brown sugar; warm through gently to dissolve sugar, but do not boil it. Leave to cool to lukewarm.

Sift all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Stir them together until combined, using a wooden spoon. Pour liquid ingredients from the saucepan into mixing bowl and beat until combined. Pour into prepared tin and bake at 160C for 45-50 min testing with a skewer from 40 min.

I bake mine in a small brownie tin measuring 10 cm wide and 23 cm long and 7 cm deep, greased and lined with baking paper. You can also bake it in a tin of 8 cm wide and 26 cm long and 4 cm deep at 170C for 30-35 minutes, but watch that the top doesn't burn.

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