What’s Cooking: Fresh butter buns

Fresh from the oven

I only recently learned about the closing of hallowed Bangkok institution Le Bouchon a couple of weeks ago, and like any unexpected (if hopefully temporary!) passing, the news gave me some unexpected feels. It was hardly Bangkok’s best French restaurant — no eatery where cockroaches are free to roam the walls could ever claim that crown. It was more about what Le Bouchon embodied to its expats: a charming seediness with a wink and a nod but not at alarming The Serpent levels; decent food, reliably made, give or take an overly gamey lamb shack or two; and just a little whiff of danger in a setting where the scariest thing most likely to happen is the aforementioned cockroach on the wall. Le Bouchon evoked a younger, mildly disreputable Bangkok, wearing a cocked hat and riding a motorcycle. Alas, the Bangkok of today wears Dockers, takes Tru Niagen and listens to meditative music on Youtube to get his blood pressure down.

Le Bouchon was a “sowing your wild oats” kind of place, where possibility beckoned from every corner if you didn’t look too deeply into the crevices. I remember the last time I went there vividly because it was an obvious attempt by three middle-aged friends whose lives had drifted apart to reanimate some semblance of our youth. We had the lamb shanks with the white beans again. It didn’t taste that good or that bad, but that wasn’t the point. It tasted exactly the same.

These butter buns also claim a pivotal niche in most Thais’ lives — not the “sowing wild oats” part, but from the part way before, when you could still eat pillowy sweets after school and feel comforted instead of guilty. This is from the navy-and-white school uniform, pigtails and black mary-janes part of life. It’s the part of life that holds the most power, if not the most allure, because it’s when those synaptic connections to food and security are first formed.

Everyone thinks of Pathum Cake when they see fresh butter buns (kanom pang nuey sot) but always skim over the part where this is a foreign recipe. Different variations are baked throughout Bangkok (and the world, no doubt), but the one that our helper Pravee makes is based on a recipe from Turkey, of all places. Wherever this recipe originally hailed from, only one thing really matters: everyone, even my super-Thai mother, enjoys it.

Pravee folding fresh butter and powdered sugar into each parcel of dough

Fresh butter buns (makes about 8-10 buns)

  • 400 g bread flour
  • 100 g cake flour
  • 25 g powdered milk
  • 125 g sugar
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 180 ml milk
  • 150 ml water
  • 50 g whipped cream
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 Tbsp powdered sugar
  1. Mix all dry ingredients (flour, powdered milk, sugar, yeast and salt) in a bowl.
  2. Mix all wet ingredients (milk, water, whipped cream and egg) into a different bowl.
  3. Gradually and carefully fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients until dough is formed.
  4. Take one handful of dough at a time, roll flat into circles of about 10.5 cm circumference, and add 1/2 Tbsp butter and 1/2 Tbsp powdered sugar into center of each circle. Wrap up like a parcel and form a round ball with butter and sugar in the middle. Set into a lightly greased baking pan. Repeat with remaining dough and cover buns with a wet towel.
  1. Allow to rest for 45 minutes on the countertop, covered.
  2. Brush rested buns with glaze made of one beaten egg yolk.
  3. Combine 150 ml warm milk and 50 g melted butter and pour over buns right before inserting into oven, preheated to 180 degrees Celsius (150 if your oven runs hot like ours does).
  4. Let bake for 10-20 minutes.
  1. Before serving, cover with more powdered sugar shaken over buns with a strainer or sieve.
  2. Eat hot from the oven.

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Glutton Abroad: NY sanuk

Lunch at Thai Diner

Thai language lesson of the day: “Sanuk” is a Thai word that means “fun”. It is something that I am definitely not experiencing right now, in my seventh day of quarantine after entering the Land of Smiles. The silver lining to all of this isolation is that I have lots more time now to blab blab blab on my blog. You’re welcome.

So, in the interests of service journalism, I’ll give you a rundown on everything that has happened to me since checking into my hotel room.

Day 1: Arrive at the airport and am whisked away in a van for the drive back to town. Enter the hotel, get led into the room, and because it’s nighttime, take a well-deserved hot bath (yay bathtub) and fall like a dead tree into bed.

Day 2: Every day at 9am and 4pm we are to take a photo of our temperatures. Today is also the first in a series of three swab tests that we have to take throughout our 14-day stay. In New York, where we were last week so the memory is still fresh, there were vans parked throughout the city administering free COVID tests. The test they administer is done by swabbing very gently near the opening of the nostril, followed by a quick prick of the finger which is then rubbed onto paper to test for antibodies in the blood. All this to say that it’s not what they do in Thailand, where we are still doing the super-deep-right-up-into-your-brain-stab-type swab. Of all the things in New York, the free Lab Q van COVID test is what I miss the most, even more than bagels.

My test is negative.

Sleep.

Day 3: Yoga with Trude after I finally figure out how to zoom.

Sleep.

Day 4: Yoga, then downloading an unhealthy number of home decor and stylist games.

Sleep.

Day 5: Playing home decor and stylist games for hours. Cursing everyone who has the bad taste to not vote for my designs. WTF is it with picking the absolutely most boring stuff ever? So so sick of beige, taupe and gray. Do we all aspire to live in an Aman resort?

Sleep.

Day 6: A little swerve where I decide I am going to learn the dance to “Boy with Luv” by BTS. Discover that the best way to make yourself feel old is to try to learn the dance to “Boy with Luv” by BTS.

Second swab stab test of the stay. Negative.

Start watching “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” on Netflix. These ladies are mean.

Sleep.

Day 7: Here, where I am with you, ruminating on my past trip to New York, where my nose was being gently swabbed by a stranger in a van. We have reached the nostalgia stage of our quarantine.

Lunch at Wondee

Now, I’ve had bad Thai meals in New York (one meal in Williamsburg comes to mind), but I’ve had really good ones, too. Any trip to Wondee Siam, first discovered when we lived on W. 48th Street two decades ago, ends up being a good meal. In fact, it was our first meal in New York this time around, and we had only been away from Thailand for 10 days.

We ordered like we had been away from Thailand for 10 years: gang som with fresh seabass, stir-fried morning glory with chilies, stir-fried Chinese kale with salted fish, an omelet to soak up all the spice. The piece de resistance of the meal was the fatty pork kua kling, stir-fried in slivered kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, and a decent amount of chilies (though not really “Thai spicy”, it was spicy enough). So good, I forgot that I was returning to Thailand soon. That’s all you can ask of a straightforward Thai restaurant abroad, right?

Thai Diner, on the other hand, is not a straightforward Thai restaurant. Indeed — if the point of a Thai restaurant is to serve food that you could find in Thailand — then Thai Diner is not much of a Thai restaurant at all. But that’s not the point. The point is to have fun with Thai food, playing around with Thai ingredients and flavors within the parameters of a “diner”, if that diner is actually a pretty nice bistro. The dishes that result are sure to make any old-fashioned Thai person like my mom really angry. The rest of us can enjoy it for what it is: food that you might expect out of a really good Masterchef competition when the mystery box is put together by a Thai chef (I’ve been watching some Masterchef Australia while in quarantine, too).

The funny thing about Thai Diner, to me at least, is that nothing on the menu actually sounds that good. But when it comes to your table, it looks delicious, and when you take a bite of it, it’s frequently irresistible. That was definitely the case with the “cabbage rolls”, stuffed with a delicious turkey and mushroom mince and brought to the table in a puddle of tom kha soup that was actually really lovely with the cabbage. It wasn’t only the fusion-y stuff that worked, either. Straightforward Thai dishes like khao pad puu (crab fried rice), holdovers from the owners’ previous restaurant, Uncle Boon’s, were good enough to make my very Thai husband happy.

The standout of the meal, though, was a sandwich that Karen raved about before we even got to the restaurant. It seemed simple enough: the “Thai Diner egg sandwich”, a roti wrapped around a filling of scrambled egg, fried Thai basil, cheese and sai oua (Northern Thai sausage). In other words, a Thai breakfast burrito. But when Karen said she’d shared her sandwich with a friend during a previous brunch at Thai Diner only to bitterly regret it later, I believed her. This sandwich had haunted her dreams.

(via GIPHY)

Alas, Karen was forced to share her sandwich once again.

It’s the kind of dish that makes me mad that I didn’t think of it first. Isn’t that what all the best things do? “We Will Rock You”, Sriracha sauce in a squeeze bottle, cocktails in a can. Of course this makes sense. Thanks Thai Diner. I will make this at home.

Once I get home, of course. COVID swab tests willing.

Now it’s time to sleep.

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Glutton Abroad: Philly freedom

Me with all my friends on Atlantic City’s boardwalk

Philadelphia feels like an overlooked city. Located on the Eastern seaboard between New York City and Washington DC, it’s often a place you have to drive through in order to get to where you really want to go. While anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history will know it as the birthplace of the United States, Philadelphia also doesn’t come to mind as a foodie Mecca. But Philly is where Morimoto launched his first eponymous restaurant; is known as a haven for lovers of Italian-American cuisine; and has become a breeding ground for cutting-edge restaurants like Vedge and Zahav. If you come to Philadelphia, you best pack your favorite stretchy pants because you will certainly eat well.

Let’s face it though: the real “cuisine” of Philadelphia is what you’ve always expected it to be.

It’s sandwiches.

Their most famous sandwich is, of course, the Philadelphia cheesesteak. I remember having a spirited discussion with friend (and lifelong Philadelphian) Will in the middle of Terminal Reading Market on what the “authentic” version of the cheesesteak would be if you had to choose between Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s (the two most famous purveyors of this sandwich, ironically forgetting for the moment that authenticity is a trap and a sham). My hypothesis was that Geno’s cheesesteak was the “real” one because it featured Cheez Whiz as well as thinly-sliced beef (alas, you must place your order in English there, because you are in MURICA). Will pointed out that Cheez Whiz was not invented until the early 1950s, while cheesesteaks have been around since 1930 (again alas, he is correct).

The basic history of cheesesteak, after some very basic Googling, is that hot dog vendor Pat Oliveri (of Pat’s!) created the sandwich in 1930 after throwing some beef on the grill to make himself a snack. Unlike Geno’s, Pat’s uses melted provolone and beef chopped into bits (also, presumably, you can order in different languages). At both places, you order your sandwich “wit” or “witout” chopped onions. Cheesesteak aficionados would probably agree that both sandwiches are not the best specimens available in today’s Philadelphia.

Incidentally, Wawa produces a decent cheesesteak, and has done so since the Middle Ages, when I was in college at Bryn Mawr. What makes it are the hot peppers, which are apparently not a mainstay at either Pat’s or Geno’s.

I am not here to tell you where to get the best cheesesteak. There were way too many sandwiches for me to try and I was there for a limited amount of time. I am here to say that Philadelphians happily embrace their cultural heritage. Even the sushi bars do a twist on the sandwich.

Part of the menu at Zama, which also believes cheesesteaks should be made with provolone

The next famous sandwich of Philly: the roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, the entire reason I was in the crowded Reading Terminal Market braving COVID. This sandwich — roast pork on a hoagie bun with melted provolone and broccoli rabe — is VERY popular, luring hundreds of customers a day to queue up in an orderly fashion with squalling toddlers in tow wondering why they have to wait so long for lunch. Here I admit I had a little dustup with Karen (who is, after all, also a Philadelphia native). You see, after doing yet again some basic Googling, I was informed that shredded pork was less dry than the usual roast pork slices. Our friend Pasha also said that “long hots” were what made the sandwich (sense a theme here?), an addition that I and all of my neighbors in line happily partook of.

Shredded pork sandwich with long hots from DiNic’s

Karen was unhappy that I would choose a sandwich that was not the one that every other person was in line for. In fact, she believed in the importance of tasting the original sandwich so strongly that she stood in the long line herself, getting me the roast pork sandwich with “greens” and provolone as God had always intended.

The “real” DiNic’s sandwich

I am grateful to Karen’s sacrifice in the name of research. I have to say, though (in whisper): I hated the melted provolone on the roast pork. The bitterness of the broccoli rabe was a relief. Maybe I was kosher in a past life. Also, the long hot peppers were really the savior of this sandwich. The bread was great on both versions.

Better than either the Philadelphia cheesesteak or DiNic’s pork sandwich? A sandwich that wasn’t even in Philadelphia. It was in Atlantic City, at a place called White House, where Karen made us drive to try the famous “White House hoagie” (an Italian hoagie with extra salami and provolone). It is the flavor of Karen’s childhood, spent at the boardwalk (where she also sampled copious amounts of salt water taffy and fudge). Best of all, the sandwich hasn’t seemed to change over the past 30-some years.

Yes, it was delicious. And Karen made sure to order extra red peppers, which in this case came chopped up finely for you to scatter into the nether regions of the sandwich at will. Again, the peppers made the sandwich. The mountains of salami and provolone didn’t hurt either.

The best thing to have after such a sandwich, of course, is a “water ice”, a name which Karen pointed out doesn’t make any sense, since ice is made out of water. The important thing to do here is to pronounce “water” as “wood-er”. I have yet to perfect this skill. Warning: this shaved ice dessert will dye your tongue for hours, so beware when you order something that’s not red or pink.

Cherry flavor at Chuck’s Water Ice

Ultimately though? Sorry to disappoint you sandwich lovers (and Joey from “Friends”), but this was my favorite sandwich of my trip to Philadelphia. Yes, I know it’s not really a sandwich. It’s a quesadilla filled with huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on corn, which sounds horrible but tastes like mushrooms). It was delicious and part of the best meal I had in the city.

Huitlacoche quesadilla from La Llorona

Having gotten all those sandwiches out of the way, I will be returning for more of this.

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