Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Bad Things Happen, Bake

We were awoken this morning by an urgent phone call from Susan's security officer who asked her to account for the colleagues under her security ward. We immediately turned on BBC World Radio and fired up our computers. Initial reports came pouring in of an attack on a residence in Kabul, possibly involving the UN. After almost 5 years in these environments, we know the only truth is that initial reports are always false. Unfortunately, this morning's attacks were only too true as the deaths of 6 international UN staff were eventually confirmed.

Susan and I spent the morning monitoring our security radios, the BBC, and our email for updates. Eventually, the situation was contained and there was nothing more we could do. We tried to get some work done, but our nerves were frazzled. We'd had too much coffee and no breakfast.

Susan looked at me and said, "I need to bake something." Maybe it was our hunger, maybe it was the need for comfort food, or maybe it was just the need to be in control of something.

We had left over roasted pumpkin from the other night's ravioli, so I set my mind on a sweet pumpkin bread. Google led me to a great website, The Fresh Loaf, a community for amateur artisan bakers and bread enthusiasts. It was easy to puree the already roasted pumpkin in our blender, although I first squeezed the moisture out using some cheesecloth.

I mixed the puree with sugar, eggs, butter, flour, nutmeg,
cinnamon, and baking soda. I added a cup of walnuts and another cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips. I filled up two muffin pans with the batter to make a dozen good sized muffins and popped it in the oven for 30 minutes. Easy as can be, since there's no yeast involved, I didn't even need to closely measure the ingredients.

Meanwhile, Susan found a recipe for Soda Bread in Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food. Soda
bread is described as the "national bread of Ireland" and is made with baking soda as a leavening agent instead of yeast. It's a simple recipe of flour and buttermilk, with some salt and the baking soda. There's no buttermilk for sale in
Kabul but it's easy to make a substitute: add 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar to just under 1 cup of milk and let sit for 5 minutes. Once the ingredients are mixed, Susan hand-shaped it into a round loaf and cut a cross in the top from edge to edge to help it rise. Of course, she had to work the bread while monitoring two radios and three cell phones for updates!

Within minutes of popping in a 450 degree oven, the bread had risen beautifully and another 30 minutes at 400 degrees browned the top and filled the kitchen with a wonderful smell. I pulled it out of the oven, let it sit for 5 minutes, and cut a slice. The steaming bread had a hard crust with a moist, slightly spongy inside. Served with a dab of butter, both of us agreed it would be perfect with a hot hearty stew or maybe a soup.

Since we still had a bowl full of cooked pumpkin, and it seemed to be today's theme, Susan blended it with a soffiggere* and a couple of cups of vegetable broth to make a delicious soup. We used our fresh celery from the garden in the soffiggere and the veggie broth was boiled down from our garden tomatoes. Delicious.

Our thoughts and prayers have been with our colleagues and their families all day. I hope our readers will understand that while cooking and good food may seem a trivial concern on such a tragic day, it really is our form of coping - a bit of normalcy in the midst of lunacy.

* According to our Italian friend, Serena, soffiggere is a classic Italian recipe base of lightly pan-fried onions, carrots, celery and garlic.


  1. Great post! Is this one of the few 'food' posts to have the words 'security', 'taleban' and 'war' in the tags?

  2. love yall and am really enjoying the posts! a bit of a bright spot in a very dark day...

  3. pureeing, chopping, kneading - the perfect antidote to a stressful day