Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My contribution to the table

Brownies and chocolate chip cookies amongst traditional Moroccan sweets for a holiday

For as long as I’ve been able to stir chocolate chips into cookie dough, I’ve been a baker. Some of the highlights of helping my mother with her in-home daycare during high-school summer vacations were those afternoons baking with the grade-school kids. I would have my rapt audience study my careful measuring of flour and sugar. I would assign them jobs of mixing or spooning dough onto waiting cookie sheets, and we would all hear our stomachs grumble in anticipation of the results of our culinary chemistry.

I later went off to college, barely making it through those first dark years of dorm-life dominated by cafeteria food or what I could heat in a microwave. Of course the latter half I rectified this with apartments and ovens that once again fed my need to throw flour around.* By grad-school I was luring people into my art studio with the promises of sweet treats. I found my food mentors in the Visual Resource Library of Washington University, headed by Betha, who was also writing a food column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at that time. My tastes became ever more refined and my determination to master the oven became ever stronger.

Then I came to Morocco. As I packed my bags I made a personal goal to improve my bread baking skills in between my duties as a volunteer. I reconsidered how easy this might be as I struggled to light a gas oven with a lighter and burned several sheets of cookies in the unfamiliar Moroccan oven. I’m a fast learner when I am interested in the subject, however, and by the time I set up my own house I was shopping for my own little metal box to fire up.

A year, and hundreds of kilos of flour later, I find myself amazed (but should I really be?) at how much of an influence baking has been on my service here. I have started to regularly teach different baked treats to a cookie association in town. I had started working with them in another form—as an English and jewelry-making instructor, until the building they were using for these activities was robbed and shut down during the summer. I reconnected with them in the fall when I discovered they were still meeting on the other side of town—this time the focus was on cookies and couscous. Perfect! I was excited to have another opportunity to work with this motivated group of women. I now look forward to every Thursday as a break from my other running-around (this is for another post). I get to sit down and get my hands dirty, whether it is my recipe contribution or a traditional Moroccan one. We have a great teacher-student relationship; I get to continually switch from one to the other. It feels good to hear that the cupcakes I’ve showed them how to make are in high demand at their newly opened storefront.

Another surprise is how I managed to get into cheese making. This came to be in the slow summer days, out of my need to: a) improve the poor selection of cheese in most of Morocco, b) fill the hole that a summer garden usually occupies, and c) make things from scratch. My careful research resulted in ways to make cheese in Morocco using local equipment and ingredients. I celebrated these discoveries by having a workshop attended by fellow PCVs in hopes of spreading the cheese (preferably over bread). This has since spawned further interest and trainings in my site, as well as several other locations around the country. This month I will be leading two cheese-making workshops down south, with my regrets for not being able to attend a third that coincides with the others. It is exciting to think of the culinary money making possibilities!

If this wasn’t enough for me, I just finished editing the “Breads” and the added “Cheeses” sections of the PC Morocco cookbook (email me if you’re interested in an updated copy of these sections). I have also started a food blog to record some of these made-from-scratch attempts. For those of you who are in Morocco, I try to emphasize the use seasonal and locally available ingredients (with the acknowledgement that I live in a larger town and have a wider selection available to me than the smaller villages). You’re also welcome over to help me get rid of my latest experiments, of which I have more than my waistline alone can handle.

*At this point I feel the need to mention my former roommate, and culinary companion, Claire, of The Food Outcast. She had to go gluten free (making me feel a little guilty for all the gluten I’ve given her over the years) but continues making delicious concoctions in her kitchen in Swaziland.