Long time! (As my Ghanaian colleagues would say.)
I think I promised you a tale of fufu-making, but that will have to wait.
Somewhere in the past few weeks, I went from feeling great when I wrote here because I was writing something, anything, to feeling a bit guilty when I was writing here, because it meant I was not writing fieldnotes for my actual dissertation. You know, the reason why I’m in the field in the first place, eating food that is then by definition fieldwork food. (Said Actual Dissertation has nothing to do with food, which has struck me as a major miscalculation on a number of occasions. Le sigh.) I want to dig my teeth into some big topics—deprivation and extreme culinary circumstances, and notions of ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ foods, among others—but sitting with Big Dissertation Thoughts and Big Food Thoughts is tricky.
So for now, the opposite: some fluffy thoughts about tiny cakes.
Before I moved into my delightful digs in town a few months back, I was living in a student dorm with very little to recommend it aside from its microwave. Sometimes when I had a hard day, I’d make myself a microwavable brownie in a mug.
I was excited to see my new place in town also had a microwave…but like many things about the new place, nothing works quite as it is supposed to. After fussing with various settings and dials and praying over an eye of newt on alternate tuesdays to no avail, I threw up my hands and now simply use it as a shelf.
But soon after giving up on the microwave, I was craving a brownie something fierce. What was an oven-less, microwave-less gal with a baked-goods sweet tooth to do? I recalled snatches of conversations I’d had with others in this predicament and decided—what the hell, I’d try to steam the sucker. And so I did. And it turned out so such a moist, dense crumb that it put the microwaved version to shame!
But then the next time it flopped.
And the next.
After my beginner’s luck, it was impossible to get a whole mug’s worth of brownie to cook consistently. I poked around online, thinking surely there had to be ovenless traditions of steamed sweets to tap into—and lo: the Japanese Mushi Pan, a tiny steamed cake often made with red bean. All the recipes, though, called for miniature ramekins or silicon baking cups in which to steam the cakes. Neither of these are exactly a dime a dozen in Accra right now, and so I resigned myself to stymied steaming.
But then, on an impulsive trip to the new Shoprite in Accra, inspiration struck in the kitchenware aisle: silicon ice cube tray!
I sliced it in two to fit in my saucepan, and started experimenting with gusto. Because of course, that’s what you should do in the midst of conducting career-aligning dissertation research in a marginalized post-colonial setting, right? Bake tiny cakes?
But the answer is, as I wrote about when it comes to my obdurate clinging to butter: right. You do what you need to, within reason, to keep your whole self in balance. Emotional equilibrium is important no matter the context, and some contexts throw the equilibrium off more than others. (Some days I need more reminding of that fact than others, too.)
And so I’ve been taking the time to experiment with cake. Delicious, perfectly adorable, tiny little bites of cake.
Months later, I’m still a little bit obsessed. They’re cute, they’re tasty, they’re filling, they’re adaptable, and perhaps best of all, they’re quick.
I’d say I’m embarrassed at how many meals they’ve replaced out of sheer novelty and convenience, but I’m just so delighted at how well my little kitchen hack turned out that I can’t bring myself to be chagrined.
I have found that to fill my six little tray pods,* I can use the following recipe in endless variations:
2 tbs fat (oil or melted butter)
4 tbs liquid (usually milk, but yogurt and red wine have also worked well)
Hefty splash whiskey (my go-to vanilla replacement)
Dash salt + other spices to taste
2-3 tbs sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 c additional ‘dry’ ingredients: at least 1/4 c flour + flavor: grated carrot, coconut, peanut butter, cocoa powder, powdered espresso mix, banana, etc.
Fill each pod 3/4 full, place in a pan with water to a depth of at least a quarter inch, cover, and steam for at least 8 minutes or until a knife in the center comes out clean and they pull away from the sides. Sneaking a dollop of nutella in each pod is definitely recommended. Let cool; eat all six at once. YUM.
And now, heartily self-indulged, I can return to the business of dissertation research with a full belly, a sated sweet tooth, and a clear conscience ready to grapple with deeper and heavier stuff than the tiny freight of cakes. Oh, maybe just one more…
*If you are not in a marginalized postcolonial context and have ready access to tiny ramekins or silicon cupcake liners—most of my readership, I’d venture to say—then I expect this recipe would work for two to three of those regular-size silicon cupcake cups, and probably five to six of the mini cupcake kind. You’d probably have to adjust your steaming time due to the greater density per cake for the larger cups.