While I haven’t packed a suitcase or boarded a plane, and the view from our windows remains the same, my new Quarantine Kitchen series has me exploring different cultures and their history through a culinary lens. Since I was feeling down about our travel plans having been cancelled and wanting to still feel like I was getting to know and experience new places, I came up with the idea to cook what we would be eating while traveling. We’ve already been to some amazing places and had our fair share of phenomenal cuisine over the past nearly two years, so I knew our prior travels would also serve as a source of inspiration.
My goal for Quarantine Kitchen is to create destination-inspired menus based on places we have visited and look forward to visiting in the future. My plan is to try to make at least two dishes (likely a main and dessert); learn more about the origins of the cuisine and connection to the culture; and of course, make adaptations as necessary to avoid unnecessary shopping during this time. Rest assured that I’ll be documenting both the successes and failures on the blog!
I kicked off my Quarantine Kitchen series with no less than two challenging menus inspired by Valencia and Budapest. Valencia was the final stop on our road trip through Spain for the Christmas 2019 holiday. I loved Valencia for its beautiful weather, ample space for outdoor recreation, and delicious food. Fast forward a few months and we were all set to visit Budapest, Hungary during this Easter weekend until the coronavirus upended all plans. I was especially eager for the food tour we had booked, but instead I have committed myself to creating our own stay-at-home food tour.
Starting with Valencia, paella was an easy choice for the main course seeing as it remains a favorite of mine. One of the most widely known Spanish dishes, paella actually originated in Valencia. This rice, vegetable, and meat meal gets its name from the dish in which it is cooked; paella is a Valencian word meaning frying pan. Today, the most popular form of paella is made with seafood, but traditional paella would be made with beans, rabbit, and sometimes snails. My paella, although Valencian inspired, was made with chorizo, chicken, mussels, and shrimp because those ingredients were easy to find. I was pretty happy with the end result of the paella and even more so pleased that we didn’t eat it all in one sitting.
For the dessert, I decided to go with something we had not tried during our visit – bunyols de vent, or Catalan donuts. These treats are typically eaten during Lent, so it seemed fitting to try my hand at them earlier in April during the Lenten season. To be honest, donuts are not exactly my favorite dessert, but these “wind bunyols” are light and airy, more akin to donut holes, which I do like. These sweet treats were brought to the Catalon region in the Middle Ages by the Sephardic Jews. Bunyols can be round or disc-shaped and are often made with pumpkin.
The bunyols, not requiring an abundance of ingredients, seemed simple enough. The rum and lemon zest created an appealing flavor and I was sure that these weren’t going to disappoint. All seemed to be going according to the recipe until it came time to mix the eggs into the dough. My dough transformed from smooth and creamy into watery with some suspicious clumps. It looked more like mac n’ cheese than donut dough. Realizing there was no going back, I decided to carry on and settle for whatever the end result of this unappetizing dough may be. After some frying, the donuts turned into stout pancakes, but to my surprise they actually tasted pretty good.
It occurred to me exactly 24 hours later what I likely did wrong. The recipe called for self-rising flour, but I had forgotten to add baking powder and salt to my all-purpose flour to make it suitable. That, and I probably should have used a mixer to incorporate the eggs into the dough. After this realization I consulted the experts in this subject matter – Spanish abuelas (grandmas) demonstrating the proper technique for mixing up and frying these delightful creations. Their YouTube video made it look easy!
I couldn’t mull over my mistakes for too long though since I had to prepare for the Hungarian inspired meal. I recently finished the book I Kiss Your Hands Many Times by Marianne Szegedy-Maszák, which recounts the lives of the author’s Hungarian family members in pre– and post–World War II Europe, and later the US. I learned about Budapest’s café culture and the city’s infatuation with decadent cakes served in opulent eateries. Having recently become aware of the Hungarian charcuterie near our apartment, I was eager to survey the store and talk with the owners. When I popped in last week, the man behind the counter greeted me and knew immediately that the beef shoulder I was requesting was for a goulash. I asked him for a wine recommendation that paired well with goulash and he plucked a bottle from the shelf assuring me that he knew the owner of the vineyard, whose family has been making wine for 300 years. He said that the wine was as good as a French wine for the price (it was less than 10 EUR).
Goulash is Hungary’s national dish, so it was a fitting choice for my menu. This meat and vegetable soup seasoned with Hungarian paprika and other spices supposedly originated in the 9th century when it was concocted and consumed by shepherds on the Great Hungarian Plain. To balance this humble dish, I decided to set the bar high for dessert and try my hand at an intriguing trifle known as somlói galuska. This layered sponge cake was first created for the World Exhibition of 1958 in Brussels, after which it became popular across Hungary.
It seemed like I was off to a good start with the goulash as I peeled and chopped vegetables before searing the meat and starting the stew. Meanwhile, I was happy to have Dan helping me prepare the somlói galuska. The recipe called for three kinds of sponge cakes: one plain, one with cocoa and one with grounded walnuts; three sauces: vanilla, chocolate, and a rum-orange zest flavored one; plus rum raisins, ground walnuts, and whipped cream to top it off. If I’ve lost you, you’re not alone. All these sauces and sponges were confusing to keep straight, and the recipe did me no favors by offering only vague instructions (a medium-hot oven?) and no helpful hints.
Let’s just say that similar to the bunyols, I knew things weren’t quite right about half-way through when I pulled the sponge cake out of the oven and it was still runny. The cake never recovered and the only thing that was truly salvageable was the rum-orange sauce that I am currently drizzling over lemon muffins. We each had a couple bites of the cake but decided that the raw egg was not especially appetizing.
A break from the kitchen was in order after my disappointing desserts. Other notable highlights of the past week included more biking in the beautiful spring weather, but this time on a canal-side trail outside of Brussels. I made it to the Hallerbos forest which is known for its spring-time bluebell blooms that carpet this public forest. I arrived a bit early for the full blooms, but it was still a serene visit and I got a taste of the color that will come in the near future.
I supplemented my bikes and runs with some strength workouts, using what I had on hand to serve as weights. In this case, it was a ski helmet that I filled with a sack of potatoes to serve as a medicine ball. I enjoyed more walks for exercise and colorful flower spotting. Brussels is in bloom!
I’ve got more up my sleeve for Quarantine Kitchen and am really hoping for a better outcome in the baking department. Although it hasn’t been without frustrations, I appreciate that this venture has me laughing at my failures and savoring my successes while explore different cultures and cuisines in a creative way. I also know exactly what I’ll be ordering when we do eventually make it to Budapest. I need to know the secret to success of the somlói galuska.