Sunday, February 6, 2011

First Georgian cooking lessons

Cooking is one of the things I love to do no matter where I am. Different places bring new methods of cooking -- when camping I cook in a much different way than when I am in my own kitchen, but the food is no less delicious. Now that I have no kitchen of my own, I do a lot of observing instead of actual cooking. But this weekend, cooking lessons abounded! I learned to make three new things that (I think) I'll be able to make when I get back to the U.S. 

Finished cake design ready for its final rising
Saturday morning Tea told me while we were eating breakfast that she wanted to try making the cake that her sister had taught her to make a couple of weeks ago. It is the one that takes some artistry to put together, and she is a bit trepidatious of that part, so I told her that I would help. Then I added that I would love to write down the recipe and help her make it. She agreed, so with pen and paper in my hand, I wrote while watching and listening as Tea measured out the yeast and sugar for proofing, mixed together the eggs and sugar while I melted butter and heated milk on the stove, added them to the egg-sugar mixture, added in the yeast mixture next, and finally, the flour. Everything is done by hand, and measuring instruments are not standard -- a regular spoon, a tea cup from the cupboard, a saucer. As I wrote the steps, I tried to estimate what the standard measurements would be, but I think that a few attempts on my own will tell me since it's all really done by feel. 

Since it's a yeast dough, it has to be allowed to rise a few times before being baked. We started the dough just after breakfast, and it wasn't until mid-day that it was ready to be put together in the pans. Tea did the first one (there was enough dough for three large cakes) while I watched and wrote down what to do. While the first one was in the oven, some of her students came to the house to be tutored, so I told Tea to leave the kitchen to me, and I would take care of everything. What fun! I stoked the fire when it got low, punched down the dough, oiled the cake pans, rolled out the circles of dough for the main part of the cake, spread on the fig jam, then oiled my hands and rolled narrow rods of dough to criss-cross across the top of the jam. Then with scissors, I cut tongues of dough and stretched them to the sides, making a leafy pattern that looked a little like bamboo (in the first picture). It was so much fun to be active in the kitchen instead of passive (I hate sitting around). A couple of times Koba poked his head in the door as I was filling the stove with hazelnut shells or rolling out the dough, and he just chuckled. I'm sure he's not used to seeing a "guest" work the kitchen. After a final rising of the dough in the pans, we baked them. Delicious!

That night we made suneli -- hot chili paste. After clipping the stems off the dried chilies, we washed them, then clamped a metal meat grinder to the table (the same kind my mom used when I was young to grind pork, potatoes, and onion for pork pie). We took turns at the grinder -- the chilies were very difficult to mash through the machine. While one of us was turning the handle, the other fed peppers and, every now and then a spoonful of salt into the hopper. It was such hard work, we kept stripping layers off as we worked the grinder -- usually I wear two tank tops, a long-sleeved shirt, a vest or sweater (sometimes both), and a scarf. With the fire going in the stove and the hard work of cranking the handle, we heated up quickly and by the time we were done, we had peeled off sweaters, scarves, and vests. With two of us working together, it only took about 30 minutes to grind all the chilies. Then we put three heads worth of garlic cloves in the hopper and ground those, too. Along with the chilies, salt, and garlic, Tea added some ground coriander and another spice whose name we still have to look up in English. The chili paste keeps for several months and is added to everything -- the way I usually use Tabasco sauce!

Pelamushi is the last thing I learned to make this weekend. It is like nothing I have ever had anywhere else, and the only way I can describe it is a grape juice pudding…..but not really. This one is going to be the most difficult to make correctly in the U.S. unless I make my own grape juice as well. But I have the directions for that, too, so I just may! But I am getting ahead of myself..

Several weeks ago I went to a birthday supra -- I know that I wrote about it in an earlier post -- at Sopo's house (another Georgian English teacher), and we talked about getting together to make pelamushi some day. True to her word, Sopo called me this week to see if I could go to her house to make some today. So at 1 o'clock I made my way to her house in the rain with my pen and paper in my coat pocket. 

Sopo is a good teacher for me -- I have to do in order to really learn, and she was prepared to let me do everything while she directed. I'll get to the steps in a minute, but first I have to write a word or two about my audience. The fact that an American was coming to the house for a cooking lesson brought most of the extended family to the kitchen to watch. Sopo's aunt, uncle, brother, husband, cousin, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law all congregated in the room -- thankfully her kitchen is large enough to accommodate such a curious crowd. The ladies were the funniest -- of course, they are the ones who usually run that kitchen, so they watched earnestly and nodded deeply with approval and oooo'ed and aaahh'ed over every new step that I did correctly. They sat in a row on a bench along one side of the stove like three great athletes who had been benched for the game while the newbie took a turn. They kept offering to help me during the hot, difficult work, and when I declined to let them help, they nodded their approval anew and called me a good student.

So, on to pelamushi -- the only ingredients are home-made grape juice, sugar, flour, corn flour, and a touch of vanilla and honey. Again, the measuring instruments were a tea cup and a coffee mug. And again I estimated the standard measurements as well as I could. The flours and sugar were mixed together first, then a cup or two of juice was added and mixed in until there were no lumps in the dry ingredients. This mixture and the rest of the grape juice were combined in a heavy pot and put onto the stove for the hard work. The mixture had to come to a boil, but it had to be stirred constantly to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. At first it was easy to stir, but as it heated up, the mixture got thick and heavy, and standing over the hot stove got.....well, hot. Again, I stripped off some layers as I stirred -- hat, scarf, sweater, and vest. (This is when the benched cooks kept asking if I wanted them to help.) The point at which the pelamushi is ready is quite subjective -- it has to be taste-tested for proper consistency -- when the corn flour is soft, it is done. When that point is reached, the pot comes off the stove and the thick mixture is ladled onto whatever it will be served on - plates (large or small) or a large pan. It has to be jiggled to smooth out the surface and then garnished with grated hazelnuts or walnuts. 

Sopo's uncle kept joking that I should open a Georgian-cuisine restaurant when I get back to the States. He told me to take a couple of local grandmas with me to help with the cooking. I told him that I keep telling Tea that if she came to the States and opened a restaurant, she would make a killing -- she's such a fantastic cook. But as much as both Tea and I love to cook, we are teachers..... so the cooking will have to remain for fun alone. Well, that and necessity!

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