Flavours collect like memories. They are powerful conjurors that dance on the lips and the tip of the tongue. I am an amalgamation of everything I have ever eaten. A stew. A mélange.
The plate is a time machine. It is a portal. A train ride. A winding alley. It can evoke a specific moment, a person, a gathering, or a celebration. Time spent in a kitchen, whether alone or with loved ones are cherished moments where wooden spoons become sacred instruments, and my grandmother’s apron beyond precious. Sometimes when I let my mind wander, I have to laugh because it seems like pages from a cookbook. I have come to believe that a craving is something far more complex than just the desire for a specific food.
A simple bowl of hot pastina takes me back to Nonna’s kitchen: the sound of her gold lamé Daniel Green slippers clicking as my brother, cousin, and I ‘sbuffo’ the little stars across the table in a fit of laughter.
The first trip to Europe with a friend encapsulated in a doughnut oozing with violet jam eaten out of a brown paper bag on a side street in Krakow. (3 days in a row…)
When I think about spanakopita, I can only imagine a sunny Sunday drunk on champagne with a gaggle of easter bonnet clad friends, hands dripping in butter as we took turns caressing thin sheets of phyllo dough into place.
Gnocchi finds a 14 year old me in a dim grotto dining room somewhere in Florence, where heaping plates were brought out of a quiet kitchen by a round, rosy cheeked chef missing a finger.
Don’t get me started on special Christmas ravioli, Mom’s meatloaf (mine still doesn’t taste as good as hers), egg topped rice, hot dogs (more of a nightmare, actually), Chinese-style green beans (magical) … We could end up here for a while.
And now, after 2 years spent living in Korea, there is a whole new layer of flavour studded memories for me to savour… So fresh they have barely had time to settle. For starters, there is my love of sweet red bean paste. Boiled, sweetened, mashed beans: it just doesn’t seem like something that should rustle up such deep pangs of desire. I hoard mochi like they are tiny treasures, and while in Korea I formed a disturbingly strong attachment to a specific bean paste studded delight: something that I endearingly refer to as swirly pat bbang. It is the perfect hybrid of something distinctly Korean, yet straight out of my childhood. Beautiful little loaves of lightly sweetened bread, with a thin swirl of that delicious beany delicacy snaking its way through. Like cinnamon toast- but different- and oh, so good. It was made to be sliced an inch thick, toasted to a fine golden brown, and slathered with butter before carefully unrolling it bit by bit- like a measuring tape- for proper consumption. Once a week I would hike down the tall, meandering, thigh burning hill that we lived on (25 minutes 1 way!) to the train station, hop on board for a 10 minute ride to the heart of downtown Dongducheon and from there make a bee line for the tiny corner bakery for a loaf of that swirly pat bbang…
Korean Swirly Red Bean Bread (danpat bbang):
makes 1 loaf
I learned through the process of developing this recipe that the making of the bean paste is a very delicate matter, not to mention an art form! My original recipe (created by combining a few different Korean recipes I had found) had far fewer steps and did not take into consideration how important it is to carefully treat the beans in order to get a beautifully flavoured paste. I kept thinking that it had something to do with the amount or type of sugar I was using, whether or not there should be some vanilla added…or some secret ingredient I just didn’t know about. It just seemed like my bean paste was lacking some subtle dimension of flavour that I felt should be there. Well, it continued on like this through a few weeks of testing until I stumbled across the Japanese film Sweet Bean one morning. Not only was it a gorgeous film… (a reminder that much of what brings happiness are the simple joys…)…it also inspired me to try a different approach for cooking sweet bean paste. Slower, meditative, with more intention. I did my research, this time reading all about the Japanese techniques. Seriously. The difference was revelatory! Watch the film, then make this bread!
Soak the beans the night before you want to bake the bread, or you can make the bean paste up to 1 week in advance…(just keep the paste in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator and bring it up to room temperature before use)
First rinse 1 cup of adzuki beans with cold water in a colander. Pick out any deformed beans, then place them in a medium sized bowl covered with water and soak overnight.
After the beans have soaked, you can get your bread dough started. While the dough goes through the first rise you can work on making the bean paste.
For the bread:
3 1/2c flour
2 1/4 t yeast
Wisk 1 3/4c flour and the yeast in a large bowl.
In a small saucepan over low heat combine milk, shortening, sugar and salt. Stir gently until shortening is dissolved. Let cool a bit until mixture is warm- around 120 degrees.
Add milk mixture to dry ingredients, then add egg, and stir to combine. Add remaining 1 3/4c flour. Mix until dough starts to come together, then turn out onto floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. If the dough seems too sticky, add about 1/4c more flour and continue to knead.
Grease a large bowl, and toss the dough around a little to coat before covering with saran wrap and setting aside in a warm spot to rise for 2 hours.
Meanwhile- make your bean paste!
For the bean paste:
1c red (adzuki) beans
1/2 t baking soda
12 T white granulated sugar
food mill or fine mesh sieve
After your beans have soaked overnight, place them in a heavy bottomed pot and barely cover them with water. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Bring to a simmer slowly over medium heat. When the beans begin to wrinkle (about 20 minutes) add 1 1/4 cup cold water. Bring back to a gentle simmer, then add another 1 1/4 cup cold water.
Cook over medium heat until they are very plump 40- 50 minutes. Watch the beans carefully, do not let them reach a full rolling boil at any point during the cooking process as this will cause the skins to crack, and thus change the flavour of the final result. Too much heat = cracked and broken beans= bitter bean paste. Gentle simmering and covering the beans with just enough water to keep them submerged will prevent the beans from ‘dancing’ too much and you will get a beautifully sweet paste. Yum!
After the beans are nice and plump, gently pour them into a colander and rinse in fresh, cold water. A short rinse is ideal, as the rinsing time will also effect the final flavour. Quick= more bean flavour, long= less. Put the beans back into the pot, barely covering them with cold water, and let stand 5 minutes.
Bring the beans back up to a gentle simmer, once again paying close attention to the amount of heat used, and working to prevent any excessive movement that might cause the beans to crack. No dancing beans! You can dance while you cook, but not your beans! If you want to get super hard core about it, you can place a piece of parchment paper with a small slit cut into the middle on top of the surface of the beans. This will help keep them from moving around.
Simmer for about 50 minutes. (You can use a spoon to gently push down the beans to help keep them submerged.) If the cooking liquid gets too low, add hot water to just keep them covered….don’t let the beans get dry…
Once the beans are nice and soft and can easily be squished between your fingers, drain them into a colander that you have lined with cheese cloth. After most of the water has drained on its own, gather the edges of the cloth and gently twist the little bundle to squeeze out more of the water. When you can press your finger into to the side of the bean bundle, making a little well, and the well keeps its shape you have squeezed out enough water!
Put half of the beans back into the pot, add 12 Tablespoons of granulated sugar. Cook on medium high heat, using a back and forth motion with your spoon instead of a circular stirring motion to move the beans in the pot as the sugar dissolves. Once all of the sugar is dissolved, cook for 2 minutes, then add the remaining beans.
Continue to simmer over medium high heat for 10 minutes, all the while gently and slowly shifting the beans back and forth in the pan being careful not to crush or burn them. When you are able to draw a line in the bottom of the pan with your spoon and reveal the bottom for a brief moment, your paste is done! Remove from heat.
Place the bean paste in 4 little piles on a cookie tray to cool. After it has cooled a bit, process the beans into a smooth paste using a food mill or squishing through a sieve. You should get about 1 cup of paste. Set aside to use, or cover and place in the refrigerator for up to a week.
After 2 hours, turn your dough out onto a floured work surface and roll into an 8 inch by 18-24 inch long rectangle. With a spoon, drop 3/4 cup of the bean paste in little dallops all across the dough. Using the back of your spoon, gently spread the bean paste to create an even layer across the length of the rectangle, leaving an inch or so of the dough closest to you bean paste free (this will make it easier to seal the bottom crease after rolling)
Starting at the far end, begin to roll the dough toward you, making sure to keep it tight. Pinch together the bottom seam to seal.
Grease (and line- I most often use parchment or foil) a loaf pan, and put your rolled dough in, seam side down. Cover with saran wrap and let rise again for another 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
If you would like your loaf to have a shiny top, beat together 1 egg with about 1 tablespoon of milk and brush on the top prior to baking.
Bake 35- 40 minutes on the middle rack.