When I decided to move to Korea, I didn’t realize that an oven-less apartment was part of the deal. Only after the decision to move here was final did a friend inquire, “You know, they don’t usually have ovens over there. How are you going to do it?”
I wasn’t an avid baker all my life, but ever since moving into my own apartment in college, baking has served as a therapeutic release to the daily stressors. I would transform my fears of “I hope I didn’t fail that test!” into “I hope this bread doesn’t fall.” Or “How do I even start on this paper much less choose a topic?” into “If I combine both of these cookie recipes into one, will it be twice as delicious?” And by the end of college, my fears of “Who will hire a theatre major without any idea of what she wants to do?” into “Who should I bring these cupcakes to?” By the end of college, the middle of the recession, and the beginning of my new life, I was baking almost every night.
My friend’s question was an important one to me. How was I going to live for a year without my heat box induced therapy sessions? Instead of being able to thoroughly examine my options, I was instead swamped with the responsibilities of leaving my life in America and packing for my life in a foreign country.
Now, my life in Seoul has settled to a level of comfort. I have gotten the hang of eating with 6-year old Koreans everyday. I have made great friends worthy of keeping once I leave. I even have posters hanging on my walls, even though most are made by the aforementioned 6-year old Koreans. But one thing is missing: homemade baked goods.
As Thanksgiving closed in, I realized now was the time to jump into the world of baking without an oven. For my first attempt I decided to try steamed caramel cakes. Maybe making homemade caramel and my first trial of steam baking at the same time was not the best idea. But I did it, even if it did take me five days.
Yes, you read right. I started the recipe on Friday night and didn’t finish until Tuesday night. Don’t worry. The recipe doesn’t take five days. I stumbled across a few road blocks along the way that made me wonder whether I wasn’t supposed to try to bake.
First, I gave myself a second-degree burn on Friday night. It rendered me incapable of moving my left forefinger away from a stream of cold water for over an hour. How did I do this? Well, I wanted to try the caramel so I put some on the spatula then dipped my finger in it of course. I know, I know. Not smart. Apparently, on Friday nights my mental capacities are a little lacking, to say the least.
Second, Andre and I almost burnt our apartment building down. We were making breakfast the next day, frying some potatoes and homemade bacon, when poof! Our small, movable gas range was engulfed in flames. Andre, being the quick thinking one, dashed over, turned off the gas and eventually, somehow, tamed the flames. How was this not like any other kitchen fire? We have an external gas line that runs directly next to the stove (smart thinking, I know), and the fire had burned a whole into the gas line. Flaming gas was spilling out the side. The cord obviously needed to be fixed and the fear of another fire doused my thoughts of steaming any cakes for the rest of that day.
Third, time is never on my side. Before I knew it, it was Sunday night and, as any teacher will attest, a good night’s sleep is a necessity when teaching, much less teaching 4 to 6-year-olds for eight hours with no break. So, by the time I could bake again, it was Tuesday. But I finished, and was very thankful for the recipe I had chosen since caramel can sit in a pan with no consequences. Just reheat when ready!
The cakes turned out moist and flavorful. Steaming, while not the same as baking, comes surprisingly close. Before the actual steaming, the therapeutic benefits are equal to those of your standard baking experience: muscle relaxation, pain reduction (outside of injuries incurred during the process), a general sense of well-being, and a mouth-watering dessert.
For the cakes, be sure to remember to set aside some of the caramel before making the syrup. A pinch of coarse salt is an interesting way to top off the cakes (I’m a big fan of the salty-sweet combination). For some extra umph, try adding a dab of orange juice and cinnamon to the syrup. It’s a fruity, crisp kick next to the moist, heavy cakes. Mmmm….
Steamed Caramel Cakes
(Adapted from Quick and Easy Asian Desserts by Tuttle Publishing)
Makes about 4 mini bundt cakes or 10 rice wine cups
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk (or 1/4 cup cream or evaporated milk, but use more sugar in the dry cake mix if using these)
1 egg, beaten
1 1/4 flour
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
1/8 cup sugar (if using cream or evaporated milk, use a heaping 1/4 cup)
Optional: Pinch of coarse salt to sprinkle on the finished cakes
1. Heat 3/4 cup sugar in a small heavy-based saucepan over low heat until it melts and caramelizes. When golden brown remove from heat.
2. Pour hot water onto the caramel. BE CAREFUL! The caramel will splutter. And no matter how much cooler you think the caramel has becoming, it is not cool enough to touch. Trust me.
3. Boil the caramel for a few minutes until completely melted and a syrup is formed. It should not look lick a think caramel anymore, but instead a dark syrup.
4. Measure 2/3 cup of the syrup. Set aside the extra for garnish later. If you do not have enough, just add more water.
5. Add the melted butter, milk, and egg to caramel. Stir well to combine.
6. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir in the 1/8 cup sugar.
7. Make a well in the center and pour in the caramel syrup. Stir in gently until a smooth batter is created.
8. Lightly butter mini bundt cake trays, make cake pans, or rice wine cups. Fill each about 1/2 full with batter, they will rise in the steaming process.
9. Steam the cakes until set. It will take about 25 minutes for a small rice wine cup and about 45 minutes for a mini bundt or cake pan. They are set when the middle of the cake does not jiggle when shaken.
10. After cooling and being taken out of the mold, pour the caramel syrup on top of the cakes. Serve immediately.
While my first jump into steaming did not unravel the way I had envisioned, the product was saliva inducing. Steaming is sure to become a regular in our Seoul kitchen. Hopefully next time, it won’t take 5 days.