mardi, février 24, 2015

Banana Bread (could have been gluten-free but wasn't)

Banana Bread

We went hiking in Hong Kong over the CNY holidays and left whatever food we couldn't clear out before leaving to their own fates. Among the stuff were 2 bananas that turned black on the outside, but remained surprisingly firm and white on the inside. I am no expert in bananas so I can't dissertate about why these bananas were not rotting on the inside, nor could I tell you if the race and cultivation methods had anything to do with that, but ripe bananas certainly do tend to reveal a primitive desire in me to cook or bake them.

I have baked a number of banana cakes and brownies in my life, and I am always ready to try something new. In recent times I've been reading quite a bit about the use of alternative grains in cooking and baking, and I've seen with my own eyes how ladies who couldn't eat gluten tend to be really skinny. Unfortunately I love my wheat and know that it would be torture to resist the pasta, fresh loaves and cakes, so I have been toying with the idea of reducing processed wheat flour with small amounts of alternative "healthier" flours. On this day, I found almond meal, organic chickpea (besan) and wheat flours in my pantry, so I used them. I've run out of wholemeal wheat flour, and would have loved to use it too if I had any on hand.

With this Year of the Goat, we started our 5th year as expats in Shanghai. This would be our longest expatriation ever in one country, and while we welcome it as the children are attending good international schools, the Hub still has lots to accomplish in his current position and I enjoy being chauffeur-driven, there are moments when I feel tired of living in this expat bubble and wished I could be somewhere where I could plant a few trees, choose my own tiles for the bathroom, build my own kitchen and meet more people who lead "normal" lives. As I do my morning walks, I often spend time renovating my own place in my head, and they come in all sizes, from tiny to moderately big though never too big as I still do not think I'll want to hire full-time domestic help.

If you have been an expat for as long as I have been, and in so many different places, you would have met all sorts of people. There are people with whom you could enjoy existentialist, metaphysical and/or XXX discussions and debates, but with most people, you will have to keep relations at the how are you and I love you levels. When I first arrived in Paris to study politics at Sciences Po, I often wondered what's with the French and their love for talk shows where they discussed and debated everything to death; then I spent a few months in Rochester, NY, where I noticed that most people looked at life in black and white, where you had to constantly put yourself in one camp or another. That horrified me, for I couldn't understand why a land of liberty could produce so many people with such limited views, and with such an overpowering sense of good versus evil when the gun is so freely wielded by people both "good" and "bad". Just as I had romantic fantasies about Arab oil sheikhs that dispersed at my first contacts with a few North Africans, I dropped my American Dream and returned to Europe, to the Brits with their sense of humour, the French for their lack of, the Germans for being there to make sure that everybody toes the line, the Italians for being such a mess but for making the best pasta and ceramics...the list goes on for the Continent is as big and diverse as it is old.

Here in Shanghai, with such a very big expat population, you amplify the contacts you have with people from all over the world. And you have what I didn't have in the other expat communities I lived in: Charity Galas and loads of charity-related events. China, I guess, has both the world's second largest number of billionaires as well as gigantic pockets of people who need help. Help that they seem not to be getting from their billionaires, nor from their government that taxes people like us 50% of our income at its source. So it's more or less left to the many warm-hearted locals, expats and international schools here to carry out year-round fundraising, combine that with the IB requiring their students to do charity as part of their learning and Diploma, and you will be doing charity in one way or another here, both directly and indirectly.

Recently, a friend reacted to a Wechat discussion a group of mums from the school were having about charity overdose. She posted a few thoughts on Facebook about how people who travelled a few times a year complained about donating 10 rmb here and there (e.g. during charity drives at school); that some mums complained about being solicited to help out at school while others did their part without complaining. As I have mentioned earlier, it's a friend that I like and respect, so I resisted the temptation to point out in her FB posting that what she wrote couldn't logically hold much water as there was too much hyperbole in it. How could people who could afford to travel a few times a year not want to pay 10 rmb to help out a few poor Chinese kids? Surely the issue runs deeper than that and if a few hundred, even thousand rmb a year could help save your soul and your conscience who wouldn't go for it willingly? Unfortunately, if you take it at such a minimised angle, it made those who dared to complain about charity drive attrition, or how our kids only look upon charity as taking money from mummy to give to the school, look really bad. Still, as I've always said to those who would listen, only you yourself know what you think and have done, so no problem there. Least you think I'm speaking behind her back, I will bring this up with her face to face another time.

Speaking of travel, most expats I know do travel a lot, some more comfortably than others. There are expats whose companies (usually American) offer them generous travel allowances that may pay for business class air tickets, hotel accommodation and even car rentals, there are expats whose companies only offer an annual ticket home (and if you are like us it's only for economy class) and there are others who get nothing. So 4/5 times when we travel, it's out of our own pocket, it's a choice we make that usually requires sacrifices on our part e.g. the Young Adult has nothing saved towards his college education. But even when I was earning peanuts as a young graduate I've always managed to save enough to travel each year, so it doesn't matter if I couldn't afford luxury travel, I'm happy just to continue seeing the world and experience life beyond the usual with whatever means we have at hand. And if 10rmb here and there could make me feel better about this indulgence, it wouldn't be too much to give away. If only things are so simple...

Helping out at school is another expat-related issue. Back in those days when my kids went to public schools in France, the only people you ever get to see if you should go to school were a few grandparents and nannies at the school gate (usually closed during school hours). Most mothers worked and the schools only asked you to turn up if there was an issue with your child. When our children first attended an international school in Italy, I had my first PTA contact and ended up spending almost 4 years in the school itself. Certes, I made great friends among the other mothers who helped out and I entered into some friction with the School Principal because of my big mouth (but since then we understand and respect each other, don't we?), but I literally lived with the school and the other expats. Arriving in Shanghai, I saw that the situation was similar, though as the schools are bigger and the population bigger too, you wouldn't get the same sense of community as you would back in Modena. I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and kept a low profile most of the time, helping out whenever I could or felt like it, and most of the time I would turn up to help without having put my name down for it - so that nobody would remember me if they were looking for "volunteers" later on!

Besides helping out in the classrooms, parents are often required to help out in charity-related events often driven by the school, its Student Council and/or its PTA, from baking goodies for sale to organising the charity galas etc. I have given much thought in the past few years to this, but came up with no obvious resolution about my personal involvement at this moment. When I was a teenager, I spent 6 years of my life as a volunteer with the elderly in a neighbourhood social service centre. We were hands-on charity workers and had to come out with time and effort beyond time for studies or work. We had a camaraderie with our fellow volunteers and a connection with the senior citizens we worked for that money wouldn't be able to buy. It's like studying about humanitarian effort at University and learning about how just providing funds could do more harm than good. At the same time, without funds, charity effort on the ground cannot be sustained. So it's a combination of different effort at different levels; you have to admire and thank those people who, by hook or by crook, raise the funds to feed your charity labour and the fund raisers are glad that there is a good reason for them to give money for.

In Shanghai, many expat mums leave behind their jobs (at least temporarily especially for the first timers) in their own countries and arrive in an environment like the school which, I suspect, gave them a sense of belonging and purpose. I'm sure they sincerely feel compassion for the Chinese children, orphans etc they are helping to raise funds for, but looking from the angle of a former volunteer, it's relatively glamorous work attending meetings (and from what I heard, a lot of politicking and egos flying around most of the time in them), baking cupcakes, charming shops to donate prizes...But it's important to have someone do it and we should be grateful that they did what they did because they didn't have to in the first place. Then other expats could find a nice dress to wear to a gala, make a few bids in the silent auctions and send more money to a few charitable organisations. Everyone has a place in this karma-generating enterprise and we can only hope that those who really need the money and help get the majority of all of that.

Do I sound negative or positive or do you really need to figure it all so very clearly? What happened to the Banana Bread? I blog this recipe for my Bulgarian friend ES (still living in Modena) who asked for it and hope that she will like it.

Banana Bread :

1½ cup all purpose wheat flour (could replace ½ cup with wholemeal)
½ cup organic chickpea flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 ripe bananas mashed
½ cup brown sugar (can also be ginger-spiced) 
½ cup olive oil (preferably light-flavoured)
1½ tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup water
½ cup walnuts or pecan nuts chopped and optional

20x10x10 cm loaf tin oiled and floured

The method : 

Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Mix dry ingredients (e.g. flours, baking soda, salt and cinnamon) together in a large bowl.

In another large bowl mash the bananas and combine with the sugar, olive oil and vanilla to a smooth consistency.

Slowly mix in the dry ingredients adding the water as you go along.

Stir in the chopped nuts if you are using them.

Pour into the loaf tin and bake for an hour.

With maple syrup

This loaf is best eaten warm, but I enjoy heating it up slice after slice a day or 2 later and eating it with maple syrup or nutella.  

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