When I bought a new stove four years ago, I went to Sears where two out of three Americans buy their home appliances. I wanted a reliable, simple stove and selected a General Electric gas-powered one for $550. I couldn’t afford stainless steel but went for cast iron grates, a large oven, and one 13,000 BTU burner. Aside from that, it was a pretty ‘average’ range. Over the years, it continues to work like a champ and is my buddy for recipe developing and testing. I couldn’t imagine living/cooking without it.
The other day, however, I was reminded that there are people all over the world who use rudimentary — but rather brilliant — methods to make a good meal. Geremi Nguyen emailed this question:
I have a baking question for you, my grandmother used to bake almond
cookies (banh hanh nhan) over charcoals with some sprinkle of sand and
the cookies were delicious. Have you ever heard of this technique I
think I may have left some description out because it was so long ago?
I know that back then my grandmother always baked without an oven
because there was no oven in the house. Also most of our foods are
cooked either by stove top, grilling, frying and steaming so there was
no need for an oven unless you own a bakery. So could you please find
out the answer for me and post it online or send it to me.
I can’t imagine putting sand on cookies to make them taste good, though good almond cookies have a touch of salt in them and a bit of graininess to lend an edge. But that’s really not what Geremi was inquiring about. He’s talking about a simple method that Vietnamese cooks used (and some perhaps still do) to control cooking temperatures. While I’m no molecular gastronomist, cooking food is about applying heat. Good cooking is about controlling heat well.
In 1966, my mother’s oven was a 2-ply aluminum box that she placed on a charcoal brazier and put additional hot coals on the top of the box. The heat circulated between the layers of metal and she could bake in the box. That was considered fancy and upscale.
Mom recently told me about judging a baking contest in a rural area outside of Saigon. It was 1958 and she was young, somewhat intimated by the task at hand. "There were all these old women who turned out to compete," she said. "Though they were country people, they were highly skilled and surprisingly sophisticated in their techniques."
These gals all had to bake cakes in molds that were shaped like those for popovers (see to the right for western popover molds). There were no ovens. Just charcoal braziers. What each woman did was place a metal skillet atop the hot charcoal. They put sand in the skillet to moderate the heat. The cake pans were placed inside the skillet with the batter in the mold. Duck eggs were used in the batter for extra richness.
With a lid covering the skillet, the cakes baked, rising to great heights and flowering open on top. Each entrant was judged on a number of qualities, one of which was how nicely they manipulated the baking so that the pattern on the cake’s top was beautiful. "They must have had to cut the top partway through the cooking," Mom surmised. "I never learned their secret. But sand was a tool they used to bake amazing cakes."
"We used to roast peanuts, with their shells still on, in a skillet with sand in it so the peanuts would cook evenly," she added. "Back in those days you were busy controlling the heat somehow because the charcoal got so hot." One method was to burn your charcoal, whether it was hardwood or compressed pieces of coal, and then sprinkling on sand to the reduce the heat. When the coals were too cool, you’d poke at some of the sand to make it fall into the crevices between the chunks of charcoal. The addition of oxygen would revive the coals; I’m sure there was a bit of fanning too. The modern equivalent to adjusting the sand is to futz with the flame knobs on the stove.
My guess is that Geremi’s grandmother used the sprinkle sand-on-the-charcoal method to control her heat. Almond cookies need moderate heat (350F) so she had to finesse that well to turn out good tasting cookies. Perhaps there was a special smokiness to the cookies, which may have been prepared with lard, not butter. Next time you’re camping at the beach, this may be something to try.
Note: In Vietnam, like in other developing countries, people may also cook with rice straw and coconut husks, as well as other biomass fuels. It’s