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Thursday, February 02, 2006

à ma recherche de temps perdu

Kanomkai

When the Portuguese arrived in what was then the Kingdom of Ayudhya (the predecessor to the Kingdom of Siam, which is Thailand now) in the early 1800's, they brought with them many culinary techniques that would remain until today in Thai cuisine. Perhaps the strongest influence was in dessert making, where Foy Thong, Thong Yip, Thong Yod, and other desserts made with egg yolks cured or cooked in syrup remain in the forms recognizable even in today's traditional desserts in Portugal and some parts of Spain.

The Portuguese also left a primitive form of oven baking with the Thai, as seen in this particular dessert in the photo above. It's called Kanom Kai (Kanom means, simply, desserts, in Thai, and Kai means eggs). It's made of egg and sugar, beaten together into a cake-like batter, then baked in a cast iron pan with ridges (like the back side of a Madeleine). The pan is heated over a charcoal fire, with more smoldering charcoals filling the lid of the pan, providing heat from bottom and above.

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The proper Kanom Kai relies on the freshness of the eggs and uses no other leavening or artificial scents. The best ones, looking like oversized Madeleines, are ethereal, baked until the bottom forms a crust that is almost crispy, tasting of caramelized sugar and fresh eggs and nothing else. Frankly, I haven't had a good version of them for a long while. Kanom Kai is getting harder to find, as it is fighting a losing battle with other newly arrived, fanciful desserts. The ones that are around these days use baking powder and fake vanilla scent, and taste like nothing I remember from way back when.

I still can't help stopping in my track every time I see these Kanom Kai. When I was little I just adored them. I remember staring in amazement at the pan doing its magic, transforming wet batter into delightful little cakes, before buying a bag and running home. Invariably I wouldn't make it half way back before I broke open the bag and ate a few, all the while skipping happily, ignoring the protest from my nanny that eating on the run was not what proper little girls do.

These days, when I see them, I would buy a bag, take a bite, and sigh with disappointment. The ones in the picture above were no exception. Oh well, at least watching them being made brought back some lovely memories.

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