Ashley / Home-tested recipes

Adventures with a Chinese Oven

Let me start this post with the disclaimer that I am very, very, thankful that we live in a place where I can at least buy an oven as a supplement to our already wonderful and modern apartment in Western China. That being said, I have recently embarked on an adventure in baking with our Tomato brand, hongking -ly large, Chinese oven.

Traditional Chinese home cooking requires very little space and very basic tools (A favorite blog of mine best sums it up as “one man wokkery”). When I went looking for apartments last spring many kitchens included a small fridge, small storage space, small prep space, small sink and one or two burners. Think small. That’s all most traditional Chinese home cooking requires. But where would we Americans put our microwave, dishwasher, blender, coffee maker, toaster and a year’s worth of dried/canned/bulk goods from Costco?

The kitchen of our new apartment was an important deciding factor to where we were going to live. We like to cook, we like to cook together, we’re big white people, we require space. So our current kitchen fits two people, it has decent prep and storage space, two burners, and a medium sink and fridge/freezer. We’re happy campers.

We made one immediate and major addition to the kitchen – an oven. I couldn’t see myself living without baking, and Phil wanted a birthday cake, so it was an easy decision. The size of this monster appliance negates all said prep space in our kitchen, so it has found a home underneath our kitchen table, where we store it in its original box. It has, so far, only made two appearances in our kitchen, once for Phil’s birthday and once last night for dinner.

The oven would probably be a pretty fantastic purchase if its direction manual was in English and the dials weren’t so perplexing. But they’re not. So what does this resourceful expat do? She tinkers.

We have four dials in the oven, two of which I’ve immediately figured out, temperature and timer. Easy enough, right? Then there’s the “steamy” dial, which has an option with the Chinese character for off (“guan”), options for heat to come from the top heat source, the bottom and both. The last dial, which I call the “starfish” dial, is where the trouble starts. There’s the Guan/off option, a starfish option, a starfish with arrows coming out of its side option and a wavy line option. Thoughts? Anybody?

When I cooked Phil’s birthday cake I focused more on the “steamy” direction of heat dial. I have no idea what I did with starfish dial and the cake turned out less than stellar. I started with the bottom heat option and I quickly learned that if the heat came from the bottom, it only came from the bottom. Despite valiant, frantic efforts to delicately divide time between the top burner option and bottom burner option the cake was burnt on the bottom. Birthday cake fail, but it looked pretty.

Last night during round two I discovered the starfish, how did I miss this before? I think it has to do with convection settings, which means tinkering needs to happen with the temperature/time of the baking process. Peaches are in season, I’ve been craving cobbler for a while, the starfish dial can’t screw up cobbler right?

Well after the tonight I think the starfish means bake, because the cobbler came out cooked (I did lower the heat and use the double heat source option). It just wasn’t a great gooey dessert. Maybe that’s because I tried to make healthy cobbler, which, in hindsight, was a mistake. Cobbler should have lots of butter and lots of sugar no matter what the Mayo clinic says.

Next up, bread. Once I find a place in Chengdu that sells baking pans. It might be a while.

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