I started writing this blogpost sitting in the Sofun Presbyterian Church in Shoufeng, southern Hualian. And the reason for my visit — baking scones. Well, at least in part.
Cooking is part of a sharing and telling exchange project organised by a group of ‘Rotarinas’: female members of the Rotary Club of Taipei. The participants were ‘Taiwanxifu’: migrant women who had married into local families, from Manchuria, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and other backgrounds. And one forthright Grandpa (aka Ah-gong), who looks after the grandchildren from his son and Vietnamese daughter-in-law.
Each woman had her own stories to share. Any marriage has its communication challenges, but this is multiplied when you are a foreigner a long way from home. There were some teary moments as the women shared common challenges of raising their children, getting along with mother-in-law, and supporting their husbands – through times such as unemployment — and dealing with the bureaucracy of obtaining permanent residency rights.
Ah-gong noted that many of the husbands, who came from poor backgrounds, effectively ‘bought’ their brides. This was a big investment for them, and consequently meant there was a tendency to view the wives as commodities. But not all matchmaking had an unhappy ending. “My husband picked me,” one woman said proudly. And despite the challenges for adjusting to a new environment, you could tell she was proud of this fact.
And the connection to scones? Well, after the sharing we had fun cooking together. It broke the ice and lightened the moment. First, my friend Kelly from deNeuville chocolates demonstrated how to make chocolate and cornflake bonbons. The proper French way, including how to melt chocolate at the right temperature. Then she put the women — and Ah-gong — to work making their own chocolate staples. The room quickly filled with laughter as they had fun tasting and shaping their creations. And the church children loved eating them the next day.
Then I made plain scones, and a variation that incorporated local sweet potatoes (kind of like Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen’s pumpkin scones). I must admit to some scone anxiety during and beforehand. Scones can be a bit hit or miss sometimes: what if the oven wasn’t hot enough, or they burnt, or ended up being hard and biscuity? And we were running behind schedule so I only had half an hour to both demonstrate and produce a few batches of scones.
I need not have worried. Ah-gong promptly stepped into assist with stamping out the scones, and then the ladies eagerly volunteered to help make more. In the end we had time to make three patches, which puffed up like pop idols in the oven in ten minutes flat. Just in time to feed hordes of Rotarians, Rotaractors and children at the church. With jam and cream, of course. They went over well, as my Nana would have said.
Day two involved a talk by food, health and management author Salina Hong, author of 吃飽才會瘦 (which loosely translates as Get Slim By Eating Until You Are Full). And a demonstration of making lemon sweet potatoes, involving three different local varieties. But that is another story.
Sweet potato scones
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed sweet potatoes, preferably the bright orange kind
1/8 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 cup milk (extra)
Jam and whipped cream for serving
- Melt the butter, and beat together butter, sugar and salt. Add the egg and set aside.
- Sift the flour and the baking powder together into a large bowl.
- Make a dry well in the centre, then add the egg and butter mixture, then the sweet potato. Stir gently to combine, then add milk to mix, and if necessary, add a little extra milk. The dough should be a sticky consistency. The bright orange sweet potatoes (sometimes called kumara) are more moist than than the light yellow ones: both work well, but add more or less milk to reach a sticky yet manageable consistency.
- Using your hands, turn on to floured board. Knead lightly until combined; do not over mix. Flatten and cut into rounds using a small cup or glass — the small ‘beer’ glasses found in Taiwan are ideal.
- Flour a tray, and place the scones on top. Place them as close together as possible.
- Brush with milk. Place in tray on top shelf of very hot oven (ideally 225C) for 10 minutes until golden brown.
- Eat while warm.