Archive for April, 2009

Friends + Cheesecake

April 29, 2009

Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was “prepared” for Malawi before I came, a lot of things here have turned out to be more or less as I imagined them.  One major aspect of my Malawi life that I didn’t anticipate, however, is the degree to which my cultural experience here would be enriched – by other expats.  Since I live in the capital, there’s a fairly significant expat population; I count Canadians, Irish, Finnish, Swedish, Germans, South Africans, English, Americans, French, Dutch, and Italians among my friends.   I’ve heard all about the South African election and learned that the right-most political party in the Netherlands is still left of the US Democrats.   (Hey, I was a government major, after all.)  I now know a handful of German words that are probably completely useless outside my handful of German friends.  I have become familiar with South African braai culture.  (It involves lots of meat.)

Though the expat population is large, it is also transient.  My next few months here will be filled with going away parties, to the extent that I’m not sure there will be many people left to attend mine!  Last night, a few friends and I headed to Chameleon’s, a popular expat hangout, to celebrate my friend Anna’s last day of work.  She’ll be bumming around Malawi for another month before heading back to Canada and real life, so it wasn’ t exactly a goodbye party – but it WAS an excellent opportunity to test out my latest culinary experiment.

And that experiment was:  cheesecake.  Yes, I can hear your commentary from here.  “But Amy, I thought there weren’t good dairy products in Malawi, let alone cheese!”  This is mostly correct, but my ambition often outweighs my ability (and, perhaps, common sense).

While cream cheese is both expensive and hard to find here, local dairies manufacture a product called Chambiko which is, as far as I can tell, some sort of fermented milk product.  It comes in baggies, just like fresh milk, and can be had for a mere 90 kwacha a 500 mL bag.  It’s a mix of liquidy and chunky – like a very thin yogurt, I suppose.  As I have learned, Chambiko is a versatile product:  it can be used to make paneer, as a substitute for sour cream, and yes, even cream cheese.  Since I used Chambiko “cream cheese” to frost cinnamon rolls with relative success, I decided it was time to step up my game:  Chambiko cheesecake.

My efforts were slightly hampered by the fact that I don’t have a springform pan, and more importantly, that I’ve never actually made cheesecake before.  But, as I said, desire outweighs ability, and so I set off, armed with a recipe for mini-cheesecakes.

Here’s the original recipe, courtesy of my aunt Donna, via my mom’s email:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place 12 whole vanilla wafers in the bottom of FOIL cupcake liners in muffin tins.
Mix together:  2 eight-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
Beat well.  Pour over cookies in liners.  Bake 25 minutes at 325 degrees.  Chill.  Top with desired topping–pie filling, chocolate, etc.
(Depending on the size of the muffin cups, it might make more than 12.)

First, I purchased 3 baggies of Chambiko, and strained them in a cheesecloth overnight.  (If you’re trying this at home – though I can’t imagine that you are – the Suncrest Dairy Chambiko worked better than the Lilongwe Dairy kind, which had too much liquid.)  In the morning, what was liquidy slop will be magically transformed into a semi-solid mass.  (I threw away the drained liquid, which is a pretty unappealing shade of yellow.  I imagine you could use it somehow, though.)  It turns out that 3 baggies was a good volume estimate, because with the liquid drained, I was left with about 16 oz of Chambiko solids.

From there, the process was pretty straightforward.  Because my vanilla wafer substitutes  (Hav Sum Moors) are  bland, I turned them into a graham cracker crust instead.  (Because really, you know that the addition of margarine and sugar makes everything more delicious.)  I used the back of a spoon to press the crust into each of the muffin liners.  Then I mixed up my “cheesecake” batter.  I increased the amount of sugar from what the recipe called for, and while some increase was needed, I may have gone a bit overboard.   I was also pretty liberal with my “teaspoon” of vanilla.  I had to increase the baking time by about 10 minutes; I think Chambiko is a little more liquidy than actual cream cheese.  Still, they turned out looking surprisingly like cheesecake.

And here’s the real kicker:  they tasted okay!  I showed up at Chameleon’s with a mom bag in tow:  cheesecake, hot fudge, strawberry jam, plus plates and spoons for everyone.  I commented that they didn’t really taste like cheesecake, and one of my food snob friends turned to me and said, “Amy.  Have you TASTED cheesecake in sub-Saharan Africa?  This is amazing.”  But then, doesn’t (homemade) hot fudge make everything edible?

I forgot to take a photo until after several were eaten

I forgot to take a photo until several had been eaten.

My Malawian Chambiko cheesecake recipe turned out to be something like this:

Preheat oven to 175 degrees C.
Line muffin tin with cupcake liners (paper worked okay).
Place graham cracker crust (1 c. graham cracker crumbs + ~4 Tbls butter + powdered sugar) in each cupcake liner.
Strain overnight:  3 – 500 mL packages of Chambiko
Mix together:  Chambiko solids (~2 cups)
3/4 cup sugar (I used 1 cup, but that was too much)
1 tsp. vanilla (or more)
2 eggs (I didn’t change this!)

Beat well.  Pour over crusts in liners.  Bake 35 minutes at 175 degrees.  Chill.  Top with desired topping–pie filling, chocolate, etc.

And, the hot fudge recipe, which I only had to modify slightly:

1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2cups white sugar
6 oz. evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    Combine butter, cocoa, sugar and evaporated milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 7 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla.


    Back in Malawi

    April 24, 2009

    After a four-day safari in Zambia, Chris headed back to the States on Monday.  I’m trying to get back to the grindstone, but so far have mainly been running errands and taking care of 7000 little things that were waiting on my to-do list.  Unfortunately, I’ve also been having difficulties with computer – both the internet and some virus I have contracted – so currently cannot upload many photos of the animals we saw on safari.

    Though the list is not nearly as impressive as the photos, we saw:  hippo, elephant, zebra, hyena, civet, python, giraffe, impala, buffalo, kudu, bushback, warthog, fish eagles, and lots of birds.  Sadly, there were no cats; though our guide thought we were close to a leopard one morning, we didn’t actually see it.  The safari was still fun, though, and the elephants were awesome.

    We stayed in a permanent camp on the banks of the Luangwa River, which is a favorite grazing ground for hippos.  One morning, I awoke at 2 AM to smacking sounds – the hippo was chowing down right outside our tent!  Because we went with an organized tour, two game drives were included each day – from 6-10 AM and from 4-8 PM.  It was a lot of time in the back of a jeep, but we saw some pretty awesome sights, including:






    Awesome elephant!


    Yawning hippo

    We saw a lot of impala, but the light was particularly nice on this one.

    Other safaris! (Doesn't this look like a diorama?)

    Lake recap

    April 15, 2009

    I’m not really a water person. Having grown up in a landlocked state where trips to the pool were generally confined to two weeks of swimming lessons every summer, I prefer breath-taking landscapes to endless ocean blue.  But there’s no denying that Lake Malawi is a beautiful place.

    Lake Malawi vista

    Lake Malawi vista

    Chris arrived without incident (and bearing supplies from the outside world), and we puttered around Lilongwe Friday evening.  On Saturday, we hit the road to spend the weekend at Cape Maclear, which was, for Easter weekend, basically an outpost of Lilongwe.  The last hour of the 3 hour drive to Cape Mac is pretty harrowing in a sedan, as it involves a dirt road that seems not to have ever encountered a road grader.  But once we arrived, it was a great place to relax and enjoy views like this:

    View at Otter Point

    View at Otter Point

    We enjoyed tasty food, good friends, mediocre music, great snorkeling with the Malawi cichlids, beach time, and sunsets over the water.

    Sundowner boat cruise

    Sundowner boat cruise

    Though Cape Mac is a popular weekend location, the camps, backpackers, and resorts are strung out through a series of villages.  Vacationers mix with locals, who live life along the lake as usual.  It’s not unusual to see people bathing, washing dishes, and doing laundry in the lake.  As Chris remarked, it’s a mix of “resort Africa” and “real Africa.”

    Life along Lake Malawi

    Life along Lake Malawi

    Now we’re back in Lilongwe for a day before departing for some game viewing in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.  Keep your fingers crossed for some lion sightings!

    Happy Easter!

    April 10, 2009

    Today is a public holiday in Malawi, and indeed, it seems that everyone is already on vacation.  Since Monday is also a holiday, this is a popular travel weekend for many expats; I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t fleeing Lilongwe for at least part of the weekend.  My visitor, Chris, arrives in a little over an hour, and at this point I have given up any illusions of finishing any more work today.

    Though I’m looking forward to a holiday, the seasons still leave me discombobulated.  This morning dawned chilly and gray, and felt more like Thanksgiving than Easter!  Adding to my seasonal confusion, these poinsettia-like flowers have started blooming in my yard.

    Poinsettia bush?

    Poinsettia bush?

    One of the great things about living in Africa is that there’s always something blooming.  I suppose the same is true of more tropical climes around the world, but since I’ve only ever lived in temperate zones, this is exciting to me!  When I arrived, it was the jacarandas (the purple trees), then the fire trees (red), and now, the acacias (yellow).

    Poor photo of an acacia tree

    Poor photo of an acacia tree

    I do apologize for the short post this week.  I actually witnessed some pretty interesting political demonstrations on Wednesday (Malawi’s presidential election is coming up in May), but wasn’t carrying my camera.  What you missed:  some of the nicest vehicles I’ve seen in Malawi carrying legions of screaming members of the DPP, all wearing Bingu wa Mutharika’s face plastered on their t-shirts and chitenges.  I got stuck in traffic not once, but twice, for the motorcade.  Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to snap a few photos!

    Barring unforseen circumstances, this will probably be my last post until sometime early next week.  Happy Easter to you and yours!

    There’ll be days like this

    April 6, 2009

    My mom says it’s time to update my blog.  I’ve been planning to write a little more about my research here, but today was reminiscent of Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, so here we go – a little rant.  Feel free to skip to the bolded bit near the bottom, where the more positive comments come along.

    My day started with the best of intentions.

    I got up at 6:30, answered a few emails, and got ready to go for a little jog.  (I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but my friend Rachel’s marathon training has inspired me to take a turn about the neighborhood a few mornings a week.)  But when I went to the bathroom to put in my contacts, I realized there was no water.  Water pressure had been low yesterday, but today, a turn of the cold tap released nothing but a tiny drip.  Not wanting to be voluntarily sweaty and gross all day, or be scalded by the remaining hot water, I nixed the running plans.  Then I searched (fruitlessly) for a number for the Lilongwe Water Board.  Eventually, a friend was able to find the number in the phone book and I called to report my outage.  They assured me they would call once they found the problem.  Right.  You can probably guess whether I ever got a phone call.

    Also on the agenda for this morning: a fourth visit to the Zambia High Commission for my visa.  (On the previous three visits the Immigration Attache was unavailable.  Despite the stated visa processing window from 9-12 each Mon-Wed, it seems visas are actually only processed on Monday.  If you’re lucky.)  But when I got in my car, the battery was dead; I called the mechanic.  (It’s a loaner car that drains a battery weekly.  I did not leave the lights on.)  While waiting for the mechanic to arrive, I endured absurdly slow internet and rescheduled a phone interview that was supposed to be last week. Malawi decided to change all the telephone prefixes on April Fools’ Day, and now I can’t receive international calls on my cell phone.  The mechanic eventually arrived with my car for me to “test drive,” jumped the loaner and took it back to figure out why the battery is draining, and told me to call him after I’d driven my car.

    I finally got out of the house around 10:30, got in my car, discovered almost immediately that the problem the mechanic had assured me was fixed was not, and drove to the Zambian High Commission.  By now, the receptionist knows me.  I took a seat.  After 30 minutes or so, my turn came to see the Immigration Attache.  He looked at my paperwork and informed me that I needed a letter of introduction from my employer, a requirement that neither the Zambian Immigration website nor the receptionist had mentioned on my previous three visits.  By this time it was after 11.  “Will you be processing visas on Wednesday?” I asked, not knowing how quickly I could get said letter.  The attache – whose job, by the way, is to process visas – wasn’t sure if he would be in the office on Wednesday.  “What if I can’t get a letter in the next 45 minutes?” I asked.  “You’ll get it,” was all he had to say.  Fortunately, the Public Affairs section of the US Embassy was nearby, and I was able to procure a letter in short order.  I returned to the High Commission, returned to the queue, and eventually made my way back to the office.  He flipped through my papers and scribbled on the top one, talking on his cell phone the entire time.  When I returned to reception to pay, I realized that he had approved a single-entry visa, when the whole point of this saga was to save $30 by getting a multiple entry visa.  Though I was tempted to give up at this point, I did not have the exact change (in USD, the only currency accepted – even at the border) for a single-entry visa, so – back in line.  This visit was relatively quick, I paid, and finally left.  I still do not have the visa in my hands; I’m supposed to go back on Thursday at 3 PM.  Any bets on whether my passport will be returned at that time?  By this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve wasted $30 worth of time, energy, and gas going back and forth.

    It was now noon, and I had a few more errands to run, as well as a highway test drive to take.  I ended up whiling away another hour with a friend over coffee while waiting for the mechanic to get back from lunch.  We discussed how Malawi has moderated our Type A personalities – and how life here can still be really frustrating.  Eventually I spoke to the mechanic, who told me I should bring the car back in the morning, so I returned home.  Fortunately, though it was now 3 PM, the water was back, and I was able to do a few hours of work, go jogging, do some yoga, and take a (glorious!) shower.  Most of my article-writing plans, however, were preempted.  Tomorrow is another day?

    So, for those of you keeping track at home, here are the status updates:
    Internet – slow
    Cell Phone – working only within Malawi
    Car – “fixed” but still obviously not fixed
    Water – back
    Zambia visa – in the works.  Maybe.

    And yet, despite all this, I’ve recently started really liking Malawi.  Maybe it’s because the end is in sight, or because it takes me a long time to get settled (anywhere), or because I’ve finally made a solid group of friends, but the expat bug has bitten me.  I suspect this may have something to do with the excellent weekend I just spent at a friend’s lake house, which involved good food, sand, sun, and this spectacular view:

    View from the beach house

    View from the beach house

    I’m also looking forward to my friend Chris’ arrival on Friday, and his accompanying delivery of staples from the first world, including Gimme! Guatemala coffee beans, a non-leaky tent, a computer battery, and cardigan sweaters.  We’ll be doing some sight-seeing around Malawi and in Zambia (if I get my passport back), so expect more exciting touristy posts (rather than whiny, boring ones) soon!

    And, to respond to some previous comments:  the piano belongs to my housemate; I am not nearly that dedicated.  No, I did not spot Madonna while she was here, but yes, I think the Malawi court did the right thing.  By right thing, I mean adhered to the adoption law of Malawi.  Regardless of your sentiments about international/celebrity adoption, Malawi law is explicit about an 18-month fostering period within the country.  It’s not clear to me why the courts waived this requirement for the first adoption.  If the government is so enthusiastic about her support, then maybe laws should be reconsidered in Parliament – but not exceptions made by the courts.  And finally, I was surprised but pleased to return from my beach weekend and find all sorts of news about Iowa’s ruling on gay marriage.  Moral arguments of all stripes aside, the ruling is not about right or wrong, it is constitutionally grounded – as it should be:

    “We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective,” Justice Mark S. Cady wrote for the seven-member court, adding later, “We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law.”