Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Operation smoke smell removal

Last week on the night between Monday and Tuesday at 1.22 am, I woke up to the fire alarm. Which in my building usually means that someone got home from a night on the town, decided to make themselves a toast. We have ridiculously sensitive smoke alarms in the building I live in, and they usually go off at the first molecule of burned toast. This happens regularly. There are no words to describe how annoying it is. Sometimes when I cook so that I'm using both my oven and hob, the apartment just gets so hot it sets off the heat sensors. Even with all (i.e. both) windows open. And nothing burning. Just from the water vapor from boiling stuff and the heat. Which again, I think is inhumaine conditions to live (i.e. cook) in. But believe me, no matter how annoying it is to have to run down all 52 steps of stairs to turn off the alarm, that is nothing compared with what it feels like when the alarm goes off because of an actual fire. 

In this case, my downstairs neighbour had been smoking inside, then set off to paint the town red. Leaving the smouldering cigarette butts to set fire to the apartment. Did I mention, it is strictly prohibited to smoke in the building (the whole building is owned by my letting agency, and therefore all tenants have the same rules to follow). And ironically, only a few weeks ago, there was a letter sent to all tenants about complaints of someone smoking in the building, and that this has to stop immediately. Well, clearly it didn't. It's one thing if you make the choice of ingesting toxins through a burning stick, but seriously, go outside and do it. At least then it's only you who are suffering the consequences, instead of risking the lives of a building full of people along with all their earthly possessions. Just thinking of this still makes me shudder with anger. If I ever run into that guy in a dark alley, let's just say some parts of his anatomy will be running a very high risk of being very violently pulled off. Ok, that might be just a bit over the top, obviously I woud never hurt anyone (consider that a legal disclaimer...) but boy am I angry at him.

So there we were, thankfully everyone accounted for, huddling outside in the street, clutching our computers and watching a horrible cloud of smoke pouring out of the burning flat. There were three fire trucks and probably a dozen firemen. It looked really bad, we were afraid the whole place would burn to the ground. Also, note to self, if fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night, grab something warm to wear. Thankfully I had at least grabbed my coat and a pair of warm shoes, but a girl from downstairs had only thrown a coat on what appeared to be a pair of very skimpy jammies, as her legs were totally bare. At that point I was very thankful for sleeping in a pair of jammies with full length trousers and a long sleeved top. I did make quite a fashion statement standing there on the street in my cow jammies and trench coat.

To make a long story short, we stood there freezing for over two hours while the firemen slaved away at saving our building. After a while the amount of smoke started to decrease and eventually stopped completely. And after what seemed like an eternity, one of the firemen came over to us to inform us about the extent of the damage. The firemen were able to contain the fire to the apartment where it started, which was obviously an incredible relief to us all. And after another hour or so of airing out the worst of the smoke, the people living on the two lower floors were let back in. Me and my next door neighbour however, were not that lucky. Because we live on the top, all the smoke had accumulated in our flats. So there was no way we could sleep there that night.

I asked if I could go up and grab a few things, and I was allowed to do that. The hallway looked like a bomb had exploded, well at least a smoke bomb. There were black markings all over the carpets and floors, and water was dripping from the burned flat to the hallway below. And when I got up to my flat, the smell was horrible. Not just the overwhelming stench of smoke, but a sharp, toxic smell of burned plastic. I grabbed a few things as fast as I could, leaving all (two) windows wide open into the night as I asked the fireman if I could lock the door behind me. Which I was allowed to do, leaving feeling very lucky everyone was unhurt but at the same time worried about how much smoke damage my possessions, particularly my expensive dresses and shoes had sustained. Luckily Best Friend lives literally around the corner, so there I was, past three am, clutching my bag which was stinking of smoke and hoping Best Friend would answer her phone. "Sorry to wake you, but my house was on fire, and I'm not allowed to go back tonight. Can I crash at yours?".

Funnily enough, after describing the main events of the dramatic night, I fell fast asleep in Best Friend's warm apartment, under a huge down duvet, and slept without waking until the morning. Then Best Friend fed me and gave me clean clothes, and off I went to face the damage. I sent off an email to my various bosses to say that I have to sort out the damage to my apartment, and thankfully they were very understanding.

Walking in to the building was like walking into a war zone, in the daylight the stairwell looked even more horrible than it had the night before. And the smell in my apartment was absolutely nauseating. I must not have been thinking completely clearly (well, after a night of quite a shock followed by only three hours of sleep it might be expected that your thought processes are just a tad muddy) because the first thing I did was to do my dishes and wash my bathroom. My only thought was that I would have been mortified if someone from the insurance company had walked into the horrible mess that was my apartment and seen my dirty bathroom. Then I wiped off the worst of the dirt from the firemen's boots off the floor. There wasn't much more I could do, so I left the windows wide open and headed into town to get a few hours of work done from an internet cafe. It felt like a huge relief to be able to breathe in fresh air as I got out of the building.

Now, a week later, the smell is almost gone from my apartment. I currently have three air freshers and a reed diffuser scattered around the apartment, and have been burning scented candles almost every night. The windows stayed open all day and all night for the first four days. Sleeping was a bit chilly, but I think that really helped get the smell out. And I have been trying to cook a lot. Foods that would spread a nice, warm scent which would drive away the disgusting smell of smoke. Which is where today's post comes in. Is there any other scent that is as soothing and enjoyable as cinnamon rolls baking? That was my only thought, I had to make cinnamon rolls. However, in my rather exhausted and stressed out frame of mind, I couldn't imagine making a proper proofed dough, as it involves quite a bit of work as well as a lot of waiting. Back home, you can buy all sorts of ready made doughs and buns in the frozen food section, and just whack them in the oven for that lovely baked at home smell. In this country however, nothing like that exists. Or at least I haven't managed to find any ready to bake cinnamon buns. 

Wow, are you still reading? Ok, at this point I should probably reward you with the actual recipe. After all that word vomit above, the point was that I needed to make something resembling cinnamon buns, and to do it with minimum effort. The only thing I could come up with that was readily available from any grocery store (because this was in the middle of the week, so I didin't have time for a 40 minute track to the nearest supermarket, but had to come up with something I could get from one of my five (!) local tiny grocery stores) was puff pastry. Puff pastry cinnamon rolls... hmmm... I was skeptic to say the least. It seemed a bit like sacrilege. But then the thought of the smell in my apartment versus the scent of newly baked cinnamon rolls was the deciding factor. What the heck, I'll  go for it. If they taste totally vile, I'll just bin them, at least the apartment would smell nice. So I whipped up a cream cheese and cinnamon filling and tried it out. 

Super quick cinnamon rolls (makes about 12 rolls):
250 g ready made puff pastry
100 g cream cheese (I used Philadelphia Light)
2 tbsp light muscovado sugar (or more, depending on the level of sweetness you want)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp cinnamon

1 egg for the egg wash
icing sugar for dusting

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Mix cream cheese, sugar, cardamom and cinnamon until smooth. Roll out the puff pastry to a rectangle, spread the filling on the pastry, leaving a few centimeters of one long side of the rectangle free of the filling. Use a fork to mix the egg to make the egg wash. Brush some egg wash onto the filling free part of the pastry, this will help seal the buns (although as you can see from the picture below, I didn't use quite enough egg was to keep the rolls sealed). Roll into a firm log finishing at the side with the egg wash. Slice the log into individual buns, about 3 cm thick. Place on a baking sheet, brush with egg wash and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool, and dust with icing sugar. 

The verdict:
It's probably not fair to call this a recipe, as it's more of an assembly of pre-prepared ingredients. But desperate times (like a fire, or any other desperate need for cinnamon buns) calls for desperate measures. I would love to say that the buns spread a wonderful scent which drove away the smell of smoke from my flat, and then I just threw them in the bin, I mean who would eat sugar and fat rolled in puff pastry... Of course that's not exactly how it went. The wonderful scent of cinnamon buns did fill my apartment for a while, and although unfortunately not removing the smell of smoke completely, did do the trick. And as soon as the buns had cooled enough to not mortally wound me, I inhaled several of them before even sitting back down on the sofa. And they did taste heavenly. Obviously, they cannot be compared to real cinnamon buns, as there is nothing as comforting as traditional soft cinnamony buns. But for an emergency bun-a-bies, they actually did the job really well. Just think, from puff pastry to ready made buns in about 30 minutes. How's that for a quick cinnamon bun fix? One technical note though, I would make sure to bake the puff pastry until baked quite well. I usually like my puff pastry a bit under done, but in this case, you want the pastry to be really flaky and well baked. So make sure to bake it until it's a deep golden colour, but obviously get it out before the edges of the buns turn dark brown.

I enjoyed my bun substitutes with some leftover cream I had in the fridge and some chocolate spread. Yes, that disgusting thing you buy from the supermarket which tastes of cheap chocolate and horrible unhealthy fats. But in my defence - my flat almost burned down. I wonder how long I can use that as an excuse to eat absolutely disgusting things? And actually, I would think using the chocolate spread as a filling in the buns would work really well. Maybe sprinkle a few chocolate chips on as well. Or maybe make lemon bun substitutes by doing a filling of soft cheese and lemon curd. Why not go totally crazy and mix some roasted strawberries or some other fruit with the cream cheese. I guess that would result in some kind of weird Danish pastry bun... Just use your imagination, it seems like puff pastry is an empty canvas for a food obsessed mind. Oh, and my local grocery store only had a huge pack of puff pastry available, so expect puff pastry to star in a few future blog posts, although it's something I almost never use. Which you wouldn't believe if you knew what is coming up next. Well, I guess you just have to wait and see. Until then, be careful with any open flames!

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