All posts for the month August, 2011

Your loaf keeps liftin’ me higher

Published August 26, 2011 by livinggraciously

Earlier this week I bragged on baking a beautiful bread. Little did I know that I would eclipse that bread in so short a time. And yet, here is today’s loaf:

This enormous loaf weighs less than two pounds. It is the lightest bread I’ve ever made, one of the lightest I’ve ever eaten. Just look at the cracks in the crust where the oven spring was more than the gluten skin could handle. And check out this lovely crumb:

Good holes all the way to the bottom, no dense lower half.  This bread was magnificent, and the baking accomplished with the wonderful dutch oven once again.

I can’t really give you a recipe, because I just made it up as I went along. But I started by double-feeding my sourdough starter the night before so that I use take two full cups of sourdough starter in the baking. To that I added 6 oz. water and half a teaspoon of yeast (I don’t have an issue with using yeast in my sourdough bread, because I’m raising it more for the flavor than for the rising capability). Into that went 11 oz. of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour, and then a long autolyse before adding oil and salt in the kneading.

A word about flour: if you want light bread, use King Arthur AP. It has a protein content higher than some companies’ bread flours, but not so high that the gluten gets tough.  Their AP. bread, and whole wheat flours are readily available in grocery stores, but they also have a great website with lots of baking goodies, specialty flours, and recipes. Many bakers consider a visit to their Vermont headquarters a kind of voyage to Mecca.

Anyway, this dough was springy and pliant with just a few minutes of kneading, and just wouldn’t stop rising. I flattened and folded it after 20 minutes, and at 40 minutes it was already doubled in size. I gave it another 20 minutes, and it was clearly ready for shaping and proofing. After an hour it was almost too big for my dutch oven.

Not quite too big, though. The dutch oven is kind of fun, because you don’t peak for the first half hour, so discovering how much oven spring you get is like a Christmas present.

In this case, the answer was, “plenty.” And it tasted as good as it looks: crisp crust and tender crumb, a hint of sour but also plenty of wheat flavor.

Maintaining a sourdough is a bit of work, but bread like this is a definite reward.


What big ears you have!

Published August 23, 2011 by livinggraciously

New breadmaking experiments. Including a very excellent suggestion for better baking conditions by baking the bread in a Dutch oven (thanks belong here: The result? The most beautiful loaf I’ve ever baked:

The bread has lovely “ears,” the little curled up bits of bread at the edges of the cuts. It’s risen beautifully, and I can’t wait until it’s cool enough to cut.

What you can’t see is the lovely sourdough scent that wafts from the loaf. I am beyond tickled by this scent and hope the bread lives up its aroma.

One of the things that is difficult to find here in Ohio is the kind of sharp-flavored sourdough bread that is associated with San Francisco and the West Coast. The sourdough starter I cultured last winter was fine for rising bread but lacked that wonderful kick. So this time I decided to start with real San Francisco sourdough starter. The directions for incubating the sourdough aren’t difficult, but it’s rather like a baby: you have to keep it warm and feed it regularly in its infancy.

After the first couple of days, I thought the baby wasn’t going to make it. The starter batter looked funny, smelled funny, seemed way too runny, and wouldn’t stay incorporated. Since I’m pretty much incapable of following directions that I doubt, I increased the flour and decreased the water for a couple feedings, and things started looking up. Then when I stirred it this morning, I got that distinctive sourdough smell off of it.

It’s still a couple days too young to be considered a full-grown starter, but I couldn’t resist making bread with the part of the starter I was supposed to discard. It took more flour that usual, and though the dough was nice and pliable, it was really soft and wanted to spread, so I proofed it using a towel-lined bowl as a makeshift brotform, which worked reasonable well.

The real trick, though, is the dutch oven. What home ovens lack is a way to keep the baking bread nice and steamy through the first part of the baking. Steaming prevents the outer layer from gelatinizing too quickly so that the bread can benefit the most from oven spring and the crust can be thin and crisp instead of tough. A dutch oven solves much of this problem by holding in the steam released from the bread and keeping it nice and moist.

The trick is preheating a 17-pound, 7-quart dutch oven to 450 degrees and then getting the proofed dough into it without incurring third degree burns. An extra-large piece of parchment paper allowed me to lift the bread in, a quick spritz with a squirt bottle assured enough steam, and silicone gloves got the whole thing in and out without burns.

Loaves of artisan bread like this cost $5 or more at the market. I will more than pay for the dutch oven in less than a half-dozen loaves of bread. And now that I’ve sliced off a sliver, I can report that the crust is crisp and the crumb tender. The sourdough flavor is not quite the strength of a good San Fransisco sourdough, but I’m hoping that it will develop.

Bread may be the staff of life, but mostly it’s yummy

Published August 11, 2011 by livinggraciously

I baked a loaf of bread today. It came out of the oven around 4:00. This is what’s left of it this evening:

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

I’ve started a new bread tonight. I’ve discovered that one of the secrets of bread is to start part of the dough the night before so that it can get all bubbly and ferment a bit overnight. The other secret I’ve discovered is the magic of the autolyse. Once your dough is mixed up, bread books now recommend letting it rest for 20 minutes before beginning the kneading process. But I’ve discovered that if you let it rest for an hour, or even an hour and a half, the dough has done much of the work itself and kneading time is cut in half. The third secret is to invest in an accurate kitchen scale. Ours measures in ounces, so I may soon be investing in a gram one as well, since I’m running into more and more recipes that rely on metric measurements.

How did I discover this? Well, let me point out that distraction and forgetfulness has been a hallmark of scientific discovery. Think of penicillin! So, yeah, sometimes our,”Oh, crap!” jumping-from-the-chair moments turn into our “Eureka!” moments.

The other times are best forgotten.

Anyway, after this loaf was casually devoured by people standing around in the kitchen, I feel obliged to provide another loaf of fresh bread for my darling daughters, who arrive tomorrow. Alas, I tumbled into bed tonight without starting the preferment.

This is where the OCD part kicks in. Also, drinking caffeinated tea in the evening is not a great idea. So here I am, preferment started, babbling about bread baking.

It almost seems sinful not to include a recipe at this point. So here goes:

Gini’s Olive Oil Bread
(derived, but not copied, from assorted bread books)

4 oz. warm water – bath temperature, not too hot to touch
1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast (not the instant/bread kind
1 oz. rye flour (if you don’t have rye flour, just increase the next measurement to 4 oz. The rye gives a bit more flavor kick, but is optional)
3 oz. quality all-purpose flour (King Arthur is readily available and works well)

Pour water into a bowl (large cereal bowls work well). Add yeast, stirring to dissolve slightly. Add flour, stir together, cover with plastic wrap, leave overnight.

Dough for small loaf (double for a large one):
6 oz. warm water
1/4 teaspoon yeast
8 oz. all-purpose flour, plus another ounce or so to add if dough is too soft
2 tsp. kosher salt
3 tbsp. olive oil

Measure water, then pour over preferment to loosen it. Sprinkle yeast on top. Measure flour into a medium-sized mixing bowl, then add preferment and stir all together until well-incorporated. Set aside for an hour or so (autolyse period).

After autolyse period, clear and clean a decent-sized counter space. Pour olive oil onto space, and sprinkle with salt. Place autolysed dough on top of the puddle. Take a moment to rinse out and clean your bowl – don’t worry about the dough; it’s not going anywhere. Dry the bowl and give it a good spraying with cooking spray. Now that that’s all done, you can begin to knead your dough.

When you first start kneading, you’re going to think that something is radically wrong. This is a slick, squishy mess that can’t possibly be right. That’s normal. It takes the first few minutes of kneading to incorporate the olive oil and salt into the dough. Just keep going. Once the dough has absorbed most of the oil, it’s likely to start sticking to the counter. This is also normal, and where bread baking becomes a bit of an art. You want your dough to be on the soft and sticky side, so don’t go crazy adding flour. If the sticking pieces look like gobs of dough, then just keep working the dough. If they look like smears of flour-water, add flour a little bit at a time.

A word about kneading: the classic method is to push on the dough with both hands, then give it a quarter turn and push again. That will work eventually, but during the oil incorporation stage adding a squeeze with the fingers really helps out. And you might want to keep one hand out of the fray at first, to make it easier to add flour.

Knead until long strands of gluten are visible on the dough and it can be pulled into a webbing. You’ll get a feel for this, trust me. Once it reaches that stage, scoop it up and dump it into your sprayed bowl, then cover and let sit for 20 minutes. Ignore all the advice you’ve heard about putting it someplace warm. You want a slow rise that lets flavors develop. While this is happening, clean off your counter and give it a spray of cooking spray.

After 20 minutes, uncover your dough and lift or tip it out, making sure the top of the dough is face down on the counter. You’re not going to see a lot of difference in the dough yet, so don’t worry. Gently flatten the dough into a circle, then fold the top down, the bottom up, and the sides in. Flip it over and put it back into the bowl. You will notice that the top side now has a slight “skin” look to it – congratulations; you are beginning the crust. Repeat the procedure after 20 minutes, and then once again after another 20 minutes, always being sure to keep the top side toward the counter so that your stretched gluten skin stays intact. After the third time, leave it all to rise for an hour and a half, or until doubled.

(BTW, this is the point at which you can stick the whole thing in the fridge and let it rise slowly overnight. Bread is much more forgiving than people realize.)

(Also note that there is no “punching down.” By gently flattening and reshaping the dough, you accomplish the same goal – getting yeast to new food sources – without pushing out all the lovely gases your yeast beasties have already incorporated.)

After an hour and a half, gently turn your bread out, turn it “skin” side up, and round it. Let it relax for about 15 minutes, while you prepare for baking.

In an ideal world, you will have a baking stone that you put into the oven, and a pizza peel with a piece of parchment paper on which to rise your bread. In a less-than-ideal world, you can put an upside down cookie sheet into the over to preheat, and let your bread rise on the back of another cookie sheet. In a truly unideal world, you can sprinkle that cookie sheet with cornmeal and hope to hell your bread doesn’t stick to it. But get the parchment paper. Seriously.

Once you have the final rising place for your bread prepared, shape your loaf. Slide your hands around the dough, rounding it and tightening the skin. If you are doing a round loaf, just lift that into the parchment paper. I tend toward oblong loaves these days, as the pieces are more manageable. I do it by Continuing the scoop-under motion but without turning the loaf so that it gets longer. Once you bread is on the parchment, cover with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray and let rise for an hour and a half. 45 minutes into this rise, turn your oven on to 450 degrees F. (Particularly if you have a stone; you want it heated through.) Find that crappy baking pan you don’t use anymore but haven’t managed to throw out and put it into the oven on a rack placed at broiling height.

When your final rise is done, use a sharp knife or a razor blade to slash two or three slashes across your bread – be bold and make decent slashes, because these are where your oven spring with expand. Then slide your bread onto your cooking surface, and pour a cup of water into the heated pan. (If you have a spray bottle around, and if you want to take the time to optimize your crust, squirt the inside of the oven thoroughly when you put the bread in, then again after 3, 6, and 9 minutes).

Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the bread and bake for 20 minutes more. At that point the crust should be fairly dark brown. If it’s still pale, give it 5 more minutes. Cool on a rack for at least half an hour before cutting. Devour.

This is not the ultimate answer to bread. There are lots of other breads out there, and lots of other cooking techniques. But this is a yummy one that pleases my family and friends. I hope you enjoy it!

Summer, it smells like burning

Published August 9, 2011 by livinggraciously

I’m doing something that doesn’t happen very often around here: I’m barbecuing.

When I was a kid, barbecue was a summer staple. Partly because in our unairconditioned houses, it provided hot food without heating up the oven – and believe me, when it’s 110 degrees outside under the eastern Oregon sun, you do not want to heat up the oven.

But a big reason for barbecuing was that it tasted so darned good.  A burger cooked over charcoal isn’t inherently superior to one done on the stovetop – after all, it’s perfectly possible to do a bad job barbecuing – but it has a big head start over a fried burger.

For our first anniversary, my ex bought me a Weber round grill. His mother was horrified over the notion of such an unromantic gift, but I was thrilled. We barbecued on our deck in Alaska both summer and winter – even after a bear mauled our grill in search of the source of the yummy residual scent of smoky meat. When we had an outdoor hot tub, we would invite people over in the dead of winter for soaking and barbecue, our little contribution to maintaining sanity at 20 below zero. (The great image of my ex bundled to his eyeballs and wielding a barbecue fork while the rest of us wandered around in swimsuits is one of those absurdities I will always cherish.)

Alas, I lost the barbecue in the divorce, and after we moved to Ohio the habit fell away. A couple years ago we won a barbecue in a sweepstakes, and have used it a few times since, but there hasn’t been any just-for-us grilling.

Until today. I had a chicken that needed to be cooked, and suddenly cutting it into quarters and putting it on the grill sounded like the best idea ever. After parting it out, I marinated it in a salt and sugar brine with garlic and vinegar, and then started it over a slow grill, away from the coals so it can cook through.

When I was a kid, barbecue also meant potato salad, jello salad with fruit, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, and Mom’s pickled cucumber and onions salad. Out of that list, I am retaining corn on the cob, but the rest of the accompaniments will be grilled asparagus, zucchini, and yellow peppers. I’ve coated them lightly with olive oil and garlic powder, and they will go on the grill when the chicken is almost done.

Stepping outside with a plateful of food, ready to spread it over the open fire of charcoal, was one of those sense memory experiences that takes me back to the hot, dry summers of my childhood: we kids running in and out the back door, carrying plates to set the table, fetching things from Mom for Dad, being yelled at to stop slamming the damned screen door!  I think I developed my taste for rare steak because Dad only cooked over the hottest, most massive possible bed of coals he could muster. He cooked with a spray bottle in hand, putting out the roaring grease fires that threatened to engulf dinner (and did, on occasion–Dad had a tendency to get distracted).

To Ferrett, the charred places on barbecue taste terribly burned. To me they taste like home.

My barbecue is updated, enhanced methods thanks to Cooks Illustrated. But it’s lost a little something of that crazy childhood charm.

The trick with this is to light a medium number of coals all off to one side of the grill. You don’t want a searing hot fire, because it will end you with chicken that’s burned on the outside and raw in the middle. Once the coals are ashy, you can throw some wood chips soaked in water onto them if you like a smoky taste – do this only once, as doing it more can result in an ashy, bitter taste. Then place the chicken piece on the side of the grill away from the coals, skin side up with the thickest part of the meat toward the coals. Cook them for an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, never turning them. I checked them every 15 minutes to make sure nothing was getting charred, but the heat was low enough that it was never a problem. After an hour and a quarter, I checked with a meat thermometer and the breasts were a perfect 165 degrees.

All that space on the other half of the grill shouldn’t go to waste, says I. So after 45 minutes I put asparagus, sliced zucchini, and sliced bell peppers on the other half. Before putting them on the grill I coated them lightly with olive oil and sprinkled with garlic powder. On the slow heat of the grill, they were done when the chicken was done.

Add in corn cooked the regular way, and this was dinner. The chicken was incredibly moist and juicy, with a sweet smokey flavor that I thought was wonderful. Ferrett is not as crazy about smoke flavor, so next time I will try it without the hickory chips. A definite winner!

Cooking is communal

Published August 8, 2011 by livinggraciously

Saturday Ferrett and I stumbled across the Medina farmer’s market. At the end of the fair, I took a picture of our chosen pictures. My purchases are on the left, Ferrett’s purchases are on the right:

It kind of sums up our food styles, doesn’t it?

It’s not that Ferrett won’t ever eat vegetables–he’s gotten much better about it. But there are a limited number of veggies he’s gotten adapted to, and no fresh fruit. And I don’t think there will ever come a time when fruits and veggies are his go-to choices.

It also points to one of the problems I have getting motivated with things like gardening and cooking.  Ferrett can’t stand peppers, and I love them. He doesn’t care for fish, and I adore it. He eats no fresh fruit (except smoothies) and few vegetables.  I’ve toyed with planting a garden, but here’s the problem. I want to plant:

Bell peppers
Snow Peas

Of those, Ferrett will eat:

Snow Peas

We have a tiny yard and don’t have room for corn or onions–honestly, we really don’t have room for all the items I have on the list. And it’s hard to get excited about working on a garden that’s pretty much just for myself.

I have the same problem with cooking. Ferrett often encourages me to cook things with bell peppers and other ingredients that he doesn’t like, saying that he will just make himself something else. But when I cook, I want to cook for people and not just for me. It takes all the fun out of cooking a meal if I’m going to sit here eating it myself while he fries up a hamburger patty and calls it good.

Because for me the very act of cooking is about sharing a part of myself. Even if it is only half an hour of my time, it’s still an act that connects me to the very concept of family. Cooking only for myself and letting others fend for themselves isn’t just selfishness, it’s an act of isolation. I feel like I’m just on a parallel path with Ferrett and not a circle of community. So when I cook for us, I put aside the dishes that contain things he doesn’t like, even though it can be frustrating at times. Because my higher priority is in sharing.

My girls are coming to town next weekend, and while they are here I will cook for them. I will make the favorite family dishes that all contain lots of bell peppers. Because that is a circle of sharing that they and I experience only rarely these days. For that long weekend, Ferrett will be on his own in the kitchen. It still makes me a little sad, because I’d rather he liked the foods that say “home” and “comfort” to my daughters and me, but I’m grateful that he encourages us to enjoy those special meals and special times together.

Bread is home

Published August 5, 2011 by livinggraciously

Just baked my first loaf of bread in the newly finished kitchen.

Bread was a habit prior to the kitchen remodel, but I fell out of the habit when the kitchen was torn up and there was no counter space. Now, I’m back to it.

It’s astounding to me how quickly and easily my mind assigned the short leg of the “L” shaped counter my baking space. It just felt right, and that space hasn’t seen much use up until now. And I wanted to hand-knead rather than use the Kitchen Aid. It’s not a lot of work when you start with a poolish the night before and leave plenty of time for the dough to autolyse before kneading. In point of fact, my planned half hour autolyse ended up being almost an hour and a half. After than length of time? Kneading only took about 5 minutes.

Bread is not as hard as people think. It’s time-consuming, yes. But the amount of time involved is limited at each stage, and much of the rising can be done slowly in the fridge.

I’ve been at this long enough that I can made a basic bread without a recipe, but I don’t do it without a scales. I’m not an expert, though, and there are lots of good bread books out there. The book I’ve used to learn is Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer. I have a lot more learning to do, and I want to expand the kinds of bread I can bake.

But for now, it’s time to slice the bread.

Lamb stew

Published August 4, 2011 by livinggraciously

Tonight I cooked lamb for the very first time.

This is embarrassing to admit, so while I’m at it, I might as well ‘fess up: I’ve never cooked duck, either. Or wild boar. Though I have cooked moose and caribou.

I grew up in a household where meat animals were limited to the big three. Turkey was a once-a-year variant on the beef/pork/chicken menu. My dad brought home venison once, and Mom cooked with it one time only before sending it all back to Dad’s hunting buddy.

We did have fish and shellfish now and then, but protein sources were highly proscribed.

When I grew up, I didn’t have a taste for the stronger flavors of lamb and duck. The first couple times I tried either, I disliked them intensely. And hubby 1.0 had grown up with the same protein limitations – except less fish – so there wasn’t any push for change. When we lived in Alaska we got some game meat, but having little experience with it and not being hunters we mostly stuck to all that lovely lovely fish and shellfish.

Then I remarried and Ferrett’s mom introduced me to good duck and lamb. I quickly developed a taste for both, when done well. When done poorly, however, they carry a vileness that far exceeds that of the less flavorful critters.

And that’s what made me timid of trying. Doing it badly.

But a couple weeks ago I was in Heinen’s Grocery when I was too hungry to be making good decisions, and that package of lamb stew meat just looked terrific. Lamb stew! With quinoa! I was convinced that it would be awesome.

Then I got home and ate something, and my timidity returned with my increased blood sugar. After a day or so, the lamb went into the freezer. I kept telling myself that I’d get to it, but didn’t.

I don’t know what it is about being hungry, but after going all day on an empty stomach (I forgot to eat, and then I had to be at the courthouse), suddenly lamb stew was on the menu again.

Now, usually when someone is undertaking a completely new cooking adventure, a certain level of caution is practiced. A recipe is chosen, and ingredients assembled. But when I decide to jump off a cliff, I jump ALL the way off. I had some ideas in my head, and just went for it.

Since I wasn’t getting started until 4:30, and since I was hungry and wanted dinner ASAP, I decided to cook the stew in the pressure cooker. I heated some vegetable oil in the bottom of the cooker, and dusted the lamb chunks in flour to which I had added salt, pepper, LOTS of garlic powder, a dash of ground cardamon and a dash of cumin powder. I browned those well, then added a chopped onion, four cloves of chopped garlic, a bunch of carrot slices, and a mixture of sliced portabella, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms I’d picked up at the store. About 4 ounces of sweet vermouth went in next, then enough chicken broth to cover everything. I cooked that all under high pressure for 8 minutes, then let it sit under pressure for another 10. In the meantime I cooked a cup of quinoa on the stove with a little extra water so that it would be well-hydrated. When the stew was done, I added the quinoa, and salt and pepper to taste.

It was delicious! Thanks to the pressure cooking, the lamb was very tender and tasty, and I’d chosen the right spices for it. Regrettably, I didn’t take a picture, because we finished most of it off.

I’m glad my first lamb experience was successful; I will be less fearful of trying it again.

We’ll have to see about duck….

%d bloggers like this: