Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to Make Crab-Shaped Bread

Sometimes a plain loaf of bread isn't enough, you've got to get fancy with the presentation. While the bunny bread I wrote about before was a bit of a challenge, this crab-themed bread was pretty easy.

Also, it yields several different products: the claws and joints are rolls, the body is a sliceable round loaf, and the legs are much like breadsticks.

At the top is the loaf just after it was formed, the middle photo is just as it was entering the oven (and please note that I snipped the claws right before baking) and below is the final product.

What do you think?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Banana Maple Muffins

I was thinking about banana pancakes with maple syrup, which is a little odd, because I'm really not crazy about pancakes. And when I do eat pancakes, I prefer them with just butter and no syrup at all. But still, the flavor profile was stuck in my head.

Sort of like when a song gets stuck in your head, but this was the flavors...bananas in a batter with maple...bananas in a batter with maple...bananas in a batter...and I kept thinking it would be an interesting combination.

Maple probably isn't the first thing you think about when you think of bananas, but it's also not something that would seem too horrible, right? I mean, people put maple syrup on top of almost any kind of pancake, even though I'm not one of them.

Since pancakes were off the menu for me, and since I happened to have a few bananas that were past their prime, I decided to take those flavors and combine them in a muffin.

Please note that this recipe was created and baked at high altitude (about 5000 feet) and they came out perfectly. If you happen to live at sea level and you give them a try, I'd love to know how they came out for you.

Banana Maple Muffins

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 cup mashed overripe bananas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare your muffin pans by spraying the cups with baking spray or use paper cupcake liners

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt ad baking soda together. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the maple syrup, butter, buttermilk, eggs and banana. Whisk to combine.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold until just combined.

Fill the muffin cups about 3/4 full. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the muffins are lightly browned and spring back when touched.

Here, the resulting muffins rose nicely and didn't overrun the cups, collapse, or do anything else annoying, which sometimes is a problem at high altitude. Not bad for a recipe that I threw together on a whim.

In a perfect world, the maple flavor would have been stronger. What I ended up with, though, was a really good banana muffin. Not too sweet, moist, really nice for breakfast with a cup of coffee or as a snack. Next time I might cut back on the banana to see if I can get the maple to come through a little more.

Makes 18 standard-size muffins.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chickens And Cattle And Goats, Oh My!

This was first published in the June, 2009 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier as part of my regular Vicinity and Beyond series.

Chickens and Cattle and Goats, Oh My!

As I tell people, I’m a city girl. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, wildlife in my childhood neighborhood consisted of pigeons, sparrows and squirrels. Or the baby elephant that escaped from a circus train and wandered through town. But that’s another story.

When I was a kid, as far as I knew the only difference between a farm and a zoo was who was more likely to eat who. Which explains why I was snapping pictures of cows and chickens and goats during a recent visit to Windsor Dairy.

As far as the reason for the visit to the dairy, it all goes back to a crazy idea I had about making cheese at home. It sounded like an interesting project, but the more I read about it, the more opinions there were about the value of fresh organic milk for cheesemaking as opposed to pasteurized milk.

In particular, the antibiotics in non-organic milk can hinder the cheesemaking process, and there’s a difference in texture between cheese made from raw milk and those that have been heated to high temperatures during commercial pasteurization.

The problem is that in Colorado, you can’t legally buy or sell raw milk. It’s perfectly legal in other states, and in some areas of the country raw milk is at stores, right next to the big brands.

Here, the only way you can have raw milk is if you own a cow, which is a little easier than you might think. Some dairies sell shares of their herds, which gives shareholders a set amount of milk per week, along with access to other raw milk products. It’s perfectly legal, and becoming quite common.

Windsor Dairy is one of the local dairies that sells shares, as I found out at the Boulder Farmer’s Market on opening day. So I signed up for a half-share and went to the dairy to see the operation and meet some cows.

Besides the organic dairy herd, Windsor Dairy also raises some cattle for meat, and chickens for their eggs. Dairy goats are a relatively new addition to the livestock at the farm. Since there are so few goats right now, the milk will be available first to people who require goat milk for health reasons.

The animals at Windsor Dairy seem to be living the good life, compared to the conditions we’ve heard about at factory farms. Here, the chickens roam free once they’ve adjusted to the idea of coming indoors at night (to keep them safe from predators). Even the ones still being trained had quite a bit of space to roam outdoors.

The cows weren’t quite as under-foot as the chickens, but they also had plenty of room to roam. The cows are all pasture-raised, when there’s green stuff growing on the ground for them to eat.

On the tour, it was explained that it’s not all grass in the fields. Cows like wildflowers and other plants as well, and the dairy plants special mixtures to keep the cows happy and healthy.

Part of the dairy tour includes time to watch the milking operation. A little more high-tech than a guy on a three-legged stool, the milking is automated but not completely hands-off. The cows seemed completely oblivious to the whole process.

Besides offering a tour of the property, the dairy also has a small store where it sells dairy products, fresh eggs, and meat. While aged cheeses are available to the public, the raw dairy products are only available to people who own a share in the herd.

Windsor Dairy offers tours on Friday and Saturday at 3 p.m. or by appointment. The dairy store is open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 – 5 p.m. For more information see

Making Yogurt by the Quart

Ah, yogurt!

I was never a huge fan of it before. There were a few brands and flavors that weren't bad as a snack. Lemon was my favorite, but I'd try others now and then. Overall, though, it was just okay.

Then I discovered Fage yogurt. Now, that stuff was good. I liked it plain, and I liked it with the addition of my own fruit. And particularly with bananas.

Then I decided that it might be better to make my own yogurt. I read about it, and it didn't seem terribly complicated. Yogurt, after all, it just milk that's gone bad in a good way. Just like cheese.

After seeing an episode about yogurt on Good Eats, I was convinced that I had to give it a try. I mean, why not? At worst, I'd ruin some milk. Not the most expensive item on my shopping list, so I decided to give it a try.

After trying a variety of methods, I've finally got the system down to a science. It goes like this:

Heat a half-gallon of milk in a saucepan to about 160 degrees. While this is well below the boiling point of about 200 degrees up here in he high land, the milk usually begins a little foaming at this temperature.

Let the milk cool to about 120 degrees. Take about a half cup of milk from the saucepan and put it into a cup. This usually lowers the temp of the milk in the cup to about 110 degrees, which is right where it needs to be. I add the starter to the milk in the cup, stir it until it's all mixed, and wait for the saucepan milk to reach 110 degress as well. Add the cup back to the saucepan, stir it to mix it up well.

First note here is that the Yogourmet starter packet says that it's for a quart of milk, but I've had no trouble using it for a half gallon. Once I goofed and mixed it into a gallon and it never set, but it's been fine with the half-gallon batches so far.

And now it's time to find a nice warm place to ferment. My first batches, I'd put the milk into quart bottles and put them in the oven set for 110 degrees. Most ovens don't go that low, but mine's got a setting used for drying (like fruits and vegetables, not your laundry) and that's what I'd use for yogurt.

I'd make the batch in the evening and let the starter sit all night in the oven, and in the morning, I'd have yogurt. Or I'd start it earlier in the day and have yogurt by evening. It worked fine, unless I had other plans for the oven.

After some reading I found out that a lot of people got good results just by insulating the yogurt really well, wrapping it in towels and putting it into a cooler. I decided to go a tad more commercial and I bought a device that's basically a plastic food-grade bucket inserted into a styrofoam shell. It takes less space than a cooler, and it's the perfect size for half-gallon batches of yogurt.

So now, I put the warm yogurt mixture into the container, slap the lid on, and let it sit all day, overnight, or whatever adds up to about 8 hours. That's just about what it takes for the yogurt to set and to become as tangy as I like it to be. The longer it sits, the tangier it gets, so if you plan on making your own yogurt, you can experiment to get it exactly the way you like it.

When the time's up, I take the plastic bucket out of its styrofoam shell and pop it into the fridge until it cools. It gets a little thicker as it cools. But whatever you do, don't stir the mixture yet. Not while it's fermenting, an not yet. Just put it in the fridge and let it chill.

I also learned that not only do a prefer a thicker yogurt, but I also don't like the taste of a lot of whey. To me, the whey adds an astringent quality to the yogurt that I don't like, but that's easy to fix.

Some people add dried milk to the yogurt to help thicken it. I tried that, and I wasn't crazy about the result. I could taste a "cooked" flavor from the dried milk, and I didn't like that. Also, I'm making yogurt because I like the idea of a natural product. Adding dried milk seems a little bit counter to that goal.

To thicken the yogurt and get rid of the astringent whey taste, I strain it. There are dedicated yogurt straining devices and some people strain through paper towels or cheesecloth, but I've found that a fine-mesh strainer works really well if you follow a couple simple rules. First, don't stir the yogurt. If you do, it gets liquidy. Second, DON'T STIR THE YOGURT. Really, that's it.

Put the fine-mesh strainer on top of a bowl or whatever you want to use to catch the whey. I use a glass 2-quart measuring cup. Scoop up a couple clumps of the yogurt and put them into the strainer. Scoop up more clumps until the strainer is full. The yogurt is really loose at this point and it looks like it should run right through the strainer, but it thickens up as the whey drains and very little of the solids make it through the strainer.

My strainer holds about a quart's worth of yogurt. I put the strainer and cup in the fridge (with plastic wrap over the top so it doesn't pick up fridge flavors) along with the yogurt that didn't fit. As it drains, I put more yogurt in.

When I've got about a quart worth of whey, the yogurt is thick enough. Your mileage may vary, depending on the milk you start with, how long you let the yogurt ferment, and how thick you like it. You can reduce it a lot more and end up with something that resembles cream cheese. And I've done that. It makes a great spread or dip, and it's made from milk instead of cream if that makes you happier.

Anyway, I pour the whey into a jar (more about that later) and I put the yogurt into a storage container. Now, I take a small whisk and mix up the yogurt, so it's uniformly smooth and the thickness is even. That sounds a little strange, but the yogurt that's along the bottom and sides of the strainer is really thick and the stuff in the middle is a little thinner. So you want to mix it well to get it even. It does thin out a bit during the stirring, but it gets a little thicker again as it rests in the fridge.

Whey as a lot of uses. Some people drink it. But remember, I don't like that astringent quality. So you won't catch me making drinks out of it. But it is my secret ingredient in a lot of my breads. I use the whey instead of water in most breads, unless I'm strictly following a recipe. But otherwise, there's whey in the bread. Why not? You can buy dried whey to add to bread, so why not use what's almost free, after making the yogurt?

Funny thing is that I usually run out of that quart of whey at about the same time that I run out of the quart of yogurt. So it's all good.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Basic Risotto - and variations

Mushroom and lobster risotto; not a great photo, but delicious.
If you think Italian food is all about pasta and tomato sauce, maybe it’s time for a change. How about some rice?

I’m talking, of course, about risotto, that creamy rice dish that seems so mysterious and complicated. You may have sampled it as an appetizer at a fancy Italian restaurant or seen Gordon Ramsey yelling about it on Hell’s Kitchen, but have you ever thought about making it at home?

At its essence, risotto is a simple dish. Few ingredients. Simple techniques. But like that little black dress, it can be accessorized to make it as fancy as you want it to be. It can be a first course, a side dish, or a meal.

The first thing you need for risotto is the right rice. You can bring out all the techniques in the world, but without a short-grained starch-releasing rice, you’ll never get the creaminess that makes risotto what it is.

The next thing you need is patience. Risotto takes time. It can’t be rushed. And if you go the traditional route, it also requires some attention. This isn’t a dish you can easily turn your back on, but it’s not terribly taxing and it doesn’t require fancy equipment. A sturdy pot and a wooden spoon are just fine.

You can find cookware made specifically for risotto, but that isn’t necessary. A cast iron Dutch oven is perfect, but any heavy-bottomed pan will do.

Basic Risotto
Adapted from Lidia’s Family Table by Lidia Bastianich

5-7 cups water or broth
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 cups short-grained Italian rice
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons butter (or additional olive oil)
1/2 to 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pour the water or broth into a medium-sized saucepan and bring it almost to a boil.

Cover the pot and lower the heat to keep it warm. You’ll be adding this to the rice throughout the cooking process, and it needs to stay hot.

Put the oil, onions, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt into a large, heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Cook the onions slowly, stirring often, until they are soft and golden, but not browned. Ladle about 1/2 cup of the hot liquid from the saucepan onto the onions, stir, and let them cook until all the liquid has evaporated.

Add the rice to the onions and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Add the wine to the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the wine has evaporated.

Ladle in about 2 cups of the hot liquid, just enough to barely cover the rice. Stir it in, then add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and stir well. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

Stir the mixture frequently, and then constantly as the liquid disappears and the mixture thickens. You don’t want the starch emerging from the rice to brown or burn on the bottom of the pan.

When the liquid has all been absorbed, add another cup of the hot liquid. Cook again, stirring as before, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep adding liquid and stirring until you’ve used up at least 5 cups of the liquid.

At this point, you can taste the risotto and see if the rice is cooked to your liking. Add more liquid and continue cooking and stirring to reach the consistency that you prefer.

When the rice is done, turn off the heat and add the butter or additional olive oil, black pepper to taste, and the cheese, to taste. Serve immediately.

Most risotto recipes are more complicated, and include vegetables, meats, sauces, seafood or spices. But you don’t need to follow a recipe once you’ve mastered the basic technique.

If you have a leftover pasta sauce, Bastianich recommends adding 1-2 cups of that sauce to a full recipe of risotto, right after the first addition of hot liquid has been absorbed.

Leftover cooked vegetables, fast-cooking veggies like frozen peas, and cooked meats can be added near the end of cooking. Or cook mushrooms, shallots, or other aromatic vegetables along with the onions.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What's Cooking? Gifts for Cooks

This was first published in the December, 2009 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier.

Gifts For Cooks

I still remember the look of horror the first time I asked my husband for a kitchen tool for Christmas. He’d heard the stories about husbands who bought vacuum cleaners for their wives and spent the next three months sleeping in the garage.

It took a long time to convince him that cooking implements – at least for me – are like new toys. Vacuum cleaners and leaf blowers are still off limits.

A basket of flours (yes, I spelled that right) would be an interesting gift for the baker in your life. For the bread baker, King Arthur’s organic bread flour has just been introduced, adding to the ridiculous range of flours they sell. Some are available at the local grocery stores, but if you’re looking for Italian or French-style flours or more unusual grains and blends, you’ll probably need to shop online.

If your baker is more interested in the sweet side, how about some unusual pans for cakes, cupcakes and muffins? Nordicware has an amazing array of Bundt pans ranging from the traditional shapes to cottages and sports arenas.

For smaller cakes, the Backyard Bug Pan bakes up bugs and butterflies in a pan that’s shaped like a leaf. The underside has decorative veins on the leaf that would make it an interesting decorative piece when it’s not in the oven.

Did I mention that Nordicware pans are nonstick and heavy enough to bake evenly? And if you don’t like bugs or Bundt pans, the company makes a huge variety of pans to fit anyone’s personality or party needs.

On the savory end, how about a cookbook and some unusual cookware to go with it? Before there was nonstick and before stainless steel, there was clay. While modern metals are a wonderful thing, sometimes you can’t replicate a traditional dish without using a traditional cooking vessel.

In Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, Paula Wolfert explores the use of a variety of clay pots, and includes both traditional and modern recipes. While it’s unlikely you’ll want to invest in every clay pot mentioned, for most recipes Wolfert gives several options. One of the most common is the Spanish cazuela, a round, straight-sided earthenware vessel that can be used in the oven or on a stovetop. Besides using it for the recipes in this book, it makes a nice serving dish or baking dish for any of your other recipes.

The book and a cazuela would be a great combo gift for your adventurous cook. But beware. Not all the recipes in the book recommend a cazuela, so expect to find other earthenware pots on next year’s shopping list.

How about a few stocking stuffers? Microplane has a variety of graters and zesters to fill any cook’s stocking. Or is your cook a little clumsy when it comes to grated knuckles? Microplane also makes a cut-proof glove that makes grating a more fearless experience. It’s also great when using a mandoline.

Not sure what tools your favorite cook needs? How about unusual spices or spice blends, colored sugars, vanilla and other flavorings, vinegars, olive oils, jams and jellies, or exotic coffees, teas and hot chocolate blends? Avoid the temptation to buy a pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped box at the mall. Instead, shop locally, buy some odd and interesting things, and put it all in an interesting cake pan, basket, serving bowl or baking dish for a unique gift that the cook in your life will love.

Fast And Easy Dip

For a fast holiday nosh, this dip tastes much more complex than you’d guess from its short ingredient list.

Take two parts Greek yogurt (I like Fage Total) to one part finely grated cucumber. Drain the liquid from the grated cukes before you add it to the yogurt.

Add a tiny bit of grated onion, to taste. For two seven-ounce containers of Fage, start with about a teaspoon of the grated onion and work up from there. Add salt, to taste.

Note: This dip can be used immediately, or let it sit in the fridge overnight so the flavors can meld. To make the dip match the theme of other dishes, add herbs or flavorings, as desired.

After publication notes: The dip mentioned above was something I whipped up when I was doing a demo of the Microplane box grater. I also served a carrot cake, which went over well, but I was astounded at how many people were amazed at the dip that I served with pita chips.

I really didn't think the dip was anything special, but since I got so many requests for the recipe, I figured it was worth publishing in the newspaper.

While I usually make my own yogurt, for the demo I didn't want to have to launch into that explanation, so I went with my favorite commercial brand that's now available in most of our local stores.

If Fage isn't available where you live, try another Greek-style yogurt, or just strain any plain commercial yogurt through a coffee strainer or a very fine-mesh metal strainer. When you're starting with a thicker yogurt, you can add ingredients that are a little more watery, and still not end up with soup.

Personally, I like the Fage Total (the full-fat variety) rather than the 0, 1, or 2 percent versions, but feel free to substitute whichever you prefer. But it seems to me that you're using yogurt in place of what might normally be sour cream, so the full-fat version is already a giant step lower in fat. And then you're adding cutting it by adding cukes. So for a dip, it's pretty healthy, even with the full-fat yogurt.

Since publishing this, I've made a few recipes from the Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking cookbook, and I recently bought a Chinese Sand Pot, which I've tested with plain old rice. Pretty soon, I'm be venturing into some more interesting recipes with that pot.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Classic French Bread and all about a baker's couche

Loaves on the left are better formed after rising in a couche.
I'm always experimenting with bread recipes and techniques, trying to see how the bread reacts, and this time I was experimenting with a baker's couche.

It seems like such a simple thing; it's just a linen cloth that the bread rests on during rising.

I baked some breads using one of Reinhart's recipes and let two rise on a cookie sheet and two on the couche to see what the differences were.

On the downside, transferring the puffy risen dough from the couche to a peel to a stone in the oven takes a little finesse. But it does make a difference in the final product, compared to breads that are left to rise on a cookie sheet and baked on that same sheet.

Here's what I wrote for a newspaper article about the couche:

Let The Games Begin

Ah, fall…the bounty of the harvest…the feeding frenzy that starts with Halloween, followed by the Thanksgiving feast, and ends with cooking, cookies, and cakes in December.

I’ve often said that cooking is my sport, and Thanksgiving is my Olympics. In the weeks leading up to the big event I’ll look for interesting twists on old favorites, try out unique ingredients, and bring out the fancy cooking equipment.

This year, I’ve got at least one innovative new ingredient to play with. King Arthur Flour has just introduced an unbleached cake flour which seems simple and obvious, given today’s trend towards natural ingredients.

The unbleached cake flour has been formulated so it behaves like bleached flour, but without the need for extra processing and chemicals. The unbleached flour isn’t as bright white, but you’re unlikely to notice the difference in a finished cake. Why did it take this long for someone to come up with this idea?

Speaking of flour, while bread-baking is a year-round event at my house, Thanksgiving bread-baking starts a few days early when I bake bread for the stuffing. Yes, I’m that fanatic.

When Thanksgiving is over and the turkey has become soup, what’s better than some crusty baguettes to dunk in the hot soup? Taking those baguettes to the next level is the latest device in my baking arsenal, the baker’s couche.

No, this isn’t where I nap while the bread bakes. A baker’s couche is a heavy cloth that’s used for proofing loaves of bread. The dough is laid onto the floured cloth and the fabric is bunched between the loaves to separate them.

The couche supports the dough so it rises up instead of spreading sideways. While a couche isn’t required, it gives bread a more professional result. The perfect test of it was this recipe.

Classic French Bread
Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day by Peter Reinhart
Reinhart is one of the gurus of bread. This book is aimed at the home cook, with faster, easier techniques than in some of his other books.

Dough rising in a baker's couche.
5 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix for one minute by hand or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Let rest, uncovered, for five minutes.

Knead two minutes by hand or with the dough hook of a stand mixer. The dough should be smooth, supple and tacky, but not sticky. Adjust flour/water as needed.

Knead by hand for another minute on a lightly floured surface, then put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or up to four days.

About two hours before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide dough and shape as desired.

Note: To test the results of the couche, I formed four long thin loaves, and proofed two on a baking sheet and two using the couche.

Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 hours.

About 45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Put an ovenproof pan on the bottom rack of the oven – a cast iron frying pan works well.

About 15 minutes before baking, remove the plastic wrap from the loaves.

Just prior to baking, slash the loaves with a sharp knife. Transfer the loaves to the oven, and pour one cup of hot water into the pan on the bottom rack. Lower the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake 12 minutes, then rotate the bread and bake another 15 to 25 minutes, until done.

Note: If you can’t find unbleached cake flour locally, it’s available at the King Arthur Flour website, Don’t blame me if you get carried away with the amazing array of other flours, including the French and Italian flours and the new organic unbleached bread flour. Yes, it does make a difference. Try a few and see.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Old-Fashioned Carrot Cake

I love carrot cake for so many reasons. It's not too sweet, it's moist, it's filling, and it's not terribly bad for you.

However, this carrot cake did not want to pose for photos that would work well in the newspaper where this recipe originally appeared.

Not only is newsprint not a great medium for detailed photos, but I never know if the pictures will be in color or black and white. And I don't know what size the photos will be, or how they will be cropped, so I'm never sure how much detail will show up.

And carrot cake is decidedly brown. Flecks of orange appear, but it's still a lot of brown. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that in the newspaper it would probably look like meatloaf. Which is tasty and all, but not when you're writing about carrot cake.

When I made a second cake using more whole wheat flour and darker sugars, the cake turned out a deep brown. It was pretty, and the powdered sugar design on top was decorative, but the slices looked like chocolate cake.

So trust me when I say that the photos here are both carrot cakes made from this recipe, and they were both absolutely delicious. Not only did I serve it to friends and family, but I also served to strangers at Cayenne Kitchen, where I was doing a demo of a Microplane box grater and cut-proof glove.

Here's the column:

Food, History, Food

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know I have lots of cookbooks. On a lazy day, I might browse through those books for hours, just for fun.

I also like books about food. Which comes in handy when someone asks a question about an odd ingredient and I explain the history of it. Yeah, I’m a food geek.

So I had to pick up “An Edible History of Humanity” by Tom Standage. It an interesting twist on world history, discussing the role that different foods played in shaping humans and their world – and at the same time, how humans changed the food.

What Standage makes clear from the very beginning of the book is that humans starting shaping crops even before they had any idea they were doing so. Early humans modified corn in the Americas so much that in a short time the new plants couldn’t survive in the wild. Humans were required for it to grow. In other parts of the world, rice and wheat were undergoing the same changes.

Later, food traveled from continent to continent, shaping politics while politics shaped food. Through wars and shifts in political power, food played some interesting roles.

What this book shows, over and over again, is that with each change in food technology, some things get better while others get worse. Early farmers grew crops they needed, but were tied to the land and couldn’t travel as far to hunt.

Recently, chemical fertilizers seemed like an answer to feeding the world’s population, but overuse of the fertilizers caused other problems. Now, farmers are looking to other methods to keep us well-fed and healthy.

While Standage’s book wasn’t particularly tasty – no recipes to be found – it is food for thought. And when I think about food, I have to cook. Since we’re talking about historical food, an old-fashioned recipe seems appropriate.

Old-Fashioned Carrot Cake
As an homage to somebody’s grandmother, this recipe relies on ingredients and equipment that grandma would recognize.

Terrible photo; great carrot cake.
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil4 eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a Bundt (or similar) pan or use that newfangled baking spray, if you’re feeling modern.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt together and set aside.

Beat the oil and eggs until they are light. An electric mixer would be handy for this, but feel free to use a whisk or an egg beater. Beat in the sugar a little at a time.

Gently add the dry ingredients to the wet, then fold in the carrots.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cream cheese icing is traditional on carrot cake, but this is tasty plain. A decorative dusting of powdered sugar is nice.

Grate the carrots any way you choose. Coarser carrots will be more visible. Or grate in zucchini or apples to make up for the fact that you only have 2 cups of grated carrots and you don’t want to go shopping.

You can substitute white flour or white whole wheat flour, if you prefer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bread and Butter Pickles

If you think pickling and canning died out with hoop skirts, think again. People are becoming more interested in knowing what’s in their food, and many are trying to avoid high fructose corn syrup, chemicals and preservatives. If you make your own pickles, you know what’s in the jar.

When I was a kid, bread and butter pickles were one of my favorites, and they still are. While most pickle recipes require pickling cucumbers, I’ve found that bread and butter pickles are acceptable using regular cukes. But since pickling cukes are being harvested now, you can make enough of these pickles now, to last you until next season.

These pickles, from Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving, are very close to the pickles my mother used to make. The recipe makes about five pint jars of pickles, but you can easily double it. Besides pickles, this book has instructions for preserving just about anything you can imagine.

For pickling instructions, why not go to the experts - the company that has been making canning jars and lids almost since caveman days? Well, maybe not that long. But long enough.

Bread and Butter Pickles
Adapted from Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine

10 cups sliced and trimmed pickling cucumbers
4 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pickling or canning salt
3 cups white vinegar
2 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon ground turmeric

In a nonreactive bowl, combine cukes, onions and salt. Mix well, cover with cold water, and let stand at room temp for two hours. Drain, rinse well with cool running water, and drain again.

Meanwhile, prepare your canner, jars and lids (check the instructions that came with your canner, or look online for basic instructions if you aren’t familiar with water-bath canning)

In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, and spices. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir in the cukes and onions and return to a boil.

Pack the pickles into hot jars to within a generous half-inch of the top. Ladle the pickling liquid into the jars to cover the pickles, leaving a half-inch of space at the top. Remove air bubbles in the jars and add pickling liquid, if needed.

Wipe the rims, put the lids on top and screw the bands down, fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring that they’re completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 20 minutes here at high altitude, or 10 minutes if you happen to give the recipe to a friend at sea level.

Remove the lid from the canner, wait 5 minutes, then remove the jars and allow them to cool, undisturbed.

Note: If all the pickles don’t fit into your five jars, just put the extra into a handy container and pop it into the fridge. They’ll be ready to eat as soon as they are cooled.

Substitutions: For flavor variations, you can substitute cider vinegar for some or all of the white vinegar, and/or brown sugar in place of the white. Other suggested variations include ginger or horseradish for some extra zing. They’re your pickles – make them the way you like them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Visit to a Colorado Buffalo Ranch

This was originally published in the March, 2006, edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier, as part of my regular column series, Vicinity And Beyond.

Where’s The Buff?

When city-slicker friends come to visit you, prove that you live in the wild, wild West by taking them to the 100-acre Spomer Ranch in Milliken. Dave Hayes, ranch owner, assured me that there’s someone at the ranch “24/7, unless we do something crazy like go to the bank or something.”

The Spomer ranch has been in the family since the late 1800s. Spomer is Hayes’ grandmother’s maiden name. He said, “I came to the ranch in 1989 after my grandmother passed away, to do some remodel work and ended up staying.”

If Hayes isn’t around, ranch hand Ray Cook is ready and willing to explain the ins and outs of bison ranching. Yes, this isn’t a cattle ranch; it’s a home where buffalo roam.

If no one is around to greet visitors, there’s a bell outside as well as instructions as to where to look if no one appears.

“I’ve had people come as early as 6 a.m.,” Cook said, “and as late as 10 at night.”

Before we go any further, it’s time to clarify the bison/buffalo thing. The critters that live in America are scientifically known as bison, but we’ve been calling them buffalo for so long that the name has stuck. The animals that scientists call buffalos live only in Africa and Asia. But I’m staying true to the song. As far as I’m concerned, you’ll find roaming buffalo at Spomer Ranch.

Well, not exactly roaming. Buffalo aren’t the friendliest of animals and can cop quite the attitude when they imagine they’ve been provoked.

On a recent visit to the ranch, Cook wanted to move some buffalo out of the way so we could see Dazzle, a tiny baby buffalo. One of the adult buffalo didn’t like the idea, and put on quite the show.

Placid buffalo are one thing, but when one of them lowers its head, paws the ground and snorts, it’s a pretty impressive warning. Yet, another buffalo was so tame, it came up to the fence and allowed me to be petted. Cook cautioned that letting the buffalo lick you could be a little unpleasant. “It’s like a cat’s tongue,” he said.

Spomer Ranch raises buffalo, and boards them for other people, with an average of about 100 buffalo on the ranch most of the time. They also board horses and grow alfalfa and grass.

Another part of the operation is Red Barn Bison company, which sells bison products including meat, hides, heads and anything else usable. To keep up with the demand for buffalo products, Hayes contracts with other ranches to raise buffalo for him.

In Windsor, Hayes sells his meat at The Wild Side and runs a processing plant, Yauk’s Specialty Meats. He said, “This business has grown steadily for 30 years. We are now moving into a new building in Windsor and will have a café and deli along with the current retail meat market. We hope to maintain the ranch market and keep some bison on the ranch for viewing.”

While ground buffalo is readily available in area grocery stores, other cuts are harder to find. Red Barn has them all, from ground to stew to steak to roasts to sausages to the puzzling packages marked RMO, which I found out were Rocky Mountain oysters. Besides buffalo meat, I found some ground yak and some elk meat in one of Red Barn’s freezers, all available for purchase.

Cook pointed out that buffalo is a lot leaner than most meats, and that he lost a lot of weight, about 60 pounds, by eating buffalo. USDA information confirms it: for 100 grams of cooked lean meat, buffalo has 2.42 grams of fat, while skinless chicken has 7.41 grams, beef has 9.3 grams and pork has 10.5 grams. Buffalo is also lower in calories and cholesterol.

The meat is so lean that you’ll usually need to add some fat when you cook it. Brown some ground beef and you’ll be draining fat from it. Cook some ground buff from Red Barn, and you’ll need to add a little fat to brown it, and you won’t have anything to drain.

And according to the ground bison packaging, it’s “the original red meat.” Who can argue with that?

Spomer Ranch is at 23675 WCR 27 ½ in Milliken, Colorado.

The Wild Side is at 220 Main in Windsor, Colorado.

Semolina and White Bread

Semolina flour is what's used in some pastas, but I really like the flavor and texture that it gives to breads. Ever since I discovered this little trick, I've been adding semolina to a lot of different bread recipes.

If I'm ordering other things from the King Arthur Flour website, I usually stock up on their semolina. Locally, I buy Bob's Red Mill semolina which is available at the supermarkets.

Today seemed like a good day to bake bread, so I starting throwing things into the bowl of the Kitchenaid stand mixer.

1 cup of whey, warmed in the microwave to take off the chill
1 yeast-spoon of yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon honey crystals
2 scoops of semolina flour

Okay, this requires some explaining. The whey was left over from yogurt making. I strain it because I like a thick yogurt, and I keep the whey for making bread. The honey crystals are dried honey that I picked up at an Asian market. I'd never seen them before, so I had to buy. The scoops of semolina are because a keep a scoop in the container and I wasn't in the mood for measuring. Imagine it was about a half-cup or so.

I whisked it up, and left it on its own for a while. When I came back, I added:

1 1/2 cups (approximate) of King Arthur Organic Bread Flour
1 teaspoon Real Salt. (it's a brand name. It's pink. It's what was handy)

I mixed that with the paddle attachment until it was cohesive, then put in the dough hook and let it do its thing. It was a little stiffer than I wanted, so I rehydrated some dried potato buds in some tepid water -- maybe a half-cup -- and tossed that into the mix. I like to put mashed potatoes or dried potatoes into breads, sometimes, because it makes the bread nice and soft.

At about the time I had the buds mixed with water, I remembered I had scoops of leftover mashed potatoes in the freezer. Oh well. Silly me.

When the dough was shiny and stretchy, I added olive oil, a tablespoon or so, and let that incorporate, then covered it the bowl with plastic wrap and wandered off to do other things.

When I got back, it was well over twice the size. I floured the counter and got the dough out of the bowl and gently shaped it without doing a lot of extra kneading. The dough was very supple and soft. Not sticky-soft, but squishy-soft.

Sprinkled cornmeal on a cookie sheet, put the bread on the sheet, and wandered away. When I came back, the bread was just about perfect.

Uncovered it and got distracted again. Came back, sprayed the loaf with a baking-shine spray that I got from King Arthur Flour's website. It makes the bread shiny and helps things stick to the dough. Then I sprinkled it with sesame seeds, slashed it, and put it in the oven.

At this point, it had risen about as much as I could expect, so I figured I wasn't going to get a whole lot of oven spring, but the slashes did widen a bit in the baking. And the sesame seeds clung tight.

The finished loaf was quite pretty, but I forgot to take a photo right away. At least I remember before we'd eaten it all. Oh well. It's tasty.

What I'm Reading Now: The United States of Arugula

Okay, not exactly "now," because I finally finished it over the holidays. And yes, I'm late to the party, because the book has been out for a long time. So shoot me.

Anyway, The United States of Arugula by David Kamp was the last book I finished, and it was not at all what I expected. I picked it up, cheap, at a used bookstore (or should that be a used-book store? whatever.) and bought it just because I knew it was a quite popular book about food. Hey, if a title like that is in the paperback rack for fifty cents, it's hard to refuse.

After recently reading one of Michael Pollen's books, I was sort of expecting more of the same - nutrition, factory farming, the history of various foodstuffs - but instead, this was more about the people of food. The introduction starts with a 1939 quote from Clementine Paddleford, a woman I'd never heard of, but am now intrigued by.

And of course it chronicles the writers and restaurant owners and critics and the different food movements that were spawned because of (or in spite of) those people.

My downfall, in reading this book, was that it mentioned so many other books, mostly cookbooks. And I have a really, really bad cookbook habit.

When I stumbled upon a Clementine Paddleford cookbook, of course I had to snag it. Before, I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought, but now this was part of history. In many cases, though, I already had the books mentioned, or at least I had books by those authors. The other good news is that used cookbooks are usually fairly cheap, so my shelf space may suffer more than my wallet.

In some cases, though, the book helped me winnow thought the "find one of these days" list I had of old cookbooks by past luminaries of the cooking world. Some of those cookbook authors were quite prolific, but that doesn't mean all the books are gems. While I don't mind having a few titles by the same person, if I'm going to have to choose from among a dozen titles, I'd rather know which one or two were the best of the bunch. In particular, Kamp sorted through James Beard's many cookbooks, noting which were true classics and which were less inspired.

While I'd heard of many of the people Kamp talked about, it was in isolation. Julia Child was the French Chef and James Beard was that cooking guy, and Alice Waters was, well, Alice Waters. And Escoffier was ... somebody important. But this book managed to tie them all together in a way that makes sense. And it makes the food trends make more sense, too.

Next up: Milk
No, I'm not thirsty. It's the title of a book.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Home Made Pasta

For Christmas, I got the new pasta extruder attachment for my Kitchenaid stand mixer.
The first thing I decided to try was the rotini.
It was fun, it was easy, and they came out great:

Just look at all of 'em! Aren't they lovely?


How the "Unseen Been" Roasts Coffee

Coffee aficionados will tell you that fresh coffee is best. Drink the coffee right after it’s brewed, brew it quickly after grinding and grind it soon after roasting. Luckily for those of us near Vicinity, fresh coffee is nearby.

Drive east of Main on 9th Ave. in Longmont, and you might smell the aroma of coffee. The scent is certainly appealing, but the origin is a little mysterious.

A little investigation reveals that tucked in a warehouse along the tracks is the Unseen Bean, Longmont’s own coffee roaster. The tagline “Blind Roasted Coffee” is also a mystery until you realize that master roaster Gerry Leary, is blind.

Leary was blind from birth, but that didn’t slow him down. He was working as an auto mechanic when he happened upon a San Francisco restaurant that roasted its own coffee. He was intrigued.
No one would take Leary on as a coffee roasting apprentice, so he went to seminars. His first roasting machine would handle only a quarter-pound of coffee at a time.

Leary’s first big order was for 90 pounds of coffee. It took him three weeks to roast that many beans. When he got paid for the beans, he thought, “That’ll buy me some more coffee.” He hasn’t stopped since.

Leary still has the small roaster, along with a larger machine that can handle 25 pounds of beans at a time. The roaster turns the beans constantly, something like a cement mixer. During the roast, the beans go through two “cracks” where they sound like popcorn popping. It’s a fast process that has to be closely monitored.

Cathy Miller, Leary’s long-time friend, works with him at the Unseen Bean. “I’m the ‘sight’ manager,” she said with a laugh.

But Leary has everything organized so he can work without help. He pointed out Braille labels on the bins of green coffee. He has voice readers for his roaster’s thermometer, his computer and the scales for weighing the coffee. For getting around Vicinity (and beyond) he has a voice GPS.

Miller and Leary agree that it’s a great business to be in. Miller said, “It’s like being on a coffee break all day.” Indeed, with every batch that’s roasted, Leary grinds some beans and brews a pot of coffee for a taste test. That’s fresh coffee.

That’s not the only benefit. Leary said, “The nice thing is that this is a business where people smile when they pay.” He explained that as a mechanic, he knew people weren’t happy when they spent money on repairs, but they enjoy buying good coffee.

Have you ever noticed the round devices on the front of whole-bean coffee bags? Leary explained that those are one-way valves that let air out of the bags, but don’t let it back in. Freshly roasted coffee beans give off gas, and if those valves weren’t there, the bags might burst. Once coffee beans are stale, they quit giving off gas. Makes you think about those cans of ground coffee, doesn’t it?

The Unseen Bean has about 20 different types of green coffee beans ready to roast, including some decaf beans. There are also five standard blends. Leary said that when possible, he buys only “organic, shade-tree grown, free trade beans.”

Leary said, “We’re more expensive,” noting the cost of the raw beans. But his website invites, “taste the passion in blind-roasted coffee,” and he’s serious about that passion.

Since I wrote this article, the Unseen Bean has expanded its operation and now has a coffeeshop in Boulder, Colorado, and sells beans at a variety of locations. You can also order online at

This was an interesting article for write, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, Leary is so comfortable with his blindness and is so aware of his surroundings that I kept forgetting that he couldn't see, and I ended up becoming a hazard for him as he worked. At one point while trying to take a creative photo, I caused him to spill some green beans into finished beans, which then had to be sorted. He was quite forgiving about it, but I insisted on getting the beans sorted so he didn't lose the whole batch because of me.

Also, Leary samples each batch of coffee after he roasts it, and during the course of watching him roast several batches, I sampled right along with him. He brews a strong pot of coffee. I'd already had a cup or two that morning before I left the house, but I couldn't resist that incredibly fresh coffee. By the time I left his shop, I had a bit of a caffeine buzz going.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Egg Foo Yung

Looking for egg foo yung? This is one of my very early, stream-of-consciousness recipes. If you're looking for more precision, I have more egg foo yung here and here.

Or, continue reading for my first foo.


Today started with me knowing that I'd have to do a little work today, but a quick scan of email held the good news that I'd won a prize from my favorite cooking-related website, Serious Eats. So that cheered me up a bit.

And it's always a good day when I'm planning on baking a loaf of bread. I don't know what it is about bread, but it makes me happy to see it change so many times during the mixing, rising and baking.

Better yet, I didn't need to worry about getting the loaf done and cooled in time for dinner, so there was plenty of time for leisurely rising. When the dough came out of the bowl after the second rise, it smelled wonderful, and I was glad I gave it the extra time.

On the other hand, the yogurt that I had prepped the night before hadn't set up. After the fact, I realized that the last time I bought milk from the local dairy, I had yogurt-making problems. So I gave it another shot of culture and let it sit some more. I don't think it's any better, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with a half-gallon of liquid yogurt. I suppose I can bake with it, but that's a lot of yogurt to use up. And meanwhile, I still have no fresh yogurt.

Oh well.

I had a little errand-running to do, and stopped in at my favorite store in town, a kitchen supply place called Cayenne Kitchen. If I ever lose my mind and wander around town lost, that's probably where they'll find me, ogling the gadgets or the bakeware.

Dinner tonight was egg foo yung, from a recipe I got from an adult-ed cooking class about a thousand years ago. Or it seems that long.

Basically, it's this:

Egg Foo Yung

  • Six eggs, beaten just enough to mix
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion and celery
  • 1 can (of unknown size) bean sprouts.

Sigh. Bean sprouts come in 2 different sized cans. This recipe didn't specify. I think they wanted the larger, and I had the smaller, so I ended up adding extra veg and more flour (see below) to make up it work. And if I had been able to buy fresh sprouts or I thought far enough ahead to sprout my own, I would have done that. But no, I had canned bean sprouts and canned chop suey veg.

  • 1/2 cup diced cooked meat, canned shrimp, or whatever

I had leftover char sui pork, so that what went in there. I used more than a half cup, though.

  • Flour, for thickening.
  • Oil, for frying.
  • Seasonings, to taste. 

Considering this was way back in the stone age, Accent (monosodium glutamate) was suggested, along with soy and/or salt. Since the pork was pretty well seasoned, I didn't add anything else.

Recipe says to mix the ingredients, sprinkle on about a tablespoon of flour and fry in a frying pan with a tablespoon or so of oil. Well, the flour wasn't enough to make the egg mixture less soupy, so I added the extra veg and some flour until it looked like it would behave properly in a frying pan.

Recipe also says to use stock thickened with cornstarch to make a sauce. Nuh uh. You need soy in the sauce, too, to make it like the takeout stuff. So I used the liquid still left from the char sui, and added soy and cornstarch.

The Egg Foo Yung was pretty darned good. I might make some more tomorrow, since there's still some pork left over, and I made plenty of rice to go with.

Home made lemon curd AND Hungarian goulash

Home Made Lemon Curd
Kids are headed back to school, but what about you? Are you thinking about dusting off the summer cobwebs and learning something new? How about dabbling in a foreign language while learning some new skills with tools?

Yes, I’m talking about culinary school, where you can learn French names for simple tasks and learn to wield a knife like the best Iron Chef. Does that sound like fun? But is it too much time and expense, if you aren’t planning a career in cooking?

The super-cheap alternative is to spend a few days ensconced in someone else’s cooking school adventures. Katherine Darling’s “Under the Table” will give you just that opportunity, in a book that’s light reading with just enough meat to give you a bit of a message. Plus, there are 24 recipes to tempt you into the kitchen.

The most important lesson in the book, though, may be this: “My old habit of rushing through recipes, taking shortcuts whenever possible, began to melt away as I understood that there was a reason for every single step, and that the final product would taste infinitely better if I spent the time to do everything properly, with care.”

In a cooking landscape littered with quick-and-easy, 5-ingredient-or-less recipes that guarantee a family meal on the table in less than 30 minutes, it’s good to consider that sometimes the extra five minutes, the extra dirty bowl or the extra pinch of spice can make a huge difference.

If Darling’s book isn’t enough culinary school for you, why not get serious? I first looked at “On Cooking” when someone told me it was their favorite cookbook, but it’s more than just a cookbook – it’s a textbook used in culinary schools. Sure, there are recipes, but there are also detailed explanations, techniques, definitions and historical notes.

At over 1400 pages, with 37 chapters and a multitude of recipes, it’s a complete cooking class, from simple sauces to elegant presentation. But the recipes aren’t out of place in a home kitchen. For example:

Hungarian Goulash
Adapted from On Cooking by Sarah R. Labensky and Alan M. Hause

2 lbs. onions, medium dice
2 oz. lard or vegetable oil
4 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 quart white stock (see note)
4 oz tomato paste
5 lbs beef stew in 1 1/2” cubes

Sauté the onions in the oil or lard until lightly browned. Add paprika, garlic, caraway, salt and pepper; mix well. Add the stock and tomato paste, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the meat simmer until tender, approximately 1 1/2 hours.

Note: a white stock is a made from beef, chicken or veal bones that have not been browned or roasted first, resulting in a light-colored stock. You’re not really in cooking school, so use any good-quality homemade or store-bought stock that you like.

“On Cooking” includes chapters on baked goods, but if you want to skip cooking school and head right into the pastry kitchen, the companion book, “On Baking” might be for you. Besides cakes, pies and breads, there are candies, fillings and mousses to tempt your sweet tooth. And while the results are professional, you might be surprised at how easy some are to make at home.

One-Step Lemon Curd
Adapted from On Baking by Sarah R. Labensky, Priscilla Martel, and Eddy Van Damme
This recipe makes enough lemon curd to fill an 8” pie shell

12 eggs
4 egg yolks
2 lbs. granulated sugar
1 lb. unsalted butter, cubed
1 oz. lemon zest, grated
12 oz. fresh lemon juice

Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick – approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Strain, cover, and chill completely.

Class is over. Now, get cooking!

Wheat, Oat and White Bread - a recipe-free visual recipe

Today, I decided I needed to bake some bread. Not for dinner, but it would be nice to have some for toast in the morning. Instead of following a recipe, I decided to eyeball everything. So you can recreate it, I've got photos of each step, so you can see what your dough should look like at each stage.

I started with the usual cup of flour, more-or-less tablespoon of raw sugar, and a yeast-spoon (equivalent of a package, or 2 1/4 teaspoons) of dry yeast, and a cup of water. Here it is in the mixer bowl:

I let the yeast rest there a bit, swirled it around and waited until it got bubbly, like this:

I added a cup of whole wheat flour. I usually let the yeast snuggle up to part of the flour I'm using, and if I'm using something other than white, I put that in first. Maybe no sense to it, but in my mind the wheat, rye or whatever might want a little extra time to drink up some of the water. Mostly I just scoop it out and don't measure, but here's a measuring cup with a rough measure of flour.

I mixed it up and let it sit a bit to get bubbly again. It's about the consistency of pancake batter:

Time to get serious with bread flour. Yes, it's a different measuring cup. I keep a one-cup measure in my bread flour for easy scooping, and I keep a half-cup measure in my AP flour. Here's a rough cup full:

I always add my salt with the second addition of flour. Here's the teaspoon of kosher salt about to meet with the ingredients in the mixer:

After some mixing, it's obvious that the dough is still too wet for what I want.

I dropped in another half-cup (ish) of flour, and then decided that I could use up the leftover cooked steel-cut oats I happened to have on hand. This looks to be about a half-cup or maybe a little less. It all went in.

The oatmeal added more liquid to the mix, so I ended up adding about another half-cup of flour. If you're keeping track, that's roughly one cup of whole wheat, two cups of white bread flour, and about a half-cup of cooked steel-cut oats.

Now the dough looks lumpy because of the oats, but its nearly correct as far as the flour. The dough is getting stretchy, but it's still way too sticky and loose.

I added about another quarter cup of flour and let it romp in the mixer for a while. Now, it's a more cohesive ball of dough. I added olive oil, again unmeaured, but I figure it's about a tablespoon or so. My attempt at an action shot of pouring the oil wasn't very successful, but here it is:

I covered it with plastic and let it have a nice rest while I wandered off to do other things.

I decided I had time for a second rise, so I removed it from the bowl, kneaded it and formed it into a nice ball, plopped it back into the bowl and ran off to take care of some errands. I drizzled a teeny bit of olive oil over it before I covered it the bowl with plastic wrap.

When I got back this is what it looked like. The yeast was obviously happy and active. And maybe I was gone a little longer than I planned on, but that's okay.

I took it out of the bowl, shaped it into a loaf, and put it onto a cookie sheet where I had sprinkled corn meal. Covered it with plastic wrap, and set the alarm for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, plus some time for fiddling around, I uncovered the bread, slashed it down the center and popped it into the oven at 350 degrees, convection on. I've found that bread can bake at a wide range of temperatures without fussing about it, and I've even got recipes that start in a cold oven. So the 350 was arbitrary. 

Higher temps will give you a darker brown, but browning is also affected by the ingredients. More sugary ingredients will get your bread to brown faster.

And here it is, fully baked. I wanted a softer crust this time, so I put a kitchen towel over it while it cooled. looks a little flat in this photo, but it actually got a good rise.

That's it. Baked without a recipe. Easy, hmmmm?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wheat Free Cooking

While I have no need to live a wheat-free lifestyle, I know plenty of people who do. And as an avid baker, and pasta lover, and cookie fiend, I was curious whether wheat-free alternatives were palatable or not. I attended an event at the author's home, where she holds small cooking classes. There, I sampled her pasta, cookies, pizza, and other foods.

Later, I tried making the bread recipe from the book. As you can see, it looks like a standard loaf of white bread. And the greatest praise came from my husband's comment. "I don't get it. What's the big deal about this bread, again." In other words, there was nothing weird about it that he felt a need to comment about. To him, it was regular bread.

The wheat-free alternatives Mary Capone created are actually quite good. But still, I'd glad that I don't have a wheat problem, because working without wheat makes many dishes a more complicated, and some of the ingredients are a little obscure. When I last spoke with her, Mary said she was considering marketing some of her mixes, to make it easier for people to recreate her recipes. I have no doubt she'll get that project off the ground. She's passionate about making the wheat-free lifestyle a tasty one.

The following article was first published in the December, 2008 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier.


The Women's Bean Project

Do you have someone on your gift list who doesn’t need anything, but you still want to wrap up a little something? Do you know someone who prefers practical gifts?

Would you like your gifts to benefit someone other than mega-companies in foreign lands?
Do you want to send some Colorado products to friends and family elsewhere? And do you want to buy those products locally?

You can wrap all of that up with just one purchase from The Women’s Bean Project. Founded in 1989, the Women’s Bean Project helps women break out of the cycle of poverty and unemployment by giving them jobs that act as stepping stones to other employment.

Jossy Eyre, the founder of the project, saw that women’s homeless shelters kept women safe, but didn’t help them better themselves. She bought $500 worth of beans, and put two homeless women to work, and the idea grew from there.

Today, women are referred to the project by parole officers, shelters and other agencies. Many of the women are single mothers who have been on public assistance, and many don’t have a high school diploma or GED.

The women are given jobs so they have an immediate income while they learn skills that will help them find and keep future employment. According to the project’s website, “The Women's Bean Project does not hire women to make and sell bean products. We make and sell bean products to hire women.”

Meanwhile, the project’s product line has expanded from just bean soup and chili mixes to salsa mixes, spice rubs, baking mixes and more. You can buy single items or gift baskets directly from the company, and several local stores also carry some of the products.

While all of that makes the project sound good, it doesn’t answer the question of how good the products are, so I decided a taste test was essential.

I’m usually not a fan of pre-packaged mixes, but the Women’s Bean Project products aren’t like the boxed mixes that contain unpronounceable chemicals and strange additives. These are normal ingredients that are premeasured and packaged to save you a few steps.

So far, we sampled the black bean soup, the 10-bean soup, and the cornbread mix, and all of them were very good, and the recipes were simple to follow. The bean soup recipes suggested a few optional ingredients, which is nice if you aren’t comfortable making recipe adjustments on your own.

Each of the packages includes a tag with the name of the person who packed it, which is a nice touch. Also on the packaging is the phone number and web address of the project, in case you have any questions.

As of this writing Women’s Bean Project products were available in Colorado at Vitamin Cottage in Longmont; all Colorado King Soopers stores and some Safeway stores. Outside Colorado, see for ordering information and other sales outlets.

The Olivator

A while back, a kitchen store called Cayenne Kitchen opened up in town, and I quickly became a regular customer, and got to know the owners, Terry and Bill. Recently, they moved to a larger space which gave them enough elbow room for more product demos. I volunteered myself to help out, if they needed someone to talk about gadgets and bring food samples.

The second demo I did was for a product called The Olivator, a product designed to stuff olives and other small stuffable things. Yes, I'm going backward. I'll get to the first one later.

When we were discussing The Olivator, a woman who overheard the conversation said that she'd probably use a pastry bag to stuff olives.

Since I hadn't yet seen The Olivator (it was on order) I had to conceed that if someone knew how to handle a pastry bag, that would certainly be an option. But when I finally met the gadget, I realized that it really wasn't meant for squeezing fluffy stuff into olives. Instead, it's meant for cutting a core out of something a little more solid and inserting that into waiting olives.

A pastry bag would be great for smooshing softened cream cheese into an olive; The Olivator can cut a chunk out of feta or Muenster and jam that into an olive.

But stuffed olives are sort of...boring, really. You can buy jars of olives stuffed with everything from almonds to garlic to pimentos.

I wanted to demo something more unique and more fun. I considered making a chocolate ganache to stuff into strawberries and decided that it was a bit too fussy. People might want something easier than that. I looked around the grocery store for something with the right texture, and wound up buying a collection of cheeses and olives and strawberries. I was going to grab some other berries, but it was winter, and all the berries had that sad, desperate look they get when they know they're out of season and shipped way too far from home.

At the checkout, I grabbed a Milky Way bar. Crazy idea, but I thought it might work.

For the demo, I arrived with green olives stuffed with hummus, black olives stuffed with feta, and unstuffed strawberries, hulled and ready to go. And a couple Three Musketeers bars. Yep, I was stuffing candy bars into strawberries. And they were the hit of the demo. People loved the idea, and it was simple enough that anyone could do it. And people like me who prefer cooking from scratch could certainly make ganache and use that instead.

In two hours, we nearly sold out of Olivators, and I heard that the last two were sold the following day to people who had seen the demo, but didn't buy.

As far as my opinion of the Olivator...well, it's not really a serious tool but it's fun. And it does something a pastry bag couldn't. When summer comes, I have ideas for taking cores from different melons and inserting them into other melons to get a polka-dot effect. I was also thinking that could be done with refrigerator cookies that you slice and bake, but I haven't gotten around to that project yet. Or it could be used to punch holes in a pie crust top. Or other things, probably. I still have some experimenting to do, obviously.

A plus is that the gadget comes apart easily for cleaning and is dishwasher safe. And it's pretty small, so it's not like it's taking up too much of its share of storage space. I may not use is as much as I use my Kitchenaid mixer, but I have a feeling I'll find some interesting used for it over the next few months.
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