Sunday, February 28, 2010

Danish Braid (AKA the "Coffee Cake" Finale)

I wrote about Danish Dough and Danish Slices in the Left Hand Valley Courier, republished here and here. But my favorite shape for Danish Pastries is the Danish Braid. I think it looks prettier than the slices, and although it's a little more complicated than the Danish Slices, it's not nearly as complicated as the finished product looks.

You can dress up the braid with sugar bits, drizzled icing or sliced almonds, or just eggwash it for a crispy shiny finish, and leave off the garnishes. The braid makes it look pretty, even without the extras.

The book where I found the recipe, Baking with Julia, includes quite a few recipes for fillings. But really, you can use just about anything you'd use in a pie or a crostata. But my favorite, I think, is cherry filling, with or without a base of pastry cream.

For the cherry filling, I use sour pie cherries that I bought at the local farmer's market. A pound of them is enough for one pastry. The cherries need some sweetness as well as a thickener. The easiest thing to do is add a cherry jelly, which adds both. I've used a cherry-almond jelly, also purchased at the farmer's market, with great success.

If you don't want to use jelly (or don't have any on hand) sugar and cornstarch works as well, or sugar and any other thickener that you'd use in a pie filling. About a half-cup of sugar seems to be enough for the cherries I have, but that's going to vary depending on how sweet or tart your cherries are, as well as how sweet or tart you like your pie filling. Personally, I like some tartness contrasting with the sweet glaze.

I think a little bit of almond extract is a nice compliment to the cherries, but it's fine without. Vanilla extract would be a nice touch, too.


Chili Cookoff Results

No sense beating around the bush. I didn't win. I'm fine with that. I made a chili that I like, which is a good thing, because there's a lot left. And I can see why the winners won. They were both very good, but also important, they were distictive. I thought that a red chili in Colorado would stand out against the many green chilis I expected to see, but the reds were the majority at this event.

I'm already beginning to plot next year's entry. Here, the contestants await their audience. The boots are for donations to the local arts association.

But the event was less about chili than it was about community. And the community showed up - everyone from seniors to youngsters. Not only was it good food and a charity event, but the price was right. The four chilis from the professional chefs were $1 per cup. The ten samples from the amateur cooks were an even better bargain. Those were free. It was just a taste of each, but you could go back for as many tastes of as many chilis as you wanted.

When we're talking about Niwot, Colorado, we're talking about small-town community. There are times when I'm in Niwot and I feel like I've wandered into some alternate western version of Mayberry. The chili cookoff was a fine example of that small-town atmosphere. And one of the judges was the sheriff. I kid you not.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Plain and Simple White Bread

Today's bread was dead simple. Almost lazy. Instead of using my KitchenAid stand mixer, I went with the food processor, just for the fun of it.

When I first seriously started making bread, it was an every-Sunday thing, and I had the timing of the mixing, rising, punching, shaping and baking pretty well coordinated with the laundry's wash, dry, fold, put-away cycle.

Back then, I didn't have the stand mixer, so I hand-kneaded or I used the food processor to make the dough.

Now, it's pretty much all kneaded in the stand mixer, with a little hand kneading if it needs that final touch.

But two days ago, I was feeling a little retro, so I decided to use the food processor. Yes, two days. I made the dough two days ago, but didn't bake it until today. Bread dough is forgiving like that, if your schedule gets jostled. And the flavor actually improves as it rests.

Plain and Simple White Bread

1 cup lukewarm water
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one package)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

First, I put the water, yeast and sugar into a measuring cup and let it hang out a bit until it was frothy. The flour, salt and olive oil went into the food processor with the dough blade installed.

When the liquid was frothy, I turned on the processor and poured the liquid in through the feed tube. In no time a all, I had a ball of dough that was smooth and elastic and pretty warm, too, which gave it a jumpstart on the rising.

I formed a ball covered it with a little olive oil, put it into a bowl covered the bowl and let it rest.

When it was about half-risen, I realized that I wasn't going to have time to bake, so I punched the dough down, re-formed a ball, stuck it back into the bowl, covered it and stashed it in the fridge. I planned on letting it rest overnight, but didn't get around to making bread until today. The overnight or two day rest isn't essential for this recipe; it's just what I happened to do.

Today, I pulled the dough out and it had fully risen in the fridge, so I pulled it out of the bowl, gave it a little knead, and formed it like this:

I covered it with plastic wrap and set it in a warmish spot to let it rise.

Since it was cold in the house, the rise took a bit longer that usual.

Meanwhile, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees.

When it was fully risen, I sprayed it with some Quick Shine and sprinkled on some sesame seeds:

Quick Shine is a baking product that produces a nice shiny crust and helps seeds stick.

An eggwash would do the same thing, but some days I don't have another use for an egg.

After spraying and sprinkling, I slashed the loaf:

Into the oven it went at 350 degrees.

After ten minutes in the oven, it looked like this:

It was rising nicely.

After another 30 minutes, it was perfectly brown and done.

Here's the finished product:

And as always, I let it cool on a rack before slicing.

What's Cooking: "Coffee Cake" Part Two

This was originally published in the March, 2010 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier, It was the second installment of the recipe that was started in the February issue. That article was was posted here.

What's Cooking?

Last month, I left you hanging with the pastry part of Danish pastry completed. But to make a filled coffee cake, you need the filling, and maybe some folding instructions.

The crafty among you may have realized that anything that might go into a pie would also work in a Danish pastry.

If you’re making your own fillings, start by making those and have them chilled and ready to go before you start working with the dough. This recipe uses both pastry cream and a fruit filling, but you could use either one alone, or use your own favorite fruit filling, thick jam, or canned almond paste.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Chili Cookoff!

Silly me. I entered a chili cookoff, which takes place tomorrow. So I spent much of today preparing dried chilis, roasting fresh peppers, grinding meat ... stirring, simmering, stirring ... cooking three different kinds of beans, testing-tasting-adjusting ... stirring, simmering, stirring. Yeah, that sums up my day.

We had chili for dinner. I think it's pretty good. I don't know if it's a prizewinning chili, but we'll see.

And I made a LOT of chili. I'm supposed to bring two gallons of the stuff. I think I got carried away.

So now the vat of chili has been tranferred to containers, and it's all in the fridge. Tomorrow, I do a reheat, a last-minute adjustment of spice and heat, and then get it over to the contest site in the late afternoon.

Then just hang out and eat everyone else's chili.


Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part Three: All is Revealed)

So, imagine this...

Each guest sits down to dinner, and there's a strange bready thing in a bowl for each person.

The guests look a bit apprehensive. What is it?
Alien egg?
Bread and water for dinner?
An upcoming practical joke?
You invite them to tap it with a fork to crack it open.

Tap, tap...crack crack.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part Two: Troubleshooting)

Every time I make cracker-bread puffs (or pitas), there are a few that don't puff completely. They get bumpy and lumpy and bubbly, but the bubbles are uneven and they never fill the whole bread, like the one at the right.

Since most of the time I'm trying to make pitas rather than puffs, the puffing doesn't matter since I'm going to flatten them anyway. I those cases, it's more of a curiosity why some puff and some don't.

So I decided to do some experimenting.


Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part One: The Baking)

When I've got company over for dinner, I love being able to have one dish that stops the conversation. I'm not always successful at creating that "speechless" dish, but every now and then I get my moment of awe.

This puff of crispiness created that moment for me as guests wondered what the heck it was and what they were supposed to do with it. And once they cracked them open, they were even more amazed. Because it's more than just a bread or a cracker. What you see is just the shell. Inside is something that will amaze your guests as they wonder how it's possible. Because it seems so impossible unless you tell them your secret. Like a magician pullling a rabbit from a hat, it's not magic, but just a little technique and a little bit of misdirection.

The only downside to this dish is that I don't have a name for it. I call them puffy bread things, but that's silly. They need a better name. Magic bread. Surprise Puffs. Tricky Eats.

Eh, I'll work on the name later. .


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musings: The Bulk Section of the Grocery Store

When I needed some Grade B maple syrup, I remembered that I'd seen it in the bulk section of a local store. In the back of my mind was the mantra "bulk is better." I was feeling good about buying in bulk instead of buying something pre-packaged until I was actually dispensing the syrup into one of the provided plastic bottles.

Then the dispenser dribbled and spit and I got syrup on my hands. Wiping the goo off my hands, I asked myself, "How is this any better than buying a similarly-sized prepackaged container?"

I'd never taken the time to think about why so many people thought that the products in the bulk bins at the supermarket were better than their pre-packaged counterparts. And were they better, really? For whom?

There was a store in Chicago that sold almost everything from bulk bins and I loved the place. But what I loved most about it was that I could buy odd items that weren't sold in most grocery stores, like unusual flours and grains. But the bulk section of the grocery stores I shop at now aren't that comprehensive or exotic. I can find the same things on the store shelves. Sometimes I buy from the bulk section, sometimes I buy the same things prepacked. Often, there is no logical reason for my choice on any particular day.

But as I was trying to get the stickiness off the outside of the bottle, I was looking at the bulk bins and the bags, tags and scoops, I started thinking more about it. When is bulk better? Why? When does it make sense for me to choose one over the other?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What I'm Reading: Milk

The face isn't intentional -
that's just how the ice landed in eggnog
Sitting on my bookshelf I have a book called Fat, which is mostly cookbook with all sorts of interesting information about different types of fat.

If that seems like a narrow focus on an ingredient, then Milk, by Anne Mendelson, would seem impossibly narrow.

But maybe not.

A Review of Milk, a book by Anne Mendelson

Subtitled "The Suprising Story of Milk Through the Ages," Milk is part history lesson, part chemistry lesson. and part nutrition lesson. It's also a cookbook, with 120 recipes that use some type of milk. Or butter. Or buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream...

Definitely not the book for someone who is lactose intolerant. Or maybe it is, if that someone is only mildly lactose intolerant, because the book talks about which milks and which processes make the milk more tolerable.

But I digress.

The book starts out with the history of the use of milk-producing animals and the types of products that were consumed. What's interesting is that until recently, fresh milk was a pretty rare product because unless you had a cow (or other milk-producing animal) and unless you used the product almost immediately, the milk didn't stay fresh for very long.

The warm, fresh milk would start its inevitable process toward fermentation very quickly unless there was some way to chill it. So, before refrigeration, the goal was to find a way to control the fermentation so the milk went bad in a good way. Yogurt, for example. Now, yogurt seems complicated and mysterious, but before refrigeration it was almost a natural occurrence, and more commonly consumed than fresh milk.

After the section on milk itself (followed by recipes that use milk and cream) the book continues with sections on yogurt, cultured milk and cream, butter and true buttermilk, and fresh cheeses. And each section has instructions on how to make the product, followed by instructions on how to use the product you've made. Or, if making it was a one-time project, how to use the commercial versions.

One of the more interesting things (and possibly most controversial thing) in this book is the author's stance on organic milk. You'd think that organic would be the hands-down favorite because it's the cleaner, gentler, kinder and more natural form of milk. But, no. The author suggests that in terms of the treatment of the cows, there's not much difference between the milk from regular dairies and the milk from large organic dairies.

The labels that claim that the organic milk is antibiotic-free is a bit misleading, since all milk has to be antibiotic-free, according to regulations. So there's no difference between organic and non with that regard. On the downside, much of the organic milk on the market has been ultra-pasteurized, while conventional milk had simply been pasteurized.

Ultra-pasteurizing doesn't make the milk safer or better, it's simply a different method. Regular pasteurizing heats the milk for a longer time to a lower temperature. Ultra-pasteurizing uses a much higher heat for a shorter period of time, and the author's contention is that the higher heat destroys some imporant characterists in the milk. If you're going to boil the heck out of it anyway, then it's not going to matter. But if you're trying to make ice cream or cheese, or if you care about the subtlties of the flavor, the ultra-pasteurized is not what you want.

Instead of choosing organic milk, the author suggests trying to find milk from a small local dairy, looking for unhomogenized milk if possible, and avoiding any milk that is ultra-pasteurized. It's possible that your small local dairy might also be an organic dairy, but the important factor, according to the author, is how the milk was pasteurized.

While some people might not think that a milk choice could be controversial, I know a lot of people who prefer organic over anything else and who, if they have to make hard choices about what organic products they choose, make milk a priority purchase. I'm not making any personal recommendations here, but after reading the book, what she says does make a lot of sense: if large organic dairies are producing the same quality product as large conventional dairies, then the difference between the two occurs after the milk has left the cow. Because organic milk is a smaller market and may be shipped longer distances to retail locations, those dairies want their milk to have a longer shelf life. Thus, they ultra-pasteurize.

This is also why regular pasteurized cream is so hard to find. It's a narrow market and the sellers want it to stay on the shelf as long as possible, so most of it is ultra-pasteurized. And much of it includes extra ingredients, like gums and thickeners.

As far as milk purchases, a local dairy with a small herd will probably be producing a better quality milk than a large commercial operation. (There are a lot of details in the book as to why this is the case. Suffice it to say that I'm convinced.) If that milk is shipped and sold locally, it doesn't need to be ultra-pasteurized, so it's a better choice for the quality of the original milk and for the handling afterward.

The author also recommends buying non-homogenized milk, if possible. Now, that's interesting. I don't think I've ever seen any milk in a store that hasn't been both homogenized and pasteurized. But now that she's mentioned it, I'll be looking to see if such a thing exists in my area.

Another little controversy that the author stirs up revolves around the "fact" that growing children need to drink a lot of fresh milk. Given that fresh milk is a relatively new product, it begs the question of how humanity survived for so long without any fresh milk at all. The answer has a lot to do with marketing.

What I really appreciate about this book is that the author is very clear when she's stating a researched fact and when she's offering her opinion. And when the facts aren't clear, she admits it. In the section about milk fat properties, she notes that scientists haven't yet untangled all the intracasies, but she offers the basics that a reader might care about. When it comes to names of cheeses, she makes it clear that there are few cheeses where names are regulated, but for the rest of them, there is a lot of confusion. The names of cheeses across borders can mean completely different things. Again, she offers basic descriptions, while admitting that the lines are quite blurry and there is no one correct definition for many cheeses.

Since she's upfront about the fuzzy facts, I'm more ameniable to accepting that what she has researched is likely to be true, or at least as true as I need it to be when I'm adding milk to my morning coffee.

While my original interest in this book was the recipes, the rest of the book has been quite enlightening. And entertaining. I don't think I'll look at milk the same way again.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Turkey Meatball Dumplings

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I'm not exactly sure who "they" are, but in my kitchen, leftovers and poor timing are sometimes the step-parents of invention.

In this case, the leftovers included about 12 ounces of ground turkey, crushed crackers, turkey stock, and an assortment of miscellaneous vegetables.

Soup sounded good, so I skimmed the fat off the turkey stock, strained out the bones and bits, and put it in a pot with some carrots and onions.

The ground turkey. Hmmmm....meatballs might be nice, I thought. So I mixed up the turkey, the cracker crumbs, some random spices, and one egg. Since I had ground the turkey myself, and since I brined it before that, I knew I didn't need any more salt that what the crackers had provided. I didn't measure the cracker crumbs, but I'd guess it was no more than 1/3 cup.

When I was getting the egg out of the fridge, I noticed the container of leftover cooked potatoes. I grabbed those and added what was probably the equivalent of a medium-sized potato to the turkey, I mashed it roughly with a fork and mixed that into the turkey. Then I covered the bowl and stashed it back into the fridge while I fiddled with the soup.

Soup wasn't anything special. By the time it was done, it had (besides the carrots and onions) some diced piquillo peppers; the rest of the leftover potatoes, diced; green peas, and some whole wheat elbow macaroni. Salt, pepper, spices; some saffron. Some sweet paprika. I think that's it. If I had other vegetables, I would have added them, but that's about all there was.

When it was meatball time, I had the mad idea that I should just cook the meatballs in the soup instead of browning them, like my instincts were telling me. But the evil little voice on the other side was saying, "Drop one in; test it. See if it breaks up or holds together."

The voice was tempting, because if I didn't brown the meatballs, I wouldn't have to wash a frying pan. So I figured I'd give it a try. At worst, I'd have bits of turkey floating in the soup. So I scooped some up on a teaspoon, dropped it in, and...

It disappeared. Down to the bottom of the pot. It sunk like a rock and vanished.

I stirred things up a bit, and found it. I was a little amazed that it had held together, but there it was in a nice compact little lump. I got to work with the teaspoon and dropped the rest of the meat into the pot of simmering soup.

And then it got a little weird, as the meatballs started bobbing to the top. And they had gotten larger. Not as much expansion as you'd expect in a dumpling, but they were significantly larger than they were before.

So, we had soup for dinner, and although I called them meatballs before I tried one, they were a lot more like dumplings. Soft and fluffy and moist and delicate. Cloudlike. Ethereal. Okay, maybe that's a bit much, but I've had regular dumplings that were denser than these. It was hard to believe they were mostly meat.

The soup was just soup. But those dumplings! Oh my. I'm already thinking up other ways to use them.

So here's the rough ingredients:

Turkey Meatball Dumplings

12 ounces ground turkey
1/3 cup finely crushed crackers (it was a mix of Ritz and water crackers)
1 large egg
1 peeled, quartered, boiled and cooled white potato, roughly mashed
Salt if needed, and spices to taste.

*After I mixed all of the above, I stashed the mixture in the fridge until I was ready for it. I don't know if that step is necessary, but I'd imagine it helped to hydrate the cracker crumbs a bit.*

Drop a spoonful at a time into simmering soup. I didn't time how long I cooked them, but they were on the heat for a while after they floated. It's easy enough to check, though. Just break one open and see if the meat is cooked.

Twice-Fried Plantains

I only know one way to cook plantains. Or, more accurately, I usually only cook them one way. I don't cook them all that often, but when I do, I fall back to a recipe that I like. Why mess with such tasty success?

And it's dead simple.

Most of the plantains at the grocery store are woefully underripe, so I buy them well before I want to use them. Then they sit on the counter until they're mostly black. If bananas were that black, they'd be pudding inside, but not plantains.

The plantains here have just gone into the pan for the second fry. Don't they look like flowers, with their dark centers and frilly edges?

Twice-Fried Plantains
Because everything's better when it's cooked twice!

I cut the tops and bottoms off, slit the skin, and peel them. hey're not as willing as bananas, but not nearly as annoying as something like a pineapple.

After they're peeled, I slice them into rounds that are about an inch tall.
Into a frying pan they go, with a little oil, cut side down.

When one side is browned, I flip them over and brown the other side.

Then they come out of the pan.
They go into my handy little plantain smasher.

I smash them to about 1/4 inch tall.
And yes, the uncooked portion that's smooshing out is a little bit pink. 

I used to use a meat mallet, a sturdy mug, a small pot, or anything else I had handy. But when I found a tostone press (plaintain smasher) at a local market, and it was only a couple bucks, so I figured it was worth a try. It's a really simple device. Just a couple pieces of wood, hinged together, with a shallow round indent on one side.

The plantain smasher is less messy than using a meat mallet, and it's a little easier to make all the pieces the same thickness. Does everyone need a plantain press? Heck no. I don't need one, but it does make the job easier. It doesn't take a lot of storage space, and it was only a couple bucks, so I'd say it's worth having.

They go back into the pan they go to fry on both sides again, with a little sprinkle of salt. And that's it. Ready to serve.

The last time I fried plantains, I used quite a bit more oil, so they were doing almost a shallow fry. This time, I used a nonstick frying pan and just a bit of oil. The jury's still out on which is the better method.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Smoked Turkey Breast

Last November, when turkeys were on sale in the days after Thanksgiving, I bought a bird and stashed it in the freezer. Last week, I decided it was time to thaw the bird and free some freezer space.

When it was thawed, I cut it into pieces: two wings, two legs, two thighs, and two breast halves. Neck, back, and giblets went into the crockpot to make stock while the cut sections went into a brine with some apple cider, salt, peppercorns and a few poultry-friendly spices for an overnight spa treatment.

Next day, the turkey pieces came out of the brine and I rinsed it, patted it dry, and grabbed a thigh and breast to grind up for another recipe. The rest went back to the fridge for a little drying session.

Smoking came the next day. I smoked the remaining breast half and wings with applewood and I smoked the two legs and the remaining thigh with oak. All of this was done in my handy little stovetop smoker. It looks sort of like a little Weber grill, but it's made by NordicWare.

Yeah, it's not the same as smoking outdoors in a real smoker, but it's still good. And I can use on days when it's too cold and miserable for me to want to poke my toes outdoors.

The key to using the stovetop smoker to its best advantage is to get the temperature adjusted so that it's high enough so that smoke is created, but it's low enough so the wood keeps smoldering for a long time and so the meat cooks very slowly and has time to take on the smoky flavor.

The breast and wing sections were in the smoker low and slow for a couple hours before the breast temp reached 160 degrees.

But we're not done yet. The smoked meat was cooled, then refrigerated. The legs, wings and thigh have been set aside for future use, but the breast was destined for tonight's dinner. I glazed it with some apricot goo I had left over from another recipe, and popped it in the oven to warm up to serving temp. It was already fully cooked from the smoking, so I just wanted the glaze to get happy and the turkey to reach a serving temp.

The meat was moist, tender, and smoky and the apricot glaze added a nice sweet-tart accent. Makes me almost sad that there isn't another turkey in the freezer. Silly me, I forgot to take photos of it right out of the oven, but here it is just as I was packing it up for tomorrow.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bread with Malted Wheat Flakes

Malted wheat bread in the oven.
Today's bread includes a new ingredient: Malted Wheat Flakes. They sounded interesting when I found them on the King Arthur Flour website, so of course I had to order them.

The instructions on the bag say that the flakes don't need to be soaked before adding to bread, but I decided to put them in right away; not exactly a soak, but as much chance to meet moisture as possible.

In this recipe, I used whey left over from yogurt making as the liquid ingredient, but water would be just fine. I also used demerara sugar, because that's what I normally use. White sugar would be fine, as well.

And for a change, I measured everything as it went into the mixer.

Most bread recipes call for covering the doughball with oil and plopping it into a clean bowl. However, I usually just use the stand mixer bowl. I drizzle a little oil over the dough, make sure it's not stuck to the bowl anywhere, and cover it. If you'd prefer to use a clean bowl, go for it.

This bread was a lot darker than I expected, considering the small amount of wheat flakes. Not saying that's bad; I like an interesting color in a loaf. The finished loaf also had interesting bumps and lumps and bit in it. I sort of expected the malted wheat to disappear into the loaf the way instant oats would. Instead, there were obvious pieces. Still, that's not a bad thing, it's just an observation.

Malted Wheat Bread

Malted wheat flakes
1 cup lukewarm whey
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
1 /2 cup malted wheat flakes
2 cups bread flour, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

olive oil

Add whey, sugar, yeast and wheat flakes to the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk to combine and set aside for 10 minutes, or until the top is frothy.

Add one cup of flour, mix well, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and let sit for about 20 minutes. The mixture will get fluffy and rise in the bowl.

Add add the salt and most of the second cup of bread flour. Knead with the dough hook of the stand mixture for about 5 minutes, until the dough begins to get stretchy. Add more flour, if necessary, so that the dough is tacky, but not sticky. Add olive oil and continue kneading until the dough is shiny and elastic. There will still be some bumps because of the wheat flakess, so don't worry about that.

Drizzle a little olive oil over the dough to coat, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest until the dough has doubled in size, about an hour, depending on the temperature in your kitchen.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal.

Flour your work surface, empty the bowl onto the work surface, and form the dough into your preferred shape. I tend to make long loaves that bake into long ovals.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rest until about double in size. Slash the top of the loaf (this time I went for one long center slash) and bake for about 40 minutes until nicely browned. Move bread to a rack to cool completely before cutting.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Musings: Why I Find It Hard To Share Recipes

This is a photo of bread down in a mixer.
Or maybe the title should be:

Why Your Food Won't Taste Like Mine, Even If You Follow My Recipe Exactly

I just finished up the last recipe for the maple syrup contest I've been toying with. Deadline is today, and finalists will be notified next week, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

While working on contest recipes, I learned a lot about my cooking. What seems so natural to me in the kitchen doesn't translate really well to the written word.

Most of my cooking is done with a bit of this, a handful of that, and a little taste here and there to adjust things. Even my bread creationss are made by look and feel more than by weights and measures. Most days, I start with yeast and liquid and add the various dry ingredients until it looks the way I want it to.

Part of my goal in blogging about my cooking is to force myself to measure things as I throw them into the bowl or pot. If I want to pass along my recipes, I need to quantify better than by the handful or by the drizzle.

So that part's easy enough. I can pour into my hand, then scoop that into a measuring spoon, and I can write down the amounts. And I can set a timer or watch the clock so I know how long it really takes to knead the bread or brown the meat, or whatever it is I'm doing.

And I can take photos of what I mean when I say the yeast should be bubbly or the dough should be stretchy. In the photo here, we've got some bread dough that's beginning to get stretchy, but it's still tearing. It hasn't reached the smoothy, shiny, super-stretchy phase yet. While the photo tells part of the story, it doesn't capture the dough hook in motion, or the flow of the dough as I lift the hook. It's probably good enough, though, for someone to get the idea of what I mean.

What I can't do when passing along a recipe is to expect that anyone else is going to have the mad array of homemade products that I use. For example, most of my everyday breads use whey instead of water. The whey is left over from when I've made yogurt. No way do I expect anyone to make yogurt just so they have leftover whey to put into bread. The recipe will work as well with water, but it won't taste exactly the same.

I suppose it's good to tell yogurt-making people that whey is a good option for a particular recipe, but no matter what, leftover whey is not a consistent product. There will be more or less yogurt mixed in the whey depending on how it was drained, and the flavor will be different depending on how tart the yogurt was. So even if someone's got leftover whey, it's not exactly like the whey I had on a particular day. But then again, I guess it's no worse than the differences between brands of canned tomatoes or varieties of hot sauces.

So meanwhile, I do my best. The turkey meatballs were tasty, I wrote down amounts and instructions, and I sent it off to the contest. We'll just have to wait to see how it fares. At the worst, I'll have a bunch of recipes to share after the week is up. At best, I'll have a little extra cash to spend. Probably at the grocery store.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Chicken-Turkey Rice Soup

No photo of this soup. Here's some other soup.
Some days, soup is just what you need. Today was one of those days. I wasn't sure where I was going to end up, but I started out with a hunk of frozen chicken stock.

I didn't have much of a plan, but that's how it is a lot of the time. I go rooting around to see what I have on hand, or I go to the grocery store to see what looks good, and then I start throwing it all around until it looks and tastes good.

Some days I start with a clear idea in mind, and I work my way towards that result. Other days, I start with a clear idea in mind, and I wander hopelessly offtrack and end up with something completely different.

When it's a soup day, I mostly don't have a plan. I start with something and I add flavors and textures until I'm happy with what I have.

So today, I started with chicken stock. Into the pot it went. When I make stock, I reduce it a lot to save on freezer space, so I added about twice as much water as I had stock, and set that to simmering so the stock-chunk could melt.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Maple White-Wheat Oatmeal Bread

I’ve been on a bit of a maple binge lately. That happens a lot. I get stuck on an ingredient and I start putting it in everything, until I move on to something else.

This bread is hearty, with a nice sweetness from the maple, which helps to counteract some of the bitterness that some people detect in whole wheat products.

This bread takes quite a lot of kneading to get it to the shiny and elastic stage, but it does get there. It’s also a bit slow rising; don’t rush it. This loaf is worth waiting for.

Maple Oatmeal White Wheat Bread

1 cup lukewarm water
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup instant oats
1 teaspoon salt
3 3/4 cups white wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water, yeast, maple syrup and oats. Let sit for 10 minutes until the oats hydrate the liquid starts bubbling, indicating that the yeast is alive.

Add salt and 3 cups white wheat flour and mix with stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until the dough comes together. Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed for 5 minutes. Add more flour 1/4 cup at a time, slowing or stopping the mixer while adding flour. Continue kneading at medium speed until the dough starts getting stretchy and is tacky but not sticky. You may not need all of the flour. Add olive oil and continue kneading until the dough becomes shiny and elastic.

Turn dough out of the bowl and form into a ball. Place the ball in a clean, large bowl, Drizzle with a little olive oil to coat the dough ball all over, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and sprinkle cornmeal on a baking sheet.

Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into desired shape. I tend to like oval loaves, but it’s up to you.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled.

Remove plastic wrap, slash top of loaf, and bake at 325 degrees for 40-50 minutes, until the bread is a rich brown.

Take out of the oven, put on a rack, and cool completely before cutting.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gluten-Free White Bread

While I have no need to bake gluten-free bread, when I got a copy of The Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook, by Mary Capone,I knew that I'd have to try the bread recipe. Bread is all about gluten, and the idea of making a bread without that stretchy component intrigued me.

The recipe requires a bit of a leap of faith that it's all working correctly, because the steps seem a little arbitrary and the process is nothing like making yeast bread. Afterward, it all makes sense, but it the middle of it, it seems like a science experiment gone wrong.

The bread in the book is called "Our Daily Bread" and the basic recipe is just that. It's a very plain white bread that wouldn't clash with anything and that would be the perfect background for a sandwich or morning toast.

Our Daily Bread
Adapted from The Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook by Mary Capone

2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 1/2 cups brown rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
3/4 cup potato starch
4 teaspoons xanthan gum
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
3 eggs plus 3 egg whites
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Eggwash: 1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. For a standard sandwich-style bread, lightly grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan with vegetable oil, olive oil, or cooking spray.

In a small bowl, combine water, sugar and yeast and stir until dissolved. Set aside for 10 minutes at which point the mixture should have a foamy head; if not, start over with new yeast.

Add all dry ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and blend for 3 minutes to combine thoroughly. Or use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mixing for 5 minutes.

In another small bowl, whisk olive oil, eggs, and vinegar until well blended. add this mixture to the dry an mix well. Add the yeast mixture, and mix again.

Keep mixing; it will take 2-3 minutes for the dough to form in the food processor, and for it to mound up around the blade. If using a stand mixer, it will take about 5 minutes and the dough will build up around the paddle. In either case, it will pull away from the sides of the bowl in ribbons or thick, thready strands.

The dough will be sticky and soft. If you're including any add-ins, stir them in just until combined.

Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a spoon dipped in olive oil. Set it in a warm place to rise for about 40 minutes. It will almost double in size.

Slash the top, if desired, and brush with the eggwash. You can also sprinkle the top with seeds or other toppings.

Bake for 40-45 minutes until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

The Results

When I made this bread, I thought that the toughest taste test would be to make the simplest bread, with no topping and no add-ins that would distract from the flavor of the bread itself. The resulting loaf was very plain. Not bad, by any means, but very plain. Of course, that's in comparison to my usual breads that tend to be more interesting than the usual store-bought bread.

When I served this bread for dinner, my husband didn't notice anything unusual about it, which is a pretty good testament to its similarity to wheat bread's flavor and texture. It would make a great sandwich bread, but it's not the sort of thing that you'd slice and devour plain.

If I was making this again, I think I'd add a bit more salt, as it seemed just a little bit bland. Add-ins that Capone suggest are things like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, garlic, herbs and spices, cheese, or onions. For a sweeter bread, she suggested cinnamon mixed with sugar swirled into the dough, along with walnuts and raisins.

If I was making the bread again, I think I'd go for some grated cheese to add some tang while still allowing it to be a multipurpose bread. Butter flavoring might also be a good idea, if that comes in a gluten-free version.

Experiment done, I'm glad that I don't have gluten problems. But if I did, at least this bread exists. Knowing me, I'd be experimenting like mad to create ever more interesting flavor profiles, just like I do with regular breads.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Pizza

Nothing special, and no recipe. I just threw together a pizza from what was on hand.

The crust was a sourdough made with a good majority of white wheat flour, and the toppings were Italian sausage, mushrooms and roasted red pepper.

I was a little too much of a hurry getting the pizza done, and then it didn't want to slide off the peel and onto the stone. Taste-wise, it was pretty good.

Oh yeah, and since I grew up in Chicago, it's cut into squares instead of triangles. And I always (always, without fail) eat a corner piece first. Because if you cut a round pizza into squares, there are alway 4 triangular "corner" pieces.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mom's Tomato Soup

When I was a kid, this was simply referred to as "Good Soup" It was my ultimate favorite.

Rereading it now, I see that there's no indication of what happens to the meat from the pork neckbones. Basically, that ends up as a snack - or a lunch - for the cook. Cooked until falling-apart tender, it's great with barbecue sauce.

Where it says, "adjust seasonings to taste," we generally preferred a tart tomato soup, and mom would often add sour salt or a little more vinegar to the soup if the canned tomatoes weren't tart enough. On the rare occasions when it was too tart, she might add a touch of sugar. And of course, salt had to be adjusted.

I've made this using canned evaporated milk instead of cream for a version with less fat, and it's still good. You can also use store-bought noodles, but do try to find the kluski if you can. It's just not the same with regular noodles.

I've also made a vegetarian version, using water instead of pork stock, and it's still fine. Or chicken stock works, as well. Of all the soups my mother made, this was the only one that used pork, and the only cut of meat she ever used was pork neckbones. You could substitute other cuts, if you prefer. After all, the meat doesn't go into the soup.

Double-click on the image for a larger (and clearer) view. I thought the hand-written version had some charm, though.

For those who can't make out my scribbles, this is what is says:

Cream of Tomato Soup

Simmer pork neck bones in water to cover in crockpot on low overnight.

Remove bones, skim, and strain. Place broth in large pot, add 1 onion, chopped, and a couple of carrots, sliced. Bring to a simmer. Add salt (to taste) 1 lg. can tomato puree, and a splash of vinegar. Simmer until carrots are done. (Note: Whole, peeled tomatoes may be added halfway through cooking time, if desired.) Adjust seasonings to taste. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Add milk or cream, stirring constantly. (If soup is too hot at this point, milk will curdle.) Serve with Kluski [noodles].


Mound flour (about 2 cups)  in center of board. Make well in center. Drop in 1 teaspoon salt and 2 eggs. Stir eggs, breaking yolks and incorporating the flour a little at a time until the liquid is absorbed and you have a thick dough. Knead briefly, then roll thin and slice into strips about 1/4 inch thick. Let it dry slightly before boiling in salted water.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nutty Banana Oatmeal Butterscotch Bars v 1.0

Have some oats ...
This is a relatively healthy bar, with whole wheat, oats, nuts...the butterscotch chips can be left out, if you want to cut back on the sweetness. The recipe is a bit of a work in progress, so it's not quite perfect yet - at least not at high altitude.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temp.
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 ripe (or overripe) bananas, mashed (about 1/3 cup)
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 11-oz. bag butterscotch chips
1 cup nuts, chopped (I like walnuts and sunflower seeds)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat pan with baking spray or use butter and flour.

Note: I used a 15” x 10” x 1” pan and it overflowed up here at high altitude, but it might be fine at sea level. It might be wise, though, to either use something deeper or larger, or put a larger pan underneath just in case. Or bake this as muffins instead of bars. Somewhere I've got notes on a re-tweaked version that didn't overflow, but I can't find them at the moment. I'll post 2.0 instructions when I find them.

Blend the first 5 ingredients in a small bowl.

In a large bowl, beat sugar until fluffy. Add sugars and beat until well-blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Beat in bananas and vanilla.

Stir in the flour mixture until it’s all blended. Don’t overmix it. Add butterscotch chips and nuts, and mix until they’re evenly distributed.

Spread the batter into the pan and even out the top. Bake at 350 about 45 minutes, until the top is browned and a toothpick poked in the center comes out clean.

Let cool on a rack, in the pan. Cut and serve.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

He Giggled Too Much... I shoved him into the oven.

He's quiet now. 

And tasty, too.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bread with Ultragrain

While the baking aisles at the local grocery stores have always been clogged with cake mixes and canned frostings, the flour sections have improved over the years.

At first, I was limited to a few brands and a few options unless I was buying boutique flour in tiny bags. Now, on occasion, I'll find something new.

Recently, I picked up a bag of Eagle Mills All Purpose Flour with Ultragrain.

Of course, I had no idea what it was when I bought it. I know the names of a lot of different grains, but Ultragrain sounded to me like it might have superhero tendencies. Maybe it would make me able to leap tall buildings.

Or not.

I used a bit of it in other baking recipes before I decided that I ought to try it in a loaf of bread. I decided to keep the recipe fairly simple in terms of added flour-like ingredients. I started last night with about a cup or so of whey (left over from yogurt making) that I tossed into the bowl of my kitchenaid mixer. I added a teaspoon of yeast, a tablespoon of sugar, and enough of the Ultragrain flour to make a thick batter. Thicker than pancake batter, but still mixable with a whisk. Since the flour was fresh out of the freezer and the whey and the yeast came from the fridge, I knew it was going to take some time for the yeast to wake up. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight.

This morning, it was obviously bubbly. I added another teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon of salt, and more flour. I put the dough hook on the mixer and let it fly. It wasn't long before I realized that the dough was a little stiffer than what I wanted. I briefly considered adding more whey, but then I spotted a container of yogurt that was almost empty, so I grabbed that, instead. This was some of my home-made yogurt, and I'd guess there was maybe a quarter-cup left. That went into the mixer.

I kneaded until it was thoroughly combined, then covered the bowl again and let it rest for maybe 15 minutes. Went back and kneaded again. The dough was getting nicely stretchy and shiny. I added some olive oil. Not as much as usual, since the yogurt also contributed some fat. Maybe a teaspoon of olive oil. When it was nicely kneaded, I stopped the mixer, dribbled a tiny bit more olive oil around the sides, used a spatula to make sure the whole doughball was free from the sides of the bowl, covered the bowl with plastic and let it rest until it was doubled in size.

Preheated the oven to 375.

Meanwhile, I did a little research on Ultragrain. It seems that a lot of commercial breadmakers and flour companies have a similar product. Basically, Ultragrain is the same stuff that other companies are calling white whole wheat (or more accurately, whole white wheat). The Eagle Mills website makes a point of talking about the way the grain is milled so that the grains are the same size as standard flour, while other sites talk less about the milling and more about the grain itself.

White wheat in this sense is white compared to red wheat. Regular white (not whole) flour is made from red wheat that has been stripped of the germ and other bits, so that just the white part is left. Regular whole wheat is red wheat that hasn't been stripped, so that nutrients and fiber remain. However, many people find that the red whole wheat has a bitter taste, and often it's ground to a coarser texture (stone ground, for example, usually means that the flour is coarser) so the resulting bread is denser and browner.

White wheat doesn't have the red color component, and some people call it albino wheat. The red color also is where the bitterness comes in, so white whole wheat tastes sweeter and more like refined white flour, while retaining the nutrients and fiber. It's still not as white as refined white flour, but it's not as brown as whole wheat and the color is more uniform throughout, without the dark brown flecks that you find in standard whole wheat flour.

While white wheat is supposed to be more like white flour in taste, any whole wheat can cause some issues with recipes that require gluten formation because the hard bits can cut the gluten strands. The shorter strands aren't as good at trapping the gasses, so the bread can still be a little more dense. Some of the websites suggest using white whole wheat in recipes designed for regular whole wheat, rather than using it in recipes that are written for plain white flour.

However, many things affect gluten formation. Adding seeds to the mix can cut at the strands. Oil added to a dough recipe will coat the gluten strands. Other whole grains or other mix-in change the properties of the bread. To me, this isn't a negative thing, it's what makes breadmaking so interesting.

I also found out that the all purpose flour from Eagle Mills is a mix of the Ultragrain and regular white flour. Eagle Mills also sells a 100 percent white whole wheat flour, but that's not available in my local stores. Fortunately, King Arthur Flour also has a white whole wheat flour that's sold locally, and recently I saw another brand of white whole wheat, so it seems like I'll have more options as this type of flour gets more popular.

I've got to say that as much as I like the idea of a lighter whole wheat option, I hope that red whole wheat doesn't disappear completely. Sometimes that bold flavor and darker color and interesting texture is just what I'm looking for.

Back to breadmaking. After the research and the rising time, I floured my countertop and dumped the dough out and shaped it into a long loaf, about the diameter of your average baguette. Put it on a cornmeal-sprinkled cookie sheet and covered it with plastic for another rest. Let it double in size...or a teeny bit more. Made three diagonal slashes and popped it into the oven. After 30 minutes, the crust was a lovely brown, but I thought it might need just a tad more time, so I lowered the heat to 325 and let it go for a little longer. No timer on it this time. Maybe ten minutes.

The crust was a lovely mahogany brown and there was a decent amount of oven spring. The loaf is soft and moist, but not gummy or spongy. The color was a light tan. Not as dark as whole wheat could be, but obviously not white bread either.

Flavor-wise, if I closed my eyes and ignored the color, I might think it was some version of white bread. Or I might imagine it's got just a little whole wheat. Either way, it's a great option for making a mild bread that's better for you.

Soon, I'll try a bread with a flour that's 100 percent white whole wheat and see how that comes out, but based on these results, I expect that it won't give me any problems at all. It'll also be interesting to see what the results would be if I used a recipe designed for whole wheat.

This is why breadmaking is so much fun. There are so many options.