zoethe: (Bread)
The bread baking continues, this time an Italian bread that I've experienced in restaurants but never at home.

Ciabatta starts with a preferment, like so many other breads in this book. As always, that means that starting the day before is the better choice. Of course, I didn't manage to do that. Still, I was able to give the preferment 5 hours to do its bubbly thing. After that, more flour, salt, and liquid is added. The recipe called for water, but the side comments said that buttermilk could be used for a more tender crumb, and since I had buttermilk available I thought, what the heck?

What results from the mixing of all the ingredients is, well, a wet, sloppy mess:

For 7 minutes or so, you mix this slop in the bowl, turning the bowl clockwise as you go along, dampening your hand to keep the dough from sticking, and then turning it counter-clockwise, all the time squishing the dough to form the gluten.

5-year-olds would love this.

You then take this wet mess, plop it onto a flour-covered counter, and engage in the "lift-and-fold" method of kneading. The idea is that dough too wet to be kneaded can be scooped, stretched, then folded in on itself. This dough was very wet, and the directions weren't really clear enough on how many times, or for how long. So I did it for...a while? The dough rested for half an hour, then I had to do it again. And again, I wasn't sure for how long. I think I probably should have done it for longer, in retrospect. But either way, the dough then rises on the counter, covered, for two hours.

Once it finishes rising, the dough is divided into two pieces, each of which will be a separate bread. The breads are to be set up in a couche, a cloth divider meant to hold the loaves in shape. Generally, this is done with a length of canvas impregnated with flour and used for this sole purpose.

I don't happen to own such a length of canvas, so I had to find some other piece of smooth cloth that I could flour. The obvious choice was a pillowcase:

(Okay, for demonstration purposes I probably shouldn't have chosen a black pillowcase.)

The dough was very sticky, so I sprinkled on lots of flour. The bread rose well, but then came the next step, which was getting the loaf onto the peel so that it could then be slipped onto the hearthstone where it would bake.

I must make a confession now: I've always used parchment paper on the peel and slid the whole shebang into the oven. But Reinhart makes it clear that while certain breads can be cooked with on parchment, others should not be. And ciabatta is one of the "should not be" breads. So I sprinkled the peel with cornmeal to give it a try.

This would have been easier if the loaf was a bit less like a non-Newtonian fluid. As it was, getting my hands under the loaf was like lifting a jellyfish. Not easy. Much swearing ensued. But I finally managed to get it there:

Then there was the setup for getting it into the oven:

The kettle was to fill a broiler pan with boiling water, the mister to further mist the bread in the first part of the baking. And the towel? To cover the glass door of the oven while pouring the water into the broiler. Because at 500 degrees, even tempered glass isn't immune to cracking if water is dribbled on it.

All this, and we finally had bread:

The measure of success in ciabatta is large holes, so the proof was in the cutting:

We got some very good holes, but the crumb didn't really taste like ciabatta -- very tasty, but not quite ciabatta. But then by this morning the flavor had matured and it was very much ciabatta.Very good dipped in olive oil.

There are several variations on the ciabatta, and I will make others in the future. It's not an easy bread, but it is very tasty.
zoethe: (Geek)
Have you ever talked to dedicated nail biters and had them tell you about the pleasure of holding off for a few days, letting their nails grow while they fought against the urge to bite them, and then their ecstatic pleasure at biting those nails?

Occasionally I’m like that with my kitchen.

Oh, it’s not on the days when I’m cooking. If I’m regularly cooking, then the mess gets cleaned up before I get started. But every once in a while we have a day like yesterday, where I didn’t feel good and we had friends over and Chinese takeout.

The cartons are all over the counters. There are sticky spots. Dishes in the sink. The stove top is a mess because I didn’t clean it up after making pot roast two nights ago. In sum, my kitchen is a giant mess. (Okay, giant mess for me; lots of people are messier than I, I admit.)

Instead of upsetting me, it’s filling me with a strange glee. Right now I don’t have time to clean it up. I have to put out the trash, but then I have other things I must do. So for the moment, the mess remains.

Then when I get my work done, I will get the pleasure of cleaning my kitchen. I will spend at least an hour scrubbing everything down. I will polish, and sweep, and mop, and then step back, see the places I missed, and go at them again. The whole thing will fill me with a sort of calm pleasure. Afterward, I might even cook something.

Pity I can’t muster the same pleasure for cleaning the bathroom….
zoethe: (Default)
For over a quarter century I have been drinking Lipton Sugar Free Instant Iced Tea, a concoction of chemical sweetness and caffeination that has kept me going through raising kids, working, divorce and remarriage, moving across country, and more.

It's vile stuff, really. But I am addicted.

This food product does not fit into my current determination to eliminate chemicals from my life. I have stopped eating prepackaged foods, have stopped buying foods produced in artificially low-fat versions, and am committed to cooking real food from scratch. As part of my determination to eat clean, I vowed that, once these final jars of the tea were gone, I would stop drinking it. In preparation, I had limited myself to only one large glass of it a day, rather than throughout the day. I could see the end coming, so I was getting ready.

Yesterday I made what I thought was my next-to-last glass of this instant iced tea. Today, I went into the kitchen to ceremoniously make the final glass. A glass to savor, to appreciate. A glass to say goodbye.

As it turned out, there was only a little dusting of the tea in the bottom of the jar. I'm not sure how I didn't notice it yesterday, but there was only enough for one weak ounce of tea.

I was, shall we say, dismayed. I had a plan for this. And that plan was smacked down.

Oh, also? It's That Time Of Month. It was kind of a perfect storm of "NOOOOOOO!!!!!!"

So here I am. I've made a cup of hot tea to stave off caffeine withdrawal, and I have a big glass of water. I'm pleased to be getting this last daily dose of artificially manufactured food out of my life. I expect that in a matter of a few days I won't miss it anymore.

But that is not this day.
zoethe: (Bread)
My friend Nathan claims that this is the best bread in the Jewish tradition, so I feel kind of bad that I didn't make it on a day when he was going to be here.

As for me, I have never met a challah that I didn't think was just...okay. It's just not a favorite of mine. But it's the next bread, so it was time to try it.

The recipe called for 7-9 ounces of water, and I know some people have written that they had to use all the water. I, on the other hand, used only 7 ounces, but then had to add at least another ounce or two of flour to it in order to get to the dough to be anything but a wet mess.

Even then, after the first knead, the dough still looked kind of batter-like:

After an hour of rising, the directions were not to just punch down the dough, but to actually knead it for two minutes. After that, it looked much more like bread dough:

And another 90 minutes of rising:

Now, I could have just made a loaf, but the challah tradition calls for braiding. Which calls for dividing the dough into thirds. After some consideration, I decided that the most accuracy was just plain pie chart thirds.

Then I rolled them out and braided the three strands. At which point I realized that my braid was a little long. So we had a challah rainbow.

And then baked:

A good crumb and decent crust.

The eaters pronounced it delicious. I thought it was ... perfectly okay for challah. It's never going to be my favorite bread, but it's pretty easy and will probably make a decent sandwich bread.
zoethe: (Bread)
This week's bread was the first one with which I was completely unfamiliar. Casatiello is an Italian version of brioche. It decreases the amount of butter in the bread, but replaces it with cheese and cured meat.

How bad can that be?

For the cheese, I chose a nice aged Gouda: strong enough to carry the bread without being overpowering. For the meat, I decided against salami or sausage and decided to go with a really nice, thick cut Amish bacon.

I realized I had a problem when I pulled out the cast iron frying pan. Suddenly husband, daughter, and daughter's girlfriend were all in the kitchen. "Bacon...?" they asked, eyes wild.

Fortunately, I'd purchased lots of bacon. So the first batch went to the ravening wolves I call family. Once they were satisfied, I was able to cook up bacon chunks--and threaten the fingers of anyone thinking about nibbling.

These were the add-ins for the bread:

Yup, that's gonna be one healthy loaf!

When it was all kneaded together, it looked like this

After rising, the instructions were to put it in loaf pans or a brioche pan, but it was really too soft for a loaf, so I used a springform pan instead:

You can see the air pockets in the bread, which look good buy also say "no good gluten skin," meaning that it's not going to form up well as a loaf. Definitely well-served by the springform.

It came out of the oven very pretty:

And once it cooled, the crumb was nice:

As for the flavor, it was pronounced delicious, with the one suggestion that it needed more bacon. The book says that the "coarsely grated cheese" will result in little pockets of cheesy goodness, but I found that it melted into the bread pretty evenly. Perhaps Reinhart has a cheese grater that has even larger holes than mine. Overall, it was a favorite--and won't appear on our table very often because of its richness!

Oh, and while all this was going on, I was also making my regular sourdough bread. Despite my attempt at making the two breads follow each other into the oven, it was clear that they were both going to be oven-ready at the same time. Once again, I got to use my lower oven. Though I thought early on that maybe it had been a silly thing to want, it's turning out the be very handy! Both breads came out of the oven within 15 minutes of each other.

I call that a successful baking day!
zoethe: (Bluebird)
In the long quest to find The Answer To All Diets, people rush from one fad to the next, one year embracing cabbage soup, the next eating nothing but bacon and steak. One year gulping down juice fasts, the next eschewing fruit entirely. We want the golden ticket, the easy fix. And every guru who comes down the road with proclamations of the One True Way leads people in his or her path, the newest Pied Piper.

Eventually people grow tired of eating in the prescribed way and drop out of the parade, feeling like failures. Then the voices of science and reason begin to penetrate the insanity, and most people return to their previous weights, discouraged and cynical, but waiting for the next bandwagon to jump aboard.

Currently, that bandwagon is gluten. Gluten is the Great Poisoner of People. We're told that the staff of life is EEEEEVIL, and that we can all be thin if we just stop eating bread. People are swearing off gluten left and right. Gluten-free substitutes crowd the grocery shelves.

I admit that I have a personal interest here. I am, after all, a bread baker. It's dismaying to read that this food I love is the Cause of All Fatness. It's also very suspicious to me, because people have been eating bread for centuries. Our obesity epidemic is a recent phenomenon. So the assumption that bread is the root of all evil doesn't make much sense to me.

Now, there is no doubt that certain medical conditions preclude the ingestion of gluten, particularly celiac disease. But for people without that disease, scientists are now warning that gluten avoidance may be bad for their health. This article from the Atlantic Monthly warns that cutting gluten out of our lives may lead to other deficiencies. And that there is no scientific evidence proving that gluten ingestion causes weight gain.

I concede that some people DO lose weight on a gluten-free regime, but that appears to spring from a general improvement in their diet: less fast food, more fresh fruit and veggies. The elimination of bread isn't the key.

So once again, it's sensible eating that makes the difference. Not some secret ingredient. There's no magic bullet.
zoethe: (Bread)
There is nothing nutritionally redeeming about brioche. It's basically baked butter--a succulent slice of heart attack. But it was the next bread, so if I was going to do this right, I needed to bake brioche.

The bread once again started with a sponge, a short preferment to get the yeast beasties at work and develop some flavor. I don't know how much flavor contribution can really be had in 20 minutes of fermentation, but I am determined to follow the directions.

Except I sort of missed the part where the dough had to chill overnight and so got up very early to start the bread and didn't caffeinate first, and the wheels were coming off the cart pretty darned early.

I think I was still trying to get my head around the whole pound of butter that was going into the bread. And five eggs.

The second direction is to add the rest of the flour and the eggs, and then let the whole thing rest for five minutes so that the gluten can develop. I got through the mixing, but missed the five minutes part. Instead, I started adding in the butter.

It's a lot of butter, added one stick at a time.

I have this strange determination to do this whole challenge without using my mixer. Don't ask me why; I'm just amused by the notion. Brioche, however, is not a bread conducive to hand kneading. In fact, it was rather like kneading a batch of cookie dough:

A very messy operation. And once I had incorporated all the butter, I was supposed to continue kneading for another 5 or so minutes before spreading it on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and putting it in the fridge.

The key phrase here is supposed to. I kind of missed that part, and when I got the dough back out it was still a slippery, formless mess.

Now, there are special brioche pans that make this bread a very special and lovely presentation, but at I am not anticipating much brioche in my future, I opted to go with loaves. The recipe said that it would make three loaves, but I only had enough dough for two, and there was no way that I could "form the loaves according to the [usual instructions]." That would require, you know, form. Which this bread was sadly lacking. I wrestled the two lumps into vaguely loaf-like shapes and smooshed them into the pans, where they were supposed to spend two hours rising.

An hour and a half later, there was no sign of any rising going on.

At this rate, there was no way that anything resembling edible bread was coming from this mess, so I figured I didn't have anything to lose. I dumped the two loaves back out and began kneading them again. This time, miraculously, gluten did develop. I reformed the loaves and put them back in the pans and gave them another 90 minutes. They hadn't risen much, but there was some sign of life, so I figured I didn't have anything to lose and popped them into the preheated oven.

Astoundingly, both loaves sprang nicely in the oven, and came out looking like actual loaves of bread rather than buttery bricks.

The resulting loaf had a rather dense but very tender crumb, and was delicious.

I took a loaf to dinner at a friend's house, and gave him the leftovers. Our loaf is slowly diminishing, but at about 500 calories a slice, slowly isn't slowly enough. I'm thinking I should freeze it and only take it out for special occasions.

Because otherwise the special occasion will be our funerals. From the coronaries brought on by this bread!
zoethe: (Bread)
My problem is that I really need more people around to eat my bread.

I’ve been experimenting with the most effective approach for getting a long, flavor-building rise in my sourdough bread. I’ve tried overnighting it during its initial rise, and in its final rise. Then on New Year’s Eve – when Ferrett sent out one set of invitations for 8pm and the other for 7pm, so I thought I had another hour before people would start showing up – I mixed up a bread but didn’t have a chance to knead it, so it went into the fridge for a 12+ hour autolyse.

It came out really tasty. Light and tender. And the oven spring was so high that it kind of ‘sploded. I’m inclined to say that it is the most successful of the methods.

But there has been nothing scientific about my approach to these breads, so I can’t be sure.

See, at this point, Shelob and I are so comfortable with each other that when I am ready to bake, or when there gets to be too much starter, I just pour some off into a mixing bowl. I eyeball how much starter is there, and add yeast, water and flour strictly according to a “that looks like enough” formula. So sometimes the dough is a little softer, sometimes it’s a little stiffer, sometimes there’s more of it, sometimes the loaf is a bit smaller.

To get a final answer, I need to take a Mythbusters approach: controlled conditions, careful measurements, and side-by-side tastings.

That’s a lot of carbs for a family of two. Who will help me eat my bread?!
zoethe: (Default)
Sword master Bob Anderson has died at the age of 89.

Some of you may not realize the contribution that he's made to your world. But if you appreciate the weapons work in Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, The Princess Bride, The Mask of Zorro, almost every Three Musketeers movies ever made, you've benefited from the mastery of Bob Anderson.

His work started in The Adventures of Robin Hood, where he worked with Errol Flynn, and he taught swordmanship to generations of actors. Many times his work was uncredited by the film's makers, but the people he taught spoke of him with great affection. He taught these actors to be comfortable with the blade, and he assisted in choreographing the epic fights that fill our movie memories.

He worked mostly behind the scenes (and thank goodness for the behind-the-scenes documentaries that finally introduced us to him), but also served as stunt double for a number of fight scenes, most notably at Darth Vader in the Star Wars Original Trilogy. Everything epic about those battles was Bob Anderson's work.

So farewell to one of films undersung heroes.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
We had a lovely party for New Year's Eve. I made absolutely nothing for the party, save for veggie and cheese trays, because I was stricken with a beastly headache during the day. All the cooking and baking plans got cast aside, and instead I got to be grateful simply that it let up so that I could be at my own party.

At the end of the party, there were lots of left over veggies from the two veggie trays. Now, there's a limited shelf life on a bunch of mixed veggies, and unless you're going to just keep eating veggies and dip, you've got to do something with them. We haven't managed to do any grocery shopping, meaning that it was "what's in the cupboard?" time. The answer was that there were some chicken breasts in the freezer. After digging through the cabinets to see what I could devise, I asked Ferrett what sounded better to him: a chicken dish with coconut rice or one featuring polenta. He thought that broccoli would go better with polenta.

I decided to experiment a little, and cooked the polenta in the rice cooker. It worked remarkably well, and made polenta cooking completely simple. Highly recommended.

The chicken breasts were bone-in breasts, so I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and some garlic powder, and sauteed them skin-side down in olive oil until the skins were nicely browned. While they were cooking, I julienned an onion and sorted out the vegetables from the veggie tray, separating out the carrots and bell peppers from the broccoli and cauliflower. (The bell peppers were completely separated to cook completely separately because Ferrett can't stand the taste of them at all and I love them.) Once the breasts were browned, I put them in a baking pan and into the over and 375. I then sauteed the onions and carrots until the onions were browned, then removed them from the pan and added the broccoli and cauliflower for a very brief sauteing. (If I was doing it again, I would add the cauliflower at the same time as the onions and carrots, as they could have used a little more cooking time.) Once those were done, I removed them and cooked four strips of bacon - which I would have done very first for the bacon fat instead of using olive oil, but I was making this up as I went along.

I stirred about half a cup of fresh grated Parmesan into the polenta, then stirred in the bacon, chopped. I took the baking pan out of the oven, removed the chicken breasts and spooned the polenta into the dish, then nestled the chicken breasts back onto of the polenta and dished the onions and carrots over the chicken breasts - and put the peppers on one end of the dish, so that Ferrett wouldn't have to eat them - and put the pan back in the oven. I cooked it for 15 more minutes, then added the broccoli and cooked it about 10 more minutes:

The results were delicious!

In addition, I tossed some fresh pineapple chunks with vanilla infused balsamic vinegar, which was a delicious little inspiration.

I'm trying to get more fresh fruits and veggies into our daily menu, so it was great to have just a good start in the leftover veggie tray. And there is definitely enough left over for dinner tomorrow.
zoethe: (Cheers)

It's that time of year when everyone gets ready to start a fresh new year by setting themselves up for failure: "I'm not going to eat sweets" or "I'm going to work out for two hours every single day" or "I'm not going to watch TV anymore." Or "I'm going to keep my house spotless every single day!"

If you are like most New Year's resolvers, you will violate your resolution within a week - quite possibly on New Year's Day itself. And then a little voice in the back of your head will be saying, "You were a loser from the very beginning of 2012." And at the end of 2012, when people are looking back and asking if anyone kept their resolutions, that little voice will be saying, "No, you were a loser!"

And we wonder why we don't feel good about ourselves.

Two years ago I decided I was done with subtractive resolutions, the kind of things that are all about sacrifice. Instead, I decided that I would make New Year's Goals, positive, definitive actions that, when accomplished, I could point at and say, "yup, I did that!" My first goal was to learn to juggle, and by the end of the year, I had learned to juggle three balls. I was ecstatic. Last year I resolved to learn to bake sourdough bread, and we have lovely bread all the time now.

Making a goal of something you want to learn is so much more positive than a resolution of self-prohibition that you have to police all year. It's happy-making!

My goal this year is to participate in Ohio's Pedal to the Point bike ride to benefit MS research. There is definitely a huge fitness component in getting ready for that ride, but it has a definitive goal, and as we are friends with people who are heavily invoved, a big fun component as well.

What's your goal for the coming year?
zoethe: (Xmas)
Even if you don't celebrate it. In which case, have a lovely, gracious day anyway.

Though I am not of the Christian persuasion, I still love this day for the celebration of family and friends that it is. A long history of winter feasts predates Christmas by millennia. It was a time to welcome back the return of the sun, the lengthening of days that signified that a new spring would be coming, and with it life renewed.

Is it any wonder that the early church chose this holiday as the perfect place to celebrate the birth of their god? The coming of the sun/son already had an established history from which to work. Bless those Romans, they were the best at vacuuming up local culture and using it to their advantage.

For me, the celebration of Christmas is a wonderful time to enjoy family and reach out to those less fortunate. Looking upon the most classic of Christmas stories, Dicken's "A Christmas Carol." one can see that, while there is much talk of kindness and generosity, there is no real talk about Jesus. It's not a Christian story; it's a human story. A tale of how our humanity is impacted by our interaction with the world.

For me, today will be a day of family and friends, of feasting and laughter. The fruited bread is rising, the fire is roaring, and a leisurely morning will soon give way to excited children and chattering adults. We will deep-fry the turkey that's currently brining, cook the ham and the rolls and the potatoes. Everyone will come to the table to feast.

So whether you are feasting with family, taking in a day of movies and Chinese food, or just hanging out, I wish you the best of the day, and a happy final week of 2011.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
We are spending the holidays with my mother-in-law, who is probably the most awesome mother-in-law anyone ever had. We got here on Wednesday evening, and yesterday went shopping for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts that we will be cooking here.

I've offered to bake bread and rolls, and to help with the cooking, so I brought recipes with me, and between her grocery list and my additions, our list was three pages long. And of course as you walk through the store you find all those things you forgot to include on the list. By the time we made the final turn toward the checkout stands, our cart looked like the Grinch's sleigh just before he took it up Mt. Crumpet to dump it.

And we still had to go out to dinner last night.

Cooking in someone else's kitchen is always a bit of a challenge. It helps that my mother-in-law has a wonderful kitchen, and that she is very flexible and laid back about others taking it over. I don't know that I could manage to be that casual about sharing my kitchen.

But there are definitely those moments when getting ready to cook in someone else's kitchen makes one feel like a bit of a douche. Including making the grocery list and determining if there are compatible items in the kitchen. Like flour. She has flour. It's not the right flour. She doesn't really need more flour, but we are buying flour anyway because I will insist on using King Arthur Flour.

Or the sugar cookies. She wanted to buy premade dough. Premade dough is nasty. I don't want to make sugar cookies with premade dough.

Hey, there's going to be lots of extra flour. I can volunteer to make the sugar cookie dough!

Triumphant in that, I let the purchase of premade frosting, and Ferrett's glee over some terrifying-looking decorating gel, go. And the purchase of some Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice mix as a side for Christmas Eve dinner as well.

Roasted fresh brussel sprouts and carrots will be side-buy-side with canned sweet corn. I won the "no frozen broccoli" battle, so letting the corn go seemed the right thing to do.

Gracious living isn't impossible when visiting others, but it does require flexibility and a sense of humor. I will keep my wincing at the jello creation to a minimum, and focus on the sharing of love of family and friends.
zoethe: (Cheers)
I just read a blog entry discussing the author's plan for Christmas dinner. Her family traditionally makes prime rib and rich side dishes for that special meal, but because she has lost weight and doesn't want to regain, she is bringing her own food instead of partaking in the family meal. She expects resistance, and is dreading the ordeal.

She then goes on to describe a meal that would be considered deprivation by any standards: steamed turkey breast (!) steamed vegetables, and half an apple with cinnamon and 6 raisins for dessert. Her planned Christmas dinner has fewer than 400 calories.

And sounds like bad hospital food.

Now, I have more than a few pounds of extra padding. I have struggled with weight my entire life, and weight has pretty much won the battle. But I really wanted to respond that I'd rather be fat than to have to eat like that.

Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. It's an integral part of our social structure, and sharing meals is a bonding experience that carries tradition into our times together and memories out of those times. A good meal, particularly a festive meal shared with family or friends (or both), feeds more than just our stomachs: it is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the sense of smell, tactile, and even pleasing to the sense of hearing as conversation and laughter fill the room. A shared meal should fulfill all five senses.

We have gotten out of the habit of lingering at table, and food tends to be bolted down in front of the TV or the computer--I'm just as guilty as anyone else about this most of the time. It's partially because of this that the disconnect between fueling our systems and the true nourishment of dining has occurred. Even though dining out used to be considered a lingering experience, some fine restaurants are now making reservations for three separate seatings per table per evening, because they know that they can hustle diners in and out without the customers feeling rushed; they are so used to eating on a fast food schedule now that they don't even notice. Much of the time, they barely notice what they are eating.

There is some pushback going on in response to this speed-eating insanity. Restaurants like San Francisco's Saison are decreasing the number of tables and taking reservations for only one seating in an evening, with the expectation that diners will linger, talking and eating small portions of numerous courses over several hours. It's the kind of dining experience that was once common, and now is a sort of novelty.

How sad for us all. Where we used to spend time with family and friends, we now rush off to watch TV or play on the internet. Where we used to make memories of shared times - some good, some bad, some funny, some tragic - we zap something in the microwave and stuff forgettable food into our mouths. And wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

The holidays are often all we have left of those shared traditions. A group of people coming together to prepare and share a meal has a certain sacred, ritual nature to it. That nature doesn't belong to any one faith or creed; it doesn't depend on believing in anything - except the value of each other as human beings.

Yeah, lots of us suffer from difficult relationships with our families. Yeah, there can be division of labor issues with who does the cooking and cleaning up. But these issues don't detract from the bedrock nature of sharing both food and ourselves. Nurture is not just about providing the proper number of kcals and nutrients to ensure our internal combustion engines run at optimal efficiency. It's about feeding our minds and our souls as well, if not with the family of your birth, then with the family of your choosing: friends and loved ones.

And I come back to the idea of that blogger surrounded by lovingly-made food, eating her plain, white dinner while regarding the dishes around her as a sort of enemy, rejecting the love and caring that went into them in favor of food she's prepared only for herself, and brought only for her own benefit. Will she feel smug and superior as she eats her spartan meal? Will she feel resentment? Will her family look at her plate with ridicule, guilt, hurt feelings that she has rejected their traditions in favor of something so meager? What will or won't be said because of her choices? What opportunities will be lost?

I'm not saying that the notions of healthy eating should be tossed to the winds and people should stuff themselves sick just because it's Christmas. But imagine that instead of setting herself apart from family ritual, she'd brought a big green salad and some roasted brussel sprouts to share? That instead of turning her nose up at the prime rib, she'd asked to a sliver of a slice? That instead of closing herself inward to the food-is-fuel mentality, she'd embraced the idea of dining-is-sharing? For her, Christmas dinner is an ordeal to be overcome, instead of a communion of family. And it doesn't have to be.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
Many moons ago, when I was a young pup of 26 or so, living in Alaska, I made bagels a few times, mostly to take on camping trips. They were whole wheat, cinnamon-raisin bagels, which we ate with peanut butter, apple slices, and cheddar cheese, an amazingly tasty lunch that could fuel many hours of hiking or paddling.

But the bagels themselves? They were awful: sad, misshapen lumps of vaguely ring-shaped bread. They didn't rise well, they didn't have anything in common with any bagel you'd find in a store, and we only enjoyed them because we were engaged in activities that burned about 700 calories an hour. Anything would have tasted good.

So given my sad history with bagels - arguably the best bread of all - I was anticipating this week's bread challenge with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This bagel recipe was certainly more sophisticated than the one I used 25 years ago, and I wasn't going to try it with whole wheat flour the first time out, so I figured that I had a decent shot at making a food substance that didn't require climbing a mountain to enjoy.

The bagels in Reinhart's book are a two-day process--something I've gotten quite used to in bread baking. The process was a bit different than most, though, and there was no long rise of the dough prior to shaping. I had to read the instructions several times to make certain that I actually comprehended the process.

It was also the first recipe to call for an ingredient that I would consider to be a bit "exotic" (the definition of exotic ingredient is, of course, one that you've never cooked with before), malt syrup. The information about the recipe conceded that a different sweetener could be substituted, but that the result would just not be quite the same. So when I saw that Earth Fare carried malt syrup, I bought some, just for bagels. We call this, "dedication."

The recipe also suggested using special, high-gluten flour in order to get that extra-chewy bagel flavor. This I chose not to do. King Arthur's bread flour has a relatively high gluten percentage, and Ferrett is a little hesitant to bite into really chewy bagels because of his dental work. So less-chewy was quite acceptable.

The first step for bagels is a sponge, a very wet preferment (it contained all the liquid for the recipe) that sits for a couple hours getting bubbly and yeasty. (The book mentioned that sourdough can be used for bagels, but suggested not using it the first time, so I didn't.) I mixed up the preferment and left it to get all bubbly:

As I was also making dinner in the midst of all this, and as our house is quite cool and stuff rises at a leisurely pace, the preferment actually sat for about three hours. At that point, the instructions are to stir in the other ingredients and then knead until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is silky and smooth. I measured in additional yeast and salt, and then cracked open the barley syrup.

And wondered why, in his suggestions for alternatives, Reinhart didn't suggest molasses. Because it looked, smelled and tasted very much like molasses. Ah, well. It will no doubt come in handy at some point....

I began stirring in the flour, and it quickly became apparent that this whole mess had to be transferred to the countertop and the kneading had to begin. It was the weirdest feeling dough I've ever worked with. Because of the amount of flour suspended in the sponge, it felt at first like a non-Newtonian fluid.

The sensation of handling it was both freaky and fun. Eventually it started absorbing the rest of the flour, but for a long time was strangely lumpy. After 10 minutes of kneading, though, it was quite smooth and easily workable - in fact, almost rubbery.

This was good, because the next step was to divide the dough into 4-1/2 ounce segments and round it into little balls:

I understood better why there isn't a rising period first. The gluten was still quite flexible throughout the dough, so it was sturdy enough to be torn into little bits and then mashed back together without much resistance from the gluten skin. The balls all had to rest for about 20 minutes, to let the gluten relax, and then shaping began.

Now, the traditional way to shape bagels is to roll each ball out into a tube, wrap the tube around your hand, and then roll the two ends together. To keep with tradition, I shaped one bagel in that way;

The final result shows why this method is a pain in the butt:

Not very even. The "cheaters" method is to flatten your ball of dough, poke your thumb through the middle, and then turn the circle in your hand until it's the right size. That worked okay, but was kind of boring. So I developed a modification. I poked through the middle with thumb and pointer finger, then twirled the bagel on my pointer finger until it was a little bigger than the perfect size (the elasticity of the dough means there will be some bounce-back). This method was so easy, and so fun, that I called my husband into the kitchen to make some bagels with me.

Once they are formed, the trays of bagels go into the refrigerator overnight. Two large jellyroll trays of bagels. Once again, I am glad for the auxiliary fridge:

In the morning comes the boiling and baking steps. The recipe said that the raw bagels could be held for two days, so I decided to cook only one tray of them this morning. Our friend Angie is here visiting, so I took orders for what kind of bagels people wanted. I could do this because I had ordered the King Arthur Everything Bagel topping mix. Once again, I made sure everything was on hand for the next step in the process:

One giant pot of boiling water, one oven preheated to 500(!) degrees, toppings to go on the wet bagels.

When I started boiling them, I was kind of disappointed with how flat they were.

I was careful to place them back on the tray with the same side up, because the bottoms were very flat. Then after sprinkling with toppings, into the oven they went.

12 minutes later, they came back out:

I couldn't believe how gorgeous they were! They had sprung beautifully in the oven, puffing up and browning perfectly:

Once they were marginally cooled, I sliced them and we slathered them with the cream cheese Ferrett and Angie had generously braved the snow to acquire. Ferrett was also a total sweetheart and bought my some lox (the best part is I don't have to share them because no one else likes them!) and I spooned a few capers into my sandwich:

These bagels were delicious! We all devoured them, moaning with flavor ecstasy the entire time. Our only complaint is that we are all still too full to eat the second ones.

Okay, well maybe Ferrett had one more complaint. He gently chided me that I've been baking too much bread lately. We've had some go stale simply because we had more of it than we could eat, and he suggested that maybe I should slow down a little.

I began to get defensive about this accusation, then I glanced at the counter, and took this picture:

The bowl next to the bagels? Not some dirty dishes needing to go into the dishwasher. No, that's a sourdough bread that I'd mixed up and was letting rest before I kneaded it. With another tray of bagels waiting in the basement, there's a chance that Ferrett might have a bit of a point.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
I'm not going to teach you knife skills here, or the secret to the truly perfect hollandaise. No, this entry is strictly about strategy in the kitchen, how to work efficiently and effectively, and to keep the fun in cooking by getting you through with it before you burn out.

Because as much as I love cooking, I have no pressing desire to be in the kitchen for thankless hours on end. I'm happy to tour through in brief and productive whirlwinds. Some people may be happy slaving away for endless hours, but my attention wanes and I have to be able to wander away and do something else for a while. Yet, with less than half an hour of actual effort on my part, I can turn out a roast chicken and veggies like this:

This is not because I'm some sort of awesome cook. Like I've said before, I'm very average in the kitchen. But one thing I am good at is cooking "on the balls of my feet," in other words, quickly and assertively. I know lots of people who don't cook often because it takes too long. These techniques will take some practice, but they will make cooking quicker and more enjoyable. So let's start.

1. Start with a clean kitchen. You can always tell when I haven't been cooking much: my kitchen will be a mess. Before I start cooking, the dishwasher must be emptied of clean dishes, the sink must be empty of any dishes or glassware, and the counters must be wiped down. Often I even sweep the floor.

Some people think this is silly. After all, aren't you about to make a mess, anyway? (The answer to that question is actually "no," but we'll get to that.) But there's nothing silly about it. You now have a fresh palate for the work you're about to do. All your tools are where they belong, you don't have to be pushing things aside to get to counter space, and you will just feel like you're taking yourself seriously.

Most of the time, this won't take very long. It's generally no more than 10 minutes for me. But if you've gotten out of the habit of keeping a clean kitchen, it may take you longer.

Take the time to get it right. Once you do, maintaining it will be easier, anyway.

2. Know what you're going to cook and cluster your prep times. If you have a long-cooking roast with root vegetables, and also short-cooking, tender veggies, you don't have to do all the prep work at the same time. But I've seen people chopping salad veggies before they've even gotten the dish that needs to be cooked onto the heat. Take a couple minutes to strategize. If you're going to be in the kitchen stirring something that's sauteing, you might as well be prepping the next step between stirs rather than just standing there doing nothing.

3. Keep cleaning the whole time you're cooking. When the veggies in the prep bowls go into the dish, take five seconds to rinse the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. It's already in your hand, which means it's vastly more efficient than putting it down somewhere where it's likely to be in your way and have to be picked up and moved again, and then again when you finally get around to actually cleaning it. That's a huge waste of your time and energy, and getting in the habit of making a decision where the thing in your hand should optimally go before you release it. This actually it kind of cool and can make cooking almost feel like a dance. Are you done with this bowl, or is it going to be used again? If so, swish some dish soap through it, rinse and dry, and it's ready without ever leaving your hand until it's ready for its next use.

4. Put things away as you work--even if you know you're going to use them again in a matter of minutes. This is the one that seems crazy, and yet makes the most sense as a time saver. Every time I finish chopping something, I run my knife under the faucet, dry it off, and put if back into the knife block. Even if I'm going to be picking it up to chop something else in just a couple minutes. I do the same with my cutting board: run it under water, wipe a towel over it, and stand it in its corner. My knife is never set down on the counter. If there is something else that I'm going to be doing between chopping tasks, I perform this cleanup.

While I'm most rigid about the knives, I do the same thing with can openers, measuring cups and spoons, and even stirring spoons. This may initially seem like a weird waste of time, but you know what it actually means? It means there is no clutter on my counter that needs to be moved out of the way. It means that there is never a time when I don't know where those things are when I reach for them again. I don't waste time thrashing through a cluttered counter trying to find that thing that I just had a second ago, dang it! And it means they are ready to go when I reach for them again. The couple seconds that it takes to prep those items for their next use is more than made up for in the time that is saved in not searching for them.

It also means that my knives don't get their edges damaged by stuff being knocked into them, or risk cutting anyone by being hidden under things.

5. Keep a damp cloth on hand and wipe up as you go along. You don't need to be trying to wipe down a counter and move stuff out of the way while juggling a hot pan, so do it every time you get a chance. You keep your counters usable in a matter of seconds.

6. Once things are cooking, take the time to wipe down the counters and wash any prep items still left. Sometimes several things that have been in the first part of the cooking process have to be mixed together for the next step and there isn't time to clean pots in between. If you can put those items in the sink with water, great, but in any event, when the next cooking step has started (or the resting period before serving), try to get everything cleaned back up. When you finish the meal, you're still going to have dinnerware to clean up, but who wants to come back into the kitchen all full and sated and then have to deal with greasy pots? Far better to get that mess cleaned up when you've got the momentum from the cooking, and if you have to be standing around for the final supervision, you might as well use the time well.

7. Once you've got a good grasp on these skills, work on multitasking. You can chop the veg for the main dish, then clean up and start it, then chop again for the side dish, but it might make more sense to chop both in succession and just use separate prep bowls. Lots of time you can saute things on just a slightly lower temperature to allow yourself time to prepare a pastry crust at the same time. Everyone has a different capability to multitask, but look for those idle times when you could be thinking ahead to the next task. That kind of thinking will work better, though, when you're working in your clean and efficient kitchen.

Returning to the roast chicken above, I prepped a brine for it mid-afternoon, and while doing that I also mixed up the glaze from apricot preserves, balsamic vinegar, honey, and sweet mustard. That all took 5 minutes. Around 4:30 I put the chicken on a roasting rack and into the oven. After half an hour, I washed the potatoes and cut them into chunks, put them into a bowl and coated them with a little olive oil, then pulled the chicken out and poured the oiled potatoes into the bottom of the roasting pan, along with half a bag of baby carrots, and put the first coating of glaze on the chicken. All that took about 15 minutes. 20 minutes later I used the same bowl to coat the mushrooms, added them, and glazed the chicken - 5 minutes. A final glazing, then when the chicken was done I plated it. What was left to clean up in the kitchen was the roasting pan and the dinner dishes. Oh, and a cookie sheet because I roasted some asparagus, too.

Cooking really doesn't have to be that time consuming, and if you use your time well it can be downright fast.

Time to go cook dinner.
zoethe: (Bluebird)
First of all, let me reassure you all that I am not (to my knowledge) dying of anything at this time. I just had a physical and a bunch of tests and they all came back clean, so rest assured that I'm not writing this in anticipation of pending departure.

I am writing it because of an article I recently read about how doctors die, and how very often they make different, truly informed choices about their end-of-life care. That many times doctors will choose not to undergo invasive, painful treatment that has small hope of success and will, instead, choose to live out the remainder of their lives in quiet dignity, enjoying the time that they have remaining with their family and friends.

What a pity that more people aren't counseled toward that option. Even more, what a pity that the families of the terminally ill aren't supported in helping their relative make a choice that will allow them to retain their dignity and reach the end of their lives in a manner that is loving and positive.

Modern medicine has made amazing strides, and certainly I'm not scoffing at the notion of continued research toward effective treatment and cure of diseases like cancer. And I'm not saying that people who hear the "C" word should immediately update their will, make their funeral arrangements, and lay out their burial clothes. There are many cases where treatment is worth trying, and each patient should be fully informed of the treatment options and the likely prognosis.

But there comes a point when treatment is less about the patient's quality of life and more about the doctors making certain that they are safe from accusations of malpractice. When doctors offer patients treatments that they wouldn't accept themselves and to which they wouldn't subject their own family members. And it's hard for them to say, "you should consider stopping" because there is that one-in-a-fifty patient who does respond to this particular therapy, who does get better. No one can tell for certain who will be the lucky one who grabs the brass ring, so how can one counsel a patient that the horrible side effects of this particular treatment are not worth the small chance of winning the treatment lottery?

We want medicine to be better than it is. We want medicine to be miraculous in its ability to save us. We live in a world where we have overcome most of the diseases that used to kill us in childhood, where a minor wound doesn't present a serious risk of fatal infection, where a fever is unlikely to run out of control and damage our brains.

But we all still die. We don't do it with the regularity of the past--discounting accidents, we don't die in our youth or young adulthood very often--and we don't do it in our homes, among our own relatives, at least not usually. Thanks to the hospice movement, more of us are dying at home, but frequently not until our dignity has been shattered into a billion pieces and hospice is a method of trying to scrape back together some of that dignity and make some peace with the pain and anguish that would otherwise be our last memory of our loved one.

This is still not a very gracious way of reaching the end of our lives.

I hope it's a very long time before I have to make these kinds of decisions, for myself or for anyone else. I hope, really, that when death comes it is swift and painless. But if these decisions become ones that I have to make, I hope that I will make wise ones. Almost a quarter of medical expenditures in this country are made in the last year of life, and most of those expenditures have little impact on the final outcome--save to make that last year of life a sad, painful, miserable journey that leaves the grieving family with painful final memories.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
For the most part, I'm not a big fan of egg breads. I think they get weirdly dried out way to fast, and tend toward blandness. So I wasn't actually all that excited to see that the second bread in the challenge is the Greek celebration bread, Artos. Nevertheless, a challenge is a challenge, and as it happens we are going to a holiday event today, so it's a good day to make a bread to share--and not have lots of leftovers to dry out.

The Artos bread itself has a long list of ingredients, but the recipe included two variations, one for Christmas and one for Easter. Since it's Christmas time, and since that was the most complicated variation, and since I'm kind of an idiot, of course I chose that one.

Additionally, this bread needed to be ready to leave the house at 1:30 today, and I had no intention of getting up early to start it, so I decided to go against all the conventional wisdom of enriched breads and mix it last night, refrigerating it to slow down the fermentation/rising process.

As I said, the ingredient list was rather long, so I measured everything by weight, mixing the wet ingredients together before adding them to the dry ones. The resulting dough was supposed to be "tacky, but not sticky." Instead, it looked like cookie dough:

Clearly, kneading this was going to require some assistance:

Eventually, I probably added almost 3 more ounces of flour to the dough, but after about 6 minutes I had beautiful gluten. That's when I had to add in the fruit: half a cup each of raisins and dried cranberries (I left out the walnuts because I don't like them in bread). Kneading in the fruit was an experience. It wanted to skitter across the counter instead of getting incorporated, but eventually I caught almost all those little buggers and got them into the bread. I was wincing all the way, because of course the dried fruit was tearing away at my lovely gluten, but that couldn't be helped. When the dough was done it went into the fridge for the night:

and came out just how I wanted it in the morning, puffy, but not collapsed:

The next instruction is to divide off 1/3 of the dough to reserve for making the classic cross pattern atop that makes this Christopsomos bread. I deflated the bread very gently, then set aside 1/3 as instructed and formed the rest into a boule - a fancy way of saying a round loaf - and let that rise. Once that was risen was when things got interesting:

Prepared on parchment paper, the boule is ready for its cross decoration.

The next instruction is to divide the reserved dough in half, then roll each half out into a two foot long rope.

It is here that I would like to point out that Peter Reinhart is a big cheater. Because if you look at the picture in the book, the cross sections are smooth rolls:

But in reality, those long rolls were filled with raisins and cranberries. Do you know how hard it is to roll out dough with raisins and cranberries? But at last I was able to get the dough rolled out.

The next instruction was to split the ends of the ropes with a dough scraper and then roll them into curls at the base of the dough. I did one of them that way, then realized that was very silly when I had a perfectly good pair of kitchen shears right there.

Then it was into the oven. After many breads that have been cooked at high temperatures, it was weird to put a bread in at a mere 350 degrees. After three minutes I opened the oven to mist the bread.

Imagine my...surprise, shall we say? when I discovered that the spirals had relaxed and flopped down onto the parchment.

I suddenly had a very fat, stubby-legged octopus.

I spent the next 10 minutes or so opening the oven, recurling the bread spirals, and shutting it again to try and get the bread to bake. It slowed down the baking process by about 10 minutes, but the final results were good:

Pretty, yes, and smelled delicious. But how did it taste? We took it our event and sliced into it.

The result? It's just amazingly delicious. I was shocked at how good this bread is. A lovely, warm and spicy flavor, soft texture, and the fruit just set it all off beautifully. Everyone came back for seconds and even thirds. There was a friendly scuffle over the small wedge that was left at the end of the evening.

I thought this was going to be a one-time bread, something to check off the list. Instead, I think I have found a bread that will make a regular appearance for special events.

But next time I will use toothpicks to hold up the spirals.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
I've never cooked ribs before, but the other day they were on sale for $1.29 a pound - how could I resist? particularly when these were "country style ribs," already cut apart and trimmed quite cleanly. Little fat, no butchering to be done. How could I not try?

Except, of course, for that whole "ribs tend to be tough" thing. Cooking ribs well is regarded as a serious challenge. Marinate, boil, slow bake, grill. Hours of work and even that is not always enough to render ribs tender.

So what was I thinking, pulling a package of ribs out of the fridge at 5pm for dinner last night?

Well, I was trusting in the magic of the most amazing appliance in my kitchen: my pressure cooker. Because everything I'd read about ribs and pressure cookers indicated that they were the perfect match. And if you're going to go for it, you just plain go for it.

The first thing with cooking any meat in the pressure cooker is avoiding the horrible gray of boiled meat. With that in mind, I heated some olive oil in the cooker, sprinkled salt, pepper and some garlic powder on the ribs, and started half of them browning.When it was time to turn them, I grabbed those seasonings up to sprinkle on the other side before turning.

This is when the wheels came off the cart.

Top tip: when you have a 4-ounce container of ground pepper, and you want to shake some of that pepper over a pot of ribs, do make sure that you've opened the shaker side of the top, not the open side.

As a general rule, most recipes don't call for half a cup of ground pepper.

After the screaming and swearing, however, something had to be done. Fortunately, this early in the process the damage was not irredeemable. I plucked each rib out and rinsed off the pepper, then gave the pot a quick rinsing out. That disaster set aside, I continued with the browning.

Once both sets of ribs were browned, I put them all in the pot and poured in a jar of barbecue sauce that was given to me by a restauranteur who's working on marketing this particularly lovely sauce - if it gets on the market, I will definitely let everyone know about it. Some additional water was required to cover the ribs, then I put them under high pressure for 15 minutes.

Once the ribs were done and the pressure released, I moved them onto a broiling pan and covered them with aluminum foil, then reduced the sauce. I coated the ribs with the sauce and broiled them just long enough to caramelize the sauce.

And, oh my. The meat just fell off the bone, completely tender and delicious. Our doubts about the efficiency of pressure cooking ribs were annihilated--and so were the ribs.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
Flat breads have been one of those challenges I keep meaning to tackle. They don't seem all that difficult, after all. But their very simplicity means that the results had better be tasty, or what's the point?

But my friend Bec had a sudden yearning for the pizza of her childhood, a Sunday home cooking tradition of fond memory, and since she and her partner, Jer, were coming for dinner and a movie last night, it seemed like a good time to split pizza duties: I'd be crust, she'd be toppings.

So I went searching for a pizza dough recipe, and came up with one on the King Arthur Flour website that uses sourdough starter, something I have in abundance. I put together the dough according to the recipe, then set it aside to rise. But being me, I decided that this wasn't experimental enough. And besides, I have a LOT of starter. So I made a second batch of dough, this time substituting half a cup of cornmeal, which I softened with boiling water (I used the measure of water called for in the dough for the softening).

Rolled out, the two doughs were distinctive in appearance:

But once they were topped and baked, it was harder to tell which was which:

The pizza on the left is pepperoni. Bec purchased uncut pepperoni, sliced it thin, then placed the slices between layers of paper plates, weighted down the plates with heavy ceramic plates, and microwaved the pepperoni slices for about a minute and a half. She then blotted the pepperoni slices like crazy, effectively degreasing them beautifully. The result is both healthier and tastier.

The pizza on the right is a bit like a Venn diagram. The lower half has mushrooms, and the left side has bacon. So depending on where you cut, you have the possibility of plain cheese, bacon and cheese, mushroom and cheese, or bacon, mushroom and cheese.

I have to say that, despite the recommended addition of the King Arthur Flour pizza flavoring, the crust for this pizza was...okay. Decent, but not particularly memorable. The sourdough didn't really add anything, and while the cornmeal made for a tasty addition, there wasn't enough of it to really change the nature of the dough.

So I can't recommend this as the perfect pizza dough. It was a perfectly acceptable "tray" for the sauce, cheese, and other ingredients. But it didn't have that kind of stand-out "wow" factor that I want in a pizza crust.

There will be further experimentation and more pizzas, as I have informed Ferrett. Brave boy, he's volunteered to throw himself on that grenade.

I'm so proud.


zoethe: (Default)

September 2012

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