Category Archives: food

Lazy Bread

Hob

How many of you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’? I do, I’ve been known to binge-watch it, trying to second-guess each move and enjoying myself a great deal. However, I don’t cook like a chemist or physicist, though I believe in the science of baking. I cook with my hands and the touch of my fingers. 

Bread is a deep pleasure, and I haven’t used a recipe since… I can’t recall. I throw it together– it’s a lazy bread that I make! The dough can be kept in the fridge for when you want it, for about a week.

There are in my mind five basic ingredients. Gently warm water, dry yeast, salt, olive oil and flour. To this I frequently add dollops of honey and several tablespoons of psyllium husk to up the fiber content and the moistness. The flour content is variable, since I’m fond of mixed grains. Dark rye flour at about an eighth to a quarter of the total amount of flour is nice. With that I often will use about half whole wheat flour, preferably Indian Attah, but almost anything will do. The last quarter is white bread flour. All purpose flour is fine, though given a choice I will head for a bread flour with its extra gluten. 

I have a Hobart mixer named ‘Hob’, since none of the non-commercial mixers have the mixing moxie to stand up to the heavy labor of bread making. Actually let’s be honest, I have burned out a succession of Kitchenaids on cakes and cookies (I knew better than to even attempt kneading bread with a Kitchenaid.) I really do try to take care of my machines, never to ‘horse’ them or force them. But even the big Kitchenaid is not a professional piece of equipment, in my opinion. Hobart is the source of the Kitchenaid but the interior housing of the Kitchenaid motor is liable to cracking.

For those of you who have been reading this blog, you know I’m serious about hosting large parties, and working with massive amounts of ingredients. Wedding cakes for a hundred fifty guests, that sort of thing. The Hobart is up to my lifestyle. Before I had one, all yeast doughs were mixed and kneaded by hand. This makes for good shoulder muscles, by the way. I can mix a dough in fifteen minutes without my Hob.

I throw in about two to three cups of warm water (not hot, or it will kill the yeast,) a scant tablespoon of yeast, 3/4 teaspoons of sea salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, optional dollop of honey, five cups of flour and put the kneading hook on low until it’s all mixed. No, I don’t bother to check my yeast– I cook so often that I know already that my yeast is alive!

Look at the dough, touch it with a dry finger tip. If it clings to your skin and doesn’t rub off easily, slowly add another cup of flour, any kind of flour, while running the machine or kneading by hand. If doing this by hand, have it out on your counter for the kneading process.. If still sticky, add more flour and knead more But if there is an elastic resilience to it and it doesn’t adhere longingly to your finger, unplug your mixer, take off the dough hook and turn the bowl on to whatever surface you use for kneading, if you’re not already there. Keep your flour duster close to hand. The dough should be a little sticky, but it should be possible to rub off your fingers. Knead it and slap it on the counter for fun, adding a little flour when it starts to come apart and cling. Five minutes, possibly eight. Let rest under a clean tea towel.

Now in my kitchen when I had the counter re-tiled ten years ago, I chose square tiles, big enough to roll out a whole pie crust on or knead bread dough on. Most kitchen designers make the error of planning little tiles, four by fours, for example, for their counters. If you can stop them from doing that to your kitchen, do it. Big tiles mean far less upkeep, a pleasantly simple aesthetic and no horrid bits of grout grunge in your kneaded doughs.

bread dough

poked bread dough focused

You can let the dough proof (or rise) for an hour or up to two, under the tea towel before you shape it. But if time presses, just form your loaf without bothering with that extra wait. The bread texture will be coarser, but it will still taste good. Leave your shaped loaf in its greased pan to rise between an hour and two and when it retains the impression of a finger poke, bake it in a preheated oven at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it sounds hollow when rapped with a knuckle. I find I get my best rise when I roll the dough. So make a flattened rectangle once you have kneaded your dough, and roll it up firmly before fitting it into your baking  pan to rise, covered with a tea towel.

If you do the slower method and let the dough rise for an hour or so before progressing to the shaping,  knead it down before your shaping of the loaf. When shaped, let the loaf rise until the dough retains the indentation of a poking finger. Then bake, and test doneness by rapping on the crust as above.

Let the loaf sit about five to ten minutes before turning it out of its greased pan; it should come out easily.

bread in square pan

If you want a fast lunch, try pan bread. Take a double fistful of dough and pat it into a rough circle, to fit the bottom of a middle sized cast iron pan.. Heat that pan, well-oiled, on the stovetop  and when hot, place the dough in the pan. (Sometimes to be dramatic, I throw it. That’s fun.) Turn the burner down to the low setting and cover with any lid that fits. Leave to rise and cook in this improvised oven for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the upper surface is no longer sticky. Then flip it over and continue to cook five to ten minutes more, until lightly browned on the bottom. Eat hot with butter, or with sauteed vinegared red peppers and onions with fresh goat cheese or pickled artichoke hearts or… whatever you like. I’ve been known to sit down with peanut butter and this hot bread for a fast lunch. It tastes different from oven baked bread, and while it can be a little sticky inside, or dense, it has a lovely immediacy and nuttiness.

Want a particularly spongy soft interior texture in your bread? Take the water from boiling potatoes and use some in your warm water when you make the dough. That will give you a softer resilient crumb in the final loaf. Love a soft crust surface? Rub butter over or spray the crust with oil when you take it baked, from the oven.

And yes, before you ask, you can stretch and roll this dough out to make a pizza if you like, but if you’re doing that, crank your oven to 500 degrees, do a full pre-heat, don’t overload the crust with sauce and additions, and do use a perforated round pan for a crisper crust… I recommend caramelized onions and gorgonzola with a crumble of walnuts and rosemary across the surface.

Enjoy!

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Lamb Satay

satay cropt

Mistakes happen. I thought I had a chunk of pork in hand when I took it out of the freezer, but when I checked how it was thawing, guess what, lamb! A fine piece of boneless lamb. So the play of flavors I’d been envisioning for dinner had to shift, and I pulled out an old favorite recipe for satay that has evolved with me over decades. I cut the lamb into 1/2 by 1 inch chunks, deleting what fat there was, and marinated it for six hours in this mixture, which reads as spicy to hot, depending on whether you lean on the peppers, which I do.

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2 Tb ground coriander seed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

3 cloves of garlic well chopped

4 Tablespoons soy sauce

3 Tablespoons lime or lemon juice

1 Tablespoon to 2 Tablespoons red onion

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Whir all of the above in a chopper, blender or Cuisinart, using about half to flavor the lamb. Place vegetables such as raw button mushrooms, chunks of raw onion, pieces of red or green pepper, and whole cherry tomatoes in the remaining half of the mixture.

Light grill and bring up to heat while stringing the meat and all the vegetables except the tomatoes on skewers. Brush lightly with olive oil. As you will see in the photo, I place the finished meat and vegetable skewers inside a grilling basket to limit the loss of pieces that might get lost and try to immolate themselves in the flames.

Place the tomatoes in another grill basket.

Grill meat and vegetable skewers until done to your preference, putting the tomatoes on late in the sequence so they don’t get overdone. A trick I use is to undercook the lamb skewers, and hold them in the over at about 250 Fahrenheit while finishing the tomatoes. Serve with rice or other vegetables as it pleases you.

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Ice Cream Bananas, and other Fruit

I ate five bananas this morning. I know that sounds piggish but truly, they were the size of your little finger, if you have small hands. They came from one of our plants in the yard here, our second variety. We’ve been ripening the fruit on their stem for a month or more, and today we had a few for breakfast.

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Living here in Southern California means you can grow an amazing variety of fruiting plants, from bananas to apples (and don’t let anyone tell you it’s too warm for a good apple here. I grow Granny Smith, Pettingill, Fuji, Harrold, and Gordon in what Sunset calls Zone 24.) The first banana we purchased from the Banana people in La Conchita, wonderful gardens now long gone, has no label left. It’s a chunky, reasonably good producer, best cooked, because it has a starchy not so sweet flavor. Whatever its name, that banana grows like a weed and I am kept busy chopping off its unwelcome advances into other parts of the yard.

A friend gave us a slip of the Ice Cream Banana, and it has taken years to nurture. My feeling is that it is delicate, more prone to frost than the first variety we grew. (We frost for one to two weeks of the year, enough to burn leaves, and these nights are not in a block but scattered through the winter, usually ending by March 1. You should see our yard on those nights, with plants shrouded in old blankets and sheets to protect them.) Several times Ice Cream attempted a stalk of bananas for us, and various accidents played their part in frustrating our expectations. Replacing the in-ground gas line was one of those events–not an episode of ‘delicacy’ on the part of the banana. Another time, the wind knocked down the bearing stalk before the fruit had sufficiently matured. But do remember that we are gardeners who ascribe to the survival of the fittest school, so when you look at our yard, it’s a jungle out there.

When the banana stalk has ceased to set new fruit, it’s time to cut it down. Hang the stalk in a cool dry place and wait for the bananas to ripen, which they will show by a quiet transition to a yellowish hue marked with brown or black. Then you can cut off the hands of bananas, so they are convenient to handle. As you see by the photo above, this stalk was a short one– I had already cut off about three hands to give away before I thought to take a photo to share.

The first taste of Ice Cream Banana was rewarding. A very firm, acidic and sweet banana, it reminds us of the standard Cavendish from the grocery store. Familiar, but better. Stronger in the acid, fragrant and possibly sweeter as well. But tiny—it reminds me of the bananas we used to call ‘Lady Finger’ in West Africa, which were charmingly miniaturized. If you are in the right zone, I strongly recommend it. But if you are undecided between growing a cherimoya or a banana, grow the cherimoya. You’ll gain higher yields than a banana, which only fruits once per growing stalk, and our perceptions say that the cherimoya is far more rewarding in flavor than any banana we have yet met. I have had good results with Booth cherimoya but there are many varieties. Some folk have been daunted by the idea that cherimoyas need hand pollination, but we have not troubled with that and in season have more fruit from our tree than we can eat by ourselves.

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Setting the Stage for the Interview Dinner

 

evewith-fireplace-and-cats-copy

Our geology department has faculty job candidates coming through and to hold down costs, candidates will not be put up in hotels but in faculty guest accommodations. The advantages? Casual discussions over coffee in the morning and with that a far better sense of what living and working here is like.

As I used to crack when I was involved in interviews for Resident Administrator positions, Attila the Hun could be charming for a twenty minute interview. One wants a lot more than an interview before we invite someone in to our geology family. The increased exposure, thus, is all good.

I’ve offered our house and food for interview dinners, as I have in some past job searches, so each candidate will come and share our home for one evening. Anyone familiar with the whirlwind of interviews knows what it is like to have a dinner interview in a public restaurant. Too-loud, inappropriate music that you have to shout over, polite and necessary but utterly derailing wait staff interruptions, problems with logistics and how to get everyone who shows up at the event a chair close enough to hear and be heard. Cross-chat inevitably ensues, the decibel level rises. The only really useful thing is if the candidate is rude to the wait staff, because if that happens, you know this is not a person you want in the family.

Home dinners can offer quieter conversations and reflection, plus time to observe the candidate when he or she or they are tired and have most guards down. This can be a chance to see personality. After nearly sixty years of meeting and greeting and talking, I would hire on character, not accomplishments. You can still make a mistake, there is no perfect method, but you’re less likely to end up lying awake in bed wondering when the knife will slide into your back. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Now for the good stuff. Food. You bet there will be no caterer. I must make up a set of menus, not too repetitive, because many of the department participants will be coming to most if not all of these dinners. Five dinners, with leeway for the vegetarians among us. Only one candidate is a vegetarian, as if so happens, but I am well-aware that while most of the department are omnivores, some prefer to eat low on the food chain.

Color this picture with an oak fire in the fireplace and everyone sitting casually about in comfy chairs. Quiet light, no need for music or wait staff, for I always do these events buffet style. Anyone who leaves hungry has only him her or their self to blame!

So I’m thinking a North African meal, a vegetarian/pescavorian meal, a Middle Eastern meal derived in part from the Ottolenghi cookbooks, an Italian meal– polenta and mushrooms and then, perhaps a Thai dinner. Always enough vegetarian options so that no vegetarian may go hungry!

In the next few days I will share some specific menus, and perhaps even if you don’t want to make a batch of interview meals you may want to try one of these options for home and family.

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Cinnamon Cookies

Making dinner for the interview candidate and members of the department, I wanted something to go with my little custards in their old-fashioned pots. I had in mind a crisp cookie, strong on the cinnamon, a nice contrast to the creamy texture and quiet profile of the custard. Looking through cookbooks, I simply could not find what I wanted so this is what I made:

cinnamon-snaps

They were better than the custards. Hands kept returning to the bowl long after dessert was supposedly finished, to extract another and another and another. So here is the recipe.

R’s Cinnamon Crisps

1 cup butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

2 to 4 drops cinnamon oil depending on how you feel about cinnamon

2 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons of psyllium husk, ground (optional)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

grated nutmeg to taste

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Cream butter and sugar, add and beat in egg and cinnamon oil. Add sifted combined dry ingredients remaining, about 1/4 cup at a go, until all is combined. Shape into 1/2″ high by about 2″ flattened logs, recangular in cross-section, about 10″ long. Wrap and chill about 3 hours, then slice 1/4″ thick and arrange on bakinf sheets. Bake in preheated oven (375 F) about ten minutes, but watch them because they burn quickly! Makes about 40 cookies to 50. If you like them un-crisp you can just barely bake them through. That works too.

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The Woodland Wedding Cake

woodland-wedding-cake2

I do not bake as a professional. I simply like food, and enjoy playing with my food despite my mother’s early strictures, much more than perhaps I ought. When my daughter’s friend Amanda became engaged, she and her fiancé came and requested me to make their wedding cake. I have done a few other wedding cakes over the years, so I asked what they had in mind. Well, they said, the theme is a Woodland Wedding.

Ah, I said, a bit like a Buche de Noel? And what are your flavors? So we worked it out.

The product stands above, a Golden Wedding Cake soaked with a simple syrup to maintain moistness, with a Blackberry Cheesecake filling between the layers, a Burgundy Chocolate Ganache bark, white chocolate and marzipan mushrooms, and fondant roses, violets and leaves. The wedding cake basics came from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s classic  The Cake Bible. However, let me admit up front that not one of her recipes escaped my hands unchanged. For one, I do not like a super fine texture of cake– I find it too powdery to use cake flour. Yet a cake made with all-purpose flour is too coarse. So I made a compromise, and adjusted the ‘cake flour substitution’ formula Berenbaum provides, to my tastes. Less cornstarch, more flour.

What I find most interesting about a cake like the one here — which I sub-sected into twelve layers as I built it with the blackberry filling, is how much of the structural supports do not show at all. Every four layers I inserted four plastic straws to act as “rebar” for that section so the pieces would not slide off when the cake was moved. Atop these straws, who were well-hidden in the cake, went a cardboard round (available from cake decorating sources.) If I didn’t do this, the bottom layers would liquefy into soft pudding under the accumulated weight of the upper layers. So the weight is thus held section on section by the straws which support each major section of four cake layers and fillings on the cardboard round below.

Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband made a dowel support because we worried that even with straws and cardboard rounds we might have a mishap when driving the cake through Los Angeles traffic to the wedding site. Below is his construct.

cake-dowels-2

You see that we pre-drilled the cardboard rounds for the two primary “stumps”. The boat-like object is a nice wooden tray made of plywood (for strength) that I had found months before in a thrift store and claimed with glee for this project in mind. My husband rounded another section of plywood, polished and finished it, then drilled the holes for two food-quality dowels (also from the decorating equipment folk.)

In the twelve days before the wedding I colored batches of fondant and marzipan then cut and shaped leaves, flowers, and made white chocolate mushrooms. For you botanists, yes, I made the woodland eclectic, with everything from beech and Eastern oak, violets, sugar maples and sassafras, to gingko!

fondant-leaves

I ended up using the tablespoon and teaspoon measuring spoons for molds to make the white chocolate mushroom caps.

white-chocolate-mushrooms

I also cast my two milk chocolate hedgehogs using a silicone mold I purchased on ebay. Their faces got painted with white chocolate and I placed black glitter sugar in for the eyes and noses. (Black glitter sugar, you say? Think Halloween.) I made their hats of fondant.

hedgehogs-and-violets

These wedding cakes can be stored if you follow Rose Berenbaum’s directions, so I baked my cakes on Wednesday, cooled and wrapped them and let them chill overnight for easier handling. The next day, Thursday, I took them out, crumbed them, sliced each layer in half so it made two layers, drizzled each layer with the prepared syrup,filled with the blackberry cheesecake filling, then set four layers together on cardboard rounds with straws for rebar. After that, I used a simple frosting to cover the basic cake to prevent crumbs from running loose and to make my next day’s work easier. I wrapped all these in plastic and stored them overnight. The next thing I did was sprain my knee. But that’s another story that includes an x-ray and some fuss, a walker and a cane.

violets-and-roses

Friday morning I made the ganache because it needs to be formulated with nearly boiling cream and then must softly cool — at room temperature is best, until you can beat in the butter and it becomes spreadable. That cooling took about six hours, even though I put the bowl of hot ganache in a larger one of cool water to urge it along a bit. Sure, I could have put it in the fridge but I have never had luck with these things when I’ve been impatient– I end up with half the ganache solid and the other half liquid and then the whole thing becomes too stiff to spread!

The wooden base got covered with a food-safe golden foil, then I used strips of wax paper to protect that from the mess I knew placing the cake layers and spreading the ganache would produce. Yes, I was very very nervous getting the wooden dowels through my cakes, but it all worked. On the big cake I centered the monster well, then came down from the top with the dowel, finding the hole in the base by holding my breath. The slanted smaller second stump, I dared to thread on to the dowel because the smaller cakes had greater structural integrity. The ganache went on like a dream, thick rich and super chocolatey.

By the way, the ‘cut’ tops of the stumps were made with a cheesecake white frosting.

cake-preview-from-top

Here I am, after putting on the bark, having some fun with the fondant leaves. I also placed some but not all of the flowers and a few of the mushrooms, using ganache as a glue.

robin-working-on-cake

Then I wrestled the considerable weight of this assemblage into my cleared fridge. There it chilled for about two hours to set the frosting before I wound it all up in plastic wrap for the night.

cake-in-fridge-setting-icing2

It was important that the entire cake be totally chilled for food safety reasons of course– indeed I worked fast enough that after that initial chilling of the new-baked cakes, the cakes never warmed to room temperature until the time of the serving on Saturday. But it is also important to have the construct cold for transport and we indeed had to drive with the cake for about two and a half hours to get it to its destination.

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So there you have it…and yes, it was a wonderful wedding!

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Cookie Press Instructions and Recipe

Like so many of the rest of us, I don’t remember year to year exactly how the Williams – Sonoma cookie press works. Thus, when I haul it out, I try twisting different parts to get it clean and ready to press cookies. My Williams and Sonoma model came without instructions (as apparently is the norm) and I have found none on line. I am also aware of the cries of frustration from other owners. So let me share some illustrations and pointers about how mine works, now that I have embarked upon the rediscovery of its aspects, and let me share with you also my version of a good Spritz cookie dough for the machine, one that is more tender and flavorful than the old recipe I found in a cookbook. Perhaps most importantly – it extrudes well!

boxes-of-ready-cookies

So as you will see I make boxes of cookies and then assemble many plates for giving to family and friends. Someone asked me last week if I participated in a cookie exchange. No, I’m sorry, I can imagine nothing that would better take the fun out of getting the chance to guiltlessly make every sort of cookie I feel like making! And I have a suite of favorite recipes. I think it’s a rare year that I make fewer than twelve types.

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So here is a photo of my press with all the parts that are supposed to disassemble, separated for cleaning. Next, a series showing how to put the item together.

detail-of-notches-in-holder

The ring at the application end has a series of notches that you must align with the protrusions on the metal barrel before you pull off the plastic base ring. Lefty-loosey, righty tighty.

depress-key-to-pull-out-serrated-plunger

You will want to depress the ‘key’ at the top of the barrel in order to release the plunger to withdraw it to the top of its settings. Now– pack the dough into the cylindrical barrel with your fingers. Use gloves — nitrile gloves are great for this purpose. When the cylinder is well-packed, select your metal pattern and set it on the dough.

assembling-better

Push the ring on to the barrel trapping the metal pattern in place against the dough and screw the ring a half turn on to secure it to the barrel..

When pressing the cookies onto the pan make sure the pan is cool, and not greasy. Either of these issues will make the cookie adhere more to the press than to the cookie sheet! Also, relax, pump the trigger once and wait for a count of three. The first cookie is likely not to be perfect, and you may find that more dough comes out at each pump as you go on, probably due to a slight warming of the cylinder in your hands. Remember that you can give a pump and a half, if you want a bit more dough but you don’t want as much as two pumps would give. It’s an art form!

placing-cookies-on-sheet

I like dusting these cookies with colored sparkling sugars before baking. Sometimes as many as three hues per cookie– this seems to give a very cheerful effect.

cookies-on-pan-and-rack

Here’s the recipe itself– modified substantially from the old one I used to follow, to give a shorter dough and a more tender and fragrant crumb. Makes about six dozen.

SPRITZ                                                                                                                                                              (all ingredients room temperature and oven at 375 Farenheit)

2 cups unsalted butter creamed with 1 1/3 cups sugar. Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. First sift together, then add by the quarter cup, 4 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a 1/4 teaspoon salt.

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