Friday, April 29, 2011

mad about bread and a giveaway

i've been pouring over these these two bread books for the past few weeks. one is danish chef claus meyer's baking book. claus meyer is a passionate advocate of nordic cooking, using locally-sourced ingredients and there has recently been a 6-part series of his nordic cooking programs on television. i am utterly smitten by his passion and enthusiasm as well as his knowledge of the traditions and ingredients  in our part of the world. the other is one of the wonderful river cottage handbooks. i've got this one on bread, the one on mushrooms and the one on preserves. i can highly recommend the books as very useful, accessible, well-written and inspiring (and no, i have no vested interest in saying that).

both books cover the ins and outs of everything from all of the baking accessories you need (i've got to get my hands on some of those proving baskets like the one pictured above) to the different aspects of the grains and how they behave in their various ways of being ground. i found myself hanging on every word and generally being fascinated by the whole chemistry of baking. wishing now that i'd paid a bit more attention instead of reading dostoevsky during science class in high school. and both books sold me on the notion of making my own sourdough starter.

so, about two weeks ago, i did exactly that. for the first stage, you take 150g of good strong wholemeal flour (rye, spelt, wheat are all fine) and 250ml of water and beat them up well with a whisk in a container with a lid. i used a large tupperware container. it would be ideal and a bit more aesthetically-pleasing to have a crock of some sort, but i felt all of the ones i have were a bit large for the task, so tupperware it was. then you leave it sit on the counter somewhere out of the way and you begin to check on it. the natural yeast that's all around us will begin to work its magic (perhaps within a few hours, but for sure within a couple of days) and you'll start to see bubbles coming up in the mixture. once you see those little bubbles, it's time to feed the starter, which you do by adding 150g of flour and 250ml of water (that's approximately a cup of each for those using american measurements). you don't have to be exact about this, just use roughly equal portions of flour and water. 

you continue this feeding for a good ten days. after the first two rounds, you should discard half of your dough when you do the feeding (or it will become a VERY large batch rather quickly), which is again 150g flour/250ml water, well whisked in, because you want to get as much air (and thus bacteria) into the mix as possible. the whole process is quite fascinating and daniel stevens (who wrote the river cottage book) is not wrong when he says that the starter will become almost like a friend - which indeed it will become if you keep it going endlessly like many bakers do (daniel knew bakers who had had their starter for 30 years!). you'll constantly be checking on it to see how the fermentation is coming along. it will develop different smells along way. mine currently smells like apples. but it could smell vinegary or malty or even like sour milk. get to know yours.

after about ten days, it's ready to use. both books have a variety of sourdough bread recipes and claus meyer's book actually advocates using the sourdough starter together with a pinch of regular yeast in any bread you make. i have yet to try that.

it requires a bit more planning ahead to make sourdough, as it requires more proving time, but it's totally worth it. i used the river cottage sourdough recipe, which is as follows:

before going to bed, mix (using the dough hook of your mixer) well:
650 ml warm water
500 grams strong white bread flour
and a good ladleful of sourdough starter

remember to feed your starter after you take some, otherwise you'll deplete your supply.

the next morning, pour the bubbly, rather soupy mixture back into the mixer and add:
600 grams strong flour
25 grams of salt

that may sound like a lot of salt, but bread needs the salt (tho' it does interfere a bit with the rising) to get the right crispy crust. claus meyer is a big advocate of plenty of salt in the bread.  mix this in your mixer with the dough hook - once it's combined, turn it up on high and let the mixer knead it for 10-12 minutes. or knead it by hand if that's what you like (i'm lazy, so i let the mixer do it). plus, this dough is rather soft and sticky, so it's difficult to knead by hand.

for mine, i used a mixture of a couple of flours, but you can use a regular high quality wheat flour, or mix in a bit of spelt or whatever you'd like. my starter itself has been subject to my flour whims in its feedings, so it has had snacks of good wholewheat flour, some of the nordic grain sorts - emmer, ølandshvede and svejderug along the way, so it is very wholegrain. but you can be as purist as you like, or use what's available in your area. whatever you choose, the starter will have the personality you give it.

next, the bread requires four provings (according to the book). i actually only gave mine two, because i had to go away during the day. and let's face it, four is rather intimidating.

the bread is baked at a very high temperature - 250°C/480°F when you first put it in the oven. there are a lot of instructions about spraying it with water and about putting a pan of water in the oven, but i'll admit i didn't do that (it was too overwhelming, but i will try it another time, especially after i sat down and read how that makes a good crusty crust). you turn down to 200°C/390°F once it puffs up (which it will do rather alarmingly) and the crust starts to brown. the recipe actually should make 2-3 loaves, but i made one giant loaf. mine baked for about 40-45 minutes, but it may take longer (i always think my oven is fast). you will know it's done by knocking on it. it just sounds done (vague of me, i realize, but try it, you'll see what i mean).  we ate it, fresh from the oven, with a fresh batch of hummus and i utterly neglected to photograph it.

this book can be yours!
and my adventures in sourdough will continue as i intend to keep my starter going for a long time to come. the best part about an established starter is that you can give a bit of it as a gift. plus, as it matures, it just gets better and better.

and to encourage you in your own baking adventures, we're going to give away a copy of the river cottage bread book right here (i somehow ended up with two - undoubtedly in a confluence of bad memory and amazon order button madness).  just leave a comment about your most memorable bread experience and we'll draw a lucky winner on friday, may 6.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Favorite Cookbooks: A Homemade Life

I’ve recently returned “home” to England after three weeks in Texas (my native home) – and frankly, I’ve been struggling with re-entry. We take pretty much the same version of this trip every year and flying there is so easy. We get off the plane in the afternoon, and even though we’ve been travelling for twelve hours, sunny skies, Mexican food and friends are waiting for us. It’s like an instant shot of adrenalin to the system. We feel revved up and full of energy for what is, basically, several weeks of pure pleasure. Flying back to England is a different story, though. We arrive in the early morning: dirty, exhausted and with a crick in the neck from trying to sleep on the plane. At home, there are a million things that need to be done . . . not to mention the piles and piles of dirty laundry that tumble out of our (many) suitcases.

Getting back into the kitchen is always a bit of a problem after a long trip. While we are in Texas, I positively revel in eating out. The trip becomes a checklist of all of our favourite foods at all of favourite places. I can identify with this quotation: “The only reason I travel is for an excuse to eat more than usual.” (A Homemade Life, p. 260) And let’s be honest: Every now and then a person just needs to be liberated from the demands of dinner – not just having to make it, but having to think about what to make, too. I make about 98% of what we eat in our “normal” life in England, and I usually enjoy it, but it does always take me a little while to get back into the routine. And sometimes I feel that way about eating, too. After a couple of weeks of stuffing myself with Texan specialties (steak, hamburgers, Mexican food), I don’t feel like eating anything but the plainest sort of food. A baked potato, maybe; or a boiled egg with toast.

Just before I left Houston, I picked up a copy of A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. (You might know her from the Orangette blog or her food essays in Bon Appétit .) Wizenberg’s book is a foodie memoir – just the sort of thing that I like best. Her writing has warmth and wit; qualities which remind me of Laurie Colwin, one of my most beloved food writers. Interspersed with gracefully told essays are the recipes, which lean heavily towards soups, salads and baked goods – the food that I most want to cook, and eat, when I’m at home. With the exception of her potato salad and pickled carrots, which no one in my family but me would eat, I was tempted to earmark every single one of her recipes for immediate experimentation.

I guess that some people can draw inspiration from ingredients alone, but good stories always work best for me. It’s part of why I love to eat out when I go home to Texas. It’s not just the food; it’s also the memories lingering around the food. Reading A Homemade Life is just what I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for my own kitchen. Although I’ve only been home for a handful of days, I’ve already made her blueberry-raspberry pound cake and her buckwheat pancakes. I’m got bananas ripening on the counter for the delectable sounding banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger. And I'm eyeing up the leftover Easter ham to make her version of a frisee salad with ham, eggs and mustard vinaigrette.

Funnily enough, the only meal that I made in Texas was a breakfast of pancakes and bacon when we were staying at a friend’s ranch. Although I can’t recapture the warm Texas breeze coming through the window, or the cups of good coffee, or the collection of friends, Molly’s buckwheat pancakes were really good, too. As recommended, I added blueberries to the mix. I doubled the recipe, and that was enough to feed me and three jet-lagged teenagers with bedhead. I had the two-day-old leftovers this morning and they were still surprisingly delicious.

** One thing that I can share from my Texas trip is my Mom’s tip for bacon. Instead of frying it or microwaving it, try baking it in a hot (400 F/200 C) oven. (Does everyone else know about this?) Just arrange it on a slatted baking sheet (with a pan/tin underneath to catch the grease) and bake for 20/30 minutes or until it reaches the desired colour and crispiness. It cooks evenly and crisply, and doesn’t shrink as much as with other cooking methods. It also makes less of a mess, although there will be a dirty pan to clean up. But hey, it’s worth it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

friday night food

friday dinner is always a very relaxed affair at our house, often consumed a bit late in front of friday evening television. after the efforts of the week, friday calls for something easy and relaxed, but also something a bit nibbly and tasty and suited towards stretching it out a bit, grazing over dinner, if you will. i often make something that we can spread out on the coffee table in the living room and everyone can nibble and pick at it, rather than sitting down to a proper dinner. often, it's some nice hard sausage, several kinds of cheese, olives, oven-dried tomatoes, smoked almonds or salty pistachios and a loaf of good bread. whatever else we have, friday evening always revolves around a good loaf of bread - whether homemade or a long baguette or two purchased from the bakery at the grocery store. luckily, we live in a place with a good bread culture, as a loaf of ordinary sliced bread just won't do.

clockwise from 12 - creamy eggplant, classic tomato, portabello, roasted pepper
yesterday evening, i lazily stirred up four different toppings for bread - none of which involved meat. and they were each so tasty on their own, that we didn't miss the meat at all. i had to have two rounds of each one before i could decide which one i liked best. the base of each is a slice of good bread, dipped in olive oil on one side, with just a strafing of grated cheese on top and toasted 'til golden brown in the oven.

creamy eggplant
creamy eggplant bruschetta

1 eggplant, diced, salted, allowed to drain in a colander, rinsed, then browned in a pan
1 small onion, diced - sweat off the onion while the eggplant is draining
5-6 springs of fresh thyme
1/2 C of cream
1 tsp. of chili flakes for kick (optional)
salt & pepper to taste

dice your onion and sweat it off in the pan with a bit of olive oil. dice the eggplant, salt it and leave it in the sink in a colander to drain off the bitterness that eggplants can have. rinse and add it to the onion, tossing it around 'til it's a bit browned. season with chili, salt & pepper and add the thyme and the cream. allow it to simmer until it's a thick, creamy sauce. 

classic bruschetta - tomato, garlic, oregano
tomato bruschetta

4 roma tomatoes, diced
handful of fresh oregano, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced.
olive oil
salt & pepper

dice your tomatoes and place them in a bowl, mix with chopped oregano and garlic, salt & pepper to taste and drizzle over a bit of olive oil. for a bit of extra bite, add a dash of balsamic vinegar.

portabello bruschetta

4 medium portabello mushrooms, diced
4-5 springs of thyme
olive oil
salt & pepper

warm olive oil and a bit of butter in a pan and then add the roughly diced portabellos. sauté them until they are soft and don't look at all raw, add the thyme, salt & pepper. this is sublimely simple and tastes sublime. a bit of garlic wouldn't be wrong, but since i had garlic in a couple of the other toppings, i left it out. 

roasted red pepper
roasted red pepper bruschetta

2 red peppers, sliced in half, seeds and stalk removed
8 cloves of garlic, peeled
olive oil
white wine
at least 8 springs of thyme
salt & pepper

prepare a baking dish with a bit of olive oil in the bottom, lay in the red peppers, throw 2 cloves of garlic and a bit of thyme in each one, put in a bit of olive oil into the bowl of the pepper itself. a glug of white wine in the bottom of the pan to prevent the peppers from drying out. stick it in the oven at 180°C/350°F for 20-30 minutes, until nicely roasted. remove and slice into strips.

i put the toppings into each their own little rectangular dish, gave them a last bit of heating in the oven, with the bread while it finished toasting. pop the bread into a basket, pour a couple of glasses of wine and you have a bruschetta feast for 2-3, maybe even 4. and seriously, don't worry about the cream in the eggplant - you do need some fat in your diet and so it may as well come in small, good-tasting elements that involve quality ingredients. 

and as for which was my i was eating each one, i thought "this is it." but in the end, i actually think that the red pepper was my favorite. which actually surprised me a little bit. roasting a red pepper just makes it sweet and wonderful. but the creamy eggplant was a close second. the only one there was something left of was the tomato, the rest of it was all eaten, down to wiping down the bowls with the last of the bread. yummy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

lunch in the garden

take one sunshiney sunday with no wind at all, add daffodils in bloom all over the garden, and warm to temperatures approaching 20 (upper sixties for those in the US). put a pretty tablecloth over one outdoor table and add cushiony pillows to outdoor chairs. make sure there's some cold white wine in the fridge.

springy shrimp salad

400 grams small shrimp (ours come from greenland and are in a plastic container with slightly vinegary - salty water, but you can use big lovely precooked tiger shrimp or whatever shrimp you can get
1 ripe mango, diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced into pretty rounds
1/2 a cucumber, diced
1 handful of ripe cherry tomatoes, sliced

juice of one lemon
handful of fresh thyme (preferably from your garden), slid neatly off its stalks
good glug (my favorite measurement) of olive oil
salt & pepper

chop all of the ingredients and mix them with the shrimp in a pretty bowl. whisk up the lemon juice, thyme and olive oil and season with salt & pepper, pour over the shrimp mixture.

serve immediately with a loaf of fresh bread. either from the bakery or your own oven. basic bread recipe here.

i mixed up a pitcher of lemonade - using the juice of 3 lemons, about 1/2 a container of honey and sparkling water. the adults added a dash of white wine to theirs and the child drank it as it was.

and there you have the recipe for a perfect sunday lunch in the garden.


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