Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Praise of Timers

Once again I am reminded that it's never a bad idea to set a timer and "they-just-need-a-little-longer-so-I'll-leave-them-while-I-clean-up-my-mess" is not the same thing and often results in a lost batch.

These were not chocolate, or molasses, or anything that can justifiably be that deep, dark color. JG tried one. He said they weren't bad until the acrid aftertaste.

Oh, and did you see this in the New York Times a little while back? I'm not the only one who thinks oranges and olives make a great combination.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bread Basics

I started baking my own bread when a trip to the grocery store revealed that most of the whole-grain breads used mostly of enriched [non-whole wheat] flour and all of the sandwich breads used corn syrup. Bread need only have flour, water, yeast and salt, and if you are looking for a squishier bread some fat and sweetener, but they should be lower on the list than everything except the salt.

Over time, I've developed a very loose formula for bread. Baking your own bread is not inherently difficult... There is a certain mystique attached to it these days, but small children used to do this in olden times and you can, too! [I've even included some step-by-step pictures after the jump.]

It may take a few gluten bricks to get the hang of it, but you can always slice them very thin and use them for crostini or take your true failures to the park and feed the ducks [...or, if you're my brother, the varmits which you will later shoot]. Soon you, too, will be able to amaze your friends and family by serving homemade bread(gasp!) without breaking a sweat.

I think a natural yeast starter (aka sourdough starter) makes every bread more interesting {and not necessarily sour}, but you can certainly just use dry yeast and pump up the flavor with other things. I usually add a teaspoon of dry yeast along with the starter, because the one I have now just doesn't seem as strong. If you are interested in building a natural yeast culture (or "fridge pet"), I referenced this website called Sourdough Home when I was getting started ~4-5 years ago now. I abandoned my original starters (I had two) last summer because it was too much effort to keep them going on the month long car trip to Yankee Land. I created a new one once we settled in our little attic.

[As for people who pride themselves on the longevity of their starters, I have to say that an individual yeast cell doesn't live indefinitely and there are only a few strains of yeast that can handle the life of a fridge pet, so sooner or later your unique-to-your-house wild yeast culture will whittle itself down to a couple strains from your larger geographic region. I'm pretty sure my starter is the same as every other in the greater Bay State area {and I bet there're plenty)... and that's perfectly okay.]

Recipe: Basic Bread
Sweeteners and fats are optional for more tender sandwich-style bread. Filling options are listed below the recipe. With the exception of spices, nothing should be added before kneading as it will tear the gluten strands you're trying to build. Free-form loaves -- those not baked in a pan -- are best when baked on a baking or pizza stone.

~1 cup starter [optional]
1 cup liquid [water, milk, yogurt, beer, juice, meat stock, a splash of soy sauce...]
1 tablespoon sweetener for a golden crust [honey, sugar, maple, sorghum]
1 tablespoon fat for sandwich-style [various oils, butter...]
2 1/2 - 3 cups flours [no more than 1 cup of l rye, barley, buckwheat, or oat)
1 tablespoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 teaspoon table salt

1 egg, beaten, to glaze [optional]

Combine everything but salt and egg glaze in bowl of standing mixer, and stir into shaggy ball with a rubber spatula. Cover and let sit for at least 17 minutes for gluten formation. Uncover and add salt. Attach dough hook and stir on medium-low speed [“3” on my KitchenAid] for 7 minutes. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, if dough does not clear sides of the bowl after 5 minutes. Add more liquid -- a tablespoon at a time-- if dough does not form solid ball around hook.

Let dough rise in bowl until doubled in size ~1.5-2 hours. Scrape onto floured countertop or pastry cloth [pictured] and stretch into 8x12 rectangle [and scatter with optional fillings, below].
To make a simple loaf: Roll tightly from short end, tuck ends under, and pinch the seams together.
To make a twisted loaf: Roll tightly from the long side, pinch the seam, and roll it out a little skinner (like a play-dough snake). Pinch the log in the center to make two sausage links, and twist the links over one another.
After shaping, place loaf seam side down on parchment or in a lightly greased loaf pan.

Turn on oven to 400F. Let rise again until roughly doubled in size and dough no longer springs back when poked, ~45 minutes-1 hour. Brush with beaten egg, place in oven and reduce temperature to 375F. Bake ~50 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 200F. Cool on wire rack ~2 hours before slicing.

* You can fill your bread with up to 1 cup of whatever combination of fresh or dried fruit, cheese, nuts, veggies, olives, herbs can be added after the first rise and before shaping the loaf. Anything that may release water or oil (really anything but dried fruit, nuts, and herbs) should be dusted with flour to absorb some of it and prevent big holes from forming while it bakes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Maine Visit

JG and I took my parents up to Maine to see lighthouses and craggy shores last weekend, culminating in Pemaquid Point with the lighthouse shown on the state quarter. [It was highly recommended by our innkeeper.]

On the way up the coast, we stopped at a place on Cape Porpoise called "The Ramp" where I saw what looked like the best lobster roll ever at another table. Sadly, I've had too many sub-standard, gooey-mayo experiences with this New England classic so I'd already ordered steamed clams, which were freshly dug and quite tasty... but I really want to go back for that roll.

The trip renewed my interest in creating a cream-less version of NE clam chowder... especially since the cold wet weather has come back for a bit.  My first attempt tasted great but looked terrible. [I might need to change my header to say "whole-grains and less fat, but only if it's tasty... and visually appealing" because, frankly, I just don't want to share the truly homely stuff I sometimes make.]

All in all, I think my parents had a nice visit.  The trees in town were blooming and it was finally  beginning to look like spring as we wandered through historical sites.

My dad said back in Texas, the "grass" is finally starting to green up now that the temperature is staying above 60F at night... sigh.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chocolate Easter Bunny Ragout!

[Sorry, friends. My parents came up for their first visit to Boston and I've been away from the computer. I was almost finished with this post when I realized their plane was landing early and just never got back to it. I think they had a pretty good week... more to follow.]

A while back, I came across a recipe in an Alice Medrich book that used a tiny bit of chocolate in lieu of bacon to add savory depth to coq au vin. At the end of the recipe, she mentions that you can substitute rabbit for lapin au vin.

I ask you: What could possibly be a better dinner for Easter than a chocolate bunny (au vin)?

I worked hard for this dish. It had been raining for three miserable days straight when I biked over to the other side of Cambridge to the only place for fresh rabbit... Mayflower Poultry. The rabbits are dispatched on a nearby farm, but they do come complete with head and organs... I mean, they're butchers and they'll happy remove such things it to order, but I kind of like butchering meat myself -- or in this case, watching closely as JG does it.
Medrich's recipe does some weird things that seem to overly complicate it. For example, she marinates the meat in the wine for two days with standard stock vegetables and herbs, but recommends cooking the alcohol off before marinating. After marinating, she then strains everything out, pats down the meat, then browns it and veggies separately, before recombining them again in the wine to stew. Wine soaked veggies take a long time to brown.... I ask you, why not brown the veggies add wine to deglaze and simmer to cook off the alcohol _before_ marinating? _Plus_ I don't really believe theirs any point in marinating something if you're going to stew it in exactly the same thing later... marinades are really only useful for things that will later be cooked over dry heat. One thing I did appreciate, though, was browning the mushrooms and onions separately, which gave them much more distinct textures and flavors than ones cooked along with the meat.

I'm streamlining the recipe below. I do think it's best to cook it the day before to allow all of the flavors to meld and to separate the fat out of the broth, but you can certainly do it in a day if you must. You could increase the amount, but it would probably take it into novelty food territory... as it stands the chocolate gives the meal nice earthy undertones without being too much of a departure from a more familiar dish.

Recipe: Chocolate Bunny Ragout,
Lapin au Vin et Chocolat

Adapted heavily from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
I use a decent amount of oil for browning, but it all gets skimmed off at the end. Do whatever your conscience dictates. If you're comfortable using more pans and tending multiple things at once, you can brown everything concurrently in separate pans, but this can lead to disaster if you're not prepared to flip mushroom caps and rabbit legs at the same time... Actually, let's just say the rabbit should be browned with your undivided attention.

Serves ~8

1 bottle fruity red wine (I used 1/2 rioja, 1/2 merlot... party leftovers)
2 carrots, 1/4" sliced
1 large yellow onion, 1/4" slice
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 tbs olive oil, divided use
1- 3lb rabbit, head and organs removed, cut into ~12 pieces [here's a good video if you're doing it yourself]
2 tbs flour
1 lb frozen pearl onions, thawed, or fresh and blanched
1 lb mushrooms (preferably cremini, button will work), stems removed and reserved
2 cups water
black pepper

To assemble:
2 tablespoons cocoa powder (preferably Dutched)
1 lb pasta (preferably whole-wheat egg noodles or gemelli), cooked

1 tbs flat leaf parsley, chopped

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onions, mushroom stems, and salt and brown, stirring occasionally, until richly colored, ~7-10 minutes. Deglaze with 1 cup of wine [or a few glugs], scraping the pot bottom to remove any stuck bits, and transfer contents to a large Dutch oven or good-sized stock pot. Cover the pot and place on a back burner of your stove over medium-low heat. [You'll be adding to it as you go.]

Reduce heat to medium and add another tablespoon of oil. Dust rabbit pieces with flour and then add to the skillet [in batches, if necessary] and brown until golden on all sides (don't go too dark or you might make a tough bunny]. As soon as each piece is finished [the legs will take longer than the rib meat] transfer them to the pot with the carrots and onions. Once the skillet is empty, add another cup of wine [a few more glugs] to deglaze the pan again and add that liquid to the pot.

Still at medium heat, add another tablespoon of oil and add mushroom caps in a single layer. Saute on one side until deep golden brown, then flip to the other and continue cooking until 2nd side is browned and mushrooms stop releasing liquid ~5-7 minutes.[The volume should be reduced by about 1/3.] Transfer mushrooms to a large airtight container. [It'll be joined by the pearl onions and rabbit pieces.]

Without deglazing, increase heat to medium-high, add another tablespoon of oil and the pearl onions, and saute, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden brown all over, ~10 minutes. Transfer onions to the airtight container, return the pan to heat, and deglaze with a few more glugs of wine or some of the water if you've run out. Scrape up all the browned bits, and transfer the liquid to the pot. Add any remaining wine and water to the pot. The rabbit should be mostly covered; add a little extra water if it's not. Increase the heat on the pot to medium-high until it comes to the boil, then reduce to a steady simmer.

Cook 50-70 minutes or until meat pulls apart. Transfer meat -- removing any clinging stew vegetables -- to the container with the mushrooms and onions and refrigerate until the meal assembly.

Strain the liquid into a large measuring cup, press the vegetables against the strainer to release as much juice as possible, then discard the solids. You should have ~2 cups of liquid. If you have significantly more, return it to the pan and simmer another 10 minutes or so until reduced further. Return liquid to measuring cup (or fat separator), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until the meal assembly.


Bring water to a boil and cook pasta.

Meanwhile, pull rabbit meat from the bones in as large of pieces as possible from the body and in similar sizes shreds from the legs. Scrape off the white fat layer from cooking liquid and discard. Transfer liquid to an appropriately-sized pot over medium heat. (It'll be pretty gelatinous from the bones; this is not fat and it'll quickly thin.) Bring to the boil and whisk in cocoa powder. Stir in meat, mushrooms, and pearl onions and simmer until everything is completely heated through. Adjust salt and add black pepper to taste. Serve immediately over warm pasta, garnished with chopped parsley.

[We had Vichy carrots and a fennel-celery salad on the side.]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

12-Hour Whole-Wheat French Bread

I have a confession to make. I haven't been sharing my bread with you.
I'm sorry.

The problem is this: I don't follow any recipes, I don't closely measure how much of anything I put in, I almost never make the same thing twice, and I have a sourdough culture that I add for flavor and supplement with more reliable instant yeast. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but once you know how to bake a decent loaf, you can really wing it... and I do, at least once a week, with whatever I have on hand. End of a bottle of olives=olive bread; leftover polenta=mutli-grain, sale on sunflower seeds= seeded loaf, and so on. I can't tell how much of anything went into it because throwing things in at random necessitates a certain amount of tweaking as you go to get the texture right, sometimes I add an extra 1/4 cup water or so, sometimes I'm way off on the liquids and have to add a couple cups more flour -- and use the big loaf pan.

There is, however, one exception to my freewheeling bread style, and that is French bread. If I want a deep golden crust with that special chewy-soft center, I measure everything and proceed in the same way [almost] every single time. It's a little fussy. It requires adding the flour by weight. This is what restaurants and bakeries do to make every loaf look the same.It's what you must do if you want specific results... even I've embraced that. I've also embraced that this recipe really works best with a little high-protein bread flour. I tried very hard to banish it, but I simply can't from this particular recipe and I'm not ashamed.

The last thing about this recipe is that it really does benefit from a sturdy standing mixer. Of course you can do it by hand [like everyone did until the last century] but it requires a thing called "crashing," which can be fun but the people downstairs don't appreciate it. The mixer is much, much easier.

The bottom line? This bread recipe works every time.

Recipe: Whole-Grain French Bread
** Bear with me, I'm working on making the recipes more printer-friendly**
I use starter for flavor and instant yeast for rise. You can use a medium lager like Budweiser in lieu of water in the overnight "sponge" for more flavor. The yogurt also adds flavor and protein, you can use water or skim milk [no fat, fat inhibits gluten]. This takes 11-ish hours start to finish, but you can leave the "sponge" for longer if it suits your needs. Start at night for morning baking or in the morning for evening baking. [or start in the afternoon, stick the sponge in the fridge, and finish the next afternoon. Did I say I did this the same way every time?I think I have a problem with rules.]

Makes one large loaf or two slender baguettes. [See? More options!]

Special tools: standing mixer, kitchen scale, baking stone [or sturdy rimless cookie sheet, baking peel [or 2nd rimless cookie sheet] spray bottle filled with water.

For the sponge:
6 oz water (3/4 cup)
>6 oz bread flour [a.k.a. high protein]
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast [a.k.a. rapid rise]
3 oz sourdough culture (~1/4 cup, optional)

Stir together in the bowl of your standing mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and leave out on the counter ~8 hours or overnight. [Or refrigerate up to 24 hours.]

For the loaf:
4 oz nonfat plain yogurt (or skim milk)
4 oz whole wheat flour
6 oz white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1 tablespoon water

1 egg for glaze

Once the batter doubles in size and had be come light and airy looking with lots of holes -- sponge-like -- add yogurt, remaining flour and yeast. Stir until all flour is incorporated into a shaggy ball. Cover and let rest 17 minutes while gluten forms.

Add salt. Attach dough hook and mix on low for ~1 minute or until dough clings to the hook. Increase speed to maximum [10 on my KitchenAid] and "knead" for 6 minutes, keeping a hand on the base of the machine most of the time so it doesn't walk itself off you counter. [This is what mimics "crashing," where you slam the dough against the counter repeatedly.] Add the tablespoon of water after 3 minutes. It'll get sloppy for a bit, but then come back together.By the time it's done, you should be able to stretch the dough thin enough to see light through it without any tearing [a.k.a. the "windowpane test"... Some people say you can't do this well with whole grains. I beg to differ.]

Eyeball your dough ball. Find a bowl double the size, spray with cooking spray or rub with a little oil, transfer the ball, and cover with plastic wrap, OR find a larger bowl (or stock pot), spray or rub with oil, transfer the ball, and draw a line in the oil with your finger that shows where double should be, then cover with plastic wrap. Let sit until dough fills bowl or reaches fill line, ~1.5 to 2 hours.

Turn on your oven to 500F. Position your baking stone [or heavy duty cookie sheet] on the upper rack, positioned in the second highest slot. Lightly dust a sheet of parchment paper [or smooth metal countertop] with flour. Pull the dough from the bowl (divide in half for baguettes) and stretch (don't pat) into a ~7"x14" rectangle (or 2- 7"x7" squares). From the short end, loosely fold in thirds [like folding a letter for an envelope]. Using both hands, grab the dough from the far side and roll it under, tucking in the edge with your fingers. Repeat ~4 times or until you reach the other side. [You should now have a log ~12" long.] Pinch seam and lay seam-side down on the parchment. Dust with flour, drape with plastic wrap, and let rise until nearly doubled again, ~30 to 45 minutes.

Sorry, no picture of the tucking, JG wasn't around and I needed both hands.

Whisk egg and brush over loaf. [You can use your fingers if you don't have a pastry brush.] Use a sharp knife to slash three evenly-spaced 1/2"deep slits along the loaf. Spray with water and gently pull onto the peel [or cookie sheet]. Working quickly, open the oven, slide the parchment onto the stone [or 2nd cookie sheet] with a quick backward jerk [and maybe a push with your fingers, but be careful, it's hot!], and close the door. Set your timer for 18 minutes.

After 5 minutes of baking, open the door and spray water onto the bread as evenly as possible. Repeat after another 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, pull the bread from the oven and check the bread. You want an internal temp of 200F+ [or a hollow sound when tapped, but that's subjective] and the bottom should be quite dark but not black at all. Return to the oven for a few more minutes if necessary. [Mine usually takes 22 minutes, but ovens vary and you don't want to go too far.]