Friday, December 9, 2011

The Winter's First Bread, and other Nibbles

I did something unprecedented this morning and stayed home, finally giving in to the third trimester fatigue (and threatening emotional meltdown) building since working the bookstore on Black Friday. I think I'm just too pregnant for retail. All the running around, bending and squatting and ferrying books places, and responding courteously to all the strangers commenting on my bulk: Is this your first? Your life will never be the same! (That comment is always accompanied by a slightly crazed, sinister glitter of camaraderie.) Boy or girl? When's she due?

And then there are the people who are disappointed in my size, as if I should go listing around clumsily like a cargo ship. Which I do feel like sometimes (though I love the cargo), but I look more like someone who's taken to wearing a basketball under her shirt than a ship. I put on a red sweater and beanie the other day, and as I left for work T turned to me and smirked, "You look like a hoodlum tomato." He swears it was said with love and complete acknowledgement of my eternal attractiveness. Hmm.

But today. Today I gave in and called in and am resting. Which for me means doing a lot of laundry, cleaning the bathroom, finishing watching Midnight in Paris, reading on the couch, and doing my favorite thing: baking bread.

Little projects like last weekend's cinnamon rolls aside (do make them!), it's been a long time since I've seriously pursued baking bread. Life just got in the way (as it does). But then my friend lent me 52 Loaves, and while in some ways it's a very silly memoir, William Alexander's passionate pursuit of the perfect pain au levain reawakened my need to open the fridge and see a yeasty tub of dough fermenting until dinnertime. Besides, the teaching term is about to end and aside from working the bookstore, my evenings and weekends will be freer. And then I'll have maternity leave. Which really makes this winter the best time to start a sourdough culture and reinvest myself in my bread-baking self-education.

So today I pulled down the standing mixer and made a batch of mostly white (a little rye) dough, which I've shaped into a boule and am about to pop in the oven. I didn't have great expectations--it's been a long time since I baked artisan-type bread and my shaping and slashing skills were never that great--but it's exciting to get started. I couldn't wait to see the dark brown crust (in actuality, a lovely golden) or to hear it crackle and sing when it met the cooler air of my kitchen. It turned out so much prettier than I had anticipated!

Plus, I get to share it tonight with my book club, for whom I've also made French Onion soup and a flourless chocolate cake (yes, I'm bad at resting). Though...that cake might need to be taste-tested before I serve it. You know, just your basic quality control slice two hours before the gathering.

Flourless Chocolate Cake (courtesy of the Whole Foods website)

I think this cake must be delicious (though to be fair I haven't tried it yet, which I know is a recipe-posting heresy), because as I was checking out at the Whole Foods near my apartment the clerk said, "Baking today?" When I answered yes, a flourless chocolate cake, she brightened and said, "Have you tried ours? It's amazing!" I was thrilled to report to her that I was planning on making the same one.

For the cake:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips or pieces
2 sticks unsalted butter, in chunks (I used salted butter, as the recipe calls for no salt, which seemed odd--a little bit of salt really enhances chocolate)
1 C sifted cocoa
1 1/4 C sugar
6 eggs

For the ganache:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 T unsalted butter, in chunks
1 T milk
1 T honey
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Grease a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and grease this as well. Set aside.
3. Melt the chocolate and butter together over low heat on the stove (or microwave).
4. When melted, remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, and then add the cocoa until just blended.

5. Pour batter into the pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the cake has risen and thin crust forms at the top. The center of the cake should be just firm to the touch.

6. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes. Then, invert the cake onto a plate, removing the side of the springform pan first, and then the bottom of the pan. Finally, peel off the parchment paper. Put a second plate on top of the cake and flip the cake over. Let cool.


Meanwhile, make the ganache.

1. Melt the chocolate and butter together as in step 1 (above).

2. Remove from heat and stir in honey, milk and vanilla extract.

3. When the cake is cool enough, pour the ganache onto the center of the cake and use a spatula to gently spread it over the top and sides of the cake.

4. Place cake in the fridge for 30-60 minutes before serving to set the ganache and make slicing easier.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls

I've been remiss as a blogger, and tonight is no exception because I do not have pictures of my cinnamon rolls for you. First, in a pregnancy-induced craze I ate three of them, and second, I brought them to and then left them at my in-laws in a desperate attempt to avoid eating more of them. So you'll just have to take my word for it that these are heavenly, easy rolls, perfect for the lazy baker who wakes up needing cinnamon buns and doesn't have the stamina to wait 2 hours for the dough to rise.

I found the basic recipe for these rolls on the web, and then modified them somewhat for a more tender crumb and less buttery interior. They bake up just as puffily as their yeasted cousins, but have more of a biscuity texture (pleasingly dense and flaky). You can still top them with a cream cheese frosting, but I like them unadorned with a cup of coffee. You can also make them a little healthier by using whole wheat flour and lowfat milk instead of whole or cream in the dough. I think you'll sacrifice some tenderness and flavor by doing so, but you may feel a lot more virtuous.

Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls
These are best eaten warm the day they are made. You can re-heat them gently in a 300 degree F oven, covered by aluminum foil to prevent drying out.

2 C pastry flour: whole wheat or white
3 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4-6 T softened butter, cubed
3/4 -1 C milk or half-and-half
brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Butter a 9X11 square pan or a 8-inch round cake pan.

In a bowl (or the food processor fitted with a pastry blade), mix together the first four ingredients.

Add the cubed butter and cut in until well-blended. You want the dough to be pretty sandy in texture--no need for the pea-sized lumps of pie or biscuit dough.

Add the milk until you have a silky, slightly sticky dough.

Roll the dough out on a floured surface to the approximate dimensions of 10 inches by 5 inches (I didn't measure mine).

Leaving a 1/4 inch border around the edge of the dough, pat the dough with brown sugar and then cinnamon to taste. Use more sugar than cinnamon, and place a nice layer down. You do want the interior to be spicy-sweet and gooey.

Roll the dough length-wise, starting at the long end closest to you, pinching as you go to encase the filling. You will end up with a dough log.

Cut the log into equally sized pieces (I ended up with 8 or 9) and place each piece snugly against one another, swirly end-up, into the prepared baking dish. It's okay if you have more dish than rolls--I did. Just make sure the rolls you do have are securely snuggled together .

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until risen, lightly golden and firm-ish to the touch. Let cool slightly, pull apart, and enjoy.

P.S. If you feel a little guilty about indulging in these rolls (though you should not! Unless, of
course, you eat three of them), make this lovely, bracing salad to go with lunch or dinner:

1-2 raw ruby-red beets, peeled and very thinly sliced and match-sticked (use a mandoline if you have one)
2 clementine oranges, peeled and sectioned
a small amount of very thinly sliced red onion
lemon juice
good olive oil
sea salt
cracked pepper

Mix the above ingredients together, season to taste, and get ready to feel both seasonal and virtuous. And now if you'll excuse me, it's time for "second dinner." It's for the baby, okay?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Croissants: Take One

Two nights ago on impulse I decided to dedicate this weekend to croissants. They've been on my baking to-do list for ages now, and it was time to flour up my counters and beat the hell out of some butter.

I did a little internet research and found an amazing blog post at that details Julia Child's croissant recipe step-by-step, with beautiful, captioned photographs. I also looked in my copy of The Italian Baker (which I've been saving for the future day when I feel like I've graduated from decent amateur to real home baker, master of sponges and puff pastry), but the recipe makes three pounds of dough and I just don't have the confidence to make that much of it. Julia's recipe makes a quaint dozen croissants and doesn't involve building a butter block; instead, you simply bash a stick of butter with a rolling pin until smooth, and then shape it into a circle. This is a good way to burn pre-croissant calories and simultaneously work out the day's aggression.

So, with Gabi from mamaliga behind me (metaphorically) and a mound of pastry flour, Kerrygold Irish butter and parchment paper at my front, I set into the most intimidating yeasted baking process of my life. Because these are not the innocent cinnamon buns or wholesome whole wheat bread, or even the intricately shaped Greek Easter round loaf that I bake every winter; no, croissants come with an intimidating array of baggage: layers of buttery, flaky, fat little crescent-shaped baggage that break my heart every time I excitedly buy one only to bite into a glorified, greasy roll. The best croissant possesses infinite golden striations that make a mess on your plate and gum up the jam knife. A croissant worth eating is rich without being greasy, and airy enough to crack on the surface, while dense enough to provide a pliant, buttery middle. In essence, a croissant must offer you all, or it is nothing.

That's a lot of pressure for the casual home baker, and I think it's why (other than the butterfat quotient) most of us choose to occasionally grab a croissant as a treat rather than incorporate them into the kitchen repertoire. But, I figure I'm at home, a little bored, a lot pregnant, and the weather is cold and rainy. So why not take a chance? Besides, I was wrapped in a fantasy of pulling croissant goodness from the oven like a goddess of butter and Sunday breakfast good will. I envisioned myself benignly dropping off homemade croissants at my parents' and in-laws' houses and basking in the oohs and ahhs.

To be fair, the dough-making process was a lot easier than I'd imagined it to be. You do need to be at home for a six-hour or so stretch, because the dough needs to rise, and then be turned, rolled and chilled twice for 1-2 hours at a stretch before being shaped, and then the shaped rolls have to rise before being baked, and then washed with egg, and you get the drift. This is not a baking project for commitment-phobes. But actually making and shaping the layers isn't too hard, especially with Gabi's awesome instructions. What turned out to be hard was shaping the rolls.

I thought that would be the easy part! You cut little triangles and roll them from base to tip, curving them into crescents. Just like rugelach. But somehow mine turned out long and thin, like the French chef's answer to Virginia Slims. And the four I stuffed with bars of dark chocolate looked like sand crabs. Never mind, I told myself, they'll improve with the final rise. And to a certain extent, they did. Besides, sand crabs are an interesting design choice and probably highly original. And whatever shape they take, they still taste good.

They don't break into a million layers, but they're crispy and buttery and fragment a little bit when you bite into them. The corners are marvelous. The plus side of my shaping snafu is that I'll just have to continue making croissants until they look perfect. The minus side is politely enduring the sound of T's laughter as he walks my little butter crabs across the table...which is somehow made worse by the fact that it is funny. Stinking little pastry crustaceans. Get in my belly!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cumin-Scented Fall Grain Salad

This weekend, after two years of grumbling and surreptitious back rubbing, we finally bought a new mattress! It's a luxurious pillow-top queen with memory foam that we plan to spend lazy weekend mornings in before the baby arrives. Sure, we don't have any sheets that fit it and our feather-bed will droop over the sides like my great aunt's upper arms, but these are piddling concerns when met with the fact that we will sleep like babes in arms.

But that's not the only good thing to happen this weekend. The other one involved black rice, millet, butternut squash, onions, cumin, garlic, cilantro, avocado, lemon and olive oil. Not only healthy and beautiful to behold, this fall salad is hearty enough to comprise a vegetarian meal and flexible enough to act as a side dish or potluck contribution. So where's the picture? In my pregnant belly, which is increasingly capable of eating large amounts of food before I find the camera. But I promise you, picture or no, this is worth cooking. You'll feel virtuous and happy eating it, and those two sensations don't always go together.

Cumin-Scented Fall Grain Salad (adapted from Bon Appetit 11/11)

You can substitute any rice and whole grain for the millet and black rice I used in this salad. The original recipe calls for red quinoa, as well as some parsley and chives. I had millet and cilantro on hand, so that is what I used.

1/2 C short-grain black rice
1 C millet
2 C butternut squash, cubed and roasted with some olive oil and coarse sea salt
1/4 C chopped cilantro
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cumin seeds or 1 tsp ground cumin
1-2 lemons
1 bay leaf
4 T olive oil
1-2 avocados
sea salt and pepper

1. Combine the black rice with 1 C water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, cover and lower the heat, and simmer gently until the water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
2. Combine the millet with 2 1/2 C water or stock and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil, cover and lower the heat, and simmer gently until the water is absorbed, about 20-25 minutes. Fluff, remove the bay leaf, and set aside.
3. In a pan, cook the onions in 2 T olive oil until softened. Add the cumin and garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes.
4. In a large serving bowl, combine the millet with the onion-cumin mixture. Add the rice, cilantro, roasted butternut squash, 2 T of olive oil, and lemon juice to taste. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper.
5. Serve the salad with additional lemon wedges and sliced avocado. I like to top a big bowl of salad with avocado slices, and then drizzle a bit more olive oil and lemon juice on top.

This keeps well in the fridge, but let it come to room temperature again before eating leftovers (or zap it in the microwave--sans avocado--for 1 minute). Definitely taste the leftovers to see if additional lemon juice, olive oil, or seasonings are needed, as grains tend to absorb flavors over time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cry Baby Likes It

I know the pregnancy hormones must be getting to me because the Glee cast's rendition of "True Colors" just made me cry. This is not a good sign, folks. Tomorrow I'll be weeping at long distance telephone commercials, and then woe betide the day I watch a movie with an actual baby in it.

This excessive sentimentality might also be a symptom of the September heat, which has been keeping me up at night. The only thing that gets me to sleep is envisioning little pink baby feet (the bottoms, specifically, which are so wrinkly and soft), and that just loops back to the above issue of my becoming a baby-bearing, infant-centric human weep-a-thon. But before you judge me, O Unpregnant Peoples, know this: There is no stopping the onslaught of irrational feelings that besiege the pregnant female. You might say to yourself, "This is not my beautiful mind." And you might be right...four months ago. Because now you have a brain that might misplace the keys, burn dinner, and forget entire conversations, yet it can spot a fellow mama from a distance of .6 miles and smell any baby in the greater metropolitan area. You don't ask for these changes. They're part of the experience of pregnancy, like painful breasts and frequent urination. And since you have to live with them for nine months, I say revel in them.

I like crying easily at stupid television shows and cheesy songs, because I've never been like this before. I like my little belly, because I've never had one before; and I especially like to rub it absentmindedly while I read or when I'm falling asleep. I like being careful with myself, and taking a rest from heavy lifting and biking to work. I love yoga class. I love eating coffee ice cream (it's safe) with chocolate chips after dinner every night and not feeling guilty. There are still lots of scary thoughts and sometimes experiences to get through, and the never-ending sense that this is so fragile and needs the tenderest care, (and all of these feelings may change when I can no longer see my feet), but right now pregnancy is mostly nice. It's rare to get the opportunity--or to be more honest, feel comfortable giving yourself the opportunity--to treat yourself like a goddess, and pregnancy allows you to do that. At least, the first one does because you don't have to take care of anyone else and everyone wants to take care of you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Pickles at the End of the Garden

Today is one of my favorite kinds of days (the others involving tropical beaches, wineries, rainstorms, fireplaces and movie theatres, though not all at once). It's the last day of a long weekend vacation, the majority of which we spent in Bend, Oregon performing at the inaugural Bend Shakespeare Festival. It was awesome. The audiences were huge and enthusiastic, howling with laughter and thoroughly bent on enjoying themselves--and us--as much as possible. The stage is in the beautiful Drake Park, right in front of the river, which makes the matinees picturesque if brutal (the heat, oh the heat) and the evenings perfect. We spent Thursday through Sunday morning in Bend, swimming and sunning when not onstage, and then joined our friends and cast mates Christy and Jason at the Oregon State Fair in Salem. It had been years since either T or myself had been to the fair, and it did not disappoint. State fairs have to be the tackiest American custom, with the deep-fried candy bars, garish game booths and evangelical stations (our favorites included the "Are You Going to Heaven Booth: Free and Only Two Questions Long" and the anti-abortion booth that was giving away little plastic fetuses, available in Caucasian and ambiguous ethnic). T ate a fried Twinkie and I happily drank frozen lemonade while petting the miniature horses and ogling the piglets. The evening ended with dinner at my in-laws, which is always a pleasure.

But perhaps the greatest pleasure was going to sleep knowing I had today off, too. I love lazy weekday mini-vacations; I always get loads of laundry, cleaning and cooking done, and yet still feel luxuriously unburdened. Today's major project involved converting excessive numbers of zucchini and wilty tomatoes into Zucchini Dill Pickles, Bread and Butter Zucchini Pickles, and Tomato Jam.

Pickles are fun to make because they're both labor-intensive and easy: all you do is prep the veggies and make a brine. The mildly tricky part is sterilizing and processing the jars so that you can safely store the pickles in the cupboard for fall and winter eating. Plus, just as with jam, there's tremendous satisfaction to be had to gazing at all of your gorgeous filled jars in the pantry. I ogle mine several times a day until the new wears off.

I haven't tried the pickles yet (they need to soak up all of the flavors in the brines for 1-2 weeks), so proceed with the above recipe links knowing that they were tested in the Bon Appetit kitchen and so are likely reliable. The August issue recommends serving the bread and butter pickles--a wonderful sweet and sour pickle that I grew up eating, but know is new to many people--with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. I also love them with cold cheese and charcuterie plates and with tuna sandwiches. The dill pickles, which like the bread and butter pickles are normally made with cucumbers, should go well with any deli-type sandwich, burgers, and again, tuna salad. The tomato jam, which is kind of like a fancy, chunky ketchup with a smoky punch, will taste amazing with chicken and ham, sturdy seafood like swordfish or sturgeon (I can even imagine pan-tossed prawns dipped into the stuff, mixed with a spoonful of horseradish), grilled tempeh, and smeared onto any sandwich with flavorful cheese. And if you don't feel like going to the trouble of canning the jars, just sterilize them and refrigerate the pickles for a month's worth of happy noshing.

One last tip is that while you can experiment with the spices in the brine, don't alter the amounts of sugar, vinegar or salt in pickle recipes. These amounts are carefully measured to kill harmful bacteria; likewise, follow each recipe's instructions for sterilizing and processing the jars. You want a full belly, not an aching one.

I also want to say that it is infinitely lovely to be back to writing on my blog. I've had an amazing summer of rehearsals and performance, but for once I'm eager for the summer to wind down (if not for the sunshine to disappear) because I'm taking this year off from theatre and so will have more time to cook and nest and write. I'll still be working like crazy for the bookstore and the college, but not having evening commitments should mean more grading during the week and more fun projects on the weekends. (Two plans for this fall: apple and pumpkin butters.) Plus, I feel a bit shy but I suppose the time is ripe to mention that T and I are expecting a little buddy in February, which will for sure send our lives into noisy, messy, hopefully adorable arrears, but also slowly afford me more time at home to learn to be a mommy and to teach my little one the pleasures of the kitchen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stem Pickles, of the Swiss Chard Variety (Part 1)

Leafing through one of my cooking magazines the other day, I came across (and have since been unable to find!) a blurb about a bartender or chef who turns swiss chard stems into refrigerator pickles. After last summer's success with pickled sugar snap peas, and in my effort to use every edible part of all of our vegetables, I have decided to give the pickled stems a try. Tonight. Because I have nothing better to do and a huge bowl of fuchsia stems in the kitchen, winking prettily at me, asking to be made into something other than compost.

Because I can't find the official recipe (did I dream it up? and if so, what does it mean that I'm dreaming about pickles?), I altered a promising recipe for asparagus pickles that I found online and followed the sugar snap pickle protocol:

1. Sterilize a quart jar and lid.

2. Boil equal parts water and vinegar with some salt and sugar--in this case, 2 C each water and cider vinegar, with 1/2 T salt and 1/8 C sugar.

3. Put 2 smashed garlic cloves, 2 red chilies, some dill and some mustard seeds, along with the chard stems, into the sterilized jar.

4. Pour the boiling vinegar brine into the jar, using a funnel if you're spill-prone.

5. Seal and store in the fridge. Can be made up to a month in advance.

In my (trivial) pickling experience, the pickles will start to taste snappy in about 24 hours, but will increase in flavor over the next couple of weeks. I'll keep you posted on the result, but my intended use for the pickled stems is for cheese and pickle sandwiches, or what we around here call "jungle style." I imagine they'll also taste nice in Bloody Marys, for those of you in the cocktail set.