Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not a complete disaster by any means...

But not exactly what I was going for... yet again.

It all started when I realized I had a fair amount of roasted red pepper hummus but no pita with which to scoop it up. The hummus to pita ratio never seems to work out here (not unlike the dog to bun ratio in houses where hot dogs are consumed - not this house any more, sadly, because even though I know hot dogs are the work of Satan I still love them). At any rate, I needed pita and I needed it quickly.

In keeping with my personal challenge to bake my way through the Bread Baker's Apprentice, I didn't go directly to my fave pita recipe (Baking with Julia, the episode with Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, a couple of my favorite food writers). I love this recipe and have used it many, many times with complete success. BUT, I promised I'd stick with Reinhart so off I went. Turns out he doesn't have an actual pita recipe but suggests that using his lavash dough you can approximate pita if you make rounds and bake on a stone instead of a baking sheet.

The dough was nice to work with, shiny and smooth, and only needed to ferment for 90 minutes so it seemed I was in good shape. Once I was ready to bake I divided the dough into four pieces of about three ounces each and rolled them out into rounds (sort of). On to the stone went the first two but there was no puffing going on in my oven that day. I ended up with chewy, crispy flatbreads, which were delicious but definitely not pita.

Caroline suggested that I write an indignant letter to Peter Reinhart complaining about his recipes. I had to remind her that he's one of the most famous and respected bakers in the world and if I wasn't getting the right results the issue was most likely in MY kitchen, not his.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The countdown is on

One of the greatest pleasures of the holiday season for me is to get invited to my best friend Caroline's parents' house. No matter which holiday they have a full house of beautifully dressed, interesting people sipping cocktails and discussing things like art, music and books. This year we're invited for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and I got Big Daddy to agree to Thanksgiving (we'll work on Christmas later - he won't know what hit him).

At any rate, my contribution to these soirees is always dessert and this year I'm pulling out the stops. I have to do something flourless since Caroline's mom is gluten free so my trusty Giada de Laurentis chocolate cake with almonds and amaretti will do nicely (this is from her Everyday Italian cookbook - I'm not normally a Food Network kind of gal but got this as a gift and the chocolate cake is worth owning the book for). Next is my beloved sweet potato bourbon cheesecake. I have to leave out the bourbon since we'll have a couple of people in recovery in attendance but it is spectacularly delicious even without it.

Of course there has to be pumpkin pie but I'm going to do an apple buttermilk pie as well. This pie is the evolution of a recipe that Big Daddy presented to me when we were first married. His version calls for canned apple pie filling and a sweetened condensed milk custard topped with oatmeal strusel. Oh honey, that baby was so sweet I thought my teeth were going to fall right out of my head! I've reworked the recipe to call for caramlized Honeycrisp apples and a buttermilk custard but kept the strusel because it is GOOD. Big Daddy says his version is better but that didn't seem to stop him from eating three pieces of the test pie I made over the weekend.

So that leaves one dessert left and I can't decide what it should be. Different factions are rooting for their favorites - Caroline wants Shaker lemon tart, the kids want Hershey bar cake and I'm leaning towards something chocolate like Claudia Fleming's cheesecake tart only with a chocolate cookie crust instead of graham crackers. Plus I'm in the mood to make a salted caramel sauce and that would be delishment on a chocolate something. Watch this space to see where I end up.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ciabetter but still not great...

I finally got a picture loaded but with this last batch of ciabatta I got at least one of the big holes that are so characteristic of the bread. I'll be the first to say that a pizza made from this dough kicked butt and took names but the darn dough still wasn't quite soft enough to spread properly. My family is objecting to me making another batch this weekend so I guess I'll have to comfort myself by baking ahead for Thanksgiving. More on that later.

Of course, I did have another disaster that promises to make me nuts for a very long time. Big Daddy gave me what, at the time, seemed like the best birthday present I ever received - 2000 sheets of parchment paper, cut to fit a half sheet pan. Since I am an insane cookie baker, this was the equivalent of giving a big fat Gucci purse stufffed with bling to one of the Real Housewives but I discovered the hard way that this parchment, which he got through their supplier in his kitchen, can't cope with moisture quite the way what I'm used to using can. So, a whole batch of bagels and a gorgeous loaf of no-knead sourdough later, I'm peeling shreds of parchment off the bottom before they can be eaten. Lord help me, what a mess. I keep telling the kids that paper is just another type of fiber and fiber is good for you, right? They're not buying even though I keep selling.

But for the Christmas cookie season I am golden! Or parchment colored! Whatever...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Not bad but not ciabatta...

I guess I was feeling overconfident, buoyed by my bagel success, but I knew from almost the beginning that my ciabatta dough was not wet enough to spread out into the classic slipper shape. In fact, based on the size of the dough after the first proof, it was pretty clear I was looking at the Ugg boot of bread as opposed to, say, the delicate Manolo Blahnik cocktail sandal I was striving for.

So, instead of ciabatta, I ended up with something I can only describe as the type of bread you get at a neighborhood red sauce Italian restaurant - not necessarily bad, in fact it is pretty tasty, but definitely not what I intended when I started my poolish on Saturday.

My misfortune wasn't limited to the dough, either. I attempted to follow Reinhart's directions for baking on a stone with a steam pan in the oven but apparently my oven gets hotter on the bottom than his does because the bottom crust of the first loaf charred before the top got done. I ended up throwing that loaf out and using my trusty cast iron dutch oven to bake the remaining loaves.

Well, live and learn. Lessons for next time? Wetter is better so however much water was in the dough - I need to double it. Also, put the stone higher up in the oven and put the steam pan in the bottom.

Now, the question is what am I going to do with three loaves of Italian-ish bread? I guess Auntie M and Grandma will take one but nobody in this house will eat the other two so I may be standing on the street corner begging passers by to take a loaf off my hands. I don't suppose it would be the strangest thing most people in this town have seen...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

BBA Project, First Effort - Two Thumbs Up for Bagels

They don't look so hot, sort of like the Frankenstein of bread products, a bit misshapen and lumpy, but oh, the taste! These bagels come so close to the bagels of my childhood (from the Lakeview Market in Chevy Chase), the crispy crust and chewy crumb, that with one bite I was transported back to my mother's big blue Chevy station wagon, clutching the still warm bag as I sneaked my hand inside to grab a bagel on the ride home. Now that I'm a mom myself, I know my mother knew perfectly well what I was doing (the rear view mirror and all) but she was enough of a bread lover herself that I believe she understood the impulse.

At any rate, I haven't had much luck making bagels in the past but I suspect that was primarily because I don't like to follow recipes very much and with baking, you really need to follow the recipe. This time, I slavishly read and followed every step and I am chagrined to admit the result was well worth it.

A couple of small nits - I do think I'll add a bit more salt next time and also, the malt syrup didn't mix into the dough very well so I'll have to think of how to solve that problem. Except for those two tiny minuses, this experiment got a big A+ from me. I promised Caroline I'd bring her a dozen next weekend that she can throw in the freezer so I will definitely be going into production again this week. I might even make what my New York friends consider blasphemy - cinnamon raisin bagels. I know they're not authentic but I bet they'll taste delicious.
Postscript: I stored the bagels in a zip top bag after they cooled. This morning I took one out and wasn't feeling optimistic about how they would taste after a night in plastic but once I toasted it, mamma mia! Again, delicious with a crispy crust and a chewy interior. Thank you, Peter Reinhart. Today I will pay homage a second time with ciabatta. I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My not so serious challenge

After a long hiatus from both baking and blogging, I am ready to get back into the trenches and bake my heart out. Every year on my birthday (election day this year!) I issue myself a challenge for the year (last year it was to start blogging - which I achieved, albeit with some fits and starts) so this year I'm challenging myself to bake my way through Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" until I become expert at every type of bread in there that appeals to me.

Don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those "Julie and Julia" things where I force myself to bake every recipe whether I think anyone in this house will eat it or not (we throw away too much food as it is). I can't see either of my children taking a fancy to cranberry nut bread or some of the other more exotic breads Reinhart gives techniques for. And, although I plan to make stollen for Christmas, I'm going to do it with dried fruits and candied ginger like I did last year, even if I do use the BBA's recipe.

So I guess the short answer is I'm going to do it my way (cue Frank Sinatra here, please).

Because I'm waiting for my order from King Arthur flour to bring me diastatic malt syrup, I won't be starting with bagels, so I think the first to go will be ciabatta, which is just fine with me. I'm all about crust, let me tell you, and ciabatta is pretty much two chewy crusts with a little bit of crumb in between, hard on the teeth but heaven otherwise. I'm heading downstairs right now to mix up my poolish to get started.

Whoo hoo! Another year, another adventure.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Welcome to Cookie Town

I had a big family to-do on Saturday and ended up baking about 20 dozen cookies to take with me. This was for a cookie basket for the assembled multitudes as well as a bag of assorted cookies for one cousin who wasn't here at Christmas to receive his (every Christmas I do cookie baskets or bags instead of gifts - just for grins this past year I also added a jar of Mother Connie's chile sauce as an added gimme). I didn't go as hog wild as I usually do because I had to hit the office two days during the week and that cut very seriously into my baking time. I was mightily annoyed, let me tell you.

Anyway, I made oatmeal chocolate chip, cream cheese chocolate chip with dried cranberries, and the incredible Chocolate 6-Os, made originally for cousin K's 60th birthday. The thing that makes the oatmeal chocolate chip ones different is that I grind the oatmeal up before adding it to the dough. This way the kids don't realize they are eating oatmeal plus it makes the cookies thicker and chewier. Personally, I don't like crispy chocolate chip cookies so the oatmeal makes all the difference. The cream cheese based cookies are a new recipe I made for the first time this past Christmas. They are soft and delicious and I use mini chips along with the dried cranberries. Yum! Chocolate 6-Os are just a force of nature. Six kinds of chocolate as well as a ton of espresso make these babies high test. I can't let my kids eat them after 6:00 in the evening or they will be up all night.

Happily, when we left the family event, there was barely a crumb left. What can I say? Being the cookie lady makes me happy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Big, Bad Biscuits

That clanging noise you hear in the background is my arteries slamming shut after making biscuits not once but twice this weekend. The kids had been bugging me for Nana's butter biscuits, buttery little hunks of deliciousness based on a recipe from my mom's 1956 Betty Crocker cookbook. These are biscuits made without shortening that are then rolled in melted butter and baked. The tops get golden but the bottoms actually fry a little bit in the leftover butter in the baking pan and are so greasily wonderful I could eat a whole pan full myself (hence the aforementioned artery thing). For some reason my offspring like to break them into pieces and dip them into tomato juice for consumption, which I would suggest you try before you dismiss it out of hand. It actually isn't bad.

So that was Saturday. Then Sunday we had our once in a while Southern fat-fest, better known as sausage gravy and biscuits. There weren't enough butter biscuits left over so I had to start all over again with the traditional baking powder version. I love to bake but it isn't often I do two batches in two days! I'm posting both recipes so you can compare and contrast. They are similar but just different enough that you might want to try both.

Butter Biscuits

6 tablespoons butter
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Put the butter into an 8x8 square baking pan and put in the oven until melted.

Mix the remaining ingredients together to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly then pat out to about 1/2 thickness.

Using a round cutter, cut 12 rounds. Coat the round in the melted butter and arrange in the pan.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until dark golden brown.

Traditional Baking Powder Biscuits

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients together and, using a cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until the mix resembles cornmeal.

Add the buttermilk to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly then pat dough out to about 1/2 inch thickness.

Cut with a round biscuit cutter and place on an ungreased cookie sheet or stoneware pan.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Bread Baking Day #7 - Here We Go!

I'm excited that I've discovered a new web concept called Bread Baking Day! It was developed by another bread obsessed blogger and has been embraced by bakers all over the world. Each BBD is given a theme then anyone who participates bakes, blogs about it and sends their bake info to a central person who compiles the whole lot. I may have some of the specifics a bit muddled up but I intend to participate in the March 1 event.

Okay, it doesn't take much to turn me on. I know this.

The theme for March 1 is flatbreads but excludes pizza so I'd better get cracking on finding something to make. Maybe I'll get with Caroline and see about making the Moroccan flatbread her MIL made when she was here. It was SO good but I didn't get to watch her make it so I might need some education.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Really Delicious Bran Muffins

Quick - let's play the word association game. I say something and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Here's the phrase - bran muffins. So let me guess what you came up with - I'm thinking dry, tasteless, doorstop, heavy. Am I coming close? I know, delicious bran muffins sounds like a complete oxymoron but a couple of years ago I stumbled on a recipe in Greg Patent's Baking in America that has totally changed my mind on the subject. These babies are not just yummy, they are tender, moist and loaded with fruit. I tinkered with the recipe just a bit to add more spice so they are way too good not to try just because of the painful experiences you might have had with bran in the past. Here's the recipe:

1 cup unbleached flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ cup wheat germ
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups bran cereal (like All Bran)
1 cup raisins, dried cherries, or dried cranberries
1 large egg
1½ cups buttermilk
¼ cup applesauce or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Grease a 12 cup muffin pan.
2. Stir dry ingredients together in a bowl. Add the dried fruit and toss to combine.
3. In another bowl, beat the egg, then add the buttermilk, oil or applesauce, and vanilla and mix. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well.
4. Let the batter stand for 15 minutes to moisten the cereal. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees while the batter is standing.
5. Divide the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 20 minutes.
6. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My continuing obsession with no-knead bread

No-knead bread, the love of my baking life. I had never heard of the stuff until last year but have been on a mission to make great artisan bread at home for what seemed like my entire existence. I was beginning to think it would never happen in spite of baking stones, 70 year old sourdough starter, and pretty much every cooking and baking accoutrement that I could cram into my house. Then I picked up a Vogue magazine and read the article that changed my life. I know, you think I'm being dramatic (and it wouldn't be the first time I was accused of such) but when I read I could make bread as incredible as something from Sullivan Street Bakery in New York in my home oven, I wanted to drop to my knees right there in my living room and thank the powers of the universe for putting that magazine in my hands that day.
I'll admit it didn't hurt that the article was written by Jeffrey Steingarten, my absolute favorite (and to my mind the most erudite) food writer on the planet today. The irony of a magazine devoted to the emaciated darlings of the fashion world still having a great food writer on staff doesn't escape me but I'm sure glad they do.

The first time I baked this bread I got a loaf that looked like it had come from the ovens of a fabulous artisan bakery like Bread Line in DC or Tom Cat in NY. It was just plain gorgeous and the taste was unbelievable, the crust was chewy and crisp at the same time. I was in heaven and I swear I baked a loaf of bread every day for about two weeks (and I'm the only person in my house who likes bread so I was going through a lot of flour and eating a LOT of bread). Yes, I definitely had a few bombs but the technique is so easy that just a little bit of experience with the dough and I was producing spectacular loaves every time.

So here's the basic recipe plus a ton of notes I've taken over the past year. I'm not baking every day these days but I'm still crazy about this bread and no lie, it looks as good as the pic I've loaded every time I bake it.


3 cups bread flour (I like King Arthur but just about any brand will do; I’ve also used regular unbleached all-purpose flour with great results)
1 teaspoons instant yeast (look for Rapid Rise or bread machine yeast; SAF is great)
2 teaspoons salt (I use Kosher – you might need a bit less if you’re using table salt)
1.5 cups room temp or slightly warmer water
Wheat bran


Parchment paper
Cast iron or ceramic Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid


1. Put the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl and mix together thoroughly.
2. Add the water and mix to get a rough, sticky dough (there may still be some flour clinging to the side of the bowl but most of it should be incorporated)
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for about 12-18 hours (can be a few less or a bit more but 24 hours is about the longest you want to let it go)
4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a heavily floured board or counter and pat it out slightly 5. Fold the two sides of the dough in like folding a letter, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes
6. After 15 minutes, fold the other two sides in to make a sort of square then pull it to make a round loaf. Place the dough on a heavily floured towel that has been sprinkled with wheat bran; sprinkle the top of the loaf with wheat bran and fold the sides of the towel up over the loaf. You may also place the loaf on parchment paper (my preference) which then goes right into the oven when you bake. Cover with a towel to keep the dough from drying out.
7. Let rise for two hours.
8. After one hour of rising, put the Dutch oven with the lid into the oven and turn it on to 500°
9. After the two hour rise, open the oven, pull the lid off the Dutch oven and turn the dough from the towel into the Dutch oven, trying not to let it fall in and completely deflate.
10. Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on then bake for 20-25 minutes with the lid off. Use an instant read thermometer to be sure the interior of the loaf is 205 degrees or above if you have doubts.
11. Cool on a rack for at least two hours. Resist the urge to tear the loaf apart with your bare hands once it is cool enough to not give you third degree burns. You won’t be sorry.

A few notes:

· Go to YouTube and search on no-knead bread. Be sure to watch the video of Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman from the New York Times but when you go to make the bread, use the ingredients listed here rather than the measurements he says. This version tastes and rises much better. also has video of Jim on Martha’s tv show but some find her a bit hard to stomach (no culinary pun intended...)

· If you don’t have a Dutch oven, I’ve seen people make this bread using a pizza stone with a flower pot on top or use a number of different types of Pyrex bowls with lids. The real key is to be sure a) whatever you use can stand up to a really hot oven, and b) the lid fits tightly.

· If your dough sticks to the towel when you go to turn it into the Dutch oven, pry it off as much as you can and hope for the best. Next time (and there will be a next time), be sure the towel is very heavily floured (so you can’t see the weave of the cloth) and add more wheat bran. Do not despair as you will probably still get a fantastic loaf of bread.

· As I mentioned above I’ve had pretty good luck rising the dough on parchment paper then just sliding the whole thing, paper and all, into the Dutch oven. The paper gets a bit crispy but doesn’t catch on fire or anything horrible like that. If you’re really concerned, pull the paper out of the Dutch oven when you remove the lid before the second half of the baking period.

· If the bread seems a bit sticky when you cut it, it is underbaked. Add five minutes to the baking time next time you bake and test with an instant read thermometer. If it measures over 205 degrees, you’re good.

· If you don’t get a good rise in the oven or your crust is hard instead of being chewy, your dough is probably too wet. Because the dough is very sticky and may not incorporate all the flour in the bowl, you may be tempted to add a bit more water. Do not do this, just keep mixing (you can use your hands or a wooden spoon) until the dough is mostly pulled together.

· You can add stuff like cheese or raisins if you want. There are MANY recipe variations of this bread available on the web ( is one that I like but just Google no-knead bread and you’ll see how this has caught on in the baking world).

· This recipe makes a BIG loaf. You can easily cut the ingredients in half and get a nice size loaf for a smaller family.

Good luck and report back!

Some of those bread people really scare me...

I'll admit I'm obsessed with baking. I mean, who spends hours on the web, surfing from site to site, drooling over a perfectly blistered golden crust, the insanely buttery cookie, if they're not crazy. If there was such a thing as the smellovision equivalent for computers and even one bread site used it, I'd sign up tomorrow even if it cost a fortune. There are a ton of blogs about food, many about baking in particular, but some of the bread-only people can be scary to the point of making me want to festoon myself with garlic.

I'm not going to name names but when you get a posting thread that goes on for days that debates the merits of one percentage of hydration vs. another, I realize that the denizens of this particular website live on a different plane of reality than mine. These guys are SERIOUS about bread and there is no room for error when calculating percentages of ingredients or discussing grinds of flour (yes, there is the subculture of grinding your own wheat that plays in this too - eek! - but I'm not even going down that road)

Yes, I know there is science to baking and my refusal to pay much attention to that has led to some of my more spectacular failures but really, I mostly like to bake because I like to eat. The serious bread people don't seem to be having much fun with the whole thing and I don't hear a lot of discussion about how good the stuff tastes, which is the point, I thought. At any rate, I get slightly creeped out when bread stops being food and starts being just an experiment. It all seems a bit Soylent Green (I hope I spelled that right - the movie came out a LONG time ago) to me.

Its snowing here in the mountains and the kids are agitating for me to bake cookies. One wants peanut butter, the other chocolate chip so I'm off to wing it and attempt to make something that satisfies them both. As long as nothing explodes it'll be a success as far as I'm concerned.