Sunday, March 16, 2014

More Bread: Poolish Makes Perfect

Continuing with the Forkish book, I tried another bread, on a day with no expectation of power outage at baking time. This one was what he calls his "Harvest Bread with Poolish." The recipe calls for 10% whole wheat, for which I substituted organic pumpernickel, and 5% wheat germ and 2% wheat bran; I used all wheat germ, or 7%. I seem to like more hydration, or maybe I was a little sloppy when adding water, so increased that too—probably to 80%. This dough is about 50% poolish. Interesting.

Poolish after 13 hrs
The bread is just as Forkish describes: buttery and aromatic. It is soft, flavorful, with a moist open crumb and a nice crisp crust. In addition to being very good, this bread suits my lifestyle, at least on weekends. You mix the poolish at 6:00 pm, leave it on the counter overnight, mix the dough at 7:00 a.m. next morning, and bake around 10 a.m. A couple of folds early in bulk fermentation.  A total breeze. Much more convenient, and better taste and texture, than the Saturday Bread.

In fact, I am a little worried about just how easy and convenient. Bread like this is just about the best thing to have for breakfast, toasted or not, with butter, and jam or not. And just about the best thing to have for lunch, with a good cheddar or gruyere.  And just about the best thing to have for dinner, with a salad or some sautéed mushrooms and wine. Or both. Pretty soon you’ve eaten half a loaf in a day. Half of a two-pound loaf, that is. Yikes!

Thank goodness I have friends who like bread. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Can’t Buy Me Bread

Last Fall the local French bakery, run by a young French couple, closed shop and, with it, their stand at the farmer’s market where I bought my bread, and moved onto the more appreciative climes of LA. That left what I consider to be the only worthy bread baker, but his business model doesn’t suit me: you have to remember, on Friday morning, to go online by 7:00 and wait for him to post the bread offerings for ordering and then pick-up the next day—at another prescribed time, 11:00 a.m.—at a different, less convenient local farmer’s market. If you are a little late, what you want may be sold out. Then of course you might forget to pick it up, if you, like me, get up early and are already well into your day by 11. Pity those who like to sleep late, too! They would have to set their alarm to order bread.

So while I have done this a few times, and it may all seem so quaint and local at first blush, I quickly tired of it. There was a tendency to feel like you had to order bread while you could, resulting in your buying too much—or settling for a bread you don’t really want if others were already taken. And of course, even when you set your phone alarm, missing either the ordering or the pickup for one reason or another. To say nothing of the somewhat soup-Nazi quality of the baker, complete with long—yup—bread lines for pickup. Not for me.

I absolutely adore bread, carbohydrates be damned, and from time to time over the course of the last 40 years or so, have made my own bread on a regular or semi-regular basis. Bread books take up a full shelf in my very large cookbook collection, and I can’t resist a new one (or a new old one if I come across something forgotten but interesting), and recently added the Forkish book after reading a lot of praise. I have several artisan books, so there’s not a lot new here, more of a synthesis, and I don’t know if it will become a favorite—won’t know ‘til I try the levains. But trying the first simple bread gave me a story to tell, so here it is.

Finding myself with a free day—amazingly, having finished project grading early—I thought, why not stay
home and bake bread? The whole thing is so simple that I had a lovely, relaxing day, reading and puttering between stages. I used a local Arizona heritage grain flour from Hayden Mills, mixed with a little first clear flour and dark rye, and adjusted the hydration to 80%. This was going to be good!

When the dough was perfectly proofed, I was just about to put it in the oven when: the electricity went out. Which means, of course, my oven did too.

I waited a few minutes—maybe this was just a blip?—but no. I looked out—everything, the entire city, was in the dark; we had been having a wild storm all day, the first rain in months. I put the proofed dough in the refrigerator. The oven went cold. Forty-five minutes later, the electricity came on, and I pre-heated the oven again.  By the time it was ready, my dough had spent about over an hour in the fridge, and it had suffered by becoming a little overproofed despite the cold. I knew what that meant.


They say every cloud has a sliver lining. Here is a golden one, complete with rainbow, snapped from my patio while waiting for the lights to come back on. And here is the bread. Worth another try.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Last Supper: In Memoriam

The last meal of the year should be special in some way, and I always make myself something of which I am particularly fond, like a good veal chop or an old-fashioned London broil; something symbolic, like lentils; or something I don’t often have time to do, like a classic lobster bisque with a New England twist.  Whatever it is, it is something comforting. This year, as all you true foodies know, was a year of lost luminaries in the food world, and two in particular, Marcella Hazan and Judy Rogers, were old kitchen friends of mine. What to make in memoriam for the year and these women whose food has comforted me and millions over many years?  I will save Judy Rogers’s roast chicken with bread salad for another tribute meal, soon. Marcella and I go way back, and it is one simple dish—spaghetti with smothered onions—that I have made and loved scores of times, that seems the perfect punctuation for the year, and the perfect emblem of the genius of Italian cooking.

After the news of Mrs. Hazen’s death, when everyone was talking about their favorite dishes, I realized that I had really learned to make Italian food from her books, The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Classic Italian Cooking. This actually came to me as somewhat of a shock, because I had literally internalized so many of the recipes that I scarcely open the books anymore, which I bought when they were first published by Knopf: 1976  and 1978, respectively—I was still in my 20s! I had completely forgotten, for example, that I learned to make pizza, which I made every single Friday night for more than 20 years, and still do often, from her second book. I still make my dough, and my sauce, the same way. I could list dozens of dishes that are just as second-nature, and just as frequently made.

Marcella Hazan once said, “"I am never bored by a good old dish and I wouldn't shrink from making something that I first made fifty years ago and my mother, perhaps, fifty years before then.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Happy 2014. Eat well, and stay healthy.

Spaghetti col Sugo di Cipolle
(Spaghetti with Smothered Onions)

I have made only one minor change to this perfect recipe, indicated below. It contains lard, which you all know I adore; you can substitute butter or use all olive oil if you must. But do try the lard in Mrs. Hazan’s honor. Serves 4-6 as a first course.

1 ½ T lard
5 T extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ lb sweet onions, liced very thin
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg (my addition; optional)
½ cup dry white wine
2 T chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Heat the oil and lard in a large sauté pan; add the onions, cover, and cool over very low heat for 45 min or more, til soft.  Uncover, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook until golden brown, scraping with a wooden spoon occasionally. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, and a whisper of nutmeg. Add the wine, raise the heat, and stir until the wine has boiled away and you have a golden, creamy-looking mass. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

Cook the spaghetti until firm—about 10-12 minutes. Reheat the sauce gently. Drain the pasta and add to the sauté pan; raise the heat and toss for a minute. Serve with the grated cheese, tossing lightly. You can also have a little garlic bread, really a bruschetta, the way Mrs. Hazen directs: toast the bread lightly; rub with a smashed clove of fresh garlic; and drizzle fairly generously with olive oil so it softens nicely. Mangia!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Catching Up On Christmas

Sometimes the holidays sneak up on you—or rather, you are able to disregard their advancing pace—while you are getting your work done. I have gotten good at that—simply not thinking about Christmas until, well, I can: until all the grades are in, and I’ve given myself a day to recover. This seems to be a little later every year, as judged by the dwindling number of types of cookie I manage to make. This year, only two. Will there be, in some not too distant future, a cookieless Christmas? Or will I retire, and once again be able to bestow (to the worthy, of course, and assuming I still had the energy) tins bursting with an assortment of my critically collected, carefully curated favorites?

Time will tell what cookies lay in my—and your--Christmas future. But for 2013, Christmas was simple all around.  No fancy dinner like last year or so many others. In fact, Christmas Eve this year was almost like a weeknight supper—homey, comforting, easy-peasy, special only in that it was a little rich for nowadays. You all know this old-fashioned meal very well: a glazed ham (with a sauce made with preserved Little Compton sour cherries); scalloped potatoes; roasted cauliflower with hazelnut buttered bread crumbs; a Christmasy red and green salad. A deep fried appetizer, cheddar cheese puffs, for a little festivity, with champagne. My favorite chocolate cake for dessert, which we did not eat until last night, as it turned out. All in all, a pretty good dinner for a Christmas Eve that arrived early, or to which I arrived late. 

I hope you had a happy holiday, whenever yours began, and that you had time to make at least one cookie.

Scalloped Potatoes

Something creamy for Christmas is always in order; something that can be assembled ahead is doubly so. Here is how I make scalloped potatoes, learned by watching my grandmother. Do not expect measurements(and none needed)! Serves 2-3.

2 large russet potatoes (I urge this  variety on you.)
2-3 thin slices from a large onion, chopped
Unsalted butter
Salt, freshly ground pepper, freshly grated nutmeg
1 ½ cups light cream or half-and-half

Butter a 1-qt gratin dish. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin, about 1/16.” Place a layer of potatoes neatly into the dish; sprinkle with a little of the chopped onion;
strew lightly with a little flour from your hand; dot with a little butter; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and—sparingly—nutmeg. Repeat, filling the dish to within about ½” of the top.  You will use about 1-2 T each of butter and flour in all, but don’t measure, just use your judgment and keep a light touch with the flour.

Barely scald the cream and pour it over the layered potatoes; press the potatoes down lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Bake about 1 ½ hrs (the cream will bubble up) until golden.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

National Indian Pudding Day

Lest it pass you by, I come briefly out of blog hiatus to give a shout out to Indian Pudding.  I knew it had its own day, being from the land of its provenance, but I suspect that you were shamefully unaware. So now you know. Today is National Indian Pudding Day, and if you have never had it, do try. It is one of the many items that uses our wonderful jonnycake cornmeal, and there is a recipe right here on this very blog—omg, posted five years ago—that you can use. If you're not sure which cornmeal to choose, I refer you to this completely scientific comparison.

There is even a story on NPR about it. It says that interest in New England cooking is on the upswing. As usual, I seem to have been ahead of my time (always have problems with timing); guess I should get back to this….but when??

[Indian meal baked[2].jpg]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

C3: Corn to the Third Power

I’m a eating a hot meal for the first time in almost two weeks—at least, the first time cooked in my own cottage kitchen, which has been an oven in and of itself.  It’s gone from HHH—the abbreviation every New Englander knows, Hazy, Hot, and Humid—to TDCWFJ—that’s my own abbreviation for too damned cold and wet for July. Of course, it’s only one day, and I do not expect—are you listening, weather gods?—it to last. But I am already wishing for the heat back. Except for the fact that I was able to turn the real oven on today.

I would like to report that I was baking a cherry pie with, finally, the Montmorencies. But I totally missed them. For the first time in…well, forever!  It was that perfect storm of not being here on the ONE day when they were picked. But I don’t think I really missed much. The fruit lady said they were fermented. Cherry wine, anyone?  They had never seen it before.  Waited and waited to pick them because they were not ready, and then when they were…they were already gone. A strange year.

But the blueberries are in. And you can be sure there is a pie in our future.  But for today, in the cold, when I have on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt for god’s sake, and just pulled out a pair of socks, I kid you not (note that I have them with me: it’s New England, after all), I turned to the comfort of corn.

While I’m still waiting for my favorite varieties, Temptation and Lancelot, to appear, the corn is good, and this was a variety I have never seen at Walker’s or really anywhere before, Illini. I bought a few ears, and was planning to cut it off the cob (which I did) and sauté it (which I didn’t), but ended up going out with a friend and having—gasp—a bowl of cut corn more than an hour old. That’s tantamount to sin in Yankee religion.

So I decided to make some cornbread. Even though I am, thanks to the wonderful Rachel of the equally wonderful and evocative Lawn Tea blog, an honorary G.R.I.T.S. member (and let us never forget that I did serve three years hard time in Nashville), I rarely make cornbread.  I don’t like the dry, crumbly sort,  the kind that you can slather to death with butter and still choke on on the way down. I imagine it’s really good for stuffing a bird, able to suck up all those juices without totally falling apart. But then, I don’t stuff my birds—we do dressing, baked on the side.  And I don’t like the sweet sort, the yellow, sugary stuff that is the staple of middling restaurants. I don’t like the over-stuffed sort, much as I don’t like pizza with tons of toppings, or ice cream with, god forbid, candy and cookies and nuts and swirls and…please stop!  Hold the chiles, the cheese, the bacon: don’t you know that cornbread, like pizza and ice cream, should be pure?

I am no corn bread maven. But a lot of corn, in its various forms, makes for a good corn bread. Hence the name.  Since I don’t like it dry, I make it moist. And since I don’t like it sweet, I make it…just sweet enough to balance the acid edge.  It can be eaten plain, without butter (enough fat in it). It stands on its own for breakfast. And that, for me, is the ultimate test.

C3 Cornbread

This will sit nicely on the counter for a few days with little damage. What more could you want? As with all moist foods, the microwave at low temp does a nice job of reheating, but it scarcely needs it.  The yellow cornflour gives a  yellow color when you use white cornmeal; white cornflour can also be used. Serves 12 generously.

2 c a-p flour
½ c stoneground yellow cornflour (I use Bob’s Red Mill, or a noname white version from the supermarkets          here)
1 c stoneground white or yellow cornmeal (I use RI jonnycakemeal)
2 tea baking powder
1 tea baking soda
1 tea salt
3 T brown sugar
2 T pure maple syrup
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
2 large brown eggs
¾ best sour cream
1 cup whole milk
Cut kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn (about 1 cup)
Additional maple syrup for brushing top (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 13x9” baking pan, preferably a nice one for serving, and set aside.

Mix the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the melted butter, cooled a little, with the sugar and syrup. Whisk in the eggs, then the sour cream, then the milk. Fold into the dry ingredients just until the flour disappears, as for a biscuit. Fold in the corn kernels, which you have cut off and scraped a little from their cobs (freezing the cobs for corn stock), until just distributed. Scoop into the prepared pan, and spread around with the back of a wooden spoon.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, depending on your oven (mine in LC is HOT!), until lightly browned all over, a little more so on the edges, which may just begin to pull away. The top should spring back to the touch, and you can always stick a skewer in to make sure it is cooked through.  Remove to a rack to cool, and brush lightly with maple syrup if you wish.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Miraculous Mint: Always in Style

It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, just about every recipe called for dried herbs. It was unheard of to see fresh versions of even the most commonly used herbs—basil, oregano, sage, thyme—in the stores. “Exotics” like tarragon were unheard of period until the late 70s or, in many locales, the 80s.
But mint, fresh and fragrant, was somehow always there.  In the lemonade and the iced tea. Fresh.

I am guessing that this rare example of herbal freshness is because mint was practically a weed: it was just there. It grew everywhere, and “took over”:  most people pretty much considered it a pest, and would dig it out save for a tiny bit for, you know, the lemonade.  I could not understand this. I loved its looks, its feel between the fingers, its scent of course, the amazing fact that you could just pick and chew on the leaves, and they were minty great. I loved the way it took over.

In a paradoxical reversal, mint is actually now hard to find. Yup, it’s been dug up.  If you do see it in the store—rarely—it is a sad flattened little bunch stifled and browning in a plastic tray. Why is it that we can now have big bunches of cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, and bushy gatherings of rosemary on a regular basis, but not mint?  I am guessing that it is something that doesn’t really take to greenhouse cultivation. It wants to be wild—run rampant. Most farming doesn't work like that these days.

So if you want it, you need to have your own taking over the backyard, or live by a local farmer.  Sometimes you see it in international markets. But I know you know what I mean when I say that making tabbouleh or anything else that calls for a good load of mint can be a challenge.

Coll grows it, and is generous with it, as he is with his other bunches of herbs (many herb prices in stores are, in a word, ridiculous). The beetles have, apparently, been at it these past days, so when I arrived at the stand there was none out for sale. I really wanted some, so one of the farm stand girls kindly went out and cut me some, picking through and harvesting the best un-eaten stems. I got enough, and paid a dollar for it.

Thinking about the ahead-of-its time abundance and present-time scarcity of mint quite naturally brought on a little food nostalgia.  This salad is a reminder of the virtues of an untidy summer lawn, shot through with marauding mint. Was there ever a more effortless and neglected gift to the suburban table?

Jellied Mint, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad

The mint “jello” is superb: try it. It would also make, on its own, a wonderful palate cleanser between courses or a light summer dessert with some ripe berries and cream. Serves 3-4.

The jelly

1 big bunch of freshly picked mint, enough to for 1 cup loosely packed chopped mint; reserve some nice leaves for garnish
2 packages plain gelatin (and a little cold water to soften it)
2 cups boiling water
2 T sugar
1 tea freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tea salt
¼ cup mild vinegar (cider, white, or white wine)
¼ cup white wine (or use a ½ cup vinegar)

In a 1-qt saucepan, put the gelatin and add just enough cold water to soften it; let it sit about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stem the mint, stack the leaves, and roughly slice/chop it. You will need about 1 cup, loosely packed.

Add the boiling water, sugar, maple syrup, salt, lemon juice, vinegar, and wine (if using) to the pan; keep it warm over medium-low heat. Add the fresh mint, stir, and let it sit on the heat for 20 minutes or so, stirring and tasting it occasionally. Add a little more sugar if needed. It will taste a little acid at the beginning, but will mellow as it steeps.

Strain the mixture into a big measuring cup and discard the leaves. Rinse a 9” or 10” pie plate with cold water.  Pour the liquid into the pie plate and refrigerate until set.


Use any sweetish dressing you like. I used:

1 T finely minced sweet onion
¼ c olive oil (would have used vegetable oil, but had none)
2 T cider vinegar
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea black pepper
1 ½ T thick local heavy cream

Whisk all together until thick.

To assemble the salad

The mint jello
1 medium nice local tomato
1 medium cucumber
The dressing
Mint leaves

Core and seed the tomato and the cucumber and chop them into large dice. Turn the jelly out onto a board and dice it; if you have trouble turning it out, cut the jelly into squares with a sharp knife in the pan, and remove them with a spoon. Arrange the jello and vegetables on a plate. Nap with a little whipped cream dressing and garnish with mint before serving; if you can, set the salad in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to chill.