baking frenzy

December 12, 2011 Comments Off on baking frenzy

I cleaned the oven last week–the easy but scary way.  It was carnage in there–layer upon layer of corn meal from baking, burned-on olive oil from overgenerous pan-roasting, etc.  It was to the point that you couldn’t really see through the oven window.  All of that really demanded the nuclear option, but it also made me think for a bit.  What would happen when all of that oven funk was exposed to the 800° heat of a hardcore cleaning cycle?  The option, of course, was to bury my head in the oven with a can full of corrosive oven cleaner.  Blech.  I’d rather set the kitchen on fire.

L offered nothing but encouragement.  “It’s a normal oven function,” she said.  Get over it.  She admitted, though, that her preferred method of oven-cleaning was to change apartments.

Anyway, it went off without a hitch.  It took five hours, and the thing made some amazing noises, but it had the bonus side effect of keeping the kitchen super-toasty on the coldest winter day yet.  When it finally let me open the door, the inside was pristine, totally clean save for a thin film of white dust on the oven floor.  I’ll admit to spending several minutes a day ever since just opening the door and staring at the inside, and realizing that I’d never really known what color it was.

With that brave task accomplished, I baked some stuff this weekend.  Part of me thought that the magic flavoring qualities of the oven grime would be sorely missed, but I also figured that I was now much less likely to set the smoke alarm off at random intervals (so far, true).  My studio had its review this weekend, and I figured that I’d make some stuff for them.  I baked a batch of oatmeal cookies during the final-week-deathwatch, and thought that the review could use some home-baked goodness.  That’s a rye loaf up above, out of Hertzberg and Francois’ Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It’s the recipe that, apparently, got them started on the cold fermentation kick, and it was pretty lovely.  I’d never made rye before, and it was definitely a different feel getting the dough together.  But it also baked up flawlessly, and with a little cornstarch wash and some caraway seeds it tasted like every good New York deli I’ve ever been to, with a super-crunchy outside and a chewy, moist inside.

The other big experiment this weekend was biscotti.  Afternoon coffee in Rome was always accompanied by a couple of these, and they’re a serious weakness these days.  Nothing’s better than a lightly flavored, super-crunchy cookie dipped into a hot cup of strong coffee–the biscotti gets nice and soft, and the coffee gets sweeter (and, OK, a bit grainy).  I’d been eyeing the recipes in Cynthia Field’s Italian Baker, but there was a simpler-looking on in one of the Cooks’ Illustrated books, and I’ve learned to start there before moving into the more serious stuff.  Cook’s is really good about telling you why things get done the way they do, and what to watch for in other (often more traditional) recipes.  These biscotti were simple–orange zest, almonds, and vanilla, all mixed in to a straightforward mix of sugar, flour, butter, and baking powder.  You bake them in a loaf, then slice them thin and bake them again to dry them out–making them thirsty for coffee, just like their baker.  The recipe says they’ll keep for two weeks, but in a studio full of hungry, coffee-starved students, they lasted 15 minutes.


baking sunday

November 14, 2011 Comments Off on baking sunday

I’ve usually tried to take the last couple days of my non-kid weeks and get everything squared away so that the house is well-stocked and ready to go when O and C show up.  Clean sheets.  All the laundry done.  Groceries all in place, cookies baked, fresh loaf of bread, etc., etc.  This time around that didn’t happen because of a glorious work trip to California.  I got the laundry and sheets all done, but the baking took a back seat.  C and I made cookies yesterday, but we were short a fresh loaf of bread, some groceries, and dessert for dinner tonight.  So today was basically baking almost start to finish, the sort of day that I secretly enjoy a lot.  It started, of course, with the New York Times and coffee, of course, but L had to put in a full day of work, so the oven got fired up pretty early this morning.

This week’s bread is a pan bigio from Carol Field’s Italian Baker.  It’s been about a year that I’ve spent working through Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Bread Every Day, and I thought it was time to try a slightly different take.  Field’s book is amazing–dozens of subtly different recipes, and a really thorough explanation of what you’re making, where it’s from, and why that’s important.  She clearly has no time for the no-knead philosophy; you’re spending some time kneading, for crying out loud, and you’ll like it.  This one starts with a biga the night before, which gets nice and spongy on the coutnertop and fuels a four hour set of rises in the morning.  The dough itself is half whole wheat, so it’s arguably healthy.  Most of her recipes seem pretty wet, so getting the loaf shaped was a challenge, but it made it on to the peel fine and spent a full 50 minutes baking away.  Good results–nice chewy crust and as soft a center as you could probably get with that much whole wheat.  I’m sold, at least for the moment, though her ciabatta recipe comes with a warning that one really needs a mixer to deal with the soup of a dough she suggests.  We’ll see…

The real fun, though, was dessert tonight.  We did a simple brown rice pilaf that was in the Times today, so I figured we had both the time and the calories to tackle a pumpkin pie.  Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking had a recipe that looked good–cream instead of evaporated milk, a truckload of spices, and less sugar than one I’d been eyeing.  I’ve always liked pumpkin pie, but wanted to do one that wasn’t too heavy, and this seemed perfect.  And, maybe more important, I wanted an excuse to use my grandmother’s crust recipe, which the folks sent me earlier this fall after my inaugural, blueberry attempt.  Grandma’s recipe used shortening instead of butter, and her recipe notes that it’s “marvelously flaky,” which is absolutely true.  It’s not sweet–no sugar at all–but it lets the filling do the talking, and it stayed dry and flaky even on the bottom.  I baked the crust on its own  first, then baked it again with the goop in it, and we topped it with some fresh whipped cream.  The result was pretty miraculous.  I’m not quite sure what I did right.

big air

March 7, 2011 Comments Off on big air

The Gospel according to Reinhart says that the real prize in lean breads is gigantic, garage-sized air pockets.  That means you’ve handled the dough right, the gluten has all formed correctly, and the baking got timed perfectly.  Tough to do, he says, and my bread experiments so far have proven that to be the case.

Until today.  This came out of the oven and even though it was a post-insomnia, no-run morning, somehow the day brightened up a bit.  I wish I knew what I’d done right.  And it tasted pretty good, too.

Still some work to do shaping the things.  But I stole the pizza crust technique Reinhart suggests to get these ciabatta loaves formed–instead of rolling or patting, he advises getting the dough on the backs of your hands and stretching it out with your thumbs.  This doesn’t deflate the dough quite as much, and I think that contributed to the serious air.

Of course, with no run this morning I’ve been sorely limited in how much of this I can nom today…

thanks, mom!

February 22, 2011 Comments Off on thanks, mom!

A few weeks ago, amused at my initial baking forays, Mom sent along a genuine baguette pan with a box of books that I wanted.  Needless to say, I was thrilled, but I quickly stashed the box as the floor project got started and only today remembered that it was sitting in the closet.

I’m getting pretty OK at simple French bread, but I’d been complaining that all of my loaves looked like broken legs.  The baguette pan is kind of like a baking splint, I guess.  I made a batch of Reinhart’s artisan dough last night and pulled it out between editing sessions and desk crits at work today.  I’m slowly getting the hang of his fairly abstruse shaping instructions, and more and more the loaves look like torpedos instead of Q-tips.  That, I have to say, makes them somewhat more appetizing.

And here’s the result.  I’ve also become braver about scoring them, and it really does help–no more ‘baker’s cave’ under the crust, and they do sort of look like real baguettes (actually these are just batards, I’m learning–they need one more fold and roll to become proper baguettes).  I’m still panicking a little at the sight of serious crust, and these got yanked probably a good five minutes early.  But that means they’re nice and moist inside, which could be worse.  The pan not only kept them straight, it also seemed to bake them more evenly than leaving them on the pizza stone had been doing.

This weekend we grabbed a quick lunch before the museum at Jimmy John’s, and I found myself mentally critiquing their bread (quietly, because boy, howdy would K have ever made fun of me otherwise).  I’m finding that reading Reinhart on bread is like reading Leonard Koppett’s Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball. I was a pretty serious fan before reading Koppett, and knew a lot about the game.  But his book opened up another dozen or so layers to the strategy, the subtle differences between pitches, even the logic behind infield positions.  Reinhart is the same way.  I’ve always loved a good crusty bread, and nommed eagerly.  I’ve also always thought I could tell the difference between really good bread and just moderately good bread (Jimmy John’s was always fine by my standards…)  But it’s like there are ten new things to think about now, and that’s kind of fun.

We’ll get through these and then it’s time for a simple boule.  Bon Appetit has a killer recipe for croque monsieur, and the kids both thought that would be a good one to try this week.

baguettes, ovens, and the ted williams effect

January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Saturday nights and Sunday mornings have become my bread times–whip the dough together right before bedtime on Saturday, then take it out and do something with it while the kids clean up on Sunday.  This week I promised the kids sandwich bread and baguettes.

Baguettes formed a major part of our diet in Italy.  We could always rest assured that the boy would eat if we could find a good bakery or pizza place with baguettes, and given our finances we made more than a few meals out of salami, cheese, and a good baguette or two.  Sometimes just the bread and a plate of olive oil worked, too.  So when I saw that the bread book suggested this was one of the easiest things to make, I figured it was a no-brainer.

The dough is the same as for ciabatta, and I have to admit I was a bit surprised by this.  The only differences are that you use oil to keep the ciabatta from sticking, and flour for the baguettes.  Beyond that, though, it’s just the shape–but of course the shape changes the ever-important crust/bread ratio, and the rolling technique makes the baguettes come apart in a very particular way–the top crust comes with about 1/2″ of bread, leaving a nice big chunk on the lower portion that’s perfect for dipping.  I’d always noticed this but had no idea how it happened so consistently.

I took the dough out before heading out for my pre-wakeup gym session.  This works pretty well, because I know how many calories a couple pieces of baguette will have, and this keeps me on the elliptical machine for that much longer.  When I got home I quickly folded them as instructed, which leaves a nice spiral seam that comes apart in the finished bread–thus the nice dipping ratio.  Reinhart says to preheat the oven and a baking tile to 550°, and then to slide the loaves in off of a peel and to bake them for 27+ minutes…

But here’s where the Ted Williams effect takes over.  Williams was the greatest baseball hitter of all time, but he may well have been the worst manager of all time.  The reason was that everything he did was totally instinctive, and he could never quite communicate his abilities to lesser players.  Reinhart occasionally glosses over a key step, clearly because to anyone with some experience that step is just second nature.  But beginners who are, say, still slightly panicked about accidentally spilling the steam tray onto the hot oven door window and exploding the whole thing are, perhaps, less likely to notice a small aside that says “reduce the oven heat to 450° after putting the loaves in.”

I didn’t quite notice this, and I guess in the beginner’s book it would have said “otherwise you’ll burn the crust and undercook the interior.”  I opened the oven door after 12 minutes to rotate them, and realized instantly that I’d screwed up, big-time.  The crusts were already dark brown, and they thumped nicely when I tapped them (ouch–hot, too).  I checked their internal temperature, though, and they were only 175°, not the 200° Reinhart said they needed to be.

OK.  What to do…well, fortunately, the boy likes his baguettes crusty.  So I figured I’d leave them in for another couple of minutes, but I’d pull them before anything, say, caught on fire, and we’d just see what we had.

And the answer was not bad, considering the near-breadpocalypse that threatened.  The inside was a little doughy, but I managed to rescue the crust just before it got carbonized, so it was super-crispy and dark, by happy coincidence just the way C likes it.  He nommed a couple of pieces along with his daily grilled cheese (on the last of the store-bought bread).  So that’s a pretty good carb-load for a ten-year old.

And the girl?  I asked her if she wanted a piece, and her eyes got a bit wide and she asked if I could spread some Nutella on it.  I said of course, and then I told her that I also had some fresh organic kiwis I could slice up.  She gave me a big smile, the first one, I think, since she got sick.  This was her everyday lunch in Italy.  I put it in front of her and she got a little misty-eyed.

“It smells like Rome,” she said.  And so it did…

nice buns

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Who makes their own hammaga buns when a bag costs sixty-nine cents at the Wal-Mart?  WE DO!

It was hamburger night, but we’d done burgers, done fries, done slaw, all of it seemed like it…I don’t know…lacked challenge.  So I read up on Peter Reinhart’s sandwich bread recipe, and it sounded country simple–just a question of timing, really, and not much more work than hopping in the car and driving to the store.  So I threw the dough together last night, popped it in the fridge, and found ten minutes today to yank it and shape it into the lurvely buns you see up above there.  It was, if anything, simpler than the Cook’s Illustrated sandwich bread, which we’ve been making weekly, the main difference being that this one you have to plan the night before, and you’ve got to time things so that you can be there to form the dough 2-1/2 hours before you bake it.

Which is no problem when you’re working from home.  Today was a pretty weird schedule, with a doctor’s appointment, a guest lecture, O manning the TV room while fighting off the flu, and the C school extraction at 3:20.  My iCal looks like a Mondrian painting, but with mad time management skills I got the buns rolled in between some editing, the brownie experiment, and class (O and I also threw in a spare ciabatta loaf this afternoon…the oven has just about thrown in the towel today).  Reinhart said to bake them at 325° for a total of 40 minutes, but they seemed to brown really quickly and the instant-read thermometer said they were done a whole ten minutes early.

It tasted great–no doubt due to the generous milk and sugar in the dough.  I always thought that when you bought “enriched” bread it was extra vitamins or something, but I am now this much wiser.  If they relabeled it “milk and sugar bread” I’m sure kids would be much bigger fans.  Anyway, I let the kids try some before we got dinner ready and they both approved.  I made some oven fries, forgetting they’d had Arby’s for snack–neither one objected, and both were in fact quite silent when I told them what our side was going to be…!

Anyway, the buns were great, but the burgers–dry, lumpy, not a lot of taste.  Both kids ate more bread than burger, which I understood, but still, I’m trying to get as much protein into these two as I can.  OK, readers, suggestions?  I think part of the issue is that I’ve been really good and been using the 93/7 ground beef.  Clearly a little more fat wouldn’t hurt.  I’m almost ready to go back to the old egg white and bread crumb trick, throwing in some spices or hot sauce.  We’ll do the buns again, and our next loaf of sandwich bread will definitely be this recipe…but the next burgers can’t be this boring…


January 21, 2011 Comments Off on best…pizza…ever…

Boy howdy, that’s not only the best pizza I’ve ever made, it just might be the best thing I’ve ever cooked.

I ordered two books on bread with an Amazon gift certificate last week (thanks, all!).  One of them, Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day was one I’d perused before.  Most of the recipes seemed involved, but doable with a little patience, and I really liked that the introduction was straightforward–none of this “bread is the sacred staff of life” stuff, just “here’s how to make amazingly tasty bread.”  Tonight was going to be pizza night anyway, and we’d had good success with doughs from a couple of other books.  Reinhart’s recipe promised more work and more fussing, but it included this line:

“Pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go…”

I have to admit that seemed like a good dare to me, and it promised just a bit of adventure.  So after the kids went to bed last night I fired up the mixer and put together a batch to ferment overnight.  The recipe makes five pizzas worth (admittedly they’re small pizzas) so I froze three of them and left two in the fridge.  I yanked them out this afternoon, stretched them a little, and let them sit in the bedroom on K’s advice–the warmest room in the house–Then I started up the oven an hour before baking time, with our baking stone in place, though I was only brave enough to turn it up to 525°.  This, I figured, was either going to work brilliantly or it was going to burn the house down.  Or, really, both.

Reinhart’s book has carefully photographed instructions for getting the dough into a pizza shape, which involves stretching it out on the backs of your hands with your thumbs.  And if that sounds impossible, it sort of is.  But after a few tries I got the hang of it (one round may or may not have ended up on the floor) and realized the you had to do it around the dough rather than out from the dough’s middle.  Eventually I got them close to the 10-12″ he recommended, but the kitchen and I were pretty well covered in flour.  Have to work on this.

I chucked one round in to the now-smoking oven to test things out with just olive oil and kosher salt, and after the suggested seven minutes it had bubbled up nicely and browned on the top and the sides.  (I used the peel my father-in-law made for us last year, which worked a treat.  Thanks again, Rich!)  By that time I’d stretched the other round out to a decent size for the three of us, so I loaded it up with C’s now-patented quick tomato sauce, some pepperoni, and some leftover mozzarella pearls.

And wow, was it ever good when it came out.  Ugly, for sure, and I could probably use some work on symmetry, evenness, etc., but the crust was totally golden and the high heat just carmelized the edges of the sauce.  The pearls probably should have been cut in half, since they had just started spreading out when it was time to pull them, but they were melty enough.

When O saw the results she was less than impressed.  “Dad, that one slice is just a crust. That’s like the worst part.”

“Just try it,” I said, having nommed one slice of the pizza bianca and been impressed.  C, meanwhile, took in his slices with a look of awe.  This kid knows good pizza, and I think he knew what was coming.

Crunch. Moment of silence.  Widening eyes.  O looked like that one Bernini statue.  “Dad,” she said, “this might be the best pizza ever.”  (She later recanted.  Her grandfather makes the best pizza ever, just for the record).  The crust was perfect–crispy, chewy, it bit back just a little, and it was salty and sweet, with the honey in the mix just coming through.  C, who usually leaves his bones, ate everything, and said that the sauce was actually the worst part.  I had to agree, and I felt just a bit bad that I’d topped it with cheap pepperoni.  Next time this just might deserve that La Quercia prosciutto on sale at Wheatsfield.  The two of them ate 1-1/2 whole pizzas.  Crusts and all.  And they asked if we could have it again next week.  Which, of course, we can, since there are three balls of wonder pizza dough sitting in the freezer.

Reinhart’s theory, so far as I can understand it, is to slow things down, use less yeast and more water, work the dough less, and then bake the &*$# out of it as hot as you can.  The result is bigger flavor, since the yeast has more time to do its thing, crispier and flatter bread, since there’s less rise and the yeast only has time to do a quick oven rise before it gets overheated, and bigger air bubbles, which help bake it more evenly.  That all certainly came through in the crust tonight, and it bodes well for future loaves.

When pressed, C admitted that he still liked delivery pizza best (and Papa John’s, at that–sheesh), but the girl made my night with this one:

“Dad,” O said, “you know how you said that you and Mom might split some of the cooking when she gets home?”

“Yes,” I said, dreading the response.  She’s brought this up before, and she has made no secret of the fact that she found this an appallingly awful idea.

“Well, I think it might be OK if you make the pizza.”

C agreed, though he insisted–totally unprovoked–that I am not to try making K’s Magic Cookie Bars.  Ever.

Meanwhile we’re almost through that loaf of rustic Italian bread I made last weekend.  I think this weekend is going to be Reinhart’s ciabatta, which again looks involved but possible.  Watch this space…

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