A Baker’s Journey: Bread, Time, and Nuts

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There was a time when I thought I’d like to have a bread blog – that was about 5 years ago – at the time, I was enamored with anything bread, and of course, there was a ton to learn. And how did I go about the task of learning? Well, of course by baking a new kind of bread every time I baked – and what did I learn about baking? I learned that that’s not the way to learn how to bake bread.

You want to learn how to bake bread? Make the same kind of bread every time you bake! That makes sense, doesn’t it! But it’s not the kind of thing that makes for good blog reading – or writing either.

So, I’ve always been kinda glad I didn’t start a bread blog.

Last year, when I took a break from blogging, I found my baking shifted into a different gear – I can’t say the two had any connection, but maybe they did. In any case, I found that I was baking essentially the same kind of bread each time I baked – but each time, I’d make a tiny difference in either process or ingredients – and I’d make a note of it (I hate making notes, always have, always will – but sometimes, it really helps – like when you make tiny changes in your baking, and your brain can no longer remember anything anyway.). And you know what happened? My bread got better and better – and better!

I also learned that if you hit on a good basic formula –which I think I have– you can then learn how to make changes to that formula to make many, many different kinds of breads – so instead of using someone else’s recipe, you are using your own, which carries with it a full awareness of just how this new bread relates to other breads in the family of breads. And this knowledge makes you a better baker.

And so, my journey as a bread baker has moved along to the point where I think I’m ready to do another bread post, which will not only give readers some new knowledge from my own recent experience, but it will give me the pleasure, as a writer, of sharing some info I know is not simply a dup of something I’ve already blogged about – at least, that is my intent.

So, what’s new? I think my recent breads have more flavor than those I’ve previously baked – and I think I know why (this is always very helpful, don’t you think!). And I think this is due to two things: time and nuts.

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The time thing is nothing new to any of us, for as we all know, time is flavor in bread baking. But, sometimes we are rudely reminded just how true this can be. I am a firm believer in the magic of the preferment, which of course cannot happen without time. My last bake was of some club rolls, for which I used a newly discovered method of forming the rolls – I’ll get to that in a bit – but the reminder of just how magic is the preferment process came as I decided to use only a pinch of yeast, and a tiny pinch at that, to make my preferment. And I share the following in the belief that perhaps you too will find this as amazing as did I.

My basic preferment is a simple one – 14 oz of water, and 8 oz of flour, and in this case, a tiny pinch of yeast. That’s it. A very wet mixture, which I only minimally mix to a state of not being able to see any more dry flour. I made this one in the early morning, put it in a small bowl, and covered it with a towel – there it stayed on my kitchen counter all day. About 9 PM, I gave it a good look and a stir – there was not much evidence that the yeast had started to do much, except that the dough was starting to take on a gelatinous character. I thought about leaving it out on the counter all night, but finally decided to put it into the fridge for an overnight stay (this fridge stay, BTW, is the customary way I treat my usual preferments which generally have more yeast than this one).

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The next morning, I pulled the bowl out of the fridge and gave it a stir – much more structure, body and lightness – just what you want in a good preferment. I then proceeded to put together my final bread dough by adding 12 oz more of flour and 2 tsp of salt. If I have a handle on this baker’s percentage thing, that makes this dough a 70% hydration – this is a fairly wet dough then, a perfect candidate for my beloved proofing tub,
039.1which I’m sure I’ve told you about many times before – it makes working with all doughs, but especially the wet ones, so much easier! A simply amazing tool.

But what about the nuts? Is this a nut bread? OK, I’m getting to that – and No, this is not a nut bread, at least not in the classic sense. I’m really talking about all the nut milks that proliferate our groceries today. I have a bit of a lactose problem -as I think all human adults do- and so I’ve tried all the nut milks I can find. I suppose the soy and rice milks are very similar and belong in this grouping too.

These pseudo milks tend to clog the fridge and quickly lead to the question, What else can they be used for? And the answer, of course, is, Anything that real milk is used for. But I’ve discovered that they are especially good for breads – especially coconut and almond milk! And I don’t think its’ my imagination, but I’d swear that the use of the nut milks has increased my bread’s chewiness – a character I love in a roll or sandwich bread.

Finally, the club roll thing. I’ve always liked the looks of what’s known here in the US as a club roll – it has a rectangle shape with a characteristic ‘chopped’ end, evidence that it was cut from a tube of dough, which otherwise would have become a baguette if left whole. I’ve found these easy to do, even with a very wet dough since my current process does not use a final proofing, during which a wet dough would simply spread out and flatten. I try my best not to deflate the dough during the roll formation, and have found that it has a surprisingly good oven spring – perhaps another benefit of the minimal amount of yeast, and the extended proofing period.

OK then, for anyone wishing to give my current formula and process a try, here it is:

                                   Nut Milk Club Rolls (with a long preferment)

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Preferment:
*14 oz of nut milk (preferably coconut milk – not the kind in cans, use the kind meant for drinking)
*8 oz flour of choice
*a pinch of yeast
Mix preferment well in a small bowl, cover, and allow to sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours or more. Then stir well, recover, and place in the refrigerator for another 10-14 hours.

Final Dough:
*12 oz flour of choice
*2 tsp salt, or to taste
Remove preferment from refrigerator and add the flour and salt – mix well. Liberally oil a proofing tub with a few Tbs of oil, and add final dough to the tub. Cover and allow the dough to proof at room temp for at least 10 hours or more (the total amount of time here is up to you, and depends on how slow or fast your dough is proofing). Uncover the dough and stretch and fold it several times – recover and repeat every two hours during the proofing.

Roll Formation:
Since these rolls will not need a final proof, you’ll need to preheat your oven to 400F about an hour before this step.

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At the end of the dough’s last 2 hour proofing, it should very light and airy – gently remove the risen dough to a well floured board or counter. Gently form the dough into a rectangle shape about 12-15” long – using a board scrapper or a large sharp knife, cut the rectangle of dough into two equal long pieces and roll each into a baguette shape. Using the board scrapper or knife, cut each dough piece into as many rolls as you wish (I did 6 each piece) and move to a parchment covered, or greased, sheet pan (I have1/2 size commercial pans on which these 12 rolls fit nicely).

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the rolls are a dark shade of golden brown. Immediately upon removing from the oven, brush each roll with coconut oil or butter to add even more flavor and give the rolls a nice sheen.

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I’m usually a dissatisfied baker! There always seems to be something that I know didn’t turn out as well as I’d have liked – but I really can’t find much wrong with these. I think maybe they’re too good, ’cause I find myself eating more than I should. Are we really put on this earth to live a life of denial of those things which give us pleasure? I think not. As I’ve told you before, the true meaning of life is revealed through out taste buds.

Have another roll?

Posted in Baking, Food | Tagged , , , , , , | 23 Comments

George Lang and the Cabbage

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If you’re like me, when you read a cookbook, first you’re looking for things for dinner tonight – then if you find something, you check out the list of ingredients to see if you just might have them all on hand.  Seldom is this true – Do you want to go to the grocery store?  Not really.  So the next thing you do is to go back to the list of ingredients to see if you could make a few ‘adjustments’  (professional recipe developers call these adaptions – that means they stole the idea, and substituted a few ingredients!).  And more than not, when I see something I like in a cookbook, and I make it for dinner, I haven’t really followed the author’s recipe – cause I had to sub several items in it – I’ve adapted the recipe to fit my kitchen.

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I can remember using Lang’s, The Cuisine of Hungary in just that way.  The section I kept going back to was “Potted Cabbage, Pickled and Otherwise“.  I have a thing for cabbage – and for years, I applied my mother’s oft repeated rule, “If you like something a lot, then you know it’s not good for you!”.  Then I learned that in the case of cabbage, she was very wrong – cabbage is loaded with nutrition, and when fermented, cabbage turns into super-food – Really!

Most of the cabbage recipes in Lang’s book call for sauerkraut, because for 8 months of the year, fresh cabbage was not available – besides, I’m quite sure that it was common knowledge among the peasant folk that sauerkraut was a magic food, and would ward off all kinds of illnesses.  Yes, I’m sure of this – historians keep pointing out how we continue to ‘re-discover’ health facts today that actually were common knowledge in the middle ages.

However, I was not as lucky (or as well prepared) as those peasants – I only had fresh cabbage on hand – and the recipe in Lang’s cookbook that most appealed to me only called for sauerkraut.  I quickly decided to use it anyway, and to sub cabbage for the sauerkraut.  But I’ll first give you the recipe just as presented by Lang – perhaps you’ll be more prepared than was I, and have the necessary sauerkraut.  And then I’ll give you my adaptations.

Szekely Cabbage
(from G. Lang’s The Cuisine of Hungary, pg 287)

1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup of lard
1 1/2 lbs lean pork, diced
1 Tbs. paprika
2 Tbs. tomato puree
2 lbs. sauerkraut
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
Salt to taste
1/2 cup sour cream

  1. Wilt onion in lard in a heavy Dutch oven.  Add pork, mix well and cook, covered, for 5 minutes.
  2. Add paprika, then add tomato puree, mix well.  Add just enough water to cover everything.  Cook over very low heat until meat is almost done.
  3. Squeeze sauerkraut well.  Add it to the meat along with the caraway seeds, and cook for another 10 -15 minutes.  Salt should only be added at this point if, upon tasting, you feel it is needed.
  4. Remove to a serving dish, spoon the sour cream over the top and serve.

Note:  Lang suggests as a variation (and I second his suggestion) that you add a tablespoon of flour to the sour cream (to prevent separation on heating) and add it to the cooking pot about 10 minutes before it is done.

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Now, as I suggested above, when I first came on this recipe, I knew I wanted to make it, but not only did I not have any sauerkraut, I also knew I wanted to mix in some Hungarian noodles (or what Hungarians tend to call dumplings) to this dish.  That of course required me to make a few changes to Lang’s above recipe, and here’s what I did:

1.  In the recipe above, just before you add ‘enough water to cover’, add up to 2 lbs of chopped fresh cabbage to the pot, mix and cook on med high heat for five to ten minutes, until cabbage begins to soften and to brown on the edges of the pieces.  Then add the water, lower heat to medium, and continue cooking for another five minutes.

2.  Now add the caraway seeds and continue cooking for another 10 minutes.  And I highly recommend that you add the sour cream/flour mixture noted above at this point as well – I think the sour cream cooked into the sauce makes this a better dish.

3.  And I also recommend that you consider serving this dish with some authentic Hungarian dumplings, the recipe for which I will now give you – to me, these ‘dumplings’ are more like noodles than dumplings.  Frankly, I think the Hungarians are a bit confused about them as well – for I’ve noted that when they serve them with soup, they call them ‘soup noodles’, but when served to accompany a saucy entree, they call them dumplings!  Whatever.  They are simply delicious, and if you make this dish, it (and you) deserve to have these wonderful dumplings/noodles with it.

Little Pinched Dumplings  (Csipetke)
(from The Cuisine of Hungary, pg 178)

1/2 cup flour
1 egg
Salt
Flour

  1. Mix the flour, egg, and salt to taste in a medium bowl until a dough forms.  Move dough to a flour dusted board or counter.  Knead for 5 minutes.  You may need to use more flour on the board as you knead, as this dough should not be too hard or too soft (mine was too wet initially, so I freely sprinkled the board during kneading, and it made a nice soft dough.).
  2. Let the dough rest, covered with a towel, for 15 minutes.
  3. Cut the dough into 6 pieces, and roll each to finger thickness, about 6 inches long.
  4. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt.  Sprinkle some flour over the dough.  Holding one piece of the dough in your hand, pinch off small pieces from the end of the dough between your thumb and forefinger, and let them drop into the boiling water.
  5. The dumplings will sink to the bottom during cooking, but when done, they will rise to the top.  Remove them from the pot as they rise, and keep them warm until all are done.  (I like these best mixed into the dish above – they are only shown on the side in the pic for aesthetics.)

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I bet I can guess what you’re thinking about now – you’re trying to remember if you’ve ever had anything as rich and highly caloric as this dish.  Yes, it is that – personally, I’m a comfort food junkie, and this dish is way up there on my list.  I only eat this one, in this form, maybe once or twice a year – that way I look forward to the opportunity and enjoy it all the more when I do get to taste it again.

But I also must admit to having a weakness for the more simplistic cabbage, noodles, and sour cream (AKA, the Haluska of my previous post), which shows more often on our table – to make it, simply leave out the pork in the above recipe.  Always remember, gentle reader, that the meaning of life is only revealed through our taste buds – so get out there and get some good tastes.

Thank you, George – I always think of you, and your wonderful cookbook, every time I enjoy any of these dishes and their variations – may you rest in peace in the knowledge that you have brought us such joy.

Photo credits:  top two- allposters.com; bottom two- mea culpa

Posted in Food, My Cookbook Heroes | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

What in the World Is a Cookbook Hero?

For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been a collector of cookbooks.  Whenever I’d hear about a classic cookbook that sounded good, I’d quickly check with my used book sources (Alibris and Amazon) to see if it was available at a reasonable price – if yes, I’d pick it up – if no, I’d put it on my search list on eBay.

Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of pleasure from leisurely reading cookbooks for the tips and techniques contained in them, but I’d also be looking for those sparks of inspiration which often push a cook up a notch to a new ability level.  I’m convinced a cook only gets better when they can build on their own acquired skills by adding ideas and techniques of other cooks to their own knowledge bank – and short of spending time in the kitchen of a master cook, I think those kinds of experiences are best found in cookbooks.

When one uses cookbooks in this way, it doesn’t take long before those cookbook authors begin to separate themselves into mental categories – a favorite for Thai, another for Italian, yet another when thinking of a holiday bread, or perhaps an Asian seafood.  And I soon discovered that my favorites were not often the current celebrity chef/authors of the moment (whose books were not reasonably priced anyway!).  Rather, they were often obscure authors who had labored in their craft without much fame or fortune – but to me they were valued for what they were able to pass on to readers about those foods they loved.  They were my ‘cookbook heroes’ – and they will now become the subjects of my new post category.

obit-lang-articleLargeA cursory google of George Lang may not suggest why he might qualify as a cookbook hero, as his most notable accomplishments seem to place him on the fringe of food creation – he was not a professional chef – rather simply just a student of good food (not unlike myself!), but it may well be true that his tome, The Cuisine of Hungary, is an effort well beyond the narrow purview of a working chef, and could only have been written by a scholar of the art, and one driven by a love of subject – his research surely took him many years of work.  I especially appreciated the following from his forward:  “The early gastronomic literature is rich with detailed descriptions of various cuisines, almost exclusively dealing with the foods and tables of the nobility.  Since the most characteristic and richest part of the Hungarian cuisine is the common people’s food, … reconstruction was a painstakingly slow process. … Sometimes, to be able to make a single paragraph statement, libraries had to be researched for years.”

And that my friends, can only be said by one who is deeply in love with his subject!

Although Lang could not be thought of as a food celebrity in today’s terms, he certainly enjoyed a status as a bon vivant of the New York City restaurant scene in his heyday.  He achieved notability as the architect of the concept of the restaurant as entertainment -as well as for food and drink – and he successfully developed in the early ’70s, one of the nation’s first restaurant consulting businesses, which was responsible over the following 25 years for many of NYC’s (and the world as well) finest restaurant operations – not the least of which was his own model restaurant, Cafe de Artistes,  whose walls were covered with delightful ‘celebratory’ art.

Pretty good track record for someone who, having successfully escaped from a German forced labor camp only months before war’s end in Hungary, emigrated to New York in 1946 with intentions of becoming a concert violinist – when those dreams began to fade, Lang turned to his love of food, and began his climb through the ranks of restaurant employment with a job as, what else, a dishwasher.  Here is a good remembrance of the man.

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Lang’s Own NYC Jewel, Cafe de Artistes

Somewhere in his career track, Lang seriously began work on what I think will be one day recognized as his legacy, the very scholarly history and recipe collection of the Hungarian food culture, The Cuisine of Hungary.  My guess is that he started this effort early-on and that it continued well into his prime years of restaurant consulting during the sixties – I find it especially interesting that for his legacy work, he chose a food which was not either in his prior restaurant experience nor among the ethnic foods of the many restaurants he had helped establish (he would later take on the project of resurrecting the grandeur of the once splendid Hungarian restaurant, Gundel, in Budapest in 1991, some 20 years after the publication of his book).

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A Few of the More ‘Entertaining’ Murals of the Cafe de Artistes

But why would I chose Hungarian food as worthy of star billing to kick my new blog effort into gear?  Only one who had not yet read Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary would ask this question, for in it, Lang makes his case for Hungarian food being the best in Europe – and while we may expect such a provincial opinion, he makes a better case than do others who may carry a similar provincial torch for their own chosen cuisine.  Hungary has for centuries acted as translator of the ideas, arts, and foods of the East and the West, with its unique position on the border between Europe and Asia – as such they have a long history of weaving the best of each together into a new cuisine – perhaps the first successful ‘fusion’ cuisine of the world!

Additionally, Lang’s epic is a masterful creation – and it succeeds on many levels.  Lang is not only a tireless researcher, whose efforts reward the reader at every turn, but he takes care to inject Hungarian contributions to the arts and literature throughout the book – and these inclusions create the heart of his work as a cultural history of his beloved homeland.  But to dwell on that aspect would be to miss the fact that Lang has created, with this masterwork, a model of what a good cookbook should be – his recipes contain a beautiful mix of narrative background, specific detail and instruction, and helpful notes.

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With his insistence that his book reflect the peasant roots of the Hungarian cuisine, Lang presents us with food that is surprisingly rich and caloric – but these were the foods of the farmlands, both because of their commonality, and because it was necessary to consume such foods in order to accomplish a full day of hard labor.  Copious amounts of lard and other animal fats were universally used in the preparation of most dishes – intentionally!  And although cabbage was easily the most common vegetable available, it was never simply boiled or consumed raw, but usually presented as a part of an elaborate dish, or even more often, in the form of sauerkraut – a winter survival food.  Noodles or dumplings were also a daily offering, both for sweet and savory use, reflective of the peasant dependance on, and availability of, wheat.  And although Lang bemoans the fact that a true gulyas (goulash) should contain no sour cream, he plays the word games of the food purist, for he then goes on to tell us that paprikas (paprikash), a very similar dish to goulash, should always be served with sour cream – thereby contributing to the very confusion of which he bemoans.

With mention of the four foods above, I am leading you, dear reader, into a narrow side-road of Hungarian dishes – for I wish to share with you what I consider one of the world’s finest comfort foods, a dish known to all Hungarians, (Haluska – Sauteed Cabbage and Noodles with Sour Cream) – but I must take you there via the backdoor, since Lang has chosen not to give us a recipe for Haluska in his cookbook, but instead gives us several fancier presentations of related dishes – we must believe him when he tells us he had rejected thousands of recipes to bring us the 300 herein.  But due to the length of this post – please forgive – we’ll look at these dishes in my next post.

I look forward to such opportunity.

(Photo credits, in order:  The New York Times; thelifevicarious.typepad.com; johnmariani.com; dito; amazon.com)

Posted in Food | 10 Comments

Time For Something New

I bet you feel the same way.  With the new year comes an opportunity for renewal of the human spirit – a time to test our nerve endings and synapses, to see if they still function.  Yeah, we all need that – and all we really need to get moving are a few ideas, a little mental motivation – and I’ve been doing that, especially now that all the holiday madness is done and gone (if you think that just because someone is retired and living with spouse only, that perhaps they no longer get caught up in holiday madness, you’d be wrong!).  And here are my blogging ideas for the new year.

  • A renewal of my once active immersion into America’s Food Secrets – I bet you forgot all about that, didn’t you!  Well, I didn’t do much to avert that happening.  AFS is my look back into the history -scanty as it is- of America’s food culture (every part of the world has a food culture and history – and for those of us who love food, those ‘cultures’ are quite interesting, if not fascinating!).  I’ll try my best to keep it regular with at least a monthly post, but sometimes the research for such posts gets extensive, and I find myself journeying down lost and forgotten back roads of history from which it’s hard to return.  But I’ll try.
  • I’ll also do my best to keep my baking journal moving forward.  The problem with this for me, as a writer, is that my baking is very often simply refining my technique or formula of the same bread!  Unless a reader is moving on the same tract (most unlikely), this can get boring – even for me!
  • Since I run an eclectic blog here, I will keep open the option to occasionally do a post on some dish or dessert which by the whims of fortune just happened to turn out near perfect – and by rare chance, I just happened to take a few pictures of before consuming.  These are not likely scenarios, and so I suspect such posts may be equally rare.

    Our Front Foyer

    Our Front Foyer

  • The entirely new idea for future blog posts came to me as I was recently doing some reading of a few of my cookbook collection – I treat cookbooks as some treat novels, I read them for pleasure – and for ideas.  I have more than 2000 cookbooks, and that means they are everywhere in our house (our interior walls are pretty much ‘insulted’ with books).  However, my investment in these cookbooks is actually minimal, since my prime interest is in classic cookbooks, not the current hot titles – therefore most of my collection has come via eBay, Alibris, or Amazon – all used.  My personal theory is that very few ‘new’ great food ideas are waiting to be discovered – but many old ones are still hidden away just waiting to be re-discovered – like in old cookbooks!

    But I digress – the idea which came to me recently from my pleasure reading of my cookbooks was that there were many hundreds of forgotten but wonderful cookbook authors in the world of cookbooks – some of whom have provided revolutionary contributions to the world of food and eating, others who have taken the tastes of one culture and reworked them into the foods of another to create entirely new dishes, and some who have introduced the well kept secrets of the kitchen to the world.  These individuals are really the heroes and heroines of the world’s collective food culture – and yet most are simply forgotten today.  So I intend to do my part to remedy that ill, by doing an ongoing look at the work of one of these neglected food heroes or heroines – and hopefully such posts will be interesting enough to draw the interest and readership of others.And if not, it will still be great fun -and edification- for myself.

    George Lang -The First of my Cookbook Heroes (Next Post)

    George Lang -The First of my Cookbook Heroes (Next Post)

Posted in Food | 11 Comments

And How Was Your Christmas?

0431I’m going to use Christmas as an excuse to get back into the blogging pool.  San and I spent our Christmas as we do most other days -by ourselves- and we had a most delightful day!  Hoping not to bore you, I’ll give a short report on our experiences.

As expected, the day was food-centric, and if you share my love of food, you know that a holiday is simply an opportunity to ramp up our efforts a notch or two, and to put out some memorable dishes and items – and we did that yesterday in spades.

We started the day by making some Gibissier for our Christmas morning kickoff – Joanna seemed to like them a lot, and I trust her taste, so I followed her lead – and glad I did!  They are very festive, done with a brioche like dough, interestingly with olive oil as well as butter – and a goodly suggestion of orange – the texture is reminiscent of panettone, which adds to its holiday personality.

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But as usual, I felt compelled to make a few changes to the instructions which Jo had so kindly sent me – instead of starting the preferment at night, which is the rational thing to do, I suddenly realized on Christmas eve morning that I had not yet started them – so I quickly put the preferment ingredients together and let it sit out all day before putting the final dough together.  In the normal Gibissier process, this is the point where the bulk ferment of 2 hours takes place – but I was ready for bed – so I simply slipped the dough into the fridge to await an early morning resumption of the process.  Not a good thing!  I think doing this impedes the final rise of the buns – and I shall not do this again.

Sorry Tup - No Butter Shot - They're Already Dripping Butter

Sorry Tup – No Butter Shot – They’re Already Dripping Butter

The second instruction I failed to follow was to use cold butter, and to beat it into submission – I assumed (wrongly) that my room temperature (about 60 degrees F in my kitchen) butter would work fine – no.  I got the same ‘greasy’  dough as Jo describes in her blog – and I yielded to temptation and sprinkled a bit more flour over all whenever I saw the dough ‘sweating’.  This of course simply changes the nature of the dough and tightens the final texture.  I add these notes as a caution for any bakers who may be considering trying these delicious goodies for themselves.

For us, Christmas is most often an opportunity to add or replace some vital household essential, and less frequently as a time to surprise each other with a toy, or something personal.  This year, Sandee’s big Christmas wish was for a new kitchen sink – a black granite composite job, with 10″ deep bowls.  It goes beautifully in our kitchen, which is styled in black and stainless steel.

My wish was for a new computer, since my old one had developed so many ailments that it was becoming a daily torture ritual to try to use it.  I consider it a gracious loving action on Sandee’s part that she would agree on the equality of our gifts, even though her’s was a household necessity, and mine actually a toy, and a personal one at that.  But then, these things have a way of leveling out over time.

My afternoon was used up in the preparation of a Christmas leg of lamb.  This seems one of the few times of the year when lamb gets priced at a reasonable level, but then I don’t really check at other times either – so, who knows.  I did this one differently than I have previously, using an herb rub (fresh garlic and rosemary, and salt) on the outside, and slow roasting it at 250 F for 5 hours – but the time is insignificant, as I used a temperature probe set to go off at 130 F (which is pretty damn rare!) – but I then pulled the roast from the oven for a half hour rest, while I let the oven come to 500 degrees F – then the roast is put back in for about 15/20 minutes to quickly develop a beautiful dark crust!

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Frankly, this is a simply amazing way to do a lamb roast, especially if you like rare lamb -as we do.  Not only does this method produce a beautiful consistent rare roast throughout the entire piece of meat – not simply in the middle, the meat is as juicy as I ever remember a fine roast to be.  I fully intend to use this method with our upcoming New Year’s prime rib – in fact, I may also give it a try on a pork loin or fresh ham as well – it just won’t be quite as rare as the lamb or beef!

I did some roasted root veggies (rutabaga, carrot, and potato) and roasted broccoli to go along with the lamb.  I know most would not consider roasted root vegetables to be uncommon, but may think the roasted broccoli to be a bit unusual – actually all vegetables can be successfully roasted, which often changes the vegetable’s personality quite a bit!

We paired our meal with a very modest Spanish champagne (Freixenet, Extra Dry), always a pleasant companion to whatever it is you’re dining upon.  And later, we finished up the meal and the day with some apple pie and vanilla ice cream.

Later, as I slipped into a warm bed, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d just experienced one of the most satisfying Christmases of my memory – how was yours?

 
Posted in Food, Musings and Mutterings, Roasting | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Consistency vs Improvement: a Baker’s Dilemma?

It’s been some time since I did a bread post – not that this is a bread blog – I’ve never said that, mostly because I’m pretty much a generalist – and if I had a bread blog, I’d soon violate the narrow confines of its design.  But I do love bread, and I like blogging about it – and just because I haven’t recently done a bread post doesn’t mean I haven’t been baking.

I bake constantly – however, just like other bakers, I tend to bake a short list of favorite breads that we enjoy, and I think it would be quite boring for me to continually write about the same bread, over and over and over – and it certainly would be boring to keep reading about it over and over … – and frankly, as a generalist blog reader, I avoid regular readings of ‘one trick’ blogs.  However, I do appreciate the occasional introduction of ideas which stimulate my imagination to try new ways.

As I’ve said many times here, when I retired some 10 years ago, one of my prime intentions was to learn how to bake bread -sourdough, specifically- but after 9 years of baking almost all sourdough breads, I simply tired of sourdough.  This is both the prerogative and the failing of all generalists (it is very difficult for a generalist to be an ‘expert’ in anything!).  So if you are here because you are seeking expert advice on bread making, you will, I fear, be disappointed – however, if you are interested in my continuing observations of the behavior of bread, you are invited to come along as a guest on my journey.

Over the past year, my breads have been leavened by commercial yeast, aka baker’s yeast.  I don’t share the sourdough fanatic’s sense that baker’s yeast adds an off flavor to the breads it leavens.  Maybe it does, and I like it – who knows (I often suspect that my own ability to discern tastes is not as sharp as it is in other people – but then, how does one test that suspicion?).  But, recently, the breads I’ve leavened with baker’s yeast have used so little yeast that I can’t see how it would affect the taste – besides, when one uses only a tiny bit of baker’s yeast in their dough, it is essential to let time do what an initial heavy blast of of yeast would accomplish, and during that time, fermentation is literally changing the taste (and perfume) of the dough – have you ever smelled the aroma of a 16 hour dough that had been leavened with only a pinch of baker’s yeast?  Heavenly is the only word which comes close to a true description!

A 12 Hour Active Preferment

Case closed.

But I have a question for you today:  which is more important, a consistent baking process (so we always have good breads coming out of our ovens) or the concept of continual improvement (so we always strive for perfection)?  I think when I was young and less experienced, I thought that my goal should be to get to the point where I could bake one bread really well, and then move on to another bread.  Now I’m quite sure that I’ll never be totally satisfied that any of my breads are REALLY GOOD – or that any are consistently consistent, for that matter.  And I now suspect that the more experienced a baker becomes, the more consistency and improvement are intertwined!

OK, enough philosophy for awhile – let me share where I am in my current baking experience with a bread which we are especially enjoying right now – it’s a white baker’s yeast bread, but it’s got tons of flavor, and it’s a ‘free form’, with no final proofing.  It’s also a bread which is a hybrid, comprised of bits and pieces of several other breads – and thereby representing my behavioral baking changes over time.

Doubled and Ready to be Cut into Loaves

As one of our ‘everyday’ breads, this one, which for the moment I’m calling ‘Free-Form White with Preferment’, meets all the criteria for an everyday bread:
* must be easy (goes without saying that if I’m going to include a regular activity in my routine, I’m going to streamline it as much as possible)
* must have lots of flavor (and with a yeast bread, that means using a nice, long preferment)
* and it would be nice not to have to worry about a final proof   (I suffer from a tendency to over-proof my breads!)

This bread borrows from the amazingly flavorful baker’s yeast baguettes of France, which often give bakers problems in the final proofing stage because of the high hydration of the dough.  Although this bread is also a high hydration dough, there is no problem with proofing, since we also borrow from the ciabatta process, the result of which is a free-form loaf with lots of oven spring and an attractive, one of a kind, no score shape.

A Tub Like This Makes Proofing a Wet Dough Very Easy

I really do think this one is a breakthrough in my own baking – so here it is.

Free-Form White with Preferment

Preferment:
14 oz water
8 oz white bread flour
¼ tsp yeast

Mix and leave at room temp for 12 – 24 hours (It will have separated – it’s fine!)

Final Dough Mix:
To the above preferment, add:
10 oz white bread flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp yeast (or even less, if you’re willing to wait longer!)

*  Put on K.A. (stand mixer) for up to 8 to 10 minutes – this is important for gluten development (the dough will not pull away from the sides of the bowl)
*  Allow dough to rise in well greased, covered bowl (or tub**) for 30 minutes
*  Give dough a fold and stretch in the bowl/tub and re-cover
*  Do this every 30 minutes for the next hour and a half, while dough doubles in volume (do not allow dough to rise more than double to avoid over-proofing)

*  About 1 hour prior to baking, preheat oven to 500F degrees
*  Place cast iron skillet in bottom of oven to heat to heat

*  If dough has doubled in volume within the initial proofing time (or before), move on to the next step
*  If the dough has not doubled within that time, give it enough additional time to double before moving on

*  Gently move the risen dough to a well floured board, and roll the dough in the flour
*  Gently stretch the dough into a roughly 15″x6″ rectangle
*  With a long, sharp knife, gently cut the dough into 3 long sections (about 15″x2″)
*  Gently roll each long loaf in the flour, and move each to either a sheet of baker’s parchment (if baking on a stone) or a parchment covered sheet pan (no need to score!)
*  Pour 1 cup of boiling water into the heated skillet in the oven
*  Move loaves onto stone in oven with a peel, or slip sheet pan with loaves into oven
*  Immediately lower baking temp to 450F
*  Bake for 25-30 minutes, turning loaves/pan halfway through the baking time
(** I use a clear plastic food grade tub -see pic above- with cover to proof ciabatta and other wet doughs – this works very well, but the tub must be very well oiled for this.)

Nice Airy Texture and Thin Chewy Crust

When I See the Shiny Interior of the Crumb, I Know All is Well

This is one of the best tasting yeast breads I’ve ever made – and yet, it’s an easy loaf to put together and bake – I know the instructions above are long, but that’s only because I’ve tried to be very specific – it’s really quite a simple bread.  I hope it tempts you to try these tricks in your own baking.

Enjoy.

Posted in Baking, Food | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

The Crabs of Autumn

The Mouth of the Coquille River and Lighthouse, Bandon, Oregon

Our rains have returned.  After 4 months of no rain, in the last 10 days, we’ve had more than 5 1/2 inches.  That’s a sure sign that our so-called summer is officially ended.  Oh, we’ll still have some nice days – but the rain spells the end of the good garden days, as the moisture brings on a rash of viruses and diseases, and heralds a turn in the weather toward colder nights and days too – only the hardier members of the garden will survive.

But for many other things, the advent of rain each fall signals the start of something altogether new.  My beloved mushroom season is dependent on the moistening of the soil to trigger the bloom of soil borne mushrooms – I’ve already taken a peek out in the woods, and yes, they are beginning to emerge – next week this time, if the rains have ceased, there should be plenty of mushrooms for the picking.

The fall rains also mark the beginning of the serious crabbing season.  Our Dungeness crabs have an extremely interesting life, which is spent moving from the ocean environment into bays and rivers (when the ocean is too rough or cold), or out into the ocean again (when the fresh water from winter storms finally overwhelms the salt content of the bays and rivers).  They are highly mobile – the true migrants of the sea.

There are some beautiful days each fall when the absolutely most enjoyable thing anyone could possibly do is to trundle on down to the local dock or pier with your crabbing gear, lawn chair, and a good book, and wait for a few big, fat crabs to crawl into your traps while you sit in the warm sun of Indian summer.  On such a day, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to catch a crab or two (would you like to know just how many days I’ve gone home from a crabbing venture empty handed? – far too many to bother remembering!).  The value of such a day is the experience itself, and the intrinsic joy it brings.

No, my friends, if it’s crabs you want to catch, forget about the criteria of a beautiful day – look to science instead.  And yes, we know enough about the behavior of the crab to be able to apply that scientific knowledge to the task of catching our limit (12) of those delicious denizens of the shallows – and I’ll share those secrets with you now.

A few of these secrets can be found recorded – and an internet search will turn them up (if you doubt me, you may always check) but others are only passed from one old crab trapper to another, lest too many crab seekers learn them, and the number of available crab begin dropping uncontrollably – and we surely don’t want that to happen, do we!  So, I’ll ask you to promise not to pass any of these secrets on to anyone, at least not until you get so old it doesn’t matter anymore – and yes, that’s why I’m sharing these secrets.

First, how does one catch a Dungeness crab?  There are any number of silly devices out there, but only two basic types make much sense for the recreational crabber who still wishes to catch a few crabs.  There is the ring type of trap, which is simply two rings, one bigger than the other, covered with netting – when pulled up with the attached rope, the funnel shaped net traps the crabs which have been eating the bait attached at the bottom.  This type is effective and relatively cheap – but since it is open, crabs may come and go as they please, so generally it must be pulled up every 15 or 20 minutes, or sooner, to check the bait and to see if any crabs have been caught.

The Round, Ring Type of Trap

The Square Type of Trap

For my purposes, the second type of trap makes the most sense – and although there are several versions, the most common is a fold up device with a one-way floppy door on each side,  which allow the crab to get in (to get the bait), but keep him from getting back out.  This is the type (in a luxury version) which the commercial crabbers use – and they know what they’re doing, so I think I’ll use what they do too.  Since the crabs can go in, but not out of this type of trap, it can be put into the water and left for a goodly amount of time – even overnight.

The Collection Bucket is Handy

What to use for bait?  It helps to know that the Dungeness crab, regardless of its high cost in the market, is still a scavenger – and it pretty much will eat anything!  But of course, it has its favorite foods, which basically are fish, clams, and other crabs.  The problem is that if one chooses to use fish as bait, he/she soon learns that hungry sea lions are always nearby just waiting for the unwary to do so – and will swoop in, super quick like, and steal the fish right out of the trap – yes, even the solid square traps!  So, chicken has become the alternative bait, since sea lions seem to leave it alone – most of the time – and crabs seem to love it.

Sea Gulls are Notorious Chicken Thieves

Pelicans are Much More People Friendly

Now for the big secret – when to go?

Of course, you can go whenever you wish.  How about a beautiful warm sunny day?  Enjoyable, but probably not very productive – unless you were lucky enough to hit those exact times when science tells us the crabs will be hungry and eating.  And what exactly does science tell us?

Well research, and experience, has shown that all crabs use the tidal currents to move around – in fact, those currents are usually swift enough to impede the crab from feeding – so the great majority of crabs dig down into the mud/sand in a swift current and wait to feed until about an hour before, and an hour after a tidal change, when the current is still or just slightly moving.  So, the wise crabber checks the tides and only bothers going for the few hours around the changing of a tide.

My Favorite Crabbing Destination: Weber’s Dock in Bandon, Oregon

But more exhaustive research -and the experience of commercial crabbers- has revealed that each month, during what is known as the ‘neap tide’, the crabs seem to go into a feeding frenzy (the neap tide occurs twice each month, and can easily be identified by the presence of the quarter moon phase – another instance of the relationship between the moon and the tides!).  So now we know we can increase our chances of catching crabs if we pick a time of either high or low tide, during one of the two neap tide periods each month.  But wait – there’s even more!

You Soon Learn the Best Way to Pick Up a Crab

Some Crabbers Clean Live Crab Before Cooking!

This last secret is not one you’ll likely read on the web – at least not without a good deal of digging – but still, several of my old (even older than I) crabby friends swear by the ‘early morning’ phenomenon – they tell me that if you’re serious about catching lots of crabs, not only should you attend to the above rules, but you should find a high or low tide near daybreak as well.  Put all those elements together and you should be seriously productive.

I did all the above on a dark, still, chilly morning recently and arrived at Weber’s Crab Dock in Bandon at 5am to find that I was all alone – this was just a bit surprising, since Weber’s Dock is always jammed with crabbers.  I wondered for a minute about the veracity of my old crabbing friends – but, hey, I was here and there was only one way to test their word.  I put my traps together in the scant light, put the chicken into the traps, and tossed them into the dark water.

Still no one else on the docks yet – but I needed coffee, and the nearby cafe opened at 5:30 – I headed out in that direction, hoping that the crabs were extra hungry this morning.

An hour later, breakfast done, and with a serious case of anticipation, I retraced my steps back out to the dock and my traps.  As I pulled, I knew.  A crabber ‘always knows’ as he/she begins to pull the rope of the trap!  But even with that hint, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sight before me as the trap broke water – the crabs were crawling all over each other.  My only thought was, ‘How in the hell did they all get in there at one time?’.

The Most Crabs I’ve Even Seen in One Trap!

Only to be Exceeded by the Next Trap!

As I culled out the non-keepers (those under 6.25″ across and all females), I knew I’d soon have a problem – I only had one 5 gallon bucket, and it was already half full of ‘my junk’ – where was I going to put all my crabs?  At final count, that trap had pulled up 18 crabs, of which 5 were keepers – that’s about right, ratio wise – and I began to sense that I’d have a short day today, and that I’d meet my limit (12) with just this one pull.  A nice feeling!

The other two traps (each crabber is allowed three traps) were also packed with crabs – I didn’t bother counting them.  My new worry was that I’d  have more than 12 legal keepers – but of course, I could only take 12 home – and I knew I faced an entirely new task for myself; to go through my bucket of keepers and toss the smaller ones in favor of the biggest ones – another nice feeling that every crabber looks forward to.

As I made my last count, and readied to repack my bucket, I knew I’d have to pull some of my ‘junk’ out and pack it along with my traps on my little wheelie cart – next time, I’ll lug along a 2nd bucket, just in case!  Upon repacking, the last few keepers were precariously balanced on the top of the bucket, but obediently calm, and as far as I know, they all made it home with me that morning – but probably not as joyously as I.

I’ll spare you the agony of cooking, cleaning, and ‘picking’ the crab.  Frankly, I hate that part, and sadly, Sandee does as well.  And I’m not going to do any crab recipes either.  This post will stand, or sink, as a re-telling of an adventure – a celebration of autumn and all its glories – not the least of which are the crabs of autumn.

My Parting View of a Great Adventure

Posted in Crabbing, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments