Archive for February, 2008

Resist the natural urge to refrigerate

Does anyone want a starter? For Amish Friendship Bread? Anyone?

A little more than a week ago I became an unwitting party to this baking chain, having been the recipient of one of the (many upon many, I’m sure) currently circulating Ziploc bags full of fermenting something-or-other. The bag was placed in my possession by a writing buddy and frequent visitor to this very blog, so I couldn’t in good conscience turn it down. She knows what I get up to in my kitchen, and so to utter a “thanks, but no thanks,” would have gone against my very reason for being.

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And so I took the bag – sucker that I am – because after all, I’m two solid months into my (all together now) bread-baking year. Accompanying the bag was a set of nicely detailed instructions in a kindly font outlining for me the daily practice of “mushing” the bag and advising me to “resist the natural urge to refrigerate.” I did my dutiful, daily mushing, adding the Day 6 cupfuls of flour and milk and so forth until today – Day 10, a.k.a. Baking Day.

But with my oven still out of commission, and in the true spirit of this bread – this starter passed around under the guise of friendship – I called a friend. Tiff allowed me and my kids to burst in on her afternoon and use her operating oven. Not only that, she actually allowed me to foist a Ziploc bag of starter on her.

I am, however, laden down with three more (count ‘em) starters, because as we know, they multiply.

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Apparently, it’s like a monkey on your back (so would it more appropriately bear the name Monkey Bread?) because I’m hard pressed to dispense with these other starters. No one’s knocking down my door for their due portion of my cupfuls of flour and milk and sugar, because they know what it means. They know that taking a bag is making a commitment, and what happens if they fall short on their part of the bargain? What if they forget to mush, or forget what day they’re on? That’s a lot of pressure. Isn’t that an awful lot to ask of a friend?

Even my mother-in-law turned down a starter, and she fits precisely the Amish Friendship Bread demographic. I mean, she plays bridge and owns an RV, for crying out loud.

I’ve decided this experience is really a bit of a sociological study of the workings of friendship: (1) A good friend thinks you worthy enough of this responsibility by bestowing upon you a bag of the fermenting yeast, flour, milk & sugar. (2) Then more good friends willingly take on the responsibility, the starter progeny, out of a friendly obligation, and because they would hate to hurt your feelings. (3) Family members who really don’t want to get involved are just that – family, not friends. They don’t give a hoot if they hurt your feelings by declining a starter.

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I suppose the concept is a nice one, harking back to days when women had the time and wherewithal to bake a loaf for a neighbor, for a friend who had just given birth. And the idea of putting a little of yourself into something and passing it along is certainly worthwhile.

And by calling on Tiff to use her oven, I one-upped that ask-a-neighbor-for-a-cuppa-flour tradition. It was good to have a friendly face around when the bread didn’t rise exactly, when it fell apart upon being sliced, and when we decided it was more coffee cake-ish than quick bread-like. But as neither of us had had it before, it didn’t matter. It couldn’t have been more suitable to share a slice in the sunshine with a friend (oh, yeah, I was done with the mushing stuff yesterday – no more mushy-mush! Promise).

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My flat, flat world

Do you ever come across something – a passage when reading, a pair of pretty pumps, a snowfall, even – that seems to have been placed in this world expressly for you and you only? I got that feeling on my first breeze through the February issue of Gourmet magazine (the one with that taleggio and escarole sandwich calling from the cover).

You see, my oven is on the fritz, bringing a temporary halt to my year of bread baking – or so it would seem. Then, happy, hungry me, flipping through Gourmet, I discovered a bread recipe that suited my bereft-of-an-oven state.

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The recipe was for Algerian flatbread: a whole-wheat dough requiring one kneading cycle and a mere hour of downtime, ultimately baked atop a griddle (no oven necessary!). Notwithstanding, this is tactile stuff: You divide the well-rested dough, then roll it into disks before brushing it with olive oil spiked with a rousing mix of cumin, paprika and turmeric. (A note: I’m not sure whether it’s a proper substitute or not, but with my spice rack void of turmeric, I used coriander instead, knowing its affinity for the other two spices called for in the recipe.)

A couple things came to mind as I followed the subsequent instructions to roll the disks up into tight cylinders, then coil them, spiral-like, into a cinnamon-bun shape. (Yes, it’s a lot of fuss for a little bread, but the repetition allowed me to get all cozy with my thoughts.)

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Thought number one: Bread is remarkable for its simplicity, for the fact that such an assortment of incarnations – of shapes and textures – can come from what are essentially the same ingredients. Flour, salt, liquid. Sometimes sweetener. Now and then yeast.

Finally, I rolled the dough again into disks, disks now etched with the spices, before baking them one by one, pancake style.

Thought number two: In every country, in every culture and time, there has been bread of a sort. There have been and are specific crumbs and just-so crusts that conjure certain places, the methods for each bread passed down, their purposes ranging from holy to ordinary.

Here, in my little kitchen – my kitchen with the temperamental-if-modern-day oven, no less – I can stir and knead my way into the wider, well-seasoned world. Today, it was North Africa by way of flatbread.

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It doesn’t replace the actual being there, but still, it’s a whiff, it’s a taste. And a tasty taste, at that.

*We ate these fabulous flatbreads for two days straight, slathering the leftovers in hummus or swirling them in soup. Go here for the recipe: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/241505

**Checkout more on flatbreads at the Is My Blog Burning Bread Baking Event hosted by Chili und Ciabatta!

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Of quinoa and compromise

Tops on The New York Times “most e-mailed” list this week is an article I knew I could relate to even before I could move my mouse over to click on it. “I Love You, but You Love Meat” talks about several couples trying to negotiate relationships despite varying differences in eating beliefs and preferences. There’s the omnivore and the vegan, the carb craver and the gluten-free, the kosher and the vegetarian.

Compromise and tolerance are key in maintaining such a relationship, those relationship experts quoted in the article say (and aren’t pigheadedness and disrespect detrimental even if all parties rapturously rip into a T-bone?).

My husband and I are one of those seemingly incompatible pairings: He’s a meat eater; I’m not. I think I would be labeled, if I had to file myself away, a pescetarian: a vegetarian who eats fish. But I’m an egg-any-way-you-can-cook-it consumer, and I’m equally enthusiastic about chèvre and cheddar and Greek yogurt. So does that qualify me as an ovolactopescetarian, then? Or would it be a pesceovolactarian?

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Whatever. There’s scant ethical basis for my strong displeasure regarding meat and poultry. My opposition has mostly to do with taste and texture. And smell (please don’t take me anywhere near a brisket). All of which is precisely why my husband counts himself among the omnivores.

You’d think this could be problematic, but it’s not been impassable. What would be worse is the marital food situation of a friend of mine, who is the bored-palated spouse of a perpetually picky husband. So picky, in fact, he only eats three things: pasta, salmon patties and chicken.

As for Brian and I, we’ve managed to navigate things this way: Once I got past my fettucine-from-a-box ways and realized there was more to a no-meat diet than noodles, he was able to move beyond his attachment to burgers and potatoes. I started cooking salmon and lentils and quinoa; he started eating it all. And declaring himself satisfied.

I’m rolling my eyes at our supposed cute couple-ness, same as you, but it’s true: our success at the dinner table has been a matter of open-mindedness on both our parts (see? compromise and tolerance work every time), a general willingness to experience foods we’re not sure we like or not, within certain parameters.

Yet every couple of years or so, he puts together a mean meatloaf — an activity to which I offer my full approval, as long as I don’t have to be in the vicinity.

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Avocado love

I just threw together a batch of guacamole. That’s right. Uh huh. “Threw together,” that’s what I said.

I love being in this new phase of my life where I can declare that I made something edible with a casualness that I once reserved for stating, say, that I bought a new pair of flats. Such phrasing indicates that I – one-time despiser of food preparation – improvised, that I didn’t refer to a recipe. That I possess some modicum of resourcefulness. Savvy, even? Ok, maybe we won’t go that far.

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Even so, inside my little brain existed notions of what comprises guacamole, and I recognized the presence of the fundamental ingredients inside my refrigerator: the onion and the avocados, the lime and the cilantro. When Emmy asked if I could please make her some guacamole for an after-school snack today, I was able to scoop and dice and squeeze and salt and smash it all together into a recognizable and favorable entity.

There are two reasons this is exciting. One is the aforementioned, that I’m – ta da! – capable. The other is that my found happiness in guacamole, and in the making of it, seals my destiny as an avocado lover. This, too, is a change of taste.

I used to be an avowed, determined avocado hater. I know, hate is a strong, strong word, but I hated the mottled, greenish black exterior, and the very thought of its slimy fattiness on my tongue. My order of a veggie sandwich at any establishment that sells such a thing was always followed hastily by, “no avocado.” “Extra pico, but hold the guac” were my constant instructions when ordering a salad at my favorite Mexican café . Sure, I’d tolerate avocado in maki, outperformed as it was by abutting tastes and textures, grassy seaweed, sweet rice, salty or creamy fish.

You see, I’m not a rich-food person, not a butter person. I’m an unnecessary–fat eschewing person, and so, I assumed that I hated avocado. Without ever even taking a bite.

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How unfair of me to judge a food without giving it a fair taste, and now, cheated by my own prejudice, I’m trying not to beat myself up over all those lost years.

I am now approaching my one-year anniversary of proud membership in the avocado lovers club. I’m not sure what came over me that fateful evening last year, other than the general increase in adventurousness that’s taken place over the past several years. So maybe it was that, or maybe it had to do with my celebratory mood because it was, after all, my husband’s birthday, an occasion we were marking with the rolling of our own sushi.

There it was, carefully and slimly sliced, waiting alongside the other accoutrements, the lump crab and fresh, glossy rectangles of sashimi-grade ahi. It could easily have been the cucumber that beckoned me, the neat stacks of thin, crunchy matchsticks. But instead, I reached out, took an oddly shaped and smooth trimming of avocado between my fingers and popped it into my mouth.

I can’t explain the goodness of it, the veritable swooning that took place immediately thereafter. I was gaga. Over avocado. That, my friends, was that.

Now please excuse me while I lick the guacamole bowl.

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Third time’s a charm

I know, I know. Just the week before last it was all about cake and custard, and this week we’ve got cookies. I wonder if more dessert is really necessary at this point, but, honestly, is a cookie ever so much as superfluous? I think not.

But it’s good. All good. I promise this seeming overload of sweets is fairly unusual. There will be no need for anyone to invoke a baked-goods intervention anytime soon. I swear to you I am otherwise practicing healthy moderation.

For example, lunch today was a hot bowl of smooth tomato and roasted red pepper soup. So the cookies will round things out quite nicely. Let’s get on with ‘em, then, shall we?

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I’ve dubbed these Nostalgia Cookies, even though I am firmly not one for clever recipe names that have almost nothing to do with the content of the food itself. To be honest, these cookies are more appropriately called Chocolate Chunk Sort-of-Shortbread Cookies, but that doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, either. And as they hold a special place in my heart that takes me back to a time when…. Well, there we have it, folks: nostalgia.

We first had cookies like these in our favorite little lunch spot during our Montreal days, the original Java U. (That petit café on Sherbrooke can also take credit for hooking us on panini, before panini were the thing.) We’d gulp our lunch of panini and salade mixte and Belgian fries, anticipating the whole time the sweet finale that we’d always return to the counter for at the end.

And then, on road-tripping weekends (on our southbound missions to purchase Chex in Vermont – not available in Canada! – and Mylicon for our gastro-distressed newborn), we’d stop by Java U on the way to the interstate for driving provisions, the cookies included.

The way the cookies were put together was an enigma at first: They were like chocolate chip, but extra buttery; soft, but sandy; round, not like shaped shortbread. And the chocolate was not chipped, but chunked, and somehow managed to congregate in the middle, so that it was almost sandwiched, though not deliberately, between layers of dough.

Recently we went back to Java U, and while the panini are still around, the cookies, sadly, are not. Naturally, I decided I’d have to try and make them, because they’re just the thing to munch when I’m missing the snow and the city. And I miss them bad.

This is my third try, and I finally got it right. The first time I used the regularly shaped chocolate chips I had on hand, and while they were good, they didn’t provide that choco-layer we favor. Next try: I chopped a dark chocolate bar and dumped it in. That chocolate proved too melty, causing the cookies to spread and crumble apart, even when cooled.

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This time I used baking chunks (made expressly for baking, but I’ll admit also good for nibbling) and pressed the dough into a cookie scoop before placing it on the Silpat. The resulting taste was so similar to the original cookie, we were nearly transported to our adopted hometown – snow banks, lack of parking and all.

Nostalgia Cookies

1 ½ cups flour (I snuck in ¾ c. white whole wheat plus ¾ c. all-purpose)

½ cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup powdered (confectioners or icing) sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup semi or bittersweet chocolate chunks

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and cornstarch with the salt and espresso powder. Set aside.

Cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Beat in the vanilla extract. Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated. Gently fold in the chocolate chunks. Flatten the dough into a disk shape and sandwich between two layers of parchment paper. Chill for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with the rack in the middle of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat.

Using your hands, flatten the dough between the parchment paper until it’s about ½ inch thick. Cut the dough into equally sized squares, about 2-by-2 inches, and form into semi-flattened hunks (or push into a cookie scoop). Place cookies on baking sheets and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes (don’t over bake!). Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet before transferring cookies to a cooling rack. Allow cookies to cool.

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