Oct 262016
 

Pumpkin yeast bread

It’s fall and the pumpkin spice must flow. Only, a person can get tired of all the cloyingly sweet applications. Don’t get me wrong: I love the cookies, the quick-breads, the martinis, and the occasional half-the-syrup latte. And the pie! The pie will soon be upon us! After a while though, I yearn for something more savory.

Enter a bread from Whole Foods that I’ve adored for years. It’s savory, but still spiced like familiarity craves, soft, delicious, and divine — utterly divine — as a vehicle for runny egg yolk. The problems are two-fold: a) being from Whole Foods, it’s exorbitantly expensive, and b) they don’t roll it out until Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving!!! Where is the sense in that, I ask?! No one else waits until Thanksgiving to bring out their pumpkin amazingness!

Clearly, it was time for me to take matters into my own hands.

There were plenty of unknowns (what is the hydration of the loaf? How exactly does pumpkin affect the hydration percentage of a dough?) but enough knowns (thank you, ingredient label) for me to get a good start. And to borrow a phrase from my favorite wild-yeast baker, this is bread, not birth control, so it doesn’t have to be perfect while I figure out how to get the recipe just right. I figured out that one cup of pumpkin puree roughly replaces one cup of flour AND one cup of liquid (that was a surprise!) and looked to Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challah for inspiration for a soft-yet-brown-crusted dairy-free loaf.

After plenty of tweaking and enlisting my family and friends (thank you to the Om-nom-sauce family, my mom, Heather, and Crystal) as test-bakers and guinea pigs, I’ve settled upon a loaf that I’ll proudly serve, and which has served to spawn even more inspiration through the endless possibilities of variations. I hope you love this loaf as much as I do!

Pumpkin yeast bread

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Jun 012014
 

Strawberry cream scones

For the last week, through the wonder of u-pick farms, I have been awash in multiple gallons of fresh strawberries. This is in no way a terrible predicament, though I have been plagued by the question of what do I do with all of them??? I started simple by throwing them in a fruit salad and making strawberry-blueberry shortcake — pretty basic, but I figured that basic (and easy) was a good way to go when they were at peak freshness. Next came a pie (whose filling was delicious but whose crust we shall never speak of again, except to exclaim that, when given flour, butter, lard, salt, sugar, water, and vodka, I can make a kick-ass crust, but when I try to actually use a pre-made crust, utter ruin rules the day) and the decadent grown-up flavors of Jeni’s recipe for roasted strawberry buttermilk ice cream. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t repeat my strawberry bourbon-barrel freezer jam.

But this morning I finally got to try my hand at baking with the berries. A friend of mine hooked me on scone-baking several months ago, and though I’ve been in remission recently, I decided to succumb to the bug once again. There were plenty of fancy and complicated recipes out there, but I was looking for something that was a marriage of the simple goodness of a basic cream scone with plenty of room for strawberries to shine. Once again, Smitten Kitchen came through and delivered this gem. So if you find yourself in a situation where you might need to swim Scrooge McDuck-style through a glut of strawberries and you would like to vary from the technique that my tot is demonstrating below, may I suggest that you give this marvelous scones a try?

Leah and her strawberry

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May 112014
 

Towering tangy English muffins

I adore a good English muffin. And like all things bread, they are infinitely better when made at home. The good news here is that they are ridiculously easy to make. This came as especially good news to my Dad, who adores these little disks of nooks and crannies. Since I discovered they he loves them so much, they’ve become A Thing, something we can make together. You see, he doesn’t ask for much (I’m way more demanding when it comes to “Hey Dad! Make me that delicious thing you make! And this! And that! PUT IT ALL ON THE GRILL!”), so I’m thrilled to have something in my back pocket that I can make when we’re together and I know he’ll genuinely appreciate it and love it (though I have to admit that the making of English muffins often gets usurped by our shared quest for the perfect nacho and guac).

Towering tangy English muffins

I first dipped my toes into the English muffin pond back in my BBAC days and it was pretty apparent to me then that these were something special, something fun, and (I know I already mentioned it before, but it bears repeating) so easy. Griddle-bread is something special and fun — kind of like a mating between the processes for tortillas and sandwich breads. And they are an ideal vehicle for so many things that are good to put in your mouth that I have a hard time resisting them.

Towering tangy English muffins

One of the best things about home-made English muffins is the sheer scale of these things. These suckers are tall. Whether it’s because you can give them a long time to cook and set their internal structure before flipping them (that perhaps a factory-bakery can’t) or the fact that you don’t have to be stingy with the dough (the way a factory-bakery would), I can’t say. Just think about all the jam you could pile on to a split muffin! All the clotted cream! (Which, by the way, I’ve never had, but that does sound scrumptious.) All the almond-butter and bananas! All the poached eggs! (And yes, of course, Hollandaise and bacon too.) People, these are English muffins as you’ve never had them before. So please, if you are an English muffin-phile, go forth and remedy that situation!

Towering tangy English muffins

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Apr 272014
 

Goat tagine with pita

I feel a little conflicted posting this. One the one hand, goats are one of my favorite animals. They are bursting with personality and fun and they’re incredibly playful, though they have a knack for getting into trouble. I got to know a lot of goats (and other charming farm animals) pretty well at Hoofsnhorns Farm (my source for raw milk) when I lived in Tucson and they completely won me over with their goat-ish ways.

On the other hand, goat is delicious. Most of the rest of the world has caught on to this fact, but (much to my chagrin) goat remains somewhat difficult to find in the USA. Perhaps it has a reputation here for being gamey or tough, but if you use a good low-and-slow cooking method, you need not worry about that. So look for goat at a farmer’s market or perhaps at a Mexican grocery store, where it might be labeled something like cabrito or cabra.

Lucky for us (busy with both a fully-cooked and an in-progress baby), the slow-cooker comes to the rescue once again and delivers something that tastes like you slaved over a hot stove all day, instead of alternately sending your toddler down the slide in a continuous loop and then crashing on the couch every ninety minutes (which I wouldn’t trade for the world, but there’s no arguing that it can be challenging to put a satisfying and nutritious meal on the table under such conditions). Moroccan tagines and other braises are well-suited to this sort of fix-it-and-forget it cooking.

And now I shall have to cut this commentary short and go get horizontal, because cooking a human (gestating! I’m not actually cooking anyone!) is way more exhausting than cooking any meal I’ve ever eaten!

Goat tagine with pita

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Apr 202014
 

Oatmeal chocolate-chunk cran-pecan cookies

Do you remember that chain letter than went around in the wee days of the internet? The one with the recipe for Neiman-Marcus cookies? It’s probably still circulating, but I came across it almost twenty years ago (woah — time flies!) and every bloody time I walk into a L’Aroma Bakery in Anchorage I think of that email. You see, I’m difficult to impress when it comes to bakery cookies. Most are too huge and way over-baked. Plus, in what is likely a cost-cutting measure, the cookies are usually missing something delicious and they fall flat on their faces on the palate.

But L’Aroma is different.

I’m also not usually a huge fan of oatmeal cookies, but their version — which uses cranberries instead of the archetypal raisin — will sucker-punch you with their sheer deliciousness and you won’t even mind.

So, the point is that many of us have a list of “I want this recipe for my very own” from our various favorite haunts. L’Aroma’s oat-cran cookie is definitely on the short list. (Oh, the other stuff on the short list? The triple-berry scones from — of course — L’Aroma* and the chocolate-chip cookies from A Sweet Affair in Walnut Creek, CA.) Would I pay $250 for the recipe? Well, given that The Hubs and I are prone to taking foodcations to Anchorage every year and we certainly spend more than that on just getting there, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. And since we can’t go this summer (which is killing me), maybe I should just cajole them into selling their recipe instead — it would be cheaper than a trip up there.

Failing that, I have this recipe. No, it’s not exactly the same as my L’Aroma favorite since there are pecans and chocolate and the flavor is a bit different, but these cookies are almost as good. But let me tell you, this is almost the recipe That Never Was. For some reason, I had to do battle with these cookies FIVE TIMES before I finally got the better of them. I referred to one of my failures — attempting to make brown sugar at home — already, but the other failures generally had to do with forgetting how to read a measuring cup and over-baking (which really surprised me, given that these sorts of errors don’t usually happen in Cook’s Illustrated recipes, especially when they have an admonishment that says “Do not over-bake!”). But I have emerged on the cookie gauntlet successful, after learning to stock my freaking kitchen with the right kind of sugar, rembmering that fluid ounces and tablespoons are NOT the same thing, and pulling out every trick I know to maximize a cookie’s chew. Now that I’ve done the behind-the-scenes work, I implore thee: go out and bake these too!

* When we were last in Anchorage last summer, The Hubs and I pulled off The Great Scone Heist, in which we hit every singe location in the city that sold the scones and bought them out so we could freeze them and take them home with us. If you understand how quickly each morning the residents and tourists buy out those scones, you’ll be impressed by our feat. Also — and this is a total digression here — whenever I go to the Kaladi Brothers Coffee (Alaska’s far-superior answer to Starbucks) in Seattle, I’m always slightly disappointed that they don’t carry L’Aroma pastries like their more northerly locations do.

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Apr 132014
 

Pumpkin-seed whole-wheat bread

Do you ever have those moments in your food-related life when you come across an idea so great and so simple that you really have to give your brain the stink-eye and ask, in your most accusatory voice, “Really? You couldn’t grace me with that idea?”

I know I sure do.

This bread is the most recent in a string of such events. Our locally-owned grocery store has a fantastic bakery, and one of the crown jewels of their ovens in a 100% whole-grain sprouted-wheat pumpkin-seed bread. Whew. Quite a mouthful.

(Ha! See what I did there?)

Pumpkin-seed whole-wheat bread

I this is where I start to interrogate my brain. Adding pumpkin seeds to bread is such a great idea, I have to wonder why on earth I never thought of it myself.

So I set out to make a tasty version myself. I wanted to use my favorite buttermilk loaf as the basis for it, but didn’t because a) I started this when I was still on the dairy-elimination diet, and b) I was worried that the acid-tenderized gluten wouldn’t be able to stand up to the addition of an enormous amount of seeds. I settled on this version because, well, it’s delicious. It’s not the same as the loaf that inspired it, but it is lighter in texture and better-suited for pan-shaping. Perhaps one day I’ll try a sprouted wheat version, but today? Today I’m perfectly content with the loaf I have in front of me right now.

Pumpkin-seed whole-wheat bread

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Apr 032014
 

Norwich sourdough

I grew up under the impression that I disliked sourdough bread. I suspect I am not alone here, as I grew up before the bread revolution and there was a glut of face-puckering super-sour sourdoughs on the market. I suppose they were ostensibly trying to emulate what people though San Francisco sourdough should be, but let’s face it: it didn’t make for very good eats.

Seven years ago, I started baking my own bread. As I delved deeper and deeper into the lifestyle of homemade bread, I started to get interested in the idea of sourdough because I lived in Alaska at the time and sourdough is a big part of the state’s cultural history. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I finally got up the nerve to pull the trigger and start a wild yeast culture.

As with so many new-to-me things in the bread world, Peter Reinhart and the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge were the original things that nudged me into trying out wild yeast. I built a seed culture and promptly abandoned it after a few days not because I thought it was dead, but because I was seriously afraid that it was going to eat the house. I now know that I had a pretty wicked leuconostoc culture going, but that bacteria would have died out in time as more desirable lactobacillus bacteria pulled eminent domain in my starter.

In 2011, I had a pretty good starter named Zeke going, using instructions from 52 Loaves (which is a great read but not the best way to raise and care for a starter), though I didn’t know any better and kept it in the fridge and didn’t refresh it properly before baking with it, so it was never able to raise a good loaf without spiking the dough with some commercial yeast. Then I got pregnant, couldn’t even look at food (much less feed my food), and Zeke The First died, though he lives on in a portion that I shared with Heather when she visited once.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. I have a toddler and haven’t done much bread-baking since she was born (shocking, isn’t it?). I was at a breastfeeding mamas group meeting and just happened to get into a sourdough discussion with a friend, and the bread-baking bug — all eighteen months’ worth of suppressed water, flour, yeast, and salt — reared its head and roared. Twenty-four hours later I had thrown together a starter (again named Zeke, this time using the method from the Wild Yeast blog), and ten days later when it was (finally) mature (hey, my kitchen was cold), I started baking with it and haven’t slowed up since.

This recipe is one I had pinned oh-so-many years ago, back when Zeke The First was still with me. I decided this Norwich sourdough would be an excellent inaugural foray for Zeke The Second simply based on the fact that it is Susan-of-Wild-Yeast’s favorite. She knows her stuff, so it naturally seemed like a good starting point. And though there were some mis-steps and hiccups along the way because my skills need some rust knocked off, it was still quite tasty and I was thrilled to see that I really could bake bread with only water, flour and salt.

Yesterday I decided to bake another round of Norwich, and oh my goodness, this is seriously some of the prettiest and tastiest bread I’ve ever made. Zeke imparts a pleasant tang, completely unlike the sourdoughs of my youth. And this crust? Oh my, you don’t get this sort of crust from commercial yeast. I don’t even know how to describe it: perhaps one that sings upon being taken from the oven and has shattering layers with a bit of chew? Zeke is still a young’n and his flavor will continue to develop for another week or so, and I can’t wait to see what adventures we’re going to have together.

Norwich sourdough

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Jun 232013
 

Cherry pie!

Living in western Washington state (as I did in my late teens), there are certain things that one begins to take for granted. Yes, the weather will be oppressive for fully three-quarters of the year. Yes, you’re living under the ever-present threat of volcano eruptions. Yes, the coffee is ubiquitous and awesome. Ditto the beer. (They’re called coping mechanisms.) Yes, the seafood department will be larger and better-stocked than the meat department. (This is awesome.) But by far, one of the best things that you start to take for granted around there is the summer fruit.

I have memories of midnight runs, galloping past strawberry fields that I couldn’t see, but could smell. I have memories of picking up flats upon flats of freshly-picked berries from local farms on my way home from swim practice. And yes, I have memories of the splat-pattern they made on the dash and windshield when I had to slam on the brakes. But perhaps most of all, I remember the pies: oh, the pies. Blueberry & raspberry, strawberry, and of course, my favorite: bing cherry.

Super-dark and delicious bing cherries

It’s something I wait for all year. Around May, the too-red bings start showing up in the grocery stores. Mister Om-Nom Sauce — whose absolute favorite fruit is the cherry — starts badgering me then to buy them. But he doesn’t understand (or, more likely, care). He’s never lived in the Pacific northwest and he doesn’t know that the proper color of a bing cherry is black. These will eventually trickle in to the produce departments, but not until June (or even July), and which point I pounce. I buy pounds and pounds of them, eating them until my fingers are stained black, fighting off Mister Om-Nom Sauce so that I too can get my fill. And I also have to zealously guard the extra cherries I buy for the fresh cherry pie I will make. Look, people, I only make two (sweet) pies a year (pumpkin for Thanksgiving is the other), so this is like the main event of summer in my kitchen.

But now we live in Ohio, far far away from the Pacific northwest — farther, in fact, than I’ve lived since, well, before I moved there at 15 — and I’m starting to fret, for it is three-quarters of the way through June and there are no cherries in the grocery stores. I had initially been wondering what the heck I was going to do about the crust since butter is currently grasa non grata for me and an all-lard crust is so delicate that a lattice would be impossible (I’ve since solved this problem; see the variations section at the end of the recipe for details if you need ’em). But now I find myself with an even worse conundrum of no cherries!

(Sour) cherry pie!

I have found a modicum of solace at the local farmers’ market though: a local vendor was selling sour pie-cherries, so I promptly bought up a pie’s worth. It’s not quite the same as a bing pie, but it’ll do until the good stuff makes its way to Ohio.

I will post this nonetheless though, because surely there are those out there with a happy surfeit of bings who are looking for a recipe. I offer up photos from pies past which are doing nothing to slake my desire of this pastry and am only now beginning to understand that last summer, when I made two pies simultaneously (which required being on my feet for hours, making crusts and pitting fruit) despite being seven months pregnant, that it was a really good idea to make all those pies because the extra tastes I enjoyed then are likely to have to last me through a sadly cherry-less (and thus cheer-less) summer.

(Sour) cherry pie!

Cherry pie (albeit with sour cherries). No one has ever given me a prize for clean pie-slice extraction. True story.

Click for the recipe →

Jun 162013
 

Corn tortilla dough

I’ll go ahead and say it: I haven’t done a great deal of Mexican cooking in my life. But I do know what I like, and though I’m a little ashamed to say it, Tex-Mex is kinda what I know I like. I know there’s a whole other world of fantastic Mexican cuisine out there for me to try, but I spent a bigger chunk of my formative years than I’d like to admit to in Texas and it appears to have shaped my tastes. Though my acquired tastes will hopefully grow as I do something like go buy and cook from a great book or two and learn about real Mexican food, as far as I’m concerned, San Antonio will always boast the be-all end-all of Tex-Mex cuisine. The farther you get away from the city, the more precipitously the quality falls, and the first place you’ll notice it is in the tortillas.

I’m a huge tortilla snob. I went to college in San Antonio and all of my favorite places made their tortillas in-house and you could tell. Chipotle was just getting big during my time at Trinity University and even though they were like a mile away from campus and they were really, really good at finding excuses to give burritos to college students for free, I preferred several other smaller, more expensive, much farther away burrito places because of — you guessed it — the tortillas. I don’t know if they ever got their act together, but come on, you can not come in to San Antonio with tortillas that taste like they were made in a factory a thousand miles away and expect to have good things happen — well, those good things won’t happen with my wallet, at least.

Corn tortilla dough

After college, I lived about three hours from San Antonio, and the tortillas there? Ugh! In retrospect though, we could absolutely blame that one on the water that was used in the tortillas. (There were anecdotes about people’s pets dying after drinking the tap-water and I have a hypothesis that the huge number of dialysis centers in the town were due to the hard water. West Texas water is NASTY. If you boiled it, the steam took the form of skulls and crossbones. But I digress.)

Corn tortilla dough

After several years of wandering the country, I ended up back in the southwest. Luckily, my time in Arizona taught me that you can find great tortillas in other places too. Though the flour tortillas never lived up to my expectations, you could find some killer corn tortillas at places like the Sunday St. Phillip’s Plaza farmers’ market in Tucson. But, being someone who’s been attached to the military in one form or another for my entire life, I knew we wouldn’t live there forever, so it was high time I learned to make these little tasties myself so I wouldn’t have to go without.

I took my inspiration, as per usual, from Rancho Gordo. I had long ago seen a video of Steve Sando making tortillas and it seriously looked really easy. Sure, he was using a tortilla press — something that I didn’t have at the time — but how hard could it be to roll out the dough? Turned out it was pretty freakin’ hard, so I would suggest either getting the press, or using something like a cast-iron skillet to squish the dough to the desired diameter. Me, I threw out my uni-tasker rule and my kitchen now houses a solid cast-iron tortilla press and it makes everything so much easier and faster.

Making corn tortillas: the action shots!

Aaaaaaand: action! Thanks to Mister Om-Nom Sauce for taking these shots. (Yes, I know the background is not immaculate. I actually use my kitchen and there are things in the background on real action-shots such as these.)

Having only two ingredients, tortillas are very simple, but they do take a bit of practice to actually make. The first batch or two can be very frustrating as you figure out optimal thickness, best way to hold the flattened dough, or how to deal with seeming disasters on the hot hot heat. Before too long though, you’ll hit your stride and you’ll be making fresh, delicious-tasting tortillas like a pro!

Corn tortillas

Click for the recipe →

Jun 092013
 
Crevasse cookies

Crevasse cookies: see into their depths!

I’m not much of an arm-chair athelte. Why would I watch a bunch of people on TV play a sport when I could go out and play it myself? There’s too much awesome stuff in the world to see with your own eyes. This helps explain my love of hiking and backpacking, but it leads into the one exception of my “I’d rather be a participant than an observer” credo: mountaineering.

Specifically, the crazy kind of mountaineering that takes you above 8,000 meters (aptly, however cheesily, called the death zone). I cannot get enough of reading, watching, and hearing about others’ experiences on the world’s fourteen highest mountains. As gung-ho as I am about getting into nature and not seeing but experiencing sights for myself, I am perfectly content to let other people climb these mountains for me, so long as I get to live vicariously through them. I think it has something to do with the insane death rate among the people who do. What possesses someone to climb a mountain that has a 37% death rate??? Or be involved in a day where twenty people try to summit and eleven of them die???

Crevasse cookies

No self-arrest with your ice-axe will save you if you fall into this crevasse.

There are a zillion things that can kill you: unexpected weather, your body eating itself, hypoxia, hypothermia, hypoxic hypothermia (yes, the ailments are ganging up on your now), becoming incapacitated to the point you can’t descend, high-altitude edemas (pulmonary or cerebral: take your pick!), avalanches, getting crushed by calving seracs and glaciers, the common cold (your immune system is useless in the death zone), frostbite (on second thought, that’ll probably just maim you), falling off the mountain, or getting swallowed up in a crevasse. That last one is what happens when the glacier decides to eat you!

So, given the hazards, I think that these little confections are going to be the closest I come to summitting (or dying on) the likes of K2 or Annapurna. These chewy chocolate meringues are my attempt to make fabulous cookies sans dairy and soy and conveniently use up the egg whites left over from my aioli-making binges. You certainly couldn’t take them up the mountain with you because they would be smooshed in half a second (just picking them up can be enough to make them collapse) but their jagged, cracked-open surface would be a constant reminder of the perils you face. Their delicacy also serves to keep the fragility of those crevasse-coverings in the forefront of your mind. One must tread carefully in such an environment. Luckily, I’ve yet to hear of anyone killed while tackling these cookies, so if you’re like me and you like to leave the crazy mountaineering to other folks, these will feel right at home next to you as you’re curled up on the couch with your nose stuck in your favorite tale of disaster, bravery, and heroics above 26,000 feet.

Crevasse cookies: ready to yawn open at the slightest provocation

Crevasse cookies: ready to yawn open and swallow you whole at the slightest provocation

Click for the recipe →

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