Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Basics of Bread

Many of the procedures we invoke involve making our own bread. It's about time we let you know exactly what that entails. Bread is really easy to make — a far simpler process than most people think — and it doesn't take terribly long. We'll tell you how to make a basic boule (round bread) — in this case, specifically a Portuguese broa recipe. This is enough to give you a solid bread-baking foundation, and after you're comfortable with it you can work in some flair and whip up some egg-based challah bread or an oat-based multi-grain bread. All of it uses the same basic technique.

Equipment for baking bread

We bake our bread in a table-top convection oven, using half the ingredients recommended in the recipe found in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. If you're interested in baking bread frequently, I'd highly recommend picking up a copy on Amazon — it makes an excellent "bread bible".

The dough is mixed in a 3 quart container, which typically gives us two loaves to work with, or two half-loaves in the case of pan breads. We measure with a glass liquid measuring cup, a set of metal dry measuring cups in various sizes, and a set of linked measuring spoons. We'll stir the dough with a silicone spatula.

When we've mixed our dough and let it rise we'll cook it in the convection oven on a clay baking stone to distribute heat more evenly in the oven, and absorb moisture from the baking loaf. A lot of retailers and kitchen supply stores sell commercial baking stones for anywhere from $15 for a cheap quarter-inch thick stone, to $40 for a set of half-inch stones. Thicker stones will better withstand the repeated stress of heating and cooling; thinner stones will crack sooner rather than later.

Wanna know a secret? Baking stones are really just differently-marketed terra cotta tiles. You can pick them up from home improvement stores for around 50 cents to $2 for a 6-8" square half-inch thick tile. That's what we've been using, and it's served us well for six months now. A caveat: the floor tiles have to be seasoned before you use them.

To use the floor tiles as baking stones, first make sure that you get untreated tiles. They usually are, but since you are using them for food, under high heat, it's best to ask and confirm it before you bring them home.

Once home, wash the tiles thoroughly with dish soap and hot water to clean off any dust and dirt, and let them dry completely.  After that, take a paper towel and neutral-tasting vegetable oil, and rub the entire baking surface of the tile with the oil.  You'll need to do this in multiple coats, as the oil gets absorbed into the tile.  More is better than less, and keep rubbing it in, using a circular motion, until the surface is no longer shiny. Then place the oiled tiles into a cold oven, turn it on to 300 degrees, and bake for at least four hours.  Cool before moving them, although many people just store them in the oven, too.

The four basic foundations of bread (and corn meal)

Our basic boule bread uses very simple ingredients; the raw building blocks of bread, at its most basic, is just water, yeast, salt, and flour. For the broa, we'll need 1.5 cups of lukewarm water, a 3/4th tablespoon of yeast (one packet), 3/4th tablespoon of kosher salt, 3/4th cup of corn meal, and 2.5 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour. This will bake us two loaves, good for sandwiches or toasting or whatever it is you feel like using bread for.

Unlike other forms of cooking, baking is fairly precise. You don't want to seriously over- or under-measure ingredients. Flour, for example, measures very differently when freshly sifted than when it's packed. You want to make sure, when you're measuring the flour, not to pack it tightly as that will give you too much flour. On the other hand, bread — especially the "bread bible" recipes — is pretty forgiving. You want to end up with a fairly wet dough, but there's no need to be super-exacting.

Making bread dough

We fill our mixing cup full of water, microwave it until it's lukewarm (not hot!), and add the 3/4th tablespoon of yeast and the salt into it. If our recipe called for it, this is where we'd add other 'wet' ingredients — milk, vegetable oil and maple syrup for oat bread, an egg for challah, etc. We pour it into the plastic container we've been keeping our dough in and mix it up. You may have the traces of dough from previous mixings left in the container; this is totally fine and actually recommended as it acts as a sourdough starter.

To this mixture we add the flour and corn meal, and — in other recipes — other dry ingredients like wheat bran or rolled oats. We measure the dry ingredients simply by scooping it into the measuring cup (1-cup-measure or less so as not to over-measure) and leveling off with a butter knife. This isn't a kneaded bread — we just mix it all up until there aren't any dry spots of flour left and it all has a nice even consistency.

Let the bread rise

At this point the dough is left out to let it rise, for at least two hours, but basically until it stops and gets flat on top. The dough is covered, but don't make it airtight — there needs to be an airflow for the yeast to do its work. After it's risen, unless you plan on using it right away, refrigerate it (covered but not airtight) — the dough is easier to manipulate when it's colder.

Shaping and baking the bread

Boule is french for "ball", and that's the shape of the loaf we'll be making. When you're ready to get baking, grab yourself a double-fist-sized lump of dough. Dusting it (and your hands) with flour will make it less likely to stick to your hands while you shape it. What you want to do is basically stretch and fold it in your hands, turning it a quarter-turn and then doing it again, until you've made four folds and turned it in a complete rotation. This develops the "gluten cloak" and will give you a round lump of dough.

After shaping the bread you'll want to let it sit out for 40 minutes on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. At the 20 minute mark you want to preheat your oven — with the stone on the rack and an empty broiler tray on a different rack — for the latter 20 minutes.

Baking your bread

Immediately prior to putting the dough in the oven you'll want to score the top with a sharp knife to allow for the bread to rise as it bakes. With practice, you can perfect the sharp forward-backward shake of the pizza peel to drop the loaf from the peel to the baking stone; until then, you can also shove it off the peel with a spatula. Pour a cup of hot water into the heated broiler tray just before closing the oven. This will create steam that gives you the crispy crust of artisan breads, while the inside remains moist and soft.

This particular broa will bake for about 30 minutes, until deeply brown with a firm crust. All bread recipes will follow this basic pattern, and once you have the confidence to follow it you can really bake just about anything.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Caprese Salad

Every season has dishes associated with it, like pumpkin pie in the autumn or eggnog in the winter. As we come out of summer and into the fall, we reflect on one of summer's dishes — caprese salad.

Insalata Caprese, "salad in the style of Capri" is simple, much like the summers of our youth were simple. At its core it's just tomato, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced and served raw. The presentation of the salad is the important part, and each individual unit of caprese can be devoured whole.

The tomatoes we used were garden fresh — some from my parents' garden in the suburbs, and some that we purchased at the farmers' market. Kat grows her own cherry tomatoes, and they come sweet and perfect off the vine, a natural candy that's ideal for other sorts of salad, but not quite the right size for what we were going for here.

The mozzarella cheese we used was from Trader Joe's, and it was tender and soft. The basil was from Kat's garden. The dressing was just extra virgin olive oil, also from Trader Joe's.

The tomatoes were sliced into discs, the cheese sliced atop it, then a leaf of basil was added as a crown. We arranged the entire plate ingredient by ingredient, drizzled the oil along the top, then ground sea salt and rainbow peppercorns over all. Just like that, our caprese salad was ready to eat.

What'd it taste like? Fresh. Stark. Cool. A great summer food for a great summer.

Tastes like summer.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tofu Noodle Salad

Tofu noodles from Phoenix Bean are just great. Made fresh shortly before we bought them at the Farmer's Market, they make a great snack food right out of the bag and can be used in almost any way that noodle pastas are. We decided to make a salad out of them.


The noodles are fairly long, so we cut them up into manageable lengths before using them. One package was enough to make our salad, and we also chopped up a cucumber, tomato, and a bunch of mushrooms. We went ahead and shredded a golden beet to add some sweetness to the mix.

To balance that out, our dressing was an eighth of a cup of olive oil and an eighth of a cup of spicy vinegar, handcrafted by Ruby Sara. The vinegar was really amazing, infused with ginger root, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Into the dressing base we added crumbled goat cheese and mixed the whole concoction together until it was nice and creamy.

When we were ready to eat our salad we drizzled it with the dressing we'd made, tossed it all together with a little sea salt, and topped the whole thing with crumbled sweet potato tortilla chips for some added crunch and texture.

The Results

Our tofu noodle salad turned out spectacularly, with a spicy southwestern tang to it. The noodles were tender and moist, and the handcrafted vinegar made for an excellent dressing. None of the ingredients were very expensive or hard to acquire, and the results were decadent bordering on guilt — I can't help but think that I'm not well off enough to eat so well!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rhubarb Sauce

Can you believe that until last year, I'd never even tasted rhubarb? I was only vaguely aware of the vegetable's existence at all. It was just another quaint sounding food with a funny name, like arugula or rutabagas. When I found out that my parents had some in their garden, I took it upon myself to give a new food a try.

The stalks were harvested from the garden, and the toxic leaves stripped from them. I took five long stalks without any clear idea of what we'd do with them right away, and I wanted to have enough to experiment with. Kat had a recipe for a rhubarb sauce, and we had some ice cream in the freezer, so our course was clear.


Chopping up two stalks to give us the two-and-a-half cups the sauce called for is virtually all the prep work the sauce requires.  We added to this 1/3 cup of pure organic maple syrup purchased from McCluskey Brothers farms, and a quarter-cup of lemon juice.

The mixture was simmered low and slow until the rhubarb was soft, then mashed into a sauce. We spot-checked it for sweetness, adding more syrup as desired. After it was done, we spooned it over vanilla ice cream.


Rhubarb has an interesting taste, sweet with a hint of tart. The sauce we created would have gone just as well over pound cake or basically anything else you want to drizzle it over.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thai Curry Vegetable and Tofu Stir-Fry

Michael is convinced that I'm this excellent cook. But the reality is, the majority of my cooking consists of "dump in pot, heat, flavor, hope for the best." The "flavor" part is often where things go awry; I'm getting a little better at it, so currently it's about a 50-50 shot whether it is awesome or flavorless.

Anyway, the point is, cooking doesn't have to be elaborate or complicated, and often the "dump in a pot" method works out quite well.  Simple can be great.  And this is all stir-fry really is.  The method is uncomplicated: cut everything up, throw it in a large pan with some olive oil, add the sauce at the end.

It's really the ingredients that make something like this special. Sometimes you can find fun and unusual things at the farmers' market.  Sometimes you just need to get rid of that zucchini, because what else can you do with a zucchini? It's also a good way to use up whatever is sitting in the fridge needing to be used up.  So.

Yes, these beans are purple. I get them from my friend Vera from Videnovich Farms. They are called Purple "Velour" Filet Beans. I have no idea what that means, but I like them because they are goth beans.

The fun thing about these is that they turn green when you cook them. I also got that hot banana pepper from Vera. I only used half because they're a bit more powerful than jalapeƱos.

The tofu is from Phoenix Bean, which is located approximately spitting distance from their booth at the market. They have a whole variety of tofu products, including this stuff which is pre-fried and makes this whole stir-fry thing a lot easier. I'm not sure I could actually get that nice browning myself.

The Thai curry sauce is from Trader Joe's. Someday I may feel up to concocting such sauce myself. In the meantime, TJ's is my favorite "cheat," because they're cheap, good, and their philosophy is largely the same as mine: if it's not food then it shouldn't be in food.

Here's that "dump in the pot and heat" part of the recipe. It's soooo harrrd.

This is zucchini, green onion, banana pepper, and the beans. Note the purple beans gradually turning green.

The tofu I cubed and added in a little later once the beans were mostly cooked.

And here's the "flavor" part. Luckily we're not relying on me for this. Thank you Trader Joe's.

I used about half the bottle for this. There's a lot of food in there.

Finis. Also, YUM. Mix with brown rice and away you go.

The nice thing about this is you can have near-endless variations, depending on what you find at the farmers' market.

Who knew beets came in golden?

Yes, these beans are flat, and white with purple speckles. More from Vera; they're called, appropriately enough, Dragon Tongue beans.

Once again, the purple goes away when you cook them. They end up a middling cream color.

Here we have fried tofu, golden beet, Dragon Tongue beans, green bell pepper, and the last half of the banana pepper.