Archive for the ‘baking’ Category

Kitchen essentials for baking, first go

January 9, 2010

I’ve just spent the fall and the first half of the winter exploring baking. For those of you who don’t know, I do most of my cooking (and virtually all of my baking) on a wood-fired cookstove. So I don’t do anything that’s too fussy about temperature. If I hit it within 50 degrees, it’s good enough most of the time. But that has nothing to do with the contents of this message. It’s just a little contextual note.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are certain things that no baker should be without. I’ll enumerate at least a few of them here. Others may occur to me later, so I reserve the right to add to the list.

1) A pair of clean hands. There is nothing so useful in baking as the ability to handle and manipulate your dough with your hands. No bread machine, dough hooks, or any other mechanical contrivance are half as useful.

2) Dough cloths. These are plain white fine-woven cotton towels at least 30 inches square. In my childhood they were called “flour-sack” towels. The weave is fine enough to hold flour, but the flour sinks into it. This lets you work your dough on a floured surface without getting an excess of flour. Good ones are hard to find, but Lehman’s Non-electric Catalog has a 10-pack for about $20. Nobody really needs 10 of these, so split a pack with a baker friend of yours. But they are essential for working good bread, pie crust, or pastry. Forget the Tupperware or other plastic stuff. Trust me. You need these. You don’t even have to wash them every time you use them. Just shake them out well.

3) Waxed paper. This is what you wrap dough in that has to sit. Don’t use plastic wrap. The waxed paper breathes a little but doesn’t let things dry out. It’s kind of the Debbie’s Little Green Bags of baking.

4) A flat grater. The first time I found a recipe that called for me to grate the cold butter into the flour before working it with item number 1 on this list, it was like the heavens opening up and a big beam of light falling on my head. Why, I wondered, has no one ever thought of this before? A bazillion recipes call for cutting the butter into little chunks, flattening them with your fingers, then cutting them into the flour with a pastry cutter or a pair of knives. Grating through the large holes of a flat grater achieves the right effect with about 1/10 the effort. Kudoes to whoever thought this one up.

5) A large assortment of mixing bowls, glass or stainless steel, in as many different sizes as you can imagine.

6) A large assortment of measuring utensils–cups in stainless (for dry measurement) amd glass (for wet measurement), measuring spoons from a minimum of 1/4 tsp. to 1 Tbspn. I have several sets of dry-measure cups, and glass cups from 2 oz. to one quart.

7) A good conversion chart. It’s tough to remember when you’re adjusting on the fly whether it’s three tspns or four to the Tbspn . Same with Tbspns to the quarter cup. Hit: One is three and one is four, and if you forget, look at your butter wrapper and all will become clear.

8) Lot of baking pans and dishes. Again, use only glass, cast iron, or stainless steel. I confess I use a very good grade of non-stick cookie sheet for a variety of things. But no Teflon. If you want non-stick, look for anodyzed metal like Calphalon. When using glass, most recipes recommend that you adjust the temperature downward by 25 degrees, but since I’m working within a very flexible range to start with, I usually ignore that. I work with a cool, medium, or very hot oven. I don’t do souffles. . .

9) Good knives, and lots of them. Ben introduced me years ago to the Chicago Cutlery classic walnut series. They are simple and elegant in appearance. They are a fairly stainless high-carbon steel that can be brought to a razor’s edge with a good steel or stone. I’m lucky enough to have a husband who appreciates my cooking enough to keep them very sharp for me. I do know how to do this myself, but I try to hide that fact,

This feels like a good place to quit for the time. If you have any issues, ask me a question and I’ll at least make an attempt to justify my position.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have owned a bread machine, a food processor, and a blender. I never found anything that I could do with them (with the exception of frozen margaritas) that I couldn’t do with my hands and manual equipment. And the manual equipment is a heck of a lot easier to clean, When I realized I really liked margaritas on the rocks better than frozen margaritas, that was the end of my mechanized kitchen.

“No-knead” bread, as Lee requested

January 9, 2010

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve spent some time finding a version of “no-knead” bread that works for me. Lee asked for the recipe, so I’ll provide it here, but I’m going to have to do another post about proper kitchen equipment. At least that’s what I see coming as I write this. If I combined the two it would be hopelessly long.

Here is a caveat–every flour reacts differently to liquid and yeast. Part of my adventure this winter has been finding a mix of stuff that really works for me. You might have to adjust things if you’re using different flour or like your bread made with milk instead of water or so on. But here’s the basic recipe for two nice-sized loaves:

2 cups White Lily bread flour

2 cups hard-wheat (gold Medal, house brand, etc.) flour

1 generous Tbspn regular yeast (not fast-acting)

1 generous Tbspn salt (kosher or sea salt preferred)

2 cups lukewarm water, about 110 degrees

Whisk together the flours, yeast and salt. Forget the sifter. A whisk works much better. Pour the dry ingredients into the water in a large bowl and stir with a spoon until there are no dry spots. The dough will be VERY sticky and a little lumpy. Cover (but don’t seal–I prefer a cloth towel) and let rise in a warm place for at least two hours and as much as five hours. I generally find that three hours is sufficient.

Put a baking stone on the oven rack in center position and preheat it to about 400 degrees (More about baking stones in the next post). Put a heavy pan in the bottom of the oven to preheat (I use an old broiler pan I scored somewhere).

When the dough has risen to your satisfaction, prepare a pizza or bread paddle by covering the area on which you will place your loaf with corn meal. Divide your dough into two pieces. Sprinkle your work surface with flour, and shape half the dough into a loaf–round, oblong, whatever suits your fancy–and place it on the corn-meal covered portion of your paddle. Let the loaf rise about 40 minuts. Slash the top with a razor blade or very sharp knife in several places. You will repeat this process with the second half of the dough after you’ve put the first loaf in the oven.

Slide the loaf from the paddle onto the preheated stone in the oven (this is what the corn meal is for–it works like ball bearings), and toss a cup of hot water into the heavy pan on the bottom of the oven. Close the oven door immediately to capture the steam. Bake for 35-50 minutes (depends on the size of the loaf) until the top is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers.

Tear off big hunks and slather with butter. (This last step is optional and only for true hedonists. We generally slice ours after it has cooled slightly.)

Lee, I hope this works for you. I have about 8 different flours and ground meals in my pantry at the moment. All White Lily is too fine in texture for me for most breads (although that’s all I use in pastries), so I mix it up. If you don’t have “bread” flour, you can add a Tbspn of gluten for each cup of flour to get the same effect.

The staff of life (that’s “staff,” not “stuff”)

January 8, 2010

OK, I trimmed my nails, so the typos should be fewer and farther between.

I’m sneaking a few minutes away from important stuff I should be doing just because I enjoy sitting in my warm kitchen (fire’s been going for hours) smelling yeast bread dough rising for baking later tonight.

We’ve been eating mostly homemade bread lately. I adapted a recipe from several “no-knead” ones that appeared a year or so ago. It makes two good-sized loaves, takes five minutes or less to prepare, 2-5 hours to rise (I find that 3 hours is generally plenty), and comes out of the oven with a crust that snaps and throws crumbs everywhere when you cut into it. Ben loves it. I have to make two loaves because the first one is generally gone about an hour after it comes out of the oven. It toasts up on our little camp toaster to a crunchy golden color. The toast crackles when you bite into it. Hungry yet?

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. There’s so much being written about how many of our health ills are tied to processed food. One of the best things about being retired is having the time to mess around with strictly fresh stuff. And in addition to the health benefits, you get to smell real smells and taste real tastes without the chemical enhancers.

From time to time I’ve purchased convenience items. I’m thinking now of the pre-cut hearts of romaine chopped up into little pieces, that sort of thing. Then I read that all these processed greens are washed in chlorine bleach since the bacteria scares of a couple of years ago. It doesn’t seem to interfere too much with the flavor, but it effectively removes most of the food value. So now I buy heads of greens and wash and tear them up myself. Afriend showed me how to keep them fresh for what seems like an inordinately long amount of time, so it’s not as onerous as it sounds. And it keeps its fiber and vitamin values.

It’s almost time to shape my loaves of bread, so I’ll sign off for the moment.

Dell, redeemed

January 4, 2010

Redemption is a wonderful thing, in literature as in life. Despite my rather bitchy post last evening, today Dell, or more specifically a rather great technician, redeemed the company, so I feel obligated to make note here.

It took an hour or so on the phone with India, but my new wireless printer is up and running. Thank you Amit. I asked them to give you a bonus. . .

I thought I had waited long enough to not be hanging on the bleeding edge of technology, but alas, I was mistaken. However, all is right in the world now. I’m gradually shedding cords and assorted paraphenalia. My desk is a little more orderly, me new computer is still most excellent, and my printer works. It is unfortunately not a candidate for the 12-volt conversion that lets me run my DSL modem/router without the generator, but that’s OK. I don’t print that often anyway.

The stew is simmering on the stove, and the first of two loaves of our favorite bread is on its second rise, so dinner’s not far off.

This bread recipe (as I’ve adapted it, at least) is seriously simple and fabulously superb. I don’t know if it would cook as nicely without the serious heat generated by a wood oven, but by golly it works for me. There’s something soothing abaout eating bread still warm from baking with a lot of melted butter dripping from it, and we’re doing so almost every day right now. You know the expression “make hay while the sun shines”? Well in this house, it’s “make bread while the sun isn’t shining and let the other fire go out so the house stays below 85 degrees.”

I’m committing what some would probably consider the ultimate sin tonight. I cut up most of a piece of superb round cut as thick London broil to make the stew. I found a little local farm that sells pasture-raised beef, so we’re trying some. The hamburger is flavorful, virtually no shrinkage, less than 7% fat. When I cut into this steak, I just stared. I haven’t seen beef that color in a butcher shop in years. My mouth is watering just thinking of it. I saved a little to make minestrone later this week with some home-canned tomato sauce, but most of it we’ll just inhale tonight.

OK, enough, I’m out of practice at this. Ciao.

Happy New Year, Dorrie, wanna banana?

January 3, 2010

That subject line won’t mean anything to anyone but me, but that’s OK. Something about 2010 just took me back about 40 years, and it conjured up memories of a friend long gone. So it’s a bit by way of being a salute to the past.

I brought this all on myself complaining early in December that we were about 20 inches short of our average annual rainfall. Didn’t have an effect immediately, but the last few days of the year struggled to make up for the earlier dearth of dampness. The river is about as high as I’ve seen it this year. It finally has stopped raining an inch-plus a day and the river is dropping a bit, which is fine by me.

I’ve got last night’s leftover bean soup warming on the woodstove and will go eat some shortly. There’s still fresh bread from yesterday, although it’s not quite as fresh as it was yesterday. Brenda found a great fast yeast bread recipe mid-year. I’ve been fooling with it a bit, and it gets better each time I make it. No pain, no hassle, just good, crusty staff-of-life stuff.

I think I could live on bread and properly cooked potates. Must be the Irish in my background.

I love winter. The woodstoves are going all the time and it’s tough not to just go cook something.

I’m off now, so the best to all of you reading this for the New Year. More anon.

Today. . .Don’t want to get out of the habit

December 29, 2009

Sitting here wishing I had a) trimmed my fingernails and b) got things cleared away enough to use a regular mouse. I hate those little slide pads, and Windows 7 seems to keep making decisions about what it thinks I want to do. But I’ve been reluctant to disassemble the clutter of old computers that eats up my upstairs desk until I was sure everything was working, Tomorrow I’ll try to set up the new wireless printer. Then I might get my office back.

English-style meat pie in the oven, and I’ve 15 minutes or so before I have to go feed the fire. Ben’s good about keeping it fed, but when I’m baking I prefer to do it myself. I don’t know if the English actually eat anything like this or not, but that’s what we call it–meat and veggies baked in a crispy crust. I learned it from a crazy woman who grew up in Corvallis but learned it from her English mother-in-law. Oops, there’s the bell.

OK, to quote Tom Paul Glaser, I’ve “put another log on the fire.” The pie is starting to look pretty darned good and smell even better. So I’ve a few more minutes, anyway.

We’ve had some pretty massive cold weather. The Big Elk froze clear across for the first time in about 35 years.

The plus is that we keep both fires going pretty much all day, so I’ve been doing a lot of baking and roasting–breads, pies, a standing rib with roast potatoes yesterday, piroshkis on Christmas Eve (a bit of a tradition in our house), cinnamon rolls, blah, blah, blah.

I must admit I’m very partial to being retired. It suits me. And I got an order for four more of my books today, which suits me even better. . .;^}

But now I need to go drool around the kitchen and set the table. Ciao.

All the little plants seem snug in their beds

March 30, 2008

Woke up to snow on the ground. The morning offered more snow, hail, rain, and occasional sun breaks.

Mid afternoon we got one break long enough for me to get brave and dash down to the garden to check things out. Everything looks fine, if a tad rumpled in places. I think some of my sunflowers have sprouted, although it also looks like in a place or two the mice found the seeds. I’ll know more in a week or so, assuming that it doesn’t snow non-stop until then. Maybe even if it does.

I made chicken and dumplings for dinner. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I used the White Lily flour for the dumplings, and they were superb–light, fluffy, and flavorful. I am so bummed to hear that their plant is closing. I even got a nice note from one of their employees on my White Lily post. I think that post has drawn more comment than almost anything else I’ve written.

That’s tonight’s update. I would write a note or two about politics, but the whole thing is just too depressing to deal with tonight. Are there any other fans of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” out there? That’s the only time of the week I feel routinely like laughing at the news (which is the only truly sane approach).

There was a great “stupid crook” story on this morning’s show. Seems a guy in Chicago decided to rob a store. The employees told him that no one but the manager could open the safe and the manager wasn’t there. This mental giant said, “No problem.” He left his cell phone number and asked them to call him when the manager returned. They did, after first calling 911. There were a few extra people waiting when he returned to get the manager to open the safe.

Now, that really is it. . .

When a friend gives you lemons. . .

December 18, 2007

Yup, that’s right, two posts in one evening after an extended absence. But there’s just so much to say, and frankly a lot of it doesn’t seem connected to anything else. Last time I lumped it all together, someone took me to task for being rambling and too wide-ranging. So I’ll split this up.

A long-time friend of ours (Ben’s known him since they were about 7 years old) came to visit for a week or so. We had a great time with Fritz. He lives in a slightly warmer climate, and he has a lemon tree in his yard that produces tons of lemons about nine months of the year. So he brought us a bunch.

Then Brenda took him home, and when she came back, she had a couple hundred more. Then she and Ralph left for several weeks.

As you might have gathered, I hate wasting stuff, so I started to try to figure out what I could do with all of these lemons. I now have 6 half pints of canned lemon juice and ten half pints of canned lemon curd that I’m praying didn’t get so hot in the canning process that the egg yolks got grainy. I’ll probably open one tomorrow just to see.

If canning it didn’t work, I’ll just get some more lemons from Fritz next time we see each other, and next time I’ll just can the juice. Then I can have lemon curd whenever I want.

If you’ve never had lemon curd, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. It’s tart and creamy like custard. It’s terrific for making tarts, or for spreading between the layers of a cake, or for spreading on hot scones or gingerbread or ginger cookies. It’s relatively easy to make. The only tricky part is the cooking temperature. Below 170 degrees it won’t set. Above 180 degrees (all temps Fahrenheit here) it gets grainy rather than smooth. The little fragments of egg yolk in it cook hard like the yolk of a hard-boiled egg.

The other issue was finding the right recipe. There are two kinds of lemons in this world, the really sour ones and the somewhat sweeter ones that we call “lemonade lemons.” Fritz’s lemons are lemonade lemons, and I had to do a couple of test batches adjusting various quantities of things to get the flavor I wanted. But I got it. Now if it just canned OK. It freezes wonderfully well, but it’s tough to have a freezer off the grid.

So, sinus headache and all, I’ve had a relatively busy couple of days. Plus I’m trying to plan and coordinate a “William Stafford birthday party” in January (if your’re not from Oregon, that may not mean much to you–it may not mean much even if you are, come to think of it). Suffice it to say that it’s a poetry celebration. If you really want to know more, go to and click on “Events.”

I’m also trying to get ready to be gone for about 10 days in January. January’s going to be a very busy month. . .

Post-Thanksgiving coma

November 25, 2007

It’s been a busy week, but here’s time to take a breath and give you a little update.

Wednesday Brenda and I celebrated National Throw-Flour-Around-the-Kitchen day (what we have come to call the Wednesday before Thanksgiving). We baked two pumpkin and one apple pies, 1 1/2 dozen croissants, and the acorn squash to be reheated with butter and brown sugar on the big day. Then Brenda went home and made a big tuna casserole that was lovely.

The turkey was perfect again. There’s something about the wood stove oven that just cooks them to a golden even color all over and done all the way through. We added mashed potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, steamed broccoli, a wonderful cherry jello salad thingy that a neighbor brought, quarts of gravy, and of course we ended up with far too much food, as always.

So last night was the first of several leftovers. I mixed the two stuffings, added some turkey pieces, and rebaked it, taking the top off for the last 20-30 minutes to brown the whole thing. We reheated the leftover vegetables and gravy, and–voila! Dinner.

But Ben has a limited tolerance for turkey, and he’s been very gracious about two turkey dinners and two days of turkey sandwiches. So tonight I’m leaving the rest of the turkey at near freezing and cooking up a big pan of scalloped potatoes with ham. When it’s almost ready, I’ll make a little cole slaw. We can kill the rest of the turkey tomorrow with pasta, mushrooms, and a tetrazini sauce, add a big green salad, and call it the end of the season. Christmas, of course, requires a standing rib of beef.

Inger, Tom, and Lisa have gone home. Fritz is still with us. He can stay another month as far as I’m concerned. We’re really enjoying the visit. Ralph and Brenda have an out-of-town guest tonight, so we’re actually enjoying a quiet threesome evening after days of cooking and eating and cooking and eating and yakking. Most satisfactory.

Fritz came into the kitchen while I was preparing the potatoes and asked, “So, are you using a recipe for this?” Of course I wasn’t. I’ve been making these so long that it’s only a question of how many potatoes I peel, which is a function of how many are eating and how big the baking dish is.

It’s also kind of a private joke. Ralph has been teasing me lately about my inability to follow a recipe. I can always find something to improve. He said he actually expects to see a cookbook someday with a title something like “Recipes for Real Food” with a subtitle of “Mere Suggestions for Marianne, of Course.”

Fritz is a metal sculptor (among many other things), and he arrived with a wonderful assortment of wall hangings made from saw blades–a terrific possum hanging over the shop soffit, and a smiling crescent moon and fierce-looking North Wind awaiting placement.

Yesterday Lisa got us all going making wreaths, so tonight my house is sort of still Thanksgiving inside (with the cornucopia and fall fruits still on the sideboard) and sort of Christmas outside, with a big wreath hanging on the front wall. We’re sliding into the transition.

I’m dithering over whether to make biscuits to go with dinner. It seems redundant. We still have leftover croissants (only three) and leftover apricot scones from this morning’s breakfast, and leftover pie, and a bit of the leftover pumpkin roll with a cream cheese filling (wow!) that Lisa brought. But the oven is hot. . .

We’ll see how many days we can sustain the carbo-coma before we all collapse into a heap of sugar and butter.

Note: I started the week with 6 pounds of butter in the fridge. There are fewer than 2 pounds left. These meals are not for the faint-of-heart or the cholesterol-challenged.

Rainy day, funny day. . .

November 17, 2007

I made an amazing re-discovery today. The tiles of the fire-retardant pad under my wood cookstove are actually white! Who’d have thought it?

The area under the cookstove takes a beating, what with spattered grease, stacked firewood (it’s a perfect place to dry wood that is basically cured but a bit damp), and of course, the occasional slop-overs as I carry pots back and forth. But Thanksgiving is coming, and we’re having a houseful of folks here, so it was time to tidy a bit.

Move the firewood, sweep, mop–a simple sequence. Then move the wood back, but this time onto white tiles rather than something nondescript.

White might not have been the optimal choice, but I elected to go for light in the area rather than a more dirt-hiding color. And at least I can tell when they’re dirty.

We’ve logged 2.2 inches of rain in the last couple of days. Very soggy here.

Nice treat in the mail, a book from my friend Phil in Cornwall, an autobiography/memoir by one of my favorite writers. I’m hoping for more rain.

The first of a number of houseguests arrives tomorrow, so the next week will be full of fun. I’m surrounded by cleaning detergents and implements, shopping lists, and the other paraphenalia that goes with a major holiday. Spent a creative moment today assembling an homage to autumn on my little spare table in the kitchen: a cornucopia, dried leaves from the yard, nuts in the shell, gourds, wheat stalks, and a couple of candles (which I hope won’t set the rest of it on fire–that’s been known to happen).

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is known in our house as National Throw Flour Around the Kitchen Day. It’s the main day of the year when I get to ignore the demands of real life and regular meals and bake pies and bread and croissants, map out a strategy for the big day, and generally create a huge mess. This year, with all of my new flours, I’m looking forward to an adventure.

As the days get shorter, it’s hard not to enjoy it–sleeping in an extra few minutes, dozing in front of the fire with the radio on, outside chores set aside for the moment. In another short month, they’ll start getting longer again, and things will start to grow, and the whole craziness will start all over.

 In the meanwhile–z-z-z-z-z-z-z. And happy Thanksgiving to all of those of you out there who celebrate it.