Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Breadmaking, The First Attempt

I read the following phrase online somewhere a few months back: "First and foremost, bread is alive." Then, after sharing with a friend that I thought I'd try my hand at breadmaking, he simply said, "Bread is magic." Huh. You don't usually hear people saying a quarter-pounder with cheese is magic, do you?

I guess there must be something about taking the most basic of ingredients—flour, salt, yeast, water—and making a food that is hearty, earthy, universal, and substantial. I had to give it a go. And now that I've taken my first step into this magical world, I completely understand the sentiments. As I sit here eating my first slice of homemade bread, I've never felt so satisfied—and blown away—after 5 hours in the kitchen.

I'm not afraid to admit it—I was nervous. What if I worked the dough too much (I've heard bad things about that) or what if the dough was too sticky and unworkable, or didn't release from the sides of the bowl like the recipe said it would, or what if I cooked it too long or not enough or it tasted funny. But I dove in anyway, despite my feelings of inadequacy.

My fears were fueled by all those scary terms and instructions used in bread recipes..."punching down the dough" (how hard do I punch, and is it one punch or three?), "water shouldn't be more than 130 degrees or you'll KILL the yeast" (I don't want to kill anything, I just want to bake bread), and "knead the dough for no more than 8 minutes" (really? 9 minutes or 7 minutes would mean a complete fail?)

Every step along the way, though, I felt more and more confident. As I completed each task, the dough did what it was supposed to do: it came away from the sides of the bowl, it rose, it worked it's way into nice loaves with my gentle prodding, it rose again, it didn't stick to the board, it moved over to the cookie sheet without falling onto the floor, it browned in the oven, and it smelled truly AMAZING while it cooked. I was feeling the magic—I followed directions and the bread appeared before my eyes. Magic.

Did I mention that this little adventure involved two different recipes prepared simultaneously? Why make things easy, right? The first (pictured above) was an Italian bread recipe found and tried by my baking fanatic friend (she may be the only person on earth that will actually kill her breadmaker from overuse). She found it at AllRecipes.com and it did involve the use of a MY Breadmaker Ultimate—a wedding present that has spent most of it's lifetime in our garage. All of the ingredients went into the breadmaker for 1:30, and then onto a surface covered in cornmeal to rise again. The two loaves look beautiful and golden, and taste so, so good. Paninis, anyone?

The second recipe I got from a co-worker's mother—appropriate, right? It's called Kefir (or Buttermilk). Sorry, can't share the recipe—wouldn't want to piss off a mother I've never met! This one was truly from scratch with the help of Mr. KitchenAid, my fancy new electronic thermometer that I got for Christmas but hadn't yet used, and the timer on my oven, since there were so many timed instructions (mix for 2 minutes, add more flour, mix for 2 minutes more, then the 8 minute kneading time thing...all of which I timed to the second. Nerd.)

These loaves browned up even nicer than the first and the sesame seeds made them look that much more professional. I would say that the non-breadmaker dough was actually easier to work with—not quite as fluffy and flimsy as the first, more dense and firm, and the flavor is slightly sweeter, buttery, and equally as delicious.

Most importantly, more than the end result or the flavor or the successes along the way, I feel a bit transformed, elevated, inspired. I feel like I want to bake bread all the time, because now I know I can. There is so much more bread to come in the future...such as my grandmother's homemade rolls that have always seemed elusive, unforgiving, and never as good as when she used to make them. Ah, another challenge...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring in L.A.

When spring arrives in L.A., it's subtle. We don't have a thaw, we don't see blades of grass popping out from hardened, snow-weary soil, or whatever the typical signs of spring are in other parts of the country. We just sense a change. I know it's here when tiny green leaves start appearing on a few of the trees in our yard, when I can smell flowers in the air, when I can wear a skirt without my opaque tights (despite my pitifully untanned legs.) Another sure sign of spring: really amazing strawberries. I bought a basket of them at the farmer's market last Saturday, and my daughter proceeded to slurp up most of them sitting in her stroller before we made it to the car. So bright and juicy and sweet. Looking at her face covered in strawberry juice, smiling wide, and saying, "More, mama!" Well, that's just springtime, people.

Spring makes me want to plant things and dig in the dirt and make iced tea with fresh mint and cook things that are light and fresh and lemony. I've been daydreaming about our Driveway Garden...so named because this is the only place in our backyard that gets enough sun for our potted vegetable garden. We had a huge bounty of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers last year from just 3 pots lined up along the wall of our driveway, perfectly positioned to get the most amount of sun. I was so empowered knowing that I could make food products emerge from my yard simply by putting some plants in some dirt, adding water, and letting it happen. It was a revelation. So until we get the acreage that will roll out for miles behind our dream home (with the Viking range, wood-burning oven, and the ever-elusive walk-in closet), where we will have rows and rows of farm fresh, organic goodness, we will grow food in pots. And this year, more pots, more veggies, more herbs, more spring in the driveway.

We bought two dwarf citrus trees last year at this time, one lemon and one lime. Well, turns out they were both lemons (so much for trusting the plant vendor at the local farmer's market). We're near the end of a great harvest of gorgeous bright yellow lemons that are so fresh and tart and juicy. Since the beginning of this project, I have been saving the famous Icebox Lemon Pie recipe test for when I could use my own lemons. Today was the day!

The handwritten recipe card is a bit cryptic. For instance, nowhere does it say exactly how many Nilla Wafer cookies you are supposed to use. Or what size pie dish, or whether or not it's greased. And the card is written as a narrative, not with a list of ingredients at the top like recipes in cookbooks, but with the ingredients and their amounts included in the instructions...which are pretty funny in themselves. But I'm finding this is often the case with my mother's recipes and it makes it that much for fun...

Icebox Lemon Pie (why the Icebox, don't know...)
Make vanilla wafer crust (Nilla Wafers). Crush until fine cookies—mix in pie pan (glass) with 5 Tbsp melted butter. Press down in bottom of pan. Insert whole wafers around the edge, pressing bottom edge into bottom crust.

1 14 oz. can Eagle Brand Milk
4 eggs yolks, beaten
1/2 cup lemon juice (I used 3/4 cup thinking more would be better, but it's a bit too tart even for me)

Mix above items well. Put in saucepan and cook over medium heat over low heat (huh??); stirring constantly about 10 minutes. Finely crush vanilla wafers and sprinkle over crust. Bake about 15 minutes. Or make meringue. Beat 4 eggs whits, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar at high speed. Gradually add 1/3 cup sugar a little at a time. Beat until stiff peaks form. Pour over filling, sealing around edges. Bake at 325 about 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

I love making meringue. It's like a science experiment watching 4 egg whites turn into this billowy pile of white foam 4 times the original size. I prefer to put it in a piping bag and make these cool little mounds that brown on the top. I then dusted it with grated lemon peel and some of the wafer crumbs.

Except for the fact that I would have made the crust a bit thicker (because it is really a delicious crust) and the mouth-puckering tartness that caused even Olivia to rethink a second bite, I think I replicated the traditional pie pretty well. Plus it was satisfying using an ingredient that we grew in the backyard...foreshadowing great things to come from our Driveway Garden.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Baking: Pound Cake

If there isn't a thin layer of flour covering everything in my kitchen, am I really baking? If a tree falls in the forest...

While the little one sleeps, I'm baking a pound cake. There are two to test: one with buttermilk (from an old "ladies Bible class" friend of my mother) and one with sour cream (from Granny Lula's collection). Today I need to get rid of the remainder of a quart of buttermilk I had in the fridge (who ever uses a whole container before it goes bad? Do people, other than my father, drink the stuff straight??) Granny's version will have to wait.

Why do they call it pound cake, you may ask? Well...back to my old frenemy, Wikipedia:

Pound cake refers to a type of cake traditionally made with a pound of each of four ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. However, the quantity is often changed to suit the size of the cake that is desired. As long as the ratio is preserved, the resulting cake will generally be very similar to that using the traditional quantities. Hence, any cake made with a 1:1:1:1 ratio of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar is also called a pound cake, even if the quantity used is smaller or larger than a pound.

Well, not really sure if this recipe is a REAL pound cake because the ingredients do not follow this ratio precisely. Not surprising—as I've mentioned before, I'm sure my mother's recipes have all been tinkered with and manipulated to fit the tastes of the individual cook, or her family members. Plus, I think I've mentioned before, I don't do math. And that includes measurements and quantities. So for all I know, 5 eggs is a pound. I'm not going to sweat it and just assume that this is a traditional pound cake regardless. We'll see when it comes out of the oven...

Looks right to me!!

Buttermilk Pound Cake
from Carol Shelton, Ladies Bible Class, circa 1970s

3 cup sugar
1/2 cup Crisco
1 stick butter
5 eggs
1/2 tsp baking soda, dissolved in 1 Tbsp boiling water
1 cup buttermilk
3 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla

Cream butter, sugar, and shortening. Add eggs one at a time and beat well. Combine salt and flour; then add alternately to creamed mixture with the buttermilk and soda. Beat well and blend in vanilla. Pour into a greased and floured 10" stem pan. Bake at 350 for about 1 hour, 15 minutes.

And when you're finished, cut a slice, add some juicy delicious strawberries you just bought at the local farmer's market, and then drench it in chocolate sauce of some kind (Hershey's will do just fine). A pound of delish.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Laughter in the Kitchen

Sometimes I have to remember that it's okay to sit on the kitchen counter.

Last night, I was doing my usual scurry in the kitchen: trying to get dinner organized, figuring out what to feed Olivia for dinner and for lunch tomorrow, trying to keep her from emptying every drawer while torturing the dog, spilling water everywhere, stealing the pepper mill to grind pepper all over the carpet...generally making it impossible to focus on anything but her. She is two, after all. Everything can cause a tantrum. Everything is fun—Saran wrap, tongs ("Be gentle with the doggie!"), a very sharp steak knife. We are always riding that fine line between sheer joy and utter frustration. They don't call em terrible twos for nothin!

So Olivia was hell bent on sitting on the counter last night. This is her new spot for wreaking havoc on the dinner process. After I relented with my usual guilty surrender, she perched herself and decided to dismantle the KitchenAid. She was doing a very good job of it when she knocked the plastic splatter shield onto the formica counter. Don't know what it was about the sound that it made, but you would have thought a talking monkey was telling really funny jokes or something. She laughed and laughed and laughed. She dropped it again and laughed again. Tears streaming down her red face—finally the good tears!—over and over she did it, until I'm sure her belly ached and her attention span was nearing it's inevitable swift end. I ran out as soon as I acknowledged the Kodak moment to grab the camera—wondering if this would be the time that she finally fell off the counter—and raced back to capture about 15 shots of the hilarity. James came in and we stood there bewildered but laughed our heads off. I think the dog was even laughing. Or maybe he was just sure Olivia was going to throw him some food as soon she composed herself.

A friend on Facebook posted this yesterday: "...loves that what could be a 5-minute roundtrip between the house and Starbucks takes 45 minutes with Henry. Every dandelion is exciting; every roly poly amazing; every found penny a treasure. And of course every flower must be smelled. One of life's great pleasures: watching a two-year-old be two."

I move too fast. I try to do too much. I strive for perfection and am surprised when I fail. But when 2-year-old laughter erupts in the kitchen, everything is okay.