I Swear, It's Not Kraft

After a long arduous day of parenting, we were famished, tired of the tryptophan-induced narcoleptic haze of turkey and lazy. There is no shortage of Mac 'n Cheese recipes in the world and lately I've been using a Cooks' Illustrated version that I kind of liked, but it was too much work. I thought about the recipe and streamlined it to a decadent and extremely simple version that can be done faster than you can open a package of that mysterious, dense yellow powder. I think it's safe to say, this has become part of our repertoire.

Wicked Fast Mac 'n Cheese
small elbow macaroni, 224 g (yes, I actually weigh it)
butter, 2 T
condensed unsweetened milk, 5 oz
shredded cheddar cheese, ca. 1 cup
salt and pepper (coarsely ground)

1. Cook macaroni, strain and return to pot.
2. Stir in remaining ingredients. Residual heat from the cooked macaroni should melt everything and it will eventually look just like the stuff from the thin blue box.
3. Enjoy.


Challahs All Around

It's the Christmas season and while I should get off my ass and learn how to make a Panettone, my seasonal loaf is usually a Challah. It's a straight enriched dough made with lots of sugar, butter and eggs. Mmmmm. It's also whipped up pretty quick and hence, makes a good gift in a pinch.

1. I use a bread machine for kneeding. To the pan in this order is added:
milk, 300g
honey, 40 g
sugar, 30 g
butter (softened), 48 g
yolks, 2
all purpose flour, 500 g
active dry yeast, 2 1/2 t
salt (kosher), 10 g

2. Kneed and 1st rise done in machine (preheat oven to 425F now).
3. Divide dough in 3 equal weight pieces, round each piece and let rest covered with a moist muslin (or flour sack) towel.
4. Convert each piece into a rope about 15" long.
5. Braid into a loaf and place loaf on a sheet of parchment on a cookie sheet.
6. Cover loaf with moist towel for final proof, ca. 40 minutes.
7. Paint exterior of proofed loaf with egg yolk for glaze.
8. Place sheet in lower third of oven and blast once with steam.
9. Let cook until exterior is a rich brown color, ca. 30 minutes.
10. Let rest an hour before slicing. When stale, makes killer french toast.


A Mocha for Me

I love kitchen gadgets. However, gadgets need to be useful to survive. One of my favorite means to make coffee is with the mocha pot. It's a simple device that's inexpensive and makes a decent cup of espresso. I think it's espresso. Some may argue that true espresso is defined by coffee derived from a zillion pascals of steam pressure-extracted ground coffee with a perfect crema. By that definition, it fails. But, with a bit of practice, it produces a good strong shot of coffee. I love it. My old one had degraded to a point I couldn't use it. My lovely wife gave me a spiffy new 2 tasse replacement pot and I'm livin' large.


Farewell Bear

It's the Holidays. That means it's time for another faceless corporate behemoth to swing through town and homogenize a chunk of the local business environment. Giant-Eagle is buying most of the Big Bear grocery chain.

For the past three years or so, I've become pretty fond of our local Big Bear stores. The surly Somalian cashiers, that 60-something-year-old cashier with the disturbing pink bow in her hair who is smitten with Frankie, the pharmacy which took at least an hour to process a single prescription . . . well, maybe they had a bit of room for improvement. But, I've visited these stores at least as often as I've visited my own dinner table for more than three years. I went to their 20% off closeout sale today. It was a frenzy of activity. I felt like I was stripping Scrooge of his bed curtains in the Christmas that was to be. It was sad.


Honey Wheat Pitas

I love Trader Joe's, hell, I even considered working for them. But, their breads suck. I bought some of their wheat pitas the other day to accompany baba ghanoush I was making. By the time I made the baba, I couldn't stand to use the anemic looking little pitas sitting there, just drying up in the bag, so I made some. Used a pretty simple straight dough recipe and they were done in about a couple hours.

Honey-Whole Wheat Pitas
I used a bread machine for kneading and the first rise:
Charge to the bread machine in the following order:
water, 150 g
honey, 15 g
active dry yeast, 1 t
all purpose white flour, 175 g
whole wheat/rye flour (1:1 mixed), 50 g
olive oil, 15 g
salt, 5 g

1. Mix and knead, let rise 1 hour, preheat oven to 500F.
2. Divide dough into 4 pieces, round the dough balls and let rest 5 minutes.
3. Squash each dough ball, using a rolling pin if necessary, to a 7" disc.
4. Place discs on a piece of 15" square parchment and place the parchment on top of a cookie sheet.
5. Cover the rolled out pieces of dough with a moist muslin towel and let them rest about 15 minutes.
6. Place the sheet with the parchment and pitas in the oven in the lower third of the oven.
7. Let them bake until they puff and look like these in the picture.
8. Remove from oven and resist as long as you can.


Yum, Comforting Food

Mmmmm . . . meatloaf. Simple, fast, totally unworthy of being photographed. My meatloaf is simple and surprisingly is the same recipe I use for meatballs. The only difference is meatballs are simmered in tomato sauce (or what we call gravy) and the meatloaf is cooked free-form in a heavy cast iron skillet at relatively high heat to an internal temperature somewhere around 170F. Baking this at high temperature (ca. 400F) in cast iron results in great browning and a heavy "bark" on the bottom layer, yum. My meatloaf didn't get good until I started using 1/2 pork and 1/2 beef. The pork, I feel, is necessary to prevent making one big tough burger. Meatloaf purists would use 1/3 veal, 1/3 pork and 1/3 beef, veal isn't always available at the supermarket. This is my recipe for a meatloaf slightly greater than a lb.

Meatloaf for a cold night
ground beef, 80% lean, 1/2 lb
ground pork, 1/2 lb (sometimes I just use a couple sausages)
egg, 1
parsley, a bunch, chopped
bread crumbs, 1/2 cup
coarsely ground pepper
milk, 2-4 T

Mix ingredients with hands and shape into an oblong loaf and bake in a 425F oven for about 45 minutes or until internal temperature reaches about 170F. I like to bake this in a shallow cast iron pan because the bottom and sides cook up with a crispy exterior.


Samichlaus, Where Art Thou?

Years ago, I received a most thoughtful gift of beer. Specifically, it was a wicked high alcohol beer called Samichlaus. It's what we, who profess our love of beer routinely, call a "big beer". Samichlaus is roughly 14% alcohol by volume. Most domestic carbonated urine beer is 5% by volume. It's not good because it's high in alcohol. I could drink 4 bottles of Bud for about $2 to get the same kick if I wanted the alcohol; it's the perfect brew. Big beers need to be properly aged or they're vile. Samichlaus has a perfect balance of malt to counter the alcohol and is flavored with, I'm not positive, but I believe spices in addition to hops.

It's heavenly.

The prospect of obtaining this rare brew was dismal for our first few years here in Columbus. Believe it or not, any beer greater than ca. 6% alcohol by volume could not be sold. Some silly law created about 700 years ago. Well, I guess someone finally had enough cash to pay off our govenor, Taft, and now Ohio can sell big beers. We Ohioans are eternally grateful. I still haven't found Samichlaus, but I'm still looking.

Hey Andrea, if I don't find it, maybe you can send me another one? Merry Christmas and thanks again.


Back to Basics

I'm trying Dan Leader's country french again. It's a lean bread recipe that's reliable and get's me back on my feet when I'm in a "lean bread slump" as I tend to get into once in a while. I often don't have the patience and discipline required for lean/sourdough breads. This poolish method is a pretty good compromise. However, I often change the method over time so once in a while I need to reset myself and go back to the book and do it by the book.

Poolish was prepared from 150 grams all purpose flour and 50 grams of a wheat/rye mixture of flour, a 1/4 t of Red Star yeast and 200 grams of water. It was stirred about 50 times with a wooden spoon and allowed to sit on the kitchen counter overnight at room temperature (rt).

Dough Prep
Poolish, 200 grams
water, 400 grams
yeast, 1/4 t
all purpose flour (Pillsbury), 500 g
wheat/rye flour, 100 g
salt, 2.5 t

1. Poolish was diluted with water and stirred until smooth.
2. Yeast charged and mixture placed in pan of bread machine.
3. Remaining flour and salt charged and kneaded by machine for 10 minutes.
4. Dough was not too slack, came together well.
5. First ferment, 2.5 h.
6. Punch and rest, 40 min.
7. Loaf shaped, round.
8. Final rise on parchment, 1.5 h.
9. Baked @ 425F with steam shot for 45 minutes.
10. Cut the first piece about 1.5 hours after the oven.

Pretty happy with this one. Slightly larger than 2.5 lbs. after baking, about 10" diameter, 4" high. Excellent crumb texture; a combination of open holes and good texture. Heavy crust, almost a bark. Didn't get crust crackling on cooling.? Tastes great, but I'll be evaluating this over the days to come. A great bread should taste great, even when it begins to become stale.

I sampled several pieces but as I cut into the loaf, I stumbled on it's big flaw. It's a 2.5 lb ROUND loaf and consequently a lot of the mass is interior. I undercooked it. Afraid of burning the exterior (in retrospect, I had plenty of room to keep cooking), I underbaked it. This is also consistent with the absence of fractures that usually appear on the surface of the dough on cooling.

In conclusion, I think this "failure" was darn close to being stellar. Next time, I'd do half the size loaf. That big a loaf is tricky to bake to completion; those problems never occur with a baguette. I'd probably do two 1-lb loaves or chubby baguettes. However, the big round is a grand looking loaf and is convenient for sandwiches.


Sesame Semolina (aka Pane Siciliano by Reinhart)

Been playing around with old dough methods of sourdough baking. This one is called a Pate Fermentee (I don't have the correct French characters) and is basically a straight dough (flour, water, yeast and salt) mixed and aged 1-3 days in the fridge. This is warmed to room temp (rt) and incorporated into a dough approximately twice it's weight. In Reinhart's book, it's the method he chooses to prepare a sesame semolina and a pain de compagne; the latter of which, I have lusted for, unsuccessfully, for sometime. Here's my first attempt at the former.

Pate Fermentee, 500g (aged 2 days in fridge)
semolina flour, 200 g
all purpose flour, 200 g
water, 300 g
salt, 1t
honey, 1T
olive oil, 1T
active dry yeast, 1t

1. Dechilled pate fermentee, 2 h @ rt
2. Mixed remaining ingredients first by "dissolving" pate fermentee in water (machine mix), then adding remaining ingredients (used bread machine for mixing), not a slack dough.
3. First rise 2 hours at rt (ca. doubled).
4. Rest 15 minutes and shape (an "S" and a batard, ca. 600 g each).
5. Final proof, 1 hour.
6. Moistened loaves and sprinkled with natural sesame seeds.
7. Scored top of batard.
8. Baked on tiles @ 450F with steam shot (baking time 35 minutes).

Both loaves sucked!
I don't know what happened but the final loaf, while good in appearance was a tad dense, tight hole structure inside and it didn't taste that great. Another one in the heap for bread crumbs. I'm generally a little cautious when it comes to the final rise. I'm always afraid of overproofing. This time, I think I cooked too soon. This was my second miserable failure with a pate fermentee. I think I'll be returning to a poolish when it comes to the lean breads.

I fear I may just be destined for straight-enriched doughs. The lean breads are challenging. I posted this for my own documentation rather than to show off my talents (or lack thereof in this case). It's great to celebrate the good breads but crucial to study the failures.

Imagine if the scientific literature had such integrity.


A Chance to Give Back

A year ago, if you asked what was the scariest day of my life, I'd probably pause for quite some time. I don't think I had many truly frightening days. If you asked me the same question today, it would be the day the hospital let us take our child home. No exams, no interrogation, no nurses; they simply let her leave the hospital in our care.

We received an enormous amount of generosity from friends and family during those first few scary days. Among the gifts we received, was the casserole. I never realized how little time there would be to eat during those early days of adjustment and we would have starved without those generous gifts. Recently, another delivery was made by a friend. We made this lasagna (and one for ourselves) for them so they can eat between changing diapers and attempting to sleep.


Chicken n Noodles

I tend to be most interested in the simplest of recipes. The recipes with the fewest ingredients, often exhibit the greatest variability. Bread is the best of example of this and that's what I spend a great deal of time on. I enjoy the pursuit as much as the final product.

Something different today, though. Inspired by a meal we had a week or so ago, I tried chicken and noodles. A most gracious neighbor served us one of the best examples of this dish I've ever had. The chicken broth was rich and the noodles tender without being mushy. It was decadent. I'm afraid I may have been overzealous in probing our generous host for details of the preparation, but I couldn't help myself.

In my attempt, the chicken broth was made from a whole chicken and vegetables. The chicken was pulled from the pot and the meat rescued from the bone only an hour into the simmering. The meat was put aside for the final dish and the bone returned to the simmering soup of veggies (carrots, onions, parsley, pepper, etc., standard stock stuff) and left for a few hours.

The noodles were prepared from 2.5 cups of all-purpose flour and 3 eggs, a 1/2 t salt and a dash of olive oil. The dough was kneaded and divided into 3 portions. Each portion was rolled into a ca. 12" diameter circle, rolled up, cut into thin strips and the resulting noodles released after unrolling the cut up shreds of dough. They were kind of thick and only a few inches long (I cut most of them in half). The noodles then were allowed to dry for a few hours.

Next the stock was filtered to remove all the bones and veggies, the reserved chicken returned, the resulting mixture heated to a brief boil and the noodles tossed in with just enough water to make a thick mass of everything. Not too soupy. It cooked on a low heat for about 12 minutes and was seved over biscuits.

It was good but not nearly as good as our neighbor had prepared. My stock was good but the noodles were much tougher. This is the variability I was referring to. Noodles are a simple prep, but the details are in the process of making them. How much additional flour is incorporated while kneading, how long the dough is kneaded and just how the dough is handled prior to cutting the noodles are all critical parameters that are difficult to describe. So trial and error kicks in. I think I'll try to kneed the dough less next time trying to achieve a more tender noodle. I still haven't had the leftovers re-warmed, maybe they'll be better.

Postscript: 22-Nov-03
The leftovers were reheated for about 5 minutes on the stove for a quick lunch. Much better. I think the noodles are actually fine but need to be cooked much longer to become more tender.



I've recently become interested in food blogs. A popular one all the cool kids visit is Food Blog. What I like most about these sites is the recipes are accompanied with the experience of the cook who executes the recipe. And, in the best cases, a picture of the final product and comments about the food are described. It's a great advance compared to simply finding a recipe on the web. It's this testing (and validation) of a recipe that gives it value.

With that in mind, I repeated a simple macaroon prep from Chocolate & Zucchini (it's French you know) and repeated Clotilde's macaroon recipe. With only four ingedients and an equally uncomplicated procedure, these treats became an instant part of our repertoire. A great snack to take for a party (or today - a play group for Frankie to see Aaron, Benjamin and Sarina). I think everyone liked them very much. I'm a little sad there's none left. They were slightly crunchy on the outside and tender inside without being too sweet. I used unsweetened coconut that was kind of old, so next time I'll use coconut that's a bit more fresh but they still kicked. Thanks Clotilde!


mmm ... Pork Rinds

There is no food more likely to make people go "eeewww" when you tell them about it than Pork Rinds. But when it comes to my consumption of the wispy, delicate, savory crisps made from some section of a pig, I am in the closet. In fact, the only one I could openly share these treats with was our dearly departed cat, Eliot. He loved 'em as much as I. Well, Atkins and the oh so righteous NPR have now put the spotlight on these treats (the Real feed here). I love NPR, I just think they're pompous and not quite as unbiased as they would lead one to believe. While this mention on NPR may not bring Pork Rinds the popularity of being slashdotted, I bet you see a few empty bags lying around your local independent coffee house (Starbucks) or wherever NPR addicts hangout. In fact, I'm on my way to get a bag. And maybe I'll eat them in public.


Farewell our last tomato

Tonight we had a salad. Not just any salad but mixed greens topped with a hard boiled egg, lightly seasoned, roasted beets and our very last tomato of the season. Trish just pulled it from our withering pile of tomato plants. An Early Girl I think. Plump and juicy and very ripe; it had been sitting on the counter for a couple days. The salad was topped with a dressing of wine vinegar, mustard, a bit of sugar and whisked in xv olive oil.

We finished the meal with a cheese pie from Cooking Light (sorry, it's a pay site). It was kind of a cheese cake, only lighter. The cheese mixture was made from cottage cheese, cream cheese and yogurt and boy was it scrumptious.

Tomorrow, Frankie permitting, Clotilde's macaroons. I can't wait, this recipe looks simple and good.


I'm not dead yet (pickling revisited)

About 3 months ago, I gave a lazy person's pickling method. Basically, I made a brine, didn't boil it, immersed some small cucumbers and let 'em rip for several days at room temperature. I let them go at room temperature about 2 days, tasted the pickle goodness, let them sit another 2 days at room temp. and then put them in the fridge.

Today, while reading Amanda Hesser's, Cooking for Mr. Latte (a great collection of recipes and stories), I got the urge to make my own mayonaise. She makes it several times throughout the book with different oils, etc. So, got my homemade mayo and what did I do with it? You got it, tuna salad on my bread and a pickle on the side. It was simple and tasty and wanted to update that the pickles from the simple brining procedure were better than I remembered. Perfectly crisp and crunchy, yum.


It can't be good, we haven't sacrificed an animal

The other night, Trish and I met Dan, Sharon and the slightly younger man in Frankie's life, Benjamin (6.5 months), for dinner at a favorite noodle place of ours, Haiku. I got tofu pad thai which was so good, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.

I searched for a recipe and found one that looked great on the Cooking Light website. It's a pay site, so I don't think it's right to post their recipe. I love their recipes. They make smart substitutions and I've rarely seen margarine used in their publication. I've rarely had a flop from them.

My attempts at pad thai have been miserable in the past but this one was quite tasty. I could taste the individual components like the soft-scrambled egg (which usually gets lost in the mixture), the sauteed tofu, the bean sprouts and the noodles were cooked perfectly, a slight bite. The best thing was the sauce composed of chilli sauce, brown sugar and fish sauce had a great salty/sweet balance and it pulled everything together nicely.

The only challenge stemmed from having a child. Used to be, I'd visit two asian markets, the local food co-op and the Big Bear to find all the ingredients for a recipe. Those days are sooooo gone. One solitary stop is the maximum allowed for a 7 month old's "schedule". Frankie is a bundle of smiling joy 95% of her waking moments, but, you don't want to push it. The ingredients, while not exotic, are varied and cannot be substituted, e.g., fish sauce, eggs, cilantro, sprouts, tofu, green onions, rice noodles, limes, chilli sauce, etc. I chose the Big Bear (our local grocery) and got it all (I had the fish sauce on hand, it lasts forever). Local big groceries, while hated by many are starting to accomodate diverse food trends. For that, we are appreciative.

I won't post the recipe, but email me and I'll send it to you (I've never been totally consistent in my ideology). The picture isn't the best, sorry.


Two Butts and a Picnic

A personal best has been achieved. Last night the Weber was extended and fired up. At 9 pm, having achieved a steady state temperature of 240 +/- 30 deg-F (despite light wind, rain and a low of 45-deg-F), two boston butts* (6-7 lbs each) and a picnic roast (6-7 lbs) were placed on the grill and it was capped with one vent opened on top and bottom. Started with lump but replenished using briquettes at 11 pm, 3 am, 7 am and 11 am. One problem encountered was a low dome temp of 105-deg-F was accidentally hit at 3 am because the lump burned out too fast. I suspect however a mean kinetic temperature of approximately 240 was achieved for almost all the grill time. Twelve hours into the cooking, the internal temp of the meat (measured at several spots near the bone, was 195-200 deg-F. Despite this reading, the roasts were left on until Noon, a total of 15 hours. For fatty pork roasts, I've always cooked them long and have never turned one dry. I believe the window of optimal cooking is huge. The pork roasts were removed, wrapped in foil and placed in a warm oven until 3 pm. Still quite warm but easy to handle, they fell apart nicely. Fork-pullable indeed. The meat was lightly dressed with a mixture of ketchup and cider vinegar (3:2 v/v) and served up with rolls and coleslaw for a proper pulled pork sandwich for 20 or so (with several pounds leftover). It was heavenly. I wrote this to remind myself of all the things that can go wrong (coals going out, overcooking, letting it sit for hours until dinner time). It seems all you need to do is cook it till 195 internal and then keep cooking. I don't know if it's possible to overcook a butt/picnic. Also, the picnic was significantly leaner. I think the taste of the two was about the same.

*Note: Butts and picnic roast were rubbed with a mixture of brown sugar (4 T), salt (2 T), pepper (2 T), paprika (2 T), coriander (2 T), oregano (2 T, dried), parsley (2 T, dried), wrapped in foil and placed in a cooler (ca. 45-deg-F) until ready for cooking.


Bring it on

An event on Sunday presents the opportunity to provide barbecue for the hordes. Or at least 20 or so. The Weber is not quite enough for 3 pork loins and a veritable coop of chicken. Thanks to the Thunderbelly extension for the weber (and a handful of modifications), we're now running a heavily modified rig that should be able to accommodate another layer of slow cooked goodness.

Warning: The Thunderbelly website is perhaps the worst site ever designed. Turn your volume down.


Vino Della Merda

I'm a frustrated synthetic organic chemist who's real passion is food science. When I heard a bit on NPR about how good "bag in a box wine" is, I couldn't resist. The wine was actually called "technically superior" referring to the foil lining and how the integrity of the wine is maintained over time. Some wine, it was mentioned, was actually kept for 6 months. As the wine is dispensed, the foil lining collapses, thus preventing any oxidation of the remaining wine.

I'm frugal and am incapable of discriminating a $7 bottle from a $20 one. I figured I was a perfect candidate to sample a wine that promised to deliver copious quantities of wine at a bargain price. However, I hadn't had box wine since the early days of graduate school and didn't know what to expect.

My palate must have matured. I will say the wine tasted the same over the course of two weeks of dedicated tasting (after all, by this point, it's free) the wine tasted the same. Unfortunately, it was vile. I chose Franzia's Chianti. It was sweet. Really sweet. They must have halted the fermentation with potassium sorbate (or lighter fluid) and then pumped in some really low grade honey. I was essentially stuck with 5 liters of putrid grade wine that I eventually stopped drinking (after about 2 liters) and wouldn't even use for cooking. While the packaging of box wine may be good, beware of what lurks within.

The box is currently stored in my basement, near the paint thinner.


Blue Nuts

Lately, I've been using bleached white flour and small percentages of shortening and sweeteners in my breads. I haven't endured feelings of guilt like this since the crabby nuns (it would be disrespectful to call them bitchy and mean) of Immaculate Conception cast their Spell of Perpetual Guilt some decades ago.

I have no regrets. My breads have never been better. And they're good for at least 3 days. The lean crusty breads derived from small quantities/no yeast, no sweetener and no shortening of any kind, while good and virtuous, are tough on a busy schedule. So, to assuage my guilt, I've gone to confession.

Ha, ha, ha. Just wanted to know if you were paying attention.

No, I've started using, up to 1/3 by weight of the flour makeup, whole grain flour. Whole wheat, rye and rolled oats, alone or in combination have been used with extraordinarily good results. And just to try to be one with Mother Earth and all that, I threw in nuts; sunflower seeds or walnuts. However, I noticed a purpleish tinge to some of the loaves. Hated it. I like my grain-blend breads to be off-white. I always blamed it on the rolled oats but I realized the other night, it's the walnuts! Google to the rescue. I guess if you don't roast them ahead of time, they are unstable and impart a blueish hue to the food they're cooked in.

Pretty interesting, just thought I'd share.


Of Eggplant, Pizzas and Humility

I think I shed a tear when this pizza came out of the oven.

I've been accused of being overly humble when it comes to my pizzas and breads. Kind of like the kid in class who complains of getting an A but wanted an A+. I vehemently deny this. I know what's good and what needs improving.

This is a pizza topped with a scant bit of tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, caramelized red onion and a bit of chevre. It was decadent. It's one of our favorites (and actually pretty low fat). It was inspired by a trip to Wrigleyville in the early 90s. Trish, her Bro Mike, Nadie and I went out one night for good food and blues and we had this heavenly pizza. The way I make it is different than we originally had, but every bit as good. Anything I bake can always be better - but this is pretty darn good and I am pretty darn content with it. For now.

Roasted Eggplant, Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese Pizza - one 14" pie
General methods were reported here. Specifics are given below.

The Dough:
water, 200 mL (200 oz, ca. 7 oz)
flour, 300 grams (Gold Medal All purpose, 2 1/4 cups)
honey, 20 g (1 T)
olive oil, 25 g (2 T)
salt, 5 grams (1 t)
yeast, 3 grams (1 t), Fleischmann's Active dry for bread machines

Toppings Prep:
Eggplant. In the two schools of eggplant, I am a NON-salter, so there. The eggplant was sliced in ca. 1/4" slices lengthwise and lightly coated with a scant bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted on parchment covered baking sheets in a 425-deg-F oven till golden brown (15 minutes per side).

Onion. Sliced red onion is caramelized by initially sauteeing on high and immediately crank it down to real low heat and barely touch it for 20 minutes.

Tomato Sauce. Anything will do. I used just enough to color the shell red.

Chevre. I used a pretty dry brand and would rather have used a brand called Chavrie. But crumbled on about 3 oz.


Mmmmm - Pitas

I used a pretty standard recipe and rushed them a lot to get 'em done in time for dinner and they still turned out well. Lots of room for improvement. Below is the recipe I used (and some suggestions for things I'd change).

Pita Breads
Machine kneeded dough. Add to the pan in this order:
water, 200 g (room temp)
yeast, 1 t (Fleischmann's bread machine)
honey, 20 g (1 T)
olive oil, ca. 12 g (1 T)
all purpose flour, 250 g (I used Gold Medal this time, I'm using Pillsbury in the future)
wheat/rye flour, 50 g (1:1 w/w)
salt, 5 g (1 t)

Machine kneed (30 min), 1st rise 60 minutes (this is a restatement of the dough cycle in my machine). The dough was divided in 6 pieces (ca. 100 g each) and each piece was rounded.* They were allowed to rise a second time beneath a moistened flour sack towel on the counter top for 15 minutes. The oven was preheated to 425-deg-F. As you all know, an oven can never be preheated too much. Two cookie sheets were covered with a piece of parchment paper and each of the dough blobs was squished into a squat disc. These discs were allowed to rest again for 10 minutes (didn't bother to cover them). The squat discs were then squashed into little pizza shells (using liberal amounts of flour to prevent sticking), ca. 6" diameter. These little pizzas were arranged on the sheets of parchment and allowed to rest beneath the moistened towel. I let them rest for 10 minutes but would give them at least 20 minutes next time. The sheets were launched into the 425-deg-F oven (lower third rack) using a quick shot of steam (from spraying the oven walls with a high powered squirt gun). They cooked about 15 minutes (and plumped like blowfish), until they were slighly browned. I repeated with the second sheet. The second sheet puffed up better (they rested longer). I removed them and let them rest in the basket pictured until dinner. We ate 'em with hummus. The next day they still tasted pretty good.

*Rounding and related procedures are described in the pizza piece, here.


Flat or Fizzy - Fizzy please.

Many years ago, I had a job that enabled me to travel. I went to the U.K. for a few weeks and was lucky enough to attend a festival on the Thames. I went to purchase a bottle of water and the vendor asked - flat or fizzy?

Don't know why I thought of that but it's about as circuitous an introduction as I can muster for this drink I made up. I like fizzy drinks. I've developed a taste for diet vanilla coke lately - it's actually got a stronger vanilla flavor than the non-diet version. And when I'm feeling flush, I indulge in one of those nifty Italian Sodas at the Barnes and Noble cafe - but come on, what a rip.

Here's my simple cheap version of a

Italian (-American) Soda
sugar, 1-2 T
flavor, e.g., vanilla extract, 1 t
water, flat, ca. 1 oz
water, fizzy, ca. 11 oz

Add sugar to your favorite glass. Add about an once of tap water and swirl to dissolve the sugar. Add the flavor extract to the sugar solution. Then, fill with cold fizzy water. I like mine without ice.

I usually don't care about health or diet, but this drink is quite a bit lighter than a typical soft drink. For instance, when Coke finally oozes out of the can, it has a sugar content around 10% by weight. This version is about 3%.


'Merican Style Honey Wheat/Rye

We all need a diversion, especially in baking. I've been working on my lean breads quite a bit lately. The lean crusty breads are by far the most challenging. Once in while, I get the urge to take a walk on the dark side. Today, I used a full yeast charge, shortening (butter) and sweetener (honey). Maybe I shouldn't sweat it. After all, there exists a French style called Viennoise that uses all these dastardly additives.

American Style Wheat or Viennoise? Depends on the demographic of your cocktail party I guess.

Here's the recipe:
water, 200 g
bleached white flour (Pillsbury all purpose), 250 g
wheat/rye mix (1:1 w/w), 50 g
butter, 1 T
honey, 30 g (1.5 T)
yeast (Fleischmann's for machines), 1.5 t
salt, 1 t
sunflower seeds, handful

Straight dough method, first rise 60 min, 2nd rise 25 min, 3rd rise (proof) 40 min in pan, slashed top of loaf, and baked in abundantly pre-heated 425-deg-F oven (short blast of steam) for 25 minutes. Awesome volume (that's the bleached white for ya). Popped the loaf out of the pan and let it sit out overnight to cool. We'll give details of the tasting tomorrow.

The loaf was unbelievable. Our favorite store brand for sandwiches is Brownberry Oat Bread. Very good, but this makes that look sick. The only problem is the pan was a tad undersized. The pan I used for this much dough (roughly 560 g) holds 1200 mL of water. I remade the same loaf (using 230 grams white flour, 50 grams of wheat/rye mix, 20 grams of rolled oats and a handful of walnuts, but same everything else) and used a pan of volume I600 mL. This was much more appropriate. The loaf rose above the rim of the pan but didn't mushroom way over the pan. Selecting the right pan size per unit of dough is tricky. For a pan that held 1600 mL water, I'd probably use 600 g of dough next time.

This recipe was really one of the best I've ever done and is really easy, a great starter recipe. But use bleached (Pillsbury All Purpose) flour. I haven't tried Gold Medal yet but will in the future. The bleached flour seems to give a great volume rise and a great texture. And it's just not that evil to use a bleached flour. Especially when it's mixed with a bunch of grains and nuts.


The Baguette is in Sight

The only problem with this photo is it doesn't do much to describe the amazingly crisp crust and deep flavor that has been achieved. I've not been able to do as many trials as I wanted. Been a tad busy lately. I've basically been targeting just the variable of the day in an unsystematic approach but have enjoyed quite a bit of success lately. I'm repeating the prep a bunch lately and will give all the details when I'm convinced of it's reproducibility.

The highlights are: i. a combination of flour (bleached white, wheat and rye) is used, ii. baking method that makes use of that baguette pan (like the one depicted), iii. steaming the oven using a quick general method that can be used in an electric oven as well as gas (without blowing out the pilot), iv. use of a greater concentration of poolish (starter) than is used in Dan Leader's book "Bread Alone".

I'll disclose when I've achieved good reproducibility.


I have died and gone to heaven

This childcare thing definitely has its advantages. Today, I used my favorite slow cooker, the Weber grill to make dinner. I took a bone-in pork loin roast (4.2 lbs, ca. $12) and gave it a quick rub of brown sugar, paprika, salt, pepper, cumin, parsley and threw it on the weber this morning. Indirect heat, dome temp about 240 to 300-deg-F from 10 am to 4 pm (I originally started it in a 250-deg-F oven at 8 am, but just couldn't go through with it), fat side up, thank you. I've done pork butts in the past but this pork loin was by far a superior cut. Much less fatty and after the 8 hours smoking was up, I removed the dark brown-barked piece of meat, let it rest tented with foil for 30 minutes and pulled it apart. Pulled pretty easy. Then simply cut up the meat and dressed it with a quick sauce of ketchup and cider vinegar (the spices and fat coming from the cooked meat). I then let the mixture sit for 30 minutes before putting it on sesame seed buns with coleslaw. Unbelievable.

It was the simplest pulled pork I've ever done. I think the better cut was crucial and also getting a bone-in piece may have helped the meat to cook more thoroughly (in just 8 hours). Traditionally, pulled pork (done by the REAL (not the dysfunctional gang at alt.food.barbecue) pit masters) is done for 18 hours at a much lower temp. This is a pretty darn close approximation.


Clubbing Baby Seals with a Baguette

Had a bit of a breakthrough but not ready for any big disclosures / recipes. I actually have been playing around with bleached white flour. In many baking circles, if you use bleached flour, you may as well knead dough with one hand and beat baby seals with the other. Motivated by food-loving curiosity, I decided to investigate why bleached flour is so bad.

I read several patents from General Foods and found that bleached flour is not necessarily bad. In some processes, portions of the wheat kernel are lightened (bleached by various means) to remove unwanted bitter flavors. In many processes, this doesn't interfere with the health benefits afforded by the wheat kernel and in at least one instance enhanced the availability of anti-oxidant components within the bran. It seems there's quite a bit of demand for whole wheat derived flour without the flavors associated with the dark color. The problem most people have with bleaching is most of it is currently done with chlorine containing agents which may introduce unwanted by-products. Most processes now are trying to achieve bleaching using non-chlorine containing methods.

But in some recent tests in my kitchen, I've been getting some serious volume in my rises (a good indication of the outcome of a bread) using bleached flour. I still have a ton of comparisons to do but have narrowed down the flour, yeast, yeast charge and basic recipe I want to concentrate on for the comparison. Results eventually.


Country Wheat

This is a bread I made this weekend. I used Dan Leaders' Bread Alone book using a poolish method. The specifics were as follows:

1. Poolish was prepared from 75 grams water (2.5 oz), 75 grams white flour (1/2 C) and yeast 1/4 t (Fleischmann's active dry) and mixed like a batter and let set for 12 hours.

2. The final dough was mixed in a bread machine (for 10 minutes, use mixer of your choice) by mixing all of the resulting poolish, water (300 mL, 1 1/4 C), white flour (Pillsbury all purpose, 400 grams), wheat/rye flour (1:1 by weight, Pillsbury, 50 grams), additional yeast (1/4 t) and salt (8 grams, 1.5 t).

3. The first rise, 2 hours at 75-deg-F, punch down and rest 20 minutes, punch down again and shaped by placing into a banetton* and letting rest for 1.5 hours (while oven preheated at 450-deg-F).

4. Inverted on peel, slashed the surface and baked on clay tiles in oven (with shot of steam from a squirt gun on the walls) for 35 minutes. It could have cooked another 10 minutes, the center was a teeny bit under - this is a nearly two lb loaf.

I did the dough twice, the second time I made a baguette shape. I donated it to a friend's dinner before I got to take a picture but it was good and looked even better. I haven't used Leader's book in a while but was glad I did. I revisit old baking books to test out new flour and anything else I do differently to see how the loaf changes as my methods evolve. This one recipe (it's his most basic poolish recipe) never really seems to change. And that's why it's a good one to start with in case anyone wanted to try it. I recently saw his book for $10 used on Amazon.

*Note: A banetton is what's used to hold the final shaped dough in an inverted position while it rises prior to baking. They are available for a zillion dollars from King Arthur's flour but I use some cheap round basket from Pier 1 and line with a flour sack towel, liberally dusted with flour. the dough is placed in it and covered with the other half of the towel to rise.


Le Frickin Baguette

Our daily bread is a simple loaf but the most challenging. It is a basic french baguette made by a simple recipe using a straightforward process. The recipe is trivial:

200 grams water
3 grams active dry yeast
300 grams unbleached white flour
5 grams salt.

It is made by adding the ingredients, in that order, to the bowl of a mixer (or bowl of a bread pan - I like bread machine mixers) in what is called a straight dough preparation. Basically, a straight dough prep is mix everything together for the final dough (no starter, poolish, biga, etc.), let rise, punch, let rise again, punch again, let proof (another rise) in the form of the final loaf and launch into the hot oven for final baking. This simple recipe has been tackled by Julia Child (and many others) in some, but not exhaustive detail. The process is deceptively simple. Some of the factors diffcult to control are: flour (I hate King Arthur's), yeast (there is no rigorous and quantitative quality check for home bakers), kneading method, baking method (cooking surface, how to steam the over, type of oven, ...), etc. Even the way the final loaves are vented prior to baking can have a profound impact on the final oven spring and consequently appearance and taste of final loaf. But despite these and many other factors I can only try to control, I tirelessly pursue reproducibility. Another big problem is frequency of baking. While baking several times a week may sound like enough, baking several hundred times each day is probably the only way to observe reliable trands. So the infrequency of the method actually becomes a parameter to deal with. Very frustrating. I won't deny this is a total obsession but one of my more healthy and fun outlets. I only mention this in case someone asks "what's the recipe for your simplest bread?".

It's not a recipe, it's a lifestyle.

p.s.: Short of a full experimental design approach to finding a better method, I'm currently looking for a surrogate endpoint to make an evaluation of some of the parameters I now believe to be the most critical. I'll be considering the brand of flour, brand of yeast, yeast charge, kneading method and relating those to the volume of the dough after the first rise in a controlled environment chamber (probably the bread machine). I'll keep you all posted on the results.


The Most Amazing Scones on Earth

The Sunday morning ritual in our house is some kind of special breakfast. Waffles, biscuits, etc. This past Sunday, I made these oatmeal scones. The recipe is nothing I had anything to do with. It was perfectly worked out by the gang at Cooks Illustrated. They were unbelievable.


Bread # 1 / Country French - poolish: a comparison

First in a series of baking log entries:

5:45 am - poolish prep
To the pan of bread machine, added Pillsbury Organic Unbleached White (UBW, 150 g) and water (150 g) and 1/4 t yeast (RedStar dry active). Mixed a bit and let sit till this afternoon covered with a moistened cloth.

2:15 pm (7.5 h) - dough / first rise
To the same pan, charged water (150 mL, rt), yeast (1/4 t), UBW (250 g) and salt (7-8 g) and placed in machine for 30 min kneed (too long but out of my control - preprogrammed dough cycle) and 60 minute ramped temp rise (rt -> ca. 90-deg-F).

4:05 pm
Dough (barely risen) was removed from the machine, punched down, rounded and allowed to rest on the counter beneath and inverted bowl. The bowl keeps the moisture in without having to cover the actual surface of the dough. After this rest, it was punched down again and formed into a squat ball and placed into my version of a banneton (I'll define this later) lined with a muslin cloth liberally dusted with flour and covered with the other half of the muslin cloth. This was the final proof in the shape of a loaf. The oven was turned on to 425-deg-F and the loaf proofed for 45 minutes.

5:00 pm
Removed from banetton, slashed, baked on clay tiles in lower third of oven with a blast of steam for 45 minutes. Crap. Squat, dense, looks ok but I'm not optimistic it'll taste good. I'm only publishing the result because it will make a good run look that much better and my integrity forces me to.

A flaw in every scientist is not writing down EVERY OBSERVATION during an expt. All that is written is what seems pertinent at the time. I didn't record relative humidity because I didn't measure it and didn't believe it was important. Part of this is just practical (it's too hard to record EVERYTHING) and some of it comes from personal bias. So I'm going to reflect and try to figure out what went wrong and repeat the prep.

Reflecting on this prep, the poolish, at the end of it's rise looked pretty lame, not fluffy and voluminous like it usually does. I think it's because I didn't use a full 1/4 t yeast, I used old yeast or I mixed it in my bread machine pan where it's difficult to mix and I just kind of swished things around. So from the poolish on, everything was kind of small. Pitiful rises. I was relying on the final oven spring to come through and save me. It didn't. This loaf came out about 8" in diameter with barely a dome in the middle. It tasted ok and had good color, it's just the volume was pretty bad. Volume or more importantly, density, of final loaves is a critical outcome measure that I haven't been able to determine. To get this number, I'd have to cut a significant cube of the bread out and weigh it. It destroys too much of the bread. Ultimately we do cook this stuff to eat it. In the future, I may decide to bake double and use one loaf for measurements.

Voila! I repeated the exact same prep changing only the poolish prep. For the poolish I used Fleishmann's bread machine yeast (a reliable dry yeast) and a full 1/4 teaspoon and also mixed the poolish in a separate bowl and mixed it better (kind of like stirring a batter of brownie mix) and let it set for 8 hours and proceeded exactly as in the remainder of the procedure above. Note the new loaf! Although there's nothing in the photo to guage relative size, these loaves are almost exactly the same diameter, but the second one rose like a pillow. Also note the (what I call) stress fractures on top highlighted by the flour. These cracks in the crust arise from a rise in the oven and a contraction on cooling. I've observed them on all great lean crusty loaves (mine and others). And I think I could've cooked the second one a tad longer, I like 'em dark.

Side by side comparison of the profile of the dense vs. bigger volume loaf.


Couscous Salad

I like couscous salad but have never found one I like. In general, when I look for recipes, I like to gather many contributions and to see if there's some consensus on ingredients and methods. Once I see which sections are flexible, I set out to create my own version or a hybrid of what seems to make sense.

Most couscous salads start with preparation of the couscous by adding boiling water to the grain and letting it set for 5 minutes off the heat and then putting in the other stuff. This works for eating it hot (within 20 minutes) but for some reason, it just doesn't stop cooking quickly enough for purposes of a cold salad application. Maybe it's just me but I end up with mush by about the 30 minute mark. It wasn't untill a trip to my friend Marie's wedding last year (in the south of France) did I find a nifty trick. My french is horrible (speaking and comprehending) but I was able to find out that they made (the best) couscous salads using only room temperature liquids.

The crucial piece of information absconded from the conversation, I was off to find out the critical volume of liquid used to hydrate the couscous. After some playing around, here's a version of a couscous salad that can me ready to eat within 30 minutes (including a brief chill time) and can be made vegetarian or not. The only critical quantities in this recipe are the grain (couscous) and liquid. All the other goodies added are flexible.

Couscous Salad - a size good enough for a potluck

couscous, 1 1/4 cups (250 grams)
liquids (add these liquids to a 2C measuring cup sequentially):
    juice of 1 orange
    honey, ca. 1 tablespoon
    cider vinegar, ca. 3 tablespoons
    water, enough to complete the total volume to 400 mL (on the side of the measuring cup)

Add liquids to couscous and stir once in a while. Couscous will absorb all the liquid within 10 minutes or so. It's kind of cool to watch the grains plump up. It's almost exothermic.

Step 2
Add the following ingredients or your favorites:
pine nuts, lightly toasted, 2 T
fresh mint, 1-2 T
olive oil, up to 3 T (good stuff)
salt and pepper
green onion
finely diced tomatoes
raisins or apricots (plumped in boiling water and drained if too dry), 1-2 T
non veggie version: pan seared boneless chicken breasts, cooled and chopped into big chunks.

Step 3
Blend and refrigerate. I like it slighly chilled and served atop a bed of lettuce (with cheese and olives).


The Miracle Worker

Having restored world peace, Bush now tries to cure baldness.


I am the pickle god.

This isn't a food blog like the red kitchen; the weber_cam is an unguided forum with no focus or agenda, so I figured I'd add my recent culinary contribution.

I've always liked my pickles crunchy, sour, slightly sweet with a hint of garlic. Even though there are as many flavors of pickles as there are bad hairstyles on ranting baptist ministers, I can't seem to find my favorite. So, I decided to try to make my own. Being a bit busy lately, I didn't feel like doing as much work as the recipes I read demanded. Pickles require two things: a brine - a salty, usually acidic sometimes sweet aqueous solution and something to pickle.

The brine
Scanning my favorite sources for brine recipes (Joy of Cooking, Cooks Illustrated, FoodTV and Cooking Light - I think Epicurious rots), I noted reasonable consensus on salt, sugar and acid concentration. But they all boil the solution. There's a tendency, in cookbooks, when preparing any aqueous solution of a readily soluble substrate, to boil it. I guess it makes people feel more like they're doing something sophisticated. Boiling the brine and applying it to the vegetables would take too long and more importantly, would cook the item of our affection. I wanted a crisp pickle. Industrially, vegetables are brined, cooked and finally, calcium chloride is added to get the crispiness back. Aside from using the leftover brine to melt ice in the winter, this process was unappealing. Why not try to pickle the vegetables uncooked and just let the process go longer at a lower temperature?

Maybe another reason to boil the brine is to kill bacteria, but with such a high acid and salt concentration, I don't think much bacterial growth is supported.

Something to pickle
Eventually, I'll use an assortment of vegetables. For now, cucumbers. Although I don't usually care whether I buy organic or not - with cucumbers, it's important. Non-organic (or as my not-exactly-type-A friends at the hippy market call it - inorganic) cucumbers are liberally coated in wax prior to coming to market. I don't think a brine, or nuclear waste, could permeate the flesh of those babies.

My Lazy Recipe for Pickled Cucumbers - That hasn't killed me yet
cucumbers, organic (I like small ones), about 1 - 1.5 pounds
plain old vinegar, 2 cups
water, 1 cup
salt, 1/4 cup
sugar, 1/4 cup
garlic, one clove whole - NOT smashed
spices, 2T of assorted - I just used McCormick brand pickling spices

1. Mix the solution of vinegar, water, sugar and salt at room temperature; everything should dissolve readily.
2. Add spices and cucumbers.
3. I placed everthing in one of those disposable plastic containers that I filled to the top so when I put the lid on, everything was submerged. I guess it's important for the pickled items to be away from sources of oxidation and be submerged in the brine, do it anyway you can.
4. Age the mixture about two days (the cucumbers shrink a bit) at room temperature.

Observations - future plans

  • Had my first two about 48 hours after doing this and they were unbelievable. Crisp, slightly sweet, sour and a hint of garlic. I honestly will never buy another pickled cucumber again.

  • The sour component was a bit strong. I may play with the salt and acid strength a bit.

  • I'm going to recycle the brine with some cauliflower and eventually try other vegetables (carrots, green beans, etc.)

  • Should be interesting to see how they taste over time. I plan to store them at room temperature but I don't think they'll last long enough to fully evaluate a shelf life.

  • Can't wait to repeat the procedure adding fresh dill to the spice mixture
  • 7.24.2003

    I don't get it.

    My grasp of critical political issues is pretty weak. Maybe that's the reason I can't understand the jubilation surrounding the deaths of Hussein's sons. I think they were only in their late 30s. All I've heard is how positive this killing was. As if it were kind of high on the national to-do list. I haven't heard one expression of the horrible tragedy it was to have a corrupt regime composed of a father and his two sons.

    I even thought McVeigh's death was tragic.

    I admit to the possibility that these people should have died. But the deaths are a tragedy. Not acknowledging that, especially by a Christian, is wrong.


    Ramming speed

    Several years ago, I was going to work on a hot summer morning in Baltimore. I was in my portofino blue Ford pickup truck. It was a pain in the neck vehicle that had an intermittent stalling problem that could not be fixed by any Ford mechanic. But when it ran, it ran strong and felt good to drive.

    That one hot morning, I was a bit irritated going to work (work-induced anger is common condition of mine) and trying to get some breakfast at a drive through on North Ave. If you're not familiar with Baltimore, North Ave isn't the best place in Baltimore for a caucassion in a pickup truck to lose their temper. As I'm sitting there waiting for the line to move, a hand extends from a big old 70s Cadillac Sedan de Ville to me gesturing for me to hold while they pull in.? They wanted to just cut in the drive through line. Stunned, I paused and they just pulled into and cut me off in the line. I don't know what came over me, but I jumped on the gas, my truck lifted a bit as it began to accelerate and lurched forward into their bumper.

    I actually rammed the car because they cut me off in a McD's drive through window.

    I sat there stunned as the two clashing machines came back to a resting postion. It was clear, no real damage was done. Two big vehicles with sturdy bumpers. The woman who was driving got out and looked at me. I sat there, still stunned. She said "God forgives you". She got back in her car and we all continued through the drive through and got our little bags of food.

    It was a strange way to start the morning.