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.