Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits

I love biscuits. Who doesn’t? So buttery, soft and feathery on the inside, crisp and flaky on the outside. Scrumptious. I don’t like jam or even honey on my biscuits, I like them that much. Just the pure flavors of flour, butter and heaven.

Biscuits have the magical ability to make any plain old boring meal instantly divine. Soup. Ho hum. And biscuits? Oh my! Fried eggs. Again. And biscuits? Alright! But if that’s not enough, try this: scrounge your fridge for some leftovers that everyone’s tired of. Just about anything can work. Scoop it out into a pie dish and cover with a thin layer of biscuit dough. Bake until everyone piles into the kitchen, nose first. Mmmm, what that? No one really cares what’s underneath when there’s pot pie on the table.

And how about this. Add 2 Tablespoons of sugar and these biscuits become ‘shortcake.’ Not that nasty angel food business they put next to the strawberries at the grocery store, but real shortcake. Layered with strawberries and cream, this has got to be one of my 5 favorite foods ever.

The basic recipe is nothing new, this is just my whole wheat version of the very same Joy of Cooking recipe my mom always made. What makes these perfect is the method. The entirety of success is how you incorporate the butter.

I like flaky biscuits. I’ve heard there are folks who like fluffy biscuits, and that’s fine. To each their own, but this recipe is not for you. To make flakes of biscuit, you need to have flakes of butter, which is to say thin sheets of cohesive butter in the dough. To make thin sheets of butter without the butter absorbing into the dough, you need to keep your dough cold. The colder the better. In Alaska I used to get away without this step, but here where our house is a perpetual 81 F (cooled to 81!) I have taken to using the freezer to cool the half pinched butter chunks before further working. Makes all the difference.

Calamity’s Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits, if I do say so myself

1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cups white bread flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt (depending on how salty you like food)
5-6 Tablespoons cold butter **see note below
1/2 + cup whole milk

Put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly. Take your butter out of the fridge and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Toss cubes into the flour and, working quickly with your fingertips, squinch the chunks up into the flour, so that each cube is a flatfish, flour-covered chunk. Put the bowl into the freezer for about ten minutes while you clear a space on the counter to roll out the dough and deal with any kiddy troubles. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

When you’re ready, take the bowl out and continue the squinching business until most of the butter pieces are like big flakes of paint. There will be lots of smaller pieces too, and that’s okay, but you don’t want to work it so much that it looks like “meal” as I’ve often read in cookbooks. At least, not if you want flaky biscuits.

Now pour in the 1/2 cup of cold milk. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold the milk into the butter flakes until it starts to look like a dough. You might need a few more tablespoons of milk, but add them one at a time. Too much liquid will make the biscuits gummy. You want just enough milk to make a workable dough, I find it often looks right but when I stick my finger in it feels wet and sticky, and conversely when it is right it looks too dry. Squeeze a bit in your fingers to check.

Don’t stir too much, but do make sure most of the flour has been incorporated. Then dump the lot out onto a lightly floured countertop. Pat into a round, gathering all the crumbs up on top. Using a sharp knife, cut the round into quarters, then stack one on top of the other. Pat the stack into a semi-cohesive mound, then roll out to 3/4 inch thick (about finger width) adding another sprinkling of flour as necessary. Watch for sneaky baby fingers.

I used canning jar rings to cut biscuits for the longest time, then finally last year bought myself a real biscuit cutter. It does make a difference, the sharp edge cuts instead of pinching the dough and makes for a higher rise. I can’t believe I waited through 15 years of biscuit making to spend that two dollars and ninety-five motherfucking cents. What a cheap skate. That said, until you’re a confirmed biscuit maker, jar rings or just an upturned glass work fine.

For the highest rise, push straight down (don’t twist) and make sure that your biscuits are cut all the way around, meaning don’t consider the edge of the dough to be the edge of your biscuits. This means you will only get four or five biscuits in the first cutting, but you can take all those leftover scraps, pile them up, pat out again and cut out one or two more biscuits. After that second cut though, I just pile the remaining scraps into one big chunky biscuit and call it good.

Place biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet and pop right into the very hot oven. Don’t open the oven for ten minutes, then check and see how they look. You want them to get toasty brown on top, but not at the expense of getting dusty dry in the middle. If they’re still not brown after 15 minutes, take them out anyway (and bake at a hotter temp next time). Crack one open just to make sure it’s cooked through, then take those piping hot beauties straight to the table.

Lastly, two essential notes on whole grain baking in general:

  1. Pastry flour, pastry flour, pastry flour! Whole wheat pastry flour is milled from soft white wheat, and has much less strong wheaty flavor. Also it has less gluten. This is perfect for cakes and muffins, but after many years of making mealy whole wheat biscuits and pie crusts I finally realized that some gluten is important to get the flakiness I desired. I mix whole wheat pastry flour 2:1 or 3:1 with white bread flour to arrive at a homemade all-purpose with just the right amount of gluten for flaky baked goods. If you want to use 100% whole wheat pastry flour, try adding in a Tablespoon or two of pure gluten flour.
  2. Butter, butter, butter! There’s no overemphasizing this perfect ingredient. Chefs all agree butter is queen of the kitchen, but what I’ve slowly realized it how it is even more important for whole grain baking. It tames the sometimes sharp, slightly bitter flavor of whole grain flours, but just as importantly it helps to lighten otherwise heavy whole grain doughs. The original Joy recipe calls for just 4 Tablespoons of butter, but I’ve started using 5 Tablespoons in general and 6 for company. It’s worth it. If you’re worried about looking like Julia Child, just go take a long walk afterwards.

Bread Every Day, Part 1: Ingredients

I started making bread when I was 14. I know. I was a weird kid. I also wore peasant dresses and a hooded brown woolen cloak to school. I read wild plant books with the fervor usually reserved for Teen magazine and sometimes I even washed my peasant dresses by hand in the bathtub.

The bread making was the first real action I took toward a lifestyle which I spent whole school days fantasizing about. And once I started eating that rich, nubby homemade wheat bread on a regular basis, I was hooked. I have made almost all my own bread since then. After turning 34 in May I realized that my homemade bread years add up to a full 20. Wow. Happy 20th Bread Anniversary to me, or– us– I guess. Me and my bread.

Some things are just a little better homemade, but freshly baked homemade bread is truly not comparable to the stuff at the store. It’s pennies on the dollar for cost, miles more nutritious, and tastes divine. You win points all around. I really recommend it as a starting place for virgin DIYers. The return on your investment is very high. And let me just tell you now if you don’t already know, pulling a loaf of freshly made bread out of the oven is hot. And I don’t mean potholders.

I wrote a Bread Evangelizing post some long time back, to convert anyone on the fence about trying it. In that post I gave the recipe that I started with some 20 years ago, which I still know by heart even though I never follow it anymore. It’s a great beginner recipe, very easy and always worked for me. I recommend following a recipe for at least your first few months, till you get the hang of it. For some reason bread making puts people off, and it’s best to minimize failure till you feel absolutely confident. I also don’t recommend reading up about the complexities of bread until you understand viscerally how simple it is. (That means now. If you are a new bread baker, just stop right here. Go read that Evangelizing post, follow the recipe for a few months, then come back and read this bunch of drivel.)

I followed that first recipe for years. Then I started reading some bread books and slowly realized just how much play there was. Now, I never follow a recipe for our every day bread. Once you understand the basics, you won’t need a recipe either. Every loaf will be different, and (almost) every loaf will be good.

Bread at it’s most basic is flour, water and yeast. The flour needs to be mostly from wheat, because wheat has gluten. Gluten is what holds it all together. Yeasts are living organisms, they eat the sugars from the flour and fart out millions of bubbles which become trapped by the strands of gluten and raise the loaf. The water activates the yeast and makes everything possible, along with viewers like you.

At it’s purest, you can simply mix warm water, wheat flour and a pinch of yeast into a thick sludge, dump it into a greased loaf pan, let it rise and bake it. That is bread.

But, we like to complicate things. We’re human. It’s a vice. We favor certain textures and flavors. We like our bread to hold together when we slice it. We like it to taste tangy and fresh, and to feel soft but chewy in our mouths when we narsh it. We don’t like it to be pasty or gluey or hard or dry.

To further complicate things, each of us has been taught to cultivate our own individual preferences. Myself, I like a hint of sweetness, but hate the cake-like quality of store-bought bread. I like it to be soft enough for a sandwich, but still have a toothsome substance, nubby texture and a moderately crusty crust. If it’s white bread, then I love it sourdough. But if it’s wheat (and that’s almost all I ever make) then I like just a shadow of beery-ness with the lovely dark wholesome flavor of the wheat itself front and center. I want to feel like my bread could be a meal if need be, adorned only with a sheen of butter. But I don’t like brick bread. I don’t like it to be heavy, sour or otherwise intimidating.

I’ve loved my homemade bread all along– like pizza and sex, it’s all good. But I feel like, 20 years in, I am just starting to get a handle on what creates my perfect loaf.

my perfect slice

There’s plenty of great written works on artisan white breads. The gourmet world is afloat with them. My earmarked favorite is The Village Baker. And of course, you don’t have to look far to find a recipe for that revolution in bread making, the No-Knead Method (Erica at NW Edibles just posted her spin). But these artisan breads are usually mostly white flour. Even the “whole wheat” recipes are 1/2 to 2/3 white flour. Sadly, the world of truly whole wheat bread is remarkably barren.

I do recommend starting with a half and half ratio, to get the feel of bread making. In fact if your family is used to white bread, start there. If it’s homemade, it will be healthier. In addition to the lack of preservatives, I guess my dad instilled upon me his grandmother’s belief that homemade trumps “nutritious” as defined by science. I believe that little molecules of love transfer from your heart to your food as you cook for your family, and that this spirit ingredient sustains on a physical level.

That said, I myself find half-wheat breads an unsatisfying compromise. I love good homemade white bread, but on an everyday basis I want to eat whole grains, and if I’m going to have whole wheat bread I want it to taste fully of it’s namesake. I made 100% whole wheat bread for years, and love the strong flavor, but in recent years I’ve started using something like 6/7ths whole wheat flour.  It has taken me a lot of loaves of bread (and the acquisition of Kitchen Aid mixer) to get all the texture I want out of a mostly whole wheat dough. And to furthermore discover what it is that makes the flavor sometimes so much more delicious than other times. It’s a lifelong learning process. Bread is not magic, but like all living things, endlessly mysterious.

Once you have gotten comfortable with a basic recipe you can start unravelling the mystery and working toward your own ‘perfect loaf.’ To that end, and in celebration of my 20 year Bread Anniversary, I thought I’d offer some basic proportions and principles for the exploration of bread.

Let’s start with a dough based on 1 cup of water. This makes a small sized single loaf.

For years I thought the temperature of the water was critical, but that’s not true at all. Any temperature that feels even slightly warm, but not so hot that you can’t hold your hand under is fine. Yeasts are living organisms, just like us right? They like pretty much the same temperatures. If the water is dead cold, the yeast might actually not activate. If it’s burning hot, it could kill them. But anything in between is just a matter of the how quickly the yeast will do it’s work.

Slower or longer rising times all make a loaf of bread. They just give that loaf different flavors. The long rise times have become very popular, making a european style bread with complex flavor and a large holey crumb. I love those sour flavors on white bread, but I finally admitted to myself I’m not so fond of them on wheat bread. Shorter rising time makes a sweeter, yeasty flavor, which I personally prefer in my every day whole wheat bread.

So, the temperature of the water (and the flour and the room) will affect how long your dough takes to rise. I use water that would make a good bath for little people. Measure out 1 cup into a large mixing bowl.

Next the yeast. Here is my biggest tip for new bread makers. DO NOT USE OLD YEAST. Yeast is a living organism, I will say it as many times as I need to. It can be dried and will survive in dry form for a surprisingly long time, all things considered. But not indefinitely. If you have a jar in your cupboard from the last tenants, here’s what you should do with it. Throw it in the garbage. Do not sabotage your budding passion for baking by using old yeast. An opened jar should not be counted on to last more than a few months. You can buy a little more time by storing yeast in the freezer.

Now that we have that cleared up, how much yeast? Like every other part of this bread endeavor, it is simply not so critical as I was first led to believe. To your 1 cup of warm water you can add anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon (or even less) to 1 whole Tablespoon of yeast. Even more than the water temperature, the quantity of yeast will affect how long your loaf takes to rise, and also therefore the flavor.

The handy thing about getting to know bread on an intimate level is that you can adjust your recipe for the confines of your day’s schedule. Add more or less yeast depending on when you want to get on with the loaf shaping. Our schedule is usually to take an outing in the morning. I like to mix up the dough during the insanity of getting two kids ready to get out the door (I have a Kitchen Aid, remember? It’s relatively easy) and then I shape my loaves during the lull of nap time. When the hungries of early afternoon arrive, I am pulling fresh bread out of the oven and I look like Mom of the Year.

If that schedule sound good to you, add 1 teaspoon of yeast. I actually use 1/2 teaspoon, but I think a full teaspoon of yeast per cup of water is a good jumping off point.

In the first unorthodox No-Nonsense Recipe I posted, you mix the yeast with the flour then stir the water in. That works, I actually never had a problem with that method. But more standard is to “proof” the yeast in the warm water to jumpstart it, then add the flour and knead.

So, flour. Wheat comes in a dazzling variety. (Keep in mind that white flour is wheat flour, as in– from wheat berries. When I mean whole wheat, I will say it as so.) There are red, white, and semolina or durum varieties; furthermore they can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ depending I think on the season they grew in. The ‘hard’ wheats have a higher gluten content and will make a more cohesive bread that rises considerably higher (‘bread flour’ is made from hard wheat). Then there is the grade to which the grain is ground. Almost all whole wheat sold in the US is pretty fine, but in Britain the standard whole wheat flour (called brown flour) is relatively coarse. I am still enchanted by the memory of homemade ‘brown bread’ there. I once found some ‘graham flour’ here that resembled it, but otherwise until I get my own grinder I will have to make do with the smoother texture of standard US whole wheat.

My flour of choice for everyday bread is hard red whole wheat. Fortunately, most ambiguously labeled ‘whole wheat’ flours are red wheat, though their gluten content is variable. White wheat has a milder flavor, whole wheat pastry flour is very finely ground soft white wheat, very appropriate for cakes and muffins but not so much for bread. Hard white wheat is a bit difficult to find, but some people prefer it for bread making. I haven’t done much with semolina (or durum) flour, but I believe it has the highest gluten content of all.

Are you feeling brain twisted? Don’t sweat it too much. You can try any of these flours. If it’s wheat it will make bread. But once you have gotten comfortable with the process discovering the devil in the details is part of the fun, right?

Feel free to experiment with other flours as well. Just keep your proportions to at least 3/4 flour derived from wheat, so that you have enough gluten. If you have ‘gluten flour,’ you can add a Tablespoon per loaf with your other flours to help things along. (Rye has some gluten, not as much as wheat, but easily enough to do a half and half loaf.)

But how much flour altogether? That is the question of the day. In fact it changes with the humidity of your kitchen and the particular bag of flour. If you’ve been making bread for awhile you may have noticed that the same quantity of flour sometimes makes a softer or harder dough. I used to think it was all in my mind, then I finally found out that the absorption of different flours is quite variable. You want to start with a lesser amount, and work up. For that 1 cup of water, add 2 cups of flour, then keep adding more 1/4 cup at a time. You might need as much as one more cup of flour, but I really recommend you keep your dough as soft as you can handle. The softer a dough, the more it will rise. A very hard dough will sometimes hardly rise at all. The importance cannot be underestimated. But there is a fine line between ‘soft’ and ‘sticky,’ especially with whole wheat doughs which tend to stick anyway. I think this is the main reason my Kitchen Aid doughs rise better, you just cannot knead a very soft whole wheat dough by hand.

(Fear not, you can still make a damn fine loaf of bread by hand, I did it for my first 16 years of bread making! But more on that in the next post…)

Now that we’ve covered the essential ingredients, on to the generally expecteds.

Salt is not strictly necessary to bread, but if you ever make a loaf without it, you will morn the loss. It just tastes… flat. I do like considerably less salt than is usual. For the 1 cup of water in our exploratory un-recipe, I add a mere 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Standard is double that or more. Salt supposedly keeps the yeast in check, which is considered good, but also limits the development of gluten, which is bad. I personally have not noticed the difference when I add more or less, or when I forget it altogether, other than the obvious difference in taste.

Some kind of sweetener is pretty standard in whole wheat loaves. In addition to the bit of sweetness, honey and molasses are both hydrophillic, which means they attract moisture, keeping your loaf softer longer. This is important with wheat bread, which goes dry faster than white. I usually add in a glug of honey or a Tablespoon of brown or whole sugar.

Fat is always good, right? My beginner recipe has almost 2 Tablespoons of butter per cup of water. This is very good. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to make myself put butter into my bread. Not sure why. I no longer feel any compunction spreading it onto a finished slice…. But somehow, putting butter into the dough seems excessive. Though if I’m feeling expansive I sometimes glug in some olive oil. Like sugar, fat will help keep your finished loaf fresh longer.

You can also add anything else that strikes your fancy, in small quantities; nuts, raisins, seeds, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, herbs, cheese, pureed spinach… The options are limited only by your imagination, as they say.

It seems wrong to go on for so long about about something I am trying to say is really simple. But that’s why beginners should start with the other recipe. All this rhapsodizing is for those of you who’ve mastered the basics and are hungry for more.

It seems like a lot of things in life are extraordinarily simple and bogglingly complex at the same time. Gardening can be broken into a lifetime of scientific details, attempting to master the myriad variables. Or you can simply drop some seeds in the ground and pour water over. Human nutrition can apparently require comprehensive volumes of research, or just eat your vegetables and get lots of excersize.

If you like the boggling, check out the continuation of the saga, Bread Every Day, Part Two: Techniques.

**For a great bread making resource, check out The Bread Experience‘s list of whole grain breads. They have some fantastic recipes to widen your repetoire. She also keeps a great blog, and hosts the monthly Bake Your Own Bread Round Up that I’ve got up there in my sidebar.

What and How to Cook in Cast Iron

Wow, what a tangent, eh?

Sorry about that for all of those who just didn’t see what was so interesting, and can we get on with some more cast iron blather already?

Oh yes.

How you clean your cast iron is important, but what and how to cook in it is every bit as essential to the integrity of your fabulous new pan. Consider cooking as a part of the seasoning process, because in fact it absolutely is. Certain foods will enhance your seasoning, others will eat it right off. It’s all about the balance of oils, acids, and sugars.

First and foremost, cast iron cookery is not low fat. If you’re used to using one of those oil misters, you’ll have to come around to the whole ‘fat is not actually bad for you’ revolution and start tipping from a bottle. I have gotten increasingly liberal with the oil in my cast irons, and I find it really helps. I used to eek out the tiniest amount that would cover the pan with a super thin sheen (out of frugality, not health, I’ve always believed in fat), but the more oil I started to use in cooking, the better my pans got.

Let’s start with eggs, because isn’t that after all where the day itself often starts? Eggs are one of the most frequent things to hit my cast irons, and a offer a good explanation of general cooking advice.

Fried eggs are in the plus category. If you fry a couple of eggs in your pan every morning, it will be a great thing. Here’s how to do it: take your best seasoned pan, pour in a generous glug of oil and turn the heat on medium. One of the most important things about cooking with cast iron is to let your pan heat up, with the oil in it, until good and hot before you put the food in. This way you get a bit of last minute seasoning in, plus when the food hits the hot oil, it forms an immediate crust, and prevents sticking.

Next in importance is do not flip or stir foods too soon, give them a few minutes to form that crust. You can poke at the edge with a spatula (using metal utensils with cast iron is just fine by the way) to see how it’s going under there. When your eggs are ready to flip, they should loosen pretty easily. (If they don’t your pan needs some TLC, give it a quick stovetop seasoning after this batch of eggs) If you’re pan is looking dry, or the eggs were a bit hard to loosen, then tip some more oil in as you flip ’em.

The pan shouldn’t need to be cleaned after frying eggs. Maybe a few crusts to scrape into the trash.

How about scrambled eggs? Back when I first started to discover blogs, I found a post about how to scramble eggs in cast iron. The author apologized for directing people in such a basic activity, but then went on to do it. And I was so glad, I realized I had never really known how to scramble eggs!

Of course there are many different ways to do it and everyone has a different “perfect scrambled egg,” but like many things I have discovered as I get older, I had stubbornly clung to my easy no-nonsense way (crack eggs into pan and stir over heat) even though I really loved when other people cooked those big fluffy hunks of luscious eggs. I had never thought or wondered why my eggs were never like that, until I read that post. I still sometimes fall back on the no nonsense way, but mostly I follow her directions. In addition to making great eggs, this is definitely the best way to cook scrambled eggs as far as your cast iron is concerned. Here’s how (my apologies to you, Oh Great Inspirer who’s name and blog I’ve long forgotten and cannot therefore link to):

Heat pan over medium heat, using a smaller sized skillet will make hunkier eggs. Pour in a tablespoon or two of oil and swirl to cover. Crack your eggs into a bowl, salt to taste and beat well with a fork (I use forks all the time for cooking, they’re so damn versatile!). When the pan is hot pour the eggs in. Now, this is important if you like big hunks of eggs, do not stir for a few minutes. Let the eggs set on the bottom. Then hook that same fork underneath, grab the set egg and gently fold it over the still runny stuff. Approximately. Let cook a minute more and repeat. When most of the egg is set, you can give it a regular stir, breaking up the big chunks into smaller if you like. Turn the heat off while the eggs are still wet looking, as they will continue to cook a minute more in the heat of the pan.

If you’re using good fresh farm eggs that you feel confident about, you can go ahead and slop the cooked eggs back into the bowl you whisked the raw eggs up in, and save a dish! Unless that queeves you out. I understand. What’s one extra dish against the mountain already in the sink anyway?

Now we move farther afield, because don’t you sometimes like to make scrambled eggs with all manner of goodness thrown in? Onions, peppers, garlic are all in the neutral category, as far as cast iron goes. They’re fairly dry, and fried in oil, which is good, but I think it’s the sugars that negate that. At any rate, no problem, just make sure to, again, heat the pan first, use plenty of oil, fry to your liking, then stir in the eggs. Cheese? For some reason, when I add cheese into my scrambled eggs, they stick a little. Not bad, but enough that I have to wash the pan afterwards.

Before we leave breakfast, I want to mention pancakes. Great for cast iron! So long as you are liberal with the fat, you are essentially seasoning your pan and cooking breakfast at the same time! I like to brush a little oil in as I heat the pan, and then otherwise use butter. I’ve come around to using plenty of butter when I fry hotcakes, so they get the lovely crispy edges, and then I just skip the extra butter on top part. Yum! My daughter loves pancakes, and as long as I make them with 100% whole wheat (I use pastry flour) they last in my belly pretty well too. Cast iron griddles by the way are completely awesome. I left mine in Alaska, boo hoo.

seasoning my pans while makin' brekky. ah the multi-tasking.

How about the rest of the day?

Grilled cheese, toast, quesadillas? Fabulous for your pan.

Fried onions, fried zucchini, fried rice, anything that starts with the word fried? Fine. Your pan might need a wash, but should still be well seasoned.

How about dishes that start with frying and move on to a sauce? These are okay, but anytime you cook liquid in your cast iron you are taking it down a notch. Tomato sauce especially because it’s acidic. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, I always make spaghetti sauce in my cast iron. Just start with plenty of oil for the frying of onions part, and when dinner is over, make sure to remove your saucy dish from the pan to a non-reactive container for storage. Then wash your skillet and see how it looks. Much of cast iron care comes down to this:

After washing your pan, look at it. How much water is still clinging to it’s surface? If there is a scattering of drops across it, that’s good. If it’s a slick of wetness straight across (which it probably will be if you’ve just done spaghetti), it needs a little TLC. Just do a quick dry/season to put her back on track– set the pan on the burner on low for five minutes or until dry, brush lightly with oil and leave on that low heat for another five minutes. USE A TIMER. DO NOT LEAVE THE ROOM. I only reiterate this so many times because I have just about burned our house down more than once by thinking I’d just pop into the next room to do some small chore. This time I won’t forget, really. How can I do the same stupid shit so many times, over and over, without learning the lesson?

Meat and fish are a category unto themselves. In this case, what’s bad for the goose is great for the gander– your pan will suffer a smidge from it, but meat and fish cook brilliantly in the even heat of cast iron. I have come to think it’s the sugars that eat into the seasoning, though I don’t really know. Something leaks out as they fry and does kinda bad stuff. Again though, no matter. Just means you have to do a thorough wash and maybe a quick season afterwards. See the cast iron cleaning post for my taboo-breaking soap use on fish pans (ie: it’s okay, really).

I have to interject another annoying “how to cook something basic” suggestion here. For years (on the occasions I had it) I just cooked meat in pans without thinking much about it. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not so. In case you are new to cooking, or like me, a self-taught who has not cooked enough meat to really get on a roll, here’s how.

When a recipe calls for “browning” meat, it doesn’t just mean any old cooking. To brown meat, you need a quick shot of high heat, which sears the outside to a rich mahogany color. This gives a dark, roasted flavor and also seals in the juices. You need hot burner, but also an important ratio of meat to pan. If you have a lot of meat, cook it in more than one batch, you want only one sparse layer. You should be able to see a little skillet between pieces. If it’s one big roast just make sure your pan is at least an inch bigger all around.

Once again, heat that pan over medium. Add oil, even if it’s a fatty meat because it takes a minute for the fat to render out and you don’t want any meat to hit your pan dry. When the oil is good and hot and shimmery looking, place your meat in carefully. Turn the heat up to high. Now leave it alone for a minute or three. Then peek under a piece to see if it’s brown, and if it is, flip each piece over. If at any point your oil is smoking, turn the heat down a little. Also if you haven’t already, learn where the hot spots on your burner are (mine are always between 9 and 12 o’clock regardless the stove… Is it how I set the pan on or what?) and flip those pieces first. Once the meat is brown on both sides you can continue with cooking on low until done through how you like, or add liquid if the recipe calls for it.

This whole browning business really gives meat a meaty flavor. But it also works miracles with almost anything you fry. Browned onions are a world apart from simply cooked onions. Zucchini, to die for. Browned salmon with nothing fancier on top than salt and lemon? My absolute favorite way to eat it, and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of salmon in my day. Mushrooms you’ve hardly eaten till you’ve eaten them properly browned.

Just keep the heat high, don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir or flip until the bottom is crusted with brown gold. For me at least, this was a revelation in cooking.

Before we leave meat, I’d better mention pot roast. Cooking a roast in a deep cast iron with a lid works great. You can do it stovetop on whisperlow, in the oven, or if you have one, on the woodstove. At our home in Alaska I cooked stuff on the woodstove a lot in the winter, and cast iron is perfect. In addition to pot roasts, I also cooked pretty much anything one might cook in the oven on low heat. It took quite a bit longer, but whole potatoes in a skillet with a lid on works beautifully, as do yams, thick slices of winter squash, cornbread, not to mention stew, beans, etc, etc….

Let’s finish up with dessert, shall we? Because baking in cast iron is awesome. For awhile I was on a kick, trying to find cast iron cookie sheets (never did, they make griddles of course, but they are inconveniently sized for ovens) because I loved the even and perfectly browned crust I always got baking in my skillets. Cornbread is a classic in cast iron, but cake works good too, just grease it like any baking dish. I like to make pie in my big cast iron when I’m making pie for a crowd. Fruit is acidic though, so things with fruit on bottom like crisp and cobbler will be better off in a pyrex. You can use your cast iron, but you’ll probably have to season afterwards, and definitely don’t let that fruity goodness sit in the pan overnight or it will pick up an iron flavor.

Biscuits bake brilliantly in cast iron, as does bread. The whole artisan bread in five minutes a day revolution depends on deep, lidded cast iron pans and really does produce an amazing bakery quality crust. Those deep lidded pans are actually called Dutch ovens because people used to set them in the coals of the fire and bake things in them, with more coals heaped on top (traditional Dutch ovens have a flat lid). I did this in mine a few times, years ago, I remember it being a bit tricky. Another old technique that takes a bit of practice.

Which reminds me, I have neglected to mention one of the best parts of cast iron– camp fire cooking! I lived in a treehouse some many years ago, and we had our kitchen set up underneath, including a raised stone firepit where we did all our cooking (a bucket of water and an old board for cutting on completed the “kitchen”). The thick heavy build of cast iron helps to distribute the otherwise uneven heat of a campfire beautifully. Plus, when the flames lick it black, who can know?

I guess I could go on all day. Cast iron is so versatile, flexible and forgiving, how can you not love it? But, I’d better wrap it up, I think it’s just about time to go cook some eggs.

The Best F***ing Brownies Ever (Plus Kumquat Syrup)

Some people have occasionally thought I was one of those modest, self-defaming cooks because when I cook something ordinary, I do tend to pick apart and question what makes it less than extraordinary.

But actually, I’m just honest, curious and I have high standards.

Case in point– when I cook something mind-blowing, I have no qualms whatsoever about tooting my own horn.

And now I have to tell you about the brownies I made last night.

And no, there's nothing "special" about these brownies, excepting how fabulously delicious they are

If you’re like me, and most women and many men, you adore chocolate, and are forever seeking that Ultimate Chocolate Experience. Brownies are my personal preferred experience. In my ongoing recipe book, I have Orgasmically Good Brownies, then Brownies Revisited, then Brownies Perfected, then Perfected again and again. A few weeks ago, I borrowed a friend’s Cooks Illustrated (great type-A cooking rag, if you go for that sort of thing) with a Best Brownie recipe, determined to take my over-the-years-developed-into-a very-great brownie recipe to epic levels. Sadly, when I got it home and compared notes, I found that it was almost identical to my recipe. Validating, but disappointing.

Last night I was infected again, and somehow got the brilliant idea to use some of my kumquat puree in a batch of brownies. I do love chocolate with orange.

Oh my dear sweet jesus, why did it take me so long? It’s not hard to guess that it would taste great, but what I wouldn’t have guessed is how much more chocolatey it would taste. Somehow, unless some other form of alchemy was at play, I swear to god the kumquats literally doubled the chocolateyness of my same old, made dozens of times brownie recipe. Not only were they the best brownies I’ve ever had, I think they might just have been one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, period.

At this point I can’t really put off the kumquat story any longer. I’ve had it on my list of To-Write-Abouts for ages. And now, it’s become urgent.

Way back, months ago, my posts went on a citrus kick. Citrus just happens to be what there is here. The locally available, otherwise wasted fruit. Falling off of landscape trees all over the city. And sometimes straight into my foraging bag.

There were trash bags full of split lemons from the local monastery. A dozen grapefruits blown down into public space by the wind. Bag after bag of Satsuma mandarins brought by a neighbor, made into batch after batch of marmalade as I sought to unlock the orangey flavor I believed could be possible.

These don't have the more typical oval 'kumquat' shape, which leads me to believe they might actually be (from what I've read) 'mandarinquats'

Then I found the kumquat tree. In an abandoned lot, therefore truly available without even anything sneaky. I’d never eaten kumquats before. Their knock-ya-flat burst of flavor entranced me. Not so much for eating, although one bite’s kinda fun, but for cooking with. They are so very, very orangey. Much more orangey than an orange. I tried candied kumquats, and at first taste was in love with them. I don’t know if each individual ‘quat tastes different, or if it depends on the mood I’m in, but after that very first one, the rest tasted too bitter, and also, too sweet.

Next I tried pureeing the whole fruits (well, first I cut them in half and removed the seeds) for a potent blend of zest and juice. I froze the puree in 1-2 Tablespoon chunks and started using it for baking. Orange Pound Cake? Yum. Orange Cranberry Muffins? Yum. Orange Cream Scones. Yum!

When I used them like this, the bright, full orange flavor was so delicious. Not at all bitter. I had labored over the fact of long boiling with all my marmalade. With herbs, I know that long boiling (called decocting) sends all the delicate essential oils straight up into the atmosphere, and brews out the bitter (often most healing) properties of the plant. If you want medicine, decoct (not always, but usually); if you want delicious tea, infuse. Infusion is just the way we usually make tea– pour boiling water over, let steep. I wondered if I could somehow infuse the kumquats to preserve all those fabulous essential oils and acids that give it the zingy fresh orange flavor.

I tried making a simple sugar syrup, pureeing a big batch of quats and adding them in, then cooking it just the barest bit more, not bringing it back to a boil. Voila! An incredibly orangey syrup. Bright, zingy, sour, sweet, ROWRRR!

I’ve been meaning to try rebatching some of my (many, many jars) of marmalade. Although I don’t mind, and maybe even like the bitter flavor of the ‘decocted’ mandarins, I think it would be far better, more well rounded, with the fresh orangey kumquat flavor mixed in.

In the meantime, I’ve been throwing my frozen puree in lots of things, and loving it every time.

But then.

Came the brownies.

Dense, rich, almost truffle-like, but still most definitely a brownie. A Brownie Really and Truly Perfected.

Since I never make the same recipe exactly the same twice, and I did tweak my regular recipe in a few other ways beyond the kumquats, and who knows which thing resulted in this new divinity, here is the recipe as near to exactly the way I made it.

Oh, by the way. I know most of y’all won’t be making kumquat puree. What the hell is a kumquat some of you have been asking since the title? But I think orange zest, mixed with lemon juice would make a reasonable substitute. The acid from the juice might have been integral to the incredible texture, so don’t leave it out.

So here it is, after much ado, fanfare and wordy introduction

The Best Fucking Brownies Ever

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (fair trade of course!)
  • 3-4 Tablespoons kumquat puree (or something like 2 T each orange zest and lemon juice)
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil (that’s just what I happened to use…I’m pretty sure regular “vegetable” oil would work fine)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons sucanat or other hippie ‘dried cane juice’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/3 cup white bread flour (I’m pretty sure you could use 2/3 c. all-purpose in place of these two with just as good results)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (I usually use 1/4 t. but thought that with the acid from the juice I’d better double it)

Melt butter in a good sized sauce pan. Whisk in cocoa till smooth, then the citrus. Let sit a moment to steep while you grease your pan. I used a smaller than usual pan, which might have been one of the alchemic elements– it was my little 5×7 pyrex that fits in the toaster oven. Oh, and preheat your oven to 350. Actually, I think my toaster oven runs hot, so I only put it to 325…

Now whisk in the oil, sugar and vanilla and allow to cool a bit while you measure out and whisk together your flours and the soda. Then back to that fragrant goo. Whisk in the egg completely, then fold in the flour and scrape the lot into your pan.

Bake until not quite done. Do not overbake. This is probably the single most important factor to good brownies, and one of the hardest to achieve. Supposedly if you stick a knife in, there should be wet crumbs but no batter. But I’ve found this not very reliable, or just hard to differentiate. If you press the top with your finger it should not feel remotely liquidy, but still… soft. It certainly shouldn’t spring back like a cake. It’s mostly instinctual, and honestly, I’m still cultivating the instinct.

This batch for some reason rose, then fell…? And when Divine Intervention shouted “the brownies!” into my head, making me run for the kitchen, they were perfect. It is possible that the only reason these were the best brownies I’ve ever made is simply because this is the first time I ever took them out at that perfect moment.

So, now. You know my secret. How will I when the recipe contest now?

Kitchens, Part 3: Work Zones

For you kitchen geek out over-analyzers left in the readership, let’s move on to my Work Zones.

Here’s the three things I do most in my kitchen (besides dishes) — cut veggies, stand at the stove, and mix up baked goodies. Borrowing from permaculture design, we’ll call my work areas “zones” and assign them numbers based on how frequently I use them. Here’s my Zone 1. My most used space in the kitchen, my Main Man.

I have always thought a window over the sink was integral to a kitchen. And I haven’t exactly changed my mind, my dream kitchen is full of windows, like a greenhouse. But if I could only have one window in my kitchen why wouldn’t I (of course!) put it over my Zone 1? It’s lovely to have a window here. As you see, there’s no kind of view, but all the natural light makes me happy.

So, what you see in this photo is, left to right:

  • an old flour bag for egg shells (I’ll do a special post for waste management later)
  • bucket with lid for compost
  • citrus juicer, out on the counter because this is the season for it
  • little toy bucket full of the cube of butter my Toddler stole off the counter when I wasn’t looking and used like playdough
  • ginormous rolling pin made from marbled maple, from a dear friend
  • three kitchen notebooks–
  • my enduring Master Recipe Book is a three ring binder that I finally made myself last year. I transferred all my scribbled favorite recipes into it, in an actual subject order, which is to say, not chronological. So now when I want to look up my Peanut Butter Cookie recipe, I don’t have to remember back to which year it was that my last lover and I were house-sitting and tripping on mushrooms and devised the perfect peanut butter cookie recipe. Instead I just look under cookies. Yeah, I know, not as fun. But lots more efficient.
  • my recently acquired gorgeous Georgia O’Keefe weekly planner is my new bright idea to take over in the reminisce department where my clinically efficient recipe book leaves off. Each year I will get a new Kitchen Journal, to record my recipe experiments and food related journey through life. Banner recipes can still be put into my Master Recipe Book, in findable order, without losing the diary like quality of my old recipe book.
  • lastly I have just a cheapie notebook for my grocery lists. It needs to go up on the wall, but I haven’t gotten it done yet.

Not shown in this photo is my cutting board, which must have been in the dish drainer. Usually it just sits right there in the middle of that square of counter space. Knives are on the wall to the right, which you’ll see in a minute.

There’s a little slot of a shelf directly below this counter, which I try to keep my favorite mixing bowl and measuring cup in. But honestly, the space has more become a play shelf for the Toddler.

When I’m standing here, the stove is pretty much right behind me. So it’s pretty convenient for cutting up veggies for the skillet and other about-to-go-on-the-stove work.

We’ll call the stove area Zone 2, since I probably spend just slightly less time standing in front of it.

In Cordova I had a lovely pot hanging bar above the stove, which I adored. Pots should always hang. For one thing, they don’t have to be completely dry to put away, which is especially useful for cast irons as they should never be left horizontal with water sitting in them. Also, I think hanging pots are gorgeous, in fact I love anything hanging in a kitchen as it breaks up the boring single flat angle of the ceiling. You may have noticed in my Cordova kitchen all kinds of shit hanging everywhere, which I know some folks would hate. But most importantly of course, hanging pots are ever so convenient. If you put pots in a cupboard you have to stack them, which means to get the one you want, you have to unstack them. A-noying! If you ask me. This also leads to lazy people, like myself, cluttering up the stovetop because we can’t be bothered to put our favorite pot and skillet back in the damned cupboard every time (hence here my cast iron unapologetically lives on one burner of the stove). When you’ve already got the coffee pot and tea kettle hanging around, it gets to be some coveted real estate stove-top.

So, back to reality. Since I can’t hang my pots here in my New Orleans kitchen, I keep my three most used on the shelf below the baking counter, which is to say, just to the left when I’m standing at the stove. It’s not too bad, it works.

Then, as you can see, coffee pot (which gets used twice/day) and kettle (at least once) live right there. Kind of annoying, but again, it works.

Utensils. I really need a jar by the stove. I hate utensils in a drawer. They get all hooked up on each other, and the one you want always migrates to the bottom. Plus, really you mostly only ever use 5 or 6 utensils right? I put the occasionals in a drawer to fester, and keep my essentials right where I want them. Note that I do try to keep one whisk and my rubber spatulas in the drawer under my baking counter.

Spices and oils, as I mentioned in my first Kitchens post, should not live above the stove. But that’s where I’ve got them, so’s they’re handy. Oh Calamity, you renegade you.

To the left of the stove (and the right of my Zone 1) is my baking area, which I’m labeling Zone 3. I definitely don’t bake every day, but probably every other.

So, this area was not really in existence till two weeks ago, when I found the computer desk (way over on the left) that allowed me to move all the shit that didn’t need to be front and center, outa the damn way! I am so happy to now be the proud owner of such a lovely little Baking Center.

On the little shelf above is all my flours. Whole wheat pastry flour, hard red wheat for bread, white bread flour, and white all-purpose. Also a big bag of fair trade sugar, my baking powder and soda, and pumpkin pie spice (which is just a great blend of my fave sweet spices).

As you can see, I have all my measuring cups out and handy, spoons too, which just delights me. I hate digging around for measuring cups. And my Kitchen Aid (quite lucky for me, the red model was on sale when I went to buy it) out so I don’t have to lift that MF out from under the counter every time I want to make bread.

The toaster oven is actually where I have been doing the bulk of my baking since we moved here. I suspect it might not save as much energy as I hope, since it’s not insulated like a regular oven and the door doesn’t have any kind of gasket, but it feels less wasteful to bake in… do I get any points for that? It came (from the thrift store of course) with that funny little rack/stand you can sort of see on top, which is just perfect for setting a hot pan from the oven on to cool.

In front of the toaster oven is my bread board. And over to the left you see, a roll of toilet paper (I have allergies which give me a perpetually runny nose, I’m never far from my TP), a container of peanut butter, and our (empty) granola jar. More on these later.

Under the counter there’s space for a few pots (you’ll notice my two most used are not there, because they’re always either in use, dirty, or in the drying rack), and some baking dishes. All those egg cartons are for my worm bin, which still does not involve worms, but really we’ll have to save that for another post altogether.

Okay, jesus, that’s enough for today! Next up: Micro-Zones!

Days 5 and 6: Holiday Baking Party

Well, party of one. Unless you count the Toddler, who does help measure the spices, lick the beaters and steal chunks of dough.

My sister works for Fed-Ex, which means instead of extra time off, she works overtime for the holidays. So for the second year in a row my Christmas present for her will be all our fave holiday goodies, that she doesn’t have time to bake.

In the box will be:

Stollen. (There’s s’posed to be a double dottie doo-hickie on that thar ‘o’) This is the German Christmas bread with the powdered sugar on top. Except that over the years I’ve perverted it to suit me. I skip all the nasty dyed, candied fruit and just use good old fashioned raisins and sliced almonds. The dough is rich with butter and eggs, but just slightly sweet. Most importantly, and heretically, I use a heavy Danish hand with the cardamom. It’s the premier flavor in my Stollen, and really makes it, I think. Recipe follows.

Russian Tea Cakes. The little butter and powdered sugar bombs. Gotta love those suckers.

Molasses Cookies. The soft kind. My recipe rolls them in granulated sugar before baking, so they get all crackly and sparkly. Very pretty, but also really yummy. I add a little fresh grated ginger for extra kick.

Cinnamon Orange Truffles. These really dress up the box. But in fact, didja know that truffles are super easy to make? Especially with my special technique. See below for the secret.

All these things hold pretty well during the week it takes a priority mail box to ship at x-mas. The Stollen will appear pretty stale after a week, but freshens right up in the toaster, and is quite delicious. You must wrap each kind of cookie separately, or you’re recipient will get soft tea cakes, and hard molasses cookies. And the truffles have to be wrapped individually, or they’ll stick together. I like to pretty up a (re-purposed of course) big chocolate box with some ribbon and paper snowflakes. I think this makes a lovely gift. Not so stodgy as old aunt Verna’s box of stale, broken up, mysteriously waxy tasting Christmas cookies. Bless her heart.

Stollen (from ze Germans!)

This recipe makes 2-4 loaves

  • 2 Tablespoons yeast
  • 3/4 cup warm (not hot) water
  • 1 1/4 cups warm milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons cardamom– I know it’s expensive, but if you skimp on this your bread will be more German, but less Calamity
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 6+ cups white (pref. bread) flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins
  • 1 cup sliced almonds (slivered are okay, but whole won’t work)
  • butter + powdered sugar for the top

Mix yeast and water and let sit ten minutes. Add everything else up through the flour, and then just half the flour. Beat vigorously with a stout spoon until your arm gives out, hopefully 3-5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir till you can’t anymore, then turn out onto your counter-top and knead for 2-4 minutes, adding more flour as necessary to keep from sticking. You’ll probably need at least another cup, maybe more, but don’t add too much, the dough should be luxuriously soft and supple. Like a just-nursed breast. Cover dough with plastic (I use a clean trash bag) and let rise for an hour or so, until doubled in bulk and when you poke it with your finger, the dough doesn’t spring back at all. Cut into 2-4 pieces. 4 makes good gift size loaves. Of course, you can do 1 big loaf for your own greedy self, and 2 small gift loaves…

To form loaves you can either go simple with just a log shape, or fancy festive with a nice 3 or 4 strand braid. I’m not going to tell you how to braid dough. Google it.

Place loaves on well greased pans, with plenty of room for expansion, cover again and let rise 40-60 minutes, till the dough looks like it did before when you poke it. Except that halfway through the rise, start your oven up at 350. Bake 25-40 minutes, depending on how thick your loaves are. Till nicely golden brown. Watch the bottoms though, with all the sugar, these like to burn on bottom. Or maybe it’s ‘cuz I always fill my oven so damn full the heat can’t circulate properly….

Cool 10 or 15 minutes on a wire rack, then rub a stick of butter all over the tops. Holding the rack over a baking sheet to catch the extra, sift powdered sugar generously on top. Do this once more after completely cool, just to touch up.

If you’re sending them, wait until absolutely, 100% cool before wrapping in a double layer of plastic.

Cinnamon Orange Truffles

You can use plain old chocolate chips, and these will be divine, and everyone will be impressed. But if you use some part good, bittersweet chocolate I promise you, you won’t regret it. The butter is optional. My special patented technique makes square truffles that look like fudge, but oh man, look out! These puppies blow fudge right outa the water, and are 12 times easier to make.

This recipe makes a bunch. If you’re just making them for your own family, make a 1/3 recipe.

1 cup cream

zest of one orange

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3 Tablespoons butter

18 oz chocolate

Bring the first three ingredients to a simmer and remove from heat. Dump in chocolate (if you use any bar chocolate, chop it up to the size of chips first) and butter and let sit five or ten minutes. Erstwhile, line a 7×9, 8×8, or 9×9 inch baking dish with parchment paper, fold the paper so that it goes up the sides with a clean fold, then fold it over the top edge, down, so that it’s kind of held in place instead of popping back up out the top. When all the chocolate is melted, get a whisk in there and stir until smooth and velvety. Once every bit of chocolate and butter is stirred into the divine homogeny, pour the lot into the parchment lined pan, taking care not to let it get inside or behind your corner folds. Let cool to room temp, then cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

The next day remove the brick of chocolate by the parchment handles and move to the freezer for 30 minutes. Don’t leave too long though, you don’t want it to actually freeze, just get extra cold. When it’s good and cold, set on a a cutting board, and cut into small, bite sized squares. But here’s the thing, the only catch to this easy way, to keep ’em pretty you’ve got to wash the knife blade in hot water between every cut.

Now, if you want to just set them on a plate for serving at a party, you can roll them in cocoa powder and then plate them. But if you want to ship them, or keep them around awhile (they keep quite a long time in the fridge, like weeks) you should wrap each one individually in plastic wrap. In which case, you don’t need to cocoa powder ’em. And they’re much prettier not cocoa-ed, though the cocoa coated round ones are how they got their name (cuz they look a lot like the black truffle fungi). There’s no fancy look to these truffles, just deep down intensely chocolately goodness.

Note: These are rich! I cut them in inch by inch squares, but that’s too big really. Any but the most hard core chocoholic will want to share one that big. So for gift giving, keep that in mind. Four is a nice gift for a couple. Eight is decadent. Any more would just be too much.

Bread Evangelizing

fresh baked bread

I was on my way to the Whole Wallet, errr, Foods the other day to stock up on ingredients for another baking day, when I ran into one of the meetup mamas. As soon as I said “baking day” she got a gleam in her eye and said, “Do you bake your own bread?” When I said yes, she practically jumped up and down, saying, “Will you teach me? Maybe we could do a meetup..?” So that’s the plan, for this next Monday. Six mamas will come over with kiddos in tow and hopefully things will be un-chaotic enough that they can actually learn a thing or two.

I love the idea, anyway. Mamas getting together and pooling knowledge and skills. My dream is that it will work beautifully and turn into a regular thing. I feel that I have a fair number of skills to share, and I would love the opportunity to learn some new ones.

Bread is a great place to start. I’m somewhat of an evangelist when it comes to homemade bread. Here’s the invite I sent out for the group:

“Learn to Make Your Own Wholesome Homemade Bread!

-It’s easy, less than 30 minutes of work for 2 loaves of bread. No fancy equipment.
-It’s cheap! Make delicious, FRESH whole wheat bread for about $1/loaf!
-It’s healthy. Not so much sugar and sodium as store bought, and no preservatives!
-Entice your husband, wife, or other significant back into the honeymoon phase with the smell of baking bread (or woo random strangers off the street!)
-It’s de-fabu-licious!

Finally, when the kiddos just want bread and butter for dinner, you won’t feel quite so guilty…”

If you want to join the fun, here’s my first bread recipe, which made me a convert so long ago. I still know it by heart, even though I haven’t used it in years. This is an ultra basic no-frills technique that bread purist will scoff at, but it’s easy! and delicious!  Especially good to give a beginner the success they need to inspire further bread pursuits! After you’ve gotten more comfortable with the whole process you can start fiddling with it. I’ll make a “fiddling with it” post someday soon.

Calamity Jane’s No-Nonsense Everyday Whole Wheat Bread

This recipe makes 2 loaves.

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 cups white flour (preferably bread flour, but all-purpose will work fine)
  • 3 T gluten flour (this is optional, I only recently started adding gluten flour. It makes your bread more cohesive and chewy)
  • 2 Tablespoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted (you can use oil, works fine, and you don’t have to dirty an extra dish for melting…)
  • 2 1/2 cups warm not hot! water

Measure all the dry ingredients into a big bowl, stir it up good, then measure the wet stuff right onto the top. With a stout wooden spoon, stir it up until it becomes too hard to stir, then dump the lot out onto a floured countertop. Let the kids go feral and the phone ring off the hook while you get yer hands in there and work all that messy looking stuff into a nice cohesive dough, adding more flour as necessary to make it workable and keep the sticking to a minimum. Add just a little at a time to avoid adding too much, you want the dough soft (this is actually one of the only tricky parts, too stiff a dough will make a thick hard loaf, but since different flours in different climates absorb different amounts of water, I can’t tell you exactly how much flour you’ll need. Probably at least another cup, maybe 2, possibly more. Just keep chanting ‘soft dough, soft dough’ and bare in mind that it will be annoyingly sticky, that’s normal, wheat dough is always sticky.)

Ideally you would knead the dough for ten minutes, but you’ll be tired after five, and really, five is fine. Even three will work. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic, and let rise for about an hour. Checking whether dough is fully risen is the other tricky part, and another thing I can’t give you any exact directions for because it will take dramatically longer or shorter depending on how warm it is, how wet your dough was, etc. The idea is to poke your finger in to it, if it springs back it’s not ready. When it’s ready, the dough will just hold the indented shape of your finger. The first few times, check your dough frequently so you can see what it looks like when it’s not done, half done, 3/4 done, and done. If you wait too long after it’s done, it will fall. Fortunately, this first rising is not important to get perfect, it’s your practice round.

Anyway, whenever you’ve determined it’s done rising, dump it out onto your counter again, cut it into two pieces, and with each piece press into a rough rectangle and roll tightly into a log, the length of your bread pan. It would have been handy to grease up your bread pans before you got your hands doughy. Set the logs into those greased pans, cover with plastic and let rise again.

They won’t take as long to rise the second time, maybe 40 minutes. Keep checking them. After about 20 minutes you’ll want to start your oven at 350 so it’s good and hot by the time the bread’s risen.

Bake for about 50 minutes, till the top is nicely browned and the loaf sounds hollow when you thump on the bottom.

Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before you try cutting into it. Enjoy piping hot with organic butter!

*** Post Script: When we made this recipe for the meetup it was great, but I’m used to a much wheatier loaf, and found it kind of boring. Starting with half and half white to wheat is good to get your bearings, I really recommend it. Then, if you like denser, darker, wheatier bread start using 1 cup more of wheat flour (and 1 cup less white) each time till you arrive at your perfect loaf. I made 100% whole wheat for years. Lately I’ve been doing about 80% wheat.

Also, I ought to mention that trying to teach/learn anything with 5 toddlers squealing and writhing at our feet was fairly hopeless. I like to think they at least left with a new motivation….

A Typical Day

Ever wonder what everyone else does with their day? Here’s our Today, a typical day for us of late.

Not so typically, I got a full hour to myself this morning, before the toddler woke up. I used it to write a blog that got sucked away into the internet version of the sock-black-hole. Goddamn it.

Toddler woke up. Breakfast of Green Eggs and Salm(on)– (This is a modified version of my dad’s invention to get kids to eat healthy. The special name and hoopla is unnecessary for Toddler who loves salmon and spinach. But it’s a tasty brekky, so we eat it whenever I have the where-with-all to do more than plop granola in front of her while I drink my coffee. ie: not often) Fry some onion up in plenty butter, add a generous handful of frozen spinach and some home canned smoked salmon (my dad used chopped up frozen salmon burgers from Costco) Cook till thawed, add eggs and a little cheddar if you like. If yer kiddos are against spinach, and you’re trying to play up the Dr. Seuss angle, whiz up the spinach and eggs in the blender first, so you’ll truly have green eggs.

cooking GE&S

A cold day today, a great day for baking! Started a new batch of bread and realized I was out of flour. Filled the sink to wash the looming pile of dishes, and there was instantly crying and yelling from both the shorties in the family at once.

At 9:30 Hubby went off on his bike for school, and I rallied as fast as I could to get all three of us ready to go to Monday morning music at the nearby Parenting Center. (It should really be called the Children’s Center– they have a giant play room with all kinds of great toys and play mats open anytime to members ($65/year) plus Monday morning music and Wednesday morning crafts) It’s only 5 blocks away, so we walked. Me with the Babe strapped on, wheeling the empty stroller, Toddler walking beside and “helping.” We stayed for an hour after the music program, so the Toddler could play with the other kiddies. I’m doing my best to provide her with opportunities to be around other kids. More on that quest in another post…

Then we walked to the store to get more flour, this time Toddler in the stroller. At home, got the dough made and rising. Lunch of salmon salad on the last of the old bread. Kind of tired of carrying Baby, whose been in the mei tai all morning. Tried to set him down. He woke up. Sat down to give him one peaceful nursing session. Then tried to put him back down for some of what we call “project time” (independent learning, ie: staring all around with those big horse eyes) while I filled the sink yet again to get back at the dishes. Not happy. Not in the mood for project time. Back in my arms I saw he was sleepy again, or- still, however you look at it. Didn’t take too much walking and singing and he was asleep, and then, praise jesus! lay-down-able!

Toddler was meanwhile playing sweetly by herself in the living room, not even ripping or spilling or anything. So I got back to the dishes while the water was still hot. Phew! Whoever thought you’d be thankful to “get to” wash the dishes? Ah, motherhood.

Then, being around 3-ish, it seemed a good time to set the toddler down in front of the boob tube (ever since the naps faded out, at 1 1/2! I’ve allowed myself to plug her in for an hour or so in the afternoon. We don’t have tv, but we have several videos, which she seems quite happy to watch over and over. Oh, the guilt!)

And a good time for me to have that Second Cup (coffee) and blog a little more. Hopefully this one will stick.

After this break, I’ll hop up and form my dough into loaves, make an apple pie, some cookie dough, and a batch of granola (gotta fill the oven, it’ll get some yams too for dinner) At 4:30 Papa comes home, he and toddler always have a big time together until dinner.

(editor’s note: this over expectation of what I could accomplish between 4:00 and dinner time resulted in a late dinner and resultant Toddler meltdown)

Dinner will be two little Louisiana wood ducks! Traded from a friend for salmon. I considered roasting them in the oven with everything else, but I think I’ll pan fry them instead so their skin gets yummycrisp. Those yams and some frozen veggies will make dinner a quick proposition. With– don’t forget!– apple pie for dessert. I almost never follow a recipe for apple pie, but this recipe from Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook is just too intriguing!

(editor’s second note: the duck skin did not get crispy, just rubbery. The apple pie was not a pie exactly– it was really good, but super rich and sweet. I like apple pie for it’s simple not-to-sweet appley flavor with contrasting savory crust. Think I’ll stick to me own recipe, which is also much easier)

Then, between 8 and 9 pm, two adults plus two kiddos equals all hands on deck for bedtime! Once they’re both finally down, I probably just crash into bed, and Hubby stays up to do homework. But we do have a good looking netflix that we’ve had and not watched for like a week (I’ve got to cancel our subscription, there’s just no time anymore) and I might rally to watch it, just so we can send the damn thing back.

And that’s a day! Holy smokes!

PS. There follows night. In which I get anywhere from 5-7 hours of real sleep.  Repeat ad infinitum. Or, oh yeah, only until the growth of said kiddos changes everything.

Baking Bonanza!

As promised by the weatherman, the temperature dipped enormously last night. There was a helluva storm bringing it in too. Even though the sliver of sky I can see from our bed is small, when there’s lightening it flashes white even through my eyelids. I love to lay there with my eyes closed and “see” the lightning, and count till the thunder. Last night though, there was so much of both, you could hardly tell which thunder belonged to which lightning. Impressive storm.

And oh the cool it brought! When Hubby first opened the door this morning, cold air sucked through! I was gleeful. I almost immediately started planning my baking day.

Bread for sure, and granola. I am tired of paying $5 a loaf for decent bread, and you can’t even buy very good granola, it’s always too sweet. Then, since the oven would be on anyway, I’d been wanting to make blondies forever, and I had a thing of cottage cheese in the freezer needing used, and some leftover spaghetti sauce– lasagna! Also a few yams I might as well throw in.

I haven’t even turned on the oven since we got here. Can’t bear to when it’s so hot, and besides it would be absurd when we’re running the AC to cool our house. But in Cordova I baked all the time. Like at least every other day. All our bread, muffins, pies, granola, etc, etc. I haven’t exactly missed the baking, I’ve had a real lazy energy since we got here, but I miss the homemade, wholesome baked goods like crazy.

So right off I started a batch of bread. Should have known better how things go.

I thought we’d walk to the store while the dough rose, because of course, I wasn’t prepared for my baking day. I needed oats, honey and lasagna noodles. But the Toddler was not keen on a walk, for some reason. Just for the sake of contrary-ness I figure. We puttered around the house until Husband came home, then I shot out on my own to the store (on my own of course means with Baby strapped on front). I tried to be quick, was quick really. But the bread was ready to go into the oven by the time I got back. Which made the rest of my cooking somewhat of a frenzy.

crash kitchen
crash kitchen: this is basically all of the counter space in my New Orleans kitchen

If I had any sense I would have taken the not-walking-to-the-store time to clean the kitchen and prep a few things. I mean the whole point of this was to get everything in the oven at roughly the same time, right? Instead I madly dashed around the kitchen, making flour clouds and tomato sauce spills, and quite a pile of dishes. Finally got the lasagna and blondies in a little after one, about halfway through the bread’s hour.

Now all the 350s are done, the oven’s down to 250, and the granola’s cookin. Fun, fun, fun. Still dirty dishes in the sink, but hell– Husband took Toddler to the zoo, Baby’s sleeping delightfully, what’s a Mama to do but steal a few minutes to herself, with a cup of coffee she doesn’t need (oooh, I can feel the headache coming on already. I’m too hot, nursing, and always bordering on dehydration here to have a second, afternoon cup) and try to make her morning feel valid and productive…

Here’s a link to my Grrr-Nola:  Make Your Own Breakfast Cereal and Stick it to the Kellog Corp. recipe from my old blog.

My No-Nonsense Every Day Bread recipe will have to wait for another post.

In the meantime, here’s my favorite “Perfect” lasagna recipe, roughly following the Cook’s Illustrated one

**No boil lasagna noodles took me years to come around to, but, I finally discovered that they really are pretty good. And wow does it make lasagna more actually do-able, on a real day, in real life. If you use leftover spaghetti sauce like I did today (I stretched it out by mixing it with a can each of chopped tomatoes and paste, whizzed up in the blender, don’t forget salt and a little basil or something) it comes together super quick. Mostly just a matter of thawing frozen stuff.

1- 15oz carton ricotta or cottage cheese (cheaper, and almost as good)

1 egg

1/2 to 1 lb frozen spinach, thawed, all the liquid squeezed out

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated parmesan

15 no-boil lasagna noodles, CI recommends Barilla brand

about 3/4 lb (3 cups) grated mozzarella

at least 2 quarts of sauce, slightly on the thin side, so the noodles can suck some up

Mix the first 5 ingredients. Don’t forget to squeeze the spinach out, you can save the juice if you want for bread, soup, or even to thin your tomato sauce if need be.

Layer as usual (sauce first, then noodles, ricotta/spinach mixture, cheese, sauce, noodles, etc, finishing with noodles, then sauce, then cheese) being careful to make your layers super thin. That’s what I think makes it “Perfect,” and what took me years (and the CI recipe) to make myself do. Oh, yeah, 3 noodles per layer, in a 9 x 13 in pan. There will be a good inch between noodles, and around edges. That’s ok, they expand as they cook and fill those gaps. Also, when you lay down the ricotta mixture, spread as thin as you can over each noodle, don’t put any in those gaps.

Cover with aluminum foil (that’s the bummer about this recipe. You can use a baking sheet as a lid if you’ve got a big enough one that’s not warped. The no-boil noodles need all the moisture though, so don’t leave it uncovered, or poorly covered) and put in a 375 oven. After 15 mins, remove the foil. Bake 25 mins more, or until golden and bubbly-icious. Cool 10 mins (don’t skip the cooling, or it will be way too soupy, not to mention burn your tongue right out of your mouth!)