Saturday, December 22, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge: Buche de noël

This month’s Daring Bakers challenge, is, appropriately, a bûche de noël (a yule log: cake wrapped rolled and decorated to resemble the log of a tree). The recipe was developed from Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri and features a plain genoise cake (which I elected to flavor with chocolate) with buttercream frosting. The additional twist: the log had to be decorated with either marzipan or meringue mushrooms. I was up for the challenge, and, as usual, left the baking to the very last moment. Next month I swear I’ll get a head start on whatever is thrown our way! Looking at the recipe, all seemed straightforward except for the mushrooms (the recipe, btw, called for 48 mushrooms, I’m still not sure why!). I am no stranger to buttercream so that seemed like a snap. I’ve never attempted genoise cake, but the Bostoni cream pie of two challenges ago called for a chiffon cake that is not that dissimilar from a genoise cake, and that turned out beautifully so I figured if I broke down the components and made the recipe over a three day period, leaving the most time and room for error for the mushrooms, the recipe would be easy enough to accomplish.

I was dreading the mushrooms, but surprisingly they turned out to be to be fairly easy and not terribly time-consuming (I went with meringue). They were even, well, pretty cute. I figured I’d licked the worst part. I made the buttercream on day two and loved the coffee / rum flavoring. I could have eaten the frosting alone but I held back and pushed on. Then it was on to the cake. Overconfident at this point, I decided to make two cakes. I certainly had enough mushrooms to decorate a small army of cakes. This morning, I embarked on the cakes. I whipped, flavored, folded, poured, leveled and baked. I followed all the instructions to a T. Everything looked ok. At least, there was no obvious sign of impending doom. I read and re-read the cautionary note that warned that over-baking would result in a dry cake that would be difficult to roll. I was committed to not over-baking.

And that, my friends, is where the happy story ends. My cake never quite reached that perfect balance of spongy-most but not over baked. It sagged in the middle. It crisped on the edges. I was never able to resuscitate one of the cakes. The other, I coaxed. I cajoled. Gosh darned I was going to get that baby to roll. R stepped in to talk me down: “Just get it to a state you can photograph,” he offered. I frosted. I decorated. It was a dry, sad, decidedly un-springy cake. I stepped back and looked at my creation objectively. It really didn’t LOOK that bad. I photographed. I was bummed. There was no time and no energy left to try it again. Maybe it was the fact that I doubled the batter. Maybe it was the fact that I baked the two cakes simultaneously. Maybe it was the fact that my oven is well, really cheap, and never held a constant temperature in its life.

As every good Daring Baker should say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Joyeux Noël, everyone. I look forward to many new cooking and baking adventures in the new year.

For the recipe and more details, please see the hosts' (and the Daring Bakers founders) websites, Lis (La Mia Cucina) and Ivonne (Cream Puffs in Venice). Thank you for hosting and for the challenge!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Curried pumpkin soup

Last month, Heidi from 101cookbooks wrote up a recipe for Thai-spiced pumpkin soup that looked and sounded delicious. I must admit, in general, soup is not my favorite. I much prefer a more varied, crunchy meal to soup: I get bored quickly. But as the weather has turned, and knowing my husband is a soup-aholic, I have found my thoughts wandering toward soups. This particular soup sounded wonderful.

When I do go for soup, I am generally drawn to spicy and flavorful. It’s the spices that attracted me to Heidi’s pumpkin soup. Trolling down the produce aisle last weekend, I noticed that pre-sliced, packaged butternut squash was in abundance. I immediately remembered the pumpkin soup and decided to put my own spin on the recipe based on what was available and easy. I snatched up a few packages of cubed butternut squash and a fresh, crusty baguette and set off to whip up a batch of soup.

My take on the recipe uses (as mentioned) butternut squash and a combination of powdered Indian curries vs. the red Thai curry paste that I did not have. I followed Heidi’s method but ended up with a soup that looks thicker than her version, and garnished it with crème fraîche (and scallions), which provided a nice counterpoint to the heat.

I sprinkled the squash with kosher salt and wrapped it in a foil packet with a few generous pats of butter. I roasted the squash at 375° for an hour or so until the cubes were tender, and then, similar to the pumpkin soup recipe, put the squash in a large saucepan on the stove over medium heat, brought it to a simmer with a cup or so of coconut milk, 2 teaspoons+ of yellow (turmeric-rich) curry, a teaspoon+ of a spicy curry mix, ¼ teaspoon+ ginger, and some very generous pinches of salt. I used my immersion blender off-heat to purée the mixture, brought it back to a simmer, and added a little water to thin it out. I adjusted the seasonings until I had a flavorful soup I was happy with. The whole apartment smelled wonderful!

I could easily see a few additional variations on this soup. It would make a very nice amuse-bouche in a little shot glass topped with some crème fraîche. I could easily see a lower fat version made with plain yogurt vs. coconut milk or a yogurt-coconut milk combination. Of course, there are many different curry blends to experiment with and I’m sure all would work well. The addition of some fresh julienned ginger as a garnish instead of scallion would be nice too. Thanks Heidi for the idea!

P.S. My father-in-law made the mug I used for a soup bowl - isn't it lovely?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lemon and garlic chicken

I was lucky to spend my friend Alison’s last day of maternity leave with her. We decided to cook dinner together and, even more fun, grocery shop at one of my very favorite New York places, Essex market.

Essex market is a 65-year-old covered market in New York’s Lower East Side that was originally opened to get pushcarts off the crowded streets. The market has been shaped by the population of the neighborhood’s inhabitants and the city’s history, initially catering to the Jewish and Italian residents, then adapting to a new Puerto Rican population and, in the 1970s, suffering a decline as supermarkets and other shops with street fronts offered a more convenient and popular way to shop. The New York City Economic Development Corporation assumed direct control of the Market in 1992 when a previous effort to develop and reinvigorate the market failed. The market has been in a state of transformation and resurgence, and over recent years, a spate of off-beat gourmet shops have moved in alongside some of the more traditional Hispanic green grocers and market stalwarts like the fishmonger and butcher.

The market is a wonderful, eclectic place full of high-quality products and great buys. Apart from the dreaded schlepping of groceries home after an excursion, I love any excuse to roam around and shop the small stores, grab lunch at one of the small counters outside a restaurant outpost, or just check out the interesting ethnic products on offer. I love the experience of dealing with shop owners directly and love that each shop is highly specialized. Some of my favorites include Formaggio Essex, an outpost of a Cambridge, Massachusetts Italian gourmet store, Saxelby Cheesemongers, run by a young and very passionate foodie who largely sources local cheeses, and the main Hispanic grocery store that sells the largest avocados I have ever seen.

Alison and I conferred about recipes at a table by the entrance. and then set off to shop. We picked up cheeses at Saxelby’s, a chicken at the butcher, shallots, herbs, salad greens, French beans and other vegetables at the grocer, and then headed home with shopping bags hanging from every finger. What was on the menu? New recipes from Donna Hay to try of course: A one-pot chicken with lemon and garlic that looked fairly simple, and hey, who doesn’t love a one-pot meal? A baked risotto that, yes, requires no laborious stirring, adding liquids, and re-stirring: just baking. A great green salad. Steamed French beans. Some Rancho Gordo beans slowly cooked with onions, celery, carrot and garlic and a dessert Alison brought from a bakery she likes in Brooklyn.

Lemon and garlic chicken (adapted from Donna Hay)

1 lemon, halved
1 1/2 lb whole chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and cracked black pepper
12 shallots, peeled
1 head garlic, halved (remove very papery outer layers but keep garlic head intact)
1/4 cup brandy
2 cups riesling
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
steamed green beans to serve

Place the lemon in the cavity of the chicken and secure the legs with chicken string. Brush the chicken with half of the oil, sprinkle generously with sea salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining oil, shallots and garlic and cook for 10 minutes or until starting to caramelize. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the chicken and cook, breast side down, until chicken skin releases from the pan and is golden brown. Turn and cook on each remaining side in the same manner. Return the garlic and shallots to the pan, add the brandy and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the wine, stock, and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for a further 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the tarragon and serve with green beans. Serves 4.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chocolate pots de crème (in pretty little bowls)

My Mud Australia baby noodle bowls arrived (and did not disappoint). I couldn’t wait to use them for a baked dessert: what to bake? I knew right away where to look. I recently purchased a very lovely dessert cookbook from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Everything about the cookbook is appealing: it’s printed on delicious, thick, matte paper and has wonderful, mouth-watering photographs (my only complaint is that I wish there were more). It’s full of great recipes for sophisticated basics, most of which appear to be fairly easy to prepare. I knew it would not disappoint when I saw that Alice Waters wrote the foreword. I can’t wait to try their brioche bread pudding recipe (always looking for a good bread pudding) and some of their savory baked goods are very tempting too. The book is organized by theme (each chapter introduced by an explanatory foreword) and there is an entire chapter devoted to cream desserts that immediately drew me in. The chocolate pot de crème recipe (a baked pudding like a sophisticated flan) seemed like the perfect inaugural dish for my pretty little bowls. I’m also excited to try a classic chocolate pudding, a molten chocolate cake, and individual mini soufflés (if I can muster up the courage).

The dessert was very quick to assemble and fit into six baby noodle bowls perfectly. I shared all but one with neighbors and got great feedback. After all, who doesn’t like a creamy chocolate pudding? I served it with unsweetened whipped cream. You can make the desserts ahead and easily refrigerate them for several days. They can be served warm or cold.

For me, the pretty bowls made the dessert! I am a sucker for simple, white pottery with thin walls and an organic feel. There are so many beautiful hand-made porcelain and ceramic vessels I have discovered recently and would just love to collect. I have to hold myself back from loading up. For another beautiful alternative to the simple Mud bows, check out the oven-safe bowls by White Forest Pottery here. To check out a few other discoveries, see Anne Black’s pottery (particularly the tilt bowl) and Nathalie Derouet's line - so lovely!

Chocolate pots de crème (from Tartine by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson)
(makes 8 individual custard cups or ramekins with 3/4 cup capacity)

6 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 3/4 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp sugar
pinch salt
8 large egg yolks
Unsweetened softly whipped cream for serving

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Have ready custard cups or ramekins. Choose a baking pan or baking dish for a water bath large enough to accommodate custard cups or ramekins without touching, and deep enough to hold water that will reach three-fourths of the way up the sides of the molds once they are added. Pour enough water into the pan to reach about halfway up the sides of the pan, and place the pan in the oven while it is heating.

Pour water to a depth of about 2 inches into a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a gentle simmer. Select a stainless-steel bowl (or other heat-proof bowl) that will rest securely in the rim of the pan over, not touching, the water. Put the chocolate in the bowl, place over the water, and heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate melts and is smooth. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, and salt, place over medium heat, and heat to just under a boil. Place the egg yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk until well blended. When the cream mixture is ready, remove it from the heat and slowly pour it into the melted chocolate, whisking to incorporate. Slowly add the chocolate-cream mixture to the egg yolks, again whisking well to incorporate. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher or large measuring cup. You should have about 1 quart.

Line up the custard cups or ramekins on the countertop, and pour the mixture into them, dividing it evenly. Pull out the oven rack holding the water bath and place the molds in the bath. Pour in more water if necessary to reach three-fourths of the way up the sides of the molds.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. To test for doneness, jiggle one of the molds; the center of the custard should still be a bit wobbly, but the outside should appear set. Remove the water bath. Let cool. The custards will continue to cook and set up as they cool. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream. (Note: my baking time was considerably longer, probably because I used a large roasting pan and had more water to heat than was used in this recipe. I baked until the custard was set as described and the texture turned out perfectly)

(Note: save the unused egg whites for an egg-white omelet, might as well enjoy the dessert and have something virtuous the next day!)

p.s. Coincidentally, the current Sugar High Friday food blogging event's theme is "pudding" so I've submitted this post for the roundup which is being done by Kochtopf.
SHF #38 - The proof is in the Pudding!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pumpkin cranberry bread

I know we are past the very narrow window in which we consume pumpkin, but I have a belated recipe to share. I thought it might be nice to make a pumpkin bread to give out on Thanksgiving for the next day, and found the answer to my recipe hunt on one of my favorite design blogs, Design*Sponge. In addition to all of the food blogs I avidly follow, there are a number of design blogs I check in on regularly and am always inspired by the fresh ideas and creativity I find. Design*Sponge is doing a weekly series called “In the Kitchen With . . .” in which a designer is interviewed and shares a recipe. A couple of weeks ago, Lena Corwin, an illustrator and textile designer, was featured and shared her mother’s recipe for pumpkin cranberry bread. I spotted it just in time to incorporate it into my Thanksgiving plans.

I was initially a little dubious about the recipe as it contains more sugar than you probably care to think about and the raw batter tasted overly sweet. However, once baked, it contained the perfect amount of sweetness, and was moist and wonderful with beautiful flecks of cranberry and walnuts in it. On Thanksgiving, I sliced the loaf and wrapped the slices in polka dot tissue paper and then placed them in glassine bags tied with a bow – a very pretty giveaway and hopefully enjoyed the next day with fond memories of the holiday (don’t you love it when restaurants give you muffins for the morning after dinner?). I liked the recipe so much I had to make it again a few days later with the remnants of my annual bag of cranberries.

This seems like a good time to share some of my favorite design blogs. I have them loaded into igoogle (LOVE!) where I can keep an eye on new posts and easily poke around. I am always amazed at the wonderful taste, style and ideas coming from these women. Be forewarned: if you haven’t visited these sites before you are likely to be drawn in for hours (especially if you explore their sidebar links and wander over to their flickr photos). Hope that you discover something new and find as much inspiration as I have.

Another Shade of Grey: Lots of clever ideas. Showcases Etsy artists who I always love discovering (so much talent out there!)
Decor8: “Fresh finds for hip spaces” and such a sweet founder’s story
Design*Sponge (for the interview with Lena Corwin click here): Brooklyn-based daily blog about home and product design that also features interviews, city guides, store reviews and more
Grijs: Inspirational design from Europe
Hoping for Happy Accidents: Inspiration and ideas from Brooklyn
Kris’s Color Stripes: An Italian artist and fashion designer shares inspiration with beautiful photos accompanied by a color palette that makes me see things in a different way
Pumpkin Cranberry Bread (Lena Corwin’s recipe from Design*Sponge)

This recipe uses either two standard loaf pans (plus a small (5") cake or a few muffins), or three aluminum foil loaf pans. The foil pans make it easy to give the bread as gifts.

Wet ingredients
1 3/4 cup canned pumpkin (one small can-425g)
2/3 cup butter, melted (150g)
2/3 cup water (160ml)
4 eggs

Dry ingredients
3 1/2 cups flour (455g)
3 cups sugar (600g)
2 tsp baking soda (10g)
2 tsp baking powder (10g)
1 tsp cinnamon (5g)
1 tsp nutmeg (5g)
1/2 tsp cloves (2.5g)
1/2 tsp salt (2.5g)
1/2 cup [coarsely] chopped walnuts or pecans (60g)
1 cup [coarsely] chopped fresh or dried cranberries (120g)

Preheat oven to 350F/180C degrees. Combine the eggs, pumpkin, butter, and water in a large bowl. In another bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients, plus the nuts and cranberries. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix with a wooden spoon by hand. Mix until the batter is combined, but don’t over mix. Grease the pans, and distribute the batter equally in the pans (should fill each about half way up). Bake for 1 hour.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge: focaccia

This weekend I tackled my second Daring Bakers challenge: focaccia. I was very excited when I found out about this month’s challenge. I’ve never made bread of any kind and I’ve been waiting for an excuse to give it a try.

The recipe was chosen by Tanna of My Kitchen in Half Cups and is Tender Potato Bread (from Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour & Tradition Around the World by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. The bread can be formed into a loaf, rolls or focaccia, and I decided upon the latter since it is tasty and satisfying as a snack on its own, and afforded more creative topping possibilities (and what better excuse to sop up olive oil?).

Bread is a little scary for the novice: unlike cake or pastry making there’s a lot of leeway in a bread recipe and a lot of judgment involved: the amount of flour that’s added is dependent upon the texture of the bread. The amount of time the bread takes to rise is affected by room temperature, humidity and even the draftiness of the room it’s made in. A good dough must be elastic but not too sticky and have just the right feel after kneading. A good bread baker must take all of these factors into account in the making of the dough.

I don’t have any judgment or instinct on these matters having never made bread before, but luckily this recipe, plus learning from my fellow bakers’ experiences with the dough, made it possible to have a very successful first go-around. The dough is made by combining a mashed potato with the potato cooking water, flour (all-purpose and whole wheat), yeast and salt – unbelievably simple ingredients that turned into a wonderfully airy and tender bread.

For the challenge, we were allowed to depart from the basic recipe by adding our own seasonings in addition to the recommended brushing of olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt on the top (and also allowed to form the dough however we wanted). I decided to split the dough in half and top one with Kalamata and assorted olives plus rosemary and yellow onion and top the other with yellow onions, red onions, shallots, scallions and fresh thyme. Both were delicious and I am looking forward to enjoying the spoils of my effort all week! As a word of encouragement if you are weary of bread: nearly everyone had a great experience with the bread and loved the end result.

A few things I’d like to try next: I’d like to mix in caramelized onions or an onion confit into the batter so as to end up with an onion-filled bread (vs. solely topped) the next time. I’d also be more generous with the toppings that baked down more significantly than I was expecting. I also had a good learning: I ran out of time to bake the bread after I had let it rise and was able to form and refrigerate the bread (stopping it from rising) and then bring it to room temperature the next day, allow it to rise an additional ~20 minutes and then bake it. A very helpful learning since it’s hard to find the time to bake the bread in one sitting.

I’ll definitely try this again. Thanks Tanna for a great experience!

I'm repeating the entire recipe and Tanna's notes below as they were very helpful and descriptive

Tender potato bread (from Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour & Tradition Around the World by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid)

Makes 1 large tender-crumbed pan loaf AND something more; one 10X15 inch crusty yet tender focaccia, 12 soft dinner rolls, or a small pan loaf

Suggested toppings:
For Loaves and Rolls: melted butter (optional)
For Foccacia: olive oil, coarse salt, and rosemary leaves (or as you wish)

Potatoes and potato water give this bread wonderful flavor and texture. The dough is very soft and moist and might feel a little scary if you’ve never handled soft dough before.

Once baked, the crumb is tender and airy, with tiny soft pieces of potato in it and a fine flecking of whole wheat. The loaves have a fabulous crisp texture on the outside and a slightly flat-topped shape. They make great toast and tender, yet strong, sliced bread for sandwiches. The dinner rolls are soft and inviting, and the focaccia is memorable.

4 medium to large floury (baking) potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks.
Tanna Note: For the beginner bread baker I suggest no more than 8 ounces of potato; for the more advanced no more than 16 ounces. The variety of potatoes you might want to use would include Idaho, Russet & Yukon gold, there are others.
4 cups (950 ml) water, reserve cooking water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
6 1⁄2 cups to 8 1⁄2 cups (1 kg to 1350g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (130g) whole wheat flour

Making the dough (Directions will be for making by hand):
Put the potatoes and 4 cups water in a sauce pan and bring to boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook, half covered, until the potatoes are very tender.

Drain the potatoes, SAVE THE POTATO WATER, and mash the potatoes well.

Measure out 3 cups (750ml) of the reserved potato water. Add extra water if needed to make 3 cups. Place the water and mashed potatoes in the bowl you plan to mix the bread dough in. Let cool to lukewarm (70-80°F/21 - 29°C) – stir well before testing the temperature – it should feel barely warm to your hand. You should be able to submerge you hand in the mix and not be uncomfortable.

Add yeast to 2 cups all-purpose flour and whisk. Add yeast and flour to the cooled mashed potatoes & water and mix well. Allow to rest/sit 5 minutes.

Note about adding yeast: If using active dry yeast or fresh yeast, mix & stir yeast into cooled water and mashed potatoes & water and let stand 5 minutes. Then add 2 cups of flour to the yeast mix and allow to rest several minutes. If using instant dry yeast, add yeast to 2 cups all-purpose flour and whisk. Add yeast and flour to the cooled mashed potatoes & water and mix well. Allow to rest/sit 5 minutes.

Sprinkle in the remaining 1 tablespoon salt and the softened butter; mix well. Add the 1 cup whole wheat flour, stir briefly.

Add 2 cups of the unbleached all-purpose flour and stir until all the flour has been incorporated. (Tanna Note: At this point you have used 4 cups of the possible 8 1⁄2 cups suggested by the recipe.)

Turn the dough out onto a generously floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, incorporating flour as needed to prevent sticking. The dough will be very sticky to begin with, but as it takes up more flour from the kneading surface, it will become easier to handle; use a dough scraper to keep your surface clean. The kneaded dough will still be very soft. Place the dough in a large clean bowl or your rising container of choice, cover with plastic wrap or lid, and let rise about 2 hours or until doubled in volume.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead gently several minutes. It will be moist and a little sticky.

Forming the bread:
Divide the dough into 2 unequal pieces in a proportion of one-third and two-thirds (one will be twice as large as the other). Place the smaller piece to one side and cover loosely.

To shape the large loaf:
Butter a 9 x 5 x 2.5 inch loaf/bread pan. Flatten the larger piece of dough on the floured surface to an approximate 12 x 8 inch oval, then roll it up from a narrow end to form a loaf. Pinch the seam closed and gently place seam side down in the buttered pan. The dough should come about three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 35 to 45 minutes, until puffy and almost doubled in volume.

To make a small loaf with the remainder:
Butter an 8x4X2 inch bread pan. Shape and proof the loaf the same way as the large loaf.

To make rolls:
Butter a 13 x 9 inch sheet cake pan or a shallow cake pan. Cut the dough into 12 equal pieces. Shape each into a ball under the palm of your floured hand and place on the baking sheet, leaving 1/2 inch between the balls. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 35 minutes, until puffy and almost doubled.

To make focaccia:
Flatten out the dough to a rectangle about 10 x 15 inches with your palms and fingertips. Tear off a piece of parchment paper or wax paper a little longer than the dough and dust it generously with flour. Transfer the focaccia to the paper. Brush the top of the dough generously with olive oil, sprinkle on a little coarse sea salt, as well as some rosemary leaves, if you wish and then finally dimple all over with your fingertips. Cover with plastic and let rise for 20 minutes.

Baking the bread(s):
Note about baking order: bake the flat-bread before you bake the loaf; bake the rolls at the same time as the loaf.

Note about Baking Temps: I believe that 450°F(230°C) is going to prove to be too hot for the either the large or small loaf of bread for the entire 40/50 minutes. I am going to put the loaves in at 450°(230°C) for 10 minutes and then turn the oven down to 375°F (190 °C) for the remaining time.

Note about cooling times: Let all the breads cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Rolls can be served warm or at room temperature.

For loaves and rolls:
Dust risen loaves and rolls with a little all-purpose flour or lightly brush the tops with a little melted butter or olive oil (the butter will give a golden/browned crust). Slash loaves crosswise two or three times with a razor blade or very sharp knife and immediately place on the stone, tiles or baking sheet in the oven. Place the rolls next to the loaf in the oven.

Bake rolls until golden, about 30 minutes. Bake the small loaf for about 40 minutes. Bake the large loaf for about 50 minutes.

Transfer the rolls to a rack when done to cool. When the loaf or loaves have baked for the specified time, remove from the pans and place back on the stone, tiles or baking sheet for another 5 to 10 minutes. The corners should be firm when pinched and the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

For focaccia:
Place a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles, if you have them, if not use a no edged baking/sheet (you want to be able to slide the shaped dough on the parchment paper onto the stone or baking sheet and an edge complicates things). Place the stone or cookie sheet on a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450°F/230°C. (Cookbook Catchall note: I had no issue using a rimmed half sheet pan as the bread can be lifted out easily on the parchment paper. I did not use a stone - did not need to)

If making focaccia, just before baking, dimple the bread all over again with your fingertips. Leaving it on the paper, transfer to the hot baking stone, tiles or baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack (remove paper) and let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

*Some notes about flour:
King Arthur Artisan Organic All-Purpose Flour is fairly new in the markets in the US now and is advertised to be best for making European-style hearth breads with a protein level of 11.3%

*Conversion chart for yeast:
1 oz/ 1 Tablespoon of fresh yeast = 0.4 oz/ 1.25 teaspoon active or instant dry yeast = 0.33 oz / 1 teaspoon instant or rapid rise (bread machine) yeast (this recipe requires 1.6 teaspoons rapid rise yeast if that's what you are using). Reference: Crust & Crumb by Peter Reinhart.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Eggs "shaken"

I figured it was a good time for something very simple. If you are like me, you are planning, shopping, arranging and preparing for Thanksgiving and don’t need another complicated dish to make (or even think about) this week. Truth be told, I am only responsible for one side dish and two desserts – totally manageable and enjoyable. I’ve made both desserts many times before: blueberry pie and pumpkin pie – so there will be no recipe surprises to contend with. I rather like both recipes, so if there is time to photograph them, I will post one or both after Thanksgiving.

Now, back to the recipe at hand. I was introduced to a very simple, yet clever, little egg dish at a brunch that I have adopted as my own. I’ve only shared the recipe once, and my confidante is a convert as well. It’s called “eggs shaken” – loosely named after the person who concocted it, nothing to do with being shaken, which it’s not. The surprise ingredient, wheat germ, adds textures and a subtly nutty / wheat-y flavor. Try fitting it in between turkey and leftovers; it cooks in a few minutes and cures all holiday food transgressions (well, not really, but wouldn't that be nice?).

Eggs shaken

1 or 2 eggs
1-2 Tablespoons wheat germ
1-2 Tablespoons + freshly grated parmesan cheese
Coarse-ground pepper
Tabasco (optional)

Heat a pat of butter and a few drops of Tabasco sauce (if you like a little heat) in a small skillet over medium heat. Making this dish in individually sized portions is best (I use a small (~6 inch) cast iron skillet). Break two eggs into a small bowl and gently pour the eggs into the skillet so as not to break them, and to start the eggs cooking at the same time. Once eggs have begun to set, sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons wheat germ, and then sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Generously dust with coarsely-ground pepper. Salt to taste. Just before eggs are cooked to your liking, turn heat to high for a few seconds so that the eggs sizzle when served (a little drama). Serve in the skillet (on a trivet or tea towel so you don’t burn your table)! Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spoon madeleines and an adventure

Continuing my Donna Hay love fest, I’ve been pouring through recent magazines, flagging recipes I want to try, and cooking them when I can. Recently, the magazine featured spoon-sized desserts – a very sweet (pun intended) set of recipes oriented around baking desserts in different types of spoons. There were several I was interested in trying, among them a very simple recipe for madeleines that can be baked in teaspoons or tablespoons. The cake recipe contains only a few ingredients and is quickly whipped up. The challenge for me was finding appropriate spoons. My modern, sleek stainless steel spoons did not seem worthy of such a pretty dessert and I don’t own silver flatware. This led to my adventure – a trip to a prop rental company.

Coincidentally, I live in an area of New York City that is full of photography, theatre and film-related businesses. There are several prop rental companies in the neighborhood, including Prop Haus, a store without a street front that operates largely on word of mouth (no website and hardy any detailed information to be found without visiting). They have two floors, a complete floor of kitchenware and tabletop items and another full of furniture, and they rent items for photo shoots and movies. To my delight, stacked on high shelves, row after row, were any type, style and color of plate, silverware, table linens, glassware, and cookware I could possibly imagine. There was a chest of drawers filled with silverware, antique and new, classified by type, available for the picking. I had a hard time walking out without more items. The price, unfortunately, was a deterrent for the hobbyist like me – antique silver aside, given the prices and the one week rental period, it is more cost-effective to continue to buy props here and there as I need them. For this project, however, I had a wonderful time combing through silverware to find the perfect mismatched assortment of tarnished antique spoons, and of course, I couldn’t help but check out everything else as well! It is truly heaven for the design, photography or food enthusiast.

I had a nice experience that came from a kitchen quest earlier this week. I have been looking for a prettier and less expected alternative to conventional ramekins that would make a prettier presentation at the table and think I’ve finally found my answer in Mud Australia baby noodle bowls. I searched for the color and quantity I wanted online and happened to call a store in Maryland that carries the brand. After giving my order information, the store owner realized we had gone to high school together. She has beautiful store as a second career after being a lawyer. It’s always wonderful to rediscover people, and to find people who are following their passion – very encouraging for someone like me who is just starting her own business. To check the store out, click here.

Chocolate spoon madeleines (from Donna Hay)

Makes approximately 15 tablespoons or 30 teaspoons depending on the size of your spoons (I only got 10 out of the largish tablespoons I used)

1 egg
2 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar
2 tablespoons plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
30g (1 oz) unsalted butter, melted
confectioner's sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 355°F. Place eggs and caster sugar in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Fold through the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and butter. Place ~30 greased teaspoons or ~15 greased tablespoons around the edge of a rimmed baking sheet. Spoon the mixture into the spoons until 2/3 full. Bake the teaspoons for 5 mintues or the tablespoons for 8 minutes or until madeleines are cooked. Dust with confectioner's sugar to serve.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Homemade ricotta

I never considered making my own cheese, after all, people focus their lives on cheese making and it is easy to buy wonderful cheeses. But then I saw how simple it is to make fresh ricotta. Donna Hay had a wonderful piece on ricotta in the October/November issue (my dish above left, her magazine page on the right) and I was very curious to see if a recipe that simple, for something I had previously thought was very complicated, would actually work. Believe-it-or-not, two ingredients later (milk and vinegar), and about 10 minutes total cooking time later, I had a soft and fluffy ricotta that was so fresh and satisfying I couldn’t believe I’d never tried it before! The only piece of specialty equipment required is a liquid thermometer. Otherwise, it is optimal to use a ricotta mold, but the recipe works perfectly well molded in any 1-cup capacity container provided you drain the ricotta well before loading it in and use care when un-molding. Ricotta molds are not the easiest things to find, and after realizing I would have to resort to mail order, I decided it wasn’t that important.

Ricotta (from Donna Hay)

6 cups full cream milk
2 tablespoons white vinegar

1. Place the milk and a candy thermometer in a saucepan over medium heat and heat to 176ºF. Remove from the heat, add the vinegar and allow to sit for 5 minutes or until curds form.
2. Line a colander with fine muslin and place over a deep bowl. Use a slotted soon to carefully spoon the curds into the colander. Allow to drain for 5 minutes.*
3. Spoon the ricotta into a glass or ceramic dish and loosely cover with plastic wrap. Store in refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes 1 ¼ cups.

*The reason the curds need to be carefully spooned is to ensure they hold their shape. Pouring the curds straight into the colander will result in the cheese becoming dry and grainy.

I followed the recipe for sweet honeyed ricotta, which includes a honey/vanilla bean drizzling syrup as follows:

Honey / vanilla syrup

1 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 vanilla bean, scraped
brioche (or other bread) to serve
honeycomb to serve

Place the water, honey, vanilla bean and seeds in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and cook for 12-15 minutes or until thick and syrupy. Strain and allow to cool. Turn ricotta out onto a plate, pour the honey syrup over it and serve wit the honeycomb and brioche.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge: Bostoni cream pie

I recently joined a baking group called the Daring Bakers. It works like this: a different blogging member hosts a challenge each month, picking a recipe the other Daring Bakers must follow precisely, save for certain pre-defined substitutions, and then the other members rise to the challenge, bake, photograph and report back on a pre-determined day. In the meantime, the members post questions, comment and chat on a private, common blog. It's a treat and a privilege to be a member of this group of talented, enthusiastic and passionate bakers! I've enjoyed all the banter on the private blog and have been planning and looking forward to my own adventure with the chosen recipe of the month (as described by the host): Bostoni cream pie, a twist on the traditional Boston cream pie (which is a vanilla layer cake filled with pastry cream and topped with chocolate glaze). The Bostini cream pie is vanilla bean pastry cream topped with an orange chiffon cake and then drizzled with a rich chocolate glaze. Mary at Alpineberry is the host for the challenge this month.

When I first saw the recipe challenge, I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I'm not a huge fan of pastry cream, I really hate chocolate and orange in combination (despite the fact that there's a chocolate orange liqueur that bears my name), and, having grown up in Boston, I think I've over-dosed on Boston cream pie (albeit the Pepperidge Farm version). I was really disappointed I joined on Bostoni cream pie month and missed last month's cinnamon bun challenge.

That said, I bucked up and approached the challenge with a good attitude. After all, there's still a lot of new cooking techniques to learn even if you're not looking forward to devouring the end result. The recipe contained an inordinate amount of eggs. I decided to halve the overall recipe to be safe. I decided to substitute lemon juice and lemon zest for the orange juice and zest (a permitted change) and went about tackling the recipe this morning, just under the wire of the deadline.

I was very surprised at the end result. The pastry cream was the best I've ever had - light and flavorful, the chiffon cake was a dream (and I loved the lemon) and, well, who could not like a chocolate glaze that's half butter, half chocolate? R made quick work of the first, super-sized portion. I love how pretty the presentation is in clear, individual glasses. I might very well make this again! Thanks Mary for the challenge. For the recipe and additional information, please visit the host's post here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A little (3 lb) fishy (salt baked fish)

We eat more fish than anything else. My favorite home preparation is steaming fish in parchment with vegetables, herbs, or in a scented broth. 20 minutes in the oven, hard to mess up, and fun to open and eat at the table.

My favorite preparation out, however, is whole fish either roasted or grilled, very simply prepared - often without sauce and just drizzled with a little olive oil. Grilled is out of the question in my kitchen as I don't have a ventilation hood over the stove. Roasted or baked can be tricky since fish can so easily dry out. That's where the silver bullet method comes in: whole fish baked in salt.

The salt forms a hard dome over the fish which seals in moisture and results in fish that is moist and juicy with a subtle flavor from whatever you stuff in the cavity during cooking (lemon, thyme, parsley, garlic, orange slices, to name a few options). To add more fun and drama, when you remove the fish from the oven, you have break open the salt dome to release the fish.

I've tried baking fish in salt a couple different ways: in pure kosher salt with nothing added, and in a mixture of kosher salt, water, and egg whites. The latter method is meant to create a paste which creates a firmer seal but I've found that the salt tends to remain moist and clumpy and is harder to remove completely after cooking.

My favorite recipe comes from a cookbook, Culinaria: European Specialties (part of a broader series), that was given to me by a friend a long time ago. It calls for a 3 pound Sea Bream (Daurade), but lately I've been making it with striped bass with great success. I've made up to a 6 pound fish with the same recipe, doubling the salt, and using a half sheet pan to bake it on.

There's a room-temperature sauce that goes with the fish; I've made it with and without the sauce (which I put in a bowl and pass around to allow people to serve themselves if desired).

[Sea Bream] in a salt crust adapted from Culinaria: European Specialties

1 3lb sea bream cleaned and ready for cooking
Juice of 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves
1 sprig thyme
4-6 pounds course sea salt
2 untreated lemons

Romesco sauce

1/4 cup almonds
3 garlic cloves
1 tomato
Salt, black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbs wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 460°F. Rinse the fish and season inside with lemon juice. Cut the garlic cloves in half and place inside the fish with the thyme. Cover the bottom of a fireproof dish with a layer of salt as thick as a finger. Place the fish on top of this and then add enough salt for the fish to be completely covered. Bake in the oven for ~40 minutes. Temperature on an instant read thermometer inserted through the salt into the fish should read 130°F when done. Let rest at room temperature for 5 minutes before cracking open.

Once cooked, break open the salt crust and carefully remove the fish from it (dust off any lingering salt). Take off its skin and fillet the fish. Place on pre-heated plates and serve with lemon garnish.

To prepare sauce, peel and lightly roast the almonds and crush them in a mortar together with the garlic (or use skinned almonds). Skin the tomato, remove the seeds and add it to the almonds (I use a few canned whole Italian plum tomatoes and add additional tomato paste as necessary to achieve the consistency I want). Work everything into a smooth paste. Season with salt and pepper and add the olive oil and the vinegar, mixing everything together thoroughly.

P.S. I've slowly been updating the links of the right-hand side of my blog to better reflect things I've been reading and thinking about lately. The "inspired" list is worth taking a peek at: there are some amazingly talented photographers, designers and bloggers who have been keeping me thinking and dreaming and who you might also find interesting.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beans (or jewels?)

I didn't grow up eating a lot of beans. I think my mom thought they were too time-consuming to cook (and so did I having experienced the nightmare of stale Goya beans languishing on the shelf at the local grocery store - slow to cook and mushy in texture once cooked). I've discovered the pleasures of great beans as an adult. I like them best by themselves - as a side dish or as a main dish with rice, simply prepared so you can really taste them.

I was introduced to a terrific little company, Rancho Gordo, from California that concentrates on heirloom beans. They have a constantly evolving menu of dried beans that are as much a delight to the eyes as to the palette. They all look like jewels to me and I find myself selecting them more on the basis of appearance than on the description of their taste (since they're all yummy anyway). The flavor and texture of these beans is unlike any you will find sitting around (endlessly) on the shelf of a conventional supermarket. I ordered a batch last year that I gave out as holiday goodies and recently ordered another batch just for us since the recent change in weather is starting to make it feel like bean-eating season.

Rancho Gordo is slightly off-beat and irreverent. They publish a blog that has recipe suggestions and more commentary on the beans they collect and develop. The descriptions on their site are irresistible. One particularly beautiful black bean is described as: "an oddly beautiful bean that looks as if someone went at it with an airbrush. When cooked, it's a firm, whole brown bean with a slight fudge texture and piney flavor. It's very rich, so prepare simply."

The cooking instructions that arrive with the beans are spot on (see mom, not so hard!).

Rancho Gordo method:
Check beans for small debris and rinse in cool, fresh water. Cover beans with two inches of water and soak for 4-6 hours.

In a large pot sauté finely chopped onion; celery, carrot and garlic (or any combination you prefer) in olive oil until soft. Add beans and water- and make sure beans ore covered by at least one inch of water. Bring to a hard boil for five minutes and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Once soft, add salt. Beans can take from one to three hours to cook. Slow and low is best!

More about beans:
Do not add acids (tomatoes, vinegar) or sugars until the beans ore just tender, as they can toughen the beans. You can replace some of the cooking water with beer or stock. Bay leaves are nice, as well as ham bones or smoked turkey legs. But in general, fresh, heirloom beans need little help.

If you need to add more water as the beans are cooking, only add warm water from a kettle. Cold water can harden the beans, and hot tap water is not good for you or your taste buds.

Some people believe that changing the soaking water will help alleviate the "gas" problem for which beans are famous. Some people believe you throw out some vitamins and goodness when you do this. Epazote, a culinary herb, is said to help. This makes more gastronomic sense than throwing out the soaking water. Research reaches no definitive conclusions. From my experience, the best way to help with the gas is to eat more beans.


My husband, who is a bean fanatic, got very excited when he saw our box arrive in the mail. We're having them for dinner as an accompaniment to fish tomorrow.

P.S. The vegetable in the photo on the left is kohlrabi and has absolutely nothing to do with this post other than the fact that I saw some at the market and thought it would make a nice color-based diptych with my beans. I have absolutely no idea what to do with Kohlrabi - any ideas, please send them my way!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Flour power

flour n.
1. A fine, powdery foodstuff obtained by grinding and sifting the meal of a grain, especially wheat, used chiefly in baking
2. Any of various similar finely ground or powdered foodstuffs, as of cassava, fish, or bananas
3. A soft, fine powder
tr.v. floured, flour·ing, flours
1. To cover or coat with flour
2. To make into flour
Source: The free dictionary

Ever stopped to really think about what flour is? Ever think about why a recipe calls for all-purpose flour vs. pastry flour or some other form? Ever wonder whether you should be making a greater effort to substitute whole wheat flour for white flour and if you would notice the difference? I always do, and I figured it was time to sit down and do some research (occasionally the bug to find out "everything" gets me -- in the past I've done this on eggs and on refrigeration and food safety). I compiled a list of my top questions and surfed the web for the answers with the help of my friend, Alison. As with my other deep-dive posts, this post is a compilation of information found on the web – most of it extracted verbatim. For this one, we used,, the North American Miller’s Association, Wikipedia, Cooking for Engineers,, U.S. whole grains blog, and The Cook's Thesaurus.

What is flour and where does it come from?

According to Wikipedia, “flour is a fine powder made by grinding cereals or other edible starchy plant seeds suitable for grinding. It is most commonly made from wheat—the word 'flour' used without qualification implies wheat flour—but also maize (now called corn in many parts of the Western Hemisphere), rye, barley, and rice, amongst many other grasses and non-grain plants (including buckwheat, grain amaranths and many Australian species of acacia). Ground legumes and nuts, such as soy, peanuts, almonds, and other tree nuts, are also called flours. The same substances ground more coarsely are called 'meal' instead of 'flour'.” For the purposes of this post, “wheat flour” will refer to all flours made from wheat.

Wheat flour is one of the most important food ingredients in Europe and America and is the product obtained by grinding wheat kernels or “berries.” What kernels are the seeds of the wheat plant and are the only part of the plant that is milled into flour. The kernel consists of three distinct parts: bran (the outer covering of the grain) germ (the embryo contained inside the kernel) and endosperm (the part of the kernel that makes white flour, and the largest part of the kernel). During milling, these three parts are separated and recombined to achieve different types of flours. (As a side note, wheat flour is highly explosive when airborne and candles, lamps, or other sources of fire were forbidden in medieval flour mills).

What types of wheat flours exist?

Wheat has two main growing cycles, Spring and Winter. These cycles, along with the geographic region and soil content where it is planted, produce soft and hard wheat, or wheat with a high starch content or high gluten content, different hardnesses and colors. All of these factors are used to classify and describe wheat. The amount of, gluten protein is what gives wheat flour its baking qualities. The harder the wheat, the higher the protein content in the flour. Soft, low protein wheats are used in cakes, pastries, cookies and crackers. Hard, high protein wheats are used in breads and quick breads. Durum is used in pasta and egg noodles. Flour can be “white” (comprised of the endosperm), whole wheat (made by grinding the kernel or recombining the white flour, germ and bran that have been separate during milling), or germ flour, made from the endosperm and germ, excluding the bran. There are over 200 varieties of wheat produced in North America alone.

Wheat flour includes: (from hardest to softest) (note: this portion taken largely from the Whole Foods Council and from

Durum or semolina flour
Made from a high-protein, hard wheat. It is usually enriched and used to make pasta products. Semolina is the coarsely ground endosperm of durum.

Whole-wheat flours
Also called stone-ground or graham flour, whole wheat flour is milled from the whole grain. It contains all of the bran and germ from the wheat berry. Whole-wheat flours produce heavier and denser baked goods and are often combined with white flour in making breads and muffins.

Most whole wheat flours are made out of a hard red wheat, but hard white wheat (a white wheat berry is "whiter in appearance" than a red wheat berry) is gaining in popularity due to its lighter appearance and naturally sweeter taste. Because it contains the germ and bran, whole wheat retains vital nutrients.

Whole what flour needs to be used fresh, and stored properly as it gets rancid quickly due to the high fat content from the wheat germ. Typical protein levels range from 11.5 to 14.0% and most whole wheat flours are enriched.

Bread flour
Bread flour is milled primarily for commercial bakers, but is available at most grocery stores. The flour is usually made with a greater percentage of hard red winter or hard red spring wheat, giving it a higher gluten content. This gives the bread dough the elastic quality necessary for greater product volume. Protein levels vary from 10.5 to 12.0% (note: some other sources say 12 to 14%). Common applications include breads, pizza crusts and specialty baked goods.

All-purpose flour
White flour milled from hard wheats or a blend of hard and soft wheats. It is used in some yeast breads, quick breads, cakes, cookies, pastries and noodles. Different brands will vary in performance. Protein varies from 8 to 11 %.

Pastry flour
This flour is primarily used for cookies and pastries. It comes from soft winter wheat, and is very starchy. Pastry flour has properties between those of all-purpose and cake flours. It is usually milled from soft wheat for pastry-making, but can be used for cookies, cakes, crackers and similar products. Pastry flour differs from hard wheat flour in that it has a finer texture and lighter consistency. It has low protein content (typically 8.5 to 10%) and produces pies and pastries with a flaky or tender consistency.

Cake flour
Fine-textured, silky flour milled from soft winter wheat. It is used to make cakes, cookies, crackers, quick breads and some types of pastry. It has a low gluten content, and produces cakes with a tender crumb. Protein content is typically 8.5 to 10% and the flour is enriched.

Self-rising flour
Also referred to as phosphated flour, is a convenience product made by adding salt and leavening to all-purpose flour. It is commonly used in biscuits and quick breads, but is not recommended for yeast breads. One cup of self-rising flour contains 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. Protein levels run from 9.5 to 11.5% and the flour is enriched.

Self-rising flour can be substituted for all-purpose flour by reducing salt and baking powder according to these proportions. This type of flour cannot have a very high protein level other wise baked end-products will not have a light and fluffy texture and will not "relax" during the baking or cooking process. (note: has anyone ever seen a recipe that actually calls for self-rising flour?)

High gluten flour
The highest gluten content of all of the wheat flours used for baking. Gluten flour is usually milled from spring wheat and has a high protein (40-45 percent), low-starch content and a gluten content from 12 to 13%. This flour is used for dough needing extra strength and elasticity such as pizza, focaccia, mullet-grain breads and Kaiser rolls.

Vital wheat gluten
Flour milled from the pure gluten derived from washing the wheat flour to remove the starch. The gluten that remains is dried, ground into a powder and used to strengthen flours lacking in gluten, such as rye or other non-wheat flours.

Note: outside the U.S. you will often see flours labeled by a number that represents different mineral contents or “ash mass” that remain after incineration in a laboratory. This is another way of describing the fraction of the whole grain that remains in the flour.

How should flour be stored?

Flour should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place (less than 60% humidity). All-purpose, bread and cake flour will keep for 6 months to a year at 70°F and 2 years at 40°F (note to self: uh oh); store away from foods with strong odors. Whole wheat flour should be refrigerated or frozen, if possible. Before using refrigerated or frozen flour, allow it to warm to room temperature and inspect for rancidity and taste.

According to Martha Stewart, adding a bay leaf to the flour jar is said to help keep weevils out!

What are the nutritional benefits of flour and how do the health benefits of white and wheat flours compare?

Wheat flour is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Other than gluten flour, all types of wheat flour derive at least 80 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Depending on the flour type, the percent of calories from protein ranges from 9 to 15 percent, except from gluten, which has 45 percent protein content. Calories from fat are never more than 5 percent. As the protein content of the flour increases, carbohydrate decreases. The mineral content varies with the grade, with lower grades generally showing higher mineral or ash values.

Whole wheat flour is higher in protein than white flour milled from the same wheat. Because whole wheat flour contains the bran, the germ, and the endosperm (vs. white flour which just contains the bran), whole wheat flour benefits from the most nutrient-dense portions of what and contains the greatest nutritional benefits. The germ is packed with antioxidants, B vitamins and vitamin E. It is also a source of heart healthy unsaturated fats. The endosperm contains complex carbohydrates and protein. Whole wheat flour is higher in protein than white flour milled from the same wheat and it also contains dietary fiber, unlike white flours.

Some people suffer from intolerance to gluten known as coeliac or celiac disease. Increased awareness of this disorder, as well as a rising belief in the benefits of a gluten-free diet, has led to increased demand for bread, pasta, and other products made with flours that are gluten-free.

The process of refining flour to make white flour often results in the destruction of some of the vitamins and minerals in the flour. Almost all the flour sold is steel ground (crushed and ground by a large machine with steel hammers or rollers). This is an efficient process but the heat generated by the high grinding speed destroys some of the vitamins and nutrients in the wheat. In this case, nutrients are often added back to replace those lost (in fact, this is mandated by the government in some countries). These nutrients often include iron and four B-vitamins (thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid) and sometimes calcium. Flour is called “enriched” when these nutrients are added back.

Alternatively, stone ground flour is produced by the relatively slow grinding of large stones together (with the wheat in the middle). This type of flour is harder to find and almost always leaves the germ intact producing whole wheat flour. There is no heat build up, so all the nutrients stay intact as the four is made.

Some people interested in preserving the natural nutrients contained in wheat and in the taste and texture benefits associated with grinding one’s own wheat use kitchen mills to produce their own flour (may seem a little excessive but I hear that pancakes made with your own ground buckwheat are fabulous!). There are many home models on the market. These models use stainless steel blades instead of stones.

What are some common substitutes for wheat flour and how can they be used? (note: this list is by no means exhaustive, there are many wheat flour substitutes and non-wheat flours)

Rye flour
Flour ground from the cereal grass grain rye. It is grown in the northern part of the United States, Canada, Eastern Europe and Russia. It has a very low gluten content (less than 2%) and is usually blended with wheat flour to produce a lighter loaf. In artisan baking, rye flour is fermented and makes very acceptable loaves. The flat breads of Scandinavia are produced from rye flours.

Oat flour
Flour ground from another cereal grass. It is used in combination with wheat flours to produce tasty breads with excellent keeping qualities, and the bran from oat flour has been found to lower cholesterol.

Soy flour
Flour derived from the soybean seeds. Soy flour has very little starch, but is extremely high in protein. It is considered a complete protein for the human diet. It is used only as supplement to breads to increase the nutritional protein as it is low in gluten.

Can I substitute different flours in a recipe (general baking)?

Instead of 1 cup. . .You can use . . .
Self-rising flour1 cup all-purpose flour plus 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder and 1/8 teaspoon salt
Cake flour1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Whole wheat flour7/8 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons wheat germ
All purpose flour½ cup whole wheat flour and ½ cup all-purpose flour
All purpose flour or bread four1 cup whole wheat flour minus 1 tablespoon for every cup of all-purpose flour or bread flour

To create a lighter whole-wheat loaf, add 1-tablespoon gluten flour and 1-tablespoon liquid for each cup of whole-wheat flour.

For much more information including non-wheat flour substitutions, click here

Other key differentiators

Flours can be bleached or unbleached. Bleached flours produce doughs that are less sticky, more uniformly white, more consistent, and rise better than unbleached flours. Bleaching can be accomplished by aging the flour over time (the oxidation of the flour causes the yellow pigments to fade) or through a chemical means (note: no change occurs in the nutritional value of the flour and no harmful chemical residues remain when flours are bleached chemically). Unbleached flour is aged and bleached naturally by oxygen in the air. It is more golden in color and generally preferred for yeast breads because bleaching affects gluten strength.

Flours can also be fortified with nutrients not naturally present in the unprocessed raw material.

The texture of the flour is determined by how much sifting (or bolting) is performed at the mill. The degree of sifting will result in powdery flour or coarse flour. Prior to packaging, most flours in the United States are also pre-sifted. Pre-sifted flour can be measured directly from the bag by stirring, measuring with a dry measuring cup, and leveled with a straight edge. Unsifted flour needs to be sifted prior to measuring (by volume). If unsifted flour is measured by weight, it should still be sifted prior to use in a recipe requiring sifted flour (assume all recipes require sifted flour).

If this didn't satisfy your need to understand flour, see even more in-depth information on wheat flour here and on European classifications here

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mascarpone cheesecake (with rose-scented geranium water)

I’ve been looking back at recent posts and realize my blogging is skewing toward sweets. I think that’s due to a few factors: 1) I enjoy baking tremendously. I appreciate the combination of precision required to get the chemistry of baking right with the left-brain creativity associated with decorating and presenting baked goods; 2) baked goods are more fun (and easy) to share and therefore even more satisfying than cooking for two; and 3) they are easier to blog for a very practical reason which is that photographing a creation in natural light (a must) is much more difficult with a savory dish than a baked good. It requires either making something well ahead of dinner, or saving a portion to photograph the next day (and hoping that the refrigerator and time do not ruin the beauty of the just-cooked food). That said, I think I need to head back toward sweet and savory balance. That is, after this week’s post which I cannot resist. I’ve noticed others participating in the “weekend herb blogging” event for some time. It’s a food blogging event hosted by a different blogger each weekend and involves submitting a dish cooked with an herb or plant to the host blogger (this week's event hosted by Cook (Almost) Anything at Least Once). I’ve parked the idea of participating in the event somewhere in the recesses of my mind and the idea rose (no pun intended) to the fore when I was introduced to a sumptuous mascarpone cheesecake recipe which contains rose water made from rose-scented geraniums. I had the cake on our trip down south and managed to wrangle the recipe out of the pastry chef.

Needless to say, there were many challenges in making the dish, not the least of which was locating rose-scented geraniums (and organic plants at that!) and making rose water. Apparently, rose-scented geraniums are simply not available in New York City (at least not in the fall). I was determined to get my hands on the plant vs. substituting with commercial rose water since the taste of the rose-scented geranium water was one of the main things that drew me to the dish. Commercial rose waters always strike me as overly floral and somewhat soap-like in flavor and, are, in my humble opinion, to be avoided at all costs. Unlike the former, fresh syrup made with rose-scented geranium leaves has a subtle, slightly intoxicating rose scent unlike any typical rose you have ever smelled. It lent a wonderful, sophisticated and unexpected flavor to the mascarpone cheesecake, which frankly would have been excellent with out it, but was special with it. I liked the idea of concocting a secret ingredient for the dish, and although highly inconvenienced by, what soon became an obsessive quest to track down rose geranium plants, I was nevertheless energized about my hunt and eager to learn more about this plant that I had never before heard of. After an aborted order with a rather rude vendor out of state, I finally found a nursery that not only had plants in stock but also carried numerous varieties of the plant. They were somewhat taken aback by my ignorance about all things rose geranium but worked with me to identify three different varieties of rose-scented geranium that might work well in a recipe. The plants that arrived were very small and planted in seedling pots but they had generously large leaves, each with its own take on a heavenly rose scent. I decided to mix leaves from the three varieties to make the syrup, which basically involved making a tea from the leaves, straining the liquid, and bringing it to a boil with sugar.

It turns out, rose-scented geraniums are not technically geraniums but rather members of the species Pelargonium. Pelargonium and geraniums are members of the same botanical family. There are over 230 varieties of scented "geraniums" with different leaves, sizes, flower colors and scents (or lack of scent) including rose, lemon, lime, apple, mint and ginger. These leaves are used not only in the kitchen to make syrup for flavoring baked goods (apparently rose syrup and pound cake are a classic), jellies (rose traditionally a flavor in apple jelly), and flavored sugar (by storing leaves in a sugar bowl), but also are used out of the kitchen to make perfume. It is the leaves, not the petals, that are scented, and they so fragrant that significantly fewer scented geranium leaves, for example, are required to add rose scent than rose petals would be. For more information, see additional information from the Herb Society of America.

Back to my cake, I made the recipe in stages over a couple of days so as not to become overwhelmed. I made the ginger snap crust (the dough of which would make a wonderful cookie) and the rose syrup one day, and the filling the next. There are some subtleties in the recipe that I definitely did not execute as well as the restaurant in which I had it: namely tempering the egg and sugar mixture into the mascarpone cheese – which initially resulted in a very lumpy mixture that I had to work hard to smooth out, and adding gelatin to sufficiently thicken the filling (I translated required sheets into powder which is all I had on hand and the final result was somewhat less firm than I would have liked – I’ll have to go back and try that again). But, the bottom line is that the cake came out rich and airy and had wonderful flavor due to the rose water and ginger snap crust. It’s a pretty little dish with figs that dress up the otherwise snow-white cake and it provided a Proustian remembrance of our trip.

P.s. I'm not going to post this recipe broadly as it might not be fair, but if you are interested, please let me know via email.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Olive oil brownies

I stumbled upon a recent post on The Traveler's Lunchbox about a new Italian cookbook that features a recipe for brownies made with olive oil rather than butter. I was immediately intrigued – not only because the cookbook itself got a rave review, but also because one of my favorite cake recipes is Mario Batali’s zucchini olive oil cake, also made with olive oil rather than butter. The zucchini olive oil cake is light and airy, and has a subtle fruitiness that you would never imagine comes from olive oil. It is truly a secret ingredient.

The brownie recipe comes from Faith Heller Willinger’s new cookbook, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Olive oil and chocolate struck me as a particularly nice combination. I had to try the brownies. Luckily a family dinner presented an excuse for baking.

The recipe was quick and simple and delivered a moist batter that did not disappoint (well, I was not disappointed). I particularly loved the salt in the recipe which seemed to stand out against the chocolate much more than it would have had the brownies been laden with butter. Interestingly, half of the guests at the dinner loved the brownies for their moist non-cake-y texture and the other half lamented the richness of butter, and felt the chocolate was somehow not quite chocolate-y enough. Argh! I loved them and I’d happily make them again (skipping the nuts which I always feel are just in the way). I am also intrigued by Faith’s cookbook and have it squarely on my wish list.

Olive oil brownies (all text that follows reprinted verbatim from the Traveler's Lunchbox)

: adapted from Adventures of an Italian Food Lover by Faith Heller Willinger

4 ounces (115g) finest quality bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), chopped
1/3 cup (80ml) fruity extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose/plain flour (Faith prefers using a soft flour like Italian type 00 or White Lily; if you go this route add an extra tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) superfine/caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup (70g) lightly toasted hazelnuts, chopped (Faith uses walnuts)
whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line an 8-inch (20cm) square baking pan with a lightly oiled and floured piece of parchment paper that overhangs the pan on two sides (this aids in removal later).

Melt the chocolate over low heat on the stovetop or in the microwave and whisk in the oil. Let cool.

Mix the flour and salt together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until pale, thickened and billowy, about five minutes. Fold in the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour and optional nuts, stirring just until everything is combined. Pour into the prepared pan and distribute evenly.

Bake for 22-26 minutes (note from the Traveler's Lunchbox: I would recommend checking earlier to avoid over-baking - mine were just on the verge after 22 minutes). The top will be dry and crackly, though a toothpick inserted in the center should emerge still a little wet. Cool completely, then cut into squares. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sorghum walnut cookies from Tennessee

We had a wonderful week-long vacation in the Adirondacks and Tennessee. The Adirondacks were particularly fun because we had our dog with us and we spent the days outside with her hiking, walking and watching her splash in and out of the lake. Tennessee was similarly an outdoor experience but this time we were on our own and were able to horseback ride and tool around the 9,000+ acre property that belongs to the privately-owned hotel we stayed at. The hotel is a working farm complete with honey bees, livestock (primarily sheep), a dairy, and a wonderful vegetable, herb and cutting garden that the kitchen draws from daily (both for inspiration and supplies). In January, the hotel is adding its own cheese-making facility as well as dedicated space for making jams. It already produces its own sheep’s milk, honey and jam (in small quantities).

We were able to spend time with the chef, the dairy farmers, the bee keeper, and produce farmers throughout our stay and pepper them with questions and observe their respective trades. It is such a pleasure to be exposed to artisans and to know that what you are eating is locally and freshly made. We got the biggest kick out of the head farmer who was a very well spoken and well traveled man who takes great pride in developing the best possible produce (he tested 50 different types of tomatoes this year) and continuing a time-honored tradition of nurturing and preserving heirloom beans (he has a separate area dedicated to crops he does not want to cross-pollinate). He had a story and explanation for everything and could remember the provenance of every special variety he brought to the far to cultivate.The meals we had were extraordinary in a very inventive way. Even the informal lunches, several of which were pic nics, were exceptionally well done and artistically presented. We had a lot of southern treats (particularly for breakfast) that provided a fun change. I couldn’t get enough of biscuits with sausage and gravy as unappetizing as that might seem, and the pastry chef’s cookies and desserts were addictive. I’m posting a recipe for sorghum walnut cookies that were divine. I’ll have to post a photo later as I’m waiting for a special delivery of sorghum syrup from my mother-in-law from the south!

Sorghum walnut cookies
(adapted from Blackberry Farm)
(makes ~32 cookies)

1.5 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
3/8 cup sorghum syrup
2 3/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar. Add eggs, then sorghum syrup.

Whisk together the remaining dry ingredients (except the walnuts) and mix in with the batter.

Mix in 1/3 lb. walnuts until just combined.

Scoop onto sheet pans using a tablespoon-sized ice cream scoop or a tablespoon. Flatten slightly, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

P.S. As you might have noticed my blog is sporting a new look! I'm proud to say that up until this point, I did it all myself. That said, although I checked it in multiple browsers, I'm sure I created a problem somewhere. Please let me know if you see anything funky and I'll fix it. I'm also open to any comments and suggestions. I'll keep tweaking!

Friday, September 14, 2007


A quick update on my pickles (see the original post here). We had a little tasting. Overall, the pickles were a success. They were flavorful, smelled wonderful and no one contracted botulism.

The only version no one was crazy about was the pickles made with cider vinegar. Everyone thought that one was too sweet. The pickling spices were not nearly as powerful as I had feared and no one had an issue with the mixture of spices. The unfermented version was good, albeit a bit too sharp for my taste.

After some discussion, everyone seemed to perfer the fermented version but we all agreed it need more flavor: more garlic, maybe more dill. I wish the pickles had been crisper. I've read there are ways to increase crispness, including adding unflavored Tums to the brine! I'll have to go back and work some more to come up with a sensational recipe. No wonder families have spent generations perfecting the pickle craft!

P.S. Thanks R for holding my pickle!