Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Bread Bug

I seem to have caught some sort of bug.

A while back Molly commented on this very infection that keeps a young woman close to her stove, breathing deeply of activated yeast and kneading mixtures of flour, water, salt, and sweetness into happy little balls. My mom caught it for several years when I was young, and, even though I'm not quite in the "after college and before the kids start school" stage yet, I did just turn 22, which puts me in the right age bracket (again, according to Molly).

I've often dreamed of nonchalantly making bread: instinctively knowing when it's been kneaded enough, when the shaped loaf is taut enough, when the bottom sounds hollow enough. I'm hardly there, but thanks to the inspiration of my uncle and the reliability of Cook's Illustrated's recipes, I am continuing to sharpen my skills.

Several weeks ago I started making a multigrain bread when, midway through its first rise, I was invited to some friends' house. I decided to simply cart along my dough and finish the process there. Of course everyone went crazy over the delicious smell filling the air as the bread baked, and, try as I might, I could only swat away hands from the cooling loaves for so long. We sliced into the warm, hearty crumb and blissfully enjoyed the chewiness of the crust, the nibble of the sunflower seeds, and the soft center.

From that late night snack, I was "hired" to bake another two loaves, so this weekend I finally got around to it. But as my friend's two loaves sat on the counter waiting to be picked up, I started wanting a loaf for our own apartment. I spent the better part of Saturday scanning the internet for recipes and yet procrastinating on the process (somehow rationalizing that sitting at my computer was at least closer to actual studying than being in the kitchen). But when I woke up Sunday morning to drizzly rain, the only thing I could think to do was bake more bread.

This time I built my dough off of Molly's recipe for Rancho La Puerta Whole Wheat Bread. I added a few ingredients I knew my cupboards could bare getting rid of, such as raisins, poppy seeds, and ground flaxseed. I also spontaneously sprinkled cinnamon on the dough before shaping it into a loaf, but the amount was too conservative to add any detectable flavor. In the end, the simplicity of the whole wheat base shone through, and between us four girls and visitors, the loaf was gone by Monday morning.

After the weekend, I was out of yeast. But don't worry, I have already bought some more and am dying for the free time to try out new recipes, perfect the reliable ones, but, mainly, I want to stick my fingers into a bowl of wet dough and get to work it with my palms and peek under kitchen towels at growing bumps in greased loaf pans.

I know, I know. This bug has hit me hard.

Sharing the love: above is a slice of bread destined for a friend.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pass the Excellent

Do not ask how 20 days slipped by since my last post! I think I'm going to require further grace in the coming months. Right now the end of another semester is keeping me very busy.

Please don't get the idea that I'm a high-maintenance kind of girl, but the hobbies I entertain/dream about the most are quite expensive to maintain, especially on a college budget. I would travel, frequent local markets, cook, bake, and call life good, if I could. In the location I'm at, fresh and natural food don't come even reasonably priced but maybe some day. Until then, I am facing the worthy challenge of counting these days as equally significant and lovely as those to come.

I am doing my best to maintain this blog and have come to enjoy the excuse to write, shoot photographs, and connect with others over food. Right now my priority is using up what I have before I leave for the summer and sticking to a budget (unfortunately ingredients for a fresh stone fruit claufoutis do not fit within these parameters). However, I always have salad ingredients on hand and plenty of oil, herbs, garlic, and tomato sauce crowding my cupboards. With the temperatures rising to unbearable heights (I melt at 80 degrees unless, of course, I'm at the beach), I haven't been in the mood to spend much time at the stove, so a salad dressing made a lot of sense.

This particular dressing is my mother's own recipe, and I hesitated for a moment to post it here because my family has exclusively prized it for many years.

I have flickering memories of visiting small specialty stores in Auckland, New Zealand with my mom when we were preparing to move back to the States.* Behind sliding glass refrigerator doors sat jars of her speckled orange dressing with a simple, pretty label. The profit she made from selling this dressing to friends, the staff at my school, and small stores like this one helped my family make the move back.

We grew up asking for "Excellent" at the dinner table. I think the labels on the jars my mom sold read "Rachael's Excellent Dressing" or maybe it was "Rosie's" - that's how my older brother, with a clearer memory than me, remembers it. This dressing is sharp yet not overpowering, slightly sweet but mostly tangy. It contains a variety of ingredients combined into a pleasing, addictive flavor great for cold pasta and salads abundant with vegetables.

The bowl I poured my freshly made dressing over contained cold skillet roasted potatoes and onions, turnip greens, tomatoes, mushrooms, and sunflower seeds. The combination was delicious, but there are so many other possibilities. Play around!

Rachael's Excellent Dressing

Makes about 2 cups.

1-1/4 cups canola oil
1/4 cup wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
(ketchup is acceptable, but I tend to reach for this)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 large garlic clove
1-1/2 teaspoons Vege-Sal (or other salt)
1-1/2 teaspoons honey
1-1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon rosemary
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Put all ingredients in blender. Blend well.

*Ammendment on 4/28: My memory did indeed fail me. Apparently my mom bottled and sold this dressing to earn money for our family of six to travel back to the U.S.A. for a family reunion the year before we left NZ for good. Not too relevant to making Excellent, but important to the integrity of creative non-fiction (can you tell I'm taking a writing class this semester?).

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spiced Green Apple and Life From Then to Now

Since my farewell blog on February 7th the tree outside my bedroom window has gone through notable stages. A few more brown shriveled leaves let go of otherwise bare branches. Ice coated its surface on a particularly cold day and created teardrop-like icicles that eventually surrendered their emotions and fell to the ground. Then the alternately hot, cold days here in Abilene averaged out to more hot than cold and green life began to peek through. Now those green buds are full new leaves and I am loving how the sunlight dances through them.

I feel like certain aspects of my life have gone through such drastic changes in the last two months. In February I was still fighting to carry out my plans for the fall semester: study art in New York City. There is an off-campus program through another school that I've had marked in my calendar for more than a year, but as I began to discuss the specifics with the art department at my current school (I learned about it at a different college I attended last year) the logistics began to look more tricky. The credits would be difficult to transfer, but what ultimately stopped me was that the cost of the program increased beyond what I could justify borrowing.

Honestly, the thought of spending yet another consecutive semester here made me run in search of alternative (cheaper) programs. I started an application to the University of Georgia's branch in Italy and even tried to arrange my classes so that I could stay there the whole year. I was ready to pack up and return to Europe.

Something caught me though. I feel like it was more a well-meaning foot stuck in my path in order to trip me, plant my face on the ground, and make me examine what is in front of me before getting up and dusting off. I still don't know clearly what I'm supposed to be looking at, but I think there's a measure of peace I'm supposed to reach with this place before I flee leave again.

While the class I came to this university with is graduating in May, I have a few good friends who are staying through, including my roommates, who I look forward to more time with before we all go out into the big wide world. In addition, I have an uncle, aunt, and three adorable little cousins a few hours away who I hope to see more of.

My roommate, Kelly, and I got a wonderful weekend away with them in March that had me tapping lightly at my computer keys, wishing I could log onto my blog and tell you about the fun we had. My uncle is a masterful bread-maker who taught us about growing starters, shaping the perfect loaf, and splashing water onto the sides of the oven in order to create steam for the baking bread (something that requires aim I lack so as not to pop any light bulbs or kill the oven altogether).

Oh, but I almost forgot to mention...! In the midst of mourning the loss of next year's travel plans, I am taking a long-dreamed-of trip to Japan this summer. The university in my hometown of Bellingham is taking a group of art students for three weeks in July, and I am joining them. We'll be traveling all over, learning about traditional and modern Japanese art, and when the program is over I'll stay an extra week at my friend's home north of Tokyo. I am so excited!

It will be a whirlwind summer, so I am grateful for the brief time I got with my family for the Easter holiday. I wish I had pictures to share, but I arrived at the airport twenty minutes before my flight left and had to leave my suitcase (containing my camera) in the trunk of my friend's car. I made a dash for the gate with just my purse and lasted through the long weekend in Northern California borrowing necessities from my sister. It was entirely worth it.

The pictures I have posted are a condensed cataloguing of life since we parted in February, including a little bit of the art I was able to do (above, you simply see the view over my computer: two sketchy drawings, a coaster from a great brewery back home, and one of my favorite photos from London).

And if you made it this far, I do in fact have a recipe to recommend for you. It is from a little while ago, but I've been saving the photos and exaltations for the right time. Now is my opportunity to share an nontraditional green apple "chutney."

Borrowed from Jennifer at Milk and Cookies, I found a few slightly different uses for this tangy, spiced fruit condiment. Initially, I made it because I had whipped up some simple vegan "omelets" of carrots, onions, and zucchini mixed with garbanzo flour and water that just needed a little something extra. The next week I was having to do some scavenging for dinner and ended up with a bowl of roasted new potatoes topped with the spiced apples and a dollop of crème fraîche. It was so good I put off my trip to the grocery store and had the same thing for dinner the next night!

So, in consistency with my most recent method of posting recipes, I'm pointing you toward the link:
Spiced Green Apple.

*Here's a little note on why I have begun to post recipes like I do: I find most my inspiration for the kitchen online, and when I come across a recipe that is perfectly good as is, I feel like the most appropriate thing to do is point you toward where credit is due. I still enjoy being able to converse about great food and relay my successes (and failures). When I end up adapting a recipe or referring to a cookbook I will post the recipe directly on my site. So, when you scan my post for the recipe I am referring to, there will be a link, likely bolded, at the bottom of the page.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cookie Thursdays

Hello! Thank you so much for your patience with me in this last month+ as I disappeared from the food blog world. I especially appreciated the occasional comments I still received!

I will admit that this little "fast" of mine ended more than a week ago, but I've gotten out of the blogging rhythm, so it's taken me this long to finally sit down and write. I have also found the idea of picking up again a bit daunting because so much has happened since my last post in February. So, I'm going to go ahead and fill you in on a new ritual of mine and point you toward the recipe it revolves around. Then you can keep reading if you're interested in a broader life update...

Envision cookies, dozens of them, pushed into crooked rows on a counter top after the one cooling rack in our kitchen has overflowed.

Out of the freezer comes a cold, sweet log of dough; a long blade precisely slices, slices, slices until there's no more to slice; a baking sheet comes out of the oven; another goes in; the timer is set for nine minutes; I have seven minutes to breathe and get out of the hot kitchen until the ritual starts over again.

When I offered to provide cookies for a work-related meeting I had no idea they would be a success, that this pattern--measuring, sifting, whirring, rolling, freezing, slicing--would become second nature to me in a matter of weeks. Yet, here I am on another Thursday evening, having risen at eight o'clock to turn the oven on before jumping in the shower and thinking of the two containers of cookie crumbs sitting in the break room at my office.

It really has been a joy to provide cookies to such an enthusiastic group of co-workers (actually, they're all pretty much my bosses). After that first batch of cookies was made and the leftovers were devoured in the break room a note appeared in their place proposing a "Lael, please, oh please, refill the cookie box" fund.

Ever since the end of February I have been taking this fund and delivering batches of cookies to the office on Thursday mornings, for which I receive elated faces and satisfied moans. Honest. These cookies are serious business. And I wish I could take full credit for them, but all I did was snag the recipe from Smitten Kitchen who adapted it from Dorie Greenspan.

I have to admit that Deb of Smitten Kitchen hit on something pretty amazing. The crumb of these cookies is delicate and modestly sweet. The whole thing melts in your mouth and the base is so versatile that you can customize each batch to almost any palette.

The office's biggest fan of these cookies is Steven, and one day my friend and I were cruel enough to convince him that they had all been eaten before he had a chance to get any. You should have seen the look on his face. But when he found out we had lied this was his response:

"I was mad, but after one cookie, I was filled with nothing but grace."

And this is my absolute favorite quote of his:

"If I were single, these cookies might make me give up my search for a meaningful relationship."

I really don't know what else to say. You're just going to have to try them!

Not wanting to take any credit away from Smitten Kitchen for these little wonders, follow this link to the recipe for her
Slice and Bake Cookies.

Here are just a few of the variations I've made:

  • zest of two limes and 1/2 cup coconut replacing equal parts flour
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder (replacing flour) and 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1 t. fennel with pine nuts on top (inspired by this cookie recipe)
  • 1/4 cup chopped candied ginger and 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachio and sesame seed combo (lightly toasted) and rose water (replacing vanilla)

Okay, so I think that's where I'm going to wrap things up tonight. I promise I'll be back to fill in some gaps (e.i. post artwork, etc.) later. The sun has gone down, friends are coming over soon, and I need to scrub some spots on our kitchen floor. Ciao!