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Bread! No, really – bread!

I have started baking!

Now I’ve tried baking before, and I have ruined cookies. I have ruined more than one box mix of bread made in a bread machine. I just don’t get dough.

And now, all of a sudden, I’m baking. Bread. Without a bread machine.

Okay, so the without a bread machine part was entirely accidental, but I’d already added water to flour when I found out the motor on my bread machine had given up, and it would have been more difficult to clean up at that stage than to keep going and give it a try completely by hand.

I’m trying to keep myself to eating no more than a loaf of bread a week, so there hasn’t been an explosion of bread products. But it’s the second week of fearless breadmaking, and the second loaf of tasty bread… so I’m ready to confess to it.

Premise: Michael Ruhlman wrote a book, Ratio. And after talking it up with my friends, it was a yule gift to me (thanks!). I thought it was a book about baking, but it’s really more a book about all kinds of cooking – at a very high level. It pretty much says, “All of those techniques you know that come with complicated recipes? Well the recipes are secretly rather simple, and here are the magic formulae behind them all – in graph form, no less.”

Okay, well, I have a scale and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with bread being able to be reduced to a framework with some flexibility.

But I’m also not an expert, so I can tell right away that the scant ten pages on bread will not be sufficient, so I also pull out the book of bread machine recipes and my Joy of Cooking.

Experiment 1:
I look at the lean dough recipe (Ratio, p.10):

20 ounces bread flour (about 2 cups)
12 ounces water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active or instant yeast

And I compare it with the recipes for 2 lb loaves in the bread machine cookbooks. Those tend to call for about 3 cups of flour, so I scale down the recipe to:

15 ounces flour
9 ounces water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Yeah, so I didn’t measure the yeast. The store only had packets, so I just went with a whole packet and figured that should be a loaf of bread worth.

So I pulled out my measuring cup (because it’s microwave safe) and poured in 9 ounces of water. And then I chucked in the random egg yolk I had in my freezer (thawed first) and 2 teaspoons of butter (because every recipe in the bread machine cookbook had about that quantity of lipids). And then I carefully microwaved it up to about 90F and poured some over the active dry yeast to soften it.

Into another container (a quart yogurt container was the perfect size), I started measuring out my flours. And of course I didn’t go the easy route, but I went for whole wheat flour right away. I added about 5 ounces of whole wheat, maybe another 3 ounces of rye flour, and then I was just careful adding the white bread flour to get it to exactly 15 ounces.

Then I added the liquid to the bread machine, added the flour, and topped it with the wet yeast. Plugged it in and nothing happened. Nothing! Whah!

After much despairing, I pulled out the bowl part and twirled the paddle for a bit by hand – and it came together pretty quickly and painlessly into a ball. So I dumped the ball into a large, heavy bowl to mix a little more. And here was the real moment of brilliance that will keep my coming back to bread making – I realized that I didn’t have to get a whole table messy/floury to make bread – I could knead it right there in the bowl!!! Not only was my table not getting dirty, but I was also amazed to discover that my hand didn’t end up all that messy, either. I love bread dough!

I kneaded it in the bowl for a bit, but it fairly quickly became apparent that there wasn’t enough liquid in the dough and it just felt grainy. So I slowly added water in batches as I was kneading. And then I was reading more in Joy of Cooking as I was kneading, and I saw that it said you must have sugars in the dough, too, in order to feed the yeast. So the next time the dough felt dry, I grabbed the honey bottle and squeezed in some honey. I think I ended up adding slightly less than al 1/4 cup of water and maybe an eighth of a cup of honey.

And then I had to let it rise… except my kitchen isn’t hot enough. I live in a tiny studio apartment, and I’ve come up with a solution where I heat my bedroom just a little and the kitchen not at all and this winter (thanks to the help of friends) I have the place insulated enough that it’s enough for me to be comfortable… but the kitchen’s around 40F on most days. So I (oiled the bowl, rounded the dough, turned it in the oil) dampened a kitchen towel and microwaved it until it was warm and steamy. Then I put the bowl on a cutting board and wrapped the top in the warm towel and tucked it all up close to the baseboard heater in my bedroom.

By morning it had doubled in size. Punched it down, kneaded it a little, had some errands to run, so I re-wet and microwaved the towel and put it up for a second rise. Came home and heated up the oven and baked it. (400F for 10 minutes, 350F for 25-30 more minutes – from Joy of Cooking)

Results of experiment #1: So I fully expected this loaf to fail. From no recipe to the equipment failure, from starting off trying a whole wheat loaf to the random inexplicable tinkering – this recipe was doomed to fail. Only it didn’t! It was delicious! It was bread! Okay, so it was a bit solid and tough and more suited to toasting that gobbling up straight, but it was still hard not to gobble it all up right away. I even took some to my mother that night, and she agreed it was tasty bread! Success!

Experiment #2:But I can do better.

This time I only went up to 3.5 ounces of 15 to be whole wheat flour. And I mixed some whole milk with the water (still a total weight of 9 ounces).

And I kneaded it for longer in hopes of making it chewier. Oh, and I figured that since I can keep kneading the flour in a bowl and my hand isn’t getting too dirty that the whole project is portable! So I tucked back into the warm bedroom and kneaded the flour for a whole episode of Earth 2.

The dough still needed more liquid (about the same amount more) and I still added honey (2 Tablespoons-ish). And I accidentally – because I didn’t check back with the book – only included 3/4 teaspoon salt.

And even with the long kneading time, it never reached the stage Ruhlman describes where, “To know if you’ve kneaded the bread dough enough, cut a small piece and stretch it gently. If it reaches the point of translucency before it breaks, the dough is ready.” (Ratio, p.8) But I figure that’s a feature of using the whole wheat flour. And I was starting to worry after 50 minutes of desultory kneading whether I might not be doing too much. I kept adding liquid until the dough was just slightly tacky/sticky after a thorough kneading.

Since the initial mixing had been done in this bowl, too, there was a fine crust of floury bits around the rim, so I did have to wash and dry the bowl before oiling it and putting the dough back in it to rise. But I used the same set up as last week. Only one rise, though.

Results of experiment #2: OMG BREAD! No, really – bread! Just the right amount of gumminess. It could use a bit deeper flavor, but it was exactly what bread should be! Without a recipe and done by feel! I can not express how happy this makes me! It wasn’t just beginners’ luck, either! Wooo! I can not wait until next week when I’ll let myself have another go, but I have no idea how this loaf will last through the night without getting completely devoured.

Plan for experiment #3 So I’m going to need to buy more yeast for next week, so I was perusing the King Arthur Flour website, and I stopped by to look at their recipes – some of which convert back and forth between volume and weight. I’ve noticed that they tend to go with a 16oz flour : 10 oz liquid ratio. That would be a little more wet, and I think I’ll try that next.

Pita Chips & Tzatziki

The secret to my pita chips are the awesome thin pitas by local halal grocer carries. Really, extremely thin pitas result in light, crispy pita chips that are more addictive than potato chips.

The ones I buy are made by Soumaya & Sons Bakery in Whitehall, PA.

Pita Chips

So split the pitas open into two separate halves, and brush the bready side lightly with olive oil. And then stack them one upon the other so that both sides end up lightly greased.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Cut the stacks into wedges and lay out a single layer of wedges on a baking sheet.

Mix together the following spice mix:

  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 3/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp powdered garlic
  • a dash of thyme or oregano
  • a dash of sumac (or zatar that has been ground smooth in a mortar)
  • a few grinds of nutmeg
  • a few grinds of pepper
  • just the tip of a knife of smoked paprika, it’s strong stuff

Sprinkle spices over pita wedges. And then sprinkle kosher salt over to taste.

Bake on middle rack of oven until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes.

Tzatziki Sauce

Buy any old cheap brand of plain fat free yogurt, and turn it into awesome yogurt by letting it drain for several hours.

Peel a cucumber. Now it can be any kind of cucumber – I have used the long, fancy seedless cucumbers; regular eating cucumbers; big, fat pickling cucumbers; and, most recently, small pickling cucumbers. Actually, I think my favorite so far has been the small pickling cucumbers because they had hardly any water content. But, honestly, I’ve had great results every time. And the only time I worried about seeds at all was for the very thick pickling one.

So peel the cucumber. Then slice it lengthwise just as thinly as you can. And then the other plane lengthwise, so that you end up with long, thin strips. And then mince all the way down, so that you end up with wee tiny cucumber pieces. Dump them all into the thick yogurt.

And then I will often add about a 1/4 teaspoon of minced garlic from a jar. It’s better from ajar than fresh in this case because it has had a chance to mellow out a bit.

And then maybe a pinch of salt.

And that’s it. By the next day, everything is settled in and delicious.

Bread and Chocolate

For breakfast this morning, I had spelt bread from Metropolitan Bakery. I had expected it to suck, but it didn’t.

Question A: If you thought it would suck, why did you buy it?
Answer Q: Because they were sold out of the one bread I know I like – pumpernickel – and that one was oddly tempting. It’s a grain Romans might have used, you see, so it’s like academic curiosity. Plus there was a cute guy behind the counter who was lobbying for me to try that one (after I flat out turned down the raisin walnut bread). And it was the only one that came nested in a cute wooden cradle probably made the the same people as my friend bought for the favors at her wedding. So irresistible, really.

Question 2: Why did you think it would suck?
Answer: Well, it just sounded a bit like lead. And possibly dry. And unbearably healthy. The kind of thing that would leave my colon scoured clean – and knowing it. And so Metropolitan Bakery isn’t reliable about providing satisfying bread. Their semolina bread (one of my favorite breads elsewhere) is a bit dense and dry and healthy tasting, and does not have the special semolina flavor that, say, Di Bruno Brothers’ does.

I should not have doubted. Because, apparently, the one thing Metropolitan Bakery does really well with their bread is make dense, healthy breads. But it was also a soft, squishy, and rich bread. It was nutty and delicious on its own, but it was even better topped with honey butter (softened butter that I thoroughly mixed with Buckwheat honey [scroll down on that page to get to the entry on Stagecoach Apiary]).


After I finished that tasty breakfast, I did laundry – and figured that since it had all fit in one load, instead of two, I’d pop over to the new coffee shop next door and check it out.

Hot Chocolate: Ghirardelli intense dark chocolate syrup, steamed milk, topped with whipped cream, and swirled with more syrup.

This guy understands fancipants hot chocolate.

And he was all sweet about me only having $2.50 instead of the $2.75 for the small (since I just had what I didn’t need to convert to quarters for laundry – I’d just been planning on looking).

Aside from several exciting coffees, they also have Cuban Tapas – which means they’ll heat you up an empanada, but they looked like very good empanadas.

And then as I was leaving, the name of the coffee shop registered – Cafe Clavé.

Hey, wait a minute, back when I first moved into my apartment, this location was called Cafe Clavé. It was run by the son (Gooch) of the owner of the building. So I went back and asked if it really were the same place and if he were the same guy – and it is! and he is! This’ll be awesome!

It will be especially awesome since I have missed the occasional drum circle they’d have outside the coffee house that I’d be able to hear from my apartment (Not everyone likes that kind of thing, but I thought it was wonderful and kept hoping the Green Line would attract some of the same drummers).

Have another food list – Mexican Corn Soup

food I have
1 grapefruit
2 tomatoes (1 urgent)
3 roasted bell peppers
2-3 bell peppers (yellow & red)
mixed small lettuces

3/4 container of sour cream
1% milk
1/2 pint heavy cream
goat cheese

1/3 loaf of brown bread (ETA: just heels left)
1/2 round of pumpernickel
small amount of leftover white rice

some leftover cooked chicken (from the breasts marinated in peaches & cowboy rub)

some prepared enchiladas that need to be baked
sauce to go with them

Tuesday, February 19 *done*
take 1 link of turkey sausage from freezer to thaw.
take container of small cut pork from freezer to thaw (with black bean & pepper sauce?)
put enchiladas into the freezer
Make a sandwich with chicken leftovers, tomato, and lettuce (and goat cheese?)

Wednesday, February 20 *done*
make a “bread pudding” with some of the pumpernickel bread, eggs, cream, cheese, tomato, and grilled turkey sausage with onions and peppers. Possibly bacon, too. With a little side salad, of course.
*freeze some of this for lunches*

Thursday, February 21 *done*
stir fry of pork, broccoli, onion, and peppers over rice.

Friday, February 22
leftover rice needs to be used up. So do carnitas. Would it be sacrilege to dump them together with cream of chicken soup? Probably. So it would be slightly more respectable to… make burritos! with lots of cheese and sour cream – and maybe a zucchini. And all the rest of the lettuce.

plus bonus recipe – Mexican corn soup
Oh, and I almost forgot to give you the recipe for the soup I made the other day.

If you remember, I had some stock with tomato paste mixed in (let’s say a 3-4 cups of stock with 1/2 a little can of paste).

I also had some liquid I had drained out of the carnitas at the very last minute because I didn’t have the nerve to see what happened to my cooking pot, if I let the pork get completely dry. This was only about 1 cup of lovely pork/citrus/spices essence.

So I went looking in my Mexican cookbook, and found a recipe for corn soup I could use as a starting point.

So I boiled the stock/tomato paste mixture for 20 minutes to kill any bacteria.

Then I combined in a blender:

  • 1 onion, cooked down in some of the fat skimmed from the pork liquid (there wasn’t much, really – I was using pork loin instead of the fattier cuts the carnitas recipe recommends) and then seasoned with paprika
  • 1 can of corn, drained
  • 1 tomatoes, peeled and seeded
  • enough stock to make everything juicy and blending smoothly

In a saucepan, I think combined:

  • everything from the blender
  • the rest of the stock
  • salt & pepper

If I were following the recipe, I would now add 1/2 a cup (a whole cup? I don’t remember) of heavy cream. But since most of this would be going into the refrigerator and getting reheated, I decided to add the cream right before serving. And then I found that lumps of sour cream were more satisfying than cream.

I also considered adding chicken at that time, but I ended up also just adding cut up chicken to the bowls while reheating so that I could have the option to swap in carnitas instead of chicken (though I never for around to trying that). It was also a good soup without meat.

Banana Bread

I have an old standard recipe for never-fail banana nut bread that comes from the red-checkered version of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, so when I got my apartment I got a copy of the cookbook to take with me so that I could have this specific recipe.

Only they went and changed it on me! I ended up with some crazy recipe that had streusel nut topping. Not on, cookbook. [ETA: streusel-laden recipe warning – pop-ups and other annoying advertising]

So I sent home to my mother for a copy of the correct recipe to put into the cookbook:

Banana Nut Bread

1/2 c. shortening butter (5 1/3 Tbsps.)
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs

1 3/4 c. sifted all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

1 c. mashed ripe bananas (I use 3 bananas, if I have them. Otherwise, 2)
1/2 c. chopped nuts (pecans, in my land)

Cream together butter and sugar; add eggs and beat well.

Sift together dry ingredients; add to creamed mixture alternately with banana, blending well after each addition.

Stir in nuts.

Pour into well greased 9.5″x5″x3″ loaf pan.

Bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes or until done. Remove from pan, and cool on a rack.

Now once I started making this in my apartment, I was living in a land with no dishwasher. So instead of mashing the bananas in one bowl, chopping the nuts into another, creaming the butter and sugar in yet another, and then having the large bowl with the dry ingredients and then everything else – I tried to minimize the dishes I would have to do. So I broke apart the nuts into the measuring cups after they’d been used, and I put the bananas straight into the dough and mashed as I mixed it in. This ended up making the dough too dry. So now there is about another 1/2 cup of sour cream in my standard recipe. Basically, I make it the usual way and then I add sour cream until the dough is wet enough.

This recipe makes amazing bread.

This morning, while I was waiting for the bread to cook, I decided to see whether my new cookbook, The Best Recipe by the Cook’s Illustrated people, had any opinions on the perfect technique for making banana bread. And they do:

  • Sour Cream added richness, but it also made for a heavy texture and an unattractive, pebbly crust.
  • they mix the nuts with the dry ingredients and the bananas with the wet, and they add yogurt in with the wet, too.