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Grain of Salt: Daily Bread

After watching HBO’s Weight of the Nation (which you have to see if you haven’t yet) our entire family has decided to go on a health kick. Mom has made a brave (and miraculously successful!) first attempt at cooking kale (see post Friday or so), Francesca has taken up Irish step dancing, Isabella has been dragging me on these miserable runs, and dad has agreed to keep on eating whatever we put in front of him.

 

Good things are coming your way

 

But as luck would have it, a week into this health kick, mom was scheduled to teach her famous fried chicken class, with lime creamed corn, buttermilk mashed potatoes with crispy (deep fried) shallots and Jack Daniel’s fudge pie. The foodpocalypse was essentially zooming towards us, with nothing we could do to stop it. The only way for us children to keep ourselves in check was to eat a light dinner, and hopefully only be hungry for a drumstick or so when we got home. So as class time approached, the girls and I ventured out for an evening of Panera (which has healthy options), Froyo (which is not healthy, but is healthier than some things) and nerdy cavorting at Barnes and Noble.

 

And this is what we found

 

It was a lovely time, and we actually ended up learning a lot of lessons over the course over the evening. We learned copious amounts about whales, Irish history, graphic design, and not letting the pigeon drive the bus, and we learned how to fail at moderating ourselves at Froyo World (The toppings are just right there for you to take! These people are marketing geniuses!)

 

Froyo isn't froyo without 5 cherries

 

But of all the lessons we learned, the best was certainly how much you can benefit from being an indecisive nut. We spent such a long time trying to figure out which option at Panera would maximize health and yumminess, that I felt a bother correcting the lady when she thought I said I wanted tuna on honey-wheat instead of whole grain and had already put in my order. By some miraculous stroke of luck, honey-wheat bread turned out to be so soft, gently sweet and perfect that it has since become my default bread of choice. And since mom’s last post was about butter, what could I do but write a fresh baked bread post to match.

 

three's a charm

 

This is the first time I’ve made bread on the blog, so this is going to be a tutorial, not just a recipe. Even if you’re an experienced bread maker, there are a lot of steps that a lot of us just dutifully do, which we ought to try and understand. To begin we have a starter, which is some permutation of water, flour and yeast, as you see above. It actually has little to do with making the bread rise, but instead is mostly about making sure the bread actually tastes like something. The starter we’re making  here is called a sponge, and is made with equal parts flour and water, along with a little bit of instant yeast. As it sits at room temperature for about an hour (or up to 4) the yeast ferments and takes your bread from bland to boss.

 

 

First, we add instant yeast to the water, and immediately whisk it in to prevent clumping. Following Rose Levy Beranbaum (the queen of Bread) I advise you to almost always use instant yeast, which is more convenient for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it can be activated in room temperature water, not just the 90-100° required by active dry (although that temperature will work too – it’s very flexible – just don’t use super hot or super cold). It is also called rapid rise, leading to the misconception that it causes your bread to rise faster, which it doesn’t. But it is very easy to use, and serves our purposes in almost every case.

 

It looks icky but trust me it's good

 

We then whisk in the flour, until we get this nice pasty thing. Rose Levy Beranbaum says that she likes her sponge starters to be more liquidy because the yeast makes more bubbles, resulting in a lighter, more even bread. So that’s what we made. To let the bubbles and flavor develop, we let it sit at room temperature for an hour. We could have gone longer, but I’m impatient. Go until your starter looks at least kind of like this:

 

 

See all the bubbles? That means it’s alive! If that doesn’t happen, start over/buy new yeast. Cover it tightly while it’s fermenting. It prevents the dough from drying out, and also you get to see the plastic wrap dome up as the yeast releases carbon dioxide. Also note that some the gas will bubble up and pop on the surface. Which means it’s working and is also fun to see. Meanwhile get everything else together. First off, we have crisco…

 

Don't worry, every fiber of my being is dying right now

 

…which is usually really bad for you – worse even than butter, which we usually advocate above all else. But in baking, butter can make things harder and drier, which only good when when we want a nice crisp cookie. In this case, when what we were looking for was a moist, soft bread above all else, shortening was the only option. Adding a little bit of fat to the bread tenderizes it, making it soft and addictive, just like you want. And since we’re using it in low quantities, this bread is still healthy and low-cal.

 

This is a picture of honey mixed with water

 

Next we have honey. Sometimes sweet things (sugar, honey, etc.) are added so that the yeast has something to eat and makes more bubbles, but here it’s really just a flavor thing. Before you add all the other ingredients, whisk the honey in with the water so that it’s less sticky, and distributes nicely.

 

 

Finally we have the flour, which gets whisked with the salt. This means the salt doesn’t get added all at once, minimizing its contact with the yeast (otherwise a lot of the yeast will die, which would suck).

 

 

We are ready to mix! Whisk the yeast into the honey-water, then add the shortening, flour-salt mixture and your starter. You can begin kneading it by hand, but please consult The Bread Bible for instructions on how to do that. I’ve found that my best results by far come from using a KitchenAid. Using a dough hook, mix the dough on setting #2 for about 1 to 1.5 minutes, until it looks like this:

 

As you can see, there's little bits of shortening and everything. That's fine.

 

Then we let it rest, covered, for 20 minutes. This lets the flour absorb the water better, and means our mixing time will shorten. Meaning, among other things, we won’t get impatient and make the bread mix on too high a setting, breaking all the gluten bonds and essentially killing any chance of our bread being edible.

 

This is a picture of dough about to rise

 

Then turn the mixer back on and let it mix on setting #4 for about 15 minutes, or until it’s pretty stretchy. Then cut the dough in half, and form it into two rounds, and put on wax paper. Cover with a warm, moist towel, and set to rise in a decently warm place for about 40 minutes. When you’re forming it into rounds, pull the sides out a bit, and then fold them around back, and then tuck the ends under, so the top is nice and smooth, like you see above. Otherwise you can end up with a kind of craggy looking top. Like this silly looking thing:

 

This is picture of a very silly looking bread

 

Yours probably won’t look so extreme, because this dough was super dry… but still, lets not take chances. Once the dough has risen, you can either transfer it to a loaf pan, or bake it on its own directly on the baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 350°F convection/375° conventional and let it rise for about another 45 minutes, preferably in a warm area, covering again with a warm, moist towel. You’re ready to bake! A loaf in no pan takes about 25 minutes, while a loaf in a pan can take up to 10 minutes longer. To be on the safe side, insert a baking thermometer into the center. It’s done when it reaches between 190 and 200°F. Let cool for as long as you can stand it (at least 10 minutes), slice, and eat!

 

 

You can find my full recipe on Food52 by clicking here. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions. I highly recommend making this bred, whether you’re very experienced or brand new to the process. I think you’ll agree that a slice of this bread is pretty much the best thing since (wait for it…) itself.

Batter Up

Pancakes!

 

You may have been wondering whatever happened to the mommy part of Fig Test Kitchen? Did teaching a full load of cooking classes, several appearances/fundraisers a month, raising six, fifteen and nineteen year olds (oh yes, Gabrielle still needs me!) (note from GOS – Oh puh-lease… Also I’m 20 now ;) Happy Birthday to Me!), and singlehandedly taking care of a house finally, you ask, just put me over the edge? Well obviously, but that’s nothing new. But I talked to all of my super-organized friends who are, in fact, the opposite of me… methodical tall, athletic and sometimes blond. I’ve taken a lot of their advice, and gotten my life at least somewhat in order. As you may know from the first two videos posted recently we’re starting with the basics – salt, equipment, spices, and moving toward easy recipes before we’ll finally move on to stuff like seared duck breasts or Persian jeweled rice. What all this means is, I’m back on the blog.

 

Don't you want to make these?

 

But you want recipes.  And I made pancakes! We’ve had an unusually early and beautiful spring here in New Haven, and I’ve been thinking about flowers. I was making creme fraiche pancakes during a cooking demo at the Elm City Market in New Haven and lavender just hit me. And a recipe was born. Creme fraiche is rich and creamy like sour cream (it actually has a higher fat content), but a bit more tart. Perfect for pancakes. Combine it with chocolate and lavender, you get pancakes that are fragrant, sweet and irresistible. Here’s what you need to do:

First, you will need to gather the ingredients and make sure your ingredients are in place, measured and ready to go. Believe me it pays to do, especially when baking. It seems like an extra step, but it saves so much time in the long run, and keeps you organized. You don’t want to add the baking powder twice. Not that we’ve ever done that…

 

GOS says: And yes, you absolutely must arrange your ingredients like this or the recipe will not come out.

 

Chop the dark chocolate to any size you like. I wasn’t done chopping when I took this photo, I’m just posting it because I like it. They were eventually the size of the chocolate in vanilla chocolate chip ice cream. Obviously you can use store-bought chocolate chips if you want.

 

Chop chop!

 

Once you have all your ingredients measured and ready, add all the dry ingredients in a medium size bowl and whisk well.

 

Whisk these...

 

Then add all of the wet ingredients in a separate bowl

 

 

And blend with a hand mixer or immersion blender or whisk. Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and mix once again. Do not overmix or your pancakes will be tough. Then add the chocolate chunks and stir gently with a  spatula until just combined.

 

So close you can (and should) taste it

 

After melting unsalted butter in a large skillet, pour about a ¼ cup of batter per pancake, and cook on the first side for about two minutes, until light brown. Turn over to cook the second side for about another minute until light brown.

 

GOS says: Ahhhhhhh!! (I haven't even had these yet. I'm dying right now)

 

Find some plates, and serve with or without syrup.

 

They're done!

 

Here is the full recipe. Enjoy your breakfast, enjoy the birds chirping, and welcome spring in style.

 

Click for Printable!

Grain of Salt: Pancake Devotion (and Syrup Woes)

 

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear this, but every once in a while, we college students aren’t in the mood to eat healthy food for dinner. In my suite, that means we make pancakes instead. It’s less of an incredibly terrible idea than you think, and if you serve them with fruit and count them as dessert too you can pretty much justify it. And besides, by anybody’s definition my friends and I are really good kids, so I guess this is our way of sticking it to our parents (don’t tell mom). But we should have known better than to disobey anybody ever, because today, karma came and (very literally) stuck it right back to us.

 You see the droplets on that pancake? Contrary to popular belief that's not what they're supposed to look like.

 

It began at the supermarket, when the cheapest bottle of maple syrup we could find was the same price we paid for tomorrow’s Salmon. Which granted wasn’t that much… but seriously, it’s syrup. But I’m a hardcore New Englander, and one of the very first Facebook groups I ever joined was “Just Say No to Fake Maple Syrup.” I didn’t have it in me to buy Aunt Jemima, and fortunately none of my suite-mates did either (and they’re from California and Alabama!). So we said, “Whatever, at least it will last us a while, and at least it’s not over-processed, artificially flavored corn syrup.” Plus it was organic. And we were splitting it a bunch of ways. All things considered probably worth it. We thought.

 

There's a nail in that syrup...

 

Things went swimmingly until we got to the dinner table. The pancakes puffed up perfectly, the bacon was crisp as crisp can be, and even the January blueberries were good. And then Theresa went to open the maple syrup. The cap didn’t budge. Not even a little.  She tried again. Nothing. She passed it to Mary Margaret. Still nothing. They passed it to me. Predictably nothing. As you can probably guess from the picture above (yes, that’s a nail) we were in for a long evening. Still not properly worried, we tried cutting off that little plastic ring that holds on the cap with our pancake knives. When that didn’t work, we successfully severed it with a sharp knife. But obviously, that wasn’t the problem.

 

This is the arsenal. Don't we look so legit?

 

After prying with a large kitchen knife, attempting to loosen it with a bottle opener, running it under hot water, banging it on the table and even getting my roommate, a fencer, to try her hand at it, all four of us had injured ourselves in some decently significant way. At this point, any sensible person would just give up, or at least go return the syrup. But the pancakes were cold by now anyway, and for what we paid for the syrup and the effort we’d already put in, gosh darn it, we weren’t eating without it. And since we’re not sensible in the slightest, we got out a serrated knife and started sawing it off. After many minutes of sawing we finally got through to the glass…

 Theresa with a knife

 

and of course it didn’t budge. Clearly, we realized, some spiteful person at the Brad’s Organic factory had glued the top on just for us. And so finally we had no choice but to resort to… the hammer.

 

Hammer, otherwise known as desperation at its finest

 

Five holes later, we were able to apply our syrup in a spongey fashion, like kindergarteners with those funny, squeezey glue sticks…

 

I wanted to make cookies out of this syrup... Does anyone know a better way to do this?

 

… and ultimately, we developed this beautiful contraption to let the syrup drip out over the course of the next century, so that someday I can make cookies out of it, and *maybe* we can access enough to put on waffles. The moral of this story is: never underestimate 3 nineteen-year-old girls on a quest for syrup.

The end!


I’m going to give you my favorite pancake recipe now, on the condition that your syrup a) is made of Maple and b) is not Brad’s Organic. This recipe is hopelessly fluffy, and great with bananas, with chocolate chips or with both. Or plain, or with blueberries, or with sliced strawberries. Unless you use Brad’s Organic Syrup, you just can’t go wrong.

Click to download PDF!

 

Beginning of Summer and Graduation

It’s been almost three weeks since I graduated and it’s still barely sunk in. It’s so foreign to me, taking a day trip to New York without feeling guilty for putting off a paper, or going in the car without bringing flashcards. But it’s been an amazing few weeks. Now that I have no obligations, I get to spend as much time as I want playing with my sisters, taking pictures, playing the guitar, manning the cooking school booth at the farmers market and of course, cooking up a storm. In fact, cooking up a storm is the first thing I did when I got home, Sunday, June 6th. The moment my diploma was safely out of reach from any sisters or cousins who might want to color it in, I put on my apron and went to work on final preparations for my grad party.

The highlights of the party were the cheese table (above), and a cookie-candy bar (below) that was as much of a hit with the grown ups as with the kids. Doing tables like these isn’t hard. After the jump are some tips for doing one at your own party.

And for dinner, mom really outdid herself. Among the things she made were Salmon en Croute with dill, lemon and black pepper cream, Beef Tenderloin with Stilton Sauce and assorted grilled vegetables with herbs de provence. But perhaps the highlight was this fabulous, and foolproof, bacon-arugula quiche. It’s one of our absolute favorite things to make here at the test kitchen, and we’re very excited to share it with you. Click for the recipe!

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