Thursday, December 10, 2009

#13 - Focaccia

The Finished Focaccia

Before it became the trendy rage it is now, I played around with some recipes trying to make what was then a bizarre, foreign-sounding bread. But was it bread, or was it cake? Sometimes it was hard to tell. One recipe in particular from the Frugal Gourmet days (anyone remember him?) looked like a fluffy cake with tomato paste on top. Very strange visual, but a decent bread.

While that initial attempt may have been tasty, this focaccia was fantastic! First of all, it looked like focaccia. Since my early attempts, it seemed like everywhere I went for a sandwich, one could find the ubiquitous focaccia as one of the bread options. This was a welcome change from the standard sub roll, so I was eager to make this bread when I saw it coming up on the BBA list.

When I finally made it, I was not disappointed. It was delicious! I was a little worried when I saw all that olive oil called for in the recipe, but as Peter Reinhart assured us, it was all absorbed into the dough lending its silky texture to the finished loaf.

That's a Lot of Olive Oil!

After five minutes, most of the olive oil has been absorbed!

In the Oven

The Finished Loaf Hot Out of the Oven

The finished loaf was unbelievable! It was great just as is; did not need any further embellishments. I could not resist, however making a killer panini the next day. I used provolone, sliced tomatoes and fresh basil. It was fantastic and the perfect accompaniment to my favorite soup - Rachael Ray's Broccoli Rabe Soup with Beans and Italian Turkey Sausage. That may just be one of my all-time favorite meals!

Monday, November 9, 2009

#12 - English Muffins

The Magnificent English Muffin

Just Look at Those Beauties!

In 1988, when my son, Matthew, was but a toddler and I a stay-at-home mom, I had a very small baking business, which consisted of one order. But that one order was a tall one: two gross per week of my stellar English muffins that had delighted my friends and family. And just like the episode of the I Love Lucy Show where her friends and family convince Lucy she should prepare and market "Aunt Martha's Old-Fashioned Salad Dressing," my business was born.

It was great fun! I baked twice a week, and while the paycheck was small, I derived a great deal of satisfaction from the act of the baking itself as well as knowing other people were enjoying these marvelous treats. My family was happy because there were always English muffins in the larder, and they got the added bonus of my homemade strawberry jam to spread on top.

The best story of all, though, involved our beloved Julia Child. Most of us who consider cooking and baking an avocation were inspired and influenced by Julia. During my English muffin phase, Julia's The Way to Cook was published. She came to town for a book signing. I could not believe my luck! I was going to get a chance to meet the icon herself! I arranged for a sitter for my son, by now, two years old, and took my older child, Cate, with me to meet her. Naturally, I tucked a box of English muffins under my arm. Included in the box was a note to Julia handwritten from me telling me how much I admired her style, how much she had inspired me, and that "I am the cook I am today because of you."

Meeting Julia was a kick! She was exactly as she appeared to be: affable, charming, and fun-loving. She patted the box of muffins not unlike I had seen her pat that awful monkfish on one of her PBS TV shows, saying, or should I say (her descriptor) warbling, "Oh boy! Goody- goody gumdrops. Homemade English muffins! I'm so glad to see a small cottage industry like this."

As you can imagine, I floated out of the bookstore and had to take a walk around the village of La Jolla for a while before I trusted myself to drive. Though only six at the time, my daughter, who had watched Julia with me since she could remember, was also very excited to meet this larger than life persona.

A few weeks later, I was stunned to find a letter from Julia herself in my mailbox. In it, she asked me how I got the muffins to be cooked all the way through without burning them. Can't you just see my jaw dropping? I answered her letter, explaining my procedure, and she answered that letter too! What a down-to-earth gracious woman. And, of course, I still have both letters.

Nearly 20 years later, when Julia died, it was my daughter, Cate, who called to tell me. It was as if a favorite aunt had died; we were both grief-stricken.

All of that is to say that I never would have tried my hand with this bread were it not for this challenge. I thought I had the perfect formula, but I was wrong. This one far surpasses it! The crust is better, the crumb superb, and the taste unparalleled. I think the breakthrough that Peter Reinhart discovered was the final baking in the oven after their preliminary dance on the griddle. Brilliant! That one little procedure eliminates the problem of the English muffin baking experience. Even if they are just a tad underdone, there is only one thing to do - deposit them directly into the trash and start over. If you try to cook them further, they become dry and tough. This method is foolproof, especially using the thermometer to test the interior temperature, as he also recommends.

I made two batches - one using white flour and the other using half whole wheat. While I liked the whole wheat, the muffins using white flour exclusively were superior in taste. This will be my go to formula for this bread from now on, and while I no longer bake these for profit, I still make them from time to time.

Whole Wheat Muffins Rising

Both Varieties Cooling on the Racks

#11 - Cranberry Walnut Celebration Bread

Everything a Celebratory Bread Should Be

The name really says it all for this bread. Peter Reinhart's commentary in the opening remarks for this bread says that he was trying to celebrate all the great tastes of Thanksgiving. I'd say he succeeded. I am looking forward to making this bread again for our Thanksgiving table. I was thinking of making it into small dinner rolls, but presenting a big loaf at the table is so impressive on this holiday of grandeur, that I may end up with the original round loaf again.

When I made this bread, I made it for the express purpose of surprising my colleagues at our Friday morning meeting. We're all 7th grade teachers of language arts and social studies, so I thought it would be a welcome respite before the onslaught of pre-pubescent heaving bodies who would be crashing through our doors eager to see what fascinating learning would await them.

I showed up with this beautiful loaf, a cutting board, my Wusthof bread knife, good Irish butter, and Sarabeth's Kitchen peach-apricot jam. Were they happy! They loved the bread plain; they loved the bread with the butter; they loved the bread with the jam. And who could blame them? Studded with dried cranberries and walnuts, and laced with orange zest, this was a spectacular loaf, indeed worthy of the best of celebrations!

Studded with Cranberries and Walnuts

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

#10 - Cornbread

The first piece just as it came out of the pan. You can almost smell it, can't you?

This is undoubtedly the best cornbread I have ever made, and quite possibly the best I've ever tasted. I used fresh corn that I had cut from the cob; much better than canned or frozen. The bacon is turkey bacon, to my palate, tastes every bit as good as the fatty one with all the nitrates added.

In the Oven

The Finished Product

This bread was almost a meal in itself. Pair it with a hearty bowl of soup, and you have dinner. I must admit, though I did have just the bread for a meal or two all by itself. This is one I will return to again and again.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bread # 9 - Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Bread

The Finished Loaves

This Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Bread marks my first loaf after my month-long hiatus from bread baking. The look was a bit rustic, but the flavor was wonderful. It had a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon-sugar swirl in the center of each loaf, but it was not cloyingly sweet. For my money the walnuts were the best part. They were not overpowering, and when you did get one, it was a welcome little mouth surprise. I used halves and did not chop them. I just threw them in right from the freezer. I was a little nervous about now thawing them out first, but the dough was such a strong one, and we were having such hot weather here in San Diego county, that there were no ill-effects from the frozen walnuts.

I also substituted a little more than half the flour with whole wheat. I did not notice the absence of the white flour. I am re-committing myself to using more whole grains and less of the refined.

I'd say this was a fine loaf to come back to.

Ready for the oven.

In the Oven

A little blurry, I know, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bread #8 - Cinnamon Buns

Cinnamon Buns! Right Out of the Oven, These Were Amazing.
I actually made this bread the night before I left for The Odyssey, 2009, which was July 12th. I drove, solo, in my VW Cabrio, and was gone for three weeks, during which time I traveled from San Diego to Seattle and back. I drove up the Pacific Coast through Big Sur (spectacular!) and stayed for two nights in Salinas, where I wallowed in John Steinbeck country. After that I met my daughter in San Francisco for three days of non-stop shopping. While there, I ventured across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley and Tyler Florence's new store for cooks. He was there! What a gracious and charming man! Check us out:

Tyler Florence and Diane

Then it was on to Portland, Oregon, where I spent 3 days and nights in Powell's Books adding to my cookbook collection. What a great store; definitely worth the trip! I spent the next day driving to eastern Oregon trying to find this really obscure place where I spent many happy summers in the 70s. And I found it! That was really amazing on many levels!

From there, it was on to Seattle, Washington, where I spent the next three days, shopping at Pike's Place, visiting the Space Needle, and finding other bookstores. After that, it was back to Portland for the afternoon, and on to Tillamook, Oregon for the night.

From Tillamook, I took five days to drive home along the Pacific Coastline, stopping at many lighthouses, climbing up to the top (the tallest of which was Point Arena which is 115 feet in the air - 143 steps to the top, and yes I climbed all 143 of them without stopping!).

Another notable mention was having lunch at the Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino. The lunch was one of the best I have ever eaten, but perhaps even more fun was the visit to "The Brickery" in the back, where Marcos bakes their bread every day. Here I am with Marcos in The Brickery.

The Two Bakers - Marcos and Diane

It was an amazing journey!

Now, about the bread:

These cinnamon buns were so good! They seemed to dry out overnight! With a quick reheat, though, they were pretty darn good. I took them with me on my trip, and my friend and I toasted them for an accompaniment to her fabulous salmon dinner she cooked for us.

I left the rest of them for the staff at the hotel in Salinas. They seemed happy about that.

And then there was no baking for over a month!

Ready to Go into the Oven

In the Oven

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bread #7 - Ciabatta

What a Difference a Starter Makes!
I made my first attempt of the ciabatta using the poolish. I baked it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprayed the bread as the steaming method. The result was soft with virtually no holes. While it tasted fine, I felt like it was a flop because it did not have the texture or the crust that ciabatta is known for. I then made a second dough using the biga instead. I also baked the bread on a pizza stone with the pan of water. Huge difference! Now this is ciabatta! The crust had a pleasant crunch with an interior riddled with those often elusive holes.
Ciabatta: Version 1

Ciabatta, Version 2 - Now that's Ciabatta!

Look at those glorious holes! I served this at a birthday party for a friend, the "Other Diane." We dunked it into Italian wedding soup. Delish!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bread #6 - Challah

Behold the Challah!

Maybe it was the six years in Catholic school; I don't know. What I do know is that I cannot tell a lie. So, here's what happened:

I baked the challah out of order! I baked it ahead of the casatiello! Since this is not in keeping with the premise of this challenge, I tried to pretend that I hadn't really made the challah. I just went on to the casatiello, with the intention of slipping in a second version of the challah. Who would know? Uh, huh. In the words of my great art teacher at San Diego Mesa College, Walter Chapman, or as we knew him, "Chappie," when I said to him, "Oh, it's okay if the tails of my yarn are not tucked in to my weaving on the back. No one will know."

To which he replied with a deadpan face, "Diane, the angels will know."

I actually steadfastly deny the existence of angels, but those words of Chappie's mean something far more to me. And that is, that I will know. That sense of conscience is so much a part of me that I can't fudge even a little bit.

So, I made the challah a second time. I made it within the given week for challah; I'm just behind on my blogging. Summer vacation, you know!

What follows, then, is the chronicle of two breads, both named, Challah:

Here is the dough rising for Challah #1:

Challah # 1 rising in my beautiful marigold 75th anniversary celebratory Fiestaware bowl.

After the second rise, I braided it into one glorious loaf:

Challah #1, glistening with an egg wash, ready for the sauna; I mean, oven.

Another shot of this amazing bread. I can't get over how it rose!

Challah #1 in the oven; not quite up to its ideal internal temperature.

Again, behold the glorious Challah!

I know the following photographs are not as clear as they could be (John Oldenkamp, where are you when I need you?) but I wanted everyone to see the texture, the crumb of this bread:

Come on, admit it; you're mouth is watering. Fuzzy pictures or not, you want to slather Challah #1 with butter and sink your teeth into it right now.

And now on to Challah #2:
I made it exactly the same way as Challah #1, except I did a double braid; one larger, one smaller, with the smaller one placed strategically on top. As you can see, however, the smaller one had different plans. Remember Chappie? His answer would have been, "The Indians always had a planned flaw in their artwork because only God is perfect." I like that philosophy.
Challah # 2 rising. The smaller braid is already listing. Drat!
Even with its "planned flaw," Challah #2 has quite a dramatic presence.
Challah #2: Always the Drama Queen!

I'm always telling my good friend, Carole Levin, "I just know that I was Jewish in another life; I have such an affinity with my Jewish friends."

And, I love a good challah as much as the next person, but come on, two loaves in one week? Magnificent as they were with butter, with peach-apricot jam, with orange-apricot marmalade, how much challah can a person eat? And then I remembered the salvation of many a Jewish mother: bread pudding.

I cut up six thick slices of the challah, put them in a baking dish, and poured the custard over. The custard consisted of a quart of non-fat (yes, non-fat - sheesh! how many hours on the elliptical can I do?) milk, whisked gently with 6 eggs, 3/4 cup of Florida Crystals natural sugar, and some freshly grated nutmeg. I then scattered a handful or two of plump raisins throughout and baked it at 350 degrees until it was puffed and golden brown, about an hour or so.

Now, that was something of which the angels would be proud, not to mention Chappie!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bread #5 - Casatiello

Casatiello: An Exotic Name for a Dramatic Loaf

When I tasted this bread, I could not believe how good it was. It was such a strange loaf, I thought, when I first read the ingredients. In fact, I thought it was just a variation of the brioche, and so I skipped right over it, and went directly to the challah. Once I realized my faux pas, however, I quickly started to mix the dough for the casatiello. This bread was so foreign to me. In all my years of bread baking, I'd never heard of this exotic loaf, which appears to be the first cousin of the French brioche.

The dough was absolutely fabulous to work with, forming an elastic dough without much effort. This bread had a dramatic rise; quite stunning, actually, both in the bowl and in the oven. But the taste! Ah, the taste! That's what it's all about, isn't it?

Since I don't eat red meat, I substituted turkey bacon for the salami, and used feta cheese. The crumb was tender without being cakey; it was salty, but did not taste like "salt bread," and when spread with peach apricot jam, had that incredible sweet/salty flavor that so many of us crave.

I'll be making this one often!

Ready for the Last Rise.

A Well-Risen Loaf

In the Oven - High Drama!

Right Out of the Oven

What a Beauty!

Can't You Just Taste the Crumb?

Flecks of Turkey Bacon and Feta

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bread #4 - Brioche

I finally have time to update this blog! I've kept up with all the baking, but with the end of the school year, and our annual 7th Grade Renaissance Faire, this is my first chance to write about it. Not quite on summer vacation yet, but soon, very soon ...

Queen Diane at the Renaissance Faire with One of Her Loyal Subjects.

I had made brioche once before, years ago, and was not impressed. All I can remember was that it was too greasy. As a result, I was a little hesitant when I saw this one on the challenge list. I had made a commitment, however, and so I bravely forged ahead.

I chose to make the Poor Man's Brioche. I chose this version because I just didn't feel like I needed all that butter. I was right. The bread was spectacular! It had a fine crumb and a superb taste. I didn't miss the butter at all.

I also splurged on new brioche baking molds, and I'm glad I did. I bought one large one and four small ones. While the large loaf was impressive in appearance, the smaller ones were far superior in taste. And who doesn't like to have his or her own individual bread? It was sheer perfection with a cup of tea, but next time I'll try it in the true French style with a cafe au lait, complete with the authentic au lait bowl.

Here is the kneaded dough. What a delight to work with this pliable dough!

The risen dough in the larger brioche mold. Impressive!

The risen dough in the smaller molds; very cute.

Behold the finished product! Can't you just see yourself sitting in a Parisian cafe right now?

The larger version.

What an amazing texture! Let them eat cake indeed!

I am again delighted that I have joined this challenge. I may never have attempted brioche again, and think of what I would have been missing! And while my waistline can't afford this extravagant bread as a dietary staple, as an occasional treat, "Let them eat brioche!"