Friday, November 27, 2009


I am known for my mashed potatoes (at least in my immediate family). There's no special recipe to post. I just peel 10 pounds of Yukon golds, follow the normal rules for cutting, boiling, and mashing, and then dump in about five pounds of butter (not literally), a carton of sour cream, a little milk, a whole lot of cream, and some salt and pepper. I only make them like this for two meals: Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the year, I prefer to be at least moderately healthy.

I did debate trying two new techniques this year: boiling potatoes in large chunks with their skins on or steaming them as ATK recently suggested, but unfortunately I didn't really get the idea until Thanksgiving morning and it seemed too late to start the research.

This is our fifth or sixth year hosting Thanksgiving, I believe. I discovered that I wasn't even stressed this year; I keep notes every year (what to make, who is bringing what, what time to put things into the oven to have everything ready on time), but this year, we had the same number of people (14), the same menu, and the same eat time (4 or 4:30), so I didn't even bother recopying it. I was so out of my normal planning mode that I almost forgot to grocery shop for the meal! And I did forget to get paper plates, which meant slightly more dishes last night, but that was no big deal; I had help drying. Even without overly stressing myself, everything was ready at about the same time, everything tasted pretty darn good, and the only thing we had an issue with was the gravy (same recipe I successfully used last year!) not thickening. (Thank goodness for a little corn starch...shhh, don't tell!)

Another thing I thought about trying was ATK's suggestion for starting the turkey upside down for the first hour to help with browning and cooking the dark meat a little faster. Again I didn't think about it until the turkey was in the roaster, so I'll have to think about it next year.

My one big accomplishment for the day: homemade dinner rolls! I've come to bread baking very recently (with the BBA Challenge), so we've always just done the can of crescent rolls...or done without. But this year I thought, "Given the fact that I've made homemade ciabatta, Italian bread, French bread, would seem pretty silly not to have homemade dinner rolls!" I was kind of hoping that my BBA Challenge would present a good Thanksgiving roll recipe and I could kill two birds with one stone (so to speak), but alas, I'm on Kaiser rolls, next up crackers, neither of which fit the bill.

So I turned to my trusty ATK cookbook and their dinner roll recipe. Even so, I found myself using many of my BBA-learned techniques. The recipe didn't call for it, but I still temped the dough and did the windowpane test (the dough was a little warm; windowpane was lovely). Instead of rising in a warm place for 30 minutes, I let the dough take an hour and a half in normal temperature. I thought about what I knew about splitting the dough and forming it into balls. And I let the rolls retard overnight in the fridge. ATK says to take them out 30-60 minutes before baking. I took them out about 70 minutes before and they still hadn't warmed up enough, but it was getting close to dinner time, so I popped them into the oven. Even though they weren't yet touching when I put them in, they grew together almost immediately after I put them in the oven. And the taste? Oh man, these were easily the best dinner rolls I've ever had. I will be making them again!

And here are the requisite food shots of the day:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mathematical Kitchen!

While reading the first couple of sections of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and getting ready to embark on the awesome BBA Challenge, I happened to be simultaneously planning our school's new targeted intervention period. (For anyone who doesn't already know, in my non-mommy, non-cooking, non-baking life, I am also a 7th grade English teacher.) There is so much math and science in the second section of the book (The Twelve Stages of Bread: Evoking the fullness of flavor from the grain, p. 48). To be honest, even after reading these sections twice, I still don't understand many of the principles he covers. (Science was never my strong suit.)

Anyway, the focus of this period is targeting students' needs in order to raise test scores (oh the joy). But every couple of months, we're having a two week break for a purely fun "choice" time. Suddenly, I had an awesome brainstorm. Chatting with my friend P (the one who sent me the Auntie Abby email jokingly asking me to bake her pretzels), who teaches math at my school, I said, "We should team teach a choice time on baking bread!" I figured we could use the bread baking as an incentive to figure out all of the math and formulas in Peter Reinhart's book. Luckily, she said yes, and we started planning like mad.

P had the beautiful brainstorm of calling our class The Mathematical Kitchen. (We figured we'd only get sweet, geeky kids who would be willing to do math during their choice time.) We also realized that, especially this first time, baking bread was probably a bit too ambitious. We only see our students for 30 minutes, three times a week, for two weeks. We couldn't quite figure out how to break up the bread baking process, and I wanted to test it out first to make sure the bread dough could handle so many waiting periods in the fridge.

So we switched to cookies. Meanwhile, the students - all 803 of them - got to fill out their choice surveys, and I (lucky me) got to enter their choices into the computer. TMK blew the competition away! Even with choices like playing computer games, walking outside, breakdancing, reading graphic novels, playing other games, and art, we had more requests than anyone! Unfortunately we could only take 32, which was way more kids than we'd initially planned on.

So with a trip to the dollar store and a trip to the local warehouse store (25 pound bag of flour, 20 pound bag of sugar), we were off. We made eight groups of four, dove into math, and had an absolute blast!

Day 1: Students were given a giant mixing bowl full of lentils, a set of measuring cups and measuring spoons, and a worksheet asking them to figure out as many ways as possible of making 2 cups, 1/3 cup, 1 tablespoon. We wanted them to begin to really understand and have a visual picture of fractions.

Day 2: Students worked on doubling, tripling, and halving recipes.

Day 3: Students read this article from the Post-Gazette on cookie chemistry. We talked about the functions of all of the different ingredients, and we kind of wished we had a science teacher working with us, too! Students were given a basic sugar cookie recipe and were told to tamper with it...experiment, hypothesize, see what would happen if....

Day 4: Students finished creating their new recipe and then halved it. Then they mixed their dry ingredients. We gave them paper bowls filled with flour and paper cups with salt and baking powder. Watching them measure the flour was pretty hysterical: grabbing giant handfuls, tamping it down with their fingers..... I'm guessing the measurements were not exact. =)

Day 5: Was insane!!! In 30 minutes, we: handed out recipes, baggies full of dry ingredients, paper bowls full of sugar, sticks of butter, latex gloves, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and giant wooden spoons; handed out and helped put together hand mixers; explained that they needed to reserve 1/4 cup of sugar for coating their cookies; measured out vanilla; handed out and cracked eggs; had students cream the butter and sugar, add the vanilla and eggs, and then the dry ingredients; had students roll out 12 cookies, roll those cookies in sugar, and place them on a plate; labeled plates and covered them with plastic wrap; and got everything picked up and cleaned up. It was pure craziness and so much fun! We were short two mixers, so two groups had to mix by hand. They were crabby, but they actually had an easier time. P had left the butter out overnight, but our school gets so cold at night that it hadn't softened much. The kids mixing by hand (and they were literally mixing by hand: eight glove-covered hands in the bowl squishing the dough!) used the warmth of their hands to get the butter to the right temperature and texture. I so wish we'd had a camera to take pictures!!

Unfortunately, in my rush to get back to my own classroom, I stacked the plates on top of one another. When I went to put them into the fridge after my class, I had one plate of nicely rolled cookies, two plates of slightly smushed rolled cookies, and five plates of pancakes.

That night, I baked like a mad woman. Eight sheet pans of cookies: re-rolled, re-rolled in sugar, flattened, sprinkled with additional sugar, into the oven for 12-14 minutes, cooling on the pans for 10 minutes, cooling on the counter, and then placed into baggies and labeled with the group name. While most of dough looked pretty standard going into the oven, the look and texture differences upon coming out of the oven were fascinating!

Day 6: Taste testing day! The kids got their baggies of cookies, a placemat with a spot for each cookie, and a taste-testing comparison worksheet. One student from each group was the waiter or waitress and delivered a cookie to each of the other groups. While P led them in a discussion of how each tasted, which were the best and the worst, and what changes each group had made to the original recipe, I demonstrated the actual recipe. I whipped up a triple batch of the cookies in another mad dash.

This weekend, I've rolled out 80 cookies, which are in the freezer waiting to be baked on Monday night. And (another of P's brilliant ideas) I picked up blue and yellow sugar at the store tonight so I can decorate them with our school colors. On Tuesday, our last TMK class, we will have our celebration and enjoy more cookies (which will hopefully turn out, despite the chaotic atmosphere I made them in on Thursday!).

If schools valued it, and if it didn't include sewing, I could seriously consider teaching middle school home ec. It is so much fun to watch the kids experiment; it's pretty clear that many of them do not have much experience in the kitchen. How lucky I feel to get to share my love of cooking and food with them, and to show them how fun it can be! It also makes me wonder about a charter school...English, math, science, social studies, art, music....all centered around cooking......... A girl can dream, right?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Finally #15: Italian Bread

I totally expected hubby's football coaching schedule to be the thing to interrupt my bread baking. And I was fully prepared to be very resentful of that fact.

I never expected that it would be my insane work commitments that would force me to break my promise to myself of one bread per week. But it was and it did, and I actually almost didn't bake this weekend either (so tired and busy!)...but that seemed like a dangerous slippery slope. Plus, I was getting guilt emails from the lunch group at work about how long it's been since I brought them any bread.

I tried something new with this bread. I've been having an insanely hard time getting my KA to knead my dough satisfactorily. I always end up having to finish it by hand. Don't get me wrong, I totally enjoy kneading by hand...but given how busy we've been lately, it's not always practical. First I thought that maybe it was because the book says to knead the dough on medium, but I always knead on speed 2. The KA manual says that any speed over 2 can/will burn out your motor...I love my while I contemplated trying to mix on 4, I decided it wasn't worth the risk. Then, in some of my bread baking discussion browsing, I found a discussion about the autolyse method on The Fresh Loaf. It suggests that if you mix the flour and water and then leave them for 20 minutes to let the gluten start to develop, you don't need to knead (ha!) nearly as long.

Would this work to help my dough achieve the windowpane when mixed in my stand mixer? It did! I mixed the flour and water (and actually the yeast, too, although I later learned that I should've waited adding it), let it sit 20 minutes, and then kneaded it for four minutes in my mixer. The temp was a little low (so was my water temp when I added it), but I got a windowpane! Without having to do any extra kneading!

Unfortunately, I then read that the dough needs to rise for 2 - 4 hours before getting refrigerated. And it was already after 8:00. I let it rise for almost two before I caved, degassed it, refrigerated it, and went to bed.


I tried the autolyse technique again with the main part of the dough this morning. Again, with minimal mixing, I was able to achieve a windowpane, although not the required temperature. Still, even without being as warm as it needed to be, the bread rose in the suggested time.

In technique, this was pretty similar to the baguette, although it was enriched with malt barley (I used syrup), oil (I used olive), and a little sugar.

I was able to shape it into a batard while still maintaining a lot of the gas: check out the bubble on the left end of the far loaf!

And now that we've done it a couple of times, the hearth baking process went better than before. I could actually see steam filling the oven...that's a first! And it seemed to work...unlike the ciabatta and the baguette, which were both really pale, this one actually turned golden. It also has the best-looking crumb; the holes aren't huge, but they're the biggest I've gotten so far.

As for the taste? Creamy and delicious and . . . well, doesn't this blissed-out baby girl say it best?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

#14: French Bread

Two main thoughts about French bread: 1st, it made me feel like a real bread baker and 2nd, wow, that was a lot of work!

For French bread, you make a pâte fermentée, which pretty much just means you make the bread, let it rise, stick it in the fridge overnight, and then make the exact same bread again, using the old bread (the pâte fermentée) as a starter. The fermenting/proofing time is especially important in this one in order to develop the proper flavor. (I love the giant bubbles in the picture above; it looked almost like a face in the surface of the dough when I pulled it out of the fridge this morning...appropriate for the day after Halloween!)

This one is all pretty simple: flour, yeast, salt, and water.

I couldn't ever get the windowpane or achieve the desired temperature while kneading, but the dough felt right and I kneaded it for at least twice as long as I was supposed to. I decided to move along.

My dough rose in only an hour; unlike other breads, where you'd just continue along with the process, because the proofing time is so important for flavor-development, I actually needed to degas the dough and then let it rise again to achieve the proper two hour rise.

The shaping was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating. The dough was really easy to work with and it was especially easy to see the surface tension that Peter Reinhart talks about during the shaping stage.

We had a hard time determining if the shaped bread had risen enough on my make-shift couche, but it was getting close to bed time so we decided to move things along.

Luckily hubbie found an exacto blade to use for scoring the bread. I'd never done anything like that, and it was interesting. I think it went best on my middle loaf. The other two weren't so great, but I'll do better next time!

I also realized as we were getting ready to transfer the shaped loaves onto the baking stone that I forgot to make sure the oven (and therefore the baking stone) had been heating for a full hour. Oops! It was definitely easier to do the hearth method with another set of hands to help, although it was still hectic and we managed to forget to cover the oven door glass with a towel; luckily we did not hear the cracking sounds that Peter Reinhart warns about!

The results: after twenty minutes, my loaves weren't as dark as they were supposed to be, but the temperature was absolutely perfect. I was right that I hadn't scored them very well; the lines are very fine and they don't have that split of traditional French bread. Forty (loooooong) minutes later, and we were able to cut in - or break it, more accurately. Hubbie's comment, "Hey, it doesn't taste like crap white bread." Um, thanks. Seriously, though, the flavor is very complex...which is a pretty big comment for me because I don't usually think of myself as having a very discerning palate. I think it's denser than it was supposed to be, not quite as many big holes as I was anticipating.

But yum, I would definitely make this again.

**Update: Apparently hubbie would have me make it again as well, as the bread has been ready to eat for 16 minutes and one of the three loaves is gone. Um, yeah.