16 October 2006

Current affairs

Must I begin each blog with a reference to how long it's been since I last wrote? On the one hand, I feel compelled to 'fess up, in the interests of I'm-not-sure. On the other ... who cares besides me? I have not managed to blog every week, but I've made bread almost every week since starting this blog (getting on for six months now.)

It struck me, anyway, that perhaps the idea of writing a long essay-in-blog each week, somehow tied to the theme of making bread, was a bit ambitious. Or boring, take your pick. (I know which I'd choose.) The hard part about blogging is separating the mundane from the mundane-but-interesting.

Last week's bread sort of doesn't count since I made bread but not really: I was out at my parents' house to clean the basement, but ... somehow ... I ended up using Mom's KitchenAid to make bread while Mom and Dave did the hard work of cleaning out the basement. (Drat, and my allergies and I were so looking forward to getting all dirty and cobwebby in the basement.) The bread got done, though; an oatmeal dough, which was a pig of a job, even with mechanical aid, but which creates huge, delicious loaves. Speaking of the KitchenAid ... I was curious to see how much I'd like it, especially with a very stiff dough like the oatmeal one. It did take a lot of the sheer physical grunt-work out of the bread-making, but it was so damned fiddly to add eight cups of flour that it ended up not saving any time at all. I'd rather wrestle with dough and try to develop my puny biceps than pick dough off the Kitchen Aid every time I add a half-cup of flour.

In fact, I finished the dough off by hand (thank you, Mom and Dad's granite counters - a joy to knead on) and resorted to jumping up and down each time I folded and turned the dough. After about three jumps (accompanied by female-tennis-player style grunts - you know what I'm talking about) the corgis decided to get in on the act, and celebrated each leap with a volley of barking. It must sounded like judgement day had arrived:

Me: Eeeeennnnggggghhhh!


Corgies: Arp! Arp! Arp! ARP! ARP! ARP! ARP!ARP!ARP!ARP!


Corgies: Arp! Arp! Arp! ARP! ARP! ARP! ARP!ARP!ARP!ARP!

Me: Nnnnnneeeeeeee!


Corgies: Arp! Arp! Arp! ARP! ARP! ARP! ARP!ARP!ARP!ARP!


Me: Rrrrrrrrrrraaahhhhhh!


Corgies: Arp! Arp! Arp! ARP! ARP! ARP! ARP!ARP!ARP!ARP!

Repeat ad nauseum, or until Mom comes up from the basement to ask what the hell is going on. The visuals were probably pretty good - almost as good as the time I broke a socket wrench by hopping up and down on it while rotating my car tires myself.

With the excitement of the weekend behind me, then, I am in my office watching the sun set (almost) across some mountains. (It feels a little strange not to have a thousand deadlines to make for tomorrow morning, but I could get used to it.) It's fall in New England, so the trees are extremely beautiful, especially in Central Mass where my office park is. The trees in Somerville are a little more muted; maybe it's the concrete or the bus smoot or the hot steam from laundromats, or just the lack of a whole damn bunch of trees all massed together and shedding their leaves with scarlet abandon.

I just wish fall didn't precede eight months of cold. Never mind; I chose to move back here from more temperate zones. And since it is fall and getting dark, I should go home to the leftover jambalaya and boyfriend who await me.

28 July 2006

Slowtech ... slowblog is more like it. Glacially slow.

Every week I bake bread, and we eat it. I try to mix it up some and not make the same recipes all the time but Dave like whole-wheat (as do I) and the weather is generally verrrry hot and humid, so I tend to go for recipes that will produce at least a couple of decent-sized loaves.

I am getting better at baking bread, in general. I've had some failures - one time I killed the yeast because the water was too hot; a couple of other times the yeast wasn't quite activated enough; I forgot to watch the time on the last batch of limpa, plus the bread tricked me! It grew a huge hollow bit in the centre of each loaf which made it sound hollow when rapped with the knuckles on the top and the bottom. (Because there was, of course, a pocket of hollow air in there. Duh.) But it was all underdone and doughy-gooey in the centre of the loaf, around the air pocket. (I think the air pocket itself was created by my slinging it haphazardly from th fridge straight into the oven, instead of allowing it to sit at room temp for 15 minutes or so.) Or the air pocket/undercooked problem could have been because I didn't keep a very watchful eye on the clock. Or it could have been because contrary to the recipe's advice, I put the loaves in loaf pans rather than making free-form ones, as recommended. Bless his heart, Dave ate it all anyway. One more thing I love about him: he is just as happy to eat my failures as my successes.

Next time when making limpa I will follow the directions more closely to the letter. I am still learning what substitutions I can make, and what I can't. For example: loaves baked in a tin can generally be free-form, if you don't have enough tins. But not vice versa (see above example.) Bread which calls for raisins and pecans can easily have dried cherries and pine-nuts substituted, but you will need to keep the proportions the same. You can also always substitute high-protien bread flour for plain flour (I think).

I tried substituting high-protein bread flour with an oatmeal bread last week. When I made the original recipe, it called for plain flour and outmeal, which I used. The crumb was extremely loose. The bread tasted delicious, but its texture, with clumps of bready-oatmeal practically coming off in your hand, was not what I wanted. So, trying the recipe again (more because it made three big loaves than because I loved it so much.) Anyway, so the second time around I used high-protein bread flour, figuring that the higher protein might yield a tighter, denser crumb and ... it did. I also think that the finer crumb was a result of more working - I got all tuckered out towards the end of the second kneading, and asked Dave for help (it's a heavy dough. He brought his ex-car-mechanic hands over and kneaded that bread into submission without breaking a sweat. (He was also innovative and used a rolling pin.) Anyway, it turned out delicious. The oatmeal was perfectly integrated into the bread and the molasses flavour was lovely on the back of your tongue - not really sweet, just adding an extra element of depth to the flavour. It's now definitely something I will make again (possibly tonight, using Mom's kitchen-aid, weather permitting.)

And that is all I have to say about that.

14 June 2006

The best-laid good intentions gang-aft a-hell.

I haven't blogged in a while about making bread. This is a downer. In the absence of a real-life do-over opportunity, I will forgive myself.

Although I haven't written about it, I have managed to make bread every week. The mixture in the bowl in the picture is probably my favorite bread so far - it required 2 cups of milk and a 1/4 cup of butter and had the most fabulous, fluffy, buttery brioche taste you can imagine. God, it was so good. I'm scared to make it again because I'll just inhale the whole damn thing at once. (We ate two loaves in two days. I might as well glue it right onto my thighs and save myself the bother of chewing and swallowing.)

After the brioche-ish bread, I made yet another variation on basic white bread, which was fine but didn't really rock my world. I am getting pickier, too.

I am getting far better at A) making sure the yeast proofs properly and B) getting bread to rise and produce actual loaf-shaped objects, instead of misshapen "free form" loaves with tearaway bulges that would make John Merrick weep. And the bread is getting more tender, too. (I think this might also be due to that whole yeast proofing thing.) And I notice when I knead bread lately that I've developed, without realising, a semi-professional looking fold and turn action. I don't know when this happened, but it was like the day I realised I could chop vegetables very fast and efficiently: without noticing it, I had acquired a parental sort of skill. Grown-up, even.

Last weekend's bread was a wheat bread, at Dave's request. I had to seek out high-protein flour since whole wheat flour alone will produce a heavy loaf. Apparently the amount of protein in the flour is important, since it provides a robust structure that will keep the tiny yeast bubbles supported during rising and baking. Although whole wheat flour is high protein, the bran cuts through the protein structures, which means your tiny little yeast bubbles will collapse in on themselves and you will have a leaden loaf. Who knew bran was such a naughty little piece of fiber?

Chemistry aside (but more about it later! Less boring this time, I swear), the whole wheat bread was pretty good. I think I might be sort of a sucker for sweetish breads, however. But it did make a nice change from all that damned white.

And so the other revelation that came to me about making bread is this: it's really forgiving. Bread baking does not require chem-lab precision. (Also, no one is making me burn walnuts over a Bunsen burner and use the molarity to calculate the amount of energy in a shrivelled, burnt walnut.) Recipes tell you to add between half a cup and a cap of extra flour. Depending on the temperature of the room and the humidity and all that, yadda yadda yadda.

It's a little scary for the inexperienced baker - "is this enough? Is it too sticky? Is it too dry?" - well, scary for me, anyway - but now that I know what I'm doing a teensy bit, it's kind of liberating. I get to decide when to stop adding flour, because it's my damn bread and I'm the boss of it and I know best. (Sad, isn't it, when the only thing I feel power over is bread? Even the cats refuse to allow me to dominate them. Even when I ask nicely.)

The bread will even come out okay when it's 90 out and humid as hell and you're standing there over the counter pounding the bread in your underwear because it is too damn hot to wear clothes. The bread doesn't care what you're wearing (not even if my apron is super cute). It probably wouldn't care if you sweated into it, although I am not planning on testing this theory.

And if you screw it up, well, it's still probably going to come out okay. It will at least be edible.

23 May 2006

Bread and Jam For Frances

So when people asked me what I did over the weekend, I told them that I made bread and jam. It sounded a little strange to my ears, and I generally followed up with a recitation of the social round I also crammed into last weekend's agenda (along with cleaning the bathroom, fishtank, catbox, porch, and car. Well. Dave cleaned out the car. I just paid the panel beater $500. But still.)

But the thing I keep coming back to is the bread. It's not like making it afforded me any blinding flashes of insight into my personal life; actually, I got kind of wound up trying to do everything and couldn't sleep Sunday night. But I made the time for it. And somehow at work, sitting in meetings or trying for the thousand time to get a project finished in the midst of eleven hundred interruptions, when I start to get a little stressed and think things like, "Maybe I'll stay a little later tonight" or "I should really come in at 7 tomorrow", I kind of visualise the bread sitting in the fridge and it's like ... maybe I won't stay a little longer. Maybe I'll come in at 8:30 tomorrow. Maybe all this stuff can wait, because I am the kind of person who makes bread. I don't know much else about that kind of person, but apparently it's someone who takes herself seriously enough to go home at 5 to her bread.

I made Basic White Bread, the first recipe in the book. I was a little worried since I wasn't very sure the bread had doubled in size during its first rising; also during the second rising, it rose lumpily from the loaf pan, bulging obscenely on one side and swaybacked on the other. Will my bread turn out looking like it has a skin disease? I wondered.

But no. It was beautifully even across the top, ascending in a sprightly golden fashion above the edge of the loaf pan, with the three diagonal slashes opened up across the top like the spine of a book. Amazing. I can make bread which rises.

It is much chewier than sliced supermarket bread. (This may be a flaw in my breadmaking. I don't know what texture homemade bread is supposed to have. All my bread so far has turned out to be the kind of bread which steps right up and says hello to your jaws.)

In between the first and second rises, I washed and sterilized the jam jars, then put some frozen raspberries on one pie plate and some sugar on another and heated them up good-style. Then I combined the two and (messily) decanted them into the waiting jam jars. (I need a jam funnel. My mom is the only person I know who owns one.) Then I watched Carrie.

Tell me why bread and jam together taste so good? Altogether, my ingredients were: flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, and raspberries. How did the yeast and the flour and the water mix together to produce this amazingly textured, complexely-flavoured chunk of deliciousness? It's like magic or something.

19 May 2006

Why is being a hausfrau so unstylish?

I bake bread.

So far I have made James Beard's recipe for Swedish Limpa three times and each time it has come out better that before. Previous attempts at yeast baking: dough for focciacia which was tougher than rhinocerous jerky. Supposedly pizza dough is the easiest thing to make, so I figured that maybe baking, with yeast or without (I also make crappy pie crusts) was Not For Me. I don't have kitchen scales or anything, and also, baking is all about chemistry, which was a terrible subject for me in high school.

But possessed by some demon, I decided to try to make the Swedish Limpa recipe which I remembered my mom making when we were growing up. So mom gave me the recipe, and I ... tried it. Despite not knowing how much yeast to put in. (I guessed and went with two teaspoons.) Plus not knowing how to tell how when water is between 100 and 115 degrees farenheit, which is where it's supposed to be when you proof the yeast (an operation of mystery to me). And also despite the three separate risings.

And it came out okay. It tasted fabulous, just as I remembered: lots of orange and cardamom and beery goodness. It was also extremely dense and moist. Sort of like eating a delicious, extremely dense thing. Clearly, the texture left something to be desired. But apparently, bread baking is more like normal cooking, in that you can play with a lot of the ingredients and it will still turn out edible most of the time. I thought maybe I could handle this thing.

So now I have a copy of James Beard's Beard on Bread, where the Swedish Limpa recipe originates from. I am toying with the idea of copying Julie/Julia and baking my way through Beard's 100 favorite bread recipes and blogging about it. Why, you ask, would I do such a thing? Partly because I am a big geek about cooking and homemaking in general. I have an apron collection, people. But also because the rest of my life goes really fast.

I drive fast to get to work, I work to deadlines every day, I jam my schedule as full as possible, trying to shoehorn something in to every minute of the day. And what has all that resulted in? Some strange auto-immune stuff, that's what. I am coming to the conclusion that my body is trying to tell my brain to SLOW DOWN. Which is the nice thing about making bread: you can't rush it. You can't really make bread rise much faster. I don't have a KitchenAid, or even room in my kitchen or checkbook for one, so I can't take a shortcut that way, either.

So it's not like I have time to either make bread or write any fiction, let alone keep up with a blog ... but that's kind of the point of doing it.