Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Tomato Summer

Strawberries are gone, blueberries past their prime and I can’t find a fresh local raspberry to save my life. So, in late late summer (ok maybe early fall) I’ve turned my love of jam to the tomato.

Mark Bittman, of the NY Times blog Bitten, featured a tomato jam this august. It was the mention of Barcelona which truly caught my eye (I’ll spend almost 7 months there early next year). I'm all about foods used out of their normal element, and I was quite tired of caprese salad. The jam delivered true tomato taste that and enhanced by the spices.

However, I have to disagree with Mr. Bittman that this is a good morning treat, I much prefer it in the afternoon with a piece of good sharp white cheddar and fresh crusty bread. Because of my affinity for the salty rather than the sweet, I reduced the 1 cup sugar in the recipe to less than 1/3 cup. The jam didn't suffer, in fact, the tomato's sweetness was nearly enough to balance the lime's acidity and jalapeno's heat. I also increased the amount of cayenne and added some seeds from the jalapeno to kick it to the next level. I think the two types of peppers give this recipe dimension and identity.

Side note about the type of tomato: you want something that will hold up alright late in the cooking process. Avoid mushiness and look for firm-ripe. Romas or plums are actually wonderful in this, but only if you can get the locally grown kind or the really thing from San Marzano.

This is my version of Late Summer Tomato Jam

1 1/2 lbs tantalizingly ripe tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar depending on your taste buds
2 1/2 Tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger...oooh what a smell
3/4 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp allspice
1 jalapeno seeded and finely chopped
1/2-3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Put all ingredients in a mediums sauce pan and stir to mix. Heat over a medium flame until boiling, stirring frequently.
2. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the tomatoes have deconstructed and yielded to a mushy goodness, about 75 min. Taste, season, cool and enjoy.

Other suggestions: its great with pork loin (as almost any fruit or chutney is). Try it with a side of scallion studded couscous. Killer, and great for your health too!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rustic Italian Bread

Well, bakery style bread out of my kitchen. Who'd have thought? Not me, but look at this! Ooo, I'm quite proud of this one.

Again, I used Cooks Illustrated and benefited from a kitchen full of wild yeast zipping around the room. The more you bake the better it goes. This one is so easy, I could make a loaf everyday. The starter sits overnight (or at least 8 hours) and the next day, you make the dough, allow it to rise for a bit, then pour the gooey substance into a bowl. Instead of kneading, you "turn" the it, pulling one side onto the other. This process happens twice, resting 1 hour and "power rising" in between. When the dough has risen to its full potential in the bowl, you form the dough into a rectangle and fold it up, sealing in all the air pockets, like this:

My supple and smooth dough turned into magnificent bread. I ended up making two loaves and discovering in the process that my oven is an appalling 50 degrees slow. Depressing, and I now have to cook with an oven thermometer hanging from the rack. Despite the climate difficulties both breads yielded moist interiors and deep "bready" flavors. The crust was the best part. It was exceptional with good olive oil and cracked pepper.

A little science for you: Dried yeast is simply the fresh yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) dehydrated. This applies to both active dry yeast and Instant (aka rapid-rise, quickrise and bread machine) yeast. When the yeast is dried, the dead cells form a protective layer around the living cells that activate to make the bread rise. There are fewer dead cells in rapid rise and, unlike active dry, it can be added directly to the bread without rehydration. Cool huh? I discovered this on Susan's blog, Wild Yeast. I love it! So informative, well photographed and simply delicious. Thanks Susan!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Baguettes for President

On Wednesday night, instead of watching more news, more speeches (though I'll admit, I had them on the radio, a good political scientist must hear all sides) I was flinging baguette dough onto my counter top. Actually, the technique has name, "crashing" and coupled with kneading, this act of carbohydrate violence really develops those gluten threads!

My third round of baguettes blew the other out of the water. This time, I drew from my much trusted Cooks Illustrated Best Recipes book. Their exhaustive testing taught me a few cool things. First, in France bread proportions are measured in a system called the Baker's Percentage based on the weight of the flour. "A correct baguette dough, for instance has a hydration of 62%. This means for every 1 pound flour, there will be .62 pounds water." Second, using instant yeast is very satisfying. Third, setting the dough in the fridge overnight creates a creamy texture, and perfectly golden crust,which snaps and crackles as you take it out of the oven. The long rise slows the fermentation process and deepens the bread's flavor. Man I'm a food nerd.

This is the recipe I used.
I encourage you to buy the book, subscribe to the site, whatever medium you find most pleasing, but use this source, its amazing.

Now, on to the baked loaves. The interior was much lighter and fluffier than the first bread, the crust a prettier color, and the boasted a longer staying power. The bread was still good on day three. The pre-ferment of the sponge really enhances both flavor and texture. The first time I checked the sponge it looked like this:

The sponge is ready when the edges are higher
than the center, which has "fallen", like this:

So satisfying to see results right away. I underestimated the rise time and at almost 1 am I was wrapping the newly formed loaves for their slumber in the fridge. Thursday morning, the dough had slept more than me, and it preformed like a champ. I've never been so proud of bread as these to lovely loaves. Success, Success!! I don't know what the next project is, but I'm thinking Rustic Italian.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Barczak Boulangerie

In France, by traditional law a baguette can have only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. But I beg to differ, in fact I think ever neighborhood boulangerie (bakery) added a little bit of sweat and a lot of heart. Corny, yes but oh so true.

baguette1.jpg (JPEG Image, 300x100 pixels)
courtesy of

Baking any bread is a labor of love. For the amateur baker, yeast can be intimidating; it's actually alive and at times uncooperative. Bread rises because as the yeast feeds on the sugars in the flour it creates a gas. This gas gets captured in the flour's gooey gluten web and forces the bread upwards, not unlike a hot air balloon. For me, the prospect of attempting the archetypal cheese and wine French bread is daunting. (Though the shape actually originated in Vienna!)

Attempts 1 and 2: I love Amy's Bread, a great book from a great bakery in New York. My first two loaves from batch one did not rise nearly enough. The flavor was good, but the density detracted from my overall experience. Also, I didn't have cake flour so I subbed all purpose. I tackled the rising problem first, allowing the second batch to sit outside. The Minnesota summer temperature turned out to be ideal. This change in climate and the cake flour created a holey inside and crunchy crust. The paraphrased recipe is below.

1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cups very warm water
3 cups all purpose flour (unbleached)
1 cup cake flour
2 1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon cool water

Extra Tools: Baking Stone (pizza stone) Cookie sheet or baking peel, and water spray bottle.
  1. Combine yeast and warm water in small bowl and stir until yeast dissolves. Let it sit for 3 minutes.
  2. Combine the flours and salt in a large bowl. Then slowly pour the cool water and yeast mixture over the dry ingredients and mix with your fingers until the dough resembles a shaggy mass of gooey excellence.
  3. Pop the big flour mess on to a lightly floured work surface and kneed for 4 minutes. It will be "supple and resilient" but not smooth yet. Don't get flustered and over kneed. Over the little ball with a towel and let sit for 20 minutes. This is called the autolyse.
  4. Kneed dough for another 6 minutes until smooth and stretchy.
  5. Place your dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise in a warm temp 77 degrees (ish) for almost 2 hours or until doubled in size.
  6. Deflate the risen dough gently, and allow to rise again until doubled. (1.25 hours)
  7. Deflate again and let rise a third time for 1 hour.
  8. Now, this step is tricky so watch the video. Divide the dough in three pieces, then stretch into a rectangle, fold like a business letter, swivel letter 1/4 turn then fold again.
  9. Now, elongate each "envelop" with both hands rolling from the center outward until baguette reaches desired length. Place finished loaves on baking peel or upside down cookie sheet covered in cornmeal. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let them sit for 40 minutes. Final rise is short because bread will poof up in the oven .
  10. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees 30 minutes before baking time. Place your baking stone in the oven and a shallow pan for water on the grate below.
  11. Ten minutes before baking, slash the breads 4 times diagonally cutting 1/4 inch deep. This helps the rising process. The cuts will pop open in the oven and become beautiful! This is called "scoring."
  12. With the help of the cornmeal, gently slide the loaves off the baking peel and onto the hot stone. As soon as you can pour a cup of very hot water into the pan and quickly close the door (careful, you might want to ask for another set of hands). This helps create steam and encourages the bread to rise.
  13. In two minutes, open the door and spray the oven walls with water (a plant sprayer will do).
  14. After 10 minutes at 500, reduce the temp to 425 and bake for 12 to 16 minutes. When they are golden brown and crisp they are done!
I am still not entirely satisfied. I'm going to try the Cooks Illustrated version, which takes much longer....overnight even. I'll report back. Bake to the boulangerie!