Thursday, July 28, 2011

Baking vs Cooking

I like to think of myself as a pretty good cook.  However, my greatest kitchen frustration is baking, specifically baking bread.  It's been said that if cooking is an art then baking is a science.  I think I am understanding that more and more.  When I cook I view a recipe as a guide, I substitute ingredients freely and experiment with my own recipes.  I can't do that with baking.  If you don't follow the recipe exactly,  the results are less then optimal.  My result is usually a loaf that is extremely dense, doesn't taste bad but one piece will sit in your stomach like a brick.

So, all of you bakers out there, I admire your ability to be exact, and to pay attention to detail (ask my wife she'll tell you neither of those traits are among my strengths.  I will stick to cooking and the following baking for dummies method.

This is the only bread recipe that I have ever had success with.....I hope you like it, it is especially for us cooks that can't bake.

So here’s how to make the bread. You’ll need:

3 cups of lukewarm water
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Grab a very large mixing bowl, or a large container that you can cover. In it, mix the water, yeast, and salt. You don’t even have to heat up the water to a precise optimal temperature for the yeast. I’ve even used just regular tap water, and it’s worked well for me. Just let that sit together for a while (you don’t have to wait for the yeast to dissolve completely), then dump the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon. You don’t need to knead this, and you’re not looking to make it come together into a dough ball. You just want everything mixed well, with no streaks of flour left, and you’re done.

Leave it in your container, covered (but not airtight, or it’ll pop), for a few hours. When it has risen and then deflated a bit, your dough is done. It’s ready to be used or stored in the refrigerator.

To bake the bread, just grab a chunk of dough (they recommend a chunk about the size of a grapefruit, but I’ve done larger chunks with no problem). Dust your hands with flour to help prevent sticking, and gently pull the sides of the dough toward the bottom, rotating the dough, until you get a roundish shape with a smooth surface. It should only take you about a minute or less to do this. The dough won’t be entirely in the bottom, where it may look bunched up, but don’t worry about it.

Put it on a pizza peel that’s been dusted with cornmeal to prevent sticking, and let it rest for at least 40 minutes. No need to cover it. If the dough has been refrigerated, it helps to let it rest a little more, until it’s no longer chilled.

Twenty minutes before you are ready to bake, put a pizza stone in the middle rack of your oven, and put a broiler pan in the bottom rack. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Dust some flour on the top of your loaf, and make your pretty slashes, about 1/4-inch deep. You can do a simple ‘x’ across it, a tic-tac-toe grid, or the stripes, er, scallop pattern.

After twenty minutes of preheating, it’s time to bake. (You can put the bread in after 20 minutes, even if your oven hasn’t reached 450 degrees yet.) Slide the loaf onto the baking stone, and then quickly (and CAREFULLY, lest you burn yourself like some hapless people I know) pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler pan. Then quickly shut the oven door to keep the steam inside.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until you get a nice brown crust. The crust will crackle and pop and make all sorts of happy noises as it sits on a wire rack to cool. It tastes best when you let it cool completely. Don’t worry if your beautiful crust seems to soften a bit. It will harden again, I promise.

And that’s all there is to it. It honestly took me more time to type this out than to make a loaf of bread. And although it still does involve some resting and rising time, the amount of time that you actually handle the dough is really only about five minutes.
The crust is nice and crisp and chewy, and the longer the dough sits, the more it develops a sourdough flavor. When you’re almost out of dough, you don’t even have to wash your container out. You can just go ahead and mix your next batch of dough in it, and the leftover remnants of bread help start it on its merry sourdough way.

so there you go!
Stay hungry my friends

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New England

Where to start when it comes to American Regional cooking?  I would answer New England. For my purposes that would be Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  Why start here?  It can reasonably argued that New England is the cradle, so to speak, of American cooking.
     When the colonists first stepped onto Cape Cod in November of 1620, they were arriving in a land that was quite litterly a land of plenty.  But these exhausted Pilgrims didn't see it that way.  William Bradford, who would later become governor, described the new land as "a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men."  This opinion however was short lived as about a year later they celebrated the New World's bounty with a feast of Thanksgiving.
     Like most folks these early settlers were not to excited about changing their eating habits.  Had they been able to continue eating a steady diet of roast beef and plum pudding, I'm sure they would have been happy to.
But having no cows or wheat this was not in to be, they quickly learned to cultivate and prepare unfamiliar foods- Indian corn, beans, pumpkins, cranberries, and maple syrup to name a few.
     O.K. history lesson over.  What do we think of when we think of the dishes that typify New England?  Boiled lobster, clambakes, steamed clams, clam chowder, cheese soup, New England boiled dinner, baked beans, corn chowder, wow I'm getting hungry.  Obviously the list could go on and on.
     So what did I choose as my dish from New England?  Portuguese Sausage Soup.  What?  First let's remember that almost all cooking in the U.S. has elements of our immigrant ancestors.  As far as this dish goes,  Portuguese fishermen and sailors settled in New England towns like New Bedford, Mass., just before the Civil War.  They brought with them their spicy Iberian cuisine.  Sausage soup is now one of the best known and popular dishes in the region.

4 oz of hot Italian sausage sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 oz of sweet Italian sausage sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 14 1/2 oz cans chicken broth
1 10 oz package frozen chopped spinach
1/2 cup of beer (use a pilsener or a pale lager)
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan cook both sausages and union till sausage is browned and the onion is tender.  Drain fat.  Add the potatoes, chicken broth, spinach, beer, and some pepper.  Bring to a boil; reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or till potatoes are tender.

Serve it up with some dark bread, salad and  a beer.
Almost to easy for such a great meal!!

Stay hungry,

This is nuts! .50 for one of the best cooks books on ethnic cooking for the American table?  Get this. You'll love it!