Friday, February 27, 2009

Salted Fudge Brownies

Salted fudge brownies were a sweet treat for the Oscars party last Sunday, and they accompanied the roasted red pepper and goat cheese tarts. I saw these brownies on One Ordinary Day, and they originated at Food and Wine. A fudgy texture in a salted sweet drew me in right away, and I couldn’t wait to try them. They’re very simple to make, chocolate was melted with butter, and the rest of the ingredients were stirred in one by one. I doubled the recipe, and it was still very easy to stir together. The batter was spread in a pan, smoothed, sprinkled with sea salt, and the salt was swirled into the top of the batter. After baking and cooling, it was time to cut. The top had a nice crispness to it, and I was amazed at how tender the inside was as each brownie was cut.

These looked great, and the crunchy sea salt on top was alluring, but I wasn’t sure how serious chocolate and brownie fans would react to them. I’m slightly chocolate-ambivalent which makes me a less than ideal judge of brownies. I was anxious to hear everyone’s reactions at the party. And guess what? The Academy did not have enough love for Mickey Rourke, but these were very well-loved brownies. I’m thrilled to report that I received numerous, unsolicited comments about the deliciousness and fudginess of them. The rich chocolate flavor enhanced by the sea salt was much appreciated by all. The brownies disappeared quickly, and I’ll be keeping this recipe for repeat use.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Roasted Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Tart

For an Oscars party last Sunday, I wanted to bring a couple of things that would transport easily, could sit at room temperature, and would be simple enough to pick up and eat with your fingers. I decided on this savory red pepper and goat cheese tart and one sweet item. The tart is from The Modern Baker which I’ve mentioned previously. The book is mostly devoted to sweets, but the few savory things in it all look excellent. The shrimp and toasted pumpkinseed and the tomato and cantal tarts caught my interest too. Savory tarts are great for prepping in advance because the crust can be made early, and in this case, the peppers could be roasted a day ahead as well.

The crust used here is made from an olive oil dough, and Malgieri warned that it would require more pressing as it is more elastic than a butter-based dough. It seemed to tear easily, but could be pressed back together well enough. Since there is no butter, you don’t have to worry as much about keeping the dough cold while working with it, and it can be left in the refrigerator for several days. I made a double quantity of the dough, fit it into two tart pans, and left them in the refrigerator for two days. I used red, yellow, and orange bell peppers which were roasted and cleaned. They were then layered in a wide dish with olive oil and sliced garlic and left in the refrigerator for a day. With two parts of the recipe already completed, assembling the tart was quick and easy on the day of the party.

Goat cheese was layered with the roasted peppers, and Malgieri notes that keeping the cheese under the peppers prevents it from becoming dry in the oven. I did my best, but the shapes of the peppers and the shapes of the tart pans didn’t make that possible for the entirety of both surfaces. Eggs, whisked with salt and pepper and lots of chopped parsley, were poured into the crusts, and they baked for about 35 minutes until set in the center.

Luckily, the cut pieces held together as well as they appeared to in the book, and small pieces worked fine as finger food. This is a very simple combination of flavors with just peppers, goat cheese, a scant bit of garlic, eggs, and parsley, but those things all worked together very well. The olive oil crust was a nice foundation for this because a buttery one might have pushed the richness level too far. I kept a couple of pieces at home which we re-warmed for dinner last night to enjoy along-side a salad. It was just as delicious out of the oven the second time as it was the first.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cornmeal-crusted Oyster and Black-eyed Pea Salad with Jalapeño Dressing

In addition to the tuna muffuletta, I also tried this oyster and black-eyed pea salad from Crescent City Cooking. I happen to really enjoy oysters on the rare occasions when I have them. Fresh from the water and served raw with a little vinegary sauce or hot pepper sauce or fried crisp with any kind of coating, they’re a delight. Mardi Gras weekend was a perfect time to bring some home and make them the highlight of a dish. Despite having said that, this salad is well worth making even if you’d prefer to omit the oysters. The black-eyed pea salad and jalapeño dressing worked beautifully together, and the dressing had me smiling long before it was all composed.

Even though it’s my preference to use fresh jalapeños, I followed the instructions here which called for the pickled variety. I assumed the pickledness would contribute to the acidity level of the dressing, which it did, and it all worked out well. Garlic, pickled jalapeños, and dijon were pureed together. Then, salt, hot sauce, Worcestershire, and apple cider vinegar were added. Finally, olive oil was slowly poured in as it emulified. Minced shallot and minced pickled jalapeño were stirred into this mixture which I will now be making for everything I can think to pair with it. Here, it was tossed with black-eyed peas with sliced scallions and diced red bell pepper. The center of the salad was a combination of julienned celery root, a task made much quicker and easier with a Benriner, and chiffonaded spinach leaves. The julienned celery root was first brought to a boil in salted water with some lemon juice. Once drained and cooled, it was tossed with the spinach.

Then, it was time to fry those lovely, fresh Gulf oysters. They were dusted with cornmeal seasoned with cayenne, thyme, parsley, and salt and pepper. Just a few minutes in the hot oil turned them into crunchy wonders. The assembly involved a mound of spinach and celery root circled about by the black-eyed pea salad all of which was crowned by the oysters and then drizzled with the remaining dressing. After this meal, I decided there need to be more holidays that inspire this kind of cooking, or I need to plan another visit to New Orleans.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Prosciutto-wrapped Tuna Muffuletta

In honor of Mardi Gras, I pulled Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer off the shelf again. I’ve been thrilled with dishes from this book in the past, and it did not disappoint this time either. I chose a couple of dishes for our weekend indulging, and the first one up is the prosciutto-wrapped tuna muffuletta. Spicer explains that the muffuletta is related to the Nicoise pan bagnat which received its name because of the oils that bathe the bread. She created this muffuletta with that concept in mind. It is a richly dressed, unapologetically but deliciously untidy sandwich.

This is a very simple preparation as is and would be even simpler if you chose to use a pre-made olive salad. Since it was a weekend, the weekend before Mardi Gras at that, I was feeling all go for it and set about chopping olives, vegetables giardinera, pepperoncini, garlic, parsley, and celery hearts to make my own olive salad. I’m glad I did because I got to chop the olives just the way I wanted and add extra pickled cauliflower. I also have lots of leftover olive salad as a bonus.

Ordinarily, I’m the pickiest eater I know, but sometimes Kurt has specific opinions about food as well. This time, we tied. Fresh tuna was to be marinated with crushed fennel seeds, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, garlic, and olive oil. We were both fine with that. Then, each tuna portion was to be wrapped with prosciutto. No thank you for mine. The tuna was seared while the sliced ciabatta rolls were toasted under the broiler. Then, the tuna was to be placed on each roll with olive salad and provolone cheese. Kurt does not allow cheese near his fish under any circumstances. So, we ended up with two customized muffulettas, but both were fantastic.

When they came out from under the broiler, arugula was added just before serving. Crunchy and chewy bread, nicely seasoned, marinated and just briefly seared tuna with briny, fruity, peppery olive salad, and a little gooey, melted cheese made a decadent meal. These big, stuffed sandwiches were drippy, messy, and couldn’t have been better. Fortunately, I thought to buy a few extra ciabatta rolls and some good canned tuna in olive oil which made fantastic open-faced tuna melts with olive salad the next day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sourdough Starter and Bread Adventure: 2 Bagels

The sourdough starter adventure continues. My second baking attempt with the starter wasn’t classic baguettes or a pretty fougasse, no, it was bagels. Why bagels? I had heard about the bagels in Nancy Silverton's Bread from the La Brea Bakery book several times, and I just had to know for myself. I’d been thinking about trying to make these bagels for months but needed to make a starter before I could try them. With starter successfully made, there was no stopping the bagel attempt. I don’t know if it was the drawn out anticipation of these bagels, or just shear pride in having finally baked some of my own, but these were positively the best bagels ever. I can imagine bagel baking becoming a regular part of my week. Oh, it’s Tuesday, I need to get the dough prepared and the bagels shaped so I can bake them tomorrow. Yes, I could see that happening.

That sounded almost confident of me, but in truth, this was another lost in the dark experiment. I simply followed the instruction exactly and hoped something good would come from it. Unlike other kinds of baking and cooking, with bread baking and working with sourdough starter, I have no idea what can and cannot be tweaked. Strictly playing by the rules is a very different experience in the kitchen, and maybe someday I’ll learn enough to get more creative.

These bagels required a two day plan. To begin, the dough was formed from water, fresh yeast, starter, unbleached bread flour, sugar, salt, barley malt syrup, and milk powder. There was a note about combining bread flour with vital wheat gluten to make a stronger flour, but I completely ignored that option and just used bread flour. I was instructed to use a mixer with a dough hook, but the dough came together so quickly and easily I think I could stir by hand next time. Branching out, already. Once formed, the dough was to be kneaded on a flour-free surface. Now, this scared me. No flour? It was sure to stick and be a complete nightmare to scrape together, so I had a bench scraper at the ready. I worried for nothing. This dough was incredibly easy to knead with no flour at all. It was very smooth and not at all sticky. It was covered and left to rest before being portioned into bagel-sized lumps.

The instructions state that you should be able to form 18 four ounce pieces. I ended up with 17, and they were all just shy of four full ounces, but I didn’t let that bother me. The pieces were again left to rest before being shaped into bagels. The shaping was a point of real uncertainty. I had no idea how much the dough would expand inward, so I wasn’t sure how large the bagel hole should be. I winged it, and left the bagels to rest in the refrigerator overnight.

Day two of the process included boiling, pressing into a seed mixture and baking. This was fun. The bagels were very easy to work with, and dropping them into the boiling water for just 10 seconds per side and fishing them out was a strange delight. I can’t express enough how great this dough was and how easy it was to handle. I combined poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and coarse sea salt on a plate and pressed each boiled bagel into the mix. Then, they went back onto a parchment-lined, semolina-dusted baking sheet and into a 450 degree oven which was turned down to 400. Twenty minutes later, I had to look at these lovelies and endure the excruciating wait until one was cool enough to handle. I soon discovered slightly burned fingers was a small price to pay for tasting one of these fresh and hot out of the oven. They were just chewy enough, and the flavor was so very good.

About the size of the bagel holes: I made them too small, and the bagels looked over-puffed because of it. I’ll get better at that I hope. I will, without doubt, be making more bagels, so I should figure it out eventually. I haven’t decided yet what the next sourdough adventure will be. Parmesan cheese bread, raisin brioche, and seeded sour are all contenders.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Farro with Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic, Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts, and Parsley

Between a birthday cake, cookies, and scones, I have actually eaten a few healthy things here and there. For instance, I finally got around to making a farro salad after seeing similar ones like this, that, and this. Farro is a chewy whole grain that’s similar in taste and texture to barley. I started with a pound of farro which I placed in a large bowl, covered with water, and let soak for 25 minutes. Once drained, it was placed in a large pot with a bay leaf, was covered with water again, and was brought to a boil and left to cook for another 25 minutes. The first 25 minutes was just enough time to chop the other ingredients, and the cooking time for the farro was about the same as the time needed to roast the vegetables.

I cut a head of cauliflower into florets, tossed the florets with several cloves of garlic, chopped fresh sage, olive oil, and salt and pepper, and roasted all for 30 minutes. For the last few minutes of roasting, I pushed the cauliflower and garlic to the side of the baking sheet and added some pine nuts. In a very large mixing bowl, the cooked and drained farro joined rinsed and drained, canned white beans, zest from one lemon, a big handful of chopped parsley, a little bit of chopped sage, the roasted cauliflower, garlic, and most of the pine nuts, and a quick vinaigrette of lemon juice and olive oil. This was seasoned with salt and pepper and just a shake or two of crushed red pepper flakes. Once on the plate, it was topped with crumbled goat cheese, a few more pine nuts, and chopped parsley as garnish.

This hearty, healthy dish can be adapted to include whatever vegetable, herb, and cheese combination sounds good to you. It makes a generous amount and stores very well as a leftover. It was also delicious with a sliced hard-boiled egg on top. Follow one of the examples above, or make your own version, but definitely try a farro salad.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Minneola Tangelo-Buttermilk Scones

It’s great to see so many magazine articles authored by food bloggers these days. In the February issue of Living, Clotilde Dusoulier wrote about crepes, and Deb Perelman wrote about cupcakes. There have been several instances of articles by bloggers in other magazines too, and it’s a nice acknowledgement of the popularity of food blogs. In Living’s January issue, Clotilde wrote about citrus, and that’s where I saw these delicious-looking, tangelo scones. Kurt is a fan of scones since forever, and thus, these were destined to be a treat for our Valentine’s Day breakfast.

I had never made scones with buttermilk, or minneola tangelos for that matter, so I was intrigued. This recipe makes a lot of scones, and had I been thinking more clearly, I would have cut it in half. Although, having some of these in the freezer isn’t such a bad thing. For the full recipe, six tangelos were peeled, segmented, seeded, and chopped, and one was zested. The dough was mixed in a large mixing bowl and then turned out onto a floured surface and patted into a rectangle as usual for scones. I made a lame attempt at cuteness by trying to cut out heart shapes. This wasn’t the scone for cute hearts. The tangelo chunks squirted and were squashed in the sticky dough by the cutter, and the resulting heart shape was less than precise. I abandoned that quickly and cut the rest in triangles.

There is a lot of liquid in the dough from the chopped tangelos and the buttermilk, and the cut scones need to be chilled for at least a couple of hours before baking. I brushed the tops with an egg wash since I didn’t have any cream and then sprinkled on turbinado sugar. Just to make them extra fancy for my Valentine, I squiggled on a confectioner’s sugar glaze before serving. The juicy bits of tangelo were lovely in the scones, and the buttermilk balanced the sweetness. I’m guessing these scones will make repeat appearances in my kitchen each time tangelos are in season.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mussels with Hot Paprika Breadcrumbs

This dish caught my eye in the January issue of Food and Wine. It was part of the 50 trends to try this year, and the trend in question was new sparkling wines. Three wines including a lambrusco bianco, a sparkling chenin blanc, and a sparkling gruner veltliner were suggested, and all would pair well with the mussels. We never have much luck locating exact bottles that appear in articles and that proved to be the case last weekend. So, we chose a prosecco instead. Therefore, I suppose we failed to experience this trend set by these new sparklers, but the mussels were outstanding with the bubbly wine we did procure.

This was served as a first course prior to the eggplant salmon entree. The mussels are quick and simple to prepare, and smoked, hot paprika is always welcome. Breadcrumbs were tossed with butter-cooked garlic and paprika, and then thyme, lemon zest, and salt and pepper were added. This mixture was spooned over steamed, opened mussels which were then set under the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Simply delicious. Of course, we wished we would have bought more mussels. When paprika, butter, and breadcrumbs are involved, always plan to serve more than you think you’ll need. The prosecco was lovely as both the steaming liquid and as the beverage served with the finished dish, but the Szigeti Gruner Veltliner Brut sounded interesting. We’ll have to keep looking for it so we can properly experience this particular trend.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Eggplant Salmon

I’m not sure why it worked out this way, but we had a seafood-focused weekend. We had some fantastic sushi at a neighborhood place for lunch on Saturday. We drive by this place all the time, but we’ve only stopped in a few times. We always leave happy, the fish is always the freshest, and it’s always perfectly prepared. Once again, we reminded ourselves we should stop there more often. After a lunch including salmon, tuna, crab, and shrimp, we moved on to mussels and salmon for dinner. It was a perfect food day for me. The eggplant salmon was another dish from Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard. All of the dishes in the Shellfish and Fish chapter are enticing, so I just picked one of the simplest to prepare.

Salmon fillets were cut down the center so as to accommodate a stuffing of eggplant and fresh mozzarella. The Japanese eggplant was first thinly sliced and sauteed with garlic and just a touch of soy sauce. Once cooled, it was tossed with cubed mozzarella and chopped garlic chives. The salmon was filled and then baked until the stuffing had heated through. The components of this were so simple to prepare but so delicious together. The sauce was just as easy. Chopped onion was cooked with chopped tomato. I know what you’re thinking. With eggplant and tomato, this sounds like a summer dish. Fair enough, but we do get pretty good locally, organically, greenhouse-grown tomatoes here, and since it was cooked with the onion for 15 minutes, it worked out fine. For this sauce, canned whole tomatoes would work too. The sauce was supposed to have received some basil after being pureed and strained, but I used a combination of homegrown parsley, thyme, and oregano instead. The tomato sauce was pooled onto the plate and topped with the salmon.

It all worked incredibly well together, but we also soon realized the stuffing would make an excellent vegetarian dish on its own. After filling the salmon, there was extra stuffing which I baked in a small dish. That alone would be lovely served with the tomato sauce. The sauce delivered brightness and incredible flavor considering the very short ingredient list. With the mozzarella melted into the buttery salmon, the tender eggplant made flavorful with garlic and soy sauce, and the smooth tomato sauce, this was a great finale to a seafood day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Banana-Caramel Birthday Cake

It’s not chocolate. That’s the unbelievable thing about this birthday cake. For years, every time I asked Kurt what kind of cake he’d like for his birthday, the only answer I heard was chocolate. Until this year. This year, he said he’d like something different. I was too confused to think, so I put some books in front of him and asked him to pick a cake. It took him longer than I thought it would. The lemon curd cake looked good, and so did the coconut cake. But, in the end, he chose this banana-caramel cake from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook.

The cake batter has lots of butter, some sour cream, and three mashed bananas. It makes a nicely sturdy cake that remains moist. Separating the layers, are three sliced bananas cooked in caramel. That alone would make a fantastic dessert, but it was even better as the glue between these layers. With six bananas in all, there’s almost a full serving of fruit in each slice of cake.

The frosting on the cake was mascarpone whipped cream which I’ll have to go on about for just a bit. First, it was so light and fluffy it seemed like it should be ok to go ahead and eat the entire bowl of it. The mascarpone, heavy cream, and confectioner’s sugar were mixed together all at once. I imagined it would be a little thicker and heavier like cream cheese frosting, but instead, the consistency was like puffy, creamy, light, pillowy stuff that’s really hard to stop eating. The second thing about it is that it’s lightly sweetened. It’s not tooth achingly sugary at all. That’s important because the frosted cake was then topped with caramel sauce. I already loved the frosting, and then it got some caramel. Dear, sweet, beautiful caramel. This cake was a very good choice.

It is a big, special cake, and it was splendid for a birthday celebration. You could simplify it by making one big layer, skipping the cooked bananas, and just frosting it without the caramel sauce. All the parts together, though, are so good. So Kurt’s another year older, and what am I doing with such an old man anyway? I think that every year until I catch up with him in a month and a half.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Green Chicken Masala

UPDATE 26 January 2012: My cilantro plants are taking over my herb garden this year thanks to the winter rain. It was time to make this dish again and update the photos.

I’ve managed to amass a stack of chicken recipes, most of which are from Food and Wine’s last several issues, and I decided to start working through them last night. Up first was this green chicken masala which was one of their simplified versions of a chef’s dish. It comes from Chef Vikram Sunderam of Rasika in Washington, DC. Apparently, the only simplification was to add the spices all at once rather than a little at a time as the dish cooks. Chicken breasts or thighs would work, but I had boneless breasts in the freezer so they won.

The first ingredient in the list is two cups of cilantro leaves. I have to beam with pride for just a moment because my cantankerous, little herb garden had actually produced enough cilantro for this use. The winter herbs like parsley and cilantro do perform better for me than their summer counterparts, but they're not all that prolific in my garden. However, we’d just had some rain this week, so the resulting explosion of cilantro leaves was a surprising sight. There’s a strange sense of luxury about clipping rain-washed and sun-dried, fresh herbs because since I don’t use any sprays or chemicals, they didn’t require any rinsing once I got them inside. They were already clean and dry and easier to handle that way. Odd things like that do make me happy. Mint, on the other hand, I don’t seem able to grow despite the fact that it’s treated as an almost invasive species in most gardens.

Along with the big mound of cilantro leaves, store-bought mint, jalapeno, garlic, lemon, and water were pureed until smooth. Meanwhile, chopped onion was sauteed before turmeric and chicken were added. Cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves joined the mixture in the pan, and then the cilantro puree and coconut milk were added. The bright green color faded a bit as the sauce reduced and thickened, but the many delicious flavors got better and better. Next time, I may use a hotter chile, like serrano, instead of jalapeno, but that’s a very minor grievance. I have to explain that I’m not at all an experienced cook of Indian cuisine, so the melding of all of these spices and herbs into the finished sauce was kind of like a magic trick that I just happened to perform. It all came together wonderfully, and this one is going in the permanent file.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chocolate Covered Cherry Cookies

At Christmas time, I baked several kinds of cookies to share with family and friends. I had a list of all the cookies I wanted to try, but I only got to about half of them. These chocolate covered cherry cookies were on that other half of the list. When I ran out of time in December, I started thinking about a baking list for Valentine’s Day and put these cookies at the top of it. I saw these delicious looking treats and used the recipe found on A Good Appetite.

They are thumb-print cookies with half a maraschino cherry tucked into the indentation with chocolate spooned on top. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. I located some all-natural maraschino cherries, Silver Palate brand, at Whole Foods. They have no artificial colors and no preservatives, and they taste great. Simple cookie, great ingredients, what could go wrong? Turns out, I nearly completely failed at making these cookies. My melted chocolate and sweetened condensed milk mixture must have been too runny. When I took the cookies out of the oven, it had practically disappeared. Notice the bottom right photo below. That is what failure looks like.

Not willing to give up so easily, I decided to let the cookies cool while I considered my options. I thought I could sneekily re-top them with melted milk chocolate and no one would ever know. My plan was to send these to my nieces for Valentine’s Day, so I went with milk chocolate for the final topping instead of semisweet. That chocolate topping worked ok, and the cookies were brought back from the brink. I can’t wait to find out if my nieces enjoyed the cookies or if they could taste the bitterness of near failure.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bordelaise Sauce

Back in December when I was reading Saveur, Kurt happened to glance over my shoulder while I was on the page about Bordelaise sauce. He felt certain that this was something I should definitely try, and he was all too willing to humbly offer his services as taste tester. Classic French sauces are interesting to me, even when they’re made with veal demi-glace and served on red meat. I’m intrigued by the thought of making them and learning from the process. And, so it was that Kurt had his lucky day. He got to select a nice, big filet mignon and grill it as desired while I tinkered in the kitchen with Bordelaise sauce.

I’ve read all about how amazing veal stock is on Ruhlman’s blog and in his The Elements of Cooking, and I suspect I’ll make some one of these days. This was not, however, that day. The Saveur article also includes step by step instructions for making veal stock and reducing it into demi-glace. I brazenly blew off all of that. I went straight to Whole Foods and searched for a pre-made veal demi-glace. They were out. The guy at the meat counter suggested I ask in prepared foods. The guy in prepared foods said no, they never have it there, and don’t I know how to make it. Yes, I’ve read about how to make it, but I’d somehow misplaced the eight or so hours I would need to do so. Onward I went to Central Market where I found a very good, albeit packaged, veal demi-glace.

Wine with shallots, bay leaf from my tree, and some thyme simmered and reduced. The slacker demi-glace was added. The filet was grilled, and juices were collected on a plate where it rested. A scant tablespoon of butter, I thought there'd be more, was whisked in, and the steak juices and some parsley were added to the sauce. The steak was sprinkled with rosemary and thyme, was set into a puddle of sauce, and received a dab of sauce on top. Did I, the red meat abstainer, taste this celebration of veal and beef? Of course I did. I had to know. I think I’ve used the phrase depth of flavor before but I shouldn’t have because this was what depth of flavor truly is. It was a velvety, luscious, beautiful thing. I haven’t converted into a beef eater or anything, but I do have a renewed appreciation for French classics.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sourdough Starter and Bread Adventure: 1

Last fall, I read Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery and learned about the steps involved in making a sourdough starter and using it for bread baking. I read about it, but I didn’t actually do it. So, one of my goals for the new year was to make a sourdough starter and begin learning more about bread baking by actually baking it. I have now at least begun this adventure. Two weeks ago, I set about growing the culture and allowing it to ferment. There are different methods for creating sourdough starters, but I faithfully followed the exact steps in the La Brea book. This was completely new territory for me, and I had no idea if things were going ok or if I had a failure on my hands. I just continued to follow the instructions and kept my fingers crossed.

The culture was created from a mixture of water and bread flour with a pound of red grapes tied up in cheesecloth squished into it, and it was left to sit for a few days. On day four, the culture was refreshed with more flour and water, and it continued to ferment for five more days. During this time, the aroma ranged from nice and yeasty to a little sour and then back to mellow again. Just as it should. On day 10 when the grapes were removed, the mixture had separated and there was a yellow liquid on top. It appeared just right based on the description in the book. At this point, regular feedings began so as to build the culture into a starter. Again, there are different methods for this, but Silverton’s instructions involved three feedings per day with precise measurements for water and bread flour. I got a kitchen scale for Christmas for this very purpose. On day 15, the starter was ready for baking. I think I’ve never felt so clueless in the kitchen. I had no idea if it would work, or if I’d been feeding a big lump of glue for two weeks.

Continuing with my obsequious adherence to the instructions, I, of course, baked the first bread listed which is a basic loaf of country white. This bread requires two days of prepping and waiting. I was a little concerned because there is specific information in the book about room temperature, water temperature, dough temperature and how all need to be within a narrow range for success. We were having chilly nights, and my kitchen wasn’t as warm as it usually is, so I was nervous. I attempted to make the suggested adjustments by increasing the temperature of the water used, and waiting the maximum amount of time for each step of dough resting and rising. But still, I was anxious. A big, but precise, pile of bread flour was mixed by hand with the virgin starter, water at 81 degrees, and an exact amount of wheat germ. I then kneaded it by hand. Things looked ok to me. The autolyse, or period of rest for the dough, came and went. Salt was added and kneaded into the dough. And, it was time for the first rise. Four hours. It rose, but I sensed it wasn’t enough.

After the first rise, the dough was split into two, shaped, and the two boules should have been placed in cloth-lined proofing baskets of which I have none. I have no idea if that matters. I used two medium mixing bowls instead. They were left to proof at room temperature for an hour and then placed in the refrigerator to rest overnight. I still wasn’t seeing as much volume change in the dough as I thought I should, but I soldiered on.

Day two involved removing the bowls from the refrigerator, allowing the dough to come to room temperature, waiting through a final proof of three hours, and then finally, thank you, the dough blobs went into the blessed, 500 degree, water-spritzed oven. I was feeling very much like the Little Red Hen at this point. Did anyone else read that book as a child? It was great to get to read it to my niece a couple of years ago. Still love that story. So, my dough seemed flabby and short, but I baked it anyway. And, believe it or not, it ended up very much like bread. I don’t count this as a solid success because the loaves were a little denser than they should have been. It could have been due to a weak, new starter or a too cool room for proofing, but what I got in the end was indeed bread. It was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. There were some holes like there were supposed to be throughout the loaf’s interior. It was bread, and it was mine. And, it was delicious toast for breakfast the next morning too.

My next adventure with the starter will be baking bagels. I’ve heard good things about the bagels in this book, so I’m looking forward to the attempt. I have to thank Chuck at The Knead for Bread for graciously taking the time to answer several questions and offer some great information. He also gave me excellent tips for maintaining my starter. I hope it’s still alive. It’s sitting in my refrigerator right now taunting me with the fact that only it knows its status. I’ll find out for sure in a week or so when the adventure continues.

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