Tuesday, February 26, 2008

1st Daring Bakers Challenge: Baking (and kneading, waiting, deflating, shaping, proofing, and slashing) with Julia

The moment you have all been waiting for: Red Ramekin's first foray into the exciting and borderline cultish world of the Daring Bakers. "The Daring Bakers?" you ask. "Wow, you must know basically nothing about the culino-blogosphere," I chortle, possessed and covered in flour. It's OK, though, I'll explain anyway. The Daring Bakers is a baking group composed of lots and lots of food bloggers from all over the world. Each month, an illustrious blogger or two "hosts" the event, which means that they pick a challenging baking recipe, disseminate it to the eager and less-illustrious members of the group, and then try and moderate the endless discussions that go on throughout the month surrounding the specifics of the recipe. This often includes topics such as the percentage of gluten in bread flour, the appropriate proofing time for bakers living in Malaysian huts with no air-conditioning, and whether it is acceptable to use a linen towel for covering your dough, even though the recipe explicitly says canvas. It's awesome. No, seriously, the Daring Bakers, and the Daring Bakers blog, are really awesome.

The recipe is released to the group members on the 1st of each month, and must be kept a secret until the last day of the month, when all of the bloggers get to post about their successes and/or failures in making the chosen recipe. The event is not a competition, but rather a way for the blog-obsessed to branch out and try recipes that they might not choose to try otherwise. There's more information, and a complete list of members, at the Daring Bakers blogroll.

So, this month's challenge was.....Julia Child's French Bread. Compared to some of the previous challenges (strawberry mirror cake, lemon meringue pic, sticky buns, buche de noel) this one seemed a bit ordinary. However, most ordinary recipes don't require 12 hours to complete. Ordinary recipes don't require that you set your resting dough on a heating pad to achieve the desired rising temperature. Ordinary recipes aren't 8 pages long. You get the idea. It may be bread, but let's face it: bread-baking is anything but easy. Besides, it's a Julia Child recipe, which makes it extra-special. I (like everyone else who has ever cooked) grew up on Julia Child. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but Baking with Julia, on PBS's How-To Saturdays, was the best show. Ever. At that age (maybe 12 or so) when watching TV for an entire Saturday was still a reasonable undertaking, I watched Julia religiously.

I have been pretty busy with work this month, but I didn't want to delay membership in the Daring Bakers another month. So, last Sunday was dedicated to Julia's French bread. We prayed for success on the first try, because there probably wasn't going to be a second try. And nobody likes blogging about failed French bread. Luckily, all went according to plan. We ended up with 3 lovely, uber-French batards with golden, crispy crusts and feather-light interiors.

I will spare you the entire recipe, because it is basically the longest recipe I've ever read and I don't even want to think about typing it up. If you are curious, though, check it out here. I'll lay out the basics, though.

First was the mixing, and then the kneading. Lots of kneading:

Then the dough rose until tripled in size, at which point we deflated the dough and set it to rise again. After the second rise came the shaping:

And then another rise:

And then the baking, which involved, among other things, a silicone pastry brush, two baking sheets, a pizza peel, a baking stone, a cast-iron skillet, lots of floury towels, and 10 ice cubes. Look!

Since this was a rather momentous event in my life as a food blogger, I have taken some time to seriously (and not so seriously) reflect on the whole experience.

Overall, it was wonderful. I've been really into bread-baking lately, and this was a kind of baking that I haven't done so much of. It's a totally classic recipe, and it's one of the staples of any decent baker's bread repertoire. I am pretty obsessed with creating my own recipes and using lots of whole grains and alternative ingredients, but it was fun to have an excuse to go completely balls-to-the-wall refined flour for a change.

We have also been doing a lot of that new-fangled no-knead stuff lately. I must admit that I love the no-knead method. It takes literally 5 minutes to mix the dough, and then you just let it hang out for a while in your fridge until you get your lazy ass around to baking it. That's what I'm talking about.

Still, though, there is something about doing bread the real way - I'm talking about kneading now - that is utterly satisfying. This dough was so great to work with, and it was very nice to actually make a successful kneaded loaf. I've tried doing kneaded loaves in the past - just a few times - and have never really been successful. I discovered that it's because I never really knew how to actually knead dough. This recipe explained it very thoroughly. Turns out when a recipe says "10 minutes" it actually, literally means 10 minutes. My arms were tired. When I was kneading the French bread dough, I could see and feel the dough transform from a mish-mash of gluten and liquid into a smooth, soft, cohesive bread-to-be.

The dough was also amazing in the strictly tactile sense. I'd really been missing out by not kneading dough. After a few minutes, this lovely, white, little lump was so soft and smooth that it almost melted (not really, but it felt like that) into my hands. It wasn't sticky, but just barely tacky; it cleared the surface and became delightfully springy and elastic. By the time I was done pounding that sucker, it was like a refined little bubble of yeasty velvet. If my fingers could talk, they would have said something like: "aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhoooooooooeeeeeeahhhhhooohh." Oh yeah, it was that good.

The evidence for that was in the rising: our precocious little dough-ball puffed up to triple its volume in less than 2 hours. You don't see that with whole-wheat dough. Trust me. The risings went smoothly, so that was good, if not overly exciting. I went to yoga class during the second rise, though, which was a little bit exciting.

And then there was the shaping. This part scared me the most, since I've never had to shape my free-form loaves into "batards" before. The directions were thorough, although not altogether clear; it was hard to visualize them without actually having the dough in front of me. When the time came, though, the directions pulled through. I won't claim that the loaves were perfectly shaped, but they were at worst a rough approximation of a traditional French bread shape. Long, thin, and not horribly disfigured.

Baking was also a breeze, although it required brushing the loaves with water every 3 minutes for the first 9 or so minutes of baking. Hey, I told you this wasn't easy. Miraculously, though, everything seemed to work more or less as written. After letting the loaves cool for a ridiculously long time, we sliced into one and were pleased with both taste and texture. The crust was crispy with a slight chew, and the crumb was close and fine but light as a feather and subtly yeasty.

So, the real test: is it something I'd make again? Well, to be honest, probably not. For one, this loaf requires 100% white flour. Substituting whole grains here would not be pretty. Nor would it be tasty. While I make some exceptions to my whole-grain regime, when I bake for myself I try to stay away from white flour.

And then, of course, there is the time commitment issue. I do like making bread, and I'm excited to try some more kneaded loaves, but this recipe is a bit over-the-top, time-wise. Three rises, really attentive baking, fairly involved shaping....it all adds up to an entire day dedicated to bread. Not that I don't like the occasional day-dedicated-to-bread. But still. This recipe isn't messing around.

The final kicker? Yeah, our French bread was good. But it wasn't any better than a loaf you could get in any bakery or (gasp!) supermarket. Yep, I said it. Store-bought loaves won't make your kitchen smell wonderful, but seriously, they will save you 11 hours of your precious time. Even if your time isn't that precious, that's still a freaking lot of time. I refuse to use this argument when talking about a) breads that don't take huge amounts of time or b) breads that are in some way unique and can't be replaced with store-bought loaves (there are many). But French bread? It's pretty much everywhere, and baking it is definitely not my comparative advantage (just ask Jonathan, the resident economist, what that means). Oh, I almost forgot: sourdough is better than French bread. If I try to do a traditional white loaf again, you can bet that some serious sourdough starter will be involved. Snap.

So, that's the wrap-up of my first-ever Daring Bakers challenge. Totally worth it, totally enjoyable, and totally educational. I can't wait for the next one (I find out tomorrow, but you have to wait until the end of the month!).

Also, if you actually read this entire post, you can officially consider yourself a food blog geek. You're basically a step away from joining the Daring Bakers yourself. But look at what lies ahead:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Today's Favorite Salad

I've decided to institute a new rhetorical policy in my life. Since I'm chronically indecisive, and since I'm always trying out new foods and new recipes, from now on any "favorite" dishes of mine will have to be the favorite of the day. Otherwise, everything would be my favorite.

When I first started making my chickpea salad, it was definitely my favorite salad. Such texture! So lemon-minty! So fresh! And then came this delicious little number, my carrot and fennel salad. A new favorite, for sure. There is something special about the success of a new dish, especially one that you've created yourself. Just eating something that you've never had before, whether it's one special ingredient or a bold, new combination of flavors, is exhilarating in and of itself. So I guess that's why every dish I try is soon proclaimed "the best soup I've ever had," or "the yummiest salad ever," or "the ooiest-gooiest, freaking best pumpkin-cranberry cookies ever to have graced the universe with their presence" (Whole Foods pumpkin-cranberry cookies, October 2007).

In any case, favorites will now be favorites, but for their designated time. Perhaps I'll allow for some truly great dishes to be forever favorites, but for now I'll work with favorites of the day. Today's is an amazingly simple spinach salad with a tahini dressing. The dressing was actually a sauce I made to accompany some sesame-crusted chicken breasts a few nights ago, but I had a bit left over, was craving something green, and a new favorite was born.

When it comes to salad, I often try to pack as much vegetable as I can into the thing, but it's easy to forget how delicious fresh baby spinach is, all on its own. Really, try it sometime - straight from the bag (or in my case, obscenely awkward and large Olivia's Organics plastic container). It's really good. This salad has only three components: spinach, chopped kalamata olives, and dressing. I like to slice my baby spinach roughly into ribbons, because I like how it sits on the plate that way. I find that the whole leaves can be a bit unwieldy.

I also like to have this salad slightly warm, which softens the leaves just a tiny bit without actually cooking them. I just toss my greens in a bowl, cover with a plate, and microwave for 30 seconds or so. It makes such a simple salad seem a bit more elegant.

The key, of course, is the tahini dressing. It has a nice lemony bite and a subtle, pleasant bitterness from the tahini. The olives give it an extra boost of Mediterranean-ness, but this salad would go perfectly with just about any meal. Yum!

Warm Spinach Salad with Tahini Dressing (serves 2)

3-4 c. loosely packed baby spinach
8-10 pitted kalamata olives

2-3 tbs. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 tbs. tahini
1 tbs. coarse-grained mustard
1 tsp. (or to taste) honey
splash of olive oil
salt, pepper, and cumin to taste

Make dressing: Mix first four ingredients and whisk to combine. Add a splash of oil and whisk again. Season to taste, adding more honey if necessary. For a thinner consistency, add a splash of water. For salad, roughly chop spinach and place in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave just until warm, about 30 seconds. Chop kalamata olives and add to warm spinach. Dress each salad with a few tablespoons of dressing, and toss (or cover with a plate and shake!) to combine. Serve immediately.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

Valentine Scones (makes about 5 scones)

1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3 tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. buttermilk
2 1/2 tbs. cold butter
milk, for brushing tops
sugar, for sprinkling

In a large bowl, mix together flours, sugar, salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. Cut cold butter into small pieces and add to flour mixture, mixing with fingertips until combined and resembling a coarse meal. Add beaten egg and buttermilk, and stir with a fork to combine. If sticky, add a bit of flour and knead a few times to combine. Pat dough into a large circle and form scones using a cookie cutter, biscuit cutter, or a glass dipped in flour. Place scones on parchment-lined baking sheet and brush tops with milk and sprinkle with a bit of sugar. Bake at 400 degrees until lightly browned, about 18-20 minutes. Enjoy with your valentine!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Waiter, There's Something in My....Salad

So the time has finally come for us green redramekin-ers to take the plunge and participate....yes, you guessed it...in a food blogging event. For those uninitiated into the ways of the professional food blogger, suffice it to say that there are lots of food blogging events. The premise is this: a blogger "hosts" an event by challenging other bloggers to create a special dish/photograph/recipe/etc. Many events are regular affairs that happen once a month or once a week.

This post is a submission for the "Waiter, There's Something in My..." event, which happens each month and features a new twist on a standard dish. This month's standard dish was salad, so we were in luck. Last month, the dish was terrine. Yikes. Glad we didn't attempt that one.

For more information on the event, head over to Spittoon Extra.

But back to our submission. I sure do love a good salad, and I was happy to have the chance to test out this new recipe idea. The salad is a carrot and fennel slaw type of deal, with a dressing that is bursting with all sorts of crazy Middle Eastern flavors. It is inspired by a more traditional carrot and raisin salad, but instead of chunks of raisins, this baby blends them up in the dressing, so the sweetness is a bit more even and subtle in each lovely, lovely bite.

Have I mentioned that I'm completely in love with fennel? Well, I am. Fennel is my valentine. And I really love these crispy, slaw-y types of salads with a hearty meal. We had this one with a chicken, squash, and apricot tagine (recipe coming soon, I hope), and the salad was the perfect crunchy counter to all of that deliciously stew-like goodness.

We happened to not have any fresh herbs on hand (mint or parsley would have been ideal), so I tossed a handful of arugula into the processor along with the other dressing ingredients. Arugula is spicy and herby enough to do the trick, although next time I'll be sure to try it with parsley. Also, make sure to make enough for leftovers...after sitting for a day, the carrot and fennel really soak up the flavors of the dressing.

Carrot and Fennel Salad with Lemony Raisin Dressing

3 carrots
1 large bulb fennel
1/4 c. raisins
1/4 c. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
small handful fresh herb - mint, parsley, or baby arugula
1 tsp. honey
1 tbs. olive oil
salt, pepper, cumin, and cinnamon to taste

To make the dressing: soak raisins in hot water until plump and soft, about 30min. Drain and put into the bowl of a food processor. Add lemon juice, honey, and oil, and process until smooth. Add a handful of fresh herbs and process again. Pour mixture into another bowl, and season with salt, pepper, cumin, and cinnamon to taste. Add more honey if necessary. For the vegetables: peel and trim carrots and trim fennel (I suppose you could use the fronds for the dressing...). Grate carrots using the grating blade of the food processor, and slice fennel as thinly as possible, using the slicing blade. Toss vegetables and dressing together in a big bowl and serve either on a bed of greens or on its own.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Friday Night, with Muffin to Do...

I know it's been a while, and I do apologize to all you faithful readers. I'm entering a rather busy time of the semester right now, and sadly will not be able to post as much as I have been over the past few months. But don't worry, come March 24th, I will be dedicating most of my time to you. Well, to cooking at least.

I will, of course, try to get the occasional post in when I have some free time to cook and dream up recipes. This Friday evening was one of those times. After a week of getting serious about some academic projects, I was ready for a little baking break, and I happened to have dreamed up a lovely idea for savory muffins.

We had some fat-free ricotta in the fridge for some pasta I made a few nights ago, and I thought that instead of the already-done cottage cheese muffins, ricotta might just make a tasty, baked little treat.

I mentioned my carrot-sage cornbread mini muffins in my Thanksgiving redux post, and these were roughly based on that idea. I skipped the cornmeal, though, and added some more veggies: zucchini and green onions.

These have quite a bit of ricotta in them, so they don't bake up quite like regular muffins. They are much moister and creamier than most muffins, which tend to be on the cake-y side. I was a bit worried when they first came out of the oven - they were yummy, but I was afraid that after a day or so they would deflate and get gummy. Luckily, that wasn't the case. They were delicious the next day, and even the day after that.

As we stuffed our faces with tasty, savory muffins, Jonathan and I tried to think of some good accompaniments to these little treats. They'd be perfect for brunch, with scrambled eggs, or for lunch, or for dinner alongside some roast chicken...the list continues, although naturally we finished all of the muffins before we got to pair them with any other foodstuffs.

Perhaps the best part of this recipe was that it allowed us to test out the grating/shredding blade on the new food processor for the first time. We had to break out the manual and everything! And you thought your Friday night was exciting. If you are unfortunate enough to live sans food processor, this recipe will take a bit of extra time, but it is definitely worth it. I went out this morning to buy the ingredients for our next batch...

Savory Ricotta-Veggie Muffins

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. all-purpose spice mix (I used Whole Pantry brand) or dried herbs of your choice
1 c. fat-free ricotta
1 egg
1/2 c. buttermilk
2 tbs. olive oil
2 carrots, shredded
1 zucchini, shredded
1-2 green onions, diced

In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda and powder, salt, pepper, and spices. In a separate bowl, mix egg, oil, ricotta, and buttermilk. Using a food processor or a grater, grate the carrots and zucchini until finely shredded. Using cheesecloth or a sturdy colander, press as much of the water as you can out of the carrots and zucchini. Dice the onion by hand. Pour wet ingredients into dry, stirring a few times. Add the drained vegetables and diced onion, and stir to combine completely. Don't overmix. Fill 12 muffin cups (greased or lined) about 3/4 full, and bake at 375 degrees until firm on top, about 20-25 minutes. Muffins will be slightly custardy, but dry when fully baked. Allow to cool and enjoy!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The World's Best Pizza

I really like the pizza we make at home. We get to choose exactly the toppings we want, and we know what goes into the dough. But the truth of the matter is, we have neither an oven that gets up to 800 degrees nor a 30-foot peel for sliding pizzas in and out of such an oven. New Haven, CT's Wooster St. has at least three such pairs. So, naturally, we rented a ZipCar and headed for New Haven. Ostensibly we were going to see my friend Aaron, but there was mutual acknowledgment that this short trip was about one thing and one thing only: pizza.

Our experience with Wooster St. pizza ended up roughly par for the course. We drove past Sally's, which had a line of about 3 people out the door (which I declared to be interminable) and pulled over at Pepe's, a few blocks down. The line outside of Pepe's was suspiciously short for a Friday night, and it turned out that Pepe's itself was closed (just to emphasize: it was closed, but there was still a short line). However, Pepe's has a backup location behind its parking lot, "The Spot," whose pizza is identical. Mia and I stood in line outside Sally's in the pouring rain for about 15 minutes, watching the line grow in front of us as a few families cut to the front (they must have had the infamous "secret number" for reservations). The Sally's line shortens only by attrition; no one without a reservation ever seems to get a seat.

So we doubled back to The Spot and met Aaron, who was saving us a spot in line there. The quality of the pizza was evident through the window, through which we could see Connecticutians biting down on every variety of irregularly shaped piece of pizza. We sat down and ordered two red pies with mozz. - sausage and onion, and vege (without the green peppers). Naturally, the sausage and onion was for me.

The thing that separates New Haven pizza from the rest is the crust. It is thin and crispy, with a smokiness that you do not find anywhere else. Only rarely is it completely blackened, but even then it is delicious after soaking in the pizza's oils and toppings. But anyone can make a crust merely thin - New Haven style crust is not too thin. There is just enough dough to have the perfect bite once you get through the crisp outer layer. The tomato sauce and cheese are of course top rate (though Mia might disagree), but the crust is what makes New Haven pizza one of the most delicious foods in the world. It's hard to capture the crust in a picture, and harder still when your camera is attached to your cell phone, but here is an attempt at close-up of the vege pie:

and here is my personal pie:

If you're ever in New Haven, it is imperative that you head to Wooster St. Pepe's is open for lunch, but the traditional time to go is Sunday in the late afternoon. Show up 20 minutes before opening and you'll be sure to be in the first wave of customers. You won't be disappointed.