Homemade bread figures prominently in my memories of summers on the farm just outside Bruce, Alberta. After an exhausting morning or afternoon spent running around the yard playing various games – including kick the can and sardines in a can (apparently we liked games with can in the name) – my niece and nephew and I would vote to stir up some trouble indoors. Racing towards the porch, the winner of the foot race would throw open the door to my brother and sister-in-law’s home and instantly be overwhelmed by the yeasty perfume of baking bread. A mad scramble to remove our shoes was followed by a processional of thumps up the small set of stairs from the porch to the kitchen, where we’d crowd around the kitchen nook and eagerly await the first slice. I don’t actually recall if my sister-in-law D. baked more than one kind of bread, but the one that stands out in my mind was white as snow and oh-so-decadent when slathered with peanut butter.
I still find that few things in life are as gratifying in their simplicity as a homemade slice of bread, fresh from the oven. Now, however, I’m more likely to opt for salted butter instead of peanut butter and whole wheat or multigrain (yes, it’s true) instead of white bread. In fact, if it weren’t for the threat of scurvy – among other things – I’m convinced I could live on bread and butter quite happily.
Having established my love for bread, we come now to the crux of the matter: I am not very good at making bread, but would like to be. In addition to lots of practice, I think a good recipe is key. So, this is a call for your best, foolproof bread recipes (or recipes you think might be good and foolproof but haven’t gotten around to trying yet).
You send the recipes, I’ll practice and blog the results, and hopefully we’ll all be better for it.
Above, was my first attempt (not ever, but in awhile) at making bread. It’s a 33% whole wheat blend based on a whole wheat bread recipe in the recipe book that came with my KitchenAid stand mixer. The bread is sweet and quite dense (as whole wheat tends to be), but a little bit drier and darker than I had hoped.
And so the adventure begins.
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups warm water (105-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
2 packages active dry yeast
5-6 cups whole wheat flour (I used 4 cups white and 2 cups whole wheat)
3/4 cup powdered milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup oil
Dissolve 1 tablespoon brown sugar in warm water in small bowl. Add yeast and let mixture stand while yeast activates (approximately 10 minutes).
Place 4 cups flour, powdered milk, 1/3 cup brown sugar and salt in the KitchenAid mixer bowl. Using the dough hook, mix on speed 2 for about 15 seconds or just until combined. Continuing on speed 2, gradually add the yeast mixture and the oil to the dry ingredients. Mix for about 1 1/2 minutes, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl when necessary.
Continuing on speed 2, add the remaining 1-2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Mix for about 2 minutes or until the dough begins to clean the sides of the bowl. Knead on speed 2 for an additional 2 minutes.
Place the dough in a greased bowl and lightly grease the top of the dough. Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour. (I covered mine with a slightly damp towel and put it in an oven that had been heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and then turned off.)
Punch dough down. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a loaf. The KitchenAid recipe books suggests rolling out each piece of dough into a rectangle (9” x 14”) and then, beginning at a short end, rolling the dough tightly and pinching to seal the ends. Place the loaves seam-side down in greased 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pans. Repeat the rising process described above.
Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes longer. (I baked mine for 20 minutes longer and they were quite dark already.) Remove loaves from pans immediately and cool on wire racks.
Yields 2 loaves of 16 slices each.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Sunday, August 27, 2006
“And though I like to act the part of being tough
I crumble like a sugar cube for you.”
-Yo La Tengo
A former French teacher of mine often offered tea and coffee to her students to make their lessons a little more enjoyable. One summer, however, she began to notice that the sugar bowl was being refilled almost daily; her sugar cubes were disappearing at an alarming rate. After carefully watching her students and noting nothing particularly unusual about their sugar consumption, she relayed the Mystery of the Disappearing Sugar Cubes to me for a second opinion. Like her, I was at a complete loss.
Then, one fall evening (long after we had resigned ourselves to never discovering the truth), Madame M. greeted me at the door with a smug little smile and a hop in her step. The mystery was solved.
“It was the new teacher I hired in June,” she said matter-of-factly. “I walked in on him eating sugar cubes straight from the bowl while he waited for his next student to arrive. No coffee, no tea, just straight sugar!” she exclaimed with disdain. “Can you imagine?!”
I widened my eyes and brought my hand to my mouth in mock horror, shaking my head in a vigorous no and tsk tsk-ing along with her. All the carefully choreographed response of a fraud, I'm afraid. In reality, I was far less horrified than I was letting on, having been known to casually nip a cube or two myself as a youth during the post-sermon meet and greet at the Coquitlam Presbyterian Church (or maybe even a cube or two of Madame M.'s as an adult in a moment of weakness).
These days, I still enjoy sugar and cubes, but have discovered a more socially acceptable alternative to pilfering from the French teacher or the church kitchen. So, for all those who have eaten a few sugar cubes in their life, who have carefully kept their secret or who have suffered the scorn of others when discovered, I can help.
Who said you can’t have your sugar in a cube and eat it too?
Penuche (Brown Sugar Fudge)
1/2 cup whipping cream or evaporated milk
2 cups brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
Combine evaporated milk, brown sugar, butter (cut into cubes) and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently for about 25-30 minutes or until the mixture reaches 238 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer and a teaspoonful dropped in a small bowl of cold water holds a soft ball.
Transfer the mixture to a heatproof bowl (I used stainless steel) and let cool for 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat with a mixer on medium speed. Add the icing sugar slowly, beating continuously until the mixture is smooth and thick (about 3-5 minutes). If you’re using a KitchenAid mixer, be sure not to overbeat or the mixture will become too thick.
Spread the mixture evenly in an ungreased 8” square pan and leave to set at room temperature. Once firm, cut into 1” squares. Refrigerate in an airtight container.
Yields: 64 squares.
Source: Slightly modified version of a recipe from Epicurious that was originally published in Gourmet in July 2003.
Postscript: The penuche tastes a lot like the brown sugar fudge served at the breakfast chain Cora’s/Chez Cora. My internet research suggests that the use of icing sugar in this recipe makes it a somewhat non-traditional penuche, but tasty nonetheless.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
I must confess I’ve been keeping a secret. I intentionally misled you to assume that the Best of the West series was an exhaustive account of bests when, in fact, it contained one glaring omission. But fret not, all shall be revealed...right after I finish this square of delicious dark chocolate.
Early into our road trip (Seattle in fact), our fearless friend/tour guide, T., revealed some exciting news. A colleague of hers had recently visited a chocolate factory where they gave out samples as part of the tour. Lots of them. Forget the Space Needle, forget Pike Place Market. Clearly this was Priority #1.
The Theo Chocolate factory is housed in what was formerly the Red Hook Brewery at 3400 Phinney Avenue North in Fremont. We arrived a little in advance of our 3pm tour start time to find quite a few others already there. Eating chocolate. We wasted no time in paying our US$5, donning our hair nets (ugh) and making up for lost time, casually sampling (and re-sampling) from the approximately six chocolate bars available while we waited for the tour to begin.
According to its website, Theo is the first roaster of Fair Trade Certified cocoa beans and the only roaster of organic cocoa beans in the United States. The company has two product lines. The so-called Origin Bars are dark chocolate (70%+) from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, with more selections to come. The 3400 Phinney line features a series of milk and dark chocolate bars in flavours like vanilla, coconut curry, coffee and nib brittle. Theo also offers a selection of confections that range from the simple Dark Chocolate Cream or Vanilla to the downright innovative Chipotle Spice or Peanut Butter & Jelly. Others include Rocher Noir (hazelnut praline), Coffee, Ginger, Lemon, Peanut Butter, Mint (with fresh mint leaves), Earl Grey, Single Malt Scotch and Burnt Sugar.
While I was initially a bit disappointed by the absence of any Oompa Loompas at the factory, both the lime green machinery and our enthusiastic group of tour guides – the owner’s son (age: 10ish?), the resident chocolatier who dreams up the intriguing menu of confections, and their ring leader – more than made up for it. Unfortunately there was no chocolate in production when we visited, but we nevertheless learned about the various phases of the chocolate-making process as we toured the factory.
Along the way, we sampled a Dark Chocolate Cream confection, 100% cocoa nibs, some of the bars in the 3400 Phinney line, as well as (virtually) unlimited quantities of the Ghana and Ivory Coast Origin Bars. At the end of the tour, we were also able to taste confections of our choice upon request. I can’t even begin to describe how much chocolate we consumed in that hour (or the subsequent feeling of elation, or the tummy-ache that followed). My personal favourites: the Ivory Coast Origin Bar, the Coconut Curry milk chocolate 3400 Phinney bar, the Nib Brittle dark chocolate 3400 Phinney Bar and the Burnt Sugar confection.
Naturally, now I’m envisioning a career in chocolate tasting. A chocolate sommelier, if you will. (Yes, definitely a hint of cherry in the finish...)
Another square? Don’t mind if I do.
The Casual Baker
P.S. As of July 2006, Theo is only distributing in Washington, Oregon and northern California, but keep your eye out for them in the future. You can’t miss the fabulous label design, pictured above.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Last night was the 2nd annual Summerscream, a backyard balcony bash for which we require our guests to arrive hungry for ice cream and ready to work. Yes, you heard right, we put our guests to work churning their own ice cream.
Each year we’re faced with a difficult decision: Do we offer plain ice cream with a toppings smorgasbord or a fancier flavour with fewer/no toppings? (And no, you can’t have a fancy flavour and many toppings in my world.) These first two years, we’ve opted for the former both because I’m a bit of a purist and because plain ice cream seems – if not the most likeable – the least offensive. Plus, as I was reminded, vanilla’s a flavour too.
The tried and true Lutz family vanilla ice cream recipe contains (in descending order of quantity, but not importance) milk, cream, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract. To kick the flavour up a notch (and because I love the little black specks), I deviated slightly this year and substituted vanilla bean for vanilla extract.
Topping options – of which I delightedly partook of all – included fudge sauce, caramel sauce, brownie bits, crumbled Willowcrisps, chocolate-covered mints, fresh sliced strawberries, peanuts, toasted coconut and maraschino cherries. (Thanks to K. for the Willowcrisp and mint additions.) Based on what was left in the bowls at the end of the evening, I have come to the following conclusions:
- Strawberries were the most popular topping for the second year in a row.
- All things chocolate were a close second.
- People can take or leave peanuts and toasted coconut, or at least only want small quantities of them.
- Maraschino cherries are too fluorescent to be appealing.
- Caramel sauce is, surprisingly, not a crowd favourite. Although, as K. so presciently remarked: “People think they don’t like caramel sauce on ice cream, but they really do if they would just try it!”
So Summerscream has come and gone once again and our ice cream maker, having done its annual duty, is back in the closet preparing for winter hibernation. Thanks to Mother Nature for holding off on the rain until our last guest had left for home and thanks to all the usual suspects who were in attendance and made this year’s Summerscream a real scream, indeed.
Until next year.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I find failure and guilt, both, to be extraordinary motivators in all aspects of life, even baking.
First, the guilt. It’s mid-August, and still no birthday cake to celebrate R’s 28th. I could convince myself that we were traveling, that the birthday ice cream sandwiches in San Francisco were celebration enough, but then the memory of failure creeps in to seal the deal.
Specifically, my bitter recollection of last year’s botched attempt at “luscious chocolate layer cake”, which yielded a disappointingly dry cake with a not nearly thick enough layer (or perhaps too thick given the result?) of overwhipped frosting.
So, with the two-fold objective of celebrating a birthday as it should be done (with cakes and candles) and of bettering my less-than-stellar cake-baking record, I set out to redeem myself. And what better way than with a White on White Birthday Cake from Bonnie Stern’s Essentials of Home Cooking? And what better occasion than a BBQ with a few close friends?
The result was a light and moist (verified by the official tasters/guests) white cake frosted in sweet (but not too sweet) vanilla icing and adorned with toasted coconut. (The coconut was a last-minute addition after a minor panic attack that our friends would find a white on white birthday cake to be a tad uninspired.) Next time I would take the toasted coconut even further and add a sprinkling between the cake layers as well, although I think the cake was tasty enough to stand on its own if necessary.
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
6 egg whites
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup butter, at room temperature
6 cups icing sugar, sifted
1/3 cup milk (approximately)
2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare two 9” square or round cake pans by greasing them and lining the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.
In a large bowl or electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until very light. Beat in egg whites two at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Measure out milk. Using a wooden spoon, blend flour into butter mixture alternately with milk in three additions, beginning and ending with flour. Do not overmix.
Divide batter between the two pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted in the centre. Cool in pans for 10 minutes and then invert onto racks to cool completely.
For the icing, in a large bowl, beat butter until light. Gradually beat in about 4 cups of icing sugar. Beat in milk and vanilla. Gradually beat in remaining icing sugar. Cover icing tightly with plastic wrap if you are not using it right away. (You may have to beat in a bit more milk if you make the icing ahead and it thickens.)
Place one layer of cake, top side down, on a serving platter. Spread with about 1 cup of icing. Place second layer of cake on first layer, top side up. Spread with icing.
Makes one 9”, two-layer cake.
The Casual Baker Touch: Spread 1 1/2 cups sweetened coconut flakes in a rimmed baking pan and toast in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 4 minutes, or until golden. This should be enough coconut to either coat the entire cake or coat the side(s) of the cake and between the cake layers.
Labels: Cakes and cupcakes
Monday, August 14, 2006
The third and final installment in the Best of the West series, featuring a guest review from R., the resident sandwich expert and author of Discovery Sandwich International.
Calamari Steak Sandwich from Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, California
I rarely ask wait staff for their opinion on items from the menu. With many summers spent in working in a restaurant, I understand the urge to rave about every item. (“The liver? Outstanding!”) But at Duarte’s, I needed some guidance if I was to take the leap into a calamari steak sandwich. The rave seemed genuine, and the waitress was spot on, it was tender and tasty. My favourite sandwich in a longtime. Breaded and herbed up, on a French roll. Good fries too.
Grilled Mascarpone Polenta Cakes from Zazie in San Francisco, California
It’s not everyday that polenta entrées pop up on the menu. So, when I happened upon the following at Zazie, a cute French bistro, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity:
"Grilled Mascarpone Polenta Cakes with spicy chevre tomato sauce, wild mushrooms and wilted spinach."
I’m not the biggest fan of mushrooms there ever was, but pair them with a spicy, chevre-flecked tomato sauce and rich, creamy polenta in a golden crust, and I am convinced of at least one good use for them. So scandalously decadent you feel like you’re getting away with eating cheesecake for dinner.
A tie between:
Chicken Burrito from Gorditos in Seattle, Washington
A chicken burrito, served wet-style with sour cream, guacamole, salsa and melted cheese. So delicious you want to convince yourself you’re capable of consuming the whole enchilada (figuratively speaking), but so big that R. and I shared one for lunch and still couldn’t finish!
Virtually anything from Chinatown in San Francisco, California
A US$6 feast from one of numerous shops that line the hectic streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown: a combination of steamed and baked pork buns, pork and shrimp dumplings and, to end on a sweet note, fried sesame balls filled with sticky rice and red bean paste. You know you’ve picked a winner when you have to point to order and the Chinese man sitting in the corner tosses a curious smile and approving nod in your direction.
Friday, August 11, 2006
A Spinach Feta Crêpe from Café Crêpe in Vancouver, British Columbia
Puréed spinach, salty feta, a dash of salt and pepper, and a hint of nutmeg enveloped in a thin, buttery (and ideally, in my opinion, not overly crisp) shell. With a few flicks of the wrist and skills not unlike an origamist, the chef produces a triangular crêpe, which is scooped into a paper cone for easy carrying. Perfect for a stroll down Robson Street: one hand on your crêpe, the other on your umbrella.
Best Hot Dog
Corner of Robson & Burrard (formerly Robson & Hornby) in Vancouver, British Columbia
Contrary to common belief, all hot dog stands are not created equal. As tradition/habit dictates, while I’m watching my Spinach Feta Crêpe materialize through a glass window from a sidewalk vantage point, R. has already half-devoured his all-beef hotdog on a whole wheat bun heaped with mustard, pickles, hot peppers and caramelized onions. In addition to having every possible topping and condiment one could desire, our hot dog vendor sells Pepsi products (much to our delight). But what really sets him apart is his free fruit candies and his old-school straw dispenser from which he always offers a straw with a characteristic flourish.
Edwin K Bed and Breakfast in Florence, Oregon
Five courses of belly-splitting bliss. We begin with a parfait of yogurt, strawberries, whipped cream and a sprinkling of granola. The main course includes a spinach soufflé with raspberry chipotle sauce served with smoked ham, seasoned potato coins, and a toasted croissant with a selection of homemade jams and jellies. A third course of fresh fruit and yogurt dip is followed by a fourth of chocolate marble and orange poppy seed loaves. And, just when your stomach is begging for mercy, out come the apricot and white chocolate scones, hot from the oven.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Fresh from a 4,290km roadtrip down the West Coast of North America, I bring you an anthology of bests.
Cherry Blossom from Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle, Washington
A cherry-flavoured cake doughnut in a classic glaze enjoyed with a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. Authentic cherry? I can’t be certain. Tasty? Damn straight. I must admit, however, that ambiance also plays an important role at Top Pot Doughnuts. The antique books lining floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the dainty serving pedestals showcasing the shop’s wares punctuate the otherwise modern vibe inside.
Best Ice Cream
Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream from the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook, Oregon
After touring the Tillamook Cheese Factory facilities, spear a few cheese samples on your toothpick before veering, predictably, toward the ice cream bar. Generous scoops of rich chocolate ice cream laced with thick ribbons of smooth peanut butter atop a freshly rolled waffle cone. Too good to pass up, even for breakfast.
Olallieberry Pie from Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, California
We couldn’t possibly leave Duarte’s without tasting the legendary Olallieberry Pie. Plump olallieberries in their lightly sweetened juices, topped and bottomed with a flaky golden crust and served à la mode. A bit like I would imagine blackberry pie, having never tasted the real thing. The big challenge is gauging the proper pie-to-ice cream ratio to ensure that no bite is left sans mode.