Sunday, June 24, 2007

Baguettes--the Steamfast way

Saturday, June 23, 2007
Somewhere in her blog, Rose recommended the Steam Maker , and I mentioned to Jim that I wanted to get one someday when we were rich. Instead of waiting for wealth, however, he wanted to get one for my birthday last month. I told him it was a frivolous purchase, but he bought it anyway. I just made amazing baguettes with this contraption, and I'm now so glad that I have it.

It's a little bit Rube Goldberg-ish, and I was kind of scared to do the big swish of steam myself because I thought I might burn myself. "Danger," the instructions say. "This unit is not a toy." "Never point nozzle at people or pets."
Here's what you do--you just make your baguettes (I followed Rose's recipe, which somehow seemed much easier than the first time I did it). You put them on a baking stone in a 450-degree oven. Then you cover them with the lid to the Steam Maker, and you get your spouse to spray steam in the hole in the cover for 30 seconds. This is really fun, especially if you're not doing it yourself. Then you bake it, covered, for six or seven minutes.

Then you take the lid off and bake it for another 23 minutes or so, turning the oven stone once during the process.

When the loaves come out of the oven, the look pretty good. But it's not until you tap them with your fingernail that you realize that they have an extraordinary crust--the kind that you get only in the very best artisan loaf. Honestly, I may have eaten baguettes that were this good, but I have never eaten one that was any better. And I have never eaten one that was so fresh out of the oven. I feel that all of my work last year, as I was making my way through The Bread Bible for the first time, led to this point, and I may never bake another bread that (to me, at least) is this satisfying.

You know that game where you have to pick three foods that you'd want if you were stranded on a desert island and you could have three things each day? This bread would be one of mine. The only problem with that is that it really couldn't be a humid island. Jim and I ate the first loaf in about 15 minutes. Then we couldn't eat any more. I thought about freezing the second one, but decided we could just eat it for breakfast. The lovely crispy, crackly crust did not make it through a humid Minnesota summer night unscathed, however. The bread was still good the second day, but the crust became chewy rather than crisp. I will therefore have to specify that my bread must be delivered to my desert island immediately after being baked. No day-old bread in my fantasy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Braised Spring Vegetables with Cornmeal-Herb Dumplings

Thursday, June 21, 2007
Yesterday I opened the food section of the NYTimes and found this recipe. What luck! This year, I, along with my friends Sara and Bridget, are getting weekly boxes of organic vegetables raised on a very high-minded farm in Wisconsin. Opening the boxes every week is a little bit like Christmas (if you're a rabbit), because you never know for sure what you're getting, and you're not sure that you will know what to do with it once you have it.
Melissa Clark's recipe for braised vegetables is based on her trip to the Union Square Greenmarket, where she picked up a bunch of vegetables that tickled her fancy, and turned them into a nice braise with dumplings. I figured that my spring vegetables wouldn't be all that different from hers, so I decided I'd just make this dish with whatever I got in my box today, which turned out to be summer squash, Swiss chard, dill, green onions, garlic scapes, peas, and romaine. (I also got Chinese cabbage and red leaf lettuce, but I saved them for another day). I added a red onion and some garlic I already had, and otherwise followed the recipe, which was just a matter of carmelizing the red onion, then adding the garlic, onions, squash and chard stems, putting in a few glugs of white wine, adding the peas and garlic scapes, and simmering it, along with some chicken broth, for a few minutes. The chard, romaine, and dill went in at the end and cooked for another few minutes; finally, I stirred in some grated Parmesan.
In the meantime, I'd made the dumplings--the reason this is on a bread blog--and cooked them in boiling water. (Oh, how my Viking cooktop loves to boil water!) I love dumplings--they're so homey! And how could you be anything else with a name like dumpling? (Although Charlotte Rampling isn't especially homey, and her name is almost like dumpling).
The dumplings were made with flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and pepper, buttermilk (or regular milk with lemon juice squeezed into it if you've already decided you're going to make dinner without going to the grocery store for anything you might not have), eggs, chopped mint and chives.
Even though it was meatless, Jim still liked the dinner quite a lot, and so did I. And we felt so virtuous! Not only were we eating our vegetables, but we were also eating organic vegetables picked that very morning.

Best Blueberry Muffins

Sunday, June 17, 2007
It being Father's Day, and Jim being very fond of both scones and blueberries, it seemed like a good idea to bake blueberry scones.
The claim of "best" blueberry muffins is not mine--it's from Cook's Illustrated. I'm sure that most of you know Cook's; it's the magazine where someone tries about 400 variations of a particular recipe and then says that the final recipe is the best possible version. I'm not sure that I would call this the very best possible blueberry scone, but I'm also not sure I've ever had a better one.
I wanted to try this particular recipe because it had a couple of intriguing techniques. Instead of mixing the butter into the flour with your fingers or with a pastry blender, the author (J. Kenji Alt), came up with the rather brilliant idea of grating frozen butter into the flour mixture (flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest). Although grating the butter was kind of a pain, it couldn't be easier to toss everything together so that the butter stays cold.
Another clever variation is to fold the dough using several business letter turns to get buttery layers--a la puff pastry. Finally, instead of mixing the blueberries into the dough (thus getting blue dough), the author came up with the idea of rolling the dough into a rectangle, pressing the blueberries on top, and then rolling the dough, jellyroll fashion, into a log. Finally, you press the log into a rectangle and cut into eight scone-shaped triangles.
Jim was very pleased. Sarah was very pleased. I was also pleased, especially because I got to use my dough scraper, which makes me feel like I know what I'm doing. Elizabeth, home for the weekend, announced that she didn't like scones and that if you are going to eat a scone, you might as well just eat a big lump of butter. (She did eat half of one on Monday, and admitted that it might be just a tad tastier than the lump of butter option).

Monday, June 11, 2007

Pane di Terni

Saturday, June 9, 2007
According to Carol Field, author of The Italian Baker, this rustic bread from Terni, a city in southern Umbria, "is in such great demand that quantities of it are rushed to Rome daily." Neither the people of Terni nor the people of Rome would recognize this as Pane di Terni, however, because I mistakenly baked it upside down.
I chose this bread not because I had a hankering for Pane di Terni; I've never heard of the bread or the city. I chose it because it calls for whole-wheat pastry flour, and I have some that I picked up for some reason or another and I wanted to use it up.
First you make a biga the night before you want the bread; the next morning, you mix the biga with water, all-purpose flour, and the pastry flour, as well as yeast and a little salt (optional because the authentic pane di Terni doesn't use salt). Then you form it into four round loaves and let it rise. Of course, I assumed that the top of the loaves was going to be the top of the bread. But then you turn it over, dimple the bottoms ot the loaves, and brush them with olive oil.
That's funny, I said to myself, usually when you dimple bread, you dimple the top. So I dimpled, oiled, and turned over. Only after they were baked did I see that actually the bottoms were supposed to become the dimpled tops. And maybe that accounts for why the bread turned out to be kind of shapeless. But, you know, it turned out to be quite good anyway, with a nice crust amd a good texture. I had some for toast the next morning, and it was excellent that way too.
We had a dinner party on Saturday with two other couples. I told Jim that I thought I'd give away two of the loaves to them if they were good. Jim told me I should let them know ahead of time to give them incentive. I said, "incentive to do what?" "To be good," he said, "you know how Doug is. He's sure to misbehave otherwise." I explained that it was a question of whether the bread was good, not the guests. And Doug did not misbehave.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pane di Como

Sunday, June 3, 2007
My wonderful sister-in-law, Betty, gave me a gift certificate to Williams-Sonoma for Christmas. It took me five months to decide what I wanted--out of so many possibilities--but I finally settled on a French banneton. I'd been making any recipes that required a banneton with a makeshift combination of a plastic colander, a cotton towel, and a piece of cardboard cut to fit the bottom of the colander. It worked fine, but it didn't make the lovely decorative rings of flour that you get with an authentic banneton.
After I bought the Williams-Sonoma banntton, Jim decided that a banneton was just what I needed for my birthday, so suddenly I went from no bannetons to two. I was going to return one, but then I happened on a recipe for Pane di Como, from The Italian Baker, which made two loaves of bread, each requiring its own banntton. Well, there you go. Kismet.
My first foray into the banneton world had mixed results. The bread was awfully good, but the shape didn't meet my expectations or satisfy my hopes. The dough was supposed to be "elastic but still slightly sticky," when the kneading was done, and mine was probably still too sticky. It raised beautifully, up to the top of the banetton, just as it was supposed to do, but when I turned it over on the hot baking stone (not an easy feat for someone who was told in the eighth grade that her fine motor skills were sub-par and her vocational choices might be limited), it sank into a limp puddle. But it was a limp puddle with distinctive banneton markings.

Although the directions said that both loaves could be baked on the stone at the same time, this was clearly not going to work if the loaves both spread out, as they did, so I baked them separately, which is why one loaf is darker than the other. And I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to crack on top, but they did. I might feel unhappier with the result if the taste hadn't been so good. And I still think they're cute.


Sunday, June 3, 2007
On Friday, we returned from a 10-day jaunt to Vancouver, and then to points north: Juneau, Skagway, the Hubbard Glacier, and Ketchikan, via the Celebrity Mercury. Vancouver is a beautiful city, with plenty of exceptional eating opportunities. (The cruise--not so much. Let me just say that a woman at our table (a very fine woman) remarked that the broccoli soup served for dinner was nowhere near as good as the cream of broccoli soup with cheese at Denny's.
But Vancouver....that's a whole different story. In the three days we were there, we concentrated our eating at several places recommended by Food and Wine--Salt Tasting Room, C Restaurant, and Tojo's. All were great choices.
Salt is hidden away down an alley; from one direction, the neighborhood is very hip and chic. From another, it's on the seedy side. We took the cute route there, but accidentally wandered down some of the less beautiful areas of Vancouver on the way back to our hotel. We ran into a man from Australia who told us a long and complicated tale of woe, which we could barely understand until he finally got to the end--he needed $11 to get a bus ticket. (Back to Australia?) Although I gave him points for making the request for precisely $11, we turned him down, whereupon he turned and yelled, "Fuck you!" Not very good customer relations, although I guess he figured he'd already lost us.
Salt is an oddity in that it's a restaurant with no kitchen--just tasting plates of cured meats, cheeses, and condiments, and a nice selection of wine. You order plates of meat, cheese, or both, with a specific condiment for each selection. Although the restaurant was not filled with the over-60 crowd, our tattooed and heavily pierced waitress was very friendly and helped us pick a cheese plate of manchego with Marcona almonds, smoked gouda with cornichons, and ash camembert with blueberry honey and a meat plate of New York corned beef with Guinness mustard, coppa with balsamic reduction, and salami with peppers.

We both had the same wine flights: Wild Goose Sauvignon Blanc, Joie Pinot Noir Rose, and Clos de Los Siete Mendoza.

This was great fun, and we thought about the possibility of returning there. But we had other goals!
The next night we were joined by our traveling partners, June and Dave Miller. The four of us went to C Restaurant, which is not located down an alley, but overlooks beautiful False Creek and the mountains. (For a prairie person like me, having both ocean and mountains to gaze upon is almost too much visual stimulation to bear). Jim took lots of pictures at C, but I can't identify all the ingredients except in mine. I started out with a watercress salad with sablefish and scallop sausage and a black sesame vinaigrette.

Watercress is my very favorite green, and it's hard to find in its perfect state, not to mention its perfect state embellished with a sablefish and scallop sausage--so delicate, and yet not overwhelmed by the peppery watercress.
Our waiter said the best things on the menu were scallops and halibut, so, since I'd done the scallops in my first course, I choose crispy halibut for the main.

C is routinely picked as the best seafood restaurant in a city of excellent seafood restaurants, and this halibut shows why. Perfectly fresh fish cooked very simply; every bite was the essence of halibut. It was accompanied by bits of Yukon Gold potato, spot prawns, and "melted leeks" in a saffron consomme.
Jim also chose a crispy trout with fava beans. (He always orders anything with fava beans after seeing Silence of the Lambs. Sometimes even with a nice chianti).
The next night we went to Tojo's. Tojo's is an institution in Vancouver--so much so that it's listed in the book 1,000 Things to see Before You Die. Being the kind of person I am, I check things off in this book after I see them, so naturally I wanted to visit Tojo's, which is described as "maintaining an unwavering commitment to fresh local ingredients."
Friends, it must be said that your blogger and your photographer failed you here. We all ordered the Omakase menu--omakase is translated as "trusting," and it's the Japanese version of a tasting menu. Although every course was unfailingly delicious, we were so enrapt with the eating part that we forgot the recording part. I have pictures of only one fish course--the halibut cheeks. I'm sorry because they were uniformly photogenic.
This was a leisurely dinner. Our waitress apologized profusely for the slow service. She said (or we thought she said) that the prime minister and his party of 28 were at the restaurant and that's why it was taking so long. Even though the real prime minister was probably still in Afghanistan, this person and 27 of his friends had convinced the friendly people at Tojo's that they were Important People, but we didn't care because the food was still terrific, and it gave us a chance to play Guess the Name of the Canadian Prime Minister.

We had a wonderful fish and vegetable mousse, as well as the best sushi I've ever eaten. But, alas, no photographs. We did manage to rouse ourselves from our greedy consumption to take a picture of the dessert--surprisingly good--fresh fruit with coconut ice cream and a sesame cookie:

And a picture of the final glasses of plum wine.

The next day was also a food day, as we trekked around Granville Island, concentrating on the Granville Markets. I especially loved the baskets and trays of breads, rolls, scones, and muffins at the Terra Bread stand. I got lots of new ideas for baking. (And to think that when I started the Bread Bible project, I thought maybe that by the end of it, I would have made every possible bread.)

There were so many little markets--I was fantasizing about living in Vancouver and going to the Granville Markets every afternoon to pick up something for dinner. We could have, but did not, taken photos of every individual seller--but we had to include one of the fruit vendors.

Beautiful, isn't it?