Saturday, August 25, 2007

The I-Don't-Know-How-to-Braid Challah

Saturday, August 25, 2007
When Sarah was a little girl, she asked me to braid her hair. I did, and she was satisfied, but when I saw pictures of her in braids, I realized that I did a sadly inadequate job. I missed big tufts of hair, and I tied the rubber bands around the ends so loosely that the braids got very saggy. I also failed to make a nice, neat part. When Elizabeth asked me to braid her hair, I was no better. She took one look at herself in the mirror and said, with a look of combined pity and scorn, "I think I'll just do it myself."
I remembered this when I was braiding my challah. I saw a lovely loaf of challah in a bakery a few weeks ago, and that reminded me that it was about time to try it again. Challah was the last bread I made in my 82-bread challenge of 2006. That version got pretty saggy too, but it didn't occur to me at the time that the less-than-picture-perfect outcome might have something to do with my braiding technique. I remembered that Rose had a recipe on her web site for a challah that she considered superior even to the one in The Bread Bible, although that one was quite good (if not especially lovely to look at). So I found the recipe, My New Favorite Challah, and started in early this morning. This recipe is quite similar to the one in TBB, except that it has about 85 grams of sourdough starter in it.
Everything was going swimmingly until I started to braid. The abbreviated instructions on the web site just said to divide the dough into four strands and braid them. Hmm, I said to myself, I don't remember ever braiding four things together, but, undismayed, I got down The Bread Bible, which has a nice diagram for four-strand challah.
First, pinch all four ropes together. Then "slip 1 under 2 and 3 and cross 1 over 3." Huh? Okay, I guess I get that. "Slip 4 under both 3 and 1 and cross it over 1." But 1 is no longer 1, it's 2. And 4 is 3. "Slip 2 under both 1 and 4 and cross it over 4. Slip 3 under 4 and 2, and cross it over 2." Are you beginning to see my problem? By this time, I was less than half way through the braiding, and I no longer had any idea what strand was which number. I thought maybe I could just fake it, but strands 3 and 4, which may actually have been 1 and 2, went off on their own. Also, I was no longer in a cheerful mood.
What I should have done (maybe) was to put small post-it notes on each strand, so I'd know the numbers, and I may try that sometime, but today what I did was to give up on the four strands, put them back together in a lump, and separate them into three strands. This I could do. Or so I thought.
The dough was a little the worse for wear, and one of my strands fell apart mid-braid. I swore. I was not at all cheerful. But I persevered and I ended up with something that might pass as a braided loaf, if you had very poor vision and weren't wearing your glasses. I brushed it with egg yolk, getting all the crevices, as Rose instructs, and covered it with plastic wrap. After an hour, it had risen pretty well, and except for the one strand that fell apart, it actually didn't look too bad. As I pulled the plastic wrap off, I remembered that I had forgotten to oil it. As you might not be surprised to hear, most of the top layer of the bread stuck to the wrap. At this point, it looked like only a big blob of dough with little points sticking up from where the plastic had pulled.
Jim asked me if I wanted pictures. I said, "Oh, sure, why not."


But look! If you only see the sliced bread, it's quite pretty. It could pass as a success. And, even though I messed around with the dough for too long, the bread turned out to be quite delicious. I think it's my new favorite challah, too, and who knows? Maybe one day it will actually look like challah.

And now I must humor Jim, who saw another architectural parallel:

"Heelstone" at Stonehenge

My Challah

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Turkish Simit

Saturday, August 18, 2007

When we were in Istanbul several years ago with our friends Fred and Betty, we discovered the snack bread called simit. Vendors carry baskets of them balanced on their heads while they wander through the streets. They're round and covered with sesame seeds, so I expected them to taste like bagels, but they're completely dissimilar to bagels. Although they're often referred to as Turkish croissants, they're not even yeast breads, and, in fact, they don't taste like croissants either, although they're fairly buttery.
I liked the ones I ate in Turkey and thought I would eventually try my hand at them, but they weren't at the top of my list. I didn't have anything else planned for today, though, and it seemed like a good day to give it a try. First I had to find a recipe that might be at least marginally authentic. I discarded all the ones that called for margarine because my kitchen is a margarine-free zone. I settled on a recipe from the U.K., which is closer to Turkey than we are, and had 150 grams of butter and no margarine, which must be better.
The dough is easy--mix flour, baking soda, and salt, and make a well in it. Then add beaten egg, melted butter, olive oil, and some water. Fold the ingredients together until you have a dough. Pinch off some fairly hefty pieces, roll them out into a snake, then turn them into a circle.

Brush them with more beaten egg, and then strew them with sesame seeds.

They bake for about 30 minutes. I've been using my convection oven lately, which I like a lot. For some reason, and I'm sure there is a reason, you can set it at a slightly lower heat than the recipe specifies, and it browns beautifully. I haven't burned anything yet that's been on the convection setting, although I'm sure I will eventually.

The simit were not how I remembered them, but my simit memory has probably dimmed over the past two years. They're almost like a pastry--buttery and crumbly. Spread thickly with jam, which is a good way to eat them, they're almost like eating a jam tart. A native of Turkey might scoff at my simit, but I thought they were very nice.
Afiyet olsun!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Real Women Eat Quiche

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
It was my turn to host book club, and, since we were reading a book where the action takes place in France, I decided to bake a few quiches. I read Rose's The Pie and Pastry Bible on quiches, and, since Rose recommends a lard crust for a quiche, that's what it had to be.

When I was growing up, I heard about lard pie crusts. My reaction to putting lard in anything was "Eeewwww--lard. How gross!" I was thankful that I was in a modern household and that my mother used Crisco instead of disgustingly old-fashioned lard. Lard--the look and sound of the word itself was repellent. Then, when I started baking myself, I gradually changed from Crisco to butter (on the rare occasions I tried to make pastry). I was very pleased with myself that I now used butter instead of disgusting lardy-looking Crisco. But, as you know, lard is becoming fashionable again, but I didn't want just any old lard. I wanted fine lard--lard de cuisine. I went to Clancy's Meat Market, which not only has fine lard, it has locally produced lard from happy pigs.
I was so thrilled that I went around all last week telling people about my upcoming lard crusts. Oddly, many people, especially those picky vegetarians, did not share my enthusiasm.
I made the tart crust last night (not just pie crust, you may note, but tart crust) when Sarah came over to watch Big Love with me. She watched me put it together, but was not impressed with my technique, which did leave something to be desired, I'll admit, or with the bacony smell of the lard. "Don't get me wrong, Mom, I love bacon--I'm just not so sure I love it in my pie crust."
Heat and humidity are enemies of good pie crust--that's what Rose told me when I emailed her to ask if there were any special tips. "Work quickly and freeze your flour." I did freeze the flour, but nothing was going to make me work quickly. I am a novice, after all. I did come up with two very soft discs of pie dough, which I refrigerated overnight, hoping that they would firm up a bit overnight.
Today I came home early from work to make the quiches. Rose also recommended a rolling pin sleeve, so I went to Kitchen Window to make that purchase. Unlike most special purchases, the rolling pin sleeve was dirt cheap--about $2.00. In order to make the trip worth my while, I also bought another tart pan, some ceramic pie weights, and a pastry cloth. (I told the clerk at Kitchen Window that these purchases were meant for making lard pie crusts. She was unimpressed).
The rolling pin sleeve was well worth the money, but the pastry cloth was a loser; instead of sticking to the counter, the crust stuck to the cloth. I had to scrape it off, shape it into another disc, and put it back in the refrigerator. At this point, it was starting to look like only disaster was in the cards, and I thought about making a quick run to the grocery store to pick up some Betty Crocker pie crust, but I thought I might as well make sure that nothing could be salvaged before I took such a drastic step.
And a good thing I kept at it. Not only did the quiches turn out to be delicious, but they also didn't look too bad. I made one caramelized onion quiche and one spicy spinach quiche, both from TP&PB.

The crusts were decent, but it was the fillings that were fabulous. Both are easy to make, although it takes more than an hour to properly caramelize the onions. And making two things at a time is always confusing to me because I tend to get the two recipes mixed up. Again, though, nothing bad happened. My book club was properly in awe of the two beautiful quiches. I did not announce that the pie crusts were made of lard because I have finally come to understand that hardly anyone thinks this is a good thing.

Here are some conclusions I have drawn after my two-day quiche-making adventure: pastry is much more difficult than bread. Bread pretty much does what you want it to do, and if it doesn't, you can just tell yourself that it looks rustic. You have to be much more skilled, practiced, and artistic than I am to make pastry look good. Also, it is very easy to justify baking at least one loaf of bread every week. Bread is the staff of life. No one has ever called banana cream pie the staff of life. And if I tried to bake every pie in The Pie and Pastry Bible in one year, I'd probably get better at baking pies, but I'd also get considerably fatter. (After all, the pejorative term is "lardbutt," not "breadbutt.) I don't know how Rose manages to keep so slim.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ricotta Bliss Loaf

Sunday, August 12, 2007
I found this bread on Rose's blog last week. She explained that this loaf is what her original ricotta loaf in The Bread Bible was supposed to be, but she tweaked the original into one baked in a loaf pan in order to round out a chapter. She recently decided to make the original, and was enthusiastic enough about it that I knew I had to try it.
I made the original in February, 2006, and it was a fine loaf of bread. I think that this one is even better, but then I prefer free-form to bread made in a loaf pan. Is it bliss? Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but you certainly won't be unhappy biting into a piece of this bread.

The ricotta loaf is one of the few breads in The Bread Bible that Rose recommends the food processor for. This makes it extremely easy to whip up. It's also one of the few that you can make it one day, although you can also refrigerate it overnight, which I did. I used a lovely, thick Italian ricotta that I bought at Broder's Italian Deli, which made the texture almost meltingly soft.
This is what it looks like just before I went at it with the slashing knife and put it in the oven.
This recipe makes two loaves, so I was able to take one, still warm from the oven, to my dear friend and neighbor Betty, who just got home from the hospital after having hip replacement surgery and a number of misadventures that kept her in the hospital for longer than expected.

(Jim was experimenting with the morning light coming through our kitchen window).
I decided that this bread, with its soft texture and slightly sweet taste, would be better with cappuccino than with wine, so I picked up some strawberry and brandied apricot preserves, and Jim made some cappuccino. We had just seen a $4,000 machine at a kitchen store, so our little $30 machine looked kind of sad, but it makes a decent cup of coffee, and the bread was perfect.

I know there should be a picture of the bread spread with the preserves, but we were too greedy to stop to take pictures.