Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Monkey Bread

Monday, May 30, 2006
I've been thinking about baking this monkey bread for a couple of weeks, but it looked very rich, sweet, buttery, and caloric. Not that these are bad things, but I am going to try to get in a bathing suit in a few weeks. I finally decided that I'd bake it and take it into work, where all food gets devoured.
I started baking the monkey bread on Memorial Day, when Minneapolis was having record hot temperatures, and my kitchen is not air-conditioned. Jim asked me if I was really planning to turn on the oven when it was 97 degrees outside. His tone of voice led me to believe that I should not say yes.
So I whipped up the dough yesterday (I had to move it closer to the air conditioner after I noticed that it was rising before my very eyes in the 100-degree kitchen). Then I shaped the balls, rolled them in butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon (a half-pound of butter! See what I mean about rich, sweet, buttery, and caloric?), strewed them with raisins and pecans and put the whole thing in the refrigerator.
When I got up this morning, it was ready to bake. What a heavenly smell! I took it into work and sent out an email announcing the presence of monkey bread in the lunch room and telling people not to ask me why it was called monkey bread because I didn't know). They asked me anyway. My friend Susan said she loved the bread but she didn't want to call it monkey bread. She said she'd call it Ho Chi Minh bread because Ho Chi Minh supposedly worked as an apprentice baker at the Ritz-Carlton or someplace when he lived in London. This doesn't make any sense, and the Ho Chi Minh baking story is undoubtedly a myth, but that's how Susan's mind works. And not only did we finish the Monkey/Ho Chi Minh bread, but we also ate a box of doughnuts that Tony brought in because he won three cases in May, as well as two frozen custard pies, a strawberry-rhubarb pie, a lemon poppyseed cake, and cupcakes that various people brought in to celebrate all the May birthdays (of which mine was one, by the way).
Also, several people asked me if I made the bread with Pillsbury dough, a suggestion that offended Susan more than it offended me. ("Why don't you ask her if she gardens with plastic flowers?")
Did I get around to saying that this bread is fabulous? It is not really a bread in the staff-of-life sense, however. I was extremely happy that I took it into work because I could see it as a real possibility that one could just sort of pick at this bread all day and end up having consumed many thousands of calories without even trying.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Sourdough Rye

May 22-27, 2006
After being assured that it was not cheating to order sourdough starter instead of making my own, I ordered two different starters from sourdo.com .
I was very taken with the description of a New Zealand sourdough which a woman named Christy Dowling "captured" in Rotorua. I got a mental picture of a woman in a bonnet and a butterfly net scampering through fields trying to capture this culture. I also liked this one because it was supposed to be easy for beginners. And if I ordered the Rotorua sourdough, I also got another New Zealand culture--one for rye breads.
When I got the packages in the mail, I decided I shouldn't have worried about cheating. I had somehow thought that the cultures would arrive all ready to put in my mixing bowl and they'd activate automatically. But they're dried, and they have to be activated and fed with flour and water, just as if you were making your own.
I managed to lose the directions that came with the yeast, but the people at sourdo.com emailed me an abbreviated set, and I got more on the internet. The instructions are basically to add water and flour at certain intervals until it's bubbly and ready. What "ready" means is not totally obvious to a novice, but at some point, I decided it was ready enough, and then I could switch over to Rose's sourdough rye recipe, which has much more detailed instructions.
As I fed the starter, I didn't feel entirely comfortable with the whole process. It smelled a little weird, for one thing, and I didn't know if I'd be able to smell the difference between a normal tangy smell and a rotten bacteria-ridden one. As I was fretting about this at work, my friend Susan asked me if I'd ever heard of anyone dying from bad sourdough. I admitted that I hadn't, and feeling that I wasn't going to kill off my entire family with bad sourdough comforted me quite a bit.
Finally, on Thursday night I gave the starter its first and second feedings (it really does have a voracious appetite; it reminds me of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors) and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
On Friday, I came home early from work hoping to turn out a loaf of bread for dinner. Oh, but I should have read more carefully. The recipe calls for mixing the dough, followed by a one-hour rise, followed by another one-hour rise, followed by a 3-5 hour rise, followed by another 3-5 hour rise, followed by baking. Rough calculation--I should be able to take the bread out of the oven around 3:00 a.m. Fortunately, Little Audrey turned out to be downright fervent about expanding, and she doubled in less time than she was supposed to, so I was able to put her in the oven around 10:00. (That is, I put IT in the oven, not her.) And it was done about 45 minutes later. (Yes, there was a time in my life when Friday nights meant something other than bake bread and try to go to bed early. But for everything there is a season, and this is my bread-baking season).
I couldn't wrap it up because it was still hot, and I was afraid that if I left it in the kitchen, it would be nibbled on by mice during the night. Jim pointed out, logically enough, that we didn't have mice. Still, once I'd thought of the possibility of hungry mice partying on the bread it had taken me a week to make, I couldn't just ignore it, so I brought the bread up to our bedroom, where it would be safe.
When I woke up, I knew that I was going to be able to eat sourdough rye for breakfast. I rounded it off with vanilla yogurt and blueberries, orange juice, and good, strong coffee. This is a bread was worth waiting for. It's chewy and flavorful and not too sour for my taste.

It made a big loaf of bread, so I gave half of it to our neighbors who love rye bread and told them to compare it to the original caraway rye bread I gave them a few months ago. Next to baking the bread and eating it yourself, sharing it is very satisfying.
Here's my question, though: I have two jars of starter left in the refrigerator. Do I have to keep feeding at least one of them to the end of time? Is once a week enough?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Basic Soft White Sandwich Bread

Saturday, May 20, 2006
This is the kind of bread that my mother and grandmothers made when they made "homemade bread." Simple, basic, white bread. The kind you don't eat any more because it's not a complex carbohydrate and it doesn't have enough fiber to satisfy the dietary police. Still, it's awfully good, especially when it's cooled just enough to slice and spread a little butter on it.
I made open-faced sandwiches for dinner: toast the bread, spread with tapenade and sliced smoked mozzarella. Broil until the cheese is starting to turn brown and bubbly, and top with roasted red pepper strips. It's a nice marriage of old-fashioned bread like Mom made and three foods she had never heard of when she baked her bread.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Butter Biscuits

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jim and I had a small tiff about the strawberry shortcake. I said I wanted it for dessert on Mother's Day, and he said, "You shouldn't have to make your own dessert on Mother's Day!" And so on.
But he finally allowed as how he wasn't going to bake the biscuits, so he guessed it was okay if I did.
Sarah, who is supposedly on a diet (kind of like the diet I'm on, actually), nearly swooned with delight: "This is the best strawberry shortcake I've ever had in my life!!!" (She said it with three exclamation points, too--maybe even four). The biscuits were wonderful--so tender that any Southern cook would be jealous, slightly crisp and sugary on top, but not too sweet. This is the strawberry shortcake that explains why this is actually a wonderful dessert if it's not made with soggy store-bought sponge cakes and Cool Whip. (My family accuses me of being a food snob, but really, if you prefer the sponge cake shortcake, there's just no hope for you).

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tyrolean Ten-Grain Torpedo

Saturday, May 13, 2006
First of all, I have to admit that this is not a ten-grain torpedo; it's a six-grain. I couldn't find a ten-grain cereal mix, but I had a five-grain mix, and I added polenta as the sixth grain. The suggested pumpkin seeds sounded good, but not good enough for me to go out on a rainy night and try to find them.
Jim and I are going to a party tonight, and I volunteered to bring something to eat. Jim suggested that as long as I was baking bread, why not just bring that. It was very practical advice, but I'm afraid that if I don't make a move on the bread right after I arrive, other, less deserving, people will eat it before I get to sample it. I decided I could foil them by bringing it unsliced and then taking a piece for myself as soon as I slice it. If nobody but me eats it, I'll be offended too.
Four hours later:
The bread was eaten, so I am not offended. I also had a slice, and it was delicious, even minus four grains. This could easily become my daily bread. The grains add enough texture to make the bread interesting, and they make the flavor more complex. The light dusting of rye flour makes the bread very attractive--even more attractive than in the photo.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Swedish Limpa Bread

Tuesday, May 9, 2006
It was my turn to bring bread to book club tonight, so I decided to make a Swedish bread in Minneapolis, this very Swedish city. I had doubts about the limpa bread when I mixed it--the combination of molasses, ale, and aniseed seemed odd. In fact, it smelled downright nasty. I didn't like the smell, or the texture, or the color. I really liked nothing at all about this bread. In addition, I undercooked it (in my very unreliable oven, which I hope to replace soon), and ended up returning it to the oven after I checked its temperature. I muttered to myself about how I shouldn't expect anything from a Swedish bread since this is, after all, the land that brought us lutefisk, but I should have had more faith. In fact, the flavor of this bread turns out to be intriguing rather than nasty, and the texture light and solid at the same time. Tomorrow I'll try it toasted for breakfast, but it's a fine dinner bread with nothing more than a slather of butter.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Big Banana Muffins

Sunday, May 7, 2006
Wow--it is so fast and easy to make quick breads! I decided it was time for another non-yeast bread, because I hadn't checked anything off from that section of the book for quite a while, but I'd forgotten how quickly you can whip up a batter that doesn't have to rest and rise. (Perhaps that's why they call them quick breads, O Master of the Obvious.)
If you're thinking that these muffins aren't very big, you're right. The recipe says to bake them in a Texas-size pan, but I only had about a Nebraska-sized one. Anyway, I have an unreasonable bias against anything Texan, although, given our current administration, perhaps the bias isn't unreasonable. Although if the muffin pans were named after Texans Molly Ivins or Jim Hightower, I'd probably run out and buy one or two.
Back to the matter at hand--although these muffins were not big in size, they were big in taste. Their texture is quite delicate, but the lone banana packs quite a flavor punch, assisted by the toasted walnuts. (The recipe doesn't say how long to toast them, but I toasted mine the amount of time it took me to forget they were in the oven, which happened to be, fortunately, about 30 seconds before they started to burn).
If I'd made more, I could have given some away. I suppose I could have given some away anyhow, but then I wouldn't have very many left to eat myself.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Thursday, May 4, 2006
I include this picture just to prove that I don't only talk about my successes. The topknot of this brioche was not exactly on top. First Sarah told me that it was "charmingly askew." Then, after it continued to tilt as it baked, she told me it was more like a monster child you've given birth to but love anyway.
Not only was this loaf aesthetically challenged, it was on the burnt side of normal. However, once I cut off the bottoms and sides of the loaf, I had a slice of delicious crust-less brioche: golden, buttery, and lush. Even though this bread didn't turn out perfectly, I'd like to try it again. I think that it could be spectacular if it didn't list and if I didn't burn it.
I actually started making this bread two days ago. I've gotten to the point where I feel that something is missing if I don't have a loaf of bread ready to eat, or at least in the process of becoming edible, so I started putting this together Tuesday night. I read the directions, but didn't add up the various 1 1/2-hour, 1 hour, and 2 hour segments until I had already started. Then I realized that I'd be up until 3:00 a.m. if I didn't fudge a little. As it was, I finally put the dough in the refrigerator for its two-day rest at midnight. (Having a full-time job really cuts into your bread-baking schedule). I was pleased whenever I looked in the refrigerator and saw the dough, and I was excited when I came home from work and started shaping the bread. Some of my younger friends would (and, in fact, do) scoff at my excitement over baking a loaf of bread. But baking bread has enriched my life so much that I can't understand why everyone isn't nuts about it. Really, if Osama bin Laden were tending to a loaf of brioche in his Pakistan cave, wouldn't he be a friendlier, homier sort?