Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Yeast Whisperer

I like to bake bread. And I’ m fairly good at it. It’s easier than other types of baking—more intuitive, less nit-picky, and of course, there’s the oh-my-gawd-my-house-smells-so-good-that-the-world-is-smiling smell. The smell that sells houses. The smell that conjures up happy childhood memories in even the most miserable codger alive. I love bread.

I crave it. Most other people crave sane things, like sweet/salty snacks, ice cream, or the head of their enemies. I crave bread. Always have. In college, the dorm girls would make midnight treks to get Ben and Jerry’s. I would buy a toasted bagel. As a child, I craved it so much that I taught myself how to bake “good bread”. Bread that was crusty and chewy and soft and yeasty. And lovely. It was a different critter from the bags of sliced stuff in the bread drawer. It was mmmmmmbread.

I’ve baked a lot this week, as my world-war-19 kitchen can attest. Mostly bread. I’ve made a barter for several of my loaves in exchange for some sewing I’d like done (I don’t sew clothing that well). As I’ve made loaf after loaf, I remembered a dear friend who once swore she could never make bread. She told me that yeast committed suicide in her presence. HAHAHAHA! I promised to teach her how. Here’s the recipe that changed all that for her, when she dubbed me “The Yeast Whisperer”.

Pane di Latte et Zuccaro

Mix in a cup

1 cup/8 oz/240 grams bathwater temperature (about 110-115) water
1 pkt instant yeast 2 ½ tsp active dry yeast

Let sit for 3-5 minutes. As soon as it’s bubbly looking, make a sponge, or mix together 1 cup (7-8 oz) of the flour and the yeasty mixture. Allow this to rise for about an hour until frothy and resembles primordial soup.

After about 45 minutes of that waiting time, scald (heat until not quite boiling)

1 ½ cup/12 ounces 2% milk

Avoid burning yourself. Remove from heat and add

1- 1½ ounces (2-3 TBS) rosewater, or rum (remind your friend that a shot glass holds 1 ½ ounces.)
1-2 Tbs/ 1 ounce butter
½ cup/ 4 ounces/ (about 122 grams) white sugar

Go check the mail, and feed the dogs. In a bowl, separate 8 eggs to get

8 egg yolks

Beat the egg yolks and save and freeze the whites for a merengue later. Check the temperature of the milk mixture with your little finger. Is it hot to the touch? Let it sit and cool. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, stir to combine

5 cups / 2 3/4 lbs (1200 or so grams) all purpose flour
And 1 Tbs / ½ ounce (16 grams) kosher salt

 My friend really loves flour, hehehe

When the milky butter mess is warm but not burning you, temper in the egg yolks. How do you temper, you say? Here’s a good primer:

Add the milk mixture to the prepared yeast sponge and mix well (you might want to put this in your stand mixer). Add the flour bit by bit on low speed, remember that you own flour guard, stop what you’re doing and get the guard to that the flour makes less of mess. Use the machine to knead until the dough looks firm (about 5-10 minutes). Use this time to clean the flour you spilled off the dog's head, and put away your ingredients. Now stop the mixer to take a pinch. It should feel smooth and pleasant, and not super sticky. Now put a towel over the entire bowl and stash it somewhere warm for around an hour. The top of the dryer is a good place. After 20 minutes, slap your friend’s hand for peeking, and tell her that yeast only like to ‘do eeet in the dark’ and aren't exhibitionists. After around an hour, the dough should be doubled in size.

Poke the dough in it’s rounded “Buddha belly”. If it leaves an “innie” you’re ready to shape into rolls, twists, braids or whatever.

Here’s a basic braid: take the dough out of the bowl and put it on a lightly floured clean counter. Cut the dough into three equal weight/size sections. Take each sections and embrce your inner 5 year old, you’re gonna make some dough worms. Roll a section with your fingers to make 12-14 inch worms. Lightly coil this and set it to the side while you make two more. When you’re done with making worms, uncoil the sections and place them vertically before you.(you can skip this next part if you know how to braid hair)

**The left section is A, the middle B, and the right section is C. Pinch the last inch or so of all the sections together. Take A and place it over B. Take C and place it over A. From left to right you should have sections B, C, and A. Take the B section and place it over C. Take A and place it over B. Repeat until you only have 2-3 inches of dough left. **

Pinch together the remaining dough sections and tuck in the top and bottom ends under the braid. Pre-heat oven to 375 F. Place on a floured tray , cover with a towel, and allow to rise a second time, about 20-30 minutes . While you’re waiting, beat an egg with 1 Tbs water and put it in the fridge. This is your egg wash. Just before baking, take out the egg wash and brush it on the braid. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the bread is a golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

 Ok, so I cheated, this is a 6-strand braid I did.

Cut a slice, burn your fingers. Shrug it off and smear on butter and jam. Eat, smile, and congratulate your friend for not killing the yeasts.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Happy Birthday!

My Heathen: "Uh, Did you just pet your Kitchen Aid mixer?" Me: "Yes. Yes, I did."

I love my mixer. It allows me to be a lazy baker. And I've been a baking fiend the past two weeks. Like, 5 loaves of bread, three cakes, and two frostings fiend. Today is a dear friend of mine's birthday. She's a beautiful foodie who was going to make her own birthday cake, simply because she wanted Red Velvet from scratch, the right way (see why I loves her? We're a lot alike). After coating her kitchen in oozy blood covered batter and posting her lovely results on Facebook, I decided that this would not do. Not to show her up, I decided to make her a Black Velvet cake.

Now most every kid who grew up in the South has had red velvet cake. At it's best, it's a soft, oh-so-slightly chocolatey cake, so moist you can squish it with your fork, and leave a fun red stain on your plate. It's really the only cake that reapplies your lipcolor for you. But it's darker, less well known, far more evil (*grin*) kin is Black Velvet. First, as disturbing as a blood red cake can be, this one is BLACK. It's darkly delicious--deeply, gloriously, sensually chocolate. And as moist as it's ruddy cousin. It's chocolate cake, and then some. And my dear friend has never had it. Well, I'm fixin' that.

Authentic Black Velvet cake usually uses a super-alkaline cocoa powder, like black onyx. It's not the easiest to find, so many will have to turn to the interwebs--the best purveyor I've found is King Arthur . It doesn't have enough unctuousness for most baked goods, so it's usually mixed 1:1 with a traditional (natural or dutch) cocoa to amp the flavor and fat. What black onyx lacks in fat levels (read: moisture), it makes up with by being BLACK. Hehehehe. I feel my inner mad culinary genius stirring.

So today's adventure in baking will feature Black Velvet cake using black cocoa powder and Scharffen Berger's 100% cacao unsweetened natural cocoa powder. I picked mine up at my beloved local gourmet grocery, but you can also get it here:

Black Velvet cake
I like baking with a scale. For those of you who still only use cups and spoons, the measurement on the left is for you. The ones on the right and middle are for use by us weighing types.

Preheat your oven to 350 or so, and bloom your cocoa:
1 cup/8 oz (240 grams) boiling water
1/2 cup/ 1 oz (60 grams) black (onyx) cocoa powder
½ cup/ 1 oz natural cocoa powder (I used Scharffen Berger’s Unsweetened)

1 rounded TBS espresso powder

Mix until smooth and shiny. Set aside to cool. Put away the cocoas and instant espresso.  
It should be thick enough that the spoon stands.

Stick your finger on the side, scoop some on, and taste test it with a pinch of sugar. Mmmm, right? Now, go clean the batter beater you forgot to clean last night when you made the Neufchatel cheese frosting (Did I forget to mention Neufchatel frosting?). Prep your pan(s) with some grease and a dusting of the cheaper cocoa. Let the whiny dog out. And back in. 
Said whiny dog, AKA my Choco-beast. 

Then, in your mixing bowl sift:
2 cups cake flour
2 cups plus ¾ oz.(23 grams) sugar
1/8 oz (4 grams) baking powder
¼ oz (9 grams) baking soda
1/8 oz (3-4 grams) kosher salt (do not forget the salt! It makes the chocolate all the more chocolate-y)


2 large eggs
1 cup/8 1/8 oz (230 grams) non-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup / 2 ¾ oz (80 grams) vegetable oil (your choice, I used regular olive oil)
And chocolate mess you just made.

Mix very well, batter should be as thin as the bloomed chocolate was thick (a soupy mess). 
At this point, if you’re a real stickler for the black color, you can add food coloring to really sell it. Or not. Your choice. Pour into prepared cake pan and bake 35-40 minutes (depending on shape and color of your pan)
Hello my beautiful dark princess... 

or when a toothpick poked inconspicuously in the middle comes out clean. 

Meanwhile, clean the kitchen of the baking shrapnel and pre-treat the white T shirt you accidentally wore while making this cake. And make this:

Neufchatel cheese frosting

As promised this cake is topped with Neufchatel cheese frosting. Neufchatel   (  is what cream cheese wishes to be. It’s from Normandy (where it’s sometimes known as Coeur de Bray), and it’s made from milk, not cream.  It’s softer, moister, less fatty, and a touch tangy-er than American cream cheese. While I wouldn’t use it for a NY style cheese cake, I love it in frosting. It’s slightly savory bite is a beautiful counterpoint to the chocolate-y decadence that it cradles.

1 8 oz package Neufchatel*
1 stick unsalted butter
4 cups powder sugar
1 tsp Madagascar vanilla (I like Neilsen-Massey)
Blend until smooth and satiny. Can be made ahead of time and covered in plastic wrap in fridge until use. 

*I keep meaning to try homemade Labneh instead of this, sometime I’ll experiment and report back.

Let your cake cool for 10 minutes in the pan before turning out onto a cooling rack. Let cool at least 2 hours before frosting it at all.

And so it begins...

Growing up in Western Kentucky, I was raised both Southern and Midwestern, with a bit of International flair thanks to my post-military family. My family had been around the world with the Air Force and Navy, and I am pleased to note that my family’s home cookin’ wasn’t my schoolmates’ suppers. In addition to All-American favorites of Biscuits, Meatloaf, Catfish, and Ham; I was comforted as a child with Enchiladas, Kung Pao Chicken, Teriyaki, Mossakka and Tortiere. After college, I converted from my WASP upbringing to Reform Judaism. That introduced me to the world of Matzo balls, Hamentaschen, Gefilte fish, and Lamb. What complicated my food life was my urge to honor my upbringing while relishing my adopted new culture.

My husband (also acquired shortly after college) complicates this further. He’s not Jewish. He happily proclaims himself a heathen. So dinners in our house are often similar to what I ate growing up, but with a few twists. For example, I use Kosher ingredients over non-Kosher whenever possible (In the Mid-west, not all ingredients are possible). Even though my kitchen isn’t Kosher, I still strive to honor some dietary laws (i.e. I don’t eat pork, nor is it ever in my house). And we have at least one vegetarian meal a week (it’s the easiest way to be Kosher). But to keep my dear hubby happy, I do still have meat with cheese (I know, I’m a bad kid)

The following recipes are my attempts at eating. Eating with my heathen hubby, eating with my non-Jewish friends and family, eating with my Southern and Midwestern roots. I hope you can find these recipes as yummy and comforting as I have. Please feel free to experiment with them; I often use my cookbooks as cooking journals; with dates and notes about each recipe, any alterations or substitutions, and (of course) the results.

First up--

My Matzo ball soup

First I make a yummy roasted chicken stock. Tyler Florence's recipe ( is a similar in method to mine.  But everytime I have a roast chicken, I save it's carcass in the freezer. Periodically, I take out my lobster boiler (which, funny enough has never boiled a lobster) and dump in the frozen carcasses. I use no turnips, but add parsley, amp up the garlic and keep on the onion skins for lovely yellow color. I don't remove any skins, actually.

I usually keep this on hand in the freezer, but if you make it fresh, you could hold it overnight in the fridge, or make a different soup with some of it.

Then, I mix 2 eggs, 3 tbs. good olive oil or chicken schmaltz (schmaltz is wonderful), a palmful chopped parsley, 1 tsp thyme,1tsp salt, and ½ tsp  pepper  and 2-3 big cloves garlic and 1 small onion grated (yay, microplanes!) in a medium bowl. Then I add 3/4 cup matzo meal and 5-6 Tbs of the cold chicken stock. Mix well, it will be nasty gooey, and let it sit in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.

While it sits, I clean the kitchen, do some dishes, feed the dogs, take some medicine, and make tea. I chop a carrot or two, a stalk or two of celery, and another small onion, and sweat them in a soup pot. I then add 4-5 (or so) cups of the stock, and add fresh cracked pepper and kosher salt with tarragon and parsley (yes, both. Trust me). When it is almost at a boil (medium/low heat), I take the chilled bowl of matzo mess out of the fridge. It should be a thick paste now. I get a cup or bowl of water on the counter, and wetting my hands, form walnut sized balls of the matzo paste, and slip them into the hot stock (re-wetting as necessary). After all of them are done, I set the timer for 8 minutes and clean up my mess. When the timer goes off, gently turn the balls (stirring them is a little too rough). I set the timer again for around 10 minutes, and go play on the internet and finish drinking my tea that got cold. I get up again when the timer goes off, and stir/turn the balls. This repeats for a total ball cooking time of around 30 minutes. Add some leftover shredded chicken to each bowl, then it's nosh time!