Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Strudel-time


The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caf├ęs of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers. Mmmm, layers of flaky crust surrounding a delicious filling..."curious choice for May" was my first thought when I read the challenge, given that the traditional filling, spiced apple compote, is more commonly associated with autumn. True, I live in Arizona, and perhaps our spring weather is not typical of the rest of the country, but the temperature was hovering right around 100 degrees on the day that I made this recipe, which I must admit did not put me in the harvest-moon-apple-cider-and-barn-dance frame of mind...but, alas, I know, I am not the center of the universe.

That fact accepted, then, I must ask, if not me, then who is the center of the universe, culinarily speaking? And I pose this question only partly rhetorically. Because I do think that many of us, or at least those of us who might bother to give this a moment's thought, know exactly who/what/where our particular food universe is centered. For me, there have been a few different Big Bangs around which my world of food rotates...certainly growing up in a house where cookies could almost always be found in the Tupperware on the kitchen counter established one culinary force field...discovering Nancy Silverton's Breads of La Brea Bakery and taking Chef Amy Quazza's bread classes at FCI joined forces to create another strong point on my personal time-space continuum...and though I have not yet eaten at any of his restaurants, reading the books and recipes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten sets my mind and palate spinning/drooling into another realm.

So...back to strudel. Strudel = Autumn, Vienna/Germany/Eastern Europe, Grandmothers...my personal perspective on strudel-ness, which, yes, I admit is a stereotype. But being the proud member of a subculture that relishes its stereotypes (think Village People), may I just say...stereotypes come from somewhere. We talk in culinary racist stereotypes everyday..."Chinese or Mexican for lunch?"..."Let's do something Italian with the chicken tonight"..."Yuck, I hate Greek food." We all do it, and to a degree, I suppose, it is an act of verbal efficiency, but it probably also represents the limited variety of a culture's food that might be available in restaurants (face it, a certain unnamed loved-one of mine has been known to refer to Mexican food as "rolled food"). But what a disservice we do to ourselves, to limit our exploration of the world's cuisines to the 4 or 5 dishes we might have tried at the local ethnic eatery. And I am as guilty as anyone in this way - I tend to order the same thing everytime we go to the handful of restaurants that we seem to frequent most commonly, as if there were nothing on the menu other than a Chicken Burrito Enchilada-Style.

However, as I said...stereotypes do come from somewhere. Take, f'rinstance, the meal that I was served in Munich. Having tired of day after day, meal after meal of heavy (but delicious) German food, (and feeling rather "clogged up", if you will) Nik's nephew Corey and I were pleased to see a salad featured on the menu at dinner one evening. Ok, maybe we should have thought about it before ordering, we were, after all, in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, not exactly the home of spa cuisine. And, ok, maybe analytical thinking was not something we could have done at the moment, so we both went ahead and ordered the salad (really, I distinctly remember the words salad and vinaigrette in the English translation on the menu). Lesson #1: Salads do not necessarily contain lettuce; Lesson #2: Slice beef thin enough and toss it with vinaigrette and tourists drowning themselves in beer might just forget about lesson #1; Lesson #3: How does one make a tossed salad heavy? Substitute beef for the lettuce. German food = Heavy food? Yes, stereotypes come from somewhere.

Yet, the other side of the deutschmark is the lovely tradition of the 3:00 cake and coffee break. I suspect that the promise of the mid-afternoon piece of cake might have been Nik's real motivation for going to Germany (other than to visit "the motherland" with his German-speaking mother, Rosemary-Rosemarie). Nik had spoken lovingly of "afternoon cake" for years, and we certainly tried to honor the 3:00 tradition, but I must admit that we tend to become rather driven on vacations, with a go-go-go attitude, so I fear 3:00 often passed us by without the leisurely visit to the bakery. Yet, stereotypes be damned, on those occasions when we did stop walking long enough to enjoy some caffeine and a confection, I don't believe we ever once had a slice of strudel, usually opting instead for desserts containing marzipan or chocolate. Hmm, I guess there's yet another reason to go back. Until then, here's a delicious version of apple strudel...and don't be afraid of the dough, it's really fun to make.

Apple Strudel

Filling
Apples, peeled, cored, sliced.....................2 lb
Lemon Juice.........................................1 oz
Brown Sugar.........................................3 oz
White Sugar.........................................3 oz
Cake Crumbs........................................1 1/2 oz
Cinnamon............................................2 tsp
1. Combine in saucepan. Cook over medium-low until apples are cooked and juices are slightly thickened.
2. Let cool before using.

Dough
Bread Flour.........................................300 grams
Water...............................................166 grams
Salt.....................................................5 grams
Eggs...................................................46 grams
Vegetable Oil........................................18 grams
1. Mix all ingredients together. Knead until soft but not sticky. Wrap well and refrigerate overnight.
2. Cover a surface with a slightly floured sheet or tablecloth. Gently stretch/pull the dough to approximately 2 ft x 3 ft.
3. Coat dough with 6 oz melted, room temp butter (use your hands to spread the dough - a brush will likely tear it). Sprinkle with cake crumbs.
4. Make a line of filling down one side of the dough, with approx 3 inch border of dough on the edge. Flip the dough over the filling. Using the sheet to assist, loosely roll the strudel, cutting of any thick edges of dough. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
5. Coat with butter, sprinkle with granulated sugar, and bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

For Starters...


So enough with the cheesecakes, the seasonal fruit-filled cakes, and a Listless Charlotte (which sounds like a character out of a Bronte novel)…I was unhappy with the lot of them…well, okay, I really wasn’t unhappy with the cheesecake. Please, how can anyone be unhappy with cheesecake, that’s ridiculous …(though certainly there is the classic sitcom convention that unhappy women will devour entire cheesecakes, but that’s different)…I guess what it was was that I was bored with cheesecake…cream cheese/eggs/sour cream, yea yea yea, so what...bored with the cheesecake and the other sweet fluff that I’d been making lately. Bored, and honestly, feeling somewhat a traitor, a turncoat. I’m a yeast-man, dammit, give me yeast or give me death! Well, no, not really, but you understand the feeling here…and, yes, yes, I know I’m mixing up my patriotic allusions (i.e., Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry), but just go with it.

I’d had enough, enough of chemical and egg-white-based leavening. I wanted critters. I wanted microscopic reproduction, organicity. I wanted myosis-mitosis, water-flour-and-yeast all mixed together in an sticky orgy of single-celled reproduction. I wanted life, life I say, no matter how small and unseen. So the other night, late in the night, with dark clouds looming o’erhead, I dove back into the hidden, wonderful world of yeast…Yeast…YEAST! IT’S ALIVE!! Bigas, poolishes, pre-ferments, liquid levains…it was a natural fermentation paradise. Ahhhh. I went to bed that night knowing that in the morning I would awaken to be met by fecund, aromatic, bubbling containers of hungry, wheat-fed life.

Ahhh, the shadowy, black-and-white dreams I might have had that night…my stainless-steel mixing bowls as petri dishes, plastic-wrapped cocoons, lining the dusty shelves of a dungeon laboratory/kitchen, where the gamut of yeast-friendly mixtures were fermenting and oozing and seething with life, just waiting for the right formulas and that magic kneading touch to activate their gluten and release them to realize their springy, perfectly hydrated, whole-grain potential. Well, in fact, I didn’t have that dream, instead I think I dreamed about Hugh Jackman, but the next morning my bowls of preferments were ripe and ready for the next step on their journey to achieving breadness.

Preferments are exactly what the term implies…a portion of a recipe's flour is mixed with water and a tiny amount of yeast and allowed to ferment (while also allowing the yeast critters to reproduce like a bowlful of bunnies) for a period of time (2-24 hours, usually) to improve flavor, improve strength, and decrease the amount of commercial yeast that is added to the final dough. Preferments have a long and varies past...Italian breads have their bigas, eastern European and French breads often use a poolish (poo-LEASH), and the French also have their pate’ fermentes and their levains. And each type of preferment, with its varying ratio of water:flour, has its own personality, each bringing something a little different to the party when it’s time to mix, bake and finally taste the bread.


So I’ve had my yeast fix for another couple of days...ahhh...mmm...yes, the joys of addiction. The freezer is once again filled with a variety of breads, and a few friends and colleagues are hopefully enjoying the full flavor that a night of fermentation can bring to ground grain...variations on Dan Leader's Buttermilk Wheat, Carol Fields' Calabrian Bread, and Jeff Hammelman's Roasted Potato Bread.
Now I can return to making brief trips into the brightly colored world of sweetness and cream feeling satisfied and content, knowing that a thick glass container of dormant acidic slurry waits for me on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, waiting to be nourished, brought to life, and enjoyed on so many levels.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Transformation


I know, I know...many days have passed without a posting. I've missed it, but I've been busy. Well, I was busy last week, and this week I've been recouping from being busy. So now I'm ready to get back on track. Except I think Nik gave me the flu...so now I'm recovering from that...blah blah blah.


So the reason for no posts/no baking for the past several days (since the 7th...sheesh) was art of a different form...Martie's play. We opened last Thursday and ran through Sunday. Just 4 performances, but we had good crowds, positive feedback, no major oops, and it was an all-around good experience. But, of course, like most things, it got me thinking...I know, I know, don't think so much is supposed to be one of my mantras, but I can't seem to help myself.

So here's what's been swirling around in my mind, invading the synapses which usually are clogged by only flour and yeast...it/we/you/I start somewhere, somehow, as one thing...and end up different, later, someplace else. A nearly constant process of change and editing and revision and acceptance. Yet somehow, there's still that core, the kernel of the idea/person/material that remains, sometimes covered and camouflaged and twisted, but still there.

Here's why I am dwelling/obsessing on that rather basic fact of life. In the play, Martie portrayed 11 different characters, 6 of whom were related in some way...All of the characters experienced a dramatic change in their lives...Most of the characters were transgender, so had lived parts of 2 lives - a male life, and a female life...The stories were largely based on real people/real events, with additional fiction and details created around them by Martie and me. Some of the real people who provided the stories were in the audience watching their amended but actual stories performed on stage.


In other words, we created characters based on people who were living lives which were different from the life into which they were born...three degrees of separation all in the same person. And...on top of that heady dose of reality, I think both Martie and I felt a strong responsibility to be respectful and honest to the real people behind the stories, while also being aware of the dual need to both inform and entertain. All that and more...for only 15 dollars a ticket.

So I got to thinking about roles and personality and self...dangerous territory certainly, but important for a creator of onstage personages...and wondered how honest I am to myself throughout the day. Or maybe honest isn't the right word, maybe it is more an awareness of who I am in the context of what is going on around me and why some choices are made. F'rinstance...the guy that gets up and immediately hits the shower and gets dressed and is out the door with maximum efficiency...is not unlike the guy who shows up at work at almost the very same time everyday (7:18) and is task-oriented and works steadily and doesn't usually dilly-dally...but is very different from the guy who arrives home after work, ignoring dirty dishes in the sink and wastes time on the computer...yet he is very different from the ritual-and-rule-bound baker who is serious and can be somewhat intense and unforgiving...but who is different from the oft-inappropriate clown/fool who many have encountered in social situations.
So then you have to ask...or I have to ask, because I think too much...Is there one little voice hidden beneath each of these, one little voice that is the real self, the true person, the real me...who just happens to wear a series of different coats depending on when it is and where I am and who is around me? In the past I would have said that I am not sure. But that's a developmental question, a necessary question for sure at some points in a life, and I'm so very glad to say that I'm over that now. Chalk it up to age or experience or pharmaceuticals or apathy, or whatever...I know what I'm doing, or what I have to do, or what I should do...and I make choices.
The play is called TransFormations. I was proud to be a part of it.
Less proud was I of the Pear/Raspberry Charlotte I made to honor the act of transformation. It seemed like the perfect choice...just a few basic ingredients whipped and folded and beaten into various new incarnations, coming together to become something totally new and wonderful and impressive. Well...Nik didn't care for it at all, eating only one piece. I thought it was just okay...but okay enough to tweak for next time: forget pears, go with something a little more bold, and be sure to make the sponge cake/ladyfingers thinner on the bottoms and side. (No recipe today...like I said, it wasn't that good.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shortcake...Long Summer

It's time for The Next Big Thing. And I don't know what it's going to be. It's a just feeling that I get sometimes and it hit me bigtime yesterday morning. I opened the garage door, walked a few steps down the driveway into the fresh air and the morning sun and there it was...I knew that The Next Big Thing was just around the next time-space corner...it was so strong and so exhilarating that I actually twirled around. Just once, but, yes, I took a deep breath, raised my arms in the air and did a little celebratory twirl right there in the driveway. (Nik is used to my spontaneous and completely heartfelt choreography. On more than one occasion in the old neighborhood, where neighbors were a very close 10 feet away, I would demonstrate for Nik my "dance move of the day" how and when the feeling hit...you can't deny the dance when it strikes you. Of course, that meant that sometimes it might be in the front yard or the driveway or maybe in the carport, only to realize at the end of my 2-4 second performance that our next-door neighbors had been the unintended audience as well. Our current neighbors are 500 or so feet away - the cheap seats, as it were - they might just think I'm stomping bugs or swatting flies.)
The Next Big Thing is ambiguous. It's an eager nervous excitement. I suppose in some contexts those same physical sensations could be discomforting...the increased heart rate and the tingly feeling all over are probably not unlike that felt by a bomb squad just before the red wire is cut. (We interviewed a new graduate at work yesterday, and it went well. I could almost sense when his anxiety crossed that fine jumpy line from bomb squad to dance move.) But my pirouette-inducing thrill in the driveway yesterday was open-ended, unrelated to explosives, employment, or gastrointestinal distress. Certainly there are a few exciting events planned for the near future (Martie's play, Disneyland) but this clearly wasn't about them...and that's the joy of it, it wasn't about anything. It just was there. The electricity I felt was vague, and fleeting, and thrilling.

I have this feeling a few times a year, often when I sense a change in the seasons. Yesterday was the spring-to-summer moment. The air and the light were different. It smelled like summer. Something new was about to begin. An invitation to start. An invitation to create. I love that. It's the feeling of potential. The physical correlate of possibility. But it's ephemeral. Gone almost as soon as I'm aware of it. I did try to prolong the sensation yesterday, to keep that window of creative opportunity open for a few moments longer - by literally opening the windows and letting the fresh air blow through the car as I drove over the pass. Wonderful!

But then you get to work, and you step into a small airless elevator, or somebody does something stupid, or you feel defeated, or whatever...and The Next Big Thing is gone...without leaving so much as a cloud of pixie dust in its wake. Gone, until summer turns to fall, or winter eases into spring...but not this time. I was not about to let that uplifting on-edge anticipation go that easily. When I got home I sat in the sun and enjoyed the heat, and I turned on the sprinkler for Roy and let the water hit me too. Jack and I splashed around in the pool for this first time this year, and Mercedes learned to swim...and Summer began...and The Next Big Thing is still out there...I won't let it vanish this time, at least not so fast...the potential is always there. I gotta remember that.
This cake was NOT The Next Big Thing. Rather, it was The Next Homely Thing, or The Next Thing That Tastes Great But Looks Like The 5th Place Winner At The County Fair. But it is summer on a plate. And is there anything better than that?
Strawberry Shortcake Cake
CAKE
Cake Flour.............................2 1/4 cups
Baking Powder........................2 1/2 tsp
Salt.....................................1 tsp
Sugar...................................1 1/4 cups
Butter..................................4 oz, room temp
Eggs....................................2
Vanilla Ex..............................2 tsp
Milk.....................................2/3 cup
1. Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 8-inch cake pans. Line with parchment.
2. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.
3. Beat sugar and butter until creamy.
4. Add eggs to batter, one at a time.
5. Combine milk and vanilla.
6. Add flour and milk to batter, alternating dry/wet
7. Divide batter between cake pans.
8. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes.
PASTRY CREAM
Milk..................................2 cups
Vanilla Bean........................1/2
Salt..................................1/4 tsp
Cornstarch..........................3 1/2 Tbl
Sugar.................................1/2 cup
Eggs..................................2
Butter................................4 Tbl
1. Split vanilla bean and scrape seeds into half of the sugar.
2. In saucepan, combine the milk, salt, and the vanilla sugar. Bring almost to a boil.
3. Combine remaining sugar and cornstarch.
4. In medium bowl beat the eggs slightly. When the milk is almost to temperature, combine the eggs and sugar/cornstarch.
5. Slowly add the hot liquid to the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
6. Return to saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk/Stir constantly until mixture has thickened. Let cook 15-20 seconds, stirring.
7. Scoop the hot pastry cream into a bowl, set over a bowl of ice. Cool completely before using on cake.
ASSEMBLY
Whipped Cream, slightly sweetened
Strawberries
Simple Syrup
1. Place one cake layer on plate. Brush with simple syrup. Top with a layer of pastry cream. Cover with sliced strawberries.
2. Top with second cake. Brush with simple syrup. Top with whipped cream.
(I found this cake to be better/moister the next day, refrigerated overnight.)





Saturday, May 2, 2009

Existential Monkey Business


I had one of those “he has absolutely no idea who I am” moments the other night. Which, of course, led into “does he even hear me when I talk” frustration. Followed quickly by a series of blank stares, questioning looks, and dumbfounded silence. Then the entire brief episode (which existed only in my brain anyway) ended with a laugh and shake of the head. And all because of Monkey Bread. Monkey Bread!

You know…balls of enriched dough (usually), coated in butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar (usually), layered in a pan, baked, and served to barbarians (or monkeys) who pull apart the balls of gooey dough without benefit of utensils. Some people call it Bubbleloaf…but, come on, why would you call it Bubbleloaf when you could call it Monkey Bread?

So…Nik was in the family room watching a well-known southern cook/former agoraphobic make a savory Monkey Bread (cheese and herbs rather than sugar and cinnamon). Fine…I have no problem converting recipes from the sweet to the savory side of life; it actually sounded good. Hmm, interesting, she was using tube-based biscuits for the dough. No, I’m not getting all this-and-that about tube-based biscuits…what did it, what pulled the rug out from under me was that Nik suggested I make it that way too - using a store-bought, whap-against-the-counter short-cut like that! “Biscuits? Biscuits? Tube-based Biscuits?!” Yes...I realize, it probably would be good. And yes, it would be fast. But…but…but, it’s not about that.

Deep breath...When it's Process vs. Product, Process always gets my vote…doesn’t he know that by now? He’s surely eaten enough food from our kitchen where, with one bite and effortful swallow, he knew it was obviously a process-based experiment, as the product left something to be desired. And really, where is the process with tube-based biscuits? But over the next couple of days I thought about Nik’s gross oversight regarding my approach to both Monkey Bread and to life. After 19+ years I fear that Nik knows me pretty well, so I started to wonder…am I really all about the Process/Journey and less about the Product/Destination (as I like to think I am), or what was he implying? (I don’t mean to implicate Nik in my neuroses, in truth probably he wasn’t implying anything – he just thought that the Savory Monkey Bread sounded good.)


So I took an inventory:
Baking…definitely a Journey/Process activity for me. Feeding The Mother (my trusty sourdough starter) is all Journey, often with no Destination in sight.



Exercise…love the Journey/avoid the Journey…seek the Destination - but have yet to get there.







Travel...is all about the Journey.




Housecleaning…to hell with the Journey, I just want it done.


Theater... Rehearsal is the Journey; Performance is the Destination. I'm a director, I leave the Destination (Center-Stage in the Spotlight) for the actors.




Parties…Definitely Journey (planning, preparing, cooking, organizing) over Destination (the party itself).

So, if the parts make up the whole, it seems I should be a Journey kind o’ guy…but I’m really not. (See, Nik does know me pretty well...smart guy) My balls of dough (metaphorically speaking) are mostly journey-based, but I find I really have to work to enjoy/acknowledge/appreciate/live the lapses in between.

So I made Monkey Bread my way…sweet, from scratch, without the biscuits.
The Journey…bring the butter to room temp, start the dough, autolyse, finish mixing the dough, let it ferment in the ‘fridge for a few days, roll it, cut it, dip it, let it rise, bake it...and thus arrive at the Destination, which is briefly appreciated, tasted, and plans for an improved Journey immediately occur.

I will admit with some hope and relief, that the dough for this batch of monkies sat in the ‘fridge for two days longer than I had originally planned. Because I was busy...busy with other Journies, other Processes, and taking lots of deep breaths while the dough rose. I need to do more of that.

Monkey Bread
Dough
Milk.............................1 1/2 cup
Yeast...........................2 tsp
AP Flour........................2 2/3 cups
Eggs............................3
Salt.............................1 1/2 tsp
Sugar...........................6 Tbl
Butter..........................4 oz, room temp

White Sugar...................3/4 cup
Brown Sugar...................3/4 cup
Cinnamon......................3 Tbl
Pecans..........................approx 2/3 cup


1. Scald milk and let cool to room temp.

2. Combine yeast and milk in mixer bowl. Add flour and eggs. Mix with dough hook until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15-20 minutes.

3. Add salt to dough. When incorporated, add half the sugar. When almost incorporated add the remaining sugar. Add the butter in Tablespoon size pieces - continue to mix with dough hook until dough is smooth. It will be sticky and will not clean the sides of the bowl.

4. Put into clean bowl, cover and let chill overnight (or up to 3 days).

5. Combine the white sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

6. Roll the dough into a rough rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, spritz with water (if dry), and roll up into a log-shape. Cut into 16 pieces.

7. Lightly butter a loaf pan. Cover the bottom with pecans and sprinkle with some of the cinnamon sugar. Slightly round each piece of dough, quickly dip into a bowl of water and toss in the bowl of cinnamon sugar, to coat. Place 8 pieces of dough in the bottom of the loaf pan, cover with some of the pecans, top with remaining 8 pieces of dough. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon sugar and pecans. Cover with plastic and let rise until it is above the rim of the pan.


8. Preheat oven to 325. Bake 50-55 minutes, until brown on top and baked throughout. Cool slightly, then turn out onto cooling rack. (I found that when I re-inverted it, it fell apart, so serving it gooey side up may be required.)