Monday, September 6, 2010

L is for Lemons

Quite some time has passed since I last added my two scents (lemon and vanilla, in this instance) to the blog-o-sphere.  I would like to report that the absence of hypertext was because we have been sunning ourselves on the rocky shores of Greek isles, or that we have been so busy eating chocolate and trekking through the Swiss Alps that I didn't have time to bake or write, or even that we have been busy digging and planting and turning the arid backyard into a lush "at-home" resort...but those would just be bold faced lies.  No, we have been quietly living on the edge of the desert, desperately trying to tape together the pieces of our once placid existence.  Yes, yes, yes, I know that sounds incredibly melodramatic, but without going into horrendous detail, let it just be said that the economy (and other action packed facts of life) have made big peepee all over the pastoral scene that was once life on Chuckwalla Place. 

But I assure you, this is not a pity post.  That is not my style.  Yes, sure, if you asked me to sit and have a beer or two with you, and around the 30th (or so) ounce of ale you tilted your head a little to one side and asked, yet again, "how was I doing"...okay fine, then you would probably get a 5 minute egocentric monologue decorated with sardonic wit and quick/fake smiles, after which I would finish my pint, order another, and then promptly change the subject to something much more interesting.  But I don't need to spill my guts.  I really don't, nor do I want to.  Saying it all out loud does not work for me.  I prefer to let my mixed-dominance cerebral hemispheres percolate and chug and grind and fester, activating my emotion-controlling limbic system when necessary, but otherwise letting it all flit and flash around inside my cortex, looking for synaptic harmony, trying to make sense of it all.  Sure, perhaps that all sounds very cold and clinical, but it's what I think I need to do right now.

Which is unusual, because I am a talker.  In fact, Nik has told me countless dozens of times over the past 2 decades, "Okay, it's time to be quiet now."  But making conversation, and imitating voices, and telling stories, and making up adventures featuring the fictional lives of our dogs is creative and fun.  Those kinds of ideas and stories and characters live and grow when let out into the open air.  The last thing I want to grow and become even more alive is the reality of 2010, so it is my current preference to keep it crowded and cramped inside my airless cranium. 

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Well, I beg to differ.  Certainly it is hard to predict how you are going to handle difficult times until you are faced with them.  This time, to be honest, I've surprised myself.  What I have learned is that I don't want metaphorical lemonade.  I'm not looking to "make the best of it."  My preference is to ackowledge the fact that, yes, it seems that somehow a truckload of rotten lemons was dumped on the front yard, and many of them are bruised and broken, and alot of them are moldy, and clouds of those annoying little fruit gnats are starting to gather.  I've learned that rather than sorting through the acidic citrus mess to find the good lemons, I would rather just shovel it all into the dumpster, try to remember how those lemons ended up on the front yard in the first place, do what I can to avoid rotten fruit the next time, and move on.  I know what a lemon looks like, so hopefully next time I can avoid it, rather than ending up with a bathtub full of sticky lemonade.  

The fact that I have written these sour paragraphs is, hopefully, an indication that the crap is starting to clear.  Let's hope so.  I've lost the recipe for this lemon cake, so just enjoy the pictures.  It was good but now it's gone.  But, of course, that doesn't mean that there won't be other lemon cakes in the future. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

K is for Kuchen

Crust and a topping (or a filling).   Simple, delicious, and the basis for so much good stuff to, cinnamon toast, sandwiches, tarts, pies, bruschetta, tacos, focaccia.  Sweet, savory, in-between; hot, cold, in-between; breakfast, lunch, dinner, in-between...crust and a topping may well be the ultimate food combination.  Largely portable, absolutely satisfying, and infinitely variable.  Just consider the crust alone...thin, thick, yeasty, flaky, shortbready, crisp, soft.  And toppings...sheesh, what can't you put on a piece of dough and call it good...devotees of The Amazing Race may recall a recent episode where contestants were challenged to sell ice cream sandwiches (aka crust/topping) to pedestrians in Shanghai...plain white bread with a slab of ice cream: a true ice cream sandwich...And They Were Loving It...I'll try it, sure, but I'll admit, for me, that one does push the crusty envelope a wee bit.
But let's partake in a little analysis/deconstructionism is a well established fact that I am a bread junkie (bread and anything makes a meal).  What is bread...ground and fermented wheat, essentially.  So let's now assume that really what I am is a wheat junkie.  Test:  pizza dough = wheat, pie dough = wheat, focaccia = wheat, tortillas = wheat or corn.  Hmmm, corn.  Ok, so corn has certainly thrown a kernel in the theory...but let's now introduce the concept of texture.  In addition to being a bread junkie, I have an oral fixation am a in:  soup alone does not a meal make...soup and crackers, ahh, now we're talking.  So, it appears that wheat and/or chewy/crunchy are required for me to be happy with my food. 
But I still believe that, for me, my heart and stomach need wheat.  F'rinstance...once upon a time, as family legend has it...out of town relatives were visiting.  "Let's pack a picnic lunch, we'll take a little hike in the State Park, and then make sandwiches afterwards."  "Mmmm, yummy, potato salad, chips, cold cuts, cheeses...oops, forgot the bread."  And tasty and filling as the culinary creativity turned out to be, the lettuce-substitutes-for-bread sandwich that resulted was simply not a sandwich.  My crunch needs were met (chips, carrots, lettuce), but the wheat addiction remained unsatisfied.

Lately, I've had the chance/need to think about life, living, and the daily grind.  And what I've come up with is probably not new.  It's a sure thing that some thinker somewhere in time has said this better than I can, but, for me, it boils down to a moment.  That's all I can account for on the happiness/satisfaction/big picture stage.  A moment.  Perhaps the length of time it takes to take a breath.  Sure, string enough moments together and you've got memories and relationships and stories to tell, but I still come back to the moment.  What happens during your moments is up to you...but the moment is my crust, I can top it however I want.  The choices are endless.

Apple Kuchen
Yield:  1/2 sheet pan
AP Flour...........................3 cups
Dry Active Yeast.................3 1/2 tsp
Water.............................1 cup

Sponge...........................All of above
Flour..............................3 cups
Sugar..............................1/3 cup
Butter, softened.................7 Tbl
Milk Powder......................1/3 cup
Salt................................2 1/2 tsp
Eggs...............................1 large
Extract (Lemon/Vanilla)........2 tsp
Water.............................4 1/2 oz

Butter, softened................8 oz
Almond Paste....................3 oz

Sliced Almonds..................4 oz
Sugar..............................4 oz

1.  In a medium bowl, combine the water and yeast.  Let sit until yeast is rehydrated, 10 minutes or so.  Stir in the flour until smooth.  Cover with plastic and ferment until puffy, approximately 30 minutes.

1.  Combine all the ingredients in bowl of standing mixer.  With paddle, mix for 2 minutes on low speed, or until a shaggy dough is formed.  Adjust hydration as needed.  Change to dough hook, increase speed to medium and knead for 4 minutes, until soft/smooth dough is formed. 
2.  Form dough into a ball, put back into bowl, cover with plastic, and let rise until doubled (15-30 minutes). 
3.  Lightly butter a 1/2 sheet pan.  On lightly floured surface, roll the dough to 11.5 x 16 inches.  Place the dough in the prepared pan, cover with plastic and let rest for 15-30 minutes (until not quite doubled in height). 
4.  With your fingertips, make indentations in the surface of the dough at regular intervals. 

1.  In the bowl of a mixer, beat the almond paste it is the texture of sand and there are no large lumps are left.  Gradually add the butter and beat until smooth. 

1.  Pipe the butter mixture into each of the indentations in the dough.
2.  Sprinkle the top of the kuchen with the sliced almonds, followed by the sugar.  Cover with plastic and let rise 30-40 minutes.
3.  Preheat oven to 420 degrees. 
4.  Bake kuchen for approx. 20 minutes, until golden on top.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

J Is For Jewish Rye Bread

Facebook says I have 110 friends.  110?  Really?  One hundred and ten?  No...I just don't buy it.  Not only do I not have 110 friends now, but I don't think I have had 110 friends, cumulatively, during my entire lifetime. 

(Of course, that is one of the joys/deceptions of can count the kid who sat at the desk next to you in 3rd grade as your friend.  The Facebook Friend can be: someone you used to know, or someone you work with, or your insurance agent, or someone who is the spouse of someone you sat next to at the baseball game last spring, or...someone who really is a friend.  It worries me slightly that Facebook will soon try to trademark the word friend, requiring us to indicate whether we are referring to a friend or a FFriendtm.

I have to wonder if some people really do have 110 real friends.  Certainly there is the old joke, about how Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So invited 400 of their closest friends to their daughter's wedding.  And I'm reminded (tragically) of a grade school incident...the 5th Grade Valentine's Day Party...aargh...I thought it was time to be selective - realizing too early that you really can't be friends with everybody - and commenced to decide who would/would not receive a Valentine's Day card from me...only to realize - too late - that nobody else in the class was so honest and distributed cards to everybody. 

So in yet another attempt to oversimplify the world...into a seemingly ever-growing system of dichotomies, I have come to believe that, with regards to friends and friendships, there are The Collectors and The Collected.   No, it's not a creepy Brian DePalma slasher movie concept (THE COLLECTORS!!!  Eeeek!); some people are simply better at/more dedicated to maintaining friendships than are others.  Sister Jane and Lori O. are definitely Collectors.  With them, it seems that once a friend always a friend.  Nik and I, on the other hand...and I don't want to make this sound like a pity-party or a derogatory commentary on others in this class...we belong to the Collected.  We love our friends and enjoy them 100%...BUT, with us, seriously, the front door is always open, we are always home, come by for drinks on the patio anytime, we love to add one or more chairs around the dinner just have to invite yourself...or more correctly, you just have to activate the implicit invitation. 

Passive aggressive?   Indicative of sociopathic tendencies and/or a decreased ability to emotionally, of course not...that's just silly.  Yet another sign of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which we do not have)?  Or even worse, something akin to Woody Allen's lament that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a, definitely not that.  Lazy?...perhaps, to some degree.  Who knows/cares.

It may have become clear to those of you who have read more than a few of these binary musings, that at times I choose to live in the world of the one-liner.  (And, no, I will not delve into the psychoanalytical foundations of that world-simplifying habit.)  Anyhoo...there was a time...when I was working mostly in geriatrics...when I summarized my social life with the, not entirely untrue, bon mot..."My only friends are little old Jewish ladies." 
All day long I would hear variations on...: "So, tell me, are you married?" 
"Come in, come in, now is fine, really - it's fine..sure, I was going to watch my program but I haven't seen it in 10 days, so what if I miss one more day." 
"Eat,'re too skinny.  Well, maybe not so much, but eat, I didn't stand all day at the stove with these swollen ankles for you not to eat."
These were not generally lasting friendships, but they were genuine, interesting, unique, and matter how short-lived.  Thinking back on them I am very glad to have "collected" them, as I am glad to be collected by my other friends.  And it is for them, my tea and toast ladies...with Mrs. Ruben at the top of the list, that I offer Jewish Rye Bread.  (I have some in the freezer...come by anytime and we'll have some with a cup of coffee.  But don't wait for me to call, because I won't.  Just come on over.)

Jewish Rye Bread
(based on a recipe from George Greenstein)
Yield = 2 loaves

Water....................................1 cup
Active Dry Yeast........................2 1/4 tsp (1 pkg)
Mature Rye Sour*.......................3 cups
AP Flour..................................3-4 cups
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.............3/4 cup
Salt........................................1 Tablespoon

1.  In a large bowl, rehydrate the yeast in the water.
2.  Add the flours, the sour, and the salt - stir to combine.
3.  When the mass becomes a soft but cohesive dough, turn out onto floured surface and knead until the dough is soft and smooth.  Add small amounts of flour to the kneading surface if the dough becomes too sticky to work.  Do not overknead - the dough will remain soft.
4.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover wtih plastic and let rise for 20-30 minutes - fold the dough gently, then divide in half.
5.  Let the dough rest, covered with plastic, 5-10 minutes.  Sprinkle a baking sheet generously with cornmeal.
6.  Shape the dough into boules or batards.  Place on the prepared baking sheet, cover (or place in a large plastic trash bag) and let rise until doubled in size.  Preheat oven to 375. 
7.  Glaze:  Combine 1 Tablespoon cornstarch in 1 cup water.
8.  When loaves have risen, slash each loaf and brush with the glaze.
9.  Bake 30-40 minutes - do not underbake.  (Tap the bottom - it will sound hollow when done.)  Let cool before slicing.

*Rye Sour: When refreshing your white liquid levain, in a separate bowl combine 100 grams levain, 625 grams water, 500 grams rye flour. Mix thoroughly...let ferment 6-8 hours, until big, bubbly, and ripe smelling.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Is For Irish Soda Bread

I have a large head.  No, that's not a metaphor.  I really mean it, my head is large.  Not Elephant-Man-large, but on the larger end of the cranium circumference continuum.  Bigger head = bigger brain?  I'd like to think so, but buy into that twist of neuroanatomic reality and pretty soon you are sliding down the slippery slope toward phrenology.  A big head means that buying hats can be difficult, as can finding wigs that fit comfortably...for Halloween.  I blame attribute my sizable skull to my Irish heritage.  I read (or heard) somewhere that the Irish are known for their large heads.  I suppose it could be some odd early 20th-century form of racial profiling, or maybe it's just something I heard on the old Rosie O'Donnel show and it somehow stuck in this large head of mine.  Whatever its genesis, I do have a large head and I do hail from Irish stock...or so goes the story.  Supposedly there was some scandelous hanky-panky a few generations ago in the Catskill Mountains, thus introducing genes from the Emerald Isle into the Finch family DNA.  Without going into juicy details, that's the family scuttlebutt. 

But I have reason to question family lore, particularly when it comes to ancestral heritage.  An oft-told, but suspiciously abbreviated, tale from my childhood included a pair of Norwegian brothers who came over on the boat and settled in upstate New York to make their fame and/or fortune, reproduce heartily and, fastforward, here I am...large head and all.  Plausible.  So I went with it...proud of my Norwegian background I chose the language of my forefathers as my foreign language in college (3 semesters worth), read Norwegian folktales, and tried to insert "Uff da" into my daily lexicon.  I was getting the height of my Norwegian-ness I was even dreaming in the language of my stoic Nordic ancestors. 

Then this noble Viking house-of-cards folded with one quick Germanic puff of wind.  My sister met a stranger who shared our Norwegian surname.  An avid family arborist, this genetically-linked stranger had done her homework.  Within minutes she had erased the Norwegian brothers from our past, replacing them with German(!) brothers, one who settled in hardscrabble upstate New York, the other continuing his journey across the plains and mountains and settling in California, the land of plenty.  This mysterious German stranger had facts, names, and dates...the pitiful Norwegians didn't stand a chance.  I traded dreams of hiking the geothermal hills of Iceland (a Norwegian version of a spa treatment, I suppose) for a trip to the motherland to drink gallons of beer.  Uff da, indeed!
No bagpipe-bleating stranger has yet to wander in from the fog to weave a plaid-ridden tale of kilt-wearing Scottish barbarianism which could dissuade me of my Irishness.  I am (part) Irish; I have proof - just measure my head!  So, for the time-being, I offer this oven-bourne tradition from my maternal homeland, an authentic Irish Soda Bread. 
The fresh-off-the-plane Irishmen who taught me this recipe were quick to point out that Ireland does not have a history filled with wealth and riches.  Soda Bread was peasantfare, and a quick study of the traditional ingredients is a lesson in poverty/wealth and nutrition.  Refined white flour was saved for the upperclasses, the peasants were left with wholegrain flours.  Filler was needed, so a handful of whole, cracked grain makes the bread go that much farther.  Butter was a product to be sold, not to be eaten by a dairyman's family, so very little fat is included in this recipe.  And what is buttermilk but a byproduct from buttermaking...using whole milk or, god forbid, cream in a bread recipe would be like taking money and eating it.  Fruit or spices?...forget it, they were luxuries  saved for celebrations, not for this basic, daily bread.  Of course, knowing what we now know about health and nutrition, we realize that if the Irish peasantclass hadn't been starving, they would have been very healthy. 
Irish Soda Bread
Yield:  2 loaves
(Pardon the odd measurements, this is scaled down from a much larger batch)
AP Flour..........................8.2 oz
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.....9.5 oz
Oats/Rolled Spelt...............1.4 oz
Whole Wheat Flour.............4 oz
Salt................................0.3 oz
Baking Soda......................0.5 oz
Sugar..............................0.5 oz
Butter.............................2 oz
Buttermilk........................20.5 oz
1.  Mix all the dry ingredients.  Cut the butter into the dry until well incorporated.
2.  Add the buttermilk and beat thoroughly.
3.  Dust work surface with whole wheat flour, and turn the dough out onto it.  Divide the dough in half, form rounds, place on parchment/Silpat lined baking sheet.  Dust tops lightly with whole wheat flour.  Let rest 20 minutes.
4.  Preheat oven to 500.  Place the loaves in the oven and immediately lower temperature to 480.  Bake 30-35 minutes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

F is for Fondant...G is for Ganache...H is for a Henna-Inspired Cake

F had me stuck.  Since Christmas (and my last blog posting) I have made a couple of Fougasse but was uninspired to write about either one.  I tried a Foccacia topped with tomatoes and onions, and it was good...but also an awful lot like just a thick-crust, bready pizza...and, again, it did not elicit the muse.  We had an absolutely wonderful (and 30 year overdue) weekend visit with some old Friends...truly the highlight of 2010 thus but no F-based baking to write about.

But then Sri got pregnant and, yes, I was called upon to make yet another baby shower cake.  And I'm happy to do much as I this-and-that about making fancy cakes for pregnant women, it does require me to tap into a different creative source than does making wheat bread, coming up with a good one-liner, or writing a (hopefully) entertaining blog...and that's a good thing.  Plus, and this crashed into my head from who-knows-where, I was thinking about babies and being a parent the other day.  (A little backstory...the road to parenthood once consumed a considerable amount of our time, energy, and emotional ugh...ending in a houseful of broken hearts, heavy sighs and regret that continue to this day.)  Anyhoo, I was driving home from Safeway, having finally located some white chocolate for Sri's cake, when I heard a song on the radio by a fellow named Colin...brain wheels start spinning and whirring and I think to myself, "If we had a baby I would want to name him Colin"...soon followed by a "hmmm" and the question, "Are we too old to be parents?"...a few mental math problems later I come to the conclusion that, yes, we really are too old to be new parents, but the thought stuck with me for a mile or so.  By then I had come to the red light at Camino Verde, was almost home, and my thoughts returned to Sri's cake. 

Sheesh...what am I, a junior-high school girl?  Well, in many ways, yes, I do share more than one trait with middle school girls...but really, who, besides Ellen-The-Eighth-Grader, starts thinking about being a parent because the folk singer on the radio had a name that you like.  And who, other than me, dismisses the idea (the life-altering, DNA-continuing idea) a mile down the road...I would guess, based on my circle of friends and associates, that the answer to that question is probably..."lots of people."  In fact, the majority of our friends have chosen to live a childless life.  Of course, for us, it really wasn't our choice - it was more just our fact.  So now we are in our mid to late 40's, and it's kinda too late...which, on the first reading, sounds pathetic and sad, but it really isn't.  I think that we are probably much better at raising dogs, tortoises, and chickens than we would be at raising something whose brain was a little more a child.  Because even though the name Colin is a responsible name for a baby, probably next time I get the parenting urge, I will have reason to think that Velvet or Saigon are good names for babies. 

So I will watch TV tonight with 3 dogs snuggled up close to me, completly happy with Merceredes' growls, and Mayor's warmth, and Miss Imogen's deep breathing in my ear...and I will be content and proud that I can bring a sweet girly cake to work tomorrow for Sri's baby-shower.  Congratulations, Sri!

Cake Facts...The bottom tier is a chocolate cake with espresso buttercream and whipped dark chocolate ganache.  The top tier is a Meyer lemon genoise, with apricot buttercream and a white chocolate sour cream ganache.  (There are a few cracks in the fondant, mostly along the edge, but I'm getting better at working with the crazy stuff.  Oh, and these pictures show the toothpicks that are holding up the little pink leaves on the top...hopefully they can be removed tomorrow before the baby shower.)