Tuesday, February 8, 2011

O is for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Let me just say that I do not belive that there is such a thing as too many cookbooks. What a ridiculous concept.  Oh, sure, I have watched hours of television programming about hoarders; I have seen those people pushed out of their bedrooms and homes by their own collections of stuff, whose lives have become dominated by mountains of clothes, styrofoam containers, and plastic figurines...insignificant things.  But cookbooks?  No way.  
Not only are cookbooks the ultimate how-to manuals, but if you will allow me to be grand and only slightly overstated for a moment...cookbooks give us a way to recreate history.  Wow - really, Tom?  Yes!  Okay, not all cookbooks do that.  (I have one slim volume entitled The Classic Carrot Cookbook which may provide a counterargument to the whole history theory, but, if push came to shove, I'm sure that somebody could find some recipe on those orange-hued pages that elicits memories of picnics by the lake.)

Look through most any cookbook and you will see numerous references such as "a dessert I had on my first trip to Paris" or "my mother's never fail pie crust" or "the pot roast from countless Sunday dinners."  Food is a multisensory reminder of times past.  And not only when you eat it, but also when making it.  Hold a heavy wooden rolling pin in your hand and generations of bakers are lined up behind you.  The next time you make whipped cream, imagine how many times your mother or father, or grandmother, or greatgrandmother lifted the whisk to check the consistency of the cream before serving it on the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. 

The French have a reputation for being all this-and-that about their cuisine, in part because they were the first culture to document their culinary techniques and traditions.  Sure, the Bedouins may have been stewing goat heads for thousands of years before the first puff pasty was made, but they never wrote it down...they are a nomadic culture, so no doubt toting boxes of goat recipes was not a first priority on their limited camel space.  With only recall to go on, little Mohammed can't be sure that the goat head he is eating in his tent is exactly like the goat head that his greatgrandfather stewed up.  But when little Pierre climbs up on the kitchen stepstool to make his first Tarte Tatin, he can follow the directions exactly and be confindent that it will taste just like Grandmama's. 

But I don't mean to minimize the oral tradition of the kitchen (or the tent).  We can probably all remember some tidbit of food knowledge that we heard from our mothers (don't cut lettuce with a knife; chill the bowl and beaters before you whip the cream; an open can of kidney beans is the most dangerous food there is), but these are generally technique remarks rather than specific recipes.  For recipes I turn to my trusty stack of index cards with Grandma's recipes on them (Sour Cream Coffee Cake, Baking Powder Biscuits, Rolled Molasses Cookies) or to one of my many treasured cookbooks. 

These Oatmeal Raisin Cookies are from "The Church Book."  There are probably thousands of similar books on bookshelves across the nation...you know, collections of recipes published by the women's fellowships from every church in every town in every state, providing generations of the devout with cholesterol and pot luck dishes for all eternity. (Despite their reputation for covered dishes containing condensed soups, these books are not restricted to midwest Christians.  I am the proud owner of the 1972 Edition of the Hadasah Cookbook from Rochester, New York.) 
 "The Church" from which my well-used "Church Book" hails, is the First United Methodist Church of Longmont, Colorado.  And amidst the questionable recipes on those pages are to be found some real keepers, often marked by my mother with a simple "good" in the margin. 
My sister tells me that in her copy my mother also identified some of the clunkers...apparently I was left to find those myself, not difficult in some cases.

Though these are called "Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies," they aren't from my Grandmother.  But that doesn't matter because I've tweaked the recipe a little bit anyway, and that's not a sacrilege, that's how cuisine evolves.  But with the cookbook in hand, we can always return to the orginal, to Grandma's way, when the newer version turn out like hockey pucks...or fossils (which these didn't - they are delicious).

Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies
Yield:  30 cookies

Eggs, well beaten                3
Vanilla                                1 tsp
Raisins                                1 cup
Butter, room temp               8 oz
White Sugar                        1 cup
Brown Sugar                        1 cup
AP Flour                              2 1/2 cups
Salt                                    3/4 tsp
Baking Soda                        2 tsp
Cinnamon                           1 tsp
Nutmeg                              1/2 tsp
Oats                                   2 cups

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Combine the eggs, vanilla, raisins in a small bowl.  Let sit for 1 hour.
3.  Thoroughly cream the butter and sugars.
4.  Stir together the flour, salt, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and add to the creamed mixture.
5.  Add the egg-raisin mixture and the oats and mix until completely combined - the dough will be stiff.
6.  Place heaping rounded Tablespoons of dough onto baking sheet.  Bake for 15-17 minutes (until lightly browned on top).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

N is for Naan

On more than a few occasions have I referred to my obsession/love/passion/craving for yeast...odd though that may seem to those who don't worship at the Church Of The Preheated Oven.  I recently read this about yeast..."Yeast fungus (Saccharomyces) exists everywhere in nature, and natural yeast consists of microorganisms reproducing and eliminating waste."  Ok, sure, not exactly a scenario that makes a guy run to the kitchen.  But wait, it gets better...these tiny little buggers (there are about 10 billion of 'em per gram) are hungry and horny (interested yet?).  Give them a few shots of glucose and they get wacky!  And these creative, single-cell dudes are a clever, partying bunch - if you don't feed them straight shots of glucose but instead water down their drinks with other sugars, or starches or alcohol - they whip out an enzyme to match whatever you are serving and convert it to a deelish aphrodisiac buffet.  So...give them a little food (flour, f'rinstance), and a little warm water (100 degrees ideally, mmm) to swim around in - and the party is on!  Before you know it, that intimate party with your closest 10 billion friends has turned into a veritable dough-orgy of eating, hydrating, passing gas, and making babies.  Give them enough time, food and drink and they can make even the stiffest dough rise. 

Seriously, what other food depends on the digestive and reproductive cycles of a critter to make it work.  Without yeast bread is...a cracker.  Of course, this Dionysian free-for-all in your bread dough does not have a happy ending..well, not for the yeast anyway.  The Circle of Life applies even to single-celled horndogs.  These guys are going at it nonstop, the party is really heating up - and I mean, really heating up because you popped that blob of party-bread in the oven.  These doublebacked yeast-beasts are WILD - all that yeast gas is expanding, the dough is rising in the oven, the party is HOTHOTHOTTER...and then it hits 140 degrees.  Ouch.  The party...is over.  140 degrees is taps for yeast.  But we don't despair. We love what yeast has done for us...the miracle of bread lives on - because 140 degrees is the same temperature when the starches and proteins in the bread start to set, so that Highrise Den of Sin the yeast built for themselves stays up even after they are gone, and finishes baking as a risen loaf of bread. 

I'm not going to push, but given this intimate knowledge about yeast...I just have to ask, how can you not be a yeast-head?  Bread doughs are living things.  They are sensitive, and vulnerable to their environments.  They depend on us to provide them with what they need.  Even though I have spent the last many months trying to eliminate co-dependent tendencies in some aspects of my life, I admit that I am a card-carrying enabler for my single-celled little buddies. 

But now, on to this Indian flatbread, naan.  Take a peek at the recipe, you'll see that the dough contains both whole-milk and whole-milk yogurt.  Holy cow.  I won't go into the graphic details right now, but think about it...we are adding fat to this yeast-based orgy.   When you add fat to a dough, the fat coats the gluten strands that provide much of the structure of the bread.  Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi - now the yeasties have a slippery surface on which to do what they do - BUT, miracle of miracles, the balance of fat to structure in this recipe allows for a soft but cohesive and wonderfully workable dough to form.  In this case, not only are the yeasty-beasties happy, but so is the baker, and so are the lucky Joe's who get to eat the soft, salty, seedy rich breads.  Enjoy. 

Onion Naan
Yield:  4 flatbreads
Active Dry Yeast              1 tsp
Sugar                              1/2 tsp
Warm Water                    1 Tbl
AP Flour                           3-4 cups, divided
Baking Soda                     1/4 tsp
Salt                                 1 tsp
Sesame Seeds                  1/2 tsp
Whole Milk, warm            1/2 cup
Whole-Milk Yogurt            1 cup (room temp)
Onion, minced                 1/3 cup
Unsalted Butter, melted    4 Tbl, divided
Egg, lightly beaten            1
Mixed Seeds                     1 1/2 Tbl
Kosher Salt

1.  Combine the water, sugar and yeast.  Let proof.
2.  Combine 2 1/2 cups flour, baking soda, salt, and sesame seeds in a large bowl.
3.  Stir together the mik, yogurt, egg, onion, and 2 Tablespoons butter.
4.  Pour yeast and milk mixtures into well in center of flour.  Stir until a soft, shaggy dough forms.
5.  Put approx. 1 cup of flour in a pile on the counter.  Pull a little of that flour to the center of the counter, turn the dough out onto it, and knead for approx. 10 minutes.  Gradually add small amounts of the extra flour when the dough gets sticky.  (A plastic dough scraper works well for assisting with the kneading at the beginning of this process.)
6.  When a soft, nonsticky dough is formed, shape it into a ball, and place it in the lightly oiled bowl.  Let rise until doubled, approx 2 hours.
7.  Place baking stone on the bottom rack of the oven.  Preheat as high as your oven will let you (500-550 degrees).  Let the baking stone preheat for a full hour.  Dust two baking sheets with flour, set aside.
8.  Turn dough onto lightly floured surface, divide into fourths.  Roll each piece to approx 1/8 inch thick oval.  Transfer to floured bakng sheets.  Let rest approx 10 minutes.
9.  Transfer a piece of the dough to a well-floured peel or flat baking sheet.  Brush top of each piece with remaining melted butter.  Sprinkle with mixed seeds and salt.  Slide the bread directly onto the preheated baking stone. 
10.  Bake 5-6 minutes, until it is bubly and the top is a blotchy golden brown.