Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Baking Bread

I hope you will forgive me, but this is my first attempt at "monitizing" this blog by setting up links to Amazon.com for the books I mention.  Amazon will probably skim information about you if you link through here, but if you already use Amazon, this is probably not such a big deal.

Here's the main part of the meal for our most recent Sunday Super Supper Squad.  The bread is the basic recipe from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day and the Provencal Chicken Stoup is from Rachael Ray's Book of 10.
I love to make bread.  It is so relaxing and it really doesn't need to take a lot of time.  Here's the recipe for the basic bread dough. I think it works better than the basic recipe in the original Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (which I wrote about in 2008) does.  It may be the addition of Vital Wheat Gluten (I found it at Whole Foods, but it is available through other sources.)  Check out the authors in this video to help you get through the process a bit better (I use a container like the one in the video that I picked up at Smart & Final, but I noticed it is available through Amazon as well.)

5 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Flour (I use white whole wheat flour from Trader Joe's)
2 Cups White Flour
1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Yeast (2 Packages Fleishman's)
1/2 Cup Vital Wheat Gluten
4 Cups Lukewarm Water (approximately 100degrees)

Mix all ingredients with spoon in large container.  Cover loosely and let raise for 2 hours on counter, then put into refrigerator to rest overnight (or for up to 2 weeks.) (It can be used after the initial rising, but it will be sticky and not have as much flavor than if it has some time to develop in the refrigerator.)

When you are ready to make bread, cut off a piece of approximately 1/4 of the volume/weight.  If too sticky, dust hands and dough with flour. Quickly shape into a round or a baguette and place on parchment paper (which I put on a pizza peel.)  Let raise for 90 minutes.  Then brush top with water & sprinkle with choice of seeds (poppy, sesame, etc.) Slash top in three places to help steam escape.

While dough is rising, preheat oven to 450 degrees.  I use a baking stone in my oven, which gives the best results.  Have the stone in the middle rack of the oven.  Place 1 cup of hot/boiling water in a broiler pan on the lowest shelf of the oven to make steam (I've been known to spill some water on the bottom of the oven to really bring up the steam when I put the bread in to make a crunchier crust.)

When oven is preheated, slide the dough on the parchment paper onto the baking stone and close the oven.  Bake 30-35 minutes.  Bread is done when it sounds hollow when thumped.  Remove parchment and cool on rack.

Zoe Francois, one of the co-authors of the book, has a blog you can read here. It has a lot of great recipes. I only wish I had enough time to try them all.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The $500 Omlette

My son has occasionally expressed some interest in learning how to cook. He can make banana bread and can actually follow a recipe if he sets his mind to it. As Julia Child might say, though, he lacks the power of his own conviction that he can do it, let alone do it well.

I think that all men should know their way around the kitchen. My first husband acknowledged that he could burn water and his description about his own mother's cooking was far less than admiring: "when the kid I was tutoring invited me to stay for a dinner of leftovers, and I tasted seconds that were far better than firsts at home, I realized how bad a cook my mother was." I am far less kind about describing the late Frances' skills in the kitchen. Some cooking skill and a genuine interest in food were traits I looked for in a second spouse. While Len's interest in or tolerance for some kinds of cuisine are far less adventurous than mine, he can and does cook. His soul mate may very well be Rachael Ray, but he's content to settle for her cookbooks.

About two years ago, I sent Michael off to Sur La Table with my husband to take a knife skills class. He seemed to enjoy it. If French cooking is about perfection rather than yield, he has the perfect mindset to work in the kitchen. OCD actually is good for some things. When I broke my arm early this year, I knew I could rely on Michael to chop and slice for me and produce results far better than my own "good enough for government work" knife skills.

I noticed that Sur La Table was planning a three-part, basic kitchen skills class in January or February, which, if they had been offered in the evening or on weekends, I would have taken. Our friend Sandy had expressed an interest in taking such a class, so I decided that, if Sandy did it he was willing to take Michael with him, I'd pay for Michael to go. They had a blast and the class so enjoyed it, that they convinced the chef to plan another three-part series building on the first one. Two months later, there was a third, at an expenditure of almost $500 on my part.

Now, getting Michael to do anything more with his new skills other than chopping has been a chore. There's always some excuse. But one day I came home from work and my husband told me Michael had been working on his omelet skills. So I announced that what I expected for Mother's Day this year was breakfast in bed. Made by my son.

His excuse that he didn't have the right ingredients (the recipe he got in class was for an omelet with arugula and feta cheese) was answered with a trip to Trader Joe's to pick up some of each. He said he was going to practice, but somehow never got around to it. On Mother's Day morning, I waited in bed as long as I could stand while Len and Michael went to the store for other things and then puttered around the kitchen. Eventually, I just got dressed and joined them in the kitchen.

Michael's first attempt ended with egg on the floor, rather like the famous moment on Julia Child's program. But the second attempt worked quite well and looked and tasted just fine.
Now, if I can just get him to make some stock, some sauces, and the creme brulee I know he learned how to make, that $500 will amortize quite nicely.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Say Cheese

I love cheese. I can spend a lot of time looking at the selection of cheese at Trade Joe's or any specialty market. When I go to the farmer's markets, you are likely to find me talking to the artisan cheese makers and sampling their wares.

Over in Studio City, there's a place called the Artisan Cheese Gallery. Back before Christmas, my friend Gillian invited a group of us to attend a wine and cheese tasting there. It was a splendid evening, and I had hoped to get back over there with Len to try some different cheeses. Life got in the way, but we happened to be in the neighborhood last week and stopped off, possibly prompted by the cheese tasting my son got to go to at the famous Cheese Store of Beverly Hills a few weeks ago.

We were treated to a mini cheese tasting and finally settled on (starting at 12 o'clock and going clockwise below) Blu Bufala, a blue buffalo milk cheese from Italy, Beemster extra aged Gouda cow's milk cheese from Holland, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar cow's milk cheese from Vermont, and Toma Maccagno a soft cow's milk cheese with saffron in the rind from Italy.
Dinner that night consisted of cheese, bread, fruit and nuts. Heavenly, though probably not a good choice for a steady diet.

Friday, May 14, 2010


There's a wonderful restaurant supply store in Los Angeles called Surfas. I think the sign says it's been around since the 1930s. What sets it apart from Star Restaurant Supply in the San Fernando Valley is its size, its food section, its cooking classes, and, in its most recent location, a good cafe.
The Bon Appetit Magazine columnist Andrew Knowlton (BA Foodist, often to be seen judging television chef shows) recommended the cafe in a recent issue. I've eaten there several times, and last Saturday I had the Lobster Panini, about which he waxed eloquent.

Sadly, I was a bit disappointed. The next day on Big Daddy's Kitchen, as Aaron McCargo, Jr. was making a lobster roll, the reason was pointed out to his audience. Lobster is a delicate flavor and you have to be careful with the bacon. The Surfas panini had too much bacon on it. Yes, it is true. There is such a thing as too much bacon.

I have no idea how many thousand square feet the equipment/food store covers, but it is a lot. There is a case of high-priced antiques (currently located near the entrance) and featured prominently is this cookbook, priced at several hundred dollars:
I taught myself to make pizza dough and doughnuts from that cookbook. My mother may still have her copy. It is bound the way many law books are, because I think she bought it in sections at her grocery store and had to put the sections together over a period of months to make the book. It's probably 8-1/2" x 11" by about 3 or 4" thick and reflects much of what cooking in the late 1950s and early 1960s was about. The doughnut recipe was great, by the way, and I still use the pizza dough recipe (which I had copied from it) some times.

Both my husband and I are huge fans of neat food labels, and Surfas is a great place to go to look at them. Here's a selection of oils and vinegars. I couldn't resist buying the chocolate balsamic vinegar. We haven't tried it yet. I'm thinking strawberries might be the right pairing, since Marcella Hazan says sprinkling balsamic on fresh strawberries brings out their flavor.
We used to make Sunday morning pilgrimages to Bristol Farms, an upscale grocery chain, when there was one in the neighborhood, just to look at labels. That's probably why we've got so many odd bottles of mustard and other condiments.

I used the occasion to pick up the heaviest-weight cookie sheets I've ever owned and some half and quarter sheet jelly roll pans. Aluminum, not non-stick. The rimmed pans should be as good for prep organizing as they are for baking. Now I should get rid of some of my old pans and find some time to actually cook.

Pizza Dough from the Mary Margaret McBride Encyclopedia of Cooking

1 cup warm (not hot) water
1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil (I use olive)
2 cups sifted flour, plus an additional 1-1/2 cups, approximately (depends on the weather)

Sprinkle yeast into water until dissolved. Stir in sugar, salt and oil. Add 2 cups flour and beat until smooth, then gradually add rest of flour, a little at a time. Dough should be like biscuit dough.
Turn dough onto floured board and knead until elastic. Placed in a greased bowl and rub top lightly with soft shortening (again, I'd use olive oil.) Cover with a damp cloth (or plastic wrap) and place in a warm spot to rise until double in bulk (approximately 45 minutes.)
Divide dough into two equal parts and shape with hands to stretch into two 12" pizza pans. Top appropriately (sauce, cheese, whatever you like.) Bake in 400 degree until done.
Notes: These days, I'd be more likely to shape it on a pizza peel lined with some parchment and slide it into the oven to cook on a baking stone for a much better crust. I own two of them and I love them, but pizza gets a little sloppy sliding off a peel using only cornmeal. My pizza pan was made by my father at a plant which made hubcaps and other chrome accessories for automobiles. I've also got a couple of non-stick pizza pans with holes in the bottom, but I've only used them for heating up frozen pizza--and that was before I got the baking stones.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I love this French term for a kitchen garden.

I first planted vegetables and herbs at the house in the summer of 1990. Len and I had met the previous July, just before I started law school. Soon after I arrived in L.A. from Ohio for my job as a summer law clerk at the Writers Guild of America, west, I decided he needed to have more growing in his yard than a neglected orange tree. At that time, there was a sizable patio out side the kitchen door which had a large picnic table on it. There was a strip of dirt about a foot wide along the fence and I figured I could try to add a few herbs and maybe a tomato plant or two there.

It worked pretty well. The rosemary I planted that summer grew pretty large and an English lavender plant eventually took over one corner. I may have even gotten a tomato or two off the vines before I headed back to Cleveland in the fall. The next summer I added a few more things and I remember that when my friend Anna Todeschini visited from Italy with her family, her husband was very impressed that I had basil growing.

Len and I got married on Christmas in 1991, so I got an earlier start on the garden in 1992. I planted a number of things in containers because the physical space for in-ground planting didn't change until the Northridge earthquake of 1994. We had to have a lot of things fixed and I thought it was a fine time to get rid of most of the concrete patio on the kitchen side of the house. So the workmen came with a jack-hammer and I wound up with something close to a 10 x 10 plot of dirt instead of concrete.

The rosemary survived the earthquake repairs and a fence replacement (at one time I thought about asking Bernie Wrightson to create a Swamp Thing topiary frame for it) but it finally gave up the ghost the year before our fire. The lavender lasted until the garden area clean-up this spring, when we moved the fence to give us a much larger space on the west side of the house. Moving the fence did not disturb the two grape vines I put in about 10 years ago. They are spreading like crazy and look like they will have abundant bunches of Thompson Seedless and Flame grapes by the time Comic-Con rolls around in July.

The original orange tree is still here, along with a lemon tree I planted the first year we were married. I added roses six or seven years ago, and all five plants survived the fire and a year of neglect to produce like mad this spring. I've got two artichoke plants, and even a ruthless cutting back has not prevented a number of choke heads from forming. (I love artichokes, but nobody told me they attract earwigs like nothing else I've ever seen.)

Our new landscaper had his workers build me two raised beds where my in-ground garden used to be. I spent the weekend replanting the potager. I am so excited, because the space looks lovely and I can't wait to just sit outside with my laptop to watch humming birds enjoy some Mexican sage under my kitchen window.The photograph above shows you what things look like from the kitchen door. I've put some herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary, mints and nasturtium) into the spaces in the cement blocks and it looks like they're going to take. I planted a variety of tomatoes and basil in the near bed, along with two kinds of strawberries and parsley. In the far bed, there are corn, beans, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, dill and tarragon. I hope to be able to stay mostly dry when I need herbs during the wet months out here. In the past, the rosemary was along the fence and it was a muddy walk to get some in January.

I've got three different kinds of mint in large pots on wheels and a beautiful bay laurel which will need a bigger pot soon. I'm planning to put giant sunflowers along the fence, which will make some birds very happy later this year. I've got more rosemary in a border garden under the kitchen window, along with sage, chives, and the afore-mentioned Mexican sage for the hummers.

We're planning on turning this area into an extension of the kitchen by keeping the propane grill on this side of the house (rather than on the patio out the living room door where it has been for years.) It makes it easier to get from and to the kitchen and is a great alternative to a hot summer day cooking indoors.