Small spring updates

Garden

The tulips are out.

Kitchen

I made lasagna today for the first time, and so the kids and I also made homemade ricotta following this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Dead easy, delicious, and about half the price of a tub from the store. We’ll be doing this again.

Gelatine adventures continue. I’ve been doing teas! Vanilla Rooibos is delicious in jelly form, Jasmine Green Tea a little pretty so-so. I’m thinking my next experiment will be cubed jellied Earl Grey with a sweetened condensed milk pour-over. Also I’m saving bones in the freezer to try my hand at p’tcha. More foods should have names that fun to say. P’tcha!

Words

My poem “Seclusion (A Checklist)” has been published by Jet Fuel Review (issue 21) and can be read online here. It’s part of this issue’s special section featuring golden shovel poems — a relatively new poetic form that is technically challenging and used to pay tribute to another poem or poet. The poet chooses a line by another writer, and each word of the origi line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem — such that the original line may be read down the right-hand side. Confused? I always find it a bit difficult to explain but seeing an example will make it fairly obvious.

In my case, I used a line by Christabel LaMotte, a poet who does not, technically speaking, exist; she’s a character in A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel Possession (about which I have written here, and which also makes my list of desert island books). I was struck by the line “to drag a long life out in a dark room” in one of LaMotte’s/Byatt’s poems, and — well, click the link above if you would like to see where that took me!

Anniversary bake and jelly cake

No, not our wedding anniversary, although we did have one relatively recently. I mean this little lady’s anniversary:

My good girl Sheryl has been hanging out for a year now. She lives in the cold and the dark and puts up with gross neglect for weeks on end. Yet for all that, she still makes some lovely loaves! My kitchen is cold and so they never end up as lofty as other peoples’ seem to, but they’re chewy and tangy nonetheless. Way to go, Sheryl.

Just look at that blistered crust. I have to say, I think that sourdough starters are a lot more flexible and resilient than a lot of people seem to think. The internet is awash with all sorts of finicky methods (usually named after somebody) that involve very precise times and temperatures and adjusting the amount of water in relation to the humidity of the air, as well as (I assume) performing certain obscure incantations and using flour that was ground in the light of the full moon.

I do pay attention to my measurements — a kitchen scale is a handy tool for this sort of thing — but other than that? I figure that people have been making sourdough for thousands of years. This is something you would carry around in a crock while you followed your goat herd and then baked over hot rocks. It’s a yeast colony. It will survive.

In other culinary news, I’ve been (somewhat inexplicably) really getting into gelatine lately. Why? It’s hard to say. I’ve always loved jell-o (especially with a little dab of fake whipped cream on top, like we always had at summer camp). And when I made panna cotta in the kids’ breakfast milk cups for April Fools, I realised how easy it actually is and a whole world opened up.

Anyway, here’s a jelly cake:

The top layer is orange jell-o with shredded carrot inside (something I remember having at potlucks long, long ago) and the bottom layer is a milk gelatin made with sweetened condensed milk. I don’t actually have any proper molds so this was made in a lightly greased bread pan, which worked well except for being slightly too long for the plate once decanted.

As you can see from that “bloom” of milk jelly in the middle, the orange layer wasn’t quite set enough when I poured in the second, and there was a little intermingling. No matter; I count this very successful as a first attempt and look forward to more experimentation. Nobody here likes jellies as much as I do, so I’ll probably be eating most of those experiments alone.

I am 100% ok with this.

Sweet Oatmeal Bread

There is a recipe for oatmeal bread that I got from my mother, who got it from… some cookbook, I suppose. I used to make it relatively often many years ago, because it tastes delicious — but the trouble is, I could never get it to rise and it ended up incredibly dense. Now that I know more about making bread, this is because the original recipe’s process might as well have included “Step 3: kill your yeast”!

Instead of sharing that version, here is my revision, with a few tweaked ingredient ratios and a better process.

Ingredients for 2 loaves:

  • 2.5 cups lukewarm water
  • 2.5 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup quick oats
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour

Method:

  1. In a large mixing bowl, add yeast to water. Let bloom for a few minutes.
  2. Add remaining ingredients all at once.
  3. Mix by hand until dough comes together.
  4. Turn out onto your work surface and knead 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
  5. Put dough ball back in bowl, cover, and let rise 30-60 minutes until doubled in size.
  6. Knead for 1 minute. Divide dough in half, and shape into loaves. Place in two greased loaf pans and allow to rise a further ~30 minutes.
  7. Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes.

Don’t forget to cool it completely before slicing. This makes a lovely bread that’s a bit on the sweeter side and perfect for toasting. Enjoy!

Overnight Blueberry French Toast Bake

We had this for breakfast on Christmas morning and it was delish. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 1 loaf french bread, stale
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 lb fresh blueberries
  • 1/3 cup pecan pieces

Directions:

  1. Cut french bread into cubes and place in large bowl; set aside.
  2. In a second bowl, combine eggs, milk, cream, sugars, and vanilla. Whisk until well combined.
  3. Add blueberries, pecans, and liquid ingredients to bread cubes. Stir/fold with spatula until bread is soaked and nuts/berries are well distributed.
  4. Grease a 9×13″ casserole dish. Pour bread mixture into dish; cover and refrigerate overnight.
  5. In the morning, remove dish from fridge. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes at 375 degrees F. Serve warm.

Sourdough for a cold kitchen

Remember when I started baking sourdough, earlier on in covidtide? Yeah, me too. It was enjoyable for a while, but I started running into frustrations: having to keep a large amount of starter alive, bakes that didn’t rise like they should, gummy centres. I didn’t like how much mental space it took up as I tried to figure out and execute the perfect timing for each step. It stopped feeling like it was worth it.

But last week, I came across the post in the sourdough subreddit that changed things for me. The author made the point that baking sourdough is something that’s been happening for thousands of years — long before thermometers, fancy le crueset bakeware, or well-calibrated electric ovens. It’s supposed to be easy. She outlined a method where you just mix everything in one step, plop it on the counter for a long rise, and then bake it.

Freaking. Brilliant. After all those months of practicing and experimenting and nit-picking… what finally gave me the perfect rise and crumb was keeping things dead simple, with a tiny amount of starter and a good long rise. It also means that I was able to get rid of my huge tub of starter; now it lives in the fridge in a tiny jelly jar and I only feed it once a week.

I also realised that my kitchen is cold. During the fall and winter, we keep the house at 68F, which does not kill the yeast but definitely slows it down considerably. I had been trying to make sourdough after letting my dough rise on the counter for about six hours. As it turns out, I needed to triple that number. So here is my method for a long, slow rise in a chilly kitchen.

Ingredients:

  • 500 grams flour
  • 20 grams unfed starter (yes: a teeny amount and straight from the fridge!)
  • 10 grams sea salt
  • 355 grams tepid filtered water

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix with your hands until there are no dry spots left.

Do four sets of stretches and folds, spaced 15-30 minutes apart. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise on the counter for 18 hours (I start the process at noon to bake a little after 6 am the next morning).

In the morning, your dough should have at least doubled. Place your baking vessel and lid (I used a casserole dish) in the oven and preheat to 500F.

30 minutes after the oven turns on, preshape your dough on the counter and let it rest.

15 minutes after preshape, do your final shape and pop it into the baking vessel — don’t forget your oven mitts! Turn the oven down to 450 F.

Bake 25 minutes, then remove lid of baking vessel. Bake an additional 25-30 minutes until your crust reaches the desired colour. Turn oven off, and leave bread in the oven with the door cracked for about an hour.

Remove to cooling rack and let finish cooling completely before slicing — this may take a few hours but it will be worth it. Then slice and enjoy!

The joy of apple cake

We went to the orchard today! Well, not “the” orchard — there are plenty of those around here — but to the one that we’ve now gone to twice, thus giving it default status in my brain. You know how it is. It was a lovely warm fall day, and after some picking and some playing on the playground and hay bales, we came home with a good 15 lbs or so of apples: mostly Empire, some Mutsu.

And what do we do with that many apples? We make cake. I tweaked the recipe I used a fair bit, so here is my variation of “Roman Apple Cake” from an old copy of the More-with-Less Cookbook.

Autumn Apple Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla
  • 3 large apples, peeled and chopped

Mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, lightly beat oil, egg, milk, and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to dry, and stir until well combined. Fold in chopped apples.

Scrape batter into a greased 9″ cake pan. Bake at 350F for 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. Serve warm with applesauce or ice cream.

Enjoy!

Basic white sandwich bread

I had a lot of trouble finding a good basic white bread recipe that didn’t include any sugar. So I made my own. Here you go.

 

 

BASIC WHITE SANDWICH BREAD (makes 2 loaves)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2.5 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus up to 1 additional cup during kneading

1. In a mixing bowl, combine water and yeast. Let rest approximately five minutes.

2. Add salt and oil.

3. Add flour, one cup at a time. Mix with a wooden spoon, or your hands. Dough will be somewhat sticky.

4. Spread a generous amount of flour on your kneading surface. Turn dough out and knead 8-10 minutes until elastic and very smooth. Add additional flour as needed during this process. By the end the dough should be unsticky enough that you don’t need any flour under it.

5. Place dough in oiled mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap or bag, and let rise in a draft-free place for 30 minutes or until doubled in size. I use my cold oven for proofing and it works well.

6. Punch down dough, turn out, and knead approximately 1 minute. Separate into two halves, shape into loaves, and place in bread tins (grease if necessary). Cover loosely with plastic and let rise in a draft-free place an additional 30 minutes.

7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake loaves for 35 minutes, or until nicely browned on top and hollow-sounding when you tap the bottom. Remove to cooling racks and let cool completely before slicing.

Meet Sheryl

No, Sheryl isn’t Tertia’s real name. Sheryl is my sourdough starter. That’s right; I’m becoming one of those people.

A few months ago, my bread machine committed suicide by dramatically leaping off the kitchen counter in the middle of a knead cycle, thereby shattering itself into about seven pieces. It was pretty spectacular. Anyway, since then I have been baking our sandwich loaves most weeks, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. Baking bread is something that always seems like a larger job in my head than it is in reality; it takes a long time, but very little of that time is active. And kneading dough is very satisfying! I love the way you can feel it transform under your hands.

Anyway, the sandwich bread is just a regular wheat bread made with commercial yeast. But yeast can be kind of pricey (and, apparently, subject to quarantine-related panic buying) and keeping track of how much I have is annoying, especially when the jar is almost gone and there’s not quite enough for another full batch of something. Which made me think, well, why not give sourdough a shot?

I followed this method from The Kitchn to make my starter, which took about five days. At first nothing dramatic was happening — I had little bubbles but not much of that good yeasty smell — but then on day four I could smell the sour yeastiness I was hoping for, as well as the alcohol created by the bacterial action. (I wonder: is sourdough moonshine a thing?) And then on day five — pow! Sheryl had doubled in size overnight and was ready to rock.I knew I wanted to do an overnight rise and bake in the morning, so I followed this recipe, which is literally just the first result I got when I searched for “overnight sourdough bread”. The active time is even shorter than it is with a commercial yeast bread. I measured out some starter, water, flour, and salt, and mixed it with my hands for about a minute. This is what it looked like at that point, as it rested for thirty minutes:

After the dough rests, you gently stretch it and fold it over on itself for about a minute. You can immediately see the difference in the texture between the last picture and this next one: from dry and crumbly we have moved on to stretchy and hydrated.

After that… not much happens for quite a while. The recipe says to let it rest for eight hours; my dough rested for closer to sixteen, which didn’t appear to do it any harm. (The longer rise probably helped, in fact, since we keep our house on the cool side.) But in the morning, it had smoothed out and bulked up, as promised:

When I was ready to bake, I took the loaf out and quickly shaped it. Now, next time I will transfer the dough into an oiled clean bowl before leaving it overnight, because it was really hard to get the dough out of its bowl without squishing it and popping the interior bubbles. It was very and I ended up leaving some behind in the bowl. But what was left had a nice rest before I popped it into the oven. I don’t have a proper Dutch oven for baking; fortunately, my casserole dish also does the trick.

And here is the result!

You may be able to see right by the bottom crust that it’s a little underdone there and could probably have used a few more minutes in the oven. But I am supremely happy with this first attempt! The bread is chewy and tangy, and tastes amazing toasted with some butter and cinnamon sugar. Sheryl and I? I think we’re going to get along.

How I learned to stop worrying and nail the crust

Once upon a time, I couldn’t make a decent pie crust to save my life. Not having learned it at my mother’s knee (since she doesn’t like to make pastry) (hi, Mom!), I was thrust into the adult world with no more ability in this area than a baby bird. Oh, woe, alas, and alack! From time to time I would gird my loins and attempt the thing — ending up, as often as not, with gummy, under-baked, or flakeless crusts… along with the occasional surprising success that always left me wondering what I had managed to do right.

But these days, my crust woes are over. I think I can say — I hope it will not be inviting disaster to say — that I have officially nailed it. Check this puppy out:

That’s a flaky, all-butter pie crust. And while you can’t see the layers as well on the apple pie, check out the edge of the pumpkin here:

(Where do you store pies when the fridge is full? In the microwave, of course!)

Well. It would be remiss of me to keep this information to myself. Here is the Smitten Kitchen post that taught me how to make a beautiful crust, and here is the post that taught me to roll it out. Go read those, and then come back here, because I have a few extra tricks.

There are two things that have made the biggest difference for me in getting crust right: finding ways to keep it all really, really cold while working, and rolling it out properly. I like to cube the butter straight from the fridge, and then throw those cubes into the freezer for at least twenty minutes or up to a few hours before making the dough. While the butter cubes are freezing, I mix the dry ingredients in a metal bowl, and then throw that into the fridge to chill until I’m ready to mix. I will admit that it is harder to work my pastry cutter through the frozen butter — and that it requires periodic breaks to push the wires back into place — but not letting that butter melt even a little has made a tremendous difference in my bakes. And of course, it’s important to get that dough back into the fridge to get nice and cold again before rolling! Generally I try to make my pie dough the day before I’m going to make pies.

The second thing is learning how to not roll it out like a ninny. My rolling pin is made of marble, so I will throw that in the freezer as well to get good and cold before I start, which helps keep that butter solid. I don’t roll directly on my table or counter; I put down a flour sack towel and then flour that; rolling out on the towel has completely eliminated the sticking issues I used to have. And I don’t roll at first: I press. Using the rolling pin I will gently press down from the centre outwards (working around the cardinal directions) to start flattening the disc without the stress that rolling puts on it. Then I roll out from the centre, moving around in the cardinal directions: N, E, S, W, then NE, SE, SW, NW, and repeat. This has virtually eliminated my tearing issues. If you’re patient — and it takes a lot of patient, slow, small-scale rolling — you can get a beautiful thin crust that’s still full of lovely solid butter bits. The result of that you can see for yourselves!

And that’s it. Pastry crust is no longer one of my kitchen bugaboos. And now it doesn’t have to be yours, either. So go make some pies!

Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Icing

We had a birthday in our family recently, and as is tradition, the birthday-haver gets to request any flavour combination of cake and icing, and then I do my best to make it. This time around: strawberry cake with strawberry icing. I looked at a lot of recipes online, and then came up with a hybrid version of my own which uses both strawberry jello and freeze-dried strawberries in the cake, and a strawberry cream cheese icing. The result is a moist cake with an intense strawberry flavour.

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 1 box Betty Crocker Super Moist Vanilla Cake Mix (any white or yellow cake mix will do)
  • 1 box strawberry Jello
  • 1/2 cup canola oil (as per cake mix directions)
  • 3 eggs (as per cake mix directions)
  • 1 oz. freeze-dried strawberries, crushed to powder and reconstituted into a purée

Method:

1. Preheat oven according to package directions.

2. Mix together powdered cake mix and Jello powder until well combined. Add wet ingredients (as per package directions; the above is what mine called for but yours may vary) and beat well.

3. Gently whisk in reconstituted strawberry purée.

4. Bake according to package directions — this makes a pretty moist cake and so it may need a few more minutes. Cake is done when the top is springy and a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

5. Cool in pan 10-15 minutes, then remove and finish cooling on baking rack. If you’re making this a day ahead, pop the cake into the refrigerator once it’s come down to room temperature.

Ingredients for the icing:

  • 4 oz. plain cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 oz freeze-dried strawberries, crushed to powder
  • 2.5 cups icing sugar

Method:

1. Using a hand mixer, cream the cream cheese and butter together on low speed.

2. Add the strawberry powder and blend in.

3. Add icing sugar, 1/2 a cup at a time, blending until it has a nice spreadable texture. You may want to use more sugar or less depending on how sweet you like your frosting.

4. Slap it on the cake and enjoy! This makes enough to frost two nine-inch round cakes with a joining layer in between.