And Now, A Little Something Personal

So I bake.  So what.  Some random person out there in New England is baking in her apartment.  Yeah? And? 

It’s not just about baking.  It’s about life.  I’m out here, struggling with my weight, struggling with family issues, struggling with money, and enjoying my first year of marriage.  But who am I?

That is a story for my memoirs…yeah right.  In short, I’m an over-weight, 32 year old, executive assistant with a bachelors degree, married to a woman, and is currently estranged from her parents. 

With the new year starting I think about all the years I made resolutions and blew them off.  Last year was no exception.  However, this year we have real goals, immediate goals.  This is the year, THE YEAR!  We will start a family, we will pay down debt, we will get more active, we will take steps to realizing our dream of owning our own coffee-shop and bakery.   Personally, I will try to make better food decisions.  More salads and less steak.  I will try to add meditation back into my routine.  I will try to read all the books I’ve bought that have sat on shelves, made moves almost across the country to stay by my bedside, just in case!  I will try to keep our apartment clean, not just on weekends.  I will try to be a better wife, more listening, more giving, more understanding.  I will stop being a peacekeeper, giving in and compromising just to keep everyone else happy.

Does any of that sound familiar? 

And currently, besides all that, I’m baking.  I’m not great at it, I’m perhaps passable.  My loaves are lumpy, my baguettes are bulgy, and my boules are ballooning.  But I’ll get there, and this time I won’t give up and add this to my long list of resolutions that I don’t keep.

What resolutions are you making this?

The Great Bread-Bowl Caper, Part 2

What a fiasco!  So I spent most of Friday cleaning and prepping, running errands and then crashing in order to be ready for Saturday’s 2nd Christmas.  We had 9 people scheduled for dinner, all hearty eaters, and I needed to make sure my bread-bowls came out great.  I set up three batches of dough, one from earlier in the week and two new ones.  Seeing those three large containers of dough in my fridge was a thing of beauty. 

Saturday morning began with a frenzy of activity.  I immediately set up my two baking stones in the oven, a pan at the very bottom for the steam bath, and began to pull chunks of dough out and form them into balls.  However, using the first and oldest batch of dough turned out to be difficult as it had these hard lumps in it.  Not good.  Unsure if that meant the dough went bad or not I opted for safety (would hate to give my family and friends food poisoning on a holiday weekend) and tossed the whole batch and made a new one.  No biggy, right?  I had two more batches of dough and the new batch only needed about 2 hours to rise.  By the time the first two groups of bowls were finished baking I figured the new batch would be ready.  The trouble came in that I realized I had now run out of yeast so if I needed to make another batch I was out of luck.

Then it all went down-hill.  Despite my best efforts and plenty of flour my dough boules were sticking to the pastry board, they were sticking to the pizza peel despite plenty of cornmeal, and once in the oven and happily cooking they began to expand in all the wrong places.  ACK!  I knew I’d need to make a few extra to be on the safe side I sent my wife off to purchase more flour and yeast.  Run!  Fetch!  Hurry!  Thanks!

So, in my frazzled state I reset the oven too high and when I checked on my second batch of bread I saw that the tops were starting to brown quite a bit.  I resolved the issue but then noticed an slight burning smell.  The cornmeal!  I hadn’t dusted off the excess cornmeal from the first batch and it was now burning on the pizza stones.  I couldn’t open the windows (old building and old windows) so I turned on the ceiling fan and began to grab the pizza stones, take off the bread bowls, and dust off the cornmeal.  Unfortuntely, in my attempt to do this quickly and smoothly I caught my arm on one of the racks and now have two lovely burns.  War wounds! 

So once the second batch was once again in the oven and cooking my sweety arrived home with flour and yeast and I made another batch of dough to be on the safe side.  My second batch of bowls looked no better than the first, but this set of three were much browner and slightly tougher.  Determined, I set up my next batch when my sweet wife reminded me that it was her turn and she needed the oven to make the desert.  Ack!  

I took that time to take a shower and to try to relax.  It was just my family and our dear friend after all.  I wasn’t trying to win a contest.  I was only up against my own expectations.  Well, in my cool, reserved new attitude I went back and threw on another batch, completely forgetting my steam bath because the pan was no longer at the bottom of the oven to remind me.  My wife had used it for her desert.  Oy.   The last batch was easiest and I had, in fact, needed ALL my dough, every last ounce.  The results were not ideal.  Some lopsided, some over-cooked, the crusts varied, the crumbs varied, but I had 11 passable bowls.  Then our friend Rob arrived and I began the stew.  

Rob, being a bread maker himself, made sweet comments about how great everything looked and smelled, oohed and ahhed profusely over my bread bowls.  And while everything simmered we watched cooking shows and chatted, Rob napped for 20 minutes (he had been driving all week and was exhausted), and then the rest of the night went off without a hitch.  The bread bowls were a hit.  As expected people gorged themselves on appetizers and snacks so by the time the stew came out no one was hungry enough to really dig into the bread…which I guess was a good thing considering I tried mine and despite the stew soaking into it was still quite hard. 

So, all in all it wasn’t a huge success but it wasn’t a disaster.  The bowls got made, some got eaten, everyone was impressed, and I learned a lot about baking.  Rob had a few bread-bowl making pointers that I will definitely take into consideration the next time.

In the meantime my fridge is empty of dough, all having been used up Saturday night.  I think now is the time to try my hand at the Olive Oil dough recipe.  Still haven’t figured out why my poll isn’t showing up, so if you have thoughts about what kind of focaccia I should try, let me know!  Comment!

The Great Bread-Bowl Caper, Part 1

In my family there is a history of crazy Christmas’.  With 3 sisters, all with families of their own, in-laws, and plans, it’s hard to get everyone together for Christmas, even after Christmas.  But this year, while missing a husband and a nephew, we are finally able to gather at the same time to celebrate Christmas, even if a week late. 

The problem?  The meal decision has been made for a hearty beef stew in homemade bread-bowls.  That involves me and my new baking skills.  Pressure!  So we have a total of 9 people coming over, thanks to an impromptu visit from our dearest friend from Washington DC, Rob.   So that is 9 bread-bowls I have to make.  Why am I nervous….well, I’m nervous over a few items….

  1. My bread, up until now, has been for me so if it turns out deformed there is no one to judge but myself and possibly my wife.
  2. I will be trying to make more than a couple loaves at a time, I’ll have to make 2-3 bowls at a time and my pizza stone is relatively small and I’m worried that they’ll get stuck together or burn, or come out warped and I’ll have to start all over. 
  3. Our friend Rob loves to make bread and I feel a little competitive, which normally I’m not.

I think I have the game plan all set.  I’ll start making the bread bowls in the morning and once one batch of dough is gone I’ll make another batch, and so on until I have all the bowls done.  This should also allow for a few horrendous mistakes. 

The great news is that my special King Arthur’s Flour package arrived last night.  Look!

Once this weekend is over I’ll try my hand at Olive Oil bread and spend next weekend making focaccia’s as thank you gifts for my coworkers/executives who gave me Christmas presents.  I’m looking forward to it but it is pushing off my pastry dough work.  But, it’s necessary.  Word of the loaf of bread I brought into work has made it to the execs and they’ve been asking about it.  Now is the perfect time to bake some great bread and give it as gifts.  

Now I need your help.  I know there are a few of you checking out my blog and I could really use your thoughts on what types of focaccia bread I should make, so I’m setting up my very first poll!  Please vote, let me know what you think, and I’ll make a few of the top choices and share them with you when they’re ready!

The Never-Ending Christmas

One of my lovely executives that I support in my 9-5 world (closer to 7-4) gave me an American Express gift card for Christmas, bless his thoughtful heart.  Personally I love gift cards because it shows that someone understands that they have no idea what you are into but they want you to have a blast doing whatever it is you do.  Gift cards and wine.  Close tie. 

So I sat, this weekend, mulling over what I might buy with this lovely gift…perhaps a few bottles of wine, perhaps pay a bill, perhaps spend it slowly each day buying the super-grande-extra-caffienated coffee I purchase to get me through the mornings.  Then I thought about my bread, my lovely, rising, yeasty bread.  Why not get a few flours I can’t find at the supermarket?  Why not get something fun from one of my new favorite places?

So online I went to King Arthur’s Flour’s website. (They’re having a big sale right now by the way)  It only took me 10 minutes of blissful browsing to locate my purchase items. 

KAF’s Italian Flour blend, perfect for making lovely loaves of Italian bread, foccacia, ciabatta, and so many other delicious things that I just can’t wait to get started!

KAF’s Rye Flour Blend, for the perfect rye breads, pumpernickles, or just for adding to regular breads for a little more flavor and texture.  Many of the breads in the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes book use a Rye flour which I have yet to find in stores.

  

KAF…or rather Queen Guinevere’s Cake flour, great for pastries and cakes.  Though, I understand it’s connection to King Arthur, one would think cake flour would be named after Queen Marie Antionette.   I can’t wait to try my hand at this, using it in a delectable treats that I’ll push onto my coworkers.

 

Everything Bagel Topping!  My favorite kind of bagel topping right next to Salt.  There are recipes for bagels I want to try…or maybe even a ciabatta with a dusting of it.   I can almost taste it.

 So that was my lovely Christmas present.  I still have a bit left on the gift card so I’ll have to decide what else to get.  Perhaps a larger pizza stone or one of those neat Danish dough whisks.

Well, until then I have visions of Everything Bagels dancing in my head.  Mmmmm.

Blizzard and Bread in New England

This morning we woke to a real New England blizzard.  Weathermen argue about whether we’re getting a foot or two.  I look out my window and see our little river coated in snow and ice, the construction yard coated in a foot of the cold white stuff.  Seems the perfect time for warm bread and hot coffee.

In a happy accident my attempt to form a ball of dough turned into a very large donut.  Instead of trying to fix it I looked at it and saw a wreath of sorts.  Still in the Christmas spirit I decided to try something new.  So into the oven it went without it’s customary cup of water to create a steam bath. 

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes recommends that you leave both your pizza stone and a broiler dish in the oven while preheating.  Once you shift your dough onto the stone you are supposed to put in a cup of hot water directly into the hot broiler dish and immediately close the oven.  This creates a steam bath which helps create a very think crust.  It is also supposed to make the bread crackle when you take it out…this fun crackly sound that really doesn’t do much but sure sounds nice.   

Until this morning I haven’t gotten that sound issuing from my breads.  But this morning I didn’t add my cup of water, I simply baked the bread without it and while the crust was not as thick as usual it was still crunchy and made the loveliest crackling sound when I took it out.

Today we had fresh bread and coffee for breakfast and watched the snow whip around our windows.  We’re sitting on the couch, sweet and toasty cats curled up next to us, and while my wife is watching ghost stories on television I am connected to work and trying to get as much done from home as possible. 

This is my kind of way to start the work week.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend and that Santa brought you everything you asked for!

The French Connection

So last night I baked these lovely baguettes and made two new batches of dough.  This time the dough rose almost to the brim of the container.  It was such a great feeling, like watching a child growing up before your eyes.  My babies, my sweet, floury, doughy babies!  I figured out what my problem was.  My luke warm water hadn’t been luke warm enough.  So this time I made the water for the yeast/salt combo even warmer and voila! Rising dough.  This picture doesn’t even show the final product, as they rose even more before I stuck them in the fridge.  If you are wondering how much dough that is, each container holds about 5.5 quarts.  Oh yeah,  I got lots of dough. 

 

 So, with the leftover dough that I had from the weekend’s semi-triumph I created 1 and a half baguettes.  This dough was a bit more elastic than I anticipated and even though I rolled and stretched and rolled some more the poor things wouldn’t thin out.  I also didn’t have those lovely baguette loaf pan things I’ve seen others use, so they also didn’t hold their shape. 

But regardless the little beauties turned out gorgeous.  Very French, in a “we don’t care what you think, we are brown and gorgeous!” kind of way.  The crumb also turned out amazing.  My first attempt was a bit dense, but the baguettes had a lot more air to it, a lot more fluff and softness. 

Once the loaves cooled down I wrapped one up to take to work and we took the smaller one and devoured it with pasta sauce.  My wife calls it “gravy” for some unknown reason.  I think it’s an Italian thing.  Being French-Canadian and Irish I just don’t get it.  I also had a slice warmed and covered in a light slathering of butter and jelly.  Mmmmmm.   Today I cut up the other loaf and have left it out for my coworkers with some lovely baba ghanoush.   Despite the fact that I made it last night and it sat overnight simply wrapped up in clean kitchen towels it is still lovely and moist this morning.  Here’s hoping that my coworkers love it as much as I do.  The day before a holiday and it is empty in here, save for a few of us die-hards and people with very little vacation time available.   I would hate to see the thing go stale….though what a lovely french toast casserole it would make.  Mmmmm.

Well, It Looks Ok

I began my journey to bread-bakerydom this weekend and thanks to my spouse’s near-frantic desire to bake banana bread (a success) and two different types of cupcakes (a failure and a success) in our lovely electric oven I did not get a chance to bake my first loaf. 

But the experience of making the dough itself was very enlightening.  I am apparently intimidated by baking.  I sat on the couch reading and rereading the recipe, the instructions, certain I would miss something before I had even started.   We went shopping and picked up the necessary items I would need and when we returned home and unpacked it all I looked at it and thought “wow, am I really going to do this?”  I then sat down again to reread the recipe until it was 7pm and I knew I needed to begin before it was too late. 

It wasn’t so terribly difficult once I got started but I still felt a hesitation when I started measuring out the flour and yeast and water.  There was something comforting in the actual mixing of the dough.  Stirring in warm water to the yeast, adding the salt, mixing again.  Then the flour, cup by cup.  After mixing the dough for about 3 minutes I realized two things. 

1.  The wooden spoon wasn’t going to cut it and I would have to use my hands, and

2.  Their “wet dough” method wasn’t really all that wet.

Without giving away secrets, the basic premise of this “make ahead” dough is that you keep it pretty wet and it will not only stay fresh longer in the fridge but won’t need to be kneaded.  The wet dough wasn’t so much wet as it was….doughy.  There is no other word for it.  It was what I expected a regular bread dough to be like.  I, of course, immediately assumed I had missed a step and reread the recipe yet again.  No, I used all the right amounts of ingredients and did exactly what the book told me to. 

I let it sit for a couple of hours, watched it rise minimally and then into the fridge it went.  According to the instructions it will rise again slightly both when you prepare it and let it sit on the pizza peel for 20-30 minutes and then another rise when you bake it.  I sure hope so because I was expecting something a little more science-fair worthy.  My dough only expanded perhaps a measly 25%.

I let it sit overnight and have been thinking about it since.  I considered making my first loaf last night but, as mentioned before, the kitchen was hijacked by another inspired baker.  I also considered making my loaf this morning, but a night of the spouse talking in her sleep, and a series of bizarre dreams that woke me up continuously, I was not in the mood to leave bed nevermind leave it almost an hour earlier than necessary.

So tonight when I arrived home I set to work.  I dusted and folded and let rise.  I preheated the oven and set up a steam bath, and let my very first little doughy baby bake.  Oh, the delicious smells that wafted.  About 30 minutes later we had victory.  About 20 minutes later we cut in.  Not only was the crust thick and crusty (oh joy!), the inside was dense and moist (mmmmm).  Added a little butter and we could hardly hear ourselves think over them yummy noises and crust crunching.

My final say on my very first bread baking experience?  Oh, I got this!  It is on!  Today was a boule, Wednesday I will try a baguette.  Ooh, la la! 

It Has Arrived

Surprising me last night when I arrived home was my copy of “Artisan Bread” that I had ordered just days ago.  I immediately sat down and began reading, from front to back like a good girl. 

As many people do, I tend to read cookbooks like newspapers.  I look at the front pages, the index, and immediately go to the sections I like.  This time, however, I had looked at some websites which talked about the book and got the great advice to really read it, the introduction, the tips section, all of it.  Good thing I did because I found invaluable tips in places I wouldn’t have thought to look.  So I read all the way up through ingredients last night and tonight I will complete my read (except for the various recipes, which I’ll get to later).   

My experience with this book has been three-fold.  I am now completely excited about getting started, I am confused as to all the specialized utensils they say you need (or at least suggest firmly), and frustrated that I do not already possess them so I could start immediately.  My wife’s experience with the book is that she doesn’t want to hear about it because we’re dieting and she’s a carboholic.   The only reason I’m even being allowed to do this is that, well, there could be fresh baked bread involved, I’m apparently very cute when I’m inspired, and she’s hoping it will inspire her to follow her goals of perfecting her pastry skills (and she does have the mad pastry skills). 

Saturday we make a pilgrimage to a kitchen store 40 miles away to locate and procure the necessary items for my task.  I believe, thanks to our kitchen-heavy wedding registry, that we have most of what we need.  What we’ll be getting is a pizza peel (small one), a dough cutter, a new pastry brush because I was silly and thought it was dishwasher safe (it’s not), and food-safe containers to hold the dough.   If our pilgrimage is successful I will be mixing my first batch of dough Sunday and baking my first loaf on Sunday night.  Oh Joy!

Last night I also received a good omen.  My cats, Phoebe and Nemo, fell in love with the book as well.  Phoebe pushed her way onto my lap while reading and rubbed her nose all over the edges, nibbling her way around the cover and making it impossible for me to both keep a straight face while I shooed her away but also from returning it.  Cat slobber and nibble-marks are not things Amazon.com will overlook.  Once I put the book down on our coffee table Nemo decided there was no better spot in the apartment to sleep than on top of the book.  I have never seen this reaction to a book before.  It is now one with our family.  Slobbered on, bitten, and covered in fur, and I haven’t even made a single batch of dough.

Blindfolded Introduction

My memories of childhood involve a lot of baking, both during the holidays and throughout the year.  Perhaps it is a sense of nostalgia, but I recall cold winter days decorating gingerbread cookies, lovely calzones made from scratch, and other culinary delights issuing from our meager apartment kitchen.

How I ever entered adulthood with barely a rudimentary understanding of the concept is beyond me.  I’ve never made a batch of gingerbread men, I’ve never made a pizza dough, and I’ve been known to make very mediocre cookies from a mix.  And now, as I look to a not-so-distant future with my own children I hate the idea of their childhoods being filled with this mediocrity. 

It will not be so, I’ve convinced myself.  I will master this.  I will.  After all, I love cookbooks, cooking shows, baked goods, and I have every kitchen appliance and utensil known to mankind thanks to a very kitchen-friendly wedding registry.  I also have a very small apartment kitchen AND some weight to lose.  (I have so much to be thankful for, hahaha) So I took the first step of my challenge this week:  I ordered the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, a book that shares how novices can make large batches of bread dough from scratch with very little effort and a big, delicious payout.  Ambitious, I know.  Bread.  The book left a local facility on December 12th and I’m expecting it any day now.  Anxiously.

So, in preparation of receiving this book I’ve read up on many baking websites, blogs, and magazines.  They range from the novice to the professional, and while I’m still very confused and slightly more intimidated than before, I’m hoping it turns out to be much less complicated than it would seem.  Yeast and fermenting, proofing and starters, bread flour, cake flour, rye flour….oh boy. 

I know what you’re thinking…she’s trying to lose weight, start a family AND master baking.  Can’t be done.  I think otherwise.  I don’t plan on keeping my baking successes at home.  I have a large office of very ravenous coworkers who will be happy to taste my successes and careful avoid my mistakes.  I’ll make it, they’ll eat it.  Fingers crossed. 

Here’s hoping I’ll get everything in time to make my first loaf of bread to bring to my in-law’s for Christmas and have something to show for my excitement. 

I hope you’ll join me, occasionally, as I attempt to perfect my baking skills, lose some weight, start a family, and not destroy my tiny apartment kitchen or go insane in the process.