Squash into Cake

Well, it’s no longer stupid cold outside, but there’s a huge blizzard blowing in off the lake at the moment. I had thought perhaps I’d take a walk up to the fancy chocolate store and load up on post-Valentine’s sale chocolate, but the snow is blowing nearly horizontal at the moment and I have no desire to do so much as to take out the garbage. If it eases up later, or even if the wind calms down, I might change my mind.

Meanwhile, tragedy has struck in my kitchen: my stand mixer is injured. I don’t think it’s fatal, though getting it fixed will be an adventure, given that I don’t have a vehicle and the authorized repair places are in the suburbs. If I knew just a little bit more I’d poke around inside it myself, but that sounds like a bad idea. It will affect the bread baking, somewhat (though I have a few loaves in the freezer), but what it will affect more is anything that requires creaming butter and sugar together. I fiddled with the settings enough to make the latest in my efforts to assemble an awesome carrot cake, not least because I have a crazy amount of carrots from the farm share and also because Friend is a fan of carrot cake, but I don’t want to push my luck and completely destroy the mixer.

I’ve played with this recipe before. I prefer butter in carrot cakes, rather than oil, and I definitely prefer a lot less fat than most recipes require (a cup and a half of oil? really?). I’ve been using pumpkin to keep it moist, which also adds some fiber and vegetables, and lately I’ve used whole wheat flour rather than all-purpose. This weekend’s version might have been the best ever. I’ll give it to you after I make it again, because I’m not entirely sure of all of the measurements, but I can tell you that for 24 good-sized muffins I used only six tablespoons of butter and three eggs, and I could probably cut it down to four tablespoons of butter, especially if I add a little flax. Another thing I’ve been doing is shredding the carrots in the food processor and then cooking them a bit; this time I roasted the shredded carrots for awhile in the oven. It was still moist, but it wasn’t as wet as freshly shredded carrots, and I think it improves the overall flavor of the whole enterprise.

Of course, it all goes to hell in a handbasket once frosting goes on top (cream cheese, butter, a little boiled apple cider, some dried orange rind I had sitting around, confectioner’s sugar), but these are sufficiently good that you could eat them without the frosting and still be pretty happy. Okay, maybe most people regard all carrot cake as a vehicle for the frosting, but, at least theoretically, one could eat these without frosting.

The farm share has provided me with two three-pound bags of frozen, roasted butternut squash, which is what I used in the carrot cake. No, not all three pounds of it. I also used some in risotto: it was sufficiently watery that I just added a couple of cups to the three cups of chicken stock and cooked the risotto the way I normally would. It was quite nice–and I still have about half of the bag of squash left. I think I’m going to refreeze the rest of it for now, but my intention is to use it, again with some chicken stock and cheese, to make a mac and cheese sauce that isn’t quite so dependent on milk and butter.

Spent Grain Musings, Again

The second spent-grain experiment is going to take two weekends to accomplish. Many people apparently dry the spent grain and then grind it into flour, so I’m giving that a try. The drying process takes most of a day–you spread the wet grain out on trays and put it into a very low oven (in my case, 170 degrees F is as low as it will go), stirring it around once or twice so it all dries and doesn’t scorch. I froze batches of the wet grain last week, for adding directly into bread recipes, but I still had a big pile left, so I dried two pans yesterday and I’ll do the rest today when I get back from Pilates. Then you’re supposed to grind it in a flour mill, but I do not (yet) have a flour mill, so I’ll try the food processor and/or the coffee grinder and see what they do. For the small amounts I’m grinding, that should be fine.

I can tell that there won’t be much flour out of the whole enterprise, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t want to attempt a bread (or many other things) using only spent grain, at least not if the grain is barley or rye. Barley is most the common grain in standard beer brewing, but it doesn’t have much gluten in it (neither does rye), so you couldn’t do a loaf of bread using only that flour, or you’d have a brick. Oats have no gluten at all, so you also can’t do a 100% oat bread and have it be anything other than a brick, at least not without a lot of eggs or some other leavener. I remember talking to a brewer about wheat beer, and the opposite is true for beer. It turns out that the thing that makes for great bread–the gluten in the wheat–also makes it impossible to do a 100% wheat beer; the gluten clogs up the brewing equipment.

I think I’ll try some spent grain in the Amazing Crackers recipe and maybe in a chocolate recipe of some kind; as we know from malted milk balls (not to mention milk stout), chocolate and malted barley flavors go together nicely. And possibly in some kind of pretzel thing. This means I will continue on my quest to get a steady supply of spent grain–a quest that was inadvertently aided on Friday night in an unexpected way. We stopped in at Temperance, in part to taste the newly released IBA and in part so I could share loaves of the spent grain bread I’d made for them. As I was sitting at the bar, a woman came up to me and asked if I was me–turns out that she had lived in my dorm my first year of college, and we shared a circle of friends. Of course I remembered her, though we haven’t seen each other in at least 30-plus years, and her husband is a brewer as well and offered his spent grain to me.

All of these experiments remind me why I wanted to open a bakery. The work of a bakery is brutally difficult: long hours on your feet, lots of lifting and carrying of heavy things (50-lb sacks of flour; full sheet pans of laminated dough; 125-pound containers of bread dough), and, unless you’re the owner (and possibly even then), low pay. If you’re working with yeast, and I obviously am, that also means you have to obey the demands of the yeast. You can tweak it a bit by tweaking the temperature at which fermentation is taking place, but that requires expensive equipment, and space, to do it well. Because the product you sell is so small, you have to sell a lot–of cupcakes, donuts, loaves of bread, pastries, cookies–and you have to manage the production schedule so you have enough of everything but not so much that things go stale. The production itself requires that you work when others are sleeping; an overnight shift is almost necessary. So, yes, there are a million reasons not to do it.

But I love the experimentation. With the spent grain, I love the idea of taking what is essentially a waste product and finding a way to make it not just useful but a feature of a new product. (Most brewers find a farmer who will take the grain to feed it to cows or, presumably, pigs; a brewery in Alaska uses their spent grain to power the brewery, because shipping the grain is too expensive.) Even last week’s lime and coconut cookie experiment was born of having some ingredients on hand that I hadn’t used before and trying to figure out how to make them work.

In order to make this work in a bakery setting, though, you also have to be able to produce the same product every time. If you develop a line of spent grain baked goods, then you will need to have those goods taste the same every time the customer walks in the door, within a fairly narrow range. You would have to figure out a time when you can use your ovens to dry the grain, except that there’s no time when the ovens aren’t being used–the number and size of the ovens are two of the major rate-limiting factors in a bakery. You’d have to be able to adjust for the different roasts–a dark-roasted grain from a stout is going to give you a different flavor profile than a lighter roast from a pale ale. You have to store the ingredients.  And so on.

All of these are problems that can be solved, of course, but they have to be solved while you also run the business, which is a problem to be solved on an ongoing basis. There’s a part of me that still fantasizes about it, mind you; the complexity of the factors is one of the things that appeals to me, actually. But short of winning the lottery, I don’t see how it happens, and if I win the lottery, I don’t know that starting a business with very low profit margins is the way to go.

On the other hand, running a small bakery next to a brewery, thereby supplying the baked goods for the brewpub and using the spent grain from the brewery, would be an interesting business model . . . if I win the lottery.


The thing about making bread is that, at least in the size batches I make, the mixer and the yeast do most of the work. There’s some kneading by hand–which was an adventure today, because I sprained my right wrist badly two weeks ago, so the kneading had to be done left-handed rather than both-handed–and some shaping and such, but otherwise, it’s not me. Reinhart’s method involves soakers and preferments, which means any given formula is a matter of weighing and mixing the soaker and starter (and mash, in the case of one of the breads) on one day, and mixing those together with a few more things on the second day; even the work that is involved is spread out–a few minutes here, a few there. That said, given that I was making three separate batches, it took me most of the morning. (Of course, if I had a second oven, I would not have had to stagger the rising and baking . . . )

It’s not for people who want instant gratification, though.

Typically, I also interleave a few other chores (peel the beets that I roasted two weeks ago, then froze because I didn’t have time to peel and cut them before we left for the holidays; do two loads of laundry, so all my fleece shirts and warm socks are clean; bake a batch of cookies, to which I’ll return in a minute; move the chicken stock from the kitchen freezer to the chest freezer so it doesn’t all die from freezer burn). It’s theoretically possible to sit down for stretches of time as the yeast does its thing, but I actually prefer the  bread-then-chores-then-bread-then-chores progression. Today is a perfect day for baking, too, as the weather is becoming seriously brutal. It’s been snowing steadily, the wind is blowing hard, and you can almost see the temperature dropping; the latest report shows an expected wind chill tomorrow of -45, which is just stupid cold. I was glad to have a reason to have the oven on for 6 or 7 hours.

What about the cookies? Well, another of my interleaved chores was grating the peel and squeezing the juice from seven limes. (Quick quiz: name a use for pith other than for helmets.) I rummaged around but couldn’t find a recipe that included the main things I wanted to include, namely, honey, lime, coconut (including coconut flour), and ginger. My final formula was:

  • a stick of butter
  • 120 g. honey (about a half a cup)
  • 50 g. sugar (about a quarter cup), plus more for rolling
  • 1 big tblsp. lime peel
  • 2-3 tsp. grated fresh ginger (dried or candied would work, and possibly work better)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 78 g. coconut flour (about 6 tblsp.)
  • 100 g. whole wheat flour
  • 100 g. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 25 g. dried coconut chips (not flaked coconut)
  • 1 egg
  • about 3 tblsp. lime juice

I creamed the butter, sugar, and honey, then added the flavorings, then the egg (at which point it looked kind of curdled), then the dries, which I added slowly, adding lime juice if it looked like it was getting too dry. I added the coconut flakes at the end. I wrapped it up and let it sit in the fridge for a bit, and would even be willing to let it sit for a day in the fridge. I rolled it into small balls, which I then rolled in more sugar and pressed flat-ish on the sheet pan, and baked for about 14-15 minutes.

I got five dozen cookies out of it, and the taste is nice. The texture is . . . pretty okay. A bit crumbly, probably from the coconut flour; another egg might have been the right thing to add. The honey does not come through, but both the lime and coconut do. If I do another iteration (and, with all that lime peel, there’s a good chance), I’ll add the egg, maybe reduce the lime juice, and replace the rest of the sugar with honey. And probably use some of the candied ginger in the fridge. All in all, not a bad experimental result.

Spent Grain Experiment Number 1.0

There’s a new brewery in Evanston. This is notable for a number of reasons, one of which is that, in part because Evanston was the center of the temperance movement in this country, this is the first craft brewery in Evanston. They named their brewery “Temperance,” too, which is amusing in its own way. On New Year’s Eve afternoon, two friends dragged me and Friend out to drink beer with them at Temperance and we sampled the six beers they currently have on tap. They were ALL good, which is not always my reaction, especially when fruit is involved. (One is a wheat ale with blueberries and another is an ESB with Balaton cherries.)

Anyway, not surprisingly, we started chatting with the bartender, who also turned out to be one of the owners, and I asked him what I always ask brewers: what do you do with your spent grains? Turns out that they still haven’t found a way to get rid of them, which means I had no trouble talking them into saving some for me the next time they planned on brewing. The brewer came out and talked to us, too, and she was more than happy to save some grain. Thus, despite the huge piles of snow that remained on the streets yesterday, I shlepped to the brewery (about 3 miles round trip to/from the nearest el station) to pick up the promised booty–a gallon bag crammed full of spent grain from a batch of pale ale, maybe. I’m going to take them some of the finished product; they’re releasing a new beer on Friday, which will be a perfect excuse.

I currently have three breads in various stages of construction, and at least two of them will utilize some spent grains. One is the straight-up spent grain recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. I’ve made that one before, though most recently with dark-roasted grains that were used in a porter, maybe?, so it makes sense to just use the new ones in the same way, i.e., with a formula that I know works, and see what happens.

I recently started experimenting with breads that start with a mash (in this case, raisins, flaxseeds, and water, which soak for a day and then go in with the other ingredients in the soaker), so I did the same thing except added some spent grains to the mash. No idea what will happen, but how bad can it be? Because I’m going to have a whole lot of starter (biga), I’m also going to do what Reinhart calls his “broom” bread (because it acts like a broom to your insides), and I may add some spent grain to that, too. Eventually I’m also going to dry some of the spent grain and turn it into flour.

In short, tomorrow is going to include three batches of bread, and, as long as the oven is going to be on anyway, I’m going to use up some of the limes that have been languishing in the fridge and make some cookies. That’s going to be even more of an experiment: what I have in mind is coconut lime cookies, but the recipes I’ve been able to find don’t do it for me. I also have some coconut flour, which I’ve never used before, but I don’t want to use only coconut flour. Apparently it’s used in some gluten-free baking, so a lot of the recipes using coconut flour don’t have any wheat flour in them. My current vague plan is to use a basic sugar cookie recipe, or the ginger-lemon cookies recipe that’s on the back of my most recent Baking Sheet from KAF, and adapt it: replace some of the regular flour with coconut flour, use grated lime peel instead of lemon, and add the extra liquid the coconut flour apparently requires in the form of some lime juice, or maybe some reduced lime juice. I’ll also add shredded coconut in there somewhere, preferably in a manner that allows it to get nice and toasted; toasted coconut is one of life’s awesome pleasures. And I might keep the ginger in the recipe, because I like ginger with lime and coconut. I’ll let you know whether they’re edible . . .

When You Have Lemons

Remember all that cooking I said I was going to do? Remember with what the road to hell is paved? Yeah. That.

A lot of the weekend was spent in preparation for cooking more than actual cooking, and the things I did do in the kitchen were an object lesson in how my mind works, i.e., having one thing on hand led to using up something else. There was a massive errand adventure yesterday, including to the grocery store, where I stocked up on dried legumes of various sorts (white beans, garbanzos, and french green lentils, to be used for, respectively, white bean, garlic and sage dip, hummus, and this recipe, which sounded awesome and useful for lunches). I also ended up with a bag of lemons–partly because of this purple potato recipe (yes, I do like a lot of Deb’s recipes, at least as a starting point), which I intended for last night’s dinner, because I cut off the rest of the parsley from my window boxes and that seemed like a good use for it, and I knew I had some shallots from the farm share that wouldn’t last much longer.

As a result of the lemons on hand, I made a quick pistachio cake from one of my Moosewood cookbooks, though I subbed honey for sugar in both the cake and the syrup, and I used sour cream instead of yogurt, because I had purchased sour cream for the cake I’m making tomorrow. I picked the pistachio cake to use up a bunch of the pistachios that were hanging around in the fridge, and I liked the cake well enough that I’ll use up the rest of the pistachios, and more lemons, with another round of the cake.

Dinner was pretty awesome, actually. I made the beer-braised cabbage with mustard (another cabbage down!), but I used chicken stock instead of beer because we were having wine with dinner. The purple potatoes were also quite good. Finally, I still had two pork chops in the freezer, from last year’s farmers’ market; one of the vendors at the small Sunday market near me gets a pig from a farmer and then does all the butchering and rendering, and he made awesome pork products. I marinated the chops in a mix of about a cup of chicken broth, plus 3 tablespoons or so of soy sauce, some lemon juice, chopped garlic (lots of that), a little white wine, and some chopped sage–because I had the sage on hand. The chops were very thick, so they took awhile to cook through, and, after I got a good sear on the meat, I ended up adding the marinade and a bunch of white wine, a little at a time, to the pan so it wouldn’t burn. (I had intended to reduce the marinade and use it as a sauce anyway, but the meat really needed some moisture to cook.)

The reduced marinade-plus-wine also enabled me to scrape up all the fond for a sauce (mmmm . . . . fond . . .). The sauce was extremely tasty, and I think I’m going to do it again next week, except with a wild turkey breast. Wild turkey is quite good, though you can really only eat the breast as is; the legs have way too much sinew and connective tissue to eat like a drumstick, but if you cook them in a slow cooker (which I don’t have, but the friend who hunts the turkeys does have), you can separate out the meat pretty easily, and the dark meat is great for chilis and stews. The breast meat is denser than we’re used to eating–these are truly wild turkeys, after all, so that should not be a surprise–and it’s flavorful, and I think it will work well with the marinade/sauce.

I didn’t do any cooking today, in part because I simply didn’t feel like it, but in part because I hadn’t soaked any of the beans and figured I’d just do it all next weekend. What I did do was clean some crap out of the fridge while I did the laundry. (I live in a condo, and we have a shared laundry room, which I like because I can do multiple loads at once.) It’s one of those tasks that’s perfectly suited to the 35 or 40 minutes between times when you have to do something with the laundry.

One thing you maybe need to know about me is that I regard expiration dates as . . . modest suggestions. Most of the time the stuff is still perfectly useable. Obviously if it has mold on it or has gone off or sour in some way, or if it’s a nut or an oil (or even a whole-grain flour) that has gone rancid, then no. (It’s a good reason to keep nuts, oils, and whole grain flours in the freezer or fridge.) If it’s a bulging can, then also no. But if the item isn’t bad or sour, then I don’t care what the date on the container says, especially if I’m cooking with it rather than, say, eating it as is.


It turns out that tahini (sesame paste) really does NOT stay good for 13 years. I know–what a surprise! So that got thrown out. There were some scraps of things that didn’t smell bad, but that even I thought perhaps should be tossed. And now there’s more room in the fridge, which is a good thing, because next Saturday is the cheese drop. No, it’s not a parachute drop of cheese. Another of the farmers’ market vendors has a mailing list, and once a month or so they let you order cheese, and a week later they show up at the spot where the market is in the summer and hand over the cheese from the back of a van. It always makes me think of Lou Reed–“Waitin’ for the Man”–except instead of a bunch of junkies waiting for a drug dealer it’s a bunch of middle-aged people waiting for the cheese guy.

What do I do with THAT?

Once again, one of my experiments has (a) turned out as I hoped, but (b) left me with a bit of the raw ingredients left over, where “bit” = “I could have made half as much as I did and still have had some left.”

In this case, I made miniature pumpkin cheesecake pies, because tomorrow is Pi(e) Day–i.e., 3.14–and I wanted to bring some to work. I started off with a double batch of the whole wheat crust in the KAF Whole Grain Baking Book (have you gone out and bought that book yet?), substituting vodka from the freezer and room temp water for the ice water and orange juice. (Vodka is for flakiness, and I didn’t have any OJ.) I mixed up the crust last night, because I’m finding that letting anything made with whole grains sit for awhile improves the crumb and the flavor; the extra time sitting helps hydrate it and both deepens and mellows the flavor.

Then I started with a double version of this recipe. There were sundry alterations–half of the cream cheese was 1/3 reduced fat; I used sweetened condensed milk and no sugar instead of evaporated milk or cream and sugar; I used a total of five eggs. They seem to have come out okay, so that’s pretty exciting.

But I had no interest in making another batch of pie dough, so now I’m left with about a third to a half of the cream cheese mixture and at least half of the pumpkin mixture. I didn’t feel like baking anything else tonight, so I put it all in the fridge and I’ll deal with it this weekend; despite the raw eggs, it’ll last 48 hours. I’m thinking some kind of pumpkin breakfast muffins, perhaps with a splooge of the cream cheese filling in the middle or something. The pumpkin mixture is basically milk, sugar, and eggs, so it’s a simple matter to add some flour, leavening, and maybe some dried fruit.

It does point to a problem that sometimes arises, though: I think I’ll need this much or that much of something, and actually I need about 2/3 of what I thought I’d need. Part of this is because I would always rather have too much than not enough, at least when I’m cooking and baking. It’s annoying to get to the last two cupcakes and not have enough frosting, but it’s rather enjoyable–a perk for the cook, really–when there is frosting left over. And who ever complained about having too much chocolate ganache left over? How would that ever be a problem.

The one exception, of course, is turnips, because it really doesn’t take very many for me to reach the “enough” stage. Luckily I managed to give some away, but the spring farm share starts in a few weeks, and I suspect the turnips will reappear. This week’s share is basic–carrots, spinach, beets, and another jar of tomatoes–and most of that will store very well. I think it’s time to get some white beans and make another batch of Something Featuring Tomatoes and Beans.

Speaking of the farm share, for those of you who have farm shares and are finding yourself looking at a vegetable and wondering what you can do with it, feel free to leave a comment.

Help Me, Rondo

So last night I settled in to watch “It’s Complicated,” which I had not seen. (I will watch Meryl Streep in just about anything except possibly that ABBA movie.) I liked it quite a bit, but that’s not why I’m here today. (Mild spoilers if you haven’t seen it.)

At one point, Meryl makes chocolate croissants for Steve. The great part about this scene is the two-way dough sheeter that makes a guest appearance. I worked one of these (the rondomat is probably closest to the model I used) every day for two years, and it was entertaining to see someone using one in a movie (okay, to see Meryl Streep using one in a movie!). You do, in fact, use that machine to laminate your croissant dough (you use it for many other things as well, but that’s its primary use).

Another thing that was awesome was when she showed him how to roll up the dough. It really does take a certain touch, and it takes more time to get that right than you would think, though I suspect I could still do it in my sleep, despite not having done it in five years (has it really been that long?).

But. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

Two quibbles. First, the whole process was WAY too short. She pops into the bakery and whips up some croissants? In order for that to happen, she would have had to have had some dough already fermented and ready for lamination–which is possible, of course; a high-production bakery likely would be making the dough nearly every day, so some would be around for the next day’s production. The lamination process would still take a considerable amount of time, however, because the dough needs to be cold enough when you start such that the butter doesn’t just melt into it (and the butter needs to be pounded out and shaped, and also cold enough for lamination), and the dough really needs to rest between folds. The whole process of lamination and folding would be several hours. It was already night when they got to the bakery, so we’re talking the wee hours of the morning just to get it laminated. Then it has to proof. To the movie makers’ credit, they did show her putting the croissants in a proof box, but that part also takes time. In short, what is portrayed as a kind of spur-of-the-moment maybe-hour-or-two process would, in actuality take more like four or five hours, with a bunch of that spent sitting around waiting for something to get cold or waiting for the yeast to do their thing.

The second quibble is that the chocolate croissants were made in a crescent shape. No.  Just no. The crescent shape is for plain croissants. Google “pain au chocolat” under images and see what you get. There are a few crescent shapes there, but by and large? No.  Or “non,” as the case may be.

All that said, I liked the movie and I particularly liked that the croissant scene was even in there, and even made nods to verisimilitude, even if there were mistakes (mistakes, I tell you!!).

At the moment, I am sitting around waiting for yeast to do its thing (the brioche for tomorrow), so I am perhaps a bit sensitive on this subject. What I would much prefer is baking the damn things and getting ready for bed, but that is not going to happen soon. The yeast will take as long as it takes.

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