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 theĀ  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 . . .

I Say Tomato

The “chili” I made this weekend is a perfect example of cooking from your refrigerator (and pantry). I have “chili” in quotes there because I included some black beans, and I know that, for some people, it is heretical to put beans in one’s chili. I, on the other hand, like to have something other than wads of meat, and beans are one way to do that. In addition, I had about a cup and a half of dried black beans in the pantry, and I wanted to use them before they got old, so I put them to soak on Saturday evening, plus I mixed up another batch of Awesome Crackers, because I go through nearly a batch a week, especially if I share them. All of the cooking happened on Sunday.

I cooked the beans while I was doing laundry–you don’t really need to do anything to beans while they’re cooking, so they’re a fine candidate for multi-tasking. When I set about making the chili, I chopped up a bunch of onions, including some purple ones; I don’t use the purple ones much in other things, because the color can make the whole dish look kind of grey and muddy. It doesn’t affect the flavor at all, but grey and muddy isn’t really an appetizing prospect for anyone. In chili, though, that wouldn’t make the least bit of difference. I also chopped up a whole head of garlic and a bunch of carrots–I have wads of both from the farm share, and the carrots especially keep for quite awhile. Those got thrown in with the onions. For the spicy part, I had some arbol chilis from a previous attempt (I used the Cooks Illustrated recipe for a batch at one point, and they included multiple kinds of chilis, but the only kind left in the pantry were the arbols), coriander seeds, and cumin seeds, plus those little red chilis from McCormick’s maybe?, and put them all in the extra coffee grinder that I use only for spices. I wore plastic gloves while I was doing all this, I should add.

Once it was all ground up, I threw it in with the onions and mushed it around a bit. I put all of it in the bottom of the stock pot I was using for the chili, and then browned about a pound of ground venison in the same saute pan. That got dumped in with the onions, along with about 8 ounces of wild turkey leg and thigh meat, about three ounces of leftover chicken from my dinner on Friday, a container of cooked turnips from a few weeks ago that I had not gotten around to eating (see above regarding the purple onions: it was a sufficiently large batch of chili that the turnips would just blend in), and a small container of leftover sauce (a combo of vegetarian tomato sauce and venison bolognese sauce), the rest of which had been used to make pizzas on Saturday night. On top of it I dumped two quart jars of tomatos from the farm share, and I dumped in some cocoa powder and a bloop of molasses (both were in the Cooks recipe, though I didn’t measure it out in this case). I stirred it all up and let it simmer very gently for a few hours. I ended up stirring it pretty frequently, because my stock pot is deep rather than wide, which actually wasn’t ideal for this task, but the heat was low enough that the risk of burning was pretty low, especially because I was in the kitchen most of the time anyway. It came out really well–especially with some good 4-year-old cheddar crumbled into it. Most of it got frozen into lunch-sized packages. I suspect it would work well for nachos, too, if you like those.

You will notice that I included leftovers from three different meals in this extravaganza–a very useful kind of recycling. None of the leftovers was of sufficient quantity to make much of a meal itself, and all of the leftovers could be thrown into the pot without affecting the overall flavor of the chili. A few other types of chilis would have deepened and broadened the flavor a bit–it had some heat, but was kind of one-note–but it was still good, and could easily have absorbed some tabasco or other hot sauce for people who like that.

The other use of tomatos also started with onions. (I have a lot of onions sitting around, too.) These I sliced very thin instead of chopping, and cooked them in a little olive oil and butter (the chili onions were only in a little olive oil). Again, I added a whole head of garlic, though I added it earlier in this batch. Then I threw in more carrots, because why not, and some herbs from the window sill (parsley, basil, and a tiny bit of sage; I had envisioned (enflavored?) more sage, but the window box is being taken over by basil left over from the summer, and catnip, but not sage so much), chopped, and a drained can of white beans that had been sitting around forever. I am now completely out of beans, which was another of my intentions for this adventure. And–another two jars of tomatos. This simmered for a few hours, too, as I puttered around doing other chores, and this, too, ended up in lunch-sized packages in the freezer. I had some of this today, heated up with leftover greens (kale and turnip greens, though spinach would be even more awesome, as would chard) and some asiago cheese. It was quite tasty, and I realized the tomato thing is soupy enough that it could go over pasta or farro, or would go nicely with a grilled-cheese-on-whole-wheat-sourdough-bread sandwich, were we to suddenly get a panini maker at work. (I am not holding my breath on that one.)

Even with giving some away, I ended up with at least 12 lunches, and way fewer scraps of stuff.

A glance at the calendar shows that next week includes both Fat Tuesday and Valentine’s Day. I have been known to make “blood”-spattered heart-shaped sugar cookies (actually splashed red food coloring) for VD, and, if my ambition is up to it, that could happen this weekend. Cookies would keep until Thursday. Tuesday I was contemplating a twist on king’s cake. The most common recipes I’ve seen for this include enough sugar to choke a large mammal, a wad of filling of some kind, and enough fat to require an on-the-spot angioplasty. While I am not unilaterally opposed to all of this, I have come to enjoy it less over time, so I’ve been contemplating alternatives. The current lead runner in this race is, indeed, a brioche dough, but one made with 20% butter or so (we’ll discuss baker’s percentages again . . .), and an addition of some pumpkin, which I would expect to augment the moistness and add a lovely color while not necessarily changing the flavor much. And I can sprinkle gold, purple, and green sugar on top to my heart’s content. We’ll see how ambitious I get this weekend.

Crackers and Cookies and Ranting, Oh My!

So. The crackers. The flavor really is the best so far, in very subtle ways, but the dough was MUCH harder to handle: it didn’t roll out nicely (it kind of fell apart), and it was way too sticky. I think the problem was likely the sugar content, which might have affected the way the moisture in the dough worked, and an additional problem might have been the barley flakes; they don’t have much gluten in them, which means any dough is going to be lacking in tensile strength if the barley content is too high. This, however, demonstrates what happens when you change too many factors at once: I don’t really know whether it was the pumpkin seed praline or the barley that caused the handling difficulties. On the flip side, given that I want both ingredients in the mix, I will more likely just try to adjust from here rather than removing one ingredient and seeing what happens.

It is by no means a scientific approach; hell, it’s not even a methodical approach. The results are very tasty, though, so I don’t much care. It’s one thing to end up with something that sucks–you don’t know which of your changes caused the suckage–but if something is imperfect in one dimension (ease of production) but still tastes good, it’s no big tragedy to work your way through the suckage.

The cookies are awesome, just to complete the report on the weekend’s efforts. I doubt I’ll be able to reproduce them (although I did try to take a few notes after the fact), but even getting in the neighborhood will work just fine.

That brings me to another point: while reproducibility can be desireable–very desireable, actually–it’s not the only virtue, outside of a production environment. As I noted below, if you’re serving food in a restaurant, or if you’re making products in a bakery–if you’re selling your product–you want your customers to be confident about the quality and the flavor and every other damn thing. They’re purchasing an experience in some ways–a flavor experience, if you will–and they want that experience every time.

Truth be told, there are times when I want to reproduce something, too–lots of times. There are any number of recipes I use frequently, sometimes even making the exact same changes, because I know I’ll get the results I have in mind when I do that. There are also techniques–e.g., for canning or storing food–that need to be followed for food-safety reasons, and getting lax in those dimensions could kill you. In a less dire frame of mind, I do not by any means want to discourage anyone from using recipes or techniques that produce the results you want every time.

However, I wonder if the availability of predictable results in the food we purchase to consume also makes us think that we really do have to always use a recipe, or always do something the same way. That approach also means we end up with little scraps of unused bits–a handful of leftovers, a scrap of some ingredient–and no clear way to use the stuff. The leftovers get thrown out; the ingredient is left to disintegrate, or we go buy more, just to use up the old stuff.

The cookies are a perfect example. They had some malted milk sugar in them. I had bought malted milk powder from KAF, and I like the flavor, but the product basically hardened into a lump in my cabinet. I tried grating it, which worked, but only very very slowly, and I tried chopping it, which didn’t really work at all. I tried hammering it, which sort of worked, but ended up sending bits of solidified malted milk powder flying around the kitchen, sticking to the floor, which wasn’t what I had in mind. They suggested I microwave it to soften it, which I did, but I still ended up with chunks, and it would re-solidify. I have picked away at it, with the above methods, and still had a lump of it.

So Sunday I microwaved it (a bit too long) and then quickly chopped it while it was soft. I chopped it on top of the chopped chocolate for the recipe, so it melted the chocolate and combined with it, mostly, while still keeping mini lumps of malted milk stuff intact. It was perfect for the cookies, and I think I have another lump in the cabinet, though I doubt I’ll buy it again. Well, maybe.

The point is, the product was tasty–i.e., good in one dimension–but a pain to store, i.e., problematic in a different dimension. I found a way to use it that took advantage of its good dimension and meant that I didn’t have to throw it away, which is awesome, but what I ended up doing may not be reproducible, as it was largely a method aimed at using up a product that was problematic in the aforementioned storage dimension. Leftovers are similar: sometimes I’ll have a little something left over from some other meal or use, and I’ll just throw it into whatever I’m making, just so it doesn’t go to waste.

At heart, these efforts are really contrary to both the idea of recipes and the idea of mass-produced food, both of which conspire, in both good and bad ways, to get us to desire consistency and sameness in what we eat. The good end of that spectrum is having some spectacular dish, in a restaurant, say, and taking a friend back a month later and the dish is still spectacular and still tastes more or less the same. The bad end of the spectrum encompasses fast “food” (which is really just industrial fuel, but that’s a different rant)–but I would argue that the bad end of the spectrum is also our own belief that we have to follow recipes exactly and what we produce at home should taste the way the recipe intends or taste the same way every time, no matter what the availability of ingredients happens to be.

Speaking of the availability of ingredients, this week’s farm share will include onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, tomato juice, AND a jar of tomatoes. I now have way too many tomatoes in jars, so one of this weekend’s projects needs to include using tomatoes. I don’t have any ideas yet, but I’ll work on that.

Third Time Charms

I have found a way to manage the turnips: if I combine them with the wild turkey gumbo that my friend made, the turnips add vegetation to the gumbo but the flavor is no longer overwhelming. Nevertheless, eating them more than two days in a row is a bad idea.

When I worked at the bakery, the owner used to say that it took three tries to get a formula right, and I find that he’s correct. The first time, I’m usually following a recipe of some kind, or at least basing what I’m doing on a formula, and it often is edible at the very least. The second time, I might be tweaking it in some way–changing a few of the ingredients; possibly playing with quantities, proportion, or finishing method (e.g., temperature of the oven; how thin it’s rolled out; the quantity of filling in a crust; how much of the fat I can swap out with flax or pumpkin). The third time, I combine what I’ve learned from the first two efforts and try to settle on a final version. If there needs to be a fourth time, I try to refine whatever I was doing in the third effort that didn’t work the way I’d hoped.

At the bakery, the goal was to settle on a production method that was reproducible and not too finicky, which is important if your goal is, in fact, consistent production. If you have customers coming in for a croissant, those customers want that croissant to be consistent from one day to the next, one week to the next. They want today’s miche to taste like last month’s miche. To manage that, you have to settle on formulae and then use those formulae. Even then, of course, there are variations–I was always a little amazed how some days the dough was really perfect–beautiful lamination, just the right feel, etc.–and other days were more of a struggle. It’s all relative, of course; once I got the hang of it, the range was pretty narrow, all things considered, but the more you do something, the more you notice small variations. (Thus, Filoman, who is an extraordinary baker, could always tell when the flour changed, i.e., when the batch we were using was the first of the new crop.) And, of course, there are always mistakes–something gets left out, say. That happened less frequently (especially if I remembered to taste the raw dough before putting it in the bins–it’s a good way to realize you forgot the salt or the sugar, for example), but it still happened.

At home, the criteria are a little different. Take these crackers: the first time, my sesame seeds were old-smelling, so I used the KAF Harvest Grains instead of the sesame seeds, and I put a little sea salt on top. The second time, I had new sesame seeds, so I left out the Harvest Grains. I think I added some semolina flour, too, though not much; less than 20% of the total flour, most likely. I didn’t put salt on top. I also didn’t like those crackers nearly as much. The third time I made them, I used the Harvest Grains again, and I put a mixture of sea salt and praline pumpkin seeds on top (a KAF product). Those were quite good, especially the sweet/salt mix, but there wasn’t quite enough of the sweet. Today’s batch incorporates some of the praline pumpkin seeds in the mix, as well as some ground barley flakes in place of a little of the flour. (That’s primarily to add a little fiber; I only replaced about 12% of the flour with the ground flakes.) I used a combo of sesame seeds and Harvest Grains. I’m also going to use the sea salt and praline mix on top, and I expect these to be the best yet.


KAF has the praline pumpkin seed mix on sale (I bought five bags of it), which leads me to believe that they’re going to eliminate it from their product line, just like they eliminated the Bak-O-Mega ground flaxseed flour, which I loved and of which I only have a little left. (Some of that goes in the crackers, too, in lieu of the ground flaxseeds called for by the recipe; that substitution seems pretty minor to me, as ground seeds or flax meal will likely work just fine.) Which means, if I’m right, I’ll eventually need to figure out how to replace the praline pumpkin seeds in the cracker dough. That’s a problem for another day, though.

Today’s other two tasks are a trip to the grocery store–I realize that I have been sadly lacking in green vegetables of any kind, and I am positively craving spinach and broccoli, and I do not want to wait until I get some spinach in the farm share on Thursday–and making some chocolate cookies. I’ve been trying to make some efforts to fit into my clothes again, but I still need my sweets. I’ll probably start with this recipe, but I know that I want to use whole wheat flour (and possibly a little barley flour) instead of all-purpose; add some flax meal to it, possibly in place of some of the butter; and possibly change up the sugar. For example, if I use malted barley syrup instead of sugar, it might get that nice roasty taste of a good porter or stout. I might also add some dried cherries or dried cranberries (have to see what’s in the cupboard).

Are you rolling your eyes at me yet? Because I am, a little. Here’s a perfectly good recipe–based on other things I’ve made from the website, it’s probably an excellent recipe, and it probably produces very good chocolate cookies. So why can’t I just USE that recipe? I ask myself that question a lot, and I even have an excuse answer. For one thing, I want to use whole grains whenever I can. For another, I want to add flax and fiber whenever I can–the whole grains help with the latter, and a little flax is easy to add to a recipe that has an intense flavor of some kind. I’ve been experimenting with malted barley sugar, just because, and I like the chocolate-cherry combo, in general. Each of the little tweaks swaps in something that ups the nutritional aspects of the cookies (except the barley sugar, which is more of a flavor experiment) and provides the treat I want but with a little less . . . damage, I guess, to my overall health goals. It’s still a cookie, at the end, but it’s less of a fat-and-sugar bomb and, I hope, more of a sweet-tooth-satisfying-but-not-crazy-caloric treat. We’ll see; it could fail. But it could also be awesome.