My Inspiration

Eight-and-a-half years ago, in a forum thread requesting people’s “Favourite Cookery Programme of All Time”, I answered:

“The French Chef” with Julia Child. As a kid, I watched in rapt attention her obvious joy while making baguettes on that show: flinging the dough onto the counter, raising clouds of flour, and warbling her detailed instructions, cracking jokes all the while. The memory of that is what, years later, got me started baking and cooking myself. I have every one of her cookbooks (and use them regularly), about a hundred episodes of her various shows, and I think of her every day. She was one of my few heroes.

The specific episode that I remembered years later when I finally began to bake and cook for myself is on YouTube:

From the time I watched this episode as a kid to the time I did something about it was about eighteen years, so while I may have been a slow starter, I did have a long and impressionable memory. The very first thing I made was French bread, using the first cookbook I ever owned, From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Why? Because I remembered that she made it look pretty straightforward.

Tonight, I thoroughly enjoyed making it again, raising clouds of flour as I kneaded and smiling at the memory of Julia doing the same. Because I’ve concentrated on sourdoughs in recent years – mainly boules because they’re great for sandwiches – I haven’t made this recipe in quite a while, but I found I remembered the ingredients exactly: a pound of flour, 1¼ cup tepid water, 2¼ teaspoons salt, and a packet of yeast – or 2¼ teaspoons out of a large jar in my case – dissolved in 1/3 cup tepid water. I did have to read her instructions on the multiple steps to form the loaves, though. They were clear as a bell, as usual.

P1020415w

Cooling with air circulation all around. Click for a larger version.

These aren’t true baguettes as they lack a few inches of length; my biggest baking sheet, just a few inches narrower than the oven itself, will accommodate loaves of 22″ if I angle them slightly.

P1020419w

Click for a larger version

Improving people’s Saturday

Cinnamon-blackberry muffins to share with friends today.

P1020309

Click for a larger version

The recipe is from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. The variation I baked featured a teaspoon of cinnamon and three cups of blackberries added to the muffin mix, and I sprinkled the tops with a mixture of turbinado sugar and cinnamon before they went in the oven.

I like this recipe because it produces a light, cake-like muffin that’s not very sweet. Most commercially-produced muffins are so sickly sweet that the word most apt to describe them is ‘perverted’. Others agree: The woman whose hens provide my eggs – ‘Egg Lady Ann’ in my mobile contacts – said today, “I love these because they’re not too sweet.”

They already have butter and sour cream in them, but are further improved when hot by a small pat of butter. “What isn’t?” I just said to myself.

All-Star Muffins
Makes 16 large muffins

This all-purpose, basic muffin does very well with any number of garnishes (see suggestions below). The batter will keep, once mixed, for up to one week in the refrigerator. It’s nice to wake up, turn on the oven, make your morning coffe, scoop two muffins, pop them in to bake and by the time you’ve fetched the paper and let the dog back in, you’re ready to settle down for a wonderful, warm, fresh-baked treat.

3-½ cups (14-¾ ounces, 420g) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

8 Tbsp (1 stick, 4 ounces, 115g) butter
1 cup (7 ounces, 200g) sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup (8 ounces, 235ml) sour cream

Preheat oven to 400F/200C and lightly grease muffin cups or use paper liners.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, then set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a handheld or stand mixer until light and fluffy and almost white in color. Scrape down the bowl to make sure all the butter is incorporated, add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and sour cream and mix until incorporated.

Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until the batter is smooth. Fill muffin cups and bake for 18 to 24 minutes [18 for regular muffins, 24 for jumbo muffins], until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove the muffins from the pan to finish cooling on a rack. (Muffins left in the pan to cool will become tough from steaming.)

Variations:

Apple Cinnamon: Peel and grate 3 to 4 tart apples, such as Granny Smith or Jonathon. Fold into muffin batter with ¼ cup cinnamon sugar (¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon). Top muffins with more cinnamon sugar before baking, if desired.

Apricot, cherry, cranberry, date, raisin: Soak 2 cups of any of these dried fruits in 1/3 cup orange juice, water, rum or bourbon, then fold into the muffin batter. Garnish muffin tops with chopped nuts if desired.

Apple, banana, nectarine, peach, plum: Dice 3 cups of any of these fruits and fold into batter before baking. Garnish muffin tops with granulated sugar.

Blueberry, raspberry, blackberry: Fold 3 cups berries into batter before baking; sprinkle the tops with cinnamon sugar or streusel before baking.

Carrot-Ginger-Raisin: Add 2 cups shredded carrots, 1/2 cup crystallized or minced fresh ginger, and 1-1/2 cups raisins to batter before baking.

Cherry Chocolate Chip: Add 1-¼ cups dried sweet cherries (soaked in ¾ cup liquid for 20 minutes if they’re very hard) and 1-1/4 cups chocolate chips to batter before baking.

Peanut butter chocolate chip: Add 1-½ cups creamy peanut butter (it helps to soften the peanut butter in the microwave before combining it with the batter) and 1-½ cups chocolate chips to batter before baking.

Toffee Chocolate Chip: Add a 10-ounce bag of Heath bar bits or 1½ cups of your favorite buttercrunch and 1½ cups chocolate chips to batter before baking.

Apricot almond: Add ½ tsp. almond extract, 1-½ cups diced apricots, and 1 cup sliced almonds to batter before baking.

Banana Coconut: Add 2 diced bananas and 1-½ cups shredded sweetened coconut to batter before baking.

Date Nut: Add 1-½ cups each dates and pecans to batter before baking.

Maple Walnut:  Add ½ cup maple sugar and 1-½ to 2 cups chopped walnuts to batter before baking.

Waldorf: Add 2 tart apples, grated and peeled, ½ cup chopped dates and ½ cup chopped walnuts to batter before baking.

Logic-free thinking

I just found out that there are a lot of people who believe sourdough is yeast-free, and plenty of organisations and companies that encourage that belief by people who for whatever reason want to follow a yeast-free diet.

True sourdough bread does not contain yeast and instead utilizes a lactobacilli based starter culture.[1]  True sourdough bread is also baked at a lower temperature[2] for a longer period of time which protects the integrity of the cereal grains[3] and preserves the nutritional value[4].

[1] No. It’s lactobacilli and a variety of yeasts living in symbiosis, where the bacteria consume sugars in the flour the yeast cannot and the yeast consumes the fermentation byproducts of the bacteria. Lactic acid produced by the bacteria lends the sour flavour; the yeast produces the carbon dioxide that leavens the bread.
[2] Generally speaking, it’s baked at the same or just slightly lower temperature than other breads but indeed for a longer time because the crust browns more slowly.
[3] Integrity of the grains? Come now, they’ve been powdered.
[4] For any reason other than it sounds appealing?

Yesterday, I found that a local bakery that produces a decent sourdough – I’m partial to their sourdough rye – also fails to understand some basics:

The natural yeast itself also has important health benefits for your digestive tract (the good bacteria[1] survive in the center of the loaves where the internal temperature does not get hot[2]).

[1] Yeast is good, but it’s not a bacteria; it’s a fungus.
[2] The good bacteria do not survive. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is killed after just a few minutes at 140°F/60°C, and the centre of a sourdough loaf – most breads, for that matter – should reach around 200°F/95°C for a few minutes before it’s taken out of the oven. Take it out before that and the middle of the loaf will remain unset and gummy. Their loaves are not unset and gummy in the middle.

lactobacillus

Current temperature 140.1F

Edited to correct first link.

A mouldy mouse by any other name…

My massage therapist mentioned a couple weeks ago that she had a craving for those light-as-a-feather round crumbly cookies made with tiny bits of walnuts and dusted with sugar. She asked if I knew where she could buy some, but I’ve not seen them in the few decent bakeries around here – or anywhere else, for that matter. In fact, the only time I’ve seen them is at holiday gatherings, where they’re often right next to the pizzelle cookies. Neither she nor I knew their name, so I googled ‘Italian walnut cookies’ tonight and found all the other variants.

They are variously called…deep breath…Mexican wedding cookies, Mexican teacakes, Mexican wedding cakes, just plain wedding cookies, kourabiedes, Russian teacakes, kiflik, Armenian sugar cookies, Easter cookies, butterballs, bullets, mantecosos, pecan butterballs, nutballs, cocoons, vanillekipferl, mouldy mice, pecan dainties, bizcochitos, snowballs, pecan snowballs, vanilla snowballs, walnut snowballs, and snowdrops. In other words, most cultures have a version of this cookie. However, the one thing I didn’t find was an Italian name for them.

It is perhaps obvious to you that when a friend asks me about a hard-to-find baked product, the eventual outcome is foregone and inevitable, but I wouldn’t accuse mates of taking advantage of that fact. They can’t help it just as I can’t.

P1010997

Click to see a larger version

I can report that my mouldy mice are of a much lighter texture and more delicious than any I’ve ever had at a Christmas party. “Not too shabby” said I on tasting the first one. No, wait…”Holy crap!” was actually my first utterance, followed immediately by my shabbiness estimate. They melt in the mouth and are great with coffee. I’m sure she’ll be delighted with the box I’m bringing over tomorrow.

My version is an adaptation of King Arthur Flour’s recipe. I replaced their almond extract and almond flour with a scant half-teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg and a cup of toasted pecans, cooled completely then chopped very finely in my mini food processor. I also bumped the vanilla extract up to two teaspoons. I inadvertently over-processed the pecans just a tiny bit, so they ended up slightly wet – but well short of pecan butter – and, as I suspected, baking therefore took about four minutes more than the maximum they state.

Distilled, the warm smell of pecans, nutmeg, and vanilla in my house right now would make a fine cologne, I think.

Cooking catchup

Catching up with some recent dishes I’ve made, from last night’s pea soup back to Thanksgiving dinner. Click any picture to view these in a gallery.

The menu (tentative)

  • Gougères with Gruyère for an appetizer – see the Petits Choux au Fromage link on this page
  • Roast turkey – with instant stock for gravy and, later, tetrazzini
  • Cornbread and slow-cooked bacon stuffing
  • Sweet potato “soufflé” (not really a soufflé, but quite light and fluffy…no, there’s no marshmallow)
  • Creamed corn or maybe something lighter, with Trader Joe’s pretty decent frozen corn
  • Something chocolate – maybe mousse, but my daydreaming right now features something I would be most thankful for: a from-scratch devil’s food cake with chocolate buttercream

Sour and sweet

P1010869

I haven’t made sourdough in quite a while, so I started re-energising my starter Thursday night and finally baked this boule today. I love returning to sourdough because it’s always quite pleasant, even a bit of a rush, to find that I haven’t lost my touch – or my starter, for that matter.

It’s been about ten years now since my boss – two bosses ago, that is – brought me a pint of live dough from a San Francisco bakery on his return from a California trip. It’s hardy stuff. It survived its initial mistreatment in the cold baggage hold of an airliner, where it burst its plastic container but was held by the first of two layers of freezer bags, and seems to laugh off my periodic neglect, when I’ve forgotten the starter’s in the back of the fridge and didn’t feed it for a month. Or two. Or…well, never you mind how many months it was that one year. As you can see, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and Candida humilis have both forgiven me, and that’s all that really matters. We three get along just fine.

Keeping a sourdough starter alive for ten years is pretty good, but it’s just a couple of ticks compared to some. King Arthur Flour sells a sourdough starter of a New England variety with a lineage back to the mid-1700s. I used their starter before I got my San Francisco nugget of gold. The San Francisco variant has a tangier taste and produces a slightly creamy texture that adds another element to the crunchy crust and chewy crumb. I’ve found the San Francisco sourdough is slightly less active than the New England variant, which adds time to the feeding and proofing cycles, but it’s worth the wait. As I am sometimes wont to say when pressed, “I can do it quickly or I can do it right. Which would you prefer?”

Toaster corncakes without the E numbers

I saw these in the store last night and was briefly tempted…for about a millisecond.

Cakes

They look appealing enough, but when I’ve given in to laziness and bought them in the past, I’ve regretted it. They’re far too sweet (first ingredient listed: sugar) and have quite an odd taste. They list artificial flavour in the ingredients, so I’m guessing it’s a miserable formula aimed at making soybean oil taste like the butter that ought to be in the recipe in the first place. Chemical trade name Butt•R•Not®, my imagination suggests.

Instead, I remembered a recipe for a homemade version in the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, online recipe here, and made them this morning. The book version of the recipe suggested splitting, toasting, then applying softened butter and strawberry jam, so I tried them with preserves I had on hand from the good monks out in Spencer, Massachusetts, who also make my favourite blackberry seedless jam.

P1010290w

I don’t have a corncake pan, so I used a 9×13″ pan instead. You bake these until the bottom has some colour – see the upturned piece in the background – but the top has barely any so they don’t end up burning in the toaster.

I miss her

JuliaChild

Photo: Paul Child

It’s been just over ten years since Julia Child left us here to cope with a planet made considerably poorer by the lack of Julia Child.

I owe a lot to her. She’s responsible for my love of cooking and baking, not to mention at least some of my attitude toward life, more probably a large part. She had such a lively disposition, and a devilish habit of speaking her mind regardless of whether there might be consequences. She wasn’t snarky, she was impish. She was – and is – my hero.

I first started watching her when I was a kid, probably right around the time of this episode of “The French Chef”:

This sort of programme was still pretty revolutionary at the time. She probably presented ten times as much information on lobsters as anyone else on television had up to that point. Her thoroughness and breadth of knowledge fascinated me no end, and I remember thinking, “She is great. I want to be like her.”

The episode that really set itself firmly in my memory was when she made traditional French bread. When kneading, she would slam the dough onto the counter, raising great clouds of flour and clearly having a ball. When I did finally start making food for myself years later, that bread was what I remembered, and my first baking project was baguettes, using her detailed instructions in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, the first cookbook I ever owned. That they came out fantastically well guaranteed that I’d never stop, thank goodness. Had I failed miserably at that first attempt, there would be a more than middling chance that my life would be at least an order of magnitude poorer now. I didn’t fail because that’s how good she was at teaching and encouraging novices.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

In years past, I saw her more than once just off Harvard Square, at the Church Street car park. Each time, I would wave and give a cheery hello, and she did the same. I never had one of her cookbooks with me, but I later wrote a letter of thanks to her and asked if she would sign my copy of The Way to Cook, which I included along with a postpaid box with which to return it. She did, and it is a treasured volume.

I miss her often. Whenever I do, I watch a few of the hundreds of hours of her shows that I have. She brings a smile every time.

A new rose was bred in 2004 and named after Julia Child. It is, of course, the colour of butter. A really good butter. She would have no less.

“Giving up butter means that in about two years you will be covered in dandruff.”