On Baking Bread

Having fully honed the arts of vodka infusing and cheese making, I’ve set my sights on the next step of my culinary journey. Infusing vodka was like going to college. Making cheese was like getting married. Baking bread… now this was going to be the BIG step – I was going to have a bun in my oven.

And indeed, since wetting my feet in the bread baking field, I have experienced a set of emotions I can only imagine as being similar to the journey of parenthood – nicely and neatly condensed into one long day and one tight little bread pan.

Baking bread is an exercise in patience and anxiety-management. As someone who is certainly not ready to have children, the experience of panification (as the French would say) makes me think I may never be cut out for it. If making a single loaf of bread leaves me feeling exhausted, worried, and mildly miffed, Lord knows what having to care for an actual child would do to me.

Still, it’s been insightful.

I figured there are few things on this earth more basic than making a loaf of bread. People have been doing it for thousands of years. Many a woman in my family has baked bread successfully before me, so it should be pretty straightforward and intuitive, right?

But immediately from conception I’m overwhelmed with questions and fears. Instant yeast, active dry yeast, natural yeast – which one is best for my bread? Whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, or bread flour? Do I use an electric mixer, or is that too impersonal? Every decision suddenly carries the weight of the world. Trying to grasp some of the knowledge of those who have baked bread before me, I read books and search the internet for tried and true answers to these questions.

What to Expect When You’re Baking

Finally I decide to stick with the basics – a family recipe. If all the women in my family can churn out a decent loaf of bread, so can I. All-purpose flour, active dry yeast, and I’m going to do this by hand because I want to be the kind of baker that gets close and personal; I want to have a connection to the bread and not let something else do all the work for me.

As I start the process of incorporating all the ingredients, I find myself repeatedly asking “is this normal?” Then the anxiety creeps in. Is my dough ball too moist? Is it too dry? Did I knead it enough? Did I knead it too much? Is the yeast working in there? I fret and fret and knead and knead. I’m kneading so hard and for so long that my hands are burning and my breathing is labored, but finally, miraculously, I find the strength to do one more quarter turn and one more giant push with my palm… and everything comes together and it looks alright – the bread equivalent of 10 fingers and 10 toes. Nothing is glaringly amiss; it’s (hopefully) alive; I love it immediately and assign all sorts of hopes for it for the future. But I’m tired and it needs rest, and so we begin the first rising.

Just a little gentle kneading…

I put the dough in a clear bowl (so I can see everything) and cover it gently with plastic wrap so that nothing icky can sneak in. Over the next 1-3 hours I try to resist the urge to hover over the bowl or lift the plastic wrap to touch the dough. I usually don’t succeed. I sequester myself in the other room for as long as I can before checking on it and fret some more in the meantime. “Look how big you’re getting,” I’ll remark to it every 10 minutes or so while secretly worrying whether it actually is growing, and how much longer it needs to stay there. I touch it some more and then worry that my touch somehow did some damage.

Incubating.

After a few hours of staring nervously at the dough, I buck up and make the judgment call that it’s ready for some more kneading. I take the dough out of its bowl and admire it for a long time. “You look just like my aunt’s dough,” I’ll tell it while gently kneading it. “You’re going to be perfect, I just know it.” As I massage my pudgy little dough ball, I contemplate what shape I want it to take. A baguette? Nah, too snobbish. A sandwich loaf? No no, too blah. I contemplate forming it into something unique, like a sunflower or panda, but I do want my bread to fit in.

Freaks

Finally I decide I’d like it to be a nice, big boule stuffed with spinach and mozzarella; beautiful and perfectly round on the outside, but full of flavor and excitement on the inside. As I start to form it, the bread sometimes refuses to cooperate. It won’t stretch, it won’t stick when I fold in the other ingredients, but still I push on. No one said this would be easy. We argue a bit, but finally the dough settles and realizes what I’m doing is good for it. I tuck it in for another rest, lovingly folding the ends of a dish towel under its newly formed shape. This time I give it more space, but still I check on it, peek at it lovingly, sing hushed lullabyes to it under my breath.

Hush little bread loaf don’t you cry…

Before I know it, the second rising is over and it’s time for the final stage. Time for me to let go and let the oven work its ways with my precious loaf. I give it a pep talk as the oven warms up for its arrival. “You can do this; the oven may make you crispy and hard on the outside… that’s a good thing, just don’t let it make you tough on the inside too. And if you ever need me, please let me know. I don’t want to have to hear from the smoke alarm that you’re going down in flames.”

I try not to be emotional as I slip it into the oven. I wish it luck, close the door, say a few Hail Marys and let go. A few minutes go by and I haven’t heard much from my bread. I know it probably doesn’t need me right now, so I wait a few more. As time goes on, I start to worry and decide to just check on it from the oven window. Peering in…ugh, I can’t see with all the steam. Let me open the oven door just a crack, I’m sure it’s doing fine, but… maybe it needs more basting or more spraying. I open the oven and steam comes pouring out. “Stooooooooop,” the bread loaf seems to scream to me, “close the door, I’m cooking in here!” OK, OK, I’ll just give you a few sprays with the water bottle and be out of your way! Spritz Spritz. Alright, alright, I’m leaving… you let me know when you need anything.

Bun in the oven.

I close the door and wait and pace. It’s out of my hands now, I did the best I could. Over the next half hour, I try to help out only when I feel I’m needed. A few sprays here and there, I help it move from the hot oven to somewhere it can cool down and settle, I let the natural progression of things shape its flavors. Finally, all has calmed down; I feel older and wiser, and I look at the bread with educated eyes. My boule is not too shabby on the outside and beautiful on the inside, and I know many people will be dying to get their mouths around it. “I did OK,” I think to myself.

“We did OK.”

Spinach Mozzarella Stuffed Bread

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 cup or more water
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 pound frozen spinach
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  1. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl and mix well. Add the water a little at a time and knead with hands and until the dough forms a ball, adding a tablespoon more water at a time until it becomes smooth; if the dough begins sticking to the side of the bowl, you’ve added too much water. No harm done: add 1/4 cup or so of flour and keep going. You’re looking for a moist, slightly shaggy but well-defined ball. If the dough is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Turn the dough ball onto a well-floured surface and knead for a few minutes.
  2. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and let sit for at least an hour at room temperature.
  3. While the dough rises, heat the frozen spinach in a large saucepan with the olive oil and garlic until warm.
  4. When the hour is up, use a small strainer or your fingers to dust a little flour onto a counter or tabletop. Using your hands, push the dough into the shape of a large rectangle. Brush with olive oil and add a thin layer of the spinach mixture. Top with 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Fold the right side of the dough into the middle and fold the left side on top of that (making a tri-fold, like you would fold a letter to fit into an envelope). Heat the oven to 400°F while you let the bread rise (covered with a towel) for another hour or two.
  5. When you are ready to bake, slash the top of the loaf once or twice with a razor blade or sharp knife. If the dough has risen on a cloth, slide or turn it onto floured baking sheets or gently move it onto a lightly floured peel, plank of wood, or flexible cutting board, then slide the bread directly onto a pizza stone. Or you can bake on lightly oiled baking sheets. Turn the heat down to 375°F.
  6. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature of the bread is at least 210°F (it can be lower if you plan to reheat the bread later) or the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Remove, spray with a bit of water if you would like a shinier crust, and cool on a wire rack.

What I Ate (These Past 3 Months) Wednesday

Throughout my 6 years of French lessons, in between insulting our jaded American attitudes and telling us that no one in France would ever actually be able to understand our terrible accents, my bitter instructor would pause daily to impart on us some examples of how Europeans exceed us in all areas of life.

If it wasn’t terrible enough that the French somehow manage to maintain the smallest waist-lines in the developed world on a steady diet of butter, cheese, and pastries, one tidbit that burrowed its way into my small American mind and made itself a bitter home was the knowledge that all French workers get 7 weeks paid summer vacation that they can take all at one time.

Yes, while most of us full-time workers here in the U.S. are sitting in our window-less cubicles, counting down the days to that 1-week vacay we begged our bosses for this year, most of France is gayly sunbathing their perfect, topless bodies on the beaches of the French Riviera while stuffing their faces full of soft cheese and macarons… and will be doing so for the next 5-11 weeks. What the eff? The world is a cruel, cruel place, mes amis.

Clearly my 1/4 french heritage has been having an affect on me, because summer hiatuses seem to have become a theme of this little blog. Last year I flat out took the summer off, this year I seem to have taken an early spring leave of just under 3 months…

And lot has happened in 3 months. Since I last posted, the weather has shot from a consistent 40 degrees straight up to 90, flowers have bloomed, pollen has infuriated my sinuses, the “S*** ______ Say” meme has died, and giffs have somehow become popular again through #whatshouldwecallme-type blogs. Yes, we’ve come a long way in 3 months.

When someone asks me what I’m making for my next blog post.

Expectation:

Reality:

But just as the French still manage to vacation and eat their hearts out at the same time, just because I haven’t been bloggin’ doesn’t mean I’ve been skipping out on making yummy meals (without the help of an iron, I might add)…

…And since I’m so back-logged, what better way to play catch-up than to join in the fun that is Peas and Crayon’s “What I Ate Wednesday”!

So without further ado, here’s what I cooked (and ate) while “en vacances” (as the French would say)…

Peas and Crayon’s own Quinoa Fried Rice

Skillet Penne With Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Cannelloni Beans, and Mozzarella

Toasted Coconut Cake Pops (my own creation!)

Decorated Marshmallow Peeps

Cadbury Deviled Eggs

Real Deviled Eggs

“Slutty” Brownies

Vegetarian Paella (From a bargain aisle cookbook) 😉

Spinach, Tempeh, and Rice Pilaf (my own concoction!)

Apples Galore!

Is it just me, or did mother nature skip over Fall this year? Two weeks ago it was in the upper 70s. Last Monday we turned on the heat in our house for the very first time. Three days ago I dusted off my winter jacket and bundled up with a scarf and gloves.  Yesterday I walked home from a Halloween party in three inches of snow. Today I went to CVS to buy Halloween candy and the Christmas stuff was already overtaking the seasonal aisle.

Is this some sort of joke, mother nature? What happened to fall foliage and sweatshirt weather and crisp evenings that make me want to consume mass amounts of cranberry apple tea? I feel like I’m being robbed of my second favorite season (second only to Christmas season, o’ course!).

Regardless of the weather’s severe lack of cooperation, I’ve been pretty darn proud of the work I’ve put in to appreciate what semblance of Fall has been given to us…

I’ve worn lots of pretty, colorful scarves. I’ve taken long, ambling walks through Beacon Hill, appreciating the “classy” fall decorations. Come Monday, I will have attended three Halloween events… in costume.

But most importantly, I’ve made a concerted effort to consume something pumpkin or apple flavored on a daily basis.

Not that it’s been hard… no sir, not when you have 25 pounds of fresh picked apples like we do! Yep, that’s right, 25 pounds…

Whoever gifted all those apples to my roommate probably thought they were doing something exceptionally nice, but for the past two weeks we’ve been feeling completely overwhelmed with the seemingly bottomless bag of apples on the floor of our kitchen…

We’ve both been packing them every day with lunch. My roommate (a teacher) hands them out liberally to her kids when they’ve forgotten a snack. We made a year’s worth of apple sauce with about 30 apples… and we still have enough apples to pack both of the crisper drawers in our refrigerator.

So last weekend, I decided it was time to bunker down and go to town on our apple supply…

I know what you’re thinking…

Apple pie?

Close…

Apple turnovers!!!

Anyone with half a brain knows that the best part of apple pie is when the crust gets all ooey gooey with apple sugar goodness. Most of the time, when someone cuts me a slice of apple pie, I scoop out the innards and concentrate solely on the warm, gooey crust…

That’s why turnovers are so awesome! They only use an itty bitty spoonful of apple pie filling, surrounded by a big heaping mass of layers upon layers of puff pastry. One turnover is like eating a Laurenized slice of apple pie… all crust, with just a hint of goopiness!

Not to mention, they’re SUPER easy, which is a necessary element of any baking endeavor for me, since I’m severely lacking in baking mojo.

Apple Turnovers (adapted from allrecipies.com)

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 Granny Smith apples – peeled, cored and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 (17.25 ounce) package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
  • 1 egg, beaten
  1. Combine the lemon and 4 cups water in a large bowl. Place the sliced apples in the water to keep them from browning.
  2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Drain water from apples, and place them into the hot skillet. Cook and stir for about 2 minutes. Add brown sugar, and cinnamon, and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes. Stir together cornstarch and 1 tablespoon water. Pour into the skillet, and mix well. Cook for another minute, or until sauce has thickened. Remove from heat to cool slightly.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
  4. Unfold puff pastry sheets, and repair any cracks by pressing them back together. Trim each sheet into a square. Then cut each larger square into 4 smaller squares. Spoon apples onto the center of each squares. Fold over from corner to corner into a triangle shape, and press edges together to seal. Place turnovers on a baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between them. Brush the top of each pastry with beaten egg and sprinkle lightly with white (or colored!) sugar.
  5. Bake for 25 minutes in the preheated oven, until turnovers are puffed and lightly browned.

Zucchini Bread

If last week’s case of falling cake pops wasn’t evidence enough, here’s further proof of why I just don’t have the baker’s gene in me.

Every summer I seem to make a resolution to get on the ball with summer squashes and do something other than grill them or let them wilt sadly in a corner of my fridge. Every summer I’ve failed… and this summer has been shaking up to be no exception.

So last night I confronted the two zucchini hiding in the back of my fridge. “I will use you tonight!” I declared. Then, before they could protest, I quickly wielded my knife and chopped them into little half moons, raising a victory flag over my kitchen.

But then I got highly distracted by the avocados hanging out in a bowl on our kitchen shelf. Avocados are my kryptonite. So of course, what happened? I made myself a nice big bowl of avocado pesto (I am addicted) and totally forgot about the zucchini.

But I wasn’t just going to surrender and let the zucchini get the best of me. I would attempt zucchini bread.

With the exception of corn bread, I have never baked bread in my life. Ruh roh.

Here’s a word to the wise… zucchini bread requires grated zucchini. Grating a zucchini is a lot easier if you haven’t already chopped it into little half moons.

After 20 minutes of messy grating, with discarded scraps of zucchini all around me; I called in the big guns and grated my (still whole) yellow squash to make up the difference for all the zucchini I wasn’t getting out of my half moons. So now I had a hybrid squash-zucchini bread. Yep, my prospects were lookin’ pretty good already.

Thinking the hard part was over, I quickly mixed in all the other stuffs that goes into zucchini bread. Minus the nuts. Nuts in bread are a big “hell no” in my kitchen. Oh, and plus half a lime… because I had half a lime sitting around and figured “it’s all going downhill anyway, why the hell not?”

At some point, the improvisor in me decided adding some pumpkin pie spice would be a great idea. Little did I realize that our jar with pumpkin pie spice didn’t have one of those sprinkler lids on it.

Yep, pumpkin pie spice overload… this was going to be one spicy, squashy, lime-y bread.

Unfortunately, this story is pretty anti-climactic.

I’ve probably made this all out to sound much more disastrous than it actually was. The bread came out pretty near close to perfect for a first attempt. It was spicy and moist and sugary to boot… like carrot cake, but less offensive. Here’s proof that it came out whole, intact, and relatively normal looking:

The proof that it was acceptable tasting? I had one slice (I don’t really like spice breads…go figure), but when I woke up, half the loaf was gone. Someone(s) in this house must have found it worth eating. Victory over summer squashes? Accomplished!

Maybe for now I’ll leave the baking to my roomie. The oven scares me, I’m much more comfortable with the stove-top. Anyways, this zucchini bread is most certainly worth a shot if you have some wilting squashes that could use a little spicing up.

This recipe comes from Peter over at Souvlaki for the Soul. He seems to have a much better baker’s gene than I do, so I would certainly trust his judgement if you don’t trust mine. I mean, look at his photos… that bread sure looks deliciouso.

Zucchini Bread (From Souvlaki for the Soul, adapted it from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1 cup of brown organic sugar
  • 2 large zucchini grated
  • a good splash of vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups of self raising flour
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1/2 a teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 a cup of roughly chopped walnuts (I omitted and it turned out fine)
  1. Preheat your oven to 180 deg C (375 F)
  2. Lightly spray your baking tin with some olive oil or cooking spray
  3. In a large bowl whisk your eggs and gradually add the oil, sugar, vanilla and zucchini
  4. In a separate bowl combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and walnuts.  Stir this into the egg mixture until just combined
  5. Pour the batter into the pre greased baking tins and bake for approximately 50 mins…ensure the bread is cooked by inserting a skewer in the centre.
  6. Once cooked allow to sit in the tin for 5 mins and then invert onto a cooling rack.
  7. Enjoy with butter and a cup of coffee

Snitch Cake Pops!

Like all good kitchens, we have an extensive baking cabinet in our apartment. My roommate keeps it well stocked; she is our resident baker extraordinaire. Me on the other hand? I’m afraid of the baking cabinet. There are very precious few things that will motivate me to venture into it. Friends’ birthdays? Eh, maybe. Holiday cheer? Perhaps. Harry Potter? HELL YES.

I. love. Harry. Potter.

I cannot get enough. I waited in line at midnight to get every single book since Numero Three. I dressed up as Harry Potter on at least four occasions. I cried when I finished the last book. I’m pretty sure I went through an extensive depression in middle school when I realized life would never be as cool as it is in Harry Potter.

And now, the last movie is here and the Harry Potter franchise is coming to an end. I don’t quite know what to do with myself.

Amazingly, the other day I stumbled upon the most amazing sight. Food Gawker was showing a post for Golden Snitch Butterbeer Cake Pops. I nearly fell out of my work office chair in excitement. This would be the perfect way to pay homage to Harry Potter… in edible form.

Amy from amyBITES is the genius that came up with this concoction. She is my hero. I want to be her when I grow up. I firmly believe you don’t mess with perfection and Amy is far more qualified to lead you through this process than I am, so today’s post is going to be strictly photos from my cake pop adventure. For the recipes and instructions, you should follow Amy’s extensive instructions on:

Snitch Cake Pops
Butterbeer Cake
Butterbeer Frosting 

As someone who never bakes, I knew this was going to be quite the challenge to tackle.

The first challenge was locating the necessary ingredients. Cake pops require candy melts and other fancy baking equipment. Despite living in the city, the nearest place that sells candy melts was a 25 minute drive away. I had to rent a car. Yep, that’s dedication.

The recipe also calls for butter flavoring, which I imagined to be kind of like butter extract. Where does one find these things? Well, not at the craft store, that’s for sure. Shaws? Nope. Stop & Shop? Nope. Trader Joe’s? Nope. I settled for butter flavored flakes…you know, the stuff people who watch their cholesterol use on their baked potatoes.

Ooooo doesn’t that just look like snow? Powdered sugar is my favorite!

The principle of cake pops is easy peasy! Baked cake + batch of frosting + candy coating = cake on a pop. However, as I came to learn, there’s a pretty exact art to many of the finer points of the process. No foolin’ around here!

One such example is the science maintaining the delicate ratio of cake to frosting when rolling the balls. As Amy describes, the balls should be moist enough from the frosting to stay together, but not so much that the balls become heavy and slip down on their sticks. Ruh roh… disaster waiting to happen.

Amy said she used her entire batch of frosting for the cake pops, so naturally I assumed my outcome would be similar. But strangely, after just a few dollops of frosting, it seemed like my cake balls had become potentially too saturated. Bwahhhh!

But huzzah, for awhile, it appeared that everything worked out okay anyway! As you can see above, I was able to make a nice, solid, candy-coated pop.

But as the pops were left to dry, and later as I added wings, many of the cake balls fell down on the sticks, pushing the lollipop stick through the top and ruining the balls. With the wings, my pops just became too heavy. Sadtimes. 😦

I got about 5 good looking snitches out of the bunch, which I promptly froze and took precautions to protect. The rest of the pops I packed away safely so that I could assemble the wings just before serving them. This allowed me to save many from an unfortunate goring.

The whole process took the better part of a day, but it was a pretty darn exciting project! They sure turned some heads when my roommates and I brought them to the Harry Potter showing with us!

Would I do it again? For Harry Potter…you betcha!

Red Lobster Garlic Cheddar Biscuits

I have never been to Red Lobster, but I have heard far too many people rave endlessly about their garlic cheddar biscuits. Is it just me, or are these things popping up all over the blogosphere lately?

I’ve always been very curious to try these little guys to see what all the fuss is about, but as someone who is shy of anything resembling baking, I never got too serious about it.

That is, of course, until I bought a new app for my Mac called YummySoup! I am SO excited about this app; it’s like one big electronic recipe index where you can store photos alongside your recipes and import tasty finds directly from the web! It’s a food blogger’s dream app!

When I downloaded the app, it came preloaded with a handful of recipes from the web, and of course it came with an easy peasy recipe for Red Lobster’s garlic cheddar biscuits. It was a sign — I had to try them!

When I looked further at the recipe, I knew it was fate — the recipe called for 2 cups of pancake mix, and my roommate had been complaining for weeks that we had way too much pancake mix for a household that doesn’t eat pancakes. Killing two birds with one stone… that’s my kind of recipe!

So I whipped myself a batch of a dozen garlic cheddar biscuits and scarfed down the results…

The verdict? Yum-o!

But to be honest, I’m not that big of a biscuit fan. Don’t get me wrong, these little dudes were pretty awesome, but probably not awesome enough for me to muster up my menial baking skillz to make them on a regular basis. No skin off of my back, though… they were plenty tasty!

I would also like to note that when I took the biscuits out of the oven, I used oven mitts decorated with lobsters. Yep, that’s dedication to the theme right there!

Red Lobster Garlic Cheddar Biscuits (from Gimme Some Oven)

  • 2 cups buttermilk biscuit mix (such as Bisquick or Jiffy)
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic salt
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Prepare a baking sheet with cooking spray.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together biscuit mix, cheese and garlic powder.  Add in milk, and stir until well mixed.  (Heads up – the dough will get very sticky!)
  3. With a spoon or with your fingers, shape the dough into biscuit-sized clumps, and drop onto the baking sheet.  (Note that the dough will pretty much hold its shape when baked, so feel free to pat down random peaks in the dough if you’d like them to look more uniform!)
  4. Bake for 10-13 minutes, or until biscuits begin to brown slightly around the edges.
  5. While the biscuits bake, prepare the warm butter mixture by mixing together the melted butter, oregano and garlic salt in a small bowl.  As soon as the biscuits are removed from the oven, brush the biscuits (while they are still on the baking sheet) with the mixture until they are well-coated.