Why I like Mario Batali.

January 24, 2010

I went to the library today hoping to pick up a copy of Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas so that I could try the 100% whole wheat bread that is being talked about on The Fresh Loaf lately and, after being told by the library that there was no guarantee they could find me a copy, slunk somewhat spritely in defeat to the cookbook section, looking to dull my disappointment somewhat by finding something else to tickle my fancy for a time. I came home with four worthy selections:

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which needs no introduction.

Whole Grain Breads by Peter Reinhart. I have Bread Baker’s Apprentice and love it for ideas on breads, so I wanted to see what this particular book was like before I place an order on Amazon for it next month. I’m particularly impressed with the epoxy method. It works very well.

Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes by, well, Martha Stewart. I know, I know. I don’t really want to be known as the Iowa version of her, but there’s worse things to be considered. It has nothing to do with the fact that there’s a recipe for a malted milk chocolate cupcake in there. Not at all…

The last, and not least, of the selections I stumbled upon more by chance. I happened to look in the section where they kept all the other Food Network personality cookbooks and thought I struck gold:

The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali was there, and I was taking it home.

The biggest reason it appealed to me, at least insofar as I skimmed it while standing there, was the sweet pea flan. Oh. My. God. It looks like heaven in a little green package. And with a carrot vinaigrette and mint garnish? Yes, please.

When I got home I perused a little further in. Asparagus Vinaigrette with black pepper and pecorino? Yes. Basic pasta recipe that’s easy to understand? So there. Duck. Liver. Ravioli.

My mind is racing.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I know that most of these dishes are beyond my grasp simply for reasons of ingredient availability. The asparagus you can find right now is skinny and woody. Pecorino cheese has to be sourced from 40 miles away. And I have no idea where I’d go to find duck liver. My budget constraints are a whole five page story themselves.

However, I don’t really have to.

One thing about this book is that, yes, this is what they make at Babbo, but he also gives some substitutions. He subscribes to a philosophy that I really relate to: find the freshest ingredients you can and make something great out of them. I can look at the recipes in this book and say “as soon as I can find this, I’ll make it this way, but until then, maybe I can substitute that” and it’ll still be okay.

The other good thing, though, is that not all the recipes are that hard to source ingredients for. There may be a few popping up here soon.

Another thing he seems to be on the same wavelength as me about is the fact that the small things matter. As I write this, I have a very large pot full of chicken pieces simmering away on the stove. Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, that humble pot of cast-offs will have been transformed into the most luscious, decadent stock imaginable. It will go into many things that I could’ve used store-bought stock for, and those things will be better because of it. You wouldn’t think that something like homemade stock would make a difference, but it does, both on the wallet and the palate. It is worth the time and the minimal effort that goes into cutting the vegetables, throwing the chicken in on top of them, filling the pot with water, and setting it to simmer.

The same goes for a loaf of bread. Sure, you can take some flour, salt, yeast, and water and create a loaf of bread, but it will have almost no flavor. Take that same flour, salt, yeast, and water and let it slowly ferment over hours and you have something transcendent and amazing.

These simple touches are what make a meal memorable. Your guests don’t have to know that you’ve done it, but when they ask where you bought the incredible sauce or the tasty loaf of bread you can proudly tell them that you made it yourself. They may even ask for the recipes.

Of course, there’s the fact that it feels good to create these things yourself as well. The sense of accomplishment is amazing.

Today: stock. Tomorrow: chicken and dumplings, fresh tomato sauce, fresh pasta for freezing. After that? Who knows. All I know is that as a cook, and as a person, I’m better for doing all of it. I appreciate my food more when I have to work a bit for it. And I’m finding out that there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of work if that work gives me something so far above what I can buy it’s almost spoiling me for store-bought forever.

Imagining how great my risotto with peas and parmigiano will taste is all the incentive I need.

More Alexander…

January 14, 2010

Talking to the stuffed animals on the toy bar.

“Okay, mom, I’m done.”

He weighs 15 pounds. He’s 2.5 months old. That’s about double his birth weight. He’s tall *and* round, though, unlike my daughter was. She was just round.

They get so big so fast.

No baking today, but…

January 11, 2010

He’s a mover and a shaker, definitely.

I’m counting the days until I can get the Rebel and 50mm lens.

The Non-Sour Sourdough.

January 8, 2010

Since I cannot seem to get a good photo of the loaf, I’ll give you the crumb of this bread. Maybe I can take a better photo tomorrow. But I have to tell you about it.

My plan this week was to make San Joaquin sourdough and the La Brea bakery bagels that were posted on Wild Yeast a while back. Neither of those two things even got to the dough stage, but I had built up starter for both. I wanted to use some of it at least, so I decided to do this bread.

100g of starter went into a dough that came out with a total weight of just over 1680g. The taste of this bread is amazing. It’s complex. I think it’s the best bread I’ve ever baked if you disregard the fact that all the loaves blew out the sides due to underproofing.

But it isn’t sour. Not even remotely.

There are many reasons why this could be. My starter could’ve been a little past its prime as it had been on my fridge, being stirred occasionally, for about 36 hours. It could be that my starter has more yeast than the lactobacterium that make it more sour. It could be the phase of the moon. Whatever, I think someone else needs to use the formula and report back to me what they find.

Non-Sour Sourdough

100g very ripe starter
944g bread flour
633g water
20g salt

Mix all ingredients until a shaggy dough forms. Fold in the bowl 20-25 strokes every thirty minutes for three total folds. Ferment over night until double. French fold twice during second fermentation. Shape into loaves and proof. Bake at 450 for 10 minutes with steam, then at 425 until done.

Here’s a crappy photo of the finished loaf.

If anyone wants to take a stab at this I’d like some other thoughts.

Sourdough…or not.

January 5, 2010

Sourdough purists who feel the need to spout off on every person who uses commercial yeast in a few of their doughs are really starting to piss me off.

You know what, it’s perfectly fine to have an opinion. It’s your right to express an opinion. Do you people not get that you don’t have to be a complete dick about it? Do you not realize that every time you spout your mouth off about how ‘this isn’t real sourdough’ and ‘you can’t call it sourdough’ you may be discouraging yet another person from eventually getting to the point of trying a commercial yeast free sourdough bread?

Hear me out a second.

The world of completely commercial-yeast-free sourdough is a little intimidating. Creating your own starter is a mysterious and wonderful thing to most of these newbies. You people, though, can dash their hopes against the wall before they even get started baking. Some of these people haven’t used anything other than a bread machine before and are just getting started into the world of real artisan baking. So what if they, perhaps, use a recipe with a little commercial yeast for their first time? Wow, magic, it works, they’re so excited that they want to try something without.

What those of you with bad attitudes don’t seem to realize is that you’re losing valuable new recruits into the sourdough world by being complete asses about it. I actually agree with you that things that are not risen by natural yeasts alone should not be called sourdough anything, but the difference is that I would take the time to explain my view instead of just relaying how ‘disappointed’ I am that ‘this isn’t real sourdough’. Next you’ll be telling me that my favorite sourdough sandwich bread, which uses all natural culture, isn’t sourdough because it isn’t sour. Oh, wait, is it?

Maybe we need to re-evaluate some of these terms. Or maybe we all just need to lighten up about it. It’s baking, not religion. Leave the zealotry to those people.

Most people can make a decent loaf of bread if they try. It really isn’t hard to combine yeast, flour, water, and salt to get a dough worthy of being baked and called bread. What really takes it from just being bread to being amazing bread, astounding bread, and even possibly a bread that transcends the mundane, is time. Time to ferment, time to proof, time to bake. Time to learn.

One of my goals in this coming year is to start a journey into learning what we call artisan bread really is. I don’t think I know. I have some idea from reading what other people have to say, but I think that most of my education will be from actually making the breads and getting my fingers in the dough.

I don’t think that this type of bread baking is just about providing food for our families. I don’t think it’s just about the art of the finished loaf, either. The joy isn’t just in the finished product, but the process by which the loaf gets made. When a bread is made by someone who thoroughly enjoys the entire process it comes out in the finished loaf. It’s almost as though love for the craft is something you can taste.

I plan to share formulas, tips, and photos of breads that I’ve baked on this website. Both formulas that are successful and those that fail will be featured. I learn much more from my failures than my successes most of the time. May as well let others learn from them as well.

Life as a full-time mom can be a little crazy. I suppose I can file that little pearl of wisdom under the “No Shit, Sherlock” (from this moment on known as (NSS) heading in my mental cabinet. I expected it. I thought I was ready for it.

You’re never ready. That one goes in the NSS File as well.

I learned that NSS moments happen a lot when you’re a brand new mom, especially with your first child. It’s almost a given that you’ll have at least one moment a day for the first few weeks, and generally it will get better over time, but I’m noticing that going from one kid to two can really throw you off your game.

The thing that really threw me for a loop, though, was going from one sex to the other. Changing the diapers of a girl is pretty simple. If you don’t quite get the diaper on her in time there’s a good chance she’ll soak the changing pad. If you don’t get a diaper on a boy quick enough, there’s a good chance that he’ll soak you. NSS. When what the pee comes out of is pointed up, it would follow that you’re going to get sprayed. This took 3 or 4 times of getting me, the couch, the floor or the curtains by the changing table wet.

Can I at least use the excuse that I was sleep deprived?

What does this have to do with a food blog? This is the ‘mama’ part.

Baking is what I do when I’ve had a few too many NSS moments in a day and I have to unwind. I also tend to do it when I want my family to have good things to eat instead of supermarket crap. I cook, too, and this is where the New Year’s Resolution comes in.

One of the things that I want to do next year is cook. At least 5 out of the 7 days I want to be making the family meal. I’d like it to be more than that, but we’ll see how things turn out. Reasoning? We have no restaurants to speak of in this middle-of-nowhere town, the ones we do have seem to have gone pretty much downhill, and I’m actually quite skilled at making my own foods.

The real resolution here, though, is that I want to try different things. My husband and I seem stuck on the same boring food. I used to be quite adventurous in my cooking but have become somewhat less so since we started having kids. It actually seems, though, that my daughter is willing to try quite a few different things and, in my opinion, if she can try new things then so can my husband.

This blog will be a chronicle of my recipes, trying other people’s recipes, and the learning process of motherhood. I expect there to be a lot of NSS moments.