Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Baked baking soda...is that a thing?

Recently when I told a few folks I was planning to make pretzels, there was mention that the use of lye is the kicker when it comes to producing that perfect chewy, dark pretzel crust.

I grinned.

I have used lye when baking pretzels and bagels, and I remember well the goggles, rubber gloves, long sleeved shirt, extra towels, and extreme caution necessary to safely handle the lye solution. Not the most fun, but hey...the price we pay for yummy pretzels, right?

Not so! There is actually a perfectly effective stand-in for lye when baking pretzels or bagels, and most kitchens have it...or at least the raw form of it. Yes, I am referring to baking soda.

Now, before you roll your eyes and remind me that everyone knows baking soda doesn't work like lye does, let me explain a few things for those who may not be familiar with the process.

Lye is extremely alkaline, usually between 13 and 14 on the ph scale. Hence the need to prevent skin contact with it, as it can cause nasty burns. When you add it to boiling water and drop a raw pretzel into it, it immediately begins to quickly cook the outer, now water-soaked surface. When you pop that wet pretzel into a very hot oven on a baking sheet, that already-forming crust on the outside effectively holds the moisture inside the pretzel while it bakes, producing the characteristic dense, chewy, absolutely delectable texture common to good pretzels.

Bear in mind, you will need to be properly protected from that lye solution in order to prevent injury to yourself. Oddly enough, after baking those pretzels are not dangerous at all!

So where does baking soda come in? Well, here's the thing: We really don't need the intensely alkaline ph 13 solution to produce that lovely pretzel crust and texture...actually, a ph between 9 and 10 is perfectly sufficient and is much less touchy to work with! Ordinary baking soda's ph is right about 8.1, so still not akaline enough for our pretzel-extravaganza-purposes. BUT...

A tiny bit of chemistry:

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. When heated above 300 degrees it loses moisture and decomposes into sodium carbonate, water, and carbon dioxide. Incidentally, the release of carbon dioxide is the reaction that causes baked goods to rise when leavened with baking soda or baking powder. When heated alone the carbon dioxide dissipates, the water evaporates, and we are left with sodium carbonate with a ph around 9.4. Significantly more alkaline than the original baking soda, and definitely alkaline enough to make our pretzels perfect!

*A word of caution* Though cooked baking soda does not reach the extreme alkalinity of lye, it is still a definite irritant if it contacts your skin! Be careful when handling it dry, avoiding leaving it on your skin if it happens to land there. Be dilligent with cleaning it from countertops and wiping up drips after it is mixed with water. Store it in a clearly labeled container so you don't confuse it with your regular baking soda for other uses.

So how do we make it work? It's simple. Pour a couple of cups of baking soda onto a flat baking sheet and bake it at 300 degrees for an hour. Let it cool on the baking sheet and then scoop it carefully into a clearly labeled lidded container for storing. When making pretzels or bagels, you will add 2/3 cup of this high alkalinity soda to 8-10 cups water and bring to a boil. When you have formed your pretzels or bagels, slip them into the boiling water bath for 30 seconds or so, then remove with a slotted spatula to a greased baking sheet. They are now ready for an eggwash, coarse salt or whatever other surface finish you prefer just before going into the oven.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool believer in lye being absolutely necessary for good pretzels and bagels, I may not have changed your mind and that's okay! But if you would like to give pretzels or bagels a try without the culinary version of a haz-mat suit, you might enjoy the baked baking soda method.

As always, I welcome your comments so feel free to share your thoughts!

Here's to great and simple baking,

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The fresh bread rebellion

I have been asked many times, “Why go to all the hassle of baking bread when it’s so easy to just buy it at the grocery store?” My answer is very simple with just a hint of rebellion: “Because I can”. With most foods, fresher means better…the same is true of bread. I try to use locally produced ingredients as much as possible, from the flours produced by west coast grain farms to honey produced by local bees. The result is high quality, flavorful bread without the additives commonly found in commercially produced breads. Nothing flashy, just a simply excellent product.

But how is that “rebellious”, you might ask? That too, is very simple.

In our society, “fitting in” is highly prized. Our modern methods, the “new and improved” ways of doing things can cause older, more traditional methods to be lost over time as we move toward a cookie-cutter style of living. Just ask anyone under the age of thirty how to go about making butter from cream, or how to tell when a lump of bread dough is ready for the oven. These are examples of only two skills that used to be common knowledge in every home. But now we rely on the “professionals who know what they’re doing” every day to produce these things for us, so as a society we are forgetting how to do them at all.

This is where the rebel rises.

This is where I choose instead to purposely keep those older skills alive and then pass them on to others who are interested. This is where I choose to offer to my community something as simple as the fresh homemade bread my own family enjoys. Simplicity Rebel Bread comes from our own kitchen in our very ordinary home…simple, yet with that independent streak that says, “I can do it myself”. Thank you for the privilege of sharing it with you, as together we keep the tradition of fresh-baked bread alive!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bread pudding

Bread pudding, you say? What in the world could possibly be so great about pudding made with bread?

Aaaaaahhh...let me start the list...

First, every household ends up with leftover bread that no one eats before it gets dried stale. Our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression knew how to waste not a single shred of food...and those dried out scraps of bread add up. So if "waste not want not" is part of your lifestyle, bread pudding is a great way to make something tasty with those otherwise useless scraps.

Second, bread pudding is a rather versatile product! You can bake it with fruit mixed in or plain...you can add fruit as a topping...you can make it savory instead of sweet and serve it with chicken gravy over the top...the possibilities are endless! Once you have mastered the very simple art of a basic bread pudding, you can alter it to suit whatever sort of dish you would like it to be.

For this particular bread pudding, we will walk on the sweet side and give examples of a few fruit additions that make a splendid dessert.

6 cups of soft bread torn into small pieces
4 cups milk
5 eggs
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t. nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 t. vanilla extract
finely grated zest from 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups raisins (optional)

Here's how it goes together:
First turn your oven on to 350 degrees so it can preheat.

Warm the milk and butter in a saucepan over medium heat on your stove. Stir now and then until the milk is warm enough that the butter melts completely. *If you plan to include raisins, dd them to soak in the warming milk to re-plump them a bit.

In a separate bowl, whick together the eggs, sugar, and spices. Slowly drizzle the warm milk and butter into the egg mixture, whisking while you do so.

The reason for the slow drizzle while whisking the warm milk into the egg mixture is to prevent actually cooking the eggs with the hot milk. If the milk is a little warmer than you realize and you dump it all at once into your eggs, you could end up with small lumps of cooked scrambled egg in your pudding. Definitely not a reason to toss it out, but also not really the effect we are shooting for, either.

Lay your bread in a square baking pan. Either pyrex glass or a metal pan are just fine, whichever you have on hand. Pour the milk and egg over the bread and use a spoon to gently squish the bread down if it floats. Place it in the center of your oven and bake for 40 minutes. Check with a butter knife...if a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, the pudding is done. If not, give it five more minutes.

Now you get to decide how to dress up your bread pudding! You can always add fruit directly to the pudding itself by mixing it with the bread before you pour in the milk and egg mixture. Raisins, chopped apples, peaches, cherries, plums, or berries work really well and can make your pudding fabulous all by itself. Or you can create a topping to add to the pudding after baking, giving it a bit of rest time before serving to allow the syrupy juices to soak into the top of the pudding. Here are a few of my family's favorites:

Apple topping: Chop 4 Granny Smith apples. Heat in a saucepan over medium heat with 1/2 cup orange juice until bubbling. Stir together 1/2 cup of sugar and 1T white flour and add it to the bubbling apples, stirring constantly until it thickens (Takes just a minute or two.)

Blueberry topping: Exactly the same as the apple topping above, except use three cups of fresh blueberries.

Peach topping: You guessed it, exctly the same as the apple topping except with peaches!

Buttery caramel drizzle: In a saucepan over medium heat, mix 1/4 cup butter, 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup of half-and-half, and a pinch of salt, stirring constantly. The sugar will dissolve and the mixture will begin to thicken. Add 1t. vanilla extract and continue stirring. Set aside, then drizzle over the top of your bread pudding when it comes out of the oven.

Remember that you can change it up easily by using different fruits as they are available, so don't be afraid to experiment...enjoy your pudding!

Olive herb rounds

The scent of freshly baked bread is wonderful all by itself, but with olives and fresh herbs added to the aroma it is utterly amazing! This bread can be baked in rounds or loaves, whichever you prefer. Use it for toast, sandwishes, or just a tasty aside to your favorite meal. Ready to make some? Here we go!

First, a word about olives. There are many varieties available and everyone has their favorites. Bear in mind that enjoying an olive all by itself is a it different than baking it into a loaf of bread, so don't feel obligated to break the bank buying expensive olives. Simple black and green olives will do just fine, and are much less expensive than some of their exotic cousins! That said, let's get started.

3 cups whole wheat flour
3 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
2 1/2 cups warm water
2 T salt
1T sugar
1 1/2 T dry yeast
3/4 cup black olives, sliced or rough chopped
1/4 cup green olives, sliced or rough chopped
2T finely chopped fresh garlic or green onion scapes
2T finely chopped fresh parsley
1T finely chopped fresh oregano
1T finely chopped fresh parsley
2T olive oil

Here's how to do it:

Proof your yeast by mixing it with the warm water and sugar. Let it sit for several minutes until it begins to bubble and appear foamy on top. It will build thicker and thicker foam the longer you let it sit, which is just fine. If it takes you a while to get back to it, it will not be harmed by the delay. Meanwhile...

Finely chop your fresh herbs. If fresh are not available to you, dried herbs will work just fine. Just remember to use only about half as much when using dried herbs because they shrink quite a bit during drying so there is more there than you might think! Also, feel free to adjust herb portions according to your taste or even add different herbs than I list here. Lean the flavor toward seasonings you enjoy!

Now, about those olives. You can either slice them neatly or just chop them roughly, whichever suits you. Then take your olives and your chopped herbs and stir them into your water and yeast mixture. Let them sit for a few minutes to flavor the liquid a bit, then add your salt and olive oil to the mixture.

In a large bowl, start with your whole grain flour and pour the liquid into it. Give it a good stir to incorporate everything together. Stir the white flour in about a cup at a time until stirring with a spoon seems like more work than it is worth with still a cup or two of flour waiting to be added, then switch to using your hands.

Plop the dough out onto your counter top (it is probably still pretty sticky at this point) and add some of the remaining white flour. Knead your dough, adding from your remaining white flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to you, the counter top, and anything else it touches! It will begin to firm up and become less sticky, and you will begin to feel a "springiness" developing in the dough. Keep on kneading because that springiness is the gluten developing and that gluten is what holds the bread together. Add sprinkles of flour as needed to prevent sticking, but don't overdo it.

Gauging how much flour to continue adding while kneading is the most often asked question about bread dough, along with knowing how long to knead it in the first place. This is the part of bread baking that you just have to learn by experience...and you WILL! The good thing is that you really can't knead bread dough "too much", as kneading evens and softens the texture...and that can't be bad! If you perhaps stop kneading a little too soon, your finished bread will just be a bit more coarse and have a less even texture with more holes, but even then it will taste good and not go to waste. As for stickiness and adding flour, again it is a judgment call based on a lot of variables. On a hot, dry day you might find yourself needing less flour, whereas on a cool day with rain you might need a little more flour during kneading. No, I am not joking, the weather really does affect your bread dough! So be prepared to make the same bread recipe several times on different days and get the feel of it. Pretty soon you will "just know" when your dough feels right. Now back to your olive bread...

Place your dough to rise for an hour or so either in a bowl covered with a towel or plastic wrap, or a plastic container with a lid. Called a "proofing box", any container will do that has a lid that closes snug. This helps to prevent the dough from drying out and forming a crusty surface, as well as holding in warmth and moisture which helps the dough to rise well.

When your dough has roughly doubled in size, oil your pans and portion the dough in them to rise a second time. This recipe will make two full sized loaves with a little left over for a mini round roll. (I usually weigh my loaves to 22 ounces of dough before baking.) No need to cover the loaves for this second rising unless your kitchen is very breezy. I often DO cover my loaves when I have the window open and/or the fan turned on for my own comfort.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Just before baking, slash the tips of the loaves with a sharp knife or razor blade. I score my olive loaves three times in the same direction with the center slash the longest...you can choose whatever pattern you like the look of. Set your loaves in the oven with the rack in the center and bake for 30 minutes. Loaves will sound hollow when tapped when they are finished baking.

Brush with olive oil and let the loaves rest in their pans for a few minutes after removing from the oven, then they will pop out of the pans easily.

So, there you are! It may seem tricky at first, but after you bake this bread a few times you will manage it with no trouble. Enjoy your olive bread!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Emergency substitutions

So, here you are in your kitchen with plans to create a fabulous dish for your dinner table, only to realize you are missing a key ingredient. A trip to the market for one little item does not seem a good use of your time, so you wonder if you could just substitute a different ingredient. Good news! It is often possible to fudge your ingredients a bit without affecting the final outcome of your dish. Here are a few such substitutions that might just save your bacon!

  • 1 cup cake flour or sifted flour = 1 cup minus 2T all purpose flour
  • 1T cornstarch = 2T white flour or 1 1/2t arrowroot, rice flour, or corn flour
  • 1T baking powder = 2t cream of tartar plus 1t baking soda
  • 1 cup brown sugar = 1 scant cup white sugar plus 3T blackstrap molasses
  • 1 cup corn syrup = 2/3 cup white sugar plus 1/3 cup of water
  • 1 cup sour cream = 2/3 cup sour milk plus 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 cup cream = 2/3 cup mik plus 1/3 cup unsalted butter 
  • 1 cup whole milk = 1/2 cup evaporated milk plus 1/2 cup water, or 1 cup reconstituted dry milk plus 2 1/2t butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk = 1T vinegar or lemon juice plus milk to make 1 cup. Let stand five minutes before using.
  • 1 whole egg = 2 egg yolks for use in custards or puddings, or 2 egg whites to replace oil in breads when reducing fat content is the goal
  • 1oz square unsweetened chocolate = 3T dry cocoa powder plus 1T butter
  • 1T fresh herbs = 1t dried herbs
  • 1 small fresh onion = 1T dry minced onion
  • 1T prepared mustard = 1t dry mustard plush a splash of vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove = 1/8t garlic powder
  • 1 cup tomato juice = 1/2 cup tomato sauce plus 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup tomato sauce = 2T tomato paste plus 3/4 cup water
  • 1 cup butter = 3/4 cup oil in most recipes...not intended for pastry

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Coconut oil, butter, and other oily issues...

I enjoy cooking with simple, natural ingredients whenever possible and that includes the oils I use in my baked goods. My favorites are olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, and of course the ever-present butter. Nutritional and health-related opinions abound for every sort of oil these days, with advice evolving as researchers understand more and more the effects of certain fats on our physical health. I have been using a blend of butter and coconut oil for many of my cooking and baking needs, more on that in just a minute.
Photo by Kimmerleplan.com

Now, I am neither a chemist nor a cardiologist but I do understand the difference between fats that the human body recognizes and knows how to metabolize, and altered/manufactured fats that are foreign to our basic chemistry and are not designed to be ingested by living creatures.

I will spare you my rather disturbing description of the discovery of margarine for example, and how it stopped being used as the food source for which it was designed because the creatures it was designed to feed kept dying when they ate it. Pretty icky stuff. If you really want to know, we can discuss it.

For now I just try to stick to oils that occur all on their own in nature and actually seem to provide benefits to our health.

But here's the thing! Butter tastes great, but have you seen the price of it lately? It sells for as much as $5/pound...OUCH! The organic coconut oil we buy works out to about $3/pound, which is not only less expensive but also carries numerous health benefits. Aside from cooking with it we also use it in our toothpaste, lotion, hair conditioner, and deodorant...it is very versatile stuff, so good to have on hand anyway.

Also remember that certain oils work well for different purposes. For example, oils such as olive, grapeseed, avocado, sesame, coconut, and canola oil all reach their smoke point between 350 and 400 degrees. Whole butter's smoke point is considered to be 350 degrees. So none of these oils are ideal for high temperature frying. Peanut oil, soybean oil, and safflower oil all reach their smoke point at 450 degrees or higher, making them much more suited to high temperature cooking but along with canola oil they are now produced largely from GMO crops, a fact important for those trying to avoid GMO foods.

But let's get back to that idea of blending butter with coconut oil. Both are saturated fats, which means that at room temperature (generally considered to be 60 degrees) they are solid. I simply melt one cup of butter and one cup of coconut oil together in a saucepan over low heat, then pour it into a lidded container to cool. The two blend together perfectly when melted and then re-solidify as they cool.

So the next time you shop for butter and oil, remember three things to protect: your health, your palate, and your pocketbook. Real butter and coconut oil work for all three, and I think you will enjoy the results!

As always, I welcome your comments!

Apple Blueberry Muffins

One of my "yummy memories" from my childhood is of blueberry muffins. They have always been a favorite of mine, and as a child I savored the sweetness of the muffin, the tangy berries, the butter melting down over it all...that is one delicious memory!

This recipe pairs blueberries and apples together, a perfect blend of sweet and tart. It has "snack" in mind rather than "dessert", so I use a little less sugar and add a helping of oatmeal.
The process is simple, so let's get started!

3 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal (Quick-cooking type is fine if it's what you have on hand)
4 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch salt
1/3 cup melted butter            
1/3 cup melted coconut oil
1 cup milk
3/4 cup water
2 eggs
1 1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into blueberry-sized chunks

**You may use a total 2/3 cup of melted butter if you do not have coconut oil at home.

  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees with the rack at center height, and lightly grease your muffin tins or line with paper muffin cups. If you make standard smaller sized muffins one dozen to a pan, this recipe makes about 20-24 muffins. Making larger deli-sized muffins, this recipe makes about 10 muffins. 
  • Melt butter and coconut oil together in a small saucepan over very low heat.
  • In one bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and spices.
  • In a second bowl, mix together the butter, coconut oil, milk, water, eggs, and oatmeal. Soaking the oatmeal in the wet mixture for a few minutes will soften it and produce a lovely texture when baked. When I make these muffins, I chop my apples now while the wet mixture soaks together...just the perfect amount of time.
  • Add the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients, stirring just enough to moisten. It is just fine if there are a few lumps in the batter, but you don't want to over-stir or your muffins will end up heavy. Add the apples and blueberries.
  • Fill muffin cups almost full so they develop a high, rounded top. Everybody likes the top part the best!

Baking time varies depending on the size of muffins:
  • Bake smaller muffins for 15-20 minutes, checking for doneness with a toothpick if you're not sure. It should come out clean.
  • Bake larger muffins for 25-30 minutes, and feel free to use that toothpick to be certain they're baked through.
  • Remove from pans and cool on a towel with a towel laid over the top as well to hold in moisture.
Now, about that coconut oil/butter combination in the ingredients. I enjoy using a butter/coconut oil combination in my baking, and I explain why here. I encourage you to try it and let me know what you think!

Enjoy your muffins as a warm buttery snack with a cup of tea, or as a handy take-along item for your lunch bag. These muffins are very moist so will hold up well to freezing if you want to bake ahead of time and put some away for later!

As always, I welcome your comments. Happy baking!