January 31, 2005

Dear friends, I do apologize.  Such a fuss I made here yesterday, so much noise, so much mewling and puking and fretting.  For all my noise about the choices we make, and how they tell in our bread, and how I couldn't take it back, and why didn't I roll it up the long way, this is what came forth from the oven:

Almost_toast_1

Sandwich_xsec_1

Posted by Bakerina at 09:28 PM in Truly, Madly, Deeply • (2) Comments
January 30, 2005

This Sunday in beautiful uptown Astoria finds me as most Sundays do, dancing back and forth between things. There is bread to bake, a bathtub to scrub, more egg research to do, a proper tribute to John Hess to be put to words, although those words will probably turn into a screed about how last Wednesday's New York Times food section had not a word to say about him, even as they had room for more verbiage from their food critic about the restaurants at the Time Warner Center, mostly about how -- shock and amazement! -- the restaurants aren't at street level! They're on the fourth floor! If I were to write a "Dear friends at the New York Times Dining In/Dining Out Section," I would paraphrase what a letter writer once wrote to the late, much-missed Trouser Press Magazine about MTV: "Why all the worship of the TWC restaurants? Make 'em take out an ad instead." Nonetheless, even in the midst of all this frenetic sitting-around, I find my thoughts pleasantly absorbed by a pair of comments to Friday's post, one from Owen on bread and its memory, the other from Tvindy on the, in his words, "subliminally sexual aspect" of the food photographs I took while on my writing retreat to Arkansas last summer.

As I write this, two loaves of bread are proofing in the kitchen, growing nicely to conform to their buttered tins, short, plump and so close-grained as to be almost without texture. This is no ciabatta, no peasant loaf, defined by the bubbly, lace-like crumb that comes from careful preservation of the air pockets that form during fermentation; looking at the internal crumb, you could almost mistake it for pound cake, but for the taste, which is not of sugar or egg, but of sweet wheat, augmented by milk and a little butter. I have no doubt that the bread will be good, very good, even, but I still feel a bit of dissatisfaction at the choices I made in the shaping process: I formed the dough into a log, using the shaping techniques I learned during my bread bakery apprenticeship and practiced a thousand times at the shaping table, but I overestimated the elasticity of the dough and formed the log by rolling up my carefully-formed rectangle along the short end, not the long end. It's not wrong, but it will definitely give me a different shape than it would have if I'd made another choice, and I will be haunted by this, wondering what would have happened had I done it differently, at least until I get the chance to make more bread.

It is not just the shaping that tells in the final loaf, though. What you get at the end of your bake depends on the type of flour you use, the type of yeast (commercial or wild? straight dough, sourdough or preferment?), how long and vigorously you mix your dough, how you shape it, what cuts, if any are made in the dough prior to baking, the amount of steam in your oven. Short of anything that would actually deflate your dough in the oven (such as tearing the dough in a way that causes all the air to rush out, or overproofing the dough, which renders it too weak to hold on to that lovely captured air during baking), odds are that none of these choices will make or break your bread; in general, bread is a forgiving little critter, and you will still end up with something that is a pleasure to eat. But what makes breadbaking both frustrating and exciting is discovering how much you can and can't control. We can't control weather, humidity, vagaries in the flour or in our ovens, but we can make adjustments in the way we work with the dough, to compensate for these factors. It can be quite an emotional workout, baking bread, even at a large-scale commercial level. (Any doubts I had about this were dispelled after the August 2003 blackout in New York City, when the woman who owned the bakery where I apprenticed told tales of watching literally thousands of pounds of dough rise, overrise and bubble onto all available surfaces, effectively voiding two days' worth of production.)

Since I am loath to continue rabbitting on in such generalized, teetering-toward-pretentious-nonsense terms, I'll give a concrete example. In 2002 I took a pair of week-long professional breadbaking classes in Vermont. One of the key lessons our chef gave us was that gentle handling of the dough would reward us with a loaf of bread that retained the deep flavor and sweetness of the wheat from which our flour was milled. Vigorous kneading was saved for specific breads, like brioche, where you need strong gluten development to counteract the gluten-weakening properties of butter and eggs. For most other, leaner doughs, Chef recommended that we mix our doughs just enough to incorporate the ingredients; from there, we would turn the dough into large tubs to ferment. The dough would be loose and soft; after 1/2 hour we would give the dough a series of folds, also known as "turning," that served to strengthen the gluten without overworking the dough. (Chef has told stories of people who trained at bakeries where the dough would be kneaded vigorously, at high speeds, for 20 minutes; the result was a bubbly extensible dough, but a dough bleached out by vigorous oxidation, which effectively killed the carotenoid pigments that give bread such wonderful flavor and color, and gave the dough the appearance of toothpaste.) One day we were making ciabatta, which required mixing the dough, fermenting it for half an hour, turning it and letting the fermentation continue. On one batch of dough, we had forgotten that it had already been turned and we gave it a second turn, which tightened the dough further.

When we finished baking the breads, Chef took one of the properly-turned breads and put it next to the bread with the extra turn. We could see that the latter was smaller, and more neatly-shaped. He cut the breads open and we tasted; both were full of the heady, clean flavor of wheat, but the extra-turned bread had smaller air holes, less translucency to the crumb, just a different mouth-feel. Again, it wasn't bad bread; in fact, it was very, very good bread, but looking at them side-by-side, we could see just how much memory bread has, and what a difference our choices make.

As for Tvindy's assessment of my photography from the retreat...well, dear friends, I'll just post some examples and you can judge for yourself. I don't know if I felt particularly inflamed, subliminally or otherwise, when I took these pictures, but I do know that I was thoroughly absorbed in the work I was doing, and I was as close to perfectly happy as I've ever been in my life; it was only missing Lloyd, 1,300 miles separating us, that kept that happiness from being absolute. In one day, one three-hour plane ride and a 90-minute ride through northwest Arkansas, I went from being a harried, cubicle-bound desk monkey to a writer, a real writer, in a way that I never felt while squeezing writing around a full-time job and the other ephemera of daily life. It was the first time that all that was expected of me was to write, and read, to do research, to turn my mind out of its normally crabbed, cramped space and let it breathe deeply. This is not to say that it was all exciting, a Happy Land of neverending baking and writing and drinking wine on the deck, although I did plenty of all of that. Much of my time was spent not on writing or baking, but on research, and most of that research took the form of hours of crawling through the online catalog of various ag school libraries, downloading those articles I could read online, copying the catalog information for the ones I couldn't, as a plan for future research trips. I still remember the day I decided to skip my daily walk into town so that I could get a full day's work done; by the time dinner was over, I was restless and ready to do something else, but except for the bars in town, everything else was closed and the trolleys had stopped running. I found that if I took the morning off and worked in the afternoon, or if I took the afternoon off and worked in the morning, I was ready to come back from dinner and keep working, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning. What a glorious luxury that was, the luxury to find a schedule that worked for me. How I miss it, now that I don't have it anymore.

It was in this frame of mind that I took these pictures, but I never realized how it showed until now. I only knew, at the time, that I was working with beautiful produce, creating beautiful things, and I was captivated by it all. It has been 20 years since I first read, in college, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, and even though I nodded in agreement when she said that the two things a writer truly needs are a fixed income and a room of her own, I never understood her point as viscerally as I do now, remembering my time at the Colony, looking over my photos, feeling a renewed sense of longing and frustration, wondering if I will ever be able to achieve this state ever again.

To those of you who saw these photos last summer, when I was freshly enraptured by the amazing farm butter and eggs and cream and fruit to which I had daily access (and which I miss, even now, six months later), I apologize if you feel as if you're having leftovers for dinner. But it *has* been six months, and I'm still enraptured, and, like a proud auntie, I just can't help but share.

Rich_medium_light

Big_fella_little_guy

Butters

Raspies

Accidental_pie

Gooseberries_quart

Okay, the gooseberries are a cheat.  I bought those after I had returned to New York.  But I was freshly returned from Arkansas and I was still inspired.  I found the gooseberries at the market.  Hello, beautiful, I said.

Posted by Bakerina at 03:29 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
January 29, 2005

Sweet_potato_brioche

No, these are not new sweet potato brioche.  They are, in fact, the sweet potato brioche I made one night at the Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow.  We had sweet potatoes left over at dinner one night; I had a recipe for pumpkin brioche that suggested using sweet potato as an alternative; the rest, as they say, was accompaniment to dinner the next night, and sandwich fodder the day after that, and bread pudding the day after that.

I'm trotting them out tonight, though, because after a six-month hiatus largely brought about by my own self-pity and brooding about the future, the weekend bread bake is back.  I had stopped, not consciously, but stopped nonetheless, mostly because I couldn't make a loaf of bread without missing the bread bakery I had planned to open, but couldn't, due to a lack of startup money.  Baking a loaf of bread, even a simple white sandwich loaf, was in my mind the equivalent of listening to the music that reminds you of your ex-lover, the one who got away.  I didn't need that kind of grief in my life.

Except that I do.  Like writers who quit writing in frustration, only to discover that they have no outlet for that deep wild feeling inside unless they write, I turned my back on bread, immersing myself into desserts, cakes and biscuits and pie after pie after glorious pie, and while there's still a place in my kitchen for all of this stuff, I can't deny that bread gives me something that is entirely singular.  It gives me faith and confidence in my own fingers and nose.  It makes me feel soulful and well-placed in the universe.

Earlier this week I received a care package from the kind and wondrous 'mouse (who, again, I would be linking to if only he weren't so stubborn on this refusing-to-blog issue of his; dear friends, you really want to check out my June and July 2004 archives, read all of 'mouse's guestblog posts, and then flood his in-box with e-mails until he agrees to blog just to shut us all up) that included a pint of homemade blackberry jam.  Be sure to eat the jam within a month after you open it, quoth the 'mouse, or it will turn into blackberry wine.  While I love blackberry wine just fine, I know that Lloyd would appreciate the jam better, so I shared 'mouse's advisory with him.

"I'll eat it on toast," he said.  "I can easily eat it all if it's on warm, scrummy toast.  Will there be toast?"

There will be toast, the basic white sandwich loaf that is nearly impossible to find in bakeries, and of which the horrible white sandwich loaves sold in supermarkets are but a pale imitation.  Although you can mix the dough on Friday night and bake it on Saturday morning, it benefits greatly from a long slow cold rise in the fridge, so I will be baking our bread on Sunday morning.  I will be making our toast late Sunday morning, as Lloyd calls out, "Is it toast yet?"  And I will remember the lesson that I learned in one of my pro baking classes in Vermont:  bread has a memory, and every step you take, from the mixing of flour and water to the brushing of the loaf tops with egg wash, every step makes itself manifest in that final, finished, perfectly lovely little loaf of bread.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:34 AM in stuff and nonsense • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
January 26, 2005

Girasoles

It is a cold night in the city, a night full of wandering around dirty slush mazes, feeling the wind blow up our legs no matter how carefully we layer and bundle, bracing ourselves for more snow and ice and bad news.  It might be a paltry gesture to fight back by looking at these sunflowers, which I found at the farmer's market in Eureka Springs during my time in Arkansas last summer, but it works for me:  those flowers, those scallions, those herbs, even that yogurt, they all bring me back to a day in late June, when the air was warm and wet, when bees the size of soybean pods looped through the branches of the mimosa tree outside my bedroom window, when I was awakened every morning by the ridiculously beautiful perfume of those fuzzy purple mimosa blossoms, when I was expected to spend the day writing and that's exactly what I did, when the day was full of beauty and the future was full of bright and promising things.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:22 PM in stuff and nonsense • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
January 25, 2005

Dear friends, I can tell what you're thinking.  You're thinking, hold on...this piece seems awfully familiar...well, you're right.  The piece below originally ran on PTMYB on December 11, 2003.  Lest it seem that I am degenerating into cheesy-clip-show theatrics, I promise that this is not the case.  I decided to rerun this piece as a tribute, after a fashion, to John L. Hess, who died on Friday at the age of 87.  Together with his wife Karen, John Hess is my ultimate food hero; it was their iconoclastic 1970's masterpiece The Taste of America that shaped my deepest feelings about food and cookery, that convinced me that I wanted to write about food, and that I wanted to study food history, serious, disciplined food history, not a glib pop-culture shadow of food history.  In The Taste of America, Mr. and Mrs. Hess identify Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families as the finest cookbook written in the English language.  I should be doing better by John Hess than this, but tonight I just can't find the words to explain just why he was a giant among journalists, so instead I will share with you one of the finest cookbooks I own, and I will raise a glass to John Hess, for if it were not for him and his brilliant collaborator, I never would have found it.

Today Julie Powell announced the official closing of the Julie/Julia Project. For those not familiar with her or her blog, Julie Powell was a bright, frustrated administrative professional working in Lower Manhattan and living in Brooklyn (later Long Island City, Queens) when she decided to embark on an ambitious project, namely preparing each of the 536 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. By day she went to work; at night she came home and prepared blanquette de veau and Jambon Braise Morvandelle and a series of aspics, each more terrifying than the one that preceded it. Each night's cooking adventure was recorded in her blog, which attracted a large, fascinated and devoted readership. Eventually the media (including CBS News and Amanda Hesser of the New York Times) took notice, and today Julie Powell has an agent and a book deal. Her book is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2005. It is a writer and cook's dream writ large, a career born of something originally started as a lark, and in my opinion, it could not happen to a more deserving cook/writer than Julie. Her blog is -- or was -- great reading. Julie is funny, salty, opinionated, bemused by the task she set in motion, yet ultimately glad for it.

When news of Julie Powell's book deal broke, I received a lot of helpful suggestions to try the same thing. Hey! You're a writer, you know food, why don't you pick a cookbook and cook your way through it and blog it and shop around for a publishing deal? Because the people who recommend this course of action are generally sweet and kind, I try to be diplomatic when I tell them I've heard better ideas. Assuming that I had the stamina to do something like that, there is something vaguely pathetic about glomming onto a good idea and hoping lightning will strike twice. This might be fine for network programming executives, but I don't want to do it, at least not now. Regardless of my opinion of savekaryn.com -- I was not impressed, to put it mildly -- I will give her credit for having enough moxie to be first out of the gate with the internet-panhandling idea. I give less credit to people who tried to panhandle their way to divorces, breast implants and sportscars.

Nevertheless, a girl can fantasize, and if enough time passes where it is once again acceptable to cook one's way across a book and keep a meticulous journal of it, I have my candidate at the ready.

The first edition of Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton was published in 1845. A revised, updated edition was published 10 years later; it is this edition that was published in facsimile by Southover Press in 1993. It has been acknowledged as one of the finest cookbooks in the English language, and it is easily one of the best cookbooks I own, superior, in my opinion, to the vaunted 20th century kitchen bible, The Joy of Cooking.

Although it was written over 150 years ago, Modern Cookery is still so appropriate, so usable and practical that it would not be untoward to think of it as Timeless Cookery for Private Families instead. Unlike many of the cookbooks published in the 18th and 19th centuries, Miss Acton's cookbook was directed at small, middle-class families, rather than to the mistresses of households with a full complement of servants. As a result, very little scaling up or down needs to be done to these recipes to make them practical for daily use today. Most of her contemporaries included detailed directions for housekeeping, which, while interesting from a historical perspective, ultimately gives the books a dated feel. Miss Acton preferred to focus, in her words, on the "elegance and economy" of food, and it shows. Every page is replete with the consideration, intelligence and energy she brought to her work, and the result is a sublime collection of recipes and instruction.

I reread the soups chapter on the subway home tonight, and I was filled with the desire to make every single soup, even consomme, the time-consuming and meticulous rendering of bones into clear, concentrated meat stock. I wanted to make milk soups, and beef tea, and mulligatawny, and the extraordinary-sounding Mademoiselle Jenny Lind's Soup, which was given to Miss Acton by a popular Swedish writer, who in turn obtained it from the great singer's cook. It is made from strong veal or beef stock, eggs, cream and sago, a tapioca-like starch. Miss Acton said that Miss Lind tended to take it before performances, as she found the sago and eggs soothing to the chest and beneficial to the voice. (This recipe was later "appropriated" by Isabella Beeton, who changed its proportions slightly and rechristened it as "Soupe a la Cantatrice." About 100 of Miss Acton's recipes were similarly lifted, revised ever so slightly, and published without attribution in Beeton's Book of Household Management. Sadly, Mrs. Beeton was neither the first nor the last writer/editor to produce a cookbook in this way. The 18th and 19th centuries were rife with cookbook plagiarists, and it would be disingenuous to say that such dirty tricks are behind us today.)

It is a dangerous thing for me to quote Miss Acton, because the temptation is strong to quote the entire book (but I will not). I will give, however, her recipe for something which sounds like a heavenly dish for a cold wet night, an original recipe of hers she calls "The Young Wife's Pudding":

Break separately into a cup four perfectly sweet eggs, and with the point of a small three-pronged fork clear them from the specks. Throw them, as they are done, into a large basin, or a bowl, and beat them up lightly for four or five minutes, then add by degrees two ounces and a half of pounded sugar, with a very small pinch of salt, and whisk the mixture well, holding the fork rather loosely between the thumb and fingers; next, grate in the rind of a quite-fresh lemon, or substitute for it a teaspoon of lemon-brandy, or orange-flower water, which should be thrown in by degrees, and stirred briskly to the eggs. Add a pint of cold new milk, and pour the pudding into a well buttered dish. Slice some stale bread, something more than a quarter of an inch thick, and with a very small cake-cutter cut sufficient rounds from it to cover the top of the pudding; butter them thickly with good butter; lay them, with the dry side undermost, upon the pudding, sift sugar thickly on them, and set the dish gently into a Dutch or American oven, which should be placed at the distance of a foot or more from a moderate fire. An hour of very slow baking will be just sufficient to render the pudding firm throughout; but should the fire be fierce, or the oven placed too near it, the receipt will fail.

In a postscript, Miss Acton cautions the reader that while this is an easy and satisfactory pudding, it is easy to ruin if the cook does not watch the temperature of the oven with care. It is a plain, grand dish, and it shows Miss Acton at her best: her attention to detail, her no-nonsense but good-humored voice. These qualities are found in abundance throughout the book, evidence of the years she spent testing and retesting, writing and rewriting. (According to Elizabeth Ray's introductory notes in the 1993 edition, a review in a popular magazine of the day stated that Miss Acton had spent ten years writing Modern Cookery, and compared her sauces to those of the great French chefs Vatel and Careme.) The chapter on fish preparation, and the introductory chapter on carving techniques, should be used as primary texts in cooking schools. Not only are they filled with meticulous direction, they are also illustrated -- as is the rest of the book -- with detailed, breathtakingly beautiful prints, near-perfect combinations of form and function.

It strikes me that I am doing a poor job convincing myself that it would be a bad idea to do this. But no, I will not steal Julie Powell's thunder.

Miss Acton wrote another book two years before her death, a smaller but still-brilliant and well-considered tome, The English Bread Book. Maybe if I start small...no, no, no. I will be good. For now.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:17 PM in valentines • (0) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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