Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This just makes me happy

So it's Thanksgiving eve. I put the 16-pound bird in my traditional Ace Hardware five-gallon poultry bucket, poured over the all spice-, ginger- and black peppercorn-spiced brine, and headed to my parents' house to leave it overnight in their "walk-in" (a.k.a. their screened-in back porch, winterized with heavy duty plastic that keeps it around a perfect 40 degrees).

When I got there, Mom and Dad were kicking it old school:

Dad hasn't made pies in years. Years, I tell you. But when I was growing up, he made pies all the time. In fact, his pie and bread exploits inspired my love of baking. I have him to thank for this little obsession of mine, and it was awesome to see him in full effect. (Mom, for her part, was excelling at one of her most valuable skills: MAKING STUFFING.)

I am thankful for Dad and his pies, and Mom and her stuffing. And Husband. And Jet pup. And, perhaps most of all, little Son.

May you all enjoy this holiday with your loved ones and a big pile of delicious food. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Abiding love for an apple

October 25 can never come fast enough. For October 25 is the day each year when the Mutsus arrive.

Do you know the Mutsu? If you don't, I strongly suggest you make its acquaintance. The Mutsu is a tart green apple, a late-fall beauty whose tangy bite slowly gives way, if stored properly, to a subtle sweetness. She's a glory with which to bake, and a treat to eat. I go a little bit crazy waiting for her each year, counting down the days until the end of October, bypassing the lesser apples that are ready earlier. Then, finally, the cool fall sun rises on the 25th and I know what I must do: get to the orchard and buy a peck or two. And while I'm at it, I better get some for my dad. I didn't get him any this year, and I really heard about it. Had to make a special trip back to the orchard just for him.

The Mutsu is so important to me (well, as important as fruit can be to a person) that people who know me well often give me bags of them for my birthday. I load up my car with them and then take photos. It's a little embarrassing, really, such an abiding love for an apple. But I let my Mutsu flag fly.

Now. Even with all this apple-love -- even though I can easily eat my way through peck after peck of Mutsus, biting off big, tart chunks as I journey toward the core -- I still look for ways to bake with them. I feel that the Mutsu deserves a little diversity; maybe she wants to be tossed together with a little flour, sugar and butter and turned into something sweet, something delectable, something new. When I saw this recipe for apple and cheddar scones I got excessively excited. It was yesterday morning, really early (like 6:30 a.m. early) when I spied it. "Oooh," I thought. "The beer fridge is half-full of Mutsus. And I have that cheddar from Cheddar that the cute old British cheese man was sampling at West Point Market the other day." The freshly-baked scones were out of the oven by the time Husband and Jet meandered downstairs for their breakfast.

Now I know that the only thing better than a Mutsu, is an apple and cheddar scone baked with a Mutsu. These babies are amazing: sweet, tart, savory, buttery, possessing a depth of flavor not necessarily expected from a modest triangular lump of dough. I plan to bake a whole lot of them, until the beer fridge doesn't have any apples in it anymore.

However, please note that I stopped at the orchard again today. So it could be awhile.


Adapted from The Perfect Finish, by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark, via Smitten Kitchen

I doubled the recipe, baked half right away and stashed half in the freezer to bake another day (and by "another day," I mean tomorrow). To bake the frozen scones, just place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for a few minutes longer than the suggested time, keeping an eye on them to make sure they don't burn.

Update: Just baked the batch from frozen, and they're even lovelier and tastier than yesterday. So don't hesitate to pursue the bake-some-now, freeze-some-for-later option.

1 lb. firm, tart apples (like, ahem, Mutsus)
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. sugar plus a few more tablespoons for sprinkling
1/2 T. baking powder
1/2 t. kosher salt plus a pinch for egg wash
6 T. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 c. sharp cheddar, shredded
1/4 c. heavy cream
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Peel and core the apples, and cut each into 16 pieces. Place them in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake until they take on a little color and are dry to the touch, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let them cool completely on the baking sheet. Leave the oven on.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the cooled apple chunks, cheese, cream and 1 egg. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the top and mix on low speed just until the dough comes together. Do not over-mix. The dough will be very sticky.

Generously flour a work space and place the dough on top of it. Pat the dough into a circle about 1 1/2 inches thick and 6 inches in diameter, adding more flour if necessary. Using a bench scraper or a knife, cut the circle into 6 wedges. Transfer the scones to a baking sheet that has been lined with a fresh piece of parchment paper, leaving at least 2 inches between each scone. (Note: if you're doubling the recipe, divide the dough in half and make 2 6-inch circles, cutting 6 wedges out of each for a total of 12 scones.)

Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl with a pinch of salt. Brush the scones with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until firm and golden, about 30 minutes. Use a spatula to remove the baked scones to a wire rack; cool for 10 minutes before tucking in.

Makes 6 scones. Which is totally not enough.


Previously, on A Stove With A House Around It:

One year ago: twice-baked cauliflower
Two years ago: ribollita

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bread Baker's Apprentice 18/43: light wheat bread

Please forgive the vulgarity, but I just have to say it: Holy crap! I baked some bread today!

I mean, seriously! I baked bread! It's been so freaking long since the last time I baked bread that I really thought my days of absolutely needing such specialty items as a dough whisk and a couche in my kitchen were over. There wasn't even any good reason for my hiatus. I can't blame lack of time: making homemade bread requires very little active time -- just lots of rising time. I can't blame lack of supplies: my pantry is full of flours, from cake all the way up to high-gluten. I can't blame anything, really, except my sorry-ass self. I forgot how easy -- and how tremendously rewarding -- it is to bake your own bread.

So, back I go to The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge. I swear I am going to finish this thing, I swear. You see, I attended* a three-night cooking class with Peter Reinhart himself at the Western Reserve School of Cooking in June and was inspired anew to immerse myself in all things yeast. Unfortunately, I was way way pregnant and that inspiration was sapped rather quickly by my need to watch old episodes of "Saved By the Bell" in bed. What can I say.

Peter was awesome, though, and very supportive of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challengers (one of my fellow bakers -- Phyl of Of Cabbages and King Cakes, who very long ago rather impressively completed the challenge -- was also in attendance). I learned a lot during those three nights, but my favorite lesson was the realization that I can totally make these breads just as well as Peter can. The delicious samples he shared with the class were amazing, but not much different than the finished breads that come out of my kitchen. Which is not to say that I am so awesome, but rather to say that Peter is a fabulous teacher whether in person or via the pages of a book. It is also to say: bread-making, while seemingly difficult and often perceived as beyond the scope of everyday home cooking, is completely accessible and easily accomplished with just a small investment of time and patience.

Peter was focused almost solely on his Artisan Breads Every Day book, which emphasizes the no-knead method. Not having any experience with no-knead breads, I was fascinated to see just how much gluten can be developed just with a little time and zero effort. Light bulb! The first night was dedicated to multi-purpose lean dough, challah and sweet dough for cinnamon and sticky buns. The star of night number two was focaccia. And on the last night Reinhart gave us pizza dough. So much pizza dough, topped with everything from caramelized onion marmalade to pesto to fresh Roma tomatoes and bright parsley.

Having already completed part of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge prior to the classes, there was a lot in the Peter Reinhart canon that I already knew. But that certainly didn't mean there wasn't a lot to learn. For example:
  • Use parchment on your peel. I have yet to master the smooth use of the pizza peel; I dust my peel liberally with corn meal or semolina before placing the pizza dough on it, but I can never get the dough to slide effortlessly onto the pizza stone without making a giant mess. Peter's solution: place parchment on the peel, then add the dough, then slide the whole thing off the peel onto the stone. Well, duh. Why didn't I think of that? Brilliant.

  • Contrast is a powerful culinary principle. I knew there was a reason I liked salty with my sweet, and crispy-crunchy with my soft and tender. It is the reason why I work to create a thick, chewy crust on a loaf of hole-y ciabatta.

  • Whole wheat flour absorbs more water than white flour, so to convert a white flour recipe to whole wheat you'll have to add an extra 8-10% hydration to the mix. Very good to know.

  • The baker's job is to evoke the full potential of flavor that's trapped inside the grain.

  • Peter's definition of baking, oft repeated during the course of the three nights is as follows: "Baking is the application of heat in an enclosed environment for the purpose of driving off moisture."
As interesting and informative as these random tidbits are -- culled from the margins of my class notes -- Peter was at his very best when he was letting his seminarian past shine. A one-time member of a holy order, Peter described the act of baking his breads with spiritual metaphor that is more earthy than preachy. Call it the gospel of grain: "Bread is a transformational food," he says, describing the process of taking the living wheat, grinding and milling the life out of it in the process of making flour, then infusing it anew with yeast. Baking then kills the yeast, creating bread, which we eat to sustain our own lives. In the wrong hands, such metaphor could be annoying. But with Peter, it is passionate and honest and sincere, born of a simple love of bread and respect for wheat that produces some of the best loaves you'll ever taste.

And you know what? Bread is transformational, as much as it is elemental to human existence, nourishment and joy. The very best thing I learned those nights is a practical message that any novice bread baker can appreciate: even if your bread fails, people will still love it because it's homemade. "It is always a hit no matter how it comes out."

*Please note: Dad bought the classes for me for Christmas last year. Let it not be said that I failed to acknowledge him publicly for this awesome, most perfect gift. And not only is he generous, but he's handsome, too!


So it seems I've used the occasion of the next challenge recipe -- light wheat bread -- to pontificate about Peter in person. Alliteration aside, let me tell you a little about this bread. It's the only loaf I had made prior to starting The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge, as it's the only recipe in the book that doesn't require more than one day of fermentation. The dough produces a lovely golden sandwich loaf, flecked with whole wheat and ever so slightly sweetened with a touch of honey. The crust is crunchy and firm and the crumb is soft and pocked with small, pleasing holes (see above regarding the importance of contrast).

This is the bread I made when I vowed, oh so long ago, that I would bake all my own bread. I even kept up with it for about a month, churning out a loaf every few days. I need to pick up that habit once again, for light wheat bread is delicious, and satisfying, and easy, and what the hell. Stop reading this and go and bake some.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not share the recipes for the challenge loaves. However, I have it on good authority that you can find the recipe for Reinhart's light wheat bread on the excellent and lovely Smitten Kitchen blog. I'm just sayin'. However, if you're feeling that now is the time to buy Reinhart's book -- hello, finally here's a bread that can be baked in just one day! -- head on over to Amazon and pick up a copy. The recipe starts on page 181.

Finally, in honor of my triumphant return to bread-baking, I have submitted this here light wheat bread to Yeastspotting.


Previously, on A Stove With A House Around It:

One year ago: sesame butter cups
Two years ago: pizza Margherita and pizza with sage-walnut pesto and gorgonzola