Thursday, November 04, 2010

Halloween Candy Cookies

I really can't stand Halloween candy sitting around, gnawing at my children's brains, waiting to throw them into sugar highs and crying fits. Ick. That's the down part of motherhood. Plus there's the good possibility that I'll ask (or sneak) a piece of candy here and there until it's all gone, and that's probably my bigger fear!

The up part of motherhood is being clever with the candy. This year I took most of the chocolate items (the delicacy!) from the bags of my two younger children and made cookies.

First, chop up as many candy bars as you can into little bite-size chunks. Add the M-n-Ms. Maybe not the skittles. Throw them in the fridge so they don't fall apart while mixing into the dough, while you make the dough.

That's the second part. Use your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe base. Mine is at the bottom of this post (and it's totally okay to cheat...I didn't refrigerate the dough before baking, and I only used all-purpose flour; I was obviously anxious to use up those bars).

Stir in the goodness. (I added a generous 4 cups of candy to the cookie dough.)

Follow the baking directions for the recipe, making cookies that aren't too big. Let them cool 3-4 minutes on the cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack, or they'll likely stick.

If you were wise in your choices, you'll have toffee, nutty, crunchy, peanut buttery goodness throughout the cookies. And, if you're lucky enough to have lots of friends, I suggest giving most of the cookies away immediately.

Get 'em while they're hot!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sourdough, part 1: Starter

It's been a long time that I've wanted to post about how to do sourdough, but there were so many problems with it: I wasn't happy with everything I made, I didn't feel confident in my ability to discuss it, and I do all my sourdough starters and bread measurements in grams, which aren't very friendly to the masses for a blog. Also, there's no way to talk about sourdough without going into a lot of depth.

But it's finally time. How? you may ask. Well, I consistently love my bread now, and I'm pretty sure I know why it turns out well. Also, I've decided it's okay to post in grams. It's European-style bread, for goodness sake. As for the depth of the's not like I don't have the ability to go on for a long time, so I'll just say what I need to say. And break it up into multiple posts if I need to.

Since I've gushed very recently, I'll try to keep that to a minimum, but I need to start by saying that I have spent considerable time reading and studying from Daniel Leader's Local Breads and Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. While each has been very instructive, being able to learn from both of them has helped me understand how to move forward on my own, to come up with my own formulas, with a decent grasp on bread basics, especially pertaining to sourdough and fermentation. If you're feeling serious about hearth breads, you should have them on hand.

*little note: If you don't already, you really need to get used to making notes in your cookbooks. They should feel like a workbook, especially since you bought them to learn from. Sometimes I go a year between repeating a recipe, and I need to know if I like certain changes I made and want to continue them. Buy a coffee table book for the coffee table, but use your cookbooks.

Let's start with making the sourdough starter. This is surprisingly easy. All you need is flour and water. That may seem preposterous, but it's true. The only catch is that it's a good idea to have a wee bit of rye flour at the beginning, as rye is very easy to start a sourdough with. (It ferments at a faster rate than wheat flour, so it jump starts the action. After feeding and refreshing the sourdough with wheat (all-purpose or bread) flour, the rye will have disappeared, so it doesn't turn up in your bread unless you're adding rye at a later point.) Wild yeast is in the flour and in the air, so you don't need to add anything to start the process, just feed it with flour everyday and give it time to grow.

All-purpose flour or bread flour is fine. I prefer to use bread flour, as it has a higher protein content and will help develop the gluten in dough a bit easier, giving your bread structure and stretch (and chewiness), but there's not a big difference, and the protein doesn't play any role in the sourdough itself.

So here's what you do: in a very clean environment, stir together 150 grams of room temperature water with 75 grams flour, about half rye and half all-purpose. Cover it loosely with plastic and leave it on the counter for 24 hours. Then every day for the next several days (about 5-7), add the following: 35 grams of water and 60 grams of AP (all-purpose) flour. If your water is really chlorinated, you should use filtered water in your starter so yeast and other bacteria aren't kept from growing.

Each day, before you feed your starter, note the changes. At first you'll see next to nothing. As the days progress, though, you'll notice air bubbles on top and inside the starter. You'll also smell earthy, acidic smells that will increase and alter throughout the process. Also, always make sure your hands, containers, and utensils are very clean. Introducing other bacteria into the starter can alter it or even kill the yeast.

Somewhere between days 5 and 7 (usually; it can take up to 10 days), you'll notice that the culture will have risen about half again in the 24 hour period (a mason jar can be helpful for storing the starter on the counter, so you can track how much it rises), and it will be full of bubbles inside. Daniel Leader explains the smell and taste perfectly: it will smell like very ripe apples, and it will taste tart and fruity. If you taste it before it's ready, you'll note the change when it is ready, as the tartness will zing on your tongue.

It's like magic in the kitchen when you reach this point. You started with just flour and water, and now you have a leavening agent. Are you impressed? You should be impressed.

At this point, you'll start the normal refreshing process, something you'll try to remember to do every week, but will at least do just before you bake with the sourdough and no less frequently than every 2-3 weeks (or maybe 4-8, but then you have to scrape off the icky top before refreshing). To refresh the starter, you have to throw some away (but don't be sad; you're only getting rid of about 20¢ tops) and feed the rest, so it can continue to grow at a healthy pace. This keeps the bacteria (which gives it the sour taste) under control, so it doesn't overpower and lessen the strength of the yeast. It also feeds the yeast, so it can continue to grow. Sort of the same thing, really.

Anyhow, throw out all but 50 grams of your starter. To it, add 50 grams of water and 87 grams of AP flour. Mix thoroughly, cover loosely in a container marked with the spot it reached when first mixed, leave it at room temperature, and check it in 8-12 hours to be sure it has doubled in volume. If it has, it's ready! If not, go back to the feeding stage for a few more days.

If your starter is ready, you can use it at this point or cover it with a lid and place it into the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

I'll post pictures shortly, and tomorrow we'll turn our starter into bread!!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why I Love to Cook

I know I'm supposed to be posting about bread, but that will take a lot of time that I don't have available until tomorrow, and I've been thinking about this subject today. Maybe because I'm blogging again, maybe because I've baked yesterday and today, but for some reason I want to gush about the joy of being in the kitchen.

I'm fully aware that cooking isn't for everyone. I try to make my recipes easy to follow and appealing for people who like food but fear cooking. This is one of the things I really enjoy about blogging. I have a firm belief that everyone with decent (average) taste buds should have the opportunity to eat really good food, and really good food isn't always hard to make. (Some of it is, and some of it is way beyond me; I'm okay with that...that's what restaurants and invitations to friends' houses for dinner are for.) I love getting comments from people that have followed my recipe and found that it works well for them. I actually get loads (and by loads, I mean well above a dozen) of google hits everyday from people searching for recipes like M&M cake (maybe there aren't many out there?), canned salsa (try googling "canned salsa"), bacon chipotle potato salad, Puerto Rican flan (because I'm very Puerto Rican...see my picture in the left column), and others. A lot of Guittard chocolate interest. Shocking that I'd come up on those searches.

Anyhow, I'm tickled pink that I can help people find recipes they're looking for. Recipes that I trust and try and love and want to share. See how I get all gushy just thinking about it? I know it won't change the world for everyone to eat good food, except it might. Seriously, don't you think it could? Well, we don't have to discuss that.

Now that I've gone on and on about why I love to blog about food, I really should tell you what I said I would. Why I love to make good food. That's easy. It makes me giddy to cook something perfectly delicious. I love the way flavors complement each other in a dish or dessert. I love the way salt brings out deeper flavors like chocolate or beef. I love the way sugar can complement salt, especially when you have a perfect balance of salty, sweet, and acid. Like in pie crust. Or mole.

I love the way a good bread rises just right and forms a good crust. I love knowing that almonds have toasted perfectly in the oven by just starting to smell them two rooms away. I love seeing chocolate chunk cookies come out of the oven just medium golden, knowing they're not going to fall but they'll still be chewy in the center.

I love the char on a good grilled steak, and the way a smoky grill or rosemary improves the flavor of lamb. I love learning more about flavor combinations, especially with herbs, like mint and nectarines, or tarragon and lots of things I've never tried with tarragon yet but should. I love the combination of flavors in Mexican cuisine, the way food can taste bright and alluring in the heart of winter.

Learning new techniques and improving them makes me feel accomplished and pleased, like when I understood laminated dough and made really good croissants and kouign amann. Or understanding sourdough, as I read my cookbooks cover-to-cover like the textbooks they're intended to be (the ones I like best, anyhow).

I love cooking with my kids. Cooking is like a great science experiment with the best results, since you get to eat them. I love that aspect, and my kids do, too. Spending time with them in the kitchen can be hilarious and happy.

And after I make something really delicious, I love to give it away. To my family, to the neighbors, to friends, to Mark's coworkers, to anyone I want to show that I care.

I seriously love cooking.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

High Altitude Gardening, part 1

It's June 9th, and my garden looks like this:

Even worse, I didn't take a picture of all the weeds, which I've been laboring mightily to clear out today. The soil is quite poor, but I'm too cheap to buy more top soil right now, so I'm just working with what I've got: a hoe, some gardening gloves, and a little muscle (probably a little more after today).

I've been semi-consciously ignoring my weeds. I've loved gardening in the past, but last year in January we moved to a new home, located conveniently for cool summers at 6300 feet. Not so convenient for gardening, as the growing season is chopped off about a month or so on each end. Last year's endeavors were a waste. My one hope was for my herbs, but I planted them before we were into full summer and discovered too late that they weren't near any sprinkler system. Luckily I have very hearty thyme, curly parsley, and strawberries that love it here, whether they've been loved or not. I'm a big fan of thyme, so this is pleasing. My garden spot that I cleared from a few bushes, lava rocks, and lots of weeds ended up being the wettest spot in the yard, and it was a wet spring. Nothing lived.

I'm not giving up. In fact, I was excited to plant my spring seeds (peas, in the pod and to be podded, and lettuce) early on. We'd lent our hoe out, though I didn't know it, and I just had a hand cultivator, so I didn't do much with the soil. I just pulled a few weeds and made a quick row, then my kids helped me add the seeds to the ground, cover them, and water them. That was April 14, give or take a couple of days. It snowed within 2 days, so the seeds didn't come up.

And then it warmed up for a fews, but then it snowed again. The pattern kept repeating, and we finally got our last bout of snow (I hope?) two weeks ago. About six inches. They melted very quickly.

My seeds never came up, so I knew I'd eventually just replant them. Only I was wrong! They came up this week – two months after I planted them! I found them today when I was weeding. How is it that the weeds had grown so quickly and so tall when my little seeds were just sprouting? Ah, I know, that is the life of the weed. In any case, I was thrilled.

However, I looked at the sky and noticed I had 10 or 15 minutes left before it rained, so I quickly finished hoeing the weeds then raked them away. I stuffed them into a garbage bag just as the first drops were falling on my back.

Then my kids gathered on the front porch with the neighbors to enjoy the cool wind and the rain. With blankets and creamsicles. Listening to Taylor Swift.
Why am I posting about gardening? Well, it's my food blog, and my garden contributes to my food, and I think this growing season may turn out to be a bit frustrating. I may need an outlet for venting, so I'm just preparing y'all.

Tomorrow, I'm going to finally post a full how-to on sourdough bread. I'm guessing the post won't be short. Here's my teaser:
Yes, those are my real hands, and no, I'm not a paid hand model. Thanks for asking!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Coming Soon...

Yes, I'm going to start posting again! Can you believe it. I know all my faithful readers were seriously concerned that I hadn't actually eaten anything since November of last year, since that's when I last talked food. I promise you, I haven't wasted away. (Though I wouldn't have minded wasting away just a little bit.)

As a teaser, I'm throwing out lots of pictures of food from the past several months I always meant to discuss but didn't get to...maybe I still will? In the meantime, I guest-blogged at my friend Nikki's thesaltypineapple today, so you can check out my write up there on grilled chicken and black beans.