bread in a dutch oven – O the brilliance

Someone is getting a gold star.

I’m not sure who it is but I have tucked a shiny new star in my pocket along with a handful of confetti and a recording of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and when I find that wonderful person I am going to tag them with the star, baptize them with glitter and give them a round of applause, because they’ve made my bread-baking life into something glorious.

What happened? Go ahead and ask because I would love to tell you. Go ahead.

I read a book in which someone wrote that someone else said (the mystery person I am searching for) that you can reproduce the effects of crusty, hearty artisan loaves hitherto unattainable to myself by simply baking them in a covered Dutch Oven. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.

Thank you, lovely random man, because it works. It really, truly, honest-to-goodness works. I’ve done it twice now.

Baking a basic ‘lean’ bread dough (flour, salt, yeast and water) in an oiled Dutch oven creates a gorgeous loaf of bread fit for the snoodiest of artisan tables. My husband and I love a good rustic crust you can tear at and dip into stew without the threat of disintegration and I’ve finally achieved it. Seriously folks, this can only be topped by giving birth (which I am fully intending on doing in a few short months).

The best part is that it’s so simple. So Simple. I made baguettes once and it was an elaborate process, absolutely worth it in the end but very time consuming and impractical for everyday eating. After hours of rising and kneading and rising and kneading, I baked the baguettes in a hot oven where an iron pan was sitting in the bottom. To this day I am not sure exactly *how* I managed it, but somehow I slipped the bread into the oven and poured a glass of water into the pan before shutting the door quickly and tightly. The hot pan immediately created the steam bath needed as the final step in making a truly chewy crust. Success, but at a price.

Oh, how differently this works! After the first rising, the dough is kneaded down and then placed in the oiled dutch oven to rise again. Then, when the dough is doubled and the oven is heated to the right temperature, the loaf is brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and the cover is placed on top. This bakes for 20 minutes and the bread makes its own steam – how clever is that?!? Once the crust is firmed, the cover is removed and the bread finishes baking, browning and bubbling and making itself perfect.

Perfect, I say. We can hardly wait to eat it – and often don’t. Is there anything better than fresh, hot bread drowning in butter? Or – perhaps fresh hot bread dipped in garlicky olive oil and balsamic vinegar? I didn’t think so.

***throws glitter and claps***

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Eggnog French Toast (in other words, the holidays are over)

The Holidays are over.

And the whole world lets out a sigh. Half of us have already moved on, leaving the glitter of the holiday season for the more reasonable, rational business of Getting Back To Real Life. Others of us still can’t remember what year it is. I am the befuddled resident of this latter category.

Am I the only one who feels utterly confused after all the twinkling lights and sugar-laden foods? I always seem to stumble into January by accident and then can’t find my way around, I can’t remember what day it is or what I am supposed to be doing; for months my mind has been settled on Christmas and now it’s all gone. Sometimes I have to stop in the middle of the road and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” Mostly, I get honked at and people say mean things as they drive by, but they don’t answer my questions. The new year can be somewhat harsh to those of us coming out the thick fog of yule-tide cheer.

It’s times like these when I have to reset. I have to step back and reenter the year without being hungover  with sugar cookies and late nights. I do this best by hiding in my kitchen until things make sense again. The kitchen of any home I’ve ever lived in has been my default haunt, if I could sleep there, I probably would. I feel at home, in control, able and in my right element. After the bustle of December I am happy to drift back into my favorite room, brew a cup of tea and get this show that is my life back up and running.

This is a breakfast I made early this week to ease us back into the swing of things. I love french toast; it is a hearty, homey food that is quick, easy on the budget and easy on my queasy baby stomach. Usually, recipes have you season your dipping mixture with cinnamon, but I decided to try something new. Inspired by the residue of Christmas passed, I added vanilla, some sugar and a little bit of nutmeg to the mix and came up with eggnog french toast. Instant win.

Post-Holiday French Toast

4-6 slices of day-old or older bread

1 1/2 cups milk

2 eggs

2 Tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

butter or oil for frying

This is an excellent use for bread that is about to go or has gone out of usefulness. Don’t misunderstand me, it will not resurrect moldy bread, but a slice that just won’t cut it for peanut butter and jelly might be nigh onto perfect for breakfast.  Didn’t quite finish that loaf of bread you made from the last column? – here’s your solution.

In a wide bowl, mix together the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. It may seem like a lot of egg, but I like the fact that it adds a boost of protein much needed in the morning. Whisk all the ingredients well and then heat up your frying pan over medium heat. Add a little oil or butter once the pan is hot.

Dip your slice of bread into the milk and egg mixture, flipping them over once and making sure that it is covered completely. I use a fork to do the flipping and then pick the piece up and let it drip for a moment or two before placing it in the frying pan. Happy sizzling ensues. Each piece will need to cook for 3 or so minutes on one side and then flip them over for another 3 minutes. The toast should be firm and golden brown. Depending on how big your slices of bread are, you should be able to make 4-6 pieces of toast.

Serve hot with lots of butter and warm maple syrup and watch this new year become a more friendly, familiar place! Enjoy…

Hunter’s Breakfast

Here I am, cuddled away under layers of flannel pajamas and an over-sized hooded sweatshirt. The sun is just coming up and the quiet beams of light illuminate the icy stars etched on the window next to my bed. The frost has outlined the glass and framed the world outside like a perfect picture, crimson and orange leaves are waking and shaking off their night’s worth of ice and I can’t help but think of the determined people out among the frost, hunting. My next immediate thought concerns breakfast.

It’s the time of year when people don a contradiction of blaze orange and woodland camouflage and no one thinks anything of it. We see them at gas stations with large, hot coffees, at the diner grabbing a quick bite to eat, or walking along the outlying roads of the town.

I’ve known many hunters and they each have their reasons for gearing up each fall and winter and heading to the wilds. Some like the sense of getting their meat ‘the old way’, some enjoy the solitude, some are thrilled with the sport of it, and then I’ve known some who just really like the taste of wild game.

My husband and I were up visiting some friends in Northern Maine and they served us this delightful breakfast casserole made with moose sausage. It was incredible. Not only was it simple to make and good for a crowd, but it could be made ahead and cooked up when it was needed. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a breakfast so much, accompanied by fresh, hot coffee and a cinnamon roll – I felt ready to go out and conquer the wilds myself!

Hunter’s Breakfast Casserole

1/2 pound game sausage

4 eggs

4 slices of bread, cubed

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese

1 Tablespoon flour

1 Tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon basil

1/4 – 1/2  teaspoon each salt and pepper

 

*You could very easily substitute regular pork sausage for the game, if you so desired.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8×8 baking dish.

The first step is to brown the sausage in a frying pan, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks. Once it is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and scoop out the sausage  onto a plate that has been lined with paper towels. This will help to absorb any excess fat from the sausage, especially if you are using pork. I don’t believe game is as greasy and you might be able to skip this step if yours is dry enough already.

While the sausage is draining and cooling, beat together the milk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, pepper and basil, stir well, and then add the bread cubes and shredded cheese. Once everything is mixed, add the cooled sausage and stir once more. Pour the whole thing into your waiting baking dish. Cut the butter into small pieces and place around on top of the casserole.

I usually put the baking dish onto a baking sheet before putting it in the oven, just because the eggs can be a little bit excitable and spill over the sides sometimes. The casserole needs to bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the center of the dish is rather firm.  Remove and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are saving the dish for another day you have two options; you can bake the casserole and let it cool before covering with foil and keeping in the fridge until it is wanted – in which case you would gently heat it up in the oven, covered, at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or you can assemble the casserole and *not* cook it, but cover and keep in the fridge to bake in the morning – uncovered.

This meal could easily switch ends of the day and be served as a dinner, just add a cup of cooked spinach, broccoli florets, sauteed onions or bell peppers – you are only limited by your imagination!

Happy Hunting!

 

perfection bread for beginners

I have a *pearl* of a Mother-in-Law, have I ever mentioned that?  I have never met someone so generous with praise and encouragement. She is, without a doubt, the most positive, upbeat and open soul I’ve ever known – but she’s not candy coated. She’s not icky sweet – she stood right next to me and agreed that the trunk of my Volvo would be perfect for hauling groceries… or dead bodies. She’s lovely and smart and interesting and vibrant – and she loves my bread. So I made her a loaf of the bread Alex and I eat week to week and she, true to her self, went wild.

“Ann! This bread is perfection!”

I didn’t have the heart to argue that it was slightly overdone, which means that it would be drier than one could desire – far from perfect. I doubt she would have seen it even if I had pointed it out. So I quietly accepted her big hug and wished that everyone could have someone like her in their life – someone who is just tickled to death with them. Everyone needs an Elaine. Lavish praise, encouragement – however dark the prospects look, someone who always believes that you did your best and is thrilled that you tried.

You would think – or at least I would – that such a reaction would make someone loosen up, be sloppy, not do as good of a job since they knew it would nearly always be accepted with thanks and a smile, but I find it helps me to do even better. I check the bread more often so it *doesn’t* get over done, I knead it more thoroughly – I truly want it to be as delightful as it can be when my loved ones have a slice. It’s a special event for me, not a chore or a test.

So now, on Tuesdays when I get out the ingredients to make my bread for the week, I have to smile because I think of Elaine and how perfect she thinks it is. She has helped me to look at life a little kinder, be a little more patient with myself and others, to be a little quicker to be thrilled and excited than nitpicky and obsessive, to be a little bit braver to get in there and do my darndest.

Perfection Bread

2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1/3 cup honey

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups warm water

2 1/2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons flax seed

1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill 10 Grain Cereal

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour (I use the King Arthur brand White Whole Wheat)

3 cups White Unbleached Bread Flour (again, King Arthur is what I use)

Extra flour for kneading, about a 1/2 cup

 

Notes:

I buy Bob’s Red Mill Hot Cereal, which can usually be found in either the baking aisle or the specialty foods aisle. The flax seed I use is usually whole, but you could definitely use ground. To make a simple, plain white loaf, just skip the whole wheat flour and use all white, don’t add the flax or cereal mix. You will have to use a little more flour (1/2 cup) to make up for the missing grain, that is all.

I will try to write out the directions for someone who has never made bread before, so if you are a bread master, bear with us. Everyone starts at least once and I had a great teacher who was very thorough and informative (thanks Mom!). No one is born knowing how to do everything! Now, you beginner, go to it with a brave heart – whatever the outcome, we will applaud your hard work and willing hands.

Directions:

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Warm is the key here, you don’t want to kill the yeast by making it too hot, then it won’t work properly. A good rule of thumb is if you can stick your thumb (or any finger) comfortably in the water – it’s not too hot.

In a separate, smaller bowl, add the 10 grain cereal to the 2 cups of *hot* water. Doesn’t need to be boiling hot, just hot from the tap. It helps to soften the grains. Let that sit for about 5 minutes while the yeast dissolves. Then add the salt, honey, oil and flax seed. Stir well before pouring into the yeast mixture.

Now- get out a sturdy wooden spoon and measure half the flour into the bowl with the liquids. Mix well, until all the flour is wet. Add the rest of the flour, cup by cup, stirring well after each before adding another. When the dough gets firm enough that it’s hard to stir with a spoon, dump whatever flour is left from the 6 cups total onto a clean, smooth surface, turn the dough out onto it and begin to knead.

Ah, kneading. Is there anything more therapeutic than feeling a warm bundle of dough under your hands? The dough will still be slightly ‘wet’, or sticky, so incorporate the remaining flour in by getting the ball of dough real dusty with flour, put the heel of your hand on the center of the ball and push away from you, into the counter. Now, fold the stretched piece of dough back onto itself and push it again. Each time it stretches over the flour, it picks up a little more of it, and you’re working the dough so that it becomes glued to itself and makes a nice slice of bread when it’s baked. Every so many shoves, turn the ball of dough so that you’re pushing the opposite side. If your hands get sticky (as they might at first) roll as much as you can off your hands and keep them dusty with flour. I find they stay cleaner if I go quickly, almost smacking the dough with the heel of my hand and turning it quickly. It’s rather energetic once I get going! I don’t like to add too much extra flour lest the bread get dense.

You can knead as long as you like, but I generally go until all the flour is absorbed and I have a stretchy, smooth sort of ball of dough that doesn’t tear when I pull it. You want it to have a good deal of elasticity. Now clean out the mixing bowl and grease it up lightly, either with some spray oil or a rubbing of butter. Toss the dough bundle into it and flip it once so that the top gets some grease on it. Cover and let rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. As unlikely as it seems- it will get there! That yeast will do it’s busy work and the dough *will* rise. It helps if the temperature is right, somewhere around 80 degrees. My kitchen is never perfectly heated or cooled, but it’s the closest to a consistent 80 I can get, so the dough stays there. If it’s cooler, it may take a little longer, in the summer – my bread will rise in 45 minutes! You have to feel as you go, somewhat.

** Fancy time lapse **

The dough – – it has risen. It smells sweet and yeasty and looks ambitious enough to take over the world. Punch it back before it gets the chance… really. Put your freshly washed fist right into the heart of it and push straight down. It will whine a bit, but you’re doing everyone a favor. Grease up two regular sized loaf pans and set them aside. Gently work the dough a little in the bowl and then split it. If you are *that* person, weigh each half so that they are equal. If you are me, just make a good guess and squeeze it in half. Form each half into a loaf shape and place them in their pans. These have to rise again, until they have gotten taller than the sides of the pan. Again, this is a little variable depending on the temperature.

** Time Lapse **

Turn the oven on to 350 degrees, place your well-risen loaves into the oven gently.

They need to bake for about 25 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 190 degrees according to a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the loaf, *or* until the loaf sounds very airy and hollow when knocked on.

Cool by placing on their sides, every so often flipping sides until the loaf pops out after a gentle nudging.    And there you have it – Bread. It takes a few times to get it *down*, you know? I’ve baked tough loaves, dry loaves, doughy loaves – but a couple perfect ones, too. It just takes time and practice – and a lot of toast!

It’s a good skill to have, homemade bread is cheaper and tastier than store bought (when you figure on buying the special, all natural 10 grain variety which is still not as good as something you can make yourself) and there is nothing more appealing than the smell of baking bread in a home. It’s aromatherapy at it’s best.

Have fun, make bread, applaud. Repeat.

flat bread veggie pizza

It’s what’s for dinner.

Making flat bread involves a couple more steps than the ones used to make a plain old pizza – but boy is it worth it! I started with the Plain Old Pizza Dough recipe and after letting it rise, I simply rolled it out as flat as I could and placed it on a greased baking sheet. Then, I pricked the surface with a fork – all over – and brushed on some olive oil.  After a sprinkling of garlic powder and sea salt, the flat bread went into the oven (preheated to 375 degrees) for about 15 minutes, or until the crust was lightly browned.

While it was baking, I chopped up and sauteed some onions, sweet red peppers, yellow crooked neck squash, fresh tomatoes, garlic and spinach. When the crust came out of the oven, the veggies got spread around on top and then lightly blanketed with slices of fresh mozzarella. I turned the oven onto Broil and popped the whole thing back in the oven for another five minutes or so, just until the cheese had melted and begun to bubble.

It was incredible.

Incredible, I say. The crust was thin and firm and the veggies were tasty mellow and the whole thing was garlicky and cheesy and yet rather healthy and quick, especially if you make the dough ahead of time. This meal is definitely going to be repeated in the near future!

Big Batch Biscuits for a little bitty family

We are a small people, consisting of just my husband and I at the present, we don’t even have a goldfish to throw table scraps to. We do have a jade plant named Jade Austen (thank you, honey) but she doesn’t eat very much.

And she’s very quiet.

The hardest part about cooking for two people is that I am used to cooking for five people with very large appetites – which means I like to cook too much food at one time.

Way too much food.

Sometimes, however, I can make this quirk work to my own advantage.

*I love it when that happens*

I have discovered the joys of freezing left-over food. Let’s face it, if I just stuck my HUGE pot of spaghetti sauce in the fridge, we’d be eating it every meal for a week, and that’s just not going to help our darling little marriage along, now is it?

BUT – if I portion up the sauce into meal-sized quantities and freeze it, it’s there for a busy day to pop out and thaw and enjoy. Viola. *This* make for happiness and marital bliss.

So, here’s the recipe for my Quick and Easy, Big Batch Biscuits.

“These don’t even need jam…” 

My hungry husband

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 cups all purpose white flour

5 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

2 Tablespoons sugar (optional)

5-8 Tablespoons butter (or your choice of shortening)

1 1/2 cups milk

Sift together the dry ingredients, then cut in the fat until the flour has reached damp-sand consistency. Now, add the milk and blend briefly, until all the flour is wet and the dough is sticking together.

Now, I suppose you could gently roll out the dough and cut your biscuits like that, but I had other things to do at the time, so I just spread the biscuit dough out onto a greased baking sheet and baked them at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Check them often though, my oven is funny remember and there ain’t nothing worse than burnin’ your biscuits!

Howdy ma’am, this here’s my boss,

and he has some choice words to say about your biscuits...”

-McKlintock

After they’d cooled, I simply cut them into squares and served them like that. Then, I quartered the remaining biscuits and stuck them in the freezer for another day.

YUM.

Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

Carl Sandburg

It’s a Loaf!

She rose in the creepy attic space for about three hours.

When I went to get her, she looked like this…

I stirred it down into a ball of extremely wet dough.

That looked like this…

I floured up the counter real well and started to knead. It was wet and sticky for a while, but I ended up being able to wrestle it into a loaf-shaped mass and then sent it to rise again in the pan…

The pan.

Viola – the loaf!

Much better than my first attempt, this sourdough actually has a bit of a sour taste to it and a very pleasing texture, even with it being mostly whole wheat. My husband has already eaten a good deal of it toasted.

I’m calling it a success, but the adventure in sourdough is far from being over, dear readers, far from it! I am on the look-out for more recipes to try my hand at…

Got any to share?

Please do 🙂

Be featured on this humble little corner of the World Wide Web.

Sourly yours,

Andi