On baking bread and other risky things

How often do you take risks? Considering how much I love to research and analyze and construct and deconstruct and plan, taking risks is not exactly what I’m known for.

Cinnamon braid

But the past few years, I’ve been stuck. I needed to change something. You won’t find me on stage doing sketch comedy any time soon, but I heard a great rule about it (thank you Tina Fey, you are my hero) that I took to heart–the sketch and the characters only move forward if you say “Yes, and….” You can’t move a sketch forward saying “No;” I realized I couldn’t move forward with changes by turning things down, second guessing whether I’d be good enough, if I have enough time, if I’m smart enough, if I’ll get rejected, if I have enough experience, etc., ad infinitum. Those are the fastest ways to make nothing happen.

Swirled and sliced

The biggest “Yes, and” I’ve taken on has been simply taking more risks more often. I don’t mean risking running a yellow light or skydiving. I mean just trying things–this blog was one of the first. I didn’t know anything about blogging but I loved talking about food; I forgot most everything I learned years ago about photography but I had a camera. I didn’t know anything about self-promotion but I already happily shared food and recipes I loved. I’ve learned a lot, failed more than a few times, but that’s really the  point.

Sifting the flours and grains
Kneading

Sometimes the risks I’ve taken have been frustrating. I’ve been angry and sad and disappointed; I’ve yelled and cried and sat in my car hitting my steering wheel more than once. I haven’t gotten the changes I wanted at the pace I wanted them; some risks have made me question what I’m really good at and where I want to be. And from the same risks, doors have opened. I’ve become part of amazing new communities and met new friends; I’ve learned so, so much. Not just new skills (I’m looking at you, mountains of water-bath-canned preserves), but how to approach and process those risks and use them for my next “Yes, and…”

Resting
Rise, poke

So, bread. (How’s that for a transition?) I’ve never tried improvising a recipe like this–yeast! braiding!–but what’s the worst that could possibly happen? I use a few cups of flour, some milk, and learn something. (I first wrote “I waste a few cups…” but no, it’s not waste.) And I figured it out! Yeah, I researched a bit, and my first attempt was not what I was looking for (it was still good!), but I learned and made this. And it’s honestly one of my proudest baking accomplishments.

Cinnamon sugar, ready for blending
Cinnamon sugar, powdered
Cinnamon sugar-ed

It’s really hard to end up with something bad when you bring together three of the most reliable cooking and baking resources, but this bread exceeded even what I had hoped for. Cinnamon swirl bread has never appealed to me–it always tasted more like raisins than cinnamon and usually too sweet with the actual bread as an afterthought–but when I saw it come up three times in a month, looking so delicious and swirly and I imagined what it would smell like baking in the oven, I had to give it a shot.

Rolled
Ready to braid
Braid 1
Braid 2
Braided

I picked the features I loved most from each recipe: the whole/multi-grain process from Smitten Kitchen; my favorite soft sandwich bread base from Joy of Cooking, and the incredibly impressive (but ridiculously easy) braiding technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Two tries later, it’s just the right amount of sweet, definitely cinnamon-y, tender from the milk and butter, chewy and textured from the combination of flours and grains (and no raisins!). Without the cinnamon, it also makes a great sandwich bread.

Multi-whole-grain sandwich bread
Cinnamon and sandwich bread
Braided bread

So for my 99th post here, I will say yes, and…I’ll have another slice (with butter this time).

Cinnamon Swirl Multigrain Bread (with a plain variation) Continue reading

Indian as apple pie

I still remember the first bites of pakora and samosa, the little bowls of colorful condiments full of new flavors. Indian food brought me my first tastes of lamb (still pretty much the only occasion that I eat it) and lentils, and the rich and richly flavored sauces scooped up with soft, buttery pieces of naan. I remember coming home with my clothes saturated with the smell of spices.

Stacked Spices

When we were kids, my sisters and I each got one night a week, our “special” night, with each of our parents. For my night with my mom, it was either a movie at the Little Theater or a dinner out, often introducing me to something new: Greek, Japanese, Ethiopian, and of course, Indian. It’s continued to be a special occasion food in my life–birthday dinners then with high school friends (we felt so grown up when we finally didn’t need our parents to chauffeur us around), birthday lunches and dinners now with friends in Chicago and coining the term “Indian-full” when we over-indulge.

It’s the food I went to when I found myself suddenly back home earlier this year, spending the day hanging around the hospital with my dad, at night needing the familiar comfort of one of those high school friends over plates of samosas and naan and dal (and maybe a glass of wine or three).

Secret ingredient Flour+water=tastyRoti, all mixed.

As much as I love eating Indian food, I rarely make it; surprising considering my love of anything that involves spices. The few times I’ve tried, it just wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know enough on how to fix it. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to take a cooking class at Moksha Yoga, taught by a fantastic cook and cookbook author, Anupy Singla (her company and blog are also the title of this post). Over two classes she showed us, an attentive (if quiet) group of 10, how to make some of the simplest but most flavorful basics: dal (spiced lentils), basmati rice, salad, raita (yogurt sauce), curry (essentially, gravy or sauce), and roti.

Anupy Singla, demonstrating proper roti prep

Anupy Singla, demonstrating proper roti prep

Anupy, rolling like a pro

Rolling like a pro

Everything we made was spectacular, but the most fun was the roti, whole wheat flatbread similar to tortillas. Roti is the more common bread served in Indian homes, which makes sense–it’s simply flour and water, rolled, flattened, and quickly cooked in a hot, dry pan. Naan, on the other hand, needs yeast and rising and temperatures far beyond the capacity of most home ovens.

Little roti ball, flouredRaw rotiStamp stamp stampPoof!I may have done a happy dance

Making roti also means a fun little magic trick–in the process of cooking, the water in the dough boils and steams, puffing up the little circles of dough. They can be served with just about anything, made sweet or savory, stuffed with leftovers (those would be parathas), or even made with pureed cooked lentils instead of water for a little protein boost. I can’t wait to try these with a bowl of dal or cauliflower curry and rice!

Masoor dal

Our pot of masoor dal before it was devoured

Curry, pre-protein

Red curry made simply with onions, garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and spices–I can’t wait to try this blended with some soaked cashews to make it creamy

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Pizza, pizza!

Normally when I find or create a recipe that I want to share with you, I mess around with it for at least a few weeks to make sure it’s just the way I want it; it’s relatively rare that I find a recipe and almost immediately want to post it. But last Thursday, Deb at the inimitable Smitten Kitchen posted the holy grail of pizza dough. I mixed up the dough that night, ate it for dinner the next, made it again yesterday, and did my damndest to share with you as quickly as possible, because, well, pizza.

Is there anything better?

Great pizza dough seems to have a similar mysterious quality as great pie dough. Tomes have been written about the process for both, which is horrifically intimidating (I’m supposed to read what?! I just want dinner, not a dissertation!) Since it takes so few ingredients, undue emphasis (some would say fanaticism) is placed on what type of flour, where the water was sourced. People get scared of dealing with yeast and rising dough. Some say great pizza can just never be replicated at home without a wood-burning oven or a baking stone or a full-blooded Italian in the kitchen.

I call bull.

Escaping cheese didn't get very far

Look, it’s really not as complicated as all that, so please don’t be scared. I’ve struggled with pizza dough too, I’ve had versions I’ve liked for various reasons, but the biggest killer to me is the timing, which is what is so absolutely perfect about this recipe. Make it in 5 minutes the night before and it will be ready just in time for dinner the next night (and will keep in the fridge for even a few days after that)–no 6 hours or 16 hours or some similarly inconvenient timing for someone who actually has a day job (which is not making pizza).

All you need for amazing pizza Sticky doughIt is risen!

This dough doesn’t require kneading or rolling out, another confidence killer when it comes to pizza (and pie, now that I think about it)–just poke and pat it into whatever shape you like. You can get fancy with the flour if you want (I like half white/half bread flour), but you don’t have to; you can use a pizza stone, but a pre-heated baking sheet works quite well. Once baked, the pizza crust has a crackly outside but the inside is tender and chewy.

Topped Cheesed Bubbly

The toppings are up to you (though try to use a light hand with ingredients like sausage–for a topping-heavy pizza, you may prefer this), and you can make it thinner or thicker depending on your preference.

Golden brown and delicious

I implore you, if you have ever wanted to make pizza at home, give this a try, it may just change your weekly dinner rotation and will most certainly change your mind about easy homemade pizza.

Easy Pizza Dough Continue reading

Getting deep on deep dish

If you go down a checklist of what makes a Chicagoan, I’m still an East Coast transplant. I think no hot dog is complete without ketchup. I root for the Cubs and the Sox (unless the Sox play the Indians, then it’s Cleveland pride all the way). Soda is soda, not pop. The appeal of craft beer is lost on me–or any beer for that matter, though I’m working on it. I think thin crust pizza is where it’s at.

However.

Beautiful

On a rare gluttonous occasion, deep dish calls. Some Chicagoans say deep dish is only for tourists who eat at Uno’s, and that the best Chicago pizza is the extra thin cracker-crust. Personally, I like both for what they are. A monstrous bread/cheese/stuff/sauce casserole, deep dish is a one-slice meal and most certainly has its appeal–when it’s good.

Cooked in pans as ancient as the Cubs last World Series appearance, the crust somehow comes out flaky and buttery and golden and crisp as the most perfect croissant, but with midwest heft. The reverse-layering of cheese/stuff/sauce goes to show Chicagoans’ ingenuity when it comes to food. It keeps the crust from getting soggy (the bane of all good pizza is a soggy crust, also why I don’t like NYC-style pizza), protects the cheese from burning, and is overall just one of those “Oh. Duh.” moments. As for the “stuff,” sorry, deep dish is not meant for just cheese and sauce. Peppers, onions, chunky mushrooms, spicy sausage, yesss.

Pizza crust with the same process as croissants? Yes

It’s funny how the nine years I’ve lived in or around Chicago have made their mark on me. While I still like ketchup on my hot dogs, they seem naked and bland now without sport peppers, and I’m somewhat distraught that I can’t find them at a grocery store back home (poor misguided Wegman’s stock guy, your confusion made me sad). The difference between “downtown” and “the city” actually makes sense. Trying to navigate somewhere that the streets aren’t laid out in a nice, organized grid would confuse the hell out of me now. Holding a conversation about the Bears and actually following a game no longer makes me laugh out loud at its impossibility. I appreciate the unique pride (and gloveless pain) Chicago has in its 16″ softball games. And I will whole-heartedly come to Chicago’s defense if anyone tries to compare it unfavorably to any other city.

Oh this will be goodNot as much cheese, but it makes me feel less guiltyStuffedReady for heat

I love this city, my adopted home. I know it has its problems, which aren’t insignificant, but what city doesn’t? Its neighborhoods and lakefront, culture and history, quirks and perfections, and of course its food from pizza to farmers markets–these make Chicago great to me, especially when I can share them with you.

Deep dish for the neat freak

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Quick post for a quick meal

Get home at 8 after a busy day and getting busier with new projects (like oh, say, trying to get back to writing more than two posts a month here). Crank the oven. Grab a piece of naan (make a big batch over the weekend or use frozen). Slather with spread. Toss on a handful of vegetables. Naan in oven. Egg cooked over-easy in my favorite blue egg pan (it counts as a meal if I can put an egg on it).

Put an egg on itPepper, leek, sausage

Dinner and done.

The toppings really are up to your imagination, but in case you’re looking for some suggestions, the two above were: black bean spread, sliced green onions, queso fresco, over-easy egg; red pepper/eggplant spread, left over sauteed leeks, chicken sausage.

Stack of flatbreadsButteryFlat for nowBubbles!FloursYogurt, oil, flourAdding water and yeastStirringSticky sticky doughKneaded Continue reading

Makin’ biscuits

Did you know, if you leave green onions in your fridge for two weeks, they will grow new green onions? These are the things I learn when I don’t clean out my fridge before I go out of town. It was a pleasant surprise to come home to a bag of perfectly bright green onions with only a slightly wilty outer layer instead of, well, the alternative.

Eggs and biscuits (and a tiny sliver of ham)

But what does accidentally growing new green onions by way of neglectful refrigerator management have to do with biscuits? Well, I need green onions to make my favorite biscuits, of course.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

Most people seem to have a preference for either drop biscuits or rolled. Personally I don’t think as anything can beat the flaky layers of the rolled version (given the lengths I will go to for flaky pie dough, is it any surprise?). I have not yet had a drop biscuit that didn’t just taste…lazy.

Cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugarEverything's better with butterShaggy dough

I don’t have any good stories to tell about these other than they’re fantastic. The cornmeal in the dough and salt and pepper sprinkled over the top adds crunch, green onions add tang, the yogurt makes them tender, the butter (of course) makes them delicious.

Biscuit dough, ready for rollingTwo of these things are not like the others

They’re pretty adaptable little guys too–I’ve left out the onions completely, added grated cheddar, used fine cornmeal instead of medium, used buttermilk instead of the yogurt and milk, cut in circles instead of squares (don’t you know the shape makes them taste different? I’m only kind of joking…). As long as you don’t overwork the dough terribly, it’s hard to make these “wrong.”

But the for-real best thing about these? They are so good with an over-easy egg I can’t even explain. And if you happen to have a little bit of ham to sneak under the egg? …Yeah. Just make these. You won’t regret it.

Eggs and biscuits

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday with friends and family, lots of good gifts, plenty of tasty food.

I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions, but in the name of accountability, I wanted to gather up a few of my cooking- and home-related goals for the year and share them here. Any resolutions for you?

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The butcher, the baker…

My mom said the kindest thing to me the other day while she was listening to me gripe about a recipe that was not working out. She said I reminded her of my great-grandmother, a woman who was always experimenting in the kitchen and would just shrug and move on if something didn’t work out (or was even truly awful).

Great grandma's bread

That comment made me think about family and food and memories—and this blog, which just passed 10,000 pageviews after 7 months (excuse for a mini dance party? I think so). How do you remember the people in your life, especially ones who are gone–pictures, mementos, stories? The more I write this blog, the more I realize how inextricably my memories of people are tied to food, the making or the sharing, and that is no truer than when it comes to my great-grandmother, Stella Kisilewicz.

Great grandma's bread

Butter?

Great grandma's bread

Or jam?

A baker by trade—she and my great-grandfather owned a corner store in Cleveland—the clearest memories I have of my great-grandmother are of the things she made, especially her chrusciki (fried dough bowties, dusted with powdered sugar) and her sweet bread with streusel.

image

My great-grandfather outside their shop in Cleveland

I’m not the only one—I’ve heard my mom talk more than a few times about the soft-boiled eggs my great-grandma used to serve in tiny egg cups with tiny spoons, her beet soup, her prune paczkis. The apple pancakes I made recently prompted the sweetest comment from my grandma who remembered the apple donuts she used to make when my grandma was growing up.

2011-11-23 17.02.40

Anxious for beet soup

While I loved her chrusciki, my great-grandma’s bread was something extra special; it wasn’t super sweet, just rich enough to be counted as a treat, and it would be the lucky person who got one of the coveted end pieces with the extra sugary bits. I remember my grandma slicing me a piece and adding a healthy smear of butter as I sat at the kitchen table, listening to family chit-chat between my mom, grandparents, great-grandparents, and whichever other aunts and uncles were around.

Great grandma's bread

A few years ago I copied down her bread recipe from a notecard in my mom’s stack of clippings. It’s one of those recipes that’s so clearly from a lifelong baker, one who cooked by taste and feel rather than by a list of fixed ingredients and measurements. Some ingredients are missing amounts, ingredients are mentioned in the instructions that are nowhere in the ingredient list, some components are missing altogether. And, as is customary for my mom’s side of the family, it makes SO MUCH FOOD—three loaves to be exact.

Great grandma's breadGreat grandma's bread

The thing I love about recipes like this, though, is the conversation they create. Looking over the recipe, I called my mom to ask her a question, leading to a call to my grandma for more details. While I was kneading the dough, I considered how lucky I am to have the family I do—both my mom’s side and my dad’s side—and the traditions we share. My great-grandma has been gone for twelve years, but by making her bread, by calling my mom and my grandma for advice, I felt connected to her. I thought of her and her amazing hats, the love she clearly had for her family. And I felt sad that, quite honestly, I never really got to know her as well as I should have in hindsight, to hear her stories, to see her in action in the kitchen.

Great grandma's bread

But I could do this, now. I could mix milk, eggs, butter, flour, yeast, sugar with intention and mindfulness for the traditions I’ve inherited. And more than a little respect for the many, many (many!) years my great-grandmother put into her baking–this bread was hard! I failed completely on my first batch when it deflated like a balloon, and only counted the second as a marginal success–tasty (and oh-so-good toasted with butter or jam), but not what I remember.

Great grandma's bread

With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up in just a few weeks, I hope you all have a chance to take a moment and give thanks for your family’s unique food memories. Whether they involve from-scratch bread, a cookie that only one person in your family could ever make “right,” or even just a once-a-week treat of eating delivery pizza in front of the tv to watch Friends, these memories are special and, at least for me, are integral to the person I am now.

Great-grandparents

I imagine my great-grandmother felt much the same sense of joy as she shared her passion for food with her family, friends, neighbors, community as I feel sharing my discoveries here with all of you. I’m looking forward to sharing more.

Great grandma's bread

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Blogging lessons, and a snack

Two blogging lessons learned over the past two weeks:

  1. Don’t plan to write two blog posts about your vacation right after you return from said vacation. You will be too busy getting back into the swing of things and and it will take much longer than anticipated, especially when…
  2. WordPress decides to eat the draft of your post that you just spent a day revising (will write in Word from now on).

That said, I will have two posts about my vacation soon, but in the meantime, here is one of the most delicious and simplest snacks/lunches/light dinners of my summer. IMG_0009There isn’t even a “recipe” as such, it just relies on getting the best ingredients you can find: excellent bread (Chicago folks, I recommend picking up a loaf of Bennison’s Sweet City bread, but a good whole grain or rye are great too), the freshest possible butter, thinly sliced radishes, flaky sea salt, and some roughly chopped parsley. The flavor and texture combinations are absolutely perfect and so complementary of each other: bitter, sweet, salty; crunchy, chewy, buttery.

And to keep myself on track, I hope to share another “art for non-artists” project, my favorite chili recipe (which also takes full advantage of summer produce, and happens to be vegetarian), and a sweet treat or two in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Tomatoes are here!

Tomatoes are just about to flood the markets around Chicago, and I couldn’t be happier–caprese salad,  BLTs, pizza, gazpacho, here I come. Sometimes it just comes down to the simplest ingredients to make the most satisfying meal, though: great bread, juicy tomato, crisp lettuce, salty bacon, creamy avocado, and the barest bit of mayonnaise.
IMG_0029 Continue reading