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

Sweet as honey

Forget Christmas and my birthday and Thanksgiving and every other holiday that comes around once a year. My favorite day? Opening day of the outdoor farmers markets in Chicago.

Gooey strings of sugar, carmelized edgesStacks of bars

When my two favorite markets open in a few weeks, I know I won’t find the near-overwhelming cacophony of colors and textures and tastes that come in July and continue through October. That’s ok. For now I’ll be happy to ease into spring with little shoots of green, a color it feels like I haven’t really seen in months.

But green things aren’t what I’m talking about today. Among all the fruits and vegetables and amazingly colorful array of eggs is one of my all-time favorite stands even during the winter market–the honey guy. I can, and have, spent half an hour at his stand sampling and chatting with the quiet, unassuming owner about which flavors are best for what, tasting the amazingly apparent differences between varieties. I’ll watch him wave the bees away from his samples as he talks to other customers and I try to decide between tupelo, buckwheat, cranberry blossom, or (my favorite, as in I have a 5 pound bottle of it in my cupboard) basswood-linden.

Essentials
Butter, almond meal, flour, sugar
Eggs, homemade vanilla from a recent swap
Dough
Browned base

There are a million and one ways to use honey of course; my favorites are drizzled over really good yogurt with the freshest mid-summer fruit or on a warm, buttered biscuit. For the stronger, almost molasses-like honeys (buckwheat, chestnut, etc.), it’s a bit more of a challenge. Like really good chocolate, the sweetness has an underlying bitterness that makes it more interesting, but it can overwhelm in the same applications as the lighter honeys. I’ve been kind of stumped as to a good use. Then, I found these.

Sliced almonds
Essentials for the topping
Butter squares

I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get on the bandwagon of David Lebovitz fans; maybe because Paris has never been at the top of my list of dream destinations (yes, I’m aware I’m insane). But his recipes hit on a lot of the things I love–simple and classic and delicious–and his writing is funny and so unpretentious. Plus, at least the past few months, he seems to post the exact thing I’m looking for before I even know I need it.

Such was the case in March with these gallette des rois I made in miniature for that month’s Chicago Food Swap. It happened again this month with his recipe for almond honey bars, the perfect use for the half bottle of buckwheat honey sitting in my cupboard that was destined for these (they also made for a big hit at this month’s swap).

Swirling butter, honey, sugar
Coating the almonds

The bars are a crisp, crumbly, almond-y shortbread topped with a butter/almond/orange/honey brittle that’s a perfect showcase for a great, strong honey. The funny thing is that I actually forgot the sugar the first time I made them and didn’t even realize it until I made a second batch. They’re amazingly good either way: with the sugar, the topping layer is thicker, stickier, sweeter (obviously); without the sugar, the honey bakes more fully into the shortbread and the bitterness comes through more with more crunch from the sliced almonds. The orange and almond compliment the honey perfectly in both versions.

Bits and piecesOne giant bar

With less than two weeks to go until the 2014 markets move outdoors, I’m obviously looking forward to those first fresh, beautiful, green things. But I really hope my honey guy is back too.

Honey Almond Bars Continue reading

Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard

The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
Continue reading

Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

Toffee Coffee Shortbread Continue reading

Have pie, be happy

I feel I’ve been remiss when it comes to pie. I’ve shared recipes for pie crust, sour cherry pie, coconut custard pie, and plum spice pie, but how can I talk so much about pie with mentioning the classic apple pie? Oh well, no better time than a week before Thanksgiving.

Apple pile Perfection, if I say so myself

Everyone  has “their” apple pie, made especially for holidays that rely on tradition. A particular type of apple from the family favorite farm stand that smells like wood smoke and cider, the crust made just-so by the hands of the trusted family pie-baker, the spices measured in pinches and shakes instead of teaspoons or ounces. For me, that pie is my dad’s apple pie, the top crust (my favorite part) poofing high over the apples and crackles and shatters when it’s cut (this is where I fall on the side of tradition versus doing it “right”–supposedly that puffed up crust isn’t ideal because it means the crust set before the apples had a chance to cook down. To that I say…well I don’t say anything because my mouth is full of delicious, delicious pie.)

Beautiful apples Nothing better than stealing a piece from this bowl Crust dust

This pie I’m sharing with you is not my dad’s apple pie. Or my mom’s, or my either of my grandmas’. It may become mine though, after a few years of nudging portions this way or that until I get it just so. I’m quite happy with this version for now though, the little tweaks and touches I’ve made to the original recipe  to make it my own.

Sprinkled and fluted

I mentioned recently that I picked up the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie cookbook and, having finally baked one of its recipes, I can’t say enough good things about it. All those questions you have about making really good pie? This book answers them. Obviously it has a great crust recipe that isn’t crazy complicated (and, I was pleased to note, was similar to the recipes from my grandmothers that I adapted to make my favorite crust). It has pies for each season, making my farmers market-loving heart ever so happy. It has small pies, big pies, sweet and savory, fruits and custards and pies I didn’t even know existed. There is a whole section on quiche (for any of my book club friends who might be reading–fair warning). It finally, finally showed me how to make pretty crimped edges that my awkward fingers could manage.

Ready to bakeBeautiful pie

Ultimately, it made the most spectacular looking pie that has ever come from my two hands–just look at this thing. I half expected a chorus of angels and the light of god to shine down when I pulled it out of the oven (and that’s not patting myself on the back, but acknowledging how good the instructions are in this book). Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty damn good too.

First slice of pie, crust crumbleThe missing piece

Essentially I love that this book treats pie with the respect it deserves. Yes, pie takes some practice. Yes, it takes a bit of time and attention. Pie has an incredibly rich history that I’m drawn to, a heritage full of generations modifying the basic recipe to fit what was available, what made sense at the time.

Pie is a dish that satisfies the soul, and is there any better time for soul-satisfying food than the end of November with loved ones gathered around a table to eat and share and be happy? I think not.

Have pie, be happy.

Perfect slice

Apple Pie
Continue reading

Plum crazy

I always want to love plums. Their colors are perfectly fall and all my favorites–royal purples, deep-sea blues, ruby reds, sunshine yellows–but their flavor is a gamble. One bite, sweet and juicy enough to rival a peak season peach, the next tart enough to pucker your lips and twist your face. I’m not one to take bets lightly, so I gave up on hitting the jackpot with plums.

More plums in a bowl Plum crumble pie

But there are two things I’ve learned in the past few years when it comes to cooking. First, the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are so not representative of the variety that is actually available, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great market or farmstand nearby. Second, if I don’t like something prepared one way, another method could just be the answer.

Plums Freestone plums Sliced Plums all sliced

Both of these lessons prove true when it comes to plums. The first in the discovery of Italian/Stanley/prune plums–beautiful hazy deep blue fruit, which also happens to be freestone (yes, plums, like peaches, have clingstone and freestone varieties) so they’re easy to eat out of hand or chop and use in cooking. The second learned last fall as watched my (regrettably small) batches of plum jam and plum chutney cook down to an unbelievable color, texture, and flavor.

Simmering Chutney Plum filling

It was love at first velvety bite, and that chutney is still one of my top 3 favorite preserves.

With these two lessons in mind–the type of plum matters, and cooking it makes it better–and a new love of plum chutney, it was no surprise that this pie had me positively tapping my foot with impatience for plums to make their appearance at the market.

Crimped Par-baked and filled Ready to bake!

This pie surprised me. Yes, anything baking smells good, but this made my apartment smell out-of-this-world amazing. The juicy plum filling bubbling up through the crumbles looks beautifully homey, like that sweater you love but only wear around the house on a blustery day. And it tasted like everything that makes me happy–spiced and tart and just a little sweet.

Drippy

The biggest surprise? That I am so smitten with a crumble-topped pie, as the top crust is usually my favorite part. The reason it works is two-fold: first, the crumble allows enough steam to escape that the plum filling gets even jammier than it would with a solid top crust; second, the top of double-crust pie is really only perfect the first day when it’s crisp and crackly, but the crumble-top pie is delicious for at least a second day (if you have pie for more than two days, you are doing something wrong and clearly need to invite me over sooner).

Beautiful

Finally, I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this, but if you’re looking for a pie for the holidays, this is it. As it’s baking, it just smells like the holidays exploded. It’s not overly sweet, and the tartness reminds me in some ways of my favorite sour cherry pie. It’s really, really spectacular.

Plum crumble pie

(Look, I know how intimidating pie can be, but you know what? If you really don’t want to deal with making a crust, this works well as a cobbler baked in a 9×9 baking dish for 45 minutes to an hour, or you can be super adorable and make cobblers in jars. Because I just need more things to put in jars.)

Spiced Plum Crumb Pie
Continue reading

Summer stragglers

Before they’re gone for another eight months, I’ve been thinking about the signs of summer, especially at night.

Time for eating
Back then, it was “hoo hoo”s from the owls in the woods behind the house, the heck-heck bugs (as we called them) and crickets chirping their way through to morning, the occasional “whoosh” from a car speeding past the house way too late while I hid under my covers from the one mosquito that always seemed to find its way through my window screen. Summer was the slow red blink of “my” light, the beacon at the top of an electrical tower that I saw every night from my bedroom window.

Zesty Blackberries Sugared

Now summer sounds more like sirens from the nearby fire station and a more constant “whoosh” of city traffic, with the occasional note progression of wind chimes. It sounds like the hum of bugs that I thought for the longest time were the buzz of power lines. Summer looks like twinkly lights twisting around my porch railing through my screen door, and a block of sun inching its way across my porch in the evening.

Where all good things start Batter Covering Covered Somewhat smooth

I’ll take summer any way I can get it as long as it comes with peaches and berries and corn and blue skies and beaches and a cake or two. It looks like Chicago has one more day of 90’s left in it, which I will be enjoying to its fullest (an unrelated-to-food note: any Chicagoans looking for something to do this weekend, be sure to stop by the Renegade Craft Fair and check out my sister Erica’s booth for some amazing jewelry!)

I hope I’m not too late in sharing this with you. I hope you can find a half a peach and a few berry stragglers to make one more summer dessert.

Buttermilk Cake with Blackberries and Peaches Continue reading

Choose Your Own Adventure: Cherry Invasion!

Congratulations! You’ve had a successful day at the farmer’s market without stepping on one small child, errant dog, or hipster photographer with multi-camera setup. You have vegetables and fruit and cheese and bread enough to stuff yourself and any lucky friends silly for the rest of the week. And joy! Sour cherries, your favorite summer treat, are finally in season.

So many cherries

Now you stand staring at four quarts overflowing on your counter as they plot to take over the rest of your kitchen. You decide to…

  • Stay the known course. You have a favorite sour cherry crostata for a reason. Go to page 34.
  • Throw down the gauntlet. There’s no better time to put your pie-crust-making skills to the test than with near-90s temps (and nearly as high humidity levels). Go to page 22.
  • Go outside and enjoy a pretty pink drink. Summer is too short to spend too long in the kitchen anyways. Go to page 41.
  • Question your  sanity and life choices. Admit subservience to your cherry overlords and enlist your ever-expanding liquor shelf to make something boozy that requires zero effort (even if it does take a few weeks to get results). Go to page 65.

Well-coordinated Continue reading