Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery Rosemary Olive Oil Bread

This bread uses a white starter. If you already maintain a sourdough starter, use it here. If you don't have one, you'll have to start one to make this bread. You can do research online for how to make a sourdough starter if you'd like to begin one. Feel free to half the recipe and make just one loaf.

Two-Day Bread--First day:


--1 pound plus 2 oz. (about 2 1/4 cups) cool water, 70 degrees F
--12.5 oz (about 1 1/3 cups) White Starter
--2 pounds plus 2 oz. (about 7 cups)unbleached white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
--1/2 cup raw wheat germ
--3.5 tsp. sea salt
--1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
--4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
--Vegetable oil

Place water, white starter, flour, and wheat germ in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed for 4 min. The dough should be sticky and pliable. You may also mix the dough by hand, if you choose. Cover the dough with a proofing cloth and allow to rest in mixing bowl for 20 min.

Add salt and continue mixing for 4 min. on medium speed, scraping the dough down the sides of the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Add rosemary and olive oil and mix on medium speed until the ingredients are incorporated and the dough reaches an internal temperature of 78 degrees F, about 5 minutes more. Remove dough from mixing bowl. It should feel soft and resilient. Knead the dough for a few minutes by hand on a lightly floured surface. Lightly coat a large bowl with vegetable oil. Place the dough in the oiled bowl, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it ferment at room temperature until it doubles in volume, about 3-4 hours.

Uncover the dough and turn it out on a lightly floured surface. Using a dough cutter, cut the dough into two equal pieces. Slap each piece against the work surface a few times to deflate. Tuck under the edges of each piece, cover the dough with a cloth, and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Uncover the dough and round each piece into a boule. Place the boules smooth side down into floured proofing baskets. Cover each basket with a cloth and let the dough proof at room temperature until it begins to show signs of movement (it should rise about 1 inch), 1.5 to 2 hours.

Remove the cloth and sprinkle surface of dough with flour. Wrap each basket tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.

Second day:

Remove the boules from the fridge, take off plastic and cover baskets with cloths. Let dough continue proofing at room temp. until internal dough temp. is 58 degrees F, about 2 to 2.5 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees 1 hour before baking.

Remove the cloth and lightly dust the boules with flour. Carefully run your hand around one boule to loosen it and gently invert it onto a lightly floured baker's peel. Score a tic-tac-toe pattern on top of the boule. Open the oven door, spritz heavily with hot water from a spray bottle, and quickly close the door. Open the oven door again, slide the boule onto the baking tiles, and quickly close the door. Do the same with the second boule.

Reduce oven temp. to 450 degrees. Spritz oven two more times during the next 5 minutes. Refrain from opening the oven door for the next 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, check the boules and rotate them if necessary to ensure even baking. Continue baking for 15 to 20 more minutes, for a total of 40 to 45 minutes.

Remove boules to a cooling rack. The finished boules will have a rich brown color.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Making Bread

I had no idea that bread making would be so much fun and intensely satisfying. I'm so glad that I started! It is a thrill to see how such simple ingredients become something alive and life-giving...not to mention the irresistible nature of bread dough--each batch does indeed feel different in your hands and has its own personality. Come to think about it, perhaps the sensory experience of bread making is exactly what makes me so fond of it.

Touch: Feeling dough in my hands is thoroughly enjoyable to me. It may be easy to work with, malleable, and barely sticky or it may be fussy, sticky, a wet mass that's seemingly impossible to knead... Manipulating the dough through the kneading process allows me to feel the dough as it changes. The mass develops more strength, becomes elastic and less sticky as the gluten is developed. And for doughs with lower hydration levels (i.e. the ones that aren't messy and sticky), the dough becomes smooth by the end of the kneading process.

Sight: Of course these same changes that I feel with my hands, I also observe with my eyes. I can see the dough sticking to my work surface and hands when working with wetter doughs and I see that I have an easier clean up when the dough is not so sticky--LOL. I observe the weak dough that tears apart when I stretch it early in the kneading process, but that strengthens considerably and doesn't tear when stretched when I am finished kneading. It is my eyes that I rely on to know when my dough has doubled and can be deflated and shaped. My eyes help me to know if my bread is ready to come out of the oven by looking at the color of the crust. And my eyes scan the crumb (the soft part) of the bread which differs depending on the type of bread and how it was made.

Sound: So, what role do my ears have here? Actually, they are the least important to bread making. However, I do slap my dough down on my work surface several times during kneading (that's how the French do it) and I like that smacking sound... Then there's my timer that goes off when my bread should be about ready to come out of the oven. But my favorite is hearing the crackling of crusty bread when you break it open. This reason alone is enough to make French bread daily!

Smell: Thank God for my nose so that I can enjoy the smell of bread baking in my oven! It is absolutely one of my favorite odors and it never gets old. It makes me hungry with anticipation when I start to smell it of the most lovely smells ever if you ask me.

Taste: This is where all the work comes together. This is the most important part. What's the point of having a beautiful loaf if it doesn't taste good? But an imperfect-looking loaf can be overlooked if it has great flavor!

Making bread only requires flour, water, yeast, and salt (salt is optional, but your bread will taste awfully bland without also keeps the yeast from multiplying TOO much). And there is more out there than the active dry yeast you may be most familiar with. Instant yeast, fresh cakes of yeast, and wild yeast (available free of charge hovering in your kitchen), will also leaven your bread if the yeast, flour, and water are allowed to slowly ferment for about a week... So these four ingredients become bread! I think that's way cool!

A year ago when I began making yeast breads by hand (I had used my bread machine a few times before that but wasn't impressed with the quality of bread), I simply felt inspired to do it. I remember asking myself what was hindering me from making bread. My main obstacle was knowing how to knead. I didn't know what good kneading technique looked like, didn't understand the purpose of kneading. So I had the idea to look on You Tube for some tutorials and I found plenty, a couple of them really helpful. I learned what kneading looked like and came across some recipes that didn't require real kneading of the bread. I had good success with the no-knead bread and it boosted my confidence to try some breads that required kneading. To my amazement, I was able to knead the bread just like the lady in the video that I'd watched. And it was so soothing, not laborious at all. It was at that moment that I was hooked.

Perhaps your objection to bread making is that it requires too much time. While it is true that you must allow time for your bread to rise (fermentation of the dough), the real labor is minimal. Mixing the dough, kneading, and shaping can usually be done in less than 25 minutes total. And many doughs lend themselves well to an overnight rise in the fridge after they are mixed. So you can sleep and forget about the dough during the first or second rising. I often decide the night before what bread I will make, take 15 minutes to mix and knead the dough after breakfast while the children are playing, let it rise until nap time (I can use the fridge to slow down fermentation/rising if I need to), deflate, shape, and second rising during nap time, score the dough with a blade, bake, and have it ready to eat by dinnertime. OR, I may mix it up and knead it once the children have been put to bed, let it rise in the fridge overnight, let it come to room temperature (if required) for the shaping...and continue as above. I do my best to put the dough on my schedule and not vice versa. It actually is quite accommodating most times. I really like using a natural leaven in my breads. I also use commercially packaged yeast, but my preference is wild yeast for the flavor and texture it gives to bread. Also, when you use a natural leaven, the rising times are longer than with packaged yeast. Those longer periods spent rising/fermenting develop more flavor and give beautiful character to the crumb. Longer rising times are easier for me to fit into my schedule. I just let it sit and forget about it, for the most part, except for maybe folding the dough once or twice during the first fermentation.

I have a sourdough starter that I maintain. A sourdough starter, like all starters, is just flour and water that has been left to ferment for about a week or more. The flour and water becomes a home for the wild yeast in the air and after a while, there's enough wild yeast in the flour/water mixture to leaven dough without any additional packaged yeast. The wild yeast in your kitchen is different than the yeast present in mine. And thus the flavor will be different, too. There are certain yeast strains that are unique to certain locals, as is the case with the famous San Francisco Sourdough Bread. I cannot replicate the flavor of that bread entirely because I do not live where that strain of yeast resides. I love that! It's so fascinating to me that my kitchen will have different strains and quantities of yeast than the next person and that our bread will taste differently because of it.

The more bread baking you do, the more yeast is present. So when I started my sourdough starter/natural leaven, it didn't take long for me to see some yeast activity. I started with water and rye flour because rye flour encourages fermentation and helps the yeast to multiply. On the third day, I was using all white flour in my starter. By day 6, my starter was ready to be used because I had an abundant supply of yeast present in my kitchen to help it out! In the photos for this blog post, you see a picture of the flour/water mixture on day 2 and on day 6. Big difference, huh? It's nothing short of amazing, quite frankly. All of the bubbles you see are yeast activity. Flour + Water + Time = Good Bread. If you're just starting out, it will probably take longer for your starter to become mature and ready to use. Once it's ready, you just leave it on the counter and "refresh" it daily. Refreshing it means to discard all but about 1/2 cup of the starter (or use it to make bread, sourdough pancakes, and other treats) and feed the rest with fresh water and flour of a certain proportion, depending on the hydration percentage of your starter. I maintained mine for a little while on the counter, but have recently begin storing it in the fridge and refreshing it once a week when I'm not using it. This is working just fine. I like this better since I'm not using as much flour. But, thankfully, flour is inexpensive, even the quality brands.

When you use a starter, the bread making process is a little lengthier, but I recommend it because it gives your bread more flavor and helps it stay fresher longer. There's so much more flavor in a sourdough starter that's been maintained for weeks, months, or years than there is in commercially packaged yeast. The same is true for other types of starters, all of which take seconds to mix up. Biga, poolish, levain, sourdough, these are all terms for bread starters. They just differ in the amount of time you have to let them sit to ferment and the flour/water ratio you use to mix them. But fermentation is a hands off process, so please don't be put off by the extra step of making/maintaining a starter. That being said, there are also times when I want a loaf of yeast bread on the table within 4 hours from start to finish. And this is very easily accomplished and you will still have delicious bread (I refer to my Beth Hensperger books for times like this). The flavors won't be as complex, though.

In cooking, there are so many possibilities that you are never bored if you're willing to try something new and be creative. I have found this to be true in bread making as well. I have hardly made the same bread twice! There are so many new things to try! But I never tire of Rosemary Olive Oil Bread. This is my favorite. I grew very fond of La Brea Bakery's loaf and purchased Nancy Silverton's (the bakery owner) bread book about 10 years ago when I was in a cookbook club. I remember looking through the book when it arrived and knowing immediately that I wouldn't use it. I certainly didn't have that skill level then and I was very closed to the idea of taking 2 days or more to make a loaf of bread! Fast forward 10 years and I have now achieved that skill level and can make any loaf in her book. When I made her bread, it was a pinnacle moment for me. I was very proud. This is just a testimony of what a little desire, passion, time, wild yeast, and You Tube can do for you...LOL. Who would've known I'd be making the loaves I stood in line for at the bakery and that I'd fall in love with the process from the very first fermentation? Amazing, indeed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Recipe Request--Martha Stewart's Sticky Buns

Danish Dough for 12 buns (instructions follow)
Unsalted butter to grease muffin pans
3 1/3 cups pecan halves
2 1/4 cups light corn syrup
3/4 cups plus 2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
all purpose flour, for dusting
3/4 cup sour cream
1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1/2 cup warm milk (110 degrees)
1 pack active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tbsp table salt
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temp, cut into tablespoons
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk; stir until dissolved. Let sit until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, cardamom, and 4 tbsp of the room temp butter. Mix well with pastry blender or fingers until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the yeast mixture and mix until dough just comes together. Add eggs and yolk and mix just until combined. Do not overmix (you can do all the mixing with a stand mixer, if you like).

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, making sure to include any loose bits left at the bottom of the bowl. Gently knead to form a smooth ball, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Wrap well in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to 10 x 13 inch rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick, keeping the corners as square as possible. With a short side facing you, evenly distribute the remaining butter over 2/3 of the dough. Fold the unbuttered third over as you would a business letter, followed by the remaining third. This seals in the butter.

Roll out the dough again to a 10 x 13 inch rectangle, then fold dough into thirds again as described above. Refrigerate for 1 hour. This is the first of 3 turns. Repeat rolling and folding two more times, refrigerating for at least one hour between turns.

Refrigerate dough, tightly wrapped in plastic, for at least 4 hours or overnight. Dough can also be frozen, tightly wrapped in plastic, for up to 2 weeks. Before using frozen dough, thaw in fridge overnight.

Let danish dough stand at room temp until slightly softened, about 15 minutes. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Generously butter two jumbo muffin pans. Chop 2 cups pecans, and break the remaining 1 1/3 cups in half lengthwise, keeping the two groups separate. Pour 3 tbsp corn syrup into each muffin cup, and sprinkle with 1 tbsp brown sugar. Divide halved pecan evenly among the muffin cups (I used a little less corn syrup and brown sugar, thinking it a bit too much for my taste).

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to an 18 x 14 inch rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick. Using a spatula, spread the sour cream over the surface of the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch border. Dust the sour cream with cinnamon, and sprinkle with chopped pecans and remaining 2/3 cup brown sugar. Roll up the dough tightly lengthwise to form a log about 3 inches in diameter, and trim the ends using a serrated knife. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Using a sharp knife and a sawing motion, slice the dough crosswise into 12 rounds, about 1/2 inch thick, and place in prepared pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until 1/2 inch above the cups, 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to the oven, placing a baking sheet on the rack below to catch drips. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until buns are dark golden brown, about 40 minutes.

Immediately turn out buns onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Replace any pecan halves that have fallen off. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temp. Sticky buns are best eaten the day they are baked.

Note: You may be tempted to skimp on the refrigeration time, but do not. This dough requires multiple refrigeration times to keep the butter cold, to rest, and to develop flavor. It won't disappoint, though! Just plan ahead and do it over two days when you have the time to spare. These sticky buns are worth the wait. Better than the prestigious "Cinnabon" in my opinion. And the satisfaction you get from making this beautiful, buttery, flaky, soft dough all by yourself is incomparable. Love it!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Homage To The Lemon

One of my favorite flavors is lemon, without a doubt. I incorporate it into so many things that I prepare. I love its versatility, that it can compliment sweet and savory dishes alike. I love its uniqueness. It's easy to pick out that lemony bite in most anything you put it in. But at the top of my list of lemony treats is lemon curd. I loves me some lemon curd.

After I made some a few weeks ago, I took the time to savor a couple of spoonfuls before I spread it onto a cake. I thought about my impressions of it, what I love about it. Here are my thoughts: I love the explosion of tartness in your mouth balanced by the sweetness from the sugar. To me, lemon curd has so many, if not all, the characteristics that make me swoon. There's that tartness and sweetness, but it's also tangy, creamy, buttery, and rich. I'm very content to eat a couple of spoonfuls without any accompaniments (or guilt), but it's at its best when harmonizing with a moist layer cake, or cupcake...say, a lemon meringue cupcake?

Lemon curd is incredibly easy to make. If you have some lemons on hand, some eggs, sugar, and butter, you are on your way to lemony heaven. There is a way to do it that's more time consuming and requires more eggs and butter (see the Lemon Curd Cake recipe from a previous post), and, admittedly, the flavor achieved with that version is more complex. But I promise you, this one is almost as good. It won't disappoint you in flavor. I use this version more than the one I use to make the Lemon Curd Cake because of its simplicity to flavor ratio. Here's what you do: Put 4 eggs, 2/3 cup of sugar, the zest of 1 lemon, and 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice in a heavy bottomed saucepan and whisk until smooth and slightly pale in color (about 2 minutes). Put the saucepan over low heat and whisk until it thickens. Make sure you use low heat at all times or you will have lemony scrambled eggs! If your heat is low and you use a heavy bottomed saucepan, you should have no problem. It may take 5 minutes before it begins to thicken, but once it begins, it will be very thick in no time. The curd should be very thick, but still pourable. At this point, take it off the heat and stir in 3 tbsp cold butter until it's melted. To keep the curd from forming a skin on the top, cover with plastic wrap and press the plastic directly onto the surface of the curd.

Note: Although the flavor isn't as pure, bottled lemon juice can be substituted and the zest omitted if you have lemon juice in the fridge, but don't have any lemons.

Because of my love affair with lemon, I seem to never tire of eating "piccatas". Chicken? Turkey? Pork? Veal? Sole or another fish? Give me all of them. That combination of lemon, butter, and spices in the sauce is a winner with me. To make chicken piccata, buy some chicken cutlets and season them lightly with kosher salt and cracked pepper. Dredge both sides of the cutlets in flour and brown them all, using equal parts butter and olive oil. I like to use my large electric skillet because I can do them all at once (6 cutlets), but you can use any large skillet and brown your cutlets in batches. When golden brown on both sides, remove from skillet. Pour in 1/2 cup dry white wine and 1/3 cup lemon juice. Return the chicken to the skillet and scatter 1 tbsp drained capers on top (more if you want), 6 lemon slices on top of the chicken cutlets, and 1 tbsp of chopped Italian parsley. Continue to cook until sauce is thickened slightly. Take off heat and stir in 1 tbsp butter. Yum!

Lemon really does have a unique way of transforming a dish. When I feel like something's "missing" in a dish, sometimes a dash of lemon juice is what is needed to bring it all together. It adds a special quality to foods in that it can be both bold and delicate, depending on how it is used. In lemon curd, the flavor is bold. The lemon flavor takes center stage. But in homemade mayonnaise, for example, lemon flavor comes through tenderly, quietly, breathing a touch of refreshing acidity to those egg yolks, mustard, spices, and oil.

So today I pay homage to the lemon. You will forever have a place, albeit many places, in my kitchen. Thank you, lemon, for the fruity acidity that you bring to our tables. Your ability to equally triumph in the spotlight and rest in the shadows is admirable to me, the home cook, who is fond of adaptable ingredients. Lemon, you are appreciated, honored, and thankfully inexpensive! Your oil is fragrant and pleasing to most. Lemon, we pay you tribute for all you offer to our cooking!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Recipe Request--Mushroom Barley Soup

4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cups sliced portabella mushrooms
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thinly
1 tbsp minced garlic
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1.5 tsp dried herbes de provence
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp cayenne powder
1 tsp freshly grated ginger root
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery hearts, thinly sliced
2 white potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks (optional)
3/4 cup apple juice
1.5 tbsp tomato paste
about 4 quarts chicken stock or chicken broth
1.5 cups quick-cooking barley

Heat a large, heavy bottomed stock pot on medium high heat. Add butter and oil. Add mushrooms, onions, garlic, spices, and herbs. Sauté on medium high heat until very tender. Add celery and carrots (and potatoes, if using) and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes. Add apple juice to deglaze bottom of pot and stir until nearly evaporated. Add tomato paste, chicken stock and barley and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow barley and vegetables to cook until nice and tender. Stir soup often. Barley will thicken soup naturally. The more you stir, the more starch is released into the stock and the thicker the soup. If you find you need more liquid at the end (ie soup is too thick), add some water until desired thickness. Adjust seasoning if needed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Recipe Request-- Lemon Coconut Cheesecake

This cake has a layer of cheesecake and a layer of lemon sponge cake. Between the layers and to frost and decorate the cakes, there is lemon curd, coconut, and whipped cream. It does take some time, but man is it worth it.

For the cheesecake:

24 oz regular cream cheese at room temp.
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 extra large eggs
2/3 cup whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch springform pan. Wrap the outside in aluminum foil, covering the bottom and sides of pan.

Beat 8 oz. cream cheese, 1/3 cup of sugar, and cornstarch until creamy, about 3 minutes. Beat in remaining cream cheese (8 oz. at a time). Increase mixer speed and beat in the remaining sugar. Add vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Add cream and mix just until blended.

Spoon batter gently into springform pan and place into a large shallow pan containing hot water. The water should come about 1 inch up the side of the pan. Bake until edges are golden brown, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove cake from water bath, transfer to cooling rack, and allow to cool in pan for 2 hours. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate in pan until completely cold, about 4 hours.

For the spongecake:

1/2 cup sifted cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 extra large eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp lemon extract
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Oven should be kept at 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 inch round cake pan. Line the bottom only (not the sides) with parchment paper. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl. Beat egg yolks in large bowl on high for 3 minutes. Slowly add 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until thick, light yellow ribbons form, about 5 minutes more. Beat in the extracts. Sift flour mixture over the batter and stir it in with a spoon, just until no white specks are visible. Blend in the melted butter. Put egg whites and cream of tartar in clean bowl and beat until frothy. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form and whites look glossy. Fold about 1/3 of whites into the batter, then fold in the rest of the whites. Gently spread batter over bottom of prepared cake pan and bake until golden and toothpick comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on cooling rack for 15 minutes, then remove from pan, peel away parchment paper and allow to cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to assemble.

For the lemon curd (makes 4 cups):

16 large egg yolks
Finely grated zest of 4 lemons
1 cup plus 4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2.5 sticks (20 tbsp) unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces

Whisk yolks, zest, juice, and sugar together in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium- high heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, and the temperature of the mixture is 160 degrees. Remove from heat. Add salt and butter, one piece at a time, stirring after each piece until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing wrap directly onto surface of mixture to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled and set, at least 1 hour.

For the frosting and decoration:

1 quart whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
4 cups coconut flakes

When ready to assemble, beat whipping cream until soft peaks began to form. Slowly add sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Remove cheesecake, spongecake, and lemon curd from refrigerator. Place spongecake, top side down, on a cake plate. Spread with a layer of whipped cream. Sprinkle a layer of coconut on top of whipped cream. Spread a layer of lemon curd on top of coconut. Place cheesecake, top side down, over lemon curd. Frost entire cake with whipped cream (leave some to pipe decorations). Sprinkle coconut on top and gently pat on sides of cake. Spread a layer of lemon curd on the very top of the cake for a dramatic effect and beautiful color. Pipe decorations of your choice around the top (and bottom) edges of the cake, using the remaining whipped cream. Keep the cake refrigerated.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

20 Cooking Tips

Here are 20 tips to help your cooking go smoothly, be enjoyable, and flavorful.

1. Plan your menus in advance.

OK, I know it sounds really boring and methodical, but it's necessary when you have a family to feed. If you don't plan in advance, chances are you'll have a hungry child (or spouse!) at dinnertime and no idea what to feed him. That's not a good feeling... Then you'll be scrambling to find something, to prepare something. I've been there. But now I'm in the habit of planning. I do two big grocery trips a month. So when I plan my meals, I'm planning enough to last me until the next big grocery trip, 2 weeks away. So I plan for 2 weeks of meals. How many meals that equates to is different for each home, depending on the size of the meal cooked (are there leftovers, for example?), how many meals are eaten that are not prepared at home during that 2-week period, etc.

Make a list of dishes you plan to cook on one side of paper and the ingredients you'll need on the other side. Add to the list of ingredients any other staple items you will need to replenish (eggs, milk, cheese, coffee, for example). The list of ingredients will serve as, you guessed it, your shopping list. When you write your ingredient list, group things as you find them in the store: produce, meat, dairy, frozen, canned goods, baking supplies, grains... This will make it easier to verify that you have gotten everything on your list.

2. Use cookbooks to help simplify meal planning and keep meals diverse.

I love looking through good cookbooks, and I have a lot of great ones. I collect cookbooks, in fact. So when I am thinking of the next week's meals, I start thumbing through my books to see what catches my eye. When I decide to prepare a dish from one of my cookbooks, I list the said dish on my piece of paper along with the cookbook and page number. Although I hardly ever follow a recipe verbatim, the diversity of recipes I have via my cookbooks keeps my cooking new and fresh. We're always eating different stuff. My family never feels like they're eating the same old thing! I borrow cookbooks from the library on a regular basis. The ones I can't do without, I purchase online and add them to my collection. You can do the same, especially if you want to cook some new things. Try borrowing cookbooks on the types of food you'd like to cook. Is it Indonesian cuisine you'd like to try your hand at? What about African food? Whatever it is, there's a cookbook with some spectacular recipes out there for you to try. You've just got to look for it.

3. Think about your children when you plan meals, but don't think ONLY of them.

I recently ran across a great quote: "My mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it." — Buddy Hackett

When I was younger, some of the things that my Mom cooked, I didn't like. I was not a fan of chicken with bones (hated seeing the veins or dark spots near the bone), so although her baked chicken thighs with cream of mushroom soup were perfectly yummy, I opted to eat vegetarian on the nights when she cooked them, for aesthetic reasons. She didn't cook anything different for me on the nights when I chose not to eat what she had prepared. And neither were her feelings hurt by the fact that I had rejected a dish she'd spent time and love preparing. I try to live by the same principles with my children, with some exception. Here's the exception: when cooking something rather gourmet or that I have feeling will not be well suited to the "immature" palate, I have a second option ready to give them if/when they complain. For example, the braised fennel that I had on my menu list is, admittedly, not for everyone. So I kept that in mind and made sure I had an alternative vegetable for them, although I generally let them try everything I cook. Sometimes they surprise me by what they like (like the ginger and balsamic roasted beets I prepared recently). And I get excited and think, "Now, we're making some progress."

4. Think and thaw.

Always be at least a meal ahead when it comes to what you're going to eat. If you can be a day ahead, that's even better. At breakfast, I'm thinking about lunch. At lunch, dinner's on my mind. Generally, I try to think about meals the night before. For example, at this moment I know precisely what will be served for tomorrow's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I already took out the salmon and put it in the fridge to thaw for tomorrow's dinner. I'm thinking ahead now and taking care of any necessary preparations (like taking meat out of the freezer), so I don't have to think about it later.

5. Do Ahead.

Many times in cooking, there are things you can do ahead. You don't have to wait until it's near dinner-time to prepare everything for dinner. Sauces, vinaigrettes, desserts, breads, can be prepared in advance. You can even prepare the whole meal in advance and freeze or refrigerate it, if you'd like. There are some things that need to go from oven to table for best flavor. But there are many dishes that taste just as great reheated. When you have small children, it's especially important to cook when you find pockets of time. When the children are playing contentedly together, I will be making preparations for lunch or putting lunch together, so I can reheat it if need be (usually it's still hot or warm, though). During naptime, I'm usually starting dinner. And I am renown for taking out the mixer and whipping up a cake, baking bread, making tomorrow's lunch, or something, once they are in bed. When you have small children who count on you for their every need, you can be pulled away from cooking (or any other task) at a moment's notice, so I work when I can and I work as quickly as I can.

6. Let your children assist you when possible and convenient.

Young children love to help. Take advantage of it!! Seriously, you can create really positive food memories for children when you let them help in the kitchen. When your kids work with you in the kitchen, they see how raw ingredients are used and combined to form the finished product. They are better able to appreciate the finished product. You can also teach them about kitchen safety as you go. There's a whole world of learning at their fingertips when they're in the kitchen with you. When baking with my children, I always leave the oven light on so they can watch the baking take place. Their eyes light up. It's priceless. I love sharing what I enjoy with my little people.

7. Explore, be creative, and cook with love.

Cooking really is fun! There are some rules, but there is so much room for creativity. That's why I love it. Experiment with flavors. You may never know if certain flavors will or will not compliment each other if you don't try. There's always something new to try and something new to learn.

Love what you do! It's an important job nourishing your family! Take pride in it and you will be rewarded with smiling faces and empty plates.

8. Prepared ingredients can help save time in the kitchen.

This is one that I find myself struggling with, from time to time. Now that I make bread, pizza dough, jam, etc., at times it's hard for me to justify buying it. "But I can make it myself, cheaper, tastier", I tell myself. However, I've told myself that just because I CAN make it and ENJOY making it doesn't mean that I HAVE to make it ALL the time. There are times when I don't want to take the time or have the time to let my pizza dough rise (during those spur of the moment decisions to make pizza). So on those occasions, I whip up a dough that uses baking powder and requires no rising time, or I buy a pizza dough mix, or a ready made pizza dough. I've recently tried out the new Fleischmann's pizza yeast, which requires no rising time. It's not bad, but not nearly as good as a dough that is allowed to rise. Another example is roasted peppers. If I don't roast them myself, I have no problem using the bottled roasted red peppers. They have wonderful flavor, I've found. So take advantage of the prepared ingredients in the grocery store, like the ones above and countless others. You may not always want to make your own salad dressing just because you can...

9. Clean up as you cook.

I can not work in a messy kitchen. I must have a neat (albeit not spotless) kitchen before I start cooking, and I try to keep it as orderly as possible while cooking. Thus, while I'm cooking, I'm loading the dishwasher with dirty bowls and spoons, hand washing those items that require it, wiping counters down, whatever I can do when I have breaks in my cooking process. If something is simmering, baking, and doesn't require my time, I'm cleaning or tidying up. Sometimes I simply stop what I'm doing to clean up some if my kitchen is getting too cluttered. So when I'm done, I never have a huge mess to clean up.

10. Write down your recipes so you can duplicate them.

This one is something I've only recently began to do. I'm notorious for doing something creative, not writing it down, and not being able to duplicate it the next time. For years, my husband asked, "Why not write it down?" I thought it was such a bother. Now I really do see how doing this makes me a better cook.

No matter how good a memory you have, you probably won't be able to remember exactly what you did, the exact amount of ingredients you put in. It really does help to write it down. So when you create a recipe, write down (or record it into your digital voice recorder) the ingredients and steps as you go, or at the latest, right after you finish the dish (while it's fresh in your mind). You would hate to come up with something fabulous only to find you're not able to make it come out the same way the second time.

11. Present your food well and have the necessary tools.

I love pretty things to cook/serve my food in. I feel like if I invest time in preparing good food, I also want to present it well to my family. Food can look even more enticing when it's in a pretty dish. So the next time you're in a store and see some pretty stoneware or a gorgeous enameled cast iron dutch oven, don't pass it up if you can afford it. I've grown bored with my Pyrex dishes and am using them less and less as I have more interesting options.

I have an affinity for cookware and kitchen appliances/gadgets/tools. They are both necessary and can really simplify cooking. Whether it be a nice set of stainless steel cookware, sharp knives, a food processor, a stand mixer, a pasta machine, a meat grinder, or the smaller apple corer and vegetable peeler, they are all welcome (and used)in my kitchen.

12. Taste as you cook (but don't double dip :)).

I've never seen a chef who didn't taste his food as he was preparing it. This is how you know it's seasoned properly. For most foods, if you wait until your dish is complete to season it, it's too late. Flavors mesh during the cooking process. Salt has time to melt and harmonize with other spices. A dish that's seasoned beforehand also continues to develop flavor after cooking is finished. There are so many things that taste better the next day--soups, some desserts, bean salads, lasagna... Flavors continue to come together and juices are absorbed by the beans, pasta, etc. If you put your spices/seasonings in after cooking has taken place, chances are your food will just taste salty and out of balance.

Taste your raw ingredients and smell everything. You will find that this helps you to be able to naturally choose complimentary flavors in your dishes.

13. Make a list and check it twice...

Keep a running list of items you are low on. When you go shopping, make sure these items are on your shopping list. You'd hate to be out of something you need for cooking and have to run and get it in the middle of meal preparation.

14. Cut bacon and grate ginger while frozen.

Frozen ginger grates effortlessly and frozen bacon is easily chopped. I keep mine frozen, so they don't spoil and just cut off what I need for cooking.

15. Buy or make your own flavored oils.

Flavored oils add huge flavor to vinaigrettes, sauces, pasta, and more. I love tossing my pasta in a little bit of sesame and basil oils. I use lemon and orange infused olive oils to make vinaigrettes for my salads...They are easy to make and a little goes a long way.

16. Read about cooking and watch professional chefs.

In order to improve and learn, it helps to educate yourself. Use your local library to check out books about cooking. Watch cooking television. Read cooking magazines, articles. Watch cooking videos online. Buy DVD's.

17. Grind and toast.

Buy your dried herbs/spices whole when possible and grind them yourself in a coffee grinder that you use only for this purpose (or your coffee will taste like spices). This results in a fresher, more pungent product. Toasting spices, seeds, nuts, etc., intensifies their flavor. This is very important in Indian cooking, but can be done in other types of cuisine for the same effect.

18. Improvise when necessary.

Cooking is about learning and experimenting and no cook is a perfect cook. When things don't go as you hoped, don't dismay. Save the day! I experiment A LOT. I can't help it! When I'm cooking, I often hear a little voice that says "try this" or "why not do this instead". And almost always, I do...

At my most recent dinner party, I prepared a skyscraper coconut lemon cheesecake. It had a thick layer of lemon cheesecake, a thick layer of lemon spongecake, and in between the layers were whipping cream and lemon curd...Absolutely one of my favorites...delicious. Anyway, I made the lemon curd differently than I had in the past. The result? It wasn't as thick as it should have been--too runny even after it had chilled for several hours. So I saved the day, and dessert! I put the curd back in my stainless steel saucepan and added a cornstarch/water mixture to thicken it to the right consistency. I allowed it to cool enough so I could assemble the dessert. Worked beautifully. This is an example of saving the day. When something doesn't go as plan, think of how you can save it. Your creativity and common sense can go a long way. Remember if you don't experiment and try new ways of doing things, you won't have the pleasure of learning what DOESN'T work.

19. Get the first pickings.

Wherever you shop for food, find out when they restock and do your shopping at that time. During the restocking period, new items are placed on the shelves, the fresh produce comes out... I prefer to go shopping during this time when I can because I know I'm getting the freshest product they have available and someone is always around so that I can ask questions or have them go fetch me something in the back. Restocking normally occurs during the non-busy store hours and, for me, this is also a bonus, since I hate shopping during peak store hours. I love being able to walk leisurely around the store without the crowded aisles...Heaven! I'm able to get my shopping done more quickly. I love it. It truly is a win-win situation for me.

20. Don't forget the wine.

Thank God for wine! Not only does wine facilitate the digestive process, but this ancient beverage has medicinal properties, health benefits, and there are some beautiful, artistic examples of it all over the world! I admit that I'm fascinated by it. I love the fact that every single bottle is unique and that when you have a good bottle you can be transported by the senses to the land from which it came--this is what the French refer to as "terroir" in wine terminology.

When wine is exposed to high temperatures in cooking, the alcohol evaporates and the flavors of the wine become more concentrated. Thus, if you add a sweet wine to food, it lends sweetness to the final dish, an herbaceous wine would contribute a certain herbaceous quality, and so on... As a fan of wine, it's not surprising that I enjoy the flavor it adds to food. I use it in marinades, sauces, and as braising liquid. And it's not just for meat. Some vegetables and desserts are very wine friendly, as well.

À votre santé (cheers) et bon appétit!

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cooking enthusiast who wants to share her passion with those around her