The Bread Baby

Does anyone remember that craze back in the 90’s, where people gave each other little pocket sized computer thingies that you had to ” feed” and “bathe”, or they pinged in an annoyingly loud manner? Or that episode in “Frasier” where Niles attempted to simulate fatherhood by looking after an eight pound sack of flour for a week? No?

I had forgotten them too – but they all came rushing back to me in the early hours of the morning about a month ago, when I found myself under the glare of my kitchen lights, giving it the full Colin Clive and screaming, “It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!!

itsalive
That’s Dr. Frankenstein to you, thank you very much.

I was making my own sourdough bread.

Moreover, I was learning – all too painfully – that making your own sourdough bread is not about the baking the bread, but rather about making the “starter.” And making a sourdough starter is uncomfortably like looking after a small baby for an extended period of time. There’s a lot of feeding and changing, quite a bit of gas, the regular disposal of beige goop, some malodorous smells, and far too much fretting and crying.

How did I get to that darkly cinematic moment in my kitchen in those wee small hours? Not naturally or easily actually. I have always considered myself more of a “cook” than a “baker” but my confidence in baking had truly grown in the last few years.

  • I had routinely produced a bourbon pecan pie that simply could not be bettered,
  • poured wine during the baking of a glorious holiday challah bread,
  • nodded sagely at Paul Hollywood’s tips and criticisms on “The Great British Bake Off,”
  • even casually observed to former friends that they were dealing with puff pastry somewhat incorrectly. (“No, dear. Your butter must be cold. As cold as your shallow little heart.“)

So it was with a snoutful of self- confidence that I approached baking bread. Continue reading “The Bread Baby”

Pickled And Baked

It’s not what you think.

I’m not wallowing in wine or whacked out on weed. (At least not right now.) I do, however, have homemade bread baking in the oven, and I’ve just put up a bunch of pickles.

Again, it’s not what you may think. I haven’t joined a commune in Vermont, delved too far into the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or taken up extreme right-wing ideologies and moved into a nuclear bunker in Tennessee. I’m just trying to stay hip. And for once, I’ve found I haven’t already aged out of the latest trends.

Both baking and pickling are tres chic here in the UK. That runaway smash tv show The Great British Bakeoff has taken the nation by storm over the last few years.

mary-berry

What was once the province of the WI has now become a national craze. Artisan bakeries are opening across the land, companies are holding their own employee cake contests, and near strangers are getting friendly jabbering about their Genoese sponges.

In the restaurant and television cookery worlds, pickling is equally de rigeur. TV shows like Masterchef: The Professionals are giving us weekly bites of the latest fine dining trends, and along with pistachios, apricots, cauliflower and cured mackerel, pickled vegetables adorn pretty much every plate. In fact, sometimes they’re all on the same plate, which strikes me as a digestive challenge.

Pickling

Now I don’t, as it happens, have much of a sweet tooth. I’m not a big fan of cakes or pastries. And I’ve never before felt a particular need to knead. Nor do I, living on the third floor of an apartment block as I do, own acres of farmland replete with legumes that need preserving before they rot.

But still, a boy can get to feeling left out.

So what to do about it? Continue reading “Pickled And Baked”

Spaghetti: Dressed For Dinner

We recently celebrated Spaghetti Day here at Fabulous Foodie. Deborah’s fabulous post about the various forms of- and sauces for- spaghetti got me to thinking about what a large part spaghetti has played in my culinary life.

I remember being a child watching my dad make his spaghetti Bolognese sauce, and how – though it’s certainly my own sauce now – mine is based on his. Yes, I know that sauce is actually called a ragu, and that in Italy it’s never served with spaghetti (except perhaps resignedly to tourists) because spaghetti is the wrong shape and texture to properly hold the sauce, but like everyone who didn’t grow up in Italy, that’s the way I first ate it. And it’s still how I prefer to eat it to this day.

bolognese-sauce

As a teen, I learned how to eat spaghetti properly, instead of cutting it into childishly spoon-able lengths; how you gather a few strands on the tines of your fork, and twirl the fork against the side of the bowl or a spoon until they’re neatly twined around your fork. And how it’s actually okay to slurp a bit , just to get those few recalcitrant straggly ends into your mouth. (At least it is in my house.)

Then I remember how I learned to cook spaghetti (and all pasta) properly:

Continue reading “Spaghetti: Dressed For Dinner”

10 Best (Non-Baking) Uses for Bicarb

Before anyone asks: yes, my fellow Americans – bicarbonate of soda is the same as baking soda. Now that we’re on the same page – Happy Bicarbonate of Soda Day!

There was a time when I assumed the only thing bicarb was good for was, once mixed in with water, as a hangover remedy. These days I bake more so I realize there’s more to it than that. But I’ve also realized in the past year or so, that its usefulness as a tool in the cleaning arsenal around the house is unrivaled. Well, only rivaled by lemons. Between bicarb and lemons, I hardly need anything else.

Bicarb_lemon

I’ve been switching to greener cleaning options these days – for a number of reasons, chief among which is the obsession that cleaning product manufacturers have these days about scenting EVERYTHING. They clearly have a very different understanding of the word “lemony” or the phrase “pine fresh scent” than I do. YUCK!

baking-soda-for-cleaning

So, I thought to mark the occasion of Bicarbonate of Soda Day, I thought I’d round up a few of the ways I used bicarb around the house. You may find a useful tip or two – and by all means, share any others you might have.

Continue reading “10 Best (Non-Baking) Uses for Bicarb”

Kitchen Disasters R Us

It occurred to me the other night – as I frantically scoured out one of my favorite saucepans while flapping at the smoke alarm with a tea towel – that things in the kitchen don’t always go to plan.

burningkitchen
Please note – no kitchens were harmed in the making of this stock photo.

What had gone wrong? Well, I had been making mashed potatoes for myself in my new favorite manner, which is to simmer them in a bit of milk, and then use that milk for the mashing liquid. It takes a bit longer for the potatoes to cook but you lose none of the potato flavor to water, and you’ve already got hot potato-rich milk for the mashing.  Add butter, and it’s a great no-draining method for mash just so long as you don’t get distracted by the TV as they’re simmering.

Which, of course, I did.

Continue reading “Kitchen Disasters R Us”

The Old Bake and Switch

Back in Better Baking Tips Part 1, I mentioned that the first thing to do when baking was read the recipe – ingredients and method – all the way through so you weren’t taken by surprise mid-bake.

Have you been doing so? Yes? Excellent. You would make Mary Berry  proud. You might even make Paul Hollywood proud but he wouldn’t let on since he’s been practicing his inscrutable face in preparation for the new series of Bake Off – which, did I mention is coming VERY SOON?

Mary-Berry-Paul-Hollywood-594359What’s that? You haven’t been reading through the recipes before starting? Well, OK. Let’s not mention that to Mary or Paul and see if we can’t come up with a “save” of sorts.

At the end of Better Baking Tips Part 2, we talked about what do when you have no buttermilk and how to make your own self-raising flour from the good old plain stuff. But there are all sorts of things you might find yourself running out of so here are a few more last minute ingredient saves.

Some swaps are straight one to one affairs that won’t actually change anything else. Some may result in minor changes in consistency or flavor. Some of those changes you may come to prefer. You may even want to try a a few of these just to see what happens.

  • Have you run out of baking powder? To replace 1 teaspoon of baking powder, use 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar
  • What if you don’t have cream of tartar? Well, try this swap within a swap! For each teaspoon of cream of tartar you need, use either 2 teaspoons of vinegar or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
  • sugarsYou’ve looked everywhere for brown sugar and all you can find is white. Don’t worry – if you’ve got molasses, you’re covered. Need light brown sugar? Combine 2 tablespoons molasses with 1 cup of white sugar. Need dark brown sugar? Combine 3 tablespoons molasses with 1 cup of white sugar
  • Is corn syrup on the ingredient list but not in your cupboard? For 1 cup DIY corn syrup substitute, combine 1 and 1/4 cup white sugar with 1/3 cup of water
  • Need 1 cup of unsalted butter and there’s none to be found? Use 1 cup of shortening or 7/8 cup of vegetable oil
  • I can’t imagine running out of vegetable oil but I suppose it might happen – and if it did and I was baking a cake that called for 1 cup of oil, I could swap in 1 cup of applesauce.
  • Does the ingredient list call for a cup of Golden syrup that you don’t have? Use 1 cup maple syrup or 1 cup corn syrup instead.
  • Provided you don’t need to whip the 1 cup of heavy cream called for in the recipe, you can use 3/4 cup milk mixed with plus 1/3 cup melted butter instead.
  • Oh and that buttermilk swap I mentioned in Part 2? It is just one of many. You can also substitute 1 cup sour cream or 1 cup of plain or low fat yogurt for 1 cup of buttermilk. What you may notice about this tip is that there is another tip buried within in – what if you have no sour cream? Well, guess what? You can use the yogurt instead!

So – remember, read the recipe all the way through and do your best to have everything on hand. But you know – life happens. Sometimes we don’t get to the store when we mean to and other times we discover half way around the store that we have accidentally left our very carefully compiled shopping list on the counter. Don’t let these little hiccups stop you from baking up a storm. Swap and switch and bake on!

And check out the previous baking tips and tricks:

More Tips for Better Baking

The count down to Great British Bake Off continues and so does Fabulous Foodie’s Tips for Better Baking. (See Part 1 here)

Fabulous Foodie’s Tips for Better Baking, Part 2

butterBEAT YOUR BAKE: In many cake or cookie recipes, instructions say to cream the butter and sugar. This does not mean to mix them together for just a minute or two – this means to beat with a beater or in a mixer (or stir rapidly and briskly) until the butter grows lighter in color and texture. Doing so incorporates more air into your mixture and gives you bake more lift.

FLOURY FRUIT: When making a fruit cake, you want the fruit to be distributed throughout the cake not just settled at the bottom. To help ensure an even distribution, dust dried fruits (such as raisins, dried cranberries or blueberries) with a bit of flour before adding them into the mix.

JUST WHAT YOU KNEAD: You don’t want to use too much extra flour when kneading or your dough will dry out – and that can mess up your crust formation. If the dough is sticky, try lightly oiling your hands first and see if that doesn’t make things easier. Some people find a dough scraper useful and while we have a dough scraper and it is one of the most used tools in our kitchen, ironically we have never used it on dough. Go figure.

CrackingEggGET CRACKING: I am about to make a suggestion I know will be greeted with a few rolled eye. HOw do I know? Because I had the same reaction when I first heard it. But via the hard knocks of baking experience, I’ve come around and I say to you: Crack your eggs into a separate bowl first and then incorporate them into your mixture. Even if your recipe says to add one egg at a time. Crack it into the egg bowl, the from there into the mixture.

Yes, yes, I know it creates one more bowl to wash up but trust me. You just never know when you might get a bad egg – it doesn’t happen often but it does happen. It happened to me. Using the separate bowl means that should a bad egg or utterly splintered shell come your way, the only thing you’ve lost is an egg or two, not your whole mixture. Even if you are rolling your eyes now, you will thank me later.

SO CLOSE, SO FAR: It’s frustrating when you realize that you are one ingredient away from having everything you need. Here’s some swaps that mean you can avoid the shops and still get your bake on.

  • Need self-raising flour but only have plain? Just add 2 tsp of baking powder to every 200g (8oz) plain flour and presto! Self-raising flour.
  • Need buttermilk but failed to pick it up when you shopped for everything else? Stir 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar into 1 cup of milk. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 5 or 10 minutes, then use as you would do store-bought buttermilk.

As always, I hope these tips and tricks are useful should you find yourself in a baking way and I hope you’ll share your baking tips with the rest of us. I’ll be putting more up as we get closer to GBBO day.

 

Fabulous Foodie’s Tips for Better Baking

At Fabulous Foodie, we’re very excited about the return of Great British Bake Off next week.  So much so that we’re finding it hard to think about anything else. To be honest, we haven’t actually tried that hard to think of anything else. I mean, it’s Bake Off! So, having embraced our renewed obsession, we ended up with:

Fabulous Foodie’s Tips for Better Baking

START AT THE START: I’ve said it before, I will say it again and I will keep saying it until I go to the great big bakery in the sky:  Always make sure to read through a recipe before you do anything else. Yes, from start to finish, all the ingredients and instructions. Nothing will upset the apple cart and ruin the apple cobbler like discovering mid-bake that you are missing a vital ingredient or piece of equipment.

flour TAKING MEASURE: Are you scooping your flour directly out of the bag with your measuring cup? You may not be doing yourself or your baking any good. The flour will get compacted that way. Always spoon the flour into the measuring cup and then run a knife over the top to level it.

Brown sugar on the other hand should be compacted.  One cup brown sugar means a packed cup so press down a bit to make sure you’ve got as much as possible into a level cup.  Speaking of brown sugar – have you discovered the brown sugar in the pantry has gone hard? No problem. Place it in a microwave-safe bowl with a damp paper towel on top and zap it for 20 seconds at a time until it’s softened up the way you want.

Bundt-panGETTIN’ GREASY: Want to make sure you’ve greased every nook and cranny of that baking tin with butter? Forget using a piece of butter in paper. Too easy to miss spots that way and doesn’t always make it into corners. Try using a pastry brush instead. Just run the brush over soft butter then swipe it around the tin. I find that it covers better than the paper and goes on faster.

Another top greasing tin tip — learn from my mistakes and remember that when using a bundt pan, greasing the bottom and sides is all well and good but get the center bit also. Trust me. *shuffles embarrassingly at the memory*

CHILL OUT: You’ve remembered to soften the butter but did you remember to take the eggs out of the fridge to warm up? Those of you in the UK will quite likely be wondering why on earth the eggs were in there in the first place – that’s another discussion for another time – but to those of you in the US, trust me. Room temperature eggs emulsify and combine with other ingredients much better than cold eggs. Get those puppies out of the chiller for a couple of hours.

If you forget and need the eggs warmed up quickly, place them in a bowl of warm water for five minutes.

PLAY IT COOL: A lot of recipes offer cooling times, but if they don’t a good rule of thumb for sponge cakes is – leave it to cool in the tin for 5 minutes then turn it out onto a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way. This ensures you don’t end up with slightly soggy edges. If there’s an overabundance of fruit in the cake in question, leave it to cool in the tin. Those fruits carry a lot of moisture and can cause “cake spread” otherwise.

I hope you find these little tips helpful. I’ll be posting more baking tips and tricks over the next few days. After all, it gives me an excuse to wallow in the Bake Off glow just that much more. 🙂 And as always, if you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share – please feel free. We’re always looking for ways to mix it up in the kitchen.

Make Mine Marinara

As I’ve stated many times before, I’m a big believer in “Big Batch Cooking”. Few things in life comfort me as much as the knowledge that-come what may, I have a big batch of my ragu, or my mother’s Poor Man’s Stroganoff, or just chicken stock, filling up my freezer, just waiting to be either heated and eaten, or turned into something else to be heated and eaten.

But as the days lengthen and the temperature warms up I generally turn away from slightly heavier fare. I don’t necessarily want a creamy stew, or even a meaty spag bol. I start to crave lighter meals. But I do still want to be prepared; to have something other than that trusty chicken stock on standby for either a quick pasta supper, or maybe just a flavoursome sauce for fish.

And that’s when I feel the urge to make a big batch of marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, and herbs,” is one of the best possible standbys to have in your fridge or freezer. It is of course your almost basic tomato sauce. Marinara sauces are much lighter and fresher than you might think – at least when made at home and not laden with extra sugar and preservatives etc (no, I don’t believe in a store-bought pasta sauce).

pizza_sauce As such, it’s the perfect sauce for summer. It’s not only brilliant on pasta, but is also the perfect base for topping homemade pizzas, a delicious accompaniment to a grilled piece of chicken, fish, pork, or even steak.  What’s more, since it’s more of a staple of Italian-American rather than Italian cuisine (trust me, there’s a difference), it leaves you a lot more room to experiment since you won’t be hindered by the strictures of tradition.

Marinara is incredibly easy to make, and all from easily obtainable kitchen staples. I don’t use fresh basil in my marinara, for one very simple reason: I like my marinara to be a base, a starting point. From that base sauce, when I’m reheating a portion of it for whatever purpose, I can add that basil (which only works when fresh, and is assertive when used in any sauce), capers, dried chilies or black olives (though I almost never use black olives as I loathe them- no Putta in the kitchen, I), vodka, or cream!

sauce_makingOnce you have this basic sauce as that starting point it will save you loads of time –in the future. A good marinara does take a bit of time to make. Tomatoes, whether you use canned or fresh, take a good couple of hours to cook down properly and lose that potentially sour raw edge.

But a lot of time does not equal a lot of effort and there’s not much actual effort here. Just the odd bit of pot-watching, stirring, and some deeply pleasurable squishing. The squishing may in fact be my favorite stage. If you’ve got kids (with clean hands) this is actually a great sauce to get them to help you with.

So here’s my recipe for a good all-round Marinara (Italian culinary purists, look away now):

Marinara Sauce
(makes 6-8 servings)

You will need:

  • A couple of good glugs of olive oil
  • 1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes (optional. I like my Marinara to have a little bit of a kick, but then the older I get, the more I get my kicks where I can)
  • 1 20 cl mini bottle (or a big glass) of good dry white wine- you can use red,and in winter that’s what I use- but I like the lightness of white in the summer months
  • 6 400g cans of peeled Italian plum tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • Salt and pepper

What to do:

  • In a large deep, lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium low flame until it’s fragrant. Then throw in the chopped onions and a good sprinkle of salt (the salt will stop the onions from catching). Let the onions saute until they soften and turn translucent. This will take a good ten minutes.
  • Once the onions are like mushy window panes, toss in the garlic, the oregano, and the chili flakes (if using), stir, and let them cook for just a minute or two. Then raise the heat just slightly, and pour in the white wine. Let the wine simmer until it’s reduced by at least half.
  • While the wine is reducing, it’s time for the fun part! Place a colander (ideally plastic or enamel) over a large bowl, then tip in the six cans of plum tomatoes. Then with absolutely clean hands, start squishing the tomatoes between your hands until they are a messy pulp in the colander. Give them a stir with a wooden spoon to send any juice they’re holding down into the bowl.
  • Once that wine is reduced by half (the onion/garlic/oregano mixture should look like a distinctly wet slurry), tip in the tomatoes from the colander. Give them a stir in the saucepan, then add the juice from the bowl and the tomato puree. Stir vigorously for a minute to mix in the puree then let  it come to a steady low simmer.
  • Season with one more sprinkling of salt and a good grind of pepper then just put the lid almost but not quite entirely over the pot, and let it simmer away for about 2 1/2 hours, giving it the occasional stir and taste.
  • After 2 1/2 hours, the sauce should have reduced by about a third, and have a good, thickish and slightly chunky consistency, as well as a deep cooked tomato flavor spiked with just that note of onions, garlic, wine and herbs.
  • At this point I personally let the sauce cool down a bit, then puree it with an immersion blender. That’s because I find the sauce is more versatile if it’s smooth and velvety (which it so deliciously is). If you like the more “artisan” nature of a slightly chunky sauce, buon gusto!

And as I mentioned above, don’t just think of a Marinara as being a sauce for pasta or pizza; remember that grilled fish! Or that steak Pizziaola! Or go fabulously 80s retro and use it as a dipping sauce for deep-fried mozzarella!

mozz_sticks


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