Sunday, January 30, 2011

Give Us This Day...Walnut Rosemary Loaves

To be honest, the first time I made this recipe I was lulled into inattention by the description in Cooking Light magazine.  They described a classic technique, easy shaping and simple ingredients that even an inexperienced bread baker could handle.  That was me!  Inexperienced!  Perfect, so I proceeded with the recipe and was not paying close enough attention to what I was doing.  Originally run in the magazine under the heading, Walnut and Rosemary Loaves, and yielding a total of two loaves of bread, I was under the impression that following this recipe carefully would yield me one walnut loaf and one rosemary loaf.  I could not understand how I was going to be able to seperate them if it all went into the same bowl in the process of making the bread.

Duh.  I hope that gives you some insight as to how inept I was in the early days of my bread making.

I have since come to love the fact that this recipe results in a total of two loaves of bread both with the wonderful combination of piney rosemary and robust walnuts.  Once, in a dramatic display of why you should always check your ingredients before you begin, this recipe was made over into a pair of pecan and sage loaves.  A wonderful accident!  I got bold after that serendipitous combination and tried walnuts and thyme once as well.  Very nice indeed.

The other thing I love about this recipe is that it is already measured for two loaves, so you don't need to double everything in your head as you go and hope you don't mess up halfway through.  I love to keep one for dinner and take one to deserving neighbor just in time for dinner.  Yum!

Walnut and Rosemary Boules (pronounced boo-lay, french for ball.  Makes you sound kinda cheffy!)

2 cups warm milk (whatever % you have will work)
1/4 cup warm water
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons salt
2 packages dry yeast (or about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
5 1/2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary (fresh is better but dried will work, just use less)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Cooking Spray
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal

Egg Wash Glaze (can be omitted, but it gives the bread a nice shiny appearance)
1 tablespoon milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1.  Whisk together your milk, water, sugar, butter and salt in a large bowl.  Add the yeast, stir with a whisk; let stand 5 minutes.  Add 2 cups of the flour, stir with a whisk.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 15 minutes.

2.  Add 2 1/2 more cups of the flour, walnuts, rosemary and 1 egg, stirring until combined.  Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for 10 minutes adding additional flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.  Don't be shy about adding the flour.  Add it in 1/4 cup handfulls slowly to avoid adding too much and making the dough stiff.

3.  Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray and turn the dough to coat all sides with spray.  Cover it again with plastic wrap and let it rise for 1 hour.  Poke it with your finger after an hour.  If the dent remains, then it has risen enough.

4.  Punch down the dough.  Turn it out onto a floured surface.  Cut it in half and shape each portion into a round by turning the edges under.  Place loaves on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal.  You can also use a silicone baking mat here and omit the cornmeal.  Spray the tops of the loaves lightly with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise again in a warm place for 30 minutes or until the loaves have doubled in size.  My favorite spot is a sunny window.

5.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

6.  Whisk together the milk and the egg for the glaze. Brush over the loaves generously.  If you don't have a brush you can use a paper towel to glop it over the tops of the bread.  Use a sharp knife and make a 4 shallow slices in a tic tac toe pattern on the tops of each loaf.  This makes it look gorgeous but serves no culinary purpose so if you're shy about cutting too deep then skip this part.

7.  Place loaves in the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.  Bake for 40 minutes.  Let stand on a cooling rack for 20 minutes before attempting to slice.  If you rush into this one the bread will get smooshed if it's too hot when you try and slice it.  Patience!

A little heads up.  This bread is another simple set of directions to follow, but allow yourself at least 2 1/2 hours to complete this recipe.  You don't need any special skills, just some time and a little patience.  It's great with soup, or toasted with apple butter the next morning...that is, if you have any leftover.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wonder Woman?

Last night I got more than 9 hours of sleep.  This morning I've had more than 5 cups of coffee.  I am positivly bursting with possibilities.  Ahhhhhggrrrttt!  Quivering with potential...or possibly caffeine.

This must be what superheros feel like!  The profusion of energy.  The acute senses.  The razor sharp focus.  Yes!  Not like my normal self, functional but not running on all cylinders, senses slightly dulled, protected against the real-ness of everything.  Kind of like walking through life with Vaseline all over your glasses.   No.  Today I am a superhero!

Well I'm seeing it all today and I have decided that I am Wonder Woman.

I wonder why Al, the guy from Sears that was here yesterday, even bothers to call himself a repair man.  I wonder why he doesn't just call himself an "Open up your machine and tell you what part is broken and can be ordered at an extraordinary cost for parts and labor and then set you up with a follow up appointment after I place two pieces of heat tape on your dryer and charge you $129" man.  Or maybe a "Here's a coupon for a new machine because in the long run and the short term for that matter it's a better investment" man.  Too long to put on the business card I guess.  Just call me Wonder Woman.

I wonder when I will get to go through a whole day with out someone calling out, "Mom! I pooped! You need to come wipe my butt!"  And before you judge me and suggest I ought to teach her some wiping skills, the alternative is letting her do it herself, badly, thus producing multiple pairs of underwear per day with skid marks in them leading to more laundry, recall that I have no dryer, and the nagging thought that my 3 year old is roaming the house with feces on her fingertips. Who would choose that? Really?  Just call me Wonder Woman.

I wonder where the hell my husband is and why he's never home when someone urinates on the rug (human or canine, you pick), spills their milk (and yes, I do cry over spilt milk when it's on the oriental rug that will need to be sent out for cleaning), or pukes on their carseat (which has to be handwashed, damn European designers).  When he's home alone with them, I get stories about trips to the zoo, children who eat all of their dinner and hours spent playing board games and doing playdoh art projects.  Lies?  Just call me Wonder Woman.

I wonder when the new puppy will stop having accidents in the house. We are following all the rules for puppy training.  He is doing better, but c'mon really.  It's been 6 months and I'm tired of the constant vigilance.  I wonder if the fact that it's the slogging frigid MiddleBit of winter, and the snow banks are way over his head, which is only 6 inches from the ground, has anything to do with his dislike for pooping al fresco?  Just call me Wonder Woman.

I wonder if the those blundering toy designers intended Polly Pockets to be an exercise in forced Mother/Child interaction or if they were just inventing microscopic toys for the fun of it.  I wonder if I am the only mother whose small children are incapable of dressing these synthetic damsels without the assistance of their unenthusiastic mama.  I hate Polly and her small gang of scantily clad plastic girlfriends.  I abhor the rice sized shoes that get stuck to the bottom of my feet.  I loath the process of tugging and stuffing these tiny females into their sticky clothes.  Is Polly an anti-neglect device in rubber clothing?  Just call me Wonder Woman.

I wonder when I will get over the fact that I leak. I leak when I exercise. When I laugh. When I get up in the morning. I wonder if you think this is too much information and now you have this picture in your mind that you can't get rid of? I wonder if you realize there are other blogs out there that reveal less about the writer?  No offense.   Just call me Wonder Woman.

Nine hours of sleep.   Excessive amounts of focus centering, caffeinated beverages.  A lens to more clearly examine my life.  Wonder Woman my ass!  Can I just get the costume and go back to ignoring all this crap?  Just call me Wonder Woman.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Us This Day...

Marge, Minnie and Mona, January 2011
These children know what's about to come out of this oven.  
Smart girls.

Freshly baked wait, homemade freshly baked bread.  Many people who engage in the baking of this culinary prize want you to think it's difficult.  Complicated.  Worth the $10-$15 per loaf that an artisan bread bakery will ask you to part with in order to enjoy their creations.

Robbery.  Baking a gorgeous loaf of bread in your own oven does not require any special skills, unless you consider the ability to use measuring cups and shop for simple ingredients 'special skills'.  My adventures with bread began 6 years ago when we moved our little family to the state of Washington.  Our oldest was just a baby, I didn't know a soul, the Father was extremely busy with a new job at a local university and I was unemployed.  I had months of cold weather stretched out in front of me and decided that I would try baking bread.  Yep.  Just like that I decided to jump in and give it a try.  Now, I did not grow up in a bread baking house.  My mom recalls how she used to make these yeast breads and tea rings, I'm sure she is telling the truth and I'm sure they were yummy, but I have no memory of these creations.  She'll also tell you she stopped making them because they were so much work and nobody appreciated them.  Must be true, hence, no memory.  Sorry Mom.  But I digress.

Long story short, I really had no experience with yeast breads.  Let me clarify what I mean here...quick breads, like your classic banana, pumpkin or zucchini, are breads with which I have lots of experience.  But I don't put them in the same category as yeast breads.  A quick bread, in my humble, unqualified opinion is not much different than following a cake recipe or any other simple baked good recipe.  Put in the ingredients, stir it, spray the loaf pan with Pam, pop it in the oven, 45 minutes.  Done.  Not hard if you can read.

The yeast bread, with the activating and the foaming and the incorporating and the kneading and the glutens and the rising and the poking and the punching and the stretching was truly a scary task to be tackled.  But back then, when it was just the 1 year old and me in the kitchen, and the grocery store was right down the street, I was willing to give it a shot.  Just read the directions right?  And the eventual failure can just be thrown away and nobody will ever have to know about it.  Right?

Well it turned out that there never was an epic failure.  Every single one I made was at least edible.  Some rose better than others.  Some were a little doughy raw on the inside, a few were a little too crunchy burned on the outside.  But we ate every single one of them.  Sweet breads, savory ones, international varieties, pitas, peasant loaves and baguettes.  I have tried more than I can count.  After 6 years of baking yeast breads my summary statement on baking bread is, "All you need is time.  And a good set of directions."  Fancy flours, special tools, stand mixers, bread boards, double ovens, blah, blah, blah.  All nice, but not necessary for making a gorgeous loaf of delicious bread.  This is not hard. I have become one of those people that bakes her own bread.  No, not the bread I use for grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly.  But during the cold winter months here in the Middle, we have soup and bread once a week, and that bread, we make at home.

TheMiddleBit is not going to turn into a food blog.  There are so many of those out there written by people who are infinitely more qualified than myself to share recipes and one of a kind creations.  They take gorgeous pictures of their food and invent new things weekly.  If that's what you're looking for go here.  And here.  And here.  Those are some of my favorites.  Know this.  Most of my recipes have been adapted from Cooking Light and I will give credit where credit is due.  I have scraped together a few from other sources and will note those of course too, but what I'm setting out to do here is give you a collection of some of my favorites.  To help you understand that baking these wonderful loaves is not difficult.  And to give you the benefit of some of the things I have learned in the last 6 years of making bread in my humble kitchen.  You'll find one here every Sunday, under the heading of Give Us This Day, until I run out of favorites, or until the weather gets warm again and I can no longer bring myself to bake a loaf of bread and raise the ambient temperature in my kitchen 15 degrees.

So...on that's one of our all time favorites.

Originally published by Cooking Light under the name Swedish Saffron Bread, this bread was renamed by my Middle Bit the first time I ever made it.  There was a lot going on in my kitchen that day, it was a new recipe, and I was expecting company.  There is much to be written about the wisdom stupidity of trying a new recipe when guests are on your doorstep.  Several children were asking for things, a timer was beeping somewhere, a dog was barking, the phone was probably get the picture.  It had a few more ingredients than some of the simpler loaves I do and at one point I screamed out, "Everyone just be quiet for a second!  These ingredients are making me nervous!"  Slowly backing out of the kitchen, they retreated to their bedrooms.  When the Father came in the door with our guests, he called out, "What's everybody up to?"  The Middle Bit yelled out, "Mommy's making Nervous Bread.  Stay out of the kitchen or she'll yell at you."  And thus our bread got its new name.

Nervous Bread

1 cup hot water
1/2 cup golden raisins *see note
1/4 cup currants *see note
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1 package dry yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 cup warm milk **see note
3 cups of all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs, divided
Cooking spray

*Note.  I have made this bread with golden raisins and currants as called for, however there are lots of other lovely combinations of dried fruits that work just as well.  I have used coarsely chopped dried dates, apricots and cherries.  I used regular raisins once in a pinch.  Cranberries work well too.  Bottom line, you need between 3/4 cup and 1 cup of coarsely chopped, dried fruit of some kind.  This is one of those places where you can personalize this recipe without too much stress and walk away feeling a little "cheffy".

**Note.  The recipe originally called for 2% and a true artisan bread baker will have an opinion on this one, but I have used everything from skim milk to heavy cream here, not because I was being clever, but because I failed to check my ingredients list before I started cooking.  The recipe also gets really specific about the temperature the milk is supposed to be heated to, but I think that just makes people afraid to try it if they don't have a thermometer.  Technically you're supposed to shoot for 110 degrees, but I never pay attention.  I measure the milk in my pyrex, pop it in the microwave for 1 minutes and wing it.  Always works.  Every time.  Promise.

1.  Put your hot water and your dried fruit in a bowl.  Ignore it for 10 minutes while you get everything else together.  When it's all plumped up again, drain the water off and set it aside.

2.  Put 1 tablespoon of sugar, saffron and yeast in a small bowl.  Pour the warmed milk over it and let it stand for 5 minutes until it gets foamy.  The saffron turns it this odd yellow color, that if you're not prepared for, might shock the heck out of you.  Don't panic.  That's what it's supposed to look like.

3.  In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of flour, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, salt and cinnamon.  Add your fruit, the scary, frothy yeast mixture, the melted butter and one of your eggs to the flour mixture and stir until dough forms.  You can add pinches of flour while you stir to get all the bits of the mixture from the side of the bowl to join the dough ball.

4.  Turn the dough ball out onto a lightly flour surface.  Knead it for at least 8 minutes and don't be afraid to add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to keep the dough from sticking to the counter or your hands.  You'll know it ok to stop adding flour when you can punch the dough into the counter and hold it in your hands without it sticking to everything.  If you add the flour slowly you'll be okay.  Worst case scenario, if you add too much flour, your arms will just get more of a work out and the dough will be a bit stiffer.  But it will still be edible.  Promise.  Go triceps!

5.  Put your dough ball in a large bowl coated with cooking spray.  Turn the dough to coat all the sides and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Find a warm spot for it to rise for 1 hour.  On a sunny day, I leave my dough on the counter.  Sometimes I turn my oven on for 5 minutes to warm it up and then turn it off and let the dough stay cozy in there while it rises.  Wait the whole hour and the press your finger into it.  If the indentation stays there, it's ready.  If the dough springs right back at you, give it another 15 minutes and poke it again.

6.  Dump it out onto a floured surface again and divide it into three equal portions.  The less you mess with it here, the better.  Just cut it into three parts and roll those into ropes about 18 inches long.  Part rolling, part stretching, don't be scared.  Lay them alongside each other and braid them.  Just flop one rope over the other until you get to the end.  I always have to go back and fix the ends.  Then pinch the ends together and turn them under to keep them from unraveling.  Spray it lightly with cooking spray, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise again for an hour.

7.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

8.  Lightly beat the remaining egg.  Gently brush the dough with the egg.  I use a pastry brush, but dipping a paper towel in the egg and sloshing it over the braid works just as well if you don't have a brush.  This step gives the bread a gorgeous shine.  Bake at 375 for 25 minutes.  Watch it during those last few minutes to make sure it doesn't get too brown.  Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack...or at least try and let it cool off a bit before diving into it so you and your loved ones don't burn yourselves.  Ours rarely makes it to the table intact.  They come out of the woodwork when it starts smelling yummy and I have to fight them off with the bread knife to have any left for the meal.

This sweet bread was originally run as a breakfast idea, but considering it takes a minimum of 2 1/2 hours from start to finish, I find it hard to imagine my family ever getting to have it for their morning meal.  I'm not getting up that early to bake bread.  We usually have it when we do brinner (breakfast for dinner) and there's never a crumb left over for the next morning.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Rare January Storm. Massive Damage Reports.

Authorities have confirmed a rare January tornado in one small Minnesota town.  Preliminary reports indicate that although the twister touched down for only 14 inches, it wrecked havoc on a small development of gingerbread houses.  A source from the National Weather Service says there was no time to issue warnings for the storm and residents are very lucky there wasn't more damage.

Rooftops ripped off two homes resulted in massive exposure to frigid temperatures and a loss of virtually everything in the homes.  A third home has sustained massive roof damage from a large object tossed by the record wind speeds.  Debris has been found as far away as 10 inches from the area of devastation but unfortunately none of it has been recovered.  It appears to have been eaten by three young girls and a pair of dogs living near the damaged homes.

No injuries or deaths have been reported as the homes were unoccupied. Neighbors report that the trio of confections are only seasonally inhabited by their owners who have gone south for the worst of the cold months ahead. Sources say the owners do have plans to rebuild but may wait until the upcoming 2011 holiday season to finalize their plans for reconstruction.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

If You Invited Me for Coffee Today...

I'd tell you I am so in need of this caffeine because I haven't been sleeping.  I don't know why really.  I'm not extraordinarily stressed.  I have things on my mind, but not that many things.  I'm busy, but not that busy.  You'd  roll your eyes and say, "Right Nanc. Whatever. This week you broke a dish, sliced off the tip of your finger and told your husband you were too busy for yoga."  I think I'm just moving too fast and I'm tired.  I just need to go to bed earlier.  Really.

I'd ask you if you'd heard the song "Great Escape" on Pat Monahan's solo album.  And you'd roll your eyes and say, "Really?  Don't you ever listen to anything but Train?"  And I'd explain that yes.  I do.  And in fact I'd added several new artists to my iTunes library over the holiday, but I always return to my favorites and his lyrics reach right into my soul.  He sings, "I need you.  Everybody needs someone like you.  If you need me too, you would be the only thing that I'd take, on my great escape."  Great love story.  Really.

I'd own up to the feelings of technological superiority that I have been having for the last 3 weeks.  That man I love gave me an iPad for Christmas and I love it.  It's an amazing toy disguised as the most amazing tool I've ever held in my hands.  I'd tell you I use it for my calendar, and my addresses, for reading the news, for filing my recipes, blah, blah, blah...I'm smug.  I love this thing.  Really. 

I'd tell you I'm so glad we're having coffee and not a glass of wine.  Don't misunderstand, I still love my wine, but I there were too many cocktail parties in the final days of 2010 and I'm taking a break from the wine for awhile.  But then you'd look askance at me and say, "Really?"  And I'd say, no not really, but I am partied out for awhile.  For me...that's huge.  Really.

I'd admit that I brought a little more of 2010 into 2011 than I had about 10 pounds more than I'd planned.  That's a tough one for me because I have this job where I stand up in front of a group of people every week and talk about healthy lifestyles.  People who are on an epic journey of weight loss and behavior change.  People, who frankly, inspire me in a way they cannot ever understand.  But I'm working on it.  And they're helping me as much as they tell me I'm helping them.  That's a tough one for me to admit.  Really. 

I'd confess to you that I'm bracing for the next few months when the Father traipses across the globe nearly every weekend and leaves me alone with the girls, the house, the dogs, the falling snow that needs to be shoveled, the groceries that need to be shopped for, the lot of it.  And there is a LOT of it.  It would be a confession because most of the time I want you to think I don't mind doing it alone.  I'm certainly capable, but I do mind.  I mind alot.  He does these extra jobs so I don't have to have a full time job, and the kids don't have to be in daycare and we have money for things like vacations and dancing lessons and new bicycles.  So I'm grateful.  But, I do mind.  Really. 

I'd thank you again and again for inviting me.  For coming up with the idea all by yourself and asking me if it was something I'd like to do.  And not asking me to plan anything, or decide where we were going or what we should eat or whether or not we should bring our kids.  I'd thank you for telling me where to be this morning, because I love being the hostess and planning the event, but sometimes I want to just show up.  Really.

I'd talk to you about TheMiddleBit, which I don't usually do.  Somehow it feels strange to talk out loud about things I write.  I can't really put my finger on why, but there it is.  I'd tell you I don't know what my pattern is going to be for 2011.  I find my inspiration arriving in waves these days.  Weeks with no time and no ideas.  Hours, usually between 2am and 4am, with more ideas than I have time or energy for.  Things I want to write about that are real.  Really real.  Sometimes more real than I think anyone would have any interest in reading about.  Explaining.  Complaining.  A fine line divides them for sure.  Polished?  Sometimes.  But not so much that my raw thoughts are no longer visible.  There's so much there to say, just under the surface.  I haven't been writing, but I've been thinking.  Really.

I'd reveal that I have been checking the stat counter on my blog (that little bit of computer spyware that tells me how many people visit my blog every day) and that I can't believe people actually check in repeatedly.  I actually have readers.  I started this blog over a year ago to give myself a place to put my thoughts.  Sometimes what lands on the blog just spills right out of my heart, often it's inspired by what I'm thinking, regularly it's something I think just needs to be written about.  But I can't believe people actually read it.  I love it, but I can't believe it.  Really.

I'd tell you all of this if you had invited me for coffee today. 

Now I'm off to write my blog.