Bread, Part 1: Basic Loaf

So after my adventure with the Great American Baking Show where my loaf of bread was deemed not quite up to par, I decided that I wanted to learn more about bread baking. I really haven’t done all that much of it before, though I have some general knowledge and have made several different kinds of bread with varying levels of success (and of course spent that fabulous week in Paris watching a professional at work), and I think it would be worthwhile to acquire some extra knowledge and perhaps make some tasty things along the way.

I’m going to do a series of posts about my bread-baking experience and make specific note of the things I’ve learned. Hopefully by the end I’ll be a better bread-baker!

My first attempt was a basic loaf– no special shaping, no special ingredients, with the only deviation from standard procedure being the use of a poolish (a mixture of yeast, flour, and water that you start the night before to give it time to develop some flavor). I used a recipe from King Arthur Flour’s website and opted to use the full sixteen hours of fermentation for the poolish to see what would happen.

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Flour Tortillas

I know what you’re thinking– tortillas? Why make tortillas at home when you can buy a package at the store for a few dollars? I was thinking the same thing myself, right before I decided to do it anyway because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of leaving the house just to buy mediocre, mass-produced tortillas when I could experience the joy of making my own for the first time.

Okay, perhaps “joy” is a bit strong of an adjective– let’s just say it was interesting, and the tortillas came out reasonably well, and I’m glad I at least gave it a try. I definitely think there’s something about the pillowy chewiness of a handmade tortilla that beats out the flat, soulless ones you find at the store– even if it’s not perfectly round or evenly rolled.

Ordinarily tortillas are made with lard, or perhaps shortening, which is cut into the flour before warm water is added to make the dough. Unfortunately I didn’t have lard or shortening, or even regular vegetable oil, so I ended up using olive oil, figuring that a little extra flavor never hurt anyone. I had a little trouble rolling out the dough into a roughly circular shape (mine were more freeform), and probably should’ve used my cast iron skillet instead of a nonstick pan to get better browning on the outside, but overall I think they were pretty good!

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Pink Peppercorn Cake with Raspberries and Rose Buttercream

So this was one of the treats I brought with me to my casting session for The Great American Baking Show. Given the timeframe I really only had a day or two to come up with the idea, but the flavor profile had been marinating in my head for a while, so it only remained to figure out how to implement it!

After some experiments with flavoring I concluded that rose-flavored cake was only mediocre and the pepper didn’t come through all that well in the frosting, so I used crushed pink peppercorns (which are really not peppercorns but are an unrelated berry) in the cake batter and made a buttercream flavored with rosewater to set it off. The floral notes really complement each other well (pink peppercorn cake may be a new favorite of mine), and adding fresh raspberries really added a punch of flavor to make it light and refreshing. I really, really like this cake as a whole, and will totally be making it again at some point.

I confess that out of paranoia over flavor and texture, I eventually made no fewer than four different versions of my cake layers for the big day, deciding at the last minute which one to use (the first one– go figure). And then my favorite cooked-flour frosting was too loose to properly frost the outside of my cake, so I had to make a second batch of frosting, this time with powdered sugar, for the outside. And while I made my initial batch of meringues with freeze-dried raspberry powder, the resulting grayish-purple color was very unattractive, so I made a second batch that was plain vanilla. So to summarize, there was a LOT of stuff leftover from making this perfect-looking cake!

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No-Bake Oatmeal/Coconut (Wookie) Cookies

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So remember how I made the porg rice balls for at May 4th Star Wars party? I also made these Wookie Cookies. Mostly they were an excuse to use up some of the quick-cooking oats in my pantry (I’ve decided that they’re too gluey to make oatmeal out of), but they turned out really well, especially for a no-bake recipe. They’re extremely sweet (to be expected) but they have a great texture and are kind of addictive.

Unlike what appears to be the “standard” no-bake oatmeal cookie recipe, these do not have peanut butter in them, and they include marshmallows (melted in to give a chewy texture). I’m not sure if I’d prefer the original recipe– I’ll have to try it sometime– but these were good and I particularly liked the addition of coconut to add some dimension to the vaguely chocolate-y flavor of the base cookie. Admittedly, the chocolate chips didn’t really make them look all that much like Wookies, but they were close enough.

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Candied Pecans

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Okay, so I admit that candied nuts are something I’ve long associated with the winter holidays– they’re so great for eating by the handful along with all of those rich, cheesy, sugary holiday foods– but there’s no reason to restrict one’s intake of these deliciously crunchy, sweet-savory snacks to the winter months! They go just as well with bright, crispy salads as they do with melty brie (mmm, brie…). Brown sugar gives them depth, while cinnamon gives them a hint of spice. I’ve been known to add 1/8 tsp. of cayenne pepper for an extra kick, but you don’t have to if you want something a bit milder.

I will note that I’ve tried different methods of getting a nice, crunchy coating on the pecans, and the egg white method is the only way to go. Works every time, and no hassle with trying to caramelize sugar!

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Filipino Chicken Adobo

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When I was growing up, my dad would make a delicious dish that he called “Filipino Chicken,” which was basically a bunch of dark meat chicken pieces cooked up with potatoes in a savory/sour sauce with bay leaves and whole peppercorns. I never did get the recipe from him (I don’t think he ever writes¬†his recipes down, they’re all in his head), but as an adult I came across recipes for “Filipino Chicken Adobo,” which seemed to have a fairly similar flavor profile, and I really enjoyed them.

This particular recipe is an adaptation of one I found somewhere but can no longer locate the source for (my apologies, unknown recipe creator!), and it’s a wonderful, warming dish to serve when the weather turns chilly. Juicy chicken thighs are bathed in a rich, creamy coconut-milk sauce that’s seasoned with soy, garlic, and bay leaves, sharpened with a healthy dose of vinegar, and spiced with plenty of black pepper. It’s a one-pan recipe so it’s easy to make, and while you’ll have a ton of leftover sauce you won’t regret it! Served over steamed rice with some snowpeas or broccoli on the side, it’s a perfect weeknight dinner.

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Okonomiyaki

Ten years ago my husband and I took a trip to Japan, and it was there that we discovered okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake made of shredded cabbage and meat in a flour-egg batter, and often contains additional ingredients for extra flavors and textures. The restaurant we went to was in a tiny little town and was listed as a “hidden gem” in our travel guide, and it definitely spoiled us for all other iterations of okonomiyaki on our trip (because of course, having had it once we were dying to have it again!). The ingredients came in separate bowls that you combined to your own taste, and there were personal grills right at the table to cook the pancakes, which were served with pickled ginger, bonito flakes, and okonomiyaki sauce for garnish.

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Oddly, despite searching for similar restaurants here in the States, we never thought of trying to recreate the recipe at home. However, I was in a local Asian market recently when I spied a bottle of okonomiyaki sauce (a tangy, savory sauce that’s kind of like a mixture of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce), and was inspired to try my own version of these!

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