You can tell a lot about a culture through its proverbs. Italians say that while sharing a table with family and friends, one does not grow old. And rather than kill two birds with one stone, Italians feed them with one bean.

Creating, sharing, and eating food is tantamount to life and love in Italy. Knowledge, necessity, and anticipation unite, merging past, present, and future to nurture body and soul. The bountiful Italian table urges one to pause long enough to inhale the scents of the season’s harvest and feel the heartbeat of the day. To break bread is to forge bonds.

Fortunately, breaking bread is universal, and I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who understood the soul-warming effects of homemade bread. I still remember the drums of whole wheat we hauled home from her parents’ far-off farm. Wheat that was cracked into wholesome bits, baked into russet loaves, and devoured in inch-thick, steaming slabs.

When I left home at 17, I also left behind the luxury of homemade bread. Living in a dorm while attending college, a VW van while following the Grateful Dead, a backpack while hitchhiking Europe, and a camper while working in the circus were not conducive to baking bread. When I found my way back to Oregon, Italian husband who Cannot Eat Without Bread in tow, I forayed into the yeasty world of bread baking. But the only way it was going to work was if I could make good, failsafe bread. Running two businesses from home meant it had to be easy. And spontaneous entertaining meant it had to be quick.

I’ve tweaked a handful of recipes over the years to meet our needs, everything from Simple as Sunshine Focaccia to Low Carb Cranberry Walnut Bread to Chewy Italian Bread, our current favorite, and the recipe I’ll be sharing today. I would prefer to have more pictures, but I’m still without my desktop, AND I’m publishing this while selling at Eugene’s Saturday Market. Hopefully I get that darn computer back this week.

According to the Italians, Pan di sudore, miglior sapore. Bread you sweat for tastes better. I agree.

Yes, you can make good homemade bread, and, with a little prep work, you can make it in a flash. If you have a handy dandy Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, you can even make it without the sweat! The following instructions may seem long, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be able to whip up lovely loaves of bread in no time. You’ll need 5 minutes to start your sponge (biga in Italian) and 20 minutes a few hours later to prepare the dough. Then, when you want to bake your bread, all you’ll need is the time to warm an oven and bake it, a total of 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on your method.

You can bake this bread in a regular oven just fine. A pizza stone will help make it crusty, but you can also make do with a cookie sheet.

I bake my bread in a gas barbecue. It heats in 12 minutes, bakes in 17, and it produces the closest I’ve come to wood-fired bread at home. Since I bake bread a few times a week, year round, another benefit is keeping all that heat outside during the summer. You’ll definitely need a pizza stone for this method, which you can find at almost any store with kitchen gadgets. Maybe I’m clumsy, but I find these store-bought stones  too thin and too flimsy (and expensive to replace). After destroying 3 of them in my first 6 months of bread baking. I finally made my own heavy-duty stone by purchasing oven bricks at a local building supply store and fitting them into a sturdy cookie sheet. The whole thing cost me less than half what a single mass-produced pizza stone runs.

Biga for four loaves of bread:

1 t yeast

1cup warm water

3 cups flour (I use half unbleached white flour and half unbleached bread flour. Using all plain, old unbleached flour will work just fine, though your finished product won’t be as chewy.)

Pour your warm water into quart glass or Tupperware container and sprinkle the yeast on top. Once the yeast is dissolved, mix in the flour. This will make a dryish mix, and I don’t fuss over getting every last bit of flour mixed in. Once the water is absorbed and the flour clumps, much like biscuit dough, I call it done. This process shouldn’t take more than five minutes tops.

The biga will be ready to divide and mix into dough after left for a few hours in a warm spot. If it’s cold, let it sit a little longer. If you won’t be making bread for a day or so, leave it in the refrigerator where it can stay for 10 or so days. If you only want to make the starter for one loaf at a time, use ¼ t yeast, ¼ cup water, and ¾ cups flour.

To make your bread dough:

1 portion biga (1/4 of the recipe at top)

1 t yeast

1 1/4 cup water

2 3/4 cup flour (again, I mix this half and half between regular flour and bread flour)

2 t salt

Handy things to have:

Pizza stone for baking

Kitchen Aid Mixer or other mixer capable of kneading a relatively soft dough

Spray bottle for spritzing your loaf while baking

Pour ½ cup of the water into a bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top, and let it dissolve. I sprinkle on ½ tsp. at a time to avoid clumping the yeast and slowing the process. In a bowl (your mixing bowl if using a Kitchen Aid type mixer), add 1 portion of biga, 2 tsp salt, ½ cup water, and enough of the flour to keep the water from sloshing all over your kitchen. Use the paddle attachment to mix the biga into the flour and water. (If your biga has been in the refrigerator for a day or more, it will be dense enough to remain in its own little lump. Make sure it’s merging with the rest of the dough.) If you’re mixing by hand, time to get your fingers gooey.

Once the biga has merged with the flour and water, add the remaining flour, the yeast and water mix, and the remaining ¼ cup water (which I use to rinse the last of the yeast/water out of the bowl I dissolved it in).

When it’s well mixed, switch to the bread hook and mix for 10 to 15 minutes.  If you’re doing this by hand, keep the dough in a bowl for as long as you can. Eventually, you’ll have to put it onto a board, but it needs to remain moist (and therefore sticky), so be careful not to add too much extra flour on the board. A scraper will help you turn the dough. In the mixer, if I notice that the dough completely slumps to the bottom of the bowl, I add up to 1/4 cup more flour. You want to end up with a smooth, soft dough that is elastic enough not to break when you stretch it.

 

Testing the Stretch of the Dough

Tip: to be able to have bread ready on short notice, I usually make a double batch of dough at once, using 2 portions of biga (half of the recipe at top), 4 tsp. salt, 2 ½ cups water, and 5 ½ cups flour. Once the dough is mixed I put half of it in a glass or Tupperware container and leave it in the refrigerator for up to a week or so. When it’s time to bake it, I start the oven or barbecue heating, plop the cold dough onto a floured cutting board, stretch to shape, and cook as usual.

Once the dough is blended, divide if you’re making multiple loaves. Refrigerate if you’re not going to use that day. If you are baking one the same day, splash a teaspoon or so of olive oil into the bowl, flip your dough around to coat it and the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until double, usually 2 -3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. (If you’re in a hurry and your oven has a bread-rising feature (+/- 100 degrees) you can cut the rising time in half.

Turn the raised bread onto a floured board and stretch into an oblong. I use a pizza peel, but a cutting board works just as well. Let it rest for as long as it takes your oven or barbecue to heat to temperature. To fancy up your finished product, try making shallow diagonal slices with a sharp knife. This works best when using chilled dough.

Fresh from the Barbecue

To bake in a gas barbeque: heat barbecue to high, roughly 500 degrees on mine. Store-bought pizza stones are usually only ¼ to 3/8 inch thick and therefore heat quickly, which means the bottom heat from your barbecue may burn the bottom of your bread before the top is browned. So, if you’re using a thin stone, use a spatula to loosen the dough from your floured board and transfer onto the cold stone. (Some flour will transfer with the dough, which will keep it from sticking. If you have a problem with dough sticking to the stone, either dust with flour or cornmeal before adding your loaf.) Place in the preheated barbeque. Immediately turn the temperature down to medium-high. With my thicker, homemade stone, I need to pre-heat the stone with the barbecue (or the bottom of the bread wouldn’t brown). I leave my barbecue on high, and the loaf bakes in 15 minutes. You’ll have to gauge your time and temperature according to your barbecue and pizza stone. Check it after 10 minutes and gauge whether or not you should raise or lower your barbecue’s temperature. A balance of nice brown crust on top without burning the bottom is most flavorful. (A few charred edges can do wonders for the flavor, but watch overdoing it.)

Tip: for a wonderful smoky, wood-fired oven flavor, try adding a few sticks of hardwood to the edges of your grate. Again, gauge when they should be added and where they should be placed by the temperature and size of your barbecue.

Tip: to make your bread even crustier, spritz the partially-baked loaf with water a few times during the baking process. This works for both oven-baked and barbecued loaves.

To bake in the oven: preheat pizza stone to 425 for at least 1/2 hour (while bread is rising on cutting board or peel). Using a spatula to gently loosen the dough from the board, transfer to preheated stone and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. Again, exact baking time depends on your oven.

Cool on rack to maintain crust and mangia! mangia! mangia!

Variations:

Walnut Bread: Mix in 1 – 1 ½ cups lightly toasted walnut chunks while mixing your loaf. Save a few halves for decoration

Rosemary Bread: Saute a few sprigs of fresh rosemary in ¼ cup olive oil. Add the oil while mixing your loaf. Chop the sprigs and add them as well if you’d like more flavor.

Olive Bread: Add 1 cup or so drained, dried, chopped, and pitted olives while mixing dough.

Whole Grain: My husband is not fond of whole wheat bread, pane integrale in Italian, so I usually don’t experiment with different flours. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t start with 100% whole wheat… maybe 50%, and then play with the ratio to find the balance between whole grain and chewy texture that pleases you.

Buon Appetito!

Rosemary Shortbread

July 25, 2010

When your computer dies, make more dessert!

I did not intend to write about yet another dessert, but due to a motherboard failure, my computer is imprisoned at a local repair shop waiting for warranty parts to arrive. So are all the food photos I finally downloaded from my phone. Chilled Pasta Primavera and Saged Chicken Stuffed with Sautéed Kale, Bacon, Caramelized Onions, and Goat Cheese will have to wait.

Luckily, I recently inherited my husband’s old laptop. I also have an insatiable sweet tooth and will gladly suffer through a spontaneous batch of Rosemary Shortbread for the sake of this blog. No kicking. No screaming. It actually works out quite well – these cookies are light and a tad savory, are complimented by a glass of hearty red wine, and will be the perfect contribution to the barbecue we’re attending tomorrow.

Minced Rosemary

I was introduced to Rosemary Shortbread by Ruby, Eugene’s bottle-cap artist extraordinaire. True to my tendencies, I tweaked the recipe to fit my taste. With this one, it was the simple addition of salt, which I think enhances the flavor of both the rosemary and the butter. Try it both ways if you’re inclined – figure out which suits your fancy.

If at all possible, harvest the rosemary just before making these cookies, and use only the soft tips of each branch. This time of year, that means 2-3 inch fronds on my plant, and it takes close to 20 to make 4 finely-chopped tablespoons. Don’t have your own rosemary bush? Perhaps a neighbor or a friend does. They’ll likely trade all the rosemary you want for a plate of these gems.

Ingredients:

1 cup chilled butter

2 ½ + ½ cup flour

¾ cup sugar (if on hand, I prefer fine baker’s sugar for shortbread)

½ tsp salt

3 – 4 Tbs. finely-chopped fresh rosemary

Sift sugar, salt and 2 ½ cups of the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the finely chopped rosemary. Cut the chilled butter into cubes and blend with a pastry blender or two forks. The point is to cut as much of the butter into your dry ingredients before using your hands, which will warm the dough. Then use your hands to gently work the butter in until the dough resembles coarse meal. Once mixed, it should clump in your fist but easily break apart.

Rosemary-Flecked Shortbread Dough

 

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and have an ungreased cookie sheet ready.

Dust your work surface with a few tablespoons of the remaining flour. Form ¼ or so of the dough into a firm ball and press into the work surface. Sprinkle flour on as needed, making sure you keep a layer of flour under your dough or you’ll be scraping up cookies with a spatula. Now you need to get the dough to about ¼” to 3/8” thick. This dough would much rather break into a hundred pieces, so I use the heel of one hand to flatten it while using the fingers of the other to keep if from breaking apart.

Forming and Flattening

 

Almost Ready to Bake

Once flattened, finish it off with a rolling pin. Flour a cookie cutter or the lip of a small glass, cut as many cookies as you can, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Add the scraps left on your work surface to another batch of fresh dough and repeat the process. Makes approximately 3 dozen 2″ cookies.

Kitchen Tip: My husband and I can polish off an entire batch of these in a couple of days. If I’m not making them to share, I force myself to freeze a cookie sheet of unbaked cookies, pack them in a Ziplock once they’re frozen hard. When it’s time for fresh-baked cookies, I put them back on a cookie sheet, defrost at room temperature for a couple of hours, and bake as usual.

The cookies will take from 25 – 40 minutes to bake depending on how thick they are and how accurately your oven keeps its 300 degree temperature. They should be firm to the touch in the center and have a hint of golden brown on the edges. In my own oven, they take about 35 minutes. I had the brilliant idea of baking this batch in an unfamiliar oven. After only 30 minutes, they were well on they’re way to nut brown. Stefano and I were forced to test one or two (okay, three!) just to make sure they were barbecue worthy. Seems like they’re going to be fine, but I may have to test another one or two to be sure. ; )

Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

As I mentioned earlier in the post, they go very well with red wine and make a nice finish to a hearty Italian meal. Friends of ours who generally don’t like dessert love these cookies. Enjoy, and, as always, I’d love to hear how they turn out.

P.S. The Great Crème Brulee Experiment

After last week’s Lavender Brulee, I was anxious to see how other herbed brulees would turn out. Made up a batch and divided into two parts, infusing one with rosemary and the other with lemon thyme. Divided each of those infusions into three parts to make six unique brulees:

Plain Rosemary

Sweetened Rosemary

Rosemary and Goat Cheese

Plain Thyme

Sweetened Thyme

Thyme and Goat Cheese

Then I forced Stefano,  our house guests, and my dear mother to taste each one. As you can see from the picture,

The Great Brulee Experiment

our preferences were nearly unanimous. Sweetened Rosemary was the favorite with the Rosemary Goat a close second. Even though I left the thyme infusing for twice as long as the rosemary, no one could pinpoint what flavor it was, and no one really liked it. (Stefano spit it directly into the trash.)  Dividing thickened eggs into 6 exact fraction-of-tablespoons portions is not so easy, and my proportions were not 100% accurate, making some taste a little eggier then others. Nonetheless, the Sweetened Rosemary Brulee was the hands-down favorite for dessert and the Rosemary Goat Cheese Brulee seemed like it would work well either as an appetizer or in place of a cheese course at the end of a meal, perhaps with apples or crisp pears… More experimentation is in order, and I hope to share the recipe with you soon.

If my computer finds its way home this week, then I’ll get busy on that Chilled Pasta Primavera recipe – perfect on such a hot summer’s day. If not… perhaps it’s time for a chewy loaf of Italian bread. Happy baking —

Ciao ciao ~

Lavender Crème Brulée

July 17, 2010

When Life Gives You Eggs… Make More Dessert!

In my first post, you heard that, as an adult, I did not waltz into the kitchen with a smile on my face. As a child, however, I loved being in the kitchen, if only to bake desserts. Shortening, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, soda salt! I could recite the recipe for chocolate chip cookies by the time I was four. It’s only fitting that I’m working my way into food blogging from the sweet side of life. We started with Limoncello, a digestivo (after-dinner drink), moved on to Tiramisu, and here you’ll find a quick recipe for Lavender Crème Brulée.

Lavender seems to be blooming everywhere in Oregon’s Willamette Valley right now. I love the sight and smell of it, and I cannot resist wrapping my fingers around a stalk of flowers as I pass, carrying the fragrance away with me.  I also happen to have a refrigerator full of yummy eggs, thanks to Ian, the grade-schooler up the road who is learning about raising chickens and the business of selling eggs at a young age.

I’ve made and enjoyed plain crème brulée many times, and the idea of lavender-infused brulée intrigued me. Online, I found recipes that called for as little as one tablespoon of flowers infused for 3 minutes, up to ¼ cup of flowers infused for 1 hour. I wanted more than a hint of lavender essence; I didn’t want something that tasted like soap. I experimented with 3 tablespoons of flowers and sampled the infusion along the way to decide when to strain the flowers. I’m perfectly happy with these results, but I also encourage you to experiment with the recipe to find out what tickles your food fancy. Unlike Tiramisu, there are no specialty-store ingredients, and it’s one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made.

As always, start with good ingredients: fresh, fresh eggs, and fresh lavender flowers. The recipes I’ve seen for lavender crème brulée call for dried flowers. I’m not sure why you’d get more flavor out of dry rather than fresh, so I met the idea in the middle and stripped a couple of lavender stalks, spread the florets on a tray, and left them on a shaded window sill for a couple of warm days.

Ingredients:

3 T lavender flowers + some for garnish

1 T softened butter

6 large egg yolks

4 T white sugar

1 ½ cups cream

3 T brown sugar

You’ll also need:

  • 4 to 6 ramekins. (Oven-safe coffee cups will work in a pinch. They may not be as “presentable,” but they won’t change the taste of your crème.
  • A whisk
  • A baking dish or cookie sheet to hold water around your ramekins as they bake – which depends on how tall your ramekins are.
  • Strainer and pot to warm cream

To make your brulée:

Warm the cream on the stove, but do not boil. Add the flowers (saving a few pinches for garnish) and let them infuse for ½ hour. Taste the cream – if you are satisfied with the hint of lavender you taste, strain the mix into a bowl. I found that I wanted more of a lavender taste, so let the flowers infuse for another ½ hour.

Lavender Infusion

 

When your happy with your infusion, preheat your oven to 275 degrees and butter 4 – 6 ramekins. (I say four to six ramekins because I prefer crème brulée a little thicker, and therefore make fewer servings. Both work well.) Next whisk the egg yolks. As they start to thicken, slowly add the sugar, a bit at a time, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Whisk together the strained lavender cream and yolk mix. Divide into the ramekins.

Ready for the Oven

 

Place the ramekins in your dish and pour warm water into the dish so it comes about ½ way up the sides of your ramekins. These ramekins are short, so I use a cooking sheet. The second sheet is to avoid spilling water while moving them in or out of the gas stove. Bake uncovered until just barely set, approximately 45 – 50 minutes. The exact time will depend on the size of your dishes. If the mixture jiggles when you slide the dish out from the oven, put it back in for 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it as it goes from soft to set quickly.

Set the tray to cool on the counter, and turn the oven off. While it’s cooling, place your brown sugar on a cookie sheet, place it in the spent oven, and allow it to dry out. This will take 10 – 20 minutes, depending on how warm your oven is when you get the sugar in there, how thin you’ve spread the sugar, and how well the oven retains heat.

Once the sugar is dry, scoop it into a closeable bag and roll over with a glass or rolling pin until it is crushed fine.

When your crème brulées cool, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours up to a day.

When you’re ready to serve, dust each brulée with brown sugar and place them under a hot broiler for one to three minutes.

Ready for the Broiler

 

Keep a close eye on the topping! You want it to carmelize but not burn. Remove the brulées as the sugar carmelizes, turning or repositioning as necessary. At this point, you can either serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 45 minutes before the carmelized topping starts turning gooey.

To serve, sprinkle the florets you saved for garnishing either on your serving dish or on each brulée (the latter will obviously increase the lavender flavor, as well as change the texture of a spoonful of crème — but it sure is pretty!).

I think tawny port is a lovely accompaniment, followed by a nice shot of espresso. Enjoy!

Romance in a dish!

After making and loving this dessert, I think I’ll experiment with savory rosemary crème brulée next – perhaps with a hint of goat cheese?  That, of course, means I’ll have a dozen egg whites just waiting for… could it be time for angel food cake?