*This is the Best Bread EVER.

December 27, 2008 at 8:42 pm (From the Cabin Kitchen) (, , )

This holiday season has so far been fantastic! Except for maybe today, now that the Pineapple Express has made it this far north again, warming things up so much that it is raining here, melting away all of our festive and lovely snow. Yes, people, stranger things have happened: I said lovely and snow in the! same! sentence! I think I am finally getting into this whole winter thing again, as memories of the beach, crashing waves, warm nights, and cool mojitos recede farther back into the recesses of my brain. It’s a slippery slope, though, and I must be careful because lingering too long in thoughts of paradise and palm trees just might send me back into Anti-Winter mode.

But nevertheless, our little Arctic Blast and Abundant Snowfall was fun while it lasted. We played and played in the snow and drank hot drinks and in general were just really merry. Christmas Eve was a snowy fun-filled day that involved one creative and crazy sled building project (the product of what happens when you leave two full grown engineers alone with a huge shipping crate, a pair of old skis, and a retired snowboard), eating lots of snacks and sweets, and then feasting on a smoked turkey and other sumptuous goods. To burn it all off, we decided to take said shipping crate, or creatively, “The Box”, down Brian’s 1/4 mile long driveway, and onto Wnuk Road all the way to Snowden Road, a journey of about 1 mile of harrowing fun. It was dark and blizzarding, making navigating the unweildly beast a little dicey. Filled with 4 kids and 2 grown women, and one captain, this unassuming crate on skis was about as much fun as you can have in a plain old wooden box!

Having recovered from the Box, I finally got to entertain last night. A houseful of 7 bipeds and 7 quadrapeds made for a cozy evening in the Cabin. I roasted up the pork loin I had intended to cook for Christmas Dinner, but was too tired to deal with it after a day of skiing on Mt. Hood. With various sides and plenty of libations to wash it all down, it was a feast.

Many of my guests’ favorite, though, was the garlic bread, and this is what I want to talk to you about today. I have been making the bread I used for Friday’s garlic bread (or Crack Bread, as Ryan calls it) for about a year now. The recipe came from my friend Talia, sent in the mail as part of a care package, and written on a 4×6 notecard. In the top corner, she wrote *This is the best bread ever. Because it is so easy, simple, and tasty, I couldn’t agree more.

The Best Bread Ever is a country-style bread that technically requires No Kneading, and takes less than 5 minutes to mix up, making it just about as fast and easy as using a bread machine, but producing a far superior product. The resulting loaf is tender, has a good crust, and is versatile enough to be used for sandwiches and even french toast in a pinch.

Because it is so easy to make, I encourage everyone to make up a loaf for your New Year’s Dinner, maybe in the form of Crack Bread. Or just sliced and warmed and spread with butter. Either way, you won’t be disappointed, and might even resolve to bake all of your household bread in the coming New Year, retire your bread machine, and get back to basics by using a good old wooden spoon and some elbow grease instead.

Country Bread, adapted from Talia’s Recipe

Yield 1 large free-form loaf

2 cups hot tap water (110 F)
2 T. active dry yeast
2 t. sugar or honey
1 T. table salt
4-1/2-5 cups unbleached all-purpose, or bread, flour

Method

1. Pour water into a large bowl. Sprinkle yeast on top, then add sugar or honey. Let stand until dissolved and starting to foam, about 5 minutes.
2. Add salt and about 4-1/2 cups flour, one cup at a time, stirring well with a wooden spoon after each addition. Dough will be sticky, but should pull away from sides of the bowl.
3. With floured hands, knead dough briefly (about 1 minute) in bowl. Cover bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.
4. Punch down, and let rise again for 1 hour.
5. Lightly oil a large baking sheet. Form dough into a loaf, about 4×14” and place on baking sheet. Cover loaf lightly with flour, then cover with towel and let rise on pan for 45 min.
6. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 and place a small pan of water on the upper rack, in a back corner. Bake bread for about 20-25 minutes, or until crust is lightly golden.
7. Remove loaf from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Crack Bread, adapted from “Parmesan Cheese Toasts”, The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas

Yield varies depending on size of slices

1/2 stick salted butter, room temperature
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
Salt and Pepper
Small handful of grated Parmesan (preferably grated on a Microplane grater)

Method

1. Preheat broiler with top rack at it’s highest position.
2. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well.
3. Spread slices of a baguette or Country Bread generously with the cheesy butter, taking care to cover all the way to the edges of the bread so they do not burn.
4. Place slices on a broiler pan, or baking sheet and broil until golden and bubbly—watching closely, because they burn fast!

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As Big as its Bite.

December 22, 2008 at 5:29 pm (From the Cabin Kitchen) (, )

Ten days ago, I was begrudgingly hanging red lights to liven up our porch, and stringing these unconventional yellow lights (with a tan cord!) on our jade plant that is doubling as a Christmas tree, having literally to force the Fa La La La La La around here. I was feeling just sort of bleh about the holidays, and couldn’t even get into the mood to bake cookies. With temperatures in the 60’s, and mountain bike rides at 4500’, who could even dream of skiing, eggnog, snow tires and all that Wintry business? I was convinced that we would be living in eternal fall, in this dream world of perfect trail conditions, crisp, fresh air, and days filled with raking the last batches of poplar leaves that finally made it to the ground, until, well, Spring when we would live warmer, longer days filled with mowing grass and biking through fields of wildflowers, until, well, Fall. You get the picture, I can guess, that I am a fan of mild weather.

But Winter’s icy fingers finally waved hello—literally overnight—and we got cold, cold temperatures and little dusting of snow. Then its icy palm gripped us tightly and still hasn’t let go, with 3 feet of snow falling just like that, kissing Autumn goodnight and sending her right into hibernation. And it’s still snowing; the closure of most of our major highways leading out of the Columbia Gorge makes it very tempting to retreat to hibernation ourselves.

This change in the weather—which I, to my own surprise even, have welcomed completely—has brought many consecutive days of cross-country skiing!, and jump-started Round One of the Annual Holiday Baking Extravaganza. It was just the kick in the pants that I needed to execute the plans I started making around Halloween (seriously, Extravaganzas of this magnitude don’t just happen on their own!). With the help of a little homemade eggnog, lots of good things are going down in my kitchen while the snow flies outside.

This year I made some new things, and some old classics. I can’t reveal too much; I don’t want to spoil the surprise for the dear friends who haven’t yet received their goodies!

I will share today though this truly fantastic recipe for Peppermint Bark. Molly over at Orangette posted it a couple of days ago, and right away, I had a feeling it would be a keeper.

It is simple to make, but does have a few steps. Most of the time is spent waiting for things to harden in the fridge. The only thing I struggled with in the original recipe was the crushing of the Starlight Mints. Perhaps mine were particularly hard candies, but I had a really hard time crushing them as the recipe instructed. In the end, I had chunks that I thought were too coarse, so I chopped them a bit more with a heavy knife (carefully, though, these babies will go flying!) into more manageable sized pieces.

This Bark—like our winter so far—is every bit as big as its bite. It is cool and refreshing, with just enough sweetness to complement to minty crunchiness of the crushed candies. Plus, it’s pretty and would make a perfect gift, boxed up in a cute tin.

You will love every bite, I guarantee.

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Easy on the Sauce

December 12, 2008 at 5:16 am (From the Cabin Kitchen)

Considering the title to this post, and the titles of my previous two, you all must think I am some kind of lush. Only one actually had to do with alcohol; the others, are unfortunate victims of my feeble attempts to be witty.

What I wanted to talk about today, though, is the sauce that ever-s0-lightly bathes the eggplant–not the kind you all think I should probably lay off of– in this lovely Eggplant Parmesan I made this week.

Now, I know that Eggplant is not in season. Nor are tomatoes. Or basil. I regret to report that none of the ingredients are actually in season, and for this, I apologize in advance. But, like many of us, I needed something to cheer me up, and these elegant, dark purple specimens called to me in the produce aisle the other day. I tried to resist, hearing the socially-conscious angel shopper on my shoulder, telling me to wait until next August when they are fresh!  But their skin was so soft and velvety smooth, cold and heavy in my hands and oddly soothing.  And so, I momentarily ‘forgot’ the words of Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan and all the other Locavores, and bought one anyway, with every intention of slicing it up for Eggplant Parmesan.

I have been making this recipe for years, and I tell you, people, it is definitely worth the effort. The best part about this particular version is you don’t have to fry the eggplant in oil; you bake it instead. And it is crispy and nice, without being quite so heavy.

There are a few key things to the success of this recipe. One, use fresh breadcrumbs. No shortcuts here, please. Two, use the best quality canned tomatoes you can get; if you are lucky enough to have canned ones lying around from your summer bounty, bust them out now. Three, easy on the sauce! Unlike the recipe for Hippie Enchiladas, where the rolled tortillas must be fully swimming in sauce, these crispy rounds of purple deliciousness have to stay in the shallow end. Otherwise, the eggplant will become soupy and unidentifiable.

The recipe also halves nicely, if you don’t have a crowd. In that case, use about a 9×9 pan, or a medium sized oval casserole dish.

Eggplant Parmesan, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, Jan/Feb 2004

Eggplant:
2  pounds globe eggplant (about 2 medium), sliced crosswise into 1/4” rounds
1  T. Kosher salt
8  slices high quality white bread, torn into pieces
1  cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 oz.)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4   cup all-purpose flour
6  large eggs
6  T. canola oil

Tomato Sauce:
3  14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes, or about 1 quart plus a half-pint of home-canned. If you are using purchased, go for the Muir Glen Organic (but not the No Salt version)
2  T. extra-virgin olive oil
4  large garlic cloves pressed or finely minced
1/4  t. red pepper flakes
1/2  cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

8  ounces whole milk or part-skim mozzarella, shredded (2 cups)
1/2  cup grated Parmesan
10  fresh basil leaves, torn, for garnish

Method
1. For the Eggplant: Cover bottom of a large colander with Eggplant slices, lightly sprinkle Kosher salt over it, and layer in this fashion with the remaining slices. Place colander over a large bowl, then weight with a one-gallon Ziploc bag filled with later. Let drain until eggplant releases at least one tablespoon of liquid, about 30-45 min. Wipe off excess salt, then arrange slices on a triple layer of paper towels, and cover with another triple layer of paper towels.
2. While eggplant is draining, adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions, place rimmed baking sheet on each rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees. Pulse bread in food processor to fine even, crumbs, about fifteen 1-second pulses. Transfer crumbs to a pie plate and stir in 1 cup parmesan, 1/4 t. salt, and 1/2 t. pepper, set aside. Wipe out bowl of food processor—do not wash—and set aside.
3. Combine flour and 1 t. pepper in another pie plate. Beat eggs in a third pie plate. Coat each eggplant slice in flour, then dip in egg, and finish with a coating of the crumbs. Place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining eggplant.
4. Remove preheated baking sheets from oven; add 3 T. oil to each sheet, tilting to coat evenly with oil. Place half of the bread eggplant on each sheet in a single layer; bake until eggplant is well browned and crisp, about 30 min., switching and rotating sheets after 10 min, and flipping slices after 20 min. Remove slices to wire baking racks—so they don’t get soggy—and leave oven on.
5. For the sauce: While eggplant bakes, process 2/3 of the canned or jarred tomatoes in food processor until almost smooth, about 5 seconds. Heat olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a large, heave-bottomed saucepan over med-high heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and garlic is light golden, about 3 minutes; stir in processed and then remaining 1/3 of canned tomatoes. Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to med-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced, about 15 min. Stir in basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. To assemble: Spread 1-cup tomato sauce in bottom of a 13×9 glass or ceramic baking dish. Layer in half the eggplant, overlapping slices to fit; distribute 1 cup sauce over eggplant; sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Layer in the remaining eggplant and dot with 1-cup sauce, leaving majority of eggplant exposed so it will remain crisp; sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan and remaining mozzarella. Bake until bubbling and cheese is browned, about 13-15 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, scatter basil over top and serve, with remaining sauce passed separately.

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B.Y.O.B.

December 1, 2008 at 11:10 pm (From the Cabin Kitchen, Self-Employment) (, , )

A couple of weeks ago a group of my friends and colleagues got together for the first–of hopefully many more–Self-Employed Evening (SEE).

The idea was for all of the self-employed folks that seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately to get together and share ideas, vent, inspire, motivate, network, what have you, and have a beer or two. Many of us, including myself, wondered if we would actually get anything accomplished, fearing that it might turn into a gab session instead. It did, naturally, at times, but all-in-all, we covered a lot of relevant topics and it’s probably safe to say that every one of us learned something new.

We started the evening by sitting around Phil’s dining room table and one by one we introduced ourselves, and gave a short summary of what it is exactly that we do to pay the bills. Even though most of us knew each other, it was oddly nerve-wracking to ‘introduce’ ourselves to our own friends in that context. Perhaps it was just shyness or modesty or not wanting to be in the spotlight. I tend to think, however, that it maybe for some of us had more to do with individual insecurities about the nature of our employment, especially the newcomers to the World of Freelance. Ok, maybe that was just me who felt that way.

Anyway, there were two Serial Entrepreneurs of the group, myself included. It was funny that I somehow missed one of my jobs when I listed off all of the things I am currently working on–how embarrassing! Just forgot it even existed, even though it takes up about half of my time right now. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing; maybe it’s a little of both. It made me think that perhaps I am a little too scattered and should consider focusing on one or two things. But that prospect makes me feel anxious about getting bored, not having enough variety to keep me inspired.  I did, however, make a silent promise to myself not to add any more occupations to my repertoire, until I am at least able to list them all by rote and not leave any out.

Popular topics of the evening included–but were not limited to: Taxes (of course), Motivation, Discipline, How To Get Out of Your Pajamas (introduced by me), Time Management, Taxes, and Taxes. We learned of a savvy accountant, and shared bookkeeping tips.

We had pizza and it was B.Y.O.B, so there were several bottles of wine and some beer and I musn’t forget these AMAZING ginger vodka drinks that Tara made. I translated this acronym as Bring Your Own Brownies, so that’s what I did.

To stray from the topic of Self-Employment for a moment, I would like to share with you all a new and fantastic brownie recipe that I found on the Smitten Kitchen site. Deb over there in Manhattan is a genius; if you haven’t checked out her site yet, drop everything and do it now! If you aren’t inspired to cook something–anything–after looking at her terrific photos, well, I hate to say it, there may be no hope for you. Just kidding, of course, but this woman is idol-worthy. Oh, and she is self-employed too, so this digression is still relevant to SEE.

The brownies come from Cook’s Illustrated, the all-time best Test Kitchen out there. They go to great lengths to work out all of the kinks so you don’t have to, trying every possible permutation of the recipe to get the best results, sometimes making things up to 150 times. There have been only a handful of the gazillion times I’ve made something from their magazine where I have had to tweak something because it didn’t work.The other thing I like about their process, besides the copious and anal testing they do, is that their approach is scientific and somewhat nerdy. At the end of the day, nerdiness can get you pretty far in the kitchen, especially when it comes to baking.

Unlike many brownie recipes that I have used in the past, this one employs a leavener, which gives it a lightness not to be confused at all with cakiness. What it does is just makes it a little eensy-teensy bit more airy that the super dense style of brownie you might be used to. Without being cakey. At all, because, well, that just wouldn’t be acceptable because brownies are never supposed to be cakey. The baking powder just allows for enough of a rise to lighten up the texture a bit.

Since I followed the recipe posted on Smitten’s site word-for-word without changing anything, I am going to be lazy and just give you the link. That way I can get back to work and spare you the pain of suffering through my pathetic photography and drool over her delicious images instead.

So, enjoy reading Deb’s great writing and eat every last morsel of these Classic Brownies.

Let me know how they turn out!

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