Monday, March 31, 2008

Another Kitchen Essential

Things have been busy here in AK and we've been dealing with spring fighting winter to boot. I wanted to further explain my essentials list so now its time to talk about pots and pans. There’s something to be said about good pots and pans. A good pan or pot will distribute heat more evenly, it will be more versatile (from stove top to oven), and will last longer overall.

I left a mish-mash of pans in Ohio. When we were packing, my husband looked at me and said “We’re going out to get new pans.” I was confused, but wasn’t going to argue – after all, what cook in their right mind would say “no” to someone providing a reason to buy more cooking stuff!

I realized what my husband wanted to do; he figured we’d spend the money on having a set of pots and pans that were already pre-packed. Considering my mish-mash ranged in shapes and sizes, his intent was appropriate. We headed off to shop around, since it had been several years since I had been in the market for cookware.

When shopping for pots & pans, price shouldn’t be the main factor, primarily because the cheaper the set, the chincier the stuff is. They are thinner, made of cheaper metals, coatings, etc. Often times the cheap sets can’t be transferred from stovetop to oven, which is a situation every cook eventually encounters. From what I could determine, my preferred cut off point is $129. For this price, you can get a set of pots and pans that will serve you faithfully for several years and you shouldn’t grow out of them until you decide to dedicate your life 100% to cooking!

What does $129 get you? Two sauce pots – usually 1 & 2 quart, a large pot of some sort, lids for all three, and 2 frying pans - a small and larger size one. What doesn’t $129 get you? Likely an additional pot or pan of some sort, a higher grade of materials, the ability to choose country of origin, etc.

Do you need to spend more? It depends on a number of factors. Though the sets at 199 had all the qualities I was looking for, I didn’t like the look. Hey, even cooks can be vain! The set I finally bought put me at $199. It was anodized aluminum on the exterior with a non-stick surface interior and stainless steel handles. It had the sizes of pots I used most. I purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond, 1. to get my Upromise rebate (I’ll blog about this someday) and 2. because they had the best price for the set I wanted at the time.

If you are just starting out on your own or just getting into cooking for the first time, spending the extra money to get into this price range is well worth it. Buying cheap pots and pans only means you’ll be spending more money again in the near future.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sesame Semolina Bread and more!

I recently added “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” to my cookbook library. For the beginning baker, this book takes a lot of the intimidation factor out of baking bread. The authors break down the basics and successfully weed out the minutia, leaving only the bare minimum of effort needed to produce a pretty decent loaf of bread.

I have tried the first master recipe, with predictable results. I found that I am too tempted to put ‘more’ work into this approach than required, I’ve been baking for years, I can’t help it! I find working with bread dough therapeutic...

In the middle of last week I mixed up a batch of the semolina master recipe. Three days later, I shaped some of the dough using a technique from “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” and it turned out nice. The before shot is below, I need to become faster with the camera for “after’ shots, because if I wait too long, the bread starts disappearing on its own!

The flavor of the bread was mild, almost sweet, with a very light yeasty flavor. The crumb was soft, and the crust was chewy with a nutty flavor from the sesame seeds. It made very good sandwiches. I am going to bake off a bigger loaf in a few days to re-evaluate the flavors that develop from the semolina.

What I probably will do is keep either the artisan boule master recipe or the peasant loaf recipe on hand at all times, as the dough at this stage not only makes a fast, easy, fresh loaf of bread, it also makes a convenient pate fermente used for many other recipes I make.

I will continue to try other master recipes in the “Five Minutes a Day” book, because you never know what gems lie in hiding within the covers of a book unless you’ve taken the time to go through it all!

The other thing I did this weekend was finally get to use my new batch of sourdough starter for the first time. When I first moved to AK, I bought Peter Reinhart's "Crust and Crumb" (C&C) because I thoroughly enjoyed "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" (TBBA). I tried the barm starter recipe then, and had inconsistent results with it. Looking back, I believe it was due to my less than vigilant adherance to the starter's schedule (i.e., Day 3's ingredients didn't necessarily fall on day 3).

This time around, with the exception of halving the formula, I followed the recipe and schedule as written, and as each day passed, the aroma and activity of the started developed. I knew from the smell of the starter on the final day that I had hit the jackpot! It was bubbling happily and had a sweet acidic smell. The barm formula uses residual yeasts found in the flour, air, and raisins (raisin water is used on Day 1). It has a tangy flavor that is not overbearing like some rye starters I have fostered in the past. This is what it looked like before I went on my sourdough spree:

Again, I am not much of a photo taker, I promise to improve, because pictures are worth more than any number of words I could offer here; but I added Pain au Levain, Sourdough Bagels, and Sourdough Pancakes to my list of achievements this weekend, much to the disappointment of my vacuum :). I went sourdough crazy and the results were amazing. Peter Reinhart pairs the Barm starter with a San Francisco Sourdough recipe in C&C. I tried that previously and found it to be marginally acceptable. The crust was GREAT, but the crumb was dense and the bread heavy and a little too sour for my liking. This time around I used the barm starter to replace the mild starter called for in the Pain au Levain recipe. The results were fantastic! The crust was reddish brown, crispy and chewy at the same time (if that is possible). The bread was great warm and at room temperature. I am pleased with the results and find the flavor of this bread much more satisfying and reminiscent of country bread than any Pain de Campange recipe I have tried.

Because I wanted to keep the volume of starter left over at a manageable level, I also mixed up a batch of sourdough bagels from C&C. I remember making bagels as a little girl, well maybe not specifically, but I remember not having fun because it took too long and had too many steps! With age I have gained patience, as well as a love of all things bread, so this time around I was surprised at how easy it was to mix up the dough, shape and retard the bagels, boil them and then bake them. The longest part of the process is the mixing of the dough. Shaping them took no more than 10 minutes. They retard, covered in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator overnight. I pulled them out an hour before I was ready to bake them to bring them up to room temperature, while preparing the water to boil (I used the boiling instructions from TBBA).

Once the water is up to temperature, all it takes from having dough rings to fresh, warm, tasty bagels is 15 minutes - tops! The bagels were boiled 1 minute on each side and drained, topped (optional), and placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I baked them at 500 ºF for approximately 10 minutes, turning the pan after 5 minutes to ensure even baking. After letting them cool for a few minutes, I sliced into one and when I saw the texture of the crumb, I knew I had scored! The outside was shiny, slightly crispy and chewy - the inside was soft, light, and had the texture you'd expect to find from a bagel made in a bagel shop. I buttered one up and gave it to my husband, who was floored by the results. He ate 2 more before the morning was out, and that was AFTER having a short stack of sourdough pancakes!

I love tangy pancakes. The difference between using buttermilk and normal milk (or water) in boxed mix is amazing. I had previously tried the sourdough pancake recipe from C&C with crepe like results. Somewhat discouraged, I promised myself I'd give these babies one more shot someday. Yesterday I did and I figured out what I did wrong - I learned to read somewhere between September 2007 and March 2008! It is important to completely read through a recipe at least once before trying it. No amount of experience substitutes for this. Back in September I added the baking soda/eggs to the sourdough batter instead of the other way around. I am certain that this caused my less than stellar results. The batter back in September looked deflated and dead, where as this time around it actively bubbled and looked happy (if batter can). The results were amazing - a tangy pancake that wasn't overly cakey. The outside is a little chewy, most likely a result of the malt in the starter. My husband said he preferred Aunt Jemima, but ended up eating 5 of these pancakes, drenched in maple syrup. I am sure if I keep cooking them, he'll forget all about Aunt Jemima :).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Every kitchen requires some basic equipment in order to function. The list from the previous post may not be the ‘ideal’ beginners list, however it is very close. In the next series of posts, I’ll explain why I feel these items are “essential” to any kitchen, beginner or not.

My first item was the Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Until recently, Kitchen Aid was pretty much it when it came to stand mixers. Some very nice, higher end stand mixers have emerged. Viking and Cuisinart, in particular, have high-powered, heavy-duty stand mixers, however they are quite pricey. By no means do I recommend running out and buying one of these right out of the gate! On the other hand, there are several budget priced ‘stand mixers’ out there that look like they are from the 1970’s. These function well as mixers, but based on my experience with them growing up, they don’t deal with breads or the other handy tasks the Kitchen Aid can handle, just bite the bullet and get the Kitchen Aid.

The basic Kitchen Aid costs $299 retail. Shop around, you may be able to find better pricing due to sales or on the internet. The ability to walk away and continue with other tasks in the kitchen while things are mixing or kneading is absolutely priceless. I considered bringing only my hand mixer, giving my Kitchen Aid to a well deserving friend. I discovered that this was one of the few kitchen items that would be difficult to identify ‘free shipping’ to Alaska for due to its weight and size. That sealed the deal – it was going, the hand mixer was staying.

My husband bought me my beloved stand mixer back in 2002 just after we bought our house. I have a Kitchen Aid Classic 300W bowl lift model that came with the meat grinder/pasta maker attachment. It wasn’t the model I wanted (the 500W Professional anodized aluminum one J) but my husband made a deal with me. He said if I could burn out the motor beyond basic repair (he’s an engineer) from normal use – he’d upgrade me with no argument to whatever model I wanted. Kitchen Aid has two styles of stand mixers - tilting head and bowl lift. The price referenced above refers to the tilting head. I would suggest spending the extra money and buying a bowl lift model - I believe you can find them for around $30 dollars more.

Here we are 6 years and 4,000 miles later and I still haven’t managed to burn out the motor in mine. I have logged thousands of hours of use, nearly killed it once making rolled fondant from scratch, and the thing still works as well as the first day out of the box. Though I do still enviously look at the new Kitchen Aid models at the store or online, I have no REAL reason to upgrade until I have worked this one into the ground!

While the hands free mixing a Kitchen Aid offers is an amazing benefit, the accessories available really put it into the "essential" category. They are somewhat costly, but most of them are time savers. I’ll discuss the pros/cons of the more popular ones below:

Food Grinder – There is a combo set that also includes a pasta maker. Don’t buy that one, the pasta maker plastic plates really suck. We’ll talk more about the pasta accessories in a little bit. I use the coarse grind plate for meaty sauces or for grinding up meat that is not widely available in the store – veal, chicken, turkey, and fish. Back in Ohio, we were members of Sam’s Club, so I would buy a case of whole sirloins at deep discount and cut my own roasts and make my own hamburger to put in my stand freezer with just a little time investment. I am somewhat industrious and like to be a ‘hands on’ consumer, so I don’t expect everyone to find doing this a must.

The plastic plate pasta maker set extrudes the dough to the pasta form you want. It is very difficult to get the dough to a consistency that works with these plates, and when you find that magic place, the pasta doesn’t cook well or have the right mouth feel. For the time that it takes to get this set up to work, a box of Barilla is cheaper, faster and has predictable results. I gave this accessory several chances and never did find it useful.

The metal pasta roller/cutters are an entirely different story and come in a variety of options. Unless you plan on hand cutting pasta, I would recommend getting one of the roller/cutter sets instead of just the roller alone. I prefer wide noodles myself, so I went with the roller/fettucine set. There’s a fettucine, linguini, and spaghetti (normal sized) cutter. The roller/cutter combos are pricey ($129) but if you are looking to make specialty flavored pasta (carrot, red pepper, spinach, to name a few), this beats hauling out the hand roller (if you have one) or going out and buying one. There’s also a ravioli maker accessory. I haven’t ever used it, but it is intriguing. If price isn’t a problem – go for broke and get the pasta excellence kit – you’ll get the roller and all of the different pasta cutters, INCLUDING the ravioli maker. This is on my wish list – someday I will get it!

Grain Mill – I don’t have this. As a baker I could see where it would be useful. Right now my mortal & pestle handle the volume of spices, grains, and nuts I need to grind/crack. Plus I get a work out using them! Unless you need to crush 50 pounds of flax seed for some reason, this particular accessory isn’t a ‘must buy.’

The fruit/vegetable strainer/grinder attachment is useful if you have a big garden and make your own vegetable sauces. I wished we had one of these growing up, though manning the food mill during tomato season is a rite of passage in the tomato sauce learning process! Not a ‘must buy’ for any other reason.

Roto slicer/shredder – If you have a mandoline or box grater, this accessory is worth it. I don’t know how many times I almost lost a finger to my mandoline or my knuckles to the box grater. I would buy this accessory if I didn’t already have the comparable blade attachments for my food processor.

There are many other accessories – sausage stuffer, citrus juicer, ice cream maker, that are novel, but unless you really like sausage links (patty person myself) or want to consolidate some other small appliances to make room, there really is no reason why you’d need these for the rare occasion you might need one.

MUST BUY ITEMS for you stand mixer include:

An extra mixing bowl – I still don’t have one of these, and I kick myself for not ordering one every time I make my tiramisu, marble cake or need more than one type of icing for something. I manage, and I suppose you could too, but the extra bowl would make things SO much easier!

Extra paddle and whip attachment. I make lots of bread and don’t feel a second dough hook is necessary. The other two, however, would be convenient, and are worth the money. If you have them, you will use them.

Since arriving in Alaska, I have used my stand mixer several times a week to make bread and other goodies. It was worth it to move here, even though it does take up valuable counter space.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

It took a while for me to decide what I was going to write about here. I am a funny person, but I just don’t translate to being funny in print. Some people just don’t, and I am ok with that. What about change? Well, a lot has changed in my life in the past year. I just don’t think it’s all that interesting to right about. However after perusing through several blogs I subscribe to, I felt that I could start one about baking.

“Oh no, not another baking blog,” you say. Sure, why not? I have acquired a new insight into cooking and baking, since abandoning the ‘normal’ world and relocating to one of the most remote places in the United States. My new situation has forced me to evolve from the comfortable existence I was accustom to ‘down south.’

While I have no pictures of my kitchen down south, it was well equipped, had plenty of counter space, gadgets and utensils galore, and tons of storage. Even if I did have pictures, I probably wouldn’t post them because I’d hate to perpetuate the fact that the 1970’s wasn’t a good era for color design or fashion (yes, I had the yellow/brown laminate tile, dark brown wall tile, and dark cabinets with wrought iron hinges that should have been left for fence makers).

When I accepted the offer of employment, I was told that I could move 1000 pounds of stuff to Alaska for free. Because I knew we didn’t need furniture, it did give me some leeway on what we could bring. I didn’t realize how much stuff I had collected in my kitchen. I cooked every day and baked several times a week, so I had the volume of equipment to show for it. Further, I would be moving from a two bedroom house to a one bedroom apartment with an EXTREMELY small kitchen. Sorting through everything came down to necessity:

Stand mixer – check
Pots and Pans – check
Coffee Maker – check check
Chef’s knife – check
Cutting board – check
Food processor – check
Manual can opener – check
Colander and one small strainer – check
Bread/cake/roasting pans – check (one 9x5 bread, 14x17 roasting, 8x3 round cake, 9x9 cake, two baking sheets and two cupcake pans)
Microwave - check
Measuring spoons - check
Dishes and silverware for 4 – check

Everything else stayed behind – my exhaustive selection of mixing bowls, my plethora of cake decorating supplies, variably sized baking pans, specialty cooking appliances (sandwich maker, crockpots, dehydrators, deep fryers, steamers, miscellaneous colanders, sieves, cooking utensils, etc). I figured I wouldn’t be cooking too much (as all my meals are provided for me) and since I still had to consider other things in the rest of the house to move (along with stuff my husband may want in Alaska), I decided took only those things I would figure would I would need.

Here’s a picture of my kitchen now:

My counter space was cut by 80% and my storage by nearly 60%. I have found that I cook more than expected (more for therapy than sustenance) so I have made one major purchase since arriving in AK: a pizza stone. Needless to say, I have a list of things I would like to order, but I made a promise to my husband not to acquire more than we can effectively store.

So there it is, I figure I could offer my experiences here for first time bakers, those with limited budgets for equipment, and those with limited space for gadgets. Do I miss having anything I wanted/needed for cooking backing just 20 minutes outside my door, a gas range, and an oversized refrigerator? From time to time, yes, however, I’d have to give up having some of the most breathtaking views that are only 5 minutes from my door!