Thursday, November 18, 2010

No-Knead Bread

I know that this is so 2006, and it's been written about probably ten thousand times, but it's so good and simple that I must also contribute to the plethora of blog posts about this magnificent bread.

No-knead bread hit the mainstream audience in November 2006 with this article in the NY Times.  It was a baking sensation that overtook the nation, as much as home baked goods can.  Foodies everywhere were talking about it.  I heard about it, and was curious, but never  tried it or made it until this past week.  To put it simply, it blew me away and I'm obsessed with it.  I'm also in the process of making my third loaf in one week!  I'm not someone who is generally a 'bread eater', as most bread isn't worth eating in my opinion.  I am in love with the wonderful fermented breads made in France, but that's about it.  My bread's got to be fermented, take multiple days to make, have a chewy crumb and rustic thick crust,  or I generally won't touch it.  However, I usually don't take the time to make this sort of bread at home, so I usually go breadless.  Unfortunately, in this part of Italy, the bread generally...well, sucks.  Italians, at least around here, treat bread simply as a utensil to mop up the juice on their plates and to push food on their forks. 

I think the no-knead revolution has just hit Italy, though.  It's similar to a ciabatta, but possibly tastier.  It is also easier to make.  Last night we had a small dinner party at our house, and the three guests gobbled up the whole loaf and all requested the recipe, which I then had to translate into the metric system.

It's an extraordinarily simple process, and the only important piece of kitchen equipment is something like a Le Creuset, or any other heavy pot (cast iron, terra cotta, etc) with a good lid. However, since we will be heating it up to a high temp, to be on the safe side you might want to unscrew your lid handle and stuff the hole with a piece of aluminum. 

  You add your 4 ingredients together in a big bowl:
3 cups flour
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp yeast
1 5/8 cups water
 (later you will need a little corn meal, wheat bran, polenta, or something like this)

It will be a wet, shaggy mess.  Then you cover it, leave it in a warm-ish place, and let it sit undisturbed for about 18 hours.  It will grow into a significantly larger wet mess, dotted with bubbles, emitting a nice yeasty smell even though hardly any yeast is used.
After the 18 or so hours are up and it looks all bubbly and ooey gooey like the photo above, flour a work surface and gently pour your dough onto it.  Sprinkle dough with a little flour, and fold it in on itself one or two times.  Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes.

Very quickly form it into a ball, only using enough flour to keep it from sticking to your fingers.  However, I found that it doesn't want to be a ball, it wants to be a sticky blog.  Anyhow, make it as ball like as possible, and place the goopy mess on a tea towel (or as we say in the US, dish towel, although it doesn't sound as nice) that has been coated with your cornmeal/polenta/wheat bran/something like that, UGLY side down.  Or, shall I say, uglier side down.  Sprinkle some more of whatever you used (l like using mill ground cornmeal or polenta) and cover with another tea towel.  Leave it for 2 hours.  It'll rise some, as bread is prone to do.

30 minutes before your rise is up (which is 1 1/2 hours after it started on its second rise), stick your pot with its lid on in an oven preheated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. 

CAREFULLY take it out after that time is up, and dump your dough into the hot pot so that it is 'ugly side up' AKA seam side up.  Trust me, it will make end up beautiful.  Wiggle the pot back and forth a little to make sure dough gets evenly distributed.  Cover with the lid and stick it in the oven for 30 minutes.  Then, take off the lid and cook for another 15 minutes or so until it is a lovely golden brown.  Dump it out of your pot and let it cool on a wire rack before eating.

It is delish.  Now it is time for me to prepare batch #3 for its second rising! 

 See how lovely it is?  It's turning me into a bread-lover, and will probably make me fat from carb-overload

 Nice crumb inside resulting from the day of letting it ferment... yum!

The reason you need this pot is so that bread has a shape (otherwise it will turn into a long flat blob), and most importantly, to develop a good crust.  Because the dough is so moist, when it cooks it gives off a lot of steam.  Cooking it in a hot, lidded pot is basically like cooking it in a tiny steam-injected oven, which means that you get a fantastic texture and taste out of your crust. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pie, the mysterious food art

Pie making is truly an art.
A 'good' pie tastes good and looks good. An utterly fantastic pie that makes your toes curl and moans escape your throat has so much more. Not only are the innards tasty and cooked/prepared to perfection, but they use fresh, seasonal ingredients, and are a combination of simplicity and some sort of unexpected 'wow' factor. The crust must be tender, yet flaky (even the bottom), a perfect light golden brown, and beautifully crafted. It should be so beautiful that you can't bear to cut into it, but the tendrils of eau d'pie wafting towards your nostrils make it so that you MUST try it, and once you do, you want to devour the whole thing in one sitting, but devour it slowly, so as to appreciate all of these elements which make the pie so perfect.

I usually don't have the energy, unless it is for a special occasion, to attempt to make a supremely fantastic pie. I usually settle for 'damn good'. I constantly have people asking me to reveal my secrets of pie making... but here's the thing. They aren't secrets. I'm happy to share everything I know.

First, I will post a few pictures of what I think are some extraordinary pies, some made my me, and some not. Most of not all of the photos come from my family's annual Pie Party, which is probably the best event in the world.

Anyone who knows her, will tell you, but Brookes Wolfe makes a killer pie, and she can make the most beautiful crusts imaginable.  Not only does she have some gorgeous leaf action going on, but she has a rope edge on it, which is hard to do.  I think the innards were trusty combo of apples and berries, which you can never go wrong with.

One of my pies.  If I recall correctly, it was a lemon-lavender-raspberry pie with a berry and rosewater glaze, with a leaf crust edge and crystallized calendula flowers. 

David the Baker's 'Upside down chicken pie'.  It was a combination of beautiful and terrifying.  From what I understand, it was delicious, even with the claws leering at you (I'm a vegetarian, so I didn't try it).  He butchered the chicken himself, made an interesting crust, and had extreme shock value to make this pie memorable.

A beautiful creation from my mom, Barbara Swell.  You can probably see where I learned to do the leaves from! This was a roasted veggie pie, and it was a combo of beautiful and wonderfully tasty.

Another of my mom's pies.  while it might not be a show-stopper in appearance, it is by far the best thing I ever ever tasted in my entire life.  It was a blackberry pie with a layer of dark chocolate on the bottom.  When I ate it, I shouted out 'OH MOMMA!', and that's what this kind of pie is called now.  Holy crap, you can't imagine how amazing this was.  An unexpected twist on a traditional pie, that adds to the flavor, and makes it so incredible that you scream out for it when you sleep... that's what I'm talking about.

Thanksgiving is coming up, and that means pumpkin pie for most folks. It's not a show stopping pie, but it certainly goes into the 'damn good' category, especially when you make it will a real pumpkin, as opposed to the canned variety. I'll start you off with a recipe for that (don't worry, by the end of this post you'll be able to make a stellar crust as well!). This page in my recipe book is covered with so many spills of all of the ingredients that the pages stick together and it's hardly legible anymore. It's that trusty of a pumpkin pie recipe. I swear by it.  The difference between this and most other pumpkin pie recipes is that it only has one egg, so it is denser and not eggy.

Mrs. Painter's Pumpkin Pie
from: The Lost Art of Pie Making Made Easy, by Barbara Swell

1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/3 cup evaporated milk (I use whole milk and it's just fine)
1 egg
3/4 cup brown sugar
pinch salt
1 Tbs. flour
1 tsp each cinnamon and ginger
dash of freshly grated nutmeg.

Mix all ingredients well, and pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake in a 350 degree oven on the bottom rack for about 45 minutes or until the middle is firm. Cover the edges with foil if needed to keep from over-browning."

You know when this is done when you wiggle it a big and the middle doesn't slosh. This is one of those pies best eaten once it's been cooled off, and preferably refrigerated. The crust has a tendency to finish before the insides, so pay close attention once you hit the 1/2 hour mark, remember that foil is your friend to keep crusts from burning!
Pumpkin pie I made yesterday cooling on the windowsill

Now, for the crust...

Many folks have fear of crust. And I don't fault them for it, because a good pie crust is a tricky thing, and there are a lot of terrible crusts out there. But there are some fantastic ones out there as well, and that's what I'm going to write about now. Some people like to make different types of crusts for different pies, but for most pies I use the same basic recipe, as it works well for just about everything. It's how I learned to make it from my momma, the undisputed Queen of Pie, and it's won me 'best crust' in the giant pie contest nearly every year.

First, a couple of things that will help you, before giving you the recipe:
1) Use good ingredients. That should be obvious, but if you use discount flour and discount butter, it's not going to be good. If you want good pie, use good ingredients.
2) Keep your ingredients (especially butter) very very COLD. I can't emphasize enough how important this is.
3) Work the dough as little as possible.

Ok, so now for your ingredients. This is enough for a 1 crust pie that fits in a 9" pie pan. If you need a 2 crust pie, just double the recipe. I don't measure exactly, as I eyeball it all, but this is theoretically what I am doing:

1 cup white, unbleached all purpose flour (King Arthur brand is reliable)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
very small amount of baking powder (little less than 1/4 tsp)
5 3/4 Tbs very cold unsalted butter
small bowl of ice water with a juice of half a lemon squeezed into it (you'll use about 5 Tbs of this water)

Mix dry ingredients together. Some folks say sift, but to be honest, I've never sifted anything in my life and it all turns out just fine. Cut your butter into cubes (approx 1/2 inch), and using a pastry cutter, fork or tips (seriously! only the tips!) of your fingers cut in half of the butter, until it is like course crumbs. This step makes it tender. Then cut in the rest of the butter, until it is the size of small peas. That makes it flaky. Get your icy lemony water, and stir in the water one tablespoon at a time. Stir it with a fork, and it's done when it BARELY holds together when you squeeze it. Don't you dare make a wet dough, because it will be nasty if you do that. It will seem kind of dry, but as long as it barely sticks together, it's fine. At this point there is an optional step, which I'm not sure if I can describe, and feel free to skip. There's a French name for this technique, but I haven't a clue how to spell it, just how to do it. I quickly form the dough into a ball (don't touch it too much, you'll melt the butter!), and then I put it on a slightly floured surface and using the heel of my hand, I push it down hard into the ball of dough and push it away. This helps with the flakiness. Then I form it into a flattened ball.

However, you can skip that if it seems too much, and you can go ahead and make your dough into a flattened ball. It shouldn't be more than an inch thick. Wrap well in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. It needs to rest for an absolute minimum of a half an hour, but several hours or even overnight is ideal. The resting period of the dough in the refrigerator is important.

When you are ready, take out your dough, flour a surface, and get out your pie plate and rolling pin. When rolling out a pie crust, you want to roll in a way so that you are pushing out from the middle of the dough. I never ever bring my rolling pin to the edge of the dough, as it isn't necessary, and will only screw you up. After ever roll or two, it's good to pick up and rotate the dough a quarter of a turn, and make sure it's not getting sticky from butter melting on the top or bottom. Don't over-flour, as it will make your crust bitter, but flour enough it keep it from sticking. Roll until it is about 1 1/2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan all the way around.

Carefully lay your crust into your pie pan, so that it sets nicely in there. Use a knife to cut off the jagged bits over the edge, or the parts where it is too big. You want about an inch or a bit less of 'over hang'. You are going to tuck this behind the crust, so that you have a nice rounded edge along the rim of the pie plate. Got it?

Now, to 'pretty-fy' it. There are a number of things to do, but I'll tell you the simplest ways. If you are lazy or frightened, you can take a fork and gently press down the edges along the rim of the pie plate. I personally find this ugly, but some folks like it. OR you can do the following: With your right hand, hold out your thumb and first finger so that there is about a centimeter's space between them, and hold out your first finger on your left hand so that it is pointing into the space between the fingers you are holding out on your right hand. Having your fingers out like this, go to your crust, with those right two fingers on the outside of the top edge, and your left finger on the inside. Bring these fingers together, so that your left finger basically pushes the dough into the little space created by your two fingers on your right hand. Then, do this to all of the pie. Voila, it is beautiful!
                                          (image from

At this point, I like to cover it with plastic wrap and let it refrigerate for another 15 minutes or so. If you will be blind baking, you need to poke holes in the bottom with a fork. Otherwise, use as the recipe says.

If any of this isn't clear, let me know and I'll try to clarify.  If you know someone who is a good pie baker, it's best to learn from them, as making pie is an art best learned from another.  If not, try anyways and you can always ask me for advice!

As my mom wrote in her book that I reference above, "Pie has intrigue. Pie is adventure, mystery, romance, and love."  What more could you want in life than that?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making Part II... Mozzerella, Ricotta, & Seras

And the cheese making adventures continue!

On to ‘real’ cheeses… that is to say, those that involve more than separating curds from whey and squishing the curds together. Only slightly more involved, and way more fun.

Cheese #4: Mozzerella

Now, there are 2 different main ways to making mozzerella; one way takes two days, and the other takes less than an hour. My ’cheese making for idiots’ teaches the one hour method, although I am keen to explore the 2 day method, because apparently it keeps better.

My friend Denise came by to do this with me. She’s never made cheese, either, but she has childhood memories of her grandmother making simple cheeses in the kitchen, so she has an idea of what should be going on.

As I said in the previous post, I am trying my best to follow the directions to the letter. However, all of the Italians I talked to thought that the recipe called for too many additional ingredients (like calcium chloride and cultures). I think it is because normal American milk (which the book was written for) has been overly processed, whereas I have tasty raw milk at my disposal which apparently already has the appropriate cultures living in it. And upon some research, the calcium choloride is used to counteract the pasturization process, but it also helps to work with the cheese so that it is stretchier. So, I followed the ingredients. A gallon of raw milk, a 30% calcium choloride solution, citric acid, rennet, flaked salt. I had to approximate the measurents, since the book was written for Idiots in America, but I am an Idiot in Italia, where we use the metric system, and I have liter milk bottles. Yeah yeah I know I am a physicist, so I am capable to making exact conversions, but also because I am a physicist I am ok with making approximations.

Did you ever hear the joke that goes something like, Q: ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’, A (from a physicist): ‘Well, first we have to assume a spherical chicken….’.

Anyhow, it felt more like a fun science project to make mozzerella, like I was back in chem lab. Making solutions, dealing with acids, boiling stuff, etc. A combo of the rennet and the citric acid coagulated the milk, and the calcium chloride helps bind it together. The secret is to get out as much of the whey as possible from the cheese, and to keep it quite warm while working with it. First we kneaded it, then stretched it, like taffy, and tied it into lovely knots. It ended up being very very tasty, and much better than the normal mozzerlla that one can buy in the shops (which is still much better than American mozzerella). The only problem is that I think we overworked it, so that it was slightly tougher than it ideally should have been. Otherwise, it was quite perfect.

The raw milk, fresh from the vending machine:

After heating the milk, adding the other ingredients, and letting it sit for 5 minutes, the curds clump themselves together!

Kneading the cheese to expell liquid and create tasty layers

Operation: Mozzerella succeeded! Myself and Denise.

A closer look at our newest cheese

Cheese #5: Ricotta

Ricotta is made using the seemingly useless byproduct from mozzerella: the whey, which is a kind of greenish liquid. It must be used right away, as it starts to go bad within a few hours. We heating the whey up to the right temperature, added 2 liters of raw milk, got it back up to the previous temperature, and then added 6 Tbs of fresh lemon juice to once again coagulate it. Drained it in a cheese cloth, folded in some flaked salt, and let it drain. It ended up being extraordinarily good. I generally don’t like ricotta whatsoever, but this one was fantastic. It was creamy, and had a good flavor.

Making ricotta... pouring the curds and whey into the cheesecloth

After it drains, we have ricotta!

Cheese #6: Seras

Seras. What the heck is seras?! you are probably wondering. It is the final dairy byproduct of the whey, and apparently it is a word in the regional dialect, and not the official word. Absolutely no one here that I have talked to know what it is called outside of Valle d’Aosta, but that is what they call it here. It involves adding a fair amount of apple cider vinegar to the hot whey after the ricotta is made, and waiting until all of the curds possible separate out. At first we thought it didn’t work, until we realized that you really need a huge amount of whey to make a decent amount of seras. After pouring all of this through the cheese cloth and letting it drain, we got about a tablespoon of very fine, creamy, and grayish cheese out of it. To be honest, it kind of scared me (I hate vinegar, and it spelled to vinegary to me… plus grey cheese? Ew!), but my cheese-hating husband loved it.

The next step in the cheese adventures is to start making cheeses that need to be aged a bit. The only thing I am really worried about now is that the milk from the cows around here is so particular, which is why they only make a couple kinds of cheese around here (primarily Fontina and Toma), which have very particular flavors. The raw milk already tastes quite a bit like Fontina, so every cheese I make also tastes a bit like Fontina. I might have to hunt down some ‘normal’ cows that aren’t used to make the local strong cheeses.

bread from a french market, garden tomatoes and basil, the mozzerella we just made, with a balsamic reduction

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making

I've had a dream for as long as I can remember; one of those kinds of dreams that you never think will actually happen, and you tuck in a box under your bed, but you keep harboring a distant hope that one day maybe it'll happen.

I realized that waiting around and hoping doesn't do jack squat, and if you want something, you gotta grab life by the horns and make it happen. So I have started to do just that. And what is this crazy dream of mine? To be a cheese maker. Cheese has always interested me. Not the tasteless processed blocks of crap that you find in American supermarkets, rather artisan and traditionally made cheeses. Even if you eat the same cheese by the same cheese maker who uses the same animals for every cheese, it'll always taste just a little different. Or a lot different, sometimes. It's always a mystery, as you never know exactly what you are getting, but it is bound to be exciting.

Cheese is an adventure for my senses, and I would love to be able to learn how to create that mystery.

I realized that NOW is the time for me to grab that milking cow by its tits, so to say, as I am living in Italy, in a house that is connected to a calf barn (I can hear their tinkling cow bells all day long even from inside my house!), and across the field from us is a really fantastic dairy. So yes, now is the time. When I was in the US, I found a 'Cheese Making for Idiots' book in a local bookstore, as I figured I didn't know nothin' about making cheese, and brought it back to Italy with me. For once in my life, I am trying to (mostly) follow directions, and the books says to do the recipes in order, so as to learn the right techniques, so I am doing just that, and will regale you with the extraordinary tales of my new life as a beginning cheese maker. I won't give directions as to how to do everything, because there are a lot of details and I don't want anyone to take what I say as a full explanation as to how to do something and now realize I skipped all the boring sanitation details and have you get sick. So, go learn to make cheese too, but make sure you do it safely.

First, you gotta know where I get my milk, as it is pretty awesome. It's possible I've mentioned it before, but it is so cool it deserves a reminder. There is that dairy down across the cow field, and there is a freaking VENDING MACHINE for raw milk, and another for dairy products like butter, yogurt, and various cheeses they make. It is right outside the barn. It's straight from the cow, not homogenized, not pasteurized, just kept cold til I stick in my euro coin, put by milk bottle under the spout, and press the button. And voila! A liter of tasty, fresh milk comes out. It's pretty strong tasting now, as the cows just came down from their summer holiday eating the tender grass at the top of the Alps that makes them produce milk with a particular flavor which gives Fontina (the real stuff, not the fake Fontina sold outside of this region) it's particular flavor.

Dairy Product #1: Yogurt

First, I will admit that I accidently destroyed the first batch. Ya see, the way you make yogurt is first you pasteurize your milk (if milk is raw), then when it cools down to be luke warm you stir in a serving's worth of plain yogurt with live active cultures. Got both the milk and the starter yogurt from the vending machine. Then, you cover your stainless steel bowl that you heated up the milk in with plastic wrap and stick in a turned off oven (to keep it at a stable temperature) for about 12 hours. Then, voila! You have super tasty yogurt. Unfortunately, after about 12 hours I forgot about the yogurt and turned on the oven to make dinner, and ended up instead with a yogurt and melted plastic mess. However, the next time I made it, it was devine. We have since started making the yogurt using 'real' cultures, and it is also very tasty.

Dairy Product #2: Paneer

This was my first real-ish cheese. It's a direct-acidification cheese, and the curds are separated from the whey using lemon juice that is added while heating the milk over a double boiler. I then separated the curds from the whey using a cheese cloth, letting it drip out for an hour or so, and the curds into a patty and compressed it for a while. I ended up with a soft cheese that I could cut into blocks, without much taste, and sort of like tofu. It browns up nicely in a pan, and is a fantastic addition to traditional Indian recipes like Saag Paneer, which I made. I don't think this is a cheese I will make unless I am making Indian food... I suppose that makes sense, as it is an Indian cheese. But wowza, what a difference a little bit of salt makes in some cheese, to make it taste cheesey. This was an unsalted cheese.

Dairy Product #3: Queso Fresco

I must admit, I am a Mexican food addict, and it greatly saddens me to live in a country where it is hard to find proper ingredients to cook tasty Mexican food at home. I have brought over masa harina, mole sauce, tomatillo sauce, good black beans, dried peppers, and other such things from the US, but one thing I didn't have was the CHEESE.

Luckily, the next step in my book was this Latin American cheese. The process is similar to the last cheese (it is made my direct acidification), but with quite different results. Heat the milk to 90.5 C, added apple cidar vinegar, and waited for the curds to separate out. For some reason they didn't separate out so much, so after I took out the curds that formed, I added more vinegar to get more curds out, which worked just fine. Salted the curds with flaked salt, put them in a cheese cloth, and let them hang & drain from the sink faucet for an hour until about all the liquid was gone. The result was something very much like real queso fresco, except that the milk is so strong tasting that it makes the cheese taste strong, as well. It had a good consistancy, melted perfectly, tasted tasty, and was a perfect addition to a devine meal that I made of vegetarian tamales.

Next adventures in cheese making: Mozzerella and Ricotta!