The Magic of Making Bread

Making bread at home is one of the most satisfying activities in the kitchen. People tend to be afraid of doing this but it is so forgiving and flexible. The difference between homemade bread and storebought bread is huge, at least most of the time. There are some excellent bakeries where truly great bread can be purchased, but they are far from ubiquitous and almost never in local supermarkets. Bread is one of those things that is the result of combining simple ingredients with love, care, and a little skill. The result is magical. I remember the first time I had “real” bread. At that point I understood why bread was sacred in many cultures. This isn’t just a Christian concept, incidentally. There was a time in Ankara when my mother in law was clearing the table and a piece of bread fell on the floor. She immediately picked it up, kissed it, said a prayer, brushed it off and put it back with the other remaining bread.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of great bread recipes. Ingredients matter. Use good flour, fresh and good quality. Same with the yeast. You’ll take about two cups of water, lukewarm, and add to it 1 T. of yeast and a tsp. of sugar. Put this in the bowl in which you will make the dough. Let it sit a bit to make sure the yeast starts to grow which you will know because it is bubbling. Then stir in 1 1/2 to 2 tsp. salt (it needs some, I just try to not use too much). Add in 5-6 cups of flour. Knead well. This can be done by hand or with the bread hook attachment to your mixer. The amount you add depends on the flour, the humidity, etc. You want a dough that is smooth, cohesive, and not sticky. If you need more flour, add it, or more water, add it. You will know it when the ratio is right. At this point, I gather up the dough, set it aside, clean the bowl, grease it and put the dough back in. I turn the dough so that all sides are greased, cover it and let it rise in a warm place for an hour and a half or so. The dough will nearly double in size, and when you poke it with your finger, it will spring back somewhat. Punch it down, then shape into loaves, set on a greased baking pan, cover, and let rise again. The second rising is shorter, probably about 45 minutes. Bake the loaves about 30 minutes in a hot (425 F.) oven. Check on the loaves towards the end, as they sometimes bake faster than you expect and you can take them out early. To be sure if they are done, take an instant read thermometer and check the temperature inside the loaf. If it reaches 190 F. they are done!

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Time for Thyme Tea?

So, last weekend I started coughing a bit, no big deal. I tried to exercise, get rest, eat healthy so that I could knock out whatever was going on. To no avail. Yikes! The cough got way worse rather quickly. I didn’t feel that badly, not really a fever or very slight one, kind of tired, goo dripping down my throat. Well, the cough was unlike any cough I’ve had. Coughing so much I would throw up. And all sorts of other fun things. Good grief. Did call the doctor. Since I am on a cartload of meds for hypertension and my heart, some options are limited. He suggested I try an antihistamine, which has helped. But in a fit of desperation I went searching for herbal remedies. Apparently, in Germany thyme as well as other herbs are widely recognized as effective for coughs and other conditions. I could not really find a reference that was verifiable, but went to WebMd to look up supplements for cough. And lo and behold, thyme and honey, as well as some others were listed as being possibly effective. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/condition-1127-Cough.aspx?diseaseid=1127&diseasename=Cough&source=2

So, throughout the duration of this week, I’ve been drinking thyme and honey tea. I put either a bunch of thyme sprigs in a teapot and pour hot water over them. Or, I use a tea ball and put 1/2-1 tsp of dried thyme in the ball in the cup and then pour the hot water. After five or ten minutes I stir in the honey. I don’t know if it is the hot liquid or if the honey and thyme have special properties that help. All I can say is that it helps significantly. Last night in the middle of the night I got up and made a cup of the tea and brought it back to bed. Quickly, it settled my hacking. It tastes fine, although I’m a little tired of thyme right now, but it is definitely helping. I usually have awful awful coughs. My throat muscles seem to over-react and so they are in over-drive with the slightest provocation. Am so excited to find something that helps.

Scarlet Runner Bean stew for Meatless Monday

Yummy. These are beautiful, big, colorful beans, which cook up very nicely. I get most of my dried beans from Rancho Gordo (www.ranchogordo.com) , which sells excellent quality dried beans. It is definitely worth getting top quality raw ingredients. It makes a difference in how much time it takes to cook and also the overall flavor. I took a cup of these and soaked them for a couple of hours. Next, sauteed an onion and some kale and garlic in a little bit of olive oil. Threw in a jar of homecanned tomatoes, some oregano, and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes. Let the mix simmer a while. Decided it needed something more and chopped up probably 2 cups of cabbage. Added 1 T. of red wine vinegar. It was actually quite good. Served it with rice. I intended to sprinkle with parmesan cheese, but forgot to do so. Excellent. Healthy. Frugal.

Apricot Almond Tart

This is an adaptation of several recipes. Wonderful dessert. Absolutely delicious. I used the tart pastry recipe from Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Cooking, with several modifications: I used chilled tequila for 1/2 the cold water. Would have used vodka but didn’t have any. Also substituted one T. of vinegar for an equivalent amt. of water. I have read that vinegar reduces the gluten making it easier to roll out. The alcohol makes it flaky, at least that is my understanding. After making the dough in the processor, I let it chill in the fridge for a couple of hours before rolling out. I did use butter in the pastry, but want to try using oil for half of the fat next time. I’d already made so many changes, I wanted to see how this worked before making more changes to the pastry recipe.

The filling was a recipe from Gale Gand’s Sweet Dreams from Food Network website with several changes. The recipe called for puff pastry, but since I didn’t have any, I used the tart dough. I also used dried apricots, a handful, which I put in a small bowl with about 1/2 c. water and microwaved for a minute, then let sit for 30 minutes or so, until soft. I wound up using substantially more apricots than the original recipe called for, and we really liked the result. Plus, it is difficult to find good quality, flavorful fresh apricots, so I usually substitute dried. Finally, at the end, the recipe called for dusting with powdered sugar. Before doing that, I microwaved a couple of tablespoons of raspberry jelly to liquify it, then brushed it over the top of the tart to give it a little glaze. Then I dusted it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. I will definitely make this again.

My guests loved the recipe.

As you can see, I make alot of modifications, partly based on what I have on hand, partly just personal preference.