Bake Some Bread, Dammit!

January 18, 2011

Photo courtesy of Carri Thurman by way of Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman is running a series on bread baking over on his blog, trying to get folks to bake bread.  Of course, I’m a sucker for bread, having baked for nearly 20 years (including my mad scientist days when I was in law school and had multiple types of sourdough starter sitting in my kitchen).  When I saw one guest blogger post a story and recipe about ciabatta, I knew I had to make it.  First, I love ciabatta, with its rustic shape and straight-forward flavors.  Second, this recipe  comes from a bakery – Two Sisters —  in one of my favorite places in the world, Homer, Alaska (also home to the best pizza in Alaska, Finn’s).  This recipe is of the “no knead” variety, which I typically like because of its simplicity, but which I usually don’t love, because the full flavors you desire aren’t usually completely developed.  This recipe was a bit different — it was a two-stage process, where a dense starter with a minimal amount of yeast sits on the counter for at least 12 hours.  Then warm water is added, and you break up the starter into small clumps before adding more flour and yeast.  It’s a very wet dough, but it’s perfect for the rectangular “slipper” shape of a ciabatta.

And, quite frankly, it was the best bread I’ve ever made.  I’m already craving this bread and hope to make it again very soon.  Thanks to Carri Thurman of Two Sisters Bakery and to Michael Ruhlman for publishing her recipe (and allowing me to reprint it).  I’ve made a couple of minor changes, based on what I had in the house on Saturday.

Recipe by Carri Thurman

To make the starter:

  • 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon rye flour
  • 3 cups/14 ounces/400 grams bread flour (I used King Arthur, but unbleached all purpose flour is OK)
  • 1 cup/8 ounces/240 grams tepid water
  • ¼ teaspoon/1 gram active dry yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water (set aside)
  1. Combine the flours and tepid water in a medium sized mixing bowl.
  2. Add 1 teaspoon of the yeasted water (that’s correct, just 1 teaspoon — discard the rest)
  3. Mix it into a firm ball, kneading it  just a bit.
  4. Cover the bowl and let it rest at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours

To make the dough:

  • 1 teaspoon/4 grams active dry yeast
  • 3 1/4 cups/15.5 ounces/430 bread flour (or unbleached all purpose flour)
  • 1 tablespoon/.4 ounces/11 grams salt
  1. Cut the dense starter dough into 6 or 8 pieces and put them in a large mixing bowl. Pour 2 cups/450 grams warm water over it and let sit a few minutes to soften. Break it up more with your hands.  Don’t worry about small-sized chunks.
  2. Add the additional flour, salt and yeast,  and using a wooden spoon, beat the mixture together well. It will resemble a stiff pancake batter and appear quite rough, but still don’t worry about those chunks of  starter dough. Let the dough sit, covered lightly, in a warm spot.
  3. Come back to it every 20 minutes or so and pull the dough away from the sides of the bowl and into the center using a rubber spatula or dough scraper. Do this four times. After the last turn you will be able to see that the dough has become smoother and more uniform, now cover and let it finish rising for another hour and a half. Total rising time for this period should be 2 ½ to 3 hours.
  4. Scrape the dough out onto a well floured surface and fold together lightly. It will be fairly wet. Divide into two equal loaves and either pull apart into a flat focaccia style or fold the two ends into the center, like folding a letter, to form rectangular mound.
  5. Place loaves on parchment paper lined sheet pan side by side for final rise, 30 to 45 minutes.
  6. Prep your oven by preheating to 450 degrees F/230 degree C and putting a baking stone or a cast iron griddle on the middle rack.  If no stones/griddles, just back on the sheet pan.
  7. When ready to bake, lightly flour the tips of your fingers and deflate some of the bubbles; don’t worry, it’ll bounce back in the oven.
  8. Cut the parchment paper between the loaves to separate, and slide each loaf right onto to the stone or griddle. Or keep it on the pan.  Whatever.  Spray the loaves and oven with some water from a spray bottle to create some steam.  Bake until dark-ish golden brown and internal temp reaches 200 degrees F, approximately 25 minutes.

Makes two 1-3/4 pound ciabattas

Adult Gingerbread for the Holidays

December 24, 2010

I love gingerbread.  It’s always been one of my favorite flavors, particularly when served warm with some soft cream.  It represents the essence of winter comfort food, not too sweet, with depths of flavor beyond most other desserts.  But that depth was sometimes illusory, as it was just a smack of molasses paired with a touch of ground ginger.  This holiday season, I wanted more flavor.  I wanted more complexity.  I wanted a goddamned adult version of gingerbread.

Thank goodness for Karen Barker.

Barker, the co-owner and Beard Award winning pastry chef of Durham’s Magnolia Grill, has the hand’s-down-bet-the-farm-you-can-take-it-to-the-bank-absolute-best gingerbread you’ll ever taste.  This isn’t one of those pale cakes that you whip together in 2 minutes that will still taste just fine.  This is a dark, foreboding-looking gingerbread, with three types of ginger, coffee, black pepper, and dry mustard in it.  It’s a gingerbread that has some kick, without being piquant.  It’s not a dense cake, but it’s really rich.  And when paired with something somewhat sweet, like Barker’s Hot Buttered Rum Raisin Sauce and some vanilla-nutmeg ice cream — oh, my.

And that’s what my guests were saying last week when I concluded a 6 course dinner party last weekend.  This dish is a winner.  This gingerbread means business.  And hell, yeah, I made three of those cakes, so there was plenty for breakfast the rest of the week.

Not-Afraid-of-Flavor Gingerbread

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp peeled, very finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup brewed coffee
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9X9X2 square pan or a 10X2 round pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, ground ginger, dry mustard and salt.

With a mixer, cream butter with the sugar and the fresh and crystallized ginger. Add eggs one at a time to blend.

Slowly add the oil and then the molasses. Mix to blend.

Gradually add the flour and spice mix until just barely blended, scraping bowl as needed.

Heat up the coffee in a small saucepan to a simmer, add the baking soda, stir, and add to the mix. Add the orange juice until fully combined. The batter will be thinner than what you would expect.

Pour batter into the pan and bake at 350F for about an hour and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan. Invert onto parchment paper, and then flip back over onto serving platter. Eat. And then eat some more.

From “Sweet stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts” by Karen Barker, University of North Carolina Press

Southern Pies — The “Must Have” Cookbook

September 30, 2010

We all receive gifts from time to time.  A bottle of wine, a nice piece of pottery, or a cookbook.  On Sunday, my dear friend Nancie McDermott gave me a copy of her newly published “Southern Pies.”  I have all of Nancie’s cookbooks (as she has been so kind to give me copies of them), and through these books she’s taught me a ton about Asian cooking and Southern cakes.  I’ve enjoyed the books, as they’re very accessible and interesting, and all of the recipes have been winners.

But of all these gifts, this one — this book of pies — is different.  This is not only a gift commemorating a birthday, but it’s a gift for everyone.  It’s a gift from Nancie to the cooking world.  Hyperbole?  Judge for yourself, but if you take a serious look at this book, you’ll see what I mean.

Last night after dinner, I finally got a chance to sit down and take a look at Southern Pies, and my first impression is that this may be the first time I’ve had a cookbook that makes me want to make every single recipe in it.  I’m totally serious about this.  Of course, there are the expected chess, lemon and coconut pie variations, but there are a number of very interesting pies of which I’ve never heard: green tomato pie, sliced sweet potato pie, vinegar pie, bean pie, and a plum custard pie.  There are fruit pies that have added substantial amounts of cream to them.  Rhubarb and scuppernong grapes are featured.

I’ve always been a huge pie lover, but I’ve gotten away from baking them in the past year.  That’s all about to change.  I’ll be sure to chronicle my pie baking escapades here, and I suspect my kids are about to learn how to make pie crust.

Thanks again for this wonderful gift, Nancie.  It will be treasured for a long, long time.

A Cupcake Nursery

January 19, 2010

A family friend recently had a baby, and my youngest daughter decided she needed to make some special cupcakes for them.   With the aid of her brother and sister and my wife, this is what they made.  Pretty impressive!

Fig Pizza

August 11, 2009


We have a fig tree, but it’s in a shaded area and doesn’t produce much fruit.  My in-laws, however, make up for that, as their fig tree can produce over two pounds a day of harvestable figs.  What to do with all that fruit?  A fig pizza, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Hope You Had a Great 4th of July

July 6, 2008

I got home last Thursday, ready for my 3 day weekend, to be surprised by this cake my daughters made for the family.  They even made the cake from scratch — and it was yummy!

World’s Simplest Cobbler

June 26, 2008

(This is a big old cobbler with lots of peaches before baking.  Photo courtesy of Jason Perlow.  I don’t have a shot of the finished product, so you’ll just have to make it to see how good it looks!)

People love them some cobbler.  I knew I made a lot of people happy when I recently posted my recipe for Bill Neal’s Four Berry Cobbler, which certainly wasn’t a secret (I don’t believe in secret recipes, quite honestly — especially for home cooks).  But that’s not the only type of cobbler I make: one of my favorite desserts is a simple peach cobbler where the crust makes itself.  Yup, you don’t have to make a biscuit dough and cobble it on top — you  start with a simple cake-like batter that creates its own crust as you bake.  It’s extraordinarily simple, and you really can use any kind of fruit you want, but I prefer peaches.

This recipe came from the wonderful cookbook, Coastal Carolina Cooking, which is very near and dear to me because the first chapter focuses on my wife’s late grandparents, Emest and Katherine Taylor, from the Currituck County town of Maple (population 50, including livestock).  This cookbook is a treasure trove of wonderful stories and great recipes, but the one I use more than anything else is the one for Cherry Cobbler.  And I rarely make it with cherries. Read the rest of this entry »

Cherry Chocolate Cake

May 15, 2008

My wife likes chocolate, but she loves cherries. Seeing it was her birthday recently, I thought I’d combine the two and make a special chocolate cherry cake. Sounds simple enough — just search the internet for cherry chocolate cake, and something yummy will pop up, right? Wrong. Well, there are a lot of recipes for a chocolate cake that had cherry pie filling in the middle. I wanted there to be bits of cherries in the chocolate cake batter. And cherry flavor in the icing and in the filling, too. So I started to improvise. The results were pretty damn good — not perfect — but that’s where you come in! Read the rest of this entry »

Clafoutis, Southern Style

April 1, 2008


Clafoutis. CLAW-FOO-TEE. Go ahead, say it again. And again. And then make up some completely senseless rhymes with it, like, Booty Clafoutis. Or, Clafoutis in Djibouti. Or my kids’ favorites, Clafoutis makes you go pooty. Whatever that means.

But clafoutis is a classic French dessert, and an easy one at that. My parents are in town for a few days, and I wanted to make a quick and simple dessert for them. I had a bag of frozen sour cherries available along with some fig preserves. So I made two desserts, a standard cherry clafoutis and a really great fig version. A double header of clafoutis action, if you will!

If you’ve never heard of clafoutis, it’s a cross between a custard and a dutch baby pancake. It’s loaded with eggs, but it has enough flour in it to give it a slightly more airy feel. The classic version is made with cherries, but I’ve used lots of different fruits. I eat clafoutis for dessert or for breakfast. When warm, it’s light and fluffy. After it cools, it gets much more custardy, but either way, it’s delicious.

Some people say that if it’s not made with cherries, it’s not a clafoutis — it’s a flognarde. Because I like to say “clafoutis” more than I like to say “flognarde,” you bet your booty I’ll call it clafoutis.

I’m giving you my recipe for a Southern Style clafoutis made with whole fig preserves. We’re blessed with friends who give us lots of jars of these sweet delicacies, and they’re really perfect with this dish. If you use fresh figs — and summer’s not too far away — you’ll want to cut them in half and dip them in honey and cinnamon sugar first! Yum. Read the rest of this entry »

Cup Pies — The Next Big Food Thing

March 18, 2008

pieweebl.jpgI’m sure they’ve been around for ages, but a coworker of mine recently introduced me to the concept of “Cup Pies.” They’re like cupcakes, but pies instead of cakes. You make some pie crust dough, put it into muffin tins, add your choice of filling, cover with more dough, and bake. Et voila, a self-contained, non-messy, individual pie. It’s a brilliant concept, and having now had a peach and blueberry version, I’m completely hooked. I may abandon the practice of law and open a cup pie bakery.

The idea appears to have come from the show Pushing Daisies and then the gorgeous blog Eggs on Sundays provided a lovely recipe with pictures on an Apple Cup Pie. These things are really quite wonderful.

My colleague says that pies using an uncooked filling don’t work as well, because these things don’t bake very long. Thus, an apple cup pie with crisp granny smiths may require you to pre-cook the apples a bit.

We are in agreement that these would be great for savory pies.

Now that Ashley Christensen has limited her dessert menu to nothing but pies at Poole’s Downtown Diner (that’s a story for another day), I think she needs to start serving a cup pie.

So have any of you made cup pies? I hereby declare today that cup pies are the next big food thing. You’ll see them everywhere by the end of 2008. Let me know when one of you spots one on a dessert menu.

My Morning With an Artisanal Baker

February 18, 2008


My watch’s alarm chirped at me at 4:15. It was time for me to get my sorry butt out of bed, shower, and make the 15 minute drive to Cary’s La Farm Bakery. I kept asking myself why the hell I had asked to spend a few hours in this award-winning artisanal bakery. Of course, by the time I arrived at 4:50, Philippe Comte had been there for nearly five hours. That’s the life of an apprentice baker, who has come to the US from his home in Paris to learn from a baking master such as Lionel Vatinet. For me, I was just some “journalist” who wanted to spend a few hours with my hands in the dough.

It was February 14 — Valentine’s Day — but I had totally forgotten about that until I arrived to see Philippe pull a dozen loaves of heart-shaped baguettes out of the oven. That would be the theme of my visit with La Farm, as heart-shaped objects ruled the day. Cookies, tarts, bread and more were being made for the lovers of the world — OK, maybe just the lovers of Cary.

Lionel Vatinet has traveled the world, first to learn to make bread, and then to teach others the secrets of the craft, and then, nearly 10 years ago, to open his own bakery with his then girlfriend and now wife, Missy. There was nothing magical about Cary, as Lionel wanted to set up shop in California, but Missy had some family in North Carolina and wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle. So due to the lack of any firm roots, we here in the Triangle ended up being the beneficiaries of their new home. Read the rest of this entry »

Puff Pastry, Palmiers, and Me

January 3, 2008


I consider myself to be somewhat adept with desserts and pastries. I’ve pretty much always have been able to make a great pie crust. I made a sachertorte when I was 13. I’m very good with scones and biscuits and shortbread. But the one thing I’ve never made is puff pastry. I’ve seen others make it, and damn, it’s a lot of work, folding the butter in time and time again. So I cheat and buy frozen puff pastry sheets. Yes, I’m finally coming clean and letting the world (and my professional baking friends) that I’m a puff pastry fraud. I’m the Milli Vanilli of puff pastry.

And I don’t care one tiny bit. I love the frozen stuff — the convenience, the simplicity. I pull a box out of the freezer, let in thaw, and then go to town. Sometimes I make cheese puffs, but my “go-to” puff pastry dish is the humble palmier. The palmier (French for “palm”) is nothing but puff pastry, butter, sugar and cinnamon. It’s incredibly easy to make, especially when using the frozen puff pastry. I don’t claim to make a classic palmier, the type you find in bakeries and patisseries across the world — I’d probably need to make my own damn puff pastry for that, and you already know that’s out of the question. But I make a tasty, caramelized, crispy and flaky delight that my kids adore. And frankly, I like them, too. Read the rest of this entry »

Easier No Knead Bread

December 3, 2007


Anyone who is even remotely interested in food is aware of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe that became mainstream 13 months ago when Mark Bittman of the NY Times wrote about it. Food websites were agog about this new way to make bread, which required a really wet dough, a long, overnight rise, and baking in a large covered pot. Nearly every newspaper in the country covered the phenomenon of being able to have a crusty loaf of bread without any kneading, with many trying to tweak the recipe to enhance the depth of flavor. Me? I never made it. I even broke down and bought a nice enameled cast iron pot in which to bake a loaf, but for some reason, I just never got around to making this bread.

Last week, however, I read about a new type of no-knead bread. A bread so simple, even a 7 year old could make it. This process also relies on a very wet dough, but you only let the dough sit for a couple of hours. Each batch makes three or four loaves of crusty bread, but you don’t need to bake it all at once. The unused dough can sit in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and you pull off a portion and bake it when you want.

I gave the recipe to my 7 year old daughter, who has been cooking a lot with our sitter, and I came home on Friday with a bull full of dough waiting for me. I pinched off a couple of grapefruit sized pieces of dough, lightly dusted them with flour, and let them sit on a pizza peel for 40 minutes or so. I popped the orbs into a hot oven with a baking stone, and you know what, my daughter and I ended up with some most excellent bread. And I baked the rest of it tonight, resulting in an even more flavorful loaf.

So, give this recipe a try. If you time it right, you can have fresh bread all the time. And if a 7 year old can do it, I’m sure you can, too.

Recipe after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »

This Little Figgy Became a Cake

November 23, 2007


My friend Brooks is a cake person.  I’m all about pie.  When Brooks forced people to choose one or the other (and you couldn’t waffle and say “both”), an interesting discussion ensued on eGullet

I’ve always liked pie, whether fruit or custard based.  Chocolate or nuts.  Apple, cherry, blueberry, or peach — pie is the dessert that I most often crave and enjoy to make.  I love making my crust, and I make a damn fine one.

But I recently received a simple new cake cookbook that has captivated me: Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, by Chapel Hill’s Nancie McDermott.  I first learned about this cookbook when Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner, told me how he has been making McDermott’s cakes for several months, and they’ve been selling like, well, hotcakes.  He’s made everything from coconut cake to Lady Baltimore Cake to, and I’m not kidding you, tomato soup cake.  I was intrigued, but when I met Ms. McDermott at the SFA Symposium in Oxford, I was smitten.  While braving the cold on the top of a double decker bus on the way for a catfish dinner, she told me stories of how integral cakes were in her family meals in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  How the raising of her own children instilled a new-found appreciation of Southern baking, and how they could be involved.  And then, when giving a lecture on the “State of Coconut Cake,” she stated that the future of Southern cooking lies with our children, presenting an image of the two year old daughter of pastry chef Phoebe Lawless licking the batter from a mixing bowl, Nancie McDermott had become my new culinary hero.

I ended up spending several hours with Nancie over that weekend, and I now have her book.  It’s a very simple paperback, with lovely photos and plenty of recipes that an average home cook can master.  Each recipe has a fabulous story about the cake, and I’ve now read the book cover to cover.  But I hadn’t baked anything out of it, until yesterday.


I had made a pumpkin and pecan pie for our meal, but I kept thinking of Brooks’ claim that only cake made an event truly festive.  Damn him!  Plus, my 13 year old son was being particularly helpful, and he wanted to know if he could assist in the kitchen.  I asked him if he wanted to make a cake, and he immediately smiled and accepted.  We decided on Ocracoke Island Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze, a fairly simple spice cake with figs and nuts and a decadent glaze.  My son was excited because he knew his grandfather loved figs, and he was from coastal North Carolina.  So, with minor assistance from me, Everett made this cake.  At the end of the meal, when the desserts came out, Everett watched his grandfather closely as he sampled the cake.  “Mmm, that’s some mighty fine cake,” my father-in-law stated.  “Mighty fine cake, indeed.”  Everett beamed.  A new baker was created yesterday, and I realized that I just might have a bit of a cake personality after all.  Thanks, Nancie!

Recipe after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

Biscuits on a Saturday Morning

October 12, 2007


When you’re trying to figure out what to do for breakfast this weekend, please consider whipping up some simple, homemade biscuits. I’ve been making biscuits for over 20 years, and they’re a regular staple in our household. Many people are afraid of turning their flour and dairy products into paperweights or hockey pucks, but that really shouldn’t ever be an issue. I’m here to help, and you’ll know who to thank when you’ve pleased your family.

First, the flour. You can use all purpose flour, but I highly recommend you make it easier on yourself and pick up some self-rising flour. This not only provides most of the leavening power you need, but the wheat in this flour is a bit softer (i.e., less gluten) than AP flour. Thus, you’re more likely to turn out a light and flaky biscuit.

The second thing you need is buttermilk. If you can get the stuff in the glass jars from Maple View Farm dairy, even better, as it has a higher fat content, and when it comes to biscuits, fat is your friend. Otherwise, regular buttermilk will suffice.

Third, you need butter — unsalted butter, that is. Salted butter is actually fine, but you can’t control the flavor as much. I also think the unsalted butter creates a fluffier biscuit — perhaps due to the higher moisture content in butter with salt. I might be imagining it, though. You also want the butter to be cold. Some people like to use shortening in their biscuits, but I like keeping it all dairy. If you have some good lard, that will work, too. Over the years, I’ve used butter exclusively as I always have it, it’s always cold, and it’s easy to measure.

Whole milk is good, half-and-half is better, and heavy cream is the best. As I said, fat is your friend. Biscuits are a guilty pleasure, so don’t make a compromise here.

Finally, you’ll need some baking soda and some salt (unless you’re using salted butter). That’s all you need when it comes to foodstuffs.

The only other items you need are a pastry cutter/blender, a rolling pin, and a biscuit cutter — oh, and a hot oven.

The important thing to remember is to be gentle with the dough. That’s why I use a pastry cutter rather than a food processor to cut in the butter. I’ve found my biscuits are always tougher when made with the food processor. Once you’ve cut in the butter, you’ll want to add your liquids all at once and gently stir to combine. You’ll toss the dough onto a counter, knead it only 2-3 times, and then roll out for cutting. If you work the dough much more than that, the gluten will take over, resulting in that NHL-ready puck. Remember not to twist your cutter when cutting out the biscuits, as that causes the edges to pinch a bit, which can impede the proper rise.

These biscuits won’t have an ultra-soft cake-like crumb that you’ll find at Big Ed’s, but they’ll be tender and flaky and filled with flavor.

One of the finest ways in the world to eat biscuits is with nothing but butter, but when we want to be a bit more decadent, we make the “cheese.” The “cheese” is sharp cheddar cheese that has been melted in the oven without a top. We just cut up cubes of cheese, put it in a small casserole, and throw it in the oven while it’s heating up. A nice little crust will form on the top. After awhile, some of the fat will start to separate from the cheese solids, but don’t worry about that. We put some cheese on a hot biscuit, add some fig preserves, and enjoy like a fat and happy puppy. As my father-in-law says, that’s a “mammy-smacking meal” — makes you want to smack your mammy.

Click below for the recipe.

Read the rest of this entry »


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