Friday, June 12, 2009

Just Dessert

For some reason, when we have people over for dinner, I always forget to plan a dessert. Always.  I never learn from my mistakes.  There I am, plating up the cheese and crackers, sauteing mushrooms and garlic or preheating the oven, when one of the guests (usually a child) chirps, "What's for dessert?"  Do I panic?  Do I send the husband out for ice cream?  No.  No, because I can always make brownies.

The reason I like brownies, is that they can be made at the last minute, they are very much a dump and pour baking recipe and therefore are tough to screw up  (unless the husband is serving his famous margharitas, in which case I will screw it up, trust me -- but no one will care) (well, the children might care, but they can eat popsicles).    I start with either the Ghiradelli brownie recipe, or Ina Garten's  both of which are yummy just on their own, except I can't ever leave anything alone, so, to this batter I almost always add either dark, milk or white chocolate chips.  Or peanut butter chips, or, even better, a tablespoon of smooth peanut butter swirled into it.  Or a leftover smashed up candy cane.  Or some caramel.  A cup of shredded coconut soaked in 1/2 a cup of coconut milk then squeezed out, is good too.  I never add nuts because Em's allergic to tree nuts, plus I HATE nuts in sweet things.  Always have. Nuts just wreck the mood.  (Oh, that just doesn't sound right, does it.) But this shouldn't preclude your adding nuts if they work for you.  Or,  Whatever.

If I don't have bittersweet chocolate bars to melt, I use powdered coco mix (usually Ghiradelli, but sometimes Dutch Process, or whatever I have as long as it's not instatant) and I do this: 
1 1/4  cups coco
2/3 cup of flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt 
sift these together
Melt a stick of butter (1/2 cup), let it cool in a bowl, add
1/4 cup of sugar (I've used brown sugar in a pinch)
1 tsp vanilla (you can leave this out if you don't have any, I've done it, and although vanilla helps everything, leaving it out doesn't kill the brownie experience in anyway I can tell)
2 eggs , lightly beaten
Add the flour mixture to the butter/egg/sugar mixture and stir. 
Add 1 cup of any chips (see list above) if you want
Line your 8in square pan, or a 8in round pan, or whatever (I've scooped this batter into oven safe tea cups) with parchment and pour your batter on in. (LINING YOUR BAKING PAN IS VITALLY IMPORTANT: YOU CAN JUST LIFT THE BROWNIE SQUARE OUT OF THE PAN EASILY AND WITHOUT RIPPING IT TO SHREDS.) 
Bake @ 350 about 20 minutes.  

I know they're done when the center of the pan doesn't seriously jiggle, even though they look not quite cooked.  You can do the toothpick in the center test, but you don't want the toothpick to come out clean because the brownies will be dry in the center and asphalt at the edges. Still, you don't want it to be completely wet in the center either.  Somewhere in between, erring on the side of not done enough.  Let those brownies sit and cool as long as you can stand it.  They will finish cooking through then.  We like them when they are no longer hot, but warmer than warm.  

Lift the Brownie out with the parchment and then cup them up and top them with ice cream -- Em likes Mint Chocolate chip, Mad and I like Caramel Swirl, Smith sometimes goes for the classic vanialla, but just as often reaches for chocolate peanut butter. (We are Edy's or Turkey Hill fans -- both have been safe for my food allergy kid).  Or if you have it, make a little whipped cream.  (1 cup heavy cream, tsp sugar, tsp vanilla, whisk up in your mixer).  

Even when you don't consider yourself a baker, brownies are easy peasy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Best Bread Ever (according to my children)

When I tell people I often bake my own bread they look at me as if I've just said: I often operate on peoples brains.  It's that scary.  I think it's the yeast -- everyone thinks they are going to kill the yeast, and the bread won't rise.   Or they think, all that kneading, ACK!  And they give up before they've even begun.  I, too, was once afraid of baking bread, afraid of the yeast, afraid of the rise, etc., but now, I am here to tell you that, unless you are trying to make bread from a 10 year old packet of yeast you've had lying about your spice drawer, you can't screw it up.  The bread will rise, and it will taste better than any grocery store bread around.

Bread bakers have all sorts of recipes,  techniques and bits of information about how to create the perfect loaf --  and I am hoping to get some of these to you in another post.  However, today's blog is about the bread I made last night, which my disaffected 12 year old proclaimed as The Best Mom's Ever Made.  Considering that she'd likely pick water boarding over speaking to me as her choice of torture, I'm darn thrilled with this declaration.  

This recipe is for a sandwich loaf.  It is not a crusty European style bread, rather it is intended for thick peanut butter sandwiches, or to be turned into toast slathered with Irish butter, or to be layered into a BLT.  My recipe is adapted from several sources: Cooks Illustrated Cooks Bible, Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, Marion Cunningham's Breakfast Book, Peter Reinhart's Brother Juniper's Bread Book.

Breakfast Bread
1/2 cup warm water
2 1/4 tsp of instant yeast (or 1 package)
1 TBSLP of Brown Sugar
1/2 cup of boiling water
1/2 cup of Rye flakes (or rolled oats-not instant, though)
2 TBLSP unsalted butter
1/2 cup of nonfat (or low fat) dry milk (*see note)
1 cup of warm water
1 scant TBLSP of kosher salt (just don't completely fill the spoon)
3-5 cups of bread flour (all-purpose flour is fine too)

  1. Put the 1/2 cup of warm water in a mixing bowl (by warm I mean not so hot you can't touch it.)  
  2. Add the yeast and brown sugar.  The sugar helps the yeast go nuts.  You know your yeast is bad, or the water was too hot if it doesn't start bubbling after a minute or so.
  3. In another bowl, mix the Rye (or oatmeal) with the boiling water and add the butter so it will have a chance to melt.  Stir it all together and let is sit so the Rye will have a chance to absorb some of the water.
  4. Add the 1 cup of warm water, the dry milk, salt and 2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture.  Stir it all up with a rubber spatula
  5. add the Rye (oatmeal) mixture.  Stir this up too.
  6. Add more flour until you have a manageable dough -- something that holds together, but which is still somewhat sticky. I usually end up adding at least one more cup of flour, but it really depends on the brand of flour you are using.(** see other note below)
  7. Now you can do one of two things: if you have a large stand mixer with a dough hook you don't have to do any hand kneading. Hopefully you've mixed all this up in your mixer's bowl, so now all you have to do is attach the dough hook, turn it on and let'er rip.  Let the mixer have it's way with your dough for about 5 minutes.  Turn it off, let it rest for 10, turn it back on for another minute or so.  If you don't have a stand mixer, turn your dough out onto a lightly floured counter and start kneading.  (Pull the dough toward you and fold, push it away and then pull it toward you and fold again)  Knead for about 2 minutes, let the dough rest for 10 minutes or so, then knead until it feels more elastic -- about 2 more minutes.  Now, was that so hard?
  8. Use cooking spray to lightly oil a large bowl and put the dough in this.  Spray the top of the dough lightly, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  If it's winter and your 50 year old house is as drafty as mine, preheat your oven to 200 for 10 minutes, turn it off, and stick the bowl in the oven.  Otherwise it can sit out on your counter if you're sure the cat won't get into it.
  9. Let your dough sit for an hour -- it will double in size.  I promise.
  10. After an hour, turn the dough out of the bowl, spray 2 loaf pans with oil (I use glass pyrex loaf pans, but you can use whatever you have).  Cut your dough in half and roll the halves up into logs. Put each log into a loaf pan.  Spray the tops with oil again, stretch a bit of plastic wrap over the top and let the loaves sit for 30 minutes.  OR -- do as I do -- stick them in the fridge overnight and get up early in the morning to bake them so your children will have hot fresh bread the moment they wake up thereby assuring a gratitude and a decent mood from them for at least 20 minutes.
  11. Preheat your oven to 350.  Remove the plastic wrap.  Bake you loaves for about 30 min (35 - 40 if they are cold from the fridge).  After 30 or so minutes, take your loaves out of the oven, slip them from the loaf pans and stick a thermometor in its butt. (The bottom of the loaf)  You want the bread to register 195 - 200 degrees.   Usually it will read about 180 or so which is good, because now you can stick the loaf back in the oven without the loaf pan.  Yep, that's right, just stick your loaf right on the rack.  What's good about this is that it gets all four sides of your loaf nice and brown and crunchy.  This little thing is what makes it the best. Give your bread another 7 minutes in the oven.  Take it out, test it again, if it's close to 195, it's done.  
  12. Let your loaf rest a bit before cutting into it.  I know this is difficult, but it is important because it has to finish baking a bit (like meat needs to rest) and also because the whole thing will just collapse if you try to cut it too soon.
* 1st Note: if you don't have dry milk, substitute 1 cup of milk (whatever you have) for the 1 cup of water.  Warm the milk, or let it stand a bit, to take the chill off before you add it to your dough.

** 2nd Note: believe it or not brand makes a difference because there are different amounts of protein in different brands of flour.  See Shirly O. Corriher's book Cookwise for more information on this) I use King Arthur Organic Bread Flour.