Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Did you feel it? There was a 5.4 magnitude earthquake yesterday in Los Angeles. Chris and I both felt the shaking around lunch time. It was pretty mild down here in San Diego, so it wasn't too scary. It is weird though to see the walls and your desk moving around. It lasted about 15 seconds, and it was a gentle rocking motion, like you were moving back and forth in your chair, except that you weren't.

Growing up, I my sister and I used to lie awake in the summers watching the monsoon storms. We thought it was so cool to see all the lightning, and listen to the wind and the rain. I think I feel about the same about the California earthquakes. Sometimes the perspective gained from seeing the awesome power of nature is quite grounding. Hopefully these little tremors will continue to be that and not something more dangerous.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I have been trying to make good yeast bread for a while now. I have made a few good loaves, I have tried all different kinds of recipes, some from family and friends, some from cookbooks, blogs, websites, you name it. However, nothing has been great. Recently, I decided to get a new cookbook devoted completely to yeast breads, specifically artisan breads. It had a lengthy introduction, in which the author described the process of fermentation, of the different stages of rising, how to pull more flavor out of the basic ingredients of yeast, flour, water, and salt. I'm a total sucker for great bread like this, so I was certain that finally, this would be my ticket to learning how to make great bread. I would no longer have to choose what type of loaf I wanted to treat myself to in the supermarket or the special bread store. I would be able to make most of them, so I could concentrate on the really specialty items. Well, that was the plan anyways.

I started out with a pre-ferment, Reinhart explains that in order to get more flavor out of the basic ingredients, you really need to give them more time to work together. I picked the ciabatta recipe becuase it seemed straightforward, it was a lean bread, it would benefit from a long rise, and I had never done it before. In order to truly practice, I did not halve or reduce the recipe in any way, shape or form. I didn't want to wonder if I messed it up, although the author does specify that you should be able to learn to do this eventually, he encourages learning the recipe's formula as ratios so that you can always increase (or in my case, decrease) the yield.

The pre-ferment is just a mixture of a tiny amount of yeast, flour, and water which you let sit on the counter for about 3-4 hours. You then refrigerate it for at least 1 day to stop the fermentation and coax the flavor out of the flour. Here is my pre-ferment on the morning of baking day:This is mixed into the recipe for the rest of the bread, which has more yeast, flour, water, and salt. Supposedly the old and new doughs will combine to give you all the layers of beautiful taste between crust and crumb in these specialty breads.
They stress not over-kneading, and the dough will always look shaggy because a lot of work happens durring the multiple rises and rests that you give it after kneading.
To make the classic ciabatta, you fold the dough over itself in a bed of flour a few times to allow it to rise. I think the idea here is that in order to get those beautiful big holes in the bread, you really need to let the gasses develop in the dough during these phases. Mine rose significantly, but I am not sure now if they were really ready to go into the oven at this point. However, the time was right, and I was trying to be really careful to follow directions.

I even dragged Chris to Home Depot with me to look for tiles to put in our oven to simulate hearth baking. I tried to do the steam thing that the book and others have specified. I basically freaked myself out by doing all of this and cooking at 500 degrees. I am much more comfortable at a lower temp. And the result was a disaster. Totally and completely burned on the bottom, and very dense inside. They looked close to correct, but I can't lie, they weren't really good at all.
So what is the moral to the story? I did this a couple weeks ago, and I have honestly thought a lot about what to post about this experience. There is a part of me that seriously could be done with bread baking all together, aside from pizza, flatbreads, rolls, cinnamon rolls, etc. I have taken my oven stone out, and I am not sure if I will put it back in. I have really struggled with the fact that this went so poorly.

And I know that this is a silly thing to get worked up over. It is not realistic to think that you will ever be able to replicate at home what they do in commercial settings with specified equipment and a totally different environment. I keep telling myself that I have had great success with the things that I have tried, there has to be a margin for error, you aren't going to be great at everything you put your mind to. The logical side of my brain totally accepts this. The emotional side is still frustrated. It's screaming out, "WHY??" What did I do or not do?" (and maybe a touch of "It's not fair!!" thrown in there.) And it is OKAY. If I never learn to make great yeast breads I think I will be able to accept that. I hope so. It doesn't mean that I will necessarily stop trying. Hopefully I will learn from my mistakes and not expect perfection on the first try. But it is a typical case of letting the one thing that you can't do or have detract from everything you can do or do have. I decided to post this because I wanted to be honest with you about my successes and failures. I wanted to share a moment of personal learning that I have experienced more than once. Sometimes you have to step back and breathe.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Striped Layer Cake

Do you ever run home from work excited that you have 3 hours before your significant other will be home to take you out to dinner? I wasn't excited that I had to wait 3 hours to see him, however since he was going to take me out to dinner, that meant I had 3 hours to myself to make whatever I wanted. Woo hoo! So, if you do have this kind of time, what would you make? Well I decided to make a layer cake. And I was thrilled to do it. This was a fun one too, because it was a yellow and chocolate layer cake. KAF had a great post a while back about a birthday cake for fence sitters... If you can't remember if people prefer yellow cake or chocolate, why not combine the two? And it was a great idea. Both cakes were pretty easy mix-and-go varieties, no separating egg yolks from egg whites, no folding ingredients gently together, no these were no fuss, no muss cakes. And delicious at that.
I will definitely use these recipes again for cupcakes. They made a beautiful, thick batter.
Both baked at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes.
The recipe specifies that the chocolate can come out before the yellow, which is true. However, mine were done at the same time. I think I might cook these at a little lower temperature for longer next time, because the yellow rose significantly in the middle. This is fine if you are a pro at leveling everything out before you assemble the layers, but mine weren't really thick enough to do so, and I am not a pro at that!
The recipe calls for a chocolate ganache filling and frosting. I used it only for the filling and frosted it with a vanilla frosting. Both options were good. I think the ganache over all would be great if you have a lot of choco-holics, but possibly too chocolatey for some folks. (Who are said people??? Do they exist and where in the world can they be found??? I am actually married to one, believe it or not. Crazy, but true.) So the ganache is super easy to make. Combine the cream and chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl and microwave for a couple minutes.
Stir, or use a wire whisk to incorporate the chocolate into the cream.Keep stirring until you have a smooth, even consistency of chocolate ganache.Cut your cakes in half horizontally. This is the part that I am definitely not a pro at! As you can see the middle is a lot higher than the sides on my cake. My cutting probably leaves a lot to be desired too! Once you have the 4 pieces of round cake layers, spread the ganache almost to the edges of the layers, then layer the cakes, offsetting the flavors.

Then it's on to the frosting. I decided that I wanted to try the swiss buttercream that Smitten has been raving about. What really interested me in this frosting was the idea that it wasn't super-sweet. First you start by making a meringue in the double boiler, egg whites and sugar.

Once that is fully incorporated, and the sugar is completely dissolved, you transfer the whole thing to your stand mixer and add the butter. Then you let your stand mixer do all of the work. This takes a while, and despite all of the warnings, I didn't think it was going to come together.
Started out pretty runny.You have to walk away from it. It took me about 15 minutes or so, and I wonder if my batch was just too small for the mixer. I doubled her 'tiny' recipe, since I had already filled my cake and it was a 9 inch round. I would make more next time... I ran out of frosting. Also, in looking back on her pictures, I probably could have let the machine whip for a little bit longer. I never got to the chunky stage she shows, so that should have been a sign. I think I might have been a little anxious to get my cake frosted. So, for future reference for me, and for you too, I guess I would suggest not trying to do this step after the aforementioned dinner out at 8:00pm and before bed that same night. (smile) Ahem, well, then you proceed to frost the cake.

And finally, enjoy! Even if you don't have quite enough frosting. Good thing this cake was just for fun and for practice. But it tasted great.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies & Chocolate tips

One of the reasons that I always love having Droste dutch process cocoa powder on hand is that it instantly turns a recipe into the most ooey-gooey, fudgy, chocolatey yumminess that you can imagine. This recipe has a good dose of that, melted chocolate, and chocolate chips! It totally hits the spot when you are having that chocolate craving. I made these the first time for Christmas 2006 and they were a huge hit. Chris calls them- "those little brownie cookies" and they are a lot like a brownie in a cookie outfit. This was a half-batch that I did when I got the craving for these but didn't have enough friends around to share the love. The dough does really well refrigerated after mixing and will roll into these balls better after a quick respite in the cool air. This will get your hands dirty, not to mention your dishtowels, counter, and anything else you might come in contact with while shaping the cookies. I always laugh when I go to my favorite pizza place in San Diego because the have their tv remote control wrapped in plastic wrap. I should probably do that at home. Not sure how well it would work on the phone, but that should probably get wrapped too!
Once they are shaped, you roll them in powdered sugar to coat. A generous coat is required to get the crinkly look you are going for.
Once baked, they spread out and look like this. Good luck keeping them around for long afterwards!

If you can't find Dutch Process cocoa powder, the best bet is unsweetened baking chocolate. It's good stuff, I usually use Baker's brand because it's what my store carries and I think it tastes great. I am sure that there are other gourmet brands out there, but I usually have a box or two on hand. Inside, the baking squares are wrapped in paper and each square is 1 oz. of chocolate. You can substitute this for 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and supposedly a little of the fat (the chocolate has cocoa butter in it where the powder does not). I never have been able to figure out exactly how much fat to cut out of the recipe, so I usually just substitute the chocolate for the cocoa powder and leave the butter or oil the same as what the recipe calls for. I have never noticed a problem, or even a difference.

If you don't have a double boiler, or if you don't want to get yours dirty that day (ahem... I certainly fall in that camp most of the time) melt your chocolate in the microwave. To temper the chocolate (for example if you're melting it for a recipe that calls for a shiny chocolate coating, like chocolate covered strawberries) melt 2/3 of the specified amount in the microwave, then add the rest, stir and the melted chocolate will melt the reserved third leaving you with perfectly tempered chocolate. If it's still a tad on the sticky side after it has set, a half-hour in the fridge or freezer works wonders.

Bittersweet/ Semisweet / Milk Chocolate- what's the difference? Bittersweet usually covers the range from milk chocolate to unsweetened chocolate. I have found that when my recipes call for bitterweet however, that usually this means a little more cacao content than the amount in my bag of semi-sweet morsels that I always have on hand for chocolate chip cookies. I usually buy both kinds, and in my opinion, you need at least 60% cacao content for it to truly be 'bittersweet'. While most of us like milk chocolate on it's own, it is too sweet for chocolate chip cookies. I have tried all kinds of variations with double chocolate chips and the only combination that I have found to be worth it is half semi-sweet and half bittersweet. Semisweet is probably around 40-50% cacao, but it can be as little as 35%. Try a few different brands and you will get a feel for what you like and where they differ. I ususally buy 60% cacao Ghiradelli chips for my bittersweet equivalent, and Nestle Toll House morsels for my semisweet. I would probably go up to 70% if the cookies were just for me, but with my sweetheart around the 60% works well for both of us. The Nestle toll house semisweets are the total classic flavor.
If you are making a recipe that calls for bittersweet chocolate and it needs to be melted, you can mix a couple of unsweetened squares in with your semi sweet baking squares or chips. It will bring that chocolatey content up and probably improve the flavor. Keep in mind however that unsweetened chocolate has to be mixed with sugar at some point, otherwise it just doesn't taste good at all. It can be very deceiving- especially once melted, you are going to want to lick the bowl, and I promise, even though it looks good, it doesn't taste good!

Shopping Sprees

When you think about a shopping spree, you probably think about a trip to the mall. Perhaps spending some time at various boutiques, maybe perusing online vendors and getting something that you can't find in your home town. You probably don't consider rationing your shopping habit at the grocery store. I on the other hand, do. I try to keep my grocery shopping to one store a week, but I find that difficult. Each place that I shop has different things that I can't find at the other one. I am also not a big fan of meal planning, I prefer to cook whatever hits my mood at the moment, which requires having more stuff on hand. Do you have any quirks like this and what are your 'special splurge items' that you get excited to have on hand or you know you'll get if you have a chance to go to a certain store? I'll share if you'll share!

Trader Joes:
Marscapone Cheese
Ginger-Oatmeal soap
KAF flour
Cashew butter
Fresh mozzarella- boccini or perlini are my favorites

Whole Foods:
Droste Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
Sliced mango
Classic Chicken Salad

Whole-wheat pastry flour
Sushi Rice
Sesame seeds
Blood Oranges
7th Generation dish soap
Jason organic hand soap

Don't get me wrong, I also have shopping spree urges for the mall, I can't resist heels from J.Crew, jeans at Nordstrom, tees from Anthropologie... the list could go on and on here as well! Hope you are having a great Tuesday.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ERIN!! I am waiting to call you until my lunch break because if I was a teacher on summer break, I definitely would not get up early on my birthday! Love you!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Little Italy Mercato

We finally made it to the Mercato! It was a great place to spend a Saturday morning (unless of course your other plans were to spend it sleeping, which is always good) especially since I was able to pick up some willing participants at the airport which is really just down the road from the market. It was a little smaller than I had anticipated, but there were lots of cool vendors and some amazing views of the San Diego Bay. The willing participants were my parents, which was fabulous to spend time with them fresh off the plane from AZ soaking up the San Diego air. It's a little hard to see in this picture, but that is the San Diego bay in the background...
And drooling over all of the gorgeous offerings! The produce was unbelievable, all organic and many interesting things that you don't see at the grocery store. These were purple and white onions with the greens still attached. I bought 'spicy' garlic from this stand and we had it crushed and smeared on roast chicken with rosemary last night. Persian cucumbers and nectarines in the background. I think the green fruit is apples. We had so much fun spending the weekend together and celebrating my parents' 35th wedding anniversary. We went to Del Mar for dinner on Saturday and ate at a great restaurant overlooking the ocean, we watched the sun set at the beach, Chris and my dad enjoyed the Padres vs. the Braves game on Sunday, and we introduced them to Phil's BBQ. The two days went really fast, but it was great to have some relaxing time together. This was by far our favorite vendor. Many places had strawberries. But these were so juicy and tasty- They weren't huge berries, not too small either, but juicy to the point of it running down your chin kind of juicy. They were fantastic with breakfast the next morning.
There were things other than food too, this vendor was selling all kinds of colorful tablecloths. They looked so pretty hanging there. There were also food vendors of all types, one was a creperie, which was making sweet and savory crepes. It was still time for a late breakfast, so people were having different kinds of eggs, bacon, and spinach in the crepes that we saw. I also saw bananas and nutella at the creperie, which sounded more like dessert than breakfast, but I liked the idea. They were also making and/or selling roastisserie chickens, hummus, quiches, fruit leather, specialized salts, homespun angora yarn, natural pet foods, pesto, all sorts of things! The lady spinning the angora yarn literally had the rabbit on her lap while she added the fur to her thread.
We spied these artichoke flowers from across the way, I can't say that I had ever seen an artichoke blossom, and I had been clearly missing out! We bought some bunches of asparagus from this vendor which we also enjoyed last night. It was great, and had so many different sizes in the bunch. Overall they were more thin and tender than the regular asparagus this time of year, but there were some strands that were barely thicker than a french green bean. Most were about the size around of a pencil.
On Saturday I my newest cookbook arrived. I know you are wondering why I need another, and where it is going to fit, but so far I love it. I posted about it a while ago, it's the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. I am about 60 pages in and haven't read a recipe yet, but it is great. Lots of background and teaching so far in there. I am hoping I will get far enough to make something by the weekend. They mention King Arthur Flour in the book as well as the bakers catalouge as a resource. Good thing that the Mercato had a stand with bread from Bread and Cie, so we got a couple amazing loaves. Otherwise I would probably be speed reading to try to get to the part where we can start baking. It has been really nice to spend the time trying to understand the background so that I can utilize this knowledge as much as possible.
Hope your week is off to a good start and you have good weekend memories to share. I hope to hear about them if you have a chance!

Friday, July 11, 2008

All things grilled...

I can't pinpoint when the urge struck me... but it has been lingering there for a while now. It might have been due to David Lebovitz' recent post about eating pesto every day... or it might have been because it was the focus of Williams-Sonoma's latest catalogue, or it could just be that it is summer! I was dying to make Mediterranean food! Pesto, zucchini, fresh tomatoes, I was ready for all of it. I just needed to get some good basil and I would be ready to go. For me, that always means Trader Joes! So I headed there on my lunch break yesterday, and to my dismay, no basil. They had big plants of it in front, but the plant wasn't going to stand a chance. I found some wild arugula, and changed my course. Upon leaving, the friendly checkout guy asked me if I had found everything I was looking for- which I told him, yes, but then commented on the no basil issue. Well, turns out it had been right there under my nose the whole time! Now I had both arugula and basil. This was going to be some pesto!

Arugula and Basil washed and ready to go. I think there is probably about 2 tightly packed cups here, maybe a little bit more. You can use whatever ratio you have on hand or prefer, mine was a little more arugula than basil.

Everything into the food processor! I also minced a clove of garlic, but you can use 2 if you are brave. A little under 1 tsp of kosher salt, and some lemon zest on top. (The lemon zest is not traditional, but I like it.) Also grind some fresh black pepper over the top.
Puree until you have finely chopped the greens. You might have to scrape down the sides a couple times, but this should go quickly. The classic addition to pesto is the pine nuts. Very Mediterranean, smooth flavor, grinds to the perfect texture. I was out. Never fear, there are a lot of good substitutes. Walnuts are beautiful with the arugula, but I didn't have those either. I opted for shelled raw pistachios instead of almonds. Upped the green factor too! (Probably about 1/4-1/3 of a cup)
A little parmesan or romano cheese shredded, about a half cup.
Process until the nuts are ground, then drizzle olive oil with the machine running until it all comes together into a beautiful bright green sauce.
While I was making my pesto, I let some chicken breasts and zucchini grill. Before:

After:Okay, so here is the twist. Thursdays have basically become an unofficial pizza night in our house. To blend the pizza with the grilling and mediteranean flavors, I decided to make grilled pizza. I know. Sounds crazy. But I have heard it can be done! I took my regular pizza dough and divided it into two balls. I had let this rise in the fridge (straight from kneading to the fridge on Wednesday night). So it had been in there for about 20 hours or so. No 150 degree oven for these babies. I wanted the dough a little more raw. If you are having trouble getting it to roll out, walk away from it for a minute or two. It will be happier once it rests a bit. Once rolled out, a sprayed it with a generous spray of olive oil, a dash of kosher salt and straight onto the grill.
It cooked fast! Cook one side, (about 5 minutes or so) then top it and cook the other side. However, after doing this, I don't think I would try cooking the toppings on the grill. It was a pain. I would do the dough, but then cook the toppings under the broiler. Which is what we ended up doing after realizing that the crust cooked way too fast to melt the cheese. It did add a really good flavor to the pizza though...

Topped and ready to go on the grill. I used the grilled zucchini, chicken, tomatoes, mozzerella, and romano shavings.Not to be left out, I also decided to try grilling romaine. A little olive oil, salt and pepper was all that went on these.I served it with more shredded romano cheese and grilled plums. It was an interesting flavor. It was a good twist on a normal romaine salad. The finale: The pizza was great, thanks to my fabulous pesto. I can't begin to tell you how good that stuff is, you have to try making it yourself! So yummy.
Edited to add: So the toppings came to work with me today as a salad, and can I just say... there is nothing quite a fabulous the next day as grilled zucchini. Especially with a little vinaigrette and goat cheese. Seriously, it is sooo good! I have a good recipe for a salad with the two, I should post that sometime soon...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Horse of a different color...

KAF just rocked my world. Again. Just when you think you know something, be prepared to have the rules changed. I ordered some Italian-style flour from King Arthur Flour. It's supposed to be the antihesis of American flour. With a protien content of around 8% vs. the American 12%, I expected a change. Just not this much of a change!! The flour is super soft, it feels almost like cake flour with more body. It made for a super-soft dough, and I've only gotten to the first rise stage.

I fear that I may have scared some of you off with my pizza dough recipe. I didn't mean to... I have tried so many variations, and really all of them work. So there is a lot of play in that recipe for you to try what you like. I could go on and on about things to change, but I don't want to scare you even more! Please let me know if you have any questions and I will answer then on a one-on-one basis. Also, as with anything, play with it. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have had to throw away the whole thing because it turned out horribly. If anything, you will probably have a lot of things turn out less than perfect, but not awful.

Back to my new pizza dough... It was truly a beauty.

At first a bit shaggy... I have never gotten this "look" with my other flour. Uh oh! I was a little nervous... After more kneading... starting to look a little bit more like normal. Still looks wet as compared to my other flour.

In the bag to rise. Cooking spray works wonders here.Wow! It rose really fast! Only about an hour later.... Look at those puffy edges. The inside was soft and chewy while the outside was crisp, but not hard at all. When the pizza extends beyond the pan, I roll up the crust with a little cheese stuffed in the middle... not pizza hut's stuffed crust, but it sure is good.
This was our buffalo chicken pizza. Yummm.