Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Food, Glorious Food: A Recipe Rant

“Oh, food. Wonderful food. Marvelous food. Glorious food.” –Oliver Twist

Photo by Anna Axelson, November 2010
A constant truth: people will always need food. A curious question: why can’t we enjoy it? As an amateur foodie, I am not an authority, but maybe I can be a voice of reason telling you that it may not be as difficult as you think.

Inspiration/frustration, thy name is “cookbook.” Who needs a recipe? Well, chances are, we all do, but how helpful is it really? No matter how many times we follow the directions on the back of a bag of chocolate chips, the cookies always turn out a little different. Chewy, crumbly, sweeter, saltier; it’s a bit of a crapshoot, so why not make it your own?

Truth be told, a recipe is just a list of ingredients, guidelines, a map. What does “softened butter” or “cream the sugars” even mean? Does it make a difference? Try it and find out!

The ongoing, perhaps even endless venture that is the search for perfection when it comes to recipes is addicting. Like a Lay’s potato chip (“I bet you can’t eat just one…”), time and time again we go back and do it again. A pinch of this, a dash of that, a smidgen of this other thing, all for an end result that prompts “oohs” and “aahs” from the peanut gallery. Yet, no matter how hard we try, it isn’t perfect and even if it was, who’s to say the miracle can be repeated. A blend of joy and dissatisfaction reign and we try again. 

The true recipe is more than just a list of ingredients; it’s time, effort, passion, and technique that bring everything together. The only way to exactingly recreate someone else’s culinary masterpiece is to actually BE them and have been the one to make it. Interpretation is inevitable: make the best of it. To quote a cliché (because clichés are clichés for a reason), it’s not the destination, but the journey, that is important and worth relishing in. 

Photo by Anna Axelson, November 2010
While there are very few things that can top the perfection that is a classic chocolate chip cookie, I typically find it hard to resist taking some of my own liberties with the recipe. Cocoa powder, oats, peanut butter, orange extract, pretzels, cereal, every kind of baking chip under the sun, even a can of pumpkin: the list of things I have tossed into that simple batter for the sake of experimentation goes on and on. Taking a slight risk resulted in a touch that made it mine and if nothing else, interesting. 

Take this lesson to heart: just because the recipe tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it. My challenge to you is this: take that recipe and make it yours. When it comes to baking, some things have to be more precise, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with the flavor. Even if we never find out how to make the ideal chocolate chip cookie, we can rest assured that the quest will be a worthwhile and tasty one.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Italian-French" Bread

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian, wine and tarragon make it French, sour cream makes it Russian, lemon and cinnamon make it Greek, soy sauce makes it Chinese, garlic makes it good.” - Alice May Brock

What makes French bread, “French”?  Considering the Italian ciabatta bread encompasses essentially the same ingredients, I can’t say it’s the ingredients.  Also, while technique may differ in some French kitchens between some recipes and others, technique differs some in ALL kitchens simply because naturally, people do things differently; so I can’t say it’s the technique.  Again, I just have to ask: what is the definitive answer to my oh so simple question? 

After a healthy amount of research, scowering recipe after recipe, opinion after opinion, not to mention a few sleepless nights, I can confidently say with the utmost certainty… that I have absolutely no clue other than to say that French bread is French because it was initially made in France.  (This begs the question of course as to whether or not it should be called “American bread” when it is made in America, but then again, that opens its own can of worms and I digress.)

I once dreaded yeast breads, having the patience of a flea, but somewhere along the line the desire to find grander fields then that in which quick breads offered and I entered this wonderful world and was welcomed within its “poofy” embrace.  This is my own recipe, a labor of love, named “Italian” for its flavors and “French” because, as they say, “don’t fix something that ain’t broke.”  

1 tbsp sugar
2¼ cups warm water
1 tsp table salt
(or 2 tsp kosher salt)
1¼ tbsp dry active yeast
1 tbsp olive oil (or vegetable oil)
Garlic powder
Fresh ground pepper
Oregano flakes
Parsley flakes
1-3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
6¼ cups flour

Begin by dissolving the sugar in the warm water; a few moments of stirring should do the trick.  Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and let sit for 5-8 minutes or until yeast has “poofed,” creating a layer of foam.  Gently stir in the salt, olive oil and then seasoning to taste add the garlic, garlic powder, pepper, oregano, and parsley flakes.  Add 2 cups of the flour and mix well.  

Commit to getting a little messy, forgo the spoon and gradually add the rest of the flour.  Knead with the fervor of a purring kitten until you end up with a smooth ball of dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers and bounces back when given a gentle “Pillsbury Doughboy” poke.  Coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil  (or vegetable oil) and drop in your ball of dough, rolling it around and flipping it over to coat.  Cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm, dark place for an hour and a half.

"Pioneer Women," I Love Lucy. March 31, 1952.
It’s at this point that I always pause and picture that episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel, during one of their famous bets, bake a loaf of bread.  If you remember the episode, you’ll also remember that they completely misjudged how much yeast the recipe called for and end up in a scene worthy of any 1950s sci-fi thriller.  This mental image always causes me to think back and reevaluate just how much yeast I used.

After passing the time as you so please (three whole episodes of “I Love Lucy” will do the trick) the dough should have doubled in size and you are ready to work with it.  Separate the dough into two pieces and shape roughly into “loaf” shape (this is pretty much up to you; want round, go round, want long, go long). Place each loaf a few inches apart on a lightly greased or cornmeal dusted cookie sheet.  Once again cover with a dish towel and set aside to rise for another tedious 45 minutes (or another episode and a half).

Again the dough will have grown, a science experiment in action, and you will next need to pre-heat your oven to a toasty 425 degrees.  With a sharp knife, lightly slash diagonal lines across the top of each loaf (room to grow, so to say).  Place an oven safe ramekin with water on the cookie sheet or another rack to help prevent the bread from drying out while baking.  Bake for thirty minutes or until golden brown.

In my experience, a bread knife creates more mess than it’s worth, so I rely on my trusted and preferable chef’s knife to slice the heat kissed goodness that is a fresh, home baked loaf of bread.  So after what seems like another long, but last eternity (at least fifteen to twenty minutes) the bread is ready to slice, so do just that and serve how you please.  Bon appétit!