A Citrusy Cranberry Sauce

Thanksgiving is normally my excuse to make stuffing.  There’s just something about savory soggy bread that rocks my socks.  Peter doesn’t share my convictions, but I haven’t given up on him.  The first time I made stuffing, he almost wouldn’t try it.  This year, when I asked him in the morning where stuffing ranked from 1 to 10 he said 4.  By the end of our Thanksgiving meal?  Stuffing was a 6.  Lucky for Peter, my new favorite Thanksgiving-themed food is not nearly so soggy (or 100% soggy, depending on how you look at it): cranberry sauce.  There are several reasons to love this simple condiment:

1) It takes only about 30 minutes to make.

2) There are about a million slight variations to be perused online in case you ever get tired of the old standard: cranberries, sugar, and water.

3) In this case, sauce = jam, and you may have realized how much I like jam!

For an accurate depiction of what a cranberry sauce obsession looks like, consider the following.  The first batch of cranberry sauce was a quarter of the way gone by the time company arrived for Thanksgiving dinner.  Then we consumed the rest of the cranberry sauce between four of us, forcing me to make another batch of it yesterday.  You may not be too surprised when I tell you that the second batch is over half gone…

Citrusy Cranberry Sauce
(Makes about 2 cups)
1 12 ounce package of fresh cranberries
1/2 – 2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
Dash of salt
Zest of 1/2 lemon or orange

Pick through the cranberries, discarding the occasional stem or any that have large soft spots.  Put all the ingredients in a pot with 1/2 cup of water and bring to a boil.  Simmer the sauce for 10 minutes.  Let the sauce cool for another 10 minutes in the pot before transferring to a glass storage container.  And that’s it!

Madeleines

I feel as thought I should explain the fact that we have a Madeleine pan in our kitchen.  Normally I try not to accumulate specialty baking equipment of almost any kind due to a lack of appropriately sized kitchen cabinets.  A Madeleine pan is a perfect example of a nearly useless piece of baking equipment: it has only one purpose, to bake cookies in the shape of sea shells.   Of course when I gave it to Peter for his birthday (before I realized it was much more efficient to just ask him what he wanted), I was under the misguided impression that they were one of his favorite cookies.  Which means I have used the Madeleine pan exactly twice for its intended purpose, and one of those times was last week.  Of course there are all kinds of other useful, if totally unnecessary, things one can do with a Madeleine pan: use it as another baking sheet for cookies (as long as you don’t mind their nautical-themed shape), use it to shape ravioli (although the shape doesn’t really hold with such a gooey filling), and use it to freeze pesto (otherwise the pesto liquid could run away).  Anyways, if you decide to make these cookies, eat them while they are still warm.  My ladies in physics didn’t get the fresh-out-of-the-oven experience, but I did dip some of the cookies in chocolate to try to make up for it.

Madeleines (adapted from The Book of French Provincial Cooking)
(Makes about 2 dozen cookies)
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Powdered sugar to dust the cookies and/or chocolate chips for melting

Make the dough:  Begin by separating the eggs.  Put the egg whites in a medium mixing bowl in preparation for being beaten into stiff peaks and put the egg yolks in the main mixing bowl.  Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix well to combine.  Sift the flour and baking powder on top of the egg yolk and sugar mixture, but don’t mix them in quite yet.  Melt the butter and mix it with the lemon juice and vanilla.  Now as you slowly pour the butter/lemon/vanilla liquid into the main mixing bowl, stir in the flour and baking powder.  Finally it’s time to beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Fold the egg whites carefully into the main bowl; I like to fold in 1/3 of the egg whites initially to lighten up the batter and then add the rest.  Let the dough sit in the fridge for 30 minutes covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap.

Bake the dough:  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Coat the madeleine pan with a layer of butter (just in the shell-shaped indentations) and then cover with a light dusting of flour.  I did not butter and flour the pan again after the first batch of cookies.  When the dough is done chilling in the fridge, measure out a heaping spoonful of dough into each shell-shaped indentation in the madeleine pan.  Each shell should only be filled to about 2/3 its volume (the cookies will expand during baking).  Bake the madeleines for 7 minutes at 425 degrees F and then lower the temperature to 375 degrees F and bake for another 7 minutes.  After the first 7 minutes, the cookies should have puffed up and after the second 7 minutes they should be nicely golden with a hint of light brown around their edges. Remove the cookies to a cooling rack carefully after they come out of the oven.  Since I prefer the shell-shaped side of the cookies, I like to place that side up on the cooling rack.

Decorate the cookies:  A simple dusting of powdered sugar once the cookies are at least mostly cool looks wonderful.  You can also melt 1/4 cup or so of chocolate chips in the microwave or oven in a very small bowl (not much wider than the cookies) and dip the ends of each cookie into the chocolate.  The chocolate will harden overnight.

A Lemon Tree

Let’s see if I can manage not to kill this one.  Why is it that a 5-foot tree with tiny tomato plant volunteer is so easy to forget?  Some of the lemons are that almost-yellow color.  I keep hoping they don’t mysteriously disappear like my friends’ summer squash.

Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

This week I burned half the cookies.  They were black.  Oh so black.  I’m not sure what happened.  Was it that they were on the bottom oven shelf right below the bread stone?  Did I make them too big?  Was the parchment paper on the dark non-stick cookie sheet surface unsuitable? After baking weekly cookies for what feels like forever (but would probably only turn out to be a few months if I were actually keeping track), it was inevitable that something would go wrong eventually.  Here I am, baking new cookie recipes nearly every week, and yet somehow they always come out well.  More than well, absolutely-positively delicious!  Or at least this is what I tell myself as I stare at the pile of blackened cookies in the compost.

In case you were worried that chocolate oatmeal cookies are particularly difficult, they are not.  The second tray of cookies turned out just fine.  Better than fine.  They were of the absolutely-positively delicious category, the perfect blend of crunchy and gooey that I often find lacking in drop cookies.  I’m not sure what else I should have expected, given that the recipe came from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, my baking bible for all things chocolate.  Burning cookies does make one appreciate the art of recipe writing though.  If one is off by even a few minutes, what could have been a tempting chocolate morsel is nothing more than a nugget of bitter carbon.  A fine line between unbaked and burnt.  Maybe this is why I prefer my baked goods moist to the point of almost under-baked: they are simply safer that way.

Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies (from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts)
(Makes about 2 dozen cookies)
2/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 2/3 ounces (5 1/3 tablespoons) butter
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
2 1/2 cups rolled oats

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cream the butter and sugar and then add the vanilla and egg.  Mix the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa powder) in a separate bowl and add them to the wet ingredients.  Next add the milk and mix the rather soupy “dough” until smooth.  Finally, add the rolled oats.  Spoon the cookie dough onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Make the cookie dough balls small, slightly larger than the diameter of a quarter.  Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, but keep your eye on them, since the exact baking time will depend on the size of the cookies.

Tuscan Pizza

Finally, a pizza recipe that I can make on a weeknight.  And this is not just any pizza, it’s a super-thin crispy crust pizza with only the simplest of toppings: homemade tomato sauce, fresh basil, and melty cheese.  While the large amount of dry instant yeast and olive oil may seem strange, I assure you that the crust comes out beautifully.  In fact, this was the easiest dough I’ve ever had to deal with.

Tuscan Pizza Crust (from In Late Winter We Ate Pears)
(Makes 6-8 small pizzas)
2 tablespoons dry instant yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
3 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 to 3/4 cups olive oil

To make the pizza dough:  Mix the dry instant yeast in the warm water in a small bowl and set aside.  Mix the flour and salt in a larger bowl and then add the water/yeast and olive oil.  Mix the dough with a spoon until it comes together.  The dough should be just a tad sticky.  If not, add just a bit more water.  Knead the dough, either in the bowl (I use a large bowl for mixing and kneading) or on the counter, folding the dough over on itself and pressing down with the palm of your hand.  When the dough is soft, supple, and uniform, form the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl covered with a damp towel.  Let the dough sit in a warm spot until doubled in size, 30-60 minutes.  To expedite the rising process, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place the bowl of dough near the oven vents (but not too near… you don’t want the dough to get cooked).

While the dough is rising, grate the cheese and keep it cool in the fridge for easy sprinkling.  I used a mild cheddar this time, but mozzarella would be better.  Then make some super-easy homemade tomato sauce, like pasta sauce except thinned a bit with water to make it more spreadable on the pizza crust.

Pizza Sauce
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

To make the sauce:  In a small pot, cook the minced garlic in the olive oil for just a minute, then add the canned tomatoes.  Since you’ll want to add some water to the sauce anyways, rinse the tomato can with a bit of water and add it to the pot (1/2 cup of water should do just fine).  Add the oregano, red pepper flakes, olive oil, salt, and pepper to the sauce and bring it to a low boil.  Let the sauce simmer for 5-10 minutes then turn off the heat.  If you run out of time before the dough is done rising, you don’t have to cook the sauce at all, but I prefer a more mellow, cooked-garlic flavor, and the cooking gives the oregano time to release it’s flavor.

To make the pizza:

  • Before the dough is done rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Ideally, you’d use a baking stone to bake the pizzas (and a wooden paddle to get the pizza into and out of the oven), but a baking sheet would work too.  If using a baking stone, remember to put it in the oven when you start the preheat and remember that the stone keeps the oven from coming to temperature as quickly.
  • When the dough is done rising, cut it into 6-8 pieces (they should be about the size of tennis ball or a bit smaller).
  • Roll out one of the pieces of dough using a rolling pin until the dough is quite thin, 1/8 inch if possible.  Be careful not to tear the dough, but I found 1/8 inch pretty doable and didn’t tear a single pizza dough round.
  • Pre-bake each pizza dough round for 2-4 minutes before adding any toppings.  This makes it much easier to get the pizza into the oven with toppings later on.  I found 2 minutes just fine using a baking stone; baking the pizza on a baking sheet will take longer since the baking sheet has to warm up.
  • Top the pre-baked pizza crust with 1/2 cup of tomato sauce (spread up to 1/2 inch of the edge), scattered fresh basil leaves, and a thin layer of grated cheese, or the toppings of your choice.  Since the crust is so thin and crispy, err on the side of less toppings.  The crust is so delicious that you don’t want to make the toppings too distracting anyways.
  • Bake the topped pizza for 8-12 minutes, until the crust is golden and the cheese is bubbling and possibly starting to brown.  I found that 8 minutes on a pizza stone was perfect.
  • Eat the pizza as soon as possible so that the crust doesn’t get soggy.  I have not tried saving the baked and topped pizza for later in the fridge; somehow the idea of it being less crispy and bubbly just seems wrong.  If you won’t use up all the crusts, prebake them and keep those in the fridge instead of keeping the dough in the fridge.

100% Whole Wheat Baguettes

Hey folks, Peter here.  After much experimentation I have finally managed to bake a baguette out of 100% whole wheat flour.  The quality depends heavily on the flour, but the dough is easy to work with (or as easy as it ever was), and with the addition of some olive oil and honey, even delicious.


100% Whole Wheat Hearth Bread (from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day)
(Makes 2 baguettes or loaves)

This is more a variant of the basic high-hydration, overnight-cold-fermentation, no-knead bread than a recipe in its own right.  The measurements are copied from the book, but I rounded the weights. If you have a kitchen scale (as I do now) I recommend trying it once with the exact numbers, and if not, just go by feel the first time.

6.25 cups (800 g) whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons (14 g) salt
2 tablespoons (30 g) sugar, or 1.5 tablespoons (? g–I use about 30) honey
1 tablespoon (9 g) instant yeast
2.75 cups (625 g) warm water
2 tablespoons (30 g) olive oil

The assembly method is essentially the same as in the original recipe, so I’ll go quickly (which is also, incidentally, how I put together the bread). Put all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix. Wait 5 minutes for the water to hydrate the flour, and then mix again. (Reinhart says to stir for a total of 6 minutes and to stir “more vigorously” for the last 20 seconds. I usually just knead for a minute or two until I get bored, and I think it accomplishes the same thing.) Then do the stretch and fold maneuver 4 times, spaced by 10 minutes each. Portion into two bowls and put in the fridge at least overnight and for up to 4 days.

Shaping and Baking:

I haven’t had success getting this to rise very much, and it’s never a particularly light bread. With that in mind, I advocate handling the dough as little as humanly possible after taking it out of the fridge, to keep whatever air bubbles are already in the dough inside. To that end, I’ve had the most success with a baguette thingy I inherited from my parents (and I certainly hope they didn’t pay $27 for): in one swift motion (confidence is important; the dough responds to surety of purpose) pick up the dough, stretch it to the length of a baguette, and put it on the (very well greased) pan. It is thus shaped with a minimum of handling. Let warm to room temperature for a long time (at least 1 hour) and preheat to 500 F. Put in the oven and reduce temperature to 425; bake for about 30 minutes. I recommend the usual tricks about water pans, etc., to get steam in the oven.

In my experience, if you’re not too demanding about the shape or density of your loaf, this recipe is pretty resilient. You can mix in other types of flour, use varying amounts of sugar and oil (but more is better, of course), bake in different shapes, etc., and the taste will be great (better, I think, than white bread). And that’s what matters, right?

October Garden Tour

After nearly two and a half months of dirt, sweat, grime, and more dirt, the garden is finally finished.  Or as finished as a garden ever gets, what with weeding, flooding vole holes, and obsessive transplanting.  Perhaps the only “finished” aspect is that every square foot of dirt has been painstakingly ridden of grassroots at least once, and in some cases twice.  To be honest, now that the last garden bed is planted, I’m not sure what to do with myself.

In celebration of this gardengantuan achievement, I thought I would take you on another tour of the garden.  A surprising amount has changed since the tour in September, including an infestation of fava bean plants (turns out they need more than 6 inches of space between them), a banishment of winter squash plants from the garden walkways, and a basil plague.  In fact, nearly half the garden beds have been replanted in the last month, as I slowly learn where various plants should not be planted.  Despite the shortening of the day and hence my after-work garden time, October has been an exciting month in a California garden.

The fava bean plants have been flowering like crazy and and there are very tiny fava bean pods.  I'm actually a little worried about just how many fava beans this one plant is going to produce.  And then I think about the fact that I have 20 of them and my heart starts palpitating.  If you are reading this and see me on a regular basis and also happen to like fava beans, you should probably start dropping hints in polite conversation about how much you would love to find a mystery basket of fava beans on your doorstep.  Just in case, you know?

New bed of beets on the right. Not to be confused with the brilliantly red swiss chard on the left.  After weeks of eying them like a hungry tiger, we finally ate our first beets.  I was amused that the first candy-cane striped beet I picked was only white inside.  Actually I felt a little duped, and have been afraid to cut into another candy-cane variety beet in case the whole seed batch is messed up for some reason.  Or even worse, in case I'm doing something wrong that keeps my beets pasty.

Bush beans on the left and pak choy on the right (that little patch of sad-looking greens that have been nibbled on by an unknown creature).  That's right, despite the seemingly endless supply of greens, I planted one more variety: pak choy.  You could say I have a greens problem, but maybe it's closer to the truth to say I just have to plant at least a row from every seed packet my mom so graciously sends me.  For science.  I don't really mind.  I recently found out that many of my friends don't mind being imposed upon to adopt a bunch of greens when I see them in the garden.  When said friends start avoiding me, or blatantly running away, I may be tempted to stop planting greens.

I'm still in shock that the summer squash plant survived.  It looked so sad and uninterested in life for the longest time.  Especially when compared to the cucumber plants next to it that decided to take uppers a few weeks ago and produce quite a few cucumbers that were delightfully sweet and actually eaten willingly by Peter.  Now the cucumber plants are the ones that look depressed and the summer squash is only finally making baby squashes.  Hint: the summer squash plant is the one with all the happy big yellow flowers on it.  Happy with life indeed!

Witness the only flowers I have managed to grow from seed.  The plants to the left of the flowers are pole beans (green bean plants that grow up, the best friend of a space-deprived gardener), and to the right we have yet another kale patch.

Rows and rows of kale.  This is by far the most popular green with my friends.  Some of them eat kale raw in salad, others make raw kale and fruit smoothies.  I do neither.  Don't get me wrong, I am very fond of kale, but I prefer it limp and heavily salted, drenched in garlic and oil.  If you look very carefully in the bottom left-hand corner you can see some cilantro desperately trying to survive.  With the basil gone, we have transitioned from Italian to Mexican-inspired cuisine.  That's right, apparently cilantro doesn't mold.  At least not in that creepy way where you can't tell without peeking under the basil's skirt (eww, what if there's a spider hiding under there).  Cilantro also has the added bonus of smelling very strongly like cilantro every time it's watered.

My pet vole catcher, taking a well-deserved break.