For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been cooking much. Or, not much that’s worth sharing (unless you count the JOC Chicken and Rice Casserole I made yesterday — an ultimate comfort food — and just shared with my friend Melissa for lunch).

Needless to say, a lack of interesting food activity in our household makes writing a bit difficult. So I thought I’d cheat a little, and steal a link from another food blogger, one that caught my interest a great deal this morning. It’s a recipe published in the NYT, for a dessert — a Cornbread Cake, adapted from a restaurant in Portland. How interesting can that be? Well, the third ingredient on the list is 3 ounces of bacon.

I know — that’s just what I was thinking.

I can’t wait to make this. A cornbread cake, with apricots and bacon. And you serve it with a dollop of maple ice cream. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d eat at 5&10, and not be able to stop talking about.

I hope to have some posts in the coming weeks that illustrate a different perspective on food. But I might also continue to swipe glances at other blogger’s fodder, just so you know.

Another wild and crazy Saturday night

I could tell you stories about the years before we had children — how we thrived on utmost spontaneity, spent nights going to late-night shows and afterparties, ending our forays by watching the sun rise from our booth at the local Waffle House. I could tell you these stories, but they would be entirely fictional. If you know me, you also know that while I enjoy going to a good show now and again, it’d better start before 9 o’clock, and I’d better be home and in the bed by midnight. Otherwise, I might very nearly fall asleep wherever we are.

Most times, I don’t mind being a person who tends to drift toward routine. I do rebel in certain areas of my life, and one of those areas tends to be food. Now wait — stop laughing. It’s true that I plan my menu every week, and, well, ok — I grocery shop every Monday, without fail. But that’s not the kind of routine I’m talking about. I mean I avoid eating the same menu on a regular basis. Example: I once dated a guy who’s mother cooked the same thing, every week, for his entire life. There might be some nuances here and there (a different sauce for “Pasta Wednesday” perhaps), but for the most part, it was the same. I would go completely insane. It would be like Chinese water torture. I would probably just stop eating, my tastebuds in full revolt.

Some people find comfort in that type of routine — and in one teensy way, I’ve joined them. I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point in the past few years, during the cool months, Saturday night has become pizza night (this tradition turns into “grilling night” when the weather turns warm). The foremost reason we do this is because we like homemade pizza. We’re actually spoiled now, having gotten so accustomed to our delicious creations that we’re inevitably disappointed when we have the take-out version. A secondary reason is that it makes it easier to plan the menu; I always know what’s going on Saturday night.

A few things have made this an easier venture for me. First, I make a pizza dough recipe that is enough for two 12″ crusts, and I par-bake and freeze the one we don’t use — so I can just pull it out of the freezer the next week. I also make my tomato sauce in triple batches, so that’s another item I’m only making once every few weeks. (My favorite tomato sauce is “No-cook Tomato Sauce” from The Cook’s Bible. Kimball makes the astute point that twice-cooked tomatoes lose their freshness, so he just purees canned tomatoes with some garlic, olive oil, and seasoning. It’s PERFECT.) The toppings vary by the week, but we’ve recently been on a kick of Italian sausage, caramelized onions, and sometimes sautéed mushrooms.

My dough recipe is adapted from one passed on by a friend. This makes more of a thick crust, and it has become my favorite because of its consistency and ease. I’ve made thin-crust doughs before, and while they are delicious, I find them harder to work with, and too much hassle for even a bi-weekly venture. I now make the dough in my Kitchenaid, but for a year or so I made it entirely by hand, so that’s the version I’ll share. Little details make a big difference here: brushing the dough with olive oil, salting the crust before it bakes, adding a touch of whole wheat flour to the dough. It all adds up to a Saturday night that others will envy. Others in very small, introverted, pizza-loving circles.

Saturday Night Pizza Dough

This method uses a pizza stone, but if you own/prefer a pizza pan, adjust accordingly. Also, I’ve found a pizza peel to be quite handy in sliding a formed crust onto a hot stone; but if you don’t have one, you can accomplish the same purpose by using a large, inverted baking sheet.

  • 1 1/3 cups wrist-temperature water
  • 3 Tbsp light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (or 2 tsp instant yeast)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp table salt

In a large glass or ceramic bowl, combine the water, honey, oil, and yeast. Stir gently to dissolve the yeast. Add the flour, then sprinkle on the salt. Using a wooden spoon, stir until a scrappy dough is formed. Knead in the bowl for about 3 minutes. (The dough will be quite sticky, but this is ok — avoid adding more flour, only flouring your hands to assist the kneading.) Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few more times, until dough is fairly cohesive and lumps of flour are dispersed (it will not be as smooth as a bread dough). Rinse out your bowl, and dry thoroughly. Lightly oil the bowl with another Tbsp of olive oil, and turn the dough around in the bowl so it’s coated with the oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit in a relatively warm place in your kitchen until the dough doubles in size, about an hour. After about 45 minutes, preheat your oven to 450º, and place a pizza stone (if using) on a rack toward the bottom of the oven.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and divide in half (best done with a bench scraper or a knife). Knead each half into a ball, and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes.

Shape the first crust on a floured surface, by pressing the dough outward, beginning in the center. Stretch, pull, and continue to press gently (you don’t want to tear it!) until it’s about 12″ in diameter. (If it gets tough and refuses to be shaped, let it rest, as-is, for another 10 or so minutes, then continue to shape.) When crust is almost shaped, transfer carefully to a parchment-lined peel or inverted baking sheet. Finish shaping, then brush the top with olive oil, prick all over with a fork (this helps avoid bubbles), and sprinkle lightly with salt. Slide the parchment and crust carefully onto the hot pizza stone. Bake for 5 minutes. If for future use, let the crust cool completely, then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and freeze. If using immediately, top the pizza as you wish, and return to the pizza stone for another 10-12 minutes.


The third reason it would be fun to be David Lebovitz’s neighbor

What? Have we not discussed the first two reasons?:

  1. He lives in Paris. I’m gonna go ahead and qualify that in my food fantasy world, I would be his neighbor in Paris, rather than his being my neighbor in Georgia.
  2. Chocolate Sorbet.

And coming in at Reason #3… may I present to you,

Butter Pecan ice cream:

Remember, in my last post, when I carelessly threw out that I was flipping through David’s book? Well, my eyes and heart landed on his recipe for Butterscotch Pecan ice cream. I had to alter it ever-so-slightly, because we have no scotch in the house (since it has long been donated to the oh-so-manly “Scotch Club” cause). I also cut back on the quantity of buttered pecans, because the whole amount seemed like it was going to overwhelm my machine.

What can I tell you? I’ll start by saying that this was risky business, making at home my all-time-favorite flavor of ice cream, since childhood. And I can also say that, once again, I knew from the minute I stuck my spoon into the top of that machine, while still churning, that it was going to fulfill and perhaps surpass my expectations. But it is not a dessert to be taken lightly — this concoction is intensely, embarassingly rich. It’s a classic French-style (i.e., custard-based) ice cream, replete with heavy cream, butter, and egg yolks. All Tim could say, between spoonfuls, was, “It’s so… buttery! How much butter is in it? I just can’t get over the butteriness,” and so on, and so forth.

I’m doing some checking, to see how much, if any, of the recipe I can post. But really, friends. If you have an ice cream maker sitting around, collecting dust, just go get yourself a copy, and I absolutely promise you won’t be disappointed.

A Valentine’s kick in the buds

Tim and I are not really “into” Valentine’s Day. It’s not something we systematically decided as a couple; it’s not a stand we’re taking (it is, however, quite convenient that we share our opinion about it). But yesterday he left for a quick trip to Baltimore, and in his absence, surprised me by defying our established pattern of ignoring the Gooey Day of Love. Heading to bed last night, fairly exhausted, I found this on my pillow:

Have you ever had one of these? They are fantastic. I first heard of mixing chocolate with heat a few years ago, when I was working the counter at a local bakery. One Valentine’s day, the pastry chef cooked up something she called “Chocolate Bombs,” which were basically dark chocolate truffles with cayenne pepper. It sounds like an odd combo, but really it’s brilliant. I don’t want this every time I eat chocolate — but every once in a while, you must allow yourself to experience: rich dark chocolate, with the occasional bite of sweet dried cherry, countered explosively by the finish of ancho chili heat. It’ll leave you wanting more, and then maybe just a tiny bit more. I promised Tim on the phone last night that I’d save him some. Is this what they mean by tough love?


Addendum: I was just flipping through my revered copy of Perfect Scoop, because it’s been way too long since I used my ice cream maker. I landed on a recipe for Aztec “Hot” Chocolate ice cream, where the description points out that the tradition of mixing chocolate with chile peppers goes back about a thousand years. So, I’m apparently a little late in the game.

Recession Meal No. 1: skillet potato frittata

Over the years, my grocery shopping habits have drastically changed. When we first moved to Athens, we were childless, and my husband was a full-time PhD student. I was attempting to start my own freelance business, and my paychecks were trickling in at a slow, heart-stopping pace. Trying to be as frugal as possible, I did virtually all of my grocery shopping at Super Walmart. At the time, it supplied most of my needs, at the cheapest available price, and even though I left angry each and every time I went, I considered it a small sacrifice for my family’s financial stability.

Then I had my first child, and at the same time Tim was learning more about sustainable agriculture. I made a decision that, since I was going to be making all of my daughter’s baby food, we could afford to buy all organic foods for her. Simultaneously, we were becoming more convinced that big, commercial agriculture was doing way more harm than good in this world, and that we wanted to try our best to support local and/or organic farmers. This is a big challenge, and impossible for us to do across-the-board — i.e., we did it when we could. I started to shop at our local whole foods store in addition to Walmart, buying more bulk foods, planning my meals more efficiently, and trying to use every last bit of what I bought.

Now, we have two children, one who is severely allergic and sensitive to a sometimes incomprehensible list of foods. I have to buy my son expensive food things — not because I think he’s cute and deserves it, but because if I don’t he breaks out in full-body eczema. I finally decided that the weekly increase in blood-pressure from my experiences at Walmart was likely to shorten my life, so I now spend about half our weekly budget at Earth Fare, and half at Kroger (I still go to Walmart about once a month, and buy out their entire stock of Rice Dream). Long story short (ahem, I know it’s way too late for that) — I am finding it nearly impossible to stay within our relatively generous grocery budget. And it’s about to drive me batty.

One way I’ve always tried to offset our expensive food items (i.e., free-range chicken and beef) is by serving two or three meatless (or almost meatless) entrées each week. I try to utilize something in my kitchen that has been sitting around a while, or is a staple that I always keep handy. These can be very simple dishes, and are a good balance for the palette as well as the wallet. I thought I’d start sharing some of them, and call them Recession Meals, because we are there now (depending on which economist you hear), and we are all gonna be feeling it at the grocery store. Some much more than others. Last night, we enjoyed a modified version of Skillet Potato Frittata, from The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. It was really good, and used only things I had sitting around: bacon from the freezer, eggs, potatoes, onion. I made biscuits as a side, because it was fairly brunch-y.

Some friends visited last weekend, and we had a discussion about the elusive grocery budget. They have a new rule that, on weekends, they have to eat what’s in their house. I.e., no quick-trip to the store to get that one little something for dinner (which inevitably ends up being a $40 trip). One Sunday night, they ate pasta with butter. That was it. Seems like something you would’ve done in college, right? But they ate within their means, and went to bed full. What more can we ask for?

Skillet Potato Frittata (adapted from The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, by Christopher Kimball)

  • about 4 fist-sized potatoes, any kind (including sweet), washed well and chopped into 1-inch cubes
  • one medium-sized onion, rough-chopped
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • about 2 Tbsp cheese, preferably parmesan
  • 3-4 slices bacon, chopped into 1-inch pieces (sausage would work here, too)
  • anything else you have that sounds good to you!

Cook bacon in a 10-inch skillet (non-stick or seasoned cast-iron would work best here) over med-high heat, until crisp. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate, and pour off all but 2 Tbsp of the fat from the skillet. Add 1 Tbsp olive oil to the skillet, and when hot, add the potatoes. Cook for about 10 minutes, tossing frequently, until starting to brown. Add the onions, and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes, until everything is nicely browned and the potatoes are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and remove to a mixing bowl.

Pour the eggs over the potatoes in the bowl, and add the grated cheese and bacon. Stir to coat.

Add another tsp of olive oil to the pan, and pour in the potato mixture. Add a little more salt, and pepper to taste. After a couple minutes, flip the frittata (in sections, if need be) in the pan, and allow to brown on the other side. When nicely browned and the eggs cooked through, remove to a plate and serve.


For Kitchenaid-mixer-owners (with dough hook) only

First things first: my apologies to you if you tried to visit TFF last week and were met with a confusing message about databases or error codes. I had some technical difficulties, but thankfully have friends in high places (shouts-out to both Ben and Scott, neither of whom read this blog), and now we’re back on, ready with a brand-new, week-old post: a lovely hearth bread.

Re: the title — I’m really not trying to discriminate — just want to avoid the rabid frustration of my readers. Today’s post will detail the makings of one of my favorite dinner breads, but its ease is dependent on that hook. If you do not currently own said Kitchenaid mixer, you have 4 choices:

  1. Go to this link and watch the podcast on making Cook’s Illustrated’s version of Almost No-Knead bread. I made it this weekend, and it was good. Not as good as the bread following, but a good all-around, super-easy bread.
  2. Knead it by hand, baby. I only recommend this if you’re comfortable with hand-kneading, enough to handle a sticky dough without tears.
  3. Acquire yourself a mixer.
  4. Continue reading, mouth watering, but stifle any erupting desire for the mixer. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alrighty then. Now that’s out of the way, I share with you today a dinner bread that is rising, as I type, in my slightly-too-cool kitchen (because of this, my dough is rising slowly, causing me to skip the second rise before shaping, but I think it’ll still be ok, that’s why I love this recipe). It’s from The Bread Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This is the ultimate bread reference book. You will understand so much more about bread after just skimming a few recipes, and it will empower you to develop your own. My single criticism (because you know there’s gotta be at least one) is that she’s a little too convinced that her exact measurements will produce a perfect loaf of bread every time. I do think that bread-making is slightly different in the ridiculously humid South than it is in lower Manhattan. But that’s just me, the person who was definitely not consulted before the book was published.

The loaf is called Heart of Wheat bread, and the author says it became her signature loaf while researching the book. And with many good reasons — it’s easy, somewhat forgiving, and boasts a wonderful wheatiness without actually being a whole wheat loaf. The airiness and soft texture are the result of using all white flour, and the more comlex flavor comes from the addition of raw wheat germ.

I’m making it tonight to serve with Cream of Potato soup. I usually only get around to making dinner bread when a meal kind of needs it — i.e., I wouldn’t be baking if I were also going to roast a chicken. But when I have the forethought, it turns a simple supper into something much more interesting.

I’m going to greatly condense the book’s detailed instructions, or else I’d be typing until sometime tomorrow. You should plan to start the process at about 8 am on the day you plan to serve it. This will give you a loaf that’s ready to cut for a 6pm dinner (you might need to skip that second rising, like me, if it’s a cool day).

Heart of Wheat Bread from The Bread Bible (Rose Levy Beranbaum)

The Sponge

  • 1 cup bread flour (King Arthur is best)
  • 3 Tbsp fresh (untoasted) wheat germ
  • 3/8 tsp instant yeast (Red Star’s Quick Rise or Instant Active Dry, or Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise)
  • 1 1/4 tsp honey
  • 1 1/3 cup water, at room temperature (70º-90º)

In your mixer bowl, combine all the sponge ingredients, and whisk by hand (or with whisk attachment on lowish speed) until very smooth, to incorporate air, for about 2 minutes. It should be the consistency of batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside while you make the flour mixture.

Flour Mixture

  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 tsp instant yeast

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and yeast. Gently scoop the flour mixture on top of the sponge, covering it completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow it to ferment at room temperature for 4 hours. The sponge will probably bubble up through the flour, this is fine.

With the dough hook, mix on low speed (#2 on a Kitchenaid) for about 1 minute, until a rough dough is formed. Scrape down any bits of dough, recover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 20 minutes. (This is an important step — called an autolyse — and allows the flour to absorb the water more evenly, among other things).

Sprinkle on the dough:

  • 1 1/2 tsp table salt

Knead the dough on medium speed (#4) for about 7 minutes. The dough should be very elastic, smooth, and sticky enough to cling slightly to your fingers. If it is still very wet, add a little flour (1 Tbsp at a time). If it is not at all sticky, spray on a little water and continue to knead for another minute.

1st Rise
Place the dough in a large bowl that has been sprayed lightly with cooking spray. Gently press down the top of the dough, and spray lightly with cooking oil. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes (or in a cold kitchen, up to 1 hour 15 minutes).

2nd Rise (optional if you run out of time, but definitely ideal)
Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured counter and press gently into a rectangle. Give it one “business letter turn” (yes, just like you’re folding a letter), round the edges, and return it to the bowl, seam-side down. Let rise until doubled again (it will already be fuller than it was in the first rise), about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured counter and gently press down to flatten slightly. Pulling the edges toward the center, flip the dough over (seam side down) and continue to tighten the top of the round by pushing the dough under the ball. There’s no easy way to write this, without illustration — and there are many ways to shape bread. I found these videos on YouTube, and while not exactly what I have done, they look good to me, and could be very helpful if you’ve never done it before. Set the dough on a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment paper or a Silpat liner, and cover with a large inverted bowl or oiled plastic wrap. Let rise until almost doubled, 45 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 475º about half an hour before dough is done rising, and place the oven rack on a lower shelf of your oven. If you happen to have a pizza stone, place it on the oven rack before you preheat the oven.

Sprinkle the risen dough with a fine dusting of flour, and make one or two 1/4″ deep slashes on the top, using a serrated or other sharp knife. (This can be tricky — try to do it fast, and if it looks funny, it won’t affect the flavor at all!) Quickly place the baking pan directly on the pizza stone (or on the rack) and immediately shut the oven door. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 425º, and continue baking for 20-30 minutes, until the bread is golden brown. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the interior of the bread should be about 200º.

Remove the loaf to a cooling rack, and let cool completely before cutting (this’ll take about an hour).

If this is your first dinner loaf, you should definitely take a picture!