Lest you fear that my blogging frequency is directly proportional to the amount of food I’m consuming

I know, you have nothing better to do than sit around and wonder what we’re eating. You spend hours worrying about what my lackluster appetite is doing to my family. Oh, wait — no, that’s me.

Hours might be a slight exaggeration. It does take me longer than usual to come up with the good ol’ weekly meal plan. I just sit and stare at my notebook, then get up and flip through old notebooks and back-issues of Everyday Food, then sit down again and stare. It’s not that it’s so hard to come up with dinner ideas that are relatively cheap and quick, it’s throwing in the over-demanding variable of my appetite that’s the kicker.

If x = my appetite, then the following are true:
x + cheap ≠ healthy
x + healthy + quick = pricey
x = a real headache
and so on, and so forth.

Weekly menu aside, I can usually come up with something that I do really want. And it usually involves chocolate. Chocolate cake, chocolate milk, chocolate pudding. And, per my usual, not just any of these things will do. It’s usually a homemade version of chocolate (fill in the blank) that I want, but since I don’t usually have the energy to make it, I just sit and want. Trying to find anything in my kitchen that will fulfill that desire, and coming up empty. Even Nutella has a point of maximum enjoyment, and I passed it a month or so ago.

BUT. Tuesday afternoon, we were scheduled to eat leftovers for dinner, so I had the extra time and energy to whip up my long-desired batch of homemade chocolate pudding. You know what’s great about making chocolate pudding? No custard base is necessary — it is thickened with corn starch. So it’s practically as easy as the kind in a box — all it takes is some stirring on the stove, and the patience required to wait until it cools. I like to change up the version from the Joy of Cooking, omitting the bittersweet chocolate and adding some 2% milk in place of a portion of half-n-half (you know me — I’m not one to skimp on fat — but using the half-n-half and chocolate in this recipe makes a pudding that’s almost too rich to eat). If you get a hankering in the next few days, here’s my recipe:

Chocolate Pudding (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

This makes about 3 cups of pudding. You can either let it set up in one bowl, or pour it into a few ramekins for individual servings.

Mix together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Gradually stir in, until a smooth runny paste is formed:

  • 1/3 cup warm water

Stirring constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat, then remove from heat. Stir in:

  • 1 3/4 cups whole milk or
    1 1/4 cups lowfat (not skim) milk plus 1/2 cup half-n-half

Place into a small bowl:

  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch

Very gradually add, while stirring, until a smooth paste is formed:

  • 1/4 cup half-n-half

Add the cornstarch mixture to the chocolate mixture, stirring to thoroughly combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Stirring briskly, bring mixture to a simmer and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat, and stir in:

  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Pour the pudding into bowl or individual cups. To avoid a pudding skin, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface (this wrinkles up your presentation) of the pudding. Refrigerate for 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

Of course, served topped with

  • whipped cream

See if this pudding isn’t so much better than what’s in a box, you vow to never buy the box again.

Our daily bread

We go through a lot of sandwich bread in our house. At least, it seems that way — though I’m sure there are plenty of families out there who could give us a run for our carb-consuming money. I think it feels like we eat vast amounts simply because I have a hard time keeping up with us, on the production side of things. Yes, I try to make all of our sandwich bread. This is not because I think that homemade bread will save us from disease; nor is it because I’m determined to martyr myself to a home-cooking god. I do it for the same reason I do a lot of things in my kitchen; I’m both finicky and cheap. That, and the fact that my 2-year old can’t have any byproduct of corn in anything he eats; you would be surprised how that limits his bread-eating options — even from the best local bakeries.

My adventures in bread-making started about 6 years ago, when we first moved to Athens. They began with the requisite collection of brick-like loaves, pretty much inedible. At the time, my sources were a vintage, borrowed copy of The Laurel’s Kitchen Breadbook and one of the Moosewood cookbooks (I was definitely aiming for a 100% whole-wheat loaf). I was frequently frustrated with the instructions, which seemed vague, as well as the if you do this, then your bread will work mentality which I found to be flat-out false. I made small improvements over those first months, but can primarily chalk all that time up to experience; I was learning how the dough was supposed to look and feel. (Feel free at this point to call me a slow learner.)

There are a few things that finally brought me to the point of making bread that was both tasty and consistent. I present these things to you as disclaimers; since I will be writing out our bread recipe, you should know that there are a few unique requirements that can be cost-prohibitive, or just make things more complicated:

  • I knead my bread with a Kitchenaid stand mixer (although I do finish it off by hand on a wooden board). Whole-wheat breads start out much stickier than white breads, and are therefore much more labor-intensive kneading entirely by hand. I let the mixer do most of the work. This also helps prevent the easy and disastrous habit of adding too much flour to your dough (the number-one reason you can end up with brick-loaves).
  • I use freshly-milled whole wheat flour. I haven’t yet decided to invest the $250 required to purchase my own grain mill (though I hope to, someday). But I’ve had the privilege of being friends with someone who has made that investment, and she has ever-so-graciously shared that appliance with me for the past 3 or so years. For most of that time, we purchased our wheat in great bulk quantities (the kind of quantities that make people wonder if you’re expecting the world to end) because it was cheaper. But lately I’ve just been buying whole wheat berries (hard red winter variety) from the bulk section of a whole food grocery. She grinds them for me in about 5-pound batches, and I store the flour in my freezer — very important for whole wheat flour, which goes rancid very quickly.
  • Last but not least, I gave up my ideal of bread made solely with whole-grain flour. I discovered that the best texture can only be achieved when some unbleached white flour is used — it lends the softness that I love, and really, what does it hurt? All whole-grain bread won’t do much good if no one eats it.

Truth be told, I’m still not quite happy with the texture of this bread. My favorite loaf right now is from a local group called Luna Baking Company — I can buy their breads at Earth Fare and the Saturday Farmer’s Market. They have a whole wheat loaf that is what I consider the perfect texture; it has a lovely chewiness that I have yet to achieve in my bread. We get it when I get behind in my self-imposed bread-making responsibilities, but it’s not cheap — $4 a loaf, and we go through it fast. I hope to corner one of their bakers at some point, to see if they’d be willing to share some ingredient percentages or other trade secret for attaining a chewy loaf.

If you’re interested, you can look here to see my current recipe for 2 loaves of wheat sandwich bread. If you try it, as always, I’m interested in your results. Or, if you’re a veteran bread-baker, and have some suggestions on how it can be improved, I’d love to hear them as well. If you’ve never attempted bread, I encourage you to do so at some point. It is one of those practices/art forms/crafts that lends itself to utmost satisfaction. There’s just nothing like homemade bread, especially when your hands (ahem, with the help of your handy dough hook) were the ones that created it.

Wheat Sandwich Bread

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the following:

  • 2 cups room-temperature water (about 70º-90º)
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 2 Tbsp honey

Give a quick stir, so the honey dissolves. Then add:

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (freshly-milled, if possible; if not, King Arthur brand is best. Taste the flour — if you taste any bitterness, it’s no good)
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (again, King Arthur is best)
  • 2 tsp instant (rapid-rise) yeast

Turn the mixer on med-low, and mix until a rough dough comes together. Scrape down the bowl, and mix for another few seconds (the dough will start to form a ball, but will still be very rough at this point). Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit for 20 minutes. (This step allows the flour to absorb more liquid, especially important for whole-wheat.)

Sprinkle over the dough:

  • 1 Tbsp table salt

Knead the dough on medium speed (about level 4 on a Kitchenaid) for about 7 minutes. After about 4 minutes, it helps to stop the mixer, remove the dough, flip it over to re-position it in the mixer, and continue. If your dough is not pulling away from the bowl and forming a ball after about 5 minutes, add more flour, 1 Tbsp at a time (white flour works best), until a ball forms and the bowl sides are cleaned. At the end of 7 minutes, your dough should look smooth, and feel elastic when pulled. At this point, I usually knead the dough by hand for another 2-3 minutes on a floured surface (the dough is still a bit sticky, even though it’s smooth — a bench scraper can help with kneading). Add as little flour as possible when kneading — only a tablespoon or two.

Place the dough in a large bowl or 4-quart container that has been lightly sprayed with cooking oil. Lightly spray the top of the dough, cover with a lid or plastic wrap, and allow to rise at room temperature (75º-80º) until doubled. This can take anywhere from 45 minutes on a warm summer day to 1 1/2 hours in the cooler winter months.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface. Divide in half, and briefly knead each half into a ball. Cover the balls with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rest for 10 minutes. In the meantime, grease 2 loaf pans (my favorites are Chicago Metallic — nice and heavy) with vegetable shortening (oil doesn’t really do the trick here).

Shaping: you might want to do your own research here. I shape my loaves the same way every time, and I can’t remember where I read about it. But it might be too difficult to explain here, and even require some illustrations. I basically roll out my dough into a large rectangle, give it a business-letter fold, roll it out some more, and then starting at one end roll the dough onto itself to form a cylinder. The key is to press out air bubbles before you put the dough in the pan — this is sandwich bread, not ciabatta, so air holes are not desirable. A quick search on YouTube should land several good loaf-shaping videos. So, shape as you desire, place the dough in your well-greased pans, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise again. When your dough is just starting to rise above the rim of the pan, preheat your oven to 350º, and move your oven rack to the lower-middle position. This will ensure a hot oven when your dough is fully risen (probably another 20 minutes or so).

Many factors effect how high your bread rises, but overall the differences aren’t huge. In the summer, I know my bread will tend to rise higher, and get there faster. The way you know your dough is finished rising is by lightly pressing a finger into the dough. If the indentation remains, or fills back in very slowly, your dough is done.

Once your dough is risen, and your oven nicely preheated (I highly recommend an oven thermometer here — they are a $3 investment, and will tell you much about the true heat of your oven, which is almost never what the dial indicates), you can quickly place the loaves on the rack. Close the door quickly, and leave it closed (don’t open the door for at least 25 minutes, and try to not open it much at all). The loaves should bake for about 40 minutes. When they are done, they should be nicely golden on the top. Immediately flip the loaves out onto a cooling rack, and thump the bottom of a loaf. It should sound hollow (or, you can trust an instant-read thermometer — the internal temp of a loaf should be about 190º-200º).

Let the loaves cool completely before slicing! This will take a while — at least an hour or so — so be patient.


Highlight reel

I know that what I’m about to write could be considered curious content from a person who has decided to publish a food blog, but,

I’m just not enjoying cooking right now.

Are you surprised? (My recent posting history has been slight, to say the least.) I sort of made an unspoken deal with myself (are deals-with-self ever really spoken aloud?), when starting this whole thing, that I would try to avoid excuses and overt apologies in my posts. So I’ve been avoiding writing about this, shall we say, lack of felt inspiration in my culinary life. But it then occurred to me: this is a part of every culinary life. So why not share it?

Like any creative drought, I can pinpoint some practical culprits. The first and foremost being that I’m pretty much wiped out all the time, counting the days until I no longer look like I swallowed a soccer ball (something a random 3-year old accused me of this morning, just as he was peering under my shirt to see if his suspicions could be backed by physical evidence). Another could be a predictable and previously documented case of summer blues, back as they are every August. Yet another factor could be the seemingly endless demands of feeding a child with difficult food allergies. Sometimes it takes all my kitchen energy just to keep up with his menu; cooking chicken, rendering and freezing the fat, making soy yogurt, making bread, etc. I think these tasks are difficult because they, by nature, can’t be new and exciting.

But the reasons ultimately don’t matter. Cooking is a creative task, and all creative acts must go through unique versions of doldrums. Fall is around the corner, as is an end to the cumbersome act of carrying a child (although I am aware that a new and different exhaustion must be faced at that time). And I do believe a day will come when my son will be able to eat new foods. The things that seemingly thwart inspiration right now will not continue to do so; this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, I have managed to enjoy some food. Enough to share a few tastes of late that have caused me to be thankful for the miracle of tastebuds.

  • Real, homemade hot fudge. Served at a party for some friends where everyone made their own ice cream sundae. I topped my vanilla ice cream with a hearty covering of this fudge, along with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was a thing summer was made for.
  • Golden cherry tomatoes, from the local farmer’s market. The farmer at his stand let me taste one before I bought them, and they were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. Like candy. I bought up a bag, and used them in my latest tomato pie, which ended up being, by far, the best tomato pie I’ve ever made. Which goes to show, a tomato pie is 100%, undeniably, ALL about the tomatoes.
  • Really good chocolate cake. Eaten at a party for a friend visiting the states from overseas (it was fun to see you Meagan!). A lovely chocolate layer cake, with chocolate buttercream frosting. The host said it was a Southern Living recipe, and it rivaled my current-favorite Grit recipe for chocolate cake.
  • Day-old pastries from a rockin’ bakery in Chattanooga, TN, called Niedlov’s. We had friends from that fair river city come for an overnight visit, and they graciously brought with them an assorted baker’s dozen of breakfast pastries. Chocolate croissants, muffins, cinnamon rolls, almond croissants. Even a day old, and reheated in my oven, they made a wonderful breakfast sampler platter. They even inspired a verbal claim to my husband that, when I grow up, I want to work in a bakery.

As I read the list, and think about other moments of mouthwatering joy, I realize they are almost all centered around food that I did not prepare. It’s times such as these that I better understand my friends who don’t enjoy cooking. If cooking were always as seemingly cumbersome and exhausting as it feels right now, I’d find very little reason to carry on doing it. Not to mention spend a lot more money eating out. But, hard as it is for me to believe today, I will actually forget what this feels like. And will go back to my usual, overly-excited, a bit overbearing, kitchen-obsessed self, proselytizing to any willing ear why my latest food obsession should be everyone else’s, too.

In the meantime, I’ll be here — avoiding the heat, looking for candy-like tomatoes and homemade chocolate cake to appear before my eyes. And willing the glorious month of October to show us its first day.