The Big Move and the Rona

It’s been a while since my last post. I was tempted to ditch this blog entirely, but now I find myself wanting to write again and what better reason to start writing than to bake a lot of things and discuss all the things about baking that I love. I don’t know that I’ll ever make money at this either, but it’s not about the money. And I can say that now because I have an awesome spouse to support me while I figure myself out. And, I have a little time on my hands when I’m not cleaning, cooking, or trying to keep my six-year-old kindergartener out of trouble while pushing her to learn to read and write during this pandemic.

Let me back up. It’s been a crazy time in my life. My mother died unexpectedly at the end of September. I knew her health was poor, but I didn’t realize she was that close. One little infection + major dehydration = septic shock and multi-organ failure. It sucked. I’m still dealing with those strong emotions but they’re less intense as time goes by. I’ll have these moments where I’m doing great but then something will trigger a memory or something awesome (or not so awesome) will happen and I’ll want to share it with her only to remember she’s not around any more and it sends me into that deep pit of despair. It’s a dark place that I scramble to escape from because it’s messy and I hate it. It is what it is.

And if life wasn’t crazy enough, my husband and I decided it was time to leave the Colorado we loved but didn’t like any more and head to Ohio. His father and family live in Ohio and we thought it was time to make the move. I mean, the man is almost 87 and our child’s only biological grandparent left. We still have her step grandma (my step mom) thankfully, but Frank won’t be around forever. Or maybe he will. He’s stubborn and crazy and some of the things he says…

So, I quit my job of 13 years, we packed up our house, sold it to the first people who looked at it on the first day it went on the market (I’m talking only one showing which was totally crazy!) and left. The day we had to be out was the WORST day of my marriage, but we’ve both chosen to let that one go. It was so hard. If you can afford it, don’t move on your own. Don’t just hire movers and get your own rental trucks. Hire a company that can accurately estimate how much room you’ll need for all of your shit and then cart it there for you. We left so much behind. Sigh. Special shout out to our awesome neighbors who jumped in to help when it was clear we weren’t gonna make it.

Speaking of leaving, we left town on a snowy day at the end of November. We were a caravan of two – my husband driving a large rental truck with a ramp towing my car and me in the hubs pickup truck pulling a small rental trailer. I had the dog and the fish. That was not totally fun but not not fun either. (Double negative. Tsk tsk.) We sent the kiddo with her auntie on an airplane ahead of us. The thought of driving three days with a small child? No thanks. We made it in three days just in time to sign the papers on our new house. Exciting times. We had Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law’s home and we hosted Christmas brunch at our house. I even had a Christmas cookie making party with all of the girls in my family. It was great and I hope the start to an annual tradition.

Just as we started getting settled and into a rhythm with our daughter’s school routine, my husbands work from home schedule, seeing family, trying to make friends, and dealing with the unusually mild winter as it was readying for spring, Covid 19 came on in and put us all on lockdown. We had our daughter’s family birthday party at our house on March 8th, her birthday at school on 3/10 (my birthday too as a matter of fact) and by the next afternoon they’d closed down the schools in anticipation of the stay at home order. Craziness. I did make a Frozen 2 cake for her birthday to make this baking related.

I’ve baked all sorts of things. Cakes. Cookies. Bread. A nut roll. Not all of it has been great. Most things turned out. Still trying to figure out what I’m doing with my baking though quite honestly it’s just fun and takes my mind off of being stuck at home. Things work out as they should, I guess, as I’m here for my daughter who is not getting the kindergarten she deserves, but we’re doing the best we can. I know we have it good compared to others, but I still miss the way things were when I used to feel relatively safe leaving the house to buy groceries or browse the aisles at Home Goods or the local thrift store. Also I had goals that I sort of put on hold, such as writing. This blog helps with that. I just need to do it. Stop making excuses.

I decided to bake today. Peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. Those turned out great. The macarons? Not so much. Once I’m over my feelers being hurt at how crappy they came out (third time not a charm), I’ll try again. And hopefully I’ll keep writing. I do have to make a cake this week for my father in law’s birthday. That should be fun.

Love and light,

Dina

I Made This

I made this cake for a friend’s birthday. I decided to challenge myself and man, did this cake fit the bill. I’ll post more about the process later. In the meantime, here’s the cake. Was it perfect looking? Nope. Did it taste good? Yep. Chocolate with Swiss meringue buttercream and marshmallow fondant.

Sourdough – again

It’s work keeping a starter alive. I just kept forgetting to feed it. I let it go for a couple of weeks and it has this funky liquid on top. They call that “hootch.” Yep. Alcohol. I poured it off, added more flour and water, and transferred to a clean container. A couple of weeks later (yesterday) and it was time to bake. Here’s the result.

Probably the prettiest bread I’ve made this far using the cast iron Dutch oven method. Do you like the lighting? It was 6:45 in the morning and I was feeling artistic – as much as one can upon waking without any coffee yet. Happy Sunday.

The Leaning Tower of Cake

7/1: I’ve been in a baking funk. The word “Funk” comes to mind as I sit here in this gymnastics studio waiting for my kid to finish her class. As in funky feet. I digress. Maybe it’s been because I just have too many things going on and I prefer having uninterrupted baking time which is super challenging with a kid (or spouse) around. Anyhoo…

A couple of weeks back I decided to challenge myself. It would definitely not be a bread bake. I wanted something different but challenging. I settled on making a tall cake. I figured since I still wanted to keep the spirit of my blog intact – the spirit of learning new things, that I would pick a random recipe from The Book. I chose pastry cream. Seemed like a good challenge plus it would go great in between cake layers.

7/14: Finally circling back to this draft and determined to finish it. So yeah, I made a huge cake. I settled on 6-inch vanilla cake layers and filled each layer with the pastry cream and fresh blueberries. Pastry cream was not terribly difficult but it’s one of those things that can go wrong at any minute. Egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch go with hot milk and vanilla but you have to time it right and keep it moving or you’ll have a mess on your hands. You have to get the milk and vanilla nice and hot, remove from the stove, and then temper with the egg mixture. All this means is you have to slowly add the hot milk to the egg mixture while constantly whisking until blended. Add the milk too fast and the eggs will scramble and no one wants that. Then you put everything back on the stove and boil the mixture, whisking constantly. Fail to whisk enough can cause the mixture to curdle and you’ll get lumps. (Hand raised that this happened to me.) Fail to boil long enough and you’ll get runny cream. I ended up putting my batch through a strainer at the end and it helped a little. The end result was still pretty delicious.

Finished pastry cream

Finished pastry cream

Assembly was a challenge. I made four 6-inch rounds and once cooled, evened each round out and then cut in half. I did a so-so job as some of my layers were uneven. I did an extra step of making simple syrup and sprinkling each cut layer with the syrup to ensure moistness. I think I lost a layer due to excess moisture because it crumbled in my hands when I went to assemble.

So, I had the cake layers, filling, and blueberries and it was time to assemble. I have seen enough cake videos to know that I needed some sort of support system but I did not have dowels. I fashioned some out of very thick straws I had – cut them to size. I put them into the fourth layer but in retrospect it didn’t work because the straws weren’t sturdy enough. Hence the Leaning tower of Pisa inference.

Here are some pictures of the assembly process.

Cake layer with pastry cream and blueberries
Cake layer with pastry cream and blueberries

Four layers

Seven cake layers

Now to the decorating. I had this idea to do an ombré style cake in shades of aqua/teal blue. That also didn’t quite work as expected so I just improvised. it ended up all looking the same but it wasn’t awful. I didn’t make enough frosting was the lesson there.

And finally, I practiced my piping. Because I hadn’t made enough frosting, I had to thaw some frozen frosting I had from a previous bake. Worked out great. My piping could still use some work. Practice makes perfect.

Frosting flowers and leaves on top of cake

Here’s the final view plus a bonus cut out view. The cake was delicious. Was it perfect? No. Was it awesome anyway? Totally. Did I break out of my baking funk? Yes! It was fun and I can’t wait to try again.

Finished cake

See the straw?

I’ve Lost My Way…and Sourdough Starters

Here I am. Lots has happened since I last posted. Travel. Life. A case of the lazies. I’ve missed blogging about recipes that I’ve completed what feels like months ago (I think six maybe) and well, I’m just behind. And maybe I need to rethink what this blog is about. Also, I’m tired of following the book one recipe at a time. There’s been a ton of bread and many recipes are similar with slight tweaks… and I think maybe that’s what this blog needs. Tweaks. Not to be confused with twerks. Just saying.

So, while I rethink this blog, I’m just going to go all “stream of consciousness” and talk about the baking I have done. And of course it’s bread, but it’s not a recipe from the book per se though interestingly it is very related.

Let me back up. My husband went to visit his bestie from New Hampshire sometime in April. I don’t remember when exactly. His buddy – who was his best man at our wedding – is a foodie but not the overly obnoxious foodie type. He just loves good food and he and his wife can really throw down a “bad ass meal.” He is also the type that likes to master whatever it is he’s learning about. And – he’s fun to hang out with to boot. Anyway, Eric’s recently started mastering sourdough. I mean, not just make sourdough in a bread maker from a mix. Oh no. I mean get a mill, grind your own shit from top quality grains, and capture wild yeast type of mastery. Admirable. If I had more time, I’d probably do that, too.

Eric knows I’ve been baking so he sent the hubs home with a starter batch from his “42 Highfelds” proprietary blend. My first thought was “what the hell am I going to do with this?” Eric texted me a picture of his bread that he’d made while my husband was there. They were amazing rounds. I mean, top quality. See for yourself.

Disclaimer – this is not my work. Baker: Eric L.

He also sent me a link to some YouTube videos he referred to when he was getting started. (Here’s an example: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdb63_3vMu0 ). I watched but nothing was clicking. I mean, I wasn’t to that chapter yet! (I need to be more flexible.) Turns out, he had a biz trip planned to Colorado and he was going to stay with us the following week.

Whenever this man comes to town, his friends come out in force. I swear they’d have a parade if they could. (I exaggerate.) This time was no exception – loads to do and he still wanted to bake bread. I wasn’t sure we’d (he’d) have the time, but we made it happen. I learned a few things along the way including you can use Alexa as a timer. Handy. Also, you can make a delicious bread yet another way that produces really delicious bread.

Here’s that result:

Was it perfect? Nope. My basket (brotform) is fairly new, unseasoned, and not made of plastic. The dough was wet, sticky, and aggressive. It was a warm day for the bake and the proof was large. It almost overflowed the basket. When we put it in the super hot ceramic pan (500 degrees), the dough stick stubbornly to the basket and the result was an uneven turn out of the basket. The dough just did not behave. Bad dough! It happens. I personally thought that bread tasted amazingly delicious – like bakery quality good. Chewy outside, soft and spongy inside. Perfection.

I decided to try it on my own a couple of weeks later. I was unsure how best to do it, so I just found several videos and followed them. I was confused. Nervous. Not sure my additions would hurt or hinder the end result. See for yourself

Not bad! I did forget to lower the temp halfway through so oops. Progress not perfection, right? It was still very delicious though perhaps a bit salty.

The last time I did this I decided not to follow a technique per se and instead just winged it. I guessed on salt, texture, proofing times…pretty much all of it. Here’s my result.

Although I lowered the temperature halfway through, I second guessed myself on whether the lid was on or off and I think I left it uncovered too long. I actually could smell the burning top so I took the bread out of the oven with about ten minutes left of baking per the timer I set. I knocked on the bottom of the round and heard the expected hollow thump sound and knew it was done so I took it out early. This bread had to travel from here to my step mom’s place in Florida the next day. I let it cool completely and then wrapped it the next morning in parchment paper. Then I put it in a paper bag which I folded and then slipped into my backpack. After traveling all day, the bread was still fresh when we got into Orlando about 9pm. I was so proud. I wish I’d had eaten it sooner but it was all things considered pretty great. I tried butter and jelly. A nice Brie would have been better. Yum. Anyway, I had her freeze it so she could enjoy it later. I hope she does.

There you have it. I just fed the starter today. I’ve been trying to do that at least once a week. I read that the active yeasts start to die off after about three weeks without a feeding so doing so weekly insures the active yeasts remain which you need for a good rise. Feeding just means you give it more flour and water which is pretty simple. Really simple. Ah science. Anyway, I encourage you to try it if you have the patience and commitment. If you want a bit of direction or some starter (live locally for the starter exchange), just send me a message and I can give you more details along with links.

Recipe out of order: Chapter 2, Recipe 1 – Multigrain Bread

I’m doing something novel here and writing about a recipe the day I actually made the recipe. I mean, I’m something like five recipes behind in my blogging but I’m forging ahead. Anyway, it’s novel because I’m a mom to a five-year old child, a woman with a full-time job (ish because I’m at 90% FTE but it’s pretty much full time) who actually finds herself with “me” time on a girls trip to the mountains. No one is asking me for anything. No one is expecting anything of me. It’s awesome. And novel because it’s a rare occurrence. A lovely moment in time to reflect and appreciate the things in my life and enjoy a much-needed break.

This recipe is the first of the advanced yeast and enriched breads chapter in the book I’m following. (Reminder for those who haven’t read my earlier posts that I’m following the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook on baking and pastry and I just started chapter 2.) It requires the use of two things that are new to my bread baking. The first is a soaker. This is simply a bunch of dense grains and seeds that are placed in liquid and allowed to plump up overnight or at least 6-8 hours. The second is the use of pâté fermenteé which means “old bread” in French. In the past, the practice was to save a bit of dough from the bread you were making that day to use the next day or another day as a starter to the next bread bake.

I decided to try this recipe up in the mountains at a high altitude to see if I could produce a quality loaf. I also knew I’d have the time to focus and honestly, I wanted to share some tasty fresh bread with meats, cheeses, and wine with my girls. So, the soaker part was easy. Flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and a nine grain cereal mix (Ezekiel 4:9 almond brand) were combined with water and left to soak overnight. There was just enough water to soak into the grains and seeds to fluff them up. If you’ve ever soaked any sort of bean overnight before cooking, it’s pretty much the same thing. Next, I had to address the old bread, namely I didn’t have any. So, after I got situated at the cabin we rented for girls weekend, I made a basic lean bread which if you remember lacks fats of any kind and consists of only flour, yeast, water, and salt. I set aside a chunk of the raw dough, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. I baked the remaining dough into a small round and it was good. A little misshapen perhaps but perfect otherwise. I’d show you a picture but I forgot to take one.

The next morning, I checked the dough in the refrigerator and realized part of it had expanded beyond the plastic wrap and was exposed to air. Pity. It means that the exposed bit was hardened and had to be pinched off and tossed away. It also meant that the old dough bit was a little shy of what I needed for my bread. Not much though so I just decided it was good enough and I would just keep going. The soaker was ready to go. It looked a little like ground beef said both of my friends. It kinda did. Time to do this.

Bread and wheat flours measured. Water, salt, barley malt syrup mixed together and then added to the flours. Note that I skipped bringing my stand mixer so this was going to be done all by hand… and no yeast. Say what? The pâté fermenteé is what served as the yeast or starter to my recipe. I had to incorporate the old bread into the new bread and knead for a bit, add half the soaked grains, knead some more, add the remaining grains, knead some more, and then knead until it was the right consistency. It’s a work out! I even enlisted one of my friends to knead. Here’s what it looked like when I was done kneading and after the bread did its bulk ferment/proof thing.

Multigrain dough after kneading and before first proof

Dough after a couple of rises

I decided I wanted to make a loaf instead of large rounds so I brought my Pullman pan with me to do this. I had to guess on quantities. I went with a quarter of the recipe and figured that I’d have enough for a two-pound loaf. The dough went in the Pullman pan for the final rise. It could have been more but I was fine. It didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped in the final proof but it was going to be a sizeable loaf. One thing I hadn’t factored was a cold kitchen. I had to run one of the ovens (two ovens are just awesome) to try and keep the area warm so my bread would rise. I let the dough hang out for about 75 minutes in total before I baked it in an oven with steam. To create steam I placed a baking tin in the oven while it reached temp. When I put in the bread (lid oiled and on pan), I added some water to the tin to create steam and closed the oven. One of my friends asked me why you add the steam. It’s twofold in my mind. One reason is to increase moisture and the other reason is to make a nice, crispy crust.

The load took about 30 minutes in a 475 degree oven. I thumped the bottom and listened for the hollow thump sound a finished bread makes. Knock knock knock. The finished product is a thing of beauty. Soft, warm, delicious and excellent with fancy cheeses and meats. It would also be great as rolls or sliced and toasted. Overall, this is a really satisfying multigrain bread with a crispy top and chewy center. I’d definitely make it again.

Multigrain bread loaf right out of the oven

Multigrain loaf after slicing

Now back to my wine and break before it’s time to cook the steaks. I’d grill but I’m afraid of gas grills for some reason. It is what it is. Plus it’s snowing. No thanks.

Mountains and Advanced Breads

It’s been far too long. With a kitchen renovation, important birthday milestones and planning for parties, I just haven’t been in the right headspace to bake (or blog) and/or I haven’t had the actual space since I was without a kitchen for two weeks. I did manage to put together a fun Holi-inspired cake using a box mix cake and my tried and true buttercream recipe but I don’t consider box mixes baking. It is but it isn’t.

This weekend I am jumping back in. I’ve decided to skip the last recipe in chapter 1 (jelly donuts) for now and start chapter 2, Advanced Yeast Breads and Rolls. The first recipe is for a multigrain bread which uses a soaker AND something called a pâte fermenteé. A soaker as far as I can tell is simply some grains and seeds in a liquid that are left to soak and expand for a period of hours or sometimes days. The reason to do this is that some grains are very dense and can suck the moisture out of your bread so this ensures the grains have soaked in the moisture and will help not hinder gluten development. A pâte fermenteé (“old dough”) is pretty much leftover dough that has fermented for at least 6-8 hours if not more in the fridge that is then added into the fresh dough mixture. I think it’s done to add flavor and richness. I aim to find out. To complicate things, I’m going to try this recipe at high altitude – 8200 feet – in a kitchen that isn’t mine and I’m going to knead it by hand. Girls weekend. Stay tuned. I hope I’ve figured out the correct measurements.

Recipe 17. Raisin Bread

I made this bread exactly two months ago. I remember it. It was right before my husband went on an ice fishing trip with the men folk. It was my Friday baking day and he was packing up his stuff to go. I decided if the bread came out, I’d send him with some. How domestic of me.

I also remember that I did not adjust the measurements correctly as far as quantity so I ended up with more bread than I wanted. Thankfully bread can be easily frozen. And this bread was delicious.

Anyway, the bread came together quite easily. Beautiful rise. Tons of raisins. All the glutens. I’m including pictures here of the raisins and of the bread after first rise. The video is a bonus. It shows me playing with the dough. Sometimes it is necessary to finish the kneading outside of the mixer so you can get a feel for the dough plus it’s fun to play with.

I had enough for two rounds AND a large Pullman loaf (see below).

I had to guess on baking time for that, but it was a beautiful loaf when it was done. I’d definitely make it again. I ended up sending the large loaf with my husband. It was a hit. I froze another round which I thawed last week. It’s a delicious bread toasted with a little butter. Definitely a keeper. If you’d like the recipe, let me know and I’ll try my hand at rewriting it so it’s not infringing on any copyright laws.

“Every box of raisins is a tragic tale of grapes that could have been wine.” -Unknown

Forgive Me For Not Posting …

But here’s some cake to start.

Yesterday, I made my daughter this cake and some cupcakes for her birthday. It’s a yellow cake box mix. I’d made a dry lemon cake and not very sweet Italian buttercream the week before and my heart couldn’t take another failure. I only had half of the oil amount required so I ended up substituting applesauce for the remaining half. The result was a moist and delicious cake. The frosting is standard American buttercream that I whipped together and my daughter’s favorite I wrapped the sides of the cake in fondant just to see how it would go since I’m not really familiar with using it so I considered it practice, plus it was just fun. I had no design ideas other than I knew I wanted to make her a little cake to support that huge candle. Not too bad I have to say. (I should buy smaller rounds for under the cake, but that’s all I had.)

I’ll work on my blog posts this week. I’m something like five recipes behind and feeling incredibly guilty, but meh, life gets in the way. I still have the jelly donut recipe to go to complete the first chapter of my book. It might be complicated due to the fact that my kitchen is set for demo and renovation starting Friday. Luckily it’s a quick project – 9-10 days – and when done should be a dream for me to work in. I might need to use a neighbor’s kitchen to complete the donut recipe, but that might be weird. I’ll figure it out.

Oh, here’s what the cupcakes looked like. She wanted purple and these cute mermaid toppers. Poor kid caught the flu and we had to cancel her party, but I still made her some cupcakes. Later.

Recipe 16. Challah

Oy the guilt. I’m so far behind on these posts. While I’ve been bad about blogging, I’ve actually been keeping up the baking at least once a week although it’s not always from The Book. I’m probably five recipes behind, but I’m going to try my best to get caught up before the next bake.

This bread frightened me because I just was having trouble figuring out how I was going to braid it. Was it like braiding hair (sort of, not really)? Could I get it tight enough? Would I be able to crack the plait? The short answer – nope.

I decided to focus on the three-braid challah rather than the six braid. The book had cryptic instructions for both so I just didn’t have a good feeling. I can’t tell you how many videos I watched trying to psych myself up for this bake. They made it look so easy. I could do this.

After the initial rise, I cut the dough into 160 gram chunks as instructed. Each loaf would require three of these to create the braid. Fairly obvious. Here’s one where I actually got it on the nose. It feels amazing when you get it right. Like I was elated because my dough ball was spot on in weight.

After weighing, each dough ball was shaped into a batard which is a bread roll shape that is oblong and oval in shape. The dough then rests for a bit before you start to roll out the strands for the braids. Notice that I made enough dough to make two loaves plus two extra to do something with.

Once the dough had rested, I shaped each bastard into a long piece and then attached each “strand” to each other at the top to create a starting point for the braid as shown below. It was tricky to get the dough in that shape, mainly making sure the dough was evenly shaped. It was quite a strong and tight, stretchy dough which tended to shrink up as it got longer.

Now I was ready to braid. I don’t think I did it right or got it tight enough, but here’s what they looked like when I was done. The little guy was made from the two extra batards. (True story. When you type “batards”, autocorrect puts “bastards.”)

A little egg wash and in the oven they went. Here’s what came out. Not too shabby though I was hoping there would be less expansion between the braids. I still think they look cool.

We recently had some new folks move in to the neighborhood and they had invited us to their place for a little get together. I brought the bread and it was well received which always makes me feel elated. Truly a sense of accomplishment and feelings of major pride. It’s like being high but not. (Hey. This is Colorado. You have to specify.) Anyway, bread and baking are proving to be quite pleasurable to me. I knew I loved eating bread – duh – but just never thought I’d enjoy making it, too. It’s very satisfying.

Yummy bread. I’d make it again even if I never master the braid.