Uncommon Brown Sugar and Cheddar Biscuits

When it rains in Los Angeles, the whole atmosphere of the city changes.  The earth sighs acceptance and glee, and the ordinary dustiness of every other person’s front yard glimmers with emerald slickness: life!  Reprieve from the desert we pretend we haven’t built over!  The roads become jagged, glistering, tar and oil stained slip’n’slides on which people drive either too slowly – avoiding disaster through excess caution – or too quickly – rushing to get off the highways as soon as possible.  The sky is unused to gray billows here, or at least it seems that way.

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But for me, the end of this week felt like home.  It was a strange mix of homesickness and invigoration.  I am accustomed to working in this climate.  It feels natural.  Habitual.  My fingers and my brain and my skin – they fit into this overcast world.

Seeking the comfort of familiarity, I decided to leave yeast alone for this week and fall back on something I know: biscuits.  Butter.  Flour.  Buttermilk.  Salt.  Baking powder.  The blessed fundamentals.  But I know the fundamentals.  I wanted more.

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In Ratio, Ruhlman calls these Chicago biscuits because their ratio 3-1-2 is Chicago’s area code.  3 parts flour, 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid.  I’m calling them Uncommon because their pairing – brown sugar and extra sharp cheddar cheese – might not be anyone’s first inclination.  It made sense to me, though, if you reinsert the missing link of apple pie in the middle.  Cheese and apples are perfect.  Brown sugar and apples are perfect.  What would happen if you took the apples out of the equation and left the savory richness of cheese chewing against the molasses-deep hum of brown sugar?  They are also Uncommon because they take a little extra time (almost 3 hours from start to finish) and produce a slightly different product than your ordinary dinner biscuit.

Adapted, obviously, from Ruhlman’s Ratio 312 Biscuits.

 

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scant 2 cups flour (9 oz)

1 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

2 TB brown sugar

6 TB butter (3 oz)

½ cup ¼-inch chunks of cheddar cheese, the sharper the better

¾ cups buttermilk (6 oz)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and brown sugar.

Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until it is incorporated throughout in chunks the size of small peas.

Add the cheddar cheese and buttermilk and mix to combine into a rough, sticky dough.  I find using a fork works well for this step.

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Here’s where things change up a bit.  Instead of rolling this out and cutting rounds, stretch a piece of plastic wrap across your counter and dump the dough onto it.  Using the plastic wrap, form the dough into a rectangle of approximately 4×6 inches.  Mine was bigger because I am impatient.  This didn’t seem to have dire consequences.  Once the dough is shaped, wrap it in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

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After an hour, the butter has firmed up again and the dough has relaxed.  Pull it out and free it from the plastic, plopping it carefully onto a well floured board.  It’s a very sticky dough, so flour your rolling pin and the top of the dough itself well to avoid irritation.  Roll the dough out until it is three times its original size, maintaining the rectangular shape.  Fold it into thirds, press down well, and then roll it out again.  Fold it into thirds for a second time.  I did mine in the opposite direction of the first fold, which was probably wrong, but again, produced no discernible taste consequences.  Press down firmly, wrap up the dough in plastic wrap again, and put it back into the fridge for another hour.

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While it chills, here’s what’s happening with all this bother: you are creating something akin to one of those biscuits that comes out of the tube.  You know, the cardboard tube you anxiously peel the wrapper from to reveal a twisting seam, then judiciously smack on the edge of the counter until it pops and dough appears in great bulges?  Those biscuits are composed of dozens of flaky layers, and that’s what you are doing by folding and rolling and folding and rolling.  You are, Ruhlman notes, following a similar procedure to that used for making puff pastry, except in our case the butter is irregularly placed, which results in craggy puffs, whereas puff pastry requires a smooth, even layer of butter in between each floury fold to reach its incredible signature height.

With another hour gone, liberate the dough from fridge and plastic, return it to your well floured board, and repeat the procedure: roll out, fold in thirds, roll out, fold in thirds again.  At this point, you should also preheat the oven to 400F.

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You’ve now folded your dough a total of four times, which means you’ve made twelve layers.  Now, roll it out to ½ inch thick and cut it into 6 pieces.  You could do rounds with a biscuit cutter, but it seems easier and less wasteful to just trim up the edges (which you could roll into a homely little extra biscuit to taste on the sly) and then cut into squares.

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Pop these onto a greased baking sheet and into the oven for 20-25 minutes.  They will emerge lightly golden on top, with cheese oozing out from between the layers to form crispy lacy edges against the cookie sheet.

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We ate these as an accompaniment to a honey mustard roasted acorn squash and chicken apple sausages.  I know, I had to get the apple back in there somehow.  My assessment?  They were delightful.  The exterior was flaky and crisp, and I was impressed by how the layers really did make a difference in the texture of the biscuit: they were moist and chewy and distinct.  The cheese wasn’t as noticeable as I’d thought it would be, though the crispy edge bits were lovely – much like the lacy brulée that adorns the outside edges of a good cheese bagel.  At first I thought I couldn’t taste the brown sugar at all, but as I took my third and fourth bite, gasping around the steam, I realized that the complex lingering warmth at the end of each bite was probably the effect of the brown sugar.  It carried the depth and richness of a caramel without being sweet.

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So the verdict is: if you need biscuits to go with a weekday meal, these are probably not the ones for you.  It’s asking a bit much to devote three hours to six biscuits, when you could just roll, cut, and bake the same ingredients straight from the mixing bowl.  But if you are planning for something special, or if you were thinking of baking bread anyway and are willing to replace rise time with refrigeration time, try these instead.  The layers are really remarkable, they stay warm for some time, they are all kinds of tasty, and they would reheat – I suspect – very well in a toaster oven, though they are best on the day they are made.  But you probably won’t have any left over, so that’s an issue barely worth discussing.

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I hope you are warm and well, wherever you are.

Smoked Salmon Burgers and Not-Ciabatta

In 2009, as N. and I were working through the Oral Examination phase of our graduate program – one of the most difficult aspects, as far as I’m concerned – a little restaurant opened on the south side of town.  Sharing space with a small bakery called the Humble Bagel, and run by the bagel shop owners’ daughter Anni and her husband Ari, the Humble Beagle quickly became our favorite restaurant in Eugene.  The feel is an intriguing blend: casual neighborhood gastropub, seasonal local food, layered with Israeli influence.  Macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad with amazingly lemony dressing, or penne with fresh pesto share menu space with shakshuka, house made pita, and lamb pizza dolloped with labneh.  In the summer, weekly specials are determined by what is producing best in Ari and Anni’s backyard garden.  In the winter, Ari makes his own pastrami and quick pickled cabbage for their take on a reuben.  The beers on tap are mostly from Oregon, and even the soft drink selection is carefully chosen for its local, natural ingredients.  The check comes with homemade, sugar dusted shortbread cookies.  It’s a pretty good example of the slow food movement in delicious action.  If you want a quick meal, don’t bother.  You’ll be there at least two hours.  If you want a place to bring your sixteen unannounced relatives, don’t show up without reservations.  This is a small, local pub, not a diner or high volume chain.  If you want tasty, thoughtful, belly-warming food at a relaxed pace, get in your car right now.  For a while, as N. and I neared the dates of our respective exams, we were going to the Beagle every Friday evening for dinner.  Almost without exception, I got the Fisherman’s Stew, a lovely collection of shellfish and moist, flaky halibut in a tomato and fennel broth with garlic aioli melting achingly over the top.  We could barely afford the luxury of these weekly visits, but we also couldn’t stay away.

The Beagle entertained us for the next three years.  We went there for birthdays – N.’s 30th, when Ari let me bring a cake I’d made at home, gave me the biggest chef’s knife I’ve ever seen to slice and serve it, and then took a leftover piece back to the kitchen where he shared it with the cooks.  We went there for the yearly day-after-Thanksgiving meal with my family.  One year, fifteen minutes into the meal we were the only patrons, and it was like our own private restaurant.  Ari came out and told us stories about his family’s holiday, and we were suddenly not in a restaurant anymore, but in the home of our friend.  We went there for dinner after my dissertation defense too, and even though we ended up being an annoying group – people arriving late and leaving early, special menu substitutions and requests, perhaps slightly-too-boisterous behavior – our server said it was okay, and that Ari had told him we were royalty.

On their Summer 2010 menu, the Beagle introduced an item I was instantly drawn to and still haven’t gotten enough of: the Smoked Chinook Patty.  This was a salmon burger on fresh ciabatta (made in the bakery next door), but what pulled me in was its blend of fresh and smoked salmon.  It’s immediately richer, deeper, brinier than any other salmon patty I’ve tasted.

This week, needing both a new dough challenge and a taste of that chilly, rain-soaked, allergen-laden city I still think of as home, I decided a recreation was in order.

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The Beagle’s patty comes on freshly made, perfectly crusted, well-toasted ciabatta rolls.  Looking in Ruhlman’s Ratio this week, I noted that the only difference he gives between ciabatta and a standard baguette or boule is the shape and cooking time.  This seemed promising and so, despite my claims last week about fear and being unready, I decided to dive in.  What else is a Thursday morning for?

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I dutifully mixed, then kneaded, bread flour, water, yeast, and salt.  I tore off a chunk to perform the windowpane test, and I cuddled my ball of smooth, elastic dough in an oiled bowl to rest and rise.

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Ruhlman doesn’t give any suggestion of how long to bake individual ciabatta rolls, only a full loaf, so I went to the internet for help.  I quickly discovered that what I was making wasn’t going to be the bread I’d had in mind: the tremendous bubbles that bake into cavernous holes, the flour-dusted, almost gravely crunch of the crust, and the soft, perfectly chewy texture of the interior are achieved through a slightly different ratio of ingredients, and a more involved process, as this article on The Kitchn depicts.  Since I was starting on the day of baking and didn’t have a biga waiting in the wings, I was just going to have to work with my mix.

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Ultimately, though what resulted was more like a super crunchy, slightly flat mini boule, it was crisp and buttery golden delicious and an excellent vehicle for the smoky/briny/rich/tastes-like-home burger it enclosed.

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Not-Ciabatta

10 ounces bread flour (or 2 cups)

6 ounces warm water

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon active dry yeast

Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and set it aside for five minutes or so to come back to life.

While you wait, whisk flour and salt in a mixing bowl.  Make a little well in the center and pour in the yeasted water.  If using a stand mixer, beat with the paddle attachment just until things come together, then switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed for 10 minutes.  I had never executed this switch between tools before, but it worked really well.

After 10 minutes, the dough should be stretchy and lovely and firm, and all traces of unincorporated flour on the sides of the bowl will be gone.  Do the windowpane test to see if the bread is ready.  If it’s not, continue kneading.  If it is, transfer the ball of dough to a lightly oiled bowl and place in a warm, draft-free place to rise.  I like to put it in an oven that’s been warmed for five minutes, then turned off for five minutes.

Let the dough rise until doubled in size – mine took 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Punch down the dough gently and then knead it on a floured board for a minute or two to deflate it a bit.

Let it rest for 15 minutes.

At this point, divide the dough, shape it into the bun shapes you want, and let it rise on an oiled baking sheet for another 1½ – 2 hours.  I ended up with seven mismatched, homely little balls, but I lovingly covered them with a clean kitchen towel and went about my business.  (I think I went about my business a bit too long – 2 hours became almost 3½, and the resulting buns didn’t puff much during baking because they’d expended so much of their rising power as they sat on my counter.)

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When the buns have risen again, drizzle them with olive oil and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 375F and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown and done in the center (with a full-size loaf you can thump the bottom and if it sounds hollow it’s done, but I suspect these are too small to yield satisfying results with this method.  Since I had 7, I just tore into one to see if it was done, and when it was, I ate it.  No one else has to know).

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Set aside to cool while you make the salmon patties.

 

Smoked Salmon Burgers

These are robust in flavor but, especially if you are using canned salmon, must be handled with some delicacy to prevent breakage.  They are, I think, a perfect blend: rich, fatty salmon, salty smoky deepness, and the sour zesty bite of capers and lemon.  If you don’t want to bother with the buns, you could certainly encase these in crisp leaves of butter lettuce.

15 oz. canned salmon, picked through and bones removed, or about 1 lb. fresh, finely chopped

4-6 oz. smoked salmon, flaked with a fork

2 cloves garlic, *pasted with salt or grated

3 green onions, finely diced

1 TB capers, minced

1 TB fresh dill, minced

1 tsp each lemon zest and lemon juice

Pepper to taste

1 egg, lightly beaten

If you are using canned salmon, combine all ingredients except the egg and taste for seasoning.  That way your mixture is perfectly seasoned before adding raw egg to the party.  You will likely not need any additional salt, because the smoked salmon and capers are briny already, and if you paste your garlic you will already be adding salt to the mixture.

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If you are using fresh salmon, combine all ingredients, mix well, and then fry about a tablespoon of the mixture until cooked through to taste for seasoning.

*To paste the garlic, mince cloves, then sprinkle with salt.  Using firm pressure, draw the blade of your knife across the garlic on the board several times.  It will begin to lose its integrity as the salt breaks it down, until you are left with a paste that is much easier to incorporate into your salmon mixture.

When it is seasoned to your liking, quarter the mixture and form four equal sized patties of 3-4 inches in diameter.  Pop these in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to let them firm up and meld – they will hold together in the pan much better this way.

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Before cooking, let your refrigerated patties stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, just to take the chill off.

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Warm olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and gently fry the patties.  They should take 5-8 minutes per side.  Cooking time will depend upon whether you have used canned or fresh salmon and how plump your patties are.

To serve, enclose in buns lovingly with some spring mix and your choice of condiments.  I suggest horseradish or wasabi mayonnaise.  If you had homemade mayonnaise that would be a lovely splurge here.

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We had ours with paprika spiced kale chips, but to really get the Beagle experience you would need to serve with garlic French fries.

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Trick or Treat

Halloween is easily in my top three holidays.  I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place.  Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate.  No costume.  No party.  No decorations.  We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six!  The whole evening!  Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.

I did embrace the season, though, the following day.  Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).

The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner.  It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld.  In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.

“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.

Pairing figs, garlic, and orange juice seemed odd.  Nevertheless, I collected enough for one portion (this was not N.’s kind of dish):

6 dried black mission figs

1-2 tsp fresh rosemary

2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves

1 TB olive oil

juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)

I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely.  Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.

Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan.  I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde.  Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.

I plated, I ate, and I considered.  This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either.  The rosemary and the figs were lovely.  The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering).  The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable.  They just weren’t my favorite.

I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category.  I had eaten it straight.  This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it.  Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.

Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen.  I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Set it in the oven and preheat to 400F.  Yes, you are preheating the pan along with the oven.

Peel and halve a butternut squash.  Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes.  In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles. 

During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.

While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth.  When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.

During the last few minutes of roasting time, toast 2 TB pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to snap and crack.*  Be careful not to burn them.  Toss with bulgur and vegetable mixture.

In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle.  Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan.  Nasty trick, egg.

Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in.  It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish.  It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.

I turned to dessert:

“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.

I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.

1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced

½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like.  Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)

¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup butter

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Butter a 9×13 inch pan (my round, much smaller dish was a poor choice).

Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar.  Spread them out in the pan in an even layer.  Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.

Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.

I did few of these things.  My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar.  As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture.  I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.

Tricked again.

To remedy this problem, I tried several things.  First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt.  Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts.  Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top.  This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.

 

I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner.  As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!

This was clearly the right thing to do.  Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.

Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water).  Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.

These make lovely, tiny snacks.  The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing.  There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change.  The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.

Perfect November treat.

 

* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash.  I, clearly, am not.

Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?

Breaking Bread

Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year.  And I mean the end.  The very last week.  Ambitious, yes?  I decided I could do it.

Guess how many I made this week?

Yeah.

One.

So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway.  I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway.  And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how?  By posting twice in one week.  So it goes, I suppose…

87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.

I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot.  It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions.  So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)

½ cup craisins

I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster.  Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball.  Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge.  I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.

This is certainly not a ball.  But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands.  After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.

Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again.  This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball.  I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet.  Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.

Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour.  The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.

I waited a few hours to try some.  When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.

It tasted good.  A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself.  But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture.  This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast.  It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.

Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage.  Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread.  If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.

But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there.  Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing.  Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato.  Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable.  I could eat these every day.  I could eat them for every meal.  Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros.  Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch.  Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese.  And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie.  I might be obsessed.

So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes.  And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be?  But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?

Bars and Biscuits

Thyme for our herbed biscuits

Last week’s reflections were a bit morose: the thoughts of a person overwhelmed and trying to settle into some kind of groove.  Because while too deep grooves can become ruts, no groove at all just leaves us… squares in a hipster-filled world?  Not just squares, but squares tipping and zig-zagging confusedly over an unfamiliar landscape trying to dig a corner in here and there.  New home, new job, new routine, and no chances to explore yet.

All that has changed.  Shallow wheel marks dig in behind us.  Our adventures have begun, and they began (don’t be offended) with booze.

Last Friday, our dear friend J. appeared at the door, bearing duty-free Japanese whiskey from his time in Tokyo, and a phone full of bar recommendations from an associate.  After a quick tour of our new digs (you guys have a backyard?!), we set off into the night and ended up at Oldfield’s Liquor Room on Venice, where J. bought me a pre-birthday cocktail called the Blonde Comet.  Bourbon, crème de peach, fresh grapefruit juice, and angostura bitters.  I’m not much of a bourbon gal, but the name was too good to pass up.  I like to think of myself as something of a blonde comet every once in a while… The drink was tasty.  Strong, but tempered by the freshness of the grapefruit and the stem of fresh mint they plunged in as a garnish.

We caught up over this first round and then decided to explore further.  A quick amble down the street brought us to Bigfoot West, but it was so crowded and loud inside that not even the promise of creative whiskey cocktails could entice us.  We were back in J.’s car and rolling toward Santa Monica.

We ended up at The Daily Pint, where it smelled like peat and old shoes and yeast, and the impressive chalkboards full of beer options and the seemingly endless whiskey and scotch menu made J.’s and N.’s eyes shine suspiciously.  I got (don’t laugh) a pint of Spiced Caramel Apple Ale that was neither as sweet nor as fruity as it sounds.  J. and N. got something peaty and boggy and fiery, and I only needed a whiff to know I wasn’t interested.  We settled ourselves in at a tall table next to the pool and shuffleboard stations.  You must know this: I don’t like beer.  When I have to, I will settle for the fruitiest, sweetest, most un-beer-like option I can find, and when I do, I like it to be ice cold so it doesn’t have a chance to taste as much like beer as I know it’s going to.  As we sat and chatted and laughed, time passed and my beer warmed.  Where it tasted like yeast and carbonation to begin with, as it came to room temperature the flavors got rounder and deeper, and by the time I was sipping the last half inch or so in the glass it did have some spicy apple flavors to it.  I’m not sure I would order it again, but it wasn’t a bad beer, and the company and high energy atmosphere made it a good experiment.

It was almost midnight when J. asked if we wanted a snack.  He was thinking, he said, hot dogs or pastrami.  I’ve been experiencing some cognitive dissonance when it comes to our new location – scoffing when I see patrol cars that say LAPD on the side: what are we, in a movie or something? – grinning with disbelief as I pass Warner Brothers studios on my drive home from work – but something about that night made me remember where we were.  I just knew he was thinking of Pink’s.  Did I want to go to the little stand with the most famous hot dogs in the state?  Yes.  Yes I did.

At almost 1am, as my contacts screamed and the almost-responsible-adult inside me withered and gave up, we were standing in line with at least 30 other people, waiting for a hot dog. 

 

 

 

I got a New York dog – traditional hot dog topped with a sweet onion sauce – and added shredded cheddar cheese.  N. and J. got Chicago dogs, loaded with lettuce, tomato, and pickle.  We sat at a crooked little table and took in the space: dozens upon dozens of signed celebrity photographs who had visited Pink’s, some of whom had given their names to a hot dog.

 

Well, N. and J. took in the space.  I took in my hot dog.  It was fantastic.  The skin was taut and crisp and snapped between my teeth.  The onion sauce was thick and sweet with hints of caramel, like the best sweet and sour sauce you’ve ever tasted, and the cheese, though it could have been melted more, added a nice mellow counterpoint to the meat and the sauce.  Delicious.  And it made me feel like a kid: I was back to the nights in high school when, after band competitions, we used to go to Denny’s and order chili cheese fries and chocolate milkshakes.  Those were the days before we knew heartburn was real…

There really is no logical transition I can make to this week’s Bittman, aside from the lame play on the White Stripes song I provided as the title of this post, so let’s stop pretending and just talk about biscuits.  And let’s not take our sweet little time about it.

85. Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits: Combine 3 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon thyme leaves.  Use your fingers to rub in 1 ½ sticks of butter until the mixture resembles small peas.  Add 1 cup buttermilk and stir until just combined.  Drop large spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees until golden, about 15 minutes. 

With measurements and oven temp clearly provided, I had very little to guess about or change in this recipe.  Because I was using lemon in other parts of dinner, I decided on the spur of the moment to add a teaspoon or two of lemon zest to the dough to see what would happen.  You could probably change up the herb used, add cracked black pepper or flaky sea salt, or even add finely chopped raisins.  I wouldn’t change the buttermilk, though, as the tang it adds is entirely necessary.  I even got excited tasting the raw dough, with a slight crunch from the salt and a suggestion of sweetness from the tiny bit of sugar.

The bowl of dough produced 15 biscuits.  I put nine on my greased baking tray and the other 6 on a plastic-wrap-lined plate in the freezer for another occasion.  After 15 minutes in the oven, they were browned on top, slightly crunchy around the outsides, and knee-waveringly fluffy inside.  Quash your fears about the amount of butter here: it really makes a worthwhile textural difference.  It doesn’t hurt the flavor either – these were rich but light, and the buttermilk and lemon zest added intriguing sourness that brightened the mixture and made them more interesting than your standard dinner biscuit.

We ate these – no, that’s not right – we wolfed them down alongside grilled chicken sausages and grilled planks of zucchini wrapped around a mixture of goat cheese, lemon juice, thyme, parsley, and pepper.

It was delightful.  And here’s the delicious secret: if you end up with some leftover goat cheese mixture, and you whip in some honey, and then if you happen to split one of those fluffy delightful biscuits down the middle and perhaps toast the open sides in a toaster oven or under the broiler for a moment, and dollop a hefty tablespoon of the sweetened goat cheese on top, and eat it, you have the most delightful little end-of-summer breakfast biscuit you’ve had in years.  And if you’d been out late the night before and perhaps chased some whiskey with a hot dog, a sprinkle of extra salt in the goat cheese filling would make this a quite decent hangover breakfast too, as a cure for excessive adventuring.

Next week we settle more comfortably into this lovely little groove we’re making for ourselves: another restaurant, another Bittman, another decade(!), of our new little lives.