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?



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?

Emptying the Fridge III: Crack(er)ing the Code

Last week I told you about my favorite new dip.  White beans, toasted almonds, the piney sharpness of rosemary, the heady perfume of orange zest… and promised to provide a vessel on which to deliver this deliciousness to your eager taste buds.  N. and I discovered shortly after my first foray into this creamy blend of balanced spice that the ideal vehicle for consumption was not in fact a spoon, but the best crackers ever: Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisps.  In fact, these are good not just as a vehicle, but a snack in their own right.  Every time I went to the pantry to retrieve a few for dip spreading, I’d find them gone, thanks to N.’s voracious nibbling.

I wondered at one point, as I broke down yet another cracker box for recycling, how difficult they would be to make myself.  I’ve never made crackers before, but looking at the list of ingredients – sunflower seeds, millet, raisins, baking soda – it seemed doable, and further, thanks to the kind of collection that happens in established kitchens, when you don’t remember why you have something like toasted millet or roasted ground flaxseed but you just do, I had every single dry ingredient in my pantry, waiting to be used up so they didn’t have to make the move to California.  On that door dividing me from opportunity, he was pounding with a brass knocker.

So I set about experimenting, and today I can offer you not one, but two ways of making these crackers yourself.  They aren’t perfect replicas.  They will always be discernable as imitations.  But they are delicious, and they are pretty darn close.  Only a thinner knife, a bit of whole wheat flour, and patience, I suspect, separates them…

Here’s what you need:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour (the first time I made these, I used equal parts AP and WW flour, and the result was a bit heavy.  Using 2 cups AP instead of adding the WW would probably make the crackers even lighter, and the TJ’s ingredient list doesn’t contain WW flour at all)

1 tsp baking soda

¾ tsp coarse sea salt (I used Maldon, with which I have a deep love affair)

2 TB roasted, ground flax (if you have whole flaxseeds, use them!  Just toast them in a dry pan until fragrant and beginning to darken, and whiz them in a spice grinder, or your husband’s coffee grinder, if that’s the machinery you happen to have)

1/3 cup millet

½ cup sunflower seeds, toasted or not, salted or not, just use what you can find

¼ cup brown sugar

1 TB finely chopped dried rosemary (again the spice grinder works really well for this – chopping dried rosemary with a knife is an exercise in absurdity: it flies everywhere)

½ cup craisins

¾ cup buttermilk

Whisk together all ingredients except buttermilk until seeds, nuts, and fruit are evenly distributed.

Add buttermilk and cut in with a fork or pastry blender until dough starts to lump together.  It will be roughly the consistency of biscuit or Irish soda bread dough.  At this point, switch to your hands (the best tools, really, aren’t they?) and knead the dough for three minutes or so, until it all comes together and becomes a bit less shaggy.  You can either dump the mixture onto a lightly floured board to knead it, or you can be lazy like me and knead it in the bowl.

At this point, you have a choice.  If you want flat, rectangular crackers like Ry-Krisp or Stone Ground Wheat, roll out your dough into a big thin rectangle (1/8 inch thick or even less, if you can) and cut gridlines along your dough with a pizza cutter.  Create whatever size squares, rectangles, trapezoids, or polyhedrons you desire, then place them close (but not quite touching) together on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or sprayed with non-stick spray.  Slide them into a preheated 300F oven for 45 minutes.  You’ll end up with crunchy crackers with the slightest bit of give in the center, evenly colored with a dense crumb.  They are a little like miniature flatbreads. 

If you want slightly lighter crisps with a darker “crust” perimeter and a sprightly, Panko-like crunch, there is only one inspiration to which you can look: biscotti.  I liked the flat crackers.  I did.  They were tasty, they were good with the dip, and they were relatively quick: roll, cut, bake, done.  But they weren’t the ephemeral cracker experience I was after.

If you’re going the biscotti route, once the dough is kneaded together well, divide it in thirds.  Instead of rolling it out on a board, roll it into a long, thin “worm” of dough on some plastic wrap.  Press, squeeze, and moosh it into a log of even thickness, using the plastic wrap to help you.  Wrap up securely in the plastic, then pop it into the fridge.  Repeat with the other sections of dough, each in their own piece of plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least three hours (my trusty biscotti recipe from which I estimated times and temperatures says you can leave them in the fridge for up to three days). 

When you are ready to bake, take the worm/logs out of the fridge and unwrap.  Leaving them sitting on the open plastic wrap, paint them lightly with buttermilk to encourage browning.  You could probably paint them with egg wash too, but the TJ’s box doesn’t list egg as one of its ingredients… Carefully move the buttermilked logs to a baking sheet, then place in a preheated 325F oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the tops have swelled and are lightly golden.  Let them cool completely. 

You will find when you move your logs that the bottoms are browner than the tops.  I am toying with the idea of slowly rolling these logs as they bake so that each side comes in contact with the metal of the baking sheet for ten minutes or so during the baking.  This might make the finished logs a bit more rectangular (and hence capable of producing square crackers), and it might make each edge evenly brown.  Let me know if you try it out, and I’ll do likewise.

When the logs are cool, carefully cut them into thin slices with a serrated knife.  Some of mine crumbled a bit, especially when there were craisins at the edges of the log, but that just meant more sample scraps.  My ideal would be 1/8 inch thick or even thinner, if you can manage it.  But really, what you want here are crackers of the thickness you want to bite into.

Position your slices on a baking tray in a single layer (it’s fine if they touch each other, as long as they aren’t in layers) and bake in a preheated 300F oven for about 20 minutes.  The edges will bronze a bit deeper, and the centers will flush golden brown.  They won’t feel quite crunchy yet, but take them out anyway: much of the crisping happens as the crackers cool.

In an hour or so, when they are cool and crisp, I recommend you slather them with my almond white bean dip, or maybe a thick slice of rich brie, or some sharp, tangy goat cheese, and consume.  They are deep and toasty in flavor, the nuts and seeds lend appealing texture and different kinds of crunch, and they are just barely sweet from the brown sugar and the craisins.  I like the switch to cranberries as the fruit source, because they pair so nicely with the orange zest in my dip, but also because their uncompromising tartness makes these crackers interesting enough to eat all on their own.  Enjoy!