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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I hope you are warm and well, wherever you are.
I’ve never been one to start at the beginning. Stories require backing up and wait- wait- let me explain who that was. Dreams are recalled near the end, and only slowly do the initial details return. Directions often skip a step or come in fuddled order. I don’t know whether this is a consequence of a disorganized brain, or whether it’s a signal of confused genius (hah!). The Odyssey, with its in media res trope, was an enormity to my teenage brain when I first encountered it during high school. What a wonderful way to present information, and how validating and revelatory it was to find out that this was a classical method!
So it was no big surprise that, when facing the first week of my dough challenge, I couldn’t start at the beginning. Ruhlman arranges Ratio with doughs first, true, but he seems to traverse the category in a solids-to-liquids order. Bread comes first, pate-a-choux closes the chapter. To me, this was even more intimidating than the idea of tackling dough at all. Bread is something I want to build toward, not race into headfirst.
I flipped ahead in the book to take on my own personal Waterloo: pie crust. Supposedly “easy as.” But I’ve never found it that way. My crust is somehow tough AND crumbly. It collapses, it sticks, it refuses to roll in a smooth circle, it requires patching and crimping and pressing and it’s just easier to buy Pillsbury. But now I’m in it, and I’ve got to conquer this thing.
Despite this personal beginning, it wasn’t enough for me to just make a pie crust. You guys have probably all made pie crust. How boring would it be for me to just report on the quiche I made? At the end of the pie crust section, Ruhlman lists a number of alternatives and additions. Ground nuts, cracked peppercorns, a dusting of spices, parmesan cheese? I had never considered this. I had to try it out.
Our quiche would have a parsley crust. Coincidentally, this made my experimentation a perfect candidate for submission to Weekend Herb Blogging.
(I started with parsley, and then I started imagining adding lemon zest, and big particles of cracked black pepper, and then I realized that I just wanted some of the herbed buttermilk biscuits I so heralded when I made them for my Bittman project. Biscuits are in our future, friends.)
The ratio for pie dough – at least this one – is 3, 2, 1. Three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water. This is by weight. The problem here is, despite my desire to conquer this beast, and despite the impressive (read: verging on ridiculous) collection of kitchen tools I’ve amassed over the years (pot sticker press, anyone?), I don’t have a kitchen scale. That makes it hard to work in weights.
Fortunately, though he advocates it persistently, Ruhlman provides the general weight range for a cup of flour, so I worked with that.
Every pie crust recipe I’ve ever read, Ruhlman’s ratio included, calls for the water to be ice cold. I get this: you want the fat to remain cold during this construction phase so it can melt and leave flaky pockets as it bakes. Ice water keeps things frosty. I decided to skip the ice cube middle man and stuck my water in the freezer for a few minutes.
Usual procedure here: cut in the butter, add salt (and parsley, in this case), incorporate just enough water to bring things together, form into a disk and refrigerate to firm the fat back up. Then you can roll out, fill, and bake.
That all sounds pretty simple, but somewhere in there things tend to go wrong for me. This crust was (relatively) easy to work with. It didn’t disintegrate, it didn’t melt, it didn’t even crack in too many places. I think playing with biscuit and cracker doughs this past year accustomed me to the feeling and delicacy required to not destroy a circle of dough. It was barely moist and not exactly elastic, but it did have a bit of give. It baked to a lovely golden color, the flecks of green were intriguing and special, and the quiche that rested just wobbling between its sturdy walls was delicious.
But the crust was tough.
I can assume a few reasons for this.
1.) It’s possible my ratio was off. Because I didn’t weigh my flour, I may have had too much or too little in the mix.
2.) More likely, I overworked the dough. I pressed and kneaded and folded until the dry bits at the bottom of my mixing bowl were willing to play along, and perhaps I was too insistent about that demand for inclusion.
Like everything else, it seems pie crust needs a revisit to get it right. The feeling of the dough between my fingers is familiar, but I have to learn its textural intricacies. How much water is just enough? How crumbly can it be and still hold together? How much of the dryness do the fat and water absorb while the wrapped disk rests? Without another attempt or three, I won’t know.
But it tasted good. It crunched against the quiche and while it didn’t shatter at the slightest fork pressure, it did have that dryness against the teeth you expect from crust. The parsley contributed a grassy freshness and made the flavor more complex, especially the following day. I could see this working similarly well with dill, or thyme, or maybe even marjoram, all of which pair nicely with broccoli and mushrooms.
Broccoli mushroom quiche with parsley pie crust
(The quiche recipe is my mom’s. I’m sure she got it from somewhere, but I don’t know that she even knows where anymore. I’ve changed very little here, though her version usually contains bacon instead of mushrooms)
1 heaping, lightly fluffed cup of flour (or 6 oz., if you’re doing this properly)
1 stick (8 TB, 4 oz., etc) butter, cut into 16 or so pieces
2-4 oz. very cold water
2 TB chopped parsley (or dill, or oregano, or marjoram, or thyme… whatever you like best, I expect)
1 cup small broccoli florets
6-8 crimini mushrooms, sliced thinly
¼ cup green onions, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup grated swiss cheese
First, make the pie crust. Measure out your water and put it into the freezer while you assemble your other ingredients.
In a bowl, combine the flour and butter pieces. With your hands or a pastry blender (I always use the pastry blender – I hate the too-dry feeling of slowly crusting flour on my hands), cut the butter into the flour until it is pea-sized chunks and smaller. Add the salt and herbs and combine gently.
Dribble in some water – 2 oz. to start with – and combine. If the dough really isn’t coming together, add more water. When you can press a few teaspoons of the dough between your fingertips and it stays together, turn the whole mass out onto a floured board and work lightly to bring it together into a disk.
Wrap the disk in plastic wrap and stow it in the fridge for half an hour or so.
When the dough disk is cold and firm, bring it back to your floured board and remove the plastic wrap. Roll it out, moving a rolling pin (or wine bottle) in a few strokes straight away from you and back toward you only. Avoid diagonal movements. The dough will become a long oval. Then, flip the dough over and turn it 90 degrees so you are facing a fat, flour-drenched oval instead. Roll again, still moving the rolling pin straight away from and back toward you. Repeat this process until you have a rough circle an inch or two larger than the diameter of your pie plate.
Lightly roll half of the dough around your rolling pin and drape it loosely into the pie plate, unrolling as you go, letting the crust settle into the dish. Trim, crimp, or fold over any dangling edges as aesthetically as you are able.
Set aside (or perhaps return to the refrigerator?) while you make the filling.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Heat some olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When it is shimmering, add the mushrooms and give them a good stir, taking care that as many as possible have contact with the bottom of the pan (that is, don’t leave them piled atop one another if you can help it). Then leave them alone for a good five minutes, or until they begin to develop a golden crust.
While the mushrooms are getting golden, steam or microwave the broccoli florets until they are just crisp-tender and still very bright green. Set them aside.
Turn your mushrooms and let them sizzle for another five minutes or so. When they are golden on both sides, turn the heat down to medium and add the onions. Cook until soft and translucent. Toss the broccoli in the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste. Mom often adds tarragon or marjoram at this point as well – start with ½ tsp and see what you like. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes.
While the vegetables cool, beat the eggs and milk together. Add a dash of grated nutmeg, if you like, or some cracked black pepper. As the quiche bakes, this will become a lovely firm custard.
To assemble, fill the pie crust with the vegetables, spreading them in an even layer. Gently pour the custard over the vegetables. Toss the shreds of cheese together and spread them evenly across the top of the filling.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and the quiche has puffed in the middle. If it’s not puffed yet, it’s not done. The ingredients will be cooked through, but when you cut into it you will find a disappointing watery layer at the bottom. Give it another few minutes.
With the center puffed and the cheese sizzling, remove the quiche from the oven and let it sit for 5-10 minutes so the cheese can solidify a bit and doesn’t string all over when you try to cut through it.
Okay, 2013, here we go.
This year, I have a few changes to announce. First, you may have noticed that we’re at a new address. Update your bookmarks, if I’m lucky enough to be there, to http://blackberryeating.com. As I understand it, the old address will still work, it will just redirect you here. As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been wanted to upgrade to an address that makes more sense for what I’m doing here. Blackberries, their mystery and decadence, remind me of all that is good about food: what is sweet, what is juicy, what is challenging, what is delicate, what is persnickety and strong. The Galway Kinnell poem from which the title of this blog is taken celebrates juxtaposition and excess, likens these jeweled fruits to words and the consumption of those fruits to the search for meaning and significance. This is a little piece of significance for me – this collection of words thrust with crossed fingers and squinted eyes out across the internet – and so I wanted to make it more connected, more applicable, but really, more mine.
Who ever thought so much consideration could go into a new address?
With the Bittman project over and a new address settled, it’s time to submerge myself in a new challenge. As you know if you’ve been reading for a while, dough – particularly pie dough and yeasted dough – is one of my big fears. What if it doesn’t rise? What if it crumbles apart? What if it tears or burns or collapses or comes out tough or doesn’t bake right? What if it’s (gasp) imperfect?
I decided I need to get over this.
This year, each week, I will make something out of dough. It might be pie crust. It might be cookies. It might be pizza or foccaccia or flatbread. It might, as terrifying as this is to me, be a real, honest-to-goodness loaf of bread, bloomed and kneaded, baked until crusty in a loaf pan. I have a crazy notion that I want homemade bagels. I have a yen to make doughnuts, and not just cake doughnuts, but the beautiful puff and chewy crumb of a good yeasted twist.
I don’t – and this is important to note – promise absolute success. You’re going to see what crumbles along the way. You’re going to see the scraps and scrapes and disasters I produce. I think this is an important part of learning, and that’s part of what this blog is for me.
I have a few guides in this project, one hoped for and long awaited, one unexpected but delightful. From my in-laws, I received Michael Ruhlman’s genius book Ratio. This isn’t a cookbook. It’s more than that. It’s more exciting, it’s more foundational, and ultimately, I think, it’s more useful. It doesn’t tell you how to make cherry pie, it tells you the essential equation of pie dough. Three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water. That will always equal pie dough. Suddenly, you can use any kind of flour – more than one kind, if you want. You can use lard instead of butter. You can make one pie or you can make thirty-five pies, and you don’t have to think as hard about multiplying or adding or fractioning. You have a ratio, and it is always going to work.
That’s the theory. And I believe it, but I haven’t tried it out just yet.
From my parents, I received a bread machine. I’ve never used a bread machine before, and while my immediate thought is that to really master dough, I will also have to make it by hand so I understand the kneading and the cycles of rising, and so I will come to know the feeling of the right kind of stretch and the windowpane test and the knowledge beneath my fingers that yes, this is bread, having a machine help me along the way is going to be nice. The idea of dumping, in pajamas at 10pm, a series of ingredients into a pan, plugging in a machine, and telling it I want a fresh, hot loaf of bread at 7am, delights and astounds me. I want to understand, but I also want the magic.
So that’s the plan. If all goes well, it will mean more of this:
It may even mean some of this:
I don’t expect it will mean all dough, all the time, just as the past two years were not exclusively Bittman concoctions. If something amazing comes along that doesn’t involve flour or eggs or butter, I will still report on it. But the goal this year – the resolution, if you will – is to conquer this dough thing. I want to have conversations with you about it. I want your feedback and advice and experiences. And I hope you enjoy.