Sometimes I worry that I’ve killed my yeast.
Sometimes I don’t.
I do a lot of complicated, multi-step recipes here. There are reasons for this, of course. One is that I want to keep things interesting. I mean, there are millions – possibly billions – of “easy” recipes out there, boasting 5 ingredients or less, 10 minutes or less, all pantry or store-bought items, one-pot, you name it. But I figure, how many 5-ingredient-chicken-and-veggie-casseroles does the internet need? If I’m going to cook for you, I want it to be fresh and intriguing. Sometimes that means embracing complexity.
The other, more important reason, is that I want to challenge myself. It’s all very well to master a dish, and I like that. But after a while, I get bored. I need something new, to keep my taste buds and my fingers and my mind nimble. I chose to become a professor, which means I work to teach. But I couldn’t have embarked on this career without being a bit of an eternal student, which means I want to learn. That’s why I do these annual projects here – exploring dough, whisking away at a sauce a month. To keep myself enthralled and improving, I have to tackle new challenges.
These challenges find their way to you, most of the time, after some finagling and practicing. Usually I get an idea, fiddle with it, add and subtract and mess and annotate, and out comes a recipe that I post here. It’s not often that I throw together some depth-of-the-fridge ingredients and produce something I consider blogworthy.
But “not often” isn’t the same as never. A few weeks ago, as a heat wave rendered Los Angeles practically immobile (or maybe that was just my un-air-conditioned living room), I dragged myself to the kitchen to (I hoped) find something reasonably delicious to throw together for dinner that didn’t involve the oven or the stove. Great expectations, no?
What we ended up with was a dinner that made our eyebrows climb, and almost immediately we were thinking about when we would have it again. And as sometimes happens, it was just what I had, layered together into something great. Chicken salad. Toast. Avocado smashed with extravagant quantities of lemon juice and raw garlic. Layered and mounded into an open-faced sandwich as at home on a picnic blanket as on your dining room table. So bright and fresh! Satisfying but so light and summery! And, if you have had the presence of mind to make your chicken salad the day before (or, if you’ve got a deli you love, bought some), assembly requires all of five minutes with minimal application of heat. Oh, and if you find yourself in need of a way to use up some homemade mayonnaise, this is your salad.
This is a summer dinner you need to make. And then make again. Because really, complexity is fun, but sometimes simple is just right.
A few extra thoughts: the lemon and garlic smashed avocado is currently my food crush. It’s great with the chicken salad, but it would also be spectacular (and really quite aesthetically lovely too) underneath thin slices of hard boiled egg or smoked salmon. Or, you know, just plain on toast. Or to dip chips into. Or a spoon.
I’m also thinking you could quarter your toast slices, or even cut them into long, skinny toast soldiers, before loading them up, to make sweet tea sandwiches or easy hors d’oeuvres for a bridal or baby shower.
Finally, and this is not about chicken salad or avocado, if you have an iPhone, you should ask Siri “What does the Fox say?” Then you should ask her again. It could well be that I’m the last person on the planet to know about this, but still. You’re welcome.
Even though I’m getting sauced this year (is that joke already old?), I’m not abandoning my bread ambitions. I love the monthly challenge of Twelve Loaves, and I received a sourdough starter as a Christmas gift that, according to its bequeather, “needs some TLC.” Anxious to do it right, I scoured the internet for suggestions, of which there are no shortage, and in many cases, no consistency, which, delightfully and frustratingly, appears to be no problem at all! I distilled the various directions down into what felt like a successful (read: doable) routine for me. I fed it flour and water, it smells like San Francisco, and I’ve named it Bubblin’ Bertram. Is that weird? Probably.
This month’s Twelve Loaves challenge is “Keep it Simple.” As you know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that tends to be difficult for me. I like a classic. I like a basic, fundamental recipe, but I like to twist it a little, to ask it to shimmy along with me into something fresh and bright and different. To make my predilection for complexity work with the challenge set, and to to celebrate both my new housemate (what? Yeast is alive!) and the kitchen scale Santa brought me (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I decided to face basics in a way I’ve never done before: by weight.
Baking by weight is hardly new. Shauna talks about it all the time, and it is just as true for baking with wheat flour as it is for using gluten-free flour mixes. Michael Ruhlman has written a whole book that relies on it. But it was new for me. There is something bizarrely scary about ignoring your measuring cups, though I’m not sure why, because working by ounces is admittedly so much more precise.
So I threw caution (and habit) to the wind and dove in, dipping up some of my burbling fed starter, glorying in the yeasty sour smell, and kneading it gently into flour, water, salt, and a breath each of butter and honey for a little extra flavor and moisture. It made a lovely soft dough, and I lovingly nestled it in an oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to swell.
And then it sat. And I sat. And we sat. And I paced. And it did nothing. For hours. No rising. No bubbling. No noticeable change of any kind. I went back to the internet and searched for solace.
Three hours later, finally, my dough had almost doubled. In my warm home office, this usually takes a maximum of 90 minutes. But I had used no commercial yeast, only what was naturally in the starter. It takes those little guys a while to gulp down all the new food they’ve been handed, and to expel the gas that causes dough to puff and thicken.
Now that I knew time was the real challenge, everything else fell into place. I divided the ball of dough in two, lightly shuffled them around in some flour and shaped them into rounds, and let them rise again for an hour and a half. They didn’t puff very high, but they did expand into fat floppiness, like doll-sized beanbag chairs. But this didn’t seem to matter. Slashed artfully across the top to help gasses escape while baking, coerced into a steam-filled oven for half an hour, and we had a conjoined pair of soft, browned loaves, moist, warm, on the dense side of fluffy, and lightly but noticeably sour. Simple.
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