Breads Fall Apart

January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

When I was living in France, I did my fair share of baking. Mostly cookies and scones. I’d bake them on aluminum foil inside my “Magic Oven.” The difference in flour, butter, and the metric system—-these things never seemed to get in the way of my baking. Any dough that went into the oven emerged golden brown, beautiful, and delicious. I guess you could say I started to expect good results. Even with limited effort. There, I set myself up for the inevitable fall.

The day when something horrible and inedible would appear between those potholders. That day was yesterday. Behold: What is that? How did it happen?

Well, it was supposed to be “Pain de Fromage Pour Bien Boire,” or “Cheese Bread To Give You A Thirst.” Obviously, that’s not what it’s giving you, or anybody. Judging by that photo,  it’ll probably give you a stomach ache instead.

To explain how this atrocity happened: I was taking a leap, using an old cookbook that was first published in French in the 30’s. Inside its binding are recipes from the late 19th century, thus—these ingredients, these directions—-this everything—-is very risky for the hopeful cook. I should’ve looked before leaping, but I had the “Magic Oven Syndrome,” thinking I was invincible in an apron.

The recipe reads as follows:

Mix one hundred twenty-five grams of flour, seventy-five grams of grated cheese—Gruyère or Parmesan—salt and cayenne pepper, half a coffee spoon of Alsatian yeast. When you have kneaded it all together, add seventy-five grams of butter and the yolk of an egg.  Lay out the paste, cut it in strips or rounds, glaze with an egg yolk, put it in a hot oven for about ten minutes.

Voilà. C’est tout. Not the most information to go off of. Still, I told myself that with all that butter and cheese, how could I mess up? Take a look at the photo of the dense cheese-&-butter balls in the above photo, and you see how. So I should have rolled that dough flat, okay. That was my first mistake. But look—the yeast was never proofed before it went into the bread dough. What’s that about? And the only thing really holding these things together was that one measly egg yolk. No wonder things went awry.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. I plopped my chin on my fists and stared at the failed bread. If I knew more about baking, or if the instructions were clearer, or if I had done more research before launching myself into this…

Actually, the Magic Oven Syndrome is applicable to my current situation at home. I, like many others, am treading water in a sloshing pool of job applicants, all looking for full-time work. In the past, it seems as though jobs have found me, and I’ve worked them happily. I’ve never put too much sweat, toil, and preparation into the hunt. Things just kind of…worked out.

There’s a lesson here. Being prepared is better than crossing your fingers and hoping all the hurdles will be cleared. Knowing what to expect and feeling confident is foolproof. And maybe Magic Ovens only exist in France. Who knows! At any rate, I did some homework and tried again, this time leaning on a more modern recipe and adding some rosemary and fresh cracked pepper to the dough. I have to say, the results are much better than the dastardly doughballs that I created yesterday. Uff.

So, I think it’s best to apply this same process to any kind of search. Before diving in, it helps to know what you’re looking for. You’ll recognize it pretty quickly when you find it. 


Say Life Gives You Lemons…& Dried Blueberries

January 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Streets clogged with the shells of squashed packing peanuts. That was Minneapolis last night. It was impossible to drive in all that snow. My car (which I named Chuck Norris, aka Chuck, aka Charles—-if he’s feeling fancy) was having a heck of a time with the snowbanks. He had to roundhouse kick his way out of the parallel parking job we found pre-concert at Bryant Lake Bowl.

After a night of electro-static-sweetness and Thom York-esque crooning (by OME), I drove home, collapsed in bed and proceeded to dream about the lake behind our house, hamburgers, swimming suits, and summertime in general. All things that are most definitely out of season. So, this Saturday morning found me disappointed and thinking of warmer days. It’s true, I woke up at the groggy hour of 10 AM with full-on sun shining on my face, but there was also the sound of neighbors out snow-blowing their driveways, so yeah—-still winter time.

I meandered downstairs on a mission. I haven’t baked scones in the longest time, and now that I was thinking of weather that was impossible to enjoy, the least I can do is bake something that, if not for cross-country shipping, I would not be able to do.

So, bring on the lemons, bring on the blueberries. And accompany those with a side of blackberries and strawberries: all things that are best enjoyed in the summer. Preferably post-dip in the lake. I had a recipe in mind. It was something I stumbled upon on Epicurious. Blueberry-Lemon Scones with a buttermilk glaze. I stole the skin of a florescent lemon. I meshed my butter into my flour with some blueberries. I turned this out with some flour, then threw them into the oven for half an hour.

It’s crazy, when you think about it, that we can enjoy any fruit or vegetable, or what-have-you, any time of the year. True, those roma tomatoes taste like a lot of nothing during the winter, and berries cost an arm & a leg, but still—-if we want it, we can have it. It is possible. Most of the time though, the things we want most—-maybe even think we can’t live without—-are not available to us, or they won’t be available this season. It’s that aching feeling. If you’re from the Midwest, it’s easiest to liken this ache to snowscapes: looking out the window with a cup of tea, feeling melancholy as you dream of the days you won’t have to kick your boots off before getting inside your car to get the snow off. If you’re far away from someone you want to see, it’s the same thing. Wrong season. There’s no vegetable truck that can bring these things to you. Culinarily speaking though, we’re spoiled.

We can spend nights out spinning tires in the slush, dream of warmer days, then wake up to at least taste some semblance of what we want.

Oh—-and, in case you’re wondering, this scone recipe was bomb.


January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

When I was little, my parents taught me to love certain things. Wildlife was one thing (remember adopting a duck or keeping pet baby toads in our Radio Flyer wagon). Grandma-y desserts were another.

Okay, when I use “grandma-y” as an adjective, basically I mean that the dessert probably has some kind of dominant spice in it. Grandma’s—-the stereotypical kind at least—-smell like nutmeg and ginger and such. (Actually, though, my one grandma smells like floral perfumes or department stores, and the other smells like a bolt of fabric or a jar of pickles. Hm. Maybe I should rethink my adjective.) But I’d imagine that people know what I’m talking about when I say grandma-y. Think cardigan sweaters, spice racks, dried fruits, sliced apples, pears, or peaches. Think ornate buttons and wooden chairs and tables and doilies. This is grandma-y.

The cake I made today was a grandma-y cake. Voilà: a Gingerbread Apple Upside-Down Cake.

My family went nuts over it. Almost as crazy as when we see a deer walk through the backyard or see an owl swoop down from the oak tree out front. It had all the elements of cakes and desserts we loved. Total grandma cake. Cinnamon and ginger. Sliced honey crisp apples (best kind of apple, hands down). Molasses. Honey. Buttermilk. Brown sugar. Gobs of butter.

My mom made a caramel mixture on the stove while I mixed my cake batter. The caramel was going to coat the bottom of the cake pan, then I was going to layer my apple slices in overlapping circles.  Like this: After that, I pour in the batter, which reminds me of mom’s coveted molasses cookies. The batter buries the apples and caramel, and I put my cake onto the middle rack. Then, I sit in a chair directly in front of the oven so I can peek at it while it’s baking. When this cake is done, it’s going to be flipped over, and the pretty honey crisp slices on the bottom will become the top of the cake. Upside-down. How far Upside-Down can you go before you reach a limit—-then become a new version of your Right-Side-Up?

That sounds like a Lewis Carroll question.

I’m just in that place is all. It might be the new year, it could be aftershocks from Europe, and maybe it’s just this: fatigue from transition. Leaves a gal feeling upside-down and craving foods she’s loved since she was a frog-catching kiddo snarfing grandma’s molasses cookies and apple pies like nobody’s business. I fed this cake to my family after dinner. We spent our Sunday night with plates of gingerbread upside down apple cake with ice cream, watching The Office. While I’m still adjusting to 2011 and feeling upside-down-ed here and there as I think of Toulouse and tight roads and thick French words…I’m definitely feeling that delightful sensation: “Home.” It’s some combination of gingerbread and small dogs and this silly family.

Where Am I?

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