Monday, 23 May 2011

Five things I learned about making bread

The tendency to fall into habits applies to more than just what you do with your evenings, the music you listen to and the other little daily occurrences that suddenly become routine. Cooking can become a habitual process too – the same dishes coming into the weekly or monthly dinner rotation, the same cake made for guests and even the same groceries bought week after week.

Last week, I decided to come out of my own cooking habits a little and try something I’ve never really done before – make my own bread. I thought that even if it didn’t work out well on the first few tries, at least the house would smell nice.

But which bread to make? A key staple in human diet for tens of thousands of years, bread has an infinite number of variations that have come in from cultural, historical and experimental factors. I chose five kinds to sample different ways of working with flour, water and yeast. After a week filled with kneading, rising, shaping, timing and – of course – tasting, this is what I came away with…

1. Making bread is not as big a deal as it’s made out to be.
I’m not saying it’s as easy as a Betty Crocker mix, but making a basic white loaf of bread doesn’t really take much more effort than baking a cake, waiting for it to cool and frosting it afterwards.  The time comes in waiting for each stage to rise, but all that means is setting a bowl somewhere and coming back to it in an hour or so.

A basic white bread is easy to make, and tastes amazing!

2. It rounds out even the simplest meal into a special dinner.
Bread is like a meal’s accessory – just like the right shoes or handbag can turn jeans and a T-shirt into a fashion statement, the right bread can complement even something basic like spaghetti and a jar of sauce. Instead of making dinner from scratch, it can definitely be worth it to spend your time on a sun-dried tomato and olive bread to go with it.

This sun-dried tomatoes and black olives goes really well with pasta and a tomato- based sauce.

3. Kneading dough is a good workout.
So perhaps not everyone would devote a week to trying out different kinds of bread, but know this – I certainly felt the effects of spending 10 minutes a day kneading dough by hand. At the very least, it takes the guilt off not going to the gym.

White bread comes in all shapes and sizes – instead of being made in a pan, this "rustic style" loaf did its
last rise on a baking tray, but needed a lot of moisture in the oven to keep the crust from getting too hard.

4. Making bread on a cold day is difficult.
Dough needs a warm place to rise, and there is a particular spot in my house that’s perfect. Or it was, until one cloudy, rainy, miserable day when even The Warm Spot wasn’t living up to its name. As it happens, I was on the fussiest recipe of the five I chose – French bread. It took ages for it to rise, and because French bread dough needs to be refrigerated for a few hours, it was barely done in time for dinner. Props given to the person who invented bread machines.

French bread was my least favourite to make, but it tasted so
wonderful that I can't say I'll never do it again…

5. Don’t leave fresh bread hanging around.
Homemade bread – even when it’s made in a machine – will go stale much more quickly than store-bought. I noticed particularly with the French bread and focaccia that even after a couple of days, they were noticeably drier. The good thing is that bread freezes well, so even if you make more than you need at the time (the recipe makes two loaves and you only need one), you can freeze the extra and bring it out later.

There isn't much that focaccia doesn't go with, and there are lots of different versions to make.
This one was made with rosemary and parmesan cheese, and was pretty quick to do.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Asparagus, zucchini and lemon risotto

Somewhere in the midst of all the happenings that have cropped up since January 1, spring has arrived. The dramas, busy days, lazy days, day trips, projects, sorting-outs and cleaning-ups have kept me from really noticing that everything is becoming warmer, brighter and greener. The staple stews that kept us going during cold winter weeks aren’t really needed anymore, and as I pack away my thickest sweater, it’s time to bring out recipes that match the season.

Cooking for other people gives a great excuse to make something special that you wouldn’t normally make for yourself. I had such an opportunity last weekend, and thought I’d try something suitably springy. Well, I don’t know how risotto fits into spring, but I used all green vegetables….does that count? And even better, it all gets cooked in one pan for less clean-up time. Also a good thing when cooking for guests.

Ingredients (serves four)
2 onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped finely
2 medium zucchini (courgettes), chopped
1lb (500g) asparagus, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 lemons, juiced and zested
½ teaspoon Italian seasoning (mixed herbs)
1½ teaspoon oregano
Ground pepper, to taste
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
1 cup (250g) risotto rice
1 pint (½ litre) of vegetable stock (I made mine a double concentrate with two Knorr stockpot gel packs) 
4½oz (125g) grated grana padano or parmesan cheese (around ¾-1 cup)

  • Fry the onions in olive oil, adding the garlic after a minute or so.
  • Add the zucchini, asparagus and green pepper. Fry for five minutes. Add the Italian seasoning, oregano and ground pepper.
  • Slowly add the wine and stir it into the vegetables. Then, add the lemon juice and as much zest as desired (I used the zest from only one lemon, but might add more next time).  Retain a little of the zest for dressing.
  • Mix the risotto rice through the vegetables and allow it to cook gently for a minute.  Add the stock and bring back to the boil.
  • Cover and simmer, stirring frequently, until the rice is tender and the stock has been absorbed.  Add a little more hot water if it looks like all the stock will be absorbed before the rice is fully cooked.
  • Stir in the grated cheese, and serve, sprinkling the remaining lemon zest on top of each portion.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Lemon raspberry cupcakes

There’s something engrained into most New Englanders called the baking reflex. When there’s a public holiday, you bake. When there’s something to celebrate, you bake. When you’re stuck inside because of bad weather, you bake. When you want to welcome new neighbours or comfort friends, you bake (for them). I have even been known to stay up late baking on the night before moving to a new place because I thought everyone involved would want cookies. What’s that you say? Easier to just buy things rather than make them? But…that would just be wrong…

So, it’s no great surprise that after settling on my living room couch to watch the royal wedding on Friday (and seriously considering doing my own wedding over again so I could have a dress like that), the New Englander in me was struck with the unavoidable impulse to bake something. Cupcakes seemed to fit the occasion, and I thought the elegant combination of lemons and raspberries had an air of royal sophistication (or it did at the time…). The closest I could come to was a bottle of lemon juice and a jar of raspberry jam, but that could work, right? Lemon cupcakes with raspberry jam in the middle?

I tried to find out about the best way to fill cupcakes with jam, but most recipes had cupcakes with cream cheese or chocolate in the middle. Failing that, I learned how I could make the cupcake, scoop out the middle, fill it and either do something creative with the middles or just forget they existed. That sounded like far too much trouble, although it’s similar to what’s done with fairy cakes here in England. The top of the cupcake is cut off, then a bit of frosting added, then the top divided in half and placed on top of the frosting to look like wings.

Anyway, I decided to treat the jam like a cream filling and added a dollop after putting some of the cupcake batter into each paper (or cake case, as they call them here across the pond). I then put a tiny bit more batter on top, shoved the muffin pan in the oven and hoped for the best. Fifteen minutes later, I discovered the following:

  1. Just because the batter doesn’t fill a cupcake paper doesn’t mean it won’t overflow as it bakes.
  2. Cupcakes spilling over and around papers are very messy.
  3. Raspberry jam is heavier than the cupcake batter, and sticks really well to the papers.
  4. It takes a lot of lemon juice to get a distinctly lemony taste.

So, on “spur-of-the-moment” cupcakes take two, I used lemon extract and real raspberries instead. That worked loads better (though T happily ate both versions). Here’s how it went…

Lemon raspberry cupcakes (makes 18-20 cupcakes)
½ cup (115g) butter, softened
¾ cup (170g) sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ teaspoon lemon extract
½ cup (125ml) milk
1½ cups (190g) flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
36-40 raspberries, washed

Buttercream frosting
⅓ cup (75g) butter, softened
3 cups (375g) powdered/icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ tablespoons milk (can add a little more if needed)


  • Preheat oven to 350°F or 180°C. Line muffin pan(s) with papers.
  • Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, and beat well. Add vanilla and lemon extract.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add this to the batter alternately with the milk, blending after each addition.
  • Carefully spoon the batter into each cupcake paper until no more than ¾ full. Place one raspberry in the middle of each one – there is no need to press it down.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the very top of around the centre comes out clean.
  • Let the cupcakes sit in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then move them onto a wire rack to cool.
  • When the cupcakes have cooled, prepare the frosting: cream the butter and sugar, then add the vanilla and milk. Add more milk to make the frosting thinner, or more sugar to make the frosting thicker.
  • Swirl frosting onto the top of each cupcake. Place a raspberry in the centre.