Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Rcakewalk Guide To "Easy" Bread.

One of the things I like best about reading food blogs is reading the comments. Unlike cookbooks, the author of an online recipe is often graced with comments from readers who not only try the recipe, but include the nuances they add or subtract that make the recipe their own. I actually read through comments regularly, if not posting comments regularly myself. (I sometimes feel redundant in telling a person that a.) their photo(s) is(are) awesome b.) the recipe looks sound and delicious and that I have added it to my never-ending list of things to make or c.) I've attempted to be humorous, my sentence ending with an exclamation point. All three of which are wholeheartedly genuine by the way...)

I have learned a lot about bread from comments, and they reinforce that cooking and baking are living processes, not static and unchanging. They remind me constantly that people are unique, thought processes are different, and there is never just one way to look at something.

I've had to take some time to think before writing about my process for making "beautiful bread". I feel in no way qualified as a baker or as a baking authority, other than that I've baked a LOT and have learned something with virtually every loaf I've shoveled to and from my oven. Baking bread, specifically sourdough bread, is never a static process. Small environmental changes alter fermenting times, little changes in moisture, everything seems to make a huge difference as bread meets heat in the oven. It's a living process that takes patience, tenacity and curiosity to do well. I'll start at the beginning, and clue you in on what works for me at this time in my bread-baking life. As much as I feel I have learned, I still feel as if I have volumes to know.

This is my baby:

I feel like a proud parent to have grown a sourdough starter from scratch. It took a couple of weeks, and when I think back, I was completely uncertain about it the whole time. (I can't help but draw on the similarities I felt of becoming a new parent of a human being.) Before growing a starter, I had never baked a single loaf of sourdough bread- and now that's pretty much the only bread I bake. Starter never fails to amaze me. Feeding on so little, it thrives and really is a living thing - bubbling proof that life, no matter how small, is really precious.

If you are interested in making sourdough bread, but uninterested in growing a starter completely from scratch, there are many sources for purchasing a starter culture. Two of my favorite sellers are King Arthur Flour and Cultures for Health. King Arthur offers a fresh starter, which means you can start feeding your starter the day you get it and be off and running in a day or two with a bread culture that is American since the 1700's. Cultures for Health offers many different varieties of dried sourdough from different locations throughout the world. It will take a bit of time to rehydrate the culture and establish a feeding regimen before beginning to bake.

If you are interested in starting a culture from scratch here are a few favorite links:
One of my biggest mistakes is that I thought I could make bread straight away after making a culture. It actually took me more than a month of steady feedings to get my culture strong enough to raise bread dough. Now that my starter is mature and fed regularly, I can have bread in just under 24 hours. It may seem like work, but really it's not. I like to think of my starter as a draft horse (I like to think of a draft horse as a giant cat): just a little bit of care, and it works hard for you while you are off doing something else.

Feeding a Starter

From what I have read in numerous sources (and now it's firmly cataloged in my mental warehouse, so no specific siting here...) you can approach feeding starter one of two ways. If you are a frequent baker, you can keep it out at room temp and feed it one to three times a day. If you are an infrequent baker, you can feed it once every two or three weeks (or sometimes longer) and store it in the fridge. I haven't yet stored my starter in the fridge, and since I do bake a lot, I do just fine keeping it in a glass quart-sized bowl on my counter. Cold storage is said to make a starter taste more "sour"; breads that have a proofing under refrigeration are said to have a more pronounced tang as well. I have noticed this with doughs that I have refrigerated prior to baking.

I feed my starter every morning around breakfast time, which not only is a good time for me to remember, but also is optimum for when I usually mix up bread. Starter is most active 4-6 hours after feeding, so if I feed at breakfast and mix up dough after lunch ,I can have new bread by the noon the next day (usually). Now, if I was feeding my starter more often, I think it may be a bit more active and work a bit faster - but for now I enjoy waiting on it.

I feed my starter equal portions by weight of plain all-purpose white flour and water. I am a geek, and I do weigh my starter's breakfast. Plenty of people do not have a scale, and do just fine eyeballing it. When a starter is equal parts water and flour by weight, it is considered 100% hydration starter, and it's about the consistency of pancake batter. Many sources will tell you never to touch the starter with metal utensils, but I have always used a stainless steel spoon to stir it up, and I have never contaminated it. (I wouldn't use copper or any other base metals, however.)

Technically, I should feed my starter half of it's weight. For example, if I start the morning with 200 g. of starter, I should be feeding it 50 g. each flour and water. I don't do this. (However, I may soon start being a bit more official to see if I have better activity.) I usually feed either 50 g. each or 100 g. each flour and water depending on the volume of the starter in my bowl. Since my starter is well-established, it seems to be active and bubbly on this schedule - and if I ever feel it is a bit sluggish, I slip it some rye flour since that contains a bit more naturally occurring wild yeast. I have also been known to feed it a little before bedtime if I want it to become more active. I always think of Nancy Silverton saying that humans could survive on 1 meal a day, but it's not advisable - neither is it advisable to feed a starter less than three times a day. But since I am not running a production bakery over here, despite what you have heard or may suspect, I have been having good luck so far.

If I was being official and dumping off all but 100 or 200 g. of starter every morning, I would have more starter to play around with, or wash down the drain. This elimination seems wasteful, but really, it's like any living thing... the body absorbs what it can use and discards the rest. And, luckily for experimental kitchen types like myself, discarded starter can be turned into wonderfully delicious things. I haven't actually ditched any starter in quite a while that hasn't been turned into something else - another reason I'm happy with my current feeding regimen.

Other than bread I've made English muffins, chocolate cakes, pretzels, pizza doughs/flatbreads, muffins, banana bread, pancakes, waffles, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting. All of the above I believe are healthier than their non-cultured counterparts, and even if they aren't, they are tastier to be sure. I've re-vamped the "Recipes" tab at the top of the page to include all the sourdough recipes I've posted about in one place. I'm sure that this will be a growing category.

If you are looking to experiment with using sourdough in a baked good recipe, a good proportion to remember is 1 cup of sourdough starter equals 1/4 c. flour and 1/2 c. liquid in the recipe. The cakes I've substituted in this way were amazingly moist, and in the case of chocolate cake, cleverly disguised.

Finally, The Bread Method

I have tried kneading sourdough bread by hand, and by machine. I have tried "folding" the dough at several points during it's first fermentation time to incorporate air. I have added commercial yeast along with starter in bread. Pretty much any source I've looked at, I've tried a little tweak here or there to see what would happen. I'm not sure I've had any bread that was downright inedible - sure some were more of a duty to eat, and some graciously became nothing more than breadcrumbs to make into something else, but by in large, sourdough bread baking is a frugal endeavor garnering little waste.

Since I do bake by weight, I've tried a number of recipes posted by weights, and I have never had as good luck as when I use the Lahey Bread Method. His proportion of 300 g. liquid to 400 g. flour seems to be perfect for what I consider to be the best bread I can produce. Since I bake it in a cast-iron pot, I don't have to fiddle with contraptions to get steam into my non-professional Hotpoint oven. Cast-iron is a marvel, and it produces bread with a crisp crust and perfect custardy interior. I may be limited to size and shape (round, or slightly oblong), but to me it's worth it. I purchased a Lodge 5 quart Dutch oven when I started making Lahey breads, and I'm so glad I did. It's a reasonable price, and I only use it for bread.

Lahey's method calls for a mere 1/4 t. of yeast, for which I substitute 50 g. (about 1/4 c.) sourdough starter. If I make a bread using 100% white bread flour, it rises the best and fastest, but I've also had good luck using part high-protein wheat flour (also called white wheat, or hard winter wheat), and even using up leftover cooked oatmeal or other breakfast porridges. Lahey's method is also considered no-knead, but I knead it in the bowl for several minutes until it's slightly sticky and well formed into a ball. I think it helps that I always use the same earthenware bowl, since I can judge it's rising progress at a quick glance.

I always use metric weights, and approximated the conventional measures below using Convert Me. I use that site frequently for conversions.

Rcakewalk "Easy" Sourdough Bread (via Jim Lahey and Breadtopia)
  • 50 g. sourdough starter (about 1/4 c.)
  • 250 g. room temperature water (filtered or spring - about 1 c.)
  • 400 g. flour (all bread flour or part whole wheat (high-protein preferably) - about 4 c.)
  • 1 1/4 t. salt
Measure starter and water in a large-ish glass or pottery mixing bowl. Mix well. (I use a dough whisk since I like the feel of it, but a wooden spoon works fine.)

Add flour and salt and mix with dough whisk or spoon until it it combined and too hard to move around. Then, with one hand (keep one hand free to "pet the dog or answer the telephone" as Silverton says, or in my case take pictures...), knead the dough into a cohesive ball. I lazily knead this way for 3-4 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a lid (I use a large lid from my stock pot) or plate, and set in a warmish room-temperature place to rise. The dough should more than double in size, and it usually takes about 18 hours or longer. It will take longer in cooler weather.

Find a lint-free kitchen towel (linen or cotton are best, and it's better if you never need to wash it since it will become seasoned as you use it repeatedly), and rub ample amounts of flour into it so that the sticky dough will not stick when you try to remove it. You can put the shaped loaf of bread right onto the cloth, carefully fold the edges around it and let it rise, or you can find a colander or brotform (something that lets the air circulate a little, and is roundish to keep the loaf from spreading out). I put the floured towel into a brotform, and sprinkle a little wheat bran and/or oat bran as additional insurance against sticking.

To form the loaf, first dust a work surface lightly with flour. Using a dough scraper or spatula, scrape all of the risen dough in one mass out of the bowl. Quickly and assuredly, fold each of four imaginary sides of the dough into the center, forming a rough ball shape. Place the formed loaf into the floured towel, seam side down. When you go to bake it, the seam side will face upward, causing natural and rustic breaks in the bread - I think it eliminates the need for slashing which is difficult when you are dropping a mass of dough into a super hot pot. Let the dough rise for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours depending on the room temperature. When the bread appears risen and you can poke a finger into the bread (gently) and the indent remains rather than coming back quickly, you are ready to bake it.

Towards the end of the 2nd rise, place a cast iron pot with it's lid on into a cold, empty oven on a rack placed at the lower middle position. Preheat the oven to 475. I like to let the oven heat for at least 30-40 minutes to be sure that it is consistently hot.

When ready to bake, carefully unwrap the risen dough. Carefully roll it over, using the towel to help you, to make sure it isn't sticking. Then return it to it's original position in the towel. Take the super hot pot out of the oven, take off the lid, and carefully flip the bread into the pot. Try not to be nervous that you'll burn yourself. You probably won't, and being nervous makes it harder to not drop the dough from a half-foot above the pot to safeguard against said burns.

(For what it's worth, since January of this year, I've burned myself 3 times, and all were related to using my oven inappropriately as a dehydrator and not blazing hot cast iron. I have never burnt myself on a bread pot - though now I probably will since I'm bragging...)

Put the lid on the pot, and return it to the oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, take off the lid. Let the bread bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. When the bread is done, take the pot out of the oven and remove the bread from the pot to a cooling rack and then wait patiently until it is fully cool before you slice it - usually at least 2 hours.

Storing Your Delicious Labors

When first I thought about baking breads that required my love and attention, I thought about Jeffrey Steingarten. I admire him for his amazing mastery of the English language, and for his explorative spirit that I feel I share to some extent. When I read his book The Man Who Ate Everything, he described his pursuits in the perfection of homemade sourdough. He also detailed how he stored bread, cut side down, open to the air. I remember catching an interview on Food Network once where (due to the wonders of DVR) I rewound over and over examining his kitchen. He had a half dozen loaves of different breads in there - all stored on end, open to the elements. I daydreamed about why in the world this man had all these different breads standing at attention - I was even more curious about where he gets his appetite.

Of course, I tried this right away when I had proper bread that I wouldn't dream of sliding into a plastic bag. I asked my friend E's French, bread-loving husband (who grew up on a dairy farm in rural France) about it. He said that they left bread out to the air or stored in cotton bags, and it just got harder as the week progressed, but they ate it that way. I tried it. It got hard. Really hard. I wanted badly to be European, but it just didn't work for me. What did work is storing my bread cut side down the day it is made, and then before bedtime, I tuck it underneath some glass.

I like to store my bread on a wooden (bamboo) cutting board, covered by a cloche of some sort. If I don't have a cake going, I use my cake dome, but if that's in use, I just use an overturned glass bowl. If I'm being honest, I only eat my bread non-toasted the day it is made. The texture is so perfect, I usually plan a meal around a few slices of cheese and a hunk of newly baked bliss. But as the days wear on, the texture (and flavor) change, and I just prefer it a bit on the toasty side. As of this writing, I have yet to have a loaf of sourdough go moldy, even after a week under the dome. Sourdough culture is an amazing preservative, and I suspect it also preserves me.

When I want a loaf of bread to turn out no matter what, this is the method I use. When I just have to satisfy myself, I certainly play around with ratios and methods, constantly trying to figure out how to make beautiful breads that could maybe be in shapes other than round. I love to knead by hand, and so far, have a problem with getting too much flour into loaves that are hand kneaded. There are so many sites that I love to check for bread, and lately, Wild Yeast tops the list. Every time I go over there, I learn so much and find tons of great recipes. Through the Yeastspotting weekly round-up, you can check in with bakers from all over. As I was writing this, I also found that GNOWFGLINS was releasing a comprehensive sourdough ebook! I have not purchased it yet, but I'm sure that it is filled with valuable information, and many great recipes. They also include information on gluten-free sourdough starters, of which I know nothing about.

It seems there are always a few topics I wish I knew more about - the Costanza Civil War Buff Syndrome as I like to call it. I wish I knew about wine, about chocolate, about cheese and about coffee and tea. I still feel like I wish I knew about bread, and that is the one area that I know the most about. It's a facet of my baking life that continues to grow with each loaf of bread made. I contemplate finding some courses I can take where I can learn hands-on and more in depth what is happening with wild yeasts as they mingle to form breads. I hope I can find something in my area that won't require me to keep baker's hours since I do have a family to attend to...

I wish I could remember where it was I read about a person who toured some bakeries in Europe, and specifically the Wonderbread factory in the US. In the European country, the man showing him around gently scooped up a loaf of just baked bread to illustrate a point, then returned it carefully to it's spot. At the Wonderbread factory, the man took the loaf of bread, illustrated his point, and tossed the whole thing into the trash. I actually think about that a lot. Bread is never something I take lightly, and that's probably why I absorb as much information about it's cultivation as I can. What a miracle that something so nourishing can be made with so little, and it is something that everyone should demand a better standard for.

Good bread, beautiful bread, easy bread can be attained at home for anyone curious enough. It's really a lifestyle choice, to choose to share your life with a culture. When well taken care of, it returns the favor, and feeds you well. It's a life that suits me well right now. I have no idea what the future will bring, and if my days will become more harried, but I hope they never become too harried to bake bread.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Daring Baker Challenge March 2011: Yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake

The March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake.

I am no stranger to coffee cake. In fact, I'm no stranger to poppy seed filled coffee cake since it probably ranks as my favorite dessert of all time. So, when I saw the challenge this month, I knew immediately I would make a version of poppy seed coffee cake - only I would challenge myself to make poppy seed filling from scratch as well.

The recipe that this month's challenge was based on was found by Jamie in her Dad's recipe collection. It is fairly similar to the yeasted dough that my family uses to make coffee cakes, just slight variations in quantities of milk and eggs, and the use of butter instead of oil. I was a tad overzealous in my filling - and my result was maybe not quite as photogenic as it could have been, but it sure tasted great. It's possible that I will never buy a can of poppy seed filling ever again.

In my small amount of research on poppy seed fillings, I found that most eastern European countries have their own version of bread or rolls (or cookies) made with a filling of these ancient seeds, as do far east countries like India and Iran. It's comforting to know that I am not alone in my passion for the poppy seed. My Croatian friend, Sasa, tried the finished bread and said that her Grandmother made something similar just without the almond. That is something that I just can't help adding; I prefer heavy doses of almond extract with my poppy seeds.

I visited the Spice House twice for poppy seeds this month, once earlier when I got some fresh seeds to try sprouting, and again when I discovered I needed a full half pound to make paste. Poppy seeds can be hard to grind, and the Spice House actually has an antique mill they use to grind your poppy seed to order if you desire. (Only the downtown location has the mill, and they recommend calling ahead since it is a slow process. The ground seeds are also available online.) I decided to get the whole seeds, and in a no-guts-no-glory fashion dumped them straight into my Vita-Mix to see if I could do it myself. I could, and in about 30 seconds, I had pure poppy seed paste.

homemade poppy seed filling.

I promise you that if you can't get enough poppy seed, this is the filling for you. It's pure poppy: slightly bitter, slightly nutty, and with the addition of almond extract, dare I say perfect.

Poppy Seed Filling (adapted slightly from Hepzibah)

(my yield was 1 pint plus a generous cup)
  • 8 oz. poppy seeds
  • 1 c. milk
  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 3/4 c. white sugar (I used sucanat)
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 t. almond extract
First, grind the poppy seeds (processing them in the Vita-Mix for under a minute on variable speed 5 did the trick) in a mill or coffee grinder.

Combine the milk, butter, and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook on low heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves. Gradually pour a little hot milk into the beaten eggs, whisking constantly. Return the egg and milk mixture to the saucepan.

Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of a metal spoon. (Custard should coat a spoon, and a should not run into a line drawn by your finger.) Add the poppy seeds and stir well to blend.

Remove from heat and add almond extract. Cool to room temperature before using or storing in the refrigerator for up to five days. I assume that it would freeze well, which I will try after I make some into Hammentashen.

When it came time to fill the coffee cake, I decided that the filling wasn't as much like the Solo Poppy Seed Filling that I was accustomed to. It tasted great, but lacked the whole poppy seeds. (I have to say, I was shocked that the Vita-Mix ground those minute things up so well!) I decided to add another 1/2 t. of almond extract and a heaping 2 tablespoons of whole seeds to the paste along with another little pinch of salt. Then, I was satisfied with it's toothsomeness. Next time, I may choose to grind only half of the poppy seeds for the filling.

My family's coffee cake does not have a layer of meringue in the filling, and I liked this addition a lot. If I can ever break away from poppy seed filling, I would like to try this method again using some of the suggested fillings from our Daring Baker hosts: Ria's was an Indian version with cashews, chocolate and garam masala and Jamie's was chocolate with cinnamon sugar and walnuts or pecans.

I used a fork to spread the filling on top of the meringue, but it ended up mixing together.

I made a half recipe of the coffee cake dough (enough for one large coffee cake), and used 2 egg whites for the filling. I also cut the other meringue ingredients in half, and everything turned out fine. The only problem I ran into was using too much filling.

Meringue Filling for Coffee Cake (Daring Baker Hosts)
  • 3 large egg whites at room temperature
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1/2 c. (110 g / 4 oz.) sugar (I used sucanat)
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt, first on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high and continue beating until foamy and opaque.

Add the vanilla, and then start adding the sugar, a little at a time as you beat, until very stiff, glossy peaks form.

The finished cake bakes at 350 for about a half hour, until it is golden brown. You can, of course, shape it any way you like. Had I not filled it so full, I would have liked to twist the edges over like this. It makes a pretty pinwheel design. I think part of the reason I loved this cake was that it wasn't so sweet. When the cake was completely cooled, I drizzled it with simple icing made with confectioner's sugar, a bit more almond extract - since I can't help myself - and a touch of milk.

It really is a bread-like cake that pairs well with coffee: so mission accomplished! It also bears noting that most fortified doughs lose a lot of their charm by the second day. This cake stayed a bit "fresher" I felt, and was still soft when covered overnight with aluminum foil. It was also on the less-sweet side of dessertdom, I think in part since I used sucanat for the first time. Sucanat is an unrefined evaporated sugar cane juice that is granulated like sugar. It tastes less sweet than sugar to me, and I liked the way it worked with this recipe. Who knows, maybe I'll try this recipe again using some sourdough starter for the leavener, transforming it completely into a whole food.

You can find the dough recipe along with all of the variations for yeasted meringue coffee cake at the Daring Kitchen website. Also, be sure to take a look at Ria's and Jamie's sites - they are both beautiful and filled with inspiration. Thanks to them both for a great challenge!

The little bites don't count, right?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sourdough English Muffins Redux

I was just so excited about the professionalism of these muffins that I had do a proper update. I think this is the 4th batch of sourdough English muffins that I've made since the discovery. The ingredient list is exactly the same, but I've been playing around with the method to make it something I didn't make a mess of the whole kitchen to prepare. In about the same time it takes to bake off a batch of pancakes, you can be serving homemade sourdough English muffins. And, they freeze great too.

Yesterday, I decided to try using the egg rings I bought a while back to coax out perfectly round muffins and it worked beautifully. The only downside, is that egg rings are maybe a bit on the small side. I may break down and order a set of proper English muffin rings which I have been putting off for a long time. Some say that you can clean out tuna cans and use them as molds, but personally, I don't see the fishy smell ever leaving the can - and the bottom edge is usually rounded, making a clean cut almost impossible.

As sticky as sourdough is, it is easily tricked into non-stickiness by the simplest of things: water. I had already been applying the damp fingers method to smooth out the tops of the craggy, homemade looking English muffins. It turns out, that that is also a key step even when scooping the batter into a mold to griddle - otherwise they bake up lopsided like the photo above.

As I worked through this latest batch, I determined that if you fill the mold just under half full (and my rings are 7/8 in. deep) the batter rises just to the top. I also tried greasing the rings with coconut oil at first, which strangely led to sticking. Butter worked better. I'm sure I'll have to grease them a bit better if I do graduate to the proper English muffin rings, since they are not non-stick like the egg fry rings I currently have.

All that said, even if you have no rings, you can still make a stellar muffin like the ones in the top of this photo:

Sourdough English Muffins - Improved Method (via GNOWFGLINS)
  • 1/2 c. sourdough starter
  • 1 c. liquid (pretty much anything, but I used water... could use whey, milk, yogurt, coconut milk . . .)
  • 2 c. flour, any kind or combination (I used half AP flour and half wheat)
  • 1 T. honey
  • 3/4 t. salt
  • 1 t. baking soda
12-24 hours before you want to make the muffins, mix the starter, liquid, and flour. The batter will be very wet, but it will depend on the hydration of your starter.

An hour before you want to make the muffins, sprinkle the honey, salt and baking soda over the top and stir in. The batter will gently rise and look puffy.

When ready to griddle, heat a cast iron skillet (I also think investing in a double burner, cast iron comal may be in my future) over medium-low heat until hot. Fill a pint glass with water and dip a disher (I use 1/2 c. size) in it. (Water prevents the sticky dough from collecting on the disher.) Just before scooping out the batter, brush the skillet with butter. It shouldn't be hot enough to scorch the butter, just melt it and sizzle a little.

Then, scoop up a scoop of dough and deposit it into the rings on the hot griddle, filling only about half full. Quickly dip your fingertips in the water, and briefly flatten the muffin into a nice round shape. Griddle on medium to medium-low heat. I found that I had to keep decreasing the temperature as I griddled, since cast iron holds the heat so well. (I have well-seasoned pans, so I didn't need to grease them with butter every time I added a new batch of muffins). Griddle side one for 5 minutes.

At the 4 minute mark (give or take) try lifting up the ring gently to see if the muffin will drop out. If it seems like it may be sticking just a little, you can try poking the center carefully with a toothpick and it should drop right out. (If it seems really stuck, remember to use more butter to grease them on the next go, and use a thin, sharp knife to loose the edges.) Free of their rings, you can then flip and griddle 5 minutes on the other side. Moderate the temperature so that the interior will bake fully and the exterior doesn't burn in the time allotted each side. After 2 or 3 muffins, you'll have it down. Depending on the thickness of the muffin, they may need slightly more time, but don't worry about it too much if you plan on toasting them anyway.

As with most things, the more you do something the better the results. I actually think the interiors of these muffins were better than my other attempts because of their uniform depth. Even using a portion disher and my new method, my English muffins still looked a little homemade and imperfect - which is just fine with me. This is one recipe that is going to be used for years to come, and I'm sure it will keep getting easier and easier. If you don't make your own sourdough starter and you know someone who does, beg them for a half a cup so you can make English muffins... you'll be so happy you did.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Learning Vinegar.

Saturday, just after lunch, I went down the road a half mile to my Parents' Amish neighbor's house to see if I could get a cup of heavy cream. An hour and a half later, I returned back home with a quart of heavy cream, and a bucket full of mother of vinegar.

The first time I officially met Elizabeth Hershberger last Spring, my Mom introduced me and said "This is Elizabeth, but most people call her Lizzie...". Lizzie smiled at me warmly and snapped back, "That's just one of the things people call me!" We spent at least an hour chatting about pork and beef (we were looking for sources to raise for us), and I wished for many split seconds that I was raised Amish. She told us stories that seemed straight out of Little House of the Prairie, how her and the children dispatch their cow every year, and all of them are made to help, even though a couple of them would rather not. They do the work as a family in the warmth of her husband's wood shop, since that wood stove is warmer, and they keep a cast iron skillet on there ready to go for when they get hungry. I wanted to crawl up into their world of a quiet, hard-working life and never leave. I figured that any homesickness for technology and indoor plumbing would subside after a few months of eating around that house...

Lizzie's gregarious demeanor makes her home on the corner the hub of information for both the Amish and English (the Amish term for us) communities: her family has a huge array of friends, many of them non-Amish. As I witnessed Saturday, a steady stream of visitors dropping in, picking up, dropping off - every one with a bit of information to trade. It's quite possible that Lizzie operates her family under the radar of conventional Amish eyes - I know that she watches some English children for a friend, and conceals them cleverly in Amish clothing so no one's the wiser. The bonus of that set-up is that the children are learning German.

I never went to Lizzie's home before without my Mom, but did Saturday for the first time. She welcomed me in, pulled me up a chair, and offered me a doughnut. Their kitchen table was a mess of coffee cups and half eaten pies, two of her daughters were attacking the post-lunch dishes. (The Amish don't keep daylight savings time, so I accidentally caught them just after their mid-day meal.) I stole sideways glances at them, since their hair was likely just washed for Sunday church and hung down well below their waists as it was drying. It isn't often you see an Amish girl with her hair down - and it really takes you by surprise.

I tried to make all of the mental notes possible about Lizzie's kitchen: the Pioneer Princess cookstove that her daughters drew hot water from to fill their dishpan, the stainless bowl that was heaped full of rising bread dough and covered with store-bought bread bags that had been cut open to increase their surface size. The Amish waste nothing. My Mom once saw an Amish woman sewing a plastic bag on her treadle machine to extend it's life.

After an hour or so of the news from around the area, Lizzie remembered that I was looking for vinegar mother last summer. I remember she ran down to her basement and came back with her arm dripping wet with vinegar up to her elbow. Her vinegar was made from cider, and stored in a 50 gallon barrel. She must have remembered as well, since she told me that the mother was ready and she could give me as much as I needed. She grabbed a clean plastic pail that once contained cottage cheese from the local creamery and quickly disappeared to fetch it.

"Do you want to see it?" She smiled at me, and took the lid off. It smelled delicious - like a floral alcohol tinged vinegar. I was surprised at the similarities to my kombucha SCOBY, but it was definitely different. It looked like a pile of fleshy rags. I started to get really excited.

Although I had been wanting to play around with vinegar since almost a year ago, I was totally unprepared. Lizzie's instructions were vague to say the least She said to just add it to some cider or wine or juice, her suggestion was to use the liquid that peaches are canned in since that tastes really good. She also said to leave it in a nice warm place, since her vinegar took a very long time to work in the basement- once she moved it upstairs, she had better luck. I figured with the Internet on my side I would have great luck in finding all the information I'd need to get started - including the very basics like how long will the vinegar mother last without being in a liquid? and how much vinegar mother do you need to inoculate the liquid you intend to make into vinegar?

A brief hour on the computer yesterday proved me enormously wrong. It seems a very simple thing like vinegar is somewhat complex. As with any culturing adventure, everyone you ask has a different perspective and set of rules. What am I actually looking for in my vinegar anyway: a gourmet extract that I can impress people with or a humble and quick addition to a salad dressing? Seeing that I got a quart of rhubarb-raspberry juice from my Mom's pantry to try and vinegarize, I'd say my goal is probably a mix of the two.

My quick research was telling me that to make successful vinegar, you need to put the mother culture into an alcoholic solution. The culture then ferments to make acetic acid, and at that point I need to decide whether or not to stop the fermentation process by pasteurization of the vinegar prior to bottling and aging. I'll have a few months to worry about that last step - and a few months to be more thoroughly confused by all the conflicting information. I do not have a scientific mind, and I have to read and re-read a lot of information that is somewhat scientific to digest it. If that fails, I know I have a great contact.

My ponderings were made a bit easier by a visit to Northern Brewer today. I should have been cleaning my house and doing some laundry, but I ducked out after lunch and got to meet Jeremy King in real life. I think I apologized to him a few times for looking "glazed over", when he was explaining how yeast eat, and how best I should go about making my quart of fruit juice into alcohol. We talked for quite awhile, and then he suggested that I try using already fermented wine. I knew (and so did he) that I was supposed to use low-sulfite wine, and lucky for me, he had a menagerie of homemade wines in the basement. I know I need another food hobby like a hole in the head, but I was so excited looking at what all the people at Northern Brewer are fermenting!

He insisted that I take a couple gallons of an amazing new-to-me wine varietal Lemberger. The grapes were grown in Washington, and the wine was started last October if I remember right. Since the wine is already fermented, I pulled off a portion of the mother of vinegar, and added a few tablespoons of the liquid to the pail Jeremy gave me. I stashed it under the kitchen counter, and now I just have to wait a few months. I have a feeling it is going to be amazing.

Jeremy also coached me on a yeast strain to use for kick-starting my rhubarb-raspberry juice into alcohol. I felt like an apothecary (looking at crib sheets, of course) adding nutrients, energy and yeasts together this afternoon. I hope it works, so I can give him all of the credit for helping me turn Wisconsin rhubarb and raspberries into salad-worthy vinegar. I have another little packet of yeast to try my hand at fermenting some cider, I just hope my co-op still has the gallon jugs I remember seeing a few weeks ago.

I can't help but think that all of the time I feel like the our world is such a fast-paced place, and that we really make it that way for ourselves. Lizzie can be up to her eyeballs in canning in the mid-Summer, but if you stop by, she is never too busy to make you feel at home. Places like Northern Brewer are unique since it's expected that their employees would need to chat to effectively serve the customer, but it's really more than that I think. Food people always take time for other food people, and it really makes the world feel smaller and more intimate. It's comforting that I'm actually able to connect with other people and learn things from them, something a computer will ever be able to do. That kind of one-on-one schooling is priceless.

It may be a good long while until you read more about my vinegaring... but sometime it will pop back up here. Meanwhile, if you have ever made vinegar (intentionally or not), drop me a line and give me some advice!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sprouted Grain and Poppy Seed Crackers

I never knew you could sprout poppy seeds. When looking for my next kitchen project, I thought I'd give Sally Fallon's sprouted grain crackers a try, and began a 4 day sprouting adventure on some of the tiniest seeds in the world. Poppy seeds happen to be one of my most favorite things, I assume because they naturally pair well with almond extract, an elixir I'm fairly sure I could drink straight up and not feel too bad about.

I had poppy seeds in mind for my Daring Baker Challenge this month (I'll make that next week, and post it on the 27th as usual). In looking up information on the poppy seed and ways to make them into pastes, I discovered that there are between 1 and 2 million seeds in a pound - 3300 seeds making up a single gram. They are an oily seed, and as I've actually noted firsthand, they can go rancid rather quickly. Prior to my project, I got what is considered the finest poppy seed in the world, Dutch poppy seed, from the Spice House. I'll admit, I was actually wondering all the while if they would actually sprout, and what in fact the sprouts would taste like. They did sprout, and were surprisingly tasty.

I'd say that they no longer had their characteristic nuttiness, but more of a "sprouty" flavor, still packed with a fair amount of crunch. I used about half of what I sprouted in the crackers, and ate the rest for lunch on sourdough flatbreads spread with hummus and radishes. It was probably one of my favorite lunches in recent memory - the tiny sprouts reminding me of a vegan caviar.

On about day 3 of the sprouting, I re-perused Sally Fallon's recipe, and noticed that the sprouted wheat wasn't supposed to be dried - that the seeds and grains should be sprouted and then mixed up into a paste, then the whole of it dehydrated together. I knew that I didn't have enough waiting time to sprout up some more wheat (and besides, I only had hard wheat for bread-making on hand). I poked around for a new recipe to use some of the sprouted, dried and waiting-for-me-in-the-freezer soft wheat I did have.

I discovered a site that is probably no secret to most people, but it was new-to-me: Cheeseslave. I had heard of Cheeseslave, but never ventured over before, and now I have just one more devoted place to stop by on my Internet rounds. I knew right away after mixing up the cracker dough that I was smitten...

I found that rolling the somewhat soft dough between layers of parchment worked the best for me. I cut the parchment to the same size as my dehydrator trays, and then cut them into squares with a pizza cutter and slid the whole works into place. One new benefit I've discovered and love about dehydrating is the extra exercise it gives me - my set-up is in the basement, and I have to make several trips down there to load it and keep checking on it. Ann Marie (a.k.a. Cheeseslave) says that you can also bake the crackers, which would give them a nice toasty color. But despite their paleness, these are really packed with flavor. I made a half batch (the amounts listed below) just to test it out, but next time, I'll double everything and make better use of the dehydrator space.

Sprouted Grain and Poppy Seed Crackers (slightly adapted from Cheeseslave)
  • 2 1/2 c. sprouted wheat flour (purchased, or make your own)
  • 1 c. yogurt (or buttermilk)
  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, mostly melted
  • 1/4 c. coconut oil, melted with the butter
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. sea salt
  • about 1/4 c. sprouted poppy seeds
Using a stand mixer with paddle attachment (or by hand), combine sprouted flour with the yogurt. With machine running, add in the butter, coconut oil, baking powder and salt and continue to mix until a soft dough forms. Add in the sprouted seeds last, and mix until evenly distributed.

Divide the dough in half. Roll out dough between two sheets of parchment paper to about 1/8 inch thickness. Using a pizza wheel, cut dough into cracker size pieces - whatever shape or size you like. Transfer dough (I left it on the parchment) to a food dehydrator tray.

Dehydrate at 150 degrees or less for about 16 hours until fully dry and crisp. You can also use the low temperature oven method described by Cheeseslave, or bake them (on the parchment) on a sheet pan at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.

When fully cooled, I stored mine in the freezer to ensure their freshness (and discourage myself from eating them all right away).

The crackers are surprisingly crisp and rich, but due to their fat content they are still amazingly delicate. They are rich enough, however, that I didn't feel like I couldn't stop eating them - just a few 2-inch square crackers were plenty for me. These taste like the most delicious wheat thin that you could ever imagine, and I would almost swear there was an addition of cheese to them too. That sprouted grain has such a specific, nutty sweetness to it... it's impossible to describe, and it's perfect in a cracker.

About half-way through the dehydrating process, I slid the parchment out from underneath the crackers.

I could see immediately a hundred different uses for these crackers - but since I'm trying Julia's awesome jam on everything lately, I tried that just after eating one plain. It was like a truly fancy dessert, one that upscale places serve that embrace both savory and sweet. The cracker almost took on a pie-crustiness that made me feel wildly trendy: like I could pull off charging $12 for a plate of 4 of these delectables. I smirked all the more knowing that I was tasting it mid-morning with no one else around to have to share with.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Happiness (And... The Giveaway Winner!)

Are you happy? There are so many ways one could answer that short three word sentence. Generally speaking, I am not given to fits of depression and remain fairly constant in my state of genuine contentment and happiness. I would say especially since I "work in the private sector" (a.k.a. my home), much of the working world's stresses that I used to feel have been long gone - going on almost 5 years now. That is a luxury I never take lightly.

The funny thing about a generally contented person like myself is that sometimes I get almost overwhelmed by the world. I am sad that I no longer know cursive. I get frustrated at myself for taking too much time for the virtual world and not on my own real life world. My heart breaks that it seems everyone everywhere is angry at someone in government be it left or right. And in particular this week, the natural disaster that plagued Japan - the images are devastating, and make any true happiness I feel seem dim and guilty.

I think sometimes it could be easy for me to give in to the feeling of hopelessness. Take a look at this bread, for example:

It was one of two that I made from this recipe, desperately trying to nix the bad bread juju that I've been having lately. It looks lovely on the outside, but inside it was gummy and dense, no trace of airy sourdough holes. I ate some, but dried most of the loaves to use as bread crumbs, and all the while I tried not to feel sadness over bread of all things. But those crumbs will go on to make good things, even if the bread itself was lacking.

I am assured and reassured when I start to feel this way that God is in control of every situation even when I am not. Just when I start to feel like I can't see the silver linings of life, when even the things I thought I was good at - like bread - fail, little things pop up miraculously and make my days brighter.

I won't go to pieces. I promise.

One example is this mail I got from the Outpost this week. Actual mail, my name and address hand written in black ink. Even more than the fact that I got non-junk and non-bill mail, the content was exciting: several postcards with recipes on the back promoting a new magazine my co-op is publishing. I am excited about that, but even more that someone had the brilliant idea to wrap them up in butcher paper and create a UPC label for it. Little brushes of creativity that lightened my heart immediately.

The magazine is called Graze, and as you can see above, should be available for $1.99 starting at the end of the month at all three Milwaukee area locations.

Yesterday, I started yet another sourdough. I have been feeding my starter twice a day for the past several days, trying to coax those wild yeasts into better activity. I think all along, part of my problem has been allowing too many of them into my breads. Maybe, just like humans, they do their work a little better when they have to struggle a bit, when they are allowed as much time as they need to get the job done. This bread is based on the proportions of Lahey bread, using only 50 g. (about 1/4 cup) of starter and 250 g. water to 400 g. flour. (And, 1 generous teaspoon of salt if you are keeping track...) I let the first ferment go about 24 hours, and after shaping the second ferment went about 2 1/2 hours. I think because I had a phone call from E. and we were talking about Lahey bread, I lowered my oven temperature 25 degrees from normal, and the result was the bread that I dream about. The stuff that never fails to make me happy.

In a week where I felt saddened and virtually behind, I managed to catch up on my LIFEyear photos (which were taken and not posted). The haiku for day 290 came to me - I don't even remember how it popped into my mind. But it's true. And no matter if I never write another word into the virtual landscape, I am happy with these 17 syllables.

my heart’s beloved:
wild bread, formed into all things
lives and dies for me

That loaf puffed right up, crackly crisp exterior and creamy white nourishment within. Sustaining both to my mind as much as my self, and satisfying my desperate need to just make a good bread - one that meets my bread snobbery expectations. If that didn't make any trace of sadness melt away... It's a happy start to a new week.

When the bread was in the oven, I used the Random Number Generator to determine my Chili Cookbook winner. I thought it was was curious that I only had 4 comments to choose from, and each person I have met personally or virtually in a different way. These are all people that I haven't known for very long, and people that really do enrich my life - making little bright spots in their own unique ways.

I was first introduced to Neil at an Eat Local dinner. He's a like-minded, foodie type, who has a hand in all kinds of interesting things. He is a great writer and an adventurous soul, and I love learning a little bit more about him every time I run into him.

I met E. in Maine (not to be confused with my friend E. in Boston...) on flickr through her amazing fiber arts (this is just one example). She is also interested in lacto-fermentation, knitting and bread baking, so we have little chats from time to time, which I love.

Deena is a food blogger who writes Mostly Foodstuffs, one of my favorite things to read. She also writes for other publications and does public radio spots, and has a food sensibility that I admire to no end. I feel like I really know Deena through many of her dishes that I've made... most recently this awesome pizza.

And finally, we have my winner: Katie. Katie works at Loop Yarn Shop, and also writes the Loop Blog. She is one of those people that really light up when you talk to them, she just has a genuine kindness about her, and I always look forward to seeing her on the occasions that I'm at the yarn shop. I know you'll take up cooking someday, Katie... I'm sure of it! (Just like I know someday, I will knit a pair of socks.) I know where to find you, and I'll drop off your prize sometime soon!

It's shocking how easy it is to look on the bright side of life. The days are growing longer, and I can take a picture at 6 p.m. with decent lighting. I may not agree with you politically, but if I choose to feel glad that we all have our own opinions I feel instantly better. How terribly boring would life be if we all agreed? Disasters are the hardest things to find a bright side to, but if you look carefully, you can see them: little glimpses of humanity's bright side. Even the failure of bread can be chalked up to learning, and if not that - to the fact that I have so much to be thankful for if the worst of it is ruined carbohydrates. Of course, for me, it's always an immediate boost to happiness to have a proper bread around. There is just something about that Staff of Life, it's not something that is easily defined, but it is something that is always appreciated.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So I Don't Forget: A Post About Lemon Lavender Cake.

Cake. I probably like baking cake more than cooking or baking anything else. Like no other thing, it symbolizes everything good and happy in life and it can be either be made decadent or benevolent depending on your whim. There was a time not so long ago when I though baking cake would be a career path I'd choose for myself, but now I know that I'm far too absorbed with other things to be solely obsessed with cake. However, I love when someone asks me if I can make one.

Last week, a friend asked if I'd make a cake for her birthday. She may have been shocked at my over-enthusiastic and immediately-texted-back response, but birthday cakes are my absolute favorite. I may not be the best cake decorator, but birthday cakes give me the chance to make something much more extravagant that anything made for day to day consumption. (Yes, there is more often than not an everyday cake of some kind lying around my house.) They are a challenge, and they have the bonus of being shared. I asked what flavor she preferred, and without hesitation she said lemon-lavender.

I have never had this combination before. Thanks to the Internet, which at times seems like my own personal oyster-arsenal of recipes, I quickly found a way to make an infused lavender cream using the one tiny bouquet of lavender that I stored from my garden last summer. Last year, I planted lavender for the first time, and I fully anticipated using it in baking. Procrastination set in and I never got around to it, although I snatched plenty of pretty stems that decorated my dining room summerlong, and I had the immense pleasure of running my hands through the plant whenever I strolled past the garden. Never once did I make the batch of shortbread cookies I intended to make or experiment with it in other sweets, and I had the one pale purple cluster tied with kitchen twine hanging around my kitchen to remind me.

Perfect cake.

The resinous perfume of lavender is strong, so after thinking about making it into a stabilized whipped cream for a filling, I decided on understatement instead - that I'd use it only in the frosting. For my base layers, I used Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake which is perfect and white, and slices handsomely without fear of toppling. My Perfect Party Cake never rises as high as the pictures of Dories in her Baking book, but I still like the flavor and stability of this cake. Every time I make it, I think it will rise higher - and I still hold out hope that one day, I will have a mile-high white cake. The cake lacks any yolks to color it, but I used more grated lemon peel to amp up the lemon flavor and I'm convinced it made it look faintly yellow. I love to think of Dorie in her kitchen whenever I bake from her Baking book - it really is one of my favorite cookbooks.

With the frosting and cake decided, I just had to decide on a filling. I waffled between using lemon curd or lemon marmalade, or perhaps some of each. When I tasted the finished curd, then subsequently tasted the lemon marmalade, the marmalade tasted positively bitter. I decided on three layers of lemon curd. When cloaked in lightly sweetened lavender whipped cream, I think it really worked. I want to write it down so I don't forget. It happens.

I made the lemon curd and infused the lavender simple syrup the day before I baked and assembled the cake. I had one little jar of lemon curd leftover - I kind of wanted to save a little for myself, to use as a topping on Dorie's Cream Scones that I made last week. She says it will keep up to 2 months in the refrigerator, but I know I'm never going to have to worry about that.

Dorie's Lemon Curd (Dorie's Baking: From My Home to Yours)
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 6 T. butter, cut into 6 pieces
  • 1 egg
  • 6 egg yolks (save those whites! You'll need 4 for the cake.)
  • lemon juice from 4 freshly squeezed lemons (zest them all first prior to juicing. I use organic to ensure they haven't been dyed or sprayed.)
Combine all the ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Stirring continuously with a heat proof implement, heat over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the mixture gets thicker. Depending on your heat, this should take about 6-10 minutes. (Be careful not to get it too hot, or it can separate.) When done, it should coat the back of a metal spoon without running into the track you create by running your finger down the center. It will thicken in the refrigerator, so you aren't looking for it to be as thick as finished curd when it's still hot.

Pour the still hot, finished curd into a glass bowl, and press a piece of plastic wrap over the top to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely to room temperature before refrigerating.

Lavender Simple Syrup - for Lavender Whipped Cream Frosting (Cupcake Bakeshop)
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1/4 c. granulated sugar
  • heaping 1 T. lavender flowers
  • 2 c. heavy cream
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add lavender flowers, stir to combine, and let steep uncovered for 10 minutes. Place a fine sieve over a small glass or bowl and strain out lavender flowers, pressing to release all the syrup from them. Cool, then refrigerate until ready to make whipped cream.

Whip cream using a stand or hand mixer (or by shear brute hand force if you are up for that) until soft peaks form. With mixer still running, slowly drizzle in lavender syrup and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

You can find the recipe for Dorie's Perfect Party Cake here at Ezra Pound Cake, along with the original buttercream frosting...

I love rich cakes paired with airy light frostings, and this one was no exception. The lemon curd was lemony and tart, and the lavender read more as floral than perfume-y, so I was very happy with the combination of the two. It sliced like a dream, and was rich enough that a small piece was enough. A room full of people were served, and there were still a few pieces for the Birthday Girl to have leftover the next day.

Before the onset of Winter, I covered my first season lavender plant with a large, overturned flower pot - so I have high hopes for it's reemergence this Spring. And, with the time change coming up this weekend already, I feel more ready than ever for the change in weather. I'm glad I have a bit of sunny lemon curd to hold me over until the sunlight is good and properly warming when I wander around outside. I certainly will remember both to use my lavender more during the season and to stash more of it away come Fall. I can see this becoming a habit.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Chili Contests, Community Cookbooks, and a Giveaway...

It's Rockabilly Chili Sunday. Milwaukee is fortunate to have WMSE: an independent radio station that is really unlike any other radio format broadcast (I reckon) anywhere. If the wealth of our culture can be seen through food, I'd imagine it must go hand in hand with music. Our station does an amazing job of broadcasting a huge spectrum of both, when this year, the annual Rockabilly Chili Contest brought together more than 60 area restaurants. There were far too many samples for me to taste to declare an educated favorite, so I decided to be very selective in my tasting. But first, just a little about me + WMSE...

I first started listening to WMSE devotedly because of this guy: Johnny Z.

I often think of this quote - written to me in an email from a food blogger I admire, Deena Princhep (Mostly Foodstuffs). I hope she doesn't mind me sharing, but it so aptly describes exactly how I feel about things I really, really love:
I remember reading an article in Might Magazine forever ago by Mike Doughy (whom I actually just saw a few nights ago) detailing the kinds of fans in his show audience: there's the "Dude, you rock!" guy, and the girl who slips you painfully bad poetry. Then there are the people who remind you of your friends, who clearly get your jokes and like your songs and share your sensibilities, but of course they won't come up and talk to you because they are far too shy and don't think you should bug people you admire. I often fall into that category.
I don't actually know Johnny Z., but his show is one I rarely miss. In the late '90's, I had moved to Milwaukee, and had a second shift job. After that job morphed into first shift, I accidentally discovered the Chicken Shack (Friday mornings from 9-noon), and weekly planned any breaks and/or work-related running around during the show's time frame so I could listen to it. I kept a little notebook in the console of the car to scrawl down names like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson. Those were the days before I even had email, let alone a computer in my house... and today you don't have to be in Milwaukee to get in on our well known secret: you can stream live or archived at

I would be lying if I said this event didn't totally overwhelm me. I generally don't spend a lot of time in crowds, and it was wall-to-wall. Amazingly, I overheard more manners than any time in recent memory. People bumping into you is almost a nice thing when you receive a smile and an "I'm sorry", and it didn't just happen once or twice, but many times over. We Milwaukeeans are a polite folk.

Also contributing to my overwhelming state was the number of participating restaurants, and the staggering variety of chilis. Given the sorry breadth of my late winter appetite, I only had room for exactly 5 chili samples. It is depressing, I know.

The first one I tried was from the Outpost, my food co-op. I have NEVER tried Outpost chili! Believe it or not, all of the years I've shopped there, I have rarely bought soup. It's good, a respectable and healthy chili full of beans and textured up with TVP - something I've never cooked with.

These were hearty sample sizes if you ask me. Most places filled these cups right up to the top!

I moved along to Roots. I've been to Roots only a handful of times, and have yet to order a proper dinner - instead sharing snacks and drinks with friends in the less-formal Roots Cellar. I admire their commitment to sustainable eats, and nose-to-tail dining. Trendy as it may be becoming, it's the type of trend that I like hopping on the bandwagon for.

Their chili was a "Pig Head and Sweetbread Chili with Smoked Chicarones". It was green chili, fatty with a building heat. I really liked it a lot - especially when I got to the bottom of the cup and my eyes were hot. I like the building heat or accumulated heat in food, I think it's a little harder to achieve than full out hotness. The Rockabilly Chili Contests asks tasters to vote in 4 different categories, and I gave them my vote for best in the heat category.

Roots: Best Heat.

Brewed Cafe's veggie chili did not disappoint. I love sweet potatoes in chili, and this one was pleasantly sweet, and very substantial. They also had a colorful backdrop proclaiming it Voodoo Chili.

Brewed Cafe: Best Veggie.

I gave them my vote for best veggie chili, and saved the vote for best display for these guys:

Noble Provisions Catering: Best Display.

Noble Provisions Catering. I didn't try their Old-Timey Chili - but wished I did... and these Cumin Corn Cookies looked like the perfect side accompaniment. (I'll have more pics of their old-timey nuances up on flickr after a bit...)

The final best pick that I texted in was this meat chili from The Old German Beer Hall. They caught me by surprise when I stopped in my tracks at the vibrancy of the sliced multi-colored chiles scattered across the top of their vat of triple bratwurst chili. Yes. Bratwurst Chili. We are in Milwaukee, and this was amazing. Not really too meaty, and fortified with both sauerkraut and Jack cheese. This was the sample that put me over the top. I was just plain full.

Old German Beer Hall: Best Meat

I was inspired to keep on with the family cooking struggle this past week when I read a dated Gourmet magazine editorial from Ruth Reichl. Most memorable, was this excerpt which I found myself thinking about over and over as the week wore on:
The great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss did groundbreaking work when he observed that in turning the raw into the cooked we transform nature into culture; in other words, cooking is one of the ways in which we define ourselves as civilized creatures. Through our cooking, and our eating habits, we tell ourselves who we are.
Transforming Nature into Culture. That is powerful stuff. And, if you have a minuscule bit of curiosity, and poke through some vintage cookbooks you can see it for yourself, a transformation of our culture through the years. If you happen to have a stash of food related magazines from as recent as 5 years ago, you can see the trends and the ebb and flow of our foodstuffs - slowly changing, but quite noticeable when retrospected. World-wide food trends differ considerably from our own, and because I am first and foremost an American, I take particular delight in regional American cooking and community cookbooks.

It's not really a secret that without my (Self Decreed) amazing modicum of self-control I would be a pack-rat of epic proportions. It can be argued that I still have a fair amount of clutter, but to my credit, I don't really buy a whole lot to add to the pile. (Sure, the list of things saved to make things out of can grow from time to time: scraps of paper deemed too valuable to toss lest I need them for mailing a package or embellishing some gift tag or something.) I think some of my favorite things are paper-based, including in no small way, vintage recipe leaflets and community cookbooks. On the occasion that I find stacks of them in antique stores, I set a reasonable limit (usually 5) that I'll purchase, and I try to keep in mind at least a dual use: not only do they have to have great font and illustration, they should be somewhat appealing food-wise, contain something that I'd actually make, or be of the ilk that I'd like to gift to someone else.

The chili contest this year featured the first ever Rockabilly Chili Cookbook, compiled of WMSE staff and listener chili recipes, and befitting of all of my aforementioned criteria. Because I love WMSE and because my belly was too full to eat lots of samples to help generate funds for listener-supported radio, I bought two copies so I could give one away to a lucky reader! If you like radio the way radio is supposed to be, and like chili, please leave a comment before midnight on Saturday March 12th, and I'll send you a copy of the first ever WMSE Community Powered Rockabilly Chili Cookbook. Random Number Generator will be my guide... Good Luck to you: with both Meat and Vegetarian/Vegan options, there is something for everyone.

One thing I certainly need to remember for next year is to skip breakfast. Fortunately, I now have 91.7 brand new recipes to inspire my chili cooking between now and then. Chili is one of those things that almost everyone makes, even those who don't really cook. It is endlessly adaptable and thoroughly enjoyable. The little things you add that I do not and vice versa are what continue to shape our culture, our Wisconsin-ness (take that, Texas...). I'd say it's the perfect unifying food: something we can all agree on in these trying times of disagreement.

Additional photos of this event will soon be posted on flickr.