A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Facebook Inspired FaceTime Face-Off Bake-Off

Or: I Must Be Out Of My Yeast-Addled Mind!

Sometime last year I posted a few of my challah attempts on my Facebook page. I've yet to make what I consider a good enough loaf (still working on getting the braiding right), but I'm not half-bad when it comes to presentation and taste (according to Michele). An old friend, Hannah, whom I haven't seen in thirty-four years (although we've pinged each other from time to time on Facebook over the last couple of years) commented on one of my posts and expressed a desire for me to teach her a bit about bread baking. "We should set up a FaceTime call and you can teach me how to bake bread!" or words to that effect.

Now, I'll be the first person to tell you that I am not a baking instructor. I mean, I'm still only just getting my hands wet in this arena and my skills are tenuous at best and anyone who comes to me for tips is likely to leave with a lot of bad habits and questionable information. I said as much when I told Michele about the Facebook exchange.

Her reply? "You should do it." My reply to her reply? "What?!?" Her reply to my reply to her reply? "I think it'll be good for you as a baker. And I think it'll be fun!" 

At about the same time, I got a message from another friend of ours (local) who asked me to teach her how to make chicken pot pies. And my older sister, Karla, called from San Antonio wanting me to teach her how to bake scones. Universe to Carlton: Bloody-well get off your duff and teach some baking! Carlton to Universe: Ouch! Don't hit so hard! Michele to Carlton: See? Told you. Carlton to Michele: Side-eye.

After getting over myself, I set up a FaceTime session with my big sister and over the course of a couple of hours, did a passable job of teaching her how to bake scones. Proof of Concept Achievement unlocked! 

After rescheduling several times (hey, adults are busy bees) Hannah and I settled on a date we could both make. I sent her a few recipes to choose from, and, after she went on an unsuccessful flour hunt (who knew it was so difficult to get white whole wheat flour in San Francisco?), we decided on an oatmeal toasting/sandwich bread. I thought it was simple enough to start with and would give us the best possible outcome. We'd work each step together, so she could see what I was doing and emulate it. That way, we'd have pretty much the same visual, tactile, and olfactory cues for the different stages of baking.

And then I waited. And worried that I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I mean, scones are one thing; I've been making them for almost thirty years. Bread? I've made maybe four or six decent loaves in the last few years. What was I doing thinking I could teach anyone anything about bread? I had my doubts but something I've come to realize about myself reasserted itself: whenever I've taught anyone anything, I've learned quite a bit through the act of teaching. So, regardless of whether I was actually able to impart any wisdom the next day, I'd come away from the experience with something for myself.

Coordinating across four time zones, and almost three thousand miles, wasn't easy but it gave me time to pull everything together mise en place. That in itself helped calm me down so when Hannah called at her 10 a.m., I was ready. It's very interesting reconnecting with someone with whom I shared a relatively brief sliver of life, and doing so over a mutual desire to bake. It was lovely playing a little catch up, meeting her son and her husband, and introducing her to Michele (as she breezed in and out on various errands), all through the magic of the Interwebs.

Once we settled into the actual "lesson", I began to understand exactly what my goal would be: to have Hannah end up with a loaf of bread that was something other than a hockey puck...which is what she claimed to always bake. Maybe I couldn't teach her how to make a "perfect loaf" but I could definitely help her get past the block she was currently experiencing. We talked yeast, and did a little experiment with some of what she had there. We discussed process and technique and I think I gave her a better understanding of the concept of kneading. 

The thing about bread baking is that it comes with breaks built in because of the time needed for the dough to rise. This gave us opportunities to get things done around our abodes and to do more catching up. It also gave me the change to realize that Michele was right: I was having fun. I also realized that Hannah's enthusiasm was making it very easy to find ways to guide her and to share this experience. 

So, how did it turn out? Please to observe:

Yes. I remember that smile from three decades ago.

Under the watchful eye.

How meta!
And mine:

I had to have a slice....
Hannah's loaf didn't rise as much as mine because we, unfortunately, had to use different types of yeast. She also had to add more flour to the mix because of the extra water in her yeast preparation (something I'm going to do a little research on for myself). And we both agreed that she needs to knead better next time. But it wasn't a hockey puck! She said it tasted excellent and she was so happy with how things turned out that she wanted to bake another loaf the next day.

For myself, I identified more than a few areas that I'll need to work on but I was very, very happy with how the session went. Just seeing her smile at the end of it all was worth it! So, thank you Hannah; you were a fabulous student! You taught me a lot (even if you don't think such a thing is possible).

End Note:
There's more to this story but I'm still processing it. Considering myself as someone who is not only in the middle of the beginning of his baking journey, but also someone who has one or two things worth teaching, is a lot to take in. It's actually changing how I think about baking and what I'm learning for myself. I can guide even as I explore. Heavy concept.

End Note ends.

Currently listening to: Jonatha Brooke – Charming/Andrew Duffy's Jig

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How I Spent My European Vacation (Or: Walk It Off!) Part 2 - Lisbon

Photos by Michele der Beker
(She To Whom I Am Married)

The first pastry I had in Lisbon was horrendous. In fact, the several "traditional" pastries I tried were not very good. Partly I blame the hotel (and the on-line suggestions) for pointing us at a couple of "the oldest" pastry shops in the city. Just because they're the oldest, doesn't mean they're the best. So, the first meal we had in Lisbon, after we'd taken the night train from Madrid (which I would do again in a heartbeat) was a bit disappointing because "one of the oldest" pastry shops in the city was also a tremendous tourist trap.

First meal. Big disappointment.
Perhaps I just didn't pick the right dishes. Perhaps the last thing I should have ordered first thing in the morning was a custardy something wrapped in a doughnutty thing overly sprinkled with sugar. Perhaps.

Still, the search for that cafe gave us a good bit of leg stretching, which we needed after the train. And our subsequent wanderings (while we waited for check-in time at our hotel) led me to discover what this particular part of the vacation was going t be about: the coffee. In Lisbon, the typical way to have espresso is to order a bica. The history is a bit hazy on the origin of the word, and I won't get into it here, but when we found another of the "oldest" establisments in the city, I ordered my first bica. And promptly forgot the breakfast I mostly didn't eat twenty-five minutes earlier.


I am not a lover of espresso. I enjoy half-and-half or steamed milk in my coffee. The mediocre con leche coffee we had at breakfast definitely aided in my decision to broaden my caffeine horizons.

Disclaimer ends.

Bica, the first. And notice the logo. Foreshadowing!
I could tell that the coffee itself wasn't high-end but the preparation and presentation (and the speed at which I was served) was impressive. And I thought it was delicious.

With regards to dessert, though, the best we had was on our first night in Lisbon. Setting a precedent for this leg of the trip, we couldn't get a reservation at our first choice restaurant, so Michele consulted Miss Yelp and found us another place, Quermesse. It was within walking distance of our hotel and very well reviewed. Our wonderful concierge made a reservation for us, even though he gave us the side-eye and claimed he'd never heard of the place. 

We dressed and made a leisurely walk over to the restaurant only to find that the hotel had made the reservation for the following night. We were prepared to find another place when the manager/owner told us to give him five minutes to find us a table. Considering the non-cavernous size of the place, and how busy it was, I wasn't expecting much, but sure enough, five minutes later, he waved us in and sat us at a table. There were probably twelve or fourteen tables total and not a one was vacant. 

There were quite a few dishes on the menu we wanted to try. It took us a little bit to figure out that "Entree" wasn't a main course, but an appetizer – an "entrance" to the meal. I think I worked that one out.

Wonderful choices!
The spinach soup, and the fried shrimp (in a chili sauce that had just the right amount of heat to it), gave us a great start to a sublime experience. We weren't shy about sharing our pleasure with the staff, either. By the time my main course – shredded codfish with baby potatoes, greens, coriander an corn bread – arrived, my palate was simmering with a happy warmth that I'm sure was plain to read on my face.

Cornbread crumbles on the top of a cylinder of deliciousness!
Halfway through this, I was having visions of recreating it for Michele at some point. In the back of my head, an axiom began forming. I'll get back to that in a bit. Michele's main course choice of Pork cheeks in Estremadua red wine sauce with lemon risotto was tasty but didn't photograph well. Each bite of the meal was better than the preceding one and our enthusiasm flowed into copious compliments to the staff, who seemed quite taken with these odd Americans who couldn't shut up about how good the food tasted.

When it was time to choose dessert, Michele asked about the "Abade Priscos" pudding. The owner/manager very happily gave us the history of this dish, which was a very thick custard – so thick you could cut it – covered in a caramel sauce that's infused with bacon to offset the sweetness of the caramel and the custard. The bacon is removed before it imports any of its flavor, though. After hearing that, she had to order it. 

Custard so thick you could cut it with a knife!
I'd already settled n the chocolate petit gateau and vanilla ice cream with mint sauce.

Quite a pairing!
The combinations of tastes in each of our choices were exquisite! We honestly couldn't rave enough about these. I thought about how the mint sauce reminded me of my mint chocolate chip ice cream, and how wonderful the caramel sauce on the custard tasted and desperately wished I could have been in the kitchen either learning these dishes are making up my own. 

And the axiom, which I shared with the owner/manager, shifted from the back of my mind to the tip of my tongue: If a meal makes me long to be in a kitchen cooking and baking, then it's a damned good meal, indeed! This brought as big a smile to his face as the ones we'd been flashing throughout the whole meal.

The rest of the trip? It was all about the bica. Case in point: we started off one night by wandering an area of the city that was known for its nightlife. After a while we figured out that it really wasn't the scene we were looking for. A quick consult of our map and we found ourselves in another part of the city, in a square surrounded by shops restaurants and a few bars. Michele hastily pulled me into one of the bars and I, true to local form, ordered a bica. Rich, delicious and nothing like the swill you'd get if you ordered coffee in a place that wasn't a specialty coffee house at home. 

The next day, we were searching for a particular store and wound up in the same square as the night before.

Michele (pointing in one direction): We continue on down that way and to the right.

Me (after a quick glance to my left): No we don't.

I peeled off and ducked into the same bar and ordered a bica.


Add sugar and stir.
One sip.
Two sips and done! But notice the napkin holder. Foreshadowing!
Now we could be on our merry way.

The rest of the trip wasn't really only about me drinking coffee in Lisbon. We had a great time with a side trip to Sintra, did lots of wandering around in different areas of the city, figured out some of the transit system, and had fabulous breakfasts in the hotel, among other things. And we walked...a lot! It was a wonderful trip that gave us some amazing memories. And that's what it's all about.

What's that? Foreshadowing? Oh. Right. So, I brought a little bit of Portugal back with me:

Foreshadowing fulfilled!
Mmmmmmmmmm! Bica!

Currently listening to: Above & Beyond - You Got To Go (Seven Lions Dubstep Mix)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Just A Pie Before I Sleep

I had some pie dough in the refrigerator, left over from the weekend. I made a batch, and by batch I mean, enough dough for a double-crust pie or two single-crust pies, because we were having friends over, not once, but twice in one day and I thought I'd have time to make two pies. Wrong! As it was, I finished one pie, sweet potato, mere moments before the first round of guests arrived. Fortunately for me, the second round was a little smaller than we'd anticipated and the one pie sufficed.

But that left me with dough for another pie! What to make? Well, there are always eggs on hand, so why not egg custard? 

Sudden Realization 

Last night, while baking said egg custard pie, I realized that all our lives, because of my Nana, we've been using an oxymoron. Custard is made with eggs, so an "egg custard" pie is kind of redundant. But tradition is tradition, so...Egg Custard Pie!

Sudden Realization Ends 

I'm beginning to get the hang of this pie, so there wasn't too much drama in the making. I still scald the milk, despite the fact that it's completely unnecessary. I just like using my candy thermometer, and the repetitive stirring is kind of soothing. 

Because the baking dish I chose is a shallow one, I had enough dough for a second, small pie. I did that on purpose because I wanted to have something to give Michele to take to work as a snack this morning. And since she went to be way before I did, it will be a surprise!

I love this baking dish!
Tiny pie...just for my Love.
My goal is to always try to improve whatever pastry I decide to keep in my repertoire, so I tweak here and there to see what works. This time I ended up coating the crusts completely with the egg white wash, even the edges. I really don't like the way it makes the edges look. They took on that kind of varnished look of so many mass produced pies, so I'll be careful to only coat the bottom and the sides from now on.

My next post will definitely be about our Lisbon adventure!

Currently listening to: Crosby, Stills, and Nash - Just A Song Before I Go

Sunday, April 5, 2015

How I Spent My European Vacation (Or: Walk It Off!) Part 1 - Madrid

Photos by Michele der Beker
(She To Whom I Am Married)

I am married to an amazing vacation planner. This is a good thing because I pretty much rot it. Design a seven course dinner? No problem! Manage a guest list? Sure thing! This and more I can do. If it revolves around the kitchen, I'm in my element. Getting us from here to there and back, with research on the "there" part, I have to bow to my genius wife because she's the best! So it was with our latest European trip, to Madrid and Lisbon. Between her copious research and my ability to follow her lead (and my uncanny ability to keep a safeguarding eye on her when she's jet lagged, so that we don't get too lost) we had a wonderful adventure in Spain and Portugal.

Michele's also an excellent photographer and agreed to document my explorations of any local pastries and baked goods we came across. Below is her photo essay on my eating my way from bakery to restaurant to cafe. I add (im)pertinent words as needed but let's face it, you know I'm going to have commentary; it's just the way I am. This collaboration was a lot of fun, so we'll be doing it again whenever the opportunity presents itself.

 Hot Chocolate, Madrid-style

So. Our first night in Madrid we had tapas with a friend and then went for a night time walking tour of a few of the neighborhoods. We ended up at a hot chocolate and churros place.
Every city should have one!
Now, I've seen churros in NYC; in my old neighborhood of Washington Heights, street vendors sell them. I always passed them up because I know I'll be in danger of wanting them all the time. I mean, deep fried pastry dough? Come on! The smell alone is addicting! Still, when you're on vacation, the idea is to try new things, so I had my first churros in Spain. And I was right: addictive qualities abound. Notice I don't have any pictures of me actually eating a churro. That's because they were pretty much gone before Michele could take any pictures. What she did capture was me waxing rhapsodic over my cup of hot chocolate.

Hot Chocolate in Cold Madrid
The hot chocolate was so thick it was almost pudding and it was utterly delicious. Rich, dark, and cold-dispelling. The perfect cup to cap off a lovely night out.

Cloistered Cookies

When one thinks of Madrid, cookies doesn't readily come to mind. Well, not to my mind, anyway. But Michele found a most unique source for cookies, though: baked and sold in a little monastery by nuns. Now that was something I had to see! Except I couldn't, because the nuns are cloistered. Still, we went in search of...Cloistered Cookies.

First, we found the address.

Good thing all the arrows pointed in the right direction!
 Then we waited.
The hour is upon us!
There was another couple there, waiting as we were, and they explained, in Spanish, the way things worked. I caught every thirteenth word. Michele caught every other word, so she had a pretty good idea what was going on. When the clock struck 16:30, we buzzed the intercom and were rewarded with a "click" at the door and entered...into a maze-like series of dark corridors and hallways. I told Michele that this is how folks end up dead in horror movies. She doesn't watch them, so I had to fill her in on the conventions. She scoffed at me!

At the end of the maze was a wall with a gigantic, partitioned, steel lazy Susan. (Michele said it was made of wood, but I could have sworn it was creaky, clanking, metal.) From somewhere behind the thick stone walls we heard a faint "Hola!" Michele told them what we wanted: two boxes of cookies (one almond, one orange). We put the required amount of Euros on the lazy Susan, which groaned and ground metal-on-stone as it turned away from us. Half a minute later it turned again, and in the compartment was a bloody, severed head! 

Body of Christ but no severed heads. Sigh.
Okay. No. Not a severed head. Two boxes of cookies. Sans blood. Not that I was disappointed, mind you. We wound our way out of the convent with our new Spanish acquaintances who were telling Michele that there was an actual store nearby that sold other items made by the monks and nuns of the local convents and monasteries.

The Garden of the Convent. We waited for the monks...who never showed up.
They led us to the store, which was closed but would reopen in an hour, and then went on their way. 

We decide to while away some of our time in a nearby upscale market. I needed a coffee and something dessert-like. I found the dessert.

Hemisphere of sweetness!
I don't even know the name of this but it was fabulous! A dollop of chocolate mousse, surrounded by as spongy meringue, dusted with cocoa. This is one I'll have to research and make for myself!

If the spoon fits...chow down!
Michele found the coffee. Apparently this was the vacation of me learning how to drink espresso. Or, rather, learning that I like espresso more than I thought I did. I had many during this trip!

Tiny cuppa!
Taking a self portrait of Michele taking a picture. Silliness abounded!
We went back to the store. There were no monks, but the cashier was nice. Unfortunately, there wasn't really anything there that we felt compelled to purchase. Oh, well. It was a good adventure to have on our last day in Madrid.

So long, Madrid! Thanks for the good eats! And for casting me in your Horror Convent of Cloistered Cookies! (By the by, I'm close to killing the box of orange wafers! Dee-licious!)

Next up: Lisbon!

Currently listing to: Anita Baker - You're The Best Thing Yet