A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, May 11, 2015

If The Challah Bakes, Eat It!

Yes, I'm still baking challah. Yes, I'm still working off of this recipe. And, yes, I'm still fighting with my oven whenever I bake bread. But you know what? I'm really pretty happy with how this effort! I think I'm starting to understand this recipe and the process it entails. Or, rather, I'm beginning to develop a relationship with this recipe. 

A "relationship" with a recipe. I just read what I typed above and for half a second even I thought I sounded kind of, well, you know: nuts. But in all honesty, I have to admit that this is a real thing with me and recipes. I find ones that I like, or they find me, and I bake them once or twice and if I feel good about them after the second time, I know they'll be around for a while. I begin to learn their ins and outs and they teach me what I don't know. Constantly. I am definitely in a relationship with my scone recipe and my pie dough recipe. I'm on the verge of a relationship with my new ginger-lemon cream cookie recipe.

We Interrupt This Pronouncement Of Esoteric Ephemera...

...to bring you this word from Reality: I find recipes I like. I bake them until I get the hang of them. I serve them to people who tend to like them. And so it goes.

Interruption of Pronouncement Of Esoteric Ephemera Ends

The bottom line about this challah recipe is that it's turning out good loaves more often than not, and each one is better than the last. And that makes me happy. 

I baked up a couple of loaves to serve some folks who were coming over to visit last Sunday, so I got up at 4:30 a.m. to get a good jump on things. I side-stepped a potential problem by realizing I'd have to add more water (for whatever reason) than the recipe called for. I believe I'm starting to develop a baker's intuition. And it's about danged time, too! I've tossed more baked goods than I care to admit because I've not been able to tell when I'm about to screw up and how to correct the damage before it happens. 

After all the dough gathering and kneading, the rising went well and I ended up with these, ready for one last rise before I popped them into the oven:

The good kind of inflation.
My braiding can be tighter but I'm getting better at pinching off the ends.

Thirty five minutes of keeping as close a watch on my recalcitrant oven as I could and...:

A baker and his loaves.
Best yet!

Our guests went through a little more than half a loaf. I took the rest of that one with me to work to have with my coffee over the next couple of days. I gave the other loaf to Michele to take to work with her. At lunch time she shared this in the virtual world:

"Ahhh, summer. My husband sent me to work with a home-baked loaf of challah bread so I took a leisurely stroll down to the Polish butcher on 2nd Ave for some of their special ham (omg so good. why don't I buy this every week??), the good mustard, and a little container of beets with horseradish, just because, and a leisurely stroll back under the newly leaved trees & blooming wisteria.. Also, lilacs were acquired. Because why shouldn't Monday have lilacs in it?? So very nice. And for an hour of Monday I pretended it was still Sunday. And, it was."

I responded with: 

"You are going to make me expel droplets of moisture from my light-activated visual acquisition orbs."

To which she responded:

"What can I say? You inspired a superb lunch break." And she sent this to me:

My sweetie's lunch
She also told me that one of her co-workers wasn't going to have any of the bread until she found out it was challah and then she made a mad dash for the loaf. After Michele explained that I wasn't Jewish, and that she had given me cultural reference and guidance, this co-worker pronounced it "the real deal".

And I can't ask for more than that.

Currently listening to: Bic Runga - Election Night 


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Back Where I Started, Or: Those Darned Ginger Lemon Cream Cookies

The impetus for this blog was a batch of lemon ginger cream cookies that a friend of ours tasted and caused him to enthuse that my culinary skills should be filling up the pages of a food blog. The jury is still out on the latter. And it's still out, as far as I'm concerned, on the tastiness of the lemon ginger creams. It's been a couple of years since I made them and part of that lag has been the fact that despite how much people have enjoyed them, I've felt they could be better.

And what, precisely, do I think can be better? The cookie: a little too thick, even though it was a good thickness for an ordinary cookie. The filling: too hard and a bit chalky in my hindsight. And the lemon flavoring wasn't quite right for what I wanted in that cookie. Of course, this could all be hindsight and "miss-remembering" considering so many people liked that last version. I think I have the right to second guess myself here, especially when that second guessing leads to another round of baking! (See? I create my own ulterior motives.)

A few months ago, I tested four(!) versions of this cookie. I found a secondary recipe for both the filling and the cookie and mixed and matched them with the cookie and filling from my last version. The group of friends who endured this test cursed me with thanks and compliments for a whole weekend. When the dust cleared, though, they were split on which cookie was better but approved of my original (but slightly tweaked) filling recipe.

The results, though ego-boosting, weren't conclusive enough for me, so I made my own decision about the cookie (a modified gingerbread cookie recipe) and kind of pulled elements from each of the filling recipes to create a third. And got down to baking another batch.

The first thing I did, though, was change my technique a little. I'd been using the whisk attachment on my Kitchen Aid mixer to work the dough from start to finish. This time, though, I switched to the paddle attachment before I added the flour and it did a much better job of thoroughly mixing the dough. See? Always teaching myself the obvious. There was not a dry patch to be seen once I separated the dough into manageable batches and wrapped them in plastic. 

Ready for the chill stage.
 Rolling the dough out proved to be a little easier, too, which was good because I wanted a thinner cookie that I could bake for a shorter time.

Rounds upon rounds.
Nothing like having to bake twice as many to half as much. By the time I got done baking, all of my cooling rack were covered with stacks of cookies. I was afraid to count how many I'd made.

One of the things that I'm always afraid of is running out of filling, so I made a quadruple batch. 

Full of filling.
So. Much. Stirring! Working with this stuff is probably my biggest challenge because right now I don't have a method of easily doling out the right amount of filling per cookie. The pastry bags that I have aren't really suited for it, nor are any of the tips I have. I used a teaspoon for this batch but I can tell I'm going to have to make a trip down to N.Y. Cake to find the right equipment. (I'd send you to their Website but it appears to be a bit screwy at the moment, so, you'll have to imagine a giant room filled from stem to stern with all manner of cake baking and decorating utensils, tools, molds, and more.)

The end result was a cookie that I'm almost one hundred percent happy with. Of course, there's one more thing I think I want to try, but that's a story for another day.

Stacks and stack of ginger snacks.
As it stands, a batch went to my bread baking student Hannah (which was actually a ruse for me to send her one of my packages of instant yeast so that she'll have it for our next "lesson"), another went to two of my aunts in Florida (belated birthday gifts), some went to my father-in-law, and the rest got distributed to friends here. So far no one's been injured and I've seen lots of smiling faces. 

I might be onto something here.

Currently listening to: Al Jarreau - We Got By