Pretzels, and getting out of them.

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What have I been up to exactly? Dear reader, the real question is where do I begin?

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In the past six months, I’ve been a part time hand model, food stylist, professional granola/ice cream maker, freelance beer-tender, recipe tester, and almost cheesemonger. I’ve drank too many cups of good coffee, accidentally worn my apron to the grocery store, and learned how to pronounce things like Fernet. The past months have made many recipes and stories; so stay tuned! Those stories are on their way.

When I first moved to Seattle, I started helping out at The Pantry, a well-loved and well-respected food craft cooking school. At The Pantry, I worked alongside a group of amazing women who made it their goal to introduce me to Seattle’s food scene. It was my first job in the food industry and most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing.

Despite my glass-breaking, pan-burning foibles, The Pantry ladies stuck with me and taught me their magic food ways. By the end of my summer stint at the school, I knew how to prepare the pies class’s pie dough like a pro and fix a broken aioli in record time. I met fascinating chefs, renowned food writers, and home cooks that have since given me more opportunities than I can count on my ten fingers. The Pantry made my coming out to foodie society sophisticated and proper, and it was wonderful.

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Well, it was wonderful ninety-nine percent of the time.

The first class I helped an instructor lead was called Pretzel Making at Home. It would have been the perfect class to start. We would only make two types of dough and a few simple dipping sauces, and I had power posed in front of the mirror before work; there would be no chance for stove-top blunders or knife skills gone wrong. But, only perfect situations become not perfect.

When I arrived at the kitchen to get things ready for class, I found large plastic bottles of lye waiting for me. Yes, the same chemical lye that Brad Pitt uses to burn Edward Norton’s hand in Fight Club. A pretzel evolves into a pretzel after it bathes in either a baking soda or lye solution;  I had thought we would use baking soda because, come on, no one wants to see that Fight Club scene, the “this a chemical burn” demonstration, in real life. But the instructor, a food anthropologist-chef who was about to publish a book on pretzels, insisted lye was best. So I listened, pushed the chemical burn scenarios from my mind, made sure everyone was double-gloved, and, by golly, sprayed those pretzels in lye.

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I have to admit; the lye was worth it. After a sprinkle of caraway, poppy, and sesame seeds, our pretzels tasted like edible pieces of Bavarian Germany. And they were beautiful too. Lye gave the pretzels a thick, deeply golden-black crust that safe baking soda could never give. Do not fear the pretzel and its lye ( Lie! Hah pun time! Okay, sorry, too much.) Instead, embrace this jumbled pretzel of a life, do something you’ve never done before, and taste its uncertainty, its imperfections. Who knows? Pretzels might just teach you a useful lesson or two.

Traditional German Soft Pretzels

By Andrea Slonecker, adapted from Pretzel Making at Home

Makes 8 pretzels

  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water (100 – 115 degrees)
  • 1 tbsp firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/2 cup cold pilsner or lager-style beer
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and softened, plus more for greasing the bowl
  • 2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp food-grade lye or 1/4 cup baking soda
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp water

Follow this link to see how, step-by-step,  Andrea Slonecker and The Oregonian create the perfect pretzel (lye-sprayed, of course.)

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Hot cross buns.

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Sometimes god feels near. And other times far away.

Yesterday morning I rolled hot cross buns between my palms and their sticky dough was fragrant with cinnamon, their flesh studded with little black currants and stained cranberry pink.

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Every Easter morning that I can remember, Daddy has made hot cross buns. I’d wake up early to watch him cross the top of risen dough with a sharp knife. He or Mimi would say, “Christ is risen.” I’d savor the sacred liturgical feel of it all; my reply, “Christ is risen indeed,” would be as delicious as the rolls’ spiced, fluffy crumb.

Grandma Lorena had baked hot cross buns on Easter when Daddy was growing up and so when he made them yesterday it was without question or anticipation. Easter hot cross buns have become a wonderful, almost sweet inevitability.

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When Grandma made hot cross buns, she got up hours before sunrise to take the dough from its overnight refrigerator rise. Grandpa left as the rolls baked to prepare for his sunrise sermon at church. Then Daddy and his two brothers bumbled downstairs. They were hungry and adolescent, drawn toward the smell of yeast and caramelized currants that would soon actualize on their plates with gooseberry preserves and butter.

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Yesterday morning it had just rained and dew drops hung from budded branches. The air was heavy, almost balmy with spring and life.  I dressed the rolls’ wounds with white powdered sugar quietly. The morning, its movement of life, converged in that moment of torn bread becoming whole. Christ is risen indeed.

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Hot Cross Buns

Makes 24 rolls. Recipe from Lorena Blount’s kitchen and her mother, Pearl’s, cookbook, 1953.

  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (equal to 1 package of yeast)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 cup milk, scalded
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 well-beaten egg
  • 3 1/2 cup sifted flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2/3 cup currants, raisins, or cranberries
  1. Soften yeast in warm water (110 degrees.)
  2. Combine milk, butter, sugar, and salt; cool to lukewarm. Add softened yeast and egg. Gradually stir in flour to form soft dough. Beat vigorously.
  3. Cover and let rise in warm place (around 82 degrees) ’til double in bulk, about 2 hours. (Most rolls require only thorough mixing, with little or no kneading.)
  4. Form into 2 dozen buns and flatten slightly. Brush tops with milk or slightly beaten egg white. Let rise ’til very light. Using a knife, cut top of buns at right angles to form cross. Bake at 375 degrees, 25-30 minutes.
  5. Cool. Then make crosses with powdered sugar icing. Snip off the end of a clean envelope to make decorating tube for frosting. Cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter, or vanilla make a good frosting– you won’t need much.

Aside: (my notes say that bigger buns are preferable to small ones which dry out during baking.)

Make bread.

While back home in Georgia, I noticed that the cherry trees decided to blossom a couple months early. Time has been folding upon itself of late. I’m under a spell and I think it might be the smell of baking bread.

For break, I journeyed over the Appalachians to Kentucky to visit with my cousin and friends. In Kentucky, the air smells smoky and raw and baking bread seems like the right thing to do. With dinnertime fast approaching, my friend and I tried our luck with quick-rise yeast. We melted butter with milk, added flour and kneaded any frustrations into the counter-top,  and luxuriated in the feeling of dough as soft as a baby’s bottom. In no time (well, about 20 minutes) the loaf had risen double its size. We popped it in the oven and 30 minutes later the lovingly lumpy, bread “baby” was born. The whole process took about 1 hour and 30 minutes, half the time it takes to make bread with standard yeast. Now I know how heaven can rapidly produce the endless loaves of fresh bread that I pray will be there: quick-rise yeast.

Above: admiring my mom’s hand-written recipe book, kneading dough with the dough hook and grinding wheat berries. Below: taking a break for turkey.

Le Pain, Painless

makes 2 loaves or 24 rolls

5-1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour (can also use bread flour; I use freshly ground red wheat for my whole wheat version)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 envelopes Fleischmann’s RapidRise Yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter (coconut oil is great too)

Combine 2 cups flour, sugar, undissolved yeast, and salt in a large mixer bowl.  Heat water, milk, and butter until very warm (120° to 130°F; my grandmother knows if it’s hot enough by putting her pinky finger in the warm liquid and holding for 3 seconds without burning her finger.)
Stir into flour mixture.  Beat 2 minutes at medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally.  Stir in 1 cup flour; beat at high speed for 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.  Stir in enough remaining flour to make soft dough.  Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Cover; let rest 10 minutes.
Divide dough in half.  Place in greased 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 inch loaf pans. If you want rolls, form the dough in to your favorite roll shape and place in a circular pie pan. Cover; let rise in warm, draft free place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake at 400°F for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.  Remove from pans; cool on wire rack. Eat immediately for wonderful melt-your-butter bread.

The Swiss Bakery.

If you’re ever in Santa Fe, the first thing you must do is to drop everything you’re doing. The second thing you must do is to get thee self to The Swiss Bakery on corner of Guadalupe and Montezuma.

No excuses. Upon arrival, a lovely waitress will instantly serve you with rounds of delicate shortbread as you relax at your tranquil, corner-nestled bistro table. In between leisurely people watching, you might order the hazelnut cappuccino with a light yet flavorful lemon ricotta crêpe or the arm-sacrifice-worthy Eggs Benedict. Or, like me, you might find yourself glued before the café’s glass case of colorful Napoléons, tarts toppling with fresh apricots and violet blackberries, and citrus glazed almond croissants.

I won’t judge you if you gaze with more longing at The Swiss Bakery’s croissants than you would the man you love. No one could after they have had one bite of these elegant, golden creatures that contain more butter than you keep in your fridge during the Christmas baking season. There’s even free parking at Sanbusco around the corner if you keep your daily need for The Bakery on the down-low.

Ruth and Phillipe, two Santa Feans originally from Lausanne, Switzerland, own and run the business seven days a week. Phillipe trained for many years at a Swiss pastry school doing work that, he says, was much more difficult than anything he did while serving in the Swiss Guard. Check The Bakery out and give Phillipe a kiss on the cheek; one bite of his legendary Swiss Apple Strudel and you’ll realize all of his hard work is certainly not for naught. “Life is short. Eat desert first.”

Apricot sauce and french toast.

Monsoon season has announced herself in the desert. It rained all day last Sunday. The temperature dropped to the low 60s and hazy, mist-shrouded mountains demanded Santa Fe’s inhabitants to don their flannel and pull out mugs of hot mint tea. When I woke up last Sunday morning, the air was crisp and fresh. The fountain was full and I turned it on for a sensory addition to my morning yoga. With such abundant water and light, it seemed appropriate to give thanks. And so I did. For breakfast.

I looked in the fridge and pulled out local whole milk so creamy it leaves a film reminiscent of butter and cheesecake on your tongue, Irene’s green and brown farm eggs, and bowls of bright red-orange apricots. The apricots’ skin was soft and sinfully fragrant at the touch.  They begged for a little self preservation. I found a couple stale slices of crumbly Orno bread from Wednesday’s market and added the slices to my ingredient pile.

While listening to little apricot pleas, I cracked eggs, spilled milk, and scraped out the seedy interior of a fresh vanilla bean pod. I pitted over 250 apricots and set them at a simmer on the stove. When finished, the kitchen could’ve been declared a national disaster zone, yellow caution tape and all.

The french toast was creamy with a delicate golden crust. I drizzled fresh apricot sauce over my slice’s eggy interior and watched it saturate with ethereal tartness. The tastes, the smells, the moment of absolute contentment: it was water in the desert.

Apricot Sunday French Toast

from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. And yes, Molly is correct; use the amount of oil she calls for in the recipe.

for 6 slices bread, serves 3.

1 cup milk
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract or fresh vanilla
¼ tsp salt
Mild-tasting vegetable oil, such as canola
6 slices bread (a bias-cut country French loaf, orno bread, etc…), about ¾ to 1 inch thick

Whisk together the first five ingredients in a wide, shallow bowl. Place a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over low to medium heat, and add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the skillet.

Two or three at a time, add the bread slices to the egg mixture in the bowl, allowing them to rest for a minute or two on each side. They should feel heavy and thoroughly saturated, but not be falling apart. When the oil is hot, place the slices in the skillet. They should sizzle a bit, and the oil will bubble lightly around the edges of the bread; take care, however, that the oil is not too hot or the egg mixture will burn. Cook until the underside of each slice is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn the bread, and cook until the second side is golden, another 2 minutes or so. Remove the bread from the skillet to a plate lined with a paper towel, allow to rest for 30 seconds, and serve immediately. Top with greek yogurt, stewed prunes, apricot sauce, cinnamon, and honey. Cherries on top are always welcome.