Jams and Jellies

How to make jam/jelly:

Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin
Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin

Jelly is just jam without pulp. It is easier to have jam come out right because the fruit can cover for you if it didn’t jell properly, but it’s really pretty easy. You make the juice by straining the cooked fruit through muslin- or an old t-shirt stretched over an upside down chair. Put a chair upside down on the table, stretch thin, clean white fabric over it- we used to have all these old fashioned diapers- I swear they were clean- and attach the corners firmly to the legs with strip of rag, rubber bands, what have you. Make sure it is very firmly tied or you will have boiling hot fruit splashed everywhere. Set a large bowl under the cloth on the bottom of the chair seat. Cook the fruit with water just peeking through the layer below the top layer When it is properly soft dump it carefully into your cloth strainer and let it drip overnight. Don’t squeeze the bag unless you aren’t worried about the clarity of the jelly.

Pectin:

Making plum jam

Making plum jam

Some fruit has pectin; some does not. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies become firm. There is a lot of pectin in apples, the greener the better. It is possible to make your own liquid pectin from green apples, especially what we call the drops- the smaller apples that fall early and don’t really ripen. However I find I am not good at producing a consistent product so I don’t always do it. Yes, it is the right thing to do- we should not be dependent on a bought product if we can make it ourselves. But if my jelly turns out really tough or really runny, it is sort of a waste of my fruit and labor. I need to improve, but in the meantime, if you don’t mix apple juice with a non-pectin fruit like elderberry or suncherries or even hot peppers, there is Surejel and Ball Pectin, Dutch Jel (sold in bulk at Amish type bulk food stores), or many other brands. Follow the recipe, although I often try to reduce the sugar just a little and generally it is fine. If not, either use the runny jam on pancakes or follow the instructions on the pectin instructions for “if your jelly fails…..”

So, procedure wise:cukes and razz jam 004

Have your jars all ready: wash them with very hot water, set them to dry on a clean folder dish towel or thick cloth. Boil the lids for 15 minutes. There are magnetic lid lifters to get them out of the boiling water, or you can use tongs. Have more ready than you think you will need.

Measure your fruit or juice into a very large pot. It has to boil up a lot and you don’t want to boil over. Have your sugar measured out and ready. Bring your fruit or juice to a boil, with or without the pectin, boil for a minute, then add the sugar and bring to a boil. My female ancestors always skimmed the “scum” off, which was delicious foam to little me, but I don’t see why. Some people put a teaspoon of butter in to stop it scumming. I don’t think it matters to the end result. Maybe if you are making a very clear, pretty jelly you need to worry about skimming scum. The important part is to watch for sheeting. If you boil it too long first it will cool tough and stringy, with less fruity taste, and then it will be tough and brown, and pull like candy. Still yummy, but we’re making something to spread on bread here. Get a large wooden spoon. Spoon up a little of the liquid after it has boiled hard 1 minute. Let it cool about 10 seconds, then, turn the spoon over so that the jelly runs off the edge of the spoon. I prefer to let it roll over the back of the spoon. It seems to show the sheeting better. Watch the drips. What you see before it sheets is two  drips running off the spoon separately.  Stir and try again. Now the drips might start to run into each other but still become one normal shaped drip. Try again. Don’t leave it. Finally the two drips will run together but stay wide, like a flat blob, and fall off in a sheet. This is the perfect time to jar. If it never happens, perhaps your fruit was too ripe, you changed the recipe too much, or you went to the bathroom and it overboiled. In this case you can either reprocess your jam according to the “if your jam fails” directions on the package insert, you can just let it be runny and label it pancake syrup, and actually, some pectin added jellies will firm up over time. But it’s not that hard. Usually it is fine. Check out the raspberry jam recipe. That one needs only sugar.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

I haven’t really experimented with methoxy and other low sugar options. I don’t use that much sugar normally and I am an old stick in the mud about new ideas that involve long words. It took me a long time to give in to pectin. My maiden name is Dabney; an old Virginia name. Did you ever hear this one? How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, I’d say four or five. One to change it; the others to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was.

When you pour your boiling hot jam or jelly into the clean jars, having them on an old towel prevents damage to the tabletop.  Use a funnel to prevent drips. Make sure your funnel is clean by upending it in the boiling water you have the lids in. Check the edges of the jars for drips as that can prevent a good seal.

Two ways to seal:

Put the lids on finger tight. I invert the jars for 7 seconds and then set them up right-ways again. You will hear a soft hiss as air superheated by the hot jam exhausts  out of the jar. Then tighten it a bit more- as it is hotter you can do that. If I do this I find I don’t usually have to process in a hot water bath and I don’t get mold.

Or you can put on the lids finger tight and submerge them in a pot of hot water, boil for 15 minutes, then pull out and allow to cool. You can get jar lifters cheaply in the dollar store or many hardware stores. This will allow you to safely remove the jar to a clean towel where it can cool. It will be nice and clean to label and put in the pantry.

no knead bread
This is the “no knead” bread made famous by Mark Bittman.

Yum. Now, you need to make some proper bread to put that on, seriously. Remember I told you

Cider time again- and apple cake

Homemade cider

Homemade cider

Well, looks like I’ve been at this a year. The first pictures I took were apples and chestnuts. There is so much more to cover than I thought, and if I’m doing, I’m not writing and vice versa . But here I sit with a fine glass of cider, aged one year, with a perfect head and dry crisp flavor.  Here is the link to last year when we pressed it.

Apples this year are less plentiful. The excessive rain fostered the fungus, and many apples fell before they got any size to them. The watermelons didn’t like it either- they are a peri-Kalahari fruit and after the rainy season they expect a dry season. Nonetheless we persevere. My father and I went out and got a few buckets of apples. I selected the nicest for cakes and we ran the rest through the press. We got about two gallons. This is the first year I had to remind him about Keats’s Ode to Autumn, but he did rally with a few words. My heart breaks. Do not go gentle into that good night.

The best apple cake is this one. Yes, apple pie is a showcase, and if it rains I can elaborate on pie crust technique, but right now I need simple, and this recipe pushes all the apple pie buttons in a tenth the time. You can find it in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a fine old classic we referred to in our house as the Fatty Farmer. She has lots of grand old American farm classics, like Blackberry Flapdoodle, which is essentially a big roll of rich biscuit dough surrounding and surrounded by blackberries mashed with sugar. Baked in a casserole and basted with butter it has all the calories you need to milk cows at four in the morning. I can cut the sugar by a third and it’s still sweet. Mighty fine with ice cream though. Anyway, back to Apple Cottage Pudding. This is a basic 1-2-3-4 dough. Peel and cut into fat slices, like 8ths of an apple, about 16 apples. I never count. I just process what I have and use them somehow. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a giant lasagna pan. Find another pan about coffee cake size and do that one too.

Apple Cottage Pudding

The best apple cake

Apple Cottage Pudding Recipe

Mix dry

3 c.flour (definitely throw in part whole wheat or spelt as you like- makes a nuttier flavor)

1 tsp. salt.

1 c. sugar

4 tsp baking powder

Mix wet

2 eggs, beaten

1 c. milk

2 sticks butter (1c.), melted

1 tsp. vanilla

mix all up together until smooth, dump into pans.

This is a bit tricky. The reason I say that is that you will be pressing the apple slices into the dough in rows, as tightly as possible, since this cake is better the higher the ratio of apple to cake. Over time I have developed a sense of how little cake dough I can get away with, see below. You can do a pie pan with a dough spoonful. I realize that is subjective. Anyway, I start in the middle with a line and march them out in both directions, pushing the dough as I go. Occasionally I have to take a knife and cheat a little, flicking a little dough from here to there. When you are finished:

Mix 1 c. sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 8 tbsp raisins, nuts if you like.   Hazelnuts absolutely rock. Walnuts are also a natural. I have even scattered on wineberries, which I had frozen in season, for color. Mix and sprinkle evenly, getting sugar over all the dough. I know sugar is White Death, but you have a lot of surface area, and the covering of granules creates a very nice crisp surface. Bake until brown and the raisins are puffing. That will take at least 40 minutes. Touch the apples to see if they are soft. As long as the cake doesn’t burn, especially underneath, the puffed raisins give it that bitter burnt raisin flavor which balances the sweetness of sugary apple cake.

I tend to gain weight around this time of year and I finally made the connection. This cake is so delicious and it works all day, starting with breakfast. I also make it if I am going to a potluck, or helping with a bake sale, or a church supper. You can’t beat it with a stick.

How to use a sourdough starter to make rye bread

First you need starter.  What is starter?

sourdough starter

Love my bread machine for handling dough

It is a sort of pancake dough looking slurry of flour and water, filled with live yeast. This is the yeast organism you will use to colonize your dough. Different starters have different tastes and rising characteristics, but basically it metabolizes the sugars and starches in the flour to create a tarter flavor and little bubbles in your dough, sort of like beer- it is the same creature. But when you bake it it will be delicious bread.

Why use starter?

Sourdough yeast is the original bread yeast. Back in the old days when everybody baked their own bread they didn’t use little packets of dried yeast. They kept a starter in some form; a “chef” which was a piece of dough from the last batch, or a jar of soupy dough called a starter. Yeast does adapt quickly, so everybody’s starter became slightly different. It rose more or less, and had different flavors. When folks started buying bread at bakeries, instead of just bringing their risen loaves to be baked at the village oven, the baker needed a fast,uniform product. They found that beer yeasts would adapt to fit the bill, and faster, fluffier bread was born.

Better for you

The price that we paid for this convenience was taste and digestibility. The flavor that develops with a longer, slower fermentation is distinctive and complex. Note my last bread post; same thing. It is also better for you. Wheat is an adaptable grain that has become much more complex over ages of human cultivation. Especially over the past 30 years, it has gone from the Ice Age Einkorn wheat to something with higher productivity, shorter stalk, and many more lectins, thereby becoming much more practical for the farmer to grow, but harder to digest and more inflammatory for the human body. This is the argument for “ancient grains,” Kamut, Emmer, and the now widely available Spelt, but they are still not very easy on the gut. This is my synopsis of Dr. Davis’s “Wheatbelly” argument. Sourdough yeast does a leisurely and much better job of unfolding the starches and making them more digestible. Try even letting your normal yeasted loaf rise longer at a lower temperature. You will notice a richer, more fermented flavor, and a darker, more caramelized crust from all the sugars the yeast has developed by breaking down starches.

How to get or make starter

You can order it on the internet! Any kind you want. It comes in a little plastic packet, and you squeeze it out and add flour and water, allowing it to colonize that until you have enough to bake with. You will notice it gets bubbly and develops that characteristic sour fragrance.

You can get some from a friend, along with advice. How wonderful to think lovingly of your friend each time you bake bread- like Friendship Bread. That’s all it is.

You can catch some out of the air. Mix a thin batter of flour- rye is their favorite I think- and set it by an open window. My friend got some from a bunch of unwashed organic grapes from her vineyard. It was particularly effervescent! I guess she just let the grapes sit in the batter. Obviously, you can’t do this with regular grapes from the store which have been sprayed, washed, etc.

I have made bread with ordinary Fleischman’s dry yeast and then saved a chef for the next batch. It worked quite well. No really distinctive flavor, but I let it rise longer at a lower temperature so it was tastier.

Rye in the Bread Machine- big thumbs up

Well, as long as folks are dropping off their bread machines they got for Christmas at the local Goodwill, why not? Rye dough is so sticky that it is a drag to work with so having the machine knead it in a non-stick work bowl works for me. As long as I have electricity, that’s what I’ll do.

Recipe????

Making vollkornbrot

cooked barley is delicious and leftovers go into bread

OK, I’ll try, but seriously, this is much easier to do by feel and eye. This is how I make delicious Vollkornbrot. First make sure you have plenty of starter. To do this, feed it: dump your starter in the work bowl and rinse your jar into the bowl with approximately a cup of water. Add approximately a cup of rye flour and set the machine to dough setting. If your starter is not bubbly, add a tablespoon of honey. If it was thin and there was bad smelling liquid on top, throw that out first. You can certainly add a larger amount of water and rye flour. When it is bubbly, pour the original amount back in the original jar, which you may have washed if it appeared crusty. Leave the rest in the work bowl and add about

2 cups of spelt or whole wheat flour ( I also like to add in some German pumpernickel mix our local Amish store sells- gives nice black color and a little caraway, which is traditional.)

1 1/2 tsp good salt

handful whole flaxseed

handful ground flaxseed

handful sunflower seeds

handful raw pumpkin seeds

1 tbs olive oil

1 tbs honey

If I have it I also like to add leftover coarse oatmeal or cooked barley. Any cooked or cracked and well soaked whole grain is good.

water or more flour as needed to form a nice ball.

Watch the machine as it stirs- these measurements are highly inexact because of all the variables. By now you have used the bread machine enough to know what it looks like when the quantity of dough and the stiffness are correct so that the paddle can move it around and mix it well. If you were kneading it by hand you would be making the same sorts of judgements.  Once it is pushing the ball around you can leave it alone for an hour, but you don’t really want to leave it to totally rise in the workbowl. This kind of bread shouldn’t be totally punched down or “degassed.” Grease your bread pan, dump your dough out on a floured board, form it gently into an oblong, and let it rise in the pan until 1 1/2 size its original size and keeps a dent when touched. It is still ok if you let it rise until it is flat on top, but it is more elegant if it still has a rounded top. Bake at 400 F until it sounds hollow when rapped, about an hour. Tip out of pan and let cool. Wrap and allow the crust to soften if you can before slicing. Slice thinly as it is a solid, dense, German style bread best suited for cheese, salami, open faced sandwiches, etc.

You can also use sourdough starter to make lighter breads- fear not! Have at it. If the texture of the dough is right, it should make great bread.

 

 

Pitas as Promised


Pitas are so good fresh- crisp but soft, with a slight smoky tang of burnt flour on the floury surface. Like tortillas, you want to keep them warm in a covered basket. Their amazing pockets create what is better than a sandwich, because the freshly baked bread perfectly encloses whatever you put in it.making pita bread (6)

I was talking about Indian food to a woman who makes goodies at the deli at our local package store, Town and Country, and the topic of pitas came up. I gave her my URL and promised she could find out how to make perfect pitas very easily there. So I’d better get on it.

OK, first, this is so easy, but it is even easier if you read my post on bread machines. I am serious. Go buy one at the thrift store for $5-$15 and improve your life.  It is great for preparing a simple dough like what you need for pitas. I do get away with throwing in a small handful of flaxseeds, but try it half white and half spelt or whole wheat. Also the white whole wheat from King Arthur is pretty nice used straight for pitas.

Now for the ingredients:

3 c. flour

1 tsp sea salt

1 tbsp oil

1 tsp dry yeast

1 cup warm water.

Dump in the workbowl, set to dough setting, and push the button. Or, follow the steps for easy basic dough in my post Making Bread: Fear Not.

Now, and this is important- when the dough is almost risen, prepare your oven. Remove the top racks. Leave the lowest rack in place in the lowest possible slot. Put your biggest, heaviest cookie sheet on it. Now preheat to 500F. Not a degree less. 550F if your oven will do it. And this is why you removed the other racks. I have several oven scars on my forearms from touching those metal racks for a nanosecond. Yes, I need long oven gloves. I should put that on my wish list.

When the dough is risen, dump it out on a floured board and form a snake. Cut it into pieces about the size of a golf ball,  bigger if you want bigger pitas. It will make 10-12 balls.making pita bread (3)

Roll each other rounder in your hands so it will be easier to roll into a circle.making pita bread (2)

Keep them floury so they don’t stick together.

Roll them out into circles like a pancake, a little less than 1/4 inch thick, flouring as you go so they don’t stick. I put another floured wooden board out for the rolled out pitas to wait on until the oven is ready. making pita bread (4)When the oven is preheated, open it and toss as many pitas as will fit onto the cookie sheet. Put on the oven light. If you are busy set a timer for 2.5 minutes. Better yet, call any available children to watch. You will hear a lot of “wow”s when they start to puff. The water in the wet dough between the two sides of the baking pita is trapped inside as it turns to steam.making pita bread (1) By 2.5 minutes they should have puffed and have a small brown spot on the bottom. Quickly reach in and flip them with your hand. Don’t wait too long or they will become hard and fragile. Let them brown slightly on the other side, a minute tops, before tossing them into a cloth lined basket you can cover, and throwing in some more pitas to bake. Don’t let the oven get below 500F or they won’t puff. These are just starting to puff. The ones closer to the door take longer. Keep the baked ones covered in what ever you are bring them to the table in, see top photo.

This is fast and easy- I can make a batch of prepared dough into a bowl of hot fragrant pitas in 15 minutes if the oven is hot. They don’t last- definitely wrap them in plastic or wax paper. They are so good with middle eastern food. Hummus, the bowl garnished with raw red onions, cilantro, and lemon juice, feta, eggplant- yum! Try making the hummus with fava beans. Very healthy for men.

Anyway, the bottom of the oven thing is a good trick to approximate a village oven, and it really does create an authentic tasting pita which is fresh, hot, and baked with healthy ingredients. Try it!

Bread Machines yes or no

Bread machines are these large clunking devices that sit on the counter taking up space and hollering out that they could be filling your house with the fragrance of heavenly baking bread. People drop them off at the Goodwill all the time. I get mine there for $5-$15. They retail for Christmas present prices. So why don’t people like them in the long run?

They take up space, they have to be cleaned, and the loaves they turn out have a stupid looking shape with a hole in the bottom from the paddle, since they bake in the mixing bowl. The slices don’t look like what we were hoping for. And if you use mixes and follow the recipes in the book, the yeast won’t really develop a nice tangy, yeasty flavor and it will taste sort of bought. Now comes the thinking part.

Use the dough setting! The great part about Bread machines is that they do all the mixing, kneading, and rising for you- I mean that it warms a bit and the dough stays warm and covered until a little beep tells you it is done rising. I really love this with rye bread because rye is super sticky and I don’t enjoy kneading it so much. The only caution is that you need to look in on it as it is mixing in the early stages because if you are adding various things, as I do, and using sourdough started, as I do, moisture content can vary, and you want to see a nice little ball being whammed around the workbowl by the paddle. You might have to add a tiny bit of water or a bit of flour.That being said, if you don’t see that, as long as it is mixing well you will be ok. If it is too full, which won’t happen with a standard 3 cups recipe, you may need to reach in and flip the dough around so that everything gets moved and mixed. But by the time you are that adventurous you will understand what I am talking about.

Every bread machine I have ever had has a dough setting, but make sure it doesn’t default to basic loaf the next time you bake- suddenly you smell it baking and you haven’t formed it the way you wanted to.

So now you have the dough. Just grease your loaf pan- I recommend stoneware, which is another Christmas present type item (pricey), dump your dough out on a floured board, shape it, and put it in the pan to rise again. I like to try to create a little more surface tension by folding the dough and putting the seam on the bottom. But I also don’t always totally crush the bubbles in the bread- called degassing. When you cover it don’t put anything tightly on it and mind it doesn’t stick. I do reuse clean plastic bags a lot. You don’t want the surface to dry out since it’s expanding.

making pita bread (3)But here’s more fun! Bread machines are ideal for making plain doughs that are easy to form into rolls, braids (try following a challah recipe), and flatbreads like pitas. I don’t like really plain white flour dough but spelt (which is less inflammatory than modern wheat) and whole wheat can give flavor without being super heavy, and you can use half and half white, smidge of this and smidge of that, to make up your 3 cups, for a very light result. The next post is about pitas, and if you want I can also make some rolls and photograph the process.

Bottom line, I love bread machines (links to Amazon search in case you feel a need to boost the economy with your surplus cash…) for certain things, enough that mine does live on the counter. We just don’t ever buy bread because it is easy and better to make it. And economical, even at today’s flour prices. Now, my friend Lisa, who has 8 kids, grinds her flour fresh and bakes bread every day. She uses extra virgin coconut oil and the bread, though completely whole wheat, is light and mild flavored. None of the oils in the grain had a chance to go rancid. It also rises faster I think. Her batches are too big for a bread machine but I think- and I have to ask her- she uses a mixer with a dough hook. Anyway, for sure she is buying in bulk so she is saving a lot.

Also- and this is so very important, don’t forget that today’s baked goods contain bromated flour. Always make sure your flour is not bromated. It is very bad for your thyroid, and I am convinced it is a factor in the thyroid epidemic we are seeing today, especially among women. You will have more energy if you substitute home baked bread for store bought, so don’t be concerned that baking will make you fat.

So do it. It is about sustainability and bliss.

Making Bread: Fear Not

Who doesn’t love the amazing smell of baking bread? Even more so delicious yeast bread, with a beautiful crisp yet chewy crust that is just the right color?

Do not be afraid of yeast. Many kinds of yeast float in the air, causing fermentations of all sorts, some of which are among the most delicious and sacred things in life, like bread and wine. Now cheese, that’s another critter, also dear to my heart. Bread, like most ancient things, is natural and easy. Follow me here. Think paleo.

The most ancient bread I have ever eaten is the Indian roti. It is just wheat (chapati) flour and water, and oil, sometimes anointed with a little ghee, which is clarified butter. You mix it up, form it into balls, roll it out into little pancakes, cook it on both sides in a dry frying pan, and then toast it over the flame with a pair of tongs. This last step is probably to approximate how it is supposed to taste after being cooked on a stone from which hot embers have just been swept.making pita bread (4)

Now, imagine yeast landed on a primitive gruel of cooked whole or pounded grains that was leftover and sitting in a cooking basket. It bubbles, but the taste isn’t bad and the woman isn’t about to throw it out.  Do they drink it, and get a mild alcoholic buzz? Does it accidentally get too close to the fire and get baked into a hard cake that is tasty, chewable, and stores well? Does it get mixed with more pounded grains and cooked on a hot stone, where the air bubbles expand rapidly as heat hits the primitive dough and the whole thing puffs up- like a pita?

Trust me, you can make bread and it will be good. And timewise it really doesn’t take that much time if you plan it around your schedule, especially when making the no-knead bread further down. But if you’re going to be like that about it, pick up a bread machine (that is a link to my article) for 5 bucks at the local thrift store. People are always dropping them off. OK, here’s the basic proportions:

3 c. flour

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp sugar of some kind- honey is fine too

1 tbsp. oil

1 c. warm water

1/4- 2 tsp yeast.

IPour flour into a big measuring cup. If you scoop the flour, it packs and you have more flour than you need. Dissolve yeast into the water with a pinch of sugar and flour, let it get foamy. Meanwhile dump other ingredients in a mixing bowl, the bigger the better. Pour in the yeast culture and stir until combined with a heavy wooden spoon. Then roll up your sleeves and knead the dough. I used to just knead like a cat until the mass got long, then turn, fold like a letter, and repeat, until I saw a friend from Taiwan just turn it a third, fold, turn it a third, repeat, so you are constantly stretching and turning the corners of a triangle. It does work well inside a large bowl, so you don’t make as much mess as when you turn it out onto a floured board. Now, you may find your dough is to dry to stick together and become elastic, or you may find it is too wet and sticky. Either make a little pocket in the dough and add tiny amounts of water that you seal into the dough so they don’t make a big mess, or add flour.

When it is smooth and elastic, like the recipes all say, it feels really nice. It is sort of satiny and doesn’t stick. It’s fun to push your face into,… at least if you are a kid. Wash, dry, and oil your mixing bowl, put the dough in it, cover with a wet cloth and a damp towel (I use recycled plastic grocery bags a lot), set in a place that is warm and won’t be disturbed (my unused microwave) until it is doubled in bulk. This will take varying times, depending on how much yeast you used per amount of flour, how much sugar and salt you used, the heaviness of the flour, the dryness of the dough, the warmth of the room, altitude… With 2 tsp I would say 2-3 hours, but it will taste nicer if you use less yeast and wait longer, as in my next recipe.

Anyway, oil whatever pan you are using- this makes 1 loaf- and form the dough so it will be about the shape of the pan only a lot smaller. No need to punch it down and let it rise again really. You degas the dough as you are forming it. Then cover it again and leave it until it is risen enough to be really soft and yielding on top, but hasn’t gone flat. That is not quite doubled. Preheat the over to 400F and bake it until it sounds hollow when it is rapped. 40 minutes to an hour. (That is a lot of energy, so try to have other things in the oven at the same time to use the heat.) Take it out, turn it out of the pan- it should fall right out and the bottom should be as brown as the top- and let it cool before cutting. If you cut hot bread it doesn’t slice well. Plus the French say it’s bad for your stomach.

OK, that was super basic beginner bread. This next one is easier. This is the famous no-knead bread that was flooding the internet a while back. I was dubious, but when my non-baking aunt brought me a gorgeous golden loaf with perfect hole structure, I had to try it.

You need a dutch oven, which is essentially a big heavy pot with a lid. Mine is cast iron. You need that kind of weight. The dutch oven fools this bread into believing it is in a steam oven, like professional bakers use, so it becomes this round crisp ball that you would pay through the nose for in an artisanal bakery. It really rocks. So:

In a big mixing bowl put:

3 cups flour

1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons salt,

1/4 tsp rapid rise yeast

mix well and add 1 1/2 c. warm water. Stir it up with a spoon until combined. It is quite wet for a dough. You could never knead it. Cover for 12-18 hours in a sheltered spot. It will be bubbly and wet.

You need something you can put it on to proof that you will be able to lift and flip into the dutch oven. I use a thin flexible plastic cutting board. My cousin’s wife uses a floured kitchen towel. When I did that it stuck. I thought it was ruined but it still turned out great. So: flour your board very well and dump your wet dough onto it. You may even need to scrape a little. Flour your dominant hand and flip the sides over the middle, so when you flip it over it looks like a round loaf. Cover with something that won’t stick and let rise 2 hours. When it has risen an hour and 20 minutes preheat the oven to 475F. Maybe yours heats faster than mine but that is what works for me. Important: put the dutch oven in to preheat as well, including the lid. When the dough has risen and the oven has preheated, wasting no time, open the oven, pull out the rack with the dutch oven on it as far as you safely can, remove the lid, pour a little olive oil into it and wipe around quickly with a paper towel, being careful not to burn yourself. Now take the dough board in both hands, aim, and neatly flip it into the pot. If you miss the middle, you can jiggle the pot a little to slide it in, but don’t panic. It will still be good. Put the lid on, push it back in and bake for 12-15 minutes. Then take off the lid and bake another 15. Put the oven light on- it is fun to see. When it is done take it out of the pan to cool- although this pan won’t ever give a soggy bottom. You could leave it in if you wanted it to stay warm longer.

Start with at least half white flour on your first try. Then move on to other flours. I prefer spelt and rye, but rye does make a flatter, heavier loaf. And I like to throw in a handful of flax seeds. It looks nice and they are healthful and delicious. I have used sourdough starters which make a very tasty bread, but have nicer results using sourdough in heavy breads.

Next post: Pitas as Promised.

Chestnuts

chinese chestnut tree (3)

The chestnuts have begun to fall, “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. I was tightening the raspberry trellis when I heard the telltale rattle of the fat nuts falling on the gravel lane. My grandfather planted a number of Chinese chestnuts, and I think he planted different cultivars so as to have trees that ripened at different times. (This is something to remember when you are planting any food-producing plant.  Early, mid-season, and late, from tomatoes to apples.) The first one has smaller, silky nuts, while the second one has larger, glossy reddish brown nuts, and the last one has really big glossy nuts of the same fine color for which women with chestnut hair are admired. It is a color that makes me pick up more nuts than I later have time to peel. There are two others, but they don’t bear heavily enough so I leave them to the squirrels, whose population seems to follow a heavy bearing year like a too-late sine wave. Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls. Praise God for the color.

You really should check out Hopkins. I met the greatest living Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, when I was at university, and I asked him whether he maybe felt the influence of Hopkins in his work. Ever polite, ever charmingly Irish, he answered me with the perfect no-answer: “Ah yes, he’s an old flame for all of us, isn’t he?”  (Maybe, maybe not, but we love him, or maybe we loved him once but have moved on…)  chestnuts loose (1)

So what to do with chestnuts. Everybody loves them roasted. Squeeze the nuts as you pick them up. If they are soft, they probably have grubs inside them, which is still fine for animal consumption. If hard, make an x in the shell- I find it easier to cut the flat side but they peel easier if you cut the round side. Some folks just make a big slit on the round side. You can bake them for 15-20 minutes at 400F and the little corners will roll back. Let them cool a bit and then you can pick them open and eat them. So filling and delicious! They have a floury sweet interior when they are done.

For a meal, I cut them the same as for roasting, and boil them about 25 minutes with a little salt. This may be too long since they do crumble a bit while I am peeling them but I want them really soft. With this I can do a lot of things. The best meal I ever prepared with chestnuts was some leftover wild Canada goose, warmed in gravy, with  wild rice mixture and pureed chestnuts. I just put them in the food processor with good stock from the goose carcass. It was so regional, rich in flavor, perfect for winter.

Also, by putting a few cooked chestnuts in the blender (love my Vitamix) with a veggie boullion cube (I like Knorr’s flavor), a cup of half and half, and a little chestnut boiling water to thin it out, you can get a wonderful vegan cream style soup. My friend Margie Wegener made it for me when I was having rocky times with my daughter. Thanks Margie.

Chestnuts rice beautifully. I pushed some through a ricer and fed it to my grandmother.  She always worried about her weight, because her mother had been heavy, but she really was too thin herself. We could always tempt her, though, by connecting the food to a story.  As a young girl getting her master’s degree at Strasbourg University in the Twenties, she lived with a lady known to us as Madame F. Madame F was “gourmet et gourmand,” and we always heard how she made chestnut puree. So Granny would eat chestnut puree and talk about Madame F.

Once you have your peeled cooked chestnuts you can make all kinds of fabulous desserts as well; totally go Martha Stewart. Amazing recipes.

Chestnuts were a dependable staple in Europe before wheat, which was very prone to getting flattened by rain and rotting in the fields, leaving the peasants to starve- unless they had chestnuts. We saw tons of edible chestnuts growing wild in the south of France. They used to call them “arbre à pain” which means “bread tree”   as well as marronniers for the bigger chestnuts and châtaigniers for the smaller ones.  They had chestnut smoking houses. I tried drying them in the oven, but the resulting nuts were so hard that even my grinding mill turned out something like sand. I think perhaps if I soaked them and boiled them they would return to their fabulous yumminess but in the meantime no creature will attack them and I keep them for emergency food.  So I am still learning. But companies like Trails End Chestnuts are selling chestnut flour, chestnut beer-making kits, dried chestnut, which look untoasted to me, for prices that are actually reasonable after you have done the work yourself for a few hours.

Update!

Forget cutting an x in the flat side of the chestnut before boiling or baking. With a finely serrated kitchen knife, make on long cut through the shell on the curved side of the nut. Bake covered for 30 mins in a casserole, and it will pop right open. You can flick off the shell with your thumb. Easy! I use a covered Pyrex so I can see it and then let it roast open for a nice roasted taste. Also with the nuts I am looking to convert to storable food, I put them in the food processor and crumb finely.  This I will refer to as wet chestnut meal. It is wonderful for a creamy blender soup or just about anything you do with chestnut puree. You can freeze this or spread it on cloth-covered cookie sheets to dry in the sun or slow oven, after which I put it back in the blender to flour. This is  a little gritty but really delicious, nutritious, and easy to store in sealed glass jars. I did make spelt-chestnut cookies the other day, with honey and raisins, adapted from an old British recipe my mother gave me. If I can figure out this newsletter widget I will put it there for you.

Another update!

Two new recipes!

Chestnut Chard Soup

2 c. water

1/2 a Knorr vegetable boullion cube, or to taste any kind you like

1 chard leaf

1/2 c. wet chestnut meal,

Throw in Vitamix and turn on, check for flavor, adjust, run until it gets hot and thick enough. OK, if you don’t have a Vitamix yet, I’m telling you, unless you don’t do electricity, this is a great appliance. They last. Mine is from the Eighties and my sister-in-law still has hers from the Seventies.

If you are using a regular blender and haven’t made the chestnuts into wet meal, cook the chestnuts in bouillion until soft and then blend with the raw chard. You can add turmeric, black pepper, cream, whatever. So good and easy.

Chard and Chestnut Saute- this dish is healthy but comforting, greeny but meaty and the chestnuts offset any wateriness in the chard. I was thinking you could substitute parmesan cheese for the ham if you don’t do pig.

1 onion, chopped

1/4 c. country ham, chopped

8 chestnuts (cooked) chopped

1 large bunch chard, enough to fill a 4 quart pot

Black pepper

Wash chard and strip leaf off of midrib. Grasp the midrib and pull the leaf through your other hand, pulling off the leaf and leaving the strip white or colorful part separated. This is the midrib. Chop it up.

Saute onion, ham, chestnuts, and chopped chard stems (midribs) in a deep heavy pot in the ham’s own fat. Meanwhile chop the leaf of the chard up into about 1/4 inch chop. When the stuff in the pot looks caramelized and yummy, throw in the leaves and saute. In a few minutes the dish will be ready to serve. Taste and adjust salt, definitely add some black pepper.