Focaccia with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, and Onions

Brussels sprouts onions olive oil 16Last week, listening to a radio interview with a chef on the cooking trends we can expect in 2013, I learned that Brussels sprouts are on their way out. Once relegated to the same loathsome realm as beets and liver, they had recently become the darlings of trendy restaurants all over the country, cozying up to lardon-encrusted meats and peeking out from under house-made sauces. But in 2013, poor Brussels sprouts will apparently go the way of last year’s prom queen–still with lots of friends in the popular crowd, but probably not invited to the dance.

Big poo, I say. Brussels sprouts are still trending in our house. Fred has only recently recovered from his childhood aversion to the grayish, mushy lumps that appeared on our plates in the 60s and 70s, and we aren’t going back. Plus, there were some gorgeous ones at the Dekalb Farmers’ Market recently, so I had to do something with them.

I’d also been paging through my tattered copy of “Lidia’s Italy,” a cookbook whose recipes I dearly love but whose binding I hate, and once again came across its wonderful tomato and onion foccacia. Lidia gives you license to do whatever you want with the toppings–so it didn’t seem too much of a leap to Brussels sprouts, onion, and bacon.

We were pleased with the results. The focaccia is tender and light, though definitely best served warm. We loved the smoky bacon combined with the slightly carmelized Brussels sprouts. Salt on top is essential. With a salad or other vegetable (buy extra Brussels sprouts & saute them), it makes a meal.

Plan to eat within two to three days and heat up before eating. But please, don’t do this.

A Fred original Focaccia and meatloaf sandwich

A Fred original: Focaccia and meatloaf sandwich

Recipe: Focaccia with Brussels Sprouts, Onions, and Bacon

Serves 6 – 8 as a meal

4 tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp. yeastFoccacia  brussels sprouts bacon
2 1/4 c. warm water
5 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
6 – 7 or more large Brussels sprouts (enough for at least 2 cups), halved lengthwise & sliced thin
1 medium onion, quartered and sliced thin
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
Finely ground sea salt, or regular salt, to taste
About 1/3 cup olive oil, enough to coat & marinate sprouts, onions, and garlic
6 slices bacon, cut into 1″ lengths
Coarse sea salt to sprinkle over top

DOUGH: Measure water in spouted measuring cup and dissolve yeast in water for a few minutes. Oil a large bowl with about 1 tbsp. olive oil and set aside.

Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Pour flour into food processor and turn it on. With processor running, pour yeast and water through feed tube. Process until dough pulls away from processor bowl, about 30 seconds. If dough is too sticky (some will stick to sides of bowl, but it should pull away), add more flour, a little at a time. If it is too dry, with crumbly bits in the bottom, add a little more water.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead for about a minute. Place into bowl with olive oil, turning once to coat. Cover tightly in plastic wrap and let sit in warm place until doubled, about an hour.

While dough is rising, prepare remaining ingredients and let them marinate. Coat a broiler pan with about 2 tbsp. olive oil. This makes for a thick focaccia; if you would like something thinner, try a large jelly roll pan (17 1/2″ x 12 1/4″).

Have a glass of wine, make a salad, or read for a little while.

If you have a baking stone, place it in the middle rack of your oven. When dough has risen, preheat oven to 425. Punch dough down. Press it into the pan. Sprinkle marinated vegetables and bacon over top, pressing lightly into dough with fingertips, making dimples. Let rise an additional 10 – 15 minutes. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt to taste. Bake 20 minutes. Rotate pan 180 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes or until dough is light brown. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Still No Artisan Bread

Dear readers, I regret to say that I lied to you at the end of my last post: “I discovered that you can make good artisan bread with no recipe at all.” 

I’m not sure why I suddenly took on the tone of a Google sidebar ad (“I got white teeth for only $1. Find out how”), but to be fair things did seem to be heading in that direction. What I should have said was a little less glamorous: You need a recipe, but artisan bread isn’t that hard.

Cleo: “Even I can make artisan bread!” (Note: She was whisked from the scene before she got a chance to prove it.)

Thought it isn’t hard, it involves several steps and takes a couple of days to make–which means that recipe testing is taking longer than I originally anticipated. So it will be a while before I can post on this topic.

I’ll be turning to other subjects in my next few posts. In the meantime, though, check out this fabulous site on artisan bread to learn  from someone who actually seems to know something about it.

Artisan Bread

It seems everyone these days is making artisan bread. I thought I was on the right path by making five minute no-knead boule dough, whose proponents claim for it the quality of artisan bread without the starter and all the effort. Recently, though, I received a 20-year-old starter from a bread-baking neighbor–and now everything has changed.

The starter, housed in the bowl my grandmother used for making cornbread for my grandfather’s nightly supper.

Suddenly, I had a heavy responsibility in my hands. The starter was born around the time I began graduate school, possibly just as I was leaving Durham for Wisconsin. It sat in my neighbor’s kitchen as I meandered across the United States for 20 years, perhaps waiting for me to return to Trinity Park. Worse, it was the beloved child of a man with a structure behind his house dedicated entirely to a wood-fired oven–a wood-fired oven for baking loaves of bread.

David, the starter’s parent, delivered it on a day when Fred was at home. When I got back, it was in a jar on my kitchen counter. David had provided a spreadsheet for the baking process too. He told Fred to let the starter sit out for a couple of hours and then put it in the fridge. “She’ll know what to do with it after that,” he said.

This was a grave error. Glancing over the spreadsheet, I might as well have been reading a formula for making rocket fuel: “The column to the left has the refreshment regime. Line 4 is the variable; fill it in with the amount of starting levain and it calculates the flour and water you need to make a 66% levain from a 66% levain.”

I felt just as I had when I first read postmodern literary theory, around the time that damned starter had emerged from a combination of flour, water, and whatever yeast and bacteria floated around Trinity Park circa 1990: “How the heck had I never learned any of this?” My mastery of the bread baking techniques outlined in my 4-H Club booklet had failed me. I could not bear to tell David that he had turned a portion of his precious 20-year-old starter over to the bread baking equivalent of a crack-smoking nanny who’s never changed a diaper. Especially a man who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on an oven just to bake bread.

In desperation, I turned to the internet, where my complete ignorance of the bread baking process was further reinforced. It turns out (and this won’t be news to artisan bread bakers) that bread made from this kind of starter is fundamentally different from the yeast breads you find in your average recipe book. The basic technique for these breads is this:

  1. Proof yeast in warm water (optional)
  2. Mix ingredients
  3. Knead
  4. Let rise in oiled bowl until doubled
  5. Punch down and shape into loaves
  6. Let rise until doubled again
  7. Bake

This process takes anywhere from three to six hours, depending on the type of yeast you use. Yeast is a living thing, and the gasses it produces as it feeds make the bread rise. With commercial yeast–a product that was developed in the relatively recent past (a hundred years or so)–that process is relatively fast. 

In contrast, bread made from the kind of starter that I was given takes two or three days. The yeast and bacteria that create the rise come not from commercial starter, but from the air. The process looks more like this.

  1. In the morning, take a small amount of starter and add enough water and flour to double. Let rise, covered, until bubbly.
  2. Add water and flour to double starter again. Let rise again until bubbly.
  3. Repeat. This rise will be overnight.
  4. Knead in salt. Knead a lot to incorporate air.
  5. Let rise in bowl lined with lightly floured towel, covered. Fold once or twice during rising.
  6. Shape into round loaf or loaves. Bake on stone in hot oven.

Though the rising time is slower, there are advantages. Yeast in each part of the world produces a unique flavor (hence “San Francisco sourdough”), and so this technique is the best way to get that “bite” you find in a traditional sourdough bread. It’s hard to match this type of bread for flavor and texture.

But there are additional disadvantages to this method–the biggest one being that artisan bread bakers are a fussy, persnickety lot, agonizing over issues such as oven spring, crumb, exact baking times, and so on. And there is an impenetrable chasm between those who measure their ingredients and those who weigh them. Measurers see weighers as inflexible, unimaginative dilettantes; weighers turn up their noses at haphazard cooks who treat recipes as culinary free-for-alls.

This meant that there was no guidance on how to transform the weight-based percentages on David’s spreadsheet into cups and tablespoons. I ran the amounts through a converter, but I was still faced with the problem of the levain (yes, it’s the starter)–I couldn’t find a reliable way to determine its weight without a scale. And the amount of all the other ingredients–the flour, water, and salt–depended on that weight.

To solve the problem, I ended up getting a scale, but the good news is that I also discovered that if you are not one of the fussier types you can make good artisan bread with no recipe at all. I’ll post on this next time.

Best Bread in the World on a Snowy Weekend

Go ahead and mock us Southerners for shutting down over the 6 or so inches of snow that fell here on Saturday. We’re happy to take a sabbath, close up, hunker down, tuck ourselves in and enjoy a pleasant winter day snugged up in our house, baking, reading, and napping.

Cleo, never satisfied just to stay safe in a warm house, mewed so desperately to get out on Saturday that I decided to let her venture forth.

Obviously, she didn’t get far.

And anyway, I don’t understand why anyone would have wanted to leave the house this weekend. I baked like crazy, including this loaf of bread.

The recipe claims that this is the “best bread in the world.” That depends on what you like in a bread, of course. If you like a crusty loaf this one won’t satisfy, but its soft and tender crust makes it perfect for sandwiches. I find its sweet and nutty flavor very appealing.

The recipe is quite forgiving in the portion of wheat to white flour. In fact, I accidentally reversed the portion of white and wheat flour in the original recipe, and I like the change so much I kept it here. 

Best Bread in the World 

Makes 2 loaves

2 cups boiling water
1 cup uncooked oatmeal
1/3 cup lukewarm water
2 tbsp. yeast
1 tbsp. salt
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp. butter
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
1 egg yolk plus 1 tsp. water

Pour boiling water over oats in large bowl. Add salt, honey, and butter, and stir. Let stand until softened, butter has melted, and mixture is lukewarm.

Stir yeast into lukewarm water and let it dissolve. (I usually give it a stir until the lumps are gone.) Add to oat mixture. Gradually add flour, stirring with wooden spoon, until a soft ball of dough forms. It should stay together easily when you gather it together with your hands.

Generously flour kneading surface with white flour. I like to use a non-fuzzy cotton towel, like the ones made from flour sacks. Knead dough until smooth and elastic. The instructions say to do this for 10 minutes but it never seems to take me this long. Dough will be ready when it doesn’t “fold” over easily during the kneading process and it springs back in your hands. Don’t clean kneading surface unless required for another task–you will use it one more time.

Oil a large bowl and add dough, turning it to coat with oil on all sides. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Oil 2 loaf pans. Punch down dough and divide in two. Knead each half briefly and shape into loaves. (You can clean your kneading surface now!) Place loafs in pans. Cover and let rise until pans are full. Preheat oven to 350.

Beat egg yolk lightly with the teaspoon of water. Brush surface of each loaf with egg mixture. Bake 35 or 40 minutes.

Turn loaves onto rack and let cool slightly, if you can resist, before slicing. Loaves will freeze well.

Quinoa, the Outcast Indian Maiden

The increased budgetary restrictions imposed by our unwilling ownership of two houses are leading us down some interesting culinary paths. Our latest discovery is quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), a South American seed that cooks up into a nutty, flavorful, and filling side dish. I’d heard of it for years but never ventured into making it myself until recently. We found a supply at Costco, ample evidence that it’s made the leap from the Birkenstock and brown rice crowd into the Land of Wal-Mart.

As for the taste, if couscous and brown rice got married and had a baby, it would be quinoa. When cooked, the seeds are roundish like couscous, but the flavor more closely resembles brown rice. We’ve taken to calling this grainy love child “Quinoa, the Outcast Indian Maiden” in honor of Eudora Welty’s bizarre little short story, “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,”  and it’s made many an appearance on our dinner plates as of late.

Here’s a recent, simple version with just onions and garlic, served with a smoked paprika fish.*

*Unfortunately I can’t reproduce the smoked paprika fish recipe, which was thrown together using the juice from Rick’s Pick’s Smokra, a spicy pickled okra heavily infused with smoked paprika. With Smokra at $10 a jar, I try to use every bit of it the few times of year we indulge. A cheaper version of the fish with smoked paprika, garlic, and vinegar is in the works but is not ready for publication.

Like its imaginary parent couscous, quinoa seems to be a very forgiving grain–that, or I’m cooking it badly but liking it anyway. The basic cooking method is two parts water to one part quinoa. You put it in a saucepan, cover, bring to boil, then simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes. Taking the lid off and checking it on occasion does not seem to hurt it, nor does my occasional obsessive-compulsive stirring. The instructions on our bag tell you it’s done when “a white spiral-like thread appears on each grain,” and they  also suggest toasting the seeds in a dry skillet before cooking to bring out the nutty flavor. I tried both the toasting and the non-toasting methods and was fine either way. The recipe below omits the pre-toasting.

Quinoa also appears to be a versatile grain, capable of functioning as a breakfast cereal with fruit and nuts or as a vegetable side dish, but not being breakfast eaters we’ve tried only the latter. My favorite has been the recipe below, which is a heavily modified version of the one on the back of the bag. This makes a gentle and unassuming side dish; in fact, if your favorite chicken soup could be transformed into a solid, this would be it. (The chicken broth helps.) It’s a nice accompaniment to just about any basic dish, from roast chicken to broiled fish to pork chops.

Quinoa is an outcast no longer. 

Quinoa with Carrots, Celery, and Onion 

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 tablespoon oil (olive or vegetable)
1 medium onion,  chopped
2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup carrots, peeled and minced
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 tbsp. thyme or herbes de Provence
1 cup dry quinoa
2 cups homemade chicken or turkey broth
Salt to taste

Heat oil in large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add carrots, celery, and thyme and saute until just tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add quinoa, water, and salt and stir. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, until water has evaporated and quinoa is fluffy, with white spiral-like threads on each grain.

Pizza Pizza

Pizza has single-handedly transformed our food life over the last couple of months. We’ve gone from a diet of vegetables and meat served over pasta to a diet of vegetables and meat served on bread, occasionally mixed with vegetables and meat rolled into a burrito. But vegetables mean variety, and the more vehicles you have for delivering them, the more exciting your menus seem.

For us, the revolution started with the amazing chicken liver pizza I made in June. But the dough, though excellent, was a barrier. Like most of us, I don’t have the time or the patience on a weeknight to wait for all that rising and resting.

That’s where five-minute no-knead boule dough comes in. Quietly gurgling away in the fridge most days of the week, this dough is ready to leap into action whenever pizza is called for. You just pull off a chunk, roll it out, and have homemade pizza in just a little more time than it takes for the oven to heat up.

Be forewarned that if you are a pizza snob, you won’t find perfection in this crust. It lacks the tender softness of the best doughs and often veers too far into the realm of the crispy. But if you are looking for a quick and better than average supper on a pretty darn good crust, this dough is your faithful friend.

A side note: Don’t be intimidated by the amount of writing in the recipe below. It takes only a couple of times through to get the technique down and do it from memory.

Here’s the basic dough recipe again.

Five-Minute No-Knead Boule Dough

NOTE ABOUT FLOUR: The important thing is not so much the amount of flour but the final consistency of the dough. The range given here should allow for the many different types of flour you might use at home. Note that bread flour will also work in this recipe. The amount used will tend toward the lower end of the range.

6 1/2 – 8 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3 c. lukewarm water (test on the inside of your wrist)
1 1/2 tbsp. yeast
1 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt

Add yeast and salt to water in a 5 quart bowl and stir. Add 6 1/2 cup flour with a wooden spoon and stir until uniformly moist. Dough should be soft and conform to container. If it is too thin (e.g., the consistency of thick cake batter), add more floor until it just holds together into a ball but is still soft. Cover loosely with towel and let rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse or flatten on top, 2 – 5 hours. At this point you can refrigerate dough in lidded but not airtight container for up to two weeks. (Refrigerated dough is easier to work with.)

Topping Preparation

Have toppings prepared and oven preheated before working with dough.

It’s a good idea to roast vegetables that are “wet” ahead of time (squash, broccoli, zucchini, etc.)–and all other vegetables are good roasted as well. To roast, cut up vegetables to desired size and put in a bowl. Add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, salt and pepper. Scatter over cookie sheet and place under broiler, on top rack, on high for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Vegetables are ready when they have begun to brown.

Here are some favorite combinations we’ve tried lately.

Anchovies, onions, chopped fresh cayenne or other pepper, and a mix of gorgonzola and cheddar cheeses

Roasted squash, onions, garlic, red pepper, and Parmesan cheese

Sliced leftover steak, chopped fresh jalapenos, onions, and white cheddar cheese

Baking

Place baking stone on bottom rack of oven and preheat to hottest temperature possible. (In the case of my oven, this is 550 degrees.) Sprinkle cornmeal on pizza peel. Dust a rolling surface with flour. (I use a non-fuzzy kitchen towel.) Dust your hands with flour and pull off a piece the size of a small grapefruit. For very thin crust, pull off a smaller piece; for thicker, pull off a larger one. Sprinkle dough with flour and roll out to desired size.


Rolling out pizza dough. If you’d seen my hair in the original photo you’d understand why I cropped my head off.


Transfer dough to peel and repair damage than will inevitably ensue until you get more practice. Make sure there are no holes in the crust and that the shape roughly conforms to what you imagined (e.g., round or square). Brush surface of crust with a tablespoon or so of olive oil. If using tomato sauce, spread sauce over surface. Add toppings.

Slide pizza onto baking stone–a few forward shakes, and pretending that you are trying to pull a tablecloth out from under a table loaded with dishes, might help. And remember that even disasters like this still taste good.

If you don’t have a pizza peel or a baking stone, transfer the pizza dough to a cookie sheet, add your toppings there, and cook on the bottom rack of the oven.

Bake for 8 – 10 minutes. Add cheese toppings. Bake 2 – 3 minutes more. Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes before slicing and serving.

Five-Minute No-Knead Boule Dough

With my friendship bread starter now sitting forlornly in the freezer, my colleague Carol must have sensed that I needed a new project. A bread fan, Carol used to make her own on a regular basis when she was a stay-at-home mom–a feat that to me sounds only slightly easier than baking a souffle during the Allied bombing of Dresden, or maybe wrestling sharks.

Now that Carol works full-time and has two teen-agers, baking bread from scratch has been relegated to the same status as enjoying a peaceful dinner or reading a book from start to finish–a rare event to be celebrated and enjoyed. But a few weeks ago, she seemed to have found a solution in several recipes from Mother Earth News featuring “five-minute bread.”

I’d first heard about this phenomenon on NPR’s The Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, in which she interviewed Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois, authors of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking. Though I generally avoid cookbooks written by doctors, on the theory that they’re less about food and more about promoting the doctor’s latest theory, I was intrigued.

Google soon let me know that once again I was on the trailing edge of culinary trends. Apparently the New York Times published a “no-knead bread” recipe in 2006 that made the rounds of the internet and spawned a host of knock-offs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were earlier versions.

I read this news with a sense of pleasantly smug, self-righteous superiority. It seems that Dr. Herzberg’s “discovery” is that you make extra no-knead bread dough and use it any time over the course of two weeks. (His other tip is to add hot water to a pan in the oven during baking, which also does something important but I’m not sure what.) You just store it in the refrigerator and pull off chunks when you want to bake it.

I could have thought of that, I sniffed haughtily to myself. Of course, Lynne Rosetto Kasper is interviewing Dr. Hertzberger. I’m still waiting for her to call me.

And the bread has been a boon to Fred and me. We’ve had fresh-baked bread with several meals, and the recipe can also be used for pizza dough. I’ll share that technique in a future post.

Five-Minute No-Knead Boule Dough

The recipe below is a mishmash (hence the name), cobbled together from the Hertzberg/Francois five-minute bread, the recipe Carol gave me, and various internet sources. The original amount of flour in several of the recipes, 6½ cups, has not worked for me in all circumstances. It’s probably because I’ve been trying several varieties of flour. The important thing is not so much the amount of flour but the final consistency of the dough. The range given here should allow for the many different types of flour you might use at home.

Note that bread flour will also work in this recipe. The amount used will tend toward the lower end of the range.

6 1/2 – 8 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3 c. lukewarm water (test on the inside of your wrist)
1 1/2 tbsp. yeast
1 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt

Add yeast and salt to water in a 5 quart bowl and stir. Add 6 1/2 cup flour with a wooden spoon and stir until uniformly moist. Dough should be soft and conform to container. If it is too thin (e.g., the consistency of thick cake batter), add more floor until it just holds together into a ball but is still soft. Cover loosely with towel and let rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse or flatten on top, 2 – 5 hours. At this point you can refrigerate dough in lidded but not airtight container for up to two weeks. (Refrigerated dough is easier to work with.)

On baking day, sprinkle cornmeal on pizza peel. Dust surface of dough and your hands with flour and pull off a piece the size of a large grapefruit or small cantaloupe. Hold dough in your hands; add flour as needed to keep from sticking. Gently stretch dough and turn ends under to form a ball. Stir in any flour remaining on top of dough and return to the refrigerator.

Place ball on pizza peel. Let rest uncovered for 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 with a baking stone on middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on lower rack. Slash 1-2 1/4 inch deep marks on top of dough. Sprinkle top with flour if desired.

Slide dough onto baking stone. Quickly pour 1 cup hot water into broiler tray and close oven door to trap steam. Bake 30 minutes or until crust is browned and firm. Cool before slicing.

Dough can also be frozen in 1 pound portions in an airtight container and thawed in refrigerator before baking.

Better Amish Friendship Bread

The moment we’ve been waiting for since February 24 has arrived. In an effort to create a version of Amish Friendship Bread that I actually like, I’ve turned our house into a bread factory over the last few months. I’m pleased to say that these attempts have not been in vain.

I started with the original recipe, below.

Original Amish Friendship Bread

I’m not sure this is the original starter, but it’s what I found on the Internet. There are many versions that use yeast, but I suspect this one did not.

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar

Put ingredients in plastic bag and seal.

Day 1: Do nothing.
Days 2 – 5: Mash the bag
Day 6: Add 1 c. plain flour, 1 c. sugar, 1 c. milk, and mash the bag.
Days 7 – 9: Mash the bag.

Day 10:
Pour entire contents of bag into a non-metal bowl. Add 1 cup plain flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 1/2 c. milk. Mix.

Measure out 4 bags of 1 c. each. Put batter into Ziplock gallon bags and keep a starter for yourself and give the others to 3 friends with a copy of the recipe.

Baking Instructions

Preheat oven to 375. To remaining batter in bowl add and stir:

3 eggs
1 c. oil (or 1/2 c. oil and 1/2 c. applesauce)
1/2 c. milk
1 c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
2 c. plain flour
1 lrg. Box instant vanilla or choc. Pudding (surely the Amish cook who added this was excommunicated)
1 c. raising or chopped nuts (opt.)

Grease 2 large loaf pans. In a bowl mix 1/2 c. sugar and 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Dust the pans with 1/2 of this mixture. Pour batter evenly into 2 pans and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar mix over top. Bake for 1 hour.

And Now for Something Completely Different

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that no one has enough friends to keep this up. Maybe you know dozens of people who want to keep rotting dough in plastic bags around the house and bake bread every 10 days, but I don’t. After just one month I felt like the owner of an unspayed cat, with kittens everywhere and no idea who would take them. And you are one blessed person, or an Olympic marathoner, if you can eat this stuff week after week and not become a bloated testament to the effects of a sugar-infested, overprocessed American diet.

I also wanted a recipe that didn’t completely cover up the flavor of the starter itself. Starters, after all, are the key ingredient for wonderful sourdough breads, and what better way to make one than with, um, soured dough? I’d hoped that the friendship bread would have the nice bite of one of these loaves, but it was, alas, buried in the onslaught of sugar, cinnamon, and the lrg. Box of inst. Pudding.

My experiments over the last couple of months have led to a series of recipes that alter the original so much that to call it a “variation” would be ridiculous. So I’m christening this “Newlywed Bread” because a) it rhymes; b) two people can eat a loaf in a week without gaining so much weight together that they have to spend every Monday night at Weight Watchers; and c) like newlywed couples, cooks who make this don’t have to share even one tiny bit of it with another living soul.

The starter is simple and very forgiving. The only trick is not to use any metal when working with the starter (though using metal in the baking process seems to work fine.)

Newlywed Bread Starter

1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk

I put this in a glass bowl covered with a towel (hand-embroidered, of course, to remind me that I’m a little old lady at heart). Yeast does not seem to be necessary, and I like to think it’s because this starter works like the ones for sourdough bread, which absorb yeast from the environment.

Instructions

Day 1: Do nothing.
Days 2 – 5: Stir with wooden or plastic utensil.
Day 6: Add 1 1/2 c. flour, 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 c. milk.
Days 7 – 9: Stir.
Day 10: Bake (recipes below).

After the first ten days, feed the starter every 5 – 10 days. It is a living thing and requires nutrition to keep going. It will rise up overnight into a bubbly mass if it is healthy. If it starts to rise less, lose its bubbly texture, or quits rising altogether, it needs to eat. Feed it:

1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 c. whole milk (I use 1% with a little half and half)

You can add half this amount (3/4 c. flour, 1/4 c. sugar, 1/2 c. milk) if your starter is getting too big.

Every ten days or so, you should bake a loaf. You can bake more often if you like; just feed the starter whenever you remove some for baking. If you can’t bake very often and your starter gets too big, you can freeze it, refrigerate it, discard some of it, or–heaven forbid–give some to a friend along with a copy of the recipe.

All of these breads have a hearty whole wheat texture. Most are still on the sweet side, but they’re closer to bran muffins than cakes. Most also include buttermilk, which add an extra bit of sourness–perfect for the sour among us, without enough friends to share.

Newlywed Bread Basic Recipe

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 1 loaf pan.

Remove 1 c. starter and place in large mixing bowl. Add to starter:

3 eggs
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 c. melted butter (add to buttermilk to cool before adding to mix)

Whisk together in separate bowl:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oats
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. brown sugar

Add dry ingredients to batter mix and stir. Pour into loaf pans and bake one hour. Remove from pan and cool.

I’ve made several variations on this recipe, though the “variations” are often quite different. Below are some favorites.

Sweet Potato Newlywed Bread

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 1 loaf pan.

Mix together in large bowl:

1 c. starter
1/2 c. baked sweet potato, mashed
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. melted butter (add to buttermilk to cool)
3 eggs

Whisk together:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oats
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 c. brown sugar

Pour in loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.

Variation: Maple Fig

Replace sweet potato with 1/4 cup pureed fig preserves and 1/2 c. maple syrup. Increase oats to 1 cup.

Irish Soda Newywed Bread

This one is more like a hearty sandwich bread, with only slightly sweet taste, and with the strong soda flavor characteristic of the orignal Irish version. It’s baked as a round rather than in a loaf pan to give it a beautiful crispy crust all over.

Fred prefers this loaf sweeter than I do, so simply increase the sugar to 3/4 cup if you want more of a breakfast bread.

Preheat oven to 400. Grease bottom of cookie sheet.

Mix together in large bowl:

1 c. starter
1 c. buttermilk
2 1/2 tbsp. melted butter (add to butter milk to cool before mixing)

Whisk together:

2 c. oats
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 – 3/4 c. brown sugar (depending on sweetness you prefer)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. salt

Add dry ingredients to batter and stir until mixture comes together. Turn out on floured surface and knead about 15 strokes. Form into round loaf shape and place on cookie sheet. Bake for 1 hour (check after 45 minutes for doneness.) Brush with melted butter.

New variations keep emerging. I’ll keep you posted.

Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Onion, and A Friendship Bread Update

1. Amish Friendship Bread Update

Above are two of the most recent Friendship Bread experiments. The one on the right, a whole-wheat version with honey, was quite good. Since then, however, I have developed a superior loaf with whole wheat, oats, and brown sugar. I’m setting out a new starter–I found the recipe on the Internet, of course–to make sure the recipe will work, so it will be at least 10 days before I post on this again.

2. Mashed Potatoes

It’s darn near impossible to beat the creamy, luscious tastiness of mashed potatoes. But since that lusciousness results largely from vast quantities of butter and cream, Fred and I have struggled to keep mashed potatoes on our slimmed-down menu.

I’m the problem. I pretend to be a normal cook, the kind of person who makes desserts with Kool Whip. But the truth is that I am a horrible snob when it comes to food–a dreadful, pretentious, unyielding, unforgiving snob. While others at our Weight Watchers meeting are raving about recipes that call for cake mix combined with diet soda (I only wish I were joking here), or fat-free HoHos, or the menu items at Chili’s that have less than 7 points, I can only smile weakly with supressed horror. Why are they not making cakes from scratch? Who eats at chain restaurants? And why do they not recognize that “fat-free” foods are the worst abominations of the agricultural/military/industrial complex?

My pretensions kept me from using fat-free sour cream or fat-free half and half in any mashed potato recipe. Buttermilk, which is rich but tends to be lower in fat, seemed an acceptable substitute. But the butter, with no “real” alternative, posed a thorny problem.

Luckily, I am a woefully inconsistent snob. I am a sucker for processed foods from the 1970s, the beloved companions of childhood. I will happily lap up cans of Spaghetti O’s, heaps of Hamburger Helper Lasagna, vats of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and gallons of Kool-Aid. And it’s a good thing for these mashed potatoes that among those foods, margarine holds a special place in my heart.

My health-concious mother, lured by advertising claims that margarine was the healthy option, kept it on hand along with the wheat germ and the embarassing slices of whole-grain bread that encased our bologna sandwiches. My grandmother, across the street, was providing butter churned from cows my grandfather had milked by hand. But my palate, captivated by the salty, flavor-filled chemical overload of margarine, rejected the subtle delicacy of fresh butter. And so even today, there is always a tub of non-dairy spreadin my refrigerator–these days, it’s Brummel and Brown, which uses actual dairy products. It’s right next to the unsalted organic butter.

The Brummel and Brown is essential for this recipe if you are counting calories. If not, butter will do quite well. Roasted onions add flavor and additional liquid without resorting to a lot of cream.

Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Onion

Makes 4 servings

Preheat oven to 350. Take two whole, unpeeled onions and place on cookie sheet. Roast in oven until very soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly, cut off ends, and remove skin. When onions have about 30 minutes remaining, peel and slice potato. Place in enough salted water to cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer on medium-low heat until potatoes are very soft, about 20 – 30 minutes. Drain potatoes and place in food processor with blade inserted. Add 1 – 2 tbsp. Brummel and Brown or butter, 2 -4 tbsp. half and half, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover until Brummel and Brown has melted. Add onions and process until just smooth. Add more half and half if needed and adjust seasonings. Serve hot.

Friendless Amish Bread

A couple of weeks ago, after some 20 years of effort, I finally secured a starter for Amish Friendship Bread. (Actually, “effort” might be too strong a word, since my exertions consisted primarily of watching languid thoughts meander across my brain: “Wonder if someone will ever offer me a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”)

I’d first encountered Amish Friendship Bread when someone gave a loaf to my grandmother, and other family members had received loaves over the years. The concept was fascinating: The loaf began as a starter consisting of soured dough. The starter, filled with living cultures and bacteria and God knows what else, functioned as the leavening agent. You had to “feed” it to keep it alive, and as it grew you passed the excess along to your friends–hence the name “Friendship Bread.” Legend has it that the starter originally came from the Amish, who passed it around their community along with the recipe. But someone in the community obviously let the secret slip, and before they knew it people like me, who couldn’t even harness a buggy, were wanting to make it.

Once, in my late 20s, I asked my Granny about a loaf she’d received. “How do you make the starter?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Someone has to give it to you.”

“But how does that person make it?”

“Well, they get it from someone else.”

“But someone HAS to know how to make the starter.”

“I don’t know,” Granny repeated. “I’ve always just heard you had to get the starter from someone. I guess it’s a secret.”

“But it has to start somewhere.”

“I think you have to have a friend give it to you,” Granny replied, probably worrying, “And how will she find any with questions like these?” quietly to herself.

I gave up. I was in grad school, and we didn’t hang around with the kind of people who gave loaves of friendship bread to each other. That was for women who made crafts and attended PTA meetings. My friends wore black, hung out in smelly coffee houses, and believed that literary theorists like us were well on our way to eliminating war, hunger, and racism. Or at least to offering a scathing critique of those who were trying.

And then there was the problem of the bread itself. Resembling a forlorn, sunken loaf of bleached banana bread, it tasted like a gluey, sickeningly sweet cross between a liquified cinnamon roll and a week-old birthday cake from the supermarket. I was able to choke down no more than a slice or two before I had to throw out the remainder of what my Granny gave me.

Still, I longed for a starter of my own. I wanted a Foucault-loving friend who would show up on the door of my apartment in a black turtleneck, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and hand over a loaf of Friendship Bread with a starter in a hand-crafted wooden bowl with the recipe carved on the side. But that friend never materialized, and my desire for starter went the same way as my plans to take the Orient Express clear through to China and marry George Clooney.

And then just the other day Carol in my office piped up, “Would you like a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”

Would I like to marry George Clooney? (Wait. I can’t answer that question in the same way anymore. Let’s rephrase.) Do I think Fred Wise is the best husband on earth? And so I eagerly awaited the arrival of my starter, in its wooden bowl covered with a towel and accompanied by a hand-lettered recipe on a home-calligraphied index card.

I was a little surprised, a few days later, to find a Ziploc bag on my office chair, filled with what appeared to be yellowish glue, with a two-page computer printout from the Internet taped to the side. The instructions told me to “mash the bag” every day for 5 days, add 1 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk on day 6, and mash the bag again every day until day 10. On that day I was to create more starter by adding flour, sugar, and milk to the bag, separating the starter into more plastic bags for my friends, and then baking a loaf of bread that included “1 lrg. Box instant vanilla or choc. Pudding” in its ingredients.

Experience with Microsoft AutoCorrect suggests that the errant capitals here don’t stem from an 18th-century love of creative spelling, and I have a strong suspicion that you won’t find “instant” anything in most Amish kitchens. Still, I believe in my Friendship Bread. Ignoring the “friendship” part by hoarding every new bit of starter for myself, I’ve embarked on a new project to create a recipe that I will actually like. As I type this, several bags of starter lurk about the kitchen–enough to make 32 loaves of bread.

There have been two failures so far, one an apple-cinnamon version and a whole-wheat variety that was good warm but tasted like sawdust once it had cooled. But there was also a very successful apple-black walnut bread, and two new whole-wheat versions have just emerged from the oven. I will post recipes as soon as I get the starter thing figured out. I’ll have to find an Amish lady. Or check the Internet.