Archive for October, 2007

Rye Sourdough Mysteries –

29 October 07

Repeat of basic bread message: get and read and use Jeffrey Hamelman’s book – Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes.

First of all, most rye bread made in this country is not good European rye. Most of the European rye breads are sourdough derivatives. From waaaay back. Later bread was done with a process called Detmolder sourdough, which was developed in Germany. Detmolder will get the maximum flavor out of the sourdough. (See previous discussion of Sourdough Breads.)

For any sourdough cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel and let sit in a warm place. Some of the stages will require different temperatures, so check the temp in various places, not only in the kitchen, but also around the rest of the house to find the right temperature zone for that particular stage.

Sourdough is not too hard to develop from scratch. Start off with 90 grams of rye flour and 90 grams of water. Sitting temp around 75°F. For the next 3 days take 90 grams of the starter, 90 grams of flour and 90 grams of water. For the next 7 days do the feed twice a day. You should now have a very robust and strong starter. You can keep it in the refrigerator and feed it once a week as with most starters.

For a Detmolder build start with 32 grams of sourdough, 62 grams of water, and 32 grams of rye flour. Target temp 78°F for 6 hours.

Second stage, 500 grams rye flour, 375 grams water, 125 grams of starter. Target temp 76°F for 24 hours.

Third stage, 1220 grams rye flour, 1220 grams water, 1000 grams starter. Target temp 85°F for 4 hours.

The reason for all the different constancies and temperatures is to develop different parts of the flavor of the sourdough. Reserve a bit of the last build to be the start of the next build. Scale the amounts up or down to meet the needs of the moment.

A nice, basic rye is a good all round eating, sandwich, and dunking in hearty soup bread. It is also a very healthy bread. Even the most rabid food nazi should not object to a good rye.

Here is an easy, plain rye:

270 grams rye flour
231 grams high gluten wheat flour (you won’t get much rise without this)
322 grams water
15 grams salt
1 package yeast
524 grams of Detmolder sourdough

Heat a bit of the water to 110°F, mix in the yeast with a small pinch of sugar, let it rest about 10 minutes. This will make sure the yeast is alive and healthy and thoroughly awake.

Mix everything together on low speed for 4 minutes. Mix on speed 2 for 1 minute. Let rest, covered with plastic for 20 minutes at 82°F. Don’t add extra flour, this is not like a wheat loaf and it will be sticky. I get better results by greasing the rising bowl with a small amount of butter. I also grease the work surface when I form the loaves. This is a sticky dough and too much flour on the work surface will goof up the texture.

I like 1.5 pound loaves, but suit yourself. Divide and shape as you like. Traditional is the standard round loaf, but I usually use bread pans so I can get better sandwich slices. Let it rise for 1 hour at 82°F.

If you have a dough docker, use it on the tops. If you don’t have one just lightly stipple the tops with a dull tipped salad fork. Either way, use a light touch so as not too deflate the loaf. Bake at 490°F for 10 minutes. If you want an extra crispy crust, spray the oven with clean water as you put the loaves in. Spray again at 30 seconds and again at 1 minute and 2 minutes. Lower the temp to 410°F and bake for 45 minutes for a 1.5 pound loaf. For a 2.5 pound loaf bake for 1 hour.

Resist temptation. Let cool on a rack, then wrap in cloth and ignore for 24 hours. This lets the crumb set up nice and firm. If you cut in prematurely, the flavor will not be as rich and full.

Herself sez: If you have questions about this, do ask! The Ol’ Curmudgeon is passionate about baking breads.

Painless de Mie –

27 October 07

“A kid comes up to me in a white jacket, gives me a Ritz cracker and chopped liver, he says ‘Canapés,’ I say, ‘Can o’ peas my ass! That’s a Ritz cracker and chopped liver.'” Frank Pentangeli, Godfather II

The French for the bread is Pain de Mie, the American version is Pullman Bread. This is the king of all sandwich or canapé breads, the crumb is tender, smooth, and flavorful without being overpowering to that which is stacked on top of it (even chopped liver!). The crust is almost nonexistent. This bread can be sliced thinner and smoother than any other bread I know of.

Julia Child and James Beard give it very high marks and both have recipes that will produce a nice loaf of bread. Both are, in my opinion, too complex and iffy. There is no guarantee that one loaf will be the same as the next. A much better bread authority is (in my opinion) Jeffrey Hamelman. Mr. Hamelman’s opus Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes should be on the shelf of every serious baker, whether professional or home variety. If you only have one book on bread making, this should be it. Now Mr. Hamelman is a professional baker, primarily writing for professional bakers, but he does discuss home baking and does scale his recipes for them. I don’t pay much attention to the home measurements, I enter the metric professional recipes into my Living Cookbook program and then scale them (in metric) to however many loaves I want at the moment. Dead on every time. I will give this one, as reworked by me, in metric weight measurement – that is really the only way to bake nowadays. If you don’t have a good metric tare scale that will do at least 11 pounds, then get one. It will make your baking 1000% better.

Oh yeah, you really need a Pain de Mie Pan for this. It is a straight sided pan with a lid, 4” x 4” x 13”. There is also a 16” size, but this is a bit much for the home baker. There are several places to get them, the two that come to mind are the King Arthur Flour web store and fantes.com. Both are good sources. If you don’t have a proper pan, you can kind of fake it by taking a cookie sheet or jellyroll pan and putting it on top of a regular bread pan with a brick on top of the whole assembly. Kind of awkward, at best, and you stand a bit of a chance of knocking over and making a mess or getting a burn. Your choice. A good pan is only $30.00 and is useful for many other breads that you might want sandwich size/shape on.

This will make one standard Pain de Mie loaf:

590 grams bread flour
30 grams powdered milk
15 grams sugar
30 grams unsalted soft butter
355 grams water
11 grams salt
1 pkg yeast

Mix all ingredients on low speed until combined – 3 minutes, then 2nd speed until completely kneaded – 3 minutes.

Let rise in a buttered bowl for 1 hour. Turn out, pat down, fold gently. Let rise another hour. I get better results by lightly buttering the work surface. Trying to work this bread on a floured surface will get too much flour into the loaf.

Pre-shape and let it rest for about 10 minutes, until the dough relaxes, then place into buttered pan, gently form to pan. Butter the lid and slide it on with just enough gap to see dough level.

Let rise about an hour, or until the dough is about ½” to ¾” from the top, close the lid and bake in a preheated 400°F oven for 45 minutes.

Turn out onto a cooling rack. After the bread has started to cool, wrap it in a towel to prevent the crust drying and toughening. Don’t cut into the loaf until it has cooled completely.

Misc Bread –

25 October 07

A very nice French style bread easy to make with dough hook in a mixer is:

2 packages active dry yeast
2½ cups warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 Tbs salt
1 Tbs butter, melted
7 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbs cornmeal
1 egg white
1 Tbs cold water

Dissolve yeast in warm water in warmed mixer bowl. Add salt, butter, and flour. Attach bowl and dough hook to mixer. Turn to Speed 2 and mix until well blended, about 1 minute. Knead on Speed 2 about 2 minutes longer. Dough will be sticky.
Place dough in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
Punch dough down and divide in half. Roll each half into 12 x 15-inch rectangle. Roll dough tightly, from longest side, tapering ends if desired. Place loaves on greased baking sheets that have been dusted with cornmeal. Cover, let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
With sharp knife, make 4 diagonal cuts on top of each loaf. Bake at 450°F for 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Beat egg white and water together with a fork. Brush each loaf with egg mixture. Return to oven and bake 5 minutes longer. Remove from baking sheets immediately and cool on wire racks.

Another favorite is Dill Batter Bread:

2 packages active dry yeast
½ cup warm water (105ºF to 115ºF)
4 Tbs honey, divided
2 cups large curd cottage cheese
2 Tbs grated fresh onion
4 Tbs butter or margarine, softened
3 Tbs dill seed
3 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
2 eggs
1 cup whole wheat flour
3-3½ cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in warm water in warmed mixer bowl. Add 1 tablespoon honey and let stand 5 minutes.
Add cottage cheese, remaining 3 tablespoons honey, onion, butter, dill seed, salt, and soda. Attach bowl and flat beater to mixer. Turn to Stir Speed and mix about 30 seconds. Add eggs. Continuing on Stir Speed, mix about 15 seconds.
Add whole wheat flour and 2 cups all-purpose flour. Turn to Speed 2 and mix about 2 minutes, or until combined. Continuing on Speed 2, add remaining flour, a little at a time, and mix until dough forms a stiff batter. Stop and scrape bowl, if necessary. Continuing on Speed 2, mix about 2 minutes longer.
Cover. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
Stir dough down. Place in two well-greased 8 1/2 x4 1/2 x2 1/2 inch baking pans or two well-greased 1 1/2 – to 2-quart casseroles. Cover. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 45 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.
Bake at 350ºF for 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks.

Russian Black Bread –

23 October 07

Kind of pain to make – you may want to get it from your bakery. But, for the masochistic or determined baker, here goes – (This is a cheat. I’ll tell you the real deal later. Clue: It cooks for 5 to 12 hours.)

You know the drill, bloom 2 packs of yeast in 1cup warm water. Stir in 3 cups dark rye flour and 1/3 cup dark molasses or corn syrup and 2 teaspoons salt. Get it nice and smooth. Let rise, covered for a half hour.

Start working in more flour, ½ cup at a time, kneading on a floured surface. When the dough gets stiff but still a bit sticky, you are there. Should have been around 5 cups flour total. Round it up into a ball and rotate it in a greased bowl to lube it up. Cover and let rise until doubled. Usually at least an hour and maybe nearer 2.

Punch it down and get onto the greased cooking container. You can cook it in a bread pan, but the traditional way is just roll up a round loaf and put it on a baking sheet. Whichever way, cover and let it rise until it doubles again. Oven preheated to 350°. Cook until you can get the nice hollow thump. Anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.

Couple of things can be diddled. You can add ½ teaspoon powdered cocoa or instant coffee. A nice glaze is ½ cup water with a teaspoon cornstarch. Warm up the water and stir in the cornstarch, then brush it on when the loaf is done and return to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes. You could also sprinkle on some crushed fennel seed when the glaze is wet.

A general comment here. It helps to pre-warm your mixing bowl(s). Nothing elaborate, just rinse them with hot water for a minute before you use them. This bread doesn’t like to get cold.

This stuff is superb with hearty stews and such. Goes well with a thickish green pea soup with good chunks of sweet ham in it. Spead thick with rich butter.

Prosphora –

18 October 07

For many, many years I was the chief baker for our church. In the Orthodox Church the communion bread must be made by hand by a member of the parish. Now frequently, if the priest if full-time, the bread is made by him or his wife. Our priest worked full-time. I somehow got into being the Prosphora (Communion Bread) baker. Now this bread is very simple, but it must be perfect or it cannot be used. There must be no machinery used in the making, it must be completely by hand. It is the most basic bread I know:
Prosphora

3½ cups very warm water
2 pk yeast
1 tsp salt
10 to 14 cups unbleached or all-purpose NOT bread flour (This bread is really sensitive to how much moisture is in the air at they time of baking)

Mix it, knead it, beat it, you know the drill. Keep adding flour until it is warm, smooth, punches back, does not stick to the finger, and add absolutely no more flour. After the first rise, roll it out to a reasonable thickness, and cut a bottom and a top for each loaf. Some 4” to 5” or so in diameter. Several about 2” diameter, or whatever size the priest likes. Moisten the top of the bottom. Flour the bottom of the top. Stick them together. Firmly impress with the floured seal. Let rise again. Bake in a 350° oven that is humidified. A pan of water is OK, but get it boiling while the oven warms. Bake until they ring hollow, not soggy, and are light tan at the very darkest. If they are dark on the bottom they cannot be used for services. Let cool on a rack. These can be frozen and thawed the night before the service. They must not be allowed to dry out or they are not acceptable for the service.

Now, the Russians are a bit fussy about the size and number of the loaves, 5 main loaves and a slew of the smaller ones. The Greeks and Arabs tend to use just one big loaf. The Coptics (Egyptians and Ethiopians) have the women of the parish each bring in a loaf. The priest then chooses the loaves that will be used in the service. Since it is considered an honor to have your loaf used, this gets to be a competition and a source of pride. Not a good thing.

Of course, the above bread takes a reasonable amount of hand and arm strength. So I don’t anymore.

Salt Rising Bread –

16 October 07

This should really be properly called – “Pain in the Butt Bread”. No less an authority than James Beard said a good many negative things about it. But even Beard admitted that it is delicious when you get it right.

I had salt rising as a normal thing as a child. There was a neighborhood bakery nearby that made it on a regular basis. I can remember, somewhere around age four or five, going in with my mother about once a month for our fix of salt rising. Oh wow, the smells in that old-fashioned bakery were heavenly. I think it was an old German couple that ran it, but memory is somewhat iffy after all these years.

Salt rising has a particular pungency like no other. The crumb is smooth, creamy and tender. The crust is thin and delicate. The taste is addicting. I like my salt rising cut thin and toasted with a heavy layer of butter. It also makes a nice tomato sandwich, cut thin with a good slathering of mayo, fresh tomatoes, salt and pepper. Add some crisp bacon and a layer of lettuce for a real classic.

Salt rising was quite popular in the first 200 years or so in this country, and it is a real oddball. It does not rise from yeast, the lifting mechanism is the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. This is a three stage bread. First, we have to lasso the wild and wily Clostridium perfringens, this is the starter. Then we make a sponge. Then we make the bread. The bacterium is not as efficient a leavener as yeast, so the rise takes a good bit longer in each stage. We also do not get quite as much lift, even with the longer rise.

There are a ton of different recipes, some involve potatoes, some cornmeal. I even saw an article where one fellow had produced the starter from tree bark. Be forewarned, it may take several tries before you capture your wild Clostridium perfringens. Don’t bother going any farther until you have produced a healthy starter. It may take several tries. Generally, it’s going to be finicky the first time. If you do get good results, put a 1/8” layer of the successful sponge in a small salad bowl and cover with a cloth. When it dries scoop it out and seal it up. Then use a bit of it with the next batch to kick your starter off. It will be even better than the first lot. I tend to use this variation since the more exotic starter recipes involve straining the starter and I’m just too lazy to get involved in all that extra fuss.

Here goes –
Mix up the starter. Scald a cup of milk. That is, gently heat it up to around 180°, stirring constantly. Add ½ cup of cornmeal, a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. You want to hold this at 110° for up to 24 hours. A good electric skillet filled with water does fine. Set the bowl – glass, or at least something non-reactive – in the skillet and cover with a cloth. When you are successful you will have a layer of foam on top and a good, pungent smell. Not sour, just pungent. The smell of salt rising is unmistakable.

When you have a good starter, make the sponge. Add 2 cups 110° water, 2 more tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of soft butter, and 2 cups of unbleached AP flour. Mix completely, beating until it is smooth and silky. Put back in the warm water and cover. Let it rise until it is light and bubbly, 2 to 3 hours. It does not rise as much as a yeast bread would, only a 10% to 15% increase in volume, if that much.

Make the main dough. Mix up ½ teaspoon baking soda with just enough warm water to dissolve it and add it to the sponge. Mix in 5 cups AP flour, add just enough more flour, ¼ cup at a time until you have a good consistency: slightly sticky and somewhat tough in feel. Knead for a good 10 minutes. Maybe 5 minutes if using a mixer with dough hooks, when the dough climbs the hook and/or the mixer moans and complains you are there. Cut and form 3 loafs and place in greased bread pans 9x5x3. Grease up the top of the loafs and set aside covered to rise in a warmish place. You can still use the electric skillet, just set to 85°. I like to use butter for the grease as it lends a very nice taste to the crust. Let it rise until it is about 2 ½ times original size, somewhere between 3 and 5 hours.

Bake at 375° for 10 minutes, then drop the oven down to 350° for another 20-25 minutes. Alternately a straight 350° for about an hour. Whichever way you are looking for a nice brown crust and a done loaf. Do the thump test as for a usual loaf.

Conservative vs Liberal

13 October 07

Basic premise: I tend to divide people in 5 basic groups (this is, of course, a simplification):

1.    True Conservative – these people can think and know why they think what they do. Generally want freedom and opportunity for people to reach whatever potential they have (include freedom to fail in life). Want the absolute least interference from government. Believe that people should suffer the consequences of their actions.
2.    Reactionary Conservative – includes a great many of the fundamentalist Christian Right. Just part of the herd and usually reflexively interested in tearing down anything/anyone that does not agree with them. Rather obnoxious, but usually polite in public if you don’t kick one of their triggers.
3.    The great unwashed middle – don’t give a damn about anything except their own bead and circus. Check that the ‘mainstream’ media spent more time on the doings of Paris Hilton than they did on anything of substance. (Can’t tell the mainstream media – which IS liberal anyway – from the celebrity rags anymore).
4.    Reactionary Liberal. Rather poisonous. A large chunk of the hippie and me generation legacy. Just part of the herd and usually reflexively interested in tearing down anything/anyone that does not agree with them. Same as #2, just the other end of the ass. Tend to get loud and obnoxious when in groups. Have been known to protest and expect big-daddy government to fix things rather than exercise initiative to find their own solutions.
5.    True Liberal – Opposite of #1, these people can think and know why they think what they do. Generally want to take care of “victims” and see victims everywhere. Tend to want government intervention to achieve goals. They are interested in freedom, but way too much want to penalize minor behavioral differences – Crucify Don Imus for saying “nappy headed hos”, and say nothing about the thousands of black rappers whose every other word is nigger or obscenity. On the other hand Liberals do not seem to want extreme murderers to pay the penalty for their crime. I do find this somewhat puzzling.

As a #1 conservative, I would like most of the amendments to the Constitution thrown out. Also 90% of the laws we have now. We don’t need them, we just need to pay attention to the original document. Special amendment to grant women the vote. Unnecessary. Just realize that the vote applies to all citizens. The role of the central government is to govern interstate commerce and to provide an entity for foreign government relations. The only time the central government should be evident in local affairs is when the local government has failed to protect one citizen from another. “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”. Local government can pass any laws that they like, however the central government has a mechanism to survey these laws and bounce them if they do not meet the constitutional test. This is called the Supreme Court.

Right now I’m going to pick on liberals, particularly #4 variety. But don’t worry, #2 reactionary conservatives get theirs later.
The left has gotten people so politically correct (afraid) that perfectly good and innocent words can get one into all kinds of trouble. Example: niggardly. Has absolutely nothing to do with nigger. Comes from Old Norse “nigla” – to wrangle over small or insignificant matters. Niggling comes from the same word. Nigger – as a gently raised middle class Southerner I still don’t like that word – comes from Negro – comes from Latin niger – black.
Now – if you want to get fried by the #4 liberals in your world, just use the word niggardly in proper context in a conversation. I find it amusing that #4 liberals get most of their exercise by jumping to wrong conclusions. Particularly about white males – who are, after all, guilty of all the bad in the world. Anyway, a rather nice example can be found at the Engines of Our Ingenuity web site: http://www.uh.edu/engines. I don’t remember which episode it was (currently 2240), but John Lienhard, the commentator (and a bit pc) was talking to one of his engineering professor associates and the guy said “we’ve just GOT to get more nigras into engineering”. Lienhard was ready to bust a gasket when a black student standing nearby took him aside and said “Relax, man, he’s on our side. We know what he really means”. Good attitude. There should be less touchiness about normal human fumbling with words and not see evil where there is no evil intended.
I find it perplexing that the various “human rights” groups seem perfectly content to slam the USA at every turn and brand us the worst violator in the world. These people ignore all the countries that use rape, torture and murder as everyday instruments of policy. The continuing elimination of the Mung tribes by the government of Cambodia is never mentioned. The treatment of anyone who acts outside the tenants of Sharia law in most any Moslem country is never mentioned. There was a great outcry when the Serbs tried to get the Moslem Croatians out. Documented ad museum. And, while such treatment of people is inexcusable, there was no mention of corresponding Croatian treatment of Serbs. Once again, the Christians are the bad guys and Moslems are not held to the same standards. As a historical note: the Moslems are the invaders and have systematically persecuted the Serb Christians for 400 years. Nonetheless, the UN & US bombed the Christians and supported and gave refuge to the Moslems, several of whom were recently stopped in the middle of an assassination plot against the people of Fort Dix, New Jersey. Thanks, Bill & Hillary.

Of course, you can get just as fried by a #2 reactionary conservative. Try disagreeing in some way that doesn’t set well with their particular bigotries. You could get your head bit off. Mostly these people don’t march and scream and shout, but some of them do. You can usually tell that these are #2 flavor since they are convinced that they speak for God, and put all kinds of things in His Name that cannot be supported by historical Church Law or Doctrine or Practice. They also seems to think that their interpretation of what they think the Scriptures say should become secular law. Challenge them on this and, if they don’t bash you with their sign physically, the usual answer is some Biblical verse quoted out of context with rabidly dogmatic intensity. And little – if any – understanding of the Traditional Church position. Truthfully, a lot of these people are exactly the same mentality as the Old Testament types who happily stoned anyone who acted outside the accepted Moasic Law.

Needless to say – the #3 slobs are the ones who are the real majority in this country and in the world. Most of them will vote for whichever worthless politician panders to them most recently. The lib Democrats hold first place here, but the usless, weak, and corrupt Republicans are catching up fast, and may pass the Dems as the spend, spend, spend party of excess. The Republicans, be it noted, are NOT truly Conservative, they have just been less stinkily lib then the Democrats. This is changing, and there is no truly Conservative party out there. The true #1 Conservative feels alone and abandoned. The reason we feel this way is that it is the truth.

Old Farts –

11 October 07

I like old farts.

I am past-president of a local woodworking club. I am founder of the local woodturner’s club. Most of the members are old guys. Now, not all are old. Not all are guys. But most are both. I look out and I see wrinkles, age spots, stooped bodies. These wrinkles are honorable battle scars from daily combat. These age spots are medals for honorable conduct in the course of their lives. The stoop comes from bearing the daily weight of responsibility for family.

These guys have been through the conflicts of life and emerge victorious. They are heroes. These old men are sweet, as properly aged meat is sweet. They are sharing and caring, willing and eager to share any knowledge of woodworking or any other life experience they have. After all, they have trained and raised sons and daughters to be successful humans and useful citizens, so it is an easy extension for them.

They have proven to be loving, generous and kind. They have lived with the same women for 30, 40, 50, 60 years and have been steady and loving husbands. They can still see the vivacious and vibrant (and gorgeous) young women they first loved in the grand old ladies that are their wives.

If you look closely you can still see the tall, straight, strong, handsome and proud young men still present in the weakened and aching bodies. But tempered by experience. Aged to wisdom, like fine spirits. Shaped and polished by the rough edges of life. Gentle humor as a daily way of coping.

Oh yes, I like old farts.

How to Measure for Cooking –

9 October 07

In the beginning. How long ago? Dunno’, it’s been a while. Thousands of years, at least. Anywho – in the beginning, measuring was done strictly by guess. Eventually people noticed that if you use a handful of this, two handfuls of that, half a handful of the other, and mixed it all together with about this much water, and heated it until it was about that color, you could achieve mostly consistent results. Quite an intellectual breakthrough. Who knows how long it took.

For ages, each cook had his own measuring standards and the recipe came to be one scoop of this, two scoops of that, half a scoop of the other, 1 ½ scoops of water, and heated it until it was about that color, the results were even more predictable. Eventually the scoops became standardized, and people realized that you could make the same dish no matter which town you were in. Good progress.

The baker, in particular, had a whopping set of problems. A cup of flour from the top of the barrel was less flour than a cup of flour from the bottom of the barrel. Why? Well, flour compacts. Volume is not a good way to get consistent measure. That’s why your grandmother sifted flour, scooped gently and swept the top of the cup three times with a knife every time she got ready to measure for a cake or whatever. Still not 100% consistent, but much, much better (and a major pain).

The professional bakers of the Middle Ages were a pretty savvy group. In fact, Medieval technology has gotten a bad rap since the Renaissance snobs got impressed with themselves. The Medieval techs were no fools. The bakers figured out that if they measured by weight instead of volume they got consistent results. Now a home baker can stand some variation in the finished goods, but not the pro. If a baker’s goods were uneven in quality, he didn’t last long. On the other hand, you aren’t going to fire your mama if the latest batch of cookies are not quite up to standard. So, weighing became the absolute standard for baked goods. The large quantities that were weighed lent themselves very nicely to the use of the balance scale.

The home baker was not able to join in the fun and precision. First, most home bakers were not privy to the secrets of the professional guilds. Second, a balance scale and weights small and precise enough for the small-scale production of the home was not an affordable home item even if the individual knew how to use them.

Modern technology has changed all that. We no longer need to struggle with dipping out 5 cups of sifted flour and don’t have to fool with all the bothersome fractions if we decide to scale the recipe up or down a bit.

What you want to do is invest $50 or so in a really good digital scale. I know, $50 gives me heart palpitations, too. But hey, it really is worth it. First off, don’t bother with one of the cheap scales. What you want is something that takes at least 11 pounds. 22 pounds if you bake large. I don’t generally do more than 2 1.5 pound loaves at a time, so the 11 pounder does me just fine. What? 2 x 1.5 is 3 therefore one of the cheap 6-pound scales ought to do. Bad logic! Danger, Will Robinson! First off, we need a tare function, which lets us plop the bowl on the scale, zero it out, add the flour – by weight – zero it out, add the water – by weight, and so on until all the ingredients are in. We are going to quickly get beyond the capacity of a 6-pound scale. Hey, my normal glass mixing bowl weighs 3.25 pounds all by its little self. We would have to measure each ingredient separately and then pour it off into a mixing bowl. Too much trouble.

The other thing that you want in your scale is the ability to flip back and forth between Metric and Imperial (that’s us, dammit!). That way you don’t care which measuring system the recipe is in, you can deal with it with no converting back and forth. If you do Metric, you can take a full baker’s recipe for, say 25 or 30 loaves and scale it down to two loaves without getting into some rather nasty fractions. Say your recipe calls for 5kg (kilograms) of flour for 25 loaves. If we want 2 loaves, a little simple calculator exercise tells us that we need 400g for 2 loaves. Now, in Imperial measure, we would start with 5 lbs, do the math, and wind up at 8 ozs or so. Like this in metric:

5kg/25 = 0.2kg per loaf
0.2 x 2 loaves = 0.4kg, or 400 grams

Easy. Try that with the Imperial measure. Nasty. As they used to say, the exercise is left for the student.

What I’m using at the moment is the Escali Digital Measuring Scale. Rather nice. I haven’t had it for long enough to know how many years it will last, but it seems reasonably well-made. It does metric, ounces, or pounds and ounces for weights. It also will measure liquid, giving the volume equivalents and can be scaled for different liquid densities. Did you know that the specific gravity for olive oil is 0.92? Neither did I. But if you tell that scale to use 0.92 density and liquid measure, then it will tell you when you get ¼ cup. Handy. Of course, we do all know that water has a specific gravity of 1.0. This scale also has a timer. I never seem to have enough timers when I’m cooking several complex dished at once. Takes a bit of talent in my Munchkin kitchen.

It’s not that I don’t still use a measuring cup every now and then, but not nearly as often. Oh yeah, another benefit is that I don’t have to squint sidewise with my bad eyes trying to see if I got the liquid up to the line; I just read the display.

Hey – here’s a fun exercise. Add a cup of brown sugar to a recipe. I don’t know of anyone who knows what a packed cup of brown sugar really means. How hard do you pack it down? Or add a quarter cup of honey. How much of the honey is going to wind up in the bowl and how much is going to stick to the cup and get washed down the sink? Whereas, if I tell you to add 25g all you do is zero your scale from the previous ingredient and then squeeze honey in until the scale reads 25g. A no-brainer. I like simple and easy. Of course, you don’t get to lick the honey spoon. That’s a bummer.

My bread baking has always been fairly decent, but results were not always consistent from batch to batch. Now I can be pretty sure that each batch will be samey-samey, even if it was 6 months since I last made that particular recipe. That’s a goodness. I will admit that I don’t use a scale for much besides baking. Most other stuff I just eyeball and feel and taste. Baking takes a bit more precision than that.

Pommes Anna –

7 October 07

One of the nice readers reminded me of Pommes Anna. It has probably been late 60’s in Upstate New York since I had this good stuff. If you try it you will wonder how I ever forgot about anything so delicious. Brain cramp?

History – legend anyway – has it that they were invented during the reign of Napoleon and named after a famous courtesan. Dunno’ if that’s true or not, but they are certainly fit for an Emperor.

I was in Elmira, New York for the Remington Office Machine Company in ’68 or thereabouts. There used to be this very nice and surprising French Restaurant in downtown Elmira. It was one of those places that you just had to know how to find, I don’t even remember any kind of sign. You just opened an unmarked wooden door off the sidewalk and climbed a fairly steep set of stairs to the second floor of this building, and walked into a large dining area. The waiters were mostly locals who tried with a fake French accent. That put me off at first, but I had to eat. Oh my. Some of the very best French Cooking I ever had. The waiters may have been phony, but the cook certainly wasn’t. Needless to say, I spent many evenings in that place.

The only other redeeming feature about that time was that there was a bar up on one of the nearby hills run by a little old Italian woman named Clara. A beer was 35 cents and for 50 cents Clara would go back into the kitchen and cook up a fresh batch (dozen) of Clams Casino for 50 cents. You could just pig out all night for 5 bucks.

Anyway, Pommes Anna is just about as easy as it is delicious. All you need is good potatoes, butter, salt and pepper. That’s it!

First thing is – what are you going to cook it in? The French make a very special copper pan with straight sides. You too can have one for about $350.00. Take a deep breath, stop hyperventilating, easy does it. For that much money the dammed things don’t work as well as a good cast iron skillet. For 2 people, a 6” skillet is about right. For 4 an 8” will work. You also need to find a pan or something that will fit down inside the skillet pretty well and a good cover, or use aluminum foil.

Start by clarifying some butter and preheat the oven to 450°. This used to be a big deal when we had butter straight from the cow via the churn. Tain’t so much a deal anymore with the clear butter we get from the grocery. Figure about a stick for every two people, if you don’t make enough, you may be in trouble. If you make too much – big deal. It will keep in the fridge. Anyway – melt the butter, scoop off the surface solids. If there are any solids on the bottom of the pan, don’t get those. We only want the clear, yellow fluid that is so nice.

Take some kind of waxy type potatoes and trim them until you get fairly even cylinders about 1-1/4” round or octagonal. You’ve got to keep moving at this point. Potatoes won’t keep after exposure to air, and we don’t want these potatoes anywhere near water. Heat up the skillet with a layer of butter in the bottom. Now we need to slice these potatoes into about 1/8” thick rounds. Some say use a food processor. I don’t like this, I like the knife. Start a timer. Put 1 round in the center of the skillet. Build a ring of circles around the center circle overlapping clockwise. Keep it fairly neat. Make the next overlapping circle counterclockwise. Keep making circles until you get to the outer wall of the pan. Sprinkle a bit of salt, grind a bit of pepper. Start the next row from the outer edge of the pan. You don’t have to keep with the fancy overlapping on the inside of things, just layer some rounds in as they will fit. We only need the fancy routine on the outside that will show. Anyway, keep layering and salting and peppering alternate layers as you go. Add clarified butter as necessary to keep the frying right up to the level you are working on. Do mound up the center higher that the outside edges. When the center is above the edge of your pan – stop. If 30 minutes has elapsed, great. Otherwise, keep frying for somewhere around 30 since you started the assembly. Oh yeah, do watch the heat, somewhere around medium so that we get a nice fry but don’t burn the spuds. Then – turn off the heat and mash down on the potatoes with the buttered bottom of the pan that fits into your skillet. You want to squish the potatoes down and force them to bond together with the excess starch. (That’s why we don’t want these guys anywhere near water.) Don’t be shy – mash firmly.

Cover the skillet tightly with a buttered cover or some buttered aluminum foil. Better put a pan or some foil on the shelf below the one that you will cook on. This stuff can get messy. Anyway – bake the thing for about 20 minutes, then take it out and smash the potatoes down again with the buttered pan. Put ‘em back in uncovered for another 20 minutes, smash it down again and give 5 to 10 minutes more. You will need to judge done by the nice golden brown color.

Drain any excess butter – you can keep it in the frig ready for another use. Run a table knife around the edge of the skillet, put a plate over the skillet, invert the whole thing and the spuds should drop right down in the plate. Enjoy.


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