18 February 2013

Making Bread

Fresh bread lends itself to many tasty applications, including garlic bread
Baking bread is one of those things that seems to daunt everyone. But it shouldn't. It's neither difficult nor as time consuming (especially if you have a mixer with a dough hook) as many seem to think. And the results (not to mention the amazing smell that fills your kitchen) are so worth it.

You don't need many--or fancy--ingredients to make good bread. And those of you not from Canada who are wondering--yes, that is bagged milk inside the pitcher.

Delicious melted-butter lake spreading in a pool of warm milk...

Ready to start mixing

My mixer came with a protective shield to keep flour from flying everywhere but I find it cumbersome to use. So I just wrap a tea towel around the bowl until loose flour is no longer an issue.

Still too sticky--needs more flour.
The right consistency: elastic and only slightly sticky

After about an hour of rising, during which you can do anything more interesting than watching dough rise.

After being punched down

Aluminum bread pans I inherited from my mom. These are the best. But you can use any metal loaf pan.

Loaves shaped and ready for their second rising, which gives you another hour or so to do something else more interesting than watching dough rise.

Fully risen and ready for the oven

You can leave the tops plain or brush with milk or egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds or whatever else catches your fancy

Golden-brown, delicious, and ready to eat.

Basic White (or Semi-White) Bread

This recipe came with my mixer and has quickly become my favourite bread recipe.

1/2 cup low-fat milk [I use 2%]
3 Tbs sugar
2 tsp salt
3 Tbs butter
2 packages [or 2 Tbs] active dry yeast [If you bake a lot it makes more sense to get your yeast in the larger jar rather than in individual packets]
1 1/2 cups warm water [105F to 115F, or in other words, warm but not so hot as to burn you]
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour [You can replace 1 1/2 to 2 cups of all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour if you'd like your bread to be healthier but not too heavy.]

Place milk, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Cool to lukewarm.

Dissolve yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm water in warmed mixer bowl [I hate wasting water so rather than running the faucet until the water eventually gets hot enough, I fill the mixer bowl until it starts warming up. Then I use that water to water plants. With the bowl warmed I add the yeast and the 1 1/2 cups warm water the recipe calls for.] Add lukewarm milk mixture [Another hint: if the milk mixture seems like it's still too hot you can cool it down by pouring it against the side of the mixer bowl in a thin stream instead of dumping it all at once into the yeast mixture.] Add 4 1/2 cups flour. Attach bowl and dough hook to mixer. [At this point you might want to cover the bowl with a tea towel to keep flour from flying everywhere when you turn the mixer on. You can take the towel away once the flour has been incorporated.] Turn to speed 2 and mix about 1 minute.

Continuing on speed 2, add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and mix until dough clings to hook and cleans sides of bowl, about 2 minutes. Knead on speed 2 about 2 minutes longer or until dough is smooth and elastic. Dough will be slightly sticky to the touch.

Place dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover. Let rise in a warm place, free from draft [I use the top of my stove, as long as no burners are on; otherwise, your kitchen counter or even the top of a radiator will do], about an hour or until doubled in bulk [the time it takes depends on your yeast as well as the temperature in the room].

Punch down dough and divide in half. Shape each half into a loaf and place in greased 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" x 2 1/2" metal loaf pans. Cover again and let rise again, about an hour or until doubled in bulk. Before placing the loaves in the oven you might want to add something to the top. I'm partial to sesame seeds but you might prefer poppy or sunflower seeds or chopped herbs. Just gently brush the tops of the loaves with milk or egg white (egg white works better but unless you're going to be using the rest of the egg right away I wouldn't bother) and sprinkle with your toppings of choice.

Bake at 400F for about 30 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks. [The standard test to see whether bread is fully cooked is to rap on the bottom. If it sounds hollow you're good to go. I recommend using a spoon to avoid burned knuckles.] Try to resist the fresh bread long enough to let it cool down a touch before slicing and slathering with decadent amounts of butter. This bread also makes lovely toast, sandwiches, garlic bread, and (when stale) bread pudding. Raw dough is ideal to use in recipes such as Tiganopsomo (Fried bread) and Wrapped Sandwich Loaf. It also freezes well.

Makes 2 loaves

12 February 2013

Review: Get Started Sewing

My mom was an incredibly talented person--whatever she did she was good at. One of the things she was especially good at was sewing. In fact, she was a seamstress most of her life. She made everything from casual clothes to my sister's wedding gown. She could even look at a picture and recreate an outfit without a pattern.

Growing up around this kind of talent and creativity (not only my mom, but also my dad, who could build just about anything and was king of the vegetable garden), I appreciated the value of craftiness and general DIY. Seeing what my mom could do, I dreamed of sewing myself an awesome wardrobe. The problem? Every time I started sewing something my mom would offer to do it for me instead. How could I say no? She could make anything better and quicker--and it made her happy to do it for me. My nascent sewing skills atrophied and I was left with an overwhelming sense of guilt whenever I looked at my mostly unused sewing machine. Worse still, now that my mom is gone I'm helpless in the face of even relatively minor repairs.

Which is why a book like Get Started Sewing is perfect for me. It's basically a detailed guidebook on everything to do with sewing. If you want to learn how to sew on a button, it's in here. If your skills are more advanced and you want to try your hand at, say, making a pair of shorts with pockets and an elasticized waistband--it's here too. The book even makes a point of helping you avoid common mistakes--a much appreciated feature (and one that more books could use).

The Essential Equipment section impressed me, not only with the amount of information offered, but with how much I didn't know. Were you aware that there's a special thread for using with sergers? Or that there are both "household" pins and dressmaker's pins (the latter are "slightly longer"). I sure didn't.

The section on fabrics, on the other hand, is pretty basic. If you want a really in-depth guide to that topic you'll need to look elsewhere. Luckily, the more you sew the more you'll learn about fabrics through experience, so detailed information isn't absolutely necessary up front. As far as flaws go this one falls into the category of minor.

The projects in the book are divided by skill level. For beginners there are simple things to make, such as a ladybug pin cushion and felt flower brooches. Once you're ready for something a little more complex you'll find instructions ranging from how to apply fusible interfacing, to upcycling clothing, and (my personal favourite) making bunting. And for those who want a real challenge there a projects such as adding zippers, applying bias binding, and making a patchwork quilt. Theoretically if you start at the beginning of the book and work your way through, you'll be able to sew anything by the time you're done. This is my kind of book.

If you want to give sewing a try (or want to improve your skills) I highly recommend Get Started Sewing. The instructions and photos are clear and detailed and the projects are inspiring. Just reading through it leaves me feeling like I know what I'm doing and that I'm capable of doing even more. I'm happy to say I've been inspired to set up my sewing machine and return to a craft I'd nearly given up on. Maybe I'll make my awesome wardrobe, after all. But in the meantime I'm starting with dish cloths and bunting. I have to say, 2013 has been a great year for creativity and trying new things, and a big part of the credit goes to DK and their Start Something New theme. (In spring I'll be trying something else new too, as I review DK's Get Started Preserving.) I hope you've been having a similarly inspiring and productive year so far. If not, it's never too late to start...

01 February 2013

Easy Does It

When I started cooking I used to think the more complicated the recipe the better. I loved long ingredient lists and multiple sets of instructions. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I enjoyed the challenge; maybe I thought "real" cooking required major effort. But after you've ended up eating a few too many mediocre meals after first spending hours following some fancy recipe, it doesn't take long to figure out that complicated is not necessarily better. Now, unless it's a special occasion, I want short, easy recipes. I need to be done quickly and it had better be good.

My favourite hummus recipe meets all these requirements. It only needs five ingredients, it comes together in minutes (especially if you use a food processor), and it's delicious. Hey, it's even healthy. What more could you ask for?

A few ingredients are all you need

Parsley, pre-chopped

A few seconds later

The second batch of ingredients go into the processor

A few seconds later

A few minutes of work and you're ready to go

Easy Hummus

16 oz (540 mL) can chick peas
1/4 cup tahini (can be found in the Greek or Middle Eastern section of your local supermarket)
juice of 1/2 a lemon (I happened to have bottled on hand so I went with that)
2 cloves garlic, minced*
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped*

*If you're using a food processor, which I recommend, you can chop the parsley and garlic in there before processing the chickpea mixture.

Drain half the liquid from the chickpeas. Place remaining contents in food processor (or blender, but that doesn't work as well), along with tahini and lemon juice. Process until very smooth (a few seconds). Add chopped parsley and garlic and pulse a few times to blend ingredients. Transfer to plate or airtight container. Your hummus is ready to serve.

If you like you can garnish the hummus with a sprinkling of paprika or ground sumac. Sumac is a gritty, sour spice used in Middle Eastern cooking to add a lemony flavour. If you can find it (you'll probably have to go to a specialty shop) I highly recommend it. Serve hummus with pita bread and chopped veggies as an appetizer. It's also good as a spread on sandwiches with roasted vegetables.

Serves 4 as an appetizer (or 2 as a main)