Weekend Cooking Plans …

… I actually have NO cooking plans for this weekend.

I slept in (it was wonderful) and woke to a gray, damp, miserable morning. The sun decided not to show up and after some more rain, I decided not to go grocery shopping after all. Tomorrow, I’ll have to go, but NOT today. I even passed up an anticipated trip to the city market cause I lost my enthusiasm for the outing.

With Easter three short weeks away, I’ve been thinking of making a batch of hot cross buns for Good Friday. Last year was my first attempt at a recipe which turned out just ok. I had higher expectations than something that was no better tasting than I’ve brought home from the local bakery. (Some things they make, just don’t impress me much like their overpriced and underwhelming fruit cakes. And who buys pound cakes at a bakery?)

I’ve asked for recommendations on FB for a good hot cross bun recipe, hoping for examples that people have made themselves and were proud of but, unfortunately, links to google recipes with no personal anecdotes is what was shared. It was disappointing.

For a foodie with a LJ/blog, seasonal/holiday inspiration is welcome especially when falling into the rut of trying to post something new on a regular basis. Depending on how I feel, I may or may not end up making the hot cross buns after all.

My sole cooking (not that I actually cooked anything) in the last few days was putting together a “shrub”. It has nothing to do with shrubbery but I’ll share the results after I go grocery shopping so I can do a proper presentation.

And so you’re not left without something pretty to look at, here’s a picture of a home made cream puff from the freezer, filled with ice cream and topped with some home made salted caramel sauce.

Sourdough French Baguettes, Naan and Popovers

I know … you’re probably thinking I should rename this LJ/blog “The Sourdough Fanatic” with all the sourdough baking I’ve been doing. It’s addictive even though, as I’ve said before, I don’t actually like sourdough bread that much. At least not the ‘artisanal’ high hydration doughs with the big holes. However, feeding that jar of starter on the top of my fridge and watching it double in a couple of hours, and then triple, before finally collapsing as the gas produced stretches the gluten strands past their limit is something that must be experienced.

And I really liked the sourdough tortillas I made so, when I ran out, I had to make more on which to serve the chicken fajitas from a recent purchase of boneless, skinless breasts.

And, let’s be honest. Baking bread is cheap.

Even if it’s not the greatest bread in the world, you can turn it into croutons or bread crumbs, or dressing as I did with some of the jalapeno-old cheddar cheese sourdough I baked recently. Not that it wasn’t good, I just needed some bread to go into the giblet and rice dressing I made to serve with my roast turkey.

Did I post a picture?

No?

Well, just one of the outside of the loaf.

I tried making French baguettes out of Carole L’s no knead sourdough using the shaping technique I used in my previous attempt at sourdough French baguettes. They tasted great and the crunchy, chewy crust and toothsome interior can’t be beat fresh out of the oven. But they don’t hold up. By the second day, the crust has softened and the interior is dense. You can warm it up in the oven and it’s edible, but no where close to its previous state. Still, it was an interesting experiment. And I had fun practicing my slashing technique.

I also used some of my sourdough starter to make Indian naan or flatbread. The first batch was plain but I fancied up the second batch by adding dried fenugreek leaves (methi) and powdered garlic. A bit of melted butter on the warm naan and it’s a wonderful snack or vehicle with which to pick up and eat a saucy curry dish.

And, before I dried the last of the sourdough starter I had revived this time, I used the King Arthur recipe for a quick batch of eggy sourdough popovers. Whether you serve them with a roast beef dinner or enjoy them with honey and a cup of coffee for breakfast, it’s a great way to use up some of that sourdough starter.

Well, that should satisfy my craving to nurture sourdough for a while

How to Eat Out on a Budget

The answer is .. you don’t.

At least, if I do, it’s very rare these days.

Dim sum, sushi and Red Lobster are my only dining out treats, but even they are quite rare … a few times a year.

Let’s do the math of dining out in comparison to cooking at home.

The last time I went out for AYCE sushi, I spent $17 and change. And that didn’t include a $3 tip.

In comparison, I spent $10 ($14 regular price with a 30% discount 30%) on a smoked picnic shoulder ham, and another $7 for a package of 4 fresh, skinless, bone in chicken breasts. Sometimes you can find boneless chicken breasts on deep discount.

After boiling the ham, I ended up with 18 cups of broth. I used half of the broth to make 11 cups/servings of ham and bean soup. I used 2 cups of diced cooked ham in the soup and still had enough ham left over for eight generous servings for other meals.

As to the chicken breasts, which were big enough to serve two people each if just simply breaded and baked, the possible usages are plentiful. Another option is turning the meat into breaded cutlets or chicken fillets.

Admittedly, chicken and pork are the most inexpensive proteins available … $2 – 2.50 a pound. Fish and seafood are a lot pricier. And a premium steak. The savings of cooking at home aren’t as obvious, but it’s still cheaper than dining out … two meals in for the price of one meal in a restaurant.

Every time I get tempted to dine out, I do the math.

Although, being frugal in my grocery shopping means that I CAN afford to treat myself occasionally.

What’s your favourite dining out treat? Do you eat out as much as you used to 5 yrs ago, 10?

ETA: I spent $18 on this name brand (Butterball) turkey bought frozen for $1.49 a pound. Lots of breast meat, thighs turned into a spicy Indian curry dish, roasted wings and drumsticks, turkey and rice soup, giblet and rice dressing, delicious gravy and the carcass will end up in a big pot turkey stock.

Visual Guide to Baking Carole L’s No Knead SD Bread

This easy no knead, sourdough bread recipe was shared by Carole L on FB. I took a number of pictures at different stages during the bake as a visual reminder of what one would expect when making it.

Dough 1 – just mixed                            Dough 1 – 6 hrs later, room temp (70 deg F)

Dough 1 – 15 hrs later                        Dough 2 – mixed, shaped and put in bowl  to rise

Dough 2 – after 2 hrs of proofing           Dough 2 – turned out onto parchment paper
at room temp

Slashed and ready to bake                     Baked

Loaf cut in half to see the crumb

Chocolate Hazelnut Crackles (Nutella Cookies)

This post combines two of my favourites, reading mysteries and baking. And chocolate. (But that’s pretty low down on my list of faves, to be honest.)

I’ve read almost all of the Joanne Fluke mysteries but can’t remember trying out any of the recipes she includes in each novel until I finished “Blackberry Pie Murder” late last night. One of the cookie recipes featured Nutella, and since I have most of a jar of the hazelnut chocolate spread in my pantry, I thought I’d give it a try. I just made half the recipe (2 1/2 – 3 dozen cookies) as I didn’t want to use up most of my unsalted butter.

The cookies were very good freshly baked, though I think they were even better a few hours later as the flavour developed/ripened. They’re not overly sweet so I liked them better than many sweeter cookies I’ve tried. I baked for the shorter time suggested as I wanted a chewy rather than a crunchy result. If you don’t want to just eat them plain with a cup of cold milk, turn them into ice cream sandwiches. If you want a fancier presentation, press a small hazelnut on top of the cookie ball before baking.

If you don’t think you can get a hold of the book from your library, you can find the recipe on line at “The Sugared Teacup” blog. (Sorry, the direct link is no longer valid.) below.

Chocolate Hazelnut Crackles (Nutella Cookies) – makes 5 to 6 dozen cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup Nutella
2 large eggs, well beaten
3 cups all-purpose flour

Melt the butter (in a saucepan or microwave) and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and vanilla. Beat well until the sugar is mixed in well. Add the baking soda, baking powder, and salt and stir.

Add the Nutella and stir in until smooth and then add the beaten eggs and stir.

Add the flour and continue mixing until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

Form the dough into walnut-sized (~1 tbsp) balls and place them on a greased (or parchment paper lined) cookie sheet, 12 to a half sheet. (If the dough is too sticky to form into balls, chill it for a half hour or so).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes. The balls will flatten out all by themselves. (Note: For more chewy cookies, bake at the lesser time.)

Cool the cookies on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a wire rack with a thin metal spatula to finish cooling.

*****

Recipe from Joanne Fluke’s Blackberry Pie Murder. New York: Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2014.

French Baguettes 2 Ways

ETA: The 2nd version, with sourdough, would be considered the ‘best’ of the bunch. I like the first version.

I’ve made ‘baguettes’ before using regular bread dough, and even sourdough, but the attempts didn’t really conform to the traditional recipe (no sugar, just yeast or starter, flour, water and salt) and shaping of the real thing. I wanted to join a recent sourdough French baguette event on a FB group I belong to but didn’t have any active starter as it’s been either frozen or dried.

An attempt to thaw and build up some of my first sourdough starter from the freezer was a failure as I rushed things and overfed the small amount of live yeast in the frozen starter. I ended up adding some of the failed starter to a regular yeast bread recipe because I didn’t want to waste the flour. I even made a “lame” with a razor blade (package of 5 for $4) and a bamboo skewer so I could I could do proper slashes. I rehydrated some dried starter for the second try.

Lame

Comparison between the two baguette trials … the baguette on the left of the picture (yeast one) was pulled from the freezer so it looks a bit shriveled.

French baguette Trial #1 – yeast (plus failed starter from the freezer so as not to waste the flour). I used Kat’s French bread recipe from FB as a base but omitted the Vital wheat gluten.

 

The slashes opened up during baking but the placement was a bit off.

French baguette Trail #2 – sourdough using the recipe here and referring to the YouTube video for shaping

Crumb of the yeast (left) and the sourdough (right) baguettes

  

Quick Update

Wow, it’s been more than three weeks since I last posted. I haven’t been busy in RL, it’s just that there’s nothing post-worthy going on in my kitchen as I’m mostly eating out of the freezer. And how many bread recipes does anyone need to see? I bought a package of razor blades and made my own lame cause you need those nice slashes on French baguettes, whether you make them with yeast or sourdough (SD). Took lots of pictures but don’t have a lot of inspiration to post them.

Today, I made SD naan.

A couple of weeks ago I boiled up a smoked picnic shoulder ham, cooked up some navy beans and made a big pot of ham and bean soup. And fried up some of the ham, and eggs, for some pretty tasty brunches and brinners.

PS: Forgot that I also made creamy chicken, broccoli and mushroom pasta and chicken fajitas with home made SD flour tortillas. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts were on sale.

I really can’t think of anything else … later.

It’s All Gravy … Tomato and Duck

My mom only made one kind of gravy.

It started with bacon fat.

About once a month, my dad would slice up slab bacon with the thick rind on it, like in “the old country”, for the two of them. It took forever to render down enough of the fat to get any bacon grease but the results were worth it. My brother and I liked the regular kind of bacon – thin slices, plumped up with water so it didn’t have a lot of flavour – but it crisped up quickly and the drippings were SO tasty.

After frying up a pound or so of the bacon in her old cast iron frying pan, my mom would drain off most of the fat, leaving a few tablespoons in the pan, and add about the same amount of flour. She’d whisk the flour into the fat and cook the mixture (roux) for a while. The flavouring was about half a small can of Unico brand tomato paste. And then she’d add water and cook it up until it got nice and thick.

A bit of salt, and, at the end … well, each of us would add some of that tomato sauce or gravy to a soup bowl and dip in chunks of Italian bread and a few strips of bacon for a simple but filling brunch washed down with a cup of hot coffee.

Since she never measured anything, sometimes there’d end up being a lot of smooth, tangy and tasty tomato gravy. And sometimes, it would be lumpy and the flavour would be just slightly flat. Still, I never remember there being any leftovers.

Weekend Brunch – I didn’t have any bacon to fry up but I boiled up a smoked picnic shoulder ham and sliced off some of the uneven pieces and served it with tomato gravy and slices of home made French baguette to dip into it.

Over the years, I’ve learned to make different kinds of gravy. Turkey, breakfast sausage, pork chop pan gravy and buttermilk gravy. Sometimes the flavour is just slightly flat, sometimes it’s not as smooth as I’d like especially if I’m in a hurry or distracted with other things.

Recently, I ran across a treasure in the freezer. A container of duck drippings and fat. I thawed it, lifted off the layer of hard duck fat on top, and guess-timated how much flour I’d need to add for my roux. I ended up with about a cup of duck juices, jellied and dark and flavourful. A bit of chicken stock to extend the contents and this was the result. A delicious bowl of duck gravy.

Basic Gravy – 2 tbsp oil/butter/fat, 2 tbsp flour and 2 cups of liquid/drippings and meat juices. It’s just that simple.

Tomato Gravy – 1 tbsp bacon fat, 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 1 cup tomato juice, additional water as needed, salt and pepper to taste.

Some Things I Inherited From My Father

As the years flash by since I lost both my parents, I remember all the things that they contributed to making me the person that I am. I hope that I’ve done them proud.

While my mom was the practical one, who made sure we had clean clothes, were warmly dressed and fed, and bills were paid on time, my father was the dreamer, the romantic, the poet in our household. Not that he didn’t work hard, both at his job as a house painter for a national company which no longer exists, but when he came home he would spend hours tending to his vegetable garden. He always dreamed of having his own farm with horses, pigs, chickens, fruits and vegetables to feed his family. And a vineyard. He wanted to make wine out of his own grapes. Although it was late in life, and on a small scale, he was finally able to have a hobby farm where he and my mom raised chickens and the fruits and vegetables.

And he made a start at the grapes. Unfortunately, by that point he no longer had the energy nor the money to spend on his dream. The vines are still there … The dream is just a bitter sweet memory.

Books

My mother never really saw the attraction of books. When I would close myself in my room reading, she’d try to shoo me outside to play, to walk around, to do SOMETHING. My dad would tell her, “leave the girl alone, books are important too.” I escaped into my books. Into the worlds between those colourful covers. Into the romances, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy stories.

Plants – Flowers and Vegetables

My dad’s favourite flowers were tulips. When we lived in the suburbs, he turned the back yard into a mini-Holland with raised beds of tulips (peonies also made an appearance in season).

Supported by huge rocks he brought into the yard, he covered them with self sowing sweet alyssum. Rhododendrons and azaleas with their showy colourful blooms also made an an appearance.

My own gardening efforts are restricted to herbs I can use in my cooking and grow in outdoor pots.

Music

Over the years, my dad was able to collect a handful of tapes of Romanian folk music that he’d listen to on the boom box I bought for him. But his favourite was opera, in particular performances by Luciano Pavarotti. I managed to record all the specials Pavarotti appeared in on PBS, especially “The Three Tenors”, for my dad. Personally, I’m more fond of light opera in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, but I can enjoy classic opera as well.

Cultural Heritage

My dad was proud of his Romanian heritage, and though he didn’t belong to the local church and community center, where one would normally congregate with fellow Romanians, he wanted us to retain our language and be aware of its history. Regrettably, my brother and I embraced our new country wholeheartedly and all that remains are a few Romanian newspapers and this book kept for its illustrations. I just wish it actually contained the fairy tales it refers to.

Somehow I ended up with all 3 copies of the book. I’m sure one was supposed to be for my brother, one for me and the last for my parents, and eventually for any grandchildren.

Traditional Crafts – Embroidery and Weaving Patterns

Each country has its own costume, usually with a linen shirt or blouse which had been hand embroidered painstakingly and a woven skirt for the women and vests for the men. I’ve never had a loom but the patterns in this book would look wonderful.