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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Breads, on March 2nd, 2014.

sourdough_white_bread_cooling

I nearly forgot to post this one – my 2nd venture back into sourdough after a hiatus of about 20 years. Can’t you just about smell the hint of yeast bread? It was divine.

There are plenty of recipes out there on the ‘net for sourdough bread. And mine likely isn’t all that unusual.  But it’s the one I made most often – way back in the 1960s and 70s when I baked bread regularly. With a new sourdough starter at hand, I wasn’t about to venture into new territory, but wanted to make this first loaf with the trusted recipe.

Probably the most difficult thing about sourdough – once you have a starter going – is to remember  to take it out a day before you want to use it (to bake something), and refresh the batch with fresh flour and warm water and allow it to regenerate. I don’t know about you, but even though I have a calendar that I keep (on my iPhone and on my computer) I never know from one day to the next whether I’ll really be home on any set morning or afternoon – even if there’s nothing on my calendar. I may get an invitation to meet a girlfriend for lunch. My DH may ask me to meet him somewhere for lunch. I have regular things I do every week or two. I have meetings now and then. But anyway, you do need to make sure you’ll be home for most of the time required in this recipe. There’s time to go run an errand to the grocery store, but not time to go sit in a doctor’s office or to the car wash. The dough has to rise twice, and it’s a good thing to be hanging around watching it now and then. Especially the 2nd rising, as it takes less time. The amount of time you’re actually working with the dough is small, but in the rising processes it just needs to be watched (and maybe talked to nicely, maybe setting it in a warmer place).

sourdough_white_breadSo, here’s the method. This assumes you’ve already let the sourdough sit overnight (to GET the fresh starter you’ll need for the bread), and you begin with just ONE CUP of it. You can use more if you’d prefer, but it might make more batter than you’ll be able to deal with. You could make biscuits with the remainder, but that’s a story for another day.

YEAST: In a small glass measuring cup you want to get the yeast started. Now this part is something I’ve almost always done – ever since I learned how to bake bread. I mix the package of dry yeast in the warm/hot water with 1/4 tsp of ground ginger and 1/4 tsp of granulated sugar. Back in the 60’s I did a lot of reading about yeast and bread – everything I could get my hands on at the library (and there wasn’t a whole lot) and some book I read talked about adding ground ginger to the yeast mixture along with a tiny bit of sugar. What this does is allow the dissolving yeast something to feed on – the little molecules of yeast actually like to climb, as I recall reading, and if it’s got something there to climb on – like the ginger and sugar, it will climb. It’s a little thing, and you don’t have to do it if you’d rather not, but I’m of the opinion that it helps – it allows all the yeast to work. You want to use a glass, plastic or ceramic bowl (a Pyrex measuring cup is what I always used but now I use a plastic one). You do NOT want to use a metal bowl or measuring cup – yeast doesn’t particularly like metal at this stage.

FLOUR: Many yeast breads can be made with all-purpose flour, but over the years I learned that there’s a reason you use bread flour (which allows for the development of more gluten, which in turns gives the rise and a better texture). I use King Arthur’s if I can, but regular grocery-store bread flour will be fine. You’ll use less King Arthur bread flour than you will regular bread flour, fyi.

DOUGH: So, you’ve got one very gooey cup of sourdough starter in a large bowl. (In my recipe below I’ve also given you one word of advice – if you wear rings – take them off to knead sourdough.) Now you’ll start adding in the stuff. To it you add the yeast mixture, sugar, salt and flour. That’s it. You can do this first step in a stand mixer with the dough hook (I did, although I didn’t have  a stand mixer years ago and kneaded all my bread by hand). Using the dough hook makes the kneading SO much easier.

CONSISTENCY: If there’s one thing I have learned over the years about bread baking and particularly sourdough it’s to NOT add any more flour than you absolutely need to handle the dough. The more flour, the drier and more crumbly the bread will be. Having made bread in the new no-knead Sullivan Street Bakery method,  the European Peasant Bread (which is an extremely wet dough) you come to realize bread doesn’t need as much flour as you might think. That style allows for lots of bubbles and a very open crumb.

KNEADING: Here, with a sandwich bread you must add enough flour so you can knead it – in this kind of fine-crumb bread, you do need to knead it well to remove all the bubbles. With the no-knead, you want lots of bubbles to make a hole-y bread, while with sandwich bread, bubbles are your enemy. You almost can’t over-knead a yeast (sandwich) bread dough. But you can do it with the dough hook during both kneading steps. The 2nd time you’ll find the dough is much more malleable, supple and smooth. I prefer to knead it with the dough hook the 1st time and do it by hand the 2nd time. During the first mixing, it’s important to knead it well (which is why I use the stand mixer and dough hook) because you want to develop and push and pull the yeast and its interaction with the flour. If you don’t do that, the bread won’t rise correctly. The rising action just won’t happen the way you want it to. During the 2nd mixing, all you really are trying to do is punch/push out most of the bubbles.

DOUGH HOOK: Start the mixer on low until the batter has started to come together. In a regular sized Kitchen Aid stand mixer, this 2-loaf sized batter/dough will nearly fill the bowl – it doesn’t to begin with, but once the gluten begins developing the dough wants to climb the dough hook. You may need to stop it and pull it off. Don’t run the motor so fast that the mixer moves on the countertop. Kneading bread dough is the hardest thing a stand mixer can do, just about, so just go slow and increase the speed gradually. Let it run/knead for longer than you might think. It mixes up soon enough, but just let it go – probably for 4-6 minutes at least.

RISING WHERE?: In my present kitchen I don’t have an ideal place for dough or bread pans to rise, but I’ve finally found a location on top of my toaster oven, which puts a bowl or the pans within about 2-3 inches of our under-cabinet fluorescent lights. They don’t give off a lot of heat, but it’s better than sitting on our granite countertops, which are cold even in 90° weather. Lots of people create make-shift places to proof bread – like turning on your oven to its lowest temp for a few minutes, then turning it off and adding the bowl or pans. That works for awhile, but not for anything like 90 minutes. Some people put a pan of boiling water in the oven, and that will take about an hour to cool off, then you can repeat the process. You can create a cardboard box with a light bulb to heat up the space – just don’t over heat. Also know that in the winter, it’ll take longer for the dough to rise if the kitchen is cool. Some people just add more yeast (which works). If you add enough yeast bread dough will rise even if it’s in the refrigerator. That’s the genesis of refrigerator yeast rolls – you’ll find lots of recipes for those on the ‘net.

SHAPE: After the 1st rise, you punch down the dough, knead it for several minutes, until it does get that smooth texture. Cut the dough in half using a serrated knife and shape each half. You can do these in bread pans or on a flat sheet . . .

PANS: You might be able to put this dough on a flat baking sheet, but my experience with these kinds of wetter doughs is that as it rises it spreads out and not much up. So you’ll have a loaf that looks more like a ciabatta rather than a sandwich loaf. There’s a fine line between a wet dough that spreads and a more firm dough that will rise UP. You’ll need to test your own to see if it works. When in doubt, use bread pans or a ceramic bowl – an oval with sides. Or a Le Creuset  will work too. There are 2 sizes of bread pans – 8” and 9”. If you use 8” these loaves will be quite high. The 9” probably works better, but both will work. Don’t go out and buy 9” pans if you don’t have them.

THE FINGER TEST: Most experts tell you that to tell if the dough has risen enough you poke two fingers into the dough and if it doesn’t push back, it’s risen enough. The other test is the “double in bulk.” I try to eyeball the mound of dough and know when it’s about reached the double size. In most recipes this will take about 2 hours. During that time you don’t touch it or do a thing to it. If it’s warmer on one side than the other, rotate the bowl half way through.

PUNCHING DOWN: A few recipes (but not this one) tell you to punch down the dough while it’s still in the bowl – this is a method that uses 3 rising times. It merely means using your fist (without rings on any fingers) and punching the dough in as far as it will go then kind of gathering it up and turning it over and letting it rise again.

2nd RISING: My experience is that the 2nd rise takes less time – usually about 45 minutes to an hour. I also have learned over the years that you want the dough to have risen ALMOST to the point you’d like it to look once it’s fully baked. In other words, the bread isn’t going to rise much at all, if any, once  you put it in the oven. I like the bread to have a nice mound above the bread-pan-edge, so I allow it to proof (rise) until it reaches that point. Be careful with the pans – don’t bang them or you could deflate the dough. I made a slash on the top of both loaves when I made mine, but you probably don’t have to. I cut into it only about 1/2 inch. Don’t slash very far down the side of the loaf or it might almost spill out sideways. That you don’t want. Just slash it on the top, 2 cuts about 3 inches or so long. They make special utensils for this, but any good sharp knife will work fine.

BAKING: Be sure to preheat the oven so it’s nice and hot. If you want to, turn the loaves around once during the baking. But don’t bang the oven door. When you remove the loaves, tap on the top with your fingernail or knuckle – you’ll hear a hollow sound – you’ll know they’re done. Some bread is so tender and soft you can’t possibly place the loaves on the top of the bread pan edges to cool, but sourdough makes a hearty crust and you can with this one. When in doubt, remove the bread from the pans immediately and let them cool on a wire rack. If you leave the bread in the pans, they’ll begin to steam from all the trapped heat – it will make the crust soft – not what you want here.

Yeast Bread Internal Temps:

According to several websites, yeast bread made with a combo of bread flour and regular all-purpose flour is done once it reaches 175° F; if bread flour only is used, bake to 185°F. Many yeast bread recipes also say 190-200°F. A baguette needs to be baked to 210°F.

SLICING: Don’t slice the bread too soon. This is an oft-made mistake – if you cut the bread before it’s cooled you’ll tear the tender bread. If that suits your meal to have irregular torn parts, then do go ahead, but if you want nice sandwich slices, wait for the bread to cool. I’ve become, over the years, very adept at slicing even slices of bread. How? I don’t know for sure – I watch the far side of the knife carefully as I begin the slicing with a serrated knife. Don’t push the knife down too far with each back and forward stroke. A gentle pressure works better – that way you can re-angle the knife if needed to make an even slice.

AH, BUTTER AND EAT!: Well, all that effort and all these instructions – now spread with some  unsalted butter (or salted if you’d prefer) and enjoy it. If you put much other than butter on it you’ll not even taste the sourdough.

STORING & FREEZING: My experience is that bread keeps best in the freezer. Because we’re just a family of 2, we don’t eat much bread at any meal, let alone much in a single day – some days we have none. So I do two different methods:  (1) I slice the bread, stack maybe 2 or at the most 3 pieces and wrap well in foil, then I put that in a Ziploc freezer bag, suck out the air with a straw (you know how to do that, right? – seal the Ziploc closure with only a tiny opening at one end in which you slip a straw. Holding the closure almost closed, just barely holding the straw between both hands, suck on the straw to draw out any air in the bag and quickly slide out the straw as you continue to hold it shut and seal it up). Then that Ziploc goes into the freezer. (2) I do sometimes use my vacuum sealer to prep a chunk of bread ( 2-3 inches long, unsliced) and when it begins the vacuum seal part, I only let it go until the interior bread just begins to shrink in and I stop the vacuum seal. Does that make sense? If you continue to pull air out it will press all the texture out of the inner, tender bread. So that’s why you continue only until it begins to indent the middle of the bread. Then that vacuum-sealed piece goes into the freezer. It usually takes less than half an hour to defrost either type. When I defrost the thick chunk of bread (unsliced) I usually lay the chunk down flat and slice horizontally to get an even slice. It’s much harder to slice bread that doesn’t have an end crust as it gives the chunk integrity to hold itself up.

Whew, that was one very long post. Hope this helps someone . . .

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Sourdough Bread San Francisco Style

Recipe By: An old favorite of mine, from the 1960’s
Serving Size: 28

1 1/2 cups hot water
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger — (I know, it’s odd)
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 cup sourdough batter
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups bread flour
1 cup bread flour — or maybe 1 1/2 cups used on the kneading board

Notes: The ground ginger and sugar in the yeast mixture adds no flavor – it’s there only to give the yeast a little something to feed on. It’s an old “trick” I learned in the 1960s when I first started baking bread. It gives the yeast a little jump start, supposedly.
1. In a 2-cup measuring glass cup (or something similar, but NOT metal) add the hot tap water (not too hot or it will kill the yeast) and ground ginger and tiny bit of sugar, then sprinkle in the yeast, stirring to dissolve. Set aside for about 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to bloom. If it doesn’t get lumpy and bubbly, it may not be active yeast anymore.
2. Place sourdough batter in a large bowl and add sugar, salt, then add the yeast mixture along with a cup or so of flour. Stir well so all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed before adding more flour. Add about 3 more cups of flour and stir until it’s one big ball of dough, adding a bit more flour if needed to bring it together.
3. [If you wear rings, I recommend you take them off for this step and for Step #5.] Pour the mixture out onto your kitchen counter – sprinkle the board and the dough very lightly with more flour – and knead for 3-4 minutes until the dough is one cohesive ball and has no streaks of flour. It’s better if this dough (at this point) is VERY STICKY. You can also do this step with a dough hook on your stand mixer, or the plastic dough blade in the food processor. Don’t over-work the dough at this point.
4. Roll dough into a lightly greased bowl (big enough to allow the dough to double in size) and place in a warm environment – about 90°F for 1 1/2-2 hours until the dough has doubled.
5. Punch dough down and pour out onto a flour-sprinkled surface again and knead well for 8-10 minutes (or use the dough hook of stand mixer or dough blade in food processor) and work the dough until it’s a very smooth ball, elastic in texture. Add more flour in very small increments if the dough is too sticky. The aim is to just barely keep the stickiness under control. Adding more flour at this point can make a dry loaf of bread.
6. Using your hands mold the dough into an elongated oval, or a large round, or into 2 loaf shapes for bread pans. Pull the outside edges down and underneath so you have a very smooth surface. NOTE: sometimes sourdough bread just won’t hold its shape on a flat baking sheet surface, but will rise and just spread out rather than up. If that happens, you’ll need to confine it in a bread pan or some other shaped pan or oven-proof casserole dish so it has sides to contain it.
7. Dampen a light weight cotton kitchen towel (not terrycloth because it will snag on the dough) and lay it over the sourdough and place the loaf, again, in a warm place. It will take less time to rise, about 1 – 1 1/2 hours.
8. Preheat oven to 400°F. Place a shallow pan of just-under-boiling water on an oven shelf below the shelf for the bread. Brush the outside edges of the bread with water and use a very sharp knife (serrated works) to cut at least 2 slashes (about 3 inches long each) across the dough, near the top, at least an inch or 2 apart. Bake for 35 minutes for bread loaves, about 40 minutes for a French (oval) shaped loaf) and about 55 minutes for one very large round loaf.
Per Serving: 82 Calories; trace Fat (4.2% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 16g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 153mg Sodium.

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  1. Melynda

    said on March 2nd, 2014:

    Your bread looks stunning. A perfect tutorial, with great information. I have read about the ginger before, this is a good reminder, as my starter is begging to be used.

    Thank you, Melynda. I hope some people who are new to yeast bread will learn something from it all . . . carolyn t

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