Posts Tagged ‘Yeast’

Saccharomyces and me: a love story

Buckwheat Grissini

Buckwheat Grissini

There are times when cooking seems like a chore: when you’re tired, impatient, or just have other things on your mind. There are times when cooking seems like, well, cooking, a loving exercise in the care and feeding of yourself or your family. Then there are the times (and I think these are my favorite times) when cooking feels like an arts and crafts project. Baking, frosting, and decorating a birthday cake is really just a big arts and crafts project. Cookies and even the humble Rice Krispies Treats fall under that category too.

The exacting and repetitive nature of a lot of baking can turn people off. They don’t want to feel restricted by a recipe. They don’t want to feel restricted by decorating the same cookie in the same way dozens of times.

I don’t really consider myself a touchy-feely-tactile person. I don’t like slimy things, in fact, I won’t even wear my metal wrist-watch during the hot weather because it gets sticky from my perspiration. (The latter always makes me think of Grace Kelly’s heiress character in “To Catch a Thief” explaining why she doesn’t wear jewelry: “I don’t like cold things against my skin.” This was a Hitchcock movie, so the line is imbued with multiple meanings.)

Yet, give me some bread dough, and I’ll squish it and stretch it and slap it and roll it around like a little kid making mud pies. Any baker feels connected to the living, breathing organisms that bloat and puff a pile of flour and water. Every Sunday night as I make my pizza I often think that master potters have nothing on me; they’re working with a lump of clay. I’m working with millions of little yeasties, all seemingly holding their breaths at the same time so that when I bite into the crust it will be crunchy and chewy, tender enough to yield to my delicate middle-aged teeth, yet, up to the job of holding all that sauce and cheese. When the bell rings and I open the oven door for bread—or any yeasty treat—I always feel the tingle of a little miracle. Every time the timer rings a yeast cell gets it wings. They gave their lives for my slice of pie.

This past weekend I found myself in need of a little treat and a little soothing arts and crafts. I was craving savory, so I settled on Grissini. For a while back in the ‘90s any restaurant worth its salt greeted you with a stalk of home-baked grissini—usually with a mashup  of complex flavors. So while this project may seem as dated as a plate of blackened catfish, I contend that for the home baker in need of occupational therapy, baking grissini can be a soothing task.

My baking-geek passion of late has been experimenting with alternative grains. What I find interesting is that variation of flavors and texture these can lend to my yeasty treats. If 2012 was the year of spelt (which has now found a place in my weekly pizza), then 2013 has started off as the year of buckwheat.

I need to backpedal a bit here. Buckwheat is not actually a grain, it is the seed of an herbal plant. But that’s splitting hairs: do you care that the tomato is actually a fruit? No? Then you won’t care if buckwheat isn’t wheat.

I have a bag of buckwheat flour sitting in my fridge, the remnants of a blini and smoked salmon New Year’s Eve adventure. I’ve been eating buckwheat my entire life, perhaps because of my Russian-Jewish background. A bowl of Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles) was never far away if there was a roasted chicken for dinner. My Pop enjoyed Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancakes as a weekend treat (I don’t think Aunt Jemima makes the stuff anymore), and as an adult I have come to prize Buckwheat for its healthy dose of vegetable protein without the frou-frou of fat. Oh yeah: it tastes good too, kind of like a lighter, more moist version of cooked bulgur wheat.

So, while pulling the bag of type “00” flour I needed to bake the grissini, I spied the bag of buckwheat flour and thought, “Hmph, why not?”

A quarter cup of the flour replaced an equal amount of the white flour, but went a very long way towards darkening the dough. I was cautious as buckwheat lacks the gluten that the yeasties need to puff the dough.

The arts and crafts portion of the program involved the actual rolling of the little ropes. Too much flour on the board and you don’t get enough traction to roll them into ropes, too little and they stick and squish to the board. A little flour dusted on my hands then patted on each portion of dough was just the touch needed. The actual shape is very forgiving, as lumpy and bumpy are the order of the day as long as you make them somewhat uniform in length.

I went old school with flavorings relying on poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, and sea salt. Happily, they bake with relative speed—about 15 minutes, but sadly, if you’re not careful they’ll disappear even faster.

They can be a bit addictive.


Click here for the Buckwheat Grissini recipe

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My Revolution

Eight Grain Hamburger Rolls

Ready for the backyard...if I had one.

I don’t like to write about politics in this venue. A friend of mine—much wiser than I—is fond of saying, “If you want to send a message call Western Union.” He’s usually talking about plays, TV shows, or movies that are used as vehicles to put forth a political or moral argument. I tend to agree when it is done poorly. But if you succeed in entertaining me, then I say, go ahead and preach.

It can be easy to dismiss these messages. Personal zealotry can be just as repellant as it can be appealing. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I had never given Jamie Oliver, the young British chef and restaurateur much thought. Fact is I’ve never given most celebrity chefs much thought. Do I think they are talented? Absolutely. Do I care? Nyet. I am most assuredly not a restaurant foodie; unlike most New Yorkers I prefer to eat at home. (I could have titled this posting, “Never Been To Nobu”.)

Yet there I am, in front of my TV each week watching “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Didactic? Yup. Preachy? Affirmative. And totally my cup of tea because I am totally in step with the message being tooted.

The show, an extension of a program he started in the UK, follows Oliver’s “man vs. the machine” quest to improve the eating habits of America’s children, starting with the food they eat in their schools’ cafeterias. Last season concentrated on a couple of schools in Huntington, West Virginia; this season he has picked a bigger rock to roll up hill: Los Angeles.

In an age when TV executives seem unable to provide anything better than endless competition shows (“America’s Next [Fill In The Blank]”), freak shows (“Hoarders” which I think of whenever too much time has elapsed between apartment cleanings—so, often), and cotton candy (anything Kardashianic), one has to wonder how “Food Revolution” ever made it to network television. No one gets voted off. No one throws a glass of wine at anyone. No one is designing a line of jeans.

The closest the show has ever gotten to the voyeuristic realm of reality television was last week’s brief glimpses of Oliver’s family in the kitchen of their rented LA home which showed his baby daughter mesmerized by turning the faucet on and off with her feet. (I thought it was sweet, cute, and very funny. And yes, I am a sap.)

The answers are likely a combination of the show’s Executive Producer, that twenty-first century show-biz virago, Ryan Seacrest, the family-friendly Disney owned ABC, and the fact that the British version of the show was a hit.

What amazes me is the fact that the changes he wants to make are considered a revolution. Last year in West Virginia he noted that the only milk choices were Chocolate or Strawberry – both contain the equivalent of 3 to 4 teaspoons of sugar. He fought to get regular milk in the cafeterias—and lost.

When I was a kid (lo those many years ago) the schools served us a little half pint of regular milk each day. Ice cold. It was delicious—and I’ve never been a big milk drinker. Every once in a while there were kids who added a spoonful of Nestlé’s Quik, but for the most part they were the exception, not the rule.

I ride the subway and notice with increasing alarm the increasing size of our youngsters. When I was a kid if you were overweight you were ostracized because most kids were skinny until they hit their teens. Is overweight the new normal? Are we raising a “Big Gulp” generation? When did a tanker-sized cup of soda become the normal serving?

There are as many theories of what has caused the so-called “epidemic” of childhood obesity as there are people. I’m not claiming to know the answer, but I’m convinced that people have been overwhelmed by information: everything is bad for you, therefore, what’s the difference? Order whatever you want—sauce on the side.

Where, you ask, does a man who writes about baking and sugary treats get off attacking sugar? A valid question. The idea isn’t to make cake disappear. The idea is to eat good cake, made from quality ingredients, and as part of a healthy diet. It’s a treat not dinner.

In Los Angeles this season, Oliver isn’t trying to make burgers disappear. He is helping a guy who owns a typical LA drive-through burger joint change the quality of the ingredients he uses—ranch-fed beef, good sauces, and whole grain rolls. The trick is to make sure that the guy who owns the drive through continues to have a thriving business even though the ingredients may cost more. (He seems to have succeeded.)

Listen, I don’t know Jamie Oliver. I don’t know what compelled him to adopt this cause. But I sure do admire the work he has done. I admire the work Alice Waters has done with her Edible Schoolyard program where she has set up school gardens. The students raise the vegetables which are then used in their lunches. Maybe if kids get closer to understanding where their food comes from they’ll make better choices? (Question mark intentional.)

I thought it would be fun to recreate the Revolution Burger at home, at least in concept. The organic farm-raised beef was the easy part—Fairway Market here in New York took care of that. My responsibility was to create a hamburger roll that would make Jamie proud. Seven grains? Feh! I used eight!

A really good burger sitting on a rock hard roll is no one’s friend, so I knew I needed to make a roll that had some squish and richness. I “appropriated” an idea from America’s Test Kitchen: use cooked eight grain cereal in the dough. This is brilliant because uncooked whole grains can be too hard to digest while making the roll too dry to enjoy. Further, I cooked the cereal in milk which added richness to the dough. (Bread made with milk also tends to have a toastier crust.) A touch of honey brought out the sweet fragrance of the grains.

The result has the heft of whole grain and the squish and sweetness of plain ol’ hamburger rolls.

If you know Jamie, pass this along and ask him if he approves.


Click here for my recipe for “Eight Grain Hamburger Rolls


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Brain: Out Of Office

Sweet Potato Rolls

Lobster from the icy North Atlantic...rolls from me

In an exquisite bit of time travel, my brain has flashed forward and is currently enjoying the long Memorial Day Weekend at the beach. Sadly, the rest of me has remained behind in the city, two weeks of work and worry away from such pleasures. I think I am not alone this year, as most people are recovering from a rather abusive relationship with Winter.

The reason I am convinced that my brain is elsewhere is because I have already started thinking about all the food that I associate with the fun of summer: hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream sandwiches, and my New England faves, fried clams, and Lobster Roll.

While I love all of the above, Clam Roll and Lobster Roll are my travel folder summer meals. If I had to name a favorite food, they’d certainly be on the list. “The condemned man ate a hearty last meal of Lobster Roll. And then he had a Clam Roll and an ice cream sandwich.” Read that and you’ll know I’m gone.  I can’t actually name only one favorite food, but I think I have made my point.

Fried Clams are best consumed at a reputable clam bar, preferably overlooking a body of water, while jealous Sea Gulls circle overhead. But Lobster Roll remains within reach of the home cook, albeit with a hefty price tag dangling from one of the claws. Yes, my brain is down at the beach splurging on Lobster Roll.

The thing is, I feel very protective of Lobster Roll. It is so simple and basic, which explains why it is so easy to make it wrong. Lobster by itself is so perfect straight from the steam, cracked open, dunked in a touch of melted butter. When in doubt I try to not stray too far from that.

Some folks think that the same rules that apply to making Tuna Fish salad will still hold true when making Lobster Roll, but this is simply not the case. In Lobster Roll the mayonnaise should be kept to the barest minimum; just enough to coat may be too much. Some insist that you should dispense with the mayo altogether, and stick with a drizzle of butter. Not a bad idea.

For traditionalists though, a touch of mayo, and just the sparsest tumble of diced celery will suffice. No salt, thank you, the mayo and the lobster and the obligatory Wise potato chips served on the side have plenty. (French Fries? With Lobster Roll? On what planet?)

Phew! Glad that’s settled.

Oh wait! I forgot the most important part: the bread.

The real New England-style hot dog roll is baked side-by-side and sliced on top (as opposed to the side). When the rolls are pulled apart, more bread is exposed, so we butter and grill or toast the sides of the bun too. This holds true for hot dogs, Clam Rolls, and Lobster Rolls. Lobster Roll isn’t Lobster Roll without this key element. It’s the law (lower case “L”.)

The bun itself is all about texture. This is no place for whole wheat. Fluffy bread is good because the toasting creates a contrast of textures. But that should in no way imply that boring white bread is called for.

As a little treat, I decided to make my own hot dog rolls, and this called to mind the puffiest, fluffiest bread I could think of: potato bread. No, this is not a New England specialty; actually, I think it comes from Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Hold on there, buddy (you’re thinking), with all the great hot dog buns sold, why are you making your own? Is this one of those “Martha Stewart-raise-your-own-hens-so-you-can-have-the-best-scrambled-eggs” moments?

My answer: “Yes. No.”

Translation of ambiguous answer: rolls that you buy in the store are just rolls. Mine are artisanal. Yes, that’s right, I just dropped the “A” bomb on you. At $15.99 a pound, how often will I splurge on Lobster Roll? So I think it is worth it to create something special to mark the occasion. Also, New England-style top sliced buns are hard to find in New York. (You should feel free to use whatever rolls suit your fancy. No judgment from me, I promise.)

Potato bread tends to be very soft and fluffy because of the loose, gluten-free starch in the potatoes. Deciding to up the ante a bit, instead of using a regular potato, I used a sweet potato.  Its honey-like sweetness and carroty color would add a mellow tang to the bread. My intent was not to make an icky-sweet roll, just something sweetly laid back.

I diced and boiled the potato until it was cooked through, then drained it thoroughly before mashing into a smooth paste with a fork. Then I added it with some of the flour to the dough. Some potato bread recipes use a bit of the liquid in which you boiled the potato. Instead, I used milk for a touch of richness.

The result is a roll with a gentle sweetness, and a sunny saffron color which surprisingly coordinates with the rusty, salmon pink of the lobster. I have a few left over which I will pair with some Hebrew National hot dogs, or maybe some chicken sausage.

Meanwhile, I hope my brain is wearing sunscreen.


Click here for my recipe for “Sweet Potato Hot Dog Rolls


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Thank you, Oz

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

The last stop before Grand Central Station on the Metro-North commuter train is 125th Street. Once passed, there is a sense of relief and anticipation that you’re almost “there” (that’s the relief)—but that “there” is our jumping, jiving city (that’s the anticipation).

In the case of the Easter and Good Friday holidays, the relief and anticipation are all about spring and summer and nice weather – an all too important consideration after the rough winter we’ve had this year.

Of course, at this time of year it is easy to get over confident about the weather, but Mother Nature tends to be a tricky, moody, old biddy, so we really don’t know what she has in store, but the days are just that much longer, and even the coldest mornings are just that much warmer.

Alongside seasonal weather changes are seasonal supermarket changes, for the spring heralds the arrival of the Passover food on your grocer’s doily-lined shelves, and Hot Cross Buns in the bakery section. The latter were always a curiosity to me. I had tried them and found that their spiced- icky, sticky bun-candied fruit allures held no sway over me. They always struck me as sticky buns gone wrong; bread that wanted to be fruitcake, but realized it had arrived four or five months too late and missed Christmas; dough that took the wrong path. (Has this gotten a bit film noir? Sorry.)

Purely out of a sense of duty then, I felt compelled to make Hot Cross Buns for this blog. My conscience was bothering me: can one write a baking-centric blog and ignore Hot Cross Buns? I think not.

So with that great burden weighing on me (heavy sigh), I started researching them. The great thing about the internet is that if you think it, someone, somewhere, has, at some point in time, written about it. I had an art professor in college – a tough cookie—who liked to say, “There truly is nothing new under the sun.” Surely he was talking about the internet too.

What the internet revealed to me filled me with a great deal of relief. I had expected the basic flavors and ingredients of Hot Cross Buns to be as tightly proscribed as the placement of medals on a military uniform. Turns out I was wrong. The only constants I found amongst all the variations were 1.) duh: there’s always a cross on the top (although not always sweet) and 2.) Hot Cross Buns are sweet.

While Hot Cross Buns may traditionally have been a Good Friday treat, in recent years they have broken off from their niche purpose and become a year-round bakery staple. If I ever needed an excuse to make the long trip down under to Australia (I didn’t), the revelation that the Aussies add chocolate chips to their Hot Cross Buns could certainly have been one. Bravo, Aussies, for that was the inspiration I needed to bring some enthusiasm to the project.

While the Aussies add more than just chocolate chips to their Hot Cross Buns, the allure of chocolate cannot be overstated. After reading this blog each week, my sister-in-law will often write me a short email consisting solely of the words, “Can I put chocolate on that?” I could write about sauerkraut and she would likely ask the same question, for, like me, chocolate is her cure-all. (I even crave it when I have, uh…digestive distress.) This week, the answer is a happy, “Yes, but there’s already chocolate there.”

The internet also revealed a bit of discussion about the texture of the buns. Should they be hearty and dense, or light and puffy? I have come down clearly on the side of light and puffy, and this dictated a lot of technical issues about the recipe. Light and puffy means two rises, and, because we want something just slightly sweet, a little richness in the ingredients is called for. While some bread doughs get by with only water and oil or butter, a whole egg plus a little milk and butter will give our Hot Cross Buns a supple richness that will support the sugar without making the gentle sweetness seem “thin.”

The result reminds me of the wonderful Parisian-inspired subtly sweet rolls they sell at the extraordinary Silver Moon Bakery on New York’s Upper West Side.

The process of baking bread seems intimidating to some, but the truth is, if you can plug in a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer you can bake bread. (Sounds like a sales pitch, no?) Measure a few ingredients, turn on the mixer, then leave the dough to rise. Yes, it can be three or four hours from plugging in the mixer to taking the Hot Cross Buns out of the oven. But you only work for about a half an hour. The rest of the time the yeast and your oven are doing the work. (Sorry, I shout this every time I bake any form of bread.)

I love a recipe that serves more than one purpose. It is a perverse form of recycling, but next week’s Hot Cross Buns could show up at a special holiday weekend breakfast next fall. (Well, not the same actual rolls. I’ll make a fresh batch.) All I have to do is make a squiggle with the icing instead of a cross.

But even that amount of change isn’t needed.


Click here for my recipe for Hot Cross Buns.

…and don’t miss these great Passover recipes (they’re great any time of the year):

Coconut Macaroons

Passover Honey Cake

Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua. (A very light Passover chocolate – almond torte)


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Life (As We Know It) May Never Be The Same

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Okay, I’ll grant you that my headline is, perhaps, a bit overly dramatic. But for folks who like to cook, it can be fun to find a new product that promises to shake up the game a bit. I imagine fly-fishermen feel this way about new lures (you laugh, but a new lure can make a big difference when you’re standing mid-stream in your waders.)

(What is this: Field and Stream?)

A few months ago I wrote about how much comfort I get from having a stock of pizza dough waiting in my freezer. Go ahead, make fun of me. Chalk it up to some odd food-related neurosis.

A few days ago I went to the freezer and realized that not only was the pizza crust cupboard bare, but I had also run out of yeast. Later, at the supermarket I blindly reached for the yeast in its usual spot and my hand landed on a packet that just didn’t feel right. Upon closer inspection I realized that I had picked up a packet of Fleischmann’s Pizza Crust Yeast – a new product.

I use the term “new product” very loosely to describe any yeast. Even the freshest package of yeast purchased from any supermarket contains the progeny of yeast strains that could be hundreds of years old. (Fleischmann’s dates back to the mid-19th century.) It’s not tough to propagate yeast. It is a very robust single-celled organism.

A few years back a chum bequeathed to me a baggie full of goo. (“Michael, my cherished friend, I present you with this baggie full of goo.” Ahhh, friends!) The bag of goo was actually the “starter” of a yeast coffee cake that was going around like the baking equivalent of a chain letter. I remember that it came with very detailed instructions which required me to feed the starter every day by opening the bag of goo, throwing in some flour, sugar, and water, closing the bag, and then squeezing the bag of goo to mix in the flour, sugar, and water. I had to do this every day for at least a week – I’ve forgotten the actual length of time – and it used to make me think of throwing meat to the lions the Romans kept under the Coliseum that chased slaves for sport. I’m not sure why my mind went there.

Finally after following this exercise for the prescribed length of time I was allowed to bake the cake from the recipe that was also supplied. The cake was very good, but I’m afraid I broke the chain by not putting a small sample of the goo in a fresh baggie and passing it along to someone. By that point everyone I knew had been “yeasted.”

But what I was doing with the baggie was propagating the yeast. Commercial yeast is grown using basically the same technique. The difference is that when you buy the little packets of yeast in the supermarket they have cleaned away everything but the yeast.

Okay, back to me standing in the baking aisle of the supermarket, holding the Pizza Crust Yeast. “Hmmm,” thought I, “Does it make the pizza taste different?” Reading the package, I learned that taste isn’t the focus of this new product, rather, convenience – time – is the focus. The concept is that you can now make pizza dough from scratch without having to wait for the dough to rise. By adding some dough relaxers and conditioners to the yeast packet, Fleischmann’s promises that you will immediately be able to roll out a 12” pizza crust without fighting the “snap-back” which happens when the gluten in the crust doesn’t allow you to shape the crust without it snapping back.

I think this warrants a session in the Butter Flour Eggs Food Laboratory, don’t you?

As much as I love pizza, I thought for the purposes of testing that I needed to make the crust without sauce and cheese so that I could really compare the crusts – taste and texture – unadorned. But that sounded kind of dull, so as a compromise I decided to make a simple Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.

I started with the Pizza Crust Yeast. The recipe and instructions on the Pizza Crust Yeast are geared towards a strictly manual process, i.e., a wooden spoon and a bowl or two. My first experiment was to see how well it would do in a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. The answer? Fine, although using their recipe yields a sticky dough which makes cleaning the bowl of the mixer a bit of a task, but not bad enough to raise any flags. Yes, the dough was extremely compliant when being shaped into the pan, happily settling itself into the corners.

The resulting Focaccia was a bit sweet, had a very cakey texture, and the crust was missing the tooth-shattering crunch I like. This actually wasn’t a bad thing. The Focaccia reminded me a bit of King’s Hawaiian Bread. While it didn’t make a great Focaccia, it did get my imagination going on other things I could make using the same technique. A fast yeast coffee ring came to mind first, but then my mind went to other combinations, including Honey-Whole Wheat bread sticks, and Breakfast Pizza (bake the crust first, then top with eggs and sweet sausage, and return to the oven to bake.)

I’ll experiment further, and publish the results when I come up with something good. In the meantime, some folks may like the sweet, cakey Focaccia, so you’ll find that recipe here. It was certainly fast and easy, and I’ll be curious to see how the yeast performs in my pizza recipe which uses much less sugar and a bit more flour. By the way, bread is out of the question. Fleischmann’s advises that the product is not suited to bread baking.

The other Focaccia, based on my usual pizza crust recipe was, by nature, a lengthier project. I think I’ll stick with it for now. The aforementioned crunch of the crust, plus the slightly fermented, yeastier flavor that are the results of the longer rise are what I like about Pizza and Focaccia.

But I like this “new” yeast. Anything that gets folks into the kitchen baking with and for their family gets my vote.

Sorry. Life as we know it is still very much the same. But the thought of making a quick yeast coffee cake will keep me going.


Click here for my recipes for Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.


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