smitten. with scones.

Recently (and for the life of me I can't remember how), I came across the Smitten Kitchen recipe blog run by Deb Perelman.

Honestly: most recipe blogs I could do without. Either they have bizarre ingredients choices (Splenda in KAISER ROLLS? What, are you putting the yeast on a diet? The sugar is for the yeast in the bread, not the people eating the bread!!!!), or else they assume you have a giant suburban kitchen and all freaking day to cook stuff, or that you shop at the same supermarket as the blogger and therefore just need to know the brand names, not the size or type of ingredient.

Perelman doesn't pull any of that. Her recipes are all made with real food, with stuff you probably already have on hand, for kitchens that will never be on The Food Network because there's no way you could ever fit a camera in there, much less see what the cook is doing.

There is a Smitten Kitchen cookbook out, which I may well request as a birthday present. In the meantime, I've been going through the blog archives, and have been pleasantly surprised by how often I think, "Yeah! That would be great to make!" I even made a Pinterest board to keep track of my Smitten finds.

I love baking scones — they're like baking's answer to Play Doh — and the Smitten Kitchen blog has several scone recipes. This morning, I got up early and rebelled against the dangerous-to-drive-in sleet-and-snow mix we were getting by making the roasted pear and chocolate chunk scones.

They came out looking like this:

I made the following substitutes:
  • brown spelt flour instead of all-purpose
  • 1 tbsp of demerrara sugar instead of 1/4 cup granulated (I would leave this out entirely next time — the pears and semi-sweet chocolate add enough sweetness)
  • no added salt because I was using salted butter
  • Balkan-style plain yogurt instead of heavy cream
  • no egg wash (ergo no further added salt or sugar)
  • hand mixing instead of stand mixing ('cos I don't own a stand mixer)
I also baked the scones as a single giant, scored patty instead of cutting the dough into six pieces, but that's because my dough came out very wet, even after I added more flour. Then I let them bake for ten minutes longer to make up for the different configuration. But they came out great anyhow, because, you know, they're scones.

(And yes, just like with knitting, I can never just follow the damn directions.)

The results have a great texture and a surprisingly filling. There's only a quarter-cup of chocolate in the whole batch, so while they can't count as regular breakfast food, but they're a nice occasional thing. Definitely the next time it's my turn to bring the goodies for an office meeting, I'll be including a batch of these.

a new adventure in bread

Things I Shouldn't Get So Excited About #402: bread-making. It's not like it's that hard. It's just that the variables are so fun to play with, and even when you screw up, the results are often edible. Okay, not always by humans, but something.

Last night I decided to make the walnut and onion bread I'd originally planned for 2 February (Candlemas). The ingredients listing was definitely wrong (2/3 cup of flour to 1 cup of milk? Really?), so I kept adding flour until it seemed right to me. I also read the instructions incorrectly and proofed the yeast with all of the milk instead of just a quarter-cup. Oh well, the yeast didn't seem to mind. I made a single one-pound loaf instead of shaping the dough into two baguette-type loaves as well, and had to adjust the baking accordingly.

I refuse to be one of those stereotypical Canadians who overheat their homes in the winter, so my apartment is a little cooler than average. That's fine for me, but not yeast. Usually I let the dough rise in a cold oven, reasoning that it's at least draft-free, but last night I had a brainwave: why not turn the oven light on to warm up the inside of the oven, but not so much that it will kill the yeast? I tried it, and the yeast loved it. I bake with wholegrain spelt flour, so usually I wind up with denser bread than if I used white wheat flour anyhow, but dough rose much better this way.

Here's what the results looked like:
It tasted wonderful, especially with the soft cheese the recipe recommended. I put some brie on a slice and it was divine.

The adventure didn't have a completely happy ending — I underbaked it a little and so the centre was still a little on the moist side. Next time I'll add 10 more minutes to the baking time.

Final version of the recipe:

  • 1 cup of warm milk
  • 1 sachet of regular bread yeast (not instant)
  • 1 generous teaspoon of honey
  • 1.5 teaspoons sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
  • about 2 1/2 cups of wholegrain spelt flour (aha! maybe it was 2-3 cups originally)
  • half a red onion, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • Mix the honey into the warm milk.
  • Add the yeast and let proof for 10 minutes. The mixture should be foaming.
  • Meanwhile, measure the flour, place in a mixing bowl, and make a well.
  • Add the butter and salt to the milk/yeast mixture and stir until combined.
  • Add the milk/yeast mixture to the flour and mix/knead until combined.
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured board or a nonstick pastry sheet (my preference) and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic —10-15 minutes.
  • Place the dough in the mixing bowl, cover with clingfilm and place in a cold oven. Turn the oven light on to warm up the oven just a little. Leave until the dough is almost doubled in size — about 2 hours.
  • Punch down the dough and gradually knead in the chopped onion and walnuts until they are evenly distributed throughout the dough.
  • Form the dough into a loaf shape and place it in a loaf pan (I use silicon; if you use a regular tin, grease it first). Cover with clingfilm and return it to the cold oven with the light on for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the loaf from the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Leave the loaf in a draft-free area until the oven is preheated.
  • Remove the clingfilm and bake the bread until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. I baked mine for 30 minutes, but 40 minutes is probably better.

catching up

Between writing a lot and reading some-but-not-enough, I've actually been making a lot of things. We did just finish harvest season in Toronto, after all. I made freezer jam for the first time (no photos — spent too much time covered in peach pulp for that, but the jam tastes great so it was worth it!). I also froze bags of tomato puree.

First you pour boiling water over tomatoes while they're sitting in a sink:

(Note: I'd already done a few batches by the time I took the photo. That's why there are free-floating tomato bits in the water. Don't be disgusted; the sink was scrubbed very clean before I started.)

Let the tomatoes sit for a bit, then fish them out one by one with a slotted spoon, core them, and peel them. The skin should slip right off once you core them, but if you have to give it a little help with the paring knife, that's cool too.

Once they're peeled, the tomatoes can go into a bowl:

And once the bowl is about as full as it is in the photo, take a stick blender to the tomatoes until they are nice and liquefied.Ladle into freezer bags, seal carefully, and place on the freezer shelf until they are sufficiently bricklike to store stacked. Let thaw in the bag, in a bowl in case of leaks, in the fridge for around 24 hours. This stuff is great for making pasta sauce, soups, and stews.

It took me the length of a long CD (say 70 minutes) to puree and freeze two baskets' worth of tomatoes. Some would argue that's a lot of work, but since I was going to listen to the CD anyhow, it didn't seem like it.

I've been doing a bunch of other stuff too, some textile, some jewelry, and some more "putting up" for the winter, but that can be another blog post. There's a lot to do...

reverse engineering baked goods

I seem to be on a kick involving making home-made versions of traditional prefab British food products. Previously, it was baked beans. At least those make a sort of sense, because they really are better than the tinned baked beans domestic to Canada, but the British Heinz ones, although available here, are too expensive (for me) to justify spending on, you know, baked beans.

Then I read the recent Guardian article about Soreen. I'd never heard of the stuff before, but anything packaged that's been around since 1938 and that people love so much is worth checking out, I figure. Besides, it supposedly has malt in it, and Malties/Shreddies were my favourite breakfast cereal when I was a kid.

This time, the local British candy/grocery store (90% candy, 10% imported groceries) failed me. No Soreen. Luckily, some of the commenters on the Guardian story had mentioned that their mums or grandmums had made home-baked versions, so I was able to dig up a recipe to try.

The results were crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. It tastes nice, so long as you like a dark sugar flavour, but somehow isn't super-sweet (probably because I am always stingy about sugar). It does taste good with butter on it — it needs it, because the only fat in it is from milk. I can't imagine throwing a slice of this version in the toaster like people do with actual Soreen though. It would probably do a milder version of the Strawberry Pop-Tart Blow Torches (a classic web page if there ever was one, dating from August 1994!).

I think the next time I try this recipe I'm going to experiment with adding slightly (but only slightly) more milk. And maybe whole milk instead of the 1% I happened to have on hand. Prefab stuff this simple can be delicate.

reverse engineering food

Once upon a time, when the World Wide Web was but a glimmer in Tim Berner-Lee's eye, the Toronto Star used to run a regular column where readers could write in and request the recipes for dishes they'd had in restaurants. A Star staffer would get the recipe from the chef in question, and then write it up along with an interview with the chef, a description of where the restaurant was and what else they had to offer on the menu, and a quote from the request letter, typically gushing about how great the dish in question was. For the price of one recipe (usually one of the more basic ones, at that — dishes that required an actual professional kitchen tended to be avoided), the chef and the restaurant got some very nice publicity.

These days, we do have the internet, and apparently there's a sizable army of people out there willing to research, reverse engineer, and otherwise discover the secrets of popular restaurant and prepared-food recipes. Once they do find out, they post the results on blogs, foodie sites, and anywhere else that seems appropriate, even in e-mail chain letters.

Once, the recipe-hunters may have been motivated by questions such as, "How do I make this at home so I don't have to trek all the way to Restaurant X?" or "How can I save some money by buying the ingredients myself?" Now, one is just as likely to find recipes motivated by sentiments like, "I love this, but I want to control the portion size/make it less fattening" or "I want to make this without the scary-sounding chemicals included."

Recently I've been reading about how the lining material used in food cans in North America can chemicaly react with certain foods, causing chemicals in the lining material to leach into the food. Baked beans are supposedly one of the worst culprits for this, which dismayed me, because I eat baked beans throughout autumn, winter, and spring. Around the same time that I started hearing about this, I decided to get some cans of Heinz baked beans from the local British grocery. They cost twice as much as domestic cans of beans, but all my British friends insist they taste better, and the article on scary chemicals from tinned foods said that the EU had different, safer standards on canned food linings.

From eating my way through the four-pack of Heinz beans, I learned two things:
  1. My British friends were completely right.
  2. Given (1) above, I was going to have to learn to approximate this recipe.
It took three batches of slow-cooked beans, but I finally have a decent version. They're not the same as Heinz, but they're a lot closer to, and no tin cans are involved.

3 cups of cooked navy beans
about 3/4 c Heinz ketchup (Heinz ketchup = Heinz-ish beans)
about 1 tbl Dijon mustard
a few drops of Worcestershire sauce

Place beans in slow cooker. Add all of the other ingredients to a measuring cup, then add enough hot water to make up about 1 3/4 c total. Stir until combined. Pour over beans and cook on Low setting for 4-6 hours.

This makes a version that has the right flavour, but a strong vinegar smell. Next time I may reduce the ketchup a little and up the water a little (the consistency of the sauce is also a bit thicker than the authentic Heinz British beans, so this makes sense to me).

Did you notice there is absolutely no added sugar in this version? No brown sugar, no maple syrup, no molasses. No wonder I like it so much.

What's your favourite way to do beans?

Bigger is better?

I saw these giant-size pomegranates in my local supermarket the other day and couldn't resist buying one (plus a regular-size grapefruit for scale), just for the sheer freak factor and the photo op. It was easily twice the size of the last one I bought.

That was size. What about taste?

You guessed it. I used a quarter of the pomegranate and half the grapefruit to make a pomegranate, grapefruit, and salmon salad for dinner tonight. The pomegranate seeds were the size of corn kernels — and were almost completely tasteless. Fortunately, the grapefruit was a good one, so at least I had some acidity to balance off the salmon and the olive oil.

Once again size and taste turn out to be incompatible. The thing is, how do we manage to tell the supermarkets that?