Crackers

Excellent crackers to eat with cheese.

Sorry about taking last week off.  Life decided to get all wacky on me, which I’m sure you’ve experienced first hand.  Before I start talking about the simple pleasure of making crackers, there are a few neat things I’d like to share.

Firstly, Hank Shaw of the always amazing Hunter Gardner Angler Cook was nominated FOR ANOTHER JAMES BEARD AWARD!  It warms my heart knowing that such an awesome site as Hank’s is getting the nod again for its excellent content.  I’m pulling for you to bring the award home Hank!

Prolific commenter E. Nassar has a post up over at his website Oven-Dried Tomatoes titled, “The Fat Duck: Beef Royal (1723), Course 2” from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.  Here’s a picture that should set your tongue a-waggin:

Go take a look!

Did you see Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations show on Techniques? No?  Go here, quickly.

Okay, on to crackers.

I wasn’t crazy about making crackers at first, I’ve got to admit.  Even now, I’m more likely to pick up a box of fancy crackers at the supermarket rather than bake my own.  And yet, there is a soothing simplicity to these tasty cheese transports.

The recipe starts off with a lot of all purpose flour.  More than six cups, actually.  Mr. Henderson does say that, “these quantities will make plenty” and he’s not joking around.  Into the flour went some of  the baking powder, and here’s where I made a mistake.  One of my puppies needed to go outside, and I completely lost track of how much baking powder I had added.  It was seriously a Dirty Harry moment.  I could hear the flour taunting me.

“I know what you’re thinking. Did you put one tablespoon of baking powder in, or two? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a bowl full of all purpose flour, the most versatile flour in the world , and you would hate to have to buy another bag right now, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Not feeling too lucky at all, I added another half teaspoon and crossed my fingers.

Into the flour went all three of the seeds above: poppy, dill, and caraway.  The seeds and a little salt add a lot of extra flavor to the otherwise bland crackers.

Extra-virgin olive oil was then carefully mixed into the flour along with a little cold water to form a non-sticky soft dough…

…like so.  It took a little while to knead that much dough, but I think I did a decent job.  A baker, I am not.

To prove that I’m not a baker, I didn’t own a rolling pin at the time. I do now thankfully, but a cleaned wine bottle was my instrument of choice.

It did a pretty decent job of flattening out the dough, but I wasn’t sure about the thickness.  Mr. Henderson asks for a quarter of an inch thick dough, but that seems a little thick to me.

Forging ahead, I started cutting out crackers from the dough with a shot glass.  It was the perfect size for making crackers.

On to a sheet pan went the cut crackers…

…which went into a medium hot oven for about 10 minutes or so.  Mr. Henderson stresses that one should keep your eyes on the crackers, as they tend to burn.  Not on my watch!

Here are the completed crackers with an assortment of lovely cheeses.  I wish I could regale you with lots of  neat info about these crackers, about how they are easily superior to store crackers, but I can’t.  They’re very good crackers.  I had fun making them, and will make them again in the future, but a four dollar box of crackers at the supermarket will usually suffice just fine for most occasions.

One down, fifty eight to go.

White & Brown Bread

Do not attempt too large a loaf if you have any doubt about your oven’s capabilities.

When I had finished the starter last week, I felt a glimmer of hope: Was I actually going to bake something, and have it turn out well?  History dictated a horrible failure was in the cards.  But I was determined to make this work, for no other reason than to exorcise my baking boogie-men.

I gathered all of my ingredients and portioned them out for mise en place.

A whole pound of the starter (well, a little over if you go by the scale) was pulled out of the starter bucket.  At this point, I’d like to point out how much I wish more recipes asked for weighted amounts of ingredients instead of volume.  It’s a much more precise method, which means that recipes will be that much closer to what the recipe writer intended. Michael Rulhman is a big proponent of scales, and has mentioned them here and here.  If you don’t have a scale for your home cooking, go grab one now.  I foresee them being big in the near future.

To the starter I added yeast, some warm water, lots of bread flour and a pinch of rye flour.  I then mixed everything together, and at the final moment I added what I consider now way too much fine sea salt.  I’m thinking that rather than two tablespoons, they probably meant two teaspoons.  Rather than question the recipe, I followed my marching orders.

The dough was tipped out onto a surface dusted with flour and kneaded for about five minutes.  The directions instructed me to gently and purposefully knead.  Fighting with the bread was right out, as too much or overly aggressive kneading would make the bread tough.

The dough was placed into a clean bowl, covered loosely with plastic wrap and placed in a warm place for 45 minutes.

Once the time had elapsed, I kneaded the dough gently again for another five minutes, and then wrestled it into two poorly shaped loaves.  The loaf-like shapes were covered in plastic wrap and allowed to rise for another 45 minutes before I placed them into a hot oven.

Halfway through the baking time I sprayed the loaves with water, which is done to improve the crust.  I tried to get a few images of this part of the process, but unfortunately none of them came out very well.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I MADE BREAD.

That’s right, I made honest to goodness, real, edible, tasty bread.  Here’s a cross section:

It was a nice, dense bread with a fine crumb and a crispy crust.  On top of that, the absolutely divine smell of baking bread permeated every square inch of our house.

Since the steps for making the brown bread are almost exactly the same as the white bread, I’ll just show you that lightning managed to strike twice.

Now, both breads tasted fine, reminding me very much of the french bread I can buy from local bakeries.  The excess salt was noticeable though, more so in the brown bread than the white for some reason.  It didn’t make the bread inedible by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time it was a bit frustrating that my bread wasn’t perfect.  I took some into work on Friday, and gave samples to my co-workers.  They too noticed the salt, but everyone seemed to not mind it as much as I did.  I was interested in the opinion of one co-worker in particular.  His father is a retired french baker, so when Jerome told me that I had done a decent job for an amateur, I was thrilled.

Maybe, just maybe baking isn’t as hard as I had feared.

Two down, one hundred and three to go.

The Starter

Here are some bready pearls of wisdom passed on to me, and now to you, by Manuel Monade, baker. This is stage one in the baking process, a way of improving the flavor and texture of your crumb, and establishing the amount of yeast you need to use. So a little forward thinking–this needs to be prepared the day before you make your actual dough (of which this is an element) for your bread.

I had planned to write this post Thursday night, but unfortunately came down with a terribly case of food poisoning. I won’t get into the gruesome details, but I now appreciate the simple pleasure of not being in the restroom for the majority of the day.

I must confess something: I am terrified of baking. Absolutely, positively, scared to death of it. I find cooking to be relatively simple as long as you follow the instructions, and pay attention to what you are doing. With baking, I follow the directions, I agonize over every speck of flour, and still the recipe comes out half baked and half burnt. Bakers will always have my utmost respect and admiration, because I just do not have the baker mojo.

If you’d like to see some real bakers, check out Tuesdays with Dorie. Laurie and her compadres always do an amazing job, and hopefully reading her blog will have rubbed off on me a little bit.

Now, for my next update I’ll be attempting to bake bread, so of course I needed to first make the starter. Here I’ve got everything I need ready. Water, bread flour, yeast, and a plastic container. I made sure that the water was very close to blood temperature, and then poured it into the container.

Next, a pinch of Fleischmann’s yeast was added to the water, which I let sit for a few minutes. I don’t know if this type of yeast needs to bloom or not, but I’d rather not chance it.

Finally, multiple cups of bread flour went into the container on top of the water and yeast. I slowly mixed everything together with my hands until I had absorbed all of the water. Momentary panic set in when I noticed that my starter was over all, pretty dry. “Starters aren’t supposed to be dry!”, I cried out loud. So I measured out an extra cup of warm water and added it to the starter. Then another, and with that I had achieved, “moist”.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. I really do. “That looks like _________!” Okay, that was a little ambiguous, but trust me, I ran through a gauntlet of terms trying to describe the above picture. Your description most likely came up at some point. I’m just going to say “bookpaste” and leave it at that. The plastic container was covered and placed into the fridge.

Tuesday, we’ll see how my loaves come out. If you’re a baker, or know a baker, or have recently been in a bakery, pray for me. I’ll need it.

I’ll admit, this isn’t a very complex recipe, but it’s in the book, so it counts.

One down, one hundred and five to go.