RADISHES, TWO WAYS

Today, April 27th, 2010, would have been my father’s sixty-eighth birthday.  And so:

SIXTY-EIGHT THINGS ABOUT MY DAD

1)    He loved radishes, which is why they are featured here.  I always eschewed them myself, but a few weeks ago, I figured it was time to teach myself to like them, for his sake.  As silly as it sounds, it’s comforting to mirror his eating habits, to remember him in the kitchen or at the dinner table.  And as it turns out, radishes are delicious.  There are some in my crisper right now, fresh from the Farmers Market.  Two ideas for how to enjoy them follow this list.

2)    About Farmers Markets—my dad was a regular attendee.  Every Saturday morning in the spring and summer, he showed up to pick the best cucumbers and tomatoes from the stalls of West Tennessee family farmers.  A few weeks after he died, I went in his absence and had to break the news to several kind folks who had set aside the nicest baby cucumbers for him.  They sent me home with them and wouldn’t let me pay.

3)    He had the loveliest handwriting, which I sadly did not inherit.  Elegant and sloping, but frustrating for teenage me as I tried to teach myself to forge it, with little success.

4)    When I got my period for the first time, he congratulated me for becoming a woman and made me pancakes.  I was totally mortified.  Now I’m totally endeared.

5)    He also had a beautiful singing voice, one he was born with.  He sang at dinner parties, weddings, and in the bathtub on Saturday afternoons.

6)    The man took epic naps.

7)    He called me “Nito,” the pronunciation of which I can only compare to “Quito,” as in the capital of Ecuador.

8)    I have that nickname in two precious places—on half a second’s worth of voice recording from our trip to India, and tattooed in his handwriting on my lower back.

9)    I was in the room when he died.  I am strangely proud of the fact that I watched my father die.

10)    When he was angry, he didn’t yell.  He was calm instead, which was much scarier.

11)     He didn’t have much hair to speak of atop his head after the age of twenty-five.

12)     He owned more pairs of shoes than my mom, and was fastidious about shining them regularly.

13)     I inherited his love of shoes.

14)     The smell of shoe polish still reminds me of him.

15)     When he ate spicy food, which he loved to do, sweat would bead up on his forehead.

16)     One of many reasons, I think, that he always carried a handkerchief.

17)     He was a total nerd with a mind for numbers.  A teacher now, I imagine what he would have been like as a student: conscientious, eager, easy to smile.

18)     I think he would have made a fantastic teacher.  I think he wished he had become one.

19)     He was, for a good handful of years, a volunteer tutor.  One young man was so grateful for the math help—which allowed him to bump up his grades & earn a college basketball scholarship—that he always left tickets at the box office for my dad when they played games in Memphis.

20)     Then there were the pies that came at Christmastime, along with a pot of spicy greens, from the women for whom he was a literacy tutor.  Many of them were grandmothers and wanted to be able to read to their grandchildren.

21)     Now, lest you think my father was some kind of saint (or that I am remembering him that way), he wasn’t.  He was a flawed, complicated, frustrating human being.

22)     Once, he was so upset that I had driven from Houston to Memphis (a whole nine hours!) over one Fall Break in college to surprise him and my mom that he made me swear I would not drive across a state line by myself in the dark until I turned twenty-five.

23)     Actually, his initial deal was “until you get married.”

24)     And I was like, “Um, Dad?  We might be waiting a while on that one.”

25)     When I first came out to him, he didn’t speak to me for three months.  It was my senior year of high school.

26)     I still have a long letter from him in which he explained how disappointed he was in my “choice.”

27)     For most of my time in college, all we managed to talk about on the phone was the weather, sports, and food.

28)     We always had food.

29)     That man taught me to love food, and I’m grateful.  He taught me how to be in love with food, actually, how to go to bed thinking about what you’ll eat when you wake up, to make sure everyone in your dinner party ordered something different so you could try lots of things, to eat off of street food carts and in little hole-in-the-wall places.

30)     Aside from radishes & cucumbers, Subhash’s favorites included: grapefruit, almonds, pecans, anything fried, rajmah chawal (Indian-style red beans & rice), and all kinds of peppers.

31)     One of my proudest food memories is my dad encouraging me to try escargot, around the age of ten, and being delighted when I didn’t “eww” or spit it out.

32)     I used to have VERY short hair.  I started growing it out a few years ago to appease him.

33)     I also pierced my ears—something he had always wanted me to do—after he died.  When I wear long, dangly earrings, in my mind, it’s for him.

34)     He was not a coffee drinker.  My father was a hard-core, old-school, British-style tea drinker.

35)     So hard-core, in fact, that on family outings to Waffle House for breakfast, he took to bringing his own hot water along, IN A THERMOS, because he wanted it to be boiling so that the tea might properly steep.

36)     You might understand why my mother & I often referred to him as “His Highness.”

37)     To save his life, the man could not dance. Zero sense of rhythm.

38)     Thank goodness, I inherited my sense of rhythm from my mother.

39)     But, for my nice legs, I can thank my dad.

40)     He wasn’t a very “macho” man.  I think a fierce connection to his mother and to two older sisters softened him a little.  He wasn’t one to posture or preen.  He felt comfortable around women, but he wasn’t uncomfortable around men.  He just didn’t do that sarcastic, joke-y ribbing that men often engage in, and that set him apart.

41)     Sports, though—he loved sports.  He would watch any and all sport, televised or live.  He taught me how to follow football and that cursing at the television loudly is both therapeutic and effective.  He would have LOVED fantasy football.

42)     I think my dad and Jill could have bonded over so many things, fantasy football being one of them.  I wish he could have seen her as a caring, loving, presence in my life.  I think if he had met her in some other context, he would have found her funny, charming, razor-sharp.  But context, you know, is decisive.

43)     One of his most prized possessions (he didn’t really prize possessions, much) was his 1981 burgundy Mercedes.  It was one of those old diesel tanks that was a pain in stop-and-go traffic but purred like a kitten on the highway.  His success in America, the fact that he had “made it,” all of his hard work and sacrifice—were embodied in that car.  I have very distinct memories of my young back-of-thigh skin sticking to the leather seats in the hot summer.

44)     Some people recently moved into our neighborhood, only a few houses down, and they have just the same car, my father’s car, parked in their driveway.  It’s been weeks now and I still swivel my head, hoping to catch sight of him.

45)     He was twenty-five when he married my mom.  She was twenty.  He told me, several times, that when he first met her he was struck with how beautiful and well-spoken she was.  “She was brave.”  And she still is.

46)     My earliest memory is of my father crying because his father was dead.

47)     My mom took the phone call from India; my dad was at work.

48)     I didn’t see him cry again for a dozen years.

49)     The next time was before his open-heart surgery; a triple bypass.  I was a freshman in high school.  He cried much more easily after that, and kept a Frankenstein scar on his left leg where they had taken artery away.

50)     He loved America.  He was so proud to be a citizen of this country.

51)     He liked it when I read aloud to him.  He also liked to listen in while I practiced piano.  He would sit in a blue armchair that often served as the picture-taking spot for our family.

52)     Lord only knows how many family pictures we have in front of that damn blue chair.

53)     There are also a lot of pictures of my mother and I rolling our eyes at him, because he is taking yet ANOTHER picture on family vacation.  Especially hilarious—the series of bison shots from our Utah/Wyoming/Montana state park trip.  No offense to bison, but they all look the same to me.

54)     He would have made an excellent, excellent grandfather.  If I hate anything most of all, it’s probably that he didn’t get to do that.

55)     But he did act as surrogate to lots of kiddos of family friends, unafraid to get down on the floor and play imagination games, to hold little chicken-folded newborn babies, grinning from ear to ear.

56)     He liked to spoil me.

57)     He cooked exactly three things better than my mom did: pancakes, peelay chawal (Indian-style yellow rice), & refried beans.

58)     His refried beans were astonishingly good—completely vegetarian, for my mom’s sake—but you’d swear they had lard in them.  I wish to God I had gotten that recipe before he died.

59)     What’s truly comforting is that my father was not, I think, a man with many regrets at his deathbed.  He enjoyed his pleasures, was affectionate with those he loved, and paced his days well.  I’m not certain exactly how to measure a life, but I know that he measures up.

60)     Though he claimed “not to care for sweets,” he ate everything I ever baked (another thing he and Jill would have in common).

61)     He also developed Type II Diabetes as an adult.

62)     And, as we discovered in the glove compartment of the Mercedes when he died, snuck candy behind my mom’s back.

63)     He really, really loved my mom.  Mom, are you reading this?  He loved you so much.

64)     Which is kind of extraordinary, considering that they were basically thrown together in an arranged marriage.  My mom always said, “We got married, had sex, then fell in love.  Please do it in different order.”

65)     Oh and the snoring. Snoring like to wake the neighbors.

66)     He was a pain in the ass at a buffet.  High-maintenance as he was, he liked to wait until things came out fresh and hot, which meant that a trip to a buffet might well be a three-hour affair.  Which meant lots of games of tic-tac-toe for me and Mom on a kids’ menu at Shoney’s.

67)     One of the proudest things I’ve ever done was take my first “real” paycheck and march into a store to buy my dad two really, really nice dress shirts.  You know, brushed Egyptian cotton, the whole thing?  He wore one the day I graduated from college and it’s hanging in my closet now.

68)     I guess this one goes without saying, but I really, really miss him a lot.

RADISHES, TWO WAYS

raw:

Scrub radishes clean under cold water.  Trim ends, slice extremely thin.  Layer atop a toasted slice of French bread and a slather of really good butter.  Sprinkle generously with sea salt.

Repeat.

roasted:

Preheat oven to 450˚.  Scrub the radishes clean under cold water, dry thoroughly.  Toss with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, & (optional) fresh thyme.  Roast in a shallow baking dish for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400˚ and roast another 15-20.  When you can pierce the radishes easily with a knife, they’re ready.

Succulent alone, roasted radishes also make a wonderful side for pork chops or as a component for a wilted salad—top bitter greens such as arugula or dandelion with the diced, still-warm radishes, add goat cheese & some croutons, dress with a balsamic.

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SCALLOPS WITH CREAM & BASIL

I wanted something a little bit decadent, for celebration purposes.

You might, like me, be constantly setting aside recipes to try “at some point,” bookmarking blogs and clipping features from the paper, folding down the corners of magazines and dotting the edges of your cookbooks with those handy little sticky flags.  Even cooking as much as I do, all of those recipe ideas start to pile up and threaten to overwhelm.  Because, let’s face it, most of the time, we come home to cook and are tired, hungry, and working with whatever ingredients we have on hand.  We cook from the hip, or rely on tried-and-true standby recipes we practically know by heart.

I think that’s why it feels like such decadence, such a giddy experiment, to go to the store and buy ingredients specifically to cook a particular dish.  Especially if you are cooking with something for the first time, as was the case for me with scallops.

Scallops are a favorite of photographer Sonya, but I had always assumed they were a “fussy” ingredient best left to the professionals.  Turns out that isn’t at all the case; this dish came together in about twenty minutes but tasted incredibly decadent and restaurant-worthy.

And what are we celebrating?  Why the new, improved, shmancy-pants Blue Jean Gourmet, of course!  Website changes have been in the works for a couple of months now, but I tried to keep them a secret because there’s nothing that drives me crazy more than someone announcing “Big changes coming soon!  Stay tuned!”  Much more satisfying to just be able to SHOW you the big changes, no?

We’re still working out some kinks, which is kinda how these things go, so your patience, comments, and suggestions are all very much appreciated.  Please update any bookmarks or links—we are now, officially, www.bluejeangourmet.com

Heartiest thanks to all those who helped with this process: my friend Jason Prater, who created my beautiful logo, Gus Tello & Melanie Campbell-Tello, who dreamed up this beautiful design, & their CSS ninja Zane, who brought it all to life.

I think the new look will take some getting used to, like looking at pictures of yourself from a wedding or fancy event.  “Who is that person?”  It feels a little bit like that…my little blog, all dressed up.

SCALLOPS WITH CREAM AND BASIL

If your mom is a seafood lover, you might want to bookmark this one for Mother’s Day.  We served the scallops with crusty bread, but they could easily go over pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous.  A lovely Farmers Market salad on the side would complete things nicely.

ingredients :

8-12 sea scallops, dried well with a paper towel
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup chopped shallots (substitute red onion)
1 large garlic clove, sliced thinly
big handful of fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
a pinch of dried red chili flakes
salt & pepper

Melt 4 T of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  (Don’t use nonstick, or the scallops won’t brown.)  Sprinkle the scallops with salt & pepper.  After the butter foams, add the scallops.  Brown the scallops on both sides, adjusting the heat as necessary.  The goal here is a nice crust on both sides of the scallops—don’t worry about cooking them all the way through.

Remove the scallops from the pan & set aside.  Turn down the heat & add the last 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan.  Add the shallots, garlic, & red pepper flakes.  Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the shallots soften.

Add the wine and raise the heat so that the mixture will bubble and reduce down by half.  Add heavy cream and again, reduce the sauce.  When the liquid is nice and thick, return the scallops, with any accumulated juices, to the pan.

Cook for a minute or two more, stirring in half of the basil, until the scallops are firm.  Taste and add salt & pepper if necessary.   Serve the scallops with sauce, garnishing with the remaining basil.

BURGERS & FRIES

Remember last week’s guest posts from Jessie about baking bread?  And remember when I told you that half of my batch of challah found its destiny in the form of some tasty, tasty hamburger buns?

Now I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, but there are few better ways to enjoy the changing season than home-cooked burgers and fries.  Burgers and fries, burgers and fries.  Have two things ever gone so well together?  Even their names have a kind of lulling rhythmic rightness: burgers and fries, burgers and fries.

There are approximately three zillion recipes out there for “the perfect burger,” “the diet burger,” “the California burger,” “the ultimate burger,” etc.  I’m not claiming this burger is any of the above, but it did make for a very satisfying Saturday night dinner.

BURGERS & FRIES

I will also say that I believe the quality of the ground beef I used had everything to do with how good these burgers tasted.  Jill and I purchase a meat share from a local farm here in Texas, and not only do we feel ethically good about supporting a small operation with well-treated animals, the meat just plain tastes better.  Like, light-years better.

And so if you haven’t, I urge you to check into and support small farms in your area.  You can search here or stop by your local Farmers Market.

for the burgers:

2 lb. ground beef
1 red onion
1 cup cheese of your choice (we used double Gloucester)
½ cup flat-leaf parsley
juice from half a lemon
salt & pepper (more of the latter than the former)

Peel & dice the onion, then sauté in a little olive oil until soft & translucent.  Set the onion aside to cool and in the meantime, grate the cheese & chop the parsley.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, mixing well with your fingers.  Form into patties of your desired size, keeping in mind that burgers shrink significantly when cooked.  I usually make my patties very round & tall so that they’ll even out by the time they arrive on a bun.

Grill outside or indoors on a grill pan/stovetop grill.  (You can also refrigerate pre-made patties ahead of time or flash-freeze on a cookie sheet first, transferring them to a freezer bag for future use.)

For an especially tasty burger, brush your buns with a little melted butter & add them to the grill for the last few minutes of cooking.  Garnish burgers with desired condiments: grilled onion, avocado, tomato, lettuce, pickle, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, etc.

for the fries (adapted from Gourmet):

2 lb. sweet potatoes
1 tsp. whole coriander
½ tsp. fennel seeds
½ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
salt
vegetable oil

oven: 425°

Cut the sweet potatoes into wedges—peeling them is not necessary.  Grind the spices together with a mortar & pestle or spice grinder (the latter will, of course, result in a much finer grind).  Place the potatoes in a large roasting pan; use two if need be, you don’t want to crowd the slices because they won’t crisp up.

Toss the potatoes with a few tablespoons of oil to coat, then add the spices, distributing evenly.  Roast for 40-45 minutes, turning the wedges halfway through and rotating the pans if you used two.

Sprinkle generously with salt before serving.  They are delicious plain, with ketchup, Sriacha, or this tamarind chutney.

SEV PURI

Perhaps it is a generational symptom, or hazard, to experience times in one’s life that are later identified as having felt “like a movie.”  If serendipity, luck, or chance has played a large part, making one’s day unusually perfect or delightfully surprising, then “it was like a movie.”  If terrible things have taken place, things no one could have foreseen, things one feels one might not make it through, then “it was like a movie,” also.

Nearly everything about the summer of 2006 occurs, for me, like a movie.  This may well be the case because all of it is showcased, projected up on the screen of my mind, as if it happened to someone else.  As if it had been written, the frighteningly complete alignment of feeling and form, sure to please even the most exacting director.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for whatever hand laid out the minutiae of our lives that summer.  But living life like a movie will throw you off balance after a while.  “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

From one morning in Mumbai, a particularly cinematic recollection.  My father and I went out for a walk, just the two of us, traveling down the rickety elevator of his sister’s flat and out into the street.  We worked across a few busy streets to the Five Gardens, where paths are reserved for pedestrians.  The gardens are really more like well-shaded parks gated off from traffic.  Of course, everywhere you turn in Mumbai is a veritable garden; given the hothouse climate, all manner of flowers and greenery grow.

Each of the five gardens contains a different buzz of activity—a rousing game of cricket underway on one dusty circle, some quiet games of chess between old men under the shade of palm trees. At that point in my life, I aspired to be one of those people who can eat street food.  I had read Bourdain, I bought into the romance of late nights, authenticity, and machismo.  I believed him when he says that you don’t really know a place until you eat what everyone who lives there is lining up to eat on some random street corner.  And I was willing to sacrifice some nights of peaceful sleep for a stomach of iron and some really good noodle bowls—I just hadn’t had much of a chance.

In between trips to India, I only made one trip outside of the States—a college jaunt to Amsterdam, where the bragging rights for eating street food are not nearly as high as, say, Thailand or Japan.  I did, however, take the liberty of consuming several cones of warm European frites with spicy mayonnaise in the wee hours of the morning, which I still crave when I am up very late and have been drinking.

I also remember, very distinctly, watching my father stand in the middle of an open market in Mexico and risk his life (and my mother’s wrath) to eat fish tacos.  I was dying to take a bite myself, but I was only ten and, at that point in my life, unable to defy her.  More than a decade later, on that morning walk, I jumped at the chance to eat recklessly with my dad, to eat away from my mother’s watchful eye, to join my father in a little subversive act,  just one moment of defiance to make up for all of those years I placed myself unabashedly on my mother’s “side.”

With the paper rupees in my father’s wallet, we feasted on watermelon, mango, coconut milk straight from the fruit, and shared a crunchy helping of sev puri.  The Indian food smorgasborg, sev puri is a classic street food, a weird, delicious concoction of spicy cooked potatoes, raw onions, the option of boiled moong beans (they taste like mild peas but are a little more toothsome), and drizzles of dhania (cilantro) and imli (tamarind, my favorite) chutnies atop a bed of salty, crunchy chips and twigs made from chickpea flour.  Served in a big, Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, our snack was well worth the risk of intestinal distress, as well as my mother’s dismay, though we managed to keep the secret together, and I am spilling it now.

Sev Puri falls under the large umbrella of Chat, or snacks, along with its cousins bhel puri and pani puri.  As with most iconic food, there is much variety in the method and lively debate about just what constitutes true sev puri and what does not.  This version has been honed to my tastes, of course, but also to the ease and convenience of a lazy but satisfying pantry meal or an answer to the question “what should I feed all of these people who have suddenly appeared at my house?”  Stored properly, the dry ingredients will keep in your pantry for months, the chutneys freeze well, onions & cilantro are cheap, and if you’re like me, you always have a random handful of potatoes hanging out somewhere, waiting to be cooked.  Am I right?


SEV PURI

You can (and should feel free to) add tomatoes, a drizzle of yogurt, roasted chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, chopped Serrano or other peppers, even diced mango to your sev puri.

For the bottom/crunchy layer of this snack, you’ll need to acquire a bag of packaged sev (fried bits of chickpea flour) and one of flat puris (small flatbreads, also fried).  Your local Indian grocery may have a bagged “sev puri mix” with these two pre-combined—just ask.  If you don’t use these up the first time, they’ll keep in the pantry if well-sealed in plastic bags.

for the potatoes:

2 lb. red new potatoes
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
squeeze of lemon

Boil the potatoes whole until soft and easily pierced with a fork.  Cool, then peel and chop into half-inch chunks.  Toss with the spices and mix well.  Check for salt & taste but keep in mind that you’ll be adding many layers of flavor so you don’t want the potatoes to be overbearing.  Set aside until ready to serve.

for the dhania (cilantro) chutney:

2 bunches cilantro
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds (if salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the chutney)
1 jalapeño, seeded if you like
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 T ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
water

To prep the cilantro, wash it thoroughly and chop off the bottom portion of the stems.  If you like, you can pick off the leaves and discard all stem pieces, but I honestly don’t find this is necessary—just cut off the tough ends.

Process all ingredients in the blender, adding water until you reach your desired texture; I like mine just shy of smooth.

for the imli (tamarind) chutney:

Many people make imli chutney with dates or jaggery (palm sugar), but I learned from my mom to use apple butter instead and I think it’s way delicious-er.

1 cup apple butter*
½ cup tamarind paste
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
water

Combine all ingredients except water in a small saucepan.  Heat on low, adding water to thin the chutney.  Cook until the ingredients are incorporated, checking to be sure the flavors are balance.  The chutney should be sweet, with a hint of fire and strong “pucker” from the tamarind.  If you want more of any one flavor, add the corresponding ingredient.

Cool before storing in the fridge and freezer.  Be mindful that the chutney will thicken, so you may need to thin it again before serving.

* If you can get your hands on homemade apple butter, do.  Otherwise, it’s easy to find in the “peanut butter & jelly” aisle of your supermarket.

for the assembly:

I like to arrange the components along a counter or table so each person can assemble his/her own.  In the bottom of a bowl, add a heap of sev and a few puris, breaking up the latter with a spoon or fork.  Throw on some potatoes, then onions if you like, then cilantro if you like, and generous drizzles of one or both chutneys.

GUEST POST: CHALLAH

Jessie’s back!  And today she’s sharing a recipe for challah, a bread I had wanted to make from scratch ever since starting my Jewish day school job over three years ago.  Of course, I was hella-intimidated and never attempted my own until last weekend.  Though my challah did not turn out as beautiful as I’m sure Jessie’s professional loaves do, it still tasted incredible slathered with butter and/or jam.  And man, was I proud.  Earning that HinJew status!


Instead of making two loaves, I made one loaf plus a set of wee hamburger buns.  Not to be too self-congratulatory, but *that* was a very good idea (burger recipe coming next week).  Should you wish to make two loaves, Jessie has kindly provided a killer dessert recipe to use up your leftover bread; challah that’s a few days old also makes for great French toast.

I’d like to thank Jessie again for the time and energy she devoted to make baking bread seem less intimidating.  If you plan to spend some time at home this weekend, might I suggest tackling one of these recipes & then basking in the satisfaction/carbohydrate aftermath?

CHALLAH
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking 2008 issue.

Challah is an enriched bread, which means that in addition to the usual ingredients, it’s made with eggs, butter, and honey (my first chance to use the little jar of Norwegian honey that Jill brought me from her Scandinavian travels!).

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread and is most easily recognized by its braided form–Jessie includes instructions here for the proper braiding technique, but I have to admit that I copped out and did a three-strand braid, which worked just fine.  If you are a badass and manage a four-strander, I salute you.

ingredients:

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F-115°F)
¼ cup honey
1 package active dry yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup butter, melted and cooled
½ tablespoon salt
4-4 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water

In a large bowl, combine the ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, honey, and yeast.  Let stand about 10 minutes or until the yeast is dissolved and foamy.  *If you do not see foam or bubbles, the yeast is dead and the process must be repeated.*

Using a wooden spoon, stir in the 2 eggs, melted butter, and salt.  Gradually stir in as much of the flour as you can.Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (5 to 7 minutes total).

Shape the dough into a ball.  Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the entire surface.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.Punch the dough down (literally).  Turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.

To shape the loaves, divide dough in half.  Working with one half a time and keeping the other half under the towel, divide the dough into 4 equal portions.  Roll each piece into a rope about 12-15 inches long.   Attach the ends of two pieces together to make one long rope.  Attach the ends of the other two pieces together to make another long rope.  Forming a cross, fuse all of the attached ends together.  Be sure there is one piece pointing towards you and one pointing away from you, one piece pointing to your right, and one pointing to your left.

The mantra of this folding technique is left over right….left over right….left over right.  Repeat that to yourself a few times before starting.  During the braiding process, if the ends at the top of the braid start to come undone, pinch those together tightly.

Step 1:  Hold the two horizontal pieces in your hands, the right piece in your right hand and the left piece in your left.  Moving the two horizontal pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross the two pieces you are holding over the strand pointing towards you, being sure the piece in your left hand crosses OVER the piece in your right.  Your left hand should literally cross over your right hand.  Lay the two folded pieces horizontally.

Step 2:  Now for the vertical pieces–Grasp the top piece in your right hand and the bottom piece in your left hand.  Moving these two vertical pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross these two pieces over the piece pointing to your right (it should cross naturally this way), moving the piece in your left hand OVER the piece in your right.  The piece that was pointing away from you should now be pointing towards you, and the piece that was pointing towards you should now be pointing away from you.

Repeat step 1, followed by step 2, until the ends are too small to be braided.  Pinch the remaining ends together and remove off a small chunk from both ends to make them less pointy.  Braid the other portion of dough.

Place the braided loaves diagonally onto lightly greased or parchment lined sheet trays.  Cover and let rest in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 30 minutes).  Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining lightly beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of water to make an egg wash.  Using a pastry brush or spoon, brush each loaf evenly and completely with the egg wash.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped and are a shiny, deep golden brown.  Immediately transfer the loaves from the sheet trays to wire racks to cool.

CREME BRULEE BREAD PUDDING
adapted from Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs by Gale Gand

ingredients:

½ a loaf of day old challah bread
2 cups half-and-half
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
Sugar in the raw (for caramelizing the top)

oven:  350°
pan: 6 ramekins or a deep baking dish, well buttered

Cut the crust off the bread and dice into one inch cubes.  You should have about 3 ½ cups of bread.

Heat the half-and-half, heavy cream, salt, and vanilla in a saucepot over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When the mixture starts to come to a simmer (do not boil), turn off the heat and allow to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.  Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the eggs.  Do not pour too fast, otherwise the eggs will scramble.  Strain into a large bowl to remove any cooked egg and the vanilla bean.

At this point, feel free to include any desired add-ins to the custard: dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, etc. Then add the bread cubes to the bowl, toss well, and let them soak in the egg-milk mixture until it’s all absorbed.  Fold the mixture occasionally to ensure even soaking (it’s okay if there’s custard left in the bowl).

Divide the cubes among the ramekins or dump it all into the baking dish and pour any remaining custard over the top.  Arrange the ramekins or baking dish in a roasting pan & create a water bath by pouring boiling water into the pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the custard cups or baking dish.  (I like to do this while the pan is on the rack in the oven, which I’ve pulled out slightly).

Bake until set and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes for individual puddings and 40 to 45 minutes for one big pudding.  Allow to cool before serving.  You can make this dish ahead of time, cover & chill in the refrigerator.

Right before you serve the pudding, sprinkle the top evenly with the sugar in the raw.  If you happen to have a kitchen torch, caramelize the sugar on top.  Otherwise, set the broiler to high and put the pudding(s) on a rack as close to the heating element as you can.  Keep a close eye on the pudding(s) and rotate them as necessary as certain parts will caramelize more quickly than others.  Remove from the oven and serve.

For a quick sauce, combine confectioners’ sugar with any liquid.  I use anything from milk to fruit juice to alcohol or even coffee syrups.  Start with a cup of confectioners’ sugar and slowly add my liquid of choice until the sauce is to the desired consistency.  If you make it too soupy, add more sugar.  Ladle over slices of the bread pudding; you can also garnish with fresh fruit or nuts.

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GUEST POST: CIABATTA

Hey folks…it’s bread week here at Blue Jean Gourmet!  I’m lucky enough to know the beautiful & talented Jessie Fila, a friend from high school who now works as a pastry chef at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton, Connecticut (full bio at the end of this post).  She generously agreed to guest blog for me, sharing her bread expertise & recipes.  Today she brings us ciabatta–which, wow, I’m still dreaming about–and later in the week, challah!

I don’t know about ya’ll, but baking bread has always intimidated me, so I decided Jessie’s guest posts  would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn.  I tested each of the recipes that Jessie sent, and let me just tell you–there was a lot of gratuitous moaning over fresh bread in my house each time.  Are these recipes simple?  No.  They do require time and attention.  But the thing is, they aren’t rocket science, either.  Just make sure you aren’t in a rush and enjoy the process, it’s very gratifying.  Big thanks to Jessie for being our bread evangelist!


I love bread.  I love everything about bread.  And I don’t think I’m the only one, considering the idiom, “the best thing since sliced bread,” is one of the most popular comparative phrases out there.  Truly, bread is by far and away one of my favorite things in the world.  I could never get into the no-carb or low-carb diets because then I couldn’t eat bread! And who doesn’t want to eat bread?

As much as I love to eat bread, I like to make bread from scratch by hand even more.  There’s something therapeutic, meditative, and sometimes hypnotic about kneading dough that helps me focus and reflect just as effectively as any good yoga class.  It’s also great exercise, building upper body strength, as well as working the core muscles.  Indeed, making bread is one of my more favored pastimes. There’s nothing more rewarding than slicing into a freshly baked, warm loaf of bread, knowing you crafted it by hand.  True, it is a labor of love, but it is well worth the effort.

The key to making delicious bread is understanding the ingredients and the process.  For most basic sandwich or rustic breads, such as white bread, a baguette, or ciabatta, the ingredients are simple:  flour, water, yeast, and salt.  Other breads, called egg breads, like challah or brioche,  call for eggs, butter, sugar, and milk in addition to the basic ingredients to help enrich the dough and make it less chewy, more dense, and flavorful.  There are, of course, many other types of breads, but for this week I’m going to stick to these two main types.

Most ingredients are straightforward in their purpose.  Flour is used to give the bread structure and stability.  When mixed with water, the proteins gelatinize; vigorous agitation and stretching help to develop these proteins into gluten.  This agitation and stretching is exactly what you’re doing when you knead dough.  In developing the gluten, you’re creating the unique dense and chewy structure of bread.  Most bread bakers use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour because it has a higher protein content and will therefore create more gluten, resulting in chewier bread.  Salt is used mostly for its definitive ability to flavor foods without adding its own flavor component.  Salt is unique in the food world in that it doesn’t have a distinct flavor, yet it manages to enhance the flavors of everything in the dish it is added to.  This is why even cookie and dessert recipes will call for a small amount of salt added to the dough or batter.

Yeast is the one ingredient in my list that can be most difficult to work with.  It comes in many forms these days, the most well-known being active dry.  Yeast is a fungi, and is therefore a living organism.  It is easily killed and is very finicky.   It likes two main things:  to exist in warm, wet environments and to eat.  The water we use in bread is warm, between 105 and 115° F.  If it is any hotter or colder, the fungi will not be able to survive and the bread will not rise.  This brings us to what yeast likes to eat:  the natural sugars found in flour.  When the yeast eats the sugars, it processes the food like any other living organism.  The yeast extracts what it needs from the sugars to survive and expels the rest as waste.  Yeast’s form of waste is carbon dioxide.  When the yeast gives off the gas, the CO2 gets trapped in the gelatinous structure the flour and water have created, otherwise known as gluten, pushing the dough upward, causing it to rise.  This is the reason we let the bread rise a couple of times before baking, to allow the yeast to do its thing and give off the gas that contributes a strong amount of flavoring to the bread.

The process for making bread is not as simple as making a cookie dough or a cake batter and is far more time-consuming.  To start off, the yeast must be activated, allowing it to give off the much-coveted CO2 gas, and once all of the flour has been added, the dough must be kneaded.  The kneading process is very rhythmic and is easy once you get the hang of it.  Once you have your dough with all of the flour incorporated, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface, such as a counter.  Shape it gently into a disk.  Grasp the dough with both hands at the top and fold the dough into the center of the dough.  Press down on the dough as if you were trying to fuse the top and bottom parts together.  While pressing, use the heels of your palms to push the dough down and away from you. Give the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the process until the dough is smooth.

Once you’ve kneaded the dough, it needs to rest and to rise.  The rising process can be repeated at least two times before the dough is shaped and baked.  After all the time and hard work, though, what we’re left with is a delicious creation is delectable on its own or with a small swipe of butter, but also serves as a key ingredient in many other dishes.  So, for each bread recipe, I’ve also included a few ideas for how you can use the leftovers (if there are any!)

CIABATTA
Recipe from Williams-Sonoma Bread

All bread takes time and effort to make, but ciabatta requires a little extra love and effort.  This recipe makes use of a starter, which is used to feed the yeast and serves to add more flavor to the finished product (sourdough is another bread that calls for a starter).

When timing the ciabatta, be prepared to make the starter at least 8-12 hours ahead of time so it has enough time to “proof” or ferment.

ingredients:

for the starter:
1 1/3 cups water, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon active dry yeast

In the bowl of stand-mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the water, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, and the yeast.  Mix on low speed for 1 minute.  Add the remaining flour and mix until smooth and soft, 1 minute more.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until almost tripled in bulk, 4-6 hours.  It will smell yeasty.  Refrigerate for 8-12 hours or for up to 3 days.

for the bread:
3 T warm water (105°F – 115°F)
¾ cup warm milk (same temp as the water)
2 tsp. active dry yeast
2-2 1/3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 ½ tsp salt
2 T olive oil, plus extra for greasing

When ready to make the dough, remove the starter from the refrigerator and let it stand for 1-2 hours. To make the dough, fit the mixer again with the paddle attachment.  Add the warm water and milk and the yeast to the starter and mix on low speed.   The mixture will be soupy.

Add 1 ½ cups of the bread flour, the salt, and the oil.  Mix on low speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Add only as much of the remaining bread flour as needed to form a very soft and moist dough, and mix on low speed for about 5 minutes, occasionally scraping the dough off the sides of the bowl and the paddle.  The dough should be very soft and sticky, pulling away from the sides, but still sticking to the bottom.

Cover the bowl with the oiled plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled or tripled in bulk, about 2 hours.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and sprinkle generously with bread flour.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface (it will deflate), sprinkle lightly with flour, and pat with your fingers into a 14 by 5 inch rectangle.  Fold the rectangle like a letter, overlapping the 2 short sides in the middle to make 3 layers.

Cut crosswise into 2 equal rectangles and place each half on the prepared sheet pan.  Cover loosely with plastic and let rest for 20 minutes.  Remove the plastic and sprinkle generously with flour.  Splay your fingers apart and press, push, and stretch each rectangle to make it irregular and about 11 inches long and about the width of your hand.  You want the dimples in the top; this is traditional.  Cover again loosely with plastic and let rest until tripled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.  Repeat the dimpling process again 2 more times during this rise.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with flour.  Bake until deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes.  Let cool on the baking sheet.  Serve warm with olive oil for dipping.  Yields two large loaves.

What to do with leftover ciabatta, besides just eating it?  Here are two ideas:

TUSCAN BREAD SALAD

ingredients:
½ a loaf of day-old ciabatta, cubed
2 or 3 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, chopped
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, cubed
Generous handful of fresh basil, chopped
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine.This is my favorite combination for this salad, but you can increase or decrease any and all of the ingredients to suit your fancy.

You can also try this with any veggies and any Italian cured meats, such as Proscuitto, .  Any oil and vinegar combination works well with this recipe, too, and it is also excellent with citrus juice.

ITALIAN BREAD SOUP (RIBOLLITA)

ingredients:
2 T extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can great northern white beans, drained (small cannellini beans work, too)
1-8 ounce can of tomato sauce
3-4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
½ a loaf of day old ciabatta
1 bag baby spinach
Parmesan cheese

In a heavy bottomed saucepot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaf and sauté until the veggies are softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the garlic.  Cook the garlic for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the sharp aroma has subsided.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the white beans, the tomato sauce, and the desired amount of stock.  I would start with the lesser amount; more can be added later if the finished product is too thick.  Allow to come to a gentle simmer.  Once the stock is bubbling, tear off the ciabatta, crust and all, into big chunks and submerge into the stock.  Once all of the bread is in the liquid, break it down and mash it around with a wooden spoon.  If the soup is too thick for your liking, add more stock.  I like mine stew-like and so thick a spoon can almost stand upright in it.

Once the desired consistency has been achieved, add the spinach in batches, allowing to wilt in between additions.  Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaf, and serve.  Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and drizzle with the olive oil.


Jessie Fila
fell in love with baking the summer after high school graduation when boredom led to a discovery that she is very good at pastry!  After attending college in Florida, she traveled to New York to complete her Associates Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from The Culinary Institute of America.  She loves dessert because it’s often the most memorable part of any meal, and can easily make or break a diner’s experience.  At home on days off, she cooks to relax and to feed her lucky husband Ken.

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