Old-Fashioned Beef Stew and Biscuits

Sometimes, when it’s damp or raining or even just overcast and cool — and even April days can be like this — you just want a bowl of something hale and hearty like beef stew. When you complement the rich broth, tender meat and delicious vegetables with flaky biscuits, you have a winner of a meal. And neither one is hard to make!

I would start with the stew because you can make the biscuits later while the stew is stewing. This version has beef, carrots, potatoes and edamame (soy beans that taste kinda like lima beans). I always feel better if a stew has some green in it, and the package of edamame was the first thing I saw when I opened the freezer, so that’s what went in the stew!

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Peas would work too, or green beans, or lima beans, or any other green you want.

Or no green. You are free to add no green. That’s what I love about cooking. You make it the way you like it.

Naturally, though, you start with an onion – everything is better started with an onion. Well, maybe not everything. But in this case onion is good, and I added a can of petite diced tomatoes besides. That’s a fairly new ingredient for me, but I keep doing it, so it must be good.

Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over a medium flame and add one chopped onion. It doesn’t matter how big the onion is or how small you chop the pieces, but the bigger the onion, the more onion flavor your stew will have, and the bigger the onion pieces, the more you will see them once it is cooked. Some people don’t want to see their onion; I cannot explain this.

I used about two pounds of  bottom round beef. This is going to cook for several hours, so it does not need to be a prime, expensive cut. You can buy it as a roast and cut it up yourself, or you can buy it already cut up as “stew beef.” Obviously, you decide how much meat you want in proportion to the rest of the ingredients. If you want it mostly meat, then add just a few vegetables. If you want the meat to be a background ingredient, then load on the veggies.

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Let the meat cook on a medium flame until it has browned. It will make some juice of its own, like this…

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but you want it to simmer for a while in liquid, so add enough water so that the meat is almost covered. Cook on a low flame, covered, for about an hour and a quarter. An hour and a half won’t hurt anything. Then add your veggies. I peeled and cut up five big carrots and three big potatoes. Let that simmer, covered, again with enough water that the veggies are almost covered (a little more than in the photo below, remembering that if you decide to add tomatoes later, they add liquid too). 

(By the way, this works really well with pearl barley instead of the potatoes, but you will need more liquid.)

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I let the carrots and potatoes cook about another 45 minutes. During this time I prepared the biscuits and put them in the oven, then added my frozen green vegetable, the can of diced tomatoes and my flavorings – salt and pepper (to taste) and whatever else appeals to you. This time I used about a tablespoon each of dried basil and parsley and a teaspoon of oregano. The time it takes for the biscuits to bake is about how long the green veggie needs to soften a bit. I never want my green too mushy. If you want yours mushy, add them sooner. Turn up the flame a bit — adding frozen anything to this pot will lower its overall temperature, and you do need the green stuff to cook a few minutes, not just warm through.

You can also add the herbs sooner. A case could be made for that.

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The biscuit recipe I use comes out of my old Fannie Farmer cookbook. I do it a little differently though. First of all, I use butter, not vegetable shortening. Goodness! I use six tablespoons of butter. And I use buttermilk (or milk with a teaspoon of vinegar added) instead of the plain milk. (I don’t mean I follow what it says below for “Buttermilk Biscuits” though I expect that would work too. I just mean I use buttermilk instead of the plain milk.) Also I definitely don’t knead it 14 times. I handle it only as much as necessary to make a flattened dough. And I make mine 1″, not 1/2″ high.

I guess I change it more than I realized…

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The dough is one of those you can’t play with too much or your biscuits will be tough. Mix all the dry ingredients with the butter, get that all looking like “coarse crumbs” before you add the milk.

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Then add the milk and stir just enough to combine.

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What’s in the bowl doesn’t look like a ball, but it comes out in one blob, so turn it out onto a floured board, sprinkle a little flour on it and flatten it to about an inch thickness. You can flatten it with your hands or a rolling pin. I like the irregularity of using my hands. I don’t want them perfect. These are not Pillsbury, not manufactured, not factory-made. I love them looking homemade. That’s good.

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To cut them up I use a cutter from a set Kim gave me years ago. I love being able to pick the size that seems best that day. Sometimes you feel like a big biscuit. Sometimes you don’t.

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Thank you, Kim. I chose the fifth from the center this time. It helps if you dip the cutter in your flour canister — just coat the edges with a little flour — so it doesn’t stick to the dough as much when you cut through.

If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, you can use an upside down drinking glass or a jar. Or any cookie cutter with high sides. You can make stars or dog bones or hearts or anything you want.

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When I have cut as many as I can, I gently bring together the remaining dough and cut a couple more. Then with the bit leftover I make a ball and stick it on the pan. Waste not. Someone will eat it.

Bake them for 15-20 minutes until they are as brown as you like them. See what I mean about them looking homemade? I think they have character 🙂

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By the way, this stew will taste even better the second day, so it there’s leftovers, all the better.

Maple-Rosemary Pairing

Every now and then I get a hankering for French toast. Visions of warm maple syrup tempt me more than usual right now because I know the sap of maple trees is running well (nights cold enough, days warm enough, correct differential). Plus, I had some bread that was two days old.

In the bakery section of my grocery store (and I don’t mean the bread-in-plastic-bags aisle) they sell a variety of in-store baked bread. I’m not naïve enough to believe that they mix up the dough there, but at least they bake it there, so it’s fresher, sometimes even still warm. You find a decent rye with caraway seeds, a crusty multigrain loaf and a lovely “country” white made with rosemary and olive oil.

Lightly toast a slice or two of that rosemary bread and top it with butter and honey – that’s some good eating! So on Saturday I said to myself: Why not French toast? Fairly thick (just under one inch) slices soaked in the egg-milk mixture, browned in butter and topped with maple syrup – hmmm, using the rosemary bread for this just might work. So I tried it.

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I love how the pieces puff up as the egg inside them cooks. I love the crispiness formed (especially on the edges) by the hot butter coming in contact with the soaked bread. I love warm, pure syrup dripped over top and then soaking into the soft inners.

Any meal, any occasion, any success, any failure happens because of the confluence of numerous factors, a specific alignment of the figurative stars. This specific breakfast is no different. For it to happen included 1. having this kind of bread on hand, 2. knowing how to turn bread into French toast and 3. being willing to experiment.

Let’s start with the bread. Somewhere along the line it occurred to someone to put jalapenos in pickles, sugar on corn flakes, barbeque flavoring on potato chips. Why not rosemary in bread? Who can doubt that Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme helped bring all these wonderful herbs into kitchens they had previously not entered, introducing a generation to flavors and aromas that enhance many foods? I’m not sure which is better in bread – kalamata olives or fresh rosemary – but I’ll take either on any day. If there is honey in the cabinet for drizzling on top, I am in heaven.

French toast is such a simple meal to prepare – I should make it more often. For the five pieces you see in the pan above, plus the two in a second pan (no point squishing French toast), I used four large eggs (my good eggs, which undoubtedly contributed to the amazing result) whisked up with half a cup of milk. This was a bit much – three would have done – but I took the extra egg mixture and carefully poured it onto each slice after I put them into the pan but before I flipped them, which maybe added to the puffiness. Oh, and I used about two tablespoons of butter in the large pan and one in the smaller and cooked them over a medium flame. Get the butter hot before you put the soaked bread in the pan.

The being willing to experiment part is, for me, both limited and expanding: Limited because I know what I like and what I don’t like (so I outright refuse to consider certain things like jalapenos, sorry to say), but expanding because 1. My experience over time has accumulated in a mysterious and wonderful way. New combinations occur to me that never would have. A new method I never used pops in my head for something I’ve made many times. It’s super cool! And 2. Let us always, at least in some benign thing, remain unpredictable. Life is just more fun 😊

Some of the world’s best things came about by similar alignment of stars, i.e. having/doing a thing routinely over time and then a need or a change or an idea turns it into a version of the original by way of experimentation. Ice cream cones come to mind. New Yorker Italo Marchiony sold ice cream off a pushcart to Wall Street customers looking for a quick snack. He served it in little (let’s assume fairly inexpensive) glass cups, but too often these either broke from being dropped or were not returned to him. He came up with an edible cup and was awarded the patent in 1903 for his ten-at-a-time cone-making mold. At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition his cones were so popular he still couldn’t keep up with demand, so he reached out to fellow exhibitor Ernest Hamwi, who was selling a thin, waffle-like Syrian cookie. The cookies, molded while still warm, made great impromptu cones.

Oh, yum! Never mind French toast – who wants an ice cream cone??!!

The Journey Part of Journey Cake

My mom had surgery two days ago, vertebrae-fusing back surgery that went very well (she was walking within four hours!). I wanted to bring her some breakfast yesterday. We all have our go-to recipes, right? Quick, easy, tried and true? One of mine is Johnny Cake, also known as Cornbread, also known historically as Journey Cake. I love my recipe. Last summer I added fresh summer sweet corn sliced right off the cob and made it into “corn muffins at their best.”

This morning I wanted to make it in my cast iron pan instead. The crust comes out so well this way. If you look carefully, you can see the steam rising from this piece I cut for my own breakfast.

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Some things you stop seeing after a while, but when I looked at the recipe, I realized anew that it is called Johnny Cake. That’s how I knew it as a child. “Corn Bread” is parenthetical.

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Somewhere along the line, “Journey Cake” morphed into “Johnny Cake.

I’m glad it did. No way could my version rightly be called or even thought of as a cake you could make on a journey. Think covered wagon journey. Think doing-the-best-we-can-with-limited-supplies. On such a journey (at least in my 21st-century imagination) the chances of having flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, butter AND maple syrup at the same time, to say nothing of the proper pans and cooking fire/oven, seem super slim. Maybe they had a cow tied to the wagon (they would need her when they arrived in Oregon); maybe they had some laying hens, though I expect those became dinner when wild game was hard to find. But baking powder, maple syrup, white flour – no way. I expect they felt right grateful to have cornmeal, water (maybe milk), some salt and a little fat for frying the cakes (think cornmeal pancakes).

I for one am very glad to have all the ingredients at my fingertips.

I get to:

1. soften the butter in the microwave to the perfect melted-but-not-hot stage (30 seconds, then work the back of a spoon against any parts remotely still solid);

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2. put the pan in the preheating oven with a pat of butter in it, let the butter melt, then tilt the pan this way and that to evenly distribute the hot, melted butter and feel the solidity of the pan, watch the different paths the butter takes, admire the ways the light glistens. (We all have our thrills, okay?)

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3. look at the eight ingredients in a bowl, as yet unmixed, and anticipate their utter transformation;

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4. blob the batter into the pan and think about what happens to it in the heat, how the batter finds the corners and changes consistency during baking (I do smooth it out a bit before putting it in the oven);

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5. enjoy the lovely crust, buttery because of the butter I melted in the pan and as dark as I choose to let it become.

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Step by step a thing takes form, simply becomes. It doesn’t matter if it’s the cornbread I’ve made for years or the Ligurian Lemon Cake I found on a found on a fellow blogger’s site recently (doesn’t that look good?!). It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendship or a project. Step by step we walk our unboring paths, touching and serving one another in ways we know and in ways we don’t know.

There were numerous high points with yesterday’s breakfast, including softening the butter, tilting the pan, blobbing the batter. Another was the steaming piece on my plate, fresh out of the oven, drizzled with honey. The best was packing up a basket to take with me to Mom at the hospital. Other people bring flowers – daffodils, begonias and a sweet pink rose adorn her room – but I bring food. How many chances like this do you get? To bring someone a piece of comfort, a taste of home?

I wish the person who wove my pie basket could see how its size and shape were perfect for a large square of my Johnny Cake/Journey Cake/Corn Bread (whatever you want to call it), a wedge of quiche, a couple of real and pretty plates, silverware wrapped in soft napkins, butter in a little dish, jam in a jar and a small cotton towel to serve as a tablecloth. “I feel like I’m in a hotel,” Mom said. My local hospital is great, but they have their limitations 😊.

For me, the journey part of Journey Cake – the journey part of anything – is the fascinating (if at times difficult and maddening) step-by-step that we experience every day.  Any journey has something (or someone) about it that’s wondrous or intriguing or funny or satisfying or lovely. I do not want to overlook that something. The process gets you – if we may borrow images from our pioneer forebears – down the next path, across the next river, over the next mountain. I want to go today where I haven’t been before, do things I couldn’t do yesterday, learn something new, see something in a fresh way. I also want to relish the familiar, embrace those I love, hold onto what matters. Yesterday I got to bake something I’ve baked a thousand times before, enjoy the process, present it in a different setting and watch it work its same old magic – oh, yay and oh, yum!!

Mom is in the hospital after back surgery. She’s not overly comfortable but is facing the mountain in front of her like the champ she is. Each little part of her journey, each big challenge and each little victory, makes her stronger in some way, better equipped for the next step. Whatever I can do, each tiny way I get to serve her – these become steps in my journey, the very journey that I will one day walk through in my memory, like a movie of my life. I want to enjoy the show!

Yummy Yammy Cheesy Galette

When you first come home from having been away for a week, there’s not much in the fridge. But I did not feel like going shopping yesterday or today, and anyway I was playing tennis this morning, then flipping the cottage, then waiting for guests to arrive – honeymooners(!), repeat visitors Sally and Ryan – how wonderful to see them again!! I was wrapped up in Sarah’s book for many hours as well (while waiting for Sally and Ryan), so it was after 6pm by the time I thought about dinner. Earlier I had taken a chicken out of the freezer, thinking to roast it, thinking we haven’t had one with a teriyaki sauce in a while and that might be nice, but it was too late for that. Maybe tomorrow.

Hmmm, very limited choices then. I could always make mac and cheese but didn’t feel like that either. I said to Samuel, “Can you make a dough?” He is good at making dough even if he would rather amuse us by hemming Coco in with pillows and blankets on the couch, from which she did not care to move so we concluded that she liked it.

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By “dough” he knew I meant a pizza dough. I knew we didn’t have any mozzarella so a conventional pizza was out of the question, but my daughter Marie has a recipe for a savory galette that came into my mind. Only it’s been five months or so since I made it at her house and couldn’t remember it well.

I remembered her recipe started with a pizza-crust-type crust. Thus the dough I asked Samuel to make.

I remembered it had butternut squash, but I didn’t know I had one/forgot I had one/didn’t see the one I had till I was all done. But I knew I had yams. That would work.

I remembered it had fresh sage. I knew I didn’t have that, but I do (always) have dried sage.

I remembered it had fontina cheese. I knew I didn’t have that, but I did (miraculously, considering how nearly-empty my cheese bin is right now) have asiago. That would work.

I knew it didn’t have ricotta cheese on it, but I had some of that, and thought it might be good to include.

It might have been good to look up Marie’s recipe then and there but I didn’t (or I would have added more onions).

Samuel made the dough, a regular pizza dough. He grated a big chunk of asiago. I cut up two big sweet potatoes (a.k.a. yams) into small cubes and put them in my cast iron skillet in butter and a bit of water over a medium flame to roast (forgetting that Marie’s recipe calls for the squash to be oven-roasted), then remembered the half onion sitting in my fridge and something in me said Add the onion to the roasting yams. I sliced it up thinly, added it to the yams in the pan and covered the pan till the yams were soft, stirring them once or twice with a good spatula; they were done in about ten minutes.

Samuel rolled out the dough, I put olive oil on it and spread it all over the surface with my hand (just enough to cover the surface, not enough to pool). He then salted and peppered the surface. I put small dollops of ricotta cheese on next, using teaspoons to push grape-sized blobs onto the dough (you see the white blobs?), reasonably spaced. Cooked yam cubes and onion slices went on next (well distributed of course), then some dried sage, then the asiago.

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Into a hot (450F) oven the two galettes went for a good half hour until the crust was nice and brown. It was totally delicious. The combination of cheeses with yams with the sage and onion – oh, yummy! Did I need two pieces?? I enjoyed two pieces! And the crust this time! The crust was especially good. We think it might be because Sandy bought King Arthur bread flour last time I was out of flour, which has more protein, which is supposed to make a better crust. We agree it is better. If you can, buy this kind of flour for your crust.

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After we chowed down on this delicious stuff while enjoying Iron Man 2, I found Marie’s recipe, which I will happily share because 1. It has actual measurements and 2. It serves as a springboard to my altered version. You will see that the “pastry” for Marie’s Butternut Squash and Carmelized Onion Galette is not a pizza dough. I guess I forgot that too. There are various ways I veered from this recipe. But the basic idea is quite the same.

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It all goes to show that you can look and see what’s in your fridge and maybe not have to go to the store in order to make something yummy for dinner!

Any Berry Tea Cake

Last week I had a request for my cottage from a guest who has been here several times before. Crystal’s note included: My daughter and myself absolutely looove that cake you make. It’s my birthday and my friends are trying to bring me to your place tonight. I will pay extra if you have one of those cakes laying around! I know what cake she means.

There’s always something freshly baked under the glass dome waiting for my guests, and sometimes it’s this Strawberry Ripple Tea Cake. (I am not sure what the difference is between a coffee cake and a tea cake, but we’ll just put that point of pondering in the category of Things I Don’t Need to Know.) The recipe came from a hardcover cookbook sitting on my shelf called Old-Fashioned Home Baking, back when (decades ago!) you got recipes either from someone you knew or from some printed material – usually a cookbook or a magazine.

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If you know me even a little, you know that I am all for tweaking/simplifying. This recipe, for instance, calls for making a thickened mixture using strawberries or raspberries. I might have done that the first time, but then I realized it was basically jam. Henceforth, guess what, jam it is! How much simpler and just as yummy.

Also it calls for one large baking pan, but why not two smaller pans? Why not muffin tins? I’ve tried it numerous ways, and with strawberry jam, raspberry jam and this week (on account of a bargain jar) blueberry jam. All good! This recipe is a keeper, and simpler than it looks.

Mix together the 2 ¼ cups flour and ¾ cup sugar. And whatever you do, use butter, not margarine! (I wonder when decent recipe books stopped suggesting margarine as an alternative…) Use a knife to cut up the cold butter in the bowl with the flour and sugar, then a pastry blender till it resembles “coarse crumbs.” My half-cup set aside looked like this.

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To the flour/sugar/butter that remains in your bowl, add the baking powder, baking soda, egg, salt and buttermilk (or sour milk, which is nothing more than milk with a teaspoon or so of vinegar added to it, no kidding; vinegar will sour the milk in no time).

Stir this up, just enough to blend. Overbeating will not make a better cake.

Here’s where, in a hurry, I forgot one of the key steps of this recipe. You are supposed to put most of the batter in the greased (and in this case springform) pan(s), then the fruit, then blobs of the remaining batter, then the crumbs. I just spread the batter in my two pans…

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…added the blueberry jam (about ¼ cup per cake, a little more would not have hurt it)…

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…spread the blueberry jam…

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…and topped it with crumbs.

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It would have been better to mix that jam into the batter a bit, even swirling it in with the blade of a round-tipped knife, before putting the crumbs on top, even if I bypassed the blobbing step. But as my sister would say, “Oh, well!”

The forgetfulness of the baker aside, the result was not so bad.

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It makes a terrific cake for someone who is having a stressful time, or for a neighbor who is always doing kind things for no seeming reason, or just because for people you love, or (oh, right!) for yourself! It is not overly sweet or messy, not trying to be splashy or gorgeous. It’s simply light and moist and delightful with the freshness of fruit and the tender buttery crumbs. It says, “How about a cup of tea or coffee, a slice of this goodness and a few minutes of relaxation?” Some days, sometimes, that’s just perfect.

 

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*Better Homes and Gardens Old-Fashioned Home Baking, 1990, Meredith Corporation, Des Moines, Iowa

Noodle-Pillows Your Way, or Spaetzle 1-2-3

On the way to town yesterday, I was asked “Is driving easy?” by my six-year-old granddaughter Rise. It’s easy for me, I told her, because I’ve been doing it a long time. For someone who just started driving, it’s not so easy. If you make scrambled eggs every day, after a while you can have a conversation, straighten the countertop and scramble eggs at the same time. Same for anything: The more you do it, the simpler it seems.

I used to make spaetzle once in a while for a treat, but more and more I find myself reaching for the tool (this is a good one) that turns eggs-flour-salt-water into the tenderest noodle I know. They are so soft, they should be called noodle-pillows. Spaetzle is the base for a wonderful dish called Kaesespatzin (literally cheese-spaetzle or cheesy noodles), which is simply cooked and drained spaetzle layered in a bowl (three layers) with shredded, imported swiss (like Jarlsberg or Emmentaler) and topped with a lot of onions sautéed till super-soft in butter. My friend Claudia’s family ate this dish every Friday for her entire childhood – that fact all by itself used to remind me that it can’t be that hard.

Plain spaetzle are great alongside any roast that has gravy or as a side dish with just butter.

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In a nonstick pan on the second day, they roast up beautifully with a little more butter. Last week at my daughter’s I used a can of pureed pumpkin instead of the water in the recipe – you get light orangy-colored spaetzle with a mild pumpkin flavor – try this with butter and tell me it’s not yummy!

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If you study the spaetzle in the two bowls, you’ll see that they are not only a different color due to pumpkin in the second, the spaetzle themselves are different. That’s because my daughter’s spaetzle maker has smaller holes (half circles). Hers is like the one on the left (below); the one I usually use (and prefer) is the one on the right.

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This week with the spaetzle I did something new. I made them as usual and combined them with the cheddar cheese sauce I make for mac and cheese (which is essentially a white sauce with Cabot cheddar added).

Spaetzle are also better for us than pasta from a box because you make the dough with eggs. Yes, the woman with 22 chickens is suggesting a use for eggs – imagine that!

What I really want to say is that making spaetzle isn’t that hard. Like anything else, do it a few times and you will develop a rhythm. They will be so easy and so delicious you will wonder why you don’t make them more often. And then you will make them more often!

The basic recipe I learned years ago used a ratio of one egg per one cup of flour. For my family I usually made three eggs and three cups of flour, then a teaspoon of salt and as much water as makes it the right consistency. (Start with a third cup of water and go from there. Don’t worry, I’m walking you through this.) But before you start making the dough, get a Dutch oven (large) pot of water going on a high flame. You need the water at the boiling point.

Over time I found I liked more eggs proportionally for the dough, more like a 4:3 ratio (eggs: cups-of-flour). If you use three (3) eggs, you will need more water. If you use four (4), you will need less. That’s why I can’t be overly specific about the amount of water.

The amount of water you add should make the dough begin coming away from the sides of the bowl, like this. (You didn’t forget the salt, right?) If the dough is too wet (too much water), it will drip through the holes of the spaetzle maker and turn into a disintegrated mess in the pot. If it is too stiff (not enough water), it will stay in a tight ball and resist going through the holes. We can’t have resistant dough now, can we? This is the regular dough.

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This is the dough made with pumpkin.

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Position your spaetzle maker on top, fill the little bucket,

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and begin sliding back and forth. The spaetzle come out through the holes and plop into the boiling water.

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If you have a friend or family member nearby who can keep the water moving with a long-handled spoon back and forth in the water alongside the spaetzle maker, that would be great. If you are by yourself, not the end of the world. Just give it a stir when you refill your bucket.

Once all the dough has gone through the holes and into the water, go to your kitchen sink, taking the spaetzle maker with you (both parts), and clean it. Trust me, you will be glad you did this before all that dough dries in the cracks. Use a little scraper rather than a rag or a sponge. The amount of time this takes, let’s say five minutes (though ten in the pot won’t hurt them), is about right for how long it takes the spaetzle to cook in the water.

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They will be looking like this in the pot. You probably will need to turn the flame down (or it might boil over and you don’t want a mess). I usually add salt to the water too, by the way, just as when I cook pasta.

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Now drain and serve in any of the above-suggested ways, or however you like.

By the way, in case you were wondering, spaetzle is pronounced shpet-zle, not spetz-le. Have fun! I’d love to know how else anyone dresses them up!

Cut Marks

When I was a kid, we had pizza every Sunday night. Tradition on Sunday was: Eggs for breakfast, then a mid-day dinner invariably including macaroni with red (tomato) meat sauce, often with Italian sausage or meatballs or eggplant parmigiana and a tossed salad on the side. This was a more formal meal than during the week, thus Sunday night being Mom’s night off from having to cook.

If we got a couple of pies at the local pizzeria, my dad asked for them uncut. He would slide them out of the box and into our preheated oven, straight onto the rack. In this way he attained optimal crispness (to his own point of perfection), a thin, crispy crust being a requirement. Plus, he always wanted his food hot (not warm, hot). If we didn’t order out, he would make pizza from scratch with purchased frozen bread dough that we let thaw and he then rolled out himself. And even though we only ever had cheese on pizza – freshly grated of course, and heaven forbid we spoil it with pepperoni or any veggies – it was of course delicious.

Maybe I learned to love pizza then, maybe I would love it anyway. No matter, it’s an all-time favorite for sure. I’ve made it more times than I can count. When my kids were growing up, I often made it for lunch, once a week at least I’d say. All three of my pans look like this, confirming way more than a few uses.

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While my friend Fred was here last week, we made pizza one night because he wanted to practice making the dough himself. When I pulled the pans from their storage place alongside the cutting boards, I offhandedly called attention to the many, many cut marks as evidence of the many, many pizzas having been made on them over time.

You know how it is with offhand remarks. You forget you even said anything. I never gave it a second thought.

When he returned home to Kentucky, he wanted to make pizza. He made the dough himself and was super pleased with how it came out. Bravo, Fred!

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Our little pizza lesson paid off, I thought, and now he can make his own whenever he wants, and perfect his dough and play with toppings (using my recently developed pizza pile method of course!). Good for Fred! Good for his family!

Then he sent me a photo of his two slices on a plate, and later a photo of his cat licking the drippings off it. Clearly this is a man who enjoyed his pizza!

Hours later I got this photo.

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Yes, that’s a pizza pan. When I saw the holes I thought he was going to tell me about whether the crust was crispy or not on account of those holes, or maybe how they affected the slide-off onto the oven rack. I was not expecting thoughts on the cut marks. He said:

My first cut marks.
I didn’t have a pizza baking pan so I bought this one today. After using it and cleaning it my first thought was that I shouldn’t cut pizza on it as it leaves cut marks. Then I thought of how you proudly reminisce of the cut marks on your pans. Sometimes we leave marks where we have been, better than shiny things with no history or attachment. 

Amen. Leaving marks where we have been is a thing to ponder. Cut marks are perhaps not the best analogy, but if you can get past the sharp-object implications and onto the idea that the blade connected with the pan in such a way as to leave a permanent reminder of that connection, then maybe we are onto something.

First of all, yes, better to connect and be left with a mark than to stand alone – perhaps even shiny! – but still lonely, untouched. So what if we look perfect or have a perfect job or eat a perfect diet but have no meaningful relationships. The marks we gain through valuable personal interactions, through caring for someone besides ourselves, make us only more attractive – especially and most importantly to eyes that can see beyond the surface.

But, pizza-pan-cut-marks analogy aside, the marks that matter are often not visible.

I’m thinking about the people I know and the marks they have left on me, more than I can possibly list, but for starters: those who don’t just wait for me to finish speaking so they can say their bit, but instead really listen (how many people really listen?), those who brought (and continually bring) laughter into my world, those who taught me to get outside of my own little box and consider the needs around me, who encouraged me to think a little more (and not just swallow the party line), to slow down and look at the stars on a clear night or listen to the soft rain pattering, to find something nice to say to someone because maybe it’s the only nice thing that person hears all day.

I am the grateful student of those who taught these things, encouraged these things, modeled these things and much more. Their shining examples, their admirable character, left permanent impressions on me. I want to be like them when I grow up. They have countered and helped push away the prevalent me-first stand of so many others who also tried to leave marks.

They say you become like the company you keep. We keep company in lots of ways these days – not only in person but also through our computers and phones. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the marks we subject ourselves to and concentrate our people-time with those who are likely to leave good marks. Likewise, what about the marks we ourselves leave – now there’s a sobering thought…

Playing with Food: Onion Cream Pizza!

If you are making whole wheat bread for the first time (or, name it: potato pancakes, chicken piccata, broccoli salad, oatmeal cookies…), you are likely to follow the recipe to a T. You walk consciously through the steps: Do I have everything on the list? Oh dear, I don’t have that kind of pan. How small should I cut this up? Is this the right consistency? What do they mean by “firm”?

But if you cook or bake a thing frequently, after a while you don’t need the recipe anymore. The ingredients, quantities, sequence, timing, temperature, variances and all other factors associated with making it have pretty well lodged in your head. You know what it looks like when it’s done right, what it feels like, what it smells like. You know what will affect it adversely, what doesn’t matter and what might enhance it. When you do a thing often, you get a sense for it. That’s when you can play with it.

For example, I made potato pancakes on Friday night: shredded potatoes, flour, egg, salt and pepper (and ideally a little chopped onion and parsley) mixed up in a bowl and plopped in hot oil until brown on one side, then flipped and browned on the other. In this case

  1. I forgot the flour (helps bind it a bit, oops, but somehow these were fine).
  2. A small red onion spoke to me from the pantry like Dory with the sharks in Finding Nemo – “Pick me! Pick me!” I don’t always have red onion in the house and I think it’s nicer than white.
  3. I was not feeling quite energetic enough to make a salad as well, but my good sense tells me “green is important!” so I chopped up some spinach and added it to the potato pancake mixture.
  4. I didn’t want to use two pans but I had a bit too much mixture for normal size potato pancakes. You can’t tell so much from the photo, but these are fat and thick, which meant a lower flame and a longer cooking time to make sure all of the potato got cooked through.

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This recipe works well with sweet potatoes too. Hmm, how would half sweet potato and half white potato be? What about shallots instead of red onion? What if I added a bit of bacon or ham next time, cooked to crispy and chopped up fine?

The potato pancakes were a side dish to pork chops (though sometimes they are a meal in themselves). I took some applesauce out of the freezer (that I made last fall) because applesauce goes beautifully with potato pancakes and pork chops. I had some apples in the fridge this past week that needed to be used, so I had cut them up small, with skins on, and cooked them till soft. I call this “stewed apples” rather than applesauce, though the difference is technical. Anyway there was a little of this left (not enough for dinner) but the two mixed together became applesauce with a bit more texture than usual. Why not?

I like playing with food. You can play even if you are not the one preparing the dish. Let’s say you like salad and you like quinoa. You go to a restaurant and they have one with a combination of ingredients you would not have thought to put together. Mine this past week at Burton’s Grill  came with dried cranberries, finely julienned veggies, roasted beets, candied pecans, shredded cheddar and maple dijonnaise. You know I don’t eat nuts, so they left those off, and once, maybe ten years ago, I had a great quinoa salad with a lemon dressing. One of the other salads on Burton’s menu had a lemon vinaigrette, so I asked if they could use their lemon dressing on the quinoa salad for me. Sure, our server said. It was fabulous!

But prize this week for playing with food goes to last night’s pizza. I have a wonderful book called Pizza Napoletana!* I used it for what Claudia calls “inspirational value.” I would not ordinarily be drawn to a recipe called Pizza Boscaiola all’ Lombardi (Mushroom Pizza). Nor did the intro grab my attention: “In the fall, the forests of Italy are dotted with mushroom hunters. Porcini is on everyone’s mind. Other wild mushrooms, such as shiitakes or morels, may be substituted.”

I assure you, mushrooms are not on my mind in the fall or at any other time of year. They are a bit too earthy for my taste. Like my aversion to nuts, it would be easier to be able to say “sorry, I’m allergic.” I’m not. I just don’t like them. I avoid them routinely.

What caught my eye were two words in the ingredient list: heavy cream. In a pizza recipe??? Mmmm! Oh, yeah! Those two words jumped at me. They were all I needed.

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I did not actually have heavy cream in the house, seldom do, but Saturday night’s Airbnb cottage guests (bless them) left an unopened pint of light cream in the fridge. That works, I said to myself. I glanced over the recipe, seemed pretty straightforward. It wants me to sauté the onion in olive oil, add the mushrooms, cook till tender, add the cream, stir in the parsley and thyme, spread on rolled-out dough, sprinkle with cheeses and bake. I didn’t do it that way.

First there was the mushroom problem. What about some other vegetable? Samuel said. Peppers! I had a red pepper. That works. See? My aversion to some foods comes in handy — it forces me to play 😊.

I cut up the equivalent of three medium onions and one red pepper, got them going in the pan with half a stick (4 Tablespoons) butter – yes, the recipe said olive oil, which normally I love, but dairy was calling my name, so butter won that toss-up. There is nothing quite like the smell of onion sautéing in butter.

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Then I thought, hey, what about garlic? I finely diced three cloves and added them to the onion and pepper.

Not having heavy cream, which would be heavy enough in and of itself, I decided to make a roux, or white sauce, to ensure a degree of thickness that wouldn’t be runny on a pizza. When the onions were soft and transparent, I added half a cup of flour (in retrospect, this might have been slightly too much) and then the pint of light cream a little at a time. Samuel ground some fresh pepper into it.

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In the meantime I rolled out the perfect dough that Samuel had made (there is something about his dough that’s different than mine – better! – and I will figure it out someday!). Having used the recipe only for inspiration, in other words not referring to it as often as perhaps I should have, I then spread the creamy onion mixture on the dough and sprinkled salt and the cheeses on top.

I had parmesan cheese, but not the best kind, and this pizza was going to be good so I wanted to go with superior products. It came into my mind that I had had such luck with the asiago cheese on my pizza last week. So for cheeses I shredded a pound of mozzarella and a chunk of asiago that takes up as much space in your grip as a tennis ball, about 3x2x2”.

After the cheeses were on, I remembered (oops again) there were herbs called for as well. They should have been mixed into the onions and cream. Ah, well, on top they go.

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I cannot imagine that mixing the herbs in would have made this pizza better because it was already quite amazing. But I’ll play around with this idea again – get the good, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese maybe, or in the summertime use fresh parsley and thyme out of the garden, or see how heavy cream instead of a thickened light cream compares. In any case, this one’s a keeper!

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________________

Pizza Napoletana! By Pamela Shelton Johns, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1999.

Chocolate Chip Walnut Biscotti

Most people have an aversion to certain foods. They don’t like bananas, or are allergic to garlic, or can’t stand cilantro. I don’t do nuts of any kind, and I don’t drink coffee. This biscotti recipe contains both nuts and coffee, a double whammy for me, so I cannot tell you that they are good. But you could believe me when I tell you that everyone who has tried them has loved them, and then give ‘em a go yourself.

I doubled the recipe* because I like to have enough to give some away. Okay, I give all these away. My friend Melba and her husband Brian had sad news recently about their beloved dog, and I hope these biscotti will help console their hurting hearts. If you know someone who could use a bit of cheer, consider a small gift of something homemade. We cannot change the circumstance, but we can remind people we love that they have been on our hearts. Food conveys love, care, warmth.

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It’s an easy dough to put together, but I don’t know why they set up recipes the way they do. If they want you to cream the butter with the sugars and then add the flour and other dry ingredients, why don’t they tell you that? In that order? Why do they tell you first of all to combine the dry ingredients and then set them aside? Why would I want to wash two bowls when I can wash just one?

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I suggest: combine the butter and sugars, add the eggs, then the dry ingredients (I do not sift together these together, I just put them in), then the chips and nuts. This recipe says to use an electric mixer. You know I love my new mixer, and certainly you are welcome to use yours, but this is one you could manage with a good spoon. Your call.

The dough is like a cookie dough, pretty stiff, easily pulling away from the side of the bowl.

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I did not have instant espresso powder, whatever that is. But my former barista son Samuel tells me that ground coffee is the same thing, that the difference between coffee and espresso is in the brewing method and the brewing method only. Well, I hope so because he was sequestered while I was making these, solving yet another perplexing coding problem, and I had some ground Folger’s in the fridge, so I substituted that for the instant espresso powder.

The walnuts are another thing. I had bought them already chopped but have learned from making this recipe in the past that if they are too big, the loaves are harder to slice when the time comes for that, so I chopped them smaller. For this purpose may I present the best chopper I know (Kwik-Kut Mfg. Co, Mohawk, NY). I’ve had it for decades but I know they still sell them. I got some for gifts at Yoder’s this past year. (Great for egg salad too, if you are into that.)

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I put the 2 cups of nuts (remember I doubled the recipe) into my four-cup glass measure and chopped them right in there (again why measure in one cup and chop in another – that would be two things to wash instead of one). I didn’t get carried away and I didn’t go for a specific size piece. I just chopped till I got tired of chopping.

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I suggest using mini chocolate chips instead of the regular-size morsels (again for the ease-of-slicing reason), but I didn’t have enough (having used half the bag in the oatmeal cookies I made yesterday). So I used some regulars too, and tried chopping them into what I needed, the same as I chopped the nuts. It was a little harder but I reduced their size a bit. Using all mini chips would have been better. Get the minis.

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Once all of the ingredients are combined, you can use your hands and form one solid ball of dough. I cut this into four pieces so that I’d have equal-size loaves.

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I formed these quarters and put them on my pans, hoping they wouldn’t spread too much. They look like little meatloaves to me!

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I found that it took longer to bake than the 25 minutes at (fully pre-heated) 325F for these loaves to be firm to the touch, more like 35 minutes. I gave them their prescribed five-minute rest period, then used the right knife for slicing biscotti to slice them. Between the nuts and the chips, and the loaves still being pretty hot after the five minutes, it was not as smooth going through as perhaps it might be (you see a few breaks), but I managed to slice them, put them cut side down and bake again. This too took longer, more like 15 minutes per side.

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Who knows, maybe I sliced them thicker, or maybe my oven is on the cooler side and I should have upped the heat. Whatever the case, they looked great in the end, even if I cannot tell you they tasted great. Samuel gave them the thumbs-up, and he doesn’t even like sweet things generally.

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Doubling the recipe made quite a few; I count about 30. These keep well, ship well, dunk in coffee well 😊 Enjoy!!

 

*recipe from my William-Sonoma Cookies and Biscotti cookbook, Time-Life Custom Publishing, 1993

Water, Yeast, Flour, Salt

When I am out and about and find myself in a shop with freshly baked breads, I am sorely tempted every time. There’s something downright magical about baked things for me. They go from a gooey, sticky mess in a bowl to a delicious, not-dry but not-sticky-anymore, holding-its-shape wonder that always begs for my attention (and my purchase!). I often give in. Yesterday at MarieBette in Charlottesville, I was mesmerized by the olive baguettes, apple galettes and salted pretzel croissants (!). Heavenly, all of it! A baguette and a croissant came home with me. You don’t get texture like this everywhere. Oh, and the taste, the consistency, the crust…!

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One day last week I woke up saying to myself It’s not that hard. Water, yeast, flour, salt. Other ingredients optional. So I got out a bowl and started in. That day I made rolls instead of bread; they did not last long. On Monday of this week I got the bug again and made two braids. This is just before baking them.

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They came out delicious! I will not say my bread is on par with MarieBette’s, but it is respectable and yummy. Dare I ask for more?

Then Fred said, “I find baking and bread making to be a bit more challenging than some other cooking. It’s so much more than looking at a recipe and measuring accurately. The technique and order of adding ingredients is critical to the outcome. I’m still learning how to properly knead bread dough and what it should look like when it’s ready.”

Besides Fred recognizing that some things are not as simple as others and that skill and experience do come into play and affect the outcome, besides his very admirable acknowledgement that he has things to learn (don’t we all!), his statements are so true! Technique and order are important – e.g. if you add the salt too soon you will kill the yeast – and properly kneading dough is a thing to practice.

Yesterday as I made another batch, I thought about the challenge of giving instructions in written form. To knead bread, you push the wad of dough away from yourself with the heel(s) of your hand(s) and pull it back with your whole hand(s) in a grasp – forward and back, forward and back – all while moving it around on your floured surface in such a way as to pick up (and work into the dough) the flour that is on the surface. I am not sure if that makes sense in words, but it’s what I do.

Let’s start at the beginning. Water, yeast, flour and salt are the main ingredients, but recipes often call for other things. Milk or butter added in will make the dough (and subsequent bread) softer. Eggs will make it richer. Sugar will make it sweeter. Whole grains will make a different texture.

Yesterday I decided on a simple wheat dough and planned to make half of it a loaf of bread and half of it the base for a pizza. Rule of thumb: for every cup of liquid that you start with, you get about a loaf of bread or one pizza crust, so I needed two cups of liquid. I like my wheat dough a little softer, so I put about 2/3 cup on milk in my glass two-cup measure, and the rest water.

There is nothing magical about this proportion (it could as easily have been half milk and half water); it’s just what I did. The fact is that the more butterfat in the dough, the softer it will be.

Making bread has been happening for a very long time, way before exact measurements. But I’ll do my best. In the microwave this water/milk went for one minute 45 seconds, which showed just over 100F on my thermometer, which based on my results clearly was enough. The ideal temp is between 105 and 110. Yeast can multiply at 95F but a little warmer is needed to dissolve the yeast and help it “proof” or become active.

Proof the yeast? Watch. Here is my bowl of warmed water/milk combined with 2 tablespoons yeast and two cups wheat flour. In about 15 minutes, the mixture has grown. See the level in the bowl? How high up on the spoon it comes?

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I love this part. I love how it grows! Look at that – it’s just three ingredients, and it grows!

After I admire it and smile, I keep going. I’ve made the mistake of adding the salt too soon (and the dough won’t rise because the yeast is dead) and forgetting the salt altogether (and the dough/bread is seriously lacking in flavor), so I try to time the salt about midway through adding the rest of the flour. I added two cups of regular flour (by which I mean unbleached white flour) to my proofed mixture,

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which makes a gooky mess that’s not yet too hard to stir (though make sure you have a strong spoon). Then I added 1 ½ teaspoons salt (measured in my hand, so again, approximately), which is (another rule of thumb for me) about ¾ teaspoon per cup of liquid or per loaf. With four cups of flour total stirred into the water/milk/yeast proof, it begins to pull from the side of the bowl.

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Then another cup of flour (that’s five cups total for the two cups of liquid), till it looks something like this.

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That’s when you “turn it out” onto a floured surface. I don’t like to waste any bits of the dough that have stuck to the bowl, plus I want to make clean-up as easy as possible, so I use this great scraper.

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Make sure your hands are clean, and it’s best to take off rings for this next part. It’s easier to watch someone knead dough than try to follow written instructions. This video might help. Keep kneading until your dough is smooth and elastic. I added about another half cup of flour to the dough before I felt it was ready. The ten minutes it takes, the exertion of energy it takes, is good for you! Using your body maintains its good health in so many ways and makes you hungry for that slice of wonderful bread that will result from your labor.smooth and elastic.jpg

The next part is again magic, similar to the proofing of the yeast earlier. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, you let it rest. You put a little flour under it and on it, like this, then cover it with a towel and wait. All it would really need before the next stage is about 20 minutes, but a full rise is okay too. These photos were taken at 15 minutes, at 45 minutes and at one hour and 15 minutes. Look at how it grows!

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What a transformation! The next set of photos show the dough at the beginning and at the end, followed by one of the most satisfying things known to humankind – punching it down!

Before rising, after rising, punch down, before rising, after rising, punch down…

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Now you make the shape you want for your bread. A standard (greased) loaf pan works fine, or you can make rolls or a braid and put it down on a silicone mat sprinkled with corn meal.

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This needs to rise again in a warm (not hot) place. I turned the oven on for one minute, then turned it off, then put the pan in. This is guessing (as to temperature), I know, but it works. Once it has risen (about doubled in bulk), bake it at 375F until it’s light brown and “sounds hollow” when you tap on it.

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The other half of my dough I had put in a greased bowl (as they show in the video), sprinkled with flour, covered with a towel and put in the fridge. I knew I didn’t want pizza till later.

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Later, I took the bowl out of the fridge and let it sit half an hour before rolling the dough out to fit my (oiled with olive oil) pizza pan. I then did a new thing! I sprinkled olive oil on top of the rolled-out dough, spread it around and sprinkled it with salt and pepper. In my cast iron pan I sautéed three medium size onions till they were softened (but not mush), set that aside. I grated three chunks of asiago cheese, each of which was a chunk as big as I could fit my fingers around, and mixed that in a bowl with some chopped spinach, 10 or so slices of hard salami cut up, and a red pepper thinly sliced. I dumped the cheese mixture on the oiled dough, spread it out, then scattered the onions on top. I baked it at 425F till it looked melty on top, then slid it off the pan to crisp the bottom. Oh yum!

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Water, Yeast, Flour, Salt — the base for uncountable varieties of goodness!!