Bread Making

When it comes to simple pleasures in life, an absolute favorite of mine is a fresh, homemade bread, particularly a baguette. The anticipation that builds as I watch the bread rise and then proof. The smell that permeates the house as it bakes. The simultaneous crunch of the crust and the softness of the interior. Just describing it makes me want one.

I recalled making them during culinary school and that the ingredient list was simply flour, yeast, salt and water, and was, therefore, determined to make them again. Yet I found within myself a little fear and trepidation about making bread. Dough can be temperamental. What if I forget about the bread and it over-rises? What if I don’t mix the dough just right to develop the gluten? What if I don’t get that perfect amount of water so that the dough is just perfect? Making dough can be a very laborious process.

In How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (a book I would strongly recommend), he dispels a lot of the fears and anxiety involved in making bread and makes it almost ridiculously simple. He swears that a 10-year-old can make very good dough on the first try following his instructions (p. 852).

Here is Mark Bittman’s recipe:

  • 3 ½ cups AP Flour (if you have bread flour, even better)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 cup, give or take, warm water

He suggests making the dough in a food processer, which I have found to be a great way. The machine does the kneading for you, which is a big plus because a good dough should be almost too sticky to work with. Because the machine is running at a high speed, adding the water and the mixing takes place really quick, actually within 30 seconds. I actually like to knead my dough a few times. I have found that there is something very therapeutic about kneading. (I also have a KitchenAid stand mixer, but have yet to try making the dough in there. I will let you know how it turns out when and if I do.)

In terms of letting the dough rise, Mark Bittman says, “Within limits, slower rising is better; it allows flavor to develop and improves the final product in subtle but noticeable ways” (p. 855). Usually what I will do is make the dough in the morning, let it rise for 3 hours or so, shape it, and then let it rise for three more hours. During those three hours, I do whatever else I need to do. He also suggests that you can make the dough the night before and let it rise in the refrigerator over night (bring the dough back up to room temperature before shaping). You can do the same after you shape it as well. Using Mark Bittman’s advice, I don’t let the bread dictate my schedule; I make the bread according to my schedule.

To shape the baguette, I roll the dough to the length of my baking sheets and then tightly roll the dough. Mark Bittman says that this is the trickiest method of shaping and I would somewhat agree. The hardest part is making sure it is tight and that it will not unwind during baking. Mark’s recipe yields two 12 inch long baguettes.

Right before baking, I will slash the dough. The idea behind slashing is that it allows some of the excess steam to evaporate from the dough. Also, it gives you a more beautiful traditional baguette (if you want to be super traditional, a baguette has five slashes on it). I will also brush the dough with a little water.

For baking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F for a good 45 minutes. At the bottom of the oven, put a cast iron pan filled with garden rocks. Right before baking, fill the cast iron with boiling water. (Please be careful in doing this as a lot of steam will be created and steam burns hurt really bad.) The steam created helps create a better crust on the bread. I don’t fully understand the process and the chemistry involved (I am sure Alton Brown could explain it to me). From what I gathered, steam delays the formation of the crust so that the bread can expand fully, thereby yielding a crust that it is thin and crisp, which is what is most desired. Some suggest just using steam for the first 10 minutes or so of baking as too much steam prevents the browning of the crust. What I have found to work really well is baking the dough for its full allotment of time (approximately 20 minutes) with the steam, and then right before serving, putting the baguette in the oven directly on the rack for 5 minutes to brown up the crust. Not only does the crust get nice and brown, but the bread will be hot at service. After putting the bread in the oven, lower the oven to 375 degrees F.

Do my baguettes turn out perfectly every time? Not at all. But they have all been extremely delicious. And as Claire has remarked, “They don’t look or taste like they were made by a machine.”

So if you find some extra time on your hands, may I suggest trying your hand at making bread? You may be pleasantly surprised at how easy and how delicious the results are.

Postscript: I am also currently reading The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating, and Spiritual Writing by Cristina Mazzoni. In the first chapter, Cristina Mazzoni looks at how a few saints have used bread as an analogy for the spiritual life. I will post those thoughts later in the week, as this post is already getting too long.

A Winter Dinner on a Not So Winter Day

I absolutely love braised short ribs. Actually I take that back…I love braised meat. It is succulent, it is moist, it is rich in flavor, and it is hearty, which makes braised meat a perfect dish as the days get shorter and the temperature drops.

So when Claire and I decided to invite Ty and Heather Hoad up for dinner on Saturday, December 11, I figured braised short ribs were in order. As fate would have it, the temperature for the day was 85 instead of 58 (I guess that is what I get for living in Southern California).

I have made short ribs a few times before, but I decided to use a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen (registration is required). The recipe is basic in that the short ribs are braised in red wine and beef stock. But the outcome is magnificent – the short ribs were incredibly tender, and because the sauce was basic, the beef flavor actually came through. We served the braised short ribs with some creamy mashed potatoes, along with a fresh baguette. To drink we had a nice bottle of Conde de Valdemar Crianza made with the tempranillo grape. The wine was robust enough to compliment the beef, yet still very smooth with hints of fruit, exactly what I love about Spanish Red Wine.

When Claire and I were discussing what we wanted to serve, Claire mentioned a salad to start, especially after I stated my intentions to do short ribs. Since we now have Meyer Lemons in surplus, we served a simple salad with Meyer Lemon Dressing. To serve with both salad and dessert, we opened a bottle of Moscato d’Asti made by Rivata. If you have never had a Moscato d’Asti, I highly recommend it. It is a lightly sparkly Italian white wine that is fairly sweet, but not too sweet. Another great thing about the wine is that it is only five percent alcohol, compared with eleven to thirteen percent in most other whites and upwards of twenty for a fortified dessert wine.

For dessert we served a lemon-rosemary shortbread paired with an olive-oil gelato. You can find the lemon-rosemary shortbread recipe here. The only change I made was that I baked it in a nine-inch round cake pan. We also used Meyer Lemons, which Claire and I both loved the beautiful fragrance of the lemons, especially in the icing.

The gelato is a recipe I found on Serious Eats. The base of the gelato is still a very rich custard, in which a quarter cup of olive oil is added half way through churning. The result is a creamy, smooth gelato, with the sweetness tempered by the olive oil. The olive oil was subtle, but also gave the gelato a great mouth feel. (I did not use a great olive oil, so I can only imagine the gelato would taste even better with a really good olive oil.) A bite of the shortbread and the gelato, finished off with a sip of the Moscato d’Asti – brilliant!

It was a great night to have the Hoads up for dinner. To sit around the table and converse about life. To laugh. To share. And before we knew it close to four hours had flown by and it was time to part ways. I went to bed really full that night, not just from the food, but from the pleasure of the company.

In-N-Out versus Five Guys Burgers

Five Guys Burgers is by all accounts an East Coast Institution. One could say that they are the In-N-Out of the East Coast. However, recently, they have made their way into Southern California, and are “challenging” In-N-Out to burger supremacy. A quick Google search of “In-N-Out vs. Five Guys” leads to a long list of websites where the topic is debated.

I was headed down to Orange County to meet some friends for happy hour at TAPS, but thought I would see if my dad was free for lunch. He suggested that we meet at the Five Guys Burger located in Orange, CA, just off the 55 FWY at Katella and Tustin.

I was eager to try this burger considering all they hype surrounding their arrival and the accolades that they have received wherever else they have gone.

The reason that Five Guys is compared to In-N-Out so frequently is because of the fact that both places offer a very simple menu (Five Guys’ menu; In-N-Out’s menu). They both strive to serve the tastiest burger and fries by using fresh ingredients. Both places cut their potatoes in store, opting, however, for different potatoes—In-N-Out using Kennebec potatoes, while Five Guys opts for the standard Russet.

Being my first time, I ordered the cheeseburger, which my dad informed me comes with two patties. For one patty you order the little hamburger. Unlike In-N-Out, Five Guys offers a wider variety of toppings from which you can choose, all of them being free. My burger was topped with mayo, ketchup, mustard, pickles, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, lettuce and tomatoes. My dad and I also split an order of their fries.

Opening the burger (I forgot my camera; I apologize for no pictures), the first thing that struck me was that it looked sloppy, which made it a little difficult to eat as toppings were slipping and sliding all over the place. I don’t usually have this much difficulty eating an In-N-Out burger (I will admit that I usually opt for a single cheeseburger Animal-style; it has been a long time since I have had a Double-Double, which could suffer a similar fate).

The burger was good; however, it was no where near the level of an In-N-Out Animal-style. The flavor of the two patties definitely stood out, yet felt slightly under seasoned. Because the burger felt like it was sloppily assembled, I would have bites where I would get three layers of pickles and two layers of tomatoes, whereas other bites completely lacked toppings. The lettuce also lacked the crispness that is so amazing about In-N-Out, although I tend to think that In-N-Out tends to put too much lettuce on their burgers.

Like In-N-Out, Five Guys has their buns made specifically for them at a bakery. Again, it was a good bun, but In-N-Out’s spongy bun wins out. By the time I was nearing completion of the burger, the bun was on its last legs. I want a bun that will be there with me to the end.

Moving on to the fries, I would almost say it is a tie. I would never go to either place solely for fries. Both places make their fries in house, and both fries single fry their fries, which leads to less than crispy results. What also hinders Five Guys is the fact that they use Russet potatoes which are very high in moisture, which will also prevent a beautifully crisp on the outside fluffy on the inside fry.

Finally, our lunch came out to by just over $15.00, I believe, which is slightly more expensive then In-N-Out. The last time I was at In-N-Out, which was maybe a month ago, the cheeseburger meal came out to be just under $6.00.

So there you have it. My take on the In-N-Out Five Guys debate. Five Guys is a very good fast food hamburger, but In-N-Out is still better and will probably always be better. Sorry Five Guys, childhood nostalgia does carry weight in this debate.

I would love to hear what others think.

Christmas and Feasting

Christmas for me has always been bright, busy, loud, stressful, presents galore (especially now that there are nieces and nephews), lots of food and fun. Quiet has never been a word that would characterize Christmas and all of its surrounding festivities, after all, as I love to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” And He has indeed.

But last year in the midst of all the busyness, and again this year as Claire and I begin to think about what we want Christmas to look like for our family, I long for a little more simplicity and quietness – time to simply dote on the baby Jesus. This desire for quietness and simplicity has me thinking about what feasting might look like.

Christmas feasting, much like that of Thanksgiving, is predicated on an overabundance of eating and food. Therefore, it is all too easy for me to associate feasting with a feeling of stuffed, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Before Jesus the Messiah came, there were centuries of hopes, expectations, and anticipation of whom the Messiah was going to be and what he would do. For example, the prophet Isaiah writes:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The Messiah would come and bring peace on earth, rescuing the nation of Israel from its oppressors and ushering in a day when God’s shalom would reign in place of sin and injustice. And with this hope came the idea of the Messianic feast. Even Jesus’ disciples thought this was the case right up until the day Jesus ascended back into heaven following his death and resurrection (see Acts 1:6).

As a Christian I believe that Jesus will come again to reign as king as he already reigns in heaven. There is coming a day when the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Advent is not just about looking back at Jesus’ first coming, but building within us the anticipation, excitement, and longing of Jesus’ return, where we will enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

Advent stresses the tension we as Christians live in – the already-not-yet. The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Jesus. I am living in the Kingdom. But it is not fully here on earth because the world, including myself, is not fully redeemed.

My temptation/struggle is to forget about the “not-yet” portion and simply live blindly in the already. For me, this can at times manifest itself in grandiosity, thinking too highly of myself. “There is something bigger and better for me than what I am currently experiencing. The mundane is just too boring. I am too qualified to heat up canned marinara for fifth graders.” And so on.

So it is with food. To feast I must have the finest ingredients, the finest wine, the finest China. Everything must be just perfect. There is a place for that feast to remind me and others of the hope that awaits us at Christ’s return.

But I must also learn what it means to feast on the simple, the unadorned, the messy. After all, Jesus came not in a palace, but in a manger, surrounded by dirty, stinking animals, worshiped by shepherds.

As Oswald Chambers wrote, “Beware of posing as a profound person. God became a baby.”