Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Scent of Baking Bread

I've always loved to bake bread.  There's something wonderfully satisfying and homey about the process.  You pour mix the yeast into water, add a tiny bit of sugar or honey and the yeast comes ALIVE!  It wakes up, foams in the bowl and immediately begins dispersing delicious scents around the kitchen.  The process of kneading dough is satisfying too.  Great exercise for the arms and hands (probably just as good as any fancy exercise program at firming arms, armpits and bust) and you can get out your aggressions by thumping the dough around.  I usually find myself so much calmer after I've spent a good session kneading dough.  And of course the best part comes when the house fills up with the perfume of baking and you pull the warm crusty bread out of the oven.  I can barely wait for it to cool before I rip a hunk off and slather it with butter.

The cotton that they sell in the local stores just doesn't compare with real homemade bread.  Especially down here in Florida, where the bakery section of the local supermarket produces something with a soft, boring crust, dough with the consistency of a marshmallow and virtually no flavor.  Is it the water down here? The air? Or just a really lousy baking process at commercial bakeries? 

I remember when I was a kid growing up in New York, you could walk into the local bakery and find something a lot closer to what I can produce at home.  How I miss the wonderful hard rolls from the bakery on Richmond Terrace.  I used to pocket my bus money and walk to school instead.  I'd stop at the bakery and get a poppy-seed hard roll with a fried egg, and eat it while I walked the couple more miles to school.  Crusty, dripping with butter and soft yolk, the nutty flavor of the poppy seeds.  It was glorious.  It almost made going to school worthwhile.

So if I adore baking bread so much, why the heck, in my fifteen years of living down here in Florida, and in my six years in this condo, have I baked bread all of perhaps four or five times until recently?  Well, baking is--or at least used to be--an all day affair.  In the tiny kitchen I have here, just setting up places to knead the dough is nearly impossible.  First, we have storage problems.  Our roommate has a penchant for buying as much food as he can stuff into the kitchen whether or not we need it.  So the tiny counters are cluttered with cans and jars and boxes.  No matter how fast I try stuffing them into the pantry, it's a growing pile.  Which means that any cooking project must first be a clearing project.  Then there's the fact that I rarely have a full day to devote to kneading bread and watching it rise.  And maybe it's the humid air, but getting dough to the right consistency is nigh impossible.  You set up the yeast and wait for it to rise, then you mix in the flour and spend an hour or two kneading and pounding the dough into the right consistency.  It should feel like an earlobe when you're done.  I could swear that in the past it's only taken 15 or 20 minutes of kneading.  Maybe it's the humid Florida air, but I can never get the dough correct with less than an hour's work.

But this last Christmas my wonderful husband, Quantum gave me a miracle gift.  A KitchenAid Professional 600 Series 6-Quart Stand Mixer

I've been drooling over the ones they have on Iron Chef and all the other Food Network programs.  Now I actually OWN one!  Okay, I don't get to knead the bread by hand.  (But at an hour or more per loaf of bread, I'm NOT complaining!)  Even though I desperately wanted one, I'd been putting off the purchase, telling myself that other purchases were more important.  I'd been content to think that SOMEDAY once we moved, we'd get one.  Quantum, however, thought "someday" wasn't soon enough.  Mine is onyx black.  It comes in other colors--the Iron Chefs have a red one--but I've always been partial to black appliances, silly goth chick that I am.

Here's what's so cool - this baby does all the work!  I put the yeast and water in the bowl, let it rise, go check my email.  Fifteen minutes later I go back and add in the flour, attatch the dough hook (ah! the wonder that is a dough hook!) turn the speed on 2 (funny, I've never really needed any other speed except for whipping eggs or cream) and let the divine machine do its work.  While I pack boxes for my move, or read my favorite forum, the mixer kneads the dough to perfect consistency.  Ten or fifteen minutes later, I turn the dough into an oiled bowl, let it rise for an hour or so (while I again go back to other work) then shape the dough on a flat cookie tin, pop it into my preheated oven and voila! the house fills with the scent of baking dough and soon thereafter we have warm crusty goodness to spread butter or honey butter on, or top with roasted peppers and chopped pine nuts or something equally decadent.

Since my mixer has its own place on the counter, I no longer have to clear a space for my work.  Although I am no longer getting the exercise benefit of kneading dough in this miserable damp climate, the fact that we have yummy bread any time we want, certainly makes up for that.  And I'm probably saving money too.  After all, a 5lb bag of flour costs about the same as a loaf of bread, and makes about 4-6 more times as much bread.  Good bread, not that nasty cotton I can buy at the store.  Meanwhile, cleanup is a dream.  It takes about two minutes tops to wash the stainless bowl and the dough hook.  The mixer does most of the work by scraping the bowl clean in the kneading process.  That, contrasted to my previous 20 minutes to clear a space, then another half hour or more to clean up the flour dust left from kneading.  In the four months since Quantum got me the mixer, I've made bread more times than I have during the rest of my entire life! 

Its fabulous for other baking stuff too.  The other day I made some delicious Zucchini Bread, and as soon as I've got my garden started, I'll be making Zucchini Bread all during growing season, no doubt.  We also bought an Ice Cream Maker Attachment (yum!) and a Food Grinder Attachment and Sausage Stuffer Kit and I'll tell you about our experiments with those in another post sometime soon.

Honey Sage Butter:

1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 bunch fresh sage leaves
several tablespoons honey, to taste
a pinch of salt

Leave the butter out of the fridge to soften slightly.  Mince the sage and very lightly sautee with a tiny bit of the butter, until slightly toasted and fragrant.  Put all the items into your mixer, use the whisk attatchment and run on Speed 2 for a minute or two.  Pack the butter into a bowl, or wrap it in plastic wrap like a sausage.  Return it to the fridge and let it harden (it will be a bit softer than normal butter) and use as desired.  Use it to slather across your fresh, warm homemade bread, on toast, or dot it onto a chicken and roast.

Check out the KitchenAid Professional 600 Series 6-Quart Stand Mixers
Coffee Press

Its a ...Dri! (Girl)

Yesterday we got the call we'd been looking forward to and dreading.  Looking forward, because we're thrilled to have our yaks.  Dreading because we're still scrambling to get packed, fix up our two trailers and trucks and get the heck out to our land.  We were hoping to already be in Colorado by the time she was born.

HCC Yeti-Starr was born around noon (Colorado time) on April 12th.  She's completely adorable.  Black with a little white star on her forehead.  The sellers were kind enough to send us some photos.

Here's Yonkers with Yeti-Starr.  Isn't Yonkers a beauty!  Regal and motherly.  You can just barely see the star that gave little Yeti the second half of her name.  (The sellers had already named a previous calf Yeti, so we had to either add to her name or change it, for registry reasons - yes there really is a yak registry.  I'll see if I can locate it at some point and add the link.)

Here's another picture of Yonkers and Yeti-Starr.  Isn't she adorable with her wobbly legs and her too little white rear hooves?  These pics were taken yesterday, so she's only a few hours old here.  I can't wait to pet her and play with her!  Of course that's going to mean making friends with Yonkers, since yak mommies are very protective.  I'm thinking a generous supply of carrots and apples. 

And here's Yeti's big sister, Yazoo.  She's about a year old now.  What a pretty young lady! Her star reminds me of a state map - is it Texas, New York, Nevada?  Or maybe just the state of bliss I'm in, contemplating the additions to our family.

Hopefully mommy won't be as protective of her now that she has the baby to worry about.  We don't know if Yonkers will be tame-able enough to milk, but we're hoping Yazoo will, by the time she's old enough to have her own babies (probably next year or so).  Meanwhile I'm going to work on making good friends with this big girl, so that she's happy being touched.