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Some things are a labor of love. And some things are just a labor. After doing this week’s TWD baking assignment, I’ve decided bagels are the latter. Don’t get me wrong — I love bagels and the ones I made were delicious. But were they more delicious than the fresh bagels I get on Sundays at my local shop? Not really. In the end, this should be chalked up as one of those projects done by people who really love making bread. I’m afraid I’m not one of those people.

All that being said, I am proud of myself for giving this “project” a go. After a first read-through of the recipe (find it here) I was pretty scared and considering skipping this round all together. There were just so many steps and in my experience lots of steps does not always make for a better recipes. So I put it off. And procrastinated some more. And then some more. And finally got down to business (you can see now why I’m 3 days late with this post!).

To get over my fear, I read and then re-read the recipe to see what I was getting myself into. As you know, I’m not really a baker. But I reminded myself that I decided to participate in TWD to get better at baking and here was another chance to face my fears. So here it goes. The recipe, however, was not comforting. It read something like this:

Work with half the dough at a time, each batch makes 5 bagels.

Shape the bagels: Stretch the dough into a purse-shaped ball, punch a hole, shape with your fingers and set aside to rest.

Boil the bagels: Boil in small batches because they can’t touch. Flip them over in the water. Take them out. Glaze them with egg white – the egg whites need to be strained (?!?) — glaze them quickly so they don’t stick and don’t let the glaze hit the pan because it can make the bagels stick.

Bake the bagels: Pour 2 cups of water in the bottom of your oven (yes, really) to create steam. Bake the bagels one rack at a time. Bake 25 minutes. Turn oven off. Bake 5 minutes. Open oven door. Bake 5 more minutes.

Now you’re done. Deep breath.

For a somewhat-non-baker like me, making this recipe feels like I’m cracking a code. True confessions: I made some adjustments. Not that I’m a rebel — I’m just an impatient person. Probably why baking and I are not always friends. So for any of you scared bakers out there, here are some short-cuts I took that worked.

1. I used regular unbleached flour, not high gluten or bread flour. Didn’t want to go around town finding the right flour.

2. I worked in 2 batches but shaped all the dough pieces at the same time.

3. I did one pan of bagels on parchment and one on an oiled pan per the recipe. Bagels stuck to the oiled pan so parchment won that technique contest.

4. I didn’t strain the egg whites. I was exhausted. I was impatient. I was starting to get angry at egg whites…and bagels. It was time to skip a step and this seemed like a good one. It all worked out in the end.

5. I tried to rush it and put both sheet pans in the oven at once on different racks — BIG mistake. The recipe was right. The bottom rack rose nicely but the top rack didn’t benefit from the steam.

6. I did do the 2 cups of water in the oven to create steam. LOVED this trick — very cool method to have up my sleeve. I kind of feel like a “real” baker having done something so cool.

In the end I had lovely, tasty bagels and, I’ll admit, was pretty darn proud of myself for making it through this recipe. Would I make them again? Probably not.

One of our favorite vegetables for Fall and Winter is fennel. It’s subtle anise flavor, lends a  certain sweetness that complements this season’s cooking perfectly. The best part about this root vegetable is it’s versatility. It can be eaten roasted, sautéed, braised or raw. While the white bulb is the most used part of this vegetable, don’t throw away the stems — they can be used to subtly flavor soups and stocks. The feathery fronds that sprout from the tops can be used as a finishing herb or added to salads and sauces. When it comes to flavor and bang for your buck, fennel is definitely the seasonal produce that packs a punch! Here are some of our favorite ways to use this Fall gem:

KEEP IT RAW
One of our go-to salads this time of year is an explosion of flavors and textures and it all starts with thinly shaved fennel (to shave it thinly, we recommend a hand-held slicer like the Kyocera ones – great tool to have in your kitchen). Then we have halved grapes, thinly shaved apples and leaves of watercress. We toss the whole thing lightly in a maple vinaigrette (maple, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil). This is a salad that makes you want to eat salads.

SWAP IT OUT
A great way to start using fennel is to swap it out for onions. Any time a recipe starts with some sautéed onions and garlic try using some fennel and garlic instead – you’ll notice it’s sweet, rich flavor in the background of dish. For instance, try caramelizing it in some butter and thyme in place of caramelized onions…..you’ll be eating this sweet concoction right out of the pan!

BRAISED & BROWNED
Leave it to the French to figure out the most luscious way to prepare fennel: braised in buttery stock and finish in the oven with cheese. To do this, cut the stalks off the fennel and then cut the bulb in quarters. Place in a pot with a couple pats of butter and enough stock to just barely cover the fennel. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until very tender. Strain out the soft fennel and place in a shallow baking dish. Top with a sprinkle of parmesan or Gruyère cheese and some salt and pepper. Bake at 450 until golden and melted. A vegetable has never tasted so good!

Join us for our popular Global Comfort Food class to learn an amazing Fennel, Bread and Tomato Soup recipe that is perfect for cold Winter nights. If you already have Thanksgiving on the brain, we have you covered with our annual Thanksgiving 101 class, where we’ll demonstrate how to create a Brioche Dressing with Caramelized Fennel, Fuji Apples and Pancetta that is sure to become a family favorite!!

I love it when my kitchen is granted a moment of culinary serendipity. Like when you realize you have a bundle of tomatoes nearly too ripe AND the cilantro & lime needed to turn them into a quick salsa. Or when you have some leftover mashed potatoes AND you discover that last bit of ground beef in the freezer perfect for assembling a shepard’s pie. Or what happened this past week: I’d reached a stone fruit breaking point with over 6 lbs of assorted plums from the last few weeks of Farm Box deliveries threatening to take over my crisper drawer AND realized that this week’s TWD baking assignment was a basic whole wheat bread. Fresh baked bread was the only excuse I needed to turn all those plums into a huge batch of jam. A match made in heaven.

First, the jam. I used this recipe as my base — I like the method of cooking half of the fruit in a sugar syrup until soft and then adding the rest of the fruit. This leaves you with a lovely textured jam with bits of chunky fruit and bits of mashed fruit. I ended up combining three different varieties of plums with a basket of blueberries. And then, for a little twist, one lonely star anise pod — it may seem like a small, insignificant addition, but this tiny flavor bomb adds a complex “black liquorice” taste that blends so nicely with the plum’s acidity.

Once I had a huge pot of jam, it was time for the bread. The recipe (found here and here) is so, so easy. A few simple ingredients (whole wheat flour, bread flour, yeast, honey, salt and water) are combined, kneaded and left to rise. After a second rise in loaf pans, they’re ready for the oven. With about 2 hours of unattended rise time, this recipe does require some forethought — but ultimately  it’s very little actual work and such a simple endeavor. Within 5 minutes of the bread hitting the oven, my house smelled like a bakery — the smell alone is reason to bake bread more often. Is there anyone who doesn’t associate the smell of fresh-baked bread with happiness? It’s truly one of my favorite smells.

I let the bread rest as long as I could stand (about 22 minutes I think) and then carved off a slice and sat down to warm bread and homemade jam. The bread was truly the perfect bread for toast and sandwiches — a light crumb, a faint sweetness from the honey and not too heavy. The jam was sweet but not too sweet thanks to the tartness of the plums and a savory backbone provided by the star anise. Has anyone come up with a carb-only diet yet? I think I need to start one because I could eat this every day!

Summer is almost over. Sigh. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to hang on to days of Summer just a little longer. So for this last weekend, before all the kids are back in school and life gets back to normal, let’s celebrate in one of our favorite ways: with some margaritas!! We recently catered a “end-of-summer” party where we served these and they were a hit! You should know that we take our margaritas pretty seriously. This is not Jose-Cuervo-Spring-Break margarita. These are all about 100% agave tequila, agave syrup, fresh lime juice and plenty of ice on the rim. These are grown-up margaritas.

My favorite basic margarita recipes comes from Joanne Weir, our friend/chef/cookbook author/teacher who just opened Copita, a tequila bar and eatery in Northern California. Her recipe is a basic mix of pure ingredients — just enough sweetness from agave and tang from fresh lime juice balanced with good ol’ fashioned water makes  a better “margarita mix” than you could ever buy.

Lately I’ve upped the ante by infusing the agave syrup and adding other citrus. After a little tinkering and some testing (yep, I have a pretty great job!!), I came up with a recipe that balances the flavors of orange, lemon and lime to make one very delicious updated margarita. It starts with plenty of fresh citrus. Then we make an infused agave syrup by combining big strips of orange zest with agave, heating it just briefly and letting it sit overnight. In the end, we have a drink that’s perfect for toasting the end of summer. Cheers!

TRIPLE CITRUS MARGARITAS

1 orange, zested in large strips
7.5 oz agave
15 oz 100% agave silver tequila
6 oz key lime juice
7.5 oz water
4 oz fresh lemon juice
sliced oranges, lemons & limes, for garnish
salt for rim

Combine the agave and orange zest in a pot over medium heat and cook until just warm. Set aside till cool. Let sit overnight. Strain and discard the zest.

In a large pitcher, combine the orange agave, tequila, lime juice, lemon juice and water. Stir and taste — adjust sweetness as needed.

Shake over lots of ice and serve in a salt-rimmed glass with a few citrus slices in each glass.

When I was a child, there was a period of time when we lived in the country and only got a couple TV channels. The local broadcast (Channel 50 for any Sonoma County alumns) and PBS. So my choices after school  were reruns of Hogan’s Heros, I Dream of Genie or whatever fundraising drive was on PBS. Clearly I Dream of Genie was the best choice in that line up.  I remember one day flicking past PBS and hearing a deep and joyful laugh that caught my attention. It was a woman, smiling and laughing at a stove. It was Julia Child and I loved her immediately.

I was 12 and was already an accomplished eater (no picky-kid-food-only in our house) and a curious and ambitious cook (regularly made dinner for our family). For me, the kitchen was a place where curiosity took form in delicious food. And I was one curious child so the kitchen was my happy place. So when I saw Julia Child, man-handling a chicken, comfortable, in charge and having fun, it reinforced what was already beginning to know: that if you allow cooking to be carefree and you know how to get the most out a few simple ingredients, you will make delicious food. And when you serve your family (or anyone, really), delicious food, you are passing on a bit of your joy to them and for this, your table will never be empty.

Once I discovered Julia, I was hooked. I tuned in regularly. I learned how to make a perfect omelette (plenty of butter, not too much egg in the pan, and SHAKE….20 seconds is all you need), a humble and sublime roast chicken (trussing is key) the trick to delicious roasted potatoes (fat, of course!). I look back now and realize that I was becoming the chef I am today in those moments. Julia says a great chef is made by “training and techniques….a great love of food…and a generous personality.” I don’t know if I’m a “great chef” but I do know that I was born with a deep love food and that a childhood filled of taking care of others has made me a generous spirit. But as for the culinary training and techniques? I began my education sitting on the carpet in front of a black and white TV looking up to one of the best culinary teachers of our time….am I am a better chef and educator for it.

Here’s a fun, modern spin on so many of the things I love about Julia Child. You’ll be singing “Cook and cook and keep on cooking…this is the way to live!” by the end of the video. Happy Birthday, Julia!

To me, there is nothing better to do with summer fruit that fold it up into a delicious pastry crust. While the pie from my past post was pretty spectacular, it does take some time to make. The chilling of the dough and chilling of the pie are key parts to the success. So when patience is not on my side and I have an abundance of fruit in the house and I’m craving that perfect summer dessert, I turn to pie’s less-fussy, easier cousin, the galette. These free-form, open-faced tarts can be filled with nearly anything — some fruit with a bit of sugar, some cheese bound with a bit of egg.

I’ve made galettes with a variety of different doughs and was excited to try this week’s Tuesdays with Dorrie’s baking assignment. The recipe called for a mix of flour and cornmeal (a nice addition for a bit of texture) and a mix of butter and yogurt (another nice addition for a bit of tang). The biggest difference between a pie dough and a galette dough is the way it’s handled. Pie dough should have big steaks of butter/shortening in it and should not be overworked — this ensures a flaky crust, the hallmark of any good pie. Galette dough, on the other hand, should have the fat worked completely into the flour(s), creating a more sturdy dough with a crumbly instead of a flaky texture. This is good news for the speedy baker — it means making galette dough in a food processor is a great choice….your dough will be ready in minutes!

We stayed true to the recipe and filled this one with a mix of seasonal berries, added just a bit of sugar and honey, folded up the edges and in a short 35 minutes we had this lovely, golden galette.

 

This week I got a hug batch of plums in my Farm Box. I think a feel a plum and almond paste galette coming on….

Visit this week’s hosts for the full recipe: The Kitchen Lioness and Tomato Thymes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am no pastry chef….and, in fact, I can hardly be called a baker. I think this has less to do with lack of schooling and more to do with lack of confidence. While I’ve cooked professionally for over a decade and can easily make delicious food for any size party, it takes nothing more than the simplest baking task to throw me (see: The Genoise Disaster). It’s worth clarifying that I have never been to a cooking class, never trained to be a culinary professional. But what I’m lacking in schooling I’ve made up for with my own earnest study of all things food related, a deep love of cooking/eating and an unfettered confidence (it’s just food, right?). While all of these things have seen me through my culinary career, they fail me when it comes time to bake. Maybe it’s because baking takes a precision that challenges my impatient nature. Maybe it’s because baking requires getting it right from the start and cooking allows you to fix and tinker as you go. Regardless, I tend to enter each TWD assignment with a little trepidation. But lately things have begun to to turn around….and this week’s Blueberry Nectarine Pie is a stunning example.

This pie is glorious summer perfection tucked between the best crust you’ll ever have. Big promises, I know. But this pie lives up to it. This should really be the master recipe for anyone who wants to make pie and is a little scared — it’s not only easy but also has some fail-safe steps that ensure success. (See the complete recipe on this week’s hosts: That Skinny Chick Can Bake and Manchego’s Kitchen.)

First, there’s the dough. As per most good pie dough recipes, this one uses part butter and part shortening (the butter ensures good flavor and the shortening ensures a flaky crust). This recipe makes enough for two double-crust pies. I considered cutting the recipe in half but realized this was the kind of thing that has gotten me into trouble with baking recipes before so I put my head down and did as I was told. I made the full recipe and froze the dough for the second pie. I made the dough by hand and it was a bit softer and wetter than the doughs I usually make — turns out this is what makes it so easy to roll out. Genius!!

While the dough was resting and chilling, I made the filling. The method for this filling was another revelation. I cooked HALF of the berries and nectarines with sugar and lemon zest and a bit of flour until thick and bubbly and then folded in the raw fruit and let cool. The result was the perfect jammy-pie-filling consistency that still has nice chunks of fruit. After the filling chilled I was ready to build.

This is where I usually get a little nervous — will the dough break? Will it be too sticky? Not this dough — it was the EASIEST roll-out I’ve ever experienced. The dough was soft and supple but not sticky. Success!! After filling the dough with the chilled fruit mixture and topping it with dots of butter, I covered it with the other round of dough and chilled the whole pie for about 30 minutes. The old me would have considered skipping this second chilling step thanks to that lack of patience I mentioned. But the new, better-baker version of myself knew better. So I let the pie rest, baked it for 50 minutes and was greeted with a gorgeous, golden pie with fruit filling bubbling through the vents.

Oh, and it tasted amazing, too! In fact, it was so good and so quickly gobbled up by my book club friends that I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of a cut slice. Whoops! The best part? I still have pie dough in my freezer and I’ll be getting peaches in my Farm Box next week. Peach Pie, here I come!!