Cooking is Magic, Part 2: Cooking as Chemistry, Cooking as Alchemy

whole_wheat-bread

I love going to schools and teaching baking as science – particularly bread. We make batches of sandwich bread, varying the amount of yeast. As they’re rising, we make batches of soda bread and vary the amount of baking soda. While the soda bread bakes, we watch the sandwich bread rise, and I get to explain the chemical processes that make each bread delicious: the simple chemical reaction with the baking soda that releases carbon dioxide, the more complex process with yeast that yields the same result, the fact that the yeast also eats sugars in the flour and releases additional chemicals that give yeast breads their distinctive flavor. And then there’s gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt that gives bread its stretchy, springy texture. Students are always fascinated by this. Who knew how complicated bread could be?

And yet, for all that, knowing the precise scientific processes that produce tasty bread, I find there’s also an art to making bread. You adjust the amount of flour you add to account for the humidity of the air. You knead it to line up the strands of gluten so that they trap bubbles of carbon dioxide. Too little kneading, and you get flat, shapeless bread. Too much, and you can exhaust the dough, making it tough and chewy. You gluten cloak it, stretching a flat layer around the loaf, to give it a nice crust. You add water to the oven to make that crust crispy. And kneading dough is deeply therapeutic and satisfying. This is the alchemy of cooking, the small, unquantifiable details you add to make it more that mere bread. I love the challenge of it, to balance all the elements of the recipe to produce a delicious work of art.

This is the most basic recipe for bread I know. You can easily double it or halve it. I have bad wrists, so I knead my dough in a stand mixer, and I know it’s ready when the dough just pulls away from the sides of the bowl and peels neatly off the dough hook.

White Sandwich Bread

1-1/2 Tablespoons instant yeast
1-1/2 Tablespoons salt
3 cups lukewarm water
6.5 cups flour (bread flour is best, but all-purpose will work as well)

Combine the yeast, water, and salt, then add the flour and combine. If it’s a rainy or humid day, you may need to add as much as a cup of extra flour. Knead the dough by hand on a floured board or in a stand mixer with a dough hook until the dough just ceases to stick to anything and becomes a smooth ball. Place in a container and cover but DO NOT seal. Let rise for two hours.

While the dough rises, prepare two loaf pans by coating with butter or spraying with a neutral-flavored oil such as canola or sunflower oil. When the dough has risen, cut it in half. Gluten cloak each loaf by shaping into a rough ball and stretching the surface of the dough from top to bottom and side to side, tucking the ends underneath. Lay the loaves in their pans and allow to rise another 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the bottom of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and place another rack in the center of the oven. When the loaves have risen, slash them three or four times across the top. Place on the center rack of the oven. Pour one cup of water into the broiler pan CAREFULLY. Watch out for sudden steam. If you prefer a softer crust, you may omit the water and brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter or oil.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn them out onto a cooling rack immediately or condensate will form inside the loaf pan and make the loaves soggy. Wait ten minutes or so until the loaves have cooled a bit before slicing.

For a healthier version of this, you may replace up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour. I like to replace one cup with whole wheat and one cup with rye for a rich, complex flavor.

For a more complicated, enriched bread, see my recipe for Molletes.

For even more recipes, pre-order my new novel, A Pixie’s Promise.

Cooking is Magic, Part 1: Start with Fresh Ingredients

Hi, all. Sorry I have again fallen down on Wednesday recipes. The Kickstarter campaign has been taking up most of my spare time, but I’m going to make it up to you. Every day, for the remainder of the campaign, I’ll be posting about cooking and writing, and I’ll include a recipe with each post. Here goes!

raspberry-rhubarb-crumble-web

Many of my friends accuse me of being unable to write anything that does not somehow involve food. This is untrue; I’ve written several short stories with no food in them whatsoever. Only one of them has been published, though (a very scary horror story), so I think all the food writing must be a good plan. I love food, and I love cooking. To me, cooking is magic. How can I help but write about that?

Cooking is Magic, Part 1: Start with Fresh Ingredients

It begins with the first planted seed. Gardening/farming is a separate but complementary magic, a slower, more deliberate one. Good gardening requires planning over multiple years: planting fruit trees and asparagus roots that will not produce food for a year or two, pruning back the old raspberry canes to make way for new ones next spring, rotating crops in the field to promote nitrogen fixing and deter pests. Then there’s the yearly cycle of sprouting and planting and watering and weeding and, at last, harvesting. This complex and intricate dance of cycles has given me many years of pleasure.

Anything you cook is only as good as its ingredients. I often say that I cheat, and that my meals and desserts are good because I use the best ingredients I can find, ideally sourced locally and directly from farmers. Anything that doesn’t have to be shipped hundreds of miles before it reaches me is going to be fresher and riper and far more delicious. Of course, it takes some skill to use those ingredients well, but they certainly give a good boost to any meal you make.

I’ve largely given up gardening, as that part of my brain seems to have been taken over by novels. They’re similar skills: the lengthy planning, the careful balance between all the different elements of plot and character and theme. And using the best ingredients carries over, too: deep research, careful character development, and the support of your local community of writers and readers are all necessary ingredients in my writing. I have no regrets about leaving my garden behind, but I still have tremendous respect for all magicians of the soil.

The first farmers’ market in our neighborhood opened for the season yesterday. I missed it, but I’d intended to go looking for the fresh, delicious goodies of late spring, including asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, and rhubarb. Here’s a simple recipe using rhubarb to celebrate the beginning of the season. You will need to use frozen raspberries, as those won’t be available fresh until late June. Parents, the oat crumble is really fun for kids to make, squishing all the ingredients together with their hands and pressing it into the pan.

Petunia’s Raspberry-Rhubarb Crumble

1 c. rhubarb, diced
1 c. raspberries, fresh or frozen
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice

1 c. quick cooking oats
½ c. flour
½ c. packed brown sugar
¼ tsp. baking soda
6 Tbsp. melted butter

Preheat oven to 300 ˚F. Put the rhubarb, raspberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan and cook on medium high heat until the rhubarb and raspberries have completely dissolved, then simmer until the mixture thickens to jam consistency, for about an hour total, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, stir together the oats, flour, brown sugar, and baking soda. Add the butter and mix thoroughly. Press about half the oat mixture into a 9×9-inch or 8×12-inch baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Pour the fruit mixture on top of the baked oat layer, then crumble the remaining oat mixture on top. Bake for an additional 20 minutes. Serve warm, topped with whipped cream.

Next, Part 2: Cooking as Chemistry, Cooking as Alchemy