Saturday, January 23, 2021

Applesauce-Blueberry Cake

Have you ever bought the wrong applesauce? I never have because I don't eat the stuff, but someone else in the house accidentally bought applesauce of UNsweetened variety. The grocery store stocks the two types of applesauce right next to each other, with insidiously similar labels. (That is how I once accidentally purchased purchased decaffeinated tea.) Anyway, we couldn't let it get into the trash can. There's a pandemic on, grocery prices are rising, and (obviously) we'd be throwing months of agricultural labor into the trash. Why would we so senselessly waste food (even food we don't like) when we could have dessert?


Applesauce-Blueberry Cake
½ c butter
1 c brown sugar
1 egg
1 c thick, unsweetened, tart applesauce
1¾ c flour*
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp salt
½ to 1 c blueberries

Heat oven to 350°. Grease a loaf pan. Mix flour and baking soda, set aside.
Beat butter, sugar, salt, and spices until fluffy. Add egg and mix  well. Mix in the applesauce, beating well. Add the flour and soda, mixing just until blended. Gently stir in the blueberries, reserving about a handful of them.
Pour the batter into a greased pan. Sprinkle the remaining berries on top and bake about 1 hour.

*For added flavor, replace about ½ cup flour with whole-wheat.

Adapted from a recipe by Maria Proskac (of Coaldale, PA), Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, First Catholic Slovak Ladies' Union, 1952


In the Before Times, we would think nothing of going to the grocery store whenever we wanted. Sometimes when going through periods of culinary creativity, we would flip through cookbooks with no previous idea of what we would cook that evening. We would then go to the grocery store to get the missing ingredients for whatever we'd decided to create. These days, we (like everyone) are minimizing our time in the grocery store. Therefore, we purchase a lot of things at once, and stay away from the store as long as possible. This often leads to mass expirations in the house that never occurred before. Therefore, a lot of our culinary creations are based on what in the refrigerator is nearest to death.


With that said, I've noticed that a lot of our waste-prevention involves putting food on top of potatoes or turning food into cake. We have made cakes out of old blueberries, squishy strawberries, brown-under-the-skin apples, blackened bananas, questionable sour cream, mushy grapes, and a few peaches that slipped past their prime on the countertop. Today's object of cake is not near expiration, but no one was going to eat it because it is tragically unsweetened. There is no point in waiting for the applesauce to nearly expire, so we're going to put it in a cake now and reclaim a bit of refrigerator space.

Behold the big puddle of this cake's reason to exist.

 

We have made a few applesauce cakes before. They always come out nice, but not particularly apple-y. The applesauce does change the texture, though. They tend to rise a bit lighter. They're also not as rich or buttery, which makes room to add other things to them without making them too overwhelming. They make very good as spice cakes, but we're trying this one without adding any. You see, I keep hoping that sometime I'll make an applesauce cake that really tastes like apples, so this cake shall be baked unspiced to find out if it's the recipe I've long sought.

 

Every applesauce cake I've made takes on that unnerving curdled appearance when we actually add the applesauce. The sauce never actually mixes in, it just sort of intersperses itself amongst the butter and sugar. I suppose it makes sense given that the apples aren't liquefied so much as reduced to tiny little apple granules, but it's always unnerving. Fortunately, the flour always seems to turn our curds and whey into a cake batter.


You may have noticed the flour looks a bit brown. That's because we're slipping a bit of whole-wheat flour into this cake. This is not one of those sneaky "they'll never know it's actually health food" cooking adventures where people sneak broccoli into the raspberry tarts. Adding a smidge of whole-wheat flour adds a nutty flavor without actually adding nuts. I think it's a very nice addition to anything that one might serve as a coffee cake.


You know how we said we were avoiding food waste by making cake? Today's recipe is doing double waste-prevention duty by also making use of these blueberries that were drying out in the refrigerator. We at A Book of Cookrye always believe in starving the garbage can, and these sad-looking (though still perfectly edible) blueberries were not going to the city dump.

 

As we saw earlier, this batter had the consistency of extra-runny cottage cheese. I'd thought it would be one of those thin batters that you just dump in the pan and it levels itself out. But as you can see, after adding the flour this cake batter could stand by itself in the pan. 


You may be wondering why we were holding a few blueberries off to the side to sprinkle on top after our cake was otherwise ready to bake. It's how we make sure that the cake has berries throughout regardless of what happens in the oven. Even if most of the stirred-in berries sink though the cake while baking, the ones on top can't possibly make it all the way to the bottom of the pan before the cake has baked enough to keep them in place. 


And here we see the finished cake. Where we once had unwanted applesauce and mushy fruit, we now have a lovely dessert that contains enough healthy ingredients that you can pretend it's good for you. It would have been nice to see this rise to the top of the pan, but it looks lovely all the same.


This is a very good cake. The texture is such that if you poured the batter into cupcake tins, you could either call them cupcakes or muffins. It's not clearly one or the other. To my delight, it has enough apple flavor that you can actually tell it contains apples. It keeps well for a few days, making it perfect for leaving out on the counter for whoever wants a bit of cake. And in these trying times, knowing that there's cake in the kitchen is very reassuring.



Saturday, January 16, 2021

Attempting pita bread

 Ever had a craving and a lot of free time?

Source: a flour sack (guess the brand!)

You might think I'm about to deliver a poetic dissertation about how wonderful and fun it is to make bread, but I've had too many failed dough wads and doorstops of late to chirp about the joys of baking for yourself. With that said, we at A Book of Cookrye purchased a bag of whole-wheat flour that was extremely coarsely ground. It added a faint grittiness to many a baked creation. However, we thought that perhaps it made the flour perfect for pita bread. I should note that I've never made pita bread before.

Nothing to see here, just a splotch of oil.

The shelf life of yeast packets continues to astonish me. Do you remember when we made bread using yeast that expired seventeen years before? This is (I think) the last of those packets to turn up in the pantry. Despite its old age, it fizzed and farted with vigor and vitality.


And so, having established that our yeast was still alive, we happily dumped it into our bowl of lightly salted flour. This gave us a sticky mess. I gave the "dough" a handful of extra flour because it was runny enough to pour, and it made no difference. This brings us to the problem we always have when making something new: we don't know what it's supposed to look like. Is pita dough meant to be thin and runny? Did we mis-measure something? Did they put a lousy recipe on the flour bag?


Well, we stirred the wheat goop in until it got a bit toughened. At this point we could sort of knead it,  though that did not go very well. Mostly it oozed between our hands. I did not mind kneading this formless drippy mass; it was actually amusing to squish it between my hands. Miss Leslie, in Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, said that "The goodness of bread depends much on the kneading." We kept those wise words in mind as we continued trying to make this batter act like dough. Eventually (and I do mean eventually) the dough toughened up until it could actually hold a shape.


None of the many bread video tutorials in existence- whether they're done by perky people with aggressively cheerful smiles, authoritative experts who often bring out a whiteboard, or meditative people with soothing voices- ever mention how annoying it is to get bread dough off your hands. That dough sticks to you like chewing gum, and only comes off when you scour and scrub your skin like the kitchen floor. It makes me wonder if any professional bakers consider hand and forearm waxing to be a business expense.

But once we had kneaded the dough and cleaned our hands, we were ready to set this to rise. It's true that bread often takes half a day, but so much of that time is spent rising. You don't need to hang around the kitchen for that, or even stay in the house. You can even (as a random example) walk all the way to the mechanic to get your car back, and your bread will be fine in your absence. Assuming your yeast is alive, you will find that your dough ball has become a lovely pouf.


And now, we get to the part where we shape this dough into actual pitas-to-be! It slackened a lot while it was rising, and resembled what happens if you tried to make your own Silly Putty and it came out a bit too runny.


We have, as directed, divided the dough into six portions. I would like to note a shift in bread recipes that has occurred since everyone started just buying bread instead of making it themselves. Bread recipes don't yield nearly as much as they used to. 

Bread takes a lot of time to make- especially before we had baking powder (and doubly so before you could just buy yeast and stir it in). You can't just decide to whip up some bread 20 minutes before dinnertime. As a result, bread recipes used to make a lot of bread. A lot of older ones measure flour not by the cup but by the gallon (or by the peck). Just like any recipe for anything never takes twice as long if you double it, a sensible lady* would make five or six breadloaves instead of one. You would never spend an afternoon making a bread recipe if you only got six puny patties.

 

We are then directed to cover these with plastic wrap, which I think shows that the recipe writers did not think people would make these at home. Most of us, when attempting the "simple" operation of laying a sheet of plastic wrap over a countertop, will end up with a crumpled wad of plastic clinging to itself. In cooking class, after seeing so many of us fail at using it, the teacher muttered to herself "One of these days I oughta do a class in plastic wrap..." This led to most of the class (myself included) saying we'd love that actually, followed by the teacher detouring from the scheduled lesson by popular demand. If you can't use plastic wrap, we at A Book of Cookrye offer a much easier alternative:


At this point, we come back to our earlier discussion about how no one making bread because they have to would have gone through all this botheration for just six bread-pats. They have us heating the oven to 475° (that's gas mark 9, or about 250° for our centigrade friends) for this half-dozen bread-pats. We didn't mind this extragance of electricity or heating up the kitchen because it's it's cold outside. With that said, I have serious objection to firing up the oven until it threatens to incinerate the fallen pizza toppings (that we keep forgetting to clean) for only six pitas. It's like heating your big oven that can hold an extra-large turkey, only to bake a single mini-muffin in it.

Also, the recipe writers seem to be under the impression that we own a baking stone. Dearest friends, it was a big day when I finally gained access to a dishwasher that isn't just me with a sponge. I put the pan in the oven before I turned it on, because it seems that laying your bread on a sizzling surface is part of the process. A few minutes later, a FWOP sound came from the oven. Have you ever had a baking sheet spontaneously warp?


We did indeed get baked bread out of this and not hard flour-clay. Furthermore, it was really good bread. It was lovely, light, soft, fluffy, delicious, and everything you ever wanted your bread to be. It's kind of insulting that the one time I wanted bread to be hollow in the middle, it came out like the best (albeit flattest) bread I've made in a long time.

 

This canceled our plans to make pitas out of our leftover turkey. You can try to pile it on top and pretend it's an open sandwich, but it just falls off.


Someone else in the house, however, realized another delicious way to serve the flatbread:


We all agreed that this "pita" bread was so good we need to make it again. However, pita or not, you really need to double this recipe. This bread was so good a lot of it got eaten right out of the oven, before I could document it for posterity. But with the magic of image editing, I want to show you the puny yield of bread you'll get after you spent all that time making it:


So yeah, if you try this recipe at home, I suggest you double it. Six single-serving bread pieces is not enough to justify turning your oven into a blast furnace.

*fun fact: the word lady comes from hlaefdige, meaning loaf-kneader.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Snowcoa!

 If you're in lovely Ottawa, you'd look outside and think that it's the perfect weather for a barbecue.


 

We at A Book of Cookrye have been indulging in two of our favorite winter hobbies: driving with car heater turned up high enough to wear short sleeves and sandals in spite of the freeze, and making tasty treats with snow.


A few years ago, a new liquid sugary delight hit gas stations everywhere: frozen hot chocolate. A lot of us joked about how silly the name was, but it seems I'm nowhere near the only one who decided the stuff is actually really good. I used to agree with the snarks who were like "Don't you just mean chocolate milk?", but you have to admit that if you make hot chocolate from a packet and get it cold, it tastes different than if you made chocolate milk.

Hot chocolate mix and just enough hot water to dissolve.

 

And so, we reach the magic moment! I'd figured I'd just make really concentrated hot chocolate syrup and pour it out like snow-cone syrup. However, I failed to realize that snow-cone syrup generally isn't boiling hot. Therefore it doesn't cut through the snow on contact.


 

Our snow may have deflated to nearly nothing on contact with hot chocolate, but it's still really good. I think even the most refined people who have spent years making their tastes "grown up" have a few cheap things they like. You know, the sort of foods that are only guilty pleasures because you feel guilty that your tastes aren't "grown up" enough. Anyway, hot chocolate made from a mix (especially with those weird desiccated marshmallow globules) is one of mine.


Stay warm, everyone! 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Adventures in Friendship Bread

An unexpected bag of goo arrived here at Our Outpost of Cookrye a few weeks ago:


Only a year or nine after the Amish Friendship Bread craze blew through kitchens across the country, leaving bags of yeasty glop in its wake, one of these has landed in our kitchen. It came with feeding instructions and a recipe:

I'm sure real Amish baking uses instant pudding.


I think the friendship bread fad died out because, as stated above, "If you keep a starter for yourself, you will be baking bread every 10 days." While most people keep bread on hand in the house, I think a lot of people decided they didn't want a massive oil-and-sugar bomb coming out of the oven every 10 days whether they wanted cake or not. And so, many recipients made this a few times for the combination of kitchen novelty and dessert. I'm sure that after the third or fourth massive cake, a lot of people decided they didn't want to commit to making everyone in the house eat such a almost once a week. A lot of starters probably ended up in the trash after everyone got fed up with friendship bread.

Like any urban legend, the story behind "Amish friendship bread" has evolved. At first, no one got the Amish involved into this, it was just "friendship bread" and a cute way to share the joy of baking with friends. Later on, the Amish got involved. Since our cultural hivemind generally imagines the Amish as people who live in Little House on the Prairie reruns, I suppose slapping their name onto this gave it all the lovely homey connotations of Ma in her homespun clothes, baking five pies at a time like it's still the1860s and therefore the old-fashioned way isn't old-fashioned yet. 

The most amusing part of this is the note at the bottom, warning us that only the Amish know how to make this stuff. I saw plenty of articles when friendship bread first went around that said "If you're not lucky enough for someone to give you a bread starter, here's how to make it..." But now, making starter has become a mysterious secret process somewhere between ancient wisdom and witchcraft that you can't do unless you have the power. It's nice to know that even though copy-pasting and photocopying should have eliminated changes like this, urban legends can still evolve with every retelling.

Well anyway, we in this house are all still in that phase after Christmas where we try to pretend we've had a dessert overload and therefore do not desire cake. That of course is a lie, and I've always wondered how those people who say "Oh I can't have more than a tiny sliver of pie" do it. Nevertheless, vaguely aware that eventually I will have to attempt to let out everyone's clothes if we don't take a sabbatical from the production of delicious pies and brownies, we aren't going to be making this oil-and-pudding-mix cake today. But you know what we keep forgetting to buy at the grocery store? Bread!

Nothing mysterious about this, just flour and a bit of salt.


If we put aside the urban legend that only the Amish know how to make this mysterious gravy-looking stuff, the main part of friendship bread is a dough starter. People have been keeping dough starters almost as long as we've been baking bread. Why do you think so many old bread recipes call for some of last week's bread dough?

Long before we could just go out to the store and buy a packet of yeast, people would cultivate it for themselves. It's said to be a straightforward process since yeasts are always floating about in the air. All you need to do is make a nice flour paste for the yeasts to land in, and after a while you have a bubbling ooze that smells like very concentrated bread. Since it does take a few days or weeks to get enough of this yeasty paste to actually make a loaf of bread rise, people customarily set aside bread dough every time they baked. To this dough they'd add more flour and water, which the little yeasts in the dough scrap would colonize until the whole thing bubbled with our microscopic friends. 

The practice of keeping a bubbling bread starter has a lot of names and variations. A lot of people all over the world independently discovered that if you save bread dough, you don't have to make bread rise from nothing every single time. We decided to find out just how hard it is to get an actual loaf of bread out of this stuff. Our grandmothers' grandmothers baked like this every day, so clearly it's possible. We followed the little feeding schedule on the paper, and soon enough we had what looked like white gravy and smelled like a combination of bread and beer. Everyone took to putting their noses to the jar because it just smelled so good.


And so, after we kept forgetting to buy sandwich bread, we decided to put this stuff to work. Our little microbes have lived in a cozy spaghetti jar for almost 2 weeks, and now we were going to try making bread the way our foremothers did before you could just buy a packet of rapid-rise granules while you were out getting out-of-season vegetables.


Believe it or not, this clumpy mess is a promising beginning for bread dough. It's literally called the "shaggy stage," and if all goes well, you will soon have a nice, smooth dough. Note that "if all goes well" is often a phrase that portends things not all going well. But this bowl of flour clods did not faze me, because it soon turned into a nice firm dough that suggested a wonderful crusty loaf awaited.

It looks like a log, but really good French bread looks like Play-Doh worms before it rises.

Furthermore, whatever bread-helping microbes resided in the starter certainly made the kitchen smell like everything was peachy and keen in our rising loaf. I know I've repeatedly said the smell was intense and concentrated, but this needs emphasis. Imagine if a bread factory decided to pipe all the air from inside its building directly into your house. I went outside while we waited, and the smell drifted through the door to greet me before I even touched the doorknob. The entire house smelled like I had been putting bread in and out of the oven all day. Keep in mind that we haven't even started baking it yet. It's still rising.

...or so I thought. After about half an hour, the bread looked suspiciously unchanged. "No matter," I told the loaf-to-be while giving it a sharp stare, "Letting bread rise is literally no work at all. I know how to wait, bread."  

I returned to three hours later to find the bread had not grown at all. It had dried out after spending so long "rising," but it was still a very dense log emitting the tantalizing smell of lies. The smell had spent the past several hours promising delicious bread before the night was out, and all we got was this lump of wet flour. 

Well, I thought, perhaps the dough was too firm for our microscopic friends. Perhaps it was so hard that they couldn't possibly push little bubbles into it. Maybe we were asking the little yeasts to inflate a rock. And so, we decided to make the dough just wet enough to stick to the hands. Instead of working it like clay, we just sort of dropped it into the pan and tried to spread it without getting all of it stuck on the spatula instead of in the pan where it should be. In theory, having softened the boulder into a bog, the yeast could actually make it rise.


 I've had plenty of bread refuse to rise. No matter how carefully I check if the yeast makes foam in water, every now and then a batch of bread will just sit there like an inanimate object when it should be literally expanding with life. Usually I just sort of stare at the dead lump of dough, mutter something like "still not rising, eh?", and forget about it until I eventually check on it again. But this thing was sending delicious lies to everyone's noses and then infuriating me when it kept refusing to rise. Eventually (and by eventually I mean over 2 hours later, so that is at least 5 hours total that this bread has failed us), I decided it looked like it had risen by like a millimeter. "Close enough!" I said. "We could leave this out all day and it would dry out before it rose any more!"

 

 

I have failed at many things in the kitchen, but I haven't had a bread disaster in a long time. You know all the jokes from old movies about how some inept newlywed bride's cooks so badly her husband uses her bread instead of bricks? Well, you could rage-thwack the top of this thing so hard the pots on the countertop rattled, and it still wouldn't give at all under your hand. It defied knives. The sides of it were as hard as a very old pink eraser. You may think I overbaked it, but we checked this thing with a thermometer to be sure we withdrew it from the oven at just the right time. And in case you still think we overbaked it, have a look at the still-doughy cross-section.


I could be euphemistic and say "It was perfect for dunking in soups!" but that is a lie. Soup would make the "bread" edible if you dropped it in there long enough to soften it, but then you'd be eating reconstituted flour paste. It is a fundamental truth of baking that only a fine line separates baking bread from baking flour-clay. I wouldn't be angry about the failure, except that this thing had been making the house smell so good. The very air told us that some delightful bread awaited, but instead we had a fragrant doorstop. I banished it to the trash outside, where it landed with an alarming clonk

Furthermore, we had dishes to clean. It turns out that dishwashers don't really remove gummy bread dough very well. Therefore we had to do a lot of hand-washing without getting delicious bread in return. Muttering to myself a lot, I consulted the instruction page again to see if I had fed our starter incorrectly. Reading through the list of ingredients in the cake recipe, I noticed something fishy:


Why you cheating liars! If you follow the recipe that came with it, the starter isn't doing a thing to make this thing rise! You could use literally any other liquid as long as you put in the baking powder and baking soda! (Well, maybe put in a splash of something acidic like lemon juice or sour cream for the baking soda to fizz with.) You might think "Oh, there's lots of bread recipes that use both yeast and baking powder!" Which is true, but read through those instructions again and tell us when we are supposed to let this rise.

Anyway, I did some reading on sourdough bread and other variations of having a bubbly ooze give rise to your baking instead of a packet of rapid-rise granules. While instructions varied, a lot of people agreed that you should feed your starter the night before (not five days before as stated on the instruction sheet). This wakes up your little yeastie-beasties, and they spend the whole night feasting on whatever flour or mashed potatoes you stirred in. The next day, you will find that the starter is downright sudsy with life.

 

I decided to go online and visit our friendly food manufacturers for recipes. Like a lot of people, I get recipes from company test kitchens a lot. The recipes almost always deliver what is promised unless you do something supremely daft like substitute powdered Parmesan for flour. We found a recipe for 100% whole-wheat bread (to make us feel less guilty about all the peanut butter and jelly we smear on it) from King Arthur Flour here. I don't pay extra to purchase their brand of flour, but their recipes are free and almost as reliable as Delia Smith's. There was only one change: instead of yeast, we put as much friendship starter into the liquid ingredients as the articles we found suggested as a substitution. Then we put in an extra dollop of it just to be sure we had enough microbes.

 

We followed every carefully-written step instruction. We measured the temperature of ingredients when we were told to. We mixed the dough, rested the dough, kneaded the dough, and rested the dough again as directed. We set the dough to rise, and left it while we finally got around to a lot of things we've been meaning to do. Once again, the house smelled like lovely bread as before we even had the dough mixed up. And once again, after an hour or two, we popped into the kitchen to find that the dough had not risen at all. You might think our yeast starter had died from inept feeding, but after two weeks it still smelled like bread and not like putrefying milk and flour. Clearly we need to find better instructions on making this stuff raise the bread, but for now we had a lump of paste that we wanted to turn into sandwiches. Refusing to waste all that flour that we had so lovingly kneaded, we decided it was time for our backup plan:


We put the yeast in a bit of warm water to make sure it was still alive. After the yeast produced a merry foam in our little testing cup, we dumped it on the bread dough while muttering "Take that, friendship starter!"


After having one loaf of become a dense doorstop and a second one refuse to rise, I was starting to wonder if I had lost all ability to make bread. Seeing this dense dough rise gave me such relief. It started out as this dense stuff at the bottom of our loaf pan, and rose until it nearly overtopped the rim. I would have let it rise longer, but it was such a delicate foam that it sank a bit every time I moved the pan a little. I was afraid I'd lose most of the bread's height in the act of relocating it from countertop to oven.


 

It sagged a bit in the middle and ended up a bit crumbly, but we have in fact made bread! We attempted to make grilled cheese, but it had a bit of a structural failure on contact with a spatula.



I initially made bread because we ran out while the grocery store was closed, and I figured we had everything needed to make it ourselves. But now this is a challenge. I will make whole-wheat bread that is not so bad it's good for you. I will make it with this starter burbling on the countertop. For now, we're just feeding it and looking up how to use it. It seems to like instant mashed potatoes- it smells flowery every time we stir some of those white flakes in. I also put in a bit the dough from the loaf that actually rose. When I was scraping the bowl, it seemed like a more productive use than trying to stick it onto what was already in the pan.


But for the meantime, this was actually quite lovely if you put leftover turkey on it, dropped a slice of cheese on top, and broiled it.


You may think that putting cheese on top of something and broiling it is cheating. That we're hiding our ineptitude with delicious browned cheese. However, the bread did taste pretty good (even if it was denser than we would have liked), and it wonderfully complemented all the deliciousness piled on top.