cooking the books: breads from the la brea bakery

IMG_3111Fans of sourdough bread baking will most likely be familiar with Nancy Silverton’s book, Breads from the La Brea Bakery.  Some folks would agree that it is one of the necessary “textbooks” on home baking of sourdough bread.  When I found a copy of it at a local antique mall, I did not hesitate in making the purchase; this book has been on my “must buy” wish list for a long time.  As a matter of fact, when I grew my own grape starter from the grapes growing in the Demonstration Garden at Ellington Ag Center in Nashville back in 2009, it was a method attributed to Ms. Silverton and now that I have the book to refer to, I can say it is her method but I only had half of the directions.  The chapter on growing the starter, maintaining/replenishing it and using it is lengthy and a definite must read for anyone attempting one of the many recipes in the book.

Recently, I made a batch of sourdough English muffins from the final chapter in the book.  For those of you who have never looked at the book, the final chapter is a collection of recipes that give you a way to use excess starter that comes from the portion of starter that is discarded during feedings rather than the larger amounts grown in the majority of recipes throughout the book.  A word of warning, most of the recipes in the book, including the last chapter, take a full two days to execute and this does not include the time necessary for a normal feeding of the starter.  The English muffin recipe is a little different in that it is a single day recipe and also one that calls for both fresh yeast and starter.

IMG_3083This recipe is the second bread recipe I have tried from the book, the first being the Country White loaves from the chapter on growing a starter, and it was a true learning experience.  As with many of the recipes I have glanced at so far in this book, there is an ingredient list that is longer than you would expect and an equipment list that calls for specialized baking tools.  Anyone who has ever been to my home knows that I do not generally shy away from purchasing tools and equipment.   On occasion, I will try to use something similar rather than adding to the clutter unless it is a bundt pan or a cookie cutter; a baker can never have too many shapes to choose from.  However, a long list of tools and ingredients that I must shop in several stores to find is always a little off putting, even for a dedicated baker like myself.

Besides the starter, this recipe called for milk, bread flour, dark rye flour, fresh yeast, wheat bran, wheat germ, flax seeds, rye chops or flakes, sunflower seeds, barley malt syrup, vegetable oil, sea salt, rice flour (just for dusting the dough), butter (for greasing the rings) and finally, semolina flour, also for dusting the dough but it was labeled as optional.  That’s a lot of ingredients, a lot of ingredients that can be tricky to find in one store here, at least until Whole Foods opens in the summer.  So with this in mind, please note my concern when I began mixing the dough and realized that I truly had a bowl of what looked a lot like lumpy porridge.  After an extended shopping trip to find the ingredients and fermenting the sponge for about 2 hours, I was truly discouraged.  Although I closely followed the recipe and made only on substitution-whole grain cooked cereal blend for the rye chops, I was at a loss for what I could have done wrong.  In the end, I doubled the amount of flour in the dough from 8 ounces to a pound and finally had a dough that seemed to be what is called for in the recipe.  Honestly, a book as technical as this one really should have more photos especially since so many steps in the recipes call for specific results and without photos, you have to rely on your interpretation of the wording.

IMG_3085The recipe states that you should have a dough that is wet and sticky and may not hold its shape and I am pretty sure I nailed that part.  It is dumped out onto a dusting of rice flour and covered with a dusting of rice or semolina flour and allowed to rest for 20 minutes before shaping.


Remember my mention of specialized equipment?  Well, I was hesitant to purchase English muffin rings because I did not want to have to find a place to store them.  A suggestion in the recipe is to save tuna cans and cut the bottoms out to make your own rings.  We do not eat that much tuna and if you have looked at a can of tuna lately, you have probably noticed that they no longer have a bottom that can be cut out, they are pressed from a single sheet and only the tops are removable which eliminated the cans as an alternative.  Then while at work one morning, I spied cans from the crabmeat being used for crabcakes and thought they might work, they are a little tall, but the bottoms were removeable.  There were 8 cans and that meant I could make either half a batch or do two bakes; I chose to do two bakes.  In the future, I would attempt to get a weight on the entire batch of dough so that the muffins are of an equal size.


Here is the first batch rising in the crabby cans.  Using the cans was okay, the strip of metal left from the top and bottom after removal was jagged and despite having used a pair of pliers to flatten the edges, the dough still stuck in the tiny crevices.  The rough texture of the metal made getting the muffins out a bit of a chore.  For the second bake, I buttered the cans and then dipped them in semolina and they definitely did not stick to the cans.  The down side to the extra semolina, the muffins were coated in semolina which made them a bit messy to handle.  Looks like I may make the plunge and buy rings or just start hoarding biscuit cutters!

IMG_3108For a first attempt, they were pretty good.  Not enough nooks and crannies when sliced with a knife but fork splitting them leaves bigger holes for the butter to collect in.  Until next time, these are already gone!

three fruit marmalade, like sunshine in a jar

IMG_2432Winter has definitely arrived.  Frigid temperatures and dreary days are quite the norm and I am not thrilled.  Tasked with selling a house and packing to move 700 miles, I feel like I completely missed summer.  We arrived in our new home on the first official day of fall and I have been in a bit of a funk ever since.  Hard to believe but I truly missed the long days spent working out in the garden, shooing away insects, wiping the sweat off my face and nibbling on thick slices of freshly baked cake with friends…

Nothing has felt the same since we moved.  The stores are different and finding the ingredients I need is challenging and I often visit 3-4 stores just to buy most of what I seek.  Although, I can buy a bottle of pinot at 9am on a Sunday if I want because every grocery store in town sells wine.  But back at home, it sinks in, there is no garden full of cake nibbling friends here.  And then, before I even had a chance to blink, the holidays arrived and our girls came to visit.  Off to the stores I went in search of groceries to make it seem a little more like home for them as well as for us.

What most people do not realize is that citrus fruits come into peak season beginning in November.  Just walk into an Asian produce market and you will start to see the different varieties of fruits increase as the Chinese New Year approaches.  While this may seem like such a random thought to share, both of our girls were born in San Francisco and the city is home to the largest Chinese New Year Celebration in the world held outside of China each year.  Half a million people line the streets to watch the parade and it is an exciting experience.  The different fruits all have different meanings but the most important part, the stem with its leaves still attached which is a symbol of longevity and they are highly sought after for New Year Celebrations.

Years later, living in Tennessee, we missed this tradition and the ability to find a lot of the different fruits.  But over time, that slowly changed.  One thing that remained constant, our girls still love citrus fruits and a holiday season just isn’t right without a box of clementines on the counter.  While we do not have an Asian market close to our new home, clementines are so easy to find that I purchased a box on one of my trips to the store.  As always, there are a few that end up living on the counter for a while and this year was no exception.  The girls are not the only ones crazy for citrus fruits as my husband has a love for blood oranges.   On my last trip through Trader Joe’s I picked up a bag for him to snack on thus adding to the collection of fruit in the kitchen.  So that nothing would go to waste, I decided to try my hand at a batch of marmalade.


Since there were a dozen or so blood oranges in the bag, I decided to sacrifice a few and combine them with the clementines and a container of kumquats that was lurking in the fridge.  Yes, kumquats; a story for another day…  Then I began looking for a recipe.  Have you ever looked at marmalade recipes?  They are time-consuming and somewhat labor intensive.  Peel, dice the rind, simmer, drain and so on.  For a few minutes, I thought maybe not this time.  My desire to make just a few jars of marmalade was waning; I did not want to waste the entire day on this.  Then I picked up a small book from my shelf; Well Preserved, a jam-making hymnal by Joan Hassol.

Suddenly, the intimidating process of making marmalade seemed so simple, so easy, so hard not to make!  The recipe has basically four steps; chop the fruit in a food processor, mix all the ingredients in a pot and simmer for 15 minutes, let it rest overnight and then simmer it again for 15 minutes.  Done.  Finished.  Finito.  No peeling, no slicing, no fuss.  Works for me!  Quickly, I cut 4 clementine and 4 blood oranges in half, removed the pits and cut them into chunks.  Then I cut the kumquats in half and pulled out the pits if they were large; this took about 10 minutes.  The food processor came out of the closet and I pulsed the fruit into a pulpy mess pretty quickly.  Sure, there were some large chunks but I didn’t give it a second thought.  Into the pot the fruit went a total of 4 cups of chopped fruit/juice with 3 1/2 cups of water, 8 cups of sugar and a box of pectin.   Once it had a gentle boil, I let it go for 15 minutes, turned it off and let it sit uncovered until it cooled.   Once it was cool, I covered it to keep it from collecting strays overnight.

The next afternoon, I brought it back to a gentle boil, let it go another 15 minutes and then put it into whatever jars I could find in the closet.  It was that simple, and honestly, I think I spent more time cleaning up than I did doing anything else.


Of course, homemade marmalade demands good bread and this is some we picked up from the Smithfield Bakery Cafe in Smithfield, VA, home to genuine Smithfield hams…yadda yadda.  No ham was consumed on our visit, just some really good sandwiches and salads and a loaf of the Honey Almond Bread.  A quaint little place, Smithfield was well worth the ferry ride across the river.

For the first time in a few days, the sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen windows and it made the bright orange marmalade glow.  Honestly, I expected more of a pink tint from the blood oranges but even so, I love the bright color.

IMG_2502Definitely sweet but so full of bright citrus flavor it really was like a little bit of sunshine to brighten my morning.


My favorite thing about the recipe was the use of a food processor and the whole fruit.  The irregular sizes of the rind make it look more homemade.  Now that I have finally found what I consider to be a foolproof method, I plan to make marmalade again.  The original recipe calls for the use of pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit but allows for the pineapple to be left out.  It is all based on the amount of chopped fruit; for every 4 cups of chopped fruit, add 8-10 cups of sugar and 3-4 cups of water along with 1 box of pectin.  The amount of sugar depends on the sweetness of the fruit and the water depends on how thick you want it.  My fruits were a bit sweet so I used 8 cups of sugar and 3 1/2 cups of water.

The book is available on sites like amazon however, it is also available on googlebooks and I was able to view the complete recipe without having to purchase it.  Before you chastise me for that, my copy of the actual book is sitting right here next to me as I type, I merely did a search to see if it was online and it is.  As a published author, I respectfully ask that you consider purchasing the book ($12.80 on amazon, $14.99 from the publisher) or borrowing it from a library.  

cooking the books: pain de mie from Beard on Bread


My love of thrift store shopping is well documented.  When I mention that I stopped by the thrift store to my husband, he generally rolls his eyes.  At times, he is so bold as to ask my “why” as if I really need a reason. Truth be told, it is a bit of a game, a treasure hunt for needful things and at times, a source of inspiration.  It is also the way I find a lot of my props and baking equipment and on one such trip, I hit the jackpot; I found a pullman loaf pan for less than $5.


Pullman loaf pans are not that common and finding one in a neighborhood thrift store typically stocked with clothing and housewares is unusual.  Actually, the folks running the shop had no idea what it was and they assumed it was some sort of serving container.  When I brought it up to the counter, I struck up a conversation with the woman at the register and she told me how they had just put that pan out for sale along with a similar serving container.  Because I knew what it was, I cheerfully explained how it was actually a bread pan, one I had been hoping to find for a while.  As I removed the lid, I explained how it worked and why one would want to use it.  Then I explained that the other “serving container” on the display was in fact a pan for poaching whole fish.  To say that she was stunned by the information is an understatement.  As I paid for my purchase, I thanked her and she then thanked me for taking the time to teach her something about the equipment-they are all volunteers and sometimes, they have no idea what the donated items are.  Then she went off in search of the poaching pan so that she could give it a proper label.

IMG_1906So what is so special about this pan?  The shape, of course!  The straight sides and the bottom width, as well as the top width are all the same, about 4 inches which gives a loaf of bread baked in the pan perfectly square slices.  That is providing you bake it with the lid on.  The lid prevents the dough from rising out of the pan and forces it to fill all the corners of the pan.  It can also prevent large bubbles from forming in the bread therefore the texture is a little denser than typical sandwich loaves.

Since my large collection of kitchen paraphernalia also includes a wall of cookbooks, I have decided that I need to use them more often.  Call this post the first of my “cooking the books” series and today’s recipe is from the classic baking book, Beard on Bread.  Actually, finding a pain de mie recipe in my collection of baking books was difficult; only two books had a recipe.  After reading them both, I went with the recipe from Beard on Bread because it was the simpler recipe of the two.

IMG_1912The first thing I noticed about the recipe, it had a lot of yeast in it.  So much that when I set the yeast into the water and sugar to proof, it foamed up like crazy.


Then when I began to add the other ingredients and started mixing, I nearly panicked.  The mixture seemed so dry and crumbly that I was sure I did something wrong.  In the future, I would probably add a little less flour to get a slightly softer dough.

IMG_1915Luckily, as the dough mixed, it came together and the longer it kneaded, the smoother it became.


The ball of dough after the first knead is ready for the first rise.  That is correct, the first knead, this dough is unique because it is kneaded at each of the three rises and then shaped and allowed to proof in the pan.


While the repeated rising and kneading does not make for a quick loaf of bread, the fact that it is so perfectly square gives it a great yield in slices making this the perfect loaf for a picnics worth of sandwiches!  It not only freezes well, makes glorious toast and grilled cheese sandwiches the square shape lends itself to picture perfect croutons.  There really are very few reasons not to make this bread so get yourself a pullman pan and get to kneading!

Pain de Mie
IMG_1965adapted from Beard on Bread by James Beard

Alfred A. Knopf, 1973

yields 1 pullman loaf, 13″x4″x4″ loaf

2 packages active dry yeast-4 1/2 teaspoons

1 1/2 cups warm water, 100-115 degrees F

2 teaspoons sugar

5 1/2-6 cups all purpose flour

5 teaspoons kosher salt

4 ounces unsalted butter, soft

Proof the yeast in a half cup of the water with the sugar until it foams.  Place 5 cups of the flour in a large bowl and stir in the salt.  Using a pastry blender, two knives or your fingers, cut in the butter so that the mixture resembles a coarse meal.  Stir the remaining water into the yeast and then pour the mixture into the flour.  Using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix the dough to form a stiff but slightly sticky dough.  Begin kneading by hand or in the bowl of a stand mixer for at least 10 minutes.  When smooth and somewhat elastic, allow it to rest for a few minutes.  Shape the dough into a ball, coat it in oil and place it in a greased bowl to rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch the dough down, let it rise again for a few minutes and then turn it out onto the work space and knead it again for 3-4 minutes.  Shape it into a ball and return it to the greased bowl, oil the top of the dough and let it rise again until doubled, about 1 hour.  Once again, punch the dough down, let it rest and then knead it for 3-4 minutes.  Grease the pan and the inside of the lid, shape the dough into a loaf that fits the pan in length and place the dough into the pan but set the lid aside for now.  Allow the dough to rise until doubled, preheat the oven to 400F.

Slide the lid over the top of the pan and place the bread in the hot oven.  Immediately turn the oven down to 375F.  Bake for 30 minutes and then turn the pan over onto its side and bake for 5 minutes.  Once again, turn the pan over and bake on the other side for 5 minutes.  Turn the pan upright, remove the lid and continue to bake until it is golden brown, about 12-15 minutes.  Take the bread out of the pan and put it directly on the rack in the oven and bake for 5 minutes until the sides are nicely browned and the internal temperature is 200F.  Remove the bread from the oven and cool completely on a rack before slicing.