complain-y post is complain-y

Note to self: If you just want one cocktail and you don’t want to go to a bar, don’t, under any circumstances, buy one of those little ‘single-shot’ plastic bottles that gas stations provide at the counter and pour it in some Coke. Especially, especially remember that those stupid little one-shots have about half the alcohol content they should, and your whiskey’s just gonna taste like caramel soda. And when you add it to Coke, your cocktail’s just gonna taste like caramel soda with a shot of caramel soda.

In short, get the cheap-ass wine next time. Or, better, wait until you have the kind of spending money that’s required to purchase real alcohol before you get the urge to kick back for the evening with a drink and a cigarette.

The type of alcohol my lifestyle affords me screams RAGING ALCOHOLIC or, I don’t know, dumb ass college kid. The type of alcohol I want says, I am in tune with the finer things in life, or, as Jon would say, I AM A PRETENTIOUS HIPSTER.

Speaking of which, I tried a smoked porter the other day. It was wonderful.

Useless post for the win, I guess.

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Friday Baking

So my mom and sister drove down to see Jon and me yesterday and take us out to lunch. We had lovely discussions and I realized that, though my mom can be oddly judgmental a lot, she really doesn’t mean any harm by it. So that was a nice little ‘it’s time to grow up, Dee!’ moment. But, of course, today’s blog is not about complicated mother-daughter relationships. It’s about baking. So why’d I start by writing about my mom and sister’s visit?

Simple. Yesterday was the first time they saw our new, teeny apartment. I showed mom the French bread and the pumpkin Challah bread we made, and she asked if I’d really actually been baking in this kitchen. This kitchen being only slightly larger than a moderately comfortable bathroom. Proudly, I said, “Yes!” and she chuckled and nodded and said, “Cool!”

You see, baking in such a tiny kitchen, and pretty much all cooking in general, is difficult. We have about eight inches of counter space on either side of our sink, a bookshelf on top of which we keep our slow cooker, a short black table, and the stove. I mention the short part of the black table because that’s the only surface we can really cut our vegetables on – one side of the sink has the coffee maker, and that’s about the only thing that can fit there, and the other side has our make-shift dish rack (and by this I mean a towel). And in order to cut vegetables on this table, you have to hunker your shoulders and lean forward. It’s mildly uncomfortable.

But we make do. A couple times a week, if we can afford it, one of the three of us housemates likes to make dinner or cookies or (this week) a loaf of bread or two. It requires a juggling of kitchen tools and food that’s difficult to conjure into words – I’m hoping the use of the word ‘juggling’ gives a vivid enough image that you get the idea. And the thing is, it would be so easy to be lazy about cooking and baking with a kitchen as small as ours. As often as we can, though, we find comfort, solace, and a sense of purpose in the kitchen. We feed ourselves and each other, sharing our stresses and finding reasons to laugh.

 So, onto the baking segment of Friday Baking. As I said, this week, we made two loaves of French bread and a loaf of the Golden Pumpkin Challah bread recipe I posted earlier in the week. Also, we made pumpkin cookies.
 
First, a note on the Challah bread. Somehow, in the midst of creating what should have been a masterpiece of sweet, chewy, pumpkin-y perfection, we forgot to add the sugar. When I first realized this, I thought to myself, Well, the sugar is there to feed the yeast, right? Maybe it won’t be terrible? I mean, the yeast has other things to feast on, like the pumpkin. Perhaps my understanding of yeast is a little wobbly, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a problem. After the bread came out of the oven, I remembered the sugar is also a tenderizer, cutting into gluten strands and making bread and other baked goods more delicate. So we ended up with Challah bread that had the consistency of French bread. Not bad, but not the amazing, I-would-walk-forty-years-in-the-desert-for-this loaf that I was hoping for.
 
And the French bread… well, I wasn’t in charge of it passed the first fermenting time, because I had to go to work. So the fact that they were flat, almost unrisen disks when I returned had nothing to do with me! I swear! Anyway, from what I gathered, the loaves were placed too close together on the pan for their second proofing, and when my roommate saw that they’d melded together, he tried to reform them or punch them down again. So while they turned out fairly tasty, we all learned to give proofing loaves of bread more space (because, you know, they are supposed to double in size).
 
Working in a tiny kitchen, as I mentioned, can be frustrating. Sometimes the frustration, the tight-space, the way trying to work with somebody else just makes everything more claustrophobic, can lead to mistakes. Silly little mistakes that make you huff and puff and questions yourself as a baker. I’ve made Challah bread about six times over the course of Autumn semester and it turned out fine! Suddenly I make it in my home and it’s of lackluster quality, striking out on my ‘I would totally serve this in a bakery!’ test that I put all of my baked goods through. It’s maddening, and on those days when I can feel myself doubting more than usual, I start to wonder who the heck I think I am, trying to become a professional pastry chef in the face of an astronomically absent-minded brain.
 
But, of course, the fact of the matter is this: I love baking, and I will put myself through the cramped frustration of attempting to do so in my miniscule kitchen as a way to cheer myself up on a low day, or to bring energy and motivation into the house on a boring one.
 
And those cookies? They turned out beautifully. 100% delicious. Here’s the recipe:
 
Old-Fashioned Soft Pumpkin Cookies
 
Ingredients
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
 
Procedure
 
Set oven to pre-heat at 350 degrees F. Cream together butter and sugar. Mix pumpkin, egg, and vanilla. Add to butter and sugar. Mix all dry ingredients together, then add gradually to mixture. Drop spoonfuls onto greased pans and bake for 18-20 minutes.
 
There is also a glaze that goes with it, although we did not make this glaze. Also, we ran out of sugar (grrrrr) and had to use half sugar and half brown sugar. The cookies still turned out incredible.

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Friday Baking

And now it’s time for this week’s Friday Baking segment! (Which is as much news to me as it is to you, dear reader.)

I already talked about my semester being over – well, now it really is. All of the exams are out of the way, and for the next three weeks I don’t have to put on those damn stiff chef pants. However, I also don’t, even once, get to spend five hours making baked goods in a professional-grade kitchen.

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Stiff. Baggy. Everything falls out of those pockets the second you sit down.
Oh, yeah, and if you stare at them too long you’ll start having seizures.

So, today I want to talk about my favorite recipe from this semester, challah bread. Challah bread is a traditional Jewish bread braided into loaves with twelve knots. Thanks to Wikipedia my exhaustive research efforts, I now know a little bit about the story of why Challah bread is so important. It was the bread that God sent down from the heavens everyday (except the Sabbath and holidays, which he made up for by sending two loaves on the days before) while the Israelites made their famous forty-year-long desert trek.

That’s about the point where I am in the Bible. From what I remember, the Israelites very much doubted that God was on their side at this point. I would be, too, if I had to spend well over half my life walking in the desert. But for what it’s worth, let me say (as a largely non-religious person), if God were dropping this on my head every day, I could probably forgive anything.

It’s so. freaking. tasty.

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And beautiful. Found photo at AllRecipes.com

So here’s the recipe, courtesy of AllRecipes.com (link above):

Challah Bread

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups warm water
1 tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
4 tbsp vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 tbsp salt
8 cups all-purpose, unbleached white flour
1 tbsp poppy seeds (optional)

Procedure
1. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over barely warm water. Beat in honey, oil, 2 eggs, and salt. Add the flour one cup at a time, beating after each addition, graduating to kneading with hands as dough thickens. Knead until smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed. Cover with a damp clean cloth and let rise for 1 1/2 hours or until dough has doubled in bulk.
2. Punch down the risen dough and turn out onto floured board. Divide in half and knead each half for five minutes or so, adding flour as needed to keep from getting sticky. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long snake about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Pinch the ends of the three snakes together firmly and braid from middle. Either leave as braid or form into a round braided loaf by bringing ends together, curving braid into a circle, pinch ends together. Grease two baking trays and place finished braid or round on each. Cover with towel and let rise about one hour.
3. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
4. Beat the remaining egg and brush a generous amount over each braid. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired.
5. Bake at 375 degrees F for about 40 minutes. Bread should have a nice hollow sound when thumped on the bottom. Cool on a rack for a least one hour before slicing.

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Now I am very excited to say that I have some opinions on this Challah recipe. (OK, one opinion.)

It’s about the selection of active dry yeast. If you can find it, use instant dry yeast. It’s just better. First, there’s no chance of getting this weird off quality in the bread because, unlike active dry yeast, 25% of the yeast isn’t dead when you incorporate it into the recipe. Think of that! All that poor, dead yeast, not even getting the chance to feast and release its gases before you pop it into the…

Oh god, there is a hideously inappropriate joke there. So I’m just going to stop myself now before I out myself for the horrible human being that I am.

Ahem. Anyway.

Second, you don’t have to use as much of it. Using about 20% less instant dry yeast than active dry yeast will provide you with the same leavening. Thirdly, you can just incorporate instant dry yeast into the flour. That makes this recipe a ton simpler, because you can just toss all of the ingredients together. Since instant dry yeast absorbs water quicker and more efficiently than active dry yeast, you don’t need to let it sit in the warm water for any amount of time.

I have made challah bread several times this semester (though not with the recipe above), and it has far and away been the favorite thing that I have brought home from class. It’s chewy, eggy, sweet, and soft. I truly believe that it would make marvelous French toast, and I just found a recipe for PUMPKIN Challah – called Golden Pumpkin Challah Recipe – which looks flat. out. freaking. amazing.

So that’s my weekly baking segment. In honor of Hanukkah – whether you celebrate it or not – I would strongly advise you go make this bread. You will never want to stop eating it.
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