Thursday, January 26, 2012

Community Dinner

This semester I moved into the Eco-House, a house owned by Davidson College in which 10 residents strive to live more sustainably and be a good model for campus. We garden, compost, buy local and organic food, host community dinners, and try to improve the environmental friendliness of the house. So far, I have really enjoyed the experience. Although it is like another extracurricular activity, it is one that is meaningful and promotes a strong sense of community.

This Monday it was my turn to cook the community dinner with my roommate. We were expected to serve 16 people, which can be very daunting especially considering my total lack of experience in cooking for more than five or six people and how some of my cooking projects can turn into epic events. Luckily, we started early. Sunday night wasn’t very busy for either of us so we cut vegetables and made the actual meal; the only thing to do the next day was to heat up the meal for the masses. The recipe that we made was a vegetarian jambalaya, although I can imagine it would have been great with the addition of shrimp and/or sausage.

In accordance with many of my past experiences, this dish turned out to take several hours to make. We cut up half-frozen, slimy okra, chopped fresh veggies, rehydrated black beans in the crockpot, and thawed out a huge bag of frozen tomatoes. But this proved to be a relaxing time of manual labor and reprieve from academic work. It also was a great bonding experience, as deep conversation flowed while we worked.

The next day, I attempted to make bread in the bread machine for our dinner. We started to make it together but then I thought I would be nice and try to finish making the bread by myself (the first time I had done it in the bread maker without assistance). About four hours later I was horrified at the dense blob that I found in the still warm bread maker. I was reassured that it might still be edible but it turned out to be dense and overly sweet, aka not edible. I had obviously done something very wrong. Tears sprang to my eyes after I closed the bread machine on the failure and took a walk of shame back to my room. Baking can be very emotional.

Thankfully, the resident bread maker offered to make bread Monday at lunch. I was very relieved. The meal would be rounded out by the addition of bread. And, the bread that I had no hand in had just the right consistency and was rightly enjoyed by all.

Eco-House Family

Eco-House Family and Guests at Dinner

That night at dinner, everything thankfully went very smoothly. The jambalaya was heated up without any problem and everyone enjoyed the food and finished the large pot that we had made. This was my first time as one of the hosts of the community dinner; I had been a guest before but had not been behind the scenes to experience the stress but also the love that goes into the meal. We were proud of it and glad that everyone could gather around it to have great conversation and talk about the experience or prospect of living in the house.

Here is the recipe, We made many modifications to this (depending on the fresh and frozen produce we had at the house) and it turned out just fine. I think that most of the vegetables can be substituted and that doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling is very doable. Enjoy!


After: The pot of jambalaya scraped clean. Sorry I forgot to include a before picture.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tasty Tidbits

WARNING: Unfortunately, there are no pictures on this specific post. (It might be because I forget to take my camera when I go out to eat. Oops! Do I sense a possible late New Year’s Resolution?) So, I will keep it short because when I read for pleasure I prefer the reading to include pictures. Here are some delicious things that I have eaten recently:

1. Foie gras. After reading two books about Julia Child and hearing a friend talk about France, it was all I could do to not beg Jerry to take me to a French restaurant. (Amelie’s was my only other French experience.) Either he got the hint or was just lucky because he picked The Fig Tree Restaurant at the Lucas House for a nice date night locale. It is labeled as American food with French and Italian influences.

Foie gras had been on my list of things to try before I die, so as soon as I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to order it. Although I could have easily filled up on the bread that was replenished by a server as soon as it disappeared from the plate, I restrained myself. This was really hard because although the bread was good it was elevated to new heights by the roasted garlic puree and the rosemary-infused olive oil. The foie gras came on a beautiful plate, atop a round of brandied apple and almond bread pudding. This sweetness enhanced the buttery richness of the foie gras. In case you didn’t know, foie gras is the liver of a purposely fattened goose or duck that the French have laid claim to as a specifically French delicacy. I have heard food described as having a consistency of butter but I didn’t really believe it. Well, call me a believer because I cannot come up with a better description. If you think it sounds too weird, I say au contraire, give it a try and you just might like it.

2. Key lime pie. At the Eco-House last night, a visitor of the house made us a homemade key lime pie that was really delicious. I am not generally a pie person but this really made me reconsider my stance on the fundamental cake vs. pie issue.

3. Tomato and basil-topped focaccia bread. Not to toot my own horn, but this is the bread that I made at my bread class and I loved it! It was my first try at focaccia and I will definitely have to give it another go in the not-too-distant future. Although without Lionel there for instruction, the bread might not be the same quality. This was definitely a pleasant surprise because I was afraid that my rising/proofing (and lack of folding) had made the yeast from my bread rise too much. I just knew that the consistency would be off. It wasn’t, and for the last week my diet consisted mainly of bread. I couldn’t live without carbs. I will definitely be making this again to satisfy my need for carbohydrates.

Sorry this turned out to be not too short. Bon appetite! (I couldn’t help but make the reference after the French influences in this post and in honor of Julia Child.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Still So Much to Learn

I am still floating on cloud nine, a starchy, airy but crusty and warm cloud. Although this is from last night, I still cannot stop thinking about it. I am having dreams of baking more and more bread. I now have 4 freshly baked loaves in my possession, don’t worry I am not a bread hoarder, I am going to share.


My bread with some of my Christmas presents, measuring spoons and oven mitts.

La Farm Bakery is a bakery and café in Cary, North Carolina. Cary is right outside of Raleigh and is a fairly diverse town. Although it took me about an hour and forty-five minutes to get there, it was definitely worth the drive. In Lexington, there is no comparison.

The class that I attended was called “Italian Bread Night” and was a Christmas present from Jerry’s family.  The description of the class was that we would make ciabatta and focaccia bread. I didn’t know what to expect and though I was extremely excited (heightened by the fact that I arrived in Cary over an hour early), I was very intimidated. Would I be the only person there alone or would everyone else be an expert baker?


The Italian batard, we got to shape them and use a razor to cut the top. I left with two loaves!

When I showed up, I immediately loved La Farm. The layout of the bakery is very rustic and European. There are huge crusty loaves lined up in the windows. A large counter curved towards the cash register and drinks with bread and pastries behind it. In the middle of the room were packaged items like sweet breads, hot chocolate, and granola. There were samples of the bread of the day (pan white bread) with honey butter, granola, pumpkin bread, and some type of crusty bread with spinach dip. I bought delicious-looking croissants and pain au chocolat for some friends. When I checked in for the class, I was given a complimentary cup of hot green tea (coffee, sweet tea, and soft drinks were available too).

After waiting at the café tables until 5:30, we were led back into the kitchen. I was in awe as I saw the inner workings of the well-loved bakery that has recently been featured in Food & Wine magazine. I love going behind the scenes at restaurants or cafeterias, etc. I see a tangible connection to my food and how it is prepared. Thankfully, seeing how clean and orderly the kitchen was made me feel confident in the establishment and the wonderful food prepared there.

The Master Baker Lionel Vatinet is French and although he is a very well-known baker all the world over he was extremely congenial and friendly. This was obvious when he told us not to be intimidated or give up after some difficult dough shaping because he had only been baking for 6 months. I think that a few people actually fell for it at first. But his talent as a baker comes through in his teaching as he took us through all steps in the bread baking process. He made things easy to understand (after we got used to his French accent) and didn’t overwhelm us with unfamiliar baking terms or techniques far beyond our skill.


This is the Asiago Parmesan Cheese bread, the loaf that I chose to take home (from the bakery, I can take no credit for it).

First, we learned how to shape a batard. This is like the love child of a baguette and a boule, with a compromise of crumb and crust. (Look up what “batard” is translated to in English and you will understand the analogy.)  It took several tries for each of us to get it right, although our loaves were not nearly as tight as the ones that Lionel demonstrated. One thing that was definitely obvious from the class was that it takes A LOT of practice to become good at any and all parts of the bread baking process. Then we shaped a bread that looked like four fingers of a hand. The name escapes me but I tried some when it was hot out of the oven and it was divine. We also mixed a ciabatta/focaccia bread dough. However, it was unrealistic for us to be able to mix, bulk rise, proof, and bake a loaf of bread in the three hours we had. All of us were grateful for the individual attention that we received from Lionel. However, when I asked for help I learned that I was being too gentle. I thought it was funny that he said to not be afraid, that I wouldn’t break it. Oops! I might have been slightly timid because I didn’t want to mess it up. However, I learned that agility is important and this doesn’t work well with timidity. Before, folding the dough, we got to see the five ton European Hearth Oven that our French breads were put into to bake. Later, we learned about the ingredients that went into each bread. While our bread was baking and our dough rising, our class of fifteen was treated to an assortment of baked goods including Apple Spice Cake, Blueberry Raspberry Cream Tart, and Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies. Of course I tried all of the above. When in Rome…. They were all delicious, the cookies were chock full of dried cranberries and very chewy, some of the best oatmeal cookies I have ever had. Also, the tart was like a very fresh cheesecake but wasn’t overpoweringly sweet. There was lots of fruit. The final part was Lionel retrieving the bread from the oven. It produced an intense aroma and picking out our hot golden loaves to put in white paper bags was an experience that called forth all of my senses, especially after trying the first bite.

This class was an experience that I will never forget. The three hours passed by very quickly and I learned so much that I hope I won’t forget anyone. Everyone in the class was extremely friendly and nice, helping each other out and laughing at our inexperience compared to our teacher. Although I have so much to learn, now I definitely know that I want to learn and try to become a better bread baker. Although I will never reach perfection, I think it might be one of those things that is more about the journey than the destination.


The focaccia bread that I baked at home, with basil olive oil, dried basil, and tomato on top. The top might have gotten a bit too brown, but I have high hopes that it will taste pretty good.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year’s Cornbread


This year I got a lot of cooking supplies and tools for Christmas. I also received a lot of food, but that is no surprise either, and it is beside the point. Measuring cups, spoons, knives, loaf pans, oven mitts, and cookbooks all added to the growing amount of stuff invading my mom’s kitchen and being shuttled from my dorm back home. My mom just loves this extra clutter that unfortunately doesn’t really have a permanent home. Regardless, all of the cooking related things I was given for Christmas made me extremely happy and I have proudly already used all of them.

Here is one way I used my Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. I actually find it rather amusing how they just keep naming the cookbook the same thing every year, each year it is the “New” version. No mention of years on the cover of the book, kind of weird, no?

Not that it really matters, the inside is very comprehensive and provides not just recipes but technique tips and pictures, equivalents/substitutes, ingredient comparisons, and the basic equipment and terms. The recipes that are included are extensive. As far as “American” food goes, it would be hard to find a recipe that this book has failed to include in its repertoire.

So far I have made a shrimp pasta dish, chocolate chai latte, whole wheat pizza dough, and corn bread. Although all have been good, the cornbread is what I have been most impressed by and my family and friends really enjoyed it. I first made it a few days after Christmas but then by request made it again for our family’s New Year’s Day meal. Corn bread was thought to look like and symbolize gold, especially at a time when Southeners often went without wheat but instead relied on corn. I hope that this corn bread will start our new year off on the right track so that it will be lucky and prosperous. (Fun fact: That is one of the few recipes I have made twice. I just love reading new recipes and feel compelled to try new ones no matter how good recipes I have made in the past are.)  This corn bread was definitely not a disappointment the second time though.  It was not too sweet and thankfully it wasn’t just another dry, crumbly cornbread.


The corn bread sitting on the counter showing off its golden brown color and slightly crisp edges.

Corn Bread

Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cornmeal

2  1/2 tablespoons sugar (can vary from 2 to 3)

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup milk

1/4 cup cooking oil, melted butter can be substituted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stir together dry ingredients (first five) in a medium bowl. Several minutes before the oven is fully preheated, put the 1 tablespoon butter in a 9 x 1 1/2-inch round baking pan. (Here, you could use a 10-inch round cast-iron skillet to prepare in the more traditional way.) Place pan in oven for about 3 minutes or until butter is melted. Remove from oven and swirl around the bottom to coat. Set aside. Meanwhile, combine eggs, milk, and cooking oil in a small bowl. Add into the dry ingredients and stir until the two are completely incorporated. Pour batter into hot pan and put in the oven. Let bake for 15 to 20 minutes.(You may need to rotate the pan in the last five minutes to ensure an evenly cooked top.) It should be golden brown on top and a toothpick should come out of the center clean. Serve warm.