Thursday, July 13, 2006

Orange Fennel Rye Bread

This is a dense, sweet, moist bread. It makes the most delicious toast I've ever encountered, but it's also good with an assertive cheese—strong crumbly cheddar, stilton, something like that. You can also make a fine sandwich with it. But it is not a sophisticated food. I bet it has never been made in Paris. This is a bread for homey meals eaten in the kitchen. But knock yourself out and cut it into toast points if you must. Maybe it's fantastic with caviar. Let me know.

I wrote it down first in 1994, and I know I got it from my mother, who I think may have gotten it from a Beth Hensperger book. How's that for responsible attribution?

1 package yeast
a pinch of sugar or a drop of honey
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup warm milk
1 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed is nice if you have it around, but weekday-breakfast-grade works fine too)
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2.5 teaspoons salt
1.5 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 cups rye flour
4 to 4.5 cups all-purpose flour

Combine the sugar, warm water and yeast in a small bowl. Let it sit for a few minutes, until it gets foamy.

In a large bowl, combine the warm milk, juice, molasses, oil, and by-now-foamy yeast mixture.

Vigorously mix the rye flour into the liquid above, until it's uniformly goopy and brown and looks just like... Well, never mind what it looks like now. It'll be handsome and delicious soon enough.

Add the all-purpose flour a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the dough holds together in one big clump around the spoon (you might have used anywhere from 3 to 4.5 cups of flour), it's ready to be freed.

Dump the lump out onto a floured board, and knead it for 5 minutes or so. During this process, when it starts to stick to your hands and the board, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.

Once kneaded, put the dough into a oiled bowl, turn it over to enrobe it in oil, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Now it's Choose Your Own Adventure time. To continue baking, and be eating bread as soon as possible, go to item A. To go to bed and finish the blasted bread in the morning, go to item B.

So you want bread, do you? Alright. Put the bowl of dough in a warm place. Well, really, just not a cold place. The counter is probably fine. Is your heat working? Do you live in a tent in the Arctic? Does your air conditioning keep your house at penguin-friendly temperatures? Really? Are you Mr. Popper? These are some of the questions you must ask yourself when you make bread.

In an hour or two, the dough will have grown to about twice its size. Continue to item C for the exciting conclusion.

Stick the dough in the fridge and stumble to bed. In the morning (good morning!), bring it out and let it warm up to room temperature. It should have gotten about twice as big as it was last night. Continue to item C for the end of the adventure.

At this point, the bread's a bit big for its britches, so you can teach it who's boss. Whack it around until it deflates. Do NOT try this technique on your kids. If you do, they will eventually tower over you, scowl, and refuse to pay for your nursing home, and you'll be sorry. You do not have to worry about that with the bread.

Cut the dough in half (you're making two loaves). Pat the dough into roughly loaf-shaped wads, and place the wads in greased loaf pans. There are techniques and tips and gimmicks and tools that are involved in shaping dough into loaves. I'm not going to get into all that here, because this bread will either be delicious and wonderful, or delicious, wonderful, and perfect looking, and, well, what does it matter for humble bread like this? I'm sure Chef Google could help you with that, if you're interested and you don't know how.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, or "Regular." Okay, okay, I'll do some math... It's 190 degrees Celsius, or "Foreign."

Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap or a damp teatowel, and let them rise for 40 minutes or so, until they get about an inch taller than their pans.

Bake the bread for half an hour to 40 minutes, until they're nice and brown and sound sort of hollow when you thump them on the bottom with your fingers.

Let them cool for an hour or so if you can stand it, and then cut some slices, toast them, butter them, and make yourself some tea. Oh my. I think I might need another slice or two right away.

Note: If you need to, you can put the dough [back] in the fridge after you punch it down. Then, when you're able, punch it down again and shape it into loaves.

Breadsperiment? Experibread?

America's Test Kitchen is an admirable and useful endeavor. They are good culinary researchers because they are anal, comprehensive, energetic, and patient. I depend on them for foolproof recipes.

My own kitchen experiments are usually based on laziness, bad timing, the wrong tools, and last-minute ingredient substitution. Any minute now, the results of my latest experiment will be in and I will be able to report on how far you can abuse and misinterpret a bread recipe before you produce something really inedible.

The recipe calls for two rises. Since I started baking too late last night, I put the dough in the fridge for nine hours for the first rise instead of a warm place for one hour.

Also, I only have one loaf pan, and this recipe makes two loaves. So, half the dough gets treated right (knock down, shape, rise 40 minutes, into the oven), and the other half gets knocked down and put back in refrigerated exile. The good news is that only one loaf needs to be presentable (nice new neighbors), so the stakes are low for that second loaf.

I'll let you know...

Oh, it's good. It's so, so good. And this is the ugly stepsister loaf that had the extra visit to the fridge. Why do I not make this bread every week? Oh right. Lazy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sweaty Mess 101

1. Walk home from work for the calorie-burning virtuousness.

2. Realize too late that it's hot enough to fry—um—tofu on the sidewalk (the egg thing's been done to death).

3. Meet a fancy aquaintance on the way home, and have a long, rambling conversation while dripping bodily fluids on the sidewalk (okay, mostly sweat) (okay, only sweat) (but still really gross! lots of sweat!)

4. Arrive home.

5. Lack the energy to mount the stairs, find a non-drenched shirt, and become a reasonably-attired grownup.

6. Remove shirt, replace with teatowel tied fetchingly around the bosom.

7. Being starving (see #1), eat ravenously and too well, still sweaty, and negate any benefit from previous exertion.

8. Decide that although the teatowel has its own sexy, rakish charm, a shower and clean clothes might be just the thing.

8. Have a glass of wine too many and start a blog.