Baking Bread in a Casserole Oven vs. a Combo Cooker

71V58kIANBL._SL1200_One of the tricks popularized by Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe is using a Dutch oven to bake the bread. The Dutch oven harnesses the moisture in the dough to create a steamy environment. This allows the dough to rise rather than toast immediately. Commercial bread ovens (and some high-end home ovens) have steam injection systems that serve the same purpose. A Dutch oven is a lot cheaper, of course.

The trick is to get a loose and wet dough into a 500ºF Dutch oven without either burning yourself or smacking the loaf against the side of the pot. Some people first transfer the dough to parchment paper and then transfer that to the Dutch oven, (See Eric of GardenforkTV explain this method). Two years ago I finally broke down and bought a Lodge Combo cooker:

61mB9jx6oXL._SL1200_To bake bread in it, you use it upside-down. The dough goes into the frying pan part and the pot goes on top. In order to get an evenly baked crust in our old oven I’ve got to turn the pot periodically in the last part of the bake. And that’s the problem. The handles make that difficult. It’s not a big deal (I can twist the loaf in the pot), but I’ve concluded that I would have been better off buying the Lodge casserole pot pictured at the top of this post since there’s no long handles.

Incidentally, trying to steam a home oven by spraying the inside with water or throwing in a wet towel does not work as well, in my opinion, since a lot of that moisture is lost out the vent.

Prickly Wisdom

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We wanted to share this great comment by Mangofish left on one of our posts about prickly pear cactus:

Way back when I was just a lad, 40 years ago, My neighbor was a very old and almost completely blind Mexican. Good ol’ Sal Franco! In his younger days he lived wild and free, riding his horse in the deserts of Mexico. He actually briefly met Pancho Villa. He lived off the land, selling rattle snakes to earn some money, and ate what the desert provided. To eat the prickly pears he would gather a fist full of weeds to make a brush. Green weeds were the best since they held onto the tiny spines the best, but dried weeds worked OK but they allow the fine needles to blow in the wind. With the wind at your back dust the prickly pears with the weeds and knock off the needles. In bright sunlight you will see the needles glittering in the air as the wind carries them away, strong wind is preferred otherwise hold your breath so you don’t inhale the fine needles if the wind gently stirs around you. Once the needles are gone you can pluck the tunas off the cactus or use a pocket knife and slice the tunas open while they are still attached to the cactus and scoop out the inner fruit with your finger tips. I usually take them inside the house and enjoy them by slicing them in half and holding one end with a fork and with a spoon scoop out the flesh. But on a hot day working in the yard I’ll have a snack and using my pocket knife slice open the skin and access the juicy center while it is still attached to the cactus. I have 6 varieties now including the two which Sal originally gave to my dad. I can only wonder where Sal may have originally obtained those!

045 Whole Grain Baking

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In episode 45, Kelly and Erik discuss whole grain baking, specifically a workshop the Los Angeles Bread Bakers put on featuring the very talented Dave Miller. The picture is of the bread Dave baked in the workshop. Clockwise from upper left: einkorn, sonora wheat, charcoal wheat and spelt/rye. Miller was featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. During the show we mention:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

044 Daniel Kent: Cabin Dweller’s Textbook

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Our guest this week is Daniel Kent, creator of the Cabin Textbook Dweller’s Textbook and Dean of Beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology. In our first outdoor podcast (recorded in the mountains near a creek) Kelly, Daniel and I discuss:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

What to do with not-so-good tomatoes

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As we wait eagerly for tomato season to commence, or for our homegrown tomatoes to come in, we might find ourselves buying grocery store tomatoes out of desperation and then–inevitably- being disappointed.

Usually I try to avoid store-bought tomatoes all together, using canned when good fresh tomatoes are not available, but sometimes canned tomatoes just aren’t what you need, so you have to wait for summer… or suffer bad tomatoes. Now there’s a middle way. Grocery store tomatoes can be reformed.

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Coffee and Tahini Date Balls

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In a nutshell:

We’ve posted about this sort of thing before, and I know many of you already make fruit/nut balls and bars as healthy treats. So all you folks need to know is that these days we’re really liking the flavor combo of dates and tahini, rolled in a 50/50 blend of ground coffee and cacao nibs (these are the dark ones in the pic above). If you don’t have the nibs, you can just roll them in straight coffee–fresh ground espresso is best.

Give it a try. It’s super easy, and super tasty for the adult palate–and if you eat enough of them, you get a caffeine buzz as a well as a sugar buzz!

The recipe:

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With bonus plantain!

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I was cruising the nursery aisles when three of my favorite words caught my eye: dandelion, chickweed and plantain.

I read the print on this bag as saying “Contains dandelion, chickweed and plantain” and–apparently drifting in my own fantasy world where things make sense, instead of the world in which we actually live–I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic! All three in one bag for easy seeding.”

Then I looked again and realized that the text read “Controls” not “Contains.”  It was–of course– a bag of weed n’ feed lawn stimulator–chock full of poison for killing my favorite edibles and medicinals  (as well as, I admit, some pretty intractable grasses).

Not a large bag of wild seed to make your yard into a giant salad bowl.

I’d like to return to my fantasy world now, please.

Three Things I’ve Learned About Baking Bread With Whole Grain

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Sonora wheat loaf on the left, Joachin Oro loaf on the right.

I’ve gone through a number of bread baking conversion experiences over the last 20 years. I began with Nancy Silverton cookbook, moved on to the cult of Chad Robertson and have finally ended up drinking the whole grain cool aid of pro-bakers Craig Ponsford, Dave Miller and Josey Baker. Then I got really crazy and started milling my own flour from heirloom wheat. Here’s three things I’ve learned:

1. Keep it wet. Whole grain flour soaks up much more water than white flour. Bread recipes are a ratio between flour and water. In bread baking parlance this is called a hydration ratio (to get the hydration ratio you divide the water by the flour–the quirk of baker’s math is that the flour is always 100% ). Old school bread recipes, most of which require a lot of kneading, have hydration ratios in the 65% range. Popular no-knead white bread recipes have hydration ratios in the 75% to 80% range. Whole wheat? We’re talking a range between 85% and 110% depending on the type of grain you’re using.

2. Shorten the fermentation time. I use a sourdough starter and, in my experience, whole grain seems to be more active than white flour. Now we’re not talking about the crazy kind of rise that happens with commercial yeast, but I over-proofed many whole wheat sourdough loaves until I figured out that I needed to shorten the first rise (bulk fermentation). The white breads I used to make required a four to five hour bulk fermentation. The whole grain breads I’m baking now seem to do fine with just three hours (depending on the weather, of course). Once I shape my dough, I put it in the fridge to proof overnight. The time in the fridge makes wet dough easier to handle and develops the flavor. And that cold dough can go straight from the fridge and into the oven.

3. The biodiversity of grains and the way they behave as bread has been a astonishing and sometimes frustrating experience (note the difference in the photo above between a loaf made with Sonora wheat and a loaf made with Joachin Oro wheat). Many varieties of  wheat I’ve worked with need to be baked in a loaf pan since they don’t have the gluten to hold their shape as a boule or batard (unless you’re a master like Dave Miller). The Joachin Oro I’ve been getting from my local mill Grist & Toll, on the other hand, yields big and perfect boules. Flours can be blended, of course, and this is the next frontier I plan to explore. And milling your own introduces another variable I’m still getting use to. The fineness of the flour effects the rise of the dough. The convenience and control of home milling has been both life changing and, at times, frustrating.

Have you been baking with whole grains? How has it been going with you?

The Jerusalem Cookbook

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We are late to the Jerusalem party–it came out in 2012 to much acclaim. But maybe you are perpetually out of the loop, like we are. If so please know that we are in mad, passionate love with this cookbook. The authors are Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamim, London restauranteurs and the authors of Plenty and Plenty More. In Jerusalem, they explore the dynamic flavors and cross-cultural influences of their home city. Despite our de-cluttering efforts, this one is a keeper. I’m going to buy a copy when the library pries this copy out of my hands.

Our friend, Kazi, introduced us to Jerusalem. She hosted a wonderful dinner party last week and cooked all of the courses from this book. Now, Kazi is an expert cook, so I’m sure she doesn’t really need a book to put on an good spread, but she assured us that she was experimenting on us: she’d never tried any of the recipes before, and was cooking them straight out of the book as written. The meal was astounding. Of course, her beautiful presentation and the excellent company had much to do with it, but the recipes were consistently fresh and bright and complex without being fussy.

I find that I need a good cookbook every once in a while to inspire me in the kitchen–otherwise I fall into a morass of laziness and we end up eating burritos and “stuff on toast” night after night.  This one is doing the trick. I’m currently fantasizing about what I’ll cook next.

My highest compliment to this book is that I can honestly say I trust it 100%. I fiddle around with most recipes, doubling the spice, halving the sugar, questioning the baking time, etc. These I don’t. This book is well thought out and  tested. The recipes work. I’d highly recommend following them exactly as written.

Jerusalem covers all the bases, from appetizers to dessert. It has lots of meat and fish recipes, but it also has plenty of salad, vegetable, bean and grain recipes, so it’s friendly to both vegetarians and meat eaters. We’re mostly vegetarian, and we feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of the meatless offerings so far. Though there are a lot of veg recipes which use eggs, yogurt and cheese, there are also good vegan-friendly offerings.

To give you a feel for the book, these are the recipes we’ve enjoyed so far. All are excellent:

  • Swiss chard fritters (with feta and nutmeg)
  • Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad
  • Roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za’atar
  • Acharuli khachapuri (pastry boats filled with soft cheese, topped with a baked egg)
  • Baby spinach salad with dates and almonds (…and fried pita! Erik declares this his new favorite salad ever)
  • Couscous with tomato and onion (cooked to have a crispy bottom)
  • Semolina, coconut and marmalade cake

Enjoy!