Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lavash (Armenian Flatbread) - Daring Baker's Challenge

When I saw this month's Daring Baker's Challenge (my first!), I was thrilled. I had expected it would be some fancy dessert-type thing, and while I love dessert-type things, I make and eat a lot more bread-type things, so I figured this would be both easier and more practical (in the sense that it would be eaten sooner).

And in fact, the crackers went off without a hitch. They were crisp and crackly and very tasty too! My camera, unfortunately, did not fare quite so well. Since this was not just for a regular blog post, I made sure to take lots and lots of pictures - pictures of the dough, pictures right after it came out of the oven, pictures of the spreads, pictures of the crackers with the spreads - everything! And then, while I was setting up a particularly lovely little shot involving a lemon slice, disaster struck! Seemingly without provocation, my camera began beeping and flashing the words 'Memory Card Error' on the screen. Optimistically, I tried reinserting the memory card, but no luck. I tried to import the pictures onto my computer, but again, no luck. Now in a state of great distress, I drove off to the camera store, where I received the bad news. Apparently my card had a 'sector error' or some such thing, and all the pictures on it were now completely irretrievable.

Well, luckily I did have another memory card, and I had made plenty of crackers so I was able to take more pictures. However, they are all of the finished product, and all the fun 'procedure' pictures have been lost forever =(

On a brighter note, the crackers were very good, and I had a lot of fun making the dips/spreads (the instructions were to make whatever dips/spreads you wanted, as long as they were vegan and gluten-free). While I much prefer bread to crackers, if I had to pick my favorite types of crackers I would pick akmak, which is a supermarket variety of armenian seed cracker, and another flatbread my mom likes to get, which is covered in all sorts of delicious seeds. So here I basically combined those two, and the result was...

Seed & Paprika Lavash with Roasted Red Pepper and Tahini Sauce and Avocado Melon Salsa
(not all mixed together of course)
First, the Lavash, taken from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and with my annotations after the asterisks:

Makes 1 sheet pan of crackers
*Either Peter Reinhart has very large baking sheets or I have very small ones, because these amounts got me not one, not two, but three sheet pans' worth of crackers! In fact, since I only have two pans, I had to wait til one batch was done before I could make the third.

- 1 1/2 cups (6.75 oz) unbleached bread flour *I used whole wheat bread flour
- 1/2 tsp (.13 oz) salt
- 1/2 tsp (.055 oz) instant yeast *I used active dry
- 1 Tb (.75 oz) agave syrup or sugar *I used sugar since I don't have agave syrup
- 1 Tb (.5 oz) vegetable oil *Extra-virgin olive oil, which is pretty much the only oil I ever use
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup + 2 Tb (3 to 4 oz) water, at room temperature
- Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, or kosher salt for toppings
*I ended up using these exact same toppings, except I split it up so some crackers had only salt and paprika and the rest had salt with the four seeds (since the seed crackers my mom likes so much don't include paprika and I was trying to replicate their taste).

1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, agave, oil, and just enough water to bring everything together into a ball. You may not need the full 1/2 cup + 2 Tb of water, but be prepared to use it all if needed.

2. For Non Gluten Free Cracker Dough: Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the ingredients are evenly distributed. The dough should pass the windowpane test (see … ong-Enough for a discription of this) and register 77 degrees to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The dough should be firmer than French bread dough, but not quite as firm as bagel dough (what I call medium-firm dough), satiny to the touch, not tacky, and supple enough to stretch when pulled. Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
3. Ferment at room temperature for 90 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. (You can also retard the dough overnight in the refrigerator immediately after kneading or mixing).

4. For Non Gluten Free Cracker Dough: Mist the counter lightly with spray oil and transfer the dough to the counter. Press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. Roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches. You may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. At these times, lift the dough from the counter and wave it a little, and then lay it back down. Cover it with a towel or plastic wrap while it relaxes. When it is the desired thinness, let the dough relax for 5 minutes. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment. Carefully lift the sheet of dough and lay it on the parchment. If it overlaps the edge of the pan, snip off the excess with scissors.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Mist the top of the dough with water and sprinkle a covering of seeds or spices on the dough (such as alternating rows of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, kosher or pretzel salt, etc.) Be careful with spices and salt - a little goes a long way. If you want to precut the cracker, use a pizza cutter (rolling blade) and cut diamonds or rectangles in the dough. You do not need to separate the pieces, as they will snap apart after baking. If you want to make shards, bake the sheet of dough without cutting it first.

6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crackers begin to brown evenly across the top (the time will depend on how thinly and evenly you rolled the dough).

7. When the crackers are baked, remove the pan from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. You can then snap them apart or snap off shards and serve.

I followed this recipe pretty much exactly. Like I said, I ended up making three cracker sheets - two with the seed mixture and one with paprika. They all turned out very tasty, although a few bits were a little too salty, and one of the sheets could have baked a couple more minutes as it was a bit soft. In the end, I still prefer bread, as I find crackers are often simply an excuse to eat toppings, whereas I tend to use toppings as an excuse to eat bread. I do have to admit that it was fun to think of all the different possibilities for toppings though.

In the end, I went with a roasted red pepper and tahini dip on the first day, and an avocado melon salsa the second. Recipes below.

Roasted Red Pepper and Tahini Tip
This dip actually came about because I originally planned to make Htipiti, a Greek dip made with roasted red peppers and feta that had been on my mind since I had some at a Greek restaurant a few weeks ago. Well, as soon as I had sent the lavash dough off to rise, I started roasting the red peppers. While they were roasting, I went back to check the lavash recipe and only then did I see the restriction that all dips had to be vegan. Now, I don't know many vegans who would consider feta to be an acceptable vegan food, so a quick change of plans was in order. Though I did still use some of the roasted peppers to make htipiti (which was very good), with the rest I made this dip.

You will need:
2 medium red bell peppers or other good roasting peppers
A few spoonfuls of lemon juice
A spoonful of olive oil
About 30 g tahini

First, preheat the oven to about 355º F / 180º C. Wash and dry the peppers and set them on a baking sheet lined with foil. When the oven is hot, put the peppers in and let them cook about 40-45 minutes, turning them every so often so that they roast evenly. When their skin is thoroughly blackened, turn off the oven, take the peppers out and wrap them tightly in baking foil. Let them sit for 20-30 minutes.

After the time is up, unwrap the peppers, and peel and seed them. Place the peppers in a large bowl and mash them up, stirring in the salt, lemon juice, olive oil, and tahini. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator.

Let chill for at least an hour or two and serve with lavash (or anything else).

Avocado Melon Salsa
This is a slight variation on normal guacamole, which I mainly thought of because I had bought a beautiful charentais melon the other day, and needed something to do with it. If you don't have any charentais melon, you can substitute canteloupe, but the charentais really is more flavorful.

You will need:
2 ripe avocados
Half a lemon's worth of lemon juice
One smallish red onion
A few slices of melons of your choice - I used watermelon and charentais here
A few small tomatoes, if desired

Chop up avocado, place in a bowl, and mash up very well. Mix in the lemon juice. Chop up the tomatoes, melons, and onion, and stir them in, along with the salt, mashing a bit more if desired.

Serve immediately or after chilling!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pizza Napoletana

This pizza falls under the category of pizza rossa which literally means "red pizza" in Italian and refers to pizzas that use tomato sauce, but no cheese (there is also pizza bianca - white pizza - which has cheese but no tomatoes). Though I have seen some recipes online that call for mozzarella, the type I usually saw on pizzeria menus in Italy did not have any cheese, so I stuck with that version.

Though Naples is most famous for being the birthplace of the classic Pizza Margherita and to a lesser extent the Pizza Marinara, I think this particular pizza, whose origins are not as clear, gets to be called 'Neapolitan' because its ingredients are very typical of Southern Italian cuisine.

Many non-Italians do not realize just how regionally diverse Italy is, but the fact is that up until its unification in 1861, there wasn't really an 'Italy'. There were city-states like Florence and Venice, kingdoms like the kingdom of Naples, and all sorts of other territories and republics, but there was no Italy, either politically, culturally, or even conceptually.

The gaping differences between regions, and particularly between the North and the South are still largely apparent to anyone who spends even a few days in the country. Ask any Milanese person about the South and they'll immediately go into a long tirade about how nothing ever works there, how nobody seems to care about things like rules and laws, and how everyone is consistently late for everything. Similarly, ask a Neapolitan about the North and you'll get an earful of how cold the Northerners are, how they just can't sit back and enjoy life and how they are always worrying and rushing off to do silly things like work.

The differences extend beyond cultural attitudes into almost every aspect of life. For example, while Italian is the official language of the country, almost every region has its own dialect (sometimes several), and these dialects differ from each other far more than say, a Scottish accent does from a Brooklyn one. A large number of these dialects are actually incomprehensible to Italians who did not grow up speaking or hearing them. When I saw the movie Gomorra, which was about the Neapolitan mafia and was almost entirely in Napolitano, the Neapolitan dialect, it had Italian subtitles from start to finish, and it's a good thing too because without them I would have been completely lost!

The diversity and richness of local traditions in Italy is also apparent, and very important, in its cuisine. Every region and often every city or town has its own proud menu of traditional dishes - the Ligurian trofie al pesto, ossobuco and risotto alla Milanese in Milan, bucatini all'amatriciana in Rome, bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence, burrata and orecchiette in Puglia, and spaghetti al bolognese from Bologna (unsurprisingly) are only a few of the thousands and thousands of regionally celebrated dishes.

The pizza napoletana presented here may not actually be from Naples, but its ingredients are certainly more typical of Southern Italian cuisine. When I think of the food of Southern Italy, I mainly think of three things: tomatoes, seafood, and spiciness. In contrast, Northern Italian food often tends to be richer and creamier, using butter where Southern dishes use olive oil, or risotto where Southerners use pasta, and certainly using a lot less peperoncino!

This particular pizza, while it does not require the use of peperoncino (though you can add it if you so desire), is very very salty. Make sure that when you sit down to eat it, you have handy a large glass of water, or better yet, wine!

To make it, you will need:
About 150 g flour (I used whole wheat as always)
A pinch of salt
About 100 g of San Marzano tomatoes, peeled and crushed to just pulp (I actually just use canned tomatoes for pizzas, since my unstrained tomato sauces tend to come out fairly juicy and would probably get the dough sopping wet)
A handful of black olives, with the pits removed
A smaller handful of capers
5-6 anchovies
A few leaves of basil
A spoonful of olive oil

First of all, you need to make the dough. If you are using active dry yeast as opposed to instant yeast, activate it by putting it in a small bowl with some tepid water. Sift the flour into a large bowl, add in the yeast first, then the salt and the water, a bit at a time, and stir until everything is well combined, and you have a moist but not overly gooey ball of dough.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes or until it is springy and resistant. When the dough gets to this point, place it in a floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a cloth and leave in a warm, non-drafty place for an hour to an hour and a half.

At least 45 minutes before you plan to bake the pizza, preheat your oven to 500º F / 260º C. If you are lucky enough to have a pizza stone, put it in the oven before you start to preheat it.

If you are making your own tomato sauce, peel the tomatoes and strain them to get nice solid pulp. Otherwise, just open the can (but if you go with canned tomatoes you should still buy canned San Marzano tomatoes because they are the best).

Prepare the toppings by washing the olives and capers and tearing the basil into little bits. When you have all your toppings ready and after the dough has doubled in size, take the dough out of the bowl and gently shape it into a flat circle, making it as thin as you can. If you haven't yet mastered the art of spinning pizza dough into the air and elegantly catching it on your fists, just try bouncing it back and forth from fist to fist (no nails!) and then stretching it out further on a flat surface, pinching the ends a bit.

Transfer the pizza to an oiled baking sheet (if you're not using a baking stone) or a pizza peel (if you are using a baking stone).

Spoon the tomato sauce in an even, not-too-thick layer over all the pizza except the outermost rim. Distribute the olives and capers evenly over the pizza, and then place the anchovies on in strips radiating out from the center. Sprinkle everything with the basil and oregano and add just a drizzling of olive oil.

Put the pizza into the oven as quickly and as carefully as you can. Let bake for 7-8 minutes, remove, and serve piping hot!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chocolate Rye Bread

While I'm a big fan of rye bread simply as is, the addition of cocoa powder here adds a richness and a complexity to the flavor that make for an almost hedonistically satisfying bread that goes well with pretty much any topping, whether sweet & creamy, sharp & cheesy, spicy, nutty, or whatever else!

The first time I made this bread, I failed to document it in pictures because, after what seemed like ages of attempting to knead the dough, I was utterly convinced the bread would be a failure.

Now, I am no expert baker, but I have had fairly good luck when it comes to baking bread. I love bread more than pretty much any other food, and so I am quite willing to knead for as long as it takes, to let the dough rise for hours and hours, and to make whatever other sacrifices are necessary for the loaf to emerge perfect and crusty from the oven.

But this dough was different. No matter how long I kneaded, no matter whether I added more flour, more water, more anything, it just wouldn't behave. Usually, I knead until the dough starts to fight back a bit - when I push it down, it bounces back up, as if it were alive. Once I reach this point I know things are going well, and I'll knead for a few minutes before setting the dough aside to rise.

But this bread would not fight back. It was completely malleable and obedient to my every move. If I stretched it out, it would stay stretched. If I folded it down, it would just sit there - no rise, no bounce, no nothing - a disaster! I kneaded and kneaded and kneaded, hoping the dough would show some signs of change, but eventually I had to admit to myself that it was pointless. Distressedly, I left the dough in a covered bowl to rise, hoping that maybe if I let it rise for a realllllllly long time, some sort of miracle would happen and it would start to look and act more like it should.

5 hours later, the dough had barely risen. Okay, maybe it had risen a little, but I'm still not sure if that was just my wishful thinking or not. I was without hope for this bread, but I soldiered on anyway (no point in wasting good flour), and punched the dough down, shaped it, gave it a second rise, and put it in the oven to bake.

Well, a few minutes into the baking, and the room started to fill with this delicious, incredible chocolatey aroma. I no longer cared if the bread was flat as a doorstop or hard as a rock - I just wanted to taste it, wrecking teeth if necessary! Somehow I did manage to restrain myself long enough to let the bread bake and cool, and then I cut myself off a small (but dense) sample.

Needless to say, it was delicious. Though the chocolate smell was nearly overwhelming while the bread was baking, when I tasted it the chocolate was much more subtle, complementing the slightly sour rye very nice. Furthermore, though the bread was dense, it was also surprisingly soft and chewy, and extremely satisfying.

I later discovered that rye flour is in fact very different from wheat flour, and if you make a bread with 100% rye flour, as I did, the dough is not going to act like normal wheat flour dough at all. It all has to do with the amount of gluten in the different types of flour and these things called pentosans, and what it boils down to is that you shouldn't worry because while the dough may act strange, the bread will be good, and that's really all that matters, isn't it?

So without further ado... the recipe for Chocolate Rye Bread!

You will need:
About 200 g rye flour
About 50 g cocoa powder (more if you want the bread to be more chocolatey, less if you want it to be less so)
One large spoonful of honey
One small spoonful of salt
As much water as necessary
Sourdough starter*

*Though I just used sourdough starter because I have it on hand and don't like to spend pointless money on yeast, it turns out that sourdough starter is actually very important for making breads with rye flour. The higher the percentage of rye flour to total flour, the more important the starter is. Again, it comes down to the flour chemistry. Those nasty pentosans gobble up all the water and so the gluten can't bond with it to make long chains, the way it should. The acidity of the starter can counteract this by interfering with the pentosans, allowing the gluten to the water first. If you don't have your own starter, you can make a quick one the night before by mixing some rye or whole wheat flour with some water and adding water and flour to it every few hours or so. For instructions on how to make your own starter, see here.

Sift the flour together with the cocoa powder. Make the flour into a sort of fountain, and add the salt and honey around the edges of the fountain. Mix the starter into the center, adding more flour from just around the center, until the flour has absorbed all the starter. Then add in the water, a bit at a time, again starting in the center, and working in more flour from outside until all the ingredients are well mixed.

The dough will be very goopy, but do not let this deter you! Turn it out onto a well-floured surface and, with the help of a dough-scraper (one of the best kitchen tools in existence), knead the dough for about 10 minutes.

Once you've kneaded for awhile, fold the dough into thirds horizontally by folding in the right and left sides, and then also vertically by folding in the top and bottom. Turn the dough over so the folded part is on the bottom and shape it into a ball. Place the ball into a floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and leave in a warm non-drafty place for at least a couple hours, possibly more.

After the two hours are up, take a baking sheet and cover it with parchment paper. Spread a bit of flour or cornmeal onto the paper, and place the dough onto the paper. Punch the dough down and then, with the help of your dough scraper again, divide the dough into as many portions as you want loaves. Shape each loaf according to your wishes, and cover them all with a floured towel. Let sit for another hour.

After about half the hour is up, preheat your oven to 425º F / 220º C. Once the rest of the hour has passed, uncover the loaves, and score the tops with the help of a very sharp object, such as a razor blade. This will help keep any air from getting trapped and forming large, unsightly bubbles while the bread is baking.

Place the baking sheet in the oven and let bake for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 375º F / 190º C, and let bake 25-30 minutes more.

Turn off the oven, move the baking sheet to a cooling rack, and let the bread cool as long as you can stand it!

Sourdough Starter

When I lived in Italy and France, the list of foods I missed from the US was, it must be admitted, pretty paltry - good bagels, real lemonade, chocolate chip cookies, and... that was about it. Except for one food. One of my absolute all-time favorite foods and one I completely took for granted for the first ten years of my life (I was 10 when I took my first trip abroad) - good, San Francisco sourdough bread.

Up until that first trip abroad, I had no idea sourdough bread was so scarce in most parts of the world. I didn't even know sourdough was a specifically 'San Francisco' thing - it was the standard bread for me. Little did I know how much the rest of the world was suffering from a terrible terrible lack of sourdough...

As it turns out, there is actually a reason that sourdough is so easy to find in Northern California and so difficult to find everywhere else. It seems that sourdough bread arises from the combination of certain yeasts with a particular kind of bacteria (generally a type of lactobacillus, the same bacteria that feed on milk and give us wonderful things like yogurt and cheese) which loves acidic conditions, gives the bread its sour taste, and is a native of... the San Francisco area. In fact, it even has an appropriate name - lactobacillus sanfranciscensis!

For this reason, it may be harder to grow a sourdough starter in other parts of the world, but people do seem to do it, and it's certainly worth a shot. Even if you don't end up with the sourest of sourdoughs, you'll still get a nice starter which will add a lot more flavor to your bread than a simple packet of instant or active dry yeast.

To make my starter, I used the wonderfully clear instructions posted by SourdoLady on The Fresh Loaf, which is a great site for anyone who loves bread and baking.

In a nutshell, here's what I did:

First of all, I bought some nice hard wheat berries at a local foods store (because I wanted to capture local yeast). I ground them up in my coffee grinder, which took an exceedingly long time and gave my right arm its workout for the year. Then I mixed two tablespoons of the ground wheat flour with two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice.

SourdoLady recommends using either orange or pineapple juice (no extra sugar added) because the acidity helps encourage the right kind of bacteria. She also says you can use rye berries or a mixture of rye and wheat, but I stuck with just plain wheat.

After mixing the flour and orange juice, I let it sit in a closed plastic container for 24 hours. Ideally you should use a glass jar that closes almost, but not fully to alow in just a little bit of air, but unfortunately I had no such jars on hand, so I had to make do with plastic, although it ended up working fine.

After 24 hours, I added another 2 tablespoons of ground wheat berries and 2 tablespoons of orange juice, stirred, and let sit. I repeated this on the third day.

The fourth day, things change. First I stirred down the mixture, measured out 1/4 cup, and threw the rest away. Then I added 1/4 cup regular whole wheat flour (I think you can use any sort of flour from here on out), and 1/4 cup tap water. Stir everything, and again, let sit for 24 hours.

I repeated the day 4 procedure for about a week and a half longer, to help the starter develop its flavor, and that was it - it was ready.

I now keep my starter just sitting on the counter, and every time I use it to make bread I save 1/4 cup, use the rest in the dough, and 'feed' the saved 1/4 cup with 1/4 cup each of flour and water as before.

If you don't bake bread often enough to be feeding your starter on a regular basis, you should probably keep it in the refrigerator which slows the yeast action. Just take it out a day or two before you plan to use it and let it sit out a few hours after feeding before putting it back in the refrigerator.

I also have a small container of 'back-up starter' which I keep in the refrigerator and plan on feeding every couple of months or so. This is just in case something happens to the main starter and it gets contaminated or otherwise damaged and I have to throw it out. This way, I don't have to start all over at the beginning if such an unlucky event should occur.

For more on sourdough, see the Wikipedia article which is quite lovely, and good luck growing your own starter!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Fig and Prosciutto Tartine

This isn't really much of a recipe, I suppose, although it's more than I usually do with figs since they're so good that it's difficult for me to justify doing anything to them that might possibly interfere with their refreshingly sweet juiciness.

However, figs are in season now, and I just can't help myself buying far far too many. Since ripe figs don't last very long, I realized that if I continued to only eat one or two per day, I would quickly end up with a lot of rotten figs on my hands, and nobody wants that, so I had to find some way to actually feature them in a meal.

This tartine (which is just an open-faced sandwich) is a nice twist on the typical melon and prosciutto combination you always see, and by putting it all on a slice of bread, you get a pretty satisfying lunch! I highly recommend it, especially in this season. Plus, you can use any leftover prosciutto to accompany all the delicious melons that are also in season right now (try wrapping some around slices of watermelon for a very refreshing snack/appetizer).

You will need:
Good hardy bread
6 or 7 ripe figs
One or two slices of high-quality prosciutto

Since this dish is so simple, you really have to have high-quality ingredients. If the figs aren't ripe, this will be a disaster. Similary, if the bread and prosciutto are not of a good quality, you might as well just eat the figs by themselves! I used imported prosciutto di parma which, while ridiculously expensive, was worth it. If it's good stuff, it only takes a little bit, and I was able to make one thin slice go a long way here!

I used both purple and green figs (not sure of the actual names, but I think the purple ones are called Mission Figs and the green ones are Calmyrna or something like that*). Tasting one after the other, you can definitely tell the difference - the green ones had a fresher, citrusy taste, while the purple ones were sweeter and richer in taste. I think I prefer the purple ones on the whole, but it was nice to have both.

Anyways, to make the tartine: slice the bread into a couple thickish slices. Lay the prosciutto on the bread, just one slice thick. Cut the figs into halves and place on the tartine. Enjoy!

*Correction: I asked the vendor today about the varieties and they told me the purple ones were 'Brown Turkey' and the green ones were 'Kadota'. Either way, they're delicious!